“You Are Bearers of Hope and the Kingdom”

It was a joy to be with the good people of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Bellevue, Nebraska on Saturday December 1, 2018. I was scheduled to be with them for Sunday (December 2) too, but because of a winter storm, the congregation cancelled worship for Sunday morning. I am grateful for the opportunity to be with them, and the welcome and invitation from Pastor Paul Moessner, and I look forward to rescheduling and a future visit to preach and lead a faith formation time around stewardship. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached/planned to preach from (with a couple tweaks not included for Saturday night). The sermon was based on the revised common lectionary appointed readings for the First Sunday of Advent (Year C), especially Luke 21:25-36 and Jeremiah 33:14-16.

Grace and peace from God in Christ who loves you, is with you, and is for you, Amen.

Pr. Paul and the beautiful sanctuary all ready for Advent at Immanuel before worship. A good sized group gathered despite the cold and rain, many seemed motivated to worship and come on Saturday evening given the forecast potential for Sunday.

Good morning Immanuel. It’s great to be with you. Thank you Pastor Paul for sharing this space, and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring greetings on behalf of Bishop Brian Maas, and your Assistant to the Bishop, Pastor Juliet Hampton; as well as from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod.

I am grateful to be with you today to kick off this new church year, a year of living and dwelling in the Gospel of Luke. I am also grateful to be here on this first weekend of Advent and to lean into its four themes of hope, peace, joy and love. I’m excited to dwell some with God’s word for us today, to point to the hope we have in God in Christ that grounds us, anchors our soul,[1] and calls us together, and that same hope which propels us into lives of stewardship and discipleship.

Setting the Record Straight about what is stewardship
Before I dig into today’s story, it might help to clear something up. I see a few of you crossing your arms already. It could be that you are cold. But, I have been in this role long enough to know the usual sign of reaction when I come into a congregation and dare to utter the word ‘stewardship.’ You might be shuddering at the thought, or putting up your defenses. You might think, “here we go, here’s somebody asking for money?” Haha… No.

It’s always good to see congregations with multiple ways to give and contribute to the community. It’s a part of stewardship, but it’s not the only part.

Stewardship is way more inclusive, expansive, and wonderful than just something about money or budgets. It starts with an understanding that all that we have, and all that we are, is God’s.[2] We just read Psalm 25, but if we turned to one psalm earlier, Psalm 24, we would be reminded that, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it…”[3] That has some big implications, because all means all here.

God has entrusted us with all that we have: our lives, health, bodies, souls, hearts, minds, and relationships; our time, talents, gifts, passions, strengths, and vocations; our ideas, dreams, questions, and stories; our finances, money, treasures, and assets of all kinds; and all of creation that surrounds us and that we are a part of.

God entrusts us with all of this so that we might live abundantly and have abundant life. What this means though isn’t that we just get to sit back and relax. It’s an invitation to a life of deep meaning and purpose as a steward and disciple. One that’s not always easy and certainly has its challenges. There’s a cross at its center after all. It’s a life where we recognize that God entrusts us with what we have because God calls us to notice and be in relationship with our neighbors- God’s children just like us, all created in the image of God. All created, beloved, and known by God. And through whom, some of God’s kingdom building work is done.

Today’s Story
Now keep that in mind as we dig into today’s story, please. This gospel story is basically the last story and teaching in the gospel of Luke before Luke’s passion narrative really begins in the following chapter in Luke 22. So why, on this first day of this new church year, do we start here? It might seem kind of dark and out of place. But if you dig a little deeper, I think there’s a message of hope, stewardship, and grounding for all of us as God’s people in this story.

We’re told to “stand up and raise our heads” to witness and see what God has done and is doing.[4] Jesus calls us to “look” and to notice and witness, not just the fig tree, but all trees.[5] They are signs of God’s creative work, signs of God’s creation all around us that we are each a part of.

Jesus says “be on guard,” and not to be weighed down with the worries of this life.[6] Oh there are so many stewardship implications for this, and it’s so timely as we might find ourselves busier than ever this time of year, and feeling like we need to spend and “buy, buy, buy,” because we don’t have enough or we aren’t enough.

Jesus also says in this story, “be alert at all times.”[7] I’ll admit, if you are a little frightened in hearing this story and seeing these images that Jesus describes, you are not alone. This apocalyptic sort of vision isn’t always a fun one to see or imagine. It’s not always obviously hopeful.

Jesus warns that “people will faint from fear and foreboding,” and boy is our world weighed down with fear now.[8] Fear that is irrational. Fear that allows our worse selves to make decisions we might not normally make. Fear that allows sin to mask and hide our senses and awareness of and willingness to serve our neighbor.

It would be easy for the disciples in hearing this story, and for us today to give into this fear too ourselves. It would be easy to become hopeless and cynical. To think that there is nothing that can be done, and to just wait for the end times, that ultimately God will do it and fix it and all the messes that we are in. Well, here’s where stewardship comes in friends. God calls us all to this work. God entrusts us with it. God chooses to use us to do some of God’s work in the world, and through us, in us, around us, and even for us, God’s kingdom breaks into the world bit by bit.

The Kingdom of God is Near, and that’s a promise
Jesus says that the “kingdom of God is near,” and it is near, and it is becoming too.[9]

Jeremiah saw it and foretold of it. “The days are surely coming” he says, when God “will fulfill the promise (God) made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”[10] A righteous branch will spring up, justice and righteousness will happen, and God’s people will be saved and live in safety, because “the Lord is our righteousness.”[11]

We know the rest of this story. It’s what is at the heart of this season. Advent is a time of remembering, professing, and proclaiming God’s promises. And Jeremiah points to these, foretelling of God’s work and promise. And for us, it’s reminder that God is most definitely active and up to something. The kingdom of God is near, and God is with us, Emmanuel.

God is with us, just as God has promised that God will be. Because we know the rest of the story, we know that God is also our salvation.[12] That God has done the hard work for us, once and for all. As we remember and celebrate this season, God comes into the world as one of us, walks alongside us, teaches us, and lives with us. God in Christ is handed over, crucified, and died for us with hands and arms outstretched for all of God’s children. And then, is resurrected and ascended for us. All of this only God could do- forgiving, reconciling, redeeming, and saving all of God’s children and creation. And all of this God does because of a deep and abiding love for you, and for me.

This is the work and these are the promises of God. All we can do is give thanks and praise.

Of course, like the Apostle Paul asks rhetorically, “how can we thank God enough…” we can’t.[13] But that’s the beauty of it, we never could. We could never earn this work from God, it’s pure gift. Grace. God’s love for us. But we do get to respond to it. Do we respond gratefully and joyfully, living our lives abundantly and growing as disciples and stewards? Do we share this Good News of the promises of God with God’s people, and serve our neighbors as God calls us to, believing that because God is with us, we are enough to do this work to which God calls us? Or do we hoard God’s promises, and turn inward, or think that we aren’t enough?

My hope is that we respond joyfully as stewards of all that God entrusts. And when we do this, I believe we just might glimpse the Kingdom of God breaking into the world in our midst.

The Kingdom of God is breaking-in right here through you
It might be as simple as looking at the fig tree or trees like Jesus says. It might be like looking at Christmas lights through new eyes, which I have been doing a lot of this week in decorating with my wife, because this will be our nearly 8-month old daughter Caroline’s first Christmas. Her eyes are filled with wonder, hope, love, and joy. It’s impossible for those feelings not to be shared with us, her parents, and anyone who sees her. And that’s a Kingdom of God type thing too.

I don’t often get to go preach and bring along Allison and Caroline. But because I was preaching on a Saturday evening, we were able to make it a family date night of sorts. Caroline enjoyed seeing the lights and Immanuel’s stable of its creche in front of the altar.

When we share hope, peace, joy, and love with others, the Kingdom of God is truly breaking into the world. God is offering another way.

I see the Kingdom of God breaking in through you, here in Bellevue, across Sarpy County, and the greater Omaha area. You share God’s love and hope through your health ministry, Stephen Ministry, and all the many forms of faith formation that you engage in. You provide hope through your participation with Habitat for Humanity, and your sponsorship of the Bellevue Food Pantry and Table Grace, feeding the hungry and meeting your neighbor’s needs right here around you. Through the prayer shawls, hats, mittens, and scarves you have made, you have provided warmth and hope. Or imagine the lives that have been touched and changed all around the world because you have quilted nearly 8,000 quilts since 1991.[14] You have shared the love of Christ in so many ways.

One of the benefits of bringing family along, they might just catch a picture of you preaching. Not the best face, I’ll admit, but oh well. At least I’m looking up and out.

One other way that I know you do this, is through being the church together through your congregation’s continued participation in mission share. Mission share are the undesignated offerings that your congregation shares with the Nebraska Synod and the larger ELCA. Through it you do ministry that spans the globe, changing lives.
Through it, you help support and raise up new leaders, pastors, and deacons of our church. You help spread the good news of the Gospel through the support of missionaries, as well as new and renewing ministries across Nebraska and the globe.

Through mission share you support the growth and discernment of youth and young adults through supporting our serving arms like Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministries including Camp Carol Joy Holling and Lutheran Campus Ministry. And you help respond to needs near and far, caring for your neighbors in many and various ways, through supporting our serving arms like Mosaic, Lutheran Family Services, Lutheran World Relief, and many more.

On behalf of your sisters and brothers across this church and world, thank you for being a part of God’s work in the world and through your church in this way. And thank you for all that you do and prayerfully consider and pledge to do as the generous stewards and bearers of God’s love that you are.

You Are Bearers of Hope
You all are bearers of hope through the way that you live and serve. And I am grateful for you, for that. Your hope and love that you share is grounded in the hope of God’s promises fulfilled. In the hope and assurance of God’s presence. And you are bearers of God’s hope and promises for restoration, reconciliation, welcome, and justice amid a beautifully created and loved, yet, terribly hurting, fearful and broken world, that often seems captive to sin.

God offers hope of another way, of a kingdom that is both now and not yet. Of a kingdom that is near. And I for one, see it and feel it in you. May you dwell in that hope, and may it not only ground you this Advent season, but may it lead you to share Christ’s peace, joy, and love through all that you do and say always. Thanks be to God for you, and thanks be to God for all that God has done, continues to do, and promises to do for us. Amen.

Citations, Notes, and References:
[1] Based on the congregation’s key theme verse for this week, Hebrews 6:19.
[2] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Luke 21:28, NRSV.
[5] Luke 21:29, NRSV.
[6] Luke 21:34, NRSV.
[7] Luke 21:36, NRSV.
[8] Luke 21:26, NRSV.
[9] Luke 21:31, NRSV.
[10] Jeremiah 33:14, NRSV.
[11] Jeremiah 33:15-16, NRSV.
[12] Based on Psalm 25:5.
[13] 1 Thessalonians 3:9, NRSV.
[14] I suspect the number of quilts is much higher but this is the number that is listed on the congregation’s website. It’s impressive!

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