5th Sunday After Epiphany
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the most important one. Amen
What’s the point?
This question kept popping into my head this week
as I spent time with our readings,
it’s a question that changes ever so slightly
based on context and inflection.
In the mouths of a teenager arguing with authority
it’s a rebellious question: “what’s the point?”
coming from one who is overworked and underappreciated
it’s a question the spells defeat: “what’s the point?”
Asked by a teacher it’s a test: “what’s the point?”
now you’re all thinking okay pastor,
is the reason for fixating on this question?
It’s because what this flexible question indicates
is that while we know some things in life are more important than others
we also know it’s easy to get distracted
by the many important but not most important things in life
and often we need to be reminded both of what the point is,
and to ask the question
and we find this in all of our readings for today.
the people have begun to ask the question using the defeated tone,
they are in exile separated from the promised land,
under the control of their enemies
the prophet is reminding them that God is everlasting,
creator of the ends of the earth
and everything pales in comparison to that fact,
the people momentarily in power,
even the wonders of creation all are less than God,
God who never tires or gets defeated,
God who has promised to renew those who wait for the Lord,
to be with the people through their suffering,
to raise them up again.
God is the point the prophet reminds the people
and sure we as people may not understand
what is going on in the world at this exact moment,
but God does
and God will help us through,
stay focused on the most important thing, God.
But it’s so easy to get distracted,
the new disciples discover this in our gospel for today,
remember Jesus is at the very beginning of his ministry,
he has been baptized and revealed as God’s beloved,
he has been tempted in the wilderness by the devil
and now he has begun his public ministry
by announcing the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near
and enlisted disciples to help him spread that good news.
The disciples and the congregation at the synagogue in Capernaum
just heard him preach with authority and rebuke unclean spirits,
and we are told that his fame starts to spread around the region.
As we join them today
Jesus and the disciples leave the synagogue
and go to Simon and Andrew’s house to spend the night,
when they get there they find Simon’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever,
Jesus heals her
and word obviously spreads
because by the end of the evening
the whole town is gathered around the front door
and they’ve brought everyone who needs any kind of healing to Jesus,
who cures and casts out demons from many of them.
It would be really easy for Jesus to get distracted at this point,
his teaching has been praised,
he’s gathered crowds and people are excited to have this healer in their midst.
It seems like Jesus could really make a name and career for himself in this town
if he spent some time there continuing to do good, important work.
The temptation to remain is strong
but early the next morning
before even his disciples can begin to make demands of him
Jesus goes to a deserted place to pray,
to wait for the Lord, to be renewed,
to be reminded of what the point is
and so he is ready when the disciples find him,
“everyone is searching for you!” they exclaim
ready to take him back to Capernaum
to pick up where he left off the night before,
but Jesus responds “Let us go on to the neighboring towns; so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
Jesus will not be distracted from his mission,
nor will he allow his disciples to be distracted
even if it means leaving a place of success.
Now it doesn’t mean leaving these places abandoned,
all along the way Jesus will call followers
each to their own mission,
some will continue to proclaim the good news,
some will pick up with the healing,
some will serve the last and the least
and in this way the kingdom of God will continue to come near.
But Jesus knows what the point of his time on earth is,
and he will remain faithful to his mission,
all the way to the cross, his ultimate point,
his death for the sake of the whole broken and distracted creation of God,
his resurrection affirming once and for all that God has the last say.
This is Jesus’ mission, his purpose, his point
and in fulfilling it he gave us new life and purpose.
And because God knows that we will get distracted along the way
God gave us the gift of baptism,
a moment in time we can point to
when we look at our lives and wonder what’s the point?
What’s the point? God says,
the point is that in the words spoken at your baptism
I claimed you once and for all as a child of God
and gave you the gift of the Holy Spirit
to help you along the way
in the water I washed you clean
to give you a fresh start to live out your purpose,
helping to bring about the kingdom of God
using the particular gifts I have given you.
This is who we are, children of God,
this is the answer to the question what’s the point?
And yes, along the way we will get distracted
whether it is by despair like the Israelites in exile,
success like the disciples at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry
or a debate over who can join in
and how they should act once they do,
that’s what Paul is dealing with in our second reading,
the early church that Paul was a part of
got distracted by debating who could become a member of their new community,
could gentiles join in?
And if they can, do they have to act like Jews?
Can poor people become a part of the community?
And if they can, will they be expected to contribute the same amount as the rich?
What about the weak in faith, if so how weak is too weak?
Do the strong in faith have to accommodate their weakness?
This is what Paul is speaking to,
even as he seems to be bragging about his abilities as a disciple
and setting the impossible standard of being all things to all people,
his point is that the message of Christ and the kingdom are what matters,
not who hears it or how they hear it,
in fact different groups of people will hear it better
when communicated in different ways
and Paul is willing to do that in service of the good news of God
he is willing to set aside good and important things in service of the gospel.
It’s so easy to get distracted from the most important one, God
and yet God keeps reaching out to us,
through prophets and apostles
who remind us that spending time with God will renew us and keep us focused,
through water and word
that remind us who we are and whose we are,
through communities that gather together to praise God,
and at the table where through words of promise
bread and wine become body and blood
And Jesus joins us to himself once again,
forgiving and renewing us
then sending us out once more to proclaim the good news
“the kingdom of God has come near”
this is the point beloved children of God,
may we alway keep it before us,
and when we get distracted may we always be brought back to it. Amen
3rd Sunday After Epiphany
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who makes us into disciples. Amen
Today we have the familiar story
of Jesus calling his first disciples,
it’s a story I think we usually approach
with both extreme familiarity
as well as suspended disbelief.
On the one hand
we know where this is going before it even starts,
Jesus is walking along
and sees some guys fishing
and when he tells them to follow him,
they drop everything,
their whole lives and livelihoods even family
and follow him.
on the other hand
while we’re amazed at their response
we are also a bit disheartened
because we think if that’s what it looks like to become a disciple of Jesus
then we probably don’t have what it takes,
the contemplation of that much sacrifice is too much for us,
good for you Simon and Andrew, James and John
but our lives are too complicated
to just up and leave like that,
we must not be disciple material,
we’re tempted to give up before we’ve even begun.
And if we look at the story this way
through the actions of the disciples,
sure it seems highly unlikely
that many of us could live up to that level of action and dedication,
but here’s the thing,
when we focus so much on what the disciples do,
we miss what God is doing.
God is the one whose action matters.
As our psalm for today reminds us:
“Put your trust in God always, O people,
pour out your hearts before the one who is our refuge.
Those of high degree are but a fleeting breath; those of low estate cannot be trusted.
Placed on the scales together they weigh even less than a breath.”
God is the one who is of consequence,
the strong rock and refuge full of steadfast love,
God is the one
on whom our focus should be,
not the disciples or other humans,
who if they were weighed on a scale with God would barely register.
Now when we return to this story,
looking for what God is doing,
we notice that Jesus’ call is less of a command
and more of a promise
“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
I will make you
Jesus is the one who promises to transform these fishermen into disciples
and will do so in a way
that will draw on the skills and gifts they already have.
At the beginning of his ministry
Jesus is looking to gather people together,
these first disciples
have lifetimes of practice gathering fish together,
from long observation and wisdom passed down the generations
they have learned what kind of fish to seek out,
where in the lake those fish like to stay,
in what weather, at which time of day it is best to catch them
all these skills can be applied to people with help from Jesus
he will teach them
what people to seek out
where they can be found
what message to share that will bring them to Jesus.
Most importantly perhaps,
these first disciples
have also learned the hard lesson
that even if you do everything right,
some days you won’t catch anything
and the best thing to do is to try again the next day.
That's what being a fisherman is about,
that’s what being a disciple will take.
Jesus promises to take the fishermen as they are
and make them into disciples,
just as Jesus promises to make each of us disciples
using who we are,
which means our journeys probably won’t look exactly like those first disciples.
“Follow me” Jesus calls out to us, “come and see,”
it’s the simplest part of this whole disciple business
that is up to us,
and yet we still get hung up
on that simple task,
the act of following,
of getting moving,
sometimes we even go in the opposite direction
and yet, God doesn’t give up on us.
Our first reading was from the book of Jonah
who is the poster child for struggling to follow God,
in fact he runs the other way at the call of God,
yet God still manages to work through Jonah,
the sailors on the ship Jonah boards to flee the Lord,
believe in the God of Israel
by the time Jonah leaves them,
albeit over the rail of the ship
and into the belly of the whale
where Jonah, humbled by the grace of God
gets back on track.
When the big fish belches Jonah up onto the beach
he goes to Ninevah as God has asked
but as Author Eugene Peterson observes
“Jonah obedient turns out to be as much in violation of the word of God as Jonah disobedient.” (Under the Unpredictable Plant, 29).
Jonah does what God calls him to do
but very reluctantly,
hoping that it won’t work,
Jonah wants to see the city of Nineveh,
enemy of his people
destroyed by his God,
he even goes out and sets up in prime view
to watch the fireworks,
the people listen to Jonah’s message and repent
and God decides not to destroy the city
much to the displeasure of Jonah.
God worked through Jonah running the other way,
God worked through Jonah obeying the letter of God’s command
if not the spirit,
imagine what God can do with willing partners,
people who upon hearing the call of God
agree to try their best,
people like you and me.
sure our path to discipleship
may not be as dramatic as Simon and Andrew, James and John
up and leaving everything,
but God already has Simon and Andrew, James and John
God needs something different from us
and even if we don’t have exactly what God needs right now,
because God will make us into the disciples God needs,
our job is to listen for God’s call
and follow where God leads.
And yes we will not be perfect,
we will make mistakes,
we will be reluctant at times,
we may even run the other direction
and there’s grace for that.
Grace that God can work through our reluctance and mistakes,
grace in the offer of forgiveness
and growth in our repentance,
grace in the renewal of the call to discipleship,
God still wants us
and God promises to make us into the disciples God needs.
This goes for communities as well as individuals,
today after church is our annual meeting,
it’s a time to reflect on how we as a community
have answered God’s call to discipleship this past year
and to consider
how God might be calling us to be disciples
in the coming year
we make these considerations
all while trusting that God will work through our imperfections
and make us into the disciples God needs in this time and place.
“Put your trust in God always O people”
God is the one of consequence,
the strong rock full of steadfast love.
Come, let us follow. Amen
Baptism of Our Lord
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one with the most powerful voice. Amen
From the very beginning words have been powerful
as the first words of scripture testify:
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.”
There in the presence of the spirit,
God speaks the world into being.
Words have power to create.
Words also have power to destroy.
We hear that in our Psalm for today:
“The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice;
the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon;
bursts forth in lightning flashes.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare.”
Yet as alarming as all this might sound
we are told that “in the temple of the Lord all are crying, “Glory!””
The power of the Lord is on display in the voice of the Lord
and it brings the faithful to worship.
The words of God move the people of God to action.
Words are powerful.
Especially the words of God
Which sometimes God speaks directly
God speaks through people like John the baptizer,
who Mark tells us appeared in the wilderness
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
and at his words
Mark tells us that people from the WHOLE Judean countryside
and ALL the people of Jerusalem
were going out to him to be baptized.
This might seem like an exaggeration of the size of the crowds
but Mark makes sure that we know
the people are drawn to John by his words
rather than his way of life,
he’s kind of an odd guy dressing in camel’s hair
and dining on locusts and wild honey,
and while this may add a kind of authenticity
to his presence as a prophet
the people are not looking to emulate him,
but his message is spreading
and making a difference in the lives of people
John’s call to repentance is a call to live in a new way
And people are responding
but like any true messenger of God,
John knows that all this fuss isn’t about him,
it’s about the one to whom he is pointing
“the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”
John knows that his role and words are preparatory,
preparing the way for the one who is coming after him,
And onto the scene walks Jesus,
now in Mark this is the first time we meet Jesus,
Mark has told us in the very first verse
what his gospel is about: Jesus Christ the Son of God,
but then goes straight to John in the wilderness,
there are no angels or virgin birth
or even stars in the sky to announce who Jesus is,
that happens when Jesus travels from Nazareth of Galilee
and is baptized by John in the Jordan
“and just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘you are my Son the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
The voice of God names Jesus God’s beloved Son,
and it is so,
that is who Jesus is
God’s spoken blessing creating the future as it identifies Jesus.
This is one of the reasons that I appreciate how Mark tells the story of Jesus,
because family connections, and prophesy
are all less important than this moment
when once and for all God speaks,
identifying Jesus as beloved child
and filling him with the holy spirit,
and Jesus listens to the voice of God
and goes on to live into the identity God has created for him
as we’ll see him start to do in the coming weeks of Epiphany.
God does this for us as well.
At our baptisms,
God, speaking through the Pastor,
claims us in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
and through the hands of the Pastor
God marks the sign of the cross on our foreheads saying
“child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
and it is so,
that is who we are,
where we came from,
what we’ve done, our family connections
all less important than this moment
where we have been identified as beloved children
and filled with the Holy Spirit.
And the question becomes,
will we listen to the voice of God
and live into the identity that God has created for us?
Beloved, created for love.
Or will we get distracted by other voices?
less powerful but often louder,
the ones that try to get us to define ourselves through power
gained at the expense of others that the voices label less than
and peddle the lie that their mere existence is a threat.
Beloved of God, whose voice do you listen to?
What words do you surround yourself with?
It makes a difference
because words have the power to create and destroy,
power to lead people to praise God or to perpetrate violence.
Whose words shape your life?
God has spoken, now the choice is yours,
In closing after this difficult week,
I’d like to offer you the opportunity to make that choice again
publicly affirm your baptisms,
to once again commit to your God given identity,
the blessing from God that shapes our future.
Please rise as you are able,
we will use the words of the apostle’s creed found on page 6 in your bulletins.
Here in the presence of God and one another I ask you to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, reject sin, and confess the faith of the church.
For the following questions the response is “I renounce them”
Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
I renounce them.
Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
I renounce them.
Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?
I renounce them.
Do you believe in God the Father?
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
You have made public profession of your faith. Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism:
to live among God’s faithful people,
to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,
to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,
to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,
and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?
The assembly makes affirmation:
I do, and I ask God to help and guide me.
The minister addresses the assembly.
People of God, do you promise to support and pray for one another in your life in Christ?
We do, and we ask God to help and guide us.
The presiding minister prays for God’s blessing.
Let us pray.
We give you thanks, O God, that through water and the Holy Spirit you give us new birth, cleanse us from sin, and raise us to eternal life. Stir up in your people the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence both now and forever.
May it be so
1st Sunday of Christmas
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who comes to those who show up. Amen
Yes we’re still in the season of Christmas,
we will be until January 6th
when the magi show up
revealing once and for all
that Jesus is the messiah.
We’ve heard the story of the baby in the manger
and today we have another story
of Jesus as an infant,
the story of Mary and Joseph
presenting Jesus at the temple,
of Simeon and Anna’s hope being fulfilled,
a story of the Holy Spirit
coming to those who are faithful,
those who show up.
Now, this isn’t intended
to either shame or overly congratulate anyone
but the truth of the matter is
that those who are faithful,
who seek the presence of God
have a better chance of encountering God
and while God can and does
work outside of religious rites and institutions,
God also works through them
but in still surprising ways,
probably because the Holy Spirit is so unpredictable.
For as much as we trust that God is with us,
that Christ comes to us
especially in the sacraments,
there are times when we feel the presence of God more than others,
times when the Holy Spirit comes to us when we need her,
times when she jumps out and surprises us.
I experienced this perhaps most vividly
at least for the first time in college.
Gustavus is a Lutheran school
and this Lutheran identity and faith
are still a strong part of the mission of the school
such that in the daily schedule of classes
every day at 10am
time was blocked off for chapel
and a service offered
For most students it was
an extra half hour to sleep
or finish up homework, or get breakfast.
Some people went to chapel a couple times a week
or once a week for the sung morning prayer service
but there were a few of us
who went pretty much every day.
I know I started going every day
because I was still working out my call to ministry
and daily chapel seemed like a good place to start.
I kept going
because I realized that I didn’t know when the Holy Spirit would show up
and I wanted to be there when she did.
Not all the services were winners or deeply meaningful,
just like not all Sundays are winners or deeply meaningful,
but every now and then the spirit would show up,
like the time the dance major
who was giving his senior sermon
and had clearly not prepared
made us all get close together and hold hands and form connection,
or the time Chaplain Brian
bent over in the pulpit before starting his homily
and when he stood up he was wearing an accordion
and proceeded to preach accompanying himself on the instrument,
okay maybe those were just very memorable times
but there were times
when the message was exactly what I needed to hear that day
or when the choirs filled the air with beauty and truth
that transcended words.
So each day at 10am in college,
you could find me in chapel,
waiting, hoping that the Holy Spirit would show up.
I suspect that some of you may have had similar experiences
with other faith practices,
like daily devotions or prayers at mealtimes.
Where sometimes you do it because that’s what you do,
you show up,
and sometimes in the midst of that
the spirit flashes through
leaving you wanting more,
and coming back each day.
Simeon and Anna have been showing up at the temple
and waiting for a long time,
their whole lives,
which Luke makes sure to tell us
have been long.
They have been waiting for the spirit to come to them,
hoping for an experience of the divine
and yet when they enter the temple this day
they have no indication
that this day will be any different from the others.
and into the temple walk Mary and Joseph
with the baby Jesus,
they too are not expecting anything out of the ordinary
they are they too are simply being faithful,
fulfilling the law and the tradition of their people
dedicating their firstborn son
to the temple and making the appropriate sacrifice.
And now the stage is set,
we have four faithful people
who have come to the temple to live out their faith
and one baby messiah
and in sweeps the Holy Spirit,
first she directs Simeon to Jesus,
now we are told that Simeon has already had an encounter with the Holy Spirit,
who told him he would not see death
until he had seen the messiah,
‘here’s the messiah’ the Spirit tells Simeon,
who proceeds to take the baby in his arms
and sing a song of praise to God,
thanking God for the gift of seeing the messiah
who will be a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.
In his song, Simeon,
guided by the spirit
expands Jesus’ mission beyond the people of Israel
to the whole world.
Mary and Joseph are amazed at Simeon’s words,
you’d think that after several angelic visits
they couldn’t be surprised any more
but perhaps in the midst of caring for a newborn
who needs the same care as any other newborn
those experiences have faded,
Simeon blesses the parents
but closes with a warning to Mary,
her Son will do great things
but not without controversy and pain.
Then Anna takes over,
Luke tells us that she is a prophet
and after being widowed early
has spent the rest of her life in the temple
she too praises God
and tells about Jesus
to all those present
looking for the redemption of Jerusalem,
and those others who showed up at the temple that day
have their own unexpected experience with the divine.
And then the moment is over,
Mary and Joseph take Jesus home
and go about the everyday task of raising their child
and apparently nothing of note happens
for another twelve years
until that one passover
where Jesus decides to stay behind in the temple debating scholars.
This time in the temple
was just a moment
but one that everyone present
would carry with them the rest of their lives.
It’s moments like these
that carry us forward in our faith,
and it all starts with simply showing up,
practicing faith in a regular way
creating space for the Holy Spirit to enter into our lives.
These practices don’t have to be as extreme as the prophet Anna
who basically lived in the temple,
or my college self at chapel every day,
but something that regularity creates space within our lives,
for the Holy Spirit to show up
for God to enter in
Just as God entered into the world in Jesus,
Emmanuel, God with us. Merry Christmas.
In this year unlike any other
we need Christmas more than ever,
even as our celebrations look and feel different,
we need Christmas to bring us the truth
that God considers the world,
however broken it may be,
worthy of love and salvation,
worthy enough for God to fully enter into the experience of the world
pure infinite love
taking on a fragile finite form.
The extraordinary held within the ordinary.
This year as I once again immersed myself
in the most familiar story
of the baby born and laid in a manger,
I was struck by how closely the ordinary and the extraordinary
are tied together,
God’s entrance into the world
turning the most common events into unique occurrences.
Mary is pregnant,
an ordinary experience in the scope of humanity
but unique to Mary
her pregnancy heralded by an angel of the Lord,
brought about by the Holy Spirit
and now she is carrying the Son of God within her,
To add to that
Mary is unmarried,
which while putting her in a difficult spot
is still rather ordinary,
is that God chose to work through an unmarried girl
and that her fiancé, Joseph
has stuck with her,
continued in his promise to marry her.
When we join them this night
they are traveling,
in the midst of a once in a life-time event,
a grand census of the whole world
causing people to return to ancestral lands
to be counted by the Roman empire,
and there in the midst of this numerary chaos,
in the city of Bethlehem
is where an ordinary everyday occurrence happens,
Mary goes into labor and a baby is born,
not in a deluxe birthing suite but in borrowed space,
in the midst of everyday life.
This is how God enters the world,
in a way so ordinary as to be unnoticeable
except by those right around him
for a miraculous as each individual baby is,
they are born all the time.
But for this birth we’d expect that there at least be a little fanfare
to mark this extraordinary occasion
and our expectations are not disappointed,
but what is surprising is who this news is announced to,
some shepherds doing what they do,
watching their sheep out in the fields
away from everyone else,
to these laborers on the margins of society
They tell them of a special baby
and where to find him
and end the message with a serenade by the heavenly host.
‘Well you don’t see that everyday’
the shepherds say to themselves
and so they follow the directions
and find everything just as the angels had told them.
Understandably the people gathered around the new little family
are surprised by the shepherd’s visit,
most babies aren’t visited in the night by field hands,
and they are even more surprised
by the message they bring,
that this child is the Son of God,
the shepherds have it on the authority of angels
and everyone there,
probably Joseph’s extended family
was amazed at this pronouncement,
who treasures the message she’d already heard
confirmed by another angelic visit.
The shepherds leave praising God,
and that’s it,
that’s the story of God’s entry into the world,
extraordinary for its relative ordinariness.
At each turn in the story
the ordinary is paired with the extraordinary.
It’s a pairing that we are all too familiar with,
we too are in the midst of God willing,
a once in a life-time event,
though rather than everyone being on the move,
we’ve all been staying at home,
and so the ordinary, home
has become extraordinary,
in how focused our lives have been on our homes,
which have also becomes places of work,
schools and even sanctuaries.
And when we’ve ventured out of our homes,
the world around us has changed,
what was ordinary now is different.
This Christmas we’re celebrating the advent of the Christ child
as we do every year,
and yet we’re doing so in different ways,
we’re worshiping online with our families,
we’re driving to church parking lots and waving glow sticks,
and gathering in smaller groups.
And as different and unique and even ordinary as all these experiences may be,
Christ still comes.
Because that’s how God,
Immanuel, God with us,
comes among us,
in the midst of both the ordinary and the extraordinary.
God is with us in all the everyday places
where we might not think to look,
the daily routine, the endless dishes,
the meals at home,
and God is with us in the novel,
the new, the unexpected,
all the zoom calls,
the caring for those in quarantine,
the exhausted staff at hospitals.
As what once seemed extraordinary
begins to become ordinary
God is with us in the midst of this too
helping us to navigate the world around us,
coming to us in friends and community,
the help of a stranger,
resting with us as we struggle
to reconcile the ordinary and the extraordinary.
The miracle of Christmas
reminds us that this is precisely how God works,
taking on ordinary form,
coming among us in the midst of brokenness and upheaval
bringing healing and redemption
for the beloved creation of God.
May you on this ordinary yet extraordinary night
be filled with the love of God with us. Amen
3rd Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who sows joy. Amen
Today we lit the third candle on our Advent wreath,
the candle that traditionally represents joy.
It might seem a bit odd
during this season of reflection and preparation
that joy be included,
but in fact, preparation and joy go hand in hand,
we prepare in anticipation of joy
and sometimes we need joy to continue with preparations.
But what do we mean by ‘joy’?
Often in world around us,
especially at this time of year
joy is sold as the result of a big build up to Christmas morning
and so preparation sounds a little like this:
He’s making a list,
Checking it twice,
Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice
Santa Claus is coming to Town
Only those children who are nice
will rejoice on Christmas morning
with a big pile of presents under the tree
so we are encouraged to prepare by writing lists to Santa
to get our shopping done
and make everything just so for the coming celebration.
This understanding of joy is fleeting,
as the months of build up
are uncovered in half an hour
and toys lie discarded by the end of the day.
Now to be fair
there can be great pleasure
in exchanging gifts as signs of love and appreciation,
and in some ways the preparation is as fun
if not more
than the actual moment.
But if that’s all there is to the day
If what we are left with is an empty feeling
when all is said and done
what we experienced wasn’t joy.
Because joy, true joy,
goes deeper than the ecstasy of a moment,
joy follows anticipation yes,
but joy also follows hardship and disappointment,
which mean acknowledging the hardship and disappointment
and the longing that comes from knowing
that things are not as they ought to be.
is the response to the saving promises of God
in the midst of the brokenness of the world.
Which means our preparations sound less like Santa Claus is coming to town
and more like:
Comfort, comfort now my people;
Tell of peace! So says our God.
Comfort those who sit in darkness
Mourning under sorrow’s load.
To God’s people now proclaim
That God’s pardon waits for them!
Tell them that their war is over;
God will reign in peace forever.
of the reality of the world around us
but like the candles on the Advent wreath,
our preparations also include hope,
the promise of peace
and yes even joy,
because the preparations for the saving promises of God
also include the hard work of clearing away the rubble of the past
to create space for the new thing
that God is doing
and without hope, the promise of peace and joy
it is easy to become discouraged.
We see this first in our reading from Isaiah.
The prophet is speaking to a group of people
who are discouraged, disappointed by life around them
and humiliated that they cannot do the work that God has called them to do.
They are the people who returned to the promised land
from exile in Babylon.
For years and years and years
they dreamed of going home
and how great it was going to be,
so much better than their current circumstances
and now they are faced with reality,
the reality of a destroyed temple and cities,
the reality that there’s a lot of work to do
to restore the temple and land to its former glory
and since there’s not a lot left to work with,
it’s starting to seem like an impossible task.
Into their discouragement God sends the prophet
“to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…”
this year of the Lord’s favor
refers to a jubilee year,
In the jubilee year,
all debts were forgiven,
all land reverted back to the original owners,
and slaves were freed,
society was basically supposed to reset
to the beginning of the time in the promised land
when the gifts of God were equally divided.
The jubilee year
was a chance to return to the manna way of life
and God understood that would only be possible
with a fresh start,
a level playing field for everyone.
Because it seems that the unfortunate fact of human society
is that some will prosper and some will,
for whatever reason
find themselves in debt,
and once in debt,
it is extremely hard to get out from under that burden,
no matter how hard one works
and that burden even gets passed down the generations
Lately there’s been a movement among some churches
and nonprofit organizations
to put jubilee into practice
by raising money to forgive medical debt.
The most recent example I saw
was from a church that a friend goes to in Iowa,
they were able to forgive $5 million in medical debt.
Which seems like an impossible amount,
even for one well off congregation.
I was curious so I did a little research,
it seems that there is a whole industry
that profits off of people being in debt,
when someone can’t pay their debt to the hospital,
the hospital can sell the debt,
at a reduced price
to a debt collector
who is allowed to try to collect interest
and the full amount owed
and the difference between the discounted price they got from the hospital
and the full amount is their profit
and these companies often take a much more aggressive approach
in trying to collect the debt than the hospitals
So this is where nonprofits and churches come in,
they buy that reduced price debt,
and instead of trying to collect it,
they forgive it.
Instead of debt collecting bills,
the people receive a notice
that their debt has been forgiven,
they have been set free.
Imagine the relief and yes, joy,
the weight lifted
of receiving such a notice,
especially since the groups target people whose debt is
5% or more of their income.
And guess how much that $5 million in medical debt cost?
$8,000. 0.16% of the original
This is salvation proclaimed and made tangible,
the clearing away the rubble of the past
leading to the freedom to serve God rather than debt.
This is what God proclaims to the Israelites through the prophet,
and the change is immediate,
from a humiliated people
they now become “oaks of righteousness”
and are able to rebuild the cities and the temple,
they will rejoice in God
and sow their joy among the nations
so that it spreads around the world,
even the prophet can’t hold back at this good news,
after sharing the message of God
the prophet shares from their own perspective
“I will greatly rejoice in the lord, my whole being shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation…”
and likens the results to a garden
where the seeds sown spring up, creating more life.
God promises salvation,
real tangible here and now salvation,
and God calls us to share our joy
and bring God’s salvation to others,
which means preparing the way,
taking an honest look at the world around us,
clearing out the rubble to make way
for the new thing that God is doing,
God’s real tangible salvation
sent to bring forgiveness,
jubilee into the midst of our suffering.
This is the one for whom we wait, and prepare,
and greet with:
Joy to the world
The Lord is come!
Let earth receive her king’
Let every heart prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven and nature sing. Amen
1st Sunday in Advent
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who calls us to stay awake and to hope. Amen
Welcome to the season of Advent!
Our decorations have changed to blue,
we’re at the beginning of a new liturgical year
where we will get to spend time in the gospel of Mark,
and of course our advent wreath
reminds us that Christmas is coming,
the more candles we light
the closer we are to the festival celebrating Immanuel,
God with us, God among us, God one of us.
It’s exciting the newness and anticipation of the season,
it’s like the advent calendars
with a little chocolate for each day before Christmas
mirroring the sweetness of anticipation.
And yet there’s more to advent
than lighting a few candles and eating a chocolate a day,
there’s more to wait for than the birthday celebrations for Jesus,
if we go a little deeper into advent
the scriptures remind us
that we are also waiting for the return of Christ,
and in this reminder
we are recalled to the painful reality
that even as Christ is with us,
God still has work to do,
God’s beautiful creation is still broken
and waiting for its healer to come
restore it to the perfection of the garden,
to the promised time when weeping and crying and pain and death are no more,
a promise we are still waiting on God to fulfill.
This side of advent is a striking contrast to the first,
and yet both are true.
It’s a paradox (two seemingly contradictory things that turn out to be true)
and the season of advent is full of them.
The season of advent holds space to acknowledge the tensions in life,
especially the life of faith.
The tension between the fact that we are both saint and sinner,
the tension between the fact that Christ has come and we are still waiting on Christ,
the tension between the reality that Christ saved the whole world and the world is still broken.
There are so many paradoxes,
as we sometimes call them in Lutheran circles,
but that is one of the things that I really appreciate about the Lutheran tradition,
the acceptance of the both and,
because we know the deeply lived truth
of the seemingly contradictory
and while the unresolved tension can be frustrating sometimes
it is an authentic reflection of life.
So I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised
when our theme for this first Sunday in advent is a paradox:
“those who dream, keep awake”
When we hear dream
we tend to first think of the sleeping kind,
you know the ones where upon falling asleep
you find yourself in an alternate world
where you’re back in your childhood home
but your mom is now a panda
baking you bamboo cookies,
and what’s your third grade teacher doing there in the background?
Anybody? Just me?
Those dreams are impossible to have while awake.
But of course there’s another way dream is used,
the way Martin Luther King Jr. did
when he proclaimed “I have a dream”
his dream, a vision for the future
where the wounds of the present are healed.
God too has a dream,
a vision for creation,
that all be intimately connected with their creator,
that all, people, animals, nature, live in harmony with one another and God,
a harmony where everyone has what they need,
no one has too much or too little.
And God has promised
that in partnership with people
this dream will become reality.
And the thing about these kinds of dreams,
is that to dream them,
one must be awake,
aware of all the ways that the present world around us
is less than perfect.
Awake to the promises of God
and how they have yet to be fulfilled.
In our gospel
Jesus tells his disciples to keep awake,
to wait for the fulfillment of the promises of God,
to watch for the signs that they are coming
since no one knows the exact timing.
As we wait,
it is tempting to fall asleep,
to fall asleep to the pain and imperfections around us,
to take a break from the harsh reality of life
Jesus tells us to keep awake.
To be awake is to acknowledge the broken places of life,
to be awake is to reject the narrative
that it will 'always be this way',
to be awake is to hope.
And here seems to be another paradox,
that to have hope we must be awake
to all the realities that argue against hope,
the situations that make the dream for the future look impossible,
this is the essence of hope,
to look at the seemingly insurmountable obstacles
and say ‘nevertheless, I believe that God will work through this,
that good will come out of this mess.’
But it’s a process to get from pain to hope,
and we see that process in our first reading from Isaiah:
It starts with lament,
‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down’
cries out the prophet,
it’s frustrating when the world is so far from the dream of God
and it seems like God isn’t doing anything.
why if God is so powerful,
doesn’t God just come down and fix everything,
because we do believe that God is powerful,
the prophet says as much in the next part
extolling the awesome deeds of God
but in affirming the power of God
the prophet on behalf of the people,
realizes that the people have not kept up their end of the covenant,
and the lament turns into confession
“we sinned… we have all become like one who is unclean
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth”
have you ever tried to clean a table with a dirty dishrag?
It doesn’t work right?
As good as your intentions are
if the cloth is dirty it just spreads the dirt around.
That’s where the people are at,
just spreading their own dirt around,
and while it might seem that this confession,
this awakening to reality
might be cause for despair,
what it does is lead to hope.
As the prophet acknowledges
that the people are living with the consequences of their actions
what could easily return to anger or lament becomes hope,
hope based on the trust
that God keeps the promises God makes,
trust that comes out of the established relationship with God
“yet, O Lord, you are our Father, we are the cay and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”
In the end God has promised
that no matter what happens,
no matter what others label us,
or we think of ourselves
our primary identity is that of children of God,
God kept that promise with Jesus,
God made that promise individually to each of us at our baptisms,
that we are children of God
and nothing can separate us from the love of God
this relationship is the root of our hope.
This Advent there are many reasons we might despair,
things in the world that make us want to detach from reality,
to fall asleep and in our dreams pretend that nothing is happening.
But God calls us to stay awake,
awake to the messiness and imperfections of life yes,
and awake to the promises of God
and in this wakefulness
join in dreaming with God
of the day when all live in harmony with God and one another,
and so awake and dreaming, we hope. Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.