Presented on The Lutheran Hour on December 7, 2014 By Rev. Gregory Seltz, Lutheran Hour Speaker Copyright 2014 Lutheran Hour Ministries
Text: Mark 1:1-8
Christ is risen, He is risen indeed, and His message of grace is for all people. Amen.
How is your Christmas shopping going this year? Are you finished? Close to completion? Or do you, like me, tend to wait until the last minute to venture into the stores or search frantically online?
Well, no matter what your shopping habits are, I am pretty sure that this year you probably know someone among your friends or family who has a new cell phone on their Christmas list. We love the new gadgets today, don't we? There's always a new, must have addition to the latest thing that makes everything else yesterday's news. Now, there is one addition in the phone world that held a lot of promise for me since I tend to drop my phone sometimes. It's called, "gorilla glass," have you heard about it? When I bought my phone, the Galaxy Note 2, it was all the rage. It was supposed to be the glass that could take a beating, still keep working, resisting all chipping and cracking. Unfortunately, one day we dropped one of our "gorilla glass" phones....and it smashed into a million pieces.
But, that was yesterday's news. This year, the new iPhone, the iPhone 6, is rumored to be equipped with something called "sapphire glass," the glass that really won't break, ever. Unfortunately, in spite of the rumors and the hype, I'm pretty sure that there will be times when this glass just isn't strong enough. What do you think? New phone screens might be strong, but they're not as strong as we would like or even would need them to be.
Like so many things in life, what we have now, what we've created or accomplished; it isn't enough and it won't ever be. We need something stronger, something absolutely dependable and sure.
In fact, that reality seems to be all around us. From the simple things to the complex, we need something stronger. During this time of year, we need Christmas lights that last more than a few weeks. Doesn't it drive you crazy when a string goes out after you've hung all the lights in just the right place? We need bank accounts that have a bit more strength as expenses pile up and the pressure of Christmas giving becomes overwhelming. We need something stronger. We need stronger hearts as the stress of the season can add to the grief you're feeling because you miss a loved one so badly this time of year. We need something stronger as pain and worry may be plaguing you because your health isn't what you'd like it to be, or your relationships aren't going well--especially during a time of year that's supposed to be filled with happiness and celebration. Everywhere we turn, we need something stronger.
Does any of this sound like your life, my friend? Are you feeling that way as we get closer to Christmas? You need something stronger in your life. Take heart, take heart, dear listener. Real and enduring strength is close to you today. The writer of the Psalms gives us all good news about our source of strength. It says, "The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped" (Psalms 28:7). "The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation" (Psalms 118:14).
We need something stronger and God doesn't give us the latest and the almost greatest, He gives us Himself. He loves you and He gave His only Son Jesus, in history, to walk this earth, to save you and me; just what we needed; a strong salvation, through a strong Savior, as a sure gift. That's why we celebrate Christmas! We celebrate Jesus' birth and the arrival of His strength and His salvation for us!
What a message; especially for a world that is always searching for something stronger. Have you seen the television show called "The World's Strongest Man Competition"? It's one of those shows that runs on Saturdays when the baseball, football, basketball seasons are over. The show started way back in the 1970s. It was a precursor to today's reality TV. Some of the biggest, beefiest, and most powerful men competed in events like the airplane pull, the car carry, and the log throw. Can you picture a muscled brute of a human being gritting his teeth and dragging a Boeing 727 behind him? That made for some good television. It also attracted a large audience. Why? Because we humans beings have a real need to know who is strongest. We are captivated by strength.
Right now we're in the thick of the professional football season, too. In addition to watching the games, millions of people play fantasy football. They draft players, get points for how each player performs. Fantasy football players want the best players--scoring touchdowns, running long yardage, throwing perfect passes. The players have to be the strongest in their positions in order to win the most points. We are captivated by strength. We are always looking for something stronger.
Stronger medicine, stronger computers--we even search for the strongest material in the world. Just over ten years ago, Andre Geim, a creative and ingenious physicist, discovered a material that astounded the scientific community. The material is called graphene. It is stronger than diamonds; it is a million times thinner than a piece of paper; and it conducts electricity better than copper. Just one layer of atoms thick, graphene comes from graphite--the material found in your pencil. But this material is the strongest in the world. Can you imagine how this powerful micro-material could change the size and durability of today's computers? How it could revolutionize the industry? Unfortunately, the strongest material in the world is something we can't use! It's too expensive to produce. But you can be assured that scientists are working right now to access this miraculous and mighty material. Why? Because we are mesmerized with what is mighty. We are spellbound by strength. We are relentless in seeking what is stronger.
Why is that? I hate to tell you this, but it is true....it's because of our weakness; because of our shattered phone screens, our broken relationships, our messed up lives. Because of all of this devastation; we seek, we yearn, to find hope in strength.
Seeking what is stronger is an admission of our own frailty and fragility. We aren't even what we'd like to be let alone what God created us to be. So we research, scout, and study what is better and stronger and more enduring.
That's the condition of humanity. It's your condition and mine. We are weak. Perhaps not in what you can bench press or in brainpower or in your bank account, but we are fallen sinners destined for decay and death because of our separation from God. You and I need something much stronger than ourselves if we're going to make it through this life, if we're going to make it through the greatest challenge to our weakness, death.
Are you feeling some of that reality today? Incredibly, the holidays can do that to us too. The holiday carol says, "'Tis the season to be jolly." And while there is so much blessing during this special time of year, there is also some real, real hurt. You may be feeling loneliness creep in as you get closer to Christmas. You miss your husband or your wife who has passed away. Christmas is nice, but these days can also remind us of our sadness. We need real strength.
Or, this year, you need help with your family. Broken relationships, disagreements, and unresolved conflicts come into full view in this time of year. You wonder how you can overcome the barriers that separate you. And it hurts even more during the holidays.
And, of course, there's the overall stress level that comes with life; the work, the daily struggles, and then the holiday hype that seems to ramp everything up.
If you're feeling this weakness, if you struggle with these issues, if you have a sense of needing something more, take heart. I've got good news for you today. I want you to know the real message of Christmas today. Christmas isn't about our preparations, about holiday hype, about what we need to do to overcome our weakness and sin; no, Christmas is the Message, the reality of God in action to bring you His strength and salvation in the middle of weakness, sin, and death.
St. Mark calls this the gospel, God's Good News to a world full of bad news. In the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, he writes: "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mark 1:1).
What a powerful statement, God is here. What a mind-blowing truth! Let me just stop here for a moment. Just think about what Mark is saying. His first words are loaded. When he says, "The beginning," this echoes the beginning of the world at the creation in Genesis, chapter one. It is as if this faithful follower of Jesus, Mark, who was probably writing the facts about Jesus' life narrated by the Apostle Peter--you know, St. Peter, the one who was well acquainted with failure and his own sin, it's like he's saying, "If you need a new beginning, I've got one with Good News for you."
Indeed, his Good News is what the Christmas season is meant to be. And, in Christ, with Christ, every Christmas is a new beginning. Holiday baggage doesn't pile up when Jesus is the focus of Christmas. Jesus brings you a new Christmas, a new beginning, a brand new and fresh start every time, every year. Last year doesn't matter because the past is forgiven, the present is promised, and your future is sure in Him. Your childhood Christmas experiences may be good or not so good, but this Christmas is a new beginning. The world may be falling apart this year--and sometimes it seems it is--but this Christmas is a new beginning with new hope and a new life. That's what Jesus does.
So the Gospel writer told the story about the Savior who came to change everything. But Mark went on. He said, As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, "Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'" John appeared (Mark 1:2-8).
Mark introduced a man named John--you may know him as John the Baptist or John the Baptizer. As the verses say, he came to get people's attention and to prepare them for the coming of the One who was promised from the very beginning of the world, Jesus. John came to get them ready, came to get us ready for the ministry of God's Son sent into this world. It was the advent of a new era, a new season. That's why many churches call this time of year before the Christmas celebration, the season of Advent. "Advent" means "arrival" and with the arrival of Jesus, all things are new again!
And did you notice what John the Baptist said about Jesus? He said, "After me comes one who is mightier than I." The word means "stronger." This word is not accidental and it did not rush by the ears of the hearers during the first century. They knew who the "stronger" one was. This identical word for "strong" was used in the Old Testament to identify God. In some cases, the Bible just calls Him, "The Strong One." In other places in the Bible, God is given the title of "mighty" or "awesome." Deuteronomy 10:17 says, "For the LORD your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God." One of the most beautiful Christmas verses from Isaiah 9:6 calls God, "Wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
Can you imagine what the people thought when John the Baptist said, "One stronger is coming"? They knew that it was God who was drawing close to be with them. Real strength was coming; Someone who could do something about this broken world and broken lives. A helper was on His way. No one could overcome the pain or loneliness or stress--not on this earth, that is. But God could.
God did something creative, ingenious, unexpected, and revolutionary. He stepped into this world, into your life through His Son Jesus. He came as One strongest to help you. With man, these things are impossible, but with God, all things are possible. And that's what it takes, doesn't it? There's only hope in help from the outside, in a solution we could never think up, something we could never imagine on our own!
That's almost the way the strongest material in the physical world was discovered. You see, Andre Geim was not a typical physicist. He did some very unusual things--like the time he used a magnetic field to levitate a frog and earned a Nobel Prize for it in the year 2000. Or like the time he wrote a scientific paper with his favorite hamster.
He calls his unique approach to experimentation his "Lego Doctrine." It means using what you have all around you to piece together something new.
In order to discover graphene, Geim and a student tried to produce the material and came up with a speck of graphite. That's when Geim thought of Scotch Tape. What if he stuck it to the graphite and peeled away the top layer? The graphite started coming off in flakes. He kept at it until he finally reached his goal: a layer just one-atom thick called graphene. It was stronger than any material known to humanity, but it was a strength that was almost beyond comprehension.
Dear listener, God did the unconventional in ways that even Geim could not imagine. He knew what you needed: total forgiveness and restoration. He knew that the conventional attempts of humanity to solve the problem of a broken world could never work. So He took what He had--His one and only Son--and He sacrificed Him to save you. Jesus became weak as He suffered and died in your place. But then the One who took on your weakness, by His strength, He overcame death in His resurrection, so that you might live in Him forever.
Life in Him is sure; life is strong in Him, no matter what you face today.
So, let Him transform your loneliness into beautiful and meaningful solitude with Him. He hears your prayers. He draws close to you through His Word of life. Solitude, quietness with God, the power of His Spirit, it makes your life stronger.
Let your brokenness be restored in His reconciling love. Through His blood shed on the cross and the resurrection from the grave, He restored your relationship with God. Now, with the humility and self-sacrificial love of Christ, you can move forward in your relationships, reaching out, willing to say, "I'm sorry," or forgive the one who has hurt you. The power of His reconciling Spirit makes your life stronger.
Let even the adversity of the day; let it open your eyes to God's enduring presence and strength right in the middle of it, knowing that nothing will separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Let this be the year that you look first and foremost to His gifts, His grace, His strength in all things. There is nothing, nothing in this world like it.
Today is December 7. It's Pearl Harbor Day in the United States. On this day in 1941, thousands were killed in a surprise attack on the United States military fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. But the massive losses didn't make America weak. They only served to make America stronger as people cried out, "Remember Pearl Harbor!"
You may think you're defeated today because of what's happening in your life. But today is a day to shout out in your heart, remember Christmas and the eternal victory of God in Christ. For December is the time to reflect on the fact that the world's Savior, Jesus, came in the flesh, to take our weakness and give us His eternal strength. Stronger? No, the strongest salvation is here now, in Him, just for you. Amen.
LUTHERAN HOUR MAILBOX (Questions & Answers) for December 7, 2014 Topic: Who is John the Baptist?
ANNOUNCER: Now, The Lutheran Hour takes a look at John the Baptist! I'm Mark Eischer, here with Pastor Gregory Seltz. As we get closer to Christmas, we hear about this person in the Bible who prepared the way for Jesus. Who is this man known as John the Baptist?
SELTZ: John the Baptist, Mark, that's just another reason I love the season of Advent!
ANNOUNCER: It's a favorite time of the year for many!
SELTZ: And with Advent, the season of preparation before Christmas, that's why we hear so much about the one who came to get people ready for the coming of the Messiah, John the Baptist.
ANNOUNCER: What do we know about him?
SELTZ: Everyone knew about John before he was born. You might recall that he was the miracle baby of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Luke, chapter one, tells us that story. Zechariah was serving as a priest in the temple. He and his wife were an older couple. They were unable to have children. While Zechariah was in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that his prayer for a child was answered. His wife would conceive and give birth to a son. The angel told him that his son would be filled with the Holy Spirit, that he would turn many people to God, and that he would walk in the footsteps of the prophet Elijah.
ANNOUNCER: But, Zechariah didn't believe it.
SELTZ: Understandably, Zechariah, like us, had a hard time believing that this was possible at this stage of his life. His wife was way past the age of childbearing. But, again, God isn't limited by our unbelief, and of course, with God, all things are possible! Elizabeth got pregnant and she gave birth to a son.
ANNOUNCER: Normally, in that culture, the son would be named after a close relative, but Elizabeth speaks up and said his name is going to be something very different.
SELTZ: Right. Elizabeth and Zechariah obeyed God and they named their son, John, completely out of step with the times which gives us, again, a glimpse of his unique work. In awe of God's grace, Zechariah shared God's word about his son, John. He says, "You, child....will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of God" (Luke 1:76-78). Zechariah lets us know about John's purpose. It was to announce the forgiveness of sins through God's great love and mercy for us all.
ANNOUNCER: And how does he become known as John the "Baptist"?
SELTZ: The title is a reference to his primary ministry activity, not a Christian denomination. The Bible tells us that John went into the wilderness, taking the position of a prophet of God, living in the setting of a prophet, clothed as a prophet, and he called people to repent and to be baptized, to return to God and be cleansed from sin. He invited people into changed lives through the blessing of baptism in preparation for the coming of Jesus the promised Savior.
ANNOUNCER: That's also why he wore camel hair clothing and he ate locusts and wild honey. That's why he preached such a bold message. But there's even more to John the Baptist than his words.
SELTZ: Yeah, you're right, Mark. In chapter one of the Gospel of Mark, he points out that the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah and Malachi, describe John's coming centuries earlier. So, John's very presence among them was a bold signal to the people during that time; a sign that the true Savior, the Redeemer sent by God was soon to arrive. So the prophecy of the Old Testament was being fulfilled right before their eyes.
ANNOUNCER: So we see John the Baptist serving in a ministry that changes people's lives and his very existence points to Christ's coming. How does John the Baptist apply to our lives today?
SELTZ: John's call to prepare our hearts and lives still echoes in our day and age too. So, it's not just a message for history; it's a message for you and me today. During this time of year, John the Baptist's message, it shakes us from our complacency, our distraction, our own sin, and our confused priorities. When John says, "Bear fruit in keeping with repentance" (Matthew 3:8) or even he says, "Even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree that every tree that doesn't bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matthew 3:10). We need to hear that truth, too.
ANNOUNCER: That's a message that confronts us when we find ourselves in this season drifting away and our focus from the Reason for the season, our Savior Jesus Christ.
SELTZ: Exactly. But then we need to see John's main purpose as he points us to "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." His message makes our hearts ready, ready to walk in a new and restored life through Jesus Christ.
ANNOUNCER: So as we study the role of John the Baptizer, and we also, with him, prepare to receive the real gift of Christmas, the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ! Thank you, Pastor Seltz. This has been a presentation of Lutheran Hour Ministries.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns" arr. Henry Gerike. Used by permission.
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