Archive for January, 2019

As You Hear It 1-27-19

In this sermon, based on Luke 4:14-21, I explore Jesus’ first public proclamation in Luke’s Gospel. We find a heavy emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit, which guides the ministry that Jesus will do. We are connected to this same ministry by that same Spirit.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/as-you-hear-it-1-27-19

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

The Grace and Peace of our Triune God is yours, now and forever. Amen

Many of you have heard me talk about my fascination with plants…and how amazing I think they are…and how different species of plants do some amazing things.

One of the things that I appreciate about plants…is the way that they tell you when they need water. If you are a gardener you’ve probably noticed this before…when plants get thirsty…they get all wilted.  Granted, some species are better at this than others…but it happens.

There is a scientific reason behind this…something called Turgor Pressure…basically, if the plant has enough water, the fluid inside each cell keeps it nice and rigid…resulting in the plant, and specifically the leaves upright and perky…but on the other hand, if the plant is lacking water…that fluid pressure inside the cells drops, and it flops over.

This happened part way through last week with one of the plants back in my office. I walked in after lunch and noticed the leaves all wilted over and realized it needed water…which I did…and since I had the thought of turgor pressure in the back of my head…I did a little experiment.

I knew I’d be sitting at my desk working for a while, so I pulled out my phone and started a time lapse video that covered roughly 30 minutes’ worth of time over the course of a 20 second video. If you’re interested let me know, because I can show it to you…and its fascinating.

As soon as I turned the camera off I watched the video and plain as day you can see the leaves starting to perk up as the water was drawn up into them.  It was so cool, at least to my plant-nerd brain, that I watched it a couple more times…but the more often I watched it, the more I started seeing other stuff happening in the video…like the clouds moving across the sky in the background…or shadows lengthening and sunlight shifting as the sun moved across the sky…something really clear during one brief portion where my knee is visible in the video.

It was really amazing to see the passage of time sped up like this…and eye opening to realize how our perception of time affects us…things that we don’t even notice are moving…and changing…and its only when we see time as we know it sped up, that we can begin to witness this movement and action.

And its right there that I start to connect into our scripture for today…because there are times when we struggle to notice or see the way that God is working in the world…and perhaps more specifically…that we fail to see the action of the Holy Spirit.

Now maybe it goes without saying…but it seems like the Holy Spirit is the toughest part of our Triune God to figure out.  We hear about it…we think about the Spirit of God in the world…but more often than not we don’t see it…its only shows up physically a couple of times in the scriptures…one of them quite recently in our gospel lessons…and yet, throughout all of this…the Spirit is there.

And I think its safe to say that of the gospels…Luke, not to mention Luke’s follow up of the book of Acts, does the best job of putting the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit’s action on display…and we’ve already seen that through the opening few chapters of Luke.  We hear about the Spirit coming upon the parents of both John the Baptist and Jesus.  We hear about how John is empowered by the Spirit even before he’s born…we hear the Spirit flowing into Elizabeth and Mary…we hear of two faithful witness led by the Spirit into the temple to witness the baby Jesus…we hear of the Spirit physically showing up at Jesus’ baptism…about how it leads him into the wilderness for 40 days…and that following that event, Jesus is still full of the Spirit as he begins his ministry around Galilee…we even hear it quoted from the Prophet Isaiah as Jesus reads in the synagogue…and that’s just the first 4 chapters.

So I think its safe to say…that whatever it is that’s going on here…the Holy Spirit…the Spirit of God…its at work, whether we take notice of it or not.

Now today’s story is an interesting one.  As we continue through Epiphany, focusing in on the ways that Jesus is revealed to the world…here we have Luke’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ intentional public ministry…as he travels around Galilee, preaching and teaching in the synagogues…and that news spreads around…and that he is praised…glorified even…by everyone. Granted we don’t get much in the way of detail here in the first couple of verses…at least until Jesus walks back into his hometown of Nazareth…and apparently continues in the same trend.

It raises the question…what’s so important about this particular situation…Did he volunteer to read and teach, or was he picked…we don’t know…is he preaching about the same passage as in the previous communities…or is Isaiah unique this time around? We don’t know…did he chose Isaiah, or was luck of the draw…again we don’t know. But what we do know is that he chose the specific passage in Isaiah…because he turned to the place where it is written…and what a passage…

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

With that Jesus rolls up the scroll, hands it back, and sits down to start teaching…might seem a little odd but that’s how they did it…and as we hear…every eye is upon him. (pause)
Let me set the stage for you here…because I’ve been to one of these small town synagogues in Galilee.  Its in a big square…with benches lining the walls as well an inner row…Jesus would have been standing in the middle as he read…and then he would have sat on one of those benches…and everyone could see him…the whole structure was maybe 25 or 30 feet across…and he could look everyone in the eye.

Now keep in mind…this was Nazareth…this was his hometown…a tiny backwater community of maybe a couple hundred people…everyone knew everyone…and I can only imagine what was going through their minds as they listened to Jesus…these people who remembered him as a baby and young boy…individuals who were in the caravan when he was 12 and got left in Jerusalem.  People who knew Mary and Joseph…childhood friends of his family. Some who could probably say “dude I changed your diaper 30 years ago” which is a weird thought…but its true.

This is the setting where Jesus talks about the Spirit of the Lord being upon him…and anointing him…empowering him to bring good news of a great reversal…something that sounds an awful lot like what we call the kingdom of heaven.

And initially…everyone seems to like what they hear…as Jesus wraps up the reading and kicks off his teaching by announcing “Today the scripture is fulfilled as you hear it.”  If you’re familiar with the story…his sermon actually stirs up issues and everyone here in his hometown gets cranky to the point of trying to throw him off a cliff…but we’ll save that for next week…and today…we stop with this announcement…this reveal…this epiphany even…that the scriptures have been fulfilled as we hear it. (pause)

Here’s the thing…here in Luke’s gospel…this is the first action of Jesus’ ministry…the other gospels place it a little later…but Luke puts it here…and while these aren’t the first words that Jesus speaks in Luke…they are the first words of his ministry…might as well be his inaugural address…because they line out a pretty solid overview of what his ministry is going to look like.

Good news to the poor…sight to the blind…release to the captives…and even a hint at something they would call the Year of Jubilee…that’s the year of the Lord’s favor that he mentions…and you want to talk about a great reversal…the Jubilee was epitome.

Every 50 years, debts were forgiven.  Land that had been sold or acquired were transferred back to the family of origin. Slaves were freed…which is great news if you’re on the receiving end…but maybe not such great news for those on the other side of it…what if you’re the lender…or the new land owner…or the owner of the slave? Then this news…this reversal…it is going to cost you something isn’t it?

And I can’t help but think that’s important for us to hear…because sometimes the gospel sounds like good news…because we’re the ones who have been oppressed or shoved to the margins…but sometimes we’re also the ones who have benefitted from it…and maybe that good news begins to reveal the cost to us….but you know what, we need to hear that too.

Make no mistake…we are connected to this event as well…it wasn’t a simple proclamation that Jesus made once in his hometown, only to be abandoned and forgotten when he walked away that day…we are connected through the power of the same Holy Spirit which was so active in the background of the gospel…the same spirit which anointed and empowered Jesus in his baptism has done the same for us in ours.

The Spirit is still at work here in the world, even if our perception fails to notice it…and this same spirit connects us all together into the one body of Christ on earth…one body with many members as we hear in 1 Corinthians…we are all gifted and empowered in different ways…both as individuals as well as different congregations and churches and even denominations.  None of us are wired to ministry in the same way…but we are all part of that greater ministry of the church. (pause)

Jesus made this proclamation at the beginning of his ministry…being very clear that in his presence, empowered the Spirit…the scripture is fulfilled…and I believe that today…in our hearing…the same thing is going on…it may go beyond our ability to comprehend…but somehow someway…right now as we hear this…it is being fulfilled and WE are a part of that.

I can’t help but think that with the emphasis on TODAY…we find a sense of urgency…or at least we should…an urgency to follow the guidance…the power…the whisper of the Holy Spirit to us. Now maybe that leads us into the wilderness…or maybe it leads us into Galilee…but it would seem safe to say that the Spirit is leading us join in the same mission of bringing about the great reversal of the Kingdom of Heaven, just as Jesus did through his ministry…through his life…and through his death and resurrection.

Now this is fitting for us to hear today…knowing that in a few minutes many of us will join together in the work of the Annual meeting…as we consider the year that has been and the year that will be…as we consider our budget and how we support the operation of this place…as well as the ministry that we do out there in the community and the world.

And so I pose this question…Where is the Spirit leading us today?  I can’t answer that for you…but it is my prayer that we are listening together…and that we recognize that we are connected into something much larger than we are…and that we will be brave enough, not only to listen…but then to join in and follow…this is our mission as followers of Christ…because as Jesus tells us…The Spirit of the Lord is upon US…because he has anointed US to bring good news…

Today, this is fulfilled as YOU hear it. Amen

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I Will Drink to That 1-20-19

In this sermon for the Second Sunday After Epiphany, I explore the miraculous sign of water into wine at the wedding in Cana.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/i-will-drink-to-that-1-20-19

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

The Grace and Peace of our Triune God is yours, now and forever. Amen

I’ve noticed that people have the tendency to collect some odd stuff…though some are stranger than others.  Admittedly, I’ve never really collected anything overly out there…about the only thing that comes to mind was the period when I tried to collect the quarters minted with the different states on them…a collection which eventually ended up getting used to do laundry.

Some others though…they get a little stranger.  I remember one of the older brothers of a good friend of mine…during his college years he started collecting beer bottles of different types that he had sampled…and at some point…he actually ended up with 4 bottles of what I believe was Coors Light…and these 4 bottles were shaped like baseball bats…I’m not making this up…you can find them on google.

Now the really odd part of this whole deal…while the rest of his bottle collection were all empty…these baseball bat bottles of Coors Light were still sealed…and they sat on that shelf for a long time…probably a decade or longer…until one day, my friend’s mom insisted that the collection get cleaned out…and since a batch of us were all sitting there…it didn’t take long for one of us to ask the inevitable question…Should we drink it? (pause)

We learned something that day…10 year old beer is NOT something you want to drink…and I think its also safe to say that a bottle of beer is not intended to be a collectable…its meant to be enjoyed…but I got to thinking along those lines…and I think there are some who might disagree with me…if…the beverage in question is wine instead of beer.

There are some people out there who are wine collectors…and their wine cellars are truly something to behold…with hundreds of bottles just sitting there…and some will spend unbelievable amounts of money for the right bottle of wine…The most expensive bottle of white wine…$117,000…bottled in 1811…and on the red side…the 4 most expensive bottles…a 1787 worth $225,000…an 1869 at $230,000…a 1907 worth $275,000…and the most expensive bottle ever…a 1947 worth $304,375.

Can you imagine that? Paying that much for a bottle of wine…I’ve got to admit…just thinking about that raises the question “is it worth it?” And you know what…those people, who clearly have money to burn…will probably never know…because to pay THAT much for a bottle…that’s an investment…meant to be put on display…and never ever…to be opened. If they did…that wine better be good…it better be downright heavenly with an angelic choir singing behind you when you take that first sip.  But they’ll never know…and those ungodly expensive bottles will just sit there, year after year…never to be enjoyed. Might as well be a paperweight.  (pause)
Now I’m guessing you know where I’m going with this…it probably isn’t difficult to make the jump between super expensive wine and our gospel lesson for today…the first of Jesus’ signs at the wedding in Cana.

Now this story is interesting to be sure…wildly different that what we’ve already been encountering through the past couple weeks here in the season of Epiphany…as Jesus continues to be revealed to the world in different ways.

2 weeks ago we heard about the magi and their visit to the baby Jesus out of Matthew’s gospel…and we heard about how the very rumor of that baby’s eventual fate was enough to drive those in power crazy.

Last week we jumped into Luke’s gospel for the baptism of Jesus…and surprisingly, found Jesus to be pretty secondary…totally silent…and pretty passive in the action going on as the Heaven’s rip open, the Holy Spirit starts flying around and the big booming voice of God the father announces to the crowds that THIS IS MY SON.

And now…here we are in John…and for the first time this season…we see Jesus begin to take some ownership in the big reveal…but…even now…it seems like he needs a little coaxing doesn’t he? (pause)
On the 3 day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee…and Mary was there…and Jesus was there too…and he brought his entourage of ragtag followers with him…and for whatever reason…part way through the week-long celebration…the wine jars run empty…its worth noting that this is a HUGE blunder on the part of the hosts…it was expected that you would provide for this long celebration in its entirety…apparently open bars were all the rage back in 1st century Palestine…but somehow they’ve misjudged and the servants who go back in the kitchen looking for another pitcher to top off everyone’s glass…they come out empty handed.

At this point…for reasons that escape us…Mary…the mother of Jesus…jumps in…but she doesn’t run off to the store for a new barrel…no…she walks over to her son…and tells him “they have no wine.”  I can’t help but think that Jesus is a little snarky in his comeback as he pretty much says “so what? That’s not our problem?”

Now it would seem that Mary knows something no one else does because she turns back to the servants and says “If he tells you anything…do it.” And then I imagine she turned and looked at Jesus with an expression that says “Your up sparky…wha ‘cha gonna do now?”

We know how the rest goes don’t we…Jesus spots the 6 HUGE jars of water…simply there for the Jewish participants in this whole celebration to ceremonially wash up when needed…and he says…fill ‘em up with water…and when they do, he tells them to pull some out and take it to the steward…and somehow…someway…that water turns into wine…and not just any wine…the best wine…and not only that…but SO MUCH of it…those jars were enormous…like 4 or 5 feet high and wide…we can estimate that Jesus was producing somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 bottles-worth of this mind-blowingly good wine.

Its so good that when the steward gets a sip he can’t believe his taste buds and he runs off to the groom…who by the way is utterly oblivious to this whole deal…and the steward…who is also oblivious to just what’s happening…spouts off about how a normal wedding would be serving nasty old swill by this point…but that this is the BEST wine.

That’s the story…and the only other thing we get is a bit of narration about how Jesus performed this sign…revealing his glory…and his disciples believed in him. (pause)

That’s the story…and it’s a great one…but admittedly, as I think about it…it raises way more questions than it answers.  Why did Mary get involved? (shrug)  Why did Jesus spout off like he did, talking about his hour not being here? (shrug)  Why water? Why not just miraculously refill all the wine containers? (shrug)  Why not tell the steward or the groom and the guests for that matter what happened? (shrug) Why so much wine? And why here…and why now? (shrug)

Admittedly…there are times when we take a look at scripture and the individual stories within and we can begin to notice things…and often times these things start to reveal a big picture…maybe an underlying point that the author of the gospel wants to make…and as I was working with the text in preparation for today I was trying really hard to find something like this…that subtle point that brings it all together…and I was getting nowhere…and this went on to the point where I reached out to one of my old professors, who’s PhD was actually on John’s gospel…and I bounced some theories off her before she finally asked me a pretty simple but important question.

What if the only thing going on here is Jesus making wine? (pause) Yes, there is a lot of stuff happening behind the scenes…questions that it raises of who or how or why?  But what do we know…Jesus was present at a wedding celebration…and that joyful celebration among people who must have loved being in one another’s company was in danger of ending prematurely…and so Jesus…who is God made flesh…who is the literal voice that spoke creation into being…acted in order to allow that celebration to continue.

Maybe that’s all that matters…and as Jesus reveals his glory in this way…maybe he’s simply showing us that in all of the divine glory of God, which goes far beyond our ability to comprehend…God desires that we enjoy the simple moments of being found in community with one another…in relationship with one another…and that God will act in a way to continue to make that possible.

Within the initial statement of hesitation…Jesus says “my hour has not yet come.” But do you know when his hour has come?  He tells us…and its right before his arrest and torture and death…which is a really strange way to think about Jesus being glorified…and yet we know what comes next…because he came back.

We profess that the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus was God’s way of making ultimate moments of relationship and community possible…especially the relationship between God and humanity…and that his divine favor rests upon each of us…that perfect favor…which I can only describe as being “the best.” (pause)

Apparently there are some really expensive bottles of wine out there…just taking up space…collecting dust in a cellar…might as well be a paperweight for all the good its doing…but you know what…a few days back I opened a bottle of Apothic Red…you can get it for about $12 bucks at Hy-vee.  I opened that bottle and poured a glass…which I sipped on while talking with my wife about her day.

I can’t tell you exactly what that wine tasted like…beyond the inkling that it was pretty good…but I can tell you how much I loved that moment…because of the time I spent with someone I love…we might go as far as to call that moment….glorious.

And we have a God who makes the conscious choice to reveal himself in a way that makes moments like that one possible…and maybe, just maybe…this is all that’s really going on in this mind blowing, miraculous moment when Jesus turned water into wine. I’ll drink to that.  Amen

Because I Said So 1-13-19

In this sermon for Baptism of Our Lord Sunday, based on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22, I explore the vital importance of Jesus’ baptism, and the way that the proclamation of God is a life-altering moment in our existence and identity.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/because-i-said-so-1-13-19

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

The grace and peace of our Triune God is yours, now and forever. Amen

Disagreements are odd things. Now, I’m not talking about knockdown, drag-out fights. But rather those times when we have a difference of opinion on something.

Granted, most of the time I think we as people are able to talk our way through them. We might look at things from a different angle, but more often than not, we are able to find some way to meet in the middle.

But there are times when the two parties in the disagreement are not really on equal footing status-wise. Maybe it’s a boss-employee dynamic…or a ranking officer over a sub-ordinate in the military…or one that I’ve gained a fair amount of experience with…a parent and child. (pause) Now as we all know…the scales aren’t balanced in those relationships…one has authority over the other…and so, inevitably…at some point…its gonna happen.  Its happened to me, and its probably happened to you…that moment when one person gives a command or an order or instruction…and the other responds “Why?” (pause) “Because I said so.” (pause)

That’s a loaded phrase isn’t it? Because I said so…it’s a powerful statement…one that doesn’t really indicate any specific meaning…but in itself reveals something utterly final…utterly specific…it’s a declaration…or proclamation that this matter is now settled…and that in the voicing of the statement, this is now reality. (pause)

Think about some of the different examples of proclamations that we encounter.  There are probably many…but the ones that come to mind tend to be tied into some really big important moments…maybe you’ve experienced some of these…and the way its changed how you think or view a given situation…how it makes something more real.

Moments like hearing the words “I’m pregnant” or “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl.”  Or moments like “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” Or “You’re hired.” Or “You’re fired.” Or “I’m sorry, its cancer.” Or even “Time of death is…”  These proclamations change everything…and to hear them declared in our direction…these statements alter our reality don’t they.

Now admittedly…I got a little heavy right away…but I think its important to recognize this truth about proclamation…and it’s the idea of proclamation that brings us around to today’s gospel lesson.  Today is Baptism of our Lord Sunday…always the first Sunday after the day of Epiphany…here at the beginning of the Epiphany season…and as we’ve said before…the theme throughout Epiphany centers in on different ways that Jesus is revealed to the world.

Now the Baptism of Jesus is an important story…one of only a few that we hear every single year…and one of precious few that has the distinction of being featured in all four gospels…and with that distinction, its certainly worth paying attention to.

Interestingly enough, in all four gospels…we actually find the action kicking off centered around John the Baptist rather than Jesus…today is no exception…and you’ve probably all heard the story often enough that you know the basics.

John’s out in the wilderness…enthusiastically doing his John the Baptist thing.  Long crazy hair…weird wardrobe…crazy diet…hollering about repentance and calling people vipers. Throwing water around…and generally attracting a great big crowd that compares him with the prophets of old…and at the same time they are generally perplexed by this dude and his message.

Low and behold Jesus comes walking up…and since these 2 guys are relatives, I can only imagine the conversation going a little like this. “YOU BROOD OF VIPERS…WHO WARNED YOU TO FLEE…OH…Jesus…hey cuz…sup?”
“Not much John…sup with you?” “Ah you know how it is…just doin my thing…how’s your mom? She good?” “Yah she’s good…you coming to the big reunion at the temple this year?” “I dunno…word on the street is King Herod’s getting a little cranky with me…I’ll probably end up getting arrested or something.”  “Crazy man…but anyway…I see you’re doing this whole baptism thing…let’s do that.”

And they go back and forth for a bit and Jesus is baptized and the heavens open up and the Spirit descends like a dove and a big booming voice announces his identity as the Beloved Son of God….probably with choir of angels singing back up like (Heavenly Singing) “AHHHHHHHH.” (pause) Okay so I embellish…but I like to think that’s how it happened.

But as we consider this important story, recognizing that its presence in each of the gospels, we must also take note of the differences that lie between them…and today, we think specifically about Luke’s version featured in the brief batch of verses which we shared a moment ago.

Now when I sat down with this text early this past week…my initial reaction was “Man, John’s busy here isn’t he?  Where’s Jesus during all this?”  And I can’t help but think its true…most of what we hear is the message of John…every bit of it pointing away from himself.

Humor and joking aside…John was a pretty big deal…in that time, he’s the first “voice from God”…think prophet…that they’ve heard in 400 years…and he’s got some pedigree…he’s the son of priest…one important enough to serve in the temple…he’s been empowered by the Holy Spirit since before he was born…and he’s got a message…and all of this starts making the people wonder if maybe, just maybe John might be the long awaited Messiah.

But John knows who he is…and more importantly…John knows who he is not…One more powerful that I am is coming. I’m not even worthy to untie his shoes. I baptize you with water…he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and Fire…You might think I’m it…but you haven’t seen anything yet.

John goes on and on…and with everything he says, he’s pointing this audience to another…he’s pointing out the one who IS the Messiah…the one, who is ultimately standing among them…and in an almost throw away comment…completely passive here in Luke’s account we hear “when the people were baptized and Jesus was baptized with them.” (pause)  That’s it…that’s the only detail we get about Jesus this time around…that he’s just one of the people in line to be baptized together.

And yet…this simple passive statement reveals something important…that for whatever reason Jesus needed to be baptized…a age-old question without any really great answers…but for whatever reason…Jesus experiences the same action…the same baptism as we do…but of course…as we know…the aftermath was a little more dramatic than what we tend to see when we gather around this particular font.

The heaven’s open up…the Spirit comes down…and God makes a declaration…You are my son the beloved, with you I am well pleased…can’t help but think that’s about the most dramatic reveal that you could hope every hope for right?

But now let’s think about it.  In this moment…All three members of the trinity are present…a unique moment in all of scripture when we find Father, Son, and Holy Spirit present and accounted for…and in fact the only other time they are mentioned together is in Jesus’ command at the end of Matthew’s gospel when he instructs his followers to baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  The only two times are in the context of Baptism.

When we realize this…perhaps we begin to see just why our Baptismal identity is so vital in our Lutheran expression and understanding of our faith in Christ. The divinely mysterious 3 in 1 God is expressed through this divine act which we share with Jesus.

Now I’ll admit…there are moments when I get a little jealous…because as amazing as baptism is…and it is…we don’t have Jesus physically standing here…and we don’t get a bird flapping around…or the roof tearing off and the sky ripping in 2…it would be pretty amazing…and probably pretty scary if we did…but that doesn’t really happen does it?

But you know what…our Triune God is still present when we celebrate a baptism…Jesus is here…because we are the body of Christ here on Earth…and the newly baptized joins in that community, becoming part of the body. (pause) We have the gift of the Holy Spirit, promised through the scriptures…even if we can’t see it…and finally we have the presence of God among us through proclamation. (pause)

Jesus heard those words…you are my beloved Son…and that same proclamation…that same statement of identity is declared over the newly baptized…its not me saying it, its not the parents or the sponsors or anyone else…it is the proclamation of God who makes the claim…the proclamation…the declaration that “YOU…are my child.”  That’s how God shows up when we celebrate baptism…through that proclamation.

And just like the different life-shaking proclamations that we mentioned before…the authority present in this declaration over you means that things will never be the same…because that identity Beloved Child of God is one that nothing can overcome…not even death, which logic tells us should be the end of the line and the last word in the story…but the promise of Christ, through his life, death, and resurrection is that death doesn’t get the last word…God does…and that word assures us…declares to us….that I love you and you…are…mine. (pause)

Sometimes this news seems too good to be true…but it is true…and we declare it…we proclaim it…that is our calling as followers of Christ…to share that news with one another and with the world…

And isn’t it wonderful to know that even in those times when it seems hard to believe…and we respond like an unhappy teenager with the question of “Why?” We have the answer in the proclamation of God “Because I said so.” Amen

Epiphany 1-6-19

In this sermon for the day of Epiphany, based on Matthew 2:1-12, I explore the visit of the Maji, which starts off a season of texts in ways that Christ is revealed to the world.  In this story, we switch focus away from the Magi to the reaction of King Herod the Great. His action reveals truth about those who cling the illusion of power and authority in the world.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/epiphany-1-6-19

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

The grace and peace of our Triune God is yours, now and forever. Amen

You’ve probably heard me talk about some of the congregations that I’ve been connected to in the past…both large and small. I grew up in one about the same size as Underwood. I provided monthly pulpit supply at a tiny country church for a couple of years where a dozen people was a good Sunday…but on the flip side I’ve been at some pretty big ones too.

My internship congregation was about 1200 people…and for about a decade, my wife and I were members and staff at the largest congregation here in our Synod, which at its peak had nearly 2000 members. Now the thing about a congregation that size…there’s a lot kids…and therefore…there was a pretty good sized Confirmation program…and it took a lot of people to make that happen…small group leaders, prayer partners, mentors, and of course…teachers.

Now that church had 2 pastors on staff…but with the large number of kids and classes, they needed more than just the two pastors to teach…and so by the time I was about 25…they started asking me if I’d help out…but let me tell you…I resisted that like the plague…I never thought of myself as a teacher of any sort…and so I kept saying no.

This went on for about 3 years…until finally reaching the point where I knew I’d be going to seminary and becoming a pastor…and since teaching confirmation comes with the territory, I figured it was about time that I start saying yes.

And wouldn’t you know it…it became one of my favorite things to do. I love teaching…and as you might have seen I do so in a lot different ways and formats…but teaching confirmation is one of the most enjoyable…and not only that…but I’ve got a favorite lesson that’s grown over the years.  Of all the different subjects that we cover in the 2 year cycle of confirmation…hands down…my favorite one is the Birth of Jesus.

I love it…because over the course of the lesson we debunk a few traditional aspects of the story that aren’t actually present…for instance…many of you have heard me point out that there’s no donkey for Mary to ride anywhere in the story…but the other one that always comes out…ties us into today’s story.

Epiphany…a focal point that only pops up here in worship on rare occasions…its always the same day of the year…and so it is typically happening during the week…but every once in a while it lands on Sunday…and we get to hear today’s gospel.  Now…I can’t help but think that a moment ago as I was reading the lesson…that someone out there…at least one person, reacted to our story like this. (Pause) “THE MAGI?  Wait….Christmas was like 2 weeks ago…they’re just showing now?” (pause)  Yep (and nod).

There is a common misconception that the Magi or wise men or three kings, whatever we chose to call them…were part of the nativity…but…they…weren’t. And based on a few bits of info we’re given throughout the course of their story, the best guess is that they showed up anywhere from a couple months up to a couple years after Jesus was born.

Now…as much as I love the Magi…we really don’t know a ton about them.  We know they’re from the East…and tradition has filled in all kinds of possibilities about them that we really can’t confirm…including names and even ethnic varieties…but best guess…they were likely from Persia…the remnants of a once large and powerful empire…and their title of Magi indicates that they were likely the court magicians or astrologers…maybe even the “scientists” of the day…and in their work, they’ve witnessed the rising of a special star…an event that has told them of the birth of someone with incredible importance…and so they’ve come looking.

History does tell us that this sort of thing occurred…there are records of Magi visiting the Emperor of Rome at one point…but this time around they head into Jerusalem…apparently whatever sign was present in the heavens through this star…it only led them so far…and they needed some assistance. And so…they go right to the top…stopping off at the palace to inquire with King Herod about the one born king of the Jews.  You know how the rest of the story goes…they figure out Bethlehem…Herod tells them to go and find the baby and then come back to let him know so that he can go worship as well…wink wink…they go searching…the star pops up again, pointing them to the right house…in they go and there is Mary and Jesus…they kneel down….open up their gifts…worship him with joy…and angelic warning dream points them away from Herod and they depart…very likely into the sunset with a lone violin playing a poignant song…and other than one brief reference back to them a few verses later…their part of the story is done.

That’s the story of the Magi…the story of Epiphany. Now Epiphany in itself is important…by its very definition it means a dramatic reveal or revelation about something…and that’s what we see. Jesus…the divine made flesh…is being revealed to the world…and as we move through the season of epiphany through the next several weeks we’ll continue to find stories of similar nature…as Jesus continues to be revealed. We see it in many different settings, with different types of people…some quite small and intimate…others on a much larger scale.

And that’s true today as well…because the story of the Magi following the star and stopping off for directions in Jerusalem points us to some intriguing facts about this big reveal.  Now remember, Bethlehem is only a couple miles away from Jerusalem…and even though Jerusalem was no longer the ultimate center of life in the region at this time…it was still important and the political and religious big wigs spent a lot of time there…so you’d think that by this time they’d have caught wind of the messiah’s birth…months, maybe even a couple years have passed…but based on their reaction to the Magi…it would seem that they are oblivious…

What we do hear…that with this news…with this inquiry about the one born King of the Jews…they loose their minds.  Some translations say Herod and the city were frightened…others say they were disturbed…but when we dig in we find that their reaction was earth shattering…the type of thing that you see in a fear filled mob…and to understand just why that is…we need to step away from the Magi and focus in on Herod…who might seem like just a secondary character…but who’s presence actually casts a really wide shadow over this whole deal.

Now when we hear the name Herod…it could mean a lot of people…the Herodian dynasty lasted the better part of a century…and included about 3 different generations of individuals who all went by the name and held various roles of leadership as granted by the Roman government…but in this case…we’re talking about the original…the OG Herod…Herod the Great.

History remembers him…as a strong leader…as a great builder…but also as a backstabbing, blood-thirsty tyrant. This was a guy who claimed power by marrying into an important family…finagling his way into the title of king by sucking up to the Roman authorities…and then promptly terrorizing anyone and everyone that might threaten his position…up to an including murdering several of his own kids…not to mention countless officials.

If you started to gain any popularity…or maybe gave an inkling of future plans…Herod would have you killed…because you can’t be a threat if you’re dead right? And honestly, this knew no bounds…because if we continued reading through Matthew chapter 2 we would see that once Herod realizes the Magi avoided him, he had every baby boy in Bethlehem 2 years and under killed…simply because of the rumor of a future king.

I can’t help but think that this reveals insecurity…and fear.  Even though he had been given pretty much the ultimate power in the region…I can only think that Herod was secretly terrified that someone would take that power away again. (pause)

Now I don’t know about you…but when I hear the name Herod…and when I think about this whole story and all the stuff he did…I just think…man, he’s just the worst. But then I stop and think about it…and I think it sounds pretty familiar.

We live in a world that is pretty constantly defined by might makes right…an idea that my way is the best…and I’m right…and you can join me as long as you agree with me…but if not I’ll destroy you.  We see it in our interactions…we see it in our conflicts…we see it between individuals, we see it between nations and political leaders.  We blame the other…we demonize…we shout them down…we threaten…we dig up dirt…we do whatever we can to destroy or discredit ANY opponent to get them out the way.

And what’s the motivation? It might be a lot of things but I think the base of it all is fear…fear that we have been given will be taken away…fear that the illusion of power and authority that we hold might crumble…fear that the things we’ve come to rely on will fail and we’ll suffer because of it.

Herod was guilty of this…all because some random guys from the east showed up asking for the one born to be king of the Jews…because if there is one born to be king…then that means Herod’s not…no wonder he reacted with turmoil and fear…lashing out to kill a helpless baby. (pause)

Now here’s the thing…you’ve all heard me say this before…but whatever it is that God is up to through the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus…whatever God is accomplishing by the divine becoming flesh and dwelling among us…it shows all the world that might makes right doesn’t cut it anymore.  God is showing us that there is a new authority…a new definition of power…but to those who hold to the world’s way of thinking…to the illusion of control…that’s a threat…and they’ll do anything to beat that down.

In Jesus God was showing us the new way…a way of humility…of love and humbleness…a way of care for our neighbor…and harmony with one another…and the world…the apparent powers that be…killed him for it.

But if the Christ event taught us anything…its that this tiny baby…would grow up…would continue to show us that that the old way of thinking…the old way of being…the old notions of power and authority can’t win…they might of killed him…but not even death can shut this news up…and three days later he walked out of the tomb…overcoming that which should be the last word.

And that should make us sit up and pay attention.  We don’t have to look very hard to find present day Herod’s…and if we are honest with ourselves, we probably even see him when we look in the mirror…I know I do more often than I care to admit…and maybe, just maybe that’s why we hear this story and we think about the atrocities that he committed and we think “he’s the worst.” Because then we don’t have to feel so bad about ourselves…but those same tendencies are alive and active today. (pause)

But…the promise also remains that somehow God has already overcome those powers…even if it doesn’t seem like it when we turn on the news…see the junk that’s going on…and hear our “authorities” screaming about who’s to blame for it.

The promise remains that in the end…God wins…and no matter how messed up the world might be…and no matter how hard we ourselves crash and burn as we try to live out our lives…the love of God will never be taken from us…and that true power lies in vulnerability…something God showed us by bringing ultimate power into the world in that which is ultimately vulnerable…a tiny baby who’s very birth threatened those the world called powerful.

And that promise…that’s earth shattering…it’s a revelation…and when we hear it…and I mean really hear it…we might even call that an epiphany. Amen.