Messages, Meditations, and Musings on the Life of Faith by Rev. Dr. Scott E. Olson, Pastor, Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN

Monday, December 24, 2012

"At the Foot of the Manger" Christmas Eve Sermon

Moving toward Christmas: At the Foot of the Manger
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2012
Luke 2.1-20

Merry Christmas! Christmas is about a lot of things, isn’t it, many of which can drive us crazy. We put up what we hope is the perfect trees and decorate them with ornaments. We string lights on our rooftops and decorate our lawns. (I don’t understand plastic manger scenes and giant inflatable figures, but if they are meaningful to you, God bless you.) We try to buy just the right presents and wrap them with just the right paper. We sing carols and bake goodies. Growing up, most of our Christmas was done Christmas Eve. We’d get to open one present before dinner and the rest afterward, hopefully dodging the socks and underwear. Of course, attending church would be squeezed in there. For many years, until my dad’s bachelor brother got married, Uncle Floyd would join us, “As long as you promise not to get me anything,” which, of course we agreed to and then promptly ignored.

Christmas was both predictable yet surprising. My only sister would always get a doll of some sort and it was devastating when we all realized one year that she was too old for them anymore. We would all go to great lengths to disguise our presents, especially for my incurably snoopy sister. One year, I disguised a record album by placing a cardboard tent over it; it drove her nuts. And my parents would go to great lengths to make sure they spent the same amount on all four of us, right down to the last penny. One year, that meant that we all got identical clock radios.

At the heart of these traditions and memories is the fact that Christmas is about relationships. Christmas is about being together, about creating, sustaining and nurturing our connections with each other. When I moved away and then when Cindy and I got married, we made the journey back to our homes, until moving too far away and then having children of our made going home impossible. Even then, we found ways to be together, always within our local church. Of course, we made new memories and traditions with our children. We know these relationships are important, because it is so painful when we don’t have them or when they aren’t what we want them to be.

The Christmas story is all about being together, about the lengths God will go to be with us. If the story of Jesus’ birth as told in Luke’s gospel were a movie, it would open with a wide shot. The recounting of the historical situation with all of the powerful people is panoramic and majestic. Virtually, the whole known world is encompassed and you can feel the influence of the powerful people. However, as the story progresses, the camera makes tighter and tighter shots, focusing on this little country, then a small region, a provincial town, and then the humblest of people and places. Finally, the camera focuses on a young married couple and their baby boy, lying in a manger.

Yet, as we read on, the camera begins to pull back to wider shot, very different from the first. Here we have an angel appearing to not the rich and powerful, but to despised shepherds. These startled outcasts, far from the positions of influence, are confronted with a host. The host is not the infamous Roman centurion army, but rather an angelic host with a different message. The birth of humble Jesus is good news of great joy for all people, for he is Savior, Messiah, and Lord. This news is so good that the shepherds just have to share it and see it for themselves.

The effect of the Lucan cinematography is stunning, but the point is even more stunning to us. The good news is that Jesus is being born not where expected, but where people need him the most. This is important for us to remember all year long, not just at Christmastime. We need to be reminded that God not only came in the flesh that Christmas time 2,000 years ago. God continues to be embodied in the world, through you and me as we go out into this hurting, broken world that needs to hear that God is with us, that God knows what it’s like to be one of us.

We’ve been making a journey toward Christmas this Advent Season, and as we arrive at the foot of the manger, we realize that our journey is really only beginning. The fact is, we don’t meet Jesus as much as Jesus meets, having made a much longer trip to reach us, taking on human flesh and coming down to be with us. Wherever you are tonight, however your celebrate Christmas, know that God is meeting you where you are and is being born in your heart anew. Cherish the traditions you have, but even more so cherish those with whom you share them. Merry Christmas, everyone! Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

"Moving toward Christmas: Encouraged by the Promise" Sermon Advent 4

Moving toward Christmas: Encouraged by the Promise
Advent 4 (Narrative Lectionary 3)
December 23, 2012
Luke 1.26-49

If it is true that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans, then Mary must have had God in stitches rolling on the floor. No doubt she was planning to marry Joseph and have children. Nowhere in her universe, though, could she imagine a visit from an angel who would tell her that she was going to have a child through the action of the Holy Spirit, much less the Son of God, Savior,  and Messiah. Yet, here an angel of the Lord comes with an offer that she both can and cannot refuse, and all of creation holds its collective breath waiting for her answer: will she or won’t she say, “Yes?”

We’ve used the metaphor of a journey this Advent, as we are moving toward Christmas. On the First Sunday of Advent and the story of Daniel in the lions’ den, we’ve realized that we have come from places not of our own choosing, utterly dependent upon God’s grace. Through the prophet Joel on the Second Sunday of Advent, we also admitted our involvement in the brokenness of the world and our need for a savior. Then, last week, we heard from Isaiah how we’ve been sustained in our journey by the vision God gives us of life through his Son. Today, as we get near the end of our journey, we are encouraged in our own journeys of faith by the promises that God makes to us through the most unlikely of people, his servant Mary.

However, as we know all too well, the journeys we take don’t always go as we had planned. In today’s reading we find that “the way to the manger” is surprising and unexpected. The direction that God takes Mary is not one that she would choose for herself, and even when she said “Yes” to God’s invitation, though she doesn’t know how, life will never be the same for her again. What’s interesting in the story is that Mary does not have a problem to be solved like so many women in the Bible. She is not barren or without a husband. Presumably, life is good. Sometimes, though, God is not the answer to our problems; rather, God is the cause of our “problems.”

The challenge that Mary’s story poses for us today is, “Are we going to be open to what God is doing in our lives?” Admittedly, this is hard to do when life is coming at you fast and furious and even out of control. Like Mary, we may be tempted to say, “God, could you just favor someone else for a change?” Yet, just as God was present at creation, not only bringing order out chaos, but working in, with, and under the chaos, so we have to trust that God is working in, with, and through our chaos. We don’t do this because of who Mary is or what she does, but because of who God is and what God does through her.

We tend to think of obedience to God as doing what God tells us to do, to knuckle under to God. But I think that obedience is more about paying attention to what God is doing, to be ready to say yes, even if we don’t fully know what this means for us and our lives. Part of that openness means listening to how God is working through others as well. Mary’s story is tied to Elizabeth’s story, a kinswoman who confirms that God is doing something incredible in, with, and through her life. I’ve mentioned before how God worked in my life, through disorder and chaos, to bring me to seminary and the ordained ministry, over the course of eight years, in fact. But God worked through many people as well, helping me to hear God’s call on my life.

One thing I can attest to is that it is precisely those times in my life when things did not go as I had planned, when the journey changed, that God was the most present and the most real to me. As you make this final leg of the journey to Christmas and beyond, look in the chaotic and unexpected moments for where God is present, and listen for God’s voice in others. One small plug: some of you are being approached about serving on church council in the coming years. This is not about filling slots with warm bodies; this is about the leadership this congregation needs for this next year and beyond. For you and others, please give it prayerful consideration and say, as Mary did, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

"Moving toward Christmas: Looking Ahead" Advent 3 Sermon

Moving toward Christmas: Looking Ahead
Advent 3 (NL3)
December 16, 2012
Isaiah 61.1-11

I learned about the tragic school shooting at Sandy Hook when I logged onto Facebook on Friday. I knew something was wrong by some of the terse entries of some of my friends, and as I scrolled through the feeds, I came across a link to an article from Minnesota Public Radio. I don’t read a lot of news accounts about events such as this because I know the information is sketchy and will change with time, but I did learn that a lot of people were killed, most of whom were children. Embedded in the article was a video of President Obama’s statement. Again, I don’t normally watch such things, but it was short and I was curious what the President would say. Like me, he was reacting with sadness and from the point of view of the father of two daughters. My response was compounded by the fact that both of our daughters are also teachers. However, what struck me the most was the President’s closing words, that it was now time to “bind up the brokenhearted and give comfort to the mourning,” words straight from today’s reading.

So, the reading from Isaiah 61 comes at the right time in so many ways, though it seems like an odd place to end our run through the Old Testament that we began in September. Next week we shift to the story of Jesus as found in the New Testament gospel of Luke. Yet, aside from the fact that we’ll hear some of these words on Jesus’ lips in a few weeks, we are also reminded that the writings of the prophet we call Isaiah span over three centuries, more than one person could write. These words from chapter 61 were proclaimed to the Jews who had returned from the Babylonian exile and were trying to rebuild their homes, the temple, and their lives. Their situation was, as Rolf Jacobson notes, that “things weren’t as good as they hoped, and they weren’t as good as God hoped.”

Isaiah brings much-needed good news to people who are having a hard time looking ahead. He reminds them that our God is a God who builds up and restores, who makes all things new. In so doing, he points out that God pays special attention to those who need hope the most, the captives, the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the imprisoned, and those who mourn. Indeed, God comes to all of us and meets us in the places of our deepest needs, but he comes to these hurting ones especially. Isaiah sustains us with a vision of what life looks like on the other side of our darkest, most difficult journeys.

I asked a friend of mine who has been recently divorced which kind of people were most helpful as she was going through it. She said that one of the groups who was the most helpful were those who have gone through it and come out the other side. These people did not sugarcoat the difficulty of the journey, but still gave words of encouragement to her that she would make it through, that she would come out the other side and be okay. They were able to tell her that what she was going through was normal, but it would get better. In other words, they were “Isaiah” to her, bringing words of comfort, renewal, and hope.

There is a missional sense to God’s story in general and to this text from Isaiah in particular. Being missional means that you and I are called to bear witness to what God is doing in the world and join in the work. Like the Jews—who were set aside by God as God’s chosen people, not for any special favors but rather to be a light to the rest of the world—we are a people blessed by God to bring blessing to others. Most importantly, we are to be signs and bearers of hope to those who can’t see the end of the darkest of journeys.

For many years there has been a Kansas City businessman who anonymously hands out $100,000 each Christmas around the country $100 at a time, most recently in New York and New Jersey. To one such couple he said, “You are not alone; God bless.” That’s the message of Isaiah and it is also Jesus’ message, the one who took on human flesh to give us hope in the midst of despair. It’s the message of St. Lucia, whom we also remember today, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. If you are in a place where you can’t see the other side, know that you are not alone and God is with you. If not, and know someone who is, find a way to bring Isaiah’s good news to them in some way. We may not be able to see it from here, but we are looking ahead to being in the place of God’s promise. Amen.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

"Moving toward Christmas: Moved by the Spirit" Sermon Advent 2

Moving toward Christmas: Moved by the Spirit
Advent 2
December 9, 2012
Joel 2.12-13, 28-29
A man bought a mule that the previous owner guaranteed would do whatever he said. All he had to do was whisper in its ear. However, when the man whispered in the mule’s ear as instructed, the mule didn’t obey. Upon returning the mule to the owner with this complaint, the owner picked up a 2x4, whacked the mule in the head, and declared to the man, “First, you have to get his attention.” The Jews living around Jerusalem in the time of Joel believe that God has whacked them in the head big time and has certainly gotten their attention, but with a devastating swarm of locusts instead of a 2x4.
Can we set aside for today the question of whether God brings disasters on people or communities? I don’t believe God does that, but rather works in, with, and through disasters for his purposes. But the point of our reading is that the Jews believed that God was getting their attention and not just through a plague of locusts that had destroyed virtually everything in its path, but also through another even larger threat. It’s as if you have been wiped out by Hurricane Sandy and then you have the “fiscal cliff,” a cancer diagnosis, the breakup of a marriage, or the imminent death of a loved-one hanging over you as well.
However, Joel’s message is not all doom and gloom. Remember that whenever we read the prophets, if there is judgment there is also hope. If there is demand there is also promise. Joel reminds the people that when you don’t know where to turn, turn and return to the Lord your God. How do we do this? Joel says we are “to rend [our] hearts,” returning “with all [our] heart.” In other words, we are to open our hearts to God and what God is doing in our lives. Why should we do this? We open our hearts to God because, as Joel says, God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
We also do it because our priorities get mixed up and we get sidetracked on our journey of faith. Opening our hearts to God and what God is doing is hard because they are inundated with all sorts of stuff. We end up being imprisoned to all of our gadgets and toys rather than enjoying their blessings. It’s like a group of friends who are gathered together, but don’t talk to each other because they are busy texting somebody else. We do the same thing with God, ignoring our relationship with God because we are getting so caught up in other things. Bad as they are, I don’t think the things we call sin are the worst sins. I think the greatest sin is indifference. We ignore God and his desire for relationship with us, and doing so, become indifferent in injustice as well.
We are in the season of Advent, a time of preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Too often, our preparations take us away from God rather than closer. I find myself rushing through things like sending Christmas cards that should be meaningful; it’s just something to get done. Today is the second Sunday of Advent, a day typically given over to the John the Baptist, the one who prepared the people for the first coming of Jesus. John’s message of preparation was very similar to Joel’s: repent, or turn around and go the other way, for the kingdom of God is at hand. Advent is a time for us to remember, as if we can forget, but do anyway, that we need a savior. However, Advent is also a time to remember that God has promised to give us one as well.
Advent is both invitation and promise, an invitation to get back on track with our relationship with God and a promise that God will not only take us back but do some amazing things in our lives. For God has poured out his Spirit on all flesh, anyone and everyone, making a direct relationship with God not only possible, but guaranteed. All of this is through Jesus Immanuel, God with Us. We are invited to turn and return today and, moved by the spirit, we are challenged to ask how our preparations for Christmas open up our hearts to what God wants to do in, with, and through our lives. For me, I’m not going to rush the Christmas card thing, taking a bit more time to think about those people and asking God to bless them. So, return to the Lord your God, with all your hearts, for God is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, longing to welcome you home. Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Moving towrd Christmas: From the Depths" Sermon for Advent 1

From the Depths
Advent 1
December 2, 2012
Daniel 6.6-27
Is it just me, or is it a fact of the life that the more you are in a hurry the slower you’ll get there? Perhaps a corollary of this truth is that the more you want something the slower the time goes. I think that there’s a fine line between anticipation and anxiety, often exacerbated by impatience. Today we begin the season of Advent, the period leading up to our celebration of Christ’s birth, and the line between anticipation and anxiety might be blurred. I wonder about our reactions as we entered worship today. Some of us may ooh and ah over the decorations. Maybe some of us feel a heightened excitement and anticipation. But some may also feel some anxiety over what needs to be done: shopping, Christmas cards, baking, etc. Finally, some may feel sadness because one of more of our loved ones won’t be celebrating Christmas with us this year.

Wherever we are, and it’s possible to be in several places at once, we may find ourselves both on this journey toward Christmas yet stuck in a place that may or may not be of our choosing. Daniel finds himself in just such a situation, on a journey of faith, both in a place of his choosing and not in a place of his choosing. On a recent episode of NCIS: Los Angeles, Hetty, the head the LA office, was asked if she regretted killing someone earlier in her career as a Federal agent. After noting that the death of one person saved many lives she added, “I didn’t choose this life, it chose me.” One has to make choices in a life that chooses us.

The book of Daniel is set in a much earlier time than it was written. It was written about a century and a half before Jesus walked the earth, during a time that the Jews were being persecuted by the Greeks. But it was set about three and a half centuries earlier during a time when the Jews were exiled in Babylon. It was written to encourage Jews as they struggled with how to live as Jews while living under an occupying government. When the Persians defeated the Babylonians, Jews who had been exiled to Babylon were permitted to return to Jerusalem if they wished. Or they could stay and many, like Daniel, chose to stay. Daniel not only found himself rising to a position of prominence, he found himself as a target of jealous officials. So, Daniel finds himself in a place we often find ourselves: how do we live as people of faith in a place that makes that difficult, if not impossible. In other words, it’s tough to be an Advent people when the culture is celebrating Christmas.

Daniel doesn’t go looking for trouble and, though he could have avoided it, he simply does what he has always done, live his life of faith. He persists in his life of faith not knowing how the story is going to play out. I am struck how the three main characters are all engaged in some kind of anticipation and waiting. Presumably, the conspirators are celebrating and looking forward to a new day without Daniel. We know that the king spends an anxious night, hoping Daniel’s God will do something, but afraid to hope for a good result. But what about Daniel, how did he spend the night? Was it warm and cuddly like some of our children’s Bible stories hint? Or, was it full of anxiety, with fierce lions watching his every move, waiting for the angel’s hand to slip from their mouths?

 The story invites us to use our imaginations because it leaves a lot of room for us to do so. This is not fanciful speculation but rather an opportunity to think about how we might live out our lives of faith as we connect our stories to God’s story shown through the Bible. The story invites us to consider how many of us are eager to be on our way to Christmas, but find ourselves stuck in the depths. How many of us are waiting for God to do something, but are having a hard time seeing it?
 Our journey toward Christmas begins with the realization that we may be in places not of our own choosing and quite unsure how the story is going to play itself out in our lives of faith. However, we are reminded that the God who has called us and claimed us as his own will bear us through wherever we feel stuck and alone, even though we may not know how or what. For, as Darius the King and Daniel both recognize, our God is a living God, one who not only invites us to anticipate what he is going to do in our lives and in our world, but to expect the unexpected. We persist, just as Daniel did, not knowing how God will work, yet trusting Immanuel, God with Us to carry us on our journey. Whether filled with anticipation, anxiety, or both, may you know that God will bring you from the depths and on the way. Amen