Together, Together, Together

A sermon based on Jeremiah 23:1-8 and Ephesians 3:1-13 preached on June 25th, 2017

Sermon audio

“It’s all a mystery,” we say.

“Everyone likes a good mystery.” We say that, too.

“I think the butler did it,” one says.

“No way!” says another, “It’s the cook in the kitchen. She’s the one with all the knives!”

Most mysteries can be solved. All we need is time and a bit of detective work. Some snooping around.

Most are solved within the sixty minutes of a TV show. Before we get to the bottom of our gigantic bucket of popcorn in a movie theater. By the last page of a book.

Most things we call “mysteries” simply take careful discernment. The combing over of evidence left behind or gathered together. Facts will be collected. Lies will be dispelled. Stories will be set straight. Fingerprints will be lifted, but the truth will be reached. Solving these sorts of mysteries is not only possible but likely. Most times, we can be confident that with the right help we’ll figure it all out. It might take a while, but we’ll get there.

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Then there are those mysteries without end. The ones that cannot, by definition or essence, be sorted through. Mysteries without answers. These sorts of mysteries are not the kind we solve. They’re the kind we live. Fathomless. Their very incomprehension is the thing that draws us in.

Some mysteries are meant to be immersed inside of, rather than figured out, enjoyed instead of scrutinized. The miracle of birth. The ways of the human brain or heart. What the soul is and what it is made of and where it resides. Why ice cream tastes so good.

Some things are best left unscrutinized. Untouched. It’s best to hold them up—behold them—lose ourselves inside of. Wonder about. And getting to the bottom of them, if we ever tried, would drain the beauty, the sensation, the miracle out of them. This is the type of mystery Paul mentions in these verses.

In English, the word mystery means “dark,” “obscure,” secretive,” “puzzling.” But in Paul’s language, Greek, the word mystery is used to talk about a truth into which someone is initiated. It’s God-language. Jesus-language. Mystery is what we’re invited into. Led to see. Become included in. Grow eyes for.

And we’re not brought in, as investigators are, in order to figure it out. No, we are brought into mystery in order to live our lives inside of it. Traverse it. Explore all its parts. Enjoy its landscape. Have our eyes opened further the deeper we go.

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Paul is under house arrest. There areRoman guards standing at his front door 24/7. He has not a window to look out of. In ancient times, only the rich had windows. Paul was not of the lackadaisical sort. One could make an argument that by this time, he had logged more miles than Caesar. He was no homebody. We can easily imagine Paul restless as he wrote this letter to the church in Ephesus while under the custody of Rome.

If you want to get into technicalities, Paul was a prisoner of Nero, the Roman Emporer from 54 to 68 AD. Nero was ruthless. He had it out for Christians. Nero considered this small group of believers a great threat to his power. Nero was the one who fed Christians to lions inside of Roman colosseums. But as Paul gets personal here in this passage, explaining his current situation as a prisoner under house arrest, nowhere do we find the name Nero. Paul refuses to use it. As he saw it, No Nero, no Caesar had the final say about him. Only Jesus did.

Throughout his letters, Paul refers to himself as a prisoner of Jesus, because Jesus was the only one he belonged to. Paul was evidently a tiny man. Small in stature and in voice, but he was large in spirit. Imprisoned often, there was no containing him. His essence belonged and resided in the wide open and hope-filled landscapes of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That was the only way he allowed himself or others to define him. A prisoner of Jesus Christ. In this way, though often bound in chains, Paul was nonetheless free. That frustrated his captors to no end.

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This vast and wide-open mystery is ours, too. This Jesus-life. This boundless, eternal purpose. We have been invited into it. We have been let in on it. Some still, small voice has whispered something into our ears, and we woke up. This mystery is too big for us to handle. No mind or heart can fathom it. No fence can hold it in or keep it out. This is a revelation that includes us and all who hear it.

There’s no room for barriers or boundaries here. This mystery is like a treasure each and every one of us is invited into. A mystery as big as the cosmos. There’s room here for all of us. No matter what room he was quarantined inside of, jail cell he was thrown into, Paul never felt cut off from it, alone, hopeless, anxious, forgotten. And the same should be true of us, too. Despite our current circumstances, we are a part of an eternal purpose, heirs together, in on a mystery and a promise together, members together, sharers together. In Christ Jesus, we are together, together, together.

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Paul knew why the caged bird sings. That’s an image given to us by the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. It’s from a poem called Sympathy.

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!

    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;

When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,

And the river flows like a stream of glass;

    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,

And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—

I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing

    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;

For he must fly back to his perch and cling

When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;

    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars

And they pulse again with a keener sting—

I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—

When he beats his bars and he would be free;

It is not a carol of joy or glee,

    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—

I know why the caged bird sings!

Source: Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2004)

Never alone. Always connected. Always together.

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This shouldn’t be a surprise. We are made in the the image of God, after all. God is, in Himself, community. That’s another mystery we’ve been invited into. The mystery of the Truine God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s hinted at but left unnamed in these verses. Verse 6: Together, together, together. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Holy, holy, holy! Trinity. This is who God is. Not one or the other at different times in different places, but always and everywhere one. Don’t ask me to explain it.

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There are many things I can’t explain. The list is too exhaustive to read off right now, but here are the first to come to mind: The art of Salvador Dali. The reason why The Bachelor is still on the air. Why people suffer and good men die too soon.

There are many things we simply must wonder about. Including this one. God is one. God is three. Both at the same time. Not one of these—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are ever separate from one another. This too is a mystery not for us to solve. That’s been tried before to no avail. It is one to hold onto, be invited inside of. This is a holy mystery, so it’s not the sort we gaze at with our head cocked to the side and with sqinty eyes. It’s not the kind where we throw up our hands and say, “I don’t get it—the numbers just don’t add up!”

The Triune God is the sort of mystery in whose presence we lift up our hands in praise. With awe and reverence, we give ourselves to it. God is a mystery we participate in. Trinity is a way of God revealing Himself to us that says,

You cannot know Me as some impersonal abstraction, as some nameless force, some warm and fuzzy thought, some new age aura swirling around, so don’t even try! Neither can you reduce Me to something you use, or understand, or need for your own bidding, on your terms.

God refuses that, too. Trinity says that God will not and cannot be known on our own. Under your own power, or mine. With our own wits. Solitary isolation is forbidden. The Truine God, the Holy, Holy, Holy, Himself lives in community. So, we, who are created in His image do not try to live on our own. In so doing, we will destroy ourselves. We will uncreate ourselves. Unravel.

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The manifold wisdom of God plays out when we are together, together, together.

So, it’s not a stretch for Paul to declare that of course the Gentiles, those who for centuries upon centuries have been understood as not a part, not a people, have always belonged. This isn’t God doing something new, re-drawing the circle wider. This is God’s people realizing that God’s love for every bit of His creation has always been this big. So, of course, come in! You are a part. We are a part. In fact, we’re all nothing if we’re not a part! We all have always been a part. Sorry it took so long for us to realize this about you, O God, O neighbor, O stranger! But, now we know.

Isn’t that how it has always worked, friends? History is full of moments when suddenly we are let in on the truth that is always been right in front of us. We only needed to grow eyes big enough to see it. The mystery is no secret. It’s God grace for God’s creatures.Each one of us, each one of them, loved beyond reason. Until love is enough to get rid of those words: Us and Them.

Then, all of us will be able to see one another for exactly what we are: each one of us heirs together, members together, sharers together. Together, together, together. What a marvelous plan! Holy, holy, holy!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

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The Foothold of Faith

A sermon based on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 and Ephesians 2:1-10 preached on June 11th, 2017

Sermon audio

Hobby wind-surfer, Adam Cowles, realized he was way off-course when he spotted a cargo ship. He was windsurfing the Swansea Bay, not too far from his house, but after a few hours of delightful distraction, Adam found himself in strange territory. He had unwittingly made his way into the Bristol Channel, 140 miles away from home.

The water that day was freezing cold. If he fell in, he’d be in serious trouble. If there came a lull in the wind, Adam could have found himself stranded. Opposite the cargo ship, Adam could see land, so he surfed his way to shore and walked into a nearby bar, soaking wet.

The locals must have seen sights like him before, because even though he was still dripping wet when he walked into that pub, the patrons thought and said nothing of it. They even bought him a beer.

Adam began to tell them his story.

They told him how far away from home he was. 140 miles. He was astonished. And then he was embarrassed when he had to call his wife, asking her to make the 280-mile round trip to pick him up. She was not happy.

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Wind is so prevalent inside of scripture that one could easily call it a character. A living force rather than an object or an atmospheric phenomenon.

God shows up in the beginning of the opening act, in the very first lines of our story in Genesis 1, as wind. This is the form in which the Spirit of God makes way into creation, and then helps creation take its shape out of what was before simply chaos and nonsense. The second verse in all of scripture says it this way:

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

This is how God shows up. In a breeze. And that happens over and over again throughout God’s story—our story, too.

Consider the moment of the Exodus, when the Hebrew people, enslaved for two centuries in Egypt, make their way across the Red Sea and to the other side, outrunning Pharaoh and his army and into freedom. The Sea was split in two that day by a strong eastward wind.

And then there’s Jonah, the stubborn prophet, who tried his best to outrun God after God asked him to do something that made no sense to him. Throughout the Book of Jonah, he’s stopped, over and over again, to the point where it gets comedic, by wind and sea, by whale and wave.

We try our best but there’s no escaping the Spirit of God.

There’s at least two stories in each of the four Gospels, where fisherman disciples are out on a boat on the Galilee Sea. Terrified by brewing storms and rising waters, Jesus comes to calm the waves and the rain and brings them through. These are messages for us about how when we are caught in the scary seas of our own lives, when the water rises too high all around us, Jesus comes to us and subsides our fears and says to us the same thing he said to His disciples in those moments:

Peace be with you.

Last and certainly not least is the story we have in the Book of Acts where Luke gives us a glimpse of Paul’s travelogue. To get to the churches he has planted, Paul and his own team of disciples, servants, doctors, and scribes cross the Mediterranean Sea and sail up the Aegean between present-dayPaul Turkey and Greece, and north into the Sea of Marmara. Some of these voyages brought disaster. Pirates, shipwreck. Loss of cargo and loss of life. Throughout scripture, water and wind give life but they also take it away.

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dSo when Paul writes from a prison in Rome to the young believers in Ephesus—and by extension, to us—he has been wind-tossed, beat up, lost at sea, and then found again. Paul knows a thing or two about what it is to be blown about by wind. And he warns us, right at the get-go, here at the very beginning of Chapter 2,

Do not be blown about by the wind. Once you lived your entire lives wandering off-course in this perverse world….You were the offspring of the prince of the power of the air. He once owned you and controlled you.

I don’t know what kind of devil you believe in. We talk so little about evil and its personifications. Certainly, the personification of evil into some being with the proper name, Satan, is not as much a creature found in scripture as it is one that has been imagined in the tales of subsequent works of fiction: Dante’s Inferno and John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. We need to keep our stories straight.

We’ll talk more about this when we reach Chapter 4 of Ephesians, but for now, suffice it to say, here Paul describes some sort of evil or persuasive power, but he doesn’t give it a name or a form. It’s as if Paul is describing that thing mentioned in the first two verses of Genesis 1, a sort of earthly chaos, life and creation without shape, or meaning, or form. Life without God. That is a sort of evil in and of itself.

Paul is warning us against living in a way that’s uncritical, where we get swept up by the power of the air, picked up by every breeze that comes our way. Life lived empty and persuadable, easily manipulated by anything and everything around us. We can get picked up and pushed around wherever the breeze takes us, like that empty plastic bag at the beginning of the movie American Beauty. This is the prince of the power of the air. This is an opportunistic presence that will sweep us off our feet any chance it gets.

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We live in a culture full of wind-blown people. Too often, we get caught up in the prevailing winds of our day, and before we know it we’re like that empty plastic bag that gets knocked around by forces both visible and invisible. We get taken anywhere it pushes us.

What Paul is inviting all of us to see is a new way to live and move. Paul’s words here are a sort of prelude to the important and biblical idea of living in but not of the world. We cannot be blown about. Persuadable. Pushed about. We must find our footing. We must be discerning, keen, wise, sharp, perceptive, insightful, critical. You’ve heard the phrase,

If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for everything.

This is God’s way of saying a similar thing. Find your footing.

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Paul knew something about wind. He was a tentmaker.

These days, if a person calls him- or herself a tentmaker, there’s a good chance they’re a Pastor who specializes in creating new churches. Paul did that, but before he ever entered into the ministry he actually made tents. This is how he made a living, even while he sailed the seas, planting churches.

So, Paul knew a thing of two about wind. How to shelter oneself against it. How to build a structure that can withstand it. Build them strong, resilient, and with a big footprint so they hold up to the power of the air and the elements. Everything thrown at it.

As we mature in our faith, as we walk forward slowly in the Way of Jesus, following in His footsteps, we too become strong against the breezes that try to blow us off course.

It is with rope and ground pegs, poles and stakes that a tent becomes secure even in the most chaotic of climates. It’s the power of God’s grace that does the same thing for our minds, our hearts, our spirits. God’s grace pins us to solid ground, can keep us from being blown off course. Grace is the foothold of our faith.

I mentioned a few weeks ago when we began our look into Ephesians, that God’s grace given to us is not an end in itself. Grace is not the end of any conversation, as in, “but for the grace of God go I.” Grace is always the beginning of the conversation. Grace was in the wind that blew the disciples out of their tiny house on Pentecost, and it’s the power we have been given by God to walk out of here and do God’s work—in and for the world.

Grace is the fuel, the power source God gives us to start something—to go out from here, or wherever else we are, as agents of God’s love, as keepers of God’s Message, as sharers of God’s mercy. Grace is designed and given to us by God to take us places. It is first unmerited benefit, yes; but it’s also Divine enablement. Grace is given to us to get us going!

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Through grace, we gain a foothold in our faith, stand up tall in Christ, and then become agents of grace—taking it and using it. Paul writes,

For it is by grace you have been saved. You have received it through faith. It was not our plan or effort, it’s God’s gift. Pure and simple. You didn’t earn it.

That’s verse 8. It’s one of the most beloved in all of scripture, but I’m afraid it’s too often misunderstood. People use it to convince themselves that works—doing stuff with and because our faith—isn’t important. But what Paul says is, Take God’s gift of grace, freely given to you—yes, it’s never earned, it’s always a gift—but then do something with it. Use it. Pay it forward. Grace is never the end of the conversation; it’s always the beginning of one. God’s grace is given to us in order to be put to work through us. Grace is God’s enabling power for growth.

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If you feel like you’re trudging through life right now under your own power, if you’ve lost your footing, if you’ve exhausted yourself that way, let me re-introduce you to grace. Author Anne Lamott says,

When you’re out of good ideas, what you’re left with is God.

She describes grace as spiritual WD-40 or water wings, if that works better. And all you have to do to find grace is to say “Help,” preferably out loud. Shout it into the heavens if you have to. The heavens will hear you. “But watch out!” Anne Lamott says. The moment you say that word, “Help!”, the moment you find grace, buckle up! Because, powered by the Holy Wind of God as it always is, God’s grace will take you places you never intended to go!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Joining In

A sermon based on Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21 preached on June 4th, 2017

Sermon audio

Today we celebrate the many ways that God gives us new being. How we are forever and constantly invited into a life that is not ours but something given to us.

Pentecost is when we the Church realize that our life, our vitality, our meaning and purpose aren’t something that comes from within us. It all comes from somewhere else. Beyond us. We are not who we are on our own.

On the morning of that first Pentecost, the disciples were held up in a tiny room. Their minds, hearts, lives—their very purpose was gone, shrunk down and withered away. Frozen in fear. They thought they were alone. Abandoned. Orphaned. Left to themselves to make life work from here on out. Then they heard a rumble that came from the heavens.

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It is through Holy Spirit that we are given live, purpose, vitality. Holy Spirit represented by tongues of fire, tongues of speech, wind, and water.

Pentecost fire is not the sort that burns. It’s the sort that refines. Cleanses. Helps something made hard and rigid melt down into something pliable, shapeable, able to be remolded again.

Tongues of speech. Not the strange jibber-jabber heard in Holiness churches, but a new language that’s given to us so that we may understand one another and be understood by one another. We read the story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel where God confuses the languages of the people until they can no longer understand one another. What happens in Acts 2, on Pentecost, is the undoing of Babel.

Now, on this day, with the presence of the Holy Spirit with us, we have the ability to understand one another again. We borrow language that isn’t ours, and with it, we speak. We speak in the varied languages of our lives. We understand and are understood. And that’s a tremendous gift: to be understood. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit who speaks among us and between us.

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Holy Spirit comes upon us as wind, reminding us that we are born from borrowed breath. It is God’s breath that inflated Adam’s empty lungs and gave him life. The same is true of us. Until God breathes Holy Spirit into us, we have no life.

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And water. The waters of baptism are poured out upon us as a sign of this gift, the Holy Spirit. Water is another reminder that we are not our own. Without water, we wither away. It’s another life-giving gift. Something that we do not and cannot give ourselves; water is given to us. With the waters of baptism, we say that with God and with the people of God, we find ourselves. That being human is to belong. That to belong is to be human.

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Each one of these—tongues of fire, tongues of speech, wind, and water. They are all things that invite us into bigger life. Holy Spirit life.

Andrew, Brennan, Leela, nothing magical has happened today. But you did do something wondrous just now: In a world that prizes individualism—do it yourself-ism—you have just proclaimed with your presence and your voice that you will no longer live your life alone. You have in a few different ways, declared that doing life together, joining in, is the only way for you to find your purpose, your life, your shape, your language, your breath, yourself.

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The same is true for all of us. We all need to be reminded of the together-way. Life not only lived but formed and given meaning in and through the practice of Holy Spirit-community. And just like the disciples on that first Pentecost, this is just the beginning of our journey together.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

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.

We Are Mirrors. We Are Windows.

A sermon based on Psalm 8 and 1 John 4:7-21 preached on May 22nd, 2016

Sermon audio

Today we celebrate a God, and a doctrine about God, that we can barely comprehend, but yet confess with with our whole being. It’s Trinity Sunday. We can ask many questions about the Trinity, but most of them come down to a problem with numbers. How is God both 1 and 3? The question could be asked skeptically or wondrously. I’ve certainly asked it both ways myself.

There was a scientist who asked that question of a theologian friend of his, and instead of coming back with an answer or an explanation full of 5-syllable words, the theologian answered with another quandary:

Explain black holes for me.

he said. His scientist friend replied,

I can’t really. Nobody quite understands what they are.

The theologian asked a follow-up question,

But even though you don’t understand them, you do believe they’re real, do you not?

His scientist friend understood the point. There are some mysteries out there that are too amazing for us to comprehend—big things and small things—and we are left only to step back from our telescopes or microscopes, stop trying to make sense of what or why they are, and simply stand astonished.

This is what we do on most Sundays. Astonishment is the heart of worship. But on this Trinity Sunday, rather than hurting our brains with thoughts too big for us, bending over backwards, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible Triune God, it is best and wise to simply stand back and say, God is one, but somehow also three, and let that carry us away into wonder and wow.

Today, we revel in the ancient and mysterious Christian confession that God is both one and three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But let’s not stop there. We are also asked to take part in what our Triune God is still doing among His people. We are challenged this day to be the visible presence of our invisible God—to take this God who exists in Three Persons—all of them bound together in community with one another by love and mutual purpose, and find in the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the way we can also be the beloved community in and for our world. And that may be the toughest part of all. In a world that, rightly or wrongly, sees the Church as those who define their faith by what they are opposed to, who only speak of their faith through messages of intolerance, judgment, hatred, fear, and narrow-mindedness, our task as the people of Jesus, is to tell another story, the story of God’s love and God’s dream of having all of his people bound to one another in beloved community.

 

We live in culture dominated by fear. Everyone with a microphone, including many preachers and politicians, love to intimidate us by telling us what or who we should fear next. Many do so in the name of their Christian faith. Our entire culture is steeped in warnings about the next threat coming our way.

In my time as a hospital chaplain back in 2006, I would make visits to the Psych Ward. Thankfully, they weren’t that frequent. I had no idea how to give care to people who were so carried away by fear. Mental wards are full of terrified people. Fear undo’s us. The more we fear, the more we unravel, and the less of ourselves we become. Fear distorts our humanity. It distorts the Imago Dei, the image of God inside of us. It could be that the image of God inside of us is our humanity. Fear makes us sick. The more we fear, the farther away we get from the Imago Dei given to us at our birth, the further we get from living out God’s purpose for life, the sicker we get. Our current culture is acutely sick from fear.

There’s a story of a 3-year-old boy who gets a Jack-in-the-box for his birthday. He was tickled to find that when he turned the metal crank on the side of the box, music began to play. So, he turned the crank over and over, and to his dismay, at the end of such a delightful song, he got the surprise of his very short life: a clown came violently popping out of the top. The boy began crying, and had to be held by his mother for a time.

After he calmed down, the boy reached for the Jack-in-the-box again. Maybe he could hear the song without the scary clown popping out of the top. Or maybe, at least this time, it wouldn’t catch him completely by surprise. But at the end of the song, the clown jumped out of the box just as urgently as it did the first time, and more tears flowed. After the second bout of tears, the boy did something unexpected. He leaned down and looked into the face of the clown bobbing back and forth in that box, and he kissed it on its face. And from that moment on, the Jack-in-the-box never scared the little boy again.

See, when we take the chance to confront what we’re most afraid of, what or who we do not understand, and give it our attention, understanding, and love, when we look at it in the eyes, our fear begins to dissolve. God wants us to love until there’s nothing left to be afraid of!

Perfect love drives out fear.

Only God loves perfectly. We can try to love perfectly, but human love has limits and failures. We who follow Jesus can only work to perfect our love for God and for one another. After Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, just hours before He would be arrested and crucified, He left His disciples with only one commandment, the greatest of all commandments:

Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you must love each other.” He said. This is how everyone will know you are my disciples, when you love each other.

Christian perfection isn’t achieved through having a high moral character, it isn’t accomplished through knowing your bible backwards and forwards, it isn’t attained through praying all the right prayers or knowing all the right things to say in a Sunday School class or a Bible Study. Christian perfection is attained through loving others—no matter who they are or how different they may be from us; we are called to love. And the reason we show love to others isn’t because they’re nice, or because they deserve it. It isn’t because they’re like us, or for any other selfish reason like that. The reason we show love to others, even to those who are unlovable, is because God through Jesus Christ loved us when we were unlovable. The only litmus test of our faith is our ability to love others.

And the sort of love that Jesus commands us to give isn’t a feeling, it’s not an emotion. It’s a dare. The boy with the Jack-in-the-box kissed the face of the very thing that scared him because when it comes down to it, love is first and foremost an act of courage. Perhaps the greatest act of courage—the one that changed the course of history—was when God took the chance to take on flesh and become one of us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Think of that! The God of the cosmos, the One who created it all, who stands outside of space and time, lowered Himself and became a part of Creation, coming to us with skin on. The Creator God subjected Himself to the same limitations we live with as the created. Jesus is perfect love who came down in the form of an infant. God needed a mother to care for Him. God grew up with body that could fail Him (and one day would). What wondrous love is this!

And on Pentecost, the risen Jesus breathes upon His lost and lonely disciples and empowers them with Holy Spirit, and forever more She promises to be present with, and breathe life into, everyone who calls on the name of Jesus. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; these three are one. Perfect and whole.

Love in its perfect form may only exist within God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but we have been invited to mirror that love. We have been challenged, even commanded, to reflect the love that exists perfectly within the Triune God. We are asked to show it forth so that others might see. We will never comprehend the bond of love between the 3 persons of the Trinity, nor never we ever live up to such a wondrous love, but we can choose to reflect it. Our task is to be mirrors.

The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s fear. Perhaps the most counter-cultural thing that the Church can do is oppose the monster of fear than has pervaded and paralyzed our culture. We are all somewhat predisposed to fear. We have been taught to distrust whatever and whoever is unlike us in any way—to dismiss whatever is different from us as evil or less than, to call whoever is different from us the “other.” But in God’s sight, there is no less than, no “other,” for there is no one who is unknown to, or unloved by, God. God’s grace reaches much farther than our willingness to include. Thanks be to God for that! But, God’s grace does teach us to overcome our culture’s predisposition toward fear by practicing love—to stand in the way of fear whenever we see it arise, to confront fear whenever its claws hold us back from being agents of God’s love and grace. And by God’s love and grace, we are challenged to recognize God’s face in the face of those who look, and love, and belief, and live differently than we do. For, it is only by loving that we will show others that being Christian isn’t synonymous with timidity and fear. And if we take that dare, if we lean over to kiss the face of the Jack-in-the-box, then fear doesn’t stand a chance! And maybe the world will start paying attention to the reason why we’ve taken that chance.

Maybe through our loving action, we can turn the Church into a community of bold lovers, people who are willing to risk their cultural reputations in pursuit of a greater reward! Then, maybe, we can be windows through which others can see that God’s true character is love—a daring and courageous love!

We are mirrors. We are windows. So, what do others see in us? In you and me? When we’re out and about, what’s the message we send? Is it love or is it fear? See, whether we like it or not, we are witnesses of the Gospel. That is to say, the world is watching intently. What will we choose? The worldly way of fear? Or the Gospel way of love?God wants us to love until there’s nothing left to be afraid of!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

How to Start a Fire

A sermon based on Exodus 13:17-22 and Acts 2:1-21 preached on May 15th, 2016

Sermon audio

If you believe author Elizabeth Gilbert, ideas are living beings. That is, she says, they exist outside of us and they survive in spite of us. Here’s what she means by that. Years ago, Elizabeth had an idea for a novel—a very specific idea: It was a story set in the 1960’s about a middle-aged spinster from Minnesota who’s secretly been in love with her boss for years. He gets involved in a harebrained business scheme down in the Amazon jungle. A bunch of money goes missing, and the main character gets sent down there to solve the problem.

Her editor liked the plot and told Elizabeth to write her novel, but she got sidetracked by the stuff of life, and after years of sitting on the idea, she conceded that the novel would never be written, and the idea slowly floated away.

Fast forward a few years later, Elizabeth Gilbert sees a good writer friend of hers named Anna who happened to be in town, and they meet up for lunch. They hadn’t talked to one another for a decade or maybe more. And over lunch, they ask each other what sort of writing projects each are working on, and Elizabeth shares the plot of her novel that would never be. And after Elizabeth was finished sharing, Ana looks her in the eyes and says,

You’ve got to be kidding me! I just finished a novel that set in the 1960’s, and it’s about a spinster from Minnesota who’s been quietly in love with her boss and when her boss goes down to the Amazon jungle, he gets caught up in a wild pharmaceutical scheme, and she has to go down there to solve things.

Now, there are lots of books out there that built out of all the same stuff—millions of murder mysteries or a vampire romances, for instance, but this was something entirely different! Nobody writes a novel about the Amazon jungle at all, and here are two authors with eerily similar book ideas—all the way down to the small details.

Elizabeth Gilbert reflects upon this happenstance in her book Big Magic, except she doesn’t believe it was happenstance at all. She believes that ideas are alive—that they move from one person to the next, trying to find a human collaborator. She thinks that ideas have a conscious, that they move from one soul to another, until they find someone who’s ready to take that yet-to-be manifested idea and turn it into something! And if an idea finds a person who’s unwilling to bring it into being, the idea will move on and find a different host. And an idea, she believes, will do that over and over again until it finds someone with the bravery and the drive to make something real out of it!

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Now this sounds like a far-out idea—something conjured up by someone with too much time on their hands, but Elizabeth Gilbert knows how ideas spark inside of her, how they come and how they go. And, I wonder if her idea about ideas has something to teach us on this Pentecost Sunday—this day when we remember the moment when the first Apostles catch wind of a brand new thing that happens upon them, something they can only describe as Holy Spirit.

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That first Pentecost day was not unlike the day before it or the one before that, but sometime in the morning a presence happened upon them, and they just didn’t know how to describe it. Whatever or whoever this was came like wind and like fire. And even though they were surprised and overcome by its arrival, the Holy Spirit did something to them that they just could not ignore—something real and new and undeniable struck them that morning, and they let whatever or whoever this was happen to them—they said Yes to it and they allowed it to take them over.

But this Holy Spirit, this isn’t a mere idea or some notion that fell upon them, it’s not an idea at all, it’s not even an “it.” The Holy Spirit is a being. Not an idea or a mindset or a notion, but the personal presence of God in Christ that storms into our presence like wind and fire storm through a house!

I think the phrase Holy Spirit is a terrible name for the 3rd person of the Trinity. Holy Ghost isn’t any better either. The word used in the New Testament is paraclete, which means Advocate or Helper. The Holy Spirit is not the leftover idea of Jesus’ presence, she’s not some spiritual feeling that we have once in a while that falls upon us and then leaves. The Holy Spirit is an everywhere presence who speaks to us and for us, who like an Advocate, emboldens and empowers us to live as Christ would have us live.

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This is how you start a fire: you gather heat, along with oxygen and an ignition source. This is how the Church was birthed, when a person-like presence came to them like wind and flame, and began sparking! If all we do is keep our faith to ourselves, all of us held inside a cold, dark room somewhere, anywhere, Jesus stays a mere idea, a lifeless “it” of our devotion, a mere relic or notion instead of a “who”—a real being who lives and breathes and calls us outward, who wants us to be agents of real change for His sake and for the sake of God’s world.

God’s Holy Spirit is the presence who comes in and resides among us, and She sets holy fires in Her people so that the whole world will one day be set ablaze with the Good News of the Gospel.

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Saint Catherine of Sienna was a 14th Century pyromaniac. In a time when women weren’t allowed to challenge men, it was Catherine who sent a letter to Pope Gregory XI, confronting him about, and eventually convincing him, to move the papacy from France back to Rome.

In all her dealings, Catherine of Sienna was forthright but never rude. She cared not a bit about the restraints her culture and time placed on her as a woman. She told the hard truth, but she always did it with love. And she never paid attention to those around her who told her to keep her mouth shut. Indeed, it was because she refused to keep her mouth shut that we remember her to this day as someone who set the world on fire. St. Catherine kept journals, many of which you can read to this day. They’re filled with Spirit-filled prayers that still speak life into their readers.

In one of her journal entries she gave a piece of advice that still echoes through the centuries. She wrote,

Be who God created you to be, and you will set the world on fire!

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We’ve been moving back and forth through the Book of Acts for the last few Sundays, and you’ve been invited to read through Acts on your own this month. The Book of Acts in general is a story filled with fire starters. From Peter, who speaks up in today’s passage to declare that the words of Joel the prophet have finally come to pass—that our sons and daughters would prophecy, that our young would see visions and our old will dream dreams—that the Holy Spirit is here for everyone, no matter who they are or where they’re from.

It was at that first Pentecost that heaven would begin crumbling down into earth, and from ever onward, the two would never be the same. But in order to recognize what God is doing, we’ll have to see with different eyes and hear with different ears, for it is only by the Holy Spirit that we will see how earth is being infused with heaven.

There were people there that day who saw the wind and flame blow among the people, who saw them acting up, speaking in languages that were not theirs to speak, and out of their shortsightedness and their lack of holy imagination, and in their distrust of what God was up to, they assumed that the people had too much to drink. In their minds, that was the only feasible thing that could make anyone behave that way. Their assumption was not only wrong, it was unfaithful, and unimaginative. They were unwilling to believe what God could do. They were unwilling to see in a different way, and with their narrow eyesight, they looked upon the people filled with the Holy Spirit and could only see a bunch of drunkards.

We too live in a world that severely lacks in imagination—especially holy imagination. Ours is a world void of wonder, but those of us who call ourselves Christians are called and challenged by the Holy Spirit to see everything differently, to pay close attention to the presence and mystery of God, but not only that, to join in on what God is doing in and among His world and in and among His people. We are called to be God’s storytellers and God’s fire starters! We are called to take flint and tinder, and with the breath of our own words, and the fuel of our holy imagination, set fire in the hearts of others!

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Garrison Keillor, the host of A Prairie Home Companion on American Public Radio, was once asked to choose what he considered to be the 5 most important books of all time. Keillor is a very well-read man and an author of many books of his own, so any list of books he’d make would be held in high regard by many. So, readers were probably surprised to find that he ranked the Book of Acts at the very top of his list. When asked to describe the Book of Acts, Keillor said in his trademark concise but image-rich way:

The flames lit on their little heads, and bravely and dangerously went they onward.

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Pentecost is that ever-repeating moment when all of us who call ourselves disciples stop sitting around tables inside our tightly enclosed upper rooms, and begin trusting not in our own power or ideas, not in our own imagination or initiative, but give ourselves over to a greater power, to be swept up and outward by a higher calling, and adopt a holy imagination. But, it’s only when and if we bravely and dangerously go onward with the Holy Spirit that God can do amazing things with us and through us!

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This and every Pentecost, God wants us to take that tongue of flame and bravely and dangerously start holy fires with it so that others may see by their light who our God is. And if we do that, we too will give birth to the Church.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

At Home In the World

A sermon based on Psalm 147:12-20 and John 1:1-18 preached on
January 3rd, 2016

Sermon audio

I was 22 and in my last semester of college when I did an internship at a small Presbyterian church with my mentor and friend Matt Matthews. The idea was to give me a taste and some experience into what ministry in a small church looked and felt like, and every day, I did something different. One of my main responsibilities, though, was to lead worship with Matt on Sunday mornings. The two of us would meet up 10 minutes before the start of the service with the Choir, and have a prayer beforehand.

It was the 2nd or 3rd Sunday I was there, as the two of us were walking from his office to meet up with the Choir that Matt said to me, “I’m not feeling so good today, so you might be the one preaching my sermon for me. We’ll see how it goes.” He said that like it was no big deal—like I would reply with a quick, “Oh, okay, that’s fine!”

In fact, that’s how I might have responded, but on the inside there was sheer panic. How could he just drop this on me all the sudden and 10 minutes before the service, no less?! This is a clear set-up for failure! I stand no chance!

As it turned out, Matt preached his sermon just fine that morning. He had taken a dose of DayQuil just before worship, and it kicked in right about the time he started preaching. But he did something that morning that I’ve never seen him do before or since. At one point in the sermon, to emphasize his point, he pounded on the pulpit with his fist. Hard and loud. It woke everyone up! I was sitting in back of him that morning, in the chancel area, and once he threw his fist down onto the pulpit, I jumped out of my skin!

Later that week, Matt told me he didn’t know whether it was the cough syrup or the Holy Spirit that made him bang his fist on that pulpit. A friend of his suggested that it was maybe both. Maybe both, but we’ll never know.

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How do we know when God is speaking?

Does the voice of God speaking to us feel any different than the effects of a dose of Dayquil, or say—indigestion, gas, or the hardening of arteries? How can we tell?

We have a bible full of stories where God seems to speak with words—audible words—and humans just like us (there’s tons of them!) they hear God’s voice, they have conversations with Him just like you and I can have conversations with each other. Why doesn’t that happen anymore? Did it ever happen in the first place?What if the writers of the bible simply had better imaginations than we do?

When we read that Moses heard the voice of God speaking from inside a burning bush, how literally are we supposed to take that? If there were iPhones at the time, and that whole scene could have been filmed, what would we see and hear when we played it back? And that’s just one instance out of hundreds in the bible. Has God lost His voice? Has He become more introverted after all these years? Has God tried and tried, over and over again, to speak to us and because we never really listened, He’s given up trying? Or is it that we’re not listening for the right things? What kind of voice are we listening for?

Maybe it’s that God speaks out of the mystery of life itself. Perhaps the voice we need to listen for is a slower and more profound one—something speaking to us not with words strung together into sentences, but something more than that, some deeper utterance—some nudge in one direction or another—some trembling in our bones or underneath our feet. And it’s all we can do to try to make sense of that utterance. We know we hear something, but we need to hear it again, or else we might chalk it up to too much cough syrup.

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And this is what separates the Church from any other gathering of people. We listen together. We live with one another, not just because we like each other, but because we’re here to help each other listen—to try our best to make sense of all the different and mysterious ways that God is speaking into our lives. If that wasn’t our calling as a Church—the very center of our existence, the very heart of our purpose, then we might as well call ourselves something other than Church. The Lion’s Club, perhaps. Or the Shriners. Our men could sign up for a spot in the parade, wear those funny hats with the tassels on them, and drive in figure 8’s in tiny go-carts. We’re here because we’re called for something more. We’re called to listen deeper—to listen with one another. We’re here to remind each other that God is still speaking, and has a word for each and every one of us.

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God is famous for calling something to life over and over again—something that didn’t and couldn’t exist before God spoke it into being.

John’s gospel starts with this poem—this amazing and mysterious word—and in it, he declares that Jesus’ coming wasn’t happenstance. That his birth among us wasn’t just a consequence, or good timing. John declares from the very start that Jesus has existed in and with God from the very beginning of time, and at the fullness of time, God spoke again and something new appeared. Think of the very first words of the bible. John uses them here as his very first words:

In the beginning…

God speaks and things happen. And this new divine utterance is just one more thing God is creating, it is God himself coming to us, to live among us, as one of us.

The Word became flesh and made his home among us.

Another translation of this verse says that God moved into the neighborhood, because the original meaning of the word here is that in the person of Jesus, God pitched a tent right next to ours. With Jesus, God made himself at home in the world—setting up camp with us. Jesus is the Word. The deepest utterance of God. The very center of God’s voice. His heartbeat. The purpose of the Word made flesh is to bring God out, to give God a voice we all can hear and wrap our minds and hearts around.

Before Jesus, we looked up toward the sky—into its vast emptiness and we wondered what was out there and if it had anything for us. But now there’s no reason to look up to find our meaning and purpose. Now we look to Jesus, because God has made himself at home in the world.

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Jesus’s voice—that’s the voice we should listen for. He himself is the very utterance of God. And He’s still speaking. Jesus is God’s most powerful word ever spoken—so powerful that it’s still echoing across the sky. Sometimes it comes as soft as a whisper. Other times, as loud as a clanging cymbal. Sometimes as small as a mustard seed. Other times, as big as Christmas.

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We don’t always hear God well. It’s far easier to pay attention to the small things that take up our days. We don’t have to look too far after God’s first words that spoke creation and humanity into being to find that it was the very first of us who decided to pay attention to other voices—their own as well as the smaller ones much closer to them.

We know that story. It’s not just Adam and Eve’s story. It’s ours, too. We’re great at listening to the lesser voices, the most immediate and closer ones. It’s much harder to listen for the Voice that spoke it all into being in the first place—the One who still speaks us into being. The invitation, then, is to listen deeper—to take time out before the tumble of our lives and all of its distractions begin hurtling towards us from every direction. C.S. Lewis said it best in his book Mere Christianity:

It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other Voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and fretting; coming in out of the wind.

That’s the invitation in these first words from the gospel of John. To listen for a new utterance in and among us. Let us start the New Year listening for that voice.

Our God is closer to us than we have ever imagined!

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

Alleluia! Amen.