New Year’s Meditation

“Forgetting what lies behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize for the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13

As life moves on we accumulate memories. Some memories remain with us like cherished friends, giving comfort, encouragement, and filling the present with an ongoing sense of fulfillment.

Others may haunt us and tinge our lives with sadness, melancholy and guilt. Of these some are rooted in troublesome or tragic events that were beyond our control. A natural disaster struck. The stock market plunged and assets were wiped out. A medical condition fundamentally altered the course of life. Events like these may leave us reeling in an effort to regain our balance, but we feel no remorse. We did not cause them. 

Some memories are of wrongs done to you by others. Someone you once loved rejected you for another. A business associate cheated you. Someone close to you violated a confidence.  Rising above the resulting bitterness or anger may be difficult but the fault, in the end, is not yours. 

But there are still other memories. These are the memories of the wrongs you have done. They demand you deal with them. They are on your hands.

We have all left a debris field of wrongs in the wake of our lives.  And try as we might, we will never clear the wreckage of our past. These deeds follow us and accuse us. What will we do?

Saint Paul urges us to forget it all. But, you may object, surely this is too simplistic. Memories are not that easy to put away. This is true. But Paul dares to invite us to forget, because those accusing memories now belong to Christ Jesus. He paid for them on His Cross.

Therefore, as you enter the new year, know this: Giving your sins to Christ Jesus will not remove the scars. But the open wounds of guilt and remorse will be closed and healed. For when Christ Jesus took your sins upon Himself, He stripped them of all the accusation they contained. It is as if those things of which you are ashamed never happened. You are free-free to press on with confidence toward the glorious future God has prepared for His people!

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

Pastor Mark Anderson

The External Promise

A young man came to see me who had been raised in the Lutheran Church but was now active in a non-denominational community.

He had come on a mission to repudiate his baptism as an infant. I expressed my happiness at his new-found enthusiasm for Jesus and suggested that there might be another way to think about this.

I suggested that we were looking at a question that ran in two directions. Does baptism necessarily lead us to think primarily about ourselves or about God? Does Christian religious experience take us outside of ourselves or send us into ourselves?  

The experience of God leads not into an interior experience of the self but to a comprehension of God who comes to us in the external word of promise. The Lutheran response to the God who comes to us in His grace is not to write an autobiography but to point beyond and outside ourselves to God. It is not my perceived experience of God that is decisive. What is decisive is God’s word of promise to me and for me.

Baptism as an infant was never meant to underline your experience of God but to point to God being for you. It began a God-initiated life and dialogue. His feeling that something was perhaps lacking in his experience as a Christian was simply an expression of the human side of that dialog with God. For in our experience of living we more often than not keenly feel the depth of our need, perhaps even God’s absence. The faithful response at such times, however, is not to look inward but to move away from self-consciousness toward your baptism. For Baptism is a gracious reminder that you are God’s adopted child. Baptism is an ongoing promise-event. Baptism declares that your life moves in and with Christ Jesus in a never-ending dialogue where the wavering and wandering words and feelings of your quite unreliable experience are always answered by the utterly reliable Word of God’s grace.

Rearranged Loyalty

Christmas presents us with a familiar but odd cast of characters. At first glance the presence of God seems oddly out of place among the general rudeness of the manger scene. What is the Living God doing en-fleshed in a tiny child among animals, crusty, uncouth shepherds, and star-chasing wise men out in the middle of nowhere?

The answer the New Testament gives us is clear. The coming of Jesus was the in-breaking of the rule, the reign of God. Christmas signifies the divine invasion of a realm that had been usurped by the powers of evil and the forces of human willfulness. It’s important to state it this way because when the Church gathers for worship at Christmas, or any other time, what we are proclaiming to ourselves and to the world is our intent to desert the human army of self-promoters and join the resistance of grace for the sake of the rule, the reign of God in Jesus Christ.

 With their gifts and worship, the wise men were acknowledging the One to whom their life’s obligations, energies and resources now belonged. The picture of kings kneeling is a picture of the transfer of allegiance, loyalty, duty, power. It was to Whom they knelt that matters. Trust, faith, is always defined by it’s object.

 When you and I were baptized, we were given a name; God’s name. Your baptism testifies to you the fact that you now belong to the God who we know as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Our baptism was a statement about who we belong to, who has the last word in our lives. For whoever has the last word is our God.

 Baptism rearranges our loyalties, transfers our citizenship in such a way that we become the protagonists, representatives, advocates of the kingdom of God.  We proclaim “good news of great joy”, the reign of life in the midst of the reign of death. This means the shadow of Good Friday always falls over the Christmas manger. For we are not only the beneficiaries of God’s reign, we participate in God’s reign, which means we are proclaimers of the cross. 

 You are not your own. In baptism he claimed you and gave you the Holy Spirit. The last Word belongs to God. At Christmas, the Christ mass, the Christ worship, we kneel before this God, this same God that tangled Himself up in an unwed mother, surrounded by animal dung, smelly shepherds, radically altering their allegiance. If this is the God who has taken hold of you in baptism, who has the last word in your life, you just know that whatever life he has in store for you is not going to be business as usual! But will it be overflowing with goodness, progress, abundance?

It does not take much imagination to see that this is not how life works. Life is full of tensions. The relevancy of the annual candlelight service held in many churches is located precisely in the tensions that are heightened by the darkness and the illumination of the flames. This service mirrors the time of year when the days are shorter, darkness sets in sooner and daylight is diminished. At the height of this growing darkness we light our homes, trees and communities.

 But there is deeper water here, theologically and liturgically. The entire image, symbolism if you will, is of the light pushing back against the dark and overcoming it. This is a mid-winter service of protest against the powers of darkness and the coldness of death. The light represents hope in the midst of fear, seeing in the face of spiritual blindness, being together in the warmth of community whose only authentic source of light and life and hope is Jesus Christ the Light of the world.

Pastor Mark Anderson

“…the darkness could not overcome it.” John 1:5

The Temple of Vesta stands in the Roman Forum. The small, circular structure was among the most important buildings in all the Roman empire. A fire was kept burning there, 24 hours a day, for centuries. The keepers of this flame were a small group of women and girls who had been especially chosen. They were housed in a beautiful complex just behind the temple and for thirty years were devoted to this task. As long as the flame burned, Rome would endure.

Today, the flame to which the Romans devoted so much care and attention has been extinguished. The compound of the vestals, and the temple over which they kept watch are in ruins. The Roman empire, seemingly destined to endure forever, is gone.

Christians, too, have a light which requires our attention. That light is the message of the Gospel, the Good News. From generation to generation the Church is mandated to make the stewardship of the Word of God its first priority. Other matters may occupy our time and attention, but none are more important.

Unlike the flame of the Vestals, however, the True Light, the light of Christ is not dependent upon us in order to endure. We do not keep the light of the Word alive, the Word keeps us alive. I take great comfort in this. For while the obligation to bear witness to the Word challenges me, I know that God provides all the necessary resources to make His Word known. God has chosen to keep His light burning not in beautiful marble temples but in earthen pots like you and me. God keeps the Word, Jesus our Lord, down to earth, in our hearts, on our lips, as near as a breath, as near as the sacraments, close to the hurts and hopes of the world. And in doing so keeps us in the promise: the light of Christ will shine no matter how persistent the darkness may be.

A blessed Christmas to you!

Let’s Get This Party Started!

The prodigal Son made quite a picture. Destitute, dressed in rags he came dragging himself down the road to home. He had plenty of time on his hands to review the laundry list of his sins, to do some moral bookkeeping. The accounts were not impressive. He had squandered, wasted his inheritance. He had given himself wholeheartedly to corruption. The results were predictably destructive of his humanity. He was spent, literally, in every way. Now, with low expectations he headed home. If he were lucky, his father would treat him like one the hired help.

Was the young man repentant over this sorry state of affairs? The story Jesus tells is ambiguous at this point. Perhaps this is as it should be. For to focus on what may have been his intentions is to engage in the moral bookkeeping of self-righteousness, to keep the story under the law. The story has a great deal to say about that.

Someone once pointed out that this parable could have three titles: ‘The Prodigal Son, ‘the Forgiving Father’, ‘the Unforgiving Brother’. All three work well. At the same time, when we look at the parable it is plain to see where Jesus placed the emphasis. The story concludes with the dialog between the father and the older brother, the moral bookkeeper. And he had no doubts about the kind of treatment his brother ought to have received. He, after all, had stayed home, kept his nose clean and done everything that was required of him. He kept the law. He deserved his father’s respect. The accounts were clear. And on that basis he was exactly right. But his father was not keeping books. The lost one was found. It was time to celebrate!

Jesus ticked a lot of people off with stories like this. After all, doesn’t the elder brother raise the same objections we do about fairness and what is right? Don’t we want everything to be an equation that works under the law? But the grace of God in Christ makes an end of moral, legal bookkeeping. And this grace is not cheap. God’s forgiveness comes at the price of a bloody cross.

None of us could withstand a rigorous, uncompromising accounting of our lives. The very thought is almost too much to contemplate. But thanks be to God who welcomes sinners out of sheer grace and mercy for the sake of our dear, blessed Jesus.

As you once again prepare to celebrate the miracle of the Incarnation, remember it was God’s love and mercy for you that brought Him here. And as He came once at Bethlehem, He comes still in His promising Word and the sacraments.

So, light the yule log! Throw the accounting books on the fire! Decorate everything to the hilt! Turn up the music! Set the tables with every good thing and let’s get this Christmas party started! Christ was born for sinners! And if that is a name you will own then join your voice with mine: 

Joy to the world! The Lord is come!

WHAT’S NEXT? TRANS-GENDER JESUS?

The Liberal Church took it’s eye off the ball a long time ago. Now, at least a few of these folks have left the game entirely. To celebrate Christmas, two Methodist churches are displaying manger scenes with a caged Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The story here is not to invite wonder at the Incarnation of the Son of God, two thousand years ago at Bethlehem, but to provoke hand wringing over the immigration problem. And the authors of this stunt are no doubt filled with self-satisfaction, thoroughly convinced they are on the cutting edge of relevancy, taking the side of the latest culture of victims.

Doing what sinners do best, they have made the story all about themselves: their compassion, their righteous indignation, their commitment to social justice. And, of course, in good progressive style, someone must be blamed. So, the image of a caged Jesus is used to shame those nasty people who separate families, want walls, fences and borders. Jesus, they say, if he were here today, would no doubt be among the social justice warriors marching in the streets, shaking paper on a stick and shouting progressive slogans about radical inclusion.

I know my New Testament pretty well, and it looks very much to me like the message of the New Testament Gospel is not a howling screed against injustice. The message of the New testament is the proclamation of Jesus Christ crucified and raised from the dead for sinners. But the liberal church has moved way beyond such primitive Christology, and for the most part, beyond the New Testament.

This latest spasm of self-righteous indignation from the social justice church would be laughable if it were not so blatantly blasphemous. To reduce the birth of Jesus the Christ to an image of caged immigrants distorts the Gospel, making Jesus nothing more than one more tool in the service of the progressive social justice project. Jesus is no longer the Savior of the world who forgives sins. That is far too exclusive and offends their inclusive, generous self assessments. Now, he is the model social worker who sides with victims.

Seems like quite a demotion to me.

So I ask the clergy who put forward this non-sense. What’s next? Why not cross-dress the Holy Family and go all in for trans-gender rights? You might do such a good job of it that we won’t know Jesus from Mary or Joseph. You have given ample evidence that it is time for you to seek alternative forms of employment. And the sooner the better.

‘IMAGINE THERE’S NO HEAVEN’: AND A MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU, TOO!

Pastor Mark Anderson,  Lutheran Church of the Master, Corona del Mar, California

The late Beatle, John Lennon, showed up on a Christmas playlist recently. In his song, “Imagine”, Lennon called upon us to “Imagine there’s no heaven.” Great.

I suppose one could chalk Lennon’s lyric up to the naive, adolescent dreaming, which it is, but it is also not that simple. The fact that Lennon’s song, ‘Imagine’ has become the virtual one-world anthem for many points to something deeper at work here.

Lennon’s text, forget the music, is an unbridled summons to a spiritually vacant existence. “No heaven, no countries, no possessions.” This is the reality Lennon called for. Essentially, a godless utopia where everyone dances gleefully around the equity maypole, “living for today”, in a flattened one-dimensional existence. A secular garden of Eden, minus God.

The fact that millions swoon with teary-eyed romanticism when they hear this ode to nihilism reveals how adrift in meaningless so many are. And it also reminds us of how a dangerous lyric can be hidden within a saccharine melody.

What Lennon’s offering has to do with Christmas is locked somewhere in the bizarre, convoluted thinking of whoever added this tune to a Christmas playlist. But the insertion of this song into the Christmas canon is not so benign or ignorant a move. In microcosm it is nothing more or less than an example of humanity’s incessant need to do away with God, to have life on our terms. It is, in fact, a move of cynical nihilism, a soiling of the beautiful, innocent and hopeful story of Bethlehem’s child.

One can only lament such a world, lost in its pretensions and willfulness. At the same time those for whom the Christmas is the story of God’s love incarnate, may with confidence, and with some joy, too, counter these nihilistic voices with the proclamation of authentic hope; a hope not rooted in the naive ramblings of adolescent dreamers but in the sure and certain promises of God, revealed in the One

whom shepherds guard and angels sing…the babe, the Son of Mary.”

Merry Christmas!