“Grace is not a Hidden Agenda”

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Christmas Day, 2013, sermon by Pastor Mark Anderson, Lutheran Church of the Master, Corona del Mar, CA.

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Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

 Grace is not a hidden agenda.

 Grace is not a hidden agenda.

Now, we do live in a time, a religious atmosphere, where Christianity is often presented as something that needs to be appropriated by the individual. It’s offered to you…right? But you have to do something, believe something, show some kind of earnestness, some kind of seriousness before it can really be yours. We take this so much for granted in our Western way of thinking, that it’s hard to imagine this is precisely how Martin Luther did not view the gospel. It was not something that was appropriated by the individual after assessing it’s value. It was something that was given…to the unacceptable …to the unworthy. And we could even go so far as to say, to those who didn’t particularly want it. Now that is very different.

I like the text this morning… “The Lord has bared His Holy arm before all the nations. All the ends of earth shall see the salvation of God.” Translation: He’s played His hand. He’s let it out… in the open. It’s become accessible…available…real.

Now, this morning we’re going to receive The Lord’s Supper. Just exactly what do we think is going on here…in this meal, here on Christmas Day? Is this bread and wine given to you so that you can conjure up within yourself some kind of spiritual feeling about what it is or how it’s valued or what it might do for you… or what it might mean? Is it left to you, to me, to simply take these elements and then decide for ourselves what their value is?  The answer is ‘no’.

Now for many people the answer would be ‘yes’. “I must have the proper amount of faith to receive this. I must have enough earnestness to really perceive what’s going on here.”  Well…I’ve been doing it for a long time, as many of you have, and I’m still not sure what’s going on here. There’s a deep, numinous, inaccessible mystery here, in one sense…but that’s not what we’re concerned about in the sacrament. What were concerned about is that God plays His hand here, for us.

Last night we talked about how in the baby Jesus, God expresses Himself. He shows Himself. There’s nothing left to the imagination. And if there is anything that we spiritual ladder climbers like it’s having our spiritual imaginations left intact….right? I mean I’m kinda that way at times. I like to drift off into all kinds of speculations about God… and the next thing I know I’ve lost myself in the etherial clouds of…whatever…I don’t know…I mean the temptation is in all of us to do so. So at Christmas we return again to that fundamental of the Christian faith, God has expressed Himself…He’s taken the mystery out of Himself…but for a very particular reason. He doesn’t show everything about Himself to us, obviously. So why does He show us what He shows us in Jesus…in the sacraments? Why does He speak in the word so that our ears can detect what he says?  For our salvation.  God doesn’t come in Christ Jesus, in the sacraments, in the word of the gospel, to answer our religious questions. To demonstrate Himself to us in the sense that He has to prove anything to us. He comes to do something for us. And to put a finer point on it, to do something …’to us’. He comes to ‘give us salvation’.

There was a time, in the Lutheran Church, when we baptized our babies and we celebrated that… and we sang the liturgy and sang the hymns and rejoiced in what God has given us in Baptism. Nowadays, everybody is up in arms about Baptism. “Well…it can’t be that gracious. You’ve got to do something” …and we’re right back in that paradigm of, “Well…what do I have to do to appropriate it…to make it my own?”

God didn’t wait for our assessment before He came into the world in the baby Jesus.    “OK…who down there thinks this is a good idea…that I’ll show up in Jesus Christ? Let me see a show of hands.  Alright…I guess that’s enough…I’ll come.”  No…He came because He chose to come. He came even though He wasn’t wanted. Remember the text last night from John 1? “He came to his own people and his own people didn’t receive him.”  He’s not waiting for us to decide something or to change our lives and get ourselves straight or right with God…He comes to us in the midst of our tangledness, our lostness, our confusion, our sin, our hurts, our hopes, our dreams…all the tangled up stuff of our lives…and He takes a hold of us right there in the middle of it.  That’s the gospel!  He doesn’t wait for us to make a decision. He makes the decision for us. Not on our behalf..but for our benefit. This is a real challenging way of thinking about the faith for people today. Because we’ve all decided, one way or another, many of us, that somehow, “Well…that’s all well and good but we have to have the final say… somehow.” 

But today we are here to proclaim…God with us…Emanuel. Not because we’ve asked for Him. Not because we’re particularly happy that He is around. But because in His grace…and His mercy…He has chosen to be with us. 

Over a lot of years, in the Christian life, I find myself… and maybe you do too, struggling with this God. And what I struggle with most is the idea of that sheer, utter grace and mercy…that requires nothing. It’s so hard for me to embrace it. Do you remember a few weeks ago we talked about this, and I asked you what the hardest thing about being a Christian is? Is it being spiritual?  No. The hardest thing about being a Christian is believing God’s promises. Just believing and trusting when He says “You are mine. I have chosen you. I forgive your sins for Jesus’ sake.” Just believe Him. Rest in Him. Allow that Word to be the final Word. And so we can push the envelope as Lutherans, right out to the breaking point and say, The sacrament is the gospel!  Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the gospel! They are the tangible, visible, no questions remaining, givenness of God, right here in real time…for you. There is a connection between the visible Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate man of God, and the visible water of Baptism. And the visible bread and wine of communion, and the audible word of forgiveness and grace that is spoken to you. That’s all Word of God. Not waiting for any of us to make any decisions. It just washes over us. Like a gracious flood. Here…have a Baptism. Here… have Communion. Here…have this…your sin is forgiven for Jesus sake. If you heard it… it happened. It’s as simple as that. “But I have to do something…don’t I ?” And what’s the answer?  “No”. That’s why the Christian community, early on, called this message, “Good News”….of great joy! For everybody! Born for you, this day in the city of David, is a Savior. God has expressed Himself…like a mother gives milk to a child. Like a parent takes a child in a warm embrace. Tangible…real. That’s how we need to view what’s going on in your Baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper, and in the Word of promise from the preacher. It’s as real as you hear, it’s as real as you taste. It’s right there. Immediate. Present. Like Jesus…putting his hand on a dead boy, on a  funeral bier, and saying, “Get up!” And life is given. That’s how the sacrament works. “This is my body, for you. This is my blood, for you.” Right here…right now. Don’t try to take it inside and spiritualize it. Don’t try to bring it inside and write theology about it. Don’t try to take it inward and figure it out. Just taste it. Let it be what it is. God for you. Pressing and impressing Himself on you…with His forgiveness and mercy. Promising you life and hope.

Now, that way of receiving the sacrament leaves nothing left…except to rejoice in it. To celebrate it. To live within it. For it sets us on a path that Jesus came to set us on, which is the path of freedom. Not freedom because we have sized everything up and figured it out, but the freedom that comes from knowing that God is not against us but for us. That the forgiveness of sins are the arms that carry us through life. That our past is never held against us. That the future is wide open. And in this sacrament we see that future coming back to us from the far side, way out there, giving us that foretaste, that image of what is coming to us. God in His sheer graciousness, providing for us a future that we cannot provide for ourselves.

So the coming of Jesus at Christmas, Emanuel, God with us, the incarnation…that fancy Latin theological term that really means the ‘in the fleshiness’… the carne… the flesh… in the meat. In the flesh of Jesus, God reveals Himself…makes Himself clear. “This is who I am. And as I have always been…I’m for you.”  That’s the whole point of creation. We talked about that last night. Creation is bent toward our good. It’s here for us. Ready for us. Waiting for us. As Jesus is bent for… meant for… our good. 

So grace is not a hidden agenda. The sacraments, the gospel, are not spiritual ideas for us to internalize and have to kinda figure out. They come utterly from outside of us. Asking nothing from us. But given solely by His grace…to us…that our confidence may be in God’s grace. And, as Luther said, “In God’s grace…alone.”     Amen.

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Thank you, Pastor Mark.

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And thanks to flickr and tamborinix, for the photo.

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Baptism…what it is…and what it is not

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Pastor Mark’s sermon for March 22, 2015:

Listen >  Baptism…what it is…what it is not

( if you don’t listen to this one you might step in gum this week )

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Thank you, Pastor Mark.

 

 

 

 

On the need to be “re-Baptized”

 

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Also titled, “Faith“:

Or  … > faith (downloadable mp3)

This one (below) on becoming more “religious and spiritual” is a good one, also:

 

http://1minutedailyword.com/2014/08/24/on-becoming-more-spiritual/

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Thank you, Pastor Mark.

Romans 11

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“For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all. O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever.  Amen.”

The photo above is of the baptismal font in our sanctuary. It stands centrally in the aisle and greets worshipers as they enter. Seeing it reminds of me of an event from years ago.

I was visiting a friend who had just started his ministry in a new congregation. While I was there he asked it I would help him with a project. With toolbox in hand he took me to a closet located near the altar at the side of the sanctuary. He opened the door to reveal a wooden baptismal font on wheels. An hour later we had removed the wheels and permanently attached the font to the floor just inside the entrance to the sanctuary.

The explosive language of Paul in the text above is not language that wonders at a God we can’t figure out. It is the language that marvels, wonders at the unfathomable grace of God that has not given up on this tiny world. To go a step further, it is the language of one for whom the story of Jesus, His cross and resurrection, have become defining. For not only has God not given up on this world, in Jesus He has committed Himself to this world, in justice and mercy, when there is no obligation for Him to do so.

The Gospel of Jesus, mediated through the word and sacraments, bring us into the story of God. Sacraments are the living events through which God continually comes to us and keeps us in His grace, shapes us and conforms us to the death and new life of the cross and resurrection. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not ambiguous events, shifting sands. The sacraments are events in real time, part of the actual story, history of God’s people, where we are encountered by God’s faithfulness, through which God creates trust by extending His mercy and grace.

My friend was absolutely right in reaffirming baptism as a symbol of permanence, and to locate that symbol in a place where the worshiping community could not push baptism into a closet. Now, they would come face to face with baptism every time they gathered. They would come face to face with an unbuffered view of the self and God in the light of the cross.

As you come and go from worship, the font stands as a reminder of the certainty of God’s judgment on sin and the certainty of God’s grace and mercy. The sacrament of baptism is not a symbol, an ambiguous spiritualizing of God. Baptism is a tangible, on going God-event in which He commits Himself to the death of your old self and the bringing to life of the new you in Christ.

A movable font is symbolic of how we can make destructive even the story of Jesus. For such a practice presents us with baptism as a perfunctory ritual, removes it from it’s central place in worship, in effect rendering ambiguous and uncertain the utterly reliable certainty of God’s grace. It becomes a symbol of our ambivalence about baptism, about God, about ourselves.

On the other hand, the immovable font, the place of grace, plants God’s decision for us firmly in our midst as a worshiping community. It states clearly that grace comes before faith. It makes clear that the Church is not first and foremost a community of faith but a community of grace. For, the great story of Jesus is the story of God’s faithfulness to a disobedient, faithless, violent and corrupt world. No wonder Paul marvels at the “depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God”. For He owes us nothing. Yet, in Christ Jesus, He has given us everything. This is the utterly gracious, reliable and unshakable promise of your baptism.

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“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

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From Pastor Mark’s daily devotional blog, December 2012

 

 

 

 

Return to your Baptism…each day.

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“As your days, so shall your strength be.”  Dueternomy 33:25

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A man once laughingly observed to a friend, “God has extremely high regard for my capacity to endure hardship; for hardship is pretty much all I know!”

As we stand on the threshold of a new and untried day, we do not know what this day will bring. Will it bring good? Will it bring unwelcome misfortune and hardship? Perhaps it will bring both. It’s probably best to not dwell too much on these questions as we make preparation to enter the day. Instead, God invites us to dwell on His promises.

He has promised to give strength for every need. He has promised that no burden is too great for us to bear because we have Him. He has promised to those who belong to Him that He will work all things for our good.

With these promises going before us we may enter the day with gratitude, anticipating the opportunities it brings; the chance to provide daily bread, be with friends, share the love of family, enjoy our interests and serve others where we may.

When hardships come it may be more difficult to see our Lord at work in them. Faith may falter. When this happens we are invited to return to our baptism and kneel at the foot of the Cross, under the steadfast love of the Redeemer who gave Himself for us. There we are reminded that no trial, suffering, discouragement or hardship fall outside the vast perimeter of God’s grace.

Therefore, we may step across the threshold of each day in the sure and certain knowledge that we are held in the baptismal promises of God; and that the story that will be written, even this day, will be the story of God’s faithfulness to us – in all things.

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

                          – Pastor Mark

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Love”

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I posted this class a while back, but I was listening to it again yesterday and thought it worthy of reposting:

 Listen to > “Love”

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Thank you, Pastor Mark.

Thanks to wehacklife.com, for the photo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The One, True Foundation

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Ok…fasten your seat belts. The ground just may (hopefully) start to shake a bit:

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 Listen to > The One, True Foundation

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Thank you, Pastor Mark.

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Thanks also to flickr and bjarvike, for the photo.

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