By Pastor Steven Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Well, another new near is finally upon us; Happy New Year! And if this New Year is anything like those which have come before it, roughly 33 percent of us will be on diets by Monday, and approximately 80 percent of us will have crafted some sort of New Year’s Resolution, deciding to change our lives in one way or another.
A whopping 99 percent of us think 2005 will be better than 2004. That’s my estimate; 99 percent. Because I have concluded that there is always about 1 percent of any gathered group of people who believe that last year was so wonderful, it cannot be matched. No matter how great 2005 is, it cannot possibly be as good as last year. I don’t know; maybe they bet on the Red Sox, or they bought 1000 shares of Apple Computers, or maybe they met the partner of their dreams last year. But I feel the sorriest for them, because if the best is already behind you, what is there to look forward to the future? If looking backward is more gratifying than looking forward, where is the hope? Because that’s what New Year’s celebrations are all about; hope for the future. And this January is no different than last January…or next January. Collectively, we believe that the best is just around the corner.
And yet, when we took our tree down on Thursday, it was a sobering time at our house. You see, after Marsha packs away the ornaments, I take down the tree lights, and wrap them around a magazine or a folded newspaper. It is always amusing when we decorate our tree in early December, to read the headlines that were so important the year before. But next December, the headlines will not be so amusing, because on Thursday, our lights were wrapped around a newspaper that described the horrific tragedy in Asia. 125,000 dead, millions homeless, and now there is the threat of disease, and the grief in those countries is enormous. Where is the light in the midst of their darkness? Where is the hope for them? I ask you to ponder that question while I continue this sermon, and I will have more to say about it at sermon’s end. But first I want to speak about the gospel text that is ours today.
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It was a rather dark time for the Jews at the time that Jesus was born. You heard me say on Christmas Eve that the Romans occupied Jerusalem as the Jews desperately awaited the Messiah. Then last Sunday, you heard Jason describe how Herod had innocent children slaughtered because of his jealousy of the Savior’s birth. Today, I want you to fast-forward 25 years from that story. Jesus is still living in obscurity in Nazareth. The Jews are still waiting for word that the Messiah had been born. And there is this character by the name of John the Baptist, standing out in the Judean wilderness, crying “He’s here! He’s here!” John knew that the Messiah had arrived, and he was compelled to tell the people who had waited so long. These are the words we read a moment ago:There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave them power to become children of God.
Luke’s gospel tells of the baby in a manger, and of shepherds and wise men and, and we love that story. But it is here, in John’s gospel, that we gain an understanding of what it all means. God became flesh, lived in the same world as we do, and though he performed miracles, and proclaimed truth, and offered signs of his power and grace, many…most, in fact…never recognized him as God. But some did. John tells us that some did recognize him, and believed in him, and to them God gave the right to be called “the children of God.” Once a child, always a child. Once you are welcomed into the family, you will always be part of the family. The Bretl family just returned from China with Baby Amelia, and it is safe to say that they will not send her back if she wets her bed, or spills her milk, or doesn’t learn her letters before kindergarten. Once you are welcomed into the family, you will always be part of the family. And so it is in the Christian family, according to John’s gospel. “Those who received him, who believed on his name, he gave the power to become the children of God.” Forever. Forever.
It occurs to me that there are many people in this world who have still not recognized that the Savior has come to us. Some of them may be very bad people, yet others may appear to be very good. Some of these non-believers have never darkened the door of a church in their lifetime, but perhaps others have been pillars in the church for years, but never trusted Christ as Savior. Some are cynical, some are stubborn, some are ashamed, some are oblivious. But the common thread among them is that they have not believed in the promise of Jesus to make them children of God. And some may be in this place today…listening to my words…wondering if perhaps God may even love you. He does. He does. So much!
Our evangelical friends have a practice in their congregations called “an altar call.” It’s a time near the end of the service when those whose hearts were moved to faith come forward and confess their faith in Jesus. It’s a holy moment for them, and for the congregation, as they watch these friends take baby steps in the Christian journey.
We don’t do altar calls in the Lutheran Church. I don’t know, maybe it’s because we’re Norwegian, and our faith is a personal, private thing. Or probably it is because good Lutheran theology would tell us that, once we have been baptized, nothing more is necessary. And yet, there are these words in today’s gospel lesson that seem quite clear; “…But to all who received him, who believed on his name, he gave power to become Children of God….” You don’t have to come forward in order to receive Jesus Christ. You don’t have to raise your hand, or fill out a response card, or be re-baptized. All you have to do is ask God to forgive your sins, and to lead you through this life, and he will. That’s a promise. If you pray that prayer today, I’d love to hear from you so can help you in your Christian walk.
Now…I have a confession to make. The title of this sermon is “Alter Call.” Spelled A-L-T-E-R. That’s an altar, spelled A-L-T-A-R. Don’t blame Kathy or Cynthia; I spelled it wrong when I submitted my sermon title, and I didn’t realize it until Thursday, after the bulletins were printed. So I looked up the word
A-L-T-E-R, and this is what Webster says:
“Alter: To change, to make different, to modify for a better fit.”
And then it occurred to me, that this is the sermon that the rest of us need to hear. We who have been on this Christian journey for awhile; we, whose lives have drifted away from the God we love. Maybe we need an alter call, (ALTER). Maybe we need “to change…to make different…to modify our lives for a better fit.” How long has it been since we have read our bibles on a daily basis? How long has it been since we have spent significant time in prayer? How long has it been since we have examined our lives, and asked God to weed out the harmful habits that drag us down? A New Year is a perfect time to do this; not as a New Year’s resolution, but as a prayer to the God who goes with us through this world. “Lord, guide me in your ways, and remind me that, though you freely forgive my sin, that is not a license to sin. In this New Year, draw me close to you, and guide my paths in every way.” In this congregation, 2005 is going to be a year of nurture, and encouragement, and discipleship; people grounded, gathered and sent into the world to serve Jesus.
Now I’ve one more thing to say, and then I will sit down. At the beginning of this sermon, I asked you to ponder the question “Where is the hope for the grieving people of Asia in the aftermath of the tsunami?” Where will they see light in the midst of their present darkness? I have an idea, and I’ve cleared it with the chair of the Mission and Outreach Committee, and now I’d like to clear it with you.
In the days leading up to Christmas, there were so many kind and generous deeds done by the members of this congregation. A number of them were only seen by me, since you asked to keep your actions anonymous. Hundreds of dollars were given to pay tuition for preschool students. Hundreds of dollars were given to help families who were struggling this Christmas. It was both gratifying and humbling for me to pass those gifts on to the recipients. But there’s one problem!
You recall that our Thanksgiving offering was to be used to purchase a defibrillator for our church, and you gave generously. After Thanksgiving, a member of our church who works at Medtronic said his family would like to purchase that piece of equipment and donate it to the church. That part was wonderful! The problem is this: what do we do with the $1500 that we said we’d spend on a defibrillator? Yup, that’s a problem. But here is the possible solution.
I spoke with Leo Miller, co-chair of the Mission & Outreach Committee about receiving a special offering today for the victims of the tsunami, and the Mission Committee would match our gifts, up to $1500. Then there was this article in yesterday’s newspaper that Thrivent is matching gifts given by those who have contracts with Thrivent. Do the math; our extra giving today – giving that is beyond our weekly gift to the church – our gift could approach $5000. That’s my problem! If you would like to participate, a basket is at the welcome center. I wish you a blest and prosperous and growing New Year. Thanks be to God. Amen.