Throughout the gospels, Jesus provokes a variety of responses. Sometimes that response is awe or wonder, sometimes anger or fear, sometimes trust or courage or love or faith. But today’s gospel is the only one, I think, that would provoke someone to want to slap Jesus.
You know, I was watching a video a couple of years ago about this gospel text and the video was a recording of people’s reactions to hearing the story we have this morning. And, without fail, the first reaction of every single person was, “those poor parents.”
Followed closely by a response of something along the lines of, “What a typical 12 year old boy.”
See, in Jesus’ time, 13 was pretty much the age of maturity, the age when you were no longer seen as a child, but a young man. So at 12 years old, Jesus would have been right on the cusp of manhood.
So as his family is heading home from Jerusalem, after celebrating Passover, it’s completely understandable how things might have gotten confused. See, in those days, the women and children would have traveled together and the men would have traveled together.
And at 12, Jesus very reasonably could have been with either group. But as it turns out, he wasn’t with either and he got left behind.
And for those of you out there thinking, “oh, that would never happen to me!”, trust me, it’s not that hard to do! Growing up, we used to leave my little sister behind at church pretty regularly for this exact same reason, not realizing until both cars got home that, nope, she wasn’t in either car!
And after being on the road for a day, Mary and Joseph got together in the evening and realized that, nope, he’s not with you, either! So they turned around and headed back another day’s journey to Jerusalem.
And for 3 days they looked for Jesus. So keep in mind that, by the time they found him, he’d been missing for 5 days. And they finally found him in the temple, sitting with the temple teachers, listening and asking questions.
And our gospel says that, “when his parents saw him, they were astonished.” And Mary said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? We’ve been looking for you in great anxiety.”
Mm Hmm… I’m sure that’s what she said.
And Jesus does himself no favors when he responds, “Well, why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know I would be here? This is where I belong!”
Can you even imagine a more 12-year-old response? “What? What’s the big deal?” Bah!
And this is the point where even the most calm, level-headed, reasonable mom or dad would just lose it! Our gospel writer doesn’t say exactly what happens next, only that, “they didn’t understand what he said to them.”
I think this might be one of those “read-between-the-lines” sentences. Because whatever happened in that moment, our gospel says that the whole family headed back to Nazareth and, from then on, Jesus was obedient to them.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and years and Mary treasured all these things in her heart.
God bless Mary and Joseph! What heartache for them! To live through such panic and anxiety, to know the fear of losing your most precious belonging. But even worse, to know in your heart that your beloved eldest son isn’t really yours to hang on to.
In some ways, all parents go through this as kids start to reach adulthood. At some point, parents realized that their son or daughter isn’t really theirs to hang on to, that this beloved and precious child actually has a life that is all their own.
Sometimes it happens suddenly, maybe when a child moves out and goes to college or gets a job. Or maybe it happens slowly, over many years, as you watch your precious child become their own person.
At some point, all parents eventually realize what they have known in secret for years: this beloved precious child does not belong to you and never has. This child is a gift from God, placed in your hands, for safe-keeping.
Parenthood is the vocation of serving as stewards of God’s gift of life. And it’s life that does not, and has never, belonged to you.
You know, when I meet with families for baptism prep, I will tell them that after the baptism, once the water has washed over their forehead, I will steal their son or daughter and walk him or her down the aisle.
And I tell them that I do this for 2 reasons. #1 – Babies are cute and most everyone gets joy from babies, so let’s celebrate together. But reason #2 – and more important, in baptism, God claims your child as a member of the Body of Christ forever.
So once we baptize your child, they no longer belong to you. They belong to the Body of Christ. This child who has been baptized now belongs to God, to this body, to us. So once the baptism has happened, I will take your child, and I will present him or her to their new family.
But then, I also tell the family, once we have welcomed this child into the body, we will hand this child back to you, to care for and to nurture.
As the body of Christ together, we are trusting you, who this child will call Mom and Dad, to raise this child in love, and in faith, and to teach them what this day of baptism means for them.
But whatever you do, don’t be under any illusion that this child belongs to you. In baptism, we are claimed by God and are joined to the Body of Christ. Which really means 2 things.
#1 – We do not belong to one another. Jesus did not belong to Mary and Joseph. I have no claim of ownership on you. And you have no claim of ownership on me. In baptism, no matter how deep the love between us, we do not belong to one another.
We belong to God. We are created, named, and claimed by God who brought us into being, sustains us, and, one day, will bring us home. But we do not belong to one another. We are free.
But the second thing our baptism does, is it joins us to one another in the Body of Christ. In baptism, God claims us as his own, and then he turns us over to the body, to be cared for and nurtured and taught what it means to belong to God.
Look around you this morning sometime. These are the people God has given to you to help care for and nurture you, to teach you what it means to belong to God.
And as you look around, as you wonder either, “How did I get so lucky?” or “What was God thinking?”, as you look around at the people gathered together, remember also that these are the people God has entrusted to you, to care for and to nurture, and to teach what it means to belong to God.
Our gospel lesson this morning puts us in an odd spot. On the one hand, we feel for Mary and Joseph. I can’t even imagine the horror of your child missing for 5 days. For wanting to grab on and never let go.
But on the other hand, we also get the words of Jesus, who, even at 12 years old, speaks the truth when he tells his loving parents, “Where else would I be? This is where I belong.”
As painful as it was, and as even more painful as it was going to get, Jesus just didn’t belong to them. Just as we do not belong to one another.
And in faith, we are called to do the most difficult work of our entire lives; to love deeply and to hold on loosely.
This Christmas season, as our families and loved ones gather, we give thanks for these gifts from God, these gifts of life and love that God has entrusted to us to care for and nurture and teach, and, when the time comes, to let go.
In faith, we are reminded this first Sunday after Christmas that whatever else we know, we know that we belong to God, who has promised to never let us go.
I was asked recently if I have a favorite Christmas song, and I had to answer, in all honesty, that no, I don’t have a favorite Christmas song. Well, besides Feliz Navidad.
But besides Feliz Navidad, I don’t really have a favorite Christmas song.
What I do have, is a kind of “annual Christmas anthem”, or “theme song” for the season, you might say. Every year, a different song catches my ear and speaks to the season in a particular way. And this year, my “Christmas anthem”, for a variety of reasons, has been “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.
Last night at the Christmas Eve service, we talked about the line, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
But this morning I want to look at another line, specifically, the last line of the last verse, “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”
I’m guessing you all know this, but the name God gives Godself, “Emmanuel”, is the Hebrew word meaning, literally, “God-with-us”.
In the incarnation, in taking on flesh and blood, God literally became “God-with-us”. Our life and future became God’s life and future. And God’s life and future became our life and future.
And sadly, but understandably, this is one of those things that we talk about often enough that it starts to lose its earth-shaking, life-changing power in our lives.
Do you know what this means?! That God has come to be Emmanuel, God-with-us?
It means that whatever we do, wherever we go, however far or deep we fall, God is with us. In the good and beautiful and the horrific and cruel.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” but it’s the story of a young Jewish boy and a young German boy who meet at the fence of a concentration camp and become friends.
And near the end of the movie, the young Jewish boy tells his friend that he can’t find his dad.
So his young German friend tells him to bring him an extra pair of those striped pajamas and he will sneak under the fence and help him look for his dad.
And as you watch the scene unfold, the only thing you can think is, “Noooo! Don’t do it! Don’t go in there!”
But that’s what Jesus does. That’s the incarnation.
Christmas is Jesus putting on striped pajamas and sneaking in to share our death with us, to abide with us in the darkest and worst we can experience and the darkest and worst we inflict on others. To be God-with-us, Emmanuel.
This is what we celebrate this Christmas morning.
Too often we treat faith as the thing that lifts us up out of the muck, above the mess and the gray areas and the difficulties of life. We treat faith as an answer that’s supposed to save us from struggle and pain, the black and white in a life of gray.
But if the incarnation teaches us anything, it’s that to follow Jesus is to walk right into the muck and the mess and all the gray areas and to know, God is there, too.
And in all of it, the voice of faith is the voice of impossibility that proclaims in the face of even death that even in this, God goes with us. Faith is the voice that leads us to the Way of Life, even when that way leads through times of death.
A woman named Brene Brown said not too long ago, “I wanted faith to work like an epidural; to numb the pain of vulnerability. As it turned out, my faith ended up being more like a midwife – a nurturing partner who leans into the discomfort with me and whispers “push” and “breathe.”
In the incarnation, in the birth of Jesus, God entered not just into our lives, but into our death as well, so that we might share, once and for all, in God’s life.
And every year, year in and year out, we celebrate this earth-shaking, life-changing gift we call “Christmas”. An event too big for words, too deep to see the end, to profound to ever really understand.
But every year we try. Every year we gather again to proclaim and to celebrate that God has come, and it coming, and will come. And to pray and sing once again,
“O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!”
What’s your favorite Christmas song? You know, that song that, for you, just makes Christmas Christmas. You got a favorite song?
For me, that song is “Feliz Navidad”! I love that song! Now, you’ve got to understand: during other times of the year, I like things clean, simple, uncluttered (contrary to the current state of my office), but when it comes to Christmas,
I’m all about over-the-top, cheesy, “it looks like Christmas just exploded in here”, style. And when it comes to Christmas songs, I don’t think any other song captures that mood quite like “Feliz Navidad”.
Can’t resist it! Pretty much every year, that’s my rock-out Christmas song. But my second favorite song, well, that changes pretty much every year.
Because every year is different, every Christmas season brings its own joys and challenges, its own hopes and uncertainties.
My life looks different this year than it did last year. Quite a bit different, actually. Which means that every year my #2 Christmas song is up for grabs.
And this year, I’d have to say, my “Christmas anthem”, my holiday theme song, has been, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. For a lot of reasons, really, but in particular for that last line of that first verse, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
You know, by this time next year, this country will have elected a new president. Campaign season will be over. But for now, as I’m sure you’re all well aware, we’re right in the middle of it.
And if there is anything that elections do, anything that change does, really, is it brings to the surface all our hopes and our fears.
You might notice that the politicians who tend to do really well are the ones who find the words that gives a voice to all those silent things, all those hopes and fears, we dare not speak out loud.
When the future is uncertain and up for grabs, those scars of quiet resignation that we all carry tend to break open again. And we feel acutely all over again the pain of every time hope has been crushed and expectations were not realized.
And we know, so clearly, all the ways that we are all broken and untrustworthy and so far from perfect. How we can’t help but hurt one another, even when we’re just trying to do the right thing, the good thing.
When the future is up for grabs, there lives in all of us a voice that says, “Now is the time to be afraid. The future is not to be trusted. My neighbor is not to be trusted. I know too much. I have seen too much, to think that anything could ever be different. Be afraid.”
The voice of fear is real, and alive, and powerful.
But as loud as that voice is, as painful and as real as those wounds are, just as persistent is the voice of hope. The voice that whispers through the cracks, in the dark corners, through the cacophony of fear, “But what if?”
What if peace is possible? What if I could forgive? What if I did trust?
What if “young people” aren’t all narcissistic free-loaders? What if “old people” aren’t all stuck-in-the-mud sentimentalists?
What if the church isn’t a place of judgement and hypocrisy? What if faith is more than God’s great list of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice?
What if we could, together, be something more than the sum of our parts?
Hope is the voice that whispers, through the cadence of fear, that maybe, just maybe, what lies ahead is worth running after, not running from.
“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Take a moment, just a moment, and think back through your whole life…Every fear you have ever felt…Every hope you have ever carried…
See this for what it is, which is rather definitive proof that you are human. And know that the person beside you, and in front of you, and behind you, carries just as many hopes and fears as you do.
And take a moment to think of all those gathered here tonight. Each and every one of us brings to this assembly a lifetime of fears and a lifetime of hopes. All together in this one room. And every hope and every fear is gathered together tonight before God.
“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
It is on this night, this Christmas Eve night, that we remember and celebrate that God has come among us, that God has taken on our lives, so that we might share in God’s life.
That we have not been left alone with only our hopes and our fears to guide us.
But that God calls each of us to place both our hopes and our fears at the feet of Jesus. To hear the voice of God say, “Whatever lies ahead, whatever it may be, you will be with me, and I will be with you.” Emmanuel, God-with-us.
That’s the promise we get. We’re never promised that things will be happy or easy or that there will be nothing to be afraid of.
Throughout the Christmas story, the angels visit Mary, and they visit Joseph, and they visit the shepherds and each time they bring a message to “Fear not!” They never tell them, “There is nothing to be afraid of.”
The promise of God is not that God will make your life happy or easy. The promise of God is that, whatever lies ahead, God will be with you. Emmanuel. God-with-us.
I can’t tell you who the next president will be. I don’t know what my life, let alone anyone else’s life! will look like a year from now. I don’t know what the future holds.
But what I do know is that, whatever it will be, it will be with God.
God has been born in a manger, come in flesh and blood, borne the weight of humanity in Godself; God has entered into our lives so that we might share forever in God’s life.
I don’t know what the future holds, but whatever it will be, it will be with God. That’s a promise. That’s God’s promise.
And tonight, whatever your hopes, whatever your fears, tonight the invitation is to bring them as your offering before our King, to lay your whole life before God.
And, in return, to be filled with the peace that is beyond understanding, to grab as if your life depended on it, the promise of Jesus, our Emmanuel, God-with-us. To listen, closely, for that whisper of God, that voice of hope, calling over and over this Christmas night, “What if? What if?”
I like John the Baptist. A lot. He’s got moxie. Like him or hate him, you know where he stands. And it’s pretty clear he’s not a politician, he’s a prophet. I mean, come on! John starts his “stump speech” by calling the good, religious folks who had gathered to hear him, “spawn of vipers.”
And then goes on to tell them that that thing that gives them so much pride and identity, this lineage to Abraham, the father of their faith, means nothing.
It’s as if John said to the people, “Don’t even try to say to yourselves, ‘Well, my parents and grandparents were important members of this church.’
For I tell you, God is able to raise up descendants of church members from the rocks in the parking lot. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees, and every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Eesh. A real hellfire and brimstone preacher, that John. But you can’t argue that he didn’t grab people’s attention! John basically told this crowd of nice, religious people,
And what’s really remarkable is that rather than getting mad or walking away or calling John a nut, they listened to him! And they asked him, “What should we do??”
So John told them. He told them what to do. And he told them that if they have two coats, they should give one to someone who doesn’t have any coats. And if they have more food than what they need, they should share it with someone who doesn’t have enough food.
And if you’re a tax collector, stop charging extra to line you own pocket. And if you’re a soldier, don’t extort people with threats and lies.
Basically, John told the people to stop being jerks. I mean really, this was John’s BIG MESSAGE OF REPENTANCE to the people: Stop being jerks to one another!
And apparently, this was such a novel idea that, as our gospel says, “The people wondered in their hearts whether John might be the Messiah?”
Really?! I mean, I believe that John was a good preacher. He drew big crowds and even after Jesus started his ministry, there will still people who continued to follow John. So I trust that he was a pretty charismatic guy, but come on!
His big idea is to not lie and steal and take advantage of one another? Those are some pretty low Messianic expectation!
But John sets them straight. No, he is not the Messiah. He is the voice that comes ahead of the Messiah, the one that calls people to turn around and pay attention.
The look out. The one standing at the door while you’re up to no good, watching for Mom or Dad coming around the corner.
And John tells the crowds that have gathered that there is another coming, just around the corner. And the one who is coming does not baptize with water, but with the Holy Spirit and fire, and John himself, prophet of God, is not even worthy to untie his shoes.
And this one who is coming, his winnowing fork is in his hand, the shovel with which he will gather up all the grain into the granary and scoop up all the chaff and throw it into the unquenchable fire, where it will burn…
“And with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
John was the messenger. He was not the Messiah. He came as a prophet, as one who points the way, who points us to the one who is the Messiah. And in many ways, John was right.
But in some ways, he got it wrong, too. Just like those nice religious people who came down to the Jordan for John’s baptism of repentance. Those same ones who would eventually hand Jesus over to crucifixion.
We don’t have it in this year’s lectionary, but some years, we hear the story of how John himself would come to doubt Jesus. See, John, it turns out, expected Jesus to be the Messiah who would make things right. The one who would finally draw the line in the sand between good and evil, between righteous and condemned.
The Messiah who would come in and drive out the Romans and reestablish the Kingdom of Israel and restore faith and goodness to God’s people, by words and deeds, of course, but by force if necessary.
And as John sat in jail near the end of his life, and as Jesus was roaming about eating with sinners and tax collectors, healing the sick, and preaching peace, forgiveness, and vulnerability, John sent one of his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you actually the one we have been waiting for, or is there another coming?”
Did I get it all wrong? This isn’t what I thought it was going to be. In some ways, John, like the people he was preaching to, got it all wrong.
But of course, John also got it right. Because Jesus is the Messiah who made things right. And he is the Messiah who drew the line in the sand. And he is the Messiah who renewed the Kingdom of God.
And what was made right was what needed to made right: this chasm between us and God. In coming in flesh and bone and blood, God took on humanity, took our very being into Godself. Came into our life, so that we might share in God’s life.
And in offering back to us the body and blood of Christ at the table, renews that promise and closes that chasm over and over again, every time we share this meal together.
And Jesus has drawn the line in the sand, between good and evil, between righteous and condemned. But as Aleksander Solzhenitsyn has said, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
The line in the sand has been drawn, and it has been drawn right through the middle of all of us. And that which does not serve God or God’s kingdom is tossed out, refined out of us in the fire of the Holy Spirit.
In our journey of faith, Christ is at work, scalpel in hand, carving out greed, envy, self-righteousness, fear from within us, carving away and transforming all that stands between us and God. Jesus the Messiah has drawn the line in the sand, right through our own hearts.
And Jesus has indeed renewed, and is renewing, the Kingdom of God. But the foundation of that kingdom is not Abraham. And it is not your parents or your grandparents or your incredible Lutheran lineage. It is Jesus the Messiah.
And more specifically, it is the Jesus who is born anew in every generation, the Jesus who has named and claimed you and calls you onto the path of faith, calls you to take seriously the responsibility of your baptism.
The Kingdom of God is not about membership, but about discipleship.
John was not the Messiah. He was the messenger. He came to point the way to the one who is the Messiah, the one who has made things right, and who has drawn the line in the sand. The one who has renewed and is renewing and will renew the Kingdom of God.
“And with many other exhortations, John the Baptist proclaimed the Good News to the people.”
I don’t know if you guys are aware or not, but our 150th anniversary is coming up in a little more than a year. January 2017 will mark 150 years of God calling God’s people to ministry right here in downtown Green Bay. And not only is it our 150th anniversary, but 2017 is also the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
So I’m thinking, we need to have a party. Go big or go home, right? And if we’re going to pull off this big party, now is probably not too early to start thinking about it. How you prepare can make or break a good party.
And I was thinking about this as I was walking around the church this week, and the wheels were starting to turn. And I was thinking, “what do we need to do to get ready?” How do we want to prepare the space? How do we keep breathing fresh air into this building as we celebrate the last 150 years and prepare for the next 150?
Now, keep in mind, it doesn’t cost anything to dream, right? But I’m thinking a fresh coat of paint! New carpets! Vibrant art throughout the building! Spaces you just want to spend time in! I don’t know! But right now is the time to start getting ready!
But it doesn’t end there! It’s not just about the space, what about the people? What about you? Who are we gonna be in a year? How will we celebrate together? How will we grow into the people we dream of? Into the people God desires for us to be? How can we prepare ourselves?
And Advent’s about as good a time as any to ask the question. Advent is all about preparation. And anticipation. Anticipation! You know, anticipation is really one of the greatest experiences we can have. When you know something good is coming.
When vacation is coming, or a baby’s on the way, or the kids and grandkids will be showing up any minute, or you’re planning a big 150th anniversary celebration! Did you know, they have done studies that have shown that people get just as much, if not more, enjoyment from the anticipation of a vacation than the actual vacation?
And Advent is all about anticipation. About preparation. “Prepare the way of the Lord!”, John the Baptist tells us.
Make his paths straight, fill the valleys, level the hills, smooth out the potholes! Get ready! Something good is coming!”
Preparation matters. It’s not just getting from point A to point B, but how you move, when you move, who you move with. We are not “people of the destination”, we are “people of the Way”!
The call of Advent is to prepare the way of the Lord, to know, down to your core, that something good is coming. To live as if our whole lives are places of welcome and hospitality, place where God may build a home.
You know, in my prayers this last week, I was sitting with God and half apologizing/half lamenting that our relationship has seemed a bit more distant lately. And I was asking God, “How do we get back to one another? How can I love you better?” And the line that kept coming back to me over and over again was, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Prepare the way of the Lord. God cannot love us any more than what God already does, but how do we receive that love? How do we prepare our lives, our hearts, our homes, our families to welcome God, to anticipate God’s daily arrival among us?
And do we? Do we live with any anticipation at all? Do you know that something good is coming?
The trouble with long-term relationships is that it becomes pretty easy to take one another for granted. It’s easy to assume that if it was good once, it’ll always be good. But good and healthy relationships mean making time for one another, even God.
And as I sat with God in prayer, I was thinking about this, and thinking about all the ways I am willing and excited to prepare for a big party a YEAR down the road. All the planning and preparations that go into getting the space ready, and thinking about an invite list, and planning festivities.
The joy that comes with anticipation! Why would I give God’s arrival any less attention? Why would I not work to clear the path between us?
Prepare the way of the Lord! Make the path straight. Fill the valleys. Level the hills. Smooth out the road. Get ready! Something good is coming! Advent is the season to wake up!
And I know, I know, we’re Lutherans. We get a little squeamish talking about works, or about anything even remotely resembling relying on our good works. So if anyone is sitting out there thinking, “This is sounding an awful lot like works righteousness,” let me be clear –
You’re good with God. You are all in God’s good graces, because, and only because, God has made it happen. And nothing you do or don’t do will lead to God loving you any more or any less. Period.
God cannot love you any more than what God already does.
But if you find yourself this holiday season, in the middle of all the shopping and the baking and the holiday festivities, if you find yourself feeling oddly full and restless at the same time,
if you find yourself unable to shake that nagging voice that keeps whispering, “There is more than this,” then perhaps this is the season to hear the call of John the Baptist, to prepare the way of the Lord, to ready your heart and your home and your work and your family to greet our God.
Our God who has come, and is coming, and will come, to make smooth the pathway, to clear the way between yourself and God. Because something good is coming.
There’s a story from the new biography on Steve Jobs, you know, the guy who started Apple, helped to create iPhones, iPads, iEverything, about when he lost his faith as a child. His parents had been bringing him to a Lutheran church, actually, and one day when he was 13, Jobs came across a picture of a couple of starving kids from across the world. And he brought this picture in to show his pastor and asked, “Does God know about this?”
And his pastor responded, “I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knows about that.” And Steve Jobs announced to his parents that he wanted nothing to do with worshipping such a God, and he never went back to church.
“Does God know about this?” It’s a hard question not to ask as the news keeps coming in. Terrorism in France, millions of Syrians fleeing for their lives, only to find out that the ones they are fleeing from have met them again in Europe.
More bombings, more deaths, more lies, more fear. And certainly more to come before all is said and done. And none of that even begins to touch on your average, run of the mill terror that happens every day: gun deaths, cancer, domestic abuse, homelessness.
Sometimes it’s all just too much to even fathom, and we ask, “Does God know about this?”
I was listening to some commentators on Christian radio this week as they were talking about the upcoming Presidential elections. And they were talking about how none of the candidates were a “cut and dry” candidate. None of them matched up 100% with whatever their particular agenda was.
At which point, one of the commentators pointed out that, “Well, clearly, none of the candidates are Jesus!” Which got a good “knowing chuckle” from the others in the conversation.
But as I listened to that, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Would we actually want Jesus as president? Is Jesus the candidate you would vote for?”
I mean, if you think about how we rate our politicians, we rate them based on their plans, on the answers they propose.
I’d say on a good day, I’m like 60/40 in favor of Jesus. Like, for every 6 things Jesus says that I’m like “Yeah!”, there are about 4 things that I’m like, “Eh? Really? You serious?”
Things like “blessed are the peacemakers,” I’m like “Yeah! Definitely! Peace is good!” Or when Jesus tells his disciples that his new commandment is that they love one another, just as God has loved us, “Ok, let’s do it! I’m with you all the way, Jesus!”
But then there’s those times when Jesus says things like, “I have come to set father against son, mother against daughter, brother against brother.”
Or, “If you wish to inherit the kingdom of God, you must sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow me.”
No, no bad idea. That’ll never sell, Jesus.
For all our Christian bravado, I think Jesus would have a pretty hard time getting elected President. And if I’m gonna be honest, I’m not sure how I’d vote!
On a good day, I’m like 60/40 for Jesus. And sometimes, I just want something different, something more, from Jesus. Some days I just want clear answers and a plan and I want to know exactly what I and we are supposed to do. Just give me the answer, Jesus!
But that doesn’t seem to be how Jesus rolls. Like in our gospel today, when Jesus is standing before Pilate and he just lets Pilate get away with being an arrogant, self-righteous jerk.
Come on, Jesus! Couldn’t you show just a little bit of enthusiasm! Maybe a little more “oomph”, a little more bravado?
You know, like in the movies, when it looks like the bad guy is all but guaranteed to win, but then the good guy, who is usually tied up by this point, lays down the plan.
“Look, here’s how this is going to go. You’re going to kill me. And you’re going to think you’ve got the upper hand. You’re going to think your win is guaranteed. But just when you’ve let your guard down, I’ll be back, raised from the dead, and me and my followers are going to take the world by storm!
An army of peace and love and generosity, and the world will never be the same! You may think you’ve won, but I promise you, you haven’t seen anything yet! So go ahead, do your worst, kill me, Pilate!”
And Jesus stares down Pilate until Pilate is so unnerved that the finally looks away, and they haul Jesus out, his head held high. I’d elect that Jesus.
But that’s not the Jesus we get. The Jesus we get never actually answers a single question from Pilate. Never actually reveals his “grand plan.” Three times, Pilate asks him something and three times Jesus give some response from out in left field that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the question!
And this same thing happens ALL OVER the New Testament! And so often I am left just wanting more from Jesus. I want answers, I want “the plan”, I want to know what to do! But, it seems, the Jesus we get, Christ our King, is completely unelectable.
As I was preparing for this week, one eye on our gospel and one eye on the news, I keep coming back to two questions: What difference does it make that Christ is our King? And, Does God know about this?
Does God know how many people are hurting and scared? What difference does it make to them, to us, that Christ is King? What’s the answer, God?!
I want answers. I want to know what God’s plan is. I want to know exactly how God is going to fix this mess we’re in. I want to know when the bombs and the hatred and the fear is going to end. I want to know how and when God finally wins, for good.
I want answers. We want answers. But we don’t get answers. As I wrestled with these questions this week, it finally hit me, we don’t get “the plan”, as much as we might want it. Instead, God gives us “a Way”.
What Jesus lacks in clear, definitive answers, he provides in a way forward. A way of life, a way of thinking and seeing and hearing, a way of loving. Jesus never claims to be the answer, but Jesus does tell us that he is the Way.
I don’t know what the answer to poverty is, or the answer to war or terror or hatred. I don’t know what God has planned for you or for me or for us, but what we do know is that God has laid a path before us, a Way of living and the Way of Life.
As things continue to unfold here and in Europe and in the Middle East, I wish I could tell you exactly what God is up to, what God has in store, and when and how God will win.
But truth be told, may the truth always be told, we don’t know. But we do know that Jesus has laid the path before us, calls us to be people of “the Way”.
And, proclaiming together that Christ is our King, we take that first step in faith, not knowing, but trusting that wherever this way leads, through whatever joys and terrors, God goes ahead of us, and behind us, and beside us.
And wherever this way leads, where it ends will be in and with God.
It’s not an answer, but it is the Way.
Let me ruin the end of the sermon for you. What we have here this morning is a stewardship text, it’s just not the stewardship text that we usually think it is.
The traditional reading of this text goes something like this: The temple is like the church and Jesus points out the widow to show us that we can all give more away, especially to the church, and we should trust that God will take care of us if we can find the courage to dig deep and give more.
Like the widow, we are called to give it all away, our whole lives! That’s the cliff notes version of your standard “widow’s mite” sermon.
And don’t get me wrong, that is in the wheelhouse of something Jesus might say. Just a few weeks ago, we heard Jesus telling the rich man that if he wants to inherit the kingdom of God, he’s got to sell everything, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus.
So Jesus has been known to call people to undivided living, to following him with your entire life. But that is not what this text is about. Let’s start with the most obvious difference between our gospel this morning, and the call of the rich man: He was a rich man. She was a destitute widow.
And if you don’t know the significance of that detail, you need to. See, a “widow” in Jesus’ time was not just someone whose husband has died. In those days, everything was tracked through male relatives.
Inheritance went from man to man, household connections were between men, property was owned by men. A woman was only as secure as the male head of house. And even her identity was tied to a man.
Young girls would of course be connected to their father’s house, and her title would be “daughter of so-and-so”, until she got married. Then she would join her husband’s house and become “wife of so-and-so.” If her husband died, her husband’s brother would be compelled to marry her and take her into his house, becoming “wife of new so-and-so.”
Or, if her eldest son were old enough, she would join his household and take on the title of “mother of so-and-so.” The only time a woman was given the title of “widow” would be if she had no one else.
In a society that was both patriarchal and household based, widows were extremely vulnerable, women without power, status, or even someone in their corner just making sure they found food to eat. Widows relied on mercy and generosity just to survive.
And while we tend to focus on the widow’s gift in this passage, certainly no small thing!, we have to back up a few verses to get the fuller picture of what is going on here.
Jesus, you see, is right in the middle of teaching his disciples and he was teaching about God’s ordering of things, God’s priorities. And not just God’s priorities, but how the leadership of the church has undermined and even sabotaged the work of God in this world.
Jesus tells his disciples to “beware the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes (don’t read too much into that), and to have the best seats at church (Again…), and for the sake of appearances say long prayers (Anyone else getting a little uncomfortable?) .
But the other thing Jesus says is that these scribes, these leaders of the church, devour widow’s houses. They consume what little the poorest and most destitute possess, all in the name of religion.
And it wasn’t always that way! At one time, it was the leaders of the church who were calling on the people to care for the widows, the orphans, the immigrant, to care for those who had no one else in their corner.
But as sometimes happens, the priorities of God and the priorities of faith take a back seat to the life of the institution. And almost as if to prove the point, Jesus sits down across from the Temple treasury box, their offering plate, and watches the spectacle.
And many wealthy people come along and toss into the plate out of their abundance, but then, this widow comes along, and tosses in 2 of the smallest coins, 2 pennies. And Jesus knows, what she has put in was everything she had, her whole life.
The church has taken everything this widow has to live on. The church is no longer protecting the poor, but crushing them.
And it’s not that giving generously is bad or that the temple is bad. God regularly calls us to giving generously. And the Temple itself was commanded by God to be a holy place for the people of God. These things aren’t bad things.
But this text isn’t about the widow’s generosity. And it’s not about the evils of the Temple. It is about priorities gone terribly, terribly wrong.
It’s about church leaders, faith leaders, who have gotten so caught up in looking good and being respectable and making sure the building and the institution are cared for before anything else, that they have forgotten what it is they are actually about, what God calls them to be.
And what God calls them to be are people of faith, people whose priorities are a reflection of God’s priorities.
And as Jesus sits outside the treasury, he watches as these leaders of the church take every last penny off the people who can least afford it, all in the name of religion. And that is not God’s justice. That is not God’s priority.
I’m not gonna lie, in a lot of ways, I wish this text were just about the widow’s generosity, ‘cause then we could say, “oh, what a model of faith,” while we all secretly know that we’ll never do what she did, and we can all go home feeling just a little guilty, but also a little inspired.
In a lot of ways, this text would be easier if it were about the widow’s generosity. ‘Cause the thing is, none of us are the widow. We’re not. I’m not. You’re not. No one here can play the role of widow in this story.
And we’re certainly not Jesus. Which means that, in this story, we are either the disciples, who themselves don’t really get it and are so in awe of the big and glorious stones of the Temple they can’t really see the problem.
Or we are the scribes, who sustain our comfortable lives on the backs of those who can least afford it. I would guess that most of us are both, at one time or another. I know that I am.
If you are an internet user, sometime I dare you to check out the website, “slaveryfootprint.org”. It is hosted by an organization that tracks global patterns of slavery and exploitation.
Men, women, and children who do the dirty and dangerous work of mining and farming and fishing, gathering the things that are used to build and make the things I love, against their will, with no pay, sometimes for 20 hours a day for months and years on end.
See, the thing is, it’s cheaper to buy things that are made by the poor and destitute, the slaves around the world. And in order for me to have as much stuff as I want, in order for me to maintain the lifestyle I want, I have to buy it cheap.
There is a cost to everything, but in this system, it’s someone else paying that cost, and it usually lands on the people who can least afford it.
And that is not God’s justice. That is not God’s priority.
You see why this would be an easier text if we could just say it’s all about the widow’s generosity? Commending her for her faith, lifting her up for her trust, doesn’t actually require anything of me.
But if this text is about the disciples, with their heads in the sand, or the scribes, with their exploitive lifestyle, then all the sudden, I’m in the hot seat.
I’m on the other side of Jesus, of God, and that’s not where we want to be.
Where we want to be, where we are called to be, is with God. We are called to line up our lives and our priorities with God, to be a reflection of God’s justice and mercy and grace in this world.
To love your neighbor as yourself, even your neighbors on the other side of the world.
To care for, and not crush, the most vulnerable among us.
The truth of the story is, your life matters.
It matters to your neighbor, it matters to God. And with your one life God is calling you to be an emissary, a diplomat, of the Kingdom of God.
With your life, God has gifted you with the immense capacity to either care for or crush the world around you.
So you see, it really is all about stewardship. How will you care for what God has given you?
As Jesus is coming into Bethany, Mary comes to meet him. And our text reads that she “knelt at his feet”, but it would be more accurate to say, she threw herself on the ground in front of him. And before Jesus could say anything, she cries out, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
He came too late, you see. But then Jesus asks where they had put his body. And the people who were gathered around told him to “come and see”.
And Mary wept. And Martha wept. And the many family and friends who were gathered wept. And Jesus wept. But then you know how it is. Grief does funny things to us. Grief opens up floodgates of tears at the most unpredictable times.
Grief rips us open from the inside, drawing us into a darkness that is as foreign as it is familiar. And sometimes, grief makes us lash out in anger. Sometimes at the ones we love, sometimes at death itself, and sometimes, even, at God.
And the community that was grieving lashed out at Jesus, “you’re the big shot miracle worker! You could have kept this man from dying!”
Dear God, if you are so powerful, why can’t you heal my father?!
If you really loved my child, how could you let them suffer so much?!
Why was my sister there, at that time? Couldn’t you have stopped it God?!
“If you were there, you could have stopped this man from dying! Where were you, God?! Where were you?
(slowish) Grief demands an answer.
Grief stands outside the tomb, above the grave, outside the crypt, and plays the details over and over again. That wry smile that told you something mischievous was coming. That tone you knew meant business. The way those arms fit just right around your shoulders.
This mixture of flesh and bone and spirit and love and humor and joy that will never be replaced. What happened to that? Grief demands to know, how did we get here?
And grief accuses. If you had been here God, he wouldn’t have died. Where were you God?
And Jesus hears their accusations, but then Jesus told them to roll away the stone. Open up the tomb. But Martha interjected. “He’s been dead for 4 days. He has been dead long enough that his body has begun to rot and the stench is unbearable. It’s too late, Jesus.”
And it’s no small detail that Lazarus has been dead for 4 days. Before modern medicine, the precise time and day of death were a little harder to pin down. It wasn’t all that long ago that “wakes” were literally sitting vigil to see if someone would wake up, in the off chance that they weren’t actually dead, maybe just in a coma or unconscious.
And in Jesus’ time, the vigil was 3 days long. For 3 days, people would wait, and watch the body. And with each passing day, hope would get smaller and smaller. But the 4th day, the 4th day was one day beyond even their wildest, most outrageous hopes.
With the dawn of the 4th day, both Lazarus and hope were declared dead. Jesus is too late. Maybe yesterday. Maybe yesterday Jesus could have intervened before death was truly final. Maybe yesterday. But not today, today is too late.
Lazarus is dead. His body has begun to rot and the stench of the tomb is unbearable. But Jesus said to them anyway, “Take away the stone.”
Take away the stone that has stopped up hope in your own heart. Take away the stone that has buried your grieving soul. Take away the stone that has trapped you in death.
Grief demands an answer. Grief wants to know why.
Grief picks apart the days and weeks and years, sifting through a life as if looking for clues to make sense of death, looking for the answer that does not exist.
Grief drives us into a darkness that is as foreign as it is familiar.
And in that darkness, faith waits. Faith greets you in the tomb. Faith meets you where optimism has run out. Faith inhales the stench of death, feasts on dead ends, banks on the impossible.
Faith runs headlong into the tomb, out to the cemetery, into the crypt, knowing, trusting, believing that through the shroud of death, the voice of God will call.
And when the voice of God calls, not even death can stand. Not even the chains of death will be able to hold you back from following the call of Christ.
And Jesus called into the tomb, into death: “Lazarus, come out.”
Sally, come out. Dick, come out. Ellen, Della, Evie, come out. Myron, Harold, Lee, come out. Laverne, Lorraine, Teddy, Bernie, Mary Ellen, come out. Ron, Roger, Fred, Julie, Roger, come out. Reita, come out.
The Word of God speaks, and what was dead in us is called forth into new life. Where hope has died, where the way forward has disappeared, where joy and love and connection are all but forgotten, shadows of a memory, the Word of God speaks.
And what was dead in us is called forth into new life, called forth into the body of the one who died and rose again, called forth into the communion of saints, called forth into life eternal.
And the Word of God called into the tomb, “Lazarus, come out.”
And Lazarus arose. And walked again from death into life.
My primary ministry right now in my life is to, what the church calls, the ministry of word and sacrament. I am called to be a steward of God’s work in the reading and interpretation of scripture and a “hander-outer” of the grace of God through the sacraments of baptism and communion.
What do I get from this? Humility, for starters. When I think about God’s mission among us and in creation, to bring the whole world home, I feel rather small to the task.
It boggles my mind that God would use us. Rely on us, for anything. But God does. As the Psalmist wrote, “What are human beings, that you are mindful of them?” Why bother with us? But God does, and that is humbling.
But this ministry is also a joy. I get a lot of joy from this work. To be able to announce over and over again what God has done, how much God loves you.
How great the gift of grace is. How deep our hope goes. How much joy there is in faith. This ministry is a joy to me.
I get to have a front row seat to God’s re-forming work among us. I get to watch and even participate in God’s constant work of molding us as the body of Christ.
For me, this is exciting! I have no idea what Trinity or the ELCA or the church in general will look like in 30 years, but I have no doubt it will look different than it does today. And for me, this is exciting! I cannot wait to be surprised by what God comes up with.
But I know also, that this can be hard, maybe even cause some stress or anxiety. When everything else is changing so fast, we want something in our lives that doesn’t change. Something that is stable. And sometimes, we put that longing and desire onto our faith community.
“I can deal with all that, as long as I have this, just the way it is.” But in doing so, we run the risk of stifling God’s re-forming work. And that just won’t hold for long. It’s like trying to stop a hurricane with a house fan. It just won’t work. Faith is transformative. God won’t be held back for long.
Just look at the history of the church. A woman named Phyllis Tickle wrote a book a few years back called, “The Great Emergence” and her basic thesis was that, like it or not, the global church experiences a great upheaval, a paradigm shift, every 500 years or so. Any guesses when the last great upheaval was?…
Roughly 498 years ago, this Oct. 31st, the day Martin Luther kick-started the last great upheaval with his 95 theses, and the church has never been the same since.
Reformation Day. Re-formation Day. The day we celebrate that God is not done with us yet, that we are always being re-formed.
And God will not be stifled, not for long. Eventually, the Holy Spirit breaks through our ingrained habits and traditions, lifts up new leaders, new practices, and breathes life once again into this 2,000 year old Body of Christ.
And I don’t know what that means for us. But I do know that something is moving among us. I’ve had enough conversations with enough people, and heard enough “bubbling” to know that something is moving among us.
There is a Spirit here that is starting to bubble up here and there and there. Something is stirring the waters. God is here. The Holy Spirit is on the move. And only time will tell what that means for us.
Pray that we might have the patience to wait for God’s time. And pray that when the time comes, we might have the faith to follow where God is leading. Pray for one another. Pray for this congregation.
And in the midst of all that has and will be changing, whether we want it to or not, hold on to the thing that doesn’t change.
Hold on to God’s promise to never let us go, to walk with us through every day, in every breath, to go ahead of us into death, and to lead the way into new life.
Happy Reformation Day.
We have a baptism this morning. This morning we witness together the baptism of Madalyn James.
And we’re ready. We’ve got the font open, the Christ candle is lit. We’ve got pews reserved up front for the family and a cute little girl, dressed in white.
Baptism are always special occasions. Occasions to celebrate God’s promise to Maddy and remember again God’s promise to us, made at our own baptism.
In faith, Jason and Julie have brought Maddy into this iteration of the eternal, global body of Christ so that we might witness together God’s promise to her and together, on behalf of the eternal, global body, welcome her with wide open arms into the very body into which she will be baptized.
Today Maddy joins the family of God. And we rejoice at that. But if we’re going to be completely honest, there’s also something bittersweet about it.
What our gospel reading leaves out this morning, the verses right before our reading, is Jesus’ third proclamation of his impending death. And James and John, blind to the reality and with stars in their eyes, want to claim their place at the right and left hand of Jesus, before anyone else can jump in front of them.
Fools, both of them. But this time, Jesus doesn’t get mad. He doesn’t chastise them. He simply says, “You do not know what you are asking.”…You do not know what you are asking.
And he tells them, “The cup that I drink, you will drink. And the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”
Couple thousand years later and we gather once again around the font, as one more sister is baptized with the same baptism with which Christ was baptized.
And we both rejoice, and, if we are wise at all, cringe just a little.
The body into which we are baptized is the body of Christ. And it is a body that died.
This candle, we call it the Christ candle. We light it on Easter and during the Easter season. We light it at baptisms. And we light it at funerals. It was just lit 2 days ago at the funeral for Reita Van Winkle.
And today, we light it for Maddy’s baptism. And in the time in between, this short span we call “life”, what are we to make of this? Or, more so, what is God to make of this?
What does God, make of THIS?
“The cup I drink, you will drink.” Jesus says, “Outside of this body, you know that power and authority is in the hands of the strongest and the richest and the loudest….But it is not so among you. It is not so among you! Among you, in this body, the greatest is the one who serves. The one who would be first is the one who must be slave of all.”
This is the body into which you have been baptized. The body of the one who would become servant and slave of all. The body of the one who would give everything away, until there was nothing more to give.
In all honesty, sometimes I’m not sure why anyone would willingly call themselves a follower of Jesus. I mean, you really want to follow Jesus?
You want to follow him to the slums? To break bread with the poor, the powerless? The ones that probably look and act and smell different that the company you keep?
You want to follow him to prison? To the corner house where the prostitutes work and men pay? And don’t think for a second, “not in Green Bay.” Oh yes, in Green Bay, too.
Do you really want to follow Jesus there? To the people and places whose very association will “sully” your hard-earned reputation. The ones who, when you leave there presence, will leave you saying, “Thank God I’m not that.”
And yet that is the kingdom of God. That is following Jesus. To hang around with people who are the lowest peg on the social ladder and to place yourself lower than that.
To follow Jesus is to look at all you have amassed in your life and regard it all as rubbish, trash, in comparison to the “glory” of the kingdom of God that is rooted in poverty and suffering and servitude and giving yourself away even into death.
“Whoever wishes to be great among you, must be slave of all.”
I honestly don’t know sometimes why anyone would choose to call themselves a follower of Jesus. It is a fool’s quest. And whenever we witness another baptism, there is a part of me that rejoices. But there is another part of me that grieves.
For I know what God will demand of this small, sweet child. I know that the path ahead of her will be marked by suffering and by sacrifice and by being asked to walk alongside, and even serve, the weakest, lowest, and most vulnerable among us, even into death.
Why would anyone call themselves a follower of Jesus?
And yet, here we are. To rejoice with Madalyn. To truly rejoice. To celebrate once again that God has claimed another daughter in God’s abundant love and grace.
Because the other truth, the truth beyond the truth of death, is that the body of Christ, the body into which we have been baptized, is a resurrected body.
And while we grieve, because we know that death is real, we celebrate, because we know in faith that life is “real-er”.
In the face of everything that would tell us that power and violence and self-serving greed are our lords and rulers, the tyrants of our lives, we proclaim that there is another way.
We proclaim over and over again that peace is possible. That service is greatness. That the only way to truly receive life, in all its abundant fullness, is to give yours away.
This is the way of Christ. The faith into which we have been baptized.
“For the son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give away his life as a payment for many.”
What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Our protagonist tonight/this morning is this unnamed, but faithful, man who lands himself in the middle of our gospel and right in front of Jesus. It says he “knelt” before Jesus and called him “Good Teacher”.
So right away, we know this guy sees something in Jesus that is worthy of adoration. He’s not a Pharisee or a doubter or a sideline observer. Somewhere in him, he knows that Jesus has something he wants.
And he kneels in front of Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Well, that’s a big question, so let’s break it down a little. I mean, what do you have to do to inherit anything at all? Ever inherited something?…Why? How?
Near as I can figure, inheritance depends on three main things. First of all, you gotta have some sort of relationship. Nobody (well, I’m sure someone has), but almost nobody leaves something to a complete stranger.
If you want to secure your inheritance, you gotta know the person. And your odds are even better if you can somehow weasel your way into the family, if you aren’t already. You know, marry a son or cousin, or start showing up for all the family get-togethers, or, in this case, give everything away to the poor and follow Jesus.
If you want to secure your inheritance, you’ve really got to be a part of the family. And when that inheritance is eternal life, well, then, you know the family is going to be a little peculiar.
If you really want to be a part of the family of God, you better be prepared to leave everything else behind .Being a part of the family of God is not a fair-weather activity, it’s not a weekend gig, when nothing else is going on. It’s not just following all the rules and living a good life.
Being a member of the family of God is your whole life. It’s everything. It’s freedom. It’s having nothing, absolutely nothing, between you and God. It’s giving everything away and following Jesus.
If you want to secure your inheritance, the first step is to weasel your way into the family. But our unnamed man couldn’t bring himself to pay the cost. And he walked away, shocked and grieving, because, as it turns out, he had a lot of “stuff”.
Step 1 of getting your inheritance is to join the family. Our unnamed man was unwilling to pay the price, but the disciples, finally!, have done this one right, without even realizing it!
See, at that time, if you can believe this!, the common wisdom was that people who were wealthy were exceptionally blessed and beloved of God. So when Jesus tells our unnamed man and the disciples that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the dominion of God, the disciples pretty much went,
“Wait. What?? We thought you liked them best. If they don’t have a chance, then what hope is there for us?!”
And Peter started to say to Jesus, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you. We don’t have a safety net. We’re really banking on you to have our backs here!”
And Jesus says, “Exactly!” Turns out, the disciples were right on the mark on this one without even realizing it. Step 1 of the inheritance plan: Join the Family.
Ah, but that’s only step 1! You may be the most beloved, most faithful, most favorite family member, but the thing about inheritance is that in order to get what you want, the person who has it now, has to die.
In order to inherit eternal life, the one who is life eternal, has to die. These things go hand in hand.
Well, we know where this story is going. We know that in a few short months, we will hear once again the agony of Christ beaten, tortured, crucified, and killed. Jesus has indeed died, and did so for us.
Step 1 of inheritance is to join the family. Step 2 is that someone has to die. But even if these first two steps happen without fail and in good order and measure, nobody gets anything who wasn’t listed in the will. Step 3, you gotta be in the will.
Doesn’t matter how good you were, how faithful or how loved you were, if you’re not in the will, there will be no inheritance. In fact, at the end of the day, your inheritance doesn’t actually depend on you at all. It is completely and entirely in the hands of the one who writes the will.
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“For you, it is impossible. You cannot force, cajole, bribe, or sweet talk the hand of God…
But for God, all things are possible.”
For God, the deed is as good as done. The “last will and testament” has been updated. You might even say there is a “new testament”. The “covenant” has been sealed, in flesh and blood and bread and wine. It’s done. And it’s yours.
In your baptism, the promise of God is spoken to you. Not to some “anonymous” woman or an “unknown” man, but to you. The mark of the cross is made on your forehead and God’s promise of life is spoken to you.
Next week, God willing and the creek don’t rise, we will witness the baptism of Madalyn James. We will witness as the Holy Spirit grabs a hold of that water and washes her clean, as the mark of the cross is made on her brow and as the promise of God is spoken to her.
“You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked by the cross of Christ forever.” And when you hear those words spoken to her, remember in your soul that you, too, have been marked. You, too, have been claimed. Your name, too, is written in the palm of God’s hand.
The will has been written. It’s been signed, sealed, and delivered. And your name is on it. Your inheritance is ready. Life eternal in the dominion of God sits before your very eyes.
Anyone want to take this one? No? Yeah, me neither. I don’t want to talk about divorce because, no matter what Jesus says, we all know that sometimes divorce needs to happen.
Sometimes marriages become so volatile, so physically, emotionally, or psychologically destructive, that couples need to choose between divorce and despair, or even death. Sometimes, for the sake of life, a marriage has to die.
And I want to shut the book on Jesus. I want to say, “You don’t know what it’s like.” (Jesus was single after all.) But no matter how many times I close the book on Jesus, his words don’t change. And when I open it back up, there they are again.
The Pharisees, wanting to trap Jesus, asked him if it’s lawful for a man to divorce his wife. See, at that time, there were two competing view points on divorce in Judaism. Moses had written that a man may divorce his wife if he finds “something objectionable” about her.
And one school taught that what Moses meant was that a man could divorce his wife for any reason, as long as he had a reason. It could have been something as simple as cooking a bad meal. But another school read those words of Moses and taught that infidelity was the only possible excuse for divorce.
So whatever answer Jesus gives, the Pharisees are ready to argue with him. And Jesus, knowing full well what they are up to, asks them, “What does Moses teach?” And when they answer, Jesus turns the conversation completely.
The reason, he says, that Moses gave those words at all, was because of your hardness of heart. Because you all can’t be trusted to love one another on your own.
But that’s not what God intended for you. No matter what Moses teaches, what God intended, what God created, what God desires, is that husband and wife might be joined into one in love and faithfulness to care for one another.
We were not created to be solitary creatures! We were designed for relationship! The only reason Moses had to write down rules about divorce is because we have this really incredible tendency to fail to love one another as God loves us.
As Jesus points out to the Pharisees, the only reason we even have rules about divorce at all, is because we’re all a bunch of sinners. We’re all broken, insecure, sinners.
Sometimes, the words of Jesus give us a glimpse of the kingdom of God. Sometimes Jesus opens our lives to experience more than we could have ever hoped to dream for…
And sometimes, the work of Jesus is to bring us home to God, to remind us that we are, actually, in need of God. We need to plant ourselves before the cross of Christ and plead for help.
Because on our own, we’re in trouble. As we confessed just a few minutes ago, we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We need God to transform us.
Sometimes, the Word of God brings us home again.
I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I stopped going to church for 6 years or so when I was younger. And there were a lot of reasons for that, but one of the reasons was because I realized I was gay.
And it was texts like this that helped keep me away. Texts like this and churches who proclaimed loud and clear that there was a right way and a wrong way and don’t even think of showing your face here if you’re not going the “right” way.
And I struggled with that for a long, long time. And I read up on it, a lot. I studied scripture deeply. I prayed, I fretted, I hid…I cried, I got angry, I pretended not to care.
But I did care. Deeply. As someone who loves God and has been transformed by faith, I cared deeply. I couldn’t escape the question and I couldn’t escape my desire for an answer. So I read and studied more.
But the more I read and studied the less clear things became. Very intelligent scholars on both, all, sides of the debate could make very rational, compelling arguments from scripture. And for a long, long time, it was like living in limbo.
But then one day, I realized, maybe it doesn’t really matter. Because no matter what, I end up in the same place! If being gay is a sin, then I am a sinner, standing at the foot of the cross, in need of grace.
And if being gay isn’t a sin, well, I’ve got others. And I find myself in the same spot, standing at the foot of the cross, betting everything on grace.
Sometimes the work of Jesus is to open our eyes to the Kingdom of God. And sometimes, the work of Jesus is to drive us to the realization that all of us, every single one of us, stand before God in need of grace, in need of redemption.
Divorce happens. Broken relationships happen. Sin happens. I can’t erase these words of Jesus. I can’t make them easier to hear. I can tell you that the God who greets us when we do finally realize how broken and screwed up we all are is the God of mercy and grace.
The God who greets us at the foot of the cross is the God who welcomes and loves the children, the weak and vulnerable ones, the sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes, the screw-ups.
The God who greets us at the cross is the God who would sacrifice life itself to bring us all home again.
Yeah, somewhere along the way, things got messed up. Creation didn’t go quite the way God had hoped for. But God has not given up on us. God has not left us.
I can’t tell you for sure how God feels about homosexuality. But I do know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God loves me more than I can comprehend. And he loves all his L-G-B-T children so much more than we can even fathom!
And God may hate divorce, hate the pain and the agony and the insecurity of divorce, but God loves his children who have suffered through divorce. Nothing, St. Paul says, can separate us from the love of God.
Not our worst sin, our deepest, most shameful failure, nothing will keep God from loving us beyond measure.
And God has no intention of resting until each and every one of his beloved children is brought back home again.