Sunday, December 17, 2017

Living Word

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. John 1:1-18 (NRSV)

It’s epic, isn’t it. The minute that music starts and the prologue to the movie begins to scroll, we immediately know what this is the beginning to--even more so if you’ve been paying any attention to what new movies have been released this weekend. 

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” It is these words that begin the story of the mythical Star Wars universe. It is the epic story of the primal battle between good and evil. The Empire versus the Rebels. The Jedi versus the Sith. Characters like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader play out their personal struggles with temptation, fall, conflict, and redemption in the midst of the broader, universal battle. 

It’s the story of the Force. According to Obi-Wan Kenobi, “The Force is what gives a Jedi his (and her) power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” The “light side of the Force” serves as a metaphor for the invisible, powerful source of goodness, truth and life. According to the story, somehow an imbalance has happened in the universe with the intrusion of the dark side. The dark side, which is a metaphor for evil, falsehood, and death.

The Star Wars franchise uses these metaphors of light versus dark to frame the epic struggle to restore balance to the Force. Balance isn’t achieved by equalizing the dark side and the light side. Balance is gained by vanquishing--by eliminating--the dark side completely. Because evil has brought chaos. It is only the victory of the light that brings true order.

The first verse of our text this morning from John also meant to trigger our memory. Just like the beginning of each Star Wars movie, the opening words are intended to immediately connect us to another epic story. These opening words, the first verse of this poem we call the Prologue of John.

“In the beginning…” it opens. Where have we heard this before? Do these words trigger your memory? There’s no mistaking the connection to Genesis that John is making here. No mistaking the cosmic nature of the story that we are about to hear. 

“In the beginning was the Word…” Word. 

We’re going to study a little Greek here today. In the Greek, Word is written as Logos.

By divine speech, by divine Word, God created. Bringing light into darkness. Order out of chaos. God speaks and the world is created. God speaks and crowns this new creation with human beings--beings who are meant to be God’s personal agents of glory and goodness in the world. 

And, then, it all falls apart. Though human beings were meant to mediate God’s order in the world, evil plunged the universe into devastation and chaos. So God made a plan. A new thing.

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.” 

The Greek word that John uses here for the word “with” can be understood as being “face to face” with God, or having a close relationship with God. The same as the Creator, but distinct from the Creator. 

The Word. Present at the beginning of all time. With a creative role. In relationship with the Creator. Who now comes to earth in human form. The Word. Logos. Jesus.

At the heart of Jesus coming into the world. At the heart of Jesus’ presence in the world is a sign that God is about to do a new thing. In this fourth Gospel, Jesus is all about creation, new birth, and new life. The light in the darkness.

That new thing is explained in another Greek word, skenao. In verse 14, our translation reads, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Skenao. Another translation is “took up residence.” Or as The Message paraphrase reads, “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.”

This is the new thing that God is doing. God dwells with God’s people. The Gospel writer understands that God’s promise to be “with God’s people wherever they go” has now taken on a new meaning in Jesus. God dwells with us by taking on our own human form. By becoming who we are. God is not just close, but dwells beside us and in us. And is sharing everything God has because of God’s love for us.

There’s one more Greek word. Katalambano

In verse 5, this word is translated as “overcome.” “The light shined in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” Another translation is “to understand.” “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not understand it.” 

To be in the light in John’s gospel is to be in relationship with Jesus. Understanding. Believing. Abiding. Darkness represents a lack of relationship. Not understanding. Not believing. Apart.

Just as Jesus was in relationship with the Creator at the beginning of time, in coming to earth in human form, God seeks to be in relationship with us, just as God continuously sought to be in relationship with Israel. The presence of Jesus now in the world makes that fully possible. Through Jesus, we become children of God.

John the Baptist understood this. He knew that he was not the light, but that he was to point to the light. To point to Jesus--Jesus, who came into the world to scatter the darkness. To correct the imbalance. To restore goodness and truth and life. And to destroy evil and falsehood and death. The moment of glory would be the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. But none of this would be possible without first the glory of the incarnation. The light shining in the darkness.

John the Baptist was a witness to this light. To this Word made flesh. To Jesus.

We are, too. Witnesses to Jesus in the way in which we live in the world. To serve as forces of light and truth against the agents of darkness and deception. To be God’s own Jedi knights into the world. And especially to be in relationship with God. Intimately. With the Force who loves us deeply.

(after clip is concluded:) May the Force be with you. Amen.

Preached December 17, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
4th Sunday of Advent
Readings: Psalm 130:5-8, John 1:1-18

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Living Whole

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
    listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
    my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
    a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
    and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
    for he has glorified you.
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
    call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
    and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
    and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. Isaiah 55:1-11 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

This morning, we have our last primary reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. Next week we will move into the New Testament. So, I thought it might be helpful for us to take a look back. To try to see the bigger story. After all, hindsight is 20/20. Right?

It all began with God’s Word. With God’s living Word. In the midst of chaos and darkness, God spoke. And out of God’s living word, the darkness and chaos was ordered into a beautiful world. Water was created and formed into oceans, lakes, rivers, and streams. And land. Land was shaped into the form of mountains, hills, valleys, mesas, and plains. God simply spoke the Word and it was so. 

God loved God’s creation. Everything. And, in particular, God really loved this mysterious thing called life.

Life isn’t something we can really explain, is it? Scott and Sarah, as we prepare to baptize Reese, I'm wondering if, when she was born, her life didn't just take your breath away. That there were no words to fully describe this mysterious and beautiful new creation.

God created life in the plants and animals of earth. God created a special form of life to dwell on Earth--beings who would consciously enjoy the Creator and would help the Creator take care of earth. God called this special being “human.” Which means “earth creature” or “creature of the soil.”

These partners with God enjoyed God and they helped the Creator take care of the beautiful garden called Earth. They lived in friendship--with God, with each other, and with all creation. 

God smiled. This was working! What joy God had as God watched everything in balance--as each part fit the whole. Everyone had enough. And the partner humans loved God and helped God. It was good. It was really, really good!

And, then, it all fell apart. Humans decided that they could find joy in ways other than living as partners with God. Humans decided to find joy by becoming BIG DEALS.

How did humans know if they were BIG DEALS? They knew by bossing other humans around, by piling up stuff, by dominating nature, and by reaching glorious heights of health and beauty and knowledge. They also knew by competing with each other, by always trying to be more of a BIG DEAL than others. 

They gathered into groups--clans, tribes, and nations. Each group wanted to be better than the others. They invented oppression and war. Because, you know, to oppress and to defeat others makes you a really BIG DEAL.

God groaned. Earth groaned. All living things groaned. The whole universe wept. Sorrow filled the cosmos.

God thought about destroying everything. It would take one snap of the fingers. One word. But, this made God really sad because God loved what God had created.

So, God thought of another way. At first, God thought about acting like the real BIG DEAL. By terrorizing the humans into submission. But, the more that God thought about it, the more God realized that this would only be using their method. 

So God, in love, decided on another way. It’s a really long story--a story of friendship and passion, of promise and disappointment, of hope and of self-giving love. It is a story of God mending the universe.

It began with God making a promise to one man--Abraham. It was a promise that God would make Abraham into a large people--into God’s people. And that God would bless them so they could be a blessing to others.

For a while it was good. Everyone lived in harmony together. But, then, Egypt--another people, another nation--began to oppress Abraham’s descendants. They cried out to God. God heard them. God recruited Moses--who was a pretty reluctant guy--to help free God’s people from Egypt. 

It happened.

God’s plan was that Moses would take Israel--God’s people--to a new land. A place where they could live together as God intended. But, along the way, it began to fall apart. God’s people wanted to become BIG DEALS again.

So, God led them into the wilderness. The wilderness was God’s classroom. They learned alot there. It was also in the wilderness that God entered into a covenant with Moses. God promised to be Israel’s God and they, in gratitude, would live as God’s people. God spoke the Word in the form of the Ten Commandments. This was a covenant gift to show them how to live as God’s people on the land. How to be faithful to God and to each other.

It was also in the wilderness that God gave the gift of worship. Worship was a special time to remember, to retell, and to give thanks for God’s saving acts in history, especially the great liberation from Egypt.

Israel graduated from the wilderness school. They settled down in the land God had promised them. It was good. But, just as had happened so many times before, everything began to fall apart. They wanted to, once again, be BIG DEALS.

So God gave them a series of kings because they wanted to be like (and compete with) neighboring nations. One of these kings was David.

God loved David. And, even though he had his problems, David was faithful. God promised that David and his descendants would rule forever and ever. 

For awhile it was good. Then, it began to all fall apart. One of David’s descendants, began to oppress the people, just like the pharaoh in Egypt. This led to division. The people split in two, part in the north and part in the south. More and more, they turned from God and worshiped their own stuff and the gods of their neighbors. Except for a very few, nobody loved God with their heart and their soul and their strength.

There was catastrophe coming. God sent prophets to warn them. But, the people wouldn’t listen. First, the northern part was destroyed. Then, the Babylonians, destroyed the southern part and led the people back to Babylon in chains. They were exiles, torn from everything familiar. 

Back in the wilderness. Once again.

Since our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this past October, the first of the 95 theses that Martin Luther posted on the church door in Wittenberg has been stuck in my mind. I’ve shared it before. It reads, “When Jesus said, “repent, he meant that believers should live their entire lives in a state of repentance.”

Repentence is a turning back to God. The realization that we can’t go it alone. That we are not enough of a BIG DEAL apart from God. Repentance is often the result of being in the wilderness. In exile. In a place that is torn from everything familiar. When it seems as if everything has fallen apart.

Yet, through the Spirit, it is in the wilderness that we are able to once again recognize our need for God. To turn to God, to cry out for God. Just like the Israelites did in Egypt. Just as they did in Babylon. Just as we do in our own lives.

When we repent. When we turn back to God, God promises to be there. Waiting. Faithful. With a plan to make everything whole again. This is both the message and invitation from God in our text today from Isaiah: 

I have a place for you.
Come to the waters of baptism. 
Come to the feast of the Eucharist. 
Eat and drink only the best. 
Fill yourself with only the finest. 

Pay attention. 
Come closer now. 
Listen carefully to my life-giving, life-nourishing words.  
I’m making a lasting covenant commitment with you, 
the same that I made with David: sure, solid, enduring love. 
I have a plan. 
I’m about to do a new thing. 
Because when my Word goes out
--when my life-giving, life-nourishing Word goes out
--he will not come back empty-handed. 
He will do the work I sent him to do. 
He will complete the assignment I gave him. 
This Word that became flesh. 

This Word made flesh. Giving so much life that it simply takes our breath away. 

May we live breathlessly, knowing that God is faithful and that God’s Word will do the work it has been sent to do. Amen.

Preached Sunday, December 10, 2017, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY
Third Sunday of Advent
Readings: Isaiah 55:1-11, John 4:13-14

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Living in Exile

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Ezekiel 37:1-14 (NRSV)

Last week we talked about how God is with us--with all of God’s people--even in our fiery furnaces. 

Our reading today is from the prophet Ezekiel. It’s the reading of the Valley of the Dry Bones. For many of us, I think, this is perhaps the only reading we know or that we’ve heard from Ezekiel. I would guess that we know it most likely because we are familiar with the song connected to the story. Do you know which song I mean?

Yes, the song “Dem Bones.” You know it, don’t you? It's a lot of fun. Yet, it doesn’t begin to capture how truly gruesome Ezekiel’s vision really is. 

The prophet Ezekiel had been a priest at the temple in Jerusalem. He had been part of the first group of exiles taken into captivity. Actually, he and the other exiles he was with had been forced to walk to Babylon. By the time of this vision in our story today, all of Israel was now exiled. They had experienced the destruction of city and nation, the downfall of their monarchy, the loss of their temple and, as a result, the center of their religious life, and, amidst the horror of all of this, they had been forced to walk to Babylon. To the land from where their earliest ancestor, Abraham, had come.

They thought that the end of the dynasty of King David and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem meant that their covenant with God had ended. That all hope of restoration for their country was lost. For just a moment, imagine that you are one of the Israelites in exile. God promised you that you would be God’s special people, a great multitude, as many as the stars in the sky, that you would be blessed so that you could be a blessing to others, and that God would always be with you. God promised you a king, a land of your own, and a special relationship that was developed through the rituals in the temple, in the one place where God dwelled on earth.

All of that is now gone. You live in another land. There is no Israelite nation. There is no Davidic king. There is no temple. Is there also no God? Or is this a sign that God is no longer with you? How would you feel in this situation?

The people were in deep despair. Without hope. It is no wonder then, that in Ezekiel’s metaphorical vision, they are pictured as dry bones. Bones after bones after bones in this valley. Dead. Without life. Formless and shapeless. 

But, then, God tells Ezekiel to speak to them. To prophesy. To speak to them the word of the Lord. 

Ezekiel hears it before he sees it. The bones begin to rattle. And then they begin to come together, bone to bone. And then the tendons and the muscles and flesh begin to cover the bones. Yet, as Ezekiel watches, he sees that even though the bones have been re-formed, re-created into bodies, there is no life in them. No breath.

Then God tells Ezekiel to, once again, prophesy. To tell the winds to blow and to breathe into these bodies. To breathe life into these bodies. Into this people. In the very same way that God breathed life into all humanity at creation. (Pause and unmute.)

This prophecy of Ezekiel’s is a vision of hope for Israel. It is a promise for them that, even though they now are exiled, that they have lost everything, that they are dead and lifeless, God will restore them. That God will breathe new life into them. That’s the promise. That God will return them back to their land. 

But, this vision of life does not picture a life that is exactly as it was before their exile. It is a promise of a re-created people. A transformed community. It is not just about restoration. But, it is about transformation. Because God is always creating. Always transforming.

 And yet, it is a resurrection that also has continuity. The people of God will still be the people of God. Israel will still be Israel.  But they will be a transformed people of God.

Transformation and continuity. This is also the story of the work of Father Greg Boyle. Father Greg, or “G” as the gang-bangers of east L.A. call him, is a Jesuit priest working in an area in Los Angeles that has the largest concentration of gang members in the world.

Over the past 30 years, he has witnessed the transformation of many homeboys through the ministry of his parish. Transformation. Transformation and continuity. For once a homeboy, always a homeboy. One such story is that of Bandit, a gang banger from the Aliso Village Housing Project in Los Angeles. Let’s listen as Father Greg tells his story

And the soul feels its worth. Isn’t this the story of Israel? Exiled. Yet, still loved by God and finding its worth in that love. Still given hope. Promised restoration, transformation.

Isn’t this our story, especially in our world today? Often feeling hopeless, despairing of difficulties in our lives or in our country. Feeling separated from each other, or from loved ones who may live far away or who are, perhaps, no longer alive. Like those dry, dry bones in the valley. 

And yet, we, like Israel, hold fast to the hope given to us. A hope that comes to us through the new life we have in Christ. A hope that is renewed this Advent as we are reminded of God coming into our world. In Jesus. Emmanuel. God with us. 

God kept God’s promise to Israel. May we continue to hold fast to hope and to that which God has promised to us--that God’s kingdom will be restored in all its fullness here on earth with justice and with mercy. And that we will be a part of it.

May God grant it. Amen.

Preached December 10, 2017 at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY
2nd Sunday of Advent
Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:25-26