Joy at Christmas – Sermon for December 21, 2014

Joy at Christmas

Philippians 4:4-9

Third Sunday in Advent

December 21, 2014

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

             It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go.  The trees and wreaths are up in the church.  The lights are on houses and businesses, and giant inflatable snowmen wave at you as you drive down the street.  Christmas cards are arriving in the mail.  But nowhere is it more apparent that Christmas is just around the corner than it is on TV.  Commercials have been glittered with snow and reindeer for six weeks now.  PBS has been airing their annual assortment of Christmas concerts and holiday themed musical variety shows.  Broadcasts are flooded with candy canes and silver lanes aglow.  Yes, Christmas is in the air, which means the annual return of Christmas movies.  Every January they get hopelessly buried at the bottom of the DVD shelf only to burst forth like a Phoenix from its own ashes come Thanksgiving.  I like Christmas movies.  I may not sit and watch the Hallmark Christmas movie marathon, but I do watch Christmas movies with my family.  There are several that have become staples in our home because we watch them every year.  My kids are partial to the Tim Allen Santa Clause trilogy, and, of course, the classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer stop-motion movie.  And while I do enjoy some of the more recent additions to the canon of Christmas cinema, like Elf, classics like White Christmas are part of our holiday tradition A-Christmas-Story-a-christmas-story-5084366-640-480too.  But for all the options available, no Christmas movie could ever replace the special place in my heart held by little Ralphie and his Official Red Ryder carbine action turbo shot range model air rifle.  I have been watching A Christmas Story at Christmas for as long as I can remember.  For me, that movie is as much a necessary part of Christmas as candy canes and Christmas trees.

But it’s another Christmas movie that I thought of when I was meditating on the readings for today, one that considers Christmas from a different perspective.  You see, A Christmas Story is told through the eyes of a child.  It is all about the wonder and fantasy that children associate with such a magical day.  As Ralphie says, Christmas is the day around which the entire kid year revolves.  Kids love Christmas – the presents, the time away from school, the excitement and anticipation of wondering what will be waiting under the tree this year, the joy of waking up to see the neatly wrapped packages and a stocking bulging with goodies.

But as we get older, Christmas tends to lose some of its magic.  Maybe not all, but definitely some.  That’s why I as I was piecing together my thoughts on the words of the Apostle Paul I thought of the Griswalds and their Christmas Vacation.  I think it is a movie that adults and parents can identify with, for although it too reflects on the magic of Christmas, it does so with the realization that the Christmas we picture in our heads is seldom the one we actually experience.  In that movie, the dad of the family has grand visions of what family Christmas will look like, and what he pictures is something you’d see printed on a postcard, something straight out of Better Homes & Gardens, complete with fire blazing in the fireplace while the family is joyfully gathered together singing Christmas carols.  But in reality, when his parents and in-laws arrive, they constantly 204_1bicker.  He doesn’t get his Christmas bonus.  His Christmas tree catches on fire.  The turkey is way overcooked.  The whole holiday is a comedy of errors, which makes for a funny movie, but also touches on what might be the dirty little secret about Christmas – as well as all holidays.

For many people, the holidays are not especially filled with cheer.  For many people, the holidays are a time filled with grief and pain.  I think of the loved ones of the 20 names we had on our banner this year for All Saints Day.  I think of all the families who lost someone this past year.  I think about what Christmas will be like at their house this year, the first Christmas without their dad, without their grandpa, without their loved one who died.  I think about the first Christmas after my one grandpa died, how plain it was to see the grief in my mother’s eyes as she tried to celebrate Christmas without her dad for the first time, and I think about my grandma, my dad and his sisters who will be celebrating this Christmas as the first without my other granpda.  I’m sure you know people who are facing the same emotional battle.

But it’s not just death that throws a big bucket of water on the yule log.  It’s broken relationships.  It’s divorce.  It’s children spending Christmas without mom or dad.  It’s mom or dad spending Christmas without their kids.  It’s a tough economy.  It’s moms and dads wondering how they can afford the gifts and the meal this year.  It’s the disappointment in the children’s eyes when they don’t get the one thing they hoped for more than anything else, be it a pony, an X-Box or a Red Ryder BB Gun.  It’s Christmas in the real world, ripped out of the cheesy movies where everything works out in the end.  It’s Christmas in a corrupted and fallen creation where heartache and grief don’t take time off for the holidays.  It’s Christmas in this reality where heartache and grief seem to work overtime this time of year.

And in the midst of all this, Paul tells us what he told the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice!”  Rejoice?  For some, that’s easy this time of year.  But as life marches on, as time scars us, rejoicing gets harder to do.  What Grinch The_Grinch_by_UBob-001is trying to steal your Christmas this year?  Finances?  Death?  Divorce?  Are you desperately trying to hang on to those memories of magical Christmas from your youth, to recapture the experience?  Maybe it’s the opposite for you.  Maybe you are desperately trying to forget the memories of Christmas from your youth, trying instead to wash away the pain with a fresh snowfall of perfect Christmases for the years to come.  Are you struggling to grasp that elusive “Perfect Christmas” so that you can feel the joy that this season is supposed to bring?  Does the mere suggestion of rejoicing inspire a cynical or deflated laugh?

I’d like to share with you some words that I think we would do well to remember among the glittering lights of the holiday season.  They are words written by a man who admits he has experienced much of the pain this life has to offer, and they bear an important reminder for us all.  He writes:

 “Perhaps part of the mistake we’ve made [in our yearly celebrations of Christmas] is in forgetting that the first Christmas, the actual birthday of Jesus, started out as the worst of times. Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because of taxes, because the money-hungry, tyrannical Roman overlords had forced them to undertake this journey when no pregnant woman should be on the road. No warm, sanitized room awaited them after their trip, but a cold, dark barn. When this young mother went into labor, where was she supposed to lay down to give birth? On rough hay littered with cow [manure]? Where’d they get light? Warm water? Cloths to clean up the blood? It’s a wonder both mother and child didn’t die that night. The original crèche must have looked like a rural crime scene. This is not the way any baby, least of all Jesus, should have been born.

“And yet it was. Far from home, in the dark, in the cold, in the mess, in the blood, in the [garbage] of this world, God was born.

“That’s a Christmas story I like,” he writes, “for it’s one I can identify with. More than that, it’s a story that gives meaning and hope to our own dark, cold, bloody, [garbage-filled] stories of Christmases that seem anything but joyful. For it was on this night that God began to teach us that we don’t need to have a Hallmark Christmas to find peace and contentment and joy in him.

“For Christmas is not about presents. It’s not even about family and friends. It’s about God taking on our flesh and blood, being born as one of us, to share our griefs, to bear our sorrows, and to unite us to himself, that we might find in our griefs and sorrows . . . him. There’s a reason he’s called a “man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief.” The first sound leaving our newborn Lord’s lips would have been a cry. How fitting that is! God knows what it means to weep, to hurt, to suffer loneliness, anger, loss, and, yes, even the pangs of death. You do not have a Savior unable to sympathize with your weaknesses, but one who has experienced them all, so that no matter what your own hurt, he redeems it, and carries you through it” (Chad Bird – Washing Down Antidepressants with Eggnog).

Hear again the words of the Apostle Paul: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!”  Is the pain of a broken family hanging over your holiday?  Rejoice, for unto you has been born a Savior who was doubted and rejected by his own family.  Yet that same Savior has reconciled us to God and has given us the gift of reconciliation with each other so that we are united together as brothers and sisters in Christ, children of the Heavenly Father.  Are finances stretched so thin that you can see right through to the other side this season?  Rejoice, for unto you has been born a Savior who had no home of his own, for although birds have nests and foxes have holes, the Son of Man had no place to lay his head.  Yet that same Son of Man is now exalted high above all heavens, seated in glory at the right hand of God, preparing a room for you in one of heavens many mansions.  Is having one fewer person around the tree this year crowding your life with grief?  Rejoice, for unto you has been born a Savior who wept at the tomb of a close friend.  Yet he did not let his tears have the final say, but he joined us in our human death in order that we might join him in his resurrection and spend eternity living with him and all the faithful in the new and perfect creation to come.  No matter how this sinful world attacks you this Christmas, rejoice, for unto you has been born a Savior who felt those same attacks.  He felt the pangs of hunger and thirst.  He felt the emptiness of loneliness and grief.  And he overcame them for you.  Rejoice, for unto you has been born a Savior to redeem you from the attacks of this world.

The Incarnation, the birth, the life, and especially the death and resurrection of Jesus make it possible for us to, as Paul says, rejoice always.  For when we look at the life of our Savior, we see how our Lord chooses to act toward us.  God himself endured the worst this life has to offer.  He lived it.  He suffered its pain.  He suffered its loss.  As one pastor put it, thanks to the life and death of Jesus, “evil is now utterly subverted in the cause of good. If the cross of Christ, the most evil act in human history, can be in line with God’s will and be the source of the decisive defeat of the very evil that caused it, then any other evil [this life has to offer] can also be subverted to the cause of good.  More than that, if the death of Christ is mysteriously a blessing, then any evil that the believer experiences can be a blessing too” (Carl Trueman, “Luther’s Theology of the Cross”).

Even the heartache of the holidays is overcome in the new life we have in Christ, a life made possible by the birth of our Lord in Bethlehem, and by his death in Jerusalem.  hqdefault“So sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel.  Rejoice and exult with all your heart, for the Lord has taken away all the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies.”  Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice!  Let your gentleness, your ability to endure this life’s hardships, be known to everyone.  The Lord is at hand; he has lived your life, he has suffered your grief, he knows what you feel.  Therefore, do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to you God who understands exactly what you’re going through, and who has promised to see you through it.  And in so doing, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard and protect your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus during the hustle and bustle of the holidays, and each and every day that follows.

May God grant it for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.


The Forgotten Strength – Advent II Midweek

The Forgotten Strength

Hebrews 10:23-25

Midweek Advent 2

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

             The Word of God provides us with many images for the Church.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as the Good Shepherd, we his sheep.  In our sinfulness we are like sheep without a shepherd, lost and wandering and in danger at every turn.  Yet our Lord seeks us out and finds us, rescues and delivers us.  John likens the Church to a vineyard: Jesus is the vine, we are the branches.  Everything that our Lord does is to Shepherd of the flockpromote good growth from his vineyard, even if that means pruning back the vines so that they will produce more fruit in the future.  Any branch that becomes disconnected from the vine will wither and die; so also any Christian who becomes disconnected from our Lord will not survive.  In the reading from Ephesians we heard a few moments ago the Church is compared to a building, a spiritual temple built on the foundation of the Prophets and Apostles, of which Christ is the cornerstone.  We are the Temple of God today, the place where he chooses to dwell on earth so that the good news of forgiveness can be proclaimed into all nations.  The book of Revelation pictures the Church as the bride of Christ, dressed up to meet him for the wedding.  Jesus is the good and faithful husband who clothes us in his own righteousness so that our beauty outshines the stars.  And in several places the Apostle Paul describes the Church as the body of Christ, who is our head, which highlights the wonderful unity between Jesus and his people, a unity of diverse gifts and callings that each remain under his headship and serve to glorify his purposes.  In short, the Scriptures describe our Lord’s Church as a tremendous gift and source of consolation and protection for us his people.

Our confessions rejoice in this simple nature of the Church.  Luther praised God that even a seven year old child knows what the church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their shepherd.  The holiness of the Church does not depend on the things pastors wear or on the way the building is constructed or on the ceremonies that take place within its walls.  The holiness depends on the Word of God.  For the holy Word of God is preached to people to make us holy.  This is the gift we have as the Church.  It is a gift we can get nowhere else, for holiness only comes to us through God’s holy word preached to our ears, through God’s holy water poured on our heads, and God’s holy supper fed to our hungry souls.  What we have in our Lord’s Church is a gift beyond compare, something we can’t get anywhere else.

Yet Satan would keep us blind to this reality.  When we look at our Lord’s Church Satan would have us see only budget meetings and heating costs.  He would have us become distracted by membership size and keeping up with the Joneses.  He hisses in our ears of other congregations who seem to have it better off, who seem to have better facilities, or who seem to have better attendance, or who seem to have better this or better that.  He would have those of us in the Church despise this precious gift and treat it with contempt.  He would have us consider the Church of God to be to earthly, too normal, too mundane.  He would send us on a quest for something more spiritual, a quest which ultimately sends us away from our Lord’s gifts of forgiveness.  He would have us leave our Lord’s Church.

96553c29bc56b2b60471ffa04a2d0b88 He would keep those outside the Church from ever darkening the door of our Lord’s house by beating the drum of hypocrisy.  “The church is full of hypocrites,” he says, “for you Christians preach all about God’s Law and claim to know what’s right and what’s wrong, but you’re just as bad as the rest of us.”  And the world takes the bait hook, line, and sinker.  Unfortunately, we too find ourselves nibbling at Satan’s crafty lure.  We find ourselves wondering why such-and-such a person is here.  We find ourselves wondering why there is tension or outright conflict in God’s house.  We wonder why we should be here if there is just as much sin in the Church as there is outside of it.

But such criticism, while common, is misguided, for it relies on a false assumption, an assumption that we ourselves are tempted to believe all too often.  The assumption is that the primary purpose of the church is to make us better people by making us more moral.  The world sees the Church as a place where self-righteous people come to hear about God’s rules and then talk about how everyone else is breaking them.  But that is not the Church as our Lord created it to be.  That is not the flock under the protection of the Good shepherd; that is not the vineyard of those who have been grafted into Christ the vine.  For the Church is not a place to come learn how to be moral, it is more like a hospital for those sick with sin.  It is an infirmary for those who are beaten down by the sin and death which are so common in the world around us.  It is a sanctuary for those fleeing from the oppressive guilt and shame of a sinful life.  It is a rallying place for those who would seek to fight the evil and injustice in the world with the only weapons that can leave a mark: the Word of God and prayer.

We are meditating this Advent on the Forgotten War, on the spiritual battle that we are engaged in on a daily basis as the people of God.  Let us not forget that this battle, like any, will take its toll.  The attacks of Satan against your conscience will wear you down eventually if you are not regularly treated with the healing medicine of the Gospel.  The wickedness and injustice in the world will rob you of your hope if you are not regularly hearing the things written in the pages of Scripture, for they were written to renew your hope.  The Armor of God can only take so many strikes without being repaired.  The Church is the armory where you come to have your breastplate of righteousness recoated with the righteousness of Christ given to you in the words of absolution.  The Church is the place where you come to have the belt of truth strengthened by hearing the truth of sin and salvation proclaimed to you time and time again.  The Church is where you come to have the shield of faith repaired as the Holy Spirit comes to you through Word and Sacrament to strengthen you in faith toward God and in fervent love toward those around you.  As this Forgotten War continues to take its toll on you, don’t forget the healing that comes from our Lord Jesus Christ through his Church.  Don’t forget the healing you have as the children of God.

Don’t forget that when you leave this place and return to the battle of daily life, you do not return alone.  We may not have the traditional blue tunics of the Musketeers, yet their motto holds true for us: All for one and one for all.  Or, if you prefer the words of the Apostle Paul, “God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”  When God created the world he said that it was not good for man to be alone.  You were not created to live in isolation.  That is why it takes two people to bring about a new life – no one creates himself.  You were not created to live in isolation, and neither were you redeemed to live in isolation.  You have been called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified with the whole Christian Church on earth.  There is no such thing as an isolated Christian, for we are all members of the body of Christ.

As you face the daily battles in this Forgotten War, do not try to fight them alone.  Rely first on the work of the Holy Spirit in your heart, he who comes to you through the Word of God.  Spend time each day in devotion and prayer so that you may be strengthened to meet the challenges that lie ahead.  But also draw strength from the body of believers that surround you in this place.  Don’t cut yourself off from the body of Christ, draw strength from the people of God.  Find encouragement from those who have gone before us by reading the history of God’s people and the struggles they have faithfully overcome in the past.  Draw strength from those around you right now by building friendships and relationships with others in this place who will support you in difficult times.  But also be willing to be the help, support and encouragement for someone else in this place who needs it.  Live in the joy of community.

Christmas 2012-0156            Remember what the Church is.  It is not simply a gathering of like-minded people who come together to whine about how bad the world is getting.  It is not a club where we come to congratulate each other that we are not like those people out there.  It is not a sanctified grocery store where you simply swing by on a Sunday morning to get your God-fix before returning to a life separated from his the rest of the week.  It is not simply a building where individuals on a quest for something spiritual can sit safely in the back and never interact with anyone else.  The church is a community – a community of believers gathered by the Word of God around the Word of God.  We are a people who gather together to encourage one another, and all the more as the day draws near.  We are a group of people who gather together to battle the evils in the world around us, pooling our resources to fight the evils of hunger and poverty and injustice.  We are a group of people who gather together to combat the message of the world with the truth of God’s Word.  We are a group of people who gather together to battle the evils in our conscience as the devil seeks to drive us to despair.  We may be a gathering of sinful people.  And yes, where there are sinful people you can expect to find sin.  So you can expect that the people here will disappoint you from time to time.  You can even expect that the pastors here will disappoint you from time to time.  But Jesus will never let you down, and this is his Church.  He is the one who gives us strength to live in our daily lives.  He is standing amid the seven lampstands of his Church, here with us today to feed us and nourish us with his healing Gospel.  He is your strength as you fight this spiritual war, and he’s here in his Church for you.

The People of Zion – Sermon for December 7th/8th, 2014

The People of Zion

Romans 15:5-7

2nd Sunday of Advent (Populus Zion)

December 7th/8th, 2014

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI


Today is the Second Sunday in Advent, a Sunday historically referred to as Populus Zion, which means “The People of Zion.”  It is a Sunday that offers us the opportunity to meditate on what it means to be the people of God, a time to reflect on our life together with Christians across the globe, and more immediately, a time to consider our life with the other Christians in this place.  For we are the People of Zion here; we the Populus Zion. There are many things that could divide us as people.  Some are not really very serious, like our sports allegiances.  This place is filled with Wolverines and Spartans and Chippewas and Broncos.  There are Crusaders and Mustangs and Ramblers and Patriots.  And then there’s a whole host who really couldn’t care less about football or basketball or any other athletic competition.  But that’s ok, for our unity as God’s people in this place is not found in pulling for the same teams.

On a more significant level, there are other realities at play in our world today that seek to divide us.  We are in the midst of the holiday season, and it has been said more than once that you shouldn’t discuss politics at the Christmas party.  Because politics divide.  We live in the tenure of one of the most polarizing Presidents in recent memory, if not in the history of our nation.  Health care reform, immigration, common core, economic policy, government relief programs and bailouts are all issues which many feel strongly about.  Those issues might divide us as a people, for Christians can often in good conscience come to opposite conclusions about the best course of action for our country while still remaining faithful children of God.  And that’s ok, for our unity as the Populus Zion is not found in voting for the same political candidates or endorsing the same programs.

We might be divided over current events in the 24 hour news cycle.  The events of Ferguson, Missouri make that abundantly clear.  The backlash from the grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer sparked both peaceful and violent protests across pc-141130-rams-hands-up-jsw-01_e7486b9cc4ee89891c326ba9f65a45b4-e1417398401520the country, even here in Detroit.  Some NFL players took to social media to share their views, while others shared theirs as they were taking the field.  News shows and articles in print have tried to understand and analyze the situation from every angle possible, speculating about what these events say about who we are as American and who we are in process of becoming.  In many cases, issues of race have taken center stage.  The events on Long Island have only made matters worse.  I don’t know what your personal stance is on the issue, and you don’t know mine.  And that’s ok, for our unity as the Populus Zion is not found in our personal ethnicity nor is it found in our feelings about what’s been going on in Missouri since August.

Our unity is and always has been found in Christ himself.  During this time of Advent we remember the ways that our Lord Jesus comes to us.  He came in the past as a baby born in Bethlehem.  He comes today through his Word and Sacraments.  He will come in the future in a cloud with great power and glory.[1]  Our unity is found in these things, not in our race or our politics or social views.  Our unity as the Populus Zion, the People of God, begins with the sin that we all share, for there is none who is righteous, not even one.[2]  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.[3]  But God showed his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.[4]  We are united as people who deserve condemnation, yet have not received it.  As we make our way through this Advent season we remember also the unity we share in the forgiveness won for us by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we do so remembering that the reason he was born was to die.  The reason he took on our humanity was to suffer in our place.  The reason he became like us was so that we could become like him, risen from the dead and living unto eternity.  We have unity in that.

We also have unity in the way that our Lord comes to us today.  He comes to us today through the preaching of his word, a life giving word that creates faith in our hearts.  That faith clings to Jesus so that all who believe in him are united to him, so that as Paul says in Galatians, I no longer live, Christ lives in me.[5]  And he lives in you too.  But there is only one Jesus.  All who are united to the one Jesus are therefore also united to everyone else who is in Christ.  Much like we possess a certain level of unity by being all present in the same room right now, so also everyone who is in the one Christ is in the same place, and is therefore united to everyone else who is there too.  We are united together as we are all baptized into the one Christ, for there is one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all Richert Installation-0128and in all.[6]  We are united together as we kneel at the one rail and feast on the same body and drink from the same cup, for there is only one Jesus.  When someone takes the flesh of Jesus into their own body through the gift of this marvelous sacrament, Jesus lives in them and they live in Jesus.  But there is only one Jesus, so everyone who lives united to Jesus through his body and blood also lives united the other people who have feasted on the body and blood of that same Christ.  Thus we are united as the people of God in this place.

But the simple truth is that such a unity is difficult to maintain in reality.  For the unity we possess in Christ allows for flexibility in many other areas of our life, not only in what sports teams we root for, but also in our politics, our musical preference, our clothing style, and a host of other areas.  To actually live as the united body of Christ in this place is a difficult thing, which is why Paul ends his epistle to the Romans with this prayer for unity: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[7] To live in this unity here in this place today requires God granting us the gifts of endurance and encouragement.

Endurance is key because, like any lasting relationship of value, we as the body of Christ in this place will hit difficult times.  Satan would love nothing more than to see wedges driven into the body of Christ in this and every place.  Other Bible translations render this phrase as the God of patience instead of the God of endurance.  The word could also be translated as fortitude or perseverance.  Basically, it means the ability to EnduranceDefinitionkeep going in difficult circumstances.  This is important because difficult times will fall upon us not only individually as the children of God in this fallen world, but also as the people of God gathered in this place.  Satan will make sure of it.  We as a congregation will have difficult times.  We have had difficult times in the past.  Finances get tight.  There are disagreements over what course of action is best for the congregation.  When the part of the building that we are sitting in today was still in the planning phases, there was much debate over whether or not building it was the right thing.  There was a time in the 1940s where the congregation had to look seriously at whether or not to close the school, another divisive issue.  Issues of finance and the future of the congregation threaten to divide us and every gathering of God’s people.  The only way to make it through such situations is to endure, more specifically, to have the God of endurance give us the patience and perseverance necessary.

He gives us that perseverance through the encouragement of the Scriptures.  As Paul says in verse 4, the things written in the pages of Scripture were written to give us hope, to encourage us.  The God of encouragement continues to encourage us through his Word, for his Word reveals the reality of the situation.  It reveals the reality of our sin and the depths of the debts which we owed our Father in heaven.  When we know and understand how much we have been forgiven, it inspires us to be more charitable and compassionate with those around us.  We find encouragement through the gift of forgiveness, for when we know how patient our Lord has been with us we gladly show the same patience to the people around us.  That is why it is so important for us to continue to gather together as the Populus Zion in this place.  For here, as we confess our sin together, as we are forgiven together, as we partake of the same bread and wine together, we see the unity we possess as the body of Christ.  Such unity colors our interactions with each other, filling our conversations with the love and forgiveness of Christ himself.  When times for endurance arise, we can be patient with each other because of the encouragement we have in worshiping together.

The point of this, Paul says, is that we might live in harmony with each other.  Some translations render this as a wish for unity, but I think the image of harmony is more appropriate, for while we do certainly possess unity as the body of Christ, it is a unity in harmony.  Harmony is a beautiful thing.  When a single note is complemented with a second or third or fourth note, the resulting sound is much richer and fuller than that single note was by itself.  Take the image of a symphony.  Individually, each instrument is playing its part.  The notes of the clarinet are different than the notes of the flute or the oboe.  The trumpets play different notes than the trombones or saxophone.  The cello0804_harmony_Michael_Pechawer plays something different from the bass or violin.  If each one were to simply do whatever it felt like, if the wood winds ignored the brass and the strings altogether, the resulting sound would be harsh on your ears.  But when the sections work together, when the individual instruments within each section work together, even though they are playing different notes, the sound is full and rich and wonderful.  They may be playing different notes, but they play the same song.

Paul’s prayer for the Church of God in Rome, and his prayer for us who are the Church of God at St. John Fraser, is that the God of endurance would give us endurance, that the God of encouragement would continue to encourage us through his Word, so that we might be a beautiful harmony in this place.  You might be a different instrument than the person sitting next to you.  But when you are both playing the same song, the music is beautiful.  The song we play is the unity we possess in our Lord Jesus Christ.  We may be a symphony of different instruments playing different notes, but the melody is Christ.

When Satan sets about to divide us as the Body of Christ, we would do well to remember that harmony not only allows for different notes and instruments, it actually requires them.  If we were all playing the exact same notes, we would not be a harmony but a unison.  We would do well to embrace the different notes that work together to give us harmony in this place.  The future of St. John requires both people playing the notes of aspiration and growth and ever expanding ministries, like the notes of a piccolo dancing high above the melody.  But harmony also requires the stable base of those who would be prudent and cautious with the congregation’s finances and resources.  And yet the melody is the same: a desire to see the gospel of forgiveness brought into people’s lives.  Harmony in this place requires both seeking ways to engage the current culture while at the same time remaining true to the tradition of our church body and the timeless confession of the Gospel.

When such differences come up for discussion, when Satan attempts to turn us against each other, we would do well to remember that we are all playing the same song, just different parts in that song.  Disagreement ought not lead to name calling or defensive rhetoric, for we are united together as the body of Christ in this place.  Disagreement should lead to discussion, and discussion should remember that all parties involved are doing what they do out of love for this congregation and out of a desire to see the Gospel of Christ brought into the lives of the people in these pews, the children in those classrooms, and all those in the community around us.  Such discussion is not always easy; it takes endurance and perseverance.  It would be easy to throw up our hands in disagreement and simply write off the other person as ignorant or selfish or silly.  It would be easy to quit and go home when we don’t get our way.  But through the perseverance that comes from the God of endurance we can set about weathering the storm, remaining in harmony with one another through the encouragement we have in the body of Christ.

heaven For whatever discussion we may have and whatever disagreement may arise, we know that Christ is coming again in glory to deliver us into paradise.  As we continue on this Advent road, we remember that its end is not found in the manger of Christmas.  Neither is it found at the foot of the cross or in the empty tomb.  Our Lord will come again, and when he does all other differences between us will fade into meaningless oblivion.  All disagreements will cease to matter as we enter side by side into the new and perfect creation.  That is the end that is awaiting us all.  Until that day, as you and I continue to walk side by side as the People of Zion, may the God of endurance and encouragement grant us to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together we may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.[8]


[1] Luke 21:27

[2] Romans 3:10

[3] Romans 3:23

[4] Romans 5:8

[5] Galatians 2:20

[6] Ephesians 4:4-6

[7] Romans 15:5-6

[8] Romans 15:5-6

Nelhama (Cathy) Jackson – Funeral Sermon

Nelhama Catherine Jackson

Funeral Sermon

Isaiah 62:1-5

December 8, 2014

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

             This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.  That vinyl_wall_art_this_is_the_day_that_the_lord_has_made___b2f2c5ddverse from Psalm 118 was especially important to Nelhama.  I understand she used to repeat it often.  And I also understand that she was pretty good at putting that verse into practice.  This is the day which the Lord has made, so rejoice.  Be glad to be alive.  I wonder if Nelhama’s love for life was so strong because she nearly lost her own life at such a young age.  For those of you who don’t know the story, when she was 5 years old she fell into a fire and was severely burned.  Her home in Virginia was a little off the beaten path, so someone had to carry her for a mile just to get her to the road where the ambulance was waiting.  She spent a year in the hospital having her wounds dressed and redressed each day until they healed to the point where she could return home.

As I heard that story last week, I couldn’t help but wonder if that experience gave her the joy with which she lived each day.  She loved to travel, especially that special trip around North America just a few short years ago, seeing so much of our own country, not to mention the time she spent in Mexico and Canada.  She loved to fly fish for trout, although with as small as she was there was always the danger that she would simply float away down the stream in her waders.  She was always so prim and proper, a true lady.  But she also knew how to get her hands dirty in her garden, where she would work to make those flowers grow.  Yes, she certainly had a zest for life, the type of zest that very well might come from realizing that each day she lived was a second chance at life, a chance given to her when she survived that horrible accident with the fire 73 years ago.

But it’s not her zest for life that captured my imagination when I sat down to think about what to say today.  It wasn’t her travelling or her gardening either.  What stuck out to me most about Nelhama was her name: Nelhama.  From what I understand, it is a Native American name, probably Cherokee.  I tried to look up what it means on Google, but I couldn’t find it.  I’m so curious to know more about her name because most people around her called here Cathy, which is actually her middle name.  Beverly called her Wilma.  1 women, 3 names.  As I was thinking about what to say today, that is what stuck out to me – the fact that Nelhama was known by a different name around here.  The fact that Cathy had a different name from birth.  The fact that her daughter called her Wilma, which might be the most special of all the names she had.  As I considered all the names that Cathy went by I was reminded of Isaiah’s words that we heard just a few moments ago:


The nations shall see your righteousness,isaiah_62_02
and all the kings your glory,
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your sons marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:2-5)


You shall be called by a new name, says Isaiah.  That’s why we’re here today: because of the new name that Nelhama had.  Not Cathy, although that was a new name.  Not Wilma, although that too was a new name.  No, there is another name she had, and it is that name that has brought us together today, the name that the mouth of the Lord himself gave her: the name Christian.  For on June 17, 1959, Nelhama Catherine Jackson was baptized into the name of Christ.  She was clothed with Christ’s righteousness that covers all her sin.  She was baptized into the name of God, and as Martin Luther wrote in the Large Catechism, “where God’s name is, there must also be life and salvation” [LC IV.27].  In baptism, Nelhama was given the benefits of being called by our Lord’s name.  When we are given our Lord’s name in baptism, we are given these things as well.


And that, in short, is why we are here today.  Yes, we are here to grieve the death of a dear lady who loved Christmas cookies and candy and kept Grandma’s fudge recipe alive in her family.  But as the Apostle Paul says, we do not grieve as those who have no hope.  We have hope, for we have Jesus.  We know that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life.  And we know that Cathy has been brought into that life, for she bears the name of our Lord himself.  She feasted on the body and blood of our Lord in this very room, at this very altar.  She was united to him, bearing his name into her daily life as she left this altar singing, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, for your Word has been fulfilled.”  Nalhama departed this altar in the peace of sins forgiven.  Now she departed this life in the same way, in the peace of sins forgiven.


That fills us with hope.  Christmas won’t be the same this year without her.  Life this side of heaven will never be the same.  But we have the hope of sin forgiven.  We have the hope of relationship restored.  We have the hope of seeing her again in paradise.  For like Cathy, we have a new name, a name that the mouth of the Lord himself has given.  To return once again to the words of the Prophet Isaiah, Nelhama is now a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of her God.  Cathy is a child of God.  And behold what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called the children of God, adopted into his family, called by his name.  Beloved, we are God’s children now, and even though what we will be has not yet appeared, take comfort.  For Nelhama is with her Lord.  And one day Jesus will appear again, and when he does,Easter_Christ_is_risen the world will see Nelhama and all God’s children for what we are.  For when we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.


So as you celebrate this Christmas without Wilma, without Cathy, without Nelhama, and without many you love who have died in the faith, remember the words of our closing hymn:


And our eye at last shall see Him, through His own redeeming love;
For that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heaven above;
And He leads his children on to the place where He is gone

           Not in that poor, lowly stable with the oxen standing by shall we see him,
But in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high.
Then, like stars, his children, crowned and all in white, His praise will sound!
 (Once in Royal David’s City st.4-5)


May our Lord who was born in that humble stable, who died on that humble cross, and who is risen from the dead in the glory of the Father grant you his peace today, throughout this holiday season, and for the many months and years ahead.  And may he comfort you with the promise of the resurrection of the body unto life everlasting for Nelhama, and for all his children.