May We Be Changed 1-14-18

In this sermon, based on John 1:43-51, I explore the initial encounter between Jesus and the disciple Nathanael. While Nathanael’s initial reaction doesn’t seem great, the encounter brings a change upon him.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/may-we-be-changed-1-14-18

You can also follow along with the the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

If someone ever got the idea to write a book about me, especially around my time here in Underwood…I’m pretty sure that I know 2 stories that will be included…both of which involve me effectively demonstrating foot-in-mouth syndrome.

One story centers around the first time I presided at a baptism…and the fact that, during the sermon, I REPEATEDLY, called the child by the wrong name…and only realized my folly when one of the confirmation students at that time called out “Wrong name pastor.” (pause)
Now the second story happened downstairs during education one day…it was early in my tenure, I’d been here less than a year at this point…and I was leading a discussion that centered around Jesus coming out of Nazareth and the idea that his home town was considered…backwater…and in the moment, I was wracking my brain to name a town that would serve as a good example…and since I was new to the area…the first community I came up with was Minden…and I no more than said it when I heard about 4 different people, all of whom live in Minden respond with a cynical “Hey.” (pause)
Now needless to say, this was innocent humor at work…but as I think back to that moment, I’m also reminded of the very same tendency from my youth.  It probably goes without saying that most communities or schools have a rival…and that disparaging remarks probably get made about those rivals on a pretty common basis…now in my hometown of Graettinger, the easiest target of this type of thing was a neighboring school district made up of the combined communities of Armstrong and Ringstead…we thought we were hilarious when we referred to “Armpit-ringworm.”

Again…innocent humor…no real animosity behind it…if nothing else…probably just evidence of the ignorance of youth at play…but…also reminiscent of something we find in today’s gospel lesson. (Pause)

Here in the season of Epiphany, we continue to focus in on Gospel stories that feature Jesus being revealed to the world in different ways…and in this case…we hear of his encounter with two of the earliest disciples…Philip and Nathanael.

Now here in John’s gospel, we find a strong theme of invitation at work when it comes to encounters with Jesus.  He is revealed, either through his own invitation to individuals, or through them following his example and extending an invitation of their own.  First John the Baptist points out Jesus to Andrew…he encounters the Lord, and then he goes to find Peter.  And now, we see the same sort of thing repeated…as Jesus encounters Philip…gives the invitation to “Follow me”…and as a result Philip goes out to extend the very same invitation as he finds his friend Nathanael. (pause)

Admittedly, we don’t know much about Nathanael…and about all that’s revealed here is a cynical view about the likelihood that the Messiah has actually shown up…and a pretty darn lousy view of the neighboring town of Nazareth. “Nathanael, we have found the one that Moses and the Prophets have written about…its Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth.”

Now keep in mind Nathanael is from Cana, another town in Galilee…and Galilee as a whole wasn’t very big…and it stands to reason that there would be a little bit of angst between the communities…just like me calling the neighboring school a lousy nickname, Nathanael seems to do the same as we hear “Nazareth, can ANYTHING GOOD come out of NAZARETH?” Sorta makes you wonder what other lousy remarks he might have made that aren’t recorded here. (pause)
But…despite this reaction, Philip does share the invitation to Come and See…come and experience him for yourself…almost like he’s telling Nathanael to reserve judgement until he actually meets the guy…and together they head off towards Jesus.

Now here’s the crazy part…Jesus sees them coming, and before he even meets Nathanael…before they’re even introduced Jesus shares this little ditty…Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is…no…deceit.” Sometimes we hear it “No Guile.” We might call him a straight shooter…or someone who says what he thinks…or he tells it like it is. (pause)

It never ceases to amaze me that Jesus has this response to a guy who has just insulted his hometown…this random guy who had the gall to insult an entire community without any basis whatsoever…in fact I hear this statement from Nathanael and tend to think he’s a judgmental jerk that deserves a verbal smack down from Jesus rather than apparent praise for his “honest lack of BS.”

I can’t help but think that this sounds familiar to recent news doesn’t it? Offhanded, unwarranted comments at the expense of another place…and I don’t know about you, but my immediate response to that news…just like my response to this comment from Nathanael is outrage and disgust and disappointment. (pause)
But then I stop and think back to my days as an immature high schooler…and then I start to feel convicted…and I realize that despite the lack of animosity…the lack of meaning behind my off-handed jokes…I was doing the exact same thing…degrading someone simply because of where they are from.

That’s the funny thing about sin…about the brokenness of the world…that we can see it in others…and then in an instant it starts to hold up the mirror to us as individuals and we find the exact same brokenness…the exact same sin lying within our lives…within our hearts and minds…within our thoughts and actions.

And I don’t know about you but when I think back to the stupid stuff that I have said and done in the ignorance of my younger years all I can think of is a line from the 25th Psalm….Lord, remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions. (pause) And not only that but I also realize that the very same brokenness that existed within me back then is still present now…it may manifest itself in different ways…but its still there…and I am every bit as capable of snap-judgments about other people or situations…because I am…human…just like everyone else.

Now this is perhaps, a bit of downer…this recognition of the flaws that exist within each of us as individuals as well as within all of us as humanity…but it is in recognizing and admitting to our brokenness that we open ourselves up to the glory and the gift of God’s grace for all of us.

You see that’s really what we find in the story of Nathanael today…because Jesus encounters Nathanael…the guy who has just talked smack about his hometown…the guy who has rather bluntly expressed doubt about the possibility that Jesus is in fact the Messiah…but then Nathanael encounters Christ…He encounters God in human form…the word made flesh…and somehow, someway through this personal encounter…Nathanael is…changed.

I wish I was a fly on the wall to have witnessed the full conversation…the full encounter that occurred between them that day…but unfortunately that’s the not case…and all we have to go on is the brief back and forth recorded here in John’s gospel…but whatever it was that went on between these two…whatever happened…it was utterly life altering.

And this is the amazing thing about the Gospel of Jesus Christ…first of all that the creator of the entire universe and everything in it would care enough about us, broken though we are, to enter into our reality as one of us…and then that the personal encounter between an individual and God, whether Christ in the flesh or the presence of the Holy Spirit within us…that individual is changed.

Nathanael goes from utter doubt and disbelief to the faithful expression of Jesus as the Son of God…and not only that…but Jesus promises that he will be a witness to amazing things. This is the life altering reality of the Good News…That God loves each of us so much that he meets us in our brokenness to make us into something new…and then he invites us to join together with him in the same work of invitation so that one day, all may encounter this same life-altering God.

The message is the same for me. It is the same for you. For Christ has said I am making all thing new. May we hear this good news today and like Nathanael, may we be changed by our encounter with the living Lord so that we might also go out into the world to share that same message of love and invitation with everyone in it. For truly all the world has been made by the loving hand of the father and everyone has been made bearing the divine image. And Christ has come to make that connection between heaven and earth a reality. To create the bridge that spans the separation. To make it possible for everyone to come and see. To experience connection and relationship with the God who has made them and who loves them just as they are. Amen

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This Is Me 1-7-18

In this sermon, based on Mark 1:4-11, I explore the Baptism of Jesus. It serves as a bridge back to Israel’s history, and the history of what God is doing in the world. It also creates a vitally important connection for us.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/this-is-me-1-7-18

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Maybe its fitting as today is the first Sunday of a new calendar year…but we find ourselves today at the beginning of one of the gospels…and I can’t help but chuckle as I think about it…The opening verse of Mark…chapter 1 verse 1…The beginning of the Good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Sounds a bit like a title…and I think is a pretty awesome way to open it up…then we get 2 verses quoting the Old Testament prophet Isaiah…and then we start off the Gospel of Jesus…by talking about a guy named John. (pause) Wait…what?

Weird right?  This is supposed to be about Jesus…but first we hear about this wilderness wild-man…some random preacher wearing camel skin and leather belts…chowing down on locusts and honey…throwing water around and telling people to repent. Totally weird.

But yet here we are…and as I was working with this text through the week…knowing that our focus today is on the baptism of Jesus…I read this early introduction of John…this brief description included these crazy details about his odd-ball wardrobe and diet…and the thought that went through my head was “Who cares?” (pause) But you know what, let’s put a pin in that for just a second…and I’m gonna describe someone else to you…see if you can figure out who I’m talking about.

There was this guy…he was really skinny, pretty darn tall…he was fond of wearing dark suits…he had dark hair and liked beards…usually had a thick chin strap, no mustache though…and often times you’d see him in a really tall tophat…something they call a stovepipe.  Anyone know who I’m talking about…I’ll give you one more hint…he was a president. (Pause, wait for the answer).

Abraham Lincoln…of course. He is a figure who is SO prominent in our nation’s history……that all it takes is a simple description of the man… and most of us know exactly who we’re talking about. (pause)
Now, imagine yourself a first-century Jew living in Israel…utterly tied to your culture’s history…and you start hearing about some random wilderness preacher wearing animal skins and eating a crazy diet…and instantly you think Elijah…the great prophet of the past. We might not make the connection now 2000 years later…but make no mistake, just like we think of Lincoln, they would think of Elijah.

Now I’ve talked before about how important the history of their culture was to them…their scripture…the Torah…or the Old Testament as we know…was passed down in story form…yes they had written scrolls, but everyone knew the stories…everyone knew the different historical figures…and everyone knew the prophecies…their history…all that stuff that had happened in their past…all that stuff in their cultural rear-view mirror…it was vitally important to them in their lives in every…single…moment…

But by the time we’re talking about now…here at the beginning of the good new of Jesus Christ…things had been pretty quiet for a while. That powerful voice of God…the one that we heard in our first lesson today speak the world…speaking existence into being…the voice speaking chaos into order…that same voice, who later would speak to the people through the prophets…well that voice had been pretty quiet for about 400 odd years…but the very last thing they had heard…actually the very end of the Old Testament…we hear from a minor prophet by the name of Malachi who shares the Lord’s promise to the people “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

In short…the last promise their culture had received several centuries in advance…was that right before Judgement day…whatever that’s gonna look like…apparently Elijah is gonna show up…and now…HERE’S JOHNNY!!!!

Knowing this…knowing what people would think when they heard about him…no wonder he attracted such big crowds…no wonder his message of repentance…of turning away from our sinful past and looking back to the good life that God hopes for the individual…maybe it all makes a little more sense to consider if everything in their cultural history pointed towards John’s ministry as being the beginning of the end.

But here’s the thing…if the Old Testament tells us anything in its long history…in the countless stories that it shares…its that God is ALWAYS, up to something new and unexpected.  And this new moment with John the Baptist out in the wilderness…this new Elijah…its no different. When the people go out to repent, thinking they better get their ducks in a row because the end is coming…John shut that down…You think I’m Elijah? You think this the end…no sir…there is another one coming after me…and he is greater than I am.

John might as well be saying “you better hold onto something because God’s got something WAY more impressive in mind than me…” John is just a small cog in a great big machine…one tiny…though important part of this greater over-arching story of what God’s up to throughout all of human history up to now and forward into the future.

I think that what John means when he says “be prepared.” (pause) So, we’ve got this connection to the Old Testament, and I’ve heard people say that the Old Testament is dense and hard to understand…and there’s truth there…but typically when I hear that its from people who never really dive into it…and typically just hang out in the New Testament…and I can’t help but think that this sense also carries the idea that what God is up to in Christ is a do over…that everything that came before doesn’t count…it doesn’t matter…that in Jesus God is just hitting the reset button.

But I can’t help but think that every story that we hear through that old history has been leading up this moment. Adam and Eve…Noah and the flood…Abraham and the covenant…Moses and Egypt…the wandering and the settling of the Promise Land…the Judges and the Kings…and the exiles and the rise and fall of different empires…all of that has collectively shaped the Jewish culture up to this point when John and now Jesus come on the scene.

And now, we hear that John uses water….baptism…itself a culmination of two very old Jewish practices of purification…and once more, God invites humanity forward…shaped by what has come before, prepared for what is happening now…and joining in the future work of God in our reality. (pause)
Now John’s self aware enough to know that there’s something WAY bigger than him at work here…but that whatever it is, its not going to cancel out what’s he’s up to…its just gonna change it. I baptize you with water…but that one who’s coming…the one who’s greater than me…he’ll baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

And low and behold…here comes Jesus…and he too is baptized…and for the first time…this statement of John comes true and those present see the heavens torn open and the Holy Spirit coming down upon Jesus…and this giant booming voice…that same voice which is powerful to literally SPEAK CREATION INTO BEING…calls out You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.

Now we all know that we’re talking about Jesus here…and there have been many questions through the years about why Jesus had to be baptized…he was without sin…so the repentance that John’s been talking about probably doesn’t apply…so how come? (pause) Well maybe that question, while valid…doesn’t really matter.  Maybe all that matters is that we see that Jesus himself was baptized…and later on…in one of his final statements, he’ll pass the command on to us to do the very same…baptizing in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

And if we share in the same baptism that Jesus himself experienced…well then we begin to see that the promises made are also the same. (pause) I love how Mark’s account of the baptism ends…with this booming proclamation from God about the identity of Jesus. About the identity of the one who has just been baptized. You are my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.  And with that God drops the mic. (pause)

Often times when I’m speaking at a funeral…I’ll remind those present that when it comes to the story of the individual, God gets the last word…and I think that’s true here too…God literally has the last word in this baptism…and its one that we share.

How amazing is it…how mind blowing is it that this same God who speaks from the heavens…who claims Jesus as his beloved son…also claims you. The promise…the declaration…it’s the same for you.  God looks upon you, God sees an amazing creation…and God calls you his beloved Son…his beloved Daughter…and in you he is well pleased…as you are. (pause)

In you he well pleased…not as you could be…not as you one day hope to be…but right now…as you are…no matter what junk lies behind you in your history…no matter what skeletons might lie in your closest…God claims you right here right now…AS YOU ARE…and God delights in you.

So what can we take away today…as we consider this brief story of Jesus’ baptism…featuring a promise we share…and another biblical figure who serves as a blast from the past to the culture that Jesus was a part of.

And perhaps the only take away that we can find is that whatever lies in your past…the good, the bad…the joys and the sorrows…all of that has shaped you into the person that you are right now…your past has helped shape your present identity…and in the waters of your baptism…and not only that but in every other day of your life…God sees you…God loves you…God claims you…and God invites you forward into something new…

Consider all that…all of it…and know that it has formed you so that as you look to the heavens…you can honestly say Here I am…this is me…and the same God who ripped open the heavens to claim his beloved Son Jesus…claims you…and there is nothing in all of creation that can take distinction away from you. And when the story of your life is told…God gets the last word. Amen

A Story Within A Story 12-24-17 Christmas Eve

Tonight’s Christmas Eve sermon, based on Luke 2:1-20. There a story that repeats throughout history…but in the midst of that cycle, a new story happened when God changed everything.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/a-story-within-a-story-12-24-17

You can follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

As a movie buff…one of my favorite parts of the movie going experience has always been watching the previews for upcoming features. Now, in my 38 years I’ve seen this go from 1 or 2 brief snippets to what is now anywhere from 20-30 minutes worth of time before the actual movie that you are there to see begins.

Recently, I’ve seen a preview for an upcoming movie called Early Man…an odd style of animation in this movie that will focus in on a group of cave men as they encounter the next stage in human achievement through the Bronze Age. Granted, I don’t really know anything more about the movie beyond that, but there is one part that makes me chuckle…the leader of this Bronze age civilization apparently wants to wipe out the cave men and we hear him say (French Accent) “Ze age of stone is over.” I don’t know why he’s French but that’s beside the point. (pause)

The interesting thing about this odd little preview…and specifically this one throwaway line is that it actually tells a very old…very common story. Pretty much as far back as we can find…as far back as various records go…pretty much every civilization, or people group, or tribe…they’ve all told pretty much the same story.

The story goes like this….Our tribe is the best. Our god is the best. Our WAY is the best…So come…join us…or we’ll kill you.[1] (pause) I wish we could say that society has outgrown that old story…but honestly we haven’t have we? We’ve just found much more sophisticated ways of establishing dominance over one another over the course of the past few thousand years…but the story remains the same.

And truly…this is evidence of the human condition…the human desire and quest for power. A quest, or a story that we have seen repeated time after time after time as we look back through history. (pause) Now…picture with me…the Middle East about 3500 years ago. And that same old story is running rampant. Kingdoms, if you want to use that word, were not overly huge…because a person could only control as much area as they were strong enough to protect…and sooner or later someone bigger and stronger was gonna come in and wipe you out.

Low and behold…this batch of nomads consisting of about dozen different tribes who sometimes get along and sometimes bicker like crazy move into the area along the edge of the Mediterranean Sea that we would call Israel. Gradually they beat everyone else and establish themselves…and then after a few hundred years…they get their act together and make a king…and he rules for 40 years…until some upstart former shepherd who’s good with a harp, not to mention a sling and a stone…undermines him and takes over…know who I’m talking about? This guy named David? Seems pretty popular in religious history.  Well David expands this kingdom, becoming one of the true superpowers of the day…and we’re talking about 1000BC here. Things go good for a while…but this AMAZING…SUPER…STUPENDOUS king dies…and within about 2 more generations this kingdom, this super power starts to fall apart. (pause) Cue the same old story. Beginning round about 750 BC, we see empire after empire after empire rise up, conquer…enslave…only to erode, and eventually be replaced by the next one in line. (pause)

This goes on for centuries…and so…round about the time that the calendar shifts from BC to AD…if we are to look in on this culture in Israel, who at one time had been super power…we find them now utterly under the boot of the Roman Empire…subject to the whim of Caesar, also known as Augustus…and they were part of the regional control of Syria and a guy named Quirinius. (Pause) Those names sound familiar? (Pause) Do you see where I’m going with this?

As Luke begins this account…this story…this gospel, he places us into a specific point in history…and he zero’s in on this one culture who are utterly caught up in the same old story repeated time after time after time…a culture who at one time were on the top of the heap…but now a millennia and a half later, are scrapping the bottom of the barrel.

This is a culture who considered themselves to be God’s chosen people…even after centuries of oppression…and if we look back through their scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, we see this pattern emerge and the repeated teachings that no matter what happens, God…the Lord…Yahwah, whatever name you want to use…their God would not leave them abandoned. Funny huh? (pause)
But wait…this is Christmas Eve right? Well, this isn’t the right story to focus on…so now, in the midst of all this…let’s look at a story that exists within the old story. And we center in on a couple of teenagers. A young Palestinian girl…probably about the same age as one of our 8th graders…she’s engaged to marry a young guy…MAYBE a freshman in college…and low and behold they find out she’s pregnant…but don’t give Joseph the side eye just yet because she’s been told by an angel that this is the power of God at work…doing the impossible in her being pregnant because she’s still a virgin.

In the midst of the turmoil that this would cause for them within their community…word comes out that the emperor is demanding a census…which not only means recording their name but also major taxation…and to top it all off they’ve got to go to their ancestral town to do it.  Remember that David guy from 1000 years prior…turns out Joseph is related to him…so Joseph, along with his UBER pregnant fiancé have to skedaddle from Nazareth in the north all the way to Bethlehem in the south…either on the back of a donkey, or in a cart, or maybe even on foot…over the course of about 100 miles…only to find that the town is so full that they get shoehorned into the only spot available…and sure enough…its baby time…no epidural…no quiet sterile birthing suite. Just a dark corner with nowhere else to place the brand new baby than in the feed trough. Think Mary and Joseph were aware of their standings in the grand scheme of things?

A baby boy, born in a backwater suburb of the capital, in a country ruled by multiple levels of military and political might…about as far from their home and the comfort of the familiar…far away from family. Zero fan-fair…at least until a bunch of stinky shepherds show up talking about angels and messages and messiahs asking “Hey can we see your kid?” (pause)
I can’t help but think that this story is UTTERLY devoid of anything that even remotely resembles something worth celebrating. By rights there is nothing about this story that makes it memorable…and yet…2000 years later…here we are to celebrate it. (pause)

The birth of Jesus of Nazareth…one of countless births that day…one of literally billions of births that have happened within the human race…shouldn’t matter…and yet it does. So what is it about this story…what is it about this baby…what is it about this man that we call Jesus that is so significant that we would celebrate it year after year after year?

The only answer that I can give for that question is that Jesus…the one we call Christ…is God’s answer to that same old story.  That in this story found in middle of all that other stuff…this story within a story…God is doing something new.

Think about this for a moment. The God that we profess as God…which is the same God that the Jewish culture professed as the one true God…the creator of the entirety of existence…looks at his creation which includes humanity mind you…and this God loves it SO MUCH…flawed though it is…That this God chose to break the same old cycle…This God chose to do something in order to show us that might does not make right…that true power is not found in the size of your army or the territory you control or how big your bank account is.

Because in this story…God is showing us that true power can only be found in weakness. The savior of the universe…the one who will save us from sins…the one who will endure the cross does so because God himself has taken flesh to show us that there is another way. That we have been called to love one another, just as God has first loved us…and that the kingdoms of this world…those symbols of power that humanity is REALLY good at putting our stock in are destined to fall.

History shows us this time and again…because history plays the long game…and you know what…so does God. (pause) God willingly chose to enter into our reality in the most humble and helpless way possible…born in backwater town to unmarried parents who were kids themselves…far from home because of the political tyrants of the day. (long pause)

Now maybe you’re asking yourself “So what?” And if you are, then consider the message of the angel. Behold I bring you good news of great joy. (Pause) There’s a word for that…bringing good news…its called being Evangelical…and in its true form…in its basic meaning…it means proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of heaven…a kingdom which has come forth with this humble baby…a kingdom that doesn’t work like all those other kingdoms…a kingdom that isn’t subject to that same old story…a kingdom based not in power…but in love. A kingdom where we are called to love our enemies and pray for them…a kingdom where we are called to share the resources that we have with those who don’t have enough…a kingdom with a God who delights in us…and desires so much that we can be together in relationship that he willingly became one us to make it happen. (pause)

This is pretty radical stuff…and admittedly, it goes against everything that basic human nature tells us should be right or powerful or mighty. But I’ll ask it again…how’s that same old story really working for us? How’s it working for you? Because its probably not a stretch for me to assume that things aren’t all hunky-dory in our world are they? Not if we’re honest with ourselves…because all too often all the junk in this world…all that stuff that we’re really good at heaping on ourselves…and all the rest of the stuff that the world is good at piling on too…all of that stuff probably just leaves us feeling stuck.

Many of you have heard me tell this story recently…but I’m gonna tell it again because its fitting.  A man is walking down the street and he falls in a hole…and the hole is deep and the walls are so steep he can’t get out…he tries and he tries and he tries but no matter what he does he can’t get himself out.  Pretty soon a doctor walks by…and the man hollers up Hey Doc can you give me a hand. The doctor looks down in the hole…writes a prescription and drops it in and walks away. Then pretty soon an architect comes by…and he says the same thing. Hey man can you help me out…and the architect looks down in the hole…draws a schematic and drops in…and he walks away.

But then the guys friend walks by…and he hollers Hey man its me…can you help me. And the friend jumps down in the hole next to him. He says What are you doing? Now we’re stuck in here together. But the friend says I know…but I’ve been here before, and I know the way out.  (pause)

The world tells us a story…that power is on display through might…but history shows us that eventually, someone bigger or stronger is going come along and knock you down in a hole…but tonight we hear a story from within that story telling us that we have a God who sees us in that hole…and comes among us as one who calls us Friend…and shows us that true power…His power…is found in the midst of weakness.  And the basis for this great power is the fact that he loves you, just as you are.

Tonight God tells a new story…one that sounds like Good News to me. Amen.

[1] Credit to Rob Bell “Everything is Spiritual” Video on Youtube.com for this microstory

Oh There You Are 12-24-17

In this sermon, taken from Luke 1:26-38, I explore the encounter between Mary and the angel Gabriel, as she learns that she will bear the Christ Child. Note that this covers the final Sunday of Advent and is not the Christmas Eve sermon.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/oh-there-you-are-12-24-17

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Today’s a bit of an odd day isn’t it? Sunday morning…we’re celebrating Advent…and yet its also Christmas Eve…truly the calendar is playing a trick on us this year, but that’s okay…because despite our Advent focus this morning…I think its safe to say that we are all in the Christmas spirit aren’t we?

By now its impossible not to be…and Christmas is a wonderful time…one of joy…one of community…one of tradition…a time when we will often share stories of our own traditions and practices…of memories and stories…and I often find myself remembering the seasons of my younger years…and the overwhelming joy that a child feels at Christmas.

A feeling that perhaps connects to a famous literary character…Peter Pan…the boy who lives in Neverland…having adventure after adventure and never wanting to grow up. (pause) But what if he did?

There’s a movie that explored that very premise…Hook staring the late Robin Williams…a story in which Peter eventually did leave Neverland…and he grew up…forgetting all about his past…until the villainous Captain Hook kidnaps his children, causing the grown up, middle aged Peter Banning to return.

He finds himself with the Lost Boys for a few days…training…trying to remember…trying to find the youthful spirit once more…but all the Lost Boys see is a grown up grump…all except one little guy…In an emotional scene…he walks up to Peter…pulls him down to his knees to look him in the face…the boy pulls off his glasses…and starts turning Peter’s face in his hands…looking…searching…he smooths out wrinkles…he pulls back Peter’s hair…and then finally he lights up…a smile crosses his face…and he says “Oh there you are Peter.”  And with joy we realize that this little boy has found the one that he followed…the one that he remembers…the one that he loves and adores…the one that he favors. (pause)

Now maybe that’s a weird story to tell in connection with the Angel Gabriel showing up to give Mary this unexpected announcement…and yet if we consider the angel’s greeting…perhaps it starts to come into focus.

Greetings Highly favored one…the Lord is with you. (pause) Now we know why Gabriel is here don’t we?  He’s passing on the news that Mary has been chosen by God to serve in a role that is arguably one of the most important in all of history…that she has been chosen to bear the son of God…that she will be the mother of the one to save us all…the son of the most high…she will be the mother of Jesus.

But Mary’s reaction…well initially…its not great is it? (pause) The first thing we hear is her confusion at the angels greeting…that pondered what sort of greeting this might be…and then when Gabriel lays out the plan for her…her response? How can this be? (pause)

Now considering the plan that good ole Gabe has put on the table…maybe her reaction isn’t surprising…this is some pretty major stuff that God has mapped out…a baby, conceived within her…even though its physically impossible given that whole unmarried virgin thing…a baby who apparently is going to inherit the throne of David, even though the Romans utterly control the area and the throne is Israel is held by the bloodthirsty family of Herod.

It seems pretty unbelievable doesn’t it? But consider Mary’s status…she’s a nobody…a very young woman, still practically a child…she’s living in an era where both children and women have virtually no status at all…she lives in a backwater region of a conquered nation.  The news that she’s gonna have a baby out of wedlock would create all kinds of havoc for her…and even if it is true…and this baby is destined to take the throne, well that’s going to cause all kinds of turmoil for them with the political powers that be.

And as she’s thinking about all of this stuff…she remembers this crazy greeting that Gabriel had given her. Greetings Highly Favored One…Do not be afraid for you have found favor with God…now I can’t help but think that with all the turmoil that this announcement brings with it…all the hardship that she’s about to face because of what’s happening…God’s favor doesn’t exactly seem like the happiest thing in the world does it?

But maybe it isn’t suppose to. Maybe God’s favor doesn’t automatically add up to what our world has come to consider it to be…maybe it doesn’t equal ease, or riches…or popularity…maybe God’s favor actually points us in the opposite direction…and in the midst of it we can expect there to be struggle and pain and hardship…but only within the midst of those struggles do we find God-given strength to endure…not out of our own power…but out of the promise that we are not alone in it. (pause)

Now admittedly…this might be hard to wrap our heads around…especially as we consider the same things that Mary was considering…and that odd ball greeting and stipulation that she is highly favored.  But if we dig a little deeper, we find that our modern English translations…the ones that we’ve heard every year to the point where we can probably recite it from memory…it isn’t quite right…and if we start going backwards in the language we actually find that Gabriel says “Greetings, one who has found divine Grace with the Lord who is with you…Mary you have found Grace with God.”

Now when I realized that this week…it gave me some pause…because here in the Lutheran church…we’re big fans of Grace aren’t we…the free gift of God’s love…of God’s favor…of God’s salvation from sin…but as much as we love to hang our hats on God’s grace…there are times when we are honest with ourselves that perhaps we start to ask the question “Who am I that God would care? Who am I that God would look my direction. Who am I that God would love me?” (pause) We ask these questions because we know ourselves…we see…we feel the brokenness that exists within us and we know that we are not worthy of Love from the one who made this reality…and yet in making this reality…in making this world…that same God has made you.

This same God sees you in the midst of your brokenness…and God loves you anyway…and not only that but God desires that you will be with him…and since God is aware that we can’t get to him…he has come in search of us…but to truly accomplish this…he will enter into our reality in the same way do…as a helpless baby…one who’s name will be Jesus…as Gabriel instructs Mary today.

And you know what…sometimes there’s more to a name that we realize. In English we call him Jesus…in Greek it was Jeshua…which you might notice sounds kinda like Joshua…and its supposed to…and Joshua…the original Hebrew name means, quite literally Yahweh is generous…or Yahweh saves.

Today, here at the close of Advent…we hear the Divine plan laid out for Mary…and funny enough in just a few more hours, we’ll celebrate that plan in the flesh with the birth of Jesus…God in human form…the word made flesh…the light shining in the darkness…The Lord among us as one of us…showing us his divine favor…his divine love for each us.

For in Christ, God has come looking for you…and he’s willing to get right up in your face…he’ll go to any length to find the one that he loves…the one that he adores…the one that he favors…

Now maybe you ARE wondering Who am I that God would do this? Who am I that God would care. Who am I?  Know this, it doesn’t matter…because you are his beloved…and just like that little boy in the movie…imagine just how wonderful it will be to look God in the face one day…and to see the joy when he says “Oh there you are.”  Amen.

Just A Guy In A Hole 12-3-17

In this sermon from Mark 13:24-37, I explore several themes. We begin the season of Advent, and with it a change in our focus. And yet the passage and theme is still very close to what we’ve seen that past few weeks out of Matthew’s gospel. We live in the tension between anticipating the celebration of the coming Messiah at Christmas, and knowing that this event has already occurred.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/just-a-guy-in-a-hole-12-3-17
(note that at the time of recording, my voice was not in great shape)

You can also read along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

At some point in my elementary school days, I can’t tell you exactly when, but I know it happened…my class participated in a project similar to what you might find in a high school year book. We all worked together to decide who would receive each special title…titles like Most Likely to Succeed, or Class Clown. (pause)  My class voted me…wait for it…Most Likely to be Seen on the News Someday. (pause)

Funny enough…it happened, and I wasn’t even out of elementary yet. One day, early in the spring of my 5th grade year, I happened to be home from school as I was feeling a little under the weather…I remember it was a bright and clear spring day…and all of the sudden, my mom called me to one of the windows. She pointed out a column of smoke coming from the vicinity of town…a batch of smoke heavy enough that we could see it from almost 10 miles away.

A moment later the phone rang, and mom answered it…and a minute later we were in the car driving into town, because the fire was happening at our church…and in a short amount of time…the church where I was baptized was destroyed…and of course there were news cameras there to report…which is how I ended up on the news.

Admittedly, this really isn’t something that I should make jokes about, as it was a very serious blow to my home congregation…granted I was too young to really understand the depths of what was happening at that time…but I’m sure those in the generations that came before me felt like their entire world was being rocked in that moment.

Now I wish I could say that this is the only major catastrophe that has befallen my old congregation…but its not…and actually just last week, my small town home church was in the news again when it went public that their former financial officer has been embezzling funds for years…funds in the neighborhood of half a million dollars. And once more, the people there are reeling…trying to figure out how to move forward as their world has been rocked. When their church, and their community is in utter upheaval. (pause)

Today marks a change…as you can see from the Christmas decorations here in the sanctuary and out in the narthex…the presence of the blue paraments and banners…by the Advent Wreath right over there…we’ve entered into a new season…and with  it a new church year. We’ve moved from the year of focus on Matthew’s gospel into the year of Mark…and at the same time we switch our focus away from the long ongoing life cycle of the church through the season of Pentecost into the sense of waiting…the feeling of anticipation of the coming Messiah at Christmas.

But despite the new season and new church year…perhaps things still sound pretty familiar…perhaps it sounds like more of the same as we consider the gospel lesson out of Mark that we’ve shared today…and if it does sound familiar…if it seems pretty spot on with the various readings and themes that we’ve shared in recent weeks out of Matthew, it should…because honestly it’s the same exact setting.

Jesus and his followers are in and around Jerusalem for the pending Passover festival…its his final week of life before his death on the cross…and together, this small group of people has been in and out of the temple…and in one of their trips through the gates the disciples are marveling at the magnificence of the temple and its massive building stones, when Jesus tells them that there will come a day when not one stone will be left upon another…and this freaks them out so much that they ask him “what will be a sign that this is about to happen?”

Same story…and that same sort of result with today’s reading isn’t it? Apocalyptic…end times-ish. Daunting as Jesus gives the instruction to stay awake for no one knows the day or the hour. (pause) Admittedly, when I read this passage at the beginning of the week to begin preparing for today, it caught me off guard. Pentecost is over…its Advent now…we should be looking for the coming Christ child not freaking out over what the end times are going to look like right? And yet…here we are…apparently stuck in the tension between these two events…and I’ve asked myself over and over again…Lord what are we to say about this? (pause)

And pretty soon I found myself thinking about that original question that the disciples asked…which perhaps was not just about “the end times” but was maybe about the destruction of the temple that Jesus had been talking about.

Now the Jewish people are no stranger to cultural tragedy are they…and in Jesus’ day they knew this same reality.  A culture which truly began in slavery…a culture that spent decades wandering as aimless nomads…a culture that scrapped tooth and nail for a land of their own and held it for a matter of a couple generations before it started falling apart and the various superpowers of the day came in and took it over…and keep in mind that the Jewish people have REALLY good memories for history…its vital to their culture…but that’s not the only thing…for their faith is also a central aspect.

And for this people who’s culture is so completely wrapped up in their relationship with God…the temple is vital…the temple is where you go to worship…the temple is where God is…tucked clear inside behind a curtain…but who’s presence is there none the less…and they’ve lost the temple before…the first temple built by King Solomon had been destroyed…and now Jesus is telling them that there will come a day when the most important location in their entire culture will be destroyed again. No wonder his followers found this shocking. That reality would have been devastating for them to experience. (pause)

But you know what, there’s another aspect to consider. Mark’s gospel is the oldest of the 4…but it was recorded decades after the fact…the stories of Christ and his disciples handed down, told from person to person…and by the time Mark was actually recorded…Jesus’ prediction had already happened…and the temple was already gone…utterly demolished by Roman troops as they squashed a Jewish revolt about 40 years after Jesus. (pause)
So we’ve got all kinds of turmoil in the works here. Turmoil for Jesus’ disciples as they hear that the center of their whole worlds will be destroyed.  Turmoil for the original audience of the gospel as they were living in that reality…I can only imagine that for them…it literally seemed like the world was ending…and the Old Testament prophecies that Jesus shares about the powers of heaven being shaken probably wouldn’t have seemed out of line when the physical representation of your faith has been utterly wiped off the map.

I can only imagine that for everyone that hears these words of Jesus…it hits home…living in the midst of events so drastic…so dire…so earth shattering that maybe we ask ourselves “is this the end?” And we shake our heads in disbelief with the feeling that there’s no hope…there’s no light…its all darkness. (pause0
I wonder if that sounds familiar? If you are experiencing something like this that has you shaken to your core…and all hope is gone.  I can’t help but think that if that’s not the case for you…then it is certainly the case for someone you know.

We can hardly turn on the news or open a newspaper or click into our internet browser without hearing about something. Shootings…bombings. Genocide. Tension between nuclear powers. Pain, hunger, sickness. Countless stories and accusations coming to light of public figures who have abused their position of authority for their own gratification at the expense of another person. Storms, fires, we have chaos all over the planet…and often in conversation with other people I hear them say “I think the end times are already here.”

And you know what, maybe they are…maybe they aren’t…but the only thing that we can say is that at some point for some person…the world is rocking them to their core and they feel lost…hopeless…abandoned…and if they look to the heavens and think that there’s some cosmic force out there looking down maybe they place the blame right there…or maybe they just get angry or discouraged and wonder if a word will ever come from on high. (pause)
This is the state that the nation of Israel found themselves in…the prophets had been silent for centuries…the temple system was corrupt…the government were puppets of the Romans…and yet they looked forward to the coming of the Messiah…they longed for the day when God would, once again…dwell among his chosen people…they waited, perhaps in agony…living in the tension of wondering if it would ever come to fruition.

We live in this same tension now today…as the church begins to look forward to the celebration of the Christ child at Christmas…an event that we celebrate and look forward to, but also one that we remember has ALREADY happened. Yes we look forward in Advent but the event which we look to is in the rearview mirror…Christ has already come and when he did he has utterly changed this reality.

But its not perfect yet…and perhaps for those of us experiencing those dark nights of the soul…those moments when hope is lost and we are stuck…it just feels like we are caught. (long pause)

A man is walking down the street and falls in a hole…and the sides are so steep, and that hole is so deep that the man can’t get out…he tries and tries and tries on his own but he’s stuck.  Low and behold, a doctor comes walking by. The man yells up Hey Doc can you get me out of here? The doctor writes a prescription and tosses it down in the hole and he walks away.  Then pretty soon an architect walks by. The man yells up Hey can you help me out? The architect draws up a schematic and tosses it in the hole and he walks away. But then the guys friend walks by…and he yells up Hey its me…can you help me out…and the friend jumps down into the hole next to him.  The guy says What are you doing, now we’re stuck in here together. But the friend says I know…but I’ve been in this hole before, and I know the way out. (pause)

Ever heard the song What a Friend We Have In Jesus? (pause) Life is messy…its hard and it knocks us around…sometimes so much that we can’t see anyway forward…but we have a God who has come to us…where we are…even in the bottom of a hole to show us that there is a way out…there is a way forward…if we can simply believe that there is a God out there who loves us enough to claim us as His own even in the midst of our turmoil.

And God has gone one step beyond that too…and God has given us to one another…because together we are the body of Christ…and so maybe, just maybe, the friend that you’ll find willing to jump down and guide you is sitting right across the aisle right now…just waiting for you to call out of the hole. Amen

We Are Looking At Now Now 11-19-17

now

This sermon is based on Matthew 25:14-30. This is the parable of the talents, as Jesus reminds us with one lesson (that’s part of a larger teaching) to live our lives today in a way that reflects the coming of the kingdom of heaven.

Note that the overarching theme of this sermon is based on a scene from Spaceballs.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/we-are-looking-at-now-now-11-19-17

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

As a person who tries pretty hard to avoid taking things too seriously, I appreciate a good joke…especially when the target is good natured enough to take it. On that note, it probably is no shock to hear that I’m a fan of movies that do this. In my younger years there was a popular movie genre known as spoofs…whole movies that were made to poke fun…to make jokes about existing…and typically quite popular movies.

Now in my opinion, there is no greater example of the spoof movie than Spaceballs…a Mel Brooks classic that pokes fun at the first few Star Wars movies. The whole movie is great, but there is one scene that never fails to make me laugh.

About half through, the bad guys are trying to track down the good guys…but they can’t find them on radar…and so they try searching the home video of the movie itself. Apparently a new technology allows the release of films before they’re even done making them…that’s the first joke.

So they pop in the VHS copy of the movie and pull it up on the monitor and one of the characters is surprised to see themselves projected. They are looking at themselves in that exact instant…and in his surprise we hear this back and forth banter…

What am I looking at? When does this happen in the movie? Now…you’re looking at now sir. Everything that happens now is happening now.  What happened to then? We passed it. When? Just now. We’re at now now. Go back to then. I can’t. Why? We missed it. When? Just now. When will then be now? …Soon.   (pause)

Maybe its silly…but as I think about the overarching setting of today’s gospel lesson, I’m reminded of this scene. If you were here last week, we talked about this…about how Jesus’ words today are part of a larger teaching through 2 chapters of Matthew’s gospel…a long batch of teaching that is a response to the disciples asking the question of when they can expect the end times….what will be the sign of your coming? They might as well be asking that same question…when will then…be now?

Jesus response could have been limited to the very simple statement…no one knows the day or the hour…but instead Jesus gives us A LOT to go on…several separate and yet connected teachings about the unexpected time of his Glorious Reappearing…that the End Times…the Last Days…whatever we want to call it…that’s its going to happen…but it will occur unexpectedly.

This long teaching includes today’s gospel…the parable of the talents. The master is going off on a journey…but before he leaves he calls in three slaves and hands off to each of them something of enormous worth. The parable calls them talents in various amounts…one gets 5…one gets 2…the last gets 1…each according to their ability. Keep in mind that a talent as Jesus is using it, refers to 15 years’ worth of wages for a regular worker. And so all three of these slaves are being handed something incredibly valuable. Interestingly enough the master gives no indication of what to do with it…no instruction…no warning that he’ll be back looking for anything…he simply hands them off and goes on his merry way.

Now you know the story…the first two slaves put their talents to work…we don’t know exactly how…but somehow, they both manage to double the money…the one with 5 makes 5 more, the one with 2, 2 more. Call it what you will…good business…wise investing, whatever…but it seems that they thought it was worth the risk of their master’s property…and through whatever events transpired through the unknown amount of time that the master was away, they each end up with more.

Funny enough…that part of the story, while seemingly positive…is really boring and repetitious…did you notice that? The only thing that changes in the language of that part of the story is the number of talents. Likewise with the master’s response to them in his return. Then the one with 5 talents came forward, bringing 5 more talents saying “master you handed over to me five talents, see I have made five more talents.” His master said to him “Well done good and faithful slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things I will put you in charge of many things; enter in the joy of your master.” And then we hear the EXACT same thing from 2-talent man. Its almost laughable…and its almost boring.

I can’t help but think that we’re really supposed to zero on in 1-talent man…you know 1-talent man. He’s the one who’s scared…the one who’s so paralyzed out of fear…he’s caught up in how he perceives the master…and so he goes out and digs a hole…he hides the talent so that when the master comes around again, he can present it back to him…nothing ventured…nothing gained…but nothing lost.

The back and forth between the slave and the master is telling though isn’t it? I know that you are a harsh man…taking what isn’t yours…helping yourself to that which you did not earn…and low and behold…his judgement of the master is pretty spot on to the judgement that he receives. You wicked and lazy slave.  Take it away from him and give it to the other…and cast him out into suffering. (pause)
That’s the story…and as per usual, we’re faced with the question of interpretation…we’re left trying to make heads or tails of the message that we’re supposed to receive. (pause)

Now admittedly, we could hear a lot things in this passage. Its stewardship time here in the church…and we hear the word “Talent.” So maybe we think about the gifts and talents that we’ve been given in our lives and how we are called to share them in the church and in the world. Ok.   Maybe we hear talents and think about it from a financial standpoint and think its about giving to the church, about making solid financial moves with what we’ve been given, so that when the master returns we’ve got something to show for it. Ok. I don’t think these are wrong…but I think there’s more going on here than what we might pick up at face value.

And on the flip side I fear that there’s interpretations that can get into trouble as well.  We hear that 5-talent guy and 2-talent guy doubled their money and that’s what got them into the good graces of the master…that they had to earn it…that they had to somehow “buy” their way into whatever he’s talking about when he says “enter in the joy of your master.” And since, on the other hand, 1-talent guy didn’t produce anything, he’s cast out.

Make no mistake…we cannot hear this story and think that Jesus is telling us we’ve got earn God’s favor…there is no checklist…there is no scoreboard…there is no money tally…let me be clear. THAT’S NOT HOW THIS WORKS.  This parable is not about anything that we say or think or do or earn that somehow guarantees us a spot in the kingdom of heaven whenever it comes to fruition. (pause)

But saying that raises an important point…remember that Jesus is still teaching his followers that they SHOULD NOT be concerned with the end times…that they should not get all wrapped up in when it happen. We could even stick this into that Spaceballs scene….Jesus when will the end happen? When will then be now?   Soon. (long pause) BUT…NOT…YET.

We hear over and over again, Jesus tells us to be prepared…live right now in a way that reflects the coming of the kingdom…and remember that we have this sense that the kingdom is both now and not yet. That the promises of God are given to us now, even if they haven’t come to completion yet. That we are called to live out the reality of God’s love right here right now…and not only that but that we are called to share that same love with everyone around us…That we are called to risk it…we are called to do something. Not because we have to earn the master’s favor but because the master has already given it to us and we show our gratitude by sharing it with others.

God’s love and God’s favor and God’s grace are for everyone…period. That’s why Jesus said to love God and love your neighbor…and he tells us to do it now.  This theme is all over Jesus’ teachings here in Matthew’s gospel.

You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth.  So be salty…be light…now…not just when we you think that someone’s watching and it gets you somewhere. Jesus also tells us don’t worry about tomorrow, today has enough cares of its own.  What do you think he’s saying there? Maybe he’s saying that if you’re wondering when is the right time to follow that little nudge in the back of your mind that tells you “I know what I’m supposed to do or say or offer to this other person.” That if you’re wondering when to do that…today…now.

Because God is going to show up unexpectedly…2 chapters of Matthew’s gospel tell us this over and over again…and maybe just maybe we need to stop looking for Jesus shining in the clouds and huge booming trumpets and angels singing all over the place and realize that God shows up in the face of the hungry…of the sick…of the lonely…that the king that we’re all waiting for and that we’ll celebrate next Sunday on Christ the King…he shows up as we face the reality that I was hungry and you gave me some food, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was in prison and you visited me…for just as you have done to the least of these you have done to me.

God shows up unexpectedly…every…single…day. So are you going to live your lives stuck in the future expectation, wondering how you can be ready…essentially living in the fear that you’ll be turned away? Or are you going to live in the reality that its now….live in the now…and live your life in a way that reflects the glory of the gospel…that God has already claimed you…that the promise is already yours…and that you are a beloved child of God? (pause)
That’s the gospel…and its WAY too good to sit on…or to throw in a hole.  If we learn nothing else let it be this…1-talent guy sat on it…this thing of immeasurable value…because he was too scared to run any risk. (pause)
What are you willing to risk? You’ve been given the best news in the world…that you are loved by the one who made you…are you willing to share that same love with another…are you willing to risk loving the one that’s different…the one who thinks different, or talks different, or looks different…or even the one who we might think isn’t deserving of that same love of God? Are you going to sit on it, or are you going to do something with it? (pause) We don’t act to earn ourselves anything, because we’ve already been given everything by the one who made us and loves us…and not only that, but the one who has invited us to share this same gift with the world…that is why we act…that is why we risk…because at some point the end times are coming…When will then be now? Soon…but not yet. Not until we all do our part to make it happen…not until we live out this moment in a way that reflects the realty of the kingdom…and maybe just maybe when we do that, then ALL the world will experience the joy of our master who loves and adores and treasures every single one of us. Amen.

Be Prepared 11-12-17

In this sermon, based on Matthew 25:1-13, I explore an odd parable of 10 Bridesmaids, and the instruction to be prepared.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/be-prepared-11-12-17

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Any fellow movie buffs out there will likely agree that there are very few new ideas making it to the big screen anymore. Sequels and reboots seem to make up the vast majority of the box office any more…and this has even started to effect one of the most creative movie studios out there…Disney.

Most recently, we’ve started to see the rash of Disney live-action remakes…taking their popular animated films from years past and through the magic of cgi, bringing them to life. We’ve seen it with Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast…we’ve seen it with Jungle Book. I hear that Dumbo in the works…and so is The Lion King.

Now admittedly, I’m kind of excited about the Lion King…it’s a great movie and they’ve got James Earl Jones to lend his voice to Mufasa again…so you can’t go wrong. But thinking about the Lion King reminds me of just how well Disney has perfected their storytelling. There’s always the hero going on the hero’s journey…there’s always a love interest…and there’s always the villain.

Some might argue that the villain is the best part…or at least the most entertaining…especially when they take the time to explain their grand plan to their lackey’s…who are always portrayed as bumbling or foolish for the purpose of comic relief…and more often than not in a Disney film…this scene is going to involve a dastardly song…and in the Lion King…we hear Scar…awesome name by the way…explain things to his silly hyena sidekicks…with the grand song and exclamation to (sing) “BE PREPARED…” and then one of the hyenas pipes “Yah be prepared…we’ll be prepared…(pause) For what?” (pause)

Scar

Now I can only think that this is a perfect example of where we find ourselves today, here in the final couple of weeks of the church year…and the turn in our texts to all things…apocalyptic…to the theme of the end times. This is the natural theme that emerges every year at this time, as the season of Pentecost winds down…and since Pentecost is aimed at the life cycle of the church following the Ascension of Jesus and the arrival of the Holy Spirit, it makes sense that we think about what will happen…what will occur…what its all gonna look like. (pause)

Honestly…these are pretty common questions…questions that I bump into pretty regularly as I talk with people…curiosity about what to look for. Or when we think its coming…or is it already here. And you know what, if you have those questions…you’re in good company…because people have been asking those same questions since Biblical Times…wondering about the Day of the Lord…or the Glorious Reappearing…

We hear this theme in the reading today from Amos…and I don’t know about you but it didn’t sound so pleasant there did it? It came up a lot in the years following Jesus’ walking around.  The Apostle Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians about it 20 odd years after Jesus…knowing that Jesus had promised that he was coming back…but now some believers are starting to die off and Jesus isn’t back yet? What’s that mean?

The gospels addressed it…and while the stories date back to Jesus’ time, the gospels themselves were recorded quite a few decades after the fact…so those audiences had been waiting and wondering. (pause) And not only that…but as we hear…Jesus himself talked about it…and his closest followers…the 12 disciples…the ones who you’d think would be able to understand…well they come up short too. That’s the reason that Jesus tells this story…this parable today…its part of long teaching…one that covers 2 whole chapters of Matthew’s gospel…and it is in response to the disciples asking the very same questions that we are still asking today.

Jesus and the disciples are leaving the temple…and the disciples are impressed at the structure…but Jesus says there will be day when not one stone is left upon another…and after a few minutes of scratching their heads, the disciples ask him “Lord when will this be? What will be a sign of your coming?” They might as well be asking how can we be ready….how can we…be prepared? (pause)

Now as I mentioned…Jesus gives them A LOT to go on here…including this parable about the bridesmaids that we’ve shared today…and what’s interesting about this parable is the switch that we find right at the beginning. We’ve hit a lot of parables in the past few months…and all of them start with Jesus telling us “The kingdom of heaven IS like…” Well today, that’s different…and we hear “the kingdom of heaven WILL BE like…” We switch our focus from present tense to future tense…but in doing so, Jesus lays a doosy on us doesn’t he?

There’s a wedding…and 10 bridesmaids go out into the street to wait for the groom…so that they can join in the wedding procession. Now admittedly, we don’t know a ton about 1st century Jewish wedding customs…but we do know that they were a big deal…and that every in the community was involved in the celebration…and all we can say is that the groom is coming to get his bride and he, along with the rest of the wedding procession, will escort her to his father’s house where they will celebrate. (pause)
And so we’ve got these 10 bridesmaids with lamps. I don’t know why…but they’ve got them…and as we hear we’ve got 5 foolish ones who bring no supplies…and we’ve got 5 “wise” ones who bring extra oil. Now, take note…that these two descriptions aren’t exactly polar opposites…because the original language could call the second set wise, or it could mean shrewd or crafty…so when you hear wise, take that with a grain of salt.

But that being said, we hear of the delay…the groom is late to arrive…so late in fact that all 10 fall asleep, wise and foolish alike…EVERYONE was sleeping when finally…at midnight…when EVERYONE is in the midst of the deepest slumber…this guy that is SO Late, finally shows up…Behold here is the bridegroom.

And in their freshly awoken stupor, the bridesmaids all kinda freak out and try to light their lamps. The 5 foolish ones quickly realize that without oil their not getting much fire are they…and they ask…maybe even demand that the others share their oil…but the wise ones…well as we hear, they aren’t having it. “No, for there will not be enough for you and for us. Go get your own.” And as we hear, the 5 foolish ones run off to do just that. (pause)

Now typically, when I’ve talked about this story with others…I’ve heard the same response…we need to be like the wise ones…we need to be ready…we need to be prepared…and when I hear that my response is just like the hyena in Lion King. Yah we’ll be prepared…wait…for what?

Now some will say that the wise ones were “prepared” because they were ready to wait…but here’s the thing…what if the groom had waited till morning? What if he’d waited longer? It would be light out and they wouldn’t need their lamps would they? What if he’d come earlier before it got dark…same deal right?

And so what are to take from this? That their “preparation” of extra oil was beneficial because of dumb luck? I don’t think so. Maybe all we can really take from this is the sense that the bridegroom is coming, but we have no idea when its going to occur.

In this story we hear that he shows up late…but right before this, Jesus uses an example where the master shows up early…unexpected both times…but zero sense of when or how…and that’s the tricky part about trying to “prepare ourselves” for the end times…for the glorious moment when Jesus will come again.

Because I fear when we start down that road…we all fall into the trap of creating the checklist…what do I have to do? What do I have achieve…or what do I have to avoid in order to KNOW, that I’m okay…that I’m good to go. We all do it don’t we…and we can call it whatever we want…though self-justification is a pretty good lable…as we get stuck in the trap of thinking I’ve got it together…because as long as I follow “the rules” I know I’m safe…or maybe we compare ourselves to someone else when we think well I’m not perfect, but at least I’m not that bad.

That’s the trap…and its based on fear isn’t it? I’m afraid that I’ll be left out…and I want to be assured that I won’t be…Did you notice that all 10 bridesmaids got stuck in the same trap?  The 5 foolish ones were afraid that without a lit lamp…without oil to burn, the groom would turn them away…and so they literally ran away from him as he was arriving in order to complete the checklist.  And the 5 wise ones…did you notice that they had same fear. “If we give oil to you there won’t be enough for you and us.” They might as well have been saying that if we help you, we’re afraid that we won’t have our checklist done, and we’ll be left out too. (pause)

Its funny…Jesus tells us “Keep awake” but all 10 of them were sleeping weren’t they? (pause) Here’s the thing…and I know I’ve said it before…and I’m sure I’ll say it again. There is no checklist…there is no cosmic scoreboard…there is no indication that you’ve done enough or said enough or completed enough…that’s not how this works.

And maybe for those 10 bridesmaids, instead of operating out of fear that the groom would reject them because they weren’t ready, and instead they had taken the time to look the groom who had already arrived…maybe they would have found that groom was gracious…that the groom simply wanted them all to come along…and that the light of 5 lamps was more than enough to light the way for 10 people. Maybe, just maybe “being prepared” simply meant that they were there to greet him when he showed up.

So what’s that mean for us, here in the 21st century…as we are still waiting? How are we prepared? If there’s no checklist…then how do we respond to this? And maybe, just maybe the only thing we can take from this is to know that whenever it happens…whenever the bridegroom arrives looking for you as an individual, all you can do is rely on the promise that the groom wants you to come along into the banquet.

We wait for the second coming when the entire world will know that he’s come back.  We wait with anticipation and we trust in the promise that through Christ God has claimed us…that invitation has already been extended. And we live each day secure in this promise…whether we see Jesus in the cloud today, or tomorrow, or next week or next year…or if something else happens to us in the meantime.

I can only imagine 1 week ago…those 26 people who had gathered together for worship in Sutherland Springs Texas…those 26 people who gathered to offer up their praise and thanksgiving…the last thing they expected was death…and yet I believe that in that moment, tragic and horrific as it was…the groom showed up for them…just as he has promised to show up for each us as our life ends.

Maybe being prepared simply means believing that no matter what happens, that promise is true…and in the meantime, living out today in a way that reflect that promise to everyone else.  Jesus reminds us to love God and love our neighbor…and he also reminds us that whatever you have done for the least of these, you have also done for me.

We don’t earn our invitation into the banquet…its given to us…and that’s news worth sharing with the world through our words and our actions, so that we might mirror God’s perfect love for all the world. Amen.