5/12: Masks Optional and Respected

As of May 12, the CDC guidance states Winneshiek County is at a LOW- green, level. Therefore, masks are optional and respected in the Good Shepherd building.

Sermon for Sunday, May 8, 2022  Fourth Sunday of Easter and Mother’s Day “Therefore with Angels and Archangels and All the Host of Heaven”

Rev. Dr. Rolf Svanoe – Good Shepherd Lutheran Church    Decorah, Iowa

Revelation 7:9-17 

A few months ago, when Pastor Amy asked me if I would fill in for her during her sabbatical, I  agreed, and we began to plan worship. I knew that this year in the Easter Season we had the  largest presence of the book of Revelation in the three-year lectionary. So, I asked if the congregation would be open to a series on Revelation. I’m guessing that many of you have never heard a sermon on Revelation before. The text we have before us today is often read at funerals. It is a wonderful vision of the host of heaven gathered before the throne singing praises to God and the Lamb. We hear these wonderful promises of comfort God will give the saints, “For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from the eyes.” Who doesn’t love these images? Who doesn’t feel comforted by these promises? I love the symbol of the Lamb becoming the Shepherd. Again, these images speak powerfully to us, but they aren’t  meant to be read literally.  

But in order to understand this scene in heaven that John gives us, we need to know the  con- text. This heavenly worship interrupts the opening of the seven seals in chapter six. In the first four of those seals, we are introduced to four riders on four horses. These are often referred to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They represent the loss of all the things that give stability to our lives due to War, Anarchy, Economic Devastation, Disease and Death. There is no- thing unusual about these things. They happen every time there is war. Just ask the people of Ukraine if they haven’t felt the reality described by these four symbols. (It’s  interesting that today we have with us the Luther College Norskkor. They sing in four voices: Tenor 1 and 2, Bass 1 and 2. Perhaps this morning, we should call them the Four Norsemen of  the Apocalypse?) Just before we get to our scene of heavenly worship, six of the seven seals are opened and the earth is reeling from the devastation. It’s as if John is telling his hearers that if they were depending on Rome to guarantee their safety and well-being, all those things can be taken away. Rome isn’t God. Rome can’t protect you.  

What do you rely on to protect you and your loved ones: pension funds or investments, Social  Security, insurance, job income, government? John would remind us that all these things can be  taken away, gone in an instant. Just ask the five million Ukrainian refugees. Remember just a  few months ago when we lost power in Decorah? We realized how dependent we are on  electricity to power much of our lives. The prophet John would remind us that all these things can be taken from us and that we should look to God, the ultimate source of life’s blessings. 

And at the end of chapter six, after the six seals have been opened with their devastations, we  hear someone ask the question: Who is able to stand? Have you ever heard people say, “I can  deal with one bad thing, two is stretching it, but three will overwhelm me.” Why is it that  sometimes in life bad things seem to pile up – war, refugees, economic collapse, poverty, starvation, disease and pandemic, global climate change? It’s not uncommon for one bad thing to follow another: an accident, a death, a diagnosis of cancer. These produce stress and can often lead to other problems. So, the question is: How do we survive, how do we stand? 

To answer that question, the prophet John takes us back up to heaven in chapter seven, and he  shows us a great multitude of people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white.” He explains that  “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and  made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Do you know about that great ordeal? Have you ever experienced it? For me the first time was  when my father died. For four months we watched as dad fought leukemia and withered away.  That was a great ordeal. Things like that produce great stress in life which can impact our health. What have your ordeals been? 

Life itself can be an ordeal. And John’s answer to that is to invite us up to heaven for a worship  service. There in heaven we gather with a great host of people from all over the world. We  gather around the throne singing praise to the Lamb. In worship, we get our focus off of  our- selves and our problems, and we focus on God. We focus on the Lamb who has won for us a  great victory. We focus on the Lamb who becomes our Shepherd, who leads us to the water of  life and wipes the tears from our eyes. God does not promise that we will be spared from our  ordeals. There is no “Rapture” in the book of Revelation that spares the church from going  through tribulation. God promises to be with us in our ordeals, and God promises that we will  eventually come out of them and every tear wiped away.  

There have been many times in my ministry when people have come up to me after worship  and said, “You know, Pastor, I was thinking about not coming to church today. I was so tired,  but I came anyway. And I’m so glad I did. This was just what I needed.” John knew that too, and  that is why we have this vision of worship in heaven. It gives us the strength we need to carry  on in the struggle for justice and peace in our world today. And when that struggle gets to be  too much, we need to be reminded of God’s promises to us. That happens when we worship. 

There are some interesting images here. John tells us that the robes of those who have come  through the great ordeal have been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. Have you ever tried  to wash blood stains out of clothing? It’s not easy. And yet here we have the symbol that Lamb’s blood makes clean. Lamb’s blood frees and makes whole again. Lamb’s blood brings comfort and hope. The saints aren’t standing before the throne because they are good or deserve a place in heaven. They are there by grace, washed clean in the waters of baptism, marked and sealed with the sign of the cross on their foreheads. No wonder the hosts of heaven stand before the throne singing praise to the Lamb, the one who guides them to the water of life and wipes every tear from their eyes.  

Our hymn of the day is a beloved one, ELW 425 in the Red Hymnal, Behold the Host Arrayed in  White. It’s a paraphrase of Revelation chapter seven. The words were written by a Danish  Pastor, and the music was written by the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. That hymn was  sung at his funeral and has been sung at the funerals of countless people ever since. Whenever  I hear it, I can’t help but think of the many people I’ve known over the years, family and friends,  who are now before the throne, part of the great host of heaven. In my mind, I can look over  that crowd and see their faces. On this Mother’s Day, I especially think of my mother and grandmothers. In your imagination, I want you to look over that crowd. Whose faces do you see there? I’m guessing you see the faces of those who have loved you, those who have encourag- ed you, those who have had a great influence on your life. Let those faces remind you that God is with you, that Jesus has won a great victory, and that no matter what you are facing, Jesus  will see you through it and wipe every tear from your eyes.

Masks Recommended in Worship

On Thursday, May 5th, the CDC changed the COVID spread level within Winneshiek County to Yellow/Medium. Therefore, masks are now recommended in the building at Good Shepherd. Thank you.

Check the levels updated every Thursday by 8:00 pm here: https://www.cdc.gov/

Sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2022 Third Sunday of Easter “Worthy is Christ, the Lamb Who Was Slain”

Rev. Dr. Rolf Svanoe – Good Shepherd Lutheran Church Decorah, Iowa

Revelation 5:1-14

Our text from Revelation this morning is the most important text in the book of Revelation. It reveals Christ as the Lamb who was slain. It reveals very clearly who God is and how God works in the world. I want to set this up for you by first telling you a story. In the fall of 1982, I spent a semester in Germany at a German Language School. I had a room in a private home. I rarely saw my host, but there was one meal a week that I shared with the family, Saturday brunch. Mostly we had good conversations as they tried to make this foreigner feel welcome. But some- times the conversation would turn to politics. When they spoke about World War II and Hitler, I heard a whole new way of viewing history. For me, raised and educated in the United States, Hitler was the embodiment of evil. But they didn’t see him that way at all. Hitler had done good things for the German people, restoring their pride and rebuilding the nation, putting people back to work. To them Hitler had been Der Führer, a wise and benevolent leader. He offered a vision of the future that was compelling to many Germans who were impoverished in the aftermath of World War I. At the time, many saw him as the Savior of Germany come to establish a perfect State – the Third Reich. “Heil Hitler!” was the Nazi salute and it meant literally, “salvation to Hitler.” It was a ritual that unified Germans. It impacted every part of public life. The Hitler salute showed one’s loyalty and allegiance to Hitler and his vision for the future. To refuse to give the Hitler salute was to invite suspicion and persecution. Many Germans followed Hitler with blind and unquestioning loyalty, and they truly believed in the glorious future he would bring them. It wasn’t until after the war that most Germans learned just how blind they had been. When the concentration camps were emptied, the world learned that it wasn’t salvation that Der Führer had come to bring.

What makes a good leader? What we look for in a leader says a lot about who we are, our values and our hopes and dreams. Every four years the people of the United States go through the process of electing a leader. We have a national struggle to define the kind of person we want to lead us. What we look for in a leader depends on what kind of future we envision for our country. It is all part of the process of trying to create a “more perfect union.” When times are difficult, we look for an individual with special gifts to lead the nation. We may look for qualities of intelligence, morals, or faith. Do we need an expert in business who can restore the economy? Do we need a strong military leader who can guarantee our security and status in the world? Who will make our lives better? Who will get us to the Promised Land?

These hopes and dreams are common to all people. How are we going to create a better world, a world where peace and justice exist for everyone? And who can help us create that better world? The answer to that question is what the prophet John shares with us in Chapter 5. “Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll sealed with seven seals.” Most scholars believe that the scroll represents God’s plan for the redemption of the world, a plan to establish God’s reign of justice and peace on the earth. John sees a mighty angel asking the question, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” In other words, who will accomplish God’s plan? Who will establish peace and justice throughout the earth? Who will lead us to a better world? John broke into tears when he learned that “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it.” No human being had the knowledge or skill. No human being was capable or worthy.

 

You and I living today in the United States might hear that and yawn. What’s the big deal? But to Christians living back then in the Roman Empire, this statement was deeply political. Rome offered a compelling vision for the world. The Roman Emperors were worshiped as divine saviors of the world. They brought peace on earth. People hailed Caesar as their “Lord and God.” Roman propaganda was filled with images showing the gods on Rome’s side and touting the benefits of Roman rule. Rome boasted of its military power and that it alone could conquer the world and guarantee peace. That propaganda saturated every aspect of life in the ancient world – religious, political, social and economic. It was a vision that many people bought into. Temples for emperor worship were erected in three of the seven cities that John wrote to. Emperor worship was part of the glue that held the Empire together. But, according to John, it was all a lie. Caesar was not the savior of the world. In fact, no one was found worthy to accomplish God’s will and create a better world. Not Caesar! Not anyone!

At this, John describes how he began to weep bitterly. People need hope that somehow the fu- ture will be better than the past. They need to believe that someone somewhere is capable of solving their problems and making the world a better place. This is particularly true of people experiencing oppression. But then John says that he heard a loud voice. “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” John dried his tears. That was exactly what he wanted. A lion is a strong and mighty animal, the king of the jungle. A lion could conquer and give victory over enemies. Isn’t that often what people want in a leader? And a Lion of the tribe of Judah reminded John of Israel’s greatest king, David, and pointed to a future coming king, a Messiah. That is very good news!

That was what John heard. But when John turned and looked, what he saw was just the opposite of his expectations. “Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered …” If the lion is at the top of the food chain, the lamb is pretty close to the bottom. A lamb is weak, innocent, and defenseless. In fact, the word for lamb that John uses is a diminutive, lamby or lambkin. And if that weren’t enough, this lamb is standing as if it had been slaughtered. It’s as if John wants to give us an image bereft of everything we usually associate with a strong leader. Who is worthy to open the scroll? Who can bring about God’s plan for the redemption of the world? It is NOT the Lion, nor any Caesar or Führer – it is the Lamb. And all the host of heaven fell before the Lamb and broke out into a chorus of passionate praise. “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” How does God choose to change the world and bring about its salvation? It is not through power or coercion or the threat of violence. It is not through anything the world understands or values. God changes the world through love and forgiveness. God changes the world through the courageous and nonviolent stand for truth and justice, even if the cost is suffering and death. John describes the Lamb as having seven horns. A horn was a symbol of power, and seven was a symbol for completeness. Where does complete power lie? It lies in the lamb that was slaughtered. It is what one author calls, “lamb-power.” Lamb-power is the wisdom of God that is foolishness to the world, for God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:25).

Let me take you back to Germany and give you an example of what I mean. In 2010 I led a tour to Germany to visit the sites where Martin Luther had lived. When we drove through Leipzig our guide showed us a large building that had housed the Stasi, a nickname for the East German Secret Police. They employed thousands of people all intent on spying on their fellow East Germans to control them and force them into obedience. That is the way the world often works, with fear, coercion and threats of violence. That building is today a museum, a monument to the ways the East German government tried to control the population and maintain its power.

What happened? How did change come? In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. One of the epicenters for change was the Nikolai Church in Leipzig. While political demonstrations were outlawed, every Monday night at 5:00 the church held a prayer meeting. These prayer meetings became so popular because it was one of the few ways East Germans could meet to express their desire for change. By the summer of 1989, thousands of people were meeting there every week, yearning for a change in their lives and their leaders. That yearning came to a head on October 9. Over 70,000 East German citizens gathered around the Nikolai Church. Hundreds of fully armed police and soldiers had been imported to Leipzig. Hospitals were told to prepare for casualties. The pastor of Nikolai Church was named Christian Führer. That night those who gathered heard the words of Jesus from the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Jesus’ words that day were not a call to arms. His was not a call to battle, but a call to nonviolence, a call to be peacemakers, a call to love enemies and pray for persecutors. Pastor Führer described what happened next:

More than 2,000 people leaving the church were welcomed by tens of thousands waiting outside with candles in their hands. I will never forget this moment. A person needs two hands to carry a candle one to hold it and the other to protect the flameso you can’t carry sticks or stones at the same time. The miracle happened. Jesus’ spirit of nonviolence seized the masses and transformed them into a real and peaceful, powerful presence. Troops and police officers were drawn in and became engaged in conversations. The crowds chanted, “No violence,” and the police withdrew.

The Leipzig Communist Security Chief wanted to subdue the rebellion. His police force was well-armed. Soldiers with machine guns stood on top of nearby buildings. But the order to fire was never given. Later on, the Security Chief admitted, “We planned everything. We were prepared for everything, except for candles and prayers.” One month later the Wall came down.

How do you change the world? How do you make it a better place? How do you bring about God’s reign on the earth? Not with guns and bullets, but with candles and prayers. Not with powerful armies, but with the Word of God. Not with a lion, but with a lamb. Der Führer offered Germany a lion, but Pastor Führer offered them the Lamb that was slain. This is the wisdom of God that is foolishness to the world: that true and lasting change can only come to the world by a Lamb.

Our Lamb, Jesus Christ, loves us, forgives us, and calls us today to follow him in the nonviolent struggle for peace and justice in our world.

Sermon for Sunday, April 24, 2022  Second Sunday of Easter “Jesus Christ, Firstborn of the Dead”

Rev. Dr. Rolf Svanoe – Good  Shepherd Lutheran Church    Decorah, Iowa

Revelation 1:4-18 

Several years ago, I received a phone call from my daughter, Siri, who was a student at St. Olaf College. One of the assignments in her Religion class was to read through the book of Revelation. She was disturbed and frightened by the images. This was different than anything else she had ever read in the Bible, and she had lots of questions. 

I imagine many of you have had similar feelings about the book of Revelation. Most pastors don’t preach from Revelation. Some pastors are outright embar- rassed by it, or we are embarrassed by those who misinterpret it and hijack it to predict the end of the world. But there are good reasons to spend time in the book of Revelation. More than any other book of the Bible, Revelation has in- spired more art and hymns. Much of our liturgy which we sing comes straight out of Revelation. Did you know that Revelation is the only book in the Bible that promises a blessing to those who read it. My hope is that over the next five weeks you will fear it less and come to appreciate the message it can speak to our time. 

Martin Luther himself had questions about Revelation, and early on thought this book did not deserve a place in the Bible. Later in life, he changed his mind. I saw this in 2016 when I had the privilege of serving as a volunteer chaplain in Luther’s hometown, Wittenberg, Germany. For two weeks I served in the Wittenberg English Ministry holding brief worship experiences for English speaking tourists who wanted more than their tour guides could give them. We held our daily worship in the City Church which is called the mother church of the Reformation and the place where Luther preached many of his sermons. We held our daily service in a small chapel next to the chancel. There on the wall behind the altar was a sandstone relief from before the time of Luther, a picture of Christ, the judge of the world. There was a sword coming from his mouth. It was part of the piety of the time before the Reformation and meant to scare people as they came for worship and put the fear of God into them. Luther disliked this image. He much preferred to focus on Christ as Savior instead of Christ as Judge. 

The inspiration for that picture of Christ came straight from the first chapter of Revelation. The prophet John saw the Risen Christ.  “I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe … In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.” It was a terrifying vision, and John’s immediate reaction was to fall at Jesus’ feet as though dead. He was terrified! Can you just picture yourself in John’s position? You would be frightened too. But Jesus’ immediate response to him was to place his hand on him and say, “Don’t be afraid. I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” Don’t be afraid! 

What are you afraid of? There are lots of things for us to fear today. As a child, whenever I was afraid I would run to my mom or dad and they would put their hand on my head. It happened every time I watched the Wizard of Oz and the flying monkeys appeared. They terrified me. And somehow when mom or day would place a hand on my head it brought me comfort and reassured me that I was going to be okay. Jesus reached out in compassion to John, put his hand on him and told him not to fear. And Jesus is saying the same thing to us today, “Don’t be afraid.” There is a lot for us to be afraid of today. And Jesus would say the same thing to us that he said to the prophet John. Don’t be afraid of the future because I am with you. No matter what happens, nothing can separate you from my love for you. 

As we get into Revelation I want to say a few things about how we read it. First, we read it the same way we read any other book of the Bible. We ask questions about what it meant when it was first written, and only then do we begin to ask what it might mean for us today. When we read the book of Romans we don’t assume that the Apostle Paul is writing to Christians living 2,000 years in the distant future. We shouldn’t do that with Revelation either. The book of Revelation does not reveal an end-time calendar; it reveals Jesus Christ. In fact, those are the very first words of the book. “The revelation of Jesus Christ.” This book is all about revealing Christ to Christians who lived in Asia Minor 1900 years ago. Many of those Christians were experiencing ostracism for their faith. Many of them were being tempted to give in to Roman Imperial propaganda. Some of them just gave in because it was easier to get ahead. When we realize what Christians back then were experiencing, we find that the book of Revelation can still speak so powerfully to Christians today.

The second thing we need to know is that John uses symbols to communicate important spiritual truths. John doesn’t mean what he says, he means what he means. He uses symbols to communicate truth, and those symbols are powerful. So when John talks about Jesus having a sword coming from his mouth, he is not talking about a literal sword. The sword is a symbol to show us the power of the Word of God. 

We find the same symbol used in Hebrews chapter four where it says that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” God’s word is powerful. That’s what this symbol of a two-edged sword means. We can’t hide from God. The word of God pierces to the center of who we are. There are no masks God can’t look behind, no secret sins God doesn’t see. The word of God cuts into us, past all our defenses to show us the truth about who we are. God knows us and there is nothing we can hide from God. 

If the word of God reveals who we are, we must remember that there are two edges to this sword. The Word of God also reveals whose we are. The word of God not only shows us our sins, but also shows us a Savior, who loves us. This is one of the very first things John tells us about Jesus. “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood.” In baptism, God claims us and gives us a new identity- child of God. The book of Revelation may be filled with bizarre and strange images, but there is nothing strange about this. “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood.” When life gets confusing, when the world seems frightening, this simple phrase keeps us grounded in our faith. When terror strikes, or extreme weather destroys everything, when a sudden stroke takes a loved one from us, or a cancer diagnosis turns our world upside down, that’s when we need to feel Jesus’ hand on our shoulders and his words in our ears, “Don’t be afraid. I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” Jesus is the faithful witness, the one who spoke truth to power, a truth the powerful didn’t want to hear. And they killed Jesus for it. But God raised him from the dead to show us that truth, love and forgiveness, not hatred and violence, are the greatest powers of change in this world. In this Easter season, this is the good news that we celebrate. Jesus is risen from the dead. We need not fear God, we need not fear death, and we need not fear the future. 

As we journey through this bizarre book over the next four weeks, I want to invite you to memorize this verse and say it to yourself over and over again. “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood.” If we remember this, it will keep us grounded and help us face our fears. Christ is risen from the dead. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!