Hope for Tomorrow

Readings for the day (2nd Sunday after Epiphany – Sunday, January 15, 2017):

Isaiah 49:1-7

Psalm 40:1-11

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

John 1:29-42

 

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

 

Around 600 years before Jesus was born, an outside group, a group of foreigners, came in, captured the Israelites, chained them up, led them off to a far off country, and completely ransacked Jerusalem.  Homes were destroyed.  The city walls were damaged.  The temple that King Solomon built (essentially their church) was completely destroyed.  The Israelites were hauled off into exile, away from their homes, away from all of their things, possibly even away from their family and friends.  And on top of that, their place of worship was desecrated and destroyed.  Can they worship God in a foreign land?  Can they worship God in another place other than their building?  This is an important question for the Israelites because the temple was where God told them He would be; they could find Him there.  And now without the temple, can they still worship God?  If so, where?

That question is maybe a little easier for us to think about with many churches in the area.  And yet, when we spend much of our lives going to Sunday School and Luther League in this place or all of the Christmas Eve and Holy Week services over the years, it still can be hard to think of our future without this church, without this building in our lives.  Could we even possibly join another church if our church was no longer here?

While in exile, the Israelites were not only dealing with the loss of their church building, but they lost everything.  And regardless of what the loss is, when we lose something, a void is created in our lives that needs to be filled, but it can be rather challenging to accomplish this and actually fill the void, especially when the void is big.

For the Israelites the future is so uncertain.  When will they be able to return home?  Will they be in exile for as long as their ancestors were in Egypt?  The future always carries with it a certain level of fear and anxiety because we don’t know what that future holds.  Now we aren’t exiled to a foreign land.  We still have our homes and our families, our jobs and our possessions.  But we still have no clue what the growing season will look like this year, nor do we know what the crop prices will do.  We finally know what is happening to the health insurance premiums this year, and it’s anything but good news.  And as of Friday, we have a new president.  For some, this news brings hope for a better future.  For others, this news brings great worry and anxiety since no one truly knows exactly what our new president will do in the next 4 years.  It could be good.  It could be bad.  It’ll probably be a little bit of both.

Now the job of a prophet is to first tell God’s people what they have done wrong that has upset God, but also to tell them what God is going to do for them in the future – giving them some hope.

In our story with the Israelites being hauled off to Babylon, they have no clue how long they are going to be there, if they will even be able to return home.  And now in comes the prophet Isaiah who has predicted many things.  Isaiah prophesied that Babylon (the place where the Israelites were exiled to) would be overthrown, allowing for them to return home someday.  And he also prophecies that a Messiah (God’s anointed One) would soon arrive.

Isaiah knows what he is supposed to do.  He knows that he is to deliver God’s Word to His people.  God says, “You are my servant…in whom I will be glorified.”  But Isaiah responds, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity…”  Isaiah feels like he isn’t getting anywhere with God’s people.  He says that he has labored in vain, spending all of his energy for nothing.  Have you ever felt that way?  Have you ever felt as though you have tried really hard at something all for your efforts to seem useless and all for nothing?  It’s like when you are trying so hard to teach your child or a student something and they just aren’t getting it.  Many times it even appears like they aren’t even listening.  But then there’s that moment.  That moment when they surprise you and you realize that all of that hard work has finally paid off.

Sometimes it can feel as though we have labored in vain; that all of our efforts, all of our work and dedication to our church, in our homes, in our community, on our farms and in our businesses, that all of our efforts have been for nothing.  But have we tried everything we could?  Is it time to give up and throw in the towel?  Have we labored for nothing?

Or do we do as the disciples did and follow after Jesus whatever the cost?  Now following Jesus takes work.  Having a relationship with God takes work.  In fact, any relationship for that matter takes work.  If both parties aren’t good about maintaining the communication lines, then the relationship weakens over time.  The same is true with our church, if we just passively enjoy the reality that our church is still around but don’t lift a figure to help it, then it is all for nothing.  It takes work.  Just as Nathanael asks Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  I ask you, “Can anything good come out of Waverly?”

Isaiah’s prophecies were not only promises from God, but they were intended to give the Israelites some hope.  Hope that someday things would get better.  Hope that someday they would be able to return home.  Hope that someday they would be free again to worship their God in their own building again.

The future of our world certainly is uncertain.  We don’t know what the future holds for us.  We don’t know what health care or crop prices are going to look like in the future.  We don’t know what the weather will do or what our new president will do.  For all of this and more, we put our faith and trust in God that He would continue to provide for us for as long as He feels that there is work for us to do for the sake of God’s kingdom.

So regardless of what happens in the future – whether it rains or not, whether President Trump’s leadership is good or not, whether we live or whether we die, know this: know that you belong to God.  Your labor for the Lord is never in vain.  He has chosen you.  He has called you by name.  You are His.  And nothing, absolutely nothing in this world can ever take that away from you.  Amen.

 

© 2017 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.

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A Precious Gift

Readings for the day (Baptism of Our Lord – Sunday, January 8, 2017):

Isaiah 42:1-9

Psalm 29

Acts 10:34-43

Matthew 3:13-17

 

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

 

Did you have a good Christmas?  Maybe that seems a little weird to you that I’m asking you about Christmas still; that was two weeks ago.  Yet, the season of Christmas, the shortest of seasons in the church year (only 12 days long), just ended on Thursday (three days ago).  Did you get everything that you wanted or needed?

I find it interesting how the understanding of gift giving and more so gift receiving changes as we age.  When one is very young, under the age of 2, the shining reflection of the wrapping paper is all that is needed to bring a child joy.  When they get a little older, the wrapping paper is no longer interesting, but something that needs to be ripped away as quickly as possible to reveal the best thing in the world…the cardboard box.  Then the next year, the box is still a little interesting, but now we’ve realized that what is inside the box is pretty cool – it doesn’t even matter what is inside the box, it could even be clothes.  And then we finally get into the phase where the wrapping is ripped open within seconds, the box is torn apart just as quickly, the clothes are thrown aside but the toy that is buried underneath all of those clothes – that’s what we’ve been waiting for, that’s the prize buried at the bottom of the cereal box.  What a gift!

I would guess that from time to time, you have thought about the many blessings or gifts that you have received from God.  Maybe especially over Christmas and the holiday celebrations where we spend time with family and friends, enjoying each other’s company.  All of this has come from God.  Our food, our shelter, our families, our possessions, our careers, our very lives – have all come from God; gifts from God.  And during holiday celebrations we are reminded of how much God has blessed us with.

And now, God blessing His children is nothing new.  God has been caring for and blessing, giving to His children since the day He created Adam and Eve.  When a famine came across the land, God worked through Joseph to bring his family to Egypt to find food.  When the Egyptians turned on Joseph’s family and turned them into slaves, God worked through Moses and Aaron to lead His children back to the Promised Land.  When God’s children were scared, He provided them with a leader, a ruler to help protect and guide them.  When their judge failed to do God’s Will, God sent messengers, prophets to redirect His children.

There are so many examples in the Bible that show just how faithful and caring our God really is.  There are many gifts that God has given to us, but the text that we have today shows us the greatest gift that God has given us.  At the baptism of Jesus, God does not give us another Moses or a prophet.  He doesn’t give us an angel or lavished possessions.  No, when Jesus comes out of the water, after being baptized by John in the River Jordan, the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove onto Jesus, and from heaven, a voice can be heard saying, “This is my beloved Son.”  My only son, whom I love, who is my very heart.  This is my only heir to the throne, the one who will inherit all of my possessions and power.  But I give Him to you.  Because I love you.  Of all the gifts and blessings that God gives to us, Jesus is the greatest, most prized possession that God has, and He willingly gives Him to us.

And how do you treat this gift from God?  Do you rip open the wrapping with great joy and excitement?  Or do you complain because the gift is not what you wanted or expected?  Being baptized and welcomed into God’s family does not mean that we have a golden ticket to heaven.  Your baptism certificate is not a get out of jail free card.  Jesus never said that our walk with Him would be easy.  Being a Christian, a follower of God’s precious gift, is not always easy.  Waking up on a Sunday morning to worship and give thanks to God for this gift.  Remembering to thank God for all of the blessings that He has given us throughout the week.  Caring for the sick, the poor, the hurting, the grieving, the oppressed, the hungry, AND spread the Good News about this precious gift that God has given the world.  No wonder many people just give up.

If you approach your faith in Christ as a laundry list of things to do, then it does seem difficult to almost impossible.  There are nearly 800 million people in the world who do not have enough food to live healthy lives.  Hospitals are always occupied.  About 3 billion people live in poverty throughout the world.  Over 150,000 people die each day – meaning there are over 150,000 families grieving every single day.  These numbers are staggering; especially knowing that as followers of Jesus, we are called to care for all of these types of people.  Except, your faith in Jesus is not dependent on this long to do list.  Rather, your faith in Jesus comes from believing and trusting in God above all else.  When you trust in God to save you from your looming eternal death, when you trust in God to forgive you your sins, when you trust in God to be with you wherever you go in the future – that’s when you willingly visit the sick, that’s when you eagerly care for the poor and those in poverty, that’s when you freely comfort those who are grieving.

This is the joy of the Gospel.  The joy and excitement that we have in this precious gift from God, moves us to do the things that we have been called to do.  So helping serve Communion, teaching Sunday School, answering the call to serve on council or a committee – when this faith is viewed as a burden, then all we can see is a religious practice that is full of things to do and obligations to be fulfilled.  However, if we see this gift from God like a child who joyfully rips open the wrapping and is filled with pure excitement of what is inside, then being a Christian isn’t all that hard at all and it actually becomes quite rewarding.

“This is my beloved Son.”  God’s only son, whom He loves, who is His very heart.  But because He loves you, God gave Him up to you and for you.  Of all the gifts and blessings that God gives to us, Jesus is the greatest, most prized possession that God has, and He willingly has given Him to us.  Certainly a gift to be excited about.  Amen.

 

© 2017 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.

“For unto you…” a Reason to Celebrate

Readings for the day (Christmas Eve – Saturday, December 24, 2016):

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.

 

The Christmas story according to the Apostle Luke, is the most well-known story of the Bible besides the 23rd Psalm and John 3:16.  The most detailed account telling of Jesus’ birth – complete with Mary and Joseph, the mandatory census, the little bustling city of Bethlehem, the inn with no-vacancy, the manger, the animals, the angels, and the shepherds.  Add in some Christmas carols like Away in Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Silent Night, and Joy to the World, and you have all that you need for a feel-good Christmas story.

And this telling of Jesus’ birth should make us feel good, it should make us happy and joyous.  Christmas is a time of celebration.  But for what?  So that we can go back to our everyday lives on Tuesday as though nothing has changed?  So that we can resume our normal lives until we do it all over again next year?  Does Christmas ever feel more like an interruption than a celebration?

All too often we try to get the Christ child to fit into our image.  When things are going well, our lack of thanksgiving to God tells Him, “I got this God, I’m good.”  When we are happy, when we are content, when things in our lives are peaceful, when we make it through a family function without anyone fighting or arguing with each other – then we figure that we have this under control.  We can do this whole life thing.  We don’t need any help.

But you don’t need to look far to realize that not everyone is happy, not everyone is content, our lives are not always peaceful, and sometimes attending family functions creates anxiety rather than joy.  What then?  What then do we do?  And where do we turn when things don’t go the way we want them to go; when life gets hard, when hard decisions must be made, when a marriage fails, when fertility issues arise.  What then?  Where do we turn for help?  Often, the very first place people turn in 2016 is Google.  Google got the answer, it has an answer for everything.  If all else fails, then pray and seek God’s help.  But when things are good, are you still talking to God?  We’ve become fair-weather fans for God haven’t we?  Taking life as it comes, trying to keep our head above water, seeking God’s help only when our own attempts fail.  What if God treated us the same way we treated Him?

Which brings me back to my original question.  Christmas is a time of celebration, but for what?  So that we can go back to our everyday lives on Tuesday as though nothing has changed?  We can go back to work and school will resume in a week, the decorations will come done, the Christmas music will be silent and everyone will go back to living their lives for themselves.

Except on that first Christmas night, there were some that didn’t even get a break, some that didn’t even get an interruption from the daily grind.  Emperor Augustus decreed that ALL the world should be registered.  I guess “all the world” means everyone except the shepherds.  As everyone was traveling to their hometowns to be registered, the shepherds were still working in their fields.  And the angel that comes to tell the world about the birth of Jesus, doesn’t go to a large football stadium, or to the house of people with successful careers; the angel doesn’t tell the rich or those who feel that they have this whole life thing under control.  No, the angel, in the cold, darkness of the night, pays a visit to a pasture full of sheep and some humble shepherds who continue to do the work that God called them to do – not even being included in the census.  In the stillness of the night, an angel tells the shepherds, “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The simple words, “To you!”  Not to the emperor, president or governor.  Not to the celebrity you adore, or to your neighbor down the road.  Not to the star football player, or actress.  Not to the CEOs or top executives.  These words, “To you,” mean exactly that.  The angel announces to the shepherds that this Savior that is born, has been born FOR YOU!  You, lowly shepherd who the world doesn’t even want to have you included in their census.  You, humble shepherd who is still working when everyone else has gone home.  You, the teacher, farmer, nurse, cashier, student, carpenter.  The angel announces to you that today in the city of David, a Savior has been born.  Jesus was born to you and for YOU specifically.

This God that we believe in decided to take on flesh and become human like us.  He didn’t do this for the angels, for they don’t need Him.  And the devil certainly doesn’t want Him.  But we, humble servants of God NEED Him, and this is precisely the reason why God came down from His throne, taking on human flesh, being wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger.  All for you!  None of this benefits God at all, but this Christmas gift for us is a very beneficial and necessary gift.  A gift that can’t be earned, can’t be traded, can’t be purchased – only received.  Our God, your God, willingly came down from His throne of power and glory, to lay in a cattle trough, all for your sake.  He did this so that YOU may be saved.  YOU are redeemed, YOU are forgiven, YOU are given eternal life, and most importantly, God took on flesh in the form of an infant named Jesus so that YOU may be welcomed into His holy family.

This is why we celebrate.  This is why we interrupt our everyday lives to celebrate a child’s birth that happened 2,000 years ago.  Because without Jesus, all we have is a life that gets more and more complicated with semi-trucks driving into market places, school shootings, terror threats, growing fear and anxiety around the world and in our homes.  Jesus gives us hope.  A hope that produces joy.  A hope that we can rely on.  A hope that someday there will be peace on earth; peace among families, peace among neighbors, peace among strangers.  God taking on human flesh and living among us is the good news of great joy that the angel announced to the shepherds in the cold, darkness of the night: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  Amen.

 

 

© 2016 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.