This is my sermon manuscript for December 31. The lesson is John 1:19-34.
A recording may be posted after this auto-posts.
Over this extended weekend, many people will begin an annual ritual. You take down the Christmas decorations, and bring out your workout gear, or make the exercise bike, or treadmill accessible. We end one season, and begin the season of resolutions.
However, like Christmas, the season of resolutions lasts about 12 days. By mid-January, the exercise bike has resumed its role as secondary coat rack.
But the end of a year, and the beginning of a new one provides us with the opportunity to reflect on what we have been doing, and look at, and maybe even pursue, a new way of doing things.
That is what is going on in our Gospel lesson. God is doing a new thing, and the leaders of Israel’s Jewish community don’t like it.
John the Baptizer has created a great deal of controversy. He is baptizing people in the Jordan River. He is quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah, that he is “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, to make straight the way of the Lord.” He is warning the people of Israel that God’s promised Messiah is coming, and they need to get their act together.
Which upsets the leaders of Israel, and so the Temple leaders send priests and Levites to John to find out what he is up to. “Who are you?” “Who sent you?” “Who gave you the authority to do this?”
They are trying to frame what he is doing in Old Testament language. First, they ask if he is the Messiah, the Promised Anointed One? Then, is he Elijah, the great prophet who was taken up into heaven? If not Elijah, is he one of the other great prophets? If John is one of these, they know how to act and what to do. But if not, they don’t know how to proceed.
John tells them that he isn't the one they should be concerned about. He is simply preparing the way for another. One who is greater than he is, one of whom John is unworthy to tie his sandal.
The next day, John describes this person, and uses Old Testament language to describe him. “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
This is a different form of leadership, one of self-sacrifice. If John, or the One for whom he was preparing the way was a prophet, the priests and Levites would be asking them “What is the will of God?” Then the challenge would be if they would do it? Israel didn’t have a great track record of listening and following what prophets told them to do.
But the Lamb of God is different. With the Lamb of God, there is nothing for you to do but understand and accept.
In the sacrificial system, in the language of Passover, sins are cast onto the lamb, and it is in their death that the sins are taken away. Things are about to get different.
Here, we get into proper names, titles with capital letters. God has sent the capital L Lamb of God who will take away the capital S Sin (singular) of the world. This is a gift from God. Capital S singular Sin is not the things you have done wrong. Those are sins. Capital S singular Sin is the broken relationship you have, or don’t have, with God. The Capital L Lamb of God is here to take away the damaged, estranged relationship and to restore that connection to God.
The Capital W Word of God that has become a person has come to Earth to remove any barriers between people and God. By taking on our nature, by becoming a person, Jesus Christ has come to demonstrate and live out a life in perfect relationship to God, a life of loving others, a life of giving to and for others, a life of self-sacrifice. The life of the Capital L Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
This is something BRAND NEW for the priests and Levites, for the people of Israel and for the world. This is God redefining our relationship. This is God saying, “All of that stuff that keeps you from me; your sins, your guilt, your shame, your unworthiness – all of that I am taking away. Be with me.”
That is an unbreakable resolution. On God’s end.
How do we react? Do we realize that the Son of God has become a person to show us that God wants us to feel free to turn to God whenever and wherever we need to? That while we are sinners, and while we are unworthy, God doesn’t care.
And if, somehow, we can accept that God accepts our unacceptability, can we accept others knowing that they are accepted in their unacceptability as well?
God, through Jesus Christ, the Capital L Lamb who comes to take away the capital S Sin (singular) of the world, has resolved to have a new relationship with the world. Can we be resolved to accept this gift of grace, and share the love God gives us with others? Or will this fade like other resolutions of the New Year?
This is my sermon text for my Christmas Morn message. The text is Luke 2:4-20.
EDIT: An audio recording has been added. Merry Christmas.
In God’s time, there was Good News of Great Joy to all people.
In God’s time, a gift was given to us.
In God’s time, the things that separate us from God, sin and death, would be defeated.
In God’s time, humanity would be reconciled to God.
And all of this occurred because a baby boy was born in a barn, laid in a feeding trough and wrapped in rags. The time was right.
But what should our response be?
Because we know the whole story of Jesus, that this baby whose birth we remember and celebrate will grow to be an incredible teacher and preacher; that he will heal the sick, and raise the dead; that he will perform many miracles; but most importantly, that he will give up his life on the Cross; and then he will be raised from that death; through him our sins are wiped clean and death is defeated. Because we know the whole story, we know the Good News of Great Joy that is for all people is that to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
But what should our response be?
Look at how the angels responded. First, one angel appeared to the shepherds, and told them to go and see for themselves. Then, a whole army of angels showed up proclaimed the birth by praising and glorifying God.
The shepherds responded by going into Bethlehem, finding where Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were, and they made known what had been told them about this child; then they returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.
What if our response to this gift from God, or for any gift given to us from God was to give praise and glory to God? And if we did, what would that look like? What if we reacted with joy and celebrated what God has blessed us with?
I give you as an example, my best friend and roommate, Ananias Bulldogge Campbell.
When I get home at the end of the day, Ananias will come to greet me at the door. He wants to jump up and give me what I call a doggie hug. But I’ve trained him not to do that because he’s almost 90 pounds and he would make someone lose their balance and possibly fall. So he wants to jump up, but knows he shouldn’t. So he bounces. As soon as my hands are free, I’ll scratch that special spot behind his ears and his little nub of a tail is wiggling at a million miles an hour. Then he will run around the house to show me that he took care of everything while I was gone.
Where is our celebration of joy like that?
We have been blessed by God with the gift of God’s Son, our Savior. But we have been blessed in so many other ways. We woke up today. We woke up today in warm houses. We had food for breakfast. We will have more food later in the day. We are able to exchange gifts with loved ones. We were able to travel to be here this morning. We are, and have been, blessed in so many ways.
But what should our response be? What if we made known about how we have been blessed; glorifying and praising God for everything?
What if the gift we give to others this Christmas is telling them Good News of Great Joy that God loves them, and that we love them, too? What if we showed that love by actually caring for and about others? What if we honestly asked people what we could do to help them? What if we meant it when we ask people how they are doing, then we acted to help them?
What if we were excited to share the Good News of Great Joy in word and deed as our dogs are to see us when we come home? What if we lived lives of Great Joy because of the Good News?
That could be the greatest Christmas gifts ever.
The time IS right. It is God’s time. AMEN.
Below is my sermon text for our Christmas Eve services. The Gospel lessons are:Luke 2:6-14 and John 1:1-5, 9-14, 16-18. Apologies for the poor quality of the recording; this was the best of the three.
The Gospels contain two very different stories about Jesus’ birth.
Luke, and to some degree Matthew, tell the story we know best. Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem because of the census. There is no place for them to stay, so she gives birth to her baby amongst the animals, and lays him in a feeding trough for his first crib.
But John begins differently. John begins back at THE Beginning.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
John tells us that everything that ever existed came into being by the Word, the Word that was with God and the Word that was God. The Word created life. The Word is the Light for all people. And that Light was coming into the world.
The creative force that was behind literally everything was coming into the world. The bang in the Big Bang was coming into the world. The knitter that knit the first strands of DNA together was coming into the world. The hand that placed the stars in the sky, and the hand that planted the seeds, was coming into the world.
That is certainly Good News, and should cause Great Joy, don’t you think?
The celestial army certainly thought so. They sent an advance emissary to make the proclamation. Not the to Caesar, nor to the kings, nor to the rich and powerful in their palaces of gold. But to simple people, to those who needed to know that God cares about them and for them.
Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
The One whom had been promised, a Savior, a Messiah, the Lord had been born. The True Light, the Word of God has taken on flesh.
This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
The Word that spoke existence into being was born not into wealth, or power, or at a huge estate, but he was wrapped in rags and slept in a feeding trough. God took on human form and flesh, took on our existence, starting not at the top, but at the bottom. Because Christ came for us all.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
The Good News of Great Joy that the angels proclaimed to the shepherds is that God sent a light to shine into the darkness. It doesn’t matter if that darkness is caused by illness, depression, isolation, addiction or rejections; darkness brought by abuse, bullying, mistreatment, exploitation, discrimination, or harassment; darkness that comes from financial or economic problems, relationship difficulties, family struggles or the various things life throws in our way.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
That baby, born in a stable, wrapped in rags, beginning life at the bottom is the hope of the world. Through Him, death is defeated and our sins are swept away. Through Him, God expresses the ultimate sign of love, totally giving of one’s self, even to death, a death on a cross.
But beyond that, Christ is a light shining into OUR darkness, a light to remind us that we are beloved by God, no matter what.
No matter how much the darkness grabs at us, how much is surrounds and swallows us, there is a light that shines into the darkness, and the darkness cannot over come it.
God’s love burst into the world in that baby born in Bethlehem. God’s love shattered the suffocation that sin inflicts on us. God’s love destroys the dominion of death. Nothing can separate us from God’s love.
Remember, all things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. Everyone and everything is a beloved creation of God. If you feel unloved, have been told you are unloved, or struggle to love yourself, God loves you. God shines as a light in the darkness, to remind you that you are loved. And God invites you to love others, because God loves you.
And that is Good News of Great Joy for All the people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Merry Christmas and AMEN.
Below is my message for Sunday, December 10 on Ezekiel 37:1-14, the Valley of Dry Bones. Above is a recording of my message from Emmanuel.
As far as you can see, it is brilliant white. Eye blinding white covers the ground. As far you can hear, it is as silent as a closed library. You are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of millions of bones. There is no smell, because the bodies have been dead for a long, long time. The bodies have been picked clean of any shred of the person they once belonged to. The harsh rays of the sun have bleached the bones as white as the few clouds that float overhead.
God brought Ezekiel into a valley filled with dried, human bones. The bones are the bodies of the people of Israel, dead because they had lost faith in their god. The nation of Israel is dead because they did not keep Him first, slain because they did not obey His commands, murdered because they did not love Him with their whole heart. They lost their way, lost God as the focus of their lives, and lost their faith. They died because despite everything God had done for them, they were unfaithful.
Ezekiel is living in Exile. The kingdom of Israel has been defeated and destroyed. Its leaders captured and exiled to Babylon. The Promised Land has been ripped from their hands. The Temple has been destroyed. Their way of life torn has been from their grasp. The Chosen People feel abandoned and isolated; they believe God has rejected them. In fact, it was they who rejected God. They were to be a holy people, set aside to be an example, a light unto to the nations. But, they were unfaithful and ungrateful.
The bones are us, empty of faith, empty of life, empty of love, empty without God. We think that God has rejected us. We believe that God ignores us. We doubt God’s existence.
We live in a time of uncertainty. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. There are rumors and possibilities of wars, civil strife, destruction, human cruelty, greed, abuse and violence that seem to be in a competition to horrify and frighten us.
We live in a time of diminishing returns. We see fewer: fewer people in our activities, fewer activities to be a part of, fewer friends are around, fewer people are in our towns, fewer people are in our churches.
We live in a time of increasing need. We see and hear of more people in trouble: they are hungry and starving, they are poisoned by the earth and our mismanagement, they are telling of abuse and mistreatment, they are persecuted and victimized. Their stories fill our media. Their stories haunt our nights.
And we take it all in. And we feel guilty for not doing more. And we try to resist blaming ourselves, but we want to do better, and we don’t see that we make any difference.
And inside, the light of hope dims, in danger of going out.
In last week’s message, I quoted from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther, and said, “If you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren't fit to live.” That is true because our lives gain value by what we are willing to work for, what we are willing to fight for, and possibly, what we are willing to die for. Along the same lines, our lives lose value when we don’t have something to work, fight or even die for.
The greatest loss however, is the loss of hope. Without hope, our lives lose meaning. Our lives lose their value. Without hope, our lives are simply counting down until our death. Without hope, we are a walking bag of bones. A community without hope is a valley of dry bones.
This is not a prophecy. This is truth. This is history. This is what happened to the people of Israel. And this is what is happening to churches and worshipping communities across this country.
“Mortal, can these bones live?”
Sometimes, the world can seem like the valley of dry bones. Dead. Lifeless. Without hope.
“Mortal, can these bones live?”
God wants Ezekiel to tell the people of Israel about the valley of dry bones, because where God is, hope is. Where God is, life is.
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
The Good News is that we serve a God that brings life where there is no life. The Good News is that we worship a Savior who was dead but now lives. The Good News is that we are empowered by a Spirit that is literally the breath of life.
To the people of Israel, God said I am not through with you yet. I promised you a land, and I will keep my promise even though you have not been faithful.
To the people of God’s church, God says I am not through with you yet. I promised to be with you always, to be with you until the end of the ages, and I will, though you have not been faithful. I have told you to go to all nations and all peoples, teaching them what I have taught, sharing with them God’s love and the Good News.
As God sent the Breath, the ruach, the Spirit into the dry bones and they lived, as God sent the Breath, the ruach, the Spirit into the people of Israel and they returned to the land promised to them, God is sending the Breath, the ruach, the Spirit into The Church, this church and into you, reigniting the light of hope in our hearts and calling us to share God’s love and the Good News.
But, the journey is challenging, the opposition is daunting, the need is tremendous and the way is fraught with peril.
“Mortal, can these bones live?”
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Mortal, can these bones live?”
With hope in our hearts, and with faith in a God who raises the dead, nothing is impossible. AMEN.
Below is a draft of my sermon for December 3, the First Sunday of Advent, on the lesson from Daniel 3 in the Narrative Lectionary. The lesson is the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
As I mention in my message, the inspiration and most of the message that I gave came from a sermon that the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on November 5, 1967. A transcript of that powerful message was done by Austin Smith and is here. A recording of Rev. Dr. King's sermon is on YouTube and is embedded below.
Two of my attempts, which pale next to the message of Rev. Dr. King, are at the bottom of this post.
This lesson is a Sunday School classic. It has repetitions, strange and fun to say names, and comes to a conclusion with a moral.
But there is so much more to this, especially right in the middle of this story.
The leaders and prominent people from Jerusalem had been taken into exile in Babylon, and put to work in the Babylonian Empire. Among those are the three stars of this story: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. King Nebuchadnezzar built a statue that everyone in Babylon was to worship when they heard the music play. Rivals reported to the king that these Israelites were refusing the bow and kneel to the king’s golden statue. When Nebuchadnezzar confronted them, they admitted to their crime, and were willing to pay the penalty.
When I started looking at this lesson and materials about it, I found a sermon delivered by the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King in 1967. That sermon helped to shape my understanding of this lesson, and of what I have taken from it. I am going to read from part of that sermon now, and at other points in my message.
Rev. Dr. King said, “I want you to notice first, here, that these young men practiced civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is the refusal to abide by an order of the government or of the state or even of the court that your conscience tells you is unjust. Civil disobedience is based on a commitment to conscience. In other words, one who practices civil disobedience is obedient to what he considers a higher law. And there comes a time when a moral man can not obey a law which his conscience tells him is unjust. And I tell you this morning, my friends, that history has moved on, and great moments have often come forth because there were those individuals, in every age and in every generation, who were willing to say ‘I will be obedient to a higher law.’”
We lift up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as examples of people who literally stand up for the First Commandment. They will NOT worship another god. They refused to fall down. They refused to lie down. They refused to kneel.
Civil disobedience is a reaction to when you find the rules or laws or norms of society to be unacceptable. It is protesting and saying that I won’t do what you want me to. But realizing that rebellion comes with a cost. It may be taking an unpopular position and losing friends. It may separate or isolate you from your family. It may cost you job or livelihood. It may inflict physical violence against you. It may have you face criminal charges and jail time. It may cost you your very life.
It is a decision that people don’t enter into lightly. But it is one that when it is made, you don’t back down from. It is a statement of “Here I stand.”
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were willing to die, being burned to death in a fiery furnace rather than worshipping Nebuchadnezzar’s idol. Yes, they were saved. But they were willing to die.
Rev. Dr. King said, “These men never doubted God and his power. As they did what they did, they made it very clear that they knew that God had the power to spare them; they said that to the king: ‘Now we know that the God that we worship is able to deliver us.’ And that grew out of their experience. They had known God, … And then they had seen God, I'm sure, in their personal lives. They never doubted God's power to deliver them.”
We say we trust God, but are we willing to bet our lives on God protecting us? Would you be willing to suffer a painful, agonizing death rather than falling to the ground at the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble?
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had faith. But they had something else.
Rev. Dr. King said, ”But let me move now to the basic point of the message. Know this morning, if we forget everything I've said, I hope you won't forget this. It came to the point after saying ‘If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.’
‘But if not’ -- do you get that? That these men were saying that ‘Our faith is so deep and that we've found something so dear and so precious that nothing can turn us away from it. Our God is able to deliver us, but if not...’ This simply means, my friends, that the ultimate test of one's faith is his ability to say ‘But if not.’ You see there is what you may call an 'if' faith, and there is a 'though' faith. And the permanent faith, the lasting, the powerful faith is the 'though' faith. Now the 'if' faith says, "If all goes well; if life is … prosperous …; if I don't have to go to jail; if I don't have to face the agonies and burdens of life; if I'm not ever called bad names because of taking a stand that I feel that I must take; if none of these things happen, then I'll have faith in God, then I'll be alright." That's the 'if' faith. …
There is a 'though' faith, though. And the 'though' faith says ‘Though things go wrong; though evil is temporarily triumphant; though sickness comes and the cross looms, neverthless! I'm gonna believe anyway and I'm gonna have faith anyway.’ …
Think of friendship, think of love, and think of marriage. These things are not based on 'if,' they're based on 'though.' These great experiences are not based on a bargaining relationship, not an 'if' faith, but a 'though' faith.
Somewhere along the way you should discover something that's so dear, so precious to you, that is so eternally worthwhile, that you will never give it up. You ought to discover some principle, you ought to have some great faith that grips you so much that you will never give it up. Somehow you go on and say ‘I know that the God that I worship is able to deliver me, but if not, I'm going on anyhow, I'm going to stand up for it anyway.’
What does this mean? … If you're doing right merely to keep from going to … hell then you aren't doing right. If you do right merely to go to … heaven, you aren't doing right. … Ultimately you must do right because it's right to do right. And you got to say "But if not."
You must love ultimately because it's lovely to love. You must be just because it's right to be just. You must be honest because it's right to be honest. This is what this text is saying more than anything else.
And finally, you must do it because it has gripped you so much that you are willing to die for it if necessary. And I say to you this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren't fit to live.
You may be 38 years old as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause--and you refuse to do it because you are afraid; you refuse to do it because you want to live longer; you're afraid that you will lose your job, or you're afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity or you're afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house, and so you refuse to take the stand. Well you may go on and live until you are 90, but you're just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90! … You died when you refused to stand up for right, you died when you refused to stand up for truth, you died when you refused to stand up for justice. …
Because they had faith enough to say "But if not," God was with them as an eternal companion. …
Somebody looked in there and said ‘We put three in here, but now we see four.’ Don't ever think you're by yourself. Go on to jail if necessary but you'll never go alone. Take a stand for that which is right, and the world may misunderstand you and criticize you, but you never go alone. …
The world will look at you and they won't understand you, for your fiery furnace will be around you, but you'll go on anyhow. But if not, I will not bow, and God grant that we will never bow before the gods of evil.”
The worlds of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King exactly five months before he was murdered for his stands are as true now as they were then. What cause, what wrong, what issue, what stand are you willing to fight on behalf of? Where will your faith take you where you are willing to say, "But if not"?
What greater good calls you to trust a greater God, willingly saying, "But if not"? For what will you take up your cross as did Our Lord, Jesus Christ? For what are you willing to lay down your life as did Our Lord, Jesus Christ?
May God give you the strength of your faith. AMEN.
Pastor Brian's Page
Pastor Brian Robert Campbell has served at Our Savior's and Emmanuel since August 1, 2011, and began serving Nazareth on December 1, 2015.
Pastor Brian is originally from Saginaw, Michigan. He graduated from Alma College with a B.A. in Business Administration, and worked for the Saginaw Public Schools' Community Education Department for 17 years before answering the call to ministry. He graduated with a M. Div. from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in 2011. ONE in Christ Lutheran Parish is his first call.
He is the only child of Robert and Charlotte Campbell, both who have entered the Church Eternal.
He is accompanied in ministry by his faithful bulldogge Ananias, who regularly writes for our newsletter. His articles are archived here.
He is a fan of sports teams from his native Michigan, especially the Tigers and the Lions. But we tolerate him despite that.
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