Pastor's Blog

Does the Christmas Star Still Shine?

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went on a camping trip. After a good meal and a bottle of wine, they lay down for the night and went to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend, "Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see." Watson replied, "I see millions and millions of stars."

"What does that tell you?"

Watson pondered for a minute. "Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Why, what does it tell you?"

Holmes was silent for a moment, and then spoke. "Watson, that’s not it at all. Some jerk has stolen our tent!"

Maybe you’ve found yourself lost in the sky. I can confess that from early on I have been fascinated with the night sky. I remember often looking out and seeing all the stars, trying to remember the names of all the different constellations. Watson was right: from the sky we can see that God truly is a powerful being. And that same amazement has gripped man from the beginning. So much so that God had to warn the Israelites not to worship the Sun, Moon and stars.

Shortly after Christ’s birth, the night sky drew the special attention of a group of Magi from the east. They noticed a star, and from what they knew about the Jewish religion they knew this star meant a king was born. And this special star led them to Christ. Ever since Matthew wrote about the visit of the Magi, the Christian Church has celebrated the season of Epiphany. The season of Christ’s light shining out. 

The Magi show us something incredible about God’s plan though. Even though they were foreigners, God took extraordinary measures so they would find Christ. God’s message is pretty clear: Jesus is for Jews and Gentiles alike, he came for the entire world. That’s the world you and I are very much a part of. We are worldly-minded, sinful people, yet we are the people Jesus came to rescue. We are the people God leads to Jesus with that star shining in the sky. As we follow that star, we find a baby human being; we see God’s love there because God became flesh. The star leads us into the life of Christ: his gentle words, his perfect life, a perfect life lived in our place. The star leads us onward to the top of a hill outside Jerusalem, to a cross where Christ poured out his blood for the payment of our sins. It leads us to a tomb where he was laid and where he would rise again on Easter morning. The star of Epiphany points the way to our rescuer, the one who lived and died to rescue us from the punishment of our sins and who rose again to prove it was true, who shines brighter than that Epiphany star and leads us on to eternal life in heaven. Follow the star to Christ: it leads the world to find him.



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What Kind of Jesus?

Imagine you woke up one day and the world had changed. Everything looked the same, but as you were brushing your teeth, something just felt odd. You go grocery shopping that day and as you go down the aisles you notice what’s happened: there is no more variety. You get to the apples and instead of there being Fuji, Washington Delicious, Granny Smith, Braeburn, Pink Lady, all the kinds of apples you’re used to seeing, you only see one kind: Apple. You head to cereal and notice instead of Lucky Charms, Cheerios and Corn Flakes there’s only one kind of cereal called “Healthy Morning Breakfast”, a whole aisle of it. And on and on down your list it’s the same thing. Instead of there being variety, there is only a single brand, or a single kind. It’s a strange thought because we are very used to there being many kinds. We have a consumerist mindset which says if enough people want this kind of thing they’ll get it.

So what kind of Savior would you like today? You can have a loving one, a stern one. You can have one who is your friend, one who is your confidant. You can a have a powerful savior, or a hands-off savior. You can even have a savior who will hide himself away and only come out when you want him. There are a lot of options out there for what kind of savior you can have. There are even churches that will give people the kind of savior they want on that particular day. But will they have “the Savior,” the one the Bible tells us about?

The kind of Savior the Bible describes is the kind of savior who bleeds and dies. It describes the kind of savior who died when he was only about 30 years old. We have the kind of savior who called himself God but needed to sleep; who allowed himself to be tortured. And this is the Savior the world needs. Not the kind of savior the world wanted. No, humanity’s savior is the one who bleeds and dies so he could dismantle death. Humanity’s savior is the one who bleeds and dies so he could pay for sin. In fact, humanity’s savior is a human being, just like them.

Hebrews 2:14-15, "Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death--that is, the devil--and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death."



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A Voice of Comfort for Today

A number of years ago a teenage daughter made some mistakes. She went out with some friends her parents didn’t approve of. She stayed out past her curfew. And during a late night joy-ride, totaled a friend’s car and wound up in the emergency room with some pretty bad bumps and bruises. And while she lay there in that hospital bed, the only thought that kept coming back to her was what her father was going to do to her and how much she had disappointed him and mom.

Later that morning Dad came back—he had already visited her but she didn’t remember—and he sat down in the chair next to her bed. Her heart started to race. What would dad say? How angry would he be? She heard him open up a book, turn a few pages and then he started to speak, “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” He closed his Bible, bent over his daughter and kissed her on the forehead and left. There would be more to talk about later, Dad knew that, but in that moment he wanted his daughter to know she was forgiven.

There is nothing more important that you need to know about God than that he cares for you and loves you with every fiber of his being. His entire essence is wrapped up in love for you. Like that father to his poor daughter, your heavenly Father wants you to hear the voice of comfort.

Jesus speaks tender words to you today. He speaks to your heart because that’s what’s so wrong in this world today. It’s what’s been wrong since Adam and Eve were chased out of Eden. And Jesus wants you to know that the hard service of sin is over. The punishment is done because he took it on the cross. That’s the victory he announced to Satan when he descended into hell. That’s the triumph that shouts from an empty tomb! Sin has been defeated. Comfort.

That voice of comfort has to mean something to you, right? And if it does, then put it into practice in your life. Fill in the valleys with the comfort of forgiveness. Tear down the hills with the power of that comfort. Leave your sin behind. Don’t wait for the divorce papers to deal with your problem of addiction. Don’t wait for the next argument to deal with your problem of anger. Don’t want for sin to get a hold of you, put it away today. Look at what Christ has done for you, look at the comfort he has earned for you and then welcome his arrival with hearts that have been comforted through repentance.



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It's Time to Be Done With Fear

There is a powerful and malevolent force that is sweeping through our lives taking away our freedom, our morality, justice, happiness and peace. It whips into our homes like an icy wind sucking away the warmth of joy. It is fear. Right now, somewhere in this world a person is contemplating ending their own life. Right now, somewhere in this city, a person contemplates leaving everything—home, family—in the dead of night to start over somewhere else. And perhaps even in our own midst there is a person whose life is spent dodging one fearsome event after another.

Fear is a gripping and choking power. It causes people to find relief in what is temporary, to find escape if only for a moment, to envy the paper-thin happiness of others. Fear makes us put on a happy exterior, even though our souls are crushed. Fear is a cruel master who forces us to only look inside, to only look to ourselves, to isolate ourselves, in short, to worship ourselves. And it is a cruel and unhappy worship. It is a worship whose hymns are strains of guilt and remorse, a worship of self-pity. It is an idolatrous and godless worship that never delivers the happiness and peace we crave, but only the damned eternity reserved for those whose faith is smothered by fear.

Our hearts crave something better. Our hearts crave eternal relief. Our hearts crave joy. Not the external joy of unbelief’s so-called happy people. Our hearts crave joy that goes beyond the smile and down to the soul. Our hearts crave the kind of joy that causes a sister who mourns the death of her brother to hold her head up high in hope. We crave the kind of joy that causes a family in the midst of disaster to move beyond the loss and difficulty.

And this joy is not far away, it is not something we must come up with on our own, it is the free gift from God, given to us in his Anointed One. Fear can be done with in your life. Its choke-hold can be broken by the joy-gift of God. Fear gives way, it must, because the Lord’s Anointed was sent to destroy fear’s source and to replace fear with his presence. Now is the time for joy. Now is the time for singing. Now is the time to shout aloud. Sing, shout aloud, be glad and rejoice, sin is gone, your Lord is near.

Zephaniah 3:14-15, "Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm."



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Your Advent Decorations

It’s always fun at our house getting all of the Advent decorations ready. We get out the big box with the word “Advent” written on it. My wife pulls out all the porcelain Advent figurines and puts out the Advent candles. Then it’s time to bake all of our favorite Advent recipes: like Advent cookies, and even Advent candies. Then we dig further into the box and get out our Advent lights and plug them in to make sure they all work and then we hang them on the house. We’ve got our Advent wreaths, and Advent pictures, and Advent streamers. Of course you’ve probably already had your Advent decorations up a lot sooner than we did; we always seem to get behind this time of year.

Why do you look so confused?

Do you not have any Advent decorations?

You don’t have Advent wreaths? No Advent candles? No Advent cookies or Advent figurines or Advent streamers and pictures? So I guess no Advent lights on the outside of the house, either.

Well, actually neither do we. We’ve got lots of Christmas decorations. That’s true. But right now it's Advent. So why can’t we go to Target and get Advent decorations?

That’s because Advent happens within, inside, our heart of faith. Advent is a season to prepare our souls for the coming of Jesus Christ. And the best preparation, the best way to decorate our homes for Advent, is to repent of our sins, to come clean about our sinfulness and seek forgiveness. Sure it doesn’t seem like much fun; maybe we would rather just have some Advent decorations. And a lot of people would agree with you: repentance doesn’t sound like much fun. But repentance is a beautiful and happy thing. Repentance brings along with it blessings that make Christmas, that make the rest of the church year, that make our Christian lives better. Seize the blessings of repentance.

Luke 3:4, "Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him."



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The Passing of a President

I remember sitting in the cafeteria, watching on TV the memorial service for President Ronald Reagan. At the time I was working for a church during the summer months as a "summer vicar," a kind of pastoral assistant, so to speak. And I remember tearing up as Margaret Thatcher, herself old and showing the signs of her age, gave a very fond eulogy. It touched me, the love, respect, admiration that people had for "Ronny." I felt it, too, which is odd because I was only maybe 5 years old when President Reagan was in office. In fact, my only real rememberance of him was his own farewell address as he spoke so eloquently about that shining city on a hill. As a youngster something about the way he spoke made me feel very connected to him, like he was someone special.

Today, the United States is remembering President George H. W. Bush, who died last Friday. My remembrance of him was the Gulf War and how my uncle was sent into the desert to fight "the bad guys." And the now infamous "read my lips" speech.

Why do leaders connect with us so much? Why does a nation mourn when a leader dies? King David mourned the death of Saul (his political enemy!) and Saul's son Jonathan, writing them a funeral song in 2 Samuel 1, and even commissioning it to be taught to the men of Judah.

Perhaps part of the reason we mourn the death of leaders is because of the tremendous responsibility they have been given. Whether that leader knows it or not, they have been put there by God. Scripture declares, "The authorities that exist have been established by God," (Romans 13:1). Jesus told Pontius Pilate that he would have had no authority except that which God had given him (John 19:11).

That should make every leader--whether principals, pastors, presidents or patriarchs--stop cold in their tracks. If God has put them there, then God demands an accounting for the way they conduct themselves. It serves as a reminder to us all that when we pray, we must keep our leaders in mind, even if we don't agree with them, even if they are cruel leaders (Pilate was no great ruler and his counterpart Herod was terrible). Our prayer should often be that leaders would fear God and make decisions knowing God holds them accountable. We should pray for leaders and seek to find leaders who fear God and know him not as "the man upstairs" but as their Savior-God, who sent his son to save mankind and even them from their sin.

Today is a good day to say prayers for the family and freinds of George H. W. Bush. It is a good day to pray for our nation and the nations of the world.

Our leaders are important. God has put them there. Let's remember that.



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You Are a King!?

“Here is your king!” And there he was: Jesus of Nazareth; dressed in a purple robe, a crown of thorns on his head, blood streaking down his face and his back. His body was broken. And Pontius Pilate said, “Here is your king.” Some king is what Pilate meant. He can’t even defend himself.

Of course, it’s easy to say that when the image of Jesus as king is this beat up, broken man. But what if things had been different that day? What if Jesus appeared in all his power and glory? Would Pilate have chosen different words? I wonder if Pilate will remember what he said so long ago when Jesus does return at the end of time.

But what about right now, does Jesus look like a king to you? When you step out into the world and face ridicule, hatred and rejection Jesus probably doesn’t seem very kingly. When you’re plagued with doubts about your faith, about forgiveness, about God and everything, Jesus’ glory seems pretty dim.

The situation is urgent because there appears to be competing truths out there. One says that God and all he has revealed is true. Another says that since we cannot see God or test for God he cannot be true. And caught right in the middle is Jesus. Just who are you Jesus?

And with one foot in God’s world, and another foot in our world, Jesus says to us, “I am your king.”

You are a king, then!

Yes, a king of truth. And in a world where truth is so often in short supply, he's just the king you and I need.



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The California Wakeup Call

The images coming out of California are nothing short of horrifying. You watch a video of a family literally escaping through the flames, the wife praying in the passanger seat for their safety, her husband in shocked awe at the loss of people's homes which are burning on both sides of the road. I can't imagine it.

What are we to make of all this? 

Some people, jumping at a political opportunity, are labeling this as God's punishment on a state that has leaned more and more liberal over the years. "God is finally getting even with these people," seems to be the underlying thought. Apparently God promotes a certain political viewpoint in Scripture?

Another point of view is that this is just the consequence of mankind's behavior. Whether it's poor forest management, man-made climate change, or something else, the thought seems to be that there is nothing divine in these actions, there is no spiritual "takeaway," there is only the material world and thus we must look for material solutions for mankind's problems.

The answer, as it so often does, lies in the middle. The traditional Lutheran approach is always to take the narrow middle ground between two viewpoints. This is neither a punishment nor an absent or non-existant God. This is, however, a consequence of mankind's behavior, and it does have a spiritual takeaway. Let me explain.

God COULD have pre-programmed us with all the correct attitudes and behaviors so that we would never have made an incorrect choice. Think of this like spiritual robots. But he didn't. Thus mankind fell into sin by an abuse of their God-given free will (and has made a whole bunch of mistakes since.)

God COULD have created this world and then stepped back to watch what would happen and laugh his head off at all our foolishness and intervene only when it suited him. But he didn't. Thus he redeemed mankind from sin and hell through the life, death and resurrection of his son, Jesus Christ.

God DID create us with a spirit and a highly developed capability for reason. God DID involve himself most intimately in our lives.

So here's the takeaway. These fires in California are not God's punishment. God's punishment fell on Jesus. When Jesus said, "It is finished," that's what he meant. Done. Nada. Zilch. No more punishment for sin remains. It's what makes rejection of Christ so tragic.

Instead these fires are a wakeup call.

For everyone who thought they were living in paradise with their home in the country and their life set up just the way they wanted it and all was right in the world and they had no need for God, this fire roared through Paradise and has nearly taken it off the map. God can do that. He did it to Sodom and Gomorrah years ago, he's still doing it today. Wake up. 

For everyone who thinks they can put off their relationship with God until tomorrow, or when their life is more settled down, God can send a fire that will spread so quickly that people will die escaping in their vehicles. Wake up.

For everyone who thinks God doesn't care, that there are no more good people left in the world, and all is cynical and base, God sends humble people of heroric preportions who brave the dangers of a wildfire to rescue, to help, to save lives. God does care. Wake up.

And for anyone who wants to point the finger at others in self-righteous judgment, God can send a fire that no one was expecting to come their way so fast. Maybe we should take care of our own life first? Wake up.

The fires in California are like any other natural disaster - it's your time to take notice, measure your life against the Word of God, and wake up.

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Our church body does send aid to those in need. If you would like to contribute to our Committee on Aid and Relief to help those affected in the CA wildfires, please click here.

 



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At Last the Sun Rose

“As I looked thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.” The Book of Daniel, chapter 7.

We have traveled a long road. Life has given us its good moments and its bad moments. We have seen and experienced the best in human behavior and we have witnessed the most vile and cruel human behavior. We have seen in ourselves the capacity for kindness and generosity as well as wickedness. Life has gone well, and life has gone terribly. It’s been a long, winding road to eternity. Jesus was right when he said, “…small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to eternal life,” (Matthew 7:13). Our sins and trespasses have haunted us. But our salvation was always before us, our forgiveness never left us. God’s undeserved love protected us and encouraged us. Yet our hearts sighed with the Apostle Paul, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of heaven,” (Acts 14:22).

And at last the sun rose. Just when we thought we couldn't handle it anymore, that life couldn’t hand us anymore trouble—the Sun of Righteousness rose over eternity’s horizon. He cast his light of judgment into this dark world. He announced to you and me that the day of our deliverance had arrived. He announced that all people would stand in the court of God’s justice and that sentence would be pronounced.

We looked up and the light of the Sun splashed across our tired faces. We looked at each other, and we smiled, because at last the sun rose, its fire vindicating our faith and its light healing the faithful.

"Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,  says the LORD Almighty. Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall." Malachi 4:1-2



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It's "only" the end of the world

The truth is: the world has been ending for a long, long time.

In the Bible, the Apostle Paul spoke about it a lot in his letters to the different churches. He said in 1 Corinthians, “The world in its present form is passing away.” It was almost like he expected it to happen any moment. Jesus himself gave us many signs that the end of the world is coming. He said in Mark 13, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains."

Did you catch Jesus’ promise to the apostles there, to believers throughout the centuries, and to you and me? It only gets harder. The wars become more frequent. The famines and floods and natural disasters keep coming. The turmoil in this world increases. The love of most will grow cold. Many will fall away from the faith. Christians get treated worse and worse.

Hey, it’s only the end of the world—don’t worry! Right?

Jesus says “be on your guard” and “watch out” but he doesn’t say get worried. In fact as things get more difficult, as the end draws closer, Jesus gives you and me confidence to share the gospel.

This last week the Lutheran church celebrated the Reformation. It's a time to celebrate how God reformed the church through Martin Luther in the 1500s.

And really, when you break it down, the Reformation is really all about one thing: confidence in God's Word.

Martin Luther would agree, it’s only the end of the world. Don’t worry: stand firmly on the gospel and trust the promise of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus says, "Do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit." (Mark 13:11)



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Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. ~ HEBREWS 12:2 (NIV)