Questions and Reflections

December 2014

Go [Sermon Manuscript]

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Luke 2:1-14

Pastor Marc's sermon on Christmas Eve - 11 pm (December 24, 2014) on Luke 2:1-14. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Did you see a sign as you came to church tonight? 

I know, with the darkness, it’s hard enough just keeping our eyes on the road. But if you were lucky to be sitting in the passenger seat or in the back, staring at darkened neighborhoods and houses covered in lights - you probably saw at least one sign. 

And it probably said “No parking” or “left turn only” or “Holiday Sale, 50% Off.” Maybe you saw a leftover election sign or a faded flyer stapled to a telephone pool. Or maybe Ace of Base came on in the car and you found yourself singing “that you saw the sign and it opened your eyes.” Cuz, you see, signs are everywhere. 

And there's a sign out front, right as you turn from Pascack Road to get to church. It's unlit, held down by a single sandbag, and it's a little ugly. There's nothing glorious about it. And it's kinda become part of the scenery here at church.

As the new pastor here at Christ Lutheran, I have never seen this church without that sign out front. I remember noticing it the first time as I drove up here and being a little taken aback by it. But, 7 months later, that black lettering on white painted sheet metal has kinda faded into the background. I mentally don’t really see it anymore when I come here. It’s warning that the way forward is closed and impassable no longer reaches me. That sign is now just something I try not to hit when I’m pulling into the church parking lot.

Now that sign wasn’t always just part of the scenery. When that sign first arrived, it brought a helpful warning - proclaiming loudly, in all kinds of weather, that normal life had been disrupted. One of our routes to the church was cut off. 

But time and experience has made that sign announcing that the way is closed - feel normal. Which is exactly the kind of feeling I think Luke was highlighting when he told how an angel came to shepherds in the field - and the angel said that tonight, he had good news to share. Tonight, out of all the nights, the Messiah - was born. And the sign of this Messiah - this Savior who would be an open road to God - was just a simple newborn, wrapped in bands of cloth, and lying in a manger. The savior of the world had come - and the savior came in the most ordinary and unremarkable way: he was born. 

That’s the sign that changes everything. 

And this sign isn’t pointing to some future event that will make him the Messiah. Luke isn’t saying that after Jesus’s life, after the rabble rousing and healing the sick and hanging out with those society didn’t want - and even the Cross isn't what makes Jesus the savior of the world. No, this baby - this newborn resting in the manger - he, he is the savior. This is what the Messiah looks like and he is huddled in a cradle. 

And this baby is our sign that something different is taking place.

Like I said, signs are everywhere. They are on the road, on the side of the roads, they cover the sides of buildings and they flood our facebook newsfeeds all the time. We are surrounded and confronted by signs all the time. 

And it’s easy to ignore these signs - to let them bleed into the background - because we’ve already internalized the story they share. We know what these signs mean and how they affect us. 

But there’s an invitation here in Christ’s birth that tells us a different story. If this is your first Christmas, blessings to your hearing the story for the first time. And if this is your 100th, blessings to you for hearing this story again. Because the Jesus story is never a story that truly fades into the background. There are parts of it that tug at us, grab onto us - parts that didn’t bother us before or parts that we didn’t notice. Tonight, for me, it’s signs. It’s the sign that the world - that us - that even me - matter to God. 

The shepherds knew this when they heard the angel proclaim that God was doing a brand new thing that night. They knew that this child - this sign - was an improbable reminder that they and the world still matter to God. And in their encounter with Jesus - in their meeting with him - they were changed. 

They were changed because they became something new that night. They became bearers of Christ’s story. Having met the Messiah, who was resting in a makeshift cradle, they all of the sudden became bearers of his image - of his experience - of his life story. The story told, the story encountered, the sign seen - they were transformed. They were changed. And as witnesses to Christ - they became signs of Christ too. 

The Christmas story is more than just a story of Jesus’s birth. The Christmas story is a story of God’s presence and action in the world. It’s a story that shouts that the world still matters to God - and that we, right here, matter too. Whether we are believers or not, whether we are Christian or not, whether we woke up this morning fully 100% onboard with what the Christian story shares - we still matter to God. And we are called to matter to everyone else too - to see ourselves as God sees us - as bearers of Christ’s story into the world. 

The route to God is open to all. The way thru isn’t closed. This newborn baby is a sign for us that the world matters to God - and we are to be a sign too. We’re invited to embody that sign, to bear it into our bones, and to be a Christmas story to everyone we meet. We’re invited to love; to care; to be kind. Let that be our story. Let that be part of our daily DNA. Let’s see ourselves as the signs of God’s love that we are - and live out Christmas all year long. 



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Open Up [Sermon Manuscript]

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Luke 2:1-14

Pastor Marc's sermon on Christmas Eve - 5 pm (December 24, 2014) on Luke 2:1-14. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


[starts with a children’s sermon]
[Bring out multiple presents that are wrapped. There’s one big one that has a mirror inside. Some are wrapped “well” while most are wrapped poorly]

So I’ve got a few questions for y’all. How many of you have wrapped a present recently? (wait for answers)

And who did you give these presents to? (wait for answers)

So I’ve got a bunch of presents up here - and these are all the ones I wrapped. And, as you can see, I am not good at wrapping presents. Some people I know are awesome at it. The corners are crisp, the paper isn’t folded, the tape and bows are just perfect! And these (shake a present)....are not as perfect. 

Can you tell me what’s wrong with the wrapping job? (messy; too much tape; wrinkled; corners are bad, etc.) 

Now there are a lot of reasons why I didn’t do a good job wrapping. I had a lot to do this week so I was busy rushing and didn’t take my time to focus on it. I didn’t have the right tools - my scissors weren’t sharp and my tape was old and not the right kind. The wrapping paper got attacked by my dog and my cat slept on it while I was trying to wrap the presents. So a lot happened to cause all the things wrong with them! 

But they’re still presents. And we know what we’re suppose to do with presents right? OPEN IT. So we’re going to open this big one right now and see what’s inside. And I need some help….(get kids to help unwrap it). 

Okay...let’s open the lid….whoa. What’s this? (pull out a mirror) 

Now, what do you see in a mirror? (Ourselves!) 

That’s right! We see ourselves in the mirror. So it’s really funny to find a mirror in poorly wrapped Christmas present, isn’t it? 

Now Christmas is about gifts and presents. But Christmas isn’t just about getting the newest toy, lego set, or iPad. Because one of the biggest gifts at Christmas is….us. 

The story of Jesus coming into the world is a story of God showing us what true human living looks like. This kind of life isn’t easy. Like the poorly wrapped presents, things can get tough sometimes. We get busy, we get picked on, something bad happens to us or maybe we get angry and upset or maybe we don’t look the way everyone says we should or maybe we’re different. There’s a lot of reasons why we don’t want to be a present to others or why we don’t see ourselves as gifts that can help other people. But, because Jesus was born into our world - and because Jesus lived a very human life and died a very human death - we are called to be gifts to the world. 

And Jesus helps us be those gifts. We can be a gift by helping someone out, being kind, doing everything we can to make sure everything is fair for everyone, and loving people - not because they are perfect - or they know how to wrap presents perfectly - but because God loved the world to make Jesus a gift for everyone - and we’re here to make ourselves a gift for everyone too. 

Thank you for being here! Merry Christmas to each of you - and you may go back to your seat.

[Main sermon]
It’s the ends, really, that get me while wrapping presents. I can never seem to fold the corners and make their creases precise enough. And by the time I’ve folded and taped everything down, there’s still this random all-white triangle sticking out even though my wrapping paper was all green with penguins on it. The gifts I wrap are never as crisp or clean or as perfect as they should be. 

But neither is the Christmas story as presented in Luke. 

The story begins on a big scale. We hear that the Emperor of the Roman Empire - the emperor of the entire world, as far as Luke is concerned, orders that a census needs to be done. Everyone needs to be accounted for. And not only do they need to be counted and tracked - but this counting will be done where everyone originally comes from. Everyone needs to return to where their family calls home. It didn’t matter that Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, miles and miles away from Bethlehem. And there’s nothing to say that Joseph ever lived in Bethlehem or if he ever visited there. But Bethlehem is where David was born 800 or a thousand years before Joseph was - and as a descendant of David - that's where Joseph calls home. 

And so they go to Bethlehem while Mary is nine months pregnant. 
So, in Luke’s picture of what is going on, people all over the world are doing what Joseph and Mary did. They need to travel to places where there parents, or grandparents, or great-great-great grandparents come from. It’s there where they'll be counted. The entire world is on the move. 

And this...this is news. People’s lives are being disrupted by this need to pack up and take an unexpected vacation to places they’ve never been to before. The entire world is in motion. And it’s the Emperor - the Emperor with all the military and political might who caused it.

It looks like the Emperor is the only one who has the power to change the entire world. 

And so, as the world moves, as peoples’ lives are being uprooted - something very small happens. Something almost insignificant happens. A family without money or means finds themselves on the road in a small corner of a small country on the edge of the Roman world. And it’s there - in a small stable behind an inn - that a little baby is born. 

Big things are happening in the world. From the perspective of the Emperor - for the perspective of anyone paying attention - this little baby - doesn’t even register. No one would notice - because the world is being changed by big, powerful, and politically mighty people. This little baby shouldn’t be able to change the world - but he does.

It’s in the small, untidy, and unlikely places that God’s gift to the world - is born. 

And that’s the bigger news.

Luke is painting a picture here. He’s painting a picture that our understanding of who sets the rules, of who makes the news, isn’t right. News isn’t just made by the powerful. Change isn’t only caused by those who we think are in charge. The power to get people to move and disrupt their lives isn’t what defines this holy night. No, why we are here - why we gather every year on this night - on this Christmas Eve - is because God found it fitting to send Jesus not to the palace in Rome - to be born in the best luxury money, power, and military might can buy - but God sent Jesus to be born in a stable, to be wrapped in cloth, and to be met not by celebrities or kings and queens - but to be met by shepherds who are spending their nights not at home, but out in the field, working and watching their flock. 

The big and the strong aren’t who God uses to bring about change. The tough and the tall aren’t who God uses to heal the sick and the worried. The rich and mighty aren’t who God uses to save the world. Change doesn’t only happen in big packages. God uses small ones too. 

And that’s good news. 

Tonight is the night for good news. It’s not a night where only pain and suffering are reported. We’re not here to turn on the tv and only hear about war, violence, death, and how we’ve failed to love each other like we should. Tonight isn’t a night where we only sit in darkness. Tonight is when we share God’s light. We share that the world has been changed. We share that the world continues to be changed because Jesus came - not to condemn or destroy or uproot people just because he could. He didn’t come to be another Roman Emperor or President or Political Leader. No, Jesus came to love - because it's through God's love that all is made right. 

And that love didn’t start in power but it started in the most humble place possible. That love became real, became visible, in a manger - in the wooden contraption that cows and donkeys use to eat their meals. That love became real in a small, dirty, and untidy place - because the world said that there was no room for baby Jesus in a real and warm bed. 

Love doesn’t need to only be something the big, powerful, and strong can do. Love is something that we all - no matter our age, height, gender, race, wealth, or intelligence - love is something that we can all do. It doesn’t matter if you’re 2 or 92. We are invited to be God’s light - to be God’s love - to everyone we meet. 

That’s what it means to be God’s gift. That’s what it means to be part of God’s good news to the world. And that’s our gift - to be a gift to everyone in love - not because we are powerful and perfect but because, through Jesus - through the one who would grow up to heal the sick, eat and drink with those no one wanted to, who would tell those in power that God is about doing unexpected things - this Jesus who would eventually end up rejected and dejected by those in power and those who were his friends - it’s through this Jesus, the unexpected savior, that God shows loves.

It’s through the small things that God invites us to love. And it’s through love - pure love - that the world truly moves. It's through love that the world is truly uprooted, and it's through love that the world is truly, unexpectantly, saved.



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How Can It Be? [Sermon Manuscript]

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, [the magi] left for their own country by another road.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Luke 1:26-38

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 21, 2014) on Luke 1:26-38. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


There’s a saying attributed to Martin Luther where a pastor asked Martin Luther for some preaching advice when they’re having a hard time thinking of what to say. And Luther responded, and I’m paraphrasing here, “just read the gospel and sit down; God’s word can stand on its own.” 

Now, I’ve never really done that. And I’ve never seen a pastor or preacher do that either. But if there was a text where I was going to do that - it would probably be this text from Luke. 

This text is known as the Annunciation - where Mary is met by the angel Gabriel. Luke doesn’t give us much background on Mary. We know she’s engaged, she lives in Nazareth, and….that’s it. We don’t know what she looks like, what she likes to do, what her favorite color is. We just start right here - where an angel - this messenger from God - comes to her. 

And the first thing the angel does is greet her, saying that the “Lord is with you.” And Mary really has no idea what that means. She probably had this look on her face, after she heard these words, where she was completely blank. You know - where someone shares something totally unexpected and our first response is “wait. what?” 

That’s Mary when the Angel greets her. 

And she takes what Gabriel says, ponders it, and is perplexed by it. She doesn’t know what to do with it. 

So the angel continues, telling the story about Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ greatness. And, for Mary, after hearing the story - she finally gives her wonder, her confusion, a voice. She’s able to stand up to the angel - to look at him in the face - and say “wait - how can this be?” 

How can I have a son? 

How can my son have David’s throne?

How can God find favor with me? 

And does Jesus really, really, really want to come through me?

Gabriel hears Mary. The angel seems to understand that the message he’s bringing is a bit out there. So Gabriel unwraps the story some more. Mary hears that the Holy Spirit will come - she hears how God has given her cousin Elizabeth a child - Mary hears that God has a habit of working in unexpected ways - and that nothing is impossible with God. 

Gabriel makes a promise to Mary - and tells Mary - that God works in unexpected ways and that God has this habit of choosing what we don’t expect to change the world. And Mary is part of that change. 

And then - after the greeting, after the questions, after the feelings of wonder and confusion - Mary commits to God. She makes a commitment like the old prophets did. She simply says “God, here I am.” She doesn’t know the fullness of God’s plan for her. She doesn’t know what exactly the future will bring. She doesn’t know exactly why she, a young girl in Nazareth, is called to be God’s unexpected agent in the world - but when she hears God’s word - when she encounters God’s message - she commits. She says, “here I am.”

God choses. Mary wonders and questions - and then commits. 

Mary’s story is our story. Because God chooses us - each of us - and we, really, honestly, have no idea why. And God’s claim on us is confusing, strange, and perplexing. Our journey with God involves questions - it involves questions about ourselves - about God - it involves questions about just what is going on. And our meeting God doesn’t end our questions or wonder. But our meeting God does invite our commitment - our telling God “Here I am.”  

Like Mary, we don’t know exactly what the future will bring. We don’t know exactly how God remakes, renews, and resurrects the world. But we do know that God’s future is coming and that we are a part of it. We are part of God’s unexpected response to the world. Gabriel’s message to Mary is God’s message to us. We’re going to question. We’re going to wonder. We’re going to not know exactly what the future will hold. But God’s committed to us. God chose us. And, like Mary, our invitation is to trust - to trust the one who claimed us, to trust the one who meets us, to trust the one who makes us worthy to be part of God’s love for the world.  We’re part of God’s impossibility and unexpected behavior. And we’re invited to bring God’s impossible love to the world. 



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A Reflection on 2 Samuel 7

Do you remember your first house? 

When I was born, my family lived in apartments. Every year, when the lease was over, my folks would pack up and we'd all move to a new place nearby. I was too young to really form lasting memories of these apartments. Only foggy images of living rooms, alleyways, and bedrooms linger in my mind. 

But I do remember our first house.

When I was five, we packed a moving truck full of our belongings, jumped on an airplane, and flew to the magical land of Colorado. We stayed in a hotel for awhile while my parents shopped for a house. It took a few weeks but then they found it. I remember when I first walked up the driveway, past the small new tree and the sod-less lawn, and walked through the front door. We were home. 

Our reading from 2 Samuel 7:1-11,16 today is rooted in the concept of homes. In Hebrew, the word for home can mean many things. It refers to palaces, houses, and dynasties for kings. The word is centered on the permanence such structures have in our lives. When we own or live in our home, we have ownership over it, a commitment to it, and, above all, we have apresence in the home and the home has a presence in us. A home makes us feel incredibly rooted and connected to what's around us. 

This passage is about God's continual commitment to the people of Israel. Like the homes in our lives, God promises to establish permanence for Israel and to be a permanent presence in Israel's life. The verses not included in today's reading (verses 12-15) continues the shower of promises. And these promises are unconditional. God leaves space for judgement of course. If David or his descendants fail to follow God's commandments (especially placing their trust only in God), they will be disciplined. But the scope of God's promise is epic. Promise, instead of judgement, is the center piece of God's relationship with God's people.

Christmas is almost here. The baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are about to make their home in a stable for a night. God's presence and permanence is manifested in this temporary place. Let's welcome God as God makes a home in us.


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Flame On [Sermon Manuscript]

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

John 1:6-8,19-28

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Third Sunday of Advent (December 14, 2014) on Luke 1:26-38. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Our text today from the Gospel According to John might sound a bit familiar. Last week, we saw this same John the Baptist as he was presented in Mark - a wildman, living in the desert, wearing a coat made of camel hair and eating bugs and honey. In Mark, John the Baptist is Elijah - one of those old timey, speaking-truth-to-power, kind of prophet. He’s telling people they need to repent, that they need to come clean about who they are, and that something more is on its way. People from all over Jerusalem are heading to him, coming to hear his word, and be baptized by him. John the baptist is a man of God - a man from God - and he’s confident, powerful, prophet of God and no one tries to dispute that. 

But looking at the words we hear today - from the Gospel According to John (who isn’t John the Baptist - this gospel was attributed to some other John), we get a very different kind of Baptist. He’s kinda lost his edge - his overpowering sense of confidence. People are still coming to see him, to hear what he has to say, but there’s something new - people who question him. There are people who don’t fully buy what he’s trying to say. Last week I described Mark’s vision of John the Baptist as a grizzled, super tough, flannel wearing, Colorado mountain man kind of prophet. This week - he’s different. He doesn’t feel as big, as confident, as overpowering. Instead of a Colorado Mountain Man - he feels more like a Williamsburg kind of Mountain Man. And this transformation is centered in verse 19 - a verse that illustrates just who John the Baptist is - what he does - and what he models for us in our lives - and it’s found in that question asked by the priests from Jerusalem - “who are you?”

Who are you - person by the Jordan, preaching, teaching, and listening.
Who are you - person with authority who seems to know something about God that we don’t. 
Who are you - person we are unsure of, nervous about, suspicious of - just what exactly do you say about yourself? 

What an uncomfortable question. And it’s why this mountain man from Mark seems to get smaller today. He’s no longer a man just a person proclaiming God’s coming - he’s now a person in conflict. He’s no longer the only dominating presence and he no longer dictates the whole story of what is going on. There are people who disagree with him and who are challenging him. The invulnerability seen in Mark is replaced by something more raw, something more relatable, something much more human.  

And John answers these questions from the priests in a very human way - like we all do when we’re faced with these questions about who we are - about our story. In moments of vulnerability, we’re now stuck sharing about what we’re not. We have to ask questions about ourselves. We doubt and wonder who we are. And maybe, just maybe, the others have it right. Maybe we’re not as great or as strong as we pretend. Maybe our confidence and truth is false. Maybe we’re less than we should be. 

A few weeks ago, someone stopped by the church as I was getting ready to leave. They came in and they wanted to pray here in the sanctuary. So I unlocked the door, flipped on the lights, and we came right up here to the rail, and kneeled. It was just the two of us in the middle of this huge space. And then we prayed. We asked for help, guidance, support. We asked for God to give us hope. And then we did the hardest thing - we gave ourselves permission to not be strong. We gave ourselves permission to cry even though we didn’t want to. We testified to who we are as humans - that we’re vulnerable. That we can’t always be as strong as we want to be or as strong as others tell us we need to be. And that, sometimes, the weight of the world, just wins. 

John the Baptist was asked who he was and who he said he was. Are you Elijah? Are you the Messiah? Are you everything we hope you will and can be? And he did the only thing he could do - he said “No.” John the Baptist isn’t the greatest thing. He’s not the one the prophets pointed too. He wasn’t going to change the world or reconcile it to God or destroy the Roman Empire so that Israel could be its own kingdom again. He wasn’t going to fulfill our dreams or wish list and he wasn’t going to right every wrong in the exact way we want. He wasn’t because that’s not who he was. He was something else. He was vulnerable. He was human. He wasn’t what everyone hoped he would be. 

Instead - he did what he could. No longer only the strong, immovable man as imagined in Mark - John the Baptist is instead made small because, in the gospel according to John, the stories about John the Baptist that he heard, recorded, and that spoke to him and gave life to his community - were the stories that made John the Baptist human. He’s one of us. He’s faced with questions about who he is, about what he can do, about how exactly he’s going to change the world. John the Baptist isn’t Elijah, he’s not the Messiah, he’s just one of us. So he does the only thing he can do  - he testifies to the light. 

He points to the one that will change the world - to the one who will reconcile the world. He points to Jesus in everything that he does and says. 

And by doing this, John the Baptist, shares something we know as people with our own very individual stories full of joys and hardships and struggles - John testifies that we need light in our lives.

We are not perfect - though we act like we are.

We are into power - even though, ultimately, we are powerless in the face of death and time.

We’re into making boundaries based on wealth, race, age, and gender - defining who is the right kind of child of God and who isn’t - even though we all are made in God’s image. 

And we believe we ourselves are the light - even though we spend so much of our time living and perpetuating darkness. 

John the Baptist knew this. And he knew what was to come. He couldn’t change the world. But he could point to the One who will. 

Testifying - sharing with others Jesus and with our need for God’s light in our lives - isn’t about being perfect. It’s about being honest about our vulnerability. It’s about being honest about our fear. Because testifying about the light - about what’s to come - about the strength beyond us that fixes the world - that turns us away from ourselves - turns us straight towards our neighbor in need - to our friend who hurts - to the stranger who could use a little help today - testifying to the light is about not trusting ourselves but placing our trust fully in the promise of God - that this world, everything in it, including you and me - that we matter to God. 

That’s what it means to testify to the light - to share God’s story - to share what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Because to be a child of God is to see that God, as one theologian I read stated, “God is committed to dealing with the tragedy of our natures.” God is committed to dealing with our darkness. God is committed to being with us in our darkness. And God is committed to overcoming it. 

The story of John the Baptist, as we read today, is about God’s commitment. God is committed to Creation - to God’s people - to all that God has created and God won’t let it go. That commitment - that promise - that’s our strength. That’s what gives us life. The things we usually run to as ways to protect us - to give us strength - such as money, power, class, skin color, lifestyle, intellect, and a million other things that we use to build walls around us - we run towards all those things and hide behind them, thinking that vulnerability does not have a role in our story with God. That being weak, frail, doubtful, unsure, or just plain small is something that we cannot be. 

But even as we run and hide in places where we feel strong, mighty, and protected - even as we run behind gates that we build against all that is uncomfortable to us - God still smashes through. And God does something very unexpected. God blesses our vulnerability. Because when God comes, when the light comes, it’s not in form of an army or lightning bolt or laser beam that destroys all before it. No, the light that John the Baptist points to - comes into the world in the most vulnerable way possible - as a newborn baby. 

That’s how God change’s it all. 

And that’s our story. That’s our testimony. Vulnerability isn’t against what it means to be human - vulnerability is at the heart of our Christian story. And that’s our invitation as we get closer to Christmas. We’re not called to only testify to our strengths and just how awesome we are. We’re not called to point to all the things we get right and all that make us better and stronger and tougher than those around us. In the Christmas letter of our lives that we share with family, friends, and everyone we meet, we’re not called to only testify to the greatest hits of our lives. We’re called to point to the vulnerabilities - to point to the weakness - to point to the unexpected and see God at work there. We’re called to say that God is there. That Christ is there. We’re called to say that Jesus - the One who is coming - the One who has come - and the One who will return again - he entered the world in a stable at the back of an inn - and started as a vulnerable and weak newborn babe. God’s light is found in the places where we’re most vulnerable - in the places where our self-assurances break down - where trust in ourselves is no longer good enough. 

John the Baptist isn’t just a prophet from God. He isn’t someone we can ignore as someone different from us. John the Baptist, the one baptizing by the river, the one sharing God’s story - he is us. We are him. We are all vulnerable. And John does what we are called to do - he points - he shares - he says that in the unsure parts of who we are, in the parts of the world where God should not be, in the parts of our lives where we are weak and vulnerable - God’s light is there - and that light will never be overcome.



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A Reflection on Isaiah 61

Does this reading for Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11 sound familiar to you? Do you know which gospel book references it? If you guessed Luke, pat yourself on the back. In Luke chapter 4, Jesus enters the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth and reads this bit from Isaiah 61. After he reads, he announces "today, this scripture is fulfilled." For Luke, Isaiah 61 is Jesus's mission statement and why Jesus is in the world. Good news will be delivered to the oppressed, prisoners will be freed, those who mourn will be comforted, and the gloom from the past will be repaired and resurrected. The world will be changed! 

This change is at the core of what Advent and Christmas is about. Gatherings with friends and family, mountains of presences, yummy foods and drink, and bright colored lights, while joy-filled, are not the source of joy of this season. And for those of us who experience loneliness, fear, and regret during this holiday season, joy might be impossible to see or feel. But this word from Isaiah 61 is centered in Jesus coming to live a human life. There is joy here. 

This joy is not something we can create on our own. No bright lights, gingerbread houses, or fantastic toys will make us find that ultimate peace that only God's joy can bring. Isaiah assures us that when we shout with joy and thanksgiving to God, we do it not because we are perfect, never doubted, and are always faithful. No, the joy and thanksgiving we share comes from God for God "has clothed me with garments of salvation and has covered me with the robe of righteousness." Faith and grace are both gifts from God. God gives those to us because that's just what God does. 

Today we'll light 3 candles on the Advent wreath including the pink (or rose) candle.  This candle is different from the others because it represents joy. Even in this season of expectation, hustle, bustle, and stress, we are reminded that we gather because of God's sense of joy. God is in the business of getting involved with us. God is in the business of changing the world and changing us. That is something to celebrate this season and every season to come. 


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The Prequel [Sermon Manuscript]

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”


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.”

Mark 1:1-8

Pastor Marc's sermon on the First Sunday of Advent (December 7, 2014) on Mark 1:1-8. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


How would you start Jesus’ story? If someone you know asked you, right now, to tell them about Jesus - exactly how exactly would you start? 

Well - the beginning right? Since, like the song says, the beginning is usually a very good place to start. And, right now, we’re kind of in a season about beginnings - this season of Jesus’ start. Even though in the church we’re in this season of Advent - it’s hard not to have Christmas on the brain. Holiday sales, tree decorations, Christmas songs on the radio, wishlists to Santa - that’s the season we’re in. One thing I love to do each day is to see how the houses have changed along the streets I usually take. Each day, another house has a wreath on its door or new outdoor lights. Some houses are covered in giant inflatable ducks and snowmen, others have huge nativity scenes with life size Wisemen and a baby Jesus that looks much bigger than a newborn should.  And then there’s the fun stuff - the lawn filled with characters from the Island of Misfit toys, or the one that really makes me and Oliver smile - the house with the lawn with a dinosaur, an Elmo, and Darth Vadar and R2D2 in Santa hats. All of this is a part of this season of beginnings. It points to Christmas. It tries to illustrate Jesus’s birth and entrance into the world. And this, this beginning is a very good place to start. 

So when the author of the gospel according to Mark sat down to write - to put the stories of Jesus down on paper - the author faced that same question - where to start? Mark is writing 30 to 40 years after the resurrection. The first generation of disciples, the ones who walked with Jesus or learned from his first disciples, have been dying. The next generation of Christian disciples are taking their place. So Mark is in this period of change - in this period of transition - and he’s surrounded by stories - stories of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection - his betrayal and his life with the poor and unwanted - so Mark takes all that he’s heard, all that he knows, all that the Holy Spirit has given him - Mark takes all of that - 

and begins with John.  

The gospel begins with a wildman. John is a guy in the wilderness - dressed in camel hairs, eatings bug and honey, and he’s out in the middle of nowhere, preaching, and teaching and baptizing. People are hearing his story, hearing about him, and they’re leaving their homes to find John and to see what this wildman is doing. 

And since I grew up in Colorado, it’s hard for me not to fill in the rest of whatJohn the Baptist looks like. To me, he’s like an old fashion mountain man. He’s big and strong, grizzled, with a thick full beard, and he spends his time chopping trees for firewood, wrestling bears, and only coming to town once a year. That’s the wildman character that I grew up with - and you probably have your own. And that image is important because Mark wants us to realize that we’re dealing with just that kind of wildman. He’s living away from the cities - he’s living in the untamed areas of the world where no political or social powers dominate. He’s living off grid before living off grid was cool where the land is untamed, where nature rules, and everything is just raw - uncivilized - but not uncontrolled. There might not be any cities or roads or fences - but Mark’s community knew that the wilderness - the untamed places - that was where God made God’s-self known.  

Mark’s community knew their scripture. They knew their bible, what we call the Old Testament. They knew that when Moses met God, Moses was in the wilderness. They knew that Mt. Sinai, when God gave Moses ten commandments to share with the Israelites  - to share with them what it means to live a life freed from Egyptian tyranny and slavery - they were in the wilderness. It’s in the wilderness where God sheltered David from Saul, where the prophets of old would retreat when the powers of the world did not want to hear what God wanted to say, and it’s in the wilderness where individual and communal sins were cast out away from the community during Yom Kippur. Only in the raw places could our false sense of self-control, of goodness, of being right and strong and awesome, be taken down - only in the untamed places could our failures and mistakes, our pride and our unknown participation in systems that harmed others be laid bare. Only in the wilderness could we see our sins as they truly are - and be met by the One who promises to not leave us where we are.  

And it’s there where Jesus is going to appear. 

In the wild - in the mess - in the unexpected places with unexpected people - that’s the stage that Mark is setting for the arrival of Jesus. Away from the cities, away from the political authorities, away from the temples - that’s where God is going to something brand new; that’s where God is going to break through. It’s there - in this untamed land - that John makes the bold assertion that something more is going to happen - that the One who will change the world is on his way. 

That immediacy is important for Mark. There’s no build up, no years to wait before Jesus’ ministry begins. The Son of God is happening now. There’s no wait for the time to be right, no time for us to be prepared, no opportunity for the world to decide when to let God in. No, the Son of God is happening now. And it’s in the wilderness - in the messiness - in the untamed areas that Jesus comes first. It’s in the places that cause fear, that cause worry, hat’s where change will come - not in the proper places, or at proper time, but in the way that God promises - to be known, felt, and experienced in the wilderness - in our wilderness - in the untamed places that cause us worry, that causes us pain, that causes us to fear - that’s where God comes. That’s where Jesus will make his presence first known. We’re invited to come out, to go see a wildman, confess our sins, and seek a word of comfort and peace and love from God. For Mark - the start of Jesus’ story begins with the wilderness. It begins with that messiness. It begins with everything that wilderness means to us. 

We carry within us our own wildernesses. We’re filled with moments, with experiences, with feelings that have left us spending parts of our lives lost, without connection, with feelings of burnout, fear, loneliness, failure, brokenness - these are moments of wilderness and these can carve themselves into us. They become part of who we are. They help form us, and lead us - and we carry them with us into everyday of our lives. 

So returning to that first question I asked in the beginning of the sermon - how would you start Jesus’ story? What if we took a cue from Mark and we started first with talking about our own wilderness? 

To start Jesus’ story with wilderness would mean that we would have to do a difficult thing - and that’s be honest with our own story, honest with all parts of our story and what the wilderness in our lives look like. We would need to be honest with the wildernesses that we find ourselves in - from ones that we’ve imposed on ourselves to those that have been imposed on us through no fault of our own. We’d have to be honest with the wildernesses we carry as folks who live here in Northern New Jersey, and in the United States - honest with our own history, our culture, and what our society has said about others, said about ourselves, and be honest about the wildernesses we’ve created for others who didn’t fit our norm. 

To start Jesus’ story with the wilderness means to take the chance and the risk to tell our honest story, to tell our fears, our worries, our failures and sins. To start in the wilderness means to go into the wilderness - to go into the untamed places - to go into the uncomfortable places - and to ask for understanding, forgiveness, mercy, and love. 

I believe that Mark started in the wilderness because he knew what happens in the wilderness. He knew that in the uncomfortable places, God comes. He knew that in the untamed experiences, Jesus comes. He knew that in the hurt and fear and despair, the Holy Spirit is there. Our wildernesses are never so big, never so deep, never so distant, that God will not go there. Our wildernesses are never so vast that they’ll keep Jesus from us. Because it’s in those untamed places that God comes. It’s in the untidy places that God makes Godself known. It’s in the places where we don’t want God to go that Jesus breaks in and doesn’t leave us alone. 

In these first verses from Mark - we’re given an invitation to live into Jesus beginning by starting a new beginning ourselves. Because the story of Jesus is more than just a birth story, more than just a series of events that happened 2000 years ago in a country far from here. The story of Jesus is a story of encounter, it’s a story of meeting, it’s a story of presence in our lives. Any story about Jesus needs to start in the wilderness - in our wilderness - and needs to never only be a story that sounds like “Jesus did this, Jesus said this, Jesus taught this…” but should sound like “Jesus did this for me, Jesus said this to me, Jesus taught this to me and this is how I have struggled, this is how I have felt fear, this is how I’ve doubted, and this is how I’ve been changed.” 

In this season of beginnings - of starts - of giant nativity sets and Darth Vadar in Santa hats - lets take this invitation from Mark to heart and enter into our wilderness, enter into our untamed places, enter into our fears - and lets discover just how God meets us there.



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A Reflection on Isaiah 40

Our first reading is Isaiah 40:1-11.

Growing up in Colorado, I lived near the county line. Along this border was a road that was called (surprisingly) County Line Road. What an awesome road. Driving on it was like being on a roller coaster. We went up one hill, down the other side, and immediately up another hill for what felt like miles.But what was fun during warm days was terrifying during the winter. Snow storms and icy conditions made County Line Road terrifying. 

When I returned home for a visit after college, I noticed that the road was different. Construction crews came and leveled the hills. The route was straighter, faster, and less exhilarating. Some of the joy was lost but the winter terror was gone.

This passage from Isaiah was probably composed after the exiles from Babylon had returned to Jerusalem. The children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were returning to a city they didn’t know but one that they heard about from stories of their parents, grandparents, and teachers. When they finally returned, the city must have appeared to be a ruin compared to what they had heard. The city was rough, the temple still in ruins, the walls broken, and its vibrancy and size only a fraction of what it was before. Not everyone had been sent into exile but enough to render the city an alien place to those who returned. I imagine the city looked rough, broken, and probably felt like it was abandoned by God. God’s city symbolized God’s people being at the bottom of the valley and in a land that no longer seemed to be a place of milk and honey. I imagine it felt like being caught on a roller coaster road, in the middle of a snow storm, with no end in sight. How could they hope to survive and thrive?

But in the middle of the terror, we hear words of comfort and hope. We hear about God’s relationship with God’s people. And we hear that God has not abandoned the world or us. Rather, God will feed the flock, gather the lambs, carry and nourish us in the midst of our snowstorms on icy streets. This passage tells us to rest in God’s promises, that we are caught up in God’s end, that we have been brought into God’s acts of restoration and resurrection and that our hope does not rest on what we do but on who we belong to. Our hope is in the one who comes to us today, yesterday, and who we will celebrate on Christmas Day. 


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