Of course, Jesus (as he so often does) shattered my self-centered ambitions and expectations with…well, with the words he says in these verses to the crowd after calling Peter, Satan, for rebuking him. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Wait! If I want to be a follower of Jesus, a Christian, I have to *deny* myself…lose my life? Does Jesus mean I’ll have to be willing to die? I thought I just had to agree to a few fundamental bullet points, pray this prayer about confessing my sins, repenting, and accepting Jesus into my heart. I thought I was supposed to get baptized (all the way under, you know, the right way), come to church most Sundays, read my Bible, drink sweet tea instead of Bud Light, and stay out of trouble. I thought all I had to do to be a Christian, to get into heaven, was simple, but now – now, Jesus tells me I have to...
I invite you to think of the ways and places that you are tempted – tempted by Satan to ignore God’s love in your heart, God’s call on your life – and to recognize that God stands ready in those places of temptation to be with you. That when we are not strong enough to withstand temptation, God says, “I am here. Turn to me. Cry to me. Pray to me and I will give you the strength, the humility you need to face temptation.” I like to think of wilderness time as fallow time, from the time when our societies were agricultural and we would leave a field after it had been harvested for a year or so to recover and leave it fallow so that it could rest, it could receive the blessing of rain and of God’s nature. And I like to think of us as fields that sometimes need that fallow time, that wilderness time.
Sometimes we take ourselves too seriously, and that’s always to our detriment, failing to see the humorous parts of our own lives. And if we cannot laugh at ourselves from time to time, our lives become shallow and painful. Other times, however, we fail to see the tragic aspects of our lives. I knew a man who was a textbook workaholic. He spent ten hours a day, five days a week, on the job and often went back in on weekends. He rarely spent quality time with his wife or kids, almost never seeing his children’s ballet recitals or little league ball games. The man said to me following his divorce, “I never realized how much time I was absent from them until they decided to be permanently absent from me.” “Oh, would some Power the gift give us to see ourselves as others see us!”
Today Paul invites us to find Jesus again. Paul’s argument for the incarnation is that we too become human, we sympathize with the doubter, we contemplate with the questioner, we listen deeply to the needs of our unhoused brother and we cry and spend time with our single mother sister. We make dramatic and fun plans with the seven-year-old lemonade entrepreneur and help him understand economics and the way of Jesus. We take the time to learn another language and culture. We read the story of someone whose life has been different than our own. We get involved in a life that is not our own. We get lost in the life, the worries, the hopes and the dreams of others, knowing that it is there that together we will all find Jesus again.
What has power over you? Not all power is equal. Power can be negative. It can motivate poorly. It can come from places that are self-serving. We all know of people and things that have power over us, that aren’t beneficial. The power of physical illness, as in the case of this little boy. The power of an unkind word. The power of fear. The power of insecurity. We all know these powers. Power can be adverse. In our gospel text, we read about power that is adverse...
Audre Lorde reminds us that anger does not destroy; hate does. Anger provides energy so we may engage in analysis and protest, survival and justice. In today’s text Jonah marches through the city proclaiming repentance. Could it be that Jonah stands in a long prophetic tradition? That anger, when it is not rage but righteousness, can be a creative harness to declare a vision of what God intends for the world. That God’s call to the most unlikely of places is both for our transformation and the transformation of the world. God often uses those on the margins to speak truth to power. God has sent Jonah right into the midst of the empire to declare a word from the Lord. God has used prophets throughout history to speak God’s words of truth in the midst of
New Testament scholar Gail O’Day observes that there is a connection between the identity of Jesus and how you understand that and the meaning of your discipleship. She writes, “The decision to be a disciple is inseparable from the decision that one makes about Jesus’ identity.” Now, listen to that again. I want you to think about your own life. The decision to be a disciple is inseparable from the decision one makes about Jesus’s identity. In other words, your discipleship will depend in many ways on how you understand Jesus. Who you believe Jesus to be, how you see his role and his function, dramatically impacts your life...
Do we even remember there is a Spirit of God aside from our reciting our creeds? “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.” “I believe in the Holy Ghost…” Do we? Do we even remember the Spirit of God beyond the creed? And if so, I argue we often tend to forget that the Spirit of God is more than a line in our credal statements and more than a line in our end-of-worship benedictions. We tend to forget that the Spirit of God is, to put it bluntly…very disruptive. Incredibly disruptive!
It’s still Christmas, my friends, and we are in a season of singing songs. At this point, I wonder how many times you’ve heard Nat King Cole singing, “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” or maybe a little Brenda Lee, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Or perhaps, the one and only always and forever, Amy Grant…”Breath of Heaven, Hold Me Together, Be Forever near Me”…. Perhaps at this point, though, you’re kind of sick of those songs.
Two Sundays ago, after the Christmas Pageant, one of the children in the cast came up to me in the fellowship hall. “I have a question,” she said. “What’s your question?” “So, Jesus is alive?” I nodded. She thought about it for a moment. Clearly this hadn’t been her question. “Well,” she said, “if Jesus is alive, then how come we can’t see him?” I knelt over and I leaned in towards her and I whispered, like this was a secret too special to share. “Actually,” I said, “you *can* see him; in fact, you *did* see him just last Sunday.” “I did?” I nodded. “Yes, of course,” I said. “He was that bread on the table and the cup next to it. Jesus is alive and that’s the form – one of them, anyway – his body takes now.” She nodded. “Oh, cool,” she said. And then she ran off as quickly as a magi from the manger.
As we begin this third week of the Advent Season, we should all strive to be a little bit more like Mary and we should all work to find joy by carrying Jesus inside of us, regardless of what pain is going on in the world around us. If you hear me as saying nothing else, hear me as saying this: All of us are just a little bit like Mary, because all of us should have a joy that comes from carrying Jesus!
The best Christmas sermon I ever heard was from the preacher who stood up on Christmas Eve and simply said to his congregation. “Tonight, I have some breaking news.” Then he leaned into the microphone for good effect and said, “Good news. Tonight, the invasion has begun. We’re about to be liberated. God’s come for us.” He sat down and we sang Christmas carols like our lives depended upon it, which of course, they do. Sorry if you thought God was a projection of your fondest wishes and deepest desires, a technique for getting peace or justice or happiness or joy or whatever it is you think you just must have more than God. One comes to us; one whom we did not expect. Your world is about to be rocked. Don’t be surprised that you are surprised.
I remember being abruptly awakened at 2:00 a.m. on a bitterly cold night. It was my wife. She said, “Wake up! It’s time!” Her water had broken. Our first child was on the way. How I’d longed across the pregnancy to know who this child would be. What color hair? What gender? Would they look more like their mother, or more like me? And when they were old enough to cry after a bad dream, who would they cry out for first – mom or me? My imagination about this long-awaited child was about to become real life. But when that wakeup call came, I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t terror stricken. I was elated. I was filled with adrenaline and joyful anticipation, as though someone had plugged me into a power grid and thrown the throttle-sized breaker from OFF to ON, and this great coming fulfillment of love made me “all flame.”
This Sunday ends one liturgical year. We prepare to turn the page on a new church year. Cue up Advent, and let’s start the journey towards Christmas! I love Christmas Eve worship services. There’s nothing like a crowded sanctuary with lights turned off and candles lit while singing “Silent Night.” When we read the Christmas story in that setting, we are tempted to think the world stood still that first Christmas, and everyone showed up for the birth of Jesus. We can forget that God sent some angels to rouse a few shepherds to go worship the king. Later, some guys from the East show up in Jerusalem looking for the newborn king, and nobody knows anything about this birth. More people missed his presence that Christmas than those who showed up.
Until we finally reject our false projections about who God is and how God loves, that harsh master will always rule our lives, and we will spend every moment hustling for divine approval. Our moneybags might even be filled to overflowing in the process, but our hearts will be empty... ...Is the *Parable of the Talents* a window or a mirror? In the end, I suppose each of us gets to decide. But either way, wouldn’t it be lovely to look upon it and see the face of God gazing back at us in love and smiling?
The good news is that Jesus doesn’t expect us to have blind luck on our side. Jesus doesn’t want us to have a flask of oil, or 5 bobby pins, or an ironing board, and a pack of gum. We’re not called to be prepared. We’re called to be awake. There will be situations and people that we will never be able to predict or to prepare for. But as long as we are awake to the world around us, God can do something wonderful through us.
But not only do I think this moment presents an opportunity to refocus. I suspect that this moment in which the trappings of the church have disappeared like the emperor’s new clothes in the old fairy tale, I suspect this moment in which our extra wide prayer bands have been removed and our assumption of respectability discarded, I suspect this moment presents an opportunity for Christian people to more effectively reach out to those who have felt that the church makes no difference in their lives or in the world, an opportunity to have us be the kind of people Jesus would have us to be.
On All Saints Day, Dr. Carolyn Sharp tells us, it is our joy to sit at Jesus’s feet as he speaks of the kingdom of heaven, and in the Sermon on the Mount we find a foundational teaching in which Jesus shows his disciples the radical good news of blessing for all who struggle.
It happens. We just don’t talk about it much—about how grateful we are for the people-not-like-us who crossed over a line to help us and how they don’t seem like the enemy to us—because when we’re with our own crowd that can come across as… I don’t know… traitorous, unprincipled, weak. Are you soft in the head? You know what they’re like when you’re not around, right? Are you changing sides? Talk like that is what turns us all into exiles—from each other—and there’s a lot of it going on right now.
Sometimes people will complain to their pastors, “Don’t give us a bunch of big ideas and fancy theology in your sermons. Make them practical. Come down out of the clouds and give us something in a sermon we can hold onto and take home with us from church!” Well, in today’s Bible story that’s exactly what a man named Aaron did. He gave the people something they could hold onto and take home from church all right— an idol, a golden calf. What that story has to say to us today may challenge us, even upset us, but it is a word we need to hear.