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
Second Sunday in Lent
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who keeps promises. Amen
This Lent we are telling stories of faith,
last week we explored how what stories we listen to
impact our understanding of our identity,
this week our stories explore what it means to have faith,
what having faith looks like.
And I think this is something that we all wonder about,
at least at some point in our lives,
what does it mean to have faith?
Do I have enough faith?
How do I get more faith?
Why do some people seem to have an easier time than others?
Any of these questions sound familiar?
It’s pretty easy to go down a rabbit hole of questions
when it comes to faith
which is why it is helpful to have some examples
of what is meant by having faith
and we have two good examples in our readings for today,
Abraham and Nicodemus.
Abraham is often held up as the model of a faithful person,
Paul points to Abraham in our second reading,
and Abraham’s story of faith is quite simple,
God comes to Abraham and says “go to the land that I will show you”
then promises to make a great nation of Abraham
with many descendants and through Abraham bless the world
“So Abram went, as the Lord had told him”
Almost too simple,
so simple as to be impossible to live up to,
I know I take a lot more convincing than a single command
Even from God
But really when we think about it
why wouldn’t Abraham go?
God has made all these promises
seemingly based on the one command to go.
On the face of it,
it kind of looks like one of those transactions
that Paul attributes to the law,
until we remember that God says ‘go’
but does not give a destination,
and God says ‘I will make you a great nation’
and at this point Abraham is very old and very childless
and then it is easier to see Abraham's going as a great act of faith,
because what God proposes to do seems impossible,
when Abraham goes,
he goes into the unknown,
holding on to the promise of God
and trusting that God will keep that promise.
And yes this is remarkable and an ideal
but I don’t know about you
but I’ve found faith- the act of trusting God-
much more complicated than that.
Which is why I love the story of Nicodemus.
Nicodemus is a religious leader,
people know who he is,
they go to him for answers to religious questions
he’s supposed to have it all,
okay well, mostly
but when Jesus comes onto the scene,
Nicodemus is intrigued,
he wants to know more,
but here’s the catch,
he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s interested in Jesus,
so when he goes to see Jesus
he goes at night covered by the darkness
and he comes with an attitude that says
‘I’m going to figure you out Jesus’,
he begins “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
and the way Jesus responds
it’s almost as if he’s saying
‘oh you know do you?’
and goes on to utterly confuse Nicodemus
by speaking of being born again and born of the spirit
and when Nicodemus asks him
“‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?’”
I hear Jesus saying this in a rather sarcastic false shocked tone of voice,
undertones of ‘what, you don’t know everything?’
I don’t think that Jesus is judging Nicodemus
as much as making a point
that the mechanics of God’s work in the world
are confusing boarding on impossible to understand,
because then Jesus gets serious and says
look “we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony if I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things.”
Seeing Jesus perform signs has only gotten Nicodemus so far along the path to faith,
he struggles with hearing what others have experienced of God,
at some point understanding will fail
and that’s where faith has to take over,
the trust that however it happens
what God promises will come to pass.
And that’s when Jesus tells Nicodemus what God is going to do
- out of love send God’s son to be lifted up for the sake of the world-
now remember this conversation is taking place
long before the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday
Nicodemus has no idea that Jesus is referring to the cross,
and even if he did,
he’d be stumped as to how anything good could come of Jesus dying by crucifixion,
but at the end
Jesus gives Nicodemus a promise he can hold on to:
“Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Jesus promises that however incomprehensibly God chooses to act,
God intends salvation.
Nicodemus doesn’t have to understand the how,
his role is to trust that God is acting for good.
And that it seems Nicodemus can do,
we get no indication that when the conversation ends
Nicodemus understands the particulars of who Jesus is
or how God is acting
any better than when he started
but throughout the gospel of John,
Nicodemus keeps showing up
in ways that show his faith in Jesus is increasing.
The next time Nicodemus pops up
is when Jesus has been in Jerusalem for the festival of Booths,
Jesus has been publicly teaching
and people are starting to wonder if he is the Messiah
and all this is making the leadership anxious,
they want to arrest Jesus
and it’s at this point that Nicodemus speaks up
and says “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (7:51)
and the other Pharisees
because remember Nicodemus is one of them,
but also they do not arrest Jesus.
Speaking up for Jesus in front of his peers
Nicodemus has come a long way
from sneaking out to see Jesus under the cover of darkness.
The last time we meet Nicodemus
is at the foot of the cross,
he comes with Joseph of Arimathea
to prepare Jesus’ body for burial
and he brings with him 100 pounds of spices and ointments,
an amount so excessively lavish
that it could only represent the grace of God,
and here at Jesus’ seeming defeat
does Nicodemus make public his faith in him.
Nicodemus gives me hope,
because it means that faith doesn’t have to be an instantaneous ascent
nor does it mean we have to believe everything as true right away,
can start as a small seed,
as curiosity paired with a lot of questions,
and that seed can be nurtured to grow
and God offers a promise to hold on to
while faith grows,
the promise that God loves us
and nothing can change that.
God lives out that promise
by continually coming to us in love,
in the water and word of the font,
in the eating and drinking of bread and wine
blessed, broken and poured out for us,
in the stories of faith shared with us
where we get to see how God comes to others
and as we live
both questioning and holding on to the promise of God,
we may find our faith growing,
we still have questions
but we no longer need the cover of darkness to ask them,
we also might have times where growth stalls
but through it all God keeps coming to us
keeping the promises God has made,
and we find that ultimately what it means to have faith
to is to hold on to the promises of God,
to trust that God is acting for good. Amen
First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the great story teller. Amen
our theme is Stories of Faith,
we’re exploring how the stories we tell
affect our faith,
we’re listening to a variety of faith stories
from congregation members during our Wednesday services
(if you can make it I really encourage you to come, Ramona Witte is sharing this week)
and on Sundays our lectionary this season
is giving us at least two stories a week,
stories of faith and doubt.
This week our stories show us how what story we listen to
shapes our understanding of our identity.
we have two stories where identity is both declared and questioned,
but the outcome is very different
based on what story is listened to.
First we have Adam and Eve,
God finishes up creation by making these two earth creatures
and gives them responsibility for the other creatures in the garden,
‘this is who you are’ God tells them
‘you are the care takers of the garden,
you are to till it and keep it and eat the fruit from any of the trees,
with the exception of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,
if you eat that fruit you will die.’
These seem like pretty clear instructions
a clear story and picture of who the humans are
and what they are to do.
And things are going well,
until the serpent comes along
and questions that story,
provides an alternate narrative
and it’s amazing how simple it is
for the serpent to get the humans off track.
All he does is ask a clarifying question,
“Did God say ‘you shall not eat from any three in the garden?’”
and the woman responds with the original narrative from God,
‘no God said we can eat of any tree,
except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,
if we eat from that tree we will die.’
She’s got the story from God down,
but in asking the question
the serpent has put it into her mind
that she might have heard the story wrong,
and into that questioning space
the serpent places another option, a different story,
saying “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
And that’s the story the humans end up listening to,
they eat the fruit,
their eyes are opened,
and the mark that something has changed
is that they are suddenly ashamed of their bodies
and take measures to cover up,
despite the fact that God made them,
called them good
and gave them everything they needed,
presumably they didn’t need clothes,
but now that they have listen to a story other than God’s
they are calling bad what God has called good.
And though that’s where our lesson ends
the story goes on with the humans hiding from God,
trying to place the blame for their predicament
on anyone but themselves
and being cast out from the garden.
Now this story has been interpreted in many ways,
and we could spend a lot of time sifting through all those interpretations
but for our purposes today here is what I want you to notice:
The humans are presented the story of their identity from God
and provided with everything they need,
and when the serpent comes in,
questions that identity and offers them a slightly different story,
one where they have more power,
they listen to that story and turn from God
and it changes how they see themselves for the worse.
And we’ve been doing that even since,
but it doesn’t have to be that way
That’s where our other story comes in,
it parallels our first story but with very different results.
Right before the gospel lesson starts
Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan river
and as he comes up out of the water
the heavens open, the holy spirit descends in the form of a dove
and God’s voice is heard from heaven
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
This is God’s story of Jesus’ identity,
definitively declared from heaven.
And then the spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness
to be tempted by the devil.
This may seem odd
but it is true that hardships help to define our identity,
we often don’t know how strong we can be
until we are tested,
so Jesus goes and fasts for a long time,
he is weak,
and that’s when the tempter comes to him
and questions his identity,
provides an alternate story.
The tempter says “If you are the son of God”
the challenge under these words says ‘prove to me that you are’
“If you are the son of god, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’
the devil starts by playing off our human need
to prove to others that we are who we say we are,
it’s not enough to believe it ourselves,
others have to believe it as well,
‘prove it’ the devil says.
And Jesus doesn’t fall for it.
He quotes scripture back saying
“it is written one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
And then the devil tries again,
adjusting his tactics,
Jesus used scripture to refute that temptation
so the devil decides to use scripture to tempt Jesus.
Again he questions Jesus’ identity,
challenging him to prove it
according to what the scriptures say:
“If you are the son of God, throw yourself down for it is written ‘ he will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
and again Jesus resists,
refusing to question, to test,
the story God has told him.
Questioning identity hasn’t worked
so the devil tries one last play,
appealing to the human desire for power,
for a price of course,
and of course Jesus doesn’t fall for that either
and the devil finally leaves him.
Jesus was able to resist temptation
because he held onto the story of his identity
that came from God,
even in the face of other plausible stories.
We too have a story from God,
God created us and called us good
and since we tend to doubt that
God gave us a sign for us to point to, baptism,
when we are washed in the waters of baptism
God definitively declares our identity,
God claims us as children of God
and promises that this will never change,
that this is an identity that cannot be taken from us
even when the world tells us otherwise,
and the world has all sorts of other stories
about who we are
the dangerous thing is that they all sound plausible,
the story that says you are defined by where you were born,
what language you speak
or even the color of your skin or shape of your body,
the stories that whisper that you are not enough
but that you can become enough
by treating people in a certain way,
by only looking out for yourself,
that you are better or worse than others,
sooner or later one of the stories grabs our attention
and we listen to it rather than the story God is telling,
when we do our eyes are opened
and we become ashamed of what God has called good and beloved
and we try to hide,
from ourselves and from God.
But God doesn’t give up that easily,
God made a promise,
so God sent Jesus,
who firm in his own identity and story
reached out to those who had been hiding from God for so long
that they had begun to believe that they would never be part of God’s story,
and Jesus offered them another story to hold on to,
to the sick he told the story of health
and then he healed them,
to the outcast he told the story of inclusion
and then he welcomed them,
to the hungry he told the story of being full
and then he fed them,
to the sinners he told the story of forgiveness
and then he forgave them
that’s what Jesus does for us too,
he gives us other stories to hold on to,
to tell again and again and again,
stories that define us as God’s beloved children
washed with water,
stories of meals where Jesus comes to us in bread and wine body and blood
offering forgiveness and new life,
stories of death and resurrection.
These are the stories that define us,
and when the other stories start sounding plausible,
Jesus brings us back to the font and table,
the places where the true stories are told,
and washed, fed and forgiven,
we are reminded of the only story that matters,
the story where we are beloved children of God
we are sent out to tell others this story
in the same way Jesus told it
by living it out
offering healing, welcome, food and forgiveness
treating all we encounter as the beloved children of God that they are,
because that’s who we are.
God told us so. Amen
Festival of Pentecost
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one casts out fear with love. Amen
Happy Festival of Pentecost,
Easter was 50 days ago
and now we celebrate what is often called the birthday of the church,
the moment when the spirit came upon the disciples
and in as many languages as there were people to hear
they preached the good news of Jesus
and many heard, believed and joined the Jesus followers
in their quest to share the news.
That was just the beginning,
the work of the spirit continued on through the faithful
all the way to here today,
where we are gathered as followers of Jesus
who have heard the good news
and have been tasked with sharing it with others.
It’s quite a remarkable progression,
and yet when we humans work together
we often make what at first seemed impossible, possible
though the result isn’t always good,
it depends on our motivation,
which has a way of coming back around to us at the end.
We heard just such a story this morning for our first reading,
the building of the Tower of Babel.
To put it in the context of the larger biblical narrative
after God saves Noah and his family from the flood
God instructs them to repopulate the whole earth.
we get one of the Bible’s famous genealogy passages
detailing the descendants of Noah and his sons
and then we hear about a time in the midst of this
when there was still one people with one language
but they were getting big enough that people might start splitting off,
forming their own tribes and going their own way,
and while this is what God intended
the people were afraid of this happening
so when in their wanderings
they reach what seems like a nice place
with plenty of space
they decide to settle down
and to make sure people stick around they decide to build a city
“Then they said, ‘come let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
and that’s just what they do,
they begin building the city
and they make a great tower
and then God decides to come see what they’ve been up to
and upon seeing the great building project
what the people have accomplished
“the Lord said, ‘look, they are one people, and they all have one language; and this is the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will not be impossible for them.”
but because this project was built out of fear and self-interest
rather than obedience and service to the Lord,
the Lord gives them different languages
and scatters them all over the face of the earth-
the very thing that the people feared,
the reason they built the tower in the first place.
We humans can do great things
when we work together
but motivation matters,
when we act out of a place of fear,
what we fear often still comes to pass or even something worse.
Which is why, ultimately
Jesus came and living among fearful humans
preached love as the motivation for action,
Jesus preached love as the law,
then destroyed the thing we fear most, death
and gave us a new project to focus on,
sharing this message with the whole world.
But of course it’s not quite as simple as that is it?
Because there are times when we are afraid
and times we act out of fear rather than love
that while we were made saints at our baptism,
until Jesus comes again we also remain sinners,
and it is that part of us that gets afraid.
Jesus knew this too
so he gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit to help guide us,
the spirit moves us to act out of love,
even when that itself scares us.
Fear is something the disciples are very familiar with.
When we join them in Acts
they are all together in one place,
they’ve stuck pretty close together since Jesus died.
Even after Jesus rose,
appeared to them
and told them to bring his message to the ends of the earth,
they’ve stuck together in one place
and into that place,
into their fear
the Holy Spirit rushes
with the force of a strong wind
and the energy of fire,
and filling each of the disciples it rushes them outside,
out of that place where they’ve been staying put
and outside they begin to preach in different languages
and the crowd that has gathered because of the commotion
understands what they are saying!
This crowd who has gathered from the ends of the earth
now hear the message of Jesus
and will return with it to the ends of the earth
and the apostles will go with them.
But first they have to figure out what is going on.
The gathered crowd hears this group of Galileans
speaking about God’s deeds of power in their own languages
“All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’”
What does this mean?
The gateway question to faith,
those of you who grew up Lutheran
and went through confirmation will recognize this question
as it is posed again and again in Luther’s Small Catechism,
and if you are unfamiliar with this little document
come and see me
because one of the gifts of our heritage
is understanding questions as crucial to faith.
When we ask questions
it means that we are open to hearing what God has to say to us,
to hearing what new adventures the Holy Spirit is calling us to.
Of course some in the crowd explained the events away
by saying that the disciples were drunk.
When faced with something strange and new
it is much easier to find a reason to dismiss it
than to engage it
because if you engage it, you might be changed yourselves.
So though some dismissed the disciples,
others in the crowd asked
‘what does this mean?’
Having asked the question
they were open to hearing Peter’s interpretation
that what they were experiencing
was the fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s words,
that the Lord’s great and glorious day was coming
and those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.
And though we didn’t hear it read out loud
Peter goes on to proclaim Jesus as Messiah.
When Peter finished with his sermon
those listening “were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles. ‘Brothers what should we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that yours sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’” (Acts 2:37-39)
and that’s what the people do
and Luke tells us about three thousand
were baptized because of this.
it seems like an impossibly large number
and yet with the help of the Holy Spirit
the disciples are no longer afraid
and stuck in one place
but begin working together
to start making the impossible possible
and this work continues
and people respond to it
because it is a message and a movement based on love.
When we are loved as deeply as we are by God
any fear we feel is momentary,
sure sometimes we get stuck for awhile,
but then the Holy Spirit blows in,
and blows us out into the world
uniting us in the mission to share the love of God with others,
and our fear disappears
because the answer to the question what does this mean?
Always starts with the love of God
Who gathers us together
To make the impossible, possible
You are loved by God,
tell others of that love. Amen
Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Grace and peace to you
from the one who goes to great lengths to keep promises. Amen
The theme running through our readings for today
is that God keeps the promises God makes.
We know this,
we affirm it,
but sometimes, especially in the middle of hardship
it’s hard to trust this,
it’s hard to see anything other than what is right in front of us
and our prayers start to sound like our psalm for the day.
In the face of forces working actively against the psalmist they pray,
and their prayer alternates between statements of trust
almost as if making those statements will help the psalmist
believe that they are true
and acknowledging the reality of the present.
The psalmist starts off
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”
but behind these words we sense a reason to fear
and sure enough in the very next verse
the psalmist says “when evildoers close in against me”
and goes on to describe bad things that happen in life.
Back and forth the psalm goes,
calling on the Lord’s promises
and seeking reassurance
in the midst of times of trouble
I think we’ve all prayed something like this
where we alternate between
“I know you’re great God and have made these promises”
and in the next breath crying out
“help! Bad things are happening, right now!”
and both are true at the same time.
We need reassurance when the way gets tough,
we need to vent our frustrations and fears
after all of the emotions have been expressed
the psalmist settles on the last two verses
“This I believe--that I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!
Wait for the Lord and be strong. Take heart and wait for the Lord!”
And it’s true,
we do believe we will see the goodness of God,
and we catch glimpses of it
but that second part,
is oh so hard,
we’ve experienced that this past week
as we’ve waited and watched the waters rise
not knowing what the future will look like
for communities and families around the state,
and as much as we’ve wanted to do something,
at a certain point all that’s left to do is wait
we’re still waiting.
And the longer the wait the more assurance we need.
God keeps the promises God makes
but our time line and God’s don’t always line up
and so sometimes we question God,
and God responds with reassurance.
We see this in our first reading from Genesis
in the conversation between God and Abram
This scene is actually not the first conversation between the two
earlier when God led Abram from his home
God promised him land and descendants as numerous as grains of sand,
Abram has been faithful in his following of God thus far
but he’s getting older
and he’s not seeing the fruit of those promises,
So Abram questions God
yah you made those promises but what have you done for me lately?
looking for more details
in how this seemingly impossible promise will come true,
and God reassures him
pointing to the night sky and saying
“look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them, so shall your descendants be.”
Then the pattern repeats itself.
God repeats the promise of land to Abram
and Abram questions God
“O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
and what follows
is possibly one of the stranger passages
that we hear on a regular basis,
specific animals being cut in two,
a smoking fire pot and flaming torch
passing through the animal pieces…
What are we to make of such a scene?
We know from research scholars have done on the ancient middle-east
that though it may have been terrifying for Abram
the actual ritual would have been familiar to him
for this was the ritual of covenant or contract making.
Minus the presence of lawyers and paper and pen
this was how contracts were made,
the ritual of walking through the dismembered animals
signified an important promise.
essentially saying, “if I fail to keep my promise, may the same thing happen to me as to these animals.”
God’s promise to Abram is so important
that God “considers an experience of suffering and death” (NIB 449)
in order to convey the seriousness of the promise.
God keeps the promises God makes
we have cause to know just how far God will go to keep a promise.
In our gospel reading for today
Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem
some Pharisees come
and tell him that he shouldn’t go
because it’s dangerous.
Jesus already knows that,
Jesus already knows what is going to happen
and Jesus knows what lengths God is willing to go to keep promises
all the way to death and back again.
Jesus is the promised messiah
the one the people have longed for, for so long
but true to God’s form
the fulfillment of the promise
is beyond human conception of what it will look like.
Jesus uses the image
of a hen gathering her chicks under her wings,
that is what he longs to do
and in a way will do in his outstretched arms on the cross
but the people,
expecting a hawk or an eagle
have not been willing to come under Jesus
the mother hen’s wings,
in fact like a hawk or eagle
they will attack the mother hen
as they have attacked previous prophets.
the city of God,
is a risky place to go if you are a messenger from God
but Jesus is willing to take those risks in order to keep the promises of God.
God made a promise to Abram,
Abram questioned God
and God reassured Abram
and Abram believed the Lord.
Abram’s faith was possible
because of God’s word and previous actions,
which had all been true and faithful.
At our baptisms
God made a promise to us
that we would always be God’s,
as Paul said in our second reading,
our citizenship would be in heaven.
And some days we question that promise,
we turn to God and say
‘you promised that your kingdom would come on earth as in heaven,
Jesus said the kingdom of God has come near
and yet there are still people who are hungry
and countries at war,
And terrorists who shoot people in their place of worship
and loved ones who die,
And rising flood waters
how can your promise come true God?’
and God comes to us,
at the table
Jesus comes to us
reassuring us with his own body and blood
the new covenant shed for us
for the forgiveness of sins
Any time we gather together,
break the bread, drink the wine
Jesus is present,
renewing the promise of abundant life everlasting,
strengthening us in the midst of the waiting
Reminding us that God has kept all of God’s promises
even to the point of dying on a cross
and rising on the third day.
The life of faith is risky.
Risky because though the promises are always kept
we don’t know the particulars,
risky because people expect hawks instead of mother hens to change the world.
Yet The life of faith is secure
because it is founded in the one who keeps their promises
and no matter how often we question
No matter what life throws at us,
God is reaching out
gathering us in like a mother hen gathers her chicks
To safely in the shadow of her wings. Amen
First Sunday in Lent
1 Peter 3:18-22
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who found another way. Amen
Did you know that it only takes five chapters in Genesis
for God to get sick of humanity?
At the end of chapter one
God creates humans on the sixth day of creation
and by the beginning of chapter six
God is already tired of the fighting and wars and misuse of creation
and begins planning a genocidal flood
to wipe out everything and start over.
In my Lutheran Study Bible that’s seven pages, impressively fast.
But Noah found favor with God
and so God decides to put Noah and his family
and two of every animal on a big boat
- that Noah has to make-
and use them to start over.
And we know this story,
how Noah follows God’s instructions
and brings the animals into the ark two by two,
how it rains forty days and forty nights
and everything not on the ark dies,
how the ark drifts for a long time
until the water begins to recede
and the ark finally settles on top of a mountain
Noah keep sends out the dove to see if it’s safe to exit the boat,
the dove finally brings Noah an olive leaf
and then on the next expedition doesn’t come back
at which point Noah and his family
spill out of the ark and give thanks to God
and hearing their praise and worship and smelling the sacrifice that Noah makes,
God in chapter 8
realizes that destroying everything isn’t the answer
and says “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”(8:21)
And so God makes a covenant with Noah,
and we get part of that in our first reading,
but only the second part,
a covenant is an ancient legal contract
where both parties have responsibilities.
The human part of the covenant that God makes with Noah
is much like the first time around with Adam and Eve,
Noah and his family
are to go be fruitful and multiply,
fill the earth and care for it
and for God’s part
God promises not just Noah,
but all creation, all flesh,
to never again destroy the earth with a flood
and even though God will not forget this covenant
God creates a sign of the covenant,
placing God’s bow in the clouds
so that when everyone sees the bow
they will remember the covenant God made with all flesh
to never wipe out the earth again with a flood.
Now you might be wondering,
why on this first Sunday in lent
we are talking about God’s covenant with Noah.
How do Noah and rainbows
connect with Jesus being baptized and tempted in the wilderness?
In many ways the story of the flood leads to Jesus.
God has promised to never again destroy all flesh
even as God realizes that there is still evil in the hearts of humans
and that it will spill over into the rest of creation as it did the first time.
This doesn’t mean that God is giving up on humanity and all of creation,
but what making this covenant means
is that God will have to find another way of dealing with
the brokenness and violence of humanity that spills over into the rest of creation.
And Jesus is the way God ultimately finds
to bridge the gap between divine expectations
and the brokenness of humanity.
Our second reading from 1 Peter
makes the connection and summarizes what we as Christians believe
happened in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, “
Jesus resisting temptation in the wilderness
before his ministry begins
maintains his righteousness,
it marks him as someone special,
who does what no other human has done
-that is resist temptation
and it sparks the interest of the listener,
what will happen to this remarkable person?
We know what happens,
and yet God is able to work through all that
to save us.
God found another way to deal with humanity,
that way was Jesus.
but I want to be clear here,
it is not the violence and suffering
that is particularly salvific,
there’s been a lot of attempts at explaining how it worked
and all of them fall short,
in the end salvation through Jesus
is both mystery and truth,
the how is the mystery
but the truth is that God has healed the broken relationship between us and God
and set us free from the human need for violence
to live out our part of the covenant,
to take care of all creation.
And just like with Noah,
God seals this covenant,
this promise, with a sign,
where we are joined to Christ’s work
which again from 1 Peter
“now saves you--not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.”
God knows that we humans have a need for divine reassurance.
God was not going to forget the covenant after the flood
but humans need reassurance and reminders,
so God made the rainbow as the sign
that the promise would be remembered.
In the same way
God knows we are beloved children of God
whom Jesus saved,
but we humans often wonder,
we have doubts,
so God gave us the sign of baptism,
so that we can point to a moment in time
and name without a doubt
that God has claimed us and joined us to the work of Christ
we are God’s
and in the waters of baptism
God forgives our sins
and brings us to new life.
And this sets us free
to live contrary to the way of humanity,
to respond to violence with peace,
hurt with forgiveness,
hatred with love
and when the brokenness of the world
seems to be too much,
or we give in to temptation
or are paralyzed by inaction
water points us back to the promise
that God has made,
the forgiveness God offers
and our true identity,
beloved children of God. Amen
Baptism of Our Lord
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who gifts us with the Holy Spirit. Amen
And just like that
the season of Christmas is over.
It concluded yesterday with the festival of Epiphany
observed on January 6th,
marking the visit of the magi from the east
and the revelation of Jesus as messiah to the gentiles.
Epiphany means manifestation,
and our task in this time after Epiphany
is to explore the many ways that God is made manifest in Jesus,
the many ways that Jesus is the revelation of God to us.
today we start with Jesus’ baptism.
As Mark tells it
Jesus goes out into the wilderness
to be baptized by John
who is clear that he is only preparing the way
for the one that will bring the Holy Spirit,
John baptizes Jesus,
dunks him in the river Jordan,
and as Jesus comes up out of the water
Mark says that the heavens are torn open
and from them the spirit descends on Jesus
and the voice of God rings out proclaiming to Jesus
“You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
Now if that is not an epiphany
I don’t know what is,
and in Mark’s brief telling
several things are revealed,
first the heavens are torn open,
in the ancient concept of the universe
the heavens were where God lived,
separate from the people on earth,
at Jesus’ baptism,
that which has separated the people from God
is opened in a way that cannot be closed again
Mark uses this tiny detail
The tearing of the heavens
as foreshadowing for what will happen at the end of this story,
where when Jesus dies
the curtain in the temple that separates the holy of holies from everything else,
is torn from top to bottom
and that which has separated the people from God
is opened in a way that cannot be closed again.
At his baptism
Jesus is revealed
as the one who removes barriers between people and God.
Next the spirit descends on Jesus,
this signals that Jesus
is the one for whom John has been preparing the way.
Now the spirit is the most elusive member of the trinity
I think we often have a hard time with it,
even Mark uses similie to describe the spirit,
descending like a dove,
but what is the spirit?
I think the best definition of the spirit
is the living and active presence of God.
With the spirits’ descent
it is revealed that Jesus carries the living and active presence of God into the world.
Finally, the voice of God is heard
claiming Jesus as son,
saying “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
We heard in our first reading,
How in the beginning God’s spirit moved over the chaotic waters like a wind
as God began creating the world as we know it
speaking the world into being.
With these words from heaven
there can be no doubt about who Jesus is,
the Son of God.
And just like that,
God’s presence on Earth in Jesus
is made manifest,
both revealing and putting into action
the scope and direction of Jesus’ life
from this point on.
Jesus, God’s Son
will bring the living and active presence of God
to people who have been separated from God
and he will do so by breaking down the barriers that have stood in the way.
In our own baptisms
we are joined to this identity and mission.
Our baptisms are epiphanies too,
God speaks words claiming us as beloved children,
gifts us with the Holy Spirit
and promises that nothing will ever separate us from the love of God
and this happens because in our baptisms
we are joined to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
Through baptism we have life in God,
through baptism Christ lives in us
through baptism the spirit lives in us
and we are charged with sharing that spirit with others,
we are called to be an epiphany to others,
to bring the living and active presence of God into the world,
tearing apart boundaries that previously separated people from God,
speaking words of love and adoption to those we encounter.
And yes, this isn’t always easy,
it is scary to tear apart boundaries,
crossing paths and walls and taboos that society says we shouldn’t,
and it’s scary to offer love to someone
unsure if they will return it
but we are able to do it
because it is the spirit of God working through us,
directing and guiding us.
This guiding by the spirit is often subtle,
a nudging in the gut that we should do this or that,
we have to practice listening for the spirit
both as individuals and as communities,
and when we hear what the spirit is saying to us
the direction it takes us is often surprising
but always life giving.
Now that the season of Christmas is over,
after we pack away all the decorations and celebrations
we are left with a gift,
the gift of the Holy Spirit
who reveals to us who we are and whose we are
and who calls us out into the world
to make manifest the living and active presence of God. Amen
15th Sunday after Pentecost
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who forgives and calls us to forgive. Amen
Our lessons for today
deal with forgiveness,
this complex action that rests at the heart of Jesus’ ministry
and the way of life to which he calls his disciples.
all throughout his teachings
he has reinforced the idea
that forgiveness is key,
even to the point of teaching them to pray,
“forgive us our debts as we forgive the debts of others.”
now Jesus and the disciples
are talking about what happens when relationships in community are broken,
earlier in the conversation
Jesus has detailed a path to reconciliation with specific steps
So now seems like a good time to clarify
once and for all
what Jesus expects
and our friend Peter jumps into the breach.
“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
by opening his mouth
Peter shows that he has missed the point,
Jesus responds “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Forgiveness is not always a one and done thing,
it is a continual action, a process,
a way of life
and often has more to do with the one doing the forgiving
than the one being forgiven.
The best definition of forgiveness that I have come across
came from a speaker I heard when I went to Israel/ Palestine in seminary,
she was a part of a group of families
who had lost loved ones to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict,
families from both sides
came together to share their grief and to work for peace,
so for this presentation there were two speakers,
a Palestinian woman whose husband had been killed by Israeli defense forces
during a random traffic stop
and an Israeli woman whose son had been killed by a Palestinian sniper
while he was on patrol as part of his monthly army service.
It was the Israeli mother
who tried to define forgiveness,
and while I’m sure it is not original to her,
I always associate it with her.
She said that for her,
her working definition of forgiveness
was giving up the right to revenge.
This definition rings true to me for a couple of reasons,
first it is from the perspective of the one who has been wronged,
and it acknowledges that in many cases
the wrong would understandably be cause to seek revenge,
the old an eye for an eye justice,
which according to Jesus
makes the whole world blind
and Revenge has a way of consuming the individual seeking it.
In the movie the Princess Bride,
the character Inigo Montoya
has spent his whole life seeking the six fingered man who killed his father.
His waking hours have been practicing sword fighting
and he knows exactly what he will say when he meets the man
“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.”
In the course of the movie the six fingered man is killed
and then Inigo reflects
“I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I do not know what to do with the rest of my life.”
In seeking revenge
Inigo allowed the six finger man
to take his life as well as the life of his father.
Forgiveness as giving up the right to revenge
also allows space for anger,
often the words forgive and forget are paired together,
but more often
that is not possible, nor is it practical
and it is right for the one wronged to be angry.
Forgiveness does not mean that the wrong done to a person is okay,
it means that the person who has been wronged
has chosen to stop the cycle of violence,
and to move forward with their life
and this takes time,
not seven times but seventy-seven times,
committing again and again
to moving forward with life,
working for peace in community
when the one who has sinned is repentant,
relationships are able to be repaired.
Our reading from Genesis is one such example,
the scene is the culmination of a long and tumultuous relationship
between Joseph and his brothers.
Remember Joseph is the youngest brother,
the favorite Daddy’s boy
who gets the fancy coat.
His brothers are jealous
so they sell him into slavery
and fake his death to their father to cover their tracks.
Joseph ends up in Egypt
and after much hardship rises high in the ranks of advisors of the pharaoh.
When the brothers come to Egypt seeking food during a famine
Joseph recognizes them and pulls a couple of tricks on them
before revealing who he is,
forgiving his brother’s and sending them home with food.
Now we have another forgiveness scene,
Much time has passed and Jacob dies,
Now Joseph’s brothers are worried
that Joseph only forgave them
while their father was alive
and now that he is gone
he will take revenge on them,
so they plot to secure their safety,
through inventing a final wish of their father,
that Joseph forgive his brothers
and once again they fall before their brother weeping
and seeking forgiveness
Joseph’s response is remarkable
he says “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”
Over the long arc of his life
Joseph has not only given up the right to revenge
but he has been able to see how God
was able to make the best of a bad situation,
to bring good out of evil,
Joseph has made it to a place
where he and his brothers can be in relationship,
even without their father.
This didn’t happen overnight,
it took a lifetime.
When Peter asks Jesus
how many times he must forgive
he’s missing the point of forgiveness,
he’s looking to see how many boxes he must check off
to be right with God before moving on.
Jesus’ reply shows
that forgiveness is a way of life
and that God expects us to be changed
by both the giving and receiving of forgiveness.
And Jesus practices what he preaches,
making forgiveness a way of life,
constantly offering us grace and mercy,
setting us free in our relationship with God
and turning us back out to the world to forgive others,
and Jesus knows this is not easy,
that we will need some encouragement and strength along the way,
which is why at the last supper with his disciples
he promised to come to us
in bread and wine, body and blood,
forgiveness tangible in the crumbs between our teeth
and the wine sliding down our throats,
forgiveness becoming a part of who we are,
all because of the grace and mercy of God. Amen
1st Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
This was a Sunday without a manuscript. We compared and contrasted the two temptation stories (Adam and Eve, and Jesus after his baptism) and thought about how salvation is not a "return to paradise" but a journey of healing toward God's ultimate goal in Christ.
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.