Sermon for Christmas Eve 2014

The inspiration for this sermon came from the following blogpost:

Luke 2:1-20

Nativity scenes are beautiful, aren’t they? And they often have such special meaning for us. The one that I have been using these last several weeks in children’s sermons belonged to my grandmother and was given to me after she died. I decided to use it here during worship because it was too big to place in a good spot in my apartment, and I think that my grandmother would be happy that her Nativity scene was being put to good use. The Nativity scene that I use at home is the one that I grew up with, and would be placed under our Christmas tree each year. When my mother decided that she wanted a new one, she let me have that one because she knew that I liked it. Nativity scenes give us a sense of the holy at Christmas time, with a serene and beautiful Mary gazing in wonder at the new baby Jesus, and a fatherly Joseph looking on, ready to protect his wife and her child from anything that might threaten them. And then, of course, there is “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” lying in the manger looking out at those around him with curiosity.

But, there’s just one problem with these beautiful, perfect-looking Nativity scenes. And that is this: while they give us the sense of something holy at Christmas time, they also give us the sense of something that is not real. These perfect looking human beings don’t seem to have much relationship to the real world. The plastic or porcelain figurines don’t give any indication that Mary has just given birth to her baby, her firstborn, without the benefit of any pain medications. I’ve never given birth myself, but from what my mother tells me, it’s not a pleasant process, and pain medications help a lot. Our stable scenes don’t remind us that, with animals around, there is going to be a mess and it’s not going to smell very good. Those of you with us tonight who have farms can tell us the truth about that. Pastor Audrey of Trinity Lutheran in Cody was telling a group of us pastors that someone in her congregation wanted to have a Nativity scene in the church building complete with a baby donkey, and seemed unaware that a baby donkey would not only make noise, but would probably make a mess because it was nervous.

The technical theological term for God becoming human in the person of Jesus is incarnation. And incarnation is not a beautiful, perfect process, because to become human is messy. We are messy creatures, both physically and spiritually. God could have chosen not to deal with our mess. God could have chosen some other way to save us from our sinfulness. But no, God, the perfect and holy, loved us so much that he chose to become one of us messy human beings. He chose to go through that untidy birthing process, to live and to die as one of us, in order to understand us completely and fully. So, yes, I’m willing to bet that Mary screamed in pain when she gave birth to Jesus. Jesus himself probably looked like a typical newborn and wasn’t very pretty when he was first born. And that line about “no crying he makes”? Please. Jesus cried. Because human babies cry and get hungry and make messes. That’s what being human is all about, and that’s why God came to earth in the person of Jesus—to be one of us, with all that being human means.

Now, I’m not saying this to ruin anyone’s Christmas. Quite the contrary. What I want is to bring you the good news: God became one of us when he was born in the person of Jesus in that manger in Bethlehem. Jesus was part of a real human family, with real human problems, and was not in some stylized, perfect, static picture that we have in our Nativity scenes. And because Jesus became human, because he entered into our messy lives, we know that we ourselves don’t have to be perfect to become his followers. We don’t have to “clean ourselves up” and “get our lives in order” before we come to worship. We can come with all of our sinfulness: our broken relationships, our broken dreams, our bad habits, our addictions, and so on, and know that Jesus loves us for who we are in all of our messiness. And as we lean over the manger and look at the baby Jesus, we might feel an odd sensation. And that sensation is God embracing us, and kissing us, saying, “It doesn’t matter that you’re a mess. I love you for you. But I won’t leave you in your mess. I will be the one to wash you and make you clean.”

Isn’t that wonderful news? God, the holy one, comes to us in our mess, but doesn’t leave us there. God is the one who washes us and makes us clean. We don’t have to do it ourselves. But you know something? The messiness of the human condition doesn’t make Jesus dirty. Instead, somehow, Jesus makes the messiness, the ordinariness, holy. Just in case you didn’t hear that, let me say it again: Jesus doesn’t become sinful by taking on our humanity. Instead, he makes us holy. Somehow, in the stinky mess we make of our lives, Jesus is still with us and makes us holy. And as his beloved and holy people, we are called to broaden that circle of Jesus’ love for us. We are called to tell all whom we meet about this baby in the manger, God come down to earth to show us how much he loves us.

And with such great love, how can we keep from telling all we meet about Jesus? The shepherds understood that. The angels had come down to them in their messiness: unclean because they could not keep all of the religious purity laws, outsiders in society, and told them about the Savior of the world. The shepherds heard the news—not the Pharisees, not the rulers of the people, but poor and lowly shepherds. They saw the baby and “they made known what had been told them about this child” and then returned to their fields, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen”. The Gospel tells us that all of the people whom the shepherds told about this were “amazed” at the news. But then we don’t hear any more. Did the people of Bethlehem go to see the baby? Or, did they brush it off, saying, “Oh, those crazy, unclean shepherds,” and go back to their daily lives? Perhaps there was a little bit of both. It still happens that way today, when we tell others about Jesus. Some people listen, and the Holy Spirit brings them to trust in Jesus, while others continue to go about their daily lives as if nothing had changed. When that happens, we should not be discouraged. Instead, we should continue telling all those we meet about the miracle of God loving us so much that he became one of us, making us holy and making us his beloved children.

So, let us go from here to spread the good news about this baby in the manger. Let us tell everyone that Jesus knows us, and knows us intimately, because he was one of us. He was born, just like we were, he cried when he was hungry or when he fell down and hurt himself or when a friend of his died. Let us tell everyone that they don’t have to clean themselves up and make themselves right before coming to worship Jesus, for Jesus loves us as we are, in all of our human messiness and broken relationships and broken dreams. Jesus is the one who comes to us, who speaks his love for us, and who makes us holy. Isn’t that great news? Now, let’s go and tell it out to everyone we meet. Amen.


Sermon for Advent 4B

Luke 1:26-38

I have to admit that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is not my favorite Biblical character. It probably has something to do with the fact that the Lutheran churches I grew up in were generally at pains to prove that they weren’t Roman Catholic. And so I was taught that Mary was not perpetually virgin after Jesus was born, so that when the Gospels talk about Jesus’ siblings, those were his siblings born of Mary. I was taught that Mary was an ordinary woman and not immaculately conceived, and to venerate her was not appropriate, because she was not on the same level as God. So I started learning these things when I was young. As I got older, I found Mary to be a very remote character and very hard for me to understand and identify with. I have identified with women like Deborah, the prophetess and judge of Israel; Ruth, the woman who courageously left her family in Moab to return to Israel with her mother-in-law, Naomi; and Mary Magdalene, who boldly went and told the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. In contrast, Mary the mother of Jesus was just that: a mother, and since I had no intentions of being a mother, I never understood what all the fuss over her was about.

But then, I heard a sermon by our worship professor, Mark Oldenburg, on today’s Gospel lesson while I was in seminary at Gettysburg, and I will be borrowing some of his ideas that I remember from that sermon today. And I’d like to make my opening statement the same as his: “Of all the silly things the church has ever said, the statement that ‘Mary was meek and mild,’ has got to be the silliest.” With that statement, he helped me see Mary as a mother, yes, but also as a woman who was just as bold and courageous as the other women in the Bible with whom I identified. For in agreeing to become the mother of Jesus, Mary was saying yes to the work of the Holy Spirit within her, and all of the wonder, awe, danger, and excitement that the Holy Spirit can bring to a person’s life.

The visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary to tell her that she is going to give birth to the Son of God has been the subject of so much artwork and so much retelling, it can be hard to get past this in our minds to think about what was actually happening. But, we’re going to try. So, imagine, if you will, this unknown teenaged girl living in Nazareth going about her daily work. She is engaged to this man named Joseph, but they have not yet begun their lives together. We don’t know if Mary was looking forward to this marriage or not—it was most likely an arranged marriage, so we don’t know how familiar she was with Joseph or even if she liked him. As I said, she’s going about her daily work when the angel Gabriel appears to her with the words that she is favored and that the Lord is with her. We can assume that she’s frightened by this, because the next words out of Gabriel’s mouth are, “Do not be afraid.” And after all, who wouldn’t be frightened by the sudden appearance of an angel? But, Mary gets over the fright, because when the angel tells her she will become pregnant, she talks back to the angel and is not afraid to ask him how this is supposed to happen, since she is a virgin. This takes bravery: remember that when Zechariah talked back to Gabriel, he was silenced for nine months until John was born! But instead of doing the same thing to Mary, Gabriel tells her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” And the miracle in all of this is that Mary says yes: yes to God, trusting that, even though she is endangering her marriage and her very life—the penalty for adultery was death, remember, and no one would have believed that God made her become pregnant—she would count on God to protect her. There is nothing meek and mild about Mary whatsoever—she is instead brave and she is going to hold God to his word that somehow she will not suffer the penalty for adultery, that she will live through all of the stares and whispers and unkind remarks from the people of Nazareth, and that she will indeed give birth to God’s Son.

So in this account of Mary learning that she is to bear God’s Son, we find that she is the model for a Christian to follow: not because she is a mother, for not all of us can be mothers, but because she believed that what God had told her would come true. Throughout Advent, we have heard the promises that God has given us: The promise that Jesus will return again, and that when he does, all will be well, justice will be done, and we will all live in harmony with one another. The promise through John the Baptist that when Jesus comes, he will baptize with the Holy Spirit. And now the promise made through Mary that, when we say yes to the Holy Spirit, God will be with us and, no matter what comes at us in life, God will fulfill all of his promises to us.

But, before we say yes to the Holy Spirit, as Mary did, there is something else about this story that we need to notice, and these are the words that the angel greets Mary with: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Do you notice that, during worship each Sunday, I say some of these same words? “The Lord be with you.” And you respond, “And also with you.” Even before we say yes each week to the Holy Spirit working within us, we hear the good news that the Lord is with us. We are noticed by God and favored by God, and God chooses to be with us always, no matter what. We are the Lord’s.

And just as Mary was to be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and become pregnant with Jesus, the very Word of God, we too are “pregnant” with the Word of God within us. And the Holy Spirit comes upon us and overshadows us, urging us to give birth to that Word of God in different ways. Sometimes the Spirit works gently, as a cool breeze on a warm summer evening, helping us to speak words of comfort to those who need to hear it. And sometimes the Holy Spirit blows like the ferocious winds that often blow through Powell, urging us out of our comfortable spaces so that we speak God’s truth to those who are in power, often placing ourselves in danger of ridicule and scorn from those around us, but whispering to us the promise that God is with us through everything that comes at us, and will keep his promises to us.

So, let us admire Mary, not simply because she was the mother of Jesus, but because she gives us Christians the example of saying yes to the Holy Spirit working within us. Let us say yes to the Holy Spirit’s work within us, and then hold God to his promise of always being with us through whatever the Holy Spirit gives birth to through us. But most of all, let us trust in that perplexing greeting that tells us that we are favored by God, loved by God, noticed by God, and deemed worthy to do God’s work in this world, even though God knows we will stumble and fall and make a mess of things. And finally, let us trust that God will still work through that faltering witness that we give to him, and that the Holy Spirit will bring people to the knowledge of God. “Greetings, favored ones, loved by God. The Lord is with you.” Amen.

Sermon for Advent 2B

Mark 1:1-8

Ready or not, here I come! This is the refrain to the childhood game of hide and seek. I think just about all of us played this with our family and friends when we were small. Think back that far, if you can, and ask yourself if, when you played that game, you were ever not found by the person who was “it”. If so, how did that make you feel? Maybe you thought, “Wow, I must have really picked a good hiding place if the person who is ‘it’ can’t find me.” Or, “Hmmm, if the person who’s ‘it’ can’t find me, then I wonder if I’m really lost myself. Maybe I should come out and see if I can find my way back home.” Or even, “What if the person who’s ‘it’ doesn’t want to find me? Does he or she not like me? Is there something wrong with me? Why wouldn’t the person want to find me? What did I do wrong?” Mark Allan Powell, New Testament Professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Ohio, writes that what’s fun about playing hide-and-seek is not the hiding part, but it is when the person who’s “it” finds you. When playing this game, everyone likes to be found.

Today we hear the story of John the Baptist from the Gospel of Mark. Each year during Advent we get a slightly different perspective on John the Baptist from each of the Gospel writers. Last year, Matthew told us how John the Baptist was a fire-and-brimstone preacher, calling the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” and telling them they’d better get right with God before they were cut down like a bad tree. Next year, Luke will tell us the same thing about John the Baptist, but will also add the instructions he gave to various groups of people about what they should do to get right with God. Not so with Mark. Mark gives us the image of John the Baptist as Elijah returned, wearing strange clothing and eating strange food; as a voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord; and as someone who was baptizing people to prepare them for the coming of the Lord. That’s it. No fire and brimstone from Mark’s version of John the Baptist: simply a voice calling out to the people to prepare the way of the Lord. Or, in other words, John was saying, “Ready or not! Here comes God to find us! Isn’t it better for you to be ready, though?”

So, how did John the Baptist tell the people to prepare the way, or, in other words to get ready for God to come? He proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And while this repentance included the individual sins that we always think of when we come to worship each week and confess what we have done and left undone, it also included corporate sins: that is, the things that the community as a whole has done and has left undone. Mark tells us that people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem—all!—were going out to John, and all of these people were being baptized for the forgiveness of sins, in order to prepare for the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. While we might look as this word “all” as an exaggeration of the numbers, I think Mark was trying to make a point: the community as a whole was waiting in eager expectation for God to come again and find them, to restore the community to wholeness and to make things right once more. And the community as a whole was repenting of the sins that the community had committed. What sins were those? The people still remembered those sins that the prophets had warned them about before the Babylonians came in and exiled them: not caring for widows, orphans, and foreigners as God had commanded; letting the wealthy cheat the poor; valuing the outward forms of worshiping God more than valuing justice to be done. The people knew that these things had happened and that these sins had caused their exile. They knew that these things still happened in that day, and when John appeared in the wilderness proclaiming the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, they went to him repenting of those things as well as any individual sins they may have committed.

In my sermons in the last few weeks, I have talked about active waiting, that is, not just sitting around and twiddling our thumbs while we wait for Jesus to return, but to instead be doing what Jesus has taught us to be doing. In that way, when he comes again, he will find us being active in anticipating his kingdom by acting as his kingdom people. In addition to this, John the Baptist is calling us to prepare the way of the Lord by reflecting on the sins we have committed, not just individually, but corporately, and repent of them. And repenting does not just mean saying you’re sorry. Repenting also includes making a change: turning from the wrong things you have done, not doing those things anymore, and then actively making amends so those wrong things no longer happen.

I think in our white American culture it is easy for us to understand repenting of individual sins. When we offend another person, we say we’re sorry, we ask for forgiveness, and we perhaps do something for that other person to help make things right again, in order to restore our relationship with that person. It’s harder for us to understand communal sins, that is, the sins of one group against another group. For example, yes, we learn about how our ancestors mistreated Native Americans, breaking treaties with them, killing them off, and driving them off their land time and time again, to put them on reservations. We wring our hands and say, “Yes, that was wrong of our ancestors to do that. But I wasn’t alive when that happened. It’s not my fault. I’ve never personally mistreated a Native American. Why should I apologize?”

To understand the need for communal repentance, we need to first understand the mindset of a different culture. Not all cultures are as individualistic as ours is, and when they tell stories of their past, they tell those stories as if the events have happened to them as well as to their ancestors. So, for example, in various places of the Old Testament, many years after the Exodus from Egypt occurred, you will see the writers referring to those events as if they had just happened: “When the Lord brought us out of Egypt”. Many tribes of Native Americans tell stories in the same way: when the white people drove us off of our land. And even though we might not see it that way, they will see us as complicit in what our ancestors have done, as well as complicit in a governmental system that still doesn’t treat them very well. And so, in order to move forward in our relationship with them, we need to repent of what our ancestors have done, repent of our complicity in a corrupt system, and then work to make amends. The first step, apologizing to the Native American community, was done by the bishop of the Montana Synod on behalf of all of the congregations in the synod in 2010, after an agreement on issuing the apology at the Synod Assembly. The ongoing step, working to make amends, includes all of the people of the congregations of the Synod. This step consists of getting to know one another on an individual basis through servant groups, for example. But it also includes advocating for changing the system that we are complicit in so that people of all groups will be treated more fairly. This is just one example of what corporal, or communal, repentance looks like.

The people were going out to John and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. While John’s baptism is not exactly like the baptism that we received, it is similar in this respect: our baptism is also a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Under the question, “What benefits does Baptism give?” Martin Luther wrote, “It works forgiveness of sins,” and he further wrote that such baptizing with water “indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new person should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” And yes, that contrition and repentance is for the individual sins that we commit. When we don’t respect our parents, for example, we should repent of that behavior, turn from it, and strive to make amends. But we were not only baptized into an individual relationship with God, we were also baptized into a community of Christians in relationship with one another and with the world, and as such, there are times when we need to repent of communal sins: racism, classism, an insiders vs. outsiders mentality, greed, destruction of the earth that God has given us to be stewards of, and so on. And sometimes that community repentance must first take the form of an apology to another group of people that may not involve each one of us as individuals, but involves us as being complicit in a corrupt system.

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” How are we making the paths of the Lord straight? Are we ready for him to find us when he comes to search us out? We want God to look for us and to find us, to tell us that he loves us and has forgiven us our sins. Baptism assures us of God’s forgiveness, daily and when Christ comes again. While we are waiting for Jesus to return to bring us God’s ultimate love, forgiveness, and healing, let us continue to live lives of daily repentance, anticipating the arrival of his reign by being people of his kingdom. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 1B

Mark 13:24-37 & Isaiah 64:1-9

One of my professors in seminary, Dr. Carlson, gave us an image for what hope is, as described in the New Testament. If you have a dog, or know someone who has a dog, picture this: the dog has behaved well, so you go to get him a treat. The dog gets very excited and follows you as you open the cupboard and get him that very tasty snack. But, you want the dog to calm down before you feed him from your hand, so you tell him to sit. He sits. Now, let’s slow down that moment before you actually feed the dog a treat. He sees the treat in your hand, and he knows you’re going to give him the treat, but he doesn’t have the treat yet. And in his eyes comes a look of desire, of longing, for that treat that he knows he’s going to get but doesn’t have yet. That moment is called hope.

The season of Advent is about hope. We have received the promise of salvation through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have seen this take place as, each year, we relive the story of Jesus through the different seasons of the church year. We know that we have received the promise of everlasting life through Jesus when we were baptized. We know that that promise will one day be fulfilled, but we don’t have it yet. You know that kind of longing in the dog’s eyes that I described? That is the kind of longing and desire that we should have as we hope for that promise of salvation to be completely fulfilled. Please, God, I see it in your hand, and I really want it. Please, God, give it to me soon, for there is so much heartache here on this earth. Please, God, come soon and make all things right once more.

We see this fierce longing in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” When Isaiah first voiced this cry, the Jewish exiles in Babylon had been permitted to return to Jerusalem by Cyrus, the king of Persia who had conquered Babylon. Those who chose to go to Jerusalem were joyful at their return, but quickly confronted a harsh reality: Jerusalem was nothing like they thought it would be. And as they set about rebuilding the city and the temple according to their dreams, they confronted the people who had been left behind in Jerusalem and who had their own ideas for what the city should be: after all, they were the ones who had been living there all along. Isaiah’s cry voiced this despair that things were not as they should be, that things were not as they had been promised, and expressed a deep longing for God to come down and set things right once more.

Isaiah’s cry is our cry today, many thousands of years later. Things still aren’t right. A white police officer shoots a black teenager who was unarmed in the name of self-defense, and a grand jury does not indict the officer. In response, many members of the community, frustrated that their concerns have not been heard over many years, and feeling that an injustice has been done, riot, destroying property and injuring others. We cry to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” The president of the United States, frustrated over Congress’ seeming inability to pass a law reforming the country’s immigration policy, enacts executive orders to reform immigration. This causes Congress to cry foul and vow to block his orders. And the people of the country take sides and become frustrated because nothing gets done to make the situation better. And human beings who live in the shadows cautiously hope for better things to come. We cry to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” A little boy in the community is seriously injured by a gun and winds up in the hospital with a long rehabilitation process ahead of him. His family faces high medical bills along with the forward and backward steps involved in the rehab process, wondering when their child will be well enough to return home with them. We cry to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” The hope that we have is tested at every turn, and we cry out wearily to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

As we then turn to our Gospel reading for today, we see Jesus telling his disciples that God will indeed tear open the heavens and come down. And while the words that he uses to describe this event seem anything but comforting, there is, in fact, comfort to be found. For if we look closely, we see that Jesus is not only describing the time when he will come to earth a second time, he is describing the time that will be coming directly after this conversation with his disciples: his death on the cross. “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light.” This does not only refer to the end of the world, it also refers to Jesus’ death on the cross, when darkness came over the whole land for three hours. “Keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come,”—this happened to the disciples as they fell asleep while Jesus was praying in the garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus returned suddenly to awake them and alert them to Judas’ arrival. “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” This is true, when we see God with his people in Jesus’ death on the cross: the disciples did not pass away until Jesus’ death on the cross for us had been accomplished. It is indeed in Jesus’ death on the cross that God has torn the heavens apart—just as the curtain in the temple was torn in two—and has come down to earth to make things right.

And mysteriously, even as we know that God’s promises have not been completely fulfilled yet, we see glimpses of God’s presence with us, glimpses of the future fulfillment, that give us hope in the midst of all of these problems here on earth. Here is a glimpse, reported by a friend of mine who lives in Ferguson, Missouri: “I just drove down Florissant road. And after the burned out Little Caesar’s, I saw some much more positive things. Shop n Save is open. Now, I don’t condone that for “black Friday” sales, but there are people who haven’t been able to get groceries and the store needs to sell its inventory. Then, …then… people were out by boarded up buildings- painting murals. People were out shaking hands. People were out.” Another glimpse of God’s presence with us: the little boy in our community who is still in the hospital in Colorado is having the ups and downs associated with a long haul rehab process. But, at the Thanksgiving Eve community service, after worship was over, all of the pastors who were there stood together and prayed, as one, with the congregation, for the boy and his family. Pastors who still disagree over theology were able to come together, join hands, and pray as one for the recovery of this child and peace, comfort, and strength for his family. That, friends, is a glimpse of the fulfillment of God’s promises, here and now in this broken world. Through Jesus, God has indeed torn open the heavens and come down.

But what about that future fulfillment? Yes, there are days when we will be eagerly looking forward to the return of the Son of Man, usually on those days when the news overwhelms us with tragedies and injustice. For me, personally, I used to hope that Jesus would return when I knew I had a particularly tough day in school ahead of me! But, there will also be days that are so filled with joy, with laughter, with awe and with wonder, that we will pray that Jesus will hold off just a little bit longer. But the good news is this: when Jesus does return, not only will those who are suffering have much good to experience, but so will those of us who have had wonderful days. Take the most wonderful day that you have ever had in your life and then multiply it by about a million times. That will be what the fulfillment of the kingdom of God, the fulfillment of our baptismal promise, will be like. All will be well, and all will live in harmony with one another, secure in the love of God, who will wipe all tears from our eyes.

Until that time, we live in hope. We remember what God has done for us in sending his son, Jesus, to die for our sins. We look now for the glimpses of the kingdom of God and the presence of Jesus, even in the midst of the bad news all around us. And we eagerly look forward to the day when the fulfillment of the kingdom will come, with Jesus’ return to earth. And as we do all of this, we heed Jesus’ command to keep alert and to stay awake. While we wait with eager and expectant longing, we say the prayer of Christians from the first century: Maranatha, which means both, “The Lord has come,” and “Come, O Lord.” Amen.