Listening

Transfiguation Sunday
February 26, 2017 

Dear Family and Friends of First Lutheran Church: This coming weekend, let us go up to the high mountain of prayer …

            To a high transfiguring place where the earth touches the heavens
            To a misting mystical place where Christ’s Holy Spirit leads his disciples still
                        A place filled with God’s wondrous light and presence
                        A place filled with awe, wonder, and worship
                        A place where all mortal flesh keeps silent in order for us to listen carefully … 

In preparation, read Luke 9:28-45 and a Bible Study Worksheet: “Listening”

j. r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

Click here for Worksheet

Photo: "Transfiguration" by Cathy Christopherson

Thoughts for Sunday

This weekend we welcome guest preacher Sarah Stenson to the First Lutheran pulpit. Sarah is the Associate Director of Luther House of Study. Founded in 2006 and located in Sioux Falls, Luther House of Study works to strengthen Lutheran leadership and ministries for the proclamation of the Gospel. In partnership with Sioux Falls Seminary and the South Dakota Synod, Luther House of Study serves future ministry professionals, current ministry professionals, and congregations. Luther House of Study offers, at no cost, online curriculum and videos for learning about the Lutheran faith and its foundation. For more information, visit www.lutherhouseofstudy.org.


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The Gospel lesson for this week gives us a look at two ways people experience being in the presence of our Lord, Jesus. Jesus has been invited to eat with one of the Pharisees, Simon, at his house.  While there, a woman identified only as “sinner” shows up, weeps, bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair and anoints them with ointment.  Quite the unusual dinner party guest!

Simon’s reaction to this surprise guest was not all that unusual for the time. He questioned Jesus’ status as a prophet, and why it was that Jesus allowed this sinner (and a woman at that!) to touch him.  Of course, in doing that, Jesus was breaking all sorts of Jewish laws and even simple societal customs and norms. 

While this story is sometimes heard as one about hospitality and is then turned into an example of what it means to be truly hospitable, that isn’t really what’s going on. Jesus actually tells us Himself that this story is really about something quite different: what happens when you are forgiven.

In this week’s sermon, we’ll start to unpack the two ways people experience Jesus: as someone you can use for personal gain, or as someone who will do something entirely different from what you might expect. 

As we talk about this text from the Gospel of Luke, I hope you will find yourself listening as well as experiencing the freedom that comes where you might not expect it -- being named sinner.

Thought for Sunday

Even though Jesus has been doing precisely what he announced during his first sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4)- healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, releasing the captive, and bringing good news - questions about who he is and what he is doing continue to nag at his heels. Today’s questioners are the disciples of John the Baptist who have been watching him, but instead of believing in him they run back to John wondering if Jesus is the one they have been waiting for. John’s whole purpose was to point people away from himself and toward Jesus, but in their questioning, John’s disciples have the whole thing backward. In some way, they think Jesus should be carrying on the ministry of John, but from the very start, Jesus has been about something greater. Where John expects judgment, Jesus has been giving mercy. Where John expected fire and brimstone, Jesus has been opening the kingdom of God. It’s no wonder that nobody can tell who he is, for Jesus doesn’t conform to anyone’s hopes and expectations. He doesn’t cooperate with the goals of priests, princes, Pharisees, or the disciples of John the Baptism to change the world for the better. But that is exactly the point. Jesus has come to bring in a new creation, one given to the unrighteous, the sinners, and the unworthy, which means that he hasn’t come to make the world a better place, but rather to bring the world to an end to make the new kingdom. That is, to give the favor of God to all who will hear. Too bad everyone is too busy taunting one another and trying to carry out their own hopes to hear the gracious Word of God in Jesus Christ.

Word of God, Word of Life: From Mourning into Dancing

(I Kings 17:8-24; Psalm 30:11; Luke 7:11-17)

Have you, or are you now, experiencing a season in life when you feel like the wind has been knocked-out-of-you? Times when Murphy’s Law seems to weigh-down-on you like a ton of bricks: grieving a loss, a sadness which you just can’t seem to shake, or a long stretch of disappointment or illness that just flattens your body ‘n soul? And do you find yourself asking: “Why is this happening to me?!” Or perhaps – to get theological – “Is God punishing me for something I’ve done … to deserve this?!” Or “What can I do to get out from under all this?”

Our Old Testament text for this coming Sunday is the classic story of “The Widow of Zarephath” (I Kings 17: 8-24) – one with whom, to some degree, we can all relate. First, she loses her husband. Now, widowed without any social security system or family to lean on, she just tries to get by – she and her little boy. But then death seems to stalk her down again, as a devastating drought and famine strikes the land. She goes to gather “a couple of sticks” (v. 12b) to prepare her last bit of food. One might call it a “last supper” for her and her young son.

And then this crazy ol’ bearded character, Elijah comes into her life … “man of God” he calls himself (v.18). Don’t worry about food,” he says. “God will take care of you.” And so she tries to scare-him-off (better yet, “gross-him-out”) by having the dogs lick the plates after dinner; but Elijah just smiles – looking for-all-the-world to have something in his mouth.

He moves into her little apartment upstairs. And behold, the food never runs out (v.16). It was so good to have this man around the house that she even starts wearing her favorite dress again, with matching hat and kerchief. However, her little boy grows ill and dies. “But I thought I had God living right upstairs?!” Hmm? … Biting down hard on her handkerchief (see the excoriated face of Picasso’s evocative “Weeping Woman”), she goes native and asks Elijah, with tears just pouring down her face: “Is God punishing me? ‘Man of God,’ why did you do this to me? Did you come here to remind God of my sins and so cause my son’s death?” (v.18).

This was the retributive theology of her day. And yet, deep down … if we’re really honest with ourselves … it’s the QED, quid pro quo thinking of every generation; that is, if something bad happens, God must be punishing us. Right? … Join us this Sunday, for the rest of the story and “hear for yourself” what is meant when the good widow says to Elijah: “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the Word of the LORD in your mouth is truth” (v.24). And Elijah smiled once more – looking for-all-the-world (cf. John 3:16-17) to have something in his mouth. What might this have to do with/for you?

dr. j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor 

The Challenge in Jesus

Consider the following famous Christian quotes:

“Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.” – Billy Sunday

“Be careful how you live. You may be the only Bible some person ever reads.”
– William J. Toms

Have you ever encountered quotes like these and nodded your head in agreement? Then you might have more in common with the Pharisees than you think!

Now hold on there, dear reader! Don’t “x” out on me just yet! I know that referring to most of this reading audience as, essentially, “a bunch of Pharisees” is a risky strategy. But I read an article this week, written by O. Wesley Allen Jr. for the website workingpreacher.org, that really challenges our understanding of these religious leaders who so often found themselves at odds with Jesus throughout the Gospels. Professor Allen helps us understand that the Pharisees might not be so different from you and me after all. He writes:

(One could say that) Pharisees were the liberal, mainline Protestants of first century Judaism. While other Jewish sects claimed the people needed the priesthood and the temple to mediate between them and God, the Pharisees democratized religious experience.

Often described by Christian preachers as jot and tittles of rules and regulations of religious observance, the Pharisees offered to people modes and means of devotional practice that could be followed anywhere by anyone without direct oversight or mediation by religious leaders (clergy). This means that we can assume the challenges which the Gospel writers present them as having to Jesus’ actions are sincere concerns about the welfare of the people and the shared ritual practices available to them.

In this Sunday’s gospel passage (Luke 6:1-11), we will observe Jesus clashing with the Pharisees once again, this time over the observance of the Sabbath. Set aside as a holy day of rest, the Pharisees were deeply concerned with what was permitted on this day, in the interest of living righteously and staying closely connected to God. First, they engage in a minor tussle with him over the activity of plucking grain with his hungry disciples. His parting words to them must have sent a chill up their collective spine: “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Surely, they thought, he could not be referring to himself? Consider how this claim of ultimate authority clashes with Pharisees’ noble, even Reformation-like idea of a “democratized religious experience.”

On another sabbath, Jesus was teaching in the temple in the presence of the Pharisees, and in the midst of the congregation there was a man with a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him…ready to make an accusation against him if the situation escalated. Jesus asks them: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” And with the simple act of Jesus speaking to him (speaking, of course, was not forbidden on the sabbath), the man’s hand was miraculously restored.

Why were the Pharisees so full of fury after this encounter? Perhaps fury is experienced when a religious system, like the one the Pharisees had so carefully and thoughtfully crafted, begins crumbling down. A “democratized religious experience” like the one they knew faces an insurmountable challenge in Jesus Christ. This radical preacher, whose teaching and healing powers are unmatched, is a very real threat to their life of faith. He claims for himself the authority to forgive sins, sees himself as “above the law” in encounters such as these, and continually surrounds himself with sinners whose disregard for the law is brazen and alarming.

Does the Son of God still threaten our carefully crafted religious beliefs today, with his claims to authority, and his insistence that we live by his forgiveness and grace instead of our merits and accomplishments? What does life look like when we give up the struggle of trying to live by our own righteousness and rest in his graceful lordship instead? These are the questions I am considering as I prepare the sermon for this coming weekend. But I think that life lived in him looks something like this: a blessed rest in the peace of faith, a restoration to abundant life….a sabbath beyond compare.

Pastor Katherine

(Photo courtesy of www.lds.org)

An Offer We Can't Refuse

Sometimes remarkable things come to light in the most unlikely of circumstances. Simon provides his fishing boat for Jesus to sit in as he teaches the crowd gathered at the shore. Afterward Jesus directs him to deeper water to fish. As a professional fisherman, Simon obeys only out of respect for Jesus, pointing out their complete futility the night before. But when Simon’s net begins to break from the sheer weight of the fish, and he must signal his partners to help with the haul before his boat sinks, he recognizes more than a miracle. Overwhelmed, it is not the enormous catch itself that brings Simon to his knees, but the One in whose Presence he suddenly recognizes. Fearful awe and the awareness of personal sin are human reactions to the Holy breaking through in glory. Often a call to obedience follows, this one – to fish for people – one of the most consequential invitations in human history. Everything will change for Simon in his leaving the boats to follow Jesus! Is the invitation of Jesus not an offer we can’t refuse?

Growing Pains: A Reflection on the weekend’s Scripture Texts

Growing Pains: A Reflection on the weekend’s Scripture Texts
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 4:21-30

Our Scripture texts for today remind us of a well-beloved Sunday School song from days of yore. Recall the song with me:

Children's choir

“It’s about love, love, love (re-Pete)
Cuz God loves us we love each other:
Father, Mother, Sister, Brother.
Everybody sing and shout!
Cuz that’s what it’s all about.”

 This “all about” word, that’s at the very heart of God (I John 4:7-12) calling the young prophet, Jeremiah out of his comfort zone to proclaim God’s Word “to all the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5,10). Further, this “all about” word, that is at the heart of every human longing, is re-emphasized, even re-defined by Jesus in our gospel text today, such that people begin to see cross-eyed (Luke 4:28). So, how is God’s Word causing us, in this “season of surprise” (in the light of Epiphany) to be stretched-out: from LUV to LOVE? What are some of the “growing pains” that we’re experiencing as the body of Christ – among the family of First Lutheran Church? Will we play it safe and simply sing the old “repeat,” or will we risk some new verses? I think it’s more than just a coincidence that the picture of the Carol Choir pictured here has some empty risers? These are special places, just waiting with joy, to be filled with more … “sisters and brothers” in Christ. “Cuz” … in Jesus’ teaching for us, we are called with all of our growing pains to reach-out in ministry and mission beyond the simple boundaries of 12th Street and Dakota … “Cuz, that’s what it’s all about.” AMEN?!

j.r. christopherson

Baptized for us

DSC_6117_baptism.jpg

At Jesus’ baptism the confusion between John and Jesus comes to an end as John says plainly that one more powerful than himself is coming, and at the baptism the voice from heaven declares Jesus as God’s beloved Son. Until this moment the people had been coming to John for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, but now John will fade into the background as Jesus’ ministry begins. It is critical to realize that Jesus was baptized for us, not for himself. He was baptized in order to take our sin to himself, not to be cleansed from his own sin. This is a very critical move, for John could only tell people to act better according to the law, that is to repent and start doing the right deeds of justice. Jesus, by contrast, will forgive sinners. Instead of John's call to repent in order to be forgiven, Jesus will give forgiveness that produces repentance and new life in the gospel. 

A Nunc Dimittis For The New Year

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel. … And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, [Simeon] took [the child] up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for my eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.’” (Luke 2:25, 26-32; emphasis added)

As we experienced the wondrous message of Christmas this past week … the presence of the Messiah is a mystery. It cannot be said by everyone, and it cannot be seen by everyone, but only by those like Simeon in our gospel reading, who have heard God’s Word of promise and look with eyes that are guided by the Holy Spirit (Luke 2:24d, 27a). And so for us, come Sunday … the first day of the New Year 2017 … there is a renewed call by God to “behold,” to “listen” for his Holy Word that still comes to us – together with a splashing of water at baptism and the bread ‘n wine where Christ promises to be truly present (cf. R. Jenson’s Visible Words). Yes, there’s something surprising, something quite unexpected about the appearance of salvation; something that contradicts pious opinions and intellectual demands (I Corinthians 1:21-23).

As the wise old theologian of the 20th century, Paul Tillich cradles it: “The mystery of salvation is the mystery of a child” (The New Being, p.95). So it was anticipated by the Old Testament prophets (e.g. Isaiah 7:14; 9:6; 11:6) … the “wise men from the east” (Matthew 2:1-2) … as well as those beloved advent figures who set-the-stage-in-waiting for the “good news” of the gospel (Mark 1:1): Zechariah ‘n Elizabeth, Mary, and Simeon (Luke 1:5-25; 26-56; 2:22-35). They all believed, as did the early Christians, that the event of salvation is the birth of a child. For a child is real and not yet real, it is in history and not yet historical – its little hands have not yet matured into full reach. A child’s nature is visible and invisible; it is here and not yet fully here. The New Testament is clear in stating that the Kingdom of God is at hand in the person of Jesus; yet, this kingdom is still coming about, in secret mystery, till the time of fulfillment when he returns. This experience of waiting – of “not having but also having” … of “now and not yet” (John 4:23) … is the character of salvation. Salvation has the nature of a child.

And so we wait … we wait in the Spirit of God’s promise in this Christmas Season ‘n beyond … with Zechariah and Elizabeth, with Mary, and with Simeon … and all the “waiting witnesses” of faith … those who trust that the seed of salvation has already been planted, like a seed growing deep in the womb of God’s world and in us …

Yes, salvation has the nature of a child … and when it grows-up is crucified and raised. Only the person who has eyes of faith to see power under weakness, glory under suffering, life under death (cf. Martin Luther’s “theology of the cross”) … can hold out one’s hands with Simeon, as in Rembrandt’s painting that you see attached here … and behold a little child, a little bread ‘n wine, and confess Simeon’s nunc dimittis: “Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace according to your Holy Word … For mine eyes have seen thy salvation” (Luke 2:29-30). 

A blessed New Year to you and your kin …                
Dr. John Christopherson
Senior Pastor

The Greatest Gift of All: God's Presence

“For to you is born this day … a Savior”

And the angel said to the shepherds: “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Now, here’s the heart of the Gospel, the very core of the Christmas message: “For to you …”

God does not come to us in the leisure distance of some text or phone call: “Hey, how ya’ doin?” Nor does God come to us with an inscribed card from some tropical island that reads: “Wish you were here” … or better yet, “Merry Christmas.” (What? Moving on …) Rather, God gives of God’s very self, to you, to me – we uncertain poor shepherds still out in the wiles of this early 21st century – tending our loneliness, our hurts, our needs, by night – and makes us his own – Emmanuel (“God with us”). God comes into the fear and loneliness of our little darkened rooms and says: “Don’t be afraid. I’m here with you, for you, for always …” (cf. Psalm 23:4). And what great “comfort and joy” is here! You’re not alone. I’m not alone. For God promises to always be with us. “And ALL the people were to be enrolled” (Luke 2:1).

Follow me on this … The baby Jesus couldn’t get into the Ramkota or Hilton, not even the HOLIDAY inn. “And there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7c). This allusion comes from the prophet, Jeremiah who says: “Who am I? am I just a traveler on this land who stays at an inn?” My friends, Jesus can’t get into an inn because he’s not some traveler. He’s going no where. He has to be born on earth because he’s not going to pack-up and leave. This is a permanent presence – “God deep in the flesh” (Martin Luther) – in person – con carne – for our human condition. There will be no walking out of the covenant. There will be no abandonment. This is not some tourist. This is one who’s born on earth.

The Christ Child cannot be born in an inn, because the only people who stay in inns are people who move out. They stay a night and then they leave. Rather … as we sing the beloved Christmas hymn, “What Child Is This?” … the refrain bears witness: “This, this is Christ the Lord …” who does not leave. And you have God’s personal Word on it – marked by the Cross and sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit. “This is my body given for you.”  “This is my blood shed for you” (cf. John 15:13). There’s an amazing physicality here. A presence of fleshy vulnerability, wrapped in swaddling cloths. As the medieval mystic, Oetinger would remind us: “Corporeality is the end of the ways of God” (see Paul Tillich’s, A History of Christian Thought, p.262).

I will always remember a university student sharing a very “touching” childhood remembrance with me – one that involved her traveling to Disneyland. As her family was driving on the return to her home state of Montana, her mother posed this question to her: “Honey, what part of the trip did you like the best?” Her unhesitating response: “That Daddy and you could be with me, the whole time.”

Friends and family: Listen. Listen. Personal, physical presence, is the very, very best gift that we can be given. By God for us. And by us for one another, in Jesus’ name. As the Dutch theologian, Eduard Schillebeeckx has observed: “People are the words by which God continues to tell his story of salvation” (Church, p.xiii). Don’t forget this truth; especially when you’re “out there” running around, frazzled, wondering what to buy a loved one for Christmas. Share the comforting word of Christ. Share something of your very presence. Such is the understanding that inspired the Psalmist to write: “In thy presence is fullness of joy!” (Psalm 16:11). Merry Christ-mass!

Dr. John Christopherson
Senior Pastor

Mary: The Theotokos ("Bearer of God")

One of the most beautiful and beloved stories of God's coming to dwell in our lives ...  as his children, his chosen ones ... sings right-up-off the page of our Gospel text for today.  It tells of the fullness of time when the kingdom of God begins to break in upon our advent darkness - of watching 'n waiting, of singing 'n beholding. Of a new beginning when a young girl, named Mary says "Amen" to God's angelic Announcement"  ... So, why do we love this story so much?  Perhaps it's because in this story, we're able to hear how it is that we too are loved unconditionally by God's favor.  Or, that we, like Mary - a common peasant girl - are given the courage to say "Yes" to the very best gift of all: God's coming to dwell with us, in us, and through us ... in the great joy of being able to bear/share the good news of Christ's birth.  "Glory to God in the highest ... AND ... on earth, peace among all people, with whom God is well pleased" (Luke 2:14).

Meister Eckhart, the medieval mystic - a favorite of Martin Luther - once penned these very provocative words, words that connect the Gospel Word with our lives this day.  Listen in carefully ... "[With Mary] we are all meant to be 'bearers of God's word' (theotokoi) ... [For] what good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and place?  This, then, is the fullness of time. Wen the Son of God is begotten in and through us."

                                          j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

Thoughts on Isaiah 61

As the Babylonian exile of God’s people ends and their hope of returning to the promised land begins to be realized, the word of God through the prophet Isaiah promises hope, joy, freedom to the captives and restoration of life. But just what did that mean? What does it look like? When the messiah comes to bring these great gifts will it finally be a time for Israel to be restored to glory? Will they finally get all that their hearts desire and all the power, riches, and honor they deserve? With the Spirit of the Lord upon the messiah will there be any stopping them? Imagine the disappointment that awaited when Jesus Christ showed up as messiah. Instead of elevating Israel with power and riches, he proclaimed the kingdom of God’s forgiveness and mercy, so that all that Isaiah had spoken had to be rethought. Really, however, the gifts of God in Christ - forgiveness, life, salvation - are priceless and beyond all worldly value so that they are far more precious than power and wealth. These gifts cannot be bought, but can only be given in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Thoughts for the Second Sunday of Advent

First Lutheran Church, Under North Balcony

First Lutheran Church, Under North Balcony

Advent is an expectant time, awaiting the coming of the Lord. The prophet Joel preaches God’s Word promising that even in the darkest days when doubts arise about God’s mercy and steadfast love, there is yet time to return to the Lord. In fact, the darkness and difficulty that one faces is exactly the right time to know God - not only in weeping and mourning and outward expressions, but deeply, inwardly in the heart. That is finally where the day of the Lord occurs, where God’s gracious, steadfast love and mercy comes to each one. Until God has captured the heart, while possibilities and hopes exist without God, the day of the Lord will be terribly frightening. However, return even now to God, who will pour out his Spirit upon sons and daughters, to prophesy and preach the good and gracious message of coming day of the Lord.

Pastor Lars Olson

This Weekend in Worship

    Daniel in the Lions' Den, Rembrandt, about 1649

    Daniel in the Lions' Den, Rembrandt, about 1649

The Church’s Call to Truth in a Den of Lions
First Sunday of Advent

Daniel 6:6-27; Matthew 10:26-33

Our Old Testament text for this coming weekend, from Daniel 6:6-27 (the famous story of “Daniel in the Lions’ Den”), is what biblical scholars refer to as “apocalyptic literature.” It speaks of end times, whether the end of all earthly empires or the very earth itself (cf. Daniel 3:8-30; Matthew 24:1-44; Revelation 18). The book of Daniel as a whole challenges us with a “wake-up call” … to attend to all the false gods and vain authorities who strut and fret, but actually, in the end … will signify nothing (Shakespeare).

This text from Daniel, comes together for this first week of Advent, with Jesus’ Word of reassurance in Matthew 10:26-33; that despite persecution of those who trust and give allegiance to God alone – “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” and the God of "our crucified yet risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ" – will be saved. You who march to a different drummer than those of Rome’s Caesars, of Hitler’s Third Reich, or even the Neo-Nazis in the news this past week (with their goose-stepping “Heil!”) … be not afraid. Continue as the church to proclaim the Lordship of Christ the King, love one another, share the gospel in word and deed. As Jesus reassures us once more in St. John’s gospel: “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Yes … each of us confronts the world with all of it possibilities of gain and loss. Risk and anxiety attend our every move. Therefore, the crucial question facing all of us – in every moment – in every time and generation – is the matter of trust. What or who can we finally trust? What is our foundation for hope in the midst of “wars and rumors of wars” (Matthew 24:6)? This is the question of all existence. It is this question which gives all of life its religious dimension. In the face of such risk and insecurity we place our trust here and now there. We are tempted to place our trust in the ways of ourselves and the world – of materialism, nationalism, nuclear build-up, some political party or messiah figure who promises to “save the day.”

Yet, again and again we discover our trust betrayed. Is there anything, anyone finally trustworthy ...  that from which we are given a foundation for hope – even in the darkest of times? To seek what is fundamentally and finally trustworthy is to come before Christ’s cross that points us toward a future … one which, as with Daniel and Jesus’ disciples of every age … has the power to reveal strength even in the midst of weakness, hope even in the midst of hopelessness, and life even in the midst of death … of a cave (note the revelation even to ol’ King Darius in Rembrandt’s sketch depicting “Daniel in the Lions’ Den”), a tomb that stands empty (read Matthew 27:62 – 28:10) … because God’s truth will always overcome any and all “lion” (lyin').

                                                                                                            dr. j.r. christopherson

Jehoia-who?

Jehoia-who?
By Pastor Katherine Olson

This weekend’s reading from Jeremiah (36:1-8, 21-23, 27-28) describes the prophet’s clash with a disobedient king named Jehoiakim.  When I first learned of the Scripture passage appointed for this weekend, my first thought was “Jehoia-who?”  Most of you probably share my reaction – so for those of you who might like a refresher on ancient kings of Judah, read on.

At the Lord’s command, Jeremiah had his scribe Baruch write down the content of his prophetic preaching on a scroll, and then ordered him to take that scroll into the temple for a public reading (since Jeremiah was no longer welcome inside).  Baruch carried out his duties, the scroll was read in the hearing of the people, and then the king’s cabinet members decided that Jehoiakim ought to also hear the words that called the wayward nation to repentance and posited a challenge to the status quo.

The scene then shifts to a chamber inside the palace walls – the king cozies up next to a fire in his luxurious winter apartment and hears the words which threaten his job security.  As his servant read the scroll aloud, the king ripped shreds of the scroll off with a penknife and tossed each word, column by column, into the blazing fire. 

Professor Roger Nam observes: “King Jehoiakim’s response, though deplorable, is not surprising in that the destruction of prophetic words is natural for a ruler who is both paranoid and massively self absorbed….(but) instead of eliminating the word of God, Jeremiah 36 shows that it is more powerful and lasting than the actions of a narcissistic king.  The words of Jeremiah continue to find power two millennia later.  King Jehoiakim is merely a footnote as a disobedient king.” Jehoia-who indeed!

Upon reading Nam’s observation about Jehoiakim’s “paranoid, massively self-absorbed, narcissistic, and disobedient” temperament, I smirked: “Gee, we wouldn’t have any political leaders like that in our world today, would we?”  Yes, like many citizens in our country I’m still smarting from the events of a bitter political season.  But my sense of smug contempt was soon tempered by another thought: “There’s a little king (queen?) that exists within my own heart…I  possess all those same qualities too.”  

 I’m still working on my sermon for this weekend, but if you come to church, you’ll hear something like this: in Jesus Christ, we have an entirely different King, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  (Philippians 2:6-8)  Exalted by the Father, he has also promised the riches of his kingdom to poor sinners like the criminal hanging on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), sinners like you and me. 

Let us pray.  King Jesus, obliterate the disobedience, sin, and selfishness that exists in our hearts by the fire of your Holy Spirit.  Remember us in your kingdom, which, unlike all earthly powers, shall reign forever and ever.  Amen.

A Reflection for Sunday

“And I heard the voice of the LORD saying, ‘Whom shall I send,
and who will go for us?’  Then I said, ‘Here am I!  Send me.’” (Isaiah 6:8)

At the heart of our Old Testament reading for the worship services this weekend, is the calling of the prophet Isaiah.  To be called by God, to proclaim his Word for the sake of others, is the whole matter of Vocation.  Too often in the history of the church, this vocational matter of proclaiming or serving God’s Word has been understood as something only pastors or clergy do.  Not so.  For God uses each and every one of us … with each of our unique gifts and talents, no matter how great or small … in each of our respective occupations/stations in life … to serve as instruments of God’s forgiving mercy and grace … for the sake of others and God’s kingdom come.  This is what Martin Luther calls the “priesthood of all believers” that begins in our baptism (cf. Luther’s Works 36: 113).  One of my all-time favorite definitions of Vocation comes from the wise and wily Frederick Buechner, former professor of Yale Divinity School and well-beloved Christian author-preacher.  Listen-in …

VOCATION.  It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a person is called to by God.

There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest.

By and large a good rule for finding out is this.  The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do, and (b) that the world most needs to have done.  If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b).  On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only by-passed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either. 

[And here’s my favorite part (!) …]  Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do.  The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  (Fred Buechner; Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC pp.94-95)

 j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor­­­

For All The Saints

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“Saints: God’s Peculiar Treasures”

Jonah 1:1-2:2, 10; 3:1-5, 10 And Matthew 12:38-42
All Saints Sunday

 Our Old Testament lesson for this coming weekend is an amazing story about a reluctant and cynical saint (“Did I say saint?!”), called by God to be a prophet … (“Ah, that’s where the sainthood comes from.”).  His name is Jonah.  You remember: the guy who was swallowed by a whale? … His fire ‘n brimstone sermon, the shortest in the Bible (Jonah 3:4b), perhaps “burns” Jonah even more than the folks whom God calls to repentance. The aforementioned folks are the dreaded terrorists of Jonah’s time: the Ninevites. One of Jonah’s fellow prophets describes the their Assyrian Empire as “bloody … all full of lies and booty – no end to their plunder” (Nahum 3:1).  HOWEVER, upon hearing God’s Word through the prophet, Jonah … they immediately repent in “sack cloth and ashes” … all the way until the very cows “came home”! (Jonah 3:5-9). 

If you listen carefully, you’ll come to hear that the book of Jonah is a humorous sort of story, and the joke seems to be on those who think that God’s love and grace are reserved only for the chosen people of God.  (As you heard the rebuttal last Sunday: “But hey! We’re descendants of Abraham after all.” John 8:33)   It’s a story that suggests that God is One and that the One God is God also of those whom “we” – the church – often exclude by our definitions of who’s “in” and who’s “out” with God.  Anyone looking at their navels yet? How peculiar are we, those baptized into Christ, looking for-all-the-world to be a bunch of self-centered misfits; yet called by God to be his earthen vessels (some of us more cracked than others!) that carry his Word of peace and hope for the world.  Peculiar treasures, we saints. 

But then again, as we hear the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday … we realize that what is defining is the treasure we carry (see II Corinthians 4:7). “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, [going back full circle to our Old Testament reading] “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:38-39). In a world, as the famous song lyric of the 60s observes, full of the sensational …“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign” … what is this sign that Jesus is referring to?                                                                                                                         (j.r. christopherson)

MARTIN LUTHER: GOD’S MAESTRO OF THE GRACE NOTE

(A Precis for Reformation Sunday 2016)

Martin Luther (1483-1546) is in relation to the Reformation (which we celebrate this weekend) much like the opening notes of some great symphony – say Beethoven’s “Fifth” – which states the theme, is then taken up by other instruments, and is finally absorbed into the developing pattern of music.  The incredible soul searching and trials of this man – most often solitary, but never alone – affected a renewal, a re-formation for the whole orchestration of the Catholic Church of his time (“ … and still is ours today.”)

 Luther stepped onto the stage of human history on account of an idea.  That idea convinced him that the church of his day had misunderstood the Gospel; that is, the “good news” of God by grace alone, through faith alone, in the person of Christ and his cross alone … the essence of Christianity. It was therefore necessary to recall the church to fidelity, to reform initially its theology and subsequently its practices.  This idea is summarized in a singular phrase: “Justification by grace through faith.”  In his famous treatise of 1520, The Freedom of the Christian, Luther states: “One thing, and one thing alone is necessary for Christian life, righteousness and liberty.  And that one thing is the Word of God – the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

From his own experiences of trying to live a righteous life – pure and holy before God – as an Augustinian monk, Luther realized that trying to “earn” God’s love and salvation was impossible.  “For however irreproachable I lived as a monk,” wrote Luther, “I felt myself in the presence of God to be a sinner with a most disturbed conscience.”  Luther’s troubles centered in one word, justitia – the “righteousness” or “justice” of God – as Luther studied St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, especially Romans1:17: “For in the Gospel the righteousness/justice of God is revealed.” 

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Initially, Luther understood this sense of justice in an “active” sense; that is, as something humanity had to earn by certain “good works.”  If this were true, Luther could see only despair.  But then, as he prayed and read further in the book of Romans, in Romans 3:21-26 … God’s Spirit turned Luther’s interpretation upside down: from an “active” sense to one that is “passive” – with God as the Subject, not the Object.  Moreover, one might say, Holy Scripture began to interpret Luther.  God’s light of grace began to shine brightly upon Luther, as he witnessed later: “At last by the mercy of God, I began to understand the justice of God as that by which God makes us just in God’s mercy and through faith in Christ” – a holiness that is completely outside of ourselves (as an “alien righteousness”).  God’s saving Word, comes home to us in Christ, and continues so this day through the Church (that’s you and me) … proclaiming Christ for a world that is dying to hear such a radical grace-filled and saving word (cf. Romans 10:14-17; Ephesians 3:7-12).

The importance of this discovery is not that it was new, but that it was new for Luther.  What he saw in the Bible … with spirited fresh eyes … he was able to teach others so that the doctrine of justification by grace had a new and central importance – serving as a safeguard against an over-reliance on human achievement or rituals.  Keeping humanity always humble before Christ’s cross.  And so it was that Luther “went to the wall” – with everything that was in him and more – in nailing his now famous 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church doors on October 31, 1517 … now nearing a 500th anniversary.  In this re-forming/revolutionary act, Luther was protesting a human scheme (“the indulgence controversy”) that would tempt people into believing that they could, in any way, “buy-God-off” (cf. Romans 3:19-28; 5:8; 7:15-25a).  For essentially, this would make the cross of Christ superfluous or unnecessary.  It was on this belief, based on Holy Scripture and reason, that Luther faced a papal inquisition at the Diet of Worms in 1521, stating his now famous conviction: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise.  God help me.” 

By the end of the 1520s it was plain that the great solo instrument was being absorbed into the great symphony.  Another reformation tradition was beginning to emerge in the cities of Switzerland and south Germany, raising-up its own leaders in Zwingli and Calvin.  The possibility of a vast Protestant front was ended at this time at Marburg in 1520 when Luther and Zwingli could not come to an agreement over the interpretation of the Lord’s Supper.  For Luther it meant the “real presence” of Christ.  For Zwingli it was to be interpreted as a symbol – a “memorial.”  Nonetheless, the Word went forth conquering.  There was Luther’s translation of the German Bible, open at last to a growing literate audience of all classes – the “priesthood of all believers.”  There was Luther’s own powerful evangelical preaching and writing.  There were new forms of Christian instruction, like Luther’s beautiful children’s catechism (The Small Catechism) from which simplicity he said his prayers to the end of his days.  His people of Germany, and those who call themselves Lutherans, learned to pray his German liturgy, and to sing his fine hymns, one which we sing today, the great hymn: A Mighty Fortress.  It captures well Luther’s reforming theme in its verse: “Thy Word is our great heritage.” And this reforming Word still continues (semper reformanda). 

What do they know of Luther who only Luther know?  By 1525 and still more by his death in 1546, Luther was but one element, one note, in the Reformation symphony.  In comparison with the great tides of history, even the giants are but dwarfs.  Yet there are moments in world history, sometimes creative, sometimes destructive, or like the Reformation of Luther’s time, a bit of both, when it seems to matter that there are people who speak out in order to keep faith with their conscience – as informed by Holy Scripture – and who in a dangerous hour stand firm because, God helping them, they cannot do otherwise.

Dr. John Christopherson

Thoughts for Sunday

David falls prey to the classic trap of being chosen by God. Though he knows that everything comes from God, the thought creeps in that everything ends with him. God took him from being a young, nobody shepherd, and made him king of Israel, and victorious over Israel’s enemies. While David doesn’t dispute any of this, yet now he gets it in his mind that he repay God. He decides to build God a house. A house of cedar to house the ark of the covenant. It may seem like a reasonable gesture, a thankful offering out of God abundance, but God sees something more. God will not allow David to do him any favor, so that David has something to boast about. Instead, God promises to do even more for David, something David could never do even for himself. God will establish an eternal kingdom that will not decay, rot, or rust; a kingdom where God is Father and the ruler is God’s Son.