Cute little baby Jesus? I don't think so!
2008-11-23 by Kristin Largen
There is something very awe-inspiring about Sunday's text from Isaiah—I would say “awesome,” but the meaning of this wonderful theological word has been totally corrupted in today’s context [“Dude, awesome!”]—and it is this tremendous awe that I find so powerful, especially as we begin this season of Advent. In so many ways, I think, Advent is a very hard sell in 21st century America. As a culture, we move immediately from Thanksgiving to Christmas—and when I say immediately, that is exactly what I mean—some stores open up at midnight for their annual Black Friday Christmas sales. The only “waiting” that most of us do this season is the impatient, counting-down-the-days kind: the eager anticipation that comes with a longing for Christmas break, Christmas presents, or Christmas travel. We just want to get through Advent to what really matters, Christmas! What’s more, the only “repentance” that most of us do this season is the embarrassed regret & remorse kind: we sigh and charge more presents we can’t afford, on credit cards already carrying a high balance; and we wake up after holiday parties feeling bloated and hung-over, wishing we hadn’t eaten and drunk quite as much as we did. There is simply no getting around the fact that we have, to a large degree, secularized this Christian holiday almost beyond the point of recognition.
It is no wonder, then, that we also have, to a large degree, secularized and domesticated Jesus as well. When we think about the incarnation, we think about a sweet little baby with chubby cheeks, playing innocently with his mother, gazing around at the animals in the stable with loving eyes. This is the Jesus we see lit up on countless front yards, immortalized on countless Christmas cards, and hailed in countless Christmas carols. I suppose there isn’t really anything wrong with this, except that we never seem to get beyond this image during Christmas—and if this cherubic vision encapsulates our whole understanding of the incarnate Lord of creation who has come to earth to break the bonds of sin and death, and face down all the powers of evil and destruction; well, surely, we aren’t getting the whole picture.
That’s why I love this text from Isaiah, and why I think it is a great place to start to help orient our hearts and our minds as we begin this Advent season. Look what Isaiah says about the One who has chosen to become Immanuel, God-with-us: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil….” Not quite the picture we have, say, in Luke, of our Lord coming down—Isaiah speaks of no chorus of heavenly angels singing in harmony, and no rag-tag shepherds milling about and smiling to themselves. No—Isaiah, who has had his lips burned with a live coal from the altar of the Lord, knows the awe-inspiring power of God, the “mysterium tremendum” before whom no one can stand and live; and so Isaiah knows to fear the Lord, and bow down before God, even as Isaiah beseeches the Lord for mercy and grace.
Isaiah reminds us, then, that we, too, are called to bow down before the Lord in fear and trembling—confident, surely, in God’s love and forgiveness (indeed, Jesus’ birth is a sign to the whole world of God’s compassion, and God’s desire to reconcile creation to Godself), and yet knowing full well that we do not deserve God’s grace, and we sin daily against God and against one another. Should we then not fear, just a little bit, the coming of the Lord? Should we then not repent from our sin—our greed, our selfishness, our neglect of our neighbor—and prepare our hearts for the advent of the Messiah? Isaiah reminds us that a central part of our Advent watching and waiting for the birth of Jesus Christ is cultivating a sense of awe and wonder at the God who, in spite of God’s self-revelation remains forever a mystery to us, and cannot ever be fully grasped or fully understood. Somewhere in between the shopping, the baking, the wrapping, the driving, the eating, we need to find some time to sit before God in awe and in wonder; and remind ourselves of exactly who it is we are waiting for—given the chance, God may well surprise us.
2008-11-22 by David von Schlichten
Steve Schuette and Rick Brand have contributed sermons to the Sermon Feedback Cafe. Please drop by the cafe, enjoy some pumpkin-coffee on me, and give them feedback on the sermons. To get to the cafe, go back to the homepage, click on Share It!, then click on Sermon Feedback Cafe.
My sermon is below. I welcome your responses, ever
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
Sermon on Ephesians 1:15-23 and Matthew 25:31-46
St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church, Youngstown, PA
Sunday, November 23, 2008,
The Reign of Christ, Year A
(word count: 1077)
Simul Sheep and Goat
A man lies in the street in pain, groaning. A stranger stops. She kneels beside the person.
Today's reading from chapter 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats, comes at the end of Jesus' teachings. This is the last story Ki ng Jesus tells before he heads to the cross to die for our sins.
What a story it is. Jesus tells us that, at the end, he, the king, on his throne, will judge us according to whether we helped people in need. Did we give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty? Did we welcome the stranger and clothe the naked? Did we care for the sick and visit the imprisoned? If we did, Jesus will welcome us to life. If we did not, Jesus will send us to hell. Boom.
Note that Jesus does not place conditions on our helping people in need. He does not say, “Only help people who deserve help.” He does not say, “Only help white people,” or “Only help Americans.” Jesus does not say, “Help everyone, except Muslims.” Christ the King does not decree, “Help everyone in need, except illegal immigrants.” No, through this story our King teaches us that we are to help all people in need, no exceptions, and when we do, we help God himself.
The woman wipes away at the wounds of the man lying in the street. They are full of puss and blood. They stink, but she keeps cleaning them. People walking by say, “Man, that's disgusting. I wouldn't do that job for a million dollars.”
Are you a sheep or a goat? Do you help people in need, or do you make excuses not to? Do you give food, money, attention, and talent to reduce poverty, care for the sick, and support people in jail?
I think I am a sheep, for the most part, although there are times when I am a goat. Plenty of times I look the other way instead of helping someone. When I hear about poverty-stricken children on TV, sometimes I turn the channel. I give money to charities, pray for people in need, try to help people, but I could do more. I could give more money to people in need instead of spending it to over-eat. The synod runs trips to Mississippi to help Katrina victims. I could do that. Why don't I?
Am I a sheep or a goat? It depends. Most of us are like that. Most of us do not fit neatly into one category. The Book of Concord teaches that we are both saint and sinner. God has made us saints, but we still sin. Romans 3 proclaims, “All have sinned.” Are you a sheep or a goat? You're both. We all are.
So then, how can God divide people into sheep and goat? Aren't we a combination of sheep and goat, a combination of good and bad? Aren't we all sinners?
Maybe part of the point of the story of the sheep and the goats is to show us that we all fall short. When we hear this story, if we are honest, we will confess that, while sometimes we care for those in need, other times we neglect people. There's some goat in each of us.
Perhaps, then, this story helps us to see how much we need Jesus to die for us. We hear this story, and we say, “Yes, I have my sheep moments, but I can be pretty goatish, too. Sometimes I help those in need, sometimes I don't. I do not do enough. I am a sinner.” When we acknowledge that we just cannot do it all on our own, that we can never be good enough, then we cling to the cross, for it is through the cross that Christ has saved us. Are we as good as should be? No, but Jesus died to save us.
Indeed, the Book of Concord teaches that the Law of God, the passages of commandment and judgment, function like a mirror to show us how much we need Jesus. These tough passages of the Bible, such as the story of the sheep and the goats, hold a mirror to us. We look in the mirror. We see our sin. We declare, “Look at all that sin. I can't do all this on my own. I need Jesus.” Then we the baptized sprint to the cross, trusting that Christ forgives us. We cannot be good enough, we cannot be sheep enough, we cannot help people enough, we cannot earn our way into heaven, so alleluia for Christ the King, who has saved us. Whew, what a relief!
Christ the King has snatched us from the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Christ the King takes his place on that throne called the cross to save us. From the cross, Christ says, “Because you are hungry and thirsty and a stranger and naked and sick and in prison, I die for you.”
Christ the King dies to give us life, and Christ the King empowers us to care for the needy.
Further, because Christ the King has saved us by dying for us, we can help people in need without worrying about reward. Feed the hungry, visit the sick, welcome the stranger. Why? To get a reward? No, Christ has earned the reward for us by dying on the cross. Ephesians 2:8 and 9 tells us that we are saved by grace through faith, not by the good deeds we do. So why should we care for people in need? Because God wants us to, and because, when we do so, we help God himself.
Mother Teresa is cleaning the pus-filled, bloody sores of the sick lying in the streets. The sores stink and run. Disgusting. A reporter mutters, “I wouldn't do that job for a million dollars.”
Mother Teresa replies, “Neither would I.”
Christ has cared for us, has saved us. He then sends us out to care for others, not for reward, but because that is what God wants us to do. Further, when we help people in need, we help God himself.
For this new Church year, what is some new way you could help people in need? What new deed could I do? What could St. James do?
“I wouldn't help those people for a million dollars.”
From the cross, Jesus says, “Neither would I.”
Au Revoir to Anna
2008-11-20 by David von Schlichten
Thank you to Anthony Bailey for being our guest blogger this week. We look forward to seeing him again at the Festival of Homiletics. Please scroll down to read Anthony's posts, as well as a contribution from Stephen Schuette.
This week we have the last "Preaching the Lesson" article from Anna Carter Florence, at least for now. Thank you to Dr. Carter Florence for your incisive and humorous contributions. You have been illuminating and luminous with your astute creativity. We look forward to seeing you again at the Festival of Homiletics.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
Not for Reward; For Joy
2008-11-18 by Stephen Schuette
Notice how the sentence is run on. It depicts a hunger-quenching, drink-giving, stranger-welcoming (Deuteronomic hospitality), naked-clothing, sick-nursing, prisoner-visiting person who is completely unconscious and un-self-righteous about their actions. By contrast the opposite is equally powerful in its ugliness. One side protests that they are unaware of doing anything right while the other protests that they did nothing wrong. The judgment of both grace and punishment, strong as they are, are virtually overwhelmed by the unassuming naturalness and the defensiveness.
A visitor to a cholera ward taking in the stench turns to the nurse and says, “I wouldn’t do this for a million dollars.” The nurse replies, “Neither would I.”
It's About the Nations, Stupid
2008-11-17 by Anthony Bailey
Psalm 100, Matthew 25: 31-46
It’s always been about the nations with God; the people of all the earth. God’s covenant in Genesis is made with all Creation. Authentication code: Rainbow. God’s call to Abraham and Sarah is about being a blessing to all the “families of the earth”. God’s choice of Israel as a “chosen people (nation)” is all about being a light and a blessing to all the nations and peoples. And when Israel got too uppity and forgot their covenantal mandate and purpose for being, this God is not beyond being heard to proclaim, (regarding the seminal redemptive act in Israel’s salvation history – exodus)
“Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel?” says the Lord. Did I not bring up Israel from Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir? Amos 9:7
In other words, God is committed to “Exodi” (to borrow a term from Walter Brueggemann) for other nations as well, not just Israel.
In Psalm 100 all the earth is enjoined to praise God. One hundred and fifty times in the Jewish psalter, the nations are summoned to “Praise the Lord”. As we have learned in the covenantal, prophetic and legal dimensions of Israel’s salvation history, there is no separation to be made between praising God and executing justice for the people in the land, particularly the widows, orphans, aliens and poor.
With God, it’s always been about the nations. It is no wonder then that in the Matthean reading the nations are hauled up before the Son of Man. Judgment is coming for the nations, because in many ways the security, vitality and justice God desires for human life rises and falls with the actions, attitudes, laws and practices of the nations in which people find themselves, ergo, the precipitating factors and consequent fallout of our present economic meltdown.
That the “sheep” nations and the “goat” nations did not know that they were respectively serving and ignoring Christ in the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, ill and imprisoned ones, is not an excuse for the governments, churches, neighborhoods, and individuals within those nations not to be vigilant and activistic.
For me, both sets of nations are judged oblivious to the presence of Christ because of their particular preoccupations. The “sheep” nations are preoccupied with faithfully but “un-self-consciously” fulfilling their purpose for being; namely securing the well-being of all, especially those marginalized on the edge of life, and correcting injustices as they emerge. For these nations it is who they are and what they do. It is a matter of course. For the “goat” nations, they too are preoccupied, but it is with pursuits that ignore the plight of those who are hurting, and no doubt pursuits that in and of themselves cause a lot of the pain and suffering.
The judgement in this extended metaphor – for this text is not really a parable – is meant to disclose and to propel us in the direction of God’s saving purposes in the world. You see, now we know, we have no excuse. Christ is in the so-called discarded of society and we need to seek the power of Christ’s Spirit to challenge ourselves and our nations to get with God’s program. That is the way it is suppose to be, that is our mandate, it is the way of Jesus and God is dead serious about this. No more excuses about not having seen or not having known.
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