"Here to Stay"#87-17
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on December 22, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Matthew 1:18-25
"Don't leave me alone" is what my son Jude said to me. "Don't leave me alone because I keep bringing myself down if you leave me alone." The night before, Jude and I had had a rough night. I had to enforce some consequences because of his behavior, and he was not happy with me. He was mad, and he was telling me afterward, "Leave. Go away. Leave." I had a hunch in the moment that leaving him at that moment would not have been good for him. But it's hard to know that when the person you're trying to be there for is telling you, "Go. Leave. Get out of here." But I didn't. I asked Jude's permission if I could share this with you, later. He said yes. He said, "Actually, I was wondering when I was going to make it on The Lutheran Hour." There you go, Jude. But I wanted to share his words with you because I think you can relate.
I can relate. I know what that's like to feel like there's this monster inside of you, and you want to push everybody away. Jude said, "I feel like I turn into the Incredible Hulk, and if you leave me alone, I just keep bringing myself down." I can relate to that. You could probably relate to that, that there's this green monster inside of me that comes out, and I can't control it. Kind of like the Hulk, but way less powerful and way less green and less worthy of a comic book. I feel that. I've been there. We've all been there, and we've all needed someone to be there for us, even if we're pushing them away. The simple message of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, is that God has come to be with us. God has come to be with you.
He's here to stay. He won't leave. How do I know? He sends you signs. He sends at least two kinds of signs. Let's call them direct signs and indirect signs. So, for example, when I come home, I go into my kitchen, and I see on the kitchen counter baking pans and flour and butter and brown sugar, all over the place. That's an indirect sign that someone in my household's making cookies. Now, the direct sign is there on the counter. It's a note from my wife, Amy, and it says, "Titus is making cookies. Go get more butter from the store." That's a direct sign. That's a clear sign. So, also God sends you signs that He has come to be with you because He loves you. He sends indirect signs and direct signs. Let me give you an example of an indirect sign that He has given you.
It is your capacity to love. It's your capacity to love and be loved by other people. It's in you—this innate, in-born, undeniable capacity to love and be loved. That's a sign from God. Now, some people would just write it off as evolutionary baggage, as a survival mechanism that we picked up along the way. But I think that that view is less compelling than it might've once been, because human beings express love and affection like no other creature. What other creature has expressed affection in something like Shakespeare's 18th Sonnet? "Shall I compare the two a summer's day. Thou art more loving, lovely, and more temperate." What other creature says stuff like that to their beloved? No other creatures record love songs. No other creatures plan parties. No other creatures give elaborate gifts at Christmas to show love. There is something different about us. We have been gifted with this capacity to love and be loved, and it is a sign, an indirect sign from God, but it is a distorted sign. There's interference in the signal. There's static in the channel.
We have this capacity to love, but something has gone wrong with it. Now, you've experienced this if you've ever tried to love someone over time. Eventually, you stumble across something in them that's unlovable, and it's in everyone. It's in your coworkers, and it's in your friends. It's in your romantic love interest. It's even in the person that you thought was your soulmate. It's in your children and your parents and even your sweet grandmother. When you saw this thing in them, this unlovable thing in them, you had to decide whether or not you would keep on loving them, keep embracing them, keep being there for them. Will you leave them? Will you keep them at a safe distance—only visit them every other Christmas? Will you try to fix them, make them more attractive to you? Whatever strategy you've taken, I know that you felt the limit, the insufficiency, the brokenness of your capacity to love—to love someone who is deep down an insecure child, to love someone who is mean, to love someone who hates themselves and is pushing you away.
The problem is the same from the other side. I know that there's something in me that's unlovable, and I think you know that there's something in you that's unlovable. It's like there's an alternate personality, like the Incredible Hulk, like some monster, some snake that lives inside of me that I can't control, and you've got one, too. Part of you believes, like me, that because of this, people won't really love you. They won't really love the whole you. They might love a part of you. They might love a piece of you, the part that they find attractive, the part that they find impressive, but they don't love the whole you because they don't know what you are, like you know what you are.
I know that the day is coming when I won't be valuable. I know that the day is coming when I won't be productive or attractive, and then people will see how unlovable I really am, and so maybe it would be better if you just went away now. Against all of this, against all of this is the simple message of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, that God is here to stay. He won't leave. He wants to be with you because He loves you. He loves you, not because you're lovable, but because He is love. That broken capacity that you have in you to love and be loved by others, that's from Him. It's a sign, an indirect sign that He gave you as a sign of His love, and that's not all He did. He gave you a direct, clear, unmistakable sign, a sign that He has come to be with us, to be with all of us, with everyone who will look to His Son, Jesus.
One of the earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish man named Matthew. Matthew wrote a biography about Jesus, and Matthew wants to show you—whoever reads his book, whoever listens to his book—he wants to show you that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Creator's commitment to love His creation. Jesus is the fulfillment of God's commitment to be with us because He loves us.
Listen to how Matthew tells it in the first chapter of his book. "Now this is how the birth of Jesus, the Messiah came about. His mother, Mary, was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, Mary was found to be with Child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband because he was a righteous man and because he did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he wanted to divorce her quietly.
"But after he had considered these things, look, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife because that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a Son and you are to give Him the Name Jesus—Jesus, which means "the Lord saves." You are to give Him the Name Jesus because He will save His people from their sins.' All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet, through Isaiah: 'The virgin will conceive and give birth to a Son, and they will call Him Immanuel, which means 'God with us.'" After Joseph woke up, he did everything that the angel of the Lord commanded him to do. He took Mary home to be his wife but had no union with her until after she had given birth to a Son, and he gave Him the Name Jesus." The Gospel of Matthew first chapter.
Some years ago, I knew a Jewish man named Steven. Steven once said to me, "If Jesus is the Messiah, why isn't there peace on earth?" Steven was referring to ancient Hebrew prophecies about the Messiah, from prophets like Isaiah. The Messiah was supposed to be this king, descended from David, who would rule over all of Israel and over all of the nations, and His kingdom would bring peace, and there would be no end to His reign. So, if Jesus is the Messiah, then what's the deal? The New Testament gives a two-part answer to Steven's question. The first part is, hold on. Peace is coming. True peace is coming because Jesus is coming again, and He will raise the dead, and He will make all things new. Hold on. Peace is coming. The second part of the answer is this: for there to be true peace on earth, first, there must be peace between you and God.
First, there must be peace between God and every individual human being. The angel in Matthew's account said that the thing that's threatening peace between you and God is sin. Sin is this monster that's inside every person that you have tried to love. Sin is this thing in you that is unlovable. Jesus has come to bring peace, and therefore He's come to rescue you, to save you from sin. Now, how does Jesus save from sin? The New Testament's answer to this question is complex and simple at the same time. Jesus sacrificial death and His triumphant resurrection are at the center of it. But there's also His birth, His life, His teaching, His miracles, His ascension into heaven, His pouring out of the Spirit on His followers, His invitation for you to come and die with Him in Baptism and be raised to new life, His pledge to you to give you His body and blood in the bread and wine at the Lord's Supper, and His promise to come again to judge the living and the dead.
That's all part of Jesus' complex solution to the complex problem of sin, but it's also really simple. The New Testament says that Jesus saves us by grace, through faith. By grace, means that He loves you even though you're unlovable. He loves you because He is love. Through faith, means not just that you accept some things about Jesus as true, but that you trust that Jesus is God's sign for you—His direct sign for you, that He loves you. He's always loved you. He's always going to love you. He's not going to leave. He's here to stay. Faith is also God's power in you, to send you, to love the unlovable, as you have been loved. During the season of Advent, we've been walking through the outline of a book, a book on the basic message of the Bible. The message is this: in Jesus you are loved more deeply than you imagined, and you are sent with more purpose than you thought possible. Loved and Sent is the title of the book. It is written by Jeff Cloeter, who's a pastor and a missionary in the city of St. Louis.
In this book, pastor Jeff tell us a lot of stories. Two include some of Brandon's story, and I actually have Brandon here in the studio with me, so why don't you give a shout out to everybody, Brandon?
What's up, everybody?
Brandon grew up in urban St. Louis, in a part of our city that too many people want to push away. Jeff wrote this in his book. "A black kid from these streets is bound to the gravitational pull of his context. Brandon was tied to circumstances and statistics. He was tethered to the issues of race, family, upbringing, economics, and an educational achievement gap. His odds were tilted toward a predetermined destiny. 'Them boys goin' to hell or jail,' is what the old lady in the neighborhood used to say, as Brandon and his friends ran down the alley. The odds were not in Brandon's favor, and yet against the odds God sent into Brandon's neighborhood followers of Jesus to love as they are loved. God sent followers of Jesus from Bethlehem Lutheran Church. He sent them there to love Brandon, and now almost 20 years later—more than 20 years later—God is sending Brandon into the city to love as he is loved."
The day after Jude had his Incredible Hulk moment, I was second-guessing myself as a father. Was I too hard on him? Should I have given him some space? Leave him alone. Let him cool down. I'd gone down to the basement and was doing laundry, and he was there building something with his Legos. I said to him, "Jude, when you get in a mood like that, what is something that your mom and I do that doesn't help you?"
He said, "What do you mean?"
I said, "Your mom and I want to help you. So, what is something that we do that doesn't help you?"
His answer surprised me. He said, "Leaving me alone."
I wanted to make sure I understood. I said, "You mean, it doesn't help you if we leave you alone?"
He said, "Yeah, I just keep pulling myself down if you leave me alone." He went back to building his Legos.
I just let his words linger in my mind, and I realized that's the beginning of a really powerful prayer.
So, if you would, pray with me. "Dear Father, if You left me alone, I would keep bringing myself down. I admit that I have trouble loving the people to whom You've sent me. I have trouble being loved by others; I have trouble trusting in Your love for me. But in the birth of Your Son Jesus, You have promised to be God with us, and so please don't leave us alone. Even when we're pushing You away, help us to know that we are loved, that we are sent, and that You are here to stay. In Jesus' Name. Amen.
Reflections for December 22, 2019
Title: Here to Stay
Mike Zeigler: For the last 30 years, Pastor John Schmidtke has served Jesus as pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran church, a 170-year-old congregation in urban St. Louis. The people of Bethlehem Lutheran aggressively reach into the surrounding inner city neighborhood through youth and family programs and a growing housing ministry. Pastor John has also been a mentor to many pastors in training, including Pastor Jeff Cloeter, who's the author of this book, Loved and Sent, that we've been talking about during Advent. Welcome, Pastor John.
John Schmidtke: Thanks for your invitation. Glad to be here.
Mike Zeigler: Also joining us is Mr. Brandon Haywood. Mr. Haywood is a teaching assistant at Stix Elementary School, and that's within the St. Louis Public School District, and is also working toward a bachelor's degree in education. Thanks for being here, Brandon.
Brandon Haywood: Thanks for having me.
Mike Zeigler: Brandon and Pastor John, both of you are mentioned by name in this book that Pastor Jeff wrote. Your stories, as he says, are a part of his story of seeing how God loves him and has sent him—that he is loved because God is love and he is sent because God has come in Jesus to be with us. Brandon, why do you think Jesus sent Pastor Jeff into your life, what, 20 years ago now?
Brandon Haywood: Yeah, 20 years ago. He seen a young black boy like me and he's like, "Well, I want to change his life, and get him more to know Christ." I know God, so to me to change me to know more about Christ.
Mike Zeigler: Jesus sent you Pastor Jeff so that you would come to know Jesus more. How has Pastor Jeff shown you the love of Jesus?
Brandon Haywood: By telling me more about Christ, teaching me more about the Bible, getting me more involved about Christ, and how He's risen again, and how He died for our sins.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah. You said that when Pastor Jeff first met you, he asked if he could be your big brother, like an adopted big brother.
Brandon Haywood: Yep.
Mike Zeigler: Then over the years he's become more than ...
Brandon Haywood: More than that.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah. How has he become more than that?
Brandon Haywood: He be maybe more than a father figure to me because growing up I did have my father in my life, but not as like a supportive father like Jeff had been there as a supportive father for me. He had been to some of my graduations, my senior graduation I had. He'd been there for my junior prom and my college graduating. He'd been there for me in my college years.
Mike Zeigler: Pastor John, this probably just brings joy to your heart to hear Brandon talk like this.
John Schmidtke: It's great to see. It's the church in action, of God's love in Jeff and his wife Bobbi. They've loved on Brandon. In fact, as Jeff went on vicarage and then as life went on, he passed Brandon also to other field workers too, and other people who were important people in Brandon and his family's life.
Mike Zeigler: Looking back at Brandon's place within the family of God at Bethlehem Lutheran, he's been there over 20 years, and now you're seeing him become a leader there. Knowing his story, why do you think Jesus sent him to Bethlehem Lutheran those many years ago when, as Pastor Jeff says in the book, the van showed up and your cousins were getting in and they said, "Hey, get in. We're going to church," and you got in, and it changed the trajectory of your life. Why do you think Jesus sent Brandon to Bethlehem?
John Schmidtke: I think I'd flip it and say that it was Jesus who sent the church to Brandon, because it was the church on the move. A lot of godly members of Bethlehem understood that church isn't just about coming to church on Sunday morning.
Mike Zeigler: Right.
John Schmidtke: But church reaches, and church goes ...
Mike Zeigler: Goes out.
John Schmidtke: ... and goes on the move to where people are. I'm excited now about the sending of Brandon, because Brandon understands the sending of God's people: the church. Now as he's an adult, a young man, he's going in the same way, not on waiting for people or children to come to us, but we're going to them with the message of Jesus. The loved and the sent, as Jeff says so well in his book, isn't a manual for pastors. It's a manual for all of God's people. That's when it really gets magnified, to bring hope to people in Jesus.
Mike Zeigler: Brandon, why do you think Jesus is sending you now to work with children in the school system?
Brandon Haywood: It's all about love and getting to understand the love working with kids. Most people don't have that love that I have for kids. I love working with kids. I love working with the youth of the church. I love helping out. It's just a call that God sent me to work with kids.
Mike Zeigler: Well, thank you both for being here. Reading the stories about Pastor Jeff and how God has been working through him and now talking with you in the flesh, this is real. We're not living a fantasy. This is real, right?
Brandon Haywood: Yeah.
Mike Zeigler: All right, man. Well, thank you for being , and Merry Christmas!
Brandon Haywood: Merry Christmas to you.
John Schmidtke: Merry Christmas.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Rejoice! Rejoice!" by John R. Paradowski. (Hal Leonard Publishing) Used by permission.
"O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)