Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Heavenly Breach: Mark 1:4-11 - Baptism of Our Lord

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (NRSV)
Dramatic Skyscape by velodenz.  Creative commons image on flickr.
Where is your ideal place to get away from it all?

A cabin in the woods?  A white, sandy beach?  A fishing boat?  Curled up in a chair with a good book?

In today’s Gospel, a large crowd of people have left Jerusalem and the surrounding towns and villages for the Judean desert.  They follow a man named John, who dresses like a caveman and eats locusts and wild honey.  They are baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.

Then along comes Jesus, and he, too is baptized by John.  As he comes up out of the water, he alone sees the heavens torn open and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove upon him.  And a voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Here and now, God has arrived in Jesus Christ.  Here in the desert, in this vast expanse of nothingness, the entire cosmos is at a turning point.  Salvation has come.

But still, I’m curious: who are these folks who are baptized with Jesus?  Why are they all the way out here?  What are they seeking? Wasn’t there enough good religion in Jerusalem?

I’m sure some of them followed John because they were poor and had nowhere else to be.  Some may have ill or broken-hearted.  Some may have been ostracized from their communities, perhaps because of something they’d done.  A few may have left many good things behind.  But here’s what they all have in common: John spoke God’s Word, and they followed him.  God drew them out of daily life into the desert for a baptism of repentance that will be the turning point in their lives. 

Here’s something else they have in common: they are you and me.  At some point, you will find yourself in a desert or wilderness experience. 

It happens when all normalcy crumbles away.  You find yourself rejected by your community because of something you’ve done, or simply because you don’t fit in.  For some, you enjoy all the best of what this world has to offer—but something is missing. 

If you’ve ever thought, “how did I end up here?  How could things get like this?  Where did I go wrong?” you’re in the desert.  If you’re questioning your long-held beliefs about God, you’re in the desert.  If you’re going through the greatest trial in your life and you’re losing hope, you’re in the desert.

It is part of the normal, Christian experience to find yourself in such a place and time where your sins and weaknesses are exposed; where your illusions of greatness and control vanish; where worldly treasures and pursuits fail to bring life; where all other supports give way.

But in such a place and such a time, God appears.  God will continue what God began at your baptism: God will tear the heavens open, give you the Holy Spirit, and reclaim you as a beloved daughter or son.  God knows who you are, warts and all, and loves you anyway.  Because you are baptized, there is a permanent breach in the heavens, so that the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be fulfilled in you by faith. 

Heavenly grace will descend into your worldly hell.  God’s forgiveness will free you from sin’s deadly grip and you will be clothed with the righteousness of Christ.  God’s mercy will heal your wounds; God’s peace will calm your fears. 

Instead of trusting in worldly treasures or the power of your flesh, God will prove worthy of your trust.  Traumatic endings become new beginnings.

Which leads to my final point: every wilderness experience is temporary.  Jesus’ certainly was.  You’ll go into it broken; but you will come out a new creation.  You will have a new faith to greet God’s faithfulness.  Wherever you go, God will be working in you the power to heal and transform this world. 

So we ask: now that God’s torn open the heavens to reveal Jesus, what else may Jesus be tearing open or tearing down that binds God’s people to poverty, alienation, and fear?  What else will God be breaching and breaking into?  What truths about you is God bringing to light?  What opportunities exist to do God’s work?

I think of everything our town of Leechburg has been through recently. 

I think of everything you are going through right now: cancers; rehabilitations; grieving; trying to raise your children and grandchildren right. 

I think of all the struggles we as a congregation face right now, with all the empty pews and the budget deficit.  Meanwhile, there are children all around us who are hungry.  People aren’t hearing or experiencing God’s gracious love because chaos, fear, and desperation are ruling their lives.

The desert is deadly without God.  But in Christ, it is redemptive. 

God is tearing open the heavens today, because God isn’t finished baptizing you or this world with redeeming grace.  So be ready for God’s love to come down.  Be ready for God to speak and the Spirit to inspire.  Be ready to meet your God.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Revelation and Resistance: Matthew 2:1-12 - Epiphany of Our Lord

1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “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.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6‘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.’ ”

  are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;  for from you shall come a ruler   who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then 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.” 9When 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. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11
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. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (NRSV)
Morning on Haleakala by Ken Schwarz.  Creative commons image on flickr

They’re calling it “the Bomb Cyclone;” perhaps a less-alarmist term to describe the weather phenomenon known as bombogenesis.  A rapid and dramatic drop in atmospheric pressure creates what is essentially a hurricane with snow.  It brought Florida its first recorded snowfall in 28 years, and later wrought absolute havoc on the entire Eastern seaboard with significant snowfall, high wind gusts, and bitter cold temperatures the likes of which we’ve been dealing with for over a week now.

It’s dangerous and deadly.

I mention this because it compares fittingly to the kind of danger the Magi journeyed into on their way to the infant Jesus.

They traveled hundreds if not thousands of miles on camelback, with pricey treasures in tow—making them a perfect target for bandits and robbers.  When they arrive in the Holy Land, they go directly to the one holding the title King of the Jews: King Herod.  Little did they know just how dangerous this man was…  He was a brilliant politician and effective ruler—but he was madly paranoid; killing members of his own family and anyone else whom he remotely suspected of threatening his power

Herod initially speaks of going to pay homage to the newborn king.  But when the Magi do not return to show him who this newborn king was, Herod executes all the baby boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding villages aged two and under…

In its raw form, the story of the Magi is as perplexing as it is disturbing.  Why would God lead a bunch of eastern pagan astrologers to Jesus?  Why would God permit such a violent ruler to destroy so many innocent lives?

But what these events ultimately highlight is God’s determination to reveal Christ to a world crying out for his just and merciful rule.

It’s just like our God to bring the Magi to Jesus, precisely because they don’t belong; because they’re foreign; because they’re pagan!  God put a star in the sky and these stargazers followed it.  They journey was long and dangerous, but they go. When they meet Jesus, they bow down in worship.  Let this Gospel settle the question of whether or not God is drawing you to Jesus.  God absolutely is.  But are you paying attention?  And what would God need to do to get your attention?

It goes without saying that we’re living in an age of distraction.  Our attention spans are constantly consumed by 24-hour cable news; a constant barrage of advertising messages; electronic devices; days packed full of activity from morning until night…

God got the Magi’s attention as they were doing what they did all day long: staring at stars

God certainly got Herod’s attention when the Magi show up.  But Herod isn’t celebrating or searching for a fit gift to present he messiah. Instead, he’s afraid.  Jesus threatens his power and dominance.

This is the point where God’s revelation meets human resistance.  When Jesus shows up, things change.  You change.  The world changes.  But people don’t want change. 

Instead of change, I’d love to go back to a time when everything made sense.  So many long for the time in when this country was a Christian nation and everybody went to church because that’s what you did.  There were no school shootings, abandoned steel mills, opioid overdoses, and bomb cyclones.  Yet Jesus’ mission field is this dark and dangerous world we’re living in.  His promise for today and tomorrow is that you will see him—and you will not be the same.

You’re turned inside-out, to love others as yourself—looking out not merely for your interests but the interests of others.  Jesus will teach you self-giving love and its power to transform.

Jesus will make neighbors out of people you’ve gone to great lengths to avoid.  Jesus will call you forward into a journey for which you can’t see the way or the final destination.  He will lead you into situations where you’re not in control; to be the student instead of expert; to be the servant and the slave instead of the “big cheese.”  Doing what is right will not necessarily make you popular.

Ultimately, Jesus invites you to come and die with him—because new life is always born out of death.

Fact is, God is too great to be confined in the boundaries of what’s comfortable, familiar, and easy.  God is too great to be confined your private life, personal knowledge, and present circumstances.  God is too great to be confined to our church or to glory days gone by.

God is revealing Jesus to the world.  This is what we celebrate at Epiphany.  The promise is that all the nations will see the glory of God in the face of Jesus.

So don’t let a single day pass when you aren’t pondering what God is up to—because no matter what is going on or even what isn’t going on, God is bringing Jesus into it for you.  Whether you’re staring at the stars, a computer screen, a schoolbook, or even the walls, be ready for God to capture your attention, draw you into his mission, and move you forward into God’s coming kingdom.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Joy, To Go: Luke 2:1-20 - Christmas Eve

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

It's no secret that I’m a Grinch when it comes to secular Christmas music or holiday shopping.

But I’ve never grown tired of my three favorite Christmas movies: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, and Home Alone.  The last of these movies was released in 1990—meaning that I’ve spent the last 27 Christmases watching them. 

The plots are all basically the same: the best-laid plans for the perfect Christmas crumble into absolute disaster.  Yet, a pack of mangy dogs, two bumbling burglars, and a S.W.A.T. team ultimately fail to crush the holiday spirit, and by movie’s end everybody’s happy, having discovered the “true meaning of Christmas,” which, by the way, has nothing to do with Jesus Christ.

Compare all this to the Nativity story, which is a sequence of unfortunate events for everyone involved: a young bride-to-be is pregnant with a child that is not of her future husband.  A ruthless and power-hungry emperor flexes his political muscles by ordering a census of the entire Roman Empire, forcing the expectant couple to leave home and make a grueling ninety-mile trip to Bethlehem.  Upon their arrival, the time comes for the child to be born—and with no room in the inn, they are forced to take shelter in the most unsanitary and inhospitable of places.

Then there are the shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.  Their work was grueling and lonely—and their standard of living was no better than the sheep.  That night, an angel of the Lord appears before them, and invites them to be the first to meet the newborn Savior.  Yet they come barging in, uninvited by Mary and Joseph, bringing nothing but their stink and filth.

If you take all these things at face value, you have a sequence of disasters that are punctuated by a birth.

But all this is playing into God’s hands: the census, the manger, the shepherds, everything.  Nothing is happening here by accident.  The census makes for the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Scripture, that the Savior would be born in the city of David.  His humble birth foreshadows that he will exercise his kingly power through peace and compassion—unlike the raw power and force of Augustus and the other rulers of this world. The manger serves as a sign for the shepherds, so that they will recognize Jesus when they get into town.  And God chooses the shepherds to be the first to meet Jesus because they are at the bottom rung of society, even lower than slaves. 

The Nativity story is more than just a birth.  It is a revelation.

Jesus comes alive when the powers of evil are at their worst…

He is there when everything is going wrong.

He is born to be the Savior of all the lowly, forgotten, and despised persons of the world.
This is why Jesus’ birth is good news for all people. 

Right now, our world is groaning with eager longing for the revelation of God’s Son.  In the past year, we’ve witnessed the deadliest wildfires and hurricanes in recorded history.  North Korea is threatening nuclear war.  Our nation is bitterly divided along partisan lines.  Drugs and violence infest and streets. More and more families are falling deeper into poverty while a few lucky rich get richer.  And if you’re grieving the loss of a loved one or a broken relationship; or you’re worried about what the New Year will hold, this is undoubtedly a very painful time for you right now.

Yet these are all the reasons Jesus came.   The miracle of Christmas is that Jesus shows up in ways you least expect, in the times you need him most, when all other supports give way.  His birth doesn’t necessarily change life’s trials and tragedies, but he will change you. 

Remember: Augustus is going to remain the emperor.  Mary and Joseph are a long way from home and will soon have to flee to Egypt when Herod learns of Jesus’ birth and sets out to kill him.  The shepherds will return to the poverty and loneliness of keeping sheep.  But because there is Jesus, there is joy.  That’s the promise here:  Pure joy.

Joy happens God’s reality meets your reality in the birth of Jesus Christ. 

The joy he brought to the shepherds is the same joy he brings to folks who are working the menial, low-wage jobs; struggling to make a living; doing the work that takes care of the sick, guarding public safety, and making modern life possible. 

The joy he brought to Mary and Joseph is the joy that will move you forward into an uncertain future with hope.   There will be joy, no matter what your boss says, what doctor says, or what you see reported on CNN or Fox News.  His joy will move you forward towards the redemption that awaits you in Christ.

When you go from this place, let that joy move you forward into the New Year with hope. 

Let that joy draw you deeper into your relationship with Jesus Christ, and all the ways he draws near to you—both here at church but also when you’re at home or on the go.

Let that joy ring out with love and compassion for God’s people; joining with the shepherds in praising God and telling others of the new life the infant Jesus gives to you.  Let that joy banish the darkness and give peace to your corner of the world. 

Go on your way rejoicing—because Jesus is born for you.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Hopeful Expectation: Mark 13:24:37 - First Sunday in Advent

[Jesus said:] 24“In those days, after that suffering,
 the sun will be darkened,
  and the moon will not give its light,
25and the stars will be falling from heaven,
  and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
28“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Slow winters morning by johndal.  Creative commons image on flickr.

Thanks to 8 ½ years working in retail, I despise secular Christmas music

I’d rather listen to a jackhammer or fingernails on a chalkboard than be subjected to songs as Santa Baby; The Man With the Bag; Baby, It’s Cold Outside; and All I Want for Christmas is You.

I felt quite vindicated when I read last week that the constant barrage of Christmas songs can be bad for your mental health, especially if you work in retail!

Nevertheless, the stores are going to play them to put you in the mood for Christmas shopping.  This strategy has proven itself highly effective. 

But what kind of mood does Jesus put you in, as he speaks of his second coming?

After warning his disciples of the destruction of the temple, followed by wars, persecutions, apostasies, and false messiahs, Jesus speaks of cosmic calamities: the darkening of the sun and moon, and stars falling from heavens as they shake… 

His command is to “keep awake,” lest you be caught napping when Jesus returns – for no one knows the hour or the day.

It frightens me that things in our world are going to get much worse than they already are.

Most days, stress rears its ugly head before my feet even the floor.  If I’m not wrapped up in worries about myself and the people I care about, my attention is drawn to the disturbing and horrific headlines on the news—and people suffering all around our neighborhood.  Our church phone rings off the hook with people needing clothes, needing food, needing money to pay the rent and keep the lights on.  Seniors can’t get the medicine they need to stay alive.

Meanwhile, Americans are projected to spend an excess of 656 billion dollars on their “holiday” shopping. 

To me, that is very telling—because for many, the holiday which is supposed to be all about Christ is instead all about me.  What matters is that I have the perfect, white Christmas, “just like the ones I used to know.”  What matters is that I get everything I want, and get everyone what they want, at the best price.  In December, our mad pursuit of winning, security, and control goes into overdrive. 

Meanwhile, for many others, Christmastime is an ordeal to be survived.  When you hurt, you hurt worse at Christmas. 

Either way, the lust for more stuff and the fear for the future can turn you in on yourself—such that Jesus coming would catch you unprepared. 

But know this: Jesus isn’t setting a trap in order to catch you off guard, so that you would be locked out of his kingdom.  Jesus takes a very active role in preparing you.  In fact, Jesus readies you for his coming in the future by coming to you in the present.  Regardless of whether or not you are ready for him, he shows up. Think of it like the stores who play Christmas music in October to get you shopping—except that Jesus works on a much more powerful scale.

The prophet Isaiah describes this beautifully in today’s first reading: Jesus tears open the heavens and comes down—doing awesome deeds you do not expect, to work good for those who wait for him.  The Apostle Paul describes it this way: “in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:5-7). 

To understand what Jesus is doing, look no further than the cross: he’s forgiving sins and reconciling sinners.  He’s bearing his cross with the poor and suffering ones. 

Furthermore, he is raising up the Body of the Baptized to herald the coming of his kingdom by enacting his mercy and compassion.  By the Spirit’s power, YOU—together with the Body of Christ—will vanquish the violence, greed, and global battles for power and domination by forgiveness, mercy, peace-making, and through your testimony of Christ’s works in your life.

So many Christians wait for Christ’s coming combing through the Bible, trying to uncover some secret knowledge that will pinpoint the time of his return—even as Jesus says clearly that no one can know the hour or the day.  So many other Christians seek to dominate this country through raw power and force; silencing dissent and forcing all into submission.  But the key to being ready for Jesus’ coming is to start each day knowing that he goes with you into it.  The key to being ready is to be alert to the needs of people all around you—and ready for Jesus to send you to make a difference. 

While the advertisers tell you what to want for Christmas, know what Jesus wants is for God’s children to come together in a community of mutual compassion and belonging.  What Jesus wants is for the hungry to be fed, for the world to be at peace, and to love and be loved by all people.  The key to being ready is to live in hopeful expectation—because what Jesus is tearing open the heavens and coming down to you today.