Turning Points: a sermon on Jesus, Rome, Peter, and place.

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Mark 8:27-38

My sermon from the 19th Sunday After Pentecost (September 13, 2015) on Mark 8:27-38.

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You Are: Jesus as a Ghost.

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

Luke 24:36-48

My sermon from the 3rd Sunday of Easter (April 19, 2015) on Luke 24:36-48.

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Go, tell! An Easter Sermon

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Mark 16:1-8

My sermon from the Easter Sunday (April 5, 2015) on Mark 16:1-8.

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Fruit by the Foot: a sermon on the weirdness that is foot washing.

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.’ For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

John 13:1-17,31-35

My sermon from the Maundy Thursday (April 2, 2015) on John 13:1-17,31-35.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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