Thursday, December 13, 2018

Dreaming of a Blue Christmas?

Hebrews 4:15–16 (ESV)
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

We have all heard of a “White Christmas,” made popular by the Irving Berlin musical.  But have you heard of a “blue Christmas?”  The phrase, I think, was made famous by the Elvis Presley song about a love he will dearly miss at Christmas time.  A blue Christmas is a Christmas that falls short of what people hope or expect Christmas to be.  Instead of joy it is marked by sadness or loneliness or depression.  There can be all sorts of reasons for this – a death, a divorce, loss of a job, being far from family, an illness, financial troubles, conflict and so forth.  Some of us have such high expectations of this season, that it’s bound to disappoint.  Nostalgia so idealizes our childhood memories of Christmas that the reality can never live up to the ideal.  Many look for Christmas with all its parties and decorations and gifts to be an escape from life’s troubles.  Instead those troubles don’t go away.  In fact, they are amplified by the season.  If you are struggling with finances, how disappointing is it when you can’t afford to buy all the presents you are supposed to buy for your children?  I know people who lost a loved one at Christmas time, who simply couldn’t bring themselves to go to church at Christmas.   For many a “blue Christmas” is a disappointing Christmas, a failed Christmas.

I wonder, however, if there is a different way to approach a “blue Christmas.”  Could a “blue Christmas” in God’s hands be the best Christmas ever… a Christmas through which God brings healing and hope to whatever pain you are experiencing? 

That healing, I believe, begins with seeing Christmas for what it really is.  God didn’t send His Son so that once a year we could escape, and pretend life’s troubles aren’t really.  He sent His Son because those struggles and problems are real.  Jesus came to stand in our place, to face and conquer those problems for us.  “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows… But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” 

Our Lord understands what we are feeling and struggling with.  When you stop and think about it, there were many aspects of that first Christmas and of His life that were very “blue.”  I am sure no one believed Mary’s story that she was pregnant with God’s Son.  Joseph was ready to divorce her.  When they came to Bethlehem, ready to have the baby “there was no place for them in the Inn.”  Her first child’s first crib was a manger for feeding livestock.  The King tried to have her child killed and they had to flee to a foreign land.  In life, Jesus had no place to lay his head… no home of His own.  He was rejected by the religious leaders. He wept at a friend’s tomb. His own home town wanted nothing to do with Him.  One of His closest friends betrayed Him.  He was convicted on the basis of lies, whipped beaten, crowned with thorns and crucified.  Talk about a “blue Christmas!”  That’s good news for us in our blue Christmas.  He understands exactly what we are experiencing.  Jesus is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses for He was tempted in every way as we are…”

There is no need to deny the struggles we may have at this time of the year.  To paraphrase a passage of Scripture – “If we pretend we have no struggles, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, but If we admit them to Him, He is faithful and just and will bring forgiveness or hope  or comfort or healing – whatever it is we need.”   Indeed, the Lord whose birth we celebrate came to conquer our struggles by His life, death and resurrection.  He invites us to bring our “blue Christmas” to Him.  “Come unto me,” Jesus says, “all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.” 

Don’t run from your blue Christmas.  It’s real… no use in denying it. But also, don’t live that Christmas alone.  All of us experience it.  Let’s walk it together, holding each other up, as we approach God’s throne of grace “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” That’s what Christmas is really about – not running from life but facing it with God who loved you so much that He took on flesh and blood, and became a part of this life, that you might have life.  That’s the true joy of Christmas – blue or white.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

On Saying "Merry Christmas"

“And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation…”
2 Corinthians 5:19b

Over the last several years, at this time of year, you hear a lot of conversation about the “war on Christmas.”  Most of this centers around what is perceived as an effort to take Christ out of Christmas.  People get concerned because some public schools now have to call it “Winter break” rather than “Christmas break.”  In some schools the children are not allowed to sing Christmas songs that make reference to Jesus and His birth.  They can only sing secular songs like Jingle Bells and so forth. In some stores clerks have been instructed to wish people a “happy holidays” not “Merry Christmas.”  The stores, I guess are worried about offending customers who aren’t Christian.  All of this has many Christians offended.  “What right does the world have to take “Christ” out of Christmas.  This is our Christian holiday, the celebration of our savior’s birth.”

I, however, want to share with you a different perspective on all of this, one that is growing in my heart over the years.   In my humble opinion, we believers in Jesus should be neither surprised or offended that the unbelieving world sees no need to wish us a Merry Christmas.  When someone wishes me a “happy holiday season” I am grateful for their kindness and wishes for my happiness. 

What?  How can you not be offended that they are taking “Christ” out of Christmas?  The reason is simple.  It’s not the job of the unbelieving world to keep Christ in Christmas.  It’s my job and your job as believers in Jesus.  Read the text for this blog today – God “has committed to us the message of reconciliation…”  He has made known to us the great good news that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting men’s sins against them.”  He has brought us to faith in the good news that “savior has been born who is Christ the Lord.”   His calling in our life is to share that wonderful message of Christmas with a world that doesn’t know about Jesus.

In other words, if Christ is being left out of Christmas, than we who believe in Jesus should look at ourselves… then that means we are failing to share the good news of great joy with a world that doesn’t know Jesus.  The Lord has convicted me that it’s not the world’s job to wish me a Merry Christmas.  He has called me (and you) to speak that wonderful greeting to the world. For me to be offended when the people don’t wish me a Merry Christmas, does not reflect very well on that wonderful message.

So, this is my thought today.  If you and I want Christ to be in Christmas, then He needs to be at the center of our hearts, of our words and our witness.  His love for us should be reflected in our response to and our love for the people in our schools, in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods and communities.  Let me suggest a better response when someone wishes you a happy holiday.  First, say thank you.  After all, isn’t it nice that someone would wish you happiness?  Then, wish them a Merry Christmas.  Maybe you can be even more bold and tell them “I pray that God would bless you this Christmas as we celebrate the birth of Jesus our savior.”  After all that’s the work and witness God has called us to give!   

Thursday, November 29, 2018

There are Things More Important than Politics

Proverbs 17:17
“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity”

You know when I was young I can remember my mom telling me, “There are two topics you never want to talk about with people – religion and politics.”  I always thought that seemed like a strange thing to say.  Why can’t you talk about those two topics?   As I have grown up I have come to understand that people have personal, strongly held opinions and beliefs about these matters.  Because people take these topics so seriously, conversations, especially disagreements about these topics can very easily become heated, even angry and divisive.  I guess that my parent’s generation decided it was better to avoid these topics than risk losing a friendship.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I am not sure that this was the best way to deal with difficult topics.  People should be able to talk about their beliefs and opinions.  We should be able even to disagree without losing a friendship.  We should be able to disagree without being disagreeable.

That’s what prompted me to write this devotion/blog this morning.  Somewhere along the line we have lost this.  The conversation in our culture, especially around the topic of politics, has become so toxic that friendship are being destroyed, families divided over political opinions.  We have become intolerant of disagreement.  I am not just talking about people defriending or unfollowing people on social media.  I have heard of good friends that won’t talk to each other, won’t even see each other anymore because of political disagreements.  I see this even among believers… in the church.

Could it be that we are all losing perspective?  When our political opinions are so important that we are willing to sacrifice friendship over those opinions- could it be that our opinions have become an idol, a false god in our lives?  Have we forgotten that there are things that are more important that politics?

I love these words from Proverbs 17 – “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” Maybe it’s just me, but having a friend is far too valuable to sacrifice them on the altar of my own belief in the correctness of my political opinions.   Relationships, friends, family are some of the most valuable gifts God gives us.   

He certainly places a high value on those relationships.  Indeed He so desires to have a relationship with us… for us to have a loving relationship with each other that He became the “friend who loves at all times.”  He became the “brother born for adversity.”  God was in Jesus “reconciling the world to Himself.”  He came into this world to break down the dividing walls of hostility that divide us from one another… to reconcile us to each other by His cross.  That’s right our relationships with Him and with each other are so important to God that He gave His own Son.  His Son shed His blood on the cross to restore and heal those relationships.  He did that… He loves you and me regardless of our political affiliations and opinions. 

There are things that are more important than politics, than my opinions or yours.  People – the people God brings into our lives to know, to befriend, to love – they are far more valuable.  Jesus once said, “No greater love has any man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.  You are my friends.”  He has been for us a friend who loves at all times… loves us no matter what our opinions.  Now He calls us to place that same high value on the people around us, the people we work with, live with, play with, go to school with… even the people we disagree with.  I think it might help us to remember this. There are things that are more important than our politics.  The people God gives us to love – they are more important.  

Thursday, November 22, 2018

A Blessed Thanksgiving

“O Give Thanks to the Lord for He is good and His mercy endures forever.”
Psalm 118:1

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American Holiday.  Though most churches celebrate the day with a worship service of some kind, Thanksgiving in America is a national, not a religious holiday. It is a day set aside for us to stop and remember something we should remember every day – all the things we have to be thankful for!  For we who believe – that means giving thanks to the good and merciful God who gives every good and perfect gift.

Today marks the first time Linda and I are celebrating Thanksgiving in America since 2013.  That doesn’t mean we haven’t celebrated these past 4 years.  Though American Thanksgiving is a work day in Germany, we celebrated every year – inviting our colleagues from the Trinity staff to join us for a traditional thanksgiving feast.  In addition, every year, the members of Trinity, from all over the world, would gather for a Thanksgiving Feast at Church on the Saturday before or after.  We would feast on Turkey yes, but also on Curry Chicken from India, on gluten free and vegetarian dishes, among other great dishes. 

Over there, the same things were important – family, friends, good food and grateful hearts!  We will treasure those thanksgivings in Germany.

Now we are back in America, celebrating this year with Beth and Jason, John and Robert. We are so grateful to be close to Ben's family and Steven.  Of course we miss Jon and Dora and Kellan. Once again, God has blessed us with a great congregation to serve and wonderful staff to serve alongside.   I think back over our lives so far – all the places he has taken us too, all the churches we have served, the 4 wonderful children, 3 in-laws, sisters, brother, 6 grandchildren (soon to be 7) and the list goes on.  But the truth is, what really makes for a great heart is faith – living in the assurance that no matter what He has loved us with an everlasting love… He will never leave us or forsake us. 

So for all our family and friends, now around the world (literally) Lind and I wish all of you a blessed Thanksgiving. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Secret of a Thankful Heart

Philippians 4:12-13
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. 

We complain a lot.  At least I do.  We complain because we have too much to do.  We complain because there is nothing to do.  We complain because our kids won’t listen to us.  They complain because we won’t listen to them.  We complain about our jobs – They expect too much.  They pay too little.  We complain about having to cook every night.  Then at the restaurant we complain that the service is too slow.  We complain about the weather – it’s too cold.  It’s too hot.  It’s too wet.  It’s too dry.    We complain because we want a new cell phone. Then we complain because the battery doesn’t last.  At school College students complain about missing their families. At home , they complain about their families.

The common denominator in all these complaints is you and me.  Could it be that the problem is not entirely with the things we complain about?  Could it be that at least part of the problem is with you and me?  The story is told of two little teardrops floating down the river of life.  One teardrop asked the other, “Who are you?”  “I am teardrop from a girl who loved a man and lost him.  But who are you?”  The first teardrop answered, “I am a teardrop from the girl who got him.”  The problem is not always what we have or don’t have.  The problem is that we are not content with what we have. 

There is a hole in our lives we are struggling to fill.  People try all sorts of things to fill that hole.  Some of us revolve our whole lives around our spouse, or our kids, or some other friend.   That’s way too much pressure.  All those relationships will fail us.    Some fill that by making ‘internet friends.”  But most of those relationships are fake. Some try to fill the hole with things -  money, the latest gadgets, the nicest clothes – yet enough always seems to be more than what we have right now.   Or we may seek to move away from our problems – moving away to college, to a new house, to a new job, a new marriage, or even a new church - yet our problems seem to follow us.  None of these things can fill the hole because this hole is a God shaped hole. 

“Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee, O Lord.”  That’s Paul’s point.   I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.  The secret of a content and thankful heart is not what you have or don’t have.  The secret is who has you, who holds and watches over you.  The secret is to know and believe in Jesus Christ.  He alone is able to fill that hole.  After all He along took the emptiness of our sinful lives into Himself on the cross.  Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by Himself becoming a curse for us.  There he let the emptiness of our lives drain Him of life.  Then on the third day Jesus filled that emptiness new life. 
Now He comes to fill your life and mine with His love.  For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.  He invites us, Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.  He works through the word and sacrament to give your life a full and complete relationship with Him.  He gives you what you will never find in any human relationship, not even your marriage. Baptized into Christ you are fully accepted, fully forgiven, adopted into His family. I have called you by name, He says to you, “You are mine.”  In Jesus God gives you the bread that truly satisfies.  I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”  The treasures of this world are wonderful but always temporary.  Moth and rust destroy them.  Thieves break in and steal.  But the treasures of God in Christ – forgiveness, love, a place in the family of God, an eternal purpose for you lives – to live for Him who died for you – an eternal home in heaven – In Christ, these are yours forever! 

When God has you in Christ you are like the evergreen.  An evergreen never loses its color no matter how the weather changes.  It is green in the heat of summer as well as the cold of winter.  So also, in Christ our lives are content and thankful during the heat of a high-pressure week or when relaxing on vacation… when feeling great or when sick in bed… on the day of our wedding… or the day of a funeral.  Jesus is the secret of a thankful heart. In Christ no matter what we have or don’t have, God has us! Paul is right, I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.   Amen!

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Getting Lost in the Crowd

“Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.” 
Ephesians 1:13-14

We had a problem when I coached my son’s little league team.  Each kid had a red baseball cap with a big C on the front.  Whenever the boys came into the dugout they would take off their caps and throw them in a pile. Then when they had to go back out onto the field it was inevitable that someone wouldn’t be able to find their cap.  Sometimes two kids would fight over the same cap.  They couldn’t tell which hat belonged to whom.  What we finally did was write their names under the bill of their cap.  The same thing happens when young boys go to summer camp.  When little boys undress they don’t pack their dirty clothes away.  They throw them into a pile on the floor.  In a room full of 8 to 15 boys, by the end of the week you end up with one big pile.  Your child inevitably comes home with the wrong stuff, or missing stuff.  Moms though know how to fix this. Before sending their boys to camp, is they write or sew their boy’s name into everything.  That wat his stuff won’t get lost in the pile.

That can happen to people too.  People can easily get lost in the crowd.  This is such a big world.  There are so many people. The world has become increasingly impersonal.  People sit in their houses.  They don’t know their neighbors.  They feel more comfortable chatting on a computer than visiting face to face.  One lady, mentoring a kid in school, told me that the only way her student will talk to her is while playing on the computer. It’s easy to feel as if all you are just a social security number or an e-mail address, not a real person.  That’s one of the reasons why my parents wanted me to attend Concordia for college instead of going to a big state school.  They didn’t want me to get lost in the crowd. That can happen in a church too, even our church.  You can have been coming here for a while and still have people wonder - Are you a member or a visitor?  You can still have people not know your name.  You can be missing and sometimes people won’t notice.  You can be hurting yet no one sees the signs. 

Getting lost in the crowd confirms our worst fear about ourselves – “Why should anyone care about me?”  Our worst fear that that there is no good reason why you or I should be all that important to anyone.  My first year at Concordia  I arrived at school to find my picture on a poster under the words proclaiming, “Happy St. Braun’s Day.”  Part of me smiled. I knew that this was an expression of love from the students.  Yet part of me also thought.  “Yeah, right!.  If they only knew!  I’m no saint.  Just ask my mom, my wife, my kids.  That’s our fear.  We know the truth. We know what sinners we truly are.  Why would anyone care about us.

God’s answer is quite simple.  He has placed His seal of ownership on you.  He has given you His Holy Spirit.  He has called you by name.  He has written His name on you.  Listen to this word from Ephesians 1.  Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.  That’s what happened the day you came to faith.  That’s what happened when You were baptized.  God placed His seal of ownership on you, giving you His Holy Spirit. At that moment He said to you, “I have called you by name. You are mine!” Do you understand what this means?  One day a teacher asked her Sunday School class what you needed in order to become a saint.  One of the student’s wasn’t sure but he thought you had to be dead.  That’s not true.  As one for whom Jesus died and rose again, as one having believed in Jesus, as one baptized into Christ, you are a saint right now!

Giving you His Holy Spirit, God has given you a down payment on all His promises to you.  He put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.    When Linda I made an offer on our house we had to put down earnest money to show we were serious.  At closing we had to make down payment.  The down payment we made at closing was our promise to the loan company that we were committed to making our monthly payments.  That is what God has given you in baptism.  By the gift His Spirit He has given you a guarantee that you are one of His saints.  He has guaranteed to you that You are more than a number to Him.  You are His own child.  He will never lose you in the crowd.

What’s more God has not left you alone in this crowded world.  By the gift of His Spirit He has made you a member of His family.  He has made you part of this community of saints.  I love the theme song from the old TV show Cheers.  It talks about our desire, no our need to be where everyone knows your name… where everyone is glad you came.  That’s is what God intends the church to be…  One of the things I love about the small groups in our congregation, is how they look after one another, take care of each other, keep track of one another. That’s what God wants your church to be -  a place where you are known… a safe place where you can seek help when you are hurting… a place where you are noticed both when you are here and when you are missing… a community of saints where God works through each one of us to make sure no one gets lost in the crowd. Amen.  

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Who is Looking After You

Matthew 10:29–31
29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

I am writing this blog on November 1 – All Saints Day 2018.  For me this is always a day that brings to mind people, believers, whom I have loved and lost – my oldest sister, my mom and dad, Linda’s folks and others.   This coming Sunday, in worship, we will pause in worship to remember the members of Fishers who have passed since Nov. 1, 2017 – Barbara Frazer and Christine Knopp.  All Saints day is a day for celebrating God’s saving work in Jesus Christ by whom He takes sinners and makes us His saints.  It’s a day for celebrating those believers who have finished their course on earth and now await the final victory promised by Christ – the glorious resurrection on the last day.

As a Pastor I get lots of questions about believers who have died and “where” they are between now and judgment day. In fact, I got asked one such question last Sunday at the end of Bible class.  Someone in class remarked, “Pastor I often hear people who have lost a loved one say that they think their mom or day or whoever is up in heaven looking down on them and looking after them.  What do you think Pastor?  Are they looking after us?”

To answer that question, we need to think about what happens to us when we die.  Where are we in that time between death and Judgment Day?  The truth is that the Bible says very little.  Yet there are some passages.  One that is often pointed to is the promise Jesus makes to the thief on the cross next to His – “Today, you shall be with me in paradise.” Paradise sounds like a pretty good place to be.  Being with Jesus sounds great.  Does this mean that we die and immediately go to heaven to await the resurrection?  Or does it mean that dying the next thing we know is it is the last day and we are with Jesus?  I don’t know but either way sounds good to me. 

The Scriptures also talk about the dead in Christ as those who have “fallen asleep in Jesus.”  Is that what happens – our souls in the hands of God, as we “sleep” until the last day?  Or does that a metaphor for death that simply affirms that one day we will “awaken” that is be raised from the dead?”  In my eyes, that is the most likely meaning. 

Whichever way you go with this, the final victory is the last day – Judgment Day – the Day when Jesus comes again to “raise up me and all the dead and give unto me and all believers in Christ eternal life.” (Luther’s explanation of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed, The Small Catechism).    That’s where all history is heading.  Read St. Paul’s description of that Day in 1 Corinthians 15. “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,  in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.  For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:  “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

Did you notice?  There is no passage that talks about those who died looking after their loved ones who are still alive.   The closest passage is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  In the parable the rich man, who is in hell, asks Jesus to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers so that they don’t end up in hell with him.  Pay close attention to the answer the rich man receives.  “He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ ” 

So how did I answer that question?  My dad is with Jesus, awaiting the resurrection.  He now knows better than anyone that He doesn’t need to be watching over me.  He knows that our Father in heaven is watching over me.  Dad is free to “be asleep in Jesus”… to rest in the joy of paradise… awaiting the day of the resurrection when our God welcomes all His saints home.  In the meantime our God who loved us and gave His Son for us… our Almighty, gracious God who can handle anything promises, Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.   At one time, the Lord used my dad to watch over me – while dad was alive.  Now that work is done and my dad ‘rests from those labors.  He rests in peace.  Indeed you and I can also rest in the peace of knowing that God is the one watching over us every day!