“Every Valley Shall Be Lifted Up…” – it’s God’s work, but we’re a part of it too!

The sign that greeted me early Sunday morning as I parked on a beautiful winter morning at Messiah.

It was a joy to be with the good people of Messiah Lutheran Church in Ralston, Nebraska on Sunday December 9th. Thank you to Pastor Greg Berger for the invitation, to come and preach on stewardship as part of the congregation’s Consecration Sunday, and lead an adult forum conversation between worship, as well as join the congregation’s lunch bunch for food and conversation after the second service. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, based on the appointed gospel lesson from Luke 3:1-6. If you would like to watch or listen to the sermon and/or worship services, you can do so by visiting the congregation’s video archives here.

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

Good Morning Messiah. It’s great to be with you today. Thank you, Pastor Greg, for the invitation and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring greetings from 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’m excited to be with you today on this Second Sunday of Advent. Grateful to not have to brave snow or icy roads this morning unlike the last couple of Sundays. And grateful to be with you and dig into what God might be saying today through the words of Isaiah, the ministry of John, and the promises of God we know most clearly through God with us, Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel; and our response to all of this through our stewardship, on this your Consecration Sunday.

What might God be saying today?
The second week of Advent brings us back toward the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. We hear words about John the Baptist, one crying out from the wilderness, proclaiming and preparing the way of the Lord.

Screen Shot 2018-12-09 at 3.32.59 PM
Preaching and wearing my Advent stole during the traditional service. (Photo via Messiah’s livestream of worship.)

This proclamation and preparation is at the heart of this season of Advent, and God is most certainly up to something here. A little earlier than we read in today’s story, John’s father Zechariah prophesied about John as a baby. He declared, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”[1]

These words are so beautiful. Words about what God will do in and through this little one’s life. Maybe they’re resonating with me because my wife Allison and I are spending our first Advent and Christmas season with our 8-month old daughter Caroline. And seeing her wonder and sense of joy, only fills me with more wonder and joy in hearing these powerful words.

This prophecy is a familiar story and proclamation, but it’s also a promise. God is up to something. And in that, people will be forgiven their sins. They will grow to understand God as their salvation. And there will be the hope and way of peace. These are things at the heart of our faith. And for me this year, they seem all the more real, in creating new family holiday traditions, like getting our kitchen covered in flour, making and baking our Norwegian family’s heritage favorite, Lefse; or showing our daughter Caroline all the lights on the trees as we prepare this Advent season for God in Christ’s coming.

The ministry of John the Baptist
As Zechariah had prophesied years earlier, it all came to pass. As we just heard in the gospel reading, John has been out in the wilderness and growing strong in the spirit.[2] John the Baptist has officially entered the scene, starting his formal ministry, and John “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”[3]

Some of the hats and mittens being collected by the congregation to share with those in need.

We’ll get to hear more about John next week and then again next month with Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. But this week, in addition to Zechariah’s words, we hear words that are as just about as central to Advent as you can get. They are words about John, but words first from the prophet, Isaiah.

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”[4]

God’s Promises for Us
“Every valley shall lifted up.” “Every mountain and hill made low.” “The crooked shall be made straight.” “The rough places made plain.” This is all God’s work, and these are God’s promises. With God, everything changes and will change. Isaiah foretold this, and John the Baptist embodied this as the one preparing the way of the Lord.

These promises are true, because when God makes a covenant or promise, God keeps it. God goes so far as only God could do. To come to the world and be born as one of us, walking alongside with us, teaching us, and being with us, Emmanuel. God in Christ is handed over, crucified, and died. And God is resurrected and ascended, for us. This is all God’s work for us. Work we could never earn. Work that God promises to do, as God offers life, and salvation for all of God’s children and creation.

This life that God in Christ offers with hands and arms out stretched on the cross, is abundant life. It’s a life of great meaning and purpose- a life of growth, learning, and serving of stewardship and discipleship. But it’s not always an easy life and certainly has its challenges. There’s a cross involved after all. Or in the case of John the Baptist, a grotesque platter. But in living this life, we open ourselves up like Christ, aware of our neighbors and the world around us, and open to God working in, around, and through us. That’s powerful! And it’s a promise, as God uses us in our various gifts and vocations to go about the work of building God’s kingdom.

Sometimes this might even mean that God uses us in the work of lifting the valleys, lowering the mountains, straightening out the crooked, and smoothing the rough patches; of seeing our neighbors and sharing God’s love, even when life feels hard or insurmountable because of low points, high challenges, or difficult paths. That’s work we are called to and entrusted and empowered with gifts for, with a God who is with us.

Our Response as our Stewardship
This is where stewardship comes in. How do we respond to God’s work and promises for us? Pure gift and grace we could never earn, all given out of God’s deep love.

Do we respond gratefully and joyfully to this, 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.

Taking a step back, stewardship starts with an understanding that all that we have, and all that we are, is God’s. The psalmist proclaims, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it…”[5] 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- a life of deep meaning and purpose as a steward and disciple. One that’s not always easy and certainly has its challenges. 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, in response to the promises grounded in God’s love, peace, good news of forgiveness, hope, and salvation.

Screen Shot 2018-12-09 at 3.36.15 PM
The congregation of Messiah coming forward to commit to their participation and giving with their estimate of giving cards for 2019.

Messiah’s Response
In a moment, you are going to be able to commit yet again to doing this work. You will receive your estimate of giving cards, which will help Messiah discern its mission plan. The plan that helps shape and respond to the needs in the world that God is calling you to notice and be involved with.  You are all bearers of hope to others and for others in need, whether you know that to be true or not, I know it’s true.

Screen Shot 2018-12-09 at 3.39.47 PM
Sharing in the meal together during the contemporary service. Notice the beautiful afghans made by members of the congregation being blessed and prayed over before being given to those in the community in need.

I see it in you. I hear it in you. And I have heard and seen some of the many ministries that you do, and the mission of God that you are a part of. You make a difference in this community. You notice, care for, and respond to the hungry by sponsoring and serving through the Mobile Food Pantry. You share the gospel in partnership with your sisters and brothers in Tanzania. You share the warmth of Christ’s light in the world by knitting afghans and prayer shawls for those in the community. You provide hope and comfort through hats and mittens, and providing Christmas gifts to local families in need and facing hard times.

Messiah, here in Ralston you share space and partner with the South Sudan Lutheran Church, and your whole congregation and church building are really an outpost for mission in your midst in the greater community, providing space for Al Anon and so many other things. You are open and sharing God’s love in so many ways with hands and arms outstretched like your savior offers for you and all of God’s children on the cross.

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.

It always makes me happy to see mission share information like this, visible and prominent in the life of the congregation.

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.

And through all of this service, and discipleship, all of you, are growing in faith, growing as disciples and stewards. I am sure that any one of you could share a story of faith in action, of how you see God at work here, as you are part of this community. And that is something I celebrate, as I see that God is up to something here in you, through you, and for you. You are really messengers, like John the Baptist, messengers of hope and the Good News of God coming near that we celebrate this Advent season.

Gratitude, Thanks, and Putting It Altogether
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.

Sisters and brothers, you are enough for this work because you are called to it by God, empowered and entrusted with it by God. And as we remember this Advent season, we know that God is with us, Emmanuel. God walks alongside us, guides us, leads us, supports us, challenges us, and comforts us. All of this God does out of God’s deep and abiding love which we can’t help but share. Thanks be to God for all of this, and thanks be to God for all of you, God’s stewards and disciples gathered here, doing God’s work. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] Luke 1:76-79, NRSV.
[2] Luke 1:80, NRSV.
[3] Luke 3:3, NRSV.
[4] Luke 3:4-6, NRSV.
[5] Psalm 24:1-3, NRSV.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s