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A Fig Tree Moment (January 14, 2018)

John 1:43-51

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Nathanael is interesting. He’s suspicious, sarcastic, and skeptical. He doubts as well as Doubting Thomas ever could.

Right before this, Jesus had called Andrew and Peter. Philip was from the same town and probably heard about Jesus from them. So in the text today, Philip readily accepts Jesus’ invitation to follow him. He’s so excited that he finds his friend Nathanael and tells him that they’ve found the one the prophets had written about. His name is Jesus and he’s from Nazareth.

Instead of being excited, Nathanael responds, “Nazareth? Has anything worthwhile ever come from Nazareth?”

Philip shrugs his shoulders and says, “Why don’t you find out for yourself? Come and see.”

As they are approaching Jesus, Jesus sees Nathanael and says, “Here is someone who tells it like it is. No sugar-coating from this one.”

Suspicious Nathanael asks him, “How do you know that?”

“I had already seen you under the fig tree.”

And that’s it. At that point Nathanael begins to follow Jesus. His mind apparently changes in a fig-tree moment and he start gushing praise and faith.

Something happened there. Nathanael had some sort of “Aha! Epiphany moment” and everything changed. We don’t know what exactly it was that brought about this sudden change of heart, but obviously it was significant. At least for Nathanael. Whatever it was, shared only by him and Jesus, it mattered. He was different after that. Jesus then assured him, “You will see greater things than this.”

Has something like that ever happened to you? I’m guessing that it has. You may not talk about it; you may not even associate it with God or anything spiritual. But I’m pretty sure you’ve had moments where things suddenly had new clarity, or your perspective on something changed, or you saw things in a new light. That’s an epiphany. The same as Nathanael. God finds a way to come to you.

Like Nathanael, these epiphany moments are rather personal, often defying reason or logic. We think they won’t make sense to anyone else. Which means that sometimes we hesitate to share them. No one else would understand.

I disagree. Because it’s an experience that everyone can resonate with in one way or another. Besides, sharing an epiphany moment can never affect the impact it has had on us. And, who knows, maybe there’s a Nathanael sitting under a fig tree who needs to hear your story, who needs the assurance that God is still at work—that God is still there having an impact in the world. Someone waiting to see even greater things than these.

Some of you are aware of one of my more recent Epiphany moments, but telling it in this context matters. I invite you to listen to a fig tree moment, and, although I’m quite positive this is unique to me, perhaps there’s some part of it that you can relate to or be reassured by.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I have had a on-and-off struggle with depression. When it was at is worst, I had the energy to function day-by-day, but nothing else. During that time, all the things that I was relying on within myself fell away, one by one. My talents failed me, my intellect, my experience. Even my theology, which has always been foundational to me. Everything within me that I leaned on to make me who I am fell out from underneath me.

Even my faith.

It wasn’t that I questioned God or doubted God’s existence, it’s that I didn’t have the energy to care one way or another. It simply didn’t matter to me whether or not there was a God, much less whether I believed in one. Trust God? How? Cling to my faith? With what? There was nothing there.

All I knew was that I was free-falling, and everything I had used in my life to catch me, or slow down the fall, or hang on to was no longer there. I couldn’t fight against it, I couldn’t alter its course, I felt like I was simply falling through space. I was completely helpless, and there was absolutely nothing I could do to change it. I understand utter powerlessness, because there was no other way to describe it.

That’s when the epiphany happened. That’s when I understood Nathanael’s fig tree moment. I somehow, inexplicably, became aware that I wasn’t falling any more. Instead, I realized I was actually being held. By what or by whom didn’t matter at the time. I was aware of simply being held. With nothing on my own to hold on to, in my complete helplessness, I was being held.

That realization changed everything for me. What I believed or even whether I believed weren’t the most significant things by far. Because in my inability to believe or trust, God was holding me. Nothing I did or didn’t do could begin to change that. It wasn’t about my faith or my doctrine or my theology or my good efforts—it was about God’s love that will always hold me. Because that’s who God is. It doesn’t matter if I believed it or not. It’s an awareness that I have.

I get Nathanael’s epiphany when Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree.” It was simply an epiphany, God’s presence opening something up inside him. He was aware of something he wasn’t aware of before.

If you’re honest, you’ve had those fig-tree moments too. Recognize the presence of God behind them. Share them with someone. You will see greater things than these.

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Posted by on January 14, 2018 in Sermon

 

“God Has Found a Way to You” (January 7, 2018)

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

God finds a way. The coming of Christ is so important to all people that God finds a way to reveal it.

The Magi were foreign, were pagan, and knew nothing whatsoever about Jewish law or the Jewish God. They got information from the stars not from prophecy or scripture or Sunday School. In their culture they looked at stars.

That’s not how God has ever revealed anything to anyone.

Yet, here they are. Right at the house where the Christ child is living. Because they followed a star.

To a God-fearing Jew that is ridiculous. To anyone who has any sense of who God is and how God works, that is ludicrous. Can’t happen.

Yet, here they are. Because God found a way.

And here you are. Who knows what has happened in your life to bring you to this moment in the presence of Christ.

But here you are. Raised by Lutheran parents? Invited by a friend? Felt a need for some deeper meaning in your life? Brought here kicking and screaming by a spouse/significant other/grandma? It doesn’t matter what the “star” is that you’ve followed.

It doesn’t matter. God has found a way. You are here. The Christ child is here. God has found a way to you. That’s what God does.

It is so important to God that you know that love has come into the world. Love has come to all of us. To everyone. To you.

You are important enough to God that God has found a way to let you know. Here you are. You are loved. God has found a way to you.

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2018 in Sermon

 

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“Every Boundary has Already Been Crossed” (December 31, 2017)

Luke 2:22-40

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

The baby Jesus is only 40 days old, and already every aspect of his culture is affected by him. Gospel-writer Luke tells of a truly inclusive Messiah who affects people across all kinds of racial, political, economic, and religious lines. Everyone is touched and changed by this baby:

from Zechariah the powerful priest to Mary the poor, young, illegitimate mother,

from shepherds who live as social outcasts to angels who sing in heavenly choirs,

from devout Simeon who is moved by the Spirit to the elderly Anna the temple prophet.

At 40 days old, this baby is already making room for rich/poor, male/female, Jew/Gentile, young/old, insiders/outsiders. God’s good news is already being carried across every boundary. People are changed by the very presence of this newborn child—and he hasn’t even made a sound yet.

This child comes into the world in order to reveal and create God’s reign on earth. And although his adult teaching, miracles, compassion, death and resurrection all do that, it’s his very presence that starts it all. In God’s vision for the world everyone is included, everyone is valued, everyone is needed. And as God’s vision is established and takes hold, we become part of it.

This Christ-child has reached across whatever boundaries are in the way in order to come to you. To include you. To recognize you. And now, we are not just recipients who have been included, but we are part of the great cloud of witnesses who carry it forward.

Everyone’s story matters in God’s reality. Everyone’s life and experience and background and religion are included. There are no longer any people beyond the boundary of God’s reign in this world. Starting with a 40-day-old infant, all barriers have already been crossed.

And, in the name of this Christ-child, the one who has included us, we follow that pattern.

We not only tolerate people who see the world differently, we are to seek them out. Every boundary has already been crossed.

We not only hear the voices of people who sing a new song, we look to sing it too. Every boundary has already been crossed.

We not only invite people who don’t know have much religious experience, we learn from them. Every boundary has already been crossed.

The way of living as part of God’s vision for the world is way different than the way we seem to want to live. One of the difficulties we are experiencing as a culture is an avoidance of anyone who doesn’t see the world the way we do. We hang out only with those who share our views. We’ve begun to demonize those who disagree with us or who have a different viewpoint. Our world seems to have become rigidly black-or-white, right-or-wrong, good-or-evil. We’ve lost the willingness to listen, to recognize validity in someone whose life experiences have shaped their perspective in different ways than our life experiences have shaped ours.

But what this 40-day-old tiny child is showing us is that this isn’t how God sees the world. Every boundary has already been crossed. God loves and values every one. Even those who see things differently.

Following this child means moving beyond our own boundaries. Bearing the name of this infant Christ means standing alongside those whose challenge our perspective on the world. Being disciples of Jesus means we learn to see the world with their eyes, hear other voices with their ears, seek to understand people we think we have nothing in common with.

Because in Jesus, every boundary has already been crossed.

This isn’t easy, and it certainly runs counter to our cultural norms. But it is God’s way, God’s vision, the reality of the Christ-child among us. So as Christian people, it is necessary. In order to know God, we need to know people beyond what we’re familiar or comfortable with.

Here’s some ways we can grow in our spirituality, deepen our relationship with God. Be deliberate about spending time with people who are different than you. You don’t have to prove anything or convince anyone of anything. Just listen, watch, try to understand.

If you are a reader, read books by authors of a different ethnicity.

If you’re a TV watcher, watch shows with characters with a different sexual orientation.

If you’re a movie-goer, make it a point to go to movies produced by people of different faiths.

If you’re on social media, reach out to a friend of a friend who is black or Hispanic or an immigrant or a refugee.

If you work, have lunch with someone who has talked about a cause that you don’t know about. Get to know them. Listen to them. Recognize the Christ-child who has already reached out to them.

To be a Christian has to mean we follow Christ. And by definition, from his very earliest days, Christ brought different people together. Jesus lived his whole life deliberately crossing uncomfortable boundaries. Because that’s who he has always been, from the time he was born. That’s the vision of God that Christ brings into the world—that all people matter. If we don’t know them, we cannot know Christ.

I’ve begun to take this aspect of my own journey with Christ seriously. And even just dipping my toe into the wide waters of others’ viewpoints has given me new experiences in God’s love that could never have happened otherwise.

Come and see the baby Jesus. He has included you, because in him every boundary has already been crossed.

 
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Posted by on January 3, 2018 in Sermon

 

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God Comes in Spite of Our Expectations (December 24, 2017)

Luke 2:1-14

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Everyone comes into this season with expectations. We bring our Christmas expectations into our celebrations, our traditions, even to this service tonight. We expect our expectations to be met. We expect certain TV specials, certain gifts, certain decorations, certain family visits, and certain songs. Either because we’ve always celebrated Christmas that way or because we were promised it was going to be that way.

We expect the people around us to meet our expectations, and are really disappointed if they don’t.

Such was the case for the people in Isaiah’s time, too. They had been promised something, and were expecting it. They’d been promised a king, someone who would restore them to the greatness they hadn’t known since King David.

Isaiah tells us the promises, and the peoples’ expectations from those promises: God to come and make things right; and a Messiah who will be a mighty, powerful king who will  be God’s agent to make things right. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Rule on David’s throne with justice and authority. In a word, power. How else can he accomplish such incredible changes in a world where God’s people were currently being held in captivity, robbed of their homes, their religion, their identity in Babylon.

Through the centuries, these people held on to these promise; and so, yes, they had expectations. God has promised a Messiah. They expected this Messiah to be powerful enough to restore them .

We all come here with expectations—about Christmas, yes, but we expect things from God too. Maybe we expect God to cure someone we love from cancer; to find us a job; to reward us for trying to be faithful. Or maybe we’ve become jaded, cynical, or even superficial in our expectations. We expect God to simply leave us alone. Like all people in all times and places, we have expectations of God. So think for a minute, what do you expect from God? . . .

So with their high expectations, what do you think the response was when this promised Messiah, this powerful king, this one whose very presence would turn the whole world around, came in the way described in Luke? No palace with military honors. No inauguration. Not even in the major city, Jerusalem or to the people of power. But instead, born in a town that is known for being nothing. His crib was the cattle feed trough. His parents didn’t even have enough influence to get a bed in the inn.

What do you suppose the response was from those who were waiting for him to come? Disbelief? Disappointment? Skepticism? Sure, all that and more. No one came to celebrate. No one of any importance even heard, much less believed the angels’ message that God’s Messiah had come.

When God doesn’t meet your expectations, it’s not exactly a joyous experience. You feel let down, even betrayed. I thought I knew what you were about, God. I thought you were powerful and miraculous. I thought you were a force for good. I thought you helped those who love you and believe in you. I thought . . . I expected . . .

But if the best you can do, God, is a lousy manger in a nowhere little village with inconsequential parents, then I guess you aren’t the God I thought. I’ll look elsewhere for my expected Messiah. I’ll look elsewhere for my expected God. I’ll look elsewhere to have my expectations met.

You see, God, I expect you to be fixing my life, improving my life, getting me out of the smelly places in my life, not meeting me in the middle of them. I don’t want to admit my life isn’t perfect, that I’m not perfect, that I’m broken and feel like I’m faking it sometimes. I don’t want to acknowledge that my life can resemble a stable—a smelly, poor, incompetent stable. I want you to put me in a palace, and then meet me there. Fix everything according to my expectations, then meet me there. That’s what I expect. . .

Maybe the problem isn’t what God does or how God comes. Maybe it’s that we expect God to meet our expectations.

Those who were around when Jesus was born clung to their expectations instead of the reality of God present with them. A Messiah had come, but they missed it because God didn’t do it the way they expected. Their hope was in their midst, but no one welcomed the God of hope because they were looking for the god of their own expectations? God came to them anyway. The angels were singing it to the shepherds, of all people. Not the high and mighty, but the disregarded and marginalized.

Just as God comes among us anyway—not  just in palaces when things in our life are right and good.

God comes anyway—even if our lives are smelly and disappointing. Even if, in a world of royalty, we feel like nothing more than shepherds . But the angels are singing to us then.

God comes anyway–meeting us wherever we are, even if that’s in a place we don’t expect. Listen, the angels are singing.

God comes anyway—whether we want God there or not, whether we expect God there or not, whether we see God there or not. Hear it? The angels are singing.

God comes anyway—even to a stable, even to a manger, even to shepherds. Even to you. There it is. The angels are singing.

When you leave here tonight, know that God has come, is with you—your expectations have nothing to do with it. That’s the good news of this night.

May God, present in a manger, present with shepherds, present in the smell a stable, be with you—not as you expect, but as you need. With the coming of Christ into your life, you are loved, and the angels are singing. Amen.

 
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Posted by on December 25, 2017 in Sermon

 

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Not Qualified? That’s the Point (December 17, 2017)

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Have you ever wondered why God picked Mary to be the mother of Jesus? What were her qualifications? Did she have some special piety or righteousness? Was her faith above other girls of her day? Was she better able to protect this Messiah she would raise?

It doesn’t seem so. Luke goes into much more detail about Mary than any other gospel, yet even here there’s nothing other than she’s a young, poor, powerless girl with no real experience at much of anything.

Yet God’s messenger Gabriel visits her, tells her she’s favored by God, that God is with her, not to be afraid, and tells her again that she’s favored by God. Then he goes on to describe in some detail this son she is being asked to bear whose kingdom will never end.

Mary is confused, suspicious, and has doubts about this whole plan. She also points out an obvious flaw around her becoming pregnant. She may be young, but she knows where babies come from, after all. What she is, therefore, is just kind of normal.

Gabriel tells her that this isn’t any kind of obstacle for God. Take a look at Elizabeth, who’s never been able to have children, yet now in her old age is six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible with God.

Can you imagine, though, how frightening that must have been for her? Would you want that responsibility? “By the way, Mary, the salvation of all humanity is resting on this baby. So, don’t mess this up.”

What if she is a terrible mother? What if the baby gets sick? What if, instead of being a savior, he turns into a terrorist? What if, because of her, this bizarre plan of salvation doesn’t work?

What if she’s not competent enough?

“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” says the angel. “God is with you.”

What’s fascinating about Mary is not how qualified she is to be the mother of Jesus. It’s that the only qualification she has is that she’s favored by God.

What in the world does that even mean? Is Mary like the teacher’s pet? The favored child? Does God now play favorites? What is it to be “favored by God”?

The word translated as “favored one” is rooted in the word for “grace,” and implies not something she’s done to make God like her more, but that she is the recipient of grace—God is with her. Which doesn’t separate Mary from the pack, but makes her part of the rest of humanity. God is present with us all.

Now, I don’t want to be disparaging of Mary the mother of Jesus, but according to Luke’s account here, the only qualification she really has is the same qualification each one of us has too. God is present with her.

Even if she has weaknesses that get in the way, even if she doesn’t have all the answers at her fingertips, if she can’t do this perfectly, that’s all OK. Because God has promised to be with her through it all. She is favored. God’s grace is given to her. God is with her.

Just like God is with us. We, too, are blessed. We, too, are favored. We, too, have the presence of God with us.

And just like Mary, being favored by God means you are chosen for something. Not being the mother of Jesus—that job has been taken already. But like Mary, you too have found favor with God. God notices you and has something in mind for you. And God will be with you through it all.

That’s not how we’re used to thinking, though. We tend to be so concerned about messing it up, that we generally avoid doing things God has in mind. I think we’re so worried about failing, doing it wrong, that we believe our efforts would be more sinful than helpful. We better avoid sinning, so we neglect to consider that God might still be asking us.

And the angel says to you, “You have found favor with God. Do not be afraid. God is with you.”

God isn’t asking any of us to do big things in the reign of God because we’re competent, or qualified, or so much better than anyone else. It’s not like our resume is so dramatically impressive. No, just like Mary, we’re asked to be part of God’s work because God favors us, God’s grace comes to us, God is with us. That’s our qualification.

  • What might God be asking of you? Are you not thinking about it because it might be just kinda normal things? They probably are. But you are still the favored one.
  • What might God be asking of you? Are you not considering it because you don’t have special “Godly” qualifications for it? Too young, don’t know enough. Don’t go to church enough. Not spiritual enough. You probably aren’t qualified. But God is with you.
  • What might God be asking of you? Does even the thought of messing it up, doing it badly frighten you? Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.

What might God be asking of you? Remember, nothing will be impossible for God. Even accomplishing amazing things through you. May  we answer with young, poor, powerless Mary, “Here we are, servants of the Lord; let it be with us according to your word.”

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2017 in Sermon

 

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I’m Not God, but I Ain’t Nothing Either (December 10, 2017)

John 1:6-8, 19-28

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. . . . 19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,'” as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

Are you one of those people that, when you see something broken, you just want it fixed? That’s me. I’m really bothered by things that don’t work the way they’re supposed to. Not just mechanical, tangible things, but life things. I want to fix people, I want to fix relationships, I want to fix the world. I want things in the world to work the way they are supposed to—the way God intends, the way God envisions. I’m frustrated when they don’t:

I’m frustrated when families have to struggle just to put food on the table for their children (and the rich tell them it’s their own fault because they’re spending money on the wrong things).

I’m frustrated when those who live in privilege—whether it’s because they’re white, male, straight, wealthy, or connected—take that privilege for granted without using it to raise up those in the low places.

God doesn’t intend God’s own creation to function so selfishly, benefiting some at the expense of those who are most vulnerable. Scripture is clear about painting a picture of God’s reign, of God’s vision, of how God intends the world to work. And the way the world is, isn’t the way God wants it.

So, in my fixation on fixing things, I want to fix what God seems to be ignoring.

True confession? I find myself trying to do God’s job when God doesn’t seem to be doing it. I long for the ability to do what God should be doing!

But I’m not very good at it. I don’t have that ability—no matter how deeply I long for it.

So in this Advent season, I need to hear the voice of John the Baptist. John also longs for the ability to change things according to God’s vision. But John also understands the abilities with which he is gifted.

When asked by the priests and the Levites, John starts out by saying who he is not: not the Messiah, not Elijah, not one of the prophets. John knows he isn’t God, and he doesn’t try to be.

Yet this isn’t self-deprecating in any way, because when asked again, he quotes this passage from Isaiah in reference to himself. He says he is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” John knows his identity, his role is part of God’s story. He sees himself within the biblical narrative. He knows who he is, and who he isn’t.

Then, understanding who he is within God’s story, he is able to identify what he actually is called to do: “I baptize with water, but one is coming whose sandals I’m not worthy to untie.” John knows who he is and that living within his God-given identity, his actions will point to Christ.

John trusts God to be God. Which frees him up to be who he was created to be. And calls others to be who they were created to be. John isn’t foolish enough to think he has to do everything.

John the Baptist comes with a message for all of us who think nothing will get done if we don’t do it. John points out to us that the abilities we long for may or may not actually be the abilities God has given us. John lives out a reality within God’s vision that each one of us has a role, each one of us is part of God’s biblical story, each one of us has an identity in God’s reign.

What John reveals to us is that:

  • We’re not God, nor are we Jesus. There are things that belong to God that each of us can’t/shouldn’t be doing. None of us are “all that.”
  • But we’re not off the hook, either. Who we are, however, is part of God’s story. Each one’s role in God’s biblical narrative is different. That is worth discovering. We need to discover who we are in Christ, claim that, and own it. It’s an ongoing process; it keeps unfolding.
  • With what we know right now about who each one of us is, and how we know at this point about how each one of us fits into God’s story for the world, when we live out of that identity, Christ is revealed.

So take a minute and ponder that.

You have a particular role in God’s story—God’s vision— of the world.

You have been created with wonderful and unique gifts that are part of that identity.

When you live out of who you actually are, using those gifts, you do point to Christ.

So, how do we get at that?

Think of a time when God felt particularly close to you (or you felt particularly close to God). Would you be able to tell that story? What did God do? Is there a story or a character in the Bible that’s similar? What might that say about what God is doing in you now? Is anyone willing to tell that story about themselves now? . . .

Think of a time when God seemed particularly active in this congregation. We aren’t everything to everyone, but we are something to someone. How were people’s gifts used at that time? What was God doing? What might that say about what God is calling us into now? Is anyone willing to tell that story about us now? . . .

Now think of what God may be trying to do in the world around you now. . . How might God be envisioning your gifts at work in that? Is anyone willing to share their thoughts on that now?. . .

This Advent, we’re called to consider how God is present in the world, and where God is leading the world. We’re called to consider who we are not; but also to consider who we are. We are part of God’s story for the world.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2017 in Sermon

 

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Longing for God’s Vision (Dec 3, 2017)

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ ” 4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Is it even possible for the nations of our world to ever live in peace? Is there any hope at all of alleviating hunger and poverty in our world? Do we stand a chance of overcoming our cultural obsession with violence? Will we ever see an end to hate, racism, homophobia, or oppression? Is any of this remotely possible, or is it all just pie-in-the-sky and we are wasting our time longing for these things?

Advent is a season of longing. As we begin this season, we need to take time to acknowledge those deep longings of our souls. Because those deep longings are our spirit connecting to God’s Spirit. These longings are real. Where do God’s priorities for the world resonate within us? What are the possibilities of God’s vision that touch you spiritually?

In the first reading today, the prophet Isaiah believes that the unrighteous behavior of Israel has been in the way of God’s justice. Now that that unrighteousness has been dealt with, God’s long hoped-for vision can now be revealed. There is one coming, Isaiah cries, who will prepare the way for God’s peace to enter in. One who will point out the rough places in the world that will be smoothed, the low places in our culture that will be raised up.

The promise of a coming one who would prepare the way for God’s vision is made in Isaiah, and is kept in the coming of John the Baptist. John’s message is that God’s vision for the world is coming; what we long for in our spirits is in fact on its way.

So John points out the rough places, the low places, the crooked places. He calls people to help smooth, to lift up, to straighten. John makes clear that God’s vision, God’s justice, God’s peace is on the way. “There is one,” he says, “there is one coming through whom God’s vision will be realized.”

All that we’ve hoped for, says John, all the injustices and the wars and the violence and the hatred that our world has endured for so long will finally be resolved. In the coming of the Christ, we will see God’s reign at last. The possibilities we’ve longed for will finally begin.

So let’s prepare the way for God’s possibilities. Let’s smooth, let’s lift up, let’s straighten out.

In other words, John says, let’s repent.

John means something different by that word than we usually do. We hear “repentance,” and we go straight to how bad we each are and that each of us needs to be sorry for our sins. Usually there’s a hint of punishment involved if we don’t: either hell or God’s disfavor or some other bad thing will happen to the one who doesn’t repent of their sins.

That’s not really John’s emphasis. He uses the word “repentance” and “forgiveness of sins,” but his reasoning is significantly different than ours. Whereas we are more concerned with our individual salvation and personal righteousness— getting into heaven when we die, John’s concern is with God’s vision of peace and justice restoring all of creation.

For us, confession of sins usually means each person acknowledging their personal list of disobedient behaviors, trusting that God will forgive those who do confess.

But for John, confession of sins means acknowledging the obstacles in the way of God’s vision of justice for the world.

For us, repentance usually means each one of us feeling sorry for those bad things we’ve done and promising not to do them any more.

But for John, repentance means turning our life, our focus, our energy toward God’s vision of peace for the world.

So when John cries for repentance, he’s calling for us to turn away from hopelessness, that the world will never be better. Turn away from giving up on our longings and turn instead toward the realization that in Christ, God’s vision is actually becoming real. Make those paths straight.

He’s calling us to turn away from passively waiting for peace and turn toward making peace happen. Smooth out those rough places.

He’s calling us to turn away from seeking our own personal righteousness and turn toward God’s justice happening in the world. Lift up those low places.

One of the promises of Advent is that God’s justice is coming. God’s vision for peace and the renewal of creation is actually possible. In Christ we can see it. We can again turn our efforts toward being part of God’s vision for the world because Christ is coming. In him it is real.

Those deepest longings of our souls, those parts of God’s vision that are within us, are now possible. So prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. God’s vision for us and our whole world is happening. Turn toward that. Christ is coming. In him there will be peace. And life. And wholeness. And justice.

As Isaiah reminds us today, “[the Lord] 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.” This is God’s vision for the world. Prepare for that. Turn toward that. Work for that. It’s closer now than ever before.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2017 in Sermon

 

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