Archive for December, 2017

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

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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