Posts Tagged ‘Mary’

A Long Long Time Ago 12-24-19

In this sermon for Christmas Eve, based on the normal text of Luke 2:1-20, I explore the action of God in the birth of Jesus. We dive into divine mysteries of faith, and not understanding what God is up to, but being assured of the promise that it is for us…and there’s a healthy amount of Star Wars excitement.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/sermon-005-a-long-long-time-ago-12-24-19

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

May the grace and peace of our Savior be yours tonight. Amen

When I was in high school and college, I went to a lot of movies. Rarely would a week go by that I didn’t take in at least one…and since I watched a lot of movies…I also watched A LOT…of previews.  And I enjoyed it…it was one of my favorite parts of the experience in those days…to see a small piece of an upcoming movie…and to get that sense of wonder and anticipation about something coming your way in the future.

Now there was one in particular that I can remember…showed up late 1996…it opened with an image of a small square boxy television set, placed in the middle of the large theater screen…and as images of a space battle played on that small tv screen, a voiceover told us “For a generation, THIS, has been the only way to watch Star Wars.”  And you see a X-wing fighter flying straight at the screen…and you hear “UNTIL NOW” and that X-wing comes through the tv screen…straight at you, filling the entire theater screen.

This was how they announced the Special Edition theater release of the original Star Wars trilogy…and I was ecstatic…All three of the original movies came out by the time I was 5 years old and so I was part of that generation who had only seen them on television…and so the excitement to be able to sit in a theater a few months later…and see that blue text…a long time ago in a galaxy far far away…followed by a second of silence before the giant STAR WARS emblem flashed across the screen at the same time as that amazing musical fan fare begins…it was thrilling.

A couple years later, beginning in 1999, it happened again…and this time, with the release of the prequel trilogy…I was able to sit in the theatre and have that same excitement and thrill…to know that I was seeing part of a larger and familiar story…and yet to experience an unknown chapter.

2015…it started again…with the release of episode 7, the Force Awakens…and that time I was able to sit next to my son for his FIRST experience of Star Wars in the theater…and finally, this past weekend…in what has been billed as the FINAL chapter in the Skywalker Saga…episode 9…and sure enough…as I sat there in that brief second of quiet and dark, and then felt the thrill of STAR WARS along with the music…and I don’t know if was nostalgia or excitement or anticipation…or maybe a mixture of all three, but I had a little grin on my face as we entered back into this familiar LARGER story…maybe for the last time…in order to experience it new. (pause)

It seems to me that through 42 years of Star Wars…the way that we continue to revisit that larger story…connecting with the familiar…sharing it with a new generation…and even those moments of anticipation for something new…that whole thing seems to have a great deal in common with the sense that we bring tonight.

Christmas…such a vitally important part of the church year…of the overarching story of what God is up to in our reality…a night in which we join together in the familiar to celebrate something that is worth remembering.

Some of us bring many years of experience to this night…a sense of tradition…memories of year’s past and in our minds “the perfect” Christmas conditions.  Some might be here for the very time…hearing this story, experiencing this worship with brand new eyes.

For some…events have happened in the past year that give you new perspective…you are bringing something different tonight…and because of that, whatever it is…good, bad, or otherwise…this night feels different…and you hear that same old story in a new way…and this is a truth that we all bring into our lives of faith…that OUR existence shapes our experience of the scriptures…and of worship and tradition…that our lives up to this point, shape how we experience the divine. (pause)

It seems to me that this is also the case for the individuals who are involved within the Christmas narrative…the story of the Nativity…the story of Jesus’ birth…so let’s think about the different people that we hear about.

First off, a couple of big-wigs in the historical and political realm. Ceasar Augustus…emperor of the Roman Empire…and Quirinius, the Syrian governor who overseas the area we know as the Holy Land.  Two important people…who beyond a name drop, and an order given for a Roman Census…we never hear from again. Logic would say that these two would play a bigger part in this reality altering moment…but beyond the census giving the Holy Family a reason to be Bethlehem…they play no other part…because apparently God doesn’t put a whole of stock in status and political power. (pause)
Who else do we hear about?  Well, we’ve got Mary and Joseph…who have followed the rules and headed off to be registered…and they’re in a tough spot aren’t they? As we hear, the time comes for Mary to have her baby…because those two political bigwigs don’t give a hoot about the biological situation of these commoners from backwater Palestine…and biology doesn’t care that they are in a strange city, surrounded by strangers in the dwelling of some random house in Bethlehem.

Mary…is probably scared out of her mind…not only is she in unfamiliar surroundings…but she’s about to go through labor and birth for the first time…and remember she’s like 13 or 14. Granted, the angel of the Lord had shown up and relayed this whole deal to her 9 months earlier…but now she’s in the midst of it.  (pause) Joseph…he’s there too…and though we don’t hear much from him, I imagine he’s stressing out as well.  But in the end, the baby is born…they wrap him up and lay him a manger…which, despite any expectations you might have of a barn connected to a hotel…would have actually been a normal aspect of the structure of houses in those days…everyone had a corner where you’d keep your animals in the cold of winter…and so you also had a manger to feed your animals…and lacking any other available space…that’s where they laid the baby. (pause)

Now we have one other batch of people to consider…the shepherds…a ratty, stinky, batch of guys hanging around outside of town…pretty much the lowest of the low from a social standpoint…polar opposite of those first two individuals that we heard about in the emperor and governor…and yet these shifty characters are the ones with the dynamic, downright shocking part to play in this story.

It was nighttime…the sheep were bedded down…and while they were keeping watch, I imagine not much was really happening…I bet that guy was totally nodding off…when suddenly…out of nowhere…brightness and divine glory and booming angelic voices surround them. This was their Star Wars fanfare moment…and they are given the divine message. Born to you this day, a savior, who is Christ the Lord…and then a heavenly choir shows up…adding to the experience…but then just as quick as its begins, its over…the angels depart…the shepherd blink at each other for a moment before deciding…well, let’s go check it out.

And they do…and they find the baby laying there just like the angel said…and they share the divine news that was given to them…and then they haul off, still praising God and telling everyone they encounter…which is great…and Joseph’s over here doing who knows what…and Mary…she hears all this stuff…and sorta takes it all in…and then treasures it. (pause)

Different people…all of whom bring their own perspectives…their own experiences into this DIVINE moment in history…and that shapes HOW they experience this divine encounter…and same is true for us.  Consider what has happened…consider what we profess to be true…consider what we celebrate every year at this time.

The divine creator of EVERYTHING…God who is ultimately bigger…larger…grander…greater…the one who is completely and utterly MORE than we are…through the power of divine Holy Spirit…which is still the same God but is somehow also different…that Spirit of God SOMEHOW has begotten a baby into the womb of very young woman. A baby who is somehow both human and divine…who is the Son of God and yet IS GOD. (pause)

This truth which we profess…this concept of one God in three persons…it defies all logic…and when we bump into things like that…we default to calling it a divine mystery…and there’s nothing wrong with that…but its doesn’t explain things.

This is a concept that comes up in Confirmation Class all the time…and this year’s class has really grabbed onto that question.  “Wait…so Jesus is God?” “Yes.” “But Jesus prays to God right?” “Yes.” “And Jesus calls God, Father right?” “Yes.”  “So…Jesus is his own dad?”

Don’t get me wrong, I love it that our young people are thinking about this…that they are wrestling with it…because it doesn’t make sense does it…and yet…that the gospel…that we have a God who desires to be with us so much, that this DIVINE entity would become one of us and dwell among us…and not only that…but in order to somehow overcome every aspect of this broken reality that hinders our relationships with God and with one another…this same divine made flesh would grow up…spend 3 years embodying the freedom from what hinders as he heals, and teaches, and raises the dead, and constantly reaches across the margins to those pushed to the outside…and then when the powers of this world push back against this new thing that God is bringing into the world…his body is broken and his blood is poured out…and he PROMISES us that whatever is going on in THAT moment is FOR you…and we will remember that…we will celebrate THAT tonight as well…even though we don’t understand it…even though it is a mystery on how or why it works. (pause)

People of God…it is my great joy to stand up before you when we gather for worship…and especially in times like this one when we gather specifically for the purpose of remembering the action that God has taken in our reality…it is my joy to speak about the divine mysteries of our faith…the mysteries of things we cannot explain…but to be able to share the truth and the promise that whatever it is that God is up to…that it is for you…a promise spoken by the angel to the shepherds…that this good news of great joy IS for ALL people…even if we do not understand it.

The birth of Christ…which we celebrate tonight…it may have happened A long long time ago…somewhere far far away…but it is for you…and just like the shepherds…you are invited to go forth from this place…from this experience…glorifying God and telling all who you encounter…about this mysterious thing that God has done.

This is the promise of the Gospel…that it is for you…and this is the challenge of the Gospel…that now YOU…are empowered by that same Spirit…to carry the good news out into this world that is so desperate for it…a world SO desperate for news of joy and love.

I gotta reference Star Wars one more time…not the brand new one because that would be spoilers and that’s not cool…but episode 8 that came out 2 years ago. There’s a line in THAT film that embodies the mystery of what God is up to in our reality…the mystery of Divine love for this world.  “This is how we win…not by fighting what we hate…by saving what we love.”

I don’t know how it works…but I profess to you…THIS…is what Jesus…has done. Amen.

Jesus and Silent Joe 12-22-19

In this sermon, based on Matthew 1:18-25, I explore the divine announcement of Jesus’ pending birth as well as the birth itself. Matthew aims the action at Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father. His actions reveal a great deal about the connections that humanity holds with the Messiah.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/sermon-004-jesus-and-silent-joe-12-22-19

(Note that sermons will now feed into my Podcast, The Rambling Rev, available on iTunes, Google Play Music, and Spotify. Subscribing on any of those feeds will automatically bring you the audio of my future sermons as they become available.)

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

May the grace and peace of our Triune God be yours, now and forever. Amen.

As someone who has a background in acting, not to mention a fair amount of public speaking…I’ve got an appreciation for skills related to this type of thing…and in particular, I’m thinking about the skills needed for non-verbal communication.

It goes without saying that this takes on a lot of different forms, but I’ve always appreciated individuals who can convey a message without words…they use expression and mannerisms, and of course their actions to convey what’s going on with their character.

I’m sure there are a lot of examples of this type of thing, and a couple come to mind for me…and in both of them…the non-speaker is part of a duo…now the first set are entertainers in the realm of illusion…Penn and Teller…Penn talks constantly during their act…and in the midst of it all…Teller is busy doing the magic…and his expressions and actions make up his side of the show.

The second example actually comes out of a series of movies that came out back in the 90’s and early 2000’s…humorous but REALLY lowbrow…a pair of characters known as Jay and Silent Bob.  They’ve got a lot in common with Penn and Teller…Jay talks A LOT…but Silent Bob…well its right there in his name isn’t it? He’s silent…and its his expressions and actions that tell his side of the story in whatever scene they pop up in.

This idea of a silent character is where I’m connecting into today’s gospel story…Matthew’s account of the divine announcement of Jesus’ pending birth, relayed angelically to one of his parents…not to mention, in an almost throw away comment…we hear of the birth of Jesus as well.

Now Matthew’s account, this passage which we have just shared, is unique within the three year cycle of the lectionary and the passages that come up here on the final Sunday of Advent…its unique because of the presence of Jesus’ birth within the passage. Granted, most of it is still anticipatory in nature…looking forward to the birth…which it should be as we are still in Advent for a couple more days…but with Christmas coming right up on us in a couple more days…I don’t think it’s a bad thing…in many ways today is a transition from a sense of anticipation into celebration of the Messiah’s birth. (pause)

But that being said…the unique aspect of Matthew’s account of this story and the focal point did grab my attention.  Perhaps its because we’ve just come out of year highlight Luke’s gospel…one in which there is a stronger emphasis on the Good News and its effect on the marginalized. We see this in many moments, but one of the earliest happens when the angel of the Lord shows up to announce the pending Messiah and interacts with Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In Luke’s account they have a conversation…Mary is given some agency…even a choice in the matter…but Matthew presents things a little differently doesn’t he…and that was blaringly obvious to me as I started working towards today’s message….the angel shows up to Joseph.  Joseph is given direction…Joseph is given divine assurance of what’s happening…and even though as “righteous man” he’s determined to follow the law in regards to his now-pregnant fiancé, Joseph receives divinely inspired direction aimed at taking the unexpected action in this story.

Its all about Joseph isn’t it…and where’s Mary?  She’s in the background…completely passive…she’s got no choice in this matter, She’s powerless…and like Teller on stage, and Silent Bob in the movies…she’s given no voice in this VITAL moment of history.

And I’ll be honest…that REALLY bugs me…because while Luke reveals her choice and her agency in this whole deal…Matthew glosses over it…she’s lucky she even gets called by name…and I wonder what she was thinking…is she standing there in the background wanting to smack Joseph upside the head. What makes him so special that all of the focus falls in his court? (pause)

That was my first thought, one that I wrestled with as I explore Joseph’s role in this story…and not just within this immediate passage.  I took a look at the different times that Joseph pops up…because he does fill an important role in the early life of the baby and then child Jesus.

While Joseph had seemingly died by the time that Jesus’ ministry begins in his adulthood, Joseph is still around during each moment we’re given while Jesus is growing up…filling that role of parent…of provider and protector…and we find evidence of THAT specific role of parental protector of the baby Jesus…when his divine dream radar just keeps going off.

The angel of the Lord just KEEPS showing up in Joseph’s dream…we’ve got today’s passage.  And then after the birth of Jesus, when the king is trying to kill him off, Joseph gets a dream warning to haul the family off to Egypt.  Then after the king dies, another dream pops up telling Joseph to come on home…but then upon their arrival back in Palestine, another dream comes up warning of the king’s son who is now in charge and is just as dangerous, and Joseph takes the family north to Galilee. 4 times within 1 chapter of the gospel in which Joseph’s dream radar provides divine direction.

And each time, Joseph takes action…and good for him…We’re proud of you Joseph…but still…why’s the focus on you and not Mary…why doesn’t she get a voice in the matter and you do? (pause)  Or does he?

Here’s the mind-blowing thing that I realized after fitting and stewing on this most of the week.  Joseph…while he receives divine direction…he’s given divine assurances…and he takes action…throughout his ENTIRE story, in ANY of the gospels, Joseph…never…speaks.  Not one time…as we look at the larger story we might call them Jesus and Silent Joe, because JUST LIKE that character…its not words…its his actions that matter. (pause) So What does Joseph do?

He defies social decorum, not to mention religious regulations to accept Mary as his wife…despite logic saying that she’s committed adultery. He takes her into his home, no doubt facing public shame and ridicule…and then, when her pregnancy comes to a close and the baby is born…we hear that Joseph…named him Jesus.

Now for us…that seems like an throw away comment, one that we take for granted…BUT the significance of Joseph taking this action cannot be understated. In this time…it was the role of the father to name the child…ESPECIALLY if the child is a boy…something that we find in a few different scriptural stories as well.

And so…for Joseph to claim this responsibility…to give the name to the baby…Joseph is, for all intents and purposes…claiming this child as his own…he’s essentially Adopting the child that he knows is not his…this baby that is born of both flesh and spirit…human and divine in nature.  When Joseph says “I give him the name Jesus,” he is claiming Jesus as his child.

Now I can’t help but think of how HUGELY significant that fact is as we consider the overarching story of the gospel…a story which is hinted at as we consider the names given to the child. Jesus is the Greek version of Joshua…in fact it would be have been pronounced Yay-shua…and that literally means God saves…and not only but that but we also hear the prophet Isaiah referenced as the child is called Emmanuel…God with us.

And that’s the gospel isn’t it? The God who saves is with us. The divine will be found in the midst of us. The God who knows we are unable to save ourselves will dwell among us in order to accomplish that which we cannot. And this same God who took on flesh…while utterly different…is ALSO far more like us than we realize.

The savior of the world…the word made flesh…Emmanuel, is claimed by his earthly father…he is adopted into the family of Joseph…he is given a name by one who claims him as his own…you see where I’m going with this?  We are given the promise in the waters of baptism…that we too are claimed by a parent…we are adopted…made heirs to the promise as beloved children of God.

But the similarity doesn’t stop there either…there’s another that we find in this story…when Joseph is told that the child in Mary’s womb is begotten of the Holy Spirit…somehow, in ways that go beyond our ability to comprehend, and beyond my ability to explain…the humanity of Jesus is created out of the presence of the Holy Spirit…the Spirit which we hear dwells within him at his baptism…and the same Spirit which has promised to dwell within us through the waters of our baptism.

This same Holy Spirit empowers us as followers of Christ…and it unites us together into the one body of Christ here on earth…we REMEMBER that the very spirit of God which somehow incarnated the living word of God in the first place…resides within us.

And this promise opens up a whole new understanding of what Emmanuel means, what God with us…means…that not only do we have a God who walked among us. But that which is divine is found WITHIN us…within those who created bearing the divine image of God in the first place…and in whom God delights to be found in the presence of the Spirit. (pause)

As we move from this season of expectation into the season of celebration, remembering once more that God has dwelled among us…may we all remember in the midst of dark times, both literally as we consider the dark season of winter which is upon us…as well as metaphorically as we consider the darkness still present within this broken world that we live in…may we remember that to look in the face of one another is to see the presence of God IN one another.

And as this is true for you as you look at another…know that it is ALSO true as they look back at you.  This is the glory of the gospel that goes beyond all understanding…that the ultimate creator and sustainer of everything, everything which is seen and unseen…this God has chosen to dwell…in…you. Amen.

Don’t Pick On Personality 7-21-19

In this sermon, based on Luke 10:38-42, I explore the odd little exchange that occurs between Jesus and the sisters, Mary and Martha.  When we did, just a little bit, we start to uncover some interesting insight.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/dont-pick-on-personality-7-21-19

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

May the grace and peace of the Triune God be yours, now and forever. Amen.

In recent years, there has been an amazing emphasis placed on the exploration of different personality types and the ways that they manifest in the lives of individuals.  There are tons of different tests and surveys…countless different expressions and categories.

There’s Type A vs Type B.  There’s the enneagram scale.  There’s Strengthsfinders…just to name a few.  Now…I’ll fully admit that I haven’t done a ton of work in this realm…a lot of it goes over my head and I’m kinda lost in what each specific category is aimed at, and what the individual results within that category reveals.

But what I do know is these different things…personalities and tendencies and strengths, whatever we want to call them…they manifest themselves in a lot of different ways…and they differ greatly between individuals…and perhaps there is no-where that we begin to see this better expressed than within families.

We see drastic differences between siblings…we see them between parents and children…and we definitely see them between spouses…and I can confirm this from personal experience. My wife and I agree on a lot of things…but we have two VERY different personality types…something that becomes VERY apparent on Saturdays.

Now my wife would be called Type A…and one of her strengths is achievement…and this manifests itself in the fact that she has a very hard time sitting around all day doing nothing.  (Pause) Now me, on the other hand…I will happily lounge around on my keister all day without batting an eyelash…I suppose that makes me Type B…and yes…just like we find in today’s story…this can…and does…lead to tension. (pause)

Mary and Martha. Another story that has infiltrated our cultural awareness in the differences that lie between personality types.  We’ve got Mary, the laid back one…the one who casually sits at the feet of Jesus, just taking it all in…oblivious to what’s going on and the tasks of hospitality that linger in the house around her. (pause) And then we’ve got Martha…the proverbial busy-body…the one who can’t even think about sitting down because…THERE’S JUST SO MUCH TO DO!!!!!

Now, its my tendency to try and put myself in the headspace of the people that we hear about in the scriptures…and this one’s no different…so for starters…we’ve got Martha. (Pause) Oh…Jesus is here….goodness me…so much to do…I need to tidy up before he even comes inside. I bet he’s hungry and he’s got all those people with him…they all need to eat, better get in the kitchen…and all the neighborhood kids will be bugging them…I need to shoo them away…is it too stuffy in here, do I need to open a window…so much to do. (pause) And then there’s Mary…DUDE!!!!! Jesus is here…YES…I am totally just gonna sack out and listen…where’s my beanbag chair? (pause)

Now as we know…as this little scene progresses Martha gets continually annoyed with Mary…and it seems with Jesus too, because she snaps…at him…Jesus! Dude…don’t you care, that my sister…has left me to do all the work. Tell her to help me!

And then Jesus, finally speaking aloud for the first time calmly tries to grab Martha’s attention…and she’s in such a tizzy that he has to say her name twice…Martha…Martha…you are distracted and worried about many things…only one is needed. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be take away. (pause)

It seems…at first glance…that Mary is praised and Martha is condemned…and that Jesus is throwing some shade on the work that Martha is doing.  And if we limit things to the surface level, we walk away from this passage with yet another moral lesson that seems to say…Sabbath is important, don’t be so busy…take a load off.

And if that’s where we stop…we are doing an incredible disservice to Martha…Yes she’s distracted…yes she’s worried…but that’s what Jesus seems to be calling her away from…not the actual work that she’s doing.

Here’s the thing…and pay attention because this is important…in the original language…we hear that Martha is distracted by her many “services” or we can even say “ministries.” It’s the same word…and that should be eye opening for us here in the church. She’s so distracted by trying to do too many ministries all at the same time that she’s missing out on the one thing needed.

I don’t know what that one thing was…maybe all Jesus needed was a cloak picked up off a chair so he could sit down…she didn’t need to clean the whole house.  Maybe he was hungry for a chunk of bread…but she’s trying to prepare a lavish meal…I don’t know…but I’m pretty sure he’s not condemning her for attempting to be of service to her guests.  That’s Martha’s personality…that’s her tendency…she’s living into her authentic self by hosting…but Jesus seems to be pointing out that she’s going overboard and her distraction and worry is evidence of that.

Now that being said…the flipside is also worth paying attention to…Mary’s not being praised for sitting around doing nothing…because you know what…sometimes people are hungry and a meal needs to get made…sometimes the communion bread needs to be baked…or the scripture needs to get read, or Sunday School classes need to be taught.

So what’s different?  What do we take from this?  If its not the surface level lesson that we should ignore busy-ness so we can zero in on our guest…then what is Jesus calling us into here? What is this better part…this good portion that Mary has chosen that Jesus seems to acknowledge? (pause)

I think that’s a good question to ponder on…especially in light of our recent gospel stories over the course of the past few weeks…because honestly…if we take all of Luke Chapter 9 and 10 together…Jesus is giving us a lot of mixed messages.

We hear, early on that Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem…indicating intentionality about his mission and his ministry…an intentionality that is highlighted when a few would-be followers each ask for a touch of leeway, only to have Jesus hammer them for a lack of focus and commitment.

Then he sends out 70 people to proclaim the good news that the Kingdom has come near…which is apparently so important of a message that they can’t even turn aside to say hello to someone on the road…NO DISTRACTIONS…get right to it.

That’s followed up by a question about who’s my neighbor and the parable of the Good Samaritan that gives an impression…no you should be willing to turn aside…to offer mercy to those who need it…to get involved in the immediate need as opposed to that directive over there.

And now the implication that mundane tasks aren’t the answer, but that we should just zero in on the guest…or at least maybe on Jesus.

So come on Jesus…seriously…what do we make of this? (pause)

I went round and round with that question…trying to make head’s or tails of the good news of this odd little exchange that all too often pits two sisters against each other and leaves people reeling when they see themselves in one or the other.

But what if this odd little passage reveals an invitation of Jesus to simply be honest and authentic about who we are?  What if Martha isn’t getting smacked for hosting…but rather is being called to be her best self at one thing.  And what if Mary isn’t getting praised for being lazy, but rather she’s being affirmed in her desire to engage with a guest. (pause)

It seems to me…over and over again in the scriptures…and especially in the gospels…and specifically here in Luke’s gospel…it seems like Jesus continues to extend an invitation to countless different individuals to be precisely who they are…and when they do…it seems like he takes joy in that…and he finds delight in the presence of their authentic self.

And when I think about that…I’m reminded of the truth that we find clear back in Genesis…that our existence begins from a place of joy and delight of the one that made us in the first place.  Think about that…God made you…and God has called you VERY GOOD…We have a God who made ALL of this out of a sense of divine goodness and joy…and the brokenness of the whole thing…that didn’t come around until chapter 3.

Admittedly…there are times when our Lutheran tendencies put a little too much emphasis on the brokenness of humanity and the world. I don’t dispute that this brokenness is a reality…far from it…but that’s not where our existence begins.

And maybe, just maybe, whatever it was that was being accomplished in the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus…maybe it was it making it possible for us to see that we are perfectly loved and accepted and claimed by the God who joyfully made us in the first place…and that this is true RIGHT NOW in this moment.

You don’t have to hide who you are…who you really are…in order for God to love you…and the gospel frees us to truly believe that…and to know that whatever brokenness does exist within us…there is grace for that…but that we don’t have hide our true selves away for God to give this love to us…that’s a ludicrous idea when we think about it…that the one who created this reality and everything in it by simply speaking it into being could ever be fooled into thinking that the false persona we present to the world is real. God knows you intimately…and God desires for you to be honest with yourself…and to be free in that…that’s the gospel…that’s the presence of the Kingdom of Heaven coming near to us…

And the other amazing thing about all this…is that we are also free to love one another in this same way…which, let’s be honest…is something that body of Christ really needs to work on. But praise be to God that there’s grace for the church too.  Yes she is broken…yes she is flawed…because she is made up of broken and flawed people…but thanks be to God…that the perfect, all in…completely encompassing grace-filled love of God continues, day after day, to overcome our shortcomings…and continues to invite us forward into that amazing freedom that we find when we realize that the kingdom HAS come near…and that we are already a part of it.  Amen

Who Am I 12-23-18

In this sermon, I explore Mary’s visit to Elizabeth in Luke 1:39-55. In this brief passage, we are reminded of the reality of oppression and marginalization and the privilege that lies on the opposite side. And yet, the promise of the gospel is that God’s mercy and love puts us all on equal ground.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/who-am-i-12-23-18

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

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

Have you ever heard the expression “everyone is the hero of their own story?” (Pause) I think that’s a pretty accurate statement…and it speaks into how our existence…our life…our day to day is utterly shaped by our own experience…none of us tend to think of ourselves as the bad guy in any situation…but that we are simply doing the best that we can given the circumstances.

But sometimes I wonder if that’s always the case…and I think its safe to say that sometimes we all get caught up in the “poor me” mentality…that idea that things are everyone else’s fault…or that everyone else is being stubborn or narrow-minded.  I wonder, how many of us have ever been in a situation when we are listening to another person share their frustrations…their irritations…and we’ve thought to ourselves…or maybe we’ve just come out and asked the question “What’s your part in this?”  I think this is pretty universal…that we wear blinders to our part of things…to our responses or our statements…and we get caught up in the other persons stuff without considering what we can control…and I can think of no better way of saying this…of conveying this idea other than the phrase “Own your stuff.”  The good and the bad…I think we all fall in the trap of failing to own it don’t we? (pause)

In the interest of full disclosure…I’m gonna own some stuff right now…most of what I’m going to say will not be shocking…but I need to say it anyway.  I’m a guy…I’m nearing 40, and at this stage in my life I’m old enough to be taken seriously by the generations above me…and I’m still young enough to not be utterly blown off and disregarded by the generations coming up below me.

I am, as you may have noticed…white.  I am married with a couple of kids, and while that’s not a dead giveaway in every instance, it does point to the strong possibility that I’m straight…and I am. I hold a Master’s Degree making me pretty highly educated, and along with that I’m gainfully employed with a fair wage and organizationally required health insurance and retirement savings…and finally, the icing on the cake…I live in the US.  All of this adds up to the reality that I will fully own…I AM…one of the single LEAST marginalized people on the planet. (pause)
Now I can only imagine that you are wondering what this has to do with anything today…we find ourselves at the tail end of the season of Advent…the season of anticipation and longing for the coming Savior.  Today is of course December 23rd…Christmas Eve is tomorrow…and tomorrow night we’ll gather to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus…the birth of the savior…and as we know that’s a really big deal.

But before we can get to the birth of the savior…that mind-blowing guy who is somehow both fully God and fully human, we have think about how the human aspect gets into the world…which is the same as any other human…he’s born, but before he can be born, there has to be a pregnancy.

And that’s where we find ourselves today…our story begins “in those days” and in those days, Mary the mother of Jesus has literally JUST been visited by the angel Gabriel and told that she’s going to be pregnant through the power of God’s Holy Spirit…and that the child will be the savior of the world…and not only that…but that her older relative Elizabeth, who has been barren her entire life and is well beyond child bearing, is also pregnant.

And so…with haste…Mary takes off and goes on a visit…and this is the focal point of today’s story…the amazing Spirit-filled initial encounter between these two women who are pregnant in what can only be considered miraculous circumstances.

Now Mary and Elizabeth have some things in common but they’ve got some pretty distinct differences as well.  Elizabeth is older, perhaps even considered elderly…Mary is young, probably not even in her teens yet.  Elizabeth is the wife of a priest that is periodically active in the Temple…they’ve got means…enough that they actually owned two different houses…in the fairly well to do region of Jerusalem and Bethany right outside the city.  Mary’s engaged to Joseph, but is not yet married…and she’s from a tiny backwater town where she’s grown up in a tiny mud walled hut built over a naturally occurring limestone cave alongside countless other so-called “houses.”

But the thing that they both have in common is this pregnancy…now culturally speaking, there’s a lot going on here. Scripture tells us that when Elizabeth’s barrenness is broken and she’s miraculously pregnant she goes into seclusion…tradition in Israel says that she was embarrassed to be pregnant around all the city girls so she runs off to the country house…and that’s where Mary comes to see her.

What we don’t know is why…why does Mary come…it could be a lot of reasons. Maybe she wants to connect with a relative in the same sort of boat and have some girl-chat.  Maybe she’s going to serve as a mid-wife to her relative in the later stages of her pregnancy.  Or maybe, since Mary was now pregnant in “questionable circumstances,” and she lives in the epitome of the small town…she’s trying to get away too…after all she would have faced the possibility of scorn and ridicule and even being stoned to death.

Both of these women are facing tough circumstances…and the culture of the day certainly didn’t help any. It may seem utterly foreign to us now…but in that time, women were property…marriages were arranged for financial reasons…and other than caring for the house…pretty much the sole reason for women to exist was to provide babies for her husband…and preferably boys because the guy needed an heir.  They couldn’t own property…they couldn’t embark on business transactions…they couldn’t do much.  In short…they were marginalized to start with…and now you put these odd ball circumstances into their lives…and I think its safe to say that Mary and Elizabeth fall under the category of the lowly…the downtrodden…the very people that Mary starts singing about in the Magnificat.

I think its safe to say that their experience is the polar opposite of my existence…and in the interest of full disclosure…I feel very very uneasy in trying to tell you how you should think or feel about this divinely inspired exchange between the two women…because this situation is so utterly out of my wheelhouse.

As I’ve considered it…I think about those of you who have struggled with fertility…because that’s a reality…and I wonder how you hear this story of God’s divine intervention in not just one but two pregnancies…two pregnancies that build off of a history of other Old Testament pregnancies of divine nature.  I wonder if this strikes you as painful to hear as you wait and hope and hope that one day it will be your turn.

On the flip side…we’re in a day and age where a women’s worth is not…or in the very should not be dictated by having children…and I know many women who live a fulfilled life with no desire for kids…and I wonder how this speak in their situation to hear scripture saying that they are blessed through having children.

We can go deeper than that and think about those who are marginalized for all kinds of different reasons…because if there’s one thing we’re good at its pushing people to the margins over really pointless stuff…race, economic status, sexual orientation, gender, age, just to name a few…and it happens, sometimes intentionally…and sometimes its happening despite our ignorance of it…and we are blissfully unaware. (pause)

Now what I cannot tell you…is where you fall on all this.  Some of you may be sitting out there today and this hits close to home…because of something beyond your control that pushes you aside…that says you are somehow less. (pause) But on the flip side some of you might be uncomfortable because this brings up the sense of how you’ve benefited from it.

And that’s where I find myself today…and as I consider my own privilege that honestly is no more than dumb luck to be born this way…I can’t help but hear a rebuke in Mary’s words…God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…he has brought the powerful down from their thrones…he has sent the rich away empty. (pause)

The crazy thing about scripture…about the gospel…is that in its very nature it brings comfort to the afflicted and affliction to the comfortable…and we see that on full display today…because God has looked with favor on the lowly…God has filled the hungry with good things.

Maybe just maybe what God is up to is evening the playing field…something we might call equality or justice…and in the midst of that…giving a reminder that when it comes to God’s mercy…when it comes to God’s favor…when it comes to God’s love for each of us…there is not a scarcity…but there is an abundance…that God offers it to each us in the same amount…and that the promises are that God will be found with those who are lowly…something evidenced in that God chose the lowest of the low…a young unwed mother in first century Palestine…a girl from a poor backwater town in the midst of controlled territory…she is the one who is chosen to bear the literal embodiment of the divine into this broken reality.

That through her…all life, broken as it is…is somehow glorified because that which is divine dares to be found in the midst of it…and in the middle of all this God has made promises to each of us…that no matter what our circumstances…that divine love and acceptance…that divine favor is shown to us…that’s the promise of the gospel.

Elizabeth poses a question that seems quite fitting…at one point she says “why has this happened to me?”  Might as well be asking “why me” or “who am I?”  I can only imagine that Mary asked herself that same question…and its one that we probably ask as well… “Who am I that God would see me…that God would consider me…that God would look at me?”

Know this today…the promise which God has made through the life and the death and the resurrection of Christ…is that you are claimed and you are loved…and that God will be found with the least of us in order to show us how universal his love is for all the world…that’s the promise…whether we feel encouraged by it given our circumstances…or if we feel the need to repent of something based on our circumstances…the promise is the same…we need only believe it…and blessed is she who believed that there would be fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.  Blessed is the one who believes…and may we all find the hope present in this blessing as we anticipate the change which our Lord is bringing into the world. Amen.

A Story Within A Story 12-24-17 Christmas Eve

Tonight’s Christmas Eve sermon, based on Luke 2:1-20. There a story that repeats throughout history…but in the midst of that cycle, a new story happened when God changed everything.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/a-story-within-a-story-12-24-17

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

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

As a movie buff…one of my favorite parts of the movie going experience has always been watching the previews for upcoming features. Now, in my 38 years I’ve seen this go from 1 or 2 brief snippets to what is now anywhere from 20-30 minutes worth of time before the actual movie that you are there to see begins.

Recently, I’ve seen a preview for an upcoming movie called Early Man…an odd style of animation in this movie that will focus in on a group of cave men as they encounter the next stage in human achievement through the Bronze Age. Granted, I don’t really know anything more about the movie beyond that, but there is one part that makes me chuckle…the leader of this Bronze age civilization apparently wants to wipe out the cave men and we hear him say (French Accent) “Ze age of stone is over.” I don’t know why he’s French but that’s beside the point. (pause)

The interesting thing about this odd little preview…and specifically this one throwaway line is that it actually tells a very old…very common story. Pretty much as far back as we can find…as far back as various records go…pretty much every civilization, or people group, or tribe…they’ve all told pretty much the same story.

The story goes like this….Our tribe is the best. Our god is the best. Our WAY is the best…So come…join us…or we’ll kill you.[1] (pause) I wish we could say that society has outgrown that old story…but honestly we haven’t have we? We’ve just found much more sophisticated ways of establishing dominance over one another over the course of the past few thousand years…but the story remains the same.

And truly…this is evidence of the human condition…the human desire and quest for power. A quest, or a story that we have seen repeated time after time after time as we look back through history. (pause) Now…picture with me…the Middle East about 3500 years ago. And that same old story is running rampant. Kingdoms, if you want to use that word, were not overly huge…because a person could only control as much area as they were strong enough to protect…and sooner or later someone bigger and stronger was gonna come in and wipe you out.

Low and behold…this batch of nomads consisting of about dozen different tribes who sometimes get along and sometimes bicker like crazy move into the area along the edge of the Mediterranean Sea that we would call Israel. Gradually they beat everyone else and establish themselves…and then after a few hundred years…they get their act together and make a king…and he rules for 40 years…until some upstart former shepherd who’s good with a harp, not to mention a sling and a stone…undermines him and takes over…know who I’m talking about? This guy named David? Seems pretty popular in religious history.  Well David expands this kingdom, becoming one of the true superpowers of the day…and we’re talking about 1000BC here. Things go good for a while…but this AMAZING…SUPER…STUPENDOUS king dies…and within about 2 more generations this kingdom, this super power starts to fall apart. (pause) Cue the same old story. Beginning round about 750 BC, we see empire after empire after empire rise up, conquer…enslave…only to erode, and eventually be replaced by the next one in line. (pause)

This goes on for centuries…and so…round about the time that the calendar shifts from BC to AD…if we are to look in on this culture in Israel, who at one time had been super power…we find them now utterly under the boot of the Roman Empire…subject to the whim of Caesar, also known as Augustus…and they were part of the regional control of Syria and a guy named Quirinius. (Pause) Those names sound familiar? (Pause) Do you see where I’m going with this?

As Luke begins this account…this story…this gospel, he places us into a specific point in history…and he zero’s in on this one culture who are utterly caught up in the same old story repeated time after time after time…a culture who at one time were on the top of the heap…but now a millennia and a half later, are scrapping the bottom of the barrel.

This is a culture who considered themselves to be God’s chosen people…even after centuries of oppression…and if we look back through their scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, we see this pattern emerge and the repeated teachings that no matter what happens, God…the Lord…Yahwah, whatever name you want to use…their God would not leave them abandoned. Funny huh? (pause)
But wait…this is Christmas Eve right? Well, this isn’t the right story to focus on…so now, in the midst of all this…let’s look at a story that exists within the old story. And we center in on a couple of teenagers. A young Palestinian girl…probably about the same age as one of our 8th graders…she’s engaged to marry a young guy…MAYBE a freshman in college…and low and behold they find out she’s pregnant…but don’t give Joseph the side eye just yet because she’s been told by an angel that this is the power of God at work…doing the impossible in her being pregnant because she’s still a virgin.

In the midst of the turmoil that this would cause for them within their community…word comes out that the emperor is demanding a census…which not only means recording their name but also major taxation…and to top it all off they’ve got to go to their ancestral town to do it.  Remember that David guy from 1000 years prior…turns out Joseph is related to him…so Joseph, along with his UBER pregnant fiancé have to skedaddle from Nazareth in the north all the way to Bethlehem in the south…either on the back of a donkey, or in a cart, or maybe even on foot…over the course of about 100 miles…only to find that the town is so full that they get shoehorned into the only spot available…and sure enough…its baby time…no epidural…no quiet sterile birthing suite. Just a dark corner with nowhere else to place the brand new baby than in the feed trough. Think Mary and Joseph were aware of their standings in the grand scheme of things?

A baby boy, born in a backwater suburb of the capital, in a country ruled by multiple levels of military and political might…about as far from their home and the comfort of the familiar…far away from family. Zero fan-fair…at least until a bunch of stinky shepherds show up talking about angels and messages and messiahs asking “Hey can we see your kid?” (pause)
I can’t help but think that this story is UTTERLY devoid of anything that even remotely resembles something worth celebrating. By rights there is nothing about this story that makes it memorable…and yet…2000 years later…here we are to celebrate it. (pause)

The birth of Jesus of Nazareth…one of countless births that day…one of literally billions of births that have happened within the human race…shouldn’t matter…and yet it does. So what is it about this story…what is it about this baby…what is it about this man that we call Jesus that is so significant that we would celebrate it year after year after year?

The only answer that I can give for that question is that Jesus…the one we call Christ…is God’s answer to that same old story.  That in this story found in middle of all that other stuff…this story within a story…God is doing something new.

Think about this for a moment. The God that we profess as God…which is the same God that the Jewish culture professed as the one true God…the creator of the entirety of existence…looks at his creation which includes humanity mind you…and this God loves it SO MUCH…flawed though it is…That this God chose to break the same old cycle…This God chose to do something in order to show us that might does not make right…that true power is not found in the size of your army or the territory you control or how big your bank account is.

Because in this story…God is showing us that true power can only be found in weakness. The savior of the universe…the one who will save us from sins…the one who will endure the cross does so because God himself has taken flesh to show us that there is another way. That we have been called to love one another, just as God has first loved us…and that the kingdoms of this world…those symbols of power that humanity is REALLY good at putting our stock in are destined to fall.

History shows us this time and again…because history plays the long game…and you know what…so does God. (pause) God willingly chose to enter into our reality in the most humble and helpless way possible…born in backwater town to unmarried parents who were kids themselves…far from home because of the political tyrants of the day. (long pause)

Now maybe you’re asking yourself “So what?” And if you are, then consider the message of the angel. Behold I bring you good news of great joy. (Pause) There’s a word for that…bringing good news…its called being Evangelical…and in its true form…in its basic meaning…it means proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of heaven…a kingdom which has come forth with this humble baby…a kingdom that doesn’t work like all those other kingdoms…a kingdom that isn’t subject to that same old story…a kingdom based not in power…but in love. A kingdom where we are called to love our enemies and pray for them…a kingdom where we are called to share the resources that we have with those who don’t have enough…a kingdom with a God who delights in us…and desires so much that we can be together in relationship that he willingly became one us to make it happen. (pause)

This is pretty radical stuff…and admittedly, it goes against everything that basic human nature tells us should be right or powerful or mighty. But I’ll ask it again…how’s that same old story really working for us? How’s it working for you? Because its probably not a stretch for me to assume that things aren’t all hunky-dory in our world are they? Not if we’re honest with ourselves…because all too often all the junk in this world…all that stuff that we’re really good at heaping on ourselves…and all the rest of the stuff that the world is good at piling on too…all of that stuff probably just leaves us feeling stuck.

Many of you have heard me tell this story recently…but I’m gonna tell it again because its fitting.  A man is walking down the street and he falls in a hole…and the hole is deep and the walls are so steep he can’t get out…he tries and he tries and he tries but no matter what he does he can’t get himself out.  Pretty soon a doctor walks by…and the man hollers up Hey Doc can you give me a hand. The doctor looks down in the hole…writes a prescription and drops it in and walks away. Then pretty soon an architect comes by…and he says the same thing. Hey man can you help me out…and the architect looks down in the hole…draws a schematic and drops in…and he walks away.

But then the guys friend walks by…and he hollers Hey man its me…can you help me. And the friend jumps down in the hole next to him. He says What are you doing? Now we’re stuck in here together. But the friend says I know…but I’ve been here before, and I know the way out.  (pause)

The world tells us a story…that power is on display through might…but history shows us that eventually, someone bigger or stronger is going come along and knock you down in a hole…but tonight we hear a story from within that story telling us that we have a God who sees us in that hole…and comes among us as one who calls us Friend…and shows us that true power…His power…is found in the midst of weakness.  And the basis for this great power is the fact that he loves you, just as you are.

Tonight God tells a new story…one that sounds like Good News to me. Amen.

[1] Credit to Rob Bell “Everything is Spiritual” Video on Youtube.com for this microstory

Oh There You Are 12-24-17

In this sermon, taken from Luke 1:26-38, I explore the encounter between Mary and the angel Gabriel, as she learns that she will bear the Christ Child. Note that this covers the final Sunday of Advent and is not the Christmas Eve sermon.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/oh-there-you-are-12-24-17

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

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

Today’s a bit of an odd day isn’t it? Sunday morning…we’re celebrating Advent…and yet its also Christmas Eve…truly the calendar is playing a trick on us this year, but that’s okay…because despite our Advent focus this morning…I think its safe to say that we are all in the Christmas spirit aren’t we?

By now its impossible not to be…and Christmas is a wonderful time…one of joy…one of community…one of tradition…a time when we will often share stories of our own traditions and practices…of memories and stories…and I often find myself remembering the seasons of my younger years…and the overwhelming joy that a child feels at Christmas.

A feeling that perhaps connects to a famous literary character…Peter Pan…the boy who lives in Neverland…having adventure after adventure and never wanting to grow up. (pause) But what if he did?

There’s a movie that explored that very premise…Hook staring the late Robin Williams…a story in which Peter eventually did leave Neverland…and he grew up…forgetting all about his past…until the villainous Captain Hook kidnaps his children, causing the grown up, middle aged Peter Banning to return.

He finds himself with the Lost Boys for a few days…training…trying to remember…trying to find the youthful spirit once more…but all the Lost Boys see is a grown up grump…all except one little guy…In an emotional scene…he walks up to Peter…pulls him down to his knees to look him in the face…the boy pulls off his glasses…and starts turning Peter’s face in his hands…looking…searching…he smooths out wrinkles…he pulls back Peter’s hair…and then finally he lights up…a smile crosses his face…and he says “Oh there you are Peter.”  And with joy we realize that this little boy has found the one that he followed…the one that he remembers…the one that he loves and adores…the one that he favors. (pause)

Now maybe that’s a weird story to tell in connection with the Angel Gabriel showing up to give Mary this unexpected announcement…and yet if we consider the angel’s greeting…perhaps it starts to come into focus.

Greetings Highly favored one…the Lord is with you. (pause) Now we know why Gabriel is here don’t we?  He’s passing on the news that Mary has been chosen by God to serve in a role that is arguably one of the most important in all of history…that she has been chosen to bear the son of God…that she will be the mother of the one to save us all…the son of the most high…she will be the mother of Jesus.

But Mary’s reaction…well initially…its not great is it? (pause) The first thing we hear is her confusion at the angels greeting…that pondered what sort of greeting this might be…and then when Gabriel lays out the plan for her…her response? How can this be? (pause)

Now considering the plan that good ole Gabe has put on the table…maybe her reaction isn’t surprising…this is some pretty major stuff that God has mapped out…a baby, conceived within her…even though its physically impossible given that whole unmarried virgin thing…a baby who apparently is going to inherit the throne of David, even though the Romans utterly control the area and the throne is Israel is held by the bloodthirsty family of Herod.

It seems pretty unbelievable doesn’t it? But consider Mary’s status…she’s a nobody…a very young woman, still practically a child…she’s living in an era where both children and women have virtually no status at all…she lives in a backwater region of a conquered nation.  The news that she’s gonna have a baby out of wedlock would create all kinds of havoc for her…and even if it is true…and this baby is destined to take the throne, well that’s going to cause all kinds of turmoil for them with the political powers that be.

And as she’s thinking about all of this stuff…she remembers this crazy greeting that Gabriel had given her. Greetings Highly Favored One…Do not be afraid for you have found favor with God…now I can’t help but think that with all the turmoil that this announcement brings with it…all the hardship that she’s about to face because of what’s happening…God’s favor doesn’t exactly seem like the happiest thing in the world does it?

But maybe it isn’t suppose to. Maybe God’s favor doesn’t automatically add up to what our world has come to consider it to be…maybe it doesn’t equal ease, or riches…or popularity…maybe God’s favor actually points us in the opposite direction…and in the midst of it we can expect there to be struggle and pain and hardship…but only within the midst of those struggles do we find God-given strength to endure…not out of our own power…but out of the promise that we are not alone in it. (pause)

Now admittedly…this might be hard to wrap our heads around…especially as we consider the same things that Mary was considering…and that odd ball greeting and stipulation that she is highly favored.  But if we dig a little deeper, we find that our modern English translations…the ones that we’ve heard every year to the point where we can probably recite it from memory…it isn’t quite right…and if we start going backwards in the language we actually find that Gabriel says “Greetings, one who has found divine Grace with the Lord who is with you…Mary you have found Grace with God.”

Now when I realized that this week…it gave me some pause…because here in the Lutheran church…we’re big fans of Grace aren’t we…the free gift of God’s love…of God’s favor…of God’s salvation from sin…but as much as we love to hang our hats on God’s grace…there are times when we are honest with ourselves that perhaps we start to ask the question “Who am I that God would care? Who am I that God would look my direction. Who am I that God would love me?” (pause) We ask these questions because we know ourselves…we see…we feel the brokenness that exists within us and we know that we are not worthy of Love from the one who made this reality…and yet in making this reality…in making this world…that same God has made you.

This same God sees you in the midst of your brokenness…and God loves you anyway…and not only that but God desires that you will be with him…and since God is aware that we can’t get to him…he has come in search of us…but to truly accomplish this…he will enter into our reality in the same way do…as a helpless baby…one who’s name will be Jesus…as Gabriel instructs Mary today.

And you know what…sometimes there’s more to a name that we realize. In English we call him Jesus…in Greek it was Jeshua…which you might notice sounds kinda like Joshua…and its supposed to…and Joshua…the original Hebrew name means, quite literally Yahweh is generous…or Yahweh saves.

Today, here at the close of Advent…we hear the Divine plan laid out for Mary…and funny enough in just a few more hours, we’ll celebrate that plan in the flesh with the birth of Jesus…God in human form…the word made flesh…the light shining in the darkness…The Lord among us as one of us…showing us his divine favor…his divine love for each us.

For in Christ, God has come looking for you…and he’s willing to get right up in your face…he’ll go to any length to find the one that he loves…the one that he adores…the one that he favors…

Now maybe you ARE wondering Who am I that God would do this? Who am I that God would care. Who am I?  Know this, it doesn’t matter…because you are his beloved…and just like that little boy in the movie…imagine just how wonderful it will be to look God in the face one day…and to see the joy when he says “Oh there you are.”  Amen.

Death Stinks 4-2-17

In this sermon, based on John 11:1-45, I explore the raising of Lazarus, as well as the long story leading up to it. Death, like many of life’s other hardships, leave us asking the question “Where are you on this one?”

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/death-stinks-4-2-17

You can 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’s a story about a young couple, maybe you’ve heard it before…but the story goes that this young man and woman get married, and on their first day together after they get home from the honeymoon, the new bride decides that she’s going to cook a big fancy meal for her new husband. So she goes out to the store and buys all the fixings…including a great big, tasty ham for the main dish.

Now he’s home when she’s cooking…and as she’s getting ready to put the ham in the roaster pan…he watches his new bride pull out a knife, and slice the end off the ham, before putting in the oven.  Now he’s curious…why would she do that…and so he asks the obvious question. Honey…why did you cut the end off the ham?  She looks at him for a moment, clearly thinking about it…and she responds…well…because that’s what my mom always did before she cooked a ham…I guess I don’t really know why. That’s just what my mom taught me.

So now both of them are a little curious…and so the young woman pulls out her cell phone, puts it on speaker and calls her mom.  Mom…when I was growing up, whenever you were cooking a ham, I remember that you always cut the end off…how come?  Mom thinks about it for a moment and replies…Well…because that’s what I always saw my mom do? I guess I really don’t know why? That’s just what my mom taught me. (pause)
You see where this is going. Now the young bride dials up Grandma…and poses the same question. Why do you cut the end off a ham before you cook it?  And Grandma laughs…well dear…when I was first married to your grandpa…we had a tiny little oven…so small, that I couldn’t fit an entire ham in it…and I got in the habit of cutting the end off so it would fit…and now that I think about it…I never stopped, even when I got a bigger oven. (pause)

Sometimes the things that just seem normal, have a very different, often unexpected reason why they start in the first place. We have many different examples in our day to day lives…things that we do, because that’s just what you do…but they have their roots in something specific.

And one of these things happens around the subject of funerals.  Now the first funeral I remember going to was my great grandmother when I was about 8 years old…and I don’t remember much of anything about that day…except the flowers. The front of the church was blanketed in flowers…and with good reason.  Because when someone dies, what do we do? A batch of us get together and place an order to have flowers sent…its just what you do…and I know that, because that’s what my mom taught me.

But have you ever stopped to consider the reason why? Why do we send flowers? Why is the automatic association with someone’s death, flowers? There’s a reason…but it goes back aways…back before the days of funeral homes…and mortuaries. Back when most people didn’t die in a hospital…they died at home…they’d get sick…they’d be cared for in their final days at home in their bed…and then when they died…the body would stay right there…and when loved ones came for the visitation, they would find the bedroom draped in fresh flowers. Because fresh flowers give off a pleasant smell…and that smell was intended to cover up the smell of death.

Now in the years since, we’ve outsourced funeral prep…and that’s not a bad thing…but in the process, the flowers have just become the go-to sympathy gift…and the masking of death has gone the route of science. We prepare bodies for the funeral in an attempt to hold off decomposition…and we dress up the body, with nice clothes and makeup…trying to make the individual look life-like, and pleasant, and nice…but make no mistake. Death isn’t nice.  Death has an effect…and death has a smell.

Now many of here today are familiar with farm life. And one of things that I can remember most vividly, having grown up around livestock, as the rendering truck when an animal died. That smell is locked in my brain…you can’t put it in words…but its awful…and that smell sticks with you. Last summer, we were sitting at a baseball game for my son…and this particular field was right next to a gravel road…and as we sat there, 3 or 4 different times the rendering truck drove by…and for about 5 minutes…all you can smell is…death.

Now imagine for a moment…that you are Mary and Martha…and your brother has died…and not only that, he’s been in the tomb 4 days…not just dead, but buried…enclosed…rotting…and then Jesus shows up, and he asks you to open the tomb. (pause) That’s exactly what happens today, but interestingly enough not till quite late in this rather lengthy story.

We hear that Lazarus is sick…this man, who along with his two sisters are beloved friends of Jesus. And this is a sickness that isn’t going to get any better so they send word to Jesus…because if anyone can help him…if anyone can make a difference…its Jesus…he’s opened the eyes of a blind man after all…certainly, he can heal Lazarus…

But when Jesus hears the news…he promptly sits around for 2 more days before finally working up the gumption to head towards Bethany…and by the time he meanders there…as we have heard…Lazarus is already rotting away in the tomb.

Needless to say, the sisters…well they’re a little perturbed aren’t they…and apparently they are close enough to Jesus…that they can get away with ripping into him a little bit…and we hear the exact same accusation from both them at different times. If you had been here…my brother wouldn’t have died.

Now I can’t help but think that this is a pretty common reaction…when something bad happens…when something occurs in our lives that we can’t make heads or tails of…and we happen to be in the group of people that express belief in God…I think its safe to say that at one time or another…we have probably all uttered a statement like that haven’t we…or maybe asked the question…Hey God…where were on that one?

I think there are many different examples of things that happen in our lives that bring that question to our minds. Its not just limited to a illness and death…maybe we ask it when our family faces a financial crisis…or when we lose a job.  Maybe we’ve prayed that our marriage will work out…but instead it deteriorates and we find ourselves getting divorced.

Or maybe we are facing the trials of bullying with no end in sight…or maybe we’re being abused…or maybe we’re facing the difficulties of mental illness…there are countless ways that people suffer…and as we look around this room today…who knows what someone is experiencing in the depths of their heart…who knows what hardships are present…hardships that make us ask the question “Where are you on this one God?”

But if the story of Lazarus shows us anything today, its this.  While God might not act according our timing…and while God might not respond to our prayers or requests or questions quite like we hope for…God isn’t afraid to get into stuff that’s messy.

Take the stone away…Lord he’s gonna smell. I don’t care…take it away. (pause) A lot has happened in this story before Jesus cries out in a great big voice…a voice that’s somehow big enough that not even death can hinder it.  Jesus has been accused of not caring.  He’s been blamed for coming too late…but he’s also witnessed death of someone that he loves…and he’s gotten mad…and he’s mourned…but now…finally we see that somehow, someway…Jesus, God in the flesh…cries out in the same voice that spoke creation into existence in the beginning…and in this same amazing voice…he speaks to the dead…and the dead listens. (pause)

That’s the amazing thing about this God that we serve…this God that we worship…this God that we look to for salvation…This God, is willing to get messy…this God is willing to step into those things that make no sense…those things that bring us pain…even death. God gets into it…and not only that, but God get’s his hands dirty in the process…because life’s messy and so is death…its messy because of the way that power of sin has twisted our reality away from that which is good and joyful…but we have a God who loves us so much…who loves us beyond anything we can imagine…this God will go to any length in order to overcome that brokenness.

And that is what the cross is all about…We are almost there…next week Jesus gets to Jerusalem…and just a few days later, he’s betrayed…he’s beaten…he tortured…and he’s nailed to a cross where he suffers and dies. (pause) But the cross is not about God saying I’m so angry with you that I’ll punish my son. (pause) The cross is God saying I’ll endure even this to show you that I love you. (pause)

I am the resurrection and the life. These words of Jesus are a corrective today…both for Martha and for us…because there is this misconception that the life death and resurrection of Jesus is only something that’s intended to benefit us out there in the unknown future.  But Jesus reminds us that we live in the hope of the resurrection…and through that hope we live in the freedom from all that which hinders us…right here right now…and if we don’t believe that…then look at the tomb…because Jesus get in the stink…and cries out in that amazing voice that not even death can stop and says Lazarus come out.  (pause)
And this same God calls us by name…inviting us into a new life…a life free from the things that hinder us…a life where we are not defined by what the world says about us.

And so, wherever you find yourself today…whatever it is in your life that isolates you…whatever suffering makes you ask the question Where are you on this one God…rest assured…that whether we are able to recognize it or not…God…is right beside you…whether it makes sense or not…and as I say this, I pose the same question that Jesus asked Martha…Do you believe this?

I hope so…because believing it grants a freedom that goes beyond words…a freedom that goes beyond the ability to explain…but I believe that its true…I don’t know why…its just what faith has taught me. Amen