Third Sunday in Lent
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who gives us what we need. Amen
This Lent we are exploring stories of faith,
on Wednesdays we have congregation members sharing their stories
and on Sundays our readings are also stories of faith,
so far we have had stories of identity
where we have explored how the stories we tell
shape our understanding of our identity
and stories of how faith is lived out,
by holding on to the promises of God
even as we question and grow.
This week we have stories of necessity,
how we tell the stories of what we need
affects our relationship with God.
We have two examples from our readings today,
the Israelites in the wilderness
and the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus.
Our first example
of how stories of necessity are told and sometimes differ,
is the Israelites in the wilderness.
The Israelites are in a time of major transition as a people,
so far in the relationship between God and the Israelites
appeared to Moses out of a burning bush,
sent Moses to pharaoh to plead for the Israelites’ freedom,
sent ten plagues of increasing intensity on the Egyptians
when the pharaoh refused to let them leave,
saved the Israelites from the final plague
giving them the opportunity to flee,
parted the sea standing in the way of their escape,
traveled with the people as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night,
and provided food by raining bread in the morning and quails at night.
It’s been a lot
their identity has shifted,
they’ve moved from being settled in a place
where they had a long history
and though they were enslaved
they knew who they were and how they fit in,
now they are free
but they are also homeless
and they wander the desert led by a God they cannot see
looking for a promised land that is just that,
so we have to excuse, or at least understand
when the Israelites don’t always come off looking the best,
we as people don’t always make the best decisions
when we’re stressed and in times of transition
and these are a people who haven’t had to make decisions at all,
which is why the time wandering is so important
God is using that time to teach the Israelites
how to live as free people
and the first step is teaching the Israelites
to trust that God will keep the promises that God has made
and as they wander the desert
God has promised to provide for them with manna and quails,
and part of learning to trust
is the instruction to only take the amount of food that is necessary for one day,
the exception being the day before the sabbath.
If they take more than they need
it will spoil because they have not trusted God
to provide for them the next day.
So that’s the set up as the Israelites wander the desert,
God provides for them,
but this is a lesson that is hard to learn for the Israelites
as we see in our story for today.
In their wandering
they come to a place where there is no water,
or at least not enough water
and rather than trusting God to provide
they start complaining to Moses,
now the thing I always enjoy about the Israelites’ complaints in the desert
is that they get very dramatic very fast,
in this case they say
“Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”
You’d think that by now the Israelites
would have known that God would provide for them
but the way they tell the story of what is necessary,
when it’s necessary
is different from the story God tells
and it strains the relationship,
Moses names the place “test and quarrel”
because the Israelites tested and quarreled with God
wondering if God was even with them,
and even though they lack trust in God,
God provides water,
showing Moses where to go to find water among the rocks of the desert,
one of the commentaries I read
mentioned that water does flow through some rock formations,
the water was already there,
it was just a matter of finding it.
That’s another thing about God,
God provides but it’s not always obvious to us humans.
Another thing we humans do
is that we like to make things more complicated than they need to be,
relationships for instance,
we all have a need to belong
and yet we tell all kinds of stories as reasons
why this person or that person shouldn’t be a part of the group
and that’s what’s going on with our second story
of the Samaritan woman at the well,
her community has told her that she needs to be different
and until then
she will not be fully one of them,
It all starts with a need Jesus has to rest,
he’s been traveling,
it’s the middle of the day,
the hottest time of the day
he’s tired, and thirsty and hungry,
so he sits down next to a well,
a source of water
and the disciples go to buy something to eat
and Jesus waits for them,
as he’s waiting
a woman comes to the well to draw water,
now this in and of itself is not unusual
what is odd is the time of day,
carrying water is a heavy hard task
which means that it’s best done
in the mornings and evenings when it’s cooler,
but here this woman comes at the hottest part of the day,
now it may be that she just needed water
but the more likely explanation
is that she came at a time when she was sure to avoid all the other people
who come to get water.
Jesus, sitting by the well,
asks her for a drink of water,
and she’s surprised,
because the story of society is that it is necessary
for men and women to stay separate
and for Jews and Samaritans to avoid each other,
but if there’s one thing we know about Jesus
it’s that he doesn’t pay attention to what society says is necessary
but what God says is,
and so he starts a conversation with this woman
and even though she’s surprised she is curious,
and after they’ve covered why they shouldn’t be talking
Jesus tells her “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘give me a drink’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
the woman is thrown by practical considerations,
she points out that Jesus doesn’t have a bucket
and he responds “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Now the woman is really excited about this,
she might never have to come to the well ever again!
And Jesus knows that this excitement
is not about the work of carrying water
but about avoiding all the other people that come to the well,
he reveals to her that he knows about her history,
she’s had really bad luck with relationships
she’s had five husbands and is now living with someone
who she isn’t even married to
and perhaps to change the topic
the woman observes “Sir, I see that you are a prophet”
and they get into a theological discussion
that ends with Jesus revealing to her
that he is the messiah!
This is the first time he has told anyone this,
and this revelation changes the woman’s life,
she runs back to the city,
to all those people she was avoiding
and she tells them “come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah can he?”
and amazingly enough they listen to her!
And we are told that “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”
the woman who comes to the well alone
at the beginning of the story
is back with the community by the end,
Jesus has given her living water,
that is, a relationship with Jesus,
and a relationship with Jesus is one that restores other relationships.
God tells the story of necessity through relationships,
what we need is a relationship with God
and a relationship with our neighbors,
isn’t that what Jesus says when pressed about the greatest commandment?
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and might
and love your neighbor as yourself.
If we attend to these relationships God says,
everything else will fall into place.
so often the stories of necessity we tell
focus on other things,
we’ve seen this first hand as COVID19 spreads around the world
as we’ve heard many conflicting stories of necessity,
the story that says we need lots of toilet paper
and the story that says it’s not so bad,
the story that says carry on with life
and the story that says the best way to care for your neighbor
might just be to avoid them.
As we go through this time
we are having to navigate the path
through the many stories of necessity we hear
and the ones we tell ourselves
and it’s not easy,
but I think it is made easier
when we first listen to God’s story,
the one where God loves us and our neighbors
and promises to be with us whatever comes our way,
and secure in that love
we are then able to consider
how we might best live that love out.
I’ve kept this in mind this last week
as each day I’ve prayerfully considered
how we as a community will live out our trust in God,
stay in relationships
and care for our neighbors,
even as this might mean changing the way
we physically live some of this out.
I don’t know what the future will hold
but I do know that however it happens
we as a community,
saved by God’s grace and rooted in Christ,
will continue to be nourished by worship
and serve Christ and community.
As we go out into a world today,
where there are so many stories of what is necessary,
we go having drunk from the living water of Jesus,
we have been fed and forgiven,
our relationships with God and others have been strengthened
and so we go out trusting that God will provide for us,
show us the best way to love our neighbor
and care for the most vulnerable among us,
and we go knowing that God goes with us. Amen
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
2 Corinthians 5:20=6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
It’s a story in 12 words,
12 words within which
lie the whole scope of the human life,
that we start as dust and end as dust
and that we do well to remember that while we are living in between.
As humans we tell stories to make sense of our lives,
now if this 12 word story were the only one we told,
it would be horribly depressing,
but it’s not,
it’s one story among many that we tell about life,
and it has a place among all those stories
as they all come together to reveal the truth about life.
This Lent we will be focusing on telling stories of faith,
and thinking about story telling and meaning making,
I was reminded of a Ted Talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie from 2009
Titled “The Danger of a Single Story”,
you can still find it online and watch it for yourself.
And in this Ted Talk
Chimamanda talks about the power that the stories we tell
have to shape our reality and understanding
both of ourselves and others,
she shares about how as a child
the books she had access to were British or American in origin
and so when she as a child
started writing her own stories
all of her characters were blond haired and blue eyed
and ate strange things that she had never tasted before
and it wasn’t until she found books by Africans
that she realized that people that looked like her
could be in stories too
and do things that she was familiar with,
that was the danger of a single perspective,
the danger of a single story
that people, even ourselves, get left out of the picture.
She also talks about a boy that worked for her family growing up,
and all her mother told her about the boy
was that he and his family were poor.
So she was surprised when they went and visited his home
and saw a beautiful basket made by the boys’ brother,
the single story of poverty that she had
didn’t include hard work.
Having only one story is dangerous
because we come to believe that it’s the only way to think about something,
this holds true for the stories we tell about others and ourselves,
but also for the stories we tell of God and faith in God
And of course not all stories
are ones we wish to think about or tell all the time,
but these uncomfortable stories,
the ones that remind us of our mortality
and the ways in which we fail to love God and neighbor
must be told as well
because they are a part of life
that’s what Lent is for,
it is a time set aside to tell stories
that we might otherwise shy away from
but which reveal important truths,
namely that ultimate power rests with God
Which is why we start with the story of Ash Wednesday,
remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,
we rarely tell the story of life this way
but it holds out to us a truth
that we need to understand,
a truth that we tend to forget
or even intentionally ignore,
the truth that our time is finite
and whatever we do,
we all end up the same,
We like to tell other stories about life,
most often we are the main characters,
the ones in control of our own actions and destinies,
we are the heroes and others are the villains
And yet the story of Ash Wednesday
takes us and points us to the one who originally took that dust
formed it into a shape
and breathed life into it,
God, creator of heaven and earth,
the only one with the power to make dust more than dust.
This story re-centers us,
prepares us for the stories to come,
the stories of life where God is the hero,
and God has the power to shape the future of all people
these stories return us to God.
In a moment we will confess our sins,
Luther defined sin as being curved in on one’s self,
navel gazing as it were.
In our readings for tonight
we are warned against this inward turn.
In our first reading God calls out to the people,
who even in their repentance
are focusing more on themselves
than the reason for their need to repent.
“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers...such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” God tells the people through the prophet,
Instead, God says “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually…”
The story the people had been telling themselves
was that whatever ill they were experiencing
was the fault of God
and God turns it around on them,
shows them that their own actions
are at least causing some of the harm
and the solution is focus less on themselves
and more on their neighbors,
to change the story being told about what God wants.
Jesus in our gospel reading
points out the hypocrites,
their actions are driven by the kind of story they want others to tell about them,
that they are religious,
not that they actually wish to become closer to God.
If you wish to become closer to God, Jesus says,
the only one who needs to know what you’re doing
it doesn’t matter what story others tell of you
but what story God tells of you.
Those human stories will fade,
God’s story lasts forever.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return
The season and stories of Lent
call us back to focus on God
and the stories God has to tell,
stories where God works through the people that go unnoticed,
who are left out of the stories of the world,
stories where God is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,
stories where dust filled with life is treasured by God.
Tonight we hear a short story,
and are invited into a time
where we reflect on all the stories
between the dusty beginning and endings.
So as you go out this evening
marked with the Ashy cross on your forehead,
consider the stories you tell.
Of yourself, of others, of God,
What stories will you seek out this Lent?
Your old favorites or something new?
Stories where you are the hero?
or where God is at the center?
And as you go
remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Amen
Transfiguration of Our Lord
2 Peter 1:16-21
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who
gives us what we need, Amen
I’ve got to admit,
I have a soft spot in my heart
for the festival of the Transfiguration,
perhaps because this moment,
told as a brief story
encapsulates the entire experience of a life of faith,
no matter where you are on your journey of faith
there is something for you
in the story of the transfiguration
which we experience through the disciple Peter.
Peter is the disciple
whose relationship with Jesus
is laid bare for us to see all throughout the gospel,
and it’s not always a pretty sight,
but at each turn,
Jesus gives Peter what he needs,
and at this moment
Peter needs to be reaffirmed in his relationship with Jesus,
and Jesus knows,
he will need this experience in the days to come
when there are more questions than answers
about who Jesus is.
the conversation about the identity of Jesus
is what that started all of this,
six days earlier Jesus, taking a break from the crowds
drew his disciples aside and asked them “Who do people say that I am?”
the disciples responded, Moses, Elijah, a prophet
and hearing these wrong answers
Jesus asked them,
the ones closest to him
“but who do you say that I am?”
and Peter in a moment of clarity
that Jesus later attributes to the Father
says “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”
he gets the right answer,
Peter is the first to confess the truth about Jesus,
and Jesus praises him for it
and tells him that he is the rock
on which he will build his church.
That’s quite a moment,
Peter is riding high,
he got the answer right,
Jesus has given him a special commission,
Peter knows what’s going on
(or at least he thinks he does)
so when Jesus starts to show the disciples
that what it means to be the messiah
is to travel to Jerusalem,
suffer, be killed and on the third day raised again,
Peter doesn’t hesitate to jump in,
he takes Jesus aside and tells him
“God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you.”
And Jesus’ response is not what Peter is expecting,
at Peter’s rebuke Jesus turns and says to him
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
In a moment the corner stone
has become a stumbling block,
can you imagine how devastated Peter felt?
He has gone from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows
and I imagine that at that moment
he is questioning everything
even his role as a disciple,
thinking that he’s blown it with Jesus.
I think most of us have had moments like that,
where we’ve disappointed someone important to us,
or we’re afraid that we have irreparably broken an important relationship
and it is a bad feeling.
But Jesus hasn’t given up on Peter,
he lets him be for awhile
and then six days after those extreme highs and lows
takes him and James and John
literally out of the valley and up a mountain
where he is transfigured before them,
his face shines like the sun
and his clothes turn white.
The fullness of who Jesus is,
is revealed on that mountain,
in that moment before Peter.
It’s one thing to stumble on the right answer,
it’s quite another thing to witness Jesus surrounded by the glory of the Lord
and speaking with Moses and Elijah
and Peter never wants this moment to end,
‘this is a good place’ he tells Jesus,
‘if you want I’ll build the three of you places to stay and you’ll never have to leave’
he is caught up in the glory of the moment,
but I bet at the back of his mind
is Jesus’ passion prediction,
even after Jesus’ strong rebuke,
Peter is still trying to find a way out of what Jesus has told them must happen,
this might be the answer.
But as Peter is speaking
they are all overshadowed by a bright cloud
and from the cloud comes the voice of God saying
“This is my Son the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
and the terrified
disciples fall to the ground
overcome by fear,
because that is what you do when you hear the voice of God,
you are terrified
and Jesus comes over,
picks them up, and says “do not be afraid”
and when they look up,
they are alone with Jesus
and he leads them back down the mountain.
Because the truth of mountain top experiences,
whether literal or figurative,
is that as important as they are,
they cannot last forever,
at some point you have to come down off the mountain
back into the valley,
because that’s where faith is lived out,
in the valleys of everyday life,
but we are able to live it out
because of what we have experienced on the mountain top.
Peter and James and John will go with Jesus to Jerusalem,
and things will go as Jesus has told them
there will be moments of great faith
and moments of doubt and despair
but even in the depths of fear and doubt
they have the experience of the transfiguration,
the voice of God,
the reassuring touch of Jesus,
the view from the mountain top.
The life of faith is never straight forward,
there will be times when like Peter,
for a moment we get it right,
and in the next instant we will get it so very wrong,
there are the times when we are enthusiastic and energized,
and times when we are disheartened and tired,
and then there are the times when we are just plain terrified,
And in all these moments
Jesus gives us what we need,
sometimes we need a rebuke,
and sometimes we need to be led up a mountain
and shown the glory of the Lord,
or a calming touch
and then Jesus leads us back down the mountain,
to see life in the valley through new eyes,
eyes that have seen the glory of the Lord.
There’s one final detail to this story,
as Jesus leads the three disciples back down the mountain,
he tells them not to tell anyone about their experience
until after he has risen from the dead.
It may seem like an odd request
given how amazing the experience was,
but I think it speaks to the truth
that we often only understand moments where the glory of the Lord is revealed,
long after the experience.
We don’t forget about them
but as we live our lives
we see more clearly than in that initial moment
the impact of that time on our journey of faith,
and only then
it is time for us to share the story with others,
and perhaps our story telling will be Jesus,
giving someone else what they need at that moment
on their journey of faith.
This Wednesday marks the beginning of a season of journeys and stories.
We start by being reminded of the most simple story of humanity
that we begin as dust and we return to dust.
Then we join with Jesus
as he journeys to Jerusalem and the cross,
this is a story we tell every year,
we are still unpacking it’s meaning, 2,000 plus years later
and as we go with Jesus,
we reflect on our own journeys
and tell our own stories
whether they take place on mountain tops or in valleys.
But before all this starts,
we take a moment to rest in the glory of the Lord,
we look around and say,
it’s good to be here,
and even though we know we can’t stay
we will carry this moment with us
on the rest of our journey. Amen
Second Sunday After Epiphany
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who builds community
with an invitation to come and see. Amen
We are now in the season after Epiphany
and so our bible stories
are all about how Jesus is revealed as God to us.
With very few exceptions,
this revelation occurs in community,
God uses people to reveal Jesus to others
and so today we get the story
of how the first core community of those people is formed.
With a search for something more,
and an invitation.
It all starts with John the baptist,
remember God works in the world through people.
God calls John the baptist to prepare the way for Jesus,
and that’s what John has been doing,
he’s been telling people to repent of their sins
and baptizing them when they do,
and some of them have started to follow him,
they are searching for something more out of life
and they think they’ve found it in John.
but John knows his role is one of preparation
for the one that is coming after him,
he doesn’t know exactly who this is,
just that the spirit will let him know,
and when he baptizes Jesus
the spirit descends
revealing Jesus as the one he has been waiting for
and John’s preaching changes
to a very simple message
“Look here is the lamb of God”
John is standing with two of his followers
when Jesus walks past
and John points to him and says “Look, here is the Lamb of God”
and just like that
they start following Jesus,
not in the metaphorical sense
but literally walking behind him
and Jesus turns around and asks them
“What are you looking for?”
which is a loaded question,
what are they looking for?
They probably don’t know exactly themselves
but it’s certainly more than the answer they quickly give
when they ask Jesus where he’s staying,
and Jesus responds “Come and see”
a loaded answer
because what they will see by going with Jesus
is certainly more than the place where he is staying,
they will see God revealed.
And they go with Jesus
and spend the rest of the day with him
and that’s all it takes to start off a chain reaction of invitations,
Andrew goes and finds his brother Simon
and tells him “we have found the messiah”
Andrew brings Simon to Jesus,
and when Jesus looks at him
he gives him a new name, Peter,
the rock, the foundation of the community.
People are searching for something more
and all it takes is an invitation from someone they trust
to experience what they’ve found
as well as an invitation to remain and explore for themselves
to see if they find what they’ve been searching for.
Most of us are here
because at some point,
someone we trust invited us to come and see,
invited might be a strong word for those of us brought as children
but still the people we trust wanted to share what they’d found with us.
We remain because we found Jesus,
and a place that lets us explore
what it means to have found Jesus as our lives play out
because even when we find Jesus,
we still continue to search
because humans are constantly searching throughout life
sometimes this is because of the sin that tells us we can be God
and control our own destinies
and so we search for a way to achieve that,
sometimes we search because we want to know who we are,
what our purpose is,
sometimes we search for God
because it seems as if God is hidden,
and Jesus knows,
even if we don’t realize it,
is that what we’re searching for is a community,
an identity and a purpose,
all things that God has already given us
first and foremost
we are beloved children of God
we always have been and always will be
this identity will never change
and because we are beloved children of God
our purpose is to love God and love our neighbor,
and we discover this identity and purpose in community
and all it takes to find
is for a person we trust to point and say
“Look here is the Lamb of God”
followed by an invitation to “come and see”
Of course we humans try to make it more complex than that,
we ask questions like how?
And then we try to make the community in our own image instead of God’s
and we make rules and get into disagreements
but at the heart of it all, it’s really simple,
people searching for something more
gathered together because someone pointed to Jesus
and extended an invitation to come and see, remain and discover
and as we do
it becomes our turn to reach out to others we see searching,
to point to Jesus and invite them to come and see, remain and discover.
And Jesus knows that this isn’t always easy,
we get discouraged,
or our search changes,
so Jesus comes to us again,
in word and water, bread and wine,
and once again invites us to come and see,
and we are present at the table
because someone we trust has once again come to us saying
‘we have found the messiah, come and see’
because just as we keep searching
we keep needing to be invited,
reminded of our identities as beloved children of God.
This year my hope is that we as a community
learn to better do this for one another
both those already here
and those who have yet to encounter Jesus,
to see when someone is searching,
to point them to Jesus
and to invite them to come and see,
because we have found the messiah. Amen
Baptism of Our Lord
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who is continually doing a new thing with us. Amen
So in the story of Jesus
we’ve jumped thirty some years
between last week and this week.
Mostly because the Bible doesn’t really tell us anything
in between Jesus’ birth
and his appearance in the wilderness
by the Jordan river to be baptized by John,
the event that starts off his public ministry.
Jesus is starting something new,
and God calls him to begin with baptism,
so Jesus goes from Galilee
out into the desert to the Jordan river
where John the Baptist
is preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
calling people to turn their lives around,
to start new,
and is baptizing people as a sign of that repentance,
that commitment to new life,
John is preparing the people for Jesus
and he’s doing quite well
gathering big crowds
and now Jesus goes up to John and says,
‘I’m ready to take over, baptize me.’
And John says,
‘wait a minute, that’s not how this is supposed to happen,
you’re supposed to baptize me.’
And Matthew tells us
that “John would have prevented him”
and Jesus has to convince John
that this is what God wants,
finally John consents to baptize Jesus
and when Jesus comes up out of the water
the spirit descends and the voice of God is heard
and it’s all amazing,
but it might not have happened
if Jesus hadn’t been able to convince John
that this was the way God was working.
I don’t know about you,
but this sounds like kind of a rough start to Jesus’ ministry.
After all if John,
whose whole purpose in life
was to prepare the way for Jesus
had to be convinced,
how much more convincing is the next person going to take?
Now to be fair to John,
it wasn’t what Jesus was planning on doing that threw him
but how he wanted to start going about doing it,
Jesus just wasn’t what he expected,
but he was open enough to be convinced
and the ministry went forward.
We see this pattern replicated over and over again,
God doing something new
and since God works in the world with people,
we see God partnering with someone
who while open to the new thing
must be convinced of the how
and when they consent,
even a little bit,
the holy spirit swoops in to make the new life possible.
We see this in our story from Acts,
we only read a part of it
but it is the story of the first Gentile converts
to the way of Jesus.
Jesus has died and risen and appeared to the disciples
and before he ascends back up into heaven
he commands them to spread the news of the new thing God is doing,
and to baptize those who desire it
and with baptism will come the gift of the holy spirit
so that’s what the apostles are doing,
they’re creating a new community,
people are hearing their preaching
and believing and are being baptized
and things are going great,
until Peter has a vision from God.
God wants to do a new thing
within this new thing!
God wants to expand the ministry to the Gentiles
which is really just short hand
for everyone else,
literally it means “the nations”,
there’s the chosen people
and there’s everyone else
and up until this point
the Jesus movement has been a strictly Jewish thing
and one very strong characteristic of being part of the chosen people
is to remain separate from everyone else,
so much so that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate or to visit a Gentile
and yet that’s what God is calling Peter to do,
and Peter resists,
he protests that he’s followed the law his whole life,
why break it now?
But God is insistent
and Peter is just open enough to the idea
that when the spirit nudges Peter to go to the house of Cornelius
who is a Roman soldier but worships the God of Israel,
Cornelius has had his own vision from God
And as a result sends for Peter
and after he explains his vision
Peter begins to speak,
and this is the part of the story we had for our second reading
he starts off “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
and then Peter who is opening up to this new thing of God
preaches the good news of Jesus Christ to those assembled,
Cornelius and his household
and a remarkable thing happens:
“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.”
God is doing something new,
but is convinced enough
to make enough room for the Holy Spirit to sweep in
making new life possible in ways that even Peter can’t argue with,
the spirit is supposed to be a result of baptism
but the spirit descends on the gentiles
while Peter is speaking
making it hard for anyone to argue against baptism,
seeing as they’ve already received the holy spirit
God is making God’s will known
and Peter gives up his protests,
baptizes the household,
and then stays with them
breaking many of the laws he’d spent his whole life keeping
but which don’t matter anymore
because of God’s new thing.
And things are great,
until Peter goes home
and the other Apostles give Peter a hard time
for staying with gentiles
and he has to go through the whole story
before they accept
that God has given even to the Gentiles
the repentance that leads to life.
But this leads to the first major conflict in the church,
the conflict over whether the gentile converts
must be circumcised to be an official part of the community.
Even having accepted that God is doing a new thing,
there are those who disagree with the how,
and the cycle starts to repeat, again and again and again.
the resistance that comes from God doing a new thing
is rarely about God opening the community even wider,
we all theoretically get on board with that pretty quickly
the idea that God loves everyone,
that’s kind of hard to argue with
the resistance comes from the how,
how this new broader circle
changes the community,
changes our lives
and more importantly to us humans,
how we know who is in and who is out.
And that takes us back to that pesky original sin,
the desire to be God,
We want to be the ones that determine the boundaries of the community
when that is God’s job.
It’s all a bit of a mess isn’t it?
God still comes to us,
God claims us at our baptisms,
making sure that we know that we have been chosen by God,
and then God calls us to share the gift we’ve been given with others,
to expand the community,
and when we get caught up in the how,
God calls to us again,
to see the new thing God is doing,
and God works to convince us with the holy spirit,
even as God forgives us our resistance,
our desire to hold fast to the way things have been
when God is clearly doing something new.
And for this I give thanks to God,
for the grace and mercy shown to us each and every day,
for the water that reminds us of God’s claim on us
and the spirit’s movement among us.
But it also makes me wonder,
what new thing of God are we resisting?
Second Sunday of Christmas
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who created the world
and who chose to become a part of the world. Amen
I know, it may not feel like Christmas anymore,
even though we still have them up in Church
decorations have come down many places
and in stores have already been replaced by Valentine’s hearts
and we’ve done our year end retrospectives,
this year, depending on how you count it
we’ve even looked back ten years over the past decade,
and generally things feel like they are moving forward,
we are past Christmas.
And yet this year the way the calendar falls
we get a second Sunday in Christmas,
the season in the Church calendar
runs until Epiphany on January 6th,
that’s where we get the 12 days of Christmas.
As epiphany is not until tomorrow
this year we get one more Sunday to dwell on Christmas.
So often when we think Christmas
we think of the baby in the manger
and the angels and shepherds
but today we get to focus on Christmas as the incarnation of God,
God the Word becoming flesh
and dwelling among us,
the Greek is literally translated as “pitching a tent among us”,
God became one of us
and lived with us
no special treatment but the full human experience
and all that goes with it,
including suffering and death,
things God could easily have avoided and yet didn’t.
which means we have a God who knows exactly what we’re going through
as we live out our lives
even in those times in life where we feel that
the only ones who understand us
are the ones who have gone through what we’re going through,
and that is the miracle of the incarnation,
that God loved us so much
and wanted to be as close to us as possible
that God became one of us,
God is intimately concerned with our lives,
all the more amazing
when we consider this is the same one who created the universe.
And as we go through life
God seeks to remind us of this intimate relationship,
on the last night with his disciples,
Jesus blessed bread and wine
and told them this bread and wine is my body and blood given for you,
and he commanded them to eat and drink
and to do this whenever they gathered,
so that they would know that he was with them,
a part of them.
Jesus is that close to us,
closer than we sometimes like to think of
and if we try to figure out the how of it
we get confused very quickly
but the how is not the point,
if God can become human
certainly God can be bread and wine
and that is how God has chosen to come to us
as mysterious as that may be.
God is mysterious to us,
because as intimate with us as Jesus is,
and as much as he reveals God’s will to us
according to God’s good pleasure,
at the same time God is so much bigger,
than even our wildest imaginations can comprehend.
John, in his description of the incarnation,
echoing the opening of Genesis,
brings us all the way back to before creation
when God the Father and God the Word and God the Spirit
all together created the world
and set the foundations of life in motion
and had hopes and dreams and a plan for interacting with that creation,
first through the gift of the law and then through Christ.
That is both big and intricate planning.
Paul in Ephesians tells us
that God chose us in Christ
before the foundation of the world,
and we wonder at the enormity of that
as well at the intimacy of being part of God’s plan
from even before time
God is bigger than we are,
bigger than all of us
with greater understanding,
but even as God is so much bigger
God has included us
God doesn’t need us but God has made us part of the action
Again as Paul explains to the Ephesians “with all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, that that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.”
God’s will for us is abundant life,
and “us” means all creation to God,
creation that God will gather in,
because as we are well aware,
sin has entered the world
and because of sin there is pain and suffering
but God has promised to gather us in
the gathering is still in process,
and until then
our purpose is to live for the praise of God’s glory.
And how do we do that?
We live for the praise of God’s glory
when we live in ways
that bring more of God’s will into the world,
the will of abundant life for all,
and that means sometimes living in ways
counter to the way of the world.
The world says there is not enough for everyone,
God’s will says that there is plenty to go around.
The world says that those who appear different
are to be feared,
God’s will says that they too are children of God.
The world says power is gained through shows of strength.
God’s will says that serving your neighbor is the strongest way to live.
Our purpose is to live for the praise of God’s glory,
not the praise of the world,
and the world will push back,
it will be difficult at times
but we are able to do so
because we have been claimed by God,
and promised that whatever the world does to us
will not have the last say.
At our baptisms
God claimed us and marked us
“with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.”
And yet even marked with the Holy Spirit
there may be times when the enormity and mystery of God’s will
and then Jesus comes to us again,
in Word and water,
bread and wine
reminding us that God knows exactly what we’re going through
and that God is with us.
This is the miracle of the incarnation
that we celebrate at Christmas,
the intimacy of God with us
all as part of God whose will stretches before time.
Some days we need the baby in the manger,
the Word become flesh living among us,
and some days we need God who is bigger than us
with plans and understanding far beyond our measly comprehension
but who still cares for us.
At Christmas we get both
and we celebrate all the mysterious truth that comes with it
secure in the knowledge that God is bigger than we are
and that God is with us. Merry Christmas.
4th Sunday of Advent
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who comes to us in unexpected ways. Amen
Have you ever wondered about Joseph’s role in the Christmas story?
I mean it seems peripheral at most.
Given that the Holy Spirit is so active,
is Joseph even necessary?
Today Matthew answers that question with an emphatic yes!
As Matthew tells it
the story of Jesus
is all about God fulfilling God’s own promises
but in radically different ways than people expect
especially since along the way
ordinary people of faith
are called to take part in the fulfillment of promises,
people like Mary and Joseph.
Luke is the one who tells us
more about Mary’s faithful response to God’s call
but Matthew is where Joseph shines.
Mary and Joseph are engaged
which back then was a more solid legal agreement than today
but before they actually get married
Mary is found to be with child from the Holy Spirit
and this presents a dilemma for Joseph
who we are told is righteous,
meaning that he is a follower of the law
and the law says in instances like this
that it is legal for the man to dismiss or divorce the woman
with varying degrees of potential punishment,
Deuteronomy allows for a public stoning,
not that stonings were common in the day of Mary and Joseph
but a very public dismissal
would have brought great shame on Mary and her reputation.
But even as Joseph wants to follow the law
we are told he is unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace,
he tries to find a way to be kind and follow the law.
So he plans to dismiss her quietly,
meaning he wouldn’t expose her supposed infidelity
and thereby take the brunt of the shame on himself
since it would look like he’d gotten a young woman pregnant
then decided to divorce her for no apparent reason.
Which is quite a remarkable decision when you think about it.
“But just when he had resolved to do this” Matthew tells us,
an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream
and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife,
that the child is from the Holy Spirit
and this is how it’s going to play out the angel says:
“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.” and the angel quotes Isaiah.
This is classic Matthew,
remember Matthew is intensely interested
in showing that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s past promises
and the angel’s announcement
shows that Jesus fulfills two,
the promise in Isaiah of a child born to a young woman,
and the promise that the messiah will be a descendant of King David,
and this second part is where Joseph becomes crucial,
Joseph is a descendant of King David
as Matthew has established with the genealogy of Jesus
at the very beginning of his gospel.
By naming Jesus,
as the angel instructs,
Joseph acknowledges Jesus as his son
and as his son Jesus too is a descendant of King David.
But Joseph is more than the connection to the family of David,
he is a faithful person,
who encountering the unexpectedness of God
even as what is required of him
goes against the prevailing teaching of the day.
When faced with a choice between following the law
and acting faithfully
Joseph choses faith
and his faith cares for and nurtures Jesus
as he comes into the world and grows up.
Joseph shows from the very beginning
the truth that “the faithful thing to do and the faithful way to be are sometimes at odds with social convention” (Feasting on the Word Year A volume 1 pge 94)
even in our religious communities.
We look to our systems of religion,
the rules and rituals,
to guide us through life
and they are generally helpful
until we pay more attention to them than to God,
because God continually does new things,
calling us outside of the comfortably established rules and rituals.
Joseph shows us that it is possible to remain faithful to God
even as God’s work falls outside the established definition of acting faithfully,
and actually, while it may seem wildly different to us
God’s actions are always consistent with God’s priorities.
Later in the gospel in the sermon on the Mount,
Jesus will say “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Matthew 5:17
and then he goes on to interpret the law
to protect those without power under the law,
‘yes murder is against the law’ Jesus says
‘but I say that even anger should be judged
because it is anger that precedes murder’
later he continues (Matthew 5:43-47)
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”
Jesus’ fulfillment of the law is based on the love of God
the love that led to creation,
the love of God for that creation
made manifest in Jesus himself,
the love Jesus showed to the poor, needy and outcast he encountered,
love that took him all the way to the cross,
love that burst out again three days later.
All of this love flew in the face of social convention,
God was not supposed to be human,
the poor, needy and outcast were not supposed to be noticed,
the messiah was not supposed to be crucified,
people who are dead are not supposed to rise again.
And yet that’s how God chose to work to save the world,
doing the unexpected through ordinary people
who when faced with the dilemma of following social convention
or following the call of God,
chose to follow God.
That’s what Joseph did,
and Mary and the disciples,
and that is what we are called to do,
to listen for God’s call in the unexpected
and when faced with a choice between doing what is expected
or unconventionally acting out of love,
we are to choose love,
and we do so trusting that God will be with us
because we are following Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. Amen
Second Sunday in Advent
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who comes to transform the world. Amen
So we’ve got trees all over our advent readings for today,
images of trees
and talk of preparing for the coming of the Lord,
and while the images seem to be contrasting
they both point to the promise
that God will come,
judge the world
and that God’s judgment
will transform the world in ways human judgement cannot.
First we have Isaiah,
and the image of a shoot coming out of the stump of a tree
and a branch growing out of its roots.
This is an image of hope
for a people who feel like they’ve been cut down
and all that’s left is a stump,
yet new life is possible from that stump.
Appearances can be deceiving says the prophet Isaiah,
the people of Israel
may look like a stump
but God will make sure that new life appears,
in the form of a leader,
one anointed by God
“The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
we understand this passage
to be referring to Jesus,
and the prophet continues,
this is what this leader will be like:
“He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth”
Now this is a very different way of judging
than we’re used to as humans,
our system of justice is based on proof,
what eyes have seen and what ears have heard
and this organized system
is a step up from the initial way we judge
which is based on our gut instinct and prejudices,
but whether we’re judging based on intuition or on evidence
as humans we only have the smallest amount of understanding
of the people and situations about which we are making judgments.
The judgment of the anointed of God
is judgment through God’s perspective,
a perspective ruled by righteousness,
with the full picture of all that is going on,
all the contributing factors
including God’s belief in the goodness of creation.
And the effects on the world will be astounding,
former predators and pray living side by side
without anyone getting eaten,
children playing with deadly snakes without harm coming to them,
knowledge of the Lord filling the earth
and the shoot that has become a strong branch
signaling to the rest of the nations that God is the true God.
The one who will bring this vision to reality
is the one for whom John the Baptist is preparing,
and he too uses a tree image
but from a very different angle,
he is recommending some logging take place:
“But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for Baptism he said to them ‘ you brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves ‘we have Abraham as an ancestor; for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is laying at the root of the trees; every three therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Where the people Isaiah was preaching to needed comfort,
the people John is speaking to
are people who need some shaking up,
there hasn’t been a prophet for a long time
and then John comes onto the scene
with the very prophetic message of: Repent! Turn back to God!
And the people come flocking to him,
they are ready for God to do something new,
they are ready for God to judge the injustices of the world
and make them right
but then the leaders come out,
leaders who tend to be more cautious
about prophetic change
preached from the mouth of a guy dressed in camel’s hair
dunking people in the river,
and John has a special message for them
“don’t think God’s done working and that you have it all figured out” he tells them
‘something new is coming
and that means change,
and to get ready for that change
we need to clear out some of the old ways
that aren’t working anymore
actually that’s what God is coming to do,
to cut off the branches that don’t make for justice or righteousness anymore
And It’s my job to get you ready John says
“but I can only get you clean on the outside,
the one who is coming will clean you up on the inside
he will baptize you with the holy spirit and fire.”
Now we tend to associate fire with punishment
but it can also be an image of purification, cleansing.
The purest gold comes from melting it down
and getting it so hot that the things that aren’t gold burn away.
If we want to clear a section of land for farming or building a house
we make a pile of the trees and branches
which we burn to get rid of,
we have judged those trees and branches unnecessary
and we clear them out of the way to create room for something new.
This is what Jesus is going to do John says,
judge what needs to be cleared out in each of us
to create space for new life in God.
This is the image of separating the wheat from the chaff,
both are part of the same plant
but the chaff gets in the way of using the wheat.
There is wheat and chaff in each of us,
Jesus will judge what needs to go
and what needs to stay
and will create space for new life in each of us,
in a word save us.
To meet Jesus
is to be judged and saved at the same time,
to be seen fully with the eyes of God
that see both the sins and imperfections
and the worth inherent in all creation,
worth so great that Jesus went to the cross
to bring Isaiah’s vision to reality
and with his resurrection the turning of the ages began
but it is not yet complete,
Lions still munch on antelope
and I don’t intend on going near any rattle snakes any time soon,
but our call is to live into the vision
that has already begun,
this is the work of advent,
during which we are called to repent,
turn toward God and face the judgment and salvation found there,
purifying and creating,
and then we are sent back into this world in transition
to live out the new life we have been given
this is the baptismal life,
the daily dying to sin and rising to Christ,
the continual pruning of our branches
so that fruit might grow
and the reassurance that fruit will grow,
fruit that will turn enemies into friends,
violence into peace,
fruit that will transform the world
in the image of God. 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.