Saturday, December 31, 2011

My first Wedding Sermon

Carol and John, I have to be honest with you, I know I told you that you were my first wedding but actually there was a wedding before yours.  I’ve walked another couple through their vows. But you are my first wedding as a pastor. But here’s what happened. Friends of ours were getting married and they had hired a district justice. They had chosen an unusual place to be married- in a green house. The flowers were amazing but we had to create the aisle by moving the Burpee seed displays. The district justice was supposed to come but he never appeared. A call to his house revealed he was on vacation. Now before I became a pastor, I was a lawyer so I asked them where the marriage license was. They told me that they had met with him and he had signed it and told them he’d put it in the mail on Friday so it would already be on the way. What that meant was they were already legally married. So anyone could walk them through the rest. So someone jumped on a moped and went to the groom’s house and printed off the vows, and there next to the Burpee seeds I helped them say their vows.  So far today we’ve avoided that kind of chaos.

And I want to congratulate you for your wisdom in avoiding two other things that can potentially send any well planned wedding into chaos- using very small children or dogs in the wedding party. When my husband and I got married, we had his three year old niece and five year old nephew as our flower girl and ring bearer. We practiced everything with them, but in truth we had so little faith they would make it, we had fake rings sewed on the ring pillow, and we had my maid of honor walk in behind them so she could alternatively nudge, pull or walk alongside them to get them from point A to point B. Sure enough, part way through the flower girl pulled off her garland and threw the basket on the floor and announced she was DONE! She was NOT going on. And my best friend Janet faithfully picked everything up, put it together and schussed them down the aisle to the end. It was crazy but in pictures they were adorable.

I know you have a dog you love and we talked about a dog in the wedding, but If you look on the internet I am sure there are wedding blooper videos of what happens when someone decides to use Fluffy as a ring bearer, only to have the dog stop and scratch or lick, or try to eat the pillow, or run off leash and off course. You have wisely avoided this.

You also have the benefit of avoiding the inexperience of youth. I hope I am not offending anyone when I say that with the exception of your matron of honor, Althea, none of us can do bbetter than to claim we are “young at heart.” And you know what that means when we put it that way. When we’re young, our inexperience leads us places we later see differently. In one of my favorite movies, “Keeping the Faith,” the character who plays Ben Stiller’s mom is showing her wedding photos to someone who’s admiring how beautiful and hopeful they looked. His mom ecxclaims, “Oh my God- we were such idiots! It took us 10 years to figure it out! We were so young.” You are older and wiser. And you have wisely chosen each other.

So what wisdom can I offer to you this day? Long after the finish on your rings is no longer perfect, when the little scratches and nicks start to appear, the pattern of the jewelry you have chosen to exchange will not be the most important thing. The pattern of how you live out your relationship will be what matters most. Wear your rings with pride and joy, but know that wearing the loyalty and faithfulness we hear of in Proverbs and loving as Jesus teaches is how your marriage will succeed. In the Book of Proverbs we hear we should wear loyalty and faithfulness around our necks. Luckily it’s not like having them tattooed there, but it conjures up the image of wearing something around our necks as a way of being led. Not unlike our pets, perhaps it’s almost like a leash. Let’s not get too literal, but we know that a leash is how we shape our pet’s behavior. It may not sit well with us to think we need to be led, but we need to learn patterns of behavior so we can learn what to do in expected and unexpected situations. In marriage there will expected and unexpected things. And we’ll need to learn how to respond to what love will demand of us. Love will demand a lot. And there will be times we don’t wanna do or say or listen to what love will ask of us. So the question is HOW will we be able to live this out?

The Book of Proverbs is a collection of sayings intended as a guide for living. I’ve put together a few more updated words from myself and others as suggestions for your journey together:

Blessed are you when you have little stumbles, it might save you from a big fall. (Hallmark)
Whether you stumble or fall, in love be the one to pick the other up and help them on the way.

All you really need is love, but a little chocolate every once in a while never hurt. (Lucy, in “Peanuts”)
Be the one to offer a sweet or unexpected surprise.

As important as it is to know the right thing to say at the right time, it is even more important to leave unsaid the wrong thing at a tempting moment. (Ben Franklin)
You don’t always have to have the last word. And if you think you REALLY DO, consider whether that word should be “Sorry.”

God will use all kinds of circumstances to communicate in your relationship- humor, tears, a hug or a look. Knowing which of any of this to choose will require tending another relationship – the one you have with God. God has given you this love- in this relationship, and in your family and friends. And God has given an even greater love in his Son, Jesus Christ who gave us and shows us grace and mercy and forgiveness. Which by the way are all things we will need to give and receive in marriage. God has also given you faith and the tools to deepen faith. God will come to you in prayer, in Scripture and in a community of faith- all ways you can remember what you need and be met by those who can tell you- “I’ve been there too and here’s what worked for me.“ As you prepare to continue this new part of your journey together, know that whether it requires nudging, or pulling or walking alongside of you, everyone here is with you and more importantly, God is with you each step of the way. May each day be blessed. AMEN

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Unsettling the World

We all have our favorite ways to celebrate what this night is about. Favorite hymns, lighting candles, manger scenes. Some churches like to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord in the historically accurate way, with live outdoor nativity scenes giving us some idea of what that First Night was like. Meant to connect us to an event that happened long ago, But the people and animals have had the benefit of being cleaned up, just showing up for the gig. Not having labored to journey there on foot over weeks, or as a woman in her last weeks of pregnancy trudging along when all she really wants to do is put her feet up and relax. When Catherine was about 4 months old we got a phone call from the local Methodist church.  They put on a drive-by living Nativity each year, but that year they were short on babies and they had heard that the Lutherans had 15 babies that year, and would we let them use our daughter for their production? They shared with me a schedule of available nights and times, and I selected a mutually convenient date for her two hour appearance there. But that day there was an ice storm.  And being a good mother I assumed it would be expected that no baby should be out in that so we didn’t go. Well, I got an irate phone call the next day. The Nativity HAD gone on, being accurate and all. They had to use a baby doll for Jesus since I had not brought our daughter to play God’s Son. I had somehow ruined the “authentic” scene they were creating to the glory of God. Our enactments of the birth of Christ are places painstakingly planned, with expectations, and well publicized so we know when to come, making sure the people we want to be there have been told. Everything was planned and I unsettled it.  It was all a little ironic.
The arrival of our Lord was so different. Born in a nowhere place, to an unknown girl, in circumstances that seemed frankly scandalous. Perhaps that’s why there was a birth on the road in the first place. Mary didn’t actually need to be counted in the census. She could’ve stayed with family. Yet it seems it was safer for her and her child to NOT be seen in Nazareth, even though this was an unsettling journey. And whether he was born in a barn, or a stable or a cave- none of those are the sanitized places we depict. They don’t provide the dignity we wish for. And it’s shocking that this birth, of little consequence in the world’s eyes, was seemingly randomly heralded to of all people, migrant workers in a field at night, against the sensibilities of the community. To top it all off, the One who will be the Almighty Messiah still has to “grow up.” I don’t really believe that Jesus was the perfect baby and every night was a silent night. He was nursed, bathed and changed by a first time parent who probably wasn’t all pulled together and serene. Living in a family just getting by in a world that was living in peace, but peace that came with a cost of submission. A fearful peace.  Being born into this world would hardly be the way we wish it had been or would be today.
 We want perfect, powerful and majestic but such interpretations of this night are miles away from reality. Why do we domesticate the humility, simplicity and servanthood of Christ’s Incarnation?   I think it’s because we don’t want to confront our place in a world of pain, waste, blood, and tears. We of the ordered liturgy hope to avoid the chaotic. Don’t show us a world where later Jesus will be on a “Wanted” poster.  It’s unsettling. We want it all ordered, but in truth, our humanity is unsettled, not domesticated. Our crèche and this space look pretty different from our own world.  And even though the angels say,” Don’t be afraid” often we are. The birth of Christ began God’s unsettling of this world.
 Our celebration is a chance to step away from our work, our worries and our world into this space of our inner hopes and dreams. Again this night, we gather here in a special place that we’ve planned and prepared for so that everything is “just so.” But as we pull in close to sing and hold onto the light and get teary eyed about a silent night where all is calm and bright and comfortable, we should remember God didn’t come to save us from this.
The good news is that it’s our real world that God enters. Living and breathing and moving with us as we long for a peace and justice that we cannot see, and for an abundance and comfort we wish we really knew. God comes into THIS WORLD knowing that beyond all of our trappings, we can’t clean it up and we really shouldn’t be favored. Yet unto US a child is born.  God in a tiny vulnerable baby embraced who we really are. What a mystery it remains that Divine God stooped to become one of us, for no earthly reason, but only out of God’s love. To show that God chooses to redeem and save us.  This is the story we can really connect to.
As we proclaim this wondrous event tonite, may we be unsettled from all of our efforts to manage our manger.
Remembering that God’s appearance came first as good news to the un-pulled together. So if you feel like you made it here tonite solely by the grace of God, hear this amazing good news! If you feel it’s an overwhelming struggle to hold it all together, know God’s power and mercy are all we need. And what we receive in Christ. The reason we can know silent nights or joy or peace or hope. This is the good news of Christ!
 And it’s not just for some of us. The heavenly choir and response of the shepherds show this is such good news, it goes way beyond our carefully constructed lists. It’s good news to proclaim with abandon. Tell it far and wide, Come and See! Telling those who GOD favors and wants to hear. This is how we praise God’s glory and power and mercy over all the earth, a goodness that really is as wonderful as the gospel tells. Let’s unsettle the world with this glorious news! And authentically celebrate the coming of Christ by living as those who believe He is indeed the source of great joy for our world, and the One who makes real peace possible- for you, for me, forever.  AMEN

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Declaration of Possibility

Sometimes we fall into patterns of speaking for God. We’re sure we know what God wants and what God needs, what God will and won’t do. This affects who we hear popular Scripture verses- we’ve heard it before-we know. Mary’s words are well known. But today let’s slow down and let God speak anew, and hear them in the midst of the bigger story. In Samuel, we hear people are sure God needs a special house, the best that money can buy, no expense to be spared to make the place where God meets us perfect. This is the top priority. We need to make this happen for God to be here in the right way. But what do we hear from God?


In a different way this happened for Zechariah, a priest who was sure he knew what God was about. His story happens just before Mary’s. He’s in the temple, in the holy of holies, a place that MAYBE in their lifetime a priest would get one shot to being the one who enters there. Each year they drew lots for who could enter. This year, it was Zechariah. But If it’d been by popular vote, it wouldn’t have been him. Because he and Elizabeth never had any children. Years passed, prayers seemed unanswered. What was wrong with them, people asked? They must be out of favor with God. So I wonder if it felt like odd for him-go in and offer the usual worship in the usual way at the usual time with the usual trappings. He knows how this goes, what’s expected. It’s supposed to be most sacred space, but when you look around, it’s empty-just fading smoke of the incense and silence. No visible new possibilities. And maybe you’re not sure if God REALLY IS here. But then the angel Gabriel shows up. Now when you’re in THE place where you say God dwells, it shouldn’t surprise you that God’s messenger appears. But when you’ve been going through the motions all these years, maybe that’s asking a lot. When Gabriel reveals that FINALLY Elizabeth is going to have a child, chosen to receive God’s grace, Zechariah asks a question. HOW CAN I BE SURE THAT WHAT YOU’RE TELLING ME IS REAL? How will I know? After a lifetime of dedicated worship he has a crisis of faith. “If I can’t comprehend it, it must not be true.” Zechariah offers a proclamation of impossibility.

When we wrestle with our doubts, fears and questions, sometimes we too try to predetermine God’s plan and make God manageable. But as we try to make God be our size, it’s usually too small. And what we long for we never find. We’re sure we know and don’t expect God to throw us a curve ball. When what we want shows up in unexpected ways it can throw us. We wonder whether it’s real. How can we be sure? We need proof. Because we’ve got God figured out. And certain things are just NOT possible. Certain things seem too big to be changed. These are the places where we have a crisis of faith- where our proclamation of impossibility overshadows us. Whatever is troubling you and giving you no peace, whatever is overshadowing you- don’t be afraid! Hear again the story of Mary.

Gabriel, God's angel of revelation was sent by God to a tiny, insignificant place to a young woman engaged to be married to a man named Joseph. She was probably 12 or 13 years old and certainly too young to know much- her name was Mary. Coming to her, the angel said- Greetings, gracified girl! You’ve been chosen to receive God's grace. The Lord is with you!"

Mary was awfully confused, even troubled by his words and began to wonder what kind of greeting this was. What did it mean? The angel said- "Listen! You will become pregnant and will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus. His name will mean "God saves!"This one, he will be Great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor, David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end!" This will begin to happen NOW.

As hard as never expecting change is, THIS is radically life altering stuff. But Mary doesn’t ask, “How can I be sure that what you’re saying is true?” or how CAN this be? Mary said - How WILL this be?

She starts from a very different perspective.

And it’s not about whether it will happen but how. Her question isn’t about whether she thinks it’s possible.

She focuses on God’s power.

The angel replied, "the Holy Spirit will come and the power and glorious presence of God will overshadow you.”

God will overshadow you.

As I pondered these words, I’m struck by how small Mary is at this moment.

And she grasps her smallness and its impossibility.

But she also grasps what the priests in Samuel don’t get until God bellows and what Zechariah and older, wiser men dismiss.

She gets the equation. God is unfathomably large. And she proclaims this greatness.

Her very life was threatened by this news but she proclaimed God’s greatness in the face of confusion.

That’s more than accepting the words she hears, she’s trusting who God is and what God can and will do.

And she then hears of God’s rhema.

Rhema is a Greek word that can mean “word”, or “thing.” But it can also mean enactment. None of God’s rhema will be impossible.

This is a proclamation of possibility. God’s possibility.

None of God's words, will be impossible.

None of the things promised will be unable to happen

None of what God enacts into being will fail.

These words move fear into hope and re-establish the equation. God has chosen to act with favor. Not because of who Mary or any of us are. We’re favored because God says so. This is God’s word for us too. And our response shouldn’t be “how will we know?”

We called to live in faith and say-may what you will be so, Lord. Trusting in God’s power but also God’s reasons- that every action of the God who overshadows us is about grace. We too are “gracified.”

We receive this grace from a God who isn’t distant, but reaching out and acting toward us in love. Choosing to be more fully known in the center of our world and struggles, and reminding us God’s power overshadows all our fears and doubts. Giving us faith to believe it is so even when it looks different than we expect.

This is what Jesus brings into all of our places of longing and wonder.

Peace and life, hope and joy to us.

Not just words, but God’ possibility happening TO US.


Let it be according to your will O Lord!


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Light I can scarcely hold

I confess this is kind of an odd ramble as I am preparing for the overwhelming and breathtaking task of proclaiming the event and the meaning of the nativity of our Lord. I am in awe.

There are lots of things that take my breath away each day as I fathom the fact that I am an ordained pastor. I wonder at times how it can be that I, of all people, get to lead God's people in worship. That I, of all people, proclaim God's words of grace and mercy, forgiveness and love. That I, of all people, am given the task of reminding us of why God matters and how God matters, and how some things we think matter really aren't as important to God as we think.

But there are other places that take my breath away because I get to proclaim God as the light in the wilderness, in the darkness and in the storm. In visits and phone calls, in the hospital, at funerals, and in so many wilderness places. And each time I do so I remember my own places of wilderness and darkness and storm. And a light I can scarcely hold.

One of the experiences that I had way back in CPE was that people always wanted to show me their scars. I would come back and speak of this and be met with bewilderment from my team. You're not all seeing this? No- just you, they'd say somewhat gratefully. In the rest of my time as a chaplain and now in parish ministry this continues. Let me show you my scars, my wounds, my true self. I am never sure why I am trusted in this way, except that it feels beyond me. Like the way some people tell me my eyes are beautiful in these moments. Or that they are bright or piercing. And I know it is not me they see. It really is not me they see.

Last week I led a Blue Christmas service which was a new experience for our parish and though I have been to one before, a new experience for me. There was a time where people could come forward and light candles in the shadow of a less than perfect cross, or say or leave a paper with the name of a loved one. And then be anointed for healing, and wrapped in the embrace of a prayer shawl. Tears, hugs, words of grace and light.

I made an odd decision, for me. I decided after all of the thoughtful planning of the worship space and the worship itself, that I would not write a homily ahead of time. I would see who was there and speak by the Spirit from that moment. As people came, and more than I expected, I looked and saw those who had lost loved ones to cancer, perinatal loss, chronic conditions, and a family who recently began the scorched earth journey that accompanies a suicide. And I realized that hard as those experiences are, I had also been in each of those places. Places where we wonder what to pray for- comfort or release, places of no answers, only questions. Places where others' discomfort and questions leave us even more unsettled. Places where we want to pray but our words end up in piles on the floor. Places where we look for the light but in truth can't see it.
I remember part of what I said, but most of it was too ethereal an experience for me. I sat with all of my losses and all of the others. In the meditative spaces I felt in awe of the colossal task of naming losses and claiming the light of Christ.
But afterwards, in our fellowship time, I again heard about the beauty of the light of the space and about the piercing light in my eyes. It takes my breath away.

How it is that God uses me for this purpose is a mystery of faith that I feel too clumsy to hold.

Lately as one who wears a collar, the needs where I am are so profound. Too profound some days for me. But as I have dared to ask others for things they likely would not do or give, as I look people in the eyes, for the sake of the overburdened, the answers have been "yes." This too seems too precious a consequence for me to be handling and I can be afraid of it.

In the gospel of Luke all of the opening messages delivered from God begin with an angel saying- "Don't be afraid" or "fear not" depending upon your reading. Until the incarnation.
And then everywhere Jesus goes where people are unsettled, in the wildernesses and darkness, and storm- the words "fear not" can also be translated- "Stop fearing." And we can- because Jesus is here. This is the message I have the privilege of bearing. "You can stop fearing- Look! Jesus is here with us."

As we prepare to hear again a story that's thousands of years old and that we're sure we know by heart, maybe our heart needs to begin to grasp again just how profound this message is- in all those places that seem ready to overwhelm us. To see that the tears, the embraces, the anointing, the prayers, the words, the meal all bring this grace of  "God with us" in a way perhaps we feel too clumsy to receive and to share, but where we're given the light to hold anyway. By the grace of God , we get the light to hold and to share.
Christ, be our light.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Fireweed stories

I‘d like you to close your bulletins and look at the picture on the front cover. Years ago, driving through Canada, we saw acres of trees that had been ravaged by forest fire. A once proud and beautiful stand of evergreens, reduced to charred remains.  It was hard to imagine it before the fire, in the reality of the present. It seemed lost forever.  Then we came around the bend and interspersed in some of the skeletons of trees were flashes of pink. Exuberant spiky flowers defiantly poking their heads out from among the devastation. They’re called fireweed. It’s the first plant to show up in the aftermath of forest fires. Popping up in places where it seems nothing could grow. Here and there. When people see fireweed they can believe that the forest can still have life.  It turns out that what fireweed does to the soil where it grows is to restore it so other things can grow too. I was sharing this story at the meeting of the Reading Lutheran Parish Bible study, a funny thing happened. As I talked about it, others started smiling and began sharing stories of seeing the flowers of fireweed in Montana, in Alaska, and other places. Hope in hard places. Stories that shared joy. You’ve gotta love a God that gives us fireweed, and stories of hope and restoration. This is the theme of our lessons this day. God’s promise of restoration and new life and reasons to rejoice!   But these passages also speak to remembering that it hasn’t always been joyful. Our rejoicing is shaped by coming out of places of devastation, into God’s hope and restoration and promise. The power of God’s promises ,on any given day, can be easier or harder to see.
One way we hold onto believing in God’s promises is to share our stories of rejoicing, of seeing the fireweed, if you will. Since I’ve come here I’ve heard these stories in visiting our homebound. Of people being orphaned and sent away to a place for people like you. Of going off to serve your country in war and coming home with only half of one hand and another 70 plus years to live that way. Hard desolate places to recover from. These are a just couple stories of God’s people here, people who went on to lead lives that shared joy. People drawn here by the promise of restoration, new life, and a home. God’s promises gave them gladness instead of mourning, and they could wear that mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They connected with this message and each other. I’ve seen the pictures of these lives, heard these stories of rejoicing in God’s work!

But it’s different now, right? Here in the land of Act 47, where we hope to be delivered out of bankruptcy, but know we still come out to a mess. Rejoice?? We feel older and more tired, our health is failing, the money is gone, that life is a thing of the past. Rejoice? Like the people of Israel, it’s not how we hoped in this land. We’re not just poor in spirit, we’re staring at a physical reality that’s downright depressing some days. Rejoice? Easier said than done.

Maybe it’s hard to imagine restoration and re-building when it’s easier to see what looks more like wreckage than life. A world where we’re surrounded by a world of “instant” products that lead us to want a big event, but God gives us fireweed. Just little flashes. Real restoration takes time.

True, we know the good news of Jesus Christ- we know more than the people of Isaiah did. The one everyone was waiting for has come. He has a name: Jesus. But fuller restoration takes time. God’s revelation has begun in Jesus Christ, but it’s a story of ongoing transformation. Not always found in big obvious events. And yet perhaps we can remember the birth we’ll celebrate was like this too- In the middle of the darkness, to immigrants of little consequence in a backwater place where most did not see or know. John tells us, there’s one in our midst who we do not know. Perhaps like those in Bethlehem, our lack of knowledge comes because we’re not looking in the places where God’s signs show up.

Real restoration happens in lots of little ways. Our ‘fireweed stories” proclaim God’s promise and work in these ways in the meantime. Like God’s people of old, recalling God’s work seen encourages us to look for and expect to see this now. Not just in some ultimately glorious day, but in little flashes we should rejoice in now! God’s church didn’t grow in one big event. It was lots of little flashes of life. Sometimes bright but also sometimes faint. But ever present. And this is the how people here testified to each other, to you, about Christ. You helped each other believe there was life beyond the devastation of a World War world, and other dark places. Pastor Radcliffe was one who helped people see this possibility. He was an amazing servant of God. But he wasn’t the only one. The people of this place told the story too. And the world that emerged revolved not around them but around God at work in this place. As great as any of these people have been, the real message has never been about them. Their words and lives testified to the light and life of the One greater than all of us. This is the gospel for us.

We help each other see the life and light of Christ when we rejoice in stories of our history that help us believe that we can still see these unexpected flashes of God at work. So I come to testify to this light and life here. In the child who comes and wants to light the candles and prays she is tall enough, telling her friends to come and see brings rejoicing! The homebound person who stills calls others to brighten their day even when she can’t leave her apartment brings light! The person who delivered flowers to the hospital to a woman, but who never knew that that woman cried tears of joy because she remembered God hadn’t left her alone and forgotten, brought hope! The person who brings a man transitioning from prison to testify that there is life and a home here brings restoration! I could go on and on- everyday I see this. Glimpses of Christ. I see it and rejoice! It transforms me each day! Look around you, where have you seen God at work? Rejoice, be transformed and testify to the power of the One whose promise of light and life and restoration lives on. AMEN

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Good News From the Wilderness

It’s that time of year. Time for my favorite Christmas special -“Merry Christmas Charlie Brown.” Charlie Brown’s directing the school Christmas pageant, but no one’s listening. Everyone’s caught up in details, of their costumes, who got the bigger part, their naturally curly hair. They’re distracted. They don’t seem to get it’s really all about. Here in the neighborhood lots of houses remind me of the show’s depiction of Snoopy’s doghouse with the lights and the blowup Santas and the head bobbing lit reindeer. Mind you, I’m not being judgmental- I love the lights too. But as I listen to people in their decorating, I hear that we race to get out more and more decorations to cheer us up. And some people don’t put them all up at once so their neighbor can’t outdo them. It happens in church too- we need bigger and better stuff to get the party started, and it’s not enough, we need more. NOW. Charlie Brown’s high hopes leave him disillusioned and then we hear Linus’ simple speech on an empty stage that brings good news that another strand of Christmas lights can’t. He walks alone onto the empty stage, with his blanket, stands in a single spotlight, recounting the opening of the Gospel of Luke we’ve all come to know, in response to Charlie Brown’s question of “what’s the true meaning of Christmas?”

 Like Charlie Brown I wonder- I wonder if we lose sight that we’re not focusing on what really matters. Even with the Christmas story. Even the other Gospels give us what we’ve come to expect about the story of Jesus in the buildup to Christmas. The Gospel of Mark is well… a little under-whelming. It’s not the “more” we need to “get us in the holiday mood.”  You can’t decorate with the Gospel of Mark. There are no shepherds in the fields, or three kings from afar. No guiding star. No manger scene with cows and the donkey. No heavenly chorus in the skies. No little baby for us to cuddle.  We get Jesus in his 30’s, beginning his ministry with an opening line so sparse we can simply rattle it off as the necessary intro to get the story moving: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.” In the face of all of the buildup in commercial Christmas, and even the other gospels, when we hear the words in Mark it feels like someone suddenly pulled the plug on the lights and we’re left with a deflated blow up Santa in a heap on the ground. And at the end of commercial Christmas decoration season that’s all we’ll have when we pull the plug.  There has to be something more.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” feels a little sparse. Maybe we could simply leap over these words, and at least get to John the Baptist in his funky camel hair outfit, and those locusts. What IF in this first of the gospels shared with the early believers, we don’t hear all the flashy stuff because it could distract us from THE thing?

The opening words are a statement of faith about God’s good news that shaped the whole Gospel of Mark. To force us to see that what it’s all about is that Jesus’ arrival is how God’s good news happens and Jesus is God’s good news happening. Good news! Mark talks about good news a lot. So today we’re going to learn a little Greek- euangelion. It means “good news!” This is the beginning word and it’s where words like “evangelism” and the “evangelical” come from. Something to think about when we get worried that people see “evangelical” in our name as the Evangelical Lutheran Church and wonder if we’re THOSE kind of Christians. Buried under all the other meanings- the real way the gospel means it, evangelical Christians are: followers of Christ who bear the good news.

Marks’ gospel says, “This is how the good news of what happened in Jesus started, before we even knew what was happening.” Then the people listening heard words of the prophets they knew well- including Isaiah- Remember what Isaiah said?” He said there’d be good news! 23 times. It must really be true.

Quoting Isaiah means that NOW is when hopes and dreams are being fulfilled. We’re not just telling a story again and longing. God’s bringing something more powerful NOW. Even John the Baptist’s clothing says this. Ever wonder why he’s the guy wearing the camel skin and belt? Early listeners would have known- He’s dressed like Elijah, one of THE prophets!” A little Bible trivia. The point is-God’s plan for salvation really IS breaking forth NOW. And it’s good news!

The good news is Jesus Christ. The REAL story is always about “the good news of Jesus Christ.” And we should really call Him “Jesus the Christ.” Because Christ isn’t just a name, Christ isn’t Jesus’ last name, it’s a title. it’s how Jesus carries out the good news. “Christ” means “anointed by God, chosen for this purpose-to free, redeem and save us. Jesus is this, but it won’t look like we expect. Because God loves us enough that we don’t just get another baby born, or another prophet, or another great man. We get God with skin. This is the story of how Jesus= the good news. Jesus embodies the same love God showed when God led Israel out of exile and wilderness to freedom and life. But better! Jesus=salvation.

And we need to be prepared for this new reality.

John the baptizer says make the way straight and we hear about repentance. What he’s saying is “radically reorient your focus around the truth of Jesus the Christ.” We don’t get tips for surviving in the wilderness, but how to be brought out of it and into life. Open up, prepare, clear out the distractions and make room for this good news to enter.

Wherever your wilderness places are, the ones you’re trying to feed in some other way, maybe even another strand of lights-hear the good news! God is near. Jesus says, “turn back and believe this good news!” “Respond to this good news, it gives life! “ And don’t just hold onto it. Jesus will tell all who listen and follow-“this good news must be preached to all nations, lived and proclaimed to the whole world!” And it’s just beginning!

We’re not just hearing a story, we’re in it! Part of God’s ongoing good news, as those baptized not only by water but the Holy Spirit. Called to channel our energy around God’s vision.

Last Sunday was one example. For those far from home, far from familiar faces, life can feel like a wilderness existence. God and community seem distant. When God’s love breaks through, it’s good news! God’s good news and love will come to those who receive the 45 bags we prepared last Sunday. We shared good news with the homebound, stressed out college kids and people serving in real wildernesses in military deployment. Those gifts will proclaim Christ-life, love, hope and “salvation from the wilderness.”

When we do these things, we’re getting a little evangelical. We really are THOSE kind of Christians- who speak and live the good news of Jesus the Christ. But we’re not focusing on what WE do, but what God in Christ has done and is doing. God doesn’t need us to spruce it up. Instead God wants to re-shape our lives around the only and ultimate fact we need. That in “the beginning of the good news, of Jesus, the Christ, the anointed and our Savior- God acted.”

And God is still acting. This is the real meaning of it all. And it’s the real power that brings us back from our wilderness places and the message we share with others in theirs. We’re caught up in the middle of God’s unending and loving plan for salvation. It’s a power that goes on and on. That’s not just good news, it’s the best news. AMEN