Speak, Lord – 2018/01/14

Psalm 139:1-6
John 1:43-51
1 Samuel 3:1-10


You can’t help picking favorites.  When I was a kid, I was so in love with The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien that I read it more than once a year, from third to ninth grade.  My mom always tried to get my family to watch It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas, and though that didn’t work, I know that some people do that.  I have a friend who reads a Neil Gaiman book each year; another who reads a Jane Austen book.  It’s easy to pick a favorite book or movie, to have something you pick up every year and read or watch.  We have a whole group of food that people call “comfort food” for this very reason – it brings comfort, peace, stability, reminds us of good times, helps us connect with who we are and where we come from.

Well, of course, preachers are no different in what they like to preach about.  Today, we’ve arrived at one of those “comfort food” passages for me in our reading from 1 Samuel.  It’s not, perhaps, the best-known passage, but it is an important one.  You may be familiar with it by now, if you weren’t before I came to Marion, because I’ve used it a lot of times.  I know I preached on it three years ago, have done a Bible study on it, and it was a topic at a 3F night.  So it’s definitely one that’s a go-to for me.

I guess the reason it’s such a powerful passage for me is that I think its lessons are so universal and so important.  But before we get into all that, I want to set the stage a little, because the book of 1 Samuel takes place in a time of serious transition for the Israelites.  And while I think the lessons of the passage are universal, the setting of the story is absurdly specific.

As you may know from your Bible, or from Sunday school classes sometime in your life, the Israelites were different than the other tribes around them.  This was true for a long time, but it was especially true in the time of today’s passage from 1 Samuel.

In the ancient Middle East, there were dozens of groups of people congregated in the same area, but all of them had a king.  That was simply how the world worked.  In fact, with a very small number of exceptions, that was true for the whole world through the middle of the 1800s… which doesn’t sound that long ago, when you think about it.  Anyway, the Israelites worked a little differently.  They didn’t need a king, because they had God.  And they knew God’s will be consulting the religious leaders of their day, known as the Judges.

The Judges weren’t appointed or elected, they just sort of popped up.  I have described it before as what usually happens in a group of friends.  You’re trying to decide where to go or what to do; who’s the person that you look to in order to make the final decision?  Whoever that person is, is the leader.  The Judges kind of worked like that – people weren’t voted on or chosen by a superior; it was simply obvious to anyone who saw them.

Anyway, in this time of Judges, a mother named Hannah, who had been infertile, desperately wanted a child.  She prayed and prayed and prayed, and she promised God that, if she were to have a child, she would make sure that her son served God; she would offer him up as a living sacrifice to God’s glory, if she could just be given the gift of motherhood.  Well, she became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel.  And, in order to symbolize his devotion to God, he would never cut his hair, and he would never drink alcohol.  When he was old enough, she took him to Eli, the chief priest, and gave Samuel to him to raise in the Temple, so that Samuel might be made an apprentice to the priesthood – learning about the religious life, making sacrifices, and spending long hours in prayer.  His entire life of service in the Temple was laid out from a very young age – certainly less than five years old.  That was going to be his lot.  It was, of course, an honor to serve God – it still is – but his course was charted as a worker in the Temple.  His life didn’t hold any spectacular promise; his miracle had been his birth, after all.

As a very brief aside, we learn at the beginning of the passage we read today that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  I think it is, in many ways, comforting to read something like that in the Bible.  I have heard people ask, “Why aren’t things like how they were in the Bible, with miracles left and right?”  I think we miss something there; while there are a lot of miracles in the Bible, the Bible covers a lot of time.  There are more “dull” stretches in the Bible than we think about.  This may be the only place in Scripture that actually addresses that specifically and using words, but it’s nice to hear.  It’s also comforting to know that God’s special interaction in the world, whether by word or work, is never completely absent; just “rarer” in some times than others.  That’s probably a reminder we all need, from time to time:  God isn’t gone, but we can’t go around expecting miracles.  After all, if they happened constantly, they wouldn’t be miracles, now would they?

Anyway, into this time of rare words from God, Samuel serves.  And he’s doing fine.  He does his duties in the Temple.  So one night, he lies down to sleep, and that’s when something extraordinary happens.  He hears a voice saying, “Samuel, Samuel!”  Like any logical person, he runs to the only other dude he knows is there, Eli.  “Here I am,” he says.  Eli, not having called the boy, is confused, and sends him back to sleep.  I’m quite familiar with a voice breaking into my sleep and crying; but never had my son actually accused me of calling out to him.  So I can only imagine how Eli felt at this accusation.

So Samuel goes back down… only, the same thing happens again.  “Samuel, Samuel!” he hears.  And again, he goes to Eli, “Here I am, for you called me.”  “Still wasn’t me, Samuel.  Go back to bed,” Eli tells him.  When it happens a third time, Eli realizes that this might not be the fever-dream of a young man.  This is God.  So he says to Samuel, “Seriously, go back to bed.  But if it happens again, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”

Sure enough, time #4 comes.  Samuel is again called by God, and he answers as Eli instructed him.  We stopped the reading there, but what happens is this:  God reveals a vision to Samuel about the future of Israel.  And from that point on, Samuel is God’s special servant.  He becomes one of the Judges – the final one, in fact, as he is the person who anoints the first (and also the second) king of Israel.

Now, I said that this was a favorite passage of mine because it was so universal.  Listening to that story, I think it would be easy to say, “No, David, you are completely wrong; that story is insanely specific.”  And yes, it is specifically what happened to Samuel.  But it’s universal, not because everyone has the exact experience of trying to go to sleep in church only to be woken up by God; rather, it’s universal because, even when we perceive God as silent, God is active.  Even when we feel like our work is one thing, God comes along and gets ready to shake us up.  Even when we feel like we’re never going to see the big picture, God shows us that the ‘big picture’ was even bigger than we imagined.  In short, this is what we all live for as Christians.

God is calling us to do things all the time.  If we’re young, we may be called to be kind to a person we see sitting alone, or to play with a classmate who gets ignored by other students, or to be spiritual leaders by inspiring our parents to do more prayer or Bible time in the house; if we’re older, we may feel inspired to invite someone to church, or to make our job a better expression of our faith, or to make God a bigger presence in our home life; if we’re older yet, we may feel led to find a way to give more of our time back to our church, or to connect better to the youngest generation around, or to learn something new even though we’ve already learned a lot in life.  And any one of us, regardless of age, might feel the need to get in touch with a long-neglected relative or friend, or to change a destructive personal habit, or to meet new people, or to increase our time in prayer and devotion.

God calls us to many things, but just like Samuel did, we may not know where they come from.  We may not know what to do.  We may choose to ignore them.  Hopefully, like Samuel, you have in your life an Eli.  This person doesn’t need to be older or more experienced.  In fact, while Eli is older than Samuel, you’ll notice from the clues we’re given in the passage that Eli has probably never had an experience like the one Samuel is having.  Yet, he’s able to coach and encourage Samuel throughout his own process.  These coaches we meet, who help nurture our development, are wonderful people and should be thanked, and perhaps God may ask you to do just that – to thank someone who’s been taking care of you.

In the New Testament passage that we read first, from the life of Jesus, we see a similar case of God’s calling.  Jesus simply walks up to a guy (Philip) and says, “Follow me.”  Philip does, and he brings along his friend Nathanael.  Wouldn’t it be nice if all our attempts to follow God were as simple as being able to recognize God right in front of us and simply answering with an “okay” and following along?

Unfortunately, we live in a much different time.  We don’t see Jesus walking down the street.  Instead, we hear his voice in our gut.  We hear it in the prayers and the hymns at church.  We hear it in the voices of the people who love us.  We hear the voice of God all the time, calling us softly to what we’re supposed to do next.

Sometimes, when I’m overwhelmed, when I need to remember what God’s love is like, I ponder how big the universe is.  It’s unimaginably big; billions of stars stretching untold lightyears of distance.  It’s impossible to picture just how big all of creation is… and yet, God loves me.  God loves you.  God cares about the choices we make.  Isn’t that amazing?  Everything is so big that it almost seems enough to glorify God.  But if I made something that big, I don’t know how concerned I would be about a couple of people here and there.  Yet, God does care.

God cares enough to interrupt our lives, repeating our name, and calling us to something new.  No matter where we are in life, God cares and calls us forward.  That’s the lesson of our story.  It’s our job to listen; it’s our job to seek out the people who can help us figure out what’s next.  Most of all, it’s our job to honor God’s love and care for us by living for Jesus, who calls us to his service anew every day.  So speak, Lord; your servants are listening!  Amen.

Gifts – 2018/01/07

Psalm 72:1-7
Mark 1:9-11
Matthew 2:1-12


Carissa and I are usually successful at the things we try.  We come from families where a lot was expected of us, and we’ve both gotten used to those high expectations.  Therefore, when we’re given a challenge, we tend to conquer it.  Now, of course, this can lead to conflict in a marriage, when one of us thinks one thing and the other one thinks the other.  But… well, those are stories for a different day.  See, since we’re both used to succeeding, we usually figure that, when we put our heads together, there’s no way we can fail.  Until, that is, this Christmas.

As many of you know, Carissa and I host our family Christmas; both her side and mine come together to laugh, have fun, eat ludicrous numbers of cookies, and play silly board games.  It’s a great time.  But of course, we eventually get to the present opening.  Carissa and I were struck with a crisis of conscience:  we just don’t need that much stuff.  Yet, here it comes, every Christmas:  more stuff.  So we started to try to come up with alternatives for our family:  drawing names, charitable giving, even the radical idea of no presents.  None of it would fly with our families.  I don’t know; maybe we’ll get them next year.

One of the reasons we were so struck by the amount of stuff we get is this:  I couldn’t tell you all the things I got for Christmas. It was less than two weeks ago, and I wouldn’t be able to say.  Isn’t that kind of sad?  People go to all this work to find things for you, and in less than two weeks, you can’t remember.  In fact, you might even be better at remembering what you’ve given than what you’ve gotten.  On the one hand, maybe that means that you’re a good and thoughtful gift-giver; on the other hand, maybe everyone else is as thoughtful as you are, only you just can’t remember because it’s just too hard.  If you’re like me, that makes you feel all kinds of guilty, as if you’re somehow a bad person for not remembering what other people gave you.

Well, gifts are at the center of the Epiphany story.  Every year, on January 6 (the twelfth day after Christmas – thus, the song about all the birds and the days), the season in the church year changes from Christmas to the season of Epiphany.  Epiphany celebrates the magi giving their gifts to Jesus.  Now, the first Sunday after Epiphany is traditionally “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday, in which we remember Jesus’ Baptism.  Traditionally, in my time here, I’ve alternated which of these passages I preach on, so this year it’s those wisemen – the magi – bringing their gifts to Jesus.

This is a well-known story, right?  So let’s start with a couple of pieces of information that you may not know.  The name “magi” is related to the word “magician” in English, and based on their star-gazing habits probably means the word we would use in English to describe them would be “astrologers,” rather than wisemen – but that’s speculation, so I prefer “magi.”  There is certainly no evidence that they were kings (even though, yes, we will sing the “We Three Kings” song later).  “Magi” is the plural form of the word “magus,” which means that there was more than one, but we don’t know how many there were.  Traditionally, people say there were three because there are three gifts given in the passage:  gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  However, nowhere does the passage say how many there were.  In fact, they didn’t all have to be men, either.  Plurals in the Bible for groups of people take on the masculine if there is a group of men, the feminine if a group of women, but in a mixed-gender group, the plural takes the masculine. So all we know is that there were at least two magi, and at least one was a man, and that they were fortune-tellers, magicians, or astrologers.

The gifts they offer Jesus were also gifts of great significance.  The gold represents kingship – obviously.  Kings are often adorned with gold.  Jesus is the King of all the earth, so of course they gave him gold. But why frankincense and myrrh?  Well, these are two naturally-occuring things in nature known for their smells. Myrrh was usually used as a perfume, but was most often used in the ancient world as a brial preparation (to help keep bodies from smelling).  Many commentators have noted that this was probably an allusion to the fact that Jesus would one day have to die.  Frankincense was (as you may have guessed from the latter part of the word) a type of incense.  So it is also associated with smell.  Typically, it was burnt with sacrifices – again, noting the fact that Jesus was going to have to sacrifice himself.

But of course, this passage is not just full of interesting historical facts about strange words like “magi” and “myrrh” and “frankincense.”  When we read this passage as Christians, we are invited to ask ourselves about our own giving:  what do we give to Christ?

As I said at the top of the sermon, it’s often easier to remember what we’ve given than what we’ve received; yet, in one relationship, it seems to go the other way.  God has given us so much, and it’s easy to be thankful for those things when we give ourselves a moment to think to do it.  We have people who love us, a world that continues on rolling, in spite of our best efforts and our conflicts; most important, we have the very gift of Jesus himself and the promise of eternal life he gives to all of us.  But if we ask ourselves what we’ve given?  Well, that often takes a little more work.

Of course, we have many opportunities to give.  We have the chance to give financially to the church, of course.  We all have gifts and talents we can give, too:  gifts of art, or music, or friendship, or the ability to speak, or the ability to listen.  We all have the gift of time, and we can (and should!) give generously.

In the New Year’s season, people often make resolutions about how this year will differ from the last. Why not consider how your gifts to God can be different in 2018?  Perhaps you give already; then the question mes, “how do I give more?”  The church will undoubtedly appreciate the ways in which you choose to give to honor God.

Yet, I’m most struck by one thing; the final verse from a hymn we sang last week.  It’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” #196 in the hymnal. It’s a slow, almost sad-sounding Christmas song, but it’s one of my favorites.  In it, we ask (through the words of the songwriter), “What can I give him (meaning Jesus), poor as I am?  If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.  If I were a wiseman, I would do my part.  But what I can, I give him:  give my heart.”

Brothers and sisters, in 2018, let us embrace what the magi did, and give gifts to Jesus; not just at Christmas, but all year.  So find your financial resources, and give.  Identify your talents, and give.  Find the little moments of time, and give.  And where you give already, give more.  But most important of all, whether you can give some, or any, or all of those things, you can give your heart.  So give it – the whole thing – to Jesus.  When you do, all the other giving becomes that much easier, and that much more rewarding!  Amen.

Recognizing – 2017/12/31

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40


When I’ve gone home to visit my parents, I will inevitably see someone from my youth while I’m out and about.  When I do, one of three things happens.  The first possibility is the best:  I see someone I know whom I’d really like to talk to.  I might cross a street or walk around in a store if we’re out shopping, or perhaps go visit their table at a restaurant.  I’ll chitchat with them, and it will be pleasant.  The second kind of interaction is when I notice someone I really don’t feel like talking to.  This involves hiding; sometimes, you make eye-contact, and then you have the awkward choice of either pretending you didn’t notice one another, or you have to buck up the courage and go have a conversation you didn’t want to have.

As awkward as that second kind of interaction is, it’s far, far better than the third one.  The third one is the interaction where one of you recognizes the other, but it doesn’t go both ways.  I’ve recognized friends without them having any idea who I was.  I’ve seen someone I was sure was a pal in high school, only to realize that I’m mistaken, and it’s actually a stranger.  Those are painfully awkward moments.  I hope, for your sake, that those are not things you’ve ever had to deal with.

But the fact of the matter is, recognizing people can be a difficult business.  Largely, this is because relationships and their status are sometimes unspoken.  We don’t give people a number that represents how close of friends we are, and whether or not we’re supposed to interact if we see one another.  Rather, those things are all unspoken; they all have to be played by ear.

That’s what makes today’s passage of Scripture so remarkable.  It’s a passage all about being able to recognize Jesus, not because of miracles or wondrous signs or stars in the sky, but merely by knowing that God was present.

Simeon was just a regular guy, no one special.  But he had received a very special promise from God.  He had been promised that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Messiah.  And there was another person at the Temple, a woman named Anna.  She was a prophet, practically living in the Temple.

Jesus’ parents brought him to the Temple for his dedication to the Lord.  That day, Simeon was present, and so was Anna.  Now, to this point in the story, people recognizing Jesus hasn’t been anything special; it’s happened a bunch of times.  Mary and Joseph, for starters, have both known about the baby and how special he was.  Elizabeth, Mary’s relative, knew, too.  The shepherds recognized him.  While the Magi aren’t included in Luke’s retelling of the story, depending on how you read Matthew’s Gospel in companion with Luke’s, it’s possible the they have seen him already, too, and recognized him for who he was.  So what’s so special about Simeon and Anna recognizing this boy?  Why does this get its own little story?

Well, to this point, they are the only people who recognize Jesus for who he is, not because they were told.  They both look at him, and they just recognize him.  Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds had been told by angels.  The magi found out by reading the stars and asking around.  Elizabeth was told directly by Mary.  But only Simeon and Anna just knew by simply looking at the baby.

Brothers and sisters, recognizing God can be hard.  It’s hard to see when God is acting, and when we’re projecting our desires onto what we think God is doing.  It’s easy to read our will as God’s will.  Yet, even though it’s hard, the reason Simeon was able to recognize God in the room was that he was looking for God.  How much do we miss because we’re simply too wrapped up in worldly things to think about God?  How often do we give ourselves credit for something, instead of realizing that it was God who did it?

Anna, on the other hand, hadn’t been promised; rather, she recognized Jesus, not because she was looking, but because she was just so in-tune with God.  She made God the center of her world.  She spent probably about 60 years as a widow, and prayed every day in the Temple.  I’m not saying that everyone needs to pray that much, but there can be no denying:  she sees Jesus and recognizes him because she’s used to looking for God all the time.  It’s just how she lives her life.

See, Anna had something we should all remember:  she wasn’t just looking for God; she knew God was always present.  The same thing goes for us.  Sometimes, we blind ourselves by looking.  I would guess that once a week, I walk around the house or church looking for my cell phone while I’m talking to someone on the phone.  I’m looking for something I already have.  The same thing occurs on a spiritual level, too.  We need to know that Jesus is present in our lives.  We don’t have to look for him as if he’s hiding; we just need to let ourselves open our eyes, and figure out what he’s doing.

Our responsive reading this morning, from Ecclesiastes, said that there was a time for everything; a season to every purpose under heaven.  Well, God may appear to us differently in these different seasons.  God may interact with us differently.  I remember a time in my life when I was running from God a little bit.  I wanted to be left alone, but felt God calling me to something I didn’t want.

At that time, I literally prayed, “God, leave me alone!”  But at those times, God needed me to listen.  Yet, there have been other times when I’ve asked, “God, where are you?”  Times of grief, times of struggle, times of pain – those have been filled with doubt, fear, and profound absence.  Yet, in those times, I have more often found out that God was there; just not in the way I was expecting, because I wanted something that it wasn’t the season for.

Simeon and Anna had different seasons in their lives, too.  God showed up in their lives, though not necessarily how they expected.  I imagine that, when Simeon was told he would see the Messiah, he was expecting the King to lead Israel to freedom.  Foremost, I expect he was ready for an adult.  Anna, on the other hand, was probably content to just have God as comfort, not a living presence to guide her old age.

But you see, this passage reminds us that God is present everywhere – in a baby, as well as in the lives of the aged.  God doesn’t abandon us, no matter who we are:  a mother rejected by her peers for having a baby even though she was unmarried; the “foolish man” who chose to raise the child with her, in the knowledge that it wasn’t his; the baby born in a barn; the old people who hung out in the Temple looking for something no one else could see; the foreigners who came looking for some random kid; the poor shepherds who got to see perhaps the greatest miracle in history.  All of these folks were unlikely people, yet God found them in all their unlikeliness and showed them how they were loved, and how God was present.

Brothers and sisters, God is present with us, whatever season it might be in our lives.  And like Simeon, we’re promised that, just like Jesus, we will see Christ.  It’s our job to open our eyes and look!  Like Anna, we’re asked to put God first, so we might recognize how God is around.  Everyone is responsible to make Christ a part of our story.  On this verge of a New Year, let’s make 2018 a year when we find Christ in our lives by putting him first!  Amen.

A Christmas Story – 2017/12/24

Luke 1:26-38
Luke 1:46-55
Luke 2:1-20


A Red Ryder BB gun – that’s what the movie A Christmas Story revolves around. This thirty-year-old movie has become a Christmas classic, watched by millions of Americans every year. It’s about a boy named Ralphie, who believes that the perfect gift would be a Red Ryder BB Gun. It’s the thing that will bring him joy. Now, throughout the movie, we follow Ralphie in his adventures trying to convince everyone that it’s exactly what he needs.
The desire for the perfect gift is probably something we can all identify with, right? When we know what the perfect gift is, and wanting that more than we want anything else. We just know what we want. And maybe you come from a family where you make a Christmas list, and other people know what you want, and you get that thing. Maybe you’re one of those people who hint and hint and hint and hint so people figure it out. Maybe you just hope other people read your mind and get you that perfect gift. Or maybe you’re the kind of person who just goes out and gets it for yourself. No matter what, though, we might have expectations for what would make the perfect gift. Well, when we have our perfect gift in mind, whether we get it or not, we’re likely to get other things, too. But the question is this: what do we do with the gifts we didn’t ask for?
But let’s think back to that first Christmas, and the lead-up to it. Now, let’s remember that since it was the first Christmas, there was no expectation of gifts. Still, if you had said to Mary, “You know what, Mary? I’d like to give you a gift. What would you like?” I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have said, “I’d like to have a baby, even though I’m just a teenager and I’m not married yet.” Pretty sure that wasn’t on her list that year.
But that’s what Mary got for that very first Christmas. She didn’t get that one perfect item; she got the scariest, most intimidating news in the world. She was going to be responsible for giving birth to and raising the Messiah, the Son of God.
So, this Christmas, we may ask ourselves what we do with the gift we didn’t ask for. What does Mary do? The first thing she does is to give thanks. She says, “Thank you, God; you’ve lifted up me, and all people like me by honoring me with this gift. You’ve brought down the rich, the haughty, and the mighty, and elevated little people like me.” She crafts a poem on the spot that honors God and shares her great joy, even though what she got was, if we’re honest, much, much more of an intimidating thing than a book we already own or a sweater we don’t like. Mary manages, in the poem we read for our responsive reading, to be thankful.
The second thing Mary does is she shares her joy. After the angels share the news with some shepherds, these guys come in, unannounced, to see Mary, Joseph, and her baby. I think we’re so used to the story that we’re never surprised; and, if anything, we think about this story from the perspective of the shepherds. But think about it from Mary’s perspective. She just gave birth; she’s exhausted, she’s coming to grips with the reality of being, not just a mom, but the mother to God-on-earth. And into that environment walk a bunch of dirty shepherds, raving about angels and begging to see her baby.
I remember when Zeke was born, seeing Carissa holding him. We had some family there, but I was ready for them to go. The absolute last thing I would’ve wanted was a bunch of dirty strangers coming in and wanting to handle my kid… and that’s with a comfortable hospital birth, not in some barn. Yet, how does Mary react? With joy! She shares the joy she receives with the shepherds. She marvels at their tale. She wants to have others know the love that she knows.
The final thing Mary does is something we haven’t read about in today’s passage, but is rather the crux of the whole Bible. Mary raises this boy, takes care of him, treats him well, disciplines him, and guides him. In short, she loves him. When we get the Christmas gift we weren’t expecting this year, the one we didn’t want, it’s probably going to be hard to like it, much less love it. But Mary takes her unexpected gift and loves him so much.
It’s Christmas Eve, so if there’s ever a time for a simple message with an easy takeaway, it’s this service. And in this case, the trite and easy thing, the simple takeaway here, is to say that, no matter what gifts we receive, it’s important to receive them gratefully, joyfully, and lovingly. That’s what this day is all about. It’s about God loving the whole world so much that God wanted to come down, live among us, and show us how to live. God loved us so much that we were blessed with Christ Jesus.
Well, sisters and brothers, that’s the truth. We’ve been blessed with a tremendous gift. No matter what gifts we receive – if they’re that Red Ryder BB Gun we’ve been coveting, or if it’s something unexpected and unwanted, we have the opportunity to receive them the way Mary received Jesus.
But even moreso, we have the responsibility to live that way, not just on Christmas, but every day. Let us take this lesson Mary gives us, which is in many ways the first lesson Jesus gets as a human: be grateful, be joyful, be loving. Share the good things in your life, and recognize what you have. God loved us enough to come spend time with us; we can show that same respect for one another, whether the people and gifts we receive are what we hoped for, or not. After all, while Mary wasn’t asking for what she got, she wound up with the greatest gift of all. If we’re able to act as she did, we, too, may just find that what we have is even better than we ever dreamed or hoped for. Amen.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger – 2017/12/10

Psalm 85:8-13
Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8


Sometime, you might have to deliver bad news to someone. You might be afraid that they’re going to lash out at you; even though the thing in question isn’t your fault, you may still feel like they’re going to get mad at you, when all you’re doing is delivering the news.  So you might start giving this bad news by saying, “Now don’t shoot the messenger, but…”  I know I’ve done that before.

The phrase, “don’t shoot the messenger” is not a recent one.  As many of you probably know from history classes you took in school, messengers were set apart from the usual rules of war.  You couldn’t shoot messengers.  After all, if one side wanted to surrender to the other, you’d never know unless you let a messenger through.  So it was critically important that armies didn’t attack messengers.  Today, when we talk about delivering unwanted news, it’s easy to cast ourselves in this light – to be the bringers of bad news when it’s needed, but not wanting to be punished for it.

These rules about shooting the messenger have been consistent throughout the world, across geographic regions and cultures, even across time.  Yet, cultures would dress up their messengers differently, in a way that was appropriate to their own culture.  When you received a messenger in the ancient world, it wasn’t your place to criticize how he might be dressed; you weren’t there for the messenger, after all.  What you needed was the message.

Well, brothers and sisters, that brings us to today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark.  In it, we read of God’s messenger.  And, of course, that messenger comes dressed in his own garb.  It’s… well, let’s just call it “non-traditional.”  “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey,” says verse six.

I think one of the hardest things for us as modern readers of the Bible to understand is what life was like in ancient Judea.  We take so many things for granted here that it’s hard to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes… or sandals for a second.  When thinking about this passage, we might be ready to dismiss John’s eccentricities because he lived a long time ago.  Or we might just consider that people lived in a desert – maybe they just had a lot higher tolerance for a dirty appearance than we do.

Well, there’s some truth to that.  But on the other hand, there are tons of rules for being clean in Judaism.  There had to be, because the world was simply dirtier than the one we’re used to.  Still, they prioritized bathing and being clean.  Not to mention, John just seems to be eating whatever is nearest him.  If there’s one thing there are more rules about in Judaism than washing, it’s eating.  Yet, John is surviving off of the locusts and wild honey he’s finding in his immediate vicinity.

Basically, John is not at all respectable.  He’s the opposite, actually.  He’s a hairy weirdo who dresses funny, lives in the wilderness, and eats whatever food he can find.  That’s just as weird then as it would be now.  And yet, people are flocking to him in droves.  They’re coming to him, to meet down by the river and to be baptized by him.  Now, some of you smart-alecks out there are probably thinking that people just want John to go in the river and wash, and that’s why he’s baptizing so many people.  But that’s not the case; rather John is preaching, according to our passage from Mark, two things. So I want those two things to be the focus of my sermon today, too.

The first of the two things John is preaching is “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” as Mark tells us in verse four of today’s reading.  John isn’t just bringing people down to the river to dunk them in water; they’re coming to have their sins washed away.

The idea of the forgiveness of sins being a crucial element of baptism is something we often lose in today’s world.  After all, as Christians, so many of us get used to seeing people baptized as babies that we forget about this important aspect of this ritual.  As a church that believes in infant baptism, however, we acknowledge that we are not just washing away sins that have already been committed; we’re also washing away the power that sin has over us in the world.  Yes, we will still sin, even if we were baptized as babies.  But you know what?  I’ve known a lot of people baptized as adults, and I’ve yet to meet the one who avoided sinning after the baptism.

We need baptism as a symbol, because it reminds us that God – and God alone – is capable of washing away our sins, just as dirt is washed away from our bodies.  Lost among all the talk of prayers and church attendance, of how to speak and act toward others and the world around us, is often this simple truth:  God loves you, and is happy to forgive your sins.

Our church ritualizes this forgiveness, not by re-baptizing us every week.  After all, our one baptism is enough to mark us as Christ’s, and he is constantly making us new.  Instead, we have a formalized time of confession and pardon, in which we remember that, yes, we have sinned; furthermore, God loves and forgives us, even when the world around us forgets and forsakes us.

In a world that is governed by absolute conformity to a society’s rules like the one John lived in, this Gospel call that, by the grace of God we are free from our sins, is radical, exciting, and energizing.  Our culture today is no less obsessed with image, with titles, and with perfection.  In fact, I read not that long ago that the number one reason diets fail is that people make a mistake on one day; once they’re not perfect, they’ rather give up than try to get better.  The world constantly puts these pressures on us to meet some absurd standard in order to be considered worthwhile.  Yet, our faith in Jesus offers us a way to say, “No, world; you are wrong.  I am loved, and whatever I may have done in the past, God is willing to let me start over.  Hallelujah!”

Even though this message came from a guy who, despite bathing every day, smelled like camel, people were drawn to John because of his message.  Yet, this was not the only message John preached, nor was it even his most exciting message, exciting though it was.

The second of the two things John is preaching is the coming of Christ.  John was regarded as a holy man.  Understandably so, for he was able to give his whole life over to God, living every second for God’s work in the world.  Yet, John says that “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”  John is setting people up to understand that greater things are afoot.

I have to say, I find that a particularly inspiring message.  When I think of all the ways that God has influenced my life, I am often left in awe.  From the family I was given, the friends I met, the experiences of Jesus I had at camp and at church, to finding my way into ministry and to this place, it’s almost impossible for me to put words to how much God has meant to me.  My life, without Jesus in it, would be nothing.

Yet, John spoke to people just like me and said, “God has more in mind.  You’re just living in the in-between time.”  For those whose lives are good, John offers blessings beyond measure.  For those whose lives are difficult, John shows them that God has a greater plan than just the disappointments this world can so often bring us.

Brothers and sisters, John lived in an age when he could attract people by saying, “This is not all there is.” So often in today’s world, we (and I mean Christian folk, too) are guilty of thinking that what we see in front of us is all there is.  It’s no better and no worse, it just is.  We can easily be conned into this thought because we’re surrounded by the incidents of our lives all the time.  Yet, we know:  Christ will come again.  Probably not today; maybe not tomorrow; maybe long after we’re all buried.  Yet still, we have hope.

We know from the day of Christ’s resurrection that the world could never be the same.  We know that, in the darkest of times, there is always the light of hope.  The Christian tradition is filled with imagery of light and darkness, because it’s so appropriate.  Particularly at this time of year, as every day gets a little bit darker, we need reminders that God still has light for us.  No matter how hopeless or dire a situation may seem, God has a way to find a way out.  After all, Jesus had met the ultimate end that our world offers – death on a cross.  Yet, he returned to show us that God is never, ever beyond hope for us.  God is always there for us, even when we feel like all is lost; our most difficult task, though, is finding how God is speaking to us.

I think sometimes we might like it if God were to send messengers dressed up in camel’s hair and smelling like bugs and honey.  That would sure make God’s messages easy to spot, wouldn’t it?  Instead, though, God comes to us in all sorts of ways, various and surprising.  Our task this Advent is to look for those messages God is sending.  While we may think we’d like something easy to identify, it’s also easy to look past someone who looks like John did.

So as you ready your hearts and your homes for Christmas this year, don’t forget to give a little thought to John and what he promises.  Your sins are forgiven, because God loves you more than reason can explain.  And this world, though it lets us down, is not where we get our final answer, because Christ will return, and in him we can hope.  Take your time, and look for the messengers who bring the hope of Christ to your life, and go out yourself, becoming a messenger to others – camel’s hair coat optional.  Amen.

Meeting Expectations – 2017/12/03

Psalm  80:7-15
Isaiah 64:1-5
Mark 13:24-37


Have you ever had someone tell about a good movie?  “It’s, like, the best movie ever,” they might say.  It’s high praise.  So, you sit down to watch the movie… and it just disappoints.  I remember when the Star Wars prequels came out, I believe in 2001.  I had a few friends who were massive fans of Star Wars.  I mean, I enjoyed the movies, don’t get me wrong, but I was never really “into” them as much as some people get.  Anyway, I just remember these friends being devastated by Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.  Now, it’s not a great movie; nowhere near as good as the first one.  But it also didn’t destroy the universe or anything.  But from my friends’ reactions, you’d have thought it did.

The problem, of course, was that I had a bunch of friends whose expectations were impossible to live up to.  They were asking a movie to be something it was never going to be.  We do this often; we build something up, only to get disappointed when it fails to live up to our expectations.  Parents feel this way about their kids, kids feel this way about their parents; spouses, friends – really every relationship has a moment in which one person lets the other down.  We’re just people, so that’s kind of our “normal” – failing one another.

But, of course, it shouldn’t surprise us.  Our expectations are just out of whack with reality.  So that’s what we’re here to talk about today.  Because if ever there was an unfulfilled expectation, it was when Jesus came.  Now, I know that probably sounds scandalous to everyone, but I want you to bear with me while we think it through, because it’s really important that we understand this the way Jesus’ followers and other contemporaries would have.  I think it gives us another way to look at our own lives.

First of all, we read a passage from Isaiah this morning.  It began with a cry to God to come to earth, saying, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”  Here, Isaiah expresses that understandable feeling that the world is unjust, and the even more understandable desire for God to come fix it all.

In so doing, he asks God to come with a flash and a bang – tearing open the heavens, shaking the mountains, and setting the world aflame, so that all the enemies of God tremble.  And, frankly, this is how most people expected God to come into the world that first time; with fires and floods and burning, wearing a crown and bending every knee.

Only, that’s not what happened at all, is it?  Instead, God came as a baby – not a royal baby, just a baby born in a barn to a poor family.  And who shows up for the birth?  Some angels, yeah; but they share the experience with the nearby shepherds.  These are just regular people, on a regular day, doing regular things.  There were no fires or floods, no earthquakes or bloody battles.  All that happened was the most commonplace of God’s miracles, the miracle of birth.

The thing is, if you’re expecting the sky to tear open and the world itself to start shaking, it’s going to be awfully hard to understand what was so special about this baby, isn’t it?  I mean, I’ve had people ask me many times, “How come people didn’t believe in Jesus?  They saw him do so many miracles!”  That’s true; but again, they were brought up with these words from Isaiah about God making a big show of things.  So on the one hand, you can’t blame the people who saw Jesus.  Many of them thought he was just a prophet or a special messenger… and that seems kind of reasonable, given this perspective on what they thought God would do.

But, as I’ve been saying, that’s just expectations getting in the way.  That’s us, as human beings, foisting our expectations of what God should do onto events.  It’s asking God to act they way we would act, rather than allowing us to be us, and God to be God.

And that brings us to our other reading, the passage from Mark’s Gospel.  This passage takes for granted one of the key aspects of Advent.  As you all know from our children’s sermon, we are now in the Christian season of Advent, which is the lead-up to Christmas.  We are getting ready for the coming of Christ.  But for most of us, I think, that’s actually just an act of “memory.”  Advent is definitely a season in which we remember waiting in the past.  That is, it’s partially about remembering how people waited for so longthousands of years – for a Messiah.  They waited and waited for God to come, so we wait, too.

But the thing is, we’re not just supposed to be doing an act of memory.  Today we’re celebrating the sacrament of Communion, which is also an act of memory.  But more than just memory, it reminds us that we will, one day, feast with Jesus at his heavenly table.  So it’s also anticipation.  That same idea holds true for Advent.  And that’s what this passage is getting at.

For as long as Christianity has existed, we have been waiting for Jesus to return.  It’s part of the Christian deal.  We hope for Christ to come and set everything right, once and for all.  That’s what he’s told us is going to happen, and that’s what the Mark passage refers to.  The passage from today talks about suffering and miracles of darkness and the heavens themselves shaking, and the Son of Man – that is, Jesus – coming from the clouds in glory.  Jesus tells us all this in today’s reading.

But Jesus also says that it will happen within the generation to which he was talking.  Well, that didn’t happen.  So what did Jesus mean?  What are we supposed to take from this?  How on earth is this supposed to be relevant to us, and particularly what has it got to do with Christmas?

Well, if I were a betting man, I would say that Jesus is speaking in riddles here, as he’s wont to do sometimes.  Perhaps he had planned to come back within one generation, but he changed his mind.  Perhaps he did come back, but invisibly.  Perhaps because God’s time is not like our time, it’s still to come, and Jesus was using the word “generation” in a way that’s really different from how we use it.  No matter what, though, this is a passage about how Jesus will come again.

And if I were a betting man, I’d also bet that it’s safe to say that, while Jesus uses this particular type of language to refer to his second coming, his first coming was surprising and challenged everyone’s expectations; I’d expect his second coming to do the same.  Maybe it will look exactly like that, and maybe it won’t.  Maybe everyone will be able to see, or maybe only certain people will.  No matter what happens, though, the best advice to follow is that at the end of the passage:  keep awake!

That’s not just good advice during sermons; it’s also important for us as believers.  We’re supposed to make our faith a part of our lives every day, not just on the rare occasion that we deign to think of it.  When Jesus says, “Keep awake,” he doesn’t mean “don’t go to sleep.”  Rather, he means, “Pay attention.”  It’s hard to think of better advice.

So while we’re in Advent, while we’re in this season of waiting, let’s spend our waiting wisely.  Let’s look for what God is doing.  Keep awake, and open your eyes to finding God in unexpected places.  Don’t be blinded by the world around you and its expectations for you; rather, pay attention to the things God is already doing.  That way, whenever God shows up, however God shows up, you’ll notice.  Whether it’s in the sky tearing open and the earth trembling, or if it’s merely in the crying of a child, by keeping awake, we can find where God is showing up right now; and when we do that, we know we’ll be able to find Jesus when he comes again.  Amen.

November 19 & 26 Sermons

Sorry it’s been a while since the last post.  Here’s your chance to catch up!  The 26th is here at the top, and Gayle Janzen’s sermon from 11/19 is below!

Psalm 100
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

I’ve never been a King.  I mean, any kind of king.  I was never prom king or homecoming king or anything.  I was never voted king at a county fair or anything like that.  I was never even one of those honorary “king” titles that they give out at some jobs: “sales king for the month of August.”  Nothing.

So, at first blush, the whole idea of kings is a silly one, and (for me, at least) not a very relatable one.  But, of course, one of the things about kings is that our idea of them is super weird compared to most of the history of the world.  We think of “king” as an honor, rather than a right.  We even elect the king of most things that have a “king.”

But, of course, for most of the history of the world, kings weren’t chosen, they were born.  And most kings weren’t “right” or “wrong” based on the quality of their ideas; they were automatically right, by virtue of being king.  That is, to us, a completely backwards way of thinking about understanding a person, a role, or an idea – it is because it is.  There’s nothing more frustrating for a kid than when your parents say, “Because I said so;” yet, that’s how everything works for a king.  That doesn’t sound too good to Americans raised in this day and age.  We know about tyranny, and we believe that all of us should have a voice – even if that voice is wrong.

So that brings us to today in church.  Today is Christ the King Sunday.  It’s kind of a goofy little day in the life of the church:  the final Sunday before Advent begins and we ramp up to Christmas.  It’s important for a couple of reasons, though.  This is the first one:  during Advent, which is the lead-up to Christmas, we tend to focus on the “baby” part of Jesus.  That’s great, because it helps us to remember that he came as a lowly person, just like us.

What can be lost when we do that, though, is remembering the power of Jesus.  He wasn’t just a baby.  He was the baby who would grow up to be king.  Not just king of a small province, either, or even a country; especially not prom king or used car king or something like that.  Jesus is king of the whole world.

Now, I spoke a little bit ago about how the idea of kings can sometimes rub us the wrong way a little bit as Americans.  The difference about this king is that earthly kings don’t always measure up to our standards, right?  Earthly kings can be unjust; they can be just as sinful as the rest of us, because, end of the day, they’re still just human, whatever they might want you to believe.

Jesus, though, is a righteous king; in fact, the only righteous king.  He’s the only one who can guarantee that his rule is just.  And that’s very important, because if we have a king, the only kind we would want is a just king.  Jesus is that; he is someone we can rely on, because he is the only person to have ever walked the face of this earth to have also been divine; he’s the only one who has goodness at the core of his being.  The rest of us would do well to remember that we should be happy about the fact that our heavenly king rules over his earthly realm fairly.

And in fact, in today’s reading, we get a little glimpse of how Jesus rules over his earthly kingdom.  Now, briefly, I would like to talk about the general Christian conceptions of heaven and hell.  Chiefly, I don’t think that’s what this passage is about; yet, they’re mentioned here, so I think it needs to be addressed.

Now, I’m not one of those preachers who wants to go on about heaven and hell all the time.  Partly, this is because I’ve done a lot of study of the Bible in my life, and I think some of the ideas are a lot more ambiguous than most of us likely suspect.  I also think that our job in church here is to talk about Jesus, and, frankly, he doesn’t spend that much time talking about it.

In fact, as I was researching this sermon, I looked.  Outside of Matthew’s Gospel (from which we read today), Jesus only makes three mentions of hell at all (and they’re probably not what we’d expect), and mentions heaven only very rarely.  Yet, today’s passage is from the book of Matthew, so it would do us well to mention this briefly.  Obviously, there’s a concept here that people are separated and set apart from one another, some to one destination and some to the other.

What I think is most important here is how our King makes this judgment.  See, what’s important in this passage isn’t wealth or fame or money or influence.  It isn’t political beliefs or intelligence or looks or popularity.  It isn’t church attendance or Bible verses memorized or number of friends.  The things that are emphasized are acts of love.  Not romantic love or friendship love, but love for all of humanity.

Jesus here tells people that what they’re rewarded for feeding him when he was hungry, giving drink to him when he was thirsty, welcoming him when he was the stranger, clothing him when he was naked, caring for him when he was sick, and visiting him when he was imprisoned.  The people he tells don’t remember doing these things for Jesus, but he tells them that, when they did it for others, they did it for him.

I love this passage because it’s a way of reminding us of a different bit of Scripture, the part called “the greatest commandment.”  That’s when Jesus summarizes our whole faith by telling us that we are supposed to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and that there’s a second command just like it:  to love our neighbors as ourselves.  In other words, we show love of God by loving others; we grow in love of others by following God.  These two things are linked; it’s impossible to be living a Christian life in which we don’t help others, because we can’t love God if we’re not loving other people.  Similarly, our love of other people brings us closer to God, improves our relationship, and drives our faith.  It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

In short, what matters most is living like our King.  Our King was unique in his life, because he showed us what a true ruler should be like.  Our good King gave up his own life for the lives of his subjects.  He was willing to die to show us that we are loved.  He was willing to take on pain and sin that he didn’t deserve so that we could be made free through him.  Our good King made himself a servant to all of us, so that we would see how to live.  The goal wasn’t to show us how to be doormats, but to show us how we can become examples of service to others, and thereby live more like him.  We become our own, smaller version of Jesus whenever we’re able to make ourselves the servants of others.

Therefore, we’re supposed to engage in the same cycles of Jesus’ life.  I don’t know how much you’ve ever thought about the patterns of Jesus’ life, but he has a pretty specific pattern of what he does in his life.  He withdraws to pray, often.  Even though he himself was God, that didn’t mean he was supposed to stop engaging.  He also regularly attended services of worship.  Most of the time, he was the one doing the teaching; but not all of the time.  Once he was spiritually fed, he went out and served.  He fed the hungry and healed the sick.  He told people about his faith.  He was welcoming to children, women, ethnic minorities, immigrants – all the people that would be easy to look down on in his culture (and most cultures in history, in fact); yet, he treated them with the same dignity and respect that anyone else deserved.

So when we try to figure out how to be good subjects of our King, we do so by emulating him.  We take his actions and wear them in our own lives.  We need to serve when we are called.  That means helping others, particularly those in need.  When we care for someone needy, particularly someone whom society considers to be “less than” we are, we are acting out the life of Jesus.  We are supposed to use the church – this place, these people – as our grounds where we are fed.  We are supposed to collect ourselves here, just as Jesus did, to get energy to serve.

Therefore, I encourage you to engage, just as Jesus did; to build up your own faith so you can serve; serve so you can deepen your faith.  Become part of the great cycle of faith, wherein our relationship with God gets deeper, and our lives become more about living like Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, we will never live exactly like Jesus.  We are not divine; we will make mistakes and mess up.  We will let other people down.  But we know that our righteous King also taught us about second chances and about grace.  We have a King whose Law is absolute; yet his law is love, forgiveness, and peace.  So, brothers and sisters, let us go out and live the Law of our King, acting just as he would, and living out his call on our lives.  Amen.


For a Time Such as This – 2017/11/12

Selections from the book of Esther


We have reached the end.  I started this sermon series on the Old Testament waaaaay back on June 11.  That means we’ve been five MONTHS in this series.  We’ve seen creation, the flood, the Exodus from Egypt, the time of the Judges, the rise of the Kings, the dividing of the Kingdom and the Exile in Babylon.  We’ve heard about Abraham and Moses and David; Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and a whole bunch of other Old Testament figures.  The last two weeks, we heard reading about hope for return to Jerusalem from Exile in Babylon.  Indeed, brothers and sisters, that time comes, and the Jewish people are returned to Jerusalem.

But today’s final reading from this very long series of Old Testament sermons is about something else; this reading is about the time in which the Kingdom has been restored and the Temple rebuilt.  But instead of taking place in Jerusalem, this story, as you heard, takes place in Persia.

The book of Esther is really interesting.  Chronologically, it is the last book to take place in the Old Testament.  It is therefore a fitting end to this series.  In college, I actually took an entire semester class on Esther, so I can talk about this book waaaay longer than anyone would want to hear about it.  So why not end with a book that actually takes place in Israel?  Well, Esther’s family was one of those families that, during the Exile, moved away from Babylon.  They established themselves in Susa, the capital of Persia, and that’s where they made their lives.  Even when they were allowed to return, they didn’t.  So, this story is partly about being Jewish in a foreign land.  And there’s some relevance to Christians in that; we don’t really have a “promised land” to go to; we are without a homeland, so ending on a story about people far from home makes sense to me.

But, as you may have seen in the pre-worship slideshow this morning, Esther is the only book in the Bible that doesn’t mention God.  At all.  So… what are we supposed to make of that?  I mean, if we’re going to end this series by talking about a book that teaches us to be faithful no matter where we may be, it would probably make more sense if the book in question actually talked about being faithful, wouldn’t it?  If we are meant to use this bit of Scripture in our faith lives, it deserves some attention as we try to figure out what it has to say to us.

In case it went by too fast for you, the brief outline of the book of Esther is that there are four characters, living two stories which come together in fascinating fashion.  King Ahasuerus, who is looking for a queen.  Then there’s Esther, the most beautiful woman in the whole kingdom, who becomes his bride.  Their story, the first of the two in this book, is pretty straightforward.  Esther is Jewish, raised by her uncle Mordecai after her parents died.  Mordecai is a scribe.  And he runs afoul of another servant of the king named Haman.

It begins when Haman gets a promotion.  He parades around town, looking for people to bow to him.  Mordecai won’t do it.  Mordecai doesn’t because he’s a Jew, and he won’t worship some human ruler – that’s never mentioned explicitly in the text, but is obvious if you’re familiar with other parts of the Old Testament.  This behavior infuriates Haman, who believes Mordecai is not showing proper respect – but Haman also thinks murder is beneath him, so he goes the sneaky route to punish Mordecai.  Haman tells the king that there’s this group of people who don’t follow the same laws as everyone else – the Jews.  They should all be put to death; I mean, what other solution is there to this problem?  The king, who, as you’ll see, is played like a fiddle by everyone in this story, agrees, and signs an order that the Jews can be killed on this one particular day in a couple months.

Hearing this devastating news, Mordecai and Esther conspire about all these events.  Mordecai tells Esther, “You have to DO something!”  Esther says, “But if I approach the king without permission, he can have me killed.”  Mordecai says, “Yeah, but you’ll probably die, anyway.  Don’t think that being the queen will save you from this planned genocide!”

So Esther decides to go into the king’s palace without his permission.  As she is his favorite, the king grants her permission to speak.  She, being clever, invites him (and Haman) to a special dinner she throws for them.  At that dinner, the king is so taken with Esther that he says, “I’ll give you whatever you want!”  She says, “There’s this plot to kill me and all my people, and Haman made it!”

The king, furious, fires Haman, and then gives Mordecai Haman’s old job.  He has Mordecai draft a letter saying the Jews are allowed to fight back on that planned day when they were to be murdered, and everyone lives happily ever after – well, everyone except Haman, but that’s a pretty gruesome part of the story, and I skipped it.  So that’s basically the whole story.

As we try to see what this book has to offer us, let’s first remember that Jews are a people united, not just by religion, but by shared ancestry.  That explains why Jews wanted to re-tell this story, and even why there’s a holiday (called Purim) in honor of it.  However, even if it’s important, why is it in the Bible if it’s not about God?

I have a couple of answers for that.  First of all, this book helps us understand how God is present, whether we name God or not.  Just because the people of this book didn’t name God, that doesn’t mean that God wasn’t there.  As Mordecai says to Esther, “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”  In other words, “Maybe God put you in this position so you can save us.”  Even without naming God, Mordecai has shown us something important:  God puts us in certain places at certain times to do the right thing.

A second answer as to what a book that doesn’t mention God can tell us about God is this:  we live in an increasingly secular age in the United States.  This has been true for a couple of generations, though most people only realize it now.  There are some positives from it, though most often we’re likely to dwell on the negatives.  But how do we see God’s hand in the world, even when no one around us is saying it?

Traditionally in our country, Christianity was taken for granted, so we could say Christian things and flaunt Christian symbols in public.  But to some extent, I think, that made us lazy believers.  We came to believe that saying Christian things was the same as doing Christian things. Faith in God has to be about more than just public prayer, more than using Christian language.  It seems to me that people are more likely to complain about a lack of stores having “Merry Christmas” signs than they are about whether or not their own Christmas celebrations actually reflect anything about the Christian life.  It becomes about seeming Christian rather than being Christ-like; saying the right things rather than doing them.

Perhaps the most explicit way I’ve seen this play out in my own life was in the form of the WWJD bracelet.  You remember those, right?  For those of you too young to remember these (and I feel really old saying that), these were little rubber or woven bracelets that had the letters “WWJD” on them.  It stood for “What Would Jesus Do?” and it was supposed to be a reminder to behave in a Christian way all the time.  In my opinion, this was a great idea – until they got really popular.  See, when they started, they were a subtle reminder to people to act like Jesus.  You were actually supposed to look down at them and think twice before you spoke or acted.  What they became, though, was a status symbol to show off your Christianity to others.  You started seeing them on people who wanted to look Christian, rather than people who cared about the message at all.

In this regard, the book of Esther can be a really good thing to keep in mind.  What Esther does in this book is not have a showy prayer.  She doesn’t win favor by converting the emperor to her beliefs.  She isn’t a big political hero who turns everyone into a follower of God.  Instead, she changes the world by acting in a way that a follower of God would is supposed to act.  She stands up for the innocent.  She speaks truth to power.  She risks her own life and well-being in pursuit of the greater good.

But it’s not just Esther who is to be our example.  After all, this whole story hinges on Mordecai and his unwillingness to bow down to someone who isn’t God.  Haman is parading through the streets and expecting complete and total obedience.  Mordecai, a good Jew, doesn’t want to bow down to him, because Mordecai knows that he’s just a man.  Mordecai knows that it’s not about the posture of your body; it’s about the posture of your heart.  Mordecai’s heart is right, because he puts God first; Haman’s heart is wrong, because he puts himself first.

Mordecai’s action enrages Haman, who orders not just Mordecai’s death, but death to all Jews throughout Persia.  But, even though the book of Esther doesn’t have a single mention of God, we can see that Mordecai is unwilling to bow down to idols.

To me, that’s the third and biggest takeaway from this book.  Sure, one of the lessons this book teaches is about knowing God is there, even when no one even says the word, “God.”  And a second one is that it shows us how to be faithful in a culture that isn’t explicitly our faith.  But probably the most important thing I see in this book is that we’re meant to stand up to idols, and to be obedient only to God.  If we’re familiar with the language of the word, “idol,” we’re probably used to hearing about idols in the Old Testament as statues made of wood or stone or precious metals that people worship instead of worshiping God.  In our day and age, we tend not to worship statues, and we think that makes us more “advanced” than the people who came before us.

Yet, at the end of the day, we bow down to idols often.  You see, idols don’t have to be statues.  Anything we put ahead of God can be an idol.  Concepts like pride and status are common idols.  Feelings like lust and greed can be idols.  Probably the most common idol in our culture is money.  If it’s not that, it’s our own comfort, or perhaps our own happiness.  Beyond concepts, individual people, perhaps family members or even celebrities, can become idols when we start to put them first in our lives.  Political affiliations, countries, and the flag can become idols.  The ideas of “safety” and “security” are immensely powerful idols in our culture, convincing us to push aside the radical call of inclusivity and justice in favor of staying “safe.”

The book of Esther teaches us about the courage it takes to stand up to idols.  Sometimes, the world around us is telling us that something other than God is what’s most important.  Mordecai stands up when he feels the pressure to fall in line like everyone else.  Esther stands up to the King and transgresses her station.  She has to violate the law to do what’s right, but she saves her entire people.  These are models for us, because they show one of the ideas we talked about last week in the Book of Ezekiel:  their whole lives become part of their faith witness.  It’s not just about words; it’s about living a life that makes God’s presence apparent in you.  Esther and Mordecai do that.

So let us take the example of Esther and Mordecai and live it out in our own lives.  Let us not treat God’s name like a status symbol, or a piece of jewelry we can put on or take off as we please; let’s make it a tattoo that marks us as God’s forever, and that’s visible for all the world.  Let us not believe that saying “Merry Christmas” in public, or support of school prayer, is the test of someone’s faith; instead, let our actions show that we believe God is in charge, and let our lives reflect what God wants us to do.  Let us embrace living a Jesus-life.  Let us live as God intended us to live, loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Amen.

The Valley of Dry Bones – 2017/11/05

Psalm 19:1-6
John 11:25-26
Ezekiel 37:1-14


I know some people from church have asked why we gave our son such a weird Bible name.  There are a few reasons.  First of all, (CLICK) we wanted a biblical name for our son.  As I’ve talked about many times, I always loved hearing the stories of King David when I was a kid, because I found kinship with this Bible character, just by having the same name.  Before Carissa and I knew anything else about our child, we knew we wanted a biblical name. (CLICK)

Second, we’re big dorks.  This is probably not a surprise to anyone, but while we didn’t know what our child’s name was going to be, we had the first initial picked out.  Carissa’s parents are Art and Barb.  So, when Carissa was born, her family’s initials were “ABC.”  (CLICK) My parents are Bob and Cathy, so when I was born, our family initials were “BCD.”  (CLICK) To continue the tradition of consecutive letters, since “Carissa” and “David” have the C and D, we knew we wanted an “E.” (CLICK)

Now, that actually leaves a couple of good boy names (and a bunch of weird ones).  For example, Elijah would be a good one.  He was an Old Testament prophet who famously never died.  He simply ascended into heaven at the end of his ministry.  He performed many miracles and was very wise.

Personally, I always like the name Ezekiel, though.  It’s a good name – your lawyer, your banker, your doctor, some famous author – he could have a name like Ezekiel – a name with some gravitas, some heft, some authority.  On the other hand, I always thought “Zeke” sounded like a fun guy you would want to hang out with.  You get a serious name, and a fun goofy name.

But more important than how the name sounds is the character himself in the Bible.  (CLICK) Ezekiel was a prophet in the Old Testament, right around the time of Jeremiah.  Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel were around during the Divided Kingdom – that is, the time when Israel in the North and Judah in the South were separate.  They both lived to see the Exile to Babylon (CLICK) – when the Babylonian Empire finally took Judah and its capital Jerusalem, kidnapping all the wealthy and influential people and removing them to Babylon.

This meant that both of them had remarkably difficult jobs to do.  Jeremiah spent his time trying to influence powerful people, using the power of speech and persuasion to get people.  Ezekiel had a much more… shall we say, “colorful” approach to prophecy.

Ezekiel was renowned for his “sign-acts.”  (CLICK) A sign-act is when a prophet does something physical to signify the meaning of his prophecy.  For example, in chapter 4 of Ezekiel, he lay on his side for over a year.  First, on his left side for 390 days, then on his right for 40 days.  This was one day on each side for each year that first Israel, and then Judah, would be without a king; they years they would be in Exile.  Can you imagine, just lying on one side for so long?  The bed sores he must’ve had!  But that’s the whole point:  he was showing people physical signs of the emotional pain they were going through to help drive his message home.

Later, he cooks food over cow dung.  This was prohibited by Jewish law, but he does it to show that, while the people of Judah are in Exile, they’re not going to be in the comfortable bubble of Jerusalem.  They’re going to be around people with different ideas of what is acceptable, including what to eat and how to prepare it.  Jeremiah might’ve been more inclined to tell people that; Ezekiel was inclined to show people.  He wanted them, not just to have an intellectual understanding of what was coming, but for them to have a real, physical, visceral understanding of what lay ahead.

There are other things:  in chapter 12, Ezekiel physically packs up his stuff to demonstrate that the Exile is coming; when his wife dies in chapter 24, he refuses to cry, to symbolize to people that God is not going to cry over the loss of the King and the Temple; after all, God has new things in store.  Ezekiel has a way of making his whole life about what God is doing.  Yes, it’s eccentric; it’s a little batty.  Sometimes, it’s goofy or funny.  But more than anything else, it’s inspiring that someone would take God’s message so to heart that his whole life, the way he conducts himself, the habits and routines of his life, everything – would be about God.  That’s a big thing to live up to, but it’s exactly what any believer should aspire to.  Not cooking your food over cow dung; I mean that devotion to God in your life.

(CLICK) And Ezekiel’s very name means, “God strengthens.”  How else do you describe the physical skill toll this took on him, yet the perseverance he showed in his ministry?  God strengthened him where so many others failed.

But Ezekiel was more than just some weirdo who acted out to show people God’s message.  He was also a deeply spiritual man who received some of the great visions of Scripture.  And in today’s reading, we see perhaps the most famous vision in the whole Bible, as Ezekiel sees the dry bones come to life. (CLICK)

In this vision, Ezekiel is placed in the middle of a valley that’s filled with dry bones.  Incidentally, I love the detail that these are dry bones.  Somehow, it just sounds wrong to call this “the story of Ezekiel and the bones.”  It has to be the dry bones.  That little detail helps us know that the life went out of these bones long ago.  This passage is rich in sensory detail, and it’s important to pay attention to something like that.  God asks if the bones can live, and, skeptically, Ezekiel responds, “Only you know, God.”  God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones.

Ezekiel starts talking, and we hear our second great sensory detail:  the rattling of the bones.  Just imagine a valley full of bones; I have the picture up there to help you visualize it.  If they started to move, surely there would be a rattling.  And as Ezekiel speaks, that rattling continues.  The bones come together in skeletons, and on those skeletons, muscles and tendons and ligaments and skin start to form.  The dry bones have turned into living people!  Surely, this would be a sight unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.

This is to be understood as a message of hope during the Exile.  Much like what we read from Jeremiah last week, this was a message that this Exile would not be permanent, but rather that God would bring back hope from the pit of despair.  The Exile was a critical moment in the history of the Jewish people, because it seemed that all of God’s promises had gone away.  The promised Davidic King?  Gone.  The promise of the Temple, where God would dwell and they would worship forever?  Destroyed.  The promised land they were supposed to enjoy forever?  Distant, thousands of miles away.

Yet, Ezekiel’s vision is about the impossible coming to pass.  It’s about something that not only seems dead coming back, but something that is dead teeming with life.  And while we heard such things in Jeremiah last week, this prophecy from Ezekiel means more to me, because unlike Jeremiah’s specific prophecy about hope for restoration in a particular time and place, Ezekiel’s prophecy is forever.

Today, as you may know, is All Saints’ Sunday.  That’s the first Sunday in November, during which we remember All Saints’ Day.  All Saints’ Day is when the church universal recognizes those who have died; those saints who now rest with their heavenly creator.  And on this day, we remember that Ezekiel’s prophecy is not just about the Israelites 2500 years ago, but it’s about us today, as well.

God is in the business of resurrection.  We see in this passage a vision of Ezekiel that’s more than a vision.  We see that our deaths will come, but that God still has plans for us.  We are never dead to God, though our bones may dry up; though our names may be forgotten by history, God still wishes for us to live.  And in God, we do live.  God raises us up.  And while this doesn’t happen in a way that others can see, it is nonetheless God’s sure promise.  We know it, just as God was able to restore the people of Judah to their rightful home when it seemed impossible, this, too, is something God can, will, and does accomplish for us.

Brothers and sisters, we know that our resurrection comes, because we’ve seen it already.  We have seen it foretold by Ezekiel.  But more importantly, we have seen that Jesus was raised from the dead, the firstfruits of God’s planned harvest.  One day, we may all feast at God’s heavenly banquet table with the redeemed from throughout history, because we have seen the risen Christ, who broke bread with his disciples.

Today, we remember and honor those saints who have gone before us.  And today in worship, we break bread.  As we break bread and share the cup, remember that these are not mere symbols of one meal a long time ago; they are a promise.  They are a promise that the resurrection that met Christ Jesus is our destiny, too.  This meal is not just remembrance, because it is also a foretaste of the feast that awaits us when we meet God again.

Brothers and sisters, we know that death awaits us all.  And therefore we are right to mourn those who have gone before us.  But we are also right to rejoice, knowing that those who have left us already sit at God’s banquet table, awaiting out presence in good time.

And know that today, in this life, whatever troubles you face, whatever exile you find yourself in, God is there to free you from it.  No obstacle is too great for God to overcome, for even death is subject to God.  Amen.

Reformation Sunday – 2017/10/29

Psalm 25:1-7
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14


I remember starting in a new school district in 6th grade.  I was the new kid, didn’t really have any friends in my class.  I only vaguely knew a couple of kids from playing youth sports in the area, but I had been open-enrolled in another district for elementary school (basically, my parents and I moved, but I kept going to the same school; now, I was finally starting in the district I actually lived in).

Middle school can be an awkward time for any kid, but if you really don’t know where you fit in, and middle school is a time to reinvent yourself, anyway.  In that sixth-grade year, I went from being probably the quietest kid in class at my old school, to someone who was constantly sent to the corner of the classroom for talking too much in class.  But that was the year I remember really starting on group work for the first time in a classroom; it was the first time I remember being encouraged to talk in class.  I learned to rein it in eventually, but that year I was talking all the time.  I had a change in circumstance, and it really made a lot of things different.

Similarly, last week, we talked about Jeremiah.  Today, we return to him.  Last week, we talked about Jeremiah’s early life as a prophet.  He lived during the time when Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom) were split, so the whole people of Israel was not united.  Jeremiah lived and prophesied in Jerusalem.  Specifically, the main part of his job was to give people this warning:  “Just because you live in Jerusalem, where God’s Temple is, that doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen here; I know God chose this city to be special, but we have to keep following God!”  Of course, no one listened and the Babylonian army came roaring through town, destroying the Temple and getting rid of the king.

Now, that level of destruction would’ve been enough to prove the Babylonians’ power, I think, except they had other ideas.  They believed the best way to make some changes was to beat the culture out of people.  And the best way to do that was to remove the most cultured people from a place.  So the Babylonians took the educated elite – the upper class, even most of the middle class – and all the “influential” people, and removed them.  They just took them from their homes, and marched them across the desert to Babylon.  They had to leave all their belongings, they had to leave their homes, their land, and they had to make a new start somewhere else.

Now, I’m going to jump ahead a little more than 2000 years.  Today is Reformation Sunday.  That’s the Sunday on which we remember the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door, protesting injustices in the church.  Luther (and our Presbyterian forefather, John Calvin) saw that things in the church needed to be changed.  The church, as an institution, held too much power, and it was being taken from the people who were trying to lead faithful lives.

For example, the church had largely decided to stop serving Communion to the people in the pews.  There was a fear that people might spill the body and blood of Christ.  And since there was a fear that the body and blood of Christ were too sacred for being spilled, they decided the only way to be safe about it was to take them away.  Not only that but the preachers had mostly stopped preaching.  Not only that, but the messages they did give were in Latin, which meant that the majority of people in churches couldn’t understand what was going on, then they watched someone else take Communion, and then they went home.  That was church.

Some brave men saw that this was a time for change.  They started preaching that people needed to have Communion.  They talked about how people needed to see, read, and hear the Bible in their own language.  They talked about how important it was to have preaching in the service, not just Communion, so that people could hear a message that would bring them closer to God.

They had to have a message that was appropriate to their times.  In the time of the Reformation, the message that was needed was about greater access for people.  The feeling of the Reformers was that God was being kept away from the people, to the benefit of the hierarchy of the church.  So they preached a message of openness; a message of a theology that better explained how God was present in the lives of everyone – not just in the pews at church, but out in the world.  It was a message of God’s love, and God’s will that we live godly lives everywhere.  Just like Jeremiah, their message had to be tailored to the time in which they lived.

Jeremiah’s first message to the Judeans had been a message of warning.  He was the doom-and-gloom prophet for a time of abundance.  Last week, I mentioned a particular quote about the Gospel, that says that a true Gospel message should “afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted.”  Well, in Jeremiah’s early ministry, the people of Jerusalem were definitely the comfortable, so he afflicted them, warning of the danger on the horizon.  Now that they’ve been met with that, it was time for the “I told you so” to come from Jeremiah, right?

Wrong!  That’s not what prophets do; they don’t rub it in, they speak the word of God.  And, in this moment, Jeremiah was no longer to be in the business of afflicting the comfortable.  Now, the Babylonians were the comfortable, and the Judeans dragged across the desert were the afflicted, living in a foreign land, away from Jerusalem.  What the afflicted need, is comfort.

So what does Jeremiah preach?  Well, he does two things.  One of those is to say, “You guys should get married, have kids, build a life.  You’re in it for the long haul, so live.”  That’s pretty good advice for anyone in distress, isn’t it?  Live with hope for tomorrow.  Jeremiah knew that God always has hope for tomorrow.  In the darkest, most tortured point in Israel’s history, Jeremiah’s message was a one of restoration.  That must surely have been a hard message to hear; yet, it was the message that was needed.

Jeremiah himself actually buys a field back in Judah, even while away in exile in Babylon.  He had been carted away with everyone else, and yet he buys a field.  He says, metaphorically with his purchase, that they will return.  It’s a powerful message.  The message of hope is one that we literally always need, because there’s always a reason to be afraid.  Yet, Jeremiah tells the people that God will get them through it.  Unsurprisingly, that’s exactly what happens.

Of course, there’s a lot of trouble first.  Some people live and die in Babylon, only knowing that world.  It’s not like everything’s perfect.  And I say that so that the harsh truth of reality is not blunted.  It is often true that the greatest moments of joy and triumph we receive in this life follow periods of prolonged difficulty and sadness.  That’s not to say that we should seek out difficulty and sadness, and it’s not to say that the joy we feel removes all the bad feeling.  Those feelings are very real, and they hurt.  It’s just to say that, even for the Judeans, even in a hopeful story, there was still pain and loss.  Even the Resurrection of Jesus, the most hope-filled moment in the history of the world, only came about after the suffering of the cross, and the pain and separation of death.

Yet it is that moment, that moment of the empty tomb is the one we need to look to when we’re feeling like the Judeans who were carried away to Babylon.  Personally, I think that it’s of the utmost importance that we always keep both messages of Jeremiah in our minds.  We live lives of great comfort, relatively speaking.  Even the least comfortable American lives better than more than half the world’s population.  I just read this morning that if you make $34,000 per year, you are in the top 10% of earners globally.  The average American in 2015 (last available year of data) made $55,775 – basically, the majority of our country is in that top tier.  So we have to live with the knowledge that we deserve a little affliction.  We are the comfortable.  Therefore, we must remember that our wealth, our prosperity, our possessions can’t save us from some of the things that will come.

On the other hand, no matter what happens, God is by our side.  God is there to keep, guide, and watch over us.  And in our moments of deepest pain – those moments of illness, loss, addiction, grief, suffering, family conflict, spiritual struggle – we must remember that the God of exile in Babylon was also the God of return from exile.  The purpose of Jeremiah’s prophecies was never just to depress people; it was to open their eyes to the world.  Similarly, Jeremiah wasn’t offering a false hope; he was offering eternal hope that lies only in the God who created the universe, who brought a people out of Egyptian slavery, returned them from exile, and brought forth from them the Savior of the world, God in human flesh, Jesus Christ, whom even death could not hold.

And that leads us to the final thought.  If Jeremiah preached disaster when things were going well, if he preached hope when things were bad; if the Protestant Reformers offered words when people had none, access when God seemed inaccessible; if the best preaching is about offering what people need to hear in their own time, what do we need to hear today?

That’s the tricky part.  We need a lot of messages.  We need to hear more about faith and devotion.  We need to hear about bringing our lives closer to God.  We need to be scolded for keeping our faith at arm’s length and treating it like something we trot out only on Sunday mornings.  We need to be convicted of that, and we need to learn to wear our faith proudly.  We need to grow closer to God, and let our lives be affected.

We also need to be convicted of what comes from faith.  Jesus tells us about how we are supposed to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  But there is a second commandment like it:  to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We have to put ourselves in the shoes of the other.  We must put compassion and empathy first, and leave judgment to the side.  We have to wear our faith proudly in our lives, but we must also let it affect how we think about the things going on around us, and let our lives be better reflections of the way Jesus lived.

But if I had to narrow it down to one thing, I think what’s most important for us today is to hear and remember the story of Jesus.  While I’ve been preaching from the Old Testament, as a Christian, everything will always come back to Christ and what he means for the world, and for my life.  We too easily forget that he was a servant, who lived to serve others and to serve God.  We too easily forget that he was the one at the bottom of the social ladder, not the top.  We too easily forget that he was born out of wedlock, fled to a foreign country as a refugee, that he worked with his hands, that he was homeless, that he was dirty all the time, that he was smart, that he was not at all “respectable.”  And yet, he drew followers to him, and that was the form God chose to take on earth.  We would do well to remember that when dealing with many of the people we can so easily look down upon.

Brothers and sisters, hearing a message for our own day is to hear a message that confronts us with the reality that we may be wrong; our culture, our society, may be wrong.  It’s the reality that God, more often than not, has something in store for us that we can’t remotely see.  And that message means that, in plenty or in want, we have only one course of action:  that’s to stand by God’s side.  We must follow, because that is the only path through good times and bad.  And in the end, we must live the lives God is calling us to lead by seeking God, following God, and putting God first.  Amen.