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Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Times in the Wilderness of Life

Advent II

Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

            If there is a theme that runs throughout the scriptures we just heard, I think that theme would have to do with wilderness times. Isaiah writes words of comfort that come from God to a people in the wilderness of Babylon – far from home, far from the comfort of connection with the land and its history, defeated and banished, forever torn from the Jerusalem temple, the abode of God, for not only are they in exile, but that temple has been destroyed.

            While we might think about wilderness being a particular kind of physical space – desert, mountains, remote island, perhaps desolate landscape – the kind of wilderness we will think about today is much more an experiential place.

            A little over a year ago, as I sat at my mother’s bedside, knowing she was preparing to leave us and watching her every breath for signs that the time had come was such a time for me. Many of you have had such experiences.

The days and weeks following our youngest son’s diagnosis of a brain tumor, before the surgery that proved it to be benign, all those days and hours of waiting and fear, was another wilderness time. Again, I know that some of you have been there and even deeper into the wilderness as a child’s illness or time of injury have played themselves out.

There have been other times of loss and vulnerability and even hopelessness in my life that I would say were wilderness times, times when a sense of being un-moored from my well-ordered life seemed overwhelming. I know that some of you, perhaps most or even all of you know of the wilderness of which I speak.

            We’ve all experiences such times to some degree. Perhaps you are experiencing such a time right now. For those who suffer from chronic depression, anxiety, or bi-polar disorder and their families, those living with addiction or existing in an abusive relationship wilderness times may come with some regularity.

Photo of the Judean Wilderness - near the Wadi Quelt, 2018

            For a vast number of people throughout the world, for one reason or another, this time of pandemic has been and continues to be a wilderness time. Today, unable to meet in church in person, you may experience a bit of what the Israelites faced when the temple, a central place of religious and spiritual devotion and practice was taken away from them, leaving them in a peculiar kind of wilderness.

            Yet not all wilderness time, or not all about the wilderness is bad, tragic, or devastating. There is something holy about wilderness times as well because when all else is stripped away, what is essential and truly important in our lives becomes clearer and more precious. One reason the mystics and desert fathers and religious ordered founded around the wilderness were created was that it is in the wilderness of life that our experience of and relationship with God becomes finely tuned, sharper, clearer.

            Therefore, there are some who intentionally seek wilderness as a way of life or a regular component of it. Think of the religious, spiritual, or mental health retreat you may have taken part of or sought out.

When all the distractions, superficiality, and noise of our lives is stripped away, there is more “room” for God. Closer connection can be made. Peacefulness to be attained. Clarity to be achieved. There is something precious and impactful about this kind of wilderness time.  

            In our first reading, from Isaiah, the prophet announces a time for comfort and reassurance promised by God to those who abide in the wilderness. There is a promise that low places will be elevated, barriers leveled, and those rough places smoothed. Finally, when all else is stripped away, the glory of God will be seen and appreciated and embraced in a way that only seems to happen in the wilderness.

Advent II
            Such is the promise of Advent. We light candles to remind us that the darkness of the world gives way and is eradicated by the light of Christ even in the darkest recesses of the wilderness. This season reminds us that no matter what is going on in the world and no matter how dark things may seem, there is one who blesses and guides us, forgives and saves us from all that frightens, even when what terrifies us, what humbles us, and what drives us to our knees is our own weakness, sin, and doubt – our own fear.

            Yet, we acknowledge, that there are times when the wilderness seems determined to undo us. There are times when the isolation seems too much to bear. I know that for some of you the true isolation that COVID has brought bears a strong resemblance to the wilderness.

It is long and lonely here. It has gone on for so long. The isolation itself coupled with the fear that should you relax and relent from such precautions you might let COVID in, is disheartening, depressing, and difficult.

            I am so weary of talking about COVID and I am sure you are weary of hearing about it. Yet the virus has had and still is having such a deep effect on our lives and on our world. Infections are rising, and we are being called upon to hunker down ever more deeply and seriously, as more and more of us are suffering from the virus; even, now, some of the members of our congregation have gotten sick – a fate we had avoided until very recently.

This is a wilderness time unlike any we have experienced before. Hospitals are strained; medical care workers are begging people to wear masks and take precautions; teachers are struggling; and our children and families are wondering how to make this year work as a year of educational progress and developmental growth despite the limitations of our times.

Many extended families, good friends, and neighbors are staying apart to keep one another safe or to protect an elderly or vulnerable person from potentially contracting the virus. This is wilderness. It is the place where you hang on, waiting and hoping for survival.

In our Gospel today, from the very beginning of the book from the evangelist Mark, the opening words we hear are, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

John is in the wilderness. People were going out to him. They were confessing their sins. They were hoping for some hope – that their current situation would not overcome them, that their sins would not define them, that the darkness of the world  would not irrevocably shape their future. In other words, they were a lot like us.

And here comes John, speaking the Good News.

Here comes John, the long-predicted voice crying out from the wilderness, the place of chaos, the place of hopelessness, declaring that hope has come. God is sending His son; the messiah is on the horizon, and that he comes with power, and will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

Here comes John, on the very edge of survival – just look at his diet and his clothing. Here comes John, who has preached repentance to the throngs who have come out to here him preach. Here comes John, anticipating the coming of salvation, and declaring the power of Christ who is coming.

In the midst of our wilderness time, we declare that indeed, Jesus Christ is coming. This is cause for great and final hope. For Jesus carried with him the salvation of the world, the forgiveness of sin.

In Jesus we have no fear of COVID or disease, of loss or death. In Jesus we have no fear that the hopelessness that surrounds us in the world will have the final say, but instead, from the love of God issues for the light that will banish the wilderness darkness.

This is a message of astounding joy and gladness for us as we continue our Advent journey. There is comfort in our God. There is comfort that God’s love is strong enough to banish the darkness and for that reason he sends Jesus into the world.

This message brings hope to the hopeless and gladness to those who sit in the wilderness of loss and grief and mourning. There is light and it is the light of Christ that will turn your mourning into rejoicing. God cares for your suffering. God cares for your ultimate joy. God not only speaks into the dark places of our lives but through Jesus Christ, God eradicates them.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. I am sending one into the world who is my good tidings for the creation. God sends Jesus into the world not with the might of terrible armies before and behind him, but healing, and love, mercy, and compassion, joy and delight. The wilderness will bow before him.

In Christ, there is no wilderness that can overtake you, only wilderness that will give way to the glorious coming of Christ. He will come. He will gather his flock, feed his sheep, carry his lambs, all for the sake of his love.

While we wait, let us prepare. While we wait, let us hope. While we wait, may we lift up our fervent prayers for the sake of the world. Let us make the most of wilderness times that take away the excesses of our lives and keep us from focusing on Jesus. Let us know that in Jesus, the darkness will soon be over, the wilderness will give way to his glory, and peace, love, and joy will be ours through Christ Jesus our Savior and Lord. Amen.




A New Day is Dawning


Advent I 2020

Mark 13:24-27, Isaiah 64:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

            Imagine it is New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. Now, I’m not thinking of looking ahead a month or so to now as 2020 yields to 2021, but to what you would normally be doing on normal New Year’s. What are you experiencing? Perhaps some are feeling the result of the holiday punch at last night’s festivities, others feeling a bit of nostalgia for years past, and yet others hopefulness and joy.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

God's Upside-Down Kingdom

 All Saints Day November 1, 2020

1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

          As we celebrate All Saints Day today, we celebrate the upside-down nature of God’s Kingdom.

As we celebrate the lives of the saints who have gone before us, and those in our midst, we acknowledge that on this day of all days, we embrace the love and mercy of God who makes sinners into saints and extends to us an invitation for a new kind of life that is highlighted in the Sermon on the Mount from which our Gospel comes today.

          In a beautiful reflection on Jesus’s upside-down kingdom, American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner writes:

“The world says, ‘Mind your own business,’ and Jesus says, ‘There is no such thing as your own business.’

The world says, ‘Follow the wisest course and be a success,’ and Jesus says, ‘Follow me and be crucified.’

The world says, ‘Drive carefully — the life you save may be your own’ — and Jesus says, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ [That, my friends, is not an invitation to drive like a crazy person].

The world says, ‘Law and order,’ and Jesus says, ‘Love.’

The world says, ‘Get’ and Jesus says, ‘Give.’

In terms of the world's sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion."

            Which means, my friends, that we are all, at the very least, just a little bit crazy – some more so than others.

            We are crazy by the world’s standards, when we accept this invitation that Jesus issues, the description of which shows us what life looks like when we live by God’s rule and God’s will – where Jesus truly is our “all in all.”

            The invitation is to see God’s presence and work in the unseemly places of our lives and of our world. Jesus tells us that it is with the mourning, the humbled, and the hungry that we see God most present.

            That message is a far cry from the world’s attempt to point us in the direction of blessedness coming only when we are rich in earthly “good” things, like power, wealth, health, and strength. By the world’s measure, if you have a wonderful spouse and beautiful, healthy, happy children you are “blessed” – but if you are in a relationship that is strained, if you or a loved one has a chronic illness or cancer, then you are what – cursed? By the world’s measure, if you have a healthy 401K,  strong investment portfolio or a good, high-paying job with great benefits, then you are blessed – but if you work 3 jobs, were laid off or fired due to the pandemic, if you struggle with employment or school or if you have had to settle for what you could get for a career rather than what you always dreamed, the basket of blessing passed you by.

            The world says that if you are prosperous then God favors you but if you struggle for any reason, then God is judging you; a lot of so-called Christian churches will tell you the same.

            Instead of accepting the world’s judgement of what is good and blessed, Jesus’ very life illustrates the waywardness of the conception of blessing as we have embraced it.

Instead, Jesus offers himself as the ultimate blessing of God, containing God’s mercy, grace and forgiveness as

a baby wrapped up in rags, laid in an animal’s feeding trough in a stable;

the Son of God eating with sinners and outcasts;

and as an outlaw, crucified on the cross.

            Crazy, right?!

            God shows up in our acts of mercy and justice, in our acts of sacrifice and compassion. This is not what the “world” wants us to believe, nor is it how the world defines blessing.

            This teaching is not easy, my friends. The Christian church has, at times, romanticized this suffering Christ, but in our world today, where we like to avoid pain at all costs – just look at the pharmaceutical sales of everything from over the counter aspirin or Tylenol to the highly addictive narcotics tearing apart communities across our nation – suffering for others means you are doing things wrong.

            No, we would much rather be comfortable and comforted.

            But the saints of yesterday and today know a different reality. They know the love of God and the presence of Jesus in their lives especially when they are hanging out and hanging on at the margins.

            The saints of yesterday and today know that to live in the light of Christ means sacrifice; it means taking risks.

It means speaking out against injustice, lending a hand to those in need of sustenance.

            It means giving not your leftovers or excess to God or to others but taking the cream off the top of our lives and offering it as a gift to those in need, offering it as a gift for the work of Jesus to be done. This is what Jesus being our “all in all” looks like.

            Following in Jesus’ footsteps means walking in solidarity with those who are oppressed and being willing to face and correct our own complicity in systems of racism, and sexism, in the scourge of human trafficking, and the worth of all human life.

            Pastors are often warned that it is dangerous to mix religion or politics or to preach in ways that seem to be controversial or what to touch on what people might deem “too political.”

While I try my best to respect “the line”, I have to say that what people define as “too political” is often anything that makes them a little too uncomfortable or makes them squirm in their seats. If Jesus is our “all in all” then we apply our Christian ethics, Christian values, and Christian mores to all that we do.

If a pastor is to faithfully preach Law and Gospel as our Lutheran theology teaches it, we are going to be uncomfortable, because the “Law” part is the part where we name our sinfulness, our weakness, the places in our lives and in our world that deserve our attention and our judgement.

You and I are going to squirm, and we will squirm together as we face our struggles with our identity as followers of Christ. Then, we will ask forgiveness for our sins.

We are going to examine our thoughts, our behaviors, our actions, and our words, and the world will call us crazy for doing so.

Yet, that is what we are supposed to do. We will not grow so complacent in our own righteousness that we cannot admit that we are sinners, daily in need of God’s grace.

The saints of yesterday knew this. Some withdrew from the world in order to contemplate their own and the world’s sin. Some committed themselves to good works to atone for their own waywardness. Some simply loved the Lord and gave all that they could, even to the giving of their lives as martyrs, for the sake of the Gospel.

At the beginning of our service today, we named some of the saints who passed on this year. We gave thanks to God that they now reside among the other saints who have gone before us, each of them saints and sinners, saved by the grace and mercy of God.

            The troubles we face today, and regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s election there will be those who are happy and those unhappy. The pandemic infections are surging and even today there are many who cannot be in worship together because of concerns that they will be at particular risk.

            Jesus urges us to look at our troubles not as curse, nor failure of faith, nor judgement, but as opportunity to know yourself as blessed not through the circumstances of your life but by the sheer grace and the magnitude of God’s love for you.

            Freed and forgiven, we are bold to live our crazy lives as sinners saved by God’s grace, made saints by God’s mercy, for living in this upside-down, inside-out kingdom of God with Jesus as our all in all. Thanks be to God for this eternal blessing that redefines the world and the riches of life in Jesus.