Sunday, December 23, 2018

...In God Our Savior

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
December 23, 2018
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts: Luke 1: 39-55

This could be the most beautiful lines of poetry written in Holy Scripture. Very similar to Hannah’s song in First Samuel. I guess some people might prefer Psalm 23, the Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want. Scripture has quite a bit of beautiful poetry, and this poem, Mary’s Magnificat stands out.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,”

That we could all proclaim that with even half of the truth that applies here to Mary. That by our behaviors people would look at us and say God is great.

"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior."

Our worship this December has strived to make Advent point to the arrival of Christ our Savior. And I hope, I sincerely hope, that you approach these next twelve days of Christmas rejoicing in God as the one who saves and rescues you. Christ who lifts you up out of the waters like a lifeguard saving you when you are in over your head.

I could go through the Magnificat verse by verse like a school poetry exposition paper, but I won’t. 

But listening to these words again this year, I cannot help but notice the idealism of a fourteen year old girl.

Maybe fourteen, maybe sixteen years old. You cannot know for sure, but the best guesses over the year has Mary as a teenager. And if any other teenager expressed to you these images, you might just pat her on the head and tell her what a nice dream that is. Dreams and reality often clash in the realm of truth.

He has scattered the proud… maybe

He has filled the hungry with good things… okay at times.

and sent the rich away empty… not often.

Against such frankness, a young girl’s vision, her dream, her words, and her idealism has become gospel truth—not just gospel truth but beloved gospel truth. And it is the power of the Christ child insider her womb, that allows her older more experienced kinswoman Elizabeth to embrace Mary’s words and say Amen. Elizabeth recognizes these words as hope, precious hope, for her people. Two pregnant women who in coming together recognize that precious (that precious) saving activity of God in the world. Christ makes hope real.

Because the Magnificat, Mary’s words are not about the reality that surrounds Mary but the hope that fills her. Luke in words of poetry and beauty recognizes that a young girl’s idealism has given expression to our hope for the world. Which is to say a young girl’s idealism has given expression to your hope for the world. Mary sees the world not as it might be, but she sees the world as God intended. Through the Christ child Mary becomes the intersection of the Kingdom as God intends and the reality of the world as it is. Christ makes both real together.

We hope in a world where God lifts up the lowly and humbles those in power. Thanks be to Christ.

We hope for a world where the hungry receive good things to eat and those who have plenty are left to their self-dependence. Thanks be to Christ.

We hope for a world where Mary’s compassion gives expression in words to a reality we all crave. Thanks be to Christ

From the beginning of time, Jesus has seen the heavenly kingdom as the creator intended. Then he is born into this world that is not as the creator intended. The world is beautiful and graceful how everything works together like a finely tuned clock. But Jesus sees the sand in the gears, the chinks and the brokenness that you and I also see.

Philip Yancey talks about this in both of the two lessons that we have studied of his. How Jesus lived in both heaven and earth, he came to earth knowing both. Earth is not heaven, but where Jesus is on earth, the kingdom of heaven has arrived and through his ministry he makes the kingdom of heaven real now. The kingdom of heaven is like a surprise party and the party might begin before the birthday boy arrives, but the party begins in earnest when the birthday boy arrives. 

Our Sunday school class will begin again January 13 when we will begin to look at prayer in worship, which is to say corporate prayer. And our practice of using prayer to express a vision of the kingdom of heaven

Christ knows the heavenly kingdom that God intends, and yet comes to earth that falls short, way short of that kingdom ideal. You who read the stories of Christ, the gospel narratives, know how Jesus helps bring about that kingdom now to the people around him. He teaches and he heals, and he raises from the dead and he praises the humble and the downtrodden. All of this makes hope for a better world real. 

And that hope for the arrival of the Messiah begins in the prophecy of the Hebrew scriptures and that hope gains fulfillment in Mary’s pregnancy. Jesus earthly ministry begins with a message of hope. Jesus ministry begins in Mary where His heavenly presence and the earthly realm first come together in Mary. And Jesus gospel truth and heavenly future have full presence in that young pregnant girl.

One day, Jesus will return and the heavenly kingdom will come to all of God’s creation. Perhaps you can practically taste it. Perhaps you can imagine it, dream it. Advent lives in that anticipation of the kingdom made real. And where Jesus compassion intersects in our lives, we have a glimpse of that world now. In ministry, in worship, in scripture devotions and prayer.

And in a very real way, Jesus life intersects in the world through Mary, and her hope endures still today. From that moment, the kingdom of God comes to the world through the child born to Mary. Such hope and such heavenly reality goes beyond Mary and comes to you. As Jesus lives in us, in you, hope lives in the world.

Your soul magnifies the Lord,
and your spirit rejoices in God your savior,
for he has looked with favor on t
the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations 
will call you blessed;
For the Mighty One has done great things for you
and Holy is His name.


Sunday, December 16, 2018

A Prophet Needs People

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
December 16, 2018
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts: Philippians 4: 4-7   Luke 3: 7-18

Salvation comes to us in two acts: The first act is the birth and life of Jesus the Messiah. The second act is the death and resurrection of Christ. And the prelude to this divine drama is John the Baptist in the wilderness.

John the Baptist gets away from it all. He moves to the wilderness. The middle of a rock barren desert. He eats simple foods: locusts and wild honey. He wears uncomfortable clothing.  The food—locusts and wild honey along with anything made of camel’s hair marks him as a prophet. And a prophet needs people to listen to him. Rather than being like the prophet Amos who goes to where the people are only to have the people in power say get out of here when they heard the harsh words of Amos.

John the Baptist gets away from it all. He moves to the wilderness. The middle of a rock barren desert. It reminds me of Jonah. A prophet needs people, God tells Jonah, “go to Ninevah.” Jonah says “No, I am catching a boat in the other direction.” Guess what, a prophet needs people. The boat has people, Jonah and God convert people on the boat.

John has a message for all to hear and Jerusalem lies at the crossroads of the known world. Jerusalem lies on the map where Europe and Asia and Africa intersect. There is Jerusalem and a whole lot of people, more than a boatload of people up on the hill in that city and John goes into the wilderness. Maybe God sent John to the wilderness.

You want to get away. Where would you go to get away from it all? How about Nome Alaska?

With a population of 3700 to 3800 and a high temperature on Wednesday of 6 degrees, but a forecasted high temperature for today of -13 degrees.

On Friday evening, Bishop Humphrey and Alaskan Bishop Shelley Wickstrom ordained Melissa May into the ministry of Word and Sacrament. She will serve Our Savior Lutheran Church in Nome Alaska. I have Pastor May in my prayers right now. I know I digress a bit, but her going reminds us that the word of Christ has reached some wilderness places and God sends pastors into those places. So maybe, probably God sent John into the wilderness. In case you are wondering, the ELCA has congregations further north in Alaska.

God sends John into the wilderness and then, because a prophet needs people, God sends people to John. A prophet has a message from God for the people. And John speaks a message of justice and a message of repentance and a message of baptism to prepare the way for one who is coming who is greater. The one who is coming, the one greater than John, he will go up to Jerusalem. That means for now, the people come to the wilderness where John speaks to them a message of justice.

John has a message of justice for the crowd and others who gathered, including apparently tax collectors and soldiers.

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Granted, justice has other facets, but most of us are not worried about committing murder or adultery or other acts of gross illegality. Justice for John looks like the poor are cared for: food, clothing, shelter. Justice for John and for God means you do not take more than what is prescribed, your fair share, and along with that you are satisfied with what you have. We could all live in that world, maybe. But…

That pause, that “maybe,” that “but,” that uncertainty leads to repentance. Because I am fairly certain that some people baptized by John the Baptist had a second coat and did not give it away. And I would imagine that some tax collectors baptized by John the Baptist still collected more taxes than prescribed by Rome. Likewise, I tell you that some of the soldiers baptized by John the Baptist still grumbled about their wages and maybe even collected some extra benefits through intimidation. Probably others besides the soldiers grumbled about their wages not thinking that the message of John was actually a message from God for all of them. Because if everyone did what John told them to do, we would not need salvation and John might just be the Messiah. 

I say this neither to denigrate nor diminish the Baptist or his ministry. I say this to confront the reality of the end of the gospel passage. That John is not the Messiah. And just like a prophet needs people to listen. A Messiah needs people to save.

Which brings us to the second part of the Baptists message: Bear fruits worthy of repentance. In this the Baptist reminds those waiting for justice not to just live in their sin and wait for salvation. That would be like sitting in a burning building waiting for the fire department to come or lying on the bottom of a lake waiting for the lifeguard to find you. Strive for a world that lives in the justice that God intends. Bear fruit. Because even without John you have a good idea what compassion and justice looks like.

Finally, just like a prophet needs people to listen, a savior needs people to save and laying in the waters of baptism is like placing a sign in your window that says save me.

When I was young, the fire company handed out to our community “Tot Finder” stickers, which you would place in the windows of young children who might not be able to get themselves out in the event of a fire. A sticker that said, look here and save me.  By living in your baptism, you recognize your need to be saved. The one who is greater, the Messiah, the Christ is the one who pulls you up out of the waters. The one greater saves you from drowning. You need a savior and not just you. The world needs a savior. 

Guess what, fire companies in my childhood town of Fleetwood stopped handing out those tot finder stickers. I asked why once and was told that the fire companies goal is to get everyone out of the building. When they get to a fire call they hope to see a family gathered together on a neighbor’s lawn. They hope to hear that everyone is out. Because if anyone is in the building, they will go and get them. 

Rescue, Salvation comes to us in two acts. Today, just like every Sunday, serves as a prelude to Salvation that comes to us when Christ arrives. We hear the call for justice and the invitation to bear fruits worthy of that justice, to repent and recognize our need for our savior and to live out that need through our baptism. 

Bless be God and the Christ who lifts us up and saves us.


Monday, December 10, 2018

Prayerful Anticipation

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA

December 9, 2018
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts: Philippians 1: 3-11   Luke 3: 1-6

We live in a time of prayerful anticipation.

I had to say “prayerful anticipation” rather than just “anticipation.” The word anticipation for my generation might be defined by a television commercial for Heinz ketchup.

Americans 39 years old and younger might not remember when Heinz ketchup came in glass bottles rather than squeeze bottles.  You would hold these glass bottles at 45 degree angles and just wait for the ketchup to come out. And you would wait. And if you held the bottle straight up and down the ketchup would never come out because air would never work it’s way into the bottle. So you are there holding the bottle shaking the bottle trying to get the bottle of ketchup started. Waiting. Anticipation.

The frustration was so universal that Heinz made a commercial about it. A woman would sing “anticipation very slowly for 30 seconds while we watched a slow motion image of a ketchup bottle not pouring out ketchup. And for the last 5 seconds of the commercial the first drop of ketchup is just hanging there on the lip of the bottle before falling off in the last second of the spot. Waiting. Anticipation.

Heinz used our universal frustration with their product to sell more of their product. Now people just squeeze and shoot ketchup on to their hamburgers and hotdogs and scrambled eggs and french fries.  The tagline back in the 1970s was: the taste that’s worth the wait. Now you don’t have to wait for much, not even ketch-up. And yet...

We live in a time of prayerful anticipation.

Actually, of course, prayerful anticipation might not escape all that far from the anticipation ketch-up advertisement.  Right. You may have had prayer requests for God that placed you in a state of waiting. Where you waited, waited, and waited some more. Maybe you are still waiting for God to respond? To a prayer you first offered years ago.

We have talked about that in the Prayer Study that we have undertaken. That is always one of the challenges of prayer, recognizing the response of God, because some times God responds in ways that we do not anticipate. Sometimes the answer is not the answer we want to hear. Prayer and patience go together as do prayer and persistence. Through our prayer life we learn to live in anticipation of God reaching out to us. Waiting.

We live in a time of prayerful anticipation.

The same could be said about the Apostle Paul and his friends in the Church of Philippi. “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Turns out Paul gave God quite a long time frame for getting something done—until the end of time, the formal beginning of eternity.

We live as well in that time of prayerful anticipation, even though the return of Christ is not what holds our bated breath in anticipation right now. Maybe that is our mistake; maybe we should live in that prayerful anticipation of that moment, but boy, how long would you have to hold that ketchup bottle to get to the day of Christ. Christ comes again. Trust me.  Still, you would have to leave that ketchup bottle in your last will and testament to someone like a grandchild. And they, likely, would have to include that ketchup bottle in their last will and testament. Of course I do not mean an actual ketchup bottle, but a statement of faith, “I Robert McCarty of sound mind and body hold onto the faith of Christ and ask all who read this and hear this to hold onto the faith of Christ as well. He is coming again. Trust me.”

Paul said it better, more affirming to you who are listening, or reading. “I am confident that the one—”The One, capital T, capital O. The One God will bring it to completion. You ain’t complete yet, but you will be by the day of Christ.

We live in prayerful anticipation of Christmas Day, of course. What do you need to make Christmas Day complete? What family member, what gift, what tradition, what special holiday food? We understand anticipation from many of our holidays. Anticipate Christmas, Anticipate Birthdays, Anticipate the end of winter. Some things we anticipate with excitement and joy, and other moments we anticipate with a certain kind of dread. Oh no not again. 

But Paul here talks of this anticipation with the joy akin to what children experience in the pending arrival of Christmas Day. Children know something about Paul’s joyful anticipation.

What I love about Paul’s anticipation is that he does not anticipate the arrival of the day so much. What he anticipates is how the coming of that day will change his friends. How the anticipation, the preparation, the watching, the praying the trusting will change his friends for the better. More gentle and welcoming, more generous and kind, more graceful and willing to forgive. 

I see the same here with you. In the passing of time and the growing of faith, God brings to completion in you what He began in Christ Jesus: generosity and gentleness, hope and faith, compassion and grace. That and a bit of snow makes for a joy-filled worship.


Monday, December 3, 2018

The Two High Festivals of Advent

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
December 2, 2018
Pastor Robert McCarty

The Two Festivals of Advent

Preaching Texts: Jeremiah 33: 14-16   Luke 21: 25-36

Our theme for this Advent is that we prepare for two festivals. As we prepare for Christmas, we also prepare for Easter. So I have four Easter Eggs set aside, one each for the four weeks of Advent. Today, however, this first Sunday in Advent one of the two festivals that we celebrate anticipates the second coming of Christ. 

I hope you have noticed—because I have tried to point it out to you—how the Advent season begins the way that the November church year ends. With images of the end of times—some people understand end times to mean that eternity begins when time becomes meaningless. Eternity begins when there is no more day or night, there is no more months or seasons, no more birth or death. The end of time begins when the prophecy of Christ’s return is fulfilled. Last week I talked about how the cross marks the intersection between the heavenly kingdom and the earthly realm. The end of time begins when heaven descends upon earth—that is a Revelation image not that we ascend to heaven but heaven comes to us. The Kingdom of God finally reigns on earth, and that the way of God and Christ finally arrives on earth.

This moment has not yet occurred, but such a moment will surely come. 

And scripture gives us two ways to anticipate such a moment, perhaps three. The first that you hear today, we anticipate the coming return of Christ by things that knock us off our feet. 

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, (celestial signs that cannot be explained—cataclysmic) and on earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint (There it is knocked off their feet, just like the soldiers outside of Jesus tomb when the angel rolled away the stone.) from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

Other passages talk about earthquakes and wars and threats of war. What knocks you off your feet? Physical violence, of course, perhaps accidental, run into a door frame in the darkness of the night while trying to find your way to the bathroom. Lightning, when I was lifeguard, we cleared the pool for thunder. Because it was not raining the lifeguards, myself included were milling about the pool area, a bolt of lightning hit nearby, it must have been outside the fence, but close, and I found myself on the ground it was that close. What else knocks you off your feet: Bad news or a bad diagnosis that causes us to swoon, to faint, to buckle our knees and make you sit down.

A stark reality that most of you have faced already. People who love have to deal with loss and grief. And to this reality of time fading or coming to an end and our being knocked off our feet, Jesus gives this instruction. “Lift up your heads, for your redemption is drawing near.”

Often, so often, too often we hear stories of the end time in terms of judgment. Sun, stars and moons signify cosmic events taking place and we anticipate a voice getting too close the microphone and saying DOOM and GLOOM and JUDGMENT. This passage in Luke invites you to respond with confidence and to recognize in the coming times redemption, your redemption and more importantly the redemption of fulfillment of the kingdom of God here on earth.

Signs of that fulfillment is the second sign that scripture hints would have us look for to recognize what Jesus Christ has done, is doing, and will do. 

During the Advent season we always get John the Baptism in the wilderness. We actually have a reading without Jesus except that John that Baptism points to the one coming who is great than I am. The reading about John the Baptist that we do not get, that perhaps we should takes place when John sits in prison, arrested by Herod and ponders what he hears about his cousin Jesus. So John sends messengers to Jesus who ask for him, “Are you the one or are we to await for another?”

And Jesus responds

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers[c] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Just like stars and moons, earthquakes and cosmic events, these overlooked blessings that come upon everyday people like you and me are also signs of the heavenly kingdom arriving here on earth. Think of watching a person walk after being laid up in a wheel chair—a sign of things to come. Think of when you heard of someone being resuscitated, perhaps by CPR or by the artificial defibrillator units that you see about in public these days, or by rescue workers or doctors in an emergency room. Also [this is] a sign of things to come, death defeated, the heavenly kingdom in our midst. The poor have good news brought to them. Merry Christmas. We want the poor to know that Christ came 2,000 years ago and that Christ will come again. These events have also become cosmic signs and the easiest one for us to anticipate and participate in is the care of the poor.

Perhaps, just perhaps someday someone will receive a third sign of the coming end times, that an old man or a widow—like Simeon or Anna in the second Chapter of Luke— will be told that they will not die without beholding the coming of the Lord. I thought of that this week as I went and visited a few of our homebound members. I thought of Anna waiting diligently in the temple—"Serving God with fastings and prayers day and night” is how Luke describes it. I thought of the faithful service of some on our now homebound members and recognized that we can also view their faith as a sign of the coming of the Lord. We call that the wisdom of our elders, and that wisdom has sustained them for decades and sustains you as well.

Remember these signs, for Jesus tells us there will be signs. 

“Signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”

“What you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

“And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.”

“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”