Archive for the ‘Sermons’ Category

A Child’s Prayer for Peace

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

Tonight let us all settle back peacefully and quietly in our pews in order to hear the story of a young boy who learned quite a lot while standing in front of  a simple manger scene one cold, winter day.

Dylan was a bright and curious boy.  Brighter and bigger than some boys and girls, but not quite as bright and a bit smaller than others.  I guess you could say that he was somewhere in the middle.  He had a mom and dad, a younger sister named Amber and a little bit of everything else you might think a young boy would normally have.  In fact, Dylan was a little bit like each of us children sitting here tonight.

***

Now Dylan was growing up very quickly, as little boys do.  One Christmas while he was growing up he came upon a manger scene standing in front of a little, white country church.   He often passed this church while riding his bike in the warmer weather.  But now, with snow on the ground and a fair bit of ice on the road, he was walking by the church on his way home from a friend’s house.

As he paused to look at the manger scene he could remember quite well the story of Christmas that he heard each year at home and in his Sunday School class.  He remembered the part about Mary and Joseph being two very young parents who were chosen by God to have a baby that they were supposed to name “Jesus.”   Things didn’t work out very well for these young parents because the baby was delivered while they were far away from home with no place to sleep except in a cold, damp stable.

He remembered how they had wrapped the baby in some kind of cloth because they hadn’t made pampers yet.  He also remembered the part about some angels showing up with a lot of fireworks and scaring some shepherds half-to-death who were out in the fields, long past most people’s bedtimes, tending sheep.

The angels told the shepherds some fantastic news about this Jesus who would save the whole world!  So convinced were the shepherds that they just left their sheep on the dark hills and rushed to a little town called Bethlehem to see this very special newborn baby.

***

Dylan continued to look at the simple manger scene in front of the little, white country church.  There were a couple of  bales of hay and two once brightly painted figures of Joseph and Mary.  But now some paint was peeling off of Joseph’s nose and off of Mary’s dress.   And the baby Jesus figure was a bit too big to be a newborn baby and looked a bit too happy to be lying there in the cold, damp hay.

Dylan wondered whether or not the scene at Jesus’ real birth was as neat and pretty as the ones he had seen in his Sunday School fliers or, whether it was more like this manger scene with the peeling paint and the Jesus that was too big.

He could remember clearly the day, a few weeks before, when he and his Sunday School classmates had gone out to a farm to have their pictures taken as they acted out the roles of  Mary and Joseph, the angels and shepherds, the animals and, of course, the baby Jesus.

Things were not so perfect in the barnyard that day!  The donkey would not stay still for little Mary who was dressed in a pink bathrobe and sneakers.  And the shepherds were a motley crew of gigglers.  The angels were very careless stumbling around hitting other people as they swung their arms in the air.  There were a few cats meowing and getting in the way and, a dog who was not being a very good shepherd’s dog because he kept thrusting his rear leg up in order to scratch his belly.

Dylan was pretty sure there weren’t any cats or dogs around at Jesus’ birth, but maybe the animals that were there also got in the way.  The baby who played Jesus in the barnyard was a darling little baby.  Dylan wondered whether or not Jesus might have looked something like this baby.

***

In fact, Dylan was wondering about a lot of things having to do with Jesus’ real birth.   He wondered about how funny it was for God to come to the earth in such a tiny, weird way.  Coming as a newborn baby, lying in some itchy hay and needing a mother and a father, just like Dylan needed a mother and father.

He thought about what an inconvenient way for God to come to earth because Dylan knew all about what little babies were like.  He remembered his sister Amber when she was a newborn baby.   She would cry and kick and throw-up and do a whole lot of things that got mom and dad very upset.  Dylan wondered if Jesus ever did such things and, if he ever flipped his cereal out of his bowl and onto his dad’s eyeglasses like Amber used to do.

Boy, thought Dylan, if I were God I would have done things a lot differently.  Maybe I would have used an awesome spaceship to come to earth.  And then, I would have jumped out of the spaceship like a super-charged action hero ready to take on all of the bad stuff in the world.

But then he thought that the manger scene, with the paint peeling off of Joseph’s nose and Mary’s dress, and with the oversized Jesus was such a quiet and gentle scene.  Maybe God wants it to be this way – so still and so quiet.

But why was God not noisier?   The world is always noisy.  His mom and dad are noisy when they get mad and argue.  The bombs people use to scare and kill each other are very noisy.  And, Dylan admitted to himself that sometimes he can be quite noisy.

But, the fact is that God came to earth as a tiny, newborn baby, just like his sister Amanda used to be and just like he used to be – quietly, simply, innocently.  Maybe, thought Dylan, God really likes children best of all, and so, he came to earth as a little child.

Why, I do not have to be afraid of a little baby, he thought.  He will not hurt me.  I am so scared of so many things.   Adults when they fight, the bombs that everybody talks about at home, at school and on the news, and bigger kids who try to bully me. Yet, Jesus came as a gentle, little baby.  You can only love a little baby.

Just then, it began to snow on top of the simple manger scene in front of the little, white country church.  The snow laid on top of Joseph’s head and on Mary’s dress and on top of the baby Jesus.  The snow fell so quietly, softly and peacefully. Maybe it snowed like this in Bethlehem the night Jesus was born, when God came to earth so peacefully as a baby boy, as a little child that you can only love.

***

Tonight Dylan becomes the little child within all of us.  Dylan is the little child crying out from within us for more love and for more peace.  Dylan is the little child within us who shutters in fear when life gets chaotic, angry, brutal and sometimes, deadly.  Yet, Dylan is also the unfailing sense of mercy and compassion within us that drives us to seek forgiveness or grant forgiveness, to protest against an injustice or amend our ways when you or I become the source of injustice.

Tonight we celebrate the birth of Christ Jesus, Emmanuel, God who is with us to save us from the evil and violence that lurks within each of us.  The fact that God chose to be born into this human condition,  a tiny, meek baby, makes a bold statement  that God comes to us this night to overwhelm evil with the power of absolute, pure, unfailing love.  Is this not something big to celebrate.?!  Something big to celebrate tonight, tomorrow morning and for as long as we live.!

***

Perhaps somewhere in our travels tonight or tomorrow you and I will pass by a peaceful, quiet manger scene standing silently in front of a little, white country church, or a country farmhouse, or even poised inside the display window of a local business.  Maybe the characters in the scene will be worn of paint and enamel as was the one Dylan pondered.  Maybe the figures will be mismatched in size or material or color.

If you do come across such a manger scene, stop for a moment and quietly rejoice that the story that is told in that place gives you and me permission to be like children again.  Children who can receive the baby Jesus who came to replace our sin and fear with peace, humility, compassion and love for all people – each and every one created by God.

And if you have forgotten what it feels like to be a child, find one to hug, and feel the life and energy of his or her breath and heartbeat.  Look up and around to love those people present with you with the same love that drew you to hug this child.  For Dylan’s prayer for us tonight is a prayer for gentle, undeniable and unwavering peace among each and every one of us now and forever.

Amen.

Sermon preached

by

Rev. Thomas M. Lang

at

New Hanover Evangelical Lutheran Church, Gilbertsville, PA

on

Christmas Eve 2010

© 2010 thomas m. lang

A LUTHERAN AND A SKEPTIC TAKE ON… THE REFORMATION!

Monday, November 1st, 2010

REFORMATION SUNDAY

October 31, 2010

Bible Texts:
Jeremiah 31.31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3.19-28
John 8. 31-36

A LutheranWell, Mr./Ms. Skeptic, This certainly was the best time for you to accept my offer to worship with us.  On Reformation Day!

A Skeptic/ (With hesitation) I’m … not … sure I know what you mean by that.  What’s any different about today than any other Sunday?

A Lutheran/  Well, today is Reformation Day when we celebrate a reform movement ignited by a man named Martin Luther. He was inspired by God to initiate rippling changes in the Church of the Middle Ages that still effect us today!  This morning we thank God for Martin Luther, his unique perspective on the faith of the individual Believer, and, where the Church got in the way of a person living out such faith, his courage in forcefully challenging the Church to change!

A Skeptic/  You mean you brought me here for a history lesson?!  Boring!!!

A Lutheran/  NO!  NO! Not a history lesson!  An experience!

A Skeptic/  An experience of what?

A Lutheran/  An experience of Christians who are free to express their faith through worship and praise of God as well as through many ways of learning and digesting God’s Word.

A Skeptic/  Sooooo, what else is new?

A Lutheran/  People are not always free to express their true hearts in worship.  Throughout history things have gotten in the way.

A Skeptic/  What things?

A Lutheran/  Well, for instance, in the Middle Ages the Church got in the way.

A Skeptic/  How?

A Lutheran/  By setting up all kinds of rules and rituals that people were told they had to observe in order to have any chance for salvation.  There were prayer rituals and rules about offerings, worship services held in a different language so that the people could not understand what was going on.  Religious leaders discovered that they could get rich by keeping the people from learning about God and instead, totally dependent on the Church and its leaders.

A Skeptic/  So what else is new?

A Lutheran/  Really, the Church was publicly restricting just about every aspect of the believer’s life.  The only way you could know God was through participating in the Church’s rigidly controlled means of knowing God.  And the God that the Church was revealing was a mean-spirited, unjust, angry God.

A Skeptic/  Okay!  Now you’re beginning to grab my interest.  Go on!

A Lutheran/  First, let’s listen to a reading from the prophet Jeremiah.

A Skeptic/  What’s Jeremiah got to do with it?!

A Lutheran/  Just hush for a minute and listen with both ears!

A Skeptic/  Sure… (fading off)

[Reader reads Jeremiah 31.31-34]

A Skeptic/  So, a bunch of boring words by a dead prophet about something God said regarding a dead people.  What in the World does this have to do with the Reformation and this worship service this morning?!

A Lutheran/  Ah!  The prophet who said the words may be dead and the People the words were originally spoken about may be dead, but the God who spoke the words then, in those particular times, is speaking them to us again today!

A Skeptic/  Hunh??? (Very puzzled???)

A Lutheran/  We believe that God is a LIVING GOD who not only spoke his Word in the past, but also continues to speak his Word to us today, tomorrow and the next day!  When we hear these words read this morning it is like God speaking them again for the first time ……. TO US!

A Skeptic/ (Stares at “A Lutheran”speechless!)

A Lutheran/  I take your silence as indicating I should go on.

A Skeptic/  Please.

A Lutheran/  Note what God is saying here.

“I will put my law within them,

and I will write it on their hearts;

and I will be their God,

and they shall be my people.

~Jeremiah 31.33

A Lutheran/  Do you get the difference between what God is saying here and what the Church has been doing throughout the ages, even today.

A Skeptic/  Well, God is saying that he wants immediate access to people’s hearts.  I assume he doesn’t mean that he is going to literally do an “etch-a-sketch” on the human heart. (Holds hand over heart as if in pain.)

A Lutheran/ (Chuckling.) Oh no, not that.  But you are exactly right. God’s plan for us is to have an immediate, intimate relationship to each individual believer.  Nothing should stand in the way of this.  Not friends, family, Priest, or the Church!

A Skeptic/  Now I’m getting this.  What’s next?

A Lutheran/ [Turns and gestures to congregation] Let’s all read Psalm 46 responsively.

[Psalm 46]

A Skeptic/  Why couldn’t the Psalmist just have said,

“God is great

God is good

now we thank him…”

A Lutheran/ [Abruptly interrupts!] Now don’t be silly.  These words come from deep within the heart of the psalm writer.  But you are right in understanding that these words praise God who is great.  So great, that he rules over earth and heaven. So great, that even in the height of his power he is at the same time in the midst of us.

A Skeptic/ [In a loud exuberant voice!] YEAH!  He’s right in our midst protecting us “good guys” and scaring the heck out of those “bad guys!”

A Lutheran/  Now you are getting silly again!  God is in our midst.  You are right about that.  But he is in the midst of the whole world defending his whole creation from all cosmic and earthly dangers.

A Skeptic/  And quite often defending us against ourselves!  Our foolish thoughts and actions!

A Lutheran/  EXACTLY!  Just as God, through Jeremiah, is declaring his intention to have an immediate, intimate relationship with each or our hearts, so God, through the Psalmist is revealing himself to be the Almighty God of the whole universe …

A Skeptic/ [Enthusiastically interrupts!] And the loving God of our hearts!

A Lutheran/  ABSOLUTELY!  “The Lord of the [cosmos] is with us;…

A Skeptic/  the God of our ancestors is our refuge.”

A Lutheran/  Our next reading is from Romans and will describe the wonderful benefits of God’s immediate presence with us.

Read Romans 8. 19-28

A Skeptic/  Interesting.  Nowhere in any of these readings today has there been mention of the Church controlling how believers and God are to meet or communicate.

A Lutheran/  Good point!  The God who spoke directly to our ancestors is speaking the same Word to us right now.

A Skeptic/  And that Word is…

A Lutheran/  The Word is that we, each and every one of us, are sinners.  Because we are all sinners, we are absolutely unable to please God through our own personal words and actions.

A Skeptic/ [Enthusiastic as if on to something!] So God brings his grace into our midst, forgiving our sins and restoring the chasm that our sin creates between us and God.

A Lutheran/  I have never heard it spoken better!

A Skeptic/ [Looking proud of her/himself.]

A Lutheran/  Now don’t go getting too haughty about this.  That too, can lead to sin.

A Skeptic/  But God will give me a good dose of that grace of his and I’ll be forgiven. [Smiling.]

A Lutheran/ [Looking at Skeptic a bit sternly.] But grace is not to be taken for granted!  We are to live in God’s grace with a deep appreciation for what it has cost God.

A Skeptic/ [Puzzled.] Oh???

A Lutheran/  Listen to one more Bible story, this one from John 8.31-38.

Read John 8.31-38

A Lutheran/  Even our ancestors took God for granted.  They assumed that just by following the traditions of Abraham, the one to whom God first promised his saving love, that they were good with God.

A Skeptic/   You mean they thought because they followed all those rituals, rules, bloody sacrifices and a host of other nitty-gritty details that they had earned God’s pleasure?

A Lutheran/  Right.  And these were the kinds of things the Church and its leaders clung on to up until the time Martin Luther and his fellow reformers condemned practices of the Church that got in the way of the believer’s direct and Intimate relationship with God.

A Skeptic/  But doesn’t the Church still do that today?

A Lutheran/  In some ways we probably still do.  The visible Church is human you know, and we still cling to our human insecurities.

A Skeptic/  Yes, we do!  Why don’t we just get rid of all our liturgies and Councils and committees and constitutions, all that detail stuff?!

A Lutheran/ [Chuckling.] Well, that certainly would appear to make us free.  But really, being human don’t you think that abandoning all of those things would result more in chaos and confusion among believers than it would foster true closeness with God.

A Skeptic/  I guess… [Thoughtfully fading off.]

A Lutheran/  As the Apostle Paul wrote, “We are all in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” So yes, we as the Church will always do things that in some ways inhibit our intimate relationship with God.  Just as do individual believers.

A Skeptic/  So, is it enough just to know the “TRUTH that will make you free?”

A Lutheran/  To know it, to preach and teach it over and over again, and,  to strive for it in all that we do as a Church and as individual believers.

A Skeptic/  Yes, to know this “TRUTH” that God writes on our hearts …

A Lutheran/  …The God who is “present in the midst of us” wants us to know deeply and thoroughly that we are his children destined to live in his GRACE completely and thoroughly…

A Skeptic/  …This is the Word of “TRUTH” that “SETS US FREE!”

A Lutheran/  “So, if the Son makes you free…

A Skeptic and A Lutheran/ [Together, boldly!]  YOU WILL BE FREE, INDEED!!!

© 2010 thomas m. lang

BIG GOD, small steps

Sunday, August 10th, 2008

PEOPLE DO THE STRANGEST THINGS WHEN THEIR BACKS ARE UP AGAINST THE WALL…….  Consider for instance the story of the fellow who fell off a cliff but who managed to catch hold of a tree protruding from the walls of the canyon and save himself (at least temporarily) from the fatal fall to the rocks below.  As he hung there helplessly, he called out, “IS THERE ANYONE UP THERE WHO CAN HELP ME?”

A voice came out of the heavens saying, “LET GO, AND I’LL CATCH YOU.” The distraught fellow thought for a few seconds and again called out, “IS THERE ANYONE ELSE UP THERE WHO CAN SAVE ME?” (Kysar, The Scandal of Lent, p. 37)

Isn’t it a bit strange what ELIJAH and PETER do in today’s stories when their backs are up against the wall? ELIJAH has just come off some very great victories given through him by the POWER OF ALMIGHTY GOD on whom he solely relies. He has managed to save a WIDOW AND HER SON from death by hunger through miraculously sustaining the widow’s jar of meal and cruse of oil; and then he saves the very same widow’s son by resuscitating him and restoring him from death to life.

And after that he hosts a mighty SHOWDOWN WITH BAAL and 450 of his prophets on Mount Carmel because through him God’s ALMIGHTY POWER PREVAILS!

Unfortunately, such demonstrable actions only inflame the evil Queen Jezebel who puts a price on Elijah’s head and sends him fleeing 130 miles into the wilderness where he ends up sitting and brooding under the shade of a BROOM TREE. Then he spends 40 days traveling through the wilderness simply in order to find a cave in which to HIDE. The super victories he had been God’s vessel to bring about seem to be all but forgotten.

WHAT A STRANGE THING TO DO after so much victory and favor from ALMIGHTY GOD!

And PETER DOES A STRANGE THING TOO!……. With the rest of the Disciples he has just come from a MIRACULOUS FEEDING OF 5,000 MEN besides woman and children! But then, out on the boat, in the midst of a raging storm, he and the other disciples mistake the Lord for a GHOST! Jesus’ assurance, “TAKE HEART, IT IS I; DO NOT BE AFRAID” is not enough to convince Peter that it is the Lord calmly walking on the sea. And so, Peter requests of the Lord the ability to also WALK ON THE WATER.

[This seems to be a two-pronged test to determine first, if this really is Jesus coming towards them ON TOP OF THE WATER, and second, if so, to determine if this Jesus can even do wondrous things through his Disciples.]

Picture this BIG muscular fisherman TAKING THAT FIRST STEP ONTO THE WATER as the Lord beckons him to “COME.” But apparently, he is too eager to respond to the invitation to DO LIKE JESUS and so, at the first sign of trouble he panics, DOUBTS and begins to sink.

So YES, ELIJAH and PETER do STRANGE THINGS WHEN THEIR BACKS ARE AGAINST THE WALL. Elijah’s back is against the wall of BAALISM and Peter’s is against the wall of OCEANIC CHAOS and a conflicted faith.

***

But is this really any different from the STRANGE THINGS THAT YOU AND I DO when our backs are against the wall and our TOTAL FAITH IS CALLED UPON??? — How have you responded to recent news that you or a loved one has cancer? — And, how are you responding to the unrelenting strain of economic news plaguing our homes, banks and families? — Or, how are you responding to the increasing appeals within our congregation for YOU to step up in your participation and in your giving, even up to a TITHE (10%) of your income?

When YOUR back is against the wall in matters such as these perhaps you too respond in strange ways, such as playing HIDE AND SEEK, or, as in the case of ELIJAH and PETER, HIDE AND SINK!

*******

However, it is times like these WHEN YOUR BACK IS AGAINST THE WALL that a TRUE HEARING OF FAITH can occur for you and for me! Consider this…….

I hate water! Not tap water or the water that rains down from my shower or from a summer storm. But I hate pool water, lake water, and definitely the roaring water of the ocean. Learning to swim was a real ordeal for me. From the lessons I took at our local swim club to swimming lessons in scouts, and worst of all, being required to take swimming class at my high school with the one teacher who was more a merciless drill sergeant than a caring teacher who wanted to alleviate my fears of the water.

Lap after exhausting lap I kept thinking, “I am going to drown right here and right now before I amount to anything in life.” (And I didn’t even consider the loss to me if I had never lived long enough to be your Pastor!) But then I kept hearing the words of my sisters and my brother, all of whom were good swimmers. “Sam,” (that was my family nickname), you are not going to drown. I’m right here to catch you. Everything will be ALL RIGHT. Come on, jump in!”

In a very real sense this is very similar to the situation of ELIJAH and PETER. God comes to the aid of ELIJAH’S SNIVELLING and Jesus is right there to CATCH PETER when he sinks. EVERYTHING IS ALL RIGHT WITH GOD PRESENT! How could it not be?

Now I admit God is a bit tough on Elijah as he chastens him with the words, WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE beneath the Broom Tree, and WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE hiding in a cave? But the Lord coaxes Elijah out from under the Broom Tree. And God coaxes Elijah out of the cave in order to watch God pass by, not with a mighty DESTRUCTIVE WIND, not with the deadly power of an EARTHQUAKE, and not with the heated torment of a RAGING FIRE. No, the One Almighty God comes to Elijah through a GENTLE SILENCE, or as some translations state it, “STILL SMALL VOICE.” It is as if to say, “YOU ARE NOT GOING TO DROWN. EVERYTHING WILL BE ALL RIGHT. LISTEN TO ME.”

Then there is good old, double-daring, steppin’-out-on-the-sea-without-thinking, PETER! He takes a couple of steps of faith upon the water and then quickly begins to sink as he realizes the BOLD STEPS OF FAITH he has just begun to take. “LORD, SAVE ME!” he cries. Boy, does that remind me of the cry I uttered when floundering in the water in those early days of leaning how to swim.

But the Lord responds to Peter in much the same way as my siblings responded to me, “Come on, Sam, it will be ok.” “It’s ok, Peter, take my hand.”

Times like these, when we have NOWHERE ELSE TO TURN, are the very times when we are most likely to start listening to God and TRUSTING GOD’S WORD. As Isaiah declared,

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered
the earth, making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater
so shall be my word which goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty.
But it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
(Isaiah 55.10-11)

Just as my siblings were right there to catch me if I would have floundered in the water, so is God right there for Elijah to assure him that he can face the wicked Jezebel and all her empty threats because even with a WHISPER God’s Word can overcome all wickedness and evil. And, just as I never drowned from learning how to swim because a strong hand was always there to catch me when necessary, so the hand of Christ stretched out and brought Peter safely back into the boat. “LORD, SAVE ME!” And indeed he did!

*******

A CHICKEN AND A PIG were walking down the street together one day when they passed a church door upon which a sign read, “HAM AND EGG BREAKFAST – ALL WELCOME!” The Chicken quickly said to the Pig, “COME ON, LET’S GO IN!” But the Pig was very hesitant as he replied, “THAT’S EASY FOR YOU TO SAY. IF WE GO IN YOU WILL ONLY HAVE TO GIVE A LITTLE OF YOURSELF. I WILL HAVE TO COMMIT EVERYTHING!”

How much will you COMMIT TO TRUSTING IN JESUS’ CALL TO YOU? Will you run and HIDE? Will you show off and be the first one to TAKE THE FIRST STEP and then in fear, SINK? Will you commit just a little, OR, will you COMMIT EVERYTHING!?

—When the phone call comes from a family member overwhelmed with the fearful burden of a troubling diagnosis, how tightly will you CLING TO YOUR FAITH IN CHRIST and share it? — As the economy continues to tighten the financial rope around many of our necks, how much will you be able to loosen your grip on the love of worldly treasures and tighten that grip on the TRUE TREASURE we have in Christ? — And despite the economy and each of our own personal financial struggles, how bold might you be in joining your fellow believers in stepping out of the boat of fear and inhibition and TITHING to God’s Luxury Liner of mission and ministry to proclaim to ALL who need to hear God’s POWERFUL, LIFE-CHANGING WORD!? This ship is full of so many hungering for a Word of LIFE and HOPE – the very Word that is in your heart and even in your pockets!

***

When God says to us, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” Be prepared to get out from under the shade of the tree and be determined to leave the cave behind. When Jesus says to you, “TAKE HEART, IT IS I; DO NOT BE AFRAID.” Reach out and GRAB HIS HAND! For these are the times for us to declare, “GREAT IS THY FAITHFULNESS” and “PERFECT ASSURANCE!” With such assurance we realize that ours is a BIG GOD who calls upon us “merely” to take the small steps as we sing, , “HERE I AM , LORD!” HERE, I AM! ! !

AMEN.

©2008 thomas m lang