Posts Tagged ‘John the baptist’

Drama 7-15-18

In this sermon, based on Mark 6:14-29, I explore the story of John the Baptist’s death. This is an oddball gospel, both in terms of its location within the narrative as well as the absence of Jesus within it.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/drama-7-15-18

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

All we have to do is take a quick glance around the sanctuary to see the decorations, and we can tell that it was VBS week.  I love VBS week…it is wonderful…Each day, somewhere between 35-40 kids, another dozen or so jr high and high school helpers, a handful of adults, and 5 camp staff flocked into the church…and the energy level is off the charts.

Its loud…its crazy…its exciting…and I love it. There is just nothing else like it throughout the course of the year. Now, I spent some time trying to come up with the perfect words to describe the atmosphere here in the church during VBS…and in the end, the one that seemed the most fitting was simply…dramatic.

Now when I call it dramatic, I don’t mean to say that there was a lot of angsty drama going on, the likes of which we see on various reality tv shows…quite the opposite in fact…but the stark difference between a normal week here in the church building and the week of VBS is…well…dramatic…its what we might call epic craziness. (pause)

And speaking of epic craziness…let’s talk about the Herod’s for a moment shall we? (pause) Interestingly enough…the Herod family is smack dab at the heart of today’s gospel lesson…and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say, this is an odd one. Because while we typically refer to this story as the death of John the Baptist…we could make the argument that even John is somewhat secondary in this passage.

But to begin to make sense of it, we need some background…as the passage kicks off today, the very first name we hear is Herod…and honestly, Herod is kind of a common name throughout the gospel isn’t it? But when you hear the name Herod, you need to remember that its not just one guy…in fact its an entire family.  They all stem from Herod the Great. He was actually the big wig at the start of the gospels.

He’d come to prominence about 30BC, and had found enough favor with the Roman Senate to get the old “king” in Israel kicked out, and to get himself established in this role throughout much of the region. He was brilliant but cruel…and he was excessively paranoid that someone would usurp his power just like he had done…he was so paranoid in fact that he actually had many of his own family executed if he thought they posed a threat.

Speaking of family, Herod the Great had a ton of wives, and countless sons and daughters…and once he found himself in the twilight of his life, he did start passing along authority…establishing 4 of his sons as something called a tetrarch…not really a king…not really a governor…but somewhere along those lines…and then once he died, all four of these sons who now had a little power for themselves, started jockeying for position and greater authority…and that includes Herod Antipas, also known as King Herod here in today’s story.

Now remember, he wasn’t a king, and in fact when he asked the Romans for the same title given to his father they just sorta laughed at him…He had authority…he had power…but it wasn’t as absolute as he liked to think it was. And so he was constantly scheming, just like the rest of his family…trying to make deals, and broker arrangements to better his position. They’d ALL learned it from Herod the Great, and from what information we can find from history, the whole family, which carried on in prominence over the course of about 4 generations, was just as guilty.

Take for instance, Herodias. By this point, she’s married to Herod Antipas…but previously, she’d been married to his half-brother Philip, another tetrarch.  Herodias divorced Philip and married Antipas at some point.  Even stranger, she was already a Herod…thought to be a generation younger…a niece to both Antipas and Philip…the daughter of yet another brother. And she doesn’t seem like an overly nice person either…holding grudges against people who speak out against her and her apparent opportunistic nature…people like John who is imprisoned over this type of thing.

Now we’ve got more junk going on to…because Herod throws himself a party…he invites ALL the bigwigs from Galilee, the region he controlled…and as they are at this party…something kinda disturbing happens.

We hear that the daughter of Herodias comes in and dances…and that her dancing “pleases” Herod and the guests. We don’t know exactly what’s going on here. We don’t know if she’s a young girl, or if she’s older….we don’t know if she’s a willing participant in this whole deal or if she’s being coerced. We also don’t know exactly what the dynamic is between these two. She might be Herod’s daughter…although she’s probably his step-daughter.  Regardless, the odd-ball language really seems to be some thinly veiled indications that there’s some pretty major inappropriateness going on here…and I’ll let you fill in the blanks yourself on that one…and if that is in fact the case, I can only think that this whole family dynamic is utterly depraved. They’re power-hungry. They’re opportunistic…they’re wildly inappropriate. (pause) You think you’ve got family drama…your family’s got nothing on the Herods.

Now in the middle of this, some more trickery happens, and Herodias takes full advantage of this drunken oath made by her husband towards her daughter, and uses it to silence the critic who has spoken out against her…as she instructs her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist.  To add to the whole deal, the daughter ups it a notch as well, giving it a flair of the dramatic, by asking for his head on a platter.

And here’s where things get really dicey. Herod doesn’t want to do it. Granted he’s had John arrested…and he probably didn’t like the criticisms any more than his wife did…but apparently he also enjoyed having John around…but when those who think they have power foolishly flaunt it, often it bites them doesn’t it? And that’s what happens here.

Herod has a choice to save face with the people he needs to impress, or he can do the right thing and deny the execution of an innocent man…and we see what happens…and the innocent…the one who lacks power in this particular case, suffers at the hands of the powerful. (pause)

Here’s the thing.  As we’ve already mentioned…this passage is known as the death of John the Baptist…and rightly so.  But did you notice that this entire thing is basically a narrative side-note…this whole account is simply the apparent thought process behind Herod Antipas remembering that he had John killed…an event that had happened quite a bit before where we find the story in Mark’s gospel…we’re about half way through the whole deal…but we actually heard that John was arrested back in chapter 1…clear back at the beginning…so why don’t we hear about his death until now…why on earth did Mark think it was fitting to interrupt the flow of the gospel narrative for Herod to hear some current events and then justify it by remembering a utterly crazy situation that had happened a year or two earlier? Think about that.

And as you think about it…I want to back up to VBS…Monday through Thursday of this past week…the church was crazy…good crazy…but crazy. But then as I sat in my office on Friday…the silence was deafening.

You’ve heard that phrase before right…a deafening silence…its weird but somehow fitting…that once your ears have grown accustomed to the noise…silence seems to be somehow “louder.” (pause) I bring this up…because in the midst of the craziness of this story in and around John and the Herods…there is a silence that is equally deafening. A profound silence when we recognize it.

Keep in mind…this is the gospel lesson right. Now is there someone we haven’t heard from? A name…a person…that we tend to think of whenever we think about stories from the gospels? (pause) This passage has the RARE distinction…of never mentioning Jesus. He’s not here…granted…this story happens because Herod hears about him…and as soon as this gospel side-note wraps up, Jesus pops up to feed the 5000…so he’s around…but he’s not here is he?

Where’s Jesus…or perhaps, we might ask the broader question…Where’s God in the midst of this story.  The powerful, preying on the weak…where’s God?   Family members stabbing each other in the back to better their own position or authority….where’s God?  Horribly inappropriate actions going on between a girl and her step-father, not to mention being manipulated by her mother…where’s God? (pause)

It’s a little disturbing isn’t it? Shocking even…to notice the apparent absence of God here. And I can’t help but wonder if that’s often the interpretation when we see the brokenness in the world.  Where’s God when innocent people get caught in the crossfire…when students are gunned down in their classrooms…when young women and even small children are trafficked…or pulled from their parents.  When there is famine, or pollution…or disease…or accidents…where’s God then?

I hear these questions constantly…or I hear something similar…what does your Bible have to say about this stuff? (pause) Here’s the thing…if you read the Bible…and not just to cherry-pick feel good verses, or something to smack the other side of the political line with…but if you really read it…you’ll find that narrative of the Bible is just as much about the apparent absence of God’s presence as it is about God being among us.  And that can be a tough pill to swallow if we take it at face value.

But here’s the thing about the scriptures…they aren’t intended to be taken one verse or one story at a time…the scriptures, even though they were written over the course of thousands of years in several different languages by people of multiple cultures and faith traditions who lived on different continents….somehow the Holy Spirit has shaped them into a narrative that all fits together…a narrative intended to reveal that even in those instances when it seems like God is far away or worse yet that God hates me…or even worse yet, that these is no God…even in these times…somehow someway God is still work behind the scenes, whether we see God’s presence or not.

Jesus isn’t named in this story…and yet Mark tells us this past-tense recollection of a previous event here…in the midst of Jesus’ ministry…in the middle of the physical presence of God in our reality…in whatever it is that God is up to, bringing about the kingdom of heaven in the midst of this brokendown messed up reality…this is where Mark tells this story.

Because Jesus came into our realty…the one where it often seems like God is far away or just non-existent…and Jesus has done something about it…and not only that, but Jesus has given us a promise that despite the brokenness that all too often rears its ugly head…and makes those without power or influence feel even less so…that this is not the end…and that there is somehow more.  And so we hope for that amazing, mindblowing promise…of which we’ve only been given a glimmer…we hope for it…and because this promise is given by the man who is also God we trust it.

And we live our lives in a way that reflects it.  That’s what a life of faith is.  We live out our faith as we trust in that which we can only hope for.  We live in a confidence that no matter how bad things might be….this is not the end…and that the last word will belong to God, whether we can find God’s presence in this moment or not. That’s faith…when we can still hope, even in the midst of drama. Amen.

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This Is Me 1-7-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Is Everything So Heavy 7-9-17

In this sermon, based on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, I explore what appears to be a somewhat irritated Jesus making a familiar statement “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/why-is-everything-so-heavy-7-9-17

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

I’ve talked about hiking before…and how it’s a pretty normal thing that I do when we are out in the mountains of Colorado. One could argue that I do a little bit around here too, although its probably safer to just call that walking.

But if there’s one thing in common about the various hikes that I’ve done over the years, they’ve all been short enough to do in less than a day…and even on some of the longer ones…hikes that last long enough that I need to bring along a few supplies in a backpack, its pretty well been limited to a jacket and raingear, and a sack lunch and water bottle…nothing too drastic.

But there’s a lot of hikers out there who are way more extreme than I will ever hope to be…and they’ll go on hikes that will last for days, or weeks…and in the case of some truly amazing people…even hikes that will last for months…and for these people…they need to bring along everything that they’ll need to sustain themselves…tents, sleeping bags, days-worth of food and water, cooking supplies, first aid kits, and the list goes on and on…and honestly, when I even think about I get tired…because you’ve got to cram all of that stuff in a pack…and you’ve got to lug it along over every single step that you take. I can only imagine just how that load must feel. Because when you combine it all, it has got to be so heavy.

The strength and the endurance of these extreme hikers amazes me…and I think it would be safe to use that old expression that they are strong as an ox. (pause) That’s an interesting saying isn’t it…one that, if we think about it…is pretty dated isn’t it? Oxen were the tractors or the heavy duty trucks of the past weren’t they…stocky, strong…able to move heavy burdens for extended periods of time…as they were latched into a yoke that was attached to a heavy wagon or to drag a plow through the field.

It’s an image of a by-gone era to think about a pair of oxen yoked together isn’t it? But its an image that, perhaps comes to mind today as we consider an odd little batch of teaching from Jesus…teachings that include what I imagine to be a pretty familiar bit of scripture to many of you…come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest…and then the kicker…take my yoke upon you…for my yoke is easy and my burden light. (pause)
Now I don’t know about you…but when I hear the word yoke…I don’t think of anything easy or light…maybe it’s the farm kid that lives in my brain, but to hear yoke is to envision those oxen straining against the old wooden yoke for hours on end…and so to consider Jesus’ odd little teaching here at the end of this passage about squabbling children, and  his thinly veiled irritation at the fickle ways that many in his audience have criticized the ministry of both Jesus and John before him…maybe, this whole thing mixed in together just comes across as confusing. (pause)

And so as we think about all this stuff today, its important to back up and think about just why Jesus says what he says today…and in the larger narrative around this passage, we hear about the opposition that Jesus is finding in his ongoing ministry…and the ways that he is criticized for his approach…and how it mirrors the criticism that John faced before him, even though John’s ministry was drastically different. But yet…there was a common thread between the two…the kingdom of heaven has come near…and if that’s the message, then I find myself wondering just what their opponents really took issue with…That the kingdom would come near to us…that God would willingly near to us? Or that the behavior of both of them fails to match up to the Pharisees perceived notion of what a faithful life looks like…or how to get there. (pause)
But before we start jumping on the Pharisees case, we should stop and realize that its human nature to think that we have to do something, or maybe that we have to do a lot of things in order for the kingdom of heaven to come around to the point where we can access it.

Think of the common questions that we face…what must I do? How do I achieve that…isn’t it up to me? I don’t know why it is, but it seems to be deeply rooted within us to think that we’ve got to earn it…whether by works of the law…or by being sorry enough for the bad things we do…or by praying enough…or by reading our Bible enough, or by giving enough offering…or any other achievement that our fickle minds might come up with…and while we might start to get down on ourselves when we think this way…its nothing new.

If we look way back in history…and the human perception of the divine…its that gods were distant and cruel…and they were in control of everything…and if you wanted to live and prosper you needed to stay on the good side of the gods…and you accomplished that by living a certain way and by making offerings…but the thing was that you never really knew how you stood with them…unless things went really badly and then you realized that the gods were mad at you just before you starved to death because your crops didn’t grow…but if on the other hand things were going pretty well you had to do all these other things to show the gods just how thankful you were and you never knew if you had done enough to stay on their good side. Crazy huh?  Do you see how futile…how frustrating that must be…to never know where you really stood? (pause) Think of how heavy of a burden that would be to carry around with you every single day…of never knowing if you’ve done enough to keep the powers that be happy with you. (pause)

But what if that wasn’t the case?  What if, our God…one that has made all of this out delight and joy…including us…what if that God takes joy…takes pleasure in revealing the truth to his beloved children that they are good enough…that they are loved and accepted as they are…and that no amount of sacrifice or duty or obligation is ever required in order to gain his favor…that the divine comes near to us simply because of God’s delight in us…because when John or when Jesus says the kingdom of heaven has come near…maybe that’s what they’re talking about. (pause)
But on the other hand…if you’ve been taught your entire life that you are only acceptable to the divine if you follow the rules and make all the right sacrifices and pray all the right prayers…and then you find some random person attracting a following by throwing that old notion out the window…I can see why they would try to find something to criticize…something to discredit the message of this guy…because your rules and regulations are safe…and if you follow them out of obligation and fear of what will happen if you don’t.

That’s the yoke of the Pharisees…that’s the yoke of a bunch of rules listed out that with the tagline of do this and your good, don’t and you’ll burn. (pause) Can you see how much of a burden that would be? To never know if you’ve covered the bases…to never know where you stand?

But Jesus says it is finished…there is no checklist…there is no minimum level of achievement because God has already claimed you…and when Jesus says his yoke is easy…I think this is what he’s talking about…and that is something that we can rest easy in…because in the end its not about what we do or say or think…its about what God has already said about us…and God looks at you and says you are mine….its not up to you…and its certainly not up to anyone else to make that judgement call where you are concerned. (pause)
Now I say all this…and yet I know that life is heavy…and we are really good and filling up our proverbial backpack with all kinds of burdens and we tell ourselves I’ve got to carry this. I won’t even try to tell you what your burdens are…but you know.  Life is hard, and I believe that God knows that, because through Christ, the God that takes delight in us, has experienced life as one of us, with all the burdens that come with it.

But yet, when Jesus says my yoke is easy and my burden light, I believe that he is assuring us that the one thing we don’t have to carry…the one thing we don’t have to stress ourselves out about…the one thing that we don’t have to worry about is whether or not we are good enough for God….because in Jesus Christ he has already come near to you…not because of anything that you have done, not because of anything that you strive to be…but simply because our God takes delight in you. (pause)
May we hear this news with joy…and find peace and solace in the promise that we have each been claimed by God, and that God delights in us as we are, right here, right now.  We may be burdened, and in fact its probably safe to say that we are…but the question of where you stand with God is not something to weigh yourself down with. (pause)
Why is everything so heavy? I don’t know. I really don’t…but this is one burden that you don’t have to carry. Amen.

 

(This sermon’s title and background is credited to Linkin Park and their song “Heavy.” You can see the video for this song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dmQ3QWpy1Q)

 

Here We Go Again 1-8-17

In this sermon, taken from Matthew 3:13-17, I explore the Baptism of Jesus and just why its so important for us.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/here-we-go-again-1-8-17

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

There are a few different things that I do that…admittedly, I start to get a little obsessed with. One of them is running, which I guess is a healthy activity, so maybe that’s not all bad…but over the years that I’ve been running, I’ve gotten more and more obsessed, and this has manifested in different ways.

First was just the running itself. I used to mix it in with several different types of exercise, but eventually the rest kind of phased out leaving me with the running by itself. Then after a while I wanted to know how much I was doing, so I started tracking my runs with an app on my phone…logging the miles and the minutes that I cover.  And eventually that led to yet another step…as the app I utilize offers various challenges to keep a person motivated.

Most recently, I participated in a challenge to cover 1000km over the course of 2016…and as we aren’t European, that translates out to about 620 miles if you’re curious.  And yes…I got obsessive over it…constantly checking and rechecking…doing the conversions and the calculations to see where I was at and how much I had left…and sure enough…I finished up my goal about a week and half before the end of the year.

Once I reached that point I thought to myself “Ahh…now I can relax…just go back to regular running, regular distances…and I don’t have obsess anymore.”  Well that lasted about a week…and then I noticed that 2017…has the very…same…challenge. (Pause) Here we go…again. (pause)
The repetition strikes me as funny…but the notion of doing the very same thing this year as I did last year put me in mind of the church year…and the repeating cycle that we go through as one season leads into the next…and into the next…and we see the same holidays repeated every year…we hear some of the same stories repeated every year…Christmas and Easter are the big two…but also other ones like Pentecost and today’s story…the baptism of Jesus. (pause) Now if you’ve been tracking the church calendar, you know what I’m talking about. We celebrated Christmas 2 weeks ago…and following the proverbial 12 days, we hit Epiphany just two days ago…as the church celebrates the arrival of the magi to worship the baby Jesus…and as that kicks off the season of Epiphany…the time that we continue to recognize how Jesus, as the Messiah, is revealed to the world, we come around to his Baptism, always recognized here on the 1st Sunday of Epiphany. (pause)
Now maybe, you hear this story…and you recognize the way it repeats…and you think to yourself…Here we go again…and like some of those other common stories, this is one that we can list off the details pretty easily. Jesus is about 30 now…and his cousin John the Baptist is out in the wilderness along the Jordan river, living up to his name…as he is of course baptizing…and he’s calling out the brood of vipers and warning of the one coming along after him who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire…and low and behold, here comes Jesus…John is like “Dude…hold on, you need to baptize me.” But Jesus assures him that no, this is all good…let’s do this. (Pause) And Jesus is baptized and the instant that he comes back up above water the heavens rip open…and the Holy Spirit comes fluttering down in full-on bird form, landing on Jesus…and the big booming God voice breaks out “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” (pause)

That’s the story…pretty simple isn’t it? Sort of makes you wonder why we need to hear it so often doesn’t it? And honestly…I think there are times that the baptism of Jesus raises more questions that it answers…like why does Jesus need to be baptized in the first place? He’s God right? And we all know that he is without sin…and if baptism, as we understand it, is a cleansing from our sins, then why the heck did Jesus need to do it? (pause) These are good questions…honest questions…questions that many people have wrestled with…and while some of them will try to offer you answers to these questions…and try to explain away everything that’s going on here with the baptism of Jesus…I’m not going to do that…because honestly, I don’t have any good answers to why Jesus had to do it…and what the “fulfillment of all righteousness” that he mentions to John is all about. I honestly don’t know. (Pause)
But I do know that there’s some cool stuff going on here…and Jesus, who is God, is taking something old and making something new out of it. (pause) Maybe you’ve heard me talk about the notion of baptism before…its actually not some newfangled thing that Christians came up with…and for that matter, its not something that John the Baptist came up with either.  The practice of baptism had already been around by the time John came on the scene.

It was a ritual of purification, stemming from an ancient practice that the Jewish people would do when they took spoils of war. They had to purify it. If it could take it, they would put the thing through fire…if not, then water…and since human flesh doesn’t stand up to fire overly well, when the ritual started being used for Jewish converts to symbolize a purifying from their old gentile ways…water.

So by the time Jesus takes a dip in the Jordan and the heavens tear in half so a spirit bird can come fluttering down…this was old news…but we have a God who does some amazing things don’t we?  And for the first time ever, a person is baptized and God…shows…up…in a big way.

Actually, all three members of the trinity are on display here aren’t they? Jesus, the son…he’s of course there…the Holy Spirit shows up…and the voice of the Father…all three here together…and you know what, there’s only one other time that this happens…and its at the tail end of Matthew…in something called the Great Commission…when Jesus instructs the disciples…and us…to go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Now that in itself is amazing enough…but there’s another point to bring up…the Great Commission is the last thing in Matthew’s gospel…and therefore it’s the last thing that Jesus says…but the very first thing that Jesus says here in Matthew’s gospel, is his exchange with John about baptism.

I don’t know about you, but that seems like a pretty big deal to me…that the very first and the very last thing that Jesus talks about is baptism…no wonder we make a big deal out of it…but then, it is a sacrament isn’t it? A time when God comes to us through the simple element of water along with the promise that God makes on our behalf.

A promise that we actually share with Jesus. For in his baptism, the Spirit comes upon him, empowering him, and God claims him as his beloved child…and we profess the very same thing in our own baptism…that we are empowered with the Spirit, and God claims us as his children.  And that’s the spectacular thing…that its all about what God does…what God says, both for us and about us…its NOT about what we do or think or say.  The promises of God are for you…and through the waters of our baptism this promise is given to you and you are brought into the body of Christ. (pause)

Now that’s wonderful…but it raises a question…what comes next? Jesus tells his followers to make disciples and baptize them, but just what does it mean to be a disciple? What does it mean for us to be a follower of Christ? (pause) I often wrestle with this question…and I wish there was a road map…check points that we can achieve and mark off to show ourselves that we are making progress…that we are becoming more Christ-like.

Granted, we do have rituals in the church that sorta of point this direction.  We typically baptize as a baby…and then about 4 years old the child starts Sunday School…and eventually moves into Confirmation and then at the end of 8th grade they stand up front, say a couple things, receive a prayer…and that’s kind of it.

I don’t know about you, but I find that model lacking…and while I don’t know exactly how else to propose that we “map out” the life of a disciple, I do know this…we are called through our Baptism…we are joined with the one body of Christ…we are empowered by the Holy Spirit, and we are all ministers…called to proclaim what Christ has done in our lives…and to live out the truth that while we were sinners, Christ died for us.

And the thing about it…is that we do this…in the grind of life…in the routine…in the stuff that happens over and over again…because that’s where God meets us…and there are times when that might seem kinda daunting. (pause)
I mentioned earlier, that I no more than finished 1000km a couple weeks ago, and then I found myself at the beginning of another challenge…this time, its 1017…and as I face the vast majority of that challenge still ahead of me, I keep thinking “here we go again.” But that’s life…that’s the life we lead…and though at times it might seem repetitious…or boring…that is the path we walk…and what a blessing to realize that God walks it as well…That’s why Jesus entered our reality…that’s why he became one of us…to experience life as we do…and not only that…but to meet us there…and to come along side us as we move through this life as disciples…with no roadmap in front of us…only the knowledge that God is constantly inviting us forward, out of the old, and into something new…and this is true, even in the times when everything might feel the same.

Here we go again. (pause) Yep…but you know what, God’s right here with us. Amen.

What Are We Really Preparing For 12-13-15

In this sermon, based on Luke 3:7-18, I explore the theme of Advent, preparing for the coming Messiah. John the Baptist plays a central role in this part of Jesus’ story, yet his message is quite blunt. I contrast the old with the new that comes with Christ.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/what-are-we-really-preparing-for-12-13-15

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

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

I’m going to start things off with a little bit of an advertisement today. Tuesdays at 7pm…our ongoing study of The Story…a Bible study in which we are discussing the overarching narrative of the Bible from start to finish. Lively discussion ensues…and you’re all invited.

One of the main points that we’ve been discussing in this study since beginning last summer as been the ongoing activity of God behind the scenes…asking the question of how the particular chapter highlights God’s greater work in the grand scheme of things…now sometimes its pretty obvious…chapter 1 for instance…the story of creation from the first couple chapters of Genesis…what’s God up to there? Well, making…everything…kind of a no brainer.

But on the flip side…sometimes we have to work a little harder to try and figure out just what God is up to…because its not nearly as obvious as the first chapter…and this week, was one of those times. (pause) This week we studied the story of Esther…a young Jewish girl living life within the great Persian empire…and she’s picked from obscurity…wins the favor of the king and becomes the new queen…and along the way she manages to foil a plot to annihilate the Jewish people…it’s a wonderful story…and our discussion was great…but one interesting fact came up. Nowhere within the Old Testament book of Esther…not even once…do we hear about God…which admittedly seems a little strange when we consider that the Bible as a whole is the word of God, and is aimed at revealing truth of what God is up to in the world to us…but its true…the book of Esther is silent when it comes to God. (pause)
Now I bring this up because there’s a similar theme in today’s gospel lesson…the gospel’s, naturally, are New Testament books…and the gospels more than any other books, are certainly aimed at Jesus…the son of God…God in human form…walking and dwelling among us. (pause)

But…in today’s lesson…we see one of the very few times when Jesus is neither present…nor is he named…The closest we get to hearing about Jesus is a few comments regarding the coming Messiah. (pause) Now how often does that actually happen? That we have a gospel lesson that fails to feature Jesus? Its pretty rare…but the main reason behind it today is the season that we find ourselves in…Advent.

Now, you’ve heard me talk about this before….but Advent is considered the season of preparation…as the world awaits the coming Messiah…something that we’ll celebrate together in just a couple weeks’ time at Christmas as Jesus enters into our reality, yet again…as a helpless baby. (pause) But we aren’t there yet are we?

And so, here at the half way point of this 4 week season of preparation, we find a gospel lesson that doesn’t feature Jesus…but rather…another familiar figure…John the Baptist. (pause) Now John is an interesting individual…and he shares in a pretty rare distinction…being one of the few individuals that actually shows up in all 4 gospels…he’s not one of course, but there aren’t many…and because of this distinction, we recognize just how important of a figure he really was…and I think most of us do. We know that he’s the precursor to Christ…we know that he was the voice crying in the wilderness…his name is synonymous with the idea of baptism…

Maybe, if you’re like me, you hear the name John that Baptist and you picture some hairy wildman with a huge bush beard and afro splashing around in a river and yelling at everyone…that’s the image that’s in my head anytime I hear about him…and for the most part, that’s a pretty accurate image to hold…because John’s part of the overarching gospel of Jesus Christ is pretty brief…mostly limited to this one story right here towards the beginning…with only a few brief references that pop up here and there throughout the rest of the gospels.

But as we think about our normal notions of John…not to mention listening to his rather blunt message for those who have come out to listen to him…doesn’t it seem to be kind of one note? (pause) Think about it…I say John the Baptist and ask you what his message it…and I’m guessing most of you think “YOU BROOD OF VIPERS!!!! WHO WARNED YOU ABOUT THE WRATH TO COME?” (pause) Sound about right?

I thought a lot about that this week…and kind of chuckled to myself as I realized that this one passage culminates in the single sermon that I get to preach this year during Advent…we have this one passage to help us get ready for the coming Messiah…and when we hear John’s words…it sort of resonates as the same old same old. (pause)

Think about everything you know about John…because it seems…at first glance anyway…that’s he’s really not broadcasting much that’s new. (pause) First off…he’s a prophet…the first one that’s popped up in the Holy Land for about 4 centuries…so the word of God has been pretty quiet for awhile…but the first thing this wilderness prophet rattles off…is a call to repentance…because wrath is coming…and if we’ve learned one thing trekking through the Old Testament in our Bible Study its that the word of the Lord tends to call the people to repent or face God’s wrath quite a bit.

But what else…what about the notion of Baptism…because John was doing that too…obviously right, just look at his name…but don’t be fooled. Even though we tend to think of Baptism as a fairly new innovation…something that came along with the rise of Christianity, its actually a lot older than that…Jewish people practice baptism…particularly when a foreigner would join the Jewish culture…and they would be baptized to cleanse themselves of all that which is ungodly…and so…this baptism that John practiced…was nothing new either.

So then, what about his interactions with the people…those who ask him “What should we do?” The crowds, and tax collectors, and the soldiers…at this point John gets into some life application that seems like kind of no-brainer…if you’ve got more than you need…share it with someone who doesn’t. Treat one another fairly…don’t lie…and be satisfied with what you earn…sounds pretty “golden rule-ish” doesn’t it…and it reflects the expected culture of the Jewish people…who’s lives centered around hospitality and the expectation of treating one another fairly….truly the message of John seems like nothing new does it?

And yet as we hear it…and we hear John screaming out at the brood of vipers who are only there to save their own skin…and his predictions that one is coming who is going to sort everything out…separating the good from the bad…the grain from the chaff…doesn’t it all sound…so…judgmental…so accusatory…so downright negative? (pause)

And yet…this seems to be exactly the message that the people expect…so much so, that they start to ask if John might just be the long awaited Messiah…the one who would usher in God’s blessed kingdom and throw out all that which oppresses God’s people. (pause) Crazy huh? That this, was their expectation…that the messiah would bring the same old judgmental, divisive story? (pause)

But here’s the thing…if John could make only one point, its this…he knows who he is…and he knows who he…isn’t…and he is very direct in pointing out the difference between himself and the coming Messiah. (pause)
I baptize with water…he will baptize with the holy spirit and fire…I am a lowly servant…not even worthy to untie his sandals…but HE…is more powerful that I am… (pause) Now we hear all this and instantly start thinking about Jesus don’t we…as well we should…but I think what we tend to miss about all this is just what John’s talking about when he references the power of the coming Messiah.

We hear John’s words of wrath and repentance…of separation and judgement of gathering the grain and burning the chaff…and if you’re anything like me you hear…DIVISION…that the coming Messiah will one day separate the evil people from the good people.

But here’s the thing…have you ever really known a person who was completely evil…or on the flip side someone who was completely good? (pause) Sure we’ve had some pretty decent examples on both sides of the coin…but I’m pretty sure even the worst of the worst probably had good intentions…and even the most saintly still harbored dark thoughts in their minds.

And that’s all because of the presence of sin and darkness in our lives…it has permeated us so deeply…into the very depths of our existence…and that’s why each and every one of us feels the effects of sin in our lives…and just being a person who professes faith in Christ…or a person who claims the promises of our baptism…it isn’t enough to eliminate the darkness that still resides within each of us.

We can’t separate the good from the bad and maybe just maybe, when we hear these words from John they seem so confrontational…so judgmental because when we are honest with ourselves we the darkness within us and can’t help but expect to be the evil chaff that gets thrown into the fire…and news flash…if you happen to take a look and only see the good stuff and fully expect to be gathered into the barn…well guess what…pride my friend…you just earned yourself the fire…that’s how deep this goes and there is NOTHING we can do about it.

But as John tells us…there is one who is coming…one who is MORE powerful…MORE able than any of us…Because God is coming…and God, who exists in ways far beyond our ability to understand or comprehend IS ABLE, to somehow, someway separate that which evil from that which God claims as good, from within each of us as individuals.

We are each made in the image of God, something that God called VERY GOOD…but likewise the power of sin has settled within each of us…but what if…maybe, just maybe, what John is talking about here…is the possibility that we have a God who lived this life…who came into this reality…then died and rose again to overcome the power of sin and death and somehow, someway, holds the power to separate them out from within the individual.

Isn’t that good news? That the savior of the world…who will enter into our reality at Christmas…just a couple weeks from now…did so in order to take away that from within YOU…that separate you from God…so that the aspect of YOU that God calls VERY GOOD…will remain to be with him forever. Isn’t that the best news in the world? (pause)

Now what if I told you that there are some out there who have never heard it? That there are some out there who think of the gospel and only hear the old judgmental accusation without understanding the love that God holds for us…that Christ came not to divide the good people from the bad people…but to redeem that which is good within each of us…and that this gift…this promise is for them too. (pause)

Soon…very soon, we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ…the messiah who is coming into the world…and as we do each and every Christmas we will sing the familiar hymn to Go Tell It On The Mountain…so that one day…all may know the Good News….and that my friends…here during the season of Advent…that, it what we are really preparing for. Amen

That Reminds Me 7-12-15

In this sermon, based on Mark 6:14-29, I explore the rather odd story of the death of John the Baptist, recounted in Mark’s gospel through a flashback. This odd and almost brutal account highlights the power of misunderstanding, and yet reveals an important nugget of truth.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/that-reminds-me-7-12-15

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

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

Over the course of this past week, our congregation hosted VBS, a wonderful summer tradition…and from 9am-2pm, Monday through Thursday, the church was buzzing…all kinds of stuff going on. The younger kids laughing and playing…older kids serving as helpers…all sorts of volunteers here to help out in different ways…it was wonderful.

And as I freely admit to having the gift of gab, a great deal of this week, I was not…sitting in my office…rather, I was moving around the church, engaging various people in conversations…and these conversations covered a wide variety of different topics…and not only varying from person to person…but in certain situations…the topics jumped all over the place within single conversations with single individuals.

And you know what…I absolutely love that sort of thing…those unplanned interactions…those unexpected tangents that conversations can take. (Pause) Now certainly, this sort of thing happens all of the time, but I’ve often noticed that it will happen much more frequently when I’m in conversation with another person that I really get along with well…one thing idea leads to another…one discussion jumps into a different discussion…one story sparks off another story…and it seems like these tangents are always introduced with the phrase “OH…THAT REMINDS ME…”

Ever found yourself in a conversation like that…one that keeps jumping around because one thought leads to the next…and the next thing you know a whole bunch of time has passed as the two of you sit there just sharing stories…sometimes these are stories that you experienced on your own…other times, depending on the individual…maybe they’re stories that you were both a part of…and you find yourself simply reliving those times together…bonding over that shared experience…and whether you realize it or not…strengthening your relationship through the power of story. (pause)
Now perhaps it comes as no great shock to you that I absolutely love this sort of thing…I love sharing stories…I love hearing stories and learning about one another through hearing them…and I ABSOLUTELY… love finding myself in the midst of a conversation that is filled with “OH…THAT REMINDS ME…”

But now here’s the thing…there are times when these stories…that are almost interruptions within a conversation…can take us to some really odd experiences…not necessarily bad…not necessarily good either…just odd…those times when a story comes out of nowhere…and really doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything you’ve been talking about. They can be fun…they can enlightening…but they can also be really confusing.

And that…is where today’s story comes in…Because today’s story…is one of those odd…confusing situations…one of those stories…that seems to come out of nowhere. (pause) Now before I really dive in today…let me set the scene for you…and keep in mind that this story occurs in the midst of Mark’s gospel…which as you may recall is a story where the author is telling us the Good News…of Jesus Christ…the son of God…and in the middle of this story…Mark…goes on one heck of a tangent. (pause)

Now right before this passage…before this story…we hear that Jesus has sent the disciples out 2 by 2 into the countryside…they head out to proclaim the gospel…to heal diseases…to cast out demons…in short…Jesus sends them out to do the very same stuff that he’s already been doing…and then…right after today’s story…we hear that once this mission is done…the disciples and Jesus all come back together and talk about what they’ve been up to.

In short…if we skipped today’s passage…the story would continue on with no interruption…it would flow along in a perfectly acceptable way…and it would make perfect sense…And yet…right in the midst…Mark seems to go “OH…NOW THAT REMINDS ME.” (pause) and we are treated with a story…with a quite detailed anecdote…regarding the death of John the Baptist. (pause)

Because at first glance…this has nothing to do with where we’re at in the gospel itself. We’re in the midst of Jesus’ ministry…we’re smack dab in the middle of the disciple’s first test as proclaimers of the gospel…and now we hear this…Herod…one of the powers that be in the area…has, flexed his muscles…in the past mind you…and arrest John simply because John pointed out the fact…that Herod’s been breaking the rules by marrying his brother’s wife. Come on Herod…you know better…that’s a no-no.

And Herod responds…seemingly because his sister in law turned wife gets a little cranky about…I guess Herod believes in that old notion of happy wife-happy life…but knowing full well that John’s got a pretty substantial backing from many people…and he’s got a good reputation…Herod locks him up in jail…but up to this point has been protecting him…that is until an odd situation occurs with his step daughter, herself in the midst of a situation she really shouldn’t be in…and now Herod’s wife takes full advantage of a momentary slip up from her husband…to get John killed…bring me the head of John the Baptist…on a platter…a lovely mealtime site I’m sure….and now Herod…needing to save face…because all his cronies heard him make the promise…has to go through with it…and so John ends up substantially shorter in stature.

And I’ll pose the question one more time…what on earth does this have to do with the gospel? (pause) Certainly this is a crazy situation that we find ourselves in. Mark, tell this story…which is literally a flashback…this all happened quite a while before Jesus’ started garnering a following…and not only that…but John’s story is really over by this point…he had served his purpose as the herald of the coming Messiah…so why do we need to hear about his, rather pointless death…at this point? (pause)
After pondering on this question for quite awhile…I did start see the connection…or at least to recognize what it was that made Mark go “OH…THAT REMINDS ME.” And here it is…as the disciples are out on their two by two mission, word is spreading…people are talking…they’re talking about Jesus…they’re talking about the disciples that are doing miraculous things in his name…word, is getting around…and it even reaches into the palace…arriving in the ears of Herod.

And Herod, of course, starts asking questions as well…Who is this guy? We need to check him out…because Herod has people that he answers to as well…and in this case it’s the Romans who might just take issue with anyone out there in the public developing a following…you see the Romans don’t like it when too many people start banding together behind someone other than them…that’s how uprisings get started…and so if they catch wind of this type of thing, they’ll crack down on their appointed authorities, which as you might have gathered…includes Herod.

And so everyone is asking the question…who is this guy? It seems to be the big conversation of the day…Some say its Elijah…other’s a prophet…and it makes sense that people would say this…it was part of their religious understanding that God would raise up prophets once again…but when Herod heard it…he could only think…Its John…He’s back…I had him killed…but…he’s back. (pause)

Now to us that might seem like a strange conclusion to come to…After all, Herod knows that John is dead…he ordered it…he saw John’s severed head served up on a platter…perhaps with a fine wine along side…and as everyone knows…when you’re dead, you’re dead…that’s it. Want someone silenced? Kill ‘em…because dead men tell no tails. Pirates know it…mobsters know it…the Romans knew it…and you better believe that Herod knew it to.

But yet, that’s the conclusion that Herod reaches…this odd man traveling around…preaching a new gospel…curing the sick, casting out demons…it must be John raised from the dead and that is where these powers are coming from. (pause)
Now I don’t know about you…but I hear this statement from Herod…and doesn’t it seem sorta foolish? All thoughts of Jesus and resurrection aside…why would Herod come up with something like this….He was dead but now he’s alive again and that’s why he can do this…Herod might as well be accusing him of witchcraft and having him burned at the stake…because he seems to be explaining this away with magic…with mystical powers only brought on through the power of death…

And yet…if we think about it…maybe there would have been some evidence to support this idea. Because as Jesus has been traveling around…performing miracles…one of the things he’s done…already by this point…is raise people from the dead. We heard about just a couple weeks ago when Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus…there’s another story when Jesus happens upon a funeral in the village of Nain and out of pity for the widow, he raises her son from the dead…later on he would visit the home of Lazurus…who’d been dead in the tomb pushing a week, and Jesus raised him too. (pause)
And I’m betting those stories had reached the ears of Herod as well…and you know what…that’s pretty major…Because as we all know…once you’re dead, you’re dead…but all of the sudden, that’s out the window. (pause) If people won’t stay dead, then the rules don’t apply anymore. (pause) If people won’t stay dead, then we can’t count on anything to stay the way its “supposed to. (Pause) If people won’t stay dead…well then who know what might happen next.

And the thing that really caught my attention as I was thinking about all this…is that Herod, despite making a claim that we all know is pretty foolish…despite making a claim that makes no sense, and is something that maybe we want to laugh off as foolishness…Herod…actually has a grain of truth in the midst of his doorknob statement.

Herod claims that through resurrection, these powers…these miracles…are possible…and while he misidentifies Jesus as the resurrected John, he’s correct in saying that the power that makes resurrection possible is responsible for all this. Because Jesus carries the power of God…Jesus carries the power to heal…the power to cast out demons…the power over death…a power that he would later showcase when God raised HIM from the grave.

And that my friends…is something to stop and consider…because if people won’t stay dead because of the power of God…well then all bets are off…and who knows just what God might do.

Maybe God choses to act within some stressful situation, eliminating or reducing the negative effect…maybe God choses to heal a horrible disease…maybe God choses to soften the heart of someone that we had written off…who know what God will do? (pause) I can’t speak for what God will chose to do in your lives…I can only look back and see God’s fingerprints in my experience…but I sure love those times when I get to sit down and listen to you share what God has done in yours. (pause)

Sometimes we can see these experiences…these God moments pretty clearly…other times our eyes are clouded to it. Herod didn’t quite understand just what was going on in today’s story…and likewise we don’t always understand either…and that’s okay, tough at times, but okay in the long run…because in the long run, the one who carries the power over death has promised us that one day, we will join with him in the resurrection…whether it makes sense or not…because that…is what God is up to, even when we’re not paying attention.

That’s the gospel…that’s the good news…oh…and that reminds me…the gospel, its for you. Amen.

Don’t Leave Me Hanging 1-11-15

In this sermon, based on Mark 1:1,4-11 which is the story of the Baptism of Jesus, I explore His baptism from Mark’s perspective. I look at the notion that the lack of detail makes important points, and that in our baptism we are connected to Jesus.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/dont-leave-me-hanging-1-11-15

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

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

A few days back, I was talking with my son, and the subject of homework came up. On this particular day, he was working on an assignment for his social studies class…one that required some online work, as well as answering the various question in a program on his computer.

As we chatted about his assignment, he made two comments. The first was “I really like social studies.” We’ll call that one a win…and the second was “Its nice doing homework on the computer.” I told him to remember that in a few years when he’s sitting there trying to crank out a 10 page paper for some assignment and getting nowhere with it.

As I think back to that conversation…I’m of course reminded of the multitude of writing that I’ve done. As a pastor I still do a fair share…weekly sermons…monthly newsletters…various devotions…and even the annual report earlier this week. And all this writing that goes on certainly reminds me of the various assignments that were required back in my seminary days…when hardly a week would go by that I wasn’t knocking out a 5-pager here…or a 15-there.

One major difference these days is that I rarely have a specific page count that I need to reach in order to complete the assignment…though that was certainly the case in school. I never really had too much trouble meeting the goal though…because as a classmate once pointed out to me…Scott…you can’t say hello in less than 100 words. (pause) And she’s right of course. (pause)

But there was also an ongoing joke with this particular classmate…a good friend of mine who is now a pastor out in North Carolina…that to fill out the requirement…it’s all in the adjectives. You can either say “God works in the world”…or you can fill up space by saying “The divine being that we call God began his extensive work at the beginning and it ever stopped but continues as He continues the ongoing work of creation within the realm that we call the physical world.” (pause) 5 words vs 37. (pause) 37 word statements get you to 15 pages a lot faster than 5…just sayin. (pause)

No perhaps you’re sitting there wondering just what this all has to do with anything here in worship…and I don’t blame you if you are…and so I’ll explain…today’s Gospel represents pretty much the polar opposite of my writing style. (pause)
Now admittedly, I’m excited today…because even though we’ve been in the Lectionary year B…the year that features the Gospel of Mark…for 7 Sundays now…my absence during the first Sunday of Advent means that I have yet to actually preach out of Mark’s gospel. (pause) And granted this is all understandable considering the seasons that we’ve gone through…Advent as we prepared for the coming Messiah and then Christmas as we celebrate his birth and then hear stories from infancy…and we can’t get those stories from Mark…because Mark doesn’t include them.

Its kinda funny how each of the gospels start…the way each author thought we needed to enter into the story that circles around this man named Jesus…this man who was also God. Luke thinks that a good starting point is just before birth…and we start off with the proclamation of the birth of both John and Jesus…and then there’s Matthew…who thinks we need to go back a little further…and so he dives in with a genealogy beginning ALL the way back with Abraham…oh and don’t forget about John who feel it necessary to begin the story of Jesus’ work in the world by taking us all the way back to the Beginning. (pause)

But Mark…well, not so much…Mark leaves out a lot of that extra stuff…because Mark is the polar opposite from me in terms of writing…while I like to heap on the detail…not unlike Matthew and Luke…Mark likes to cut to the chase…and just hit the important points…letting them speak for themselves.

And so today…here at the beginning of a new year…on our first day back into regular programming after our break…we find ourselves at the beginning of the assigned Gospel for the year…and you know what…that’s a pretty good place to start.

Now I love the opening verse of Mark 1…what many scholars believe to be just a title…The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…the Son of God. Short…to the point…but Mark leaves no confusion as to just what he’ll be talking about does he? This…is about Jesus…and we start at the beginning…and for Mark…the beginning of the gospel begins with a baptism. (pause) The baptism of Jesus…to be exact. (pause)

But in true Mark fashion…we don’t get much detail do we? We actually hear more about John than Jesus. We know John’s activity…baptizing…we know his message…repentance for the forgiveness of sins…we know his wardrobe…camel hair was all the rage in those days…and we hear about his typical menu. (pause)

But what about our Lord…you know him…the one that actually got baptized in today’s story…well all we hear about him is that he came from Galilee…and then in the mother load of all detail…we hear “and he was baptized by John in the Jordan.” (long pause)

That’s it? Umm…really? Wow…thanks Mark…you really paint a picture for us there. (pause)

Well okay…to be fair we do hear a little bit more…we hear that immediately after Jesus came out of the water the heavens were torn apart and a voice proclaims to Jesus…you are my son, the beloved…with you I am well pleased.” And that…is…it… (pause)

Perfect example of Mark’s writing style here. Lacking detail…and honestly…it really seems like a cliffhanger. We get a brief mention of the baptism itself…the Spirit comes down…God speaks up…and then nothing…and we are left hanging. (pause)

Now perhaps…just maybe Mark is doing for a specific reason…because we actually see the very same sort of thing again…we see here…at the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ…and we’ll see it again 16 chapters from now…at the end…when Jesus has raised from the tomb…and the women find his grave empty…and they run off terrified and say nothing to anyone…

Talk about cliff hangers. (pause) Why would Mark do this? Why would Mark give us so little detail about these important stories…and why would he cut things off without properly explaining just what God’s up to in all this? (pause) That my friends…is a question that has been debated for centuries.

And while I’d love to provide you with some expert answer to that question…I can’t. And so perhaps all we can really do today is look at the details that Mark does give us…limited as they are…and while we do that, keep in mind that what he does tell us is probably pretty important.

First…the gospel begins as Jesus is baptized…the very same baptism that we ourselves share in. The same baptism in which the Holy Spirit comes upon us…and we are claimed by God as his beloved children. (pause) Hmm…maybe this is a little more significant than we realize. (pause)

And then maybe we better take a closer look at just what happens in the midst of this baptism. Mark loves the word “immediately.” He uses it all the time…now in our translation for today it says “just as he was coming from the water” and while that isn’t too far off…immediately really conveys the timing.

Jesus would have been under the water…fully submerged in the flowing water of the Jordan river…and we hear that immediately as he came up from the water…the instant…the second…the microsecond…that his head broke back through the surface of the water…the heavens were RIPPED APART…not just opened…like God popped open a window, or the spirit walked through a doorway…but literally ripped to pieces.

There is only one other place in Mark’s gospel where we hear this same wording…when Jesus dies and the curtain hanging in the temple…separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple…is ripped in two. (pause)

In that instant…the separation between God and humanity was eliminated…some might say that humanity could now access God…and that’s true…others might say that God was free to encounter humanity…and that’s also true…when the curtain was ripped open God was set loose in the world among us.

And today…in the instant of Jesus baptism, the heavens were ripped open…the heavens…the place where God is…the plane of existence which is totally separate from our reality…God destroyed it in order to get to his beloved child…God destroyed his reality in order to get to one that he loves.

What’s that say about God? (pause) What does that tell us about the lengths that God will go to in order to be with those that he loves…those that he cherishes. (pause).

And now what does that say about us? Because in our baptisms…we are also called beloved child of God. (pause) So maybe…just maybe…today, even though Mark fails to give us much in the way of details…and even though he cuts things off…seemingly right in the middle of this story…this story that serves as the beginning of the gospel of Christ…maybe today we are reminded that God is willing to tear heaven apart…God is willing to destroy the barrier between us and him for each and every one of us…simply because he loves us too much not to. (pause)

This is the gospel of Jesus Christ…this is the good news…that his life…his death…and his resurrection simply serve as evidence to the fact that there is no length that God will not go to for you. (pause)

And the truly remarkable thing about all this…is that God chooses to do it…its not up to us…God does it…God is the one taking action…making all of this possible. When someone is baptized…God does it. Its not the pastor or the parents…its not the sponsers…its not the grandma or the grandpa…and its certainly not the individual that’s taking the action…its God…it is the action of our creator who will go to any length to be with you…and so when the words are uttered that you have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed in his love for ever…God’s the one doing the marking…God’s the one doing the sealing…and you can rest assured that the same Spirit which came upon Jesus in his baptism comes upon you in yours. (pause)

The beginning of the gospel is found in baptism…but it doesn’t end there…especially not in Mark’s gospel where we are seemingly left hanging…because the gospel goes on…and even when Mark stopped writing…the story wasn’t over yet…because the gospel is still going on…it didn’t end with Jesus death…it didn’t end with his resurrection…and it hasn’t ended now today…and because God’s story keeps going on…and because God desires for us to join with that same story…the gospel goes on…whether we’re paying attention or not…God’s not leaving us hanging. Amen.