“An Untranslated God”–Sermon for Christmas Day, 2018


John 1:1-14

A translation company launched a ‘Think before you ink’ campaign to highlight the risk of botched tattoos. They cite the example of a man who had ‘Jenius’ tattooed on his forehead – spelled with a J. Another asked for the Mandarin symbol for ‘live and let live’ but instead got one for ‘sweet and sour chicken’. And a woman used a website to translate ‘I love David’ into Hebrew but ended up with a tattoo which said ‘Babylon is the world’s leading dictionary and translation software.’

Several years ago, Mark and I were walking downtown and wondered into a tattoo parlor to look at their artwork. In the chair was a young man getting marked up for a new tattoo—one that said United States Marines across his back. Except, the longer I looked, the more certain I was that ‘marines’ was misspelled. I pointed it out to the man—and the artist. The man’s friends ran to the car to get his military ID. Yep, if we hadn’t wandered into that tattoo parlor at just the right time, he would have lived his life hiding from his fellow marines—and his mother.

When getting a tattoo, it’s wise to ‘live’ with it for a while first. To make sure you love it. To be certain it says what you want it to say—and is spelled correctly.

As we read John’s beautiful poetic prologue—his eloquent description of what it means to ‘live with’—I’m reminded of this congregation’s decision made 20 years ago. Given the option of moving out to the edge of town, to build new and start fresh, or to stay here and minister to this neighborhood, you chose to stay. You chose to live with those who need the presence of this congregation right where we are. Because there’s a difference between receiving help from those who know the struggles of a neighborhood and those who just come in once in a while to help and then leave again—escaping to the safety of their own place.

And isn’t that what God has done for us? Rather than poking around in our lives when it’s convenient, God moved into the neighborhood. God took up residency. God entered into the core of our ghetto, ministering to us, healing us, strengthening us, and befriending us from the inside. God didn’t go on a mission trip vacation—equal time spent building a house and sight-seeing on the white-sand beaches of resorts. God took on our citizenship—paid the same taxes, endured the same challenges, died the same death. Because, though the lovely people who come in for a week to help out are appreciated, it’s the ones who stay for the long haul that you can trust with your life.

But it’s not only that God moved into the neighborhood that we celebrate today. It’s more. God offers more.

Rev. Samuel Wells has proposed the following challenge:

“What if the fundamental problem that we need to work to overcome, that embedded flaw at the core of being human, isn’t mortality?

“Consider all the ways that we struggle mightily to overcome our mortality – to extend life, transcend our physical limitations, care for others’ most basic physical needs for food and shelter.  Sometimes these are all good and necessary things.

“But is this the central human problem?  Mortality?

“What if, actually, it’s isolation?

“What if we reconsider our work and being in the world around the fundamental problem of human isolation?  That what we need more than anything is for someone to be with us.  Not someone to do something for us.  That what we need to do for others in need is be with them.  Be present with them.”

What God recognized this need and, instead of keeping us from death and struggle and pain, God chose to be with us through it all? What if the gift God gives us is more than saving us from our sin? What if God gives us a translation of who God is, what God’s love looks like, what true and abiding companionship feels like? What if God is showing us what it means to have someone on your side no matter what? To trust that God knows what we’re going through and isn’t revolted by our thoughts or actions but simply heaps even more compassion on us?

God’s love can get lost in translation as we place boundaries and rules around it, making sure people access it in the right way, keeping our enemies from it, and so on. So, God came into the neighborhood and set up house so that God, God’s very Self, can speak directly to each one of us without a go-between, without a translator, without an interpreter—God comes to us and lives our lives and speaks our language and tells us in no uncertain terms, “I love you.”

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE


“Give Us a Sign”–Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2018

angel gabriel

Luke 2:1-20

If you’ve seen the movie, “Bruce Almighty,” you’re familiar with the scene near the beginning where Bruce, frustrated with his life, is driving down the road begging God for a sign. He sees a road sign that says, “Caution ahead,” and a truck delivering all sorts of other caution road signs passes him. But he’s too busy being angry with God to notice. He’s angry with God for letting his life go down the drain. He says God isn’t doing God’s job and should be fired. All he wants, he thinks, are answers—and maybe a break.

He wants a sign. I’ve experienced moments when I’ve asked for a sign…and then wondered if I missed it. When I’ve anticipated changing directions in life, when I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing, when the future seems uncertain. How would you recognize a sign from God?

It seems to me the crew around Jesus had it easy. Angels went around telling everyone what to look for and what to expect. Gabriel gave Mary and Joseph a heads up. The heavenly host told the shepherds that they were looking for a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Even the magi had a star to follow. Life today doesn’t feel quite so informed, does it?

If you spend any time on Facebook, you’re barraged by people who suggest that if you’re truly Christian, you’ll behave in a certain way. If you’re truly Christian, you’ll be pro-life, you’ll be anti-death penalty, you’ll be for immigrants, you’ll be for gun control, you’ll be against gun control, you’ll be for national health-care, you’ll be against social welfare. The list goes on and on. And we find ourselves asking for a sign—mostly, we’re asking for a sign that the people who disagree with us can see clearly so that they know that they’re wrong. But in any case, we’re asking for a sign.

But how do we know when we’re looking at one? How do we recognize God’s activity in the cacophony that surrounds us?

A colleague shared the story of Christ Church, which put on a live nativity every year about two weeks before Christmas. They had the perfect location: downtown on the square across from the clock tower. Everyone who drove into the business district went right by the front lawn of the church. They set the nativity up on the lawn on the designated evening after dark and flooded it with carefully placed spotlights, a Christmas card come to life.

At first it was just a few bales of hay stacked up to give some semblance of a stable, a couple of sheep and two sets of parents with small babies who took turns portraying the holy family. But as the crowds grew each year the nativity became a bigger and bigger production with shepherds, wise men, an innkeeper, King Herod, a small flock of sheep with lambs for the children to pet, a donkey for Mary to ride, all kinds of other animals. The star the wise men followed rolled along on a track which had been laid out across the roof line of the church.

The latest addition had been a 40-voice angel choir, with the choir director dressed and playing the part of the arch-angel Gabriel; and they sang from an elevated stage erected on the far edge of the lawn in front of the church’s three large air conditioning units. Surrounded by clouds painted on cardboard, and raised and lowered hydraulically, it made for a wonderfully dramatic moment when their lights came on and they appeared out of the darkness singing “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” For the grand finale at the end of each half-hour performance they formed themselves into a giant living Christmas tree and sang “Joy to the World.”

One year, at their late summer planning meeting, the director announced that they needed a sign, a big billboard somewhere downtown, perhaps visible from the freeway, with a picture of the nativity and an invitation for everyone to come and see it at Christ Church. He said it would be a good way of expanding their ministry and it would be great publicity for the church. The senior pastor said that she knew a retired sign painter in the congregation and offered to ask him to paint the sign. Someone else offered to make arrangements to rent the billboard and to talk to some of the wealthy members about paying for it. Everyone thought it was a wonderful idea.

At their next meeting in mid-October it was reported that plans were well under way and the sign would be ready just after Thanksgiving. The retired sign painter had responded with great enthusiasm, saying it had been a life-long dream to paint a sign that would be a witness to his faith. He had asked for only one consideration — “a free hand in painting the nativity as the Holy Spirit led,” was the way he put it. And they were glad to agree. They had seen his work and they knew there was no one better in the sign painting business. No one was to see the sign until the unveiling on the first Sunday of Advent.

As Advent approached there was an air of excitement in the church like they had never experienced before. When word got around about the billboard, everyone wanted to be in the nativity. They had to create several more roles: shepherd boys and shepherd girls, the innkeeper was to have children hanging on his arm this year and a wife doing chores in the background, and there would be a dozen more angels.

The unveiling was scheduled for noon, after the last worship service, on the first Sunday of Advent. The church was packed and, after the benediction, the choir, dressed in their nativity costumes, led the whole congregation out the door, around the square and down a couple of blocks to where the billboard was located near the downtown off ramp next to the freeway. At such a great location, two hundred thousand people would see the sign every week.

The retired sign painter was standing by. It would be his moment of triumph. A newspaper photographer was to take his picture standing in front of the sign after it was unveiled. One of the television stations had sent a reporter and a camera crew. Everyone had a sense that this was to be an historic moment.

The ceremonies started with a brief speech by the nativity director, followed by a few words of greeting from the mayor, and finally a prayer of consecration led by the pastor. Then came the moment they had all been waiting for. The choir began to sing “Away in a Manger” softly in the background. The director signaled for the cloth that was covering the sign to be raised. They all craned their necks upwards and waited. At first there was a kind of quiet murmur that rippled through the crowd, then gasps, followed by a din of wonderment which grew into what sounded like a roar of disapproval.

They couldn’t believe what they were seeing! It looked nothing at all like their beautiful nativity. The sign painter had painted a simple cardboard shack with a contemporary Joseph and Mary who looked very much like the street people who lived in the park a few blocks from the church. Baby Jesus was wrapped in rags and lying in a tattered disposable diaper box. There were no shepherds or wisemen, no angels with gold-tipped wings. There was only a bag lady and a cop who had come by on his horse. They were both kneeling in front of the diaper box, and the babe appeared to be smiling at them. Underneath the picture were painted the words:

This will be a sign for you:

you will find a child wrapped

in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

The sign is God’s presence among us. That first Christmas, God’s presence was particular—a child, born to unwed parents, essentially homeless for a time, hunted by a king, and completely and utterly vulnerable. Since that moment, God’s presence comes to us in many and various ways—in the child who lights up to see the presents under the tree as well as the child who will spend tonight trying to stay warm in her parents’ car; in the family cooking a meal at the mission as well as the family pulled apart at the border; in the grandmother hosting the family Christmas, the grandfather alone in the nursing home, and the elderly couple with no children receiving a Meals on Wheels delivery.

This will be a sign for you. You will find Christ wrapped in the clothing of humanity, sleeping and eating with the vulnerable. You will find him in the wilderness being tempted, you will find him along the roadside healing a leper, you will find him feeding thousands by the sea, you will find him raising the dead, you will find him hanging like a criminal from a cross, and you will find him beyond an empty tomb, having shed the cloths that swaddled him in death. You will find him in the bread and wine we share as a community. You will find him in the manger God creates in your hearts, in your homes, and in your lives. Not to worry, you will find Jesus—because he has found you, and you will see the sign—for his sign will be the life and light of all creation.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Singing with Mary”–Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 23, 2018


Micah 5:2-5a

Hebrews 10:5-10

Luke 1:39-55

Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the Magnificat this way: “It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings…. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”

Bonhoeffer said that not long before he was hung by the Nazi’s for speaking out against their terrorism and criminal behavior. Bonhoeffer was not unlike John the Baptist in his efforts or his end. Point to Jesus, speak against corruption, and pay the price. Oh yes, never let anyone tell you the gospel is a nice story for nice people.

Mary’s song—the Magnificat—is a song about what Mary hoped and dreamed for. She sung about what she believed God would do through the promised Messiah. She sung as if it was already happening—had already happened. She sung with a kind of faith that can shift one’s reality—from hopeless and desperate to courageous and resolute. It’s the kind of song that can cause people in high places to take notice.

It is said—though not corroborated—that there have been at least three times in history in which the Magnificat was actually banned from public proclamation. When India was controlled by Great Britain, the government banned the singing of the Magnificat during worship. In the 1980’s the government of Guatemala banned it from being read because it was subversive and revolutionary. During the ‘Dirty War’ of Argentina, mothers of disappeared youth posted the Magnificat all over the capital plaza, and the military junta banned it from public displays. These governments were afraid of what would happen if people payed attention to what the song says:

“He has scattered the proud…he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

The high school students just recently watched the movie, “Book of Eli.” In this post-apocalyptic setting, Eli is given the task by God to deliver the only remaining Bible to a library on Alcatraz Island so that this history of the world and of religion is not lost forever. You see, somehow, disagreements over faith—particularly over the Bible—caused people to go to the length of a nuclear holocaust. So, all known Bibles were destroyed.

Along Eli’s way, he comes to a town in which a man, Carnegie, is searching for the Bible. He wants it because of its clear power. If he has the Bible, he will have the power to control the world. Really, he doesn’t even know what is in the Bible—only that it had the power to destroy. That’s the kind of power he wants. The beauty of the end of this movie is much like the beauty of Mary’s Magnificat—even after Carnegie gets what he thinks he wants, he doesn’t have the power to wield it. Instead, a lowly woman in his house is the only one who is able to understand and appreciatewhat is before her. As always, God’s power never works alongside human concepts of power because in human hands, power corrupts.

Imagine what Mary must have felt like in the midst of her situation. And imagine Elizabeth, as well—both unexpectedly pregnant. An old, barren woman who wonders how she will ever keep up with a toddler. A young, single woman afraid to be in her hometown because she might get killed for her supposed unfaithfulness. Two pregnant women offering each other comfort and encouragement in their unusual situations. Two women—people of no consequence, people who are not to be listened to nor believed. People who have nothing of value to add to a conversation (in those days). They were the ones offering blessings and prophesying about God’s promise. And Zechariah the priest, Elizabeth’s husband, the one who should have had voice in the household, had none. He was struck mute by the same messenger who delivered the news of birth to both Elizabeth and Mary.

These two women dreamed of amazing change. And that’s no small thing. King Herod the Great had been put on the throne by the Romans and deemed ‘King of the Jews.’ But he was a tyrant, a narcissist. Not only would he end up killing all the children in Bethlehem under the age of 2, he also had had 70 elite Jewish people imprisoned so that, at his own death, they too would be put to death. Because he knew that people would celebrate his death. But they would grieve the death of 70 of their own. And he wanted tears when he died.

When Mary sings of the powerful and proud being brought down, she is speaking directly to the corrupt system that has taken over her beloved people. She is hoping for a Savior who will rescue her people from tyranny and terrorism—a Savior anointed by God, promised to lead Israel back into God’s favor. Sharon Ringe says that Mary dreams that “an economy marked by scarcity and competition is replaced by an economy of generosity in which all have enough.”

Doesn’t every good mother hope and pray and believe that her child should have opportunities she didn’t have? That the next generation might undo the damage this one has done? That life can be more than it has been? No matter whether you’re rich or poor, privileged or oppressed, we know that we’ve not gotten things right. We have regrets for the past and anxiety for the future.

Walter Brueggemann says,

“Everybody knows the world is at an edge. Everybody knows about the violence and abuse and exploitation. Everybody knows the world in our very moment is sick to death. But we are the ones who know he will come, called Elijah, called John, called Advent, called newness, a massive change. Because we believe that quite specifically, we celebrate Advent, which is the sense of being at the edge of newness. We are the only ones who believe that. Ancient Greeks did not believe it. And contemporary cynics do not believe it. That is what makes so many of us so resigned, so filled with despair, so selfish, so greedy, so anxious…because the world is hopeless. But we are not hopeless.”

We are not hopeless. Because we have a song to sing—a song that echoes Mary’s song. A song of freedom. A song of abundance. A song of life. A song of the world being put right. A song of hope that the systems we have put in place are not how things have to be—and not how things will be in the end.

We sing along with Mary when the rest of the world yells malice and poison towards one another. We sing along with Mary when we cannot see how it all ends. We sing along with Mary while those in power have nothing useful to say. We sing along with Mary and anticipate the birth of something altogether new and exciting and pregnant with possibility. We sing with Mary; we sing about Mary; we sing for Mary and for her vision of a world restored to goodness by the love of God.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“God: Our Guide”–Sermon for Midweek Advent, December 19, 2018


Isaiah 49:8-12

Thus says the Lord: In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; saying to the prisoners, “Come out,” to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.” They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up. Lo, these shall come from far away, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene.


 The story goes that missionary Elizabeth Elliott was approached by adventurers who had traveled to Ecuador to experience the beauty and wildness of the area. Surrounded by native tribes who didn’t take well to outsiders—they actually had killed Elizabeth’s husband early in their ministry—the adventurers came to Elizabeth first. All they asked for were some common phrases spoken in the native language, though what they would really need was a guide—someone to walk with them and teach them what to do and not do along the way.

How often do we think we have things all figured out? We only need a few phrases—something about grace and love, perhaps—to get by. A handy prayer if life gets rough. But what we really need is a guide—one who knows the way through the challenging times, one who can point out for us the celebrations we would otherwise miss. We tend to realize that need when it feels too late—when we find ourselves completely stuck.

This past year, a soccer team in Thailand went exploring in a cave and found themselves stuck when the cave flooded. There was no way out. Rescue efforts began, determining that the only way to get them out was to go under the water. But the boys were tired and weak and had never had any scuba training—most didn’t even know how to swim. The first priority for the boys was to get them electrolytes, food, and antibiotics so that they would be strong enough to exit with trained scuba divers. The boys had to stay in the cave a while longer. But now, they had hope.

The rescue operation depended on the weather. It was monsoon season, and it was raining more and more. The efforts to suck out the water from the cave couldn’t keep up. The rescuers either had to go in soon, or wait for four months for the raining to stop. When the weather broke, they acted quickly. They had to train the boys within hours how to breathe in the diving mask and encourage them to stay calm. One by one, a diver guided each boy through the dangerous waters of the cave and out the opening. All twelve boys and their soccer coach made it to safety, thanks to the divers who showed them the way.

Every Christmas, we read the passage from Isaiah: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Whether it’s the light from a lighthouse, identifying treacherous rocks and warning ships to keep their distance; or a glimmer of light in a cave, affirming that you’ve been found and rescue is on its way; or a candle lit in memory of a loved one on a special day—the light brings hope, and comfort, and guides the way to life.

This is who Christ is for us. He is the light shining in the darkness, and the darkness cannot drown it out. There is no place in the world or in our hearts dark enough to to keep out the light of God’s love. Perhaps the light shows the way out. But it also shows the way in…it brings God’s heart into our darkness before it presumes to lead us out of it. Like a diver coming to our rescue—we are first strengthened and taught to breathe, so that we can be guided out of our darkness and into the full light.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“God: Our Living Branch”—Sermon for Advent Midweek, December 12, 2018


Isaiah 11:1-11
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.

Every year, I go into my backyard and cut back the volunteer trees that like to grow up under the chain link fence. I cut each one back to the stump. I have put stump-killer on them and root-rot. Yet, each year I find a new shoot growing up to taunt me.

By the time of Jesus, the line of David had been pretty well cut off. The kings that had come after him had become increasingly corrupt and unfaithful—with very few remaining true to their God. They had drawn the people into unholy arrangements and managed to lead them into exile and occupation. King Herod the Great, the king at the time of Jesus’ birth, was not the rightful heir to the throne. He was an Edomite, a descendent of Esau—not Jacob. He was not of the line of David. The line had been cut off. It was only a stump.

There was a congregation that had decided it was time to blacktop and expand their parking lot. Part of the new lot would include a gravel area that had become a bit weedy. The people putting down the blacktop decided that the heat would kill anything growing, so they didn’t kill the grass and weeds first. True, the grass gave up. But the next spring, the dandelions began poking through the blacktop as if it didn’t exist. Those harbingers of golden frustration to lawn maintenance everywhere became an example of life that refuses to be snuffed out. And they taunted the congregation that thought it would be easy to pave over them.

I wonder—I wonder how it felt to have this shoot of new life come forth to someone like Herod. If we believe Scripture, he didn’t handle it well. He saw the Messiah as a threat to his throne and sought to have him killed. And to make sure he did it right, he had every child in Bethlehem two years old and younger slaughtered. The new shoot taunts those who think they can control the promise of God.

That’s the gift we receive in the promise of the messiah. Though the line of David is a stump; though it feels as if God has forgotten the promise made to Israel and to us; though the darkness of oppression and violence and division seem to have killed off all hope of abundant life—a new shoot rises. A new shoot grows back and refuses to be destroyed. A new shoot from the stump of Jesse grows before us with the fulfillment of God’s promise for redemption and hope and life.

Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

“The Word of God”–Sermon for Second Sunday in Advent, December 9, 2018


Malachi 3:1-4

Philippians 1:3-11

Luke 3:1-20

Children’s Message:

How many days until Christmas? Is anyone counting down? I think it’s 14! Are you ready? What kinds of things do you do to get ready for Christmas?

You make your list. You might buy presents. What else?

Now, I have a slightly different question. Are you ready for Jesus’ birth? What kinds of things might you need to do to get ready to welcome Jesus?

Read the Bible, pray, worship, sing, celebrate with family and friends.

What’s the difference between getting ready for Christmas and getting ready for Jesus?

Let’s pray. God, we thank you for sending us your Son to live with us and die for us. While we get ready for Christmas, help us get ready to welcome Jesus, as well. Amen.


Technically, our gospel passage this week should have stopped with John’s proclamation to prepare the way of the Lord…and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. But with the Christmas program next week, we miss an important part of John’s story, so I decided to put it all together for us today.

What I find interesting about putting it together, however, is just how subtle Luke is in crafting what is going on in the story. He book-ends John’s ministry with powerful people, powerful positions, and powerful actions. Luke starts out by setting the landscape. He names seven of the most influential people in Israel’s world: Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod and his brothers Philip and Lysanias, and the high priests Annas and Caiaphas. And at the end of John’s story, we learn that he is arrested by Herod, who was not only corrupt and evil but didn’t like what John was saying about his affair with Philip’s wife. Herod used his power to get what he wanted.

But in between the powers, we find something altogether different. Just after Luke lists the seven influential people, he saves the real action for John. “In the reign of Tiberius, when Pilate was governor and Herod and Philip and Lysanias were rulers and Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. The Word didn’t come to the Emperor or the governor or the president or the mayor or the king or the bishop. The Word came to the crazy guy in the wilderness. Not exactly how one expects a mighty God to work. But there you have it.

The word of God came to John. Imagine how the opening part of this text would sound today. “In the second year of the presidency of Donald Trump, while Pete Rickets was governor of Nebraska and Mike Foley Lieutenant Governor, when Chris Beutler was Mayor of the city of Lincoln, during the time when Elizabeth Eaton was Bishop of the ELCA and Brian Maas was Bishop of the Nebraska Synod, and Warren Buffet of Omaha was one of the richest people in the world, the Word of God came to…who?

Came to the farmer in Clatonia. Came to the factory worker at Kawasaki. Came to the secretary at Randolph Elementary. Came to the homeless man on 12th & P. Came to the migrant living with his cousin in a 1-bedroom apartment alongside seven other people. Came to the first-grader struggling with math. Came to the teenager addicted to meth. Maybe you can name these people, maybe you can’t. But this is how the Word of God works.

When Samuel was sent to anoint a new king after Saul turned away from God to pursue his own glory, Samuel went to Jesse. Jesse brought out his seven finest sons for Samuel to consider, but God told him, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature…for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

As Karoline Lewis says, “Our tendency to immortalize our influence with names on towers, to capitulate to people who wield power with their wealth alone, to bank the promise of our future on those who have only themselves on their minds, continues. And yet, at the name of Jesus, power is thus reoriented. The name of Jesus demands that we construe power differently. Those who seem to have power, especially contingent on name alone, should have their power questioned — just what kind of power is it? On what is it based? By what authority? And for what purpose?” The Lord looks on the heart. And the Word of God came to John in the wilderness.

He was not the Word, but he witnessed to the Word. He pointed to the Word. The Word came to him in the wilderness to be baptized. The Word came to him in humility. He came anonymously. He came as one unknown, not famous, not recognized, unfamiliar and unaccepted. And he changed the world. He began the process that is still at work in the world—the valleys are lifted up and the mountains brought down low. This isn’t a commentary on physical landscape but political landscape.

There’s a reason Luke places John’s proclamation in the context of the powers of the world. Because those powers will not last. They are temporary. Fragile. They will not last. Money will come and go. Positions will come and go. Those who stake their well-being on their own status—on their name—will not be here forever. And they aren’t as influential as they think they are.

However, Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, is a lasting power. Born to a single mother, raised by a dad not his own, brought up in an inconsequential town, in an inconsequential country, a refugee for a time, a nobody to the people—this Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one is the lasting Word that cannot be erased from the world. He is the name above all names. He is the first Word and the last. He is the One who establishes justice and peace and hope. All those other names and people and powers and positions—they are nothing compared to this nobody who steps into the world without anyone noticing.

He’s not even mentioned by name in today’s reading, but he still wields a power that calls people to ask, “What shall we do?” And John’s answer? Live your lives with integrity. With honesty. With kindness. Give when you already have enough. Don’t take more than your share. Don’t place your trust in names or status or wealth that cannot fill you. Place your trust and your hearts in one who even I am not worthy to serve. And yet, he will serve us all.

That’s what a true leader looks like. The word came to John in the wilderness, and John knew exactly what to do with it. He spoke the word. He proclaimed the word. He served the word. He loved the word. The Word of God has come to you and to me, as well. We, who are both powerful and lowly in various contexts. The Word of God has come. And the Word of God is coming again. Thanks be to God.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“God: Our Shepherd”–Sermon for Midweek Worship, December 5, 2018


Isaiah 40:6-11

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.


Last week, we learned about God, our potter, who makes us imperfect so that we might perfectly serve the ones whom God love. Today, we get to hear about God as our shepherd.

It’s an image we’re very familiar with. Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd. He is from the line of David, the shepherd boy who became king of Israel. Isaiah, as we hear today, sees God as the shepherd who will watch over the sheep, making sure there’s plenty to eat, and leading the herd to green pastures.

But the idea of a shepherd watching over us isn’t always the good news we want. Think about what kids are like—always looking for some freedom and independence. Frankly, no one likes to have someone watching over your shoulder every step of the way. We like to venture out on our own—prove to the world we have what it takes to be successful on our own. In fact, that’s one of the myths of the American Dream—that truly successful people know how to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, defy the odds, work hard, and achieve the unachievable.

Except that’s never really how it works, is it. No matter what great things we achieve—or fail to achieve, we are never really quite on our own. And that’s the good news.

A mother was concerned about her kindergarten son walking to school. He didn’t want her to walk with him, and she wanted to give him a feeling of independence. However, she also wanted to know that he was safe.

When she expressed her concern to her neighbor, Shirley offered to follow him to school every morning for a while, staying at a distance so he wouldn’t notice. Shirley said that since she was up early with her toddler anyway, it will be a good way for them to get some exercise.

All week long, Shirley and her daughter followed Timmy as he walked to school with another neighborhood girl. As the two children walked and chatted, kicking stones and twigs, Timmy’s friend asked, “Have you noticed that lady following us to school all week? Do you know her?” “Yes, I know who she is. That’s my mom’s friend Shirley Goodnest and her little girl Marcy.”

“Shirley Goodnest? Why is she following us?” “Well,” Timmy explained, “every night my mom makes me say the 23rd Psalm. It says, ‘Shirley Goodnest and Marcy shall follow me all days of my life.’ So, I guess I’ll just have to get used to it.”

The truth is, we’re never alone. Not only is God always with us, caring for us and walking with us, God also sends us one another to help along the way. Most importantly, God sends us God’s own self. Just as a shepherd puts his life at risk to defend the sheep from wild animals, God put God’s life at risk to defend us from the clutches of evil. And God won—God won because God’s life simply cannot be taken. God wins every moment of every day. And when we think we’re doing all the work and making all the progress, or when we feel we failed and can’t go on, God reminds us through Scripture and worship and community that we are part of God’s flock—named, claimed, cared for, and continually brought to life by the work of God alone.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

“Lifted Heads”–Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, December 2, 2018

Beautiful mature woman with her face turned towards the sun

Jeremiah 33:14-16

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

Children’s Message:

Who knows what Advent means? Advent means arrival. We’re in the season of Advent, so who’s arrival do you think we waiting on? Who are we waiting to show up? Jesus! But today’s gospel isn’t about Jesus showing up as a newborn baby, is it? It’s about Jesus coming back someday to fix things—to make the world right.

So, can you think of things that God needs to fix in this world?

I think God can begin to fix those things now, and we’re going to pray for that. But here’s the deal—God uses us to help fix and take care of the world. So, when we pray, we’ll also pray for the courage to help God do that work. God it?

Let’s pray…


Peacemakers from South Sudan, Palestine, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, and the Philippines gathered to conspire how to work together. They wanted to share resources for how to provide psychosocial support, accompaniment, and human rights training for women who have experienced violence in places of deep conflict. One question they had was how you can know a woman is gaining confidence to lead her from being a victim to being a survivor to being a human rights defender to transformer of her community. Around the room, from every culture and experience, the common phrase describing this confidence was “she lifts her head.” She lifts her head in power, in hope, and in persistence to change that which has so harmed her and other women and children.

She lifts her head. This struck me as I read the gospel passage this week. Typically, I’ve heard this passage and thought of all the ways that Jesus describes the world when he comes again. “Signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, distress among nations, roaring of the sea and the waves, fainting and fear and foreboding, powers shaken. Be on guard, because the day will come and trap you unexpectedly. Pray that you have the strength to survive.”

So, that’s a little scary. Not something anyone would want to happen. And yet, aren’t we suppose to long for Jesus to come again? Isn’t that part of the Advent season—to wait with expectation not only for his birth but for his arrival to set all things right, to re-create a new heaven and a new earth?

So, you’ll understand my surprise when I discovered that I had been reading the passage all wrong. And I missed a most important part—“When these things begin o take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

That’s good news, right? That’s what we’re hoping for and waiting for and praying for and longing for. So, why do we—or at least I—jump straight to reading this as if I should be preparing for something awful instead of something beautiful?

It’s fear. Yep, fear has done it again. We’re so good at fear—not so great at hope. Not real hope. We can muster up optimism, but hope means letting go of fear. And that’s a tough one.  David Lose says it this way:

“fear is the means by which we turn those who are in some fashion different from us into an enemy, a people against whom we should war. Fear causes us to horde, assuming we will never have enough and seeing those around us as competitors for scarce resources. Fear drives wedges of distrust into our communities that fracture solidarity and compassion. Fear causes us to define ourselves and those around us not by what we share but by what makes us different. Fear creates an “either/or” and “us/them” mentality that makes it nearly impossible to find common ground, let alone see each other sympathetically. Fear, in short, drives us inward, hardens our hearts, darkens our vision, and stunts our imagination.”[1]

Well, that sounds about right. Look at the passage again. Yes, there will be signs in the heavens. And there will be distress on the earth—but the distress will be among those who are confused by the roaring of the seas and the waves. And those who are confused will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming because the heavens will shake as the Son of Man comes down to us—again. But for those who have been waiting with hope, we are to stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is here. Redemption for the whole world—Jesus will come to set things right.

But for those who have taken for granted this life and the blessings we have received from God through creation, this will not fell like good news. For those who have relished in their status, this will be a fearful time, indeed. Because putting the world right means just what Mary says when she learns she will give birth to Emmanuel: “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:50-53).

So, all of this is fine for what is to come, but what does it mean for us now? How are we to live knowing the promise of redemption? We are to live with heads raised, with courage to meet the future, with hope for what God is already doing. Because we have heard the promise and the words that will not pass away—“This is my body give and blood shed for you,” “Father, forgive them,” “Peace be with you,” and “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

We are to live with compassion for those who remain in fear, in fellowship with those who might frighten us, in hope for an unknown but promised future. We are to live with our heads lifted.

A colleague shared about a funeral she recently gave for a 41-year-old man named Matt. Born with various chronic health challenges, Matt wouldn’t have the opportunities in life that we might take for granted. But always in hope, his parents took him to numerous doctors, those who believed there was more to his life. They traveled the country, making sure Matt’s experience of the world was bigger than a hospital bed.

Matt’s dad was a firefighter. And as the funeral began, more than fifty firefighter from all over the county processed to his casket and saluted him, one after another. In dress blues and work clothes, some literally running in at the lsat minute to join the procession, they honored one who the world would too often ignore. And, she said, “I found myself wondering at this—this if I, if we, had not simply stood up and raised our heads, we might have missed this altogether: this living witness to a promised world where the lowly will all be lifted up in Christ’s return.”

And so, this Advent, we wait. Just as we wait for a newborn baby in a manger with anticipation and expectation, we wait for his coming again—bringing with him new life for the whole world—life where fear has no place, where violence has been wiped out, where tears and grief have been silenced, where terror is no longer necessary. We wait with hope, standing tall, our heads lifted up, and our hands extended to the world, caring for neighbor and stranger until he comes again.

Pastor Tobi White

Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church

Lincoln, NE

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2018/11/advent-1-c-courage/