Questions and Reflections

January 2015

A Reflection on Jonah

If someone asked you what the book of Jonah was about, would you mention the whale?

The story of Jonah is an interesting one so knowing about the whale is a good start. The story is filled with details that are an odd fit for a biblical story. The main character, Jonah, does everything in his power to run away from God. When God first calls him to send him on a mission to Nineveh, to the capital city of the enemy of his people, Jonah runs to the sea. He hires a boat to take him to Tarshish, a mythical place far away from God, like El Dorado or Mordor. Jonah runs, thinking that God's power is limited and that the sea would shield him. But it doesn't. God sends a storm that stops the boat in its tracks and Jonah is tossed into the sea. The whale comes and eats Jonah but not to kill him. Instead, the whale is sent by God to save Jonah and bring him to the shore. 

Jonah tries to run from God but God doesn't give up on him.

God wants Jonah to visit Ninevah, tell them that God has seen their evil ways, and that God will destroy them. Now, there's nothing in Jonah's message that asks for the people to change. There is just the warning that something is about to happen. But, somehow, the people of Nineveh do change. They hear God's voice in Jonah's words and they ask for forgiveness. The capital city of the people against Jonah and Israel hears God's words. They listen. And if even Jonah's enemies can listen to God's voice, then everyone is available to God.

The story of Jonah continues after our verses (Jonah 3:1-5,10) today. Jonah hears that God will no longer destroy Nineveh and Jonah gets angry. He continues his pattern of wanting God to do what Jonah wants to do. But God refuses. God isn't in the business of just doing what we want. God is in the business of redeeming, savings, loving, and resurrecting others. And if God is willing to save Nineveh, then God is willing to save us too.  


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Gone Fishin' [Sermon Manuscript]

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Mark 1:14-20

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany (January 25, 2015) on Mark 1:14-20. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 

What picture do you imagine when you hear that line? Do you see a boat? Some pristine lake waters, maybe several young fishermen tending their nets under the hot midday sun. There are, within these short verses from Mark, enough words and phrases to paint a very vibrant, beautiful, outdoorsy scene - reminiscent of some visit to a national park, mountain vista, or a memorable camping trip. But how many of us, when you hear these words from Mark, immediately find yourself in Orlando, Florida? 

Because I do. 

So let me explain.

A few years ago while on a visit to my in-laws outside Tampa, my wife and I drove to Orlando to visit an unusual theme park called The Holy Land Experience. The park is a fantastical representation of what Jerusalem was like during Jesus’s last visit there. There’s a Temple, Roman soldiers wandering around, and young men and women dressed in togas being very helpful and directing you to various things to see. And everything is Jesus-centric. We can reenact the Last Supper with Jesus every hour or be a witness to his arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection at 12 or 5:30. But the experience that I remember most is called the Scriptorium. It’s not really a ride but more of a narrated journey through a series of rooms where we traced the history of God’s word coming down to us. Each room consists of old bibles, pieces of paper, images and stories about how the words of Scripture were first written, recorded, and translated. We got to see pieces of Scripture that was touched by ancient Romans and Syrians and texts that come from Turkey, the Middle East, Egypt, and all throughout Europe. And as we went further and further into it, we got a sense of my role in history as being, like so many countless people before me, a bearer of God’s story. There’s something powerful about seeing how we are part of something so much bigger than ourselves. 

Now, by the time we got to the end of the ride - into the last room - I’ll admit I was a little caught up by the emotion of it. And...that was kind of the point. The creators of the Scriptorium wanted you to feel this sense of history and purpose - this sense of drama because they wanted us to be changed. They wanted us to commit ourselves to following Jesus, to realize that we’re not as good at following as we should be, and to head out into the world to try harder. And so when we walked into that last room, the drama started. The room was pitch black - music turned up - I could feel the vibrations of the bass in my bones. And as the music started to get louder and louder, a voice from on high spoke out. And it identified all of us in that room as bearers of God’s story. We were told to go out, tell Jesus’ story, and be as brave as everyone who came before us. We’re to be as faithful, devoted, and powerful as those first disciples, called by Jesus, 2000 years ago. 

And then - at the climax - the walls of the room were lit up. There, in the middle, was a painted representation of Simon (aka Peter) the fisherman. And this Peter - he was huge. He had a great big beard, wonderful thick hair, piercing blue eyes, and huge bulging arms carrying a net full of fish. He looked like a cross between Rambo and the Incredible Hulk, able to beat-up anyone who stood in his way. Peter had the strength and the biceps to be a mighty warrior for God. 

And that’s one way to imagine how these first disciples looked. These ones who first heard Jesus’s words - who first followed his voice - it’s so easy to see them as that mighty, powerful, faith-filled person worthy of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. And it’s easy to think that we - as heirs to those first folks who fished by the sea - that we have to be like that too - like some Rambo for Jesus - or else our belief is just not good enough. And if we can’t be that big, strong, incredibly mighty follower of Christ - then maybe something is wrong with us. Because, if we were doing what we’re suppose to do - then God would make us strong. God would make sure we never doubted. God would make sure we never mourned or were worried or thought that God wasn’t with us. We feel we need to be that Rambo for Jesus - because, then, and only then, can we be sure that God love us. 

But this vision of Peter, or the first disciples, I believe it misses the point. That image takes these words from the gospel and misses what God is actually doing. Because when Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James and John, Jesus wasn’t assembling a team of god-believing-superheroes to his side. He wasn’t wandering through the neighborhood picking the biggest, the strongest, or the smartest, to be part of his team. No, Jesus wasn’t calling the best - Jesus was calling everybody - even the lowly fisherman, working on the Sea of Galilee. 

The focus of these stories isn’t on who is called but on who does the calling. And what we don’t hear is anything about being a spiritual Rambo. Instead, we hear that John the Baptist has been arrested. We hear that Jesus goes to the area around the sea of Galilee and that’s where his proclamation - his preaching and teaching - begins. Jesus’s message - his gospel - his good news - is that God’s presence is here - right now - whether you like it or not - and this message is intimately tied to these early call stories. God’s presence can’t be separated from God’s calling. The proclaiming of God’s love and presence in the world - the proclaiming that God’s kingdom is here, right now - that proclamation goes hand-in-hand with God’s meeting us, God’s getting to know us, and God revealing God’s-self to us. The good news isn’t only that Jesus is here. The good news is that Jesus is here for us - and Jesus isn’t going to wait until we’re good enough, strong enough, or faithful enough to finally meet us. No, Jesus is going to come to us where we’re at and say “follow me.” 

So if God meets us where we are and calls us just as we are - what, then, does this “follow me” actually look like? 

Does it mean giving up our day job and families, being like those early disciples and literally walking off the job - leaving our dad in the boat - and hitting the road, seeing where God might take us? 


Or Jesus’s call might mean something that can be even harder. It might mean realizing that in everything we do - in all our relationships - in all the little interactions that make up our lives - God is there. When we wake up in the morning, yawn, and rub our eyes - God is there. And when we put our head down to rest at the end of our day - God is there too. Because Jesus’s word is simply that the kingdom of God is here. The kingdom of God is right now. The kingdom of God is happening and that matters in everything that we do. From how we do our jobs, to how we study at school, to even how we interact with our parents and children - God is here, Jesus is present, and we all are apart of it. 

Following Jesus isn’t about being a superhero of the faith. It isn’t about being that spiritual Rambo that never suffers or feels pain or who never doubts or wonders where God is. Following Jesus is about following Jesus. It’s about hearing the good news that God isn’t waiting for us to be perfect before loving us but that God loves us first and foremost and there’s nothing we can do to change that. God is in the business of meeting us, coming to us, and being part of our lives even when we’re too busy to notice or see it. God isn’t waiting for us to make up our minds before getting involved. No, God is here. God is present. God is making a difference in our lives now. That’s the reality that Jesus is calling us to live into. Jesus isn’t going to let us become perfect before asking us to follow him. No, Jesus is here, right now, whether we’ve got bulging biceps or not - Jesus is inviting us, all of us to live into God’s reality - to live into God’s love - to live into God’s hope - and Jesus is doing that with just two simple words: “follow me. “



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Sometimes, it is about you [Sermon Manuscript]

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

John 1:43-51

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany (January 18, 2015) on John 1:43-51. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Now, there’s something about this passage from John that I struggled with all week. And its about that first verse today - verse 43 - where we hear how Philip became a disciple of Jesus. His whole story about becoming a follower is not even one verse in length. Jesus meets Philip, and he says just two words: “follow me.” And that’s it. That’s all it takes for Philip to become a disciple. We don’t even know if Philip was looking for Jesus or if Philip had heard about Jesus before Jesus showed up. The text doesn’t give us any backstory - or history - or anything. We just get this one sentence. I struggle because it seems so easy for Philip to be a disciple of Jesus - and I wish it was so easy for me. 

This text from John is part of a series of stories where we hear how Jesus put his band of followers together. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke - there’s no temptation in the desert in the gospel according to John so after Jesus is baptized, which we heard last week, Jesus immediately starts gathering his followers. The first two followers of Jesus are disciples of John the Baptist. They hear John the Baptist declare that Jesus is different and they want in. They ask to see what Jesus is doing, where Jesus is staying, and Jesus invites them with just three words: “Come and See.” 

And one of those two is named Andrew and Andrew goes off to find his brother, Peter, and he invites Peter to come and see. 

Then, after Peter, we have today’s reading where Jesus decides to go to Galilee and runs into Philip - who is from the same town as Andrew and Peter - and Jesus tells Philip to “follow me” and Philip does. 

That’s how this Jesus thing takes off. These initial gatherings - these initial encounters - are simply Jesus or a disciple of Jesus finding someone they know and simply saying “come and see.” 

That’s how disciples are made. 

But this is hard to hear because it sure doesn’t feel, to us at least, like that’s how disciples should be made. Even that word - disciple - seems to imply that there’s something more involved. A disciple can’t be someone who just received an invitation. There’s gotta be more. Because, to be a disciple, shouldn’t someone need to have it all figured out? They should be incredibly faithful, maybe living the perfect life, always behaving and do nothing wrong? Shouldn’t disciples have proven that this God and Jesus story is exactly how it is? Disciples - they are people who have met Jesus, they have Jesus deep in their bones - and they are the kind of people we all wish we could be. 

Not too long ago ago, I reconnected with an old friend from High School on - where else - Facebook. She knew me at a time in my life when I wasn’t Lutheran, I didn’t go to church, and I was dreaming of spending my life buried in some research lab inventing the next thing that would save the world. So when she went through my profile and saw I was a pastor - - that kinda shocked her a bit.  

But she took this time as an opportunity to ask me about God. And she asked me good questions - questions someone might have asked you at one point or another, such as, “How do you know that God is real? How do you know that the Christian story is right? Do you think it’s fair that a child who never heard of Jesus ends up going to hell just because of where he was born?” 

She was asking, really, what happened to make me, like Philip, meet Jesus and hear him say “follow me.” 

And, if I’m honest, I can’t fully answer it. I can’t describe all the bits - all the experiences in my life that brought me to be here today. There are highlights - sure - those big moments that I’ve pulled out of my history and charted on my faith story - but I can’t share the million little moments, those little experiences, that brought me to finally realize that Jesus had been speaking to me for 22 years. It just took me that long to finally hear his words: “follow me.” 

And I believe that we are all caught in our own stories of faith, our own stories of seeing, or not seeing, Jesus. One of the great things about being a new pastor is getting to hear new stories. I’ve been blessed to hear faith stories - to hear, and see, what those meetings with Jesus can be like. I’ve met the 85 year old where God is just a constant presence in her life - like another person just always in her house, the 70 year old who never lost faith even in the face of incredible ordeals, the people whose faith was lost but held together by an amazing community who prayed for them when they couldn’t pray for themselves, and I’m seeing all these kids who are just getting that first taste of what this faith journey is all about. Each of us are on our own path - our own personal, wonderful, and sometimes frustrating journey with Jesus. And, the amazing thing is that none of these stories is exactly the same. Our encounter with Jesus can come in many forms. Even in these short verses from John where we hear how Jesus gets his first team of disciples together - even Philip and Nathanel’s story is different. All of these stories are centered in that encounter with Jesus - and each of them lead into, or involve, an encounter with someone else. 

Because something keeps happening after people encounter Jesus. They can’t stop telling people about him. They go out and invite. But they don’t try to persuade. They don’t try to convince. They don’t try to prove that this is the One who will heal the world. Philip didn’t respond to Nathanel’s quip about Nazareth with a reasoned argument or a snarky rebuttal. Philip merely says - come and see. 

Come and have an encounter with Jesus.

Come and see how my life has been changed.

And come and see how this Jesus could matter to you.

Making this kind of invitation - that’s our call. That’s our job - because we are people who have encountered Jesus and we’re here to share our encounter too. We’re invited to be people persons - to, like Jesus and Philip, engage in that one-on-one encounter, that one-on-one relationship with another person, where our invitation to come and see is more than just about visiting a church - but is about meeting Jesus.

And in this invitation - we are opening ourselves to see just what God is doing with us. We’re seeing how God is at work in our relationships, how God is bringing new and different people into our lives - how we are living out of our own sense of encounter with Jesus - and how, in a small way, we are the start of that Jesus encounter with our family, friends, and strangers. We’ve been encountered so we’re called to be that Jesus encounter to everyone we meet. 

Now, I can’t share exactly how living that encounter with Jesus - what it’ll actually look like. Since all our stories with Jesus are different, just how living as that encounter will look - that’s going to be different for each of us. But the stories of living as Jesus’ encounter are stories that surround us. From our grandparents who shared their faith in words and love when we visited them to the friend who helped us through a difficult time when we needed their hope to survive - and even in the story of a man who preached, rallied, and taught that racial equality wasn’t just a dream but was, and still is, something worth fighting for - those are Jesus encounters. That’s people living out their personal encounters with Jesus.  Jesus is using us - Jesus is calling us to be that encounter - to see ourselves as his face and body in the world - so that we are not just telling people to “Come and See” but we are living as if we are that invitation too. Because whether our encounter with Jesus takes half a verse or 22 years - Jesus is there - Jesus is calling - Jesus is inviting us to be that invitation and to share how we have been changed. Our job is to invite - to show others what following Jesus looks like - and that this Jesus has a personal relationship, a personal encounter, ready for others to come and see. 



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A Reflection on Genesis 1

The first reading is Genesis 1:1-5.

The opening words of our Genesis reading today are memorable, aren’t they? These words, “In the beginning when God created,” announce the start of it all. Before this, there was nothing. After these words, everything comes. This feels like the nexus of history’s beginning.

Yet these opening words are not the best translation of the Hebrew. There is a general sense of status, of standing still, in our English translation of Genesis 1:1. But the essence and the emotion underpinning these Hebrew words is more than just an announcement of the start of time. These words contain feelings of freedom and activity that is centered less on time and the start but rather on who starts this all: God. A better translation that gets to this essence is: “At the beginning of God’s creating…”

“At the beginning” is a much more potent expression of God’s creative acts. Rather than focusing on the “when” of God’s action, we are instead turned to see what God does. We’re not just looking at time or seeing the start of a linear profession of history that brings us to today. Instead, the focus is on God and what God does: God creates. God generates. God activates. 

God is active in an ongoing and creative relationship with Creation. God’s story is a story of activity in the past, future, and present. Without such an active engagement with Creation, our gathering together today would just be a remembrance of what God’s done in the past. We would be telling stories of history that would always feel partially distant from us. But we’re here because God is still active in the world and active in our lives. That’s our proclamation, and God’s promise to us. God doesn’t act only in history. God acts today. And, for that, we can say, “Thanks be to God.” 


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Still Speaking [Sermon Manuscript]

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Mark 1:4-11

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Baptism of our Lord (January 11, 2015) on Mark 1:4-11. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


It seems every year, around August, an article or facebook post about the university I attended catches my eye. And it’s always the same article and it’s always about the same thing: the swim test. My university is one of the few remaining schools that require you to pass a swim test to graduate. 3 laps in an olympic sized swimming pool - that’s all it takes - and then you’re able to graduate. 

This requirement seems simple enough. But I rarely meet anyone who likes it. I remember as a freshman during orientation week, which is the usual time when you take the test, and I remember hanging out in pool house, and I was just one of hundreds of freshmen hanging out in their swimsuits, shyly just kinda milling about because no one knew anyone else - and we were all lined up, waiting for our turn. And then someone called our name - recorded our attempt to complete the test on a clipboard - and we’d jump in. I don’t remember if we all did it one at a time - or if a group of us jumped in like we were in our own Olympic race - but I do remember standing at the edge of the water, looking in. I remember the sounds - the talking - splashing - the looking around - and I remember feeling of nervousness about what would happen if I didn’t make it. Maybe I stayed out too late the night before or maybe the fact that I hadn’t swam a lap in years would actually show. I remember standing at the edge of that pool and wondering why - why was I - why was this huge freshman class - going through all of this to just swim 3 laps. 
The funny thing was that when anyone asked why we had a swim test in the first place - no one really knew the answer. I remember being one of those kids who asked that “why” question. Rumors traced it back to a student who, years before, drowned in one of the nearby lakes. Others said it's  a legacy of the military training students use to undergo when the university first started. Or maybe its just because the university hoped that when we left school, we’d at least have one practicable skill under our belt. Whoever you asked - the answer always changed. No one knew why we had to get into the water and swim 3 laps. That’s a mystery. So as I stood there on the edge of the pool and my turn came - all I could do was just jump in. 

And our story today about Jesus’s baptism - that’s a mystery too. 

Today’s gospel reading is the continuation of the reading we heard just one month ago on the second Sunday of Advent. There we heard these opening words about John - this wildman in the desert - who is bringing people out into the wilderness, into the place where God met Moses and David and the prophets. And John is inviting people to meet God there too. And that’s when Jesus comes into the picture. There’s no birth story, no description of his teenage years, no - in the gospel according to Mark - the beginning of Jesus’s ministry is when he heads out into the desert, like everyone else, and meets John in the wilderness. 

And it’s there that Jesus is baptized. 

So why does Jesus get wet?

This is one of those, what you might call, “gotcha” questions for pastors - the kind of question confirmation students like to ask their pastors and watch them….well, fumble it. It even happened to a colleague of mine recently. He shared at our weekly Lutheran pastors’ bible study on Tuesday that, about a month ago, a confirmand asked him this question. And he answered it - but the question had been gnawing at him because he didn’t feel he answered it right. He felt he gave an answer - a true answer - an answer that a famous theologian might agree with - but, after, as he thought about what he said, his words felt hollow. He felt that he wasn’t able to answer the question of Jesus’s baptism fully enough. 

And that’s because this question of Jesus’s baptism is a really, really hard question. There’s no real easy way to get through it.  Even if we point to the difference between what John is doing and what Jesus does - even if we talk about the addition of the Holy Spirit into the equation - or point to the private moment, for Mark at least, when God calls Jesus his beloved Son in such a way that no one else hears it - even if we try to take apart the actions and dissect it, we’re still left with the fact that Jesus was baptized. God’s Son - the guy who is about to teach about the Kingdom of God and heal the sick - this guy who is about to reconcile the world through the Cross - this Jesus, somehow, needed to be baptized. 

The question of why is all over this. 

And I’ll admit that I don’t have all the answers. There’s a lot of nuance here that I don’t get and that I don’t see. The “I don’t knows” about this text from Mark outnumber the “what I knows” and if my Confirmands at class tonight ask me about it - there’s a good chance I’m gonna fumble it too. 

But there’s something about this text that’s very tangible - very real - and it’s something we can relate too. And it has to do with what Jesus did. In Mark’s telling of the story, we don’t have any idea of what was going through Jesus’s head. We don’t know what he was looking at, what he noticed, or what he saw. But we do know what we did. Because when he stood on the edge of the Jordan - he walked in. He saw John, went to him, and Jesus felt the water over him. 

I don’t know the answer to why Jesus needed to be baptized - but I do feel like I know why I - why we - need Jesus to be baptized. We need him to stand at that water’s edge. We need him to walk to where John was. We need him to jump in the waters - to feel it over his head - to experience what we experience. We need Jesus to experience that mystery because it’s in his actions - in his jumping in - Jesus extends an invitation to us to jump in with him. 

Because baptism isn’t just an end in itself - even though it can sometimes feel like that. Even for those of us who were baptized as infants and who have no recollection that such an event happened - for the ones who brought us to the baptismal font, it sure felt like there was an end. I mean, there were meetings with the pastor, phone calls to family to arrange a date and a time. There were cakes to order, lunch reservations to make, and white outfits to buy. And then there was just those silent, and not so silent prayers, that everyone actually showed up on time. The baptism was an event - and once it was over, once all the planning was done, and the water poured, and everyone went home - we’re glad it’s over. 

But the mystery of baptism is more than that. And that might be why we don’t hear about Jesus’s birth or back story or teenage years in the gospel according to Mark. Instead - baptism happens first. Before Jesus’s healing begins - before his words of knowledge come out - before he starts showing those around him what true human living looks like - before all of that - comes baptism. Before the Supper and the Betrayal by Judas and the Trial in front of Pilate - there’s just Jesus, jumping into the waters of the Jordan. He’s jumping into where his life will take him. He’s jumping into living a life that loves God and loves everyone he meets. He’s jumping into a ministry that is going to lead him to the Cross. And he’s jumping into a life that is going to be resurrected - a life that is given for us and to us and is with us - no matter where life takes us. 

I don’t know if Jesus needed to get into that water but I do know we need him to get in that water so that we can witness that baptism isn’t an end - it isn’t just a requirement we need for graduation - but that baptism is a beginning. It’s a beginning of walking with Jesus because Jesus - this Son of God - this miracle worker - he’s more than just our Lord and Savior. He’s also our neighbor - our brother - he’s one of us, waiting at the edge of those waters that will be poured over him. 

Jesus’s baptism is an invitation for us to jump into those waters too - to see where God will take us - to see just how God will use us to love, to care, and to be part of God’s work in resurrecting this entire world. The waters have been entered. The waters have been churned up. With Jesus’s presence - these waters have been changed. And we’re invited to just see where he might take us. 



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Unexpected Encounter [Sermon Manuscript]

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Matthew 2:1-12

Pastor Marc's sermon on Epiphnay Sunday (January 4, 2015) on Matthew 2:1-12. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So, each Christmas, there’s always one gift that I seem to dig into right away - and it’s usually a book. So this year - I kept that tradition alive - and consumed an autobiography. But it wasn’t just your standard run-of-the-mill autobiography. It was a choose-your-own-adventure autobiography. Neil Patrick Harris, who you might have seen on Doogie Howser MD, How I Met Your Mother, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog - wrote a really awesome autobiography. And he based it on the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series. In these kinds of books, the story’s written so that the reader gets to make the decisions about what happens to the characters. So, if the main character in the story has to choose door #1 or door #2, you as the reader get to pick the door and see what happens. If you choose door #1, you turn to page 24 but if you choose door #2, you turn to page 57. Each time the character is faced with a choice, the reader gets to make the choice. And, usually, we’d end up making the wrong choice and the main character dies in one of those extremely gory and impossible kinds of death. 

And, so, in Neil Patrick Harris’ autobiography - the reader gets to make some choices about how Neil’s life turns out. So I started reading it - getting into it - read about his youth in New Mexico and his first auditions for tv … and then I started to fall into a habit I developed years ago when I read these kinds of books. I stopped making choices. Instead of following the directions - for example - “for a less happy memory from the following year, turn to page 42 or to meet your own two cute kids, turn to page 276,” I just turned to the next page. I stopped choosing - stopped following directions - stopped following the script. I just flipped to the next page.

And the story got weird. 

Because I know bits of Neil Patrick Harris’ life. I’ve read his interviews. I like him as an actor. I follow him on Twitter - but I started seeing his life out of order. And Neil kept dying ridiculous deaths - only to come back to life on the next page. I wasn’t following the script - I wasn’t following the expected order of things - so the story got strange. It felt out of whack. 

And this feeling is the same kind of feeling that Matthew, in our gospel reading today, wants us to have. Because the characters in our story - the wisemen, King Herod, and the chief priests and the scribes - they kinda have a script on what to expect when it comes to the Messiah. They all knew what choices they were going to be given, They knew the scenarios on how this Messiah figure is going to work. But there’s a weirdness here because none of the characters experience what they planned to experience. In the choose-your-adventure story of the Messiah, everyone got to the end of the page and expected to find a choice on where to go next. What they didn’t expect was that God was planning to upend the script - to ignore their scripts - and, to invite them, and us, to just turn the page to see what comes next. 

So - there’s these wisemen from the east. And they seem to be astronomers because they’ve seen a star and they believe that the star is telling them that a king has been born in Israel. So they pack their bags, hit the road, and go to where they expect to find a newborn king - the palace of King Herod. If you’re looking for a king, the place where kings live is a good place to start. But when they get there, they run into something odd. They ask to see this newborn king and...there isn’t one. So the wisemen ask where this new king is because the baby wasn’t where they expected him to be. Their script - their understanding of how kings work and where they are - isn’t right. 

Now, King Herod, when he meets these wisemen - he gets spooked. A new king means that there is someone out there who is going to take his throne. So King Herod does a little digging and discovers that this Messiah is going to be born in Bethlehem. That’s the script. But the king and the priests and the scribes - the ones who have the script partially right - they don’t go to Bethlehem. They don’t go try to find this new king because they don’t expect to find the newborn king right now. They don’t expect the Messiah to even be a baby right now either. So they don’t go search - instead they just send the wisemen on because they don’t expect the Messiah to be found in this way. 

So Herod and the Wisemen seem to have this script on how the Messiah - is suppose to come. But no one seems to notice that God isn’t following the expected script. So if this story is showing us characters who are following the scripts they have for God - then what are our scripts for God? 

I think we all carry our own scripts for God - our own assumptions of just how this God-thing works. And if we narrow this topic a little bit - I believe we all carry our own expectations of just how the faith-life - the faith journey - is suppose to work. Going to church - or not going to church - that might be a part of it. Reading the bible, being active in prayer, making sure that we go to Sunday School and Confirmation and adult bible studies - maybe that’s how the faith-life works. Or maybe it’s singing in the choir - or going to all the social events where we do things together - maybe being around people all the time - maybe that’s how the faith-life works. Or maybe just being quiet - when we’re in study, deep prayer, and off on silent retreats in the woods - maybe that’s how the faith-life works. 

Now, I actually like all of these scripts. And they can work really well to feed our faith - to help us be connected to God and feel God’s presence in our lives. If our faith is being fed - we need to do more of that, not less. So the danger isn’t the script - but there is a danger in letting that script limit our vision, limit our perspective on just how God acts - on just how our faith life can be experienced. The danger is in thinking that the script that feeds us is the only script that can feed other people too. The danger is in expecting God and our faith to work in a specific way - rather than seeing - and knowing - that God, not our scripts, not our expectations, is going to feed our faith. Our scripts don’t limit what God can do. They don’t limit God’s interaction with us in our lives. But our scripts can limit how we see God in our lives and where we think God can possibly be. And if we aren’t open to seeing how God is actually working - how God is actively interacting with us right now - we can’t tell our full story. We can’t share our honest experiences - or lack of experiences - with God. 

The story of the wisemen is a story where scripts - where our expectations of God and faith - are expanded. The choose-your-own-adventure that King Herod and the wisemen were on - they thought they knew what was going happen when they got to the bottom of the page. They thought they knew what options they would have - what their script says - what pages and future events they will turn to. But what they didn’t expect - what they didn’t know - was that the script they were following - wasn’t the script that God was following. God’s invitation isn’t just to turn to page 47 or 23 or 98 or whatever page we expect to go to. No, the invitation in the story of the wisemen on this Epiphany Sunday - is to see God working in unexpected ways - to see how God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is a very strange thing - it’s a very unexpected thing - and this is an invitation to help us expand our vision of God and our expectations of God. Because this journey with God - this journey of faith - isn’t just a choose-your-own-adventure story that we’re directing. This journey with God is about seeing ourselves as chosen - and living out God’s story for us, with us, and through us - since - like those wisemen from the East who had no clear idea what to expect when they saw that star announcing Christ’s birth - we’re living out a chosen-by-God-adventure. We’re part of God’s story - and we’re invited to share that story - to live in that story - and to see all of it, fully, clearly, and authentically. We’re invited to see God in the unexpected places - to see God living in and with others in ways that don’t feed us - and to see how, in those unexpected places, God is inviting us to have unexpected encounters - so that we can spread God’s story - not our script of God’s story - with everyone we meet. 



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Reflection: On Isaiah 60

The story of the magi coming to Jesus is one of my favorite images in all of scripture. It's an image full of creative mystery. These magi or kings come from the East, from somewhere else, and they bring with them unknown languages, cultures, clothing, and habits. They are different but beautiful and they come to see a baby in a manger. 

The story of the magi is seen as a fulfillment of this passage from Isaiah 60:1-6. These magi represent the kings who come to Zion (to Jerusalem) and bring their gold and wealth to the only place in the world where God's divine light shines. The hope underpinning this passage rests in Israel's experience with the Exile. After the depopulation of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by Babylon, the hope in the community taken to Babylon rested in reversal. They saw the Temple and the city destroyed. They prayed that their experience of being dragged out of Jerusalem and watching their wealth consumed by other empires would be reversed. Israel would depopulate and consume Babylon like Babylon consumed Israel. 

The imagery, while beautiful, is also shortsighted. Isaiah wants what happened to the Jerusalem community to happen to other communities. Isaiah's experience is so raw, harsh, and current, that Isaiah struggles to see hope in a different way. Israel longs to be rescued from their experience of oppression but there's a feeling of tit-for-tat within this passage (and the verses that follow) that is troubling. Are our prayers to God merely a call for revenge? Is God really just going to do the same to our enemies as our enemies did to us? Or is God's hope something more? 

The story of the magi visiting the Christ child shows that God has something more in store. Hope is not just a reversal of our experiences. Hope is a resurrection of them.


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