Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Light We've Been Waiting For

Kirkebo Lutheran of Perley, MN
Nora Lutheran of Gardner, ND
Advent 3/December 11, 2011
John 1:6-8, 19-28

The fact that we are in a thus-far “snowless” December is freaking some folks out.   Just the other day I was speaking with a friend, a fellow who is prone to SAD—seasonal affective disorder.   He was bummed that there isn’t snow on the ground yet.
Why? I asked (thinking that a break from the record snowfalls we’ve seen over the last few years isn’t all bad).   “Why do you miss the snow?” I asked my friend.

“It’s because the snow reflects light.  It makes the daytime brighter.   Right now it’s too brown, too dark out there for my soul.”

My friend has a point, of course, and maybe you share it.  We need light to live—to get around in the world.  Our bodies need light for good old Vitamin D, if nothing else.  Our eyes need light for them to work.  Our souls need light because God did not create us to be bottom-dwellers of the ocean, like those fish who live so far below the water’s surface that they don’t even have eyes.

We need light to live, pure and simple.

But there is a catch here.  Like so many other good things God has given to us, we need some but not too much.   If we utterly lack light, we die (in one way or another).

But too much light will kill us, too.

My mother, who passed away at age 93 this past July, was a Twin Cities girl transplanted to the family farm in southern Minnesota back during WWII.   She went from being an urban dweller to being a dirt farmer, helping my dad in virtually every aspect of farming.   My parents farmed at a time when no one was wearing sunscreen—when we weren’t conscious of the cancer-causing qualities of ultra-violet radiation.

So in her latter years, my mom—perhaps like some of you—had to make repeated visits to her dermatologist, to have a little slice of her beautiful face removed—little patches of skin cancer on her ears, her forehead, her cheekbones.

Light is good.   Without light we die. 

But with too much light, we also suffer and die.   Light is also bad.

So which will it be?  Is light good or bad?   The biblical witness is clear on this point—it always “sides” with light.   The scriptures that we treasure are not big on window-blinds, shades, curtains or sunscreen.   In our story of God, light is always something to be welcomed.

In fact, our faith consistently describes God in terms of Light—God is filled with Light.   God is always dispersing the darkness.  In the first epistle of St John we read:  “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all”  (I John 1:5).

So in today’s gospel lesson from the first chapter of St John’s Gospel we have John the Baptist.  Only, in this gospel (as opposed to Matthew’s, Mark’s or Luke’s gospels) John the Baptist isn’t so much a water-guy, as he is a light-guy.   The Fourth Gospel emphasizes John as a testimony-giver more than as a washer-away-of-sins.

John the Baptist, to be sure, was a pretty bright fellow.  No wallflower, he made a splash wherever he showed up.

And yet, to John’s credit, he knew his place.  John realized that he wasn’t the Light of God itself…but rather, he came to “testify to the light.”

There’s a reason why so many artistic portrayals of John the Baptist show him with his forefinger outstretched.  It’s because John was always a “pointer”….his finger was always directing the gaze of others toward Him who is the Light of God in this cold, dark world—Jesus Christ our Lord.

Friends, we have this gospel lesson before us in these Advent days because this Light is coming to us once again.   He who is the Light of the World is making tracks in our direction once again.

And, as always, he comes to us “in the bleak midwinter.”   Well that’s not exactly true.  Christmas doesn’t come in the middle of winter.  Rather, Christmas falls just a few days after what is technically the start of winter—the winter solstice, the shortest, most light-deprived day of the year.

In that winter darkness, when we wake up in the dark and come home from work in the dark, precisely when light is most scarce and therefore most precious, as the hymnwriters like to put it:  in the darkness of our sin, Jesus comes bearing light.

So, to give our own witness to that fact, we go a little nuts in Advent and at Christmas-time decorating our homes and workplaces in ways that spread the light of Christ.    This becomes the time of the year when I hope and I pray that the fire marshal will not visit the Wohlrabe home in north Moorhead, where Mrs. Wohlrabe (She Who Must Be Obeyed) goes a little overboard with the decorating.  She loves Christmas because so many of her decorations have her name on them (her name is Joy).   And she really loves Christmas lights and candles—and like a typical guy, I just hope we don’t knock over a burning candle or blow a circuit breaker or two and burn the whole place down.  Now THAT would be a light to behold!

But, all kidding aside, there are good reasons why we upper Midwestern “Luterans” crave the light right about now.  It’s because we know, deep down, that despite the perils of too much light, most of the time we never get enough of it.  We all have a touch of SAD—seasonal affective disorder.  We all crave the light.

And I think that’s because we know, deep down, that the light is good for us.  And the light of God that comes to us in Jesus Christ is the best Light there is—end of story!

This Light is always, always, always good for us—but not because it is always gentle with us or kind to us.  No, that’s not how it works.

The Light of God shines upon us and the first thing it always does is to expose us, to bring to light all the things that are making life miserable—all the things that are killing us.  Luther nicknamed them “sin, death and the power of the devil”—an evil trio!

God shines his light upon us, and at first we want to cover our eyes.  It’s a little like when the eye doctor dilates your pupils and shines that awful-bright light into your wide-open eyes, to see if your retina is A-OK (I know—I do that twice a year!)  It hurts like the dickens!

And God does that sort of thing to us as well.   God’s light exposes all the ways we’re pretty much “stuck on ourselves,” all the ways we imagine that the world revolves around us—what we call sin.   God’s light exposes how, even though we think we’re in control of ourselves, we’re not.   We’re prone to being led astray—we call that “the power of the devil.”   And God’s light forces our eyes to see how we do not possess life—how easily and swiftly life slips through our fingers.   We call that death.

The Light of God is good for us, but only because the first thing it does is diagnose us and confront us with all the things we’d rather keep under wraps, hidden in the darkness of our souls.

God’s Light in Christ forces all of those things out, into the bright light of day….not so God can hold them over us, but so that God can deal with that old nasty trio on our behalf.

God’s Light in Christ exposes what is wrong with us, so that it can reveal to us all the ways God in Jesus Christ is going to work to forgive sin, to defeat the power of the devil, and to put an end to death’s hold on us.

In Jesus, in the Baby who came at Christmas-time, God’s Light shone with a clarity and a power, the likes of which this world has never seen.   Jesus pulls back the curtain and puts the spotlight on who God is for us and what God graciously does for us:   ending sin’s stranglehold, sending the devil scurrying, depriving death of its stranglehold on our souls.

This is the Light John the Baptist came to point us toward.  This is the Light that is coming right toward us this Advent.

My dear friends, don’t flee from this light.  Embrace it.  Bask in its beauty.   Allow the Light of Jesus Christ to burn away all that needs to be discarded in your lives.  Let the Light of Christ shine as you decorate your homes—even if you risk getting a citation from the fire marshal!

For this is the Light we’ve been waiting for forever.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Next Generation: Going the Distance

The Next Generation:  Going the Distance

“In [Jesus Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 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.  And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him…”   Colossians 1:19b-22

The offense of the Cross began with the offense of the Incarnation.  The bloody public death was foreshadowed by a bloody stable birth.”    Virginia Stem Owens, “A Hand in the Wound”[1]

Once more we enter the season that remembers how far God has gone to embrace us, to melt away our distrust, to enter deeply into our fleshly lives.   Advent and Christmas reveal a God who goes the distance from highest heaven to the lowest spot imaginable:  a crude cattle shed.

And there is nothing airy or vague about this.   It is a shockingly physical, jarringly specific, jaggedly concrete thing that God does:   taking on “bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh” (Genesis 2:23) in the wailing newborn son of Mary.

Isolating Ourselves from the Incarnation

Recently, in my daily devotions, I read a piece that woke me up to this reality in a fresh way.   Reflecting on her regular visits to the sick, writer Virginia Stem Owens observes:  “We are not so familiar with freaks as Jesus was.  He daily handled as bad or worse than what I see weekly in the hospital.  People coming to him for healing were maimed, mutilated, and desperate.  They didn’t even have on clean pajamas.  It is we who have isolated ourselves from the Incarnation.  Our fear of the flesh is so deep that we institutionalize death and decay wherever it breaks out.  There would be little chance of Jesus meeting a leper on the road today.  Any kind of freakishness, whether physical, mental, or emotional, must be put away from our midst.  People on public view must be at least superficially healthy.  The lame, the halt, and the blind may not have had Medicare in the first century, but neither were they incarcerated for their offense against the sensibilities of the whole.”  

Although they sting, Owens’s words also ring true.  And perhaps such reflections can help us resist the urge to reduce our December holy days to the gauzy, disembodied sentimentality so prized by our culture.   Owens seeks to recover “our ardor for the Incarnation and…our sense of the profundity of our Lord’s bodily death and resurrection.”   Encountering real live persons in the extremities of life—mental confusion, chronic illness, horrible abuse, tragic death—makes plain the lengths Christ went, going the distance for us and our salvation.  

“Are we not already a little secretly ashamed of the stripes that heal us, wishing instead for an unscathed savior, Jesus Superjock, borne aloft by teams of angels unwilling to let him stub his well-shod toe?” Owens asks.   “As I struggle to insert the purple swollen foot of a [hospitalized] diabetic into his slippers, I am also asserting my allegiance to the flesh, loved and not rejected by our Lord, who did not hesitate at the unhealthy, the flesh he clothed his own glory in, thus sanctifying it forever.”

The same Lord Jesus Christ who went the distance for us in his Incarnation, invites us to go the distance for our neighbors—including a willingness to enter deeply into their embodied lives.    This, too, is part of the Next Generation vision we’ve been pondering over the past year.     “Calling forth, raising up, forming in faith and spiritual leadership, and sending the next generations of disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ” is not a vague, airy enterprise.    There is nothing disembodied about it.    Our Lord invites us to roll up our sleeves and be ready to address the particularities of fleshly life, including the fleshly lives of our precious children.

The Safety and Well-Being of Children and Youth

Here’s a recent, disturbing example.  In the last weeks we’ve been stunned by revelations of long-term sexual abuse of young people by a coach associated with one of the most successful programs in Big Ten college football.    As a forty-count indictment is being drafted, new reports of abuse surface daily.   Most shocking is the fact that some responsible adults had some awareness of the abuse that was happening—but they did little or nothing to stop it.

Our Lord’s incarnation among us, deep within the flesh of Jesus, son of Mary, commits us to care about things like the safety and sexual well-being of children and youth.  Our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America stands squarely on the side of “the least ones” in such matters.   In social statements like Human Sexuality:  Gift and Trust[2] our church has identified specific ways in which we will pursue the health and well-being of the Next Generations among us.   For example:

·        Safety within and outside the family is of overriding importance because the damage done to children and youth through sexual abuse or molestation can be remarkably deep and lasting….”

·        “This church supports the prosecution of any individual who commits a sexual crime against a minor, including people in leadership positions in the church….”

·        “The ELCA also recognizes that congregations and other ministry sites must continue in their efforts to be safe places for children and youth….This church calls for the adoption of preventive measures, including educational programs, appropriate policies, and screening of individuals who care for, supervise, or work with children within this church. It expects that all church leaders will report all instances of suspected child abuse….”

·        Commercial sexual exploitation is widespread throughout the United States and around the world. It continues to grow and involves surprising numbers of youth by taking advantage of their vulnerabilities….The ELCA regards the over-exposure of emotionally maturing children and teens to adult sexuality as a failing on the part of adults and society….”

·        Expanding cyberspace and other electronic media create new challenges to the protection of children and youth….How to address this problem is one of the most important child-protection issues of our time, and our church will be an active participant in this important conversation….”

·        “The sexual education of children and teens will be supported as a priority by this church. Anecdotal evidence among teens suggests that few parents or congregations meaningfully engage young people in either sex education or healthy conversations about sexuality, even though teens would welcome them….”

·        “…the ELCA reaffirms its interest in and responsibility for the care and protection of vulnerable children and youth. It understands itself as called to this mission through the vocations of its members, its own institutional practices, and its public policy positions. This work involves all adults, not only parents, since all contribute to the well-being of children and youth in untold creative ways. It understands that all children and youth, both inside and outside the church, are deserving of this church's concern.”

Going the Distance, Despite our Discomfort

You may be chagrined that I’ve dwelt on such an uncomfortable topic at such length—at the start of Advent, no less.   Yuck!  Not very “Christmasy” is it?

Oh but it is, my dear sisters and brothers.   The Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ is about God entering deeply into the thorniest, most anxiety-producing, disturbing aspects of human life.  This includes all the joys and perils of human sexuality.   While it might seem that we’ve been paying too much attention to this topic in the life of our ELCA over the past two years, in truth we have focused so narrowly on one aspect (same-sex relationships) that we’ve virtually ignored all the other facets of human sexuality.   And we adults have--in my experience in many congregations--largely left our children and youth out of this critical conversation.    

Our God, who has gone the distance in becoming flesh, calls us to go the distance with our children and youth—to wrap them in a crucible of safety, to share with them our core values about human life in all its splendor and perplexity, to listen deeply to their piercing questions, to pick them up when they fall and reassure them of God’s unconditional love, and to walk with them and engage them in honest conversation about how we might faithfully incarnate the life of Christ in our flesh—including our sexuality.

In the name of the Incarnate Lord Jesus Christ,

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work.  Our hands.

For reflection and discussion:

1.      Why do we tend to isolate ourselves from the Incarnation?    How do you see this played out in today’s world?

2.      When you read news stories about abuse perpetrated against children and youth, how to you respond?

3.      How does your congregation foster the health and well-being of the Next Generation?   How many of the seven topics mentioned on pp. 2-3 of this article have been engaged, in some way, by your congregation?   How might your congregation do more?      

This is the twelfth and final in a series of columns on Bishop Wohlrabe’s “Next Generation” vision (available at'S%20PAGE.htm)  for the NW MN Synod.   These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry.   Feel free to use the column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.

[1] “A Hand in the Wound,” by Virginia Stem Owens, quoted in For All the Saints:  A Prayer Book For and By the Church (Volume IV) 1996, American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, pp. 980-982.
[2] Available at    All quotations in the following portion of the column come from the section of the social statement entitled “Protecting children and youth in and for trusting relationships.”

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Comfort, O Comfort...

Trinity Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes, MN
Second Sunday in Advent—December 4, 2011
Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8

On this Second Sunday in Advent I am drawn—as a moth is attracted to bright light—I am drawn to our reading from Isaiah 40:  Comfort, O comfort my people…”

I am drawn to these words not because I need the soft, downy comfort of a warm winter-time comforter on my bed….and certainly not because I need the comfort of mashed potatoes and home-made meatloaf, those quintessential comfort foods.

No, my friends, my heart is longing for the industrial strength version of what old Isaiah sings about this Second Sunday in Advent.

Comfort.  Comfort.   What my heart longs for more than anything else…is the deep comfort, the wide consolation that can heal the dull ache in my heart since July 6th when I became an orphan.

And this year, 2011, it wasn’t just I who lost a mother, but my dear wife, too…less than a month ago.   Grief may not be stabbing the two of us with sharp pain these days.  But it is there, like a constant, lowgrade gnawing…grief chews at us from the inside out.  

We are fresh out of parents—my wife, Joy, and I—it’s down to the two of us, now.  We are next in line.  We have our own reasons for hankering for Isaiah’s “comfort, comfort” in these dreary blue days of Advent.

And maybe you are, there, too.  Maybe you are nervous this morning because everything we thought we could count on seems up for grabs:  our economy sputtering, our government flummoxed,  the sorry state of our world—all so uncertain.  

Perhaps this old dying age has taken its best shot at you…leaving you feeling out of sorts, off-kilter, at odds with yourself.  Maybe you or someone you love is struggling with a bad marriage or a chronic illness or unemployment or under-employment.  Or maybe some great or not-so-great loss has overtaken you….a dull, nagging ache now tugging incessantly at your heartstrings.  

It makes you want time to stand still and simply allow this ancient prophecy to wash over you:  “Comfort, O comfort my people.  Speak tenderly….speak ‘to the heart,’ …bear this dull ache away.”

But this is more than a fond wish on our part.   Isaiah tells us in no uncertain terms that it is God’s will that we be comforted.    The grammatical form here is an imperative:  “Comfort!   That is:  you shall be comforted!  

“Comfort is what I the Lord your God intend to be yours.  I will make it happen.”   There is a blessed insistence here, and the repetition of the word underscores that fact:  comfort, comfort”…..comfort must wash over you, ready or not, whether you deserve it or not.   It is God’s will for you, to be comforted.

When these verses were first spoken, God’s people were in a world of hurt, hauled off to Babylon, forced into exile in a foreign land.  And, as if to add insult to injury, they had brought it upon themselves.   God’s people had blown it, time and again—their cheating ways, their wandering eyes, their willingness to settle for less than the promises of God, their waywardness had caught up with them.  God loved them enough to chastise them—Isaiah tells us again and again—in order, though, to bring them back…back from exile.

What made it “exile” for God’s chosen ones to be stuck in Babylon was their profound sense of being away from home, cut off from the place and time and circumstance that marked their true soul, their deepest identity, their safest and most secure homing place.   Exile isn’t defined by your enemies or the strange place they may have taken you.  Exile is marked, rather, by your longing for that one place on earth that you call home.

But exile was not to have the last word for the chosen people of God.  Comfort, O comfort my people.”   Even if you had it coming—and Israel most certainly did have exile coming!—exile was not to be the final word.   God may have allowed his precious people to be wrenched from their homeland—but God was also going to set it all aright again…even if God himself had to bulldoze a super-highway, right through the desert wasteland, as Isaiah envisions it.

And all of this—this return to home--would come about not because the children of Israel finally got their acts together.   God released them not because Israel had “learned its lesson and would never sin again.”    No—comfort, O comfort would come despite the here-today-gone-tomorrow inconstancy, the utter undependability of God’s people.  

Comfort would come purely because of who God is, how God goes to work, how God pursues God’s purposes—in us, with us, usually despite us.

The then-and-thereness of exile in Bablyon, would be replaced by a new Now…a new thing God would be doing that would spell “comfort, O comfort”….a return to home.

And for the ultimate shape of that new Now in all its fullness, we have to crack open our gospel, from the first chapter of Mark.  

One thing you and I will learn again in this “year of Mark” is just how urgent, how breath-takingly immediate everything is for Mark.   There is no beating around the bush here.  Mark doesn’t go into a big long rigamarole to get his gospel launched…

No, it’s as if Mark simply spills his words out on the page, and here it is:  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…”

Mark can’t hold back.  He just has to spill the beans—just like that.   Whatever Jesus means, it always starts with “good news.”   In Jesus, comfort takes on flesh and bone and DNA and personality—all of it for the sake of those he came to rescue.

Jesus is God’s embodied “comfort, comfort” par excellence.   Jesus is God’s consolation of a people who feel out of kilter, “homeless” even at home.   Jesus epitomizes the new Now Isaiah spoke of…the advent, the coming of God into our lives, to set all things right:  Jesus, Jesus…comfort, O comfort!

And make no mistake about it:  Jesus knows just what we need.   Jesus knows we need more than a “little dab will do you” kind of comfort.

Jesus knows that the ache in our hearts, wherever it comes from, will be healed only by the very coming of God into our lives.   We must settle for nothing less.

So, even as old Isaiah envisions the coming of God, along a royal highway hewn through the desert wilderness….a highway that has had all the twists and turns, all the ups and downs wrestled out of it--so that God might come to those ancient exiles….

Even as old Isaiah envisions God coming to restore his wayward people via a road through the waste places…

Mark envisions Jesus, following in the footsteps of his Way-Preparer, John the Baptist, and giving us something even better than John was able to give:  “I have baptized you with water;” cries John, “but he—Jesus!-- will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Here, we would have settled for pardon, and a fresh start, and a shimmery hope….and Jesus comes to us and gives us even more, gives us God, the Holy Spirit, God present-tense, in our aching lives, right here, right now.

And even then, there is more.  

For with the Holy Spirit unleashed among us, God keeps bringing it on, “comfort, O comfort” for those with whom we Spirit-endowed ones now come into contact.

Jesus puts a word on our lips, a word for others:  “Comfort, O comfort my people…speak tenderly, speak to their hearts.   Tell them that this is God’s good and gracious will for them:  that they be comforted in the deep and wide way that only God doles out comfort.   Tell them that their sentence is completed, their time of aching and longing is over.”

And don’t just tell them of such comfort, my dear friends.   Be the comfort, even as God became our comfort in Jesus.

Once again, comfort takes on flesh and blood and DNA and your personality, for the sake of your neighbors.

You make God’s comfort real in generosity shared, in acts of mercy accomplished, in deeds of advocacy enacted for those whose voices are drowned out by din of this old dying world.

Comfort, O comfort….that is God’s will for you and by Christ’s mercy, it is God’s will in and through you, as well.   No matter how much others might even deserve the anxiety or the aches they have, it is God’s will that they be comforted—deeply, widely, finally, in Jesus and through you--a living, breathing embodiment of “the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”

Comfort, O comfort…

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.