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.