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.

Sermon, "In Denial," Mark 8:31-37

Sermon 2/20/24 Mark 8:31-37 In Denial My sermon title is both a reflection of our gospel text for today, and a reflection of how I felt abou...