Monthly Archives: February 2013

A God for Weaklings

Luke 4:1-13

Have you ever bargained with God? Have you ever been in one of those situations where you  say, “Get me out of this just this one time, God, and I promise I’ll never eat anything left out overnight again”? “Just do this one thing, God, and I swear I’ll go to the gym every day from now on.” You ever done that?

Yes, you have. . . Have you ever followed through with it? Those of you who say you have followed through, have you ever lied about anything else?

We’ve all tried to bargain with God. We’ve all tried to persuade God to show mercy, to use divine power, to perform a miracle, persuade someone to see things our way, to rescue us from this situation where we feel incredibly vulnerable and helpless. Sometimes it’s as trivial as a speeding ticket (just get me a warning and I’ll never speed again!); sometimes as agonizing as the death of someone you love. But we’ve all experienced that helplessness, that vulnerability, where there’s nothing else we can do but hope God or someone intervenes. Because whatever it is, is beyond what we have any control or power over.

When we are that powerless, that weak, that helpless, that alone, it’s like we’ll grasp at any straw to change it. When we are so overwhelmed with the situation, we’ll say anything, do anything, just to get through it.

I gotta think that’s where Jesus is in this gospel text. Absolutely overwhelmed, helpless, vulnerable. He’s just been baptized by John and his mission as Savior of all creation has just been declared from the Father. He heads out into the wilderness to regroup, think this through. And at the height of his vulnerability, the text says that’s when the devil came to visit him. Of course that’s when that would happen! If Jesus is feeling all pumped up and strong, excited about what’s coming, nothing could tempt him away from that. But when we’re weak and confused and desperate and defenseless, we all know how quickly we’re tempted to cave in and cry out.

Here’s what I’m noticing in this gospel reading, though. Look at the first six words. “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit.” Before he ever went into the wilderness. Before he began his 40-day fast. Before the devil came to him. Before there was any temptation. Before any of it, he was full of the Holy Spirit. Fresh from the baptismal waters of the Jordan River, he was Spirit-filled, and ready for the wilderness.

The point here isn’t that Jesus resisted temptation, therefore you really ought to try harder. It’s that when facing temptation because we are in a situation where we are weak and vulnerable, the Holy Spirit is there and we are filled.

The point is not that if you were stronger you wouldn’t cave in. It’s that at those times when we cannot try harder, the Holy Spirit sustains us.

The point is not that weak people should feel guilty. It’s that because we are weak, the Holy Spirit comes to us in our weakness.

The point isn’t that you better resist temptation in order to be closer to God. It’s that because we cannot always resist temptation, God comes closer to us.

The Holy Spirit is the presence of God. She is the love of God with you. She fills you with forgiveness, comfort, and hope. Not because you are strong enough to resist temptation, but because you are not.

When you are in a situation where you are powerless and vulnerable, the Holy Spirit has filled you up—with God’s love, with God’s tender mercy, with God’s forgiveness.

When you are overwhelmed and helpless, the Holy Spirit is present with you—bringing grace and compassion.

When you cave in, when you are confused, when you are too weak to resist, the Holy Spirit is there for you—in hope and with a new start.

This isn’t a “become more like Jesus” text. It’s a “know the comfort of the Holy Spirit” text. It’s a “receive God’s forgiveness” text. The Holy Spirit fills you with mercy and forgiveness, not because you are as strong as Jesus, but because you are not.

So guess what? Next time we’re in a situation where we find ourselves bargaining with God, where we are helpless to change our circumstances, the Holy Spirit is, at that moment, already filling you to overflowing with the forgiveness and mercy of a loving God. Not because we are free from brokenness, but precisely because we are not.

Know the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Live in the forgiveness of the Holy Spirit. For you are filled with the mercy of the Holy Spirit. When you resist temptation, and especially when you do not.

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Posted by on February 22, 2013 in Sermon


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Looking for Someone to Blame (4 Epiphany-C)

4 Epiphany — C

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 4:21-30

Think of a time when you were disappointed . . . What were the expectations you had that weren’t met? What did someone do (or not do) that you expected them to do?

Now think of a time when you disappointed someone else . . . What expectations did someone have of you that you didn’t meet? Was it that you chose not to meet those expectations, forgot them, or you simply weren’t able to?

This is what’s happening in the synagogue in Nazareth. Those gathered have expectations of Jesus. They’ve heard about the signs and miracles Jesus had been doing in Capernaum, and were expecting him to do the same here. If not more. After all, we are Jesus’ hometown. He should have loyalty to his own. We should be his priority.

Jesus disappointed the people in Nazareth. He didn’t do the signs and wonders they expected. And so they became frustrated and angry. Why those in Capernaum and not us? Why strangers and not the faithful family and friends? Why outsiders and not insiders?

And in their frustration and disappointment and anger, they want to throw him over a cliff. They try to do it, but Jesus passes right through the midst of them and goes on his way.

A related question: when have you been disappointed by Jesus? When have you been frustrated or angry with him?

We know something about God, right? Those of us who are part of the church study, pray, learn, worship, and trust God, right? With all of what we know about God, we have come to expect God to do certain things. What is it that you expect from God? Stop wars; feed starving children; prevent violent attacks on schools; establish morality; bring prayer back into schools; heal our illnesses; get us jobs; find us more money; fill our churches. What is it that you expect from God?

When those things don’t happen the way we expect, of course we are disappointed. The deeper the expectations, the deeper the frustration. We get discouraged in those situations that are beyond our control, where we’re helpless, where we need God to intervene and God doesn’t seem to be helping. Sometimes we get angry and don’t know exactly who or what to blame.

And in our anger and frustration over our unmet expectations, we look for something or someone to throw over a cliff. Someone who we can be angry at. Someone who we can pile our frustrations on. So we find scapegoats and blame them: the poor (calling them lazy). We blame the immigrants (calling them illegal). We blame the Muslims (calling them terrorists). We blame the young (calling them disrespectful). We blame the seniors (calling them out of touch). We blame gays and lesbians (calling them perverts). We blame unbelievers (calling them condemned).

And as we’re venting and blaming, holding on to our prejudices as some kind of security, Jesus passes right through our disappointment, our anger, our frustration, our fear, our unmet expectations. He does so in order to bring peace, comfort, hope, and forgiveness. To everyone. To those in Nazareth and also in Capernaum. To us. And also to the immoral, the unbelieving, the sick, the unemployed, the poor, the undocumented, the Sunday morning sleepers.

Sometimes that’s frustrating. Look at us; we took the time to come to church today! A lot of us believe in Jesus, trust that we are forgiven in him, put money in the offering plate, pray and read the Bible! Of course we expect something for all that. Shouldn’t there be some kind of special privilege for devotion, belief, discipleship? And come to find out we don’t get anything the rest of the undeserving, unbelieving world doesn’t get. Of course we get frustrated.

And it gets worse. Not only does God stand with those who don’t believe, don’t work, don’t have documentation, don’t pray, don’t deserve our help—those outsiders from Capernaum—but God calls us to stand with them too. That’s what baptism actually is, a call by God to stand where God stands, go where God goes, be part of what God is doing—whether that’s disappointing or not. Whether it meets our expectations or not.

If we’re part of the church to have our own needs and expectations met, we’re going to be disappointed. Because Jesus’ mission isn’t about our expectations. It’s about bringing good news, releasing captives, forgiving those who don’t deserve it, setting free those in bondage. He brings it to everyone. In Capernaum and in Nazareth. Gentile and Jew. Christian and Muslim. Gay and straight. Poor and rich. Devout and apathetic. English speaking and non-English speaking.

He even brings it to you.

Jesus will pass right through our unmet expectations in order to bring to all what we actually need: forgiveness, hope, a new chance, a new beginning, a new life. Jesus brings the reign of God. Whether we want it or not. Whether we expect it or not. And, to tell you the truth, that’s good news

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Posted by on February 13, 2013 in Sermon


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Shiny Jesus Comes Down the Mountain

Exodus 34:29-35; Like 9:28-43a

Chapter 9 begins with Jesus giving authority to his disciples and sending them out to heal, cast out, and proclaim reign of God. And they have been.

But at the end of this text, they fail—one time. Not because they don’t care, not because they are lazy, not because they have any excuses. They really try to be faithful and cast out the demon in this boy. But they simply cannot do it. They want to, they try to, they give their best effort—it’s just not enough. They fail.

All the while, Jesus is nowhere around. He’s up on the mountaintop with the important people: Moses, Elijah, and, of course, his favorite disciples, Peter, James, and John. Jesus is removed from these lowly working disciples by distance but also by holiness. The Father is booming complements from the clouds, Moses and Elijah (the two biggest figures in Jewish history) are chatting with him, and Peter’s trying to build some condos up there so they can stay away even longer.

In the meantime, the other disciples are down in the real world, working away on Jesus’ behalf, trying to be faithful, trying to do the right thing. All alone. No Jesus around. He’s up the mountain being all shiny.

What do they get for their efforts and their faithfulness? Mean, condemning Jesus, losing patience with them for trying their best to heal this boy. “Faithless and perverse”? How long do I have to put up with you? Wow, thanks a lot, Jesus.

Ever been there? Have you ever been judged, condemned, criticized when you’re only trying to do the right thing? Sometimes, regardless of our best efforts, something doesn’t work out, we make a mistake, we blow it. And the last thing we need is someone—especially Jesus—rubbing it in, making us feel worse. C’mon, these disciples are trying their best! At least give them some kudos for that!

If there’s one thing we all have in common as human beings is that at one time or another, we all feel like failures. Although we rarely show it to anyone, we all feel incompetent and insecure. We all feel like we’re in over our heads and are nothing but big screw-ups. It doesn’t help if Jesus tells us he feels that way about us too. We already know that, Jesus. We really don’t need you piling on and making it public.

So here’s what we often end up doing: nothing. Instead of taking a risk and possibly failing—humiliating ourselves in the process, we choose to stay unnoticed and quiet. We don’t take the risk of messing up, of making a mistake. Instead, we do nothing.

Surely Jesus can’t criticize us now! After all, no mistake, no blame, right? If we don’t get involved, if we keep our mouths shut, if we ignore the problems and evils around us, can’t make it worse. There won’t be any more starving children if we don’t feed them. There won’t be any more wars if we don’t speak out against them. There won’t be any more people in poverty if we don’t give away more money.

And what do you think Jesus’ response to that is going to be? “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”

So we can try, sometimes fail, and get rebuked. Or we can make fewer mistakes—which usually means doing less—and still get rebuked. And all the while, shiny Jesus is far away, up a mountain, hanging out with his favorites, leaving us to do all his work. Then criticizing us when we don’t do it well enough. It’s like we can’t win. We can’t measure up to shiny Jesus, but we’re expected to.

Here’s where our Lutheran theology absolutely shines! We talk in this church about being 100% broken, immersed in sinfulness, tainted in every aspect of who we are. Nothing we do can every really be completely free from brokenness because we, ourselves, are completely broken. Jesus understands that, and is simply stating the obvious. We are broken people. We are faithless and perverse. He does have to bear with us and put up with us. It’s not condemnation, it’s reality. Jesus is honest about that. Can we?

But that’s not the whole picture. Our beautiful Lutheran theology keeps going. We also understand that in Christ we are also 100% holy, immersed in faithfulness, cleansed in every aspect of who we are. Everything we do has elements of beauty and goodness, because in Christ we, ourselves, are made beautiful and good.

Both at the same time. Sinner and saint. Broken and holy. Not 50/50; not sometimes one and sometimes the other. But both at the same time, all the time. In the midst of our brokenness we are made whole. In the midst of our sinfulness we are forgiven. In the midst of our faithlessness we are made faithful. In the midst of our perversity we are made holy.

The Jesus who points out the obvious regarding the disciples’ brokenness is the same Jesus who was sent by the Father to bring you wholeness. The Jesus who casts evil from the boy is the same Jesus who does so for you. The Jesus who goes up the mountain in glory is the same Jesus who comes down to be with you. Both at the same time. All the time.

So, yes, we admit we are helpless. We admit we aren’t good enough. We recognize that the world isn’t always a better place because of our efforts. We know we fail. And Jesus knows it too. Obviously, if you read this text. That’s why he has come to you. To make you new. To heal you, to forgive you, to shower you in grace and mercy. To immerse you in love. To make you whole.

The Transfigured Jesus can do it. That’s why he’s shiny. That’s why Moses and Elijah are there. That’s why the Father booms from the cloud that this is the Son, the Beloved. We can listen to him: that we are broken, yes; but that we are also made new. That’s what shiny Jesus does. He comes down the mountain to you.

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Posted by on February 13, 2013 in Sermon


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