Zechariah’s Song

Biblical Text: Luke 1:57-79

It is a short Advent Midweek season. Made shorter by our choosing to go caroling on a hay ride for Advent 3. So just a two sermon series. Which makes it perfect to meditate on the songs in Luke 1: Zechariah’s Song and Mary’s Song. This evening was Zechariah’s which is a nice summary of the old testament promises and how they are fulfilled in our hearing.

Advent Experiences

Biblical Text: Isaiah 64:1-9

It is the first Sunday of Advent. I typically use the traditional text for the Gospel lesson of the day, the Triumphal Entry or Palm Sunday. All the best Advent hymns for the day are keyed to that text. The story being told is the welcoming of the King. But I chose the Old Testament text to preach from today. This text is from the “third Isaiah” which I simple think of as the portion the prophet addresses to the those who have returned from exile yet find the experience not what was hoped for.

Isaiah’s plea feels like the plea of all those who believe they have the answers but are ignored. “Would that you would rend the heavens and come down.” It is not the lament of unbelief, nor is it the prayer of those persecuted. It is the cry of the dismissed. It is the ask of those more zealous for the Lord than maybe the Lord himself. Think Joshua running to Moses about Eldad and Medad. Or James and John seeking fire from heaven on a volunteer disciple. The plea is not in itself sinful, but we should examine our motivations. Do we desire God’s presence that we might be proved right over our enemies? Or do we desire it for the sake of His promises? This sermon meditates on faith, the promises of God and our desire to seem them in power.

Liminal Time

There is a word I love – liminal. Yes, nobody knows what it means. Or, you all do, just not as that word, but as a gut feeling. It means a sensory threshold. A liminal sound would be one that you can barely hear.  A liminal vision is that one just on the horizon.  But my favorite use, and probably its most common use, is in regards to things of the Spirit. A liminal space is that sense of walking on holy ground, or the other way might be “walking past the graveyard.” A liminal time is usually only noticed in hindsight. My middle child is in something of one right now in college applications.  As an old guy I can recognize it.  For him, it just expresses itself as procrastination. That’s a common way to know you are in a liminal state, you procrastinate.  You are trying to stay in the known, not willing to give way to the unknown just yet.  Liminal states are necessarily scary, because what is on the other side is unknown or at least unexperienced.

Advent for me has always been a liminal time.  The old year is passing away; the new thing is coming.  You have things like congregational meetings.  You prepare budgets. Officers are renewed.  In the church year sense the old has already passed away, but Advent is a strange season even on the church calendar.  It was added as a season of preparation for the staggering mystery of the incarnation.  Sometimes that preparation was penitential.  John the Baptist appears twice in Advent with his calls to repent and warnings about what is to come. I often try to imagine what a John the Baptist would look like today and usually fail to come up with anything convincing.  The Baptist is a liminal figure proclaiming things are about to change dramatically, repent in preparation. That penitential sense is usually captured in the purples of the season.  But the liminal nature of Advent to me is not so much about those purples, which are constant in this life, as about the blues. They are the blues of right before dawn.  It is still night, but the sun is just below the horizon.  As we sang at the end of last Sunday, “The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns.”

And that is what the historic text for the first Sunday of Advent shows us, Jesus on Palm Sunday entering Jerusalem.  Anytime the King arrives it is a liminal space because the King has absolute authority. His word is law.  But approaching the King is always scary because you don’t know the ruling.  But that is part of why Jesus presents himself twice.  The first time humbly, riding a donkey.  The first time toward the cross, which addresses all our sins, so that we know the judgement.  The second time to set us free.  To set us free from those sins that still encumber us.  To set us free from our fears of this liminal space.

Advent is the season we ponder living in a liminal space. Knowing and seeing what is on the horizon – the judgement and the New Jerusalem, the King arriving in power not grace. Yet, that dawn is not yet.  Today is still the day of grace. Today the King still comes humbly, as a little child, as that knocking at your heart.  It is a liminal space that says “repent and believe, for you salvation comes quickly.” A liminal space that reminds us “all idols than shall perish and Satan’s lying cease, and Christ shall raise his scepter, decreeing endless peace.” A Great and Mighty wonder lies just beyond this liminal time.   

I, I Myself Will Rescue

Biblical Text: Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24 (Matthew 25:31-46)

This was the Last Sunday of the church year. In the wordle picture over the last few weeks I’ve been making the green (the color of the season) darker and starting to bleed in the blues and purples of Advent. The Last Sunday is given over to the contemplation of Christ the King and more specifically the judgement. That is the Gospel lesson. But in this sermon I wanted to jump off of the Old Testament text from Ezekiel. The gospel message is clearer. God himself sets out to save. The picture in Ezekiel is the sheep of God – the people of Israel – who have been abused in every way possible by their leadership of every stripe such that they have been scattered. God himself promises to be the Shepherd and retrieve them from everywhere they have been driven. The sermon meditates on how this has been fulfilled and what remains by faith.

Types of Thanksgiving

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people,  – 1 Timothy 2:1 ESV

I hope that everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving, officially the best American Holiday in my book.  I say that mostly for all the cliched reasons. It’s a day of hearth and home and football. It is a day that connects me with a childhood soundtrack that includes farm reports on the local AM radio and the end of harvest worries. It’s a day that doesn’t demand much.  Christmas always tries to bum rush everything before it.  Today the only thing standing in its way are the ghouls of Halloween.  I never thought I’d find myself cheering for the zombies.  Given two months run up, what is under the tree, even if it is a literal golden horde, doesn’t meet the hype. With Easter the American commercialization machine tried with the Bunny and some Cadbury Eggs to Santa Claus the Holy Day, but it just wasn’t able. The Schools moved breaks such that if you get Good Friday off you are fortunate, which I took as the cultural white flag.  Easter remains a Holy Day, not a holiday.  But that also means it isn’t really shared other than within the church. All Thanksgiving ever promised was a good meal and a pause.  A pause that you can fill with whatever wells up within you.

Thanksgiving itself is of course a completely natural expression of the faith.  If the people of God would not bring forth praise and thanksgiving, the stones would cry out.  But the American Holiday isn’t technically on the church calendar.  So every year when I think about a Thanksgiving service it is mostly about those hymns of harvest, hearth and home. But the big book of strong suggestions – that Altar Book – provides at least three modes of thanksgiving.  There are texts and prayers associated with a simple Harvest Observance. There are texts and prayers stipulated for a Day of Thanksgiving. And there are texts and prayers for a Day of Supplication and Prayer.

I take those three categories as general buckets of what wells up within us.  There is an internet invective – “Touch Grass” – that I find funny.  It is telling the too online to log off and go outside. We were made to tend a garden originally.  Even for the most city mouse imaginable, there is good in being connected to the rhythms of life.  And one of those rhythms is the harvest. Knowing that when you sow, you will also reap.  Knowing that you plant a seed and we know not how but it germinates and grows and provides a harvest – 30, 60 even 100 fold. Unless we have cut ourselves off from all things vital, a harvest celebration wells up good things.

The Day of Thanksgiving is more official.  If the harvest is bottoms up, the Day of Thanksgiving is tops down. The American Presidents have a tradition of issuing Thanksgiving Proclamations. They existed prior of course, but George Washington issued a famous one. And these are completely appropriate.  We can get wrapped up in work and play and life – like the 9 lepers – that we never stop for a second to reflect and return.  Jesus, the King himself asks “where are the other nine?” Having a leadership wise enough to say “today, stop, take stock, enjoy the blessings and return appropriate gratitude” is good and right.

It is the last category that maybe we – the children of materially fat years – pass over too quickly, that day of supplication and prayer. Satan’s tricks are many.  We don’t think about it, but the Northern Kingdom of Israel was the worldly successful one.  They were fat, dumb and happy.  It is the world before the flood.  It is Sodom knocking on Lot’s door, so attractive that his wife turned around in lament even knowing what would happen.  It is the merchants crying over Babylon in Revelation. They are no longer connected to the source of the rain that produces their prosperity.  They no longer have officials wise enough to remind them to give thanks. But the prophet Joel shows up and tells them, “Yet even now return to me with all your heart…the LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…who knows whether he will not turn and relent and leave behind him a blessing, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD your God. (Joel 2:12-14).” Thanksgiving in prayer and supplication is a renewal of the covenant.  And the providence of God is always enough for his people.

Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices,

Who wonderous things has done, in whom His world rejoices;

Who from our mother’s arms Has blest us on our way

With countless gifts of love and still is ours today.

Thanksgiving 2023

Thanksgiving is an interesting holiday. It is very close to the bone of the religious impulse, yet it is not on the church calendar, but declared by the civil magistrate. The US has a long history of those declarations. This sermon listens to parts of a couple of them and their wisdom in line with Moses to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 8:1-10) about to cross the Jordan and Jesus to the 10 lepers he had just healed (Luke 17:11-19).

Starting from Nothing?

Biblical Text: Mathew 25:14-30

I’m endlessly fascinated with the parable of the talents. It puts forward some obvious truths, that our society rejects, in passing. It’s main comparison – the one the entire judgement is based upon – is something that we miss because we take it as obvious, but then don’t observe how we act. A couple of those obvious truths: 1) God is not about fairness. “He gave to the servants according to their ability.” 2) With what it given to us we have absolute discretion. God is much freer in how he entrusts than we ever are. 3) What God entrusts is never a small amount. Even the least servant got a full talent, a stupendous sum. I think those three truths might form our typically brief against God. He’s not fair; He’s not present to help; He hasn’t given us enough to work with.

And that brief against God, when you get people being honest, is what leads to the parable’s real comparison. The first two have faith in their master’s judgement. The last servant views his master as a hard man and stingy. It isn’t really the performance of the first two measured in money that gets praised. The master doesn’t take any of it back and in fact says “you’ve been faithful in little, I will set you over much.” In the sermon I take this roughly as “you’ve been faithful in this short sinful life, I will give you eternal life.” It’s the faith in the judgement displayed in their actions, not the absolute return. The last servant thinks what has been given – this life – is a complete set up. That the master is out to get him no matter what. The picture of God is of an ogre. When of course the revelation of God is Christ, on the cross, for us.

Real pagans I think tended to be much more honest. They did their sacrifices more to keep the gods far away from them. Running into a pagan god never went well for the human. They were ogres. (And well according to Paul they were demons, so…). I think our society has that view, but you have to scratch off the veneer. The veneer we have is that “of course God is good.” Of course we define good as nice. The first time we think God is unfair or doesn’t show up, the brief against God comes out. In some ways the modern church in what it teaches forms people into the servant with 1 talent. When what Jesus wants us to see is the stupendous nature of the grace that has been given. You have life. You have this life right now. You have the promise of eternal life. “The joy of your master.” God is the lover of mankind. He has set you up to succeed. Yes, not is the way we often define success, but in the way God does – the following of Christ, his son.

Anyway, this is getting as long as the sermon which is a meditation on these themes of life given to us, and our response.

Light and Darkness

As I’ve been hobbling around with a bit of gout this week, one theological idea became clearer.  Just how scary the darkness can be. Swing your gouty toe into a carelessly discarded school bag or a dirty laundry basket taking up most of the space between the bed and the wall, because you refuse to turn on the lights, what seemed melodramatic in the prophets – “the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter; the mighty man cries aloud there (Zephaniah 1:14)” – can feel appropriate.

Both Zephaniah and the Apostle Paul pick up the metaphor of darkness and light for the Day of the LORD and the gospel.  And the theme of darkness and light might be the oldest one in the bible.  The first act of creation was “let there be light…and God separated the light from the darkness and it was good.”  Biblically the theme of darkness and light is part of creation and the created order. What does it mean when Zephaniah says that the Day of the LORD is “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and think darkness. (Zephaniah 1:15)?’ I think there are three groupings of the darkness.

The first grouping is simply the unknown.  Life is full of things we don’t know.  From the day we are born we are learning things, but the horizon of knowing always seems to expand faster.  Maybe somewhere in your 20’s, when you safely know it all, you can feel like you are on the cutting edge living in the light by your own efforts.  The other not-so-effective strategy is often making your world so small that you know all of it.  Just hope that you never get thrown outside of it where there is darkness, the wailing and gnashing of teeth. This might be the hardest lesson.  We will never know everything, because we are not God.  But the Apostle sheds light on this area.  “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:9).” The unknown is rightfully scary, but living in the light is faith that the Father cares for us and intends good for us because of His Son.  We need not fear.

The second grouping of darkness I call intentional ignorance. It is me stumbling around on a gouty toe knowing full well that the kids have dropped school bags and laundry baskets are in the way but refusing to either go to bed earlier, clear the path before hand or turn on a light.  I can convince myself that I’m helping others already asleep by not turning that light on, but that doesn’t mean much when I’m screaming out because I’ve hit something. Likewise there are lots of things that we like doing, like eating fish, that bring on things like gout.  Paul address this type of darkness saying, “We are not of the night or of the darkness.  So let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. (1 Thessalonians 1:5-6).”  The law is given as a light to our feet and lamp for our path so that we might walk in the light.  Yes, we can convince ourselves that we are helping other by staying in the darkness.  The darkness can even feel good for a time.  But slamming a gouty toe into a box because you like the darkness, is a pretty good metaphor of sin.

The last grouping of darkness is simply evil.  The evil in our own hearts that likes the darkness. But also simply the evil that wishes to bind us in the darkness perpetually.  Why is the Day of the Lord one of darkness?  Because the LORD comes not as savior, but as judge. “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamp, and I will punish the men. (Zephaniah 1:12)…I will punish the officials and the king’s sons…those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud. (Zephaniah 1:8-9)” The judgement comes upon all. The light of God – those lamps in Jerusalem – brings all evil into the light that it may be known before it is cast out eternally.  The Apostle Paul’s words here are both complex and easy.  The easy part is “For you are all children of the light, children of the day. (1 Thessalonians 5:5)” As God separated the light from the darkness as the first of creation, at the end the children of the light are separated from the darkness. And in Christ you have been made children of the light.  The hard part? The separation comes not like the moon and the sun.  The separation comes “like thief in the night.”  Until that Day of the LORD, the light and the darkness live side by side.  Often within the same heart.  “But since we belong to the day having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation (1 Thessalonians 5:8)” we need not fear the evil one. The faith, hope and love of God armor us for the fight.   And even death has no claim on those in the light, for He has dies and is risen “so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him. (1 Thessalonians 5:10).” 


Biblical Text: Matthew 25:1-13

This parable – the 10 Virgins “all trimming their wicks” – is one that most modern Lutherans preachers hate I bet. At least if they are being honest about where their theology is at. I make a split at modern, because Luther himself had no trouble preaching its clear message. Its clear message, the clear message of all the end times sermons, is that sanctification is something that we are part of. The wedding feast? We don’t have anything to do with that. Jesus has paid the bride price and has prepared a place. Our justification is by grace alone in Christ alone. But Jesus consistently says “watch” or “prepare”. And the reason is that we can lose our salvation. In this sermon we can get so lost in the things temporal that we lose the things eternal. We become overcome with worldliness and forget to bring the oil. Because the one thing we know is that we don’t know when the Bridegroom comes. Making a quick trip to Wal-Mart won’t be an option. Have you lived the Christian life, or not? To many modern Lutheran ears that sounds like a betrayal of gospel. It isn’t. The betrayal is in not living it. In not preparing.

Recording note: the recording is an after the fact re-recording. Something happened with our recording system and the live version couldn’t be used.

The Day of the LORD

I have a sweet tooth for what are called the minor prophets – like Amos.  First they are short. They are more like a greatest hits album than a regular release. Every chapter is a banger. And you don’t have to make excuses for tracks that lag.  “No really, this concept album of Rush has to be listened to all the way through.  You can’t just listen to Tom Sawyer.”  “Ezekiel 28 is the key to the whole book.”  Part of being short is that they are pungent. They don’t hold back emotions even when coming from God himself.  Like this morning’s reading, Amos 5:18-24.

“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:18-24 ESV)”

That is still sizzling after 3000 years! But what is God so offended by?  Is it the offerings themselves?  No.  Israel – and this is the Northern Kingdom about to be destroyed by Assyria that Amos is talking to – Israel is still making assigned sacrifices and observing the commanded days.  What was Israel’s condition?  Israel was fat and happy.   They were at ease in Zion and felt secure on the mountains of Samaria (Amos 6:1). They stretched out on beds of ivory and sang idle songs. (Amos 6:4-5). Amos calls them fat cows that crush the needy (Amos 4:1). It is not the offerings themselves that God disdains, it is the heart that brought them.  The heart of Israel brought them to Yahweh to check the box and be done with Him.  They would then turn and do the same thing in the high places to the idols.  “You shall take up Sikkuth you king and Kiyyun your star-god-your images that you made for yourselves. (Amos 5:26).”

Israel was unserious.  They no longer remembered why they were there.  They were sacrificing from abundance out of muscle memory.  Their hearts were not in any of it.  It was all superstition and mere culture.

They would hear the words of the prophets – “repent, seek the LORD and live, do not seek Bethel.  Seek the LORD and live before the fire breaks out (Amos 5:5).” – and they might respond with an offering.  An offering paid for by higher interest rates on their brother. “You trample on the poor and exact taxes of grain from him (Amos 5:11).”  At the same time they would sing the songs of Zion calling for the Day of the Lord.  They would sing them without understanding. “Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? (Amos 5:18).”  And the Lord’s response was that the day was coming.  They would receive what they asked for, even if they did not know it.  “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an every-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24).”

Who can stand in the day of the LORD?

The day approaches. Maybe the capital D Day of the LORD.  Maybe just a personal day of reckoning. When justice rolls down and righteous floods the earth, in whom are you trusting?  Do you know, or are you going through the motions?  Are you checking boxes here and there at various high places?  Going about the rounds of the day on muscle memory. The day approaches.  Do you have an ark?