We Want to See: a sermon on John.

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

John 12:20-33

My sermon from the 5th Sunday in Lent (March 22, 2015) on John 12:20-33.

Play

Game Time

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Mark 1:21-28

My sermon from the 4th Sunday after Epiphany (February 1, 2015) on Mark 1:21-28. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

Today, in our reading from the Gospel according to Mark, we hear Jesus’s first public act. This is it. The stadium is filled. The first disciples are on the sidelines. The national anthem has been sung. And the star of the game – Jesus – is on the field.

It’s game time.

Jesus is in Capernaum, a small city on the coast of the sea of Galilee. He’s just been baptized by John in the Jordan, he’s put together his first group of disciples, and its now the sabbath. So Jesus walks into the local center of the community – the synagogue – and he begins to teach.

Now, unlike churches and synagogues today, a single pastor or rabbi wasn’t the only one allowed to teach. Community members, like Jesus, could come up and lead. So what Jesus does is fairly normal. And I bet it’s safe to say that the people there probably knew Jesus – so they thought they had an idea what this kid from Nazareth was going to say. But when Jesus teaches – they’re amazed. His teaching strikes them as something powerful and mighty. They not sure what to make of it.

But someone in the audience gets it.

The reading says that a man with an unclean spirit is sitting there, listening. He listens to Jesus – and then he challenges back.

The spirit asks Jesus why he’s there? Why come into this community and disturb what is taking place?

Because the unclean spirit is happy where he is. He’s happy being in the middle of the community, in the middle of daily life. We shouldn’t bring our modern understanding of medicine and science into the text and think that this man is just suffering from some undiagnosed mental health issue. We shouldn’t think that he would be fine if he had the right pill. This unclean spirit isn’t schizophrenia nor should we think this is just some silly ghost story that we tell to scare ourselves. No, to Mark, this unclean spirit represents something else. This spirit is happy living in the world – happy living in that man – happy living in the center of that community. He’s there, in the middle, causing havoc, distrust, and causing separation from God. That unclean spirit is happy building and maintaining a boundary – a boundary between this world and God. So when Jesus shows up and begins to teach – that spirit knows what’s already happened. The status quo has been broken. The boundary between God and humanity is undone.

So the unclean spirit shouts out. We can’t really tell, from the text, if the spirit is afraid of Jesus or is challenging Jesus. But, either way, the end is still the same. Jesus simply commands the unclean spirit to come out – and it does. There’s no prayer, no magic spells, nothing. Jesus just commands – and the spirit can’t do anything but come out. When it comes to Jesus and the reign of God – when it comes to the Superbowl between this world and God – it isn’t even a close contest.

It’s kinda like watching last year’s Super Bowl between the Broncos and Seahawks.

For Mark – this, in a nutshell, is who Jesus is. This first public act is more than just a healing. Jesus is uniquely empowered – he’s uniquely authorized – to declare that the reign of God is here. Jesus is here to institute that reign – to give it life and breath – to show us a glimpse of what God’s kingdom looks like – to model for us just how our life should look. The old status quo is broken. The old boundaries that keep people away from God’s love are being undone. The old rule that everything as it is now – must be that way always – that just isn’t true.

Because the reign of God is here.

This past week, I was with around 100 other pastors, chaplains, and deacons, from our denomination – the ELCA – at a retreat outside Philadelphia. We were all newish pastors and ministry leaders – all having less than three years of ministry – and we were there to worship, to learn some new ideas, and to share our stories of what it’s like being leaders among God’s people. And it was great. I got little sleep, spent 16 hour days centered around scripture, stewardship, music, and leadership. And I had intense conversations with pastors from Maine through Philadelphia, listening to what they were struggling with.

And I heard a lot about the status quo, about the boundaries that congregations setup for themselves and about the boundaries pastors bring with them into new places – not even knowing that they had them. I heard about communities struggling to see the people around them and other communities struggling as their identity changes. I heard stories of communities coming undone and others on the verge of shutting down.

And this retreat did a great job creating space for these stories. But, by the end, many of us were mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausted. We heard the struggles. We created space for the issues. We explored the brokenness.

But we didn’t create space to hear about the in-breaking of God. We didn’t create space to witness to all the amazing things that God is doing. We spent time with our struggles – but we didn’t raise up our joys.

And that’s pretty normal, isn’t it? How often are we devoured by our own troubles – by our own struggles with our status quo? How often do we let our troubles stew – giving them the authority to tell us what to do – to direct, manipulate, and control us? How often do we let our status quo end up becoming our default for how our lives will always be? How often do we let our unclean spirits define just exactly how things are?

Jesus’s first public act is walking straight into the center of the community – the center of life – and he announces that the reign of God is here. He announces that the boundaries we have, the boundaries we build – the boundaries we hold onto that define how we love ourselves and how we love others – Jesus announces that those boundaries don’t win. Jesus doesn’t use any special props. He doesn’t say any magic words. He doesn’t ask everyone in the community to believe in him before the healing occurs. Jesus, instead, just walks into the room. He teaches. He engages. He commands. And he breaks through.

In Jesus, God’s love is announced. God’s hope is shared. God’s identity is made real. Jesus’s teaching and his healing are intimately tied – they can’t be separated. For Mark, they are one and the same. His teaching announces that the status quo has been undone; that our boundaries are broken down. Jesus’s teaching announces that our rules separating and oppressing people, our rules that keep people stuck because of who they are, what they look like, how much they make, or who they love – those boundaries have no authority. The only authority left is God’s.

When the spirit is cast out, the text doesn’t say that it’s destroyed. It’s out there. That evil is still around. But it’s power has been uprooted. It’s power to hold sway over our lives has been undone. The boundaries it builds, maintains, and thrives on – no longer defines who we are. No longer does separation define our relationship with God and our relationship with each other. Our feeling and experience that, somehow, this separation, these boundaries, this distance trumps God’s reign, is done.

That’s what Jesus, in Mark, announces. It’s a theme that runs throughout the whole gospel – a theme that we’ll be hearing over and over again. Jesus is here. Jesus announces that the reign of God is here. Hope and Love – those now are the rules of the game. The contest between God and evil, between God’s hope and our boundaries, isn’t a fair fight. We think that the game is on – but the contest is already over. God’s won and, in Christ, we’ve won too.

Amen.

Play

Gone Fishin’ (with Jesus)

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Mark 1:14-20

My sermon from 3rd Sunday after Epiphany (January 25, 2015) on Mark 1:14-20. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

What picture do you imagine when you hear that line? Do you see a boat? Some pristine lake waters, maybe several young fishermen tending their nets under the hot midday sun. There are, within these short verses from Mark, enough words and phrases to paint a very vibrant, beautiful, outdoorsy scene – reminiscent of some visit to a national park, mountain vista, or a memorable camping trip. But how many of us, when you hear these words from Mark, immediately find yourself in Orlando, Florida?

Because I do.

So let me explain.

A few years ago while on a visit to my in-laws outside Tampa, my wife and I drove to Orlando to visit an unusual theme park called The Holy Land Experience. The park is a fantastical representation of what Jerusalem was like during Jesus’s last visit there. There’s a Temple, Roman soldiers wandering around, and young men and women dressed in togas being very helpful and directing you to various things to see. And everything is Jesus-centric. We can reenact the Last Supper with Jesus every hour or be a witness to his arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection at 12 or 5:30. But the experience that I remember most is called the Scriptorium. It’s not really a ride but more of a narrated journey through a series of rooms where we traced the history of God’s word coming down to us. Each room consists of old bibles, pieces of paper, images and stories about how the words of Scripture were first written, recorded, and translated. We got to see pieces of Scripture that was touched by ancient Romans and Syrians and texts that come from Turkey, the Middle East, Egypt, and all throughout Europe. And as we went further and further into it, we got a sense of my role in history as being, like so many countless people before me, a bearer of God’s story. There’s something powerful about seeing how we are part of something so much bigger than ourselves.

Now, by the time we got to the end of the ride – into the last room – I’ll admit I was a little caught up by the emotion of it. And…that was kind of the point. The creators of the Scriptorium wanted you to feel this sense of history and purpose – this sense of drama because they wanted us to be changed. They wanted us to commit ourselves to following Jesus, to realize that we’re not as good at following as we should be, and to head out into the world to try harder. And so when we walked into that last room, the drama started. The room was pitch black – music turned up – I could feel the vibrations of the bass in my bones. And as the music started to get louder and louder, a voice from on high spoke out. And it identified all of us in that room as bearers of God’s story. We were told to go out, tell Jesus’ story, and be as brave as everyone who came before us. We’re to be as faithful, devoted, and powerful as those first disciples, called by Jesus, 2000 years ago.

And then – at the climax – the walls of the room were lit up. There, in the middle, was a painted representation of Simon (aka Peter) the fisherman. And this Peter – he was huge. He had a great big beard, wonderful thick hair, piercing blue eyes, and huge bulging arms carrying a net full of fish. He looked like a cross between Rambo and the Incredible Hulk, able to beat-up anyone who stood in his way. Peter had the strength and the biceps to be a mighty warrior for God.

And that’s one way to imagine how these first disciples looked. These ones who first heard Jesus’s words – who first followed his voice – it’s so easy to see them as that mighty, powerful, faith-filled person worthy of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. And it’s easy to think that we – as heirs to those first folks who fished by the sea – that we have to be like that too – like some Rambo for Jesus – or else our belief is just not good enough. And if we can’t be that big, strong, incredibly mighty follower of Christ – then maybe something is wrong with us. Because, if we were doing what we’re suppose to do – then God would make us strong. God would make sure we never doubted. God would make sure we never mourned or were worried or thought that God wasn’t with us. We feel we need to be that Rambo for Jesus – because, then, and only then, can we be sure that God love us.

But this vision of Peter, or the first disciples, I believe it misses the point. That image takes these words from the gospel and misses what God is actually doing. Because when Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James and John, Jesus wasn’t assembling a team of god-believing-superheroes to his side. He wasn’t wandering through the neighborhood picking the biggest, the strongest, or the smartest, to be part of his team. No, Jesus wasn’t calling the best – Jesus was calling everybody – even the lowly fisherman, working on the Sea of Galilee.

The focus of these stories isn’t on who is called but on who does the calling. And what we don’t hear is anything about being a spiritual Rambo. Instead, we hear that John the Baptist has been arrested. We hear that Jesus goes to the area around the sea of Galilee and that’s where his proclamation – his preaching and teaching – begins. Jesus’s message – his gospel – his good news – is that God’s presence is here – right now – whether you like it or not – and this message is intimately tied to these early call stories. God’s presence can’t be separated from God’s calling. The proclaiming of God’s love and presence in the world – the proclaiming that God’s kingdom is here, right now – that proclamation goes hand-in-hand with God’s meeting us, God’s getting to know us, and God revealing God’s-self to us. The good news isn’t only that Jesus is here. The good news is that Jesus is here for us – and Jesus isn’t going to wait until we’re good enough, strong enough, or faithful enough to finally meet us. No, Jesus is going to come to us where we’re at and say “follow me.”

So if God meets us where we are and calls us just as we are – what, then, does this “follow me” actually look like?

Does it mean giving up our day job and families, being like those early disciples and literally walking off the job – leaving our dad in the boat – and hitting the road, seeing where God might take us?

Maybe.

Or Jesus’s call might mean something that can be even harder. It might mean realizing that in everything we do – in all our relationships – in all the little interactions that make up our lives – God is there. When we wake up in the morning, yawn, and rub our eyes – God is there. And when we put our head down to rest at the end of our day – God is there too. Because Jesus’s word is simply that the kingdom of God is here. The kingdom of God is right now. The kingdom of God is happening and that matters in everything that we do. From how we do our jobs, to how we study at school, to even how we interact with our parents and children – God is here, Jesus is present, and we all are apart of it.

Following Jesus isn’t about being a superhero of the faith. It isn’t about being that spiritual Rambo that never suffers or feels pain or who never doubts or wonders where God is. Following Jesus is about following Jesus. It’s about hearing the good news that God isn’t waiting for us to be perfect before loving us but that God loves us first and foremost and there’s nothing we can do to change that. God is in the business of meeting us, coming to us, and being part of our lives even when we’re too busy to notice or see it. God isn’t waiting for us to make up our minds before getting involved. No, God is here. God is present. God is making a difference in our lives now. That’s the reality that Jesus is calling us to live into. Jesus isn’t going to let us become perfect before asking us to follow him. No, Jesus is here, right now, whether we’ve got bulging biceps or not – Jesus is inviting us, all of us to live into God’s reality – to live into God’s love – to live into God’s hope – and Jesus is doing that with just two simple words: “follow me. “

Amen.

Play

Sometimes it is about you.

And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

Luke 1:43-51

My sermon from the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany (January 18, 2015) on Luke 1:43-51. An ice storm canceled the church service but I recorded the sermon anyways. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

Now, there’s something about this passage from John that I struggled with all week. And its about that first verse today – verse 43 – where we hear how Philip became a disciple of Jesus. His whole story about becoming a follower is not even one verse in length. Jesus meets Philip, and he says just two words: “follow me.” And that’s it. That’s all it takes for Philip to become a disciple. We don’t even know if Philip was looking for Jesus or if Philip had heard about Jesus before Jesus showed up. The text doesn’t give us any backstory – or history – or anything. We just get this one sentence. I struggle because it seems so easy for Philip to be a disciple of Jesus – and I wish it was so easy for me.

****
This text from John is part of a series of stories where we hear how Jesus put his band of followers together. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke – there’s no temptation in the desert in the gospel according to John so after Jesus is baptized, which we heard last week, Jesus immediately starts gathering his followers. The first two followers of Jesus are disciples of John the Baptist. They hear John the Baptist declare that Jesus is different and they want in. They ask to see what Jesus is doing, where Jesus is staying, and Jesus invites them with just three words: “Come and See.”

And one of those two is named Andrew and Andrew goes off to find his brother, Peter, and he invites Peter to come and see.

Then, after Peter, we have today’s reading where Jesus decides to go to Galilee and runs into Philip – who is from the same town as Andrew and Peter – and Jesus tells Philip to “follow me” and Philip does.

That’s how this Jesus thing takes off. These initial gatherings – these initial encounters – are simply Jesus or a disciple of Jesus finding someone they know and simply saying “come and see.”

That’s how disciples are made.

But this is hard to hear because it sure doesn’t feel, to us at least, like that’s how disciples should be made. Even that word – disciple – seems to imply that there’s something more involved. A disciple can’t be someone who just received an invitation. There’s gotta be more. Because, to be a disciple, shouldn’t someone need to have it all figured out? They should be incredibly faithful, maybe living the perfect life, always behaving and do nothing wrong? Shouldn’t disciples have proven that this God and Jesus story is exactly how it is? Disciples – they are people who have met Jesus, they have Jesus deep in their bones – and they are the kind of people we all wish we could be.

Not too long ago ago, I reconnected with an old friend from High School on – where else – Facebook. She knew me at a time in my life when I wasn’t Lutheran, I didn’t go to church, and I was dreaming of spending my life buried in some research lab inventing the next thing that would save the world. So when she went through my profile and saw I was a pastor – – that kinda shocked her a bit.

But she took this time as an opportunity to ask me about God. And she asked me good questions – questions someone might have asked you at one point or another, such as, “How do you know that God is real? How do you know that the Christian story is right? Do you think it’s fair that a child who never heard of Jesus ends up going to hell just because of where he was born?”

She was asking, really, what happened to make me, like Philip, meet Jesus and hear him say “follow me.”

And, if I’m honest, I can’t fully answer it. I can’t describe all the bits – all the experiences in my life that brought me to be here today. There are highlights – sure – those big moments that I’ve pulled out of my history and charted on my faith story – but I can’t share the million little moments, those little experiences, that brought me to finally realize that Jesus had been speaking to me for 22 years. It just took me that long to finally hear his words: “follow me.”

And I believe that we are all caught in our own stories of faith, our own stories of seeing, or not seeing, Jesus. One of the great things about being a new pastor is getting to hear new stories. I’ve been blessed to hear faith stories – to hear, and see, what those meetings with Jesus can be like. I’ve met the 85 year old where God is just a constant presence in her life – like another person just always in her house, the 70 year old who never lost faith even in the face of incredible ordeals, the people whose faith was lost but held together by an amazing community who prayed for them when they couldn’t pray for themselves, and I’m seeing all these kids who are just getting that first taste of what this faith journey is all about. Each of us are on our own path – our own personal, wonderful, and sometimes frustrating journey with Jesus. And, the amazing thing is that none of these stories is exactly the same. Our encounter with Jesus can come in many forms. Even in these short verses from John where we hear how Jesus gets his first team of disciples together – even Philip and Nathanel’s story is different. All of these stories are centered in that encounter with Jesus – and each of them lead into, or involve, an encounter with someone else.

Because something keeps happening after people encounter Jesus. They can’t stop telling people about him. They go out and invite. But they don’t try to persuade. They don’t try to convince. They don’t try to prove that this is the One who will heal the world. Philip didn’t respond to Nathanel’s quip about Nazareth with a reasoned argument or a snarky rebuttal. Philip merely says – come and see.

Come and have an encounter with Jesus.

Come and see how my life has been changed.

And come and see how this Jesus could matter to you.

Making this kind of invitation – that’s our call. That’s our job – because we are people who have encountered Jesus and we’re here to share our encounter too. We’re invited to be people persons – to, like Jesus and Philip, engage in that one-on-one encounter, that one-on-one relationship with another person, where our invitation to come and see is more than just about visiting a church – but is about meeting Jesus.

And in this invitation – we are opening ourselves to see just what God is doing with us. We’re seeing how God is at work in our relationships, how God is bringing new and different people into our lives – how we are living out of our own sense of encounter with Jesus – and how, in a small way, we are the start of that Jesus encounter with our family, friends, and strangers. We’ve been encountered so we’re called to be that Jesus encounter to everyone we meet.

Now, I can’t share exactly how living that encounter with Jesus – what it’ll actually look like. Since all our stories with Jesus are different, just how living as that encounter will look – that’s going to be different for each of us. But the stories of living as Jesus’ encounter are stories that surround us. From our grandparents who shared their faith in words and love when we visited them to the friend who helped us through a difficult time when we needed their hope to survive – and even in the story of a man who preached, rallied, and taught that racial equality wasn’t just a dream but was, and still is, something worth fighting for – those are Jesus encounters. That’s people living out their personal encounters with Jesus. Jesus is using us – Jesus is calling us to be that encounter – to see ourselves as his face and body in the world – so that we are not just telling people to “Come and See” but we are living as if we are that invitation too. Because whether our encounter with Jesus takes half a verse or 22 years – Jesus is there – Jesus is calling – Jesus is inviting us to be that invitation and to share how we have been changed. Our job is to invite – to show others what following Jesus looks like – and that this Jesus has a personal relationship, a personal encounter, ready for others to come and see.

Amen.

Play

Still Speaking

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Mark 1:4-11

My sermon from the Baptism of Jesus (January 11, 2015) on Mark 1:4-11. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

It seems every year, around August, an article or facebook post about the university I attended catches my eye. And it’s always the same article and it’s always about the same thing: the swim test. My university is one of the few remaining schools that require you to pass a swim test to graduate. 3 laps in an olympic sized swimming pool – that’s all it takes – and then you’re able to graduate.

This requirement seems simple enough. But I rarely meet anyone who likes it. I remember as a freshman during orientation week, which is the usual time when you take the test, and I remember hanging out in pool house, and I was just one of hundreds of freshmen hanging out in their swimsuits, shyly just kinda milling about because no one knew anyone else – and we were all lined up, waiting for our turn. And then someone called our name – recorded our attempt to complete the test on a clipboard – and we’d jump in. I don’t remember if we all did it one at a time – or if a group of us jumped in like we were in our own Olympic race – but I do remember standing at the edge of the water, looking in. I remember the sounds – the talking – splashing – the looking around – and I remember feeling of nervousness about what would happen if I didn’t make it. Maybe I stayed out too late the night before or maybe the fact that I hadn’t swam a lap in years would actually show. I remember standing at the edge of that pool and wondering why – why was I – why was this huge freshman class – going through all of this to just swim 3 laps.
The funny thing was that when anyone asked why we had a swim test in the first place – no one really knew the answer. I remember being one of those kids who asked that “why” question. Rumors traced it back to a student who, years before, drowned in one of the nearby lakes. Others said it’s a legacy of the military training students use to undergo when the university first started. Or maybe its just because the university hoped that when we left school, we’d at least have one practicable skill under our belt. Whoever you asked – the answer always changed. No one knew why we had to get into the water and swim 3 laps. That’s a mystery. So as I stood there on the edge of the pool and my turn came – all I could do was just jump in.

And our story today about Jesus’s baptism – that’s a mystery too.

Today’s gospel reading is the continuation of the reading we heard just one month ago on the second Sunday of Advent. There we heard these opening words about John – this wildman in the desert – who is bringing people out into the wilderness, into the place where God met Moses and David and the prophets. And John is inviting people to meet God there too. And that’s when Jesus comes into the picture. There’s no birth story, no description of his teenage years, no – in the gospel according to Mark – the beginning of Jesus’s ministry is when he heads out into the desert, like everyone else, and meets John in the wilderness.

And it’s there that Jesus is baptized.

So why does Jesus get wet?

This is one of those, what you might call, “gotcha” questions for pastors – the kind of question confirmation students like to ask their pastors and watch them….well, fumble it. It even happened to a colleague of mine recently. He shared at our weekly Lutheran pastors’ bible study on Tuesday that, about a month ago, a confirmand asked him this question. And he answered it – but the question had been gnawing at him because he didn’t feel he answered it right. He felt he gave an answer – a true answer – an answer that a famous theologian might agree with – but, after, as he thought about what he said, his words felt hollow. He felt that he wasn’t able to answer the question of Jesus’s baptism fully enough.

And that’s because this question of Jesus’s baptism is a really, really hard question. There’s no real easy way to get through it. Even if we point to the difference between what John is doing and what Jesus does – even if we talk about the addition of the Holy Spirit into the equation – or point to the private moment, for Mark at least, when God calls Jesus his beloved Son in such a way that no one else hears it – even if we try to take apart the actions and dissect it, we’re still left with the fact that Jesus was baptized. God’s Son – the guy who is about to teach about the Kingdom of God and heal the sick – this guy who is about to reconcile the world through the Cross – this Jesus, somehow, needed to be baptized.

The question of why is all over this.

And I’ll admit that I don’t have all the answers. There’s a lot of nuance here that I don’t get and that I don’t see. The “I don’t knows” about this text from Mark outnumber the “what I knows” and if my Confirmands at class tonight ask me about it – there’s a good chance I’m gonna fumble it too.

But there’s something about this text that’s very tangible – very real – and it’s something we can relate too. And it has to do with what Jesus did. In Mark’s telling of the story, we don’t have any idea of what was going through Jesus’s head. We don’t know what he was looking at, what he noticed, or what he saw. But we do know what we did. Because when he stood on the edge of the Jordan – he walked in. He saw John, went to him, and Jesus felt the water over him.

I don’t know the answer to why Jesus needed to be baptized – but I do feel like I know why I – why we – need Jesus to be baptized. We need him to stand at that water’s edge. We need him to walk to where John was. We need him to jump in the waters – to feel it over his head – to experience what we experience. We need Jesus to experience that mystery because it’s in his actions – in his jumping in – Jesus extends an invitation to us to jump in with him.

Because baptism isn’t just an end in itself – even though it can sometimes feel like that. Even for those of us who were baptized as infants and who have no recollection that such an event happened – for the ones who brought us to the baptismal font, it sure felt like there was an end. I mean, there were meetings with the pastor, phone calls to family to arrange a date and a time. There were cakes to order, lunch reservations to make, and white outfits to buy. And then there was just those silent, and not so silent prayers, that everyone actually showed up on time. The baptism was an event – and once it was over, once all the planning was done, and the water poured, and everyone went home – we’re glad it’s over.

But the mystery of baptism is more than that. And that might be why we don’t hear about Jesus’s birth or back story or teenage years in the gospel according to Mark. Instead – baptism happens first. Before Jesus’s healing begins – before his words of knowledge come out – before he starts showing those around him what true human living looks like – before all of that – comes baptism. Before the Supper and the Betrayal by Judas and the Trial in front of Pilate – there’s just Jesus, jumping into the waters of the Jordan. He’s jumping into where his life will take him. He’s jumping into living a life that loves God and loves everyone he meets. He’s jumping into a ministry that is going to lead him to the Cross. And he’s jumping into a life that is going to be resurrected – a life that is given for us and to us and is with us – no matter where life takes us.

I don’t know if Jesus needed to get into that water but I do know we need him to get in that water so that we can witness that baptism isn’t an end – it isn’t just a requirement we need for graduation – but that baptism is a beginning. It’s a beginning of walking with Jesus because Jesus – this Son of God – this miracle worker – he’s more than just our Lord and Savior. He’s also our neighbor – our brother – he’s one of us, waiting at the edge of those waters that will be poured over him.

Jesus’s baptism is an invitation for us to jump into those waters too – to see where God will take us – to see just how God will use us to love, to care, and to be part of God’s work in resurrecting this entire world. The waters have been entered. The waters have been churned up. With Jesus’s presence – these waters have been changed. And we’re invited to just see where he might take us.

Amen.

Play

How Can It Be? Mary in Luke 1

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 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. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 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. 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. For nothing will be impossible with God.” 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.

Luke 1:26-38

My sermon from the 4th Sunday of Advent (December 21, 2014) on Luke 1:26-38. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

So what are you going to be doing at 6:03 pm today?

I know that some of us will be eating or making dinner. Others will be wrestling kids into their bedtime baths. Some will be seeing if the Giants can beat the Rams and a few youth and teens from Christ Lutheran will be busy getting ready for our annual Christmas party later tonight. The amazing thing is that we’ll all be doing something. We’ll be planning, doing, watching, moving – we’re gonna be active. And so most of us aren’t going to notice what happens at 6:03 pm tonight. Because at 6:03, the northern hemisphere of the earth will be tilted its farthest from the sun. Winter will officially start – and we’ll be in the beginning of our longest night of the year. And there’s also a new moon tonight – so once the sun sets, we’re going to be caught in a long, moonless, night.

It kinda makes me want to go home and turn on all the lights, just thinking about it.

And so it’s today – right before we enter our longest night – that we hear this reading from Luke – where the angel Gabriel comes to Mary. This reading is traditionally called the Annunciation and it’s when Mary discovers, for the first time, that Christmas – the birth of Jesus – is gonna happen. And she’s a pretty big part of it.

The text doesn’t tell us what time of day Gabriel met Mary. We don’t know if it was day or night, if she was in her room inside her house, or out in the field or on the street. All we know is that the angel, the angel is on a mission from God, and he comes to Mary. The angel finds her and greets her – saying – “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

What gets me about this passage – about this moment – is Mary. This is how we meet her. We get no back story. There’s no genealogy pointing out her family, like there is in Matthew. We don’t know her age, what she likes to do, or even what she looks like. And the same goes with Gabriel. We know he’s an angel but…that’s it. There’s no talk about big wings or a sword or maybe a bright light. No, we just hear that he’s an angel from God – that he shows up to Mary – and that doesn’t seem to bother her. Mary seems to get that Gabriel is an angel, and that Gabriel is from God. And that doesn’t phase her in the slightest. No, what bothers Mary – isn’t that an angel shows up. What bothers her is what Gabriel says.

The angel calls her favored and that the Lord is with her. And Mary wonders just what that means. And when she finally gives a voice to her questions – she just asks “How can this be?”

Because what the angel says doesn’t match her experiences. What the angel promises doesn’t make sense to her. Mary doesn’t see herself as special. There’s nothing in Luke about Mary’s background that tells us to see her as being anything other than an ordinary young girl in a small town in a part of Israel far from Jerusalem. She lives in Nazareth, in Galilee, in a part of the country far from God’s temple, far from God’s presence, far from God’s light enshrined in Jerusalem.

And Gabriel continues – sharing a story about Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, who is too old and too infertile to be with child. And yet she is. Elizabeth isn’t suppose to give birth. She’s not suppose to have a child. In the normal trajectory of how the world works, what is happening to Elizabeth isn’t suppose to happen. But the angel knows God. Gabriel knows that God works in unexpected ways. God doesn’t always do what we think God should do. God doesn’t always aligned with those in power, with those in control, with those who appear to be the most religious and righteous. God has a habit of choosing unexpected people in unexpected places and telling them that the Lord is with them. Gabriel knows this and he shares this with this young girl in the small town of Nazareth. And Mary, as she hears Gabriel’s words, does an otherworldly thing. She believes him. She trusts those words. She has no idea of where these words will take her or where she will end up. She trusts God’s promises – that God knows what God’s is doing by choosing this girl from Nazareth – and Mary commits herself to God’s promise by saying: “Here I am.”

In a moment, after the hymn of the day, I’m going to invite Patrick Kurtz, his parents, and his sponsors to come on up here, in the center of this big step, and stand right by the font. And Patrick, I’m going to ask you some big questions. Important questions. Questions about God and about Jesus and about what we’re suppose to do as we live in this world.

And it’s okay if you’re not sure what all of it means. And it’s okay if you’re a little nervous, or curious, or maybe not sure exactly what we’re saying.

But we’re not here to do anything that God hasn’t already been doing. Like Mary 2000 years ago – when the angel came to her – and said that she mattered to God – God is saying the same thing to you. Patrick, you matter to God. You matter so much that the Holy Spirit saw it fitting to bring you here to Christ Lutheran, today, to be baptized. Any earlier, any later, and in any other place just wouldn’t do. God was active in bringing you, your family, and all of this – together today.

And because God wanted you to be here today, that means God doesn’t want you to stop asking questions. God doesn’t want you to stop doubting. God doesn’t want you to stop being you. Because even Mary wondered. Even Mary got confused. Even Mary was bold enough to ask an angel from God just exactly what was going on. Because the faith journey that you are on Patrick is the same faith journey that we are all on. It was the same journey Mary took 2000 years ago. We are here because God called us – God grabbed us – God chose us first – God said we mattered first and welcomed us into the Holy Family. We’re here because we believe – because we trust what Gabriel told Mary – that God is with us.

The promises you will hear today are a re-affirmation of those promises that have led you and your family and all of us to be here today. And these promises are that no matter how long the night is, no matter how long there is no moon in the sky, no matter how long the world causes pain, suffering, hurt, violence, and death to each other – Jesus is with you. Jesus is walking alongside you. Jesus is holding you tight and not letting you go – because God’s light can’t be overcome.

And, like Mary who believed, we are all part of God’s light. In the long night that our world is in – when some days are so bleak, scary, and awful that it feels as if the sun will never break through – like Mary – we are called to live God’s light out. That means, Patrick, you are about to be given a job – the same job that your parents have – that your friends have – that even I have – and this job is to love everyone. You’re here to follow Jesus’s light, to be a light during the long and cold winter nights – to share God’s story, to fight against injustice, to comfort those who are mourning and sad, and to do all that you can to heal the world rather than cause problems in it.

Now, this job is a hard job. And, sometimes, it’ll feel like an impossible one. There will be times when anger and hatred seems to win – and there will be times when you’ll wonder if you know God or if God knows you – and that’s okay. The journey you’re on is not an easy one. But throughout all of it – trust in this one promise. Like Mary, you are favored. Like Mary, you are blessed. Like Mary, God knows and God loves you. And, like Mary – today, Patrick, you’ll do the hard thing. You’ll join all of us, as part of Christ’s family, and do what we do everyday. We stand here, not because we are perfect or wonderful or awesome. We stand here as people who ask questions, people who doubt, people who get things wrong, and we sometimes don’t love as we should. But we stand here because God brought us here. God grabbed us before we even knew where we were going. And as we go through this longest night – we know we are God’s light in a very scary world. So Patrick, welcome to being part of God’s light in the world. Welcome to being, like Mary, part of God’s future for the world. We’re not going to get everything right – but we’re going to love – because we matter to God. And you matter to God too. And so, lets all together today be like Mary when Gabriel met her in Nazareth. Let’s question. Let’s wonder. Let’s not be sure exactly where God is taking us. But let’s live as Christ’s light because we are favored. We are loved. We are with the Lord. And let’s commit ourselves to God’s promise – to God’s love – and to God’s hope. Let all of us – as God’s people – say “God, here I am. Let it be with me according to your world.”

Amen.

Play

Flame On

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

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

John 1:6-8,19-28

My sermon from 3rd Sunday of Advent (December 14, 2014) on John 1:6-8,19-28. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

Our text today from the Gospel According to John might sound a bit familiar. Last week, we saw this same John the Baptist as he was presented in Mark – a wildman, living in the desert, wearing a coat made of camel hair and eating bugs and honey. In Mark, John the Baptist is Elijah – one of those old timey, speaking-truth-to-power, kind of prophet. He’s telling people they need to repent, that they need to come clean about who they are, and that something more is on its way. People from all over Jerusalem are heading to him, coming to hear his word, and be baptized by him. John the baptist is a man of God – a man from God – and he’s confident, powerful, prophet of God and no one tries to dispute that.

But looking at the words we hear today – from the Gospel According to John (who isn’t John the Baptist – this gospel was attributed to some other John), we get a very different kind of Baptist. He’s kinda lost his edge – his overpowering sense of confidence. People are still coming to see him, to hear what he has to say, but there’s something new – people who question him. There are people who don’t fully buy what he’s trying to say. Last week I described Mark’s vision of John the Baptist as a grizzled, super tough, flannel wearing, Colorado mountain man kind of prophet. This week – he’s different. He doesn’t feel as big, as confident, as overpowering. Instead of a Colorado Mountain Man – he feels more like a Williamsburg kind of Mountain Man. And this transformation is centered in verse 19 – a verse that illustrates just who John the Baptist is – what he does – and what he models for us in our lives – and it’s found in that question asked by the priests from Jerusalem – “who are you?”

Who are you – person by the Jordan, preaching, teaching, and listening.
Who are you – person with authority who seems to know something about God that we don’t.
Who are you – person we are unsure of, nervous about, suspicious of – just what exactly do you say about yourself?

What an uncomfortable question. And it’s why this mountain man from Mark seems to get smaller today. He’s no longer a man just a person proclaiming God’s coming – he’s now a person in conflict. He’s no longer the only dominating presence and he no longer dictates the whole story of what is going on. There are people who disagree with him and who are challenging him. The invulnerability seen in Mark is replaced by something more raw, something more relatable, something much more human.

And John answers these questions from the priests in a very human way – like we all do when we’re faced with these questions about who we are – about our story. In moments of vulnerability, we’re now stuck sharing about what we’re not. We have to ask questions about ourselves. We doubt and wonder who we are. And maybe, just maybe, the others have it right. Maybe we’re not as great or as strong as we pretend. Maybe our confidence and truth is false. Maybe we’re less than we should be.

A few weeks ago, someone stopped by the church as I was getting ready to leave. They came in and they wanted to pray here in the sanctuary. So I unlocked the door, flipped on the lights, and we came right up here to the rail, and kneeled. It was just the two of us in the middle of this huge space. And then we prayed. We asked for help, guidance, support. We asked for God to give us hope. And then we did the hardest thing – we gave ourselves permission to not be strong. We gave ourselves permission to cry even though we didn’t want to. We testified to who we are as humans – that we’re vulnerable. That we can’t always be as strong as we want to be or as strong as others tell us we need to be. And that, sometimes, the weight of the world, just wins.

John the Baptist was asked who he was and who he said he was. Are you Elijah? Are you the Messiah? Are you everything we hope you will and can be? And he did the only thing he could do – he said “No.” John the Baptist isn’t the greatest thing. He’s not the one the prophets pointed too. He wasn’t going to change the world or reconcile it to God or destroy the Roman Empire so that Israel could be its own kingdom again. He wasn’t going to fulfill our dreams or wish list and he wasn’t going to right every wrong in the exact way we want. He wasn’t because that’s not who he was. He was something else. He was vulnerable. He was human. He wasn’t what everyone hoped he would be.

Instead – he did what he could. No longer only the strong, immovable man as imagined in Mark – John the Baptist is instead made small because, in the gospel according to John, the stories about John the Baptist that he heard, recorded, and that spoke to him and gave life to his community – were the stories that made John the Baptist human. He’s one of us. He’s faced with questions about who he is, about what he can do, about how exactly he’s going to change the world. John the Baptist isn’t Elijah, he’s not the Messiah, he’s just one of us. So he does the only thing he can do – he testifies to the light.

He points to the one that will change the world – to the one who will reconcile the world. He points to Jesus in everything that he does and says.

And by doing this, John the Baptist, shares something we know as people with our own very individual stories full of joys and hardships and struggles – John testifies that we need light in our lives.

We are not perfect – though we act like we are.

We are into power – even though, ultimately, we are powerless in the face of death and time.

We’re into making boundaries based on wealth, race, age, and gender – defining who is the right kind of child of God and who isn’t – even though we all are made in God’s image.

And we believe we ourselves are the light – even though we spend so much of our time living and perpetuating darkness.

John the Baptist knew this. And he knew what was to come. He couldn’t change the world. But he could point to the One who will.

Testifying – sharing with others Jesus and with our need for God’s light in our lives – isn’t about being perfect. It’s about being honest about our vulnerability. It’s about being honest about our fear. Because testifying about the light – about what’s to come – about the strength beyond us that fixes the world – that turns us away from ourselves – turns us straight towards our neighbor in need – to our friend who hurts – to the stranger who could use a little help today – testifying to the light is about not trusting ourselves but placing our trust fully in the promise of God – that this world, everything in it, including you and me – that we matter to God.

That’s what it means to testify to the light – to share God’s story – to share what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Because to be a child of God is to see that God, as one theologian I read stated, “God is committed to dealing with the tragedy of our natures.” God is committed to dealing with our darkness. God is committed to being with us in our darkness. And God is committed to overcoming it.

The story of John the Baptist, as we read today, is about God’s commitment. God is committed to Creation – to God’s people – to all that God has created and God won’t let it go. That commitment – that promise – that’s our strength. That’s what gives us life. The things we usually run to as ways to protect us – to give us strength – such as money, power, class, skin color, lifestyle, intellect, and a million other things that we use to build walls around us – we run towards all those things and hide behind them, thinking that vulnerability does not have a role in our story with God. That being weak, frail, doubtful, unsure, or just plain small is something that we cannot be.

But even as we run and hide in places where we feel strong, mighty, and protected – even as we run behind gates that we build against all that is uncomfortable to us – God still smashes through. And God does something very unexpected. God blesses our vulnerability. Because when God comes, when the light comes, it’s not in form of an army or lightning bolt or laser beam that destroys all before it. No, the light that John the Baptist points to – comes into the world in the most vulnerable way possible – as a newborn baby.

That’s how God change’s it all.

And that’s our story. That’s our testimony. Vulnerability isn’t against what it means to be human – vulnerability is at the heart of our Christian story. And that’s our invitation as we get closer to Christmas. We’re not called to only testify to our strengths and just how awesome we are. We’re not called to point to all the things we get right and all that make us better and stronger and tougher than those around us. In the Christmas letter of our lives that we share with family, friends, and everyone we meet, we’re not called to only testify to the greatest hits of our lives. We’re called to point to the vulnerabilities – to point to the weakness – to point to the unexpected and see God at work there. We’re called to say that God is there. That Christ is there. We’re called to say that Jesus – the One who is coming – the One who has come – and the One who will return again – he entered the world in a stable at the back of an inn – and started as a vulnerable and weak newborn babe. God’s light is found in the places where we’re most vulnerable – in the places where our self-assurances break down – where trust in ourselves is no longer good enough.

John the Baptist isn’t just a prophet from God. He isn’t someone we can ignore as someone different from us. John the Baptist, the one baptizing by the river, the one sharing God’s story – he is us. We are him. We are all vulnerable. And John does what we are called to do – he points – he shares – he says that in the unsure parts of who we are, in the parts of the world where God should not be, in the parts of our lives where we are weak and vulnerable – God’s light is there – and that light will never be overcome. Amen.

Play

The Prequel: a sermon on the opening of Mark.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 1:1-8

My sermon from 2nd Sunday of Advent (December 7, 2014) on Mark 1:1-8. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

How would you start Jesus’ story? If someone you know asked you, right now, to tell them about Jesus – exactly how exactly would you start?

Well – the beginning right? Since, like the song says, the beginning is usually a very good place to start. And, right now, we’re kind of in a season about beginnings – this season of Jesus’ start. Even though in the church we’re in this season of Advent – it’s hard not to have Christmas on the brain. Holiday sales, tree decorations, Christmas songs on the radio, wishlists to Santa – that’s the season we’re in. One thing I love to do each day is to see how the houses have changed along the streets I usually take. Each day, another house has a wreath on its door or new outdoor lights. Some houses are covered in giant inflatable ducks and snowmen, others have huge nativity scenes with life size Wisemen and a baby Jesus that looks much bigger than a newborn should. And then there’s the fun stuff – the lawn filled with characters from the Island of Misfit toys, or the one that really makes me and Oliver smile – the house with the lawn with a dinosaur, an Elmo, and Darth Vadar and R2D2 in Santa hats. All of this is a part of this season of beginnings. It points to Christmas. It tries to illustrate Jesus’s birth and entrance into the world. And this, this beginning is a very good place to start.

So when the author of the gospel according to Mark sat down to write – to put the stories of Jesus down on paper – the author faced that same question – where to start? Mark is writing 30 to 40 years after the resurrection. The first generation of disciples, the ones who walked with Jesus or learned from his first disciples, have been dying. The next generation of Christian disciples are taking their place. So Mark is in this period of change – in this period of transition – and he’s surrounded by stories – stories of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection – his betrayal and his life with the poor and unwanted – so Mark takes all that he’s heard, all that he knows, all that the Holy Spirit has given him – Mark takes all of that –

and begins with John.

The gospel begins with a wildman. John is a guy in the wilderness – dressed in camel hairs, eatings bug and honey, and he’s out in the middle of nowhere, preaching, and teaching and baptizing. People are hearing his story, hearing about him, and they’re leaving their homes to find John and to see what this wildman is doing.

And since I grew up in Colorado, it’s hard for me not to fill in the rest of whatJohn the Baptist looks like. To me, he’s like an old fashion mountain man. He’s big and strong, grizzled, with a thick full beard, and he spends his time chopping trees for firewood, wrestling bears, and only coming to town once a year. That’s the wildman character that I grew up with – and you probably have your own. And that image is important because Mark wants us to realize that we’re dealing with just that kind of wildman. He’s living away from the cities – he’s living in the untamed areas of the world where no political or social powers dominate. He’s living off grid before living off grid was cool where the land is untamed, where nature rules, and everything is just raw – uncivilized – but not uncontrolled. There might not be any cities or roads or fences – but Mark’s community knew that the wilderness – the untamed places – that was where God made God’s-self known.

Mark’s community knew their scripture. They knew their bible, what we call the Old Testament. They knew that when Moses met God, Moses was in the wilderness. They knew that Mt. Sinai, when God gave Moses ten commandments to share with the Israelites – to share with them what it means to live a life freed from Egyptian tyranny and slavery – they were in the wilderness. It’s in the wilderness where God sheltered David from Saul, where the prophets of old would retreat when the powers of the world did not want to hear what God wanted to say, and it’s in the wilderness where individual and communal sins were cast out away from the community during Yom Kippur. Only in the raw places could our false sense of self-control, of goodness, of being right and strong and awesome, be taken down – only in the untamed places could our failures and mistakes, our pride and our unknown participation in systems that harmed others be laid bare. Only in the wilderness could we see our sins as they truly are – and be met by the One who promises to not leave us where we are.

And it’s there where Jesus is going to appear.

In the wild – in the mess – in the unexpected places with unexpected people – that’s the stage that Mark is setting for the arrival of Jesus. Away from the cities, away from the political authorities, away from the temples – that’s where God is going to something brand new; that’s where God is going to break through. It’s there – in this untamed land – that John makes the bold assertion that something more is going to happen – that the One who will change the world is on his way.

That immediacy is important for Mark. There’s no build up, no years to wait before Jesus’ ministry begins. The Son of God is happening now. There’s no wait for the time to be right, no time for us to be prepared, no opportunity for the world to decide when to let God in. No, the Son of God is happening now. And it’s in the wilderness – in the messiness – in the untamed areas that Jesus comes first. It’s in the places that cause fear, that cause worry, hat’s where change will come – not in the proper places, or at proper time, but in the way that God promises – to be known, felt, and experienced in the wilderness – in our wilderness – in the untamed places that cause us worry, that causes us pain, that causes us to fear – that’s where God comes. That’s where Jesus will make his presence first known. We’re invited to come out, to go see a wildman, confess our sins, and seek a word of comfort and peace and love from God. For Mark – the start of Jesus’ story begins with the wilderness. It begins with that messiness. It begins with everything that wilderness means to us.

We carry within us our own wildernesses. We’re filled with moments, with experiences, with feelings that have left us spending parts of our lives lost, without connection, with feelings of burnout, fear, loneliness, failure, brokenness – these are moments of wilderness and these can carve themselves into us. They become part of who we are. They help form us, and lead us – and we carry them with us into everyday of our lives.

So returning to that first question I asked in the beginning of the sermon – how would you start Jesus’ story? What if we took a cue from Mark and we started first with talking about our own wilderness?

To start Jesus’ story with wilderness would mean that we would have to do a difficult thing – and that’s be honest with our own story, honest with all parts of our story and what the wilderness in our lives look like. We would need to be honest with the wildernesses that we find ourselves in – from ones that we’ve imposed on ourselves to those that have been imposed on us through no fault of our own. We’d have to be honest with the wildernesses we carry as folks who live here in Northern New Jersey, and in the United States – honest with our own history, our culture, and what our society has said about others, said about ourselves, and be honest about the wildernesses we’ve created for others who didn’t fit our norm.

To start Jesus’ story with the wilderness means to take the chance and the risk to tell our honest story, to tell our fears, our worries, our failures and sins. To start in the wilderness means to go into the wilderness – to go into the untamed places – to go into the uncomfortable places – and to ask for understanding, forgiveness, mercy, and love.

I believe that Mark started in the wilderness because he knew what happens in the wilderness. He knew that in the uncomfortable places, God comes. He knew that in the untamed experiences, Jesus comes. He knew that in the hurt and fear and despair, the Holy Spirit is there. Our wildernesses are never so big, never so deep, never so distant, that God will not go there. Our wildernesses are never so vast that they’ll keep Jesus from us. Because it’s in those untamed places that God comes. It’s in the untidy places that God makes Godself known. It’s in the places where we don’t want God to go that Jesus breaks in and doesn’t leave us alone.

In these first verses from Mark – we’re given an invitation to live into Jesus beginning by starting a new beginning ourselves. Because the story of Jesus is more than just a birth story, more than just a series of events that happened 2000 years ago in a country far from here. The story of Jesus is a story of encounter, it’s a story of meeting, it’s a story of presence in our lives. Any story about Jesus needs to start in the wilderness – in our wilderness – and needs to never only be a story that sounds like “Jesus did this, Jesus said this, Jesus taught this…” but should sound like “Jesus did this for me, Jesus said this to me, Jesus taught this to me and this is how I have struggled, this is how I have felt fear, this is how I’ve doubted, and this is how I’ve been changed.”

In this season of beginnings – of starts – of giant nativity sets and Darth Vadar in Santa hats – lets take this invitation from Mark to heart and enter into our wilderness, enter into our untamed places, enter into our fears – and lets discover just how God meets us there.

Amen.

Play

Not Yet A Sheep

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:31-46

My sermon from Christ the King Sunday (November 23, 2014) on Matthew 25:31-46. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

After hearing this reading from Matthew – doesn’t it feel like this really should be the shortest sermon ever? I should just stand here and say “Don’t be a goat! Amen.”

This text from Matthew feels simple. This is our last public teaching from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus has been wandering around the Temple and outside of it, teaching to his disciples, those who are curious, and those who are trying to arrest him. And these are the last words in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus utters before the Last Supper, before Jesus’s arrest, before his trial, and execution.

Jesus talks about the Son of Man returning in glory – returning from Heaven, with a huge entourage of angels, to judge the world. He sits on a throne and begins to split everyone into two groups. On his right – he puts those who he’ll bless and welcome into eternal life and he calls them sheep. On his left, he puts those who’ll be going someplace else and he calls them goats. The ones on his right did good – they clothed the naked, fed the hungry, visited the sick, saw those in prison. The ones on his left didn’t. It seems that their actions determined where they stand in this great judgment. Those who did good are blessed and get eternal life. Those who didn’t, don’t. It seems so simple, really. Here is the list of what we need to do to be a disciple of Christ: visit, feed, care, and love. That’s all it takes.

But – and there’s always a but – that’s not all that is shared in this story because our sheep and our goats do something very interesting. When they are split into two groups, and Jesus pronounces his judgement – explaining why they are where they are – both sides react the same way.

They’re surprised.

And it’s that surprise that makes this teaching not as simple as it first appears. If the goats and the sheep didn’t say anything – if they were just separated and we never heard them talk back to Jesus – then, yes, this teaching seems to be “do this and God will love you.” But the goats and the sheep – well – they talk back. They question. They look at Jesus and say “wait a minute…when did we help you….?”

So the sheep and the goats – they had no idea they were sheep and goats. They had no idea that their actions were being seen. They had no idea that their actions would have consequences. The goats – well – I think that’s an easy response for them. We hear in scripture, and we experience, selfishness. We know when we don’t give. We know when we don’t care for others. We have all experienced those moments – those hesitations – when we didn’t give that beggar a dollar even though something in our heart told us too. Or we didn’t pick up that phone call from a friend because we didn’t want to listen to them complain one more time. Or we just were so focused on our own needs that we just couldn’t see what was going on around us. The response – the questioning – by the goats makes sense.

But the sheep? That’s the odd bit here. Why are they surprised too?

It’s their surprise that makes this a hard text – a complicated text. If they weren’t surprised, then they knew that this result – this blessing to eternal life – was the way it was going to be. The sheep knew the end result so they behaved the right way. But they didn’t know. Instead, their good deeds were just a reaction to what was already inside them. They loved and cared for those who hungered, those who were sick, those who were a stranger – not because of any reward they would get – but just because that’s who they are. Their actions weren’t forced. Their actions were effortless. Their goodness and love was just part of their identity, their DNA – and it just comes out. These sheep are, to use the language of Matthew, are good trees and they bear good fruit. Their identity – their inner core – their sense of being – caused these actions of love, welcome, care, and support.

And that means these words from Jesus are a lot harder than they first appear. They aren’t about actions – they’re about identity – who we are and what makes us tick. And questions of identity lead into very personal questions – questions like: am I good? Do ethical things just come naturally – or are they forced? Am I trying to hard to do the right thing? Am I a sheep? Or am I a goat?

But before we answer those questions – we need to keep our eye focused on what comes next – on what happens when we turn the page – when we leave chapter 25 and head into chapter 26. It’s there when we see Jesus feed his disciples at the Last Supper – sharing that holy meal with those who’ll betray him, those who’ll deny him, and those who’ll run from him when he’s hanging on the cross. We need to keep our eyes on the One who’ll be stripped and mocked by the Roman soldiers. Who’ll thirst and be fed vinegar. Who’ll be imprisoned and no one will come to him. The One who’ll be nailed to the Cross – he’ll give up his life to reconcile the world to God – he’ll model just what it means to be the ultimate sheep.

This text from Matthew 25 is a hard text. It’s a text that accuses as much as it enlightens. It forces us to ask questions about ourselves – about our actions – about what we have done and about what we have not done – about whether we bear the good fruit that God calls us to bear – or whether we hesitate – make mistakes – fail to live out God’s love – God’s call to welcome the person who we don’t know and who doesn’t look or sound like us – or clothe the naked or feed the hungry or care for the sick.

This is a text that accuses – it shakes its finger at us – it calls us to account – and it forces us to turn to what’s about to come and what has come — and that’s Jesus Christ. Matthew 25 isn’t about what we need to do to be good Christians or faithful or whatever. Matthew 25 is about what Jesus did – about what Jesus brings – about what Jesus does – and about our need for Jesus in our life.

We know we’re not sheep. But, through Christ, we’re not goats either.

So what does that mean then? Where do we go from here? Do we wait until the good just kinda happens – until that faith mojo kicks in and we’re able to just spontaneously do all the good that we’re called to do?

No – we’re not called to wait. We’re not called to hesitate. We’re not called to decide when our faith is strong enough to help others because those in need are right in front of us here and now. We’re not here to decide when we’re enough – when we’ve got all we need to be strong, all we need to be faithful, all we need to be feel secure in helping out those around us. No, we’re not here to wait until we’re enough but, instead, to rest on the promise that Christ is enough. That Christ gives us strength. That Christ is with us. And that, in baptism, in the Holy Spirit, God’s promise is enough.

We’re not Christ but that doesn’t mean we can’t be Christ to our friends, family, neighbors, and strangers. We’re called to welcome – to invite – to share – to care – to love – not because we’re perfect; not because we’re awesome; not because we’ll always get it right. We’re called to do all these things because Jesus promises to walk with us – to be a presence in our life – to help turn us into sheep rather than let us remain as goats.

The challenge, then, isn’t to be filled with faith. The challenge is to live into God’s promise that we will be given that fullness of faith – that we will be given grace – that we are given all that we need, right now, to live, and love, as Jesus did.

The challenge is to be Christ-like: to notice the friend in need; to notice the stranger who needs hope; to notice those who hunger and thirst and who can’t hear the gospel because they’re too busy just trying to find something to eat.

The challenge is to see that next page – to know that, after Matthew 25, that hill on Calvary comes – that the actions of God to reconcile the world through Jesus Christ happened – that they matter – and that we might not be a sheep right now, we might still mistakes, we might still hesitate, we might not care or heal like Jesus did – but that doesn’t mean we don’t try —- not because it earns us favor with God —- but because that favor has already been given to us.

The world has already been saved —- and now, it needs to be loved.

Amen.

Play