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01.24.2021 Reheated Hope Luke 9:12-17 Sermon Summary

If you were one of the 5000 men there that day, or a woman or child (who were unaccounted for), you would have heard Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God and witnessed his healing. You would have shared a meal with this huge crowd and you might have questioned who Jesus was. But you wouldn’t really know until you read about it later in the Gospel of Luke.

We are in the middle of a worship series called “Meals with Jesus.” Jesus gave us a “meal sacrament” which we call the Lord’s Supper. But all meals are sacramental if they remind us about God or even reveal God to us. The “meal sacrament” is Jesus’ way of guaranteeing that we don’t forget this.

God is revealed in the sacraments and this passage from Luke describes a sacramental meal. Luke designs this story of a meal to reveal to us who Jesus is and how God is present to us. It is a sacramental meal.

Before the meal Herod King of the Jews has heard of Jesus. He wonders who he is. Is he Jesus John the Baptist raised from the dead? Is he the prophet Elijah returned? Or could he be another ancient prophet returned?

The crowd that day didn’t know this about Herod, but we the readers do.

After the meal Jesus asks the disciples who people are saying he is. Again we hear speculation that Jesus is John the Baptist, Elijah, or another of the ancient prophets. But then Peter answers: Jesus is the Messiah of God.

The crowd that day didn’t hear this conversation, but we the readers do.

This meal story is sandwiched between the questions about who was Jesus. In Luke, the meal story provides the answer. The meal reveals who Jesus is, the Messiah of God. That revelation makes the meal sacramental.

How does Luke do this? It is characteristic of Luke to rehearse promises from the Older Testament. Remember those Advent scriptures from last month? They often concluded, “Just as God promised to our ancestors . . .”

Some of Luke’s favorite sources are the hopes and dreams of Isaiah. In Isaiah we read about, “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, and of well-aged wines strained clear.” (Isaiah 25:6) This sounds expensive, prohibitive, and exclusive. But Isaiah says, “God will prepare this meal for all people.”

Even more, “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,” says Isaiah. “You that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” (Isaiah 55:1)

Between the questions about Jesus’ identity—between Herod’s puzzlement and Peter’s confession—Luke puts this sacramental meal and reveals that the fulfillment of Isaiah’s hope is found in Jesus. Luke says Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God and healed people. Then he fed the crowd. Isaiah invited his audience, “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isaiah 55:2)

Readers of Luke who are familiar with such patterns in his writing will recognize that this is a sacramental meal story. It reveals God in the presence of the people. It reveals God in the presence of Jesus. God’s presence in our lives is our hope.

This meal like every meal also reminds us of our dependence upon God. We easily forget this in our culture because we rarely go hungry. This is why fasting is so important for our spiritual growth. Fasting reminds us of our fundamental dependence on God.

This meal like every meal also reminds us that food is more than fuel. God could have given us fuel, but we partake of food. We collaborate with the growth and variety of the earth’s gifts and co-create with God the food we eat. Food is a gift from God to us and from us to one another. Food is to be received with gratitude.

Because of the gift-nature of it, food creates relationships. In the meals with Jesus we see his attitude towards all creation. God declared creation good. Jesus reminds us of this. All creation is to be received with gratitude: Not just food, but our bodies, the questions that arise in our minds—all of nature is good when we receive it with gratitude.

Some religious people mistakenly believe that all creation is evil. To them, created things are to be avoided or at best tolerated. Against such thinking 1 Timothy 4:1-4 says, “Some renounce the faith by forbidding marriage and demanding abstinence from foods, but God created these to be received with thanksgiving. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.”

The Lord’s Supper, Jesus’ “meal sacrament,” makes this explicit. He took the bread and the cup and sanctified them by God’s word and by prayer. So do we when we celebrate Communion. This meal reveals Christ’s presence to us. It reveals God’s presence in Christ.

The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, but every meal is sacramental when it reminds us of our dependence on God, of God’s faithfulness, and of our gratitude. Every meal is a reheating of hope—the hope of Isaiah, of the crowd, of Luke, and of the Lord’s Supper.

May our hope be reheated at each of our meals with Jesus this week. Amen.

01.17.2021 Saints and Sinners Luke 7:36-50 Sermon Summary

We are in week two of our worship series “Dining with Jesus.” We are focusing on some meals with Jesus because they were a huge part of his ministry. If you were to search the New Testament for the purpose of Jesus’ coming, you would find three statements. Jesus came to serve. Jesus came to seek. And Jesus came eating and drinking.

Most people hear this meal story from Luke 7 with a picture already developed in their minds. Here is a young woman, still attractive, but obviously she’s had a hard life. They see by the way she is dressed, how she moves, the fragrance she wears, and by her actions what her particular sin is. 

Oh, how we think we know this woman! Thanks to salacious sermons and bawdy books made into movies we know that she is the soon-to-be-former prostitute Mary Magdalene, who may be the romantic love interest of Jesus. 

Except what Luke wants us to know—what he actually says—is that she is “a sinner.” She is you; she is I. We are the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. At least Jesus hopes we are.

Ask yourself this: If it is so obvious that this “sinner” woman is a prostitute, why does Simon think, “If Jesus were a prophet he would know she is a sinner”? Jesus would have to be prophet to know this only if it wasn’t obvious. Luke just identifies her as a “sinner.” She is well known to Simon and maybe others at the meal. But she is not so obviously a prostitute. (And nowhere is she identified as Mary Magdalene. Sorry, Mr. Brown.)

Before this encounter Jesus does not know this woman. But she knows him. She already believes Jesus is a prophet—someone who knows and speaks the truth about God. She doesn’t need proof. She’s seen it and heard it already.

She heard John the Baptist, about whom his father said would, “give knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins.” And then she heard Jesus who quoted Isaiah and said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

She listened. She heard. She saw. And she believed. 

Her reputation preceded her into Simon’s house, and so did the reputation of Jesus. Jesus had a reputation as a “glutton and a drunkard.” This is a slur coming from Deuteronomy 21, a passage describing the “stubborn and rebellious son.” Jesus is the “friend of tax-collectors and sinners” remember Levi last week).

Yes, Jesus had a reputation. He was something of a celebrity. And Simon wanted to see for himself. He wanted to observe Jesus. He wanted to judge Jesus. So here are these two people with reputations—one for sinning, one for forgiving—meeting at Simon’s house.

You know, Jesus would eat with anyone. We see him at wedding parties, with tax-collectors, sinners, and yes even prostitutes. But he also ate with Pharisees, the law-abiding religious leaders. Jesus eats with sinners and saints. When Jesus is invited to dine, he comes. He’ll even eat with you.

In reality we discover Jesus actually does know she’s a sinner—not by her dress, not by her reputation, not because he is a prophet, but by her love. She believed Jesus’ message of grace. She believed it about herself. She needed the message and she loved the messenger. So she comes to Simon’s house. 

Jesus’ message is hospitable; it “makes room for others,” as hospitality is often described. Jesus made room for her in the life of God, and now she makes room for Jesus in her life. She shows him hospitality; the hospitality Simon didn’t show.

Simon did not wash Jesus’ feet; she washes them with tears and dries them with her hair. Simon did not kiss Jesus; she can’t stop kissing his feet. Simon did not anoint Jesus; she anoints Jesus’ feet. She does all this because she loves Jesus. She loves Jesus because of his message of forgiveness. She believes this message because she needs it. She needs it because she is a sinner. 

Jesus sees this display of love and because he also believes in his message of forgiveness he knows she is a sinner. So he says what they both already know and already believe: “Your sins are forgiven.” Her sins are forgiven not because she loves; she loves because her sins are forgiven.

Next Jesus looks to Simon. He softens his message for the Pharisee with a parable. Two debtors are forgiven—one a great amount, one a small amount. Which is more grateful? Which will have more love? Simon answers correctly the one who was forgiven the greater debt.

Simon had invited Jesus into his home, was sharing a meal with Jesus, and calls Jesus “teacher.” When Jesus wants to say something directly to Simon, Simon asks him to speak. I wonder, did Simon listen this time? Because he hadn’t been listening before. At least he didn’t believe what Jesus said about forgiveness of sins—not like this woman heard and believed. If he had, he would have shown love. Simon would have shown hospitality.

Simon wasn’t like this sinful woman. He didn’t need much forgiveness so he didn’t show much love. He didn’t need Jesus to make room for him in God’s life. And so he didn’t make room for Jesus in his life.

Finally Jesus tells the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” And now the story addresses us. Do we invite Jesus like Simon did, because he’s a celebrity, because we want to see for ourselves, because we want to test him? Or do we show hospitality like the woman, because Jesus made a place for us in God’s life, because we believe Jesus’ message, because we need forgiveness.

Why do we invite Jesus? We better figure it out. Because when we invite Jesus, he brings his own guests with him. He brings with him the poor, blind, and lame. He brings with him the captives, tax-collectors, and prostitutes. He brings with him gluttons, drunkards, and sinners. He brings with him children, undocumented immigrants, and widows. He brings with him the sick, outcast, and imprisoned. He brings with him the oppressed and marginalized.

Jesus shows them hospitality. He makes room for all these in the life of God. Jesus saves them. Jesus heals them. Jesus eats with them. He eats with Simon. He eats with saints and sinners. And he eats with you. 

In Matthew 25 Jesus says when you dine with the least of the members of his family, you dine with him. The question Luke has for us is this: As many of us want to eat with the likes of Simon, can we also dine with Jesus? Simon could not. Because to dine with Jesus means to dine with the woman. 

Jesus dines with you at every meal. How many meals do you dine with Jesus?

01.10.2021 Eating Grace Luke 5:27-35 Sermon Summary

Today we begin a new season focusing on “Dining with Christ.” For the past year our routines have been interrupted. We haven’t had weekly Communion or fellowship following worship. We haven’t enjoyed festive potlucks or receptions. And when we would have enjoyed meals at some meetings, we haven’t been able to.

My intention with this season’s focus on dining with Christ is that we will remember that Christ is always present with us even, maybe especially, when we are apart.

Since the liturgically ornate worship of the church emerged, with official Christian theologies, during the 4-5th centuries A.D., one meal of Jesus has been emphasized: The Last Supper. Before that it was another meal, namely the resurrection meals and especially the one in Emmaus.

But since the liturgical movement popularized in the 1960s Jesus’ other meals have been studied with great value for us today. The question has evolved over these years: First, What does Communion have to teach us about other meals? Then, What do other meals have to teach us about Communion? And most recently, What do other meals teach us about our own lives with Christ today?

Jesus eats in all the Gospels. Sometimes he is the guest, other times the host. He feeds the crowds, and of course he celebrates his Last Supper with his disciples. But meals and food are especially prominent in the Gospel of Luke. One biblical scholar notes, “In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.” (Robert J. Karris, Eating your Way Through Luke’s Gospel, p. 14)

Why are meals so important to Luke and to Jesus? One reason is that food is identity. You’ve heard the saying, “You are what you eat.” And I’ve heard people say, “I can’t function without my coffee.” And this Christmas we all missed the tamales that have become a Faith Presbyterian Church tradition.

Secondly, meals are so important because our identity comes also from our fellow diners. Perhaps you’ve had the experience where you’re sitting with people you admire or even idolize and you say to yourself, “I can’t believe I’m at this table!” Who we are comes in part from with whom we eat.

From the perspective of Luke’s emphasis on meals, one could argue that Jesus was killed because of his meal practice. He ate the wrong food, and he ate it with the wrong people. For example: Levi. Jesus had been preaching by the sea, healing in the city, and forgiving sins in a house. Then he sees Levi the Tax Collector.

What was Levi doing? Collecting taxes, of course. Where was Levi doing this? At a tax collector’s booth. Jesus commands Levi to follow him and Levi throws a banquet with his tax collector colleagues and others Luke simply calls “sinners.”

Think about this. Where are you likely to encounter Christ? You come here to worship expecting an encounter. And we design worship to facilitate this encounter. But you’re more likely to encounter Christ like Levi did: When you’re doing what you do, and where you’re doing what you do. And what do you do all the time? Eat meals.

Religious types don’t like this fact. The Pharisees and teachers didn’t like Jesus preaching at the seashore instead of the synagogue, or Jesus healing whenever he wanted, even on the Sabbath, or Jesus forgiving sins apart from the Temple rites. And at Levi’s banquet they can’t take any more. They ask Jesus’ disciples, “Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

Anthropologist Mary Douglas refers to meals as “boundary markers.” What you eat, and with whom you eat, show which tribe you’re a part of. They mark your social boundaries. Religious types believe that religious people, as Jesus claims to be, shouldn’t eat with Levi’s sorts.

There is a long tradition of boundary marking by religious types. They make the rules, but ordinary types can’t keep them. Consider Leviticus 21:17-20: “No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long,or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand,or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles.” (Ouch!)

According to the religious types of his day, Levi and his sort don’t get meals with God.

When I was in college at a very secular institution, I enjoyed going to the cafeteria with my Christian friends. Just as I was beginning to eat, they would say, “Aren’t you going to pray?! You need to identify with the tribe! Don’t be ashamed; stand up for your faith!”

And I would reply, “Oh, I’m sorry. Did YOU not see me pray? Didn’t Jesus say something about putting on a show with one’s prayers?”

The Christian tribe wanted me to “say grace,” to do the religious thing. But I saw that Jesus ate with Levi and his sort, and instead of just saying grace, Jesus taught us to “eat grace.”

Grace is present wherever God is present. Jesus brings grace with him. Grace was at Levi’s banquet. And where there is grace, there is salvation. The religious types couldn’t fathom this. Grace comes only through the Temple, they say. Today some would say grace comes only through Jesus but you have to come to Jesus for grace.

But didn’t Jesus come to seek and to save the lost? Jesus came eating and drinking with Levi and his sort. He comes to eat with you and your sort. And he comes to eat even with those you would be uncomfortable eating with. Jesus came, with grace and salvation, to eat with those on the margins. Tim Chester asserts, “If we reject salvation at the margins, then we reject the grace of God.” (Tim Chester, A Meal with Jesus, audio book chapter 1 about 39:00)

As we contemplate Jesus’ meal with Levi and his sort, let me encourage you to envision one of two things. First, imagine Jesus walking by your doings, walking by your place. Imagine Jesus at your table this week. And second, imagine a table full of your personal “tax collectors and sinners,” the people you as a good religious person would never eat with. And imagine Jesus eating and drinking with them.

Then ask yourself this question: Will you follow Jesus, as Levi did, and eat grace with him this week? P.S. I think the reason the Pharisees ask Jesus’ disciples and not Jesus why they eat with tax collectors and sinners is because Luke is writing to his audience. The disciples of Jesus after the resurrection continued his practice of eating with the tax collectors and sinners of their day. Luke is offer them assurance that they are doing the right thing.

01.03.2021 Jeremiah 31.7-14 Remembering Our Hope Sermon Summary

Jeremiah is one of the “Major Prophets”: long books with complex compositional histories. The original Jeremiah was a visionary who inspired ongoing contributions in various contexts. This makes Jeremiah easily reinterpreted for other contexts up to the present day.

This passage is one of promise and hope in the midst of social instability and national uncertainty. Jeremiah urges the people to shout “Save!” He inspired a faith in God that led to this exclamation.

It is the same shout as “Hosanna!” when Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time. Jesus, who healed blind and the lame, reminded the people of Jeremiah who made promises to the blind, lame, and child-bearing. These were experiencing less of life. Perhaps they bore the injuries and pains of life. To bear children was literally to bear the burden of life and to make sacrifices for life.

Jeremiah saw such people. Jesus saw such people. And we are such people today. Our physical and mental health leave us in a deficit. Distraction has made us spiritually blind. Wars have made us lame. We are anxious for our children. We sacrifice for our aging parents. Death and loss have left us less than whole. We are the blind, lame, and child-bearing.

Jeremiah makes the promises that God will bring us home. We are part of “a great company” according to Jeremiah. We are not alone.

The past year has reduced us. We are a remnant of what God desires for us. But God gathers what is lost. God redeems the remnant. God delivers us to a new future.  How do we know this? Because of the memory of faith. Fond memories sustain us in hard times. This is part of Jeremiah’s message to us today.

Jeremiah also offers us a vision, and Jesus picks it up also. There is food, dancing, and the exchange of gifts. Young women join in, and young men and old will be merry. It is, of course, a a wedding banquet.

The best of weddings celebrate companionship and the strength of partnership. Weddings represent the moment when parents are no longer anxious about their children in the same way. Weddings point to the potential of new life and the continuity of community. Best of all, they are festive occasions.

The memories, promises, and visions of Jeremiah inspire our prayers. It is because of this vision that we are bold to pray. The promises and visions show us how it’s supposed to be, but we experience otherwise. And so we pray for how it isn’t yet the way it’s supposed to be.

As we enter a new year and a new season, let us remember all that God has done for God’s people, renew our faith in God’s promises, and remember the hope we have for the future in Christ Jesus. Amen.

12.24.2020 Let us Listen, Let us Hear, Let us Rise Luke 2.4-20, Isaiah 52.7-10 Homily Summary

The prophet Isaiah was writing to Exiles who were refugees of war, people removed from their homeland, and who were separated from their sacred centers. It had been about seventy years. He refers to them as, “those who live in the ruins.”

Tonight for us, even though not through war, and not for seventy years, and though not as traumatic, some of us still feel like exiles. We have looked around and much of what we see lies in ruins.

On the threshold of their return Isaiah speaks to the Exiles. It is a message of “good news, peace, glad tidings, salvation, and the triumph of God.” He introduces this passage with the exclamation: “How beautiful are the feet!” Why feet?

One reason may be that the message comes through messengers. And messengers travel by foot. But also perhaps Isaiah imagines the sound of marching feet, of a liberating army ending the war, releasing the captives, and accomplishing God’s will.

When Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth, angels proclaim the good news of great joy. “In the city of David is born a Savior, the Christ!” It sounds like Isaiah. But the shepherds don’t find this beautiful: They are terrified. I wonder why?

Isaiah, and maybe the shepherds too, expected some kind of instrumental intervention. They envisioned God using an army as an instrument to intervene. It would be “God” in the sense that “only God can do it.” It would not be “God” in the sense that “God’s very self would intervene.”

But the angels from heaven were a different kind of messengers, and they spoke of the very presence of God. This is why shepherds are terrified. This was the first of many ruptured expectations on this night.

Hopes can be satisfied, but not in the way we expect. Light shine in the darkness, but it may be a light within us rather light around us. We may experience peace, but it may be a peace of God’s presence rather than absence of anxiety. And we may be liberated from our enemies, but it may be the freedom to love them rather than to leave them.

And we may find joy, but it is the joy of God’s comfort rather than the joy of overwhelming amusements. God may send an expected message through unexpected messengers. God may fulfill promises of hope and light, of peace and liberation, and of joy in unexpected ways.

The good news, though odd, of Christmas is that God has done these things through the birth of a baby to an engaged couple in an awkward situation from a small village. Beyond odd, this is surprising. So surprising that the shepherds have to see for themselves. And they are so interested because this child is more like shepherds than kings. He is more like David the young sheep herder than David the warrior monarch.

And isn’t that the point of the angelic messengers? God wants to bring hope and light, peace and liberation, and joy not just to the privileged but to all. Not just to those who might expect them but those for whom it comes as a surprise.

In Jesus is God’s hope and light, peace and liberation, joy and all good gifts—for you, no matter who you are.

So let us listen. Let us hear. And like those shepherds let us rise. Let us rise to see this thing that has taken place which the Lord has made known to us: Through Isaiah, through Luke, and through Jesus. Amen.

12.20.20 When the Wait is Over Isaiah 25.6-9, Luke 2.22-40 Sermon Summary

Waiting is a universal human experience. We all are waiting for something. And we all are waiting for the same things. We are waiting for the COVID impact to disappear with the masks, limited gatherings, and travel restrictions. We’re waiting for the inauguration to finally end the election. And we are waiting for Santa.

Some things are easier to wait for than others. Kickoff is easy to wait for when you’re tailgating. But some things are harder to wait for, like the birth of a child. But we all are waiting for something.

This is one reason the prophet Isaiah makes such interesting reading. It was written by a number of authors and covers about 200 years. There are passages of warning, of judgment, of comfort, and of promise.

Here is a passage of promise and comfort to a nation threatened by war, to a people in exile from homeland, and to those who are waiting to see how it all turns out. Isaiah’s audience is  waiting for the hardest thing to wait for: Justice.

On one hand Isaiah is encouraging faithfulness among those who wait. On the other hand Isaiah is writing about God. The shroud of death will be removed. God wipes every tearful eye dry. The people’s disgrace will be taken away.

But Isaiah’s “big picture” point is that waiting reveals God. God is known by God’s actions. Actions take time to occur. So God is revealed through time. And over time, we have to wait.

Today we jump ahead to Jesus’ presentation at the Temple. Mary and Joseph had been waiting. Luke begins the account with, “When the time came . . .” It is probably about forty days after the birth of Jesus. Mary and Joseph had been practicing their ritual.

Ritual is important because it helps us to wait. It marks time. And it helps us to remember God’s actions in the past. God acts, and humanity responds with ritual.

So eight days after his birth Jesus is circumcised and named. And now Mary has come for the purification ritual and to offer a sacrifice. God is revealed through time and ritual.

Then Luke introduces us to Simeon and Anna, two more people who are waiting. And they teach us more about what it means to wait faithfully. Simeon, we’re told, is, “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” He is, “righteous and devout,” which means he practices ritual. But more, “the Spirit was upon him,” and he was, “moved by the Spirit to enter Temple courts.”

Simeon is a Spirit-led person. He’s not just waiting around. He’s not just waiting for something. He is waiting with spiritual attention. Simeon may just be an ordinary guy who is also Spirit-led. But Anna is something different.

Anna is basically like what we would understand as a nun. She lived at the Temple in continual worship, prayer, and fasting. But Luke hides clues about Anna in the details we’re also told. She is the daughter of Penuel, which means “face of God.” This suggests that she has intimate and personal knowledge of God.

She is from the tribe of Asher which was one of the “ten lost tribes” when Assyria defeated the Northern Kingdom. And she is eighty-four, which is seven (the number of perfection or wholeness in the Bible) times twelve (the number of the original tribes of Israel). Eighty-four is the complete number of tribes.

What Luke is telling us through Anna is that, “In Jesus God is redeeming the lost and restoring God’s people.” So Luke writes, “she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Finally, we can return to Mary and Joseph. They have been waiting to go home. That’s another one of the hard thing to wait for. But look what happened? As they waited, as they performed ritual, God was revealed to them. God was revealed through the Shepherds who shared on the night of Jesus’ birth, through Simeon who spoke of the history of God’s people, and through Anna who gave thanks to God.

God was revealed as Mary and Joseph performed ritual, followed the Spirit, and remembered God’s promises. And this is true for us as well. Before the shroud of death can be lifted, before the tears are wiped away, before we find ourselves home again, we sometimes have to wait. And in the waiting God will be revealed. Amen.

12.13.20 Old Story, New Spin Isaiah 57.14-19 Luke 1.26-35, 46-55 Sermon Summary

You may be a lover of literature, or have a “great books” education, or perhaps you’ve just lived long enough to realize that great stories share some universal narrative plotlines. The Christmas story is one of those.

The Christmas story contains plot turns that precede the New Testament and storylines that are found in other traditions. These include light shining in darkness, redemption arising out of the ashes of defeat, and hope sprouting from soils of despair. They include young leadership inspiring new vision, the reversal of fortunes between oppressors and oppressed, and the proud being humbled while the humble are exalted. 

Even more, the rich are exposed as empty and the poor shown to be full. Slaves realize they’re really free and the so-called free are actually enslaved. The forsaken in these stories emerge as blessed and the blessed end up being cursed.

All this is in the Christmas story as it is in every great story. Great narratives share these traits over time and across cultures.

Isaiah the Jew told this story. Luke the Christian told it also. The big difference between other great stories and biblical stories is that other great stories don’t necessarily identify God. The Bible does.

Miraculous events, incredible deliverances, providential coincidences, and exceptional individuals—in other great stories God may or may not be involved. But the Bible attributes all these to God.

For the prophet Isaiah the return of the people from Exile is all God’s doing. Ancient Israel was greedy, oppressing the poor to gain wealth, and chasing after other gods. So the God of Israel hid himself and the people existed AS IF without God, though God was ever watchful. 

The people suffered the tyranny of self-reliance and eventually they were conquered. But God who is faithful even when we are not, delivered them from Exile, from their self-imposed separation from God. God healed them in this deliverance. In this healing, despite their suffering, they could have joy. 

Some of us are in exile this morning. Circumstances have landed us far from God’s promised land. Decisions we’ve made have separated us from God. And we wonder, Can we ever return? Will we ever get back? What will become of our brokenness?

Isaiah wants us to know that God will not always be distant. God will remember that we are weak but also remember that we are created in God’s image. God will heal us. God will bring us home.

I wonder, Did Mary think of this when the messenger Gabriel came? Did she remember this old story given her new spin? She was going to become pregnant with a Savior, with a Son of God, with a King. We’re told she questioned. “How could this be?”

Did Mary just “know,” as some women just know, that she was already pregnant as Gabriel spoke to her? Was she buying time to try to get her mind around the message? Or did she question because she questioned God’s choice? “How can this be?” she said. What she was really asking was, “How can this be happening to ME?”

Did she remember Isaiah? That God will come near? That God will compensate for our weakness? That God’s image resides within us? That with God our lives can be born again?

Did she remember her history as a Jew? That her betrothed Joseph was named for the man through whom God saved Israel? That her Joseph was of the house of David the shepherd king whose leadership was the ideal? Did it occur to her that her son would inaugurate a season of salvation and another ideal kingdom?

Jews rehearse their history over and over. Mary knew these things. What Gabriel said was not particularly surprising. She could envision her child doing these things. Why not? It’s the same old story, just a new spin. Before with Abraham, then with Joseph, next with David, and this time with Jesus—beginning with Mary. 

It’s the same story, just a new spin. It’s like the refrain of a song, a chorus that returns over and over and says, “God saves God’s people.” So Mary sings. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and I am filled with joy.”

You also are familiar with this story. It underlies the stories that inspire you most. Stories from the history of our nation. Stories from the lore of your family. Remembrances from your own life. New beginnings arise out of endings. Hope surprises from despair. Light bursts into darkness. Joy inexplicably accompanies sorrowful situations.

Will you do as Mary does? As Isaiah does? As Luke does? Will you recognize God in your story? Will you say yes? Will you believe? Will you believe in joy even when sadness reigns?

May the words of Gabriel resound in your ears: “Do not be afraid; you have found favor with God. And now a new life will be conceived in you: A new life giving light, a new life giving hope, a new life giving love, a new life giving peace, a new life giving joy.” Amen.

12.06.20 Peace through Gracious Truth Isaiah 9, John 1 Sermon Summary

The “Prologue” to John’s Gospel combines contemporary philosophy, universal religious convictions, Jewish themes, and Christian doctrine. We could spend months on these eighteen verses. But when placed in conversation with Isaiah we hear specific harmonies, and Isaiah narrows our interpretation of John to manageable proportions.

The prophet Isaiah is also the painter Isaiah. He uses vivid images and allegories to get his point across. The prophet Isaiah is also the poet Isaiah. He uses repetition, word play, and metaphors. And of course the prophet Isaiah is the prophet Isaiah, speaking God’s truth and dealing cards of hope from a deck of memories.

Isaiah’s audience is a people nearing the end of war. It has been a long night of darkness, and they desperately want the dawn of a new day. They have suffered one hardship after another. In the words of Isaiah he refers to: The “yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.”

Today we might hear, “fear over physical health, anxiety over our nation’s future, and the weight of financial debt.” But Isaiah the painter, the poet, and the prophet says, “All these, God has broken. “God has broken the long night with the light of dawn.

“The darkness of war, the sounds of trampling boots, and the blood stained uniforms of soldiers,” Isaiah says, “will yield to peace. The birth of this new day comes like the birth of a new child. We know it is coming and yet we must wait.

“But the child will come, and his name will be Wonderful Counselor—with words of comfort and assurance. It will be Mighty God—vanquishing our insecurities. It will be Everlasting Father—providing for our care. But most of all,” the prophet says, “the name will be Prince of Peace, embodying the hope of a kingdom of peace, a kingdom built on social justice and right relationships.”

In the prophet Isaiah, the light of peace is promised. Heard against this background one of John’s messages stands out: In the birth of Jesus the new day of Isaiah has dawned. The Prince of Peace has come. The end of the war is near, but not as Isaiah envisioned it. It comes not with a victory through violence followed by a perpetual peace. Rather it comes through the non-violence of love.

Jesus taught and lived, “Love your enemies,” that we might become “children of God.” Commenting on this dynamic, the apostle Paul wrote that, “we are more than conquerors.” Evil in our lives and the life of the world are not conquered by force but more, they are transformed by love.

John saw what Martin Luther King saw: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (“Love your Enemies” in Strength to Love, p. 47)

Isaiah, John, King, and Jesus all saw something new. The Law came through Moses. Laws can maintain harmony but they cannot bring peace. What is new is that grace and truth come through Jesus Christ. And with this gracious truth comes peace.

What is gracious truth?

Truth identifies the way things are and identifies us as we are. The Law is helpful here in that it shows us where we fall short. Truth speaks hard words: “You are broken. You are sick. You are addicted. You are proud. You are uncaring.” Truth is what we confess in our prayer of reconciliation.

Grace speaks another word: “You weren’t meant to be these things. God did not create you for this. You would not choose this for yourself. The light of life still flickers. A new day can dawn in your life. You can be reborn as a child of God.” Gracious truth is what we hear in our words of assurance: Your sins have been forgiven and you are reconciled to God and to one another.

Jesus said, “by loving your enemies you may become children of God, for blessed are the peacemakers; they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:44-45, 9)

“Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Child I have in mind: With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind. To show God’s love aright she bore to us a Savior, when half-gone was the night.”

“Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding,” Paul wrote in Romans 14:19. Let us pursue peace by living according to God’s gracious truth found in Jesus Christ. Amen.

11.29.20 Loving in Fear and Faith Isaiah 7.1-14 Matthew 1.1-25 Sermon Summary

As someone who’s been involved with weddings for about thirty years now, I can tell you that engaged couples deal with fear: Fear the ceremony won’t go as planned, fear of in-laws, fear of what the best-man might say in his speech, or the fear of marriage itself. 

Joseph had cause for fear. We’re told he was a righteous man and he was engaged to an apparently unrighteous woman. But Joseph was not alone, and Matthew makes certain that we know this.

In Matthew’s telling of the story, Jesus is the promised Jewish Messiah. We know he’s Jewish because he is the son of Abraham. We know he’s qualified to be the Messiah because he is the son of David.

But Jesus is also the son of Mary. It’s Mary who gives Jesus his humanity, who ensures that he’s part of the human family. And the human family isn’t perfect.

It’s here that engaged couples discover another fear: There are skeletons in the closet of their new family. There are imperfect family stories and imperfect family members. Maybe you discover you have half-siblings from a parent’s indiscretion, or the family wealth was gained by cheating, or there are relatives cut off because of their sexual identity, or there’s an uncle who abuses his family.

Most people keep silent about these stories. They ignore this part of their story, but in doing so they ignore this part of their humanity. But Jesus came to redeem all of our humanity—our proud moments and our despicable ones. And so Matthew begins with a genealogy. It isn’t accurate but more of a “metaphorical map” according to Jewish New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine.

The genealogy includes five women whose stories stocked Jesus’ family closet with lots of skeletons. Their stories are our assurance that Jesus is human. It is the guarantee that he redeems the whole human family.

The first woman is Tamar Judah’s daughter-in-law. First she was married to Judah’s son Er who died. Being without children, she was obligated to marry Judah’s next son Onan. (Onan has his own crawlspace in Jesus’ family closet—even having a “sin” named after him in Roman Catholic and fundamentalists circles. . .) 

When Onan died without producing any children, Tamar was supposed to marry Judah’s next son Shelah but Judah procrastinated. Why? Judah was afraid Shelah would die like his two older brothers.

So Tamar took matters into her own hands. She dressed as a prostitute and was hired by Judah. When found to be pregnant, she was judged but acquitted herself with his staff and ring, the payment he made for her. Judah was forced to conclude that, “Tamar is more righteous than I.”

These two are in Jesus’ family tree. They are two of his great grandparents. 

The second woman is Rahab who really was a prostitute. She lived in Jericho at the beginning of the conquest. Joshua sent two spies who “visited” Rahab’s place and were discovered. She hid them and aided their escape and in return they spared her when Jericho was destroyed.

Rahab is one of Jesus’ great grandmothers.

The third woman is named Ruth. She married into a Jewish family but her husband died. Instead of returning to her own people, she remained with her mother-in-law Naomi and followed her back to Bethlehem.

Later while harvesting in a field, Ruth seduces a relative of her dead husband named Boaz. She marries Boaz. Ruth is one of Jesus’ great grandmothers.

The fourth woman is called the “Wife of Uriah” but we know her better as Bathsheba. In today’s parlance, Bathsheba was the object of King David’s “unwanted sexual advances.” When she became pregnant David arranged Uriah’s death. 

David then married Bathsheba because the law required rape victims to marry their rapists. And these two are among Jesus’ great grandparents.

All of these men and women with their skeletons in the closets are part of Jesus’ family tree. Incest, prostitution, seduction, rape, murder: And you thought your closet was full!

What is Matthew’s point? It is that Jesus in his full humanity can redeem us in our humanity. And there’s another point: Don’t conclude too quickly that what appears to unrighteous is automatically beyond God’s redeeming. 

And so finally we arrive at Mary the engaged but pregnant teen. Her betrothed Joseph needs some convincing. He has a dream in which an angel says to him, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Don’t be afraid to treat her lovingly.” Maybe the angel reminded Joseph of this genealogy.

Then the angel quoted Isaiah: “Don’t worry about the kingdoms allied against you, Ahaz. See that young woman over there? By the time she gets married, has a child, and the child is weaned, your enemies will be no more. Don’t be afraid!”

Joseph awoke and thought about Mary. “In the time we marry,” he thinks, “and the child is born, God’s salvation will come.”

Fear not, love in faith. In love is trust in God. In love is hope of redemption. In love is salvation. Joseph was called to trust God and to treat Mary lovingly.

Let us ask today: Whom are we called to love? You can act lovingly. You can believe in love even when you don’t feel it. 

God of our lives, help us to love you, as Jesus commanded us, with all of our hearts, with all of our minds, with all of our actions, and with all of our souls. You have made us for relationship with you, and we cannot be fully human without this love. 

Jesus also commanded us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Help us to love ourselves. Because love covers over a multitude of sin, help us to regard our sins as you do—as a loving friend. Grant us humility to accept your grace in our own lives, not holding on to past failures and disappointments or grandiose images we have of ourselves, that in accepting your grace we may also fully receive your love.

Then help us to love our neighbors as you love them in Christ, for not only did Jesus command this also, but they need this love, and we need to show it. Help us to love, even when it is difficult or we don’t feel like loving. 

With the love we have for our nation, may we love all the citizens and residents who live within it. With the love we have for our friends, may we strive to love our enemies. With the love we have for material things, may we love those who live in material insecurity. With the love we have for those who can help us, may we love those who have nothing to offer. With the love we have for our brothers and sisters in Christ, may we love our cousins in other faiths, and all your children everywhere. With the love we have for our life on this earth, may we love all your creatures and preserve their well-being. 

Help us to love you through the trials of our lives, and through the dangers we face. We pray for those who are ill; may they know that your love of life brings healing through resurrection. We pray for those who are traveling; may they enjoy your protection as they explore your world. We pray for those who are buckling under the stress of these days; may they know peace in the love you have for them, as you share their burdens. We pray for the heart-broken, for the grieving, for the ones dwelling in spiritual darkness, and those whose emotional scars are a constant reminder of trauma; may they believe in your love even when they don’t feel it.

11.22.20 Turn Right at the Corner Isaiah 40 with Mark 1 Sermon Summary

Shortly after the new corona virus arrived we were told relief was “just around the corner.” “Just stay at home,” we were told. “The summer sun will make it disappear,” we were told. “Everyone wear a mask,” we’re told. These provided some relief but not deliverance. This week we might actually see the corner! There are at least two promising vaccines “just around the corner.”

The Bible also talks about rounding a corner.

Isaiah was writing at such a turning point. Ancient Israel had been exiled to Babylon for 70 years and were on the threshold of returning home. He speaks of a voice in the wilderness crying, “Prepare the way of the LORD!” Mark picks up this image and applies it to John the Baptist. John’s is the voice from Isaiah.

Isaiah begins with words of comfort. This is the same word as Jesus used in the Sermon on Mount: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Why do we need comfort? Because we mourn so many losses. Isaiah’s audience had lost their homes, their homeland, and their religious base. 

We have lost jobs, schooling, and our mobility. Some of us have lost our health. Some have even lost their lives. 

As he watched the turning point get closer, nearing the corner, Isaiah used visual aids to assure the people of God. The mountains of debt will be made low. The valleys of anxiety will be raised up. And the rough places of strained relationships will be made smooth. 

Finally, Isaiah envisioned a shepherd king tending his flock, gathering the lambs, carrying us close to the divine heart, and preparing a table before us. Mark again picks up this image from Isaiah and applies it to Jesus. It is Jesus who brings us near to God and feeds us in the wilderness. 

Isaiah says, “Prepare your bags!” John says, “Repent and be baptized.” And John says one more thing: One is coming, THE One is coming—our comfort, our deliverer, the LORD. The corner of our comfort has arrived.

Jesus came to John and was baptized. After John is imprisoned, Jesus begins his preaching. His message? Very similar to John’s: “The time is now. The Kingdom is at hand. Repent and believe.”

What shall we do at this corner? At the intersection of this world and the Kingdom? At the crossroads of our sinful lives and God’s righteousness? Isaiah says prepare for it. John says it is coming soon. Jesus says, “It is here; repent and believe.”

Repent means “to turn.” It means to turn from one way to another, from one destination to another, from the ways of the world to the ways of the Kingdom. It is to turn from paths of power, control, riches to path of love. To turn from sinfulness to righteousness. To turn to the right. 

At the corner, turn right. That corner is Jesus. This is the good news of Jesus. The time is now, the kingdom has come, it’s time to repent and believe. 

But Mark says this is only “the beginning” of the good news of Jesus. The good news includes Jesus’ example, his teaching, his suffering and death, and his resurrection and promised return. “Resurrection and promised return.” The kingdom has come and yet its fullness is still coming. The corner has arrived but it takes time to round it.

In Jesus’ resurrection and promised return we are assured that life follows death, that dawn follows night, that healing follows brokenness, and that singing follows silence. There is no darker night than death. There is no greater brokenness than death. There is no more profound silence than death.

But the good news of Jesus is that God has overcome death. Christ’s resurrection promises the dawning of a new day, the healing of old wounds, and the singing of new songs. 

We begin Advent today. It is a season of remembrance, of remembering Jesus’ first coming and remembering Jesus’ promised return. And the Lord’s Supper reminds us that Jesus is present even now.

So let us believe in the light even when it is dark. Let us believe in God’s strength even when we are weak. Let us believe in harmony even when there is dissonance all around.

And when you come to the corner of the Lord’s Table, turn right, and believe in God’s presence even when God feels distant. Amen.