EPIPHANY 3 C 2016 January 24, 2016

January 24, 2016  

A scroll was found. Nehemiah had been cup bearer to the king of Persia. That meant he was trusted, a key member of the king’s inner circle, one who both served food and tasted food to be sure it was safe. He was Jewish in this Persian court, and he heard that the refugees who had gone home to Israel from Babylonia, newly conquered by Persia, were in some tough straits back in Jerusalem. Rebuilding the Temple had hit some snags. The laws of purity that had been pronounced by Ezra the priest were not all being followed. So Nehemiah, in a wonderful turn of events, became the governor, sent by the king of Persia we know today as Ataxerxes. He was sent with money and power, money to rebuild walls and the Temple, power to rebuild a country that had been torn apart by war a hundred years earlier.
And in the course of the renovation of the Temple, an ancient scroll of Moses was discovered. Nehemiah had Ezra call the people together. It was a day of great feasting, a day to celebrate their renewed history and their God. They gathered to listen, to be attentive to God’s word. Their time in Babylonia had been tough for their religious faith, in part because they did not have their ancient texts with them. They had to rely on their collective memories, and they had teachers and leaders start to write down everything they remembered and they had been taught. The exile was a key time in putting down on paper the books we now call the Old Testament, but here was the real deal. They were home from exile, and had found an ancient text. They had an old scroll to read, and it took them closer to their God and their ancestors in the faith. They prayed, they praised, they bowed with faces to ground, for these words were God’s words, holy words. The words were given interpretation, sermons and teaching happened, and they delighted in this new day. I am guessing that these sermons were a lot longer than 15 minutes. This was an all-day event, with feasting to accompany the preaching. That’s exactly how we do it here, right?
What happens when a sermon is preached? I hope you know it is not an essay. It is an activity in which the Holy Spirit takes the pastor on a journey into God’s word, and then the same Spirit invites the hearer into a journey with that same Word of God. The message is not necessarily meant to make people’s lives easier. If God is directing our lives, it might in fact lead our lives into more difficulty. God wants to move us and shape us, and that is not always easy. As we move from the joy of receiving this word and sermon in this our first lesson, we find that out in today’s Gospel.
Some centuries later, Jesus was out and about, beginning ministry in Galilee, and today’s Gospel is about his first sermon. He had been doing enough great stuff that apparently the town folk wanted to put a sign up out where the highway met the outskirts of town: Nazareth, hometown of Jesus. Somehow, before all this, Nazareth had become a bit of joke. Some people would laugh when they would say it: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Some of his disciples even said that when they were being invited to come see Him and follow Him. I don’t know what prompted that, but perhaps Nazareth was the butt of a joke, just as Peoria or Cleveland or New Jersey get put into punch lines today. We have places that get their good name tarnished by what has happened there: Chernobyl, Waco, Sandy Hook. Some tough things have happened there, and their names bring up the memories. We don’t know what had gone on in Nazareth, but on this day, the locals were hoping their city pride would come back. Jesus was coming back home, along with the crowds.
So they pulled out the scroll in church. They wanted God’s word read. They were ready to hear a sermon. The descendents of those who had gathered in Jerusalem with Nehemiah wanted God’s Word to come into their lives. They were there to listen.
Jesus read the words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of Lord’s favor.” These are powerful words, wonderful words, words of hope and a new day. Jesus rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and the sermon began. People were ready. Their boy was about to speak. No one in all of Galilee was drawing crowds like the one who had been taught right here in this local synagogue. No one was drawing attention more than this one who had worshipped Sabbath after Sabbath in this very place. “Today these words are fulfilled in your hearing”, he said. And whatever else he began to say, they loved it. Isn’t this Joseph’s son, they said to one another. You could see the nods and the beaming faces.
But Jesus wasn’t theirs to own. He wasn’t there for civic pride. He was there to challenge them and change their world. He was there to say, in essence, that God’s word couldn’t be confined locally. It wasn’t about local pride at all. All the lost needed finding, wherever they were. God’s work wasn’t just about healing people here in the hometown, and setting people on a new course here. God’s cosmic work was starting. A new day was coming to the world. In order to be good news to the poor, he would have to speak to the rich about some needed changes in life style and economics. In order to be savior for the sick and the blind, he would need to leave the safe streets of the healthy and head toward the lepers. In order to be a friend to sinners, he would need to speak harshly to those who thought they were living righteously and the whole world should be copying how they kept the spiritual rules.
Only by going down the road to Jerusalem would he be able to save Nazareth and every other town. God would not be some local deity enshrined in Nazareth. God’s saving power was bigger than one town could hold. In order to show God’s love for Israel, Jesus would go to Lebanon and the Roman Decapolis and Tyre and Sidon, ancient Phoenician cities.
When Jesus began to talk about this, the people of Nazareth got enraged. He told them that there were lots of poor widows right there in Israel during a great famine during the time of the great prophet Elijah, but the one Biblical story was that the prophet fed a widow up in Lebanon. There were lots of people sick and needing to be healed during the days of the prophet Elisha, but the one story mentioned in the Bible was that the enemy Syrian general named Naaman got healed of his leprosy. God had come time and time again throughout their history, but not they way they expected. God had come, and shown God’s heart to be working the wrong side of the street. That was a blow to the sensibilities of the hometown folk. The sermon didn’t build their egos up at all. Can anything good ever come out of Nazareth? you ask. Well, the good one was driven out of town, and they formed a lynch mob, and they tried to throw him over a cliff. That is, until something happened, the crowd parted, and Jesus went on His way to the world God sent Him to save.
The mercy of God keeps getting people upset. We want God to bless us, to tell us how good we are, how special we and our town are, how wonderful our local institutions are, how incredible our local traditions and civic pride are. When Jesus came to his hometown and began to preach, that world was in jeopardy. God’s mercy was too big, too wide, and too much. The day of the Lord, that vision of Isaiah of a new world, and the very One sent by God to bring that new world, just didn’t fit into the old world. And some how, the locals knew how dangerous Jesus was to their status quo. They somehow knew that if God’s vision was about to unfold, everything would change, and they tried to kill the very one who had gone to synagogue school and Bar Mitzvah classes right there.
The story that the angels sang about outside Bethlehem, the story of good news and peace to all, was meant for the whole world. God keeps widening the circle, from Bethlehem to Nazareth to the ends of the earth. We want to be told how special we are, and God tells us that God has a heart for the whole world. We want our little place in the world blessed, and Jesus tells us that only when the whole world is blessed will we be blessed. We know what we want to hear, and Jesus tells us what God wants us to hear.
The acceptable year of the Lord has started, right now and right here, Jesus was saying. He was announcing that God’s time had arrived. But what is acceptable to God is far bigger than what we want or we think is the acceptable thing for God to do for us.
So somehow, by the power of God’s Holy Spirit in these words, may the vision of God begin to replace our own. May God’s acceptable time come to this our town. May the reign of God begin. May we not be upset or afraid, but bow to the ground with praise.

EPIPHANY 2 C 2016 January 17, 2016

January 17, 2016  

Here’s the setting. It was a party. There was an open bar. The wedding ceremony was done. People had started eating. They had only gotten through the food line four or five times. The party was just into its second or third day. After walking 10 or 11 miles, people stayed with their friends and made a week of it. “When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him ‘they have no wine’”. That’s the verse that got me thinking. That’s the verse that invites you and me into the story.
The mother of Jesus is mentioned many times in the other Gospels. For instance, in Luke’s Gospel there are 12 references to her. In John’s Gospel, there are only 2 mentions of her, and never by name. You never hear the name Mary, only “the mother of Jesus”. This wedding at Cana is the first time John talks about her. The second and last time is at the foot of the cross three years later.
John has told us that Jesus is the light shining in the darkness. And now John begins to tell the story of the light coming to people. It’s a great metaphor, of course, because for us, ‘being in the dark’ also means not knowing or not understanding. That clearly is the way people are described in John’s Gospel. Those who receive Jesus’ appearances and actions are really like people who have been working in the dark, and now the door cracks open and a little light comes into the room, helping to make sense of the surroundings and what is going on. The people never really quite figure Jesus out, who he is or why he is here. But they get glimpses, and this episode in Cana is one of them.
Throughout the other Gospel accounts, Jesus performs many miracles. They come one after the other. People are amazed. People follow him. People want more. In John’s Gospel, there are only 7 miracles, and each of them is referred by John as a sign.
This changing of water into wine, we are told in this passage, was the first of the signs that Jesus did.
You know what signs do. They point us to what lies head, they invite us to stop, they urge us to leave our drive, our route, the highway and go enter into another experience, the experience on the sign. Who doesn’t look for Culver’s signs? Or campground signs? Or signs to get to stadiums or parks or special attractions or the Oktoberfest grounds?
Jesus’ signs are an invitation to change our route and experience something new.
When we hear a miracle story like this, the appearance of a sign such as 175 gallons of water being turned into 875 fifths of very fine wine, it’s easy to think of what it must have been to be an onlooker right there. We wonder what it would have been like to be in line for some more wine, only to be told that they were out. Please remember that water in those days was often less safe to drink than the result of fermentation on grapes. Wine was the safe drink, often the preferred drink, even for younger folk. To be out of wine was not only to leave people at the counter without a drink. It was to leave them without something essential and safe, on this second or third day of the party that went on for some days, as the two families united in this marriage took time to enjoy the beginning of a new home and new family in their midst.
This is a story about God walking the earth giving the folk at a big and important gathering exactly what they needed, and with unbelievable generosity. But first, there was Mary. This wouldn’t have happened without Mary.
Where did she get the courage to take her son away from the party? What do you think Jesus was doing, anyway? I am just going to throw it out there. I think he was dancing. I think he was having fun. I think he was enjoying conversation; all of the above. I think he had drunk his share of wine. I invite you to accept Jesus as fully human God. And his mom came right up to him, nudged him hard, and said “they are out of wine”. And you know what that means, of course. It means, just like when your mom tells you there is a problem, that you know you are expected to do something to fix the problem. Or, as my mom would simply say, Get busy. Son, get busy. There is something wrong that needs fixing, and you can fix it. Get busy.
Where did that faith come from? Mary is the first one in this whole Gospel story to ask Jesus to do something. And I think it comes from somewhere, not out of nowhere. I think it comes from her knowledge that Jesus could really solve the problem of the day.
This is the season of Epiphany, the time when God’s light shines into our world. It is a time of revelation, of stories of people meeting Jesus and then being given the opportunity to receive something new. And when that something new comes to them, they then have to figure out what God’s sign means.
John had been ramping up the story. First there was darkness, chapter one, but the Word that was in the beginning before creation came into this world, light shining in darkness. Then Jesus shows up with the masses getting baptized by John in the River Jordan, but unlike everyone else, he gets a voice from the heavens saying he is the beloved of God, and a dove landing on him. Then he goes out and calls disciples, even letting them know that he saw them before they ever could see him. He amazed them with what he already knew about them.
Then comes chapter two, this story. And right after this event, Jesus is down in Jerusalem at the temple, throwing the money changers out of his father’s house.
Mary is the first one to ask Jesus to do anything. And I want to suggest that if you want to find yourself in this story, rather than thinking about what it might mean to be at the bar when you are told that the tap has run out, think about what it might mean if we were to be like Mary, and invite God to act.
Earth to Jesus, we have a problem. We know you can solve it. Please start now.
We have people who don’t have anything safe to drink. We have people stranded and their party has ended. We have people excited about new beginnings but their worlds are turning sour. Jesus, do something now.
But that’s not all, dear friends. There is one more line. Mary says to Jesus “they have no wine”, stating clearly the problem and expecting Jesus to be the answer, and then she says one more thing. Looking at the bar tender, she says “Do whatever He tells you”. Isn’t that great? Do whatever he tells you.
Earth to Jesus: We have a problem. We are waiting for you to fix it.
Earth to every bar tender, earth to host, earth to every person who thinks they are in charge: do whatever Jesus tells you to do.
You know the rest. Jesus has them fill six large empty jars with water, asks them to bring the water to the host of the event, and in that short time, the water is poured out having become the very best wine. The water, now wine, is poured out as the unbelievably generous answer, God’s sign.
But there is one more verse, and it is not in the text. It is John’s next verse. Listen now: “After this Jesus went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples, and they remained there a few days”. The family stayed together, and they had more things to talk about than ever before. Imagine those conversations!
Which is what this family will do, this family of Jesus right here, when we nudge one another with our problems, tell Jesus that we are waiting for Jesus to act, and then we look one another in the eye and say, like Mary did: “Do whatever Jesus tells you to do.”
And those on whom the light has shined will see the signs, God at work, right here, and ask, with an open heart: God, will you pour me another drink?

BAPTISM OF OUR LORD C 2016 January 10, 2016

January 10, 2016  

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine.” Those words from our First Lesson, a passage from Isaiah when the people of Israel were trying to find their way in faith while living in the foreign land of Babylonia, are a wonderful way to think about Baptism. I have called you by name, you are mine, says our creator God to us.
We hear those words again in that incredible ending to the baptism story when Jesus entered the Jordan after the masses were baptized: You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”. We long to hear those words from anyone. We long for anyone to call us their beloved. To hear them from God is a real gift, a blessing, a thrill.
The Israelites experience had been devastating. They had watched their Temple get sacked, the sacred vessels and candelabra and bowls all carried off as booty in war. They had watched the building of their most sacred worship be destroyed, so that worship and sacrifice and thanksgiving could no longer happen there. They had watched as their royal family was forced to walk the walk of shame and humiliation, captives of their enemy. They had joined in the march, those to whom Isaiah spoke, and they had left ancient towns and homes and farms and just started all over again in a new place.
Which, in some way, must be what the Syrian refugees are feeling, as doctors and pharmacists and engineers and merchants and librarians and school teachers and people with jobs and homes like ours start walking, thousands of miles, to Germany or wherever they can begin life anew. It must be what refugees feel as they huddle on a rocky shore and get into a large inflatable with a small outboard engine and chance the rough winter seas, just they can get out in wet and cold surf on a foreign shore and be claimed by the nation their feet touch. All their life is now reduced to what they can carry on their backs and in their arms, and their families, no matter how young or old, are on this journey with them. The Israelites had been those same refugees that we see on TV so often right now.
And there was the voice of God, saying “ You are mine. I have called you by name. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you pass through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” God’s claim on us is inseparable from our identity, says the God of Isaiah and the Israelites. God’s claim on us in inseparable from our identity, says the God of our baptism. You are mine.
Baptism is the age old ritual of the church, a sacrament where physical and godly stuff meet, and it acts out, symbolizes and creates God’s claim on us. And here is what God’s claim is: we will be part of God’s new world. We will part of God’s new identity for us. We will be part of a kingdom of peace and justice no matter where we live, whether it is a new home in Babylonia or a refugee camp in Germany or a home somewhere along the Mississippi River. We are claimed by God for God’s glory, wherever life’s good or bad scenes take us.
God’s claim on us is more radical than any other claim on us, more radical than the claim to be a Vikings or a Packer follower, more radical than the claim to be a Republican or a Democrat, more radical than the claim to be a Wisconsinite or Minnesotan or Iowan, more radical than a claim to be American or Mexican or Syrian.
It is more radical because quite simply our identity is inseparable from our relationship to God. Please, dear friends, by God’s Holy Spirit reminders, live in that new story every single day.
Every relationship I am in makes some kind of claims on me. My wife makes claims on me, my children make claims on me, my grandchildren make claims on my, you my church family make claims on me as your shepherd, just because our relationships with each other demand attention, care and love. It was two weeks before Christmas, and my youngest called me and said “Daddy, I know it is your busy time, but would you help me move into my condo?” She had me at “Daddy”. So on Dec. 21st I was done in Madison schlepping her boxes. Every relationship shapes my identity, expects me to be available and connected, and our relationship through baptism with the God of our birth is no different. God lays claims on me.
God asks me to be part of movement, a new day, a movement that speaks to captives of all kinds and promises a new world. God’s new movement asks me to keep all my other connections that define my life in the background. Which is to say, my family and my tribe and my nation and my party and my team are always trying to define me and take my full attention. God knows that. God wants to change that. God wants our new identity and our new relationship to be the most powerful connection we have.
God asks me to be part of a movement that will dramatically change our world. In this new world of God’s making, people from east and west and north and south are brought together, and God calls them all as God’s sons and daughters. That is how our First Lesson ends. It must have shocked the Israelites to hear God not only say that God called them by name and would take them through the waters and the fire, but that God would also welcome all others called by God’s name. Everyone wants to be someone’s favorite. The Israelites wanted to be God’s favorite, and that walk into captivity shook their sense of destiny and special calling to the core. God’s answer was to remind them that God would not forget any people of God’s choosing, but God’s choosing was bigger than they thought.
We are called by name, baptized as God’s beloved children, to a new identity that is given by God. We called by name, baptized as God’s beloved children, to join Jesus in a baptism of Holy Spirit and fire. This baptism burns that which is fake and unnecessary. This baptism destroys that which is artificial and flimsy, including so-called spirituality which is really just another set of wishful thinking about ourselves. It replaces our own living and our quests and our own goals with God’s hopes and dreams and goals for creation. God wants to make all things new, and that started long before Jesus walked into the Jordan.
But on the day Jesus walked into that water and joined the masses getting baptized, God started a new mission of pulling the world into that water, which means pulling us into the mission that brought Jesus to this earth. Baptism is our new identity, a new calling, a new beginning, a new and radical relationship with the God who calls us by name and walks with us through every fire, every water, every struggle, every disaster, every wall that other people and this world put up to thwart God’s mission.
We are connected by baptism into this new community, a community of faith in which God will accomplish exactly what God promises to do. Today we thank God for calling us by name to this new adventure.

CHRISTMAS 2 C 2016 January 3, 2016

January 3, 2016  


“In the beginning…” That’s the way the Bible starts, that incredible first sentence from Genesis. Say it with me: “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”.
“In the beginning…” That’s the way the Gospel of John starts, the story of Jesus among us. Say this with me: “in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him.”
In the beginning… that’s a good way to start talking at the beginning of 2016. How has your year been so far? What are we going to look back upon for the beginning of January when we get to next December? Is there any exciting news out there? Any proposals? Any diamond rings? Any baby announcements? Any graduations? Any new jobs? Any retirements? Any new addresses or homes? Any new relationships?
When John begins to tell the story of Jesus, he reaches way back in time to tell us that earth isn’t the beginning. God was there before earth. That’s a mind blowing thought. This is big language, with big thought-provoking words. Yet it is true, isn’t it, that it is the vastness of creation that often makes us think about God.
We look into the heavens on a clear night and see more stars than we can count. We drive into mountains and see vast distances and we begin to sense how beautiful and wonderful and huge this world is, yet the sky shows us untold worlds beyond us. We stand at the edge of the ocean and cannot imagine the depth or width of the seas. We stand below a redwood growing so tall and straight and we feel small and young in comparison. It is the vastness of this earthly enterprise that leads us to be hushed and sense we are in the presence of something greater.
So John tells us that the One who was there when all this began has come into our world. The One who was there at the creation of vastness and wideness and greatness has come into our world. That’s the meaning of our celebration in this Christmas time of beginnings. The One who began all this has stepped into our world, and it was as if he was so ordinary that we didn’t even know He was here.
We hear about movie stars not putting on make-up or wearing fancy clothes going out and walking the streets. We hear about Aaron Rodgers and Olivia Munn going to Festival grocery shopping like everyone else in the Green Bay area. We hear about Nobel Prize winners going unrecognized. But this is the One who set creation in motion. You would think we would know Him. The world didn’t recognize him.
Not only did we not recognize him – when he was pointed out, the world chose not to believe in him. It was as if it was too much too believe, when He began to say that He was the bread of life, and he was the way and the truth and the life, and that He was the vine and we are the branches. The world decided to silence this one who tried to turn our minds toward heavenly reality, when all we wanted was something easy to understand.
He was in the world, and the world knew him not.
But some received him. And those who received him, who believed in his name, He gave the power to become the children of God. This was not of blood, meaning children of God don’t inherit this gift or get it genetically. This was not by the will of the flesh, meaning not by our own work or effort or striving or just plain hard work. Nor was this the will of the mind, by our best thinking, our most brilliant deductions, our most analytical theories or our most amazing philosophies. It was a gift.
And then, here comes the most wonderful phrase to start out our new year: From his fullness we are given grace upon grace. Let’s stop for that one.
It’s a hard Greek phrase to clearly translate into English, this grace upon grace phrase. It could be translated grace from grace, or grace for grace, but I like grace upon grace because it reminds me of the piles of presents under the Christmas tree, all stacked there. There is more than one for each one of us. There is a bunch. And grace and gift are essentially the same Greek word.
Or maybe it reminds us of the best Christmas meal we have ever had, or the best feast we have attended, or the best buffet we have ever experienced, with our plates and trays loaded down.
God has a bunch of grace upon grace stacked for us. That is what we will find out as John’s story of Jesus unfolds. That is what we will find out as we explore this year together, looking for the presence of God in our midst.
We will find so many things piled up as grace upon grace for us:
God stacks up wine, so that a wedding joyfully continues
God piles up bread, so that 5000 people get fed
God stacks up forgiveness, so that 70 times 7 doesn’t even begin to count the number of times God gives us a new start
God piles up patience, as followers misunderstand what He is saying over and over again, yet He continues to teach us and explain God’s goodness to us
God piles up resurrection life, so that a son is reunited from the dead with his mother and Lazarus rejoins his sisters and a little girl is awakened from her deathly sleep and Jesus will tell us that He is our resurrection and our life
God stacks up an inheritance for us, as our wonderful words of praise from today’s Second Lesson reminds us, a gift to God’s family beyond any value we could ever imagine
Gift upon gift, grace upon grace, a stack of God’s gifts are given just for us. What a wonderful thought that is as Christmas continues and rolls into this new year. Grace upon grace, more beauty, more vastness, more sunsets, more new beginnings, more love, more life – things we can scarcely comprehend, God brings them through the Word made flesh and dwelling among us.
May we be among those who receive Him, who believe in his name, and live as children of the One who created the vastness of life for us all.
We come now to feast on the goodness of the Lord, grace upon grace given for us.


December 25, 2015  


Homiletics is a word that literally means “lessons to the people”, which is the fancy word for preaching. I am indebted to Professor Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary, homiletics professor there, for some of the inspiration for this morning’s meditation.
It is a meditation that I am sharing, not a full-blown sermon, because quite frankly, through the spoken words that have come down to us through the centuries as our Holy Scripture, and especially those heard here this morning, and through the songs that have sung by millions of participants in Christmas worship, we have enough to ponder. Word and song are meant this day to wrap us in the story, bring Jesus to our hearts, and fill us with wonder and awe and thanks.
Most preachers, in fact, find preaching at Christmas one of our hardest jobs. Most people have heard these stories so many times that they think they know them. What can we add? And Christmas itself is so wrapped up in the rituals of family and community that we scarcely want to tamper with these deeply emotional things. We have days full of festive activities and good cheer. What else do we need? Why not just be quiet right now?
One reason to speak, to proclaim a message this day, is that we have people in these various Christmas stories from Matthew and Luke and John’s Gospels who are not normally known for their public speaking but they do it anyway. There is Mary, who sings her song of faith and inspires us to bear witness to the surprising choices of God. There are shepherds who would most likely rather talk to their sheep and goats, giving them words of comfort and being their guide, than go out in public to talk. But they do it gladly and joyfully after seeing the words of the angel come true in the flesh of the baby before them. The words and the songs and the stories and the people in them invite each us to give testimony, a loud and vocal and boisterous witness, to the Jesus who is God among us. So I want to testify, and God wants to inspire you to testify, that God has come right here to us and rocked our world.
Another reason to speak out is that we still have a deep need for all these promises. To hear Micah speak from the 700’s B.C. about the promised one who will stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord is to hear a promise we still cling to when we are hungry for either food or good news, food for our lives, food for our souls. To hear Micah’s promise of God’s day when we will live secure because the One of God will be called great to the ends of the earth still gives us hope, even when there are other religions and ideologies right now who are upsetting the peace, including, we must be honest, some who call themselves Christian.
To know that the God of creation, the God who made the sun and the moon, day and night, is still bringing us light, is a promise that visits and claims us each day. We should never take God’s goodness and gifts for granted. We should never take the light of Christ for granted. And to know that God’s light has shone among us, and that darkness cannot extinguish God’s light in this Word of creation made flesh among us is a promise to bless our every day.
To hear the angel say to Mary “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you” is to live in the hope that God will greet us this day with God’s goodness and favor. And to be honest, our life situation probably changes every year Christmas comes to us. Some years we are at peace, other years we are troubled. Some years our family is intact, in other years we have had separation or death. Some years we have financial security, other years we have insecurity. We need all these Christmas promises every year, and our very needs should open our ears to old words that are made new each year.
Why preach at all? Perhaps this year I am preaching because the world needs to be a different kind of place. Peace and justice are a constant and basic human need. We have white on black violence, inherent racism which comes out way too easily, and our own struggles to acknowledge that black lives matter. We have way too many gun deaths. We lose more people to gun violence than any losses our military has ever faced. We have refugees in detention centers down south, people who fled Central America, mostly women and children, to get away from gangs and violence. They have requested asylum, and the UN says there is a process every nation must follow to grant such asylum. Our nation is not following those guidelines. We put these frightened people, most of whom are not here even as much for work as for safety, into detention centers that are simply privately run prisons. The public is not allowed to visit them. We cannot help them, no matter how hard we want to try. And they are held while becoming part of a grinding process. Hundreds of thousands are transported back, only to face death again, or start the whole journey all over.
We have a widening gap between rich and poor. Education which is usually the best way out of poverty for so many is becoming more difficult to finance, and more and more adults are saddled with huge loans. The list goes on. We are proclaiming that the promises of the prophets and the words of the new day we celebrate on Christmas give us the reason to work with God for God’s new day. With wonder and joy and expectation we have come to the manger, and with joy and energy we leave the manger, eager to tell the world that God has acted. And God will continue to act. And we will tell this story and live in this story so that God’s new day might come soon.
The Christmas miracle to ponder, to proclaim, to sing, is that our great God has become a humble and little God, powerless among us, a baby, so that God’s power might dwell in the middle of al that it means to be human. And God among us, Immanuel, flesh among our flesh, has come to make a difference. Earth will be different. Our lives will be different.
And that is worth proclaiming on any day. That good news will never get old.
Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

CHRISTMAS EVE December 24, 2015

December 24, 2015  


There are three accounts of the birth of Jesus in the Bible, three perspectives, wrapping us into this story with three different emphases. Matthew, the first book in the New Testament, is written from the viewpoint of men, people in power, persons used to being in control, men behaving well, men behaving poorly. We are told how appropriate Joseph is, being of a royal lineage that goes back through King David all the way to Abraham. He may be a fairly common man, not a prestigious man, but he has a great pedigree. Then we are told that he holds the power to save Mary or not when he is told she is pregnant, and he decides not to press charges but to divorce her quietly. That makes him a good man, using his power that way. There are wise men in Matthew’s story. There are multiple visits by angels, both to Joseph and also to the wise men, because for Matthew it was important that the very messengers of God are keeping all the events in God’s control, from finding out about the pregnancy to discovering the birthplace in Bethlehem. Men are the key actors, and God is guiding everything very closely, including getting the wise men to detour home by another route because Herod’s curiosity was going to be deadly. The Christmas story according to Matthew also has the bad guys, men who use power selfishly. There is Herod who is enraged, and the soldiers who come after the boy babies and cause the Holy Family to flee to Egypt. In Matthew, God comes into a tumultuous world where safety and harm mix, not unlike today. There are terrorists in Matthew’s story.
John’s Gospel tells us a grand and cosmic story about the arrival of God among us. God who is from before time comes to earth. That which is hidden and incomprehensible becomes revealed. This story is our reading as we hold our candles tonight. The words about the arrival of the Word made flesh among us are really words of faith, a kind of early creed. I believe, we say together in the Apostle’s Creed, I believe in God the Father, creator of heaven and earth; I believe in his only Son, Jesus Christ, conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. We believe, but belief is not easy. In the words of John, we are told that we have beheld God’s glory, but we have not welcomed God. We have chosen to live in darkness, but it is God’s promise and word that the darkness will not overcome us. The light comes into the world, and the light casts out the darkness. And to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gives the power to become the children of God. John’s Gospel is about the constant struggle between belief and unbelief. God moves from the creation of the world to a new work, the Christmas work, which is to create a new and lasting relationship with us. God wants us to believe, and have a living relationship with the Word made flesh. His arrival among us is God’s great effort at saving us all.
Luke’s Gospel, that familiar story that begins “in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled” is a story of the underdog, those on the outskirts of life, being visited by God. God is declaring a new standard of power, and it bears no resemblance to that of Caesar Augustus. It is anything but imperial. This reign of God includes what? – A manger, not a throne; a fragile infant, not a mighty king; some shepherds who are not unlike migrant workers, perhaps, rather than society folk used to being invited to royal functions. God, we are told in this precious story from Luke, is revealed among us in weakness. God’s reign spills over to the hidden, to the neglected, to the most modest and humble of places. In God’s world, being connected to the right people in the right places doesn’t matter. God connects with people who have no other connections. God is laid in a manger and wrapped in the clothes of the poorest, swaddling clothes.
God is declaring a new standard for power. God is giving good news to the fragile, to the homeless, to anyone hovering between death and life. God comes, having no home, no roof, no real bed, no Oshkosh B’gosh or Carter’s or Nike goods to wear, and the onlookers are shepherds who come in the middle of the night. This is how Luke tells us this incredible story. And Mary watches, and ponders all these things in her heart. Mary is the one who invites us to sit with her, watch all the goings on, and ask ourselves, what does the mean? What is God up to? What will happen to this child, anyway?
In the first chapter of Luke, we are given the story of the Annunciation. This announcement from the mouth of God through the angel Gabriel to Mary that she is the chosen one to bear Jesus brings forth Mary’s great song. She sings about a God who lifts up the lowly and scatters the proud, a God who looks with favor on God’s lowly servant and gives mercy from generation to generation. On this night we call Christmas, all this has come true. And God is indeed using the humble and the lowly and poor, filling them with good things, just as she sang.
God switches everything about royalty all around. Normally when a king is born, there would be town criers and royal announcements giving the title. The court, the king or the queen, would announce how proud they are, and then give the baby his royal titles. We hear no such thing tonight. But there is an invitation, an invite from the heavens, out of the mouths of angels, to give glory to God, for peace has come to all the earth, and for the shepherds to come and see what had been talked about for many, many years. Tonight is the night – don’t miss it. And those who never got seats to any event are given a chance to come face to face, in front row seats, to witness the arrival of this little baby.
The outcasts, the shepherds, become the town criers. And who would believe what the story they told that night, and the next day. Angels? A sky full? Favored and blessed people, the shepherds? And the hope of all the prophets, right there, without a home, laying on some hay or straw in a manger? And a couple from up north, not from around here, giving birth, and who knows if they are married? Perhaps that is the very reason why the innkeeper didn’t find room. They were a scandal.
This is God’s good news for us to hear tonight. God’s power is revealed in weakness. God’s reign over this world, the world of God’s incredible creation, spills over the boundaries that people put up. God reaches into the margins.
For all who come this night feeling lonely, feeling unaccepted, for all who come this night without a building or room to call a home, to all who are seeking to be connected to One whose care will never diminish – this is the night of God’s good news for you. To all who feel overwhelmed by a world of power which is beating you down, this is the night that God comes to lift your burden. To all who fear our world and its terror, this is a night of peace for all. To all who feel fragile, to all who are weak, to all who are overlooked, to any who are despised and hated, to those who are abandoned, all are wrapped in God’s embrace.
The story simply moves us to respond. God moves us to respond. The story of Christmas invites us to be welcoming to strangers, to be people who are eager to speak up about having seen Jesus come into our world. We are invited to be honest people who are willing to admit that we have tried to live in ways that were really ways of darkness, but God has shone into our dark corners and made clear to us that Jesus is the light and we have no clue how to live without Him.
God’s great gift, Jesus, has come, so that our eternal focus will be on God, not on us. May this night keep our eyes on Jesus, because the eyes of God are on us and on God’s world, looking out from the manger.


December 20, 2015  

DECEMBER 20, 2015

I hope each one of you feels a little bit differently about the Christmas story now that you have had a chance to be in it.
What must Mary have been feeling as her water broke and the baby came and she had no bed to lay back on? Where was the midwife when needed? What did Joseph do during the birth? Was he a coach or a help at all?
What animals were there as witnesses? Were they quiet, or noisy, or scared, or peaceful?
What was the melody line of the song the shepherds heard? Did it become an earworm for the shepherds, coming back often into their minds? Was the sky brightened, or were the angels see through? What happened to the sheep while the singing was going on? Did they act up?
And the list of questions goes on and on. We are told that what actors do is to create a story line for their characters, a background much deeper than the words written for them. Often the story line comes from situations they have experienced and deep feelings they carry with them. They put themselves into the story, emotions and family relationships and all the other things that make one a human. What background do we write into the main characters in this Christmas story?
Then one can inhabit the story. One can live in the story, be wrapped in the story, have the story come alive in the actor’s words and emotions and gestures.
I have been taking Holy Communion to many of our homebound this past week. When I was with people living in places different from where their year began, a new residence or address, or a hospital room, I talked about the detours in the story, a baby born in Bethlehem rather than Nazareth, and a Holy Family ending up in Egypt rather than Nazareth. I wrapped them into the story.
When I was with people worried or upset, I talked about the frustration of finding a place when there was no room in the inn. When I was with people who didn’t feel that God cared about them, I talked about shepherds who usually weren’t involved in any great conversations or events. God brought them into the story, and let them see that every word the angels said was true. When I was with people who found speaking about God hard to do, I talked about shepherds who couldn’t stop talking about what they had seen and heard, and how what they saw in Bethlehem was exactly what was told them.
This little play this morning wrapped us in the story of the arrival of Jesus among us. Every time we read the Scripture, it is important to ask ourselves where we would fit in the story. Which person, which character would I be? How would I feel, how would I act, if this was happening to me? What have I felt, good or bad, what have I gone through, good or bad, that brings me into this story?
And even more importantly, God wraps us into this story. The director of all earth’s stories casts us in this play. Each Bible story is meant to have us as participants. The Bible is not just history; it is human life right now. God’s word is being heard and felt and experienced in our day and in our lives. God enters our scene day after day.
So we take Mary Odean this morning, and wrap her into the story. She becomes a participant in God’s saving story, the story that brings Jesus to earth – for her. And we get wrapped into the story as we come to Communion and hear these wonderful words – for you.
Some days, regardless of gender, we are Mary, open to God’s spirit and God’s message. Sometimes we are Joseph, standing quietly but faithfully by. Sometimes we are shepherds, usually on the fringe of life but brought into the center of the picture. Sometimes when we are anticipating a houseful of company, we are the innkeeper, trying to figure out how to fit everyone in. Sometimes we are town folk who do not let a man with a pregnant and needy woman find a warm welcome and a room. Sometimes we bring gifts to Jesus, other times we forget them at home.
But the Christmas story is our story, and we have a part. It might be different every year. But in baptism, it becomes our story.
Yet there is one part in the story we will never quite understand. There is one role in this story beyond our ability to even create a back story. It is the role of God, willing to leave heaven, everything beyond our human understanding, and take on human existence.
God’s part is beyond our understanding. We watch as God takes the stage. We simply watch as God acts among. And then this marvelous One grabs us and wraps us into God’s story, and we are never the same.

ADVENT 4 C 2015 DECEMBER 13, 2015

December 13, 2015  

ADVENT 4 C 2015
DECEMBER 13, 2015 0SLC

The first chapter of Luke’s gospel, the story of Jesus among us, the account of Jesus’ ministry and Jesus’ witness and Jesus’ glorification both on the cross and coming out of the tomb, starts with two pregnant ladies. It’s a gynecological story, in a way: Two pregnancies, both being unplanned; two pregnancies, one an answer to prayer after prayer, and the other, the answer to the prayers of thousands. One is a surprise that came after years of trying to have a child. The other, a surprise that came out of no where, with no husband. Two pregnant women, and they meet in today’s Gospel.
The town they met in is west of Jerusalem. Ein Karem is its name now. We don’t know its Biblical name. . For centuries before now, it was the home of Arabs, Palestinians. When Israel won the right to exist, and fought against both the British and the Palestinians, they came into this village in June of 1948 and kicked the Palestinians out. The residents of Ein Karem walked eastward. They became temporary dwellers of refugee camps. They are still temporary dwellers, 70 years later.
But the town was not destroyed. Now it is home to Jewish settlers, a beautiful artist’s colony nestled in, of all things, evergreen trees in the folds of a valley. They live in the homes of the Palestinians . They just moved in. The homes have Arabic above the doors, remembering their first occupants. The Palestinians were Christian and Muslim. The town still has Christian churches but not the local worshipers. . But 3 million people a year come to visit, because this is ancient home of John the Baptizer. There are two special old Christian churches, one built over the cave where tradition says John was born. The other is built over the traditional home where Mary came to meet with Elizabeth, her cousin, wife of Zechariah who had been picked for temple duty that year, 6 months pregnant with her first and long awaited child John.
Ein Karem is 5 miles southwest of Jerusalem. It is a long ways from Nazareth. Why in the world would Mary be going there? One has to remember that being pregnant and unmarried could have led Mary to be charged with adultery. Perhaps she went there to be safe, to save herself not only from hassle and local scrutiny but from charges that were very serious.
There is no doubt that the Christian church through the centuries has taken a lot of detours about Mary. Century after century, she fascinates us. In 1854 the pope decreed it to be official Roman Catholic doctrine that Mary was immaculately conceived, free from all sin because of the goodness of the son she bore. That feast is celebrated now on December 8, early this past week. When one goes to Jerusalem, the second biggest dome one sees is the black dome of the Church of the Dormition. It preserves the story and the location from where some say Mary was taken into heaven with out dying . She is said to have been simply sleeping, dormant, hence church of the dormition. Yet the Orthodox branch of Christianity says that the words of Jesus from the cross precisely happened. Jesus said to Mary, “behold your son”, and talking to John, Jesus said the other half of this equation: “behold your mother”. And the story they tell is that John ended up in Ephesus, the town to which Ephesians was written, doing just what Jesus asked. He helped Mary to live a long life. There is a small cottage there said to be the home of Mary. Sharon and I have seen both that home and the church in Jerusalem. Obviously, both stories cannot be equally true.
National Geographic’s current issue, December 2015, is about Mary, and the cover title is “the most powerful woman in the world”. Today’s Gospel is a part of how that whole story began.
So what are we celebrating? The simple answer is this – the goodness of God.
Elizabeth is rejoicing that she will be a mother. The child in her is doing flip flops to celebrate being in the presence of Jesus. From his fetal being, John is saying something great is happening around me. And Elizabeth gets to celebrate her own joy, her own pregnancy, and that fact that God is not only good to her. God will be good to everyone because of what God is doing in Mary.
And Mary is singing a song of wonder and mystery, a song we will sing in various translations and multiple melodies today. It is a song about a great turnaround, God’s new day. Lowly are lifted up, proud are brought low. The Mighty One is showing strength, knocking off the powerful and raising up the lowly. And God is remembering what God promised to Abraham and to Israel.
Mary is singing the song of a believer. We should celebrate that Mary is the very first disciple, the one who from beginning to end of the story will follow her son wherever her son takes her. Mary is singing the song of simple faith. When she says “Let it be to me according to your word”, she is really saying “I don’t know what God is going to do through me, but here I am”. She is the first person in Luke’s story to receive the story of the salvation of the world through the birth of Jesus. She is blessed by God, and we shall forever call her the Blessed Virgin Mary for her response.
Mary and Elizabeth are surprised that they are caught up in the loving purposes of God. What a great surprise that will always be! And dear friends, people who long for Christmas to be real and special – this is the very thing that God wants for you. This is what God’s Spirit wishes to blow into our Advent and Christmas plans. God wants to wrap each one of us up into the loving purposes of God.
It might not involve a pregnancy. It doesn’t have to. But it does involve promises, and it involves one of the most fun verses in all of Scripture, the verse that says “for with God, nothing is impossible”. Perhaps that means that no matter what we think of our prospects for being disciples, God has something up God’s sleeve for us. God can take us, no matter how weird or funny that seems, and offer us a place in the story of God’s goodness in the world. God who takes this young woman and this old woman and turns their worlds around is quite willing to take the young and the old in this place today and turn our worlds upside down for joy and wonderment.
God takes ordinary people and does seemingly impossible things and they become part of the story. God works around the margins in order to bless the world. That’s at the heart of Mary’s song. We come every Sunday to praise God for doing exactly that.
When one sees paintings of Mary, one sees everything from a young peasant girl who seems surprised at what has overtaken her, to a woman dressed as royalty, a queen, the one who responds to a royal proclamation: Hail, Mary. Blessed art thou among women! In the Christmas story, we will read that Mary ponders all these things in her heart. After she says to the angel, and to God “let it be to me according to your word”, the response of the very first disciple, strange things start to happen. Not only does she deliver a son in out of the way Bethlehem, far from her hometown, but she takes him into Egypt. They stand as refugees at the door of another nation. And when Jesus grows up and enters his ministry, we read in several places that his family seems to have rejected him. That would seem to be very authentic, because why would early Christians have felt a need to preserve a story like that? His family thinks he is crazy, and they try to seize him. Where was Mary in all this? Had she remembered or had she forgotten the angel’s words and the words of her own song? Her days when there were swaddling clothes to wash and a forced journey to Egypt to escape authorities bent on murder, those days when she watched from the sidelines as opposition grew to her grown son, the hours she spent at the foot of his cross must have been great challenges. Yet in the very first chapter of Acts, she is listed as a leader among the early believers.
Mary’s life is a journey, with twists and peaks and valleys. It is what we might expect as well. Discipleship is a journey into God’s world, and we do not completely understand God’s world. But with God, nothing is impossible. Mary learns that, Elizabeth knows that, you and I receive that promise.
We give thanks today for the Mother of God, speaking her response of faith “let it be to me according to your word”. May the world be full of those touched by her witness, inspired by her songs, who offer God the same response. May we be visited by God and hear God’s invitation to join in Mary’s song. May we say“I don’t know what it is going to mean, but here I am. Let your word happen to me.”

ADVENT 2 C 2015 – DECEMBER 6, 2015

December 6, 2015  

ADVENT 2 C 2015

John the Baptist was crying out. Prepare the way of the Lord, he urged.
Do you feel like crying out today? I do. I still want to cry out that the Badgers football team was robbed at the end of the Northwestern game. But that may not be the most important cry.
Stop the senseless killing, I want to cry. Get rid of assault weapons. They do not help us trust our neighbor. They make us trust our own power. Those are my feelings, deep feelings.
Do you feel like crying out? Do you want to cry out about something? Do you have those moments when it feels that no one is noticing you, and all you want to do is cry out “Here I am? See me.”
Do you want to cry out “there are too many homeless people in the world? Let’s do something different so that there might be a different answer.”
Do you want to cry out “do not let alcohol or drugs take over your mind? There is no need for that. Let’s fight this scourge which tears apart families and wrecks lives”.
John was crying out about deep, deep needs. The only answer for the world was something different, and he was sent to tell the world that the difference maker was coming. There was a new day coming.
Now, new days are not always easy. New days always involve doing something different, and usually we are very afraid of change. We are afraid when teams change coaches, when work shifts us to a new job, when we move to a new community for school or work. A new day is coming, and when John announced that, he knew not everyone would be happy. But this was his calling. This was his calling, to speak out, to invite, to proclaim, to sing, to preach, to cajole, to remind: God was sending the one who would bring the new day.
He also knew others would rejoice at these words. They were ready for something new. They were hoping God would remember them. They would be excited because the world as they knew it could use a boost. The world as they knew it was not just. There was a government that oiled its machine with tax money from people who did not profit much from the exchange. There was a government which stationed troops in many cities and claimed first right to land and people.
John cried out, make the roads straight. Prepare the way of the Lord.
And we are told that all this took place in a very specific time in history, when Tiberius was emperor, and Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod ruler of Galilee, and Philip ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler of Abilene. One emperor, one governor joining the other three tetrarchs, each a ruler of a quarter of a territory, Luke tells us exactly when this happens.
Tonight is the beginning of Hanukkah. There are conflicting stories of how this festival came about, but the favorite is this. The story told in I Maccabees, written about 150 BC, is about an event which had happened in its recent past, about 175 BC. The area around Jerusalem was a part of the empire that had Greek influence from the days of Alexander the Great, and Syrian influence from the days that followed his death. That Greco-Syrian empire was ruled by Antiochus Epiphanus IV, who decided to desecrate the rebuilt temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. This only fueled the rebellion of the Israelite people, and eventually they beat back Epiphanus’ troops. When they reclaimed the Temple for their holy worship, there was only oil for one day of celebration, but God miraculously extended that oil for 8 days. The celebration was about true worship returning to the Temple, about people freely worshipping the God of their salvation, and about the God of their salvation restoring their fortunes in a miraculous way. It’s a great story for a wonderful party every year. That miracle became the basis for the great 8 days of Hanukkah with its 8-day candelabra. And because of the miracle of oil, the food is very festive and fattening, usually cooked in oil, foods like doughnuts and stuffed battered cheese and potatoes and other good gooey foods.
The big empire, the one at the heart of the Hanukkah story, fell apart just because there needed to be land for the descendants of the ruler. . So along came the tetrarchs at the time of Jesus, because the land had been divided into four. Herod had what we would call Galilee, the northern province of Israel with Nazareth and Cana and Capernaum and Magdala and the Sea of Galilee. Lysanias had the far northern part, beyond Caesarea Philippi and Mt. Hermon in Lebanon, going on up toward Damascus. Philip had the land to the intermediate north, with the town he named in honor of himself and the emperor, Caesarea Philippi. Pilate had Jerusalem and the lands of Judea down to the Mediterranean Sea.
In this land, each ruler did big projects. They built incredible buildings. Herod built a wonderful and bigger Temple, whose foundation stones still stand today as incredible examples of the best possible workmanship. Part of the legacy of any ruler, part of how they got a great name, was the grandeur of their great schemes. So they would straighten out roads, especially the roads the ruler and his armies would travel on. They got rid of hills and valleys as best they could. They forced hard service out of local labor. They cemented their lasting reputations on the backs of the downtrodden workers they ruled over.
So John the Baptizer cried out a cry that would be heard for any new ruler: prepare the way of the lord, the new lord, the ruler of the territory. Prepare the royal highway. Make the paths straight.
Only he was not proclaiming the arrival of a new tetrarch. He was echoing the words of Isaiah, when the nation of Israel was at its lowest, and leaders and citizens were shuffled off to cry on the shores of the Tigris River in Babylonia, longing for home back in Jerusalem. Isaiah was promising a day of the Messiah, a new anointed king, who would lead his people as a servant leader, one who would carry his people on his back.
Clearly John was crying out that a new day was coming, and a new person would be leading the charge. He was the echo six hundred years later of Isaiah’s hope-filled works. This new day would take some work, some straightening out, some hard digging. Some of that would be personal. It would take a fearless moral inventory, as Alcoholics Anonymous calls it. And people knew that they needed to turn their lives around and head back in the ways God intended. They came to John that they might be washed for the repentance of their sins. They came to plunge into waters that washed away old habits and old problems and old ways of living that didn’t work. They came to be renewed in hope. They came for a new day to begin.
John was proclaiming this baptism. It was a great start for the wonderful ruler who would soon show up on the scene.
I promised to talk about spiritual fitness this year. Each new year a frequent promise to ourselves is to lose some pounds, to get more fit, to work on living more fully and completely. In this Christian new year, Advent, we can use some fitness goals. Last week we heard about the fitness practice of watching, paying attention, noticing what is going on. Sometimes we are just so zoned out, or sometimes too busy, that we fail to notice our loving family, our great friends, our opportunities, times to act.
Today the work of spiritual fitness is the work of repentance. It is work. It takes some new construction, tearing down pride, knocking down walls we build, walls between ourselves and other people, walls between ourselves and God. It takes a grand vision of a new day, and a deep desire to live in a new way.
John’s words are calling people into the water to begin again, to build again, to hope again, to watch again, to repent of anything that got in the way of being God’s new people, to repent of anything that got in the way of watching for the coming Lord. He is crying out for us to walk into the good news: good news that we need not suffer the consequences of our guilt and our callousness and our messes. And it is a cry full of good news for those who have been hurt, crying out because of the transgressions and the poor choices and the weapons and the greed of others. The hurting ones can also find peace. Those who are transgressing have a chance to stop, and those who have been hurt have a chance for peace.
John called them and us to a common mission – to prepare the way of the Lord, to open up the path for our coming king. And we start right here, in our own lives and in this kingdom called the USA. We start with people who want to be God’s people. We repent, we walk into the baptismal water, we join together crying out to prepare the way of the Lord, and we work together so that all people shall see the salvation of our God.

ADVENT 1 C 2015 NOVEMBER 29, 2015

November 29, 2015  

ADVENT 1 C 2015

Just look around. See the evergreen tree and all the evergreens. As soon as they sprout ornaments, you will know that Christmas is near! Do I really need to say something like that? In some stores, we have known since the end of October that Christmas is near. We’ve already beaten that message to a pulp. Signs are everywhere – Dec. 25th is coming.
Which doesn’t mean this is great news for everyone. Some are trying to stretch already thin budgets to afford some gifts. Some are nervous, wondering how to juggle all the demands of the season. Some are grieving, with recent and deep losses, hurt and distracted, unable to find deep joy.
Today we say in church that it is time to look around. We have other signs to consider. The world is in upheaval. We do not know what is secure and what is not. Sentimentality and lovely visions do not always answer the deep concerns of our lives.
Advent is the time when we let the message of Scripture snap us out of the sentimentality, beauty and tranquility that our world adores. The Son of Man is coming! Wake up. Be alert. His coming does not get preceded with easy days. Says one commentator: “Our daily gallop on the hamster wheel of life is not enough to bring us ultimate peace. God will have to do that.”
So we start the Christian New Year with texts that challenge any comfort we feel. The whole solar system will be rocking and rolling. Take a gander, notice what’s happening, get a good look. Raise up your heads from under your covers, and watch for God to bring redemption and new life.
Which is to say, not all is bad news. Says another writer, it is like when he watched the traumatic experience of childbirth with great joy. Both feelings abounded. And he sent a photo of the new baby to the new grandpa, and Grandpa asked why he didn’t clean the kid up first. You get both the mess and the kid, the trauma and the joy. God is promising redemption. That is a big church word with a wonderful meaning. Redemption is to buy something back. It could mean, in Biblical times, that one paid the required price to buy freedom for a slave. It means taking something bad and turning it around into a blessing. It means making something good out of something not so good. It means to live in the surprise that something intervenes so that what we deserve is taken away, and what we receive is what God intended for us in the first place.
Redemption is at hand. God is out to do good for the world, turning our hurts and losses and insecurities into moments of joy. This Advent message is not just about doom and gloom. It is about God’s new day coming. We just don’t know exactly when, so we should be paying attention to the signs and to the times. Alertness is a wonderful practice for all people of faith. We are urged to pay attention, to be awake, to be ready to run at the right time and stand before the Son of Man at the right time.
Are there issues in this world that need addressing? You bet there are. Income disparity, poverty, the fact that the numbers of the working poor are growing might be a place to start. How about sexism in the workplace and unequal pay for women? How about the efforts to get health care for all? How about the incredible numbers, disproportionate numbers of our brothers and sisters who are incarcerated, and the incredible disparity in the percentages of African Americans in our penal system? How about the poor treatment of transgendered and all the battles still facing the LGBTQ world? The fact that the Son of Man is coming, some day in God’s time, should challenge our comfort with any of these systems which are only too familiar to us. God is calling us to what we often call a paradigm shift. It’s time to change systems, God seems to be saying. And God will do the changing. God will do the redeeming. That’s what sets the stage for Christmas. God had been sending prophets to announce that the Messiah would lift up the underdog, and bring upheaval to all who have the power.
It happens all the time in sports. Ohio State will not repeat as national collegiate football champ. San Francisco Giants are not at the top of the baseball world – little Kansas City is. And right now, the Vikings are ahead of the Packers in the NFC Central Division. Our world is shaking.
Stocks go up, stocks plunge. Milk prices rise, milk prices tank. Hard winters get followed by warmer winters. We know that there are natural cycles to things. We are not talking about that. We are talking about big changes, changes that upset and change the natural order.
God is not bringing dislocation, disruption, disintegration, despair. God is bringing redemption, a new day, a buying back of all that has felt so painful, and a return to God’s plans for creation. God is coming so that we will not think that God is inaccessible or far off. God will bring the work of God right into our midst. We have that to look forward to.
The prophets are trying to say, and St. Luke is trying to tell us, that when we think disaster is drawing near, we should instead be thinking that God is drawing near. We should be looking for the Son of Man, not the end of humankind. God is coming to give planet earth and all who dwell upon it a whole new world, a new and fresh future, something really different from anything that we imagine.
That’s what we are waiting for today. We know, deep in our guts, that what we are experiencing is not the world as God meant for us in creation. We want something more, where justice and peace rule over all. God is bringing something completely and utterly different from all that grabs our headlines right now.
We have just gone through our turkey comas, and our shopping frenzies, and our hurried trips to see loved ones. We expect those things to come every year. God is bringing something we don’t expect. God is bringing God’s self.
So hit the switch on all the Christmas lights. That is just fine. Let the lights of hope shine. But don’t stop there. Lift up our heads. Look long and hard. Stay alert. God wants to start changing everything. Redemption is close at hand. The Son of Man is coming. Light one candle to watch for Messiah.

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