Baptism of Jesus

sermon on Luke 3:1-22

Luke today is pointing us to God and to the adult Jesus, and for that it’s also important what he points away from, the chaff he clears away that would obstruct our view or our lives.

Luke begins with a setting or set-up similar to the previous chapter’s Christmas story’s registration set in the reign of Caesar Augustus while Quirinius was governor of Syria. The political situation for the reading today locates it later, but with some of the same point: a particular moment, surrounded by major players in the cast, but with the odd factor that the superstars aren’t important. They’re really only named to highlight that they’re not actually the ones unfolding God’s drama. Salvation history doesn’t match the bolded headline names of history books. This takes place far from centers of political power in Rome. It was not with the Emperor, nor with the local governor, nor the squabbling Herod family in their divided territories.

Maybe that doesn’t surprise us, if we conceive of this as a religious and not a political story. We somehow think not only that state and church should be separate but inherently are, one dealing in secular matters and the other of a different spiritual realm. That wasn’t the case then, and isn’t now, at least as long as we’re associated with the God known in Jesus, who is for all our lives.

So the story also goes on to highlight that this was happening during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. The story doesn’t separate itself from them because it’s anti-Jewish or anti-temple. John’s father Zechariah was a priest in the temple. Mary and Joseph took the baby to follow prescribed traditions in the temple. Even after the resurrection, Jesus will tell his followers to keep worshipping and praying in the temple. Luke isn’t trying to make a break from that.

But he is breaking from the insiders, from the expected center of attention, from the presumed place where things happen. In those days John appeared in the wilderness, far from those centers of power, far from culture and presumptions of progress.

An adult reiteration of what Luke had already been telling in the birth of these babies—sung by their parents as ones who give people knowledge of salvation and cast the mighty down from their thrones—the message is that God isn’t best found in the imperial palace or religious hierarchy. Instead, Luke dumps John way out into the boonies, the sticks, the hinterlands, out in the wilderness.

Again, this is not about wilderness in our typical view of purity and refreshment, out communing with nature. The point is to situate John far from anything that smacks of human authority.

Even if you’d lean toward quote “getting away from it all” as an outdoor recreation place to find God—a concept generally I’m highly in favor of, including the purpose of our Boundary Waters planning after worship today—still for finding God, John won’t let you just hang out in the wild, as if it’s simply good to be with other creatures and apart from humans.

See, when asked what we should do, John answers all about human interactions. First, he separates his listeners from another presumed privilege: that of genealogy. Don’t begin to say to yourselves that you have Abraham as your ancestor, to count on inherent blessing by association in the covenant family. There’s no power in asking, “Don’t you know who my father is?” John says. In fact, one commentary I read said John anticipates and heads off this presupposition by calling them the “brood of vipers,” or in that translation—it’s enough to make you squirm—“snake bastards.”*

Instead, John goes on to say that God is in right actions, how we treat each other. I want to interject that this is also not the final answer for the Gospel of Luke, not where God’s presence is best found or known. I have to reiterate that because John’s form of thought is so pervasively present in our minds, in our presumptions, in our self-constructed views of faith. We still want to claim closeness to God if you act nicer, try harder, bear more fruits of goodness, repent more fervently of sin.

I do appreciate John’s suggestions, like his notion that anyone who has two coats should give one to the poor. I intentionally donate to the homeless when I find I have extra (though still admit I’ve got four decent winter coats hanging in my closet). And sharing food with the hungry—clearly we could and should be doing more of that, and not just boxes close to their expiration date we foist on unsuspecting Lussier pantry clients. Those are good practices, even if that isn’t ultimately the clearest place to find God.

In that way, we remember that Luke also sees the heritage of Israel and the temple as good, even if not the clearest place to find God. This isn’t about where God isn’t, but is about the clearest view.

Oddly, John even seems wary about seeing the empire too badly. John speaks with tax collectors and soldiers, both part of the very establishment oppressing the population, making them subservient. Particularly for the soldiers, I would’ve preferred if John were more stringent in his expectations. For a pacifist like me, and one who identifies work for revolutionary peace as rising directly from my faith in God, I wish John told the soldiers to beat their swords into plowshares, to give up violence, to subvert the empire, to reject military force as a viable means to any sort of just ends. Still, as John would have it, godliness in their role was simply to be satisfied with their wages. Maybe this is why God isn’t most clearly seen in our actions, because we must always question if there’s more to do, something better.

Still, there was enough in John’s words that those listeners were ready to identify him as the center of godliness. In spite of his acclaim and attention and focus on setting them right, though, he still points elsewhere. People wondered if John may be the epitome, the center of God’s wisdom and blessing, if he may be the Christ, the Savior, the Lord.

We, however, have been through Christmas. We’ve heard the angels’ song. So we know more of the story. We know it’s not John. We know it’s Jesus.

Luke is so insistent on turning the focus away from the popular John that he tries to remove John from the picture. I think he might first do that by referring to him as only as John and not John the Baptist, not giving him that title. Indeed, the way Luke tells the story, John is already in prison before he mentions Jesus’ baptism. John is already out of the scene so that we can turn our focus solely to Jesus.

I like the language there that’s entirely passive: “when Jesus had been baptized.” It doesn’t say who did it. If you were to look at our baptism liturgy on p230 in the hymnal, you’d see a little asterisk indicating passive language possibilities. I used to prefer that. It is the wording in the eastern church, among our Orthodox siblings. I started using it back in seminary worship class to turn the focus away from me, removing the pastor from the scene. Instead, I figured it focused that what was happening in baptism was all God’s work, all about God claiming and naming you as a beloved child. (I changed to the more common western version with the thought that it’s also important to realize that God’s work doesn’t just happen on its own with a magic poof, but is through means—incarnate in Jesus, and also with the water, with bread and wine, through voices even as twerpy and incoherent and self-assured as my own.)

So Jesus was (passive) baptized.

And that’s when we get the theophany. Where this season named Epiphany means “to show forth” (sort of like putting Jesus on display), theophany is a good Greek word that means God is shown. So with Jesus’ baptism, God is shown to us in the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and a voice from heaven.

Here, at last, is the pointer of God’s clearest presence.

God wasn’t best found in halls of power, in the mightiest government officials, those who exerted their control. It wasn’t in those who claimed to be the holiest or were at the top of structure, running the religious show. It wasn’t in the cities or center of culture. It wasn’t in special pedigree or the privilege of family placement. It wasn’t in our actions for justice or our best efforts to do right, our pious practices, our jobs or place in the socioeconomic structure. It wasn’t even in the ultimate prophet. God’s presence is found in Jesus.

But, of course, the whole point of Jesus is going to be to share that with everyone. Luke in this passage includes an extra verse from Isaiah that the other gospels don’t: “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke is utterly insistent that salvation is for all, that this Savior is born for you, that he comes to bring good news for all the earth.

Indeed, he’ll baptize you with fire, a Pentecost outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all flesh, not because you’re the aristocracy or worked your way up or acted just right, nor leaving you out because of race or gender or history or any kind of ability. On all flesh. All shall see God’s salvation. This saving work comes for all, and for you. That is the story unfolding here in the Gospel of Luke, and it is the message we continue to point to always when we’re together. God’s salvation is in Jesus, and he is for all, and wants to be made known for you.

* Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Malina & Rohrbaugh, p236

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Christmas children’s message

Do you know what I was doing this morning?

 

I was trimming my nose hair. My pocket knife has this little scissors, and I was thinking I needed to do it to look prettier and more like I should.
But then I stopped. Because it’s Christmas. And Jesus being born means that God loves our human bodies in all their shapes and forms and there isn’t something that I need to do to look different.

 

Know what else this morning?

 

It snowed. I heard the plow go by really early, while I was still in bed. And I was really excited. So I ran to look outside and saw that it was really pretty, but only a little bit of snow. I wanted more, for having fun outside and just for being the amount I think our world needs right now.

 

But it’s Christmas, and Jesus was born to set things right, including our winter climate and how we people think and live on the planet.
And so I was thinking about things that don’t quite go right and things on Christmas that we wish were different. Maybe you can think of some of those this morning, too.

 

Maybe you didn’t get all the presents you wanted.
Or maybe you got even more presents than you wanted.
But Jesus was born so that people can have the right amount of what we need.

 

And I was also feeling some sad this morning. I miss my dog who died this year, who isn’t around for Christmas. And maybe in your families, you’re missing some people or things aren’t always exactly right.
But Jesus was born to bring us new life, to hold us in God’s love when we’re sad, and to give us “great joy” as we’ll hear next in the story from angels.

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Christmas Eve sermon

I’d like to stay up here as the center of attention, given my preferences, not least to show off my new haircut that was a Christmas gift from and for young Maibritt Miller.

But pondering this Christmas story, this focus strikes me as unnatural. So I’m going to wander away from up front, to be dis-placed and removed from the center. One logical relocation might be to those closets, the sort of spot Christmas decorations will soon be stored away, not just out of sight but out of mind. I could crawl under a bland utilitarian coatrack or something. Picture1So it isn’t because it’s pretty or especially seasonal that I’m tucking myself back here under this little white pine. It really is with the intention to be out of the way, hiding in the very back corner.

See, I’m doing this for the perspective of this Christmas story, of Jesus’ birth and God’s presence among us.

None of us do very well at focusing on Jesus. It’s said he’s the reason for the season, but still it’s plenty easy for him to get lost and pushed to the side in the hustle and bustle, the holly and jolly. Yet I’m not off on the margins to point out that we’re doing it wrong, nor as a creepy voice lurking behind these chairs. That makes it only into a lecture or bad news, accusations lingering in your ears, neglected oughtas.

But this good news faith of ours isn’t about what we’re doing right or wrong, or just how attentive to holiness we may imagine we are. This faith is exactly founded in these edges. I’m over here, on the periphery of the picture to realize what that means for God in our lives.

We might notice this characteristic since “there was no place for them in the inn.” Even if there were room for them in the inn, not many would smile at the prospects of going through labor at Howard Johnson or an AirBnB instead of hospital maternity suites with expert attention and care. So already even Mary’s ideal childbirth options are terribly below our standards. I’ve heard some of you quick to observe next that the manure of a stable may not be the hygienic conditions we’d favor for delicate medical moments.

But we should also be ready to see that this wasn’t Mary and Joe on vacation, taking a holiday trip over the river and through the woods, when a surgical surprise sprang on them. This was a forced march, a compelled journey, mandated by a repressive government. This was part of being captive under the power of a great empire, that they had to travel to meet an obligation. The Gospel of Matthew’s version sees this family as refugees, attempting to cross borders to flee political violence. So it isn’t only impoverished personal details of not having enough resources to buy better accommodations. This is also public problems of a marginalized and disregarded group of people.

There’s reason these days we’re thinking about how we wall off children at our borders, children who have been fleeing danger, children and families put into even more desperate circumstances in these weeks when so many in our nation claim to be celebrating the birth of Jesus. That seems to be missing what sort of birth this is, a very blurred sense of focus in understanding Christmas.

Speaking of celebrating births, though, and to misplace the focus back on me, it was my birthday on Saturday, and my mom related that when she was waiting to deliver me just before Christmas, it felt vacant as most nurses were off duty and the wandering group of carolers failed to come into her wing.

Well, Mary had it a notch worse. That birth had no well-heeled adoring crowds or even extended greetings on Facebook. It wasn’t folks showing up with hotdishes and desserts, and probably in her situation she never could’ve expected a baby shower to stock up on necessary supplies.

What Mary got was shepherds. If there would’ve been somebody you didn’t want dropping by in the middle of the night, it would’ve been these unwashed unkempt Bedouin nomads, unused to civilized behavior, probably not very good at watching their mouths, stuck working bad hours in bad conditions. These well-wishers would’ve outstayed their welcome practically before they came in the barn door.

So we have an outcast baby celebrated by the funkiest fringe.

And then there’s us, singing sweetly, dressed up with the glow of candlelight, and going off into the night to whatever comes next, with packages to unwrap or a fancy feast, or just getting on with life, whether with joy and contentment, or squabbles and oppressive concerns that return their confining imposition on us.

But the great good news of this Christmas evening is that this baby born on the margins and surrounded by the excluded won’t remain left out. He’s not dependent on you trying to integrate him into your life or changing routines or really feeling eagerly dedicated to him. This baby who was born knowing what it’s like to be a refugee, hungry and homeless, who received the praise of shepherds, this baby being born into our world doesn’t go about looking or waiting for his place, isn’t knocking at the door of your house or the entry to your heart waiting to be let in.

He’s already here.

He’s in those frustrating moments where Christmas glitz and glamour are less than you’d wish, plus he’s there when all is merry and bright.

He’s in the comfort of close family and friends, but also when those relationships fracture and fail.

He’s in the plenty of full tables and glasses of cheer, but just as much in the lack and the yearning and famished feelings.

Sure, he’s in this gathering, as we remember for these few minutes to focus on him and celebrate, but he’s also in villages wrecked by natural disasters and wars, and he’s coming to town whether you’ve been naughty or nice.

He’s in the pause of vacation and goes along to jobs that are brutal and underappreciated and even finds his way into big boardrooms and lives that would have little-to-no interest in him.

Like a thief in the night, he just won’t be kept out, but is here for the sake of all lives. So it’s not about us keeping Christ in Christmas or receiving your king. There is no margin, no limit, no place where he isn’t. This is the miracle of the incarnation, of God’s presence here.

This is good news of great joy for all the world, and coming to you. To you is born this day a Savior. Ready or not, he has come.

 

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Perplexed Pondering

sermon on Luke1:26-38, 46-55

 

“She was much perplexed and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”

In Luke’s Gospel, those words introduce Mary, the Mother of our Lord, the God-bearer, the premier saint. And they may be a worthwhile frame for us this morning, too. I’m a little more skeptical than Sara’s children’s sermon that we’ll pause amid Christmas morning commotion to ponder in our hearts. By tomorrow’s Christmas Eve worship, we will probably be swept along by the emotion and beauty and tradition of it all. We won’t likely take much time to ponder or even to be aware that this is perplexing.

And so we have that opportunity, those of us gathered this morning, here on this 4th Sunday of Advent. And perplexity is a good Advent practice. Pondering, too. This season still of hope and waiting isn’t a benign or passive, but eager and engaged.

Those who have presents waiting under Christmas trees know what this is about: trying to discern what is inside each package, guessing what that shape could be, what you’ll discover when you unwrap it. That is this Advent practice of perplexed pondery. This is about being given a gift from God and trying to figure out what it means, how to unwrap it, what’s inside, what to do with this: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

In your perplexity may also be some hesitancy. You may feel unprepared to rush in, not where angels fear to tread, but maybe in their footsteps. You may take this encounter of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary and wonder about your response.

It’s a frequent question of mother Mary’s apparently eager “Yes! Let it be!” Our pondering may produce the possibility of her declining, saying no. I’ve heard preachers pose a probability that Gabriel had made multiple stops and been turned down elsewhere before finally finding a willing partner for God’s plan, making Mary favored for her favorability, for agreeing.

Or we may ask if it wasn’t an immediate affirmative, if Mary weighed the options and considered carefully before taking the leap toward this pregnant proposition. That would’ve involved deciding it was more important than all her other relationships, from family to village to fiancé Joseph, since this well could estrange those. But it probably is even prioritizing over life itself, since on the one hand we’re reminded she could’ve been executed for infringing on the patriarchal society, or even if that risk wasn’t realized, she of course faced the dangers of childbirth in a time of little health care.

But this approaches the pondering in the wrong way. Certainly we say No to God’s work in our lives and No to God’s will for our world all too frequently, much too often, with sinful abandon and selfish preference. We consider it a choice, an option to be balanced against others. This is how we regard our commitments to financial contributions and even our weekend attendance at church, as one possibility among many, and often falling further down the list.

Maybe our own reluctance and constant diversion is what makes us surprised and astonished at Mary’s saintliness, that we hem and haw and hesitate where she had her eager “Yes! Let it be!”

But for her saintliness and for yours, for any of God’s work, it’s best to remember that it’s not about our decisions and choices. This faith never really involves carefully weighing your options. This moment’s pondering isn’t for whether you should say yes.

For Mary, it’s not about logical evaluation. The clear, easy, obvious answer would be No Thanks! She would be quite essentially giving her life away—whether in the direct term or in the longer view of what it always means to parent, and what it meant to parent one whom she raised to turn the world around, to confront the powerful and cast them down from their thrones and to be sure the hungry multitudes would be filled with good things. Not long after his birth, we’ll hear that this one will cause the falling and the raising of many, and Mary’s own heart will be pierced (Luke 2:34-35).

This isn’t happiness or contentment in any of our standard rosy wishlist sorts of terms that Mary is being invited into. This is sacrifice. This is love. This is God’s mission.

And so, rather than our willpower, we pray for God’s will to be done. Not our eagerness or energy, this comes about because God is active in her, and in you. This is how God operates, by blessing, by inspiration. It comes immediately here in the message, “You have found favor with God.” God has looked favorably on me, she sings, a lowly one, not in high esteem. Not favored because of anything of proving herself, not because she would be quick to respond in the right way, not because she inherently was full of holiness. Her holiness comes because it is given to her in the speaking of this word: You are favored by God.

It is this word of blessing, the word that instills holiness, that makes saints, which creates the new possibilities in Mary, and in you. It is already in the delivery of that good news of God’s favor that the Holy Spirit comes upon you, that this new possibility is conceived in you.

In much of the art tradition, this moment of announcing a birth to Mary shows the dove of the Holy Spirit flying into her ear. This spoken word is how God’s new life comes to rest on and grow in you.

And it says the power of the Most High overshadows you. This is a cool phrase. The word for overshadow is used in the Old Testament when God’s presence so filled the tent of the tabernacle that Moses couldn’t even get in. The word is mostly in the Gospels’ Transfiguration stories, as a bright cloud comes glowing around Jesus and the disciples on the mountaintop. It’s a word about being brought into God’s sphere of influence, about being surrounded and held by God, being covered and protected.

God was not asking Mary to make a choice and then leaving her to face the consequences. God was creating the response within her and also holding her through what was to come.

It is this awareness of God’s work in her and in us that allows the song we can sing with her of being filled with gladness. Even before her child has been born, it gives her the concept to sing as if God’s mission is already accomplished, an already past-tense declaration of how a kingdom coming empties the wealthy of their boasting and is sympathetic to the needy, a good news already in effect.

So this isn’t meek Mary bowing her head. There’s nothing mild or subdued about this young girl. In the way that our own children embodied and resonated the message for us last week, with confidence and eagerness and unique gifts, as our young people so often lead us in causes of justice and see the world as it should be, that is the faith that also energizes Mary.

With her, we sing in amazement of Advent accomplished, and we ponder this perplexity that we’re not only waiting for something more, but knowing it has already come, is already here, in the miracle of God taking on flesh in her, in us, in you.

 

Hymn: Unexpected and Mysterious (ELW 258)

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Little Christs

sermon on Isaiah 61

Isaiah sounds like he could be on a political campaign, a candidate declaring, “I’m gonna build up your ancient ruins and raise up the former devastations. I’ll repair ruined cities.” A big list of infrastructure projects, plus making things fair. We’re familiar with such campaigning and sloganeering, so we’d expect the one who claims to be the right choice won’t come through on it all.

In fact, that’s actually somewhat in the background of this Bible reading. This is 3rd Isaiah, because this long book is actually from three distinct time periods. One was before exile. Another was looking forward to coming home. And this final part is after the return.

It came with lackluster realizations that everything wasn’t instantly hunky-dory, like those returnees waking up Christmas morning and realizing they didn’t get everything on their Christmas list. Or maybe Hanukkah list, since they were Jewish, though Hanukkah wouldn’t come about for another couple hundred years. So we’ll just say their wishlist. They had big dreams of what it would be like to be back, home sweet home, visions it would be just right in their own place. Well, they found there’s still work to do, still renovation and remodeling and reconstruction. Their home remained a fixer upper.

But so that they weren’t too disenchanted, 3rd Isaiah again set their sights high.

Still, aside from a small dose of historical inquisitiveness, you are likely not all that concerned at how long the detours and orange cones had clogged the thoroughfares of ancient Jerusalem, much less the blueprints and budgetary implications and red tape of archaic political process. So we’ll bypass describing what this possibly implied for former ruins.

One interesting pause midpoint in history, though, is that this passage gave title to Adam Smith’s book The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, which practically created the modern field of economics and prompted the rise of capitalist structures. The book introduced the supposed “invisible hand” of the free marketplace. Some may, in this passage, want to equate that invisible hand’s push with the Holy Spirit, making the freedom from captivity into freedom to gain wealth. The improvement in the reading would become development of profitable businesses, expanding neighborhoods and plowing up land and taking advantage.

But I’m not so interested in that narrowly defined economic vision as we encounter this message, nor even transposing in where current devastations are or our failures of expected greatness.

I’m grabbed most by the first phrase: “The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me and has sent me…”

I propose that this phrase isn’t only applicable to 3rd Isaiah, not just of some old-timey prophet who could claim to be the receptacle of the Spirit. It’s more.

My reasoning is in part from Jesus. We’ll hear some of these same words again next month. In his first sermon and first public appearance in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is in the synagogue for weekly worship and opens a scroll to read “The Spirit of the LORD God is upon, because the Lord has anointed me and has sent me” and so on. Jesus then rolls up the scroll and declares to the congregation, “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus knew that these weren’t outdated dead words, but still living and moving and claiming. That Spirit was still doing what it wanted to accomplish.

It’s plenty easy today to hear Isaiah’s words applying to Jesus, dropped here in this season of Advent. We know Christmas is coming, and we’ll hear words for Mary that the child conceived in her is “from the Holy Spirit.” Certainly we look to Jesus as the clearest image of God, embodying God’s presence, showing the precise pattern of God’s work.

But this passage means more. Even expecting that the Holy Spirit rested on Jesus and dwelt in him, we heard from the prophet Joel last week of the Spirit poured out on all flesh, on men and women and old and young and slaves and priests, and all children shall be dreamers. That reading also will come back to us, but not until Pentecost, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when that outpouring spreading Spirit cuts loose and begins really racing around.

Still, that’s a little easy. Our Lutheran heritage very valuably recognizes an important difference in how pronouns are used. So last week said the Spirit is poured out on everyone. That might communicate “on them,” as others. Or on us, plural. I want you to hear the singular: the Spirit of the Lord is upon you, yes you the individual. And you can speak Isaiah’s words, “The Spirit is upon ME!” Why don’t you try it: The Spirit is upon ME!

Now you’ve got some skin in the game. Or, for a big action movie tagline we could say: this time it’s personal. This isn’t about God broadly and generically working in the world. Sure, that’s good news. Joel’s words are valuable, that the outpouring of the Spirit isn’t restricted by gender or skin color or by age or anything we would categorically label as ability. We emphasize at Pentecost that Spirit is spreading to all nations, that it doesn’t in the end recognize the confines of locale or even of religion.

But you’re no bystander to this. Because you have the chance to say it again: The Spirit is upon ME!

Now, you may either tremble with trepidation or excitement at these prospects of being put to work. You might ponder your political ambitions, ready to repair ruined cities. You might examine your economic endeavors and inclinations to be moved by the free hand. You might have pious proclivities in thinking that Jesus is an important example for you to try emulating. I don’t quite want to quash those quests.

I’m not saying your work isn’t important or called for. What I’m saying is that your work isn’t your work. When you say The Spirit is upon ME!, that isn’t a vitamin supplement, a Popeye can of spinach, a dose of encouragement or motivating factor. The Spirit doesn’t show up as a little boost for what you already wanted to do.

No, the Spirit claims you for what the Spirit wants to do. And the Spirit does big things, producing the fruits of God’s work in the world. The Spirit is upon you and sends you to bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives and release to prisoners; to proclaim Jubilee, to comfort all who mourn and rejuvenate faint spirits. That’s certainly more than your task list for the week. It’s more to accomplish than a single political term. It may well be the work of a lifetime or across generations.

It’s similar to Mary’s list in the Magnificat, but notice without reversals, only of gain. There is no casting down or afflicting the comfortable. There is no proclaiming captivity to the liberated or bad news to the oppressors. This is straight all good news. Some may be downer and outer, but we’re all in need of God’s goodness, in need of new life, in need of restoration, longing for gladness and life rising up from the ashes.

So, again, this is a long view. This is God as a gardener, slowly tending and cultivating the soils, waiting for compost, collecting seeds and carrying on with the crop the next year. This is God as landscape restorationist: that you will be called a mighty oak means you take a while to grow. Even more than that, as a seminary classmate of mine and now religion professor points out, this is a new creation narrative, the Spirit that hovered over the waters in Genesis now arriving for you, as you again repeat The Spirit of the Lord is upon ME!* So this looks forward in enormous ways to how God’s kingdom comes on earth.

But it also looks back to your baptism when, with other words from Isaiah, you were given the gift the Holy Spirit: “the spirit of the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord,” the spirit of joy in God’s presence, both now and forever (Isaiah 11:2). Your baptism marked another part of this passage. As you proclaim The Spirit of the Lord is upon ME!, the next line continues, “the Lord has anointed ME.”

That word “anointed” in Hebrew is Messiah. In Greek, it’s Christ. It’s not pushing you to measure up to Jesus as Christ, as Messiah, as God’s Anointed One. This isn’t about that comparative sense. This is saying that you have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever, an oily emblem on your brow that signifies you are chosen by God, you are sent doing this spiritual work, you are a Little Messiah, a Little Christ, as you are able to declare the Spirit of the Lord is upon ME!

 

*https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2255

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Lamb King

sermon on Daniel 6

 

This is kind of a funny story.

I mean, not funny haha. I especially hope you don’t chuckle too much at the punishing, retributive part when those who have maligned Daniel suffer their own conniving scheme as, along with spouses and children, they are hurled into the lions’ pit and gobbled up—torn to shreds—before they hit the ground. Not a light-hearted bit of the story, that.

Though before you take it too seriously and once again cast aspersions at the violence of the Bible (while disregarding the violence in our stories now or the ways the Bible isn’t supposed to be a rosy picture but bears the hardness of real life), still that seriousness aside, it may be helpful to think of this like an old Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon.

wile eThis is a funny story because it’s meant to be outrageous. Wile E. Coyote falls off a cliff, gets smashed by an anvil, has the stick of dynamite blow up in his face, and then the story continues along. Most of us don’t finish that cartoon feeling TOO bad for Wile E. Coyote. If you can accept the cartoon without lamenting the injury too greatly, then let me explain why I make such an association with this Bible reading.

Some of the setting is real. Within the historical flow of the narrative, at this point many leaders and officials and muckety-mucks had been hauled away from the Holy Land into exile in Babylon. They’d been living there for almost fifty years under pressures of the Empire, but not as captives in the way we’d think of a jail or a prisoner of war camp or anything, but in houses and with careers. raising families, simply not in the place they’d call home, where their temple was and had been destroyed.

They were trying to figure out life, and trying to figure out what to make of God, almost to the degree of wondering if God could still exist or matter at all if God’s home had been destroyed. Maybe there’s a hint of that conundrum as Daniel is insistent on prayer, and it’s toward Jerusalem, a distant devotion.

So some of the setting and conundrum are real, but there’s also some stuff here just for the sake of a good story, not least that the attackers have things flip on them and the dynamite blows up in their faces in good Wile E. Coyote fashion.

We could also note that the story was written maybe 200 years after this time period, when it wasn’t the Babylonians, nor the Persians who came next, but some time later under the Greek Empire. But it’s not as if we were telling stories of Napoleon or Genghis Khan with this King Darius the Mede. There was a King Darius, but he was later in the timeline, a Persian whose Empire helped the exiles return home and rebuild the temple. So it seems a King Darius in Babylon with the exiles didn’t exist, except here. Yet in that way this character may actually help us see the story as flexible and able to speak to our own situation.

See, if this remains how one time one guy was persecuted for his faith—or, more accurately, that religion was a target for getting rid of the competition—and that one guy managed not to get eaten by a hungry pack of giant cats, well, that doesn’t matter all that much to my life. I’m not likely to get thrown to the lions, and my faith in God isn’t contingent on whether or not I’d get chewed.

It’s similar to the story of another prophet we heard in our last shared MCC service: your religion is likely not determined by whether a giant fish could swallow you, spew you out onto the shore after three days, setting you on the way toward the enemy capital where a messianic, divinely appointed worm would teach you a lesson. I don’t need any of the details of that story to become my own factual happenstance in order to tell of a God who is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, who redeems and reconciles and won’t be confined to my national borders. In that way, Jonah is one of the truest books of the Bible.

So that makes me ask what’s true in this reading today?

There’s some easy parts of that: First, some people are jerks. They didn’t like that Daniel was an honest hard worker and so manipulated to get rid of him.

Second, we should pause in our assessments and values. We know very little about Daniel in the story. Speaking just one sentence, he’s almost a prop. His work ethic may or may not have related to his faith, but we shouldn’t say being moved up the ranks was a blessing. It may have even been a curse, or at least caused a situation where his faith was tested.

Third, some leaders are obviously gullible and short-sighted. Again, nothing new here. This dolty King Darius got himself weaseled into signing a law he didn’t really want and got backed into a corner by it.

Next: not all laws are good. There are laws directly intended to infringe on the wellbeing and practice of others. Contrary to that, we might think of the antiestablishment clause in this country guaranteeing freedom of religion, that there shouldn’t be persecution based on faith. We could also notice that exiles in Babylon were, in actuality, given wide latitude to practice their religion. The Babylonian Empire had fairly strong religious tolerance, and—as we already heard—the subsequent Persians went so far as to help rebuild the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

What’s that truth for us? While we encountered recent violent anti-Semitism and are mired in anti-Muslim bias that has even been written into law, and while we as Christians remain in a dominant position, even amid a secular culture, maybe our own kind of Christianity isn’t. We may not want to be associated with the others, or can be nervous about being too bold, about practicing this faith, about what it might mean when people recognize us in this religion.

That’s an interesting detail in the story. It’s not that Daniel is wearing it on his shirtsleeve. He’s not up in anybody’s business about it. There’s an earlier detail where he’d only eat vegetables so that he didn’t break his religious dietary laws. But here he’s praying in his own private space, and still it causes difficulty for him.

There’s truth for me in this story that even in a tolerant society and even without directly trying to get ourselves into trouble, still we should expect that our faith involves both a fair amount of civility, and civil disobedience. If we’re getting along too easily and not any different than everyone else, we need to ask what we’re missing, what we should be subverting, why our faith has turned out so unimportant.

If it’s a truth about how we continue our practice and remain faithful even when it’s not easy, I appreciate that truth. I have less interest or use if it’s meant to be about my God beating other gods or my culture coming out on top.

We shouldn’t presume it’s a good thing when Darius declares that all should worship the God of Daniel. Becoming the official religion of Empire, it won’t be the same resistant religion that had been able to speak truth to power and could engage differences with grace and understanding. It happened with Emperor Constantine of the Roman Empire or with this being the alleged religion of the American.

Finally, then, on this Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday, we are reminded that the one we follow is not about sparing us from danger, not about magic escapes from death, not focused on career advancement, not in for retributive justice, and certainly not about aspiring to power that shames others. The Lamb of God is not a conquering lion.

We call this a kingdom of God almost to be funny, to reset our assessments, since it’s outrageous. Celebrating Christ as King is not for the triumph that all the enemies get tossed to the lions, but with a history of sacrifice, of willingly being thrown to the lions. This religion at its truest won’t succumb to corrupting influences that Might Makes Right and instead turns the whole imperial mindset on its head.

The direction of this kingdom of our crucified Lord is for “the freedom of those oppressed [and] comfort of all distressed,” as we sang, the realm where the “Spirit chooses the weak and small to bring the new reign where mighty fall,” as Jesus’ mother herself sang before his birth, not of exalting thrones, but of bringing down the powerful. It is in that that we join our voices, sometimes in the face of opposition, at others amid acceptance. Sometimes it’s entirely serious, but may be tongue-in-cheek, too. Sometimes when things are going easily and well, but occasionally when it involves risk. Sometimes when it feels lonely, and yet joining a billion voices and the song of all creation.

 

Hymn: “Soli Deo Gloria” (ELW 878)

 

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