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Monday, January 26, 2015

Leaving On a Jet-Plane?

 Mark 1:14-20
          I love to travel, but truth be told, by the time the day of my departure on nearly any trip rolls around, I am usually seriously questioning whether this trip or any trip is ever really worth all the trouble that it takes to actually leave. Can my vacation possibly live up to its promise, and actually be worth all the time, work and stress that goes into its preparation?
          After many hours of research done to discover the best, most cost-effective option for travel – after answering questions like which airport we should depart from, and which airline we should use; after searching out all available car rental discounts and options; and, after deciding on the lodgings we will stay in – I am usually exhausted.
          Perhaps you have felt the same way.
          Then, of course, there are all the details that need to be settled around the house - making sure all the bases are covered; that the people and animals in our lives are cared for; that the mail is stopped and likewise the newspaper; that the plants are watered and someone is looking out for the house – ensuring that someone knows where we are and how to reach us.
          Finally, after also tying up all those loose ends here at the church – after checking each detail off the list, there are times I don’t even want to go anymore.
          Suddenly, a “staycation” looks really attractive.
          I am struck, therefore, in this gospel of Mark, by the immediate nature of the response of these first disciples, to the call of Christ; by the immediate answer of these four fishermen who were in the middle of their work, who, we can assume, were in the middle of lives in which they had connections and a multitude of responsibilities and ties to other people.
          “Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Did they even know what that meant? “I will make you fish for people.” I doubt it.
          But, just like that, each of them – Simon, Andrew, James and John dropped what they were doing, and went to follow Jesus. Immediately. We don’t read of them making plans or checking off “to-do” lists. They just went.
          What made these fisher-people do such a crazy, radical thing? Did they consider answering “no”? What made them answer “yes”?
          Jesus was calling. Perhaps they had simply taken to heart things that Jesus had proclaimed about the good news of God.
          In fact, here, at the start of Mark’s story, and already by verse 15 Mark has told us three times about this good news that is our gospel. The gospel of Mark opens, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God….”
          Then, only 13 verses later, today, we heard, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” What Jesus has just proclaimed is profound, and we need to spend a little time there.
          The words which our lectionary translates here as, “the time is fulfilled” and “the kingdom of God has come near” are both, in the Greek, verbs written in the perfect tense. English has no equivalent tense, so it is sometimes difficult for us to grasp the full meaning and import of this passage as it is rendered in English.
          The perfect tense describes action that has happened or has been inaugurated in the past which continues to have ongoing effect in the present. But the importance of this tense for this text is this: God has already acted and we live under the effect of God’s action. With the incarnation of Jesus Christ, not only has God acted to fulfill God’s promise of redemption, but God has brought the kingdom of God to earth. To us. Did you hear that?
          God’s kingdom has come.
          It is already here, in Jesus, and we participate in it every single day. We are recipients of the grace and ongoing benefit of God’s grace that has come in Christ. 
          Belief and trust in this truth make a difference in the believer’s life. Jesus proclaiming this good news brings change for all who believe. Therefore, Jesus invites those who follow to do these things:
          Believe the Good News.
                   Believe that God’s promises are true.
                             Believe that God is here present and that God is at work in                                           the world.
                                                Believe that the kingdom of God has broken into                                                          this world!
          And in believing, turn from the darkness to the Epiphany light. Turn from blindness into sight. Turn from death to life.  
          This good news comes from the person who now stands on the seashore, calling, “Come, follow me.”
          Jesus, in fact, is the gospel, is the good news of which Mark and the other evangelists write.  Today’s text demonstrates what the call of discipleship is like and what the appropriate response to it might look like.
          Response involves repentance. Repentance involves turning. Following Jesus means turning away from our fear and our doubt, from all those things that call to us and distract us and keep us from embracing the good news. Following Jesus involves foregoing all the “nos” we have lined up and like to hide behind, instead journeying with Christ. As disciples, we forego the
          “No, I can’t.”
                   “No, I’m not good enough.”
                             “No, I don’t know enough; I’m not smart enough.”
                                      “No, this is not a good time.”
                                                “No, I wouldn’t know where to start.”
          Responding to God’s grace is an immediate response. Yet we know that it is simply not that easy.
          Part of the effect of this gospel good news, is that it makes clear that it is not by our power that repentance comes about. It is by God’s abundant grace. On our own, we are unable to repent, on our own we are unable to believe. It is only in and through Jesus Christ that we can do these things.
          Martin Luther said that through our Baptism we die each day to sin. In our creeds we acknowledge that we are in bondage from sin and cannot free ourselves; therefore, this Gospel is good news to us: It is not up to us. God is in charge. And God has already acted, once and for all, through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. And now God, in Christ, is calling us all to discipleship.
          I’m not going to lie to you. This is complex stuff. Even as I say these words, my head begins to spin. But the simple truth is this:
          God is already at work in us, calling us, saying, “Come, follow me.” Jesus is already inviting us to leave our baggage behind, leave our fanatical need for control and embrace true repentance as a gift. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus helps us to believe and to trust in the power of God to heal us, to forgive our unbelief and make repentance possible!
James R Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark) comments:
          Repentance properly understood is an "I can't" experience, rather than an "I can" experience. If repentance is promising God, "I can do better," then we are trying to keep ourselves in control of our lives.
          If we can do better, we don't need a gracious God, only a patient one, who will wait long enough for us to do better.
          When we come before God confessing, "I can't do better," then we are dying to self. We are giving up control of our lives. We are throwing our sinful lives on the mercy of God. We are inviting God to do what we can't do ourselves -- namely to raise the dead -- to change and recreate us.
          Mark shows us how Jesus called his first disciples, Simon and Andrew, James and John  - ordinary people from unremarkable backgrounds, ordinary men called to be companions to Jesus, to be witnesses to the earliest parts of Jesus’ ministry, called to learn the ways of discipleship.
          They may not always have illustrated brilliance and understanding, in fact, as we will see as we read through the gospel of Mark this year, they often demonstrated a lack of understanding and willpower. And yet, it was the immediacy of their response that teaches us something about discipleship and the nature of following Jesus. There was no, “wait a few minutes, let me pack my bag, I have a few more arrangements to make, loose ends to tie up.”
          Discipleship takes a lot of work. It doesn’t always go smoothly. But God is continually at work, forgiving us when we don’t get it or when we fail, lifting us up when we fear or when we despair that “it is just not worth it”, encouraging us when we feel overwhelmed by our own “yes.” Jesus is calling each of us, calling each to “come and follow.”
May God bless you as you answer your own call to discipleship. As Jesus beckons to us, “come, follow,” may we behold God’s power to call us, save us, use us and bless us in the name of the one who redeems us, Jesus Christ, Our Lord.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Come and See What I See

Psalm 139 (with 1 Samuel and John1:43-51)

So, here we are, in the midst of Epiphany, this season of the church year that spans the time between Christmas and Lent, a time of revelation and discovery; Who is Jesus, really? And what do we make of his divinity? How is it that he calls us to be his disciples?  How is it he calls me?

And yet, we are called. Each and every one of us here are called to be witnesses of the many ways that God is revealed through Christ, and that Christ is revealed as the Son of God. Each one of us is called to take part in that revelation. Each of us is called to invite others to come and see.
Part of the discovery part of epiphany remains not only to see who Jesus is, but also how God, through Jesus invites, engages and blesses us in the work of the epiphany. Us. You and me. We who often feel ill-suited, ill-equipped, and unequal to the task of discipleship. And yet, by the grace of God, a God who knows us better than we know ourselves, not only is Jesus revealed, but we are indeed called. Come, follow me.
Themes of God’s knowing and calling are reflected today in both the Old Testament reading about the calling of Samuel, and in the gospel text which forms the call story of both Phillip and Nathaniel. God’s intimate knowledge of each individual shapes God’s call to each as well.
In the Old Testament lesson we meet the young boy, Samuel, as he is called by God, a God he doesn’t even know yet, a God as yet unrevealed to him. God persistently calls to him, until with the help of Eli, Samuel finally comes to understand what is happening and is prepared to respond.
In our gospel lesson, an inquisitive Philip is also called by Jesus, called to follow him. And then, Philip invites his friend Nathanael to come and see who this Jesus is. Jesus engages conversation with Nathanael that reveals that Jesus knows too much about Nathanael for Jesus to be anything but divine. So Nathanael, too, hops on board as a disciple of Jesus, inviting others to “come and see.” So, you probably see where this is going, right?
You and I each have our own call story too, and we are invited to take part in revealing who Christ is to others. We, too are supposed to invite those we meet to “come and see.” And yet we know, don’t we, that we are not prepared, not equipped, and on most days, feel unequal to the task of doing what those disciples did.  We live in a different time and place than they did. We can’t do it. No!
And yet…..when it comes to calling the seemingly ill-equipped, incapable, and unsuitable and making disciples of them, God has something like xray vision. Because….
God’s “seeing” far surpasses anything we know through what we experience as the sense of sight. God’s “sight” in fact, renders God not only all-seeing, but all-knowing, all powerful and everywhere present, and God “sees” us in ways that have to do with much more than mere sight, in ways that are so vast and all-encompassing, in ways that we can never fully explain or understand. All we can do is respond, and then like Philip, invite others to Come and See for themselves.
God’s intimate knowledge of us, is truly, beyond our understanding. It goes to the core and essence of who we are, not only as human beings set within the framework of families and human systems, but also as eternally known and created, and eternally beloved of God.
The powerful words and images of the psalm we read this morning describe God’s inscrutable way of knowing each of us, and that knowledge is celebrated by the psalmist. The psalmist begins with this confession:
“You have searched me, LORD, and you know me.
       You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
                   You discern my going out and my lying down;
                             you are familiar with all my ways.”
God is indeed all-knowing; God knows all about me. And you. And Samuel and Phillip and Nathanael. All of us. None of the details of our lives, or our character, of who we are or how we are formed is unknown to God.
In fact, the psalmist goes on,
“Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely.
          You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.
                   Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.”
Picture the work of a potter, whose hands enfold and surround a shapeless lump of clay, hands cupped behind and before. Not only does the potter enfold the shifting footprint of the vessel, but slowly, in ways both subtle and profound, the potter exerts creative energy into the substance.
The potter shapes it, fashions it, as an embryo is fashioned and shaped in the womb. As God has shaped and formed each of us in God’s own creation and so, deeply, profoundly, knows us.
I remember holding each of my children for the first time. I well remember my wonder at beholding each tiny finger, each little toe. I remember breathing in the scent of their being, and my amazement at the fully formed little human being who had so recently taken up residence inside of me.
A little human being who, until his birth, lacked identity. Except to God. For, long before the child took her first breath, God knew her completely. Knew each hair and every wrinkle.
The words of this psalm remind us of God’s intimate knowledge and deep relationship with each of God’s children from the beginning….and even before then….in a relationship that will continue, forever.
And yet, the truth of the matter is the kind of knowledge that is described in this psalm elicits complex feelings within us – “is too wonderful for me.” The following verses, which we did not read this morning tell why.
Listen to these words:
“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
          If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
                   if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
                             If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
                                      if I settle on the far side of the sea,
                                                even there your hand will guide me,
                                                          your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me
          and the light become night around me,’
                   even the darkness will not be dark to you;
                             the night will shine like the day,
                                      for darkness is as light to you.”
Frankly, there are times when we, - I - want desperately, to hide. I want to hide from my own thoughts and actions which can be, let us say, less than flattering. I want to hide from my weaknesses and my ignorance. I want to hide from my failures; from my sin; from my infirmities and griefs.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, I am not alone. Our desire and need to hide from what ails us is evidenced by our often fatal attraction to and relationship with mind-altering, pain-numbing, grief-escaping, self-medicating drug and alcohol use and abuse and other destructive behaviors.
Seminary professor Shauna Hannan writes,
“Some people struggle with a fear of really being known even as they desire to be known. Some go to great lengths not to be known by hiding their true identities even (especially?) from God. It cannot be assumed that verse 7 is received as good news for all.
“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”
“Being so close to God is as burdensome as it is beautiful,” Hannan writes.
The Psalmist admits, one cannot flee from the one for whom darkness does not overwhelm. Why would he flee from something beautiful? For some the thought that God lurks and works even in dark places,” like the “depths, or, as some translations render the word, “Sheol,” and in the womb! might be burdensome.”
But our psalm continues,
          “… you created my inmost being;
                   you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
                             I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
                                                your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”
This psalm reveals to us a God who knows all that there is to know about us. “Knowing” and “knowledge of” are critical elements of meaningful relationships, and this psalm reveals God’s deep knowledge of every aspect of our being. And yet, knowing us so intimately, still God loves us and God calls us to be God’s disciples. Come and see. Follow me.
God calls to us in our hiding places, in our sleep, in our waking, in our working. God’s creative powers reside deep within us, seeking ongoing relationship with us;
God hems,
          God knits,
                   God knows us intimately, is with us at all times.
                             We are all works of God. Come and see.
From that very intimate, knowing, discerning place, God comes to us and God calls us. As God persisted in calling Samuel until Samuel was ready to hear the call; as Jesus called the earliest disciples when they were open to following him. God, who knows our strengths and weaknesses, who knows us with a knowing beyond all telling is calling us; come and see
Come and see my beloved Son, the one in whom I am well pleased. Follow him. Come and see. In the ordinary encounters of our lives, every single person is an image of Christ, a piece of the knowledge of God, possibilities to share the peace of God in the world.  
And so, Jesus calls us to be epiphany for others. Come and see.
Seeing and revelation are closely tied; discovery and understanding are similarly related to one another. As disciples of Christ, these terms and concepts are important to us – because they tell us something about our relationship to this God who has come among us and has pitched his tent with us, continually revealing profound love for all the hurting places, helping us to discover the vast workings of God and God’s continuing creative work within each of us – shaping us, forming us in ways both subtle and profound.
Today begins the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. There is no time like the present to invite, to embrace, and to extend the invitation for others to come and see. This news of a God who knows us so intimately yet chooses to call us, chooses to invite us and chooses to call us to do the same is amazing and exciting aspect of the revelation and discovery of which we each play a part. May you be the epiphany light that shines the light on the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the one who came that all might have life. Amen.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Soaked in Water and Wonder

Mark 1:4-11 
        Sam describes a daily ritual in his life. Every night, he and his wife meet in the kitchen to prepare dinner. They each sip from a glass of wine as they talk, and laugh, and sometimes, even dance the stresses of the day away.
        Together they chop and saute and simmer away the day’s problems. Their daughter Lacey comes in after a little while, and sets the table. They light candles, hold hands, pray, and share the dinner meal together. This time is sacred time for the family. In a deep way, it binds them together.
        Julie has a ritual too. Each day she comes home from work, shucks off her “business attire,” pulls on her comfy sweater and lounge pants, and washes her face. This is her way of symbolically shucking off the concerns and demands of her high-pressure job, of washing away the detritus of her long commute, of the worries of the day that still linger, and easing into her evening of activities or relaxation or rest. There is something sacred for Julie, too, in this symbolic transformation she makes, day after day.
        People engage in all kinds of rituals, for all kinds of reasons.
        The most common reason may be the belief (or hope) that the prescribed actions within the rituals will provide some kind of comfort, reassurance, or sometimes perhaps, protection.
        Rituals somehow bring about or mark a change. A change in focus; a change in essence of the person, place, or time; a change in status or condition.
Think about it. What rituals might you engage in, daily or othewise?
        Sometimes, rituals tie us in some way, to others. As vulnerable, finite beings, we often rely on rituals because they reassure us that we are not alone or that we are part of something larger than ourselves, or that we have the ability to tap into powers greater than ourselves, through the actions of our rituals.
        Rituals may, in fact, provide an entry point into membership of a group or community. They may convey a new identity in some way. They provide meaning. They are at the core of the communal activity of most religions.
        At the beginning of our worship service today, we engaged in a ritual when we remembered and gave thanks for Baptism. Perhaps you even got a little bit wet. Again. As you once did, when you were baptized.
        Now, the truth is, that you may or may not, literally remember your own baptism. Perhaps you were old enough that you remember the day—if nothing else, remember getting your head wet, remember the prayers and celebration that may have followed.
        For many of us, any actual memory of our baptism has been provided to us by our parents or other relatives, or by pictures that were taken that day, or other mementos that may have been saved, because we were too young to form those memories for ourselves.
        But we need to remember. Because Baptism means something, and yet, that meaning often gets lost in all the packaging.
        Baptism is seen by many people as a ritual itself—it may be understood as an action that brings comfort, or reassurance, or protection and identity to the person being baptized—which, I suppose you could say is at least partially true. But we miss the real meaning of Baptism if we only see it as a ritual to be performed, a rite to accomplish. The fact of the matter is that it is not our action, it is not what we do, it is not all the movements, words, clothing and celebration that form our rituals around it that make Baptism the holy and sacred gift that it is.
It is what God does in us through this spectacular gift of love and mercy that is at the heart of Baptism. Baptism matters.
        In a world where life itself seems some days to hold less and less worth, where we constantly hear about bombings and shootings, about hit-and-runs and the lives of little children coming to tragic, horrific ends Baptism matters. Indeed, in a world where death constantly beckons, where health fails and cures don’t always exist, Baptism matters. For the forgiveness of sin and the promise of everlasting life, Baptism matters.
        And in our gospel today, we read about Jesus’ own Baptism. And we have to wonder, don’t we?  How is it that the sinless one is first revealed and met through a ritual of repentance?
        Why in the world would Jesus, the Messiah, need to be, choose to be, baptized? Why did this one of whom John the Baptist spoke, this one who, John identifies as, “more powerful than I,” of whom, John said, “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals,” present himself to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan River?
        Perhaps the way in which Mark chooses to begin his gospel provides some insight into these questions. 
        While both Luke and Matthew begin their gospels with the nativity of Jesus, full of images we can visualize and memorize, images like Mary’s and Joseph’s incredible journey to Bethlehem, like angelic visions and angel song, like a brightly shining star and the shepherds who followed it, like a sweet manger scene; and while John begins his gospel with the poetic description of Jesus as God’s eternal Word, and the Word taking on flesh, and God’s glory being revealed in this Word who brings Light and Life, Mark takes us to the river. Mark begins his gospel with this Epiphany, with this revelation of who Jesus Christ truly is. Mark gives us this baptismal scene.
        John, who, we remember, is Jesus’ cousin, the one who leapt in his mother, Elizabeth’s womb at the Virgin Mary’s visit, is in the wilderness, calling people to repentance and inviting them to be baptized, and announcing the one who is coming…..
        Baptism as ritual was nothing new to many of those in ancient Judaism, who viewed it as a religious cleansing, a washing with water, signifying purification or consecration, not only for the purpose of extinguishing the guilt of transgression, but as a ritual of holy living, to prepare for the attainment of a closer communion with God.
        But then, Jesus enters in. Literally. Jesus enters the waters of the Jordan. Perhaps, Jesus entering those waters is meant to help us recall all the water-tales of the Scriptures, beginning with the first reading and the water story of Genesis, where the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters and God created the world. 
        Or the flood story where God uses water to make a new creation, saving Noah and his family. Or the exodus story where God uses water to free the Israelites from slavery as they cross through the sea, with God creating a wall of water for them on their left and on their right so that they can walk on dry land to freedom.
        As they journey through the wilderness God provides water from a rock so they may never thirst. And when they reach the end of their wandering, God brings them into the Promised Land through water, to the land flowing with milk and honey and the fulfillment of God’s promises. That water is the river Jordan. The same water we find Jesus in.
        Pastor Virginia Cover writes that perhaps all this water-talk is meant to remind us that God is faithful throughout the generations. That God shows up in the water, to make good on God’s promises. That God uses water to shape identities and reveal who God is. And so, at the beginning of this gospel, at the beginning of this Epiphany and this story of the revelation of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Jesus enters in.
        Here is where Mark’s story stands in stark contrast to the nativity scenes we have so recently left behind. Here the story of Jesus’ Baptism stands in stark contrast to our own sweet, tender and tame baptismal photographs and remembrances.
As we read this gospel, we come to understand Baptism is not about us and what we do, it is about God and what God has done in Jesus Christ. When it comes right down to it, Jesus’ Baptism bears little resemblance to comforting, familiar ritual we know.
Because at Jesus’ Baptism the heavens are torn apart. Ripped to shreds.
Cover points out that the same Greek verb used here appears later when Jesus breathes his last and the curtain of the temple is torn in two. Ripped to shreds. Literally.
The curtain of the temple: that barrier between God and the people, the symbol of God being separated from us is ripped to shreds. And here in this gospel, at his Baptism we find Jesus, in the waters, ripping stuff to shreds as a preview of more to come because in his death and resurrection he will rip apart anything, and everything that might try to separate us from God.
        He will rip it up and he will soak it with water—with tears as he weeps for the city, for the 12 killed in Paris, for the hundreds lost in an airline, for a bicyclist lost to a senseless accident, for all those lost to violence, or neglect, abuse or addiction; for those immured in illness; for all who grieve and long for a different world, for healing and peace.
        This same Jesus, upon whom the Spirit descends from that torn-apart heaven, will soak us all with water, flowing out from his side—a healing balm for all who hurt or long for forgiveness. This is Mark’s epiphany story. This is who Jesus is—the One who comes to the under-water places, the messed up, torn-apart places in our world and in our lives. The places we think will never be put back again. Jesus, the revelation of the love of God, meets us under the waters and pulls us up to forgiveness and healing; pulls us out to freedom and truth-telling. 
      There is more good news for us in this Word, for this Jesus meets us in the water and changes our baptism from ritual action to life-saving, life-giving transformation. Thus transformed, our Baptism offers us light illuminating, grace-full, mercy-full communion with our Lord and Savior, and it indeed means something. It is a game-changer, as Jesus leaves behind the mark of the cross on us. Jesus washes away the guilt of our sin, Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit, tearing apart our brokenness, ripping to shreds the effects of our pain, and bringing about the healing of the nations.
       By his baptism, Jesus has once again proclaimed his commitment to be alongside us, in repentance and sorrow, in forgiveness and new life. Joyfully, Baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we are washed in water and Word, sealed with the cross of Christ and proclaimed “Child of God.” In mercy and in love, we are united with Jesus in death, in life, and all eternity.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Truth about all those Promises

We had a guest preacher this Sunday, Victoria Larson. What is written below is her inspired proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, on this 2nd Sunday of Christmas. 

John 1:1-9, 10-18

According to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, people who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t explicitly make resolutions.

I resolve not to sleep in past 9.  30. 
I resolve to walk the dog at least three times a day.  Even when it’s cold, or windy, or raining.  …I resolve to walk the dog two times a day. I resolve to send thank-you notes for gifts, including Christmas presents, in a timely manner.

Those of you who are with me on this last resolution will be glad to know that technically, it is still Christmas.  It is.  Really.  Still.  It is the eleventh day of Christmas.  I asked our music director if we could get eleven pipe-players in here in honor of the fact, and he informed me that traditional organs HAVE pipes, and while we only have one organist, we have way more than 11 pipes, so it all shakes out to be about the same.

It is the eleventh day of Christmas, and the second Sunday of Christmas, and today’s gospel, believe it or not, is a Christmas story.  This is John’s version of the nativity.

It’s not a sparkly or as nice-smelling as Matthew’s with its magi and myrrh, its gold and glory, its frankincense and flaring stars. It’s not as animal-friendly or as earthy as Luke’s with the shepherds and the sheep, with the angels singing over the Bethlehem fields.

Instead of describing an infant birth, John presents the coming of the Word is this cosmic story of EVERYTHING, time and creation and humankind, and in the midst of it, God becoming flesh and living among us, tangled up in it all, in and among the whole confusing mess.

Which reminds me…
I resolve to finally sort through the mess of papers where my desk used to be.
I resolve to start paying off credit card bills with something besides other credit cards.
I resolve to be more organized.
Our neighbors are depressingly organized.  Many of you may know that this year my parents moved into a house  near the house in town known for

all the Christmas lights.  Man, I loved those lights.  We take the dogs on an after-dinner walk, and we changed our route so that we—OK, I—could look at those lights every night.  But as of two nights ago, no more lights.  Our wonderfully festive neighbors are ready to take them down and store them in what I’m sure is a vast organizational system.
When I look at the darkness where their Christmas lights were just blazing, I have this hollow, sad feeling that is only marginally to do with the disappearance of that soft golden glow.  The gaping blackness stands in stark contrast to all the buildup to December 25th, that beautiful day where peace and goodwill seemed to reign, where we met together here and heard the words and sang the songs about the baby who would change everything.  But then…nothing did seem to change.  Christmas trees began appearing on the curb.  Wrapping paper filled the trash cans.  The local newspaper’s festive headlines reverted to ones announcing the ongoing pain and suffering of the human race.  Prominent among them was news of the Episcopal bishop of Maryland, who killed a cyclist in a hit-and-run.  Of all things.  Of all times.  Of all people.

It’s hard enough to get Christmas to last one whole day, let alone twelve.  Which is why the new year comes as something of a relief.  When the crab drops, it seems as though we have a chance to make the world better…or at least, to make ourselves better.  And in the midst of darkness where the Christmas lights were blazing, we’re even more aware than usual of how dramatically we fall short.

I resolve to spend more time with family.
I resolve to fall in love.
I resolve to be less stressed.
I resolve to lose weight and get fit.
I resolve to quit smoking, to drink less.

Ok, those weren’t actually mine.  I borrowed them from two lists: the first was the 10 Most Common New Year’s Resolutions.  The second was the 10 Most Commonly Broken New Year’s resolutions.  The same ones were on both lists.

No matter how hard we work to improve ourselves, whatever success we encounter is always held in balance with the pervasive experience of disappointment and failure.  That’s what I thought of as I digested the news of the Episcopal bishop and her hit-and-run.  Even while thinking that that our vocations and relationships with Jesus—whether you’re a bishop or a confirmand—are supposed to make us better, more prayerful, more righteous, we know we’re still human.  We’re still sinful.  We still break our very best resolutions to be better.

I offer this not to absolve Bishop Cook.  Nor to cause you to lose all hope when it comes to New Year’s resolutions.  I offer it because it points to a painful irony that we’re wrapped up in right now: it is in the last days of Christmas, that season of joy and light and the proclamation of salvation, that we are most aware of how profoundly we fall short of being the people that we long to be.  That society expects us to be.  That God, through the 10 Commandments and the law, has ordered us to be.

Maybe that’s why John doesn’t go with the whole baby-in-the-manger picture of the nativity.  Matthew and Luke give us the stories and images that are easy to visualize: the shepherds kneeling at the manger, the star shining, the angels singing, the magi drawing near.  They’re easy to picture, and easy to pack up when Christmas is over.  John, on the other hand, uses grand, cosmic, abstract language that defies our best efforts to contain it in a picture: Light.  Life.  Truth.  Grace upon grace.

It’s as though John knows that we like to take down our Christmas lights early and pack up the nativity by New Year’s, so he breaks out these words that don’t fit into plastic storage tubs, and he folds them into a story of the Word coming to live among us. 
And he does it through this amazing jumble of words that spin and fill the air until it is unclear whether it’s the world coming into being or the Word coming to give light or people becoming children of God or God becoming flesh or ALL things coming into being or EVERYONE being enlightened or ALL of us receiving grace upon grace because God came down And pitched her tent in the middle of this messy, muddy existence Until you couldn’t tell her apart. Until God looked just like you and me Like just another fool in need of a new year’s resolution. But instead he was the resolution. The one who would stand between us and our yearning to be better, to be so much better,
to be good enough, and make known to us a God who has loved us beyond all yearning,
beyond all vulnerability, beyond all expectation or deserving or reason or justice.

This is God the only Son,
Who is close to the Father’s heart;
Who is of the Father’s heart;
Who has shown that heart to us:
Beating with a love beyond all telling,
A love that saves
Makes new.

I invite you to consider a new resolution: the only one John tells us is necessary:
Resolve to believe that all of this is true. That this is true for you: That God is present and among us in a way that changes things—not for one day out of the year.  Not even for twelve.  But every single day.  Forever. 

It’s a resolution that seems to me at times incomprehensibly difficult.  To believe all of that? To believe that that cosmic vastness, the Word that was with God and was God and through whom all things came into being, actually fit into the human form and walked among us?  The one without whom not one thing came into being consented to come into being?  The one who gives us the power to become children of God became a child of Mary?

On the days that it doesn’t seem too difficult, it seems too easy:
All we have to do is believe?
Isn’t there self-flagellation or something?
Don’t we at least have to promise to be better people?

No.  No.  This is the scandal of the gospel.  The resolution to believe holds you in relationship to a God who loves you mysteriously, unremittingly, and without condition; with a Word who claims you, saves you, and looks out at you from the face of strangers; and with a Spirit who convicts as much as she comforts and will lead you into action beyond your wildest resolution.

You cannot profess Jesus with your heart and expect that you will remain unchanged, that the love of God will not transform you into a lover of outcasts and sinners, of widows and orphans, of lost sheep and the least of these.  But that is not the reason God loves you.  God loves you without reason, and without measure.  We know this, because God’s own heart was made known to us in Jesus Christ, who loved us even to the cross.

That is the light that shines in the darkness.
And the darkness does not overcome it.

Thanks be to God.