Palm Sunday – The One

Matthew 21:1-11 (NRSV)

21 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd[b] spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

My mom gives Enoch and Evy all kinds of Christian books.  They have many “my first Bibles,” pre-school Bibles, and “big kids” Bibles.  We actually have two copies of My Very First Easter Story. 

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Oh, though it’s only 2 pages, Enoch and Evy filled in the details.  Evy said it was all about friendship.  Enoch said that it was a horse (some versions say this).  Evy said they had laid the palm branches and cloaks down because they didn’t want Jesus to walk in the mud.

You see, all of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) have this story.  They included different details but the same overarching story.

I have chosen to stick with the Palm Sunday text.  You see the lectionary texts for today give us the options of choosing the Palm text and the Passion text.  I normally do some mixture of the two, however, I wanted to be intentional about sticking to the text and journeying through this week with Jesus.

The hesitancy of pastors is that if people only attend on Sundays, you get the celebration of Palm Sunday back to back with the Alleluias of Easter.  High point.  Even higher point.

You miss why in just 5 days the same people that shouted “Hosanna” and waved palm branches, shouted “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  You miss Jesus ticking off the Pharisees in the temple when he turned over the tables and called them a brood of vipers.  You miss them plotting to kill him.  You miss Jesus’ teaching the disciples you have to be last to be first as they witnessed him washing their and their friends’ feet.  Their Rabbi that they had followed for three years, getting all of his radical dust on them, as he continually flipped the script.  Doing what is always least expected.  Who else would have people waving palm branches praising him and wanting to kill him less than a week later?

He was the One they had waited for.  He was the One whom the prophets foretold.  He is the One Herod was so afraid of that he slaughtered all of those innocent children.  He was the One who preached in his hometown and they said, “Who is this kid?  Is he Joseph’s boy?”  He was the One who called Peter, James and John just a bunch of fishermen and said they were the best of the best of the best as he asked them to be his disciples.  He was the One who cast out demons, healed the paralytic and the hemorrhaging woman, called Lazarus forth FROM THE GRAVE.  He was the One even the wind and the waves obeyed.  He was the One.  Not just Neo from the Matrix or Frodo from the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, but THE ONE.  And the people were PUMPED until … they realized he wasn’t a political or military conqueror.  He was not going to ride in on a float and wave and provide good sound bites.  He was not going to incite a revolt among people groups.  He was not going to be boxed in to a certain tradition.  He was not going to maintain the status quo or social norms.  He came to flip the script.  He came to set ALL people free.  He came to set us free from BOTH sin and death.  He came to set us free from all of the burdens and shackles of this world.

I spent the week talking to Donal Hook about salvation.  He was recounting what Harry said two weeks ago about Jesus wiping the slate clean and I said that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love and we’re all worthy, enough, and chosen.  He said he was like the man saying, “Help my unbelief!” I appreciated his honesty as I relate to the man and the words as well! Remember the story.  It’s immediately after the transfiguration and the disciples are in a tizzy.  In Mark 9:19-24 he says to the disciples, “19 “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.”  24 Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” I believe; help my unbelief.  We had many discussions over the past week and a half.  Most of the time it boiled down to me saying, that’s what’s so amazing about grace!  We have faith that God’s grace is real and ever abundant to cover anything we throw at God. I brought up singing “Amazing Grace” on Sunday night when I visited him, but I was too embarrassed to sing in front of his family, some of whom I had just met, with my off-key voice, but  I ended up singing it on Tuesday with his son Michael and Michael’s wife Marlene and that became our theme song over the last couple of days.  That and Psalm 23.  I frequently have Psalm 23 rolling around in my head as I pray.  It epitomizes to me the fullness of life.  God making us lie down in green pastures, anointing our heads with oil, and as I said to Donal and praying with he and his family, Jesus is the One who walks with us even through the darkest valley of the shadow of death.  Don joined the great cloud of witnesses yesterday and he is at peace and at rest.

You skip right over that lonesome and dark valley when you go from the triumphant entry of Palm Sunday to the glory of Easter and Resurrection.  You don’t get the dark days in between of doubt, fear, frustration, anger.  You don’t get the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus asking God to take this cup from him.  You don’t see, hear, or feel his pain as he’s betrayed, denied, beaten, stripped, crucified.  You don’t get the agony and anguish or the simple humanity of it all, the muck and mire.  He was the Human One.  Not a super hero that could leap over buildings.  He took on the form of a baby, both fully divine and fully human.  He felt everything we feel and even when he was on that cross he was thinking of us as he says, “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.

If you don’t journey towards the cross, you miss out on the struggle and the deep pain of what it means to have an Emmanuel – God with us – even on the darkest night of our souls.  To have a savior who suffers right along with us.  Who knows the full extent of our pain and then some…

I encourage you to read the stories this week and meditate on them.  I encourage you to walk this journey towards the cross.  On Thursday we’ll gather here with Isle of Palms UMC for a joint Maundy Thursday service where we’ll celebrate Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.  On Friday we’ll have our Good Friday Tenebrae service.  If you’ve never been to a Tenebrae service, I encourage you to do so.  The word “tenebrae” comes from the Latin meaning “darkness.” The Tenebrae is an ancient Christian Good Friday service that makes use of gradually diminishing light through the extinguishing of candles as scriptures are read of that encompass the entire fullness of Holy Week.  This increasing darkness symbolizes the approaching darkness of Jesus’ death and of the hopelessness in the world without God. The service concludes in darkness and worshipers then leave in silence to ponder the impact of Christ’s death and await the coming Resurrection.  As Bob Goff, author of Love Does says, “Darkness fell.   His friends scattered.  All hope seemed lost.  But heaven just started counting to three.”

I invite us to count to three together as a faith community as One body.  We rejoice with one another.  We weep with one another.  We share in the mountaintops and the darkest of the darkest valleys and that is why it’s so special to have shared in this Holy meal together these past Sundays of Lent.  We have gathered bread, sustenance, strength to face together whatever life throws at us.   When we feel like giving up, when we need a helping hand or an encouraging word, we are there for one another with Jesus ever in our midst.  We live, move and breathe in Christ, our Rabbi, our One with us.  The One who calls each of us worthy, enough, beloved by God.  The One we celebrate when we celebrate this Holy Sacrament of Communion….

God works wonders from dust…

Today is Ash Wednesday.   It is the beginning of Lent and the day in the church calendar that we are called upon to face our own mortality.   I am confessing a secret that I actually don’t hate Lent.  Because in this crazy, busy culture we need 40 days to contemplate, pray, and fast and this is the day that kicks it all off.  It is in Ash Wednesday that we are called upon to face the deep truth that as mortals we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Mary Oliver says about this life “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  Even though we talk about calling and gifts and graces and God guiding and leading us through life, Ash Wednesday is reminding us that we are dust and to dust we return.

It can be scary, a little refreshing.   Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran priest shares the image she has about Ash Wednesday, “If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and us not knowing what the distance is between the two, well then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and then held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. With these ashes, it is as though the water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the future to meet us here today. And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God. Promises which outlast our piety, outlast our efforts in self-improvement, outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time.”  We live in a culture that tells us if we work hard enough, have enough money, buy enough skin care products, eat healthy enough, or exercise with enough vigor, we might just live forever.  And yet, we know that is not true.  So today, we proclaim the truth that we shall return to the dust over which God first breathed life.

And I, at least, breathe a sigh of relief.   Because admitting and facing my own mortality, allows me to admit that God is God and I am not (and we should all be very thankful for that).  It allows me to lay down my attempts to manage my own human brokenness, and step into the deep and holy mystery that is the Christian life.   Having confessed my sins, and admitted my own mortality, it allows me to live freely this incredible, mortal life that is my reality right now.  It allows me to take chances, take leaps of faith, with every breath that I have in my body.

But perhaps more than that, it helps me to let go of my fear.  Because Ash Wednesday reminds us that in spite of it all, death does not have the last word.   While we and others have the power to destroy our mortal flesh, God has destroyed death.

The beauty of Ash Wednesday is that it cuts through the crud, the non-essentials.  It gets to the heart of the very core of everything.  It reminds us of God’s infinite promises to us.  It reminds us there is beauty in our brokenness, and freedom that we don’t have to live up to some earthly falsehood of perfection.

Ann Voskamp says this about Lent, “I can’t seem to follow through in giving up for Lent. Which makes me want to just give up Lent.  Which makes me question Who I am following.  Which may precisely be the point of Lent.”

Whether you’re adding something or taking something away, whether you commit to have some quiet in your life and spend twenty minutes in day in silence, whether you write down things that you are thankful for, or fast one day a week.   Randy Wells reminded me before the service that I have to talk about the “feast” days on Sundays that you can choose to follow your Lenten discipline or not because every Sunday is supposed to be a Resurrection Sunday or mini-Easter.  He then pointed out, we shouldn’t take that as an invitation to cram all of the other days vices into that one day!

Jo Ann Staebler in her book “Soul Fast,” says, “In the deep stillness of prayer my soul fasts.  Fasting, at its heart, is turning away from what keeps me from God.  Two things I must leave:  the walls I build around the space that was made to be God’s dwelling; the absurdities I keep in that space, so jealously hoarded.  Taking down the wall that protects the false self I have been building, all these years…risking exposure, emptiness, loneliness.  The fast is silence, ocean-deep and prolonged.  Shard by shard, the wall begins to fall.  Inch by inch, the space clears, and Love lights the shadows.  I come unprotected, and learn that God alone is safety.  I come unaccompanied, and find that Christ alone is Friend.  I come hungry, and receive the only food that satisfies.  In letting go is abundance.  In emptying I am filled.  This is not denial, but freedom.  Fast is feast.”

Maybe we should fast from the 24 hours new cycle.  Maybe we should fast from television.  Maybe we should fast from social media.  Maybe we should fast from the electronics that get in the way of us talking to our friends and family, like they are attached to our bodies or something.  It doesn’t matter to me what you do, I just want you to be intentional in this Lenten ritual.  As most things in life, what you put into it, is what you’ll get out of it.  It’s only a tool, a ritual, to draw us closer to Jesus.

Hear these powerful words from the artist and poet, Jan Richardson, in her poem “Blessing the Dust.”

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

God can work wonders from dust.  God made you in your mother’s womb.  Psalm 8:3-4 says, “When I look up at your skies, at what your fingers made — the moon and the stars that you set firmly in place — what are human beings that you think about them . . . that you pay attention to them?”

I’ve heard Hawk Nelson’s “Diamonds” on the radio and can’t help but relate it to Ash Wednesday every time it comes on.  Here are the lyrics:

Here and now I’m in the fire, in above my head
Being held under the pressure, don’t know what will be left
But it’s here in the ashes
I’m finding treasure

He’s making diamonds
Making diamonds
He’s making diamonds out of dust
He is refining
And in his timing
He’s making diamonds out of us

I’ll surrender to the power of being crushed by love
‘Til the beauty that was hidden isn’t covered up
It’s not what I hoped for
It’s something much better

Oh The Joy of the Lord
It will be my strength
When the pressure is on
He’s making Diamonds

I won’t be afraid to shine

May we never be afraid to shine.  God can do mighty things through us.  Our Rabbi Jesus can lead us to do some crazy, awesome things as we follow his teachings, example, and have his dust all over us.  The Holy Spirit can fan the fire to make diamonds out of dust.  So, shout it from the roof tops, sing it in your heart, whisper it quietly to yourself, but tell that truth.  That you were formed from dust and to dust you will return.  Then, breathe a sigh of relief and be free.  Because it’s not all about you.  It’s about what God does in us.  As I will say when I put the ashes on your forehead, God can work wonders out of dust.  Thanks be to God indeed.

Something is Different about this Rabbi

Matthew 4:12-23

12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

 

Did you notice how Matthew made reference to the prophet Isaiah?  Matthew’s gospel in particular is geared towards a Jewish audience.  The other gospel authors don’t reference the prophet Isaiah in this passage, but Matthew wants to create a compelling case for his people that this man, Jesus, is whom the prophets foretold.  This is the person we have waited for.  In verse 16, “16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  People in darkness crave the light with an unquenchable thirst and he’s letting the world know that the Light has come – by his use of prophets and stories and parables and miracles.  He’s making a case that Jesus is the Messiah.

People sometimes wonder why God chose to come to earth when Jesus did. Do you ever wonder what was special about that time and that place? Was it a dark time in history?  Did they have massive amounts of turmoil in all the world?  What was so special about first-century Palestine that made for the perfect time for the in-breaking of the Light of the world? There are all sorts of great answers in hindsight. For one, the world was primed for the spread of the Gospel. The Greek and then Roman Empires had built an infrastructure that spread across continents. There were established roads and trade routes and seafaring technology, common languages and schools, military protection and the rule of law. These Empires persecuted the Church, yes, but the Church was also able to kind of harness the systems in place to spread the Good News guerrilla-style.

There are lots of other interesting facts in the first century that made it a prime time for Jesus’ ministry, but the one that particularly interests us today, and for the next several weeks of our series together, is something that was a central piece in the Jewish culture. I’m talking about the role or the office of the rabbi. The Rabbi. Now, up front, I want you to know that this isn’t a focus and function sermon.  What is the text saying and what does that call us to do as Christians? Rather, it’s about following a sort of trail that will lead us into our “At the Feet of the Rabbi” sermon series. Not a rabbit trail, but a rabbi trail. HA! No, but seriously, if this is the main role that Jesus lived out of in his culture, it can tell us much about what he was doing, teaching, and living and what it means to actually follow him.

To unpack this, we start our trail in the childhood of the average Jewish kid in Jesus’ day. For the ancient Jews, much like us, a person’s introduction to God and faith started as early as possible. Not only that, but the Jews believed that teaching their kids the Word of God was their first priority in life. They believed that you had to really embed Scripture deep in the bones of the next generation, because if you didn’t, you were only a generation away from being extinct as a people. For example, Dr. Thomas Thangaraj was one of my favorite professors at Candler.  He helped shape immensely the inter-religious ministry I took part in during my Contextual Education with Religious Life at Emory.  He is a 7th generation Indian Christian from Nazareth, India.  The disciple Thomas of Doubting Thomas fame was said to have visited all over the coast of India and he comes from a town that was discipled by the Apostle Thomas.  He did most of his work on training Christians to talk with people of other faiths, specifically Hindu, and he wrote The Crucified Guru.  He shared this personal story during one of our class times, as he studied Hindu more and more, his father urged him, begged him not “to mess this up” because their family had been Christians for 7 generations.  How much more so, would it have been for God’s chosen people, Israel?  This wasn’t overblown anxiety, it was real. It was their heritage.  Where they came from.  Remember, Israel’s history was one of persecution, battle, exile and enslavement.  They were in a continuous spin cycle all throughout the Old Testament where they disobeyed God’s laws, God sent them a prophet, they didn’t listen, and they were conquered, exiled, and nearly wiped out completely. It was the real deal for them, saying “Our children HAVE to KNOW who our people are, and who God is, and what God commands.” The children of Israel needed to know their rich culture, deep heritage, the oral history of their past, present and future story.

So, they started early. One teacher gave this advice:  “Under the age of six we do not receive a child as a pupil; from six upwards accept him and stuff him (with Torah) like an ox.” Ha. Awesome, right? This was taken very seriously. There were three phases of education for Jewish kids, and the first one, kind of like elementary school, was called Bet Sefer. Repeat after me: Bet Sefer. It means “House of the Book” and in Bet Sefer, kids ages 6-10 were tasked to learn the Torah, the first five books of our Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy. And when I say learned, I mean really they had to memorize it. All of it.  If we had to memorize the begats or all of the laws in Leviticus, could we? Could our kids hack it?  Well, as Rob Bell said in his NOOMA video, it’s not that we don’t have the mental capacity for this anymore – how many of you know every single word to the albums you played over and over in high school? How many of you can recite every line from your favorite movies?  Mike and I were stunned when we heard the song “Peaches” that I knew all the words.  I don’t know which brother had the tape, but I remember it was an orange tape and we listened to it over Christmas when we were trying to create a hangout place in the shed in our back yard.  What a ridiculous song to know.  So we have the capacity, it’s a determination of what’s important to us and if we want to do it.

Just to instill how important God’s Word was, in that first phase of education, even on the first day of class, the Rabbi would take honey and cover the slate or desk of the students. Now, honey was incredibly exotic and valuable and seen as the most pleasurable thing to eat, like Turkish Delight in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  After covering everything the Rabbi would say, “Now, lick it all off.” And as they went to town licking it all off, he would say, “May the words of Scripture be like this to you” – exotic and valuable and pleasurable.  Words that you treasure.   Powerful, right?  That was Bet Sefer.

Now, the second phase of education was even tougher. This was like middle school, and it was rarer for kids to make it this far. Only those who passed Bet Sefer advanced to Bet Talmud, which means “House of Learning.” It was for kids 10-14. In Bet Talmud, the students were tasked with memorizing all the rest of the Hebrew scriptures, through Malachi. Not only that, but they started to really dig into the text and use the art of question and answer. For instance, our Western style of education says, “here’s the exam, spit out the info.” The test says, “2+2=___.” But the Rabbi’s method was to ask something like, “What is 2+2?” and he expected to be answered by a question, “Well, what is 16 divided by 4?” Tricky, right? They were creating this working knowledge. One of the scriptures my mom made us memorize as kids was Luke 2:52, “Jesus grew in wisdom and knowledge, and in favor of God and man.”  Remember Jesus at the age 12 was in the temple, is there among the wise men, and we get the sense that this is what was happening. Bet Talmud.

Finally, for those who passed middle school, there came phase three, like high school and an Ivy League college combined. It was called Bet Midrash, meaning “House of Study.” These kids were the best of the best of the best. At age 13 or 14, they would apply and hope to be invited by a Rabbi to go into apprenticeship.

Late one evening, a rabbi is sitting out with his students, watching the stars appear in the heavens one by one. “Tell me this,” asks the teacher: “how can we know when the night is ended and the day has begun?”

One eager young man jumps right in. “You know the night is over and the day has begun when you look off across the pasture and can tell which animal is a dog and which is a sheep.”

The teacher says nothing, gazing off into the distance.

“Is this the right answer?” the young man asks, after a time.

“It is a good answer, but not the answer I am looking for,” replies the teacher.

“Let me try,” says another student. “You know the night is over and the day has begun when the light falls on the leaves, and you can tell if it is a palm tree or a fig tree you’re looking at.”

“That too is a fine answer, but not the one I am looking for.”

“Then, what is the right answer?” demand the students. “Rebbe, answer your own question!”

The teacher looks out over the eager young crowd of disciples and replies, “When you look into the eyes of a human being and see a brother or sister, you know that it is morning. If you cannot see a sister or brother, you know that it will always be night.”

In this phase, it wasn’t just about knowing Scripture. Your Rabbi would teach you everything he knew. Everything he had learned from his Rabbi. Everything he knew about other Rabbi teachings. As well as, his own unique interpretation of it all. This special kind of course of study was known as the Rabbi’s “yoke.” The Rabbi hoped to have a strong school of apprentices, because one day when the Rabbi was no more, he wanted to be sure the yoke was passed on. Some yokes were about perfectionism and rigid rule-following. Others were about pride and being well-known. Some Rabbis were incredibly selective because they wanted their yoke to be the most rare and unattainable. Others were interested in having the biggest following. Whatever the case, this was like making the NBA or NFL for Jewish children. So many of them didn’t make the cut. And when a kid was told they weren’t good enough at some point, the Rabbi would come to them and say, “I’m sorry, now it’s time for you to return home and learn the family trade. Go and have many children and if God blesses you maybe one of them will one day be a Rabbi.”

Do we start to hear just how much the office of the Rabbi was revered?  The word Rabbi itself actually comes in two parts. The first half is rab. Repeat after me. Rab. It means, great in every way: much, many, big, strong, powerful. You might even say “yuge.” Rab. The second half is the little sound i. In Hebrew, adding the sound i to the end of a word made it personal and possessive. It could be translated as “my.” In other words, the Rabbi was “MY great one”  — the best of the best of the best, who was also the personal one that I’d chosen for myself, or who had chosen me.

Y’all, all of that makes up the backdrop of understanding who Jesus was and is.

For one, why were the disciples in Matthew 4 by the sea fishing? Because they hadn’t made the cut at some point. They were “didn’t make its.” Not only that, but why did they abandon everything, and their dad, and just jet off after Jesus? Because when a Rabbi said, “Follow me,” this was your chance. Why did Jesus say things like, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light?” Because his yoke, his teaching, wasn’t weighed down with human nonsense or empty rules…his was built on his own sacrifice and grace. But to understand him as Rabbi also lends a lot more weight to statements like, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Because following a Rabbi wasn’t just sitting in a classroom with a teacher, it was physically and emotionally and spiritually, full-bodied following. Going where they went, learning what they taught, doing as they did.  It was more than rules; it was embodying how Jesus lived.

I once saw a Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown says to Violet: “Just think of it: the dirt and dust of far-off lands blowing over here and settling on ‘Pig-Pen.'”

“It staggers the imagination!” Charlie continues. “He may be carrying soil that was trod upon by Solomon or Nebuchadnezzar or Genghis Khan!”

Pig-Pen: “That’s true, isn’t it?”

In the next frame he’s saying with unaccustomed pride: “Sometimes I feel like royalty!”

We should feel like royalty too, because if we follow our Rabbi, we really follow Jesus.  We will have his dust all over us.  What it means, y’all, is that when we listen to the Sermon on the Mount the next few weeks, we aren’t just hearing words or teaching like any old sermon. We are joining the people in sitting at the feet of a Rabbi. Our Rabbi. And that makes us more than just students or listeners, but disciples, actively walking in his ways.  People charged with taking up his unique yoke, living it, and passing it on.

 

Together

Matthew 3:13-17

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

I often hear James Earl Jones booming voice or Morgan Freeman’s distinctive voice when I read that part.  Jesus’ baptism ushers in a new baptism. Not just with voice and the dove.  Christian baptism is not just a washing away of sin as John’s baptism was; but it is the baptism that brings the power of the Holy Spirit and a special relationship with God.  The Gospel writers all 4 tell the story of Jesus’ baptism. As usual John has his own way of saying things, Matthew adds the part about John the Baptist preventing him and then questioning his validity to baptize Jesus, Luke cuts to the chase and has the shortest account, but Mark’s Gospel is different.  Unlike Matthew and Luke, where it says the heavens are opened, Mark writes that as Jesus “was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and a dove descending.”  His word for ‘torn apart’ is schizo, and it means “to cleave, to cleave asunder, to rend.” It’s a strangely violent word to describe such a happy occasion.  The way we tend to talk about baptism, it would have made more sense if Mark had talked about the dove, gently cooing, or perhaps fluttering over the surface of the water. But that is not how he talks about it.

Instead, Mark talks about the heavens, schizotorn apart. It’s the word Matthew, Mark and Luke all use to describe that moment on Good Friday when the curtain of the temple is torn in two. It’s the word John uses when the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross determine not to tear Jesus’ garment and divide it between them, but to cast lots for it, instead. It’s a word with resonances in the prophecies of Isaiah, also, particularly when Isaiah says to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” (Isaiah 63:19).

Mark understands very clearly that in Jesus, this is exactly what has happened. God has torn open the heavens and come down.  It is in the waters of baptism that the heavens are torn apart and a voice from heaven claims Jesus as God’s son. Although we rarely think of it as having such a dramatic flourish, baptism today still serves as a time when we recognize our being claimed as children of God.  And this is why, in the Gospel writers’ judgment, the baptism of Jesus is a radical act. In Jesus, God has committed the act of breaking and entering the world, and they want the world to know.

Sometimes, I wish it were harder to join the church, to come to communion, to be baptized.  I mean, honestly, sometimes I think it’s harder to get a membership to Sam’s Club than it is to become a Christian.

Sometimes we cheapen grace.  It’s like the membership vows of the church are in the fine print or it feels like a medical commercial saying, you’ll feel better if you do this whole Jesus thing, you’ll be happier, while the people on the screen are running through a field of flowers or jumping on a trampoline or flying a kite with what seems to be a bright, smiling, happy family.  They’re still showing the pictures of all the smiling people and let’s throw in a pet for good measure, as they read quick like the micro machine man the hazards.  Baptism is terrific but please plan on attending worship, Bible studies, service projects, fellowship events, and don’t forget covenant discipleship groups.  Christmas and Easter only come once a year, but Narcie throws in enough grace to last all year round.  She may make you experience some discomfort and conviction, but that’s at minimum only once or twice a sermon. Following Jesus may cost you.  Putting his teachings into practice may turn your life upside down……

Who can blame people for just tuning that part out?  And not understanding what following Jesus means?  What a big, awesome commitment that is?

We’re involved in a bait and switch.  You may, say hold on a second, I do no such thing.  I would challenge that back to you.  Can those around you, tell you are a Christian?  What makes you different from all of the other do gooders?  What makes this different than any other civic organization?

Peter Rollins, Northern Ireland writer, speaker, philosopher, and theologian writes, “Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

However, there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.”

If you want to actively follow Christ.  It’s going to be hard.  It’s going to be the greatest joy and sacrifice of your life.  Don’t merely get baptized for fire insurance, because you want to flee the wrath of hell, but because you want your life transformed, you want to do more than honor Jesus’ sacrifice.  You seek to live as a changed person walking the way of life, trying to grow more like Jesus every day, and when you mess up, as you inevitably will, God gives you God’s abundant grace, God’s sanctifying grace.  God doesn’t leave us on our own in the mire and the muck.  God begins the mighty work of transforming us.

We’re not going to change overnight into the perfect Christian.  We need to hone our spiritual disciplines:  prayer, scripture reading, daily times alone with God, discerning God’s will for our lives, and not just things we  do alone.  Tenth Avenue North sings in the song No Man is Island,“We’re not meant to live this life alone.”  We are stronger together.  Iron sharpens iron after all.  The kids asked to watch Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on Friday’s Family Movie Night.  Mike says I should use “spoiler alert” even the book came out more than 5 years ago.  At the end of the movie, Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, dies and it looks like darkness has won.  He was Harry’s protector and the only one Voldemort was afraid of.  When he dies, the students and staff are mourning him and it seems like all hope is lost, Madame Pomfrey holds her wand in the air, Professor McGonagall joins her, and the students and faculty do the same.  When they do that together, it lights up the night sky.  Together in their sorrow.  Together in their hope that the light will pierce the darkness.  Mike told Enoch and Evy, the darkness doesn’t win and I joined him in saying, when all hope seems lost, even if it looks like the darkness has won, the light will always, always, always eventually conquer the dark.  I want them to be prepared to fight for the light in their choices and to continue fighting even when it feels like it’s not making a difference, even when it seems they are fighting an uphill battle, even in the darkest night of their souls.  Good will triumph.  Spoiler Alert.  The grave didn’t hold him down.

See baptism is an individual sacrament, but it’s also a communal one also.  Whole families were baptized in the New Testament.  The church agrees to love, support, grow and strengthen those baptized persons.  Dietrich Bonheoffer, German Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, believed that a community of love is one which focuses its attention on Jesus and then expects everything else to fall into place. When the people of God come together to share their lives openly and freely, accepting each other with a kind of unconditional positive regard, there is a sort of social-spiritual “chemistry” that emerges, and those who come together experience a delightful cohesion and sense of belonging.  Bonhoeffer’s central idea is that the Church as the fellowship of Christ centers on Christ rather than being a mere association of people with a common purpose. Human love and actions are related to a desire for human community. Christian love, spiritual love, comes from Christ and goes out to the other person, not directly, but through Christ. Christ “stands between me and others”. The most direct way to another is found in prayer to Christ whose influence is greater.  The unity of the community is in Christ, “Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another.”

The Book of Mormon Broadway Musical has a song called Mostly Me.  In it the missionary says he’s doing all of this “good” stuff altruistically, but he’s actually doing it for himself.  This is not just a “but mostly me” but something that if we are to survive, if we are to be a stronger, healthier, more grounded body – we’ve got to be supporters, advocates, confidants, friends to each other.  Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship writes, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others, we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”  We have to trust each other enough to share our lives together, with no fear of judgment, that’s the only way we get to the Light of Christ.

How do we push through the fear, the doubt, the awkwardness, the ego, and move towards real community?  We have to really love each other, pray for each other, root for one another, weep one another, encourage one another, be CHURCH with each other.  As Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  I want us to be a deep, Christ-centered community whether it be as Friday morning Men’s Group, an adult Sunday School Class, the Choir, the Thursday morning Women’s Bible Study, the Somerby Bible Study or one of the other communities we will create this year.  I want us to make as our theme this year to Love God and Love Neighbor.  I want us to make the main thing, the main thing.  Our focus shall be to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in Park West, in North Mount Pleasant and across the Earth.   We can only legitimately do that if we abide in Christ and seek his leading for our lives, for the call he has put on our lives, for the call he has put on this church to be the hands and feet of Christ at this time and in this place and if we look to Christ – boy, what could happen?  Could you imagine?

People should be able to see Christ in us, just as the song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”  Wesley’s General Rules provide an extensive list of the marks of the Christian life that could be summarized by do no harm, do good, and attend upon all the ordinances of God or as Wesley said,

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

These rules take into account and respond to the great command to love God and neighbor. In our baptism, similar things happen to us as happened to Jesus when he was baptized: 1) The Spirit of God comes into us and remains in us. 2) We are declared to be a child of God. 3) We hear that God is well pleased with us. God’s grace washes away our sin and angst and doubt and we are made clean in the waters of baptism.  We’ve been washed by the water and are set free to live an abundant, thriving life.  Jesus doesn’t say it will be easy, but as Paul writes in Philippians 4, “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.”  The Spirit of God opens up the Heavens to give us a taste of the Living God, Emmanuel, one with us, Jesus who was, is, and is to come.  As we journey with our stars and seek God’s personal will for our lives and as we journey as a church to know God’s communal will for this body of Christ and the part God wants each of us to play in that, God’s wonders and mercies are new every day and at every step of the Christian journey, God will be faithful.

I’ll ask you to come to the baptismal waters as you reaffirm your baptism, as you reaffirm that you are a new creation, as you reaffirm your commitment to this body of Christ, to walk with each other in love and grace, spurring each other on to right action and to seek the will of God.

“We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
They will know we are Christians by our love.”

 

REAFFIRMATION OF BAPTISM         

 The Lord be with you.

and also with you.

Let us pray.

Eternal God: When nothing existed but chaos, you swept across the dark waters and brought forth light. In the days of Noah you saved those on the ark through water. After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow. When you saw your people as slaves in Egypt, you led them to freedom through the sea. Their children you brought through the Jordan to the land which you promised.

Sing to the Lord, all the earth. Tell of God’s mercy each day.

In the fullness of time you sent Jesus, nurtured in the water of a womb. He was baptized by John and anointed by your Spirit. He called his disciples to share in the baptism of his death and resurrection and to make disciples of all nations.

 Declare Christ’s works to the nations, his glory among all the people.

 Pour out your Holy Spirit, and by this gift of water call to our remembrance the grace declared to us in our baptism. For you have washed away our sins, and you clothe us with righteousness throughout our lives, that dying and rising with Christ we may share in his final victory.

All praise to you, Eternal God, through your Son Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns for ever. Amen.

Come as you feel led to the baptismal waters as we reaffirm our baptisms.  As you come forward and touch the water, I will say, “Remember your baptism and be thankful” and you respond “Amen.”  You can touch the water and make a sign of the cross on your forehead or you can scoop the water and let fall back into the bowl.

Remember your baptism and be thankful. Amen.

Prayer reaffirming the Baptismal Covenant:

The Holy Spirit work within you, that having been born through water and the Spirit, you may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

 

Journal Entries: The Slaughter of the Innocents

Isaiah 63:7-9

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

God’s Mercy Remembered

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, “Surely they are my people,
children who will not deal falsely”;
and he became their savior
    in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Most pastors avoid this text I’m about to read you like the plague.  It’s even called the Holy Innocents or Martyrs in the Lectionary.  Most people don’t know it’s even part of the Christmas story, and Lord knows we wouldn’t want it depicted in any way.  But my friend and colleague the Rev. Paul Shultz, had a way of wading into texts that still made you uncomfortable, still did not give you all the answers and didn’t tie up the loose ends.  He would act like he relished making you uncomfortable, but he let slip one too many times, his care for people.  He died from flu complications in January 2014.  We texted on New Year’s when he first started coming down with something.  He was only 50 years old and had three kids and a fiancé Jana.  His life and example challenges me even now.  He walked Micah 6:8 with a very crass sense of humor and we all loved him for it.  He didn’t hesitate to expose the dark side of the Gospel because there is a dark side.  A very twisty side.  It’s not all sunshine and roses, otherwise we wouldn’t need a Savior that comes into the darkness of this world and bring light to it.

Hear now the word of God.

Matthew 2:13-23

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Escape to Egypt

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

The Massacre of the Infants

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

The Return from Egypt

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.

So how do you deal with the implications of an angel warning Mary and Joseph to flee with baby Jesus while hundreds of children, 2 years old and younger, were slaughtered?  This is my attempt to not gloss over and fast forward the verses, but to deal with them, realizing that I have a limited understanding of what it’s like to lose a child.

This is the journal book of Divorah, daughter of Amos, of Beyt-Lechem.

Journal Entry 1

I am a young woman today, full of strength and life, and I’ve been blessed by God.  I am from, well, not a wealthy family, but a good one.  I have a good name, something that, among my people, is priceless.  The Lord led me to my love, my husband, Yoseph, and we have had three full years of joy together.  We have good lands that flourish with wheat and barley and honey, and I have praised God daily for it.  God even favored us enough to give us a child, a daughter, whom we’ve named Hannah.  She has been the most precious thing I have ever known.  Every movement, every sound, every new thing she learns or discovers – it has been overwhelming the amount of unconditional love I feel.  Her father and I would commission someone to paint her life, one day at a time, if we could.  That is how this journal came to be.  Yesterday, on Hannah’s first birthday, we bought this book of memories, with as many blank pages as we could afford, to begin to record her life.  And all of that, taken together, is an overflowing cup for any person.

But that was yesterday.  And today let no talk pass my lips of the Lord’s favor.  Let no one speak his name before me.  May no prayer to this “god” pass my lips or those of anyone in my household as long as I live.

Yesterday morning my Hannah turned a year old, and yesterday evening a Roman detachment arrived in town under Herod’s orders.  Yoseph and I could hear the crowds and shouting from here, and in only minutes they had come to our door.  They didn’t ask for the tax, or if we were harboring a fugitive, or if my husband was a member of the latest insurrection.  They demanded, of all things, our little girl.

And I cannot tell you how bitterly I fought them, four armed soldiers.  My husband was clubbed nearly to death, and these men murdered my Hannah.  Yoseph couldn’t protect her.  And no matter how loudly I screamed and scratched and hit, the soldiers just pushed me to the side.  They killed my sweet, precious Hannah and they might as well have killed me as well.   My husband keeps shaking me, asking me if I need anything, anything at all.  Doesn’t he know I can’t bear to go on?  Doesn’t he know that it’s all I can do to record every last thing I can remember in this journal?  For her short and brief life.  What made her smile and giggle, made her light up……I can’t bear it.

Journal Entry 2

Almost thirty years to the day, I open up these pages again.  I’ll confess that I’ve read and re-read those last words many, many times since that day.  No birthday of my Hannah’s ever passes that I don’t come back here to remember.  On more than one occasion I even thought to record my feelings, to write to her, to tell her things I would’ve told her at 8 or 12 or 20 years old.  But it seemed wrong to change this book.  It seemed like moving on from her.  I can’t bring her back, no matter how many mornings I’ve woken up thinking that it was a nightmare.

Nevertheless, I write today because new facts have come to light with regard to the history of Hannah’s life.  My husband and I’ve met again a young man named Yohanan, John, son of Zebediyah the fisherman from the Galilee.  John’s mother is my cousin, and he spent some time here on the farm as a boy.

Anyway, in the city, John had been invited to teach.  I thought it strange for the son of a fisherman, but the local Rabbi seemed to wish to almost interrogate him about the happenings of another wandering Rabbi that John has taken up with, one named Yeshua, or Jesus.  So my husband and I attended, and if I’m honest I was shocked and moved by John’s wisdom, and the “spirit” that was upon him.  We greeted him afterwards and he invited us to lunch and started to open up his heart to us.  And it was he who mentioned Hannah’s name to me.

He explained that this Jesus, whom he takes the foolish risk of calling “lord,” is none other than the Messiah.  And I told him that I’d heard all of that talk before but that I no longer have time for any of God’s Messiahs.  But he went on to say that it was because of this Jesus that the soldiers were sent to our village so many years ago, that it was this Jesus who threatened the evil rule of men like Herod, that it was this Jesus who is God’s great savior.  He spoke of the boy’s birth to a man and wife from Nazareth who had traveled to Bethlehem; he told me about Herod’s schemes and the appearance of angels in visions and dreams to deliver the child and his parents.  He started to describe the kingdom of God coming, and an age where even grief like mine would be no more.

Now that I think of it I can still remember the Roman census that year, and the rumors that were circulating in town at the time – a king was to come from the city of David, after all.  It was only a few months later that I became pregnant with Hannah, so we had taken it all as a good omen!  Our daughter, growing up to see the reign of Israel’s great king!

But that is when I remembered myself.  That is when I remembered the kind of faith that had left my home unguarded on that bloody night.  I remembered the kind of hope that naïve children cling to before they’ve grown up to see what life is like here and now, on earth.  I asked John why it is that our great God, the Lord of heaven and earth, had his son born to peasants in unsecured and unknown towns; or why this God speaks in fables and dreams while men like Herod give orders to armed legions?  Or why was it only God’s son who was warned to escape Bethlehem while Hannah was left alone to die?  And hundreds more with her?  Why a God like that left hundreds of innocent people to suffer like me?

I cannot even remember John’s reply, but my husband Yoseph had a few choice words for John that he had the audacity to bring up that terrible night as if this Jesus could EVER be enough to……    As Yoseph regained his temper, he thanked him for the lunch and sent him on his way without another word.  He wished him luck that he and his Jesus might somehow survive either Herod Antipas or Caesar or the Chief Priest, for that matter, but I feel none the better for our conversation.   There’s no way this Jesus being born could justify my Hannah being taken from me.  Here I sit, and thirty years have passed, but no words and no anger will bring Hannah to me.  I no longer know who I am or how to live.  I write, only, to keep record of what I now know of her story.

Journal Entry 3

Today, Hannah’s story in this book comes to a close.  Very briefly I’ll say that, through John, in the past year I’ve been able to meet Jesus in person.  To follow him in the crowds, very suspiciously at first.  Then, to eat with him and speak with him intimately a few times.  And the same wisdom and Spirit that I saw in John in that synagogue, I’ve felt in Jesus – as the source of it, like the sun sharing its light.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I first even entertained the idea that he could really be our Messiah.  It was gradual, as he answered many of my questions, and gave me new ones.  But something in his teaching, that the others usually overlooked or rebuked, started to call out to me.  He would occasionally speak of death, and of his own suffering.  He would hint at the need to shed his blood, and to tear down the Temple only to rebuild it again.  He spoke of a time of great personal sorrow to come, and of his own pain, and of his followers being prepared to carry a cross every single day.

And I don’t know what it was, but while the others murmured about these strange, off-hand comments of his, they rang true in my heart.  While the crowds asked him not to say such things, but foamed at the mouth for the triumph of Israel over the Romans and all our enemies, it sounded to me like something deeper was at work.  So, yes, just weeks ago during the Passover when he was arrested, I was stirred to draw near to Jesus like never before.  What did I have left to lose?  What could the soldiers take from me now that they haven’t already ripped from me?

As some of his crowd fled in fear or others shouted out in their disappointment for him to be killed like a criminal, I prayed for him.  As I watched what they did to him, and how he endured, as he suffered, and felt unspeakable pain, at no fault of his own, in spite of his innocence, I thought of the innocence of my 1 year old, Hannah.  And I ached for his mother Mary, to witness the unspeakable ways they were treating him.  It was this final thought that confirmed in me that this was my Lord and my God.

I, who wasn’t one to look for a Messiah, who felt like no one on this earth knew my tragedy or could possibly feel my pain – I understood the injustice and cruelty, tyranny and evil, that was upon Jesus.  And I knew for certain that this was not God’s doing, but it was the fruit of what men and women had chosen to do, that day and since the beginning.  It was sick and twisted men, like Herod, who were threatened by a baby.  Then I remembered Jesus’ words about freedom.  “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  It convicted me that, in all of the many ways that I’d hardened my heart these decades, some of his suffering was my own doing.  But Jesus’s way was to come and submit to such a thing, in order to finally set things right.  In his own words, he had become the Passover lamb for my sake and for the sake of his children, and for the sake of the man next to me that day shouting curses at him, and for the sake of his own weeping mother, and even for the sake of Pilate and Herod and Caesar.

I stayed that day until the end; I followed them out of the city, heard his final words, and watched him pass into death.  I grieved and mourned.  I wondered what could be next.  And then I received word about Jesus at my home in Bethlehem, a simple message from the believers:  “the grave could not hold him.”  And today I remember his words:  “Because I live, you shall live also.”    And though, more than 30 years ago, while his innocents were slaughtered in Bethlehem, God did not intervene in that moment to spare Hannah’s earthly life, I trust that, today, she lives also.  And I will.  So, as I said, today her story in this book comes to a close, because it continues elsewhere.

John 3:16-18 —

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

I know many people that have lost children or other loved ones and I want you to know that God didn’t cause the cancer, the car accident, whatever tragic event happened.  God mourns with you.  Jesus knows your suffering.  The Holy Spirit intercedes for you in your shouts, in your tears, in your moans.  We believe in a God that came to be one with us, so that God would know suffering and then bring about redemption.  I also believe and trust that God works things together for good.  If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be standing up here.

Let us pray….

It’s also Epiphany this Sunday, when we celebrate the gifts of the magi.  When you come forward to receive communion, you will have the opportunity to pick out of a basket a cardboard star.  It’s your Epiphany Star Gift.  The star will have a word on it, naming a gift from God; visually, nothing special, as God’s gifts are not always flashy.  Sometimes the gift is known by all to be one that you already evidence or experience in abundance.  Sometimes you will feel that it is something you’ve needed, a challenge to work on.  Often it’s something you don’t understand, or could learn more about.  It will provide you an opportunity to ponder and pray in the coming year.  Put it where you can see it.  On your bedside table, on your refrigerator, on your bathroom mirror, on the visor in your car.

No matter what word you receive, you’re invited to receive whatever comes, with the assumption that the Spirit of God has a hand in the process.  Accept the gift for what it is, a gift freely given.  Many have discovered that the gift that seemed daunting, disappointing or confusing at first turned out to be the most meaningful in actual experience.  Perhaps God has something in store that is beyond our planning and imagining.  That’s what the season of Epiphany is all about.  In remembering that night long ago when God used a star to reveal the newborn Christ to the world, to the Magi and to all of us, we each grab a hold of our own stars. Each of us will journey with that star, with that word all year long- to see where the word moves us in prayer, pushes or pulls us in faith, and how it opens our hearts to God’s call on our lives. We listen and look for them in our community. And we keep looking to the stars, all the stars, all the light, that God sends to pull us closer to Christ, at Epiphany and ALL YEAR LONG.  Remember, we don’t just follow the baby in the manger, we follow the Word in flesh that came to live among us offering the world abundant and transformative life.  Whatever our New Year’s Resolutions are or are not, may the Spirit move us where we need to be moved, may the Spirit give us courage to articulate our hopes and dreams, and may the Spirit give us the strength and perseverance to make them a REALITY.

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Emmanuel Changes Us

Isaiah 9:2-7

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

These are familiar words that we often here at a Christmas service.  These are some of my favorite words of the Bible.  You see, we all have walked in deep darkness, the color of ink, and we have felt the light of Christ pierce that darkness.  Our darkness.  The world’s darkness.  An in-breaking of the kingdom of God in the form of the most vulnerable thing on Earth, a baby, who came to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set us free of our societal, communal, and personal bondage.  As it is written in Isaiah 9:2, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.”

The Gospel of John talks about this Incarnate Light.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

This is God’s Incarnate Light and it’s available for each of us.  No one is separated from the love of God, and Bobbi’s right, it’s a “long-haul love.”  We love even when it’s difficult, even when it’s costly, even when hatred is spewed and it sadly has become the norm.  We’re called to be the light of Christ and, as Robert Louis Stevenson says, “to punch holes in the darkness.”

Later on in John 1, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” That brings us to our second scripture this morning from Matthew 1:22-23, “22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

As we’ve gotten ready for the coming of God in the form of a baby—a God who dwells among us and with us.  We also get ready for the second coming of our savior—a time when there is good news and great joy for ALL people.  This is good news not just for the pretty ones or smart ones or the ones lucky enough to be born on the right side of the tracks or in the wealthy country, but for all of God’s children.

I think of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the wisemen, the angels – a mix of folks.  I think of the words of the prophet—to look to the star and that there is One who is coming who is beyond our imagining.  This story is not just one of familiar and beautiful manger scenes and it’s certainly not just a good children’s story.  These were trying times, much like today, and not even the innocent were safe, as children began to lose their lives as Herod began his search for the Christ child.

The context was not much better than the Hunger Games when Jesus arrived.  Suzanne Collins does an amazing job bringing this post-apocalyptic world to life.  She got the idea from flipping through channels on her television and seeing on one channel a reality tv competition and on the next channel war footage.  In Bethlehem they were under Roman occupation, not knowing what was going to be demanded of them next—their money, their children, their lives.  For some of us, we relate to some of these horrors.  There are hard things that we see every day whether it be children going without food or the loss of a friend or loved one or the loss of one’s job or home or when we watch the news and see the latest terrorist attacks or the horrific images of Aleppo.  Perhaps the most subversive and daring thing as we watch these images is still believe in the hope of Christmas.  Even when the night seems darkest, even when all seems lost; there’s hope in this beautiful child setting the world upside down and bringing God’s kingdom to earth.

We take comfort in what we are told very clearly, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that shall be for all people.  For unto you is born this day a savior who is Christ the Lord and has name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace…”  This Prince of Peace can give us that peace that transcends all understanding whether it be as we are awaiting medical results, college acceptances, grieving lost loved ones, wondering how we will pay the bills, job changes, life decisions, no matter what.

This kind of peace can transform the world.  Nelson Mandela, said “And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”  We give others the courage to do the same.  Not just people in this place, in this community, or in this land—but all the world.  It doesn’t end in Advent.  I want us to choose joy. Share hope. Live peace. Be love. We celebrate the coming of the baby, may we not be scared to follow the way of the man.

My hope over the next few days is we will take time, breathe and take in what it means to be a people who believe in this Emmanuel, a people who believe and live out this peace.  As Frederick Buechner writes, “”If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party. The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business. The world says, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified. The world says, Drive carefully—the life you save may be your own—and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. The world says, Law and order, and Jesus says, Love. The world says, Get and Jesus says, Give. In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.”

You know we can’t do any of this on our own, but through Christ’s power within us, we can do all things.  One of the verses to Go Tell it On the Mountain, is “When I was a seeker/ I sought both night and day/ I asked the Lord to help me/ And he showed me the way. Don’t forget that you’re human.  It’s okay to have a melt down and not do everything perfectly.  Just don’t unpack and live there.  Cry it out and then refocus on where God is leading you.  Because the world needs you.  Jesus will show you every step of the way.  He will light your path.  The world needs the light of Jesus reflecting in us, light punching the darkness, light brought down to earth.  The world needs you to show up – in person – just like Christ did that first Christmas.  It’s radical incarnational love.  Love came down on Christmas.  Amen.

 

 

Chosen to Be Restored

Jeremiah 29:11-14

“11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”

These are familiar words.  You can find them on bumper stickers, pass it on cards, pictures at Christian bookstores and Hobby Lobby and greeting cards meant to encourage and inspire.  They’re mostly quoting Jeremiah 29:11 but I feel like when you leave off the other verses you lose the context, and to me the context makes it even more powerful.

Who was Jeremiah?  What was his context?  Jeremiah was called the “weeping prophet,” he is credited with writing the books of Jeremiah, Kings, and Lamentations, and he served under 5 Kings of Judah:  Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah.  Jeremiah chapter 1 gives us this context.   Jeremiah, much like Moses or Jonah, didn’t want to be the mouthpiece of God, but God tells him God has designed him for such a time as this.

Jeremiah’s Call and Commission

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,

“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”

Whoa.  No pressure, right?  God wanted him to speak up.  You and I can do that, right?  It’s easy to deliver good news.  God didn’t call him to be an oracle; God called him to be a prophet, to speak out against the status quo.  I can’t help but think God wants us to be little prophets.  God formed us and knew us, just as God did Jeremiah, and God calls us to speak out when we something wrong in our world today both in big and small ways and it doesn’t matter what our age.  I shared on facebook a blog post I read on Momastery.  It was written by a mother before her son, Chase, entered into third grade.  She talks about how there was a kid in her class that she didn’t stand up for or invite to sit at her lunch table.

“I think that God puts people in our lives as gifts to us. The children in your class this year, they are some of God’s gifts to you.

So please treat each one like a gift from God. Every single one.

Baby, if you see a child being left out, or hurt, or teased, a little part of your heart will hurt a little. Your daddy and I want you to trust that heart- ache. Your whole life, we want you to notice and trust your heart-ache. That heart ache is called compassion, and it is God’s signal to you to do something. It is God saying, Chase! Wake up! One of my babies is hurting! Do something to help! Whenever you feel compassion – be thrilled! It means God is speaking to you, and that is magic. It means He trusts you and needs you.

Sometimes the magic of compassion will make you step into the middle of a bad situation right away.

Compassion might lead you to tell a teaser to stop it and then ask the teased kid to play. You might invite a left-out kid to sit next to you at lunch. You might choose a kid for your team first who usually gets chosen last. These things will be hard to do, but you can do hard things.

Sometimes you will feel compassion but you won’t step in right away. That’s okay, too. You might choose instead to tell your teacher and then tell us. We are on your team – we are on your whole class’ team. Asking for help for someone who is hurting is not tattling, it is doing the right thing. If someone in your class needs help, please tell me, baby. We will make a plan to help together.

When God speaks to you by making your heart hurt for another, by giving you compassion, just do something. We send you to school to practice being brave and kind. Kind people are brave people. Because brave is not a feeling that you should wait for. It is a decision. It is a decision that compassion is more important than fear, than fitting in, than following the crowd.

Jeremiah did something.  He proclaimed the word of God, even though he was persecuted, even though he delivered awful news and that made him the least popular of all time.  He did it because God told him to.  Remember that still small voice Elijah heard, that’s the Holy Spirit speaking to your heart.  The Holy Spirit gives you these nudges whether you want him to or not.  When you invite Jesus into your heart, he doesn’t remain hidden in a box figuratively under your bed.  Jesus has a way of infiltrating even the things that you would rather keep hidden.

Jeremiah is not a short book.  He goes through a lot, false prophets preaching a prosperity Gospel, being imprisoned, people basically spitting in his face.  He continues to speak the word of the Lord through 52 chapters, offering words of reckoning and judgement, as well as hope and promise of restoration.  Jeremiah 29 was a letter to the exiles in Babylon and in it is both hope and restoration.  I’m going to read now those same verses from The Message version of the Bible.

Jeremiah 29:11-14The Message (MSG)

10-11 This is God’s Word on the subject: “As soon as Babylon’s seventy years are up and not a day before, I’ll show up and take care of you as I promised and bring you back home. I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for.

12 “When you call on me, when you come and pray to me, I’ll listen.

13-14 “When you come looking for me, you’ll find me.

“Yes, when you get serious about finding me and want it more than anything else, I’ll make sure you won’t be disappointed.”

“I’ll turn things around for you. I’ll bring you back from all the countries into which I drove you bring you home to the place from which I sent you off into exile. You can count on it.”

God’s gonna be faithful.  God’s gonna keep God’s promises.

God’s promises last forever, age to age, but sometimes our promises to God are another story.

Case in point: a man was driving down the street, desperately searching for a parking place so he wouldn’t be late for an important meeting. In desperation, he gazed into the heavens and prayed: “Lord, take pity on me. If you find me a parking place, I promise to go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life and give up smoking!”

Instantly, a parking place opened up before him and he took it.

Whereupon, he looked toward heaven again and said: “Nevermind, I found one.”

That’s a silly illustration, to say that if we see God like a giant Santa in the sky or a genie, that’s a one-sided relationship and there’s more to it than that.  Are we trusting God to lead and guide us in all that we do?  Are we trusting God with our children and grandchildren that God will pursue them with an abundant love, reaching out to them and seeking a relationship with them?  Even if they have drifted away, even if they have made mistakes and they’re as far from God as can be and they like it that way or they full unworthy to approach the throne of grace with confidence.  Even then God remains faithful. This is why parents cling to Jeremiah 29:11-14.  This is why teachers, coaches, principals, Sunday School teachers, anyone who works with youth clings to these verses.  It’s not just about the plans that God has designed specifically for them, but it’s about restoration.  Restoring them to who they were truly created to be.  Restoring us and transforming us into a new creation in Christ.  We were CHOSEN to be RESTORED.

Have you ever felt like you live in exile?  Do you ever feel so far from God that you don’t know your way back?  God does not desire that for you. In Psalms 37:4 says, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”  God desires healing, wholeness and hope.  William Carey, founder of the Baptist Missionary Society, says, “The future is as bright as the promises of God.” Is there something holding you back from leaving your self or society imposed exile?  God doesn’t want that for you.  Danny Gokey in his song “Tell Your Heart to Beat Again” wrote these words.

You’re shattered
Like you’ve never been before
The life you knew
In a thousand pieces on the floor
And words fall short in times like these
When this world drives you to your knees
You think you’re never gonna get back
To the you that used to be

Tell your heart to beat again
Close your eyes and breathe it in
Let the shadows fall away
Step into the light of grace
Yesterday’s a closing door
You don’t live there anymore
Say goodbye to where you’ve been
And tell your heart to beat again

Beginning
Just let that word wash over you
It’s alright now
Love’s healing hands have pulled you through
So get back up, take step one
Leave the darkness, feel the sun
‘Cause your story’s far from over
And your journey’s just begun

Tell your heart to beat again
Close your eyes and breathe it in
Let the shadows fall away
Step into the light of grace
Yesterday’s a closing door
You don’t live there anymore
Say goodbye to where you’ve been
And tell your heart to beat again

Let every heartbreak
And every scar
Be a picture that reminds you
Who has carried you this far
‘Cause love sees farther than you ever could
In this moment heaven’s working
Everything for your good

As Romans 8:28 says, “28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  We have to forgive ourselves so that we’re able to grasp hold of all that God has in store for us.  We need to trust God in the letting go of whatever is holding us back that God will restore us to right paths and give us a future with hope, even though we may have walked through the darkest valley, even if we’ve been in literal or figurative exile.  The light will eventually break through.  We as the church can walk with one another and lead each other to the light.  Professor James Limburg tells this story of going bicycling with his son. “We took a ride on the bike path around our town. Just off the path was a drainage tunnel which ran under the interstate highway. We decided to explore it. We parked our bikes and began to walk through the tunnel. It was made of concrete, wide enough for us to walk side by side, but not high enough for me to stand up straight. We walked for a distance and then the tunnel took a sharp turn and suddenly it became dark. A hand reached out and took mine. Neither of us said anything about it, but we continued, hand in hand, until we came to another turn and we could see the light.”

We are called to be the voice of God, even when it’s not popular, speak for the least of these, walk with people in exile, and trust the promises of God.  That God who began a good work in you and me will bring it to completion.  As the last verse of the Hymn of Promise says, “There’s a song in every silence, seeking word and melody; There’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me. From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery, Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”  No matter what God is going to be faithful, even if you’ve been in exile.  You will be restored.