Questions and Reflections

December 2015

Second Births [Sermon Manuscript]

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

Luke 2:41-52

Pastor Marc's sermon on the First Sunday of Christmas (December 27, 2015) on Luke 2:41-52. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Did anyone wake up to find birds under their Christmas tree this morning? I’m thinking of specifically three French Hens, two Turtle Doves, and possibly a partridge and a pear tree? Now, I can’t speak for you but I woke up to a tree empty of birds under it. And I’m glad because, well, I’m not sure how make birds into Christmas presents safely. We all know that Christmas came two days ago. The time for presents is over. Now is the time to return the gifts we didn’t want, take down the Christmas tree, and prepare for a new year that’s about to come. Once Christmas Day is over, we’re already moving on. 

But, in the church at least, Christmas is not a one day event. We don’t create two special worship services and decorate the sanctuary for just one day. Christmas is always 12 days long - just like the song. The season is more than just lords a leaping, pipers piping, and some drawn out golden rings. I like to imagine that the early church, as it crafted a calendar for the year, realized that the story of God entering the world is just too much for one day. This story is too big, too wild, too amazing for one day to hold it all in. So the early church settled on 12 days; 12 days to talk about Jesus entering the world; 12 days to talk about what God is up to in the world now; 12 days to celebrate this Jesus, this God-with-us, who actually is one of us. 

And that’s why today’s worship helps. We’re not just reading one part of the story. We’re reading 4. And we didn’t just read about the beginning, about Mary in the manger and Jesus wrapped in cloth. We went from Jesus’ beginning, through his birth, his early visitors, and into the only story of his childhood offered by any of the gospel writers. This story from Luke chapter 2 is the only story we hear from the time Jesus is eight days old until his baptism by John. Thirty years of Jesus’ life is just not there. We don’t know if he went to school, who he worked for, or who won the arguments he had with his mom when he wanted to stay up past his bedtime. We don’t know who his friends were, if Jesus ever had a first kiss, or if Jesus ever had his heartbroken when he was 22. All we have is this story when Jesus was 12. 

Mary, Joseph, and the entire gang are taking their annual trip from Galilee to experience Passover in God’s holy city. They packed heir bags, loaded their donkeys, and joined the countless others leaving their homes to head on holiday. Friends, distant family members, and others hit the road, only to be joined by more and more pilgrims heading to the Temple. This mass of humanity, filled with people from all around Syria, Galilee, the Mediterranean and beyond - descend on Jerusalem, swelling it’s size. The place is just packed. But, once the festival is over, a reverse migration happens as everyone returned to their far away homes. So, with the festival over, Joseph, Mary, and the rest of Jesus’ family readies themselves to leave. They pack their belongings, find their donkeys, and join a caravan leaving the city. But, at some point, Jesus sneaks off. He stays behind and Joseph and Mary lose track of him. At first, they’re not worried. They assumed Jesus is somewhere in the caravan, hanging out with his cousins and family friends. But he wasn’t. He was back at the Temple. He was hanging out with the religious teachers and citizens of Jerusalem who gathered to worship, teach, and debate after the visitors left. Panicky, Mary and Joseph return to search for him and after three days, they find him. And once they find Jesus, they do what any parent would do, they shout, “where have you been?” 

And Jesus answers: “in my Father’s house.” With those words, Mary and Joseph collect their son, and head to their home in Galilee where Jesus grows up. That’s how the only story about Jesus’ childhood and young adulthood ends - with Jesus heading home to grow into the person he’s going to be.

Now, C. isn’t 8 days old. He isn’t 30 years old either. And I’ve already heard more stories about C.’s childhood than I’ve heard about Jesus’s. He’s given his mom, his dad, his big brother, and all who love him more stories to share than we could possibly count. And that’s what kids do. They create stories. Today, we’re going to help C. create a new story. With a little water, a little oil, some words, and a promise - we’re going to welcome C. as he joins Christ’s body in the world. Everyone here will promise to love and support C. to walk with his brother and his parents, and to do our part welcoming this new brother of faith. Jesus promises to be with C. not because Connor can do anything to earn God’s love. But God makes this promise because, though Jesus, this is just who God is. This is a story that C.won’t remember but it’s a story that we’ll tell and live out. And this is a story that C. will continue to live into - because he’s now on a journey that we’re all on, just like that 12 year old Jesus. We’re learning how to grow up with God. 

It’s hard to imagine that Jesus - the Son of God who is God - would need to grow up. It sounds funny to say that. God is God. What would God need to grow into? Why would God need to grow? How could that possibly happen? 

Well, I think one thing God would need to grow into is just what it’s like being human. Because it’s impossible to experience humanity without spending the time it takes to be human. Our lives take time. They take days, months, hours, and years. Life is a journey - and this is a journey already on. C.’s already growing. He’s already having experiences. He’s already figuring out what to do, what not to do, and what noises he needs to make for someone to pay attention to him. C. is on the journey of growing into who he is suppose to be. And today, in his baptism, Jesus promises to be with him, latching on to C. so that C. can grow into the person that God imagines him to be. And that’s Christmas. That’s the outcome of the Christmas story. Christmas is bigger than just one birth. It’s bigger than just one night in a stable. Christmas is Jesus showing us how to grow and live in God’s world. Christmas can’t be one day because our stories are bigger than one day. And C. - C.’s story includes a God who will be with him for the long haul, for his entire life, promising to help Connor do what we are all called to do - and that’s grow in faith, in service, and in love.



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January 2016: What makes a new year "new" to you?

2016 is here! Does it feel any different from 2015? To me, New Year's Day always feels like my birthday: when someone asks me if I feel any different, my answer is usually "no." It takes time before a new year feels new to me. And that's probably one of the reasons New Year’s resolutions are so popular to make and so popular not to complete. We want to make a change but, as normal life keeps happening, we lose the time we need to make the change stick. 

2015 was a faith-filled year at CLC. We fed over 40,000 people in one afternoon, welcomed Jewish Temples and Christian Churches into our sanctuary for Thanksgiving, and our annual Trash & Treasure sale funded projects in the church and all over the world. We have a habit of making a difference in the world and 2015 was a great example of that. We do what we can to live our faith out loud.

But why do we feed others? Why partner with traditions other than our own? And why support projects in Nepal and right here in Woodcliff Lake? If you've ever wondered why we do what we do, I invite you to read the Bible with us in 2016. In one year, we'll walk through the entire 66 books of scripture. We'll start with Genesis, wrap up with Revelation, and discover if Obadiah is really a book of the Bible (hint: it is). We'll offer drop-In Bible studies at church (Wednesdays at 11:30 am - bring your lunch, and Thursdays at 7 pm), include a special Bible reading in worship each Sunday and dig into scripture at special events. If you've always wanted to read the entire Bible but haven't, I invite you to join us. I'll be sharing special notes, moments, and thoughts through social media in case you can't join our studies. Visit our website for more information and a monthly scripture guide.

It only takes 3 chapters a day to cover Scripture. You can do it.

See you in church,
Pastor Marc


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Evergreen [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!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Luke 2:1-20

Pastor Marc's sermon on Christmas Eve (December 24, 2015) on Luke 2:1-20. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


“In those days…” - that’s how the story starts. That’s how the gospel writer we call Luke starts today’s Christmas story. Luke talks about those days - those days when an Emperor in Rome ruled over the Mediterranean and appointed a man named Quinirius to rule over Syria and make a record of all the people who were under the Emperors’ control. This isn’t the only possible place to start the Christmas story. We could start at the angel visiting Mary or Mary’s visit to her relative Elizabeth or even to Mary’s song about what God is doing in her life and in the world. But right now, on this holy night, when we hear the story of God entering the world, this is how Luke’s Christmas story starts. So how does your Christmas story start? 

And does your Christmas story look a little green with weather that’s 70 degrees and full of rain? 

Now, it totally could. The weather outside could really get you into the Christmas spirit. But this isn’t the typical story of what our neighbor looks like when we imagine the start of Christmas. For the last month or so, the great weather debate has been if we’d have a white Christmas or not. So we assume that our Christmas should, it some way, start with big winter coats, steaming cups of hot chocolate, and with our yards and our streets covered with snow. But the more I personally reflected on this question, the more I realized that my Christmas story doesn’t really include snow either. Now, I grew up in Colorado, right outside Denver, in a place where snow storms start in September. I’m use to snow, cold, and seeing snow capped mountains when I look out my window. But Christmas time in my hometown is always a mixed bag. The weather is so odd, with deep freezes followed by summer heat waves just a few days later. So most of my Christmas memories don’t include an outside that’s white. It’s always brown. The snow is gone. The sun is shining. And, as far as I can see, it’s just rolling vistas and foothills covered in bent over, brown, lifeless prairie grass. It’s not pretty. It’s not picturesque. And it’s not a place where ABC Family would shoot a made-for-tv Christmas special. 

But there’s something about these early Christmas experiences, our Christmas memories, that tell us when our Christmas actually starts. For me, being surrounded by all that brown, all that lifelessness, what starts Christmas for me is always something green: and that’s the tree. Artificial or real, it doesn’t matter. That tree, always green, is always full of life, standing out from the brown prairie grass around it. Once I start decorating the tree, that’s when Christmas begins for me. And the when doesn’t matter. I can take out the tree on Thanksgiving or right after Halloween or - like this year - just a week ago - and that’s the start of my Christmas. 

And I’m sure, if we took a poll right now, we’d have dozens of different answers to the question of when our Christmas starts. Maybe it’s when that first giant inflatable duck with a santa hat shows up in the stores. Or maybe it’s when we bake that first batch of Christmas cookies or hear “All I Want For Christmas is You” on radio. Or maybe Christmas starts when we find that special ornament we made in sixth grade, when school finally lets out for winter break, or when we return to the home we grew up in, or when we finally sit down for a meal with the family we now get to chose. We each have a moment when our Christmas starts. We each have experiences in our pasts that determine when we feel Christmas happening. We each are living in a now - a now where Christmas might include a new special person in our life or a now where there’s a chair at our table sitting empty for the first time. These joys and these sorrows mix with our stories, our experiences, and our histories giving each of us a Christmas that starts at a different time. No one experience of Christmas is more Christmasy than the next. No one single narrative, or image, or pinterest board gets to determine what makes Christmas our Christmas. All of us, young and old, know when our Christmas season starts. 

But even if our Christmas started two months ago or if it hasn’t started yet - Jesus still comes. Because Christmas isn’t about being ready for God or about being in the right frame of mind for this season to happen. No, Jesus comes not because we’re ready - but because that’s just what Jesus does - coming to us as we are, where we are, whether we’re ready or not. God comes because God loves - and that’s just what love does. 

Mary wasn’t ready for the angel to tell her about her pregnancy. Joseph wasn’t ready to find out his fiancee was pregnant. When Mary was 9 months pregnant, she definitely wasn’t ready for an order from the Emperor telling her to travel far from home. And that inn wasn’t ready for Mary and Joseph to show up at their door. But Jesus still came. We might have our trees picture perfect, our stockings hung by the chimney with care, knowing that Santa will be here very soon. Or we might be too tired, too worn out, too lonely to even address one Christmas card. We might be excited to have everyone home or we might find ourselves spending our Christmas far from home, in a strange place, or even in a hospital ICU. But wherever we are - whoever we are - Jesus still comes. 

We all have our own story of Christmas and none of our Christmas stories are exactly the same as everyone else’s. But God’s Christmas story never changes. There’s always a census. There’s always an Emperor. There’s always a marriage that doesn’t know what to do with this unexpected pregnancy and these astrologers from the east, looking at the stars, thinking that God’s going to show up in some king’s palace. But it’s when there is no room at the inn - when God decides that our imperfections, our experiences, and our stories are worth knowing. That’s when Jesus comes. God doesn’t wait for us to be ready. God comes because that’s what love does. Love shows up. Love commits. Love comes to bear all things, even sorrow and pain, even joy and death. Love knows we’re worth being changed into something new, something bright, something that’s always full of life. And Love knows we’re worth a new beginning - a new start to our story - a new relationship with our Creator, with our neighbors, and with ourselves. In our joy, in our sadness, in our troubles, and even when we’re not looking - Jesus comes because Christmas is about that kind of love - that kind of commitment from a God who wants to change the world’s story - and, in the process, change our story too. 



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Sing Our Songs [Sermon Manuscript]

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1:39-55

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 20, 2015) on Luke 1:39-55. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


When you woke up this morning, did you have a song buzzing in your head? What was it? 

For me, today, it’s a parody of “YMCA” but called “NOEL” and it’s about Santa Claus. I heard the song last night while watching a Christmas light display at a house in Fairlawn. The blinking lights, singing Christmas trees, and odd lyrics left an impression on me. But, amazingly, this is the only Christmas song I’ve had stuck in my head over the last few months. Usually I wake up and something from the Broadway musical “Hamilton” is buzzing in my ears. Or maybe some random pop song - or even something I chant at church stuck even though, in the early morning hours, I tend to forget the words. Either way, most mornings there is a song in my head. The lyrics fill my ears when I’m making my morning coffee and I’m humming the music while taking the kids to school. Songs are part of my life. They’re part of my mental soundtrack - and songs are a part of scripture’s soundtrack too. 

Today’s reading from Luke includes a song. It’s one of the more famous ones - called the Magnificat - which comes from the latin word for magnify. Mary heads to the country to visit her relative Elizabeth. Mary, a young teen, has just heard from an angel that she will give birth to the Messiah. While Elizabeth is an older woman who, biologically, is beyond normal childbearing years. Yet her body tells a different story as John the Baptist continues to grow inside her. Elizabeth is nearing the end of her pregnancy while Mary is starting hers. So Mary enters Elizabeth’s house, says hello, and that’s when the songs start. Mary’s voice causes John to leap and turn. John’s turning causes Elizabeth to proclaim that something strange - new - and powerful is happening. And Mary, in response, sings this song. 

Mary’s song is an odd song. There are elements here that fit her life and other elements that don’t. When she’s singing about God bringing down the powerful from their thrones, she’s singing while the Roman Emperor Augustus is strengthening a cult of the emperor that will, after he dies, declare him a god. And when she sings about the rich being sent away, she herself is poor. We don’t know her family. We don’t know what kind of care network she has. We don’t know if Mary, as a 12 or 13 year old girl, has the resources she needs to be a mom. The angel doesn’t promise medical care, doesn’t promise that Mary’s parents will always be there to help out, and the angel doesn’t promise that her financial needs will always be met. Mary’s blessed - but the practical aspects of what that blessing actually looks like is up-for-grabs. Elizabeth explains this blessing a bit, saying that Mary is blessed not only because Mary is pregnant. She, like all women, is not solely defined by her choice to be a parent or not. No, Mary is blessed because she trusts what God is doing in her life. But we have to be careful about what we think being blessed means. The text doesn’t say that her blessing will include money and financial security or that her life will be easy and without struggle. The text doesn’t even promise that Mary’s blessing won’t involve watching her child be hung on a Cross. Mary’s going to be the Messiah’s mom - and we know how that story goes. Mary’s blessing is a mixed blessing.

And yet, she still sings this song. She still sings God’s story. She’s young and a virgin but I hardly believe that she would be naive. She knows the next steps are going to be hard. She knows that, as a poor woman married to a poor carpenter who can’t even find a room to rent when Jesus’ birthday comes, her life will not be easy. She knows that her world will change - and yet, she still sings. She sings about her own life first - about God’s presence and promise to her. She sings about all of God’s story - a story that begins with a song and God’s breathe moving over the waters at the start of creation. Mary sings about what God is doing in the world - not just preparing people for a better life in heaven, but a God who prepares a better life for people now. Her God fills the hungry with food rather than just hope and Mary’s God causes those who aren’t hungry to stop looking only at themselves, instead, turning them to see their neighbor. Mary sings of a God who will live a human life, die a human death, and who, in the end, will teach all to sing a new song. 

Yesterday, the family and I did a hard thing. We packed up the mini-van, making sure we didn’t forget our kids’ water bottles and snacks, and headed across the Hudson. We were heading to the Cathedral of the Incarnation on Long Island to say goodbye to a friend of mine who died this week. He’s a seminary classmate, an Episcopal priest, who was incredibly kind, loving, and faithful. And the Cathedral was packed. Classmates, priests, and hundreds of people came to celebrate him. He had touched a lot of lives during his own short life. 

The funeral service began like most funerals. We entered while a prelude was playing on the organ. The bishop opened the service with a short welcome, a dialogue, and a prayer. And then, in the face of loss, in the face of grief, in the face of sorrow, everyone sang. We sang God’s story. We sang Christ’s love. We sang that Jesus doesn’t run from us but, instead, Jesus runs with us. In songs with words that might not fully tell our story, or in a musical style that we might not prefer, we sang. We, like Mary, facing an unknown future trust in a God that we do know - a God who is Emmanuel, - a God who truly loves us as we are - but a God who promises to not leave us as we are. 

That’s why Mary sings. And that’s why we sing too. It's why we sing/will sing the Christmas story during Sunday School time. It's why our worship is full of songs, songs, and then more songs. And it's while, when we gather with our interfaith friends and neighbors like we did last Sunday, we make sure to sing. 
Because, when we wake up tomorrow, we don’t know what song will be in our head. We don’t know if it’ll be some random song we heard when we ran off to do some last minute Christmas shopping or if our mile long to-do list will make stress the only song we can sing. We don’t know if a pile of unpaid bills or family problems will keep our song silent. We also don’t know if everything tomorrow will go according to plan or if something will happen to change our life forever. But we do know that Christmas will come. We know that Christmas came. And we know that each of us matters to God too much because Jesus comes for each and every one of us. The world started with a song. Mary, when she meets Elizabeth, can't help but sing. And all of us are called to just sing because we are part of God’s song - and God can’t help but sing new life and love into each of us.



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A reflection on Micah, the town of Bethlehem and why a savior comes from there.

Our first reading is Micah 5:1-5

This text from Micah 5 is one of the texts we point to as a prophecy for Jesus Christ. Ever since the early church told stories about Jesus, Micah 5 has mattered. The magi, when they come from the East (see Matthew 2), use this text in their conversation with King Herod. The text talks about a child born in Bethlehem who will become king and who give everyone peace. That's our Jesus.

But the text does more than just name the location where this king will be born. The text is pointing to how "God delights in upsetting human expectations," in the words of Anne Stewart from Princeton Seminary. The prophet Micah lived during a time of extreme change in the land of Judah and Israel. The Assyrian Empire expanded into the land, destroying the kingdom of Israel (Samaria) in 722 BCE/BC and marching to the gates of Jerusalem in 701 BCE/BC. In preparation for the invasion, the king of Judah (Jerusalem) built huge defenses in many different towns. The king of Assyria marched in and destroyed them all. One of the towns that was fortified, and destroyed, was Bethlehem.

Micah's words are more than just foretelling a location of the birth of the Savior. Micah's words tell that God will save the world from a defenseless and destroyed town. God doesn't rely on our walls and defenses to save the world. God, through the unexpected, will bless the nations. As Christmas Eve breaks upon us, let's remember that these familiar Christmas stories describe God acting in unexpected ways. God's promises are certain but God acts in ways we wouldn't and shows up in a manger. 


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Live Like It's Here [Sermon Manuscript]

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Luke 3:7-18

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Third Sunday of Advent (December 13, 2015) on Luke 3:7-18 Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


I’m pretty sure that none of us came here today expecting someone to call us a viper. But that’s exactly how John the Baptist starts his sermon today. People are leaving their homes and cities, heading into the desert to hear  what John has to say. And the very first thing he does is insult them. Yet, no one leaves. Everyone sticks around - waiting to hear what this person from God has to say. They all sense that something big is about to happen. They believe their world is about to change. So everyone stays, even after John calls them a snake. 

Now, I’ve never seen a brood of snakes in person. Don’t get me wrong - I’ve seen snakes. I use to spot them in a rock wall next to the house I grew up in. I’ve even touched a few at the zoo or when that random guy at Coney Island with the giant python wrapped around his shoulders let’s you get a picture with that snake for just a few bucks. But the snakes I’ve seen are always in small numbers, just one or two. The closest I’ve been to a brood of vipers is probably when I’m watching Indiana Jones and he falls through the top of a train car into the giant box of snakes below. I imagine that’s what a brood looks like. Hundreds of snakes, piled high, each one slithering and hissing on top of the other. It’s creepy. And if you’re afraid of snakes, I’m sorry for giving you this mental image right now. Yet this is what John the Baptist saw. All these different kinds of people, with different kinds of jobs, and from places all over Israel, Syria, and Jordan - were swarming around him. They wanted to know what he knew. They wanted to know what insight God had given him. The people sensed that something was about to happen and John’s words seem to confirm it. After calling everyone a snake, John claims that God is watching, God is coming soon, and when God gets here here, people will be judged. John scared the pants off the people around him and so they ask him the only question that comes to mind: what should we do to be on God’s good side? How can we show to God, and each other, that we’re more than just one snake among vipers? 

And John answers: if you have two coats, give one away and if you have food, share with those who have none. 

That’s it. That’s all you have to do. His answer is that we should all simply give. 

That seems simple enough. But there are folks in the crowd who, I believe, realize how odd this request is. John was just telling everyone that God is coming and that we better get on God’s good side or else. And John’s answer is so…. small… compared to the urgent warning that came before. John’s answer seems so...easy - too simple to really be what God wants. So one of the groups gathered there, tax collectors, came up to John and ask “no, really, what are we supposed to do?”

Now John’s answer might seem a little strange to us. But in Jesus’ day, tax collecting was handled differently than it is now. There wasn’t an IRS keeping an eye on things. Rather, the ruler would determine how much money they needed and who should give it to them. But the rulers wouldn’t actually go out and collect the money. They would sub-contract the collection of these taxes to others. So tax collectors received a contract from a king or queen saying that they needed to deliver a certain amount of cash to whoever is in charge. The ruler just wanted what they wanted. And they gave the tax collector free reign to collect whatever they wanted, even if the tax collector collected more for themselves. So, if the ruler wanted - say, 100 dollars, the tax collector would collect 200 or 300 instead. The ruler didn’t care - they got their 100 dollars - and the tax collector, through intimidation, force, and threats, got what they wanted. The average person had to pay what the tax collector was asking, even if they knew that the ruler wanted less. And if someone didn’t pay - well - they had to face down the brutes tax collectors used as enforcers. Tax collecting in Jesus’ time wasn’t just sending letters in the mail to someone when they failed to pay or taking money from their paycheck. Tax collecting was violent, harsh, arbitrary, inconsistent, and deadly. And in Jesus’ time, tax collecting was even harsher because it meant something else too. The people collecting the taxes were collecting money that wasn’t going to be used locally. They were collecting money for Rome and Rome’s allies. The money would be taken and shipped across the sea to enrich an empire occupying God’s holy city. Tax collectors weren’t just taking people’s money and harming them when they didn’t pay. Tax collectors were supporting an occupying army. 

So it’s not hard to imagine why these tax collectors might be a tad nervous if God shows up soon. They heard John’s words about sharing - but they’re sure they need to do more. These tax collectors are not awesome people. That’s why the bible talks about them so much. Tax collectors hurt others, destroy livelihoods, and prop up the empire that eventually kills Jesus. Tax collectors are so notorious that when Jesus has dinner with one and even calls one, named Matthew, an apostle - Jesus’ actions are scandalous. So John the Baptist takes a special moment to answer these tax collectors. He tells them to simply collect what they’re suppose to and not a penny more. 

And that answer feels almost wrong. Shouldn’t tax collectors have to do more? Shouldn’t they stop being tax collectors, stop hurting people, and stop giving money to Rome? Maybe they can quit their jobs, go back to school, and find work at a non-profit to pay back all those they hurt. For them to be on God’s side, shouldn’t they need to do more than heading back to work, doing their jobs with honesty and integrity? 

But that’s it. That’s all it takes. John’s answer to those worried about God’s coming is to simply do your job, do it well, and do it with honesty and integrity. To do your job involves a little bit of love, a little bit of noticing when your neighbor is going hungry, and sharing so that everyone has an opportunity to thrive and grow. We don’t need to become some sort of hero of the faith to be the people God wants us to be. We simply have to care and love in all that we do. If we’re a student, don’t cheat, take your work seriously, and help that friend who’s struggling. If we’re working for a living, love people, do your job well, and don’t cause harm. If we’re parents, take care of who God has entrusted to you even when they are pushing your buttons on purpose. And if we’re retired, our working days behind us, live to the fullest by taking care of those who are around you. 

That’s it. That’s all John says. He doesn’t tell anyone what to believe. He doesn’t tell them to quit their jobs, head to seminary, or leave their homes and move out to the desert to be a holy man like him. John doesn’t ask any of them to become a hero for God. Instead, John says, right now, they can be those faith-filled people they want to be. Right now, they can love. Right now, they can care. Right now, they can share. The response to God’s coming isn’t to believe we have to become something else before Jesus comes. The response to God’s coming is to believe that through this God-who-is-with us, this God who claims us, through this God who has us, we can live out Christ’s love right now.   



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A reflection on Zephaniah and God, the warrior

"The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing" 

That's verse 17 in our reading from Zephaniah today. Do you know why this verse is so strange? Because it comes from a time when God wasn't seen as a mighty warrior. Some scholars have argued that the last chapter of Zephaniah is a little out of place. The previous two chapters (of this three chapter book) is focused on the day of the Lord. There's a lot of talk about judgement for the people of Jerusalem and for the surrounding nations. There's a slight hint that, if the people repent, God might not judge harshly but that still might not be enough. The people of Jerusalem have been doing things they shouldn't, following foreign gods and no longer act as God's people in the world. So Zephaniah calls them to account, promising that God is breaking into the world, right now. And when God does break into the world, everyone will be held accountable. 

But the last chapter, chapter 3, seems very hopeful. Disasters will be taken away from us, God will deal with our oppressors, and that people should not fear. This is a text that seems out of place compared to the rest of Zephaniah. It doesn't fit the flow of the rest of the prophet's words. But something interesting happens if the text was composed during the time of Jerusalem's exile. The Babylonians destroyed the city in 566 BC/BCE, sending the population into exile. On the surface, God's people were destroyed. God, the mighty warrior, was defeated by the armies and gods of Babylon. God looked defeated. 

So how can God promise victory after a defeat such as that? 

This is partially what Advent and Christmas season is about. God promises the world that our defeats cannot defeat what God will do. The story of a baby in a manger isn't a story about a cute baby. It's a story about God doing the unexpected thing to love and change the world. We expect armies and swords but God comes in a swaddle cloth in a stable. The world can't be saved by an army but it is saved by a God who faces our darkness and won't let it win. 


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Love Overflow [Sermon Manuscript]

n the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Luke 3:1-6

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Second Sunday of Advent (December 6, 2015) on Luke 3:1-6. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


So, like many of us, if I don’t have my phone on me at all times, I feel a bit...uncomfortable. I get worried. My heartrate goes up and I act a little irritated because, well, I want my phone. And I get this way when I lose my phone for two reasons. One, my phone is the primary way I interact, communicate, and learn about my world. And, two, my phone is also my clock. It tells me my time. So when I forget my phone and I find myself, say, stuck in Bergen Town Center, where there isn’t a clock in the entire place - it doesn’t take long before I’m desperately trying to find out what time it is. There’s probably a good scientific and psychological explanation for why I get this way. And I wish I knew what that was. But I do know that when I know the time - the hour, the minute, the seconds - even the day and the year - I’m able to structure my world, understand my place in the universe, and connect myself to all the other events that are happening all around me. How we describe time - say by using a calendar, or a church calendar, or something else entirely - how we describe time shows where we are in history. And that’s what Luke is doing in our text today. We’re past the beginning. We’re past the moment when an angel speaks to Mary, past the point when Zechariah loses his voice in the Temple, and we’re beyond Jesus being born in a manger. We’re somewhere else. So Luke tells us where we are by telling us the time. But instead of saying it’s 9:20/11:05 am on Sunday, December 6, Luke tells us the time by telling us who’s in power. 

Now, this way of telling time was common in Luke’s day. It’s also common today. When we talk about President Barack Obama, we sometimes hear that it’s the 7th year of his presidency. Elected officials in our country are described and defined by their length of time in office. So Luke starts at the very top of his world, with the Roman Emperor Tiberius who’s been in charge for 15 years. And then Luke moves down the hierarchy - first to Rome’s representative in Judea - Pontius Pilate - and to King Herod, an ally of Rome, who rules over parts of Jesus’ hometown. Philip and Lysanius are kings, leaders in territories that Jesus and his disciples will shortly visit. So after taking a look at the political leaders, Luke then moves into the religious. We hear about Annas and Caiphas, high priests, busy doing God’s work in the Temple and in the land. This hierarchy of authority is Luke’s way of telling us the time. It’s also Luke’s way of telling us what Jesus’ world looked like. It didn’t matter if someone was in the middle of Italy or fishing on the Sea of Galilee, their lives were defined by their time. And it’s at this specific time, in this specific world, with these specific people in power, that God speaks. And God’s word rumbles out of the mouth of a soul in the wilderness named John. 

Now, as Christians, John the Baptist matters. He is part of our story. John notices Jesus before others do and he baptizes Jesus in the Jordan river. So since we are called to tell Jesus’ story, John the Baptist matters to us. But if we look at the list that Luke just laid out, a list full of people and places, emperors, kings, and priests, if we played a game of “what’s not like the other,” well, John is the obvious answer. He doesn’t fit. Everyone else in that list has power. Everyone else has people who will listen to them. But it’s the one in the wilderness, far from the cities and places where people define who is important and who isn’t - that’s who God speaks to. That’s who God uses. At this specific time, and in this specific place, it’s not the person in the white robe or the soldier's uniform, or the business suit that God uses to announce Jesus. Instead, the one wearing camel hair and eating bugs prepares the way for Jesus. Preparing for Jesus isn’t tied to what we have or who people think we are. Preparing for Jesus is tied to who calls us. And if God called a nobody in the wilderness to prepare the way for the Lord - just think what we can do since God is calling us to prepare the way for the Lord too. 

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time this week preparing.” Being in the middle of a move can do that to a person. I just have a ton of things to prepare. There’s rooms to paint, utilities to move, floors to clean, and an astronomically large number of toys that need to be boxed, tossed, and transported. And as I’m speaking right now, in the back of my head, I’m listing all the things that I haven’t done. yet. You’d think that someone who’s lived in four different places since he’s three year old was born would know how to prepare for a move at this point in their life. And I honestly believe that, each time I move, I’m better at moving than I was before. I made it through my last move only breaking two wine glasses. That’s good for me. But I’m not perfect. Things do break. Boxes do get mixed up. And I’m still, at the last minute, going to be throwing a bunch of things in a black plastic bag to toss in the back of my mini-van. Even after all these moves, I’m still learning how to prepare well. 

And that’s frustrating. It’s frustrating still learning how to prepare well. It’s upsetting knowing that I’m still not going to get this move just right. It’s not hard to see all that we do, all that we try, all the preparation we put in - and wonder - just what it’s all for. 

That frustration - that questioning - well, it’s not hard to look around at our world, and wonder about our preparation too. This week, there was another shooting. Another terrorist attack. And that’s just one big story in a week full of our stories where we’ve wondered and questioned just what we’re doing. We’re we’ve been frustrated by our own preparations. There’s the diagnosis or the fact that the doctors still don’t know what’s wrong. There’s that lost job, that uncovered secret, that unexpected anxiety, and then there’s fear. The Christmas season is suppose to be the happiest time of the year - but that doesn’t mean we’re fully prepared for what our world and what our lives will bring about. 

But that’s Luke’s point. That’s what Luke is saying in these opening words from chapter 3. Like pulling out our phones to see what time it is, Luke is painting a picture of Jesus’ time and just how prepared the world was for him. A world where a Roman Emperor proclaimed his own divinity. A world where nations rose up against other nations. A world where slavery was normal, wars common, and a world where a Roman governor occupied God’s holy city. No one was prepared for what was going to happen next. No one knew that a kid from Nazareth, stumbling through the water in the Jordan, was God’s Son. No one knew that a carpenter’s son from the wrong side of the tracks would cast out demons and heal the sick while embracing everyone - children, tax collectors, prostitutes, and even those who followed a different religion than he. No one knew that when Jesus was nailed to a Cross, his arms would be opened wide for the entire world so that everyone could see the salvation of God. No one was prepared for what God was about to do - but God was prepared to do whatever it took to love the world. 

The good news isn’t that we can, somehow, prepare the world so Jesus will come. Our goods news is that, in spite of our world, Jesus comes anyways. In our specific place, in our specific time, and in our specific lives, Jesus comes - not because we’re perfect - but because God loves and love acts. Love is more than a feeling. It’s a verb. It’s something that we can do even when our feelings say otherwise. When our world and our lives seem to encourage brokenness rather than love, we can still love. When our world and our lives want to divide God’s creation into us and them, we can still love. And when we don’t know what to do, when we want to run in fear and hide, it’s then when we can let our love overflow. 

Letting our love overflow is something that anyone can do. It doesn’t matter if we’re two or ninety two. We don’t have to be an emperor to love. We don’t have to be a queen to take care of our neighbor down the road. God isn’t waiting for the right people to show up before God loves the world. God, instead, is calling us too. We might not be kings. We might not be emperors. And we might not be faithful as we wish. But we belong to a God who called a nobody in the desert to prepare for Jesus. We belong to a God who partnered with an unwed teenager to bring Jesus into the world. We belong to a God who has decided that all of us are here at the right time and in the right place to let our love overflow.



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A reflection on Malachi and the Lord showing up

Today's first reading is from Malachi 3:1-4.

Do we really want God to show up suddenly? 

When God shows up, according to Malachi, God is doing more than just acting on our behalf. God isn't a superhero, moving us from danger and letting us live like was always have. When God shows up, God's intervention grows. Being with God is like being a lump of rock taken to a blacksmith shop or smelter. From God's first interaction with us to our last, God is busy refining that lump of rock into something new. When we're claimed by God in our baptism, we're tossed into a refiner's fire. This experience isn't easy. We rarely want to feel like we need to be refined. We might admit to a few problems we have or rough edges but we assume God can take a little sandpaper to us and, in a few moments, smooth us out. But refining takes more. It involves struggle and conflict, doubt and fear, joys and confusion. It can involve tough questions and tougher experiences. We can turn from God only to be turned right back, finding ourselves facing God face-to-face. This is an experience of God that is difficult to put into a stain glass window because when God shows up, God refines and purifies.

But what is God refining and purifying us into? That question is part of the mystery of this season. The description of God's presence above fits well into an image of God as powerful and strong, molding us in a blacksmith shop that's filled with steam, flame, and iron. But, when God shows up on December 25, God isn't iron. God is a babe. This is who will refine us. This is who will change us. This is who will get us to be honest with ourselves and our need to be refined. This Christ will make us uncomfortable but we won't be left there. Once the refining begins, we can't be left where we were.  The good news, as Professor Anne Stewart writes, is that we "will be reformed and refined" and to become, as Martin Luther shared, a Christ for our neighbors and our world.


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