Called To Be the Evidence

Philosophers, poets, and writers throughout history and still today have all lifted up and commended to us the idea of love. Socrates, William Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Jonas Brothers…

On the top of the charts you can hear them singing:

“We go together/Better than birds of a feather, you and me/We change the weather, yeah/I’m feeling heat in December when you’re ’round me/

I’ve been dancing on top of cars and stumbling out of bars/I follow you through the dark, can’t get enough/You’re the medicine and the pain, the tattoo inside my brain/And, baby, you know it’s obvious/I’m a sucker for you

You say the word and I’ll go anywhere blindly/I’m a sucker for you, yeah/Any road you take, you know that you’ll find me”

Every generation has its love songs, and they’re fun to sing along to.  You might even be able to learn something about love, but the truth is even at our best, our love for one another often requires something in return – it isn’t free.  We want some reciprocated action that communicates gratitude, some sign of appreciation, or a ‘thank you’ at the very least.  We want something to show for the effort of reaching out to care for someone else, even if it’s just the pride we feel for being so noble.

Jesus’ love, however, is entirely self-giving.  He gives up his life for us as a free gift, demanding nothing in return, only wanting to be with us.

Jesus gives up his life, but it’s not just as a sacrifice.  Because Jesus loves us so much he puts himself on the line for a specific reason: in order to protect the ones entrusted to him.

Next weekend a bunch of us are going to Bear Creek Lake Star Park to camp together for Memorial Day Weekend. 

Growing up, my family used to go to Hungry Mother State Park in Smyth County, VA, which is one of the original Civilian Conservation Core parks built during the depression and completed in the early 1930s.  The park has over two-thousand acres of lush woodlands for camping and hiking and a large lake for swimming and fishing.

When I was very small, I remember sitting with my grandparents in their living room one day as they told stories about going to the park they loved so much and asking my Grandmother how the park got its unique name.

She said that she had been told as a girl about a mother and daughter-of-about-two-years-old who were traveling far from home through Smyth County long before good roads and they got caught out in a snow storm.  The mother gave the daughter all of her food and tried to shelter her daughter from the ice, the cold rain and snow, the freezing temperatures, and in an effort to protect her daughter, had found an embankment and dug into the snow and placed her daughter down on the ground and then covered her up with her own body to keep the child warm. 

A group traveling through the same area in the next day or so came along and found the pair.  The mother was frozen to death, but under her, the small child was alive and in a small, pleading voice was crying out for help: “hungry, Mother.”  The child was taken and cared for.  She was adopted by a loving family and she grew up to live a heathy life.

Jesus shows us his vision for a new kind of love without limits by laying down his life to save us from the storms that ravage the world around us and churn within us.

In Jesus we see that God knows about the storm, because as Jesus gathered at this table for a final time with his friends and lavishly washed their feet, there was a storm coming.

You see the “he” in the first verse we heard this morning from John’s Gospel refers to Judas. 

Judas was going out in order to betray Jesus, bringing a storm of betrayal and arrest and death.  But as Judas heads out into the dark of night with ice in his heart toward what Jesus is trying to do in the world, Jesus is in control, aware that all this has been set in motion so that his disciples and the people will be able to see God’s glory revealed in how he will use his body to protect us and give his life for ours.

As followers of Jesus, we have been commissioned to follow him, and to give of ourselves, even to the point of death if necessary.

Recently I was listening to one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons called “a Knock at Midnight.”  Dr. King says that in our call to stand up to the evil and the storms of the world we should never forget how many Christians there are in the world (he said at the time there were a billion Christians but I think there must be more now). 

He reminded those gathered at his church that we must be willing to give up our life if it’s asked of us and recalled how Caesar demanded his subjects to fight in the imperial army, but Christians refused and they would go to the lions with a “hymn on their lips and a smile on their faces.”  Why?  King asks.  Was it in their ecclesiastical machinery?  No!  Was it in their creedal system?  No! It was not only that.  They had “love for the brethren,” he said.

They loved one another with a love that came from Jesus.

You see, I don’t have enough love with which to love you, forgive you, or care for you or any other person.  And you don’t have enough love with which to love me, forgive me, or care for me or any other person.  But Jesus Christ stands between us.  By his resurrection power at work in us, Jesus gives us love with which to love one another.

This is how the world will know we are his disciples.

One week ago, last Sunday morning, perhaps while we were in worship together messages of graffiti were being discovered on the walls of Godwin high school.  Overnight, multiple crude drawings of guns appeared with the word “soon” and the date 5/15/19, which was the date of last Wednesday.

It is a terrifying thing to happen in our community, but its hard to imagine what kind of fear courses through your body if you are a student at Godwin.   The 1,800 students and 200 staff of Godwin high school must have all been rocked by this egregious, threatening display.  Parents and families must have felt – may still feel – perhaps even more trepidation.

From Sunday morning on, Principal Leigh Dunavant and her staff were tireless in their pursuit of uncovering who drew the graffiti: they explored tips, found information by scouring social media, they asked hard questions, they didn’t stop, and finally they uncovered who made the threat and secured a confession through a hard but compassionate confrontation with them.

The staff of Godwin pulled together and scrubbed the spray paint off the walls of the school.  They invited the students to write and sign banners of hope and positivity and inclusion, and the news went out that WITH the people who had written the graffiti in custody, it would be safe to go to school on Wednesday.  Still, there were extra police called in – police on the campus, in the parking lot, in the buildings –people to be there with these young men and women to make sure they were safe.

They might not think of it this way, but Leigh, the police, and the staff were there to put themselves on the line.  They were there to protect the ones entrusted to them.  They were there to show love without regard for themselves, instead putting others first.

Who says the love of Jesus Christ isn’t allowed in the public schools?

I know better, and we all know better, because this week we saw the evidence.

God’s glory is revealed in Jesus’ willingness to meet the evil of this world head-on and face-to-face in the cross and empty tomb, and he sends us out to step forward as he stepped forward: without fear and in full confidence that God is with us and his own love pulses through our shared life.

Sisters and brothers, we are called to be the evidence of Jesus’ love.

We are called to share the news of a vision of the things of heaven coming down to the things of earth, so that all who suffer and grieve will hear the promise that God will wipe away every tear. 

We are called to share the news with those who experience life cut short by senseless violence, with those who experience hunger and tragedy, with those who experience the loss of loved ones, and to all of us who bring any grief or sadness to God…. 

Death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Jesus makes all things new.

We simply point to God.

We point to the One who is the mother of all creation and the father of Israel, who is praised by angels and the host of heaven; sun and moon, fire and hail, snow and fog, mountains and hills, and all peoples, old and young together…

…we point to this God who became flesh and lived among us so that God’s glory – his reputation – his splendidness – would be revealed in the cross. 

The cross of Jesus is what love looks like.

Jesus laid down his life for us as a free gift of love and because Jesus has been raised, his love has no limits.  He will not hold back anything of his own but lays it all out for you and for me and the small, pleading voice of the world that cries out for help.

You can hear Jesus respond in love when he offers you his forgiveness, when he calls you to his table.  If you listen hard enough you might even be able to hear him singing to you, singing to me, singing to the whole world:

We go together/Better than birds of a feather, you and me/We change the weather, yeah/I’m feeling heat in December when you’re ’round me

I’ve been dancing on top of cars and stumbling out of bars/I follow you through the dark, can’t get enough/You’re the medicine and the pain, the tattoo inside my brain/And, baby, you know it’s obvious/I’m a sucker for you

You say the word and I’ll go anywhere blindly/I’m a sucker for you, yeah/Any road you take, you know that you’ll find me.

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We Have Seen the Unseeable!

Jesus Christ is alive!

On the cross Jesus opened his arms in love for you and for the whole world and God the Father looked on Jesus’ faithful life, passion, and death, and acted decisively to upend and overturn the worst of what we can do, raising him from the dead.

But Jesus really died.

He did not nearly die and then find himself nursed back to health in the ICU.

He did not have a near-death experience but find himself resuscitated.

He did not come very close to death only to be brought back to health by a clinical trial of experimental medicine.

In the tomb, Jesus’ body lay dead.

Until the women came to the tomb with spices and found the stone rolled away, and two men in dazzling white said to them, “why are you looking among the dead for the living? He is not here but has risen! Don’t you remember how he told you he had to be betrayed, crucified, and rise again?”

But what happened before the stone was rolled aside?

What happened before the women arrived?

What happened inside that tomb?

That’s what our daughter Lucia wanted to know last night.

Our daughter is five years old, and was probably trying the stall-tactic, but when I was putting her to bed last night in the pitch-black darkness of her bedroom, she asked me, “Daddy, who was in the tomb with Jesus?”

“Who was in the tomb with him?” I asked.

“Yes, was anyone in there with him?”

I had to think about that.

Well, Joseph of Arimathea gave the tomb for Jesus and it was a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid.

But more to the point, Yes, there was someone in the tomb with Jesus.

God was in the tomb with Jesus.

God had promised never to leave Jesus and God was with him in the tomb, just as God is with us in the tombs of our life.

You have been in the tomb, haven’t you?

Oh, of course you have stood beside graves of loved ones where part of you dies. But I know you have been in the tomb yourself.

You have been in the doctor’s office and received the diagnoses of illnesses we can’t control. You have been touched by separation and divorce, the loss of a job.
You have known loneliness and stress and sadness.

We experience the deep darkness in our lives – we experience the tomb – when it feels like it’s all over – AND there is tremendous pressure not to let on, not to let anyone know.

We don’t want to feel the shame; we want to keep it to ourselves and then we feel guilty about that.

We experience the tomb. And it is dark.

We live in a country captive to the darkness of violence as we mark the 20-year anniversary of Columbine knowing that things have only gotten worse.

We are captive to the darkness of racism where we still have basically-segregated-neighborhoods and lives.

And we are captive as a nation to the darkness of dysfunction as we wonder what happened to being the shining example to the rest of the world as to what integrity and justice look like.

We have been in the darkness of the tomb ourselves, but the good news of Easter is that Christ is now alive and sends the Spirit of his love and healing to you and me, to this whole world, and to the deepest, darkest places of this universe – places so dark it’s almost impossible to comprehend.

A week and a half ago astronomers with the National Science Foundation announced that at last they had captured an image of what had previously been thought unobservable:
a black hole.

Black holes are those cosmic abysses in the universe so deep and dense that not even light can escape them.

The black hole captured in the photo revealed to the world a week and a half ago was one located far across intergalactic space, 55 million light-years away from Earth, in M87, a giant galaxy in the constellation Virgo.

There, this black hole, which is several billion times more massive than the sun is unleashing a violent jet of energy some 5,000 light-years out into space.

I have to say, that what I have recalled by reading about this monumental discovery over the past week is that black holes aren’t just mysterious. They’re violent. They’re major disrupters of cosmic order.

Formed when too much matter or energy is concentrated in one place, black holes trap matter and light in perpetuity, and furiously consume everything around them pulling all life into itself where it is trapped forever, where it can never get out, and where it ceases to exist.

Most of the black holes that we experience aren’t 55 million light years away.

The abyss of addiction is much too close,
the darkness of depression is inside us,
estrangement from family; the void of loneliness and thoughts of suicide hover within us and in the ones we love –

They become a black hole within us that traps the matter and light of our lives and threatens to furiously consume everything good around them,

And, in the deep darkness, we ask:
is anyone here in this tomb with me?
God, are you here with me?

If you hadn’t seen the just-published picture of this black hole it might be interesting to hear how people have described it.

Some have described it as an illuminated smoke ring, others say it resembled the Eye of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings, one friend of mine says she thinks it looks like a fuzzy donut, but I can tell you what it looks like.

It looks like a tomb with the stone being rolled away and the beautiful light of God’s love escaping out into the universe and reaching out to you and me.

You see Jesus and the light of his love illuminate the tombs that we experience, are with us in the black holes of our life –
when we are afraid, when we are sick, when we are hopeless – God is there.

Just as God was with Jesus on the cross and in the tomb.

Maybe the two men at the tomb who greeted the women to tell the news that Jesus was alive had dazzling bright clothes because they were still iridescent from being in the tomb when God’s second big bang of love woke Jesus from the dead in a blast of light.

Maybe these two men were shining as bright as a supernova because the same love that exploded in joy to make this world, exploded in an equally joyous outpouring of love to
remake this world through the resurrection of the one who has saved it.

The women and the apostles can’t be blamed for being slow to believe.

If you and I are sometimes slow to believe maybe we can’t be blamed either.

Who would think a person who had died could live again?

But an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Shepherd Doeleman, speaking about the photo of the black hole last week, said,

“We have seen what we thought was unseeable.”

God breaks into your life
and is with you in the loneliest voids,
the deepest black holes,
the darkest tombs.

And when God breaks in with the light of his love,
through his word,
through the meal of forgiveness,
through the friendship of another,
through the surprising moment of grace,
you have to tell it.

You can’t keep news that good to yourself.

I am not a scientist, but I have a friend who is. We were talking about the photo released and this amazing scientific breakthrough.

I asked him what he thought and he said, “Oh! I believe it. Ibelieve it because they went public. You only go public if you know what you’re talking about!”

That’s how it works.

At the tomb, the women remembered Jesus’ words, and they realize:

In Jesus’ resurrection
God didn’t just reached into the grave of one man to raise him up.

In Jesus’ resurrection
God has reached into the black hole of the cosmos and rescued life from the clutches of death – for you and for me and for the whole universe.

So, then we have to tell the news that he is alive!

God’s Spirit has called us here today to hear this good news of Jesus’ victory over death…

and to tell it,

to sing it,

to live it,

to be it,

and to share it….

Our Living God is with us and says, “Friends, it’s time to go public!”

Welcome Home

A lot has changed with the family in just a few short generations. 

I’ve heard Baby Boomers tell about their childhood and explain that if they did something wrong, their parents would discipline them by sending them out into the yard to get a switch off of a tree – that’s a branch that would be used to switch the legs. The child was to bring back the weapon with which they would be punished and if the switch they chose wasn’t big enough, mom or dad would go get one the right size and it would be so big that you would never make the mistake of bringing in a switch too small again.

Just look around and you’ll see that the approach to parenting today has relaxed a good bit, but you’d be hard pressed to find a parent more permissive than the father we meet in this parable Jesus tells to the crowd of tax collectors and sinners, and pharisees and scribes that are gathered around him.

The father in the parable is approached by the younger of his two sons, who comes to make a demand, but he’s not just asking for access to social media because all his friends are on Instagram, or an Xbox One with NBA2K19, or even a car of his own. 

The son says, give me… EVERYTHING.  I… want… it… all. 

And the father says, “Okay!”

The father takes stock of all that he’s worked for, saved for, and stashed away.  He cashes out his stocks and bonds, his equities and annuities, and liquidates half of all that he has and gives it to his younger son. 

And this leads us to wonder: What kind of father is this?!

This is the kind of father who has a son who can’t wait to blow town.  The younger son heads down the road with his pockets stuffed with cash, spending it like it will last forever, until is doesn’t, and in a far distant town, he realizes that he has spent everything he has and scattered it all into the wind.  And then, bankrupt, penniless, and all alone, things go from bad to worse.  A famine hits that country and no one has anything to eat. 

So the boy gets a job at a local farm slopping the pigs, but he hasn’t eaten for days and as he looks at the gruel in his bucket, he feels the hunger pain in his gut, and the pod soup, which he’s supposed to feed the pigs starts to look good, and he wishes that he could eat it, but no one allows him to have even that.

So the younger son realizes he’s hit rock bottom.  He has no food.  He’s far from home.  He has no friends.  He has no one who can help.  He may wonder how he could have possibly failed so spectacularly and taken every single wrong turn necessary to end up standing in this field of excrement and mud, with pig food a delicacy beyond his reach.

And then he remembers.  His father!  His father’s servants at least have food to eat! So he will go home and apologize and throw himself at his father’s mercy.  Surely, his father will help.

And we don’t know what really motivates the younger son at this point.  Maybe he is contrite.  Maybe he has been brought down so low and feels so devastated by his failure that his heart is filled with remorse and he’s prepared to change his ways. 

Or maybe he is the same conniving, manipulative, selfish son that his actions have so far shown him to be, and he just knows his father well enough to know if he can get home, his father will be a push-over and will agree to help him.

This younger son’s motivation is impossible to read, but he has a moment of clarity about what’s happened and he heads home. 

And in this moment, we learn what kind of father this is.

The father sees his wayward son far off, coming over the horizon, which means he or a servant has posted themselves around the clock to keep watch for the son.   He’s kept watch because he loves his son, and maybe because knows his son and his son’s lack of business acumen well enough to know that eventually he’d be coming home empty handed.

And so the son comes over the horizon and the old man is running – not sending a servant or even walking out to meet his son – but running out to meet his son – and the Greek here is even more poignant and lovely than what we heard read this morning. 

We heard that the father is filled with compassion and puts his arms around the son but the text actually says that the father throws himself on his son’s neck – imagine the old man’s nose buried deep into the warm flesh of his son’s neck – it says: and he kisses and he kisses him fervently.

Before the son can finish the talking points that he had rehearsed and explain that he had just hoped for some food and maybe a place to live, the Father is calling for the finest robe – which signifies he won’t be working like a servant in the fields – and calling for a ring for his finger, which signifies that his honor as a son has been restored.

The father is so happy that his son has come home that he calls for a feast.  He’s not thinking about his financial ruin, or the fact that he’s lost half his estate, because he’s too busy giving orders: “Fire up the grill!  Tell everyone you know: tonight, we sink our teeth into grain-fed beef and all the fix in’s!  Bring everyone you see: tonight, there’s going to be an open bar!”  And you can almost see the guitar players tuning up their strings, as the band counts off and the first song lifts into the air as everyone heads out onto the dancefloor. The father has to celebrate because his son is back home under his roof safe and sound. 

But the strains of music aren’t so sweet to everyone.  The father’s older son is standing out in the field after a long day of work with tired muscles, and he is incredulous.  He simply can’t believe it.  He hears the ruckus, and finds out second-hand what the party is all about, and he refuses to come in.  It would be a shame worse than death to walk in in order find his reserved seat by locating the little card with his name on it above his plate and to sit down at the table and join this party thrown for his loser brother.

And again, in this moment, we learn what kind of father this is.

The father leaves the celebration and comes out to his eldest son to plead with him to join in the party.  Under the stars the father listens to his son’s complaints.  He listens as his son finally unbottles his feelings that he’s always seen himself as a slave rather than a son.  He listens as his son admits that when he dreams, he dreams of having fun and celebrating with his friends – not with his dad.  The father listens as the son grumbles about how terrible his life has been with him at home.

The father listens to this rule-following but cold-hearted son and tries to get him to see that his fatherly love for him isn’t diminished by anything that’s happened.  In fact, each day that they were together through his brother’s long absence was precious to the father because the elder son was with him at home.

The father assures his older son, “All that is mine is yours” and holds out his arms to the older son, hoping he will give in and join him and his brother and their family and friends inside, where the party is going strong.

This is the invitation and we are invited to the party.

Our Heavenly Father welcomes us home when we are like the younger son and go astray, when we waste opportunities, when we neglect his compassion, when we ask for things from a place of selfishness, when we try to manipulate him, and when we hurt the people he has put in our lives.

And our Heavenly Father welcomes us home when we are like the older son and are cold-hearted, and judgmental, and have a chip on our shoulder, and don’t want to make room for others who aren’t as faithful or smart or this-or-that as us, and when we think we’re good enough to earn God’s love.

Jesus’ parable features two unfaithful, stumbling sons. 

We can focus our eyes on the younger son and see that those who recognize they’re powerless to save themselves and call on God will receive the full welcome, forgiveness, and love of God.   

We can focus our eyes on the older son and see that there’s the danger of forgetting how much we need of God, but that even if we do God will forgive us.

And we can probably see parts of ourselves in each of these sons, but really, the best place to focus our eyes is not on the younger or the older son, but the son telling the story – the one who gives us the love of the Father.   

In Jesus Christ we are all brought home, we are forgiven, we are sheltered, we are kissed and kissed fervently, we are given a robe and a ring, and we’re invited into the feast that never ends.  His death and resurrection is the celebration that is the bright light in the night of our despair, our fear, and our wandering.

I don’t know about you but I’ve been far from home. I’ve been through times in my life that were so hard, I didn’t know if I would make it through.  I didn’t know if I had it in me to take the next step.  In those times there was nothing left to do – no other options – but to pray to God and beg for enough strength to get through the day.  And he did give me enough strength.  I remember thinking in those times that if I could just keep going; if I could just get through it, one day I would look back on that time and it would be like a dream; almost like it never happened.

This morning, Joshua reminds us of how God brought the Israelites through the desert and after forty long years, how their long wilderness wondering was finally ended as they ate manna for the very last time and finally sunk their teeth into the crops growing on the vines of the promised land.  Their years in the desert were over, like a dream they just woke up from, because God saved them.

And Paul tells us that most surprising news that if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away.  It’s over.  It’s almost like it never happened. Everything has become new.  Its as if we never were in the far distant land with excrement and mud on our boots.  Its as if we never were standing outside the party with our arms folded, too resentful and ashamed to come in.

In our baptism into Christ, we are home with our Father, who keeps watch for me and for you by day and by night. 

We have a Father whose discipline is forgiveness.  Whose correction is mercy.  And whose approach to parenting is grace.

Today God embraces you, protects you, loves you, and invites you to the feast.

No and Yes

Today the flowers on the altar are given in part by Tracey Fatzinger and Greg Parker in celebration of their wedding anniversary. This week Tracey and Greg are celebrating twenty-four years of marriage since that day they held one another’s hands and promised their life to one another, and among the many unexpected blessings they will give thanks for are their two intelligent, beautiful children – blessings they could never have imagined all those years ago, on the day they were married.

In the months leading up to each wedding ceremony that I serve as pastor for, I invite the couple to attend four sessions of marriage counseling. We typically meet here at the church in my office and after we’ve all sat down and visited a bit, I always begin by asking the couple to tell me the story of what has brought them to this decision in their lives.

Some couples tell the entire story of their courtship, and sometimes their telling of the story includes the actual proposal – and they will tell me who asked who, and what the response was; what they were feeling at that moment they first said YES to each other – that moment at which they both said in some form or fashion, “I promise to share my life you forever.”
But that YES that couples say to each other, when they promise their lives to one another, is also a NO. Or perhaps its more-fair to say that their YES to one another is a NO to a myriad of other things, many of which they may have enjoyed in the past.

Their YES to one another is also a NO to leaving for the weekend without having to tell anyone what they’re up to, it’s a NO to doing whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it, it’s a NO to other potential partners, and it’s a NO to spending money however they like without consulting one another.

The things that these spouses-to-be say NO to aren’t necessarily bad things, but they can’t say YES to them anymore because they’ve said YES to one another.

Out in the wilderness, Jesus says NO to the devil because he has already said YES to God.
The first temptation laid out before Jesus by the devil is this: will you desert God for bread? Certainly, bread is not bad! Even Jesus, the Son of God, needed food to eat! He became exactly like us except for our sin – hunger and all! Certainly, God provided bread for the Israelites in the wilderness and after all, later on in Luke’s gospel, Jesus will turn two fish and a few loaves into bread for five thousand people, which is at least something similar to what the devil is asking Jesus to do.

But Jesus can read the devil’s intentions: He knows that the devil is a slanderer and an accuser. And this becomes even more clear with the devil’s second offer: the devil invites Jesus to desert God for power of his own and to commit idolatry. The devil only asks Jesus to bow low and worship him, and turn his back on the Lord God.

But Jesus reminds the devil of the first commandment, on which all the others rest: Worship the Lord God only and serve only him.

So finally, the devil, giving it one more shot, asks Jesus: will you ask God to do your will rather than you seeking his will? But Jesus refuses and so the devil leaves Jesus until a more favorable time.

Jesus could say NO to these tests because he had said YES to God.

And really, these three temptations are all the same, as all temptations are the same.
Jesus was tempted with bread, then power, and then control, but at each turn the real underlying temptation was for Jesus to put his hope in something other than God.

This is always the temptation, from the garden when Adam and Eve take the bite of fruit hoping that it will put them on even footing with God…to the people of Israel in the wilderness who complain against God believing if they were calling the shots all the wilderness wandering we be going more smoothly…to us who don’t really trust God to take care of us and often believe we’ll have better luck if we take care of things on our own.

Maybe the things that Jesus was tempted by are the things that tempt us…maybe we’re tempted by food, or power, or control. Or maybe we’re tempted more by wealth and status… our maybe its our own comfort and pleasure… or maybe a carefree life of drifting from one cool new experience to another taking pictures along the way so we can post them on facebook and make everyone jealous, which will bring more approval and acceptance from others, which is what we may very well desire most of all.

These temptations get dressed up in different clothes – but whatever the form – is always the same. The temptation that comes from outside of us and acts on us is the temptation to find our identity in something else or someone else other than the God revealed to us by a suffering Jesus on the cross.

Maybe this story about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by the devil seems fanciful and unreal or mythological, what with the devil speaking to Jesus in person, face-to-face, and whisking Jesus around from place to place in an instant like some archaic version of a Christmas Carol and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future — but what is more real than temptation?

Jesus knew real temptation. And what’s more-true about this life than knowing the difference between right and wrong and finding ourselves unable to choose to do what’s right?

We experience it every day. Its easier to tell a little white lie –or a big one for that matter – than face the uncomfortable truth, its easier to be mad at someone rather than to see where our own decisions contributed to the problem, its easier to look the other way than to get involved in the hard work of making our community stronger, its easy to choose the path that both major political parties in our country have chosen and which has brought us to this long cold stalemate, which is to believe that the ends justify the means and its okay to do or say the wrong thing if it brings about some envisioned greater good.

We are tempted daily. And we fail daily. By our actions we show that we love ourselves more than others, we love things more than people, and we love control more than compassion.

But when Jesus is tempted, he says, “We do not live by bread alone…power…or control, “but we live instead by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
Jesus faced all these temptations we face and said NO to them, because he had already said YES to God.

And in our baptism, we are joined to Christ and God says YES to us.

God says YES to us and calls us his own. God says YES to us and promises faithfulness to us. God says YES to us and promises he’ll never leave us. And because in every YES there is a NO, in baptism God also says NO: God says NO to punishing us for our failing. God says NO to cutting us loose and leaving us on our own. God says NO to giving us what we deserve.
Every time we celebrate a baptism we hear an echo of this very wilderness scene.

The baptismal party – the family of the infant – or the adult, if an adult is being baptized, is asked three questions to which they are to respond NO and three to which they are invited to respond YES.

They are asked to say NO to the devil and all the forces that defy God, NO to the powers of this world that rebel against God, and NO to the ways of sin that draw us away from God.
And they are asked to say NO to these things… so that they can say YES when they are asked: Do you believe in God the Father? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God? Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?

Within every YES there is a NO and within every NO there is a YES.

As a congregation we help one another say YES to God and help one another say NO to the things that would hurt us, or hurt one another, and lead us away from God. We live together in partnership trusting that once and for all God has said YES to us in welcome and unconditional love.

Every year on the first Sunday in Lent, the church hears this story – the story of the Holy Spirit leading Jesus out into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

Even before the cross of Good Friday and empty tomb of Easter that are to come, we are able to see that the devil, darkness, and sin, which have their way with us on a daily basis, have no power over Jesus.

Jesus defeats all these dark powers because of the YES he has said eternally to God, and he takes our hand and leads us through the wilderness into that YES of God in which he lives. He leads us on this journey that begins with ashes and leads to life.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Blessings and Warnings

When I was living in Baltimore and working at Project PLASE, a homeless shelter for men living with HIV and AIDS I was surprised and stirred by the common response to the ordinary morning question, “How are you?”
Now, I hear morning greetings in and around Richmond all the time. Nearly every day I hear people ask, “How are you?” And the responses I most often hear are the usual. “I’m okay,” “I’m good,” “everything is fine.”
But nearly all of the men at 201 North Avenue in Baltimore would answer the same question by saying, “I’m blessed.”
Ask Anthony, “How are you?” — And he’d say, “I’m blessed.”
Ask William, “How’s it going?” — And he’d say, “I’m blessed.”
Ask Squeeze, “What’s going on?” — And he’d say, “I’m blessed.”
I have to say that it startled me to hear it. I had to pause when these guys who were so sick, who were hardly more that skin and bones, without much of anything in the world beyond what they could fit into a bookbag to call their own, many of them battling addiction, many of them estranged from family, who had to ask me for a bus token each morning because they couldn’t afford to ride the bus on their own… identified and designated themselves “blessed.”
Most of us probably have our own ideas about what it means to be blessed. I am not certain then or now I would begin my definition by describing these guys’ lives as blessed. But they did.
Jesus pronounces blessing in a way that is just as startling.
Jesus comes down the mountain with his twelve disciples and stands on a level place and invites us to hear — you are blessed, you are favored and you are given happiness when you find yourself with empty pockets, an empty belly, emptiness inside that leads to tears, and an empty social calendar and the experience of exclusion because of your love for him.
Blessed are you, Jesus says to the poor. You will be filled and yours is the Kingdom of God. You will laugh. You will leap for joy.
This is not the gospel of Matthew’s spiritual beatitudes where Jesus says, Blessed are the poor in spirit. Here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says blessed are the poor. And here in Luke, Jesus also pronounces woe.
Jesus invites us to hear that pain and grief are for you who have pockets that are full, bellies that are full, mouths that are full of laughter, and ears that are full of people’s praise for you, but woe to you who are wealthy and filled and carefree now, because you will be hungry, you will grieve, and you will cry because, Jesus says, you have already received what you wanted and what you worked for.
I don’t know about you but this is not the message that I most often hear from the world.
Most often, the message I think we receive is that blessing and happiness can be ours if we just choose it and work hard enough. It can be found somewhere down the strip of Broad street, in the stores of Short Pump, at the outlet malls, on Amazon; it can be experienced with a luxury vacation, the purchase of a new truck, a vacuum that can be programmed to work while we sleep, or whatever else.
How many times must we be disappointed until we learn deep down that the things we purchase won’t and cannot bring us happiness?
Soren Kierkegaard tells that story of walking by a shop window with a sign that read “we press pants.” He ran home to bring back his trousers, walked into the store and laid them on the counter. He said, “I’d like to have these pants pressed please.” “Oh, we don’t do that,” the man at the counter said. “Yes, but your sign says ‘We press pants.’” The man said, “Yes, but we don’t press pants, we print the sign that says ‘we press pants.’”
It’s an illusion. The world advertises that happiness is available through material over-consumption but the truth is it is all an illusion. And so there is a chasm between what the world promises will bring us happiness and the life Jesus invites us into and shows us how to live.
And you guys, what if Jesus is right?
What if equating success with having resources, relaxation, and reputation is hollow? What if Jesus can’t just be an add on to our life, one part of our identity, and someone to call on when we need divine intervention in the few and far between instances when we can’t figure out what’s next on our own?
Jesus calls us to experience the blessing that comes from emptying ourselves, and as we listen to his word it becomes clear that if we’re going to trust Jesus, it’s going to cost us everything. So, we have to ask what the proof would be that we can trust him.
And certainly, Jesus comes down to this level place and speaks these words of blessing and woe having just healed and cured and shown his power, but its Paul who gets to the heart of the issue and tells us what’s really at stake.
Paul says to the church in Corinth and to us: If Christ has not been raised from the dead then our faith has been in vain and we are of all people most to be pitied.
If Jesus is not living and standing with God, sending his Spirit to gather us here today to receive his word and his supper, his forgiveness and his mercy, then this hour of your life is a waste, and worse yet, all of your worship and prayer and serving and sharing in his name has been a waste, and worst of all, there is no hope for this weary, broken, divided, violent and hurting world, so somebody declare a National Emergency and an International Call to Hopelessness.
If Jesus is not alive then the death that awaits us all simply quiets all that we are and all that we have been – our work, our memories, our tears and laughter, our energy, and our hope.
And certainly, if Jesus is not Lord of all, his words of blessing and woe make no sense at all. We might as well fill our pockets and our bellies and lives with as much stuff as we can, while we still can.
But in fact, Brothers and Sisters, the good news is that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. His heart which had been slowed and silenced by the cross, beats again and forever. His breath that was stopped by betrayal and hatred, breathes his Holy Spirit into our life again today. His work of healing and forgiveness which was buried under the rock and dirt of the ground is loose in the world to create new life in you and me, in his whole church and in the world.
Because Jesus is alive, sending us his forgiveness and compassionate mercy, these words of blessing and woe become an invitation.
Jesus stands on a level place, not above us but with us to issue these woes as a warning. Jesus doesn’t want any pain to come to you. He doesn’t want grief or hunger for you. His cross shows the lengths to which God would go to bring you and the whole world back to him!
From this perspective we can hear the woes as warnings. “Woe!” Jesus says, “Be careful. Don’t miss out on the blessing of God.” These are words of warning and instruction to people whom God loves.
About 2 years ago, in March of 2017, the youth group went down to Norfolk for a youth event. First Lutheran in Norfolk had invited us down for a lock-in called the Hunger Rumble – over the weekend we had bible study and we did service in the community. And everyone was invited to fast – to actually abstain from eating for a period of about 30 hours in order to get a small glimpse of the experience of hunger. We had a wonderful time and we collected a large amount of food for a local Norfolk food bank.
On the way back I was driving the van and Rob Burger was in the passenger seat. Rob was catching up on some work email, but we were also talking and the radio was on, and all of a sudden Rob looks up. And the surroundings did not look right. Come to find out, we had overshot our exit by about 20 miles. Rob, a good man and a good friend, but also a man of sound decision making and high expectations, looks at me for a response, and as he tells the story, my response was, “Dude, I’m just driving.”
Jesus knows that it is so easy to get off the path of following him. With these woes he cautions against following our own way, of being misdirected by wealth or our own comfort, of being oblivious to our surroundings and the people around us. We have people in the van with us after all, who are looking to us to be carried along the way of discipleship.
These words of Jesus, these woes and warnings to watch what our heart loves, are an invitation to repentance and to come back daily to journeying with him.
Jesus invites us to a level place where we share what we have.
The poor are blessed, and they are a blessing. Anthony and William and Squeeze didn’t just befriend me in Baltimore. They invited me to church at a time when I wasn’t sure the church was something I wanted to be a part of. The people I worked with, all women and men who had been through the experience of homelessness and had gotten their lives together through help, and prayer, and the ministry of the church invited me to their homes where they showed me why they were blessed, because God had given them enough for another day.
We are renewed in the path of Christ when we meet him in the poor. When we realize the ways we are poor ourselves.
Christ blesses those who are empty from the cross. With absolutely nothing left and completely emptied he pours out God’s love on you who are poor and you who are rich, you who are hungry and you who are filled, you who are weeping and you who are laughing, you who are excluded and you who are spoken well of.
So Sisters and Brothers come to the table and receive God’s blessing.

One Little Word

We come to worship each week and it is interesting and, I think, beautiful to pause for a moment and think that our Lord Jesus also gathered in a similar way to worship.
We don’t know everything about the practice of worship in the synagogue during the time of Jesus’ life and ministry but we do know that there was a liturgy and an order to the weekly gathering, somewhat similar to the liturgy we practice this morning.
We know, for example, that it was customary for a teacher to stand and read from the scrolls of the holy scriptures and then for the teacher to take a seat to interpret what they had read and teach the people.
So, Jesus, freshly baptized, begins his public ministry by coming to the synagogue of his hometown on the sabbath day to worship. As a teacher among the people he is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and he unties the string and unrolls it, he finds this powerful, prophetic passage:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

As was common practice, Jesus then sits down to interpret the scripture, but what Jesus says for an interpretation, no one is ready for.
What Jesus says next is not what these hometown Nazarenes would have expected from his very first sermon. These are words from Isaiah are words of promise and words that all imagined described a far-distant future. But Jesus is saying that he has come to bring God’s ultimate reality to the present.
With one little word, Jesus calls their hearts and minds to be open to God’s immanence crashing into the present. With one little word, Jesus calls us to be open to God showing up in the present. With one little word: “Today.”
“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Lots of teachers have taught about the meaning of “today,” of course. From the popular adage of “Carpe Diem” during the time of the Roman Empire, which they took from the much more ancient teaching of the Greeks, the idea of seizing the day and squeezing everything we can out of it, has come all the way down to us, which we see when teachers teach mindfulness, and the idea that power that comes from being present to the moment at hand.
Jesus is not the only teacher who has lifted up the importance of “today,” and, in fact, we almost don’t need a teacher to understand how it differs from the past and the future.
Life itself teaches us, somewhat brutally, that we can never go back to the past and make different decisions no matter how desperately we might wish we could. We also know that we can’t always affect the future in the ways that we would like. It is often beyond our control as well.
But we are always being given this moment of now; this gift of today.
And I think we get that. We understand that very well.
But Jesus says its more significant than we thought: TODAY is when and where God encounters us and meets us.
Today is not just a gift, but a gift from God who is present in this moment and is calling to us in this very moment.
Certainly, we tell the story of God’s activity in our past and sing and write and celebrate all the ways God has saved us, has provided for us, and has led us in the past.
And certainly, we know and tell about how God promises to prepare a future for us that is good, and a future with hope.
But we meet God in this moment. God encounters us today.

In some sense, there is no difference between us and the Israelites gathered around the Water Gate of Jerusalem with Nehemiah and Ezra.
These Israelites had been taken into captivity far away in Babylon, and for a generation were not free – not free to be and not free to worship – and now they have returned home and they have rebuilt the city and the temple and this second generation of returnees is gathered together in the morning sun to listen to the reading of the books of Moses, the beginning of our scriptures, that tell of God creating us, extending a covenant to us, and promising to bless us to be a blessing.
And these people in the bright morning sun hear this story and these words for the very first time. They hear the reading of scripture and its interpretation and all the people weep and mourn for their sins, for the ways that their actions have lead them far away from God, but Nehemiah says, “Listen, don’t weep and mourn, but instead eat the fat of the meat and drink sweet wine and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, for this day – today – is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Today is the gift of God encountering us again, for the first time.
Just because we trusted God in the past doesn’t mean trusting him today has been taken care of. Today is the day God invites you to trust him.
Just because we have been open to a prayer life in the past, doesn’t mean that our prayers for today have been taken care of. Today is the day God invites you to open your life to him.
Again and again, Jesus shows us that this very day, this very moment is holy. Listen to what Jesus has to say about it:
Out in the village, when Jesus meet the tax collector Zacchaeus, he says, “Today salvation has come to this house.” And Zacchaeus is able to stop and really listen.
On the cross, Jesus says to the man being crucified next to him: “Today you will be with me in paradise and the man is able to see who Jesus really is.”
And when the disciples come to Jesus and ask how to pray, Jesus says to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. And give us today our daily bread.”
Jesus instructs us, who have so much, to ask God, “Give us today our daily bread,” because we have to be reminded we need God. We have to be reminded that God recreates the world every day, and that without him we perish. And that the only way we can connect with God is in the present moment.

This past week, our middle and high school youth and their families have been handing out what they call blessing bags to people in our community hoping for daily bread.
On Monday of this past week, as a way to celebrate MLK Day, some of the middle and high school youth gathered in the Star Lodge for a day of service.
We started the day thinking together about all the ways God has blessed us in the past, about the ways God is blessing us in the present and at this time in our life, and about the promises God makes to bless us in the future. We shared these with one another and remembered again how God blesses us to be a blessing.
So then we formed ourselves into an assembly line to make what we had come to call “Blessing Bags.”
We took about 50 gallon-sized Ziploc bags and filled each one with a lip balm, a toothbrush, a tube of sunscreen, a couple protein bars, hand-knitted scarves and socks made by our friends and partners in ministry at Hanover Adult Center, a hand-written word of hope from the scriptures, and various other goodies.
And at the end of a half-hour we had a large pile of blessing bags. Everyone in the group took a couple bags home so that throughout this week, with our families, we could give these bags to people around town who look like they could use one.
Youth have been texting me this week to tell me about how they were able to hand their bag to someone and say, “God loves you.”
Our young men and women seemed surprised at how easy it was to give and how grateful the men and women who received them were.
A man from Russia here in the US with a 2-year-old daughter and waiting on immigration papers said that just a chance to talk with another person about his challenges meant everything in the world to him.
A family said they were in awe that the person who received their bag said “God bless you!” and blessed them when they thought they were the ones doing the blessing.
Families told me that they continued to pray for the people they met on the street throughout the rest of the week.

Isaiah writes:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Today these words have been fulfilled in your hearing, through you and me, and the ministry of the congregation God has gathered here today. Through feeding ministries, through friendship, and through service to those who are crying out to God for help.

Like Paul’s image of a body with many members, we are each given our own unique gifts to share, and the Spirit binds us all to Jesus, who gathers us here around his table for the meal that feeds us with enough trust in God for today.

How beautiful to pause and think:

In this meal, Jesus is placed in our hands, and then Jesus calls us back into the world to use these same hands as he lives in us, and through us, for the sake of a world in need.

Not only yesterday. And not only tomorrow. But today.

Loose in the World

On Thursday of last week I was hanging out with Cheryl Baggs, our Faith Formation Director, and Tod Mitchell, our brand-new Facilities Manager, and thinking out loud about how high school seniors are really getting serious about their choice of college.
Tod and his wife Jackie have sent three off on their own and Cheryl is getting ready to send her oldest son to college in the fall.
Both agreed that parenting is a profound blessing, and you do all you can do as a parent to form a child, you try to teach them and shape them and help them to come to a place where they can think critically, act independently, and live confidently. You try to prepare them for a life beyond yourself. But at a critical point, all you can do – all that’s left to do – is to say “I love you,” and to turn them loose in the world.
At his baptism, God the Father says “I love you” to Jesus and then turns Jesus loose in the world.
Just as a parent shapes a child with their values and the child’s life is an extension of their own, so Jesus is let loose in the world to bring God’s values to the world and to be an extension of God in his ministry.
At Jesus’ baptism, God looks down on him and speaks, and this is the first time we hear God’s voice in Luke’s gospel. Angels have spoken to Zechariah and Mary, magi have worshipped Jesus as divine, but only now does God speak, and he say, “You are my Son. I love you. With you I am well-pleased.”
Now, in Jesus of Nazareth, God makes baptism something new. No longer will it be a ritual washing that communicates our best intentions to do better and love God more. Now baptism is the opening of heaven and the pouring out of the Spirit that moved over the waters at creation, bringing about a new creation in the one who stands under God’s voice, which says, “You are my beloved child, and with you I am well pleased.”
It is significant that God speaks these word of blessings and love over Jesus as a gift — before he has done any work: before he has cured diseases or healed anyone, before he has preached a sermon or taught a single lesson, before he has cast out demons or bested the devil, before he has raised a person from the dead, and before he has stilled the storm.
Jesus hasn’t don’t anything yet, really, but God speaks words of love and encouragement and lets Jesus loose in the world.
In fact, its these words of love and blessing that make Jesus ministry possible. With these words and the gift of the Holy Spirit God empowers Jesus life and work.
These words of love and blessing make it possible to heal, cure, preach, and point to God. Only the love of the Father gives Jesus the power to be the one who hold the winnowing fork to clear his threshing floor and separate the wheat for his barn and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.
Only the love of God at work in Jesus makes him the one who burns my brokenness and sin and your brokenness and sin– our chaff – as he works in us through the days and the weeks and the years and the lifetime we have been given, as we spend time with him in prayer and reading the word and living in Christian community.
In baptism, God pours out his love on you and me and we are made to be a part of God. We die to ourselves and are raised up to live in Jesus Christ.
We are made a part of his team.
A few weeks ago, we were really having football fever in our house. Sarah is a huge Green Bay Packers fan and we had been watching the Packers on tv. We were outside in the front yard and in the road and the children wanted to play football.
They aren’t able at 3 and 4 years old to comprehend many of the rules or even much beyond getting touchdowns, tackling, and end-zone dancing, but they knew that a football field had to have a logo in the middle of it.
So we got out the sidewalk chalk and I asked them what logo they wanted me to draw. They agreed that the logo should be Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, because Lucia, said, “That’s our team.”
We are made a part of Jesus’ team in our baptism.
He is our leader and he faithfully calls the plays that his Father would want us to run: He calls the play of forgiving, of bearing with our enemies, of working for healing. Jesus calls plays that we wouldn’t run if it was just up to us.
In our reading from Acts we hear how God the Father and Jesus his Son have called a play that has everyone sitting on their heels. They have turned the Holy Spirit loose in the world which brings people together, even though they wouldn’t choose one another.
These Samaritans and Hebrews would not choose to talk with one another, work together, or be a part of the same team, but the word of God is loose in the world and the Spirit sends Peter and John down to them to lay hands on them, pray with them, and be the vehicle through whom the Spirit will come to them.
We live in a world the plays up our differences – socioeconomic differences, differences of race, political differences – and we talk to people who are like us less and less, work together only if necessary, we build walls and imagine those who are different from us or who disagree with us to be evil.
The Holy Spirit says that all who are in Jesus are on the same team. The Spirit will separate our prejudice, judgment, and broken relationships out as chaff and leave us with our shared humanity, all people made in God’s image and people whom God has spoken over with the words, “You are my beloved child. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”
From Jesus’ baptism I think we learn three things about ourselves:
Because we are joined to Jesus in baptism, we can be obedient to God. Before the cross, Jesus kneels on the Mount of Olives and prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me, but not my will but yours be done.” Because Jesus is obedient to God and we are joined to Jesus, we can be obedient.
Because we are joined to Jesus in baptism, our prayers have power. Jesus’ prayer has the power to open heaven and when we pray our prayer is joining Jesus’ prayer, already in progress. We do not have the pressure of beginning to know what to ask for but are invited to join our Lord as he prays.
Because we are joined to Jesus in baptism, we are called to mission. God speaks over you and me, before you have done any work or any good thing: “You are my beloved child.” And yet, we are reminded that in that love we are sent out to a world in need, because God loves the world so much to and wants its healing through our lives.
Brothers and sisters, rejoice! We are baptized and our whole life is found in God, who turns us loose in the world. As a team.
Thanks be to God!

Expecting More

“There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, And caroling out in the snow, there’ll be scary ghost stories, And tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago…”

As the old song goes…“There’ll be much mistltoeing, And hearts will be glowing, when loved ones are near, because it’s… the… most… STRESSFUL time of the year!”

Well, at least that’s how some of us feel that the song should go.

Because for many of us, between parties and shopping and baking and wrapping and negotiating traffic and fighting the crowds and taking on too much and traveling or welcoming travelers…

…and in the midst of it all just living with the anticipation…

…and all the while knowing that this Christmas will not be able to live up to the high expectations our culture places on the need to reach the heights of the glories of Christmases long, long ago, and in some magical way exceed them… because of all this Christmastime has become a season of high stress.

This time of year reminds me of how once, when I was in school, we had a professor who gave us an inventory, a test, that was intended to measure a person’s mental health. It was essentially a list of 100 or so possible life events – some large, some smaller – things like marriage, divorce, a move, death of a parent, death of a pet, enrolling in school, losing a job, gaining a job, and all sorts of other things, some good, some bad – but with each life event worth a certain number of points. The idea was that good or bad, significant events and transitions add up and exert a kind of exponential pressure on us.

So we were to take this inventory and give ourselves a certain number of points for each of the events we had personally experienced in the last year. We were to total them up and in that way we would find out where our mental health stood on the spectrum from healthy to being a candidate for a nervous breakdown.

I don’t know what Mary’s score would be on this inventory, but it would be high.

Mary, a young girl from the smallest of towns, with probably not-the-most life-experience-ever is engaged to be married – which is a wonderful time in a person’s life, but stressful – she is anticipating a move, beginning to say goodbye to family and friends, preparing for a new home with all the arrangements and transitions that this entails.

And Mary has just discovered that although unwed, and although a virgin, she is pregnant. And so, in addition to all the other unsettled things in her life, she contemplates the words the messenger from God has spoken to her:

That the Holy Spirit has overshadowed her and conceived in her a son. Now, in addition to everything else, she contemplates what it might mean that she will give birth to the Son of the Most High, who will sit on the throne of his ancestor David, who will reign over the house of Jacob, and whose Kingdom will have no end.

This sounds wonderful, of course, until we remember what all this really means for Mary.

Last year, a member of our congregation gave our children a movie called “the Nativity Story,” which was made in 2006 and stars Kesha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaacs. I cannot recommend it highly enough. The film takes you through the entire series of events leading up to Jesus birth with incredible artistry and acting and music, but the most shocking scene is when Mary, having been away visiting Elizabeth, returns home to Nazareth.

Her pregnancy is visible and the reaction from the people in the town is astonishing. First her neighbor’s see and stop what they’re doing – they stop working, they stop talking, and their jaws drop in disbelief. Her father and then her mother see her as she arrives and cannot hide their heartbroken bewilderment and profound disappointment. Mary is enveloped in shame and humiliation right in front of nearly every relationship that mattered in her life.

We think we feel the crush of pressure to live up to people’s expectations of us?

Mary is like us in every way – she knows all the stress we experience — almost certainly more.

We are like Mary in every way – both of us enduring almost more pressure from life than we can stand –and yet, Mary’s response is not to complain but to say without reservation: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”

Our response to this season, and to the pressures we face in these days we are living can be that of of frustration, of trepidation, of fear, of grinchiness, of relief when we think about how it will all be over soon, but we learn from Mary what our response should be as we remember that God has chosen to come into the world in Jesus:

In those days, we hear, carrying God in her body, Mary sets out with eagerness, with enthusiasm, with haste, unafraid of what anyone will think, unconcerned with anything else, to visit Elizabeth and to rejoice together at what God is doing in their lives.

Elizabeth exclaims: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary replies: “My whole soul declares the Lord to be great. My spirit is overjoyed in God my savior. The Mighty One cares about me in my lowliness and humiliation and has done great things for me.”

Mary and Elizabeth show us how to rejoice that God in Christ has come to be WITH US in the stress, the pressure, the humiliation, the crushing inability to rise to the occasion, and the disappointment.

God has come to be WITH US in it all – in the midst of our addiction, our depression, the violence that robs us of life. God has come to be WITH US in our grief as we long for those who are no longer with us, and whom we miss at Christmas. God has come to be WITH US, as one of us — and in Jesus, to know our limitations.

Jesus has come for us, as the letter to the Hebrews says, so that our lives are sanctified once and for all through the offering of his body.

There is a couple in our congregation who put out a nativity set – like many of us, for sure. But when our seedling small group gathered at their house a couple weeks ago and I saw their little wooden nativity, it absolutely stopped me in my tracks. I had never seen anything like it.

All the pieces were there – the diligent father, the expectant mother, the unassuming camels and sheep, and the little child, but looming over it all was a large wooden cross, standing on a pedestal right there in the manger.
For a moment it seemed out of place….premature. But as this couple know so well: Jesus is born in the shadow of the cross.

Jesus birth is for the purpose of bringing God’s desires to fruition:

To bring mercy and compassion to those who fear him, to scatter the arrogant in the thoughts of their hearts, to bring down the powerful from their places of power and to lift up the poor and undistinguished, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty-handed, to come to the help of his children, according to the promise he made to Israel…
…and the Lord does this through the gift of his life.

The Lord came to save us and to love us and to fulfill his promises, and Mary shows us how to receive the Lord with joyful expectation.

There is a poem that has been going around facebook this week. It was on a lot of people’s feeds and getting a lot of shares. I saw it on a good friend’s page. It’s the shortest of poems. A poem written by an Australian poet named Pam Brown.

It goes like this:

“We expect too much at Christmas. It’s got to be magical. It’s got to go right. Feasting. Fun. The perfect present. All that anticipation. Take it easy. Love’s the thing. The rest is tinsel.”

Lots of shares, likes, and loves, commend this profound advice as wise words to live by. Love is the thing. Its not all about the trimmings and not about all the trappings; and perhaps, as Pam Brown says, we do expect too much of Christmas, but another way to look at it would be what we expect too LITTLE of Christmas.

The same God who promised Bethlehem that she would be the place from which a shepherd would be born to feed God’s people, makes a promise to us.

The same God who promised Zechariah and Elizabeth that they would have a baby in their old age who would prepare a way for the Lord, makes a promise to us.

The same God who promised Mary she would give birth even though it seemed impossible, makes a promise to us.

This same God has come to us in our living Lord Jesus Christ, born to a virgin, crucified on the cross, and risen from the tomb. He comes to us again today and tomorrow, bearing God’s promise.

He promises to speak to us through his word and to feed us with his supper, to forgive or sins and to make a home for us with God.

If we expect anything less that to be with God and join the angel chorus that hails his birth, we have expected too little of Christmas.

Our God makes promises and keeps promises, and he promises us that he will come again to this world being crushed by our desires to be perfect and save ourselves – once and for all he will lift us up, fill us with good things, and remember the promise of his mercy forever.

He will come again, and I don’t know about mistletoeing, but hearts will be glowing, and loved ones will be gathered near, and all creation will join in Mary’s song of praise:

“My whole soul declares the Lord to be great. My spirit is overjoyed in God my savior. The Mighty One cares about me in my lowliness and has done great things for me.”

Yes, that’s how the song will go.

Thanks be to God!

Face to Face

Brandon and Emily hosted our young adult seedling small group at their house this past week and as we read scripture, prayed, and talked, one of the leader’s guide questions inspired Brandon to tell us a story about how he had been on his way home from work one night in the past week.
He had stopped someplace for supper and sat at the bar. He ordered a drink and something to eat and found himself sitting next to a guy who was also there for supper. As they sat and ate, God was present, as he always is, and he came up in conversation.
The man sitting next to Brandon made it clear that he was no friend of God. He sounded hostile to those who would call themselves Christians, and conjectured that the biggest problem our country is facing is that we need freedom from religion. Again, and again he said, we need “freedom from religion.” Brandon listened, tried to understand, and shared his perspective about God’s graciousness, but at the end of the meal Brandon left fairly certain that he had not changed this guy’s mind.
We are looking for Jesus and waiting for him to return, trusting the promise that he is coming to bring renewal, redemption, and healing to us and to the whole world – to those of us who gather on a cold and misty Sunday morning to praise him and to those who sit with a chip on their shoulder at the bar.
Like an unexpected knock or ringing of the doorbell, Jesus will come, and open the door so that we see the guest on our doorstep — we will see our Lord face to face, and the whole world will see him. He will appear to all flesh, to all creation, and to the whole world. And Jesus encourage us to be ready for that day, to hope in that day above every other hope in our life, to yearn for that day.
With his own passion and cross just ahead of him, he describes the Day of his reappearing with apocalyptic, end-of-the-world language:
“There will be indications in the sun and moon and the stars, and even on the earth there will be distress and anguish among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and from terror of what is coming into the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the cloud with power and great glory.”
But you can almost imagine Jesus finishing these words and then twirling around on his barstool and looking you dead in the eye when he says, “But, now when YOU see these things begin to take place, you stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption and release are drawing near.”
Because there is a distinction between how the world will receive this promised Day to come, and how we are to receive this same Day. The world may find itself in anguish and despair, but we are encouraged to stand, and to straighten ourselves up with confidence, because the Lord promises that whatever this Day may be like or look like, it is for our good.
We can trust that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
One of my best friends in high school and college was Brent Wilson. In high school, Brent drove a Bronco II, had great taste in music, was really smart, and always super interesting to talk to. Back then, we had a lot of mutual friends with whom we hung out, but a lot of times the two of us would get into adventures on our own.
One night really late, we were out and Brent said he had to go by his Dad’s office for some reason. Brent’s Dad was a dentist and so we drove to the office park where his Dad’s practice was located. Everything was really dark, and we parked, and Brent had a key, and we went into the office and turned on the lights.
Brent went into the office area, and while he was doing whatever he was doing, getting some piece of paper or a making copy as I remember, I poked my nose into the rooms where the business really happened. I eased back into the kooshie dentist chairs, looked at the white, futuristic looking robotic dental arms, the large hanging lights, and the little sinks where you’re instructed to spit.
“Hey Brent, does your Dad clean your teeth?” I just though of it in the moment.
“Yeah,” He called.
“When?”
“Just whenever.”
I had never really thought about it, but it turned out that Brent never really made an appointment to see the dentist like the rest of us. He would just be there with his Dad sometime and hop in the chair for a quick check-up, plaque removal, and deep clean. No big deal.
Now, our children, who three and four, are scared silly to go to the dentist like a lot of kids. The dentist we go to gives out stickers at the end of a good visit, hoping that if there are tears and yelling, (which who am I kidding, there always are) — at least everything ENDS on a good note.
Many adults, if not outright scared of a trip to the dentist, are at least apprehensive about the prospect.
The difference between my good friend Brent and all of us who are scared of the dentist is the kind of relationship we have with the dentist.
Because I get uneasy when my appointment for a teeth-cleaning pops up on the calendar, but candidly, I don’t even recall my dentist’s name. I see him twice a year, after all.
But Brent rides in the car and shares holidays with his dentist. They watch Carolina basketball together, talk on the phone, and eat meals together. They love one another. Because their relationship is so close every day, Brent is not scared of the day when he sees his dentist face to face.
One day, the whole world will be brought to its consummation and stand before God our Maker. The difference in how we will receive that Day, and the difference in how we can live our life in the meantime, has to do with the relationship we have NOW with the God we will see on that Day face to face.
And God comes to us now in his word, in bread and wine, in water, in community, so that we can trust he is real, so that we can learn to see that he is also with us when we ride in car, celebrate holidays, talk on the phone, eat our meals, when we remember his kindness and when we have a chip on our shoulder, when we’re able to articulate his goodness and when we fail miserably.
In all these things Christ is present to assure us that there is no need to faint with fear in the face of the worst the world can offer; war and violence in the news, hunger or addiction, feelings of hopelessness or chronic illness; brokenness in our homes, in our hearts, or in our lives, because God has initiated a relationship with us in Jesus, so that the God who already knows US intimately has also made HIMSELF known in the birth and life, teaching and healing, and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
He has come to us, sent by God our Father, who made us in love, who delights to watch us grow, who wants the very best for us, who cares for our health, who is there to welcome us home, and who also wants to give us freedom from fear.
Yes, we are sad about all the ways this world is broken and in need of care, but Jesus says “do not be afraid.”
Heaven and earth will pass away, but our Living Lord’s words will not pass away:
He says to us with love, “This is my Body and Blood, given for you, do this for the remembrance of me.”
He says from the cross, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
He says to us after his resurrection, “You are my witnesses.”
These are words that will not pass away.
With these words in our hearts, we are on our guard so that we are not weighed down, drunk with the worries of this life.
We are not afraid.
The consensus in our small group at Brandon and Emily’s house was that we know what the guy with the chip on his shoulder at the bar feels like sometimes. We also would sometimes like to choose freedom from the constraints of following Jesus.
We would rather not live under his demands to forgive those we don’t want to forgive, to listen to those who bore us or infuriate us, to give of our money and time and selves without reserve to a world in need – but to imagine that this kind of life would be more-free is a trap.
In following Jesus and his way of life we receive true freedom – freedom from fear, as he teaches us to trust him with this day and all the days to come.
The. Very. Last. Parable. Jesus tells, as the cross looms on the horizon is this: look at the fig tree and all the trees, as soon as they sprout leaves you see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.
Jesus invites us into life, budding, growing…
…like a seedling group working out its call to discipleship,
…like a congregation gathering gifts for members of the larger community to make the celebration of Christ’s birth brighter, …like children and adults bringing cans of food for the food pantry,
…like women and men taking time to listen to those who feel estranged from God, trying to understand, sharing the perspective of God’s graciousness, and trusting God’s promise to increase our love for one another and for all.
On the great Day to come, and on this day, the Lord who gives us life makes us to stand up, raise our heads, and trust soon and very soon, we will see him face to face.
Thanks be to God!
Amen
Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent [Luke 21:25-36]

Never Let Go

“Bring Peace to Earth Again,” the hymn we just sang, was written in a collaboration between two people. The music was written by Perry Nelson, who some of you may remember as our own organist and musician here at Epiphany.

The writer of the text for the hymn was a man named Herman Stuempfle, a pastor and professor at the Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg.

Perry Nelson had attended a lecture in 1995 at Gettysburg and the two men met. Subsequently, Pastor Price and Perry Nelson invited Stuempfle to Epiphany to preach and to participate in a festival of his hymns, and at the end of that gathering he gave the lyric of this hymn to Perry Nelson to see if he could write a tune, which he did.

Stuempfle said he was moved to write the lyrics of the hymn because of the state of the world at the time – particularly, the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and the aftermath of the Oklahoma City Bombing, which had only just happened.

The hymn they wrote together is a plea for God to have mercy and bring peace to earth again, and dare I say, that 23 years later it speaks to us and through us, even more vividly than when it was written.

Back in 1995, I don’t believe we could have ever have imagined the school shootings to come. Today our country continues fighting the War in Afghanistan, which is the longest war in American history, with no end in sight. The epidemic of men and women who are losing their life to drug abuse is ongoing. The death toll rises in California where loved ones are lost, and the elderly were unable to run to safety, and whole families have been erased from the earth.

We still cry out for peace.

It can feel like things are unraveling, collapsing, and that the end of the world is on its way, but as real as that feels, we are aware that every generation has felt this way. Jesus calls them birth pangs. And while the immediacy of the moment in which we live seems more urgent than the secondhand account of someone else’s experience in previous times, the contractions of these birth pangs have been felt in every generation…

Truly, it must have felt like nothing less than the end of the world to faithful Hebrews on the day the temple was destroyed. Jennike Duignam has illustrated what it may have looked like: collapsing columns and falling stones and debris. This is the picture Jesus paints for his disciples as they walk out of the temple – that one day the stones of this great place of worship would be thrown down.

This would have seemed like the end of the world for these disciples. This is the place where they had come to worship all their lives, the place where their parents had come to worship all their lives, the place where their grandparents had come to worship all their lives, the place that housed the tablets of the ten commandments, the ark of the covenant, the memories of God’s deliverance of their people and the hope of their connection with God. It would have seemed like the end of the world to imagine it in a heap of rubble.

But walking out of the temple, a disciple observes that the temple is made of truly large stones, prompting Jesus to predict they will all be thrown down, and that idea rattles around in these disciples heads as they walk together out of the city gate, as they hike through the Kidron Valley, and as they sit down together on the Mount of Olives. From this vista on the Mount of Olives they can look back at this temple gleaming in the sunlight and try to imagine the land without its largest structure, and they get up the courage to ask when this will happen and how they will know.

And Jesus extends and expands his assertion, and begins to tell them about and the birth pangs that will come – wars and rumors of war, nations rising against nations, the earth crying out in seismic despair, leaving people hungry and in need…
Well this – just what Jesus said would happen – is happening all around us…and it is happening in our own lives…

We die little deaths every day: We experience a sickness that brings a new normal and the end to life as we knew it. Or we go through a divorce and the subsequent new living arrangements. Or we experience the death of a loved one that brings terrible loneliness. Or we experience the end of a pregnancy and the hope of a child turns to grief. Or, we just don’t make the team. We don’t get the internship. Or we lose our job.

All these little deaths are the end of worlds.

But in all this turmoil, when we are vulnerable, Jesus says, “Beware that no one leads you astray.”

When all this turmoil and chaos is happening all around us, Jesus wants to be the one to lead us. He wants to teach us. He wants to shepherd us. He wants to be with us in all the joys and celebrations this life has to offer and he wants to lead us through all the deaths of our life.

He doesn’t want us to settle for second-rate imitations; he doesn’t want us to be wowed like the disciples, who look up and say, “what large homes, and what large cars, what large retirement accounts, what a large following on social media, that’s what life’s all about!” and Jesus doesn’t want us to fall for the illusions cast by the political parties, by consumer-culture advertisers, or celebrity personalities, who claim to be able to lead us and be our guide.

Only Jesus can lead us to the ultimate destination of our life because only Jesus is the Source of our life. Only Jesus can lead us beyond this ephemeral and frail existence, through death, to the life God has prepared for us. Because only he has known death and defeated the power of death.

And our risen Lord Jesus now stands at the edge of time, calling us to himself. He calls to us with healing and life, extended as a free gift for you and for me and for all of creation, even while he is with us in the struggle.

William Stafford, the poet, wrote a poem called the “Way It Is”:

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Jesus is with us among the things that change so that we don’t get lost, even when tragedies happen, even through the hurt, through the dying, and through the suffering.

Jesus holds us and Jesus doesn’t let go of us. He holds us through his word, through the meal, and through the life we life together.

He holds us when we reach out for him, but also when we try to run from him, and when we ignore him.
Jesus hold us though it all.

In baptism he has grasped us and holds on forever – and nothing can break his grasp: not drug addiction, not divorce, not fire, not gun violence, not war, not death – nothing can take us from his embrace.

Through the cross and empty tomb, Christ has won the war with death, and so we can be unafraid of death – we are able to declare its impotence and powerlessness, we are able to say things change but God’s mercy remains the same, we are able to consider how to provoke one another to love and to good deeds and participate in God’s healing to the world.

As Jesus sits on this mountain vista, the Mount of Olives, with his disciples, overlooking the temple — they can’t know yet, but he will not run to protect himself, but he will enter back through the city gate, and on the very grounds of this temple he will stand trial before the chief priest, and he will be condemned and sent to Pilate, who will sentence him to death. The Romans will burn the temple and it will crumble and in the dust-cloud that follows all that will be found is chaos and violence. But Jesus will appear to these disciples, he will recommission these men who will desert him, and send them out. He forgives them and entrusts them to tell the news that he is alive.

But before all that, they sit together here on the Mount of Olives, gazing at the temple and trying to imagine it.
This scene is depicted in our other drawing in the bulletin this week.

Something about this event in Jesus’ life captured Harper Doherty’s imagination.

Harper is in the fourth grade and sometime during the course of this past week she and her family were reading the scripture for this Sunday and she was inspired to do a drawing to represent these events. Carmen, Harper’s mom, asked the office about where the bulletin art comes from and we explained that we already had an artist and there was a cover prepared for the bulletin, but that we could include Harper’s drawing as well, and so you can find it on the last page of your bulletin.

What is so wonderful about Harper’s drawing is that she has depicted Jesus with his disciples on the mountain overlooking all that is to come, and he is reaching out to hold their hands.

harper's temple picWe are not very different than these disciples – in need of forgiveness, often unable to see the vision Jesus casts of loving and forgiving, unable to see that Jesus is truly in control of our life even in the midst of the birth pangs all around us.

But just like in this picture, Jesus who reaches out to hold the hands of his disciples, truly reaches out to hold onto us through all that has been, all that is, and all that is to come.

We don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future, and we know that the one who holds the future also holds us in love, and these birth pangs will give way to a glorious birth when Christ will return with all of God’s healing for this weary world.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.