Rejoice!

Below is my sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 17th, 2017. In a rare move for me, I don’t even mention the Gospel reading! This sermon is focused on the readings from Isaiah and 1 Thessalonians. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This time of year can be a season of homecomings. Schools are out for winter break, and college kids stream back home. Families travel from near and far to join one another for holiday parties and gatherings. Homecomings are always meant to be joyous occasions, but sometimes they don’t always live up to expectations.

It didn’t happen my first semester back from college, or even the second. But by the third or fourth time I returned to my parents’ home from school, I started to notice a few things out of place. It started small—there was no longer space for me to kick my shoes right by the door, the spot where I dropped my keys now housed a coin jar. But by my senior year of college, my closet had been taken over by my mom’s overflow clothing, and my desk had become her office space. My brother’s room wasn’t touched at all and still remains in pristine condition—something I’m completely fine with, by the way.

When I was still in school, it was ok to be home still, but things feel even more weird now, that I have an actual home of my own instead of a dorm room. When we go back to our childhood homes, we expect to fit back into familiar roles and patterns, but often they don’t really fit anymore. It’s not always that things at home have changed, sometimes we are the things that have changed—and home hasn’t.

Our first reading from Isaiah is actually the story of a homecoming. The book of Isaiah starts with the Israelites in exile in Babylon, and great things are promised about when they will return to the land. That’s the path in the wilderness, the highway through the desert, everything is supposed to work out well when they return home.

But here, in our reading from this morning, they have made it back to the land; the exiles have returned, and they’re realizing it’s not everything that they expected. The people are in mourning at what they have found: ruined cities, devastations. Home is not at all what they were promised.

I think many of us have had the experience of looking forward to something with high expectations, only to be disappointed when it finally arrived. Maybe, like the Israelites, it was with a homecoming. Maybe it was something else. Working hard to reach a milestone—a new degree, or a big anniversary, or a good promotion—only to find out that it’s not perfect on the other side of that momentous occasion.

This time of year is ripe for disappointed expectations. All around us we hear that this is meant to be a season of cheer and happiness, but that doesn’t mean that all of our problems go away during the holidays. Sometimes they might even fell like they’re worse, especially in comparison to all the bright lights and happiness around us.

And yet in the midst of all of this—in the midst of the ups and the downs of real life—we hear the Apostle Paul’s call to rejoice. And not just to rejoice, but to rejoice always. To give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

This Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, is typically reserved for joy. This third Sunday, we focus on joy, because, as Christmas nears, we turn from hope and expectation to realized rejoicing. It’s why we light the pink candle today instead of another blue one. If I had them, I could even be wearing pink vestments today, to take the rejoicing to a whole other level.

But what does it mean to rejoice always, to give thanks in all circumstances. Honestly, these phrases feel like the kinds of Bible verses that you put on a cross-stitch and hang up somewhere, but not like the kinds of verses that actually help in the real world.

Are we meant to rejoice when something bad happens? To rejoice in relative or friends’ illness? To celebrate a broken relationship? To take joy in being depressed or struggling with anxiety? Is this the will of God in Christ Jesus for us?

On this Sunday of joy, we sometimes read or sing Mary’s song of praise to God, the Magnificat. After the angel has announced to her that she will give birth to God’s son, while she is visiting her cousin Elizabeth, she proclaims, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

Mary shows us how we might rejoice in difficult circumstances. She is in a tough position: a young woman, a girl really maybe as young as twelve, unmarried and pregnant. No matter how miraculous the birth, she is still incredibly vulnerable. Nevertheless, she rejoices. She gives thanks for how God is working through her to bring about good.

We cannot rejoice about all things. We’d be lying. We cannot give thanks for all things. It wouldn’t be honest, and risks trivializing pain and hardship. But we can rejoice in the midst of all things. We can give thanks in the midst of all circumstances. Because in the midst of all circumstances, God remains with us, supporting us, sustaining us, and working for good.

The people in Isaiah return from exile to devastation. But in the midst of their devastation, God continues to promise hope and new life. God will provide for those who mourn in Zion, the prophet says—God will give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. The downtrodden, the oppressed, the brokenhearted, they will be called oaks of righteousness and display the glory of the Lord. They will rebuild. It won’t be exactly what they remembered before, but new life will come out of what was once lost.

We rejoice always because joy is about more than just happiness. Joy is about more than just good things. Joy is found in the deep and abiding presence of God in the world. Joy is found in God’s resilience, in God’s completed promises, and even in the promises of God yet to be fulfilled. Because they most certainly will be fulfilled.

So, as we enter this final week of Advent: Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Amen.

 

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A Wilderness God

Below is my sermon for December 10, 2017, the Second Sunday of Advent. It focuses on our Gospel reading, the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark. Mark doesn’t start where we typically remember Jesus’ story beginning, with his birth. Instead, Mark begins with John the Baptist in the wilderness.

After you’ve read the sermon, and if you feel comfortable sharing: have you ever been in a wilderness? What helped you while you were there?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ.” The beginning of Mark’s gospel doesn’t take place in the way we expect. There are no genealogies, no lists of the ancestors of Mary and Joseph. There are no angels, no miraculous births foretold. There are no shepherds in the hills, there are no kings searching for a star.

Instead, just this: 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.

We start in the wilderness, with John the Baptist. I’m not sure it would make for a great children’s pageant, that’s for sure. But this is where Mark begins, and this is where we begin in Advent, with the voice of one crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Prepare the way, not just for an adorable baby, but for an adult Jesus, whose coming and message demands our preparation by way of repentance and confession.

There’s a lot to say about John’s message, but I’d like to focus first on his location. John is the voice “in the wilderness.” The wilderness is those places beyond human civilization and order, where things are not in control, where things are not orderly. John is not the first person in the Bible to go there, either.

Hagar and Ishmael were cast out into the wilderness, and there they found an angel of God, and unexpected blessing and promise. Moses and the Israelites had to cross the wilderness after fleeing Egypt, and it was there, in their wanderings in the desert, that they learned how to be not just a people, but how to be God’s people. It was in the wilderness that received the promises from God in the covenant.

David fled to the wilderness when Saul was king, and his experiences there made him ready to take the throne and lead the people. Elijah the prophet, chased and harried, escapes to the wilderness and experiences the voice of the Lord coming to him.

And in Isaiah, we hear that voice crying out: “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” The way that the exiles will return from Babylon will be a wilderness way. The desert, as wild and unpredictable, and unhospitable as it is, the desert is God-filled.

We don’t need to go to a physical desert, to the wilderness landscape to look for this God experience. We all experience the wilderness in our lives sometimes. Some of us may be in one right now. Times of grief, confusion, and depression can feel like we are in a wilderness. We feel like we are outside of society, outside of our own lives, even when we are still right in the middle of them.

The holidays can be a wilderness for so many of us. We are surrounded by cheer and joyfulness, and yet our emotions don’t match up. It can be very lonely and isolating. The wilderness is not a place for the faint of heart.

There are wilderness places in this world that have little to do with the landscape. It is where God’s people are crying out– crying out from the margins where racism, oppression, and discrimination have excommunicated them. Crying out from behind the borders where profiling and bigotry have ejected them. Crying out from the confines of silence where sexual harassment and sexual violence have expelled them.

The wilderness is not an easy place. But it is where the good news of Jesus Christ begins. Outside of all comfort and norms, outside of regulations and restrictions. God’s good news is found on the edge…of everything. It goes beyond the boundaries of where we thought God was supposed to be. Jesus’ story begins not in the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem but outside her city walls, in the margins, on the sidelines.

God’s good news of grace announces God’s presence on the fringe, on the outside. We don’t need to get through our personal wildernesses in order to find good news again. In order to find peace or joy again. It is there, in the midst of the chaos and confusion of the wilderness. God is there.

The good news of Jesus Christ begins with the recognition that there is no place that God will not go for us, no place too far, too desolate, too deserted. That, in and of itself, is good news. It is good news to know that even when we feel like we are alone, we are not. It is good news that nowhere, even the darkest places and moments of our lives, is too dark for God.

We prepare ourselves this Advent to receive a God who is not afraid of the wilderness. A God who does not shy away from the dark places in our lives, or in our world. We prepare ourselves for a God who is prepared to receive all of us—even the wilderness places we don’t always like to acknowledge.

It is just the beginning. The beginning of the good news. It starts in the wilderness, but it doesn’t end there. God doesn’t stop in the wilderness, in the brokenness, or in the pain. God continues to walk with us through those places.

Sometimes coming through the wilderness demands the repentance and re-ordering of our lives that John the Baptist preached. It demands a serious look at where we ourselves, and where our world, our society, does not match up with God’s vision of who we ought to be. Of how we ought to treat each other. Of how we ought to treat ourselves.

This doesn’t sound like good news right off the bat. It sounds like hard work, like uncomfortable work. But it is the beginning. It is the beginning of being made ready to receive a God who changes the world. When we encounter we cannot help but be changed. We cannot help but repent and confess.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ: every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Everything shall be changed, including us, to make way for the God who appears in the wilderness. Amen.

Wake Up!

Below is my sermon from December 3, 2017, the First Sunday of Advent. This Sunday I was part of a pulpit swap with our partner congregation, Mediator Lutheran Church, and this is what I preached there. It focuses on the Gospel reading from Mark 13. Let me know what you think!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

First, let me just take a moment to say how good it is to be here with you. This partnership has been one of the blessings of my ministry at St. Paul’s, and I am so glad that we are working to deepen our relationship, to be able to support each other in our mission to share the Good News of Jesus in our neighborhoods. I am thankful for this opportunity to be here with you this morning on the first Sunday of a new church year, the first Sunday of Advent.

And some of you may be wondering, why the heck on the first Sunday of Advent, a time of preparation for Christmas, do we read this story of apocalypse from the Gospel of Mark? What does this possibly have to do, with Advent, or with Christmas?

The word advent simply means “coming” or “arrival.” We begin our Christian year, not just preparing for the arrival of a baby in a manger, but for Christ’s second coming. And how different those preparations are! There is such a difference between waiting for Christmas and waiting for Christ.

Obviously, we know Christmas will arrive and we know what it will be like when it does. We know the script, we know our parts in it, and all we need to do is follow it. But waiting for Christ to come—or to come again—requires something a little bit more of us, because we never know when he will appear.

“Keep awake,” Jesus says, two or three times in our gospel today. Keep awake. And I want to tell Jesus, I am wide awake! With all that there is to get ready for the holidays, both inside and outside of the church, nobody needs to tell us to “keep awake.” Personally, I sometimes feel like this is the time I should be telling people to slow down. This time of year, it seems like everyone is full of revved-up, overcaffeinated busy-ness.

But the season of Advent makes us be clear about one important fact: while the world’s busy-ness may seem to point toward Christmas, it is seldom pointed toward the coming Christ child. In Advent, we are indeed asleep to what matters, and so we must heed Jesus’ call and wake up.

The meaning of the word apocalypse is literally: to pull back a veil. To pull away the rose-colored glasses and see things the way they truly are. What do we need to see more clearly? What do we need to wake up to as a society? When I started to truly ponder that question, I realized this might just be my longest sermon ever.

But we need to wake up, as a society, as a country, to so many things. We need to wake up to the reality that while all people were created equal by God, not all people are viewed or treated equally in this country. That depends on your skin color, your gender, your education, where you live.

When women finally feel safe to come forward with decades of sexual harassment and abuse, we need to wake up and listen to them. Even if it makes us uncomfortable. When a generation of young people is dying because of opioids, we need to wake up and ask why?

As I said, this could be a long sermon. I don’t have to tell you the problems plaguing our society, that we’d so often rather ignore than wake up and deal with. You know them. But I also need to ask, what veils do you need to pull back in your own life? Where do the rose-colored glasses need to come off? Because cookies aren’t the only things we like to sugarcoat at Christmastime.

We turn a blind eye toward relationship problems, because it isn’t nice to be alone at the holidays. We push familial strife under the rug and pretend everything is fine during Christmas dinner, but it doesn’t actually solve anything. We laugh at the antics of our drunk relative, but don’t ask ourselves whether they might need our help.

When we wake up to what is going on around us, in our own lives, when the veil is pulled back, when we take off the rose colored glasses, we might just be ready to cry out with the people of Isaiah, “Where are you God? When are you coming? Come now.”

Keep awake. Jesus tells us to be awake not just to our sin, not just to society’s sin, but we are to keep awake because we do not know when God will be entering into humanity. We need to keep awake, not just to the places that need God in this world and in our lives, but we need to keep awake for that shocking, surprising presence of God.

What will it be like when God shows up? “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.” When God shows up, things are going to change. Things are going to be disrupted and reconfigured. There is going to be a shake-up.

We know what it will be like when God shows up, because we know the story of God’s first advent in Christ Jesus. It was wholly unexpected. God came in the vulnerability of the manger and the cross, right into the brokenness of human sin. And was not the sun darkened on that day at Calvary? Was not the power in the heavens shaken as the temple curtain was torn down the middle? No longer was God to be kept separate; God was loose in the world.

God has already begun the work of waking up this world. The first advent of Jesus has established for us the ways we are to be in relationship with God. Jesus has given us the way to the Father and God’s grace assures us that we are never alone. Is God’s reign complete? No, certainly not.

But we know that God doesn’t stop with sin and evil and darkness. We know that God refuses to let those things be the end of the story. They will not be the end of our story, and they will not be the end of this world’s story. That is why Jesus came in the first place. Because God would not stop working to redeem God’s people until everything had been done. Until God’s own self entered our brokenness to bring us to wholeness.

And that is why Jesus continues to come in our lives. Continues to show up in ways as unexpected as that manger was all those years ago. Are we awake to them? Are we paying attention to the places and the ways that God is showing up in our lives? To the people that God is using to speak to us?

Keep awake. Because God is not done with you and God is not done with this world. God will continue to show up, continue to surprise us, and continue to draw us into relationship with each other and with God’s own self. Let us keep awake this Advent, and prepare, not just for Christmas, but for the coming of Christ into our world and into our hearts. Amen.