2016-06-26-13-18-28

Fulfilling All Righteousness – Sermon on Matthew 3:13-17

January 8, 2017 – Baptism of Our Lord
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

Last week, as my siblings gathered in my mom’s kitchen, we looked at pictures of ourselves when we were children. As often happens on such occasions, looking at pictures reminded us of stories. My brother talked about his memories as a football player in junior high school, which reminded me of his high school football career, when his team went undefeated That’s right. My brother never lost a high school football game under Coach Kayo Emmot. Kayo’s teams won every game for six years straight. In the previous two years, they did manage to lose a couple of games, but from 1957 through 1962, my brother’s senior year, they won 49 games in a row, a state record. His teammates still call themselves “Kayo’s Boys” – even though they all qualify for Medicare now. 

I remember that the cheerleaders had a special cheer for my brother whenever he had the ball. “Let’s go, Lesco!” For me, being a Lesco meant being David’s little sister, and I wore that name proudly. Even now, in Independence Kansas, the name Lesco means something.

Today we celebrate the baptism of Our Lord, and we remember that in baptism, we are each given a name that means something. In baptism, we are called, “Child of God.” We are called, “Beloved.” Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, beginning at the thirteenth verse:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And 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. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:13-17

This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.

Whether you were sprinkled, poured over, or dunked, your baptism required water. Water is essential to life, and we can’t live very many days without it. The average human body is about 65% water. Water plays a major role in the biblical story, all the way from Genesis, with Creation and Noah’s Flood, through the Exodus, as God provides water in the desert, into the New Testament, where Jesus lives and teaches by the Sea of Galilee, right through to Revelation, where the River of Life flows through the City of God. Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well that he, himself, was the source of Living Water.

Water also washes us, and the origins of baptism in Jewish worship included the symbolic act of washing and being purified through water. New converts to Judaism were baptized, you may remember, as part of the initiation ritual that demonstrated they were now clean, ready to enter the Temple. The mikveh where they were baptized was supplied by a fresh spring, or “Living Water.” As John baptized repentant sinners in the Jordan River, I wonder if anyone remarked on the irony of being cleansed from sin in one of the dirtiest looking rivers around.

There’s a story in the Old Testament about another man, Naaman, who also walked down into the Jordan River. I have sometimes wondered why it isn’t one of the assigned readings for this Sunday, when we celebrate the baptism of our Lord.

Naaman was a powerful general in the army of the King of Aram, during the time of the prophet Elisha. Naaman had a skin disease. His wife’s servant, a young girl who had been captured from Israel by an Aramean raiding party, told her mistress about Elisha the prophet, and said, “I wish my master would go to him and be healed.”

One thing led to another, and soon Naaman was on his way to Samaria with a load of gifts for the King of Israel. You can read the whole story in 2 Kings 5, but the short version is that the king sends Naaman to Elisha, and Elisha doesn’t even come out of his house to meet the great warrior. He sends his servant to tell Naaman to dip himself in the River Jordan seven times.

Naaman is insulted. Aren’t there cleaner, nicer rivers back home? And why doesn’t this prophet come out and wave a magic wand, say some mumbo jumbo and make the disease disappear? Naaman leaves in disgust. But his servants, who are traveling with him, urge him to reconsider. They remind him that he would have done a great thing if he’d been asked, so why not do this little thing he’s been told to do? Naaman changes his mind, does what he’s told, and is healed of his skin disease.

Naaman repented. He turned around and went back to the river, and obeyed the Word of the Lord, given through the prophet Elisha. His disgust and unwillingness to submit to Elisha’s command was replaced with obedience. He was changed for good.

Like Naaman, John also protested, but relented and became obedient. John knew Jesus. We don’t know if these two relatives spent any time together as children, but keep in mind that John was only about six months older than Jesus, and their mothers had been close. So we can speculate that they knew each other as “cousins” before Jesus waded into the river to meet John.

But John knew Jesus as something more than a cousin. He recognized that the man standing in front of him was The One for whom he had been preparing the way. John knew that this was the Messiah. John knew that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. John knew that his own ministry was about to come to a close, because here stood the whole reason for John’s preaching, teaching, and baptizing. John knew that the Kingdom of God was looking him in the eye.

John’s question has troubled Christians from the beginning. Why did Jesus think he needed to be baptized? He had never sinned; he didn’t need to repent. Yet, here he was, asking John to baptize him along with all those repentant sinners.

It’s quite possible that Matthew’s first-century church had argued over this question, and that is why Matthew makes a point of explaining a motive for this peculiar behavior by the Son of God. Jesus tells John, “Allow this to happen for the time being, to fulfill all righteousness.” “Trust me on this one,” Jesus says to his cousin John. “Even if it seems weird to you, just trust me. God has a plan in mind, and this is part of it.” So John is obedient, and baptizes Jesus, and righteousness is fulfilled.

That word, “righteousness,” is loaded with meaning. Matthew uses it seven times[1] in his Gospel, and each use signals a slightly different understanding of the word. For Matthew, righteousness is more than “being good.” Righteousness is closely connected to an awareness of the coming Kingdom. Righteousness means following Jesus as a faithful disciple, and participating in that kingdom.

Righteousness is becoming aligned with God’s deep desire to save us. When Jesus tells John, “permit it to be so now, to fulfill all righteousness,” he’s saying, “Let’s do this! It’s part of God’s plan to redeem the world from sin!”

It’s important to see that Jesus includes John in the plan. They have to do this together. This moment when John lowers Jesus under the water connects the ministry that went before, preparing the way, with the ministry that is just beginning – that is the Way.

As Jesus submits to baptism, he puts himself in the same position as the people he came to save, and he does it in a very literal, tangible way that they can see. Three years from this moment, he will take on the sins of the entire world on a cross at Golgotha. But in a very real way, his baptism serves as the initiation for that saving work.

So, just as Naaman obeyed Elisha, and John obeyed Jesus, Jesus becomes obedient. In their obedience, Naaman and John are changed for good. In his obedience, Jesus changes us for good.

And then something else amazing happens. The heavens are opened, and Jesus sees the Spirit descend on him like a dove, and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The voice names Jesus as God’s own beloved Son, anointing him as both King and servant of all. When we baptize an infant or a new believer, we lay on our hands and breathe over the one being baptized, to signify that a New Creation has begun in us. We anoint the newly baptized with oil, as a symbol that the Holy Spirit has marked this one as belonging to God. We name this child, not only with the name parents have chosen, but with the name Beloved. And with that name comes a new identity – child of God.

That name, that identity have never been more important. The world continually tries to rename us, identifying us by our occupation or skin color or age or social status. Advertisers work hard to get us to identify with their products.

David Lose writes, “It’s not that all these other names are worthless; some of them may be quite important to us. Rather, it’s that while all these other names, affiliations, and identifications may describe us, the dare not define us.” http://www.davidlose.net/2017/01/baptism-of-our-lord-a-family-name/ Only the name we receive at Baptism really tells us who we are, and whose we are. We are each a Beloved Child of God.

Theologian Greg Garrett writes that baptism symbolizes birth and rebirth throughout the Bible, and whenever this happens, “people enter the water as one thing,” [slaves out of Egypt, or wanderers entering the Promised Land, for example] … and emerge as something entirely different”[2]. Jesus entered the water as ‘just another guy’, as far as the crowds around John were concerned. But when he emerged from those baptismal waters, he’d been changed for good.

Christ’s baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry on earth, but it also marked him as God’s own Son, the Beloved, in whom God took great pleasure. If Jesus was going to baptize with the Spirit, as John had announced, he had to first experience that anointing himself.

Baptism marks us as belonging to God. The old catechism calls it a visible, outward sign of an invisible, inward grace. It’s important to remember that the Holy Spirit does this work in us; it is not some transaction we perform. It is also important to remember that, once we are sealed with the mark of baptism, that seal is a permanent one. We belong to God, now and forever. He has claimed us as his own.

In a moment, we will renew our baptismal vows using a distinctive Wesleyan liturgy. As we each reflect on our own baptism, we must also consider how we ended up here, in this Methodist Church, living and working together for Christ’s kingdom through this particular congregation. How is God calling us to obedience? How is God’s Spirit working among us? What is the outward sign of our inward grace, and how are we to show that grace to the community of New Ulm? How is Christ asking us to fulfill all righteousness in his name?

For over three hundred years, the Methodist movement has been “seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world.”[3] John Wesley held three simple rules that have become known as “The Wesleyan Way.” Those rules are to do no harm, to do good, and to stay in love with God. They are reflected in the Minnesota Conference Gospel Imperatives to reach new people, cultivate spiritual vitality, and heal a broken world.

As we renew our baptismal promises, we need to make them count for something, to honor them in spirit and in truth as we live out our faith together in this time and place. This year, I encourage you to focus on Wesley’s third rule: stay in love with God. Cultivating a deep and rich friendship with God gives us a reason to do good, to reach new people, to heal a broken world.

Let me put it another way, a way that might have a more familiar ring: Staying in love with God keeps us centered in Christ. Reaching new people happens when we accept that we are sent by Christ. We heal a broken world when we offer Christ to others. That’s why we say that at First Church, we are centered on Christ and sent by Christ to offer Christ.

Baptism won’t save you. Baptism isn’t some secret initiation rite with magical properties. Baptism is a sign of obedience. It’s a promise you made, or a promise that was made on your behalf by your parents and the congregation that witnessed your baptism. Renew the promise to be faithful, to love God and neighbor, to seek righteousness, to be a true follower of Jesus. Then go out, marked by grace and obedient to God, named as God’s own Beloved Child, centered on Christ, sent by Christ, to offer Christ.

[1] dikaiosu/nh – Matthew 3:15; 5:6, 10, 20; 6:1, 33; 21:32

[2] Greg Garrett, Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 1, 239.

[3] 2012 Book of Discipline, ¶121.

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What Are You Looking For? – Sermon on John 1:29-42

January 15, 2017
Epiphany 2A

Today’s gospel lesson picks up the story right where we left off last week, after the baptism of Jesus by his cousin, John the Baptist. John and a few of his disciples are together as Jesus approaches.

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified,
“I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.
I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). – John 1:29-42

Do you ever get discouraged at your own thick-headedness? I sure do. I’m pretty sure there is a groove in my skull where a 2×4 fits just perfectly, because I seem to constantly need that kind of a wake up call. So I take a small amount of comfort in knowing that John the Baptist’s disciples were just as thick in the head as I often am.

After all, John has to tell them two days in a row, “ Look, there goes the Lamb of God!” They have to hear it at least twice before they get it, and start following Jesus instead of John.

But they follow him at a distance. Maybe they are just curious. Maybe they are uncertain what John’s story about baptizing Jesus really means. Whatever their reasons, these two disciples stay far enough behind Jesus that I’m sure they were surprised when he turned and faced them.

“What are you looking for?” he asks.

These are the first words Jesus speaks in John’s gospel. We heard the opening verse of John on Christmas Eve: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…” But that Word doesn’t actually utter a word until 38 verses later, and when he speaks,
it’s a simple but profound question.

When Jesus asks Andrew and the other disciple, “What are you looking for?” it means a lot more than just, “Can I help you find something? Is there some object you’ve lost?” Jesus is really asking, “What are you searching for in life? What is your soul’s deepest desire? What are you seeking with all of your being?” What are you looking for?

Jesus asks us the same question. What do you seek? What are you hunting for, to satisfy your soul’s deep longing? He’s still asking. He still wants to know, because we are really good at looking for all the wrong things, in all the wrong places.

We can devote ourselves to all kinds of self-help programs, diets, and workout routines, in an effort to improve our physical and emotional lives. We can also devote ourselves to destructive habits that eat up our time and financial resources, and tear down our bodies and our minds. We can waste our lives looking for the next big thrill, expecting to be entertained at ever-increasing levels of stimulation. We are really good at consuming, as if buying material goods will somehow make us feel important, accepted, and loved.

What are you looking for? What will satisfy your deepest need? What will bring you joy?

When Jesus asks them, “what are you looking for?” the disciples of John don’t give him an elevator speech or a thoughtfully prepared mission statement. But they know what they are looking for. They know that the thing they’ve been seeking is this man standing in front of them. They respond with a question of their own. They only want to know, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”

Again, this means more than, “what’s your current address?” They are really asking, “Teacher, what is it like to abide with you? Is there room for us in your life? Can we come live where you live? Will you teach us? Because, what we are looking for something to devote our lives to. We are looking for someone who will teach us the things of God. If you are who John says you are, we want to spend every possible moment in your presence. Where are you abiding, so we can come abide with you?”

And Jesus invites them to “come and see.” He doesn’t give them a business card with an address they can find later. He invites them immediately into his life. He does this with the understanding that they may choose not to follow. Once they’ve seen his accommodations and had a taste of his teaching, they may not want to stay. But his invitation is open anyway. Come, and see.

When Jesus says, “what are you looking for?” he’s asking if we are ready to be disciples. If we are looking for comfort, or security, or some assurance that we are right, we might not be ready to follow Jesus, to abide with him and become his devoted students. If we are looking for acceptance into the “Cool Kids Club” or recognition for belonging to the most popular leader’s inner circle, we might not be ready to ask where Jesus lives.

But if we want to be with him day in and day out from this moment and for all eternity, if we recognize that following Jesus is the only way to know the fullness of God’s love, then it just makes sense for us to want to spend every moment in Christ’s presence.

Asking, “Where are you abiding? Can I stay with you?” puts a different twist on our usual thinking about becoming a Christian. We often talk about making Jesus part of our lives, inviting him into our hearts to live with us. But what if we turn that around, and realize that Jesus is welcoming us into his life? Jesus invites us to come and see where he lives. He offers us the opportunity to become part of what he is doing. Jesus invites us to join him in his life.

His invitation is open, but it’s up to us to follow, up to us to “come and see.” We must decide if we can make that kind of deep commitment, if we can devote ourselves to that kind of close relationship. It means letting go of our own desires and expectations, and surrendering our whole being to God’s desire and plan for us.

What are you seeking with all your being? What is your soul’s deep longing? Are you ready to go be part of Jesus’ life, so you can find what you seek? Once you’ve found Christ, what happens next?

Andrew shows us. Notice that it doesn’t take long for Andrew to go find his brother Simon. And the instant Jesus meets Simon, he gives him a new name: Peter, or “Rock.” In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus waits until later in his ministry to rename Peter, and he goes on to say, “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” (Matt 16:18) But here, Jesus gives him a new name the moment he meets him.

Jesus gives each of us a new name the moment we meet him, too. Last week, we talked about the name given to us at our baptism. We are called “Beloved” and “Child of God.” In 1 John 3:1 we are reminded of this new identity. John writes, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”

But Christ gives us another name, a specific one, just as he renamed Simon to indicate what his new mission in life would be. Maybe your name is “servant” or “healer” or prayer warrior” or “teacher.” Maybe you have been named “reconciler” or “leader” or “joy-bringer.” Whatever your new name is, it is an invitation to live into your new identity as a follower of Jesus in a particular way.

It may take a couple of times hearing someone else say, “Look! There goes the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” before you realize that following Jesus wherever he goes, living with him more than allowing him to live with you, is the only way you are ever going to find what you are seeking. Entering into a life-long commitment to live with Jesus, and to be part of his saving work in the world, is the only way you will ever fulfill that deep longing inside you. It’s a longing that you might not even be able to name. But it’s there. And only Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, can fill the God-sized hole in your heart. It isn’t so much a matter of inviting him into your life. It’s a matter of accepting the invitation to become part of Christ’s life.

This season of Epiphany follows a theme called “The Great Invitation.” Over the next few weeks, Jesus will invite each of us to follow him, to sit at his feet and learn from him, to come and see what life in Christ has to offer.

Jesus isn’t sitting around waiting for us to invite him into our lives. Instead, Jesus invites us into his life. With his “come and see” Jesus includes us in his Lamb of God work. It isn’t really about looking for something to fill the God-sized hole in our lives, after all. It’s about filling the us-sized place we can claim in God’s family by accepting Christ’s invitation to grace.

Pastor Mike Lyle writes, “When will we stop being challenged? Never. When does God stop asking difficult questions and expecting extraordinary feats of faith? Never. When do we get to rest on our laurels? Never. When can we become self-satisfied, self-congratulatory and complacent? Never. When will God stop loving us, stop feeding us, stop protecting us, stop nurturing us? Never. When will God give up on us, leave us to our fate, sell us out to that which would destroy us? Never. What are we looking for? Nothing that we thought [was important], but everything that we most want and need. Where do we find it? Where Andrew and Simon, James, John and the others found it, in Christ our Lord.” (Mike Lyle, http://wsumc.com/wp-content/uploads/1.19.14.pdf)

The Great Invitation has been extended to you. Come, and see.

Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
Lamb of God,

you invite us into your life, to be with you, to learn from you,
to abide in your love.

Help us to accept your invitation to grace,
knowing that it requires more of us than we are equipped to offer.

There is nothing we can do to save ourselves;
it is your grace alone that saves us.

Forgive us for trying to rule over our own lives.
Help us completely surrender to your love.

Grant that we may desire you more than anything.
Show us the way to the Father,
that we may claim our place in your Kingdom as beloved children of God.

All glory and praise belong to you, Almighty God,
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, now and forever. Amen.

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Revealed – Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12 Epiphany A

1/1/2017

Happy New Year! There are lots of reasons to be glad to see the back side of 2016. Celebrities died at an alarming rate. Wars and rumors of wars continued to devastate throughout the world. Then there was the weather … And let’s not even get started on politics!

My husband was going through a box of things that had belonged to his father recently, and found some old newspaper clippings that had been neatly folded and tucked into a small box. They were bits of political commentary from the Teddy Roosevelt era. We laughed to read opinions that very closely resembled some of the invective hurled about in our most recent presidential campaign. The more things change, the more they stay the same!

Each year fills up with embarrassing examples of our brokenness. As the year draws to a close, we look forward with hope to the year that is dawning. Maybe this time we will get it right, we think. Maybe this is the year we will finally get in shape or win the lottery or get our recipes organized. We’ve had our fill of the past, but we hunger for something new in the year to come. We look for some light to shine into our darkness.

This is the Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany, or the revelation of Christ to the world, specifically to the Gentile world. It’s a world that has always been hungry for something new. Even today, more than 2000 years after the events we read about in Matthew’s gospel, the world is still looking, still seeking for the one thing that can satisfy its great hunger.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;  and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” – Matthew 2:1-12

This familiar story contains a number of details that are really quite odd. One of those details is what’s missing, because Matthew really doesn’t give us a birth story. The previous chapter describes Joseph’s concern when he learns that Mary is pregnant, and his obedience when an angel tells him in a dream to go ahead and marry her, but the actual account of Jesus’ birth is barely a prepositional phrase in the last sentence of chapter one.

Suddenly, we have magi from the east interrupting this story with a story of their own. They have seen a star, and these astrologers have determined that it means a new king has been born in Israel.

Matthew doesn’t give us very much information about these magi. Most of what we have come to believe about them is based in tradition, not the Bible. They probably were not kings. We don’t know exactly how many there were, or where they came from. We don’t know if they really rode camels, and no one knows who decided to give them the names of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. It certainly wasn’t Matthew.

We can assume they were astrologers, because they studied the night skies. In that time, they would have been considered scientists. It’s possible they were even Zoroastrian priests. We can assume they had some amount of wealth at their disposal, because of the gifts they brought. Based on what Herod does after they leave, we can guess that it has taken them a long time to arrive in Jerusalem, so it is safe to assume they came from somewhere far away, which means they probably were not Jews, but Gentiles.

And here’s one more thing we know about the magi: The star they followed did not give them enough information to get them where they wanted to go. They had to stop in Jerusalem to ask directions.

Keep in mind that Matthew was writing for a primarily Jewish audience. His church was made up mostly of Jewish Christians who were struggling to accept the growing number of Gentile believers in their congregations. They wanted Christianity to stay a nice, tidy Jewish sect. And in the middle of Matthew’s story of Christ’s birth, he gives center stage to these Gentiles from the east, and lets them be the first to announce that the king of the Jews has been born. What a shock that must have been! But it gets worse.

When the magi start asking around Jerusalem for some guidance, King Herod hears about it. Herod isn’t even Jewish, and he is not a nice king. He has already killed off members of his own family to protect his throne. When Herod hears there’s a new king in town, it makes him nervous. And when Herod gets nervous, so does everyone else. When Herod is afraid, he becomes volatile, so it’s no surprise that all Jerusalem is afraid, too.

Fear is a powerful motivator. Advertisers play on our fears, assuring us that their products will help us rest more easily at night. The daily news headlines are written to shock us into a higher level of anxiety, playing on our fears to keep us anxious to learn more news. On the way to the airport, there are signs that color code our fear of terrorist attacks. The message that we live in a dangerous world bombards us constantly.

David Lose writes, “And that is what is at the heart of Matthew’s … story of Jesus’ birth: the promise that it is precisely this world that God came to, this people so mastered by fear that we often do the unthinkable to each other and ourselves that God loves, this gaping need that we have and bear that God remedies.”[1]

Herod was the first one to recognize that this new king was not just any king, but the Anointed One of God, the Christ. It was Herod who connected the magi’s question “where is he who is born King of the Jews?” to the prophecies of a Messiah. In Matthew’s gospel, this title, “King of the Jews” is only used one other time – at Jesus’ crucifixion.

Herod’s first response may have been fear, but his second response was actually a pretty good one: he started a Bible study. He had his advisors look into scripture to find the answers they needed. But knowing where to find the answer in scripture isn’t enough, either. The chief priests and scribes knew their Bible, but they didn’t know the Christ. The magi were looking for a human king in a Jerusalem palace. They didn’t realize that what they were seeking was God.

The magi may have been distracted by their expectations, but once Herod sent them on their way, a wonderful thing happened. They caught sight of their star. It had been there all along, but their side trip to see Herod had blocked their view. Instead of trusting the sign they had been given, they had been pulled aside by their own ideas of what a king should look like and where a king should be found.

Out on the road again, they could see the star, and they were overjoyed. So they followed that star to the very place where the child Jesus could be found. By itself, the star was not enough to show the magi where they needed to go. The detour through Herod’s Bible study had allowed scripture to speak into their lives, clarifying the blurry view they held, and pointing them in the right direction again.

This is why scripture is so important to our faith, why we read it together every Sunday in worship, and why our individual reading of God’s Word matters so much: Scripture forms us. It clears up our blurry vision and confused expectations. Scripture helps us make sense of our experience. It is the lens through which we can interpret our lives.

But scripture can only have such an impact on us when we recognize what it shows us, and allow God’s Word to work in our lives. When the magi caught sight of the star again, they were overjoyed because scripture had shown them what the star really meant. They weren’t just looking for a king anymore. They were seeking Messiah. They were looking for the face of God. And their encounter with Emmanuel, God With Us, changed them.

They went home by a different way.

Finding God requires looking in unexpected places, and interpreting what we see through the lens of scripture. When Christ is revealed to us, this encounter has the power to change us, to send us in a new direction.

The question is: how do we respond? When God breaks into our lives with the unexpected miracle of grace, what do we do about it? Are we afraid, like Herod, of losing what little power we hold? Do we go through the motions of religious activity, like the scribes and priests who searched the scriptures, but did not recognize what scripture was saying to them?

Christopher Burkett[2] writes that the Epiphany of our Lord offers us three questions to ponder:
1. How did you first come to see Jesus?
2.  How do you see Jesus now?
3.  How do you show Jesus?

So think for a moment, how did you first come to see Jesus, to recognize him as God’s Son, to call him Savior and Lord? (Seriously, take a moment to think about it….)

It isn’t enough to experience the Big Reveal one time, at the beginning of our faith journey. That first “aha” moment sets us on the right path, but it is still a road fraught with danger and distraction. It’s easy to find ourselves taking detours when we depend more on our assumptions than on a desire to see what God wants to reveal to us. We may find ourselves standing before Herod, when we should be looking for a lowly feeding trough. So as you have traveled your road of faith, how have you come to see Jesus in the present moment? How does Christ reveal himself to you now?….

Remembering how Christ was first revealed to us, and recognizing how Christ continues to reveal himself as our faith grows deeper, brings us to the next stage of our journey – showing Christ to others. Notice I didn’t say, “Telling others about Jesus.” How does the way you live your life reveal Christ?….

Today is Epiphany Sunday, the day we celebrate God’s revelation of his only Son to the world. It is also the first Sunday of the New Year, when we celebrate all the possibilities that lie ahead of us in the year to come. As we come to this Table, where Bread and Cup unite us with one another in Christ Jesus, may we resolve to look for Messiah in unexpected places, seeing him show up in unexpected ways. And may the light of Christ shine through us, revealing God’s deep and abiding love to others. Amen.

[1] David Lose: “The ‘Adults Only’ Nativity Story” for December 20, 2012 http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=1509

[2] Christopher Burkett, PreacherRhetorica, 2014. http://www.preacherrhetorica.com/the-epiphany.html

 

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When Dreams Become Reality – Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25 Advent 4A

December 18, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

We’ve been reading Adam Hamilton’s book The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem in our Wednesday Family Night adult groups. It’s a five part study of the events leading up to Jesus’ birth, and it explores those events from the perspective of different participants in the story. Chapter Two is about Joseph.

We don’t know much about Joseph – he never says a single word in the entire Bible. But like his Old Testament namesake, he has some pretty intense dreams. You might remember that Jacob’s son Joseph made his brothers angry whenever he told them about the dreams he dreamed. He was good at interpreting other people’s dreams, too. That’s how he got on Pharaoh’s good side. This Joseph never rises to power the way Old Testament Joe did, but his dreams are just as powerful, and even more direct.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. – Matthew 1:18-25

 

Author Suzanne Guthrie writes,

“How do you know when to listen to your dreams? When are your dreams truthful and when are they simply ridiculous? When does the trickster or the devil or your own malformed desires undermine your journey toward the good and lovely? How soon after falling through a trapdoor into a wider consciousness can you scramble to your feet, find your balance and head in the right direction? 
How did Joseph know to turn aside from righteousness as he knew it, to follow a dark, non-rational, alternative righteousness? Something in his life must have prepared him to pay attention to that particular dream that night: do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
Such a statement can make perfect sense in the context of a dream. But not upon waking. … But the messenger in the dream sweetens the message with a scripture passage familiar to the dreamer: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
A poor man working as an artisan (probably building for the Roman oppressors) Joseph drew hope from … this promise, this dream of all dreams. What righteous dreamer upon waking would not lay down his prejudices for such a dream?”

And that brings us to the first lesson Joseph has to teach us about dreams that become reality:

You have to abandon your old dream.

Joseph had a dream for marriage with Mary. We don’t know how long they had been officially engaged, but we do know that the common practice in that time was for a couple to sign a contract for marriage, then wait about a year before the bridegroom brought the bride home to live with him and start a new family.

This legally binding contract was not just a social arrangement. The only way to get out of it was through death or divorce. Joseph’s dream probably included having children, and raising a family with Mary, but that dream was shattered when she became pregnant, and he knew he wasn’t the father.

Joseph also had a dream of what righteousness looked like – adherence to the Law of Moses. In that view of righteousness, Mary had obviously committed adultery – how else could she explain the bulge in her belly? This is where the conflict arises for Joseph. By Law, she should be publicly humiliated, stoned to death. That would preserve Joseph’s own righteousness under the Law. But Joseph also loved Mary enough to not wish her any shame or death. He solved his dilemma by deciding to divorce her (to maintain his own righteousness) but to do it secretly, with only a couple of witnesses, instead of publicly. She might have experienced some embarrassment when the baby was born, but people would probably blame Joseph, not Mary, for her predicament.

Joseph had to abandon his old dream for a family with Mary, and his dream of maintaining a righteous reputation for both of them, when he learned that Mary was pregnant. It wasn’t something he wanted to do. He wasn’t happy about it. But he thought divorce was the only option available to him under the circumstances.

What dreams have you, personally, seen dashed? What dreams have you had to abandon, because it was the only option you saw available? Maybe it was a dream of what you wanted to be when you grew up. Maybe it was a dream to become rich and famous. Maybe it was a dream to live happily ever after with a particular person. Whatever your dream, something happened and you had to abandon it. Reality checked in, and you realized your dream would never come true. At least not the way you dreamed it would.

Like Joseph, you experienced disappointment. Like Joseph, you wondered what you should do next, and you maybe even came up with some sort of makeshift plan to save your dignity and not cause too much harm to anyone else. Abandoning a dream can be difficult, but it’s a necessary step if we are to learn Joseph’s second lesson:

Abandoning the old dream makes it possible
to embrace a new dream.

Joseph didn’t argue with the angel who appeared to him in a dream. In fact, Joseph doesn’t say a single word anywhere in the whole New Testament. He simply does what he is told. He is obedient. When given a new dream, one that he could never have anticipated, he embraces it immediately. Joseph responds to the angel’s message by taking Mary to be his wife, so that the dream can be fulfilled.

Mary (passively) says, “Let it be with me according to your word.” But Joseph isn’t passive; he acts. He does what the messenger tells him to do. He embraces a new dream.

This new dream includes a new name, and a new meaning for that name: Yeshua, short for Joshua, means “the Lord saves.” This was always the dream for Messiah, that the Lord would save his people from their oppressors. But the angel gives this name a new twist, explaining that it means God will save people from their sins.

This is a whole new dream. This is bigger than anything Joseph could have imagined. We aren’t talking about winning a war against some oppressive regime or emperor. We are talking about changing peoples’ lives. We are talking about a totally new way of thinking and living. We are talking about a holy transformation, saved from sin – all our sin, forever.

When I came here, you were eager for something new and fresh. You wanted change, but you weren’t sure what kind of change, or what it might look like. You were given a pastor with no experience in leading change, but a willingness to learn, and a deep desire to answer God’s call into ministry. Like Joseph, I wanted to be obedient. Like Joseph, none of us knew what to expect when we put ourselves at God’s disposal.

We have started the process of becoming a healthy and missional congregation. Part of that process is to imagine how we see our church thriving. We have dreamed dreams of welcoming new families into styles of worship that we already find comfortable and familiar. We have dreamed dreams of finding more able-bodied people to do the hard work of keeping this church alive and functioning smoothly.

But what if that is not God’s dream for us, any more than settling down to raise a simple family was God’s dream for Joseph? What if God is calling us into something we cannot imagine, something that doesn’t match what our view of the way the world should be? What if God is asking us to be obedient, as Joseph was, in living into a new reality, one that others might scoff at, or find objectionable, a way of being the people of God that isn’t neat and tidy and familiar?

What new dreams have you begun to embrace about the life and purpose of this church? And how will those dreams begin to show others how God is present among us, Emmanuel? This brings us to Joseph’s third, and final, lesson:

When God’s dream for us becomes reality,
we are changed.

Joseph’s dream transformed him – it changed his mind and his heart. Joseph’s dream changed his view of the world, his idea of how things should be. It shifted from preserving the status quo and upholding existing expectations. Joseph’s thinking expanded to accept something radically different from anything he had known or believed before. Joseph’s transformation set a series of events into motion that changed the world.

Jesus was born, Emmanuel, God with us, just as the angel had told both Mary and Joseph. The dream became reality. It wouldn’t have been possible without the quiet faith and obedience of the man who would teach Jesus how to be human.

This wasn’t the dream Joseph had built for himself. He had to abandon his own disappointment at dreams that had been destroyed when he first learned that Mary was having a baby. But that baby, Emmanuel, would embody the One True God. God With Us.

I wonder what Isaiah’s prophecy about Emmanuel holds for us, two thousand years later. Adam Hamilton writes, “In a sense, as Christ’s followers, we too are called … to be signs of Immanuel – of God’s presence in the world – and to be visible reminders of hope.

“All of us know people who are walking through tough times, who feel besieged in one way or another. How will those people know that God is with them, that they are not alone, if we don’t embody God’s love and presence to them? … We are called to act as a reminder that “God is with you,” to come alongside someone and say, “Listen, I am here to remind you that God has not forgotten you.”[1] We are called to show Christ’s love.

Transformation happens when we trust God enough to say, “Yes,” and God’s vision for us begins to work its way into every aspect of our lives. Some new dreams are waiting for each of you, dreams God has to make you more like his Son Jesus, who came to save people from sin. Will you take hold of those dreams, and become the person God created you to be?

Will you accept the call to be Emmanuel – God with us – to someone who desperately needs to hear that word of hope? You can be a physical reminder of God’s presence and love, but only when you are willing to abandon your old dreams, embrace God’s dream for you, and allow yourself to be transformed into Christ-likeness.

Then, and only then, will God’s dream for your life become reality.
Let us pray.

Almighty God, help us to discern your dreams for us, and make us willing to obey you. Give us courage to abandon our old dreams, dreams that focus on what we want for ourselves, instead of what you want for us.

For we know that what you want for us is far greater than anything we can imagine. Help us to embrace the new dreams you put into our hearts and minds, dreams for peace, for justice, for lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things, dreams for sharing the good news that You are with us, Emmanuel, and you will save us from our sins when we turn to you.

Give us your vision, Lord, so that we can see the people around us who need to hear this good news. Most of all, transform us, Lord. Change us into people who can dream your dreams, and bring them to reality through the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Hamilton, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, 49

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When Seeing is Believing – Sermon on Matthew 11:2-11 Advent 3A

December 11, 2016
View a video of this sermon here. 

Mary’s song, the Magnificat, echoes the song Hannah sang when she brought her son, Samuel, to the temple and dedicated him to the Lord. You may remember that Hannah had been childless, and had begged God to give her a son. When Samuel was born to her, Hannah kept her promise to God, and gave him over to the priest Eli, to serve in the temple. Samuel became the last of the judges, and it was Samuel who anointed Israel’s first king, Saul. Later, Samuel also anointed Israel’s greatest king, David.

When Mary learned that she was to become the mother of Emmanuel, God With Us, she went to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who, much like Hannah, had become pregnant after many years of childlessness. Mary imitated Hannah’s song, while Elizabeth reflected Hannah’s story. Mary and Elizabeth may have been related to one another by blood, but they were both related to Hannah in spirit. When Hannah sang, she prophesied that Israel would one day have a King. Mary’s baby would become King of Kings, and Elizabeth’s baby would be the prophet who introduced that King to the world.

Fast forward about thirty years. Continue reading

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What Kind of King Do You Want? – Sermon on Luke 23:33-43 Christ the King 2016

November 20, 2016

This is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in the church year. This is the day we celebrate Christ’s rule over the Kingdom of God, already in place and evident in our lives, even while it has not yet been brought to full completion. As we prepare to enter Advent, the season of expectation, we hope for that Kingdom to come in its fullness, for all things to be made whole and holy, for the brokenness of this world to be fully redeemed and healed.

But it is not Advent yet. And it is certainly not Christmas, despite what you see on store shelves and television ads. Before we can begin the church year anew, and start fresh with our hope and expectation of the coming of Jesus into our world, we must end this church year. We must pay attention to the way Jesus fulfills his ministry on earth by claiming his kingly crown.

We have spent this year following Luke’s version of the story, and next week begins a new journey with another gospel writer. If we’ve learned only one thing from Luke, it is that, when God breaks into our world in the person of Jesus Christ, everything gets flipped. We have come to expect that our expectations are upside down. It seems only fitting, then, that on this Christ the King Sunday, our text does not focus on the triumph of Christ over sin and death. Continue reading

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Endure – Sermon on Luke 21:5-19

November 13, 2016
You can watch a video of this sermon here. 

“Joy to the world, no more election news coverage and political ads!”[1] Maybe that isn’t the good news you were expecting to hear this morning, but isn’t it a relief to have a break from all the hoopla? I don’t know about you, but the election process has left me feeling worn down and beat up. If nothing else, it has shown us that there is more division in this country than we might have realized, and that we need to get better at listening to one another instead of talking at one another.

The thing that I’ve struggled with this week is how we as a community of faith can come together and heal through all of this. Some of us are very excited. The candidate of our choice won and we are happy. We want to celebrate. Others of us are disappointed that our candidate lost. We want to mourn, we are afraid, we aren’t feeling very celebratory.

How can we all find hope together? Continue reading