“Follow the Cup” John 2:1-11

John’s Gospel is arranged very differently from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  The author of John’s Gospel isn’t as interested in the chronology of Jesus life as he is the meaning of Jesus’ ministry and life.  John arranges his Gospel around seven “signs” that Jesus performs that are the marks of Jesus being the Son of God.   Each sign reveals a little bit more about Jesus for those who have eyes to see.

The miracle at Canaan, turning the water into wine is the first sign, the one that caused his disciples to first believe in Jesus.

What is it about turning water into wine that does that?

I want you to follow the cup, to watch it in this story.

A cup, one like this one, simple, wooden, in the hands of everyone at the wedding feast.

Everyone’s got a cup, and when the story begins, we are mid-feast.   Everyone has been partaking, imbibing, joining in the toasts and the celebration.

Point # 1, The cups in the story aren’t empty, not yet, but they are running low.   The wine is giving out, getting low in supply.  The party is still going on, but it is threatened, and there is a general sense of dis-ease about what to do, and no one has any good solutions, and so Mary takes it up with Jesus.

We have a misperception about what it means to share our faith.  We tend to think that what we are called to do is to share our faith with those poor folks out there who have empty cups.  Those whose lives are empty, wanting, and dried up.

But the truth of the matter is that most folks don’t reach the point of empty cups, there is always a “little something” in them.

Reaching people with empty cups is a lot easier, they are eager to receive almost anything.

Reaching people whose cups aren’t quite empty yet, well that’s a bit more complex because one is never quite sure if what you want to top them off with is better than what they already have.

This is a part of the first sign in John’s Gospel.

There is a general sense of dis-ease about how the party is going, where it may be heading, but no one is quite sure what to do about it, and they are standing around looking at what they have in their cups right now.

That’s a pretty accurate description of our world, isn’t it?

How is your cup doing?  The cup of your life?

Few of us here today would say that we have empty cups, but we do have a general sense that what’s in there may not be quite enough, or really good stuff.

I wish I had more.

I wish I had more faith.  I wish I had a better job.  I wish I didn’t have this arthritis in my body.  I wish I had made a different choice back there.  We are good at looking at the cup of our life and looking for what we don’t have, what we wish we had, what we wish we didn’t have.

We have a general sense of dis-ease about the way things are going, about the economy, about our neighborhoods, about our schools, our politics, our church, our jobs or our relationships but, we’re not really sure what to do about it.

Now, if you’ve ever been to a party where it looks like things are going to give out you know that there are two classic ways that people respond to that situation.  Here are your options.

Some will go and grab for all they can before it’s gone.  You’ve seen these folks, tapping the keg, tipping the coffee pot to get the last drops, maybe slipping an extra can of soda into their pocket for later.   One response to the prospect of the party coming to an abrupt end is to make sure you get in your good time no matter what.

Others, will respond with nursing their drinks.  Conserving what they have to make it last as long as they can.

The funny thing about both responses is that neither one will save the party.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in our world today, in the party we’re at right now we see both extremes as well.  Some who grab for all they can get.  Some who nurse along what little they’ve got.  Neither one really able to understanding the actions or reasonings of the other, and; neither one able to save the party.

Follow the cup.  This is the place where Jesus does his first sign.  It’s not to people who are desperately looking for a savior, it’s done in the midst of people trying to decide what to do with their half empty cup.

“Is this all there is?”

“Can I make this last?”

“Do I have enough?”

“Where can I get some more?”

Those are the questions being raised when Mary takes things up with Jesus, when she says, “they have no wine.”  The first of Jesus’ signs comes not to people with empty cups, but to people with cups ½ full who are trying to decide what to do next.

Point # 2 – Follow the cup.   You know, we say this is the story where Jesus turns the water into wine, but follow the cup.  Jesus never lays a finger on anything connected to this miracle.  It happens because there are people who are willing to listen to him and to do what he tells them to do.

Follow the cup.  He never touches the six stone jars, he tells the servants to fill them with water.

Follow the cup, he doesn’t dip the cup in to take it to the steward of the feast, he has one of the servants who filled the jars do that.

Follow the cup, Jesus doesn’t put the water turned to wine to his own lips, the steward of the feast does that , and it is the steward who compliments, not Jesus, but the bridegroom.  “Hey, you have saved the best stuff for last!”

In this story Jesus is nearly invisible, you don’t see him taking center stage at all.  The signs that POINT to him, are the actions of those who listen to him, who do what he tells them to do, or who become unaware recipients of Jesus’ blessing.

The Chief Steward doesn’t know where this good stuff came from.

The Bridegroom sure isn’t aware of what Jesus has done for him.

The only folks who know that Jesus is behind all of this are the servants and the disciples.  Even Mary doesn’t get the satisfaction of bragging about what her boy has done.

The only sign of what Jesus has done, is that the party keeps going, and that now no one is focusing on their ½ empty cups anymore.

Follow the cup.  The first of Jesus’ signs has very little to do with people seeing or recognizing Jesus on their own!

What they see are his servants attending to them.

What they receive are Jesus’ blessings poured out through others hands.

Imagine how this party unfolds now, as the servants begin pouring that abundant new wine into the ½ empty cups of all those present.

Imagine how the party changes, from a sense of dis-ease and tentativeness to a full celebration of life and love and all the blessings found in this world.

Is this the way it is to be for us, as Jesus’ followers?   Should our concern first and foremost be to take people’s minds off their ½ empty cups?

What would the party of this world look like if we were to attend to that?

What if, as servants of Jesus we were to say to those who are trying to grab all they can get before it is gone, “Listen, you don’t have to do that, it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom!”  God provides, all you need, and abundantly, so there is no need to store up things here on earth or worry about things running out.  Open up your hand and share the blessings Jesus has already given to you with your neighbor!

Pour the blessings you have received out to others so that your cup can be re-filled with the good stuff!

What if, as servants of Jesus we were to say to those who are nursing their half empty cups, “You know, there is a lot more to life than this, than trying to protect what little you have, and focusing on how there may not be enough, and comparing what you’ve got to what someone else has.”

Drink deep, and be ready for a refill!

For the God who gives all good gifts has promised that the party of this life will not fail, look at the abundance!

For the servants in this story, it is the stone jars they can point to.

For us, well, just take a look around at what we have here, and what is available in our society, and let me tell you about the guy who made it all possible!

No one at this wedding really knows that Jesus is behind it all.  That is for his servants, his disciples to make known as they do the pouring and the celebrating, the sharing with others and the filling of cups.

In our world, in our country, the story is the same.

So few people know seem to know that Jesus is behind it all, that it is God who creates and who gives every blessing.   It’s up to us, his servants, to make that known to them as we do the pouring and celebrating in life.

How is your cup doing?

Did you come here today thinking it was ½ full, and with your mind fully set upon that?

Get your mind off your ½ empty cup.  Jesus is making something out of nothing every day in our very midst.

Open your eyes to see him at work, and then extend that cup of your life to receive what God longs to pour into it.

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“Expectations Both Ways” Luke 3:15-21

It is not easy living in a time of expectation.

I’m not sure I ever thought about that quite the way I do now, for I have always looked at times of expectation from a somewhat “safe distance.”

What I mean by that is that when we think about living in times of expectation, we most usually do that as a memory exercise.

We remember (for instance) living in expectation of that big test in college or waiting for the grades to come out.

We remember living in the expectation of the wedding, or of the birth of a child.

We remember living in the expectation of the needed surgery, or the treatment schedule, what it was like.

But those are all memories, and memories are tricky things.   We tend to hold on to the good in a memory and let the bad fade away.   We compare what we think it would be like to live in a time of expectation with our memory of what it was like.

We already know what the outcome will be for that memory.   More often than not we remember those times of expectations as being somewhat exciting to live in.  The memories we hold on to help us imagine them as more pleasant than they really were.

It’s harder to remember what it was like to actually LIVE in the moment, the anxieties as well has the hopes and the strong emotions.

We forget how times of expectation could often run in both directions at the same time, and all the uncertainty that we felt in the midst of all of those events.

So, when we read in the Gospel today “As the people were filled with expectation, and all of them questioning in their hearts…”   We are first tempted to “fill in the blank” of what that experience must have been like by supplying our own memories of times of expectation that we’ve lived through, and in doing so risk reading in memories instead of connecting with the actual experience of expectation.

“It must have been wonderful.”   We think, to have been there, seen that, experienced that.

“My faith would be so much stronger if I had been baptized by John, or heard his words, or seen Jesus.”

To get a feel for this Gospel, it might actually be more useful to read in an expectation experience that we have now in the present.

What do you think will the President get his wall or not?

Yes, I know that is bringing up politics in the pulpit, but these are the “expectant times” in which we live, are they not?

What is useful about that example is how much less clarity there is to be living this than when we rely on our memories of past events to consider what it is like in in a time of expectation.

What is also useful is the recognition of the level of division and emotion that expectant times bring with them.

Just as we could no doubt raise a heated argument right now about the wall and the shut-down with people lining up on both sides, so it was that when John appeared in the wilderness baptizing.

There were no apparent simple answers.   We often key in on the “living in expectation” part of this Gospel and underestimate the “and all were questioning in their hearts.”

Expectations run in all directions.

Some are excited by what John is doing.

Others are fearful about what his actions are bringing up, how the Roman authorities will react.  The Pharisees are clearly nervous.

Still others don’t know what to think but only know that this moment and all this talk about fulfillment and the Messiah and separating wheat from chaff is turning the world upside down for an awful lot of people.

That’s what living in times of expectation will do.  There will be confusion over what course of action to take, what to look for, who to follow, and what to do.

That’s why John speaks out into the expectation.

Everyone is wondering if he might be the Messiah, and to that he speaks what must have been a disappointing word for some.

“It’s not me, I’m not worthy, but another one is coming…”

That must have been terribly disappointing for John’s followers to hear, for they had pinned such hopes on him.

In times of expectation it is sometimes what you don’t want to hear that leaves the strongest impression.

It is sometimes what you don’t want to hear that tells you what needs to hear.

I doubt that few wanted to hear the talk about about winnowing forks and chaff, about things being sorted out and what is found worthless being consumed in eternal fire.

We know that later on in the Gospel Jesus will begin to talk about suffering and going the way of the Cross.  This too will prove to be unpopular for even Jesus’ closest followers.

And yet, these are the messages that are given and needed by those living in times of expectation. They are messages that point to more at work in the world than human eye can see. They are messages that turn one’s attention to the unexpected and the source of hope.

God is breaking in.

That is the message that intrudes upon this time of expectation and questioning, the voice from the heavens proclaiming, “you are my Son, the beloved, and with you I am well pleased.”

It is a voice that speaks to Jesus.

It is a voice that is overheard (depending upon the Gospel) by either the crowd, or by John, or only by Jesus, but in any case it is a voice that speaks of three things.

It speaks a word of belonging.

It speaks a word of being loved.

It speaks a word of God being pleased.

“You are my Son…”   Words of belonging and being claimed are good news to those who live in expectation and questioning because in such times we so often feel so very alone, or on our own, or cut off from help.

          Isn’t that the feeling we have right now in our own time of expectation?

We don’t have a sense that anyone is paying attention to our concerns.  We feel like pawns in a chess game, exposed and disposable, of little value to the forces at work around us.

That was the feeling in Judea when John began to baptize.   No one cares about us out here along the Jordan.

No one in Jerusalem.

No one in Rome.

Maybe not even God.

It is to that sense of being on your own or forgotten or abandoned that John’s baptism speaks a word of re-connecting.   Water baptism for repentance, for restoration of relationship, and now as if to confirm the power of that restoration the voice booms from the heavens.

“I see you!   You ARE my beloved!”

What good news to those who live in the confusion of expectation to hear that God is bridging the gap, opening the heavens, removing the veil to claim us as God’s own.

You belong.

You belong to God, and you belong to one another, and you belong in the presence of John and of Jesus.

Wheat and chaff are being separated, that is true, but the voice from the heavens proclaims that you are not disposable, but rather are being claimed.

Beloved –My Son–My Child.

The voice from the heavens assures us of our value, as being loved and seen as precious.  Precious enough for God to send prophets like John to call and baptize, and to even send his own son, Jesus.

You are beloved.

That’s a word those living in times of expectation long to hear, a word that assures you that you won’t be lost in the shuffle of history or left on the floor, or scattered to the wind.

You are beloved, and you know that because you have been baptized.

And finally, God is pleased with you.

For people who live in times of expectation, there is always this question about whether or not we’ve pleased the ones that we need to, isn’t there?

In the run up to the test, or the announcement of the grades… am I pleasing my teacher?  Have I learned what I was expected to?  Prepared myself for this test?

In the run up to the wedding, in the call to be parent… am I pleasing my spouse, doing right by my child?  Am I loveable?  Worthy of this?

In the wake of the surgery, the recovery, the treatment…am I doing the right things to bring healing, recovery, to care for and attend to my future?

People who live in times of expectation are always trying to decide who they need to please, and how to do it.

Therefore, to hear the voice from heaven proclaim that God is pleased with you is an immense relief.

It allows you to relax into doing the daily again. It lets you not be so caught up in the “what I ought to do” so much that we forget what you are “able to do.”

“With you I am well pleased…” God says, and it is like a sigh of relief.   I’m not being asked to do the impossible, just to do what I am able, what seems right at this moment, and it will be enough.

Just let the water run over you, fill you, feel its coolness, wetness, baptism is about letting something happen to us and just being content with what washes over us, and the promise it will bring.

“I am well pleased…” God says in the voice that breaks in on those living in expectation.

If I am pleasing to God, I need not worry so much about pleasing everyone else who vies for my attention, or my allegiance, or who demands from me, or pushes my buttons or frightens me.

In this time of expectation when there are so many questions in our own hearts about what to do, who to follow, who to stand against and who to support, it is exceedingly good news to hear the assurance from God who breaks in upon troubled worlds in troubled times.

“You are beloved.”  That’s what God says to those baptized.

“You are my child.”  God says to the baptized.

“With you I am well pleased.”  God says.

Maybe that’s enough for this day.

Maybe that’s all we really need in this moment of living in expectation.

“Subversive Star Following” Matthew 2:1-12

epiphany

We have largely tamed this story by embellishing it, or by not paying attention to the intrigue in the story.

We give the Wise Men names, (Melchair, Balthazar, and Caspar)  place them to the side of the manger scene, speculate on their number by assigning one for each gift and then spend ink speculating on the meaning of those gifts, but there is a point of the story is something quite different.

These people are following a star.  They have their eyes set on something outside of this world.

We use that language from time to time, the language of “following a star.”

We use it to describe dreamers.

We use it to describe the non-compliant in society.  “Oh, he or she is just following their own star.”

We use it to describe ill fated things, like star-crossed lovers, or star-struck individuals.

To be following a star is quite often a subversive act.  It sets you on a track that is quite apart from the usual forces and authorities at work in this world.

This is why Herod is concerned.

We know from histories written from that time that Herod worked diligently to consolidate his own power base.

He was ruthless in his dealings.

He bribed the right officials, curried favor with Rome, provided the High Priests with the Temple building projects and the necessary autonomy over their own affairs that they craved.  It was enough to make them look important, all the while consolidating his own position, power and authority as he worked to set up his own dynasty.

Herod had worked out everything to assure that his descendants would occupy the throne of Judah for generations to come.

So, now when these Viziers, these Zoroastrian astrologers arrive talking about signs they have seen in the stars and that a new king is born, Herod perceives the threat.

The one thing Herod didn’t count on was God showing up again.

No wonder he is frightened.

But notice that Herod is not alone in his fear.  “All of Jerusalem with him.”  Matthew says.  Everyone is frightened because of this word about a King that is foretold in the stars.  They are all afraid because this sign and event point to something else that is disheveling and disquieting.

We are not left to our own devices, and there are more things at work in the universe than our own schemes.

God is entering the arena of this world.

It appears that all of Jerusalem thought that was pretty much a thing of the past.  God didn’t do that anymore.  We were on our own.

Herod surely believed that, for one cannot undertake a grand scheme of grabbing political and religious control of things unless deep down inside you figure God is pretty much a non-player.

Oh sure, you can invoke the name of the almighty to advance your cause.

You can use religion and religious leaders and people as your tools to manipulate people and players, but you can’t wholesale launch into a program of usurping power and setting up your own dynasty unless you pretty much believe God isn’t going to interfere in things.

All of Jerusalem had bought into Herod’s program, into his line of thinking, which means they too, had written off any direct intervention by God into human events.   There was no sense in looking to the heavens for one’s help.   Herod had the Emperor’s ear and was in good favor right now, so if you really want something done, it would be more expedient to cozy up to Herod than it would be to pray.

That is the situation in Jerusalem.

A star appearing in the heavens, and astrologers perceiving events far above human schemes and machinations is a threat to those who believe they can get by with anything because of their own cleverness or calculation.

A star appearing in the heavens, and more importantly, people following that star signals to Herod a narrative intruding on his own well-crafted story.

It’s not just that these visitors from the East are following a star.  It is also that they are telling a compelling story about what this star means.

That makes other people inquire about it, listening to it, and craving to hear more about the old narrative of God entering the human arena.

Herod has invested a lot of time and effort into re-writing the narrative of Judah’s King.   He’s heralded himself as the true leader.  He’s undertaken massive construction efforts.  He’s been re-writing the story about who should be destined to rule the people, and who the people should be looking to.

Herod’s reign is threatened if an heir of David exists.

But much more than that, the whole endeavor he has planned will be undone, not just because a child is born, but rather because people believe the star portends something greater than Herod is at work!   It hearkens them back to an older narrative that includes God active in this world!

That’s how it is with narratives, the stories we tell or that are told to us.

If a story is compelling enough, we will latch on to it, make it our own, work to see it become a reality.

So it is that the appearance of the star.

These visitors from the East have prompted a new look at the scriptures, at the promises made by God long ago.  Those who once might have been satisfied with what Herod had to offer are now inquiring as to what God might have to offer.

Herod inquires of the priests and scribes to find out what the scriptures say about the Messiah, the king to be born.

“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.’ “

Herod has no such pedigree, so if this story of star followers gets out and ignites the hopes among the people of God entering in, all of his schemes and dreams will be for naught!

And in the end, scheming is all Herod has to fall back on.   That’s why the meeting in secret with the Wise men.

That’s the reason for the “cloak and dagger” of sending them to Bethlehem, to do his bidding and to find the child.

That’s the reason for the frustrated story later on of Herod slaughtering the innocents.  If Herod cannot locate with precision the child, then blunt force elimination will have to be employed, all to squelch any threat from outside to the schemes that he has put in place.

A star, and those who will follow a star, becomes a threat of immense proportion, because following a star taps into the narrative of God, and of one’s conscience, and of listening to and following dreams, and looking forward in hope as opposed to settling with what you have in front of you and making do with the “way things are right now.”

Following a star, and followers of stars, are dangerous people to those who work with earthly plans and schemes.

This is what Herod knows.

I wonder if we see that?

Maybe this story is here to help us recognize the Herod that resides in us all.

There resides in each of us the practical person who settles for things.

There is in each of us a bit of a schemer who thinks he or she has planned for every contingency and who expects the world to simply unfold in a certain way, the way he or she has scripted it so to do.

We often leave very little room in our lives for the following of stars.

We leave very little opportunity for God to intrude in our plans in any major ways, or to enter into the narrative that we have constructed for our lives, how things are supposed to go.\

But star followers, they are the ones who inspire, and who remind, and who look to the future with hope.

Or maybe this story is told by Matthew to help us remember what it was like under Herod, who presented himself as an alternative to the narrative of God’s vision.

Maybe, Matthew wants us to remember that there have always been those who have tried to substitute their own vision of things for God’s narrative of old.

The story is a reminder that there are those out there still who can spin a narrative that sounds compelling at first, but whose end is not God’s vision for how we are to live with one another.

Those who live in the world of schemes, deals struck, and the consolidation of earthly power hate the star followers, for they instinctively know that once star followers enter the picture, it will be their undoing.

God has always employed the dreamers, the star followers, the prophets and those who listen to the voice of God as means of revealing that God is interested in and always coming back into the human arena.

To be a star follower is a subversive act, for it means that you will not be satisfied with human explanations of how things “simply are.”

Star followers look for God to be doing new things in the world.

Star followers remind us that there are old narratives yet to be completed.   Swords to be beaten into plowshares.   A lamb to sit upon his throne.   A Lion and a lamb to be laying down together, a creation redeemed and living at peace.

Star followers look for God to enter into this world and point out where and when they see it happening, and then they bring their gifts to bear.  Whatever it is that they bring with them, to present to this God who comes.

“Star followers” are what we become in baptism, when God pours God’s Holy Spirit into us and makes us lift our eyes up to the light.

“Star Followers” are what we are called by God.  In the words of the baptismal service we are reminded to “let your life so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.”

It is a moment when God shines a light into a darkened world still, a beacon sent to draw you to himself, and draw others to God as well.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

This is what Herod cannot stand.

This is what the Herod’s of this world fear.

“Star followers,” — and you are one of them because God has first shown God’s own light into you.

We look still, and proclaim still, a God who is not yet done intervening in daily life, and who calls us all to be more than what others would have us “settle for.”

That is what makes the Herod’s of this world shake in their boots.

“By Decree or ‘Go and See'” Luke 2:1-20

I have no illusions about this night.

I know that there are two primary motivations at work in the annual Christmas worship or holiday celebration.

There are those who are moved by decree, and those who are motived by “Let’s go and see.”

For most of us, it’s a mixture of the two at work really.

“You will go to church….” The parent informs the child.

“You will go to your parent’s….”   The spouse informs her partner.

“You have to get a gift for …”

“You have to attend the office party, the social gathering, the play we have tickets for…”

All kinds of decrees are issued this time of year, (whether you realize it at first or not.)

It may not be Caesar Augustus directing your travels or compelling your actions, but we all have felt the compulsion of family pressure, or of expectations placed upon us, or of spousal obligation, family responsibilities, societal expectations, or ….well, you name it.

You name it because you have felt it, perhaps still feel it.

We are under decrees of one kind or another, and so part of what resonates with us about this night and this story is recognizing that Mary and Joseph couldn’t catch a break either.

There are certain things required to be done.

Certain expectations that must be met.

No one likes it, but we do them anyway.

And then, as “Murphy’s Law” dictates, if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong, especially if you are you are under decree to do something.

So it is that Luke records that while the couple are complying to Caesar’s decree, the time came for the child to be born.

Perfect.

One more complication in the midst of the unwanted trip, like a flat tire on the way to your mother-in-law’s.

One more thing you were dreading that might happen, that actually does happen.

Ill prepared, and in the worst of possible situations the child is born without any of the things you had laid up back at home for this event.

No “pack and play.”

No diapers.

No place to stay, no doctor, no midwife, and no family nearby to help out.

Under the pressure and obligation of the decree, you make do as best you can given the circumstances.

The baby is laid in manger.

Swaddling clothes are fashioned out of whatever you are wearing or have packed along.   The spare tunic is now catching urine and poo as it is torn into strips to wrap the child.

Living under decree is often not much fun.

We feel the imposition of it on our lives, the “nothing went as I thought it was supposed to go” disruption, and we wonder what it is that we’ve done to deserve this.

If it is not decree that motivates you this holiday, then it is most likely curiosity.  There is a “go and see” element at work this time of year as well.

“Let’s go and see how they’ve decorated (the church, the public space, union station, etc.)”

“Let’s go and see the children’s program, there’s always one or two laughable mishaps by the kids there.”

“Let’s go and see mom, or the old home place, or drive past the old house, the old farm, down the old main street of the hometown once again while we’re there.”

If we aren’t being compelled out of guilt, we are sometimes we are pulled out of gratitude, desire, nostalgia or curiosity.

The Christmas story has that element as well, of shepherds wanting to “go and see” if Angel’s words are true.

You have to admit that it’s not much to look at really, just a baby wrapped up in a manger, an inconvenienced family, the mess of animals and straw.

Still and all, it is what was promised, and it is curiously a touchstone to the words of the messengers.

Much like our wanting to go and see the old home, the old farm, the old main street, …as shabby and unimpressive as it might be to anyone else’s eyes, to your eyes it is confirmation of something important.

A tangible sign of a life once known.

A reminder of a time when we were loved, or felt safe and secure, or at least knew predictably how the next day would unfold.

Our “go and see” travels in locations and memories anchor us to promises made, and better times, and a sense of faithfulness that somehow reaches into the here and now.  As tears well up and emotions rise looking out over the changed but familiar scenes and the flood of memories, we might even whisper to ourselves, “what have I ever done to deserve this?”   This sense of privilege in living, this sense of giftedness, this joy of what has been and is promised to the future.

So, I’m not sure why you are here tonight, out of a decree made to you, or out of a sense of curiosity to go and see what all the fuss is about.

I’m not sure if you’re finding what you expect to see or whether you’re wondering why you came in the first place.

I only know that if you are feeling either decree or “come and see”, you are in good company, for those are the things that made up that first Christmas.

This is real life, and this is what God comes stumbling and tumbling into.

God comes into a world of obligations and mixed motivations.

God comes vulnerable and yet insistent, as only children can be.

God comes both to capture our attention, and to escape the notice of kings and princes.

God comes, in the midst of decrees and “go and see’s, and our lives are not the same because of it.

And we might even find ourselves asking, as we contemplate it all, God made flesh and coming into this world.  “What have we ever done to deserve this?”

“Looking for Hope In All the Wrong Places.” Luke 1:39-55

Where does one look for hope?

Here we are once again on the precipice it seems.

The rich and the powerful are blustering.

World and regional leaders are fuming about how to get their way, drive through their policies, and establish control over the flow of citizens and refugees.

Border and security are invoked as a means to shuffle the political agendas.

The world is a mess.

And Mary and Elizabeth meet in Galilee.

Oh, you perhaps misunderstood?

I’ll bet when you heard me start down that road of a “precipice” your minds went to the current government shut down, to an ill-tempered President owning, and then not owning his own actions or decisions.

Your mind might have gone to the “Nancy Pelosi’s Civics Lecture,” or to Schumer and Trump’s man-spreading displays in the Oval Office, or perhaps to McConnell’s iron fisted stranglehold on what comes up for a vote, or Ryan’s demurring to “whatever”, as he tries to make a hasty exit.

I can see how that might have happened.

But truth be told, I was referring to the circumstances of this Gospel, and to Judea of the 4th Century B.C.

It was a time when King Herod was building his grand palaces and huge stoned structures on the backs of his own people to impress Rome and hold on to his own power.

It was a time when Caesar was preparing to undertake a tax registration, a census to ascertain what kind of revenue could be extracted from the provinces, (Judea included.)

It was a time when local governors were dispatched and appointed to crack down on any indigenous opposition to a Roman occupational government.  Quirinius (clearly a Roman name) has been put in place in Syria to keep the locals in line and the manage the garrisons stationed there.

Pilate will come later.

Luke wants to make perfectly clear to us as he begins his “orderly account” of Jesus that the coming of hope and of great things often happens in the midst of much darkness and uncertainty.

In fact, that’s a theme throughout scripture.   God moving, doing hidden, unseen things in the midst of apparent disaster.   God making promises that the eye cannot yet see, nor the ear hear, nor the mind yet comprehend.

Micah’s prophecy we heard a moment ago was spoken after Bethlehem had been under siege.  It was a plowed-over ruin of a backwater town, ravaged by Assyria armies centuries before.

It is while overlooking the rubble of the town that Micah proclaims:

“From you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth the one who is to rule Israel…”  

It’s like someone today looking at the burned-out shell of Paradise, California right after the fire; or looking over the devastation of Joplin Missouri or Greenville Kansas right after the tornados that flattened them and saying, “This is where the future will be born!”

No one can see it yet.

No one can even imagine it, because everything you see is devastated.

But as is so often the case in scripture, God is unperturbed by the outward appearance of things.

God will work another way, a hidden way.

And so Mary and Elizabeth meet, and what no eye can see, no ear can hear, no visible sign can convey will pass between them.

A knowing glance will be exchanged as they see one another for the first time in a long time.

Old Elizabeth will see in Mary the flush and glow, the rounding of the belly that marks the beginning of a pregnancy.

Elizabeth will groan and wince at the movement of foot on the bladder, the eye bug, “oof!” and catch in the step, or the lean into the back of the chair that marks a baby on the move.   Mary will see her catch and wince, and then the smile as Elizabeth greets her and tells her what is up.

This will pass between them, and they will both be filled with joy and hope, one at the other’s good fortune in her advanced age, the other at the promise and possibility, (and yes, the riskiness and complications) of bearing a child.

Both will look at each other with full joy upon their faces and a song upon their lips, and in this moment they will begin to talk of the future, fulfillment, blessing, and joy, and the troubles of the world stage will fall away for a time.

This is how it is with God.

We forget this.  We look at the “big things” happening around us and wonder where God is in the midst of those things?

Our eyes are distracted from the miracles of daily life and our interaction with others, and we fret about the things happening on the world stage.

We are made to feel powerless, impotent, unable to effect any change.

We wonder why the old, old wounds continue to fester?   Why the wars cannot cease?

Why the old fights over land, possessions, resources, riches, power and control repeat themselves, over and over again?

Why can’t we all just learn to get along? To share the abundance the earth provides?

We keep our eyes focused, (or distracted) by looking to these big things, the worldly powers and principalities, the “movers and shakers.”

But that is the wrong place to look for God at work, or a change in those things.

God is instead at work in the underside, for God knows that the temptations of power, the imposition of order, and the pursuit of this world’s solutions to conflicts and troubles are a never ending repetition of abuse.

Today’s heroic leader becomes tomorrow’s despot.

Today’s best way of governing becomes tomorrow’s corrupted system.

Humans are prone to idolatry, to brokenness, and to sin.

The scriptures remind us in the story of Cain and Able that in the very beginning when we started worshiping God and considering offering our gifts to share, we started comparing ourselves to each other, and in the midst of doing that, started down the road of killing each other to get ahead.

When these children promised to Mary and Elizabeth grow and begin their ministry, the Gospel writers will remind us that it was John who called for repentance, renouncing the ways of this world.  Part of his message will be directed to the old sin, encouraging care for one another.  “If you have two coats, share one.   If you are a soldier, be content with your pay and do not extort.”

The Gospel writers will also remind us that Jesus took a long, hard look at playing the part of Savior on this world’s terms.  He debates with the Devil in the wilderness about it, enduring the ever-present worldly temptations to care for one’s self first, take shortcuts in compromising one’s ethics, and the temptation to become too assured of one’s own position and abilities.

Jesus comes to the conclusion that there is no use playing the game according to the rules of this world.

Jesus too, joins with John in pointing out that hope is found not in finding someone who can finally beat the world at its own game, but rather hope is found in God undermining the whole endeavor, and making it collapse and crumble from within, and to do that, you work under the world’s radar, in the common interactions of daily life.

This is what Jesus did, never pursuing to be made messiah, but rather pursuing one follower at a time, making a difference in this moment, wherever he happened to be.

You will not find hope in the actions of world leaders and big events.

You will find hope in the exchange of glances with another human being, someone who shares your secret, or shares or know your situation, or who feels your pain as you feel theirs.

You will find God at work in the person who knows that the long game of God is to thwart the powers and the principalities; not by going “toe to toe” with them, but rather by changing the conversation one person at a time.

This is Mary’s song, confidence in something she has not yet seen, but something that she knows to be true because of the events long past, and her own experience in the moment.

The rich are always sent away empty in the end.  They may have their toys, their walls, their titles and their momentary whims, but such things do not last.

What lasts is what passes between us right now, care, hopefulness, that’s what the future is built upon.

The hungry are filled with good things.  They are filled with a thankfulness in the simple things that the rich will never understand.

The hungry are filled in the breaking and sharing of the bread, in the looking out for one another instead of always having to look over your back in worry of who is out to get you.

The hungry are filled with mercy that the powerful and the rich can never appreciate or exercise.  Tenderness and forgiveness that will always elude those who carry anger and live in fear.

You will not find hope in the actions of those who shuffle chess pieces on the world’s gameboard, or who play the game of Thrones.

Thrones are brought down in the end.  They cannot rule forever.  History is replete with thrones, and all of them falling in the end.

What brings hope is found in the aftermath of that, in the picking up of pieces and that is one-to-one work.   Hope comes in the interactions shared between those who look to something else besides the stuff of this world.

Where does one look for hope?

Turn to your left.  Turn to your right.   Look into the eyes of the one closest to you.

If you’re looking for hope from the big boys and girls of this world who move across the world stage, you’re looking for hope in all the wrong places.

Hope comes in the meeting with the neighbor, and the caring for them.

Hope comes in the dreaming of the future, and you can only do that with someone who connects with you and who is willing to understand what you are going through, right at this moment.

This is what we learn from Mary and Elizabeth.

Hope is found in this moment, and in the meeting and the greeting of one another.

“Things Are Looking Up” Luke 21:25-36

I’m a little tired of all the warnings that seem to have become a part of everyday life.

I flip though the television channels and some new breakthrough drug is being pitched to me for an ailment that I never really knew was a problem before, and I wouldn’t have known it if the company didn’t warn me about it.

Then after the company has shown me bright and cheery images of people living their lives free of the ailment that I didn’t know I was supposed to worry about and that the medication is supposed to treat, here comes the list of side effects and the warnings.

“Don’t take _________ if you have______.  If you develop these symptoms stop taking _______.   Suicidal thoughts and depression may accompany some people as they take _______.   ______ may cause constipation, diarrhea, heart palpitations, a change in mood or appetite.  Stop taking ________ if you experience sudden weight gain, weight loss, hives, boils, a plague of frogs, insects or gnats.

Ask your doctor if _______ is right for you.

Warning upon warning.  One often wonders if the side effects are worse than living with the condition?

The evening news is full of warnings and urgings to be vigilant as well.  Scam upon scam is mentioned out there, or more things to worry about.

Crime and violence “may be coming to your neighborhood.”

Personal information has been hacked and may be compromising your identity.

Global Climate change is shaking the heavens and the earth.

I’m under a constant barrage of urgings to be vigilant, to watch for suspicious activity or behavior, (whatever that may be to me), to take measures, put in a security system, to get a “cop cam”, to change my passwords, etc. etc.

It is all so very wearying.

Maybe you find it wearying too.

We hang our heads and slog on through another day, wondering what will come at us next.

So it doesn’t really strike me as a cheery moment to hear the Gospel put forth its little apocalypse today and issue its warnings as well.

Signs, in the sun, moon and stars, distress among the nations, people fainting with foreboding and fear.

I have plenty of fear and foreboding already, I really don’t need it from Jesus!

I think when we first read or hear this lesson it is the fear that jumps out at us, the list of things for which we think we ought to be watching out and worrying.

We tend to hear this as a warning from Jesus because our ears are so fine tuned to listen for warnings and to draw conclusions from this world.

But I would urge you to read and listen to this again, this time without your “warning weary ears,” for when we do that, we catch the real force of Jesus’ words.

This is not just a warning about the awful things that are about to happen.  Nothing mentioned here is really any different from the things that have been happening since the beginning of this world.

Signs in the Sun, moon, and stars, …. Those happen on a regular and cyclical basis.  Just ask any teacher or law enforcement offices what a full moon will mean for them.

Distress among the nations?   When has there not been a time when competing national interests, or tribal differences didn’t set one people against another?

Confusion at the roaring of the seas and the waves?   When hasn’t weather and ocean been unpredictable and downright scary when considered or experienced?

These things will happen, and they might be scary if dwelt upon, but the real point of what Jesus has to say is that all these things are nothing to be scared of really.

They are reasons for us to look up!

What, Pastor, the world is going to hell in a handbasket and you’re telling me that things are looking up?
Well, yes, as a matter of fact, not because of all the things we see that have always been around anyway, but rather because looking up is what is commanded to us by Jesus!

Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

That’s what Jesus says to the otherwise scary events.  Stand up and raise your heads!   Look up!  Look for God!

It can be scary to think of God as entering into the places where we usually have free reign, mostly because we’re not sure what God is going to do when God arrives.   Is God to be found in more force, in the raging of the wind?   In the desolation of battle or the power of despots?   Do we find God in the unraveling of the world as we know it?

No.   Abraham and Sarah, Elijah and the Widow, Moses and Miriam and all the prophets of old saw many a great and terrible sign, but God was not found in the unraveling.   God was rather found working in the midst of those things to bring about redemption, promise, and fulfillment of God’s word.

Now in Jesus, (the Son of Man incarnate,) we get a glimpse of what it is that God actually does when God does enter this world and it’s not at all scary!  It is (in fact) what God has always done when God shows up.

Good news is preached to the poor, and the powerful are overcome.

Sight is given to the blind.

The hungry are fed.

The naked are clothed.

Demons are cast out and those with afflictions are set free from suffering.

The Prisoners are set free, and the hungry are filled with good things.

Outcasts are welcomed, and the forgotten remembered.

There isn’t much scary about what Jesus does.

Well, I should qualify that a bit.   What Jesus does is scary if you have your eyes fixed firmly on the things of this world and look to them for your comfort and your hope.

If what you are preoccupied with is getting rich, then to hear that Jesus shows partiality and favor to the poor, or hear to him say, “do not be anxious about what you will eat and what you will wear” is incredibly threatening.   It topples the economic system we have in place, the engine of our way of life!

If your livelihood depends upon hiding things, on people being blind to your actions, then to hear from Jesus that “nothing will be hidden that is not revealed” and to hear the promise that in the coming of Jesus God brings the “light to shine in the darkness and the light is not overcome.” That is incredibly threatening for someone who depends upon clandestine operations, hidden agendas, and operating in the shadows of this world.

If you are most comfortable with the current divisions, with some people having more than others, with labels and prejudices that hold people and ideas in the status quo, then to hear that Jesus welcomes the outsider, casts out the demons, and bridges the divisions long held between people may very well be threatening to your comfortable way of looking at the world.

The Gospels remind us that looking at Jesus is like looking at God.  We “see” who God is and what God is like through the actions, words, and concerns of Jesus.  What we “see” Jesus do is good news if you are caught up in the signs and turmoil of this world.

If you are a part of keeping the world in chaos, to hear that God is present is a very threatening thing indeed!

What Jesus drives home here is this.  When the world looks scary, it is time to raise your head and look for Jesus!

Look to God!

God is about to do something, and it will not be found in the power or “eye catching” events, but rather the Word and action that arises out of it or in the face of the scary.

The warning given is not to avoid the scary stuff, but rather to not be weighed down so much that you miss God coming in the midst of these things happening, the little signs of hope and power in the midst of big distractions.

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, Jesus says.

That’s the trap, letting your heart be so weighed down or trying to cope with the scary stuff in life with the things of this world will sucks the joy out of your life and cause you to miss the signs of God’s Kingdom coming in your midst.

Letting your heart get weighed down by the cares for this world causes you to lose sight of the God who created this world with all its wonders.

Look up!

Dissipation is a distraction deeper into the cares of this world.  Getting lost in a life of material goods at first promises shiny toys and temporary joys, but it clouds your judgment and blinds you to the God who provides all good gifts and whose intention is for all to enjoy the goodness of creation.

Lift your head up out of the fog of materialism, of running after the things of this world, of being consumed with consuming or bedazzled with celebrity!

Drunkenness lets you escape the cares of this world for a brief time, but there is a price to pay for your temporary relief, and it numbs you to what God may be up to in your very midst.

Be alert!

It is the Word of God that lasts forever, not the ups and downs of daily life here on this world.

Advent focuses our attention on the coming of Jesus, and we sometimes let that “coming” be reduced to preparation for Christmas, but really Advent is about looking for the signs of Jesus’ return, and do you know where you find those?

You find those in the little things, in the words and action that are Jesus-like that seep in around all the noise and bluster of big signs and scary events.

You won’t find God in the roaring blaze that destroys, but you will find Jesus at work in the firefighters who look up and assess and work diligently to contain and to make a stand against the overwhelming.

You won’t find God in the devastation, but you’ll see the hands and feet of Jesus sifting through the rubble and offering aid, comfort and recovery to those devastated.

You won’t find God in the earthquake or the flood, but you will see Jesus in the picking up of the pieces and the rebuilding of lives in their wake.

You won’t find God in the fainting and the foreboding, but you will see Jesus at work in the care and redemption of bringing hope to the hopeless.

You’ll find it hard to see God at work in the sending of troops to protect a border, but you’ll see the actions of Jesus in those who work to reunite families separated, and to bring refuge and shelter to those who wander.

So look up, get your head out of the scary stuff and remember how it is that God comes.

Not in power and might and with fanfare, but as one who is vulnerable, a babe in a manger who is bent on getting our minds off all that wearies and scares us.

To Where are you pointing?” John 18:33-38

This is Christ the King Sunday, a festival that is a little quirky to say the least.

It is sometimes hailed as kind of a collapsing down of the whole church year into a single day, a time to look at where we are pointing as people of faith.

Do we point to the world, or to faith?

Who rules us really, our own desires and passions, or God and the Kingdom?

The focus for this day is alternately a consideration of the last Judgement in Matthew, that whole Sheep and Goats episode.

Or in the year of Luke we get Jesus and thieves on the Cross, one who calls in derision and one who calls for mercy.

And in the year of Mark’s Gospel we get this story from the Gospel of John, of Pilate questioning Jesus.

“Are you the King of the Jews?”  he asks.

Pilate is very much like you and me in many ways, although you may not have thought of that before.

He is a Gentile, an outsider to the Jewish faith and all this talk about Messiahs and kings and prophecies holds little interest for him.

He is in a position of authority and power, and that’s where most of us find ourselves in this society, whether we recognize it or not.  You may not feel particularly powerful, but you make your own decisions most of the time, and most of us enjoy the privilege that comes from citizenship in the United States, and from our position in society.

More often than not, (like Pilate) we are also just a little skeptical about Jesus power and his presence in the world.  We question God from time to time, wondering how Jesus fits in to our lives, and the assumption that we (like Pilate) make is that it was for this world that Jesus came, to fix what is wrong with it.

In the film, “Jesus of Nazareth”, when Pilate asks this question of Jesus, he points behind him into the Praetorium.  There in that splendid architecture stand the statues of the Roman Gods and of Caesar, all of which are the mark of Pilate’s own position of power and authority as Governor.

Those are the gods that back him up, and they look a whole lot more powerful than the Jesus who stands before him.

The gods behind Pilate control most of the known world.  They back the political power that has its thumb on Jesus’ neck!

“You say you are the Son of God, Jesus?  Which God?”

There are so many gods to choose from – then and now — and most of them look a lot more powerful than this One God you claim to represent with your penchant for the poor and the outcast.

Here’s a quick exercise I may have had you do before.  Look through your wallet and sift through all the things that you carry close to you, the things that you can’t go through a day without.

What do you find there?

I have Credit cards and cash, discount cards and government I.D.  I trust in the Bank of the West, Visa and Mastercard.  I am a resident of Missouri and authorized to drive on its highways, and if I have an accident Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota will see to my health care, Delta Dental will replacing my teeth, and if I’m emotionally wounded by the experience, Cigna Behavioral Health will provide me with mental health care.

If my injuries are fatal, American Family and Thrivent will see to caring for my survivors.

I can get discounts at Office Max, bonuses at Price Chopper, Panera, and Hy-Vee, discounts because of my age and AARP, and Guest privileges at Comfort Inn.

When I empty out my pockets, I find all kinds of things that (in other words) talk about the Kingdom of this world to which I belong.

I am very much like Pilate, pointing to the things that back him up and asking where Jesus “fits” in to these.

Is there anything in here that bears witness to Jesus being my King?  Anything that I carry day in and day out, that I cannot get by without, that witnesses to my allegiance to Jesus?

You might think that you could point to the ‘In God We Trust’ found on our currency as a sign of trust in God, but then you have to remember that the value of that note is not guaranteed by God, but rather by “the Federal Reserve of the United States of America.”

This statement on the bill does not bear witness to faith in any God, but rather to faith in the government that backs the piece of paper.

Again, it’s not unlike Pilate pointing to the statues that are the sign of the Roman government behind him.

Pilate points to the things that surround him, and says, “Where do you fit into these?”  These are the things in which Pilate puts his trust, the signs and symbols of how the world works in his day and age.

I could point to my wallet ask Jesus the same question.  Jesus, where do you fit in to all of these gods to which I give allegiance?

That is the Pilate in us speaking, and we are sometimes just as uncomfortable with the question.

It may be that we are uncomfortable with a representative of the Living God standing before us.  Really afraid that if we were to say to Jesus, “why haven’t I heard of, experienced your Kingdom in my life?”  He might just respond to us by saying, “My Kingdom is not of this world…,

We are, you know, so preoccupied with the things of this world!

Today Jesus stands before us all, and takes our questions as he did Pilate’s, and all of our accusations, and all of our indifference toward God and this world.

They are to him, I suppose, still like hammer blows on nails, like thorns pressed down into flesh.

Our questions of “where do you fit in, Jesus?” makes him to suffer, because it betrays our fundamental misunderstanding of God’s Kingdom.

We assume that what God sent Jesus to do was to tinker and to make this world a little better.

But Jesus knows that what he’s really here to do is something quite different.

He’s here to call the whole human endeavor that we put into place into question, because the Kingdom that Jesus comes to proclaim is one ruled by relationship, and not by things.

That’s our fundamental misunderstanding.

We keep wondering where Jesus fits into all the “things.”

The “things” we have meticulously built, our ideologies, philosophies, beliefs and systems.

The “things” that happen, tragic and senseless.

The “things” that we call important.

The “things” that make up our government, our commerce, our security and sense of worth.

All these “things” that we point to as being of most importance to us.

Jesus takes our “Pilate-like” questions about God and where God is and what God is doing in this world.

He takes our questions born of our arrogance and our own self-centeredness.

He came and endured it all, so that he could remind us that what he does is what God always does.

God always stands before us, looking at us in love — offering us another way, and it is not a way of this world.

Where is your Kingdom, Jesus?

Well, it’s not of this world, but it’s about truth, and the truth is, God loves you, even when you are acting like Pilate, pointing to the “things” instead of paying attention to the relationships.

This is the Kingdom Jesus comes to bring, one that is less centered on “things” and more upon relationships.

When “things” happen that are tragic and senseless, Jesus does not come to change the “things”, he comes to console those affected by those “things.”

When we call “things” important, Jesus points us instead to the relationships.

“And who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks.   Jesus redirects the conversation from things to people, and to relationships, and to actions taken to care, to comfort, to heal.

“What you have done for the least of these my brothers and sisters..”  Jesus says, changing the conversation from worry about judgment to a matter of relationship.

“Is there no one left to condemn you?  Then neither do I.”   Jesus changes the conversation from what “thing” should be done to this woman caught in adultery to a matter of relationship shared by all.

This is the Kingdom where Jesus reigns.  It is not made up of things, but of people, real people with real names and real concerns.

They are not “things.”

They are not migrants, or immigrants, or “those kind” of people.

They are children, and fathers and mothers and husbands and wives seeking compassion, asylum, freedom from the violence and oppression of their land, much of which is often our doing by meddling in the political structures or imposing beliefs, systems and ideologies.

The Kingdom of God is not made up of titles and factions, it is not comprised of Pharisees and Sadducees or Publicans, nor Americans, Republicans, Democrats or Libertarians.

The Kingdom of God, (the one Jesus reigns over as King) is made up of people who have names, and some who are sometimes nameless to us but never faceless and never unknown to Jesus.

It is made up of the woman at the well, (who is not a thing, or thing that she has done,) but rather is someone in relationship with Jesus because they share a common conversation and need.. water.

She is not a thing. Not a Samaritan.  Not divorced.  Not having five husbands and living with a man who is not her husband.   She is someone.  She is in conversation with Jesus and learning of the Kingdom where you never thirst.

The Kingdom of God is made up of the older brother, and the younger son, and the character who own the pigs, and the Father who welcomes and loves and who insists on treating his sons on the basis of his relationship with them, not on the things they do or the decisions they make.

I name you all as Pilates this day, as I rightly name myself.

We all spend far too much time trying to decide what to do with all these “things” as they present themselves to us.

But maybe, just maybe the way to glimpse the Kingdom that Jesus promises is to be less in concerned or upset about things, and to pay more attention to the people.

It is in the hearts of people that Jesus rules, and when Jesus rules in the human heart, then the “things” that we are usually so preoccupied with don’t seem to matter as much.

Things like borders and walls.

Things like papers and status.

Things like security and comfort.

Things like skin color and ethnic ties.

None of those “things” to which Pilate, or we would point seem to matter much in the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom Jesus comes to proclaim.

Maybe on Christ the King Sunday, it’s not a bad thing to ask where we are pointing, and what is Jesus reminding us about.

“My Kingdom is not of this world…”