Keep Your Eye on the Ball – 12 February 2023

By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

Matthew 5:24

I keep seeing ads that baseball season is almost here.  It was 100 days, then 50 days, and as of today Opening Day is 46 days away.  I usually start counting down once my football team is eliminated.  I keep saying that my football team is still alive, so the real feeling of the offseason is a lot shorter this year.

I read these six baseball lessons this week, which Pastor Craig Groeschel learned from his father.  I want to share them with you.

  1. Keep your eye on the ball.
  2. You can’t win with a bad attitude.
  3. You never score runs staying on first base.
  4. Always run through the bag.
  5. Don’t ever go down taking strike three.
  6. You win by moving one runner at a time.

What is the ball in your life?  What is it that you are keeping your eyes on?  What do you want to hit out of the park?  In other words, what do you put all your effort into doing?  What do you spend all your love and energy doing?  When Paul talked about the Corinthian church rejecting his teachings, and following the ways of another, he admitted that he was in pain, but he kept his eyes on the ball and said these words: “I hope you will find out that we have not failed.  But we pray to God that you may not do anything wrong – not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed.  For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.  For we rejoice when we are weak and you are strong.  This is what we pray for, that you may become perfect” (2 Corinthians 13:6-9).  He also wrote, “We are speaking in Christ before God.  Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up” (2 Corinthians 12:19).  Even when Paul was hurting, he reached out to the Corinthian church and let him know how much he cared.  He kept his eye on the ball.  He knew that whatever happened, Christ would be with the body of Christ, and that is what mattered.

Second, you can’t win with a bad attitude.  Have you ever had a bad attitude?  No, of course not, right?  At least you would probably not want to admit it.  The truth is, if you have a bad attitude, it makes everything seem worse than it really is.  Job expressed his emotion when everything he knew and loved was taken away from him: He expressed, “My sighing comes like my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water.  Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me.  I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest; but trouble comes” (Job 3:24-26).  It sounds like a pretty hopeless time.  But Paul affirmed that we do actually have reason for hope, because our God never departs us.  He said to the Thessalonians, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).  Further, we find in Lamentations, “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:21-23).  You can’t win with a bad attitude, but you can win in every way when you are confident of God’s faithfulness, whatever happens, whatever your lamentation might be.  You always have God’s love, and it always comes in a new way every morning.

Third, you never score runs staying on first base.  Look for something beyond where you are now.  Seek to grow.  Seek to develop your relationship with the Lord.  Read more, study more, pray more – whatever you need.  Try something you have never tried before.  Try out a mission trip when you are not sure you know what you are doing.  Try out the book group when you have never been a part of a group before.  Offer to help put together bulletins in the office when you want to hang out with a friend.  I have so many reasons to be encouraged.  As I have seen many of you try something new, I also have tried something new; it expands my love for you all.

Fourth, always run through the bag.  Don’t slow down before you get there.  Don’t stop running because you are sad or depressed.  Keep running, even when two other players are running at you trying to get you out.  You are more likely to be safe when you run through the bag.  The bag is the destination.  It is the goal that you set for yourself back a few months ago, or a few years ago, or however long ago it was.  When you are about to reach the goal, don’t relax because you are almost there and are sure of your safety.  Think about the next goal you want to set.  Every runner in baseball is looking around the diamond looking to see if they can’t stretch it to second.  Maybe a player will bobble the ball.  Anything can happen.  Don’t slow down when you are reaching your intended goal, but keep on going.  If you are a football fan, you may have witnessed a player celebrating too early before scoring a touchdown.  And then, at the last moment, a player sprinting to catch up knocks them down at the three-yard line.  What seemed like a sure touchdown became a stand at the goal line, and perhaps cut to a field goal.  Run through the bag.  Feel the energy that the Spirit brings you for everything that you do, and in every moment.

Fifth, don’t ever go down taking strike three.  Do not stand and let the world and people in the world defeat you.  Cling to the Lord your God for hope.  Swing with the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6).  Follow the words in Deuteronomy: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days” (Deut. 30:19-20).  Choose life.  Foul off ten balls in a row if you have to, until you get a good one to hit.  But at least get a piece of the ball.  At least keep a piece of Christ with you at all times, until you can summon all of Christ, and hit that ball for a home run.  You can do it.  Believe you can.  It is better to go down swinging than leaving the bat on your shoulder because you do not have the strength to move it.

And lastly, you win by moving one runner at a time.  You will not reach all your goals overnight.  We may dream of more people in church, for example, but we will not see fifty more join us next Sunday.  The work takes time.   It takes patience.  In the same way, you are not going to accomplish all of your goals in one week.  Focus on one at a time.  Take the small steps.  Take steps in bite size chunks.  It will be easier to handle, and give you more confidence as you handle one step at a time.

The last few weeks, we have been reviewing how to recommit to our baptism vows.  Recommit to the life that you promised to live when you first joined the Body of Christ in an act of faith, and in an act of mercy given by God.  You may not have deserved the act of mercy, but you were given it.  You were shown God’s love and forgiveness.  And you still are today.  In our final call to recommit to our commitment, we are called to serve in whatever way we have, with whatever we have.  Take whatever energy that you have, and use it to share love with a neighbor.  Reconcile if someone has done you wrong.  Hear their story, for it may be a different one than you expected.  It may be a different one than you thought.

In 1 Corinthians 3:3 Paul calls out the Corinthian church: “As long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” We do not want this in the Christian church.  We do not want division and quarreling.  We want freedom, love, and forgiveness.  So, according to the words of Jesus, this is what we must do: “If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).  Do whatever you can to be at peace with your neighbor.  Do whatever you can to love your neighbor.  Do whatever you can to serve your neighbor, and to serve God.  Keep your eye on the ball.  Keep a positive attitude with your spirit.  Don’t settle for being on first base.  Always run through the bag.  Don’t go down taking strike three.  You win by moving one runner at a time.  You are given so many gifts.  You are given a mind to serve.  Be the church.  Do justice.  Love kindly.  Walk humbly with your God.  May all honor and glory be to God!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
30:15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.
30:16 If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
30:17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them,
30:18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
30:19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,
30:20 loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9
3:1 And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.
3:2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready,
3:3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?
3:4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?
3:5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.
3:6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.
3:7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
3:8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each.
3:9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Matthew 5:21-30
5:21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’
5:22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
5:23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,
5:24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
5:25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.
5:26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
5:27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’
5:28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
5:29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
5:30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

Why Are You Here? – 5 February 2023

By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?

Matthew 5:13

Why are you here in church this morning?  Why are you here?  Seriously, ask yourself the question and really ponder it for a moment.  Why are you in church this morning?

Your answer may be that it is what you always have done, that it would not seem like Sunday without it.  Perhaps you wanted to see your friends.  Maybe your answer might even be that you come here to worship God in community.  Jennifer Williams noted her reasoning for coming to church every Sunday: “We come to meet God here in this sanctuary and to learn about our faith and how to serve Jesus Christ.  That is our promise at baptism, that we will be present with the people of God.”

Do you remember the vows that you made at your baptism?  “Do you renounce the powers of evil and desire the freedom of new life in Christ?  Do you profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?  Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?  Do you promise, according to the grace given you, to grow in the Christian faith and to be a faithful member of the church of Jesus Christ, celebrating Christ’s presence and furthering Christ’s mission in all the world?”

Who taught you about church?

Why did you first want to go to church?

What does church mean to you?

When I was young, I wanted to go to church because I had friends there.  I also wanted to exceed the expectations that were given to me and perform well in Sunday School just like I did in school.  Is that desirable?  Should we still seek to exceed expectations?  What are the expectations now?  In many ways, they might be less than they were before, which makes them easier to exceed.

I come to church now for a couple of the same reasons; I like to see friends and I like to worship together.  I also come to church by myself when there is no one else here.  Those times, I come to worship God.  I worship God in my actions, in my work, and in silent prayer in the sanctuary when everything is quiet.  There are always other things that I could be doing.  There are other things you could be doing right now other than being here.  But in all honesty, I could not imagine myself doing anything else in my waking hours than trying to give God glory in whatever I do.  I know that is best done through fellowship, helping our neighbors, and worshipping.

If we are not aware of the reason for coming, why would we come?  Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  Are we willing to be as fools to those who are leisurely sleeping in on their only day off or reading a book by the window for no gain?  To us, it is the power of God.  We come because we find something rich in coming to worship!  And if we do not, it is our responsibility to make it rich.

When I think about exceeding expectations, I wonder what the expectations are to exceed.  Do pastors and religious leaders really expect us to remember all the vows that we made at our baptism?  Many of us were too young to remember!  We may have heard the promises made among other families since, but they just seem like formalities.  We need to renew our commitment to them, to promise to always grow in the Christian faith, and never fall stagnant, and also to always be a faithful member of the church of Jesus Christ.  Even if the standard of expectations is lowered between each other, I don’t believe that God lowers them.  If we promise something, that is a promise.  We are bound to it in covenant.  In return, God offers us the richness of His grace and presence – a richness that cannot be found anywhere else.  When we give God our presence – our full presence not only physically but our commitment to grow and faithfully commit to building up the body – God returns that gift with the ultimate gift of His presence.  “We are here to be present with one another, our families, and to be in the presence of God.  We come to worship God and to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit” (Jennifer Williams, Sermon Series: Our Baptismal Vows, 9.28.2011).  We celebrate that in Communion too.  We break the bread, which is the body of Christ, and we drink the cup, which is the blood of Christ.  We have Communion in fellowship with one another – in presence with one another.

When we partake in Holy Communion, we are not just remembering, or memorializing, the Last Supper of Jesus and the disciples.  “We are re-membering, putting the body of Christ back together through invitation, mutual repentance, mutual forgiveness, and the receiving of grace.  LGBTQ Christians are every bit of that body as their straight siblings in Christ.  All of us belong in the body together.  Whether your impulse is towards inclusion or purity, we have so much to learn from one another and contribute to each other” (Charlie Baber).

What does Communion mean to you?

Is it hard to think of people who you don’t agree with also being in the body of Christ?

Whether we think someone is misguided, misled, intentionally disobedient, or downright wrong, it does not stop our neighbor from being in the body of Christ.  The Jewish population was equally shocked when Paul proposed that the Gentiles should be seen as part of God’s people, as many churches are today that LGBTQ should be.  It is a growing problem and churches are dividing because of it.  Yet, regardless of your stance, I believe that we welcome everyone, just as Paul preached, regardless of what we choose to affirm or not, because we need more love in this world.  Our first concern should be sharing the love of God, not keeping people out.  As we celebrate the sacrament of Communion, remember that we need to do our part to keep Christians unified.  That is one reason why we come to church to worship with our neighbors, despite any differences we may have.

Offering your presence means that you are offering your commitment to God.  It means that you realize that there is something greater than you in this world that is worth giving your time, talent, and treasure toward.  You come and clean the church when your own house needs to be cleaned, just as the prophet Jeremiah called the people to stop building their own houses and come together as one people to rebuild the temple that was sitting in ruins.

I have three challenges for you to take from today: First, recommit your presence.  When you were baptized, you promised that you would offer your time to grow in your faith and to be a faithful member of the church.  Recommit to those goals; I hope that no one just comes to church and goes home unchanged.  We are meant to be changed.  We are meant to grow.  Second, think about what is rich in your church experience.  Take a moment to write it down in the space in your bulletin; what is rich for you about church?  What makes you want to keep coming back?  If you cannot think of anything that is currently rich, write down something that you think you need to make it rich, and then please share it with myself and others.  Together, we can make our experience of God rich, so long as we are both committed to spending the time to make it happen.  Psalm 112 tells of those who delight in the commandments being happy because they are gracious, merciful, and righteous.  They “conduct their affairs with justice” (112:5)  And, “in the end they will look in triumph on their foes” (112:8).  Isaiah offers us a conditional statement: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, … the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like the spring of water, whose waters never fail” (Is. 58:9-11).  This contains your third challenge: Remove the pointing of the finger and the speaking of evil from among you.  Do not cast blame.  Only spread love.  To fully experience God’s presence, we need to bring our presence in our commitment to our promises  and to the growth of Christian love.  That is why we are here.  We can only grow together.  May all glory and honor be to God!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Isaiah 58: 3-4, 9b-11
58:3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.
58:4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.
58:9b If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
58:10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
58:11 The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Psalm 112:1-10
112:1 Praise the LORD! Happy are those who fear the LORD, who greatly delight in his commandments.
112:2 Their descendants will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed.
112:3 Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever.
112:4 They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous.
112:5 It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice.
112:6 For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever.
112:7 They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the LORD.
112:8 Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes.
112:9 They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor.
112:10 The wicked see it and are angry; they gnash their teeth and melt away; the desire of the wicked comes to nothing.

Matthew 5:13-20
5:13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
5:14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.
5:15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.
5:16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
5:18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
5:19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
5:20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

My Breath Prayer – 29 January 2023

Written by Bryan Niebanck

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God

Matthew 5:8

What is prayer?  We spent a year focusing on prayer, but what is your takeaway from that?  What is your takeaway from growing with the Christian church?  Have you been taught well enough how to engage in prayer?  If not, do you know how to challenge the church to teach you better?  It might surprise you at times that the church is not really all about God.  The church is about you.  The church should want you to grow.  The church should want you to fee valued.  The church should help you in the areas that you need help in, to be encouraged, to find strength, and to find peace.  Go ahead and ask questions as you need to; we do not need to be and should not be just in a one-way dialogue.  We learn from each other and we need each other to grow.

I am hoping that you feel invited to answer some of the questions that I pose to you in sermons going forth.  I do want you to be able to learn from me, but I also expect to be able to learn from your wisdom as well, as we are both servants of Christ trying to forge our way forward and to grow in our faithfulness.  And I am curious as to your responses.  As we continue to talk about how we can more easily trust God as we walk along this journey, today I want to focus on how prayer is actually a declaration of trusting God.  And I want to ask you these questions:

Who taught you to pray? [parents, church, friends]

Where is your favorite place to pray? [church, prayer room, outdoors]

So, what is prayer?

When someone asks me what prayer is, I usually respond by saying that it is a conversation with God.  It is.  But in saying it is a conversation, I mean conversation.  It is not talking to God, or at God, or about God.  It is talking with God.  It is engaging with God to a point that you can both understand each other, at least to a degree.  You may not think that you can understand God, but for every time you say that, there is someone who does not think they will understand their brother, and do not even try.  You cannot assume that you will not understand God – to some degree – if you are not willing to try.  Samuel understood God.  So did Gideon, and Isaiah, and Jonah.  They, along with Moses, and Elijah, and David, all sought to help others.  They taught others about God and about prayer, most if not all of them leading by example.  So, I also ask this question: Who would you set an example for through a regular prayer life?  Perhaps you already do have a regular prayer life, and I commend you for that.  And we should not aim to pray in public, because we are not aiming to show off our apparent faithfulness.  But when we do pray often, it shows through our actions.  It shows through our trust in God and our faithfulness.  And we also never know when someone is watching.  When they do watch, we want to be caught doing something we want them to follow.

Let me share something that prayer is not.  It is not slandering with your tongue and it is not taking up a reproach against your neighbors (Psalm 15:3).  It is not advocating for division from your brother.  It is not wishing ill on someone.  It is not exalting yourself or trying to defend yourself or save your back.  It is, instead, as Matthew 5:12 points out, rejoicing and being glad.  It is being able to rejoice and be glad knowing that we are not alone in our struggles.  It is trusting that, as Matthew 5:12 assures us through the words of Jesus, our reward is great in heaven, no matter what we may receive here.  Hear this explanation from the famous preacher Jonathon Edwards – and no, this is not from fire and brimstone.  He preached, “Prayer is as natural an expression of faith as breathing is of life.” 

There are so many types of prayer, especially when we see it as an expression of faith.  We may think prayer is secluded to folded hands and a bowed head.  But have you ever considered that you can pray while reading a book?  How many of you have opened a book so far this year?  … Good, we do still read.  Have you ever, even perhaps while reading a magazine article or devotion, thought that something someone said was so powerful that you just had to stop and write it down?  My desk at home is filled with clippings and copies of pages that I haven’t wanted to forget after I recycled the magazine or put down the book until who knows when (because I have a couple hundred other things on my list to read).  They serve as reminders of God’s faithfulness to me, which I believe God put in my path when I needed to read it.  They almost serve as a kind of breath prayer for me.  They are daily reminders that can be said in a sentence or a couple sentences.  Here’s one: “Talk with God; no breath is lost.  Walk with God; no strength is lost.  Wait for God; no time is lost.  Trust in God; you will never be lost.”  One form of prayer is using the works of other Christians to help us find our way to God.

A breath prayer is a short phrase that connects you more deeply with God.  Let me share a few of the breath prayers from the Bible.  Here is one from Job: “The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (Job 33:4).  There are countless others: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).  “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2).  “My soul finds rest in God alone” (Psalm 62:1).  The Psalms are a very helpful book, especially when we might find ourselves wrought with emotion.  As Jennifer Williams wrote in an article on Ministry Matters, “there are passages in which we can yell at God through our anger, cry with God in our sorrow, rejoice, and give thanks.  Whatever our emotion or state of mind, the Psalms can help us reach out to God.”  This was her breath prayer when her father died: “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?  My help comes from the Lord” (Psalm 121:1).  This reminded her that God was still present in her life and that God was the only help that she ever needed.

In your bulletin you will find a space for a breath prayer.  Please take a few moments.  What sentence will remind you to refocus on God?  What sentence will remind you to refocus on God as a commitment to your baptismal vow to serve God and continue to get to know God better?  Remember that in this season of Epiphany, we are in a four part series to remind ourselves to reaffirm our baptisms.  We reaffirm our baptism and our commitment to God through prayer, through presence, and through service.  Last week, we talked about baptism.  This week, we talk about prayer.  I am challenging you to write down a sentence that you can pray over and over again, to remind you of God’s love, or God’s presence, or of the hope that you find in God.  And if you cannot think of one today, take your bulletin home, go read some Psalms, and make the commitment to write something down that you can keep on your desk, or on your refrigerator, or in your car, or somewhere where you are going to see it and be reminded of it repeatedly.

Would any of you like to share your breath prayer?

Through our breath prayers, we will remind ourselves to trust God even when it is hard.  And even when it is hard, we can still find a way to come to God.  We read a lot in the Bible about people giving thanks.  Paul begins nearly every letter to the people of various churches with a note of thanks for their work, even when he was upset with them and about to point out all the things they were doing wrong.  When you have not prayed for awhile, or you are feeling lost, and you do not know what to say, thanks is a great way to start.  When you know you are about to have a very difficult conversation, why not start with a word of thanks, or a word of prayer, or both?  Wherever you find yourself today, I encourage you to write down your answers to these questions as well:

What are you thankful for?

What is God doing in this world to be thankful for?

What is God doing in this church for which you would like to give thanks?

Remember how God’s faithful ones are to persist.  We want to be able to, in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, “persist in praising God – or at least in trusting God – through all that befalls [us]” (Feasting on the Word, A.1.149).  Our help comes from the Lord.  May all honor and glory be to God!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Psalm 15
15:1 O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?
15:2 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart;
15:3 who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
15:4 in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the LORD; who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
15:5 who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved.

1 Corinthians 1:18-31
1:18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
1:19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
1:20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
1:21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.
1:22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,
1:23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,
1:24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
1:25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
1:26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.
1:27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;
1:28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,
1:29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
1:30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,
1:31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Matthew 5:1-12
5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
5:2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
5:12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

A Public God? – 22 January 2023

By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

Psalm 27:1

Do you trust your GPS?  Many times, when I am driving up towards Toledo, Google Maps tells me that I need to get on the Interstate.  I tell it, though, that I am not going to listen to it, because I can save money by taking other roads that is actually only a 2–3-minute detour.  But isn’t it odd when it tells you to get off the highway?  There has been more than one time when I have been driving on a main road, only to be told to wind around a few side streets, and realize that they dumped me back out on the same main road.  Have you ever had that happen?  Have you wondered why you had to go through all those twists and turns just to save a couple minutes?  I think these kinds of deviations have thwarted my trust in my GPS at times.

Here is a brief story about a GPS that many of us may not want to have trusted: “While driving to an unfamiliar location, the GPS suddenly seemed wrong.  After entering a reliable four-lane highway, we were advised to exit and travel along a one-lane ‘frontage’ road running parallel to us.  ‘I’ll just trust it,’ the driver said, despite seeing no delays.  After about ten miles, however, the traffic on the highway next to us slowed to a near standstill.  The trouble?  Major construction.  And the frontage road?  With little traffic, it provided a clear path to our destination.  ‘I couldn’t see ahead, but the GPS could, just like God can,” reflected the occupants of that car.  We cannot see what is ahead in our life, but if we are asked to take a detour that we did not expect, can we trust God through it?

Who do you trust most? [spouse, friend, teacher]

Why do you trust them? [shown they care]

Do you trust God?

When the magi were returning home, their GPS (God) told them to go home by another way.  They trusted it and did not return through Herod’s city.  It is not always what we expect, and I do believe that we all can do better at trusting God.  In the season of Epiphany, we celebrate a renewed relationship with God through the renewal of the remembrance of our baptisms, which Rev. Dan Busch preached on two weeks ago.  If we are going to be better at trusting God, and renew our vows in our relationship with God, we need to be reminded of a few things: We reaffirm our baptism vows through prayer, through presence, and through service.  Over the next three weeks, we will talk about each of these ways to reaffirm our baptism vows.

Baptism is not something we do to check something off the list.  We do not say that once we are baptized, we are all set, that we are saved and can live the rest of our Christian life sporadically attending church and being confident of that fact.  Baptism is often bestowed upon someone who does not have any power to say yes or no.  As Rev. Dan said two weeks ago, the fact that baptism can occur this way shows that we are given God’s mercy whether we know it or not.  It is all around us.  God is all around us.  Sometimes we recognize what we are being given, and sometimes we do not.  Sometimes we know what our gift is, and sometimes we just have to do the best we can with what we know.  The best we can, however, is not nothing.  It is our responsibility to reaffirm our commitment to God on a regular basis.    What is one thing that you can do to reaffirm your commitment to God?

Do you trust God?  If so, you might trust God with your private concerns.  You can tell God whatever you need to without needing to worry that God is going to tell someone else about it.  God keeps things confidential.  Trust God with your worries and struggles.  Talk to God about possible plans.  Ask God what you should do next.  This is part of the blessing of prayer, which we will all hopefully always remain committed to.  Yet further, though, do you also trust God to be public with your love for Him?  Are you not hindered by what your friends or coworkers or the rest of the world might think when you do something that proclaims your faith?  What is something you have done to publicly proclaim your faith?  We might ask ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky.

When Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field in a Monday Night football game in Cincinnati, the players of the Buffalo Bills knelt on the field just as the ambulance was driving off.  They collectively had a moment of public prayer in front of thousands of fans, the majority of whom joined in.  On Tuesday morning, when Hamlin’s condition was still unclear, ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky led a group prayer for his health and recovery.  He did not just say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with him.”  He led a prayer on national television, on a sports channel that usually keeps religion away from center stage.  He qualified that he wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do, but he was affirmed by the co-hosts, and he said he was going to pray anyway.  It was a powerful moment, and a win for the power and necessity of prayer in our world today.

The prayer is worth repeating: “God, we come to you in these moments that we don’t understand, that are hard, because we believe that you’re God, and coming to you and praying to you has impact,” Orlovsky said. “We’re sad, we’re angry, and we want answers, but some things are unanswerable. We just want to pray, truly come to you and pray for strength for Damar, for healing for Damar, for comfort for Damar, to be with his family, to give them peace. If we didn’t believe that prayer didn’t work, we wouldn’t ask this of you, God. I believe in prayer; we believe in prayer. We lift up Damar Hamlin’s name in your name. Amen.”

Does public prayer need to be a more common practice in society?

How can we promote the public presence of God in our community?

Is trusting God hard when we cannot see as far as He can?

Reflect on the call that Paul speaks to the Corinthians: “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).  When we hold fast to God, and trust God through the trials that we know we are going to face, we are making a bold move that looks foolish to the world, but is everything to us.  When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.  We can imagine that he was quite upset about this, after John had been the one to baptize him.  He was his very own cousin, too.  But still, did Jesus let the world defeat his will to do what he came to earth to do?  He still went out in Galilee and said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matt. 4:19).  He still trusted in the call he knew that he had.  He would not give up his trust in God, through it all.  I think if we asked Jesus the question, “Do you trust God?” after John was arrested, he would not have had to think twice about the answer.

Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on what God’s presence means in our world today.  It does not mean that it will be a world free from suffering, and perhaps for that reason all the more, we need to trust God.  She writes, “Neither God’s presence nor Christ’s birth rids the world of horror and death.  [But] God’s faithful ones persist in praising God – or at least in trusting God – through all that befalls them.  This trust does not save them by helping them float above the sufferings of the world; it saves them by helping them endure” (Feasting on the Word, A.1.149-51).

God’s presence has been declared in this world.  Jesus was born into the world to be God with us, Immanuel.  We are cared about.  We are loved.  We can be sad and angry for what goes on here, but we can still trust God to guide us through.  Trust God to make a bold move.  Do something that you have been afraid to do for God.  Promote the public presence of God in our community.  Find something to be bold about, and to proclaim the presence of God among us, just as Jesus did in his community.  Reaffirm your vow to God and give God glory wherever you go.  Trust in the power of prayer when those you work and live with might not like it.  When the GPS knows more than you do, don’t look for reasons not to trust it.  Know that it just wants to get you to your destination.  So does God.  And if you decide to trust God, your GPS will get you to that destination sooner.  May all honor and glory be to God!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Psalm 27:1, 4-9
27:1 The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
27:4 One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.
27:5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent: he will set me high on a rock.
27:6 Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
27:7 Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
27:8 “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.
27:9 Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
1:10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.
1:11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.
1:12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”
1:13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
1:14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius,
1:15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.
1:16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)
1:17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
1:18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Matthew 4:12-23
4:12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.
4:13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,
4:14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
4:15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles
4:16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
4:17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
4:18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen.
4:19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
4:20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
4:21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.
4:22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
4:23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

A Year of Trust – 1 January 2023

By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

“I will put my trust in him.”

Hebrews 2:13

What does it take to trust?  Do you think that Mary and Joseph had a hard time learning how to trust God?  What would it be like to walk with them to Bethlehem, or to walk with them to Egypt, chatting with them about the things they were struggling with along the way?  I think a lot could be learned from that journey.  They were able to trust God through the words that were revealed to them, even though it went against what the world expected of them.  They trusted God wherever they went.  They were not prepared to flee to Egypt after heading to Bethlehem.  But they trusted that God knew the best way for them.

When I looked up the definition of trust, it told me that it is the firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.  When my cat jumps onto a surface, it trusts that it will be reliable to hold him.  One time Jasper jumped onto a box that had a paper bag over the top of it, and he was surprised that it did not hold him.  When my group wanted to see a dog show in Fairbanks, Alaska, we noticed a dog jump off a very high platform to jump over a fence with someone waiting to catch them on the other side.  The dogs trusted that they would be caught, and thus were willing to perform the stunt.  When is the last time you gave someone or something your trust?  Do you keep it to yourself?  In this world today, perhaps the greatest thing we need to share with one another is our love.  Frederick Buechner was quoted with this: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  The world’s deep hunger right now is love.  Many people keep love to themselves, and are quicker to criticize than to love.  We can work on changing that.  I am fairly certain that my deep gladness is also found in love.  I am glad when I have the opportunity to love my neighbor, to lead someone to God, and to simply show someone that people care.  The world’s hunger and my deep gladness meet in love.  That is why it is my calling.  I love my neighbor by showing that I can trust them, because I know that they care about me too.  Perhaps we need to trust someone until they prove otherwise, instead of keeping our trust captive until they prove to us that they earned it.  It’s very hard to earn trust if you are given no opportunity to show that you can be trusted.  A potential leader will not rise up if no one trusts them with any tasks to complete.

As we celebrate Christmas, we may remember how so many placed their faith in Jesus.  Shepherds left their sheep to see Jesus born in a stable.  Joseph trusted Mary and the vision that he received from the angel.  A husband left his family to go find Jesus to ask him to come heal his daughter.  Jesus has proven to us that he has earned our trust.  The people gave him the opportunity to prove his love and they decided to trust him.  Where have you given him the opportunity to prove his love to you?

This is a story about someone who decided to give Jesus the opportunity to be trusted: “I once heard about a woman who had, in spite of a hard life and virtually no resources except her stamina and the strength of her faith, raised six fine children and sent them all to college.  Asked how she did it, she replied, “I saw a new world coming.” Let us hold on to the vision and live in love until the Lord comes again” (A.1.67, Joanna M. Adams).  She was able to trust in this vision of a new world, just as Mary and Joseph trusted, and so many of us still today trust in a new world to come.  Even when we do not see the new world with us now, we believe in a new world to come.  Is it hard to want to raise children in a world which we pretty much know will chew them apart?  Do we not want to see our children go through that pain?  We probably do not.  But then why do we still raise children?  We truly believe that our future generations can do better, that they can keep following God, that they can learn from those who have gone before and not make the same mistakes twice.  We believe in a new world, and most of all, we believe in the world that Jesus offers to us to partake in.

Part of trusting and believing is knowing that Jesus is for real.  When John the Baptist heard of Jesus, he sent a messenger to ask him, “Are you really the one we have been waiting for?  Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Mt. 11:3)  John has been waiting for some alternative, for something to hope for and to hope in.  Could that be Jesus?  This is the answer from Jesus, in effect: “I cannot answer for you.  You have to decide on your own whether I am for real.  Look at the evidence.  What do you see?” (Mt. 7-11)  His answer will be the same for us today.  What do you see?  What is the evidence?  Is Jesus the one who has come for real, who you can trust in?  Or are you to wait for another?  Look at the evidence we have seen, and answer for yourselves.  Look at the magical moments with family at Christmas.  Jesus is with us as we begin this new year, and there is nothing better to start our new year with than Jesus.  Jesus is our life, our salvation, and the one in whom we can trust to make things new, if not now, then in the days to come.  John, in fact, did not live to see the day of Resurrection.  But he believed that the good things were to come; He trusted in what was promised to come.  Jesus has been born.  Jesus promises us that there are good things to come.  God is among us.

At the start of this year, I challenge you to these tasks: First, spread love.  The world needs love.  In order to trust in a God that is good and promises good things, the world needs to be able to believe that love still exists.  When we spread love to our neighbor, we help promote the goodness of God.  And in turn, we will help others trust in the goodness of God a bit more.  This leads us into our second task: Trust God.  As Christians, we need to trust God.  Trusting God is how we find hope in good things to come.  Without trust in God, we may start placing our trust in other things, and we are journeying away from God.  Give God more opportunity to earn your trust, or better yet, trust in God anyway from the start.  And even when God seems to break your trust by not doing what you wanted or prayed, know that God cannot control everything and sometimes is already working out something better for you that you just have to wait for and have faith for.  I know it is easier said than done, which is why we are going to work this year on our theme word of “trust.”  Last year was our year of prayer.  This year is our year of trusting.  Your third challenge is to believe in love and trust.  To spread love and to trust God, we need to believe that they still exist.  We need to believe that there are still people who love each other and place faith in one another.  We also need to believe that we can still trust one another and God, and not assume that everyone out there is just going to break it.  The world seems to want to take love and trust from us; it is our responsibility to counteract that and put a little bit of it back.

Paul (or whoever wrote Hebrews) also spoke to trusting Jesus to help those who are suffering.  In Hebrews 2:18, he affirms, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”  We can trust Jesus with whatever we have wherever we are at.  When we are discouraged, we can take it to the Lord in prayer.  When we are worried, we can hand those worries over to God for God to hold.  Jesus IS able to help those who are being tested.  We need to challenge ourselves to trust God with our concerns when they arise; and we all know that they WILL arise.  God knows how we feel.  And God knows us, and loves us, and wants to make things better.  God wants to give us a hope and a future (Jer. 29:11).  Can you believe in that this year?  If not, what is preventing you from believing?  Can you nix that at its center, so it doesn’t prevent you anymore?  Can you stop it from holding you back from trusting God with your concerns?  Can you stop it from holding you back from trusting and loving your neighbor when that is probably what your neighbor needs most right now?

I want to thank our consistory members.  They engaged in a step of trusting God’s call on their lives.  They trust that God has been calling them to give to the church in a specific way.  Whatever you do for the church, lighting candles, ringing the bell, taking up or counting the offering, or taking care of the church building, we trust you with these tasks and we thank you.  The congregation trusts these members to represent the people well and to get the tasks done that need to be done.  We engage in trust well when we trust one another to these tasks, and when we trust God to say yes to these tasks.  Even when things do not go our way, like when we do not have Christmas Eve services two times in the past three years, we still trust God.  Going into a new year, we trust God.  As we spread love to our neighbor and to the world, and trust God to hold us in God’s care, we celebrate God among us, Emmanuel, and share God’s promise with those around us.  May all glory and honor be to God.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Isaiah 63:7-9
63:7 I will recount the gracious deeds of the LORD, the praiseworthy acts of the LORD, because of all that the LORD has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
63:8 For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely”; and he became their savior
63:9 in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Hebrews 2:10-18
2:10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
2:11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters,
2:12 saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”
2:13 And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”
2:14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,
2:15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.
2:16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.
2:17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.
2:18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Matthew 2:13-23
2:13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
2:14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,
2:15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
2:16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
2:17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
2:19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,
2:20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”
2:21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.
2:22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.
2:23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Emmanuel – 18 December 2022

Written by Pastor Bryan Niebanck

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Psalm 80:7

“A very young boy living on a farm who was instructed by his mother to go out on a pitch-dark night to check if the barn door was closed and locked. The young boy left through the kitchen door and returned in less than a minute. When asked what was wrong, the boy replied that it was too dark to see where the barn was and he was afraid to walk out where he could not see. His mother handed him a flashlight and told him to try again. But once again he returned in less than a minute, explaining that the flashlight was too weak and he still couldn’t see the barn. “You don’t need to see the barn,” responded his mother. “Just walk to the end of the light.” The insight in the story is that by walking to the end of the light, more of the path ahead is exposed. It is sufficient to have a basic sense of direction—a clear purpose, intentional outcomes, and a willingness to calmly begin the journey in order to learn the steps that are not yet apparent. It takes courage to walk to the end of the light” (Quietly Courageous, Gil Rendle).

God asks each of us – Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men, and us today, to trust God just enough to walk to the end of the light according to God’s word, even when we cannot yet see the destination.  May the light of Christ, whose birth we are soon celebrating, shine brightly enough for you to take that next step, even when you are not quite sure where you are going.  You have the light, and that is what matters.  You may learn to trust Christ in new ways.  You may find new meaning in your relationship with Him.  As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you do not see the whole staircase.”  If we take the first step with the light that is the light of Christ, it does not matter where we are going.  We are stepping with the light of Christ.

This week is a call for resolve.  First, we reflected on a call to hope.  Then, we surrendered to God’s peace.  Last week, we experienced awe in God’s joy.  This week, we resolve to God’s love.  What is a way that you can trust in God’s love this season?  Do you have confidence that God loves you and wants the best for you?  If so, then seek God, and let God guide you and do his work in you.  Do you have faith that God’s love expressed through you can make a difference in this world?  If so, then be kind; you do not know what is happening in another person’s life, and being kind can change their day around.  It is very simple to spread love.  We do not just do it this time of year; we should do it all throughout the year.

Yesterday was our big pick-up day for Giving Tree.  Do we know how many people offered their kindness by volunteering their time to make someone else’s Christmas a little bit brighter.  How many hours of time were offered for this project?  I do not think we kept track.  It does not matter.  What matters is all the kindness that was spread to spread a little love this Christmas.  What matters is that everyone who helped was selfless in their giving, knowing that the only benefit they would receive is the knowledge that someone else’s day was a little bit brighter.  Why do we love one another this way?  What calls us to be selfless with our time?  “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:9).

In Romans, Paul expresses the fact that God loves the people, and he also shares his love with the people he is ministering to.  He calls the people in Rome “God’s beloved” (Romans 1:7).  He tells them that they belong to Jesus.  They belong to a group of neighbors who love and support one another.  And he is also clear that he himself loves them; he gives them a blessing; “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7).  He is not paid for his work (1 Corinthians 9).  He notes that he is probably owed payment, but he does it out of the goodness of his heart.  We might say the same about those who worked on projects like the Giving Tree this year, or the Back to School program, or Serve Bellevue, or leading elements at our Bellevue Thanksgiving Service, like directing the choir and playing the organ.

In the gospel today, we read about the angel appearing to Joseph, telling him that he should go forward with Mary and trust God.  The angel confirms everything that Mary had said.  The child is to be named Jesus because he saves.  They shall call him Emmanuel because God is with us.  He is the Messiah, the chosen one.  This is more than love shared from person to person.  This is love from God.  God loves the people so much that He wants to be with them.  He does not want them to succumb to their sins.  He wants them to be saved.  And God wants the same for us today.  This is why, still two thousand years later, we are telling the same story of God coming down to earth for a visit.  We are sharing the same story, of Joseph and Mary deciding to trust God even though everything they knew went against it.  They showed an extraordinary trust in God.  They trusted in God’s extraordinary love.

In Psalm 80, we find a resolve.  Our focus is to resolve in God’s love.  Hear these words at the end of the psalm: “Give us life, and we will call on your name.  Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80:18-19).  Do you think this prayer will be answered?  Perhaps we will find out this week.  It is a call to God’s love.  The people trusted in God’s love.  They asked God to let his face shine.  In the birth of the Christ child, I believe God’s face shone.  I know that the people were saved.  And just like the prayer in the psalm, when God gave life, God in the flesh, many people called on his name.

Therefore, what will make you call on God’s name today?  Is this Christmas just like any other holiday?  Do you feel resolved to call on God in a new way as God comes to continually surprise us?  I believe we are called to three steps late in this Advent season so that we can experience God’s love and peace in witnessing the story of the Christ’s birth told again.  First, see God’s love.  See God’s love reaching out to you in this birth, in this season, through the love of someone else, and in the love that God shows by placing things in our path like people and opportunity.  See God’s love.  Recognize that God’s love is in your midst.  Second, resolve to trust in God’s promise.  Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and all those who we see going to the stable trusted in God’s promise.  The disciples trusted in God’s promise.  So many in our stories that we tell each year left everything to follow God’s promise.  Trust in God’s promise.  How can you more faithfully trust God this year?  What worries can you give over to God?  Do you need to worry what other people are going to think of you?  You may not see the destination, but you can walk with the light.  And third, love one another.  Our love is inspired by God’s love for us.  Do whatever you can to show love to the world, just as God brought love to the world in the birth of Jesus.  This call is never ending.

Emmanuel means God with us.  On the fourth Sunday of Advent, we are looking with increased anticipation toward the birth that we are about to celebrate, when we are reminded that God is with us.  Though we may at times still have doubts.  This is why a group of students at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, set up a confession booth at a college weekend festival.  “When students entered the confession booth, they were surprised that the Christians who set it up began confessing to them, and not the other way around.  They confessed their lack of love and bitterness.  They apologized for the televangelists, for neglecting the poor and the lonely.  They expressed sorrow for having misrepresented Jesus on campus.  The Christian students ask for forgiveness!” (FOTW A.1.83).  In confessing their failures, the students believed that God could rescue them from their state.  They believed that God could come among them and teach them a better way.  When we celebrate God-with-us, we celebrate God giving us a hope, and teaching us the way to live.  We celebrate the resolve to do what we can to better represent God among us in our community.

 Do whatever you can to recognize the love of God among you, for God is with us indeed.  Then, work on trusting in God’s promise more than you ever have.  Pray about it if that helps; it almost always does.  And once you have recognized God’s love shared with you, and faithfully trusted your life to God, you can confidently share God’s love with others, wanting nothing in return.  God is with us.  Let God’s love be shown.  Let all honor and glory be to God.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
80:1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
80:2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!
80:3 Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
80:4 O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
80:5 You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.
80:6 You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.
80:7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
80:17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.
80:18 Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.
80:19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Romans 1:1-7
1:1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,
1:2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures,
1:3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh
1:4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,
1:5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name,
1:6 including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
1:7 To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Matthew 1:18-25
1:18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
1:19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
1:20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
1:21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
1:22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
1:23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
1:24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,
1:25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

A Visit from God – 11 December 2022

By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom

Isaiah 35:1

Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”  And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”  Then Mary said, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:34-38). 

As the people lived in a world dominated by Roman politics, they dreamed of a Messiah to come and change things up.  They dreamed of one to end the oppression and make things better.  They hoped for something that many believed was an impossible hope.  And Mary too, could not at first see how it was possible for her to be the chosen one to be the vessel of God’s redemption, when she had been with no man.  Yet, the angel’s words, “For with God, nothing shall be impossible,” quiets the doubt.  Mary accepts her call.  And Joseph accepts his also.

“Throughout the Bible, God showed up to deliver His people. He sent messages of hope in the darkest circumstances. When things seemed impossible, He sent deliverance. The annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary proclaims that He is with us.

“This holiday season some of us find ourselves in impossible and hopeless situations. If not us, we know someone who is struggling. And while we may not have the solutions ourselves, we can trust that “with God nothing will be impossible.” Will we choose to trust and submit to God, even when we don’t know how it will happen? Will we serve Him even when the situation seems impossible?  Do we trust God regardless of the appearance of our external circumstances? Will we obediently submit to His will for Him to bring hope and deliverance in our lives and those around us? (CBN, 6-Dec-2022).

We began our Advent series with a call to reflect.  How can we live honorably today while we confidently hope for redemption in the future?  We prepare for an unexpected visit by our Savior.  Last week, I called you to surrender more of yourself to God so that God could use you as a vessel for redeeming others.  Mary certainly felt the call to surrender when the angel Gabriel appeared to her.  Joseph surrendered his reputation when he went to be with Mary.  I asked this question: How can we be more accepting, more forgiving, and more encouraging to not only prepare the way for God in our own lives, but prepare the way for God in another’s life?  Today, the call is to awe.  We lit our candle of JOY this morning; joy can cause us to experience awe.  After reflecting on our call, and surrendering to our call, we experience awe of God.  I pray that each of us might experience that today.  Even when we sometimes find ourselves in impossible or hopeless situations, remember that is exactly where Mary found herself.  And she proclaimed, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  … He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1:46-9, 54-5).

The prophet Isaiah foretells similar rejoicing amid seemingly hopeless circumstances: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom… Here is your God.  He will come and save you” (Isaiah 35:1, 4).  This is also good news.  In a world where there might seem to be a desert – a desert of destruction and a desert of gloom at times, God can somehow bring hope.

This Christmas is a sad one for many.  For many, it is the first holiday season since they lost a loved one.  It may be the first holiday season since a loved one was taken from them in a devastating act of violence.  This week will mark ten years since the devastating attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, 25 miles from my hometown.  I’ve met students who were at that school on December 14, 2012.  I have counseled them in Boy Scouts.  Some of my friends had friends in Newtown.  This coming year will also be the tenth anniversary of the devasting news within my hometown (April 25, 2013) that someone had asked a girl to prom, and when she said no, he murdered her in the school hallway.  We had a vigil that night for Maren Sanchez at my church.  Most of my friends knew her.  The line at her wake was two and a half hours long.  I waited in it.  I attended the funeral.  What do we do in the desert when we thought we had so many moments to celebrate still to come, and they are taken from us?  What do we do when they come closer and closer to our home?  Sometimes the situation seems hopeless.  Sometimes we ask, “How can I go on?’  We turn to God and ask, “What can I do better?”  A little bit of magic did show up that night, though.  An outdoor funeral at Jonathan Law High School’s football field was filled with strangers and friends alike, all there for the same reason.  It was at the vigil when friends were able to hug and cry together.  God did find a way in.  God shared in the devastation.  God is there to say, “I see why you are hopeless.  Let me show you a way.”

Life is not measured by time.  Life is measured by moments.  We can experience joy in the desert because God is sending a message to us.  God tells us that this is not the only way, and this is not the final end.  The angel told Mary that nothing will be impossible with God.  God has shown up to deliver the people of Israel.  God will show up to deliver the people of the world.  Again, the question is this: Will we serve Him when the situation seems impossible?  Do we trust God regardless of the appearance of our external circumstances?  Will we obediently submit to His will for Him to bring hope and deliverance in our lives and those around us?  Let us do these things.  Let us accept a feeling of hope and a promise of deliverance.  Let us serve God in the face of all evil, and combat evil with good.

If you are feeling blue this Christmas, you are not alone.  Some of us grieve a difficult year.  Some of us grieve anniversaries.  All of us grieve something.  If you are not feeling the love and peace of Christmas this year, there could be a number of reasons.  But do not feel like you need to try to force it.  Remember that Jesus came to save the lost, like you and me.  Jesus came to save those who were not happy, who were not sure where to find hope, and who weren’t sure how long they could go on.  The prophecy of Jesus means that there is someone to listen to us, someone to hear us, and someone to tell us that our thoughts are real.  A visit from God is a caring visit.  It is a helpful visit.  It is hopefully an encouraging visit.

I have a friend from Ashland who is traveling to Kenya to work with Harvest of Hope Ministries, which is run by one of my friends from Ashland Seminary.  They work with the kids and their families and give them reason to hope for something better – better water, better living situations, and a better education.  They literally harvest hope.  And by harvesting hope, they harvest joy too.  The friend who is going to Kenya tomorrow, Monday, had arranged to go volunteer her time for six weeks.  She put a lot of money and time into preparing for the trip.  According to her story, the person who is supposed to help her get to the airport cut her out from dealing with her.  She saw it as a visit of hope, a visit of joy, when she found someone else who could make sure that she gets to where she needs to be to get on that plane.  I seek to harvest hope where I live.  We all seek to harvest hope.  We all serve a God who harvests joy.  Joy is harvested in the babe in the manger, and in each of us as we spread joy to one another, through our words, our actions, and our very lives.  This is why God came to Earth for a visit: to teach us the way of joy even when a lot of things go wrong.  There is always joy, and there is always hope, even in Nazareth (Reference, The Nativity Story¸ movie).  May all glory and honor be to God!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Isaiah 35:1-10
35:1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus
35:2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.
35:3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
35:4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”
35:5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
35:6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;
35:7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
35:8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
35:9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.
35:10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Luke 1:46b-55
1:46b “My soul magnifies the Lord,
1:47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Matthew 11:2-11
11:2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples
11:3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
11:4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:
11:5 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.
11:6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
11:7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?
11:8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.
11:9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
11:10 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
11:11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

He is Coming – Like it or Not – 4 December 2022

Pastor Bryan Niebanck

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

Matthew 3:3

Have you ever had a visitor who tells you that they are coming over to your house, and you basically have no say in the matter?  Perhaps they only give you a five-minute warning.  Maybe they are even kind enough to give you a thirty-minute warning.  Perhaps there was a time when a child gave you a warning that their friend was coming over, like it or not, or maybe you did not find out until they were at the door.  Regardless, does having a warning that you have a visitor coming whether you like it or not make you stressfully try to get the house ready?  Do you feel that you can welcome that visitor in kind?

When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, he proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.  This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Matt. 3:2-3).  John the Baptist has told the people of Israel that someone is coming after him, of whom John is not even worthy to carry his sandals (Matt. 3:11).  This person is coming whether the people are ready for him or not.  So, John says, prepare.  Prepare the way of the Lord.  Get yourselves ready to welcome him.  Whether you are ready for Christmas to come or not, Christmas is coming.  We are celebrating Christmas yet again.  And Advent is the season where you can prepare the way for Christ to enter your hearts.  It is where you can forge the way of peace.

How many of you feel that you are in a wilderness?  You may not be sure of where to turn, or perhaps you look at the way other Christians pray or show their faith and think, “I will never be like them,” or, “I can never do what preacher is asking me to do, so I guess I am just out of luck.”  The good news is that, in preparing the way for the Lord, we do not need to reach a certain level of faith or be better than the person next to us in our devotion.  We just need to be better than we were yesterday.  When we find a way to selflessly serve, for example, we are better than we were yesterday.  It is not about how long you pray, or the form of your prayer, or what you can take away from prayer.  It is not about whether you can hear God speaking to you or if you just hear silence.  There are many different ways to communicate with God and improve our devotion towards God.  Sometimes we can sit at a prayer fountain and spend hours in that moment, and have a meaningful interaction.  Other times we can think about God for a moment while we are waiting for a train, and have just as meaningful of an experience.  On Friday, as I was waiting for the train to get into Hogue’s to relieve Dena of the bell ringing, I was forced to stop for a minute.  Sometimes we just need to stop and breathe.  We need to take in the present for a minute.  How can you selflessly serve God this week?  How can you selflessly serve your neighbor, when the only thing you gain from your tireless hours is the knowledge that someone else’s life was brightened because of what you did?  If you are in a wilderness – maybe you do not feel close to God, maybe you do not feel peace or joy – then think about one step that you can make that brings you closer to God.  Even if you just take one step all Advent, or all year, it is one step closer to God.  This much we can do for God.  We can show God that He is a priority in our lives.  We can show God that we will take a few moments to prepare the way into our hearts and lives this year.

I am not going to list out a whole bunch of steps and directions this time because it really is different for each one of us.  I may want to start more days journaling in the morning in 2023.  One of my goals is to wake a little earlier, go on a morning run, and start the day with some devotions.  We’ll see if it works out; I bet I’ll fail sometimes, but if I do better at it next year than I did this year, something good has happened.  Whatever you do to seek God more is absolutely your choice.  But Jesus is coming.  Jesus will knock, and we want to have room in our inn.  We want to make room in our hearts.  Remember how we began the year?  I challenged you to pick one in 2022: Praise, Prayer, Listen, Share.  Which have you improved on the most this year?  What will be your goals in 2023?

When John the Baptist challenged the people with the coming of the Messiah, he called them to repent.  That is, he called them to turn away from their comfortable life.  He called them to make a change.  This may mean that you have to do something outside your comfort zone.  If you have to repent from a wrongdoing – if that has been holding you back from God – do so; if you have to take a bold step that you may have been afraid to take, try that.  For some, it may be getting up in front of people to light a candle, or reading, or even doing the children’s story.  For others, it may be welcoming someone into our lives who we have been afraid to face.  It may be going on a mission trip even though you are not sure right now how you can help.  You trust that if God has called you to something, God can use you.  Being with God requires a bold step.  Preparing the way for God requires us to take a bold step.

The motto of the United Church of Christ is this: “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”  We know all too well that people in the days before Jesus would not welcome everyone; sometimes there is just no room, and sometimes someone may turn out to be a robber.  We have the same barriers today, and they are legitimate barriers.  But can we welcome one another into the space that is our hearts and our church?  When we meet someone, can we make them feel loved?  Regardless of where they or we are on controversial issues, in politics, on LGBTQ, we are called to love our neighbor.  We do not have to affirm the belief of our neighbor, but we should accept them and create a welcoming space.  As Paul encouraged us in Romans 15: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:5-7).  Acceptance makes someone feel loved.  Forgiveness makes someone feel loved.  Encouragement makes someone feel loved.  They all make someone feel welcome.  How can we be more accepting, more forgiving, and more encouraging to not only prepare the way for God in our own lives, but prepare the way for God in another’s life?

Last week, we started our Advent series with a call to reflect.  I called you to reflect on our Advent hope, to not be afraid because we have that hope, and because we hope, we can trust in the Lord and live honorably while we wait for what is to come.  As we wait for salvation and peace in our hope, let us live honorably.  Today, I call you to surrender.  Surrender yourself to God by giving what you can of yourself for the kingdom of God.  Surrender some of your time to spend more time with God.  Surrender your love to others who may not have expected to receive that love.  Surrendering to God is depending on God.  When we depend on God, we are giving ourselves over to God, because He is coming and we trust and know that this is good.  The shepherds came without question to the stable to lay their eyes on the newborn Christ child.  The mother Mary surrendered to God when she told the angel Gabriel, “Let it be to me as I have been told.”  The father Joseph surrendered his reputation in his hometown by going to be with Mary despite the talk around Nazareth.  He surrendered to the will of God, since the angel appeared to him in a dream.  The Lord will win, so there is no sense in fighting a call of God.  Whatever time we offer, God will use that time.

God loves us.  God loves us so much that God wants us to be a part of his work.  As we take a bold step to further that work, and give to others, we find that it is more blessed to give than to receive.  And that can give us an overwhelming sense of peace this Christmas.  Bring love to someone else this Christmas.  Bring God back into the world.  Be peace to your neighbor.  Whatever brings you peace, forge the way of peace.  That is how God will enter the world, in peace, in love, and in glory, adored by all who come to Him.  May all glory and honor be to God.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Isaiah 11:1-10
11:1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
11:2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
11:3 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;
11:4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
11:5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
11:6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
11:7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
11:8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
11:9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
11:10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
72:1 Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.
72:2 May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.
72:3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
72:4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.
72:5 May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
72:6 May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.
72:7 In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
72:18 Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.
72:19 Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen.

Romans 15:4-13
15:4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.
15:5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus,
15:6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
15:7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
15:8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs,
15:9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”;
15:10 and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;
15:11 and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”;
15:12 and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 3:1-12
3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,
3:2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
3:3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”
3:4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.
3:5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan,
3:6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
3:8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
3:9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
3:10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
3:11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

The Unexpected Visit – 27 November 2022

By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

let us live honorably

Romans 13:13

Whenever we go to a wedding or a funeral, there is nearly always a guest book.  Guests write their names in the book, and perhaps a brief message of support, and this provides a lasting memory of all those who came from near and far.  Our church has a guest book too.  When we have guests, we encourage them to sign the guest book, telling us what town or what state they are from, so that we can celebrate how God brought us together in this present moment.  Perhaps we have crossed paths for only a moment, or perhaps we have crossed paths for only the first of many times.  Guest books celebrate the occasion of being brought together.  Any occasion where friends and family are brought together into one place is a reason to celebrate.  That moment can be used for ministry, for encouragement, and reconciliation.  It can be used to strengthen one another.  Our work can pay the bills.  But the people in our lives is why we are here.  We minister to everyone we meet.  We minister to our guests, and we minister to those we see all the time.  Anyone who seeks to help another seek God is a minister in Christ.

If every encounter is an opportunity to minister, should we not always be joyful when someone comes into our lives?  Is there ever a time when you are not joyful?  You are working in your cubicle trying to cram together a presentation that is in just over an hour.  Suddenly an unexpected guest comes and wants to talk to you.  “Not now,” you grimace as you smile and greet the person, hoping it is a quick interaction.  Have you ever done this?  Or, it is twenty minutes until break time, and you know that a conversation with this fellow can consume half of your break.  Or, the telephone rings and you say to yourself, “This better be quick, the Ohio State game is on in ten minutes!”  There are certain times that we are just not in the mood for talking to someone else.  What about the times when you have responded graciously?  What are some good things that have come from that visit?  For me, some of the unexpected visits, such as when someone comes over to the church, known or unknown, are some of the most rewarding moments of my day.  I try to remind myself that it is okay if the to-do list is not quite finished to the best of my ability yet.  God will guide this conversation and God will guide the moments to come, even if this conversation makes me less prepared for something.  What are some of the good forms of an unexpected visit?  When you show up to visit someone in a nursing home, you are often unexpected, but the resident is thrilled to see you.  At a restaurant I have witnessed numerous chance encounters with people who know each other, and they are thrilled to have that unexpected visit with each other.  When we begin to see other people in our lives as opportunities to minister, and not distractions to our schedules, we are beginning to love more like God.  Does God set times with us, or make us make an appointment?  Did Jesus refuse to tend to those who tugged on his robes, when he was on the way to see someone else?  We are often God’s unexpected visitor, and God loves it.  God loves it when we make time for God, and God loves it even more so when we make time for God that was not first planned into our day.

Matthew 24 warns us to be prepared for an unexpected visit.  The writer of the gospel warns us: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (24:42).  This is a forewarning of the unexpected visit of the Son of Man for which we are unprepared.  We are in the advent of the coming of the King, in some future day that is, as yet, unknown.  We are looking forward to the glorious return of peace on earth and good will toward all people.  As we begin the Christmas season, when everyone is putting up their decorations and light to shine through the early darkness of the evenings, it almost seems possible for a moment.  We can forget about the violence of the world for just a moment, or, if not that, we can look past it into a new hope for just a moment.  We look forward to the time when justice will prevail, when all things will be made right.  But we still do not know when that day will be.

Because we do not know what day that will be, the author of the gospel warns us that we have to be ready now.  We have to do what we can now to be ready for the unexpected visit.  We should expect a visit any time.  That means that we should keep the dishes washed at our homes.  We should always keep things tidy, in case an unexpected visitor shows up.  In other words, we need to keep our lives tidy.  As we join in this advent of hope, as we hope for the better world yet to come, which we try to hope in with the magic of Christmastime every year, we need to live in the light of the Lord.  As we wait for salvation and peace in hope, let us live honorably.  Let us live lives that are honorable to the Lord.  Let us live lives that leave a legacy for God’s glory.  Let us live lives that God would be proud of us for living.  If the Master comes earlier than we expected, we want to be found working.  We want to be found seeking ways to know the Lord better.  We want to be found helping others to know the Lord better.  We want to be found doing something that is honorable to God.  We may use the opportunities for ministry that God gives us instead of pushing them aside.  We might not grumble when God sends us a change of plans; instead, may be embrace what God is using us for in this moment of our lives.  As we embrace who we are in God, we find more hope in God.  When we know God more deeply, we can more quickly affirm to ourselves and to one another that God is faithful, God is just, and God has a plan for the world that can offer us hope.

As we talk about unexpected visits, this is not an invitation to go showing up to people’s houses unannounced.  People will still want to be given some time to get those dishes washed or that laundry folded.  But Jesus will not need that preparation work done first.  All Jesus wants is for our hearts to be washed clean and to be folded neatly, carefully in tune with the Lord.  Jesus does not care what our lives look like on the outside, but what we look like on the inside.  I may not have every dish washed, every floor mopped, and every item of clothing clean at the end of the day.  But I want to end my days knowing that I did the best that I could for the Lord that day.  Can you do that?  Can you end your day asking yourself the question, “Have I done all I could do for the Lord today?”

There is a song that we sing in Scouts which is called Scout Vespers.  It goes something like this: “Softly falls the light of day as our campfire fades away.  Silently each scout should ask, “Have I done my daily task?  Have I kept my honor bright?  Can I guiltless sleep tonight?  Have I done and have I dared everything to be prepared?”  Have I done all I could to be prepared?  Have I lived my day honorably?  Have I done all I could for the Lord today?

When you ask yourself these questions, you hold yourself accountable.  And still more, you enable yourself to have more hope.  You have more hope because you are knowing the Lord more deeply through your actions.  The deeper we know the Lord, the more confidence we have in the Lord.  And confidence gives us hope for reconciliation, for a better future, and for a peaceful future.

When someone has a vision, I believe that it is said when the hope in a vision becoming a reality is lost, then all hope is lost.  We never want to reach that moment.  We want to hold onto the vision.  We want to hold on to the vision that the prophet Isaiah provided the people of Israel, even before the exile.  He looked beyond the exile; he looked beyond the worst part that was still yet to come.  Even when we know that there is a lot of trial and tribulation ahead of us, we can hold onto the vision that Isaiah proclaims so boldly: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of mountains, people shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.  O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (Isaiah 2:2, 4-5).  O house of Christ, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!  Let us live honorably.  Let us give every honor to God.  For in God is our hope and our salvation!  May all honor and glory be to God!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Isaiah 2:1-5
2:1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
2:2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.
2:3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
2:4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
2:5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Psalm 122
122:1 I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”
122:2 Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
122:3 Jerusalem built as a city that is bound firmly together.
122:4 To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
122:5 For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David.
122:6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you.
122:7 Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”
122:8 For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.”
122:9 For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good.

Romans 13:11-14
13:11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers;
13:12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;
13:13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.
13:14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Matthew 24:36-44
24:36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
24:37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
24:38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark,
24:39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
24:40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.
24:41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.
24:42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
24:43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.
24:44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Hold Together – 20 November 2022

By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Colossians 1:17

A friend of mine was driving home one evening and it was completely dark.  The transmission of the vehicle he was driving started acting up about ten miles away from his destination.  Having no cell phone, there was no way he could contact anyone if he did not get home.  I could envision the prayer that may or may not have been formed like a prayer, but would have gone like this: “Hold together.  Please hold together.  Just enough to get home… just hold together until I get home.”  Thankfully, it did hold together, and he could take care of scheduling a mechanic and getting a rental car from the comfort of his home the next day.

Another couple shelters in place during a tornado.  They are entrusting their safety to the structure that they are in.  They start talking to the building: “Hold together.  You can get through this.  You can weather out this storm.”  Encouraging the building can help withstand doubt and fear in the moment of danger.  I remember driving up Interstate 55 toward Chicago in 2016 when I was visiting seminaries.  The weather was not great, to say the least, and the rain was coming down so hard that we had to pull over as we found a rest area.  Either my dad or I – I don’t remember who – said something like, “Well, at least we are in a shelter now.”  A maintenance worker looked at us as if to say, “If a tornado comes along, this place is not holding together for a second.”  Thankfully, none did, and the place held together as a shelter for the rain until the worst of it had passed.

When else have you willed something to hold together?  Perhaps you have had to use glue or duct tape to help something hold together.  I recall a couple times on Boy Scout backpacking trips where duct tape was quite handy in helping someone’s shoes stay together until the end of the trip.  I think it may have lasted through the next trip as well.  I think that we all can agree that holding together is a good thing.  We do not want things to fall apart.  We want things to hold together.

When Paul was writing to the various churches throughout Asia Minor and what later became southern Europe, he knew that many of the churches were divided against each other.  People had disagreements about how to do things.  Some members of the church were even living in what Paul would call flagrant disobedience of God’s call for our lives.  He wrote the letters to try to both hold the church accountable for what was happening and also to hold the church together, encouraging them in the name of Jesus and everything that holds them together.  He wrote in his letter to the Colossians, “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from Christ’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.  … He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:11, 12, 17).  Paul starts his letter to the Colossians reminding them of the one thing that they can all agree on.  He begins with Christ.  Jesus is the power that holds the church together, as the church seeks to know Christ more, to be more like Christ, and to spread the knowledge of Christ’s mission throughout the world.  If we can agree on one thing, Paul believes, we can be unified.  The power of Christ is that compelling.  That power of Christ is that powerful.

When you want to restore a broken relationship, how do you do it?  You could approach a person and tell them why you were angry with them and all the things that they did wrong.  But revisiting that will not restore the relationship; it will only make things worse.  Perhaps a common joy is more appropriate to start with.  It does not mean that the other person should not be accountable for what they did, but it can be addressed later.  Paul addresses concerns like these throughout his letters, but he usually starts by giving thanks for the people who he is writing to.  He starts with a positive, with something that he and the church can agree on.  What common joy can help restore a relationship, or help it to hold together?

We find in Paul’s message both Jesus the Powerful and Jesus the Reconciler.  Jesus is glorious.  He is “the image of the invisible God,” he is “before all things,” he is the “head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:15-18).  He is like the CEO.  He is the head.  But he is the CEO of all CEOs.  He is the king of kings, the lord of lords.  There is a song that sings of this glory within Handel’s Messiah.  There are countless other songs that sing of the glory of Christ.  He is exalted.  He is the Son of the Most High.  And he is.  But he is the CEO who comes down from his office to have lunch with the employees who work for him.  He is the king of kings who comes to eat with the peasants.  He does not exalt his own power.  He seeks to build bonds with others and between others.  He wants to reconcile those who have gone astray.  He does not hold what we have done against us; what matters is who we are today.  If we can agree on a few simple things, we are reconciled in the name of Christ.  We are forgiven.  If we are seeking Christ, through whatever means we can – prayer, study, conversation – we have earned favor with the glorious lord of lords.  As we read the gospel reading this morning, we saw an example of this very act.  Jesus was crucified with two criminals on either side of him, according to Luke.  When one criminal said to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus extended the hand of mercy and said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).  Jesus is our merciful Savior.  That is how we can be united with all people, regardless of our background and where we have been.  Jesus does not care about the past.  He cares about the present.  He cares about how you are spending this present moment.

In our book group last week, as we were finishing up Ecclesiastes, we had a moving discussion on a section of the book that seemed to only apply to youth.  Solomon reflected, “Rejoice while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth.  … Remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 11:9, 12:1).  This section applies not only to youth, but to everyone who reads it.  You are the youngest that you will ever be.  Start with your youth at this moment, because you will never be this young again.  Use this opportunity to know God better.  What matters is not however many years are behind us.  What matters is what we are doing in the youth of this present moment in which we live.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, we can also be unified in what we are thankful for.  Many families having different political views will be brought together around one table, not separated by their differences but united by their similarities.  We are each unique and we are each meant to be unique.  We are going to have different opinions than other people.  We are even going to interpret the same words differently than another person.  We could separate on behalf of those differences if we are looking for a reason to separate.  But our challenge as Christians, and my challenge for you today is this: Do not look for the differences; look for the similarities.  This is the only way that God’s people are going to be able to hold together.  And in a world where we need encouragement instead of despair, hope instead of disappointment, we need to be able to hold together.

Sometimes, we just need to put up with one another.  But sometimes, that seems too hard for us.  Will Willimon, author and theologian, reflects on this in a way that we can understand: “It’s so much easier to leave a congregation than to put up with one another in love.  Easier to rally around your cherished cause or huddle with folks who share your values than to obey Christ and put up with one another even as Christ has time and again put up with us.”  Yet if we are truly to be the church, we are called into unity.  We are called to celebrate the sovereignty of Christ on this day that we celebrate Christ as king over all that we know, on Christ the King Sunday.  We celebrate that Christ will someday return and show His power over all the creation, reconciling all and making things right.  We wait for this day, but we believe in it.  We show our belief by doing our part to hold ourselves together until this glorious day.  We want to be found working when the master comes.  And in addition to praising the sovereignty of Christ in worship and prayer, we are also the church at its best when we seek reconciliation with our neighbor, not matter our differences and what may divide us.  My prayer for the church is this: “Hold together.  Encourage one another.  Be together.  Hold together until the storms of this life pass, so that we remain protected in this, the house of the Lord.  Please hold together… hold together until we get home.”  As we pray for the church to hold together, I know that we will witness more than merely holding together.  Holding together is surviving.  Being together is thriving.  May all honor and glory be to God.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings

Jeremiah 23:1-6
23:1 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD.
23:2 Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD.
23:3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.
23:4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.
23:5 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
23:6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

Luke 1:68-79
1:68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
1:69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
1:70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
1:71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
1:72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,
1:73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us
1:74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear,
1:75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
1:76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
1:77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
1:78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
1:79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Colossians 1:11-20
1:11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully
1:12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.
1:13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,
1:14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
1:15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
1:16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him.
1:17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
1:18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
1:19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
1:20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Luke 23:33-43
23:33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.
23:34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.
23:35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”
23:36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine,
23:37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
23:38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
23:39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
23:40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?
23:41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
23:42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
23:43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”