Birthmarks

A sermon based on 1 Peter 1:3-10 and John 20:19-29 preached on April 23rd, 2017

Sermon audio

It’s Easter evening. The disciples are huddled together in a room too small for them. They’re sweating because the air is stagnant. They’re fearful for lack of courage or purpose. Three days ago, their courage and purpose had been crucified on a cross just outside Jerusalem. His name was Jesus.

Yes, there were rumors about. Earlier that morning, the two Marys had run back to the locked room they were huddled in. Out of breath from running, but also from whatever it is that happens to us when fear mixes with joy, they told the disciples that Jesus was alive. Walking, talking, breathing. Having conversations with them. But, for those first disciples, rumors and stories, conjecture and hearsay were good for nothing. How can anyone believe that Jesus is alive without first having seen Him? That’s the deep Easter question we have, isn’t it, friends?

Sometimes faith is easy. There are moments, perhaps many of them, when believing in that which we have not seen with our own two eyes comes effortlessly. But there are also moments when our faith lacks the strength to carry us very far—out of our own locked rooms.

There they were—Jesus’ disciples, who knows how many of them—certainly more than 11—hiding behind locked doors, whispering to each other out of fear of being discovered, certain that if they made too much noise or emerged out of the cubbyhole of a room they were in, they’d end up on a cross just like their Master had.

It’s a wonder that the Jesus movement was birthed at all. For their faith to take on life, those first disciples had to emerge from the grave of that small, locked room. In a sense, they had already buried themselves inside those 4 walls. They had barred the door shut—it was locked from the inside—that door was like a tombstone they had rolled in front of their own grave. All indications would lead us to think that they were calling it quits.

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Whenever we read this passage in worship or in Sunday School class, or a bible study, the word doubt inevitably becomes a part of our conversation.

But there’s something much more sinister at play here. Doubt we can handle. We can live with doubt. In fact, it’s hard for us not to. But hope. Hope is something that none of us can survive without. If all we see wherever we look are walls, barriers, locked doors that keep us in, that hold us prisoner—especially when those doors are locked from the inside—then we’ve given up hope. And what else is there if we do not have hope?

Whenever fear takes up more space in our lives than hope, death wins. Life grows smaller. The walls around us get thicker, they move in closer. And there we are, cramped with fear. As good as dead. We all know what it’s like to be stuck in place; it feels like dying—or at least a sort of smaller death.

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It is right in the middle of this cramped space, this room filled with fear and death and hopelessness, that we hear a voice we recognize:

Peace be with you!

Jesus says. Heads turn. Mouths fall open. The women were right! Jesus is standing among them. He speaks real words from His real mouth. Looking at the disciples through His real eyes. There He is standing among them in the middle of that cubbyhole of a room. And whether it actually happened or it just felt like it, the walls of that room retreated. The space inside grew bigger, fuller. And suddenly, the disciples could breathe again. In that tiny space, life quickly replaced death.

Peace be with you!

And after saying those words, Jesus breathed on them, inflating their lungs again, reviving their hopelessness, giving new energy—God-energy to their bodies worn down and failing, bringing new birth to their dying spirits. In that moment, everything seemed to expand. Walls. Eyes. Lungs.

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Let’s dive a little deeper.

Did you ever notice how many times Jesus’ hands and side are mentioned in this passage? Three. Three times in 11 short verses. This should get our attention.

The first and last time, it’s Jesus who brings up these scars of His. The second time Jesus’ scars are mentioned, it’s Thomas who brushes aside the witness of his fellow disciples. They have told him that they had seen the Lord, and in his stubbornness, the first thing that Thomas brings up is that he needs to see those scars—the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, the lash marks in his side. That’s a curious thing! Have we ever thought about that? What’s so important about Jesus’ marks—these scars He had—that they’re the first thing Thomas says he needs to see, the first thing Jesus shows to His disciples, and the first thing that Jesus shows to Thomas a week later?

There seems to be no question about it: Jesus’ disciples were waiting to see the marks. It’s the most important detail of Jesus’ identity now—that His body now has scars. If we ever had the notion that the body of the resurrected Jesus would be blemish-free—glowing in radiance, white with light, healed by God, then we are assuming too much. In fact, we’d be assuming the opposite of what those first disciples assumed. The resurrected Jesus—the One high and lifted up—the One who is with us now in the power of the Holy Spirit—is perfect, but even in His perfection, He has scars. And these scars aren’t just something left over from His life on earth; these marks He has make Him our Lord and our God.

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Our bodies bear witness to the brutalities of this all-too-human life of ours. They’re marked up all over. Our skin tells our stories for us. Our bodies are our best diaries. Written upon them is every bit of our past. Over the landscape of our own bodies we encounter the countless moments of our lives. Our bodies are living signposts marking where we have been and what we have accomplished. They remember where we have stumbled, but they insist on getting back up onto our feet to try again—which in a way is its own tiny resurrection, or if that’s too much, it’s at least resilience, our hope becoming stronger than our fear. Our bodies are living testaments to the God-filled conviction that says: no matter what this world throws at us, we have within us completely resilient spirits. Our marks—physical, spiritual, emotional—do not make us less than human; they are the very things that show forth God’s power to bring us to new birth.

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Friends, we belong to a Wounded Healer. Jesus’ scars—the ones in His hands and sides—are not incidental. They are the story He has to tell. They are God’s story.

Jesus isn’t our Lord without those wounds. What He endured for us on the cross shall not be erased. We do not forget his crucifixion, because without Good Friday, there is no Easter. Without the marks, we would not be here. Without the holes in His hands and sides, we would not be whole. The Church was birthed by those marks on Jesus’ resurrected body. And without them, the Church would have died before it ever came to life.

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Do you know what this means, friends? It means that our faith is birthed from Jesus’ marks. So, the only way to be Church—to live our lives authentically and in witness to the crucified and resurrected Christ—is to bear our marks. To go out from this place, and into all our places, and show the wounds in our hands and sides. By so doing, we show others that Jesus’ church is far from being a group of people who celebrate their own perfection or holiness. Instead, we are people who are willing to roll up our sleeves and show others the side of ourselves that’s filled with wounds—wounds of body, heart, spirit, and soul. They will know we are Christians by our marks. Our marks make us fully alive! God-alive, Jesus-alive, Easter-alive!

And if we do that—if we are willing to be as vulnerable as Jesus was when He entered into that room appearing to his people, wounds and all, then we will bring light to darkened hearts, hope to fear-filled souls, life to people living their lives half-dead, and maybe, hopefully, lead them to recognize Jesus in much the same way that Thomas did that evening.

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Thomas’ eyes were opened when he saw Jesus. And from his mouth came the most profound statement of faith that we have in any of the gospels:

My Lord and my God!

he said.

The Church was given birth that night with those words from Thomas. It is with that declaration of faith along with the breath that Jesus breathed into those disciples—both, bringing them to life—that the Church still has its life.

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Friends, we still have limited vision and blinding doubts. We’re often crippled by the same kind of fear that those first disciples had, and that fear causes us to do the same thing it did to them: to keep all held up inside, to keep our faith hidden by these four walls, to hesitate to take the Good News of Jesus-alive out with us—to share it and wear it. To live our days, hours, minutes in witness to our resurrected Lord. It is into our anxiety—that thing that tells us over and over again that our faith is a private thing—that Jesus speaks those same words He did to those first disciples:

Peace be with you.

Jesus says it over and over again. Three times in this passage, and many more times to us. And he’ll continue speaking peace to us until we finally understand what He’s trying to tell us. Christ’s peace is a whole lot more than something that calms our fears. This is Shalom. This is a peace that empowers us and drags us into maturity, wholeness, completeness. Jesus breathes this peace into us. With His breath, Jesus gives us life—He births the Church in the same way God brought creation to life when His Spirit swept over the waters and stirred the cosmos to life.

With this Shalom, we catch our breath and are made into new beings. This is the breath that marks us for second birth. And once we catch Jesus’ breath, once we’re birthed by the Holy Spirit—given our vitality and our mission—we go out from this place and bear witness to our Lord by bearing His marks in all we say, and in all we do.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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Come By Here

Come By Here | Patrick Ryan – Psalm 27 and John 1:1-18 – 12/4/16

Sermon audio

We’re singing during the sermon this morning. If you would open your hymnals to #338, we will sing one verse at a time at different times during the sermon. The hymn is Kum By Yah, but we’re gonna sing it this morning with one little tweak. Kum By Yah, translated into English, means Come By Here, so I invite you with each verse to sing the words Come By Here with me.

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There are 3 birth narratives recorded in the Gospels. We know, of course, about two of them. We read them every Christmas. They’re the ones every Christmas Pageant and every nativity set is based on: the Maji from Matthew—gold, frankincense, and myrrh; the shepherds kneeling and the cattle lowing come from Luke’s version of the story. But John’s gospel has a birth narrative, too. But the birth story that John is most interested isn’t Jesus’—it’s ours!

Verse 9:

The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world.

That’s it. That’s all that John has to say about Jesus birth. Only 13 words.

Let’s look at the next 4 verses, 10-13:

The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light. The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him. But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children, born not from blood nor from human desire or passion, but born from God.

None of that has anything to say about Jesus’ birth. But it has everything to do with our birth.

In the person of Jesus Christ, we can be born in a spiritual way, so that we have eyes to see the world in a different way—that God’s presence and fingerprints are all over this world, that God has come to give us second birth so that we may really live. We are born not from blood or from human desire or passion (those are all way to describe our normal conception and birth), but instead we are born from God, and it is in that spiritual birth that we have and live a new life in Christ. That’s the kind of birth John is most interested in this Advent. Not Jesus’, but ours. With this Jesus, God has come close so that we may become something new. God becomes human so we can have a newly-birthed vision.

That’s the miracle and message of Advent. In Jesus, God has come by here.

Join me in singing verse 1 of Come By Here.

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Advent also means making space for God to arrive. This is a season to move around the furniture of— and remove all the clutter in—our hearts, our minds, our lives, so that God has space to arrive—to be Emmanuel, God with us and for us. But the greatest news of all is that God is up to something much bigger than that. Christmas isn’t so much about Christ being born inside us as it is about the coming of Christ into the world. As I mentioned last week, Advent is an invasion. It’s the time for God to take over. And God doesn’t merely want to move into the room we make inside of ourselves. That’s way too small an idea—and way too small a space for our infinite and immeasurable God. God wants to take over the earth! In the Message translation of v.14, Presbyterian pastor Eugene Peterson, puts it this way:

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.

Christmas is God ringing the front door bell, dropping His luggage on the front porch of the world, and telling every single one of us that he’s not here to visit. He’s here to move in. For good! So we better make space for him. Advent is God telling us to skootch over on the couch a bit so there’s a spot for Him right next to us! Advent is the world’s chance—every heart’s chance—to prepare Him room.

In the person of Jesus, God has—and still does—come by here!

Join me in singing verse 2 of Come By Here.

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Advent is when we ask for God to come close, and Christmas is the rude invasion of the Divine into our neighborhoods! But our making space for God to dive headfirst into our lives means that God takes a huge risk.

Advent exists because our Creator God risks becoming a part of His own creation. It’s when God, the Divine Artist, dives into His own painting. Christmas is when the Infinite becomes finite. When the Immutable becomes vulnerable. When the One who is Eternal Life finds out what it’s like to be mortal. When the Invisible One takes on skin—sees through watery eyes and hears with fleshy ears.

Christmas means God becomes an infant who cries, needs His mother to feed Him from her body. This infant will grow into a man who will shed salty tears when his best friend Lazarus dies. He will shed more of them when those He called His friends betray Him. Later, He will shed blood when cross and crown splinter the surface of his skin. God knows life and He knows death, and in His being born and in His dying, God through Christ walks with us through this life. Right by our side. Come hell or high water. He’s never run away from trouble. He’ll never leave our side.

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I have a friend who has displayed this Divine truth to me—this kind of hell or high water faithfulness. This “stick-by-you-no matter-what-edness” that we’re talking about. But in order to tell that story, I need to back up a bit to my elementary school days. We’d go on field trips—to the park, the Capitol building in Richmond, even DC. Let’s say I was in the 4th grade. Maybe three foot ten on tip-toes. On field trips like these, there’s a ton of walking involved, and even though I was supposed to be buddied-up for safety, my buddy would always grow impatient with my short and slow steps, so he was always ahead of me. I could never keep up with my schoolmates or my teachers. I got used to walking far behind others. That’s just the way it was. Patrick’s pulling up the rear again!

Fast-forward to high school. My best friend’s name was Erica. She was here two weeks ago for the wedding. On a trip to Montreat our Freshman year—with a lot of walking and a lot of mountains!—she and I would walk together from one place to another, and she noticed my tendency to walk behind her, even when we weren’t walking all that fast, even when there was plenty of room for me right beside her, I stayed in back of her.

At the end of our week together, she bought me a gift. It was a little plastic card, something I could carry with me in my wallet. It said,

Do not walk ahead of me. Do not walk behind me. Walk beside me, and be my friend.

And in that moment, and for many years after that, through her presence, Erica would show me what the presence of God was like—it was like a best friend who wants me to walk right beside her! In Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God walks with us, beside us, stride for stride. With him, we will never walk alone. In the person of Jesus, God has—and still does—come beside us!

Join me in singing verse 3 of Come By Here.

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As we sing our songs this Advent, we praise God for all the ways He has become fully known to us. The heavens were full of angel song that first Christmas, and they still are. Advent is when we take time to pay attention to the way all of creation both sings and echoes God’s praise. If anything is true about the first song that John the gospel writer sings, it’s that Christ was God’s first song. That Christ existed in the heart of God from the very start.

It’s no accident that the first three words of John’s gospel are “In the beginning,” the same three words than begin the book of Genesis. With those words, the 4th gospel declares two cosmic truths at once—that Christ was with God before the very first word that brought creation into being, and that with the coming of Christ to earth in the person of Jesus, God renews creation, starts over again—breathes life into all things now just as He did at the very beginning of time.

With the incarnation of Jesus, God declares to us that every aspect of our human lives matter to God because He has lived this human life with us. Its ups and downs, its hardships and victories, in all of its confinements and confoundments, God promises to be Emmanuel, and that God declares that there is no worry too small and no challenge too great.

This is the Good News of Advent: that God in the person of Christ lives it all with us, right by our side, sharing life with us, stride for stride. Advent is that song we hear and the heavens echo that promises us that our lives and our prayers are heard and understood by a God who has ears—ears that were once shaped just like ours, that God listens intently because God loves us and understands us intimately. And with Him here as our Emmanuel, we will never walk alone.

Join me in singing verse 4 of Come By Here.

In the person of Jesus, God has—and still does—come by here!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

You Will Find A Child

A meditation based on Luke 2:1-20 preached on Christmas Eve 2015

Christmas isn’t for planners. If you’re one of those people who likes everything written down and scheduled out, you might know this already. The ham needs to go into the oven at this precise time. Start making the mashed potatoes two hours from then.

Try planning your Christmas Day out like that and you’ll see how your plans will begin crumbling apart once the distraction of family, the hullabaloo of children and grandchildren reaching for presents with their names on them. The chaos of ripped and crinkled wrapping paper strewn across the living room floor and flying through the air. It’s in moments like these that we all realize that our Christmas plans mean nothing at all. The only thing that means anything are those moments of pure, unadulterated, unplanned joy. Add all those moments up and what you have is Christmas—the surprise of it all, the marvel on each one of those smiling faces you see, family and friends wrapped around your Christmas tree all together—the wonder of it all. All the stuff no one could ever plan—that’s Christmas.

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Is it any wonder, then, that Christmas came first to a few shepherds living out in the fields, far away from the noise and distraction within the city limits of Bethlehem that night? When everyone was going about their lives and responsibilities, too distracted to see anything new among them, that the angels chose to announce their glorious Good News to the still and quiet ones, the attentive ones?

God knows who has ears to hear His coming, and that night, the only ones aware and receptive enough were far away from the noise. Shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. They were the only ones with their heads up that night. They could see the angels among them. They could notice the signs all around them. Something astir. Something new.

Jesus doesn’t come to us on this night with loud bursts of fanfare. Trumpets. Alleluia choruses. God doesn’t announce his birth from the hills. The Good News of Christmas is big, but it’s not loud. If we’re not careful, we can miss it. We too can be so distracted by the noise all around us, our schedules, our to-do lists, that we will miss what God is really up to.

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This Christmas Eve, the Good News is announced to us, but only with angel whispers. We will hear it only if we slow our hearts and minds, and make ourselves available for it. Not only that, though. Just like the shepherds on that holiest of nights, once we hear the news that God has taken on flesh and now dwells among us, we too must make our way to Him. The task of Christmas isn’t only to listen and watch for the signs, but to walk toward them. To draw in close. To set out on a journey to see the One born among us.

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Just like the shepherds, we have to look beyond ourselves, up into the night sky, all around us, in others, to see the signs of Christ’s presence among us. Jesus is born somewhere in our midst, but we will have to go searching for him. Not only inside ourselves but even more so, well beyond ourselves. The questions of Christmas are these: Where do we go to encounter the transforming presence of Jesus? Where do we meet this Holy One born among us?

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How did the shepherds find Mary, Joseph, and Jesus that night? Did they wander into the gates of Nazareth and move from house to house? Did they bother everyone they saw—“have you seen a pregnant girl, she was probably with her fiancée,

a man who looked like he was about to pass out, where did they go?

Or did the shepherds simply stumble upon a manger that night? How did they know the way? How do we know the way? How do we find Jesus? We have to go searching.

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Journeying towards Jesus takes a tenacious curiosity, a dissatisfied hunger for something we know we can never provide ourselves. It’s something out there, well-beyond each and every one of us. Where do we find Him?

The task of Christmas is to take those first daring steps through the darkness of our own hillsides and set out—venturing, wandering, making our way closer and closer, day by day, to Jesus. That’s how we will find this child. By leaning forward and journeying toward Him—one stumbling, stuttering step at a time—not knowing exactly what we will encounter when we get to the manger, or how far away it might be, but being curious enough to risk the journey, because there’s this mysterious stirring inside of our hearts that’s telling us that what we might find is all we’ll ever need to find.

Christmas isn’t a time to know everything we need to know—how it’ll all work out. All those unanswered questions and ambiguities. Nor is it about making plans and sticking to them. The joy of Christmas can never be analyzed, strategized, or explained. It can only be enjoyed. Now is the time to wander, wonder—to stand in awe of what God has done and is still doing among us—to be open to divine surprises that crop up at every turn along the way—to simply hold the mystery and wonder of Christmas in our hands—or, better yet, let it hold us.

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The Good News is that it’s not entirely up to us to find our way. If it was, we might get too lost to ever make it to Jesus. The Message of Christmas is that God has done most of the traveling already—toward us. No matter how far our journey is toward the Christ child—no matter the hills and valleys of our lives, the numbing darkness and the blazing light we must endure in order to live in Christ’s presence—God has already traveled much, much farther to reach us. And God has done that once and for all in this little child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. As John’s gospel declares, with this Jesus, God has pitched a tent right next to ours and dwells among us. But, we too must go searching so that we might also dwell in Him.

The promise of Christmas is that you and I can find Him, see Him face to face; we can encounter the living God, know Him, stand in His presence, and worship Him.

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Just like the Shepherds, we have come this night to witness Jesus born among us, for us, in us, and through us. And just like the shepherds, we too are invited and challenged to share the Good News of Christ’s arrival with everyone we encounter along our journey. It is because of Christmas that we have seen the face of God in Christ Jesus. We have encountered Him and know Him. Now, we set out to share Him with everyone we meet along our way.

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On this silent, Holy Night, Christ asks each of us to give birth to Him over and over again in our thoughts, our words, and our actions until everyone witnesses the wonder and majesty of the Christ who is now our Emmanuel—our God with us.

Keep looking. Stay curious. Continue venturing out. You will find a Him. I promise.

Merry Christmas!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Mary’s Yes. Our Yes.

A sermon based on Isaiah 61:14, 11 and Luke 1:26-38 preached on December 13th, 2015

Sermon audio

Christmas is full of questions: Did I buy enough wrapping paper? Will they like the gift I bought them? Is the Christmas tree straight—or at least as straight as it can be? How many will show up to my open house? Did I prepare enough food? What happens if the little one lights his bulletin on fire with his candle during the Christmas Eve service? How much cash do I give the girl ringing the bell out in front of the grocery store? How long do I have to stand in this line? How many days before it’s all over with?

How many more questions can you think of? Christmases are full of them.

Sometimes, it’s all we can do to get through the season—to make it to Christmas morning. Until then, we’re a bundle of indecisive nerves scurrying from this place to that place wondering if we’ve forgotten anything.

These are the questions of Christmas. There are many, many of them. And those are just the practical ones—the ones we make it through the day with. But there’s a host of other questions, too, aren’t there? Much deeper questions of heart and soul that we are confronted with—that we are invited to ponder this Advent season.

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The first few chapters of the Gospel according to Luke are full of questions, too. From the start, Luke tells us what it’s like for us to be confronted with news too great and wondrous for human ears to hear and human minds to comprehend.

Zechariah was the first one to hear unbelievable news. Zechariah was a priest who was in the twilight years of his life; long-ago retired, collecting Social Security, and living off his 401K when suddenly an angel of the Lord comes swooping in with news too delirious-sounding to be truth. In her 80’s, his wife Elizabeth has conceived their first son. After all those early years of trying. After all those years of despairing, it somehow happened. They will have a son, and his name shall be John. Who could blame Zechariah for laughing at the angel? Who could blame him for doubting the message—even if it was given to him by a presence who would have taken the belief out of anyone of us?

After the angel is done proclaiming his wondrous, amazing, breath-taking, Heavenly News, (imagine blazing light and trumpet fanfare, and alleluia choruses all around), Zechariah responds to it with all the enthusiasm of an Ebenezer Scrooge. He says,

How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old.

Way to go, Zechariah! O, man of little faith and even less imagination! And according to Luke, Zechariah was just the first to receive an angelic visitation. God’s not off to a great start. No one seems too convinced so far. The world is full of incredulous and world-worn people, we live weary lives, we’re too tired for good news, we’re too jaded to hear and believe. We are a people too used to the darkness to notice when the light starts shining through the cracks. We are incredulous and exhausted people. We’re not ready for God to swoop in and do something surprising and altogether new and incredible among us, with us, through us!

The news given to Zechariah was too wild for him to understand and accept, and because he didn’t believe it, you might remember, the angel of the Lord struck him dumb. He wasn’t able to speak for months and months afterward. Sometimes, maybe most of the time—especially in these weeks leading up to Christmas, it’s best to keep our mouths closed and listen for the Divine voice who is speaking to the world and to each one of us.

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The 2nd person to whom the heavenly angels speak in Luke’s gospel is a teenage girl. 14 or 15—maybe younger than that. She too is confronted with news too good that she must have wondered if it was really for her or not. The angel Gabriel must have got his paperwork mixed up. He must have misheard his orders.

This can’t be,

Mary must have said to herself. And then she said it aloud, she just switched up the words to be polite:

How can this be?,

she asks Gabriel. Mary wondered, and doubted, and feared, and was confused—all in the same instant. But unlike Zechariah, Mary’s “How can this be?” wasn’t of the skeptical and proud, know-it-all variety. It was more like the only thing anyone could manage to say if they were told something too holy for human ears.

What can you say to God when God says “I choose you”? In moments like that, there is only awestruck and wonder, silence and light. Mary’s “Yes” was by no means a sign that she was prepared for this baffling calling she received. In this moment, there was no understanding, no comprehension of what God was about to do with her life. She wasn’t briefed about what lied ahead of her. God didn’t give her anything extra-human to help her take on such a daunting and bewildering task. Nothing like that. As Gabriel left her side, doubt and fear, questions and hesitation set in.

How does God expect anyone made of flesh and blood to handle news like that? Isn’t it completely unfair of God to do such a thing to her—to give her something she didn’t ask for or could even imagine (I mean, who could imagine such a thing!)? And a teenager at that! Why would God take a human life and change the entire course of it at such a young age? Can Mary take a few days to think about it and get back to God? Evidently not. That’s not how God works. That’s not what being called by God means. God uses us whether we’re ready or not. Whether we feel up to the task or whether we think we’re missing some pretty key skills to make it happen. The bible is full of sorely unequipped people who say Yes anyway, and then live their way into their divine vocation one stumbling and bumbling moment at a time.

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Mary’s Yes makes her the very first of Jesus’ disciples. She becomes a follower of her Son before she even gives birth to Him. But, let’s not stop there. Mary’s invitation into the story of God is also ours.

It’s a long-held belief that Mary was not the first woman asked to be the God-bearer. Can you imagine angel Gabriel working in consort with God? He’s holding a list, and he’s almost to the bottom of it. Everyone has said no so far, and some didn’t just say no, they said “heck no!”, (because when angels are present, people have a tendency to temper their language). There’s only a few more viable candidates left to try, and then it’s back to the drawing board. The heavens are despairing, but then there it is—the next name on the list, “Mary”.

Gabriel reports back with the good news that this teenager named Mary said Yes. She was astonished and scared out of her wits, she doubted and she asked questions, and she almost talked back, but those are all good signs! Healthy signs! It means she’s struggling with it, taking it seriously, trying her best to wrap her head around what was happening. And then at the end, she said something amazing: She said,

Let it be! I am the Lord’s servant.

You can’t ask for more than that! That’s faithfulness at its best! That’s almost too good to be true. The heavens rejoice in an uproar with those words from Mary’s mouth! She said Yes!

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Christmas is full of unanswered questions. Extravagant, divine, and holy things left hanging in the air. God has left room for our uncertainty, just as he did for Mary’s. Just like her, we’re left to wonder, ponder all that God has for us, find ourselves perplexed by how God works.

Christmas isn’t the time to figure all these things out—to have all the answers. Christmas is the time to see the huge gap between what God is doing and our own understanding of it, and be awestruck by how marvelous God’s ways are—and in the end, remind ourselves of the words from the angel, “Nothing is impossible for God!”

Christmas is also time for us to trust that God is always doing a new thing among us, for us, and with us, and along with Mary, proclaim our “Yes”, our trust in God to work wonders.

Let it be…

Mary said.

Let it be with me just as you have said.

Can that be our Advent prayer, too? Can we find those same words upon our lips this season?

May those be our words to God this Advent. And with those words uttered from our lips, may God invite us into the new thing that He is already doing! And may we have the faithfulness of Mary to carry God’s new thing to term. And when it’s time, to give birth to it, so the whole world can see that God is here!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

To Jesus By Day

A sermon based on Psalm 25:1-10 and John 3:1-21 preached on February 22nd, 2015.

 Sermon audio

John’s story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus is one of those famous stories. No matter is you’ve ever stepped foot into a church or not, or even opened the bible at all, people know about this story—or at least a part of it.

I mentioned this passage a few weeks back when we talked about reading the entire bible as one story, because this passage contains the most famous verse from all of scripture: John 3:16. We know the verse well even if we have a hard time connecting it to the encounter of Jesus and Nicodemus.

What’s more, this passage contains a bumper sticker phrase for so many Christians out there. Here, we are introduced to the idea of “being born again.”

If you asked 20 Evangelical Christians what the phrase “born again” means, it’s likely that you’ll get the same response from all of them. If you asked 20 Presbyterians or Methodists or Episcopals the same question, it’s likely that you’ll get 20 different responses.

We take that phrase “born again” and we don’t grasp it as tightly as some other Christians might—it means bigger things to us. Where many Christians can point to one moment in their life where they were saved or born again, I bet most of us would say that things like that happen not just once but all the time.

Most likely, there have been pastors who have stood up in this pulpit and declared the truth that we are people who are born again and again and again—saved over and over—throughout our lives. Amen to that!

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John’s gospel is full of encounters like this one. In John’s gospel, whenever Jesus shows up, watch out, because he’s likely to turn your world on its head. He’ll blow your mind and make you think about your life in an entirely different way. That’s how you know you’ve met Jesus: When your world becomes undone. Jesus confronts us with truth and leaves us speechless and windblown. You’ve heard the phrase (and I’ll adapt it so it’s church-friendly):

The truth will set you free, but first, it’ll really tick you off.

That’s what Jesus does. He’s here to set us free, but first he’ll put us through the ringer. Jesus is here to knock us off our balance and confront us with Truth with a capital T. That’s when you know Jesus has shown up—when you’re knocked off your balance. The passage just before this one is Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, overturning the tables of the moneychangers.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke place this story in the back of their gospels, but John sticks it right here at the beginning, in his second chapter, as if to say, Jesus is here to overturn and upset everything—tables in the Temple, but that’s just the start! Jesus will overturn our entire lives. And that’s what happens to Nicodemus when he meets Jesus in this passage: his life is turned upside down in his encounter with Jesus.

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Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night—under the cover of darkness. Nicodemus was a teacher of the law and a high-ranking Jewish leader—a high priest. Because of his high ranking among the Jewish elite, Nicodemus doesn’t want to be seen with Jesus. It’s too dangerous. Jesus had already has established himself as a rabble-rouser, a table-overturning troublemaker—that misfit “over there” who wants to undo everything—who has already tried to undo things in the Temple.

So, Nicodemus visits Jesus in secret. He’s interested in Jesus, this man who’s caused quite a stir. Nicodemus comes to Jesus to ask him questions, to learn more about him, to try to understand him.

Little does Nicodemus know, Jesus cannot be grasped with one conversation, he cannot be understood in one encounter. Understanding Jesus takes a lifetime, doesn’t it?

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Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus is a teacher who comes from God. He says,

No one can do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.

But that’s not the half of it. There’s much more to Jesus than that.

So, right away, Jesus changes the conversation. Jesus gets straight to the heart of the matter. No need for small talk. Jesus doesn’t do small talk.

I assure you,

Jesus says,

unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.

And here’s where we all are confronted, right along with Nicodemus. Right away, Jesus pulls us out of our comfort zones and into unknown territory. Nicodemus is a smart man who knows tons about scripture, but in this conversation, he quickly becomes a bumbling fool.

Jesus says that in order to see what God is really doing, we have to be born anew. Here’s where Nicodemus gets his wires crossed, though. In Aramaic (Nicodemus’ and Jesus’ shared language) the word for “anew” can also mean “again” or “above”. So while Jesus means to say that Nicodemus needs to be born anew (in the spiritual sense of taking on a new kind of life), Nicodemus mishears Jesus, taking him more literally:

How is it possible for an adult to be born?

Nicodemus asks.

So the two of them spend the whole conversation talking past each other, Nicodemus never really understands the full measure of what Jesus is trying to say to him.

What Jesus is saying to Nicodemus takes some parsing. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that as long as he comes to Him under the cover of darkness, as long as Nicodemus refuses to be seen with Jesus in the light of day, he’s like a fetus in his mother’s womb who refuses to be born.

Jesus is telling Nicodemus that his faith is still in its gestational period. It hasn’t come alive for itself, it doesn’t know how breathe on its own. Nicodemus’ faith has yet to be born into the world because it doesn’t make a difference for the world.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

With his encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus is inviting us to enter into new relationship with God—to birth our faith into the world.

So many of us, just like Nicodemus, are scared to go public with our faith, to move out from under the darkness of night, that it’s almost like that darkness is like a comfort to us, so what we have is more like an immature womb-like faith. But Jesus wants our faith birthed into the world where it can live and breathe on its own. Jesus wants the umbilical cord cut. Jesus wants us not to have an inward, gestational faith—something small and hidden away in dark and comfortable places. Jesus doesn’t want us to seek him under the cover of night. Jesus wants our faith to be delivered into plain view.

What Jesus wants is for us to go public with our faith. So, the question that this story wants us to ask ourselves is: Are we willing to be with Jesus by day? Are we willing to speak up about our faith in the public square, where others can hear us and see us?

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Nicodemus’ answer to those questions is “No.” He was not willing to go public with his faith. Nicodemus left Jesus that night and crawled back into the darkness—walking away from Jesus’ invitation and slinking back home undetected. No one ever knew.

Nicodemus never comes to Jesus by day, and we are left to wonder what happens to him.

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Here’s the thing about Nicodemus, though: He was a good guy. He was a pillar of his 1st Century church. He never missed a worship service. He served on all the boards—he attended all the meetings. He was as responsible and trustworthy as they get. He was successful and self-confident, he appeared to have it all together. He was spiritually open and curious enough to make an appointment with Jesus, but he couldn’t bring himself to go public with his interest in Jesus.

Nicodemus is like the church member who keeps his faith secret, separated from the rest of his life. The church-goer who compartmentalizes her faith, because although it’s important to her, she’s not ready for it to change her life.

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How are we just like Nicodemus?

How does our faith still need birthing into the light of day?

Is our faith in Jesus gestational, hidden away, still in the womb where it first grew? Or has it been birthed into the world? And if it has, is it mature enough to stand on its own, walk on its own, and find its own way? Does our faith go with us wherever we go, or is it relegated to secret visits with Jesus? Have we gone public with our faith?

See, these are all the questions that this story should challenge us with, the most direct of which is: Will we, like Nicodemus, relegate our relationship with Jesus to only the private sphere, to womb-like encounters made only under the cover of darkness, or are we willing to have our faith born into the light of day? Living and breathing, and out in the world for everyone to see? Will we declare what we believe and come to Jesus by day?

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

The Room God Uses

A Christmas Eve reflection on Luke 2:1-20

Sermon audio

We come to this night ready to exhale. Aren’t we, in these more quiet moments of the Christmas season, ready to set aside all the stress and worry that mounts upon us so easily.

In these late moments and hours of Christmas Eve, when all the busy-ness of the last month begins to fall away, we encounter the great promise that it holds and we are confronted by the amazing reality that God has chosen—continues to choose—to enter our lives, to enter this world. To be born just as we were born.

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Mary and Joseph were traveling. On their way to their old hometown of Bethlehem. They were to be counted and taxed and registered. This was the year of the census, and everyone made their way back home to be enrolled. It was not an option but a requirement.

Mary was about to pop. Bethlehem was packed with people because of the census. All the inns were booked. There was no place for Joseph and Mary to stay. Imagine neon lights flashing “no vacancy”.

This was no time for her water to break. This was not the place for this to happen. Mary deserves to give birth in the comfort of her own home, to hear her baby’s first cries echo off the walls of her own bedroom. Bethlehem was all hustle and bustle.

This was not the time for this baby to come. But God doesn’t choose a calm time to come among us. Jesus doesn’t come to us when we’re ready for him—when we think our hearts are in perfect shape for his arrival, when we think we have it all together. Jesus shows up right in the middle of our everyday obligations, our work-a-day mess—Mary’s and Joseph’s and ours.

It is in the chaos of our lives that Jesus comes. And it doesn’t matter if we have a perfect room all ready for him to be born into. Jesus comes anyway. It doesn’t matter if we think our lives are holy enough for him. Jesus comes anyway. It doesn’t matter if we think the amenities are suitable enough. Jesus comes anyway.

All that matters is that there is room, room at all, room in us for Christ to be born.

Tonight, God asks us to be the room that Christ is born into.

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Being a shepherd was for the lowliest of people. Shepherds were peasants, forced to live on the outskirts of their town, far way from everyone else.

Shepherds earned nothing but the respect of their sheep, and they smelled just as bad as their sheep. They were the some of the poorest people in those days. These shepherds grazed the land outside of Bethlehem. The fields were their bed and their sheep their pillows.

These lowly people are the first to pay any notice to Christ’s birth. Among the hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of those in town for the census, it is a couple shepherds out in the middle of nowhere who had ears to hear and eyes to see that God had entered into the world.

It was the shepherds to whom the angels announced Jesus’ birth. Did the angels try to tell anyone else? Did their message fall on deaf ears? Were these shepherds more receptive than anyone else to the astounding and unlikely news that the angels came to share? Could it be that these shepherds were the only ones around who had room to receive God’s message and believe?

Lowly shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in the middle of that holy night. The only ones who had room to welcome a savior.

Tonight we ask, do we have that room inside of us?

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We are the place that Christ is born into. It is our lives that God now uses to give birth to Christ in the world. It is the room inside our words that tell of God’s love. It is inside the room of our actions that Christ becomes known to others. It is inside the room of our hearts that Christ lives.

This Christmas Eve, let us pray that we would be the room God uses.

O Holy Jesus, be born in us, we pray!

Alleluia! Amen!

A Feast of Fools

A sermon preached on the 3rd Sunday of Advent based  on Isaiah 35:1-10 and Luke 1:39-55

Sermon Audio

This 3rd Sunday in Advent we celebrate the joy that Christ brings to us. So far we have lit the candles of expectation, hope, and joy as we walk closer and closer to where the Christ child will be seen among us on Christmas day. And we wait with joyful anticipation for the promises of God to take on flesh and dwell among us. Full of grace and truth.

These words from Mary are among my favorite words in the entire bible. They are at once humble and ecstatic, reflective and joyous, contemplative and prophetic, beautiful and dangerous. Mary does not use these words to imagine a world where the powerful will be brought low and the hungry will be filled.

Rather, through these words, she proclaims her confidence in God’s power to do all of this. Through her child, Mary is sure these things are already taking place. That God is already at work flipping the entire world upside-down.

These words from Mary reveal an amazing trust in the power of God. Mary is asked to be the one chosen to deliver the savior to his people, and she gives herself over to God completely and joyfully.

How foolish does this seem? A teenage girl chosen by God to bring the long-awaited Messiah into the world.

Shouldn’t this Prince of Peace be placed into a crib decked in gold rather than into a cattle trough full of hay? Shouldn’t this King of kings be born into a royal household rather than to a teenage peasant? Wrapped in a purple blanket fit for majesty rather than the scraps of cloth that Mary finds lying around in a barn somewhere?

Yes, God is doing a new thing among us, but how silently and surprisingly this wondrous gift is given to us. God does not enter the world with trumpets blaring but with the sound of sheep bleating and donkeys braying.

Isn’t it foolish of God to come into the world this way?

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The Feast of Fools was a festival celebrated as early back as the time of Jesus’ birth.

Every year in December, all the way up to about the 16th Century, people paraded into the streets to share in a bit of social unheaval by mocking the established order of their day.

The Feast of Fools was a week-long upending of everything normal. Participants would consecrate a Pope of Fools in a ridiculous ceremony fit for a scene from Alice In Wonderland.

There was an Archbishop of Dolts, and an Abbot of Unreason. These temporarily appointed people would wear their vestments inside out—their hats on backwards—singing loud songs and dancing in the streets. They performed ceremonies that mocked the performance of the highest offices of the church while others wore masks and disguises. They walked around the centers of town pretending to read books upside-down, they chanted gibberish instead of proper liturgy, and they rode down the city streets on donkeys.

The Feast of Fools and all the joyous and blasphemous practices of it were condemned by the Medieval Catholic church as heresy, and many Catholic writers throughout the centuries have tried to deny that it ever existed. In 1431 at the Counsel of Basil the Feast of Fools was finally forbidden under the severest of penalties.

The Feast of Fools was a drama played out every year for all in Europe to see. It was a way for the common people to let off a little steam and upend the social conventions of the day. Picture the Daily Show with John Stewart or the Colbert Report performed in the center of towns and villages across England.

The Feast of Fools, for just one week in December, envisioned an upside-down kingdom in a topsy-turvy world with all the rigid rules of the Church thrown out. Where, in the words of Mary, “the powerful will be brought down low and the lowly will be uplifted. Where the rich walk away empty and the hungry are filled.”

What an upside-down idea. The Feast of Fools. What an absurd festival.

One of the customs during the Feast of Fools was practiced during the second Vespers service of the week when the second verse from the Magnificat was sung. That verse has the line “God has put down the mighty from their seat”. Right then the Precentor of Fools, would have his royal staff stripped away from him by a peasant in the crowd.

The Feast of Fools was a way to imagine the upside-down Kingdom. And it was celebrated defiantly by the underside of society to remember and enact these words from Mary.

God will scatter those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.

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Mary traveled to the house of her cousin Elizabeth to celebrate the joyous news that she would conceive a son.

As the angel told her of this wondrous occurrence, Mary had questions. “How can this be?” “How will this happen?” You can imagine all that might have been swirling around in her head right then. But that was months ago. Mary was now with child.

As Mary visits Elizabeth, she has no more doubt. There are no “Why me?” questions any longer. Instead of questioning God’s wisdom or doubting that all this can really be true, Mary gives herself fully to God, and with joy and amazement for all that God is doing through her, she rejoices with all that she has inside of her.

Mary must have thought that all of this is quite absurd. God will be born into the world though her. Who can wrap their mind around that?! It’s a foolish and joyous and dangerous and amazing thought.

Here we have two women, Elizabeth and Mary. One too old and one too young, both tasked by God to deliver into the world two people who would change it forever.

These two pregnant women come together to celebrate the new promises of God as well as the exciting promises of pregnancy—both with big secrets told to them by messengers of God.

A baby leaps in Elizabeth’s womb as Mary approaches. Blessings are shared. They both are astonished. Picture them singing. Imagine them swapping stories of the ups and downs of pregnancy. The morning sickness and all the uncomfortable sleeping positions they’ve tried, the surprising amounts of food they eat—my God, the hunger!

Mary and Elizabeth rejoice together in their shared motherhood, both conceiving under ridiculous circumstances, the anticipation of raising a child, the everyday miracle of bringing a whole ‘nother person into the world.

Just that idea is crazy enough, but a Messiah and his Messenger! Imagine their wonder. Imagine the expectation. The amazement of it all.  What kind of imagination does God have to send the Messiah into the world like this? Who would chose it to happen this way? A King born into the world through a poor peasant girl who has, up to this point, lived an entirely ordinary life.

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Mary is a thoroughly marginalized person in her culture. Female, young, unwed, and now pregnant with a baby that her fiancée is sure isn’t his.

Mary is in a dangerous situation for any woman at any point in history—even in these days. But in her day, Mary was in a serious amount of trouble. She really could be stoned. And Joseph might be the one to throw the first stone.

Knowing how dangerous her situation is, Mary takes off for her cousin’s house. Somewhere where she could hide for most of her pregnancy. There she might be safe.

You’d think a girl in Mary’s situation would be scared. Out of her mind in panic. But her words convey a person who is confident in the promises of God and confident in her role as a bearer of God’s coming Messiah.

Mary proclaims that she is blessed, that God is doing a wondrous thing through her. Mary raises her voice in song and she proclaims loudly that it is through her that God will save her people. Mary’s words are stunning and loud and wild and they show her immense faith in God. She says that God is enlarging her soul—that her soul is even making God bigger. God is becoming bigger because of her.

Through her child, she sings, God will change the world. Flip it upside-down. God will break down the social structures that have kept the rich full and the poor empty, the powerful on thrones and the lowly sleeping on dirt floors. Through her child, all the world will be transformed and upended.

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The Feast of Fools became a literal acting out of Mary’s words. It celebrated the subversive vision of how the world would be if Mary’s words were ever enacted—if the desires of God were ever to be realized in the world.

In Zimbabwe, one name for God that Christians use translates into English as “The One Who Turns Things Upside Down”.

Mary’s words paint a vision of a world turned on end by a God who invades it and announces through Jesus that the ways of the world need to be toppled over. That what the world raises up needs to pulled down and what the world pulls down needs to be raised up. 

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This Advent season, as we move closer and closer to the Christ-child, we, like Mary, are invited to enter into the foolishness of God’s promises. To enact the story of our God.

God is still unfolding this story of continuous creation, redemption, and salvation to us through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit—the same Holy Spirit who filled Mary and Elizabeth with joy and song. The same Holy Spirit who confronted Mary with the stunning and miraculous news that a Savior would be born unto her meets us here in this season of Advent and confronts with the joyful and foolish news that there’s a child among us who is here to change the world as well as our hearts—who will deliver the people from darkness and carry them into light. Who will right the wrongs of the world and free the lowly from oppression.

What we celebrate during Advent and what we hope for at Christmas is nothing short of miraculous, and what we practice during Advent is the birthing of God’s desires into creation.

German theologian, Meister Eckhart, once wrote that we are all called to be mothers of God, for God is always waiting to be born into the world.

We are all Mary’s, called by God to do the important work of making Christ known to the broken and hurting world around us. A world chasing after the wrong kind of power. Like, Mary, this Advent, may we too magnify the glory of God and may God be magnified by us.

May we expect God to do something mighty and miraculous in us, among us, through us, and with us.

What a foolish and joyous and magnificent thought!

Maybe Advent is a Feast of Fools.

Alleluia! Amen!