Sermon for Epiphany 3 Narrative Lectionary

Mark 5:1-20

Today’s story from the Gospel of Mark is strange, funny, and terrifying all at once. The funny part, of course, is that there is something slapstick about a herd of pigs racing down the steep bank into the sea, and we often take the funny part of a story and make jokes as a way of deflecting our attention from the strangeness of the story. When we were assigned this story to preach on in a seminary class, and we were discussing it, suddenly all of the pig jokes started coming out. For example, now we understand where the phrase “when pigs fly” might come from. Or, this was the original Bay of Pigs incident, for those of you who remember that failed attempt by Cuban exiles in 1961 to reverse the Cuban revolution which brought Fidel Castro to power. And, finally, now we understand the true meaning of deviled ham. But once we got all of the jokes out of our system, we seminarians were left with the strangeness and the terror of this story of Jesus casting a legion of demons out of a man and into the pigs, and just as it did then, this story still today raises more questions than it answers.

So, let’s start at the beginning, with Jesus and the disciples crossing over to the other side of the sea. If you’ll remember last week, we heard Jesus teaching the crowds, including his disciples, about the kingdom of God using parables about seeds: casting the seeds and how the seeds grow. After he finished teaching them, Jesus said that they should get in the boat and go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, presumably to continue his teaching ministry there. While they were on the sea, a windstorm arose, and waves swamped the boat while Jesus slept in the stern. The disciples woke him up, and, very irritated, Jesus stilled the storm with a few words. So, when they all land on the other side of the sea, they already know that there is something strange about this rabbi whom they’ve chosen to follow.

But things are about to get stranger still. When Jesus steps out of the boat, he is immediately met by a man who is possessed by an unclean spirit. Mark describes this man as having superhuman strength because of the spirit; able to break shackles and chains. When we studied this story in our Bible class on Thursday, Jesse said that it reminded him of Samson in the Old Testament. Your pastor’s mind, on the other hand, went straight to Marvel Comics and the Incredible Hulk! But if you think about it, it could be said that Bruce Banner was possessed by a spirit every time that he got angry; one that turned him green and gave him superhuman strength. Anyway, Jesus’ encounter with this man possessed by demons—demons that made the man howl, bruise himself with stones, and live among the tombs, raises many questions for us today.

The first question that we need to wrestle with is the question of whether evil still exists today. We like to pride ourselves on being more sophisticated than our 1st century ancestors. We look at the man in this story and maybe we think that what was going on was some kind of mental illness. Even today, many of us can point to people that we know, or maybe friends of friends, who suffer from illnesses like schizophrenia or any other illness that you can think of and say, “Oh, well, this man was suffering from one of those illnesses, and today he would have been treated with such-and-such medication, and he might be able to live a halfway normal life.” But you know something? That may explain away the man’s behavior, but it doesn’t explain away the pigs.

For all of our pride in our science and technology, we still suspect that there is something more out there. Our brothers in the Roman Catholic Church, for example, still train some of their priests to be exorcists. And we still tell stories to scare ourselves; if you ever want to be scared like this, watch the movie Fallen, with Denzel Washington. He plays a detective who is tracking a series of murders, and what he discovers is that there is a demon jumping from person to person, and it is the demon making the people commit these murders. And you find out which person the demon is in because they start singing, “Time is on my side, yes it is,” by the Rolling Stones. Instinctively we know that our scientific explanations of things can only go so far before we come up against the problem of both evil, and good, forces in this world.

Besides the problem of wrestling with the idea of evil forces in the world as opposed to our scientific, rational explanations for these ancient stories, the next thing that we need to wrestle with is the reaction of the people in the area to what Jesus has done for this man. You would think that after seeing this man healed from his affliction, the people would be thankful and would welcome Jesus to teach them more. But that’s not how they react. They are afraid and they beg Jesus to leave their country. Certainly, some of it has to do with the economic loss involved with the great herd of pigs drowning in the sea. But I think there’s more to it than that. Jesus has upset their societal order by what he has done. Because they couldn’t do anything to help this man with the demons, the people in the town had written him off; had told their children not to go out there; basically had accepted that the man was there and they didn’t have to deal with him. But now, here is the man, clothed and in his right mind, and they have no idea how to re-integrate him into their society. They are afraid that he will blame them for not doing more to help him. And perhaps they are afraid that Jesus will condemn them for not doing more to help.

And Jesus gets that. And that’s why he tells the man formerly possessed by the demons that he can’t come with him, but rather, he is to stay and tell everyone how much the Lord has done for him. Jesus knows that the only way his message is going to get through to the people in the country of the Gadarenes is if this one man witnesses to them about the great mercy that Jesus has shown to him. By the way, the Decapolis means “ten cities,” and consisted of areas of Roman settlement east of the Jordan River, with the exception of one on the west side of the Jordan. They were centers of Greek and Roman culture in an otherwise Jewish country, which explains why they were herding pigs. So, this one man had a mission: he traveled throughout these ten cities, who were Gentile, and told them about a Jewish rabbi who had had mercy on him and cast out the demons inside of him. And thus, word about Jesus spread not only among his own Jewish people, but among the peoples of the Greco-Roman culture surrounding them.

Here are some things that we can take away from this story today. First, we are very much like the people in the country of the Gadarenes who asked Jesus to leave. We know that there is evil in the world; all we have to do is turn on the news and see reports of shootings, of oil spills that decimate the environment, children locked in cages, people fleeing wars and being uncertain of welcome in other countries, people who live on the streets, children dying from the flu, and even something as mundane as an aging sewer system that spills waste into the Susquehanna River when the pipes can’t handle all the rainwater and the rest of it. It’s overwhelming. I am guilty of wanting to turn away from all of it myself because I just can’t handle more bad news. I want to just accept the way things are and try to get along with my ordinary life.

But here’s the thing: Jesus comes in and disrupts all of that. Jesus shines a light on the evil that’s going on and my blindness to it. And when I realize that I am complicit in these evil things, then Jesus brings healing and tells me to go and tell everyone how much he has done for me, and how much mercy he has shown me. And so, perhaps, in the end, that is the message that we can take away from this strange story. When we are like the man possessed by the Legion, when we feel that evil has overtaken us and there is nothing we can do about it, we can come to Jesus and ask for mercy, forgiveness, and the strength to tell others that evil will not win the day. Jesus’ love and mercy will, in the end, win out. And we are emissaries of that love and mercy to all of those around us. We participate in shining the light of Jesus in the darkness of the world and bringing that light to others who are shrouded in the darkness. So, shine where you are. Jesus is with you, and will strengthen you to stand against the forces of evil that threaten us. Amen.

Sermon for Epiphany 2 Narrative Lectionary

Mark 4:1-34

Last week in the Gospel of Mark, we heard about the ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism, how he spent 40 days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, and finally, after John was arrested, how Jesus came to Galilee and proclaimed that the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news. We have skipped over the end of chapter 1, as well as chapters 2 and 3 to get to chapter 4 today, so I would like to give you a summary of what has happened in those two chapters before we tackle all these parables that we heard today. After Jesus made his initial proclamation that the kingdom of God was near, he passed along the Sea of Galilee and called his first disciples from their fishing trade: Simon and his brother Andrew, as well as James and his brother John, who were the sons of Zebedee. Then they all went to Capernaum, where Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. While he was in the synagogue, he drove an unclean spirit out of a man, and everyone was amazed at this new teaching; with authority. Jesus’ fame begins to spread. Jesus and his disciples then go to Simon’s house, where Simon’s mother-in-law was sick, and Jesus heals her. Do take note that this means that Simon Peter was married, even though we don’t hear anything about his wife in the Scriptures. After this, Jesus and his disciples travel through Galilee, spreading the good news to many other towns. Jesus heals a leper and commands him not to tell anyone, but the former leper ignores that and tells everyone, so Jesus’ fame spreads more and it’s difficult for him to go into a town openly because of the crowds. Jesus returns to Capernaum and heals a paralytic who his friends let down through the roof because of the crowds, and Jesus begins by forgiving the man’s sins before he heals the paralysis. This is where the scribes begin to question him, asking by what authority Jesus forgives sins when only God alone can do that. Jesus then calls Levi the tax collector to be one of his disciples. He teaches about issues such as fasting and the Sabbath. He heals a man with a withered hand on the sabbath, thus getting the Pharisees upset with him and beginning to conspire how to destroy him. He continues teaching and healing, and then calls the twelve disciples: Simon Peter, James and John the sons of Zebedee, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot. Jesus then continues teaching, and, when his mother and brothers come to call him out of the crowd, Jesus says that his true family is whoever does the will of God.

And now we come, finally, to the parables of Mark 4. Up until this point, the examples of Jesus’ teachings that Mark gives us are fairly straightforward: speaking about what is and is not lawful on the sabbath, for example, or why his disciples do not fast as John’s disciples do. But now he begins to speak to the crowds in riddles, in metaphors that we call parables, and if his disciples then did not understand them, then we 2000 years later, who don’t necessarily have the farming experience that our ancestors in the faith had, can be forgiven for butting our heads up against these parables and saying, “But Jesus, we don’t understand.” So, let’s see if there’s any way we can wrestle with these stories today and get some kind of meaning out of them.

So, let’s start with the parable of the sower. This is a well-known parable, probably because it also shows up in Matthew, and probably also because it is one of the few parables that comes with an explanation. In my first call in Wyoming, the congregation was located in a small town that hosted a community college and a hospital, which were the major employers in town, and it was surrounded on all sides by farms. The crops that were farmed there were mainly cash crops: sugar beets, beans of various kinds, alfalfa, and barley. One year I had in my confirmation class the granddaughter of a farmer, who lived with her family on her grandfather’s farm. And one night in class, when we learned the parable of the sower, I wanted to know what her reaction was to the sower who just flung seed around willy-nilly without regard to what kind of soil it landed in. And her response was this: “If my grandfather sowed the fields like that, there would be no way that he would get a good crop that he could sell and make money from.” So, the image we have of this sower in the parable is of someone who does not make good business sense for running a farm. No farmer would sow his seed like that; so why does the sower?

As you may have guessed, this is not your usual farmer. Jesus says that the sower is the sower of the word. It may be that the sower represents God, but it also may be that the sower represents the preacher, and it may also very well be that the sower represents you sitting in the pew. The sower of the word could be any one of us. When we talk to other people about the word of God, we become the sower of that word. And we don’t know where the seed is going to land or what the soil is like when we sow the word. It may be that the seed is snatched up out of the person’s heart right away; it may be that the person who hears wants to become a disciple of Jesus, but when trouble arises, they fall away. It may also be that the seed falls on rocky ground, where it tries to spring up, but the cares of the world suck the joy out of the Gospel message that was heard. Or it may be that the seed lands on good soil, and that person produces an abundance of the harvest. And it may also be that any one of us has been each kind of soil in our lifetimes, and we go back and forth as to how receptive we are to the word of God at any given time. But one of the points of this parable is that the sower keeps sowing, and trusts that God will bring about good fruits in the person who hears in God’s time, not ours.

For now, we’re going to skip over Jesus speaking about not hiding a lamp under a bushel basket, because I want us to stick with the seed parables that Jesus tells. The next image that Jesus uses for the kingdom of God is again a growing plant metaphor. He speaks of how someone scatters seed on the ground and goes about their daily lives, while the seed sprouts and grows, without the person knowing how it happens. If you’ve ever planted any seeds, then you know that it takes a lot of faith. You make sure the soil is right; you plant the seeds, you water them regularly and make sure they get enough sunlight, but you don’t know if the seeds are going to sprout and become beautiful flowers, or vegetables that you can eat, or if they will die despite your best efforts. This is what the kingdom of God is like: when we sow the seeds of the Word of God, we don’t know how it will grow. I’m reminded of how my pastor confirmed me when I was a teenager, and then my family moved away after I graduated high school. And then the next time I ran into him, I had just been assigned my deaconess internship. My pastor didn’t know when he confirmed me that he was part of the work God was working in my life to serve God; it was only years later that he was able to see the fruit of the work that he had taken part in. That’s one way that the kingdom of God works.

Finally, we come to the parable of the mustard seed. Here Jesus starts with a small seed and speaks of how it grows up into the largest of shrubs. Scholars have written many words about how, in the plant world, the mustard seed is not the smallest seed there is, and how when it grows, it does not become a tree, but rather, it is more like weeds. When I traveled to Turkey in 2018, we saw fields of mustard all over, and they did look like weeds with bright yellow flowers. But I think that the scholars are missing the point. Jesus is not trying to be a botanist when he speaks this parable. He is speaking of how the kingdom of God may start out small, but then suddenly, when we’re not looking, here it is, and it is so large that we cannot miss it. No small seed is insignificant in God’s kingdom; something may start out small, and we either dismiss it or overlook it, but then suddenly, there it is in front of us, and God’s kingdom is present in whatever that thing is.

It may seem strange to be talking about all of these metaphors of growing things in the middle of winter, when we’ve just been through a snowstorm and when the gardeners in our midst are not even thinking about planting seeds yet. But I think this is a good time in the life of our congregations to reflect on these growing metaphors. As Salem and St. John’s have been getting smaller, we may be wondering what God is doing among us. We are wondering where God is calling us to go into the future, and how we are to continue following Jesus. This is when we can look at these parables and be reassured. We continue casting the seed of the Word and praying that it lands on good soil both among us and among those whom we meet. We don’t understand how that seed grows, but we plant it in faith that God will give the growth and it will sprout and bloom in God’s time, not ours. And finally, we try not to neglect or overlook even the smallest seeds, because we trust that God is able to bring large growth of the kingdom even from the smallest beginnings.

And so, now we return to that section we skipped over, where Jesus says that we don’t put a lamp under a basket, but we put it on a lampstand so that it gives light everywhere. He urges us to pay attention, for anything hidden will one day come into the light and be made known. The kingdom of God is everywhere, if we know where to look and how to listen. So, let’s keep our ears and eyes open, and look for the signs of God’s kingdom everywhere in our daily lives. Amen.

 

Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord, Narrative Lectionary

Mark 1:1-15

Welcome to the portion of the year where we focus on the Gospel of Mark! If you read the article that I wrote for Salem’s newsletter this month, then you will know that the Gospel of Mark is the shortest of the four gospels. You will also know that scholars believe that Mark was the first Gospel that was written, and that Matthew and Luke used large portions of Mark, plus their own sources, to write their own Gospels. We don’t know who actually wrote the Gospel of Mark; one of the early church fathers, by the name of Papias, said that “Mark was an interpreter of Peter and that he wrote down what Peter said, accurately but not in order.” As to who this Mark was, tradition identifies him with the “John Mark” described in several passages of Acts. But we don’t know for sure, because none of the oldest manuscripts we have of this Gospel have any author’s name on them.

You may also notice that Mark is different from our other Gospels in a few ways. Mark does not start his Gospel with stories of Jesus’ birth, as Matthew and Luke do. Instead, Mark starts his story with the ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism, and then goes into Jesus’ opening call, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” Mark is a very action-oriented person; he doesn’t stop to smell the roses. Instead, he keeps Jesus moving, and one of the ways he does this is by using the word “immediately”. You will have heard that word already as I told you our story this morning.

In the spirit of “immediately,” let’s dive into today’s story, as we are celebrating Jesus’ baptism and remembering our own baptisms today. And as I was learning this story and studying it, the word that kept coming to mind was “repentance”. John’s baptism was for repentance; the people confessed their sins and were baptized by him. When Jesus begins his ministry, he proclaims, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” So, I asked this question on my Facebook page, “What does the word ‘repentance’ mean to you?” Here is a sampling of some of the responses:

“To repent is to turn your life around.” “To repent is more than saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ Genuine repentance is permanent change.” “I think it means to be truly sorry. Turn away from your sin or not go to that place anymore.” “I think of the Hebrew word teshuvah. It basically means coming back. So, in brief I think of repentance as returning to be what God created me to be. Coming home to my own truest self, which includes realizing my own limits: I need Christ for my salvation. Repentance involves understanding yourself better than you did before. So even if it is about returning, it is still a step forward.” “Stop doing something that is wrong and promising to never do it again. Sometimes we break that promise, but then we stop, say and mean I am sorry, and promise to stop it again, until one day it is gone from your life.” “Greek means to turn around, change your mind. I think of repentance always in response to God’s initiation. I’m walking in one direction and turn around to walk the opposite direction. … It has nothing to do with feeling sorry, although we may feel sorry. It’s just changing our minds about God.”

All of these responses, I feel, are good ones that get at the idea of repentance. Repentance means more than saying, “I’m sorry.” It also means permanently walking away from whatever your sin was. So, to pick a more obvious violation of one of the Ten Commandments, if you regularly take stuff that does not belong to you, in other words, you steal, then repenting of that sin would mean changing your mind: you’re not going to steal any longer. But there could also be evidence of that repentance: you would restore whatever it was that you stole to the person or people whom you stole it from. One example of this would be the story of Zacchaeus, that tax collector who, after he encountered Jesus, vowed to give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back anyone whom he defrauded four times the amount.

But I also like this idea that one of my friends said about repentance being a return to your truest self, because I think that is what is going on in the story of Jesus’ baptism. When Jesus comes up out of the water, he sees the heavens torn apart, the Spirit of God descending on him as a dove, and a voice saying, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” This is the identity that God reminds Jesus of at his baptism. Jesus is God’s Son, and God is well-pleased with Jesus and what Jesus has done. It’s a moment where Jesus’ truest self is revealed, both to himself and to those who heard Mark’s Gospel for the first time. It’s incredible; amazing; a mountaintop experience. Imagine: to hear from God personally that you are God’s child and that God is pleased with you. Your truest self revealed.

Unfortunately, the Spirit doesn’t let Jesus rest too long on that mountaintop, but rather, drives him immediately into the wilderness for 40 days. It’s all well and good to know that you are God’s Son, but now Jesus must figure out what that means for himself and for the ministry that he is called to begin. That’s why he must stay in the wilderness for 40 days; that’s why he must let Satan tempt him, or rather, test him.  He has to figure out how he as God’s Son is to act in the world and how he is to use the gifts that God has given him to teach humankind what it means to follow him in the path of God’s love. Mark doesn’t give us the details that Matthew and Luke do about how exactly Jesus is tempted, though. What’s important to Mark is that Jesus does figure it out, and when he emerges from the wilderness, he begins to proclaim that God’s kingdom has come near, and that we all should repent and believe the good news.

So, how is Jesus then calling us to repent? That’s a really good question. Of course, we continue to confess our sins and repent of them daily, even when we fall back into them. That is a big part of repentance, and I think that we understand that, even when we’re not always good about doing it. But you know what? God says the same thing to us that God said to Jesus on the day when Jesus was baptized so long ago: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.” Sometimes it’s hard for us to remember that, especially when we are all too aware of how imperfect we are. So, let’s hear it again: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.” And let’s say it again, together: “We are God’s beloved children; with us, God is well pleased.” Isn’t that incredible? To think, that we are God’s beloved children, and that God is well pleased with us.

But, also like Jesus, we have to figure out what that means. I’m not suggesting that we all need to go out in the desert and fast for 40 days as Jesus did, although if that appeals to you, I won’t stop you. But in our prayer time and our devotional time, and in our time when we study the Scriptures, we need to listen for God’s voice showing us how we are to use the gifts that God has given us to proclaim God’s love to the world. And that can happen in many different ways. Perhaps God has given you the gift of evangelism and, like our good friend Rose Tonkin, you can just walk up to someone on the street and start talking to them about Jesus. But not everyone has that gift, and that’s okay. Perhaps you’ve been given the ability to teach others about Jesus, such as in Sunday school or adult Bible class. Perhaps you show Jesus’ love to others in other ways. God has not given us all the same gifts, and that is okay. The point is that, as God’s children, we listen to what God is telling us as to how we are to act and to proclaim God’s kingdom to the world around us.

Here are some final thoughts about repentance, whether it is confessing your sins or returning to who you are as God’s child: repentance requires humility. It requires an acknowledgment that who you are in the present moment is not who God meant you to be. It requires a realization that, no matter what lies you tell yourself on a daily basis, you are not perfect, and you need help. And this is where the Holy Spirit comes in. Martin Luther tells us that when we say we believe in the Holy Spirit, that means, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith …”. So, when we feel the desire to repent, we should have the humility to say that that desire does not come from ourselves, but that it is a gift from the Holy Spirit.

And that gift, that receiving of the Holy Spirit, did not just come on Jesus at his baptism, but rather, it also came upon each one of us when we were baptized. It leads us to repentance not just when we confess our sins in worship each week, but also on a daily basis. Through our baptism, the Holy Spirit continually reminds us that we are beloved children of God, gives us a desire to turn back to God, and the desire to act in the way that God’s children should act, using the gifts that God has given us and continually discerning how God wants us to use them. Let us then go forth from here this day, remembering that we are God’s children and that God loves us, and let us live our lives continually turning back to God. Amen.

 

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2019

Luke 2:1-20

I have a confession to make: I struggle a lot with Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, the good news of God coming in the flesh as a real, human baby is wonderful, and I rejoice over this wonderful, great, good news. It’s the rest of the stuff around Christmas that I struggle with: the sentimental songs: for example, the last thing that a mother with a newborn baby would want is a little boy banging on his drum right when she was trying to get the baby to sleep; and no, Mary does not need someone mansplaining to her what the birth of her son meant: she did, in fact, know what it meant because she said so in Luke chapter 1 when she sang that God had brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. Then there is the commercialism around Christmas and the pressure to make it just perfect, when buying stuff is the last thing that the Savior of the world wanted us to do when he was born. Finally, there are the inaccuracies of our storytelling around the actual birth of Christ itself which obscure the great and awesome mystery of this child born for us. For example, we know from Luke’s story itself, with the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in the fields at night, that Jesus was not actually born on December 25th. Winters in the Middle East can get cold, and for the shepherds to be out in the fields would have meant that it was springtime, probably sometime in March or April. And you may have noticed another discrepancy when I told the story of Jesus’ birth tonight: I replaced the word “inn” with “guest room”. And I want to explain more about that, because it helps us to enter this story, find out what really happened, and more fully understand what the birth of Jesus was about.

So, come back in time with me for a moment. Come back to a time when there were no phones, no emails, no text messaging, no social media, none of that. Come back to a time when Rome ruled most of the land around the Mediterranean Sea, to a time when Emperor Augustus had defeated his political rivals in a civil war and instituted an Empire that was at peace, but at peace by might of his military. Come to a place that is called Galilee in the north and Judea in the south, under the rule of the despised and feared family of King Herod, and a place where no Roman official wants to be assigned because its people are so “backwards” and “contrary,” refusing to follow the Greco-Roman gods and following their own God only, who prohibits any kind of images depicting God. Come to a little town called Nazareth in Galilee, where a young couple, forced by the dictates of this foreign Roman government to go to Bethlehem, starts out on the 90-mile journey when Mary is about nine months pregnant. By the way, we don’t know if this poor couple had a donkey or not; Scripture doesn’t tell us, and if they did, I’m not certain how comfortable that would have been for a nine-month pregnant woman to ride.

Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem. Since Joseph was descended from the house and family of David, and since Bethlehem was his hometown, he would have had family there. The word “inn” is a mistranslation of the Greek; inns in this time would have been little more than a room or two connected to a bar where unsavory characters would go to drink; there is no way that Joseph would have looked for a place in a strange inn for Mary. Instead, the word should be translated as “guest room”. Joseph and Mary go to Joseph’s family and find the room in the home is occupied by other people, who are probably also in town for the census. Then, while they are greeting their family and catching up on the news, Mary goes into labor. She needs privacy to give birth, and so she goes, not into a separate stable, but into the area of the house where the animals are kept. Luke doesn’t tell us any details about how long it took to give birth to Jesus, but for those of you who have been through the process, I want you to imagine what it would be like to go through birth without any pain medication. Mary is not the serene, perfectly dressed woman kneeling at the manger in prayer. She is disheveled, sweaty, in pain, lying in the place where the animals are kept, clutching her newborn baby to her victoriously, thankful to God that both she and her newborn son have survived birth, just as the angel Gabriel had promised nine months ago.

But more importantly, Mary and Joseph are not alone during this time. They are surrounded by their family. Perhaps one of the older women there served as a midwife during the birth process. But after the birth, when Mary laid the baby Jesus in the manger, the family all crowded in to the area with the animals and cooed over this new baby, wondering what life would have in store for him; at this point, according to Luke, Mary is the only one who knows what the angel Gabriel has said about her baby—although she probably did tell Joseph at some point. Suddenly, though, strangers burst in on the scene: shepherds with a strange story about angels announcing the birth of this baby who is the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. The birth of this baby in the backwaters of the Roman Empire is not just for their family, but for all people. And God has sent not the emperor, not the kings, not the politicians, not the powerful—but ordinary, everyday people, to come and see the baby in the manger, the feeding trough for animals, who would be the Savior of the world and who would feed the world through his life, death, and resurrection.

This is truly what we are called to celebrate on Christmas. Not the tree, not the sentimental Christmas songs that are untrue, not the gifts, and not the “idol” of the perfect Christmas celebration. We are called to celebrate, with the angels and the shepherds, the birth of a Savior who came for me, for you, for all of those the world deems “unimportant,” or “disposable”, and for all people—and all means all. The birth of Jesus the Messiah to an obscure Jewish couple in the hinterlands of the Roman Empire with only ordinary, everyday shepherds come to celebrate his birth, is a subversive signal of resistance to the powerful Empire: Caesar is not Lord, but Jesus is. A Lord who will bring peace, but not a false peace brought through the force of military might, but rather a true peace brought by serving us and teaching us to serve one another. A Lord who, from the start of his life as he lay in a manger (where he did cry, by the way), would give himself up as bread for us, so that we might be truly fed and satisfied. A Lord who was both, somehow, mysteriously, truly human and truly divine, and who loves us, each one of us, no matter who we are or what we’ve done.

This is the story that we celebrate each year in December. It is a story that, when all the legends and inaccuracies that we have built up around it are stripped away, is no less powerful for having lost all of that. It is a story that tells us who Jesus is and that he is our Lord. It is a story that is part of the greater story of all of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that is part of us and that informs how we are to live and to be in this world. It is a story that both affirms our biological families and encourages us to open our families wider and include people like the shepherds in them. And it is a story that tells us that God is not afraid to be born into the muck and dirt of our daily lives, because God’s love is so great that God is willing to do anything to show us how much God loves us, even be born as one of us among both humans and animals. Isn’t this an incredible story? And it is ours to share with the entire world.

So, let us glorify our great God with singing, as the angels did, and praising, as the shepherds did. Let us ponder the mystery of God becoming one of us as Mary did. But one thing we dare not do is be silent about it. Let us go from here this night, sharing the great good news with one and all that Jesus, our Messiah, is born and has become one of us, sharing his love not only with us who are gathered here, but with all people, everywhere. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 4 Narrative Lectionary

Luke 1:5-25; 57-80

My family has been waiting a long time. My brother and sister-in-law got married in June of 2012, and we knew they both wanted to have kids; the question was only going to be when. As the years went by and we watched them live their full lives: my brother is a lawyer, and my sister-in-law was completing her education to become a neurologist, and on weekends they were both flitting across the country to work at Comic-cons; our hopes that they would have a child dimmed. We all thought they loved their lives too much the way they were to make room for a baby. And we loved them, and we said that as long as they were happy, that was okay. And we went on with our lives. But then, suddenly, on Mother’s Day this year, the phone call came. My brother called and asked me, “Which do you prefer, Aunt or Auntie?” Stunned into silence for a moment, I then said, “Wait, what?” And he gave me the good news that my sister-in-law was pregnant; they were going to have a baby! But as wonderful as this news was, it meant several more months of waiting: waiting to find out if they were going to have a boy or a girl—it’s a boy, we know now—and now, we are still in the midst of waiting: waiting to meet this new baby boy for the first time, and waiting to hear the proud parents tell us what his name is, and waiting to hold him and to welcome him into our family. Waiting is not easy when you’re looking forward to something happening.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were waiting, too; probably for a lot longer than seven years. Having children was very important in first-century Jewish culture. It was not sinful if you didn’t have children—that’s very important to note—because our Scriptures are full of women who were called by God who did not have children; or at least, the Scriptures did not feel it important to tell us if they did. But still, having children was important, and if you were a woman who was married and who wanted a child, but could not have one, then you probably would have the same feelings that women today in the same situation have: sadness, perhaps wondering what is wrong with you, being envious of women who did have children, and so on and so forth. But Zechariah and Elizabeth seemed to have made peace with the fact that they were getting older and past the age of childbearing. And then, on that fateful day in the Temple, when it was Zechariah’s turn to serve, an angel appeared and said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.”

What was the prayer that Zechariah prayed that had been heard? I don’t think it was a prayer for a child, because Zechariah expresses doubt that he and Elizabeth could conceive; unless it was a prayer that Zechariah had uttered a long time ago that was just now being answered. Perhaps he was praying for the salvation of his people from their enemies, as the Romans were now occupying the land of Judea and had installed their puppet king, Herod, in Jerusalem. Perhaps he was praying for the Messianic age to come soon, of which his son, John the Baptist, would be the herald. Whatever Zechariah was praying for, the answer to his prayer came in the form of the angel Gabriel announcing to him that he and Elizabeth were going to have a baby, who would “be great in the sight of the Lord,” who would “be filled with the Holy Spirit,” and “who would turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God”.

This is good news that the angel Gabriel brings to Zechariah; news that he would normally want to tell everyone. But the irony is that he can’t. Because Zechariah expressed doubt that the angel’s words would come true, Gabriel gets huffy, says, “How dare you disbelieve me!” and strikes him mute. I’ve always wondered at this, because Mary will later ask Gabriel the same question, and Gabriel lets her go. And in the Old Testament, Sarah, another woman who had a miraculous baby when she was old, laughed in God’s face when it was announced to her, and yet God did not strike her for disbelieving. What was it about Zechariah that rankled the angel so? I’m afraid I haven’t heard a good answer for that question yet, and the only possibility that I can think of is that there must have been something about Zechariah’s attitude that just rubbed the angel the wrong way. Whatever the case, Zechariah now has good news to share that he is unable to, since he has lost his voice, and he goes out to the people who were waiting for him and tries to pantomime what has happened to him.

As I reflect on Zechariah wanting to share the good news with his people and being unable to speak, I think of the irony that we find ourselves in today. We have good news to share and, even though we are able to speak, we don’t want to share the good news. And we have even better news than Zechariah had. Zechariah received the promise of a baby who would grow up to be the herald of the Messiah, who would be born not long after John was. We have the great good news of Jesus, God in the flesh, to share with the people we encounter daily. God loved us so much that God, the Word, became human, a real human being that could be seen and touched, and who was born just like we are, who experienced our physical problems and our emotions, who knows us intimately, who loves us so much that he went to die on the cross for us to set us free from our sins, who rose from the dead, who loves us just as we are, who promises us eternal life. And we are silent. Why do we keep this to ourselves?

As I ask myself that question, the answer I come up with is fear. We are afraid: we are afraid of looking foolish in front of others, afraid of being seen as a “zealot”, or afraid of sharing our innermost experiences with others because they might laugh. Do you know that probably the most common command to us in Scriptures is, “Do not be afraid”? We all could probably recite most of the Ten Commandments from memory if given a chance, but we never remember this command that’s repeated more often: Do not be afraid. When we have Jesus as our Lord and our Savior, what do we have to be afraid of? We should be sharing the good news of Jesus in our conversations with others just like we share recommendations for weight loss programs, doctors, gyms, grocery stores, and other things that we talk about in our daily lives.

And that’s the other thing I wonder about, too: are we not excited about Jesus? Jeff and I went out to lunch a few days ago, and he struck up a conversation with the waitress about how excited he was about the music he’s playing for Christmas Eve, and he invited her to come to church and hear it. And as I was listening to him talk to this waitress, I said to myself, “If everyone were as excited as Jeff is and invited the person to whom they were talking to come to church and see Jesus, we could have more people in these pews every Sunday and on Christmas Eve.” If we’re not excited about Jesus and who he is and everything he’s done for us, then maybe we need to ask ourselves why, and why we even have a church anymore. Maybe we need to sit down and reflect about who Jesus is to us and why we believe in him and write out those faith statements that Pastor Mike and I have been talking about at our 4-church meetings. And then we can get out there and share our love and excitement for Jesus with others.

So, I’ll start. This is who Jesus is to me: both the Son of God, God-in-flesh, and Son of Man. He is, in some mysterious way that I can’t explain, both human and divine. I love the fact that I have a God who became human, who understands what it means to be me, who fully understands all the pain and suffering that I go through, and who loves me even when it seems like no one else does. And Jesus loves me so much that he went to the cross to die for me, and he promises me eternal life starting right from the moment I was baptized. Because of his resurrection, I have faith that I will see all of my loved ones who have gone before me again one day. And now, while I am here on earth, Jesus gives me a model of love to live by. There are days that I struggle with this: as much as I want to be like Jesus, I know I fail, and I fail often. And I trust that when I fail, Jesus is there to forgive me, and his Holy Spirit continues to urge me on and to try again. And so, I pray that I may follow Jesus with the strength that he gives me for the rest of my days here on earth.

Our friend Zechariah was released from his inability to speak when he declared, in writing, that the name of his son was John. And what a song he sang when he was able to speak again! He blessed the Lord—note that he didn’t yell at God for making him silent for these long months, but he blessed God. He prophesied about the savior who his son would point to in his ministry of baptism for repentance—that savior who would go to the cross for us. He sang about how God had not forgotten God’s people. He spoke of how light would come upon people who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and how our feet would be guided in the ways of peace. This song is still part of our liturgy for morning prayer, and we have it as one of our hymns, #250, in our hymnal. Zechariah proclaimed the good news of Jesus long ago when he was released from silence. We, too, have been released from silence, and we are called to not be afraid and to speak and to sing of this good news to the world around us, who so desperately needs it. So, let us not be afraid, but let us go forth from here and speak the good news of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 3, Narrative Lectionary

Ezra 1:1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13

This week we jump ahead in time from Second Isaiah’s announcement that the Lord will lead the people of Israel on a return from exile back to the land of Judah and Jerusalem, to the actual historical account of how that happened. The book of Ezra is not read from or studied very often in the Lutheran church, so let’s take a moment and look at some of the background of this book. We’ve been making great leaps in the history of the Israelite/Jewish people in the last several weeks: from Jeremiah, who prophesied right when the Babylonian Empire came and conquered Judah and Jerusalem in 586 BCE, to Second Isaiah, who prophesied towards the end of the exile of the people in Babylon, now to Ezra, when the people of Judah are finally allowed to return home. The book is named for Ezra, the priest who returned to Jerusalem to help lead the people who were already there and who brought more with him, and, along with the book of Nehemiah, who was  a man appointed governor of Jerusalem, it tells the story of the period of time from roughly 539 to 430 BCE. And as we hear a bit in our reading from Ezra today, it was both a time of rejoicing and a time of remembering what was and mourning for what would probably not be again.

In the first section of our reading today, we hear the actual decree from King Cyrus of Persia allowing the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem. And, even though it’s written to make it sound like Cyrus is one who believes in God, that was not really the case. Certainly, Cyrus believed in his god—whoever that was—and maybe he included the God of the Jewish exiles as one of many deities that he worshiped. But Cyrus is doing this for political reasons. The Babylonians, who were in power before Cyrus, operated on the theory of exiling the people who were conquered and oppressing them. In contrast, Cyrus, the King of the new Persian Empire that took over the Babylonian Empire, operated on a different theory. He figured that if he let people go back to their homeland and left them alone, other than requiring a monetary tribute from them every so often, they would be happy, and they would be loyal to him. That’s what he’s doing in the case of the Jewish people: letting them return to their home, rebuild the temple and the city, and thinking they will continue to be loyal to him, not rebel against him, and basically hold that part of his empire for him. If the Jewish people pray for Cyrus in their rebuilt temple, that’s just an added perk to this policy of his.

And so, in chapter 2, which our reading skips over today, we get the detailed list of exiles who decide to return to Jerusalem—which is why we’re skipping over it! This first group of exiles numbered 42,360, plus their servants, which numbered 7,337, for a total of somewhere around 49-50 thousand people. They return to Jerusalem and find the ruins of the temple and make some freewill offerings on its site. Then they begin to rebuild the temple by first constructing the altar of the God of Israel. But as they’re doing this, if you will notice in our reading, “they were in dread of the neighboring peoples”. Things in Jerusalem are not as the older exiles remember them. Where once their people were the ones in power, a long time has passed while they have been in exile, and the land has been inhabited by other people; it has not remained vacant. So, even though the Jewish people have permission from King Cyrus to rebuild their temple, the people who were already living there may not have gotten that “memo”; remember there was no email, Facebook, Twitter, text messaging, or even phones in those days. Even as the people begin this great work of rebuilding their destroyed Temple so they might worship God, they are doing so in fear for their lives.

Finally, in the last section of our reading today, we hear how the people laid the foundations of the new Temple upon the old. Once they got the altar up, they started making offerings to God upon it, but they knew that the altar needed to be protected from the elements. So, they started rebuilding the Temple by laying the foundations. And as they did so, the priests in their vestments praised the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites clashed the cymbals, and everyone sang that God was good, for God’s steadfast love endures forever. You would think this was a good thing, right? After so many years of exile, away from the land they loved, they were finally able to go back and rebuild the Temple, the place where they worshiped God. But we have an interesting note here: “But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice.” These are the folks who remembered how grand Solomon’s Temple had been, and they knew that what had been laid that day was nowhere near as big and grand as the Temple had once been. But, the book of Ezra tells us, “the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping”. There was both weeping and joyful celebration at the same time.

This experience of the Jewish people returning from exile still resonates with us Christians many centuries later, on a completely different continent. We are in the Advent season once more, with Christmas coming quickly. I have heard and I continue to hear many stories from those of you still sitting in the pews about how Christmas Eve services used to be so full that every seat in every pew was taken, and how you even had to bring chairs in to accommodate all the people who came. Now, as we look around, we see the diminished numbers and we know that, even though the church will be fuller than usual on Christmas Eve, it still won’t be what it once was. You who remember may be celebrating the birth of the Christ child with joy once more, but you may also be experiencing sadness that the worship service is not as grand as it once was. Or perhaps you have lost someone dear to you this year, or you may be in worship while your family is not nearby, and you may be missing them and mourning their absence at the same time as those around you seem joyful at Christmas again this year. On the other hand, a person who steps in to worship on that night who has never been here before will not have anything to compare it to, and may find the service beautiful and joyful in and of itself, and be celebrating the birth of Jesus with full joy. The Scripture text from Ezra says that the sounds of weeping could not be distinguished from the sounds of joy. This is just the same way it is whenever we come to worship as a congregation: we hold one another up. Those who are unable to participate joyfully receive love from those who are not mourning, and God hears both the sounds of our joy and the sounds of our sorrow together and loves us in both our joy and our sorrow. God is pleased when we come together bearing one another’s burdens as we lift up our voices to worship God.

Not only do we bear one another’s burdens in our own congregation, but we also bear one another’s burdens across congregations, joining with our sisters and brothers in Christ worshiping elsewhere and praying for one another. We see this most clearly when we 4 Lutheran congregations in Steelton, Oberlin, and Highspire come together for worship on 5th Sundays and during Lent, but we also see it when individuals from each place cross boundaries, so to speak, and participate in events that other congregations are holding. And in some respects, our human-made boundaries are blurred; I know people from all 4 congregations now and look forward to seeing them at joint worship and other meetings and events, and I consider all of them my sisters and brothers in Christ. I know that all 4 of our congregations are struggling with lower worship attendance, aging core groups, and figuring out how to minister to the world around us in this changed society that we find ourselves in.

And that’s where today’s image of new foundations being laid for the Temple resonates the most with me. At our 4-church meetings, one of the options we have been discussing for the future is to have all 4 congregations come together and build a new building. Remember, this is an option, not a foregone conclusion. But I can’t help but think that if this option comes to pass, the people who remember their own buildings, including some of you here today, will mourn for the loss of the old buildings, the old ways of doing ministry, and the old society that is passing away. But for those new people who will come to worship Jesus, those who don’t remember the old ways, it will be a wondrously joyful day, and the sound of celebration will be indistinguishable from the sound of weeping. And Jesus will smile, will bring comfort to those who mourn, and will celebrate with those who are celebrating. And we will continue to bear one another’s burdens on that day and every day thereafter.

In the old days, the color of the altar paraments in Advent was purple, and the candles on the Advent wreath were also purple, except for one pink candle. In some congregations, the paraments on the altar were also pink—or, more properly, rose-colored—and some pastors also wore pink stoles and chasubles. The pink or rose color was a symbol for joy, and the third Sunday of Advent was called Gaudete Sunday, which is Latin for joy. The joy came as a break from the fasting—Advent used to be a somber season to prepare us for the coming of Christ, similar to Lent as a season of preparation for Holy Week and Easter. But for many of us, there is never a complete break from sadness for what was, even when joy is mixed in. So, on this Gaudete Sunday, let us remember that not everyone is joyful at this time of year, and let us bear one another’s burdens, so that the sound of weeping is indistinguishable from the sound of joy. And let us trust in the return of Christ, who will one day come and wipe all tears from our eyes. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 2, Narrative Lectionary

Isaiah 40:1-11

Today we are moving from Jeremiah, who prophesied right before Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, back to the prophet Isaiah. But this is a different Isaiah than the one we heard from several weeks ago. Even though we have only one book named Isaiah in our Holy Scriptures, scholars believe that chapters 1-39 belong to the prophet named Isaiah who lived in the time of Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, before the Babylonian exile, and that chapters 40-66 belong to a different prophet who lived at the time that King Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jewish exiles to return to Israel and rebuild the temple. They call this unknown prophet Second Isaiah. The reason they believe that it’s two different prophets is because each of these sections in the book speaks to the different situations that the Jewish people found themselves in during two different periods of time. But, because the later chapters were attached onto the scrolls of the book of Isaiah, we don’t know any biographical information about this prophet we call Second Isaiah, other than that he lived during the Jewish return from exile. This unknown prophet’s words start in chapter 40 with the reading that we have heard today.

We know a little more about the setting for today’s prophecy than we do about this mysterious Second Isaiah. While the people of Judah have been in exile in the land of Babylon, the Babylonian Empire has fallen to the Persian Empire, and the new king, Cyrus, has decreed that the people of Judah can return to Jerusalem. This prophet who we call Second Isaiah is speaking to a community that is nearing the end of their exile in a foreign land that lasted roughly 50 years. That’s enough time for the older people in the Jewish community, the ones who had originally been taken into exile, to die off. The ones who are in their older years now were children when they went into exile and may or may not remember what it was like in the country of Judah. The young children in the community were born in Babylon and know nothing of what Judah was like, other than the stories that they grew up hearing. All they may know is that they are different from the people around them, and they are told that Babylon is not really their home. And so, Second Isaiah announces God’s message of comfort to this group of people, and a proclamation that they can go home once more.

But, before people make any kind of journey, there are preparations to be made. The prophet here tells us that the preparations involve making a highway in the desert for God. And, in making the highway, mountains and hills will be leveled off, the valleys filled in, and the rough places smoothed out. What’s interesting here is that the prophet says this road is not made for the people; rather, it is made for the Lord; it is the Lord’s way that is being prepared. God is coming to the people, and it is the Lord who will lead the Lord’s people on their return from exile back to their home country. Then the prophet turns to a description of the characteristics of the Lord. He says that even though the people’s faithfulness to the Lord is like the grass that withers and the flower that fades—that is, we human beings are a fairly fickle lot—the Lord’s faithfulness to the Lord’s people, as expressed in God’s Word, will stand forever. This is comforting news for us, indeed.

As we are now halfway through Advent, with only about 16 days to go until Christmas, how are we preparing a way for God to come to us? Martin Luther might say that God comes to us even when we don’t prepare ourselves, but we can try to make things a little bit easier for God to come. What are those high places in our lives that need to be made low, or the low places that need to be filled in? In my children’s message today I have spoken of the idea of welcome, and how having a welcome mat outside the door of our home can make it easier for people to come in the door. Scriptures tell us in several places that when we welcome others, we welcome our Lord Jesus. But there is more to welcome than just being kind to strangers when they walk in the door of our church. Think for a moment of a time when you felt truly welcome. When I went to Richard Farina’s funeral on Thursday, I heard stories of how, when you entered the Farina home, you were automatically treated like one of the family. That’s the kind of welcome we are talking about when we welcome Jesus, who often comes to us in the form of a stranger: making them feel at home, offering them the comfortable chair or the best place at the table, helping them to understand the inside workings of the family, and, when the stranger is no longer a stranger but one of the family, also listening to their ideas for how to make the family better, and putting those ideas into practice.

Now, I know what you’re going to say to me. “But, Pastor, we want to be welcoming, but no strangers come through our doors, so how can we do this?” My question to you is, do people outside our doors really and truly know that they are welcome, that they will be loved no matter the color of their skin, their age, or who they love, and that they will be treated like one of the family when they come? Here’s your assignment this week: go out into the neighborhood around you and start talking to people. Ask them if they’ve heard of Salem/St. John’s, and if they have, ask them what they’ve heard about our congregations. Do they think of us as a force for good in the community? Or have they heard that we have a lot of infighting? Do they think of us as a group of people with the love of Jesus in our hearts? Or do they see us as a social club that is irrelevant to the needs that they have?

I want to share a story with you that Pastor Larry Hawkins of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in downtown Harrisburg shared with the St. John’s council back in October. I had invited him to come and speak to the St. John’s council about the possibility of becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation. Congregations receive the designation of Reconciling in Christ when they craft and make public a welcome statement that includes all different kinds of people, but specifically makes welcome people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. Pastor Larry told us the story of how, several years ago, a young man who was attending HACC in Middletown called him and asked him for a ride on the coming Sunday to St. Michael’s for worship, since he didn’t have a car. Pastor Larry was confused, because there were several Lutheran congregations closer to HACC than St. Michael’s was. But this young man said he was gay, and that he would not come to worship at a church unless they specifically had a statement saying that the LGBTQ population was welcome and safe at that congregation. And so, Pastor Larry went to pick him up and bring him to St. Michael’s that Sunday, passing many Lutheran congregations along the way, including Salem and St. John’s, and mourning the fact that this young man did not feel welcome or safe at any one of them.

This is one way that we prepare the way for Jesus, by making the high places low, filling in the low places, and leveling the field. We remove the barriers that might be preventing people from coming to worship Jesus, and believe me, there are many more barriers up than we think there are; I’ve just shared one example today. Preparing the way is not easy, and it is not meant to be. There are people of God out there who are still “in exile,” so to speak, and who are longing to return home. We are the ones being called to proclaim to them, “Comfort, O comfort my people” and to prepare the way for them to come home. We are the ones being called to proclaim that the word of our God, the word of love for all people shared through Jesus Christ, will stand forever. We are the ones being called to proclaim, “Here is your God!”

And Second Isaiah leaves us today with an image of what our God looks like: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” God is the one who will comfort all of us; all of us already gathered here and those who God is wanting to gather to us. God is the one who walks beside us in good times and in bad: both when we celebrate the good things in life and when we mourn the loss of ones who have been with us for a long time. Through Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd who was born for us, died for us, and rose again for us, God has compassion on us, forgiving us our sins and urging us forward on the journey home. I saw a video once of a shepherd pulling a sheep out of a hidden hole in the ground; when we get into deep holes like that, Jesus is the one who pulls us out and sets us free. And just as a shepherd feeds his flock, Jesus feeds us with his body and blood at Holy Communion, reminding us that he is with us always, no matter what.

So, let us rejoice and give thanks for this wonderful news of comfort, love, and compassion that God has on us through Jesus Christ. Let us consider how we might best prepare the way for Jesus, as he appears to us in strangers, to arrive in our churches. Let us continue actively waiting this Advent for Jesus to return. And let us be bold in proclaiming to the world around us that great good news of comfort, love, and compassion for all people, especially those who may be “in exile” around us. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 1, Narrative Lectionary

Jeremiah 33:14-18

Today we return from the story of King Josiah, his reforms, and the word of the prophet Huldah to one of our writing prophets, Jeremiah. Jeremiah was actually a contemporary of King Josiah; the introduction to the book of his prophecies and his story names Jeremiah as the son of Hilkiah, who was the high priest in last week’s story who found the book of the law in the temple that inspired Josiah’s reforms of religious life in the kingdom. The Lord called Jeremiah to be a prophet when Jeremiah was only a boy; also similar to King Josiah, who started ruling over Judah when he was eight years old. After King Josiah died in battle, Jeremiah continued prophesying during the reigns of King Jehoiakim, King Jehoiachin, and King Zedekiah. Jeremiah’s life as a prophet was not an easy one, though. God tasked him with telling the people of Jerusalem that Babylon was going to conquer them, and that, rather than fighting the Babylonians, they should surrender to their fate, because God was not going to rescue them this time. Obviously, this made Jeremiah a very unpopular figure, and he was thrown into prison—a lot—and once even thrown into a well that had no water in it, only mud. Because of the message that Jeremiah proclaimed, and also because he saw the downfall of Jerusalem and is also said to have written the book of Lamentations, Jeremiah is often called “the weeping prophet”.

But, contrary to all of this, today’s passage is not one of Jeremiah’s doom and gloom prophecies. Rather, it is a prophecy of hope, which is amazing when we look at what is happening in Jeremiah’s life at this point in his story. The Babylonian army is laying siege to Jerusalem; this siege went on for about a year before the city fell. Jeremiah was “confined to the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah,” which was probably a step up from the dungeons, but he was still in prison. He was imprisoned because he had been saying that the Lord was going to give the city of Jerusalem into the hand of the king of Babylon and that King Zedekiah would be taken into exile into Babylon. During his imprisonment, Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel had come to see him and had asked him to buy a field in his hometown of Anathoth, which he did. But Jeremiah then asked the Lord why he was supposed to do that when Jerusalem was under siege and would eventually fall to the Babylonians anyway. And the Lord answered Jeremiah that yes, Jerusalem was going to fall to the Babylonians; nothing could change that. But, God tells Jeremiah, after the time of exile, God is going to bring back God’s people from exile, back to their land, and that the people would once more follow the Lord wholeheartedly, and they would be God’s people and the Lord would be their God. In the middle of this awful siege, the word of the Lord turns from wrath and destruction to a word of hope, that one day the people will return, and all will be well once more.

Today’s reading tells us that not only will the people be returning from exile one day, but also that God will raise up “a righteous Branch” for David, and “he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” This is a common theme for the prophets: they call out the people of Israel and Judah, including the kings, for not doing justice and righteousness. And today Jeremiah is raising up a hope that not only will the people follow the ways of the Lord when they return from exile, but also that God will give them a leader, descended from the house of David, who will embody that justice and righteousness, a leader who will model for the people how that justice and righteousness is to be done. The good kings who had ruled over them, Hezekiah and Josiah, had tried their best to follow in the ways of the Lord and of their ancestor David, but even they made mistakes. This new king, whom we heard Isaiah talk about a few weeks ago as the “shoot from the stump of Jesse,” and now whom we hear Jeremiah name as “a righteous Branch to spring up for David,” is the promise of that king who would be even better than Hezekiah and Josiah, who would so embody what it would mean to do God’s justice that “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” In other words, the city of Jerusalem itself would be known as a righteous and just place because of the king who would rule over it.

For us Christians, it is easy to say that this righteous Branch is Jesus. That’s our automatic go-to when we hear prophecies like this in the Old Testament. But I want to take a moment and look at this from the Jewish perspective and honor their perspective as just as right of an interpretation as ours. Remember what I have said before, that when the prophets spoke these words, they were not automatically thinking about Jesus, but were instead speaking the words that God told them to speak into their present situation. Jeremiah was giving the people a word of hope in a seemingly hopeless situation: that even though the Babylonians would conquer them and would take them into exile, the people would return to their land one day and God would be with them again. When practicing Jewish people look at this prophecy of the righteous Branch today, they do not see it as fulfilled. After all, the world still goes on today as it has been, and we all know what the present political situation is in Jerusalem. And so, they continue to live in hope for this righteous Branch, and that is not wrong.

We as Christians see Jesus as the righteous Branch, and that is also not wrong. As we read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, we see how he embodies that justice and righteousness that Jeremiah speaks of. We see how Jesus reached out to those whom his society deemed untouchable—like those suffering from leprosy and other illnesses—and how he healed them. We see how he taught that, contrary to what society says, the rich are not the ones who are blessed, but rather, the poor are. We marvel at how he demanded that people give up their possessions and follow him, because there are more important things in life than our possessions, and we struggle to give to others generously and put Jesus first in our lives, trusting in him to care for us. We see him encouraging a woman to sit at his feet and learn from him, just as his male disciples do. We see that his teachings are just, and we see the model that Jesus has given for us in his triumph of love by undergoing a wrongful execution on a cross by the Roman occupiers. We believe that Jesus has fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecy of a righteous Branch and that he embodies righteousness and justice. But, like our Jewish brothers and sisters, we also acknowledge that the world is still broken. And so, like they do, we also live in hope for the prophecy to be ultimately fulfilled, but we interpret that as the time when Jesus will return to Earth and set all things right once more.

A few weeks ago, I spoke about what hope was in the children’s message. As a reminder, this is what hope looks like: it is that moment when you hold up a treat in front of a dog, and the dog looks at the treat with longing in his eyes. He knows he’s going to get the treat, but he doesn’t have it yet. Do we hope for Jesus’ return in that way? Sometimes I’m not sure we do. We as Christians get caught up in our everyday struggles, and sometimes just those can seem so overwhelming that we don’t have the imagination to think there might be something more. There are some days that we might struggle just to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table, let alone think about Jesus returning and justice being done once more. But I guarantee you that, whenever we look at the news, we feel that longing for justice to be done. When we see pictures of children starving and hear the appeals from charities to help, we may contribute money but then wonder if the little bit we throw into the bucket will really make that much difference. When we see a step forward in overcoming issues like racism or sexism, but then see how much further there is to go, we may feel despair and wonder if true peace and justice will ever come. We may look up to God and cry out, with the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord?” (13).

Hear now the good news: Jesus has come and will come again. Jesus has come to tell us the kingdom of God is near. Now is the time to repent and believe in this good news. Jesus is who we long for to come again, in a deep and hungry way. We see him on the horizon, but he’s not here yet, and we wait, and we hope. And because we know he’s coming, we do not give in to despair. We continue to give generously to others because we are waiting for the time when Jesus will come and there will be no more hunger or poverty. We continue to work for justice because we are waiting for the time when Jesus will come and there will be true justice for all and there will be no more racism or sexism or ageism or classism or any other -ism you can think of. We anticipate Jesus’ return by working for those things which he will embody when he comes. And as we do, we pray that ancient prayer in Aramaic, maranatha, which can mean either, “The Lord has come,” or “Come, O Lord.” Amen.

Sermon for Christ the King Sunday, Narrative Lectionary

2 Kings 22:1-20; 23:1-3

Today we are taking a break from the writing prophets, the ones that we have heard of because they have books of the Bible named after them, and returning to a story of the kings of Judah. But we have not left prophets completely behind, because today’s story includes the account of a prophet named Huldah, who was a woman. Before we get into today’s story, however, I want to give you some background and connect last week’s words from the prophet Isaiah to this week’s story. According to the beginning of the book of Isaiah, that prophet operated in the southern kingdom of Judah during the time that the kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah reigned. Hezekiah, the last king who was in power when Isaiah prophesied, was a decent king. 2 Kings has this to say about Hezekiah, “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done.” The book commends Hezekiah for destroying idols that the people were worshiping. But then, Hezekiah dies. His son Manasseh came to power, and he was an evil king, reinstituting idol worship. When Manasseh died, his son Amon came to power, and Amon was just as bad as Manasseh was. In fact, Amon was so bad that his servants assassinated him, and Amon’s son Josiah was made king in his place, at the tender age of eight years old.

Josiah, today’s story tells us, was different than his father. “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.” Part of what that meant was restoring the Temple as a house of worship for the Lord, because Josiah’s grandfather, Manasseh, had built altars to worship pagan gods in the Temple. Our story today says that Josiah decided to give the collection of money for that restoration work directly into the hands of those who were working to repair the Temple, since they knew best what materials and tools they needed to do the work. That in and of itself is a remarkable amount of trust on the part of this young king, who would have been 26 at the time. But the story shifts from the repair work that’s going on to a book of the Law that’s suddenly been discovered in the Temple by Hilkiah the high priest. We are not sure which book this was, but scholars speculate that it may have been an early form of the book of Deuteronomy, which is a repeating of the Law given by God through Moses first recounted in the book of Exodus. The main reason that scholars think it might have been Deuteronomy is because at the end of that book, there are curses named that will fall upon the people if they disobey the law, and Josiah references “the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us” when he sends messengers to inquire of the prophet Huldah. Whatever the book was, when Shaphan, the king’s secretary, read the book to King Josiah, the king tore his clothes as a sign of mourning, because he knew that the people of Israel had not been living in accordance with the Law that was written in this book.

And the next part of this story is what’s fascinating to me. The king sends messengers to consult a prophet of the Lord who is living in Jerusalem to find out if the Lord will indeed punish the people for their sins. And this is not just any prophet: this is a prophet who is a woman, named Huldah. We don’t know anything about her other than what this story tells us. But we do know that Huldah says that the wrath of the Lord is coming, and there is nothing that Josiah or anyone else can do about it. The people have been following other gods and not following the Law of the Lord for too long. However, Huldah says, because King Josiah showed repentance and a humble heart, the Lord will not bring about this disaster on the people in Josiah’s lifetime. After the king receives the message, he publicly goes to the Temple, has the words of the book of the Law read before him and all the people, and renews the covenant of the Lord with all the people.

As I read this account of Josiah and his reforms, I wonder about the words of the prophet Huldah to Josiah. She clearly tells Josiah that disaster is going to come upon the kingdom of Judah regardless of what Josiah does; it’s only that there will be a delay in the sentence because Josiah showed repentance when he realized that he and his people had not been following the book of the Law. So, if Josiah knows that the Lord’s wrath is eventually going to fall upon Judah, then why bother making the reforms that he does? I can think of only two reasons: the first, that Josiah thought that perhaps if the people returned to the Lord, the Lord might relent and not bring disaster upon them, and the second, regardless of what would happen to the kingdom of Judah in the future, returning to the Lord was simply the right thing to do.

The other thing that I find fascinating about this story is that, while the book of the Law is found in the Temple while repairs are being made, the Temple eventually fades from significance in this story, even though it is the scene for the renewal of the covenant. What is most important to the teller of this story is the Word of the Lord. The temple will eventually be destroyed when the Babylonians conquer Jerusalem and send its people into exile. And the people will mourn for the destruction of the Temple. But in the end, what unites them in this story, what will unite them and form them as the Jewish people in exile, will not be the Temple, but will be the words of the book of the Law given to them by God through Moses, as recounted in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and as explained to them by the prophets and the stories of old.

What does all of this have to do with us? After all, this reform of Josiah’s took place so long ago and far away. Here is one thing: an article came out from Luther Seminary recently saying that as of 2041, about 22 years from now, there will only be about 16,000 people worshiping in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—that’s our denomination. This is based on current trends of declining membership and average worship attendance across the ELCA. As you can see by looking around, we are part of that declining membership and worship attendance. The author of this article makes the point that some of this is caused by shifting culture that we can’t do a whole lot about. But he also says that part of the reason for this is that we aren’t clear about what’s distinctive about being Christian. He writes,

 

For a long time, the church has been out of practice at telling a story to its own members and to its neighbors that sets it apart from other organizations. If the point of church is being a social, cultural, or community service organization, people have a lot of other ways of meeting those needs that are far more accessible. It isn’t clear in many local churches what the church’s theological identity or core story really is and how its practices make a distinct difference in people’s lives.  https://faithlead.luthersem.edu/decline/

 

Clearly, then, like the kingdom of Judah in Josiah’s time, the church is in desperate need of reform. The article says that the first step in reforming our congregations is to go back to basics. What this means is eliminating clutter: getting rid of all programs and events that are not designed to form Christian identity and practice. It also means rediscovering and reclaiming those simple practices that Christians have always done: prayer, Scripture study, service, reconciliation, Sabbath, and hospitality, and make these the center of our congregational life. Another part of this step is to make sure that these practices are something everyone in the congregation is doing, and not just the clergyperson. We also need to be more open about sharing our spiritual stories with one another and help connect them to Scripture and theological tradition. We also need to not be afraid to experiment to see what will work as we reach out to our surrounding community, and also not be afraid to fail, to pick ourselves up, and to try again.

Besides reforming how we do things, as Josiah did, the other thing that we need to notice is that these things, this forming and re-forming of a community of Christians, is not dependent on having a nice building. Even though today’s story started out in the Temple and ended at the Temple, the action of the story is around those reforms that Josiah made—going back to the basics of the Law of God—rather than Temple worship. And so it is important for us to remember what the meaning of “church,” actually is, and it is not a building, even though this is how we use it in English today. The original Greek word that is translated into English as “church,” is ekklesia, which means “ones who are called out”. We as Christians are called out of the sinful ways of the world to follow Jesus, to live in the world as Christians, and to witness to the world about what that way of life looks like. In none of this description is a building absolutely necessary, although it is nice to have. The Temple that the Jewish people had was destroyed twice: once by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and once by the Romans in 70 CE. And God was okay with that, because God knew that the community of people that would form around following God’s Word would endure despite the destruction of the magnificent building.

Today our liturgical calendar says that we are celebrating Christ the King Sunday, when we remember that Christ is our king over and above all worldly kings or governments. Christ’s reign is different from that of earthly kings, even that of Josiah’s. When Christ reigns over us, it means that we follow him above all other things and treasure him above everything else in our lives. Are we as a church, as called-out ones, truly doing this? Or are there things that we are placing in our lives that we regard as more important than him? One of the great things about having Christ as our king means that, even though the form of our church is changing, we trust and we hope that the called-out ones of Jesus will continue, even if it’s not in our building, but instead in someone’s home or somewhere else in our community. As we transition from one church season to another; as we begin to focus on hopeful anticipation of Christ’s return, let us reflect on what Christ is calling us called-out ones to move forward into. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 23 Narrative

Isaiah 5:1-7; 11:1-5

Today we move from the prophet Hosea to the prophet Isaiah. Each year in the narrative lectionary cycle we get readings from the prophet Isaiah, because he is one of the bigger, more well-known prophets in the Old Testament, and because the New Testament writers looked back to a lot of the prophecies that Isaiah spoke and interpreted them to be about Jesus. But the thing to remember is what I said in my sermon last week: that while what the New Testament writers did was not wrong, most of the time these prophets, when they were speaking the word of God, were not talking about Jesus. Instead, they were speaking God’s word into the present political and religious situations of their time. So, let’s refresh our memories as to who Isaiah was, where he prophesied, and what God was telling him to say to the people.

Isaiah prophesied during the reigns of the kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of the southern kingdom of Judah. Uzziah would have been reigning in Judah around the same time as Jeroboam II was reigning in Israel, so Hosea in the north and Isaiah in the south may have been prophesying about the same time, but Isaiah would have continued after Hosea finished. The political situation that Isaiah was speaking to in the southern kingdom was similar to that of the northern kingdom: the growing power of the Assyrian Empire, which was beginning to conduct raids into both Israel and Judah. In Isaiah’s prophecies, we see him counseling the rulers of Judah that God was greater than the Assyrian Empire, and that the king should put his trust in God’s protection, rather than in protection from allies such as Egypt, and that Assyria would not conquer Judah.

Today’s passage, however, about the person who dug the vineyard, is not talking about broader political alliances between Judah and Egypt against Assyria. Rather, it is talking about the sins of the people within the country of Judah and the injustices they are perpetrating in their society. Isaiah tells us this by singing a song about a landowner who planted a vineyard, did everything he was supposed to, planted the right vines, and expected a bountiful harvest of choice grapes that he could make rich wine out of. But instead, the grapes that the vineyard produced were wild grapes, very bitter-tasting, and unsuitable to making any kind of good wine out of. The vineyard owner is frustrated because he did all the right things and yet, he did not get what he was expecting.

Then, the prophet Isaiah turns it around and explains the parable: the landowner is the Lord, and the vineyard is the house of Israel and the house of Judah. The Lord lavished care on the people, told them what was right, but instead of acting with justice and righteousness, they have acted unjustly and have committed deeds that have resulted in bloodshed. What were the things that the people had done that resulted in this condemnation? Isaiah tells us in the following verses that are not included in today’s reading: those who are rich are buying up all the land, leaving no place for poorer people to live and to farm their own land, and then those who are rich are lying around all day and indulging in wine and strong drink so much that their senses are dulled, and they don’t see the work of the Lord in the land. In other words, the Lord is condemning those who are rich and greedy and are thinking only of themselves and their own pleasure, rather than caring for others in their community. Therefore, Isaiah says, the people will be exiled because of their injustices.

But, in order not to leave us without hope, this story of the unfruitful vineyard is paired with a prophecy in chapter 11 that we normally hear around Christmas time about a shoot coming out of the stump of Jesse. Isaiah says that after the people are exiled, when there is no one ruling on the throne of David any longer, there will be a shoot that will come out of the stump. Earlier this year, during one of those days when we had very high winds, there was a young tree in my development that was broken by the wind. The maintenance crew eventually got around to taking it down, but they left the stump there. I was sad that they didn’t replace the tree, but then, one day when I was walking the dog, I noticed there were new branches growing out of the stump, and I felt hopeful once more. The tree being taken down by the wind and the maintenance crew was not the end of its life, but rather, there was resurrection in the form of new branches coming out. This is the imagery that Isaiah is using: when the people of Israel have lost hope and think that the house of David is dead, a new shoot will arise from Jesse (who was David’s father). This new king will embody the justice of God that the people of Israel failed to do, and there will be peace and righteousness in the land as there should have been from the start.

What are these prophecies from Isaiah saying to us today? One thing I think we should be able to identify with is the problem that Isaiah starts out with. He’s saying the same thing Hosea was last week, but in a different way. God has lavished love and care upon us as a planter does his vineyard, but we have not returned that love, and we have not shared it with others. Instead of justice and peace, we see bloodshed and crying out, and sometimes, as good-intentioned as we may be, we are complicit in that bloodshed and crying out. We help by providing meals to the community to try and alleviate poverty, but do we speak out when the government tries to cut back or even take away food stamp benefits? We contribute to programs like Roller Packs to help kids not go hungry on the weekends, but do we speak out against school districts when they shame kids who have not been able to pay their lunch bills? We do our best to reduce our consumption of things, reuse them when possible, and recycle them when we have no further use for them. But do we speak out when the government tries to reduce fuel efficiency standards on our cars and the automakers go along with it? Do we speak out when the government, rather than promoting clean energy sources, gives in to the fossil fuel industry and gives them leeway to continue polluting our world? Justice does not involve only those small acts of charity that we already know how to do. Justice also includes putting ourselves at risk and speaking up to help solve the problems at their source, so that maybe, one day, those small acts of charity will be less necessary because more people have been able to rise out of poverty and get enough to eat, and because the world will be cleaner in the first place.

As we consider all of this, the problem is that it’s all overwhelming. There is so much injustice in the world around us, and we ourselves are so enmeshed with it, that we can’t see our way clear out of it. We may fall into despair and wonder how we can even come close to becoming the pleasant vineyard that God expects us to be. But God does not leave us without hope. As Christians, we interpret that shoot coming out of the stump of Jesse as Jesus. Jesus is our Messiah, our king who has showed us what justice and righteousness look like. Jesus is the one who came to live among us, to understand us, to teach us how to live and how to love one another, and to die on the cross for us, for all of our sins, those we can name and those we can’t because we are too enmeshed in an unjust system. It is Jesus who we hope in to come again and to turn the world right-side up once more.

But in the meantime, as we wait for Jesus to return, we are not to throw our hands up and say, “It is what it is and there’s nothing I can do about it.” There is always something that can be done. Will you as an individual or us as a congregation be able to correct the injustice? Maybe. Maybe not. But when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come,” we are asking God to make us willing participants in the coming of that kingdom that Isaiah prophesied so long ago. And so, we are called to act. A woman named Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote this on her blog:

 

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale. http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=548

 

I think perhaps that Jesus would agree with that. So, here is my challenge to you this week: find an injustice that you care deeply about and do one small thing that will help correct that injustice. For example, if you see someone who is homeless, stop and talk to that person. Ask them if they know about any resources in the area. Offer to connect them to those resources. And then, find out what the causes of homelessness in our area are and start writing to our state and federal legislators to fix any laws that might be contributing to homelessness. You may find out that you are not alone in this cause, whether it’s homelessness or something else, and you may be able to connect to other people who are working on it. And through your God-given talents, you may be that one person needed to tip the scale toward justice.

We are a people of hope, and it is our business to spread that hope to everyone whom we meet. The injustice in the world is overwhelming, and we may feel like we’re that little boy who once upon a time stuck his finger in the hole of a dam in order to prevent the flood. But if many of us stick our fingers in those holes, we may be able to tip the scale from injustice towards justice, towards that peaceable kingdom that one day we hope and trust that Jesus will return to bring on this earth. Let’s look for those shoots coming out of dead stumps; we may just see them in ourselves as we work towards justice in our world. Amen.