Sunday, January 30, 2011

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 - “Epiphanies in Evangelism: A Foolish Thing”

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, January 30, 2011

(Standing in center aisle halfway back)
I’m surrounded by fools! I’m surrounded by fools! That’s right, I’m calling you fools, all of you. All of you are fools. Fools. Fools. Fools.

And if that makes you fools, then I’m a fool, too. I’m the foolish pastor leading a group of fools. Fools. Fools. Fools.

(Returning to the chancel).
And why are we fools? Because we believe in the incredibly ridiculous idea that our Savior, our God was killed on a cross, killed in most horrible way, and that that death, that death saves us. That this Savior rose again from the dead and brought victory over death for all people.

You’re fools for believing in Jesus, believing that Jesus died on the cross and rose again, you’re fools for believing that Jesus gives us salvation.

It’s really a foolish idea when you compare it to the expectations of the people around us. It’s really hard to believe when you think about what seems wise and strong, what seems right and good.

Which means when we go out to share our faith with other people we have to realize we should a bit foolish, that there’s a shock in the message, there’s something that won’t compute right away, that this isn’t what people expect to hear when they think about approaching God.

• You see, according to the “real” world, this Jesus Christ thing doesn’t make sense at all
• William Willimon—a preacher and writer—said one of the dangers we run into is when we start to think Christianity makes sense (read article)
• We forget how absurd it sounds, how strange

For instance, when most people think about approaching God, they’re kind of wondering how they’re going to get right with God, what they need to do to get closer to God, what steps they’ve got to take to be with God.

And then we fools come along and tell them that God doesn’t work that way, that God comes to them, that God comes to them through Jesus, that even if they’ve tried to get away from God that He keeps coming to find them.

It sounds foolish that God would leave His throne to come and find us. It sounds foolish to think that there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves so God figured out a way to save us through His actions. It sounds foolish, backwards, shocking, not at all what people would expect.

This foolishness, the fact that the Gospel is a foolish thing, well, that’s always made me feel like it isn’t worth trying to prove that the Gospel is true. I’m not saying there’s never a place to explain why we think the Gospel is true and other religions aren’t, but I’m not sure if that’s what many non-Christians in this generation are looking for. I don’t know that they’re looking for us to prove the truth of Christianity as much as they want to see the truth of Christ, see the truth in our lives, see how that truth affects us.

Do you know what I mean? It isn’t as important to people whether we can prove the Bible is right about God creating the world; that’s not the first question. The first question is whether the truth of Christ has affected our lives, how it has shaped us, how it has given us hope, how it has led us to make different decisions in our lives.

So what’s that mean for your conversations with friends who are non-Christians? What’s that mean about talking to people about Jesus? It means that you don’t have to feel the pressure to prove that Jesus is the truth. That’s not necessarily the first place to start. It’s seen as foolishness, so instead of trying to get people to stop thinking it’s foolish, simply agree with them. Agree with them and then tell your story.

Say: “I know it seems crazy, but I believe in Jesus. I believe that He lived, died, and rose again. I believe that His death means that I can have life after death. I know most people don’t believe in this, but for whatever reason, I believe. I believe that God came looking for me, keeps looking for me when I run away from Him, will come and find me and take me to life after death. I believe in what Jesus said and taught. I believe even though it seems foolish.”

What’s the danger in talking like this? (Solicit answers).
(It might mean people continue thinking we’re fools).

What’s the good thing about talking like this? (Solicit answers).
(It helps avoid a debate. This is the truth you have found).

When we’re trying to prove the truth of God, what sin are we in danger of committing? (Solicit answers).
(Thinking we can make God fit into our world).

How does our view of God change by admitting it sounds like foolishness according to the world’s standards? (Solicit answers).
(God may sound incredibly ridiculous, but that’s because He’s beyond anything we could think or imagine).

• Embrace being a fool
• Embrace the foolishness
• Rejoice in incredibly foolish thing that God has done

• And as you share your faith, you’re calling people to believe in something completely out of this world
• You’re calling people to a truth that has changed you
• You’re not proving the faith by debate and argument
• You’re showing how this truth has affected you

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Isaiah 9:1-4 - “Epiphanies in Evangelism: A Light Dawns”

Third Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, January 23, 2011

This is a rough draft of what I eventually preached.

Let me introduce you to the Moonball. The Moonball is a glow-in-the-dark ball shaped like the moon. I found it on the roof of my first congregation. Don’t ask why I was up on the roof? I was doing youth ministry. Anyway, I’ve used the Moonball now for years as something to throw around to pass the time, as a way to get people talking—pass it to someone and they have to tell you their favorite food. But the best thing about the Moonball is trying to find a dark place to play, to throw around the ball in the dark with it glowing. Hold it underneath a light and then hurry to a dark room and play a round of Moonball.

I think the mission of Jesus is to play Moonball. I think that’s what we learn from Isaiah today as Isaiah talks about the coming Messiah, the Christ, Jesus. I think it’s all about playing Moonball.

Can you hear the Moonball thing in the words of Isaiah? Listen to verse 2 again. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” Sure, you hear the Moonball thing, right? Bringing light to a dark place, that’s like bringing the Moonball into a dark room with it glowing. The people in the dark room have seen a Moonball; the people walking in darkness have seen a great light.

But it’s even more than that. It’s the way in which Jesus clamored to go to a dark place, the way in which He rushed into a dark place, to bring light to a dark place. He chose to leave the throne room of God to become a man, to live among us, to live in this dark world, clamored to come to live among people who live in darkness, clamored to bring the light to a dark place.

That’s why the mission of Jesus is like Moonball. You purposely go out looking for dark places so that you can play Moonball, and to do the mission of God, to tell people about salvation through the forgiveness and grace of God, to do that mission, you’ve got to go to dark places, you’ve got to clamor to go to dark places in order to bring the light to the people.

The mission of Jesus is to glow in the dark, to glow in the dark with His forgiveness, love, and mercy, to glow in the dark places of our lives, to show us His plan of salvation, to show us the hope of eternal life.

And if that’s the mission of Jesus, if the mission of Jesus is to glow in the dark, to clamor to get to dark places, to clamor to bring light to dark places, if the mission of Jesus is to play Moonball, well, then that’s our mission, too. We’ve got to clamor to get to dark places, to find people who are living in the darkness, to find people going through dark times and living with darkness in their hearts. We’ve got to clamor to get out of the Christian bubble, to get out of our safe little world at church, and to go out into the dark world, to bring the Moonball, to bring our A-game, to bring the light of Christ to the world around us.

I once showed up early and stood in line to share the light with someone. OK, truth is, I showed up early for a concert and stood in line waiting for the doors to open, but meanwhile, God used that situation to allow me to share my faith with a fellow fan. We’ll call him Jake, and at first, we just talked about the upcoming concert which happened to be by the Old 97’s, a band I’ve mentioned before. But anyway, we talked about the concert and then where we were from and our backgrounds, and as we waited for the show to start, well, things turned spiritual when I told him about being a pastor. At first, he shied away from me when he learned about my faith in God, but I tried to show him that I wasn’t going to reject him. As our conversation continued, I could see how God was giving me words to speak, words that would bring light into the darkness. Looking back on it now, I realize that God made it so that I was glowing in the dark.

But to glow in the dark, I had to go to a dark place. I had to be available to someone like Jake who was living with darkness in his life. I had to be there. Now, I didn’t go to that dark place and jump fully in. When Jake got drunk later that night, I didn’t follow him down that path. But if I had never left the safety of the Christian bubble, I would never have met Jake, never been used by God in his life.

That’s what it means to play Moonball, that’s what it means to be a part of God’s mission, that what it means to take light to dark places. You’ve got to make yourself available to people who are outside of the faith, you’ve got to go to places where people are living in darkness, you’ve got to see how God could use you in many ways and in many places.

Jesus came to play Moonball, Jesus came glow in the dark, Jesus came to be with the sinners and prostitutes and people rejected by society. Jesus has called us to go play Moonball, too, so what’s keeping us from following the mission? What’s keeping us from taking our Moonball into dark places? What’s keeping us from sharing the light of Christ with others?

I’d guess it’s fear. Fear of how people might react. Fear about not knowing what to say. Fear keeps us from going to play Moonball.

But what’s going to happen if you share your faith with someone? I mean, I suppose sometimes you’ll get rejected. I know it’s happened to me. I remember one time in St. Louis, it was the night of the 1998 Super Bowl, Super Bowl XXXII, the Broncos had just beat the Packers. Now I had been waiting for the game to end before taking the trash out since the next day was trash day. When I emerged from our apartment, I met another guy doing the same thing. He was a new neighbor I hadn’t met before. We chuckled about both waiting until the game was over to take out the trash. We chatted about the game, and then started to share a little bit about where we’re from, what we do. In the process, I told him I was studying to be a pastor, and that’s when our conversation abruptly came to an end.

You see, this guy had been cussing up a storm, and I think when he realized I was going to be a pastor, I think he felt ashamed or something, he clamed up, said goodnight, and he never really talked to me again—just kind of waved and avoided me. I had come to play Moonball, I started to think that God was going to use the conversation by the trash cans to bring light into this guy’s dark world, but instead, the conversation ended. I was rejected.

Those kind of experiences sometimes have made me afraid to open my mouth, afraid to try to share light with the people around me, share my faith, but the thing is, I don’t know how God might’ve used that conversation with the guy after the Super Bowl. I don’t know what happened next, I don’t know if someone else came along and shared the faith with him later. All I know is that God wants me to go out to play Moonball, all I know is that God is with me when I’m bringing light into dark places, all I know is that sometimes it’ll be a good conversation and sometimes it won’t, but either way, God is with me, God will give me words to say, God will use it for His good, for His mission.

So set aside your fear. Let God work in you to remove your fear, and see that God is setting you up to go play Moonball, God is setting you up to go out and share something about your faith. God is preparing you to have conversations with family and friends, to have conversations with strangers, to have conversations where you start to let the light of Christ shine.

Playing Moonball, it doesn’t mean having to have all the answers. It means being prepared to at least try to point things in a spiritual direction, saying something about your church, your faith in God, that you pray, that you’ll pray for someone, ending a conversation by saying, “God bless you.”

Playing Moonball, it means letting God’s light shine through your words and your actions. It means reacting with love and compassion. It means not being afraid to tell people that you believe in Jesus and that it changes how you live your life. It means telling your story, telling people how faith in God has given you hope through difficult times, it means telling people that you’ve needed God’s light in your dark life.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Isaiah 49:1-7 - “Epiphanies in Evangelism: A Bigger Mission”

Second Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, January 16, 2011

It’s too small a thing for you to be my servant to bring back Israel.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles.

With that, the word of the Lord came to Isaiah, and the Lord was saying that the Servant, the Messiah not just coming for Israel—the people in the know. The Messiah would also be sent to the Gentiles—the outsiders, the ones with different gods. It’s a bigger mission that they might have first envisioned. It’s a bigger mission, it involves salvation for more people, it involves God doing something much bigger than they might have imagined.

It’s too small a thing for you to be my servant to bring back Israel.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles.

It’s too small a thing just to go and get Christians to join our church. God is sending us to get people who don’t have a background with the Church. That’s the epiphany in evangelism today: we’ve got to reach out beyond the churchy people. We’ve got a bigger mission. It’s not just getting people to switch from one congregation to ours. It’s about finding people who don’t know Jesus.

It’s too small a thing for you to be my servant to bring back Israel.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles.

It’s a mission that sends us to people like Jenna. Jenna was a seventh grader I met while I was a pastor in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. I volunteered every other week to be a lunch monitor at Washington Junior High as a way to get to know the youth of our community, as a way to give something back to our community. I couldn’t get up and preach in the lunch room, but if the kids asked me questions about religion, it was ok for me to answer their questions.

Well, Jenna, she often was sitting by herself at lunch, and over time she started talking to me more. What I remember most about her was that she loved to draw, mainly pictures like you’d see in a good comic book. She especially would draw herself as a great warrior where she got to become strong and mighty.

Jenna wasn’t looking for the Messiah, hadn’t been reading Isaiah wondering if Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament. Jenna probably didn’t even know what most of that meant.

But Jenna was looking for meaning in her life, something beyond what she felt. She was lonely and confused. She was hurt in many ways by her family. She was searching for something in her life that would give her more hope than pictures of herself as a warrior.

So one day Jenna asked me if she could get baptized. It wasn’t that she knew what getting baptized really meant, but she had heard about it. She had heard people talking about Christians being baptized. She wanted what she had seen in other people’s lives. I could sense that she just deeply wanted to be connected to something bigger than her little world. I could sense that she just wanted to know if there was a God who cared for her.

I never got the chance to baptize Jenna or even tell her that much about it. I asked her if her dad would let her come to church, but she made it sound like that would never happen. I tried calling her dad once, and he had no interest in talking to me about it. And it was long after that that we left Manitowoc to go to Milwaukee, so I didn’t get to keep up with Jenna. I can only pray that our conversations led her towards God, led her towards finding a way to be baptized and be God’s child.

But those conversations with Jenna taught me so much about God’s bigger mission. This wasn’t a conversation with someone who already knew a lot about the Christian faith and was just looking for a new congregation. These were conversations with someone who was at the very beginning, was just starting to understand who God is, let alone who Jesus Christ, the Messiah, is. I was an Israelite, and she was a Gentile. I was an insider with insider knowledge about the faith, and she was an outsider with a completely different set of beliefs about spiritual things.

But gosh, it was tempting to go find easier conversations, find youth who already knew about the church, find kids who were disappointed with their church experience and encourage them to join my church. That seemed a lot easier than trying to tell someone the very basics of the faith, teach somebody about Jesus who doesn’t know anything about the Bible, that seemed too difficult. It seemed easier just to go to a different table in the cafeteria and find Christian kids.

It’s too small a thing for you to be my servant to bring back Israel.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles.

Lord, forgive us for keeping this light to ourselves. Lord, forgive us for keeping our sights set low and small and contained. Lord, forgive us for chickening out and going for the easier conversations. Lord, forgive us for focusing on swapping Christians back and forth between congregations instead of focusing on telling people about You that don’t know You already.

It’s too small a thing for you to be my servant to bring back Israel.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles.

Lord, give us wisdom to know how to reach out to others. Lord, give us Your Holy Spirit to lead us in telling others about You. Lord, help us to shine with Your light, shine in the dark places, shine among the Gentiles of our world.

It’s too small a thing for you to be my servant to bring back Israel.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles.

Lord, make this to be true among us. Lord, help us to have your heart for this bigger mission. Lord, help us to have Your heart for people like Jenna, people who are desperate to know You. Lord, use us to point people towards You.

Practically speaking, what does this look like? What does this bigger mission look like?

First of all, it looks different than what we see in today’s Gospel reading. Today’s Gospel reading is a great mission text as Andrew goes to find his brother, Simon Peter, goes to tell Peter that they had found the Messiah. That’s mission, an impulse to go and tell your family and friends that you’ve found the answer, found the answer spiritually. That impulse, that’s mission, that’s evangelism, that’s what it means to go and share your faith.

So, in that way, today’s Gospel reading is a great mission text, but practically speaking, today, in God’s bigger mission, in His mission to people who are outside of the Church, well, we’re not going to start the conversation by saying, “We have found the Messiah.” People today aren’t necessarily looking for the Messiah; Jenna wasn’t looking for the Messiah. They don’t even know what that means.

Practically speaking, we have to reframe the question in their terms, their context. We’re not going to people who are wondering whether Jesus is the Savior. We’re going to people who are wondering whether there’s a God. We need to reframe the question in their terms, in their context.

Notice how it had to be reframed for Jenna. She wanted to be baptized, but really she was asking to belong, to belong a God, to belong to something that would give her hope. The question wasn’t about Jesus being the Messiah; the question was about whether Jesus could give her hope when she was lonely and confused and hurt. She wanted to be a warrior to fight off the world; what could God offer her in response to that?

So practically speaking, it’s about reframing the questions, putting it in the context of the Gentiles, putting it in the context of the people around us. And practically speaking, this happens because you shine with the light of Christ. The Holy Spirit will help you listen and reframe. Reach out to the Gentiles of our world. Reach out to the people outside of the church

Practically speaking, this evangelism series is about having insights into what it means to share your faith, but we also want to give you simple tools. Beginning today, you can pick up a business card for the church that has all the basic information about the congregation, including worship times, so that as people in your life like Jenna get curious about church, you can give them a card with our basic info. It’s a simple tool that you can carry with you. It’s a conversation starter with people who are outside of the church

I want you to shine with the light of Christ—telling people that you’ve found hope in what you hear at church. I want you to reach out to people by pointing them in the direction of hope. When you tell people about your experience at church, your experience in the faith, people outside the church begin to realize you have found hope.

It’s too small a thing for you to be my servant to bring back Israel.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles.

God is going to use you to shine with His light, to shine for people outside of the church.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Isaiah 42:1-9 - “We’re His Spirit-Servants”

Baptism of Our Lord (Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, January 9, 2011

They’re probably one of the quirkiest duo’s in music, but Lost & Found is a Christian band of George and Michael playing what they call Speedwood—folky music on acoustic guitar and keyboards. They’ve got strange voices, they tell strange stories, but in the end, it’s all about Jesus. And they’re a huge hit in the Church, especially at places like the National Youth Gathering, the gathering of Lutheran youth that takes place every three times, the gathering that took place last summer, the gathering we’ll hear about this morning from a couple of Bethel’s youth.

But I first heard Lost & Found at the National Youth Gathering in 1989 in Denver. They were on a side stage in the middle of the information booths, and I was completely blown away at their style, their energy, their lyrics, and their joy for the Lord.

I wanted to keep listening and watching, but my friends in my youth group all wanted to keep walking around, they laughed at Lost & Found, they found it silly that I loved the music so much that I bought a cassette tape. I was a bit crushed and embarrassed, getting made fun of for liking this Christian band. I tried to hide my feelings, but I probably didn’t hide them too well. Meanwhile, I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel room and put the cassette in my Walkman and listen to Lost & Found sing about Jesus.

It was another three years before I started seriously thinking about becoming a pastor, but I know that that experience in Denver at the National Youth Gathering had an effect on me. I know that getting made fun of for liking Lost & Found had an impact on wanting to serve the Lord with my life, because I could sense that I wanted to hold onto to something even if the people around me didn’t get it. I wanted to hold onto this faith, hold onto believing in Jesus, take seriously what it means to be a Christian, wanted to find a way to be joyful and fun and quirky with my faith, wanted to serve God with my life.

I know those thoughts started back in Denver in 1989. I know that even while I was getting made fun of, that I was praying that God would keep me strong, keep me believing in Him no matter what.

I’d return from the National Youth Gathering with a tale to tell about the Gathering’s impact, sharing that story with our congregation, thanking them for their support, telling them that the experience was life changing for us.

I’d return from Denver wanting to help our youth group to grow, wanting to help our church to take our faith seriously, wanting to serve God in the congregation.

I’d return from Denver listening to Lost & Found alongside whatever else I used to listen to. I’d sing along with those quirky folk songs about Jesus and wonder how God might use me.

I’d return from Denver focused on Jesus—not only what Jesus did but how that changed me, how that affected me, what that meant for my life.

That was a huge shift. Where before church had always seemed like it was just about learning, about memorizing, about knowing the facts, now I was sensing that Jesus wanted me to do something, wanted my life to look differently, that Jesus wanted to have me serve Him.

I looked at Lost & Found and what they were doing for the Lord. I looked at all of the speakers I heard at the Gathering. I saw what God was doing in the lives of these Christian leaders, and I realized it wasn’t just about knowing the right answers. It’s about Jesus changing you, changing you, making it so that you can serve Him with your life.

Probably what I was sensing way back then in 1989 is what I recognize now in today’s reading from Isaiah. Today’s reading from Isaiah is selected for the Baptism of Our Lord, because it points to the promise that God would put His Spirit on the Messiah, on the Christ, on the Anointed One, and sure enough, at the Baptism of Jesus, the Spirit comes upon Jesus. It’s a fulfillment of this passage: “I will put my Spirit on him.”

But there’s a way in which this passage doesn’t just stop with Jesus, that it isn’t just about what happens for Jesus, that’s it’s not just about Jesus, but that it’s also about us, it’s about what God has done for us.

When I came back from the 1989 National Youth Gathering, I realized that it wasn’t just about what Jesus had done but that it’s also about what happens to us. That’s what’s going on with this passage from Isaiah, too. It isn’t just about Jesus; it’s also about us.

Through our baptisms, through our faith in Jesus, the words of Isaiah 42 can be applied to us: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.” We’re His servants, God upholds us, God takes delight in us, God puts His Spirit on us, God uses us to bring justice in this world. We’re His Spirit-Servants.

Through our baptisms, through our faith in Jesus, we’re God’s Spirit-Servants. That’s what I couldn’t put a finger on back in 1989, but I think that’s what I was starting to sense, starting to realize that God had something in store for me. I wasn’t just a spectator; I wasn’t just learning a history lesson; I wasn’t just absorbing information about Jesus. No, He was calling me to serve Him, calling all Christians to serve Him, calling His people to be His Spirit-Servants, to be given the gift of the Spirit, to be led to serve Him, to go out to tell others about Him.

So these students that have come back from last summer’s National Youth Gathering in New Orleans—they’re not just spectators, they didn’t just go for lectures and absorbing information. No, they’re God’s Spirit-Servants. They can rejoice in knowing that they’ve God’s servants, God upholds them, God takes delight in them, God puts His Spirit on them, God uses them to bring justice in this world. They’re His Spirit-Servants. God is using them to help our youth ministry grow, God is using them to encourage their friends and family to believe in Jesus, God is using them now in His mission.

And today we’ll install our newly elected leaders, install them as leaders in this congregation, and they, too, aren’t just spectators, they’re God’s Spirit-Servants. God has given them their gifts and abilities, God has given them His Holy Spirit, God has enabled them to serve Him and us in this congregation. The leaders we have in this congregation aren’t leading by their own strength; they’re leading through the power of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit. They’re His Spirit-Servants.

And you, you’re not just spectators; you’re not just information absorbers. God means for you to be His Spirit-Servants. God is making it possible for you to serve Him with your lives. This Christian faith, it isn’t just about what Jesus did, past tense, way back in history. The Christian faith is also about what He’s done for you, what He’s done in you, what’s He going to do through you. You are His Spirit-Servants. You have been given the Spirit of God; you are being sent out to share His Word of hope with others.

Rejoice, then, that these words apply to you. Rejoice in your baptism, rejoice in your faith, rejoice in the way that God has transformed you, rejoice in what God has done in you. Rejoice and hear these words as applying to you:

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.”

We’re His servants, God upholds us, God takes delight in us, God puts His Spirit on us, God uses us to bring justice in this world. We’re His Spirit-Servants.

You are His Spirit-Servants. Experience God. God’s making an impact on your lives. Realize the forgiveness, love, and mercy that God has for you. Realize what God has done for you. He is changing you, renewing you, transforming you, taking you to be His Spirit-Servants.

You will help this congregation to do its work—in small ways, in medium ways, in big ways, you will do the work of this congregation. You will help your friends know about Jesus—in small ways, in medium ways, in big ways, you will share God’s love with others. You will speak words about God, you will act according to God’s Word, you will shine with the Spirit of Christ living in you. You are His Spirit-Servants.

Let’s hear now from two Spirit-Servants who will share their experiences at the National Youth Gathering and how that has had an impact on their faith, and you’ll hear that it isn’t just facts about Jesus; it’s also about what Jesus has done to change them, to make them into His Spirit-Servants.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Ephesians 1:3-14 - “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas”

Epiphany (Year A Reading from Second Sunday after Christmas - Lutheran Service Book Readings)
Sunday, January 2, 2010

OK, today we celebrate the Epiphany, when the Wise Men came to visit Jesus. The actual date in the church calendar for the Epiphany is January 6. How many days after Christmas is that? (Solicit answer: 12)

What were those days between Christmas and Epiphany known as in the old tradition? (Solicit answer: The Twelve Days of Christmas)

And old tradition meant giving people a gift on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas, hence the song.

Well, I don’t want us to sing the whole song today, but with the Twelve Days of Christmas in mind, I want us to look at today’s reading from Ephesians chapter 1, because I think—depending on how you count them—I think you can come up with twelve spiritual blessings. In other words, I think we’ve got ourselves the Twelve Gifts of Christmas here in our passage. At least, that’s how I counted them up to work with the idea of the Twelve Days of Christmas. So just go with me, and in the process, we’ll discover how God is richly blessing us, blessing us in so many different ways.

So take a look at the front cover of the bulletin, and you’ll see the Ephesians passage laid out with the twelve gifts highlighted. We’ll take a brief look at this list so that we can discover just what God is giving to us.

In fact, these opening words of Ephesians, these opening words are known as a doxology, a hymn of praise, words of praise, and they’re praising God for all of the things that He gives to us. It’s a hymn of praise to God for these twelve gifts that He gives to us through Jesus Christ.

So on the first day of Christmas, my true God gave to me—every spiritual blessing. This hymn of praise to God that Paul writes here in Ephesians, well, he’s not focused on material blessings. Here specifically we’re praising God for spiritual blessings. And God hasn’t just blessed us with some spiritual blessings; He has given us every spiritual blessing. So that makes this whole twelve gifts a kind of cool idea, because it’s a great reminder that God gives us a complete set of spiritual blessings, a complete set, one for every month. They’re spiritual blessings that cover every aspect of our lives.

In the song, what’s the present on the first day? Partridge in a pear tree. How does that connect with every spiritual blessing? (Solicit answers) Someone write down the answers for me; I want to make sure to remember the connections we make for these things.

Answers from congregation:
Pears are fruit; spiritual gifts are fruit of the spirit.

On the second day of Christmas, my true God gave to me—holy and blameless, made us holy and blameless in His sight. He chose us to be holy and blameless, chose to make us holy and blameless, without sin, chose to give us that through Christ. God made us to be complete different than we are. We are sinful and unclean, we are unholy and definitely full of blame, and He has made us to be just the opposite.

So what’s the present on the second day? Two turtle doves. How does that connect with being holy and blameless? (Solicit answers)

Answers from congregation:
Turtledove symbolize peace, and we have peace because we’re made holy and blameless.

On the third day of Christmas, my true God gave to me—adopted as His sons. He gave us adoption. He adopted, made us His own. We were not worthy to be in His family. We had been kicked out of the family because of our sinfulness. But in accordance with His pleasure and will, He adopted us again. He made us to be a part of His family again. He made us to be His sons—the ones who inherit everything. He made us to be His sons, so that we can inherit eternal life.

So what’s the present on the third day? Three French hens. How does that connect with being adopted as His sons? (Solicit answers)

Answers from congregation:
The carol was written by an Englishman. French hens would’ve been inferior but adopted by the English. We’re inferior, but God still adopts us.

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true God gave to me—glorious grace. He has freely given us His glorious grace in the One He loves. In Jesus, He has given us His glorious grace. Grace means “gift,” and all of these things that He has given to us, all of these spiritual blessings, every one of these twelve gifts, they’re given to us as gifts. We didn’t earn these blessings. They’re free gifts according to His glorious graciousness. God is gift happy and we’re receiving those gifts. Makes the whole “Twelve Days of Christmas” a great reminder—God’s the gift giver.

So what’s the present on the fourth day? Four calling birds. How does that connect with glorious grace? (Solicit answers)

Answers from congregation:
The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) which have God’s gracious Word.
We are called through the Holy Spirit, God’s calling bird.
When we sing of God’s grace, we are calling birds.

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true God gave to me—redemption. Redemption means paying to set us free, paying the price to get us out of eternal death. Jesus paid the price with His own blood, paid the price on the cross. He redeemed us, He became our redeemer, He pay to free us, so that we would not die forever.

So what’s the present on the fifth day? Five golden rings. How does that connect with redemption? (Solicit answers)

Answers from congregation:
Jesus’ blood is worth more than gold or silver. He didn’t redeem us with gold but with His own blood.

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true God gave to me—forgiveness of sins in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that He lavished on us with all wisdom and understand. Wisdom and understanding. God knew what He was doing when He sent Jesus to die for us so that there’d be forgiveness for our sins. Wisdom and understanding. God knew what He was doing. God knew what He wanted to do. God knew how to do it. God knew how to forgive our sins so that we wouldn’t have to die forever for our crimes.

So what’s the present on the sixth day? Six geese a-laying. How does that connect with forgiveness of sins? (Solicit answers)

Answers from congregation:
Geese gave a gift of good, and God gives us the gift of forgiveness.
Eggs are new life, and we have new life through forgiveness of sins.
Even when we lay big egg, God still forgives us.

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true God gave to me—the mystery of His will. He has made known to us the mystery of His will. He has made known to us His will to save the world. And how did He make His will known to us? Through His Word. What a tremendous spiritual blessing to know what God is doing for us, to know how God is going about saving us, to know God’s will, His heart for us.

So what’s the present on the seventh day? Seven swans a-swimming. Can you connect that with the mystery of His will? (Solicit answers)

Answers from congregation:
Swans is born ugly but turns beautiful; God’s mysterious will is that He takes us ugly creatures and makes us beautiful.

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true God gave to me—one head, even Christ. He has given us the head of the Church, our true leader and guide, the true One who will direct us in the ways to go. It’s not up to us to lead ourselves; we’re not left to wander on our own. Jesus will lead us and guide us as the head, the brain leads and guides the body.

So what’s the present on the eighth day? Eight maids a-milking. How does that connect with having Christ as our head? (Solicit answers)

Answers from congregation:
Milk is the nourishment, and Christ gives us spiritual food.
God’s will in Christ makes us stronger just like milk makes the body stronger.

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true God gave to me—the praise of His glory. We who hope in Christ are for the praise of His glory. God is to be praised and glorified because of us, because of what He has done for us. What is God’s glory? Us. Why? Because He has saved us. We praise Him for what He has done, but the blessing to us is that we are to His glory, we are the reason He is praised. What a blessing to know that God is praised because of us.

So what’s the present on the ninth day? Nine ladies dancing. How does that connect with being the praise of His glory? (Solicit answers)

Answers from congregation:
Praise God through dancing for what He has done for us.

On the tenth day of Christmas, my true God gave to me—the word of truth. We have the great Word of God. We can know His will because of His Word. We can know His plan of salvation, because of His Word. We have His Word in the flesh through Jesus Christ. This truth has come to set us free.

So what’s the present on the tenth day? Ten lords a-leaping. Can you connect that with the word of truth? (Solicit answers)

Answers from congregation:
Leap for joy for the Word of God.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true God gave to me—the promised Holy Spirit. We were marked with a seal, we were marked with God’s seal, marked as God’s own possession. We are marked with the Spirit that works in us, that moves in us, that creates our faith, that sustains our faith, that leads us and guides us in all things. We have been given God’s Spirit so that we are never alone.

So what’s the present on the eleventh day? Eleven pipers piping. How does that connect with the promised Holy Spirit? (Solicit answers)

Answers from congregation:
The pipers call the people, and the Holy Spirit calls us
Need wind for the pipes to work, and the Holy Spirit is like the wind—can’t see Him but He is indeed working.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true God gave to me—our inheritance. We have been given the inheritance of eternal life, of every spiritual blessing, of all of these twelve gifts of Christmas. You have inherited what wasn’t yours to begin with. But remember God did what He needed to do, knew what He needed to do to make you His sons, make you able to inherit the kingdom, inherit eternal life. And so now you have been blessed with this inheritance.

So what’s the present on the twelfth day? Twelve drummers drumming. How does that connect with our inheritance? (Solicit answers)

Answers from congregation:
Drummers inherit the gift for drumming, and we inherit redemption.
Anticipation (drum roll, please!), and we anticipate the inheritance from God.

Now I want you to remember: Paul didn’t write these words in Ephesians as the Twelve Gifts of Christmas. We’ve kind of made that up for today, but I did it because I want you to remember all of the blessings that God has given you. All of these blessings that come to you through Jesus Christ, the One we celebrate at Christmas, the One revealed to the Wise Men at Epiphany, the One who works in our lives now, the One who gives us every spiritual blessing.

And when you doubt that you are God’s child, when you doubt that you’re a true believer, when you doubt that God could really still love you, go back to this passage, go back and sing the song, go back and remember all of these blessings that God has given to you.

Nehemiah 1:4-11a - “Nehemiah’s Prayer: Stakes into the Ground”

New Year’s Eve (Readings for Service of Prayer)
Friday, December 31, 2010

Nehemiah was a Jew serving in the royal court of the king of Persia. Nehemiah was one of the many Jews living in Persia because of the exile that had begun over 40 years earlier.

Now the previous Persian king had let some of the Jews go back to Israel, go back to live there, and they went back and started rebuilding the temple.

But the thing is, even though they rebuilt the temple, they hadn’t been able to rebuild the walls around the city.

When Nehemiah heard that the city walls were still broken, that parts of Jerusalem still were in ruins, that’s what causes him to weep and fast and pray, which is where we find him at the beginning of the reading for tonight. We find Nehemiah for many days is mourning and praying, and the rest of the text shows us his prayer.

In that prayer, Nehemiah asks God for three things. He asks God to forgive their sins, restore Israel, and give him success when he goes before the Persian king. Nehemiah confesses the sins of the people and his own sins, asking God for forgiveness and mercy. Then Nehemiah pleas with God for Israel to be restored, rebuilt, renewed, to become the place of God’s people once again. Finally, Nehemiah prays that he’ll have success in going before the Persian king, because he has it in mind to go and ask the king for permission to go back and rebuild Jerusalem’s walls.

Those are Nehemiah’s requests in prayer, but what I really want us to see tonight is how Nehemiah builds his prayer, how Nehemiah puts his prayer together, because Nehemiah’s prayer is built on his knowledge of God, the things he knows about God, the things he believes about the Lord. That’s where our own prayers can begin, that’s how we can build our prayers, build on who God is, what kind of God He is, what He has already done, the God He has revealed Himself to be.

Look at the prayer with me in the bulletin. Look and see the ways in which Nehemiah appeals to who God is, His characteristics.

Essentially there are five things that Nehemiah appeals to as he makes his requests. He starts by addressing God as the God of heaven—appealing to God’s role in the world, the Creator and ruler of all things.

Then Nehemiah declares God to be great and awesome—meaning tremendously powerful, tremendously greater than anything we can imagine.

Next Nehemiah states that God is One who keeps His covenant of love. Nehemiah is appealing to the fact that God has kept His promise to love His people in the past, has made a covenant with the people, a promise to watch over His people.

Then a little later in the prayer Nehemiah reminds God that God had promised to gather His people from exile, to bring His people back to the land.

Finally, Nehemiah appeals to the fact that the people are His people and He has redeemed them, bought them with His great strength and mighty hand.

We call these things the grounds of the prayer, the grounds on which Nehemiah is making his request, the grounds, the foundation, the basis for his prayer. The grounds are the reason for believing that God will listen, is able to answer the prayer, will answer the prayer.

So essentially, there are five grounds in this prayer: God is the God of heaven, He is Great and awesome, He keeps His covenant of love, He promised to gather people from exile, and the people are His people whom He redeemed with great strength.

Five grounds, five reasons that God should listen, five reasons to believe that God can answer this prayer, five foundations for believing in the power of this prayer.
How many of you have ever slept in a tent?

(holding up some tent stakes) Can you see these out there? These are some tent stakes, and while this seems to be the wrong time of year, I want you to think about camping with me for a moment. If you’ve never slept in a tent, I trust you still realize that tent stakes hold a tent in place.

Now whether it was on one of my canoe trips or one of the backpacking trips that Susan and I did, whenever we pushed those stakes in the ground, there was always a little prayer that the stakes would hold through whatever kind of weather we experienced, that the stakes would hold through wind and rain and keep that tent standing. We pushed those stakes into the ground, trusting that the dirt and rocks would hold the stakes in place, trusting that our tent would stay put, trusting that our tent would provide good shelter.

Well, that’s the picture of what it means to ground your prayers. You press the stake into the ground, you trust the ground to hold that stake, you put your trust in that ground to keep you safe and secure.

So, too, in prayer we put our stake in the ground, we put our trust in the grounds we recognize in God, we trust in God’s characteristics, trust in who God is, trust in that ground, trust in that ground to keep us safe and secure.

Nehemiah was overwhelmed by sadness over the fact that Jerusalem was still left unsecure, overwhelmed by sadness for the city of God, and so he goes before God in prayer, goes before God to plea for God’s intervention, and Nehemiah puts a stake in the ground. Nehemiah trusts that ground to hold secure, trusts that ground to keep the people safe and secure.

(Motioning with stake for each ground). Nehemiah trusts that God is the God of heaven, ruler of heaven and Earth.

Nehemiah trusts that God is great and awesome, all-powerful, able to do mighty things.

Nehemiah trusts that God will keep His covenant of love, will maintain His end of the bargain, will keep up His promise to take the people to be His people.

Nehemiah trusts that God will keep His promise to gather the people from exile, to bring the people back to Jerusalem and the land.

Finally, Nehemiah trusts that the people are God’s people, that He has redeemed them with great strength and a mighty hand, that God has bought His people back from slavery.

It’s a tent with five stakes. It’s a prayer with five grounds. It’s a prayer grounded in who God is, in the kind of God that we have.

And it’s a reminder to us of the many, many grounds we have for believing that God will answer our prayers. Nehemiah lists five grounds for His prayer, but that’s just the beginning. Think of how many different stakes we can put in the ground, how many different characteristics we can list about God to know that He will hear us and love us and answer us.

I mean, God may not always answer our prayers in the way we expect Him to. He answers our prayers in His own way, but still whether the answer is yes or no or maybe, still God answers our prayers. He hears us, love us, watches over us, listens to us, and answers our prayers according to His will.

And if we should start to doubt, if we should start to wonder if God will hear us, if we are worried that God might not care for us, well, that’s where the grounds for our prayer come in, that’s why we put stakes in the ground.

Think about it with Nehemiah. He was about to approach the Persian king for permission to go back and fortify Jerusalem, to make Jerusalem a strong city again, to rebuild a conquered city within the Persian Empire. This wasn’t a small request. This was a great request, one with potentially deadly consequences if the king didn’t like what Nehemiah was suggesting. If the king didn’t like the request, he could’ve had Nehemiah kicked out of his court, arrested, and tried for treason. So Nehemiah is making a huge request before God. Nehemiah is standing there before God, and I’ve got to believe that there was shaking and trembling and fear involved.

But that’s why Nehemiah put those stakes in the ground, that’s why Nehemiah’s prayer is grounded in who God is. When Nehemiah grew afraid, when it was immediately clear how God was going to answer the prayer, well, Nehemiah could still look around and see those five stakes in the ground, still see that the prayer was based on who God is, was based on these incredible truths about God. Nehemiah could look at those five stakes in the ground and trust that the ground was going to hold fast, was going to keep him and the people safe and secure.

Later in the prayers tonight we’ll name some grounds, some reasons to believe that God hears our prayers, some foundations for our prayers. We’ll say that we are the apple of His eye—believing that we are His people. We’ll ask to be in the protection of His wings—essentially saying that we are safe and secure if we are with God. We’ll declare that His presence will give us joy—being with God is a joyful thing. We’ll call God a merciful God—He shows mercy, He holds back the punishment we deserve and shows us love instead. We’ll ask to find our rest in God—knowing that God gives us true rest, true relief from the anxieties of life, true rest for eternity.

Through all of that we’re putting stakes in the ground, we’re asking God to hear our prayers and in the process reminding ourselves of the kind of God we have. When we walk away tonight, we’ll be able to look around and see the stakes holding this tent in place, holding us in place, holding us in faith and watching over us from day to day.

As you go into 2011, realize the God that you have, pray with confidence in the God that you have, put those stakes in the ground, see those stakes in the ground, see the ground, see God for who He is—a God who hears your prayers, will keep you safe and secure, will watch over you in all times and in all places.

And when you pray, put a stake in the ground. Remind yourself of the kind of God you have.

When you’re praying for God to intervene in your life, remember that He is the God of heaven, ruler of heaven and Earth, and is able to intervene in your life.

When you’re praying for God to use His power in your life, remember that He is great and awesome, that He has power over sin, death, and the devil.

When you’re praying for God to forgive your sins, remember that He has already declared you to be His people, to be His child through baptism, to be His possession through Christ. He has promised that you are His, so your sins will not separate you from Him.

When you’re praying that God will strengthen your faith, remember that God has promised to gather His people from exile, that He has promised to bring us back to Himself, has promised to give us eternal life through Christ.

Finally, when you’re praying that God will be with you in the difficult times in your life, remember that you have been redeemed by Him, that He has bought you with the price of His own Son, that You are His and He will not forsake you, He will not abandon you.

There you go, five stakes in the ground for 2011, the five stakes of Nehemiah’s prayer, five stakes for your life, five stakes for your prayers, five stakes in ground that will keep you safe and secure, ground that will keep your tent in place, ground that will keep you in the faith and bring you to the morning of everlasting life.

Trust in the ground. Because God hears your prayers, loves you, and will answer your prayers.