It’s easy to get caught up in John and his eccentric tendencies. Why the camel hair, why the weird diet, why the name calling and harsh language?
We could - and some would - spend an entire sermon on John. But that isn’t really what Matthew wants us to do. Instead, Matthew sees him as a bridge between the old covenant and the new. John is like one of the Old Testament prophets - except here, his job is to be the last prophet. Fulfillment is here! This story is a passing of the baton from John to Jesus.
That handoff happens at baptism. A baptism to which John says, “no” - even though “baptist” is in his title. And why wouldn’t he decline? It’s Jesus!
John’s objection to baptizing Jesus is all about a difference in status. John knows Jesus is more powerful than he is. This is the guy he’s been talking about for quite some time. John, instead, sees himself in need of what Jesus offers, not the other way around. “I need to be baptized by you,” he says.
In the text, Jesus gives both himself and John a way out of all the questions by saying 1) this is a temporary thing (“let it be so for now”). And 2) Jesus says that by doing this, they “fulfill all righteousness.” That seems to be good enough for John.
More modern Christians don’t really have that much of an issue with John being the one who baptizes Jesus. Maybe we’ve recognized the idea that the power of baptism isn’t in the baptizER; instead, baptism’s significance is all in God’s promise of forgiveness and grace. And THAT is where OUR issue arises.
Because if John’s baptism is one of repentance, and baptism in general is one of forgiveness, then why in the world did Jesus - the sinless one, not in need of repentance or forgiveness - why did he get baptized? Why does the Son of God need it? How does baptism benefit him at all?
Well, those are the questions we ask if forgiveness is all we think baptism is about.
Sure, forgiveness is part of what baptism is; but forgiveness is not all that baptism is. Baptism announces God’s favor and establishes our identity. This is particularly true for Jesus. A voice from heaven declares that Jesus is “my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased!” Baptism for Jesus is less about forgiveness and more about commissioning. It is the start of his mission and ministry and an assurance that God was indeed present.
Imagine if we viewed our own baptisms more like Jesus did. That baptism isn’t just wiping the slate clean; it’s God claiming you as a daughter and son; it’s God affirming who you are: you are mine, I love you, I am pleased with you. It’s a commissioning for us - the start of our mission and ministry in this world - a mission that continually calls us to move in faith beyond where we are now. These are words of empowering grace and acceptance. And they are true, no matter what.
That’s not always the case in the ways of our commercial, consumer culture. We’re accepted if we are strong enough, skinny enough, popular enough, young enough, if we’ve got the right stuff. We are given an identity which is linked to some product being sold. Eventually, all those things go away. Our bodies deteriorate. Our abilities change. Our cell phone becomes obsolete; thus, we are obsolete. We are promised acceptance only if… we keep up with what they’re selling next.
In turn, baptism plunges us into a message of grace. God declares we are enough, God accepts us as we are, God desires wonderful things for us and through us. Baptism is a message of grace, love, and identity; no “ifs” about it. God has made it so.
I think that is a good thing to know, to celebrate, to remember. Why wouldn’t we want to remember all that?
Wherever we are - home, work, park, hospital - we can remember God’s promises to us. Water, any kind of water, is usually a good reminder. Maybe a note on your bathroom mirror. Or a simple ritual of of signing the cross during morning devotions.
Here at church, baptism shapes things in our worship and liturgy each week.
Confession of sin is a time to remember baptism. Not just because of forgiveness, but because God promises to accept us even in the midst of what we’ve done wrong.
Communion is an extension of the baptismal promise - a table that is open to all God’s children.
Our dismissal is the time where we are sent forth to live out our baptism in our various roles and vocations in the world, trusting God goes with us.
When we have a baptism in worship, we give the family a candle. The candle is there to remind us of God’s presence, God’s promises, and our call to be a light in the world. It’s a tangible reminder.
One good way to remember one’s baptism is to celebrate it. To bring that candle out again - not only to have it lit that first day for about 3 minutes, but to light it again each year on the anniversary of baptism as a reminder of all that baptism is and means for us, all those things I’ve been repeating over and over. It’s a new-birth day.
So, I want to do something today. We don’t have enough baptismal candles to pass out, and though the Christmas Eve candles are probably still readily available somewhere, I’ve got a better, more efficient idea.
Remember the song, “This Little Light of Mine”? You’ve got your finger, right? This finger is now the light given to you at baptism, that physical reminder of God’s promise and love, and your call in this world. Your finger, from now on, will remind you that God claims you. God forgives you. God accepts you. Baptism announces God’s favor and establishes your identity. Your finger will remind you of that.
Let’s hold it up and sing the first verse:
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. (x3)
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
An epiphany is a revelation or awakening and comes from a Greek word which is translated most literally as a “revealing” - a manifestation of the divine. We use the word in everyday language to talk about a moment of deep insight or awareness - when all the pieces fall together. In Christian circles, Epiphany names the day, today, January 6, when we celebrate the revelation that Jesus Christ is the light of the world.
Of the whole world, actually, and that’s where the connection between Epiphany and the story of the magi in Matthew comes. For while Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, Christians confess that through him God seeks to save the whole world, just as through Abraham God sought to bless the whole world. Matthew tells of magi – the ones we often call “three kings” – though we do not know how many magi actually came. We assume three because there were three gifts, but it could have been more. But anyway, they come from the East following a star to worship the newborn king, Jesus.
Our story for today takes us through three major scenes or episodes. I’ll title them: a new hope, the empire strikes back, and return of the Jesus. (OK, so the Star Wars theme is a bit forced, but it gives a some framework we can use as we look at this story.)
First, a new hope. God gives us new hope in this child, Jesus.
Matthew will stress again and again through his Gospel that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, who comes like a new Moses to save Israel from oppression. And while this claim will be met with mixed reviews by Jesus’ own people, at the very beginning of the story it will be people from another land who recognize him, indeed, as King.
These magi - people who are from far away, who aren’t Jewish - these magi come to worship. And they are the first in Matthew’s story to worship Jesus.
This scene shows us that God includes Gentiles in the promises made first to Israel. The magi are God’s children, and God draws them to witness the grace and mercy dawning from on high in the birth and life of Jesus. In it is hope for us because God opens up the promises to include us, everyone.
Matthew makes it clear that Jesus doesn’t come for some or a select few; Jesus comes for all. Jesus accepts all. Saves all. Loves all. Here we see one of countless examples of how God loves everyone. Those in and out of Israel, those foreign and not, everyone, you and me. It is hope.
And how I wished the story ended there. But it doesn’t. The empire strikes back. And it strikes back in the only way it knows how to: with violence and anger at what this new king, what this reign, means.
King Herod becomes greatly troubled to hear from the Magi that a new king for the Jews is born. He feels threatened, worried, and paranoid about his throne. It is the reaction of anyone in power when there is a threat to what they have.
This is the hard part of the story. Actually, the horrific part.
Herod, discovering that the magi would not serve as his spies, and enraged that they had fooled him by returning home by another route, decides to go to appalling measures by killing all the children in and around Bethlehem two years or younger to make sure he has eliminated his potential rival.
People regularly and relentlessly do awful things to protect their power. And children are far too often the victims of the rage of tyrants and the powerful. Whether it is girls sold into lives of slavery and prostitution, or students of Columbine or Sandy Hook, or refugee children dying at our border, we have witnessed too many episodes of lack of care, negligence, even violence - all in the name of status quo security, to protect what is put in place for the comfortable.
And the thing is, the powers that be react like this, and Jesus’ power isn’t one of retaliatory violence. It isn’t one that will kill and fight and opress. It, instead, is one of love and acceptance and sacrifice. It is open and welcoming. It is vulnerable, peaceful, peace-making. And our world can’t handle that. It can’t handle the peace Christ brings.
Someone has to win. Someone has to be on top. Someone has to wield the power. Peace means we can’t lord over someone or something. Peace means we can’t keep divisions. Peace means understanding what affects them affects me. Peace means we don’t get final say.
We don’t even give up the lordship of our own lives very easily. Live a life like Jesus? Give away what I worked so hard for? Love people for who they are even if they aren’t like me? Sacrifice for someone who doesn’t deserve it? We have a long way to be convinced that Jesus - and not us - Jesus is Lord of all, even Lord over ourselves.
We don’t get the last word.
But neither does Herod. God continues to work, always working for the good of the world. God worked here, too, keeping Joseph, Mary, and Jesus safe.
Joseph was warned in a dream to flee the violence in their hometown. They headed to Egypt - a land very close to the story of Israel. I mentioned earlier that Matthew sees Jesus as a new Moses, who comes to save Israel from oppression. And what was Moses’ big accomplishment? Moses leads the chosen people from bondage in Egypt - the same land that Jesus is a refugee in, and from which he now exits. It’s the return of the Jesus.
Jesus returns - returns to life, returns to fulfill what God promises. God makes sure of it. Even when our world and empires strike with more violence, a cross, and death, God makes sure Jesus returns with life, life for him and life for this broken world.
Jesus is our hope, our hope in the midst of empires and pain and violence. Jesus is our hope in the midst of brokenness and selfishness and darkness. Jesus is our hope, our light in this world. And though the world fights it, Christ is victorious. Jesus returns to us always. Jesus returns with resurrection. Jesus returns in bread and wine. Jesus returns with love and life.
Today, we have Epiphany. A day we see promise despite evil, a day in which God reveals Christ. Christ as our life. Christ as our hope. Christ as the light of the whole world.
What a way to continue the Christmas spirit! A monotonous list of names!
But maybe you’re into genealogies and history. A lot of people are. Websites like ancestry.com have really taken off in the past several years, and there are TV shows about famous people finding out their family history - all the good and the bad. Nowadays, you can even take it a step further and spit in a tube, get it analized, and see where your DNA comes from. It’s a whole new level of digging up your history.
Some people really like to try to trace their lineage back and see what famous people they’re related to. I never got into the whole family tree thing, but I do know that I am not related to either Bruce or Robert E. At least, that’s what my dad says. But don’t we all want to have some of those famous people in our lineage? A President or a King or someone who did something grand. It’d make us feel pretty important, too, right? Like we, too, could be great!
Family trees in ancient times used to be just that. It was proof of how good and important you were. “See who my relatives were!” It was how you showed you were the preeminent people, the best, the most important.
At first, that may be what we think Matthew is doing here. There are, afterall, some pretty big names on that list. Unfortunately, though, it seems Matthew messed up a teeny-weeny bit. Ok, a bit more than a bit. There is a pretty glaring error: Jesus shares no biological relationship to Joseph and thus the generations that preceded him. Maybe ancestry.com would’ve helped Matthew get started on the right foot. Bloodline connections seem pretty important when coming up with a family lineage.
But maybe Matthew had something else in mind besides talking about Jesus’s step-dad, Joseph, and his family. There are bigger truths he wants to convey to us.
First, let’s look at all those those big names. I’m not sure Matthew put those people in there to impress us, like other genealogies of the day. Sure, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David - they’re all pretty famous. But they also did some pretty bad things. Jacob, for instance, swindled away his older brother Esau’s birthright and blessing with help from his deceptive mother. Some model of faith.
David killed Uriah, an innocent soldier fighting to protect his empire, so that he could cover up a baby conceived through his own philandering with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. I don’t think someone cheating and covering it up is something we would hold up as exemplary.
Rahab was a prostitute - not something that many people would freely advertise. Those are the stories most families try to sweep under the rug.
Yet, the Gospel of Matthew names precisely those “people who do the darndest things” as Jesus’ family. It seems incompatible to have Jesus descended from people who did stuff like this. And yet, God’s redemption of the world can handle, absorb, transform despicable histories like these. God’s grace is always surprising and is always working to change, to save, to bring life. Jesus is kin to those who need his forgiveness most.
Learning about these people in the genealogy and their stories opens us up to seeing others the way God sees them. We commit ourselves to broadening the family of God and including people we might not think of at first. Our preconceived notions can fade to the background; God welcomes sinners like them and God welcomes sinners like us, too. And, it should be noted, that none of the people listed are identified as sinners. Their faults aren’t what define them here. They are, however, named as belonging to Jesus’ family. That’s what matters most.
But, there are more than those big names on this list. There are also a bunch of people we’ve never heard of like Salmon and Manasseh and Zadok. Who are those people? What did they ever do? And maybe that right there is the point.
God can work big, famous, and grand, sure, but God also can work in the normal and ordinary. The God of the Universe, the Creator of all that is, is at work in human history through regular, average people that we might never meet or know. It is through regular folks that God works to redeem the whole cosmos.
Which takes a boring list of names and turns it on its head. God uses people you’ve never heard of to bring Good News to the world. That’s not so mundane; it’s actually a bit inspiring. It gives us hope - hope that nobody - NOBODY - is forgotten to God. It is hope that average people living normal, everyday lives, not known for being heros or royalty or coming from the aristocracy, hope that we are all part of something bigger than ourselves.
That should be no surprise. God pretty much always uses the usual and ordinary. Abraham was a nobody. David was the youngest and most insignificant of the family. Mary was an unwed teenage girl. Christ was born among us in a lowly manger. Jesus comes to us in the simplicity of bread and wine. The Word of God claims us in regular ol’ water… it’s how God works.
That’s what Matthew wants us to know: God is working. Jesus is connected to God’s work in the story of Israel. What starts with Abraham works its way through the generations to Jesus and, thanks to a bunch of boring and exciting people in our past… continues in us. Their faithfulness and God continuing to work brings us to today. And how are we continuing what God has started?
God works in it all - the super and the mundane - to draw us into all that God has been doing, connecting us with God’s larger story, and ultimately, making us part of God’s family. Who we are - grand or not, famous or not, full of faults or not - who we are is handled, absorbed, transformed by God. All because Jesus claims us as family.
We belong to Jesus; we’re part of his family tree. That is what defines us. And that is what matters most.
Christmas Eve is hard for preachers, as you might would imagine. There is so much that is special about this evening, and we don’t want to screw it up. Screwing up is well within the realm of possibility, you know.
Instead, we want the exact opposite of a screwed up evening. We want to script out the perfect Christmas Eve service, with just the right carols, just the right amount of drama, just the right words preached during the sermon.
The problem is, we’re competing against familiarity. Nostalgia. Beloved memories. So much has been said, done, written, and composed. What can we do to make this night stand out from all the other Christmas Eves - aside from lighting the altar on fire or something.
The family memories ingrained in our head are always the bar to which we compare things - even if they are maybe remembered a little more fondly than what actually happened.
The story of angels, shepherds, stables, and mangers is all so familiar - what new is there for a preacher to say?
And those Christmas carols. How can one compete with the likes of theological poetry put to evocative, sentimental, nostalgic melodies? They do such a good job of capturing the emotion - of saying what it is *I* really want to say on a night like tonight.
Like the sheer economy of words used in the third verse of my favorite carol, Hark the Herald Angels Sing: “Mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die. Born to raise each child of earth, born to give us second birth.” It lays out the meaning and hope of Christmas so perfectly.
Or, in O Little Town of Bethlehem, the last line of the first verse: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” How much is packed into that sentence? Hopes and fears… a whole sermon could be written about that.
There is the prayer which concludes “Away in a Manger,” a prayer that could and should be on all our lips, “Be near me Lord Jesus; I ask you stay close by me forever and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in your tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with you there.”
We all, not just preachers, struggle to have Christmas now match any of our Christmases past, even the nostalgia of the first Christmas. Everything now is so different. Different people are gathered - maybe marked most notably by those who are missing. Beloved decorations break, wear out, or maybe they just end up staying in the box because it’s too much of a hassle. The hustle and bustle grinds on us a bit more than it did even a few years ago.
We, too, can struggle to script our perfect Christmas in these days. We want to control it, but we can’t. We want to plan it, but we can’t - not really. We want it to match up to the greatest of Christmases, to be perfect… but it probably won’t be.
But, if we’re honest, nothing went right that first Christmas either. Manger, bands of cloth, unwed parents and a guy who isn’t the dad, a poor family. The first visitors were either A) animals if you want to count them or B) shepherds who were about the same level as animals. It’s a story that should have faded into obscurity - a real Christmas screw up. But God had other plans.
By any standards, that first Christmas wasn’t perfect. But perfection isn’t the point. Christmas is the enfleshment of God in all that is imperfect. God comes and lives in all that is painful, ugly, frustrating, limited, screwed up. God doesn't shy away from imperfection. Which is good news, because if God only showed up in and for what was perfect, we’d be the ones left out.
Instead, God embraces our world, accepts our imperfections, so that God can do something more than create warm-fuzzy nostalgia. God brings life. God brings hope.
The Light shines in our darkness. The Son of the Father now appears in skin and bones, regardless of what kind of Christmas it is. An angel announces Good News of great joy, announces it with an invitation to come.
“Don’t be afraid. Come. Come and see. Come and share. Come and glory in the Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing! Come.”
Of course, there is a hymn for that, too. “O Come, All Ye Faithful” invites us to come into that joy, to behold the king of angels, to greet the Lord who is born this happy morning. But, of course, there is more to the story.
Shepherds, afterall, were the first who were invited, and they are far from perfection, far from any perfect picture this carol paints. And if we take God seriously in the ways God shows up, in the world God embraces, then we should see that invitation as way broader than perfection.
So, yes, come all ye faithful, but also, come all ye who are not quite sure.
Come, all ye who are dressed up and those who could be working the fields.
Come, all who have hopes and all who have fears.
Come, you who are insiders and those who haven’t been inside a church in a long time.
Come, you who try for perfection and you who have failed.
Come, you who screw it up a lot, and you who screw it up sometimes.
Come, you, whoever you are. Because Christ is born.
And Christ was born for this, for all of this, for you.
We so want to script the perfect Christmas for us and our families. We - *I* - want the perfect service and sermon. But God doesn’t mind the imperfections. Maybe all the more, God shows up when things aren’t perfect, is born into our chaos and disorder, giving us promise and hope. That type of love is something we can’t script out. That type of love surprises us. That type of love is perfect.
How is the birth of a baby supposed to take place?
Well, when it comes to a real birth, you have no idea. All you can do is prepare. There is no “supposed to” when comes to birthing a baby.
For example, Jonah was born on a Sunday. Optimal time for a pastor’s kid to be born. (Strike 1, kid) And on that particular Sunday, the Senior Pastor I was working with at that point was away on vacation. (Strike 2) But! We had a plan. We prepared for the birth of a baby. We already had the intern preaching that Sunday since it was the lone uncovered sermon day. And we had a dedicated retired pastor in the congregation who was ready and willing to jump in and preside at communion - much like St. Philip had last week. Thank you Dick Albert for filling in. Again, we prepared!
But before these plans had to be enacted, we prepared by buying stuff. We took classes to learn about what to expect (not that much help). We had baby showers and parties, appointments and sonograms, names picked and car seats installed. We prepared for the birth of a baby.
But none of this is in Matthew’s Gospel. Well, the name was picked, but we’ll get to that in a few.
See, none of this is in the Gospel because Matthew wants to be clear that he is not preparing for the birth of a baby, but the birth of a Messiah. “The birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”
Yes, it’s a baby. Yes, it’s cute. And, no, that’s not the point.
The point is that God is with us. The coming of Jesus into this world is the sign of God’s permanent presence with us. The birth of THIS baby isn’t only a mere birth; it is God coming, it is God residing, it is God with us.
There is no greater sign of God choosing to be with us than Jesus. Other things, other signs, like nature or music or personal experience, are good and nice, but sometimes they can be ambiguous. They can sometimes leave a little question. But not this one. Jesus came into the world to reveal God and redeem us, to show the true character of God, and to save his people.
And this presence, this ‘God is with us,’ happens in the midst of all the realities of life.
It isn’t a clean, neat family situation in which this birth takes place, afterall. And while we could dissect what exactly Joseph and Mary were - engaged, betrothed, married but not living together (a conversation probably better suited for a Bible study) - what Joseph and we know is, at this stage of the game, Mary shouldn’t have gotten pregnant without him. So, Joseph followed the letter of the Law but wanted it kept under the radar. It was a messy, disappointing situation. And in this messy situation, God is with Joseph. God is with Mary. God is with us.
In the realities of our life, the birth of the Messiah lets us know that God is with us. Not life in general. Not theoretical life. But your life. Your messy, neat, dysfunctional, put-together, anything and everything life. In the complexities of our family situations, in our pains and sorrows, in hurts and needs, in our failings and brokenness, God is with us.
What does that mean, what does it look like? Because surely, we encounter confusing, unanticipated, painful situations in our lives, much like Joseph does, but we don’t often get the luxury of angels appearing to us to let us know everything will be ok. Sometimes, divorces do happen. People are unfaithful to each other and to God. Babies aren’t born. Pain and hurt and loss are real.
What does Emmanuel mean in times like that?
It means that past or current situations don’t define us. God is with us to deliver us from wherever we find ourselves.
In times of loneliness and broken relationship, in divorce, break up, death - any severing of relationship, we are never alone. God is with us to walk with us each step of the way.
In those things where we are wrong, in the hurt we cause others - either purposely or without thought, in sinful and fallen times, God is with us to save us from our sins.
You can’t change everything about the world. You certainly can’t change things that have already happened. But you can trust that God comes to us, even in the midst of that stuff, and wants to give us the gift of presence. You can trust that you are claimed by God and nothing changes that. You can trust that Jesus is there in bread and wine, surrounding you with his love and the love of the people around you.
Jesus comes to show us that in all times and in all places, God is with us.
It is his name, after all. Jesus means ‘God saves.’
It is title, Emmanuel. God is with us.
It is his purpose. To deliver us by being with us.
The birth of Jesus, the Messiah, opens our eyes. And not in the way that having your firstborn child opens your eyes, but Jesus opens us, prepares us, to see God with us everywhere, all the time. In the complex realities of life and in the everyday things that pass by unnoticed, God is there.
God helps us, walks with us, points us again to the hope that is the Messiah. And his name is Jesus.
Because our lesson from Esther was a little convoluted, and because many of us aren’t that familiar with Esther, I thought it would be good to to tell the whole story. Thanks to the kids for helping us out by playing the roles and acting out the story for us. For the Children’s Message, though, we did leave out some of the more crass, demoralizing, and violent parts. Obviously, we streamlined it and skipped some of the subplots and many details, but I hope you get the main point.
Esther did something hard, against protocol, and not in-line with societal expectations to make sure people were protected from being killed. Yeah, killed, not “get rid of” like we said in the children’s message.
Before this week, I had forgotten much about Esther and her story, so I sat down and read the book in less than half an hour - and I am NOT the fastest of readers. I encourage you to do the same.
As I read through it, I felt like I was reading a Shakespearean play. The characters are relatable enough to be realistic but just slightly over the top. The villain, Haman, I picture with a handlebar mustache that curls up at the ends, always wringing his hands, and having that evil “heh eh eh” kind of laugh. The King is shallow, superficial, and chauvinistic. Esther is way more than looks.
In our actual scripture reading for today, not our ‘dramatic reenactment,’ we are at that pivotal scene in the story where Esther goes from being quiet and afraid to standing tall in who she is and standing up for her people. It is at this point - “at such a time like this” - that the book takes it’s crucial turn.
And what is interesting about this scene - and the whole book of Esther for that matter - is that God isn’t mentioned. Not once. There is no divine being, no Jerusalem, no law, prophets, or Promised Land. Nor are there formal prayers or miracles, though it does show fasting as pious practice. God is missing.
So, what do we do with a text that doesn’t talk about God or Jesus - not just in the immediate way but in its entirety? As Lutheran Christians, we want God to be present; we need God to be present. We know in all things, it doesn’t depend on us, but it depends on God. God is the initiator. God is the subject of active verbs. God does stuff. But here? It doesn’t seem like God is around, that God matters.
And maybe this applies not just here in this text or in Esther as a whole. Maybe that perspective carries over into today, into here and now. Where is God in a time and a place like our world? It’s hard to see.
Where is goodness? Where is grace? Where is peace?
Where is mercy and love and hope?
Where is the God who speaks through burning bushes and splits seas and performs miracles? Where is God when we hurt? Where is God in oppression? Where is God when the forces of death and violence seem to be triumphant? Why is God not with us? God is hidden. Not there. Maybe non-existent.
I’ve heard it said that God is subtle to a fault.
God doesn’t show up in our story. God might not show up in our lives.
But there is something there, something here: it’s promise. Promise.
Even though God doesn’t show up as a main character in Esther, God’s promise underlines the whole thing. God promised long, long ago to always be on the side of Israel. God would always claim them, God would always bring them home, God would always save them.
Way back in Genesis 12, God makes this covenant promise to Abram: “I will make you a great nation… through you all nations of the world will be blessed.” After the Exodus, God promised Moses and the Israelites, “you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” Prophets reiterated that promise, “I will be their God and they will be my people.”
Here’s what we know because we have seen it time and time again: God is faithful to promises. God saves God’s people, Israel. Over and over and over - in grand ways like pillars of fire and in subtle ways, like through a strong woman who doesn’t always play by societal rules. God promises to save. And God does, even if we don’t see it right away. God is subtle to a fault.
And since God is faithful to Israel, then God will continue to be faithful to those of us who, by God’s grace, are grafted into Israel through Christ. God promises to save us in grand ways, like resurrection, and in subtle ways, like a simple meal of bread and wine. Through overwhelming us with a love and a call, and through the subtlety of light in our darkness.
They are all part of God’s grand promise. In Jesus, God brings us into that covenant promise - to be with us, to make us God’s own, to save us in, through, and despite everything.
Even when we don’t see it, even when it is too subtle for us to catch, God’s promise is the foundation of all we are. It shapes us, shapes us to respond in ways like Esther does. Even if evil seems to be winning, she - and we - act on the side of life because that is what God promises.
To us, God may seem missing because God doesn’t show up on our timeline, in the ways we want. But instead, God promises to be with us - and promises that we are part of the treasured possession. We are God’s people. Named and claimed in water and word, fed and nourished at the table. On the lookout for God and for the fulfillment of promise.
We wait. We wait for those promises to be completed. And even as we wait, even if it doesn’t seem like God is around, we know that God keeps, God fulfills, God works on those promises. Even still. Even now. Always.
I can honestly say I have never preached on Habakkuk before. A lot of people probably haven’t read it and don’t know what it’s about - and if you have read it, it was probably lumped in with other minor prophets as you were reading through the Bible.
So, a little insight into Habakkuk: he is a prophet. Prophets are known for speaking God’s word to us. They confront us with God’s truth and justice as it is, not as we imagine it to be. They often are blunt in their assertion that we pay attention to God.
But Habakkuk is a little different. He speaks our word to God. He gives voice to our bewilderment, articulates our puzzled attempts to make sense of things, faces God with our disappointment in God. Habakkuk insists that things don’t make sense.
That’s how we start out in our lesson today. The prophet looks around and is overwhelmed by all the violence he sees. “How long do I have to cry out for help before you listen, God? Anarchy and violence break out, quarrels and fights all over the place. Law and order fall to pieces. Justice is a joke.”
To use a biblical word, Habakkuk cries out in a lament. One might also say he is complaining.
But after he gets this off his chest, Habakkuk does something rather unusual for someone who just spouted off a list of grievances. He waits, and he listens.
It is in this waiting and listening that God speaks to him - and not with anger back, not with the same vitriol Habakkuk used. Instead, God promises that everything Habakkuk lamented over will end. God’s judgment, rule, life IS coming. It’s on its way. It will come at the right time.
Which is Good News. The way things are won’t always be. There is a promise of something better, way better. This news brings comfort, gladness, even a little bit of hope. God will win!
But I’m also a little bit like… so what. I don’t want a God of sometime in the future. I don’t need a God who just lets things play out and then one day decides he’s seen enough. I need a God who cares about the things going on right now. I want a God who cares about how we live in this world, in this moment, with these people.
Wildfires and wars and refugees. Greed and selfishness and pain. The poor, the sick, the orphaned. People getting shot and people getting shot and people getting shot. Bumper stickers don’t change it. Just believing doesn’t change it. Saying, “Keep Christ in Christmas” doesn’t change it.
Where is God? Why doesn’t God do something?
“For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”
The fact of the matter is, God has done something. God has saved and redeemed this world through sending the Son, Jesus Christ. God has answered our laments. God sends the Spirit to be with us, to comfort, to counsel, to support us. God feeds us week in and week out with body and blood. God washes us and claims us forever through water and word.
And God promises more. God promises, in due time, that this Good News will come to fruition. It is already set in motion, even if we don’t see its fullness just yet.
This is the tension we have in the life of faith, is it not? We live between our complaints and struggles on the one hand, and God’s right time on the other. We live between our world and God’s Kingdom, between our will and God’s will.
This is where we are as people of faith: active and alive in this world, struggling with injustice, perverted judgments, and the misuse of God’s intent, all while waiting for God’s promised time, for the promise that God makes, knowing that God has answered us, and God will answer us again. God has saved us through Christ Jesus, and so we are saved even in the midst of all that is going on.
Living this hope is how the prophet closes his out his book.
To read a different translation than what we have printed:
Though the cherry trees don’t blossom and the strawberries don’t ripen,
though the apples are worm-eaten and the wheat fields stunted,
though the sheep pens are sheepless and the cattle barns empty,
I’m signing joyful praise to God. I’m turning cartwheels of joy to my Savior God. Counting on God’s Rule to prevail, I take heart and gain strength. I run like a deer. I feel like I’m king of the mountain.
In all things, we have faith and trust in a God who has saved us and promises to it again. And in that faith is life, full life, real life. It is in a life of faith that we are given the strength to change the world, to live beyond our laments and cheap fixes. In the midst of it all, we count on God’s love, God’s faithfulness, God’s promises.
Maybe that is our greatest witness along this journey of faith. That even when we are impatiently waiting, even when we question and wonder, even though we don’t know when or where or how God will come, we live out our faith in tangible ways. We care for our neighbor, we alleviate the hurt we can, we praise along the way. And we do it until God gets here and relieves us of our work.
This Advent season, we don’t get easy answers, but God answers in ways that give us hope. Give us life. Give us faith.
May God not tire of our complaining.
May God keep us strong in these promises.
May God continue to accompany us all along this journey.
Your God is useless.
Forget about all those beautiful, but empty, promises about God saving you. Don’t let your king lead you to believe such nonsense. He has these pious sermons telling you to lean on God. But they’re all lies. Your God, as well as all the other gods of neighboring cities, is useless.
Rather, listen to the king of Assyria’s offer. He promises you a life of peace and prosperity - something far better. You’ll have wide open spaces, with more than enough fertile land for everyone. Don’t let Hezekiah fool you with this, “God will save us,” nonsense. Has that ever happened? Has any god ever gotten the best of the king of Assyria? Name one! So, what makes you think that your God will do any different?
That’s the gist of the speech Rabshakeh gives to the people of Judah. Rabshakeh was a messenger for Assyria’s king, Sennacherib. Assyria was wiping out everyone - Babylon, Samaria.
All who stood in their way of being the world’s dominant power were wiped out.
It’s war. And war is ugly.
My favorite comic strip of all time is “Calvin & Hobbes,” even though it’s been out of print for almost 20 years. In one strip, Calvin, the rambunctious kid, and Hobbes, the stuffed tiger who is alive to Calvin, are standing with army helmets on. Hobbes asks, “How come we play War and not Peace?” To which Calvin replies, “Too few role models.”
Another has Calvin going up to his dad in the first frame asking, “How do soldiers killing each other solve the world’s problems?” Then we get two frames of his dad staring blankly in different directions, and ends with Calvin walking away saying, “I think grown-ups just act like they know what they’re doing.”
If we kill more people on your side than you kill on our side, we get to implement our ideas and values. If we have bigger guns, extra soldiers, more destructive bombs, does that mean we have better values? If we have drones or armor or twice the military spending, does that mean our decisions are more wise? It’s all just survival of the fittest.
There are a few shows out now about the “what ifs” of some of the big wars. “The Man in the High Castle” is such a show. What if the Nazis had won? What if they were stronger or luckier or had slightly better technology they used on us first? Would it make their ideals better than ours?
Or, since we’re so close to Thanksgiving, the British settlers fought a lot of battles against Native American Tribes. They were in the way, uncivilized, a threat to our security… or so the history books say. Was that the right way to handle settling in to a new land?
It’s not like we don’t try to be peaceful. Despite our best efforts to unite, there are some who have more individual, selfish, destructive aspirations. We all will come up short. War is the way of our world. War is a force that defines us, gives us meaning. War is the story we tell, the story that has been used in just ways and unjust ways.
I don’t know if we can do anything but. It’s our reality, our world, our story.
To that, God speaks promise, hope, peace. God gives us another story to tell, and God never relents in telling us that alternative story, which brings life out of the death we cause.
In days to come, the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains.
Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.
He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
It’s the promise. It’s the hope. God will bring a peace that we cannot.
In the days to come, God will be the one to arbitrate among peoples. God will intercede for peace. God will teach what is right and what is wrong. And we’ll learn - learn to the point where we take action. We turn weapons into farm tools; what was meant for destruction now cultivates life. Swords to plowshares. Spears to pruning hooks. Guns into irrigation pipes. Missile silos to grain silos. Bombs into harvesters. War into peace. We have hope.
And it is at this point that the world cries out in a loud voice in the language of our lives:
Your God is useless. Forget about all those beautiful, but empty, promises about God saving you. Don’t let your pastor lead you to believe such nonsense. He has these pious sermons telling you to lean on God. But they’re all lies. Your God, as well as all the other gods of neighboring cities, is useless.
How do we respond? Do we believe God? And if so, how does that shape what we do right now?
Maybe we can’t reach world peace without the second coming of Christ, but I can’t believe all hope is lost. If we believe what God says, when we believe, since we believe, that should shape what we do. Though God’s kingdom is not ours to make, it is ours to practice.
We can change the weapons around us, what is within our control. The weapons of our words can be changed to words of cultivation and life. Our fists clenched tight on what is ‘rightfully ours’ can soften, can open, can be used for reaching out, for sharing, for lifting up. Instead of building walls of division between us and them, we can build a bigger table where all are welcome.
Under God’s instruction, all nations and many peoples will come. There is no more “other.” There is no more “we” and “they.” And that is the first step of what we can strive for. That is within our control as a community of faith and as people of God. Because God teaches us the ways of peace, we can live God’s welcome in our lives and in our world.
That welcome leads to peace. And God is taking us there, says Isaiah.
So, come to the table Jesus sets for us - a table that does indeed span all times and all places, where all are welcome. Be fed, nourished, strengthened. Hold in your hand the presence and peace of Christ.
Remember the waters of baptism that stream from God, that flow over us in renewal and life. Be forgiven, cleaned, invigorated for bearing the peace of God to the world.
While it may be hard to change dictators or commanders of great armies, by hammering those weapons of war in our lives, we can practice peace - within ourselves, among our families, in our congregations, in our neighborhoods, for our world. And by doing so, we prepare the way. We prepare the way for the One who does bring peace, Jesus Christ our Lord.
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”
When we first read this verse, with its key words like ‘Bethlehem’ and ‘one who is to rule’ and ‘origin is from old,’ we can’t help but jump to Christmas, right? How can we not? It’s like the radio stations who are already playing Christmas music. Or the stores who have up their decorations. Or the people who are already finished with their shopping.
Some of us are just fine with going there already. We’ve had Christmas music going in our van for about a week and a half. Others of us aren’t there yet. Isn’t it a little early for messianic language?
Well, good news for you Advent and Christmas purists out there. We don’t necessarily have to go to a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes just yet. Let’s take the details of Christmas out of our minds for a moment and only listen to what Micah is telling us.
The first portion of our passage from Micah focuses on a new kind of ruler. And there are a few things about this ruler that are important to note. First, the ruler will be from Bethlehem, which is the house of David, who was the most beloved ruler. Second, this area is considered the boonies, outside the city and outside power and privilege. Third, just to reiterate his point, Micah refers to it as one of the “little clans” to be sure we don’t miss its insignificance. Last, the new ruler is really from old, rooted in the ancient story of God and Israel.
This new ruler is not the stereotypical picture of a mighty leader coming from a place of privilege, wielding power and prestige. This leader achieves peace in a different way, will feed the entire flock, and the name of the Lord is what brings security.
The second portion of our reading for today needs no real introduction. It is probably the most famous half-verse in all of the Old Testament. The focus of this portion is on relationship with God. What do I, a sinner, have to do for God to be pleased?
What does God want from us? What does God require? It’s like the people are begging God, “just tell us your favorite offering, and we’ll surely sacrifice it!” The options offered up start off rather reasonable - these are things people already offered, like burnt offerings and calves. But they quickly escalate in grandeur, even to hyperbole.
How *exactly* does one gather ten thousand rivers of oil?
The excess is here to remind us, to slap us in the back of the head and say, “you know better.” No matter how hard we try, we’ll never be able to offer enough to make us acceptable in God’s sight. Isn’t it kind of arrogant to think so? Arrogant, over-the-top sacrifices aren’t what God wants.
And yet…we still want tangible blueprints. We want to quantify things. We want to compare ourselves to other people, making sure we have the better insight or worship attendance or well used Bible. It’s how we try to offer “more” than the other, making us holier or something. Even though we know better, we still try to offer up something to make God smile upon us a bit more.
But God doesn’t work that way.
What does the Lord require of you?
Is it to have the strength, the wealth, the connections to amass ten thousand rivers of oil? No.
Is it to be able to persuade or overpower or even pay off people or God? No.
Is it peace through power, welcome to those on our side, all in the name of politics as usual? No.
It’s so much easier than that. While we emphasize the types of offerings or the types of sacrifices, God focuses on the type of person. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.
These things don’t require riches or exceptional knowledge. They only require living into the communities we have, reminding each other of what’s important. We care for each other - our neighbor, those here and those who aren’t. We stand on the side of the unfortunate, the lowly, the shunned; we strive for their livelihood and inclusion as much as our own. We act humbly. As C.S. Lewis put it, we don’t “think less of ourselves, but we think of ourselves less.” Other people, no matter who they are, are ensured justice and kindness from us, individually and communally.
Unfortunately, we still have different ideas of what is “just” and what is “kind.” How much justice is enough, and what does that look like? Do we have to be kind even if they “fill in the blank”? I’m more humble than you are!
So maybe I should edit my previous comment:
It’s so much easier, and oh, so much harder.
To enact justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God are not single, measurable acts that can be checked off the list and then left behind. There isn’t a level we reach. We simply act toward others as God acts to us. Always. Everywhere. All the time.
And we fail. We fail so bad.
But God doesn’t quantify our failures, which very well might fill ten thousand rivers. Instead, God is a different type of ruler, one that focuses on relationship. Ultimatums and guilt don’t bring relationship; instead, God does things the hard way for our sake. It’s forgiveness, grace, and love.
God doesn’t want offerings and sacrifices; instead, God wants us. And to make sure God has us, God offers to us, God sacrifices for us, all for the benefit of the relationship. God offers forgiveness, feeds us in bread and wine, claims us as children - not demanding inordinate amounts from us, but instead offering to us. Because this ruler, this God, values the person, the relationship, more than anything else.
God comes to us as one who is unexpected. God sends our only hope. And by this, God reframes everything that we want to justify and quantify and define. God loves. God forgives. God encourages.
The people to whom Micah was preaching weren’t too different from us. They, like we do, often got things mixed up when it comes to God and leaders and relationships. We tend to focus on the wrong things in all of that stuff, losing what is important.
And so, Micah invites us to reframe our lives within God’s story, see a new relationship with a new kind of ruler. Divine love and justice abound in the reign of God. This ruler proclaims a new kind of relationship not based on score-keeping or our ability to appease God, but on love and justice.
This is the reign of God. This is relationship. This is Christ.
Sometimes God works in reverse.
When Naaman is in search of a cure to his leprosy, it isn’t he himself, or his king, or even his wife who puts him on the path to a cure. It’s a lowly servant girl. She is the one who points him to hope and life. God works in the reverse of what we think.
When Naaman goes, he isn’t cured because he can provide a the gift of
ten talents of silver,
six thousand shekels of gold,
and ten sets of garments; or because Elisha did some hocus pocus; but because his slaves encouraged him to listen to the prophet. God uses the reverse of who we think.
How Naaman finally gets healed isn’t because he took an epic quest, or had impeccable faith, or because he was who he was. Naaman was upset that an important guy like him didn’t get a fancy, showstopping healing performance. He didn’t believe, didn’t trust, didn’t have faith in the simple, little promise of God that washing, that water, will heal. God heals the reverse of how we think.
Now, that may not be news to you. You may even expect that that is how God works. God upends expectations! God reverses the order of the world! The lowly are lifted; the poor are blessed; the outsiders become the inner circle. I think we get that at some level.
God lays out how we should live, and this story is a good example of it. We should be mindful of the people through whom God works. We should be aware of where God shows up. We should be conscious that God entirely reverses what we in our society and world think of as the best way.
But we fight it every step of the way. We don’t trust God’s reversal… mostly because reversal for us looks… bad. If God works through the lowly and outcast, what does that make us? If God shows up to outsiders, what about us, here, now? If God reverses the way things are, why would we want that? We’d much rather God NOT do things that way. That’s the sinner in us.
So, we go at it like Naaman, prefering to do things our way first. We depend on wealth and possessions to sustain and satisfy. We trust people in power to know the answers and guide us along. And we’ll trust God as long as God is doing something great and mighty. But, God doesn’t often work that way. And when God doesn’t work the way we want, well, we try to explain how God should be doing things. Again, that’s the sinner in us.
We tell a tale to ourselves: we ourselves can handle whatever comes our way; we alone can fix it; we know how things work.
But God asks us to reverse our way of thinking. Not just asks, but God proves to us again and again that God’s way is the best way. God invites us to see the reversals in our world - reversals that reveal God’s values and love.
God gives us gifts and guides to shape us - to help us focus less on us and instead focus on the ways and people and places where we can better see and understand God working in our world.
The Take a Step in Faith Beachwalk Stewardship program is a good example. We all were involved in some way, shape, and form. We gave of our time to participate and take the beach bag to the next on our list. We reflected on giving our treasure, tithing, supporting God’s mission and ministry through St. Philip.
Much like in our story for today, God still doesn’t need ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. But tithing isn’t about God; it’s about us. It’s about shaping our heart’s desires - shifting from focusing on what we have or own to making more room for God, to trusting in God instead of our things. Offerings, tithing, and stewardship of resources are ways we train our hearts to be more attune to God instead of stuff. It’s a way God reverses the consumerism and self-centeredness in our sinful selves and shapes us.
God reverses the messages that get pounded into us all day every day when we take time to worship and study and reflect and pray. Through Bible Study, we discover God speaking to us. Though Small Group conversations, we learn of others’ experiences and how they inform our own. Through hymnody and music, God speaks to us in ways that transcend other means of communication. God reverses the messages of fear and hate that our broken world stokes, and instead God gives us a message of grace, love, and acceptance in, despite, and through all things.
God reverses our sinful idolatry of ourselves through community and worship. We become part of something larger than our individual selves. We recognize our place as fallen human beings and are offered a word of healing and wholeness. We are fed in unexpected ways - with some bread and wine, with the presence of Christ, with water to wash us and remind us of the promise of God. You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.
And as we do these things, as they become holy habits in our lives, we start to more often and more regularly see the reversal that God has in store for us and for all of creation. We see God everyday.
Even in our world, we start to see more regularly where the cross leads to empty tomb. We appreciate the subtle ways God comes to show us life. We realize God has reversed the story - no longer in and out, high and low, good and bad, but flipped it from death to life, from pain to healing, from sinner to saint.
God reverses it all, even the finality and separation and hurt of death. God changes what we can’t. For all the saints, who from their labors rest, God reverses our end into a new beginning. God writes more to the story. And not just one day, but now.
We are the saints of God. Backward in the ways of the world, but headed in God’s direction of life, of love, of grace.
God’s reversal, God’s blessing, isn’t dependent on grand plans, on washing in rivers, or on us. God reverses things in ways we might not always catch. But God does it. And as we grow, as we recognize the little, subtle reversals around us, we start to see more just how much God reverses the story. Reverses sin. Reverses death. Turning sinners into saints.
“Ask what I should give you.”
That’s a big command God gives to Solomon. God comes and offers, “What should I give you?”
And after a few verses of praise and humility, Solomon asks for discernment, an understanding mind. We often sum it up by saying, “Solomon asked for wisdom.” But it’s not just any wisdom. It’s not a grasp of facts or piles of experience… It’s knowing what God would want and then doing it. It’s knowing God’s heart; it’s following God’s heart.
In the next scene, we get an example of Solomon doing something like that. Theatrics aside, he, the king at the upper rung of society, is listening to two prostitutes, lowest on the societal ladder. Solomon demonstrates that God’s wisdom, God’s desire, God’s heart is in him by listening to these women whom kings normally don’t listen to. By doing this, he discovers the true mother.
Now, for a little fun, do you ever think what would happen if we were put into Solomon’s situation? God comes and asks, “what do you want?”
And I pose that scenario just a few days after the one point six billion dollar MegaMillions lottery ticket was sold here in South Carolina. The first few minutes of our Wednesday Night Small Group was spent chatting and dreaming about that. Surely there is a piece of us that longs for that type of financial problem. It’s where our heart goes.
But this isn’t a genie in a bottle kind of situation. This isn’t three wishes where we can explore multiple options. This is a one-shot inquiry coming from God. So, maybe we start feeling a bit more altruistic. There are lots of places to go - health for a loved one. Peace on earth - a stop of massacres and bombings and shootings. End of poverty. Cure to cancer. Any numerous great things. Maybe, just maybe, we’d get it right and ask for something that would follow God’s heart - even though it is so tempting to follow our own.
Switching gears a bit, today is also a day we commemorate the Protestant Reformation, the day 501 years ago when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in protest of how the Catholic Church was manipulating scripture, tradition, and the people. Luther tried to let God’s heart lead the way for the Church instead of anything our own hearts would desire.
And maybe that is more how we fit into this story. We might not get the one big “wish,” but thousands of years after Solomon, and 500 years after Luther, our call as Christians and as the Church is the same: follow God’s heart. That changes what our Reformation celebration is about. It becomes less about remembering, and instead, it is a day we recognize God is asking, calling, moving among us now, giving us all that we need so we can follow God’s heart.
Today is about seeking God in
how to live today,
how to be the Church here,
how to reform who we are and what we are doing to more closely follow God’s heart.
How do we do that? Or, to say it a different way, what do we want our Church to be?
That’s actually a pretty easy question to answer. We want the church to be just like it was when we were growing up. We remember when…
when the church was full.
When people cared.
When there wasn’t so much stuff going on.
When the world was simpler.
We want that again. We want people to come to us, and we want the world to stop being so “now” and go back to being what it was “then.” We want our familiar, comfortable experiences; we want the words and the hymns and the routines that we know; we want to go back to that church. It’s where our heart lies.
It’s almost like God says, “ask what I should give your church,” and we choose to follow our hearts.
And so, the one-point-six billion dollar question: what does God want?
It’s not a question we ask that much. It’s easy to know what we want, but what does God want? What does God want our church to be?
Does God want the same things we want? Maybe.
Does God want our Church to be and do the same things that we did years ago? Maybe.
Does God want us to be a place where we come to experience the familiar and comfortable? Maybe.
It’s a little scary to think that God may not want what we want.
That somewhere we lost our way,
that at some point we settled in,
that at some comfortable place, our hearts were content, and we lost the draw of what God’s heart wanted.
What is it that God wants?
I think God wants to reform us, to make us new. Not leave us like we are, but pour into us a love and a grace that makes us live in new ways. God’s heart leads us to new relationship with God.
Solomon, through following God’s heart, ended up building a temple - a permanent place to worship God, something the Israelites had never experienced before. This brought on new ways of being with God, new ways of worship, new experiences and religious life.
Luther, through trying to put God’s heart at the forefront of everything the Church does, brought about a new way of living with God. This way of life was not born out of fear and guilt, but relationship which is made alive out of love and grace.
In baptism, God creates us anew. In those waters, God’s Word comes to us and doesn’t leave us the same. God changes us, renews us, reforms us. And not just once, but continually, ongoing, every single day.
God intends for us to be reformed, individually and communally, so that we can reform the world in which we currently live. God’s not afraid of new things. God delights in making us new.
And on a day like this, I can’t help but think of all the ways God has made us as St. Philip Lutheran Church new. We reach outside of our doors in mission and ministry more than we have in a long time. We share the Good News more than just Sunday morning. We welcome new people. We collected over 1,000 food items for hurricane and flood relief. We have revitalization in music and choirs. Our building and grounds are looking better. We’ve all been involved in sharing the ministries of St. Philip with the Beach Walk Stewardship program. We are sharing our lives with each other more. We have a lot going on, and we have energy and excitement. And I think all this is a result of trying to follow God’s heart.
But, our hearts shouldn’t be too content with what is. God is present, not leaving us as we are, but reforming us in water and meal. God is always making us new, drawing us deeper into relationship, calling us to share God’s heart with the world. What will that look like in the months, years, decades to come? I don’t know yet.
But I know that God isn’t done. God’s heart continually calls us to reform, to share love and grace in new ways - in ways that are the heart of all we do, ways that are the heart of God.
The appearance of this text at a time when news reports are inundated with stories of the abuse and victimization of women by men of power offers both an opportunity and a challenge for us as Christians - especially for the one who has to preach. Anyone else want to take that on?
On the one hand, it’s easy to ignore all that is going on in the world around us. Sometimes I think we want our preachers to do that. Leave us in the bubble and don’t confront us with bad news. But, I also think that is why a lot of people find the church irrelevant to their lives and so stop coming. The church often ignores hard issues, issues that actually affect real people, because we don’t want to upset or offend anyone. So, I’ll state it now: there’s a chance you’ll get uncomfortable or even offended in this sermon.
And maybe that’s a good thing. It’ll cause you to wrestle, to really think, reflect, pray about where God is in a text like this. How does God want us to respond?
David sees Bathsheba, who is immediately identified as the wife of Uriah, the Hittite. David knows from the start that she is the wife of another, a man in his army no less. This fact should give him pause, but there is no hesitation. David acts swiftly and decisively. "He sent, he took, he lay" (11:4). The action is stark - no romantic words, no cuddling, no flirting - just action.
We see a real ugliness in David here. He can have whatever he wants. He is at the culmination of his enormous power, and he takes, simply because he can. I can’t help but think of all the other men in power simply doing what they want because they can. Presidents Clinton and Trump, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Bill O'Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, countless others. They did it because they could. This is exactly what we see here with David.
David raped Bathsheba. Though our translation softens it, the Hebrew states that David orders his soldiers to go and “take” her in v 4. The text does not tell us how willingly she came. Neither those soldiers nor Bathsheba had the option to refuse. When it comes to royal commands, there is a lot of complexity to how “willing” one really is. David sinned. Big time.
We try many ways to gloss over that fact - like not using the word “rape,” instead opting for the less jarring word, “adultery.”
Movies have been made, transforming this story from violation to love. David was the sensitive, reflective king who just wanted to be loved for who he really was. Bathsheba was the lonely wife of an over-dedicated soldier. They fell in love! Love can't be wrong, or at least not very wrong. The event is remembered, but not as anything like a sin.
We even go as far as to blame the whole thing on Bathsheba. It takes two to tango! She was bathing on her roof, after all. This narrative attributes seduction - and so the sin - to Bathsheba. If the sin must be remembered, it can at least be blamed on the woman.
The prophet Nathan offers a different interpretation. Nathan's parable in chapter 12 brings the hard fact of sin to the forefront of David's mind. At the end of the story, only he will be held accountable by God and Nathan. Bathsheba will not be accused of - or punished for - adultery in the scriptures.
Of course, David’s sin here is just the beginning of a chain reaction: pregnancy, lying, trickery, murder… The chapter concludes with the statement: "And the thing that David had done was evil in the eyes of God."
Acknowledging this about David threatens a whole worldview. It shatters a vision in which saints and sinners can be neatly divided, a vision in which God works through the good actions of good people to establish peace and justice.
It hurts to read. It hurts even more to know that this stuff still goes on.
It’s really hard to find Good News in this story. There are no miracles or conquering of death. There’s no unexpected “grace” moment. There is the failure of a leader, a violated woman, and a dead husband.
But I think what this story does do is it gives us an opportunity, as I said at the beginning, to wrestle, think, and pray about how God would have us respond. How have we responded in the past when these stories come up in our lives or in our friends’ lives? Because they do.
What kind of community do we as a church want to be? Or, better yet, what kind of community is God calling us to be?
God wants us on the side of the oppressed. To stand up for those whose voice has been suppressed. To welcome them into a place where they can share their stories and heal. And maybe it isn’t only about sexual assault; we can’t force people to share their story if they don’t want to. But maybe we give people dignity by giving them a good meal in our Fellowship Hall. We stand up for the rights of people who need care, particularly mental health. We commit ourselves to being a community that welcomes people even if - particularly when - they aren’t like us.
We do that because God does that. What we see through the whole Bible is that God works on behalf of and gives justice to those who are pushed aside, those whose stories are forgotten. No one is outside of God’s care - not the oppressed, not the persecuted, not the violated like Bathsheba. She too was a child of God, with all the gifts that God gives to each and every one of us.
We name injustices we see. Believe it or not, there is grace in calling people on their overt sinfulness. God could’ve allowed David to think he got away with it all, but instead, God sent the prophet Nathan to preach a parable of judgment about David’s actions. That moment certainly impacted David and opened the door for him to live more fully into the life God intended for David and for Israel.
God’s judgment comes to correct, to renew relationship, to create in us new, clean hearts. Because we surely can’t do it ourselves. God has to intervene, to change us. And God promises to do that. To wash us, to feed us, to nourish us so we can live as God’s people.
How does God want us to respond?
It’s a hard question for a hard world. But we have a God who continually comes to us and models a response for us. Love, grace, life. For all.
Today we hear one of the most famous verses in all the Old Testament: “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Some of us may even have a cross-stitched pillow or sentimental picture of that verse hanging in our house. And, just to give you a heads up, the kid’s canvas that will be hanging up next week? Yup. Got that verse on it. And you know if it ends up on the kid’s canvas, it must be pretty famous.
But the verse often leaves out the context in which Joshua stakes his claim.
The Israelite people have finally reached and secured the Promised Land. They are on the cusp of entering in. This is the very end - the final scene of this journey and conquest. And Joshua, the guy who took over after Moses died, speaks to the people. Though, it doesn’t seem like it is Joshua speaking. Instead, he takes on the role of “prophet” here, speaking from the perspective of God.
All the mighty acts of God are recounted, starting long ago with Abraham. This speech emphasizes God’s doing, not so much anything the people did. I took, I gave, I made, I sent, I brought, I handed, I rescued… over and over, God repeats the saving history.
God gives to the forefathers. God sends Moses and Aaron. God frees from the Egyptians. God hands over land, towns, vineyards - all as a generous gift.
And it’s interesting to note that God doesn’t bring up any instructions, warnings, or criticisms. There is no mention of complaining in the wilderness. No allusion to a golden calf. No failures or wanderings away are mentioned. It’s almost like that’s not important to God. Instead, this is a straightforward, powerful narrative of God’s presence with and action on behalf of the Israelite people. And not just for those people then, but these people now.
God tells the story of salvation in such a way as to make history also the present. “They” and “you” alternate in a way that weaves the history of the ancestors with the identity of the Israelites now listening to Joshua.
"Afterwards I brought you out. When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea. . . When they cried out to the LORD, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt," (vs 5-7). God wants to tell, to show the people that they are part of a whole. They, too, are saved by God’s grace, even now, in full continuity of generations who have past.
God continues to work. Their story is our story is your story.
And after all this, after all the reminding and telling and sharing and “God as the subject of active verbs,” then Joshua calls the question. In light of all that, who will you serve? How will you remember your history in light of moving forward? Who will you serve?
At this point, we ought to see ourselves in a similar position as the Israelites. It’s not just what God did long ago for our ancestors. God’s actions for them are actions for you. You are a continuation of God’s work in this world, work to save and bring life, work to share and be gracious. God has been active in our lives, past and present.
For us gathered here, God indeed has worked through those saints in the Bible - through Abraham, Moses, and Joshua…
Through Peter, Paul, and the disciples...
Up through historic church saints, like Augustine and Joan of Arc...
By people like Martin Luther to bring us back to center...
all throughout history, even as a group of Christians gathered in June of 1954 in the Myrtle Beach High School Cafeteria.
God brought them together to start St. Philip Lutheran Church and gave you leaders, Mission Developers, and pastors; musicians, directors, and volunteers. God gave growth, God gave community, God gave excitement and energy and creativity. God made this community of faith strong, giving it all it needed and more.
And when their time of struggle and difficulty and wandering in the wilderness came, God gave you patience to keep going. When they were wondering where this congregation was headed, God gave you guidance. When they were longing for the days before, God gave you a calming presence to bring you through. When they were about to give up, God gave you hope.
God brought them gifts - people, talents, passions. God brought them through tough times, impossible times, to a place where you now stand. And so, here we are, on the cusp of something new, something exciting. We don’t know quite what it looks like, but God, through all the ages, has brought us to this very place.
God gives us opportunity, a place, a community. God gives us things we don’t deserve. God gives us means of grace, a love that surrounds, a Spirit of service. Our “Take a Step in Faith Stewardship Beach Walk” hopes to show you some of the more recent ways in which God has been involved in our community of faith. And, hopefully, we see God has been involved each step of the way.
Knowing that, being reminded of all that God has done, who will you serve?
We each have a choice in how we respond to this God who has worked throughout history to save. God brings us here. How will you serve? God gives us everything. Who will your serve? God saves us in Christ. How will you respond?
As for me and my house, we’ll do our best to serve the Lord. We’ve seen God moving here in the community of St. Philip and want to see what God will do next. We will be involved in ministry and mission. We’ll give financially to support all that is going on - and hopefully take a step to do a little bit more. We’ll pray and serve as we can.
I hope that as you reflect on God’s history and blessings that brought you to where you are, you respond by taking a step in faith. By growing in how you live as a disciple through involvement and giving. By letting go of what we think fulfills us so the Spirit can fill us more. By hearing the story of “them,” but knowing God makes it your story, too.
God’s story shapes us. It forms us into God’s people. God story promises that God is with us, each step of the way. Knowing that, let’s take the next step in faith.
Laws in the Old Testament are one of those places that cause the most frustration and confusion for Christians. There are lots of reasons for that.
First, we mostly tend to look at biblical law in negative terms. It’s the big “no” to those things we really want to do. It restrains and restricts. To use some Lutheran lingo, it convicts us of our sin and drives us to Christ. But how do laws - especially Old Testament laws - apply to those of us who are freed in Christ, who is the new covenant?
Second, the laws we tend to be most familiar with are the 10 Commandments since they have prominence in movies and Catechisms and as political pawns about statehouses and whatnot. Aside from these 10, we may know a couple others, like the Shema in Deuteronomy (6:4-9 - You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might.) or the Leviticus law to “love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). But we probably only know these because Jesus states these laws are “greater” than the others.
Of course, there is the other occasional Old Testament law that gets pulled out of context by some hard-nosed believers and applied selectively to various swaths of people. This approach, conveniently, ignores other laws that tend to make us uncomfortable - laws like welcoming the resident alien in your land, not charging interest on money one lends (Exodus 22:21-28), and giving liberally and ungrudgingly to those in need (Deuteronomy 15). We like to pick the laws that call out someone else and ignore the ones that point to our own prejudices.
Third, we brush a lot of the laws off because they come from an ancient cultural context that looks nothing like our own. There are lots of laws about what to do with your ox. Who’s got an ox anymore? There are laws about shellfish and sabbath, ceremonies and sacrifices. Times, societies, religion, lives have changed. These laws seem to only apply to narrow range of life that has passed long ago. Why pay attention to any of them?
So far this is setting up to be a sermon that’s not pertinent to your life, huh?
But I think there is something pertinent about the law. As with most things in the Bible, there is more to it than “do this or burn forever.” That’s not the premise for why God gives the 10 Commandments.
To explain that, let’s start by saying, “nineteen comes before twenty.” We’ll understand what that means in a second.
While some people look at these laws as the way to climb the ladder to God, to get in on God’s good side, let’s look at what actually happens before God gives the 10 Commandments.
Going all the way to last week, we saw that God saved the Israelites from slavery. Plagues, Passover, the miraculous crossing through the Red Sea. God worked to save. Today, looking at Exodus chapter 19, God says, “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples … you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” God reminds them of that established relationship. It isn’t until chapter 20 that any talk of commandment comes up. Nineteen comes before twenty.
The point is that the relationship God establishes with the chosen people comes first in chapter 19 - it is literally primary. The law, with its ethical demands on our behavior in chapter 20, comes second - it is literally secondary. Relationship with God isn’t established by doing these things. God establishes the relationship and then gives the law, coaching us how be holy.
That relationship is even emphasized at the start of Exodus 20, right before the commandments. These verses underscore the same point as chapter 19: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Most Christians call verses 1 and 2 the “prologue” to the Ten Commandments. However, the Jews call them the “First Word.”
The Jews emphasize this so strongly that the “First Word” is actually their first commandment. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” gives context to the rest of the law: God wants to establish relationship and then teach us how to live in that relationship.
This is the positive thrust to the law. It is about relationship - living in an established relationship with God. To be concerned about the law is to be concerned with the well-being of other people. We see that the law preserves life; the law instructs us and helps us to develop wisdom and maturity; the law promotes good.
But there’s a little bit more to this. The opening word of God establishes relationship: “I am the Lord your God.”
Now, a quick English lesson:
When I am talking with one person, and I want to use a pronoun, I say, “you.” You are great! Second person singular.
When I am talking with three or four people and want to use a pronoun, formally I’d say, “You are great!” But we live in the south, so really I’d say, “Y’all are great!” But the point being is this a formal (not Southern) translation of the Bible. “You” and “Your” are used for both singular and plural.
Now, normally in English translations of the Bible, we run across a lot of “you” usage that really should be “y’all” usage. Paul, for example, does this a lot. It gets translated, “I commend you therefore..” when really it should be, “I commend y’all therefore…” Plural, community, etc.
And here’s where things get interesting with the 10 Commandments and God’s promise of “I am the Lord your God.” It’s singular. It’s you. These are words given to you by your God. God redeems you, saves you, frees you from the bonds of slavery to sin. The Ten Commandments begin with a word of good news about what God has done on behalf of you. God reminds you, me, each and every one of us that God has already rescued you and me, and you already have a relationship with God. So, then, here’s how you live in that relationship.
And while God says that the relationship and the commandments are for you, this isn’t some private relationship. The whole point of the commandments and relationship with God is to learn to live with others, to serve the community, to help each other grow in life, faith, and relationship. Each and every individual plays an important role.
Jesus says it vividly. You are a city on a hill, unable to be hidden. You are light for the world. Don’t hide, but shine. Live the way God calls us to. Be the best in that relationship. Nurture that relationship. Live the commandments, not to save yourself, but to show the world what life in God, with God looks like.
We each are given the promise: God is your God. God saves you from bondage. God gives love and grace, nourishment and forgiveness for you. And we each are called to live into that relationship by loving as God loves, by establishing relationship first, by reflecting on how to make more room for that relationship in our lives.
Nineteen comes before twenty.
Relationship comes before command.
God’s love, grace, support comes…
And we have life, live life, share life with God.
I’ll bet this story is not one many Sunday school teachers spent a lot of time with.
What catches your ear in this story? The betrayal? The lies? Unfaithfulness? There is plenty here that seems so… familiar. The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife seems like a plot taken from any political drama one would see on TV. The themes have not changed one bit in the thousands of years years since Joseph.
Joseph, for a little refresher on his background, was the guy who had the coat of many colors, given to him by his father, Jacob. It’s important to note that this is not the same Joseph we hear about in the New Testament, especially around Christmas time. We pick up in the middle of this Joseph’s narrative, seeing that he has been sold into slavery.
Which may make us ask, “Why is Joseph in slavery?” The short answer is because his brothers were unfaithful to him. They betrayed him, beat him, stripped him of his coat, and sold him. Joseph’s brothers use that coat of many colors as evidence, saying to their father that Joseph is dead.
Not a very good start to Joseph’s story. Which leads us to the story today. He starts out as a slave and ends up… in prison. Not really how we want the story to end, is it? And why is Joseph in prison?
The short answer is because Potiphar’s wife has been unfaithful. She betrayed her husband’s trust by trying to lie with Joseph, and then she betrayed Joseph by lying about lying. She uses Joseph’s garment as evidence, saying to her husband that Joseph tried to rape her.
This guy does not have very good luck with his attire.
Now, the immediate response from most of us is to speed through this part of Joseph’s story and get to the good stuff, get to him being freed from slavery and jail and placed in Pharaoh’s mansion - which is what happens. There he has honor and power and prestige. Hooray, happy ending!
That is how we often do things. We avoid the painful, unpretty places in the world around us and in our very own lives. Think of how our eyes move away from someone sitting at an intersection with a coffee can and a sign. We don’t like to see the unpleasant, let alone dwell in the hurt. We try to ignore or hide or rush through - like what we want to do with Joseph’s story. Skip the sad parts, just get to the good stuff.
And yet, pain and hurt and uncertainty are part of all our lives. To deny that is to be unrealistic - unfaithful, even - about our lives. We may not have ever been sold into slavery by our brothers or been sent to jail, but we have been in places where we are alone, dejected, unsure, shortsighted, suffering.
I’ve had conversations with people at home, in the hospital, and in my office about this very thing. And you probably have, too.
Things change; the “good ol’ days” aren’t around - whatever those were.
Hurricanes and flooding, as we’ve seen, change things in an instant. We can lose everything, be cut off from things that bring us safety and comfort.
Our health may not be what it was, and that limits us from doing those things we enjoy - travel, yard work, even living independently.
Or our relationships are strained for various reasons; some are even severed by divorce, indifference, or death.
We often are in places in our lives where the future is uncertain, and we don’t see light at the end of the tunnel - or if we do see light, we are afraid of the oncoming train.
We don’t sit with this type of difficulty in our lives and instead try to brush by it by ignoring it, pushing it away, or heaping hackneyed phrases of help on top of it.
It is ok to feel it.
It is ok to express it.
It is ok to be in the moment of pain or hurt or loss.
It’s not that God plans bad things,
or that God drops a pop quiz on us to see how we’ll handle the sudden death of a loved one,
or that God experiments with our faith with terrible news of an unwanted diagnosis.
Instead, God is present in the midst of that really crummy, crummy stuff.
In the Joseph story, we have the theme of terrible things happening to Joseph, story after story of human unfaithfulness, unfaithfulness of which Joseph bears the punishment and pain. And yet, there is also the theme of God’s presence.
In verse two, “The Lord was with Joseph...”
Verse three, “His master saw that the Lord was with him…”
Verse 21, "The Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love..."
Verse 23, "The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph's care, because the Lord was with him…”
God was present with Joseph, even in his suffering, pain, and loneliness. Even so, it’s hard to remain faithful to God in the midst of all that happens. We could chalk it up to, “Stuff happens, deal with it. God loves you!”
That’s pretty unhelpful.
Which is why it is important to remember that God’s presence is more than just “existence,” sitting there twiddling thumbs. God is there for a purpose, and that purpose is promise. God is there to remind us that these things that happen do not define us. We aren’t a diagnosis. We aren’t a severed relationship. We aren’t a screw up, a mistake, a lost cause.
We are loved. We are cared for. We are more than what happens to us. We are children of God, blessed with the promises of God - promises that what “is” won’t always be. God promises more, and God is faithful. God’s promise, God’s presence, gives us hope - hope beyond where we are right now.
That’s what Joseph knew. He was able to surpass being sold and held in prison because Joseph knew God’s presence and promise was with him. More than that, God’s presence enables Joseph not to get sucked into unfaithful ways. God’s presence changed how Joseph acted in uncertain situations, all situations. He is not defined by other’s unfaithfulness or what happened to him because of it. He knows God defines him. That gives a sense of hope.
God’s presence in our lives enables us to see the things that happen in our world and respond like Joseph. We can say “no” to the unfaithfulness we see around us in our world. We can reject things that aren’t loving, that aren’t grace-filled, that aren’t faithful to the relationship God has with us. Instead, we give and share, we live and follow, we love and grow. We help others who suffer, we feed those who hunger, we support efforts to bring peace.
And we do it because God has shown us in Jesus that this is the best way to live. It is the most faithful way to live. God is with us as we do it, enabling us to be as faithful as we can be. God is present, feeding us, nourishing us, washing us, sending us into the world - sending us prepared and equipped.
God’s presence makes a difference in how we live, how we see ourselves, how we respond in life.
Those things - whatever “those things” are in your life - they don’t define you. God defines you. God calls you beloved. God calls you child. God is present with you. Wherever, whatever. Now and forever.
It’s been a pretty festive day so far, hasn’t it? I do hope you were able to snag some breakfast with us and share in conversation. It was great to have some of the local firefighters here so we could say “thank you” for all they do. And, of course, St. Philip and Church of the Messiah are here with some of our guests to worship together and break bread of a different sort. All and all, it’s been a festive and fun morning together.
And then things get real ugly real quick: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth…”
Noah’s Ark is one of those cute Old Testament stories - cute until you actually think about it. Most people know the basics for the story: the earth was rampant with wickedness, and God wanted to start over. However, God found the righteous Noah, whom he commanded to build a big boat. God told Noah to bring on two animals of every kind. And as the raindrops started to fall, Noah and his family boarded the boat and closed up. Then the rains came for 40 days and 40 nights, flooding the earth and wiping out every living thing not on the boat. When the rains stopped, Noah sent out a dove who returned with an olive branch. Noah then knew it was soon time to unload. Lastly, God placed a rainbow in the sky - a reminder that God will never send a flood again. The end.
Like I said, it’s a cute story until you think about it. I’d like to think that God could’ve been a little more creative with the solution to the world’s problems. You know, have a little moral finesse instead of wiping things out.
But we do get to see a struggle within God. There is a struggle between God’s justice and judgment up against God’s faithfulness and mercy. God looks at the wickedness in the world and wants to start over.
Which seems pretty logical.
Have you ever burned a bag of popcorn? Do you choke down the charred kearnals or toss it and zap a new bag? I know where I stand.
Or maybe you’re working on a project, and you go so far down one wrong path that it’s best to scrap the whole thing rather than try to fix it. It’s hard work to revamp something so far gone.
Sometimes it is easier to just start over than go through the headache of repairing or rewriting or repainting or dousing it with extra butter and salt.
But God chooses not to start over. There is a glimmer of hope and mercy, despite the judgment that comes. God saves a segment of creation - the very same creation that was there in the beginning. And it seems that this choice shapes God. That little bit of mercy wasn’t enough. God vows, from then on, to take a different route. God commits to a different way of renewing and healing creation. No more wiping it out; instead, God promises to act differently, very differently in the future.
This promise doesn’t come because humanity somehow changed during their boat tour. They still bring corruption on the earth. Noah ends up not being all that great. Upcoming in the story, Israel makes a golden calf. They whine and complain. They choose poor rulers for themselves. The earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence.
Thousands of years later, what is it that we do differently? We misplace our trust from being in God to being in the next shiny thing, in products and profits. We misuse the resources and blessings God gives to us. We mishandle relationships, talk past each other, ignore those who aren’t in our immediate tribe. Again, even now, the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence.
Human beings are not changed by the flood, but God is changed. God judges, but God also choses to redeem over and over and over again. God chooses to live out faithfulness to all of creation. We are not tossed out like overly-microwaved popcorn, but instead, God is faithful. God is willing to put in the hard work. It’s the moral finesse I was talking about earlier.
God acts differently. When human sin and corruption again became so great that they threatened to overwhelm the world, instead of sending rains, God sends the Son. God sends Jesus to our world. God does the hard thing and works to fix the brokenness, fix the world, fix us. Instead of the rain, God sends the Son to show once and for all that God is passionately committed to creation, to the world, to us.
The sign of a rainbow isn’t just a reminder of God’s promise to us. It is a reminder to God, too. “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” It is a visible sign of God’s promise and love from here on out. It’s a sign that this God is different. This God loves you and will handle your faults in an everlasting covenant kind of way.
The sign of a cross, too, is a reminder for us. It is a reminder that, no matter how hard it is to fix something that’s broken, God dares not throw it out. God has put blood, sweat, love in it. And so God will do anything to make sure it comes out how it was planned. For God, the cross means even death doesn’t stop faithfulness. A tomb doesn’t stop love. Instead, a new way - resurrection - achieves God’s goal of relationship.
Every time we gather, not only do we see a cross, mark the cross, sign the cross and remember those promises for us, but we get to participate in God’s love and grace. We share a meal - the bread of life, the cup of salvation - signs and symbols, for sure, but even more than that, in the bread and wine is the presence of Jesus himself. God sends the Son to feed us, to nourish our souls, to remind us of God’s dedication and faithfulness to us.
Then with a splash of water, we remember we are:
claimed as children, not cast aside.
God washes anew, not washes away.
God saves, not squanders. Instead of rain, God sends the Son.
That’s the love of God.
That’s the promise made.
That’s covenant between God and all of creation.
That God promises to be faithful.
Now and forever.
There, I said it.
I said it again.
And I guess it’s not a surprise - preachers have a reputation for mentioning sin whenever they can. At least the ones on TV do. It seems like they are always spouting off what you shouldn’t do. But Jesus has already taken care of that for us today. Fornication. Theft. Murder. Adultery. Avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly... I feel like Jesus should be holding a Bible and standing on a street corner. Sure, all those things are bad - sins - but what if you’ve got a pretty good reputation?
I mean, some things on that list are fairly easy to keep. But we’ve all done something Jesus mentions. At least once. Maybe twice. So, how many black marks are we allowed? A dozen? One per day? Infinity? Most of you have probably heard enough Lutheran sermons to know where this is going, so let’s cut to the chase: Grace and Forgiveness!
But doesn’t that feel a little cheap? Skipping the whole sin thing? It should; it is cheap to gloss over Sin. But if God is just going to forgive me, why does Sin matter anyway?
When we look at Sin as actions being kept track of on a giant scoreboard, the way we often think about it, it is easy to pick winners and losers. It is easy to say, “I’m not as bad as that person.” “At least I’ve never done that!” “Why don’t your followers wash their hands?!” Our Sin doesn’t matter very much because, hey, at least we’re better than somebody else.
But Jesus doesn’t look at Sin like that. To him, Sin isn’t so much the action as it is the source of the action. Sin starts from within us; it comes from the human heart. And when Sin is less about what we do and instead more about who we are, then Sin really matters. Sin affects who we are supposed to be.
Maybe you’ve never killed anyone. But have you ever thought ill of someone? Maybe you’ve never stolen anything of significance. But have you ever desired more than what you have? Have you ever put what you want before someone else? That’s the heart of the matter. Because of sin, no matter what we do or don’t do, sin wants to make it all about me. I. Us.
I remember four or five years ago coming home from the office. I’d walk into the living room and see little toddler Jonah there playing. I’d feel proud and happy. And when he’d see me, he’d get this big smile on his face, he’d laugh and stumble around joyfully. He’d waddle over to me, glad to see me, happy to be in the arms of his dad. It was a good, fun, loving, joyful relationship. The same was true with Anna when she was little.
But, as the years have gone on, it’s different. It’s not that my kids aren’t happy to see me when I get home or anything, but things are different than when they were toddlers. They’ve learned the word, “no.” They want to do things their way, often times without me. And at some point, I’m sure, they’re really going to break my heart. Not really on purpose, but, it’s going to happen.
I can’t help but wonder if that is how God thinks of us. “I made you to be with me. To be joyful. To love and to share and be happy in relationship.” But we sure don’t live that way.
We can make excuses: “Oh, they’re just growing up,” one may say. Or, when we reflect on ourselves, “we don’t really mean those things we say or do.” Or, even, “I’m captive to sin! There’s nothing I can do!” Our excuses can be a little dangerous - dangerous in that they let us off the hook far too easily.
Truth is, we fall short. We turn away. We demand our independence from God with our foot stomping “no” from time to time. We want to blame someone and something else - “it can’t be our fault!” But, the bottom line is, we ourselves don’t want to believe the truth that we turn away from what God wants.
It’s hard to admit, probably because if we do admit it, then we start to doubt ourselves. We doubt our worth to be loved. We doubt that God will do what God says because we aren’t what God wanted. We doubt our call to bear the heart of God to the world. We doubt that we can do anything, that we are doomed to fail.
Which is why God came to us in Jesus. Not just to point out our faults and failures, but to save us from our faults and failures. Because we can’t save ourselves. No excuse we make, no law we try to follow, no tradition that has been passed down can protect us from the darkness within our own hearts. So, Jesus came to take who we are and change the darkness, make us new, form us into new creations.
God comes to us now in Jesus. God comes to us to forgive us. God comes to us to assure us we are loved. God comes to us to remind us of promises made and promises kept. God comes to us in ordinary ways to establish relationship with us.
Though it seems like mere ritual washing, baptism isn’t about the show, and it isn’t about us. It’s about God. In baptism, we focus on God creating us anew. We focus on God’s saving work for us through water and Word. We focus on how God promises always to be present with us, to work on us to make us new each day, to make us into new creations - drowning our old selves and raising us up to new life.
The same is true of Communion. It’s more than something that gives us warm fuzzies because it’s the same thing we did last week. In the meal, we focus on Jesus’ presence with us. We gather to share in the food and drink that gives our faith nourishment. We eat the bread of life. We drink the wine of welcome. We are a community - sharing - loved.
Even though we turn, God has a way of coming to us, scooping us up, holding us… The more we recognize our stubbornness, our brokenness, our sinfulness, the better the news that God loves us anyway. And not just loves us like we are, but loves us enough not to leave us that way.
God promises not to leave us stuck in sin, relying on our own broken ways, but promises one day to remake us into who we are supposed to be. In that, God tells us we are worth it, worth every bit.
God’s promises take deeper root as we acknowledge God’s presence in our lives, in our tasks, and in our rituals. God is there, and God works in our ordinary, yet broken, lives. God’s actions are reminders and assurances for us so that our focus can be taken off of ourselves and placed on the relationships and community around us - in welcome, in service, in sharing. God comes to us to shine in our darkness, that we may be better disciples, be given clean hearts, and live in relationship.
When our focus moves from “me” to “God,” our rituals, our actions, our lives are reminders for us and for others of God’s gifts to us.
Because in the end, God’s saving us is what matters. Not us, not our excuses, not our sins list. We rely on God.
As we start the journey to Holy Week on this First Sunday in Lent, there are two important things revolving around this final sign - or miracle - Jesus performs. First, this sign is actually what puts him on the path to the cross. Right after this scene, although some of the bystanders believe, others go and report Jesus to the authorities. It is because of Jesus’ action here that those leaders decide definitively to put him to death. The way to the cross and Jesus' own tomb starts here, where Jesus is most impossibly and lovingly life-giving.
The second important thing about this sign is that it foreshadows pretty heavily what is to come: death is real, but death is not final. We get all the “realness” of death here - sealed tombs, the stench of four days of decay, people gathered, weeping, even the questions we throw at Jesus when death happens: why weren’t you here? Why didn’t you do something?
It is what Martha and Mary both ask of their Lord.
It is noteworthy that Jesus does not rebuke Martha or Mary for what they say. When Martha questions Jesus about his delayed arrival, Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again. Death is real; death is not final. Martha answers, “Yes, I know he will rise again on the last day!” It is, by all accounts, absolutely the right religious response.
Our own first impressions may be the same. We tend to focus on the resurrection as a distant promise, a hope of salvation, an eternal life with God and Jesus in heaven one day.
And yet, Jesus seems not quite satisfied with leaving it there in the future. Jesus responds to Martha with another promise: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus points to the future resurrection, for sure, but he also adds more. He pulls the hope of resurrection into the present, promising abundant, eternal life that begins here and now. He is resurrection. He is life.
That’s not often what we think of when we hear “resurrection,” but the Gospel message should make a tangible difference now, make things possible now, open up opportunities and options now, transform relationships now… right? The promises of God are present tense, not just future.
Jesus is resurrection and life, now. And, believe it or not, we have a role in that life. See, after commanding Lazarus to come out of the tomb, Jesus then turns to those who had gathered. He says to them, “unbind him, and let him go.” In other words, the community of faith is told to participate in God’s action, to bring life to its desired outcome, to join with Jesus in redemption! Sure, raising Lazarus from death to life is entirely Jesus’ work - I know I can’t do that - and yet, Jesus invites the community to participate, to do something, something essential and meaningful and important.
We have a role to play in resurrection life right now. And there are ways we as St. Philip are doing it right now. Here are a few stories.
A few years ago, all the soup kitchens in Myrtle Beach shut down on the weekends due to financial and other restraints. That meant the hungry and homeless would have to go from Friday lunch to Monday breakfast without anything to eat. An active group of volunteers started preparing small bagged lunches to pass out; then a small pot luck lunch. Now several churches help in making sure hungry people are fed each weekend. St. Philip is one of those churches. We gather volunteers, we prepare food, we set up tables. And we serve. We welcome. We make sure if someone is hungry, they have something to eat. We give them baggies to take with them - healthcare items like a toothbrush and chapstick; there are snacks like crackers and granola bars. And more than that, we make sure people aren’t just fed physically, but through our conversations and interactions, we feed them spiritually, too. Because of you, people aren’t hungry. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
All across the country, but particularly in Horry County, there is a major opioid epidemic. People are dying. It is something that has even hit us at St. Philip, losing one of our own young people because of it. So, it’s not just a problem “out there.” It’s a problem that really affects us as a community. And yet, St. Philip opens up four nights a week to host Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Time and space is offered up for people to gather. People need help; they know they can’t do it alone. So, they come to this place for community, support, a system which holds them accountable. When they gather, they confess their lives are broken; they turn themselves over to a higher power; they seek to make amends; they find encouragement, care, discipline. It keeps people from using. It keeps people from dying. Thanks to you, people are living clean lives. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
We support Lutheran World Relief, which just so happens to be our benevolence for the first quarter this year. Beyond providing assistance and relief after a natural disaster, LWR works to build sustainable relationships and partnerships across the world. One way they are doing that is through fair trade coffee. Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, and the people who farm it live in some of the poorest communities. As such, those farmers are often taken advantage of. They don’t normally get paid enough to support their family. But Lutheran World Relief provides fair, sustainable payment. Through LWR, parents can earn enough so their kids can go to school. There is daily bread. They have safer, better, more efficient equipment that produces better coffee beans. Help goes directly to the very community of the farmers. Because of your support, people can actually live. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
We at St. Philip recruit, gather, and support Reading Buddies, a program where a volunteer meets one on one with a young child at a local school to help improve their reading. Reading is crucial to life and is a huge indicator of how future life will be. For example, did you know police departments pay close attention to reading scores - particularly, third grade reading scores? They do this because the number of kids below reading level in the third grade is a good indicator of how many jail cells they’ll need in a few years. Reading Buddies helps to inject hope where there may be none. They bring relationship where there may be none. They bring a bright future where there may be none. Thanks to you, some kids won’t go to jail. That is what resurrection and life looks like here and now.
Those are some of the ways St. Philip works to bring resurrection and life to our community and beyond. And as you give, as you participate, as you hear Jesus’ call to “unbind and let go,” you help to bring resurrection and life, too. Are there ways to do more? Sure! We can live it out in our daily lives in conversation on the golf course (you know the weather’s getting nicer) or at the grocery store or at lunch or wherever. Listening, pointing to Jesus and the hope and promises he has - that brings resurrection and life.
So, I encourage you: spend a few moments today looking at the week to come and think about where you might be able to follow Jesus’ command to “unbind him, and let him go.” Where can you participate with God in resurrection and life?
It doesn’t have to be huge (though it might be).
It doesn’t have to take a long time (although it might).
It doesn’t have to be spectacular (though, who knows, maybe it will be).
Opportunities to unbind and let go abound. Jesus is calling us to make a life-giving difference to those around us. Because, while death may be real, death isn’t final. And God uses us - us! - to bring about resurrection and life.
Here are sermons from Pastor Jason, delivered at St. Philip.
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