Yet A Little While

Reflections on Pentecost Sunday

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Do you remember as a child (or even as an adult for that matter), when you stood at the front window … nose and hands pressed-up against the glass … your eyes straining, as you look far into the distance … standing there, waiting with deep longing … for a cherished parent or child, some beloved in your life … to return home?

In the middle chapters of St. John’s gospel, beginning around Chapter 13, the allegro (“quickly and bright”) tempo of Jesus’ three-year-ministry now moves to a pace that’s much more of an adagio (“slowly, with great expression”). Let me try to lay out this striking tempo change by having you listen to what New Testament scholars refer to as Jesus’ “farewell discourse” (John 14:1-17:26).    

 “Little children, yet a little while I am with you … Where I am you cannot come.” (John 13:33)

 “I will not leave you desolate; I will come again to you.  Yet a little while, and the world will no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also.” (John 14:18)

 “But when the Advocate [i.e. the Holy Spirit] comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father … he will bear witness to me; and you also are witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning (John 15:26-27) 

A little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me.” 
(John 16:16)

In these chapters, that include our gospel text for this Sunday (John 15:27-28; 16:4b-24), Jesus tells his disciples everything they need to know before he leaves them.  But where’s he going? … Well, he’s going to die on a cross for one thing.  Only that’s not how Jesus tells it. The way he tells it, he’s leaving them in charge while he’s gone.  Yes, he’ll be back; but in the meantime, his “To-Do-List” is so long it raises some anxiety in the disciples about how long he’ll be away.  “A little while,” Jesus reassures them, “and you will see me.” Well …  

Yes, a few of them did … later on … after his resurrection. But … then Jesus was gone again, as he ascended into heaven – bringing our humanity back into unity with God the Father for all eternity (cf. John 17). You see, a little while became a long while.  A long while became a life time.  Ten years turned into a hundred, then five hundred, then some two thousand.  And now, from where we sit today in 2018, it’s been so long … some of us wonder if we’ve not been “left behind” like some characters in a Tim LaHaye novel and orphaned after all.

My friends, is Jesus gone or isn’t he?  If he’s gone, then where has he gone? And “what in the world” will we do without him?! (Here’s that anxiety of the disciples I mentioned earlier.) But, if he’s not gone, then where is Jesus exactly?  Why doesn’t he show himself? Give us a sign!  Right? … This week at worship, as we celebrate the “birthday of the Church” called Pentecost, Jesus will do just that. Just for you!

In the meantime … God’s grace.

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

Beloved, Since God Has So Loved Us …

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“Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God,
and he who loves is born of God and knows God.
He who does not love does not know God;
for God is love.
In this the love of God was made manifest among us,
that God sent his only Son into the
world, so that we might live through him.
In this is love, not that we loved God but that
[God] loved us and sent
his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved
us,
we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, 
God abides in us and his loved is perfected in us.” (I John 4:7-12; RSV)

 The letter of I John reads like a Christian midrash (interpretation or commentary) upon the Gospel of St. John. What do I mean by this? Look with me for example at I John 4:9: “In this the love of God was manifest among us, that God has sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.” Sound familiar?! Yes! It’s John 3:16. Basically stated, I John 4 offers us ethical imperatives based on the theological indicatives of St. John’s Gospel. Look with me at all the ethical imperatives: “Beloved, let us love one another” (v.7, 11). “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (v. 15). “He [or she] who loves God should love [one’s] brother [or sister] also” (v.21). All of this because, why? … Look at the “heart of it all” in I John 4:16. For here’s the foundational, theological indicative: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (cf. also v.9-10)

So, the question prompted for us by our Gospel (i.e. John 15:1-8) and Epistle (i.e. I John 4:7-21) texts is this: “As Christ is the vine and we are the branches (John 15:5) … how can we use this fruit or these gifts of love that God has given us … to better care for and be with those people in our lives who are suffering … who are lonely … who are broken and grieving … who are dying?” That is, “How can we, even little ol’ us, be used by our Lord Jesus Christ to touch such lives with God’s love – to serve in Jesus’ image: ‘abiding branches’ (narly as we might be) to reach out from God’s first love, for us in Christ, into a 2nd … 3rd … 4th and 5th gift of love … for our neighbor?” Life changing gifts of Christ’s Spirit through simply Listening, Being Present, or Speaking a Word of Forgiveness or Affirmation.

“Beloved, since God so loved us, let us so love one another” (I John 4:11).

 I hope to see you this weekend at either the Saturday Vespers or Sunday morning …

John Christopherson
Senior Pastor

First Lutheran Church

The Sunnier Side of Doubt

 

“Now Thomas, one of the twelve [disciples], called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus [had first appeared to the other disciples after his resurrection]. So the other disciples told [Thomas]: ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But [Thomas] said to them, ‘Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:24-25; RSV)

 

Dear Friends in Christ: from the Gospel text for this coming Sunday (John 20:19-31), the Sunday now following Easter, and the hope we’ve been given in Christ’s resurrection … now comes the famous caricature of one of Jesus’ beloved disciples: Thomas. Oh, I know we’ve labeled him. Somewhere, in some sermon, someone laid down the label, “Doubting Thomas.” And the name stuck.// And to a degree, yea, it’s true. Thomas did harbor some serious doubt. However … it’s just that there’s a whole lot more here than “meets the eye” … (John 20:29-30; cf. II Corinthians 5:7 and Hebrews 11:1). 

At our Saturday night Vespers service (5:00 p.m. in Chapel), as well as our three services this Sunday (8:00; 9:30; and 11:00 p.m. in Main Sanctuary), I’d like for us to first, give careful pause and ponder what we really mean when we talk about “doubt” and how it relates to our Christian faith. And second: to gain a deeper understanding of the “good news” that comes to us on spirited wing in the hearing of the Gospel text from John 20; that is, how our risen Savior, Jesus the Christ enters anew into all the tightly closed places of our trembling and fear-filled hearts, speaking a word of Peace be with you (John 20:19, 26; cf. Psalm 119:35f; Hebrews 6:18f)

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We’ll also be drawing upon a large canvas “study” (by local Ethiopian artist, Eyab Mergia) of Caravaggio’s classic painting, “The Incredulity of Saints Thomas.” As you look at the small posting of it here, let me ask you: “In Carvaggio’s well-known technique of chiaroscuro (Italian meaning, “light-dark”) where in the subject matter of the painting does the light appear to be emanating from?” Moreover, “Is there something striking to you here, how Thomas’ finger is placed in Jesus’ wounded, yet resurrected body?” And finally, “Don’t you find it curious that Thomas’ eyes aren’t fixed on the place where his finger is touching Jesus’ wounded side … but rather, where?” Come and see!

 

“Eight days later [Jesus’ appeared again to the disciples, but this time Thomas is with them]… Then Jesus said to Thomas: ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.’ Thomas answered him,
‘My Lord and my God!’”
(John 20:26a, 27-28)

 

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

This is my body given for you

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“This is my body given for you”  
(Based on John 20:1-18)

“Where’s the body?” As though to emphasize the sheer physicality and centrality of Jesus’ resurrection, upon which the truth of the Christian faith is founded, St. John recapitulates this question three times in his Easter account (See John 20:2, 13, 15). It was just before dawn. A Sunday morning still misted by darkness … when outside the gates of Jerusalem, a heartbroken disciple of Jesus, named Mary Magdalene, entered a grave riddled garden in order to anoint Jesus’ crucified body with spices-n-oil, as was Jewish custom. But soon she’d be in for a surprise of a lifetime, and beyond …

Even though it was still dark, Mary could tell some-body had moved the large stone away from the front of Jesus’ tomb.  Had Jesus body been stolen or taken away?… His body was all she had left to hold onto and now it too was gone. “So Mary ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they’ve laid [his body]’” (John 20:2). A while later, Mary returns to Jesus’ tomb and encounters “two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain” (John 20:12). They are as compassionate as can be, asking: “Woman why are you weeping?” But, by this point, Mary must have been thinking: “Can’t SOME-BODY do something?”

And then, some-body does. The One whom Mary thinks is a gardener now asks the personal, incarnational, body-question: “For whom are you looking?” And then, this One who created the world with but a word, now brings salvation to Mary, by simply calling her name. Jesus says to her in Hebrew: ‘Mariam!’ And immediately recognizing the voice of her teacher (cf. John 10:3-4), Mary exclaims: ‘Rabboni!” In six short syllables, “Ma-ri-am” and “Rab-bo-ni” … and in just about that many seconds … the world became a different place, for Mary, for you, and for all people. Death, once final, has met its match and is un-done. There is a reality – SOME-BODY – more final than death. “This is my body,” says Jesus, “given for you” (I Corinthians 11:24).

This coming Easter Sunday, we’ll give special focus to the incarnational, fleshy sensibilities of Jesus’ resurrection; especially for our time that has sought to rationalize it as a myth, or psychologize it as a projection of guilt consciousness, or deconstruct it as merely a metaphor.  The 20th century American poet, John Updike offers us a marvelous entrée in his “Seven Stanzas At Easter.” And so, in the meantime, let me ask you: “Where in the world is Christ’s body today? And how is it ‘at hand’ … or connect, making a difference, for you?”

The Word is out! And yes, it’s for you, always …!

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death,
so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk
in newness of life. For if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we shall
certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:3-5; RSV)

Big Death, Little Death

In this weekend’s Gospel reading (John 12:20-33), Jesus makes it clear that it is only through his death and resurrection that the Father’s name will truly be glorified (v. 28), the ruler of this world will be driven out (v. 31), and he will draw all people to himself (v. 32). Jesus’ hour has now come, and he will indeed endure to the end, in order for this salvation to be accomplished. The fact that Jesus’ soul was troubled in the face of death (v. 27) is especially humbling. 

In the final weeks of my grandmother’s life, I asked her if she was afraid of dying. She said, “No. Yes. I’m not sure. It’s just that…I’ve never done it before!” Her honest response gave us a reason to hug and laugh during a difficult time. Of course our souls experience trouble in the face of death. We’ve never done it before. 

Or have we? The Apostle Paul invites us to think of it this way: because Christ has died for us, all have died already (2 Cor 5:14). In baptism, we are joined to Christ, united to him in his death – in this way Christ’s death becomes truly for us. What’s more, in baptism we are also joined to Christ’s resurrection – in this way, his new life becomes truly ours. 

 Baptism of William Van Demark

Baptism of William Van Demark

Christians can then regard baptism as their “big death.” As Paul remarks in Romans 6, a person who has already died cannot die again. Our old self has been buried with him in the waters of baptism. But the grave was not the end of Jesus’ story, nor will it be ours. Through his death and resurrection, Christ shattered the power that the “little death” of this life holds over us. 

Our eternal future is thoroughly wrapped up in his – a comforting and overwhelming thought as we come ever closer to the end of the Lenten season and approach the cross, where the magnitude of Jesus’ sacrifice comes into full view. Let us draw near to the word through worship, listen, and give thanks and praise.

See you in church,
Pastor Katherine

For God so loved the world

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This weekend we hear the most beloved verse of the New Testament. John 3:16 is displayed in the end-zone of football games, stuck on car bumpers and billboards across the nation, and is so well known that you barely even need to say more than "John 3:16." What could be better than to hear that God loves the world?

Well, for all of its familiarity and common use as the gospel in a nutshell, this scripture raises some very uncommon questions. What God's love entail? Is he like a kind old dog who loves his master without question? Is God's love a kind of grace that overlooks your faults and accepts you because you are trying to be your authentic self? Something about God's love is that he "gave his only son." That doesn't sound like love. And then if you go beyond to John 3:17-22, we hear all kinds of talk about judgement, condemnation, and evil. Somehow God's love is for a world that has rejected him and rebelled against him. What does love look like then?

You will have to join the community of First Lutheran this weekend to hear what it means that God loves the world, and you, with more than kind fondness. 

Pastor Lars

The Physics of Faith

“The Passover of the Jews was at hand [think Passover meal, with the lamb without blemish in Exodus 12:1-20], and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the Temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons and the money-changers at their business. And making a whip of cords [Jesus] drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the Temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’ … ‘Destroy this Temple [they did not understand Jesus was speaking of his own body], and in three days I will raise it up’” (John 2:14-16, 19; emphasis added).

In the Gospel text for this coming weekend (John 2:13-22), we come to see how the “sacrificial system” of the Old Testament, as a way of relating to God, comes to an end. God is no longer available primarily, let alone exclusively, via the Temple. Rather, as St. John makes clear from the very opening verses of his gospel witness, that in the very person of Jesus we are invited to experience God’s “grace upon grace” (John 1:17) through our faith in him. 

Given that St. John’s gospel was written well after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans (70 A.D.), his insistence … and especially reassurance … to the early Christian community, that they will find God’s mercy in Christ outside rather than inside the Temple, makes practical as well as theological sense. So it is for us today. 

Many of us too often think of church as a destination. It’s a place we go to receive … well, spiritual things. (For example: What do you think of? God’s Word of the forgiveness of sins?  God’s Word of hope? Receiving baptism or communion?). But taking a cue from our Gospel text for this weekend (and every day!) I wonder if we’re only seeing part of the picture of the life of worship as well as faith. Worship is a the heart of the Christian faith, it’s foundational, make no mistake; however it’s also a time and place where God then sends us out into the world to bear the good news of salvation that’s been so graciously given to us in the ultimate sacrifice – once and for all in Christ Jesus, by his cross and resurrection (cf. Romans 6:10; Hebrews 10:10; I Peter 3:8).

 C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, c. 1950-56

C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, c. 1950-56

One way to illustrate this truth is by drawing upon the third book in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia – where the beloved lion, Aslan, tells the children that even after they leave the land of Narnia, they will continue to see him in the needs of others. This is key to what Jesus is teaching us still today, in our text from John 2:13-22: that we come to church, to worship, because in the proclamation of the Gospel and sharing of the sacraments we see God’s forgiveness and grace for us most clearly. But then … we are sent out to look for God and, even more, to partner with God in our various vocations or jobs (cf. Philippians 1:5; Ephesians 3:10) – to bless the people and the world that “God so loves that he even gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16) that we might have “life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).  Worship and witness, these are the centripetal and centrifugal movements (remember your middle school science class?) of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, what we might call the “physics of faith.”

God’s grace to you this day, and throughout the new week. See you at worship … and … then “Go in peace and serve the Lord.”

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor   

Leaning Into the Promise of God’s Word

 Watanabe, Sadao, Christ Carrying the Cross, 1968.

Watanabe, Sadao, Christ Carrying the Cross, 1968.

Each of us confronts the world with all of its 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 “shootings and rumors of shootings”(such as the recent mass murder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida). This is the question of 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 … tempted to place our trust in the ways of our own human construction and the world – of materialism, nationalism, weapons build-up, some political party or messiah figure who promises to “save the day.” But then, ashes … ashes … it all falls down.

Join us this weekend in worship, as we hear the story of Abraham and Sarah’s tested journey of faith (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-18), a story that is spirited across the generations to Jesus pointing his disciples and us toward the shadows of a cross (Mark 8:31-38), as the biblical story becomes, once more, our story (Romans 4:23). How or why ought we to trust in the promise of God’s Word, when so many other words fail us? Cross your calendars.

j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

Cross, Not Glory

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Over the past few weeks people have noticed that our weekly blog post has been delivered by video. Sorry to disappoint our video fans this week. These kinds of changes don’t always transition smoothly.

This week in worship we celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord, where before the eyes of a few disciples Jesus changes, becomes dazzling white, and begins conversing with Moses and Elijah. The sight is awe inspiring and fear inducing. And rightly so. Unlike changes in our world that take time, planning and process, the transfiguration change on that mountain was immediate. The kingdom of God overlapping the kingdom of earth. Moses and Elijah step aside and Jesus his kingdom of mercy and grace take over.

Make no mistake, however. The kingdom of God is invading the world, but not with dazzling sights and never ending mountain top experiences. Jesus’ kingdom is established on the cross. It may not be the glory we hope for, but it is the kingdom that Jesus promises us. “Listen to him!”

Pastor Lars Olson

Our Life of Faith: Living Between Christ’s First and Second Healing Touch

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The Healing Touch (1987) by Tim Holmes. Commissioned by the Physicians
for Social Responsibility as their annual PSR Peace Award.

“And Simon and those who were with him pursued Jesus, [because he had gone out of the
fishing village of Capernaum early morning, to pray]. And they found him and said to him, 
Everyone is searching for you.’  And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Let us go on to the next towns,
that I may preach there also; for that is why I came out.’  And [Jesus] went throughout
all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and [healing the sick].”
(Mark 1:36-39; RSV)

To set the stage for this weekend’s sermon… St. Mark’s gospel begins with the Spirit of God descending upon Jesus like the enfolding wings of a dove (as the accompanying illustration tries to express) saying: “Thou art my beloved Son” (Mark 1:10-11).  And with these “touching words” of salvation, taking-up residence now in Jesus’ life (1:1), he moves forth to begin a ministry of teaching and healing, proclaiming: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand (1:15). 

Note the strong correlation between Jesus’ touch and the healing it brings to our oft’ frail, human condition. For Jesus touches a man possessed and he’s healed (1:21-28).  Then Jesus takes Simon’s bed-ridden mother-in-law by the hand and she’s healed (1:29-31).  But how is this true for us today?  How do we experience the healing touch, the coming of God’s kingdom that is “at hand” in Jesus?  As we live by faith, between Christ’s first (now some 2000 years ago) and second touch (when he ushers in the fullness of God’s kingdom at the end of time) … let’s consider three basic responses.

A first way in which we experience Jesus’ ongoing “healing touch” in our life today is through com-passion (meaning “suffering with”; cf. Galatians 6:2).  Paul Tournier, the Swiss psychiatrist observes: “In simply being present for the other person, in simple acceptance, comes healing – no matter how great the suffering” (The Healing of Persons). Isn’t this exactly what Jesus did?  Accepting people – breaking-in from the outside – reaching-out to them – no matter their condition?

But now, secondly, where can this strength of compassion come from when we’re so banged-up ourselves?! Jesus leads us to the well-spring for this strength and renewal, as he himself seeks out a quiet place in gospel text (Mark 1:35; also 6:46, 14:32) … to pray … to stay in touch with the One who “knows our every weakness” (cf. Hebrews 4:14-16), the One who is the source of all strength and life.  Yes, Christ’s “healing touch” is always there for us in prayerful solitude.  And so we, with the early disciples ask Jesus where his power comes from; yes, “teach us how to pray’ (Luke 11:1-4).

A third and concluding way in which we experience Christ’s ongoing “healing touch” is through his sacraments.  So … what is a sacrament?  It is a means of God’s grace through which Christ promises 1) to be present; and 2) to forgive sin.  As Martin Luther observes: “Where there is forgiveness of sin, there is life and salvation” (Small Catechism; cf. I Peter 2:4).  Forgiveness and healing go together (cf. Mark 2:5; John 5:14).  And thus, this weekend as we come together for Holy Communion with open hands, needing the healing touch of Jesus, we hear his gentle voice saying to us: “Feel my real presence here in this bread and wine … for it is my body given for you, my blood shed for you … for the forgiveness of sin”  (I Corinthians 11:24-25).

The wonder and power of this sacramental “healing touch” was so moving for the ancient church father, St. Ignatius, that he professed: “The Lord’s Supper is the antidoton, the “antidote” for death (antidoton to me apothanein; see Paul Tillich’s A History of Christian Thought, p.23).

See you at worship this weekend as we gather around God’s healing touch of Holy Communion together with the “communion of saints.”  The peace of Christ be with you.

Dr. John Christopherson
Senior Pastor

Nothing Good, but Something Greater

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Have you ever stumbled upon something greater than you were expecting? Perhaps you went to the symphony to hear some amazing musicians playing some the world’s greatest compositions, but in the middle of the performance you found yourself taken not only with the music but with the connection to amazing human genius, emotion, and being. Or maybe you went to the grocery looking for ice cream and found the new gallon sized container and just stood there in awe and wonder. 

Jesus’ disciples have been looking, searching, waiting for the Messiah (John 1:41). John pointed Simon and Andrew to him. Phillip pointed him out to Nathaniel. They were all searching for someone great, pointing one another to Jesus for they were convinced that their search was ended. They had found what they were looking for.

Or did they? They were looking for something great, but could they have even known who Jesus was? Can anything good come from Nazareth? Come and see, for he might be all that you have been looking for, and more. Jesus promises that in him, “You will see even greater things than these.”

Pastor Lars Olson

More Connected But Lonelier Than Ever

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This coming Saturday night, we will celebrate the in-breaking light of the Epiphany Season with the premiering of a special candlelight service at 6:00 p.m. entitled, [LINK] "Festival of Light."  This is a marvelous opportunity for our entire Sioux Falls community to trace, and more deeply understand, the connectedness of the Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany stories – including dramatic sketches, Scripture readings, together with the music of colorful brass, percussion, flute, organ and festival choirs of all ages. The service will conclude with the [LINK] visit of the Magi. Then, on Sunday morning, at all three worship services (8:00, 9:30, 11:00), we will celebrate Holy Communion together around God’s Word from Mark 1:4-11. It’s a Word that speaks not only of Jesus’ baptism, but connects you with the promises God has made for you at your baptism – as his beloved child. “You are my beloved daughter/son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11; RSV)

Now let me ask you to stop for a moment and reflect. How often, if ever, do you think about baptism in general, or your own baptism, in particular? And what, if anything, does baptism mean to you? Do you consider baptism an important event in your life or no? Finally, would you agree that baptism is the most important event in our lives? Here’s why I ask … 

I’m certainly no “techie” (just ask my colleagues!) … However, I am struck big-time, in today’s culture, by the many data related expressions of affirmation. Facebook gives us the chance to “like” movies or music or posts and to have things we write or post “liked” by our “friends” in return. Twitter and Instagram for example, invite us to collect thousands of “friends” or “followers,” most of whom we’ve never even met! Right? And ads are increasingly personalized, targeting (“geo-tagging”) our particular tastes and creating the impression that we’re the most important customer in the world. And so on.

One of the reasons I think social media and various digital platforms are so powerful is precisely because they creatively offer affirmation (here’s that word again) in plentiful doses. Deep down of course, we know that this kind of affirmation doesn’t really mean all that much. Or at least shouldn’t. And many of the folks we encounter via the web, after all, don’t really know us and we don’t know them. So how can their “likes” or “hearts” create any enduring sense of value or worth? Yet, it’s hard not to wonder what’s wrong with the picture we posted to Instagram if only ten people “liked” it when another picture gathered-in hundreds. Right?

So, while this kind of affirmation may be somewhat superficial, it’s at least better than nothing. We crave that recognition/interaction because we are, at heart, inherently social critters. Almost every element of our being reflects God’s observation in Genesis that ‘it’s not good for us to be alone’ (Genesis 2:18). And so the affirmation, relentless as it is ubiquitous, social media creates the perception that we’re linked or connected to a community of all these like-minded, like-able people who really value or like us. If you, like, know what I mean.

But is this perception or illusion? In a book that was published in 2015 by Dr. Sherry Turkel, a Psychology prof. at MIT, entitled, Alone Together (TED Talk link), she’s discovered that people today report feeling simultaneously more connected and lonelier than ever before. Why? Because while we may crave affirmation (those superficial kudos of “likes”), what we really need is acceptance (valued just as you are, warts and all, by God). Come and hear more about this amazing gift, that no matter how unacceptable we are – being guilty as sin – we are still accepted and beloved by God, the very Creator of the whole Cosmos! This is what’s at the heart of baptism. And for a generation that’s been sold a cheap affirmation as a substitute for genuine acceptance, there’s no more powerful or important word.

May the light of Christ shine on you in this season of Epiphany,

 j.r. christopherson
Senior Pastor

Simeon’s Song: A Peculiar Carol

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“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy Word;
for mine 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 your people Israel.”
                                                
                                                      (Luke 2:29-32; RSV)  

Over the past few days, while pondering the upcoming Gospel text for this weekend (Luke 2:22-40), from St. Luke’s nativity narrative, a question came to my mind that I’ve never really thought of before. Here’s the question: “After all the festive celebrations of candlelight services last Sunday on Christmas Eve, services that included the singing of uplifting carols such as Angels We Have Heard On High or Joy To The World … and after all the exchanges of brightly colored presents and fun-spirited time with family and friends … well … what-in-the-world are we doing here in this gospel text, talking about death?!” Huh? After all, St. Luke’s account of Simeon’s troubling song is simply haunted by the specter of death. Right? And so, alongside the other Christmas carols we’ll like be singing this weekend, this one sounds peculiar if not flat-out odd, almost dissonant (to use a musical expression). So, let me ask the question very simply, once more: “What’s all this talk about death doing in the middle of our Christmas celebrations of birth and new life?” 

Many of us know all too well, how the loss of a loved one makes this Christmas Season particularly difficult. And most of us are reminded of those we’ve loved and lost simply by singing a stanza from a hymn, the touch of a favorite ornament or an absent stocking on the mantle, the taste of peppermint stick … some fleeting but vivid memories of Christmases past. Well, guess what? Simeon’s no different. He’s an old man now (note the marvelous depiction of Simeon as interpreted by Rembrandt). And Simeon’s been around the block more than a few times. And so we can imagine that he’s tasted love and loss, joy and despair, hopes and fears, just like you and I. And so he sings of death simply because he can’t help himself, because he, like us, lives with death every day. “Thou sure and firm set earth; Hear not my steps, which way they walk; For fear the very stones prate of my whereabouts” (Wm. Shakespeare’s Macbeth; II,i,56).

But, take note here. This is more than merely stark realism. For St. Luke is clear that Simeon is able to speak of death so honestly only in the light of the coming of the promised Messiah; only, that is, by the con-fidence (with faith) that in this helpless child, God has come to redeem Israel and save the world (cf. Paul Tillich’s “Love Is Stronger Than Death” in The New Being, p.172-174). “Lord,” Simeon sings, “now you can let your servant go in peace; for your word has been fulfilled.” Simeon perceives, you see, that in the Christ Child, God has kept God’s promises (e.g. Isaiah 7:14; 9:1-7). That in this new-born baby, set for the rising and fall of many, God has acted “once and for all” (Romans 6:10; Hebrews 10:10; I Peter 3:18) to address the question and specter of death with the promise of new life.

Thus, we continue to sing Simeon’s Song, all these many years after the events of St. Luke has recorded for us, simply because it bears witness to God’s great love for us – a love that even death cannot destroy (Romans 8:37-39). For, like Simeon, we also need to hear and see (the proclamation of God’s Word) and touch and feel God’s promise (receiving the Holy Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), the promise that God will be with us and for us forever, the promise announced in the birth of that holy babe in a manger, now held lovingly in Simeon’s arms and ours. I hope to see you at worship this weekend, in hearing God’s Word for you; yes, to set the New Year upon a solid foundation …

A Blessed Christmas to you and Hope-filled New Year.

Dr. John Christopherson
Senior Pastor

Christmas Presence

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Christmas Presence
Shining
Upon You Now
and Throughout the New Year

A few days after Christmas, now some twenty years ago – while our little family was still living in Bozeman, Montana – I read the closing line from an obituary in the local newspaper: “On June 10th, 1939, she married. … And the couple lived together in Bozeman their entire lives.”

Her name was Anne Dornbos.  She had been a widow for many years, living alone in a little house, without any family.  In recent years, it had become something of a tradition for Cathy and I to pack the kids in a small sled and pull them “over the river and through the woods” … across town … to deliver Christmas cookies and cinnamon rolls to Anne.  But this year, Anne was Home (among the heavenly host) before we were able to make our delivery to her house on South Willson Ave.  “And the couple lived together in Bozeman their entire lives.” 

For some reason, this closing line from Anne’s obituary still strikes a chord deep in my heart, with the abiding warmth of the true Christmas Spirit.  Perhaps it’s because Cathy and I had come to cherish the calm, cradling mountain majesty of the Rockies over the chaos of The Big City (our former Chicago life) and all of its supposed “culture” … the sense of simplicity that transcends complexity … or enjoying, as we do again in Sioux Falls, the open prairie land of the Dakotas and the down-to-earth folks who reflect the honest humus of our humanity.  Like a Per Hansa or Beret of an O.E. Rolvaag novel.  Yes, such giants in the faith who still roam the earth. 

Deeper still, this homing, warming “comfort and joy” has to do with the sense of being wrapped once again in the serene serendipity of swaddling cloths spelled-out in, of all places, an obituary: “And the couple lived together in Bozeman their entire lives.” 

Isn’t this what the God-named-Emmanuel finally reveals most fully to us in the Christmas event and let’s shine into the upcoming season of Epiphany Season?  For you see … the baby Jesus couldn’t get into an inn (Luke 2:7c) – not even the Holiday Inn?  This comes from the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah who says: “Who am I?  Am I just a traveler on this land who stays at an inn?!” … Jesus couldn’t get into an inn, you see, because he’s not a traveler.  He’s not just movin’ on.  He has to be born on earth because he’s not going to pack-up and leave the next morning.  This is a permanent presence – a gift of God in person, con carne, “God deep in the flesh” (Martin Luther; cf. Luke 2:7; John 1:14; Colossians 1:15-20), for all our human frailty and need.

Yes, indeed … in person! … here’s the good news of the Gospel (cf. Mark 1:1)!  There will be no walking out of God’s promised presence, no walking out of the covenant.  There will be no abandonment – for all who feel lonely, left behind, outcast.  This is not some tourist.  This is One who is born on earth.  And the reason that Jesus – the Christ Child – couldn’t be born in an inn is because the only people who stay in inns are people who move out.  They stay a night and then they leave.  But “this, this” (v.1 of “What Child Is This?”) does not leave.  And we have God’s personal, incarnate Word on it – from cradle to cross.  O, heav’n and nature are still singing!  “And the couple lived together in Bozeman their entire lives.” 

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In the Spirit of this Christmas and Epiphany Season … wherever you are, wherever you may go in the New Year … may the light of Christ “SHINE ON YOU” and be gracious to you (Numbers 6:25) – knowing that you are never alone (Psalm 23:5; Matthew 28:20b; John 14:18f).  For the One named God-with-us, Emmanuel is always with you.  “And they lived together in Bozeman [Bridgewater, Beresford, Bogota, Berlin, Bergen, Bangladesh, Bethlehem …] their entire lives.” 

As a family of faith, among the people of First Lutheran Church, and beyond … our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, calls us to share his life and light (John 1:1-5; 8:12) … which breaks into a resounding song: “Joy to the world!”

A Blessed Christmas and Hope-filled New Year,

Dr. John Christopherson
Senior Pastor

Expect God’s Favor!

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Expectation is a big part of what Christmas has become for many people. There is an air of entitlement in our expectations as well. Many come to expect all they could want will be waiting for them under the tree on Christmas morning. Those absolutely perfect gifts you expect will be delivered.

The underlying tone of this expectation is receiving favor. To receive favor is best described as preferential treatment shown by somebody.  When we receive favor from someone else, we take on a connection with them. But we also know what it feels like not to be favored by someone; cast aside, of no value.

The words declared by Isaiah break into our own existence and declare that good news has come for those that are burdened or oppressed. To expect the Lord’s favor. However, when we hear this, our minds can go to work in two ways. One, we would ask: What is the Lord’s favor and how do I get it? And we set off on the zealous task of trying to gain God’s favor for ourselves. Or more likely our skepticism kicks in and we take a good look around and say, “Yeah right. With all that I am suffering, how is God showing ME his favor!”

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news…” The good news is that God never leaves those whom he favors, and those he favors are those whom He has revealed his Son, Jesus Christ. To know his favor is to know your sins are forgiven, and that your identity is found in Jesus Christ. His favor is known in faith, and in the calling, gathering, and enlightening through the work of the Holy Spirit and his Word so that in those times in your life when you struggle, he equips you through faith in Christ to have hope and peace, and that you will see the light of Christ even in your darkest places.

In this Advent time, we wait for God’s promise of his favor to come….in the form of a baby lying in a manger. Expect God’s favor!