Remember Who You Are 2-14-18

In this Ash Wednesday sermon, taken from Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 I explore the prophetic call to turn back to the Lord. This is a fitting idea to recognize on a day when we are reminded of our mortality, and yet are given the promise of God’s claim upon our lives.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/remember-who-you-are-2-14-18

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

There are two actors that arguably have the greatest voices ever. Their voices are utterly distinct and carry a gravitas that cannot be matched. Now one of them is Morgan Freeman, an actor who has perhaps becomes synonymous with a mental image that we have of God…he’s even played God in two different movies. And his voice is amazing.

Now the second actor is James Earl Jones…and he has lent his voice to some pretty amazing projects.  He’s the voice of Darth Vader…for years his dulcet tones announced “this…is CNN.” And he’s the voice of Mufasa from one of my favorite movies…The Lion King. (pause)

Now it occurs to me, that The Lion King must be pretty much the perfect movie…and apparently its chock full of scenes and dialogue and images that fall into the Theological realm…because as I’ve looked back I’ve found several different sermons where I referenced this movie…and I’m gonna do it again tonight…admittedly, I’ll probably use it again in the future as I’ve come nowhere close to exhausting the different references from this gem of a movie.

Now there’s a scene about 3/4 through…quite of the bit of the story has already happened…Simba, the hero, has gone off on his hero’s journey…Mufasa, his father and the former King lion has died…and Simba encounters the wise old sage Rafiki…a baboon who carries a stick and knows Kung Fu…seriously, this movie is perfection.

As Rafiki and Simba talk to one another…Simba is starting to come around, knowing he needs to return home, and he says “If I go back there, it won’t be easy…I’ll have to confront my past.” And WHAM!!! Rafiki knocks him on the head with his stick. “OWWW…what did you do that for?” “It doesn’t matta…its in the past.” “Yah but it still hurts.” “Ahh yes, the past can hurt…but the way I see it, you can either run from it…or learn from it.”

Now the “past” that they/re talking about includes the death of Mufasa…but just before this back and forth…Mufasa, who seems to take a page out of God’s book from some of our recent scripture lessons, and he has appeared in a cloud to Simba…they talk and forth and then as Mufasa is disappearing we hear in his amazing voice…Remember who you are. (pause)
It would seem throughout this scene…and these different encounters, that the main character needs to come to grips with the truth of his identity…and then he has a choice to turn away from it, or to turn back to it. And this is where we connect into tonight’s reading from Joel.

Now Joel is one of the Minor Prophets…a batch of short prophetic writings toward the end of the Old Testament…a batch of guys that we don’t know a ton about. We can’t put a pin exactly in what period of Israel’s history that Joel was active, we don’t really know…but the best guess places his ministry in the range somewhere between about 400-350BC.

Now what we do know is this…in the first chapter of Joel…he describes an utterly devastating plague of locusts that has descended upon the land…destroying everything. Now I’ve never seen a locust swarm…but I’ve heard it described as being so thick that it will literally blot out the sun as they fly over…an image that connects pretty well into the way that our reading starts tonight…the day of the Lord is coming…a day of darkness and gloom…of clouds and thick darkness, like blackness spreading over the mountains as a great and powerful army comes. (pause)

Now lets think about this for a moment. A plague of locust, might be just that…or it might be prophetic imagery, because he also talks about this great army that comes…and now let’s think back in our history to this point where we think Joel was active. By this period late in the 4th century before Jesus, the Babylonians had already laid waste to Israel and hauled them off into exile…that was actually a couple hundred years prior…and then the Persian empire had risen up and taken over…and they let the Israelites return…Jerusalem had been rebuilt including the temple…but now there’s a new empire on the rise…the Greeks, which soon would be led by a famous guy named Alexander the Great…who led an incredible army that would eventually conquer all of the known world…an army that would spread over the earth like locusts perhaps?

That’s just a glimpse of what’s going on in the history…but all imagery aside, whatever it is that Joel is describing…it doesn’t seem good does it? Not a lot of positivity in these opening couple of verses…Blow the trumpet…get EVERYONE’S attention, because judgement and wrath are coming…something the ancient Israelites understood to be the day of the Lord. (pause)

Now we’ve got a gap in the reading, and through this gap we hear more of the same…destruction and death…war and anguish…all pointing to the same thing, this day of Lord…and it ends by saying “Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed, who can endure it?”

Doesn’t sound very peachy does it? Sounds like something you’d want to avoid…something you’d want to run away from if it was possible…to hear this prophetic imagery points us to something that will hurt to say the least…but Joel doesn’t stop there…and when we pick back up in verse 12 we hear this.

Yet even now says the Lord, return to me with all your heart…with fasting, with weeping, with mourning. Rend your hearts and not your clothing…then we hear it again. Return to Lord your God.

Joel talks about offerings…he talks about fasts and sanctifying the assembly…of gathering EVERYONE, the young and the old, infants and children, even the priests and ministers…Joel talks about rituals that they need to do…all aimed at the same thing…bringing everyone together to return to the Lord…to turn back to the one who is gracious and merciful…the one who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…the one who relents from punishing.

There’s a word for this…this returning…this idea of turning back…the word is Shoov…it literally means turn around…to go back…might as well use it for Simba as he gets smacked on the head and decides its time to return home.

This is what Joel is calling the people to do…to gather for a ritual aimed at turning back to God…a ritual aimed at repentance for the way they have lived…for the way that they have walked away…for the path that they have taken.

Now I can’t help but think that this sounds familiar…here we are on Ash Wednesday, a day when we practice a ritual aimed at recognizing our own limitations…our own brokenness…our own sinfulness…and the consequences that come with it.

As we hear the words tonight, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return…we come face to face with our mortality…with what can perhaps be best described as the darkness that looms at the ending of each of our lives…that unknown barrier that rests out there.

Its not quite the same thing that Joel is describing for the people to gather and do together…but its not far off either…for both are a call to turn back…to see the darkness that lies before us…to acknowledge not only the brokenness of our past, which can and does hurt, but to also acknowledge the brokenness that lies right here in front of us…and then to turn back to the one who is able to do something about it.

And as we hear from Joel…we are not the only ones who turns back…who Shoov…but we hear that the Lord will turn back as well…that the Lord will turn from punishment and wrath because our Lord is merciful and gracious.

This is what I love about Ash Wednesday…and why I find this worship service to be among the most powerful that we participate in throughout the year.  For in just a few moments, we will come forward one by one…and we will each hear those words again. Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return…words that speak of our death…but immediately after you hear those words you will also hear the body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Christ shed for you.

We acknowledge our brokenness and the consequences of it…but we also hear the promise that the one who is able to do something about it has already done it. We hear the words of promise that we have been claimed by the one who will ultimately get the last word in the story of your existence. The one who has claimed you. (pause) Mufasa told Simba remember who you are…and with a slight tweak we do the same…Remember WHOSE…you are. (pause)

Now I can’t help but laugh tonight as I consider the date. Today is Ash Wednesday…but its also Valentines Day. A day that celebrates love overlapping with a day that acknowledges brokenness and death. But maybe putting love and death right up next to each other isn’t the worst thing in the world…because the Love of God is shown to each one of us through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…love is found as life meets death.

You might notice that there’s a plant sitting down here on the piano tonight…its small palm plant…one that I was given about a year ago and it sits back in my office most of the time. Now, you’ll walk past it right after you’ve received the ashes and communion and as you do I’ll invite you to take a look at it…I’ve been watching a couple new leaves develop over the past couple of weeks and which are just now starting to open up…and as I was looking closely at it, I realized that there’s one leaf that’s mostly dead right next to that new leaf that’s forming…death and new life, all wrapped up together…and this is what we recognize within ourselves tonight.

We acknowledge our own death…something that creates the ultimate separation…but we hear a word of promise from the one who claims us…even beyond the point of death…and so we turn to the one who has already turned to us…

Tonight we remember who we are…But more importantly we remember…WHOSE…we are. Amen.

 

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All Y’All 2-11-18

In this sermon, based on Mark 9:2-29, I explore the confusing situation of the Transfiguration. We don’t fully grasp just what went on, but that’s okay. We just need to remember to listen to what Jesus has to say to us.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/all-yall-2-11-18

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

In recent years, I’ve gotten a lot of experience in dealing with young people, particularly junior high and high schoolers…not to mention the fact that I’m raising a couple of kids in that range…and in that time, I’ve observed something that has now become a bit of a motto.  Every 15 year old is a moron…just try not to be much of a moron.

Namely, yes you will make mistakes, but try to not be stupid.  (pause) Now in recent history, there has been news of this “15 year old syndrome” spreading around…apparently the hip thing was to record yourself eating a Tidepod…one of those little packets of laundry soap…and then posting the video online.

I really hope that this trend has already played itself out…but if not…and you are considering the Tidepod challenge…don’t. Its stupid. And because of this I can’t help but think that Tide has been concerned about their image and that the marketing department felt the need to do some scrambling…and what better way to go viral in the positive sense…than to take advantage of the huge viewership of the Super Bowl…and with that, we saw commercial after commercial…situation after situation, all the way through the game when a working actor named David Harbour pops up out of nowhere to tell…Tide Commercial. No stains…bright colors…Tide Commercial.

And I couldn’t help but think that if Jesus was walking around these days and not 2000 years ago…this is what the scripture would say…And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white…such as no one on earth could bleach them…No Stains…Tide Commercial. (pause)

Super Bowl marketing aside, we find ourselves here at the end of Epiphany…and one last story of how Jesus is revealed to the world…the Transfiguration. We hear story at this time every year, just before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent…and it’s a familiar one.

Jesus grabs the big 3 disciples…Peter, James, and John, and they walk up a mountain, just the 4 of them…and up on that mountain…something unexpected and amazing happens…the transfiguration. Jesus is somehow changed…even his clothes take on dazzling appearance…Old Testament big wigs pop up…Moses the giver the of the Law and Elijah the greatest of the prophets…and they’re standing there talking with the Jesus.

Now I can only imagine what the three disciples must have been thinking in this moment…I can only think that it must have been incredible to witness…this amazing transformation that Jesus undergoes, even if its momentary…and honestly…I find myself a little jealous of what they witnessed. It must have something to behold…something amazing to see…something that honestly probably goes far beyond the ability to truly describe.

Now the authors of the gospels try to clue us in…this story pops up in 3 of the 4 gospels and they’re all pretty similar so apparently whatever it was that Peter and James and John experienced that day…whatever it was that they saw…this was the best that they could explain it.

But honestly…what happened? We don’t have a whole to go on do we? Jesus is somehow changed…his clothes get super bright…and 2 random dudes who should be dead pop up out of nowhere…That’s the transfiguration…that’s all the detail we’re given before Peter starts acting like Peter and starts blabbing, apparently succeeding in putting his foot in his mouth…because his words seemingly prompt God to show up…or in the very least for a thick cloud to overshadow them and the voice of God to come booming out all around them. “This is my son, the beloved…Listen to him.” (pause)

Now as we hear…whatever it is that’s going on, even before the cloud and the voice of God show up…its terrifying…and I’ve often times found myself wondering just what it is that Peter and the other two guys are experiencing…and honestly it can get a little frustrating that we’re actually given so little to go on.

Just what actually happened up on that mountain? (pause) This is a question that scholars have pondered on for 2 millenia…with many different attempts to explain it…ways to rationalize or to consider the few small details of this epic event that we are given in the narrative.

But admittedly, I’ve never found anything that adequately revealed just what went on…every explanation that I’ve come across…and honestly even some that I’ve tried to offer in the past…they all come up short…and I can only think that our language, and not only that but our ability to understand and comprehend will always be lacking when it comes to the divine…and I can only think that this is what was somehow happening on the mountain…that in this brief instance…in this amazing and yet terrifying situation, somehow the divinity of Jesus was shining through the human.

We don’t know what exactly that means…and apparently beyond referencing a tide commercial and the lack of human ability to produce the effect of what’s going on with Jesus…maybe that’s all we can say…that in this instance we are reminded that this man who was walking around…this man who could perform miracles…this man who possessed amazing authority was…in fact…God the son…The word made flesh…the creator of the universe and everything in it who has come among us as one of us…and for just a brief fleeting moment on top of a mountain…that divine eternal all-encompassing entity came shining through the man… (pause)

To call this moment a revelation of Jesus’ true identity perhaps goes without saying…but then we get divine confirmation when the voice of the Father booms out. This is my son. (pause) Transfiguration aside…that’s a big deal too…Jesus is only called the Son of God 3 times in Mark’s Gospel…and all three occur alongside something pretty incredible.

Jesus is baptized and we hear that the heavens are ripped open and the holy spirit lands upon him…and we hear the voice of God. You are my beloved Son…Here Jesus is transfigured, whatever that means….and we hear again, this is my son the beloved…and the third time occurs during Jesus’ crucifixion…as the sun has gone black for several hours and the curtain in the temple spontaneously rips in two…and the centurion standing there before the cross says Truly this is the son of God.

3 times…3 divinely empowered events…3 proclamations of the true identity of this man named Jesus…the beloved Son…but what makes today special…what makes the Transfiguration stand out among these 3 events…is that God also gives us a command.

Now we hear God say, this is my beloved son, listen to him…but its worth digging just a little bit…we pick up in the original language that God isn’t just talking to Peter in response to his bonehead comment about staying put and building tents to live in…God is talking to everyone…like if we were in Texas God would be talking to All ya’ll.

Like…All ya’ll listen up to what my sons got to say. (pause)
Now funny enough, Jesus doesn’t say a ton here, other than waiting until after he’s raised from the dead to talk about what has happened….but we do get a clue as to what we’re supposed to listen to…and its kicks off today’s reading.  6 days later. (pause) 6 days later than what?

If we back up in the narrative we find the exchange between Jesus and Peter when Peter calls Jesus the Messiah…and Jesus promptly lets him in on just what that means…that the messiah will be betrayed and killed but on the third day raised again…and Peter wigs out, rebuking Jesus before Jesus calls him Satan…that’s what happened 6 days before the Transfiguration.

But that’s not the only time we hear this message from Jesus. Right after this story, as they get down the mountain, Jesus cast a demon out of boy and then repeats the same message. The Messiah will be betrayed and crucified but on the third day he will be raised.

And not only that…but Jesus shares this message a third time. (pause) You’ve ever thought about the importance of repetition? That if something keeps popping up its probably worth listening to? Seems to the case with this message that Jesus proclaims…this message that he is the Messiah and that he will be betrayed and killed but that through his life and death and then his resurrection God is truly up to something new…something utterly different…something utterly beyond our ability to fully grasp and understand.

But we are given little glimpses aren’t we? Little bits in the scripture about the presence of the kingdom of heaven which has come near to us…and the promise that we have a place in it because of what has Christ has done. This is the message that he has come to proclaim…the message that he has come to embody…the message and the promise that he has come to deliver to each one us.

We are flawed broken people…utterly limited in our existence and our ability to comprehend and grasp things that are divine…utterly inadequate to fully describe moments when we encounter the divine before us…and yet, we are still recipients of God’s divine favor, shown to us simply because of God’s amazing, all encompassing, way bigger than we can fully understand, love for each one of us.

And through the life, and the death, and the resurrection of Jesus, the divine is taking action in our reality to show us that there is no length that God will not go to in order to be with us.

That’s the gospel…that’s his message to all the world…so All Ya’ll…listen to him. Amen

Something Unexpected 2-4-18

In this sermon, based on Mark 1:29-39, I explore the healing of Peter’s mother in law, as well as the unexpected way that Jesus reacts to Capernaum’s favorable opinion of him.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/something-unexpected-2-4-8

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

Quite a few years back, early on in the days when I was just starting to discern the call into ministry…I took an assessment called Stengthsfinders…some of you might have heard of it…it’s a test that identifies between a large number of personality traits to identify just how the individual is wired…and specifically, it will identity your top 5 strengths.

Here are mine…see if you think these are accurate. Empathy…the ability to relate to the emotional state of another person. (pause) Communication…that one’s pretty self-explanatory. (Pause) Something called Woo…which sounds like I just like to go around yelling “WHOO” but actually points to the ability to persuade others to your point of view. (Pause) Input…which describes a person who wants to keep learning…they’ve never collected enough info…particularly off the wall, useless information. (Pause) And the final one, actually my number one…is Adaptability…the tendency to simply go with the flow and take things as they come…Sound about right?

Here’s the thing though…you’d think with my number one strength being adaptability…that I would bristle against repetition…planning…expectations of what will happen…but strangely enough, I’ve grown more and more accustomed to a general flow of how things will happen…especially here in worship.

Most of you have probably picked up on that. We have certain tendencies…ways that worship flows from one part to another…whether it’s the general order of worship…or the things that I say that introduce certain aspects…you probably have an idea of what to expect from me don’t you?

Admittedly, some friends of mine REALLY want me to shake things up on you sometime….they continue to push that just once…out of the blue…right in the middle of the sermon…that I should just…stop talking…and silently walk down the aisle and out of the sanctuary, around the corner and out the door…then walk across the parking lot and just sack out over on the deck at the parsonage…just to see how long it would take for someone to poke their head out the door and come looking for me. (pause)

Now rest assured….I’m never going to actually do that…as crazy as I might be, I know that would be utterly foolish…not to mention completely disruptive…but think about it…what would you do? What would happen if someone in a position of leadership, whether a pastor or not…just utterly upended everyone’s expectation? Because that’s what’s happening today. (pause)
Now its important to realize that as our gospel picks up today, we are in a utter continuation of where were last week.  As we’ve mentioned before, Mark chapter 1 crams A LOT of stuff into a pretty short space…and Mark as a whole is pretty good about moving the action along, often times glossing over the passage of time as we move from one instance right into the next…but this time is one of those where the action that we heard last week literally flows straight into today…

So let’s back up just a touch…Jesus has called the first 4 disciples, Peter and Andrew and James and John as he encountered them on the seashore…and then they mosey into Capernaum…which is the home town of these 4 guys…and then on the Sabbath day Jesus and the disciples have popped into the synagogue where Jesus takes on the role of preacher…proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven has come near.

Now we heard last week that he teaches with authority…and while we might not know just what exactly that means, we find that it takes shape when a man with an unclean spirit jumps up right in the midst of everything and Jesus throws his divine beat down on the spirit, commanding it to come out of the man…and it does.

This astonishes everyone else in attendance…and they recognize that this authority over unclean spirits simply illustrates the divine authority that lies behind his proclamation…behind his teaching…the authority behind his message…and with that, Jesus is walking out of the synagogue.

If we were watching tv right now…that would have been the “previously on” montage that opens up most episodes anymore…catching us up to where we are now…and where we are now is Jesus and the 4 guys walking out of the synagogue…seemingly across the street into Peter’s house…and here we find Pete’s mother in law in bed with a fever.

Now Jesus doesn’t miss a beat…he walks over to her…he grabs her by the hand…and as we hear she is “raised up” by Jesus…the language is quite literally that she is raised…anyone else think that sounds a lot like Easter morning when Jesus is “raised up” from the dead? It should.  Likewise she is raised to new life…and she responds by entering into service. (Pause)
Now its worth mentioning that Pete’s mother in law is not simply stepping back into traditional gender roles here. Once again the language tells us that she “serving” or more specifically that she’s “ministering.” And this is the same thing that angels do for Jesus in the wilderness…it is the same thing that Jesus proclaims as he says I have come not be served but to serve…and it’s the same thing that he commands to his followers when he says whoever shall be greatest among shall become a servant. (pause) Pete’s mom in law is raised up to a new life in Christ, a new life as a Christ-follower…as a disciple…as one who willingly serves the other…now that right there…that’s awesome…and its unexpected…but that’s a side note. (pause)

So let’s go on with the story…word of these 2 healings…first the unclean spirit being cast of the man in the synagogue and now Pete’s mother in law…it spreads around town like wildfire…and understandably…everyone in the synagogue saw it…and Capernaum wasn’t exactly a huge town…miraculous healings would have been something to talk about.

And so…when evening falls, everyone seems to know about it, and everyone starts bringing the sick and the possessed to Jesus to be healed…the entire city gathers around the door…and into the night, Jesus heals them all.

Now I can only imagine what the people were thinking there in Capernaum…Guys…this is awesome…we’ve got this AMAZING preacher…and not only that…he can heal…like…actually heal. We should keep this dude around…we can learn a lot from him…and if we get sick he can heal us…I mean…maybe he’s like, the Messiah or something? So I think we should keep him around, maybe give him a house or something so he’ll stay…so we’ve got him right here when we need him. Sounds good. (pause)

But Jesus doesn’t exactly play along does he? After all the healings are done…late at night…actually early in the morning before it even gets light…he slips off into the wilderness to be alone…and we hear the next day that everyone is hunting for him…now its Peter and the other 3 guys who actually locate him…and it seems like they are buying into things too…Master, everyone is hunting for you. (pause)  Now think about it for a second…if you’re hunting for something…you want something from it right?  I remember in my younger days when I would go fishing, I practiced catch and release…but its pretty hard to catch and release when you’re hunting isn’t it? And so it stands to reason that if everyone in town is hunting for Jesus, they want something from him. They want him to live up to their expectations…expectations that he’ll keep healing…that he’ll keep teaching…that he’ll take on the mantel of Messiah that fits the bill of what they’ve come to expect.

And I can’t help but think that the people of Capernaum…all of them, even including the 4 disciples at this point…I think they’re stuck in expectations….they’re stuck in what they’ve always thought…what they’ve always known…and we find evidence in this in what might have been almost a throw away comment from the narration of Mark.

Did you catch when the people from the city started bringing their sick to Jesus? (Pause) At sundown…and here’s the thing…in the Jewish understanding…the new day started at sundown…like today is Sunday…but at sundown, when its evening…it stops being today and starts being tomorrow…everyone with me?

Okay…and remember what the setting was at the beginning today? Jesus was in the synagogue…and it was the Sabbath…Jesus heals, not once, but twice on the Sabbath…he performs “Work” but the law says that’s a no-no. The law says they have to wait until the Sabbath is over…which happens at sundown right? (pause)

The people of Capernaum are stuck in the old way of thinking. They’re caught in the old rule book. They’re still following the same method of bookkeeping…thinking that there’s some cosmic scoreboard that they need to be aware of in terms of honoring the Sabbath. Not only that…but Jesus seems to know that if he sticks around Capernaum…they’re gonna force his hand…they’re gonna try and make him be the Messiah that they expect…which is to say a political figure…that’s what Messiah’s were…God’s anointed leaders…often the kings of their history…that’s what they wanted him to be…and hey, throw in the ability to heal diseases and you got a bonus out of this Messiah right? (Pause)
But here’s the thing. Jesus is doing something utterly different. Utterly other…utterly new. Jesus isn’t playing by the rules anymore…in fact, whatever it is that God is up to in the world through the life death and resurrection of this man known as Jesus of Nazareth…the one that we have come to call the Messiah or the Christ…whatever it is that God is doing…it is completely off the map of expectations.

Sabbath rules don’t apply…if someone needs healing, Jesus will heal them…if someone needs to be freed from what hinders them…Jesus will free them…and why? (Pause) Because the kingdom of heaven has come near. And this kingdom is utterly unlike ANYTHING that we can imagine or anticipate.

And this is what Christ has come to do…to proclaim the good news of the kingdom…and not just Capernaum, but everywhere. (pause) Yes, Jesus can and does heal.  Yes, Jesus shows compassion on those who cast aside. Yes…Jesus brings about a new normal…a new existence…a new way of being in this world that we have been given, flawed though it is.

This is what Jesus has come to do…to make all things new…to make all things Good…and to draw all people to himself….Jesus has entered into our reality in order to bring about this kingdom and he has invited us into it. (pause)
So what does that mean for us today? How do we respond to this man, who is also God…who has utterly changed the game? What does life look like now, in the midst of this kingdom which is both now and not yet?

In order to answer that question, we need to look back at Pete’s mother in law…we must remember that her story is not an example of a happy little house wife that we can say “oh now you’re up and about, good make me a sandwich.” What we learn from her is that to be raised to a new life by Christ is reflected in our ability and desire to serve those around us…to minister to those around…to literally embody the change that the kingdom of heaven is bringing into this world. (pause)

We all have our tendencies to be like Capernaum…wanting the Messiah to act a certain way…or to be a certain way…or to bless the ones that we want…we all fall in the trap of setting up the Messiah according to our expectations…but in the end that’s not how this works…because Jesus is continuously bringing about something new…and through the power of the holy spirit may he change us all in a way that makes our lives reflect this utterly new thing out into the world that we hope to see changed. May we be the change that we hope to see in the world…and may we give credit where credit is due…that this change is only possible through the power of Christ working in us and through us. May that be…the kingdom coming near to us. Amen.

Shut Up and Get Out 1-28-18

In this sermon, based on Mark 1:21-28, I explore Jesus’ first miracle in Mark’s gospel, the healing of a man with an unclean spirit. We find that God will act when there is something that is hindering the good life he desires for his children.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/shut-up-and-get-out-1-28-18

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

Every once in a while something happens that makes me think back to the teachers that really had an impact on me. Most recently it was news of the death of my middle school English teacher just a few weeks ago.

In times like this I tend to stop and think about those different teachers…the really good ones…who incidentally also tend to be the ones that made you work the hardest. She was the one in middle school…but once that was done and I moved into High School, it was the Social Studies teacher that fit the bill. Mr Worley. He had been around forever. He started at my school at the beginning of my Dad’s senior year, back in 66-67, and he stayed year after year until his eventual retirement about 5 years after I graduated. He always said he was sticking around for a third generation of Dalen’s but didn’t quite make it.

Now, Mr. Worley was a small guy…most of us towered over him even as piddly little freshmen…but MAN he was intimidating…So much so that in conversation about the guy we dropped the Mr. and just called him Worley. I think he was so intimidating because he expected a lot from us…and, more importantly in the classroom…Worley took ZERO crap. If you were messing around, or you got mouthy, he’d kick you out…he didn’t care…and the amazing thing was that he didn’t even have to say anything…he’d just look you in the eyes and do this. (Point sideways at the door) That point…said everything it needed to…that point said “You’re done…shut up and get out.”  (pause)

Now its probably safe to assume that no kid from Graettinger High School has EVER compared Worley to Jesus…but I’m going to do it today…because I think we see a very similar situation in today’s gospel lesson.

Today we have the distinction of hearing about the very first divine action here in Mark’s gospel. Now we’re still in the season of Epiphany…a time when we hear stories about the ways that Jesus is revealed to the world…and here in Mark’s gospel…most of these stories are pretty brief. I mean, we’re still in chapter 1 here…and we’ve already heard that this is the beginning of the Good news of Jesus Christ. We’ve had the baptism of Jesus…we hear a throwaway comment about the 40 days of temptation…Jesus has called the 4 disciples along the seashore, uttering his first words in Mark, to follow me. And now…here in verse 21, ministry begins.

Jesus and the disciples go walking into the synagogue in Capernaum. And Jesus starts teaching…instantly…immediately Jesus takes over and apparently whatever his teaching style is…its something utterly new…and everyone is astonished at his teaching. I do wonder just what it looked like…but we don’t have to wonder about his message…because we’ve already heard it from Jesus here in Mark 1. “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near. Rejoice and believe the good news.”

Now the funny thing about this short passage, is that the teaching of Jesus really seems to be focal point. We hear that the people are astounded from the get go…and then a few verses later as Jesus is wrapping up here in the synagogue and is getting ready to head out again, we hear again that the people are amazed at this new teaching…one with authority. (pause)

But something else happened in the midst of all this didn’t it? Not only is he teaching…we see the first miracle that Jesus performs here in Mark…healing a man with an unclean spirit.

Admittedly we don’t know a whole lot here. We don’t know who the guy is…we don’t know exactly what the problem is…we have no history whatsoever…all we know is that he has an unclean spirit. (pause) Now that unclean spirit has been the center of a lot of debate over the years…and I can attest to that personally as I went round and round with several colleagues in our mutual preparation for today to try and put our finger on just what this unclean spirit is. Is it a demon…maybe, but we don’t know.  Is it Mark’s understanding of mental illness in Jesus’ time…we hear that he shakes and cries out uncontrollably, so maybe that puts us in mind of epilepsy and Tourette’s syndrome. Honestly we just don’t quite know what to make of this unclean spirit…but maybe in the end we don’t need to know…maybe all we need to realize is that whatever it is…it hinders the life of this man. (pause)

And there’s another point that I think we need to recognize…and that’s to remember WHERE this is all taking place…they’re in the synagogue…they are in the center of the Jewish community…ESPECIALLY by the time that Mark’s gospel was recorded, and the temple had already been destroyed, the synagogue was LITERALLY the central aspect of Jewish life in every community…particularly in terms of their life of faith. The synagogue was their church…and this is where the man with the unclean spirit is found by Jesus…right here in the midst of his teaching…it would be like if someone suddenly jumped up screaming and shaking in the middle of Sunday School or even right here in the midst of worship.

As people of faith, we must recognize this fact…that unclean spirits, whatever they are, come right in with us, just like it came into the synagogue with the man that day. He was not immune as a faithful Jewish man…and we are not immune as faithful followers of Christ.

So let’s back up and think some more about this whole unclean spirit thing. We don’t know what it was…and maybe just maybe we don’t need to know. Maybe we just to acknowledge what we can about it…that it is some force that is hindering the life of the man. We could probably call it whatever we wanted to…a demon…an illness…a force…a power of darkness, take your pick…because the label doesn’t matter. What does matter is the effect that it has on the life of the man…the life of the individual…the life of this child of God.

Most of you have probably heard me say TOV before…it means good and it’s the Hebrew word for what God calls every single step of creation clear back in Genesis 1. Every action that God takes in bringing chaos towards order…of bringing our reality towards something new…God calls it TOV…and then when God makes humanity he calls us REALLY TOV.

But not only that…we hear clear back in the beginning that God has a good existence in mind for his children…a good path…a good journey…a good life, however we want to say it…but we also hear that there are those things that hinder this good existence that God desires for us…and we can call this many things.  Brokenness…sin…pain, suffering…death.  Disease, addiction…isolation. Countless different things.

I can’t name just what it is that has come in through these doors with you today…but I have no doubt that it is there, even here in the midst of God’s house…the powers of darkness…the unclean spirit if you want to use that term…its here with you…its here with all of us…there is something fighting tooth and nail to hinder that TOV life that God desires for you. YOU know it. You see it…even if no else does…but you are not alone in it…because God sees it too. (pause)
Now let’s jump back into the text for a moment. We find this man, overcome by something…and whatever it is, it sees Jesus and it recognizes his authority…the authority to do something about it…even to the point of destroying it…this spirit, whatever it is sees Jesus and recognizes the power of God…and it starts screaming.

But Jesus isn’t having it…BE SILENT and come out of him. Be quiet…we can even say be muzzled…or maybe we can picture my old teacher Worley pointing with a gesture that says Your done, shut up and get out. (pause) Now the spirit doesn’t go easy does it? It shakes the man and screams as it goes…but it goes.

Whatever the forces of darkness are that you sense within your life…whatever it is that’s there behind the scenes hindering your good life that God has intended…its not gonna go down easy…and we know that don’t we…when we’re honest with ourselves.

But as we consider this story from today the good news is this. Whatever it is that is hindering you…the power of God active in the world through Christ, WILL overcome it…because it recognizes the authority that is greater than it is…and God will give you this gift of freedom somehow someway…because God loves you…and God loves you because you are his child. (pause)

There’s a phrase that get’s thrown around sometimes…describing a parent who’s standing up for their kid…you’ve heard it. I went all Momma Bear…My Pappa bear came out…because you would do anything for your child to protect them. And I believe that Jesus is doing just that today….giving us a reminder that when it comes to the things that hinder your TOV…God’s bear comes out.

This is what we see in Jesus’ divine action today. He looks this unclean spirit right in the face, whatever it is…and he says “That’s my kid, you’re done…shut up and get out.”

And somehow, someway God will do the same for you. We don’t know exactly how it’ll happen…and often times it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense…and we know that those forces aren’t gonna go down easy…sometimes we’ve even got to go through death before that power can be put down.  But EVERY SINGLE TIME…God gets the last word…and that’s a word that is for you. Amen.

Its Not Just A Whale 1-21-18

In this sermon, I story tell the book of Jonah. He goes to great lengths to avoid bearing the message of God, but God goes to even greater lengths to make sure the message is received.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/its-not-just-a-whale-1-21-18

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

I know what you’re thinking…we haven’t heard the scripture yet. How can we start the sermon if we haven’t heard the lesson? Well today I’m doing things a little differently.  As you look in your bulletins at the various lessons, you see that we are featuring Jonah today.

Now think about Jonah for just a second…what do we know about him? What event do we instantly associate with him?  Probably a whale or a big fish right? But that’s only part of the story…and not only that, but the odd part about today’s featured lesson is that it jumps into this short story mid-way through…and it sorta makes zero sense without the rest of the story…so today we’re gonna hear the story…and we’ll get to the reading out of chapter 3 in a bit. (pause)

Now as with any story the best place to start is in the beginning…and so a bit of background on Jonah. We don’t know much about the guy…other than this short book in the midst of the Old Testament among several other readings known as the minor-prophets…all we know is a side note in the book of 2 Kings that tells us Jonah was active in the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of a guy named Jereboam the Second…who ruled Israel from roughly the year 780-750 BC. Now if we look back in our history books, we can see that during this time, Israel’s neighbor to the North East was this rapidly expanding kingdom called Assyria…a kingdom which would continue to grow in power and territory…eventually becoming an all-out empire,  and in the year 722 BC would invade and conquer the northern kingdom and haul a lot of people off into exile. That hadn’t happened yet…but needless to say tensions between these two kingdoms were high…and the Assyrians, who’s capital was this big city named Nineveh by the way…they weren’t overly popular with the Israelites at the time that Jonah was busy as a prophet.

That’s the background as we move into the story…the actual Old Testament Book…of Jonah. (pause) Now I can’t help but think that Jonah is borderline comedy…there is some seriously crazy stuff that goes on here.

And we begin as the word of the Lord comes to Jonah…Go at once to Nineveh…remember that name…and cry out against it…for their wickedness is known to me and my wrath will come upon it. (pause) Jonah’s got his mission…but think about it…what’s gonna happen if he goes into the capital of this rival nation…and starts spouting off that his god is going to overthrow it…stands to reason that things aren’t gonna well for him…so rather than follow God’s calling, Jonah decides he’ll run away…he’ll hide from God…How do you suppose that’s gonna work out for him?

Regardless…Jonah hops a ship and sails off into the sunset…he’s so confident that he’s evaded God’s calling that he falls asleep in the cargo hold when God decides to get everyone’s attention by sending a wicked storm upon the ship.  Everyone’s freaking out…thinking “Yah we’re gonna die.” And all these random heathens start praying to their own gods for deliverance and then decide “hey, let’s throw some dice to see who’s responsible.” Low and behold, they figure out it’s the random Israelite sawing logs below deck and they wake him up…he sees the storm and instantly agrees. Yah guys, totally my fault…you’ll all die unless you toss me overboard. And they don’t want to but in the end they do…and instantly the seas go calm and they sail off leaving Jonah to sink down into the deep.

Now maybe Jonah’s being self-sacrificial here…wanting to save the lives of the gentile sailors…but I don’t think so…I think that Jonah knows that God’s trying to get his attention to send him back to Nineveh and Jonah figures “if drown out here in the middle of the ocean, I can’t go to Nineveh can I?” But…as we know…God’s got other plans.

And as Jonah sinks down into the deep, up comes this ginormous fish and promptly swallows him up. Now maybe the fish was just hungry and got more than he bargained for…or maybe this was simply God’s miraculous intervention…but suddenly Jonah finds himself in the belly of the fish. I can’t imagine that was pleasant…but it beats being dead…and God gives him 3 days to sit and think about things…I’d call this the ultimate time-out…and finally Jonah repents and cries out to the Lord…and sure enough…God whispers in the ear of the fish…and the fish promptly barfs Jonah out on the shore.

Now here’s where we actually catch up with the assigned reading. The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

All it took was a divinely inspired storm and a 3 day vacation inside a fish stomach to finally get Jonah to listen up…well that and the Lord calling him again…but off he goes…into the belly of the beast…metaphorically speaking this time around…and he begins to proclaim the word of God AGAINST the city…no call to repentance…only the coming destruction…did you notice that…Jonah preaches a 1 sentence sermon. 40 days and the city will be overthrown.

AND…IT…WORKS. Everyone in the city…from the least to the greatest starts to repent…they call a fast…they sit in ashes…they put on sackcloth…they even include their livestock…and I don’t know about you but I’ve often wondered…just what does a repentant cow sound like?  (Pause…then forelorned) Moo…

Even the king of the city…who keep in mind is also the emperor of the entire Assyrian Empire by this point…even he gets in on the repentance act…and they all turn from their evil ways in the site of the Lord…now there’s a cool Hebrew word for this…this turning from the evil path we are on back to the good way or journey or path that God has intended…the word is T’SHOOVAH…which you just have to say enthusiastically…TSHOOVAH!!! I dunno, it sorta sounds like a party…and maybe it should…because scripture tells us that when one sinner repents there is a celebration in heaven…and it seems that this is the case this time around as well.

This evil nation…this kingdom of gentile pagans…they repent…and God sees it…and as we hear…When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he has said he would bring upon them…and he did not do it.

Good news right? But you know what…the story isn’t done yet. And Jonah, well he’s still hanging around…now you’d think that given the circumstances…given the message and the mission that God had laid upon him…Jonah would see this miracle of repentance and he would join in the TSHOOVAH party too right? (pause) But instead…Jonah get’s cranky…like “old-man-you kids get off my lawn” cranky…and he starts complaining at God.

I knew it…I said this from the beginning…I knew that you would relent…I knew that you are gracious and merciful…slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…ready to relent from punishing. (pause) Side note…if you’re going to complain to God…I can’t help but think that highlighting God’s graciousness as your complaint is pretty solid…

But anyway…Jonah is so ticked off that God has shown mercy to the Ninevites that he wishes to be dead…I am not making this up…and God pushes back “Is it right for you to be angry?” And apparently Jonah still thinks so and he stomps out of the city and up on nearby hillside to pout and see what will ultimately happen.

He sits there for a few days sulking, while the city is NOT destroyed…cuz remember they all repented, even the cows…and while he’s there, God decides to give Jonah a little bit of an object lesson…and God makes a vine grow up over Jonah to give some shade for a day…and Jonah appreciates that vine…he thinks its pretty sweet….but then overnight God brings some sort of a worm that eats the base of the vine and it withers up and dies…and Jonah loses his shade…and he asks again that he might die…

And God says Is it right that you are angry about this vine…this vine that you did not plant…that you did not tend…and Jonah says yes…and God poses the final question. Should I not be concerned about this great city in which there are more than 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left…and also many animals….don’t forget the repentant cows. (pause)

This is how Jonah ends…right here…quite abruptly.  The city has been saved…God’s mercy has been shown on repentant sinners…but the one given the task to carry this message to them…well he’s mad and we don’t know what becomes of him.  Does he repent of his prejudice and judgment against those that he perceives to be his enemy…against those that he believes to be unworthy of God’s grace and mercy? We don’t know.

Its an odd story…but think about it. God’s mercy is offered to the enemies of his chosen people…and not only that but God flat out says that he cares about the lives of the individuals in that city…because to God all life is precious…not just this group or that group…not just this person or that person…but all people are precious…

And word of God’s love and mercy WILL be heard…it WILL be shared…even if God has to throw the messenger down a whale’s throat to ultimately get them moving in the right direction.

And the good news of this Word of God…this word of Mercy and Grace…is that if the Ninevites can receive it, then so can you. This is the gospel, that through Christ, God has named and claimed you…God has shown this same mercy upon you…and its already done.

But if we also think back to the gospel for today…we see that when Jesus encounters the disciples…and he invites them to come along behind…to follow me…to become followers of Christ…he doesn’t just tell them a good story and leave it at that…he invites them to get to work…and guess what…the same invitation applies to all of us.

And so as we consider the odd ball story of Jonah, I’ll leave you with something to think about.  Where is your Ninevah? Who are your Ninevites?  Who is God asking you….repeatedly…to carry a Word to? Where is God asking you to go?  Who is it, like Jonah, that you might judge as unworthy to hear this word or receive God’s mercy?

Who is Nineveh?  Amen

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

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