Monday, December 31, 2007

Psalm 20:8 - “20:8”

New Year’s Eve
Monday, December 31, 2007

In college, when I was trying to get in some habit of having personal devotion time, I’d find a quiet place on campus, get my Bible out of my backpack, say a little prayer, and then. . .wonder what I was supposed to do now. I wasn’t sure what to read in my Bible, so I started playing a game. I’d close my eyes, flip open the Bible, and whatever page I landed on—that’s what I’d read for the day.

I don’t really recommend this way of having devotions or studying the Bible, although I found some of my notes that I took during these random readings and actually it does seem like I was getting something out of it. And of course I was; it’s God’s Word, so every page is filled with His words that give us life and salvation.

But anyway, that flip open the Bible technique inspired tonight’s sermon. With 2008 starting tomorrow, I started wondering what we’d find if we simply opened the Bible to all of the twenty-oh-eights in the Bible, in other words, chapter 20 verse 8. And just like my random devotions in college, it turns out that because it is God’s Word, there’s actually some very key verses from Scripture for New Year’s Eve on those twenty-oh-eights.

Although, the first one I opened to was Genesis 20:8—which you can see on the screen: “So Abimelech rose early in the morning and called all his servants and told them all these things. And the men were very much afraid.” That one doesn’t work out so easily. It’s the middle of a story, and so that twenty-oh-eight—and a number of other ones—weren’t so easy to use like this for a sermon.

But then you come to Exodus 20:8, and now we’re getting somewhere. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” It’s the third commandment, a perfect place to start our meditation as we enter a New Year. God has always called on His people to honor Him by setting aside time for worship, prayer, and studying His Word, and as we enter 2008, the third commandment is a good reminder to make a resolution to truly and properly honor God by setting aside time each week to be in worship, study the Bible, pray, share devotions with the family, and find ways to serve the ministry of the church.

You see, you thought just opening to the twenty-oh-eights would be random, but here we have a perfect New Year’s resolution.

The next twenty-oh-eight in the next book of the Bible, Leviticus, is quite similar. “Keep my statutes and do them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you.” Just as the third commandment calls on us to honor God with our time, now this twenty-oh-eight calls on us to follow all of God’s statutes, His laws, His instructions, His commandments for our lives. It’s a little broad, I suppose, for a New Year’s resolution, but still, it works. In 2008, resolve to follow God’s instructions—rather than just making up your own rules about how to live.

Although, there’s something a little more here than just a commandment. In Leviticus 20:8, God is also saying, “I am the Lord who sanctifies you.” I am the Lord who makes you holy, makes you perfect, blameless, sinless. On the one hand, this verse has just given us a resolution to follow God’s laws, but on the other hand, God is telling us something about what He does for us.

In fact, now it doesn’t seem like we’re supposed to follow God’s statutes in order to earn His favor. Instead, it seems like we follow God’s statutes in response to the fact that He sanctifies us, makes us holy, makes us to be the people He meant us to be. Following God’s laws, well, that’s a way of thanking God for what He’s done. It’s like Leviticus 20:8 is saying, “Keep my statutes and do them, because that’s who you are now. I am the Lord who sanctifies you, so live like the people I made you to be.”

Truth be told, now we’re really getting somewhere with this twenty-oh-eight thing, because you know that any sermon that just told you to make a resolution to follow God’s commandments would leave you either feeling smug—like you’re a good Christian because you follow God’s commandments—or leave you feeling condemned—like you’ll never earn God’s favor because you’ll never be able to keep your New Year’s resolution to follow God’s statutes. A sermon shouldn’t leave you feeling either—smug or condemned.

Instead, we need some Gospel, some Good News, a twenty-oh-eight that tells us how God is able to take us who fail at every resolution we make to follow His laws, how God is able to take us and make us to be His holy people. Leviticus 20:8 tells us that this is what God does, but we need to jump to a twenty-oh-eight from the New Testament to show us how God did it.

John 20:8, “Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed….” This twenty-oh-eight tells us how God fulfills Leviticus 20:8. How does God sanctify us, make us holy in His sight? Through the death and resurrection of Jesus. When the other disciple—that’s how the Gospel writer John talks about himself—when John went into the tomb on that Easter morning, he saw that Jesus was gone, and he believed what Jesus had told them: “The Son of Man will rise again after three days.” John believed—and along with the other disciples—would go on to preach about how Jesus sanctifies all people, makes all people holy through His death and resurrection.

What God said back in Leviticus 20:8 comes to pass through John 20:8. When God says that He is the One who sanctifies us, He can say this because of Jesus, because Jesus died and rose again.

Ah, now that’s better. Now we’re not just coming here to make a New Year’s resolution. We could do that by watching any TV talk show or just staying at home. Lots of people talk about making resolutions, but only here, only in God’s Word do we find a God who knows that we’re going to break all of our resolutions to follow His instructions and still He comes and says He’ll make us holy in His eyes, make us to look like people who keep all of their resolutions.

Did you catch that? That’s kind of what God is saying in Leviticus 20:8—I am the Lord who makes you into people who keep all of their resolutions. You know that that’s not true on the ground in reality, but when God looks at you, He see Jesus, He sees Jesus who is perfect and keeps every resolution, He sees the holiness of Jesus instead of the ways you break His statutes. So now when someone asks you if you made a New Year’s resolution, you can say: “I sure did, and I have already kept my resolution perfectly.”

There’s one more twenty-oh-eight we’ll look at which kind of gives us a picture of this, what it means that we trust in what God sees rather than what we see, that we trust in what God is making into reality instead of the reality that we know.

Psalm 20:8 says, “They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.” Now for this twenty-oh-eight we have to check out the context a little bit more, so here is verse 7 and 8: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.”

Psalm 20 is a psalm for the king, a psalm celebrating the king of Israel, perhaps even sort of a prayer over the king and his rule of the people. It’s a psalm that talks about trusting in God’s help for the king, the kingdom, and the people. It’s a psalm that knows God’s reality might be different than the reality on the ground right in front of their faces.

The king and the people might be up against an enemy army that they’ll never possibly be able to defeat, but because God has a different, better, everlasting reality in store for His people, that’s why Psalm 20:8 can say, “They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.” The other army might trust in chariots and horses, they might trust in their ability to overpower Israel, but the people of God know that eventually all of their enemies will collapse, will fall, will fail to win the day. The people of God know that the only thing they can really trust in is the Name of God. God will make them rise and stand upright. God will give them victory in the end. God will give them a victory that no one else may understand. God will give them everlasting victory, peace, security, safety, and blessing.

That’s your situation at the beginning of 2008. The popular idea is that by making a New Year’s resolution that somehow you will be able to change your life, change your world, somehow conquer whatever threatens you. But they will collapse and fall, they—the resolutions—will fail you, they—the people who trust in their ability to change themselves by themselves—they will collapse and fall.

Some trust in resolutions and some trust in self-improvement schemes, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright through the power of God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, through the righteousness and holiness of Jesus, through the mercy and forgiveness of the Lord.

We know that the twenty-oh-eights of the Bible tell us God’s hope and will for our lives. We know that the third commandment calls us on us to remember the Sabbath, to set aside time for worship, prayer, and studying God’s Word. But we also know that following God’s statutes, His laws, that’s simply a response to what God has already done for us: sanctified us, made us holy in His sight. He makes us holy through the death and resurrection of Jesus, gives us a holiness that can’t be improved upon by our resolutions, a holiness that can’t be destroyed by our failures to keep resolutions, a holiness that’s purely a gift from God.

So now as we enter 2008, we know our reality is different than the reality we can see. We see how we fail to keep resolutions, we see how we fail to keep God’s laws, but our reality in Christ is that we are holy, blameless, free, perfect, and given eternal life. We have already kept every resolution we made.

Because that’s our reality in Christ, now we live our lives in a such a way as to thank God with our actions. We resolve to keep God’s commandments, because we want to live in a way that pleases God, in a way that can give back to God just a little of what He’s given us. We resolve to follow God’s statutes knowing we’ll fail, but we’re trying to learn what it means to be God’s holy people, what would it look like if our lives matched who God has already made us to be.

Now 2008 with all of its resolutions, with all of our attempts to keep the third commandment by making time for God, our attempts to keep God’s statutes, now 2008 can just be a year to praise and thank God with our actions, to thank God for what He’s already done: made us into His holy people for another year as we wait for His Son to come again.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Isaiah 28:5-6 - “Royal Crown”

Christmas Eve (11 PM Candelight/Youth-led service)
Monday, December 24, 2007

The youth have a special message to share with you tonight, and really I mainly want them to tell you about why we celebrate Christmas.

But I have to tell you, it’s really mainly about RC, Royal Crown Cola (pull out 2-liter).

I don’t mean that the youth aren’t ready to lead the service because they’re busy getting some soda. No, they’re ready. In fact, last night when the youth were practicing I was the only one drinking a soda.

Instead what I mean is that the theme for tonight, the Treasure of Christmas, it’s all about an RC, it’s all about a Royal Crown. Although maybe not this kind of royal crown.

Take a look on the screens at two verses from Isaiah chapter 28(:5-6). Isaiah says,

In that day the LORD Almighty will be a glorious crown,
a beautiful wreath for the remnant of his people.
He will be a spirit of justice
to him who sits in judgment,
a source of strength
to those who turn back the battle at the gate.

“The LORD Almighty will be a glorious crown, a beautiful wreath,” a royal crown on the heads of His people.

Tonight the youth will share with you about how Jesus is our treasure, a treasure born this night, and that’s what Isaiah is saying here.

A king’s crown is a beautiful treasure, and Isaiah is saying that we are crowned with the greatest treasure: the Lord Himself. You have a royal crown, and that crown is Jesus. The Lord is our royal crown, our treasure, our everything. Just as a king without a crown is not a king at all, so if we don’t have the Lord as our royal crown, then we’re nothing.

Jesus came at Christmas to be our royal crown, to give us His spirit of justice, truth, love, grace, and mercy. Jesus came at Christmas, took one look at our shabby lives, and decided to put a crown on our heads, His crown, His own royal nature. The Lord is your royal crown, your treasure, the One who sets you up to be His servant in all that do.

Isaiah gives two examples in these verses of what it means to serve the Lord because you have His royal crown. “[The Lord] will be a spirit of justice to him who sits in judgment.” In other words, if you’re a judge, if you have the responsibility of making judgments and decisions, then your ability to judge right and wrong, to correctly handle situations, your ability will come from the Lord. The Lord is the spirit of justice working in you; the Lord is your royal crown, your treasure, the One who gives you the ability to serve Him in truth and love.

Again Isaiah gives an example: “[The Lord will be] a source of strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate.” If you’re a soldier, if you’re in a battle, if you have the responsibility of protecting others, then your strength comes from the Lord. The Lord is the strength working in you; the Lord is your royal crown, your treasure, the One who gives you the ability to stand up against whatever attacks you.

Those are just two examples that Isaiah gives, and you might not be a judge or a soldier. But the same principle applies to all of us: You don’t go out and do great things because you’re so great; you can go out and do great things for the Lord and for others because you’ve got a royal crown on your heads, because you’re got Jesus as your crown.

Jesus is our treasure, but Jesus the Treasure turns right around and makes us His Treasure. He has a royal crown, He’s the King of Kings as you’ll hear, but Jesus turns around and crowns us with His royalty, beauty, and holiness. Christmas, the birth of Jesus is God’s gift to the world, but Jesus came to make us a gift to the Father. Jesus came to make us into holy, innocent, forgiven people of God. That’s a royal crown, indeed.

So now when you’re at your Christmas parties, or when you’re walking down the grocery store aisle, you’ve got a sermon in a bottle right there with the RC, Royal Crown Cola. The soda might be called Royal Crown, but we know that our true royal crown is Jesus Himself.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

“The Redeemed Will Be. . .With Immanuel”
Part 2 - Isaiah 7:10-17 - “…With Immanuel”

4th Sunday in Advent
(Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, December 23, 2007

Listen to the audio of this sermon (Real Player)

(Bring out a lectern on pedestal from the old Holy Emmanuel Ev. Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, MN)

It’s not every preacher that shows up at his new church with his own pulpit.

This pulpit is a little short now, but this top piece is actually from the pulpit of my home congregation’s old church. In 1969, the congregation moved to the suburbs, but the old church was in Minneapolis and this was the pulpit. The church was built in 1909, and this top wood piece may very well be from back then. One of the members, Joe Hibben, his family kept the pulpit and made a little stand for it. They used it as a Bible stand. When I was ordained, Joe gave me this pulpit. He said he figured a son of the congregation going to be a pastor should keep this pulpit. It was one of the most touching gifts I’ve received.

Of course, I didn’t just bring it out today to tell you that story. I brought it out, because this pulpit has a connection with this congregation, too. This pulpit that I just brought out here at Immanuel Lutheran Church, this pulpit is from Holy Emmanuel Lutheran Church. Coming here to Immanuel—Brookfield is a bit like coming home, because I was baptized and confirmed at Holy Emmanuel in Minnesota. The home congregation spells “Emmanuel” with an “e,” but either way, it’s the same word—the Name given to Jesus, the Name mentioned in the prophecy of Isaiah that we heard today, and the Name mentioned again in Matthew, today’s Gospel reading.

So I grew up knowing that Immanuel means “God with us,” a Name given to Jesus because He took on human flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary.

What I never really thought about while I was growing up at Holy Emmanuel Lutheran Church was that this Name that Isaiah talks about, a Savior who would be Named Immanuel, it really wasn’t a new message from the Lord. Immanuel, God with us, is the message that God had been speaking to His people from the beginning. Immanuel just happens to sum up all of those promises in one Name.

You can hear the Immanuel promise throughout the Old Testament. Go back to Abraham, and God said, “And I will be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7). God promised to be with Abraham and be his God.

Two generations later, God says to Jacob: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go….For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:15).

God called Moses to be His servant, and God told him, “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12). Then God told Moses and all of the people, “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared” (Exodus 23:20). The Lord’s angel went with them; God was with them in a way they couldn’t miss. The Lord was with them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

When Moses died, God told Joshua, “Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (Joshua 1:5).

Jump ahead through Israel’s history, and God makes the same promise to David: “I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you” (2 Samuel 7:9).

And then when David’s son, Solomon, took the throne, Solomon was confident that God still promised to be with the people. Solomon prayed, “The Lord our God be with us, as he was with our fathers. May he not leave us or forsake us” (1 Kings 8:57). Solomon called on God to be with them, knowing that God would be faithful to this promise.

So, then, when the Lord sent Isaiah to preach saying, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel,” it’s a repeat of the same promise. When the people heard the Name Immanuel, they would’ve heard God’s promise to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, and all of the people, the promise to be with them and never leave them.

As one Bible dictionary puts it, “The past, present, and future intimate relationship of God’s presence with his people is summed up in the name Immanuel” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 677).

And why is that Name, why is that promise so important? Because ever since sin entered this world it has meant that we are separated from God, we are blind to our God’s constant presence, we do not see just how closely the Lord watches over us, supports us, guides us, protects us, and loves us.

The Lord’s refrain, His repeated promise of saying “I am with you,” that’s an answer to the constantly repeating worries of our hearts and minds, such as the worries in Psalm 44 (23-24):

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?

The people felt as if the Lord was distant, gone, ignoring their prayers, unaware of their troubles, so God repeated Himself throughout the Old Testament—“I am with you, I will never leave you.” So God gave His Son a Name that would always remind us of the promise—“I am with you, I will never leave you.”

Of course, it wasn’t just the people of the Old Testament that had trouble believing God was still with them. You probably find yourself asking that question, too, wondering where is God when your mom is dying from cancer? Where is God when you see the people of New Orleans still struggling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina? Where is God when you just find yourself overwhelmed with the Christmas blues which are far more serious than any Elvis Presley “Blue Christmas”?

You know that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, but still you find yourself asking if God really understands the troubles down here—divorce, alcoholism, broken friendships, credit card debt, stress, and the temptations to break just about every commandment every Friday and Saturday night.

The name of this congregation is meant to give us confidence in God’s promise to be with us, but Immanuel isn’t some pat answer; it isn’t God saying, “Everything will work out in the end.”

Instead, Immanuel is a statement of fact, a promise that God truly is with us.

Just because we know that Jesus is Immanuel doesn’t mean that now divorce never happens, alcoholics are immediately cured, credit card debts disappear, and we’re never tempted to sin again.

Instead, Immanuel is a promise that none of those things in your world can change the fact that God is with you. We’ll all get bogged down at times by sins and tragedies and sadness, but Jesus is still Immanuel.

Because Jesus is Immanuel, that means we are the people with God, we are God’s people, we are the ones that will never be alone, will always have God with them. . .which—if you listen—is what so many people need to hear.

You’ll hear people around you asking the big questions about whether God is still around, whether God cares about them, whether God knows what we’re going through down here, whether God is just some big absentee landlord or whether He’s actually involved in our day-to-day lives. You’ll hear friends, family, and acquaintances ask those questions in different ways; you just have to be listening for it. You have to be listening to see that they need to hear the Name again, to hear Immanuel, to hear that Jesus is God with us.

One way to train yourself to hear the questions is to hear the questions in popular culture. If you listen closely to television shows, movies, and music, if you read books, newspapers, and magazines with both eyes open, you’ll start catching the ways that people ask whether God is with them or not.

Take music, for instance. In 1995, Joan Osborne released a song called “One of Us” where she sings, “What if God was one of us?/Just a slob like one of us.” It’s a song that doesn’t come to any real conclusion, but it’s asking the same question that troubles us as believers: is God with us?

Now you could have a knee-jerk reaction to this and tell Joan Osborne, “Of course God is one of us. Jesus was born and is both God and man. How could you sing a song that questions whether God is with us?”

But now if Joan is your friend and she isn’t singing a song but just posing a question that’s troubling her, your knee-jerk reaction may shut down the conversation.

Instead, agree with Joan, “it’s a good question,” mention that sometimes you also have trouble believing God is around, and then tell her, “I think that’s why Jesus has that other Name, Immanuel, because it means ‘God with us.’ We need that reminder every day.”

Or take another example for anyone who likes hip-hop—or for anyone who thinks all rap music is talking about sex and drugs and crime. Tricky is rapper from Britain, and in his song, “Wait for God,” he says, “I wait for God and it’s very hard…/I drink your blood and I’m still thirsty.”

Again, you might be ready to go on the attack, saying that Tricky is being sacrilegious or blasphemous or rude by saying, “I drink your blood and I’m still thirsty,” implying that the Lord’s Supper isn’t enough.

Yet, haven’t you ever, honestly, haven’t you ever felt like the Lord’s Supper isn’t enough, that you’re still waiting for God, still waiting to be with Him, to truly know that God is with you? Haven’t you ever struggled or been frustrated, because it seems like it’d be so much easier if we could see God and just know that He is always with us?

And then when you’re honest with yourself, when you’ll admit that what Tricky is saying isn’t that much different than what you’ve felt, then you’re ready to talk to the Trickys in your life, to the people struggling to wait for God, who want to be close to God but feel like they need more than this, who struggle because they want some kind of proof that God is with them. When you’re ready to listen and admit your own doubts, then you’re ready to help Tricky understand that this is why Jesus is called Immanuel. Jesus is God with us.

We’re waiting for Jesus to come again, but His Name tells us that He is God with us and we are the people that He wants to be with.

Most people aren’t going to know right away what your church name means. People don’t just drive by thinking—“Oh, yeah, God is with us.”

But you know what it means. You know that God encourages us by sending Jesus. You know that God is one of us. You know what our congregation’s name means, so take the name of our church with you. Take Immanuel to people who are struggling in their faith. Use Immanuel as the hopeful, comforting, reassuring answer that we all need, the way in which God constantly repeats Himself because we’re constantly repeating the same question: “Are you there, God?”

By having the name Immanuel Lutheran Church, this congregation has a special message for people asking that question. “Are you there, God?” and we say, “Immanuel. God is with you.”

Sunday, December 16, 2007

“The Redeemed Will Be. . .With Immanuel”
Part 1 - Isaiah 35:1-10 - “The Redeemed Will Be…”

3rd Sunday in Advent (Year A - Lutheran Service Book Readings)
Sunday, December 16, and Monday, December 17, 2007

Listen to the audio of this sermon (Real Player)

Last week during my installation, I was the guy sitting in the middle of the aisle wondering if I’m really ready to be your pastor, I was anxious and overwhelmed. Pastor Dan preached a sermon that was very encouraging for me, reassuring me that I have a sure calling from the Lord. I have a sure calling.

And in fact, there’s been a lot of little things that have helped me know that this is where God wants me. The letter from Pastor Dan that came with the call documents showed me that he is exactly what I need in a Senior Pastor and colleague. Our house in Manitowoc sold quickly. We bought a house in Wauwatosa. These things have been extra little encouragements along the way.

But really I don’t have a sure calling because of those things. I am confident of my calling as a pastor because of God’s Word—the way in which He promises to be with me as I serve Him. My confidence isn’t in me; it’s in Him.

And I have a sure calling, because I didn’t choose you. You chose me. You called me. I trust that God works through the call process to show me His way for my life and my ministry. I trust that He uses you dear people to direct me.

So my sure calling isn’t based on little things, but there was another little thing that made me sure that God sent me to you. It also makes me think that God does have a sense of humor.

You see, the selected reading for this third Sunday in Advent which we heard comes from Isaiah 35 where the prophet says, “And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness….Only the redeemed will walk there” (8a,9b), and then next week I’ll preach again for the fourth Sunday in Advent when the appointed reading comes from Isaiah 7 where the prophet says, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (14).

Those two readings together, that’s how we get my two-part sermon series title, “The Redeemed Will Be. . .With Immanuel.”

Do you see God’s sense of humor there? Do you see the little way that God is helping me know that He has sent me to your pastor?

Next week should be fairly obvious. . .His Name will be Immanuel, it’s a reading about this congregation’s name. But today, today when Isaiah says, “The redeemed will walk there,” well, now you’d have to know where I just came from, where I’ve been a pastor for seven-and-a-half years in Manitowoc. . .Redeemer Lutheran Church. The Redeemed (point at myself) will be with Immanuel (point to congregation).

I was with Redeemer Lutheran, and now I am with Immanuel. I am the “redeemed” who will now be with Immanuel. It’s this great little pair of readings that is a reminder of how God has called me to this new place. And yet, more than that, it’s a great pair of words that talk about who we are, because even though you’re at Immanuel. . .and next week we’ll talk about what it means to be Immanuel Lutheran Church. . .even though you’ve been here, you’re still the redeemed, the loved ones of the Redeemer, so telling you about my former church’s name, about what Redeemer means, tells you about who you are as well, and it helps us to see what Isaiah means in the Old Testament reading from today.

What does Redeemer mean? What is a redeemer? A redeemer is one who redeems. But what does it really mean? What does it mean to have a redeemer who makes us the redeemed ones? Up at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Manitowoc, I kept asking the people those questions, because I wanted them to know what their name meant, to know what their name meant for each of them personally. So now I’ll tell you, because really it is one of the great picture words of the Bible.

“Redeemer” comes out of the world of slavery. It wasn’t a spiritual word to begin with; instead it’s a metaphor, a common word in the daily lives of people that was used to describe something spiritual, something that’s unfamiliar, it’s a word about something we understand used to describe something we have a hard time understanding.

Back in the Old Testament and New Testament times, if someone got into very bad debt, sometimes the only solution was that they would become slaves to the person they owed money to. If someone borrowed a bunch of money from their rich neighbor, but then couldn’t pay back the money, well, the rich neighbor then took that person to be a slave.

Now the only way for the slave to be free again was for the money to be paid back. That price is the redeeming price. Someone else needed to come and redeem, buy back the person’s freedom from the slave master.

The person who pays the price is known as the redeemer. Usually it was a family member who found enough money and paid the master. The redeemer isn’t buying the person as a slave; the redeemer is paying the price so that the person can go free.

Well, that’s the original use of the word, but it is a great metaphor, a great picture for what happens to us in Christ. We are the slaves, and sin is our master. We are slaves to sin with no way to free ourselves. But then Jesus comes to be the Redeemer, the One who pays the price, redeems us, buys us back from sin, so that we have freedom and life. Yet, Jesus didn’t pay with money, not with gold or silver, but with His innocent, precious blood, with His death on the cross. Because Jesus paid the price on the cross, now we go free, now we are freed from sin.

More than just being the name of a congregation in Manitowoc, we are all the redeemed. Jesus is the Redeemer of the whole world, paying the price for the sins of the whole world. We are preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ knowing that He was born in order to die on the cross to pay the redeeming price to free us from slavery.

So that’s the picture behind the word: we’re like slaves who have had our chains unlocked, we’ve been set free. Keep that image in mind while you look at Isaiah 35 in your bulletins again. Let’s walk through it and see what it means to be the redeemed.

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.

The whole land is rejoicing, the whole land has been redeemed from sin, the effects of sin, so the desert suddenly has life in it.

Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.

And with the whole land rejoicing, now here comes the encouragement for the people, for us, the slaves of sin who have been freed.

Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”

We are the slaves to sin, and with this word from God, we look up from our dusty, hot land, we are worn, weary, wearing torn clothes, we are broken, bruised, injured, lame, weak, and run down by the cruel master called sin, and now we have hope.

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.

The Lord is transforming our lives, the Lord is renewing our world, the Lord is giving us hope beyond what we can see.

Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.

And now here comes the image that really stands out in my mind. The slaves to sin, we are weary, and struggling against this world, struggling against the sin in us, now the Lord is leading us to the Way of Life—a road that rises up out of the desert, a highway that takes us away from all that threatens us.

In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness.
The unclean will not journey on it;
it will be for those who walk in that Way;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
No lion will be there,
nor will any ferocious beast get up on it;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
and the ransomed of the LORD will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

It’s a highway to freedom. Together with the image of being freed from slavery, I imagine the scene this way:

I am dressed in rags with my body bruised and broken in so many ways from being a slave to sin. My eyes have huge dark circles around them, my skin is burnt, cracked, and covered with sores, and you can tell by looking at me that it has been a long time since I’ve had a good meal.

Now I am surrounded by ferocious, wild beasts, they’re ready to tear me apart. I am trying to run for my life, but with no food or water, I have no energy for the run. I have no energy to fight. I need to find a place that’s high up where I’ll be safe from the beasts, but even if I found a tree or a tower, there’s no way I’d have energy to climb.

Then suddenly beneath my feet, a highway rises up out of the desert. Even as I am lifted up onto this beautiful road in the desert, the wild beasts are all falling over themselves, falling off the sides of the highway, the sides that are becoming large cliffs. The beasts are tumbling down, but when they stop tumbling and get back on their feet to climb again, they end up just falling again. They’re terribly mad now, growling and roaring with terrible sounds, and I’d be afraid except. . .

I’m on the raised up highway. I’m on a highway that when I look down it, I can see freedom. The highway is lined with beautiful shade trees and flowers. There’s water flowing and food to eat. My clothes have been changed from rags to a beautiful white gown. My energy is restored, my skin is clear, my eyes are bright and alive. I am one of the redeemed on the highway of the Redeemer being led to freedom, life, and salvation.

That’s what it means that you and I are redeemed, that’s what it means that Jesus is your Redeemer, that’s what it means that our Savior is born Christmas Day, that’s what it means to be freed from sin and given the promise of life after death.

Except even though we’re on the highway of the redeemed, if you’re like me, it’s more like you’ve got one foot on the sure highway of the redeemed, and the other foot is hanging off the edge, getting shaken, pulled, scratched, whipped around like 10 NFL defensive linemen tackling a little 5-year old running back. We’re on the highway, but we’re not on the highway yet. We’re the redeemed, those who have been saved by Christ, but we’re still struggling down in this life, struggling against the sins that would keep us in a desert of death of our own making. We’re on a highway to freedom, but we’re still very much locked up in our own sinfulness.

Which brings us back to Advent, as we not only wait to celebrate the birthday of Jesus on Christmas, but Advent meaning we’re also waiting for Jesus to come again. We’re praying that Jesus will come and save us and take us finally to the end of the highway. That He’ll come and lift us up to be completely on that highway in the desert, to lift us above all of the troubles of this world forever. We pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.” It’s not just a table prayer; it’s an Advent prayer; it’s a second coming of Jesus prayer; it’s a prayer of the redeemed waiting to be with their Redeemer forever. Come, Lord Jesus. Come, bring us up to Your highway, bring us to that freedom destination. We are the redeemed, the ones bought back by our Redeemer, who are now waiting for our Redeemer to come again. Come, Lord Jesus, Come quickly.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Psalm 25:4-5 - “The Map”

Farewell Sermon
Thursday, November 15, and Sunday, November 18, 2007


Seven years ago when the Seminary told me you had called me to be your pastor, I needed a map to find Manitowoc. When we did find our way to Manitowoc, then I needed a map to find Two Rivers, Valders, Mishicot, Newton, Francis Creek, and Shoto. Then I really needed a map to realize that Cleveland isn’t in Ohio and Denmark is a short drive and not across the Atlantic Ocean.


Now I need a map to find out how to get from Manitowoc to Brookfield, how to find my way around the Milwaukee Metropolitan Area. I needed to look at the map to see that Immanuel Lutheran Church is located in the northeast corner of Brookfield, across the street from Menomonee Falls, caddy-corner from Butler, two miles from Milwaukee. Since the church has called me to focus on evangelism, reaching out and connecting with the community, I’ll need a map to realize how many communities that Immanuel touches.


Yet there’s really only one map that we need, isn’t there? There’s only the map of God’s Word. It’s what guides me; it’s what guides you. So today let’s celebrate that map with the words of Psalm 25.

On the insert in your bulletins, you have verses 4-5 from Psalm 25. It’s from my favorite version of Psalm: an engaging paraphrase called The Word on the Street by Rob Lacey. For the psalms, Lacey writes them as modern songs, giving each one a type of music to imagine behind the lyrics. Psalm 25 happens to be an upbeat indie rock song, and verses 4-5 are the chorus. I don’t know the tune Lacey had in mind, so I’ll just read the words. But watch how Lacey makes the travel imagery really come alive.

I need a map and a torch if I’m going to go your way;
I need good shoes and a guide if I’m going to go your way;
Where else would I go? You’re my God;
I really want to go your way.
Who else is worth relying on? You get the nod,
‘Cos I really want to go your way.

We need a map—God’s Word. We need a torch—that’s British English for flashlight. We need a flashlight—God’s Word. If we’re going to follow God, if we’re going to know how to live how lives, if we’re going to go to eternal life, we need a map and flashlight from God.

We need good shoes—the Holy Spirit. We need a guide—the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is our travel guide through life and death. He is the One who will save us from dead ends and hellish destinations. He is the One who will bring us to eternal life.

That’s what we’ve been doing here—getting together to study God’s map, letting Him be our travel guide. That’s what we’ve been doing, and that’s what you’ll continue to do even as I take the call to Brookfield. It’s what we all need to hear today.

I need a map and a torch if I’m going to go your way;
I need good shoes and a guide if I’m going to go your way;
Where else would I go? You’re my God;
I really want to go your way.
Who else is worth relying on? You get the nod,
‘Cos I really want to go your way.

This calls for a map story. Flip to the back side of the insert.

When we travel from Wisconsin to see Susan’s parents in Kentucky, we take Interstate 65 through Indiana. One of our favorite places to take a break is just north of Indianapolis at Exit 124 so that we can stop at Steak and Shake (it’s really good food).

That exit intrigues me, because you drive about a mile on a side road to get to Steak and Shake. And once you’re at Steak and Shake, there’s no reason to go back to Interstate 65 because the restaurant is right by Interstate 465 which you can see on the map is just about to link up with 65. Whether we go back to 65 or we get on 465, either way we can get to Kentucky.

That’s where I imagine you and I are right now, and it’s why we “need a map and a torch… good shoes and a guide if [we’re] going to go [God’s] way.”

We have been traveling down Interstate 65 together; we have been doing God’s work here, sharing His love and Word of salvation with our community, but now I am leaving that highway, taking exit number 124.

I’m cutting across and jumping onto Interstate 465. I’m joining Immanuel Lutheran in the work they are doing to serve the Lord, the ways they are reaching out with the Gospel.

However, even if you’re on Interstate 65 at Redeemer and I’m on 465 at Immanuel, notice we’re all still headed towards Kentucky, all still headed towards the eternal life that comes through Jesus Christ. [And yes, I just compared Kentucky to eternal life, and I meant to].

Anyway, we’ll all be headed the same direction—on two different roads in two different places—but both Redeemer and Immanuel are headed towards Jesus Christ. You have the map and torch, good shoes and guide of God’s Word, and so do I. We’re following God’s lead as we head down these roads.

The problem, though, would be if I took Exit 124 and stayed at Steak and Shake. If I never got back on the highway, I’d never get to Kentucky. If I didn’t keep following God, I’d be ignoring His map, His plan. If that was the case, you should be very concerned for me.

But that’s not what I’m doing. I’m not stopping my travel towards God’s destination. By the time December 9 rolls around and I’m installed at Immanuel, I’ll be back on the highway of ministry. Please pray that there’s no Steak and Shakes that keep me from getting back on the road.

And I’ll be praying for you, because I don’t want you getting stuck at the Steak and Shake either. As I take Exit 124, you might be tempted to take that same exit. You might be thinking, That Steak and Shake sounds like a good place to stop. You might be thinking, If Pastor Squires is leaving, maybe we should just leave, too. Of course, if you do that, you’re ignoring the map of God’s Word.

Instead, you’ve got to go back to Psalm 25:

I need a map and a torch if I’m going to go your way;
I need good shoes and a guide if I’m going to go your way, [LORD];

You’ve got to stay on Interstate 65. You’ve got to keep moving forward in ministry together, you’ve got to keep looking for ways to reach out into this community, you’ve got to see how God will continue to use you to share His love and salvation with the people around you. There’s no reason for you to take Exit 124; there’s no reason for you to stop traveling down Interstate 65; there’s no reason for you to stop doing what you’re doing.

God has placed you on Interstate 65 for a reason, so don’t lose focus. Don’t follow me down that exit ramp; don’t get stuck at Steak and Shake. You’ve got to keep going past Exit 124, keep seeing where God will lead you.

But none of this is easy. It’s not easy to read the map of God’s Word. It’s not easy to keep following God’s map when a lot of the people around you are following other kinds of maps. It’s not easy to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing with your life—why you’re living according to God’s Word, why you’re so sure that Jesus is your Savior—it’s not so easy when everyone seems to misunderstand you.

Which makes me think of another map story.

To help me tell this story, we need to listen to 30 seconds of a song by the rock band R.E.M. It’s a song called “Maps and Legends,” and you have the lyrics on the insert.

Down the way the road’s divided
Paint me the places you have seen.
Those who know what I don’t know
Refer to the yellow, red and green

(Can’t you see)
Maybe he’s caught in the legend,
Maybe he’s caught in the mood.
Maybe these maps and legends
Have been misunderstood.

This song got me through a tough period in high school. Maybe you’ve heard me tell stories before about spending every summer during junior high and high school at a canoe camp in Boundary Waters of Minnesota. Those canoe trips culminated in a 36-day expedition to Hudson Bay in Canada. It was an incredible journey, exploring territories few people have seen, going for days without seeing another person, surviving by trusting each other in the group and learning how to travel on the wild rivers and lakes.

When I came home from the trip, no one around me seemed to understand how important that expedition was, how it had changed me, how hard it was to come back off the trail. When I found myself reminiscing and retracing our route on maps, I listened to this song by R.E.M. as they sing about following maps. When I felt misunderstood, I sang those words in my head: “Maybe these maps and legends have been misunderstood.”

I started thinking about this song again, because people don’t understand us when we follow God’s map. Even though it might be tough to hear, I know you understand when I say that I accepted the call to Brookfield because that’s where God is leading me. If I say that God’s map is telling me to head to Brookfield, you might not like it, but you understand that I need to follow God’s direction.

However, when I’ve talk to other people, people outside of the Christian faith, and tell them I’m going to Brookfield, they don’t understand why we’d pick up and leave with 3 little kids, why we’d leave when we had come to love this community so much, why we’d leave when I have obviously loved working with the people at Redeemer. I tell them that I’m following God’s direction, but when they give me a funny look, in my mind I’m singing, “Maybe these maps and legends have been misunderstood.”

I’m sure it’s the same way for you as you tell people about following God’s Word for your life. People who don’t know Christ, who don’t have an active faith, often don’t understand what it means that God’s Word is our map, the guide for our lives. “I need a map and a torch if I’m going to go your way.”

We want to follow God’s Word, we want to follow His map, but that means that people around us will misunderstand us. “These maps and legends have been misunderstood.” People will not understand why you don’t exit the highway, why you don’t stay at the Steak and Shake, why you don’t make other things more important in your life, why you make sure that you’re always moving forward to serve others with God’s love and Gospel.

And when people misunderstand God’s map and your life, support one another. Just as the R.E.M. song helped me when I came home after my canoe expedition, so you can be that song for each other, encouraging each other when the world doesn’t understand, comforting each other when the journey gets difficult, and urging each other forward to keep driving, keep going down Interstate 65, keep focused on God’s map, keep moving forward in your ministry together, because

(use hand motion that is kind of my trademark)
God’s love has come down to you,
so go out and share that love with the world.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Exodus 3:1-6 - “Holy Ground: Take Off Your Shoes”

24th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27)
(Lutheran Service Book readings - Year C)
Thursday, November 8, and Sunday, November 11, 2007

I want to share with you some pictures from an art installation by Paul Hobbs. The exhibit is called “Holy Ground: Take Off Your Shoes” (Sections below in italics are quotes from the accompanying book from Church Mission Society).

If we had the actual exhibit, it would be a display of shoes that have been donated by Christians from around the world. Each person also wrote a short story about their life as a Christian.

The exhibit is partly inspired by the reading from Exodus that we heard today as our Old Testament reading. Moses is walking along, notices a bush that is burning but isn’t burning up, so he stops to investigate. God speaks to him from the bush, and before Moses can get any closer, God says, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

Out of respect, honor, and devotion, Moses takes off his shoes. Taking off his shoes made him aware of his sin, his unclean heart, his unholiness, as he approach the very holy presence of God.

So artist Paul Hobbs asked a bunch of people around the world to take off their shoes and tell a story about their respect, honor, and devotion for God, a story about their awareness of their sin and need for forgiveness, a story that shows how Jesus came to save them.

For instance, the cover shoes come from Laura Calenberg, a model from New York City. She tells her story this way:

Being on the covers of top European fashion magazines was no longer a dream for me but a reality. I could hardly believe it! All I ever wanted was to be in magazines, earn lots of money, and travel all over the world. My logic was that if I was successful and working as model then I must be beautiful. But my entire life was focused on my weight, hair, clothing, and overall appearance and attractiveness. I became a workaholic, working seven days a week because I knew nothing was guaranteed. And I became exhausted and sick.

I reflected on my life, questioning my values and ideas about beauty, and the kind of person I had become within. These questions and doubts were hitting me when I was still at the peak of my career. I saw the shallowness of it all and felt very empty inside. I had built my life on things that weren’t secure. . .on what the culture or my boyfriend thought, or how much money I made, or how popular I was. I was building my life on sand. I had neglected my relationship with God and chosen my own way. No wonder I felt so empty!

So, what is beauty? It’s what’s found inside, what’s in your heart. Humility is beautiful, though not popular in my business. Security and self-esteem are beautiful.…Only Christ can make us beautiful in God’s sight.

Laura Calenberg founded Models for Christ. Over the past 20 years she has met with girls from all over the world who have sought fame and fortune as models in New York City, helping them to see that real beauty is in Christ.

I originally found out about “Holy Ground” and Paul Hobbs just because I was searching the Internet for resources about this passage from Exodus. When I ordered the materials, I expected to mainly be thinking about how each of these people has taken off their shoes—literally for the art exhibit and figuratively in their faith—and once they’ve taken off their shoes, they’ve approached God.

However, the more stories I read from the collection, the more I realized that the whole exhibit is a natural fit for talking about stewardship. These are stories about people who have been given faith in Jesus and have gone out to share God’s love with others. That’s stewardship. Taking the gifts that God has given you—gifts of your time, your talents, and your material resources—taking those gifts and serving others.

Take Haile Gebreselassie for example. Here’s his story:

As a child growing up on a farm in Ethiopia, Halie ran 10 kilometers to school each day and another 10 kilometers back home. As an adult he ran with his left arm crooked, the effect of years spent running with books under his arm.

By the time of the 1996 Olympics, Haile was the reigning world record holder at 10,000m and the twice defending world champion. It was expected that he would receive a serious challenge from Paul Tergat of Kenya and that is exactly what happened. Tergat and Haile pulled away from the rest of the field after 8000m. Haile tracked Tergat until the final lap and then surged ahead to win by six meters. Haile and Tergat renewed their rivalry at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Again they left the rest of the runners behind and again Tergat led as they entered the final lap. This time the finish was even closer, as Haile did not edge ahead of Tergat until the very last stride, in what would prove to be one of the most exciting finishes in Olympic history.

Haile himself writes:
“When I was young, I always dreamed of becoming an athlete. And it’s thanks to God that I was able to realize my dreams. I couldn’t tell you what I’d have been otherwise. It’s clear that God gives all of us talents. The question for me is: how good are we at using these God-given gifts? So I have to work hard to utilize the gifts that God has given me.

“My faith underpins all of my actions….I always say thank you to God for giving me the opportunity to do what I have done. It does not matter whether I win or lose. The important thing is to work hard and to thank God for what He gives us to do.”

Haile is a great example of stewardship in the ways that he’s so clear about knowing that his athletic talent comes from God and that he looks for ways to give God glory for his talent. Even in participating in this art exhibit, Haile is being a good steward. He took off his running shoes and donated them to Paul Hobbs, but by so doing, he also donated his story, his encouragement, his testimony so that others would hear about how God worked in his life.

After reading a couple of these stories, and thinking about the art project’s title, “Holy Ground: Take Off Your Shoes,” I started thinking that really these people are talking about what they did with their shoes on. Sure, they’ve taken off their shoes so the shoes can be displayed, but they served the Lord with their shoes on.

That sent me back to Exodus and Moses standing by the burning bush. He’s there quite awhile talking to God, God trying to convince Moses to go and set His people free. Moses isn’t quite so sure about leading the people of Israel, about being God’s spokesman, so God has to do a lot of persuasion. The whole time Moses is standing there with his shoes off, because it’s holy ground.

But when it comes time to actually go and be God’s spokesman, when Moses is finally ready to go back to Egypt to lead the people of Israel out of slavery, well, he’s got to put his shoes back on.

Moses took off his shoes to approach the Lord, but when Moses goes out to serve the Lord, when Moses is a good steward of the gifts that God has given him, then he’s got his shoes back on.

It’s just like us today. Take off shoes, leave shoes off, walk out of service at end carrying shoes We’ve got our shoes off, so to speak, right now. [Actually, some of the 7th graders knew what was coming, and they took off their shoes. We talked this week in Confirmation about one tradition in worship is to take off your shoes to remind us that we’re entering God’s presence]. Even if you haven’t literally taken off your shoes, we’ve taken off our figurative shoes in our hearts, showing God respect, honor, and devotion in our worship, realizing we’re unclean and unholy but God invites us to approach His holiness anyway. We’ve got our shoes off.

But when we leave from here, we’ve got our shoes back on, we go out to serve the Lord, we go out to be good stewards, good users, faithful users of our time, talent, and material resources. The stories behind these shoes are stories about what happens after standing by the burning bush, what happens after you leave church.

Look at the shoes of Julius Nyabicha from Kenya. As a Christian, he didn’t just stay in church; he didn’t keep his shoes off. He went out to be a faithful user of the gifts God gave him. Julius says it this way:

I was born in 1974. My father died when I was very small. When I look at my life, I have been amazed at God’s faithfulness in providing miracle after miracle to meet my needs for school and college. I am now married with two children, and it is my hope that soon we will be able to provide for other destitute children as well.

I joined Pastor Boniface Mosoti in his work with children. My vision is to help as many children as possible, to enjoy the privileges God has given me. One day, I hope to do this by starting a pharmacy business to build a financial base from which to fund these projects.

But right now, I have to work 400 km away from my wife and children, and can only see them twice a month. But I am re-assured that I have a caring, understanding wife who shares my vision. It is very hard financially, too, but I trust in the Lord who has always been faithful.

Being a good steward is about taking off your shoes only but then putting those shoes back on when you go out to serve the Lord. Stewardship is about coming before the Lord, confessing your sins, asking for forgiveness, and receiving salvation through Christ—taking off your shoes in your heart to receive God’s holy Word, but then stewardship is about putting your shoes back on, going out into the world looking for ways to faithfully serve the Lord and serve others with whatever you have.

That’s the amazing part this art installation by Paul Hobbs. He’s gathered stories from so many different places, different kinds of people, different experiences, but every one of them left the burning bush and put their shoes back on. The shoes we see in this exhibit are shoes that have gone out to serve the Lord by serving the world.

There’s Rosemarie from Germany who survived Nazi Germany. Her father, a Christian, helped Jews escape until the Nazis forced him to kill himself in 1938. Rosemarie then survived the brutality of the Russians after the war, and then years later, God led her to work in the former Soviet Union to speak about God’s forgiveness.

John Musa Puma from Nigeria who rebelled against his family as a teenager—following a native religion instead of their Christianity, stealing, drinking, and even killing. Then through an evangelist meeting, John became a Christian, quit his rebellious life, and responded to the need for an evangelist in the rural parts of Kenya. Now John has planted a church in the neighboring country of Niger in a mainly Muslim area.

Kanta from India used to work as a prostitute for 20 years. Now she’s a health worker helping prostitutes protect themselves from HIV/AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases. She cares for these prostitutes when most of society treats them harshly, the hospitals not even having the time to care for them. She also has many chances to share God’s love with these women and girls who know very little love in their lives.

Oscar Gonzalez from Lima, Peru, is an ornithologist, an expert on birds, who celebrates God’s Creation with his work as a field biologist. It has led him to travel all over Peru, working with researchers from around the world, and to also create a rare green space around his home in Lima.

Dr. Rob Wilson was originally a doctor in Wales in the United Kingdom, but then he felt called by God to go to Rwanda, to work for eleven years in that war-torn, genocide-ravaged country. He worked in a hospital caring for people who desperately needed medical attention and care.

I should’ve gotten each of you to donate a pair of shoes. We could have had shoes displayed all over up here and around the sanctuary, because each of you comes and takes off your shoes in your devotion to God but you also use your shoes as you go out to be good users of God’s gifts.

Since I didn’t get all of your shoes, you’ll have to just imagine it or use this last picture as a way of thinking about it. It’s a picture from Naz Hamid. It helps us think about just how many different pairs of shoes there are in this place, and that each pair of shoes represents someone who believes in Christ and who leaves the burning bush to go serve the Lord.

Somewhere along the line maybe someone has convinced you that you don’t have much to offer God, that you do your part by putting some money in the offering plate, but that you don’t have abilities or ways to serve God with your life. If someone has ever made your feel that way, I want you to remember this picture of all these shoes or imagine a display of shoes from every person in the congregation or remember the shoes of the people in the art exhibit, because each of those people is unique, different, flawed, not always so perfect, learning, still learning, but all of those people that belong to those pairs of shoes, all of the people in this place have ways to serve the Lord.

This congregation needs a lot of pairs of shoes to do what it does. And there’s not one pair of shoes that are more important than the others. God has blessed each pair of feet in each pair of shoes in this place. God does and will use each of you to help others learn and experience God’s love.

Please don’t ever think that your shoes are unimportant. God called you aside, called you over to the burning bush of His Word, called you to faith, and then He told you to put your shoes back on, He sent you out to serve Him whenever and wherever you are, in whatever ways that you are able.

Put your shoes back on as you leave worship today, put your shoes on and go to serve the Lord by serving the world.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Leaving Redeemer. . .

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

I have accepted the call to be Associate Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin. While I am confident that God is leading me to this new ministry and look forward to continuing to serve Him as a pastor, I am truly sad to be leaving the people and ministry we have here together.

Seven years ago when Susan and I arrived in Manitowoc, you greeted us with such open arms, and your love and care for us—and now for our three boys, Samuel, Jude, and Owen—has continued to be very apparent to us. We have loved being a part of this congregation and this community.

As Associate Pastor at Immanuel, I will be especially working in the area of Evangelism. Just as in Manitowoc, I am thrilled with the idea of looking for ways to connect Immanuel with their community, and using those connections to have the chance to tell people about the love and forgiveness of Jesus. Although the church has a part-time youth director, I also look forward to continuing to serving as a pastor to youth.

I treasure the work we have done to share Jesus in exciting ways together at Redeemer, and I trust that God will continue to use you in tremendous ways as you reach out to this community.

My last Sunday will be November 18. I will be preaching on both the weekends of November 8 & 11 and November 15 & 18. Bible studies and Confirmation classes will continue as scheduled through the 18th.

Please keep us in your prayers as we make this transition, and we will certainly be praying for Redeemer as you enter a new phase.

In Christ,
Pastor Ben Squires

Sunday, October 07, 2007

2 Timothy 1:1-14 - “Guard the Good Deposit”

19th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 22)
(Year C - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Thursday, October 4, and Sunday, October 7, 2007

Guard the good deposit. That’s what Paul says to Timothy in the New Testament reading we have today. Guard the good deposit. If you’ll take a look at that passage from the 2nd letter to Timothy, you can see what the good deposit is.

I didn’t give you the whole chart I made figuring this out—although if you’d like a copy, I’d be happy to get you one—but anyway, if you look at this passage starting in verse 8, you can see what Paul means by the “good deposit.”

Verse 8, Paul says, “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord.” The testimony, witness, words about our Lord—that’s the good deposit. Moving on in verse 8, he says, “But share in suffering for the gospel.” The Gospel is the good deposit. Verse 12, “But I am not ashamed for I know whom I have believed.” Paul’s not ashamed because He knows He believes in Christ—who is the Gospel, the testimony, the Word, the good deposit. Again, in verse 12, “I am convinced that He is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.” The good deposit has been entrusted to Paul, to Timothy, to us; the good deposit has been given to us, placed in our care, guard the good deposit which is the testimony, witness, word of Christ, the Gospel.

And then in verse 13, “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me.” Paul’s not talking about his own words, as if his own knowledge is the sound, trustworthy words. No, he’s talking about the good deposit, the Gospel, the Word of Christ. Follow this pattern, speak these words, share this Gospel, spread the Word of God, guard the good deposit.

Guard the good deposit.

And that’s when I almost get stumped. I mean, looking at these verses, it’s clear that the good deposit is the Gospel, the Good News of salvation. But back in verse 8 when Paul calls it the “testimony about our Lord,” well, testimony or witness, that’s a word about sharing, speaking, defending, spreading the word about Jesus. That seems pretty different than “guard the good deposit.” Guard makes it sound like we’re supposed to lock it up in a big vault, hide the key, memorize the combination and eat the paper it was written on, and use every means possible to keep the deposit sealed up.

That can’t be what Paul means, because he doesn’t even do that in these verses. Just before he says, “Guard the good deposit,” he brings out the deposit, the Gospel, shows it around. Look at verses 9 and 10, he’s not keeping the deposit in a big vault; he’s sharing and proclaiming and shouting and rejoicing in the good deposit.

Verse 9, “God saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Here Paul can’t contain his joy and excitement about how God has saved us from death, forgiven us through Christ, done this incredible thing. Apparently, guarding the good deposit does not mean locking it up in a big vault; apparently guarding the good deposit really must mean something about sharing the Good News with others.

When I was younger, I used to collect bottle caps. Bottle caps of all kinds, but the goal was to keep getting different bottle caps. At one point, I think I had something like 500 different bottle caps. There might have been a bunch from Coca-Cola, but they were all different designs. It was a great collection, but pretty much the only thing to do with the collection was to collect, sort, catalog, and put them in their storage cases. I guarded those bottle caps; they were an important collection; but I mainly just put them in a box and left them there.

That’s one kind of guarding.

The other kind of guarding is the kind of guarding I do now with my collection of music CDs, compact discs. I have more CDs than I want to admit, but I fool myself into thinking that my CD collection is a lot different than my bottle cap collection. My CD collection is a living collection. I use my CDs. I don’t just put them in the closet and forget about them; I listen to them and enjoy them. (Of course, I can’t possibly listen to all of my CDs very often, but this is what I tell myself. My bottle caps just sat on a shelf, but my CDs sit on my shelf always ready to be played and bring music to my life).

No matter how I might be fooling myself into thinking my CD collection is somehow different, it still is a different kind of guarding. I keep my CDs safe but not hidden. I store my CDs but only until I need to use them. I take care of my CDs, but they’re all unwrapped, open, sometimes a little scratched, used. My CDs are scattered on my desk in my office, laying on the front seat of my car, in stacks at home, and somewhat disorganized. It’s not a collection that’s sealed up, locked up, stored in a case, never to be handled. It’s a living collection that I’m using all of the time.

That’s the kind of guarding Paul is talking about in our Scripture reading today. Guard the good deposit. He’s not telling us to treat the Gospel like my bottle cap collection. The Gospel isn’t something to be collected, sorted, cataloged, and placed into a storage case. Paul is telling us to guard the good deposit like I guard my CDs. The Gospel is to be unwrapped, opened, used, scattered, and laying in every corner of your life. The Gospel is a living collection that Paul is telling us to use—with care—all of the time.

Hold up an unwrapped CD.
If I never open this CD, it remains protected, free from scratches, the booklet won’t get bent up or torn, and the CD won’t get lost. But how good does it sound? Hold CD to the microphone.

But now if I open this CD and put it in the stereo (Unwrap CD, put boom box on pulpit next to microphone, play CD), now we get the music. I have to keep the CD safe, so it doesn’t get scratched or broken, but I can still put it in the stereo and play it. That’s what a CD is for. It’s meant to be played and listened to. I’m guarding this CD so I don’t lose it, but I still will use it.

That’s the kind of guarding Paul is talking about with the Gospel. He’s not saying keep it wrapped up and on a shelf. He’s saying keep it safe but unwrap it, put it in the stereo, play that music, play that Gospel, let the Good News of Jesus Christ go out into all of the world.

Paul is calling on Timothy and all of us to guard the good deposit, to take care to learn and know and study and understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ, how He came and saved us by His death and resurrection. But even while you’re taking care of the Gospel, you’re out there sharing it with the world. Unwrap the Gospel, play the Gospel, blast the stereo, tell the whole world that Jesus Christ saves us.

That’s exactly the mission of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League, which we celebrate today. There’s a blue bookmark in your bulletins today which I encourage you to take home as a reminder. The Lutheran Women’s Missionary League, the LWML, was formed 65 years ago to guard the good deposit. They didn’t pack up a bunch of Bibles and hide them in an underground vault never to be touched again.

No, the mission of the LWML is “to assist each woman of LCMS in affirming her relationship with the Triune God so that she is enabled to use her gifts in ministry to the people of the world.” The LWML encourages women to take the good deposit that is in them by the Spirit, to take that faith in Christ and share it with the world. Guard the good deposit through making sure the world hears the Word of God.

As I hope you noticed, we’re also focusing on Lutheran Bible Translators today with the display in the lobby area. One of the mission projects of the LWML nationwide is to raise $60,000 by 2009 for Lutheran Bible Translators to help with transportation costs of sending translators around the world to help people start having the Scriptures in their own languages. Lutheran Bible Translators guards the good deposit, because they go out trying to unwrap the Gospel into other languages. They’re helping people all around the world discover the truth about Jesus Christ.

The display, if you haven’t already gone through, has you pick up a key tag. On that key tag, you’ll find the name of a country and a language that is one of the 4,486 languages that doesn’t have any Scripture. Then you try to find that language on the poster scrolls. It’s not easy. The alphabetical list is mixed up somewhat. Once you find the language listed on your key tag, you cross it out and put your initials next to it. Then keep the key tag and pray for that country and language group.

The whole experience tries to help us to see the enormous task of translating the Bible so that all people can hear it. The poster scrolls came from Lutheran Bible Translators and were already used by another congregation which crossed off over 700 languages. But there’s still more, plenty more.

Supporting Lutheran Bible Translators and Lutheran Women’s Missionary League is a way to guard the good deposit, because they are caring for the Word of God by making sure that message goes out into all the world. They’re unwrapping the CD and letting the music play. They’re not keeping the Word in a vault; they’re trying to get it out to as many people as possible.

You see, we have the Word. (Hold up my tattered Bible)

This is my Bible which Susan gave me 12 years ago. It’s very beat up, the covers coming off, while it has a leather cover, pieces of it have just flaked off of the binding. I carry this around with me all around the place. If you’ve ever seen me with it in class, you know that I’m not always the most careful with it. I drop it, I toss it onto the table, I bend it, tap it. In other words, if you look at my Bible, it doesn’t look like I am guarding the good deposit.

But if this Bible was still in the box it came in, if I kept this Bible locked up or in a trophy case or on one of those book stand displays, would that be guarding the good deposit? If I never looked inside this Bible, if I never used it, listened to, cracked the binding, unwrapped the Word of God, would that be guarding it? Or would that just be a waste?

Paul calls on us to stop wasting the Word that we have. Instead, guard that good deposit by sharing it with the world. Crack open your Bibles, find out what it says, carry it with you, take the risk that you might tear the pages as you read it, because then you’re treasuring the Word of God, then you’re learning, then you’re ready to share it with the people around you.

And when you use your good deposit, when you realize just what an incredible message we have, the message of salvation, then you realize you want to share that good deposit with other people. Just like the LWML and Lutheran Bible Translators working around the world, you can share the good deposit in your neighborhood, your family, your work, your school.

Guarding the good deposit means finding a friend who doesn’t have a Bible, doesn’t have the good deposit, and give them the Word of Life. Take the treasure you have, and give that treasure to someone else. Invite your friend to come unwrap God’s Word with you at worship or Bible study. Invite your friend to ask questions about this treasure we have. And most of all, invite them to see that Paul’s words of Gospel apply to them as well, those words from verses 9 and 10 applied to your friend:

“God saved you, my friend, and called you to a holy calling, not because of your works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave you in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Luke 15:8-10 - “Sweeping”

16th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19)
(Year C - Lutheran Service Book Readings)
Thursday, September 13, 2007

Bring out a garbage can on wheels which has numerous brooms in it.

The parable that Jesus tells about the woman searching her house for her lost coin, it says that she swept the house looking for the coin. I brought out these brooms tonight, because that image of the woman sweeping, it tells us a lot about our God and so it also tells us a lot about us as His people.

First, though, perhaps the woman’s action don’t seem noteworthy if you’re thinking she’s sweeping a floor like you’d find in one of our houses. I mean, even here in this big sanctuary, it might take us awhile to find a dime if we dropped it on the floor, but brooms wouldn’t really be necessary. We’d just scan the carpet, look for something shiny to catch our eye. If necessary, we could even get down on our hands and knees, get eye-level with the floor, and try to see where there was something laying on the floor. It would take awhile, but whether here or at home, it wouldn’t be that hard, and brooms certainly wouldn’t be required.

If that’s the image from this parable, well, it wouldn’t be all that impressive. If Jesus is saying that God looks for us lost sinners like a woman scanning a carpet, well, it shows God cares—but does He really work very hard at looking for us?

Except when Jesus told this parable, He wasn’t living in a world of carpeted rooms. Sure, the woman probably lived in a house smaller than the size of a one-car garage, a much smaller floor to search than say looking for a dime in this sanctuary, but listen to what else we can guess about what the woman’s house was liked. This description is from Kenneth Bailey’s book, Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15:

The building material around the northern end of the sea of Galilee [where Jesus spent a lot of time teaching] is a beautiful very black basalt. [Archaeologists have found that] the buildings are almost exclusively constructed of the local black rock….The windows…[were] about six inches high and placed in the wall about seven feet above the ground. They are little more than slits. The ancient building techniques produced ceilings from slabs of the same black basalt….[T]he floors…were covered with flat basalt stones taken from the lake. Cracks between the stones are naturally wide….“[T]he rather deep [cracks] between the stones are filled up with earth….” (Bailey, 101).

Now do you see? When Jesus says that the woman lit a lamp, swept the floor, and made a diligent search, she was searching a very small house, but she was working in very dark conditions, carefully sweeping away whatever filled the cracks in the floors, looking for where that coin may have gone to be covered over by more dirt. Against these very difficult circumstances, the woman is focused on finding that coin, worth a day’s wages, worth so much to her family but worth nothing if it remains lost in a crack in the floor.

Now this image of a woman sweeping searching for her lost coin, now this starts to reveal who our God really is. He is making a diligent search for all the lost ones. He made a diligent search and found you. He rejoiced when He found you among the dark places of this world, hidden in a forgotten crack underneath the dirt, lost because of your sin. He shined His light into this dark world, swept the floor until He found you. The angels in heaven rejoiced when you were found and given the promise of eternal life.

Far from an image of our God looking for us as a matter of course, searching like a simple household cleaning task, instead this parable shows us that God searches for all people, for all His lost ones like one who is up against a difficult task but who works at it with great diligence. God isn’t just doing a little surface search; He is sweeping away the dirt covered each crack. He will not stop until He discovers the lost coin, until He discovers His lost ones who need the Word of salvation.

Ah, but that brings us back to this bin of brooms. I suppose all of these brooms could show that God will use as many tools as He needs in order to find people who need to know about His love and forgiveness. That could be a reason for having so many brooms, but there’s another reason I have for having so many brooms: they represent us. We are called to go out sweeping for the Lord.

As much as this parable tells us about God’s heart, how in His heart of hearts God wants all people to be saved so He is on a very diligent search for each lost person, as much as this parable shows us who our God is, it also tells us who we are called to be.

As followers of Christ, we are called to reflect Him, to shine with His characteristics, to embody His love and forgiveness and. . .diligent search. If it is God’s desire to search for the lost ones with a passion like a woman searching for a small coin in a very dark room where there are deep cracks for a coin to hide, well, then we, too, are to have that same passion for searching.

We are called to go out sweeping for the Lord, called to go out searching for the lost with the same diligence, focus, care, love, and joy.

But what kind of searching are we doing? Will the kind of sweeping we’re doing now ever reveal the lost coin, or are we just doing a surface cleaning which will never find the lost coin in a deep crack underneath the dirt?

In other words, are we as a congregation focused on doing whatever it takes to reach out to people who don’t know Jesus, people who have fallen away from their faith, people who can’t see what Jesus has to do with their daily lives, people who need hope beyond the troubles of their lives? Are we diligently grabbing the broom and sweeping until we find these lost ones?

A couple of weeks ago when I announced our Executive Board’s decision to try keeping worship on Thursday rather than on Saturday, I explained that we’re doing it on a trial basis, that you should pass on your thoughts to an Executive Board member, and that they’re asking you to keep an open mind to see how this might work for us as a congregation.

Now I don’t really know what the answer is to when we should have our worship services, but I want you to think about it from next to this can of brooms. I want you to ask questions about what we need to do as a congregation to be sweeping, to be searching, to be doing whatever it takes to reach out to people who are not here receiving God’s Good News.

In other words, as we think about when to have worship services, it’s not just about what is good for you. The question is about missions, about outreach, about what will make it possible for us to find the lost ones in our community. We’re looking for the right kind of broom for the job. We’re not just looking for your favorite broom or someone else’s favorite broom. We’re looking for the broom that will make it possible for more and more people to come, hear God’s Word, and trust in Him for salvation.

Again, I don’t know what broom we need. I don’t know when we should have worship services in order to serve the people around us. All I am asking based on the Parable of the Lost Coin is that we think about questions like this from a mission perspective: what do we need to do to be diligently searching for the lost ones?

It’s the same question we should be asking about all of the other decisions we need to be making—what are our goals as a congregation, what is our long-range plan, what short-range needs are most important, do we need to expand our building, what is our role in the community?

It’s not enough to just ask what we want, what we like, because that’s only a surface search, that’s only looking for the coins that we already have, that’s just about serving the people who are already here. That kind of approach is like saying, “Well, our doors are open. If people wanted to come to church, they’d come.”

Instead, behind all of our decisions as a congregation, we need to be sweeping the floor, digging out the dirt in each crack, looking for the right tools to discover the lost coins. We need to make decisions based on reaching out to the people who aren’t already in church. What do they need, what will help them come and hear God’s Word? We need to diligently search, look for the people who aren’t already here. That kind approach is shown when we say, “Well, what do we need to do to find people who aren’t in a church? What are we doing now that isn’t helpful to people outside the church? What could we change to make it easier for people to come and hear God’s Word?”

Of course, the only way we can shift our way of thinking, the only way we can pick up the broom for a diligent search, the only way we can set aside of our selfish questions and focus on making decisions based on searching for the lost, the only way that can happen is through the Holy Spirit working in our hearts.

Knowing Christ means knowing that He saved you. Knowing Christ means knowing that all people need Jesus for salvation. Knowing Christ means having that broom in your heart.

In thankful response to God saving you, take up your broom. Sweep the world around, searching for the lost coins, trying to find the people who need to know Jesus.

Show them your heart. Show them the broom. Show them that God swept the floor looking for them.

Here’s where I left behind my notes and tried to really drive home that vision of God putting the broom in our hearts. Since God has saved us, we have a broom in our hearts, the reminder that He did so much to save us. We take that broom and go out sweeping for others. Searching for the lost doesn’t come from some idea of trying to prove our worthiness. Rather, it is because of who God has made us to be: people with brooms in our hearts.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Jonah 1:1-17 - “The Ironic, Jonah Mission”

Opening of the Education Year
Thursday, September 6, and Sunday, September 9, 2007

When you entered church today, you were covered in whale slime. You were covered in seaweed, fish goo, algae, saltwater, squid pieces, and zooplankton.

You stunk with the sin of not living up to expectations. You are not the disciples you are meant to be. It seems strange to start the Education Year with you, because we say we want you to be faithful followers of Jesus who are studying His Word, but ironically, your actions don’t look like that.

It’s strange to be getting all of our Bible studies, Sunday School, choirs, and activities started when we’re covered with whale slime, the mess of sins that shows we’re not focused on God’s mission. We’re not studying the Bible, we’re not mission-focused in our actions, we’re not committing to being here regularly and being a part of the team. Ironically, being trained as followers of Jesus may be the furthest thing from our minds.

It’s the same kind of irony, the same kind of pattern we see in the actions of Jonah from the Old Testament, the guy who was really covered in whale slime.

In his commentary about Jonah, Dr. Reed Lessing from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, explains that “Irony is a figure of speech in which. . .an event or statement occurs or is used in a way that is just the opposite of what would be expected….Irony serves to point out inconsistencies in a situation between what is and what ought to be,” (23).

There are many places in the book of Jonah where Jonah’s actions and words are just the opposite of what we’d expect, where Jonah the prophet is less faithful to the Lord than the heathen around him.

On the insert in your bulletins, you have the first chapter of Jonah printed out so that we can take a brief look at these ironies. And just as Dr. Lessing says, these ironies will serve to point out the inconsistencies we ourselves have in our words and actions.

Looking then at Jonah, it begins:

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, [2] "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me." IRONY [3] But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

God tells Jonah to go and preach in Nineveh, and Jonah does the exact opposite of what is expected of a prophet. Nineveh is east, so Jonah gets on a boat and goes as far west as he possibly can.

But God has His own ironic action. Verse 4:

IRONY [4] But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. [5] Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them.

Expecting fair sailing all the way to Tarshish, Jonah now faces a huge storm sent by God. Ironically, God is calling Jonah again, reminding Jonah that he’s going the wrong way.

But Jonah’s not done doing the opposite of what is expected; Jonah’s not listening to the storm. Verse 5 continues ironically:

IRONY But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep.

Jonah is still trying to ignore God’s call, but again, there’s great irony in the fact that now God uses the unbelieving sailors to remind Jonah of his duty as a prophet of the Lord. Verse 6:

IRONY [6] So the captain came and said to him, "What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish."

Jonah says he believes in God. As an Israelite, as a follower of God, Jonah knows that he should pray in times of trouble, but he’s sleeping. It’s the captain who tells Jonah to pray, the captain who doesn’t know the true God. Jonah must have been slow moving, so the captain and sailors try to take matters into their own hands in verse 7:

IRONY [7] And they said to one another, "Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us." So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.

Jonah knows that he is the cause of the trouble; Jonah knows that he’s running away from God’s call, and yet, it takes the sailors and casting lots to really point out the truth. As a prophet, Jonah is to be a truth-speaker, but when the sailors come saying they know that the storm is due to Jonah’s sin, they are the true truth-speakers in the boat. Ah, by ironically, Jonah still holds onto his righteous confession. Verse 8:

[8] Then they said to him, "Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?" IRONY [9] And he said to them, "I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land."

Jonah has denied his God by most of his actions in the story already, but here he doesn’t show any sign of how ironic it is to say that he believes in the Lord. The sailors certainly hadn’t seen Jonah acting like a man devoted to the Lord. Again, the prophet doesn’t lead, but rather, he lets the sailors guide the next step. Verse 10:

[10] Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, "What is this that you have done!" For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.

[11] Then they said to him, "What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?" For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. IRONY [12] He said to them, "Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you."

Jonah knows to repent, turn away from his sin, to confess and ask for forgiveness. Jonah knows that repentance is the only action required of a believer who is caught in sin. Yet, he tells the sailors to throw him overboard. Of course, the sailors don’t act as expected; they’re more righteous than that. Verse 13:

IRONY [13] Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them.

They know that Jonah is the cause of the terrible storm, but they still try so hard to save his life. Ironically, they put their lives at risk for Jonah who by his actions is threatening their lives. Verse 14:

[14] Therefore they called out to the Lord, "O Lord, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you." [15] So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. [16] Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. IRONY

[17] And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

As far as we know, Jonah never prays during his time on the boat. He hasn’t told the sailors anything about the true God, but ironically, through this reluctant prophet, the sailors turn to offer their own prayers to the Lord. They have been convinced of the truth of God, but ironically, that comes through Jonah’s silence, misery, selfishness, and resistance of God’s call. God has ironically used the whole situation to bring the ship’s crew into His Kingdom.

If you read the rest of the book of Jonah, Jonah never admits all of these ironies in his actions. Instead, what becomes very clear is that Jonah’s mission, the Ironic, Jonah Mission is God’s mission. God is the One who uses every ironic twist and turn for His purposes. God never accepts lets Jonah put a stop to the mission. Instead, the whale spits Jonah onto the beach. God wipes the whale slime off of Jonah and sends him again to do the mission of bringing others to the kingdom of God.

As we begin our Education Year, it isn’t so important to point out all of our accomplishments, our shining moments when we were successful as part of God’s mission. It’s better to first see the Ironic, Jonah Mission among us, to see the ironies we have in our words and actions, to see the ways we do the opposite of what is expected of Christians who are called to share the Gospel with the world. . .AND to see how it is still God’s mission, how our actions don’t stop His mission, how God wipes the whale slime off of us and sends us again this fall to work together to tell others about His love.

I walked around the building earlier this week, remembering what it is that we do here together, and it didn’t take long to smell our whale slime, to smell the scent of irony. Think about these ironies I’ve seen in our actions, think about which ironies are present in your life,

  • You want your children or grandchildren to learn the Bible (through Sunday School and Confirmation), but you don’t go to Bible study yourself.
  • You want more people to come to your congregation, but you don’t introduce yourself to visitors.
  • You want visitors to feel welcome, but then act as if everyone should know how we do things at Redeemer.
  • You want younger families to be in worship services, but you complain when a baby cries.
  • You want worship services to be meditative and reverent, but you chat with the people near you up until the opening hymn.
  • You come to tell the pastors about the sins of others, but you don’t come to confess your own sins.

I know it’s not easy to have your ironies pointed out—your individual, ironic actions and the ironic actions of our entire congregation. It feels like you’ve just been swallowed up by a whale. You were running away from God’s gracious presence, and now you’re in the belly of the whale. It’s what we call God’s Law, experiencing His anger over your sin, seeing how you’ve separated yourself from God.

Yet, that’s not where the story ends, does it? Jonah doesn’t stay in the belly of the whale. Three days later God causes that whale to spit him up onto shore. Jonah lands on the beach, probably covered in a stinky, messy reminder of the pit he was in, but he is alive and free and sent again to do God’s mission. Jonah will fail again, but still when that whale spits him onto shore, that’s a clue that God forgives Jonah, loves Jonah, restores Jonah, still wants to use Jonah as a prophet.

Well, if by naming these ironies I have sent you to the belly of the whale, get ready to land on the beach.

You are alive and free. Forgiven, God’s still ready to use you in His mission. God is wiping off that whale slime covering you even as we speak.

You don’t go to Bible study even though you make your children go? Ironically, God has still been using you to bring your children into His presence. You’re on the beach now with God sending you on His mission again.

You haven’t introduced yourself to visitors? People still are coming to Redeemer and saying they feel so welcome here. People have still found God’s gracious presence here. So let God wipe off the whale slime that’s covering you, because God wants to use you to bring others into His presence.

You act like new people should know how we do things? Don’t worry; it hasn’t chased all the new people away. So start now, clean and fresh from God’s forgiveness, and help people get to know how our congregation works.

You complain when a baby cries in worship? Well, babies don’t keep track of things like that. They’ll just smile at you again, seeing you as that nice person from the beach who once was in the whale. God sends you again to find ways to make families feel as if they can be a part of things here.

You chat with people during the whole worship service? With the irony pointed out in your action, God is calling on you to be the person He wants you to be, meditative and reverent showing others why we worship the Lord.

You point out the sins of others, but you don’t confess your own sins? Look back, see the trail of whale slime behind you, see how your actions are just as ironic and sinful as anyone else, and that God promises to wipe the whale slime off of all people.

You see, your ironies, your Ironic, Jonah Mission, that’s not where the story ends, does it? Just as Jonah didn’t stay in the belly of the whale, but was spit up on shore after three days, so Jesus didn’t stay in the tomb but rose again after three days. Because of the resurrection, because of believing in Christ, you land on the beach, still covered in stinky, messy reminders of your sins, but you are alive and free and sent again to do God’s mission.

The Education Year is about the beach. Studying God’s Word is about seeing how God saved you from the belly of the whale. Worship services are focused on receiving God’s forgiveness, washing away the stink and slime of your sins.

That’s why I’m excited for our new Education Year, because I love seeing God take whale slime covered people, make you clean, and then use you in His mission. The whale has spit you onto shore; God forgives you, loves you, restores you, still wants to use you in His mission.