Revealing the Winnowing Fork

Readings for the day (Baptism of Our Lord – Sunday, January 13, 2019):

Isaiah 43:1-7

Psalm 29

Acts 8:14-17

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

The season of Epiphany is about revealing.  Revealing what is unknown.  Because if it is already known, it doesn’t need to be revealed.  That’s why there are press conferences – to reveal or make known the things that are unknown.

On Friday I watched and listened to the two press conferences revealing that Jayme Closs was found alive and safe.  What wonderful news!  Most of the time, press conferences and information revealed by the news media is anything but GOOD news.  Usually it is negative information that the news media is wanting to reveal to us.  But on Friday, it was all positive news that the authorities wanted to share with the public and make known to us.

Imagine if Jesus wasn’t born 2,000 years ago, but instead was born this year.  And what is the likelihood of the news media sharing a story about a baby boy born during the winter and having three foreign leaders bringing gifts to Him?  The national media seems a lot more interested in Trump and his wall that I highly doubt they would pay much attention to a promised Messiah being born.

Last week, the church celebrated the day of Epiphany, the traditional day when we celebrate the coming of the magi to visit the newborn King and present Him with gifts.  The wise men who are Gentiles, foreigners from a different land, present the Christ child with three gifts that reveal Jesus’ identity.  Gold revealing that He is an earthly king.  Frankincense revealing that He is God, a heavenly king.  And myrrh revealing that He will die for the sins of the world.  As a child, His true identity has already been revealed.

Then today as we focus on the baptism of Jesus, God the Father reveals Jesus’ identity as His Son by saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[1]  The rest of the weeks in the season of Epiphany lead us to Lent by continuing to reveal Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and reveal His purpose for being born.  Specifically, Jesus was born to us and more importantly, for us.  For you.

So in a way, Epiphany is not only for revealing unknown things about Jesus, but Epiphany is also about revealing things about ourselves.  When John the Baptist gets on the scene, he is giving a message, a call to repent, to turn away from our bad habits and begin anew.  In a way, if you make a New Year’s resolution, you are taking the first step.  I’m going to eat health, exercise more, doing more things that I enjoy, care for others, make better choices, pray more, read the Bible more.  All of these resolutions are goals that we set for ourselves to repent or turn away from bad or unhealthy practices or choices in life and make better ones.  For John, he calls the people to turn from their wickedness, their ungodly ways.  And to turn back to God.  To care for others.  To be humble.  To put God first in their lives.  John’s call of repentance is a call to turn away from those things that draw us away from God.  To turn away from that which is not helpful in our walk with God.

And then John says that the people would be wise to do this, to repent and change their ways because he is not the Messiah, but the Messiah is coming.  And the Messiah is so much more powerful than he is, that John is not even worthy to bend over and untie the Messiah’s shoes.  That’s the job of a servant and John is saying that he is not even worthy enough to be considered a servant of the Messiah.  That’s how important the Messiah is, and how unimportant, unworthy John considers himself.  And then when the Messiah does come, John says that He will come to baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  That through the Holy Spirit Jesus will claim us, and with fire He will purify us.

On our own, we too, are like John – unimportant and unworthy to even be considered a servant of the Messiah because of our sin.  All of those things that we do that draw us and our attention away from Jesus makes us unworthy.  And John says that when Jesus comes to baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire, Jesus will already have His winnowing fork in His hand.  The fork that will be used to separate the wheat from the chaff will already be in the hands of Jesus.  There will be no mingling or social hour when Jesus comes.  There will be no opportunity to have a drink or two with Jesus.  When He comes, He will not be wasting any time.

Now when I think about the winnowing fork and the separating the wheat from the chaff, I often think that I want to make sure that by the end I’m on the right side.  That I want to make sure that I’m wheat and not chaff.  But I read something this week that got me thinking.  What if the winnowing fork is not necessarily about separating the good people from the bad people, but rather about separating the good parts from the bad parts in our lives?  Martin Luther says that daily we must be drowning our sins and evil desires and coming forth to rise and live before God in righteousness and purity.  If Luther says that this is a daily exercise that happens within our lives, then couldn’t the separating that Jesus does with the winnowing fork also be something that happens daily?

There will be without a doubt the judgement of nations, as we read about in Matthew 25.  The whole separating the sheep from the goats and we want to be sheep and not goats.  But every day when we awake, we have a choice.  You have to choose to love your spouse today.  You have to choose to love your children today.  You have to choose to love God today.  And each day, with His winnowing fork in hand, Jesus is working with you and through you to separate the good parts of your life from the bad parts of your life.  And our prayer is that Jesus would reveal to us what in our lives is chaff that should be burned, so that we can keep the wheat and grow closer to Him.

Now separating is not always easy to do, especially when we really like the chaff.  But no matter how hard it may be, God promises to be with us.  In the reading from Isaiah, the people of Israel are in exile, but God is promising to bring them back home and restore their nation.  He says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”[2]  So God says, wait a minute, YOU belong to me.  I know you.  I have claimed you.  You are mine.  And since you belong to me, I will watch over you.  I will be with you wherever you go.

And in this same text we get the one place in the entire Bible where God says, “I love you.”  He says that because you are precious in His sight, because He honors you, because He loves you, God promises to be with you and do whatever it takes to help you.  Even if that means having to be born as a child into this world and die hanging on a tree.  He will do it, all for you, because He loves you!  Amen.

 

 

 

© 2019 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.

[1] Luke 3:22, NRSV

[2] Isaiah 43:1, NRSV

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Not Your Ordinary Gifts

Readings for the day (Epiphany of Our Lord – Sunday, January 6, 2019):

Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

Did you get everything you wanted for Christmas?  A shiny new car with a big red bow on it?  Well that’s what all the car commercials show us what the perfect gift looks like.  Did you know that our gift giving tradition comes from the Bible?  We say that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday.  We also say that of all the presents that we get, Jesus is the greatest gift we have ever received.  Both of which are true.  Now the tradition of gift giving comes from these wise men or astronomers who follow a star from the Far East to visit the Messiah and bring Him gifts.

The gifts these three men bring seem a little odd for us in 2019.  They bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Well maybe not the gold.  Because who wouldn’t want some bars of gold.  Especially since right now an ounce of gold is around $1,300.  Which makes a gold bar just over half a million dollars.  Who wouldn’t want that?  These gifts though, that the magi bring, are of significant importance.  These gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh show Jesus’ true identity while He is still an infant.

The first gift is gold and it is presented to the child for His earthly kingship.  Gold is a symbol of power and authority in this world.  You’ve heard the saying, “Whoever has the gold, makes the rules.”  By giving Jesus this gift of gold, the wise men are acknowledging the power and authority that Jesus has in this world.

The second gift is frankincense and it is presented to the child for His heavenly kingship.  Frankincense is a type of incense, that when burnt it gives off a fragrant odor.  During the Old Testament time, incense became an important part of worship to God.  God even makes comments about enjoying the sweet aroma of the people’s incense and offerings.  So frankincense became a symbol of worship to God.  By giving Jesus this gift of frankincense, the wise men are acknowledging the power and authority that Jesus has as God Himself.

With these two gifts, these three foreigners have given recognition to the fact that this child that was born to us is and forever will be the King of both earth and heaven.  The final gift is myrrh and it is presented to the child in preparation for His death.  No one wants to think of a sweet, innocent baby’s death, but this final gift of Myrrh is exactly what comes to mind.  Myrrh is an anointing oil that is used at the time of burial.  I wonder what Mary and Joseph thought when this gift was given.  Where they offended that this gift was given revealing the reality that their child will die someday?  When a child is born, we of course know that death is a realty, we just don’t like to think about that when we are holding a precious little child in our arms.  With this gift though, the magi recognize that this king of both heaven and earth, although just a child, will one day die for the sins of the world.

The story of the three wise men is Matthew’s Christmas story.  And the coming of the wise men and giving their three gifts, is the first part of Matthew’s Christmas story – the part that we tell our children and grandchildren about.  We don’t tell them the next part of this Christmas story because of what comes next.  We prefer to just stick with Luke’s Christmas story because it’s nice, it’s peaceful with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus in this stable with all of these animals and shepherds surrounding them.  And it is a nice, calm night with the stars twinkling bright.  We picture what we sing about in those dearly loved Christmas carols like O Little Town of Bethlehem and Away in a Manger.  We long to just stay in Luke’s world where there is no arguing, no fighting, no stress.  Just peace and stillness.  But in Matthew’s Christmas story it’s the opposite.  The second half of Matthew’s story is one of fear and violence.

After the wise men visit King Herod looking to find out where the Messiah has been born, Herod gets fearful of another king in his presence.  He is so insecure about the possibility of someone replacing him that he resorts to violence in order to maintain and secure his power.  That’s a lot of power that is given to this Christ child.  The fact that this powerful, authoritative person is so terrified of a child in diapers that he resorts to numerous murders shows the reality of what power and the drive to keep that power, can do to a person.  In order to keep his power, Herod orders the killing of all male children under two years of age.  This way he would be able to sleep at night knowing that he has eliminated the possibility of another king rising to power.  This is the part of the Christmas story that we don’t want to think about.  We would rather stick with Luke’s version.  Luke’s version is nicer.  But if Luke’s Christmas story is nice, Matthew’s story is realistic.  We so desperately want to live in Luke’s world where everything is peaceful and calm, but we keep waking up in Matthew’s world of fear and violence.  We dream of Luke’s version, but Matthew’s is our reality.

So we are left wondering, will Luke’s version ever become our reality?  Will we ever get to the peace and calm without the fear and violence?  We may, but I think it all comes down to the gifts that we bring and what gifts you have to offer to the new born king.

What gifts do you have to offer?  The wise men offer gold, frankincense and myrrh.  What are you offering?  What can we offer to someone who has everything?  You probably have someone in your family or friends that is just hard to get a present for.  You never know what to get them for Christmas because they seem to have everything.  The wise men came to bring gifts to Jesus, the Son of God.  What gifts could we possible offer to our God who already has everything?  There is one gift that we can offer to our God who has everything.  The one gift He desires is for us to love our neighbor.  In loving our neighbor, we are giving a gift to God.  Our heavenly Father gave us His Son and Jesus says that through loving and caring for our neighbors, we in turn are giving a gift to our God who appears to have everything.

Everything that is, except children who love and care for each other.  After all, isn’t that what parents desire for their own children to get along with one another?  We long for our family to be like Luke’s version filled with peacefulness and calmness rather than Matthew’s version that is filled with fear and violence.  Since this is what we desire for our families, we work hard at making this dream become a reality.  We care for each other.  We bring comfort and support when needed.  All of this we do out of instinct because it is our own children, our own family.

God’s desire is for us to get along with one another.  To get along within our families, within our church family, within our community, and throughout the world.  When we do this, we are offering the one gift to God that He desires.  And this is the one gift that He desires because the Christ child who received gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh is the King of both heaven and earth, who died for our sins so that we can be reconciled to God.  And when we are all together at that great heavenly wedding banquet, God wants us to be getting along by joining our voices together in praising our God who saved us from sin and death.  Amen.

 

 

© 2019 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.

Not Your Ordinary Christmas Eve

Readings for the day (Christmas Eve – Monday, December 24, 2018):

Isaiah 9:6-7

Micah 5:2

Luke 2:1-20

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

In 1914, tension among countries in Europe was escalading.  And by the end of July 1914, much of Europe was at war with someone.  World War One, as it would be defined later, had begun.  Everyone figured that this war was the war to end all wars.  That if they went and fought each other this one time, that would be the end, forever.  It was also assumed that this war would be brief.  That it wouldn’t take long for someone to give in or for both sides to come to an agreement and end the carnage.  With the war starting at the end of July of 1914, people figured that they would go back to their normal lives no later than Christmas of 1914.

As the months continued on into the fall of 1914, it became clear that the war was not going to be ending by Christmas.  In fact, this war would not end for another four years after 16 million people lost their lives.  When Christmas Eve came for the first time since the war broke out, it was clear that there was no end in sight.  All hope was lost.

Have you ever felt that way, all hope is lost?  And maybe you’ve never lost complete hope, but the future looks rather faint.  Maybe this is how you felt throughout this whole last year.  The future looking rather faint.  The future certainly didn’t look promising as fall got closer and closer.  In preparation for tonight, I’ve been reading and listening to some books about that first Christmas of 1914.  One of the books I listened to was a letter that a soldier wrote and sent home describing that first Christmas of the war.  Sitting in the trenches of World War One, these soldiers were thankful to survive each passing day, but as the sun rose in the morning, they did not know how their day would end, or if they would make it to the end of the day.  When the fighting first began they had hope that all of this would be concluded by Christmas so that they could celebrate with their families in their respective countries and in their own traditions.  But the closer they got to Christmas, the less hope they had in having their wish for Christmas at home actually coming true.

Life without hope is awful.  You have nothing to look forward to.  At least nothing positive to look forward to.  All you have is what is happening in the present and whatever happened in the past.  In first century Israel, the future did not look promising.  For almost their entire history, Israel had been under someone else’s control.  Never free to be themselves.  In the first century they were under Roman control.  Someone else dictating what you could and could not do.  In a way this was business as usual for them.  But there was something different however.  They had a 500 year old prophesy that said that God was going to completely change their future, for the better.  That God would free them from bondage like what He did when He freed their ancestors from Egypt.  This prophecy gave them hope.  Hope that they would not live under Roman control forever.  Hope that God would save them and make their lives better.

Finally, after years of waiting for this promised Messiah to come, there in the little shepherd town of Bethlehem, comes this child.  Not what people were expecting, but hope became a reality.  There in the midst of the darkness of the night, hope shines bright to light up the world.  That our God, the Creator of the world, descended from His heavenly throne to become one of us.  No more talk of God saving His people.  Now He was going to actually do it.  Hope becoming reality.  What was hoped for, did come true, just not in the way people were expecting.

As evening fell on that first Christmas Eve of World War I, something unique happened.  Something that had never happened before in the history of warfare.  And something that has never happened since.  Something that was completely unexpected.  Leaving their weapons behind, the German and Allied soldiers exited their respective trenches and entered no-man’s land – the unoccupied area between the trenches that everyone refused to enter for fear of being attached.  No-man’s land was where you went to die.  But on Christmas Eve of 1914, there in no-man’s land, soldiers from both sides (German and Allied) shared Christmas greetings with one another.  They laughed together.  They sang carols together.  They shared food and other items with each other.  They played friendly games like soccer.  This Christmas truce was not an official truce.  This truce was initiated by the soldiers themselves; not the leadership.  The Christmas truce started on Christmas Eve and continued throughout Christmas Day.  Hope becoming reality.  What was hoped for, did come true.  These soldiers did get to celebrate Christmas.  Their celebration just was not in the way they were expecting.  Nor was it with who they were expecting to celebrate Christmas with.

Our God shows up in unexpected ways; like a child laying in a manger who will save and redeem the world from their sins.  And He gives us signs of hope in ways that are out of the ordinary; like singing Silent Night with your enemy in no-man’s land.  And this is why we continue to have hope with each passing day, with each passing year.  Because one day, our hope in what God has promised will become a reality.  And more than likely it will be in ways that we are not expecting it.  God shows up in the ordinary, but not to do ordinary things.  No, our God shows up in the midst of our lives to do extraordinary things.

And the most extraordinary thing that He does, especially on this Christmas night, is that He has come to conqueror the darkness.  The light of Christ shines in the midst of the darkness of this world (and specifically in the dark corners of our lives).  And where the light of Christ shines bright, the darkness cannot overcome the light.  As we sing Silent Night by candlelight, pay attention to the light that is emitted from your candle.  Darkness can completely overtake a space until light is present.  Then, the light pushes the darkness away.  Darkness vanishes in the presence of light.  Not the other way around.

This child born to us is the light of the world.  He is our hope.  Our salvation.  Our light.  And there is no darkness that is too dark for the light of Christ to shine in.  From a first century stable, to the trenches of World War One, to a small church in the middle of a corn field in southern Minnesota, our God shows up in unexpected ways to give us hope, to light our path, to bring us peace, peace on Earth.  Amen.

 

 

© 2018 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.

Waiting is Hard

Readings for the day (2nd Sunday of Advent – Sunday, December 9, 2018):

Malachi 3:1-4

Luke 1:68-79

Philippians 1:3-11

Luke 3:1-6

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

Are you one that is okay with waiting?  Waiting in line is probably the worst.  I, for one, strongly dislike standing in line.  So when my brother asked if I wanted to go with him black Friday shopping, I highly debated it.  But my parents were going to watch the kids, so that meant I got a free day away from the kids.  So I went black Friday shopping to stand in lines and wait.  Actually it wasn’t all that bad.  We didn’t go until late Friday morning.  So the stores weren’t in complete chaos.  They were busy, but they weren’t overwhelming.

Waiting is hard.  So, often in our waiting we look for things to fill our time and schedules.  There’s newspapers and magazines in the waiting rooms to help pass the time.  As I waited in line, I saw many on black Friday passing the time by looking at their phones.  Sitting still and waiting silently is nearly impossible for us.  We have to be doing something.  And I wonder if maybe that is part of what leads to the chaos of this holiday season.

This time between Thanksgiving and Christmas becomes the season of hustle and bustle.  It is packed full of everyone running all over to check everything off of their lists. We’ve got Christmas lists and grocery lists.  Cleaning lists and decorating lists.  There are so many things to do in the month of December.  There’s baking to be done.  And shopping and decorating and wrapping.  And parties to attend and meals to prepare and homes to clean.  And the list just goes on and on.  We pack so much activity into one month of the year, that we almost go crazy and crash at the end.  Maybe you thrive under these circumstances, and that’s great.  But if this season just creates stress for you, why stress yourself out?

We think that this season between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the season of preparation.  Preparation for all of the holiday festivities and we can finally rest on December 26th when Christmas is over.  But actually, this season that we have begun is the season of Advent.  Advent meaning the coming or arrival of something or someone important.  This Advent season certainly is about preparation, but it’s not about preparing ourselves and our homes, running ourselves ragged for all of the festivities in this month.  Rather, Advent is that time before Christmas to prepare ourselves mentally and spiritually for the coming of Jesus.  Not just to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, but to take some time to ready ourselves for when Jesus will come to call us home to be with our Heavenly Father.

And how do we do this?  How do we prepare ourselves to be with God?  Let’s first look at what John the Baptist did.  After Zechariah and Elizabeth had a son and named him John, the text says that “the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.”[1]  Throughout scripture, the “wilderness” becomes a place of solitude and silence.  A place of peace and prayer.  A place of waiting and preparation as God’s people listen to His voice.

Maybe you have noticed this with your children and grandchildren.  They often struggle with stopping.  They are so busy exploring and creatively inventing that often they forget to stop to eat, to go to the bathroom, and even to sleep.  They fear they might miss something.  But lay next to them for a few minutes and allow their bodies a chance to slow down to rest, and their mind will realize that they actually need this rest.  The same is true when you’re an adult.  We just don’t have a parent or grandparent that takes us by the hand and invites us to cuddle up next to them on the bed or a couch.  Although maybe some days we wish that we could still do that.  But we need that rest; that break from the chaos.

If all you are doing is filling your time preparing for all of the festivities of what lies ahead, you may very well be preparing yourself for a Christmas party that lasts a few hours.  The season of Advent, however, calls us to prepare ourselves for the wedding banquet that has no end; a party where you will never have to say goodbye.  And the only way we can prepare ourselves is in the same way my children ever get any rest, by taking a break from moving.  By allowing ourselves a little time each day to sit in that “wilderness” with God.  To talk to Him.  To listen for Him.  To prepare ourselves for His coming.

For when Jesus does come it will be grander than we ever hoped for.  In Zechariah’s song, he describes what this wonderful moment is going to be like.  Zechariah’s song is the song that he sings after the birth of his son John, the son that he thought he would never have because his wife, Elizabeth was barren.  Zechariah says, “[God] has raised up a might savior for us…we [will] be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.”[2]  And likewise about that day, the prophet Isaiah says, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.”[3]  God is leveling the playing field.  Anyone and everyone is welcome in this new covenant.  What was only for the house of Israel, is now open for all you desire the forgiveness of their sins and life everlasting.  John’s purpose and message is clear, all who are living in darkness and long for light shall receive the light of world, who is Jesus the Christ.

For now, we wait.  We wait with anticipation, not only for our own celebrations of Christmas, but we also wait for the promised return of our Messiah.  When He will call us home, no longer living in darkness but dwelling in the light of Christ.  That’s what this season of Advent is for.  For us to ready ourselves for Jesus.  And as we wait, we wait in hope of His return.  Amen.

 

 

© 2018 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.

[1] Luke 1:80, NRSV

[2] Luke 1:69,71, NRSV

[3] Luke 3:5-6, NRSV

A Leader Who Understands Our Reality

Readings for the day (Christ the King – Sunday, November 25, 2018):

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

Psalm 93

Revelation 1:4b-8

John 18:33-37

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

One summer day, we were driving on the interstate heading to a family gathering of some kind.  I don’t remember where exactly we were going or what we were doing.  All I remember, is that we hadn’t been on the road for more than 30 minutes and it began to rain.  And then it rained harder.  And harder.  It got to the point where it was raining so hard it was white outside.  And then, if that wasn’t bad enough, it started to hail.  A little bit at first.  And then it got more intense.  It was starting to look like winter outside.  The road and the ditches were getting covered in white.  We even started singing, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.”  This nasty storm continued for about five miles or so.  And we began debating if we should stop under the next overpass to wait out the storm, when all of sudden the storm stopped.  It just stopped.  No gradual letting up.  It just stopped all together with a few rain drops here or there.  It was the most bizarre thing.

In life, we go through many storms.  Some are short lived.  Other storms drag on for way too long.  Some are rather weak in nature and are more of a nuisance than anything else.  While other storms are a lot more intense and have the potential of throwing our lives into complete chaos.  When you’re living in the midst of a storm, it is challenging to find hope; to find that light at the end of the tunnel.  In one of his standup acts, the comedian Robin Williams, talks about the game of golf.  He said that the object of the game is to get a ball in a gopher hole, but they put the hole hundreds of yards away.  And then there are trees and bushes and tall grass and pools and sandboxes to mess with you and your ball.  But at the end there’s a flat top near the hole with a little flag to give you hope.

Now this was a comedian making fun of the game of golf.  But there is some truth in that last part.  That if you are in the middle of a storm, whether it is a rain storm, snow storm, a storm in life, or even just a really bad game of golf, it is much easier to get through the storm when you can see the end.  Because if you can see the end, you have hope.  Hope that the end is coming.  Hope that relief is coming.  Which means that the storm will be ending soon.

The challenging book of Revelation is something that is feared by many Christians because of the sufferings and afflictions that are described in the book.  Why would someone who is already going from one storm to another, want to read a book from the Bible that describes the stormy future that lies ahead?  But if that is your only takeaway from John’s revelation while he was on the island of Patmos, then you haven’t looked at this book very closely.  Because not only does this book reveal the harsh realities of this life, this book also reveals the light at the end of the tunnel, the flag on the green.  It gives us hope.  The book of Revelation has a prominent message of hope embedded in it.  The book describes how Jesus is enthroned on high, and that He will return to deliver us (the church) from all evil.  And we don’t need to look any further than our reading for today from the prologue; the introduction, for a message of hope.

Jesus says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega.  The beginning and the end.”  The Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.  Now simply saying that Jesus is the beginning and the end doesn’t provide us with much comfort.  Because we could take this as meaning He will be with us at the beginning of our life and at the end of our life.  But not necessarily during the largest chuck of our life, the middle.  However, the text doesn’t stop there.  It continues by saying, “The Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come.”  Who was – means our past.  That God was with us before.  Our alpha.  Our beginning.  Who is to come – means our future.  That God will be with us in the future.  Our omega.  Our ending.  But the text actually begins with, “The Lord God, who is…”  Who is – means our present.  That God is with us now.  Our God and His divine presence is always with us.  We cannot erase Him from our human experience.  We can only ignore Him.  But it is we who ignore Him.  Not the other way around.  God promises to always be with us.  And that is hope that we can hang on to, especially in the midst of difficulty and chaos.

For many, 2018 was an awful year.  It was a storm that just never seemed to go away.  And in a way it kind of was a rain storm that never actually left.  Plus in a society that is so focused on being individualistic, it can be difficult to realize God’s presence in our lives, and believe that He isn’t some deity or king who is out of touch with reality.  He knows our difficulty.  He knows our pain.  He knows our experiences are real and at times these storms are challenging.  And that’s the whole point of why Christmas is so special and important.

This God that we believe in and follow, is not like some leaders of this world that are out of touch with the realities of life, especially for the little people, the peasant people like us.  No, our God knew that the only way to fully know what life is like for us, was to become one of us.  The only way for God to have any sort of credibility with us and prove that He really does care and understand, was to become one of us.  As we move into the season of Advent to prepare ourselves for the coming Messiah, Christ the King Sunday reminds us that when all other earthly kings, rulers, and leaders fail us (and they will fail us), we do have a king who will never let us down.  He will always uphold His promises.  And through His earthly life, God knows what it feels like to be rejected, laughed at, and ignored.  Jesus knows what it feels like to grieve the death of a loved one.  What hunger, physical pain, and heartache feels like.

Our God is not out of touch with reality.  Our realities are His realities.  Our storms are His storms.  And knowing that we have someone with us is comforting, is hopeful.  Like finally seeing the flag at the end of a very long par five.  Or finally getting a break while driving in the midst of a rain or snow storm.  With God by our side, the storms will not last forever.  Joy will come in the morning.  Jesus, our king, overcame death and the grave to save us from our sins and bring us to eternal life where weeping and pain will be no more.  And that is certainly something to hope for.  Amen.

 

 

© 2018 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.

Shadowed by Traditions

Readings for the day (Lectionary 31, Sunday, November 4, 2018):

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

Psalm 119:1-8

Hebrews 9:11-14

Mark 12:28-34

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

Halloween is a tradition that is fun for all ages.  This year our kids were so excited to carve pumpkins, that by the time Halloween finally came, the designs that they made were undetectable.  It’s a fun tradition that many people, especially children, look forward to.

Now I saw in this last week, that a group of people are trying to change this Halloween tradition.  They want the “official” day for Halloween moved to the last weekend of October, rather than on October 31st every year.  Their argument is that it will be safer and less chaotic because parents would not have to race home after work to bring their children trick or treating.  Which would allow for children to hit the streets earlier, when it is still light out.  Now if they hit the streets earlier for trick or treating, do you think that will mean they will come home sooner?  Or will they just have more time to get to more houses, which means more candy they can acquire and more candy they can eat?

An online petition has even been created, requesting that the White House change the official date of Halloween from October 31st to the last Saturday of October.  So far, 50,000 people have signed the petition.  My first thought was, this will never happen.  Halloween has such an engrained tradition in our society that moving the official day would be incredibly challenging to change.  October 31st is part of our culture.  It is part of who we are and what we do.  We dress up.  We hand out candy.  Those of us old enough to remember, we talk about the Halloween blizzard of ’91.  Can you have Halloween on any other day besides October 31st?

Traditions, like trick or treating on the night of Halloween, are hard to nearly impossible to change.  These traditions are so difficult to change because we enjoy them.  They give us something to look forward to.  They are predictable.  They bring us comfort.  They become part of who we are and what we do.  Traditions are like those home-cooked comfort foods that you enjoy.  You enjoy them because they make you feel good.

Plus, the strong attachment to traditions is nothing new.  For the first century Jews, their traditions were everything to them.  One of the reasons why Jesus ended up hanging on a cross is because he bucked the system.  He pushed against those engrained traditions.  He challenged the reasons for their traditions.  He wanted them to consider what was most important – their traditions or God’s Word.  Jesus tried to get them to consider God’s Word and His purpose for their lives as something greater than their traditions.

In the Gospel story we have for today, we are in the beginning of Holy Week.  Jesus has already entered Jerusalem with the crowd laying palm branches and coats on the ground as He rode in on a donkey.  Now the Pharisees and the Sadducees are trying to trap Jesus into saying something that will certainly condemn Himself.  Even their scribes are in on this corrupt plan.  A scribe, who is a legal expert, asks Jesus which commandment is first.  What he really wants to know is, out of the 613 of God’s laws, which one is the greatest and most important law.  Jesus answers with the Shema, quoting Deuteronomy 6, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”[1]  And Jesus doesn’t stop there.  He continues and says that there is a second greatest commandment, which is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[2]  This time Jesus was quoting from Leviticus 19.  The scribe is almost speechless.  He tells Jesus that He answered correctly and truthfully.  The scribe even calls him teacher.  Which means that the scribe is acknowledging that Jesus knows what He is talking about.

What Jesus is doing here is that He is challenging the people, especially the Pharisees and Sadducees, to realize what is greater and more important than their “sacred” traditions; which is these greatest commandments.  To love God, and to love your neighbor.  Following these two commandments is God’s ultimate desire for His people.  If you look back to the story of Moses when he was receiving the Ten Commandments from God.  These commandments are divided into two tables or sections.  Commandments one, two, and three deal with our relationship with God.  1. Have no other gods.  2. Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain.  3. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  All three of these, when followed, help strengthen our relationship with God.  And when they aren’t followed, our relationship with God deteriorates.  So Jesus says, the greatest commandment…love God.  Work on your relationship with Him.  Get to know Him better.  Love Him.  Serve Him.  Obey Him.  The second table or section of the Ten Commandments includes the remaining seven commandments.  These seven deal with our relationship with our neighbor.  4. Honor your parents.  5. Don’t murder.  6. Don’t commit adultery.  7. Don’t steal.  8.  Don’t bear false witness.  9 & 10. Don’t covet.  When these commandments are followed, our relationship with our neighbor is strengthened.  And when they aren’t followed, we destroy our relationship with our neighbor.  So just as Jesus said, love God; He says, love your neighbor also.  Love your neighbor.  Serve your neighbor.  Care for your neighbor.

As Jesus is nearing the end of His earthly ministry before the tomb, He is making the point that His ministry, the mission of the church, the purpose for all the people of God, is not to follow traditions and keep them alive for the sake of keeping them alive.  But rather, this all comes down to relationships – a relationship with our God and a relationship with our neighbor.

As in the case of changing the Halloween tradition, what’s most important?  Is it more important to go out trick or treating on October 31st, the actual day of Halloween?  Or is it about parents spending time with their children running all over town knocking on doors and ringing door bells in costumes?

And this isn’t just for Halloween either.  What about Thanksgiving or Christmas?  Thanksgiving is a little over two weeks away.  Christmas is only 51 days away.  Are you one that insists that Thanksgiving has to be celebrated on Thanksgiving day?  And likewise, Christmas has to be celebrated on Christmas Eve or Christmas day?  If so, which is more important, the tradition of Thanksgiving and the big turkey dinner, or the time gathering together with family and friends to share in a meal regardless of what day it is?  Or which is more important, the tradition of Christmas and the opening of presents, or strengthening your relationships with your friends and family by celebrating the birth of our Savior?

Traditions are good as long as they don’t overshadow the purpose behind the tradition.  For the first century Jews, that is exactly what was happening.  The act of carrying out the tradition was more important than what the tradition itself actually did.  Such as the tradition of temple sacrifices.  The forgiveness of people’s sins was to be done by making animal sacrifices to God.  Except the act of doing the sacrifice became more important than God actually forgiving people’s sins.

What about you?  Are you holding on to any traditions for the wrong reasons?  Are you letting any traditions overshadow the real purpose behind the tradition?  Remember that God’s ultimate desire is for you to love Him and to love your neighbor.  He cares more about you than about any tradition.  Jesus hanging on the cross proves that.  If traditions is what He cared most about, He wouldn’t have been hung on a tree.  But He did go to the cross, for you.  Not for some silly tradition.  He went to the cross to give you life because He loved you first.  Amen.

 

 

© 2018 Anthony Christoffels.  All Rights Reserved.

[1] Mark 12:30, NRSV

[2] Mark 12:31, NRSV

Be Still. God is Your Fortress

Readings for the day (Lectionary 30, Sunday, October 28, 2018):

Jeremiah 31:7-9

Psalm 126

Hebrews 7:23-28

Mark 10:46-52

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

In July, I traveled to Germany to spend a week visiting and learning more about Martin Luther and the Reformation that began 500 years ago.  We visited the monastery in Erfurt, where he was a monk at.  I spent time in prayer in the same chapel that he celebrated his first mass at after he was ordained as a Catholic priest; which is in that monastery.  We visited the Wartburg Castle where he hid for safety and while he was there, translated the entire New Testament into German in less than 11 weeks.  We stopped in Wittenberg where he was a professor at the university.  We saw the house where he and his wife, Katie, lived and raised their family.  We took pictures by All Saint’s Church, also known as the Castle Church.  This is where Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the church on October 31, 1517.  And we also attended a worship service, which was in English.  This service was at St. Mary’s Church, also known as the Town Church.  This is the church where Luther primarily preached at while he was in Wittenberg.

For Lutheran’s one of the most foundational hymns that we have is Luther’s hymn titled A Mighty Fortress.  We sing it every year on Reformation Sunday.  I picked this hymn to be sung at my ordination service.  And this hymn was the closing hymn to our worship service in Wittenberg.  As I was singing this hymn in the church where Luther preached, in the town where the Reformation all began, I couldn’t help but think about the words to this hymn.  And more specifically, what would have the people during Luther’s time thought about this hymn.  I picture this former monk, now priest and professor at the university, who has gone a little rogue, writing this hymn and presenting it to his congregation.  So on a Sunday morning he hands out a sheet of paper with words to a hymn and tells the people that he wrote a new hymn and he’d like to try it during worship.  First of all, I know how much you all enjoy trying new hymns.  So I can just about imagine what these people were thinking.  They were probably thinking something along the lines of, “Oh look, this crazy Luther has done it again.  He has gone and wrote another new hymn!”

Maybe they did think he was crazy.  But then again, maybe they thought his hymns really spoke some truth to their lives.  Luther based A Mighty Fortress off of Psalm 46 which doesn’t shy away from naming the harsh realities of this life.  During Luther’s time, living conditions weren’t great, and life expectancies were low; really low.  When you’re outlook on life is not that great, it becomes quite hard to have a positive attitude and to have any sort of hope in something better.  This hymn though, names the harsh realities of life, and provides hope for overcoming these challenges.

In the first verse, Luther uses a fortress or castle to describe our God.  In Germany there are many castles, some that are still in use today, most are museums or in ruins.  A fortress or castle is secure.  It’s solid.  It’s stable.  It provides a defense for those on the inside.  And it is our God who goes on the offensive, not us.  God is the one who is armed with the sword and the shield.  God is the one who wins and is victorious.  We actually don’t do anything.  This first verse is all about what our God is doing for us.

At the end of the first verse, the devil is arming himself for a fight.  And at the beginning of the second verse, Luther acknowledges that we have no strength comparable to the devil.  We don’t stand a chance.  We will lose.  He says that we will be lost and rejected.  Which is true.  We cannot stand up to the temptations of this life.  Sometimes we can resist that cookie or candy bar or pop.  But some temptations are just too strong for us to tackle on our own.  We need help.  We need some assistance.  We need a champion to come in and fight, as Luther says.  One whom God chooses to fight by our side.  One who fights with us and for us.  And for us as Christians, that victor, that champion, is Jesus.  Specifically, Jesus on the cross and then that same Jesus is standing outside of the empty tomb.

And you would think that would be the end.  The verse even ends with, “Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God’s only Son, adored.  He holds the field victorious.”  End of story.  Jesus wins.  What more is there to say?  Except, for Luther, Jesus won final victory over the grave 1,500 years earlier.  And he sees that people are still struggling.  They are still dealing with addictions and hardships and famines and infidelity.  So what has changed?  Has Jesus winning final victory over the grave done anything good?  Was it actually final?  How can something that happened 1,500 years earlier be viewed as good news in the time of the Reformation?  How can this good news about Jesus’ final victory over death be seen as good today?

As Luther goes into verse three, he begins to answer these questions.  The verse begins, “Though hordes of devils fill the land all threat’ning to devour us.”  Not just devils, but hordes of devils.  Meaning – many or a large group of them.  And they are all threatening to get us.  To devour us.  It appears that this would be the end for us, the devil winning.  But the verse goes on to say that we don’t tremble.  We stand unmoved.  We will not be overpowered because God’s judgment will prevail.  It must prevail.  It does prevail.  All because of God’s Word.  Yes, his word of judgment which defeats the hordes of devils, but God’s Word that is found in Jesus Christ comes to our aid.  He fights by our side.  So that the addictions and hardships and famines and infidelity will not win.  Jesus wins.  He wins final victory.  He did so nearly 2,000 years ago.  And He is still winning final victory today.

Just like in Luther’s time, we will not see complete relief from the hardships of this life.  But through our faith and trust in God, we are given the strength, the perseverance, the ability to get through those hardships.  Psalm 46, which A Mighty Fortress is based on, ends by saying, “Be still and know that I am God.”  Even though there are hardships.  Even though it appears that society is going in a direction that you might not agree with.  Even though it seems that we are doomed to fail, the Psalmist, aware of all of this, simply says, “Be still.”  In this fast paced world, it is quite hard for us to “Be still.”  And yet it is in the stillness where we can realize that God is in control and that in the end Jesus will have final victory over all.  Amen.

 

 

© 2018 Anthony Christoffels.  All Rights Reserved.