Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Baptism of Our Lord

Mark 1:4-11

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 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. 6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 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. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

There are few things quite as satisfying as a really surprising ending.  As a little boy, I used to love reading mysteries, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie to name a few, just to get that thrill when all is revealed in the last several pages.  Indeed,  if a movie is advertised as having a huge plot-twisting ending that no one could possibly see coming, you can better believe that the likelihood of me shelling out some cash to see that movie has just gone up dramatically.  It naturally follows, I suppose, that finding out information ahead of time can ruin a good story.  Think about the time that someone has spoiled an ending to a book or movie or sporting contest for you.  Is there anything more frustrating than that?    All that work and emotional energy, all of that now wasted, as you found prematurely that Bruce Willis was actually dead in the movie the Sixth Sense or some other such mind-blowing turn of events.
So, then, a question.  What happens when the punch line is given too early or when the great mystery is revealed in the first couple of pages?  If you have ever spoiled an ending for someone, told them who the killer is or who hits the winning shot, you know exactly how that question is answered.  You apologize; you feel guilty and wish that you had kept your mouth shut.  I can virtually guaranteed you that, if I somehow knew how the Broncos’ game was going to end this afternoon and began to tell you all, I would promptly be shouted down. And that, I suppose, is where you and I differ entirely from Mark the Evangelist.  Not only does he give away the punch line, literally in the very first verse of his Gospel, but he does so unapologetically.  “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” is how he begins his Gospel, and this is not some cryptic set of clues that will only make sense in light of later information.    No, he comes out and says it: this Jesus, this one on whom this whole story will focus, this one who will do battle with any number of dark forces and finally be put upon the cross only to rise again,  he is God’s Son.  And what is more, Mark seems to give us, as the readers, information that could be pretty useful to other characters in the Gospel, as Jesus’ disciples and opponents alike fail to make any sense of who he actually is.  So, what is going on here?  Why would Mark seem to take the tension of the story?  Why would he give us the information that should, if he had been paying attention in freshman English class, come not at the beginning but at the end of the story?  Why does he want to take that joyous ending from us?
Well, it just might be the case that, instead of taking away that tension of the story, in giving the punch line before he has told the set up, Mark has introduced something radical into the way we make sense of both Jesus and our world.  For while Mark will certainly tell us that Jesus is the Son of God, that really is does not answer the question.  For right after doing so, please notice what happens.  We see Jesus lined up for baptism by John; a baptism that we are told explicitly is for repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  And if the question that comes to mind is something along the lines of what on earth is the Son of God doing in a place such as this, or why is this Jesus, this Christ, queuing up with sinners who need to be washed of their pride and misery, then you have already been struck by the tension that Mark is intending.  For the question that Mark will continue to ask us as readers is this: can we bear a Messiah, a God, who comes this close?  How will we respond to a God who does not stay in his heavens, but rather tears them wide open and descends to earth with a ferocious mercy? What will we do with a Messiah who comes not to dominate and subdue, but rather to forgive and heal?  A Messiah who will not leave us alone to fight the forces of darkness, but rather will tear them down and leave us with only his peace?
Try as we might, try as we do to keep God in a box so that we can control and manipulate this God, this is a tension that we cannot escape from, as God the Father and Holy Spirit confirm that this Jesus belongs to them. From this point forward, indeed forever more, God will be known as the one who hops in the river with sinners, and God’s good will towards humanity will be found only in the one who has chosen to be numbered and counted among the outcast and the downtrodden.  Yes, this is the God who is not ashamed to love and forgive regular folks, to be known as the one who cares for them so deeply that he will undergo the very ordeal in which they recognize their need of him.  And this, one could rightly say, this is the meaning of Jesus’ baptism.  That he is once again confirmed as God’s son, given this name above all names, the very instant that he sinks to the depths of the human experience. 
“The beginning of the good news,” say Mark the Evangelist, and far from spoiling the story for us, Mark has instead asked of you and me a more radical question, still.  Because, you see, in the waters of your own baptism, this Christ was poured over you, and that same voice that tore the heavens wide has also claimed and sealed you.  The same Spirit which animated this Jesus the Christ, that Spirit lives in you, breathes in you, and calls out to you that you, too, are daughters and sons of God the most high.  “You are my child, my beloved; in you I am well pleased.”  Because of the waters the baptism, these are now your words, too.  You belong to this Christ and this Messiah, the good news of his love is now written in your heavens as the Holy Spirit continues to work on and in you; indeed, as the Spirit continues to work death to all that which would keep you from this Messiah, and continues to raise you to the new life that is yours by baptism, you too are utterly precious in this God’s sight.  How’s that for a beginning?  
So, then, the question, if this is how the story begins, with a God who will be found in the waters of baptism, in that least likely of places, how indeed will it end?  And that, I think, is the question that Mark wants us to ponder, and it is a good one as we scan our life circumstances again at the beginning of the year.  Indeed, what does it mean for our own lives that this Christ, this Messiah is so very committed to you that he will find you in the places you think he could never inhabit?  What shape might the future take for a God who begins by stepping stubbornly and irrevocably in the cracks of human existence, into the moments of pain and terror?  How will this Christ’s ever-faithful presence shape the way we think and act?  For all is yours; you are God’s beloved child for now and for all time.  This is your beginning, and whatever else you may encounter, nothing will have the power to take this from you.   As for the rest of the story, as for how God will continue to bring about God’s reign both here at Centennial and in your daily lives, as for how this beginning will continue to take on flesh and propel us towards a future,  these are open questions.  For the story has just begun.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Christmas Eve, Dec 24, 2011

Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to his own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

If you will allow it, and let’s be honest, you don’t really have the choice, I would like to do a little exercise with you.  While I, as much as anyone here, love this evening, love its warm sentiment, love its hopeful expectation and the warm candle light, the familiarity of the hymns that embrace us like a childhood friend, yes, though I love this all as much as anyone, I would like to take us away from this moment, if only for a few a minutes.  Yes, I would like you to take some time and picture with me not this evening, but say a week or two from now.  I want you to picture yourself in that time when you are still eating turkey or ham and getting a bit sick of it.  I want you to picture your trash can full of garbage and the new shine of whatever gadget you bought already beginning to wear off, and your patience beginning to run thin with those relatives who might be staying just a bit past their welcome.  In short, I want you to picture your life as it actually is, perhaps even now just beneath all of this.   Now, the reason for this is not because I am some unrelenting jerk or wish to play the Scrooge to your collective Tiny Tim.  Like I said, I love tonight and this season as much as anyone.   No, the reason is this: if we keep today’s text, the birth of Jesus the Christ, isolated from daily life, from our realities as they actually exist, we do ourselves a great disservice.  So great, in fact, that we miss entirely the point of the story.  For Christ was born into a world not just of cookies and warm wine, but a world teeming with trouble, a world in which things were far from certain, in short into the world that we know and inhabit on a daily basis. 
            Yes, take if you will, how Joseph and Mary end up in Bethlehem in the first place. This is not some trip to a first century spa so that Mary can get a bit of pre-birth pampering.  Instead, a Roman governor decides on a whim that he needs to raise a bit of capital and so the non-ruling class, the vast majority of the people, have to drop what they are doing and go back to their hometowns.  These censuses, one could more accurately name them a cash grab, a government-sponsored fleecing, were so deeply unpopular that they often resulted in riots.  Hardly, then, a pre-birth trip befitting the Son of God.  And as if this weren’t bad enough, take a look at those present at Jesus’ birth.  Yes, we have Mary and Joseph, the proud parents, but we also have that band of miscreants called shepherds.  Generally speaking, there was not a class of people with a poorer reputation than the shepherds.  They were known to be thieves and liars, and in any case not to be trusted, not exactly the pious types nor those whose presence signaled that something holy was about to occur.   So, we should in no way be surprised that they respond to the presence of a band of angels with incredible fear.  Yes, our English translation tells us that they were terrified, but the Greek renders it more pointedly, something like they “feared a great fear.” And though encountering an angel would certainly be terrifying in its own right, imagine doing so with a little stolen bread in your pocket.  It is my guess that this heavenly manifestation, in the minds of the shepherds, meant that they were finally going to face the divine justice that their actions had long-since warranted.   But that is not what happens to these men, not at all in fact.  Instead, they, for whatever inscrutable reason, they are given knowledge of the birth of the Messiah.  Their great fear matched by an even greater joy.   Where the shepherds, a band of thieves, if you will, are expecting to finally be brought to justice, they are instead told of sweet mercy, told of a peace that God will render to all people, and they are given instructions on where to find all of this.    It is by divine word, by the preaching of angels, that they are brought to the manger, brought to the birth of God’s son, indeed brought to heaven’s very edge.   Not an event they were anticipating or even preparing themselves for, but no less significant for that being the case.
            “Come, let us see this thing which the Lord has made known to us” say the shepherds, and that, I think is the most significant part of the story.  To get the shepherds to the manger, to reveal that this child is indeed God in the flesh, to see that the divine has been irrevocably intertwined with the most ordinary of circumstances, this is not something the shepherds would have been able to do on their own.  Left to their own devices and understanding, their lives would have continued in that ragged fashion, and Jesus simply would have been another boy born into this old world, so excruciatingly mundane were the circumstances of his birth.  And so Christmas, the birth of God’s son comes not amidst hopeful sentiment and warm expectation, but amidst the chaos of a hard journey and a poorly-timed birth.  Christmas comes not first to the good and pious, but to hard men living hard lives who are blessed indeed by the beatific vision of angels praising God through all eternity.  And Christmas comes not in the warmth of a moment that we intentionally set apart as extraordinary, but right in the mundane, in the middle of the week when life has started to creep back in.
            So please, by all means, enjoy this evening.  Enjoy all those rituals that make this a special evening for you and yours. Enjoy the Christmas lights and children whose systems are on overload with toys and sugar. You can better believe that, in due time, I will be doing the exact same.  But know this as surely as you know anything, when the warm glow begins to fade,  when real life encroaches, when the credit card bill comes and when the turkey gets dry, you have not lost the real value, the enduring meaning of Christmas.  For it is precisely these sorts of moments, these painfully mundane moments, when the alarm clock goes off too early and the children just will not behave, these are the moments that Christ blesses with his presence.  The real, the everyday, this now teems with the divine.   Indeed, the meaning of Christmas, its enduring truth is found not in sentiment that will cruelly and quickly fade away, but in the unwavering commitment of God to bring peace and good will to humanity, to restore that which has been lost.  And this commitment, this is what occurs in the birth of God’s son.  For now, there is no place, no place too ordinary, too normal, too unspectacular or too routine for God, and what is more, God will pull and tug us to these places, so that we too may proclaim what God has done. Would we be able to get here on our own, find this Christ unaided by angels?  No, no we would not.  But that fact alone will not keep God from calling to us, from whispering from the painful and the ordinary, that this too is now holy ground.  Yes, in the birth of God’s son, God has gone all-in, and even the peace that Christ will render will bear the wounds of this world, for this is not the only time this Christ will be wrapped in cloth and laid down by those who love him, but there is time yet to tell that story.   For today, for today, hear again the angelic song: “to you is born this day a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  Which, incidentally, a truth for this and every day.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Advent 4, Dec. 18, 2011

Luke 1:26-38
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 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. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." 34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" 35 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. 36 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. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God." 38 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.

            We Protestants, as a rule, have not done so well in dealing with Mary.  There is probably a long and storied history of both fascination and fear with how our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers have treated her, but that can wait for another day.  Suffice it to say, that in sensing the danger of turning Mary into something that she does not appear to have been, in not wanting to make of her a quasi-divine, eternal monument to purity, we have sort of just kept silent.  We shrug nervously at her and suddenly gaze at our shoes in her presence.  Yes, we can tell you all that which we do not believe about Mary, but ask us to say what we do believe, and, well, things get a bit quiet.  In not wanting to say too much, we have instead said nothing at all.  Yes, we instead settle for some over sentimentalized version of her, a Mary who is just sort of happily pregnant and not at all upset or scared or confused by the fact that the Holy Spirit has conceived of the Son of God in her womb while she is engaged to be married.  Yes, in not having a particularly clear picture of Mary, we have allowed her to be overtaken by the warm cheer of the Christmas season, mapping out our own hope and sentiments about this season on her and her life.  And certainly, good Christmas cheer is wonderful, laudable even, but it is just not the point of today’s story.
As in all things, God’s version of the story is entirely more compelling, and it begins not with a “hallmark-Scrooge-and-the-Grinch-learned-the-true-meaning-of-Christmas-type-cheer.” Instead, it begins in a religiously impure and backwater town and a young girl with few prospects, and that right there is a scandal that we moderns have a hard time relating to.  That God’s coming in the flesh will begin with a woman, and a woman not of any education or social standing,  that would be enough to get the Biblical-literalists of Mary’s time all sorts of fired up. Yes, one of low-estate Mary will call herself, meaning that she probably did not get on the honor roll nor was she expecting any scholarship offers to good schools.  Instead, that she was engaged to be married to a hard-working carpenter, and  they, hopefully, would be able to eke out a living; this was basically all one could anticipate, and though it might not have been a lot, it was to be received with gratitude. 
So, it is into this entirely ordinary existence, this cautionary tale of a life for those with the dreams of the upwardly mobile, that this incredible story of God’s coming in the flesh begins.  “Rejoice you that have been graced,” says Gabriel.  And even, then, he has some explaining to do.  What after all, is an angel doing talking with a woman, to say nothing of a woman of little social standing and no power? What is an angel doing in Nazareth, a place long considered God-forsaken? Mary is right to ask what kind of greeting this might be, for what might it mean for God to come to one such as this?  And as he proceeds to inform Mary of what is going to happen to her, things become not more clear but muddier still. For in this particular case, being grace by God, having the Almighty look upon with that earth-shattering care, well, for Mary this means that she will have a child, and not just any child, but the very Son of God.  To this woman, this woman of no repute, of virtually no social value, this woman who would remain invisible if not for divine conspiracy, yes to this woman will be born the son whose glory will garner him any number of titles.  The contrast is stunning.  To a woman with no social standing will be born the Son of the Most High, the heir of David’s throne, the ruler of Jacob’s house, the one whose kingdom will reign from everlasting to everlasting. 
Yes, if Mary is perplexed, if she has a few questions, that should strike no one as out of place, but there is none more dangerous a question than “how can these things be?”  What Mary is asking here is about more than human biology.  Instead, she is asking a question of her safety.  Yes, to be found with child, as the saying goes, while engaged to another man, well, this is more than a bit scandalous.  Instead, the more morally rigid of Mary’s community could rightly stone her to death.  So, yes, we ask with Mary, how can these things be?  How is it that God will choose to enter the world in such a downright scandalous fashion that could land this woman in very deep trouble, indeed?  How can it be that God has seen this woman, observed her in her depths as Luther put it, and from her, from this woman on the edge of society (as all women were in those days), God will birth the one who will render the judgment and redemption of all things?    With what sort of reckless, unpredictable and bizarre love are we dealing?
And the answer, oh, that answer, that is even better than the infinite questions that could prompt it. In beginning to sketch out an answer to how these things could be, we are driven to seek the mischievous God who stands behind them.  How can these things be?  They can be because, as Gabriel says, with this God, nothing is impossible, and please, dear people of God, heed the specificity of these words.  The impossibility that is to be overcome is not some abstraction problem from an intro to philosophy class.  Rather, it is the impossibility of our pride and despair, that impossibility of our mistrust of God, the impossibility of our fears of those who look and behave differently, these are the impossibilities that must be overcome. And for all these, there is an answer, an answer that will take on flesh and blood, and be born amongst scandal to two, devote Jewish folks who just might be in a bit over their heads.  That answer will cry in the night, will play at his mother’s lap, will get bruised knees and skinned elbows, and will make his parents swell with joy and pride, as parents tend to do.   Yes, this answer, this one whose coming we anticipate, he will grow, and his very being will shimmer with a sublime love that will heal lepers, a love that will name outcasts as beloved children of God, a love that will peer deep into human darkness and tell us, even in that place of decay, we are loved.  And, yes, there will be consequences for answering the question as he will, impossibility is a formidable foe, after all.  He will suffer greatly, and even conquer the impossibility of death to save us poor sinners who tremble at the grave, but fear not, for in due time, even the fearsome roar of that last impossibility will be hushed into languid song as he himself is raised from the dead.
“Nothing will be impossible for God,” says Gabriel.  Not the impossibility of a virgin giving birth, nor the impossibility of a young woman on food stamps discovering that she is utterly loved by God.  Nor the impossibility of God reclaiming and restoring a world that has gone mad with greed, despair and suspicion.   No, for all of these impossibilities are about to be met by a God consumed with love.  And it is to this God that Mary gives witness, it is in this God that Mary will find her value and worth, and it will be this God that she will bear to the world.  And in that, in birthing God’s beloved Son, in trusting in God’s goodness, no matter the scandal it may cause, that we can see in Mary an example to be followed.    Yes, the God that will do wondrous things to and through Mary, that God has promised good to you, as the old hymn goes.  And this promised goodness will light your way even through the darkest night of doubt, fear or self-loathing.  For you, too, have found favor with this God, even and perhaps especially if you were not exactly seeking it out.   For the same God that Mary bears is the God that has come to make you his own, so that you, too, may bear him to the world by serving all of God’s beloved people.   Let it be according to Christ’s good will.  In Jesus’ name, amen.