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True Identity (January 14, 2019)

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Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

There was a time when I carried six different ID Cards.  I knew who I was, but the Air Force didn’t recognize my Wyoming driver’s license.  The Pentagon didn’t acknowledge either of them.  I worked in a special place that didn’t accept anyone’s identification systems.  I needed special IDs for each place.  Then I needed another ID to access my computer.  And finally, to get books at the county library, I needed a library card.  Again, I knew who I was … but to prove it, I needed a wallet full of 2 1/8 x 3 1/4 inch cards.

In Jesus’ day ID cards didn’t exist.  But, if Jesus were ministering along the banks of the Chesapeake Bay in Calvert County, you can bet He’d need one.  Despite everything written about Him through the ages, if you were to ask people today who Jesus was, you’d get an amazing variety of answers.  Once you got past the “Jesus … He’s a pretty good guy” statement, the field is wide open on His identity.  Some might call Him a great religious teacher or philosopher.  Others might call Him a great leader.  And some might even call Him a mighty prophet, right up there with Moses and Elijah.  Then, some might even say He’s God.

True enough, Jesus didn’t carry a small, wallet-sized ID card identifying who He really is.  But the gospels were “Written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:31) 

If I didn’t have the proper ID with me, one of the ways I might be able to gain access to the place I was going would be to have someone with proper credentials vouch for me.  This person, trusted because they had the proper ID, would say they trusted me and would be responsible for me.

St. Luke tells us about Jesus’ baptism.  After John the Baptist baptizes Jesus, the Holy Spirit visibly descends on Jesus and a voice from heaven vouches for Jesus’ true identity saying, “You are my beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22) With these words, God the Father vouches for who Jesus truly is … the Son of God.  A great religious teacher – yes.  A great leader – yes.  A mighty prophet – yes.  And so much more – God!  He did things only God can do … forgiving sins and raising people from the dead for starters.  For His claims to be God, He was executed because nobody believed Him.  Nevertheless, Jesus proved His true identity by doing another thing only God can do … defeating the power of death and rising to new life.  Rising from the dead He validates His identity … He is God.  As such His promises to us … the forgiveness of sin and eternal life … are most certainly true. 

In baptism our Father gives us our true identity … sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of Christ.  Then the Holy Spirit descends upon us, dwells within us, and gives us faith.  By faith in the Son of God, we believe His promises – forgiveness of sin and admission to eternal life in His new creation.

                                                                                        In Christ,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

The AHA! of Epiphany (January 9, 2019)

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Photo by Alessandro Bianchi on Unsplash

Dear First Lutheran,

This week we began Epiphany.  An “epiphany” is “a sudden grasp of reality through a strikingly simple event.”  We’ve heard of “Aha” moments … when the “light bulb suddenly comes on.”  That’s an epiphany … an “Aha” moment.  Today we celebrate the “Aha” moment when we realize Jesus, the Son of God, was born not only to save His own people, the Israelites, but also non-Israelites … Gentiles.

God our Father promised a Messiah to save His people.  However, as the years became decades and decades became centuries, this promise seemed to be for nothing.  But God is faithful to His promises.  Including a Messiah to save His people.  God’s Word tells us about many “Aha” moments leading to Jesus’ birth.  There’s Mary living her life, preparing to become the wife of a man named Joseph.  Suddenly, “Aha!” – the angel Gabriel reveals she’s to become mother of the Messiah.  Then, Joseph, Mary’s husband to be, finds out Mary is pregnant with somebody else’s child.  Suddenly, “Aha!” – an angel of the Lord appears saying, “It’s okay … this child is the fulfillment of God’s promise to send the Messiah to save His people from their sin.”

 Then there’s the Magi, Gentiles who aren’t supposed to know God’s Word.  They’re astronomers who look at stars, God’s creation to bring light into the darkness.  God reveals the birth of the Messiah to them also.  Centuries before, while the Jews were exiled in Babylon, it’s possible these Magi’s distant relatives worked for a Jew named Daniel.  Through Daniel, God exposed them to His Word.  Through this Word and a special star God created another “Aha!” — God led these Gentiles to His Son, who came to save not only the Israelites, but all mankind.

Jesus lived, suffered, died, and rose from the dead to pay the price required by sin … death … and to give all who believe new life in Him.  Yet, despite this miraculous turn of events, many still didn’t believe.  One day a man named Saul was traveling to Damascus to persecute those who did believe.  Suddenly he was blinded by the light of Christ.  In yet another “Aha!” – God selected Saul, who we know as Paul, to be His messenger to the Gentiles.  Paul tells us, “Though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God.” (Ephesians 3:8-9) Through Paul, Gentiles, as well as Jews, received the “Aha!” that all, through faith in Christ, are part of God’s family.

It never ceases to amaze me the lengths our Father goes to deliver His promises to His people.  God uses His Word, proclaimed through many surprising people and events to ensure all can be saved by His grace and mercy through His Son.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, we receive His gift of “Aha!” – faith in God’s promises and belief in His Word that we’re saved from the eternal effects of sin.  We’re forgiven.  We receive His gift of eternal life.  What a glorious epiphany this realization of the truth of God’s promise is for each of us.

                                                                                        In Christ,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

Blessed By God (January 1, 2019)

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Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

Dear Saints of First Lutheran,

At this time of year, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, we often reflect on the old year while awaiting the new.  As we reflect on the year just past … we also hopefully await what the new year has in store for us.  I have some plans for the coming year … a trip to Michigan for the annual “Manchester Chicken Broil.”  A vacation to Maine, one of our favorite places to get away from it all.  These are my plans … we’ll see what happens though.  As 2018 passes and 2019 approaches, the only thing truly certain is the promises God makes to us.

God promised Israel that He would lead them into “The Promised Land.”  The Book of Numbers begins as the Israelite’s stay at Sinai is coming to an end.  The journey to the Promised Land is beginning.  God tells Moses to tell Aaron to bless His people.  As they set out on their journey, God makes sure His people know that He is with them wherever they go.  The well known “Aaronic Blessing” reminds Israel that God will be with them … He will shine on them and help them through their difficulties … and He will give them His peace (Numbers 6:24-26).  By God’s authority, Aaron is given permission to bestow God’s blessing on His people as they go into the world.  They aren’t certain exactly what lies ahead … only that they are on the way to the place God promises to them.  Regardless, they go with God’s blessing.

As we depart our worship each week, we have plans for the week ahead.  We generally know appointments we might have.  We know what work and school assignments are going to be due.  And, as we think further, we might even know what vacation and other plans we have for the year coming up … graduations, births, weddings, and anniversaries.  We generally know where we’re headed.   The words God spoke to Moses are also familiar to us.  We close each worship as, by God’s authority, confer His blessing on each of us as we head out into the world.  “The Lord bless you and keep you.  The Lord make His face shine upon you can be gracious to you.  The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you His peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26).  With these words, we depart with God’s blessing into the world to be His light in a dark world.

God doesn’t promise us our plans will always go as we hope.  He also doesn’t promise us everything will be good.  But, God does promise us this … He will keep us safe from eternal harm.  He will forgive us by His grace when we slip up on our journey.  And whether things are going smoothly, or the road gets bumpy, He will lift us up by giving us strength to endure in faith and live in His peace no matter what.  As we leave worship each week … and as we leave 2018 and journey into 2019 … by the power of the Holy Spirit may you live secure in your faith in the Father’s promises to you through His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.

                                                                                        Happy New Year!

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

Merry Christmas (December 25, 2018)

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Photo by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash

Dear Fellow Saints,

The end of our Advent journey is near.  If I was on a car trip to visit relatives in Michigan, I’d be turning on to SR-52.  I’d see the sign, “Manchester 5 miles.”  Almost there.  Almost to my cousin’s house … and the warm embraces.  I’ve passed many signs … the PA and Ohio Turnpikes … construction zones … and the Michigan State Line.  Almost there.  But I’ve got a couple miles remaining …

The end of our Advent journey is in sight.  We’ve passed mileposts along the way … Hope … Peace … and Joy.  Today we light the final candle, the “Love Candle.”  This week I read a devotion from Rev. Bill Harmon, a pastor in Williamsburg VA.  He recalled his boyhood experience with Advent.  He grew more excited each Sunday as the candles on the Advent Wreath were lit.  Like many, his excitement grew in part because of the spiritual journey he was on; but truth be told … mostly because with each newly lit candle, he knew Christmas Day and the gifts he was to receive were that much closer. 

Rev. Harmon admitted his youthful excitement may have diverted his attention off the deeper meaning of Christmas.  To be sure, it’s truly good this time of year to be excited about not only the gifts we’ll receive on Christmas Day, but also the many gifts we’ve received throughout the year.  These gifts are signs of the love from those around us.  For some expressing love with words is hard … so they might express love through actions … like giving a gift.  Each gift we receive, no matter how small or large, can be thought of as an expression of love.  Some also find it hard to express thanks and gratitude with words.  But using the gifts received, treating them well … these actions express thanks.

The toys, clothes, gift cards, noodlecraft art, and homemade fruitcake all express love from those around us.  But they don’t compare to the ultimate expression of love we celebrate each Christmas.  The baby, Jesus Christ, wrapped in His Bethlehem manger is the ultimate expression of our Father’s love for us.  However, like any gift, if it remains wrapped up and doesn’t fulfill its purpose, it’s worthless.  Jesus unwrapped and used Himself for us.  He showed His love for us by living His life to perfection, dying on the Cross for our sins, and rising to new life on Easter Sunday. 

Our Father’s given us His gift of love … forgiving our sins, defeating the power of death over us … and waits to embrace us when He brings us into eternal life in Him.  We thank Him by using this and all the gifts He’s given us to show His love to the world around us.  Through our love for others, in words and actions, we also thank God for His love for us.  And … through us, God gives His love all who haven’t received His love and His warm, eternal embrace.

I pray you find time in these last days of Advent to remember the gift of God’s love we’ve already received and thank Him for the hope, peace, joy, and love we have in Him through our Lord, Jesus Christ.

                                                                      Merry Christmas,

                                                                      Pastor Jim

Rejoice Always! (December 20, 2018)

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Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

This time of year is filled with joy.  I witnessed joy last weekend watching “The Holiday Fantastic,” a spectacular afternoon of dancing and music put on by some of Calvert County’s very talented young people, including some of First Lutheran’s own!  I saw joy in the smiles and the energy displayed by the performers.  I saw joy in friends and family who came together to watch.  Soon more joy will occur as reunions take place in homes other locations.  Events like “The Holiday Fantastic” and in our reunions with those we love and care about bring joy!  In the church, we celebrate “joy” this Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent, in our music, readings, and the lighting of the Joy Candle.  However, for many, the pressure to be joyous can actually lead to the opposite … despair.

But St. Paul tells us to “Rejoice … always” (Philippians 4:4a).   So, what are we to make of this if we’re not feeling particularly joyful?  What about those of us who’ve lost jobs?  Or come home from school with failing grades?  Or lost loved ones during the past year?  Or are struggling with a terrible illness or injury?  How can we be joyful in those times? 

It’s important to realize that Paul wrote these words as he suffered through imprisonment for his faith … not because he committed a crime of any type.  He’s telling us to base our joy, not on things in this world, but elsewhere.  Though we should be joyful as a sign of thanks when things are going well, the key to Paul’s urging to be “joyful always” is the object of the joy … “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) How can we always be joyful, even when things in our earthly lives are downright horrible?  Though we don’t find joy in the painful, unpleasantries of our lives in the world … we do find joy in God’s steadfast presence in our lives.  He’s present in the happy and good times … we rejoice!  He’s present in our challenging, difficult, and downright crummy times … we rejoice!  We can rejoice, in spite of our hardships, because ultimately, we know that these hardships will pass away … and because of our faith in Jesus, we will one day dwell in a place where there will be no hardships. (Revelation 21:1-4)  This is our cause to “rejoice always in the Lord.” (Philippians 4:4)

We never rejoice that pain and suffering exist anywhere in this world, whether in our lives or the lives of others.  But we do rejoice always because God loves us so much … that He came to dwell in the midst of our sin-filled suffering and pain.  He couldn’t stand to see us be separated from Him.  He desires nothing short of a joyous reunion with all those He created in His image.  This joy-filled reunion is only possible because of the birth of Jesus Christ, which we celebrate each Christmas.  We celebrate the birth of a baby who became the perfect sacrifice to redeem His Father’s creation.  The perfect sacrifice that enables us to experience the joyful reunion, with all who believe, for all eternity.

                                                                                        May you rejoice in the Lord always,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

Peace be with You (December 11, 2018)

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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

You may have noticed that there’s generally a familiar ring to the beginning of my sermons.  I usually start with something like, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:2) It’s not an original idea.  If you take a close look at Paul’s letters, he begins them with a similar greeting.  Letting His hearers know God’s “peace” is with them, provided comfort to the young, persecuted, and troubled early church.  The same comfort God provides to us today. 

When we think of “peace,” it’s hard not to think of “conflict” in our world today … ranging from wars resulting in death to simple arguments over what color new carpet should be or who’s team is best.  These conflicts cause division in God’s creation … something He never intended.  But the peace God desires is much more than an “absence of conflict.”  So, I truly pray that God’s “true peace” is with each of us.  And not only here in the days of Advent, as we celebrate the Prince of Peace’s birth, but throughout the year. 

Like many modern words, “peace” is another one that originally meant much more that it has come to mean.  The word “peace” comes from the Hebrew word “Shalom (שָׁלוֹם).”  “Shalom” has a sense of “completeness, intactness, and unity” associated with it.  It’s much more than a “lack of conflict.”  Only if something is truly “complete, intact, and unified” with all that is around it, can “true peace” be achieved.  God mourns that we don’t have true peace with Him and each other.  However, in His infinite love, He has given us a way to find true peace.

The source of all conflict is sin.  Satan has sown seeds of sin in the world for one purpose … to create conflict between us and God and each other.  If Satan can separate God’s children from God, he is satisfied.  Satan uses sin to carry out his wicked mission.   But God has worked through His people to defeat Satan’s evil intentions in His creation.

Advent is a time of preparation.  We prepare, of course, to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.  And, more importantly, we prepare to receive Him when He returns.  But, through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Jesus defeated sin’s power to create eternal conflict.  His gift of forgiveness is what we need to have God’s true peace.  We believe in God’s promise!  As we confess our sins to God, He forgives them … all of them … completely and totally.  He removes the source of conflict between us and Him.  He also calls on us to forgive each other (Matthew 18:21-35).  When we confess our sins to each other … and forgive each other, as God has forgiven us … true peace begins to take hold.  By our witness, this peace grows and smothers the seeds of conflict Satan tries to plant.

  This Advent, let us be lights of God’s true peace in the world.  Let us destroy Satan’s seeds of conflict by spreading God’s true peace in our words and deeds to all we meet in this season AND in our “Advent” life He calls us to live.

                                                   May God’s Peace be with you,

                                                   Pastor Jim

A Hopeful New Year (December 6, 2018)

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Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

Dear Servants of the King,

Happy New Year!  True … we’re barely past Thanksgiving and Christmas is still a few weeks away.  But, it is “New Year!”  The first Sunday in Advent is also the first Sunday in the Church Year.  So “Happy New Year!”

The new year is always a time to look back and remember the past year … remembering the “good old days” as we get together with friends and relatives.  We also look to the future, hoping for better times ahead … especially if the past year was filled with difficulty and challenge.  We might make … and even keep … a few resolutions to help make our hopes come to fruition.  Some of these hopes will be realized … some will transform into other hopes … some will simply fade.

Advent is a season in the church where we wait for the coming of Christ and the hope He brings with Him.  For many in the world, the focus of the waiting is Christmas Day.  However, for Christians, the true waiting is not for Christmas … Jesus has already been born.  The true waiting is for His return.  As we wait, we hope.  In His return, Jesus will deliver on the hopes Christians across the ages have had and still have.  We live in hope, knowing He’ll establish His kingdom and His new creation once and for all here on earth.  And He’ll bring all who believe Him and His promises with Him to live for eternity in this place we can only imagine through God’s Word and promises.

In some ways we’re a lot like Saint Paul, the writer of 1st Thessalonians.  In Paul’s day, 2000 years ago, the Thessalonians rapidly converted to Christianity through Paul’s Spirit-inspired teaching.  Unfortunately, this rapid conversion caused intense persecution by those who felt threatened by the gospel.  Paul was forced to flee.  And he worried constantly about the faith of those he left behind.  He longed with all his being to visit them again in order to bolster their faith.  He says, “We pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face…” (1 Thessalonians 3:10) As they waited to see if Paul could make it back to them (he isn’t able to by the way), Paul also urges them to remember Jesus’ promise to return.  He encourages them by praying that God “may establish your hearts in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.”  (1Thessalonians 3:13) He exhorts them to maintain hope in Jesus’ promise to return and bring them into His eternal kingdom, free from the hardships they face in the world.

As we live in faith in the world today, it doesn’t seem like much has changed.  We’re still here, waiting.  We might even wonder where God is and what’s taking Him so long.  But, we also have hope in His promise, knowing He’ll return.  Torn between our desire for immediate results and our hope for what awaits us, we wait.  God has promised to save us.  Jesus, born over 2000 years ago on the first Christmas, will return again to save us.  And when He does, our hope will become our reality.  Happy New Year!

                                                                                                        In Hope,

                                                                                                        Pastor Jim

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