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Tuesday, December 30 2014

I don’t usually give a sermon on this weekend of lessons and carols.  But I want to tell a story.  It’s a story that I have used on several occasion before – a story that is making the rounds on the internet and in news articles – so I’m sure some of you have either read about it, or seen the commercial for a chocolate company that put together a quite fine piece about this.  I think you can find it on U-Tube.  But it is the true story of something that happened 100 years ago this week.  It happened during the opening year of World War I – on a very special Christmas day – December 25, 1914.

It was a welcome respite for a group of lonely English soldiers who had become all too familiar with the roar of cannons and the whine of rifle fire.  As they reclined in their trenches, each man began to speculate about the activities of loved ones back home.  One man said, “I can almost hear the church bells back home.  My whole family will soon be walking out the door to hear the concert of the boys’ choir at the cathedral.”

The men sat silent for several minutes before another soldier looked up and said, “This is eerie, but I can almost hear the choir singing.”  “So can I,” shouted another puzzled voice.  “I think there’s music coming from the other side.”

The men scrambled to the edge of the trench and listened.  What they heard was a few sturdy German voices singing “Von Himmel Hoch,” “From heaven above to earth I come to bear good news to everyone. Glad tidings of great joy I bring to all the world, and gladly sing.”

When the hymn was finished, the English soldiers sat frozen in silence.  Then a large man with a powerful voice broke into the chorus of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”  A dozen other voices joined in, and soon the entire regiment was singing.

Once again, there was an interlude of silence until a German tenor began to sing, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.”  

"Stille nacht, heilege nacht, alles schlaft, Einsam wacht, nur das Heilege Eltern Paar, das im Stalle zu Bethlehem war, bei dem himmlischen Kind, bei dem himmlischen kind."

Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht!     Alles schläft; einsam wacht     Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.     Holder Knab' im lockigen Haar,  Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh! Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!

But this time – oh this time – the song was sung not in one but in two languages – a chorus of a hundred voices echoing back and forth between the trenches “Silent night, holy night!  All is calm, all is bright...”

“Someone’s approaching,” a sentry shouted, and attention was focused on a single German soldier, waving a white cloth with one hand, and holding several bars of chocolate in the other.  Slowly, men from both sides eased out of their trenches – out into the neutral zone and began to greet one another.  The soldiers began sharing what they had with each other.  Candy.  Cigarettes.  Even a bottle of Christmas brandy.  Most important, they shared battered, treasured pictures they carried of loved ones.

No one knows whose idea it was to start a football game –what we call soccer – but with the help of flares the field was lit and the British and German soldiers played until they and the lights were exhausted.  Then, as quietly as they came together, the men returned to their own trenches.

On Christmas Day, men from both sides again joined together, even visiting the other’s trenches.  The German soldiers, wishing to avenge the previous night’s torch-lit football loss, organized another game.

The informal truce spread along much of the 500-mile Western Front, in some cases lasting for days — alarming army commanders – including a young corporal by the name of Adolph Hitler – who feared fraternization would sap the troops' will to fight. But now the enemy was no longer faceless.  Now he was an acquaintance who shared a candy bar, or played a game of soccer.

The silence ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war."

A short peace, yes, because the next year brought the start of battles that claimed 10 million lives.  Sadly, the Christmas truce was never repeated, but history tells us that once upon a time, so many years ago, there was a silent, holy night, when the birth of the Christ child drew hostile forces together as brothers, and for a few moments – gave weary soldiers a taste of peace and good will.


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Monday, December 29 2014

Luke 2:1-20
    It was a cold December afternoon.    All day long two men, a pastor named Jerry and a layman named Jim, had been delivering Christmas boxes.  Many of the families who would receive these boxes would get nothing else for Christmas that year. The pickup truck had been loaded when the two men started out on their journey but now, only one box remained.  

    The address on the card meant a drive of several miles beyond the city limit. “What do you think?” Jim asked.  He was the driver and it was his truck.  Pastor Jerry knew what Jim was thinking.  Why drive way out in the country when we could give this last box to someone close by and be home in thirty minutes?  It was a tempting thought.  Pastor Jerry had a Christmas Eve Service scheduled for 8 p.m. and he could use the time to prepare.

    Jim, however, answered his own question, “Well, let’s give it a try. If we can’t find the place, we can always come back and give the box to someone else.”

    A cold rain was pouring down by the time they reached the address on the card. The old white framed house stood on a hillside overlooking the valley.  The two men slipped and slid, huffed and puffed as they carried the box up the hill.  They climbed the high steps to the porch, set the box down and slid it across the floor. They straightened up just in time to glimpse the face of a small boy at the window.  He had been watching them coming up the hill.  Now, he announced their arrival with shouts of excitement, “They’re here, Grandma, they’re here!”

    The door opened and an older woman greeted them.  “I told you, they would come,” a child’s voice said from behind her.  The little boy rushed to the box and began pulling at the goodies inside.

    The woman told them that her grandson had come to live with her after his parents had divorced and gone their separate ways.  She said, “Oh, I am so glad you are here.  He was up early this morning looking for you.  He sat by that window all day. I wasn’t sure you would come and I tried to prepare him in case of a disappointment.  But he just said, ‘Don’t worry, Grandma, I know they will come.’”

    I’d like to suggest that that little boy is speaking for all of us.  Tonight, Christians all over the world are gathering in homes and churches to hear the story one more time – to hear the story that in Jesus Christ God comes to us just as we knew that He would.  

    You see, the prophet Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God, had promised it hundreds of years before, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  And I am here to tell you that Jesus HAS come, just as He promised – just as we knew he would.

    Listen.  There is a story of a man in Wales who tried for 42 years to win the affection of a certain woman.  Finally, in 1985, on his forty-third attempt, she said, “Yes.”  By then they were 74 years old.

    Every week for more than 40 years, this rather shy man slipped a weekly love letter under his neighbor’s door. After writing 2,184 love letters without ever getting a response, this persistent old man finally summoned up enough courage to present himself in person. He knocked on the door of the reluctant lady and asked for her hand. To his delight and surprise, she accepted.

    There is something about a personal visit that makes a difference.  And I am here to tell you that more than 2,000 years ago God made a personal visit to this planet.  2,000 years ago – in a place called Bethlehem.

    And you know the story.  You love to hear the story.  Of Mary and Joseph and angels and shepherds.  Of Jesus born in Bethlehem – and placed in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.  Oh yeah.  You know the story.  And quite frankly – I never get tired of telling it!  

    But why?  Why do we tell the story?  Year after year – why do we tell THIS story?  Glad you asked.  Let me tell you why.  
    Jesus came into the world because the world was in a mess.  In fact, the world has always been in a mess.  Just listen to the evening news.  Read the front section of the Buffalo News.  The world is in a mess.  

    Now, God could have given up on us – God could have given up on this world  long ago.  But God’s love for us – God’s love for you and me – is so strong that He just couldn’t – He wouldn’t do that.  So rather than walking away – rather than turning His back on us – God decided to do something about this mess.  

    So God made a personal visit, in the person of His Son Jesus Christ right?  A personal visit always makes a difference.  So… the story doesn’t end in Bethlehem.  AND the story doesn’t end here tonight.  IF you know the story, then you know that this baby born in Bethlehem grew into a man.  And for three years – through his teaching, and preaching, and healing – he showed us why God cares so much about us.   

    But not everyone – and not everything was pleasant.  Although Jesus attracted men and women who would become his disciples – he also made enemies.  And they had Jesus crucified – nailed to a cross.  But the story doesn’t end there either.  And if you also know the rest of that story – if you know the Easter story – then you also know that God raised Jesus from the dead.  

    Now that’s the Good News story in a nutshell.  And we call it the Good News story – because through the birth, the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ – God made a way for us to be reconciled to God.  Because of our own sinfulness – because of our sin – we were separated from God.  That’s what sin does.  

    So we have this need to be reconciled to God.  And therefore what we need is a Savior.  And that’s why God paid us a visit to us – showed up in person – in the person of Jesus Christ – who became the Savior from sin that we so desperately need.

    And as Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know the rest of the story.”  But you know what?  The story doesn’t end there either.
    Let’s go back to the Bethlehem story, I’ve gotta tell ya, that I’ve always been intrigued by that “no room in the inn” part of the story.  That no room in the inn part of the story makes me want to ask a question – my question to you tonight is this.  Have YOU made room for Jesus?  In your heart?  In your life?  In your home? In your story?

    Maybe you’ve been too busy getting ready for Christmas to think about this question.  Or maybe you’re skeptical about this whole Jesus thing – about God making a personal visit in the person of Jesus Christ.  Maybe you don’t believe this stuff – or maybe you just don’t care.  

    If that’s the case – just let me say – that I for one find it hard to believe that anybody could have made this stuff up.   Listen!  You’re going to put your faith in something.  You’re either going to put your faith in your belief that the story that we tell tonight is true – OR you’re going to put your faith in the belief that the story isn’t true.  Either way requires faith that what you believe is true.  
    So looking at this story – and then following the story to the end – I can only conclude that nobody could have made this stuff up.  Especially the part about Jesus and him risen from the dead. In fact – I think it takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to be a believer.  And as I’ve told you many times before, I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist!

    Well, that’s the story.  And why do we tell the story?   We tell the story because His story can change your story.  So – how will you finish the story?  Because the story isn’t finished until you finish it.  This story isn’t complete – until you welcome this Christ into your heart and into your life and into your home and into your story.  Is there room this night in your world for the Christ child, or is there still no room in the inn?


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Monday, December 22 2014

Luke 1:26-38

How’s everybody doing today/tonight?  Huh?  There’s only a few days left to go.  Are you going to do okay?  Make it through this next week without getting too stressed out?   Okay, good.  

“One thing we all know is that most people put up a tree – a Christmas tree – maybe yours is artificial.  Maybe it’s real.  Doesn’t matter.  But I am struck by some of the stories I hear about the extremes some people will go to get a tree.

For instance, do you know that sometimes people steal trees?   Yeah, they steal their Christmas trees.  Can you imagine that?  Somebody stealing a tree just to have a Christmas tree?  “Hey Dad, where’d you get this great looking tree?”  Yeah, there’s something wrong with that picture.

Nevertheless, I understand that a couple of years ago, the University of Minnesota came up with a rather unusual method to deter tree thieves on their campus.  Yeah.  In the middle of the night, some 20-year old trees were topped, while others were simply cut off at the base.   So the following year, the University came up with this interesting method to deter these midnight poachers.  

Their solution was to spray balsam firs, and scotch pines, and anything else that could pass for a Christmas tree – with skunk oil.  Cold weather masks the smell, but warm indoor air releases it.  The grounds superintendent agrees that they will probably still lose some trees, but there was also some satisfaction in knowing that it’s probably not going to work out the way the thieves think it will.  “OK, Dad, where’d you get THAT tree?”  Maybe spraying trees with skunk oil won’t stop a person from cutting down a tree that doesn’t belong to them, but it is highly likely that they just might give it a second thought the next time Christmas comes around.”

But this does raise the question.  Folks – how do you change human behavior?  Huh?  How do you do it?  Make the consequences so unpleasant that people never want to have such an experience again?  Maybe.  But we know that that doesn’t always work, otherwise why do so many people – once they are released from prison – why do they commit crimes again?  
Me thinks something more is needed.  Someone is needed.  Someone who can come into our lives.  Make a difference in our lives.  And that something – that someone – more is the One whose birth we remember – and celebrate – and give thanks for at this time of year.  

Our Gospel reading today is another episode in the story as we prepare for our Christmas celebration.  It is the announcement to Mary by the angel Gabriel that she will have a baby.  That the child within her will be conceived by the Holy Spirit.  She is to call his name Jesus.  And why Jesus?  Quite frankly, the name Jesus was a common name among first century Jews.  But still, it is a special name with a special meaning.  In the Hebrew language it means, “One who saves.”  So Jesus is a Savior – one who comes into the world to save.  

So the first thing I want you to see is that Jesus is a Savior.  But before he can be the Savior first – he must be born.  Born of a woman.  Born of Mary. I like how the Christian writer and pastor Max Lucado put it.  He says,

“The virgin birth is more, much more, than a Christmas story; it is a picture of how close Christ will come to you.  The first stop on his itinerary was a womb.  Where will God go to touch the world?  Look deep within Mary for an answer.”

And then he goes on to say, “Better still, look deep within yourself.  What he did with Mary, he offers to us!  He issues a Mary-level invitation to all his children.  ‘If you’ll let me, I’ll move in.”

And isn’t that what we ask Jesus to do when we sing that marvelous Christmas carol each year?  O Little Town of Bethlehem.  It’s in the last verse.  

O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels The great glad tidings tell;
Oh, come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel.

And by the way, that last word, Immanuel, is another name for Jesus, and it means God with – or – God is with us.

But isn’t that what we ask Jesus to do for us when we sing that song?  To come into our lives – our hearts – our homes.  Some wag once said that the biggest room in our house is the room for improvement.  I know you’re all doing the best you can.  Me too.  But there’s always room for growth.  For change.  For transformation.  Improvement.

I like the story of the boy who was baptized at age 5.  On the way home this little guy is crying in the back seat of the car.  His father is trying to find out what’s wrong, when finally the boy says, “The pastor says he wants me to be brought up in a Christian home.  But I want to stay with you guys!”

Hey!  There’s always room for improvement, right?  Sometimes the walk doesn’t always match the talk, now does it?  And, quite frankly, I include myself in that.  Where change is necessary – attitudes – habits – beliefs – whatever – I am here to tell you that Jesus comes to us – abides with us – in order to help make that change possible.  To help make it a reality. And that’s the second thing I want us to see today.

Back to Lucado.  He goes on to say “Christ grew in Mary until he had to come out.  Christ will grow in you until the same occurs.  He will come out in your speech, in your actions, in your decisions.  Every place you live will be a Bethlehem, and every day you live will be a Christmas.  You, like Mary, will deliver Christ into the world.”

Wow!  Now that’s what I’m talking about.  This thought – this fact – that Jesus grows in us – and that he will come out in our speech and in our actions and in our decision.  Quite frankly, it all begins when we invite Jesus to come in.  To quite literally be born in us.  

It’s like learning to live all over again.  A change of behavior – learned not from experiencing unpleasant consequences, but it’s about Jesus living within the juman heart.  Your hearts, and mine.  It’s like learning a new culture.  Learning a new language – some might call it the language of love and forgiveness.  It’s a new way of looking at the world.  Room for improvement?  You bet.  Man, I’ll tell you, Jesus wants everything.

So what happens when Jesus comes in today, in to stay?  When Jesus is born in us – when we are what the Bible calls born again – born of water and the Spirit – not only does Jesus start to grow in us – not only do we grow and change – we also take on a new identity.  
Let me share with you a story.  “One day when the Duke of Windsor was a boy of 8 or 9, he and his cousin the Duke of Wales were looking out the palace window at a group of street urchins who were throwing snowballs at each other. The two boys had been given orders not to go out and play with peasant children, but they couldn't stand the temptation. They dressed in their oldest clothes, slipped outside, and joined the snowball fight . . . they were having a great time until somebody broke a window in the palace.

“The group separated and ran, but one of the palace guards caught both of the young Dukes and one of the street boys. The one told the palace guard indignantly, "Let me go. Let me go. I'm the Duke of Windsor! And that's my cousin, the Duke of Wales." To which the guard replied, ‘Sure, sure,’ and turning to the street urchin, he asked, ‘And who might you be?’  The boy said, ‘I'm with me buddies. I'm the Archbishop of Canterbury.’”

So the first thing we see is that Jesus is our Savior.  The second thing is that God – Emmanuel is with us to change us.  And the third thing is that in Jesus, we have a new identity.  And it’s a different identity from the person we once were. Why?

Jesus was born of Mary, but he is born in us.  Sometimes – I know – it doesn’t look like it.  Sometimes we try to disguise ourselves as someone else.  But nevertheless, those who are in Christ and in whom Christ lives – belong to him.  Let me finish, turning once again to Max Lucado:

“He is in you.  You are a modern-day Mary.  Even more so.  He was a fetus in her, but he is a force in you.  He will do what you cannot.
     “Can’t stop drinking?  Christ can.  And he lives within you.
     “Can’t stop worrying?  Christ can.  And he lives within you.
     “Can’t forgive the jerk, forget the past, or forsake your bad habits?  Christ can!  And he lives within you.”iii


 i.Max Lucado, Next Door Savior, 2003.

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Monday, December 15 2014

I Thessalonians 5:16-24    

Is there anyone here today who has ever written a letter to Santa Claus?  Anybody?  Maybe you or someone in your house?  You know, sometimes those letters can be rather interesting.  Let me share with you a couple that I came across.      “Dear Santa:  Last year you didn’t leave me anything good.  The year before last year you didn’t leave me anything good.  Santa – this year is your last chance.”         “Dear Santa: My baby brother would like a cowboy suit.  Do you have any that come with diapers?”        “Dear Santa: In my house there are three boys.  Richard is two.  Jeffrey is four.  Norman is seven.  Richard is good sometimes.  Jeffrey is good sometimes.  Norman is good all the time.  Signed, Norman.”

    What an exciting time of the year this is!  Everyone – especially the kiddos – are just really getting excited, right?  

    For many of us older kids, it can be an exciting time too!  If nothing else, it certainly is a season for joy.  In spite of the stress that we talked about last week that so many of us experience in the process of “getting ready,” it is a most joyful time of the year, wouldn’t you agree?      This is a season of joy – and prayer – and giving thanks.  Listen again to what the Apostle Paul has to say about this in our reading from I Thessalonians.  “Rejoice always – pray without ceasing – give thanks in all circumstances – for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”   

    If you’ve ever wondered what God’s will for you is, I want you to listen.  However, this is not a message that’s going to tell you how to know what God’s will is for you when it comes to where you should live – or what school to go to – or what profession you should pursue – or what kind of car you should drive.  Nothing like that.   But it’s pretty clear to me anyway that God’s overall plan for you – God’s desire for you – and yes, let’s even say God’s will for your life – is that you learn what it means to “Rejoice always.  Pray without ceasing.  Give thanks in all circumstances.  For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

    I know sometimes that when we read the Bible, things aren’t always as clear as we would want them to be.  Which is one reason why I think Bible study is so important.  Some things can just be difficult to understand.  Sometimes we preachers can be difficult to understand!  

    But this reading from I Thessalonians is pretty clear.  So let’s start with “rejoice always.”  In every circumstance of your life – no matter where it is that you go, or what it is that you do – what God wants for you – is to rejoice always – or to say it another way – to live a life of joy.  Now – this being the third weekend in Advent – the weekend of joy – I want to spend a few moments on this.  
    I know that when I say the word, “joy,” some of you are thinking, “Joy?  What do I have to rejoice about?”  Some of you right now might be thinking things like:     “Randy, if only you knew what the doctor told me just this week.”    Or “Pastor, I hate my job.”  

   “My investments are going down the tube.”     “My parents are aging, and it’s a struggle.”     “My kids are rebellious – and it’s a struggle.”    “Pastor, I’m failing science.”    Or  “Gee – my arthritis is acting up again.”    And that litany of woes sometimes just goes on and on.  And yeah, sure, life is full of bad things.  There are no guarantees in life!  If it makes you feel any better – we all struggle – we all struggle with a wide variety of challenges – difficult moments from time to time.  So we’re all in this together.  

    But you say, “Oh, Pastor.  If only I could win the lottery.  If only I could strike it big – then I’d have something to rejoice about.”  Hey, listen!  If you DO win the lottery – I want to know about it.  And I’ll help you rejoice!  But if you’re waiting to strike it big in order to find joy in life – let me tell you – it’s probably not going to happen.  And most of those big lottery winners you hear about?  Studies have shown that years later, a majority of those big winners are miserable.  And in many cases it ruined their lives.

    And let me repeat at this point what I say so often.  There is a difference between being filled with joy – and being happy.  Winning the lottery might make you happy, for a while at least, but it won’t bring you joy.  Happiness depends on the right things happening to you.  Joy is something that comes from God. Joy is a gift from God and doesn’t come and go depending on whether good or bad things happen to you.  Joy is an attitude – a way of being – in spite of your circumstances.  Joy is something that touches your whole being – every part of who you are.

    Listen!  May I be so bold enough to say that joy is a gift from God.  So when it comes to my circumstances – regardless of what those circumstances might be – I can make a choice.  I can learn to rejoice always – OR I can choose to be bitter.  I can choose to be envious.  I can choose to be greedy.  I can choose to worry.  OR I can choose to accept the gift of joy from God.   I can choose to rejoice always.  Not easy!  I know that.  I am NOT saying that this is easy. But if it is true that I can choose my attitude – then I want to learn what it means to “rejoice always.”

         So what do you have to be joyful about?      – How about the presence of Jesus Christ in your life?     – How about the Holy Spirit at work in your life?     – How about the gift of the forgiveness of sins, and the promise of eternal life with God?     – How about that loving parent, that devoted spouse, that faithful friend?

     Joy comes from knowing that God is with you in all of your circumstances – both good and bad.  Joy does not depend only on things happening in your life that make you feel good.  Although it’s easier to be joyful when things are going well, I know that.  But joy does not have to disappear when the good times go away. Perhaps the one exception to all of this is if you or a loved one is suffering from clinical depression.  Then you need to see a professional.  After treatment, then you can work on restoring your joy.
    And then, Paul says to pray without ceasing.  Pray without ceasing does not mean talking to God through endless petitions.  In fact, at one point Jesus tells us to keep it short.  But he also tells us we can pray as often and as long we want.  Kind of like the PUSH method.  P-U-S-H.  Pray Until Something Happens.  PUSH!

    Let me suggest that to pray without ceasing is just being aware that we are always in the presence of God.  For instance – Nancy and I love to travel.  Sometimes we fly, and sometimes we drive.  We have driven cross country on several occasions.  You know – we’re kind of stuck there in the car with each other.  Sometimes we will talk for hours.  Other times we can ride for miles without saying a word.  But I am always aware that she is right there beside me.  

    To pray without ceasing is to be aware that God is with you all the time.  No matter where you go – no matter what you do.  And you can reach out to Him – and talk to Him – pray at anytime because God is always right beside you.  That’s what Paul is talking about when he says, “Pray without ceasing.”  

    The last thing Paul mentions here is to “Give thanks.”  Actually, he says “Give thanks in all circumstances.”  All circumstances?  Yeah, well.  Okay.  That doesn’t sound so easy.  

    Maybe what we need to do is to start with thanking God for the little things.  We usually have no problem thanking God for the big things – like the birth of a baby.  Like getting that promotion, or that pay increase.  Like acing that science test that you were sure you were going to flunk.

    But when we learn to start with the small things, giving thanks in all things comes a little easier.  Like that first sip of coffee or tea in the morning.  Like the first warm day of Spring.  Like a Bills victory over the Green Bay Packers.  Oh!  That would be a big thing, wouldn’t it!  But learning to give thanks for the small things develops a spirit of thanksgiving.  And that’s what Paul is talking about.

    You see, Paul is also a realist.  He is not saying that as disciples of Jesus Christ we are to ignore pain and sorrow.  No.  But what he is saying – at least this makes sense to me – what he is saying is to find a way to give thanks to God even within the pain and sorrow.  Even when you don’t feel like rejoicing – even when you don’t feel like praying – even when you don’t feel like giving thanks for anything.  I want to suggest to you that rejoicing – and praying – and giving thanks – even when you’re going through the most difficult of times – can make your circumstances better.

    Why?  Because no matter what happens to you – no matter what circumstances you find yourself in – you have a choice.  And I am NOT saying that the choice is easy – but the choice is this.  Am I going to allow my circumstances to make me bitter?  Or better?  Bitter or better?  Which would you rather choose?  Which would you rather be?

    So during this Advent season – as Christmas gets closer and closer – may I encourage you to choose your attitude – to the extent that you can.  Choose your attitude – Dude!  

    Rejoice always!  Choose joy!  Pray without ceasing.  Talk to God about anything at anytime.  And in all things, give thanks.  Amen

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Wednesday, December 10 2014

Mark 1:1-8

    How many of you remember the Marx Brothers?  In 1935, Groucho, Chico and Harpo made a movie called “A Night at the Opera.”  There is a moment in the film when Groucho and Chico are going over a contract.  And Chico says:

    “Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here? This thing here.”

    Groucho responds “Oh, that? Oh, that's the usual clause. That's in every contract. That just says uh, it says uh, ‘If any of the parties participating in this contract is shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.’”

    Chico.  “Well, I don't know...”

    Groucho.  “It's all right, that's, that's in every contract. That's, that's what they call a ‘sanity clause’”.

    Chico: “Ha ha ha ha ha! You can't fool me! There ain't no Sanity Clause!”

    It’s that time of year again.  And we’re ALL trying to maintain our sanity, right?  Am I right?  Maybe what we do need is a sanity clause – a contract with our families – our places of work – the schools – the shopping malls – a sanity clause that gives us a say in how we’re going to get ready for and celebrate what one song calls, “The most wonderful time of the year.”

    So here we are.  It’s early December, and already we’re in the second weekend of Advent.  And we’re busy.  And I think maybe Chico got it right.  At this time of year, there ain’t no sanity clause.  

    Therefore – I would like to make some suggestions.  Suggestions that just might help you maintain your sanity.  Because there is always so much to do.  And I think we put so much pressure on ourselves.  Each one of us – has these family rituals and traditions that we truly enjoy – rituals and traditions that help make this time of the year the truly wonderful time of the year that it is.  But sometimes – sometimes – it’s just a little overwhelming, don’t you think?

    We decorate.  We bake cookies that we don’t bake at any other time of the year.  Like those sprits cookies.  We search for the perfect gift for everyone on our list.  So there are presents to buy.  And wrap.  There are parties to attend.  Christmas cards to send and/or letters to write.  I usually write a Christmas letter every year.  But sometimes Nancy and I are so stressed for time that it comes out after Christmas.  When that happens, we call it an Epiphany letter.

    And did I mention cookies?  Especially those sprits cookies.  You know.  Some are red.  Some are green, and some are just plain.  Did I also mention that neither Nancy nor I bake?  But Nancy loves to decorate.  I don’t really….you know… get into that.   AND much to my delight – I mean much to our dismay – we won’t be setting up our Advent tree this year that on the fourth Sunday of Advent morphs into a Christmas tree.  You see, last year, last year in October, our son Matthew brought home a dog.  Last year this dog ate the ornaments – the glass ornaments – well, she chewed them into pieces – right off our tree!  What a mess!  So this year we’re sparing the dog – and saving our ornaments – at least the ones we have left. No tree.  

    Hey, listen!  We all have our rituals and traditions.  But when it comes to your traditions, I want to know, what stresses you out?  Do you set sky-high expectations?  You know – the Norman Rockwell perfect picture.  The perfect tree?  The perfect greeting card?  The perfect table setting?  The perfectly behaved kids?  Okay, well, we’ll let that one slide.

    Holiday stress.  We all experience it.  Just about every year I devote one Advent sermon to the subject of holiday stress.  And this is it.  So I would like to make a few suggestions.  I gleaned these from a much longer list, and added my own comments.  And please know that these are just suggestions that just might help you to reduce stress AND maintain your sanity.  Let’s call it a top ten holiday stressors list.  They’re in no particular order.

       1.    Do you tend to spend too much?  Let me suggest that you set a budget and stick to it.  A source I read says that two         thirds of Americans rank money as the number one holiday stressor.  Listen! You don’t have to go overboard on gifts.  You don’t have to buy everything that’s on everybody’s lists.  Just set a budget – and then stick to it.  
       2.    Do you find yourself over-booking things?  Make a schedule, and stick to it.  Get out your calendar.  Mark down what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it – where you’re going to go – and what events you’re willing to participate in. Sitting down to write out a schedule like that alone is enough to stress some of you out – I know – but it just might help.
       3.    Do you agonize over gift giving? I do.  I do.  And at the risk of sounding like a Scrooge, Nancy and I for the past several years have chosen not to exchange gifts with each other.  It still doesn’t feel quite right, but it has relieved a lot of stress for both of us.  So IF you agonize over finding the perfect gift – let me share with you one of my favorite admonitions to gift giving that goes like this.  “Buy something they want.  Something they need.  Something to wear.  Something to read.”
       4.    Do you find yourself eating too much?  Especially all those sprits cookies I mentioned before?  I know I tend to overeat.  Especially all of those cookies so many of you send me every year – because you know that Nancy and I don’ bake.  Anyway – overeating is a big stressor.  Sugar is a big problem.  And then we make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight – and of course – you know how successful that is every year.  And when we don’t keep our New Year’s resolutions, what do we get?  More stress!
       5.    Do you say yes to every single party?  Every year, it seems like everybody has a party during the holiday season – your office, your parents, your neighbor down the street.  Feel free to pick and choose.  These things are great to go to – you know – you get to eat somebody else’s cookies.  But they do make demands on our time that quite frankly – if we let them – can add to holiday stress.  
       6.    Number six naturally follows the party stressor, and that is the tendency at these parties – sometimes – sometimes to drink too much.  Just remember, you don’t have to be the life of the party.  Just saying.  
       7.    Do you let family drama get the best of you?  Do family members push your buttons?  You can’t control what they do or say, but you are in control of how you react.  So stay away from sensitive subjects.  If you have to – go to a different room.  OR – I have advised people to do this – just don’t go.  Just don’t go if year after year being with certain others adds to your holiday stress.  I know – easier said than done – and I’ll probably get emails about this one – but don’t let family drama ruin things for you.
      8.    Do you do things this time of year because you want to do them – again, decorating, baking, going to parties, sending Christmas cards, Christmas shopping – or do you do these things because others pressure you into things you would prefer not to do?   Or you THINK that everyone else expects you to do certain things, because you know, it just wouldn’t be Christmas if YOU didn’t do them?  Set some boundaries for yourself.  Because this one leads to number 9.
       9.    Do you try to do it all yourself?  Folks, I have no data to back me up on this, but I suspect that a major cause of holiday stress just might be when you try to do everything by yourself.  This can lead to burnout.  Let others help you.  Maybe even insist – asking nicely, of course – that they help you.  Did I say something about remembering to ask nicely?  And you know what?  Knowing how to ask others to help – and actually getting them to help – can be a great way to connect and build fellowship and maybe even have a little fun.  Which is really what we all want anyway.
       10.    Number ten is a tough one.  This time of year can be a painful reminder of loved ones who are no longer with us.  Especially if this is the first or second year without them.  Rather than trying NOT to think about them – let me suggest that you honor them.  Share a happy memory – or tell a funny story about them.  “Remember that time…?”  Or simply propose a toast.  I know.  It’s not always easy.   

    So these are some of the things that – though we love to do them – can also add a lot of stress to our lives.  And although none of them come with a sanity clause – I do want you to work at keeping your sanity.  

    And here’s the thing.  When you take all of these things – and you add them together – there can be a danger that our focus on these things is so great that we just might lose sight of the big picture.  Sometimes we get so distracted by all of these other things that we lose sight of the big picture.  

    I want to suggest that if there isn’t already – that there ought to be one reason and one reason only to keep all of these family traditions and rituals.  Bear in mind that these are tools – tools to help us keep the main thing the main thing.  At least that’s what they ought to be.  And it’s my job during this Advent/Christmas season – to encourage you to keep the main thing the main thing.  

    Do you remember what I said last week? Advent is a celebration.
     •    Advent is a celebration of what has been. Jesus Christ born into the world.  
     •    Advent is a celebration of what is yet to come.  Christ will come again.  
     •    AND – Advent is a celebration of the Christ who comes to us right here, right now.  

    That’s the main thing.  This whole season is about Jesus.  And I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”  But I would add to that that WE are the reason for the season.  It’s all about what God has done – is doing – and will do through His Son Jesus Christ – for US and for our salvation.  And yeah – not only is that the main thing – it’s kind of a big thing.   

    So remember that our focus is on Jesus.  And all of those traditions – the lights, music, parties, manger scenes, cookies, family gatherings – all of those things that we wouldn’t want to do without – they don’t mean a thing if we don’t keep the main thing the main thing.  

    The coming of the Savior.  Jesus our Immanuel – which means God is with us.  God and sinners reconciled.  This is the main thing.  The heart of our celebration – the heart of our message.      Amen

Posted by: AT 11:20 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, December 01 2014

Mark 13:24–37
    As most of you know, my mother is in a nursing home up in Lewiston.  She has a dementia that has been brought on by a series of strokes.  I make an effort to visit with her every Friday.  I go at noon so that I can feed her her lunch.  Well – I go and I try to feed her her lunch.   She almost always refuses – refuses – to eat anything – although the staff assures me that every morning she eats her breakfast.  But that’s about it.

    At the table where I try to feed my mother sits a woman with Alzheimer’s.  I think most of you know – or at least have an idea – what a dreadful thing dementia of any kind is.  This other woman was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when she was in her mid-60’s.  Her husband George visits her every day – three times a day – to feed his wife.  And unlike my mother – Elizabeth will eat everything on her plate.  Everything.

    It has been at least 5 years since Elizabeth was first diagnosed.  And when George was no longer able to take care of her at home – he placed her first in an assisted living facility – interestingly enough the same one my mother started out in – and then finally to this nursing home.

    George and I talk to each other because neither my mother nor his wife can carry on a conversation.   So I’ve learned a lot about George, and he about me.  When I told him I was a Lutheran pastor he said, “We’re Lutherans.  But we haven’t been to church in years.”  And he said, “Tell me Randy.  How can there be a God who allows this to happen.  It’s so unfair.”  And I said, “I understand.  Your hopes and your dreams for this time in your life was for travel and enjoying life as a retired couple.  This is not what you had hoped for.  This is not what you were expecting.  I get that.”

    Now, George had had the same conversation with my sister.  And when George talked about how unfair this was, and how could there be a God who allows this to happen, do you know what my sister told him?  She said, “This is not God’s fault.  It is not anybody’s fault.  But these things happen because we live in a sinful world where bad things happen.”  I was so proud of her.  And I told my sister, “That’s the same thing that I told George.”

    Folks – I gotta tell ya – I gotta tell you something you already know.  There are no guarantees in life.  Some of you are going through – or have gone through – times of darkness – maybe even great darkness – in your life.  Times when life just doesn’t seem fair.  And if you haven’t – the chances are real good that someday you will.  

    Now – aren’t you glad you came to church today?  Isn’t that exactly what you came here to hear?  Hey!  Let me also tell you something else.  It is precisely because we live in a fallen world – precisely because life doesn’t always seem fair – when we go through those times of darkness – times that are totally beyond our control – at those times when we need God the most – those are the times that God comes to us.  

    Listen!  I’m here to tell you today that God is on a mission.  God’s got a plan.  In fact – God’s whole purpose in coming to us and making Himself know to us in the person of His Son Jesus Christ – is to rescue us from those times – from those unexpected events – when life just doesn’t seem fair.      

    Now you know that Christmas is just a few weeks away.  I hope you also know that what we celebrate at Christmas – the birth of the Christ-child – is a major event in God’s rescue plan.  And any talk about Christmas ultimately leads to talk about getting ready.  
    So we’re in this season called Advent.  It’s a time of getting ready.  And for those of you who were here a few weeks ago – when my sermon focused on the parable of the five wise and the five foolish maidens – I finished that message by inviting you to get ready – to be ready – and to stay ready.  If you didn’t write it down the first time – write it down now.  There will be a test.  As disciples of Jesus Christ – we need to get ready – to be ready – and to stay ready.

    And that’s pretty much what this season of Advent is all about.  That pretty much is what Jesus is telling us again today in our Gospel reading when he tells us to keep awake.  

    But just what in the world are we really getting ready for?  Glad you asked.
•    Advent is a celebration of what has been. Jesus Christ born into the world.  
•    Advent is a celebration of what is yet to come.  Christ will come again.  
•    AND – Advent is a celebration of the Christ who comes to us right now.  

    Folks – Jesus comes to you right now.  Right here.  Right where you are.  No matter what’s going on in your life right now.  Maybe things for you couldn’t be better right now.  Jesus comes to you right where you are.  Maybe you’re thinking right now that life just doesn’t seem fair. Christ comes to you right where you are.

    Now – our Gospel lesson today focuses on the second Advent – or the second coming – of Christ.  And since we don’t know when that’s going to be – we wait.    Let me repeat that.  We wait – with hope and expectation.  We wait for the Savior to return.  And we get ready – to be ready – in order to stay ready – by living a life of repentance that leads to forgiveness.  

    We get ready and we stay ready by being the kind of people that God is calling us to be – living the kind of lives that God is calling us to live – lives that reflect the light of Christ in our hearts and our lives – making a difference in the lives of others for the sake of Jesus Christ.  

    Why?  Because I know that you know – that we are in need of a Savior.  Believers as well as non-believers.  Believers are in need of a Savior because sometimes life is not fair.  And we need Jesus to walk with us.  And we need a Savior – because we are sometimes prone to wander.  Sometimes we run away from God.  Or we choose to stay away.  SO we are always in need of a Savior.  We are always in need of the Good News.   

    And non-believers are in need of the Gospel too.  There is a whole world out there that needs to hear that there is a better way.  There is a whole world out there that needs to hear that their wait for a Savior can be over.  

    Maybe you’re here [tonight] [this morning] and you’re skeptical about this church stuff.  This God thing – this whole Jesus thing called Christmas.  Maybe you don’t see the reason.  Or the need.  Maybe you’re thinking “How can there be a God when life is so unfair?”  But let me tell you something.  Nowhere in the Scriptures do we hear Jesus saying, “Come, follow me and be my disciple, and all of your problems will go away.”  Has anybody here ever read anything like that in the Bible?  No.  Neither have I.  But what does Jesus say?  Just before he ascended into heaven – as he is saying goodbye to his disciples – what does he say?  “Remember this.  I am with you – some of the time.”  No?  “I am with you once in awhile.”  No?  He didn’t say that?  So what did he say?  Say it with me.  “I am with you – always.”  Yes.  You know that.  

    Folks – let me tell you something.  Life isn’t fair.  And all those bad things that happen – especially those things over which we have no control – is because of the presence of sin and evil in the world.  We live in a fallen world.  That’s why bad things happen.  And not necessarily because you’ve sinned and God’s getting back at you. No.  I’m a firm believer that God’s not mad at you.  Let me say it again. God’s not mad at you.  But bad things – unfair things happen because there is evil in the world.  And that’s the reason why God comes to us.  And because bad things happen – God has a rescue plan.  God is on a rescue mission.

    Listen!  Let me tell you the fascinating story of Marie Kreassman. Marie Kreassman was a Polish Jew who, during WWII, was rounded up along with thousands of others, and put to work on the German war machine, in forced labor. She was sent to the Volkswagen factory, that at that time was making Tiger Tanks. She was pregnant and soon gave birth to her baby boy. The child was immediately taken away and sent to the Volkswagen Children’s Home. She never knew what happened to him; she was never allowed to visit.

    One night in desperation she snuck out of the camp and hiked the eight miles to the children’s home. If she were caught, it would have meant instant death. She found her child and she hardly recognized him. He was skin and bones. She kidnapped her own child and literally walked away from the home and never came back and, remarkably she was never caught. Of the 300 children who entered the Volkswagen Children’s Home, this one child survived. Over the years, the child Vladimir Kreassman and his mother Marie have been interviewed many times to tell their incredible story.

    Folks – that was a rescue mission. In the midst of tremendous evil – that was a rescue mission.  And something very much like that is what God is up to.  It’s the whole reason why He sent His Son Jesus Christ into the world.  It’s the whole reason why there is a Christmas and why we celebrate the birth of the Christ-child every year at this time.  It’s part of God’s plan.  God’s rescue plan.  And let me tell you something.  There is no other plan.  There is no other Savior.  

    And that is precisely why God’s rescue plan – God’s rescue mission –  is made possible.  It is made possible through the birth – through the life, the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ.  God has come to save us – from our own sinfulness – from those times when things look dark – and when life just doesn’t seem fair.  I am a firm believer that when Jesus promises to be with us – when life just doesn’t seem fair – he is there to walk with us – and if necessary to carry us – and to help us rise above those dark periods of our lives.

    So as we prepare – as we get ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus some 2000 years ago – and as we prepare and get ready for that time when He will come again – may I alert you to the fact that Jesus comes to you.  Right here.  Right now.  In this place.  
    In the darkness – into your darkness – there is a light that shines.  The Savior of the world has come.  His name is Jesus.  Amen

Posted by: AT 10:36 am   |  Permalink   |  Email

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