Saturday, December 25, 2004

Psalm 96 - "What Song Shall We Sing?"

Christmas Day
December 25, 2004

What song shall we sing?
The psalmist says,
Sing to the LORD a new song!
A new song?
What’s wrong with the old song?
What’s wrong with what we usually sing?
Why do we need a new melody, new words, new instruments?
Was there something missing in our old song,
Something not quite right about what we used to say?
Because the psalmist says,
Sing to the LORD a new song!

The old poet, Calverley, reminds us of what our old songs are like,
All day I sang; of love, of fame,
Of fights our fathers fought of yore,
Until the thing almost became
A bore.

In this poem called, “Changed,”
He, too, means for us to get rid of the old songs,
To be done singing of earthly loves,
Love that is more about desire and lust than about true love.
The poet urges us to be done singing about fame.
Fame, fame, fatal fame,
It can play hideous tricks on the brain,
(as another singer said),
And Calverley says to put away our fight songs, our songs of bravado,
Our songs of the glories of war,
To sing of fighting and defeating
Goes against all of those songs of love.
No, the poet has become bored with such songs,
Focused only on ourselves, our wants, our small-minded ideas of the world,
So Calverley sets aside those songs, saying,
I cannot sing the old songs now!
It is not that I deem them low;
’Tis that I can't remember how
They go.

The old poet seems to be just complaining of old age, forgetfulness,
But could it be that he’s made himself to forget,
Made himself set aside all of those old desires,
Made himself stop singing those songs he liked,
Knowing that those old songs led him away from God?
So then the old poet, Calverley, more than 2000 years later,
Joins the psalmist who says,
Sing to the LORD a new song!

Look up from your songs about lust, desire, fame, and war,
Look up and see that the Lord has replaced those old songs,
Look up today, Christmas Day, and see the Savior born.
This is your new song,
This is why we don’t sing the old songs,
This is why we come today,
This is why our melodies and words and voices and instruments have changed.
This is why we ring the bells, play the chimes, and blow the organ pipes.
Jesus is born this day,
Come to save us from our sins, our lust for love, fame, and war,
Jesus is born to release us from death’s dungeon door,
And so today the psalmist says,
Sing to the LORD a new song!

The music is revealing
The wondrous event that has happened,
The old hymn writer, Faber, gives us lyrics for our new song,
Words for the new song bursting on Christmas Day,
Hark! Hark, my soul! angelic songs are swelling
O'er earth's green fields and ocean's wave-beat shore:
How sweet the truth those blessed strains are telling
Of that new life when sin shall be no more!
Angels of Jesus, angels of light,
Singing to welcome the pilgrims of the night!
Singing to welcome the pilgrims of the night!

A new song to accompany the birth of Jesus,
Music of the angels heard by the shepherds in the fields;
A new song to announce the Good News
That we shall not die forever, we shall not die in our sins,
We shall have a new life without sin, without judgment, a new life forever;
Music of the angels heard by God’s faithful ones on the Last Day,
Music to welcome the pilgrims of the night,
Welcome us to eternal life on the new earth.

Faber’s hymn says,
Angelic songs are swelling
O'er earth's green fields and ocean's wave-beat shore,

The psalmist says,
Sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless His name;
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
Let the sea and everything in it roar like thunder.
Let the fields and everything in them rejoice.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy.

This new song, this music of the angel choirs,
This new song, these lyrics of the old hymn writer,
This new song, the melodies we raise today,
This new song goes all across the Earth,
Celebrating the Lord on Christmas Day!
Even the sky and the sea and the fields and the trees
Make noises that are music to praise the Lord.

So now we know, what song shall we sing?
The psalmist says,
Sing to the LORD a new song!
The old poet says,
Forget the old songs!
The old hymn writer says,
Angelic songs are swelling!
But what is this new song about?
What new words, what new message could this song have?
Because I have this feeling
That when the psalmist said to sing something new,
He was thinking there was something new to say.

The old poet, Calverley, reminded us that our old songs
Were boring tales of love, fame, and war,
Songs that repeatedly showed just how sinful we were,
Songs that showed that we had no direction,
Songs that don’t bear repeating,
Because in the end,
In the brutal, bitter end,
Those songs would condemn us to hell,
Condemn us before God’s judgment,
Those songs would offer us no hope,
Because they tell us nothing about how to escape
The wrath of God on the Last Day.

Surely, the psalmist had something else in mind
When he began to sing a new tune;
Surely, the psalmist had heard a new message,
A message which completely replaced the doom of the old songs;
When the psalmist sings,
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
Bring an offering, and come into his courts!

There the psalmist is urging everyone to come forward,
To give honor to God,
To give God the highest honors,
Because there’s a new message, a new song, a new hope.

The psalmist says,
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
Tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
His marvelous works among all the peoples!

It’s the message of salvation that sparks this new song;
It’s God’s marvelous works, the way He comes to save His people,
It’s the way He reaches out to all nations,
Wanting to pluck everyone from the snarling mouth of the lion;
A new song will declare His glory,
And God’s glory is this: He saves His people from sin, death, and the devil.

The psalmist says,
Tell of his salvation from day to day,
And the old hymn writer, Faber, does just that,
Onward we go, for still we hear them singing,
'Come, weary souls, for Jesus bids you come;'
And through the dark, its echoes sweetly ringing,
The music of the Gospel leads us home.
Angels of Jesus, angels of light,
Singing to welcome the pilgrims of the night!
Singing to welcome the pilgrims of the night!

Faber’s hymn in just one line
Reminds us of what a tremendous new song we sing,
Come, weary souls, for Jesus bids you come.
The doors of heaven are open wide,
Jesus has busted down those doors that kept us outside;
The arms of God the Father are open wide,
Jesus has brought us back into the family of God;
You may struggle and strain under the pressures of sin in this life,
But in your weariness, in your brokenness,
Jesus brings the new message:
Come! Come and be welcomed! Come and be loved!
Come and find freedom!
Come and find your way home.

And then you see, this new song, this new message,
This is what you need to hear on Christmas morning.
As Faber says,
The music of the Gospel leads us home.
You are the pilgrims of the night,
You are the wandering ones, traveling through life’s cruel misfortunes,
You are the ones who continue walking through this minefield of sin,
You are the pilgrims, waiting and watching for the new shores,
The new mountain,
The new streets,
Your new home with your God.

Today sing the new songs of Christmas,
Declaring the birth of our Lord,
Sing the music of the Gospel this day,
Sing the new songs, sing the new message,
Sing of the birth of our Savior who conquered our old songs of sin,
Sing today and hear how the Gospel leads you to eternal life.
Because in that music of the Gospel,
You can hear the angel choirs singing,
Singing to welcome the pilgrims of the night,
As we prepare to arrive at home, home with our God,
As we prepare to rest in the new world with our Lord,
As we prepare to sing this new song for eternity.
Rest comes at length: though life be long and dreary,
The day must dawn, and darksome night be past;
Faith's journey ends in welcome to the weary,
And heaven, the heart's true home, will come at last.
Angels of Jesus, angels of light,
Singing to welcome the pilgrims of the night!
Singing to welcome the pilgrims of the night!

For text and music of Faber's hymn, go to the National Library of Australia.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Romans 1:1-7 - “Christmas Letter Writing Workshop”

4th Sunday in Advent (Year A - LCMS Readings)
Saturday, December 18, and Sunday, December 19, 2004

Christmas Letter Writing Workshop

Lesson #1: How to Begin
Instructor: Paul
Textbook: Paul’s Letter to the Romans (1:1-7)

Imagine opening up a schedule of community education classes, and there you see that a Christmas Letter Writing Workshop is being offered. Where it lists the name of the instructor, all it says is Paul. The only textbook the class requires is Paul’s letter to the Romans. This Christmas Letter Writing Workshop must be taught by Paul, St. Paul, the Apostle Paul, the early Christian missionary.

You dig out your Bible to look at the class textbook, Paul’s letter to the Romans. From what you remember, the book of Romans in the Bible is a rather long letter. If you had to be honest, Paul’s letter to the Romans is quite dry, a little boring, requiring a little too much, you know, thinking for a holiday letter. You just can’t quite imagine the letter to the Romans printed on paper with Christmas trees, with snow, with red and green on it. You certainly wouldn’t write a letter like that for your Christmas letter; what would your family think? They’d think you’re preachy, long-winded, and not very fun. Certainly they’d rather have a letter about your summer vacations, the kids, or the house. They’d probably even rather hear about cleaning your garage instead of something like Paul’s letter.

You look at the community ed class schedule again. Even though you don’t think you’re really going to write a Christmas letter based on how Paul writes, and even though you already wrote, signed, and mailed this year’s letter, you decide that you’re too curious to pass it up. You decide to go to class and find out how Paul would tell you to write a Christmas letter.

You get to the Christmas Letter Writing Workshop, and on each desk, there’s some Christmas-themed paper and a pen. There’s a message on the whiteboard in the front of the room: “Your instructor, Paul, is unable to be here today. He wasn’t feeling up to it.” Under this message, it gives the day’s assignment: “Lesson #1: How to Begin. Read Romans 1:1-7. Using Paul’s beginning as a model, start your own Christmas letter.”

Well, your first thought is to leave. Yet, you’re still just so curious about how it is that Paul’s letter could have anything to do with your own Christmas letter, so you take a seat at a desk. You pull out your Bible, your textbook, and find the letter to the Romans in the New Testament. You read the first seven verses, the verses that supposedly will tell you how to begin a Christmas letter. You read:

Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,

[The Gospel] which [God] promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, about His Son, who was descended from the seed of David according to the flesh and was designated as the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness as a result of His resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience that comes from faith among all the nations for the sake of His name, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

That’s a lot for the beginning of a letter, but you decide there’s got to be some ideas to take from it. You take a piece of the Christmas-themed paper, and write some notes. You see that Paul’s letter teaches us about how to talk; how to talk about 1) ourselves, 2) Jesus, and 3) other people. Even if you don’t leave this Christmas Letter Writing Workshop with a new Christmas letter, maybe your notes will end up helping you see how your faith in Jesus changes how you see yourself, how you see others, and how you see Jesus working in your life.

#1 – How does Paul talk about himself? He doesn’t talk about being a tentmaker, a world traveler, or a Roman citizen. Instead, Paul talks about how he has been called by God, set apart for the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Paul focuses on how God chose him to tell others about Jesus. In fact, Paul is willing to call himself a slave of Jesus Christ. By saying that he’s a slave, he’s saying that he is completely owned by Jesus, that he has no standing apart from Christ.

Are you willing to identify yourself like that? What would it mean to start a letter talking about how God has chosen you to share your faith with other people? What would people think if instead talking about your job, your school, your hobbies, the things people usually know about you, what would people think if instead you told them how God has really been using you to tell others about His love? What if you said that you were a slave of Jesus?

People would think you’re a freak. Plain and simple. To talk about yourself as being a slave of Jesus sounds like you’re a zealot, you’re overly committed, you’re so involved in your faith that you can’t relate to the rest of the world.

That’s what people might think, but wouldn’t that be something to always define yourself as a slave, a servant, a messenger of Jesus? It might shock them to hear it; it might make them pause and wonder if you’re really in touch with the world around you; it would be a very strange way to start a Christmas letter.

However, just as Paul, a slave of Jesus, talks a lot in his letter on how his faith does relate to everyday life, so too people might be shocked when you call yourself a slave of Jesus, but if they keep reading your letter, if they keep talking to you, won’t they find that you are a regular person with a regular life with regular problems who enjoys regular things but who also happens to be very dedicated to Jesus?

Paul doesn’t call himself a slave of Jesus and then kind of act like he has nothing in common with the people reading his letter. Paul admits that he is the same as the Christians in Rome. He shares the same struggles with sin, the same need for forgiveness, the same temptations, the same confusions, the same difficulties of remaining committed to his faith.

As you stare at your notes written on that Christmas-themed paper, you write in big letters: I AM A SLAVE OF JESUS. You decide that whether in Christmas letters or your conversations, you’re going to be bold this Christmas in telling people that you follow Jesus. But you’re also going to be ready to admit your failures, your struggles, the times when you have trouble believing that God really forgives you. In other words, you’re going to tell people that you are a dedicated follower of Jesus who understands regular life.

So then it is onto the next step in your notes for the Christmas Letter Writing Workshop. #2 – How does Paul talk about Jesus? Paul says that he is a slave of Jesus, called to share the Gospel, and then he explains what the Gospel is, the Good News, the message of Jesus.

The Gospel is ancient, eternal; God promised through the prophets of the Old Testament to send a Savior. This message of Jesus isn’t something that was made up a few centuries ago; it goes back to the beginning.

The Gospel is about God’s Son, Jesus. First and foremost, it is about Jesus, what Jesus did. The message isn’t Gospel if it only talks about what we do, about following commandments, about doing the right things. The Gospel is about Jesus.

It is Good News to know that Jesus is both man and God. Paul explains that Jesus was a descendent, from the family of David, was born in the flesh, and so Jesus is true man. Yet, Jesus is also the Son of God, the One who has the power of God, the One who has the Spirit of holiness, the One who had the power to rise from the dead.

Then suddenly Paul starts talking about stuff that sounds like he’s talking about us. “We have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience that comes from faith.” You pause a little bit in taking notes, because it seemed like Paul was focused on explaining who Jesus is in this section. This phrase doesn’t seem to fit, though, until you remember what your English teacher, your grammar teacher would want you to realize: God is the actor in the phrase. Yes, it says, “We have received,” we were given grace, we were given apostleship, but that must mean that someone gave us those things. God is the actor. We’re still talking about Jesus and what He does. Jesus gives us the gift of forgiveness; Jesus makes us apostles, sent out to share His Word; Jesus gives us faith that leads to obeying Him. God is the actor.

This is something you want everyone to hear when you talk about Jesus. Even when you talk about your faith, about how you try to follow God’s will, you want people to know that Jesus is the actor, Jesus is the One working in your life, Jesus gives you the faith in your heart.

As you pull apart these phrases, as you try to understand how Paul talks about Jesus and the Gospel, you realize that Paul’s letter is making you think about changing the way you talk about Jesus. You’re going to try to be very straightforward in your Christmas letters or your conversations that the Gospel is about Jesus, the God-man, the Savior, the One who came to save us.

That takes you to the last phrases in that section where Paul makes the transition to start talking about the people reading his letter. Jesus came to bring His faith, His grace and forgiveness to all nations, all people, “including you,” Paul says, meaning the Roman Christians, “including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”

So that takes you to the last section of your notes for the Christmas Letter Writing Workshop. #3 – How does Paul talk about other people? Other people are included. Paul sounds like such a Jesus freak when he calls himself a slave of Jesus, and it may seem like Paul’s closed off to other people, but here you realize that it simply isn’t true. Paul’s got other people in mind from the beginning. God has worked faith in Paul’s heart, giving Paul a heart for other people, wanting all nations to come and find the forgiveness and hope in Jesus Christ.

Other people are included, and they also receive wondrous gifts from the Lord. Paul says that they “are loved by God and called to be saints.” Different than any Christmas letter you might write, Paul is writing to people he’s never met, people he’s only heard about, and yet, he doesn’t hold anything back. The Christians in Rome are loved by God. The Christians in Rome are saints, holy ones.

How can he talk about these people as saints, as holy ones, when he doesn’t even know them or what they actions are really like? It goes back to what Paul knows about Jesus. Jesus makes us holy. Our actions might not always be right, but when God sees us, when God sees faith in our hearts, He sees the holiness of Jesus instead of our sins. How can Paul call these people saints? Because God calls them saints; because Paul knows that through faith these people have the holiness of Jesus.

This really gets you thinking about what it would mean to talk about other people this way in your future Christmas letters or when you talk to people during this Christmas season. Instead of always reserving the right to reject people, instead of always remembering their faults, instead of making people prove themselves with their actions, instead of second-guessing whether people truly are faithful, Paul’s letter in this Christmas Letter Writing Workshop has got you thinking about talking about other people as chosen by God, loved by God, made holy by God.

You’re back to thinking that someone’s going to call you a Jesus freak, but really, what would happen if you openly told people that God loved them, that they didn’t have to do anything to earn God’s love or your love, that they had a place in God’s family because of Jesus?

Someone’s going to ask what the catch is. Someone else is going question whether all of these people you talk to are really meant to be in God’s house. Still someone else may doubt that God could really love them that way. When you say that God wants to include all people in His kingdom, some people may disagree with you, doubt you, challenge you, murmur under their breath, saying that you’re being far too welcoming.

Yet, when you go back to look at what Paul wrote, the words that God gave Paul to write, you’re convinced that this is the way to talk about other people. God has sent His Gospel to save people among all nations. When God says He will save us from our sins, all people are included; God wants to include all people in His salvation. He is calling and inviting all people to come to faith.

You look up from your desk in the community ed classroom and realize that you’re well past the class time. You’ve got some great notes written all over that Christmas-themed paper, but you’re still not so sure that you’ll actually write your next Christmas letter like this. You do, however, leave that day realizing that you want to change the way you talk, change the way you talk about yourself, Jesus, and other people. You are a slave of Jesus, Jesus who came to give you the gift of life after death, Jesus who came to give that gift to other people too.

Paul’s letter to the Romans might not look like a Christmas letter, but you realize that his letter just got you focused back on the reason Jesus was born: to save all people from their sins.

You decide that you’ll come back again to the community ed class, whether or not Paul ever shows up, because his textbook is really helping you understand what it means to believe in the babe born in a stable on Christmas Day.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Isaiah 44 and 60 (selected verses) - "Don't Worship the Tree"

Isaiah 44:14-15,18-22, 60:1-2,16b,19
Advent Midweek
Wednesday, December 8, 2004

(Bring in 2 pieces of wood)

The carpenter cuts down a tree. With half of the wood (put piece of wood down), he builds a fire to cook his food, bake his bread, keep himself warm. With the other half of the wood, the wood from the same tree, the carpenter makes an idol, a god. He worships the idol, kneels before it, treats that piece of wood like it was alive, like it was royal and deserved his respect and attention, like that idol had power.

The carpenter is pleased with himself. He has a fire for warmth and cooking food. He has a god to worship.

We interrupt this feel-good story for a message from the prophet Isaiah:
Narrator: Don’t Worship the Tree!

Doesn’t the carpenter get it? He doesn’t seem to see how foolish he is. Here he chops down one tree. He burns some of the wood, burns it up for warmth and cooking. From that same tree, he makes a god. If that tree, if that wood had such divine qualities, if that tree had a god inside of it, how could the carpenter burn up part of the tree?

Doesn’t the carpenter get it? He’s been fooled by his own thoughts, his own heart, been fooled into thinking that he could make his own god. He’s gonna take a chunk of wood and worship it, fooling himself into forgetting that that chunk of wood wasn’t any different than the firewood. The carpenter at some level knows that that piece of wood doesn’t have any power, was just a piece of wood that he cut and carved; at some level, the carpenter knows that it is a lie to think that his chunk of wood has any power. (Hold up second piece of wood)) But he’s not letting himself say, “Isn’t this a lie in my right hand?”

The carpenter needs to hear Isaiah say:
Narrator: Don’t Worship the Tree!

The carpenter needs to remember that his God isn’t a chunk of wood; the true God made all of the trees. The carpenter needs to remember that he didn’t make God; God made him and all people. And then when the carpenter realizes that he has been worshipping an idol, going against the true God, when the carpenter realizes that he has sinned, has gone against the ways of God, has made a chunk of wood more important than the true God, then the carpenter also needs to hear that God forgives his sins.

God blots out our transgressions, our sins, like a cloud or like mist. A cloud can be easily pushed away by the wind. Mist can disappear and be gone just as quickly as it showed up. Like how the day can go from cloudy to sunny with a strong gust of wind, so the carpenter goes from dark sinner to forgiven child of God.

The carpenter had been worshipping a tree, but just as the trees don’t have any power over the clouds, mist, or rain, so trees also don’t have any power to remove sins. Only the true God, the Creator of heaven and earth, has the power to forgive our sins. And by His grace and love, the true God promises to do just that—blot out our sins, send them away like a cloud.

Remembering all of this, the carpenter throws both chunks of wood into the fire. (throw second piece of wood on top of first) He will not worship the tree. He will worship the true God who forgives his sins.

(Bring in a Christmas tree)

The Christmas tree man cuts down a tree. He brings it into his home thinking how it would be a perfect decoration for Christmas. He looks at the tree and realizes how beautiful that tree is. He sings a song, “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, How lovely are your branches!”

As the Christmas tree man admires the tree, he decides that everyone should make a special place for a Christmas tree in their homes and in their hearts. “O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree, You are the tree most loved! How often you give us delight/In brightly shining Christmas light!”

When the Christmas tree man does a little reading about the Christmas tree, about what people have said in the past about the evergreen tree, he realizes how important it is to have the tree in his house. An evergreen tree is a reminder that life will continue. Honoring, praising, maybe even worshipping an evergreen tree gives hope that spring will come, new life will sprout, there will be a harvest next summer. “O Christmas Tree, O Christmas tree,/Your beauty green will teach me/That hope and love will ever be/The way to joy and peace for me.”

We interrupt this feel-good story for a message from the prophet Isaiah:
Narrator: Don’t Worship the Tree!

Doesn’t the Christmas tree man get it? He doesn’t seem to see how foolish he is. Here he chops down a tree. That tree that began as a decoration, as a reminder of Christmas, now he starts to give it honor like it was a god. How could the Christmas tree man sing to the tree saying that the tree is most loved, gives us delight, that the tree teaches us, that the tree brings hope and love and joy and peace?

Doesn’t the Christmas tree man get it? He’s been fooled by his own thoughts, his own heart, been fooled into making a decoration the center of his Christmas celebration. He’s gonna take a tree and worship it, fooling himself into thinking that his tree is teaching him about hope and love. But he’s not letting himself say, “Isn’t this a lie in my living room?”

The Christmas tree man needs to hear Isaiah say:
Narrator: Don’t Worship the Tree!

The Christmas tree man needs to remember that the center of Christmas isn’t the Christmas tree. The center of Christmas is Christ, Jesus, God’s own Son, who is truly divine and who came to Earth born as a baby. The center of Christmas is what Christ teaches us about hope and love, teaching us that He will pay for our sins with His death on the cross, that He will save us from the death that lasts forever, that He will give us true joy and true peace.

Remembering all of this, the Christmas tree man stops singing “O Christmas Tree.” He still decorates the tree, but only to remember Christ. And he decides that if the Christmas tree ever becomes more important than Christ, he’s gonna knock down that tree (throw tree down with chunks of wood) and get himself right back to church—just like Nick Horswill’s drawing on tonight’s bulletin shows. Leave that Christmas tree, those presents, all of that behind if they’re getting in the way of remembering that Christmas is about Jesus Christ coming to save us from our sins. Leave that Christmas tree behind if it has become an idol and get yourself back to church where you’ll hear the Word of God, where you’ll be reminded that Christ is the center of Christmas.

(Bring out some Christmas lights)

The children of Redeemer come to decorate the trees tonight. They’ll get to put ornaments on the trees. We’ll have someone turn the lights on. It’s a nice tradition. The kids enjoy it; the adults enjoy watching it. It’s cute, and the trees are so pretty.

But I’m not afraid to interrupt this feel-good event with a message from the prophet Isaiah:
Narrator: Don’t Worship the Tree!

The children of Redeemer come to decorate the trees tonight, but it isn’t like the carpenter and the Christmas tree man who began to worship the tree. We’re not here to say that these trees have any power; these trees aren’t gods. We’re not here to say that these trees have the power to teach us; these trees themselves don’t give us hope and love, joy and peace. The center of Christmas is Christ, and the center of decorating the Christmas trees is also Christ.

When the lights get turned on, remember Isaiah’s words in chapter 60, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” The Christmas lights symbolize that Jesus Christ is the light of the world. The Christmas lights themselves aren’t important; in fact, as many of you have experienced, Christmas lights can be some of the most frustrating, imperfect, unworkable things ever. The Christmas lights themselves aren’t important. But when we see those lights, may we remember that the center of Christmas is Christ. Jesus will return; He will be our everlasting light. When we have eternal life, we will no longer need a sun or moon, because Jesus will be the light of the world. As those Christmas light shine this season, remember that Jesus is the light of the world.

(still holding the Christmas lights) Why do we need a light for this world? Because a thick darkness covers the Earth, the darkness of sin. Just as God said that He will blot our sins like a wind pushing away the clouds, so God also says that He will forgive our sins like a bright light removing the darkness.

Our Christmas celebrations can turn dark so quickly, just like removing two bulbs from a strand of Christmas lights (remove bulbs). Sometimes we get caught up in the busyness of the season. Sometimes we fight with our families. Sometimes we’re rude with people in the checkout line at the stores in the Christmas rush. Sometimes we forget the true center of Christmas; we get focused on all of those unimportant things like our wish lists, the open bar at the company party, or the Packers/Vikings game on Christmas Eve. And then our Christmas has turned dark with our sin.

That’s when we need to hear Isaiah say:
Narrator: Don’t Worship the Tree!

The Christmas lights will go out. The Christmas tree will eventually get dragged out to the street corner to be made into mulch, or the Christmas tree will get taken apart and boxed up in the basement. The Christmas tree has no power to remove the darkness, to remove the clouds, to remove the sins in our lives. Only the true God, the Creator of heaven and earth, has the power to forgive our sins. And by His grace and love, the true God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, born to us as a baby, lived on the Earth as a man, suffered for us, died for us, rose again for us. Only Christ will be our everlasting light.

So throw your chunks of wood into the fire, knock down your Christmas tree if it’s getting in the way, leave all of those things behind, and come to hear the Word of God. Your sins are forgiven in Jesus Christ, the Savior born on Christmas Day.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Isaiah 2:1-5 - "Climb Every Mountain"

First Sunday in Advent (Year A - LCMS Readings)
Saturday, November 27, and Sunday, November 28, 2004

Put up mountains with the names of the gods. Hang up on string (Saturday); have children help hang them during Children’s Message (Sunday). Based on Isaiah, Zion will be raised up higher than the others. Use pole to put it way up.

So having all of these mountains up here makes me think of a song. You’ve got the lyrics on the bulletin insert. Take a listen.

Ah, yes, Kate Smith’s over the top rendition of “Climb Every Mountain.” There’s a lot of people who might see what we’ve got up here today, all of these mountains with all of these gods, and they’d say that we’ve got to climb every mountain, that there’s truth to be found from each religion. They’d tell us to climb every mountain and then you’ll find your dream. In fact, they might even tell us that we shouldn’t have raised one mountain higher than the others, that no one religion is better than others. Climb every mountain.

That’s what many people might say, but that’s not what God, Yahweh, says. Through the prophet Isaiah, we’ve heard what He says. Take a look at verses 2 and 3 on your bulletin insert, the verses I’ve titled "Climb Every Mountain", these verses put an end to the idea that all mountains, all religions lead to the same place. Isaiah says, “It shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come.” God’s mountain will be the highest. Yahweh will be seen as the true God. All peoples will come to Yahweh. Salvation, peace, love, forgiveness, and life will only come from the true God. Climb every mountain—cross that out. Climb one mountain, the mountain of Yahweh, the mountain of our God who saves us as a gift.

No other mountain, no other god will give you the hope of life after death like our God. Every other religion demands something from you, tells you that you can only save yourself by your actions, tells you that you must somehow please the gods. Only our God gives us life after death as a gift, not based on what we do but based on what He does. Yahweh’s mountain is the highest of all of the mountains, because it is the only truth, the only one where you can find unconditional love at its peak.

Augustine, the early church father and writer, wrote about this chapter of Isaiah, this image of God’s mountain. Augustine said, “Approach the mountain, climb up the mountain, and you that climb it, do not go [back] down it. There you will be safe, there you will be protected; Christ is your mountain of refuge.”

You’ve come to the mountain of Christ today; there’s no need to ever go back down to check out the foothills, the other gods, the religions that do not offer you true hope. Augustine is urging us to remain on God’s mountain, to remain in the faith.

Isaiah describes how the nations will flow to God’s mountain. What an incredible image—people flowing like a river, flowing towards God, except this is incredibly miraculous, this river is flowing up the mountain. The people are being drawn up to God, drawn by God’s Holy Spirit.

Except we know from our experience that we don’t always remain with God. Even though we flow to the top of God’s mountain, we also begin to ooze back down. We slide, slump, drip, creep back down towards the bottom. We forget about God during the week, we get attracted by what else is going on around us, we think that other mountains are greener, other religions must be better, we ooze back down.

That’s the kind of situation that was going on around Isaiah. God sent Isaiah as a prophet to those who had oozed. Imagine Isaiah being kind of like a party crasher. God’s people were having a good old time, doing their own thing, checking out all of the other religions around them and what they had to offer.

Isaiah crashes their party and gets their attention with this grand image of Zion—God’s mountain, of how God’s mountain will be the highest of all of the mountains, that God is better than the other gods, that God is the true God. Isaiah describes this incredible vision, and then he says, “Come on, let’s go. Let’s go up God’s mountain, so that He can teach us His ways.”

The partygoers kind of stare at the party crasher. Think of it, someone crashes your party, barges in, tells this incredible tale, and then tells you to leave your party and go somewhere else. The partygoers don’t want to leave. And that’s the problem, Isaiah preached God’s Word, but God’s people of Israel didn’t want to listen, didn’t want to follow.

So later in chapter 2, Isaiah goes on to preach God’s judgment against the people. He says, “Their land is filled with idols, they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made. [Lord], do not forgive them!” The partygoers don’t want to leave their party where they’re singing “Climb Every Mountain,” so the party crasher rejects their actions. The people didn’t want to return to God’s mountain; they wanted to stay where they could worship on all of the mountains, worshipping many different gods. So Isaiah rejects their actions.

You know at times we are the partygoers. You know at times we want to sing “Climb Every Mountain,” not wanting to get rid of ideas from other religions, not wanting to limit ourselves to Jesus. You know at times we want to have our own party, our own way of thinking about how to live, putting together our own beliefs about God—using some stuff from the Bible and some from the Dali Lama and some from TV shows and some from magazine articles about what all of those celebrities believe and some from what we learn from Hallmark cards.

But today Isaiah the party crasher is here. He just turned off the stereo and smashed that “Climb Every Mountain” CD. He just turned off the TV right in the middle of an interview with Tom Cruise talking about Scientology, discovering the truth inside of yourself. The party crasher is here saying, “Come on! Let’s go up the mountain of God.” Augustine is here saying, “Climb up the mountain, and do not go back down it.”

What will we find on that mountain? We will find God’s ways, God’s grand vision for our lives that goes so far beyond what we can imagine. Take a look at your bulletin insert. What will we find? Verse 3 says, “For out of Zion shall go the instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem,” and then verse 4 gives us an example of God’s instruction, one way in which God’s ways completely change our way of viewing the world. “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plow blades, and their spears into pruning knives; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

In this example, God shows that His plan for the world is so far beyond what we can accomplish on our own. If we stay down in our own little party, we’ll never get to a place where there’s peace among all people; there’s just no way. In teaching us about nations no longer going to war, tools of war becoming tools for farming, in that, we are seeing one example of what we will learn on God’s mountain. His ways are not our ways. His vision for the world will completely transform our lives.

Think about it. This example of God’s instruction, that God’s vision for the world is to bring us all together in peace, runs completely opposite of so many things people are saying about the Iraq War. No matter how you feel politically about the war in Iraq, it is an extremely dangerous thing to say that it is God’s will that we attacked Iraq, that God is on our side of the war, anything like that. God may work through this entire situation, but you’ve seen today what God’s will is: to bring the world to His mountain, to bring the world together in peace in the new world. When we want to claim that America winning the war is God’s will, then we’re oozing back down the mountain. God’s will is for the victory of Jesus Christ to win the hearts of all people. And while this vision of peace will not be fulfilled until the last days, it is God’s ultimate will to bring us into peace with each other. Don’t stop halfway up the mountain, talking America being God’s chosen nation, when really at the top of the mountain God is teaching that He wants all people, all nations to know His salvation.

Which brings us back to those first words of this prophecy: “It shall come to pass in the last days.” The vision of God bringing the world’s people together in peace is a vision for the end of the world. When Jesus returns, then God’s mountain will be raised up and everyone will realize that it is truly the highest mountain. In this Advent season leading up to Christmas, this prophecy from Isaiah points us to the Second Advent of Jesus, the Second Coming of Jesus, when He returns to bring an end to this world, to bring us to a new world, a new life, life forever with Him. So Isaiah is crashing our party today, saying, “Come on, let’s go up to the mountain of God. Let’s go and wait for our Savior to return to bring us to new life.”

We read this section of Isaiah on the First Sunday in Advent, because it urges us to come and wait on God’s mountain, to come and wait for Jesus to return, to come and wait for God to bring us to a place of peace. At the first Advent when Jesus was born, the angels urged the shepherds to come and see the King who was born in Bethlehem. Now while we wait for the Second Advent, when Jesus returns to Earth, this reading from Isaiah chapter 2 urges us to come and see that our God is the true God, that our God will return again, that when He returns all people will know that He is true, that those who remain in faith will find new life.

Again, remember what Augustine said, “Approach the mountain, climb up the mountain, and you that climb it, do not go [back] down it. There you will be safe, there you will be protected; Christ is your mountain of refuge.” That’s what Advent is all about. Advent is urging us to climb up the mountain and not to go back down. Advent urges us to come to Jesus and wait for Him to return. Don’t get distracted by all of the other things going on; don’t get tempted to go down the mountain to your own party. Stay right here; wait right here; wait and watch for your Savior to return.

That’s what Advent is all about—urging each other to wait and watch for Jesus to return. You do this when you crash each other’s parties like Isaiah did, when you tell each other to return to God, to return to church. You urge each other in this congregation by providing more services during Advent, special Wednesday night services that interrupt our week, interrupt our forgetfulness and remind us of our Savior. You encourage each other by sending Christmas cards that point to the true meaning of Christmas—Jesus was born to die for our sins, He is our hope for life after death. You urge and encourage one another in the faith when you simply tell the people around you here in church, you tell each other, “I’m glad you’re here. I hope I see you next week. God is in this place.”

So let’s try this today using the words of Isaiah. Let’s try encouraging each other to stay on God’s mountain, to stay in the faith, to keep our hope in Him. Take a look at the section on the insert marked “Urging & Encouraging Each Other.” Based on verse 3, we’re going to urge and encourage one another to climb God’s mountain and to stay on God’s mountain. The verses are marked Pulpit side and Window side. You’re going to speak these words to the other half of the congregation, urging and encouraging other people in this sanctuary to be here, to be on God’s mountain. Please stand. Face the middle aisle, and beginning with the pulpit side, let’s use the words of Isaiah to encourage one another.

P: Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
W: Come, let us go to the house of the God of Jacob,
P: So that he may teach us his ways
W: and that we may walk in his paths.

Don’t go back down that mountain. Don’t ooze back down. Don’t slide, slump, drip, creep back down. Stay with God. Keep listening to His Word. Come together to encourage each other to stay on God’s mountain, for on this mountain, on Christ our mountain, there is forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Let’s try encouraging each other one more time.

Please remain standing for the Creed. But it’s kind of strange to say the Creed with all of these other gods up here. We don’t say the Creed to any other god but Yahweh, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As you say the Creed, I will remove all of the false gods and their mountains. The Creed focuses our attention on our God on Zion, the highest mountain of all.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Matthew 11:11-15 - "Violence?? What Violence?"

Reformation Day (alternate text)
Saturday, October 30, and Sunday, October 31, 2004

Saturday – put up poster of questions from youth compiled before, explain the connection to Luther
Sunday – have children give questions during children’s sermon, children put up poster

The questions that these students have asked are very violent. I mean, really, “Why should we believe in God? Why preach about God? Do you all really believe in Jesus? Why are you here?” Those are violent questions, just as Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” were violent.

Oh, but you say, “Violence?? What violence? There’s no fisticuffs, no blood, no broken bones, no explosions, no guns, no bombs. Really, these questions are just questions from our students. There’s no violence in these questions. . .is there?”

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent will take the kingdom of heaven by force.” People are going to violently attack God’s kingdom, His people, His church, and the appropriate reaction to this attack is violence. Jesus is calling us to be violent, take the Church back by force. It’s a little difficult to see this, but this verse is talking about two different groups of people: the people who attack the Kingdom of God and the people who defend it. The people who attack, attack with violence. The people who defend, defend with violence.

But still even though Jesus said this, you still say, “Violence?? What violence? Who’s attacking the Church today? It doesn’t look like anyone is attacking the Church, and certainly not violently. And those questions from the students, I mean, they’re not violent questions, are they? They’re just asking questions, right?”

Ah, yes, it all seems peaceful today, but perhaps in those questions posted on our door, perhaps there’s an extremely violent confrontation going on. In order to understand just how violent it is in here today, let’s take a look at a violent scene from the Reformation. Perhaps then we’ll understand the violence in our church today.

Today we celebrate the Reformation, how Martin Luther in 1517 set the Church on a course of reexamining what it taught, of reexamining the Bible, of rediscovering the Gospel of Jesus Christ—that we are not saved by what we do, but that we are saved by grace, as a gift of God, through faith and trust in Jesus. Luther and those who searched the Scriptures with him wanted to reform the Church, change what the Church was teaching, but when the Roman Catholic leadership rejected this change, Luther and others were forced out, forced to be a separate denomination.

While these tensions would lead to civil war in Germany, would lead to much physical violence, that’s not the violent scene from the Reformation that I’m talking about. In order to understand just how violent it is in here today, we have to see the violence on October 31, 1517, the day Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door, the day Luther publicly began to question what was being taught in the Church. Luther was announcing that he wanted to debate these issues surrounding the essential question of how we are saved. And in asking those questions, Luther was reacting with violence, was defending the Church with violence, was taking the Kingdom of Heaven by force.

You see, the kind of violence Jesus was talking about is not the blood and gore, the hit and crush, the shoot and kill kind of violence we think of first. The kind of violence Jesus was talking about is the violence of faith versus faithlessness, of belief versus unbelief, of truth versus false teaching.

Luther had seen the violence of faithlessness, unbelief, and false teaching in the Church, and Luther reacted by taking the Kingdom of Heaven by force, by violent force. When Luther questioned what was being taught, when he announced that he wanted to debate these issues, when he brought attention to the fact that the truth of the Gospel was being lost in what the Church was teaching and doing, these were the kind of violent acts Jesus was talking about. Luther was defending the Word of God against the violence of false teaching.

Again, what violence was being committed against the Word of God in Luther’s day? The violence of changing the message, of hiding the Gospel, of making the faith to be about our works. In that way, the Kingdom of heaven was suffering violence, because the people were not hearing the hope and forgiveness of Jesus. The people were being chained to the Law, were being told that they could only have eternal life if they did enough. The Church was ripping apart God’s Word.

As one author put it, “The necessary response to such violence is a faith which must also be violent, that is, violently stubborn in confession. The violent take it by force, that is, Christians with faith born of the word of God who will not back off from their confession by the threat of violence against them. For Christian violence is not the same as the violence of the world, but is, rather, a violence of the heart and mind" (Every Day Will I Bless Thee, 494).

What the Church had been teaching was doing violence to Luther’s heart and mind. He was overwhelmed with guilt and his heart ached. He only understood Jesus as a terrible judge who would condemn him to hell for his sins. To this violence against his heart and mind, Luther reacted with a violence of heart and mind.

He questioned what the Church was teaching; he asked the Church to look again at the Bible, to study again what Jesus had taught. He found hope in the Gospel, found that forgiveness and peace that he had desperately needed, and now he wasn’t going to let anyone take that forgiveness and peace away from him.

When Luther put his “95 Theses” on the door, he was committing a terrible violent act. He was showing that he would not back off from his confession, his belief. He would remain stubborn about teaching the truth of God’s Word. And that, my friends, is the same as this violent act of our students today.

Look at these questions again that the students have asked: “Why should we believe in God? Why preach about God? Do you all really believe in Jesus? Why are you here?” Those are the questions they want to ask you. In them is a violence against unbelief. They are calling you to really know the faith, to know the truth about God. When they ask, “why are you here,” they’re really questioning whether you’re just going through the motions. Perhaps these students sometimes sense the violence that you do against the faith—the violence of unbelief, of false teaching, of hypocrisy, of putting on a good show, of not really knowing the Gospel. Sensing this violence against the kingdom of heaven, these students have violently asked their questions today. These students will not back down from their faith. These students will not let you do violence against their hearts and minds, not let you trample their hope of forgiveness and peace in Jesus.

But you say, “Violence?? What violence?” You say, “Where have we been violent against the Word of God?”

Unfortunately, I do see violence committed against the truth in this congregation. When I hear you telling each other that you have to do good works in order to please God, you are doing violence to the Gospel—which says we cannot please God by our actions and we are saved by faith in Jesus. When parents tell me they want their children in church to learn the Ten Commandments, especially the one about honoring parents, you are doing violence to the Gospel—because that most important thing students learn from the Church isn’t the Ten Commandments but rather learning that they are forgiven in Jesus. You have done violence to the Gospel when you act as if people can’t be Christians unless they meet your expectations. You have done violence when you say that going to Church is just about getting a nice feeling for the day, ignoring the spiritual, eternal importance of the faith.

Because you have done this, because we have all done this, because we have all violently opposed the Word of God at times with what we say and do, because of this, the students have asked us some difficult questions today. They aren’t going to let our violence destroy the preaching and teaching of truth in this place. They will not back down from the faith. And when they ask these kind of questions, when they react with a violence of heart and mind, they are calling us back to the truth.

And when they call us back to the truth, that truth forgives us for our violence, for our unbelief, for our faithlessness. The students aren’t asking these questions to condemn us; they’re asking these questions to point us to the hope and forgiveness in the truth of Jesus Christ.

Of course, these students don’t always remain faithful themselves, and of course, you often are boldly committed to the faith. In other words, we all sin, and we all need forgiveness. However, I think these questions are indeed good reminders for us today—how are we doing violence to the Word of God? Are we lacking faith and trust? Are we teaching something other than the Gospel of Jesus? We must be willing to ask these questions, so that we can defend the Word of God against false teaching—even when that false teaching comes from ourselves.

And how do we defend the Word of God, how do we react against violent attacks on the truth—besides writing up questions to tape to the door? We defend the truth by clinging to Jesus who defeats the devil. We defend the truth when we believe and trust the Word of God, when we believe that Jesus will save us from death and give us life forever. When that Word of God is preached and taught, that does great violence against false teaching.

We defend the truth by clinging to Jesus who defeats the devil. We defend the truth when we ask our children what they’re learning in Sunday School and make sure that they hearing that Jesus loves them and forgives them. We defend the truth when we attend Bible study and don’t let anyone change the message of God into a message of being saved by works. You defend the truth when you check what your pastors are preaching against the Word of God, questioning us when you think we’ve gone against the Gospel.

We defend the truth by clinging to Jesus who defeats the devil. We defend the truth when we explain to others the differences between Christianity and other religions, that only Christianity teaches that salvation is a gift from God. We defend the truth when we explain to others the differences between our denomination, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and other denominations, that we don’t want to remain separate from other Christians but that we will not let anyone teach something in the Church that makes the Gospel less important, that makes it harder to hear forgiveness, that doesn’t focus our attention on Jesus Christ alone.

You see, there’s violence going on here today. The students have asked some violent questions, not backing away from the truth of God’s Word, because I think they correctly realize that the kingdom of heaven is being attacked even by some of us in here today—by faithlessness, unbelief, and false teaching.

Yet, while the kingdom of heaven is suffering violence here today, the violent are also taking it by force. Through your faith in Jesus Christ, you are reacting with great violence against those who would destroy the truth. You are committed to Jesus Christ. You are not letting anyone change the message, holding onto our hope that we will be saved by faith not by works. You will not back away from your faith which seems ridiculous to the world. You are committed to the Word of God.

When they asked Luther to take back everything he had written and said about the Gospel, Luther said, “Unless I am convinced by scripture…, I cannot and will not recant [take back] anything, for my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” His conscience was captive to the Word of God; he was committed to the Word of God over against anything else.

There’s a lot of violence in here today when you remain committed to the Word of God, when your conscience is captive to the Word of God. There’s a lot of violence when you won’t let the truth be attacked, the teachings of Christ be changed, when you won’t let the world destroy the hope you have in God.

So now I am going to incite you to violence, stir you up to commit a violent act. Most of the time if I encouraged a group of people to be violent, I could be arrested, charged with inciting a rebellion or leading a mob. Yet, I am going to ask you to do a most violent act that won’t be recognized by the world as violent. I’m going to ask you to commit an act of spiritual violence, defending the Church against the violence of faithlessness, unbelief, and false teaching.

Join me in the violent act of confessing our common Christian faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. Please stand. The Creed states our faith in Jesus against all other beliefs. With this Creed, we violently declare that we will not back away from the faith—the faith that gives us forgiveness through Jesus Christ alone.

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Luke 16:19-31 - "Same God, Same Promise"

Pentecost 19 (Year C - LCMS Readings)
Saturday, October 9, and Sunday, October 10, 2004

Why are the youth going away next weekend for a retreat to study the Old Testament prophets? Why is Pastor Miller’s class tracing the history of God’s people in the Old Testament? Why would the Sunday School use a curriculum this year and every other year which focuses on the Old Testament? Why do we have our sixth grade confirmation class do a project called Tracing the Promise, looking at the Old Testament? My Sunday morning Youth & Adult Bible class has been studying the stained glass windows the last two weeks. Why would many of the symbols be directly inspired by the Old Testament? And why would we name our congregation, Redeemer, a word found in the Old Testament?

The reason we do all of these things and more can be explained by the story that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel reading, the story of the rich man and Lazarus. So as we take a moment to study this story, I want you to remember those things from our congregation: RYMS Fall Retreat, Pastor Miller’s class, Sunday School curriculum, sixth grade confirmation project, the stained glass windows, and our congregation name. Remember those things as we pull apart the story Jesus told.

The rich man doesn’t get it, even in hell. There the rich man is suffering torment when he sees Lazarus being comforted in heaven, reclining at the table of the heavenly feast with Abraham. The rich man still figures that Lazarus is a nothing, someone to be bossed around, someone to serve him. So he asks Abraham to send Lazarus down to hell with a cool drink of water.

Then Abraham explains. “Remember that you got your good things in your life, but Lazarus got bad things. But now he’s being comforted, and you suffer. Plus, between us and you, a great chasm stands, so that the ones from here can’t come to you, and so that no one can come from there to us.”

This finally causes the rich man to think of his five brothers. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers that they’re going end up in torment like him if they don’t change their lives.

Abraham says, “No, they have Moses and the prophets; let them hear these.”

The rich man thinks that Moses and the prophets are not sufficient warning. His brothers will need something more like a miracle, someone rising from the dead. “No, Father Abraham, Moses and the prophets aren’t enough for salvation.”

Would we agree? The Old Testament is not sufficient? The Old Testament isn’t enough? We often make the mistake of thinking that the New Testament contains Gospel and the Old Testament only contains Law. Salvation after all only comes through Christ—who is only in the New Testament. We have heard of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But who has ever heard of the Gospel of Moses or the Gospel of the Prophets?

But this story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is told by Jesus Himself. Why would Jesus teach that people should look for a way to heaven in the Old Testament if it isn’t in there? What is Jesus saying in this story?

Jesus is saying that throughout Scripture this is true: Same God, Same Promise. Since Adam and Eve fell into sin, there has been a promise from our gracious God that He would show His grace to us. We trace this promise of grace throughout Moses and the Prophets, and we find that yes, God has always been the same and He has always held out the same promise of salvation. Same God, Same Promise.

So when Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus, what is He trying to tell the Pharisees? Same God, Same Promise. If they don’t accept the promise of a Messiah in Moses and the prophets, they will not accept the promised One. Yet, here’s the irony. Jesus says, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear these,” but the Pharisees felt they did hear. They felt they were experts in Scripture and the Law. But Jesus is saying they don’t hear the promise correctly, because they want a Messiah who will follow their interpretation of the Law. They prided themselves in getting their theology correct, and according to them, Jesus didn’t fit. But Jesus has come to show that He is the true Messiah.

Jesus is saying, Same God, Same Promise. Jesus is the fulfillment of the same promise they have heard. Jesus is from the same God they worship. He is not changing anything; the Pharisees have had the wrong interpretation of Scripture. Jesus is showing that He is consistent with the promise that God will show His grace to His people.

In that way, then, the Old Testament is sufficient for salvation, a way to heaven, because it speaks about God saving us by grace through faith. Moses and the Prophets didn’t just preach Law; they also preached the Gospel and promise of God. The Gospel of Moses and the Prophets.

Many prophets proclaimed how Israel had broken God’s Law and how God would bring destruction upon them for their wickedness. For instance, today we heard Amos preach against Israel: “Woe to you who are complacent in Zion.” Yet, he ends his book with God’s promise to restore Israel, a promise of salvation in heaven, to be planted in the holy city and never be uprooted again. The Old Testament certainly is sufficient for salvation, because it carries the Gospel message. The Old Testament is sufficient, because it is the same God, the same Promise, as we have in Jesus Christ.

Do you still remember all of those things I asked you to remember, the things from this congregation—RYMS Fall Retreat, Pastor Miller’s class, the Sunday School curriculum, the sixth grade confirmation project, the stained glass windows, and our congregation name? Are you starting to see why we would teach the Old Testament with those things?

For instance, take the sixth grade confirmation project. They are learning something about each of the 66 books of the Bible, and as they study the Old Testament, they are seeing how God’s promise of salvation keeps coming up. In fact, not only will they learn that Amos, the prophet of today’s Old Testament reading, not only will they learn that Amos is the prophet of doom, preaching God’s judgment against the people’s sin. Their project will help them realize God’s promise in Amos, the promise that He will save His people. The students will realize that in the Old Testament, we have the Same God, Same Promise as in Jesus.

We’ll come back to the rest of those things, but I want you to start to see—we teach the Old Testament because it has Gospel, Good News.

When we hear the story of the rich man and Lazarus, we already know what happens—Jesus is killed on the cross, raised from the dead, and still people reject Him and His disciples. So when Jesus says in the story, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead,” the Pharisees and disciples probably didn’t understand His meaning at that point, but we who know the rest of the story, we who know that Christ did rise from the dead, we know that His resurrection didn’t and still doesn’t convince people of His message. The resurrection of Christ doesn’t mean anything if people aren’t willing to listen to the Old Testament, to see how Jesus fulfills the promises of the Old Testament, to see that this is the Same God, Same Promise.

That is what Jesus wants us to take away from this story. Same God, Same Promise. This is what He was saying to the Pharisees, but it’s also what He is saying to us. Same God, Same Promise. Therefore, we turn our backs on God when we put aside the Old Testament, when we look at the Old Testament as only being Law, when we consider the Old Testament insufficient for salvation. Jesus is claiming a consistent message from the beginning of God’s Word through to His ministry, death and resurrection. How can we put aside the Old Testament? The Same God, the Same Promise, is behind it all.

We will have trouble understanding who Jesus if we don’t study the promises of the Old Testament. Yes, Christ alone has salvation; all must come to Him to have eternal life. But if all of Scripture, Old and New Testaments, is centered on Christ, then the Old Testament is a vast store full of wisdom into understanding our Promised One.

We must learn the promises of Moses and the Prophets. This story of the rich man and Lazarus affirms the importance of understanding the Old Testament, learning the Scriptures and realizing that our God is always the same, consistent. He has held out the same promise of salvation, the promise that He will defeat the sin which enslaves us, the promise of being saved by grace through faith not works.

Learning about God’s promise in the Old Testament helps us to understand what it means that Jesus saves us. Therefore, next weekend’s RYMS Fall Retreat will help the youth learn about four of the Old Testament prophets, seeing how those prophets shared God’s message of hope with the people. When the youth come back from the retreat on Sunday morning, they will set up Prophet Stations so that everyone can learn a little about these prophets.

Pastor Miller’s class is tracing the history of God’s people in the Old Testament, because through that history, God sent Jesus to save us, to make us His people.

The joke often is that the Sunday School answer to any question is Jesus. Any question asked in Sunday School or a Bible study can often be answered by saying, “Jesus.” However, by using curriculum that teaches the Old Testament, our students will learn how Jesus is still the right answer, even when we’re talking about the Old Testament, how the Old Testament points to Jesus—which, as we already talked about, is exactly why the sixth grade confirmation project is about the Old Testament.

Who would have guess that many of the symbols in the stained glass windows would be directly inspired by the Old Testament? Yet, as my Sunday morning class studied these symbols, we realized how those symbols constantly point us to Jesus, our Savior.

Look at this. I know you won’t be able to see all of them from where you’re sitting, but let me point out some of the ways that these windows are related to the Old Testament. You can check it out later on your way out of church today.

It starts way back here with this first window all about Genesis, the Creation of the world, and Christ was there at the Creation. The second window shows the 10 Commandments, the burning bush where God appeared to Moses, and how God turned the staff into a snake to show Moses that He was real. The giving of the Law make us realize our sin and our need for a Savior. Here there’s a rose symbolizing Jesus, but the image comes from the book of Song of Songs in the Old Testament. The next window is about Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus at the temple when he was a baby, but understanding the sacrifice of two doves and the temple itself, for that we’ve got to go to—you guessed it—the Old Testament.

Jump up here to this symbol for the Transfiguration when Jesus appeared in all of this glory, and Moses and Elijah were there representing the Law and the Prophets, the Old Testament points to Jesus.

Come up toward the front, and you’ve got the Lamb of God. John the Baptist calls Jesus the Lamb of God. But the idea of the Lamb of God goes back to the Passover in the book of Exodus, the lamb’s blood marking the homes of God’s people, protecting them from death.

Finally, up here is the Good Shepherd window, showing that Jesus is the Good Shepherd. However, God said He would send His Shepherd to lead His people to safety, God made that promise in the Old Testament prophet Isaiah.

We teach the Old Testament, we remind ourselves of the Old Testament, our windows are about the Old Testament, because it is the Same God, Same Promise that we have in Jesus Christ.

Even the name of our congregation is a way of saying Same God, Same Promise. A redeemer is a person who buys a slave in order to give them freedom. We call Jesus the Redeemer, because He bought us from slavery, freed us from slavery to sin and the devil. Yet, the idea that God would send a redeemer, would send someone to save us from sin, that idea goes back to the Old Testament. “I know that my Redeemer lives” is a familiar phrase, a familiar verse from Scripture, a familiar hymn. Yet, do you ever forget like I do that this phrase comes from the Old Testament book of Job? The name of our congregation isn’t just a New Testament name; it’s also an Old Testament name.

Same God, Same Promise. And if God is the same, if the promise is the same, then we can trust it will continue to be the same. Jesus is pointing us all to see this. The Promise is the same. We are saved from sin not by whart we do. We are saved by God’s action; we are saved by God’s forgiveness. Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise, the promise of the Old Testament. He is the fulfillment yesterday, today, forever.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Luke 15:1-10 -- “One Lost Sheep”

17th Sunday After Pentecost (C)
Saturday, September 25, and Sunday, September 26, 2004

One Lost Sheep
Read book, One Lost Sheep by Dandi Daley MacKall.

Why does Jesus tell this story, this parable? It’s in reaction to the Pharisees, those self-righteous religious leaders of the Jews who were shocked that Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors. They couldn’t understand how Jesus, this reportedly very holy man, this very wonderful teacher could stoop so low as to hang out with the sinners—the prostitutes, the criminals, the seedy crowd, the ones who wouldn’t ever be prepared for temple worship. How could Jesus hang out with people like tax collectors—people who worked for the Romans, people who often cheated people out of money?

Those are the questions on the lips of the Pharisees; that’s why they’re ready to judge Jesus as being the wrong kind of leader. So He tells them a series of three stories about welcoming in those who are lost—the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son/the lost son. Jesus came to go after the lost. Like a shepherd who risks his life to go back into the wilderness looking for his one lost sheep, so too Jesus put His life on the line to come to this sinful world to find His lost sheep, to find sinners, to save those who were separated from God.

Let’s rephrase this parable of Jesus. What does it mean for us today? If we want to learn from Jesus, if we want our ministry to match the goals of Jesus, what’s it going to look like? Read along in the bulletin through the parable of the lost sheep, in the reading from the Gospel of Luke, while I reword it, make it to be about today.

How many of you, seeing that we have gathered many to hear God’s Word,
Yet knowing that there are others who are lost, not knowing about Jesus,
Would find it wrong to leave the congregation gathered in the sanctuary
And go after the others who are lost
Until you find them? And having found them,
You walk with them or drive them to church rejoicing,
And coming to the church
Call to the congregation
“Rejoice with me,
Because I have found someone
Who was lost.”
Do you not see? There is more joy in heaven
Over one sinner who repents
Than over those who gather but see no need for repentance.

What does our ministry look like? It certainly is not just about us, the ones who are here; it’s also about the ones who are not here, the ones who have wandered away or who have never been invited or who have been scared away. What does our ministry look like? It doesn’t stay right here in this room; the ministry of Jesus goes out into the world, goes into the streets and homes and corners and alleys trying to find people who are lost, who don’t have hope and direction, who don’t know the promise of forgiveness.

So that’s what I’m going to do: go see if there are any lost sheep outside. I’m going to leave you for a moment, but I’ll stay in radio contact, let you know what I find outside our doors.

(Go outside, walk out to sidewalk, wave at cars, narrate). “Ministry doesn’t stay inside the flock. It doesn’t stay inside the church. The ministry of Jesus has to go outside to find the lost.”)

I suppose you could say I left the 99 to go look for the one lost sheep. Except I know that once you were the one lost sheep. At one time, we were all lost sheep, not knowing Jesus, not having faith in Him. At many times in our lives, we may have been that one lost sheep, who strayed from the flock, wandered away from Jesus, left the faith. You may have even been that one lost sheep this week, spending minutes or hours or days apart from Jesus, not trusting in Him as your shepherd and guide and Savior.

So while today I went outside to look for any lost sheep, while today I went outside to make the point that Jesus has taught us that His ministry isn’t limited to the people already here, to one location, today I also know and remind us all: you were the one lost sheep. And Jesus risked everything to come and rescue you. When He suffered in this life, it was to save you. When He died on the cross, it was to die in your place. When He rose again from the grave to defeat death, it was to defeat your death.

You were the one lost sheep—stuck in some ravine, not knowing how to get back to the flock. You were the one lost sheep—caught up in your own life, trapped by some bad decisions, confused by this world, hurt by the tragedies around you, and Jesus came to find you. Somehow He brought you back into the flock so that you are here today. He may have used many helpers along the way—parents, children, friends, strangers, pastors, Sunday School teachers, preschool teachers, choir directors, ushers, leaders. However He did it, today I look out and think: you were the one lost sheep. Jesus found you, brought you back, and there was so much rejoicing in heaven when you repented, admitted your sins, admitted your need for Jesus. There was so much rejoicing in heaven when you were back safe and sound in the faith, trusting that Jesus would save you from eternal death.

So hearing the parable of the lost sheep is a reminder of how we have all been lost sheep at different times in our lives. I literally went outside today as a reminder to you that someone in your life went outside the church, talked to you about your faith, found you where you were, so that Jesus could draw you back into the flock.

But now let’s hear the parable in a different way. Think about my venture outside as a reminder of what God calls us to do. Now you are the shepherd. Jesus is calling on us to be shepherds, the ones who seek the lost. Just like in that little children’s story book where “two sheep telephone” and they say, “Hello, Shepherd? We need your help,” so Jesus is calling you, hiring you to help with his flock of sheep. There’s only one shepherd, the Good Shepherd, Jesus, but He calls each of us to be His coworkers, the priesthood of all believers, all Christians called to be servants in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus calls you and says, “Hello, shepherd? We need your help.”

Use my little venture outside today as a reminder of what Jesus is asking each of us to do. Outside of these doors, outside of this congregation, in any direction you choose, any door you choose, there’s lost sheep. You are the shepherds, the faithful coworkers of Jesus sent to find those lost sheep. When you go out there, you’ll find those sheep on the streets, in your homes, in your workplaces, in your schools, in restaurants, in stadium bleachers, and in your backyard. Some of those sheep have never heard about Jesus. Some of those sheep just got lost last week after leaving church. You are the shepherds, and Jesus is putting us all in different places to reach different people with the hope of His love.

Sometimes when you’re leaving church after worship, I wander away from the receiving line, not there to shake hands and share greetings. At that point, the line stops. Everyone seems a little confused. “Where did that Pastor Squires go?” At that point, I want you to remember: I might have stepped outside, so to speak, to find the lost. A lot of times when I wander away from the line, it is to talk further with a visitor or someone who is hurting, so you don’t have to wait for me. In fact, I’m hoping you’ll keep walking so that I might introduce you to that visitor. In that same way, I won’t be offended if you don’t come out in the greeting line, because you strike up a conversation with someone who wants to know more about our ministry or you’re making sure someone feels welcome.

You are the shepherd sent to find the lost. But stay in radio contact with the Good Shepherd and with the flock. As we go out into the world, it’s important to stay in contact with the Good Shepherd, talking to Him in prayer, learning from God’s Word, so that we don’t get confused and lost ourselves. Keep talking to Jesus while you’re serving Him out in the field.

As we go out into the world, it’s also important to stay in contact with the other helpers, the other workers in the field, our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Worship services, Bible studies, fellowship time, gatherings at church, youth events, that’s like keeping in radio contact. By talking to each other, supporting one another, encouraging each other to go find the lost, then we’ll be all the more prepared to keep venturing outside. We are not alone as we try to tell others about Jesus—the Good Shepherd is with us; our fellow Christians are with us. Take the parable of the lost sheep as a reminder that you are the shepherds.

Let’s look at this parable in one more way. When the shepherd returns with the lost sheep, the household joins the shepherd to rejoice over finding that lost sheep. Now we are the household. Jesus calls on us to rejoice with Him when He brings lost sheep back into the flock. If you are a shepherd, each sheep is very valuable to you. To lose even one sheep could be very costly. So, that party when the shepherd returns with the lost sheep, that party is huge. Jesus is saying to us: “There’s a huge party in heaven when someone finds out about the Gospel or when someone returns to the faith. You are the household. Have a huge party when you see a lost sheep come to church.”

And we need that reminder from the parable of the lost sheep, because I’m afraid sometimes we turn and stare when the lost sheep comes back. We size up that new person in the pew. We wonder, “Why would a person like that be in church?” I’m afraid we’re not so good at being the household that parties. Take the parable of the lost sheep as a reminder that we should be celebrating when the lost sheep comes back.

So the next time someone brings a friend to church who is just finding out about Jesus, make sure you talk to that person, show them that you are glad they are here, and thank God for that person. The next time you see someone in church who hasn’t been here for a long time, welcome that person back. Not in a snide way—“Oh, I haven’t seen you in awhile”—welcome them genuinely, lovingly, showing them how much you missed them, were concerned for them, and really want them to be here learning about God’s love. The next time you see someone in church who doesn’t look like you, who doesn’t fit your idea of a church member, who looks like maybe they’ve been away from God for a long time, instead of judging them, ignoring them, or avoiding them, celebrate! Rejoice! That person who looks so different was a lost sheep who has come back, a lost sheep just like you were at some point. Rejoice, because the sheep that was lost is found!

You are the one lost sheep, but Jesus has found you. Now you are the shepherds, sent by Jesus to find other lost sheep. Now you are the household, called upon to rejoice when a lost sheep comes back to the flock.

The parable of the lost sheep isn’t about sheep farming, and today isn’t about how Pastor Squires walked outside while talking in a walkie talkie during the sermon. It is a reminder of what Jesus did for us—coming out of heaven to find us on earth. It is a reminder of what Jesus sends us to do—go outside these walls, this comfort zone, to find others who don’t know about Him.

Today I want you to remember that Jesus found you and rescued you. Who did Jesus send to find you? Who was it that helped you learn about God or return to God? Thank God for that person who tapped you on the shoulder, invited you to church, asked you how you were doing, told you they missed you at church, found you in trouble but stayed by your side. Thank God for that person today. And then I want you to leave church today knowing that you are going outside, you are headed out to meet some lost sheep, and Jesus is sending you. Think of someone specific that Jesus is sending you to find. Pray for that person this week. Look for ways to tell that person or show that person how much God loves us. And then when we see each other bringing those sheep back, let’s celebrate next week and every week. Let’s make this one big party, rejoicing how Jesus brings us back into His love and care. These worship services are huge parties for all of the lost sheep who are back in the flock of Jesus.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Romans 9:22-26 - "Lo-Ammi/Ammi"

(1 Samuel 1:9-11,20,24-28)
My Son's Baptism
Thursday, September 2, and Sunday, September 5, 2004

Today is a big day for our son, Samuel. His adoption is complete, and he got a new name—and it doesn’t have anything to do with the adoption agency or the courts. I’m talking about Samuel’s spiritual life, but first, let me explain Samuel’s earthly life.

As many of you know, Samuel’s birthmom, Jamie, contacted us back in March to ask Susan and me to adopt her baby. On June 3, we were with Jamie and her mom, Ellyn, when Samuel was born. Since then, he has been living with us, even as we go through the adoption process. In July, Jamie ended her parental rights, legally making it possible for us to adopt Samuel. Susan and I are foster parents through Lutheran Social Services until in January when the adoption will be legally complete.

So you see, Samuel’s earthly adoption isn’t complete. And his name is already Squires, so he doesn’t need an earthly name change. But today Samuel’s adoption is complete, and he did get a new name. We’re talking about his spiritual life, and what is true for Samuel is true for you. Yet, because Samuel is adopted, his earthly story is a good way to understand what happens for all of us spiritually.

The concept of adoption is pretty simple: you take a child who wasn’t born to you as your son or daughter. The process is much more complicated; there are lots of different ways adoptions happen—internationally, through foster care, closed adoptions, and open adoptions like Samuel’s, where his birthfamily remains part of his life. There are lots of steps involved, but it essentially comes down to saying, “Samuel, you weren’t born into our family, but we take you as our son.” In other words, Samuel was not our son, but now we call him our son.

That’s where those strange looking words come in that are the title of this sermon listed in your bulletin. “Lo-Ammi/Ammi” Those are two Hebrew words. “Lo-Ammi” means “not my people.” “Ammi” means “my people.” The prophet Hosea uses those words in talking about what God does for His people, and Paul picks up on this, quoting Hosea in our reading from Romans chapter 9. In Romans, it says, “Those who are not my people (lo-ammi), I will call my people (ammi). Those who are not loved I will call my loved ones. Wherever they were told, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called sons of the living God.”

Essentially this is where God says that He will adopt us. We were not God’s children, but now He will call us His children. We were Lo-Ammi, not God’s people, but now we are Ammi, God’s people, God’s children. Just like how Samuel was Lo-Ammi, not my son, but now through adoption, Samuel is Ammi, my son, just like that, you have been adopted by God.

That is your spiritual adoption, and it happened at your baptism. That’s why today I can say that Samuel’s adoption is complete—his spiritual adoption. He is God’s son today. That’s why today Samuel got a new name. Samuel used to be called Lo-Ammi, but now he is Ammi, my people, my son, God’s son. Through His Word and the water, God has adopted Samuel into His family. Because Samuel is God’s child, He will receive all of God’s blessings, all of the things in God’s will. Samuel inherits it all: faith, love, forgiveness, and life forever.

You, too, on your baptism day, or if you haven’t been baptized yet, on the day when you first believed in Jesus, you too were adopted by God. Your name has been changed from Lo-Ammi to Ammi. You are God’s people, and you will get everything that is His—faith, love, forgiveness, and life forever.

In case we have forgotten why being adopted by God is so important, let’s remember that the kind of situation we were in spiritually. What would it mean if we weren’t in God’s family? Why is it such a big deal to go from being Lo-Ammi to Ammi? Why is it truly Good News when God says, “Those who are not my people, I will call my people?” Because look at these other phrases used to describe us in Romans chapter 9: “objects of His anger” and “headed for destruction.” To be outside of God’s family means to have no hope for life and salvation. Our only hope to have life after death was for God to adopt us, to take us into His family.

Speaking about Samuel’s earthly adoption, he went from being Lo-Ammi to Ammi, from being not my son to being my son. However, it’s not like if he hadn’t been our son that he would’ve had no other hope, that no one would’ve shown him any love. If we hadn’t adopted Samuel, that wouldn’t mean he was “an object of anger” or “headed for destruction.”

Spiritually, though, that’s how bad it is. If we are outside of God’s family, if we do not believe in Jesus, if we haven’t been baptized into God’s family, if we reject our baptism, reject God’s love, then God will direct His full anger at us, sending us to destruction, eternal death, hell. That’s how important it is to be adopted by God. When your name was changed from Lo-Ammi to Ammi, God stopped you from heading towards destruction and has you heading for salvation.

You see, Samuel’s adoption story only works up until a point to be a reminder of how God adopts us, because Susan and I are not his saviors. We have chosen to love him and raise him as our son, but we can’t rescue Samuel from every danger in this life. We’re not saviors. Yet, when it comes to talking about our spiritual adoptions, becoming God’s children through baptism, then we are talking about a Savior. Jesus Christ does ultimately save us from every danger, from every evil. Jesus rescues us from sin, death, and the devil. That’s the most incredible kind of adoptive parent that you could ever imagine.

Please remember, before it looks like Susan and I did this gracious act on par with God, let’s remember that God was completely selfless. Even though we love Samuel, it would be a lie to say that we’re completely selfless. We’ll admit it: we wanted a child. It’s not all about Samuel; some of it is about us. We’ll admit our sins, our imperfections. Yet, when God adopted you, it was completely about you. It was selfless, all about doing something for you. It was an entirely loving act of God to take us into His family.

Now that we know that our name was changed from Lo-Ammi to Ammi, from Not My People to My People, from Not God’s Child to God’s Child; now that we saw Samuel’s name be changed today in baptism; now I’m going to tell you that Samuel’s name is still Lo-Ammi. I still need to call him Lo-Ammi, Not My Son. I have to remember that Samuel isn’t really my son. Again, though, I’m not talking about earthly things. I’m not saying that Samuel is less of my child because he’s adopted. I will never stop calling Samuel my son. Even though the adoption will not be finalized until January, I tell Samuel all of the time: “You are my son. I am your daddy.”

When I say that Samuel is still Lo-Ammi, Not My Son, that is because I always need to remember that first and foremost Samuel is God’s Son. You saw it yourself: today Samuel became God’s son through baptism. Now as Samuel’s earthly father, I need to remember that the most important thing is Samuel’s relationship with his heavenly father. As parents, Susan and I committed ourselves today to make sure that Samuel visits with God, learns about God, continues the relationship with God that started today.

As much as I want Samuel to be my son, to do what I want, I’ve got to admit that Samuel is Lo-Ammi, Samuel is Not My Son, Samuel is God’s Son. I want Samuel to watch Cubs games with me, to work in the yard with me, to listen to music I like, to follow the rules of our house. Yet, that’s all about my will, my thoughts. I have to realize that I have to set aside my will—knowing that God’s will has to come first in Samuel’s life. God is the true parent. As Christian parents, we have to be willing to say what Hannah said over her son, Samuel.

Hannah had been waiting for a child, and she promises to dedicate her child to God if God will grant her prayer. When Hannah does become pregnant and Samuel is born, she follows through on that promise. She takes Samuel to Eli the priest and says, “I am giving Samuel to the LORD. He will be dedicated to the LORD for his whole life.”

Hannah set aside her wishes, letting Samuel become a servant of God. In that same way, with our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, the children and youth around us, the people in our lives, we have to surrender our will, our control, our desire to be the ones who direct their lives. We have to set aside our wills and call them Lo-Ammi, Not My Child, Not Mine. We have to acknowledge that these children and people belong first and foremost to the Lord.

Here in the story of Samuel Squires’ earthly adoption we have to turn to the story of what Jamie, Samuel’s birthmom, did.

From the very first time that Susan and I sat down with Jamie to talk about the adoption, she said Samuel is our son. She handed us early ultrasound pictures and said, “Here’s your baby.” When we were with Jamie while she was pregnant, she would tap her stomach and say, “Do you hear your mommy and daddy?” In the hospital as the time came for Samuel to be born, in response to something I said, Jamie looked me right in the eye and said, “He’s your son.”

Jamie will always be Samuel’s birthmom. Jamie will always be the one who carried Samuel for nine months, who gave birth to him. Jamie will always have a relationship with Samuel that is truly unique. However, in order for Samuel to be adopted, she had to call him, “Lo-Ammi,” Not My Son. That is an incredible gift to us, a gracious, loving act. Jamie had to say to Susan and me, “He’s your son.”

That is what I need to do before God. I need to look God in the eye, so to speak, and say, “Samuel is your son.” Whatever I want for Samuel in life, whatever plans I make for him, whatever I do for him as he grows up, none of that should get in the way of Samuel’s relationship with God.

But why would I want to get in the way of that relationship? Oh, there could be lots of reasons—pride (I’d rather be the important one), laziness (it’s easier to teach him about baseball than about God), or just wrong priorities (there’s so many other things to do in life). But really, why would I want to get in the way of Samuel’s relationship with God? Why would any of us want to get in the way of our loved ones’ relationships with God? Why wouldn’t we do everything we can to make sure our children, our spouse, our relatives, our friends continue to have a relationship with God?

By having that relationship with God, by being God’s children, you have His love, you have His forgiveness, you have the promise of living after death. You will inherit everything of God’s. You went from being completely outside of God’s family to being completely a part of God’s family. You were headed for destruction, but now you are headed for eternal life.

At your baptism, someone stepped out of the way so that you could have a relationship with God. Your parents, grandparents, sponsors, someone said, “He is not my son,” “She is not my daughter,” and they brought you to God. Because they stepped out of the way, because they admitted that you were God’s child first and foremost, because they saw how important it was that you be adopted by God, you became a part of God’s family through baptism. God now calls on us to step out of the way, to stop trying to be in control of our children or the people around us, to see that the most important relationship that people can have is with Jesus.

So today is a reminder for me that Samuel is Lo-Ammi, Samuel is Not My Son, Samuel is God’s Son. May God help me to be like Hannah, dedicating my Samuel to the Lord. May I be able to say to God everyday, “He’s your son.”

Yet, today is also the day when Samuel’s adoption is complete, and he got a new name. Samuel has been adopted by God forever. Samuel got a new name today. That’s why his baptism cake says, “Samuel is Ammi.” Samuel is a son of the living God.

Make yourself a cake today, or a poster, or a card, or something that says that your new name is Ammi. __________ is Ammi. __________ is Ammi. __________ is Ammi. Through baptism, you are God’s people, adopted into God’s wonderful family. You are a child of the living God.