Sermon for Lent 1B

Mark 1:9-15

Last week, I told you all about how I traveled back from Essex, Montana, through a great cloud of fog. What I didn’t tell you all about was what happened when I traveled from here to Essex. Like a good child of this information age, I consulted the all-knowing Google Maps to find out how I should travel from here to Essex. Google Maps provided this answer: Travel from here to Laurel. But don’t go on the Interstate. Instead, go through Laurel. Stay on 1st Avenue, which will turn into Buffalo Trail. Continue on Buffalo Trail until you enter Broadview. Turn left on Montana Route 3 when you get to Broadview, and continue on to Great Falls. OK, I thought, that’s a new one, but I’ll try it. So, I followed the directions, and found Buffalo Trail to be a very pleasing road that wound through some very pretty country. But suddenly, there before me was a four-way intersection. A paved road went to the left and to the right, and in front of me was a dirt road. Surely Google Maps did not want me to travel on a dirt road, I thought, but it hadn’t said anything about taking a left or a right turn. Confused, but certain that I wasn’t supposed to go on a dirt road, I turned left. After about 10 minutes, I ended up in a dismal little town named Molt, and I again was faced with the paved road turning into a dirt road. So, I turned in to the post office parking lot and pulled out a paper map. And the paper map said that yes, that dirt road that I had initially thought Google Maps did not want me to go on was indeed the road that would lead me to Broadview. Frustrated, but seeing no other good way around the dirt road, I left Molt, returned to the four-way intersection, turned onto the dirt road, and continued on to Broadview, from there to Great Falls, and from Great Falls to Essex. Google Maps got a very nasty email from me about that when my trip was over.

As I was reflecting on this week’s Gospel passage, however, it occurred to me that my experience on the dirt roads of Montana is a great illustration for baptism, and the effects that baptism has on a person. If the mapmakers had not told me that I was really supposed to travel on that dirt road, I wouldn’t have done it. Mark tells us that immediately after Jesus’ baptism, immediately after he sees the heavens ripped open and the Spirit descending into him as a dove, that the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness. If the Spirit hadn’t driven him into the wilderness, would Jesus have gone there? We who live in an oasis in the midst of wilderness here in Wyoming know how dangerous wilderness can be if we are not properly prepared for it. Jesus went out into the wilderness with no food and no water, subjecting himself to testing from Satan and survival among wild beasts with no bear spray. If the Spirit had not driven him out into the wilderness to do that, Jesus probably would not have gone there.

We think of Holy Baptism as a wonderful thing, a beautiful Sacrament that welcomes a person into God’s family, and it is. Most of the time when we think of baptism, we think of cute little babies or toddlers dressed in white, but adults can be baptized too, and it’s just as wonderful an experience. But did we ever think that, when a person is baptized, that Holy Spirit that came into Jesus at his baptism and drove him out into the wilderness is the same Holy Spirit that comes into the person that is being baptized? Baptism is not tame. Baptism is not only the radical statement that we are God’s children through Jesus Christ, but it is also the gift of the Spirit that will, on occasion, take us into places we do not wish to go; places that we consider godforsaken, places that we consider wilderness.

It is that Holy Spirit who drove aid worker Kayla Mueller into the Middle East, to help those on the margins who are suffering. Before her death, when she was asked what kept her going in the work that she was doing to aid others, she said, “I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine, if this is how you are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek you.” In a place and time which many of us would have considered a godforsaken wilderness, Kayla Mueller was driven by the Holy Spirit to aid others, and to see God in the faces of others who were suffering. Jesus was at work in Kayla to shine light in darkness, and to put the devil on notice that, even though her life may have been taken, others will continue to shine God’s light in the face of evil, and God will have the last word.

That same wild Holy Spirit is at work in all of us. When we were baptized, our parents, if we were children, or we ourselves, if we were older, invited that restless Spirit to come into us. Where is the Holy Spirit driving us that we would not otherwise go? It might not be into a place where ISIS is located, but instead a place here in Powell that we wouldn’t otherwise go. In several Bible studies this week, we’ve been discussing the idea of having a hymn sing or a Bible discussion in a bar. Other congregations across the country have been doing this. The idea behind this is to meet people where they are. If they’re in the bars, then we go to the bars. And the other idea behind meeting people where they are is talking to them about Jesus in their language: to find out where they are spiritually, and discuss Jesus from their point of view instead of from some stock “missionary speech” that we might know. Is this wilderness? For me, it is. I don’t drink alcohol very often, and frankly, bars scare me. But if that is where the Holy Spirit is driving me, and if that is where the Holy Spirit is driving us as a congregation, then God will give us the courage we need to do what he asks of us.

What other wildernesses might the Holy Spirit be driving us into? Perhaps it might be into the poverty-stricken parts of our town. When you walk down Bent Street here in Powell, it looks like Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show: a small but prosperous town with nice, polite people who are well-off. Across the street from where I live is a subdivision which I call “suburbia” because the houses are beautiful, modern, upper-middle-class to lower-upper-class homes with beautiful families. If all you saw of Powell were these two places, you wouldn’t think we had poverty here. But if you take a closer look at Powell, you will see that poverty: we have several trailer parks; we have several thrift stores in town, but not many first-run retail stores; we have Loaves & Fishes to help people out with food; there is a Backpack Blessings program which helps a high number of children who otherwise might not eat on the weekends; and even with these programs and the Council of Community Services, people still come to the church door looking for help. This issue of poverty might be a “wilderness area” that the Holy Spirit is driving us into: not only by helping the poor, which we already do, but also by looking into the issues that cause poverty and working to address those causes in our community.

Now, here’s the thing about whatever wilderness it is that the Holy Spirit drives us into: there will be testing, as Jesus was tested in the wilderness. We don’t know exactly what kinds of tests, what kinds of temptations, we will encounter. They will be difficult, and as we encounter difficult situations in those wildernesses, we will despair and we will doubt that God is there. For example, when we see people who, no matter what happens, cannot seem to break out of the cycle of poverty, we will wonder where God is. But that is the temptation when we enter into the wilderness: to think that God has truly forsaken whatever wilderness we find ourselves in. And that is simply not true. Kayla Mueller knew that—she saw God in the suffering eyes of the people whom she encountered in her life, and was moved to help. We too, when we are driven into the wilderness, must remember that God has gone there ahead of us, and will be present with us in whatever situation we encounter.

So, let us go into the wilderness that the Spirit drives us into with good courage. Let us go, knowing that even though we consider a place or a situation godforsaken, that this idea is an illusion. Let us go knowing that God has gone before us, and let us pray that God will help us to withstand the testing and temptations that arise. Let us go, knowing that, just as God told Jesus that he is his beloved Son, with whom he is well pleased, that God says the same thing to each one of us in this life. We are indeed God’s beloved children, and we know that, through Jesus Christ, God is well pleased with us. We need have no fear, even when the Spirit drives us out on those dirt roads where we would rather not go. Amen.

Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-21
Lenten Theme: The Lord’s Prayer

During the season of Lent, as I told the children last Sunday, we focus on the work that Jesus did for us in order to save us from our sins: dying for us on the cross. And, we tend to get a little more somber during Lent as we remember that we are sinful, mortal human beings who deserve death ourselves: we reduce the singing that we do in worship, and gone is the “a-word” and the “h-word” that literally mean “Praise the Lord”. And in order to remember that and to repent from our sins, to turn away from them, we engage in three spiritual disciplines that Jesus talks to us about tonight in his Sermon on the Mount: giving alms, prayer, and fasting. This year, beginning tonight and continuing throughout our midweek Lenten services, we are focusing on prayer and specifically, on the Lord’s Prayer.
So, in order to start us thinking about this, I’d like to show a clip from the sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory.” In this episode, Sheldon’s mother, who is very religious, comes to visit the gang in California, and they go on a tour of different churches in the Pasadena area. As you watch, I’d like us to focus on what the idea of prayer is that is being portrayed in this clip.

As funny as this is—I think it’s still okay to laugh during Lent, by the way!—I think that many times, no matter how well intentioned our prayers are, we often treat God as a genie who is there to grant our wishes. God, please do this. Oh, God, if you do this for me, then I promise I will get better about going to church—I might even volunteer for something! And then if God doesn’t do whatever it is we want him to, we get upset and pout, or we blame ourselves for not having enough faith, or we blame God for somehow having it in for us. We are totally focused in on ourselves, and what God can do for us—sometimes even when we think we’re praying for other people.
One of the directions that Jesus gives for his followers as they pray is, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” In pagan religions, the idea for prayer to the gods was to pester the gods with lots of words, so then the gods would take notice of the person who was praying. Then, once the gods noticed the person who was praying, the person would then inform those gods what he or she needed, because the gods didn’t know ahead of time. Therefore, prayers to these gods needed lots of words. In contrast, Jesus tells his disciples that their prayer is not to be like that, because God knows what our needs are even before we speak them.
The question that arises from this teaching is, then, why do we bother to pray if God already knows what our needs are? Prayer for Christians should not be about getting things from God, but rather is an expression of the relationship of trust between children and their father. Think of prayer like this: when your children or grandchildren are small, and they come to sit in your lap and tell you about the day that they had, the things they were excited about, the things they saw that made them sad, worries they have over their friends or pets who might be hurt, and anything else they want to talk about. Most of the time you know what they’re going to talk about, right? But you want them to come and talk to you anyway, because you enjoy that closeness, that time together. And you want to show love to your children and help them in any way you can. That’s the idea behind prayer: God knows what we’re going to talk to him about, and he knows what kind of help we truly need, but he cherishes that time together with us when we trust him enough to tell him about our lives.
So, Jesus then gives us a model for prayer, which we have come to call the Lord’s Prayer. This is usually the first prayer we learn by heart as children, and it is the last one we remember as we get older. It is so familiar to us that very often, we say it by rote, not really thinking about the meaning behind these words. In the coming weeks, we will explore each of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer more in depth. For those of you who were confirmed in the Lutheran church, some of the explanations that we look at from Martin Luther will be familiar to you, as you may have had to memorize them for confirmation class. For others, these explanations will be brand new. My hope is that, by sharing our thoughts with one another, we can find new meaning in the Lord’s Prayer, and that, as we move through Lent, our prayer practices will help us to be in deeper communion with God, our Father.
For now, though, just a couple of observations about the Lord’s Prayer. The first thing we should notice is that it is communal: it starts out with “Our Father”, not “My Father.” This prayer is meant to be prayed together with a group of disciples. This is not to say that you cannot pray it when you are by yourself, however. When you do pray it by yourself, though, it is meant to put you in mind of the community of Christian disciples here in Powell and throughout the world. And not just Lutherans, but also Roman Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, the Assembly of God, Coptic Christians in Egypt, Orthodox Christians in Russia and in other Eastern countries, and so on. No matter what other differences we Christians have amongst ourselves, this prayer that Jesus taught is one of the things that unites us here in Powell and around the world. That’s pretty amazing to think about, isn’t it?
The second thing to notice about the Lord’s Prayer, and part of what we will be examining in the coming weeks, is that this prayer is a call to action in the world. James L. Bailey, in his book “Contrast Community,” writes, “Praying and practicing the Lord’s Prayer will shift our attention and energy to becoming kingdom people rather than narrowly existing as church people. It will focus our eyes on what God is up to in the midst of our community and beyond” (101). As an example of this, Bailey speaks of a seminary professor who challenged Christians to not pray the part of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” until they seriously begin to address the scandal of world hunger. Part of the nature of a communal prayer like this, besides uniting us with Christians around the world, is to help us to think about the needs of the whole community in the world, and not just our own needs.
Finally, the Lord’s Prayer is a remedy for those prayers that went on and on, heaping up empty words in the hope that God would hear them because of all of those many words. In simple but profound petitions, the person who prays this prayer is expressing trust that God will indeed hear him or her no matter how many or how few words she or he uses. The person is expressing a dependence on God for all of his or her daily needs, both physical and spiritual, and a trust that God knows what those needs are before they are even expressed. And most of all, the person who prays this prayer cannot help but be focused not just on himself or herself, but also on the needs of the greater community around the world. My hope is that we will all grow spiritually this Lent through praying this prayer and meditating on what it means, and that our prayer life with God would deepen and continue even past Lent, through Easter, and for the rest of our lives. Amen.

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

Mark 9:2-9

On Monday through Wednesday of this past week, I was attending the Midwinter Theological Conference put on by the Northern Rockies Institute of Theology in Essex, Montana. The weather there was spring-like, as it has been throughout the region in the last few days, with temperatures in the upper 30s to lower 40s, and rain the entire time. After the conference was over, I drove down from the mountains expecting the weather to be the same, or even warmer, in the valley, and looking forward to one last glimpse of spectacular scenery as I drove home. Instead, as I descended from the mountains, a great cloud of fog enveloped me, and the temperature dropped to the 20s. While there was neither ice nor snow on the roads, some areas around the roads were covered in hoarfrost. And the fog was so thick, I could no longer see the mountains. Disappointed, I continued the drive home, and the fog did not lift again until right outside of Big Timber, where I was finally treated to a beautiful sunset over the Crazy Mountains.
I think this experience of mine is a good illustration of what today’s Gospel story of Transfiguration is all about. There is a contrast in the story between seeing Jesus and understanding, for one brilliant shining moment, who he is in all of his glory, but still not understanding what he is here on earth to do, as we see in Peter’s desire to build dwellings for the Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. It was said in the prophets that the end of days would come during the Festival of Booths, and Peter, thinking that this is indeed the End of Days, expresses his desire to build those dwelling places for these three figures. In his excitement that the time has indeed been fulfilled, Peter has forgotten what Jesus has just told them about having to suffer and die. This is when the cloud comes over everything, the voice of God affirms that Jesus is the Beloved Son, and that Peter and the others should listen to him. When the cloud dissipates, Jesus is the only one left standing there.
The transfiguration of Jesus is a mystical experience, and like all mystical experiences, it’s hard to know what to make of it and what the meaning is if you are not the person who had the experience. Even if you are the person who had the experience, sometimes it takes a while longer before, through prayer, God reveals the meaning of that experience to you. So let’s imagine ourselves standing with the disciples for a moment, looking on in awe and in sheer terror, and wrestle with the meaning of this vision for our lives today.
The first thing that we need to recognize is that doubt is part of faith. Show me a person who claims that they have never doubted, and I will show you a person who either a) is trying to look good to others by covering up her doubts, or b) who has never seriously thought on his own about his faith, but blindly accepts what has been told him his whole life. We all have doubts. And, if we look at the chapter of Mark’s gospel that comes before this one, we will see Peter first confessing Jesus to be the Messiah, and then Jesus naming Peter as Satan when Peter rebukes Jesus for saying that he must suffer. I’m willing to bet that Peter had some serious doubts about Jesus after that episode. What kind of Messiah goes to die on a cross, after all? As Peter witnesses Jesus being transfigured and God affirming that Jesus is his Son, we can imagine that a measure of Peter’s faith in Jesus, and in his own confession of Jesus as the Messiah, has been restored.
This is one of the messages, I think, in this story of Jesus’ transfiguration, and probably the one that most pastors speak of when they speak of this text. In our own faith journeys, we will have both valleys of doubt and mountaintop experiences when things are as clear as can be. When a child suffers from a grave illness, when a loved one suffers from cancer, when depression hits, when we see all of the terrible things that are happening in the world today, and all of those other times when God seems veiled behind the cloud and his presence seems muted: these are the times when doubt is sure to appear. And it is okay to doubt. But don’t think you’re alone in those doubts. This is the time when the congregation can listen to you, wrestle with the faith with you, hold you in prayer, and speak words of comfort. And when those beautiful mountaintop experiences come, those times when God seems to be right there with you: seeing you and your loved ones through a serious illness, or at the birth of a child, for example: those are the times to hold in your memory, to give you hope when there seems to be none, to share with the other members of the community so that they can rejoice with you. All of these, the valleys and the mountains, are part of our faith story and can be spoken of with anyone we meet.
But the memory of the transfiguration, that mountaintop experience of the disciples, is not just a memory, but it is a vision of the future. Peter wants to stay on the mountain forever and to build a monument to this experience. But God knows that this episode is just a glimpse of what the future will be, and that the time is not yet fulfilled. God knows that his son, his Beloved, must go to the cross and die. And so, with the vision of Jesus in his glory and the affirmation of the faith of the disciples, God also gives a command: Listen to Jesus! Hold the vision in your mind, but in the meantime, listen to Jesus and live by the words that he speaks.
And what are those words that Jesus speaks? In the Gospel of Mark that we have heard in the Season of Epiphany, we have heard these words, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” We have heard his call to the disciples: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” We have heard and seen Jesus put the demons on notice that their end is near, and that God will have the last word. And we have seen how Jesus heals illness. These are all good words of Jesus to heed: remember that the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe; follow him. Remember that God will have the last word. But the words now that Jesus bids us hear come from the conversation that he has with the disciples as they come down from the mountain of transfiguration, and which are not included in today’s Gospel: the Son of Man is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt.
Jesus, the Son of Man and the Son of God, whom we have just seen in glory with Moses and Elijah, who God has affirmed is indeed his Beloved Son, is to suffer and to die on the cross for us. Our Savior is a suffering Savior. Our God is a suffering God, and so he understands, deeply and intimately, the suffering we experience here on earth. Even when he seems veiled to us, he is with us and walks with us through the suffering and pain that we experience. And as we come down from the mountain of revelation, celebrating how God has revealed Jesus in glory, and begin the season of Lent, as we focus on his suffering on the cross for us, we can yet hold before us that vision of Jesus in glory that we know will come at the end of time. Like the beautiful sunset that I saw over the Crazy Mountains on Wednesday evening, we know the cloud will not last, and Jesus will be fully present with us one day. Amen.

Sermon for Bold Women’s Sunday 2015

Note: The national WELCA organization suggests that Bold Women’s Sunday be observed on the last Sunday in February. Due to local circumstances at our congregation, we observed it today, February 8, instead.

2 Samuel 11-12; 1 Kings 1, Matthew 1:1-6

I mentioned to some of you this week that, as I was looking for a picture of Bathsheba to put on the bulletin cover, almost everything that came up on a Google search was of the opening scene of the story, with Bathsheba bathing naked and a lecherous David looking at her from his rooftop. I had to really look for a picture of her with her clothes on so that we could keep worship today at least at a PG rating! But to me, it’s really sad that, in artwork, all that Bathsheba is remembered for is taking a bath in view of the palace roof, causing King David to see her and to send messengers to bring her to him. If that’s all there really was to this woman, then she wouldn’t have been mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, and I wouldn’t have picked her story for Bold Women’s Sunday. There’s more to her story than taking a bath and attracting the notice of the king. We also hear that she is a wife and a mother who mourns for her husband, Uriah, and for her child who has died, a mother who knows how to use the power she has to fight for her child, Solomon, who became king after David, and a woman who merits a mention, along with three other unusually bold women, in Jesus’ family tree. So, let’s examine Bathsheba’s story in more detail and see what God would like us to learn from her.

We should begin with the encounter between David and Bathsheba that began it all. We don’t know why Bathsheba was bathing in a place where David could see her. David was on the roof of his palace, but the text does not say that Bathsheba was on a roof. She could have been in a courtyard that she thought was secluded, and she didn’t think to look up and notice that anyone was on the roof. She was a married woman, and since the text says that she did mourn for her husband Uriah after he was killed, I’m willing to bet that she was not displaying herself on purpose. David, instead of being at the battlefield with his troops as he should have been, is wandering around his rooftop, happens to look down, and sees the beautiful Bathsheba purifying herself. He is smitten—but not with love; this is lust. He finds out who Bathsheba is, that her husband is away at the battlefield, and sends messengers to get her.

The next question that the text presents us with is: was Bathsheba a willing participant? Or was David guilty of rape? Different authors have written different fictional accounts of this story, using their imaginations to fill in details that are not there. Surprisingly enough, several female authors present this as a situation where Bathsheba knew it was wrong, but was attracted to David and was lonely because her husband was away, participated in the act willingly enough, but then felt extremely guilty about it afterward. I can’t exactly fault these authors for this portrayal, because they’re trying to make Bathsheba relatable to modern-day women who may have been tempted, at some point in their lives, into having an extra-marital affair. After exploring this text some more and meditating on this, though, I don’t think that is a good way to imagine this encounter, and here’s why: there is a power differential here. David is the king. He has a lot more power than Bathsheba. How could Bathsheba have ever said no to him? Bathsheba was a survivor, and she knew that saying no to a king would have meant death, or perhaps bad repercussions for her husband, who was in David’s army. She had no choice. In his novel, The Book of God, author Walter Wangerin describes Bathsheba sobbing as she submits to David’s will, the only author writing about this story who I’ve found that portrays the encounter in this way.

I think the message that we can take from this part of the story today, therefore, is about how men and women relate to one another. There is never an excuse for rape. Many women who have been raped never come forward to tell their story because they’re afraid of not being believed. They may be asked what they were wearing, and told that their clothing choice indicated that they “were asking for it”. They may be asked how much they had to drink, and then told that if they were that drunk, they should have expected something like this to happen. And so they live with that shame, thinking that the rape was somehow their fault. When David saw Bathsheba purifying herself, he should have looked away and gone to find one of his many wives and concubines. Men who truly have respect for women will control themselves. And, if they are in a position of power, they will not abuse that power to force a woman to submit. For those women who have been raped and sexually assaulted, there are resources available to help find both justice and healing. There is no shame, and if you need someone to listen to you and believe you, please know that I am a safe person to talk to.

We have heard the aftermath of the story: Bathsheba becomes pregnant and sends a message to David, which in itself is a bold move on her part, as she is demanding that David take responsibility for what he has done. David tries to get Uriah to sleep with Bathsheba, so that he can say the baby is actually Uriah’s, but Uriah refuses, and David has him killed, making it look like the fortunes of war. Bathsheba mourns for Uriah—even though Uriah may not have been around very much since he was one of David’s fighting men, Bathsheba loves him. David then takes Bathsheba as another wife and she bears a son. But God sends the prophet Nathan to confront David, and although David admits his sin, the child born from this union still dies. The only hint we get that Bathsheba was distressed about this is when we read, “Then David consoled his wife Bathsheba,” and she eventually gave birth to another son, named Solomon. Even though her first son was born of a forced union, she still loved her son and grieved his death, just as any mother would grieve. Such heartache for Bathsheba in such a short amount of time! Who wouldn’t grieve after being taken by the king, becoming pregnant, finding out her husband has been killed, getting remarried right away, giving birth, and then losing that baby. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like. Bathsheba seems to have found a measure of peace, though, since her second child with David was named Solomon—coming from the Hebrew word, “Shalom,” meaning “peace”.

I wonder, though, if Bathsheba missed her life before she became one of David’s wives. I wonder if she ever truly loved David, or if she continued to mourn for her husband, Uriah. In the story of David’s continued reign over the kingdom of Israel, we don’t hear about Bathsheba again until David has become old and ill, and the question is raised of who will succeed David on the throne of Israel. David’s oldest son, Adonijah, is setting himself up as the next king, when Nathan—yes, the same Nathan who confronted David about his sin with Bathsheba—and Bathsheba herself concoct a plan to get David to name Solomon as the next king. They remind David of the promise he made to Bathsheba that Solomon would be king after him—and this is the first time in the story that such a promise is mentioned, so we have to wonder if it really happened, or if Nathan and Bathsheba made it up. David, however, acknowledges the promise and officially names Solomon as his successor, displacing his oldest son, Adonijah. Bathsheba is now no longer a victim of David’s lust, she is now no longer just another one of David’s wives, but instead has risen to power as the queen mother, with a great deal of influence over her son, the new king, Solomon.

This is part of the reason, finally, that Bathsheba is included with three other notable women from the Old Testament in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, our Savior. These four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, in their own ways, boldly took the initiative in their individual situations, and God used their actions to continue the earthly family into which his son, Jesus, would be born. The story of Bathsheba, and of the other women named in Matthew’s genealogy, shows us once again that God does not always work his will through the good religious folks. God chooses to come to earth as one of us: born into a family that includes, among others, a woman who was notorious for being an adulteress, whether it was her fault or not. If you notice, Matthew does not even use the name “Bathsheba,” instead choosing to call her Uriah’s wife, as if to remind his readers that before she became the queen mother, she was grafted into David’s line by adultery. And yet, Jesus still chooses to be born into this scandalous woman’s line.

And this, finally, is the good news for us. Jesus does not demand that we become perfect before we come to him. He was born of an earthly family that included murderers, adulterers, and thieves. Bathsheba and the other women in his family tree were women who schemed for power, who plotted for their children to rule when that right should have belonged to others, who lived by the philosophy that states, “A man may be the head of the family, but the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head any way she wants.” Jesus came into his family with no demand that they clean up their act first, but with love and forgiveness. And he offers that same love and forgiveness to us, and that love and forgiveness is what transforms us to want to be better. Let us never think that a person is beyond hope and will never change. Let us instead embrace everyone we meet with the good news of Jesus’ love and forgiveness, let us invite them to come and see Jesus. And may we never forget that God may just work his amazing will through someone that we might never have expected. Amen.

Sermon for Epiphany 4B

Mark 1:21-28

I’ve been watching the show “Resurrection,” airing on ABC. I was drawn into it last year, as it first aired around Easter and dealt with the idea of people’s long-departed loved ones suddenly returning from the dead. It’s a rather odd story, and I’ve kept watching it out of a desire to know what kind of explanation the story is going to give for people suddenly returning to the living. Last Sunday evening was the season finale for the second season. It told the story of one of the people who had returned, a man by the name of Preacher James, convinced that he had to prevent another one of the returned, Rachel, from giving birth. Preacher James was convinced that the baby was evil and was going to destroy the world. In the end, Rachel is saved and she does give birth, and Preacher James is put into prison. Marty, the hero of the story, goes to visit Preacher James in prison. Later that evening, joining his girlfriend, Maggie, and her family for dinner, he tells Maggie that it’s tempting to see the world as Preacher James sees it, as divided into black and white, good and evil. Maggie tells him that good and evil don’t exist, there are just people looking to him for leadership. The last scene of the episode then shows Rachel rocking her normal baby boy to sleep and then leaving the room. And the last shot that we get is of a horde of cicadas clumping up on the window of the room where the baby boy is sleeping, hinting that perhaps good and evil really do exist, and that there is something going on with this seemingly normal child.

I tell this story because Maggie’s remark about good and evil not really existing is a statement that tells us a lot about the society that we live in today. We live in a morally relativistic society, where we want to see the good in everyone and to find a reason behind why a person behaves badly. And so today’s Gospel, and any other Gospel where we find demons involved, is foreign to us. Can a person really be possessed, we ask? Isn’t this just how the 1st century described mental illness, we wonder? And if so, mental illness isn’t evil, it’s simply another type of bodily illness that we are trying to find a cure for. Mental illness is in fact different from demon possession and there is nothing intrinsically evil about mental illness. But what we are dealing with in Mark’s Gospel is not, in fact, mental illness. It is demon possession. And so, since this concept is foreign to us except for what we see in horror movies, we need to take ourselves out of our 21st century postmodern world and put ourselves in 1st century Palestine for a few moments.

In his gospel, Mark paints a picture of God’s creation, originally good with everything in order, as now being completely out of whack. God created humans to be stewards of God’s creation, but instead, humans are threatened by storms and other forces of nature. Instead of being healthy and whole, in good relationships with one another, humans are separated one from the other by illness and by uncleanness. And yes, they are possessed by demons, which, along with angels, were believed to inhabit the creation. Into this creation that has gone askew comes Jesus, the Son of God. At his baptism, the heavens are ripped apart, a boundary broken, and he is proclaimed to be God’s Son, the Beloved. Immediately after his baptism, he is driven out into the wilderness for forty days, where he withstands the temptations of the devil. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he returns, calls men to follow him, goes to Capernaum, and begins to teach in the synagogue.

And the first thing that happens, at his very first moment of teaching the people about the inbreaking kingdom of God, is that a demon-possessed man stands up to resist him. This is all-out war: the Holy Spirit in Jesus against the unclean spirit in the man. And when Jesus drives the demon out of the man, he gives a forcible demonstration of what he had earlier proclaimed: The kingdom of God has come near. Creation will, in fact, be restored. The boundary between clean and unclean has been broken. This is what the coming of the kingdom of God looks like: the evil and the unclean are on the run, and God’s kingdom is being ushered in.

So, let’s come back to 21st century America and ask this question: how does this story still have relevance for us today? Well, let’s look at it this way: Jesus has authority over the evil that can possess us, and Jesus has authority to drive it out. And I’m not talking about demons now. I’m talking about the other things that can possess us: fear, anger, addictions of various kinds, bitterness, hatred, and whatever other sinfulness you can think of. Do we truly believe that Jesus has this authority and can drive out our sinfulness? Or is this a place where our faith wavers?

The Salvation Army was recently running a commercial showing how the things and money we donate to them change lives, and I’d like to play it now.

And while the emphasis in this commercial is on how things we donate help out, what we may not always remember is that the Salvation Army is also a Christian denomination. And I think in this commercial, this is really what these people are saying: Amazing grace is what saved a person like each of them. I remember first seeing this commercial and thinking, “Man, I wish we Lutherans had thought of this.” Because, it seems to me that if we believe in Jesus, then we should have that powerful hope that lives can indeed be changed drastically and for the better by the Savior we believe in. But sometimes it seems like our rational and realistic outlooks win out over the wild and beautiful hope that the kingdom of God does break in and does change everything in the lives of the people that it comes into contact with.

So, what can we do to cultivate that radical hope? The last couple of weeks I have talked about being called by God, and also about prophets. We are called by God to be prophets. And remember, prophets are simply those people who speak the word of God to the people, none of this fortune-telling stuff. We are called to meet people where they are and to acknowledge whatever the pain is that is possessing them. One thing that we cannot do is to promise that once a person encounters Jesus, that all will be well in this life. We who have encountered Jesus already know that is not the case. But, what we can do is to bring hope: We know that Jesus has died on the cross for our sins and risen again, and we believe that he will come again one day and make all things right. And, until that happens, we can prophesy that God sees our pain, loves us and is with us through that pain, and wants to change our lives drastically for the better. We can testify that the kingdom of God has already broken into this world, and we can point to Jesus as the one who is always here, through the good and the bad, loving us, crying with us, and bringing us hope that evil will not have the last word: God will.

When the world has beaten us down, when it seems like there is no end to human sinfulness and to the evil that happens all around us, we come together as a community to encourage one another and to hear the good news once more that, with the coming of Jesus into our world, sin and evil are on the run. This is one of many reasons why we come to worship: to encourage one another and lift one another up with this wonderful message from God. So, take a look around and think of people who are not with us today. I know that many of us travel frequently, and I’m not talking about those of us who are on the road today for one reason or another. I’m speaking of our brothers and sisters who don’t come as frequently as we would like to see them. Give them a call this week and tell them we miss them on Sunday. Find out what’s going on in their lives, and prophesy to them God’s word of hope, peace, and encouragement. And pray for them. And do this not only for those in our community here, but also for those outside of our congregation who need to hear how much God loves them.

With the coming of Jesus into the world, sin and evil are on the run. Believe that an encounter with Jesus can and truly does change lives for the better. And may all of our words and deeds this week reflect this strong belief and hope that we have. Amen.