Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sermon, "How Will You Measure Your Life? By Who and How You Love," John 13:1-17, 34-35

Sermon 1/15/17
John 13:1-17, 34-35

How Do You Measure Your Life?

            Some of you may have heard of this little thing happening in our church right now. The RipIt Ministry, which just continues to blossom in new ways, has just kicked off its annual challenge. This year, seasoned mentors are pairing up with folks who are trying to reach some fitness goals to help guide and support them in their journey. I decided, with a little convincing from Amber Ormasen – have you ever tried to refuse a request from her? – to take part. One of the first things we had to do was get weighed and measured. It’s not my favorite experience, for sure. But it’s hard to measure your progress if you aren’t really sure where you started. I’ll be able to measure my progress in pounds lost, but also in changes in inches. Of course, those measures aren’t the only measures that are valuable. Folks might measure how many seconds they can hold a plank position before and after the challenge, or whether their cholesterol has improved after eating healthy for a few months, or whether they just feel better. But whatever way we do it, I know folks talking part in the challenge will be looking for ways to measure the impact of what we’ve been working on.
            We’ll be thinking a lot about how we measure things as our worship focus for the next few weeks. I think we’re busy measuring most areas of our lives. We want to know – how do we measure up? How do we compare? How are we doing in life? How do we stack up? Our question for the next three weeks is this: How will we measure our life? The question isn’t whether we will measure our lives or not. We’re all measuring – whether we’re aware of it or not, whether we know how we’re measuring our lives or not, whether we’re happy with our measurements, or not. We do measure our lives. So for the next few weeks, we’ll ask ourselves: How do we measure our lives? We’ll ask how we do it now. How do you measure your life right now? What measure are you using? What results are you looking for that tell you you are “on track” or not? And we’ll ask how we should be measuring our lives. How does God measure us? How does God ask us to measure our lives?
            So how do we typically measure our lives today? We might measure our lives by what salary we earn and how successful we are at work. That’s where we spend the bulk of our time, most of us, and a lot of our sense of self-worth can come from being measured at work. We might get bonuses or raises or a good review or be rewarded for being employee of the month. We might be in positions of power that give us status. We might get a new, prestigious title, or measure our worth by the size of our office. In sports, we keep track of how many points were scored, or how many yards someone went, or how many homeruns someone accumulates, or how fast or how high or how far someone could go. We give awards for best acting and best directing and best writing and if you don’t qualify for any of those, you might win best dressed, at least. We’re measured in school by our grades and our scores on standardized tests, by our attendance records. We’re measured by our appearance – how much we weigh, how tall we are, what brand of clothing we’re wearing. I think more and more we’re measured by how happy we can make ourselves look in facebook photos and Instagram pictures. So many ways that we add up and measure the value of our lives. How do you measure your life?
            It’s not just out in the secular world that people try to measure success like this. I have to tell you: when pastors meet, typical questions are: How big is your church? How many people are in worship? What’s your budget? How many people are on staff? There’s a tendency to think that bigger is always better, and that success in ministry means getting appointed to larger and larger churches. It can be pretty toxic, pretty stressful, this culture of measuring each other’s worth in this way. I wrestle with the allure of wanting to measure up. I would argue that meaningful ministry is about so much more than numbers, but I also get excited when we have more, and I also feel acutely aware of how much we have, or don’t have, of everything. When we measure, I feel like we set ourselves up to be disappointed with our results.
            How will we measure our lives? Rev. Adam Hamilton shared that when he meets with families to plan a funeral for a loved one, most people don’t talk about the achievements their loved ones racked up at work. Few people pull out the plaques or trophies or awards that their beloved had accumulated. What they talk about is how loved they felt. They talk about the time they got to spend together. They talk about the times they laughed together or cried together as a family. They talk about the quality of their loved one’s character – how kind or brave or caring or compassionate they were. (1)
            How will we measure our lives? No matter how much time we spend pursuing other aims, it seems that what really matters is who and how we love one another. Jesus tells us that the greatest commandments are that we love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and that we love our neighbors as ourselves. But how on earth do we measure love? In the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, the writings speak of loving-kindness, of steadfast love. In the New Testament, the gospels and letters use the word agape for love, a word that has the connotation of a selfless, self-sacrificing love. In other words, just claiming that we love someone – that we love God, or that we love one another – isn’t enough. Our love has to be demonstrated in real action. Our love has to show in what we do and how we live. Jesus talked about this as bearing good fruit. We heard John the Baptist mention in the text we read just last week – we’re called to bear fruit – the fruit – what we have to show for our lives – is how we’re measured. Again and again Jesus shares parables suggesting that God looks to make sure we’re growing good fruit in our lives. So how do we love in a way that gives us something to show? How do we measure our lives by who and how we love?
            Our gospel text today shares a scene that we typically hear on Maundy Thursday, the night that Jesus celebrated what we call “The Last Supper” with his disciples, the night that he was betrayed and arrested. The word “Maundy” is from a Latin word that means commandment. Jesus gives us in this passage what he calls a “new commandment.” But of course, the new commandment Jesus gives is one that is actually not new at all: He commands us to love one another as he has loved us. So that leads us to the question: How has Jesus loved us?
Where Matthew, Mark, and Luke all write about Jesus sharing a final meal with his disciples during Passover, John focuses on something entirely different: a foot-washing. During supper, Jesus gets up, prepares, and sets about washing the feet of his disciples. Some of you may have participated in a ceremonial foot-washing as part of a Holy Week service before, or in some other setting. When I was about to be ordained, our bishop at the time Bishop Violet Fisher washed the feet of all of us who were in my ordination class. It can be a deeply moving experience. But I also think it is one that’s a bit hard for us to translate into contemporary culture. In Jesus’ day, foot-washing was a common practice. People walked in sandals on dusty roads, and whenever you entered a home, it would be common to wash your feet. But you would wash your own feet or it would be the task of a slave to wash your feet. If you weren’t a slave, you would never wash someone else’s feet. And if you were the higher ranking person, if you were the teacher for example, you certainly wouldn’t be washing the feet of your disciples. Jesus was taking on the task of a slave. When he washed their feet, it was an act of humility, service, devotion, love, an act of love he offers on the night before he will even give his own life as a demonstration of his love. I have a hard time even finding an act we could offer someone today that would compare to what Jesus offers the disciples.
            No wonder, then, that Peter reacts how he does. Disbelieving what is clearly happening, he asks Jesus, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” He insists that Jesus will never do such a menial, humbled act for him. But Jesus tells Peter that if Peter wants to have a share in Jesus, he needs to receive what Jesus is offering. And then Peter is in, whole-heartedly! Once Jesus has finished washing the disciples’ feet, he says to them: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord … So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” And it is then, in this context, that Jesus says “I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
            Jesus has demonstrated what he means by loving one another. When Jesus shows love, it means that he’ll trade in his status as teacher for that of a slave instead. When Jesus shows love, it means he will serve others in ways that most people would consider beneath them. When Jesus shows love, he humbles himself, that the other person might be lifted up. He offers his very life as an act of love. This is what I mean by loving as I have loved, Jesus says.
How will we measure our lives? By who we love and how we love. We are God’s strategy for loving the world. We are God’s plan for redeeming the world with love in action! (1) That’s an amazing responsibility, an amazing gift that God entrusts to us. We can measure our lives by the fruit that our love-in-action grows. And we love-in-action by loving like Jesus – by forgetting about our status and instead thinking of how we can serve others, by humbling ourselves so that others can be lifted up, by putting others first, by sharing with them the valuable gifts of our time, our attention, our heart.
I challenged the children to think about how they would put their love into action this week, and I want to challenge you to do the same thing. Love might seem like a hard thing to measure, but Jesus says we can see good fruit, a sign of love’s presence. I want you to pay attention, to keep track this week, and challenge yourself. When can you demonstrate love for someone? When you are at school, at work, at the store, at a meeting, out for a walk – how can you – how will you – practice lovingkindness this week? And be on the lookout for ways that others are demonstrating their love for you! When you see good fruit in someone else, when you notice their loving actions – take note! Next week we’ll talk about what kind of fruit we saw this week.
How will we measure our lives? By who and how we love. Jesus shows us the way, as he washes our feet. How will we love? Like Jesus does. Amen.

(1) Hamilton, Adam. Sermon,

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Year A, "The Baptism of Jesus," Matthew 3:1-17

Sermon 1/8/17
Matthew 3:1-17

The Baptism of Jesus

            Many of you know that I spent this last week at Sky Lake, which is one of our conference camps, down in the Binghamton area. Pastors are supposed to take some spiritual renewal time each year, and this was mine. I spent the week doing some worship planning, thinking about the ministries of the church, and spending some time in prayer and reflection with God. While I was there, I was thinking about my own time as staff person at Camp Aldersgate, some 22 years ago now.
As soon as I was old enough, I applied, and spent a summer lifeguarding and working in the kitchen. The staff was made up of young people mostly between the ages of 16 and 25, aside from some of the older year-round staff, which is pretty typical. And it’s a pretty intense experience. You’re with this group of people all day every day for a summer, and most of the people are, like you, at the stage in life where you are trying to figure out who you are and who you want to become. It’s a time of making some pretty major life decisions. And when you’re all going through that together, it can be intense and meaningful and life-changing. One of the hardest things to remember, though, when you part of a tight knit group like that, is that even though you have such deep connections with the friends you are working with, and even though you are loving your time with your team, it isn’t your experience that is the one that matters most. It isn’t your satisfaction, or you feeling great about how things are going that matters in the end. Everything that you do is for the campers who come to spend time there, learning about God, learning about who Jesus is, and how they can get to know Jesus, and draw closer to God. Camp is for them, not for the staff. And so if the staff is having the best time of their lives, but the campers aren’t, then the great experience of the staff is worth, well, nothing much, because the camp is not serving its purpose. That’s tough to remember when you are a young adult on the brink of all these significant life changes and decisions. And yet, the life-changing experience that many campers have every summer will tell you that (at least most of the time) the staff remembers what they’re all about.
            I was thinking about this this past week: times when our purpose, our mission, is not for ourselves and our own benefit as much as it is for someone else, for others. I was thinking about that when I was wrestling with our text for today. Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. It’s a day when we remember that Jesus was baptized, and we reflect on what that means for us. And as I think about his baptism, I keep asking: who is it for? What purpose does Jesus’ baptism fulfill? Is it for himself? Is it for others? How? It’s nice to remember a meaningful event in Jesus’ life, but why is it meaningful, and what does it have to do with us now?
            Jesus’ baptism is an important event for us to think about for a few reasons. First, it is one of very few events in Jesus’ life that are recorded in all four gospels. That tells us that it was significant – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all write about it. It’s also the starting point of Jesus’ public ministry. We’re not sure about much of what Jesus was doing between the time of his birth and the time he came to John to be baptized. But his baptism is the beginning of everything we do know. Once he is baptized, Jesus spends time in the wilderness, and then from there, it’s three years of preaching and teaching and healing and ministry seemingly non-stop until he is arrested, executed, resurrected. So for Jesus, his baptism marks a beginning, something he feels he must do as he begins the work he came to do.
Baptism wasn’t a brand new thing, though. It wasn’t created by John the Baptist. When we read about John baptizing people, he wasn’t doing something unfamiliar to the people. The literal meaning of the word baptism is “to be dipped” or “immersed” in water. Baptism was a cleansing ritual, a rite of purification that people would participate in when they wanted to make a new start. When John begins calling the people to repent, that is, to make a 180° turn around in their life, to get going back on God’s path, it wouldn’t have been surprising that baptism was the ritual that was paired with their act of repentance.
            What John does is add his specific meaning to baptism – he explains that he is baptizing for repentance, in preparation for the coming of God’s reign on earth. And he notes that Jesus, too, will add meaning to baptism – a baptism with, John says, “Holy Spirit and fire.” Eventually, the apostle Paul and the early church will add more layers of meaning to baptism – baptizing in the name of the trinity: in the name of God, in the name of Jesus Christ, and in the name of the Holy Spirit. Our particular faith traditions add layers of meaning to baptism too. In some traditions, baptism is a decision-making moment when a person commits to being a follower of Jesus. In our tradition, we emphasize God’s action in baptism. We celebrate baptism as an outward sign, the public celebration of God’s grace at work in our lives and our acceptance of that grace, or, in the case of those who cannot accept it for themselves, a commitment from family and sponsors to nurture them in the knowledge and love of God, that they may someday confirm those vows themselves. 
John’s focus, though, was clear: this baptism was a sign of repentance in preparation for God’s coming reign. So one of the big questions we have in this text is “Why does Jesus need to be baptized?” In fact, John even asks this question. He says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” After all, if baptism is a sign of a commitment to repentance, then Jesus doesn’t fit in. Our understanding of Jesus is that he is without sin. He is God-in-the-flesh, even as he is fully human, so he doesn’t need to repent. But John was hearing people’s confession of sin as they came for baptism. Why, then, does Jesus get baptized?
            He responds to John’s question saying, “Let it be so for now; for it is proper in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Frankly, that’s not immediately a very helpful response is it? What does it mean that his being baptized “fulfills all righteousness?” First, Matthew, throughout his gospel, is particularly interested in showing that Jesus is a fulfillment of the messiah promised in the Hebrews scriptures. This conversation between John and Jesus that we’re sort of eavesdropping on is a way for the gospel-writer to tell us that Jesus is the messiah, even if he isn’t what we were expecting. Second, Jesus says he fulfills “all righteousness.” Righteousness means justice, being set right in our relationships with God and others. When we’re in right relationship with people, we experience God’s justice, God’s wholeness. That’s righteousness. So Jesus says that his being baptized is a part of the process of bringing about justice in the world. How does his baptism achieve that? Well, his baptism is a sign of affirmation for the message John has been sharing. Jesus may not need to repent, but it’s his public proclamation that this is the mission he’ll be about – the one John describes – announcing the arrival of God’s reign right into the middle of our world and our lives. Jesus getting baptized is a way that Jesus can publicly claim the vision John has already been telling folks about. John’s been calling people to bear good fruit in their lives, and Jesus is going to show them how to do it. God doesn’t call us to repentance and leave us alone on the journey, in the struggle. Jesus is with us, leading us. He claims our journey as his by joining us in baptism. Finally, Jesus says, “Let it be so for now.” His wording suggests that this baptism is something he does that is the right thing for just the right time. Whatever Jesus was doing before, now is the right moment, God’s time, for Jesus to begin to act. His baptism announces that to everyone. And when Jesus comes up out of the water, God’s voice is heard, as God’s Spirit descends like a dove on Jesus: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” God’s words are confirmation of John’s message, and Jesus’s baptism, and Jesus’s claiming of his identity and path.
            So, why is Jesus baptized? I think, like everything he does, it is for us. He pours out his life for others. His purpose in the world is not to serve his own interests, but to be hope and light for the world. We’re not baptized because Jesus is. Rather, Jesus is baptized because we are, and his purpose is to join in fully with our lives, that in so doing, we have someone to follow, who leads us to the heart of God.
            Today, as we remember baptism, and we remember how Jesus, too, was baptized, immersing himself in our world and our struggles and our wilderness journey, I hope that we can see this time, this remembrance, this reaffirmation of our faith as an act that helps prepare us for the mission to which God is calling us – whatever that turns out to be! Just as Jesus’s purpose is to serve others, that’s our mission too: living for others. And that’s the purpose of our church, our community of faith. We can be lulled into thinking that we exist for our own comfort. We come here for our strength, our learning, our comfort, our support. Indeed, I hope we find those things as we gather as a community of faith. But the church exists not for the comfort of those who have already come to know God and commit to being disciples, but for those who are still searching and seeking, for those who don’t even know they’re looking for something yet.
            This act of renewing our baptismal covenant reminds us that we know who we are, and who we belong to. We are God’s children. We belong to God. God claims us. We remind ourselves of who we are in God so that we have strength to go out and serve others. This act of renewal also reminds us that we’re not alone. Baptism is not a private act. It’s an act of community. Jesus’ baptism joined him to the people among whom he would minister. Our baptism, our remembering our covenant together reminds us that we are a congregation, a community of faith. We can’t be the church alone. We can’t follow God by ourselves. We need God, and we need each other. This act of renewal is our way of saying to God that we’re ready. We’re all in. We’re with Jesus. His mission is our mission. We’re ready to follow.
Following our time of renewal this morning, we’ll sing a hymn by one of my favorite hymnists, Ruth Duck – a hymn for baptism called, “Wash, O God, Our Sons and Daughters.” As we prepare our hearts and minds, I invite you to hear words from the last verse of this hymn: We your people stand before you, water-washed and Spirit-born. By your grace, our lives we offer. Recreate us; God, transform! Let that be our prayer – Recreate us God. Transform our lives. We’re ready. Amen.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Sermon for Epiphany Sunday, "Light of the World," Matthew 2:1-12

Sermon 1/3/16
Matthew 2:1-12

Light of the World

Maybe in my second or third Christmas at my first church appointment, I read about this great idea for a Christmas Eve service for children. I don’t remember where I read or heard the idea. But the gist was this: You take several warm Christmasy blankets and spread them all over the chancel area, and get a rocking chair to sit in, and then, during the Children’s Sermon, you read a book to the kids, while they’re all snuggled onto the cozy blankets. And the book serves as message for the adults as well. I just loved the idea. I bought several copies of a book I thought would be meaningful, and I had four people set up to stand with copies throughout the sanctuary, to turn the pages along with me as I read, so that the adults could follow along too – we didn’t have any big screens that I could project the images on in my first church.
Everything was planned, and I was so excited about it, and could just picture how awesome the service was going to be. And then Christmas Eve finally came, and it was a disaster! I got the kids all settled on the blankets, and started to read the story. But kids are so so wound up on Christmas Eve. They’re wearing these fancy outfits they’ve never worn before, and probably brand new shoes, and they’ve been eating Christmas cookies all day, and they just want to go home and go to bed so they can wake up and see what Santa has brought. It is not exactly, as it turns out, the best time to ask children to sit demurely in front of a congregation full of people and listen quietly to a lovely storybook. The kids were restless almost immediately, and a few pages in, they were bored and on the verge of revolt, I could tell. I started to panic. The book was taking much longer to read than I had planned, and I was losing what little attention from the kids I had. I started simply summarizing what was on each page, flipping through the story faster and faster. Of course, this left all of my helpers out in the congregation scrambling to figure out which page I was on. Everyone was confused, and no one seemed to be having this perfect experience I had in my head. Mercifully, eventually I made it through the book and sent the kids back to their seats. But I was devastated by how awfully everything had turned out. All my plans, ruined.
A bit later in the service, I made my way over to the choir loft to serve communion to the singers sitting there. My hands were literally shaking with stress and anxiety over my failed service. One woman, Dee, looked at me with concern in her eyes. She asked, “What’s wrong?” I said, sarcasm dripping in my tone, “Oh, everything is just going so well!” Wasn’t it clear to her why I was so upset? But no, she just looked confused by my response. After the service, her response was echoed by others. They had no idea why I was so upset. They’d experienced a meaningful Christmas Eve worship service, a celebration of the birth of Jesus, and apparently, I hadn’t ruined everything with a poorly received story for the kids. Apparently, I was the only one having a crisis. Apparently, I was the only one who had concluded that the service had been ruined. In reality, though, the only one whose experience was ruined was my own, and I had done that to myself. I had this picture in my head, these expectations of how everything was supposed to go, and when I didn’t find what I was looking for, when where things ended up on Christmas Eve didn’t match the plans I had, I let it overwhelm me with disappointment.
            Have you ever experienced something like that? Have you ever had a vision or a plan or had a picture in your mind of some event – where you had it all mapped out in your head, how things would go, a journey, physical or metaphorical, where you set out with a clear aim, or goal, or purpose in mind, only to find when you reach your destination that what is waiting for you, what really happens, is not at all what you expected? How did you feel, when things unfolded so differently than you had in mind? Did you totally lose your cool like I did? Did you go with the flow?
Our scripture text for today is about a journey like this – plans all laid out, but nothing unfolding as anticipated. Today is Epiphany Sunday. The word Epiphany is from a Greek word that means literally “coming to light,” or “shining forth.” Epiphany is the day when we celebrate the Magi, Wisemen from the East, coming to see Jesus and bringing him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This is significant because it represents that Jesus is light to the whole world, celebrated even by these foreign strangers, not just the people of Israel, not just a chosen few. Jesus is the light of and for the whole world.
We really know very little about these wise men. They appear only in this passage from Matthew. Matthew describes them as men from the East, which maybe may have meant they were astrologers from Persia, interpreters of stars and dreams. The idea that they were kings comes from a verse of a Psalm that talks about kings bringing gifts to the Messiah – a loose connection at best. The number three was just layered onto tradition over time, perhaps because three gifts are named, along with traditional names for each of three wise men. But again, these ideas are not mentioned in the Bible. What the Bible does tell us is that these wise men came to the palace of King Herod looking for a newborn king, since they had seen a star that was significant to them.
We don’t even know why the Magi would be interested in seeing a new king of the Jewish people, since they themselves were not Jewish. But we do know that when they were looking for this new king, they expected to find him at the palace. That’s right where they went – straight to the palace, to have an audience with Herod. They expected, perhaps, that Herod had a new child who would eventually become king, or some other similar chain of events. Instead, they find a baffled and frightened Herod, who has no idea what they are talking about. They’re sent to find this new king by Herod, guided by additional details about the child’s likely place of birth, and eventually, finally, they find Jesus with his mother Mary. They have brought gifts for the child that would have been appropriate at the palace: gold, frankincense, myrrh. Costly gifts.  And so they offer these gifts to this child, Jesus, who they find not in a palace, but in a normal home, in a small town, the child of a carpenter and his wife, totally normal by every visible clue.
Imagine if the Magi reacted like I did that Christmas Eve when my plans didn’t go as I wanted. The Magi could have decided they had gotten it all wrong and taken their gifts and gone back home, disappointed that they had come so far only to find that this so-called new king was just a regular baby born to no one special. But Matthew says they were overwhelmed, not with disappointment, but “overwhelmed with joy.” Nothing went as planned, but they simply changed their course as a new plan was laid out for them. They went where they were led. And they were thrilled with it all. They didn’t judge Mary and Joseph and Jesus by their outer wrappings. They recognized the Holy in the child Jesus. The Epiphany is the coming-to-light, the shining-forth of Jesus as light of the world. It wasn’t what the Wisemen set out to see. But what was revealed to them by the light was nonetheless exactly what they were seeking, overwhelming them with joy.
I’m wondering what we are expecting, as we journey with God. As we begin a new year, what destinations do we have in mind, what plans and schedules have we made, what results are we looking to see? What solution to our problems, what fix for our troubles, what cures for what ails us we are expecting to find at the end of the calendar year, at the end of our journey, at the completion of our plans? And then, what will we do when, inevitably, what we find as the days unfold is not what we were expecting. What will the light of Epiphany reveal to us?   
One of my favorite authors is Mindy Kaling. She’s the writer and star of the TV show The Mindy Project. Or you might know her as a writer and actress on The Office – she played Kelly Kapoor. In her book Why Not Me? she spends one chapter of her book divulging, with great wit and sarcasm, all of her beauty secrets. One of them? Stay in the shadows! We look best, she insists, under the forgiving lighting of shadows, without the harsh brightness revealing every detail that we’d rather keep hidden. I think about this fact sometimes with my phone’s camera. On most smart phones, if you use it to take a “selfie,” the camera automatically switches to a setting called “beauty face.” I love it! It gives your skin a nice uniform glow, erases any imperfections, and subtracts about 5 years of wrinkles and lines from your skin. Selfies, after all, are pretty close-up pictures – and do we really want to see everything about ourselves that the camera might reveal?
Epiphany is a time when we celebrate that the light of the world is shining. But more than just acknowledging the light of Christ, our task is to look closely at just what the light of Christ is revealing in us. Our task is to let that light shine into our lives and bring all of the dark places out of the shadows. What would it mean if the light of Christ focused on your life and made visible everything that has been hidden? What unexpected things might we see, discover, when the Star of Bethlehem shines on us?
I’ve been thinking about this in two ways: First, I think letting in the light of Christ would make us deal with aspects of ourselves and our behaviors that we try to hide in the shadows, or cover up with “beauty face” mode. Do you struggle with envy or coveting what others have? Are you facing an addiction that you can’t control? Are you holding on to resentments or conflicts with others that you have been unwilling to resolve? God at work in us reveals all those things – uncovers them, not so that we can be judged and condemned, but so that we can be healed and redeemed and move forward. This is a time when so many of us are making New Year’s Resolutions, and I think that the reason that so many of us fail in our efforts is because we don’t really examine what’s behind our feelings – why aren’t we happy with what we have, always longing for what others have, for example? We start out to change our lives on our own, without the grounding, the source of our being. Jesus is the light, and we can’t shine without that source, God, empowering us.
What would it mean if the light of Christ focused on your life and made visible everything that has been hidden and unseen? Here’s the second way: In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” I think that may be our hearts’ desire – to be known fully, completely – and also our deepest fear – that someone will see us – flaws and imperfections and things we’d rather keep in the shadows. So often, we look at ourselves and see only our failures. We gloss right over the gifts we have, the way that God has created us, the strength we have, the ways that we have been formed and blessed and placed in this world so that we can serve and give and bless others. We don’t see in ourselves all that God sees in us. And so we let ourselves off easy, because we’re convinced that we can’t do what God knows we can do and do well. When the light of Christ brings everything in us into view, when we let that light shine in all the overshadowed places, then we start to see ourselves as we really are, as God created us, and as God is calling us to be. God sees us, all that the light of Christ reveals in us, and is overwhelmed with joy in us.
That’s the journey of Epiphany. We find at the end of the long road we travel what we didn’t plan or expect. Instead, we find the light of Christ, light of the world, shining back at us, dispelling the shadows, revealing who we really are. God isn’t disappointed in what’s revealed in us. God is full of hope at all that yet might be in us. And I believe we won’t be disappointed when we embrace God-revealed to us. May we, like the Wisemen, lay our very best gifts as an offering of thanksgiving at the feet of Christ, overwhelmed with joy. For we find there not-at-all what we expected, but instead, shining in the light, exactly what we’ve needed. Amen.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Sermon for Christmas Eve, "His Name Shall Be Called: Emmanuel," Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 2:1-20

Sermon 12/24/16
Luke 2:1-20

His Name Shall Be Called: Emmanuel

            All throughout the season of Advent, the weeks before this night as we’ve been preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we’ve been studying some of the names for Jesus we draw from the writing of the prophet Isaiah: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Each week we asked ourselves what it means to call Jesus by these names. What does it mean to follow one who bears these titles?
Tonight we’re thinking about another name for Jesus, which also comes from Isaiah’s writings: Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” Isaiah writes, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Centuries later, Matthew, writing his account of Jesus’ birth, sees Isaiah’s words fulfilled in the Christ-child. And there, in just this one spot in the gospels, Jesus is called Emmanuel, God-with-us. He’s never referred to by this name again. Jesus is never known by the name Emmanuel; it’s not like a nickname he’s called. And yet, Matthew’s name for Jesus is so powerful and compelling that followers of Jesus have continued to use this title for him ever since. All these weeks, building toward Christmas, we have been singing of Emmanuel: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” “Emmanuel, Emmanuel … God with us, revealed in us – His name is called Emmanuel.”
I get it. I’m with Matthew. God is with us. In Luke, an angel announces the new, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” To us is born the child Jesus. Yes, surely the baby is Mary’s, surely we did not do the hard work of carrying and laboring and delivering Jesus, but the angel says the child is for us all the same. A savior born for us, good news for us: God is with us.
The whole of the scriptures is a love story – the story of God’s amazing love for us, and the story of God’s hope for relationship with us. Over and over, the scriptures tell of ways God tries to connect with us, speak to us, call to us. What would you do to be near someone you loved? What would you do to let them know you loved them? What would you do to be able to spend time with someone you love who is far away? 
What God does is come to us in person. At Christmas, we celebrate what we call the Incarnation. Incarnation means the embodiment of God. It means God comes to us in-the-flesh. God is embodied in the person of Jesus. At Christmas, we celebrate the event of God’s incarnation in the Christ-child.
            Even though the word Emmanuel doesn’t show up in the gospel of Luke, Luke’s account of Jesus’s birth gives us the sentiment, the meaning of God-with-us from one end of the text to the other. God is with Mary and Joseph, as first they learned of the child Mary would carry, then as they make their long journey, as Mary gives birth in a precarious setting, as strange people show up and make themselves part of the story, as Mary treasures every moment. God is certainly with the shepherds. They’re unlikely candidates, maybe, to be the first recipients of the news of Jesus’ birth. They’re no one special. We don’t even know their names or how many there were. But God chooses them, surely a sign that God is with and for them, for those on the margins, for those who are usually left out, for those who are poor and lowly. God is with them.
God is even with those who won’t listen, who won’t open the door, who don’t have any room. With Herod, and Quirinius, and Emperor Augustus, and with every person who turned away Mary and Joseph, too busy, too proud, too important, too stressed to notice what was happening. 
We also have to think about the “us” in this phrase “God with us.” Sometimes, we get confused, and we begin to think that Emmanuel means “God with me,” as if we are the only ones in this extraordinary relationship with God, even as we can trust that we are each uniquely precious to God. All sorts of damage and harm and violence in the world is done in the name of believing that God is with me but not with you. Emmanuel is definitely God with us. And the very Christmas story we cherish and celebrate tonight helps us understand who the us is exactly.
The Christmas story is God trying to get our attention. Centuries of God’s people not getting the message lead God to try the clearest message yet: God is with us in the flesh! And so we read about God’s elaborate, majestic, powerful gesture: “Hey, shepherds, look over here – there’s an angel! There’s a whole sky-full of angels! Hey, Mary and Joseph: Look, here’s some shepherds! They came because angels sent them! Hey, you, reading this story, hearing this word proclaimed: Here’s a neon sign! Here’s me in the flesh! I AM WITH YOU!”
We’re getting the message, God! How will we respond? Herod hears “God is with us” and we’ll see him respond in fear and anger. He doesn’t want God to be so close. How close do we want God? The shepherds hear “God is with us” and they want to see for themselves, and they want to tell all about it, and they rejoice at the goodness of God. Is the news good enough for us to tell about it? Mary hears “God is with us” and she treasure and ponders over every detail. She knows that the world is changing, that God in the flesh means nothing can be the same.   What changes for you if you know, if you trust, if you open your life to God with you?
            God is with us. This child we celebrate is for us. The gift from God is for us. This story we tell is for us. As close as we want. Right in our hearts. Moved in. Changing our lives, and changing the world. “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” God with us. Amen.



Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Advent, "His Name Shall Be Called: Prince of Peace," Isaiah 52:7-10, Micah 4:1-4, Matthew 5:9

Sermon 12/18/16
Isaiah 52:7-10, Micah 4:1-4, Matthew 5:9

His Name Shall Be Called: Prince of Peace*

“His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” This week I read an article by Michael Kellerman in the New York Times about the horrors of war in Syria, and particularly its impact on children. In particular, he was moved by a short video of a 7 year old Syrian girl, Bana, who said simply: “Please, save us. Thank you.” Kellerman writes about how disinterested, or at least how distracted from the humanitarian crisis we have been. He says, “… [A]ll we do is watch, helplessly, as Syrians refuse to go quietly, determined to get us to know them, their lives, all that has been lost. Some of the public’s indifference can of course be chalked up to compassion fatigue and disillusionment with a war in its sixth year … There were assurances about popular uprisings. Social media today supercharges protest movements, which burn out almost as fast. Such movements used to require a slow … construction. They didn’t rely on Facebook videos and … photos. Truth be told, no sane person wants to see these images anyway. What’s happening in Aleppo is almost unbearable to look at. But that’s the point. Bana looks us straight in the eye and asks us to save her, please. We have done nothing to help. The very least we should do is look back.” (1)
            I have been trying to look back. And as I have been looking, I’ve been thinking about this fourth title for the Christ-child that we’re studying today. We call him Prince of Peace. Of all of the titles we’ve talked about, I think this one slides most easily onto Jesus. It makes sense. We often think of Jesus as Prince of Peace, even outside of the Advent season. And during Advent? There are images of peace everywhere. We love the idea of peace. But do we really love peace? What are we willing to do to make peace a reality in our world?
During his last days before his crucifixion, Jesus heads to Jerusalem, and after he arrives, when Jesus is greeted with a parade and fanfare by the people, he heads out to look over the city. As he surveys everything before him, Jesus beings weeping. He says, “If you, even you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes … because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:42, 44b) What do you think? Do we recognize the things that make for peace? What are they? And do we choose them, the things that make for peace? I look at that video of young Bana and think: I’m not sure we know anything about peace at all.
            The story woven through the scriptures tells us that God’s people have long struggled with knowing how to make peace. In Isaiah’s oracle, when he talks about the Prince of Peace, the word he uses is shalom. Shalom means not just the “absence of hostility”, but more broadly the maintaining of the whole social system, with the intent of “the promotion of the general welfare” of all people.” (52). It’s the same idea we get in Psalm 72, which we shared together in worship a few weeks ago. For there to be peace, there must be justice practiced for the poor and needy. Prosperity for all, not just an elite group. (53) As we read in Micah today, “disarmament is a prelude to peace.” Violence and peace are not compatible. (54)
            Yet, disarmament can’t be a “coercive activity enforced by the victor.” Peace that is imposed by the winning side is not true peace, not when there is no other choice for the loser. Walter Brueggemann writes, “Peace makes a better political slogan than a credible political reality.” (56) The prophet Jeremiah lamented in his writings: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (6:13) The peace of God cannot come about through force by the mighty over the weaker.
            Consider this: Jesus, Prince of Peace, was born in a nation occupied by the Roman government during the time in history known as the Pax Romana – the Roman Peace. And yet, we know from the accounts of scripture that God’s people in Israel did not consider it a time of peace, but a time of oppression, a time when they were living under foreign rule, a time when people lived in fear. If we’re settling for this kind of peace, it’s a shallow peace, a false peace, clinging to a notion of peace when there is no peace. When people are living in silence because they are afraid, when there is injustice and oppression and yet we say we are at peace – this is not the vision of peace God has. This is not the peace that the Prince of Peace ushers in.
            Maybe we do not know the things that make for peace. But we do know Jesus, or we are coming to know him, invited to come and know him. And he knows about peace. Jesus carries in his being a peace that “defies all ordinary expectations, [that is] a peace that is wrought in vulnerability, [that] does not impose its own way.” He is a Prince of Peace whose vulnerability confounds us. (61) When Jesus is born, God’s messengers declare that his birth signals that peace is meant for all the earth. When Jesus heals people, he tells them, “Go in peace,” not as a trite farewell, but as a way of saying that person has been restored to God’s vision for their life. (62) When he sends out the disciples to preach the gospel, he tells them to seek out people and homes who “share in peace,” suggesting that peace is a personal and interpersonal relationship, a way of being that we can claim, counter to the culture around us. He practices nonviolence, refusing to defend himself, even to the point of his own death. When he is resurrected, the first words he speaks to his disciples are words of peace.
            Some might think that Jesus is just na├»ve. But I think that we’re the ones who don’t know the things that make for peace. I think sometimes we’ve confused peace with safety and security. But they aren’t synonyms. Peace is not safe! Working for peace, is risky, because God’s vision of peace for the world means that the whole world order gets turned upside down. If God’s vision of peace prevails, then some will lose power and status and wealth and position. If God’s peace means a world where the well-being of all people is top priority, then some will fight tooth and nail to keep the status quo. If we insist on working for God’s vision of wholeness for all, then we have a hope of experiencing the peace that passes understanding but can abide in our hearts and change our lives, but we also take risks when we commit to the way of peace. Jesus, Prince of Peace, invites us to follow him. And his path leads into some dangerous places. He knows this. He goes this way anyway. And he asks us to follow anyway.          
What are the things that make for peace? I think peace comes from the inside out. We don’t know about peace when we think that peace is beyond us, that we aren’t a part of making peace. When my brothers and I would get into arguments growing up, (which we never do anymore, of course) my mom would say, “How can we expect there to be peace in the world if we can’t have peace in our home?” This would induce some eye-rolling in us – at least we agreed on that – but I’ve always remembered it. How can we have peace in our home if we don’t have peace within? Peace within comes from our relationship with God, from God dwelling in our hearts. That’s the work of Advent – preparing room in our hearts for the Prince of Peace.
            We don’t know about peace when we think that peace won’t cost us. Brueggemann says that “Peace requires the capacity to forgive. Peace requires a readiness to share generously. Peace requires the violation of strict class stratification in society. Peace requires attentiveness to the vulnerable and the unproductive. Peace requires humility in the face of exaltation, being last among those who insist on being first and denying self in the interest of the neighbor.” (64)
            We don’t know about the things of peace when we pretend we have achieved peace while others are suffering. Peace is not the absence of something. It is the presence of something. It is not simply the absence of war, the absence of violence, although we seek after such things as a part of peace. Instead, peace is the welcomed presence of God’s reign in our midst, which results in the well-being of all of God’s creation. And if peace is the presence of something, not the absence, then we can only live in peace when we are active, not passive in pursuing it. Peace will not just find us, settle on us, wash over us. We must seek peace, cultivate it, spread it, carry the message of it, claim it in the midst of every opposing message.
            When we do these things, when we seek to learn the things that make for peace, when we make it our life’s work to practice them, maybe then we will be able to look back at little Bana and hold her gaze steadily, really seeing her, ready to work for a world where she experiences wholeness. We’re waiting, longing for the Christ-child. Let us not miss this visitation from God. Let us be God’s peacemakers, God’s children. Come to us, Prince of Peace. Amen.
Song – Dona Nobis Pacem.

(1) Michael Kimmelman, New York Times,

*All references in this sermon come from Walter Brueggemann’s Names for the Messiah, Chapter 4, “Prince of Peace,” unless otherwise noted. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

Sermon for Third Sunday in Advent, "His Name Shall Be Called: Everlasting Father," Ezekiel 34:1-16

Sermon 12/11/16
Ezekiel 34:1-16

His Name Shall Be Called: Everlasting Father*

            And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. This week we turn to what is perhaps the strangest of these four titles for the Christ-Child, the Messiah. Today, we think about what it means to think of Jesus as Everlasting Father. We’re familiar, of course, with thinking about God as a parent. Jesus frequently speaks of God as Father, even Abba, Dad, a familiar, intimate title. But how can we think of Jesus, the Son in the Father-Son relationship, the Son in the Trinity of Father-Son-Holy Spirit, as Everlasting Father?
            When Isaiah was writing this oracle, when he was hoping and longing for a ruler for Judah who would redeem the people. They are headed for war. They are perilously close to being conquered, overthrown, driven from their homes and their way of life and the practice of their faith. But Isaiah has this hope, this vision of what a ruler might be. And when Isaiah calls the ruler Everlasting Father, he’s using language that would have resonated with his audience. In a patriarchal society, the father was the traditional head of the family. The father exercised the most power and the most responsibility. (34) But the role and responsibility of the father is all based on the way God operates in the world. In other words, God is the model, the true Everlasting Father, and earthly parents embody true parenthood in as much as they emulate the character of God, Everlasting Father.
            So what is God like as Everlasting Father? Everlasting means reliable care and protection.  You can depend on something that is everlasting. It isn’t wavering, there sometimes and missing others. It is a constant, enduring force. God, and God’s care for us, love for us, is everlasting. In a world of short attention spans, God’s everlastingness is a precious treasure. As a parent, God can get angry, when we hurt each other, when we don’t listen, when we walk away from God. But, our kinship with God – that is, because we’re God’s family, God’s anger is “not the last word.” (37) And God’s role as our parent is also to protect the most vulnerable. Throughout the scriptures, we find that God has particular care and compassion for what is sometimes called “the quartet of the vulnerable” – the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. God takes action, again and again, through the law, through God’s leaders, through the work and words of the prophets, to highlight protection of the most vulnerable. This is what God, Everlasting Father, does.
            And God expected that the kings, the rulers of God’s people, would have been about this work as well. The task of the king was to emulate as much of God’s character as possible, to be a servant leader. And so a king was meant to be Everlasting Father too, because they “[guarantee] the well-being of the family, clan, or tribe, and eventually the state.” (39-40) A king’s task was to make sure that the society was prospering and flourishing, and that couldn’t truly happen unless the needy and vulnerable were protected too. (40)
But, there’s been a failure. The kings of God’s people have not been doing their fatherly duty. Instead, they’ve been self-indulgent, self-interested. (41-42) And so, God, the true Everlasting Father will step in and do what has been left undone. That’s where we find ourselves in our text from Ezekiel today.
Ezekiel is writing in the time of the Babylonian exile. This comes after the times of Isaiah, but it’s all tied up in the same narrative. Since Isaiah’s time, Judah hasn’t really been in control, in power, and has instead been open to foreign attack and invasion. Now, Babylon had invaded and occupied Israel and the people of Israel were scattered – what Ezekiel calls scattered sheep. Ezekiel spends the proceeding chapters of his prophecy criticizing the history of bad royal leadership Israel has had. When humans have tried to be king, we have done a pretty bad job at it.
Ezekiel shares the word he says he received from God: “Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel.” God says the shepherds of Israel – that is the kings, the rulers – they’ve been feeding themselves, but not feeding the sheep. They’ve been failing in their most basic purpose. “You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool,” we read. “You slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.” The result of this neglect? They sheep are scattered when there is no shepherd, and they become easy prey for wild animals. Metaphor for exile and conquering. No one is left, writes Ezekiel, to search for those who have been lost.
            But there is hope yet, because God will step in as shepherd where the rulers of earth have failed. “Thus says the Lord God,” says Ezekiel, “I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them. For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.” I will rescue them from where they’re scattered, says God. I will feed them. I will be the shepherd. “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”
            Later, after our text for today, Ezekiel goes on to say that God, Shepherd, will judge between sheep and sheep. This is because some of sheep eat their fill but trample down the rest of the good grass so others can’t have it. Some of them drink clean water, but then stick their feet in the water and make it dirty for others trying to drink. Some of them push the other sheep, and butt at the weaker animals, pushing them away from the rest of the flock. “I will save my flock,” God says. I will judge the sheep, and no longer will they be ravaged. God, Everlasting Father, will become the Shepherd where the rulers have failed to do so.
            And suddenly, it becomes a little clearer how Jesus, the Son, can be Jesus, Everlasting Father. Because we know that Jesus is the Good Shepherd. In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” We’ve talked about Jesus being Ruler of the Impossible, about Jesus, Mighty God, creating pathways of new life. And just what Jesus, Good Shepherd, Everlasting Father speaks about: I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.
Jesus embodies the Good Shepherd that the kings of earth could never be, and at the same time calls us to follow his example. Jesus is in the orphan business, just like his parent is. (46) He calls for the children to come to him, and calls us to enter God’s kingdom like they do. (47) He is the “carrier of the family promise,” (48) showing Father and Son in solidarity. In Jesus we hear the words of Ezekiel fulfilled: “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” That’s just what Jesus does. Jesus, Good Shepherd, Everlasting Father.
As always, that brings us to the so what. So what does it mean for us? First, I think, if the role of the shepherd is beyond us, then perhaps our first task is to learn to be better sheep, better members of Jesus’ flock. Remember, God says that not only were the shepherds not taking care of the sheep, but also some of the sheep were showing little in the way of concern for their other flock members. They weren’t taking care to make sure that there was good food and clean water for all of the sheep, and they were even hurting each other. What kind of job are we doing as part of God’s flock? Are we only concerned with making sure we get ours? Making sure our needs are covered? Are we keeping an eye out for those who are getting shoved to the side in life? Or are we the ones doing the elbowing? Let’s try to be good sheep, keeping our eyes on the Good Shepherd, listening for the voice of Jesus, and following where he leads.
But we can also strive to win back the responsibility of sharing in shepherding, being God’s servant leaders. Walter Brueggemann writes that one of the reasons we can see Jesus as Everlasting Father is because Jesus so closely identifies with and emulates the Father that they share the functions of parenting, of shepherding. (49) In other words, Jesus is so full of God that Jesus also shares the responsibility of God, the Great Shepherd. That should be our aim as well – not that we can be God – but we can be full of the Spirit of God. We can be imitators of Jesus. We can make sure that we, too, are champions for the quartet of the vulnerable – the poor, the orphan, the widow, the foreigner. We, too, can seek after the lost, those who have strayed. We, too, can work for justice for those who are oppressed.
In this season of Advent, the great surprise is that the tiny babe born among us is also the parent who longs to protect us, and the Good Shepherd who longs to guide us, willing, even, to lay down his life for us. We give thanks to the Everlasting God for this gift of comfort and joy. Amen.

* All references are drawn from Chapter 3, “Everlasting Father,” of Names of the Messiah by Walter Brueggemann.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent, "His Name Shall Be Called: Mighty God," Psalm 72:1-14, Mark 4:35-41

Sermon 12/4/16
Psalm 72:1-14, Mark 4:35-41

His Name Shall Be Called: Mighty God*

            “And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” On this second Sunday of Advent, we’re thinking together about what it means to call Jesus “Mighty God.” Thinking of Jesus as God incarnate might come pretty naturally to us. Christians worship a Triune God. That is, we believe that God is a Trinity – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – three persons of God, but still one God. But in the story of the scriptures, though God’s people were longing for a messiah – which means anointed one, a title given to a king – they weren’t expecting the messiah to be God-in-the-flesh exactly. God’s best servant leader, yes. But God in human form? Maybe not. So, how do we come to see Jesus in the words of the prophet Isaiah, when Isaiah calls the promised child “Mighty God”?
In many cultures over the millennia, nations would view the rulers of their country as attaining their role, their position, because of divine decree. In other words, the ruler was in place because God or god(s) wanted them to be. And so, often, the ruler himself (and it has been predominately “him”) would be viewed as having divine qualities, divine power, if not being actually considered divine. Certainly, for the Israelites, there was no separation of church and state. The nation was God’s people, and the king was a servant of God. People were longing for a ruler, then, who would clearly be God-chosen, God’s servant leader directing God’s people.
The ideal ruler had a lot of responsibilities. The ruler would have “victory in war … success in economics … productivity in agriculture and … justice in social relations.” (20) Also, the king’s job was to “practice economic justice toward the poor and needy.” (21) It was written in to the law that the ruler would be the protector of the most at-risk in society. We read about this in our passage from Psalm 72, where the whole Psalm is a prayer of blessing for a king, containing a description of what a king who is serving God ought to look like: “May he judge your people with righteousness and your poor with justice … In his day may righteousness flourish and peace abound … May all kings fall down before him … For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.” The Psalmist speaks of a Ruler who is a protector of the poor and vulnerable, who cares deeply about their lives, a Ruler who is strong enough to shield them from violence and oppression.
            Still, Isaiah describes something more than a Mighty King. Isaiah says Mighty God, a bold claim. Does Jesus meet the criteria? In his book, Names for the Messiah, Walter Brueggemann writes, “Jesus is a carrier of divine power.” (22) The phrase “Mighty God” “asks about [Jesus’s] power in a world that is organized around many claimants for power, most especially the power of Rome. It is clear that [Jesus] will not compete with the power of Rome on the terms of Rome.” (23) Instead, Jesus insists that his power “is not grounded in the usual authority of empire; it is not an authority that comes … in coercive or violent ways. His kingdom, his claim to authority is indeed “divine” in that it is rooted in and derived from [the will of God], whose intention for the world is quite unlike the intent of Rome.” (24)
            We get a picture of Jesus, Mighty God, in our gospel lesson from Mark. Jesus has been teaching the crowds by the seaside. The crowds become so great that Jesus gets into a boat and teaches from just offshore, just enough to give him a platform, and a little distance from the press of the crowds. When evening comes, he says to his disciples: “Let us go across to the other side.” So they leave the crowds, and they head across the water. A windstorm rises up as they travel. The waves are beating against the boat, and the boat is nearly swamped. And through all this, Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat. The disciples wake him, asking, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re about to die?” Jesus gets up, rebukes the wind, and says to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” He uses the same kind of commands and actions he would to drive out an unclean, harmful spirit from a person. And immediately, the wind ceases and there is total calm. Jesus turns to the disciples and asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Their only response is to turn to each other in awe and wonder, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” They’ve heard Jesus teach and they’ve seen him heal. But power over the elements like this – this is something different, something more altogether. There were many healers and teachers. But power like this was reserved for God. To have power over the chaos of a storm – to have the storm obey, like the unclean spirits also obeyed Jesus – this is the power of Mighty God.
            Passages like this one are known as theophanies. A theophany is one of those fancy church words that means a simple thing: A God-appearance, where the glory of God is revealed in a particular act or moment. You know the word epiphany – when something is revealed suddenly, when we have sudden clarity – a light bulb moment. A theophany is when God is suddenly revealed – when the presence of God in our midst is revealed. In Jesus, we encounter the ultimate theophany – the ultimate revealing of God’s presence, God-with-us. Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus does what only God can do, revealing the glory of God.
            It’s that same revealing of God’s glory that is woven through the story of Jesus’ birth. Listen to what Luke tells us: “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’” A Mighty God comes in the Christ-child, and God’s messengers fill they sky to tell the news.
            Jesus, God-with-us, carries divine power that is different than the power the world knows. Brueggemann says, “Jesus exercises counter-power that refuses the coercive, exploitative power of Rome and instead enacts abundant power that makes life possible.” That’s the aim and focus of Jesus’ power: Jesus, Mighty God, makes abundant life possible. (24) We see this in the gospels when Jesus casts out unclean spirits – he has power over that which makes chaos and disorder, stumbling blocks to life. And we see it when he calms the storm. The spirits, the storm – they obey Jesus because in him is the power of Mighty God. Writes Brueggemann, “Clearly the two adversaries of Jesus, the unclean spirit and the storm, are forces of chaos and death. They are agents of ‘uncreation’ … Jesus contains and subjects these deathly chaotic threats by creating space for new life.” Creating space for new life – that’s the work of Jesus in the world.
Jesus, Mighty God, doesn’t promise a lack of chaos in the world. Instead, our Mighty God-made-flesh in Jesus promises to draw from the chaos abundant life and hope, where the alternative is death and despair. This is the ultimate hope we have as people of faith, as we recite these words from apostle Paul at graveside services: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” We believe that Jesus brings life, where we expected death.
But beyond longing for or trusting in Jesus’ ultimate giving of life eternal instead of the hopelessness of death, what does it mean for us, for our lives now, for Jesus to be Mighty God, Lord of Life? We have to ask ourselves: Where do we need to allow Jesus to create space for new life in us? Where is our life full of chaos, where is death and despair threatening to take hold of us? The more we can offer our whole lives to God, even those parts of our life – especially those parts of our life we’re embarrassed by, the stuff of our life that makes us feel ashamed or weak or overwhelmed or like we just can’t handle it anymore – when we offer that to God, and let go of protecting and hiding the chaos of our lives, God can get to work drawing out new life from the mess. We have to be vulnerable. We have to be ready to offer our obedience, our willingness to follow this Mighty God. But I promise, the Lord of Life can transform your chaos, can transform your hopelessness into joy.    
Not only can Jesus create abundant life out of the chaos we entrust to him, but Jesus also invites us, his disciples, to carry out his work, his mission, by being co-creators, by helping to make paths for creative, new, abundant life to take place. How are we making pathways for new life in world? How can we nurture creative energy for life in our families, in our congregation, in our community? God makes us caretakers of the garden of earth, and we can work to make sure what God is growing is soaked in light and water and planted in good soil. Who do you know who is feeling hopeless who needs some words of encouragement? Who is beginning a journey with God of new life that needs your support? We are called to clear the path for the Lord of Life to be at work in the world.
On the flip side, we have to do some self-examination in this season of Advent. Jesus wants to make new life of our chaos, and wants us to help make new life pathways in the world. Sometimes, when we turn away from God, we find ourselves instead making stumbling blocks, putting barriers in the way of God’s paths. Sometimes, we find ourselves stirring up the chaos, in our lives, and in the lives of other, instead of working with God to create life. In these days that feel so chaotic, when the temptation to add the swirl of hate and anger can be so tempting, we must ask ourselves: Am I adding to the chaos? Are my actions toward others leading them toward hopelessness, or toward abundant life? Jesus speaks in some of his harshest words in the gospels toward those who get between others and their life with God. There are so many ways that God might bring new life out of your chaos, but it will never be through causing chaos for others.
Jesus is about the work of making space for new life in the world, in our lives. Let us be about the work of making space for Jesus. In these Advent days, and all the days that follow, let every heart prepare him room, room for Mighty God, the Lord of Life. Amen.

*References throughout are from Chapter 2 of Names for the Messiah by Walter Brueggemann.