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Sermons from 03/15/2020 to the present are recorded on the church Facebook page.

Second Sunday in Lent - March 8, 2020 (Scripture: John 3:1-17 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ - Amen

The older you get, the more you know – the more knowledge you have. My son Robby has reminded me of this. “When I am grown up and big like you,” he has told me, “I want to know how to drive a car, like you do.”

“Just how big and grown up am I?” I’ve wondered to myself. Well, maybe not so much in my own eyes. But in Robby’s eyes, the eyes of my son, yes… I am a grown-up as he likes to remind me. And one of the things grown-ups get to do, which Robby is already particularly interested in, is drive cars. “When I’m big like you, I want to drive a car too,” he says. As a rule, the older you get, the more you know – like knowing how to drive a car – as well as all of the other construction vehicles he plans to drive when he is old enough to know how.

In today’s Gospel, Nicodemus, a leader and teacher of the Jewish people, has a conversation with Jesus. Nicodemus is a religious teacher known as a Pharisee. He is an authority on the Torah, the Jewish Holy Scriptures used to instruct God’s people. Nicodemus has grown up learning and studying Torah in order to teach his people the ways of God. And Nicodemus rightfully has the knowledge and the authority to instruct his people according to Torah, the Jewish Holy Scriptures.

Nicodemus knows things. And Nicodemus comes to Jesus to discuss his knowledge of who he thinks Jesus is. Nicodemus even addresses Jesus as a fellow teacher when he calls him, “Rabbi,” for the word, “Rabbi”, means “teacher.” “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God [Nicodemus says]; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2 NRSV). We know, Nicodemus tells Jesus. We have the knowledge that you have come from God, based on the signs and the miracles you perform.

It might seem as though the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus is off to a good start. After all, Nicodemus, the Pharisee and teacher of Torah, is offering what seems like a positive assessment of Jesus. We know you are from God based on what we see you doing, Nicodemus tells Jesus; so far, so good.

Based on Jesus’ reply, however, Jesus doesn’t seem to think that things between him and Nicodemus are headed in the right direction. “Very truly, I tell you [Jesus answers Nicodemus], no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3 NRSV). You see, Jesus doesn’t simply agree with what Nicodemus knows. Jesus doesn’t nod his head in agreement with Nicodemus and say you’re right about me. What Jesus does instead is complicate things for Nicodemus, by telling him, “…no one can [even] see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” It doesn’t matter what you think you know; you can’t see until you are “born from above.”

What Jesus is telling Nicodemus, in effect, is your knowledge of me – what you think you know about me – is getting in the way. Your knowledge of me – what you think you know about me – is actually getting in the way of you seeing me.

What we learn from Jesus throughout the Gospel of John is that knowledge isn’t the same thing as sight – not when it comes to Jesus. In fact, what we think we know about Jesus can actually blind us rather than help us see. Again, knowing about Jesus – our knowledge of Jesus by itself – isn’t the same thing as seeing: as actually seeing who Jesus is.

As we become “grown-ups” in the eyes of our children and get older, we acquire knowledge. Not only the knowledge to drive a car or operate construction equipment, which of course is most important to Robby, but we grow in our knowledge of how the world works and the way things are.

We can assume according to our knowledge that our laws of supply and demand must always go hand in hand with God’s law. We can assume that our world’s ruthless speed and competition, our rampant consumerism, must be God’s will. To our knowledge, everyone always gets what they work for, if they would just work harder. But we forget how much help we ourselves have received to get to where we are.

We can assume according to our knowledge that we must always achieve and perform in order to avoid the fear and shame of failure. We can assume according to our knowledge of the way things are that wealth and success must always be praised and worshiped. And we can assume, finally, according to our knowledge of the way things are, and of the way the world works, that Jesus must simply nod his head and agree with everything we already know.

But Jesus doesn’t do that. Jesus doesn’t simply pat us on the back for all the knowledge we’ve acquired over the years. He doesn’t just let our knowledge of things stand all by itself. Instead, Jesus insists on telling us and Nicodemus about things that seem completely impossible to us; things like being born again, from above, by the power of the Holy Spirit, whose coming and going we can never control, like the wind.

And yet, the things Jesus is talking about only seem impossible according to what it is we already know. Like Nicodemus, we can’t conceive of being born after having grown old. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” we ask with Nicodemus. “Can one enter a second time into a mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4 NRSV)…

We don’t easily admit when we don’t know something. But when it comes to Jesus, our knowledge – what we think we know about Jesus – can actually get in the way. What we think we know about Jesus can actually get in the way of us seeing him.

According to Jesus in the Gospel of John, then, it’s not our knowledge – it’s not what we know – that enables us to see. It’s actually believing and trusting in Jesus that helps us to see him.

For Jesus, it doesn’t matter what we know, or how much we think we know. When it comes to Jesus, seeing isn’t a matter of our knowledge and what we know.

Instead, to see Jesus is to believe in him. To believe is to see. Seeing who Jesus is depends, more than anything else, on our trusting and believing in him. To believe in him is to see him.

When Nicodemus comes to see Jesus, he comes to Jesus by night. Coming to see Jesus in the darkness of night made it difficult for Nicodemus to see him. Everything Jesus was saying about himself seemed impossible to Nicodemus. What Jesus says about us having to be born again, from above, seems impossible to us; impossible based on what we know about how the world works and the way things are: impossible.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? What we know or think we know can only take us so far…

What is impossible for us is actually possible for God and his Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

To believe that God can do the impossible is to actually see Jesus for who he is.

To believe that God can do the impossible is to see that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17 NRSV).

To believe that God can do the impossible is to see Jesus actually do the impossible: suffer and die and perish so that we may be loved, and have life for eternity - Amen.

First Sunday in Lent - March 1, 2020 (Scripture: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11 New Revised Standard Version)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit - Amen

“A ‘god’ [according to Martin Luther] is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. […] Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God” (Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” The Book of Concord, p. 386).

So in "The Large Catechism", this is how Luther is defining what a “god” is: “Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.”

We can read the whole temptation story of Jesus in the wilderness in light of what Luther is saying here: “Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.”

In the wilderness the devil is trying to tell Jesus what his heart should be relying and depending on. The devil is trying to convince Jesus of who his god should be. And the devil is doing this at a point where Jesus is particularly vulnerable.

Jesus hasn’t eaten for forty days; he’s hungry. Jesus also hasn’t heard from God his Father for a while. At his baptism Jesus heard his Father say, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” But that was forty days ago.

In the wilderness Jesus hasn’t heard from God. And God the Father hasn’t offered Jesus, his Son, the chance to rule all the kingdoms of the world; but the devil has.

The devil is the only one speaking to Jesus at this point in the wilderness. And the devil is offering Jesus the power to rule all the kingdoms of the world, which not even his own Father has offered him…

What will Jesus’ heart rely and depend on at this moment? Who or what will be his god?

Well, we know going back to Adam and Eve, what their hearts relied and depended on. They like what they hear when the serpent tells them, “…when you eat [the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5 NRSV).

With the words of that crafty serpent, the man and the woman’s heart turn away from God who had created and provided for them. And their hearts turn toward the tree and its fruit instead: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked…” (Genesis 3:6-7 NRSV)

The man and the woman’s heart relied and depended on disobeying God and possessing the fruit for themselves, in order to make them wise, like God. But in doing so, their hearts no longer relied, depended, or trusted in God. They no longer had God as their God; they had made themselves God…

And rather than be exalted as gods, the man and the woman – Adam and Eve – end up ashamed of their nakedness instead: hiding from God and hiding from each other instead. They end up afraid, ashamed, and blaming one another instead. All of this because their hearts no longer relied and depended on God…

Temptation always seeks to steal our hearts away from God. And the tricky thing about temptation is that temptation always uses something that is good for the wrong purpose. Temptation always uses something good for the wrong purpose: in the case of Adam and Eve, wisdom, the knowledge of good and evil, and being like God. Those are not bad things in themselves. Or in the case of Jesus, bread to relieve hunger, reassurance from God, and the power to rule: again, not in themselves bad things.

But temptation uses things like money and power, as well as knowledge and success, in order to turn our hearts away from God.

Temptation uses good things for the wrong purpose. And the goal of temptation, and of our adversary the devil, is to steal our hearts away from God; so that our hearts no longer rely and depend on God; so that God is no longer our God; so that someone or something else becomes our God instead.

In today’s Scripture there’s an essential difference between Adam and Eve and Jesus, however. There’s an essential difference between Jesus and us, for that matter. For Jesus never once has his heart stolen away from God, his Father. Jesus’ heart never once relies and depends on someone or something other than God his Father. Jesus never once has anyone or anything as his God, except God himself, his heavenly Father.

Despite his hunger for bread, his need for reassurance, and the way he’s told he should get his power in the wilderness – despite all of that – Jesus already knows who he is. He knows whose he is; he’s God’s Son. And he trusts that his heart doesn’t belong to anyone or anything other than God. He can resist the devil’s temptations to steal away his heart only because his heart already relies and depends on God. Jesus has proven that God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is truly his God.

Despite the ways we find ourselves giving in to temptation along with our parents, Adam and Eve; despite having our hearts stolen away from God, Jesus nevertheless enters the wilderness and renounces temptation. And he does so for us.

That’s why Jesus is in the wilderness. He doesn’t have to be there. But he wants to be there for us.

Jesus wants to face the same and similar temptations that we do; the people and things that we’ve given our hearts to, rather than God.

Jesus wants to face and then resist those temptations for you and me, in order to reclaim our hearts for God.

Jesus wants God to become our God again, rather than our money and our success, our knowledge and our power.

Jesus resists temptation for us so that our hearts can once again rely and depend on God – so that his God may once again become our God – and we might live again as God’s beloved.

“Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God,” Martin Luther reminds us.

May we therefore be strengthened by the promise that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ also wants to be our God, and wants to reclaim our hearts, here, in the wilderness of our lives - Amen.

Transfiguration of Our Lord Sunday - February 23, 2020 (Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ- Amen

Take a moment and imagine one of your heroes – someone you admire and especially look up to. Maybe the hero you’re imagining is a teacher you had, or a coach, or a member of your family – a parent or grandparent. Maybe they’re a friend or a mentor, an actor or actress, sports figure or musician, a favorite author or artist, a president or an exemplary leader of some kind.

Whoever they are, you know that they’re your hero. You look up to them, and want to be like them; perhaps you put them on a pedestal even. If you like them and admire them, the last thing you want is for your hero to somehow let you down. Granted, no one is perfect – not even the people we consider our heroes. But the last thing we want is for our heroes to go down, to topple from their pedestal, to suffer pain, to become disgraced and ashamed. We don’t want our heroes to fall…

Six days before Jesus led Peter, James, and John up the mountain, Peter thought he knew who Jesus was. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples. Peter replied, “You are the Messiah.” But Peter evidently didn’t understand what it meant to be the Messiah. Jesus explained that to be the Messiah – to be the chosen king anointed by God to rule over God’s people for all eternity – meant that he, Jesus, “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” In Peter’s mind, however, suffering, rejection, and death do not fit the Messiah’s job description.

So Peter tells Jesus not to go through with it – the suffering, rejection, and death – that awaits him. Jesus, not to be swayed, reminds Peter that he’s not in charge, however. He calls Peter by the name of his adversary, Satan, and orders that he get behind him.

Six days later, after this frightening exchange between Jesus and Peter, Jesus nevertheless takes Peter up a high mountain with him. The disciples, James and John, come along as well. And you have to wonder, what will be revealed to them on the mountaintop? How will they respond?

Something happens on the mountaintop; Peter doesn’t know what to say. But in typical Peter fashion, Peter says something anyway. Before Peter even opens his mouth, however, “…Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.

And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”

It is at that point that Peter opens his mouth, even though he doesn’t know what to say. Peter and the other disciples are terrified by what they see. And yet, they figure that Jesus shining in all his glory – his clothes having become dazzling white – must be the real Jesus. This Jesus, who’s displaying the glory of God, in the company of the greatest prophets of all time, Moses and Elijah; this Jesus is their Messiah.

It made sense that Jesus would display the glory of God in this way, even though it was beyond what they could have ever imagined, even though it terrified them.

Perhaps the power and glory of Jesus – terrifying though it was – would protect all of them atop this holy mountain. Perhaps once they got used to Jesus transfigured in dazzling white, they would never have to be afraid again. They’d never have to leave the mountaintop and return to the cold, cruel world below. They’d never have to leave the protection of God, of God’s power and glory displayed in Jesus, their Messiah. Perhaps Jesus, their hero, had brought them to the mountaintop with a terrifying display of God’s power and glory in order to save them, once and for all. Perhaps this had been their hero’s plan all along – to save himself and to save his chosen few atop the mountain – to save himself and to save them from the cold, cruel world below.

Peter, terrified, not knowing what to say and yet saying something anyway, turns to Jesus and says: “…it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Peter does have a point, doesn’t he? With God’s power and glory displayed on the mountaintop, why in the world would you want to go anywhere else, other than the mountaintop? Why leave, ever? Why not stay on the mountaintop where you can see the power of your hero, your Messiah forever; where you and your hero would never have to stumble, never have to fall ever again? After all, we never want our heroes to fall. For if our heroes fall, we fear what will happen to us.

For our sake, Jesus doesn’t listen to our fears, however. For our sake and for Peter’s sake, Jesus doesn’t follow Peter’s advice. Jesus doesn’t stay on the mountaintop – he’s not interested in saving himself and a few of his followers from the cold, cruel world below.

For our hero didn’t ascend the mountain in order to escape the world and leave it behind forever. Instead the power of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop is God’s promise to the world living below in the shadows. The power of God’s beloved Son displayed on the mountaintop is a promise for you and me; for us who can’t escape the cold, cruel world and the power of our own sin.

Below the mountain, the cold, cruel world and the power of our own sin would appear to defeat him. He would not die a hero’s death, after all; he’d die the death of a criminal instead, on a cross, abandoned by God and disgraced by all. He’d appear to stumble and fall in the worst possible way, without any of the power he had displayed on the mountaintop. Our worst fears would appear to come true – should have listened to Peter and stayed on the mountaintop – should have saved himself and those he could up there.

Jesus didn’t follow Peter, though. He doesn’t listen to and obey our fears either. Jesus listens to God instead.

And having listened to God, Jesus the Beloved Son would die and then be raised from the dead by the power of God, the same power displayed on the mountaintop. Only this dying and rising would not be for his sake, but for ours and for the sake of the cold, cruel world.

Our hero is a hero, not because he used the power and glory of God to save himself. He’s a hero, as we’ll see, because he didn’t abandon our cold, cruel world.

He’s a hero because he did stumble and fall under the power of our sin; so that we wouldn’t have to stumble and fall away from him; so that we would be raised with him rather than abandoned by him; so that we might no longer want, in fear, to escape with our hero to the mountaintop, but join him loving and serving our neighbor here below instead - Amen.

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany - February 16, 2020 (Scripture: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ- Amen

The only time I’ve been overseas was a trip to Thailand I took during college. There was an opportunity to work with Habitat for Humanity International in that particular country in Southeast Asian, halfway across the world, and some friends and I decided to go. As you probably already know, Habitat for Humanity provides decent, affordable housing worldwide. The future homeowners put in what’s called “sweat equity” as they work alongside volunteers and skilled builders to construct their own homes. The homeowners receive a no-interest loan, which they then pay back.

Jula helped to plan the trip. She talked with her family, including her father who is Thai and originally from Thailand. And her dad recommended that we go to his home country of Thailand; not only that, but to his hometown of Lampang in the northwest part of the country. As far as he was concerned, he wanted us to be safe there. There were some violent uprisings happening in the far southern part of Thailand. And along the borders with Burma and Laos was to be avoided as well; the closer you got to those particular borders, the less safe you were. Lampang, my father-in-law’s hometown, was a safe distance from any of the particularly dangerous areas. Safe, quiet, and uneventful was exactly what we were looking for.

After a twelve hour flight from Chicago to Japan, and another six hour flight from Japan to Thailand, we landed in Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand. I was exhausted, but not too exhausted to notice the soldiers gathered at the airport. The soldiers were wearing army fatigues and carrying AK47s. We learned that they were members of the Thai National Army, being deployed to the southern part of Thailand, near Malaysia, where they would be fighting against the violent uprisings.

Thankfully we knew about that ahead of time, and we were going the opposite direction. The soldiers were going south, and we were going north. But there’s nothing like troops carrying AK47s at an airport to wake you up, even after a combined 18 hour flight.

After a short night of sleep, we awoke early to see the sites around Bangkok. And then that evening, we boarded an overnight train that would take us 12 hours northwest to our final destination, the city of Lampang. After the sprawling, bustling, and crowded conditions of Bangkok, which is Thailand’s largest city, the little city of Lampang seemed more like a village. The almost three weeks we spent in Lampang and the surrounding area were wonderful.

Today’s second reading is from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. That particular church wasn’t facing any of the violent uprisings as there were in southern Thailand and along the borders. Paul himself would face persecution, and eventually so would the churches he helped plant. But the church of Corinth to which Paul wrote was still experiencing a conflict of its own, particularly infighting in the form of jealousy and quarreling among its members.

As we heard read today in the second reading from 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, some in the Corinthian church were saying, “I belong to Paul.” Others were saying, “I belong to Apollos” (1 Corinthians 3: 4 NRSV). The early Corinthian Christians couldn’t agree on whom to follow. They couldn’t agree on who was right, that is, on who, finally, they wanted to be their leader.

In his letter Paul shares his observations of their behavior, and then voices his disapproval: “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you,” Paul tells the Corinthian church, “are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human?” (1 Corinthians 3:3-4 NRSV)

You see, being the church extends beyond what we say or do in our relationship with God. Being the church is a matter of both our relationship with God in Christ, and our relationships with one another.

In fighting over who their leaders should be – whether Paul or Apollos or someone else – their relationship with God and with one another was out of whack. Paul even agrees with Jesus who, according to today’s Gospel reading, tells his disciples to make things right – to be reconciled – with their brother or sister before coming to worship God. “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,” Jesus says, “leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24 NRSV).

As we know, the church is made up of humans. And humans have their inclinations and behave according to those human inclinations. Jealousy and quarreling occurred not only within the church of Jesus’ and Paul’s day, but in our day as well, and at every point in between. The violence and conflict within our own lives may be more hidden. But we can’t keep our more hidden jealousy and quarreling, our anger and hatred toward others, as far away as we’d like to believe. Our own conflicts with others aren’t as far away as those violent uprisings along the borders that my friends and I were trying to avoid while in Thailand. Instead, our own violence, anger, hatred, jealousy and quarreling is within our own hearts – much, much closer to home.

And yet, there is hope for us.

Even though our world is filled with conflict and violence – and the church often doesn’t look all that different from the world – even so, God is reconciling the world to himself in Jesus Christ. God in Jesus Christ is in the process of making our relationship with God and one another right again. Along these lines of reconciliation, of God making things right with us, the Apostle Paul shares God’s perspective on the church of his day and our day…

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul?” Paul asks. He then answers his own question: Paul and Apollos are “servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. […] The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose. […] “For we,” Paul continues, “are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:5-9 NRSV).

Anytime we are fighting over who our leaders should be, or we are embroiled in any type of conflict that divides us out in the world; we need to be reminded of who we belong to. We don’t need to take sides, or have others take sides whether for or against us; we need to be reminded of who we belong to: that we are God’s field, God’s building, as Paul says, not our own. And as the church and servants of God, we have the privilege of planting seeds and watering them in people’s lives. But only God can bring the growth.

We can plant and water seeds of faith and healing and reconciliation, but only God can bring the growth. Only God can make the faith and healing and reconciliation happen, in God’s time, and in God’s way.

While building homes with Habitat for Humanity in Thailand, a safe distance from the borders, I got to do what Paul’s talking about here. We didn’t speak the same language, but we each did our part: mixing the cement, spreading it on the concrete blocks, stacking the blocks, and in this way, building the outside walls of the house. God was using everyone at that work site to help build that house. And at the same time, God was bringing the growth, bring us all closer to him, and closer to others halfway across the world.

Likewise you and I, as the church, all share a common purpose. We plant and we water seeds of faith and healing and reconciliation. And God, in his own time, and in his own ways, brings the growth - Amen.

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany - February 9, 2020 (Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-9; Matthew 5:13-20 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ- Amen

Fifteen years ago in 2005, two researchers conducted a study of the common beliefs of American youth. A focus of the study was to what extent youth believed in God, and if so, what they believed about God. In a monthly column she writes for the magazine Living Lutheran, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, summarizes the results of that study.

The overwhelming evidence is American youth believe – and here I’m quoting Eaton – that “God exists, God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, the central goal in life is to be happy and feel good about oneself, God does not need to be particularly in one’s life except when God is needed to solve a problem, and good people go to heaven when they die” (Elizabeth A. Eaton, “We are broken,” Living Lutheran February 2020, p. 50).

The researchers gave this widespread but thin belief in God a name, and it’s kind of a mouthful: “Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (Eaton, p. 50). It’s moralistic in the sense that God wants us to be nice; it’s therapeutic in the sense that God wants us to be happy and feel good about ourselves; and it’s deism in the sense that God is pretty much far-off, hands-off, and only a part of our lives, if he plays a part at all.

If we believe this kind of thin soup about God – as a lot of American youth apparently do – then we believe God exists simply to reward us for our good behavior.

Or we believe God serves simply to remind us to do a better job next time of being nice to others, or to do a better job next time of feeling good about ourselves.

In other words, according to the “Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deist” view of God, we are in the driver’s seat. And we are using God, if at all, to get us where we want to go. This is a far cry, however, from the God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, the God of the cross and the resurrection…

In today’s first reading from Isaiah, for instance, we learn that God doesn’t give out rewards to people for being good. God doesn’t exist to pat us on the back when we feel good about ourselves either. You see, according to Isaiah, God’s people desperately want God to reward them for their good works: “Why do we fast, but you do not see?” they cry out to God. “Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” they demand of God (Isaiah 58:3 NRSV).

God’s reply, however, isn’t to tell his people how great a job they are doing as they fast from food, for religious purposes. Instead, God asks them: “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?” God asks. (Isaiah 58:5 NRSV)

The answer God implies, of course, is “No.”

“Look,” God tells his people, according to the prophet Isaiah. “…you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.” “Look,” God continues, “…you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high” (Isaiah 58:3-4 NRSV).

This isn’t at all the reward that the people want from God for their good religious behavior, their fasting. God’s response is just the opposite, in fact. God brings the hammer down by telling his people the truth, saying, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day… […] such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high” (Isaiah 58:3-4 NRSV).

Our good behavior for which we expect God to reward us may not include fasting for religious purposes, as was the case in the prophet Isaiah’s day. Still, the good work that we do for God and other people is never purely good. Our worship, our prayers, and our acts of service at home, at school and work, and in the community are never purely for God, or for other people. We serve our own interests as well. We can even reach the point where we expect – and even demand – God and others to reward us for the good that we do.

And when no reward for our good behavior is forthcoming, or the reward is smaller than we’d like it to be, we may turn to God or other people, and demand of them: “Why am I doing all of these good things for you, but you do not see? Why am I humbling myself, going above and beyond the call of duty for you, but you do not notice?”

We’d rather God not tell us that it’s our own self-interest that has taken over at that point. We’d rather God not say that the good things we are doing are no longer good. But like he told his people through the prophet Isaiah, so God tells us: The good things that you and I are saying and doing for our own interests “will not make [our] voice heard on high” (Isaiah 58: 4 NRSV).

As much more than a prophet, Jesus in today’s Gospel also echoes the prophet Isaiah. And Jesus warns his followers as God warned his people through Isaiah hundreds of years before. Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees [the religious leaders],” you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 NRSV).

Yikes! What is it about the religious leaders’ good and righteous behavior that Jesus is warning his followers? It’s the same issue God had spoken against through the prophet Isaiah. The religious leaders, as good as they looked on the outside, were the ones serving their own interests and oppressing others.

As far as Jesus and his heavenly Father are concerned, good outward behavior of any kind isn’t truly righteous – not if it’s done for recognition and reward – and to elevate ourselves above others.

So instead of tempting us to somehow earn our heavenly reward, or to somehow prove that we’re better than others, Jesus does something completely different. He gives us a completely new identity instead.

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus declares (Matthew 5:13 NRSV).

“You are the light of the world,” Jesus insists (Matthew 5:14 NRSV).

And the thing about salt and light: Salt and light are absolutely no good on their own. Salt is only good when it’s used on food, to bring out the flavor. And light is only good when it’s shining on something, to illuminate the darkness. Salt and light are absolutely no good on their own.

In the same way, we are not any good on our own. As salt and light, we’re only any good when God is using us to season someone else’s life, when we’re using the gifts God has given us to serve them. Likewise, we’re only any good when God is using us to shine into someone else’s darkness, when we’re using the gifts God has given us to bring light to the darkness.

After all, we know how grateful we are for the people in our lives, the people God uses to be salt and light for us, when we are in darkness and have lost our savor.

We’re grateful that God isn’t a far-off, hands-off god that allows us to be in the driver’s seat…

We have a God who has enlightened and flavored our life in the person of Jesus, so that we may also be who Jesus says we are: salt and light for others - Amen.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany - February 2, 2020 (Scripture: Matthew 5:1-12 New Revised Standard Version)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit - Amen

At the end of last week’s Gospel from Matthew, we heard that Jesus called some fishermen to follow him. And just like that, they became his followers, his disciples. Immediately, Jesus took those new followers of his to a crowd of people to whom he proclaimed the good news of God’s reign. And as Jesus also cured the diseases and sickness of folks in the crowd, the healing power of God’s kingdom began to transform people’s lives. No surprise, then, that the crowds grew and grew as more and more people were drawn to Jesus. This Jesus—the one through whom more and more people had been experiencing the healing power of God…

What we have in today’s Gospel, however, is Jesus stepping away from the growing crowd for a moment. He goes up a mountain. And as he goes up the mountain his disciples follow him. Jesus, then, sits down and begins to teach the disciples. He preaches to them a sermon we know as the “Sermon on the Mount”—that famous sermon beginning with those familiar words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

As I’ve thought about today’s Gospel, I’ve wondered what our Lord was responding to when he preached this sermon. I mean, what prompted him to preach this particular sermon, which later became known as the “Sermon on the Mount”, a sermon in which Jesus repeated over and over again the word “Blessed”—as in “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are those who mourn”?

I’ve wondered to myself what brought on this first of Jesus’ sermons recorded in the Gospel. And I’ve thought that perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus was intending, through this sermon, to teach his disciples—his first followers—something about the crowds gathered at the foot of the mountain. If so, perhaps Jesus felt he had to make it absolutely clear to the disciples that the poor, the sick, and the hurting were exactly the kind of people he had come to heal, the sort of people God had sent him to—even though these poor, sick, and hurting folks were in no way what you would call good, upstanding, religious people by the standards of Jesus’ day.

You can see the problem here. When it came to being religious, when it came to having faith, the crowds had nothing to show for themselves. And I’ll bet it was quite a shock for the disciples to see those crowds—to see crowds of people who were hurting, sick, and in need of healing. They must have felt like fish out of water, those fishermen.

After all, those crowds were not the sort of people they would have ever thought to associate with in their small fishing villages. Nor would have they, the disciples, have wanted to. Their religion taught them to avoid such people. Crowds of sick people were to be avoided. Poor people with no hope were bad news—their faith was apparently too weak. Indeed, God must be punishing sick hurting people for something they had done wrong, something they had done to make God mad.

This, at least, was the prevailing view in Jesus’ day. People were sick or poor or had lost all hope because God was punishing them. They were cursed. And good, upstanding religious folks stayed as far away as they could from those “cursed” people.

Things aren’t much different today, are they? We all have our own ideas of who is cursed and who is not. People, we feel, are cursed if they vote differently from us. They’re cursed if they disagree with us on a whole host of hot-button issues.

To be blessed rather than cursed is to believe that God is on our side. To be blessed is to believe that we have done something to earn God’s blessing, that we have something to show for ourselves, and that those who don’t—who don’t have anything to show for themselves—are cursed.

Perhaps the fishermen thought that Jesus had called them to follow him for that very reason. They might have thought they had something to show for themselves, something that made Jesus want to bless them, something that made them better than and superior to the sick and the hurting, the “cursed” crowds of people to which Jesus led them.

If that were true—if the disciples believed they were “blessed” and the crowds were “cursed”—then Jesus’ first sermon to them must have come as quite a shock. Honestly, it must come as quite a shock to us as well.

For, against what we believe to be our better judgment, Jesus teaches them and teaches us what God’s kingdom really is. The poor, the sick, the hopeless are not cursed but blessed in the kingdom Jesus brings, the kingdom of his heavenly Father. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, for they will be comforted. Jesus blesses the crowds—the sick, the hurting, the hopeless. God has come not to curse, but to bless those who have nothing to show for themselves.

And, shockingly, the ones who are cursed are not the poor, the sick, and the hopeless—the poor in spirit and those who mourn. Rather, the ones who are cursed are those who curse others. The ones God curses are the disciples when they’re convinced God’s only on their side—that they’re blessed, the only ones who’ve got anything to show for themselves. The ones God curses are us when we’re convinced God’s on our side—that we’re blessed, the only ones who’ve got anything to show for ourselves—rather than the poor, the sick, and those who’ve lost all hope.

But the thing about Jesus is that he’s intent on blessing, blessing us, even when we’re cursed, even when we insist on cursing others. In fact, Jesus our Lord has taken upon himself all of the curses we’ve uttered against each other, all of the curses that have cursed us. Jesus has taken every curse in this world upon himself; he has become a curse; he has suffered and died, a curse upon the cross; and he has removed the curse from us.

For God is on your side and on my side, not because we have anything to show for ourselves, but all for Jesus’ sake—because Jesus suffered and died and became a curse for us on the cross. Jesus died a curse, but God raised him from the dead, to remove the curse from him and from us.

So Jesus’ sermon today is for us as well.

We who are poor in spirit, we who are mourning our losses, we who are sick and are suffering are not cursed by God.

Jesus insists on blessing us instead.

And the mercy that he’s shown the crowds, his followers, and us, we get to show others.

We get to rejoice and be glad, even when others curse us.

For our Lord has removed the curse from us.

And Jesus has set us free to bless rather than curse—to show mercy—for the kingdom of heaven is ours - Amen.

Third Sunday after Epiphany - January 26, 2020 (Scripture: Isaiah 9:1-4; Matthew 4:12-23 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who calls us to follow him - Amen

The opening verse of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” goes:

“Almost heaven, West Virginia

Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River

Life is old there, older than the trees

Younger than the mountains, growing like a breeze” (John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”)

And then there’s the familiar chorus that goes:

“Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain mama

Take me home, country roads” (John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”)

The opening line in the song has actually been used to promote West Virginia tourism: “West Virginia, almost heaven,” the song begins. “…almost heaven”: that’s a powerful line that has drawn people to admire and enjoy West Virginia’s wonderful natural beauty, in a state beset by so much economic hardship and poverty.

“…almost heaven”: there is nevertheless something about the beauty of the mountains and the valleys of West Virginia that is “almost heaven.”

Maybe West Virginia hasn’t been “almost heaven” for you. Perhaps you’ve never been there; of if you have, you’ve never experienced it that way. In any case, you might have had the experience of “almost heaven” somewhere else.

For me, it was the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota, along the Canadian border. There was something “almost heaven” about paddling a canoe across one of many lakes, finding a campsite, setting up camp, and enjoying the view out across the lake, after a long day of paddling. The cry of the loons across the still water at sunrise and sunset; the sun’s reflection in the lake at morning and evening, along with a cool refreshing breeze coming off the water, brought so much stillness, peace, and calm. It was “almost heaven.” I can still remember it over twenty years ago…

I also remember this about the Boundary Waters: When I got bit by the first black fly of the morning, or felt the pin prick of the first mosquito of the afternoon, I was quickly brought back to earth. The wind had stopped blowing, and the flies and mosquitoes had returned in full force. As the sun disappeared over the horizon, we were even chased into our tents by a thickening cloud of mosquitoes. “…almost heaven”: not quite.

“Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali… […] From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 4:12-13, 17 NRSV).

Jesus is fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah from long ago. The Gentiles, or non-Jewish nations and people, who have sat in great darkness and the shadow of death, will see a great light in the person of Jesus. They will have the light of Jesus dawn on them. The region of Galilee is the doorway to the Gentiles, who are the non-Jewish nations and people. And it is precisely in Galilee that Jesus starts proclaiming, to Jew and non-Jew alike, that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

You can bet that Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, the two fishermen, would have already heard something about Jesus and his message. After all, people talked. News of Jesus and his message would have reached the fishermen brothers before Jesus himself did. News traveled by word of mouth faster than the messenger himself.

Still, what could “the kingdom of heaven coming near” possibly mean for the life of a fisherman, when every day was the same? Casting, hauling, and mending fishing nets; sailing, docking, and repairing boats; and, having to depend on there being fish to eat and to sell in order to feed your families?

How could life as a fisherman have anything to do – anything at all – with the kingdom of heaven coming near?

For that matter, what could Jesus’ message, “the kingdom of heaven has come near”, possibly have to do with our day-to-day routines, with your life and mine? How could the kingdom of heaven possibly be near? How could the kingdom we hear Jesus proclaiming possibly be anywhere near life as we know it?

As much as we might want to idealize and romanticize being a fisherman in Jesus’ day, you can bet that those fishermen in today’s Gospel wouldn’t have seen it that way. Fishing was not “almost heaven.” Even if John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was around back then, no fisherman would have sung that song about their trade. Fishing was not “almost heaven.”

Nevertheless, the remarkable thing Jesus did was this: He showed up for Simon Peter and his brother, Andrew. He showed up for James and his brother, John. Jesus himself came near enough to the fishermen along the Sea of Galilee, so close that he could see them. Jesus could see the fishermen brothers; they were not invisible to him. He could see them, and he could see that they were fishermen, “casting a net into the sea” (Matthew 4:18 NRSV).

Jesus came near enough to see the fishermen brothers, and near enough to speak to them. The One who said “the kingdom of heaven has come near” was so close and so near as to speak to them – to single them out –to ask them to follow him. By bringing the kingdom of heaven near to them, Jesus even promised to make them a different kind of fisherman – the kind that fished for people.

You see, when Jesus entered these fishermen’s lives, the kingdom of heaven was brought near to them. Heaven itself was entering their lives; they were seeing a great light; a light that had dawned on their darkness and cast its light upon the death in whose shadow they struggled to live each day.

When Jesus entered those fishermen’s lives, they simply could no longer be the fishermen they once were. For Jesus’ own presence made them into a different kind of fisherman: fishermen without nets, without boats, without even a father to mend nets with. They were to fish for people, and Jesus was going to show them how.

Through our faith and trust in Jesus, our Lord is likewise near, and close enough to see us as he saw those fishermen. He sees you in your day-to-day routine. He sees you doing whatever you happen to think is insignificant. Jesus sees you doing whatever you happen to feel is farthest from the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus sees you as he saw those fishermen. And no matter how worthless you feel your life is, or how meaningless your work has become; Jesus nevertheless has brought his Father’s kingdom – the kingdom of heaven – near to you. So near, in fact, that he called you by name in your baptism and already asked you to follow him.

He’s promised to make you and me into a different kind of fisherman; or in our case, a different kind of boss or employee, a different kind of student or teacher, a different kind of parent, or a different kind of son or daughter, or friend.

In other words, to become followers of Jesus who look for opportunities to show others the good news of God’s love and light – a love and a light that breaks into our own darkness.

For we too can go about our work, and live our lives – despite all challenges and struggles – in a way that shows others how God’s light has entered our darkness, and how God’s love has dispelled the shadow of death in our own lives.

We can be agents of God’s light and love for others because of the presence of Jesus, now, in our own lives; Jesus whose presence has brought the kingdom of heaven near to us, here, today…

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23 NRSV).

This is what it looks like when the kingdom of heaven has come near.

Having the presence of Jesus shine into our lives, having him dispel our darkness and the shadow of death, we trust Jesus’ presence is a “foretaste of the feast to come”; or in other words, “almost heaven” - Amen.

Second Sunday after Epiphany - January 19, 2020 (Scripture: John 1:29-42 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ - Amen

In the quirky movie, School of Rock, guitarist Dewey Finn wants to be in the spotlight. He plays in a rock band that he helped start, but his band mates don’t want him anymore. They’ve had enough of his 20 minute guitar solos, his rolling around on the stage, his diving off the stage and attempts to “crowd surf.” His stage diving into the crowd doesn’t go well for him. Rather than catch him and hold him up, the crowd gets out of the way, and Dewey hits the floor.

Needless to say, at the beginning of the movie things aren’t going well for Dewey. He gets kicked out of the band that he started. He’s behind on his share of the rent, which he owes his friend Ned, with whom he is living. Ned’s girlfriend wants Ned to kick Dewey out of the apartment. But Dewey doesn’t have a job. He’s too busy trying to live his dream of being a guitarist in a rock and roll band that he hopes will win the annual “Battle of the Bands” – and the prize money. That’s been the money Dewey’s holding out for, the prize money for being voted the best band at the annual “Battle of the Bands.” But that dream has never come true for him. Again, he so badly wants to be in the spotlight – even as the rest of his life is falling apart… In any case, Dewey Finn needs a job to make ends meet, and to pay his friend Ned his share of the rent.

Ned, the friend and roommate, happens to be a substitute teacher. He gets a call one day from a school looking for a long-term substitute teacher – not just any school – but the best elementary school in the state of New York: Horace Green. Dewey answers the phone, since Ned isn’t home. They ask to speak to Ned. While speaking to the school, Dewey gets an idea. He’ll pretend to be Ned in order to get the substitute teaching job. He needs the money, after all.

Incidentally, Dewey does get the job. He doesn’t tell his friend about it, of course; some friend he is. And when Dewey shows up at the school for his first day of subbing, everyone thinks he is Ned Schneebly. They don’t know who he really is.

As you can expect, rather than teach his class of fourth graders the usual subjects – math, language arts, science, social studies – Dewey wants them to form a rock band. He discovers during their music class that they can all play musical instruments – and they’re good! They’re not at the best elementary school in the state for nothing!

Dewey, pretending to be Ned of course, gets right to work teaching his students all about his passion: rock music. He cancels all of their other subjects, and calls the class project they will be working on, “Rock Band.” They’re not to tell their parents anything about it; it will be a surprise.

Dewey gives each student an assignment for the band. Some play instruments, others sing, while still others operate smoke machines and lights, design outfits, come up with a band name, and generally oversee and manage everything that needs to get done.

Dewey, though, envisions himself as the lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist. He will make the students perform his ridiculous song about being kicked out of a band that was his, and not being able to pay his rent. In other words, Dewey will be the one in the spotlight. And his students turned rock musicians will be the ones to help him get there – all the way to the “Battle of the Bands” and that prize money.

In today’s Gospel according to John, we hear from John, the one who baptized Jesus. Today’s Gospel story is not an account of John baptizing Jesus, however. Instead, we have John publicly witnessing to who Jesus is. As Jesus came toward him, we have John declaring, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NRSV). We have John testifying to who Jesus is by saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him” (John 1:32 NRSV). We have John whose intention was to reveal who Jesus is to the people of Israel (John 1:31 NRSV). We have John witnessing Jesus, and in reference to Jesus, publicly declaring: “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God” (John 1:34 NRSV).

Then something happens that I find very interesting and very significant. In the next three verses of Chapter 1 in the Gospel of John (verses 35, 36, and 37), we have this:

“The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, [John] exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ [John’s] two disciples heard [John] say this, and they followed Jesus” (John 1:35-37 NRSV).

And we hear nothing more from John the baptizer after that.

You see, John is not like Dewey Finn, wanting to be in the spotlight, and wanting to use others to help get him there. Rather, John is willing to let go of his own disciples, so that they may follow Christ – and become disciples of Jesus instead.

Dewey wants the spotlight on himself; he wants all eyes on him in the movie I’ve been telling you about. John, on the other hand, in today’s Gospel wants all eyes on Jesus. John would even rather his own followers (for John himself had followers, you understand); John would even rather that his own disciples go ahead and follow Jesus instead.

Remarkably, when John and his own disciples are approached by Jesus, John doesn’t at all want to take the spotlight off of Jesus.

For us, sharing the spotlight is never easy. Neither is having the spotlight shine on others rather than on us. Like Dewey in School of Rock, we even find ways of using people in order to shine the spotlight on ourselves. We all want followers, people who shine the spotlight on us, and tell us how great we are. And if we’re not in the spotlight, we may still dream of getting the attention and the recognition that we think we deserve.

We may be hurt and angry that we’re not in the spotlight; and we find ourselves hating and resenting those who are. We may even resent that God hasn’t put us in the spotlight; or we resent God taking the spotlight off of us, when life doesn’t go our way.

That’s where Dewey Finn, the failed rock musician in School of Rock , found himself. He couldn’t live with himself being out of the spotlight. He was even willing to go so low as tell a lie about being someone else, in order to substitute teach and turn his students into a bunch of rock musicians to perform in his band, so he could win “Battle of the Bands.” It’s all very funny; but it’s very sad too.

However, something happens to Dewey. In fact, it’s his students who actually teach him. They begin to share Dewey’s passion for rock music. They write their own music. Dewey encourages one of the students to share a song that he wrote. And after hearing the student play his song, Dewey admits, “Your song is better than mine. We’ll perform yours instead.”

The band is no longer his; he’s shining the spotlight on his students instead. And the whole class, including Dewey, learns an important lesson. Even though they don’t win the “Battle of the Bands,” it’s about the music and performing a great show, which they do. They believe, “One great show can change the world", and it certainly has changed Dewey’s world and the students. He’s happier in his new position as teacher of the School of Rock, shining the spotlight on his students instead.

As Dewey learned to do for his students, and as John did for Jesus, we get to shine the spotlight on others.

We get to turn the spotlight on Jesus and on what he has done for us.

And rather than wanting our own followers, our own attention and recognition, we can help others shine.

We can help each other become followers of Jesus instead - Amen.

Baptism of Our Lord Sunday - January 12, 2020 (Scripture: Isaiah 42:1-9 and Matthew 3:13-17 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ - Amen

All of a sudden, your name is called. You’re sitting in the audience, but now you know you can’t stay there. You know the drill; you’ve watched the show countless times. You’ve seen audience members whose names have been called look shocked and surprised, cover their mouths, jump up and down in place, and then run down the aisle and climb up on stage to join the other contestants. Again, you’ve seen it more times than you can count. But now it’s your turn…

Your name has been called. And all of a sudden you find yourself up on stage breathlessly whooping and hollering as Drew Carey welcomes you, puts his arm around you, and ask you your name and where you’re from. You hear yourself shout your name and hometown, and watch as the people from your hometown wave and shout back to you from where they’re sitting in the audience, where you once were sitting. But now you’re looking out upon the audience. You’re standing even with Drew Carey. You’re taking your place behind one of the podiums. You’re on stage; you’re no longer an audience member. A fancy-looking gas grill is being wheeled out on stage for you to bid on. And it gradually begins to dawn on you what has just happened: you have become the next contestant on “The Price is Right.”

You’re no longer sitting on your living room sofa trying to guess the price of the grill, as close as you can, without going over. Rather, you were just moments ago a first-time live audience member who was called out of the audience, to be the next contestant on the show. You’re going to tell everyone what you think the price of that grill is, without going over. Or if you think the two other contestants have overbid; if you think they have gone over what you believe the price to be, then you’re going to have to decide to cleverly bid $1.

In any case, as the next contestant on “The Price is Right,” you have a part to play. And others are depending on you to play your part. Who knows? If you play your part well, you might even win a new car. The point is to play your part as a contestant on the show; after all, you’re no longer a member of the audience. You’ve been called to the stage…

In today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah, the Lord is setting the stage for the one he calls his servant. God is making the announcement for his servant to come to the stage. “Here is my servant, whom I uphold,” God says in our reading from Isaiah. Here is “my chosen, in whom my soul delights,” the Lord says of his servant. What is it that sets the Lord’s servant apart? And what will this servant of the Lord do? “I [the Lord] have put my spirit upon [my servant]; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1 NRSV).

God has put his spirit upon his servant, so that his servant will bring forth righteousness and justice to the nations. According to Isaiah, the one for whom God is setting the stage, the one whom God calls his servant, has been given the spirit of the Lord, in order to bring forth righteousness and justice to the nations. In this way, God has set the stage for his servant.

However, this is no “setting the stage” for the next contestant on “The Price is Right.” There is no loud announcement to come on down; there is no jumping up and down, whooping and hollering, on the part of the person who was called; no shouting out your name and where you are from. There is none of that. Instead, according to the book of Isaiah, God tells us something different about his servant. “He will not cry or lift up his voice,” God tells us. He will not “make [his voice] heard in the street…” (Isaiah 42:2 NRSV)

The one for whom God is setting the stage is God’s servant, Jesus. And, according to today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus comes from an obscure backwater region called Galilee to be baptized by John at the Jordan. Jesus comes to the stage God has set for him, not to perform a baptism, but to be baptized himself. John the baptizer is especially confused and taken aback about baptizing Jesus. “Wait a minute,” John says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14 NRSV)…

It would be a little bit like Drew Carey, the normal host of “The Price of Right,” being called up from out of the audience to be the next contestant on the show, rather than hosting. “Who’s in charge here?” people would wonder. And John must have wondered the same about Jesus wanting to be baptized.

Nevertheless, the stage has been set. And Jesus, without crying or lifting up his voice or even performing a baptism himself, submits to John instead – and is baptized by John.

And then something happens. What we heard about God setting the stage for his servant back in Isaiah comes true. It comes true in Jesus’ baptism. Not as a master, but as a servant, Jesus submitted to John to be baptized him. Then, “when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him” (Matthew 3:16 NRSV). In other words, here was God putting his spirit upon his servant; here is God doing for his servant what God said he would do, all the way back in Isaiah.

Prior to your baptism and mine, God has set the stage for you too. So when you are baptized, God puts his Spirit upon you – the same Spirit he put upon our servant, Jesus. God puts his Spirit upon you in your baptism as well. And you take the stage as God’s servant, following in the footsteps of our servant, Jesus.

We are no longer spectators or audience members sitting back and merely observing what God is doing. Rather because of our baptism, and because of the Holy Spirit that God has given us, we get to play our part as servants of God and followers of Jesus.

As Isaiah declares about God’s servant, Jesus, “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth” (Isaiah 42:4 NRSV). Not even in suffering and dying on a cross was Jesus crushed or defeated. For God raised his beloved son and servant from the dead, in order that he would continue, and one day fulfill, his reign of justice and righteousness.

So we, the baptized servants of God, the ones upon whom the Lord has put his Spirit, get to play our part as servants; servants who are led by God’s Spirit and empowered by God’s love to reach out to those needing light in the darkness; and needing encouragement to know they have a part to play, too - Amen.

Second Sunday after Christmas - January 5, 2020

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ - Amen

Since I can remember, I’ve had this fascination with caves. It all started at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, which had a replica of a cave that you could walk through. I’d always want to skip all the other exhibits, which as far as I was concerned, for a kid of my age, required way too much reading. I hated reading back then. Instead, I wanted to get right to the cave exhibit, which didn’t require any reading. All you had to do was experience the cave: To look at the stalactites and soda straws hanging from the ceiling; the stalagmites poking upward from the ground; the smooth flowstones that were like frozen waterfalls; to feel the cool cave air; and to hear the echo of water trickling underground.

Years later, I went from walking through a replica of a cave in a museum to exploring a real live cave. Four hours south of where I grew up was Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the largest known cave system in the world. Amazingly, even today they continue to discover new passageways in Mammoth Cave. What I found absolutely fascinating about visiting the cave was that there’s this whole underground world existing in complete darkness.

And I couldn’t even imagine how dark the cave was until they actually shut off all the lights.

You know what I mean, if you’ve ever experienced it. I can still remember it vividly. I was standing there in this high ceilinged passageway, and the guide wanted us to have a moment in which we experienced the natural darkness of the cave. A few seconds later the lights went out, and I felt the darkness immediately pressing in on me. I mean, it was so dark it took my breath away. I felt my eyes straining to see, but everything was pitch black—so dark that my eyes began to hurt. Suddenly, in a brilliant flash that made me squint, the lights came on again. And the darkness immediately jumped back to the far recesses of the tunnel we had just passed through, which was now behind us. I shivered, for I had never experienced darkness quite like that before.

The Gospel of John, which we heard from today, talks a lot about light and about darkness, about seeing and about not seeing. John’s point is that just when we think we can see on our own, we’re most in the dark. Modern people, like us, especially like to think that we can see on our own, or at least get by on our own. However, as much as we might like to think that we can see on our own, it’s really more like we’re living in the darkness of a cave.

After all, we might think we know all about who God is, but we really don’t. Or we might think we know all about what true loveis, only to find out we really don’t.

We might think we know all about what we need for ourselves and what others need, but we really don’t. We might think we don’t need any help and can do everything for ourselves, or for someone else, only to find out we really can’t. We might think everyone else owes us everything we feel we deserve, when really, they don’t.

You see, it’s just when we think we know, and can do as well as see everything on our own, that we really can’t. For the truth is, we cannot see in the dark.

I once had a teacher in college who introduced me to reading the New Testament of the Bible in Greek, the original language in which it was written. My teacher had this sing-song voice that often made it hard to keep my eyes open in class. Though, I do recall one lecture during which he was particularly animated. We were looking at the beginning of the Gospel of John in Greek. The teacher was talking about John 1:5—“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” He became increasingly excited about the Greek word in that verse, which we translate as “overcome” in English. The Greek word there is “katelaben,” which is used elsewhere in ancient Greek literature to describe what happens in the sport of wrestling. It’s a wrestling term. John’s reference to wrestling was personal for my teacher, since he had wrestled in college. So he really got excited that the Gospel used what people in the ancient world would have heard as a wrestling term: “katelaben.”

What does the light do the darkness? “Katelaben,” he said.

So, then, what does “katelaben” mean? “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not “throw it down” (“katelaben”). The darkness could not finally throw down, and pin the light – that’s what “katelaben” means.

So the darkness that presses in on you, in which you strain your eyes to see to the point that your eyes only hurt and you still cannot see—that darkness will always jump back and out of the way when the lights come on. For, again, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not “throw it down” (“katelaben”).

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we all wrestle with sin and darkness in our lives. And just because Jesus Christ, the light, has come to us, doesn’t mean that all the darkness simply goes away. Instead, the light of Christ continues to wrestle with us—pointing out just how dark our darkness is.

Still, Jesus Christ remains the light in our darkness.

And Jesus Christ is the only light by which we can truly see.

Just as those lights coming on again helped me to see the wonderful beauty of the cave…

For without the lights on, I wouldn’t have been able to see the stalactites and soda straws hanging from the ceiling. Without the lights on, I wouldn’t have been able to see the stalagmites rising up from the floor or the smooth flowstones that looked like frozen waterfalls. Without the lights on, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with the world of the cave.

So it is with Jesus: Without Jesus, we wouldn’t really know who God is or what true love is.

After all, “no one has ever seen God.”

But Jesus reveals to us his Father’s own heart. Jesus helps us to see God’s heart for us.

We see that God would rather call us his children than have us live in darkness.

God would rather we be his children than remain sinners in the dark.

God would rather have the light of Jesus grow in us than have us grow apart from that light.

And, as if all that isn’t enough, God even promises us through his Son, Jesus, that the darkness will not finally overcome us.

To again use the wrestling reference, which would make my former teacher proud, God’s light in ushis children—will not in the end be thrown down, by any darkness - Amen.

Christmas Eve - December 24, 2019

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit - Amen

How many of you were ever told to “count sheep” when you couldn’t get to sleep?

One, two, three four, five, and so on and so forth… until you got so tired of counting those imaginary sheep that you fell asleep.

I don’t remember it actually working for me – maybe it did for you. A really boring book tended to work better. I guess there’s just something about counting – not only sheep, but anything, really – that actually has the opposite effect on me. It actually keeps me awake rather than puts me to sleep.

Imagine the shepherds in tonight’ familiar, though no less amazing, Christmas story… They literally had to keep counting their sheep, again and again and again, on those hillsides outside Bethlehem. “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8 NRSV), we’re told, after all.

As the shepherds kept watch over their flock of sheep, they had to keep counting them – again and again. The shepherds had better not fall asleep. Otherwise they would lose their sheep to some ravaging wolf. They had to keep counting, keeping watch, so that they didn’t lose even one of those sheep in their flock.

You can bet that “counting sheep” was the last thing that would have put those shepherds to sleep. Their livelihood depended on making sure all of the sheep were accounted for; that they reached the same number of sheep every time they counted them; that they didn’t lose even one sheep of their flock.

While you have the “shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night” in tonight’s story, you also have another count happening at the same time: a census. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. […] All went to their towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem… […] He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child” (Luke 2:1-5 NRSV).

You see, while the shepherds were counting their sheep, Emperor Augustus was counting everyone who occupied his empire, the Roman Empire. Mary and Joseph were among those who were being counted in this imperial census. And all of this counting on the part of Rome really came down to counting the taxpayers. The wealth and power of the empire depended on counting and then taxing everyone in the land.

What truly counted in the world into which Jesus was born was what you could count: sheep, people, and taxes. What truly counted was whatever you could count…

Maybe counting sheep or census populations aren’t what keep you up at night. Maybe it’s something else that you feel the need to keep counting, which makes you afraid and keeps you awake.

Perhaps you count the number of days someone you love has been sick and are beginning to worry with each passing day; or perhaps you count the number of friends that you have, and wish you could count more. Perhaps you count the amount of money that you owe, the debt that you have, and fear it is too much; or you count the amount in your bank accounts or your investments, or the amount of your salary, and fear that it is not enough.

Perhaps you impatiently count down the hours and the minutes of each day you are at your job; or you count the days of your vacation, or the amount of time until your next vacation. Perhaps you count the number of things you were able to check off your “to-do” list on any given day, and measure your success based on what you were able to accomplish. Or you count the number of things you were able to buy or get for Christmas; and that becomes the measure of whether or not it was a “good” Christmas.

We count anything from the amount of calories and exercise that we get, to the number of mistakes and regrets that we have in our own lives. And so much of the value of your life and mine depends on what we can measure and on what we can count.

We truly measure the value of our lives – the value of who we are – by counting.

What couldn’t be measured and accounted for, however, was what happened next to the “shepherds living in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”

“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified [or as I like in the old translation, sore afraid]” (Luke 2:9 NRSV)…

You see, at that moment none of the shepherds’ old fears could compare to the glory of the Lord that shone around them and made them tremble in terror. Their old fears of having to watch and count sheep – so they wouldn’t lose any of their flock – those fears were being overshadowed by the glory of the Lord.

And in the light of Lord’s glory on that dark hillside, the angel’s command to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid,” was followed by this great promise: “…for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10 NRSV).

This good news, it turns out, for the shepherds and for us, is greater and more powerful than any of our fears: the good news that “…to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11 NRSV).

Even the shepherds stopped counting their sheep. They simply had to “go [right then and there] to Bethlehem and see this thing that [had] taken place, which the Lord […] made known to [them]” (Luke 2:15 NRSV). “So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger” (Luke 2:16 NRSV)…

They stopped counting and keeping watch over their sheep; they left behind that old fear of losing their flock; and they went instead with haste to see the Christ child, the Savior, who had been born for them.

All of the things that we so desperately count in our lives – the things that we fear we either have too much or too little of, the things that we’re afraid of losing, or not having enough of – all of those fears, as powerful as they are in our own lives, don’t count as much for God.

This Christmas what actually counts the most for God, is you.

As Jesus, the child born for you in the manger, God has come to save you from everything that you are afraid of: all of the ways that you and I, on our own, try so desperately to make our lives count for something.

As Jesus, the child born for you in the manger, God has come to save you from having to be afraid. God has come to be your Savior instead.

The Christ child, born for you, also proves that as far has God is concerned, your life already counts. You don’t need to “measure up” to God, or to anyone, for that matter. For “to you is born […] in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Along with the shepherds, may you go now and trust that the Savior has been born, for you; which the Lord has made known to us - Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Advent - December 22, 2019

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ - Amen

The word, “dismiss,” can have a number of different meanings. It can be defined in the following ways:

“Dismiss” can mean “to order or allow to leave; to send away,” as in you are dismissed, you may leave now. “Dismiss” can mean “to discharge from employment or office,” as in you are dismissed from your position or your job. “Dismiss” can mean “to treat as unworthy of serious consideration,” as in you dismiss people whom you think don’t know what they’re talking about – you don’t take what they’re saying seriously – you dismiss it. “Dismiss” can also mean that you simply stop thinking about something: you dismiss the thought. “Dismiss” finally can mean refusing to hear more of, as in a judge dismissing a case (Google Dictionary).