Sunday, December 22, 2019

Promises Made, Promises Kept: Against All Odds

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
    in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
    that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
    and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
    to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
    before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.   --Luke 1:5-25, 57-80 (NRSV)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Word made flesh, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

It was February 1980 - the first game in the semi-final medal round of the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The United States’ men’s hockey team was up against the team from the Soviet Union, today known as Russia. Ronald Reagan was president. It was the middle of the Cold War, the rivalry that developed after the 2nd World War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and its allies. A rivalry that was fought on many fronts, including political, economic, military, and propaganda. 

In five of the six previous Winter Olympics, the Soviet team had won the gold medal. They were the favorites to win once more in Lake Placid. Their team consisted mostly of professional hockey players, who had extensive experience playing internationally. By contrast, the U.S. team was an all-amateur team. It was the youngest team in the tournament, the youngest team in U.S. national team history. 

By the time the two teams met in that semi-final game, both of them were undefeated in tournament play. But the Soviet team was still, by far, the favorite. 

With a capacity of 8,500, the Field House, where the game was played, was packed. The home crowd was waving U.S. flags and singing patriotic songs, such as “God Bless America.” In the moments before the U.S. team entered the rink, their coach - Herb Brooks - read this statement to his players: “You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.”

As in several previous games, the U.S. team fell behind early. But, by the end of the first period, the score was tied 2-2. By the end of the second, the Soviets were leading 3-2. In the third and final period, as the game was moving to a close, the U.S. had scored two more goals, putting them in the lead by 1. Let’s pick up the last minute of play here.

The game would come to be known as the “Miracle on Ice” and would go down in sports history. The U.S. team would win the gold medal by barely defeating Finland. But the biggest win for them - the win that was against all the odds - was the win against the team from the Soviet Union.

Against all odds. How often have you heard that phrase? When something happens that is unbelievable. Even miraculous. We say it was against all odds. 

Against all odds. I wonder if that’s what Zechariah was thinking that day. He was a priest in the priestly division of Abijah, one of 24 divisions of priests established by King David. There had been so many descendents of Aaron, that David had organized them into divisions, then into family clans. For two weeks during the year, each division was responsible to carry out all of the daily functions in the temple. Kind of similar to military reserve service. Which priests would serve was determined by chance. By a lottery held each day in the temple. All of the priests of the family clan serving that day would participate in this lottery. 

On the day of our story, Zechariah had won the lottery. Against all odds, he’d won the chance to enter the temple sanctuary to make the incense offering. A once in a lifetime experience for Zechariah. What a gift it must have been for him, at his age, to win this lottery, knowing that he was getting old. That both he and his wife, Elizabeth, were getting old.

Elizabeth, too, was a descendent of Aaron. She and Zechariah were blameless followers of God and the Jewish religion. They had done everything right. Except for one thing, as if this one thing was in their control. They had no children. No descendants to continue their ancestral line from Aaron. No children in a culture where having children was everything.

Haven’t we heard this story before? Remember Sarah and Abraham. Rachel and Jacob. Remember Ruth and her sister-in-law. And now, Elizabeth and Zechariah. Barren. Without child.

So, when Zechariah entered the sanctuary that day to make the offering, when he both saw and heard the Angel Gabriel announce that he and Elizabeth were going to have a child, it is no wonder that Zechariah questioned this. After all, it was against all the odds that they, at their advanced ages, could ever expect to conceive and have a child. After all this time, it is likely they had finally come to a place of acceptance. However painful that place might have been for them.

But, isn’t that often where God meets us. In those places of pain. Or deep disappointment. Where we’ve finally come to accept that things are the way they are. Not expecting anything to change. And, yet, God brings a change anyway. An unexpected Word. A Word of hope. That our past is not our future. 

How do we respond when that word of promise - that word against the odds - is so different than what we’ve expected or experienced. Do we, like Zechariah, question it? Do we think it’s a false promise? Or do we meet it with faith? With trust that the Word of God is true?

The word of hope given to Zechariah that day in the temple was no false Word. Soon, Elizabeth would conceive. And, then, 9 months later would give birth to a son. John. John, who would be the herald of the coming Messiah and of the in-breaking reign of God into our world. 

This story in Luke is placed in the much larger story of faith. A story that began when God called Abraham and Sarah to leave their homeland. To go to a place that God would show them - a place where God promised them also, a son, and as many descendants as the stars in the sky. By Zechariah’s time, Israel has been through wars, and captivity, exile and domination by foreign rulers. By Luke’s time, the Jewish people were living under Roman domination. But, isn’t this the entire story of God’s covenant with Israel - a covenant that begins with a promise to Abraham and Sarah that is against all odds? And a covenant that comes to fulfillment in this story in Luke - a story that also begins with a promise and a birth that is against all odds?

There may be times in our lives and in our life together as God’s people when problems mount. When it is difficult to see a way forward. When it seems as though all hope for the future has been lost. When we are at a dead end. 

But it is here, in this Word of promise, where we encounter and are encountered by a God for whom there are no dead ends. Where we experience a God who specializes in making a way in the wilderness. And who opens up our future when one doesn’t seem possible. Where we encounter a God for whom nothing is against the odds. Where we encounter a God who speaks these similar words of encouragement: You were born to be a beloved child of God! You were meant to be here! This moment is yours! 

For this we rejoice! And with Zechariah, join his song of God - our God of hope and promise: 

Because of our God’s deep compassion,
the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.


Preached Sunday, December 22, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Advent 4
Readings: Luke 1:5-25, 57-80; Psalm 113

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Promises Made, Promises Kept: Joy and Sorrow

In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared:

“Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.”

When the seventh month came, and the Israelites were in the towns, the people gathered together in Jerusalem. Then Jeshua son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel with his kin set out to build the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as prescribed in the law of Moses the man of God. They set up the altar on its foundation, because they were in dread of the neighboring peoples, and they offered burnt offerings upon it to the Lord, morning and evening. And they kept the festival of booths, as prescribed, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number according to the ordinance, as required for each day.

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,

“For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”

And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.  --Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13 (NRSV)

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

As most of you know, I spent Thanksgiving week with my son and daughter-in-law in St. Paul, Minnesota. Although I was with my family and we had a wonderful time together, I still wasn’t completely home. Home for me, even after all these years of being away - home for me is Timber Lake, South Dakota.

How many of you are going home this Christmas? What are some of the things that you look forward to when you go home? 

Today’s story is a story of going home. Since September, we’ve been following the stories of the people of Israel in the Hebrew scriptures. At times, these stories have been difficult. We heard of separation and division. Of battle and loss. Of good kings and evil leaders. And, then, last week, we heard of the story of the exile of God’s people. Carried away from home by their Babylonian captors. Scattered across the empire. All of God’s people taken away from home. From the place they love, the place promised to their enslaved ancestors, the place given to Israel after the exodus. The people of God exiled.

But, today’s story is one of going home. We heard this possibility promised last week in Isaiah - that God would raise up a Messiah to return Israel to their land out of exile. We know that, from the theological perspective of Israel, this Messiah was Cyrus the Great, emperor of Persia. We heard, in our opening verses, the official proclamation of Cyrus, issued throughout the empire to all of the diasporan Jews: Go home! Go back to the land of Judah, your home. To Jerusalem. And rebuild the house of God. 

But this wasn’t all that Cyrus commanded. He also commanded those living among the dispersed Jews to send them off with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with other gifts for God’s house in Jerusalem. Everything they would need to return home, to restore their lives, and to begin to rebuild the temple. Our reading tells us that the whole assembly together totaled 42,360, not including the 7,337 male and female servants, the 200 male and female singers, the 736 horses, the 245 mules, the 435 camels, and the 6,720 donkeys - a total of 57,373 men, women, and beasts. What a procession this must have been as Israel went home!

It was in the seventh month after their return, that all of them gathered in Jerusalem at the temple - or what was left of the temple - this place had been the center of their religious life, where they had experienced the presence of God. They gathered around the ruins of the temple as one. Then, they rebuilt the altar on the very spot where the original had been built. And then, as one people, they worshiped God. Home. Together. Giving thanks to God for their return.

The next step for them was to rebuild the temple. They hired masons and carpenters. They bartered with neighboring people to bring cedar wood by sea. All of this had been authorized by Cyrus - this promised Hebrew Messiah. In two years time, they were ready to build. Once again, all of Israel gathered in Jerusalem to mark this new beginning. When the builders laid the foundation stone of God’s new temple, our story tells us that the priests, clothed in their vestments and carrying trumpets, and the Levites with their cymbals - all of them rose up to praise the Lord, using the very words or words similar to the psalm we spoke earlier. “God is good. God’s graciousness for Israel lasts forever.”

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience. But, I know that when I went home for the first time after having moved and lived away for a few years in a very different place, things were not the same. Even though they may have looked the same and the people were the same, for me, things felt different. Perhaps it was because I had changed. Perhaps it was because I had experienced so much in those few short years. Isn’t that often what it’s like? That as time passes and our life happens, we change. Maybe what we remember from the past isn’t quite what it was. Maybe we’ve learned to think in a different way as a result of new experiences. Maybe we’ve gained a new understanding about life. Maybe we’ve lost things or loved ones. Or shed old ideas. For whatever reason, when we’ve returned home, thinking we would get it back, that things would be the same, it’s not. So much so that coming home doesn’t feel like coming home.

This is what was happening to many of the Israelites in our story, particularly, those who were older. Who had experienced loss and sadness. Who had felt the pain of exile. Who had known the grandeur of the previous temple and could easily see that this new temple was not like the old. That it was much less. That is wasn’t the same, but that it was very different.

And so, as the others shout with joy and thanksgiving, they weep with sadness and other bittersweet emotion. The sounds of joy and sadness intermingled. So much so that they could not be distinguished from each other. Heard at a great distance. With shouts and weeping mixed all together.

For many of us, Advent can be a very similar time of mixed emotion. As we anticipate Christmas, it’s hard not to feel somewhat bittersweet. To feel as though joy and sorrow are wrapped together. Intermingled. Almost hard to separate. Because life now is not what it was. What or whom we’ve lost will not return. What we remember in our pasts are no longer how things are. 

Nevertheless, like Israel, we are invited into this place - into worship with all of our emotion, with our joy and laughter and with our sadness and tears. That we might experience the presence of God. That we might remember God’s faithfulness. And that we might trust that God is working to make all things new.

Because this was God’s promise for Israel. This is God’s promise for us. Amen.

Preached Sunday, December 15, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Advent 3
Readings: Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13; Luke 2:25-32; Psalm 102:12-22.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Promises Made, Promises Kept: Comfort, Comfort!

Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
    their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
    but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
    O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
    O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
    lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
See, the Lord God comes with might,
    and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead the mother sheep. --Isaiah 40:1-11 (NRSV)

Grace, mercy, and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

After the orchestral overture, every performance of the Messiah begins with this Tenor solo. “Comfort ye. Comfort ye my people.” 

This past week, along with a couple of our members, I attended a Messiah sing-along at Our Savior’s Lutheran. If you’ve never participated in one, I encourage you to go.  I’ve both heard and sung the Messiah a lot. In high school, our choir performed parts of it. In college, I sang in several performances of it. And, since then, I’ve listened to it numerous times, as well as participated in sing-alongs in California, Texas, and, now, here. One could say that I know this piece of music well.

There was one thing I forgot, though. While I know the words well and know that the entire work is based on scripture, I’d forgotten that the first third of it is based on Isaiah 40, which is our text today. It’s a text written from a place of exile. Or at least this part is. Because Isaiah is believed to have been written in two, perhaps even three different parts at different times. The first part, ending with chapter 39, was written before the destruction of Jerusalem. Before the defeat and exile of Judah by the Babylonians. There is a marked difference, though, between chapter 39 and chapter 40 - chapter 40 identified as the beginning of Second Isaiah. This difference was first identified by careful readers of scripture in the 12th century, who noticed that it came from a person and a time quite different from that of First Isaiah, chapters 1-39. 

Today’s text is set about 50 years after the remainder of the Jewish people have been dispersed throughout the empire. The empire itself has now been defeated by Cyrus the Great of Persia. The one whom the Hebrew scriptures call the Messiah. Not Jesus - who we, with our New Testament lenses - identify as the Messiah, but Cyrus the Great. Because it is this Persian - this Messiah - who will restore remnants of the Jewish people to their homeland.  It is this good news of a coming second exodus to the promised land that begins with Isaiah 40, our reading for this morning.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” The reading opens in the divine court. God Almighty is imagined seated on a throne, surrounded by many courtiers. Some of these are the former gods of the Canaanites. Others are specific Israelite figure who will attend the divine king. Admission to this court, to this divine council, can make one a prophet in Israel. It is to this divine council that God speaks these opening words of consolation. In the Hebrew, they are an imperative plural. A command directed to many. “Comfort my people,” God the Almighty God commands God’s court. “Jerusalem has served her term. Her penalty has been paid. Speak tenderly to her.”

One rabbi in Jewish thought argues that it was God who needed to be comforted rather than the people. He argued that, if someone owns a vineyard and thieves enter it and destroy it, who is it who needs the comfort - the vineyard, or its owner? Or, if someone burns down a house, who needs comforting, the owners of the house or the structure that burned? This rabbinic midrash argues that it is God’s house (the temple) that has been burned, and God’s vineyard (the people) who have been destroyed. We should be comforting God, not expecting God to comfort us, writes this wise Jewish rabbi.

The reading continues with a command in verse 3, from one of the members of the divine court. To prepare a way. We, in the 21st century, should easily understand what it might take to build this highway back. To knock down the mountains, to level out the valleys, to make the ground even so that the route will be smooth and even. So that it will be easy to traverse. But the meaning here in Hebrew is not entirely clear. It can be interpreted in two ways: that the way is being made for God to return to God’s people, or that the way is being made for God’s people to return to God. However one might interpret this, the meaning is clear: God and God’s people are no longer to be apart. The exodus that follows this new and level highway will once again bring them in grand procession back to Jerusalem. In a procession so grand that, in fact, “all flesh” will see it.

It is God who has engineered this return. Not human beings, whose qualities wither and face. But, God, with the power and steadfastness of God’s Word. God has made this happen. God, who is strong and mighty, who protects God’s people. God, who is also gentle and tender, caring for God’s flock as a shepherd cares for her sheep. God comes with a reward, not as God had once come with punishment. This coming will bring freedom and happiness. This coming will bring joy to the people at last.

It’s so tempting for us to interpret this text with our New Testament lenses as a prophetic text, announcing the eventual birth of John the Baptist - that messenger bringing the good news of Jesus. But, what if we were to simply let this text from Second Isaiah stand on its own? What meaning might it have for us, as God’s people in our context?

Perhaps it's a recognition that all of us, in some form, in some way in our lives, like Israel, have experienced trauma. Now we have not experienced displacement, unlike many others in our world today. But trauma still exists in our lives, however it may manifest itself. Perhaps, it's the loss of a spouse. Or a child. A health diagnosis, or an unexpected hospitalization. Perhaps it’s the loss of a job, or a house, or a way of life. Perhaps, it’s the loss of our youth, or our independence. I dare say that each one of us has experienced trauma at some point, or at many points, in our lives.

And, for a time, we may walk away from God. And from church, from the community of God’s people as we try to make sense of our hurt and our loss. Yet, eventually, God works in our hearts to bring us back. Not only to God, but, to each other. Because it is here, in this place, among God’s people, where we who need comfort receive it. Where we give it to those who need it. The command to comfort in Isaiah 40 is an imperative plural. We are to comfort. We are to receive comfort. Here. With God, among God’s people, in God’s church. It is why God is always working to bring us back.

Earlier this year, an important, contemporary theologian died. His name was Eugene Peterson. You might know him best as the author of “The Message Bible,” an influential paraphrase of scripture intended to make its message understandable for us in this time and place. At his funeral, his son Leif eulogized him, revealing that he used to joke with his father and tell him that he really “only had one sermon, one message” even though he had spent decades in creatively sharing the Bible with people in new ways. “It’s almost laughable how you fooled them,” his son wrote. “How for 30 years every week you made them think you were saying something new. They thought you were a magician in your long black robe hiding so much in your ample sleeves, always pulling out something fresh and making them think it was just for them.”

“But they didn’t know how simple it all was. They were blind to your secret,” Leif Peterson said. It was a secret he knew, though, because it was what his father had been telling him every night for 50 years. It’s a secret we know, because it’s the same message we hear in our Isaiah text today and in every part of scripture we read and listen to Sunday after Sunday after Sunday and in between.

What is this secret that Eugene Peterson whispered nightly to his son? This good news for the people of Isaiah’s day? This message for us?

God loves you.
God forgives you.
God is coming after you.
God is relentless.


Preached Sunday, December 8, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Advent 2
Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85, Mark 1:1-4