Monday, December 19, 2011

A Wink and a Smile from the Virgin Mary

December 18, 2011
Advent 4

Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. 

Number four is lit. It's the fourth Sunday of Advent and the countdown is nearing the end! A season of waiting, watching, and wondering is about to culminate in a grand celebration of the birth of Jesus. And as we have for the past three weeks we again ask ourselves the question "What does this mean?" What does it mean that the savior Jesus Christ has come and is coming to our mind? What does it mean that the anointed one has come and is coming to our hearts? What does it mean that the holy one has come and is coming to our spirits? As we wrestle with that question we open the Bible today to Luke 1:26-38 where we find Mary, the Mother of our Lord, in her own wrestling match. She is caught in the fight between promise and peril. She is caught in the tension between opportunity and disaster. Between adventure and catastrophe. All because of a little child.

Several years ago when Karin and I moved into the house we still live in with our three kids, I would take Fridays off for household chores, shopping, and naps. One particular Friday I happened to be in the nap phase of the day when the door bell rang. Then someone knocked on the door and then rang the door bell, again. Not entirely overjoyed to have my nap interrupted, I opened the door to find one of my neighbors with a real look of concern and worry on her face. She said "I just thought I stop to let you know that one of your kids is on your car." I said "What?" Again she said, more slowly, "One of your kids is on your car." So I followed her around the front to the driveway and sure enough there Rachel was standing on top of the car. Actually I was impressed. All of seven years old, it took some real strength and dexterity to climb that car. I just winked and smiled at Rachel, and thought to myself "That girl is going do something with her life." But when I looked at the neighbor lady, she definitely was not smiling. She was alarmed and concerned about the danger she was in. The promise and peril of life is all around us.

Across the street, neighbors put up a basketball goal for their young son, eager for him to work his body, eager for him to develop some skills, eager for him to enjoy his home, eager for him to realize his full promise and potential in the world. Not only did they put up a basketball goal, they also set out big orange construction zone cones at the end of the driveway to stop the boy should he lose control of the basketball into the street. And next to the street they set out one of those flat florescent lime green figures that holds a bright orange warning flag for all cars to see and be aware that there were children playing. The promise of a young boy developing in mind body and spirit playing with a ball and a hoop in the driveway next to the street.

We all live our lives in the constant tension between promise and peril, between adventure and disaster, between opportunity and danger. But not just we ourselves, but today in Luke, Mary. For in today's story of Mary promise and peril are all around.

The angel Gabriel appears to her and says "Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you." And he goes on "You have found favor with God" so much so that 'he has chosen you to bear his son.'  He is the long awaited one, the anointed one, the holy one of Israel. He is to be called Jesus. He is going to free people from their sins. This is it! The promised one is coming into the world and you, Mary, are his instrument. The promise God made to Abraham, the promise to bless all the nations through his descendent is now coming to pass. The promise of everlasting life, the promise of the healing of the nations, the promise that heals the brokenness of each individual life, the promise that overcomes the divisions in society, the promise that heals the planet, but not just the planet . . . the entire cosmos. That promise Mary is now upon the world, and you have a front row seat to its happening.

Any devout Jew with a modicum of understanding of the scripture and of the promises of God, would have seen this announcement as the earth shaking, time-altering adventure it was. And no doubt, Mary did.

But that is not all Mary was aware of. It wasn't just the promise, the possibility, the opportunity that ran through Mary's mind. She was also struck by the peril, the risk. Not only was the angel's announcement bursting with promise, it was also shadowed by danger.

That's probably why when the angel made the great announcement of good news, the Bible says in verse 29 that Mary was "much perplexed."

The NIV translation says this:
"Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be."

The Message translation says:
"She was thoroughly shaken."

JB Phillips says,
"Mary was deeply perturbed."

The New Living Bible Translation says,
"Confused and disturbed,"

New Jerusalem Bible
"deeply disturbed"

However you look at it, everyone agrees that the angel's announcement left Mary shaking in her boots. When you think about it, it's not hard to see why. In spite of all that the promise of God meant for the world and all that could go right, there was plenty that could go wrong.

In the first place, you think about all the physical risks and perils involved in child birth. Make no mistake about it, having babies is dangerous stuff. The physical risks are too many to count. In our day and age, we have all kinds of experts, and resources, and helps to mitigate the risks of childbirth. We have prenatal care that includes special vitamins, special diet, and regular check-ups with the OBGYN. At a certain point you go in and they pull out some an electronic seeing-eye that slides across mom's greasy belly and produces an image on the screen. The sonogram techie points to the screen. "There's a foot. And there's a hand. Look at the head and wait, what is that? . . . horns? a tail? No, I'm sorry, that's not a tail, he's a boy." You're having a boy.

And then once you get into the delivery room and it's time for the big show, there are all kinds of specially trained professionals and equipment, for JUST IN CASE. Just in case what? Just in case something goes wrong. Like what? Like with my first kid. She didn't want to come out. She was cozy and comfortable in her mommy pad and was just fine thank you. After about 19 hours of labor, the doctor attached some sort of suction cup to the top of Rachel's head, put one foot on one side of the delivery bed and one on the other and began to tug. Of course that brings with it certain risks. Another risk in childbirth is when the cord is wrapped around the baby's neck like happened with our second kid. The doctors had to do some fancy maneuvering to take the noose of her neck before she could make it through the shoot. Another risk in childbirth is fluid in the lungs like our third kid had. He came up for air a little early inhaled some fluid. Of course they were right there with all the suction hoses to vacuum him out. Later on he got that RSV virus and spent a few days in the hospital where me and the boy watched the Super Bowl together from within an oxygen tent.

What can possibly go wrong? Everything! Having babies can be a dangerous proposition. It is a matter of life and death. Now consider for a moment Mary's world. The odds of someone dying, mother or child, in childbirth were astronomically higher. Infant mortality rates were frightening. To become pregnant for any woman in those days was a near death experience either for the mother or the child and many times, for both. No wonder the thought would shake her up.

In the second place, there were all sorts of relational perils. Becoming pregnant without the benefit of marriage is a hard thing. People look at you differently. They wonder about you. They gossip about you. Talk about what might have gone wrong in your life. It's a scandal. I had a distant cousin get pregnant when she was 14. You think that didn't rock her family's world. Imagine Mary going to her parents and saying to them "Mom . . . Dad . . . I'm pregnant." Their response "What!?!?" "How?!?!" "Who!?!?" How did this happen? We thought Joseph was such a nice boy. I'll kill him." Mary comes back, "No. It's not his." "Then whose is it?" they ask. And she says . . . wait for it . . . "it's God's. He says 'I'm favored.'"

One of the things families feared most in Mary's day was public shame and disgrace. And here she brings it in spades. No wonder she was shaking in her boots when the angel announced the glad tidings.

And in the third place, the promise brought political peril.
The angel tells her his name will be Jesus. He will assume the throne. He will reign. His kingdom will never end. He will be the Redeemer, the Savior, the Messiah, the Son of God. That's is what you will call him. In Mary's day, everyone knew that there was already a Redeemer, Savior, Messiah. Everyone already new who the Son of God was. And it wasn't the baby of a Jewish peasant girl.  It was the Roman emperor. He was the son of god. If you didn't believe, just read any one of the coins in circulation. If you didn't believe it read any of the inscriptions on his statues throughout the empire. If you didn't believe it then they'd give a inside view of the Colosseum as you faced the gladiators or lions. Rome was eternal and the emperor was its head. Talk of a Jewish redeemer, king, ruler, messiah was treason. No wonder Mary shook in her boots. Her baby would become an enemy of the state, a target for assassination.

No, there can be no doubt that Mary was caught in a pressure cooker between the promise and peril.

And to be honest with you I don't think there can be any doubt about the fact that everyone of you are caught in the same bind. You have a sense that there is so much potential to life. You have a deep seated belief that there is great opportunity in the world before you. You are inspired by the promise that life presents to you. And you come to church, to learn how to live into the promise. You gather week after week to try and embrace the moment. You get yourself up out of bed to open yourself to new opportunities. Yet, in the air lurks the shadow of peril. Do you take it? Do you take the leap Mary took?

Seven years ago, I took my family on a trip to Mexico. It was a three month sabbatical to the Yucatan. Amazing and wonderful. One place we visited was an outdoor all natural water park. One feature of the park was cliff jumping. There we stood as a family, me, Karin, Rachel who was twelve, Hannah was 10 and Aaron was 8. The cliff towered about 40 feet above the water. And the water was so beautiful. Maybe you've seen the beautiful waters of Mexico, so clean, aqua green, shining like an emerald. It was inviting, even calling to us. As you get close to the edge of the cliff feeling the weight of your body moving to the emerald like water, captivated by the beauty and at the same time in the back of your mind asking yourself have I lost my mind. I jumped and it was so far down that if I had brought a magazine, I could have read it from cover to cover and had time to renew the subscription before I hit bottom. But I couldn't have really read because I was too occupied screaming like a little girl. After I came up, I looked up to the top and yelled out "It's awesome! Jump!" When she heard my voice, she jumped, Rachel, screaming at the top of her lungs. Then Hannah. Then Aaron. Karin wasn't feeling well and didn't make the jump. But the kids and I did it over and over again.

Each and every one of you live everyday on the edge of promise and peril. At the launching point of adventure and disaster. On the verge of opportunity and danger. And oftentimes we find ourselves unsure, like Mary. There is a moment of hesitation, of pondering, of being perplexed, of being conflicted. You've taken risks before and lived to regret it. You've accepted the invitation to try something daring and been bruised. Sometimes we're not so sure we want to take another risk.

But let me share something with you.
The difference in a good risk and a bad risk is the one who is inviting you to take it.  My kids knew my voice and trusted my call to them. Mary knew God's voice and trusted God's call. She heard in the angel's words the voice of her heavenly Father. Then she jumped. She embraced the promise and lived with the peril. And the world has never been the same since. We tell her story over and over again. As you embrace the promise, your world will never be the same. And you, too, will have stories to tell, stories of how God lead you along the edge of adventure, like Mary. And when you get to heaven and sit across the table from her at the heavenly banquet, don't be surprised if when you look her way she gives you a knowing wink and a smile.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Finding Jesus in Our Confusion

December 11, 2011
Advent 3

John 1:6-8, 19-28

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent and we continue our waiting and watching for the coming of Jesus. The Advent candles are lit, the countdown continues. And so we ask ourselves “What does it mean that Jesus is coming?” “What does it mean that he is coming to our hearts, and minds, and souls?” What is a person to think? What to do?

One of my favorite cartoon strips has always been Peanuts, Charlie Brown, Linus, Snoopy and the gang. One particular strip showed Linus and Lucy having a conversation. They were looking toward a hill on the horizon as they leaned on a fence. Lucy says to Linus, “You know what I believe Linus? I believe that all the answers to all of life’s questions are just over that hill. Every solution to every problem, every answer to every riddle, is just on the other side of that hill. If we could just get to the other side of that hill we would know everything we need to know for things to make sense.”

Linus replied, “Do you suppose that might be some other kid on the other side of that hill looking our way? And what if that kid on the other side of the hill is thinking the exact same thoughts, that all the answers to his questions are on this side of the hill?”

The last frame shows Lucy cupping her hands to her mouth and shouting with a loud voice “Forget it kid! There’s nothing over here!”

As you heard the reading of the gospel from John this morning, no doubt you heard lots of questions. The Pharisees sent some priests and levites to pepper John the Baptist with questions: Who are you? Elijah? What makes you think you can do what you’re doing? Are you the prophet? Maybe the Messiah? Spill it, water boy! Questions are all over the page in the story of John the Baptist.

As a matter of fact, questions are all over the page in the headlines of our world as well. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of us here today had some pretty good questions: Where is the economy headed? Will my pension bounce back? What do I need to do to get through to my teenage child? How am I going to take care of my aging parents? What is causing my headaches? Is there any hope for our government? Should I get a second opinion for my medical issue?

Day in and day out, questions pile higher and higher to the point sometimes we can’t even see the light of day. Oh, to have the clarity of someone like John the Baptist!

The further you read in today’s lesson the more you get a sense for what made him so popular a speaker. He had a way about him He had some sort of charisma, some energy that just drew people from far and wide. They travelled, some more than a day, to get to him. Camped out like a bunch of eager beavers at a Best Buy midnight madness sale. John’s voice would roar and thunder, sending chills up the spines of people both young and old. The hair on the back of their necks would stand straight up as John’s voice would rise and fall, either because of fear, or excitement, or both. This was a new day! No doubt about it. Certainly, John didn’t have any doubt about it.

He was as clear as a bell about who he was and what he was supposed to be doing. He knew exactly where he stood in the big scheme of things. When the priests and levites asked him if he was the Messiah? John said “No.” In fact, it says that not only did John deny that he was the Messiah, he confessed it. From the depths of his heart, from the core of who he was, from the depths of his very being . . . he was not the Messiah. Got it? Good! Clarity, Conviction, Commitment . . . these are the kinds of words that describe John.

He was not the messiah. He was not Elijah. He was not the prophet. He was simply the voice of the one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way for the Lord.” John was convinced that the Lord was coming. And his job was to help get people get ready. Actually, John tried and tried to get people to follow Jesus. Later on when Jesus walks up, John says “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Follow him.” When Jesus walks up, John gives him the finger, the index finger that is, point away from himself to Jesus. Go that away, John says. Things were as clear to John as they could be. Certainty and conviction filled the air around him.

Maybe you can remember a time when you felt a kind of certainty. When you knew who you were and what you were supposed to be doing in this world. Perhaps you remember the sense of direction and purpose that marked the sound of your stride as you went from one place to another. Pretty good feeling, huh? Maybe, you felt that way in your marriage, or in your job, or with your kids. Maybe you felt that way about your country or your faith. Do you not remember when at least life seemed secure and certain? If so you probably also remember how it felt when certainty slipped away from you, when questions invaded your quiet confidence and doubts chipped away at your conviction.

If there is anyone here today who knows what I am talking about, then you have also been down the road of John the Baptist. Because later on, in John’s story, we see that he goes from certainty to confusion, from conviction to doubt, and from clarity to desperation. He doesn’t know what to think. The gospels report that at some point after Jesus begins his ministry, John the Baptist is arrested and thrown into prison. While he is there, we see just how overcome with questions John is. He calls his disciples to him, John’s disciples, that is. And he sends them on an errand. He has a question of his own for Jesus. “Are you the one, or should we wait for another?” (Matthew 11: 2-3). “ARE YOU THE ONE, OR SHOULD WE FOR ANOTHER?” Are you kidding me? Wasn’t John the one who was “light’n up” the crowds with his impassioned messages about Jesus the coming one? His question now shows that he isn’t so sure. His question now shows how what he believed was absolutely certain was up for grabs.

How many times have you looked out at your world and said to yourself, “This just doesn’t make sense?” How many times have you looked at the pieces of your life and wondered to yourself “How in the world are you going to put things together?” How many times have you, like me, looked at the numbers and seen that things just don’t add up?”

In his prison cell, John the Baptist lost sight of the most basic realities that gave his life purpose and meaning. In his prison cell his questions overwhelmed him and he lost touch with what gave him greatest joy. And all he could do was sit.

And Jesus? How does Jesus respond? When you, or I, or John the Baptist, lose sight and lose touch with who we are and who Jesus is because the questions have backed us into a dark corner, how does he reply? Well I tell you what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t give you a kick in the pants and tell you to stop being a wuss. He doesn’t slap you upside the head and tell you to suck it up. He doesn’t turn a cold shoulder to you and tell you to apply a little elbow grease, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, or put your nose the old grindstone.

I had a boss that said that to me once. One of my first jobs was at a grocery store called Albertsons. It’s like Kroger or Marsh. I started sacking groceries when I was 16 and was the best sacker the world had ever seen. My supervisor noticed and gave me a promotion, washing dishes. I moved from the front end of sacking groceries to the deli kitchen to be the sud-buster with a nice raise to boot. One day after school, I arrived at work to find out that the grill had caught on fire and burned it to a crisp. All the grease and oil from I don’t know how long had caught on fire and then baked onto the outside of the grill. It was my job to clean it. After I finished the dishes I commenced to working on the grill. I tried everything I could to get the dark black burned grease to come off. I made several trips to the cleaning aisle to try every toxic product I could on that grill. That grill had every chemical, corrosive and acid, I could find poured onto it. I tried SOS pads, steel wool, emery cloth, a hammer and a chisel. I even looked for a jackhammer. I threw everything I had at my disposal at the problem, but for nothing.

About midnight my dad called the store and wanted to know where I was. I said I was still working. He said to come home. I called the store manager in the office. He was a burly fellow with some sort of Hungarian, German, or Austrian accent. I don’t know but he was a foreigner and mean as all get out. He once punched a customer and broke the guy’s jaw. Most people avoided him like you’d avoid a big brown bear. I told him it was late and I had to go. He said “you’re not done yet.” I said I can’t get it off. And he just said “Use some elbow grease you little %#!”

When Jesus answers John he gives none of the typical answers you might hear from some hardnosed individual. He simply tells John’s disciples “Go and tell John what you see and hear. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.” You have to help John see what he can’t see. You have to help John hear what he can’t hear right now. You must be his eyes and ears. You must point out what is taking place.

That is precisely what John is doing for us today in today’s gospel lesson. John is serving as our eyes and ears. He sees something others don’t see. He hears something others aren’t quite picking up on. He is pointing to something that is taking place.

People come to John with all kinds of questions today. “Who are you? What’s going on here?” etc. And John hears their questions, their confusion, and their consternation. And once they have aired them all, John takes them into consideration and then sets them aside for the moment. And he tells them that the one who he has been talking about, the one about whom they have been asking . . . is here, now. Right now he stands among you and you can’t even see it. John sees it.

“Among you stands one [Jesus] whom you do not know.”

Many of you have lived long or hard enough to develop a list of questions you’d like answered. As John shows, some have pretty quick and direct answers. But some questions don’t respond to our attempts to explain or understand. Sometimes the pieces won’t come together. Sometimes the solutions are nowhere to be found.

If that is the case for you today, then set them aside for the moment. Take the open ends of your life and just lay it down for a second and hear what John has to say: “Among you stands one [Jesus] . . . .” Jesus is here, right now. He is among us. Here in this room. Put your questions to the side for the moment, sense his presence. Draw from his strength.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Straight from the Heart of God

December 4, 2011

Advent 2
Mark 1: 1- 8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Today is the second Sunday of Advent and so we continue our preparation for the coming of Jesus. We look forward to his entering our lives, asking ourselves “What does this mean?” What does it mean that he is coming? What should we do? What to think?

Today’s gospel lesson from Mark gives us some help. John the Baptist appears and barks the command, calling everyone to attention. There are a variety of ways we can get into this story. There are a variety of ways to get on to what the Bible is saying. And I would have to say that the three best on-ramps to the Bible’s message today can be summed up in three words: Resistance, Resolve, and Re-birth.

One of the truths of life is that where there is movement, there is friction. That’s because friction is a byproduct of resistance. When John the Baptist calls attention to the movement of God’s work in the world, things get heated. He calls people to get ready. Calls them to a new life. Calls for them to straighten out their lives, get their acts together, and walk the straight and narrow. John is very effective. Here he is, laying into people, and they come in droves to the wilderness. They beat a path to him and present themselves for a new day. And people were genuinely enthusiastic. They were enthusiastic in their openness to John’s message. But there were some who were enthusiastic in their opposition to John’s message. People who rubbed the wrong way.

These would be the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and other experts in religion. They did not approve of John so much. They wagged their finger at him. Shook there heads in disapproval. And said to themselves, “Who does he think he is? Where does he get off talking to us like that? And they pushed back on John. Resisted him, they did. They would resist Jesus as well.

But lest we get too high and mighty in our verbal smack of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, let’s not forget that they were not the only ones who pushed back on Jesus. They were not the only ones who resisted him, but Jesus’ closest peeps did as well.

Surely you remember when Jesus was walking along with his disciples and was cluing them in on what lay before him. “The day is coming,” he said, “when the Son of Man” (that’s what he called himself) will be delivered into the hands of his enemies and be crucified and on the third day rise.”

Then, Peter squares off with Jesus. He says “Over my dead body. You can forget it Jesus. Not gonna happen. I won’t allow it.” He resists Jesus. He resists the path Jesus takes them on. He pushes back against the road Jesus is trying to make. All the disciples, in their own way, resist Jesus’ move in their lives. They see that he wants to break some new ground and route the way of God in areas that perhaps they are not open to.

Pushing back against roads is something we know something about in Indiana. Some of the state’s biggest battles have been over highway projects and proposed highways. Governor Mitch Daniels “Major Moves” campaign where he leased the Indiana toll road in the northern part of the state created some major pushback. But that resistance is small potatoes compared to the resistance the I-69 project has created. For more than two decades, since the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) under then President Clinton, a new superhighway linking Canada, the United States, and Mexico, has been planned. It cuts right through the middle of the state. And there are people who stand up and say “Not in my backyard! Not on my watch!” And they push back on the road that is coming their way.

Just like Jesus’ first disciples, those who broke bread with him and shared a cup of wine, there is something inside us that resists the directions God wants to move. There is something within us that pushes back on the way of Christ.

The second word that will give us access to the flow of this passage is resolve. Just as it is true that in some way or another we resist Jesus’ way in our life, it is also true that God is resolved to see happen. It’s gonna happen. The Bible says today that a highway is being built in the wilderness for the coming of our God.

In the ancient world highways were constructed by conquering monarchs to help move troops and create places for celebratory parades. From Babylonian hymns and from archaeological evidence we know that the high street in Babylon was like the Champs Elysees in Paris, leading to the Arc de Triumph. In the Roman world, the conquering and triumphant ruler would approach the city with great pomp and circumstance, displaying the mighty power of the king. Often they would drag along captives from the conquest in the parade, as Titus did to the Jews after destroying the Jerusalem Temple.

The road, street, or highway in the wilderness is just one of those ways. The Bible says that a way is being prepared in the wilderness for the coming of our Lord. There is nothing that he let stand in his way. There is nothing that is going to delay or prevent is coming. The rough places are made smooth and the low places are raised up.

If you have done any driving along State Road 135 in the past two years, you’ve had a close up view of the process. While it seemed to take 20 years instead of two to finish it was interesting to watch. Did you see how they cut out hillsides to make room? They didn’t wind around the hill. They cut into it. Made it fit their plans. Did you see how they raised up certain depressed areas? They didn’t have the road follow the topography of the land. They made the topography fit the road. Construction workers were determined to clear out any obstacle to give a clear and straight shot from one point to another. They even dug stuff up under the ground. They relocated underground utilities. They even relocated a grave yard. Nothing living or dead, animate or inanimate was going to obstruct the creation of the road.

As you think about the coming of Jesus into your life, whether you think of him in terms of a little baby in a manger or a great and glorious king at the end of all time, know this there is nothing that is going to inhibit or prohibit his coming. He is removing all obstacles, uprooting and unearthing the living and the dead to clear a straight path from one point to another. He making a way for the passage of all the blessings of his kingdom, all the love of his heart, all the forgiveness from the cross, and all the healing from his hands straight to your life. As Paul says in Romans (8:38-39),

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

You can resist all you want, but he is coming. You can give him a stiff arm, but he’s just going grab it and pull you in for a bear hug. You can tell him to talk to the hand as turn the other way, but he’s just going to take you by the hand and go with you wherever you go. You can try and hide behind lock and key in the deepest dungeon in your heart, but you will wake up to the reality that he has joined in you in jail. Not even death will curb his plans.

There is nothing that will forestall his entrance into your life. The highway is there and he is on the road.

The third word that will help you enter the stream of this story in Mark is Rebirth. As you know well, John the Baptist makes a real splash in the Bible. He makes his presence known to the world at the Jordan River calling people to a new life. And as they come into the river, something happens for each one of them. As they go under for baptism the water is broken. As they come up out to the surface through the broken water they are new and reborn as children of God. There is a new life. Baptism becomes for us the beginning of a new life. Here's what the Bible says . . .

"So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away;
see, everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Just imagine! Your life as God always intended. Holy, and Pure. There is so much in this world that can drag us down. The pull of sin and self-destruction is like the constant undertow of the ocean at your favorite beach. Once in a while, a rip tide grabs hold of you and pulls you under for what feels like the last time. So random, so unpredictable. When you think of Jesus’ coming into your life, whether it is as the babe of Bethlehem or the cosmic Christ, know this he makes all things new.

This Advent season is one of waiting and watching for Jesus’ coming. As we gather together today, please be aware that in some way of another we all resisting Jesus’ forward progress in our lives. For some reason or other, our minds, and hearts, and spirits are not moved by his gestures. Be that as it may, he is resolved to love you. There is nothing you can do to stop him or slow him down. And be prepared to get wet.

Monday, November 28, 2011

High Drama in the Highest Heavens

November 27, 2011
Advent 1

Mark 13:24-27
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

Today we begin the season of Advent, a time of preparing, waiting, and watching for the coming of Jesus Christ. And as we begin today, you and I are invited into some pretty dramatic scenes. Scenes of incredible happenings in the heavens . . . stars dropping out of sight. Sun and moon shutting down. Jesus coming on the clouds. What does it all mean? Where is it all going?

There are all kinds of lessons we could find in this passage of scripture. But let me narrow it down a little. Of all the things that the coming of Jesus means for you and me, it at least means this:

First, it means “lights out” for the powers.

Jesus says “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” 
– Mark 13:24-25

The lights . . . sun, moon, stars . . . are shut down. And for who? “The powers.” Let me explain. In Jesus’ day, people believed that there was more to life than meets the eye. They believed that there was a reality that you couldn’t touch, or see, or taste, or smell, or hear. In their minds, there were invisible powers that moved on the earth. And there were invisible powers that moved in the heavens. For them, the sky was the uppermost part of the earth. Above the sky, you get into the spiritual realm, where unseen forces influenced what happened on earth. These were energies determining the course of peoples’ lives that you just couldn’t quite put your finger on. Forces that you couldn’t quite wrap your mind around. And they were almost always bad.

Playing people like puppets on a string, marionettes in a circus, these powers enslaved people. They took over. They ran the show. They commandeered the action. When people looked at their lives they saw lots of negative results of the powers.

Not so different from today. Everywhere you look it can look pretty negative. The dark powers of the world seem to call the shots. It’s what we are most aware of. The negative gets the headlines. The dark side of life gets the spotlight. It’s what sells newspapers. It’s what sells magazines. It’s what catches our attention on the news. In our world, as in Jesus’ world, the negative dark forces seem to live in the lime light.

Jesus’ coming to our world, Jesus’ coming to your heart and mine, his coming to your spirit and my spirit, his coming to your mind and my mind, means that for the powers that cause so much havoc, the lights are turned out.

William Shakespeare once said something like “Life is a stage and we are all actors on it.”

If that is the case then, the powers have had their fifteen minutes of fame. Their time is up. Their light is out. Their moment in the sun is over. The Bible says that

“God raised him [Jesus] from death and set him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything.”
— Ephesians 1 (Message)

Second, it means that Jesus takes center stage.

The skies yield to his presence. The heavens move for his coming. We saw the same thing when Jesus was baptized.

“Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.” — Mark 1:10 (Message)

The Bible says the same thing happened to the temple curtain at Jesus' death:

“for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” — Luke 23:45 (NRSV)

It is as if the curtain on the big stage of history is pulled wide open and Jesus steps out onto it. When Jesus comes into your mind, and heart, and spirit, he steps into center stage. He commands all the attention. He drives all the action. He is the center of focus and activity.

All the bit part players like sin, death and the devil exit stage left, taking with them all their disguises like fear, pain, illness, and violence. Their time is over. Their moment of fame is up.

Jesus is here now. The curtain dividing heaven and earth is split, torn, and ripped. The prayer from today’s first reading from Isaiah is answered: “Why don’t you tear the sky open and come down?” (Isaiah 64:1) When Jesus comes to your spirit, he stands front and center. All barriers between you and the eternal God are pulled aside.

Three, it means a curtain call for the supporting cast.

The Bible says in today’s gospel,
“Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds,
from the ends of the earth to the end of heaven.”

When he comes out onto center stage of history in his concluding drama, he calls all his understudies to his side. He brings them up on the stage with him to be part of the last act. From “end of the earth to the ends of heaven,” that is, from every nook and cranny of the globe he calls them in. And they gather together around him as he presides over the final curtain call. The writer of Revelation gives us a sneak peek when he writes:
“Then I looked, and,
 oh!—a door open into Heaven. The trumpet-voice, the first voice in my vision, called out, "Ascend and enter. I'll show you what happens next."

I was caught up at once in deep worship and, oh!—a Throne set in Heaven with One Seated on the Throne, suffused in gem hues of amber and flame with a nimbus of emerald. Twenty-four thrones circled the Throne, with Twenty-four Elders seated, white-robed, gold-crowned. Lightning flash and thunder crash pulsed from the Throne. Seven fire-blazing torches fronted the Throne.” Revelation 4:1-6 (Message)

And who do you think it is that wears the white robe and golden crowns? You do. As part of God’s elect, one of his chosen, you share in his rule. The number twenty-four is the Bible’s dramatic way of saying “all God’s people.” You take the twelve tribes of Israel who are the people of God from the Old Testament and add the twelve disciples who represent the people of God from the New Testament and you have twenty four. All God’s people -- past, present, and future -- preside with him in the throne room, in deep heaven. Not just for the time being, but forever.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sheep, Goats, and the Blessed Life

November 20, 2011

Christ the King Sunday
Matthew 25:31-46

Matthew 25:31-46
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

On November 8, just under two weeks ago, a meteor the size of an aircraft carrier flew by the earth in what astronomers called a “near miss.” It came within about 200,000 miles of use, which in cosmic terms is just a whisker. Had such an object actually hit the earth it would have completely ended life as we know it. You could say we dodged a bullet and again we are reminded how quickly things can change. And how they will change! For just as surely as massive meteors have hit in the past and changed the face of the earth, there will be another in the future. It’s not a matter of if but when.

Today in Matthew chapter 25:31-46 Jesus himself raises the specter of all life ending as we know it. There is going to come a day when everything we know comes to an end. And for Jesus it’s not a matter of if but when. As Jesus tells it when that time comes he will be coming back in all his glory as a great and mighty king. He is going to gather the nations before him. Every last one of them, from every corner, every nook and cranny of the globe, will stand before him. And he is going to divide them up into two groups like a shepherd separates sheep and goats. Then you’re life will never be the same.

As the idea of massive change coming to your life at the end of the ages sinks in, keep this in mind: You are the sheep. In the Bible, sheep are used as a symbol for God’s people. All throughout the Old and New Testament, sheep stand for people who are the special object of God’s desire. They are the special object of God’s attention. They are under the care of God.

Perhaps you remember one of the best loved passages in scripture: the Twenty-third Psalm. What is the first line?

“The Lord is my shepherd.”

Throughout the Bible, God is pictured as a shepherd caring for his flock.

That is what the Psalm we just sung says:

“For the LORD is our God,
and we are the people of God's pasture
and the sheep of God's hand.” (Psalm 95:7)

Jump over to the New Testament and we see that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are his flock.

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,” (John 10:14)

Jesus knows who you are. He has studied you and observed you. He knows your personality and thoughts. He knows you in every detail. That’s what good shepherds do. You are the special object of his desire and the apple of his eye. How he loves to walk you through the valley of the shadow of death! What pleasure it brings to him to lead you to the still waters! Such joy it gives to him to take you to the green pastures!

When it comes to the end of life as you know it, my friends, know this . . . you are the sheep.

Just as our planet had a near miss a couple of weeks ago, there are times in your life and my life when we experience a near miss . . . a time when you suddenly realize how short and precious and fragile life is. How things can change in an instant. Karin and I had one of those moments a couple of months ago when we were at Marsh checking out at the self-serve checkout line. It was Friday afternoon and we were getting ready to party at our house that night with our kids and a movie. Chips, salsa, queso, coke, everything you need to have a good time. In the middle of checking out, Karin gets a phone call. It’s Rachel our oldest. She’s been hit in a car accident. She had just got her license and was on her way home from her new Catholic school when she was stopped at a stoplight and someone behind her didn’t stop. Rammed right into her. Of course, we dropped everything and left all of our stuff at the register and ran out the Marsh front door. Jumped in the car and drove about hundred thousand miles an hour to get to our daughter on 135 north of Stop 11. Well, as it turns out she wasn’t hurt. Thank God. The bumper on our Honda was beat up (still is). But she was fine. The other car, driven by a Center Grove teacher looked totaled. That’s what we call a near miss.

Many of you have had near misses recently. Many of you will in the next year. You might see someone ahead of you run a red light and think to yourself, “I’m glad I was wasn’t going through that intersection then.” You might get some test results from the doctor and realize that you have been skating on thin ice for a while. And it’s lucky you caught it early. You might be a part of a company that is downsizing and half your department is gone. And you had a near miss.

These near misses raise the specter of how life can change so suddenly and so completely. How our world will someday end as we know it. Know this, my people, when it comes to the end, you are the sheep.

You are not the goat.

If sheep have a symbolic meaning in the Bible and stands for the people of God, what does the goat stand for? Goats are not like sheep. Yes, of course, they have four legs and forage of the ground for their food like a sheep, but goats are as different from sheep as night is from day. Sheep will eat grass and clover. They’re cute and fluffy. Goats are maingy looking creatures. Those goats will eat about anything: twigs, thorns, thistles. They’ll eat your shoes and shoe laces. They’ll even eat a tin can. They aren’t too particular.

But more than that, in the Bible the goat has a special role. If you go back to the days of Moses and Aaron his brother, you see that the goat had starring role on the Day of Atonement. The Day of Atonement was a great day each year when all the Israelites could experience a new beginning by being cleansed from their sins and restored to fellowship with God.

"On this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord" (Lev 16:30).

Throughout the year and on the Day of Atonement the guilt and burden of the sins of the people were transferred to the Temple by the blood of a sacrificed animal. On that day, a goat was selected and the burden of all the sin of the people was transferred to the goat. The blood of sacrificed animals was poured or otherwise applied to the goat. Then the goat was driven into the wilderness where it would perish.

With a starring role on the Day of Atonement, the goat represented all that is wrong in the world. It represents all the guilt and shame and rebellion against God. It represents all the abuse and violence and darkness that are a part of our lives. The goat represents everything that is ugly and despised and to be driven out.

You are not the goat. You are not to be driven out.

When life as you know it comes to an end, you are welcomed in. That’s what Jesus says to the sheep, to his people,

“'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;”

You are one of God’s blessed ones. When the end is here you will know where you stand with the Lord. You belong to God. When the bottom falls out, and when the sky has fallen in upon you, you will know right where to stand.

About twenty minutes from parent’s house, the house that I grew up in, is a place where the sky fell to the ground. If you jump in your family roadster, go west on 8th street, hook a left on Loop 338, then west on I-20, you’ll come to the turn off for the Odessa Meteor Crater. It’s a big hole in the ground punctured there by meteorite. It’s big and deep, but not as big as the one in Arizona. You can walk in and out at will.

What Jesus wants you to know my good friends is that as his sheep there will no depression so deep that you cannot walk out of. There is no valley so dark that he will not light the way. There is no rock so large that he will not lay aside for you. Because you are his sheep, the people of his pasture.

Monday, November 7, 2011

A Wedding Celebration Fit for a Saint

All Saints Sunday
Matthew 25:1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Between the times I graduated from college and went to seminary I preached at a local homeless shelter in my home town. Once every couple of weeks I was up for duty. The shelter made the homeless men sit through some young wet behind the ears preacher wanna–be before they could eat. I was one of those young preachers. One particular week I forgot that it was my week. The week got away from me and about an hour before the time I was to speak it dawned on me that I was to speak. In a panic, I rushed to clean up and get going and while I was driving there I commenced to praying. I prayed a hard and desperate prayer. “Please, Lord, give me the words to speak. I know that you promise to give the words at the right time. So please, now, dearest Lord Jesus, enter into my mind and out through my voice. Speak through me.” Well, when I arrived, I gathered myself at the makeshift pulpit, laid my Bible on it, tuned my heart to heaven and waited for a brief moment. I still had no idea what I was going to say. Then, it happened! I found the right frequency. The Lord spoke to me. And do you know what the Lord said to me? The Lord said, “Mike, you didn’t prepare.” And I had nothing. Those were some of the longest and most painful moments I ever spent behind a pulpit. Those poor homeless men.

Well, today as we celebrate All Saints Sunday, I want to help you get prepared. Prepared for the final call. Prepared for the final moment. Prepared for the end. The end of your life, and the end of the world as we know it. That’s why we have Matthew 25:1-13 as our reading for the day. For it too is about the end. Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven can be compared to this” And what is this? It is a wedding banquet. Do you like weddings? I know I do. Weddings are full of hope, and promise. They are full of food and drink. They are full of music and dance. People today really get into weddings. Even the guests dress up. We don’t dress up for church anymore. But we do for weddings.

We do a lot of weddings here at Risen Lord. It’s such a pretty place to get hitched, you know. And one of the things I really try to impress upon couples who get married here is to soak it up. “Relax,” I say. Get into the moment. It goes fast. I mean really from the time the bride shows up at the back up the church, often with her father at her arm, until the time the newly wed couple walk out of the church arm in arm, it is about 25 minutes. Just twenty-five minutes for committing your life together. An event that takes months and for some years to plan, is over in the blink of an eye. Then they rush out to the reception hall for a little “Boogy Fever” or “Stayin’ Alive,” maybe if their lucky some Frank Sinatra. Then some cake. But after that, everyone heads home. Then the newlyweds wake up in the next day or two and start washing clothes, paying bills, cutting the grass, and cleaning toilets.

That’s not quite what Jesus had in mind here, though. When he said the “kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet” he meant a wedding from back in the day. In his day, people really knew how to celebrate weddings. In fact rather than being a few short hours, wedding celebrations lasted an entire week. Yeah, that’s right, weddings lasted seven days. Since they didn’t haven’t have the number of holidays we have built into our calendars, a marriage feast was the Memorial Day weekend, county fair, and Thanksgiving holiday all rolled into one. People came from far away, camped out and settled in for a celebration that just went on forever.

Jesus says that the kingdom of God, the place of God’s abode, where God’s will and way is the only way, where there is no darkness there, no crying or sighing, or dying, where love and freedom, and joy, and peace extend out from the Father without end . . . that place is like a marriage feast. It is one giant wedding banquet, non-stop music and dancing and laughter and hope. And it goes on forever. People just move in and stay.

But we need to be prepared. We need to get ready. So Jesus tells this parable in Matthew 25:1-13 to help us get our heads straight. There are some things you and I need to be aware of, things to be ready for. There are some things you need to expect.

Expect to wait for a while. The time between when you join the wedding party and when it begins often takes longer than you planned. That’s what some of the bridesmaids learned in today’s lesson. They are waiting for the groom. In the New Testament, the groom is always Jesus Christ. He is the one for whom the faithful are waiting. Sometimes the faithful are called the Bride of Christ. Sometimes, like today, they are referred to as bridesmaids. Some of the bridesmaids are called “foolish,” five are “wise.” The foolish didn’t prepare. Like me in that homeless shelter they were not ready. They are what we call a bunch of “knuckleheads.”

One of the hardest lessons children have to learn is how long things take. Take Birthdays or Christmas. You put up the tree, the decorations, -- some gifts begin showing up. And the anticipation builds like torture. One of Karin’s and my kids, used to wind up in a bad mood in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Couldn’t stand the wait. Made him mad and irritable.

It’s not just kids that have a tough time waiting, is it. As adults, we have a hard time letting things take their course. From standing at the express cashier lane at the grocery store to waiting for job offers, we sometimes find ourselves having to gut-out the clock.

Expect to run out of energy. The knucklehead bridesmaids didn’t quite have their act together. Don’t be mistaken though. They are part of the community. Part of the church. They know who they are and why they are there. They believe in the Groom and who he is. They just didn’t get their act together. They come up a little short, didn’t have the fuel to go the distance in their waiting for the Lord.

If the truth be known, I don’t know of anyone in church that really has their act together spiritually. There is a sense where we all come up short. In fact that’s exactly what the Bible says in Romans 3:23:

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

All the saints that we celebrate today are not saints because they were somehow cut from different spiritual cloth than everyone else. Somehow we get the idea that they were some sort of spiritual super heroes, as their feet didn’t quite touch the ground, as if they walked on water. But you and I know that there is only one who walked on water. Everyone else loses heart and sinks like a rock. Everyone loses strength. Everyone runs out of energy. Everyone runs short in the end.

You know how this works. Somewhere in your heart, you have a love for Jesus. You believe in God. You look forward to his return. You want to be a part of the big heavenly celebration. Then you go about your week. Responsibilities weigh on you. You’ve got customers to serve, patients to treat. You’ve got kids to feed and cart around, and parents to keep an eye on. You’re losing your hair and your shape. You can’t remember the last time you didn’t feel overwhelmed. Pretty soon, the weight of the world begins to press in upon you. Yes, of course, you love Jesus. Yes, of course, you look forward. But right now, you are lucky just to get though another day without freaking-out.

All the pressures and burdens of life take a toll on our spiritual energy. Often times we simply run on empty, in a constant energy crisis. That’s where the five knuckleheads in today’s story are. They have an energy crisis. They are out of oil for their torches or lamps. At some point, everyone runs out.

Expect lots of company. Most, scratch that . . . all of us in the church are knuckleheaded. That means that we have a lot of company. It is not true that some of us get it and are ready and others are not. There is some sense where each and every one of us started in our faith or in our church excited and enthusiastic but failed to realize what we were really getting into and what we needed to make it to the end. No one here is any better than the other. No one here is on another level spiritually. In Psalm 49:10, the Bible says,

“Anyone can see that even the wise die, as well as the foolish and stupid.”

Which leads us to our next point . . .

Expect your light to go out. There are few things in life that are certain, but one of them is death. It is before all of us. It is inescapable. You can’t cheat it. You can’t outsmart it. I’ve stood at the bedside and the graveside of more people than I can count and it is one appointment waiting for us all.

Expect a celebration that lasts forever.
That’s why I can tell you today as we remember those who have gone before us, as we remember the saints of old . . . Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Peter, Paul, Aquinas, Theresa of Avila, Francis. We could add Luther and Calvin. As we remember the saints of our lives, those who have passed on to the church triumphant this past year, Helen, Bob, Francie, Chester, Dave, Bill, we remember that even though the light went out on their lives, even though the darkness moved in upon them, there is one light left. There is one light that no darkness can overcome. This is the Groom. The Groom provides his own light. The Bible says in John 1:2-5:

He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

When your light goes out and darkness covers over you, you will see exactly what the saints of old saw. You will see what the saints of this past year saw. You will see the light of Jesus Christ, who comes to you in your darkness to light the way. He will not leave you nor forsake you. He will not abandon you to the darkness. He will come to you. He will take your hand. And he will escort you to the feast, resplendent and radiant as a newly adorned bride.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Oddballs Changing the World

October 30, 2011

Reformation Sunday

John 8:31-36 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, 'You will be made free'?" Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

Let me begin this morning by thanking you for going along with me as I wore this 16th-century style pastor garb this past month as we celebrated Lutheran Heritage month at Risen Lord. And thank you for going with the flow and humoring me as we invited you to all wear these Martin and Katie Luther hats. You look very Reformation-like. You look very Luther-like. You look, shall I say, different.

The reason we wear these hats and I wear this 16th century pastor cassock today is the same reason the NFL occasionally breaks out the throwback uniforms. It is to remember and show our connection to the past. It is to show that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, to be quite honest, a way to poke fun at what can be an overly serious subject, to walk to the beat of own drum, to dance to the tune of our own music. Odd and unusual, we do our own thing.

It’s kind of like Gary Larson, creator of the Far Side cartoon. He is a Lutheran, of course, and has such an odd sense of humor. I’ll never forget the birthday card I received from a church friend when I turned 22 – a little over 10 years ago. It was a Far Side cartoon card with a scene of what looks like a bunch of penguins on an arctic beach somewhere, crowded together, all looking the same, standing the same. You couldn’t tell one from another, except for the one penguin in the middle of the frame, singing out over all the others “I gotta be me, oh I gotta be me.”

Larson’s humor is not for everyone. But he walks to the beat of his own drum. Some see marching to the beat of your own drum as just weird, odd, unusual. Others see it as a way to change the world. Another Lutheran who walked to the beat of his own drum was Steve Jobs, the founder and creative genius behind Apple. If there was anyone who didn’t conform to the mold, it was Steve Jobs. And the world has never been the same since.

Almost 500 years ago Martin Luther was the Steve Jobs and Gary Larson of the religious world. He couldn’t quite conform, couldn’t quite fit in, couldn’t quite get with the program. Not that he didn’t try, mind you. He did. From his very depths he wanted nothing more than to do what was expected of him. As a boy, he had a deep desire to please his father, to do what would be acceptable in his eyes, to rise to his father’s expectations. And his father expected a lot. He saw in young Martin something special. There was potential. There was a spark. And Martin’s father, Hans Luther wanted to give the boy the opportunities that would put him position to make his mark on the world. So Hans worked from sun-up to sun-down in the copper mines of Germany to scrimp and save to get Martin an education. He did back-breaking work so that Martin could stand tall in the world and rise above all others.

As you think about it, sounds like a lot of you, doesn’t it? How many of you have parents that saw something special in you and had expectations of you in the world? How many of you witness your own parents bending over backward to see that you had opportunities they never had? How many of you had to hear your parents say ‘no we don’t have money for this or that’ so that they could put it aside for your education? And how many of you, now, who have children haven’t passed up on an opportunity to stop at a restaurant or scaled down a vacation plan or bought a used car or no car so that you could help your kid get ahead? How many of you have made sacrifices behind the scenes that the ones you love get to rise to their potential? I bet there is more than one. I bet if I looked each one of you in the eye right now, many of you would give me a wink or a nod, to tell me that “yes you have.”

Then you know the pride and joy of Hans Luther as he saw his boy destined for greatness. But you also know the pressure that comes with that. The pressure on Martin Luther, that is. He was on the spot to perform. He was on the spot to produce. His father expected great things of him. So he sent him to law school. But one day on the way back to school from visiting his parents, something shook Martin up. He got caught in a storm that could have meant life or death. His life flashed before his eyes. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how near death experiences get your attention? Give you a new perspective? Change the way you see things around you? It did for Martin Luther, and as a result he began to march to the beat of his own drum.

He dropped out of law school to go into the monastery and become a monk. You talk about disappointing his father! Is this what he had slaved for all those years in the copper mine? So that his son could run off, shave his head, put on a robe, and assume the position of a holy man? I don’t think so! Actually, Martin never really expected anything different from his father. He was regularly disappointing him. Never quite measured up. Becoming a monk was just the latest in a long string in a long list of failures. Luther experienced nothing else, from his earthly father . . . or his heavenly Father.

But once Martin entered the monastery, he set out to prove them different. He set out to prove that he was not a failure, that he was not a bum, that he was not a dud. He poured himself into the monk business, nose to the ol’ spiritual grindstone. Religious elbow grease was flying all around. But he could never escape the feeling that, in the end, he was a disappointment to all around him and above him. He went to confession so often that his confessor told him to stop coming around so much, because every time Luther “cut the cheese” he felt the need to go to confession.

Luther was down on himself in the worse way. Nothing he did or touched was ever good enough. Some of you know that I have a brother who was a band director. He is a gifted musician and teacher. From a very early age he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. In 7th grade he joined the band, picked the trumpet as his instrument, and began his career. He practiced so much in our small house that my father said “Son you are doing great. But I think you will find it sounds much better when you practice into the closet.” My brother became the best high school trumpet player in Texas and later the best band director in Texas. He was driven to excel. It was his goal to have the best bands in the country, in the universe. And they were. Award winning, jaw-dropping, ovation-getting, tear-provoking, CD-recording performances. No one was better. But he didn’t believe it. They were never quite good enough for him, because, as he tells it, he was never quite good enough. One thing he says about his days band directing was that he needed his bands to be the best so that he could feel good about himself. He had this “ideal self” that he was trying to be, but always fell short.

This was Martin Luther’s struggle. Like my brother, he was trying to become his “ideal self.” And with it, came impossible expectations. Christianity in his day thought it knew exactly what it meant to be a good Christian, what it meant to be acceptable to the heavenly Father, what it took to be claimed by the Father. It was spelled-out, written-down, and passed-around. Everyone was expected to know it, agree to it, and sign-off on it. If you don’t, there will be hell to pay.

This struggle drove Luther to a crisis, where he hated everything about his life. He hated himself. And he hated God. How could God ever love him when he fell so short all the time? And how could Luther ever love a God who always was disappointed in him?

But then something happened. He was studying the Bible, today’s second reading, in fact. As he read it he began to hear something different. These words had a different cadence, a different rhythm. And they freed him from trying to live up to other’s expectations. That’s why the gospel reading from today is always read on Reformation Sunday. In Luther’s life, God broke through the chains that had bound him in misery. God freed Luther and released him to walk to the beat of a different drum, to the beat of freedom in Christ. And the world has never been the same.

Jesus frees you and me from having to slavishly live up to some ideal version of your self. Frees you from having to live according to other’s expectations. Frees you to live according the rhythm of his beat in your life. Where forgiveness and love prevail.

May the beat of Christ’s love move your feet in new directions. May the rhythm of his grace carry you to new places. And may the world around you never be the same.

See Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement Speach 2005.