Archive for January, 2018

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