Bishop Michael Rinehart

Thank you Pastor Marcus Otterstad

Marcus Otterstad was born to Rev. Robert and Helene Otterstad on May 22, 1942 in Bismarck, North Dakota.

He was a 4th generation PK and a 3rd generation St. Olaf grad. Marcus attended St. Olaf with Paul Blom, our beloved former bishop. Marcus’ major was History. From there he headed as per the family tradition, to Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, MN, as had his father and grandfather before him.

When he graduated, he began his first call in 1968 as an Associate Pastor at Memorial Drive Lutheran Church in Houston, Texas.

His second call was at St. John’s in Waller, Texas, followed by Advent Houston. At this fourth call, Living Word in Katy, Texas, he helped the congregation move to its current location. He did the same at his final call, House of Prayer Houston, on Space Center Blvd, where we held his memorial service.

Marcus’ spent his last years supply preaching and helping congregations in need. Having presided over hundreds of baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals, he claimed his baptismal promise on December 20, 2019. Our love to his son Opie and family.

Prior to his memorial service the choir warmed up and people began to gather:

A choir sang F. Melius Christiansen’s Beautiful Savior.


¿Qué buscan?

Listen to the Podcast for Sunday, January 19, 2020 – Epiphany 2A

Figure 1: The Isenheim Altarpiece

Epiphany 2A – January 19, 2020

Isaiah 49:1-7– And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him… “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Psalm 40:1-11– I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God…

1 Corinthians 1:1-9– Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God in Corinth… I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind… so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ…

John 1:29-42 – John the Baptist encounters Jesus and says, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Then, John’s version of the call of Andrew and Peter, in Bethany.

January 18-25 is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

¿Qué buscas?

As noted above, January 18 begins the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Take some time to reach out to Christian leaders of other denominations. Take a priest or pastor out to lunch. Look for events in your community scheduled for this week. In Houston, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service will be held on Thursday, January 23, 2020, 7:00 p.m. at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Houston, right across from Rice Stadium. Come join us.

Here is our text for the Second Sunday after Epiphany in the Revised Common Lectionary, John 1:29-42:

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

That Christ Might Be Revealed

Every time we read a text, we hear something new. Also when we read it with others, they see and hear things that we don’t. This is because we each hear the text from our current context, time and place. We don’t hear these texts as a tabula rasa (Latin: “blank slate”). They come to us in the midst of our joys, challenges, work life, family life, wealth, poverty, race, creed and so forth. This is why it is so important to read Scripture in community, a small group community that can discuss the meaning and implications of the words we hear.

John the Baptist said:

I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.

“That Christ might be revealed.” Wouldn’t it be nice, pastors and deacons, to be remembered, and be able to say of all our calls, “I came baptizing for this reason: That Christ might be revealed.”

The church is a community gathered around Jesus of Nazareth. Christ is at the center of the Christian faith. Not the law. Not the church. Christ. If we are obsessed about anything, it is this: The way of Jesus of Nazareth is the only hope for the world in which we live. Everything else we do revolves around making Christ known. Our sermons, our congregations’ public ministries, our blog posts, our tweets, our newsletter articles, everything revolves around making Christ known. I confess, at times as a parish pastor, things revolved around congregational survival. Sometimes things revolved around me winning a battle. Mea maxima culpa. On my best days, I pray that every sermon, every deed will reveal the Christ, the hope of the world.

Lamb of God

Elizabeth Gareca Gareca, Profesora de Biblia at ISEAT (Instituto Superior Ecuménico Andino de Teología), in La Paz, Bolivia hears other things in this text. She points out the two-day division in John’s text. Above I divided the text accordingly. The first day is John’s proclamation of Jesus as the Lamb of God. Gareca reminds us that John 1:29 ultimately became a beloved hymn, and a permanent part of the liturgy, the Agnus Dei, sung after the Words of Institution and the Lord’s Prayer, during the fraction of the host: “Cordero de Dios, que quita el pecado del mundo.” “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

Davis Lose, when he spoke at our Preach at the Beach event in Galveston, asked how the unchurched visitors might encounter the Agnus Dei. “How many Bible stories do you have to know for that hymn to make sense?” he asked. Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac? The Exodus and the lamb’s blood on the doorposts at Passover? Leviticus texts on animal sacrifice? This story of John the Baptist? The crucifixion? Perhaps even the theology of the Pauline epistles. Keep in mind the epistles were written half a century before the Gospel of John. This may be a good Sunday to unpack this phrase.

On day two, “the next day,” in the second paragraph of this text, we have the call of the disciples. Richard Swanson, Professor of Religion/Philosophy/Classics at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. also  agonizes over the symbolism of the lamb.

For my money, John the Baptist is alluding to Genesis 22, the lamb that God provides to Abraham for the sacrifice in place of Isaac. Not the Passover lamb. Abraham says to Isaac, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:8) Swanson helpfully channels Everett Fox: “…a translator might choose to use a dash rather than a comma at this point (‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering – my son’) to capture in English the irony of the Hebrew sentence.”

Abraham and Isaac no doubt eat the sacrificial lamb. Preachers of the three-year lectionary are all too aware of how many times Jesus tells his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood in John chapter 6 (a very un-Jewish image by the way, as drinking blood is unclean in the Torah). Every three years these “bread texts” take up to five weeks at the end of the summer. (Don’t worry, not this year. Next year: Year B.) In any case, it seems that from the very first chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus’ crucifixion is referenced, front and center, and understood sacrificially. John’s Jesus gives his life for the world.

Literalistic readers will struggle with the marked differences between John’s story and the synoptic accounts. For example, John the Baptist claims to not know Jesus in John’s gospel, whereas Luke says they are cousins. In John’s gospel, the Baptist says he did not know Jesus until he baptized him and saw the Holy Spirit coming down upon him.

Figure 2 Isenheim Altar Piece

Another example: John has Jesus meeting Andrew and Peter down south in Bethany in Judea, and later taking them up north to Galilee. Matthew, however, has Jesus returning to Galilee after his baptism and encountering Peter and Andrew with their boat up north in the Sea of Galilee. These anomalies won’t bother those who understand the gospels as proclamation of the good news and not history books, but many modern readers jump to one of two poles. Some demand on inerrant literal reading and thus try to absurdly harmonize the accounts. Others will discount the gospels as fables. Hopefully the deft preacher can enjoy the middle of the road, seeing the texts as stories about Jesus of Nazareth, revealing actual events from different perspectives.

So what is your preaching angle? Audrey West, Associate Professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago likes John’s “It’s not about me” approach. “It’s not about me; it’s about him,” John says. John points to Jesus. Consider Matthias Grünewald’s altar piece in Isenheim (pictured above). John’s oversized finger points to Jesus. The same can be seen in Lucas Cranach’s portrait of Luther preaching and pointing to the cross (also from an altar piece, in Wittenberg). It’s about him. I came to make Christ known.

It’s not about you. In an egocentric age, this is a counter-cultural message. It’s not about you. People often don’t get this until they’re on their death bed. It is only then that many struggle with meaning. When we are stripped of our mortality, then we can wrestle with what life ultimately means. West says something to the effect of this.Even John protests to baptizing Jesus.

Figure 3 Cranach’s altar piece
Figure 4 Cranach’s Altar piece


If John the Baptist had a Facebook page, it would have pictures of Jesus, not selfies. I’m paraphrasing. “What’s On Your Facebook Page?” could be an awesome sermon title. You may have to interpret this for folks who are not on Facebook.

Or, here’s another preaching hook: I’m intrigued by Jesus’ question in 1:38: “Τί ζητεῖτε;” “¿Qué buscas?” “What are you looking for?” Or more accurately, since ζητεῖτε is plural, “Qué buscan?” “What are y’all looking for?” This is a fundamental question. What are you looking for in life? What are you going for? Where is your life headed? What is your fundamental orientation? What are your goals? What are your hopes and dreams? What do you really want in life? It’s a great question for a new year.

So much of our lives seem to be about either survival or acquisition of wealth – extensions of our survival instinct. My seminary professor of systematic theology, Walt Bouman said, “Sin is about mortality, not morality.” Life becomes about saving our skin. When life is about saving your skin, meaning gets lost. This is why Jesus calls us to come and die. Emptying ourselves, dying to ourselves, are the ways to find Life. The resurrection is not about pie in the sky when you die. It’s a window into the world beyond the narrow confines of our lives. It’s the Big Picture. “Now that you know that death is not final,” says Bouman, “there’s more to do with your life than try to preserve it.” (Quoted from Dr. Anna Madsen, at the ELCA Bishops’ Academy).

So what are you looking for? ¿Qué buscas?

Jesus invites you to join him in the adventure of your life. Gareca points us to Jesus’ invitation in 1:39: “Venid y ved.” “Come and see.” Jump in. Brian Stoffregen notices we hear these words twice: 1:39, and just after our text, in 1:46. We cannot stand on the sidelines and understand what this is about. The only way to know is to jump in.

The preacher can help people imagine what jumping in means. Give them some ways to jump in this week. Then give them some ways to jump in this month, by sharing some things your congregation is doing to be Christ in your community. Things that will help your people find joy and life by giving it away. Lead the way. Invite people to encounter Christ by encountering the other. In so doing, they will encounter the God who gives life, raises the dead, orders the cosmos and lifts us up out of the miry clay, to set our feet on solid ground. Invite them into something exciting: to be a part of what this God is doing in the world.

So, what is God up to?

Launched into Ministry

Listen to the Podcast for Sunday, January 12, 2020 – The Baptism of our Lord A


The Baptism of our Lord A  – January 12, 2020

Prayer of the Day – O God our Father, at the baptism of Jesus you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Make all who are baptized into Christ faithful to their calling to be our daughters and sons, and empower us all with your Spirit, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Isaiah 42:1-9 – Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

Psalm 29 – The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.

Acts 10:34-43 – You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

Matthew 3:13-17 – The Baptism of Jesus. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus’ Baptism

This week we have John’s baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3:13-17:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The  question that often comes up in churches is, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized at all?” Church people are most likely to ask this question, since they will be familiar with the idea that Jesus was sinless and John’s baptism was one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. “Why does someone who is sinless need repentance and forgiveness?” they will ask. Newcomers to the church may not come with this burning question on their minds. In either case, the story gives the preacher an excellent opportunity to talk about the meaning of baptism, the kickoff of Jesus’ public ministry or both.

We read the first twelve verses of Matthew 3 several weeks ago on Advent 2. We learned that John appeared preaching in the wilderness. That alone tells us something. He’s ascetic, perhaps monastic, seeking a purer spirituality apart from the corrupted religious system and leaders of his day. Reform often begins from the fringes, in this case, the fringes of Jerusalem and the fringes of the Temple system. John does not start and Jerusalem or in the temple, but instead across the Jordan. “All Jerusalem went out to him.”

Though scholars debate this, John was likely an Essene, one of the three major sects of Second Temple Judaism. (There were, however, dozens.) The Essenes were based in the wilderness of Judea. Matthew tells us that this is precisely where John appeared (3:1). Not as numerous as either the Pharisees or the Sadducees, the Essenes rejected those more institutionalized sects in favor of asceticism. They also felt the mediation of priests and sacrifices was unnecessary, and inevitably tainted by love of money. They would, therefore be a threat to the economic system of the Temple maintained by the priests and by Rome together. Pliny said the Essenes did not marry, possessed no money, and had existed for thousands of generations. The Wikipedia article on Essenes says they, “congregated in communal life dedicated to asceticism, voluntary poverty, daily immersion, and abstinence from worldly pleasures, including (for some groups) celibacy.” The gospel writers’ description of John leads us to this conclusion.

N.T. Wright draws a different conclusion. He points out that the Essenes practiced frequent (some daily) ritual washing/baptism, but John’s appeared to be a “one off” as he says, a one-time conversion of repentance. This makes Jesus’ baptism even more curious. Is this a conversion? John may be close to, but not formally aligned with the Essenes. Here’s a short video clip of an interview with Wright on the topic:

Contrary to Wright, Reza Aslan (Zealot) points out that not all Essenes had the same practices. Some lived in cities and villages while others lived in a more monastic community. Both kinds were ascetic. The only items of personal property an Essene at Qumran would be allowed were a cloak, a linen cloth, and a hatchet for digging a latrine in the wilderness. In addition to their numerous ritual washings by immersion, some Essenes also practiced a one time baptism for ritual conversion into the sect. The Essenes rejected temple authority, which put them at odds with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They opposed animal sacrifice and observed strict dietary restrictions. They actively prepared for the end times.

Artist: He Qi

We also learned back in Advent the core of John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2)

By the way, get used to this phrase, “the kingdom of heaven.” (ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν) Matthew uses it 32 times. It is found nowhere else in Scripture. It is probably interchangeable with “kingdom of God,” which Matthew uses four times, compared to 14x in Mark, 31x in Luke and 2x in John. (John only uses the word “kingdom” five times.) In the Markan parallel for this passage (Mark 1:15), John says, “… the kingdom of God is at hand.” Some have suggested that Matthew substitutes “heaven” for “God” so as not to offend his Jewish readers, who have a prohibition against speaking the name of God. This would suggest Matthew has a significantly Jewish-Christian community.

Note that John the Baptist says the kingdom is coming to us. We are not going to it. It’s coming to us, and it is close. Jesus will teach his disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come… On earth…”

The way to prepare for the kingdom of heaven coming, is to repent. Baptism is a sign of that repentance. This message must have had incredible traction in its day, and in its context (Rome brutally occupying Israel), because Matthew says “all Judea went out to see him.” He is drawing a crowd, and even the attention of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and finally Jesus himself.

Consider this passage from Ezekiel 36:25-27:

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.

This sprinkling/washing is to cleanse Israel from its idolatry and other uncleannesses. This sprinkling replaces their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, and puts God’s Spirit in them.

John is in line with the prophetic voices of the Old Testament:

Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. (Ezekiel 18:30)

What transgressions? Ezekiel leaves no room for doubt. Idolatry, adultery, neglecting the hungry and naked, robbing the poor through predatory lending (usury).

If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right, if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period, 7 does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 8 does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between contending parties, 9 follows my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances, acting faithfullysuch a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 18:5-9)

What helps us understand the need for Jesus’ baptism is to move beyond an individualistic interpretation. Stanley Hauerwas (Matthew) says John is calling Israel to repentance as a nation. It’s not just about the individual repenting/turning. The nation as a whole must repent. Those who submit to this baptism therefore are saying, “Yes. I’m in.” Certainly Jesus was all about Israel turning to God, because the kingdom of heaven, where the poor are blessed, is coming. Repent or else all hell will break loose and all calamity will rain down. Indeed it did, in 70 A.D. with the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus, in his baptism, repents on behalf of all Israel.

It’s interesting that when Jesus begins his ministry later, he carries on John’s exact message, word for word:

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  (Matthew 4:17)

Even John protests to baptizing Jesus.

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  (Matthew 3:11)

Jesus says it is proper “to fulfill all righteousness.” Eric Barreto points out that “righteousness” is a difficult term. It means: justice, uprightness, correctness, innocence and redemption. He suggests it means something they are doing in obedience to God. Perhaps it’s even simpler than that. Perhaps Jesus is just saying, “Relax John, and roll with it. It’s the right thing to do.” John finally relents and Jesus is baptized. John sees the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. Then there is a voice from heaven.

In his sermon from January 6, 1534, on Jesus’ baptism, Luther understands Epiphany as the launch of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus is 30, he posits. Jesus’ baptism is the christening of his earthly ministry. Luther says he wishes Epiphany was called, “The Baptism of Christ.” He would be delighted to know we now have a Sunday called just that.

Jesus need not submit to baptism, Luther says, but he does anyway. He does more than what is required. The gospel frees us from the law, but it always invites us to do more than what is required, not less.

Jesus’ vocation and calling are confirmed by the voice from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Luther points out God’s voice comes with nothing but kindness, grace and mercy. If you want a gracious, loving God, cling to Christ, Luther tells us.

When we submit to baptism as Jesus did, we too are embraced by the loving grace of God. We too are called into ministry. Make no mistake, baptism is a call to repentance, a call to grace and a call to ministry. We emerge from the waters of baptism as beloved sons and daughters, called to carriers of God’s grace to the world. We are cleansed of our sin, and filled with the Spirit.

Everyone needs to hear that they are God’s beloved child, loved unconditionally, precious. We also need to hear the call to share that with others, to be a part of what God is doing and saying in the world.

It seems to me we must do affirmation of baptism on this day. We must sprinkle the people with water calling to remembrance their baptism, and inviting them to reflect on the ministry to which God has called them. Perhaps as a preacher, it would be good for you to reflect on the ministry to which God has called you, and share some of that with your people, reminding them that all the baptized are called into ministry, not just pastors and deacons.

Christmas 2019 Around the Synod

A few shots from Christmas 2019 in the Gulf Coast Synod I grabbed from Facebook posts…

Tree of Life, Conroe, Texas

Christ the King, Houston, Texas

Kinsmen, Houston, Texas

Living Word, Katy, Texas

St. Paul, Brenham, Texas

Lord of Life, The Woodlands, Texas

Zion, Houston, Texas

Light has Come into the World

Listen to the Podcast for Sunday, January 5, 2020 – Christmas 2A


Christmas 2A – January 5, 2020

We know who God is! (Satterlee.)
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Jeremiah 31:7-14 – God will gather all people
Sirach 24:1-12 – Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people

Psalm 147:12-20 – He grants peace within your borders; he fills you with the finest of wheat. 15 He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly. 16 He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes. 17 He hurls down hail like crumbs— who can stand before his cold? 18 He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow. 19 He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and ordinances to Israel. 20 He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his ordinances. Praise the LORD!
Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21
She brought them over the Red Sea,
and led them through deep waters;
19 but she drowned their enemies,
and cast them up from the depths of the sea.
20 Therefore the righteous plundered the ungodly;
they sang hymns, O Lord, to your holy name,
and praised with one accord your defending hand;
21 for wisdom opened the mouths of those who were mute,
and made the tongues of infants speak clearly

Ephesians 1:3-14 – God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.

John 1:(1-9), 10-18 – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people… 14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

The Word Became Flesh and Dwelt Among Us

Sunday, January 5 is technically Christmas 2A, though many congregations will observe Epiphany, which falls on the next day, Monday, January 6, 2020.

If you didn’t get a chance to preach John’s Christmas story, John 1:1-14, Set III, for Christmas Day, this could be your chance. Christmas 2A which falls every three years but often gets superseded by Epiphany, gives is the mythical, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The Second Sunday after Christmas falls on any Sunday between January 2-5, inclusive. Some years January 2-5 falls during the week, so the 2nd Sunday after Christmas is not observed, and John 1 does not get read. Some years Epiphany Sunday falls on the second Sunday after Christmas, or close enough to it that congregations choose to celebrate Epiphany on that day. This year is a good example. Epiphany falls on Monday, January 6, 2020. Many, if not most congregations, will celebrate Epiphany on Sunday, January 5, 2020. In 2021 Epiphany will fall on Wednesday. In 2022 on Thursday.

Our text comes from an anonymous gospel we have named The Gospel of John. It is written by someone who only identifies himself as the Beloved Disciple.

John’s origin story for Jesus, his birth story, has no magi, no angels, no manger, no inn. John’s gospel is written much later than the other gospels, possibly between 100 AD and 120 AD. This mystical approach reflects John’s high christology. This is no earthly Jesus who becomes the Son of God in his death and resurrection. This Jesus is the preexistent Word/Logos, through whom all things came into being, who became flesh and dwelt among us.

This story is composed in rhythmical prose, says F. F. Bruce (The Gospel of John). Karoline Lewis, our presenter for Preach at the Beach 2020, says that while the opening verses 1-9 of John 1 are optional, verses 10-18 don’t really make any sense without them. Judge for yourself. Here is the text:

[In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.]

 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

John begins with the words, “In the beginning…” any Jewish Christian reading this would immediately default to Genesis 1, the opening words of the Bible. The light shines in the darkness also depicts God’s Genesis 1 declaration, “Let there be light.”

Consider this statement from the Lutheran World Federation: Light Shines un the Darkness:

Consider also 2 Corinthians 4:6:

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ

  1. F. Bruce in his The Gospel of John, wrestles with how (or whether) to translate logos:

There is a famous passage in Goethe’s Faust where Faust grapples with the translation of this clause, attempting to hit on the mot juste for logos, until at last he thinks he has found it: “Im Anfang war die Tat”—“ In the beginning was the deed, the action.” And while this is not the whole meaning, it is part of it. If we understand logos in this prologue as “word in action” we may begin to do it justice.

The word (logos) meant “the principle of reason” in some Greek philosophical circles. This principle created material form in the real world. John is bridging Greek and Hebrew thought. “The Word of the Lord came to Isaiah (Isaiah 38:4).  Both Jewish and Greek hearers could have a frame of reference here.

In Hebrew thought, the Word of the Lord is personified. Isaiah 55:11:

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Philo says, in Creation 24-25:

…anyone who wants to use plainer words, would say that the world of the mind was the Word of God [logos theou] already making a world. For a city in the mind is nothing else than the reckoning [logismas] of the architect, already planning to build the city.

The Word was in the beginning, was with God and was God. Light came into the world through this Word. The world did not recognize this Word. He came to his own but they did not accept him. To all, all who believed in him, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not just of blood, but of God.

(Lewis says verses 6-9 about John the Baptist are generally held to be a later addition. Others add verse 15 to the interpolation. Still other suggest the author may also have added them later.

Verse 14 (the Word became flesh and dwelt among us) is the central incarnational thesis of John’s gospel. “Dwelt” is literally “tabernacled” (ἐσκήνω). To a Jewish Christian community this poetic image will evoke the Festival of Booths. The Tabernacle was the place of God’s presence. John’s Jewish-Christian theology is that Jesus is the tabernacle of God’s presence, and Jesus is God’s presence in the world.

The mystery of incarnation is not easily explained. It is embodied in the poetry of the hymn Of The Father’s Love Begotten, (ELW 295) written possibly around 390 AD, by Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, and set to 13th century plainsong:

Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the Source, the Ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see
Evermore and evermore.

This is also the last of the short days we get to use the Proper Preface for Christmas, which may help us imagine the importance of this message for this generation:

In the wonder and mystery of the Word made flesh
you have opened the eyes of faith to a new and radiant vision of your glory
that, beholding the God made visible,
we may be drawn to love the God whom we cannot see.
And so, with all the choirs of angels…

EPIPHANY – Monday, January 6, 2020 (May be observed on Sunday, January 5, 2020)

Isaiah 60:1-6– Arise! Shine! Your light has come… Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… they shall bring gold and frankincense and bring the praise of the Lord.

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14– Give the king your justice, and righteousness to a king’s son. May all kings fall down before him, and nations give him service.

Ephesians 3:1-12 – The mystery made known by revelation: That the Gentiles have now become fellow heirs.

Matthew 2:1-12 – The magi consult with Herod, then visit the child Jesus with his mother Mary. They offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, returning to their country by another road.

The Epiphany of our Lord

Epiphany is one of the six great feasts of the church year: Christmas, Epiphany, Transfiguration, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity. All six feasts fall within six months of the year, followed by six months of “green Sundays,” sometimes referred to as “ordinary time” with no major feasts. 

There was some debate about when to celebrate Christmas. The first Christmas in Eastern Christianity was probably January 6. Because of the 13-day difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars, Ethiopians still celebrate Christmas on January 7 (which is December 25 on the Julian calendar). A few years ago, when the bishops went to the Holy Land at the request of Bishop Younan, it was a delight to celebrate Christmas here on December 25, then go to the Holy Land and celebrate it again on January 6.

According to Frank Senn, The People’s Work: A Social History of the Liturgy, some early Christians believed that Jesus’ conception (by the Holy Spirit) was on the same day as his resurrection. Since they set resurrection day around March 25, it was easy to count forward nine months of gestation to December 25, which was the date set for Christmas in the Western calendar. Others may have set the date of Christmas to coincide with the pagan celebration of winter solstice, around December 21. When Christianity moved into German and Scandinavian areas, this coincided with Yule-time, a pagan festival which ran from late December into early January. The historian Bede said December 25 was the first day of the pagan year.

For Western Christians, Epiphany is about the visit of the Magi. For Eastern Christians, Epiphany ranges from Christmas to the Baptism of Jesus.

In the Eastern Church the historical theme of Epiphany was the mystery of the incarnation. It included Jesus’ birth, the coming of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, some of his childhood events and even the wedding at Cana. The earliest reference to Epiphany is in 361 A.D. For a while Christ’s Epiphany and his birthday were used interchangeably. In 385 Epiphany still commemorated the birth of Christ. It was also called the Day of Theophany. Even into the 5th century John Cassian tells us that the Egyptian monasteries were celebrating Jesus’ birth and baptism on the same day, but other churches had begun to separate the festivals.

For us in the West, Epiphany is the culmination of the 12-day Christmas season. Some Latino cultures have a 40-day Christmas which extends to Candlemas on February 2. I could spend a lot more time going into the developments of the calendar and the religious festivals, but I’ve discovered that while I and a few of you are interested by this stuff, the majority of our people aren’t. The preacher might dare a short paragraph on the development of the holiday for the erudite who bask in the esoteric, but the bulk of the faithful are less interested in history and more interested in “what does all this mean for us today?”

Even if we deconstruct the nativity scene which wants to put the Magi at the manger, we can nevertheless see it surrealistically, like John the Baptist at the cross in Grünewald or something Salvador Dali paintings. 

The coming of the Magi is a tremendous opportunity to talk about gift-giving and generosity. As the Magi brought their gold, frankincense and myrrh, we bring our gifts, whatever we have in our hands, to Christ. We offer our time, talents and treasure to God’s work of renewing the world. I am reminded of Christina Rossetti’s famous poem In The Bleak Midwinter which was set to a brooding hymn tone. The final stanza:

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Another potential theme is global diversity. In the New Testament texts, the coming of the Magi is symbolic of the nations coming to Christ. It is a turning point. The gospel is for the Gentiles, for all people. This theme is picked up in the epistle reading from Ephesians. Paul states unequivocally that the mystery of the gospel that has been hidden for the ages is this: That God planned all along to bring in the nations. This was foretold by the prophet Isaiah in chapter 60, our Hebrew Bible reading. This is being seen in the growth of a Christianity around the world today.

Another theme is global mission. The gospel for the world – the whole world. This means not preaching our culture, or even our peculiar religious traditions. This means preaching Christ alone. The Magi come from the East (Persia). People of other cultures and other religions come to see something in this Jesus.

Christianity in China will look different than it does in Germany, or North Dakota. Christianity, and also Lutheranism, look very different in Latin countries than they do here. This is something to celebrate. The core message is the same, but many of the customs and traditions are different.

In the southern hemisphere, Christmas and Epiphany are not about the days getting longer, or about snowscapes and a heavily clad Santa Claus. There Christmas falls on the longest, hottest day of the year. Epiphany may be a time for us to learn to strip our proclamation of Christ of its cultural trappings, down to the meat of the matter, so that we ensure that we are proclaiming Christ to the world, and not our cultural bias.

Epiphany may be a time to consider sponsoring a missionary. Even a small amount helps! Get started with a special Epiphany season offering.

Another theme is local mission. Epiphany is also a time to consider the ways that Christ comes to those in our own culture who have wandered from God. An increasing portion of our own population have no church home. How do you proclaim Christ into this increasingly irreligious world?

δο μγοι π νατολν παρεγνοντο ες εροσλυμα. “Behold, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem.” The word μγοι (magoi) is the plural of μάγος (magos), a word used for a hundred years before Jesus to refer to Zoroastrian priests. Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) lived at least 6,000 years before Jesus. He was probably Persian by birth, but no one knows for sure. Most agree Eastern Iran, probably.

Zoroaster founded a religion now known as Zoroastrianism or Mazdaism or Magianism, through the writing of hymns and liturgical pieces. Zoroastrianism focused on the worship of Ahura Mazda, a transcendent, benevolent deity. Zoroastrianism was at some point in the two millennia before Christ, the largest religion in the world.

Magi were Zoroastrian priests who studied the stars and gathered from them the fate of humanity. The oldest surviving reference to a μάγος is in Heraclitus (6th century B.C.), who does not give them a good review. A century later (5th C. B.C.) Heroditus uses “magi” a couple of times while commenting on Iranian expats living in Asia Minor. He calls them interpreters of omens and dreams. Xenophon (4th C. B.C.) refers to magi as experts in all matters of religion.

The Hellensitic world came to view Zoroaster as the father of magic and astrology. Later these priests came to be seen as tricksters, charlatans and cheats. Magi became associated with magic. Zoroaster was the figurehead for the magi. Some believe we have seven days in the week today because Zoroastrians believed there were seven planets. The Suda (an ancient encyclopedia of the Mediterranean world) claims that the Babylonians learned astronomy from Zoroaster. There is archeological evidence that the Chinese character/word Wu (shaman/witch/wizard/magician), was a loan from the old Persian word magus.

Sadaam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party often pejoratively called Iranians “majus,” indicating that they were not true Muslims, but captive to an older pre-Muslim religion based on magic and paganism.

In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), in Daniel 1:20; 2:2, 2:10, 2:27; 4:4; 5:7, 5:11, 5:15), magus is usually translated “magician.” This is pejorative as well, since Jewish law forbade sorcery of any kind.

The New Testament (Acts of the Apostles 8:9; 13:6, 8) also translates magus as “magician,” except in this Sunday’s text from Matthew, where it is transliterated “Magi” or translated “wise men.” This is an odd choice based more on legends than linguistics. Interesting though: Justin, Origen, Augustine and Jerome all translated it “magician,” even in Matthew.

Consider reading it like this: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magicians from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”

The Magi were pagans. These pagans were interested in Jesus. There is great symbolism here. Pagans today are interested in Jesus is well, they just seem disillusioned with the church. Instead of seeing those who are disillusioned with the church as enemies, what might it look like to honor the spiritual hunger they have, and the righteous indignation they have when religious communities are more self-focused and other-focused? How might we welcome them to the manger?

Finally, there are also power themes in this text. Herod is afraid to lose his tenuous grasp on power, a power he has only at the will of the Empire. He will stop at nothing to keep that power.

We have here a continuation of the paradoxes, opposites we heard in the Christmas story. Angels vs. shepherds, the mighty vs. the humble, the first vs. the least city of Judah, kings vs. animals, an inn vs. a stable, mortality versus the infinite. Here we have the ruthless power and scheming of a king who will stop at nothing, versus the innocence, vulnerability and faith of a child who welcomes all, even magicians. “The difference between Herod’s rule and the one to be born in Bethlehem could not be more stark,” says Stanley Hauerwas in Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible).

If you go with this approach, consider substituting Revelation 12:1-6 as the epistle reading. Some associate Herod with this text.

A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. (Rev. 12:1-4)

A woman, clothed with the sun, moon under her feet, crown of stars, bears a child to rule the nations. Mary. Then a red, seven-headed dragon wants to devour the child. Herod? Or Rome (city of seven hills)?  Herod is certainly Rome’s functionary. Sadly, this text never gets read in Lutheran churches. Using it allows you to use an unused text, gives you an opportunity to teach people how to read John’s Revelation, and helps you clarify the power dynamics in this text.

Perhaps this is a time to talk about our relationship to civil authority, or to the power structures of the day. A few years ago, 132 children were executed at a school in Peshawar Pakistan. Herod’s execution order does not sound so far-fetched. It still happens today. In our own country, there have been hundreds of school shootings since 20 children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. Perhaps this is a Sunday to pray for children everywhere. Children trafficked. Children in danger. Children and their families running for their lives. Refugees, most of whom are children. 

The night is still dark

The night is still dark
And a procession of Herods still terrorize the earth
Killing the children to stay in power
The world still knows its Herods
And the world still knows those persons
Wise enough
To follow a star
Those who do not consider themselves
Too intelligent
Too powerful
Too wealthy
To kneel to a child…

by Ann Weems

Of The Father’s Love Begotten

love Of The Father’s Love Begotten (ELW 295). Of the 32 Christmas hymns in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Of The Father’s Love Begotten may be the oldest. This hymn is based on a poem by Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-413), written 1,600 years ago. 

The tune is another matter. We have no idea what tune it might have been sung to in the early 5th century. Divnum Mysterium, the tune we now associate with Of The Father’s Love Begotten, is a 10th century Eucharistic plainchant tune that originally had other words, as seen in this attached image.

No photo description available.

It wasn’t until the 1850’s that Thomas Helmore, an English choirmaster, brought the 5th century text together with the 10th century plainchant melody. It was a match made in heaven.

The text is actually

Corde natus ex parentis
Ante mundi exordium… 

Here is the Latin original, all nine stanzas, followed by the most popular English translation, by J. M. Neale and Henry W. Baker (1851/1861).


Corde natus ex parentis
Ante mundi exordium
A et O cognominatus,
ipse fons et clausula
Omnium quæ sunt, fuerunt,
quæque post futura sunt.
Sæculorum sæculis.

Ipse iussit et creata,
dixit ipse et facta sunt,
Terra, cælum, fossa ponti,
trina rerum machina,
Quæque in his vigent sub alto
solis et lunæ globo.
Sæculorum sæculis.

Corporis formam caduci,
membra morti obnoxia
Induit, ne gens periret
primoplasti ex germine,
Merserat quem lex profundo
noxialis tartaro.
Sæculorum sæculis.

O beatus ortus ille,
virgo cum puerpera
Edidit nostram salutem,
feta Sancto Spiritu,
Et puer redemptor orbis
os sacratum protulit.
Sæculorum sæculis.

Psallat altitudo caeli,
psallite omnes angeli,
Quidquid est virtutis usquam
psallat in laudem Dei,
Nulla linguarum silescat,
vox et omnis consonet.
Sæculorum sæculis.

Ecce, quem vates vetustis
concinebant sæculis,
Quem prophetarum fideles
paginæ spoponderant,
Emicat promissus olim;
cuncta conlaudent eum.
Sæculorum sæculis.

Macte iudex mortuorum,
macte rex viventium,
Dexter in Parentis arce
qui cluis virtutibus,
Omnium venturus inde
iustus ultor criminum.
Sæculorum sæculis.

Te senes et te iuventus,
parvulorum te chorus,
Turba matrum, virginumque,
simplices puellulæ,
Voce concordes pudicis
perstrepant concentibus.
Sæculorum sæculis.

Tibi, Christe, sit cum Patre
hagioque Pneumate
Hymnus, decus, laus perennis,
gratiarum actio,
Honor, virtus, victoria,
regnum aeternaliter.
Sæculorum sæculis.


Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!

At His Word the worlds were framèd;
He commanded; it was done:
Heaven and earth and depths of ocean
In their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun,
Evermore and evermore!

He is found in human fashion,
Death and sorrow here to know,
That the race of Adam’s children
Doomed by law to endless woe,
May not henceforth die and perish
In the dreadful gulf below,
Evermore and evermore!

O that birth forever blessèd,
When the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bore the Saviour of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face,
evermore and evermore!

O ye heights of heaven adore Him;
Angel hosts, His praises sing;
Powers, dominions, bow before Him,
and extol our God and King!
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Every voice in concert sing,
Evermore and evermore!

This is He Whom seers in old time
Chanted of with one accord;
Whom the voices of the prophets
Promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,
Let creation praise its Lord,
Evermore and evermore!

Righteous Judge of souls departed,
Righteous King of them that live,
On the Father’s throne exalted
None in might with Thee may strive;
Who at last in vengeance coming
Sinners from Thy face shalt drive,
Evermore and evermore!

Thee let old men, Thee let young men,
Thee let boys in chorus sing;
Matrons, virgins, little maidens,
With glad voices answering:
Let their guileless songs re-echo,
And the heart its music bring,
Evermore and evermore!

Christ, to Thee with God the Father,
And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee,
Hymn and chant with high thanksgiving,
And unwearied praises be:
Honour, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory,
Evermore and evermore!

Evangelical Lutheran Worship has five of these stanzas, with a slightly different translation. The five stanzas in ELW are verses 1, 4, 6, 5, and 9 from the original poem. Modern congregations don’t like singing nine stanzas of a hymn. (Although there are 14 stanzas of Luther’s hymn From Heaven Above to Earth I Come, ELW 268.)

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