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Sermon: Happy Fools. January 29, 2023

Here’s the sermon I preached at Grace on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. Check out the video of the livestream and the bulletin, too. The photo was taken by me at Soldier Field during U2’s The Joshua Tree Tour 2017 (June 4, 2017).

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Reading Surrender, the recent memoir by U2 frontman Bono, I find myself transported back to my youth. Slinging copies of the Post-Crescent onto front porches on my afternoon paper route, the music most likely to be pumping from my Sony Walkman was U2, the spiritual-if-not-quite-religious arena rockers from Dublin. I love so many of their songs. For my funeral, which will hopefully not be soon, I’m going to leave instructions for Pastor Costello to arrange “Where the Streets Have No Names” for organ and choir, as it’s my favorite song of all time and practically a hymn already. By the way, don’t tell Michael. I want him to be surprised! But if I had to pick one of their tracks as my theme song, hands down it would be, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Now, this may be applicable in any number of existential ways, but the truth is more mundane. Soundtracking my life, it would play on a Tuesday morning as I search, again, for my car keys. Or on a Thursday evening as I look for something in the fridge – something that’s always there, by the way. When I can’t find something in the fridge, Erika calls from the next room, “Move things around.” Works every time, by the way. The song might also play on a Saturday night as I look for two ideas to rub together until a sermon emerges.
  2. What are you looking for when you’re not looking for your keys or the ketchup? I’d be willing to wager that most of you spend much of your time looking for makarios. Makarios appears ten times in our gospel reading today. It means blessed, the same word “beatitude” from which this text gets its common name. An equally good translation of makarios is happy. Isn’t that what you’re looking for, in one way or another? Blessing? Happiness? Some of us are single-mindedly focused on chasing the next hit of happiness, from power or substance or acquisition, and the world is only too happy to help us. I can’t search for something on Amazon without ads for it showing up in my Facebook feed every day for a week. Buy me! Buy me and you’ll finally be happy! And some of us wander through our days more absently minded, not necessarily chasing anything, just putting one foot in front of the other but getting nowhere meaningful. Or perhaps we’re some of both, all the time. Some of us might even try religion from time to time, by which I mean our attempts to transcend the worldly. But back to Bono, who writes: “It’s a pumped-up person who believes they can live a life free from worldly concerns.” That, he says, is a religion that degrades and punishes, an obstacle, or what Paul might call a stumbling block, in your path that isn’t honest to God’s ways.
  3. So where, Jesus, are we to find blessing, happiness, makarios? Well, we don’t. It finds us. And it comes to us in those places and postures that the world calls lowest and least. It comes to us in our emptiness but doesn’t leave us empty. To the poor in spirit, the mournful and the meek, it comes. To those who look upon this world with honest eyes, yearning for righteousness, it comes. To those who show pure-hearted mercy as they work for peace, it comes. To those the world turns against, it comes. Happiness and blessing come to us because Jesus, the bearer of the Kingdom of heaven comes to us. Blessing is not at the end of a quest; neither is it found by avoiding the pain and suffering in and around us. To be blessed, the people of Jesus’ day would have known, is to be in the presence of God. And blessing comes to us with Jesus, who comes to us where we are. In our need for God. In our grief at a new diagnosis, our mourning the death of a beloved. Into this sorrowing world, Jesus arrives as the very presence of God – a God who is not distant but is up close and personal. Incarnate in our midst.
  4. This, we know, is the God we need. Until God’s project of redemption is brought to its fullness in Christ, we live in a world too short of mercy and peace, too long on mourning. The unexplainable and wholly unnecessary killing of Tyre Nichols, beaten to death by Memphis police officers, reminds us of how sin and evil are at work in our world. I am unaware of any reason why this young man who told the police he was just trying to go home should not have been allowed to go home. As one expert on policing summed it up, Nichols “was not treated as a human being.” He found no mercy, was offered no peace. And so, we mourn. We hunger for righteousness, for a world in which such things no longer happen.
  5. Into all of this, Jesus comes. As one Lutheran pastor writes, “Getting close to human need is not usually considered wise by human standards.” But this, finally, is what Christ will do at the end of his journey, planting his cross as the presence of God in the midst of sin, suffering, and death. This One who begins his teaching ministry by telling us that blessing and happiness come with the presence of God is also the One who makes God present for the forsaken, forgotten, and forlorn. This is foolishness to those who know better, a stumbling block to those caught up in running their own race. But to those who see this world’s deep need, the cross of Christ is the very power of God. With Paul, we proclaim Christ crucified, through whom the forgiveness of sins is granted and the resurrection from the dead is guaranteed. Through foolishness, the kingdom of heaven has come near. The kingdom, friends, is yours.
  6. There is so much for which we still wait. But note the tenses of Jesus’ Beatitudes. Of the nine short saying that make up the body of this teaching, the seven speak of gifts to be received in the future. We will be comforted and filled; we will inherit the earth; we will receive mercy as children of God who will see God. Certainly, there are moments of comfort and fullness and mercy in the meantime, but we are still waiting, trusting in the promise. But for the bookend Beatitudes, we need not wait. In both, the blessing is the same. Blessed are the poor in spirit and blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Not someday. Not when you die. Not when Jesus returns. Now. Yours is the kingdom of heaven. Just last week, as Jesus was on his way to call his first disciples, we heard him announce, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” While heaven is shorthand for where we go when this life is over, it is also simply wherever Jesus is. And Jesus is here. In Word and water, bread and wine. As you, who make up his Body in the world. Jesus gives himself to you again today, your crucified and risen Savior who meets you in your need with the blessed happiness the world cannot give.
  7. What are you looking for? Happiness? The blessed life? It is already here, in your need for God and your broken-hearted mourning. Be meek, shunning power and control and seeking righteousness instead. Live with the pure heart of Christ. Show mercy. Work for peace. Care not what this world thinks or says about you. It is, perhaps, a foolish way to go about living, but nothing else will satisfy in the end. Nothing else will last. Maybe it’s time to move some things around, to look at and live life in a new way. For while you were still looking, the One you were looking for came and found you. Jesus gives you the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you; this kingdom is yours. Amen

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Sermon: If You See Something, Say Something. January 15 2023

Here’s my sermon for January 15, the Second Sunday after Epiphany. Just before the 8:30 service was to begin, Grace, along with the rest of the neighborhood, lost power. We worshipped anyway, holding phones to our bulletins to sing “O God of Light,” of all things. Power was restored during the readings, at which point we were able to restart the livestream. You can check out the bulletin, too. The image is Agnus Dei by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1635-40, public domain).

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Over the past few days, I’ve had the opportunity to do one of my favorite things, which is to watch my kids do some of their favorite things. Our kids have spent the last few days playing sports and making music, not always perfectly but certainly with joy. I’ve attended a band concert, a basketball game, and a handful of hockey games. One of the things I love most about watching these moments is that they keep me in the moment. There’s no big screen offering instant replay, no multiple camera angles. If you see it or hear it – this slap shot, that high note – you see it or hear it. And if you don’t, you’ve missed it. The moment is unrepeatable. Sure, someone somewhere may have captured some footage on an iPad, but it’s not quite the same as seeing it live. By the same token, you can always watch or listen to someone else do the same thing another time, but it’s not the same. Watching basketball is fun, but it’s not the same thing as watching people I love play basketball. And while I love listening to my kid and his peers play their way through “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” I don’t really have a need to track down recordings of other elementary school band concerts. All of which is to say, there are moments in life that you don’t want to miss. Seeing isn’t just believing; seeing is being part of the moment; seeing catches you up into community. In the pews or the bleachers, it’s a time to put down the phone and focus you attention on the people in front of you and what they’re about to do. It just may be so exciting you invite someone else to join you, too.
  2. Our reading from John today is a festival of sight, of making sure the moment isn’t missed, either for oneself or for others one holds dear. John the Baptist had recently seen the most remarkable thing down at the Jordan. Jesus, having gone under the waters, parts them as he breaks back through to sunlight. At that moment, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus and remains there. This was all John needed to see to know that Jesus was God’s Son, the One who was before even though he came after
  3. The next time the Baptist saw Jesus, he points him out for all to see. “Here,” John announces. Here he comes! That’s him! John does not, however, announce him as the Son of God, but as the Lamb. Indeed, as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus, the Lamb of God? Those with ears to hear would have been instantly awash in allusion. They are drawn back to the far shore of other waters once parted, when their ancestors had been redeemed from bondage in Egypt – saved when the angel had seen the blood of the Passover Lamb upon their doorposts and lintels. The lamb’s blood had saved them once before, and the Passover still marks the center of their faith, for their had they been moved from death to life. And perhaps their minds wander back further, to a young boy named Isaac and his sorrowing father, Abraham, on their way to make sacrifice. Where, the boy wondered, is the lamb we shall offer? To which Abraham answered, hoping against hope that it would be true: God will provide the lamb for the offering. Or maybe their thoughts travel to the time of exile, when God through the prophet Isaiah promised the coming of the Servant who would suffer for his people, a lamb led to the slaughter for the sake of sheep gone astray. And under it all was the constant beat of the sacrificial system, punctuated on the Day of Atonement, as year after year blood was shed for the sake of the people. The lamb who saves from slavery and death; the lamb provided by God as an offering to God; the Servant come to suffer for the sake of his sheep; the sacrifice not for one people at one time, but who takes away the sin of all people in all times? This, this One, this Lamb is worth seeing. You don’t want to miss out!
  4. That’s certainly how Andrew felt, this one-time disciple of John who turns now to follow Jesus. His curiosity piqued, Jesus now invites him to “Come and see.” Having seen, he goes and tells. He can see that this Son, this Lamb of God, is the Messiah, the One come now to save his people. Not only does he not want to miss this, he is moved to make sure that those close to him don’t, either. He goes and finds his brother, Simon. Simon, this headstrong, waffling fisherman who is now named Peter, the rock upon whom the Church shall be built, against which the gates of hell itself shall not prevail. As for Andrew? Poor Andrew, but for a few future cameos, this is about it for him. Among Jesus’ top three disciples, Andrew ranks fourth. And yet without him, Simon never meets Jesus. Without Andrew’s seeing and believing, Andrew’s going and telling, Andrew’s “We’ve found the Messiah and you do not want to miss this,” it would have all been different. Maybe not in the grand scheme of things. God, after all, will always find a way. But it sure would have been different for Simon, who would have kept on plying Galilee’s waters for fish, not people.
  5. Each time this text appears in the lectionary, I wonder about the Andrews of the world, those who may not occupy center stage in the story but without whom we would not know Jesus at all or at least not so well. I wonder who has been an Andrew for you. Who, knowing they’d found the Lamb of God, made sure you found him, too? Perhaps your parents, bringing you to the waters of the baptismal flood. Or a grandparent who read Bible stories to you as you bounced on the knee. Or a classmate or colleague who pointed to Christ and helped you to see him, to know him. In addition to my parents, Andrew always reminds of my big brother, Chris, who helped keep me keep faith in Christ during my teenage years. And now I’m the senior pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, while he’s faded into obscurity as a successful biostatistician. Okay, he’s no more obscure than me, but whatever I am is thanks in no small part to him. Who has been an Andrew to you? And for whom are you called to be an Andrew? To announce Christ and point to him, and then let Christ do his thing?
  6. Today should have been the 94th birthday of another Andrew who helped, who still helps, many to open their eyes and behold the Lamb. This Andrew is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who spent his lift, whose life was spent, pointing people to Jesus and his reign that they – and we – would open our lives to the Lamb. Dr. King believed, knew, that this Jesus coming to us was the One in whom everything changes, for the world and for us: “By opening our lives to God in Christ,” King preached, “we become new creatures. This experience, which Jesus spoke of as new birth, is essential if we are to be transformed nonconformists . . . Only though an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.” Dr. King continues to point us to Christ, even as he has attained the rest in Christ for which we still wait. It is Christ the Lamb who saves us from sin, both the sin within us that would pull us toward death and the sin of others from which we need liberation in this life.
  7. John pointed to Jesus, as did Andrew and Martin. Behold, they call out, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Did you hear that? Do you see him? He has come to take away our sin. He builds his church on a strong foundation to carry out this ministry for your sake. So, on the off chance you weren’t paying attention earlier, you sinners; or if you’ve managed to commit more since in the last 36 minutes; or in case you don’t think it applies to you, because your sin is so great; or because you’re a bit smug and you’re not really sure you are a sinner; or because you’re not sure what you think about all this, let’s do it again: Look! Behold! Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. So, sinner, standing as a fellow sinner on the strong foundation of Peter, with Andrew and Martin and all the saints as witnesses, I say now to you: In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, was given to die for us and, for his sake, God forgives you all your sins. By the authority of Christ, I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. It’s gone! Behold the Lamb of God once slain for you, whose reign now knows neither border nor end. Look to him and live. What a thing to see! What a thing to say. What a thing to share. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Sermon: Let It Be So Now. January 8, 2023

This is the sermon I preached in celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord at Grace Lutheran Church (River Forest, IL). You can watch the service and view the bulletin. The image is Baptism of Christ (2005) by David Zalenka. It has long been a favorite, but until recently it was no available for use freely and without specific approval. The artist has made it available for use (with permission) for which I am grateful.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. The people, Matthew tells us, have been going out to the Jordan from Jerusalem and all Judea. By the dozens, hundreds, thousands, they have gone under the water, repenting of their sins and seeking a new direction for life. One after another they have gone under; one after another they have come back up. While the experience no doubt produced a mixture of effects and emotions for each individual, to onlookers it must have seemed incredibly monotonous. One after another, ad infinitum. And then, something different happens. John recognizes this cousin of his; the people see them speaking with one another, though most surely could not have heard their exchange. Then, just like the rest, under the water he goes. But when he comes up, everything is different. It’s unclear if they or only he sees the tear open between this world and the next. Perhaps only the newly baptized sees the Spirit descending like a dove. But everyone hears the voice, for the voice is addressed to everyone: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It must have caught them off guard, unawares. One can imagine them looking around, wondering who spoke the words. After all, as we well know, sometimes it can take a while to figure out who the Speaker is.
  2. Of course, there is no election to contest here, no votes to be whipped, no gavels to be pounded. The words attest to the identity of the Word, the Father electing the Son as his beloved, sealed by the presence and power of the Spirit. This Son is the Son, the beloved. This name “beloved” echoes the meaning of King David’s name, showing forth that this Jesus is the coming King, the One who will restore Israel. This is One, finally, in whom the heavenly Father can find pleasure and take delight. This One, unlike all the rest of the endless procession of penitents, is holy and righteous. So much so that one wonders why Jesus had to be baptized.
  3. This question was on John’s lips, and is often raised by people today when this passage comes up in study or conversation. Jesus wasn’t sinful; he had no need to repent. Why did Jesus need to be baptized? Jesus answers John: “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Okay, but what does that mean?
  4. Earlier this week, many of us were watching live when Damar Hamlin, a safety for the Buffalo Bills, suffered cardiac arrest in the first quarter of a Monday Night Football game. It was a situation without recent precedent, but one for which the league’s medical personnel had trained. An amazing array of medical resources was brought to bear, helping Hamlin survive and, as the week has gone on, to take steps on the long road to recovery. But there has been more to it than medicine, or so it seems. Accompanied by the hashtag #prayersfordamar, people have been praying fervently for this young man’s recovery. On Thursday, at the conclusion of a lengthy press conference, a reporter asked a final question, wondering if Hamlin’s medical team could feel the effect of all these prayers. Without hesitation, the answer came: Yes, absolutely.
  5. In Jesus’s baptism, the separation between heaven and earth, between us and God, begins to tear – a rending that will become complete as Jesus dies, and the Temple curtain is torn in two. The power, presence, and promises of God begin to flow into all this broken world. This is not to say that prayers will always be answered to our liking, or that if we have enough people praying, we can force God’s hand in one direction of another. Illness and mortality remain part of our world. It is simply to say that in this world where so many things have, can, and do go wrong, in the coming now of Christ the tide has turned to right, and the power of God is at work in amazing, and sometimes miraculous, ways. God in Christ is righting the ship, and in healing and hope we see signs of this greater promise.
  6. To win our salvation, God in Christ assumes the fullness of our humanity. Embodied, Jesus takes on our frailty and mortality, our suffering and our sorrow. And yes, even our sin. Did Jesus commit sin? No. He is the spotless Lamb, without blemish or defect. It is not his sin for which he repents in the Jordan; it is not his sin he carries to the cross. It is ours. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus the sinless One takes our sin into the river. He repents and emerges with life pointing in a new direction for all people. Jesus, who alone is righteous, fulfills for us God’s will and conveys to each of us the righteousness of God. In Christ, God is setting things right.
  7. John, objecting to Jesus’ desire to be baptized, says that things should be the other way around. He’s right, to a point. John needs to be baptized into Christ, and so do we. But only after Jesus has been baptized, first at the Jordan, and then in his death and resurrection, for it is into his dying and rising that we must be baptized. And so we have. In baptism, our sinful, mortal selves have gone under the waters of the flood, and we have emerged with the promise of life, abundant and eternal. It is not water alone that does this, of course. It’s what’s in the water: Jesus, the Word. Martin Luther writes in the Catechism that it is not water that does such great things, but “the word of God, which is with and alongside the water, which trusts this word of God in the water,” that grants new birth in the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that descends upon Christ at the Jordan descends upon us as we are baptized in the name of the Triune God. You, in Christ and by the Holy Spirit, are now named as God’s beloved child, too.
  8. Through his death and resurrection, which his baptism prefigures, Jesus will finally tear through all that separates us from God, earth from heaven, in a new creation in which we shall share the life of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ baptism, we see this life opening up for us, and we are invited into the mysteries of God’s triune life. We overhear God’s triune conversations as Father speaks to Son, bonded by Spirit. God’s words to the Servant echo from Isaiah’s exile to the Jordan’s banks to now: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” God’s Servant has been born into this world as the Christ, our Lord. As the people overheard this divine speech long ago, we see the divine speech incarnate and fulfilled in Jesus, the One who tears through that which keeps us from God, draws us into the Triune life of God, and pours forth the righteousness of God, the righteousness that is making all things right. In Christ who knew no sin, your sin has been left entombed under the flood. Baptized and believing, you live anew in Christ, righteous for the sake of the spotless Lamb. Christ did not need to endure baptism, nor did he need to climb Golgotha’s lonely hill. But he let such things be so for now, that we may be alive in Christ forever. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Sermon: Name, Image, and Likeness. January 1, 2023

This sermon, preached on New Year’s Day in celebration of the Name of Jesus, was originally titled “Born to Bring Redemption.” But once written, the title obviously needed to be changed. You can view the worship service and follow along in the bulletin. The image is Adoration of the ShepherdsGerard Van Honthorst (c. 1622, public domain). Happy New Year!

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. 2022, now in the review mirror, was the year that NIL took over the college sports world. First allowed in 2021, NIL is short for “name, image, and likeness,” and refers to college athletes now being allowed to profit from the rights to their own names, images, and likenesses. Until a few years ago, it was against NCAA rules for students to earn money in such ways; now, big time college athletes can earn in the ten thousands, hundred thousands, or – in a few cases – even millions of dollars per year. Even small-time college athletes can earn a few bucks here or there through branding and partnership deals. The big-money industry that is college athletics now financially benefits the young women and men who make it possible. Some may say a free education is benefit enough, and maybe they’re right. On the other hand, telling young people they can’t earn any money while participating in college sports is a bit ridiculous. Either way, NIL is here to stay, and the college sports landscape is shifting to accommodate the new reality. Clemson University football coach Dabo Swinney was recently asked about NIL; the coach, who wears his Christian faith on his sleeve, playfully smirked and said, “We built this program on NIL. We really did. It’s probably different from what you’re thinking, though. We built this program in God’s name, image, and likeness.” Now, some might think it’s inappropriate for an employee of a public institution so speak in such a way. Others might find it a bit heretical to suggest that a football program is like God. I mostly just think that if God were to be made visible through a football team, would it really be so . . . orange?
  2. Today is not only New Year’s Day. Today, the Eighth Day of Christmas, we celebrate the Name of Jesus. Other Christians refer to this day as the Festival of the Circumcision of Christ. Today is a day to reflect upon the name, image, and likeness that God assumes in this world in the Incarnation. We hear the end of Luke’s Christmas gospel, with one verse added: “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” While the makers of the lectionary perhaps included verses fifteen through twenty because one verse does not a gospel reading make, this single verse is packed with proclamation about who Jesus is and what he has come to do.
  3. Jesus, as you likely know, is the same name as Joshua, one of Moses’s twelve spies and the leader of the Israelite tribes after Moses’s death. It is Joshua who leads the people into the Promised Land after their enslaved suffering and wilderness wandering. Joshua’s name means, roughly, “Yahweh is salvation.” When the Son of God is born into this world, what name is he given? Jesus, Yahweh is salvation, the One who will lead all tribes, Israelite and gentile, out of our suffering; the One who will break the chains of our slavery to sin.
  4. Earlier in the gospel, the shepherds are sent by the angels to “see this thing that has taken place,” the birth in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. They go, not to find a mighty warrior or a garish king, but a little baby of low estate. In the wonder and mystery of the Word made flesh, our eyes our opened to see God, and God is the little One in the manger. This Jesus is, as Paul writes to the Colossians, the image of the invisible God. What is God’s image? What does God look like? Like this little One, born lowly and later laid low in the crucifixion. This is what God looks like, One willing to become weak in order to save and redeem us.
  5. On the eighth day, Jesus was brought to be circumcised. Why? Because he was a Jewish boy in every way, which means that he was fully human, born, as Paul writes to the Romans, “of a woman” and “under the law.” His humanity is of the exact same nature as yours and mine. Born under God’s covenantal law, he is put under the knife at this tender age, shedding blood for the first time, but not the last. His circumcision marks him as a child of the promise made long ago to Abraham and Sarah, and it foreshadows the greater sacrifice that will follow. In the fullness of time God takes on the fullness of our flesh, bloody and breakable, in order to redeem us. As St. Gregory of Nazianzus wrote during the trinitarian debates of the fourth century, “that which He has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.” This Cappadocian Father’s view won the day, for it is rooted in the biblical witness. Paul, again, this time to the Philippians: God in Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Jesus, alike to us, is able to save us because he is God, and because he is one of us. Joined to us, Jesus joins us to the life of the Triune God.
  6. Jesus, God Incarnate, bears the name, image, and likeness of God into this world, and he does so to save us. We were made in God’s image, too, but through willful sin have found this image marred, disfigured. In a blessed and happy exchange, Jesus assumes our nature and lot that we may receive his. We who were dead are reborn through baptismal waters; we are raised, redeemed, and righteous on account of Christ. We are renamed as God’s sons and daughters, heirs of a glorious and eternal inheritance. Named anew in baptism, we are renamed each week as we come to receive Christ’s true body and blood in the Eucharist. Rowan Williams, erstwhile Archbishop of Canterbury, writes, “hearing ourselves named and remade as the Body of Christ,” we “move to a new place within creation itself, naming it with gratitude and delight instead of fear and the lust for power.” And that, friends, seems as good a New Year’s resolution as any, if you’re still looking to make one. I know that my life would benefit from a little more gratitude, a little more delight; perhaps yours would, too.
  7. Today, as we greet the New Year, we welcome anew our Savior and Messiah, Jesus Christ. He is God who will save. He is the image of the invisible God. He bears the true likeness of humanity. On this Eighth Day of Christmas, we anticipate the great eighth day of Creation, when this world’s cycles of sin and sorrow will give way to a new dawn, in which God’s resolutions will resolve in the coming of a new Kingdom with Christ at its center. May we live this year with Christ at our center, bearing his name in faith and looking to him with hope. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Sermon: Are We to Wait? December 11, 2022

This is the sermon I preached at Grace Lutheran Church (River Forest, IL) on the Third Sunday of Advent. You can watch the service and view the bulletin. While you’re at it, check out the Grace Advent/Christmas Concert from yesterday afternoon. The image is St. John the Baptist Bearing Witness, Annibale Carracci, c. 1600 (public domain).

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Time moves strangely during Advent. For some, the hands on the clock slow to a snail’s pace. The presents begin to appear under the tree, but Christmas morning remains forever away. Will it ever get here? For children especially, perhaps, the days of Advent pass soooooo For others, time passes with surprising swiftness. Where will the time be found to shop for all those presents, never mind all the baking, cooking, and cleaning that needs to happen between now and Christmas morning? The season becomes a whirlwind of events and obligations, so many of them joyful but still, so many. How will we get it all done? Everything will come together in the end, or maybe it won’t. Either way, Christmas will come when it comes, regardless of how we feel about. Fast or slow, there’s fourteen days to go.

  2. Jumping ahead in the story from last Sunday, time seems to have played its tricks on John the Baptist. In the Judean wilderness, John spoke with apocalyptic urgency and fiery fervor. He prepares the way for the One who will come after him, and it certainly seems that John thinks this other One is coming, you know, soon. Eight chapters later, time has slowed to a standstill. Not only has the Kingdom not arrived in the way John expects, but now he finds himself whiling away hour after slow hour in a prison cell, his brutal death just around the corner. If anything, things seem to have gotten worse since his heyday at the Jordan. The oppressive Roman regime is far from being toppled, and Herod, that childish tyrant, is having his way with the people. Maybe, John thinks, he was mistaken. Not about his mission to prepare the way for Messiah, but about Jesus. Perhaps his cousin wasn’t the One after all. He sends his disciples to Jesus, who ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Just when things seemed to be speeding up, everything has slowed to a standstill. Will we have to wait any longer?

  3. Who among us does not know the challenge of waiting? Our self-imposed busyness, our hustling and bustling, may mask the struggle at times, but still we wait. Sometimes, the waiting is anticipatory. We wait for a phone call from a friend, our child to return home from college, the curtain to go up on a show we’ve longed to see. Other times, the hours are filled with anxiety. Will the phone ever ring? Will we get the promotion, or a good diagnosis, or have our love requited? Will our physical health continue to deteriorate? Our mental health ever improve? All these little waitings occur in the larger world in which we find ourselves, a world in which things are not as they should be. In which missiles fall from the sky, refugees wander in search of safety and dignity, and economies prop up the wealthy while those with little are left with less. We wait for the world to become what it should be, a place of justice and peace. How long must we wait, imprisoned in our own little cells of sin and suffering? Is there hope in our waiting? The preacher Mark Yurs poses the question: “Is Jesus the real thing? Is there anything to our religion? Has the church really gotten hold of something that matters, or is this business of Christmas and its Christ only a fanciful tale, charming, but ultimately worthless and powerless against forces that dampen hopes and deaden dreams?” Is Jesus the One, or are we to wait for another?

  4. Jesus, as he so often does, answers this question obliquely. Instead of saying yes or no, he asks John’s disciples to simply report on what they can see and hear with their own eyes and ears. Yes, the desert of sin and suffering stretches out as far as the eye can see, but new shoots of life are bursting through the arid ground. The blind see and the deaf hear; the lame walk and the lepers and cleansed; even the dead are being brought back to life. In fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies, Jesus is bringing forth the Kingdom of God, here and now. Not yet in eclipse of this world, but in the midst of it. Yes, John suffers. The world suffers. We But new life is blooming, even while we wait. Do you see it? The waters run through dry sand, and life and hope bloom by God’s grace. In North Lawndale, where many of you partner with the people of Harmony, not only is food given freely to the hungry, but community is created as hope puts down its roots. On Chicago’s West Side, the Leaders Network’s dream of a community credit union, to which Grace has committed benevolence funds, is sending forth shoots of new growth that will break cycles of poverty and advance the cause of equity. Our refugee ministry continues to bear witness to God’s promise of life, with a third family, from Rwanda, transplanted now to new soil in Chicago. And later today, songs of hope will fill this space as the musicians of Grace put on not simply a concert; they will sing Mary’s song, pointing to the day when God will overturn this world’s order and replace it with God’s reign of love. We are not to that new world yet. We still wait. But the songs of that world echo into our own, amplified by our singing and by our serving.

  5. With John, we wait, knowing this world is not yet as it should be. But we need not wonder, not about this Jesus. Look around; listen! The One who was born, the One who will return in glory, is also the One who is here today, giving himself to us in bread and wine, strengthening us for our journey along the Holy Way. God will not tarry in coming to us, nor will God let us get lost along the way. Even in our foolishness, the prophet proclaims, we will not fall out or get left behind. In that promise, we can take to heart the words of James: “Be patient.” Like farmers waiting for the crop, we cannot rush things. But neither do we do nothing. While we wait for God to work, we do God’s work. We show up on our Lord’s behalf, bearing Christ anew into this world as God prepares us for Christ’s return. As Matt Skinner of Luther Seminary writes, “Christianity is, at root, an Advent religion. That is, our theology situates us in a cleft where promise and fulfillment don’t quite meet.” “And yet,” he continues, “we stick to a different narrative, a hopeful narrative. We don’t believe God leaves the world to its own pernicious and violent devices. We never stop expecting new life to break onto the scene. We have work to do, but we simultaneously recognize it as God’s work done on God’s terms. We try to live in a peculiar combination of patience and urgency.”

  6. So, dear people of God, be patient. Jesus is the One for whom we have waited. He will come when he comes. And, dear people of God, get busy. New life is blooming in the desert. New life is blooming in you. Christ will strengthen your weak hands and steady your feeble knees. As Jesus comes to you again this day, go and prepare his way into the wider world, that all would come to know the hope we share. Time moves strangely this time of year, but then again so does Jesus. How strange and mysterious that he would come as helpless child; how strange and wonderful that he will come as the king of glory; how strange and hopeful that he waits within us and works through us even now. Come, Lord Jesus. Go, prepare his way. What are you waiting for? Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.