Sunday Sermon at St. Paul Lutheran Church

Wonderful Surprise  John 16:12-15

Pentecost Sunday

June 8, 2003

  What now?  What next?  

  After last Sunday’s 125th Anniversary celebration, after a number of people asked me if I was pretty worn out Sunday night, I took a little time off Monday. I saw a few people in the hospital Monday morning but then went fishing with our youngest daughter Monday afternoon, and later that day we had our whole family together for supper.  When I got up early Tuesday morning and came over to the office I was very thankful for the way things had gone with the Anniversary celebration and I was ready to start sifting through all the things that had accumulated on my desk. That’s when the thought came to me. What now?  What next?

  Serving a congregation that’s now 125 years old; in the 34th year of  my ministry, 29 years the pastor of St. Paul Lutheran, beginning now my 30th year, what now?  What next?   

  These are two of life’s more persistent questions, aren’t they? What now?  What next?

  Nineteen months ago after 9/11, President Bush declared war on terrorism.  Since then there’s been war in Afghanistan; war in Iraq; yet the questions persist.  What now?  What next?

  Recent rains have brought welcome relief to farmers & much-needed moisture for new crops in central & eastern Nebraska, yet farmers and ranchers and bankers and irrigators know that could change ever so quickly.  What now?  What next?

  When there’s been a nice wedding; when the honeymoon is over; when two people romantically in love begin to discover the reality of who they are really married to; what now?  What next?

  When the kids are grown; when the house is quiet; when the nest is empty, when a beloved, life-long partner dies; what now?  What next? 

  When a job is terminated; when it’s time to retire; when someone has a chronic disease, when it gets harder and harder for a person to take care of themselves, what now? What next?

  The one I watch with great hope and yet great sadness in my heart is what goes on with people and the church.  When a baby is baptized but is never brought for pre-school or Sunday School; when a Junior High Student is confirmed but views confirmation as a graduation; when people wave a friendly wave but are too busy for regular Sunday worship or feel too guilty about coming back to church, then what? What now?  What next? 

  The Rev. Earl Feddersen, a mission executive in our Lutheran Church Missouri Synod edits a weekly e-mail called “Edit-O-Earl”.  Recently he wrote, “In some congregations, Pentecost is Confirmation Day. Some-times I used to imagine that Confirmation would have great impact on the lives of the confirmands.  I would picture some newly confirmed member of the church pounding on the bedroom door of his or her parents the next Sunday proclaiming: ‘Get up! I’m a responsible member of the church now and I want to go every Sunday from now on.’”  That’s quite a thing to imagine, isn’t it?   

   The Rev. Feddersen goes on, “My major goal in Confirmation instruction was to awaken in the students a hunger and thirst for knowledge and growth in the Word of the Lord.  But they would get so caught up in learning answers to questions that it often became more of a chore than an opportunity or awakening. Their goal was different – the kids & their parents just wanted to get through it, get finished with it.”

      Too often, he says, Confirmation is viewed as a pile of religious knowledge and bits & pieces of the Bible that can become a roadblock on one’s journey to discovering and rejoicing in God as the one, true, living, loving, redeeming, merciful, personal God that God has revealed Himself to be in the person & work of Jesus Christ.

   In the Old Testament reading from Ezekiel 37 for this Pentecost Sunday, Israel, God’s people, is depicted, described as a pile of dead bones, dried up and hopeless.  Yet bleak as this picture is, as dry & hopeless as this picture looks to God’s prophet, God doesn’t leave it at that but speaks to the bones and says,

   I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.  I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”  

   That’s the message the prophet was given to declare to God’s people. The Spirit of God would give His people new life. 

   Imagine how hopeful & excited the preaching of Ezekiel must have been after he saw that valley of dry, dead bones become a vast, living multitude. Yet as it turned out, that did not happen to Ezekiel’s immediate audience.  Instead of living, animated, rejuvenated bodies, the disbelieving children of Israel remained the same dead heads & dry bones that the prophet had talked to before.

   Yet none-the-less, the message of Ezekiel’s vision is a powerful message that is fulfilled in what Jesus Christ said to his disciples and still says to us this Pentecost Sunday, 2003.  The message is - that wherever the Word of God is proclaimed – wherever the justice & mercy of God; wherever both the wrath of God for sin, and the great, great love of God for sinners is made known to people – that’s where & when the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit can reach people – come to them – gather them – enlighten them – raise them up to new life in Jesus Christ.  

   And that includes congregations who celebrate their 125th anni-versary, long pastorates, aging members, new confirmands, families who have drifted away from church, couples who are hungry & thirsty for that which the world cannot give – but comes only in Christ & from Christ – namely forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation.

   In Jesus’ day, souls were parched by the dryness of laws & legalism that portrayed God as loveless and made religion lifeless.  Today, souls are parched & die of thirst drinking from the wrong wells.  People thirst for riches, power, fame, whatever and, like alcoholics, draw deeply from the very source of their problems.  

   Robert Frost in a poem titled Death of the Hired Man, describes lives without God, lives without the vision and refreshment of the Holy Spirit as lives having “Nothing to look backward to with pride.  And nothing to look forward to with hope.”

   What does Jesus say?  Wherever & whenever we poor sinners face these questions: what now?  What next?  To all of us, Jesus says, “Come to me and drink . . Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest . . Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me.  Christ’s abundant supply of forgiveness from all sins, eternal life, salvation, courage, hope, peace is freely & abundantly available to all who come and drink – not just when we get to heaven – but now!  Now!  Now!

  At our Nebraska District Convention held in Seward which ended yesterday, at the beginning of yesterday’s morning session, the pastor leading a short Bible Study pointed out to all of us pastoral & lay delegates that a word when it is repeated again & again in Scripture must be an important word.  He was referring to God’s promise to His people in Deuteronomy 31 when the people were poised to enter the promised land standing on the banks of the Jordan river.  

   7 times in the first six verses of chap. 31, the word “will” occurs - The Lord Himself will cross over before you - He will destroy - Joshua also will cross over before you - The Lord will deal with the Cannanites - He will defeat them -The Lord will give them over to you - Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread - because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.  When a word like “will” occurs 7 times in 6 verses that means it’s an important word.

   That set me to thinking about those two questions: what now?  What next?

   If the word “will” used 7 times in 6 verses is an important witness to the power of God, how about the word “now” used 19 times in one long verse of a hymn as in important witness to the power of God’s Spirit working in us that which is pleasing in God’s sight through God’s Word and Sacraments.

   What now?  What next?  How I love these words; how I need this affirmation of the power & presence of Holy Spirit working in my life, my ministry, my call, and my everyday Christian witness & service to others.   

   For Christians, this is what’s now, this is what’s next, this is what’s coming, this is what’s already here.

   Now the silence  Now the peace  Now the empty hands uplifted

   Now the kneeling Now the plea   Now the Father’s arms in welcome

   Now the hearing  Now the pow’r  Now the vessel brimmed for pouring

   Now the Body  Now the blood  Now the joyful celebration

   Now the wedding  Now the songs  Now the heart forgiven leaping

   What now?  What next? 

   Now the Spirit’s visitation

   Now the Son’s epiphany

   Now the Father’s blessing   Now!   Now!   Now!    

   This Pentecost Sunday 2003, this first Sunday after our 125th Anniversary celebration, this Sunday & next Sunday & every Sunday that we gather together in Christ’s name, may God grant us this wonderful surprise, this wonder all increasing.

   Now the Spirit’s visitation

   Now the Son’s epiphany

   Now the Father’s blessing  Now!  Now!  Now!  Amen