The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way” 
3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’ ” 

4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”


When you use a tool the wrong way, what do you expect to happen?  I wanted to make some venison burgers on Friday night.  I was told it’s a good idea to mix a little pork with it first, so I got out our KitchenAid mixer and the meat grinding attachment.  I had used it before, so I started putting it together and grinding some of the pork and venison together.  But as it was going I started noticing some dark spots and it wasn’t shooting out the meat very well.  Mandy came in and asked, “Did you put it together right?”  “Yeah, of course I did.  I’ve done this before.  I know what I’m doing.”  Then, she shows me the spinning piece for the front of the grinder that I forgot to put in.  I had to throw that little bit that did make it through away, because those dark spots were little metal shavings or lubricant that got mixed into the meat because I was missing a piece.  When you use a tool the wrong way, what do you expect to happen?

You’ve done it before.  I’ve done it.  I’ve certainly seen it plenty.  When you have kids, it seems like they will try to make anything work.  I’ve seen Issy and Lute use some of their toys for a whole bunch of different purposes other than just playing.  We expect these kinds of things to work, maybe not as well as it could, but it will at the very least get the job done, so we think.  Then, when it doesn’t happen or someone ends up hurt, you realize that you should have just taken the time to use the right tool the right way.

Advent is all about Christ’s coming.  It’s about preparing for him.  So, getting ready for Christ’s coming means you need to have the right tools and you need to use them the right way. That thought came to mind as I studied the Gospel for today.

People need the right way to get ready for the Christ.  Back then and still today, we could never come up with it on our own.  When it comes to spiritual life, can a person ever legitimately think, “I’ve got this covered.  I can take care of my spiritual life the way I want to with my own abilities and my own thoughts?”  No, if God is the Spirit and he is one who gave us ours, then we need what he gives to keep us spiritually strong and healthy people, especially as we get ready for Christ’s coming.

Do you know how that process works, to be strong, healthy, and fit?  Let’s just talk about it physical terms first. It takes the right tools used the right way.   And it might hurt.  I’m in the middle of that hurt right now.  A few weeks ago, because I was not doing my best in the realm of fitness and health, I started up a workout system called Insanity.  It’s an insane cardio, death-defying 45 minutes 5 mornings a week.  It’s not what a lot of people consider fun.  It doesn’t feel good.  My muscles are being tugged and torn, so that they can be rebuilt.  My lungs are screaming.  My heart is pumping upwards of 180 beats a minute at some parts.  But that’s how you get better.  Combining that kind of regular exercise with healthy foods and, voila, I’m healthier, stronger, and fit.

But it’s not easy. This training system is not telling me what I want to hear.  What I want to hear is, “Sleep in and eat a bunch of donuts and bacon all morning.”  What I want to hear is, “Go ahead and have a third helping.  And when you get done with that, how about some ice cream?”  What I want to hear is, “You will be fine if you just do whatever makes you happy.”

Now, if that’s not how it works when you want to get into better physical shape and be healthier, do you expect that to work when it comes to being spiritually healthy?  Can you expect good results when you don’t have the right equipment, or don’t use the it the right way?

Like I said, God is the only one who can give us the path to a healthy spiritually life, and God is the only one who can show us the right way as we get ready for Jesus’ coming.  That’s what he was doing with a man named John.

Now, John was a recluse who lived in the desert, ate bugs and wild honey, and wore a camel hide around (and I don’t think he was trying to start a new trend). God gave them someone very unexpected.   And John’s job was just as unexpected. His job was not to tell people what they wanted to hear.  His job was not to be a cheerleader for whatever they already had going.  His job was to prepare them God’s way, a way they didn’t expect. Sometimes he said things that the people didn’t want to hear: “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” As we get ready for Christ’s second coming, God still gives us a message that is sometimes hard to hear.  “Straighten out!” he says.

When it comes to staying fit, we want to hear, “Eat the donuts and bacon and sit on the couch as much as you want.  You don’t need to push yourself.  You don’t need to go through the pain and exertion.”  But what do you expect will happen when you listen to what you want to hear?  You’re never going to lose those extra pounds.

Spiritually, when you want to be fit and ready for Christ, you can’t always listen to what you want to hear.  God has somethings to say in his Word that might hurt a bit, but it is for our good.  He is straightening us out.  He’s getting us stronger and spiritually healthier.

When he tells us that our devotional life, prayer life, or worship life is sporadic to the point of damaging our faith and the faith of our children, it hurts.  When he tells you or he tells me that my offerings are a meager reflection of what he has blessed me with, that hurts.  When God says that my actions and attitudes are supposed to be a bright, shining light in this world and when he looks he asks, “Why are you living like a child of darkness?  Why, when I listen to the words coming out of your mouth, do I hear praise and cursing?  Why, when I see your actions, do they not resemble the good things I have prepared for my children to do?  Why, when I look at your heart, is it darkened with selfishness and negativity?” – that hurts because I know it’s true.

But that’s not the end of it.  The hurt leads us somewhere.  God does not just want you to hurt and that’s the end.  It’s like a workout.  The diet and exercise done the right way doesn’t end in pain.  The pain in your muscles and the pain of saying no to some of your favorite foods leads to getting more fit and healthier.  That’s how God’s spiritual training works. His Word strengthens us, it turns us into a new direction, a direction that is spiritually better for us.  This new direction is straighter and smoother, even if there is some difficulties in getting there.

For people who are hurting, there is peace.  For people who are sad, there is joy.  For people who are broken, there is comfort. Did you hear that from the Prophet Isaiah, today?  Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…  That was also God’s message through John to these people who were hearing some things that were tough to hear.  They had been hurt by God’s message, but God was preparing them for his good news, the good news of a Savior who was coming.

Mark quoted these words in speaking about John the Baptist.  Yes, he was unexpected.  Yes, his words were unexpected.  Yes, the people were sometimes hurt by his words.  And yes, God was turning them from the wrong kind of spiritual life.  The hurt was leading to a healthy and strong spiritual life, a life ready for the coming of Christ, a life on the straight and narrow.

That’s what repentance is, brothers and sisters.  It hurts to hear.  There is pain in God pointing out your sins.   There is a burden that becomes too heavy to carry.  And through repentance, God lifts the burden.

But it’s not up to you to do the heavy lifting.  When I began the sermon I said, “When you use a tool the wrong way, what do you expect to happen?”  If you think repentance is your work that God recognizes and rewards, you are using it the wrong way.  If you think repentance is the get-out-of-jail-free card, you are using it the wrong way.  If you think repentance is finishing up the work that Jesus began for you, you are using it the wrong way.

Repentance is simply the Christian spiritual workout.  Through his Word, God brings us to the realization that we are out of shape.  God shows us where we need some work.  He gives the new direction, the new regimen for the healthy, stronger spiritual life.  And he gives us the motivation and willpower to turn things around.  It’s all from him.

And do you know what that will power is?  It’s not that I’m going to look so good for God, that I will be blessed more.  It’s not that my life is going to start getting better and better here on earth.  It’s not that I’m going to be such an asset for the people around me.

Those things could potentially happen, but the real willpower for repentance is that Christ loved you to the point that he was willing to leave heaven for you.  He was willing to carry your heavy burden of sin.  He was willing to live according to God’s perfect expectations.  He was willing to suffer the punishment and pain.  He loved you to the point where his last breath was exhausted from his body, because you could never pay for your sins.  He felt the full wrath of God’s anger against sin, so that you and I would never know what that’s like.  Yes, repentance hurts when God points out our sin and we can only hang our head and confess it, but it will never hurt like the separation Jesus was forced to endure.  He did that for us.

That’s the motivation for repentance.  God has given us this new life in Christ.  God has given us his law and gospel.  God has given us the reality of heaven.  Nothing can take that away from us.  So, the spiritual exercise of repentance helps us on the journey.  It is God’s way of helping stay spiritually healthy.

The way John says it: God is getting us to straighten and smooth the way for Christ because he is coming soon.  Preparing for Christ’s coming, you don’t have to try and convince Christ that there are no potholes, unwanted twists and turns in your life.  Preparing for Christ’s coming, you don’t have to veer off the wrong way thinking your hard work and confession saves you.  Preparing for Christ’s coming means listening to the unexpected message that sometimes hurts, when God points out what’s wrong in my life or what is missing.  Preparing for Christ’s coming means listening to the way God takes care of the crooked and rough places of my life with his loving forgiveness.  Preparing for Christ’s coming means continually going through the spiritual exercise of repentance to enjoy the health and strength that God provides.

That is how to use repentance the right way.  God grant it.  Amen.



4.2.17 5th in Lent A


John 11

17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.



What’s the greatest place on earth?  There are tons of options and tons of opinions on that one.  If I ask the kids here today, they might say a water park or Disney World.  If I ask some of the parents of those kids, they might disagree, saying a tranquil beach or cabin by a lake, as long as it was peaceful and quiet. If I ask you Vikings fans, you might say the greatest place on earth is where the Vikings win the Super Bowl.  (This next season it’s at US Bank Stadium!)  Today and tomorrow is Opening Day for MLB, I’d sure put Miller Park on that list.  Or maybe some of you would say home with all your family around is the greatest place on earth.

Obviously, there are a lot of ways to answer that question depending on who you ask.  But reading John 11, I think there is one place that is universally the best.  As we watch and listen to Jesus today on this next field of battle, I think he’ll show us, beyond a doubt, what the greatest place on earth really is.

When we first see him today, he’s arriving in a little village outside of Jerusalem, called Bethany. The reason for his appearance is death.  Lazarus, Jesus’s good friend and the brother of Mary and Martha had died.  Many had come to comfort the sisters in their loss.  We know that process well.  Because we live on the same earth that they did we are familiar with these gatherings at a funeral.  So, people still gather to give comfort and tell stories.  You try to help everyone cope the best you can.  Death is part of our existence that we have to deal with.

And it’s not just death that we deal with here.  We endure pain and suffering from illnesses and insults.  We put up with letdowns from work, from relationships, and from our own mistakes.  We even have the kind of messes on our hands that we ourselves cause.  When you react poorly to stress, sometimes you can create even more.  When you look for escapes in a bottle or on a screen, you don’t really find what you’re looking for.  When you try to get rid of the hardships by fitting in and putting your faith on the back burner that just does more damage.

You know even those great places on earth have their issues.  Depending on what time of year, the beach might not be so great if there’s a hurricane.  You might not love the mountains when there’s a blizzard.  Disney World might be terrible… honestly, when is there a good time to go to Disney World?  When is it cheap and not busy?  Vikings fans might be disappointed if there isn’t a victory, which there never has been in a Super Bowl.

As much as we search for the greatest places and the most enjoyment we can find, we’ll always keep searching without finding a perfect place.  As much as we desire fulfilling relationships, when there’s two sinful people involved it will NEVER be perfect.  Sin has done and will continue to do a lot of damage to your life and mine. And we can’t fix that problem.

That was also the case for the sisters. Mary and Martha had watched their brother’s health decline.  They knew Jesus could help.  They had seen him heal the sick many times before. That’s why they sent him the message that his dear friend Lazarus was sick. But Jesus waited…he waited for them to put their brother’s cold dead body in a tomb.  He waited for the many people to gather to comfort Mary and Martha.

Even though this had happened, Martha has an amazing and uplifting reaction.  She says to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”  With her brother dead in a tomb, her faith does not waver.  She knows who Jesus is.  She knows what he can do.

Then, Jesus says something that you don’t hear at most funerals. And this is the part that piques our interest.  Jesus says, “Your brother will rise.”   And she believed it was true.  She didn’t doubt him for a second, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”   That is what faith in Jesus looks like.  That is what faith in Jesus talks like.  Your faith in him has no reason to doubt the same way Martha’s faith didn’t waver.  Jesus never lies.  He never breaks a promise.  He never does anything that isn’t ultimately for the spiritual and eternal good of his people.

Jesus told Martha and he tells us, that a grave is not sad or lonely or tragic or cruel.  He changes our mind, but Jesus has a way of doing that all the time, doesn’t he?  He changed the way Mary and Martha thought about their brother’s death.  They were sad, but they knew that Jesus would raise him up again and that there would be a reunion in heaven.

They believed Jesus as we believe Jesus.  He changes the way we think about pain or illness.  Instead of being unfair or harsh, they are ways that God keeps us from wandering off.  Jesus changes the way we handle stress.  Instead of annoying or debilitating, we have opportunities to cherish God’s comfort and help others do the same when their own difficulties drag them down.

Jesus even changes the way we think of the life and death.  Listen to what he says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”  Have you ever heard anyone else talk that way?  Jesus is telling the world something that changes the way we think.  He says “Martha, I am not just here to give resurrection to a little daughter here, an older son there, and your brother.  Martha, I am the resurrection and I am the life. I am the solution to all those problems that plague your life.  Where death has brought tragedy and sadness, I am the life that never ends.  I am the one who fulfills God’s promises to you.  I am the answer to your questions.”  Jesus tells you that you don’t need to be afraid anymore, and he is the only one who can say that.

But he doesn’t just say it!  Jesus doesn’t go to Bethany only to commiserate and speak words of comfort.  He is sad at the toll death takes on this world, but he doesn’t show up in Bethany to show sympathy.  And he didn’t come into this world to say great things.  Jesus showed up in Bethany and he came to our world to show us what kind of Savior we have.  Watch what The Resurrection and The Life does to prove who he is and what he says.

 “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”  Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone… Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

All the problems in Mary and Martha’s life and all the tragedy and trauma of their brother’s death came face to face with The Resurrection and The Life, and it wasn’t even a close fight.  Jesus sent them all away with his all-powerful Word.  He proved his power over death.

My brothers and sisters, Jesus has done the same for you. That’s why you are here right now.  The Resurrection and The Life, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, has changed our minds, our hearts, and our whole lives.  Through faith in him, we have that same power over death.

That’s why Ethan and Courtney brought Gunner here today.  We all know this cute little guy isn’t going to live on this earth forever.  But with Jesus, he has an eternal home in heaven.  Today, that’s the gift God gave Gunner.  He has been changed from death to life.  He’s been clothed with The Resurrection and The Life.  He has the same victory that Jesus has.

That’s why we come here and keep coming back.   That’s why we’ll be back on Wednesday for our last midweek Lent service and a week from now when we wave palm branches around and sing Hosanna.  And that’s why you read your bible to listen to your Resurrection and Life speak his all-powerful Word to you building your faith.  That’s why we stand on Jesus’ foundation, because we know it cannot be broken, not even by death.  That’s why you spend a lot of time and energy and money to support his work and his ministry.  You do all of this for one reason, because you believe everything Jesus said and everything he did.  You believe that Jesus is your resurrection and he is your life!  And he always, ALWAYS, will be!

Now, can we get back to that question that I asked at the beginning for a moment?  What is the greatest place on earth? I’m thinking Jesus has changed your mind a little bit today.  We see where all our passions and desire get us.  We see where all our problems lead.  We see where things like greed, immorality, selfishness – where all sin gets us.  We end up like Lazarus, dead and laid in a grave.  But Jesus has shown you that the problems and tragedies sin has caused in your life don’t have to bother you anymore.  He has displayed his dominance over death.  When a dead man comes out of his tomb alive, that changes things.  In a couple weeks, it won’t be Lazarus that we are talking about.  He eventually had to die all over again.  Instead, we will talk about the one who came back from his own tomb never to die again.  Jesus has the complete and total victory over death.  In two weeks, we will be talking about The Resurrection and The Life who has the eternal triumph so that you and I have a home with him in heaven.  Only Jesus can do that.

So, let’s answer the question: what’s the greatest place on earth? Today, Jesus shows us …

… it’s an empty tomb! Amen.



We don’t know the exact day it happened.  God doesn’t tell us, but we know Jesus was born.  That is a historical fact.  And that’s why you are here today.  We have Constantine to thank for that. It was the year 336 and Constantine wanted to celebrate the birth of Christ rather than all the other celebrations going on around the same time –  Hanukah and pagan winter solstice festivities to name a couple. Well, as the Emperor of the Roman Empire and a Christian, he could make that call.  So he did.  And here we are.  It sounds simple enough: pick a day, call it Christ’s Mass, or Christmas, and let’s celebrate Jesus’ birth.

But we’ve turned it into this commercialized train doing warp speed down the tracks, and nobody is going to stop it.  Christmas has exploded, and not in a good way.  The music tells you about snowmen, Santa, sweat treats, and sappy feelings.  The shopping deals start in November and you are urged to get out and shop ‘til you drop.  Even now the thought is to get out there and find after Christmas deals. Millions of dollars are flying out of bank accounts to make sure that we do Christmas right every year.  Having a celebration for the birth of Christ just doesn’t cut it anymore.

It was supposed to be that simple, kind of like the Christmas story John tells us today.  The words before us in John, chapter one are straightforward.  So clear and easy, in fact, that even a kindergartener could read them. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  …In him was life and that life was the light of men…The Word became flesh… It’s not difficult to read it.  We don’t need a professional linguist or theological scholar to get through this Christmas account.  They’re simple, until you to start thinking about what these words mean.  Christmas becomes a bit more complex.  There is more going in here than we could ever comprehend.  What child is this?

Throughout history, people have tried out many answers.  There are some who said he’s a nobody because they say he never happened.  They put Christmas and Jesus in the fairytale category.  Then, there are those who said he was great example for us.  The way he helped the poor and diseased when no one else would shows us what love is. They say Christ was showing us that love is accepting all people no matter what they say or do.  Others said he was a powerful prophet who taught wise lessons about humility, finances, possessions, personal sacrifice, and determination.

Well, that’s not good enough.  For people during the Apostle John’s day, for people during Constantine’s day, for people during any age of this world, it’s not good enough to think that Christmas is about the birth of a wise teacher, a great example of compassion, or just a fairytale on the level of The Grinch who Stole Christmas.  People need to know the simple truth.

So God had the Apostle John write this version of the Christmas story in simple sentences to lay it all out there, describing what kind of child this is.  And to start it off he says, “In the beginning…” That’s right!  For John’s Christmas story, he goes back to where it all began.  No Bethlehem here.  No City of David.  We don’t hear about a journey from Nazareth in Galilee.  We go back before there was a Bethlehem or Nazareth.  This Christmas story takes us to the beginning of it all.

Why does John go back so far?  Why start with creation?  Well, we have to see how vast God is.  We have to understand that we cannot understand everything about God.  He’s too big, too infinite, too omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.  God is before us and after us.  He fills all things.  He’s the one who made everything and still makes everything work.  He’s the almighty Creator.

Then, John wants to go back one step farther.  He wants us to think of a time before there was time and space. Peering back into that mysterious eternity, John introduces us to this main character of his Christmas narrative with a unique name.  This time of year, we would call him baby Jesus, the Newborn King, and Immanuel.  But as we have already heard, John’s Christmas story is simple but a little different.  He says his name is the Word.  That title for God’s Son is simple and so beautiful.  What child is this?  He’s God’s messenger.  He speaks for God.  What God thinks, the Word speaks.  What God desires, the Word communicates.  And John says, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God…” So you have the Word and God side by side, face to face, in perfect harmony, perfect agreement.  It is the perfect relationship.

At this point, we have some answers for who this child is.  He is there before the beginning.  He is called the Word.  And he was with God.  These are simple answers.  Christmas is supposed to be simple after all.  But now John is going to start blowing our minds.  John continues with something that sounds like a contradiction: “…the Word was God…”  The Word was with God in perfect harmony. The Word was communicating for God.  Even though the Word and God are two separate and distinct beings in eternity, they are also one, united and joined together.  So when it comes to the beginning, the Word and God do not have one.  God has always been.  When it comes to creation, the Word and God did it together.  “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” 

If you want to know what kind of child this is laying in Bethlehem’s manger, you have to look around at everything there is.  It’s all because of and through him.  He is the Word that is both with God and is God from all eternity.   You want to talk about an amazing birth with angels and shepherds?  John wants you to know that before there was any birth, or any sheep, or anything out there at all… you have to talk about who this child is and what he has already done.

These are simple words but they go beyond what I can understand.  And we need it that way.  We need to know that this little baby in a manger is the eternal Word, that he is the vast and infinite God who made all things.  We need to see how much care he took in making this little pearl of a planet. We need to know just how much we don’t know about God, because that makes this next part so amazing.

The Word became flesh.  This God, who can do more with a single breath than billions of people can do with their entire lives, he decided to come here and live like one of us.  He traded his eternal throne of heaven, as the creator and ruler of all things, for a feeding trough.  He gave up his unlimited power and knowledge to be a helpless little baby.  He did that for you and for me, so that Christmas would not be about dollars and decorations, about deception and, for some, depression.  Instead, it is a time of good news and peace for all.  The creator of this world was content to be born in a stall so that you and I can have a place in his mansions.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  The Word, who created mankind, had to become a man himself in order to save his beloved creation.  This is the message of Christmas for you, the simple truth of a God who loved you enough to be one of you.  The Word became flesh.  If we don’t have this kind of Christmas, then we don’t have a Savior.  The Word became flesh just like you.

Have you ever had trouble sleeping because you are dealing the things that you did or didn’t do?  You’re upset because you realize that your title is spiritual failure, again.  You wonder how you can fall back into the same sins that said you wouldn’t do anymore – the same feelings or same words.  Do you wonder if God can ever understand what you are going through when you are having struggles or sadness?  He can.  The Word became flesh. Jesus knows exactly what it is like to live in human flesh.  He was tempted in every way, yet was without sin.  Jesus knows your frailties and my weakness.  He knows what it is like to like in a fleshly world like this.  He became flesh and he did it perfectly so that he could be the Savior for every one of us on this pearl of a planet.

John says the light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it.   God was not willing to let this world sit in its own handiwork.  Where there was darkness, God brought light. With every promise God made, with every message of good news and hope God was shining his flashlight in the darkness.  It happened when God told a man named Noah to build a boat.  It happened when God made a bold promise to a 99 year-old man named Abraham.  It happened when God told David that he would have a future son who would establish a kingdom for God’s people forever.  It happened when prophets told God’s people that rescue and restoration was coming.  It happened when angels appeared to shepherds in the fields nearby.  It happened when Magi saw a special star and made a long journey.  It happened when apostles and evangelists walked miles and miles to bring the news of the risen Christ to people who had never heard it before.  God’s light was shining in the darkness.

That kind of light still shines.  When God’s people gather (even a week after Christmas because we had to cancel a service), there’s a light.  When God’s people give church invitations to friends and neighbors, that’s a light.  When children sit up front here to sing and proclaim the real Christmas story, that’s a light.  When you forgive as the Lord forgave you, that’s a light.  When you stand on the foundation of God’s holy Word, the Word that was with God in the beginning and was God, that’s a light.  God’s light still shines, and he uses you to do it.

But it doesn’t always seem to work, does it?  Noah only had 8 people on that boat.  Everyone else mocked him and perished in the flood.  Abraham’s wife laughed about the thought of a child for an old couple.  David’s sons became kings, but often the apple didn’t fall far from the tree – they were liars, sexually immoral, and murderers.  God’s prophets and apostles went to great lengths to preach good news, but were often persecuted and even killed for the message they spoke.  The light, well, it’s not always understood today either.  Watch the news, walk around in a store, listen to people at the gym.  The darkness is creeping everywhere.  Invitations go out, facebook posts go up, and you ask someone to come, but not everyone wants to hear the good news of great joy that is for all people.

We know this darkness, often times too well.  It lingers in our hearts towards people who are different.  It creeps into our conversations when our words are not decent.  It covers our actions when we are selfish or when we are alone and there are no eyes on us.  We each have our own battle with darkness that we cannot overcome.

That is exactly why the Word became flesh.  Jesus came here to be a light in our darkness.  And in love he let the darkness overtake him so that it would never overtake us.  He gave up his human life so that we wouldn’t have to.  Jesus came down from heaven so that he could suffer the punishment of hell for us.  He took our fear of darkness and death away forever.  Every ounce of guilt that we produce and carry, Jesus has removed and replaced with the light of life.  Our greatest need is not a bunch of presents under a tree.  Our greatest need is forgiveness and life, so the Word became flesh to do just that.

What child is this?  What a great question.  And what a fantastic answer we hear today.  He is the eternal God, who created all things.  He is the Almighty, who decided to leave heaven to live, die, and rise for us.  He is the light that shatters our darkness.  He is life that defeats death.  As John puts it so beautifully, he is the one who gives us the right to become children of God.  Now there’s a gift.  And friends, that’s a gift that will be with you every day in the New Year.

The words are simple and clear, but the meaning boggles the mind.  What child is this?  Listen one more time to the Christmas gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it…

10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.


Merry Christmas!  Happy New Year!




Matthew 1:18-25

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.


We must have missed the sign.  My brother and I were hiking Picacho Peak in Arizona, probably 15 years ago.  It’s a pretty demanding trail. In some places you have to pull yourself up rock faces using anchored cables.  There are sharp drop-offs and steep switchbacks.  It’s a pretty intense climb.  And we made it much worse for ourselves because, as I said, we must have missed a sign.  On our way back down we ended up on the wrong path, if you can even call it that.  I don’t remember seeing any footprints in the few places where there was dirt.  Basically, we were on a sheer rock with what I would guess was a 400-800 foot drop-off to the left, trying not to slip to our death.  My brother was a little bit more of an experienced mountaineer than I was (he spent 5 years serving one of our WELS schools on the Apache Reservation in AZ), but I remember asking him one of those panicked questions that makes no sense, “What happens if I fall?”  His response was, “Don’t fall.”  Well, we made it back, but missing a sign was unnerving to say the least.

Talk about missing signs. Could you imagine if people had missed a weather report or a road closed sign earlier this week?  I drove north of town on 83 just to see for myself how bad it was out there.  Driving north of the new Bismarck Motor Company was crazy.  For a while there I wasn’t sure if I was in my lane or the other.  I couldn’t tell where the cars were.  I knew the intersection with 71st Ave was coming, but I couldn’t see where.  A true North Dakota blizzard is nothing to mess with.  It could be terrifying to miss a sign in a winter whiteout.

Joseph had missed the sign.  We are first introduced to this carpenter from Nazareth during his own personal nightmare.  Remember the events?  Joseph was pledged to be married to a girl named, Mary.  That means he had courted her in the customary Jewish way.  He had paid Mary’s parents their asking price for her hand in marriage.  They had publically made their vows and signed all the legal documents signaling that these two were “off limits”.  People would view them as husband and wife. It would take a divorce to end that relationship.  They were just waiting for the appointed time when Joseph would go over to Mary’s house and take her to his home to move in with him and begin their lives together.  That’s when the big celebration would take place.

But before that, his world came crashing down.  One day Mary showed up pregnant.  Can you imagine the things that ran through his head?  “Why!?!!! Mary, what did you do?  What did I do wrong?  Who’s the father of this baby?  What’s going to happen to me?  What should I do with you?”  Joseph misses the sign.  It’s very clear that his legal wife is pregnant, but he doesn’t understand what’s really happening.  It didn’t make sense. The way he was looking at things it was horrible news.  He couldn’t see the sign.  He didn’t understand the big picture.  I don’t know if any of us blame him.  He needed help to see things from a better vantage point.

I know I can relate to that, can you?  Missing a sign is downright dangerous on a mountain trail or in a whiteout storm, but those aren’t the only scary times for us.  Christmas can be filled with anxiety and fear.  Are all the plans coming together? Are you staying within the budget?  Are they going to like what you give them?  On a scale of 1 to 10 how well have you been avoiding the Christmas stress?  Christmas can get chaotic. I know I’ve felt the pinch about services and sermons and classes and, Lord-willing, the follow-up with guests.

But it’s not just Christmas.  Every day in this life there is some pretty scary stuff out there.  Maybe it’s not what Joseph was going through, but it can cause just as much fear and confusion.  Do you every wonder why there is a really popular course from David Ramsey called Financial Peace University?  It’s because finances and planning your future is scary, especially if you are putting so much emphasis on that part of your life.  Relationships can be scary.  What’s he going to think of my faith?  What’s her past like?  Is this working?  Do they have what you’re looking for?  So many questions can come to mind that some people are afraid of it.  No one wants to be another statistic.  And how about illness?  Coughs can turn into the flu and the flu can turn into pneumonia and that can lead to a hospital stay.  How about cancer?  That’s a scary word and it’s becoming more and more familiar.

How do you handle these things?  Well, how was Joseph handling his situation?  He had a few options.  He could accept Mary’s news and take her anyways.  He could do what most would do and publically draw attention to an unfaithful spouse.  Mary’s life would never be the same, and Joseph’s would be much better.  Or he could go easy on her, taking advantage of the lax divorce procedures of the day by sending her away quietly.  That way Mary would have to deal with everything alone.  But imagine the fears going through Joseph’s head as he considers each option.  There’s the slanderous gossip and the snobbish glances.  No one likes that feeling that other people are talking about you behind your back.  There are the fallen hopes of the families.  There’s the baggage that he would carry into the future of one failed marriage…before it even got going.   For a good guy like Joseph, there’s the fear for Mary.  What’s a pregnant teen going to do with no man in the picture?  She’d be damaged goods and go to a man of far less character.  No matter what option he picked, it was going to be an unsettling few months.

Do you know what?  Whichever option we pick doesn’t get rid of our fears in life, either.  The bottom of a bottle doesn’t remove fear.  The internet has tons of life hack videos and self-help solutions, but it can’t remove fears.  More stuff doesn’t make the scary stuff go away. Financial peace, a healthy and happy start to a relationship, or advancement in medicines cannot cover up fears.  See, when the focus is on the trouble, the pain, the stress, the problems, then the fear remains and always will.  When we miss the sign, we’re going to feel a lot like Joseph was feeling.

Can you notice how does God sees the situation? What’s his point of view?  For Mary and Joseph it was a trying time, but God was going to use it as a blessing for men, women and children across all the world of all time.  It was not going to be easy for them for the next few years, but God was going to work it out for good for them and for all.  God has a way of doing that.

Do you think God can still do that for you?  Can the eternal King of all creation work things out for your good, for your spiritual and eternal benefit?  Can he get rid of your fears?  Of course!  God relieves our fears by getting us to take a step back from our own personal problems and see the much bigger picture that God has painted with our lives.

Joseph just needed God to show him that this was all working out according to plan, his plan, his all-knowing and all-powerful plan. God wanted Joseph to know, “Mary has not been unfaithful to you.  This is the sign that everyone has been waiting for.”   The angel appeared to Joseph to help him see God’s view.  The angel said, “You don’t need to be afraid.”

Fear is always going to hurt you.  It was tearing Joseph up at this point. Fear is the exact opposite of faith.  Fear doesn’t see God’s promises, purposes, and plans. Living in fear is so dangerous for us eternally because fear destroys us.  And that’s why God has such a great way of taking our fears away.

The angel calls Joseph the son of David.  But Joseph’s dad was Jacob.  He’d be familiar with people saying, “Joseph, son of Jacob, come over here…”  “Joseph, son of Jacob, what are you doing over there?”  It wasn’t Joseph, son of David.  But that’s how God wants the angel to address him, because he wants Joseph to remember the he is a descendant of the great King.  David ruled God’s people.  Even though there were plenty of battles and plenty of ups and downs, twists and turns, David buried his fear with faith in God’s never-failing, never-ending promises.   Whether he was fighting Philistines, unruly family members trying to ruin him, or ungodly giants, David knew that faith in God’s promises overcomes fear.  God has the angel call him “son of David” because he wants Joseph to remember the promise of David’s son.

The promise of David’s son was the sign that so many people missed, but not anymore.  Joseph didn’t need to be afraid to take Mary home as his wife because this was the sign for all people that we have a God who keeps his promises, we have a God who does things this world cannot fathom, we have a God who loves us enough to leave heaven.

That was the sign, after all.  “Don’t you remember, Joseph?  Can’t you hear Isaiah?  ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.’  Joseph, I’m not going let you miss the sign.  Mary is that virgin.  She’s going to give birth to a son.  You are going to call him, Immanuel.  Joseph, that means I’m going to live with you.  You won’t need to be afraid, because I am coming.  This child is the Promised One.  What has been hidden for generations is coming into the world.  Joseph, that’s the sign: God is with us in person.

Brothers and sisters, we have the same God, who left heaven to be with us in the flesh.  That’s our sign, too.  And by God’s grace he made sure we wouldn’t miss it.  Jesus wasn’t here to crush us.  He wasn’t here to judge us.  He wasn’t here to teach us how to earn heaven.  He was here to rescue us.  He was here to live among us and remove the fears forever.  He was here to open heaven for people who keep forgetting, for people who are scared and alone, for people who are lost and condemned.  God is with us.

You know, I went back to Picacho Peak.  It was a few years later with my brother and his wife, my sister and her husband, and Mandy.  We did the whole thing again.  There were still really steep sections with cables to pull yourself up.  It was still a sheer rock face.  But this time there was no fear, because we saw all the signs.  It never felt like we were on a path that had never been walked.  It never felt like I was doomed to death.  What a difference it is when you actually see and understand the signs.

Joseph woke up and he didn’t miss the sign.  It was all true.  Somehow, someway God had found a way to make it clear to him.  And the sign, a virgin with child giving birth to Immanuel, would change the world.  No more fear, because God is with us.  That’s how we prepare for Christmas fearlessly.

God grant it.  Amen.





2 Timothy 4:6-8

6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.


There comes a time in a person’s life when you hear that clock ticking.  Really it’s been winding down ever since they were born, but it stayed off in the distance like a storm that’s not even on the radar yet. So it goes mostly ignored.  This clock ticks in the far off hypothetical, but the time comes when it creeps with every tick and tock up to the probable.

Paul is in that probable phase, hearing every tick and tock of life’s clock getting closer to the last stroke.  We aren’t sure when it started getting louder.  Was it when they had him chained up and lowered him into the dungeon? Was it during his first defense, when he was left alone?  Whenever it happened, Paul writes these words of his second letter to Timothy knowing that his end is near.

So, what would you expect him to say?  As we have seen from the past few weeks, Paul is so passionate and encouraging.  I think we would expect that.  If Paul hears that clock ticking loudly, then of course now would be the time to share inspiring messages and words of wisdom.  Of course, he would share personal advice with his colleague and friend, Timothy.  But these calm, confident words take it to another level, don’t they? And it makes a guy wonder, how could Paul be so sure?

Doesn’t Paul remember what he did?  Everyone who hears life’s clock ticking to its conclusion looks back on their life.  And when Paul looks back, he’s got quite the rap sheet.  He spent his youth enrolled in Pharisee school.  We know what that means: he grew up learning that laws and traditions were the focus of salvation and he grew up thinking that his ancestor Abraham is what connected him to God’s promise.  After his schooling, Paul’s interests got him involved with the same things Pharisees loved – hating Jesus and his followers.  But Paul was such a great student and so zealous that he took it up a notch.  He watched happily, as a Christian named Stephen was stoned to death.  He got permission to find more Jewish Christians outside of Palestine and arrest them for trial or death back in Jerusalem.  In fact, there are other places where Paul writes clearly about his past, admitting that he was zealous for persecuting Christians, that he was violent and filled with hate, that he was the worst.  And in another letter, he even admits that he always struggled with sin in various ways.

As the ticking clock gets louder for Paul, isn’t that the type of stuff we’d expect to hear about?  “Wow, I made such a mess back then.  Timothy, please forgive me for my horrible past! Please don’t count my persecutions, the pain I have caused others, against me.  Timothy, please focus on the positives and follow that example.”  You and I could relate to that.  Even if your clock is still ticking in the faded distance of the hypothetical, you could fill pages and pages with embracing mistakes, dumb decisions, and rebellion.  And no matter how hard you try, you just can’t seem to shake all the things that haunt our past.

To make matters worse, you and I also must realize that God sees it all, a holy God, who says, “I will repay them according to their deeds and the work of their hands,” and “the wages of sin is death.”  Our best efforts to avoid punishment or atone for our past sins cannot appease the Almighty God, who demands perfection.  Instead, we find ourselves in utter terror.  Past mistakes and haunting sins are a plague with the prognosis of death, because we know what God thinks of it.  Any infraction at any point, even just once, means that we cannot spend eternity with a holy God because we aren’t holy.

How can we deal with these facts?  How did Paul handle it? Well, he didn’t mention any of it, not one word about how he approved of Stephen’s death or hunted down Christians as if they were terrorists.  He didn’t even say anything about his struggles with doing too much against God and not enough for God.  Instead, he says, for I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Paul looks at his life as if it’s an offering to the Lord, something pleasing and acceptable in his eyes.  He looks forward to his departure.  If a Greek heard that word, they would think of loosening their boat’s towline from a dock and casting off.  Paul says, “I’m tied down here in this world with my sinful flesh, with pain and affliction, but the time is coming soon when I’ll be leaving here to go somewhere else.” There’s no, “I’ll be dead and gone soon.”  This is a guy who does not care one bit about burial plans, because he’s leaving this vail of tears. He looks back and says it was a good fight, that he finished strong.

How could a man with such a sinful past – yes, he was such a selfless servant of the Lord in ministry, but he had some serious skeletons too – ever be so confident? It’s only because of Jesus.  That’s it!  Jesus is the only possibility.  Jesus is the only way a person can look back on their life like it was an offering to God, like it was a good fight, a victorious finish.

Because only Jesus was perfect. Paul knew that Jesus had never failed.  Jesus didn’t make mistakes or dumb decisions.  He was never openly rebellious.  He never had zeal in the wrong place.  Paul met Jesus face to face on that road when he used to be a persecutor, and Jesus changed him.  Paul didn’t have to look back on a life of sin and guilt because Jesus paid for every last one.  Paul had the righteousness of Christ as his robe because the Holy Spirit had washed him clean at his baptism.  Paul knew that he was free from sin and it’s awful curse.

You have the same faith, because you were washed the same way through water and the Word.  The power of the Spirit gave you the same robe of righteousness.  You are connected to Christ, who paid for every last one of your sins.  You don’t have to look back with guilt over all the mistakes and rebellious ways.  You can sound like Paul, saying your life is an offering to the Lord because the Lord Jesus made your life pleasing and acceptable.  Through Christ, you can look at it like a good fight and a victory lap.

With that kind of life, you don’t have to talk about death the way most people do.  No, your past mistakes are gone from your record.  There is no fear.  There is no doubt.  Instead, we have bold faith just like Paul, “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness.”  Paul knew there’s only one way to get such a prize.  It’s Jesus.  With Jesus Paul was free from death.  Jesus not only won forgiveness on Calvary’s cross, but he crushed the power of death on Easter.  Every day Paul knew that.  Every day he lived with certainty that his Lord and Savior was alive and watching over him with forgiveness and love.  Every day he knew that heaven was his home because Jesus made the payment and opened the gates for him.  Every day of his ministry Paul proclaimed that good news to a dying world.  So, when the clock started ticking loudly in Paul’s ears, he was ready for his departure.  When the time came, he was content and thankful for the crown of righteousness that the Lord had promised him.

But it wasn’t just for Paul, was it? “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”  The crown isn’t just for people like the Apostle Paul, people who can look back on years of ministry and countless hours of serving people.  This crown is for you and for all who trust in Jesus Christ.

You go ahead and let the unbeliever stare off in disbelief.  Let them mumble those words uncertain words at a funeral, “Sorry for your loss.”  Not us!  Not us!  Because we have the same confidence to sound just like Paul. We can be bold in the face of death.  We can be happy and thankful when that clock starts ticking loudly.  Because the Lord has that same crown waiting for you.  It was paid for by the perfect blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ.  It was promised to you when the Holy Spirit cleansed your heart and life in baptism.  It is kept for you through the power of God’s Word.  Nothing can change that.  The Lord will always keep you in his hands.  He opened the door to heaven when he rose and he left it open for you.

Christians view death in such a great way, don’t we?  We sound just like Paul, with calm unshakable confidence, because we have a Savior who died for our sins and then destroyed the power of death.  We talk about the crown of righteousness.  We talk about life as an offering and a good fight of faith.  We can only do that through Christ.

And so that’s how we take care of our church, with our eyes on the right prize. Our ministry is not based on numbers.  Our ministry is not about having the coolest and best events or groups.   It isn’t about the friendly faces and popping personalities.  Our ministry is not based in gimmicks or traditions.  Our ministry is founded on the facts of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  Our ministry is based on the facts of law and gospel.  Our ministry is based on the transformational love of God, that he would change dead sinners into eternally living saints.  That’s how we sound like Paul.

So, keep it up, brothers and sisters.  Keep sounding crazy to the rest of the world.  Keep having this calm confidence that God has a crown in your future.  Keep that good news as the basis of everything we do and I promise, I promise, this ministry we share will be so powerful that not even the gates of hell will be able to withstand it.  God grant it.  Amen.