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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Servant of the Lord

Culture – Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year. “Culture … allows us to identify and isolate an idea, issue or group with seriousness. … It's an efficient word: we talk about the 'culture' of a group rather than saying 'the typical habits, attitudes, and behaviors' of that group. … This newer sense of the word is catching people's attention and driving the volume of lookups.”[i]
Merriam-Webster chose its Word of the Year based on our research. Through research, we learn the definition of words, family history or how to change headlights in a Buick LeSabre.[ii]
Researching today’s Gospel, we learn what Luke said about Jesus, what Mary and Gabriel said, and what it might mean to us.
First, what Luke said about Jesus had to do with culture. People in our culture are satisfied letting producers of shows on the History or Biography channels to present their research of Jesus. As a result, our secular culture accepts Jesus’ human nature, but questions his divine nature.
Conversely, people of Luke’s culture, Roman citizens who deified Caesars into gods, had an easier time accepting Jesus’ divinity than they did his humanity.[iii] This is why Luke narrated the human origins and birth of Jesus Christ.
During the first centuries, the church defended itself against heresies that denied Jesus’ true humanity (Gnostic Docetism, Nestorianism and Monophysitism). The movie, Interstellar, lays out its plot according to modern Gnosticism.[iv]
Martin Luther succinctly explained that Christ became man in order to redeem us from sin and death. The devil came close to us, but he did not come so close as to assume our nature.[v]
Luther confessed the Second Person of the Trinity was conceived by the Holy Spirit without means of a man, and was born of the pure, holy Virgin Mary as of a real, natural mother.[vi]
In addition to combating heresies, Luke illustrated how the Annunciation fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. Mary received God’s promise of a child, which was similar to, but greater than, previous promises to women of God. These included Hagar (Gen 16:11) and Manoah’s wife (Judg 13), but most pertinent was God’s announcement through Isaiah of the sign given to Israel consisting of a virgin who would conceive. This showed the promised birth was not a private matter for the parents, but one of national concern.
In Jesus, God came to Israel, was favorable toward her, claimed her as his very own, and was wedded to his people. Jesus and the New Testament authors often employed marriage imagery to imply the church is Christ’s bride.
The parallels between God’s promises to His people and His promise to Mary suggest that we can see her as representing the new Israel, the virgin bride of Christ, the church. In other words, without putting Mary on the same level as Christ, Luke showed that Christians have her as an example to consider.[vii] The unmerited grace poured forth into Mary is available to all.
The new era of salvation comes through the baby conceived by the gracious action of God upon Mary, who finds favor with God, not due to any superiority over other women or any merit in God’s estimation, but simply because of God’s grace.
Mary’s response was unlike Zechariah’s skepticism. Her pondering led to a simple, honest question, which Gabriel met with an explanation, a promise and reassurance. As the Holy Spirit came upon her, she conceived Jesus as holy, the Son of God. This was the moment of the Incarnation of our Lord.
Luther compared the conception of Jesus through the Word spoken to Mary with the real presence of Christ’s body in the Lord’s Supper, effected through the Words of Institution. In other words, as the first catechumen – members of the early church who heard the Word – she believed as we believe.
Luke used the Annunciation as an instruction on the virgin birth, on the Son of God, and on the work of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ conception. We confess it in the Nicene Creed.
The passage also gives us a glimpse into how the early church incorporated new members. As its first member, Mary received her catechesis from Gabriel. The Holy Spirit came upon her, and she received the flesh of Christ. As the first catechumen, she set the pattern for the apostles and all who followed her. We hear the Word, the Holy Spirit comes upon us, and we receive Christ’s Body and Blood. Like Mary, each of us is a servant of the Lord, humbly submitting to the will of God and his miraculous presence in and among us. That is what Luke said about Jesus, Mary and Gabriel. What might this passage mean to us?
First, we must be careful to notice that none of Mary’s qualities is offered as the reason God chose her; that reason is tucked away in the purposes of God.[viii] Luther taught that although we recognize Mary as Mother of God, we should not make too much of her, but ponder “in the heart what it means to be the Mother of God. … Her sole worthiness to become the Mother of God lay in her being fit and appointed for it, so that it might be pure grace and not a reward.”[ix]
It is hers to ponder in her heart, but ours to ponder as well. As church and individuals, what does it mean to hear the Word? To have the Holy Spirit comes upon us? To receive Christ’s Body and Blood? To be a servant of the Lord? To humbly submit to God’s will and his miraculous presence in and among us?
I asked several people what this passage means to them. My friend, Wendell, a lifelong Lutheran who teaches Old Testament Sunday School, responded with these words.
“I view Mary as an excellent example of a faithful servant. At her tender age, having undoubtedly endured horrible ridicule for a pregnancy out of wedlock, she was able to say the magnificat. Truly a great example of humility, faith and servanthood. She is truly a great Christian.
Also, what a great story of how something that appears awful at the time (an unwed pregnancy), ended up being a great blessing and miracle. We should all look for the blessings in our “curses” like she did.
She also teaches me that God’s methods may very often be seen as ‘unorthodox’, but we must have the faith to believe that he knows what he is doing.”
Our culture is not prone to agree with Wendell, but we must have the faith to believe that God knows what He is doing. Even when we do not know what God’s plan is for us, we must have faith. And we must ponder things in our hearts.
I close with a story of my own mother. She would have turned 89 this month. … Let me tell you how my mother taught me how to be a Christian – a humble servant of the Lord – by showing me how to grow tomatoes. I realize how God’s grace worked through her after many moments of pondering these things in my heart.
Every spring our family planted more than 100 tomato plants, which sufficiently fed our family of five. When the weather broke, we tilled the garden for tomatoes and many other vegetables.
We dug holes, and planted, fertilized and watered our plants. Through the summer, we weeded and watered; checked for bugs and blight and discarded rotten tomatoes.
We harvested tomatoes for salad, sauce and juice. We buried the discarded skin and seeds, which produced a later crop. Since we were 4-H members, we entered our prize tomatoes in exhibits at local fairs.
Growing tomatoes taught me three practical necessities about Christianity: nourish, reserve and share. Parents, pastors, teachers, elders and all members need to nourish, reserve and share their faith.
First, nourish. By exercising our faith – by attending worship, reading God’s Word, taking Communion, seeking forgiveness and attending Sunday school – we nourish ourselves.
Second, reserve. 27 years of ministry taught me there are times when we cannot nourish ourselves adequately. There will be times when troubles and temptations attack us. … We need a reserve. There will be times when caring for sick children or frail parents exhaust us. There will be times when completing projects, cramming for exams or meeting deadlines consume us. There will be times when we do not have the luxury to bathe ourselves in God’s Word or enjoy the feast of His banquet. We can only birdbath and eat on the run. During difficult times, we need that reserved Mason jar of tomatoes in the pantry. That is why my mother taught us how to can tomatoes. That is why she taught us to memorize Scripture passages and prayers because she knew we would someday need a reserve – of spiritual food that God provides to nourish our bodies and our souls.
Third, share. When God blessed us with plentiful tomatoes, we shared them with others. We shared tomatoes with friends, neighbors, pastors and the less fortunate. Mom taught me to practice charity by sharing God’s abundant blessing with others. How do we share God’s abundant blessings with others?
By teaching me how to grow tomatoes, mom taught me how to be a Christian, a servant of the Lord. She taught me to nourish, reserve and share. I am sure your mother taught you the same. As we close out another Season of Advent, ponder in your heart what it might mean for Mary to be the Mother of God, and honor your own mother by sharing the Gospel with others. Share with others how God blessed you today and ask them the same. When you listen to their blessed answer, may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.[x],[xi]

[iii] Rev. Albert B. Collver, Ph.D., Sermon “St. Mary, Mother of Our Lord, 15 August 2011 Galatians 4:4 – 7.” International Center Chapel, Saint Louis. “One of the most scandalous things the Christians confessed about Jesus is that he is truly human, with real human flesh and blood. The Ancient people did not have too hard of a time imagining that Jesus was some kind of a god, but they had a very difficult time imagining that this Jesus was truly a man. In the ancient world some people said that Jesus was born through Mary, as light passes through glass untouched. You see, there was a concern about tarnishing “divine” things with physical matter such as human flesh.” See
[v] What Luther Says, 153.
[vi] What Luther Says, 1376
[vii] Arthur A. Just, Luke 1:1-9:50. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House (1996), pp. 65ff. Much of my material for this sermon comes from Just’s commentary.
[viii] Fred Craddock, Luke. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press (2009), 28.
[ix] What Luther Says, 1256.
[x] Philippians 4:7

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Passage, Pink, Prayer

God’s grace, peace and mercy be with you. My focus is 1st Thessalonians where we read: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, the psalmist wrote, “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”[i] Now that our feet are within your gates, we rejoice to hear your Word. As we listen, may your Spirit enlighten our minds and move our hearts to love deeply as Jesus loved. This we pray to you, Most Holy Trinity. Amen.
“Again!” exclaimed my niece from the backseat of my brother’s white Volvo station wagon. Having heard, “again,” followed by a rewind of the cassette in order to play again, “The Wheels of the Bus,” my brother ingeniously created a special cassette with a continual loop of Simone’s favorite songs.
As a teen, Simone watched “Pirates of the Caribbean” until she memorized the entire dialogue. At my niece’s expense (by the way, she is now 20), we again revisit what we heard only last month – Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. And since the fruit falls not far from the tree, we again revisit three P’s: Paul’s passage, the Advent wreath’s Pink candle and Prayer.
Paul’s passage was an exhortation that appealed to the Thessalonians’ deep emotions. His last words dealt with their relationship with God, lifting them from this world’s mundane matters to focus on their conflict with supernatural powers. Paul knew if Thessalonian Christians were to persevere despite pressure and persecution, they had to pray to God.
Paul encouraged prayer and prophecy, which are interrelated. He saw prayer as God’s will and prophecy as God’s answer to prayer. Paul opposed pagan oracles and soothsayers, but knew that prophecy – or a word from God that comes through prayer – strengthened the Christian community.
In verse 18, Paul instructed the Thessalonians to give thanks in all circumstances, but not necessarily for all circumstances. Paul never instructed Christians to rejoice, pray and give thanks for the evil that confronts the church. That would have been akin to us giving thanks for the smallest sin or a nuclear holocaust. Sin, as earlier chapters in Thessalonians taught, is not God’s will.
However, if Christians in 1st century Thessalonica gave thanks to God for salvation through Christ, He would strengthen them to endure difficult circumstances.
A Simple first point: rejoice, pray, give thanks. Our second point, the Advent wreath’s pink candle.
Gaudete! Rejoice! Gaudete is Latin for rejoice and refers to the importance of Christian joy in the midst of a penitential season, the message of Paul’s letter. Like Lent, Advent is a penitential season.
The tradition of Advent candles originated in Germany. A pink candle surrounded by 3 purplish ones symbolizes joy amidst penance. Today, we light the pink candle based on our epistle.[ii]
We use different colors to teach and symbolize various feasts and seasons, and to evoke emotions. For example, white symbolizes light and purity. We use white during the seasons of Christmas and Easter. Red expresses the fire of the Holy Spirit and the blood of the Passion and martyrdom. We use red on Pentecost, Palm Sunday and Reformation Sunday. Green is the symbolic color of hope and serenity. We use green on the Sundays after Epiphany and Pentecost. Again, violet recalls penance. Black is the somber color used for Good Friday and funerals, in some churches. Pink or rose, which has never enjoyed frequent use, serves as a reminder, by using an unusual color, that we are halfway through a penitential season.[iii]
Color effectively expresses the specific character of the mysteries of our faith and gives a sense of the Christian's passage through the course of the liturgical year. If that makes no sense, imagine a white funeral suit, a black wedding gown or the Cardinals in black and gold uni’s.
Lighting a pink candle during a penitential season symbolizes Christian joy even when we do penance or suffer persecution. We rejoice in the midst of penance or suffering because we know that in spite of trouble or persecution, we prayerfully thank God for His gift of salvation. So, pink reminds us to rejoice, pray and give thanks.
Our third point, prayer. There is a lot to say about prayer. Martin Luther himself said much about it. In his Large Catechism, Luther wrote, “That we may know what and how to pray, our Lord Christ himself taught us both the way and the words.”[iv]
Luther confessed praying was more difficult than preaching. He offered advice on where to pray[v], how to deal with distraction[vi], how to overcome the temptation to skip prayer[vii], and how to deal with feeling unworthy, which, he urged, we must overcome.
Luther reminded pastors to encourage people to pray as Christ and the apostles prayed. He wrote, “It is our duty to pray because of God’s command.” They are delusional who say, ‘Why should I pray? Who knows whether God pays attention to my prayer?’”[viii] To such people, Luther said, “We have God’s promise that He will hear us.”[ix]
To quote Luther, “People who are experienced in spiritual matters have said that no labor is comparable to the labor of praying. To pray is not to recite a number of psalms or to roar in churches…but to have serious thoughts by which the soul establishes a fellowship between him who prays and him who hears the prayer and determines with certainty that although we are miserable sinners, God will be gracious, mitigate the punishments, and answer our petitions.”[x]
God answers our petitions. … Now, my friends, tell me the difference between what Martin Luther believed in his heart and what you believe in yours? Does God answer every petition? Do I have the confidence to tell my children and grandchildren that God answers petitions? What do I mean when I say God answers petitions?
To say, “God answers my petitions,” means I reflect deeply on my relationship with God. In Luther’s words, it is to have serious thoughts by which the soul establishes a fellowship between him who prays and him who hears the prayer. I must reflect deeply on my relationship with God. Is my relationship authentic?
Are my petitions as authentic as those in the Psalms? Read Psalm 5, 43 or 51. Is my spirit like Jesus’ when he taught us to ask for daily bread? Read Matthew 6 and Luke 11.
When I surrender absolutely to God and His will – as Jesus did – not only at the hour of my impending death but throughout my life, I know God will provide my daily bread and every other worldly need.[xi] When I surrender unconditionally to God and his incomprehensibility – which I can do only in faith, hope and love – all my petitions are answered.[xii] On the other hand, if my prayer is not imbued with the spirit of Jesus’ words – Let your will be done, not mine – then it is not prayer at all, but a projection of a vital need into a void, or an attempt to influence God to execute senseless magic.
An authentic relationship with God does not mean I am free of needs and anxieties. However, when I place myself before God in prayer, for what do I ask?[xiii] Daily bread? Health? Love? Success? Strength? Trust? Gratitude? Protection from evil and abuse?
Whatever the outcome of my prayer, do I give thanks to God in the circumstances I find myself? If I am pressured and persecuted for my faith, do I still thank God for the gift of salvation through Christ? …
Given the rancor that touches family and community, do I pray in the spirit of the Psalmist who begged God, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”?[xiv]
I close with the back-story of a song that has affected people’s lives because it touches on rejoicing, prayer and thanksgiving.
In 1967, Bob Thiele and George Weiss wrote a political song to calm our fears from the violence of the race riots that spread across a hundred cities from Newark to Los Angeles. They wrote it with one man in mind, and hoped his grandfatherly image would convey the song's message. In 1968, the song made it to #116 on the US pop chart, selling 1,000 records, but reached #1 in the UK, making Louis Armstrong the oldest male to top the UK Singles Chart, at sixty-six years and ten months old.[xv] The song? What a Wonderful World.
Armstrong's appeal transcended race, but since the ‘50s, he was accused of subserviently providing entertainment for white America. Naturally, Armstrong disagreed.
As he introduced a live performance of the song, Satchmo stated, “Some of you young folks been saying to me: ‘Hey, Pops - what do you mean, What a Wonderful World? How about all them wars, …, you call them wonderful?’”
“But how about listening to old Pops for a minute? Seems to me it ain't the world that's so bad but what we're doing to it, and all I'm saying is: see what a wonderful world it would be if only we'd give it a chance.”[xvi]
Of course, Armstrong was speaking of love. Love comes in every color of the rainbow and fills the heart of every person created by God.
As we await the coming of Christ, take time today to reflect upon the joy that pink and all the colors of the rainbow evoke. Think about Paul’s passage: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances;” and finally, petition God to create in you a clean heart and a right spirit. When you do, again may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.[xvii]

[i] Psalm 122
[ii] LCMS Website – FAQs – Worship/ Congregational Life – Church Year
[iv] Book of Concord, Page 441
[v] Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says: A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active Christian. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House (1959), 1082
[vi] 1083
[vii] 1084
[viii] 1084
[ix] 1075.
[x] 1088
[xi] Karl Rahner, The Practice of Faith: A Handbook of Contemporary Spirituality. New York: Crossroad (1986),  88
[xii] 88
[xiii] 89
[xiv] Psalm 51:10
[xvi] Smashed Hits: How political is What A Wonderful World?
[xvii] Philippians 4:7