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A Journey to Christmas

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After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” – Matthew 2:1-2, NIV

This Advent we are embarking on an unforgettable journey to experience Hope, Joy, Peace & Love!

What an amazing season it is as we journey together toward Christmas. The word advent comes from Latin and roughly means “coming.” So we use these weeks leading up to Christmas as a chance to look forward to our celebration of the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, the light of the world … our Savior.

Advent is a season of great expectation, and I’m inviting you to join us as we embark on a journey (actually as we join in an epic journey that began more than two thousand years ago!) as we follow the Star and discover the Light of the world. It’s a journey of the heart and soul, but it’s also a journey that will realign our expectations and experience of the Christmas season. And it’s a journey that will explore the gifts of Christmas delivered by and through Christ: hope, joy, peace and love. We all need hope in the storms of life and love that never gives up. We need fresh joy on our journey and peace no matter what we’re facing or dealing with.

And you probably know someone who needs that too!  That’s why we’re making an outreach tool available to you this Advent.  The free pamphlet is available in the church lobby, and it introduces the four themes for the weeks of Advent (love, joy, peace and hope), and invites the reader to ponder the true gifts of Christmas.  You can use it to invite your friends and family to join you in your journey to Christmas.

Our journey centers on the Star as our guiding light. The Star of Bethlehem, that burst through the darkness over two thousand years ago and signaled the long-awaited birth of a Savior, has taken a central place in the Christmas story, but its mention in the Bible is really very brief. The record of wise men from the East who followed a star is only mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel account of Christ’s coming (Matthew 2). And there is much discussion by scholars and scientists about what the Star actually was, who the wise men (Magi) were, and when the cosmic event of its appearance took place. But apart from the debates, there remains the truth that the light of a star led people to Jesus – even if they were still on their journey the night Jesus was born. (Most scholars place the wise men showing up a few months to a year after Jesus’s birth.) And maybe that’s a good metaphor for anyone’s spiritual journey … we don’t always come to Jesus the minute He reveals himself … it’s a process.

The Advent season is about the journey as much as the destination. As we’ll explore, it is a time to prepare, maybe to pause and to ponder, to breathe deeply and turn our eyes to the true meaning of this time of year—a season that can seem so hectic and stressful in our culture.  Let’s be honest – sometimes the journey of life can get long and difficult. And this busy time of year can pile on more challenges and stress. The good news is – there is hope!

No matter where you find yourself today, you are invited into this journey.  Will you say yes to the journey? Will you peer through the darkness of your life, no matter what that may be, and look for the Star … a glimmer of hope? Will you journey toward Bethlehem, drawn by hope for the love, joy, and peace that await you?

Is that hard for you to imagine? Is your Christmas season overwhelmed already by any number of struggles: financial stresses, relational dysfunctions, loss of a loved one?  I think we all have one or the other … But let me encourage you—that’s exactly where hope shines brightest.

Christmas can still give us a taste of the most wonderful time of world history. Jesus, the Messiah and Savior, came as the Light into the darkness, stress and pain of the world.  And He still shines His Light for us today as He did that first Christmas. He fills our lives’ journeys with hope, love, joy, and peace.  Join us this Advent and Christmas at Redeemer.  We have much to share with you as we follow our Lord together.

In Christ’s Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace,

Pastor Augie

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Who is the Son of Man?

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When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” – Matthew 16:13, NIV

Jesus asked His disciples two questions.  First he asked, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They answered him with an unsatisfying reply that I’ll paraphrase as, “Nobody really knows… They are still guessing.”  Then Jesus narrowed it down to perhaps what was more important to Him, and definitely was more important to His followers, when he asked, “But who do YOU say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15, emphasis mine).  These two questions show us the essence of the mission before us – making Jesus known, in a world that doesn’t really know Him.

Quite frankly, the answer to the question of who Jesus is, is even more confused nowadays than it was in Biblical times.  According to a Barna Research report from 2017[i], “5 Popular Beliefs about Jesus,” even though most people believe that Jesus was a real person, some don’t.  They also discovered that younger generations are increasingly less likely to believe that Jesus is God.  And Americans are divided on whether Jesus was sinless.  And yet, the majority of Americans claim to have made a commitment to Jesus Christ.  But if they doubt His divinity, sinlessness and even His existence … in the words of our Small Catechism … “what does this mean?” Even though the number is declining, studies still report that as many as 75% of Americans claim to be Christian. But then we have to ask if these are active followers of Jesus, or Christian in name only?

Whether it’s scientifically researched or purely anecdotal, we all recognize that times have changed in our country, and perhaps even more so in our Southwestern corner of the States.  Most of us can remember a time just a few short decades ago, when most people went to church – or at least knew they should go.  Most people knew about the Bible and the stories it contained, and they knew who Jesus was.  Furthermore, our society was built around the morality found in the Bible; it was assumed.  Nobody worried about Church and State issues as much; it was assumed that for the State to work, Church was necessary. But times have changed. And we have an opportunity to understand anew, as Concordia Seminary president Dale A. Meyer says[ii], “the radical nature of faith in Jesus,” because our faith in Jesus moves us to action that is often unpopular, and more and more counter-cultural.

The reason Jesus asked His disciples, “who do you say that I am?” is because He knew that their life depended on, and would be directed by, their answer to that question.  So when Peter responded, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16:16-17).  Peter had given the right answer.  It was on this confession and understanding of who the Son of Man is, that Christ would build His Church.

Ultimately what we put our faith in is not health or possessions … or even family!  These are all gifts from our Creator, but they are not sufficient upon which to place our hope and our trust.  There is only One worthy of our faith.  There is only One whom we fear, love and trust above all else.  That is who the Son of Man is!

“Faith is a living, unshakeable confidence in God’s grace; it is so certain, that someone would die a thousand times for it. This kind of trust in and knowledge of God’s grace makes a person joyful, confident, and happy with regard to God and all creatures. This is what the Holy Spirit does by faith. Through faith, a person will do good to everyone without coercion, willingly and happily; he will serve everyone, suffer everything for the love and praise of God, who has shown him such grace.” (Martin Luther’s Preface to the Book of Romans)

So who is Jesus to you?  I pray that He is the One who puts your conscience at ease and gives you confidence when it comes to your future – both in this life and beyond – because He has addressed all your spiritual and physical needs.  But I also pray that He is the One who puts your heart, hands and head to work to make Him known to those who do not know Him and who need to feel His embrace!

At Redeemer we talk about “Joining Jesus in Our Community.”  Jesus made it His mission to reveal to the world God’s love through His witness and work – chief of which was His death on the cross.  And before He ascended into heaven, Jesus showed the world that He was triumphant over the grave, and He gave His followers the job of continuing His work of making Him known.  He said, “… you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) Let us continue Jesus’ mission of revealing God’s Only Son to the World.  Let us make sure that people know who the Son of Man is!

Making Him known,

Pastor Augie

[i] https://issuu.com/concordiasem/docs/csm_fall_2017_final/6

[ii] Ibid.

Let Us Start to Rebuild

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Scripture:  I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work. – Nehemiah 2:18

Observation:  The name Nehemiah means ‘Yah(weh) [the Lord] has compassion.’  He was the post-exilic governor of Judah, and the main character in the book of Nehemiah.  Nehemiah himself rose to high standing during the reign of the Persian Emperor Artaxerxes I (464–424 bc). He was designated the ‘cupbearer to the king’ (Neh. 1:11). This honorable position involved tasting wine for the king to ensure it was not poisoned.  This meant he was a trusted advisor and had the ear of the King.

Nehemiah’s work in Jerusalem began when his brother Hanani visited him in Susa. Nehemiah asked about the condition of the returnees and learned that the people of Jerusalem were troubled and the walls of the city were broken down. This broke his heart for his people.  Nehemiah, like many exiles, had made Persia/Babylon his home following the exile.  But now he felt strong ties to his roots.

After prayer and fasting, he approached Artaxerxes and asked permission to rebuild the city. Permission was granted and Nehemiah left with royal edicts to authorize his effects (Neh. 1:1–2:10).

Even with the king’s permission and blessing, Nehemiah faced all kinds of opposition… from surrounding provinces, and even from the Jewish people.  Why?  They were threatened by the rebuilding and afraid.  Nevertheless it was real for Nehemiah.  It mean that he and his workers were mocked verbally, and even with force.  Bottom line is that Nehemiah had every reason to quit.  But he was so devoted to the calling of the Lord to rebuild, that he was not disuaded and continued on.

It’s important to note that Nehemiah did not just rebuild the physical city of Jerusalem, but he also devoted himself to restoring the religion and faith of Judah.  He revived their faith in and faithfulness to God.

Application:  Don’t those two have to go together?  What good is it to have a physically strong body, but have a spiritually empty soul?  Likewise Nehemiah didn’t just want to put up new walls on the city, but re-establish the spiritual health of the people of Judah beginning with Jerusalem.

These days in our country, there is so much brokenness – if not because of the physical destruction caused by hurricanes and floods, because of the spiritual destruction caused by battling opposing ideologies and the hectic pace of life.

It’s time to rebuild.    Most obviously we need to rebuild broken roads and electrical grids.  But we must also rebuild relationships.  We need to see our neighbor not as our enemy … but to see the brokenness as our enemy.    And we must rebuild our spiritual health – by returning to the Lord.

I love what we read earlier in Nehemiah “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.” (Neh. 1:10)  To me that means that God is always rescuing His lost people – and He will rescue, restore and rebuild us even now.

Prayer:  Help me turn my heart to you God, and begin the rebuilding today – starting with me.  Restore my spirit and renew my strength.  And allow me to be a part of rebuilding your people.  In Your Name.  Amen.

To learn more about the #LifeJournal reading plan I am using, see this post: Rev Augie’s Blog – Daily Bible Reading.

Reformation 2017 – It’s Still about Jesus

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“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” – Ephesians 2:8-9, NKJV

I distinctly remember sitting in a Lutheran Church in Arizona – well into my adulthood – when I first really grasped the Grace of our Lord’s Gospel.  I remember the pastor preaching and it hit me right between the eyes: I was not saved by any amount of my good works… but wait! I thought that was the point of keeping the Commandments? … No, while my obedience was good, it would never be good enough to earn me salvation or somehow to make me worthy of the eternal blessings of God.  Those would only be received as a free gift – given by the Grace of God because of the completed and perfect work of Jesus Christ on the cross!  I would never be able to be so good as to merit this favor, and I would never be able to be so bad as to be unforgiven of all my sins.  Wow.  In that moment, I truly felt lighter.

And in that moment, this former Catholic perhaps had more in common with Martin Luther than do many life-long Lutherans.  Why is that?  Because what I experienced – being freed from condemnation of the Law through the Grace of God in Christ (Romans 8:1) – is what Martin Luther personally experienced that sparked the Reformation some 500 years ago in Wittenberg Germany!  I can relate to being under the same crushing effects of guilt and shame that drove Luther to spend hours in the confessional as he tried to lead a pure monastic lifestyle through which somehow to attain God’s Righteousness.  But it was in that struggle, under the fear of condemnation, that Luther stumbled upon the merciful offer of comfort found in Paul’s letter to the Romans.  The verse “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” (Romans 1:17) held special meaning for Luther.  This verse used to plague him with fear, because he knew he was not righteous before God, due to his many sins.  But one day, the light of the Gospel broke through to him and he saw clearly that Scripture points to the source of the righteousness we need.  It is in fact God’s righteousness given to us by faith (faith alone!) not our own righteousness that saves us.  And for the struggling sinner – me, Luther, you – this is music to our ears!

So with a heart full of renewed hope, Luther set out to release the Gospel from the obscurity it had known under centuries of the Papacy.  Such atrocities had developed, that poor sinners were filled with fear believing that they would be condemned for their sin, with no hope other than to pay for “indulgences” with money, or suffer punishment in purgatory – a spiritual sort of waiting room before entrance into heaven.  Unfortunately, man loves the darkness, and the Good News of freedom in Christ that Luther shared was not well received by his contemporaries.  The rest is “history” as they say.  There are a number of good documentaries and even a new movie coming to a theater in our area (see www.luthermovie.link/SanMarcos) that teach about the Lutheran Reformation that began five centuries ago in late October 1517.

Our church body, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, even has a website (https://lutheranreformation.org) dedicated to providing all sorts of resources regarding the Reformation.  I particularly like the phrase they use for this quincentennial celebration: “Reformation 2017 – It’s Still All about Jesus.”  Yes, it has been 500 years since the Reformation; and while many things in our culture have changed in that timespan, one thing has not changed, and that is what the Reformation was about: Jesus.  It was about freeing lost, condemned, guilty and burdened souls with the life-giving and freeing Gospel of Jesus Christ then … and it still is now!  So as we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation at Redeemer by the Sea, we do so not only looking backward – but looking outward toward the lost and hurting people who need Jesus and His Grace as much today as they did 500 years ago!

You hear me talk a lot about “mission” … that we are a people who are “Joining Jesus on His mission” to seek and save the lost.  It truly is mission-critical work that we are always about – sharing the message of the Gospel with those who need to hear it.  Luther did it in his day, in his way, and we do it today, in our way.  The people that we encounter today may not be worried about whether they will spend years in purgatory… but they are worried and weighed down with a great many things. And they need to hear about Jesus.  As Luther said, “God doesn’t need your good works.  Your neighbor does.”  Please put the freedom and joy that you experience as a saved soul, certain and firm in your salvation, into action loving and serving your neighbor as the hands and feet of Christ.

Even Paul’s great words of comfort in the much-loved-by-Lutherans verses of Ephesians 2:8-9, are followed by this very important verse: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).  Fear of God’s judgment doesn’t spur us into mission.  No, our freedom in the Gospel does!  I believe the best way that we can celebrate the Reformation is to carry on Luther’s work of sharing the Truth of God’s Word with lost and hurting people, relieving their consciences and freeing their souls.

It’s Still All About Jesus,

Pastor Augie

Ctrl+Alt+Delete… Resetting Life, from Regret to Repentance

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“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” – Romans 7:24-25

Do you ever wish you could reboot your life like you reboot your computer? What is it that has gone wrong in your life that you wish you could go back and undo? This series will guide us in a time to reflect on what is wrong in our lives and to “reboot” with the only One who can give us a truly fresh start, Jesus Christ. In this series, we’ll look at some of life’s most common regrets and then talk about how repentance can bring forgiveness, hope, and comfort in Christ.   Here are just some of the areas[i] we’ll explore in this series:

Righteousness. Have you ever heard someone openly share something they struggle with? Maybe it was an addiction, anger, pride, lust, envy, gossip, overeating, a disease, a death in the family, a work problem, etc.… When someone is transparent about a struggle in their life we listen; especially if we have the same struggle. In Romans chapter 7, the curtain is drawn and we peer through the window deep into the Apostle Paul’s heart and mind as he struggles. He’s struggling with the yearning to be righteous, in right relationship with God, yet there is the recurring reality of sin in his life. You and I yearn for righteousness too.  And while there is a certain amount of comfort and community in knowing that our struggle with sin is something that others go through, that’s not enough. If our struggle with sin would remain forever, ultimately that would lead us to despair, to cry out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me…?” (Romans 7:24) In other words, “is there any way to reboot?” St. Paul answers his struggle and ours, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25).

Peace: God calls us to a life of peace, but that can be difficult in a world fraught with danger, conflict, chaos, distractions, and demands. Often we are driven to seek peace in possessions or within ourselves. This kind of peace is shallow, at best. God promises something better, God promises a reboot. He tells us to bring all our worries to Him, all our problems to Him, to place our faith in Him, and He will give us peace (Philippians 4:6-7). He calls us to repentance and graciously forgives our sins and looks upon us with acceptance and favor. God’s peace is rooted in a relationship with him. God’s peace sustains us through life’s challenges. God’s peace endures. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says. (Matthew 11:28).

Desires: A child throws a tantrum. A woman shoplifts. A son steals money from his dad’s wallet. A spouse commits adultery. Why? They all want something they cannot have. Adam and Eve also desired something they couldn’t have. This first couple was put in charge of God’s perfect creation. But Satan, wanting to steal their allegiance away from God, had to defame God’s character. Satan is crafty, clever, and the master of deception. Martin Luther said of him: “On earth is not his equal.” With the question “Did God really say…?” Satan planted doubt in Eve’s heart, directing her attention to the only tree in Eden prohibited by God. For Eve, that one tree became her desire. The problem with desire is that there is always something that we want and do not have. Satan deceptively asks each one of us: “If God really loves you why doesn’t He give you what you want?”

Love: All of us go through times where we make mistakes or are unlovable. Many times when we mess up, we have the hardest time forgiving ourselves. We continually replay the situation and think of all the ways we should have/could have handled it differently. Satan uses these “if only’s” to cause us to doubt ourselves and “prove” to us how unworthy we are. But God, on the other hand, often reminds us of His goodness and grace. We mess up and need a Savior (Romans 3:23-24).  We need a reboot. In Isaiah 43, we clearly see that Yahweh has “redeemed you.” He stated, “You are mine” and “Do not be afraid, I am with you.” Rather than beating ourselves up over what we have done wrong, we are to remember the promise that we are redeemed and He is with us.

As we go through this series over the next few months, may you and I learn to turn to God with our regrets.  With repentance in our hearts, may we be freed from whatever is behind us that has us stuck … and allow God to “Reboot” our lives and receive new life in Him.   Truly there is no regret He cannot restore, and nothing broken that He cannot rebuild.  Just like the buttons Ctrl+Alt+Del on a computer allow us to start fresh, so too does the forgiveness that we receive in the Father+Son+HolySpirit allow us to reboot our lives!

Refreshed & Renewed in Christ,

Pastor Augie

[i] Thanks to Rev. Dr. Michael Hayes for providing materials used in this article and series.

The Good Life!

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“What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.” – Philippians 3:8, NIV

What do you think of when you hear the expression The Good Life?  In this beautiful area of the country that we call home, The Good Life might mean for some enjoying a sunset at the beach … (I would have a hard time arguing with that one!) It might mean having a successful career, beautiful home and two paid off cars in the driveway … It might mean having enough money to take vacations … It might mean having the health to enjoy all those things.  For each of us, this phrase The Good Life conjures up images of things we hope for and expectations we have set for ourselves.  The group of eleven of us from Redeemer who attended the week-long mission trip to San Diego spent time each day considering this phrase personally and then exploring Scripture to see how God would want us to understand The Good Life.

What we learned is that we are created for The Good Life.  Jesus says in John 10:10 “… I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  God created everything “good” in the Garden of Eden, but mankind and our sin tarnished that beauty and goodness.  God, however, never gives up restoring us to The Good Life.  Through His Son Jesus, He continues to bring us to a full and good life.

We can trust this because we believe that God Himself is good.  (Psalm 106:1 declares, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.”) And in His goodness, He wants good things for His people (Psalm 139:5).  But how does one respond when we see so much brokenness and lack of goodness in the world around us?  God may be good, but evil still has power in this world, and it seems that it is bound and determined to thwart whatever good God wants to bless His creation with.

Unfortunately, when faced with pain, suffering and brokenness we humans are often led astray by false imitations of The Good Life that God intends for us.  Have you ever tried to solve your problems with a false imitation?  Didn’t it promise you relief, pleasure and even freedom? But what did it deliver?  The truth is that if you and I are to grasp the only true source of The Good Life that Jesus offers us, we are going to have to let go of cheap imitations – to make room for the goodness that God wants to pour into our lives!

What each of us needs to realize as we journey through life is that The Good Life is found only in Jesus Christ. He is the Good Shepherd who guides us to where the green pastures are.  We do best to follow Him – and to bring others to Him also.  If you have found The Good Life, don’t you think there are others who would like to know where to find it?  The problem is that just like in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), it can be so easy to pass along on the other side of the street – having even some very good reasons to do so.

But as we have been learning from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians during our summer “Joy” message series, we should put ourselves on the line for the good of others.  In Philippians 2:4 Paul clearly tells us to put the needs of others ahead of our own needs!  But if we do that, then won’t we sacrifice our own reception of The Good Life?   The answer is no.  To the contrary; what we have received from Jesus is meant to be shared!  When Jesus served His disciples by washing their feet, He gave them instructions to go and do likewise.  (John 13:15)

What Jesus knows is what the Apostle Paul eventually learned and wants us to know and live out as well – and that is that we truly experience joy and enjoy The Good Life, as we serve others.  In fact, this joy is so great that it would be worth letting go of everything we have in this world in order to grasp, Paul says (Philippians 3:8).  All of those cheap imitations offer only a false and partial experience of the surpassing greatness of knowing and serving Christ.

May you and I learn to experience The Good Life, by loving and serving others with what we have received freely from Jesus Christ – for our good and for His glory!

Joyfully sharing Jesus with you,

Pastor Augie

Five Marks of Turnaround Churches

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Great article from my friend Kevin Wilson. I would agree with these points. Would you add anything? What are your experiences and observations?

KevinWilson360

location for worshipWith north of 80 percent of churches plateaued or declining, it’s no surprise I’m consistently asked what I see in “turnaround churches.” I’m curious as to whether readers are surprised by any of the five marks I see in turnaround churches.

The pastor supports the turnaround effort.

I’ve watched pastors both succeed and fail at initiating congregational turnaround arounds. What I’ve never seen is a church turnaround when the pastor didn’t support the effort. Pastors understand there is a price to pay in participating in a turnaround. They must publicly and privately support congregational changes. Sometimes they must personally invest in ministries that do not fit their strengths. Pastoral leadership in a turnaround is not easy, but is necessary.

The congregation launches new ministries in the local community.

When a church loves its neighborhood, great things can happen. Most turnaround churches today start by serving in their community. Maybe members regularly volunteer…

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