Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 21

John 3:1-21

Today’s text includes that famous verse that Martin Luther called “the gospel in a nutshell,”; the one that gets flashed up on signs at sporting events: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. This verse has taken up such a place in our culture that many people don’t always remember the story that surrounds it: Nicodemus coming to visit Jesus by night to try and find out who this Jesus is. So, before we dive in to today’s text, I would like to start by reviewing what John the Gospel writer has told us thus far.

In the first chapter, we get a beautiful prologue that starts with, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” John the Evangelist tells us how Jesus is the Word made flesh, the Word of God now walking among those whom he created. John tells us that Jesus came to bring grace and truth. From there, John the Evangelist tells us about John the Baptist, who testified to those around him about who Jesus was. We then hear about how Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, and Nathanael came to be followers of Jesus. From these stories of Jesus’ first disciples, we move to the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine, and finally, last week, we heard about Jesus getting angry and turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. The Gospel writer describes the act of turning water into wine and the act of turning over tables in the Temple as “signs”—they are signs pointing to who Jesus is and the kind of authority he has.

And so, in chapter 3, we have a Pharisee by the name of Nicodemus coming to check this Jesus out. He comes by night, presumably so that his fellow Pharisees don’t hear that he is visiting Jesus, so we can surmise that there is already opposition building to Jesus within the ranks of the ruling parties. But he comes, not with the spirit of condemning something without a hearing, but rather with the spirit of seeking knowledge and an open heart. Too many interpreters of this passage condemn Nicodemus either for daring to ask Jesus questions or for willfully not understanding what Jesus was saying. But that’s not what’s going on here. Which one of us, when confronted with someone who was doing things that upset the normal pattern of living, would not want to ask that person questions? And let’s try to put ourselves in the shoes of Nicodemus: if someone said that we needed to be “born from above,” wouldn’t we all scratch our heads and say, “Huh? What in the world are you talking about?” Good students ask the teacher questions when they don’t understand something. And when the teacher responds with something that they still don’t understand, the good student will probe with more challenging questions. This scene with Jesus and Nicodemus is simply a scene between a student and a teacher: someone willing to question what he hears and to learn from the response. Nicodemus is a man who is using the intelligence that God gave him to determine who Jesus is.

So, let’s take a look at what Jesus says to Nicodemus. And, there’s a lot in there: being born from above and what that means; being born of water and Spirit and what that means; and the Son of Man being lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert. But what I want to focus on today is that verse that we all know so well: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. And the reason that I want to focus on it is this: Many times, we Christians want to use this as a “clobber verse”. And what I mean by a “clobber verse” is this: we use it to hit non-Christians on the head and say that the only way that someone is going to go to heaven is to believe in Jesus. That’s why well-meaning Christians flash it up at sports games, after all: in the vain hope that someone might just read it and be convinced enough to believe in Jesus. But that’s really not the emphasis that we should be using when we tell others about Jesus. I think that what we should be focusing on instead is the first part of the verse: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.”

I would like us, for a moment, to focus on the Greek word that gets translated as “world”: kosmos. Kosmos means not just “world”, but it implies that the world that God created is beautiful and orderly. It encompasses the natural world and it encompasses every single human being, all interwoven together and intricately bound so that what affects one part of the creation affects another part of the creation. In other words, “all means all.” God loves every human being, every wolf, every blade of grass, every dog, every cat, every snake, every piece of creation—even mosquitoes and cockroaches. God loves it all. And what’s even more miraculous is that God loves each person and each part of creation with exactly the same unfathomable, deep love. We can’t begin to understand how wildly in love with the creation God really is. And the love that God has for the kosmos is so great that God sent the only Son, Jesus, to die a horrible death on the cross for us, so that we might have eternal life. We can’t even begin to understand that kind of love that sacrifices itself so that the beloved might live.

So, what kind of practical implications can we take from this? How do we strive to follow Jesus’ example and love the world so much that we, too, give ourselves away for the kosmos? I would like to share a story from my own life in order to help us with this. My mother has, in recent years, taken up genealogy as a hobby, and about a year or so ago, decided to do the DNA test available on www.ancestry.com to see what ethnicities her DNA would reveal in her. My father also took the DNA test. When their results came back, my father’s turned out pretty much like what we were expecting based on his family’s records: mainly Western and Eastern European, as well as British, with some small traces of other ethnicities. But my mother’s came back as a complete surprise. As far as we can trace her family records back, the only indication that we have is that she is German, with nothing else mixed in. But when her DNA results came back, she discovered that, along with Western European, her ethnicity is actually largely Scandinavian. She was in such disbelief that she thought they must have gotten her sample mixed up with someone else’s, and so she redid the test. Again, it came back Scandinavian. Then I did my DNA test, and, while I’m a good mix of both my father and mother’s DNA, the greatest percentage of my DNA, at 27%, is also Scandinavian. The only thing we can think of is that the Vikings, further back than any written records go, were simply everywhere in Europe and mixing in with the local populations. And it’s fascinating to think that I can claim some of that Viking heritage.

What people are finding when they have their DNA tests done is that they have ethnicities in them that they never thought they had, and even ethnicities that, until that point, they absolutely hated. And I think that is the value of having your ethnicity detected through DNA: not so that you can prove that you are superior to others, but so that you can understand this: there is no such thing as them and us. There is just us, the human race. And if more people understood that, and if more people understood who their ancestors were and where they came from, then they might not be so hostile to other groups of people. We might be able to be kinder to immigrants, to refugees, and to the dreamers in this country, because they are no different than we are. Our ancestors, too, came to these shores—many of them “illegally”—looking for the same things that immigrants and refugees today are looking for. How can we follow in Jesus’ footsteps in showing the kind of love that Jesus showed for each and every human being on this planet, regardless of who they are or where they’ve come from?

Now, here’s the thing about love. The word “love” in English has the connotation of a feeling, a warm fuzzy feeling that we have in our heart. That’s not the connotation that the word “love” has in the Greek. Love is not a feeling; it is an active verb. It’s putting our money where our mouth is, like Jesus did by dying on the cross. We will probably not be called to show our love for the kosmos by dying on a cross. But we may be called to advocate for a more just immigration system than what we have now. Or, we may be called to help a local immigrant who has been living in the country for 40 years, who has contributed to his community, and who is now suddenly facing deportation for no good reason, as in the case of Polish immigrant Lukasz Niec, a doctor in Michigan. The love that God showed the world by giving up God’s Son, Jesus, to death on the cross is a costly love. The love that we are called to show the world and all of the people in it is a costly one as well.

There is no them and us: there is just us. Each one of us is a part of this beautiful, orderly kosmos that God created and that God loves. Each one of us: Mexican, Salvadoran, Polish, Arab, Jewish, Russian, American—we are all human beings, and, if you go back far enough with the DNA, we are all related to one another. And God loves each one of us so much that God gave his only Son, Jesus, to die for us on the cross, so that we might have eternal and abundant life. And that eternal life does not start when we die and go to heaven: it starts right now. While we cannot fully understand this kind of active love that God has for us, we can strive to show that love for one another. Resting secure in the knowledge that God does indeed love us, let us find ways to show that costly love for one another. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 20

John 2:13-25

There is a meme that goes around Facebook whenever the text describing Jesus chasing the merchants out of the temple comes around in our lectionary. It is a picture of Jesus doing just that, and the words describing this picture say, “If anyone ever asks you, ‘What would Jesus do?’ remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibilities.” I laugh every time I see this meme, but it points to an important consideration of who Jesus was and is. We like to think of Jesus as a sort of “fluffy cuddle bunny” as one person put it; someone who loves everyone no matter what. And of course Jesus, as the revelation of God, is just that: he does love everyone. But there is another side to his personality as well. When we say that the Son of God became a human being in the person of Jesus, we mean that he became a real human being. And what that means is this: not only did Jesus have those emotions that we consider to be good and right and true: love, compassion, happiness, and all of that, it also means that he had those emotions that we consider to be more negative. The gospels record that he got frustrated with his disciples numerous times when they simply didn’t get it. And, as we have in front of us today, Jesus got angry when he saw what was going on in the temple. Perhaps it was a righteous anger, but it was still anger, and when he acted out on that anger, he disrupted many people’s lives. Those people that he was supposed to love no matter what, and who were just trying to live out their lives as they normally did. So the question that we need to ask ourselves is this: Why did Jesus get angry, so angry that he felt it was necessary to make his point by turning over tables and driving out sheep, cattle, and doves?

Well, let’s start out with what this wasn’t: it wasn’t a protest against the sacrificial system of the Temple. Most of the people going up to the Temple were Jewish people. The Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, were full of descriptions of how God’s people were supposed to come before God with sacrifices. The merchants who were there the day that Jesus drove them out were helping people get the appropriate sacrifices so they could come before God in the Temple. Jesus himself was an observant Jewish man, and the Gospels talk about how he came up to the Temple for Passover and other Jewish holidays. The setting of this story today, in fact, is the Passover. This may be the first time Jesus comes up to Jerusalem for Passover, but it won’t be the last. So, if Jesus was not angry at the sacrificial system itself, then what caused him to drive out the sheep and the cattle and overturn the tables of the money changers?

In her book, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, Professor Amy-Jill Levine suggests that Caiaphas, who was the high priest when Jesus lived, moved the merchants selling cattle and sheep for Temple sacrifice, and the money-changers, off of the Mount of Olives and into the Court of the Gentiles, which was the outer court of the Temple. Now, this would make good sense in that the animals would be right at the Temple, and the people who bought them wouldn’t have to drive them all the way from the Mount of Olives into the Temple. But, there’s a problem with this: putting these merchants in the Temple prevents the Gentiles from worshiping God. Remember that Gentiles were anyone who was not Jewish. Those who were not Jewish, if they were drawn to worship God, could not go any further into the temple than the Court of the Gentiles. But, if you move all of the merchants into this area, it crowds the Gentiles out of the only place in the Temple that they are allowed to approach the mystery of God. It would make sense, then, that Jesus would be outraged by this. He cries out, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” All parts of God’s house should be used for worship, including those parts designated for those who were considered to be outside the boundaries of God’s people. It’s no wonder that Jesus was angry enough to take matters into his own hands.

I don’t know if we have a similar situation in the church today. I know that when the church has bake sales, or bazaars, or some other kind of fundraiser, we don’t usually hold those in the sanctuary and by so doing, prevent any group of people from worshiping. I don’t know that Jesus would come into our churches today and tell us to stop making his Father’s house a marketplace, although maybe there are certain places where he would. And so I have struggled with this text this week. I want to boldly proclaim God’s word to you, but I also want to be true to the text. And so, we may have to stretch the story a little bit in order to make it meaningful for us. So, this is what I think God is telling us today. We have a tendency, especially in the Lutheran church, to make Jesus, and therefore God, into a loving God. So many of us have been burned by the church in the past, especially those preachers who have made God into a God who is angry with us all the time, that I especially want to convey to you all how much God truly loves you. But, here’s the thing: to truly love someone is to open yourself up to pain when that person fails your expectations. And, just as we get angry when that situation happens, so God gets angry when God’s children sin and let God down.

So then, what are the things that God gets angry about? Now, I do want to be careful here. I am trying not to fall into the trap of saying that God sends natural disasters as punishment for people’s sins. But I think that we can get a general idea of what God gets angry about from what is taught to us in the Scriptures. When people mistreat and abuse one another, as in the case of the parents who abused their thirteen children that came to light this week, God gets angry. When the federal government shuts down because politicians are using people, needy people like immigrants, refugees, and poor children who need health insurance, as pawns to make political points, God gets angry. When we misuse and waste the resources that God gives us, and when we are not as generous with our material gifts as we could be, God gets angry. I have a feeling that if Jesus were physically present and teaching us today, he would be overturning a lot of our tables, and in places where we would least expect it.

But I think the good news in this is the way that the Gospel of John interprets Jesus turning over the tables and driving everyone out. When asked for a sign that showed that he had the authority to do this, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Of course, the people who heard this didn’t understand what Jesus was telling them, and the disciples only understood much later. When Jesus said this, he was talking about himself, and he was talking about how he would go to the cross, die for us, and then three days later, rise again. This kind of passion, this righteous anger, that Jesus had against something that was blatantly wrong, would drive Jesus, out of love for us, to die a horrible death on the cross for our sake and then to rise again, so that we might have hope. This is a hope that things will not always be this way and that Jesus will one day return and turn all of the injustice in the world back into justice.

As a people of hope, there are times when we may be called to get angry and turn over some tables of injustice. And there is plenty of injustice in the world to get angry over. But this is not a call to be angry for anger’s sake; it is a call to love someone or something so passionately that you channel that anger into making this world a more just place. Are you angry because so many people in this world suffer from hunger? Then get involved: donate to ELCA World Hunger, donate to the local food bank, learn about why so many people in the world go hungry, and then advocate for ways to fix the system. Are you angry because so many people suffer when natural disasters hit? Then channel that anger into helping groups like Lutheran Disaster Response, into learning about why hurricanes are so devastating, and by advocating for things like conservation that will make these natural disasters less devastating to the lives of people when they hit. Do you get upset when people misuse the natural resources of the earth and exploit them for personal gain? Then channel that anger into helping organizations that work to restore the earth.

There are so many problems on this earth that we could get passionate about. But the emotions of passion and of anger show that we care about what is going on around us, just as Jesus showed that he cared about the injustice of what was going on in the Temple on that long ago day. Find those causes that you’re passionate about and channel that emotion into doing something good in the world. Now, there will never be complete justice in the world until Jesus returns. And we are not responsible for bringing in the kingdom of God: Jesus is. But, that does not mean that we cannot participate in that coming of the kingdom. As people of hope, we do not sit around and shrug our shoulders at the injustice that we see around us. Hoping in the return of Jesus means that we do what God is calling us to do, while we are waiting for Jesus to return, to show others that injustice will not have the final word: God will. So while we wait, we actively hope, and we actively participate in the coming of the kingdom of God. Amen.

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 19

John 2:1-11

 

If you’re writing a really good story, you want to have a great opening line so that your readers remember it and take it with them as they continue into the book, movie, or TV show, so that they know what the story is going to be about. So, for example, here are some famous opening lines, and I want to have a little quiz this morning and see if you know where they’ve come from. This will also help me to see who’s awake and who’s not! So, here we go:

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . . Star Wars

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

Call me Ishmael. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth . . . Genesis 1:1

This last line was so memorable that John the Evangelist chose to base the opening of his book on it: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This is John’s statement of who Jesus is: the Word of God come down in flesh. The rest of his Gospel tells us what that means. And today’s story from his second chapter begins to flesh out, if you’ll forgive the pun, what it means for Jesus to be the Word of God made flesh.

So, let’s step back a moment and do some review. In between John’s beautiful poetic opening to his gospel and today’s story, we heard John the Baptist testifying that Jesus was both the Lamb of God and the Son of God, and his proof was how he saw the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus at his baptism. We saw Jesus inviting his first disciples to “Come and see” him. And now, we have Jesus’ first public act declaring who he is. Each of the Gospels has a different “first public act” of Jesus to show what Jesus is all about. Matthew has Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount, setting forth the theme of Jesus as a teacher. Mark shows Jesus driving out a demon as his first public act, thus setting the theme of Jesus as a worker of miracles, bringing order to a creation that has gone off kilter. Luke shows Jesus giving a sermon in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth and being rejected by the people there, putting forth the idea of Jesus as a prophet, in line with the Old Testament prophets, whose message, like theirs, was rejected by his people. And now we return to John. In John, Jesus’ first public act is attending a wedding and turning water into wine. What kind of Jesus is John trying to show?

Well, let’s look first at the setting of this story. Jesus, his mother, and his disciples are at a wedding. A wedding, even though it’s a special occasion, is a part of ordinary life. At some point in all of our lives, most of us will have the opportunity to go to someone’s wedding. And, if we’re really lucky, we will have the opportunity to be a part of the bridal party. Jesus has been invited to this wedding, not because the people know that he is the Son of God—they don’t—but because he is their friend and they want him to take part in this joyous occasion. But then, at this wedding, the unthinkable happens: the hosts run out of wine. Can you imagine what that must be like? In today’s society, if we’re hosting a party and we run out of alcohol, it’s embarrassing, yes. But usually we can send a friend or a family member out to the store to buy more of it. It wasn’t quite the same in this time and this place. For the host to run out of wine showed poor planning on his part, and in the little village of Cana, everyone would find out about it. The host would have lost status in the eyes of the rest of the village, and that stigma would have followed him around for a very long time.

But in this story, it seems as though when Jesus’ mother points this problem out to Jesus, only a few people knew about the potential impending doom for the host. There was no great outcry—just a few people starting to whisper that the wine was gone. And after Jesus’ mother prods him a bit, Jesus changes water into wine. And it’s not just Mogen David or Manischewitz. This is the good wine, the richest wine, the best-tasting wine possible. I’ve always wondered about this, because I am not a wine drinker—I really don’t like the taste of most of it. And there are some people who prefer a sweet wine, while others prefer a dry wine. I like to think that the wine that Jesus provided that day in Cana tasted different according to the taste of each person who drank it. For some it was the sweetest wine, and for others it was the driest. But whatever it tasted like, for each person there it was what they needed the most, and was the best-quality wine there ever was.

So, what does all of this say about Jesus in John’s Gospel? It says that Jesus is present in the ordinary times of life, the everyday rituals, and it says that Jesus provides what we all need—but not just a little bit. If you notice, in this story, there were six stone water jars, each holding around twenty to thirty gallons. That comes out to 120 to 180 gallons—gallons!—of the best-tasting wine there ever was. Jesus provides what is needed, and even more than that—Jesus gives to us abundantly. And he does it freely. Most of the people at that wedding had no idea where this wonderful-tasting wine had come from. But they drank of it and it gladdened their hearts, regardless. This is an example of what John means when he says, in the first chapter of his gospel, that “From his fullness, we have received, grace upon grace.” Grace is the gift of Jesus, who abundantly gives of himself all that we need, and even more than that.

Where have you seen Jesus give grace upon grace in your lives? In our congregational life, I have seen this grace upon grace as St. John hosted Family Promise this week and Salem, Trinity, and St. Peter’s supported St. John in this ministry. I have seen grace poured out upon us as we have gotten to know the people who are in the Family Promise program. I have seen grace poured out upon us as we had an abundance of food with which to feed the people. I have seen grace poured out upon us as our members cuddled a newborn baby and played with the older children. I have seen grace poured out upon us as what we originally thought was a fire in the basement turned out to be a burst pipe that caused water damage, but did not interfere with Family Promise coming to stay with us. I have seen grace poured out on us in the form of the people who came to clean up the water in the basement, and I have seen grace poured out on us that this accident did not interfere too much with the operation of the day care. I have seen grace poured out on us in the fact that, despite our ugly winter weather, no one was hurt in driving the van back and forth from Lemoyne. And I have seen grace poured out on us as the people in the program have seen God’s love and grace through us this week. God has indeed been gracious to us, and has given to us abundantly, much more than we have deserved.

And that’s the thing: we don’t deserve any of God’s grace. We are sinful human beings, and the Son of God becoming flesh in Jesus is pure gift to us. And when the Son of God came, he did not come to the people who were well-off and on top of the world. He came instead by being born in a little town on the outskirts of Jerusalem; he was not even born in that great city where a mighty king ruled. And then he was brought up in a little town in northern Galilee, a backwater, a place where we heard Nathanael say last week, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” A place which today, the president of this country would call a vulgar name. And yet, Jesus gives us, too, those who are well-off in this world, grace upon grace, and that love and grace comes in such abundance that we cannot even understand how much it truly is. That love and that grace of Jesus comes abundantly to all people, and all means all: not only to Americans, but also to Haitians; not only to those of European descent, but also to those people who come from Nigeria, Ghana, El Salvador, and Mexico. God’s grace, poured out in Jesus, the Word become flesh who would die on the cross for us, is for everyone. No exceptions.

So this week, I would like to ask us to keep our eyes open for instances of God’s grace in our lives. Let’s look for that love and that undeserved grace in every ordinary detail of our lives, and when we see it, let us give thanks to God for it. And let’s also do a spiritual house cleaning this week. Any time we are tempted to think that we are superior to someone else, whether that is because of race or class or circumstance, let’s put a check on ourselves. Let’s remind ourselves that God gives grace and love to another person just as much as to us. And then let’s also make an effort to show that grace and love to another person, especially those who we don’t know. If we see someone struggling, let’s find a way to help them—even if it’s just offering to help them get their groceries in from the car. We don’t have a corner on God’s grace, and there is more than enough of it to go around. So let’s show that grace to other people. Amen.

 

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 18

John 1:[19-34], 35-51

Welcome back to our journey through the Bible! Right before Christmas, we finished up a series of readings from the Old Testament prophets. At Christmas, if you were at St. John’s [here] for the Christmas pageant, you may remember hearing me read a passage from the first chapter of the Gospel of John talking about Jesus as the Word of God become flesh. In those verses, we also got a glimpse of John the Baptist, who we’ve heard more about today in the section of the first chapter of John that I’ve just read for you. From now until the Sunday after Easter, we will be hearing readings from the Gospel of John. So I’m going to start us out today with some background information on John before we dive in to today’s text.

We have four Gospels in the Bible, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are all accounts of Jesus’ life: how he was born (in Matthew and Luke only), where he lived, what he did, and what he taught. All four Gospels also tell of how Jesus was arrested, tried, crucified, and on the third day, was resurrected from the dead. Apart from that, the Gospels are all different in the details. Think of it this way: when we tell a story of some big event in our family history, each person who was there is going to remember different things about how it happened. Just because one person remembers that Grandpa slipped and fell on the icy path while another person remembers that Grandpa tripped over a rock doesn’t negate the fact that Grandpa fell and broke his hip and needed a hip replacement.  In the same way, we can look at each of the four gospel writers as members of the Christian family telling the same basic story about Jesus, but remembering different details about what he said and did, and the events that happened around him. Having said that, there is something else that we need to know about these Gospels: even though they were inspired by God, they were not written in a vacuum. Each author was writing to a particular group of Christians and wanted them to know something about Jesus that would speak into their particular situation. This also accounts for the differences in the stories that they tell.

Now, let’s look at the Gospel of John in particular. Scholars think that John was written much later than the other three Gospels, and so it was a very different situation that this early group of Christians was facing than were the other three congregations for whom Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written. What we’re going to find as we go through the stories of John, aside from the many beautiful passages about Jesus, are some not so beautiful things. There will be repeated references to “the Jews” in unflattering terms. What we’re going to see reflected in this gospel is a separation between groups of Jewish people who did not believe in Jesus and groups of Jewish people who did; in other words, the first Christians and our ancestors in the faith. This Gospel reflects an internal argument over which group was right, and these unflattering references to “the Jews” should not be carried over from the first century into the 21st century. I will leave it at that for now and will be reminding you of that when it comes up in this gospel. Another thing that we should know about John is that he has a different definition of sin than the other three Gospel writers do. In John, sin is not a moral failing, but rather it is a failure to believe in Jesus, the One whom God has sent. Keep that also in mind as we journey through this gospel together.

And so, let’s look at this first chapter of the Gospel of John that is before us today. Here we see John the Baptist—who is not, by the way, the same John who wrote the Gospel—testifying to what he saw when he baptized Jesus. He says that he saw the Spirit descend and remain on Jesus when he baptized him. John says further that Jesus is the Lamb of God and the Son of God. John the Baptist is proclaiming this about Jesus to anyone who will listen. And then, one day, two people do listen. John says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” And two of John’s disciples immediately leave John and start following Jesus. And Jesus invites them to, “Come and see.” Come and see where Jesus is staying. Come and see what Jesus is doing. Come and find what their hearts have been searching for and yearning for.

And then, the next day, Jesus gains more disciples. One of them, Philip, goes to Nathanael and tells him that they have found the one “about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” And Nathanael’s response? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” You see, Nazareth was a backwater town. I went to college in a small town in Vermont called Middlebury, but up the road a ways from Middlebury, in the Green Mountains, was an even smaller town called Ripton. We used to make fun of Ripton because the people who lived there tended to be what we would call hicks, and this was exemplified by the ice machine in the front of the general store which had the word “ice” misspelled “i-e-c”. So Nathanael saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” would be roughly equivalent to Middlebury folks saying, “Wait a minute. You found the Messiah in Ripton? Yeah, right.” But in response to such skepticism, Philip responds in the same way that Jesus had, “Come and see.” And what Nathanael sees of Jesus wins him over.

We live today in an age of skepticism, where many people believe that the church is simply not relevant to society any longer. There are many reasons for this perception in society, and some of those reasons are justified. And yet, here we are. There are still some of us who come to worship faithfully on Sundays and who participate in the life of the church. So, my question to you is this: Why do you come? Is it something that you think you should be doing even if it doesn’t mean much to you anymore? Or is there some deeper meaning involved in coming on a Sunday? Jesus continues to ask us the same question today that he asked his first disciples so long ago: What are you looking for? What do you hope to see?

From my perspective as a pastor, this is what I hope to see when I come each week to lead you in worship: I hope to see Jesus. And, there are many possible ways to see Jesus in a church. Last week, when I was in Florida, I had a choice of where I wanted to worship. I could go with my parents to their church, which is part of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, or I could go to the local ELCA church. I made my decision based on worship times and nothing else: my parents go to the 8:00 a.m. service at their church, while the ELCA church started worship at 10 a.m. I was on vacation; I didn’t want to get up early. When I entered the doors, I was promptly greeted and directed to where the restrooms were and the sanctuary. The worship service was nice, but the pastor was very soft-spoken and low-energy, and the sermon that day didn’t speak to me that much. But Jesus made his presence known to me during communion, when both the pastor and the assistant asked what my name was, and then said, “Tonya, the body of Christ given for you. Tonya, the blood of Christ shed for you.” In that simple act, I knew that Jesus loved me and was present with me.

Now, each person is different, and each week is different. Jesus is always present in every part of the service, but each person in the congregation will perceive Jesus in a different way. My human ego gets really excited if you see Jesus in the sermon that I preach, but if you instead see Jesus in some other part of the service, such as the Scripture reading, or the children’s message, or Holy Communion, that is wonderful. And, you know what another important part of the church is? It is the people. Jesus makes himself known in the community that is gathered. Every time you comfort another person when they are sad, lonely, sick, or in despair, Jesus is present. Every time the community comes together and works to make the outside world a little bit better, such as with the Family Promise hosting week that starts tonight [at St. John’s], Jesus is present. Every time an argument is resolved and the people involved forgive one another, Jesus is present. All of these things contribute towards an authentic worshiping community where Jesus comes and makes himself known.

So now, here’s the hard part. When you speak to someone outside of the congregation and invite them to worship with you, what do you do if they respond by telling you about some way that the church has hurt them in the past? Or, what if they want to debate on some social issue that they think the church has taken the wrong side on? I would like to suggest to you that engaging in debate or argument with the person will not bear the fruit that you would like to see. Instead, I would suggest that you respond as Jesus responded, and as Philip responded, and invite the person to “Come and see.” Invite them to come and see Jesus in our worship service and in our community. Invite them to come and see the one who can give their restless hearts peace. Simply invite them to come and see why you return to worship each week in a culture that thinks church is irrelevant. Invite them to come and see.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine addresses God and says, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” Jesus invites us to come and see him, to experience his love for us, to experience that rest, and that sense of wholeness and peace that we are lacking. He invites us to come and worship him each week, and then to go out into the world, with our hearts full, and invite others to come and see him. And he invites us into an amazing adventure of discipleship, where we will see things that we thought impossible become possible. Are you ready to come and see what following Jesus is all about? Are you ready to make room for people that you never thought would come and be a part of the body of Christ? Then keep speaking and keep inviting, and let Jesus show you and all who come how truly loved you all are. Amen.

 

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2017

Note that this is a “repeat,” with some editing, of a sermon I preached two years ago in Wyoming.

Luke 2:1-20

 

Nativity scenes are beautiful, aren’t they? And they often have such special meaning for us. I have several Nativity scenes at home. One of them belonged to my grandmother and was given to me after she died. It comes complete with shepherds, wise men, animals, and some other random characters, but does not include angels. So this year I placed it under my tree and hung angel ornaments around it to make it complete. Oh, and by the way, the wise men have been relegated to the hallway, because they don’t arrive until Epiphany. Tonight is just about the shepherds. Another Nativity scene that I have is the one that I grew up with, and it 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. I placed that one on one of my window sills this year. 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. If any of you here tonight have grown up around farms, you can vouch for that. A Lutheran pastor colleague in Cody, Wyoming, was telling a group of us pastors a few years ago 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. She had to tell that person gently, but firmly, that there would be no baby donkeys in the sanctuary that Christmas.

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 God 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 healthy 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, because we are quite unable to clean ourselves up. 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 Narrative Lectionary Week 15

Isaiah 55:1-13

Today we come to the last reading from the Old Testament prophets in our narrative walk through the Bible. We started out with Amos, that prophet from the southern kingdom of Judah who went to the northern kingdom of Israel, criticized the economic system there, and said, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” We then went to Isaiah, a prophet who lived in Jerusalem during frightening political times and who proclaimed a word of hope from God to the king by announcing the birth of a child. Next, we heard from Jeremiah, who wrote a letter to the first group of Jewish exiles in Babylon, telling them to stay there and to adjust to a new culture, and reassuring them that God had plans for their future. We then heard a story from the Book of Daniel about three men thrown into a fiery furnace and miraculously saved—a story to inspire the exiles to maintain their Jewish identity in the face of pressure to change and worship Babylonian gods. And finally, last week, we heard from Ezekiel, the prophet to the Babylonian exiles who saw a vision that God can make bones that have no life in them live once more.

We may think it strange, then, that our series brings us back to the prophet Isaiah, since we heard from Isaiah once already. Well, this is a later section of the book of Isaiah, and it is, possibly, a different prophet than the Isaiah we met who lived during the reigns of King Ahaz and Hezekiah. Scholars who are much better at the Hebrew language than I am point out that the later chapters of Isaiah are written in a Hebrew that has changed significantly from the first chapters of the book. It’s like I’ve told my Thursday morning Bible study group: we who live in 21st century North America and speak English can read the King James Version of the Bible and admire its beauty and its poetry, but we don’t speak like that anymore, and it’s sometimes difficult for us to understand. It’s the same language issue with the first part of Isaiah and the second. Scholars think that perhaps the latter part of Isaiah was written by a disciple of the original Isaiah who prophesied in Isaiah’s style, and whose prophecies, therefore, were attached to the scrolls of the original book of Isaiah.

Another reason that scholars think the latter chapters of Isaiah were written by someone other than the Isaiah who lived in Jerusalem during the reigns of King Ahaz and King Hezekiah is that these chapters are speaking to a different situation. The first chapters of Isaiah find us with the people of Jerusalem facing war against Assyria and the northern kingdom of Israel. The chapters in the last part of Isaiah are speaking to the exiles as they are being allowed to return home. Yes, the exiles are going to go back to the land of Israel. The Babylonian Empire fell to the Persian Empire in 539 BC, and that area came under the rule of King Cyrus of Persia. King Cyrus thought it would be a good idea to allow those people that the Babylonian emperor had captured to return to their homelands, including the Jewish people. And so, the prophet who speaks in today’s chapter of Isaiah is interpreting these events as the Lord relenting from his anger against the people of Israel. The Lord will renew the promise God made to David to have steadfast love for David’s family forever. And God will renew this promise to David by bringing the exiles back to Israel and reestablishing a nation and rebuilding the temple.

But when the exiles return, they find things in Jerusalem to be not as they expected. The temple is still in ruins. They have very few resources. And the land had not lain empty while they had been in Babylon. It had been settled by foreigners who did not know that this land had once belonged to the Israelites. There were fights between those who were returning, who remembered that certain plots of land had been their family’s home, and those who had moved in and lived there in the approximately 50 years that the exiles were in Babylon. The returning Jewish exiles are now asking this question: Why is God bringing us back here, if God is not going to miraculously restore our nation to its former glory? Should we have stayed in Babylon (now Persia) after all? If this is what God has promised us, why is this so difficult?

In response, the prophet tells us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and God’s ways are not our ways. But, he also reassures us that God’s word will not return to God empty, but that it will do what God intends for it to do. What does this mean? It means that the exiles who returned to the land of Israel to rebuild have made the right decision. It does not mean that life will be easy and that God will magically wave a wand and *poof!* the city of Jerusalem and the Temple will reappear in all of their former glory. It does mean that the exiles will have to work hard to rebuild and they will have to negotiate with the people who have moved in there over the last 50 years. But they should have confidence that God will fulfill the promises that God made to them, even if it takes many years longer than they were expecting. This God is a God that they can believe in and trust to fulfill words spoken to them.

This God that the Jewish people of that time trusted in to fulfill the promises spoken to them is also the God who we trust to fulfill the promises spoken, because they have also been given to us. This is something that the Holy Spirit continually reminds us of. God has not promised that, once we become Christian, everything will be easy for us and all will be well. God has promised that God will be with us through everything that happens in our lives, good, bad, and ugly. And God has promised that the word that God speaks will accomplish its purpose, even if it takes 50 years or more for that word to be fulfilled.

We live in a culture where we want everything right now. Why wait for something when you can have it right now? The radio station that I usually listen to started playing nonstop Christmas music at the beginning of November. Stores start putting Christmas merchandise out right after Halloween. Mostly gone (although I believe some stores still have this) is the idea of layaway, where you make payments on a larger item for several months and when you have made all of the payments, then you get the item. Most of the time now credit cards allow you to have something instantaneously and pay it off after you receive it. And if you can’t find a certain item in the stores around you, you can go on to Amazon and pay for next-day shipping. Instant gratification is so much more satisfying than waiting for something.

And even in the church, we fall prey to this, including me. I confess to you that I get frustrated and wish our congregations would grow instantaneously and be flourishing. But, God doesn’t work like we human beings do. The prophet tells us that God’s Word works more like the snow and the rain. Just because it’s snowed quite a bit in the last week and the moisture has seeped into the ground, that doesn’t mean that the flowers and the trees are going to bloom overnight and it’s going to be spring again. No, the ground needs time to absorb the moisture, and the earth needs time to travel around the sun so more light returns before the grass gets green and the trees and the flowers bloom. This is how God’s Word works: when we tell people about Jesus who have not heard of him before, we are planting seed. And that seed needs time to get the nutrients it needs before it begins to grow and blossom in the heart of a person. It needs time to be watered and fertilized. And the time for God’s Word to grow is different for every person: sometimes it will sprout overnight and sometimes it will lie dormant for 50 years before it blooms. But what we are told is that God’s Word will accomplish what God wants it to do, and that it will not fail.

It is often incomprehensible to us that the God who we believe is all-powerful and all-knowing would choose to work in this way. And we don’t know why God works this way, but there it is. But while we are waiting for God’s word to accomplish its purpose, we do not sit and twiddle our thumbs. We are to be actively waiting. We are to be sowing the seed. We are to be seeking the Lord while he may be found and calling upon him while he is near. We are a people of hope, and we are to be spreading that hope that we have in Jesus to everyone we meet. And we are doing that through many of the activities that our four area churches are doing together and separately. But we are to be doing this active waiting freely, not expecting to see the results of the labor, but trusting that God will bring about the results, and rejoicing if we are lucky enough to see those results. And another thing: those results may not look like what we think they will look like, because God is a creative God who delights in doing new things.

The Jewish people who returned to Israel from exile in Babylon did succeed in rebuilding the Temple. But it was smaller compared to the Temple that had been destroyed, and the book of Ezra tells us that some of the older people who remembered the former Temple wept when the foundation was laid, while the younger people rejoiced. So, too, as God works with our congregations in the Steelton-Oberlin-Highspire area, what is going to happen will not look like the glory days of old. God will create a new thing, and some of us may not recognize this new thing. Those who remember the former days, the glory days, may weep when they see that the church does not look like what they remember. But, we know that God keeps the promises God makes, and we can trust that God’s word will not return empty, but will accomplish that which God purposes for it—no matter how different it looks. The God who loves us is the God who keeps promises, and in that we can trust. Amen.

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 14

Ezekiel 37:1-14

This week we find ourselves still among the Jewish exiles in Babylon, but now there is suddenly a change in the message. Jeremiah told the exiles to settle in and to live their lives in Babylon, because they were not going to come back to their homeland. Then last week, we had a story from Daniel to inspire the exiles to retain their Jewish identity in the face of pressure from the dominant culture to assimilate. Now, in our passage from Ezekiel today, we have a message of resurrection; of dry bones coming to life, and a hope for a return to the land that God had promised them. So, what has changed? Why and how have we gone from a message of “stay where you are,” to a message of hope for return?

Well, let’s start with what we know about Ezekiel. He had been a priest in the temple at Jerusalem, and he was part of the first group of exiles: the royal family, nobles, and other important people that were taken from Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 597 BC. As a priest, he became a prophet for the Jewish people who were in exile in Babylon; that is, he became God’s spokesperson, giving the people the words that God wanted them to hear. But, Ezekiel is also the kind of prophet who has weird, ecstatic visions given by God. For example, in the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel, we see him having a vision of four living creatures, some kind of strange wheeled machine that had eyes in the wheels, and above all this God appearing in human form seated on a throne. God speaks to the exiles in Babylon, through Ezekiel, in strange visions and metaphors. And the exiles don’t always want to hear what God has to say to them through Ezekiel, especially when Ezekiel tells them that the Babylonians will destroy Jerusalem and the temple, and that it will be many years before God allows the exiles to return home. The first part of Ezekiel is filled with messages of God’s righteous and justified punishment upon the people because they followed other gods. It’s no wonder that the people did not want to listen to Ezekiel.

But then, after Jerusalem falls, the messages that God gives to the exiles through Ezekiel change to messages of hope. Suddenly, God is concerned that, because Jerusalem is destroyed and God’s people are scattered, all of the other nations are going to laugh at a God who seems powerless to defend his name and his people. And suddenly, there is now hope that God’s wrath is finished and that God will bring the exiles back to the land of Israel. In the chapter before our lesson today, we hear God promise that God will remove the heart of stone from the people and give them a heart of flesh, so that they will follow God’s statutes and live in a holy manner in the land that God promised them.

This brings us to the vision of the dry bones. Probably the most famous story out of Ezekiel, this may be familiar to us from Sunday school lessons where we sang about, “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord!” And then we sang about “the foot bone connected to the ankle bone,” and so on and so forth. But, we need to look beyond the cute Sunday school songs and look more closely at what is going on here. Again, Ezekiel is speaking to the first group of exiles to Babylon: the royal family and the nobles of Judah. They are hearing the messages that they need to stay put, but they’re not really listening to them. They are hoping against hope that their time in Babylon will be short, that the Babylonians will leave Jerusalem alone, and that they will be able to go home again. But then, the worst news possible reaches their ears: Jerusalem has fallen, and the temple has been destroyed. In an instant, all of their hope is gone. Who are they now? They are a people without a homeland, living in a strange land with strange customs, and where once they enjoyed high status, they are now looked upon as lower class. Everything that they know and they love is gone. And they say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

And so, God gives Ezekiel this vision. Many times, when we hear Bible stories, we gloss over the disturbing parts, so I want us to spend a few moments imagining what Ezekiel is seeing in this vision. God leads him through this valley, and it is full of dry bones. And it’s not like Ezekiel is hovering over the bones; he’s walking where God leads, through all of these human bones. Did you ever see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? If so, I want you to picture the scene where Indiana and his lady friend let themselves down into the catacombs beneath the library in Venice, and they’re walking on skeletons and trying to brush by the skeletons in the walls without touching them. That’s what’s going on here with Ezekiel. And perhaps he is imagining all of the lives these bones represent; all of the lives that fell in battle, or that died of disease, or of natural causes. Those that died too early and too tragically; those that died when they were supposed to. The emotions would be overwhelming, and I’m surprised that Ezekiel did not weep when he saw them.

And then God asks Ezekiel: “Mortal, can these bones live?” I think Ezekiel senses a trick question here. Everything that he knows and all of his experience tells him, “No, these bones cannot live. They have been lying here too long; the life that once lived in them is long gone.” But Ezekiel knows that God would not ask him this question without reason, and so he hedges his bets with a respectful, “O Lord God, you know.” And that’s when the miracle happens: when Ezekiel prophesies as the Lord commands him to, the bones start coming together and flesh reappears on them; and then, when the Lord commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the wind, breath comes into them. And there is a vast multitude of living, breathing people where once there was nothing but the driest of bones.

The Lord tells Ezekiel that the exiles should not give up hope. The Lord’s anger against the people is finished. The Lord is with the people in Babylon, and God will bring them back to the land that God promised them. And God will put God’s spirit in them, so that, when they return to the land and become a nation once more, things will be different this time. They will have a heart of flesh, not one of stone, and they will worship the Lord, and the Lord alone. And all the surrounding nations will see this and will know that God is the Lord, and they will acknowledge that the God of the Jewish people is the one, true God.

This promise that God once spoke to the Jewish exiles in Babylon is a promise for us, too. We may look at our circumstances in our congregations and feel that we, too, are dried up. For example, the choir at St. John’s took the bold step of pulling out many of the old robes that were worn when the choir was much larger than it is now and giving them away to a congregation that can use them. As we removed them from the closet, there was much remembering of the people who used to wear them, and some sadness as we remembered the way things used to be. But when God asks us, “Can these bones live?”, we will not hedge our bets like Ezekiel did. As a people of hope, we can boldly say, “Yes, God, these bones can live, and we know that they will live. And we know this because, through Jesus Christ, you gave us the promise of resurrection from the dead. So we know that, even though things may change around us, we have nothing to fear. Because Jesus lives, we too can and will live.”

The new life that Jesus gives us as congregations may not look like the old life. We are spreading hope in Jesus to everyone we meet in new ways. As St. John’s hosts Family Promise in January and hopefully again in the years to come, the other congregations in the cooperative are joining together to support them. We are looking at creative new ways to reach out to the people around us with the hope that we have in Jesus, such as a combined Blessing of the Animals. We are joining together for worship more often, realizing that our future life in Christ will be more full if we put aside some of the old things that divided us. We are beginning to experience that new and abundant life in Christ right now.

But the promise of resurrection is not quite fulfilled. And we focus on that hope for resurrection during this Advent season. It may seem like Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas, when we remember the birth of Jesus, the baby in the manger who was the Son of God and who grew up to be a teacher who loved all of us, and who died on the cross and rose again on the third day. But more than that, Advent is a season of hope and anticipation, where we look forward to that day when Christ will come again to reign on this earth, and when he will usher in a new creation where there will be no more crying or mourning or pain, and where we will see all of our loved ones again. This is the resurrection that Ezekiel saw in his vision: not only the resurrection of the Jewish people, but also the resurrection of everyone who hopes in God. And this is the resurrection that we, as a people of hope, anticipate. And it is the resurrection that we share with everyone we meet. So do not be afraid: we have this promise from God and the promise is sure. Amen.

 

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 13

Daniel 3:1-30

Today we move from Jeremiah, the prophet who told the people of Judah that they were going to go into exile, to the Book of Daniel. The Book of Daniel is interesting, because, although we Christians count this book as one of the books of the prophets, the Jewish people do not—they categorize this book as a writing. And as we look at the book, we can see why. Daniel is very different from the prophets that we have encountered up to this point. The first six chapters of the book contain stories of righteous Jewish men, including Daniel himself, maintaining their Jewish identity while they are in exile in Babylon. The remaining six chapters of this book contain apocalyptic visions given by God to Daniel. We see none of what Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah have been doing by giving the people the words of God. Nevertheless, there is much of value in this unique book, and so we Christians do count Daniel as one of the prophets.

The story that we have before us today is one that is familiar to us from Sunday school. As I mentioned before, this takes place among the Jewish exiles in Babylon. Last week I talked about how, in 597 BC, the Babylonian army had come in and captured all of the Jewish royal family and nobles and forcibly removed them from Jerusalem to Babylon. Well, about 10 years later, in 587 BC, the country of Judah revolted again, and in response, Babylon invaded, destroyed the Temple, and took most of the people who were left into exile as well. So now there is a large Jewish community in Babylon, and they are asking these questions: Where is God? Why did God allow the Temple to be destroyed? And how are we to live in this strange land? How do we maintain our Jewish identity with all of these strange gods and customs around us?

In response, we have the story of the three young men and the fiery furnace, along with other stories in Daniel, such as Daniel in the lions’ den. But today, let’s take a look at the fiery furnace. In chapter 2, we find out that because Daniel had interpreted a dream correctly for King Nebuchadnezzar, the king promoted Daniel and gave him great power over the country of Babylon. Daniel then appointed the three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, as officials under him. So, these four young Jewish men had assimilated into Babylonian society enough so that the king entrusted them with great power. But, the story also tells us that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not the true names of these three young men. Their original names were Hananiah, which means “God is gracious”; Mishael, which means, “Who is like God?”; and Azariah, which means “God keeps him”. So, think about that for a moment: these three Jewish men, who had the very name of their God woven into their names, were renamed with names that referenced the Babylonian gods. How do they keep their Jewish identity in a world where the king rips their very identity away by the act of renaming them?

The answer to that question comes in the story of the fiery furnace. They may have been given new names in order to better fit in with Babylonian society, but these three men never forget who they are and whose they are. They are Jewish, and they worship the Lord, the one true God. They belong to the one true God, and they trust that their God will deliver them from the worst that the Babylonian king or anyone else can throw at them. But even if God does not deliver them from the fiery furnace, they would rather die than change who they are under pressure from other people. Well, we know how the story goes: the three men are saved from the flames, and when King Nebuchadnezzar looks into the furnace, he sees a fourth man in there who “has the appearance of a god”. And when the three young men are let out, they are miraculously unharmed.

As I read through this story again in preparation for today’s sermon, this is the question that arose in my mind: In 21st century North America, where we have the freedom to worship God, and we do not expect to die for our faith, why do we teach this story to our children? After all, it is rather terrifying. What do we hope our children will learn from it? So, I posted the question to the Narrative Lectionary Facebook group to see what kind of answers I might get from the “hive mind”. One answer was this: that it inspired the person towards that kind of commitment to God that these three had. Well, that’s a good answer, but it lays the commitment on us. And we will eventually fail in that commitment, because we are sinful human beings. I think the better answer, and the one that we should be teaching our kids in Sunday school, focuses on that fourth person who appeared in the flames. You know, the one who “had the appearance of a god”. And that is this: when we encounter our own “fiery furnaces” in life, whatever they may be, Jesus understands and is with us through the flames.

Because here is another interesting piece of information about this story of the three young men and the fiery furnace: it is one of the readings for the service of the Easter Vigil. The Easter Vigil is the service that takes place on the night of Holy Saturday, as God’s people wait with eager expectation for the news that Jesus is risen. Originally it started out as an all-night service; today, the length of the service varies depending on the individual church. There are twelve Old Testament readings assigned to this service as the people of God listen to their story of salvation that culminates in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Some of these may be omitted if you don’t want the service to last too long. But one of the readings that is not omitted is this story of the three men and the fiery furnace. I believe this is to remind us that Jesus endured his own fiery furnace when he died on the cross and descended to hell, and yet, like these three young men, he was raised from the dead.

Jesus understands all the pain and the suffering we undergo because he also underwent pain and suffering on the cross, and he walks with us through our fiery furnaces. And even when things don’t turn out the way we hoped or expected, Jesus is still there beside us to encourage us to keep going and to promise us that he is with us and that he will, one day, fulfill the promise of our own resurrection from the dead. This is what we should be emphasizing as we teach this story to our children, because, even though we have the freedom to worship as we please, we may be tested as we live out our faith in our daily lives.

As one example, there are certain cities in different places across the country who have made it a crime for people to bring food to the homeless. Now, I want to give people the benefit of the doubt here. Those in power may have concerns about the safety of the general public. But this means that Christians who are in the ministry of feeding the homeless by bringing food to them, rather than making them come to a center of some kind, have a decision to make. Will they stop the ministry that they’ve been doing? Will they make some adjustments to the ministry and take the chance of missing some of the people they have been serving? Or will they continue their ministry and risk being arrested for violating the law? That is a decision that each person or group of people will have to make. And knowing the story of the fiery furnace may encourage people to continue doing what Jesus has called them to do, knowing that they may be arrested, but also knowing that Jesus will be with them through the trial as they live out their faith.

But more even than that: this story, especially when seen through the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus, is about hope. The three young men hoped that, even if they died in the flames, God would vindicate them for holding on to their identity and standing up for what they believed. Through this story, God gave hope to the exiles in Babylon that they could hold on to their Jewish identity, even in a strange land, and that one day, they might live out their lives in peace and freedom from those who would oppress them. And for us Christians today, this story is also about hope: the hope that we have in Jesus, who was born for us, who lived for us, who died for us, and who was raised from the dead for us. We have hope that, even though things in this world don’t always turn out the way we want them to, and even though it seems like evil wins more often than good, Jesus will one day return and set all things right, and that the kingdom of heaven will reign on earth.

We are a people of hope, and today, the first Sunday of Advent, we begin that season of hope. But we are not hoping for Jesus to be born. Jesus has already been born. We are hoping for Jesus to come again and to set all things right. Spreading that hope to everyone we meet means telling people about the good news that Jesus is Immanuel, God with Us, in every situation that we encounter in life. Spreading hope in Jesus means that, like the three young men in the furnace, we remember who we are—God’s children—and whose we are—we belong to God and we are loved by God. Spreading hope in Jesus means that, no matter what happens to us in life, the good, the bad, and the ugly, that God is with us. So go out and do not be afraid, and live out the call that God has placed upon your life. Amen.

 

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 12

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

Today we make a jump forward many years in our look at the prophets as we go from Isaiah to Jeremiah. Last week we heard Isaiah speaking a word of hope into the kingdom of Judah, which was surrounded by enemies on all sides, and we heard Isaiah telling us that our hope is not in earthly kings and alliances, but rather it is in God alone. This week we’re going to a much different historical situation as we hear Jeremiah’s words to us, so I hope you’ll bear with me for a short history lesson. After Isaiah’s career in Jerusalem, things started to go badly for the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. In the year 722 BC, the empire of Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, and displaced many of the people who were living there. However, in the years following, Assyria’s power waned, and the empire of Babylon took over in the east. In the west, however, was the mighty empire of Egypt. And stuck in the middle of these two empires fighting for ultimate domination over the Middle East was the tiny kingdom of Judah, with the city of Jerusalem as its capital.

Into this messy political situation steps the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah, who was the last truly good king that Judah had, and King Jehoiakim and King Zedekiah, the last kings that Judah would have. The Lord called Jeremiah to prophesy when he was a boy, so we can assume that he had a long career of being the Lord’s prophet. We can tell from the book that Jeremiah also had access to the kings to speak his prophecies, so he had some kind of connections in society. But the message that Jeremiah was called to bring to the people of Jerusalem was a hard one. God was not pleased with the people of Judah because they had disobeyed the Law and had worshiped other gods. Through Jeremiah, God pleads with God’s people to repent of their sins and to return to worship of the Lord. If they did not, Babylon was going to come and take over their kingdom and take the people away into exile. Because of this message, and because tradition says that Jeremiah also wrote the little book of Lamentations, Jeremiah is often nicknamed the “weeping prophet.”

And that’s the thing about prophets: they often say things that the people don’t want to hear. Throughout most of his book, we see Jeremiah telling the people that they need to repent of their sins and return to the Lord. We see him telling the people that God has told him that Babylon is going to come in and destroy them. We see him telling the king and the other politicians that an alliance with Egypt is not going to work. And the people don’t listen to a word that Jeremiah is telling them. The king listens to the false prophets who are telling him that everything is going to be okay and that there will be peace, and that Babylon is not going to bother them. And the king and his court get so annoyed with Jeremiah’s message of doom and gloom that they put Jeremiah in the stocks and then, later, dump him in a muddy well that had no water in it. It’s really no fun being a prophet with a message that the people do not want to hear.

But in the midst of all of this doom and gloom, Jeremiah also brings words of hope. The passage that we have today skips a few verses, because those verses have a lot of names in them that we have difficulty pronouncing. But they are important ones because they give us a date and a context for the letter. In the year 597 BC, Babylon came in to Jerusalem and captured the king, the royal family, and all of the important nobles and hauled them off into exile in Babylon. In King Jehoiachin’s place, Babylon installed his brother Zedekiah as a kind of puppet king—one who would keep the people in line and pay the appropriate tribute to Babylon. In today’s section of Jeremiah, we see Jeremiah writing to these first exiles in Babylon and giving them instructions from the Lord as to how they are to live. They are not to attempt to come back to the land of Judah, but instead they are to settle in Babylon, to live there, and to seek the welfare of the city to which they have been forcibly resettled.

So, let’s imagine the situation for a moment. We are the royalty and the nobles of the kingdom of Judah. Our king has surrendered to the Babylonian king, and we are forcibly taken to live in a country we have never been in before. We are surrounded by an unfamiliar culture, an unfamiliar language, and unfamiliar gods. We are terribly homesick. We are wondering where God is—after all, aren’t we God’s chosen people? Sure, we messed up, but is God really so angry with us that the Lord would send us away from the land that God promised us? And what about the people who are left behind in Judah? Are they going to take care of our home the way we would want them to? And is the king of Babylon going to leave them alone now, or will he come in again and do more damage?

And into this situation of questioning, homesickness, and confusion, comes a letter from the prophet Jeremiah. You know, that guy who was forever prophesying that Babylon was going to come in and conquer us, the guy who the king ignored and punished—and now his words are coming true. Maybe we should listen to him. And Jeremiah is telling us that we’re going to be in Babylon for a while, so we should stay put and live out our lives here, with no expectation of returning home. But, God has not forgotten us: the Lord is telling us that we are still God’s children, and that God has plans for our future. And that future will be a future with hope—no more doom, gloom, and punishment. Hope. And a plan for future restoration.

That hope extends to us today in the 21st century. We are a people of hope, and our business is spreading that hope in Jesus to everyone we meet. So how does this letter that the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the Jewish exiles in Babylon still bring hope to us and to everyone we meet today? Well, first, I want to take a look at what might seem like a minor grammar point, but is actually very important to what we’re thinking about today. Many of us have heard the verse, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Many of us have taken the “you” in this verse as a singular “you”. Actually, it’s not singular—it’s plural. God is speaking to the community of exiles, so what God is actually saying is, “For surely I know the plans I have for y’all.” God is not talking to you or to me, personally; God is talking to the community. The Lord knows the plans that God has for us, the congregations of Salem and St. John’s, plans for our welfare and not for our harm, to give us a future with hope. That is good news indeed.

Now, something important needs to be said at this point. There is a lot that God does not spell out for us here. God has plans for our welfare and for a future with hope. But this does not mean that God is going to bring us back to the days of the 1950s and the 1960s with children overflowing our Sunday school rooms and everyone coming to church every week. Those days are gone, and you know what? I think God is a lot more creative than that. As God’s people, we need to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit can take us in some interesting directions. Like the Jewish exiles in the country of Babylon adjusting to a new language and culture, we Christians need to adjust to a culture that does not always regard the church favorably or that simply thinks the church is irrelevant. We need to find new ways of bringing the hope we have in Jesus Christ to everyone we meet, and sometimes that means speaking about that hope in the new language of the culture that now surrounds us.

So, how do we learn the new language of the culture that surrounds us? I have studied several different foreign languages now, and what I can tell you is this: book learning is great to give you a foundation for how a different language works. But the language doesn’t really start to gel in your own mind until you go out, get over your fears, and start to practice it. So, here is your assignment: start talking to people. You can start with people you know who do not regularly come to worship on Sunday mornings. If you have adult children or grandchildren who do not come, ask them why. And don’t do it in a judgmental tone, and when they speak, don’t immediately reply or get defensive. Listen to them. Truly listen to them, and try to understand what they’re saying. Then, start talking to people you don’t know as well. Invite them to come to worship with you on Sunday—make the invitation for a specific date, and make sure you are there in church that Sunday to sit beside them. If they say no, start listening to their reasons. Sometimes the reason is simple. One of my colleagues said that they encountered someone who thought she couldn’t come to worship on Sunday if she wasn’t a member of the church. Other times the reason is more complicated, as in the person got hurt by the church in some way. But whatever the reason is, listen to the person, don’t be judgmental, and when it is appropriate, invite them to come to worship with you. I will periodically be asking you in meetings how this assignment is going, and if we are getting a better feel for the needs of the people in our communities. And as we practice the new language of this new culture around us, with God’s help, we will eventually be able to bring hope in Jesus to everyone we meet in a language that they can understand.

Like the Jewish exiles in Babylon, God has told us Christians today to settle in to this new, strange culture and to stay where we are. There is no going back to the way that the church used to be. But here is the good news: God has not abandoned us. God has said that God has plans for our communities of Christians, plans for our welfare and not harm, to give us a future with hope. We don’t know exactly what that future looks like yet. But we can trust that God will be with us, no matter what. Amen.

 

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 11

Isaiah 9:1-7

Merry Christmas! Well, not really, but this passage that we have before us today is one that we are familiar with because it comes around every Christmas time. And it may be a little jarring for us to hear it when we know it’s not Christmas yet, and it’s not even Advent yet. So, as we did last week, let’s take a step back and refresh our memories on who prophets were and what they did. Then we can look at who Isaiah was and what was going on at the time that he prophesied. And finally, we can look at this passage afresh and see what new meaning Isaiah’s words have for us today.

In last week’s sermon, I said that we Christians tend to think of a prophet as someone who predicts the future, because we have generally been taught to believe that all that the Old Testament prophets ever did was predict the coming of Jesus. As we looked at Amos last week, we discovered that this is a misunderstanding of the call of a prophet. The word “prophet” in Hebrew means to be a spokesperson for God, and God had a lot more to say to the people than just to tell them about the coming Messiah, although that was very important. People as diverse as Moses and Samuel were named as prophets, because they gave people messages from God about what God wanted them to do and how they were to behave. Last week, we saw how God sent the prophet Amos to the northern kingdom of Israel to criticize the country’s economic system, and how it made the rich richer and the poor poorer. Amos gave the people the call to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. And today, we come to the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah was a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah. Unlike Amos, who was a farmer minding his own business until God called him to go and prophesy, Isaiah seems to have been a career prophet. Isaiah lived in Jerusalem and from his prophecies, we can see that he had regular access to both the Temple and the king. He prophesied during the reigns of four kings of Judah: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. This would have been approximately 742 through 689 BC, so Isaiah prophesied shortly after the time of Amos. During this time, there was a lot of political turmoil in the area, and people were very afraid. As we look at the time immediately surrounding today’s prophecy, we see that the northern kingdom of Israel was threatening to attack the southern kingdom, Judah, and King Ahaz was desperately trying to help his kingdom survive. He wanted to make an alliance with Assyria, the powerful empire to the east. Isaiah repeatedly told the king that he needed to trust in God alone, and not in the political and military might of the strong empires around him.

So now, we come to the section of Isaiah’s prophecy that is our reading today. Again, as Christians, we have heard this read so often at Christmas time that we immediately think that Isaiah is referring to Jesus. But I want us to take a step back from that for a moment, and try to put ourselves into the shoes of the people of the kingdom of Judah in the 700s BC, including Isaiah. Remember what the political situation is at this time: a lot of turmoil and a lot of threat of war from the surrounding kingdoms. And remember, too, that one of the tasks that the prophets had at that time was to speak God’s word to the situation that was presently happening. Isaiah and the people were not looking for a far-off Messiah to save them from their sins. They were looking for a word of hope from God right then and there, to save them from the threats surrounding them.

And so, we can ask ourselves, if this prophecy was not initially referring to Jesus, who is the child who was born upon whom the people were going to rest their hopes? Well, the best guess is that a prince was born to King Ahaz at this time, and that prince was Hezekiah. It was common in ancient times to assign divine titles to kings, and so even though we are a little taken aback today by the idea that any human should be called, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”, it was nothing unusual at that time. And when Hezekiah grows up and becomes king, he is one of the better kings that Judah has; the book of 2 Kings tells us that “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done.” But even Hezekiah wasn’t perfect, and outside political turmoil continued during his reign. It turns out that peace did not come during Hezekiah’s lifetime.

So, early Christians who were looking at Hebrew Scriptures read this prophecy of Isaiah and interpreted it to apply to Jesus, who indeed came to save us from our sins. We believe that through his teachings, his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus did show himself to truly be “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace”. Because of Jesus, we and all of our brother and sister Christians around the world no longer walk in darkness, but have indeed seen that great light. But, you know, the world around us is still in as much turmoil as there was in Isaiah’s time. There is still darkness everywhere, and we only need to turn on the news to see it. So, what kind of word does this prophecy have for us in this time? Does it mean anything to us anymore, or is it merely part of the sentimental barrage of Christmas cards that we give and receive each year, only to throw away after Christmas is over?

I would argue that Isaiah’s words have just as much to say to us today as they did in his own time. We, too, are living in a time of darkness due to political turmoil. We worry about North Korea. We worry about men who lose control and who decide to shoot people at outdoor concerts and now, even in churches. And even though we all know that politicians are not always the best people in the world, it seems like every time we turn around, another one of our leaders has been accused of sexual assault or some other form of inappropriate behavior. We have to determine what news reports are “fake” and what are real, and our biases and political leanings often make that determination. We don’t see that there is an objective truth any longer. We feel helpless and without hope, and we put our heads down and try to make it through life one day at a time.

Into this mess, the prophet Isaiah speaks: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” We are the people walking in darkness and we are looking for that word of hope, that light to shine upon us. And that light comes in the form of Jesus: the Son of God who became human for us, who was born just like we are, who lived just like we do, who suffered and who died for us, and who, in his resurrection, gave us the promise of what the coming kingdom of heaven will look like. When Jesus returns, he will indeed be God with us, and he will indeed be the Prince of Peace. There will be no more war, no more crying, and no more pain.

So, what do we do in the meantime? We hope. On Friday night, I went to see the Justice League movie, and at the end of the movie, one of the characters said this: “The truest darkness is not absence of light, but the despair that the light will never return. But the light always returns. Hope is real. You can see it. All you have to do is look up into the sky.” I think that’s what part of our problem today is. We are losing hope. We see everything that’s wrong in the world and are at a loss as to how to make it better. We see the struggles that we go through in our congregations and we lose some more hope. Perhaps it is because we have forgotten to put Jesus at the center of our lives—both individual and as congregations—that we are losing our hope. So, hear this now: As Christians, we are a people of hope. And we are in the business of spreading this hope—this crazy hope in someone who rose from the dead and who promised the same thing to us—to everyone we meet.

So, how do we spread this hope in Jesus to everyone we meet? How do we keep Jesus at the center of our congregational lives? Starting today, every time a new activity is proposed in a committee or council meeting for both Salem and St. John’s, I will be asking this question: How does this proposal spread hope in Jesus to everyone we meet? If we as a group can’t answer that, then I will ask us to rethink the project until the Spirit reveals to us how we can work it in such a way that it will be spreading hope in Jesus to everyone we meet. As we look at the projects we are currently undertaking, I will be asking that question so that we understand why we are doing what we are doing. And if what we are doing does not have anything to do with hope in Jesus, we are going to rethink it. Because as Christians, we are not just another social club. We are people who do what we do because we have hope in Jesus.

The light of hope has shined upon us in the midst of a dark world. And the name of that Son that has been born to us, the name of the one who gives us hope for peace, is Jesus. Jesus is the one who gives hope in this world troubled with political turmoil. Jesus is the one who we put our trust in—not our politicians, not our guns, and not anything else on this earth. Jesus is the one who we find our unity in, for Jesus binds us together over and across any lines we humans might be able to think of to divide us one from the other. That hope in Jesus is why we exist, and it is why we are doing the things that we are doing in the community and in the world. We are a people of hope, and we are in the business of spreading that hope to everyone we meet. Amen.