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Saturday, January 18, 2020

Noticing and Giving Thanks

Matthew 3:13-17
            A river. Water. Sky. A dove. A Voice.
            These are all pretty common and unremarkable things on their own. But when we put them together and add a little bit of Jesus, they become for us a miraculous gift and story.
            The Baptism of Jesus is a rich story that connects us in a profound way with our Savior. This morning, at the start of worship, we each remembered and gave Thanks for the gift of Baptism. Most of us don’t remember the day of our Baptism on our own.
In fact, it always surprises me, when I work with our young adults as they prepare for their Confirmation, and we talk about their history of faith, how few have any idea of the date of their baptism, where it was, who was there, or what happened that day.
A few not only know the date but actually celebrate their baptism on its anniversary date, perhaps lighting the candle given them on that day. But most know nothing of the day they were named “Child of God, because they’ve never been told.
Did they cry? Did they reach up and take hold of the pastor’s beard, stole, or microphone? How did the most important day in their life of faith unfold?
            We know about Jesus’ baptism. Even this short passage is full of details about things like sky, water, river, John the Baptist, a voice from heaven, and a dove.
We know that Jesus traveled from Galilee and approached his cousin John, known as the Baptist, at the Jordan River seeking to be Baptized by him.
We know that at first, John refused, totally humbled and amazed that Our Lord would ask to be Baptized by him, rather than the other way around. And we know that Jesus won that argument, and he got dunked. Not just sprinkled, but well and fully dunked, just like everyone else who had come to John for Baptism. But unlike anyone else who was baptized there, the voice of God was heard and the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit, appeared. This was a true trinitarian moment, with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in concert at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
            As he stepped into the Jordan River, God stepped into the messiness of our human existence through him. The multitude of people who were Baptized by John in that water were reeking of sin and seeking new life, but Jesus, who was without sin, chose to step into those same waters to give them a new life they couldn’t even imagine. Before he began his ministry, performed any miracles or preached the good news of God’s grace and love for all the world, Jesus joined us in our humanity and was washed in those same waters. And God, much as at the Creation, declared this to be good.
            We did not choose God, but God chose us. God chose you, and God loves you beyond all telling. For that reason, God promises that you, Child of God, will never be free of God. God will go with you wherever you go, will love you whoever, however, and wherever you are. God is loose in the world and what God promises you, God promises all of humankind. And God neither forgets or goes back on God’s word.
            Which is why, wherever we look, when we look with intent and with open hearts. we see God present and active in our lives, in our neighbors, and in our world.
            Nothing has ever happened or will ever happen in our lives that has the power and beauty of our Baptism. Nothing in our lives can ever approach the meaning of the love and grace of God we received in our Baptism. Nothing we do comes anywhere close to what God has done for us in Jesus, celebrated through Baptism.
That is why we should remember it. Even if we don’t remember all the details, it’s okay. God’s love for us and God’s promise to us are secure because God has said it is so, and God will carry us through every trial and every storm.
In Baptism God unites us and makes us one Body in Christ Jesus. God equips us to have hope and to be hope for the world. God gives us gifts and assets as individuals and as community drawn into one by Jesus, to live our lives as Baptismal people – people of grace, hope and love, all for the sake of God.
As we remember and celebrate not only Jesus’ Baptism but our own, let’s surrender our whole selves to the power of God in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Beloved of God, remember and be blessed. Amen.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Unwrapping the Layers

Epiphany 2020 Matthew 2:1-12
            Our grandson, Alex, will turn 10 this month. At our family Christmas gathering just a little over a week ago, a gift he received was wrapped in a very special way. Tearing through the paper that wrapped his gift, he found – another layer of wrapping paper. He tore through that layer of paper and revealed another. He tore through that one, and you can guess – there was yet another layer of wrap, and on and on it went through a dozen layers covering his new book.
            Alex is old enough to have had great fun with this, and to have been a great sport about it, never getting frustrated, only more excited as he made his way through each layer, until he reached the real gift.
            The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a lot like that gift, with layer after layer of meaningful history and detail wrapped around the God’s greatest gift to us.
Today is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the eve of the day we – and much of the Christian world celebrates as the Epiphany. Today we read of the coming of the magi, and God’s work in and through them. The Gospels reveal to us the various ways in which God is revealed or ways in which God reveals something essential through the real gift of Christmas, Jesus.  
            The magi represent yet one more layer of wrapping removed as we seek the meaning of the ongoing gift of Jesus to the world.
Contrary to popular and traditional images of them, the strange visitors from a foreign land were neither kings – magi were more like magicians or astrologers or even men who belonged to a priestly caste from the Eastern religion, Zoroastrianism – nor do we know for sure how many of them there were – the Church probably settled on the number three because three gifts are listed in the gospel, though many Orthodox denominations have twelve magi who came.
Thanks to the King James translation of the bible, the magi are often referred to as “wise men”.  What makes them “wise” however, isn’t their background or origins, but their obedience to the divine message given to them in a dream, not to return to Herod but to go home avoiding him – and to seek the child worthy of their homage. The Bible doesn’t name them – though again, tradition has filled in that detail and given them the names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.
            What we do know is that they were likely wealthy, were certainly Gentiles, they came a great distance from the eastern part of the continent, and they came because of astral events or signs they observed in the heavens. Finally, we know that they were compelled to follow those signs until they arrived in Bethlehem of Judea. There, asking around, they finally discover the Holy Family, and worship the Holy Child.
            Jesus is that child, born into a dark, dangerous, and inhospitable world. Herod the Great was a vassal king of Rome. He did not come to power through a royal line of succession and could therefore be considered an unqualified or illegitimate king by those he was sent to rule over. He was therefore particularly sensitive and insecure in his ability to hold on to his power and became fearful when he heard a child born in Bethlehem was being identified as “king of the Jews”.
Of course, we know that it was not his intent to worship, but to murder Jesus. And we know that being unable to find him, he ordered the murder of the innocents – all those baby boys two years and under found to have been born in the region identified by the magi. In his insecurity, through his fear, Herod represents the evil and darkness that work to deny Jesus his rightful place and purpose.
            But God will not be thwarted. God makes himself known through his divine Son, Jesus Christ. The magi know it. And we who believe in Jesus know it. And through this story we become aware that God’s love and salvation are sent not just to a select group of people, the Jews, but to the whole world.
God is there through the darkness and in the light.
            And, God has made his love and mercy plain to us in the Holy Child, Jesus Christ, our Savior.
We still live in a dark, dangerous, and inhospitable world. We still live in a world where those in power are insecure and fearful of losing their power. We live in a world that still seeks to extinguish the true grace and hope of God, who broke the power of death and illumines the way to life and immortality through the Good News of Jesus Christ. But the Epiphany makes plain to us the power of God to thwart evil and grant us his goodness and mercy.  
            For God saves us and calls us to live a holy life; to discern the false claims of divinity and favor on any human being. Through layers of grace God will defeat those who seek to do evil to the innocent of the world and on those who believe in him. By shining the light of His glory, which leads the way to Jesus, God reveals his plan to save us, a plan centered in godly grace and love.
            When we look upon Jesus, and when we come to know his words and deeds, God’s character is shown to us. Through the layers of his teaching, his example, and his cross, God’s character and plan for us are revealed. When we meditate upon his sacrificial death, and when his resurrection is revealed to us, Jesus uncovers God’s compassion and mercy to us.
            In our relationship with Jesus, our Lord and our King, God is revealed through our own merciful deeds; in Christ-like love that shapes our words, our actions, our thoughts and our prayers, His love is known. Our devotion to Jesus is shown as we die to sin and serve as his compassionate hands and heart to the poor, the despised, the weak and the rejected people of the world.
            God delivers hope to the hopeless in the light of eternal life given to those facing death, and to those persecuted, wounded, and murdered because of their religion, race, or identity, and those who stand for God’s forgiveness and mercy.
            The Good News of Epiphany is that as God once revealed himself through the small child of Bethlehem and through the gifts offered him by the magi, God continues to reveal himself through the ongoing gifts he gives through Jesus. As we linger in the light of the star, let us renew our commitment to sharing this good news with the world.


Thursday, January 2, 2020


Christmas Eve 2019 (Luke Birth Narrative)

So, last year I did a horrible, no-good, very bad thing. 

I lost Jesus. 

Actually, to be more precise, I didn’t just lose Jesus; I threw him away. I mean, who does that?! It was an accident, of course. I was giving the Children’s Sermon in worship one Sunday last December. The little baby Jesus that came with my nativity set at home was perfect for the illustration I wanted to use. When the morning was over, I packed up the baby Jesus, wrapping him securely in tissue paper to keep him safe (or so I thought) and then placed him in my tote bag with a million other things I was carrying that day. When I got home, I set the bag down to take care of later, while I tended to some other things, and forgot about him.
Later, in the rush and bustle that comes just before Christmas, especially if you are a pastor, I was cleaning up the pile of things I had placed aside to “take care of later” over the course of that week. I cleaned out the tote bag holding Jesus. Not remembering that he was in there or why I had a wadded-up piece of tissue paper in the bottom of my bag to begin with, I threw the tissue – and Jesus - away. It wasn’t until a few days later, after the trash had been taken out, and after it was picked up at the curb by the garbage collectors, that I realized what I had done!
I was horrified! How could I have thrown away the little baby, Jesus?! For the rest of the season, our nativity at home sat there, the manger empty, a reminder of my carelessness.  The figure of Mary in the nativity set has her hands positioned in such a way that the little baby Jesus figure could be held in her hands or lain in the manger – but Mary’s hands remained empty as well.
I love to have my nativity sets out this time of year, but I can tell you I was actually relieved when I got to put them away at the beginning of January 2019. I was relieved when I boxed up that set – and stored it for the year. But I couldn’t quite forget about what I had done, and what I was missing.
Whenever I thought about the discarded baby Jesus I always felt a bit sad and guilty. I Googled “replacement baby Jesus”, I searched on eBay, and I even checked out to see if I could find a new baby Jesus.
Oh, there are Jesuses out there, let me tell you, but none of them was right. None of them would fit both the manger and Mary’s positioned hands the way the real, the original, baby Jesus did.  
At the beginning of Advent this year, we put up our Christmas tree and pulled out the Nativity sets. As I set up my favorite set, the manger and Mary’s hands looked just as empty as I remembered them.
I searched on the computer again, to see if maybe now an appropriate replacement could be purchased anywhere. Finally, I located the company through with the original set was purchased. On their website they had other items you could buy – more shepherds, some animals, a Holy Family set, even a stable, which the original set does not have. But no Baby Jesus.
I did, however, find an email address for the company, so I wrote them explaining what had happened and asking if there was any way I could purchase a replacement Baby Jesus. They never wrote back. After a couple of weeks, I was getting ready to reach out to them again when, on my day off from work, I happened to stop by the office to take care of something. There, I found in my mail, a simple red box with the name Three Kings Gifts written all over it.
I opened the box and found – a brand new baby Jesus. There was no note, and there was no invoice. Just Jesus. The company had sent me a new Baby Jesus as a gift. I was so excited, so happy, relieved and joyful, I happily told everyone I came into contact with about how I had received this wonderful gift from strangers, a new baby Jesus. I think most of them thought I was nuts.
As I look back on my story, it seems to me to be so full of metaphor and allegory for our relationship with Jesus.
God gave us the perfect gift in sending the baby born of Mary whose birth we celebrate today. This gift of pure love, of peace, and compassion and mercy comes into the world and enters our lives and our world is never the same again. As John records in his gospel in one of the best-known verses of the Bible, God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, to save us, that we might have eternal life.
At some point in our lives, whether as children or perhaps when we are older, we learn or we grow in faith enough to understand what an awesome and holy gift this is. It is a gift we treasure. It is a priceless gift we could never barter for or buy.
But sometimes we get careless with this gift. We take it for granted. We forget what a treasure it is. It may seem silly to get so bent out of shape about losing a little Jesus statuette. But the hole I felt in my heart in its absence is symbolic of the hole in our hearts and lives when we lose sight of our relationship with Jesus.
The people of Israel had lost sight of their relationship with God. Their world became a dark and foreboding place, so much so that for 400 years God was silent. He did not speak to them nor did he send a prophet to them (the way God usually communicated to them). Their yearning for God to send a Savior was intense. Finally, God decided to answer the longing of His beloved once and for all. And Jesus Christ was born.
This Child, Jesus, is the embodiment of God’s love and God’s mercy for a lost world. Without Jesus it is we who are lost. Without Jesus it is we whose lives are incomplete – lacking the essential goodness and light that make them worthwhile.
The sad thing is that there are times which are heartbreakingly real when it seems that Jesus is missing from our lives – when we forget about the treasure that we have in the Child born in Bethlehem. Sometimes, the loss happens through carelessness and the busyness of our lives – we cease to make time and space for our relationship with Him.
Other times, we become so distracted by other things in our lives that we “throw him away” not realizing what we are doing. In yet other ways, we fill his place in our lives with other things, figuring we’ll get back to Jesus later, or that it’s just not as important as we thought. We decide to take care of our relationship with him later. But then time has a way of passing in the blink of an eye, and the more distance we create in our relationship with our Savior, the more difficult it is to find our way back.
The thing is, though, that Jesus – the real Jesus – is never truly lost in the first place. It is impossible to throw Jesus away.
Jesus is there all along, eagerly seeking a crack in the shell we put around ourselves, so that he, our light and our life, can enter in, and fill all the dark corners and shadowed places of our lives.
Even in those times when we feel like we lost him, Jesus is really closer than ever because he never stopped loving us. God assures us through this babe born in Bethlehem, that the powers of the world will never overtake us.
Just as there was a spot in my nativity scene that I know only the “real” baby Jesus could fill, there is a spot in our lives that only the real, true, living and divine Jesus can fill.
In the end, I was willing to pay any price to have Jesus returned to my nativity scene. But, just as we learn in this story that takes place on a starry night in a little town called “Bethlehem”, he came without cost because he is priceless; he came as a lowly one born in a stable because he came to fill up the empty ones and lift up the lowly ones; he came among us as the precious gift of God, who seeks to give good things to His beloved.
Beloved of God, this Christmas, may you rediscover, cherish, and share this priceless treasure, Jesus Christ the Lord. And then, may you share and sing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven – and peace to all on earth.”