Saturday, December 24th, 2016 – Parents of God – A Christmas Eve Sermon on Luke 2

Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” [15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.]

Grace, peace, and mercy are yours on this Christmas eve night. Amen.

Who can bring the mighty down from their thrones?

A child.

Because a child has this uncanny ability… to mess up just about anything.

Your home.
Your social life.
Your savings account.
Your new blouse or suit.
Your sleep.
Your family dynamic.

And even your mighty empire.

Who can bring the mighty down from their thrones? A child.

Some of you will remember this movie plot from the 80s. Peter was a successful architect, who lived in a high-rise Manhattan apartment with his cartoonist friend, Michael, and his actor friend, Jack. They were all bachelors living the high life. Expensive parties, fancy dinners, and everything that goes with it. Until one day, Peter opens the front door to find an unexpected package at his feet. And it was moving. And drooling.

Outside his front door…a child. In a wicker basket and with a note.

Dear Jack, here is your daughter. I have to go away for six months. Take good care of her. Good luck. Love, Sylvia.

 Peter yells for his roommate, Michael, and the two proceed to panic.

What are we going to do with it?

 I don’t know, give it back to her mother!

 But her mother is gone for 6 months!

 Meanwhile, the child begins to cry and do other things that babies do. And in that moment, these three men, Peter and Michael and Jack all become unexpected fathers to this unexpected child and their lives as they knew them were ruined.

Who can bring the might down from their thrones?

A child.

Because a child has this uncanny ability to mess up just about anything. But then at the same time, a child has this uncanny ability to teach us to love, in their need to be loved.

You see, it wasn’t long before the love that child required from these men grew into love given by them freely. They fell in love with her. These three bachelors were transformed by this little girl, as each of them slowly embraced this newly appointed parenthood.

Who can bring the mighty down from their thrones? A child. And who can teach us to love? A child.

Luke begins his Christmas story with the mighty. Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius. Apparently Luke didn’t get the memo that we don’t talk about politics at Christmas. Instead, he just walks right in the door, drops the gifts and says, “So, Trump, huh?”

Luke puts it this way, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

But this isn’t small talk for Luke. He isn’t bringing this just up just to figure out how Dad voted. No, he’s dragging the hand-painted backdrop drapery across the stage of this Christmas story, setting the scene for the show that’s about to begin. And it should frighten us.

Emperor Augustus and his Roman Regime rule everything. At the snap of a finger, in a single decree, he can control all the movement in the land. Forcing people out their homes, like displaced refugees, in order to register them. In order to tax them more efficiently. In order to take more from them than had already been taken.

Mary and Joseph were there. Just part of the crowd who marched to these orders.

If you look up Pieter Bruegel’s Christmas painting called The Numbering at Bethlehem, you have to search hard to find Mary and Joseph among the villagers crowding into town. “Mary and Joseph have disappeared into the anonymity of the powerless….They are faceless nobodies under the boot of an uncaring empire. [1]

But then a movement started in Mary that could not be controlled by the emperor and could not be stopped by the emperor. The movement of birth.

Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.

Who can bring the mighty down from their thrones?

A child.

And Emperor Augustus did not expect this child on the doorstep of his empire.

And now watch what begins to happen…

Notice that the birth of this child, Jesus, triggers a new decree, a new message going out to all the people. Notice that immediately after Jesus’ birth, an angel announces out in the field, “Behold—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

 When you’re the emperor and a child is triggering decrees that you did not command, you get threatened. It means your control and your grip is in jeopardy. It means this child is messing up your life.

And notice this heavenly decree is in complete contrast to the emperor’s. First, this decree from heaven is spoken to the lowly shepherds. You see, there was this belief back then that God only spoke to Kings and Emperors. But here God speaks to the shepherds, the lowest of the low, and not the Emperor. As theologian Alan Walker has said, “Jesus is God’s answer to a bad reputation.” God speaks of Jesus’ birth…to the shepherds.

Next, remember, in the emperor’s decree, the emperor commanded the people to move. To leave their homes like his little puppets all in order to take something from you. In this heavenly decree, God is the one who moves. Moves down. Moves out of God’s heavenly home. God moves in to human skin. God becomes the refugee. Why? Not because God wants to take something from you but because God wants to give something to you. The gift of God’s self. In the form of a child. It’s almost as if God says, “Well if the Emperor will force you to leave your home, then I will leave mine too. So that I can be with you.”

And it is that confronting and comforting decree that gets taken out into the people by the shepherds. Not by command. But their own free will.

Who can bring down the mighty from their thrones?

A child.

Because a child can mess up just about anything.

But just in case we think the only life Jesus came to mess up was the Emperors, think again.

Did you notice that this child, this incarnation of God, is born to you. This child comes as a gift of good news just outside your doorstep. “To you is born this day…” the angel says to the shepherd – the commoner – the regular one. To you.

It dawned on me that we all walk away from Christmas as new parents. To us a child has been born. I spend so much time talking about you as children of God, tonight I get to call you parents of God.

And like all children, this Christ child will mess up your lives too. This child asked Joseph to be loving instead of righteous. This child asked Mary to be brave instead of fearful. This child asked the shepherds to be preachers of good news and not just hearers of it.

To you a child is born. I wonder what this child is asking of you.

If God is your child then God needs your love in order to grow in the world. Not in a pietistic, overly spiritual, “Just love God!”, sort of way. No, God needs you to love and care for God’s flesh. And God’s flesh is human flesh. What you do unto others you do unto me, Jesus said.

So this Christ child will mess up your life too by asking you to come down from your mighty throne in order to love him and in loving him, loving all people. But for such a mess, it is also the greatest gift. Because this child teaches us to love.

Most of us had our lives messed up by one specific child this year.

That Syrian child, Omran, photographed in the back of an ambulance, silent, stunned, bleeding and covered in ash from an airstrike in Syria. That child who, overnight, became the face of the fighting in Aleppo. That child who inspired a 6-year-old boy from New York to write a letter to President Obama asking if Omran, this refugee, can come and live with him.

This photograph tears us up inside and haunts us. Because deep down, I believe that we know that in the eyes of God, we are all parents to that child. And I believe that child is trying to teach us to love.

Now, like most of my parenting moments, I’m not sure what to do. But I know the first step is at least recognizing that that is our child in the back of that photograph.

omran400x500In one of the most stunning pieces of art I’ve ever seen, artist Judith Mehr painted a picture of Omran in the back of that ambulance and surrounding him are three heavenly angels. It is called, “Omran, Angels are here!” You can see on the door of my office if you’d like. For as haunting as it is, it is equally beautiful and full of love, and it has become the picture of Christmas for me this year.

Who can bring the mighty down from their thrones? A child.

And who can teach us to love? A child.

My friends, that’s why Jesus came – to mess up our life and to teach us to love. All triggered by coming as a child who is born to you who needs your love in order to grow in the world.

Soon, just like those shepherds, we all will be on the move too. Out these doors and back into the world God loves so much.

Know that you leave here as a child of God – loved beyond all measure. But know that you leave here not with the decree from the Emperor. You leave with a decree from the angels – to you a child has been born.

You leave here as parents of God – entrusted to love. Beyond all measure.

May it be so. Amen.

[1] Tom Long, Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2014-11/nativity-december-24-and-25-2014

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Wednesday, December 14th, 2016 – An Advent Vespers Sermon on Matthew 1 and 28 – God with us.

Matthew 1:18-25
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

 Matthew 28:20
And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

In this season of Advent Vespers, we are reflecting on the theme and the name we give to Jesus, Emmanuel: God-With-Us.

Last week, Pastor Pam took up that behemoth of words – God. Reflecting on the book of Job, she reminded us that we are part of something very, very big. This wonderful and complex world created by a wonderful and complex God. Not only have we been created by God, but we have been created together with all that exists.

This week, a smaller word – with. God is with us.

 When I was young, I was frightened by people who were homeless.  I can remember when I was in Sixth grade and on a trip to Washington, D.C. with my family.  We were coming up the escalator of the subway, when I saw a homeless man up ahead, begging on the street.  The way we all were situated, I was going to be the one closest to him when we walked by.

I didn’t know what to do. I had nothing for him. No change in my pocket to give, no hopeful word in my mouth to speak.

For a moment his eyes caught mine, and it was like a finger touching a hot stove. It burned with pain quickly, and I swiftly turned my head and moved myself to the other side of my mom and dad, so that they were between me and him.

Though I wouldn’t have put it this way at the time, that experience felt like a moment of social disaster. Here we are – human beings encountering each other. An affluent family with plenty to give, and a man whose life was frail and in desperate need of help with nothing to give and everything to receive. And no one had a clue what to do or what to say – not the man, not me, not my parents.

As I grew older, and my parents were no longer constantly at my side, I protected myself from the homeless who frightened me by retreating into the safety of my mind, as my fear mutated into more of a moral argument – I shouldn’t give this person money for food or they will just go spend it on drugs and booze. It’s okay to just walk passed them.  I only felt slightly better and less guilty in the shelter of that mind. But really the fear remained.

And so I usually would still try to avoid those moments of social disasters.

But then, a couple of years back, I read an article in the Star Tribune. It was on the topic of the homeless who stand on the streets of Minneapolis asking people for money. The article interviewed a handful of Minneapolis’ notorious homeless, the ones everyone knew.  The interviewer asked the typical questions – why are you homeless, do you want food or do you want money?  What was great about the story is that it seemed that the people were honest.  Some said they simply wanted money so that they could buy some alcohol.  Some said they needed the money so that they could buy their much-needed insulin.  But the common thread that each of them mentioned was that when they are out on the streets asking for money, the only thing they are really looking for is for someone to look them in the eyes.  For someone to look at him or her as if to say, “I see you.  You exist.  You are not invisible to me.”  They said that you don’t have to give them money, but what they desperately want is to be noticed.

To put it another way, they want someone to be with them. Even if just for a moment. In a glance. To look them in the eye. To recognize that you see them – a human being – right in front of you.

Which is the hardest work of all actually – to be with someone. We can do a lot of things for people without ever getting our hearts dirty with an actual relational encounter. But being with is what most of us fear – because it asks more than we know how to give, when simultaneously being with is what most of us long for.

I share this story because it reminds me of God. God is one who does the hard work – the work of being with.

In fact, as preacher Sam Well’s puts it, with is the most important word in the Bible. It is the word that describes the heart of God and the heart of Christmas.[1] To be with.

I don’t know if you noticed, because it is easy to miss. But the story of Christmas that you just heard from Matthew’s gospel is, like my encounter in Washington DC, a moment of social disaster. We don’t think about Christmas that way very much and there is a reason we keep Matthew’s version quarantined to the fourth Sunday of Advent and away from Christmas Eve. It’s a social disaster and no one knows what to say.

We are used to hearing Mary’s side of the story – but tonight, we get Joseph’s. He is a man who wakes up one morning to find his life has been ruined. He had a fine job, he was soon to be married to his beloved. Until one day, Mary says, “Honey, we need to talk. I’m pregnant.” An unplanned pregnancy can be startling news to hear but isn’t always a disaster. But add to that, however, the certainty that the child isn’t yours and swelling realization that the punishment for adultery is death of your beloved by stoning, then you understand what a catastrophe this really is for both Joseph and Mary.

And no one knows what to say.

And it is into that mess of a situation that Christ is born. It is into that disaster that God arrives, in the flesh.

Like a diamond in a pile of manure, like a friend in a sea of strangers, like grace in the midst of suffocating guilt, a child is borne into this disaster. A child whom we call Emmanuel – God With Us.

Perhaps the miracle of Jesus’ birth isn’t how it happen, or where it happened, but when it happened. In the middle of lives that have been ruined. Not only is God with us, but God is with us there.

Jesus is the fullest reflection of God. Who is God? What is God like? God is with. “God’s whole being is shaped to be with.”[2]

And as we heard Jesus proclaim at the end of Matthew, “Behold, I am with you, always, until the end of the age,” which is to say, there will never be a time that God is not with.

What we learn is, not only does God create, but God creates in order to be with. God has promised to not be God without us.

If the heart of God and the heart of Christmas is shaped around that word with, and we are made in the image of God, then perhaps Christmas teaches us about the heart of the Christian life. To be with.

 A friend of mine, Eric, took a trip in college to Egypt. Part of the trip included a stop a monastery at Mount Sinai. Part of the tradition there is that thousands of people would wake up around 2am to start the 5-hour hike up Mount Sinai to catch the sunrise. My friend joined his classmates and many others to start this grueling trek upward. As he puts it, it was a treacherous trail of switchbacks all the way up the mountain. After awhile, he started to slow down and grow tired. He needed a break and some water, so he stopped at a rest station along the way and told his friends he’d catch up with them later. As he got some water and snack, this overwhelming sense came over him – I’m not going to make it all the way up. This isn’t going to happen for me. He was at a time in life when things were fragile – he was still on depression medication, his body wasn’t in peak physical condition. This was just one more moment of disappointment. The irony of sitting on a high mountain with such spiritual significance yet feeling so spiritually low was evident. But in that moment, three travelers from Nigeria walked by. One of them greeted him, and they exchanged stories. They invited Eric to walk with them and so he did. After awhile, it started getting light out. Realizing that he was only two-thirds they way up, Eric knew this was his chance to catch the sunrise. He thanked the three for walking with him and he went over to sit on a rock. He overheard the Nigerian man tells the others to go on without him, and then he came over and sat with Eric. As they watched the sunrise together, they shared stories about their faith and their family, and what brought them to Mount Sinai. It was an unexpected but blessed moment for Eric. Eventually, this man stood up and told Eric that he was hungry and was going to head back down the mountain. As they said goodbye to each other, the man said, “You know, I never caught your name.”

“My name is Eric.”

“It’s nice to meet you Eric. My name is Emmanuel.” And then he turned, and walked back down the mountain.

As we live into these finals days of Advent, may we consider that perhaps in the eyes of God, we are all named Emmanuel. God with us. Maybe it be so. Amen.

[1] Much of this sermon is informed and inspired by by Sam Well’s sermon “The Most Important Word”, found at the beginning of his book The Nazareth Manifesto.

[2] Ibid.

Sunday, December 11th, 2016 – Advent 3 Sermon on Matthew 11:2-11 and Isaiah 35:1-10

Audio will be posted soon.

Matthew 11:2-11
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Isaiah 35:1-10
1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Friends, welcome to the third week of Advent.

I’m reminded around this time of year, as I am every year at this time, that preparing for Christmas is hard work. There are gifts to find and cards to address. Lights to hang and trees to straighten. Parties to host and parties to attend. Family to welcome in and in-laws to avoid. And in the midst of that, all the other normal parts of life that don’t stop for the season. There are relationship that need healing and relationships that need ending. There are jobs to search for and committee meetings to attend. There are annual reports to write and the dog still needs a walk. Preparing for Christmas is hard work.

But what I’ve realized is this season more than any other is that this season of Advent, this season of patient preparation and patient waiting for the arrival of Christ, the incarnation of God in the humble and vulnerable form of a child, this season of making room for Jesus in the Inn of our lives is even harder work. Because Advent, unlike Christmas, won’t ask for much from your wallet or your time – but it will ask for something from your heart.

It has dawned on me that throughout these past few weeks, in worship we’ve been confronted each week with a question. A question that, if we let it, will burrow its way into our heart and create a holy disturbance there.

In the first week, we were confronted with the question, “Are you awake?” In the scripture, we were told to “keep awake, for you do not know the hour that your Lord is coming”, which begs the question not only can we keep awake, but are we awake. We are invited to ask, “Where have I fallen asleep with regard to my own life and the life of my neighbor and the world?”

Are you awake? That’s the first question of Advent.

And then once we are awake and alert, last week, we were asked to consider what are the places in our life needs starting over. Despite what we might hope, we cannot simply separate ourselves into the wheat and the chaff, the good and the bad, but rather as Pastor Pam said, we all need to repent, which means “turn around”. Why? Because the line between the wheat and the chaff runs right through the middle of each of us. And so what is the chaff in your life that finally needs to be released into the wind and burned in the fire, so that our lives might bear fruit and provide nourishment to the world once again.

What needs repentance in your life, what needs turning around? That is the second question of Advent.

Now, those two alone are hard and haunting questions and so it’s a miracle that any of you have showed up here today, trudging through the snow, looking for more.

Because today’s advent question is perhaps the most difficult of all.

Is Jesus the One we’ve been waiting for? Or are we to wait for another?

That is the third question of Advent and it is the question of the Christian life. And the question itself comes from, of all people, John. John the Baptist.

You know John. He was the wild one last week – so confident in his message and his mission that he had no need for a custom made, slim-fitted tunic and red power belt. No, just some camel hair and an old belt of cracked leather would do. John, who was shouting in the wilderness, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near!” and who warned of the One who was coming who was greater than he. John, who knew exactly who Jesus was the moment he laid eyes on him at the river Jordan, and said, “I need to be baptized by you!” John, who held Jesus’ torso in his hands as he lowered him into the current of the water. John, who had a front row seat to the symphonic ballad of God’s voice breaking through the heavens to proclaim, “This One, this is my beloved Son, of whom I am well pleased.”

 That’s the confident John, the one who knew so clearly, who now is having second thoughts.

You see, John’s life is not what it was a week ago. Today, he is in prison at the hands of King Herod, and for the confident he had, he now has a question.

Go and ask Jesus, he says to his disciples, are you the one, or do we need to wait for another?

It is a question that is whispered out the small window in a prison cell that lets in just enough oxygen and sunlight to preserve life and just enough oxygen and sunlight to prolong it. It is a question asked to John’s faithful followers, who had every reason to find greener pastures. It’s amazing that John still has disciples. It’s not good for your resume as a prophet to start questioning your own prophecy.

Go and ask Jesus, he says to his disciples, are you the one, or do we need to wait for another?

Can you feel the weight of those words? Just imagine those words in the mouth of a foster child, arriving at her fifth foster home in three years. Are you the one I’ve been waiting for, or should I wait for another? Imagine those words in mouth of a mother whose miscarried 14 times, only to hear that this embryo has held on…for now. Are you the one I’ve been waiting for…

That is the weight of the hurt and the disappointment and the fear and the uncertainty in John’s words. John who has held Jesus in his hands, looked Jesus in the eyes, even heard the voice of God proclaiming Jesus as God’s son. But that’s how dark this prison cell is. You forget and you doubt the things that have been most loudly proclaimed to you.

We know what that’s like. To be in a place of such darkness and brokenness and despair and insecurity that we start to doubt the things that have been loudly proclaimed over us – that we are loved, that we are powerful, that we are valuable, that what we do matters to this world.

In prison times of our life, we can forget the very ingredients of life that have been given to us, that are necessary for life. People say you need water to live – the same is true about love. Without it to give and receive, we grow cold. The same is true about purpose. Without purpose to get us out of bed to face the world each morning, we whiter away.

So, yes, we can feel the weight of John’s words. We get his full-throated question because we have asked it ourselves.

Are you the one, Jesus, or do we need to wait for another?

And the beauty of hearing this text in Advent is that, if John can ask it, then so can we. Then in the middle of Advent and in the middle of a sanctuary, fragile faith that’s gone cold is welcome here. That’s the beauty of this text.

The risk of such a scripture reading is that it invites us to actually answer the question– is Jesus the One you’ve been waiting for? Really? Or should I wait for another? Or more realistically, should I just stop waiting.

Now, let’s take a look at how Jesus responds to John. First off, let’s be honest, those are hard words to hear. Because built into them is a vote of disappointment and hesitant-confidence.

The first thing he does is he tells John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see!” What remarkable grace that is. Jesus doesn’t get defensive. He doesn’t lash out. He doesn’t give a simple, “Yes, John, I am the One. Quit being a doubter. Just let me into your heart and you’ll know it’s true.” No, Jesus says, “Don’t ask me, tell John what you see!”

Jesus entrusts his reputation, his identity into the experience of others. He trusts that their testimony will be enough. And they aren’t even Jesus’ disciples –they are John’s! But he trusts their experience. What do you see and hear?

And then Jesus quotes from the book of Isaiah, that we heard earlier from Oden – the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

Now those words from Isaiah….John would know those words. Even if he had forgotten them for a time, he would know those words the moment he heard them. It is such a hopeful word – about the wilderness and desert being glad and breaking forth with streams of water, the blind receiving their sight, the deaf hearing, the lame leaping like dear.

But here is the interesting thing – some scholars and theologians will say that those words are out of place. They don’t belong there. You see those words are spoke in the 35th chapter of Isaiah… while the people are still imprisoned in exile. Which means they aren’t true. The blind don’t see, the deaf don’t hear. The lame are still lying on the ground and the desert runs dry. It is a word out of place. Some scholars say it belongs later in Isaiah, when the world is in a better place for the people of God. So, who moved it?

But theologian Barbara Lundblad suggests that perhaps no one moved it. Perhaps the Spirit of God planted that word right where it needed to be. “Put it here,” breathed the Spirit, “before anyone is ready. Interrupt the narrative of despair.”[1] In this way, “It is a word that dares to disturb the despair of the present.”[2] It speaks of hope and light in the prison of exile.

And these are the words Jesus sends to John, the prisoner who hasn’t been set free. These words that don’t belong here – these words that are out of place. But these words dare to disturb the despair of John’s present, shedding a ray of light into that dark prison cell, reminding John of the promises of God that have faded away.

That’s who Jesus is – he’s the One who interrupts the narrative of despair.

Is Jesus the One we’ve been waiting for? It is the question John asks, and it is the question we are asked on this third Sunday of Advent. Is Jesus the One you’ve been waiting for? Jesus, who speaks hope into despair, light into darkness. Jesus, the one who believes in and brings peace instead of violence, mercy instead of vengeance, presence instead of isolation.

And if we can say yes to that and celebrate that birth of Jesus in our day, then we become the ones speaking a word out of place. Advent and Christmas are Word out of place. A word of defiant hope interrupting the narrative of suffering and despair. Because, let’s be honest…“(t)he world appears to be pretty much the same as it was before Jesus with respect to idolatry, injustice, powerlessness, exploitation, scarcity, and violence.”[3] And it is just such a world that needs a word out of place needs to be spoken.

Is Jesus the One, we’ve been waiting for? If so, go and tell the world what you see: tell the world that oil pipelines are being rerouted away from drinking water; tell the world that American Muslims and American Jews are joining hands in solidarity during a time when they both feel threatened; tell the world that the eyes of New York are being opened to the systemic racism in their parole boards which prevents black captives being set free and changes are on the way. Or more locally, tell the world that children of Northfield are receiving toys at Christmas, and tell the world that Northfield sees the need for affordable housing and it is being designed.

Friends, welcome to the third week of Advent.

There’s still time.

Are you awake?

Have you repent, have you changed your ways?

Is Jesus the One?

If so, then the fourth question that will confront us next is this: where is God asking you to give birth to Jesus in your life? Or maybe from the perspective of Joseph, into what part of your life is God trying to be born, and will you welcome God there, or will you dismiss her quietly?

May these questions continue to confront you and live in you as we live into the day of Christ’s arrival, which is both here and on its way. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1941

[2] Alan Storey

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3091

Sunday, November 27th, 2016 – Advent 1 Sermon on Matthew 24:36-44

Matthew 24:36-44
36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Are you awake?

Are you awake? That’s the question this morning that you and I are being asked by the gospel of Matthew. Are you awake?

Now, this question can be asked for many different reasons.

It’s the question we ask a spouse in the middle of the night, when fear has crept in. Are you awake?

It’s the question we ask a friend at a campsite when it’s time to hit the trail. Are you awake?

It’s the question black Americans are asking white Americans, when it comes to seeing the racial disparity in this country. Are you awake?!

But Matthew…Matthew is asking this question because he doesn’t want his people to miss something. He wants them to watch and pay attention.

Are you awake? Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. Don’t miss the arrival of the Lord.

Now, Matthew gospel’s is trying to do something to us here. He is trying to churn up a feeling here in the reader and this call to wakefulness is meant to sound like good news. But too often we hear it otherwise.

But too often the feeling felt is fear. We hear this text about no one knowing the hour when the Lord will come, and what we hear is Matthew saying that when the Lord shows up it will be as violent as the flood in the days of Noah, and as seemingly random as one worker in the field and one woman grinding meal being vacuumed up into heaven, with the others left behind. We hear that it will be as terrifyingly frightening as a home invader.

That’s what we hear.

But that’s not what this is about. This isn’t about fear.

Now, we might think that if these examples aren’t supposed to make us afraid, then Matthew was just terrible at analogies.

But we have to admit and recognize that we bring our own baggage into this one.

We have been taught by society of this moment called the rapture. When “the end” is coming, when Jesus tears through the heavens to take back all of the chosen people, and to leave behind all the rest. It is an image of the world going through a time of trials and tribulations from which the faithful and the chosen (whoever they are) get an excused absence.

And the idea for this comes right from our reading in Matthew that we just heard. “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

And wow, does this rapture idea have a grip on us. Many of you remember Y2K and the excitement around the year 2000. How afraid everyone was of what was going to happen? And then in the last couple of years, there has been prediction after prediction after prediction of the end of the world. It has inspired an entire series of books that people waited hours and hour and hours in line for like it was the next Harry Potter. HBO has a hit show called The Leftovers based on this very idea. And people can be so certain about the rapture and where they fit into it all, that they will proclaim it through their bumper stickers. One bumper sticker says: Warning: In case of the rapture, the driver of this car will disappear. And then others mock this idea saying: When the rapture comes, can I have your car?

First off, the word rapture doesn’t even exist in the Bible. Secondly, much of this understanding of the rapture comes from a 19th century priest named John Nelson Darby, who wrote it into a bible commentary.

He uses this Scripture as a case for it. But if we look closely, I think we can at least poke a few holes in this frightening idea of the end of the world.

To start, we might remind ourselves of the opening words of our reading: But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Jesus says that no one knows. Not even Jesus! So, when anyone wants to tell you that they know when the world will end, you remind them of Jesus’ words – no one knows. Not even Jesus.

But then also notice, if the rapture is about taking away the saved, the elect…look again at Matthew’s examples. In the example of Noah, those who are taken away are swept away in floodwater, surely assumed to drown.

With the workers in the field and the women grinding meal, nowhere does it say what happens to those who are taken. It doesn’t say they are rushed safely off to heaven somewhere.

And that third example, where the one who is asleep will have their home broken into….remember Matthew is saying, “Keep awake!” which to follow the analogy would say, “Keep awake to prevent a thief in the night.”

If we make this text about the so-called rapture (which doesn’t exist in scripture), and the elected Chosen being taken by God, and the leftovers abandoned by God, and the rampant amount of fear, then we distort and miss Matthew’s point.

This isn’t about fear. Remember, God calls us to love and love casts out fear. So this isn’t about fear.

This is about surprise.

This is about anticipation.

Why? To wake up the people! You see, Matthew is writing to a community about 50 years after Jesus’ death. And like many Christians back then, they were expecting Jesus to return to them for quite some time. And not only that – Jerusalem has been destroyed, the temple lay in ruins, the Roman Empire has taken over everything. And nothing changed for a long time.

Imagine what it would be like to keep the faith then?

We get what that’s like. It’s been two thousand years later. Is anyone actively waiting for Jesus’ return anymore? I’m not. And day after day we get lulled by the same old stuff. The same yogurt for breakfast. The same commute to work. The same problems at home. The same rejection letters in the mail. The same medication in the morning, and then again at night. The same dysfunctional government, the same people ranting on Facebook, the same coffee at church.

And day after day after day of that? You’d start to get discouraged and a little sleepy too. Does any of this matter? Will this ever change?

Matthew knows his people are weary and drowsy in the faith, uncertain if Jesus is ever coming back. Uncertain if this life of faith is worth it. So what does Matthew do? He wakes them up!

He uses what are called apocalyptic writings, that are designed to stun and stand out. Writing that make your ears perk up and your eyes open wide. Writings designed to disrupt the predictability of their lives and to inspire hope for a new future. Writings that generate a sense of surprise and uncertainty and wonder that challenge their assumptions about how life will be and then instead open the door to new possibilities.

This about Matthew saying to them, “Something is about to happen here, so keep awake. I don’t want you to miss it because it will be as sudden as the flood of Noah, as unexpected as a person who is there one minute and gone the next, as subtle as a thief in the night. Keep awake!”

Matthew isn’t churning up fear. He’s churning up a feeling of surprise and anticipation and hope, that tomorrow might be different from today. That things won’t always be the way that they are.

Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

And then in the very next chapter, Matthews tells a story about Jesus telling a parable. And Jesus says to his disciples, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” And the people ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you?” Remember, Matthew’s community is asking, “When will we see Jesus?” To which he said, “Just as you did it to the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Keep awake for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. He might becoming back through a spectacle in the clouds, or he might be standing right in front of you as a neighbor in need. Keep awake, Matthew says.

Jesus might come back some day in the clouds and with the trumpet calling, but don’t go looking for it. It’s a waste of time – no one knows. Instead, be awake now. Which is where God is already present. Before Jesus ever shows up in the clouds, Jesus will first appear just around the corner, suddenly, like a refugee family in need of a car, or like a neighborhood kid in need of a warm welcome, or like a co-worker with cancer in need of a friend.[1]

That’s where Jesus will show up! in the places of suffering in this world to stand alongside, and then to call us to action.

And that’s how it is. God is coming to this place not a second time. But a third and a forth, and millions and billions of times. God is always coming near to us. Always. And when God shows up, God will always ask

something of you. For some bread to eat or water to drink. For pajamas to endure the cold winter nights or for a late-night run to the pharmacy to break the fever. Or take a nod from Isaiah, he will ask us take that which brings death and turn it into that which brings life. Swords into ploughshares. Spears into pruning hooks. Drones into… Handguns into…

Jesus is always showing up. And all of this is to say that you have a part in this. So keep awake.

It’s what we are saying when baptizing Evelyn this morning. We baptize her into a world where Christ is always coming to her. And where Christ is also giving her a part to play in the kingdom of heaven. To do things for the sake of a better world. I wonder what will be the swords and the spears of her generation.

May we teach her not to be afraid of the second coming of Jesus, but rather teach her to trust that God is always coming to her. And may we teach her to be brave enough to respond when God calls upon her in need.

Are you awake? You don’t want to miss this.

Amen.

[1] Feasting on the Word, Vol 1, Year A, David Bartlett.

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016 – Thanksgiving Eve Sermon on Philippians 4:4-9

Philippians 4:4–9
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

I don’t know about you, but these words that we just heard from the Apostle Paul are the kind of words that seem perfect after a morning walk through the Carleton Arboretum. You return home a little out of breath, your nose is red and dripping from the cold. And then you shed your layers, and find a seat on your four-season porch, where the sun is cutting through the window – just right. As you glance out the window, your neighbor walks by with her well-behaved chocolate lab and she waves to greet you and you wave back with a smile. And then you slowly lift up to your lips your cup of freshly brewed Goodbye Blue Monday coffee and it is this kind of Scripture that is so fitting for such a moment. Ahhhh, rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. The Lord is near.

The only trouble with this scene is that it is not even close to what the Apostle Paul was experiencing when he penned them.

These words of Paul that so easily lift off the page in a moment of great joy and thanksgiving did not originate on a Hallmark card made of papyrus. But rather they are words that come with a context to them.

These words flow out of Paul from the cold-comfort of prison and the very real threat of being put to death by the Roman Empire. And Paul writes these words to the Christians in Philippi, where perhaps persecution and death are on the horizon for them as well.

On top of all of that, it appears that this congregation Paul is writing to is living through some good old church conflict and disagreement. Imagine that?

Just before our reading, Paul write – in this letter that is known for its famous Christ hymn and it’s resoundingly joyous theme – he writes an oddly ordinary, oddly specific and oddly personal message, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. 2I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.”

Paul brings in two women we don’t know and a seeming dispute we know very little about. Can you imagine a small squabble between you and a friend being written into the Word of God? What we do know is that Paul cares enough about them and their community to name them, and their conflict and to urge their reconciliation.[1]

And then Paul continues on to say, “And I ask you also, my loyal companion (that’s his nickname for the church), help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.”

Paul urges the others in the community to help these two in conflict. To help them reconcile their conflict. Which is to say, you have a role in this community too! This isn’t their problem – this is our problem.

And then…and then…Paul speaks his words of rejoicing. Which sound a lot different echoing from a prison cell and off the walls of conflict.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

You see, it is into that ordinariness of a community caught up in the everyday struggles of life together that Paul speaks these words. He speaks these words not because of how quotable they are or because rejoicing is just a good thing to do. But he speaks these words because there is goodness to be found in the ordinariness of conflict and need.

The nearness of God. The peace of God. With them – there. Which is the promise of the incarnation, it is the promise of the cross, and the promise of the resurrection. God with us, in the unlikeliest of places.

And that promise – that gift – is worth rejoicing over, even in the midst of prison and the threat of death.

It is Thanksgiving holiday. And just like our first reaction to this text from Philippians, there are a lot of warm cozy images out there out what this holiday should look like for us all. Family arriving with smiles on their faces into homes filled with all the smells of Thanksgiving. Laughter and love and card game after card game. Pictures of a life in which it would be so easy and so natural to say, “Rejoice in the Lord always… The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything.”

But more often than not, in both the culture and in our hearts, Thanksgiving Day is a day that is filled to the brim with expectation that it simply cannot live up to.

A friend recently told me that Thanksgiving Eve is one of the busiest nights of the year for bars and restaurants. And communities of support for people in recovery are always mindful to have a meeting available. There is something about being at home and around family (however you define that word) that demands such emotional and sometimes medicated preparation.

And so we are reminded that this Thanksgiving Day, 2016… it comes with a context. Your context, your story of this past year. Our story of this past year. Which is not to be dismissed or taken lightly.

Maybe tomorrow will be a day filled with joyful celebration with people you love and you’re looking forward to it. Or maybe it will be the marathon of thanksgivings that lurches forward with anxiety as you move from family meal to family meal across the state, intentionally not talking about the presidential election. Or maybe you will spend thanksgiving with strangers at Laura Baker’s free meal in town. Or maybe it will the first Thanksgiving since mom died.

But whatever that context is that we all enter into tomorrow, it is into that ordinariness of love and conflict and fear and loss that we carry with us the story of a God who shows up in the unlikeliest and ordinary places of our lives. The story of a God who promises to show up on Thanksgiving day, knocking at the door of your life with bags and bags of luggage, filled to the brim with love, and wholeness, and forgiveness, and grace.

So yes, in seasons such as this let us give thanks for all that we have received – the blessings before us in this life. But we can’t stop there. Because while many of God’s gifts you can touch and taste and feel and see, those aren’t the first gifts God gives. The first and the greatest gifts of God, as Paul puts it, surpass understanding.

Like the promise of presence when winter comes, and comfort when sorrow rises into your throat.  Or the promise of forgiveness, not of imagined failures, but of sins that still sting. Or the outrageous outpouring of blessing in the promise of resurrection from death that is real and present and daily and concrete and local.[2]

These are the promises of a god who cares about you and your context. A God who calls you beloved and asks you to do the same. A God who calls us to each other. A God who is present in all situations.

And it is from that place that we can give thanks for what we have and how it allows us to give and serve and love and bless. And we can give thanks for what we don’t have and how we must rely on grace and kindness and the sacrifice or generosity of those we know, and others we will never know. For all of it is born out of what we receive from God’s abundance. Blessing upon blessing.  Grace upon grace.”[3]

So yes, rejoice in the Lord, always. Again, I say, rejoice. And may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] I am indebted to Eric Barreto for this insight.

[2] I’m indebted to Marc Olson for these words.

[3] Ibid.