Transfigured & Transformed – 2016/01/07

Psalm 99
Exodus 34:29-35
Luke 9:28-36

Sermon

     There’s someone there whom we don’t even notice. We’ve become good at ignoring him, culturally. But he’s stalking there, waiting for his moment. He sweeps in, into the middle of the action – never a part of it, but always there.
     He stands far away, but with the way things are today, he can. He might want to join in the celebration, but he can’t; he has her job to do. You’ll see him today during the Super Bowl, and somehow you’ll never even notice he’s there.
     He is the photographer, the videographer; they are the people who capture our moments, and who never get to participate in them. They are the living people who are supposed to create artificial things to help augment the rest of our real memories.
     Have you ever tried to take pictures at a wedding? Have you ever tried to take video of a kid’s concert? If you do, your memory of the day is never of the wedding or the concert; your memory is forever tinged, literally filtered through the lenses and the viewscreens – because that’s how you saw it. We can become so wrapped up in preserving the moment that we forget to experience it first.
     It would be too easy to say that it’s all today’s culture that makes us do this. But it’s not culture – it’s human nature. You see, this is exactly what Peter, the most fleshed-out and normal of Jesus’ disciples, wanted to do in today’s text.
     Before we can really get who Peter is and what he was doing, though, we have to first understand who Moses and Elijah were, because their presence in this story is really what makes it go.
     Moses, you probably remember, was the person who led the Israelite people out of slavery in Egypt. But he was no one-trick pony. He was the receiver of the 10 Commandments; he saw the Burning Bush and heard the voice of God. Moses was God’s instrument. Four of the first five books of the Bible are largely about him and his story as one of God’s messengers. Those first five books are, collectively, known as the Torah in Hebrew, which means “the Law.” Moses himself, as a person, represents the Law.
     Elijah was from a different time, and was probably the most famous of God’s messengers. He was known to perform miracles, like giving a poor widow a jar of flour that would never run out; he brokered peace deals with foreign kings; he healed the sick of their diseases; he spoke wise sayings; he cared for the poor and disenfranchised. He was the greatest and best of God’s prophets. Yes, Elijah himself, as a person, represents all the Prophets.
     Now, in Jesus’ day, the whole Bible was made of up the sections of the Bible we now consider the Law and the Prophets. So there’s some nice symbolism in having Jesus meet these two men on a mountaintop. Jesus meets the Law and the Prophets, and stands right beside them on this day.
     Beyond symbolism, these would’ve been the most important figures in Jewish history – and Jesus is the culmination of it all. Jesus is clearly set up here as the inheritor of what they’ve been doing. He’s the next great leader, the next person to bring God’s word. And in that moment, surrounded by the greatest figures in history, Jesus’ clothes are transformed – transfigured – to dazzling white.
     Meanwhile, Jesus’ friends are standing there, just watching all of this transpire. In this special moment, Peter breaks in and starts yelling about how he wants to build a house. He’s the photographer who starts screaming about how we need a picture RIGHTNOW to capture the moment; and in that second, you feel bad for him. You feel bad because he’s more worried about how he’ll preserve the moment than he is about experiencing the moment in the first place!
     This is something we can identify with, I think. We have had those experiences of trying to remember things by capturing them. We know it’s wrong; it’s why we hire photographers for weddings – we don’t want to be the ones trying to preserve the memories of those days; we don’t even want our guests to have to do it, because we want them to actually enjoy the time we have to celebrate.
     Peter gets sucked in by this impulse, too. He wants to get carried away with the moment. He wants to make sure that this day is preserved forever, so he wants to build little houses for these great men. Perhaps he even thinks they’ll just stay there, frozen in time.
     Peter doesn’t have a cell phone or a video camera. He’s not going to be able to preserve this moment any other way than to do what he knows how to do. Forever, people have been building monuments to great things that happen, and Peter gets in on the action here.
     Thankfully, into Peter’s over-enthusiasm, breaks in a voice – the very voice of God. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” says God. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah vanish, and Jesus is left alone. Peter and the others are snapped from their reverie back into reality, to remember that it’s all about Jesus. Right in their time of being carried away with trying to remember, they are completely and utterly humbled by the voice of God, which calls them back to the moment.
     We have the misfortune of forgetting that our own lives, too, are about Jesus. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” is a harder thing to do in practice than it is in theory. In theory, we like the idea of the simple teacher who taught us how to live. In practice, giving up all we have for the poor sounds harder; loving our neighbors – all our neighbors – gets to feel a lot different. Repaying someone who treats us violently with quiet dignity and turning the other cheek sounds great… until we remember that it hurt when the first cheek was hit. That’s all out there. Those are all parts of Christ’s story – and we’re actually asked to treat it as more than a story. It’s supposed to be how we live.
     The trouble is, we’re not meant to be photographers in the life of Jesus, taking pictures and building commemorative buildings; we’re meant to be the active participants, wondering and marveling at what he says and does, and we’re meant to take those messages out to the world and live them. That’s a lot harder than it sounds; but then we remember that the one who did these things is the selfsame one who was God come to earth. And when we get caught taking a video or wanting to commemorate the moment, we just have to hope to hear the voice of God break into our lives, to remind us that we need to focus back up on Jesus. Our path is right and just because it’s the path that God laid out for us. Let us have the courage to take that path up the mountaintop with Christ, to experience the moment, and to tell the world! Amen.

“I knew you” – 2016/01/31

Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Jeremiah 1:4-10

Sermon:


Video also includes deacon/elder ordination/installation

     There are a lot of kinds of preachers out there. There are good and bad ones, there are those who talk too long and those who talk too short, those who share jokes and stories and those who talk in-depth about the text. But I think that we can all agree that there’s one kind of preacher that everyone gets sick of, and that’s the preacher who talks about their kids all the time.
     I’ve heard preachers like that, and it can be immensely boring. “I came to hear you talk about God, not to hear you yammer on about your kid,” I think, whenever I encounter that situation. Fortunately, most of my pastors have been really good in this regard.
     So church, since Carissa and I are about to become parents, I will do my very best not to become one of those preachers. HOWEVER, even though we aren’t parents quite yet, I can’t help myself today. Today, I need to talk just a little about becoming a dad, and that’s because there’s something in what we read today that just knocked my socks off when I read it, even though I’ve read and heard it a thousand times before.
     We read two passages this morning, first from 1 Corinthians 13 (so you’re forgiven if you thought you’d somehow wandered into a wedding when you heard that one), and from Jeremiah 1.
     The latter of those two passages is the call story of Jeremiah. Now, brothers and sisters, if you’ve been in church the last few weeks, you’ve heard me go on and on about calling – it’s been the topic of my last three sermons, including this one. But it seems that, at this time of year, the lectionary can’t help itself. Just as a New Year begins and people are trying to figure out who they are going to be in the new year, it seems that the texts we’re assigned for these weeks are designed to cause us to look at who God is asking us to be.
     The first thing we have to understand is who Jeremiah is. He was a prophet in ancient Judah, about 600 years before Jesus was born. He is generally known as a doom-and-gloom prophet, because he was living in a time of tremendous political upheaval. Coincidentally, today in adult Sunday School, we’re going to be talking about Jeremiah – I didn’t plan that, by the way; it just sort of “happened” – and it’s going to be very brief, because I know people want to get to the pancake feed. Anyway, if you want more of the specifics, you should definitely stick around for that. For the time being, though, just know that there are a lot of things going on, and Jeremiah spends most of his time as a professional pessimist.
     However, he is not without his optimism, and that’s going to be more and more important as we look at the exact words of his call story. Jeremiah’s call begins, like so many call stories of prophets in the Bible, with God’s words to him about who he is, and those were the ones that stopped me in my tracks.
     “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” When you’re expecting your own child, hearing these powerful words from God about another child is an important reminder. Even before we were in the womb, even before we were born, God knew us, anointed us, and gave us purpose.
     I had to sit back and marvel at the fact that, the little person growing inside my wife is actually already called by God; already appointed to a task. I keep thinking, “Man, that’s a lot of pressure on me, to not stand in the way of what God is trying to do!” But the truth is, as much as psychology likes to blame our parents and our upbringing for everything wrong with us, from a Christian perspective, it’s not really our parents that get in our way – it’s ourselves.
     Right after Jeremiah is told that he’s been appointed to a task since before he was even a glimmer in his parents’ eyes, Jeremiah objects. This is actually extremely common among the prophets in the Old Testament. From Moses to Isaiah to Jeremiah to Ezekiel to Job (and many others), a typical response to God’s calling is, “No thank you.” In fact, if you ever talk to pastors who came into that profession as a second career, they almost unanimously say, “Oh, I always knew. I just didn’t have the time or the energy or life got in the way. Now I’m finally able to do it.” But it just makes me wonder: what is God already asking of us that we aren’t listening to?
     Jeremiah gives good and logical objections to God’s choice of him as a messenger: “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Jeremiah says he’s too young. He doesn’t speak well. How many of us have those same (or related) excuses for not doing what God is calling us to do? I don’t have the time; when I’m a little older; I did that when I was young, so my service is done; there are other things I want to do now; I’m not sure I’m called to that; I don’t know how to do it. Those are all things that we say; excuses we give when we don’t want to embrace what God is asking of us. But sometimes, God calls us from those places and asks something of us that’s not necessarily what we’d expect.
     God tells Jeremiah, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” God is making it very clear: “Don’t be afraid of what you can’t do; I will be there for you. The limitations you see are not the ones I see.” God has a purpose for Jeremiah.
     And that purpose, God tells Jeremiah, is this: “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” I mentioned earlier that Jeremiah is always read as a bit of a pessimist, and that’s true; God says right there that he is placed as the witness to the powerful, “to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow.” That’s quite a lot to ask of the inarticulate youngster Jeremiah says he is.
     But the thing is, Jeremiah’s not being left with only those things. God doesn’t just leave him the doom-and-gloom. Church, sometimes, I think we hear God calling us to do something, and our response is “no,” because we only think of the bad things that come along with saying “yes.” We think of the work and the hours and the commitments. We don’t think of the joy and the life-giving that God has for us. Trust me, if Jeremiah’s call were only “to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow,” he’d be very legitimate in not wanting the job.
     But God doesn’t end it that way. The final task Jeremiah is assigned is “to build and to plant.” To make new; to bring new life where there was death. After everything is plucked up and pulled down, destroyed and overthrown, God doesn’t want to just abandon things and leave them in a state of disrepair. God is creating something new.
     For us as Christians, there is no more powerful image of this than Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. While Jesus’ death may be about bringing about God’s purposes, God does not hang Jesus up there on the cross and let the story end; Jesus returns. The dead comes to life; the weak and lowly are raised up; the humble are exalted; God’s kingdom comes to earth! This is the promise that we see on Christ’s Day of Resurrection. Christ’s return to life is a promise to each and every one of us that God is building and planting, not just overthrowing and destroying.
     Jeremiah’s call story has all of that. It can’t have been totally fun to do everything that God asked him to do. Preaching doom to his fellow Judeans would not have been an ideal job. But in the end, he also was able to preach the Good News of God’s restoration.
     Today, in our own worship service, we ordain and install deacons and elders. This special calling gave people a chance to say “yes” to something God is doing in their lives. It’s going to be work; there are going to be busy times, and it’s not all going to be perfect. But then we’ll have a day like our Mission Fest was in the fall, or we’ll see how much fun we have playing a game at one of our 3F events, and suddenly we see the purposes behind the blood, sweat, and tears.
     On this same Sunday, we were able to welcome Jason Wiedrich into our midst to talk about camping. It’s at camp that so many Christian kids all around the country first really start to think and hear about what God might be doing in their lives.
     Brothers and sisters, this is a joyful day, on which we can celebrate how God might be calling us into something new. It might mean that old things need to be plucked up or pulled down, but the things that are built and planted will be a great reward. In our faith, as we follow Christ, we know that crucifixion, death, despair – they are always followed by Resurrection. The pain may be real, but so is the hope and joy.
     Since this is the last day for a while that I’ll have the chance to talk about calling before the lectionary moves on to other things, I will leave you with a final thought. God’s first words to Jeremiah were these: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Brothers and sisters, these are God’s words to you: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you ______________.” Something. I don’t know how that sentence ends for you. It’ll be different for each of us; that’s between us and God. That final command of what we’re called to do may change throughout our lifetimes. But however your sentence ends, be bold and of good courage, and seek out that which God is calling you to do! Amen.

20/20 Hindsight – 2016/01/24

Psalm 19
Nehemiah 8:1-10
Luke 4:14-21

Sermon:

     “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. . . . Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
     It sounds totally crazy when read like that, right? Like, what if I actually went around and said that? What if you met someone who was convinced that they themselves were the manifestation of all God’s plans? I think, for the most part, we’d ask them to seek help – from a professional.
     Yet, that is exactly what Jesus does in this passage. And he’s not exactly preaching it on a street corner – he’s doing it in a synagogue, a house of worship. It’s just like someone standing up in church and saying that – and meaning it. We didn’t read what happens next, but as you might guess, this goes over like a lead balloon. People are not happy about this guy making such grand claims about himself.
     Of course, we happen to know that, in Jesus’ case, it’s true. He certainly was anointed by God, filled with the Spirit, sent to proclaim the Good News to the poor, the captives and the blind, to set the oppressed free and to proclaim the coming reign of God. That’s exactly what he did in his earthly life.
     Now, we have the benefit of hindsight on this particular matter. I find it amazing how much hindsight can color our thinking – and hindsight is 20/20, as they say. Now, since it’s still technically football season, you’ll have to permit me just one more football story. In 2008, the Packers decided to let Brett Favre go. This was tremendously unpopular in Wisconsin. We had just been on the doorstep of the Super Bowl, and we let him go. In 2008, he led the Jets to a 9-7 record, while the Packers floundered under the new young quarterback and went 6-10.
     The next year, Favre signed with the Vikings, played at an MVP-level, took them to the doorstep of the Super Bowl… and, worst of all, beat the Packers and their new quarterback twice, and the Vikes finished 12-4 while the Packers finished 11-5.
     Everyone had obviously been right about getting rid of Brett Favre – it was a mistake, and the team was wrong to do it.
     Except then, a funny thing happened. In 2010, Favre played horribly, got hurt, and didn’t even finish the year as the Vikings starter, and the Vikings slid back to 6-10. Meanwhile, the Packers went 10-6, but got hot at the right time, and their young quarterback who replaced Favre, a fella named Aaron Rodgers, won a Super Bowl with the Packers, then became a two-time MVP. In hindsight, this choice to get rid of Favre proved a good one. It gave Rodgers the seasoning he needed to become the best in the game.
     Now, truly, I don’t use this example to make Vikings fans feel bad. I use it because I have football on the brain at this time of year, and because looking back can change our whole view of things. Sometimes, the things that appeared to be the worst things, were actually the things that spurred us on to new and better things. Sometimes the best things weren’t all they were cracked up to be. And sometimes, our first judgments were the right ones.
     I think this is an important thing to think about, because obviously people made a poor choice when they thought Jesus was just a crazy guy. He was obviously doing what needed to be done, and saying what should be said. As I said before, he was appointed by God for special tasks. When people heard him say that, though, it rubbed them the wrong way. But what if the problem wasn’t just a problem of people not understanding who Jesus was? I think it’s too easy to use our hindsight and say, “But we know Jesus was God, therefore those dummies should’ve known it to.” That’s a cop-out answer. The problem isn’t a misunderstanding of who Jesus is – the problem is their misunderstanding of who they were, and by extension, our misunderstanding of who we are.
     Our first reading today, from Nehemiah, featured a celebration of the reading of Scripture. Nehemiah reads to a crowd the entire first five books of the Old Testament, while the people stand (the whole time) and listen. By my estimation, that would take about 12 hours. And at the end, they’re overjoyed.
Not just because the reading is over, mind you – although I’m sure that was part of it. They’re mostly overjoyed because they have heard the word of God, the message to them, and now they know it and can go live it out.
     In our Lukan reading for today, Jesus makes a few claims, first about himself, and then five claims about what he’s supposed to do, and ends with a claim about Scripture. We’ll ignore that first one and last, and come back to them in a minute. But we’ll start with those five claims of what Jesus is supposed to do. Here they are:
bring good news to the poor
proclaim release to the captives
(proclaim) recovery of sight to the blind
let the oppressed go free
proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
In other words, share the good news, look out for society’s most vulnerable, and proclaim the Good News of God. Brothers and sisters, that was Jesus’ calling – but it’s ours, too! That’s what we’re all supposed to do. We know that we’re supposed to share the great things Jesus has done; we know we’re supposed to talk about the good God is doing in the world now, and we certainly know that we’re supposed to love our neighbors, especially the most vulnerable, because Jesus tells us that how we treat the most vulnerable is how we’re treating him.
     Next, I’ll move to his first claim: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Well, certainly that was true for Jesus. His relationship as a member of the Trinity, the very Son of God, God dwelling among us – yes, his relationship was special. But the claim he makes here is this: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” In other, perhaps more familiar language: “God is with me.”
     And again, brothers and sisters, would any of us deny that God is active and present in our own lives today? God is all around us, ever beckoning us into new things, new ways of being, new ways of embracing God and neighbor. God is not some static, faraway deity unconcerned with human affairs; God is active, alive, and moving all the time, begging us to do the same.
     And that leads me to the final claim that Jesus makes in this little section of Luke, which is a claim about Scripture itself: “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus has a proper relationship with holy writings here. He doesn’t see them as something written down, and therefore controllable, relating to things a long time ago, and somehow dead; no, for Jesus, the Scripture people are hearing is alive. And when it talks about what God is doing, what God is going to do, Jesus tells people, “This is happening right now!” The word of God is active and alive for him, because God is active and alive.
     Just as those people in the Nehemiah reading today were able to celebrate the goodness of God’s messages to them, so Jesus calls the people of his own time to embrace the truth of God’s words, too.
     Like I said at the beginning of this sermon, it’s tempting to imagine someone saying these words that Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and dismiss them if they come from anyone but Jesus, and to assume that they’re true for Jesus and only him.
     But what if this passage is saying something different? What if the passage is telling you, not that these words are only for Jesus, but that they’re for you, too? I don’t mean they’re for you to read – I mean they’re there for you to speak, and to live out.
     When I started to think down these lines, I got to the foundational question: if I’m right, and this is the common calling in which all of us share, why would anyone be offended to hear it? And to that question, I could only come up with one answer: we are afraid.
     We are afraid that, if we live a life like Jesus led, we will truly be wrapped up in what God wants us to do, and we might actually have to put some of our own desires to the side. We are afraid of the vulnerability that would mean in our relationship with God. We are afraid that our lives would change. But the whole foundation of Christian faith is that change – letting God work within us.
     So I’m going to ask you to do something again – but don’t worry, you don’t have to use a pen this week, since I know I scared all of you off last week by showing up and making you write in church. This week, I’m going to ask you to do something simple. Pick a day this week – it could even be this afternoon. Trot out your Bible, look to Luke 4:18-21. Read those verses when you’re by yourself, and meditate on them for 60 seconds – just one minute. Think about those words. You have God with you; you are called to care for those who need it; God is working in you to bring about amazing things.
     Discover what those things are, embrace them, and let God wash over you. Take the risk. Don’t let the same old quarterback age into irrelevance; have the courage to make a change, and be the person God is calling you to be right now. The Spirit of the Lord is upon you; go run wild for God. Amen.

Gifts of the Spirit – 2016/01/17

Psalm 36:5-10
John 2:1-11
1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Sermon:

(Sorry; no video today. Our videographer forgot to turn on the camera!)

     I’ve made the point before – many, many times – that I, personally, loved being an only child. It’s not for everyone; some people hate it. But I loved it. However, if you were an only child, whether you loved or hated it, there were certain things you needed to do for survival – or at least to stay sane.

     One of those things was to have a robust imagination. I’ve always had a good one, so that was never a problem for me. I could create entire worlds and fill them with characters and rules and ideas and all sorts of things. It’s probably why I’ve always enjoyed reading fiction. But it’s also why, as a kid, I loved toys.

     Okay – let me level with you, church. I didn’t just love toys as a kid; I still love toys. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is, I really loved toys as a kid, and toys are great if you have an imagination.

     Luckily, my next door neighbor also loved toys and also had a great imagination. We spent hours – and I mean hours every day in the summer for years and years playing ever more elaborate games, creating ever more elaborate scenarios in which our imaginations could run wild and tell new stories.

     Of course, we got older. And as my neighbor was four years older than I was to begin with, he seemed to get older even faster. And as he got older, he got more into collecting toys, rather than just playing with them.

     I don’t know if any of you know anyone who’s a toy collector, but toy collecting is just the worst. I hope I’m not offending anyone by saying that, but it’s (obviously) something I feel very strongly about. Oh, I don’t have any problem with people enjoying things however they want; that’s they’re business. But when I would go over to my friend’s house and see all his toys still in their boxes… oh man. I just couldn’t handle it. It was like they were begging to be played with, and he was just forcing them to live in those little, tiny boxes. I just killed me – still does, actually, but maybe that’s just because I’ve seen Toy Story a few too many times and I worry that the toys get lonely in those boxes.

     Today’s passage from 1 Corinthians is about spiritual gifts. Paul had to write to the Corinthians about gifts because, man did that church ever have problems. It’s good to know, by the way, that churches with problems are not exclusively a modern phenomenon. Just reading in the two letters we have that Paul wrote to the Corinthians (out of at least four he wrote; the other ones just don’t exist anymore or haven’t yet been found), their problems included: privileges for the rich in the congregation over the poor, disagreements about morality, disagreements about how to act in a married relationship, whether or not marriage with non-Christians was allowed, whether or not speaking in tongues was useful to worship, which apostles were most “correct” about the Gospel, and many, many others, including which spiritual gifts are “best.”

     This was a church fraught with conflict, and while these problems are given time by Paul to figure out the right answer for that congregation in that time, Paul isn’t primarily concerned with correct answers. In fact, most of his letter to the church in Corinth is dedicated simply to the idea of unity.

     True, to some extent, Paul wants to force that unity by making everyone agree with his points of view. But again, while he has specific points that he does believe to be correct, the most important value he tries to teach them is facing everything together, and recognizing that everyone is unified in Christ.

     In the next portion of 1 Corinthians, beyond what we read today (as well as 3 other times in his other letters), Paul will go on to compare the church to a body, where different members have different functions, and that a body wouldn’t work very well if every body part tried to be an eye. But it’s not just that metaphor that needs to be talked about, and that’s why it’s nice to be preaching about the section right before that, since the “body” stuff gets talked about a lot more.

     Paul’s main point here is that the gifts we have the chance to offer come from God. He couldn’t be clearer in this passage about where our gifts come from. Think about it. This is in a church that has a status problem. Some people are lording it over others because they follow the “right” person apostle, or they have the “right” status in the outside-the-church world, or because they have the “best” spiritual gift or gifts.

     That kind of thinking, that someone is just plain better than others, is toxic and it’s antithetical to the very idea of how we’re equal before Christ. What’s most important is not who has the “best” gifts or who knows the “most” or whose status is “highest.” The point is that God has given us all gifts, and what matters is not what gift or gifts we have, but how we use them.

     Okay, it might be obvious where I’m going with this. But maybe it isn’t. When you came in this morning, you should’ve been given a pen. If you didn’t get one, borrow one from your neighbor. Okay, what I want you to do is to take a minute or so and right down three things you’re good at, or things you have – three gifts you have to offer. These could be gifts of time, or financial gifts, or abilities, or things you like doing, or relationships, or whatever. I’ll give you a minute, but write down three things in your bulletin.

(Even if you’re at home, you can still do this!!!!!)

     Now, if you’ve finished writing, I want you to take your bulletin home with you this week, and honestly think and pray about those things. Ask God to show you how to use just one of those three gifts to better love God and/or serve your neighbors. Maybe you’re using one to serve God and love your neighbor already; great! Maybe it’s time to step that up; or maybe it’s time to focus on something new. But you’ll never know unless you honestly give yourself time with God to figure it out, so that you can be who God is calling you to be.

     Maybe you’re a musician, and God is asking you to use your music to help people worship, or to cheer people up. Maybe you’re just a good friend, and there’s someone who needs a shoulder to cry on or a friend to talk to. Maybe you’re a kid, and you don’t even know what you can do yet, but you could write a note to tell someone how much you appreciate them, or color a picture for someone who could use a smile on their face. There are no limits to the ways in which God can use you.

     When I started this sermon, I started by talking about toys kept in boxes, and how I so wanted to open my friend’s toys and play with them. Brothers and sisters, I sometimes think that’s how God looks at us when we leave our gifts hidden. God sees toys left in boxes, that are never able to be enjoyed because we’re too worried about other things, like money and time, rather than what God is calling us to do. Take a week, be honest with God and yourself about who you are and what you can do, and figure out a way to listen to what God is calling you to do.

     Don’t be like my friend who had all these wonderful things that never got used. Let God open up your box, take you out, and have fun with you. Let your natural goodness shine through, and be willing to see what God will do with the gifts that you have. Don’t hide behind excuses and easy outs – pray for wisdom and inspiration, and see where God is leading you.

     Soon, we’ll be ordaining and installing new elders and deacons; I was supposed to be doing that after church in Avon today, but they cancelled church. When you’re trying to figure out what God is asking of you, don’t limit yourself to thinking that those roles in the church are the only way to serve God. Know that the gifts you have all come from God, and are meant to be used for God’s glory and to further the mission of Christ. Embrace who God has made you, and be willing to let yourself be used for God’s purposes. Amen.

Baptism of Jesus – 2016/01/10

Psalm 72:1-7
Matthew 2:1-12
Luke 3:15-22

Sermon:

You know the story of Pythagoras in the bathtub, right? One day, he’s taking a bath, and he screams out (apparently, though I don’t know who heard it) “Eureka!” He had just discovered how the displacement of water works. He had an epiphany.

Now that’s enough talk of 2500-year-old Greek men in the tub. Today, we celebrate one of the best multi-holiday days of the Christian year. Today is the first Sunday after Epiphany, so we’re celebrating Epiphany itself, as well as “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday, which is celebrated on the Sunday following Epiphany.

The word “epiphany” means “a sudden realization or understanding.” So much of what we have in the church is based on those sudden moments when all is made clear. The holiday of Epiphany refers to the first non-Jews to hear about Jesus’ birth – those being the magi who came from the East. Sure, it made sense that some of Jesus’ own people might realize his significance, but outsiders (non-Jews) recognizing him – really showed how important he was.

The early church latched onto this day, and Christmas wasn’t even really celebrated for about 400 years. Epiphany was the important day, because most Christians were non-Jews, and this day represented their epiphany.

Pretty quickly, that day also became the day when the church started celebrating the Baptism of Jesus. Why, I couldn’t tell you; I wish there were some really good theological explanation, but I don’t know it if there is one, other than “That’s just what some people decided.” But these two events are critical to our understanding of our faith. But since I don’t want to give either one too short of shrift today, I’m going to take the time today to focus on just one, and I’m choosing to focus on the Baptism of Christ.

The reason I want to talk about Jesus’ baptism today is that, recently, during Advent and Christmas, I’ve taken some time to ponder just how remarkable it is that God would be willing to come down to earth and live as one of us – fully human, fully God. This is, of course, one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith. This deep and inspiring mystery is beautifully captured in the story of Jesus’ baptism, in ways that can help us understand that mystery, and even increase our faith, in spite of things being beyond our understanding.

Let’s get this out of the way first: it’s weird that Jesus was baptized, isn’t it? I mean, if we really think about it, don’t we think that, somehow, Jesus should be beyond all of that? He’s already the Son of God, the Word made flesh; it hardly seems like he need to be baptized. And if you read the account of Jesus’ Baptism in Matthew, you’ll find that John, who baptized Jesus, agrees with you! John begs to be baptized by Jesus, rather than to be the one to do the baptizing of Jesus.

I think this is one of those situations, though, wherein we forget that part of the whole deal with Jesus is that, while he is God in human flesh, he’s not merely God in a “people costume.” He’s also fully human – just like us. Jesus needed to be made part of the group. Jesus saw that this – baptism – was a way of marking yourself as someone who lives for God – so he needed it, just like we all do.

Often, people come into the Christian faith thinking about baptism like it has magical properties. Some people think of it as a “get out of hell free” card. Some of us think of it as a way to prove our faith. Some people think of it as the way that God begins to “see” us, as if we’re invisible before that. Some people take really extreme positions, like believing that the unbaptized somehow cannot be saved even if God wanted to, or that God can only love us if we’re baptized.

But God can do whatever God wants to do, including loving and saving and “seeing” the unbaptized. For us as Presbyterians, we don’t take the stance that baptism really “does” anything except mark us as members of the community. While Reformed theology (and Presbyterians are part of the “Reformed” branch of theology) has included many different viewpoints on baptism, the most consistent point that it makes is that baptism functions for Christians the way that circumcision functions for the Jews – we perform a physical act to signify that we belong to God.

Now, when we think of it that way, doesn’t Jesus’ baptism start to make, not just a little sense, but the most sense of all? Because who is more Godly than Jesus? It makes total and complete sense that Jesus would want to be marked as a member of the community of those-who-believe, because of course he’s one of those-who-believe!

But of course, while Jesus’ baptism was totally like those we do, even today, in some ways, in other ways, it was profoundly different. I’ve done a few baptisms in my day, and I’ve seen a ton of them – as a kid, I went to a church with 3000 members, so there were baptisms all the time. But what I’ve never seen is the sky tearing open, and the Holy Spirit descending bodily, like a dove, to land on the one being baptized; I’ve also never heard the voice of God thundering above me, not to hear God say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” nor anything else, either. But those things do happen at Jesus baptism.

When we think of the life of Jesus, I think we tend to focus on these things that make his life seem so much different, so much more extraordinary than our own. We forget that he was just the kid with two parents (who weren’t even married when his mother was pregnant, which must have been the talk of the town), who probably learned his father’s trade, but always sort of showed an affinity for religious “stuff.” We concentrate on the fact that the heavens were torn apart, and we forget that normal stuff.

But let’s remember that, while the extraordinary things remind us that God is great and big and powerful, the “ordinary” things remind us that, even though God is so far beyond us, God can relate to us in ways that are just incredible, because God knows what it’s like to be human.

So there’s one last “normal” thing about Jesus’ baptism I need to say today. I’m an avid reader of Sports Illustrated – that probably doesn’t surprise anyone who’s ever been to church here and heard me before today. In my many, many years as a subscriber (the majority of the time for the last 15 years, with a few breaks in there) I cannot tell you how many athletes’ stories in that magazine revolve around their fathers. So many athletes telling their stories about how their dads never told them they loved them, or that they were proud of them. Sometimes, those stories are told as the fuel that makes them great; other times, those are stories told by players whose lives fell apart after retirement. But so many of them share that story: my dad never told me he loved me; he never said he was proud of me.

Well, Jesus often called God “Abba,” which is something like the word “Daddy” in English. Jesus used that term in his prayers to God. And when God speaks back to Jesus here at Jesus’ baptism, what does God say?

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

In other words, “I love you, and I’m proud of you.” They’re simple words, but they are truly profound. If we are called to be more God-like in how we deal with one another, that means being willing to be vulnerable enough to say things that might make us feel uncomfortable; it might mean opening up and saying something that isn’t expected. It means embracing our love of others and showing and telling it. That kind of outward affirmation is important, and it’s what God shows us how to do. This can be especially difficult for fathers; but God shows us that it’s important to do that, so we need to take that challenge up and actually do it, even if it’s hard. When God needed to relate to Jesus at this critical moment, God chose to do so with open arms and with words of kindness, love, and affirmation. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for us to do the same.

So as we leave here today, let us reflect on the ways in which Jesus’ baptism makes him so profoundly different from us, and how those differences give us the confidence to pray to him and worship him, who is God made flesh. But let us also not forget that we worship a God who is willing to relate to us, and who loves us so much as to actually take on human flesh just to prove it. Amen.

Above, Beyond, Inside, Among – 2016/01/03

Psalm 147:12-20
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:1-18

Sermon

I talked a little in my children’s sermon about prepositions. Thankfully, I never had to memorize them. But Carissa did. She can still recite many of them.

Prepositions are those tiny little words that answer questions, like who? or where? Under, aboard, along, amid, above, inside, among, through, with, over, by, on, from, off, in, out… there are a whole bunch of them.

But, then, these tiny words carry a lot of meaning. “This is a present from your mom” and “This is a present for your mom” have absolutely the opposite meaning, and all that had to change was that little preposition. “There’s water in the pipes” means everything’s good – “There’s water beside the pipes” means that you’ve got a problem. “I’d like to spend some time with you” is just what you want to hear from someone you’ve got a crush on; “I’d like to spend some time without you” is not the same sort of endorsement.

So they’re little words, and they have a lot of meaning, even though we mostly forget about them. But what’s so important about prepositions that I’d waste a big chunk of my sermon on a part of speech that normally gets forgotten behind all the flashy noun and verbs and adjectives and adverbs? What’s so important about prepositions that they’re worthy of a space in our Sunday sermon?

Well, today’s sermon is going to focus big-time on our passage form John 1 this morning. Specifically, that John lays out for us his understanding of Jesus and what his coming means. It’s a crucial part of the Bible for understanding who Jesus is. And in this little passage, John begins giving us those little prepositions that are going to help us understand who Jesus is in relationship to us.

When you think of the story of how Jesus came to be born, you’re thinking about shepherds and wise men and no-room-at-the-inn, right? That’s where most of our minds go. But John gives us insight into something deeper, something much longer ago, and something much more cosmic.

John begins before Creation itself: “In the beginning,” those same words that begin the book of Genesis and therefore the beginning of the Bible, are echoed here. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The English word “Word” is used here as a translation of the Greek word logos, which is the word used to describe Jesus as he existed, even prior to his birth. He was with God – note that preposition again – and he was God.

“All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

In those first five verses of the Gospel of John, we learn that Jesus existed form the very beginning of everything. That he was with God, and that he, in fact, was God.

He was also a vital part of creation itself, since “all things came into being through him.” And we learn that he is light, and that light cannot be overcome, no matter how much darkness there may be.

That’s a huge, bombastic, epic origin. I dare you to find an origin story of anyone – even a fictional character – that rivals the scale and scope of that. The Jesus that we see presented here is utterly, completely, and totally beyond us; above us. He is incomprehensibly, indescribably more than we could ever be or understand or relate to. Now, that sets us up with certain expectations as readers. We’re now expecting stories of the greatness and incomprehensibility of the Word, this logos to whom we’re introduced in this first section of John.

We get a brief interlude about Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptizer, which leads into more descriptions about Jesus – “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”

Here we’re given our first hints of what’s to come – someone powerful, but unrecognized. This is someone who came into being, not because human beings wished it to be so, but because it was always God’s purpose.

And then suddenly we get the shocker – we get the statement that turns all the expectation of that first paragraph on its head: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

This all-powerful Word we heard about, the one who had a hand in the creation of all that is, that very same one “became flesh and lived among us.” There’s a delightful little preposition again. We are confronted with this reality, that God, who is above and beyond all we know, would come and live among us. In the person of Jesus Christ, God was able to live as we lived, talk like we talk, feel what we feel. There was all that highfalutin rhetoric about how beyond us God was… and then we see that the same God who was so beyond us is willing to be one of us.

See, the cool thing about the presentation John gives us here in this first chapter is that just about any preposition you can think of, it belongs to the relationship between us and Jesus. Big ideas, like above and beyond apply to that first part – the reminder of how much bigger God is than we are. But the (conceptually) little words, like alongside and among are equally applicable.

God doesn’t relate to us in just one way. We aren’t supposed to always be awestruck at how God is so big we can’t wrap our minds around the very concept; we’re supposed to recognize that God is also familiar. But we’re not supposed to think of God as so familiar that we start taking God for granted like we do with toilet paper or clean water in our homes – we’re supposed to recognize that God is much, much bigger than we can even imagine.

Christianity fully embraces these truths – these contradictions – because it’s what we know to be true of God. It’s okay that these things contradict one another, because we know that God is beyond our ideas of logic and what is possible. We know that God came down to earth as Jesus, as a lowly baby, to small and weak to even feed himself. That’s reality; that a helpless baby was also King of the Universe.

Can you imagine making yourself that vulnerable? I think many of us can – because we often do it for love. You see big strong guys break down into tears when something happens to their loved ones. Likewise, you see incredible feats of strength from tiny little mothers who can lift up cars when they need to save the ones they love.

God is all that, and more. God is the big thing so small it fits in your pocket, and the tiny thing so big you can’t see from one end to the other – and it’s all God.

We are so fortunate to know Jesus, because as our reading teaches us, he is the one who teaches us what God is like. We know God because we know Christ. And that brings us to our final preposition: inside.

We are often encouraged to let Christ into our lives; to make him live inside us. We have to make ourselves as open to receiving Christ as we are to receiving nourishment through food and drink. In fact, today, as we celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, let us remember that we take Christ into ourselves, and then we take him with us into the world. As we do that, let us remember that, in this sermon of contradictions, what is inside can be reflected for the outside world to see. So let us take Christ into ourselves, and show the world just how remarkable our huge, tiny, inside-out God is. Amen.

Christmas Eve Service – 2015/12/24

Enjoy our whole Christmas Eve service here! This was a service of lessons and carols, and has no sermon (and therefore no text for me to include in this post). Sit back, enjoy, (and sing along, if you like!) as we relive the story of the birth of our Lord and Savior, the baby Jesus Christ.

The Childhood of Jesus – 2015/12/27

Psalm 148
Matthew 2:13-15
Luke 2:41-52

Sermon:

I’m going to tell you right off the bat today that I’m going to be a little political. Just know that you’ve been warned.

We all know that a childhood is long. Does anyone feel like they were a kid longer than an adult? Every day, every hour stretches on forever and ever when you’re a kid. So much so that it’s hard to imagine that it will ever end. Conversely, as an adult, time starts running faster and faster and faster, to the point that days, weeks, months, even years start running together. Those things we can recall with crystalline precision from childhood – what month and year we were in one place or another – are, at best, approximate guesses when we become adults.

For example, when I was a kid, I remember absolutely clearly that it was the winter of third grade (my least favorite year in school, so the one I remember worst). I was sitting in the back-right portion of the classroom, and our desks were pushed four-together in a sort of “cluster.” One of my friends was messing around, talking a lot. I started to tell him, “Don’t,” but in the middle I switched to “Do not!” and it came out as “Donot” – like I was mispronouncing the word “donut” really loudly. I remember everyone laughing – not at me so much as at the weirdness of the situation.

Why do I remember this? I have no idea. But it’s all right there. I can remember what the room looked like, the teacher, the kids – everything.

Now what if someone was recounting your life, and only told one or two stories from your whole childhood? You know – that childhood that stretched on forever and ever and where everything is so easy to recall at the drop of a hat. What would they say? This isn’t uncommon at funerals, actually, so this is a relevant question for us all. Hopefully, no one is going to be telling my stupid “Donot” story at any point in my life.

The story of Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospels has a quite a few stories from when he was a baby, but only really two stories about his childhood, and we read both – well, part of both – today.

The first, the more familiar, is the story of the wise men coming to visit him. It’s pretty unclear exactly where this story fits in the life of Jesus, but it was certainly after his birth, before he was yet two years old. The Bible doesn’t say exactly when it takes place, but Mary and Joseph are in a “house,” according to Matthew 2:11, so let’s just say they were at home and Jesus, though still a baby, was maybe a couple months old.

Anyway, at the end of that story, the wise men leave, and decide not to go tell King Herod about the child. Herod decides to kill every child two years old or younger. Joseph was warned about this in a dream, so he picks up his family and takes them to Egypt, so they can be safe from people who are trying to hunt them down and kill them.

The second story we get from Jesus’ childhood is a story about how his parents went to Jerusalem for Passover every spring, to celebrate in the Temple. Jesus always went with them. Now, Passover is a big deal in the Jewish faith, and since Jesus and his parents were Jews who weren’t from Jerusalem, this was like the biggest deal of all. So, faithfully and with thousands upon thousands of other Jews, they descended on Jerusalem for the Passover.

We end up with this cute story about how, when Mary and Joseph have already left, they notice that Jesus is missing. They look for him in the extended family, but can’t find him. Now, this doesn’t end up as a sort of Home Alone movie (a Christmas movie, incidentally, so oddly appropriate for this sermon), because they actually go back to look for their child. They find him – three days later – sitting and talking to the priests, astounding them with his wisdom even though he’s only 12 years old. Parents, just put yourselves in Mary and Joseph’s sandals for a moment and imagine your child being missing in, say, Minneapolis for three days, and you have some idea about how they felt. Anyway, they find him, and he says, “Hey, no big deal. Didn’t you suspect for like a second that I’d be in my Father’s (meaning God’s) house?” They didn’t get it, but Mary did think fondly on that moment, with the same kind of joy she thought the miracle of his birth. She “treasured all these things in her heart” – the exact same reaction she gave to meeting the shepherds and the miracle of their knowing about Jesus.

Now look, I’ve been waiting for a chance to talk about refugee families for a long time. I understand this may be a “political” sermon, but so be it – I’m not political very often, so you’ll have to permit me an indulgence this once. You all probably know by now that immigration and refugee issues are very near-and-dear to my wife’s and my hearts. She works with immigrant and refugee families professionally, and has been doing so, either in internships or professionally, for the last five-and-a-half years. My paternal grandparents, whom I lived with for basically my whole childhood, were immigrants to this country; I’m from an immigrant family. When I hear negative things in the media about “immigrants,” I always hear that as people saying there’s something wrong with me and my family, and I’ll tell you that it hits a little too close to home. “Oh surely, they don’t mean you,” you might be thinking. Not now, perhaps, but 50 years ago, maybe.

So think about today’s first reading and Jesus’ family. I see a Middle Eastern family running away from violence and seeking shelter in a different land. I see people hoping for the best for their family, and knowing that the journey alone could kill them, but knowing that to stay is even worse. I see that, and I think of Syrian refugees being spread across Europe, and Americans fearing “those people” coming to our shores (which won’t happen for another 18 months at least, because our asylum process is very slow. Head to the CNA in Sioux Falls for more information – I can connect you if you’re interested).

I see that, and I see Jesus. That was his story. You can talk about it being different all you want – and there are differences. But at the end of the day, that was his story. It’s my grandmother’s story, too, as she fled from Russia to Germany to try to escape Nazi soldiers killing her friends and neighbors. Her best friend was a little Jewish girl in the next farm, and one day the whole family up and disappeared, without a trace. Her family left, too.

When Joseph picked up his family and carted them across a desert, like my great-grandfather did over 80 years ago, do you think he was thinking about how to “legally” enter the borders of Egypt? I’m sorry, but he wasn’t. Perhaps you’re the kind of person who would argue that the world was different in those days…. but was it? How did Egypt know that this Jewish family was going to be safe? How would they know? As you’ll recall from the days of Moses, the Jews did not have the fondest memories of Egypt, and they could be “out for blood.”

But the issue wasn’t legality. The issue was to try to stay alive. And we must respect the lives of those who are different from us. Is this a political issue? Sure – but it’s not just a political issue. It’s a faith issue. It’s an issue that allows us to say, “I love God’s children because God loves them.” That’s what Jesus asks of us when he tells us to love our neighbors. In Matthew 25:31-40, Jesus tells us to visit those in prison – and he doesn’t say, “But only the innocent ones.” He tells us to welcome the stranger without adding, “But only if you’re sure they’re safe.”

When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, he doesn’t tell us to love them only if we’re sure they’re safe; he doesn’t tell us to watch our own backs first. He doesn’t tell us “safety first” and say to only put ourselves out there if we’re sure it’s going to be okay. In fact, he himself is willing to die to follow what God has in store for him. And when he tells us to love our neighbors, he means all of them. When he told the parable of the Good Samaritan, it was a story of a foreigner with a different religion, and how he was a true neighbor.

The culmination of this narrative, of course, comes with the twelve-year-old Jesus. Sure, we could skip ahead even further in the story, to Jesus’ ministry. But look at who he’s become, even as an adolescent. He’s not from some inferior group of people, just because he was once a refugee. No; he’s showing up the rabbis – the smartest, most educated guys on the block! He becomes a wise and productive member of society. He knows that his experiences have given him a unique view of the human condition. The priests in the Temple talked about Egypt; Jesus went there. He has his own “return from Egypt” story in which young, Jewish babies were killed, just like Moses. He, like Moses, lived to tell about it, and even at twelve was astounding people with his wisdom. In our own world of today, those who have refugee status forced upon them are no less worthwhile. They are equally likely to be the leaders of tomorrow – hey, maybe, like Jesus, they’re even better suited for the task than some people born here.

At the end of the day, the truth is this: following God is a risk. Following Jesus has cost. Now, I’m sure there may be people here who disagree with me about this issue. You may have sound financial and legal reasons to believe that refugees should be handled with care. I understand, and I empathize.

But when I see refugee families on television, I see my family. More importantly, the face of the children I see is the face of Jesus. Their parents are Mary and Joseph. And when it comes down to it, I’m willing to take on a lot of risk if it means keeping them safe. That’s because when we take in the “least of these” – those whom the world has rejected and those whom others have denied – we take in Christ himself. And in this season in which we remember Christ’s coming and welcome him into our hearts, let us not forget to welcome Christ into our lives, whenever we see him, as whomever he may appear. Amen.

Kids’ Christmas Program: Celebrate Christmas – 2015/12/20

We present, for your viewing pleasure, our entire worship service from 12/20! Here are the time stamps of certain things that may be most of interest:

Start of Service – 3:36
Bells playing Silent Night – 9:13
Children’s Christmas Program – 17:42
Sacrament of Baptism – 38:08
Bells playing Joy to the World – 49:27

Hope you enjoy, and have a Merry Christmas!

You Brood of Vipers! – 2015/12/13

Isaiah 12:1-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Sermon:

The days are getting darker. Every day, we have a little less sunlight.

The times are getting darker; every day, we see more and more fear in newspapers and on television.

The days are getting colder. As we head to the winter solstice, the days are increasingly filled with a
wintry chill.

The times are getting colder. People find it easier to focus on themselves, rather than on the people around them.

The days are getting harsher. Winds pick up, and make fallen snow a danger, blowing snow and fog around.

The times are getting harsher. The world is more complicated and less forgiving.

Last week, we read a reading about John the baptizer’s coming, and about his predictions of Jesus’ ministry. Today, we look at John’s words of his own – the words telling people of what has to be done.

Anyone who has kids knows that when your kid is upset, you have two options: You can double-down on upsetting them, so that you can help hammer a lesson home. Or, you can provide words and a space of comfort. Both of those things are necessary at some time or other.

The Bible is no different. Read any of the prophets. They all have to (and do) make this choice, one way or the other. In this passage from the book of Luke today, we see John the baptizer in his role as prophet have to make that same choice. John opts for option #1. He decides that the best way to reach the people he’s talking to is by telling them what’s wrong with them. Just be glad I don’t start my sermons the same way John starts this one:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” John thinks that’s the way to go here, because he’s seen people lulled into complacency. He’s seen people who are so happy with the idea that they’re God’s chosen people that they’ve stopped living like it.

I look at that notion, and I wonder to myself if we, too, have become those people. I wonder if we, like those John spoke to, have rested on our chosen-ness and ignored the things we need to do. People hearing John start to worry. They wonder, and they ask, “What then should we do?”

John has a simple answer: share with one another. We have to share with one another, just as the people John talked to did. This is really, really easy at Christmastime, at least to be thinking in this way. We can drop some change by the Salvation Army bell-ringers. We bring in extra cans of things for food drives. We, of course, buy presents for our own families and friends. So this whole giving thing is a good message at this time of year.

But while John’s message is ultimately about living the life God wants us to live, I can’t say
that I would necessarily agree with the manner of presentation. Today, the 3rd Sunday of Advent, is about Joy. It’s odd that the lectionary would give us this reading, which is pretty much a downer. And that’s the thing we have to remember: even when we’re reminded that we’re not perfect, we’re reminded that there’s Good News!

It’s impossible to be in a spirit of joy all the time. We have a funeral coming up in church this week. For many people, Christmas is a time when we remember those we’ve lost, and how the holidays are never the same as they once were. But while those things about the holidays can be very hard, we’re also reminded at this time of year that Christ has come for us.

God came into a broken and messy world to be here for us; to share with us; to offer us things that we didn’t deserve. That’s the essence of the Christmas story: God came down to give us the ultimate gift.

In that spirit, we read today’s lesson from John. We know that our lives are every bit as broken and messy as the world into which God chose to come. In spite of that messiness, God enters our world. Therefore, while our lives may not be perfect, John says that we owe God nothing less than to look into our own situations and give as God does – out of abundance, whether we have in abundance or not.

I’m sure you all know that, by the standards of most people in the world, all Americans are rich. That’s hard for us to stomach, because we have all also known the stress and anxiety of wondering if we can afford everything we need. I’m sure everyone here has had a close call at one time or another. I remember two for myself, back before I was working – once when I had $17 left in my checking account, and another when I had about $50. Those are scary things, and they’re things we don’t forget just because they’re gone. The thought, “Can I eat this week?” is not something we want to ask ourselves, and it’s a haunting question, the memory of which never quite leaves you once it’s been asked.

But then you remember that there are people for whom $50 is more money than they’ve ever seen. And that’s not a tiny number of people – that’s a huge percentage of the population of the earth. Giving of our financial resources can seem hard. And we sometimes want to give ourselves a pass, saying that we’re too young and we’ll give when we’re older (that’s what I thought a lot as a teenager) or that we’ll do it when we have a little more. The problem with that thinking is that we can always think that we’re just a little bit away from having enough to give – but we never quite get there. John, though, is not encouraging us to think about when it’s convenient to follow God’s will – he’s asking us just to do it. To do it now, whether we feel “financially ready” or not.

At this time of year, it’s so easy to give. We practice gift-giving in our homes and with our friends, and we feel the warm fuzzies and think of chestnuts roasting on an open fire (which I don’t think anyone actually does, by the way), so we can be generous. And we hear this message today as an affirming one, because we do feel the joy coming on at Christmas and it makes it easier to give. We just can’t let it be limited to only this time of year. Because if we are, as John calls those seeking God, a “brood of vipers,” we need to be seeking out ways to live into God’s will for us every single day, not just in December when we feel good.

So John’s message for us is that it’s not all about just “doing it.” It’s not just about convicting us of our shortcomings and making us feel guilty. It’s about reminding us who we are, whose we are, and the opportunity given to us in God’s coming to earth in Jesus Christ. We live as a people redeemed. We live in the knowledge that God loves us. We have seen a Savior for the world, and know that God has good plans for us. That is what gives us a reason to feel joy. So while today’s passage began with calling us a “brood of vipers,” perhaps it’s good to remember that we become that when we forget about that joy. Instead, we have the opportunity to embrace it, and we can find ourselves become more generous with our resources, our time, and our talents, as God leads us. Amen.