“A Snap In Your World.” Mark 1:14-20

What was it that made those first disciples follow Jesus?   How could they have just walked away from their trade, their families, everything they knew and were comfortable doing to follow him?

How could James and John have just gotten up and walked out on their own father, leaving all that he was ready to pass on to them as their inheritance, the family fishing business, rocking in the surf at the edge of the lake?”

We wonder and muse about the actions of those first disciples, probably because we have a sense that if we could just discover what motivated those first disciples’, we might find reasons ourselves for taking up the invitation of Jesus to come and follow him.

I’m sure that you have mused about this yourself, as I have.  What made them do it?

Was it because Jesus was so charismatic?  Is that what made them drop everything and go after him.  Some have speculated that maybe the physical presence of Jesus was just so magnetic, attracting large crowds and individuals alike.  You had but to take one look at Jesus, hear him speak and you couldn’t help yourself from wanting to follow him.

Maybe if I just met Jesus more personally I’d find my motivation to follow him?   And so we try to find ways to get to know Jesus on a personal level, or want to know him as a “personal Lord and Savior” hoping that the mojo of intimacy will somehow spur us into wanting to follow.

For some, that actually works on a certain level, but there is a danger in making Jesus too personal.   You can get so wrapped up in what Jesus does for you personally that you forget that Jesus’ primary interest was not in personal gratification of his followers, but in calling them to follow where he leads, which are often difficult places.  Too much emphasis on the “Personal Savior” risks that we make of Jesus simply a “life coach.”  There to encourage us when we’re feeling down, and nothing more.

Or we speculate that what made those fishermen give up their trade was their own sense of fatigue with fishing, that anything really beat cleaning fish, so why not take Jesus up on his offer, what did they have to lose?

We can make of Jesus a kind of “logical choice.”   Fishing was in decline in the Sea of Galilee, so why not pursue other ventures.   Following Jesus was a career move, or it had to do with serving, doing, denying yourself, acting solely on the part of others.

We look at the part of the story about John and James leaving their father in the boat and assume that following Jesus is going to demand us giving up our own comfort and connections, and so we jettison the things of this world in preference to pursuing the Kingdom promised.

If the “personal savior” carries with it the danger of turning Jesus into a life coach, this logical reason to follow carries with it a danger of thinking of Jesus only as the great Social Worker who demands our action, our following, and who has really concern for your personal wellbeing.

Reinforced with the stories of how Jesus “gave all” we find ourselves caught in never ending pursuit of giving ourselves away and criticizing any comfort for ourselves.  We forsake friends, family, relationships all in the name of “serving Jesus” and then marvel at how burned out and tired we start to feel.

We forget that we are, first of all, NOT the Savior or the Son of God.

Secondly, we ignore how often it was that Jesus often led by example in the area of self-care.  We ignore how he would go off and encourage his disciple to do the same to a lonely place to pray, to retreat from the unending demands of ministry of what others will extract from you.

We forget that Jesus hung out at weddings, seemed to have a good time, was even called a drunkard and a glutton by his critics and always seemed to find time to share a good meal or hang out at a friend’s house.  He didn’t personally accumulate worldly possessions, but he didn’t seem to mind enjoying the benefits of a good banquet or a comfortable lodging with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus when the opportunity was offered!

We search this story looking for clues as to what led those first disciples to follow, and in focusing on the story of the call of Peter, Andrew, James and John we perhaps miss the big clue that Mark gives us.

It’s almost a throw-away line, but it does set the stage for all that follows, did you catch it?

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee….”

Each of the Gospel writers give us a glimpse into the political and social upheaval of the time of Jesus, and the time in which the Gospel writers lived, and there is a common thread.

Luke sets Jesus’ birth and ministry in the context of Caesar, Quirinius, heavy and burdensome taxation and disregard for the poor.  The “crack in history” of living under Roman occupation where the rich and power pay no attention to the suffering of those in their shadow.

Matthew sets Jesus’ birth in the political realities of living under Herod’s corrupt governance and a Temple complicit with the Roman occupation.  It is the crack of history of being a specific people bereft of leadership and looking for God’s promised one of old.

And Mark?  Well it’s this one throw-away line about the arrest of John that tips us off. This is the straw that breaks the back, that sets Jesus on his trajectory of proclamation.  John has been silenced.   He is no longer able to rally the people with expectation.  The preaching of repentance in the wilderness is gone, no one is preparing the way.  He sits in Herod’s prison.  Who now will take up the task of proclaiming God’s Kingdom coming near?  What does John’s arrest do to all those who have been looking at him as a herald of a new and better world?

What if the motivator for following Jesus is not how we are attracted to him, or how smart a move it would be to follow him, or how logical a choice, but rather something that snaps in the world in which we live?

What if what motivated those fishermen was not just Jesus’ invitation, but also looking around at their world and seeing the crack in history in which they lived.  This is the moment when the call of God corresponds to the call on their own personal situation, the thing that drives one to say, “there has to be another way….a better way, and I have to do it, be part of it.”

When you look back over the course of history with those eyes, you recognize how it is that this invitation of Jesus works.

You recognize it in events that changed the course of history, and the understanding of people.

You see it in St. Francis of Assisi, who was born to wealth and privilege, but when he looked around at the result of the concentration of wealth and privilege in 13th Century Italy, something snapped in his world to make him think, “There has to be another way…” and so he renounced his own status and wealth, gave away his possessions to take up the life of a mendicant. Now he was concerned with the care of all creatures.   It wasn’t the Kingdom of God, but it was a piece of the Kingdom that seemed to be in step with Jesus’ words to “go out two by two and take no purse, no extra tunic, no extra pair of sandals….”

You see it in an Augustinian Monk in the 14th Century who dared to question the power of the Church and usher in the Reformation.   He looked at Feudal Society of his day, the sale of indulgences and ignorance of the scriptures and came to the conclusion that there had to be a better way.  And so, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses and embarked on proclaiming justification by grace through faith.  It wasn’t exactly the Kingdom of God, but it was closer than the tyranny of conscience and the fear of purgatory that had come before.

This past week we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, who began as a Baptist minister and never intended to become a public figure, but found himself at 27 leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott.   In his “Kitchen Table Experience” he describes how his world snapped under the weight of Jim Crow south and the injustice of racism.  A phone call threatened to blow up his house and blow out his brains.

Shaken, King went to the kitchen, made himself a cup of coffee, but soon buried his face in his hands. He began to pray aloud: “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right … But … I must confess … I’m losing my courage.”  

King later explained what happened next: “I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness.’”

Martin Luther King did not bring in the Kingdom of God, but his dream and vision and the call to keep standing up brought it just a little bit closer than it had been before.

I think you get my drift here.

What is it that motivates a person to follow Jesus?  What gets you out of the boat, makes you leave the nets behind, and changes your course in life?

It isn’t just looking at Jesus, finding him attractive or charismatic.

It isn’t just making a logical choice to follow as if it were a good career move, or a last ditch effort out of your poor circumstances.

No, what motivates people to follow is finding yourself living in the crack of history and destiny, and having now to make a decision about how you will move forward from here, and who you will depend upon as you make that decision.

John has been arrested, and so … now what?   Now what for the fishermen?  Now what for our community?  Jesus offers an invitation, and stands with us in the crack of history and circumstances offering to walk with us as we walk with him in imagining a better world, a better way.

We all of us live in a crack in history, … our particular crack.

All of us have a moment when our world snaps in some way.  It may not be momentous in the eyes of the world, but it is in our own perception and understanding for us and those whom we love.

Maybe it is the moment of personal tragedy.

Maybe it is a job-related event, the sense of not going anywhere or the call to something else.

Often, it’s not a moment of our own choosing.  It is the news report that something has happened and now we must make our own “now what?” choice, mustering all the prayer and courage we can to listen for the voice within us.

Today the Gospel is that the invitation made to Peter, James, Andrew and John is made still to us, in our own particular crack in history.  An invitation and promise that Jesus will walk with us and stand with us as we follow what we perceive to be his lead, his guiding us in what Jesus would have us do in this moment.

I cannot pretend to tell you want you must do.

I cannot begin to guess what your pathway may be, or what you may find yourself called upon to do.

But this I can assure you.  As you follow where Jesus leads, the Kingdom of God will come a little bit closer.


“Tagged” John 1:43-51

Where did you get to know Jesus?

John’s treatment of the call of the disciples is a little bit different than what we find in the accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

In those Gospels we are drawn a picture of Jesus who strides out after the event of his Baptism, driving by the Spirit to begin assembling his “team.”

Jesus walks by the Lake shore and calls Fishermen from their boats.

Jesus walks through the streets and calls a tax collector from his table.

Jesus walks, and people, crowds follow looking to him for teaching, or healing or to raise questions meant to confront or confound.

That’s the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, a man on the move who gathers, attracts, and challenges.

But John’s Gospel is built a little differently.   Instead of a “driven” Jesus, we have a Jesus who performs signs, who engages in long conversations with Nicodemus, with the Woman at the Well, who hangs out at wedding feasts, and around the Temple on several occasions and so is no stranger to the chief priests and scribes, more of a recurring annoyance.

This is a Jesus (in other words) who we get to “know” a little bit more.  It is a Jesus who is maybe more attuned to our sensibilities in a social media influenced culture.

In today’s Gospel, it’s almost like Facebook isn’t it, minus the computers and handheld devices.

Jesus meets Philip, who is “tagged” by Jesus, and who we know is also tagged by Peter and Andrew as friends.  Philip then goes on to tag Jesus, and brings him along so that Nathaniel can meet him as well, but when Jesus sees Nathaniel it’s almost like he’s seen him in the news feed before.  “Here is a true Israelite, one in whom there is no guile….. I saw you under the fig tree before we met!”

It’s not exactly a “viral” Jesus, but the picture we get in John’s Gospel is of a Jesus who is most certainly more socially interactive.    It’s not just Jesus going out and calling the 12, now he’s got this web of people all interacting, calling to one another “come and see.”

It’s not a “Jesus in spurts” of healing, and then retreating, teaching and then withdrawing, the enigmatic Jesus who sets his face to Jerusalem and then invites us to get in step, take up your cross, and follow.”  In John we meet a Jesus who seems to have time to chit-chat, who takes the time needed to get to know a person, and who then offers life abundant, living water, and life everlasting.

So, I’ll ask you again, where did you get to know Jesus?  When did you “tag” him in your life?

For some of us that’s a difficult question to answer.  It’s difficult because, well, Jesus has always just been kind of been hanging around.   We heard about Jesus from Sunday School teachers and pastors.   We sang “Jesus loves me” ever since we can remember.  Our “getting to know” Jesus has been a life-long venture.

Still, there may be faces and moments that stand out, even for those who have always had him around.

Maybe it’s the little old lady who taught you in Sunday School.

Maybe it was the camp counselor who listened and talked to you of their faith as you wove a friendship bracelet, or sat around a campfire.

Maybe you got to know Jesus on a mission trip, or working side by side with other people building a house or stitching a quilt or packing a pantry order.  Meeting Jesus in the doing of the work as disciples.

Or maybe you got to know Jesus from the preaching of that beloved pastor, or the book study led by the retired teacher, or at the coffee shop gathering, or the song that moved.

Maybe you didn’t really get to know Jesus until your faith was tested in some way. The decision to enter a field of study, or a job that didn’t go so well at first.   The health scare or the family struggle that drove you to your knees.

We all have our stories, (in other words) of moments, even in our “always there” experience of when we got to know Jesus a little bit better, where the promises became a bit more powerful and clear.

Still others of us here may have quite a different response to that “where did you get to know Jesus?” question.  Not everyone grew up singing “Jesus loves me.”

Some will tell you about getting to know Jesus late in life.

Reading a Gospel for the first time seeking ammunition as an atheist to use against those silly Christians, only to discover in the reading the living God and the beginning of faith.

Others got to know Jesus after marrying a spouse who continued in their faith, absorbing new habits and raising new questions never before entertained.

Maybe you got to know Jesus after you had kids of your own and wanted more for them than you had as you were growing up.

And maybe you are in the corner with Nathaniel this morning, still trying to decide what you think about Jesus.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  he snorts.  You can practically hear him questioning what that backwater Galilean town has to offer him?

Maybe you are right there with Nathaniel today in your own skepticism.

Whether you’re a person who grew up with Jesus always in the background or someone who is new to this matter of ordering your life around him, you ask the question deep down, “What does a 2000 year old small town Galilean who spouts pithy little sayings and teachings really have to offer me?  Is it anything good?

I’m not pointing out the “Nathaniel Skepticism” here to push us into any overtly political conversations or to be disparaging, but rather to point out that these questions and struggles continue to hover for both those who have gotten to know Jesus over many years and for those who are new to the invitation to follow.

Can anything “good” come out of following Jesus in this crazy world today?  Is it worth my effort, my time, and all the complications that come because of it for me to “get to know” Jesus?

It is a fair question.

Isn’t it far easier to simply “tip my hat to religion,” and then just live the way I want to, the way I please, the way that is in step with the direction of Empire and that doesn’t put me in conflict with the way the world works?

After all, “When did you get to know Jesus?” is a question that seems to be soon followed by, “Will it make any difference?”

Will I change?

Will I risk loving my neighbor instead of looking out for myself?

Will I cross and open borders and boundaries, or fortify them?

Am I going to be careful not to mix things up too much, just keep to my own opinions and my own areas of comfort, or will I follow this Jesus of John’s Gospel in getting to know those who are very different from who I am, opening myself up to dialog with them that may lead to life?

When did you get to know Jesus?  Did you?  Do you?

I don’t want to be too hard on you, and I especially don’t want you to be too hard on yourself in this matter because getting stuck on whether we know Jesus or not, for that misses the Gospel moment in this story.

For all the introductions going on, all the “tagging” of one another, all the “come and see” moments, the core of this story really has to do with what Nathaniel asks Jesus.

When did YOU get to know me?”

This is question that comes when Nathaniel is most skeptical, and it is the question that strips him bare and causes him to make his profession of faith.

What Nathaniel wants to know is when Jesus got to know him so well?

Nathaniel, with all his skepticism, all his doubts and foibles, all his bad-mouthing of Jesus’ own home town and grumbling about the world, is caught off guard by this man who seems to know him.

When did Jesus get to know Nathaniel?   Was it not in the midst of all those struggles, doubts, and failings he was voicing?  Feeling?

Isn’t that why Jesus says, “here’s one in which there is no guile.”   Here’s a guy who isn’t afraid to let it be known that he’s not sold on this “found the Messiah” thing at all, that he can’t see what is in it for him, or how it could possibly change his world.

The moment of grace and gospel in this story is not found in Nathaniel getting to know Jesus.   There will be plenty of time for that.

“Getting to know” Jesus doesn’t become a kind of “ramp up” into doing the right thing.

The moment of grace and gospel is found in that Jesus knows Nathaniel… and knowing what Nathaniel is like, still comes out to meet him and wants to keep him in the conversation.

Maybe getting to know Jesus isn’t the point of our lives either.

We’re going to be who we will be, and oh, we’ll revert back to the old, skeptical, cynical self in a heartbeat.

That’s just who we are.

But who we are is known by Jesus, and that makes all the difference!

Our confession of faith is not found ultimately in learning enough, changing enough, getting enough of this “following” stuff right to be comfortable around Jesus.

Our confession is found in realizing that Jesus is comfortable with us, right where we are right now.

That doesn’t mean we might not change, for Jesus also seems to know we will be as a result of being in conversation with him, and with the scriptures.   As we stay in conversation and contact with Jesus, we follow, we grow, we challenge our own assumptions and become convinced that Jesus is the Son of God.   As we continue in relationship and conversation with Jesus in our everyday lives, we are shown greater things, and given opportunity to follow in ways we could not quite imagine from a distance.

When did you get to know Jesus?   We can point to moments, events, things in the past, and those are all good things.

But when we get to know Jesus is more about what we decide to do right now, and in the near future.  We will get to know Jesus in the midst of our ongoing conversations with him, and about him, and in our connection with our neighbor.

That’s what John’s Gospel shows us this day.  That’s the “good news of a Jesus who “tags” us.  A Jesus who chooses to walk with us even when we’re skeptical, and who keeps us open to our neighbors and to living with his ongoing conversation in our world.


We aspire to be a polite society.  It is valued, or at least it was.

I was taught growing up to make sure that I said “Please” and “thank-you” as a common courtesy and an expectation which was rewarded.  Things that are done in a proper and orderly fashion will be rewarded with action.   Withhold common courtesies or manners and the rewards are withdrawn.

“No cookie unless you say ‘please.’”

That’s a part of what is perplexing about society today.   It appears that the rewards system, the orderliness of things is thrown out of kilter.

Course, rough speech is hailed as “speaking your mind” or “telling it like it is.”

Those who acquiesce when caught in an indiscretion are called “weak.”

Lying is heralding now as being “shrewd” or “tough” and is excused because it gets results.

It is disorienting when what is expected is thrown into disarray.

In the church too, we have our strong desire to have things done politely and in good order.   We cite our constitutions, we construct our committees and teams, we defer decisions to proper channels, do things in the proper way…..

We even talk about it in terms of a “fabric” don’t we, this interweaving of politeness and order.

The Fabric of society is such that it should be maintained.

The warp and weave of etiquette, the good order of things done properly, should be upheld at all times.  It is not unlike this fine shirt, lovely design, well crafted.  Infinitely useful because of its very construction, the way it is put together.

Well, all of that goes out the window today.

Because you see, today we are told that when God comes into this world, it is like this….. RIIIIPPPP……(Tear the shirt in half.)

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

This is what pleases God in the baptism of Jesus…things being torn apart and ripped asunder.

The polite and orderly way of doing things that the Pharisees had help to construct, protect and value is cast aside.

There is nothing particularly polite or orderly about the ministry of Jesus as it unfolds.   Jesus spends time where most folks think he should not, with the sinners and tax collectors, He pays little heed to the rules adhered to by the Pharisees, and little regard for Jerusalem and the Temple.

Jesus also does not observe the polite niceties society prefers when it comes to those whom he encounters in his ministry.

He does not turn aside from beggars or the blind, but gets his hands dirty and heals them.

He does not keep a safe distance from the unclean, but allows them to touch him, and reaches out to touch them in return.

Jesus finds a way to make heroes of villains, lifting up the virtues of the Samaritans and Gentiles, and attributing faith to them; while pressing and criticizing the Pharisees, the “good church folk” for their lack of compassion, or their insistence on ritual, or their love of observing rules, pointing out the specks in the eyes of others while ignoring the log in their own eye.

This is what God did in Jesus, and it begins at the Baptism in Mark’s Gospel.  God rips open the fabric of the world.

You and I, we look at this and would begin to make plans of how to repair it, how we might put it back together again, how to make it look like nothing ever happened to it.

But God has done this for a reason.   Heaven has been torn open so that it cannot be mended.  The Spirit that descends upon Jesus will be a restless one, driving Jesus to the wilderness.

The Spirit that descends in the ripping of the heavens blows where it wills.  It is a Spirit that cannot be contained or held back behind the veils any longer.  It will fall and alight upon whoever is open to it, whoever receives it.

Beloved, I want you to see this.

We make God out to be a God who likes orderliness, but then how do we explain this?   How do we understand a God who would choose to violently rip his own creation so that his Spirit can roam free?

And just in case you think I’m a bit off here, look ahead in Mark’s story.

The bookmarks of Jesus’ life are here.  The curtain of heaven is torn when he is baptized.

The curtain of the Temple will be torn from top to bottom when Jesus dies on the cross.

There is violence at both ends of this story of Jesus.  Tearing, rending of the things that are meant to hold back God, or designed to put God in God’s “proper” place… up in heaven, or locked within the Holy of Holies in the Temple.

This is what baptism is about, both Jesus’ baptism and ours.

It is, in a sense, about a violence done to us, an irreparable change.   It is the end of the polite separations we would like to make between God and ourselves.

It pleases God to rip into our world.

It pleases God to see his Son, the beloved, receiving this Spirit that will drive him in life, a restless, relentless Messiah who goes immediately, urgently about his ministry.

So then dare we say that it must also please God to see us receive that same Spirit and to see us driven as Jesus was.

It pleases God to see us driven by the Spirit to serve.

It pleases God to see us driven to question the polite boundaries of society, to reach out to the unclean, and to allow the unclean to touch us.

It pleases God to see us driven by our Baptism to act in unwise and incautious ways in order to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, to drive out the demons of this world, and to heal the sick and mend the brokenhearted.

“You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.”

That is what God says to Jesus when the heavens are ripped open and the Spirit starts to drive him.

Dare we begin to believe that God would have the same to say to us?

What are we to make of a God who does such violence to the beauty of his creation?

Such a nice heavens, an orderly creation, torn to shreds.

Such a nice shirt, infinitely useful as a covering for the body.

What is it good for now?

Well, now, it can be used as rags to clean up the messes we find.

Now it can be used as bindings for the wounded, and support for the weak, the tender, the young plantings that cannot hold themselves up to bear their fruit.

Now what is torn can be fashioned into something new.   Perhaps a piece of a quilt to warm a cold child.

This is why God does violence to the creation in baptism.

God tears away the things that would separate him from us, and declares that WE are more beloved than all of that.

More precious and glorious to God than the wonders of the heavens are you…he’ll rip through them to get to you.

More precious and glorious than the finery of the Temple and all its wonders are you… God will tear those linens from top to bottom to be loose in the world among his people.

It’s time to do some violence.

It’s time to have some ripping done.

The veil, the polite veil of good order and seeing to our own interests first has got to be torn for the Spirit to begin to move freely in our lives and in this world.

Polite society is at an end.   The Kingdom of God is at hand.  Thanks be to God

“A Promise.” Luke 2:1-20

If God wanted to make an impact on people, then he should have picked a better means of coming to them.

Few even noticed this birth.

Angels had to be sent out to the shepherds just a round up an impromptu audience

Luke is adamant in showing that the rich and powerful are fully detached from the events of God coming.

The Emperor is preoccupied with his Tax plan.

The Governor is busy keeping things peaceful in the local province while floods of refugees make their way to their places of birth.

No, God could hardly have chosen a poorer way to come if God really wanted to capture the attention of the masses!

God should have tried something a bit more spectacular, and we know that God could have.   God could be pretty showy back in the day when he wanted to be.  Employing Pillars of Cloud and Fire in the desert to lead Israel out of Egypt.

Burning bushes, floods, earthquakes, the sun standing still in the sky, plagues of various kinds, the parting the sea if needed.

Oh, God has a deep pocket of flash and pizazz when it comes to special effects and shows of power, just ask Pharaoh!

But God had tried all of that before, and with varying degrees of success.

The trouble of flash, pizazz, and special effects is it becomes harder and harder to impress to “top” what you did last time, and we are fickle when it comes to being impressed.

What “new thing” can you show me?

What new feature do you have to entice, or inspire?

So maybe in the birth of a baby God is NOT out to make a flashy impact on this world.   God is not shaking the world up with fiery displays.  Not waltzing in with an outstretched arm and a mighty hand.

Maybe the birth of a baby is meant to do something else.

Maybe God is tapping into what we tend to do when we see a baby, speculate a bit on what this little one will be.

Maybe what God is really doing is keeping a promise.

“To you is born this day in the city of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord.”

The shepherds who heard that phrase would have known.  “The city of David” is the tip off.

On this day a promise is being kept.   A promise spoken to King David so long ago, that God would establish his house and would bring an end to the things that afflict people.

“Neither shall the wicked continue to afflict… I will give you rest from all your enemies.. your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand forever.” 

That was the promise given by God to David long ago.

Tonight, a promise is kept, in the birth of the Christ child, an heir to a throne comes.  Surely as the shepherds gathered they must have thought of that, and they would have done what we all do when we first see a baby.  They would have engaged in a little speculation.

“Just look at his arms, he will be a mighty warrior, a leader, a king for sure!”

“Look at his head.   That is the head of a king!  See how the crown will fit it.  That is a head who will figure out how to deal with these Romans.”

We can guess that the shepherds might have conjectured like that, because that is indeed what many thought the promised child would be.

Everyone expected the heir of David’s throne to be great leader, a king, a warrior… but there is more to this promise born tonight than meets the eye.   More here than even the most far-sighted Shepherd, or relative, could imagine.  For, born tonight is a promise that is more than David ever dreamed of, more than any of the people of Israel ever hoped for.

Born this night in the city of David is the promise that God will come to be with his people in a way that God has never been with us before… intimately.

It is a baby, just a baby.

And, while we might imagine great things in any birth, this one exceeds our wildest imagination of what God will do, and the lengths to which God will go to in order to reach us.

This baby has come to reach all people, a whole world.

This baby has come to do more than just establish an earthly kingdom or rescue an oppressed people.

This baby has come to bring a promise of everlasting life, salvation, and hope for all.  That whoever, whoever; believes in Jesus should not perish, but have eternal life.

And how is it that God chooses to do this?

Not as a military leader.

Not in the garb of the rich or the powerful.

God comes as a baby so that we will do what God has always longed for us to do.

Love him.

God you see, is out to capture our hearts and imaginations this night, in a way that only  a baby can do that.

You see, we will do things for a baby that we won’t do for anyone, or anything else, and God knows that.

We will cradle a baby.

We will stare in wonder at a baby, speculating on what the birth of a baby might mean for us, what they will be when they grow up, what they will see.

We will long to get to know a baby, watch it grow, and look for it in our lives.

We will do silly things for a baby, irrational acts of caring, nurturing, giving of ourselves because their very life depends on us not looking out for our own comforts first.

Babies will make you dive elbow deep into the mess.

Babies will make you rush to protect.

We will love, protect, and make sacrifices for the sake of a baby.

Those are all the things that God has called upon God’s people to do for one another from the very beginning.  But adult hearts grow cold, and ideologies grow rigid, and the “bean counters” remind adults of what they can afford, and of what they ought to keep for themselves, and how it’s not really in one’s own best interest to care about other people so much, or to provide for them.

You don’t want to make people “dependent” after all.

But by coming as a baby, God reminds us how we all enter this world naked, cold and alone, with nothing to call own.

We sometimes think more highly of ourselves and our privilege than we should when we forget that. We close out the neighbor, or shirk the call to love and to serve.

Born this night is a promise that is meant for each of us.

When the water was splashed, and the words were spoken, we were joined to this baby and we are now a part of the fullness of his life, and a part of one another.

Born this night is a promise that when this babe grows to break the bread, and to pour the wine, we will have immediate access to God’s very presence in our own lives.   Connected to God, and Christ, in mystical union that reminds us we are all in this together, this life and the promised Kingdom.

Born this night is a promise.

In the manger there is a God who is so intent on reaching us that God will become as one of us, if for no other reason than through this action God will remind us of our own mortality and humanity.

God becomes frail, shivering, and fragile, dependent upon those whom he comes to save, so that they might be reminded that they were once dependent on others as well.

God is so ready to reach us that God will give up all the trappings of majesty and heavenly glory so that we might do what God has always longed for us to do… to come to him, to cradle him, to wonder at what God will do to us, what God will be for us, and maybe then remember what we are to be for one another.

Beloved, born to you this night is a promise, Christ Jesus our Lord.

Receive him.

Learn from him.

Love him and learn to love from him, one another.

Hold the Christ Child close as you would hold your own child in your own arms.

It is for you that God has come in this way,

It is for you that he waits with the promises of everlasting life, forgiveness, and healing.

It is for you that Christmas has come.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace.

“The Beginning of Love” Mark 1:1-8

I want you to take a moment right now and do a memory exercise with me.  Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and clear your mind.

Take another deep breath, and let it out slowly, and I want you to bring to mind a moment when you knew – were absolutely sure– that you were loved.

Let it sit there for a moment.

Maybe it’s a memory involving a parent.

Maybe it’s a memory of the first flowering of love with that special person, when the emotion of love and acceptance washed over you, or the heart skipped a beat, and you were overwhelmed, bringing the flood of tears, the catch of breath, or the lump in the throat.

Live in that moment… for a moment… and hold on to it.

Now I want you to take another deep breath, slowly let it out, and I want you to bring to mind a very different moment.  This was a moment when you were loved but it didn’t feel like love at first.

Maybe it was a truth about yourself, spoken by someone whom you love and respect, — a word that stung in the moment but that needed to be said, and you knew that it was said in love, though it made your cheeks burn and your eyes sting.

Maybe it was the moment of a quarrel with the beloved, when harsh words were exchanged that made eventually for a breakthrough in your love and understanding of each other, but in the moment of heated exchange truly hurt.

Perhaps your moment of being loved when it didn’t feel like it was love was when the parent lifted you as a misbehaving child and escorted you out of a room to correct your behavior or attitude.

Maybe it was a person berating you for your performance because that person knew that you were capable of so much more, and wanted you to see yourself in that way.

Maybe it was the tender hands of a nurse or loved one changing a bandage after an injury, or work you through therapy after a surgery.  You did not want them to touch the wound, work the joint for the pain it would bring.

They did not want to unbind it, pull the tape, press or stretch or open the wound for the pain they knew they would inflict.

But you both recognized that the actions taken were born of what needed to be done to heal, and was done as caringly as it could be for the sake of healing and future.

Live in that moment, for a moment… hold on to it.

Now hear the beginning of Mark’s Gospel again, and hear it like that second moment.  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness:”

I think the Gospel of Mark is all about the love of God that does not always feel like love at first.

There is a lot of truth telling in Mark’s Gospel.  John appears proclaiming a baptism for repentance, which of course implies that you’re going to be doing some soul searching.  You don’t do repentance without first considering all the things you’ve done wrong, all the screw-ups you’ve made, all the things that are amiss in this world of which you have been a part.

Those things will get drowned out in the waters of repentance, but they don’t die easy.

It takes a truth-teller, a lonely voice crying in the wilderness to bring you to the waters.  You don’t just make your own way to the river, you come at the cry of the one who is like Elijah, who does not come to stroke your ego and tell you what a wonderful person you are, but is much more like that parent who scoops your misbehaving butt up in his arms to whisk you away for consideration of what you’ve done.

And the way that John prepares?

Well John is preparing the way for Jesus, not for you.

No one is clearing any pathways to make your life easier.

John is clearing the path for God to get to you!

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his path straight.   John’s work is clearing the way for God to get to you.  There will be no pew to duck under, no hill to hide behind, no obstructions to slow God down as he comes to grab you.

That can be perceived as comforting.   At last to be safe in the arms of God!

Or, if can be disconcerting if you’ve spent your life trying to stay just one step ahead and a little out of reach of God’s grasp.

Take your pick, it’s love that is coming for you, but what kind of love?

Is it the love that makes for the lump in the throat and the heart welling in the chest, or is it the kind of love that stings in the eye and reddens the cheek, for both are possible here!

Both are,(in fact) needed.

You cannot have love without the telling of truth.

You cannot experience love without unbridled acceptance of where you are right now.

Mark’s gospel ends up full of stories about how when love comes near and does what love does, the reactions are varied.

Love as it comes near brings joy, but it also drives out demons.

Love in Mark’s gospel will lead some to be saddened, some to be disappointed, others to be ecstatic and still others left to wonder what it was that just happened to them.

That’s the way love works.

On our best days, we see love clearly.

But most days, well it’s only the beginning of love that we behold.  The start of something that continues to unfold, and love (like a highway for our God) both leads us somewhere, and brings something to us that we had not anticipated or expected.

This week in Advent we look for love.

We hear the beginning of the Good news that comes from preparing for the Son of God.

We live in moments.

Moments of repentance.

Moments of realizing that this is all about God, and not so much about us.

Moments where we find ourselves simply passive bystanders to the activity of God in our midst.

And other moments, where we are all too keenly aware that God has come near.   One more powerful that John with his promises has spoken to us, and to our hearts.

One who wields the Holy Spirit, and who drenches us with it has come near.

Sometimes that love, and the drenching of the Holy Spirit upon us comes as a warm affirming presence.

And at other times, it is like a shock of cold water to us.  A chastening urge that expects more of us, wakes us up, and demands of us because of who we are and whose we are.

So, how are you feeling the love this Advent?

God is coming for you, and the way has been cleared.   Are you ready for a new beginning, for that is what love always brings?

“God Is Near” Mark 13:24-37

It may well be that you will hear this Gospel lesson a little differently this Advent.  Perhaps, I dare say, more as those first century Christians might have heard it.

Why do I say that?

Because most scholars agree that when Mark penned this Gospel and particularly this chapter where Jesus seems to talk right at us in the first person, he was writing into the face of the world as he knew it coming apart at the seams.

It is widely understood that this little apocalypse is penned right after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D., prompted by a Judea insurrection and revolt against the Empire.   The city is placed under siege.  Food is scarce. Insurrectionists are rounded up and crucified, at the rate of 500 per day Josephus recounts, so that the Legions ran out of wood to build crosses.

The Temple rebuilt by Herod the Great was constructed of massive, Herodian construction stones, each weighing from several to hundreds of tons.  You still see the immensity of scale on the remaining Western Wall or “Wailing Wall” where Jews go to pray to this day.   Stones so massive and well carved that it was all but impossible to put a knife blade in the seam.  In all, the message meant to convey by Herod in the building of the Temple was “this one will stand forever.”

The Temple is burned and then dismantled stone by stone until it stands in ruins.

The world is coming undone.

It was Judea’s Pearl Harbor, it’s Dunkirk, or its 9/11.  Watching something fall that you thought would be there forever.

As the Temple falls, so also goes the economy and the social welfare structure.  There is no place for the poor, the widow, the orphan to go for relief.

The destruction of Jerusalem is the collapse of all social structures, all means of commerce, all means of welfare, health care and the vaunted “Pax Romana,” the promise that society would continue to operate as normal made by the Roman Empire is replaced with war, siege, and the end of all local governance.

The world is unravelling before the author’s eyes.

So, this Advent, as we watch our own “world unraveling” we might hear this lesson differently.

We are watching the careening of tax plans, the indictments of high officials, the unraveling of state and national government agencies, the reversal of policies, the saber rattling of nuclear nations, and the uncertainty of who to trust anymore for a variety of reasons.

The world as we know it feels like it is coming undone around us.

It’s perhaps small comfort to realize that what we experience is not nearly as bad as what Mark’s audience lived through, but still there are parallels.

Some seem to delight in the deconstruction and unraveling of things.

Still others are made anxious and fearful.

When we hear biblical texts talk about impending doom, darkening skies, falling stars, rolling clouds approaching, and the shaking of powers.  We might therefore be filled with the same kind of anxiety as Mark’s audience.

What’s next, we wonder?

We live in that kind of a world of dread these days, where you’re not sure what next shoe will drop, or what new allegation or threat to the world as you know it, expect it to always be, will pop over the horizon.

It’s important therefore that we hear what it is that Mark asserts in the face of an unraveling world; for it is not what we might assume from other apocalyptic visions.

Normally the words of warning in Apocalyptic would be followed by the great and terrible things that will happen and how the world will be sorted out in the end.   There would be accounts of who would be judged, and who would be saved, and who would thrown into the outer darkness.  We just heard such predictions from Matthew’s Gospel.   Sheep and goats and all of that.

But for Mark, these darkening skies, falling stars, rolling clouds and shaken powers signal something else.

Not more doom and disaster, but rather visions of hope.

“He is near!”   Mark confidently asserts to the visions of an unraveling world.

How can that be?

You might be forgiven if you don’t know how that works, or maybe better, if you don’t remember how that works, for we all have a bit of a selective memory when it comes to experiencing adversity and uncertainty.

We remember that as a difficult time.

We remember the details of how awful it was, much as I list off the events of the Jerusalem revolt.

While you are in the midst of trouble and difficulty, it is terribly hard to see any way out, any hope of return to normalcy.

If, however, you search your memory of the tough times, the really tough times you have lived through, you might begin to recall something else.

You might begin to recall how it is you made it through.

I remember with stark clarity the stories my grandparents told about the 30’s, about the uncertainty, the people who walked away from their farms, the lack of food, the failure of crops and dust storms.

But I also remember the stories of how they found God to be present.  “We didn’t have much but we always had something… enough.”

It takes a little more work, and maybe a little more encouragement.

It might also take an outside witness.   For, while you are in the midst of the awful experience, it might not be possible for you to see any glimmer of hope at all, not until someone points it out to you.

That’s what Mark does here.

Just when it looks like the last string of the world is about to unravel, “then you will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds.”    Jesus confidently promises.

Just when it looks like all is lost, then Jesus in Mark looks at us directly and asserts that you will see that the Son of Man comes not to mete out punishment, dread and judgment, but rather to “gather the elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth.”

From the Fig Tree that Jesus cursed back in chapter 11, that looked like it was finished; “look for the tender new growth…and know that summer is approaching.”

“He is near!”

When is Jesus near?   Well, watch for him in the evening, midnight, cock-crow and dawn…. All those hours of the Crucifixion that will read about in Mark 15.  The very times when we might expect Jesus to be farthest from his disciples, that is when he is actually nearest!

How can that be?

Well, I’m not exactly sure how it works, except to say that is exactly how it works.

Looking back over my life, I recognize that my prayer life was never better than when I was deeply worried or experiencing significant hardship.  When the diagnosis came, when the treatment was being endured, when the call was ending, when the conflict was at its most intense…that was when I prayed best.

I needed God to be near then.   I could not feel God’s presence, and so I sought it out, and discovered that he was near!

That’s not to say that I would recommend getting neck deep in trouble or hardship as a prayer discipline to enhance your ability to pray and trust, I’m just telling you that’s how it works.  When I thought God was most distant, that’s when God was nearest!

My Stewardship is never better than when I have made a decision to give even when it didn’t seem like I couldn’t afford to.    There was something about deciding to give that re-organized all my other priorities, and the way I viewed and used all my resources.  When I made the decision to give, I discovered that I had more than enough.  God was near!

I’m not saying that if you give, God is going to shower blessings upon you in some “quid-pro-quo” prosperity Gospel fashion.

I’m just telling you that though I felt I had little to give, or that giving was a significant sacrifice, it nevertheless gave me greater joy and I discovered God was near.  God was found in the daily decisions of what I could and should spend on myself as opposed to on helping others.

My bible reading is never better than when I am struggling to understand a particularly vexing passage.   When I am beating my head against the words, that’s when God seems closest to me, struggling with me, present with me in a way that makes me question, and ask, and inquire and to listen anew.

There is, in other words, something about adversity that lends opportunity for God to be near in a way that we do not experience God’s presence if life is always rosy.   It is at that express moment when it feels like the world is unraveling that you therefore must be most vigilant and awake and open to the signs of God coming near, to the sign of new life, to the gathering from the furthest reaches, to the entrusting of things to you with the promise to return.

That is the promise that exceeds all others.

Stones will topple, but that does not stop the Son of Man from coming near.

Systems will fly apart, but that does not keep God from gathering the elect from the four winds and the far reaches.

It may seem as though God has left the building, but the promise of return is most acutely felt.

Keep awake, keep alert to the moment and see what God is about to do.

Sometimes it takes darkening skies, falling stars, rolling clouds approaching, and shaking powers to get our eyes off ourselves long enough to look in hope for what God may be doing, in our very midst.

You might hear these Advent Gospels differently, because your world may indeed be unraveling in so many ways.

But, dear ones, do not hear them for warnings of awful things yet to come.

Hear them for the promise they bear witness to, that “He is near, at the very gate!”

Be awake to God’s presence.

See what God is up to, and look for the signs of hope in the midst of the unraveling, for God is surely near.

“Entrusted by Name” Matthew 25:14-30

We are in the second week of our look at Matthew 25, that chapter that deals with the fancy word “Eschatology” or looking at the end, judgment, the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Last week we took a look at the parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids, and the matter of oil, and being ready for the arrival of the Bridegroom.  If there was a take-away, it was that the Bridegroom will come and there will be enough light to recognize him, so maybe don’t obsess so much over your own oil, what you have in your own hands or on hand, or go chasing after things for yourself that make you miss the Bridegroom’s arrival.

Preparation is about being ready to welcome the arrival of the Bridegroom, not getting your own affairs in order.

This week the focus shifts from preparation to opportunity, or more specifically, what you do with an opportunity when it is handed to you.

When we go to Confirmation Camp in Nebraska, as you drive on to the camp property you are greeted with a sign that says, “Welcome to Nebraska Outdoor Ministries, Camp Carol Joy Holling.”

It’s an unusual camp name.  Most Lutheran camps are variations of “Luther” or named for the place they are located.  But the story of Carol Joy Holling Camp is a story about opportunity, and recognizing it.

Carol Joy Holling was the daughter of George and Irene Holling.  She had been tragically killed in an automobile accident on her way to college way back in 1954.

As George retired from farming in 1974, the family approached the Bishop at the time with a proposal.  They would gift the 320 acre home place to the larger church with the stipulation that within 5 years there would be youth camping taking place on the site in the name of their daughter.

There were no start-up funds for any programming or staffing.  That the Lutheran Church in America would have to provide.

In 1979, the first camp session was held, operating out of the existing farm house for a kitchen and gathering space and using platform tents for the campers to stay in.   356 children took part in the program that first year.

By 2016, the overarching entity called “Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministries” now served 1500 youth annually in one of its 5 program areas on the original gifted site at Carol Joy Holling.   This is in addition to the 16,000 people who will use the camp program sites off-season for retreats and conferences, and the over 300 people with special needs and disabilities that will be served in the various programs to make camping possible for people with special needs.

What was a gift of 320 acres and no money for start-up, is now a ministry with assets of  8.6 million dollars serving both the church and the larger community.

It is the story of an opportunity seized.

When you look at the parable of the Talents, the theme that runs through it all is one of recognizing and responding to opportunity when it presents itself.

Each of the servants/slaves are given a gift in measure of their ability.

Two realize the opportunity.  They seize it.   Given something they could not have dreamed would ever be theirs as mere servants or slaves, (the chance to better their position and standing in life,) they seize upon it.

One however, is afraid.

Afraid of the Master, or what he thinks the Master is like.

Afraid of taking a risk, he resorts to what would have been the established minimum of the day.  He buries what is given to him, returning it intact to the Master when it is asked for.  That’s all you can expect out of life really, (the third servant figures,) the lot you already have.

His is a story of an opportunity lost.

We get sidetracked in this parable by all the details of amounts, or trying to figure out what the third servant did “wrong.”  He didn’t do anything wrong according to the laws of the day.   Burial of funds was an acceptable way of storing treasure before banks and FDIC insurance.  Returning what legitimately belonged to the Master seemed prudent, especially if you’re worried about disappointing a “harsh man.”

In a way, all three servants get the Master that they deserve and expect here.   The two who seized their opportunity find a Master who rejoices with them.

The one who was afraid of risking, expecting harsh treatment, got just that.

So, as one interprets this parable and what it means for us today, one “tact” to take would be to focus on the matter of lost opportunities, or what causes us to miss them.

If the church had been cautious in 1974, or said, “we can’t raise or commit the start-up funds,” or didn’t risk hiring a camp director for no program to try I for a year, there would be no Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministries.  No camp Carol Joy Holling Camp for youth or adults, no lives affected.

How much risk are we willing to take?  What are the opportunities placed before us?

Can we recognize them, seize upon them?

And that might indeed be fruitful conversation in this day and age where opportunities are hard to recognize, and where risk seems all too real.

But I’d like to draw your attention instead to the nature and character of the Master in the parable, and what this Master knows about his servants.

The Master “entrusts” what he has to his servants, and he does so we are told, “to each according to their ability.”

I want you to let that soak in for a moment.

This is not a picture of a distant or untrustworthy master but rather one who has unique insight into those who have been serving him, and has developed a level of trust that begets trust.

What does it mean that you have been entrusted with something that you have been given according to your ability?   It means someone sees something in you.  You are capable of doing this, whatever “this” is.  Whatever has been placed upon you, entrusted to you.

You probably have a general feeling about what it is that you have been entrusted with.

It’s different for all of us, for all of us have different abilities, different “callings” if you will in this world.  The great temptation is to think that we’re not really up to it, whatever this “calling” is that we feel.   Whatever seems to have been entrusted to us.

The world is changing, too fast for many of us, and we can’t keep up.  Occupations, workplaces, procedures, institutions, the list is long of what we feel inadequate to handle anymore.

Is it time to chuck it all?   Bury it?  Call what we’ve done already “good enough?”

Would God really blame us?  Surely if anyone knows how hard it is these days to keep up, live up to the demands placed upon us and the expectations of others it is God, our Lord and Master.

I can confess that understand the desire to bury the talent. It is safe, and simpler, and what you do if you’re afraid.

But God as it turns out is an “entruster.”   God entrusts those who follow with the work laid before them and gives ability in measure to meet it.

God gives in measure of what God believes our abilities to be, which is really good news because that means that God does not give indiscriminately.

God gives in measure to what you are capable of doing, and then trusts that you will do it.

The question before me, before us all is is “Do we understand that we have been so entrusted?   Will we do what God knows and believes we are quite capable of doing?”

That, dear people of God, is the question we face daily.

We face it as parents and grandparents and students.

We face it as teachers and workers and as those who have retired.

Some face it with the ability just to get up and get moving in the morning, that is challenge enough.

Others face it in the routine of the day, the in and out of things that never look like they are changing that much, but often changing too rapidly for us to keep up in subtle ways.

We face it in the “business as usual” for politics which does not seem to change and yet effects and inflicts changes upon us with every new appointment, proposal and tweet.

So much in this world makes us want us to grab our shovel, dig a hole, bury what we’ve got to try to hold on to it, or dig a hole and bury our head in it to let it all pass by.

Would God really blame us for just trying to maintain “status quo” in our lives, in the church, in our relationships and our callings?

The parable answers that question.   To bury the talent is to take the view of God as someone who does not know us, or is harsh at least.

To bury what we have been entrusted with, to not do it, would be to get the God we deserve.  A God who deserts and abandons, takes away what little we think we have and casts us out, for that is what we expect in return for squandering our opportunities.

I told the Carol Joy Holling story earlier, about the gift of 320 acres to start a youth camp, but I’ll bet most of you focused on the wrong parts of that story.

I’ll bet you focused on the 320 acres, and what a gift that land was.

I’ll bet you also were impressed with the numbers, – the campers served, the number of program sites now, the people whose lives have been impacted.

I’ll bet very few of you keyed in on what should be considered is the most precious thing with which the Hollings entrusted to the church.

They entrusted their daughter’s name to his venture.   Carol Joy Holling.

If they had just made a gift of a farm, well that might have been accepted or declined.

If all that was at stake was some vague vision of wanting youth camping, that might have been worth pursing but whether it succeeds or fails, well that’s just a matter of program decisions of finding the funding.

But what George and Irene entrusted to the church was a name.  Make youth camping happen in our daughter’s name within five years.

By entrusting the church with a name, much more was at stake than just a piece of land or an idea.

So maybe as we hear this parable, what we need to do is insert our name into this insistence of being entrusted and capable.

That’s what happens in Baptism, after all, we are named children of God.  A name is attached to letting our light shine.  A responsibility is given to us by name to do good works that we are told will glorify God, the Master.

God thinks you are up to it even before you can do anything for yourself.

That is how trusted you are with this Kingdom business.  God entrusts it to you, and to me, and rejoices when we do whatever measure of it we can, because that is what we are capable of doing.     You are entrusted, have you ever felt that?