Out of Darkness

sermon on John 7:1-10, 8:12-20; Psalm 27

 

I’ve never yet been interrupted and cut off in a sermon, but that possibility continues to exist. So, while hoping you’re not weary of my comparisons of our Bible readings, just in case you’re ready to protest, I’ll rush ahead.

We are in Lent. Where we have the 4th Sunday of Advent or the 7th Sunday of Easter, this is the 1st Sunday in Lent. Named for lengthening days, this is for increased light over typical deadly darkness. More on that at the end.

For this 1st Sunday in Lent, the usual lectionary always features a story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. In Mark’s Gospel, that’s pretty much one verse. Matthew and Luke expand it as an argument or duel between Jesus and the devil about turning stones to bread and guardian angels and being king of the world. Jesus, perhaps not surprisingly, resists the temptations.

That mark of 40 days at the start of the 40(ish) day-long season of Lent, often is taken to indicate we should also be resisting temptation. That when the devil comes knocking, we say no thank you. That evil may try and test us, but we should not put the Lord our God to the test (whatever that might mean).

I don’t like that sort of message. It’s not much of an encouragement in my book: hey, Jesus didn’t give in to temptation, so you shouldn’t either! If you try really hard, you could be like him! Go give it a shot for 40 days!

It’s surprising how rarely the devil is actually in the Bible, I think, especially if we picture this as the grand cosmic rivalry, the dualism of good vs. evil, heaven vs. hell. But the negative side is pretty sparse in there. The word “God” is in the Bible over 4000 times, but Satan or devil pop up just 80 times. An eighth of that total is in a little scene crammed at the start of the book of Job. There just isn’t a whole lot. That isn’t the point of the story or of faith.

But somehow we get drawn into the darkness, to struggles and arguments, this notion of competition and rivalry, for one to win when the other loses. We want to be on the right side of the struggle, contending against sin, overcoming temptations that try to infiltrate us with evil. With broad strokes, we claim to elucidate evils as ugly and nasty, so we can confidently label them as demonic and awful.

Within the Gospel of John, though, there is no version of the devil tempting Jesus that would fit the usual pattern for this 1st Sunday in Lent. While God is embodied and God is incarnate in Jesus, there’s nothing satanic as we would ritually imagine horrors lurking in the shadows, or demons waiting to swallow you or possess you and make your eyes glow. Not much for an R-rated flick.

The devil is simply what would obscure the light of God. To illustrate, a follow-up to the Gospel of John later in our New Testament, the letter we call 1st John, is the only place we have the term antichrist (2:22). It just means those who are against Jesus, who are anti-Christ. This requires a lower case “e” exorcism, of being re-focused on the true light.

That letter of 1st John similarly says Jesus “is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true” (1:5). That’s the difference between being in the light or left out in the dark, the criterion that matters.

Again, later in today’s dialogue, Jesus has strong language against opponents, saying: “If God were your Father, you would love me…but you are from your father the devil…He is a liar and the father of lies” (8:42-44). But you’ll notice that’s no cosmic dual for the eternal fate of souls, but just what would distract us in darkness or lure us to false sources of light.

That distinction, both within and outside ourselves, doesn’t involve seeking devils and demons, because when we’re looking for a thriller and the bad guys, we get eager to categorize and label evil, quick to pass judgment and presume to know what is worse. When the Gospel of John defines the devil as “the ruler of this world,” and that the kingdom of Jesus is not of this world, it stands against our politics as usual and our lame horse races and how we crown our favorite winners.

While justice does require truth-telling, being honest and boldly saying what is wrong, not to be so lawless that anything goes and any behavior or speech or perspective has equal validity, while there are vital times to take a stand and be passionate advocates, this faith of ours isn’t primarily about that. I confess that’s a hard reminder for me especially, since I want God to be on the side of my causes and I care a lot about fixing this world.

But this isn’t about being right. It’s not about a legalism that parses into bad and good and tries forcefully or gracefully to leave ourselves standing on the correct side of the line. It’s not fundamentally best accomplished in pointing out the faults of others, much less in trying to threaten them to shape up, either with manipulative coercions or scare tactics of eternal damnation. Neither does it limit our potential when already dim hopes are quenched.

It’s so obvious to say that gun violence is bad, that school shootings are horrible, that kids shouldn’t kill kids. Nobody arrives here to debate whether that should happen. That seems like the biggest, most important thing…at least for this week.

But we could also go on, with our other violence and aggressions and uncaring: it’s clearly apparent that abuse is wrong, that no one should hurt helpless babies, or deny food to hungry schoolchildren, or abandon those who need shelter—whether on our streets or fleeing wars or after disaster in Puerto Rico. It’s clearly despicable to dump “poison into our waters, exhaust the soils, and pollute our common air.”

But what does that mean? What does it matter once we have drawn those lines? Why do we persist in these frenzies of antagonism? Why get overcome by every flash of bad news? Does it actually make us feel better? Can it manifest a light to overcome darkness and keep evil at bay, to feel like we can do something?

The Gospel of John won’t give us the fleeting satisfaction of such lists. There aren’t a set of actions to accomplish that are right. There aren’t a set of prejudices to avoid as wrong. Sin is hardly named period, much less in rankings of what’s worse, for us to qualify ourselves as a bit better insiders and harder workers.

In fact, Jesus says that he judges no one. I don’t suspect that would mean he doesn’t care, that everything is equal to him and it doesn’t matter what anybody does. Instead, the best I can figure for this morning, is that he’s trying to point us away from the notion that our task is about being judgmental, that our core identity is in labeling others as wrong. Drawing us to light, he distracts from our presumed task of ruling as arbiters and judges and shady critics who wind up so self-righteous. We don’t, in essence, come to church in order to figure out a bit more justice, to be cheered on in our little projects to build a better world. Jesus must see that as a dead-end street.

Instead we come here for what we really need, to be enlightened in our true and shared identity, as children of this everloving God, to live with God’s life, to emerge from too much darkness that permeates our world and—when we’re honest about it—our own blackly bleakly ashen uncertain lives. Unlike the fading glimmers of what we have so well figured out, from such overcast existence, we come in here to soak up the bright rays of the sun, our only source of hope.

I AM the light of the world, Jesus says.

To conclude, I hope it’s helpful to share background of this story’s setting. Jesus was at the Festival of Booths, the celebration of Sukkoth, one of three major pilgrimage celebrations for going to Jerusalem, up to the temple. And this was the biggest festival, biggest party of all.

It recalled when the people were wandering in the wilderness and built booths or huts—the Hebrew word for those gives the name Sukkoth to the festival. It was also at a place with that name that God began to appear to the people in a pillar of fire to guide their journey, as a beacon, a glowing reminder of presence (Exodus 13).

Here’s how one of my professors, Craig Koester, extends the explanation:*

Jesus’ claim to be the light of the world was made in the temple where the most spectacular rituals of the festival took place. Each evening, worshipers crowded into the women’s court, where four enormous lamp stands were erected, each with large arms that supported four large bowls of oil with wicks made from the discarded undergarments of the priests. [I was thinking of burning some of my old boxer shorts today to help you get a sense of this divine light. Not really.] Throughout the night…the light [of the burning lamps] shone incessantly. Its rays gleamed from the temple’s white stone walls and the bronze gate at the end of the courtyard, where the Levites played their harps, lyres, cymbals, and trumpets, as men noted for their piety and good works sang and danced to the Songs of Ascents [from the Psalms] with as many as eight flaming torches in their hands. [I also bypassed the hula torch dance for today, but anyway]…

The radiance emanating from the temple illumined courtyards throughout the city until the first shafts of daylight appeared over the Mount of Olives [when a procession with a ram’s horn] stopped at the gate that led eastward out of the sanctuary, then turned around to face…the temple with their backs to the rising sun. [The prophet Ezekiel had seen people worshipping the rising sun] Those at the Feast of Booths, however, were to reject this false worship by saying, “Our fathers when they were in this place turned with their backs toward the temple of the Lord and their faces to the east…but as for us, our eyes are turned to the Lord.”

[This was paired with a vision from the prophet Zechariah, revisited in the last chapter of our Bibles, that the presence of God would mean continual day, this light always shining from the temple, a perpetually restored pillar of fire.]

According to John’s Gospel [concludes Professor Koester], Jesus was the one in whom the hopes of the Festival of Booths were realized. He was the light that manifested the presence of God and the one in whom the nations of the world would come to know God.

There you have it. That is why we are here. For celebration. This is a Sunday in and not of Lent because when we are here we cannot remain downcast. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? Of whom shall I be afraid?” We have to celebrate, rejoice in the increasing light, filled with Alleluias. Here, if not to burn our underwear, turned from bright east windows, still to play cymbals and banjos and sing and have a party, oriented rightly and gathered around Jesus, the light that will never be put out. In dark days with dim hopes and false glares, that is what our world needs, and us too.

* Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, p157-8

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Marty, Sol, and you

sermon on Solomon’s Temple for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation

on 1st Kings 5:1-5, 8:1-13
We didn’t learn anything from the Reformation if we haven’t realized that we get to challenge authority.

That starts with Solomon, whose authority is in the aura of being the wealthiest king in the Bible, allegedly the wisest, and the greatest lover. Whether or not any of that is true, that glamorous aura might obscure or overwhelm some serious difficulties.

Certainly this temple of his was amazing, attracting distant admirers like the Queen of Sheba to the small, fledgling kingdom. The descriptions are fancy and expansive, with lavish detail and huge scale.

But, for the first challenge point, there’s barely concealed harshness that this project took coercion. It wasn’t just the countless animals sacrificed at the dedication that had to give up their lives for this project. Listen to this description of the work force (with “work” and “force” being appropriate terms): “King Solomon conscripted forced labor out of all Israel…He sent them to the Lebanon, 10,000 a month in shifts…Solomon also had 70,000 laborers and 80,000 stonecutters in the hill country, besides Solomon’s 3,300 supervisors…having charge of the people who did the work.  At the king’s command, they quarried out great, costly stones.” (5:13-18)

Although it here labels their labor as conscripted—meaning not voluntary—in Hebrew it’s even stronger, as the only other time using the same word as the workforce under Pharaoh in Egypt, whose brutal demands became the whole reason God was striving to set the people free in the first place! Here in the Promised Land, it may be their own king and a building for their own God, but still this was harsh and demanding work, called a heavy yoke and discipline with whips (1Kgs12:11). It may be no surprise the kingdom fractured after Solomon died, since people hated such leadership.

Besides taking their lives, we should presume steep taxes took the people’s property. And not just for religion directly. Subsequent verses say the temple was under construction for seven years, but Solomon’s palace for 13 years. Maybe he put priority on finishing the temple first, but it’s likely the extra time shows more dedication to his own dwelling than God’s dwelling.

That title of “dwelling of God” may be my biggest gripe with Solomon. His final words of dedication said, “The LORD has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. [But] I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.” The nerve of this guy! He admits God has chosen to be in mystery, obscured in transient clouds. But mighty King Solomon is higher than almighty God to declare God instead will be placed under house arrest. It almost literally is putting God in a box, in this case saying that God would be in the temple that kept confined the Ark of the Covenant, that box of God since Solomon says so. With the fact that it’s called “Solomon’s Temple,” it mis-locates and misattributes faith, distracting from God by pointing to a self-absorbed human.

If we don’t like that, we could challenge authority and argue with Solomon by confessing with St. Stephen (Acts 7:48) and the words of one of our communion hymns that God does not live in a house made by human hands. But other than reasserting our faith in that way, we don’t have the chance actually to correct Solomon, so long in the past.

So let’s zoom ahead 2466 years from the completion of the temple in 949 BC to the start of the Reformation in 1517. We hold a parallel today of Luther confronting the Solomon of his time, his challenge to church hierarchy, with high and mighty claiming or even usurping the authority of God, misattributing and mischaracterizing God while abusing the people. Their greatest priority was their own prestige and wealth and satisfaction, even when that came at the expense of common folk and of God’s will in the world.

Almost exactly 500 years ago, Martin Luther started an argument with the most powerful authority of his time. He pointed out errors, fallibilities, the ways this institution was not only going astray but misleading others. Though we give Luther almost mythic superhero status and identify him as changing the world, we do well to remember that Luther wasn’t in it for himself. If Solomon was trying to get credit for building a temple, we cannot say Luther was trying to build a church. His faithful desire was to correct what was wrong, to speak rightly of God, to help hurting lives.

As I’ve been reading through the 95 Theses in these weeks, marking the 500th anniversary of when Luther started this discussion, I’ve been especially struck by number 46. Against the practice of buying slips of paper that essentially paid for a reduced penalty, as if God could be bought off, and with that idea hanging as a terrifying eternal threat over people’s heads, Luther argued in thesis 46 this: “Christians are to be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep what is necessary for their own families, and by no means to squander it on pardons.”

The general perception is that the Reformation was about theological arguments, indulgences and purgatory and how God offered forgiveness and what preachers were supposed to say, that kind of thing. That sense makes the Reformation mostly about people’s relationship to God, in a scholastic and theoretical way. But with this thesis 46, Luther rightly understands that our relationship with God is never separate from our relationships to each other. It’s always about real lives. He says you can’t take people’s money and pretend it’s for a higher purpose than feeding their household. Our care for each other is what is right. This is what God wants.

And that is the opposite of Solomon taking people away from their families, taking away their property, taking their purpose and pointing toward the temple as where they would find God. Luther said the construction of a basilica in Rome would not serve best or more to the glory of God, that God’s glory and purpose and presence is within lives like yours.

From that, we might consider how we continue living into this Reformation heritage today, what it means that we live as people with Luther’s name applied to us. A phrase from Luther that the ELCA has picked up on is that we have a “living, daring confidence in God’s grace.” That word confidence is important. It means we live with faith, trusting. We are people who rely on the promised assurance that God is on the side of life, that God is not best found residing in the halls of power or in the loftiest and fanciest places, and that when we struggle against what steals life then God fights by our side.

Some of the obscurity of God that Solomon thought needed to be changed by putting God in a fancy temple was in this astonishing and mystifying word that God chooses to be with you, to care about your life, that you don’t need to do something different to ascend to God or earn your way into God’s presence, because God is passionate about a life like yours.

And like your neighbor’s. The vital first core of the Reformation is that God loves you. And the second is that God loves your neighbor. This gets to the “daring” part of living with confidence. For the sake of God’s love for his neighbors, Luther had to stand up to power and confront authority, had to declare that it was wrong to starve a family under pious pretenses.

As Lutherans, we’re called to confront the Solomons who are stealing life from us and our neighbors. Pastor Heather Hayward from St. Luke’s called it “putting the Protest back in Protestant.” There’s something to that. It may be resisting wars or demanding better health care or helping families to have the food they need or, as Luther said in Thesis 46, how we stop the lures of squandering precious resources on worthless commodities, against this mega-modern indulging lie that we can buy our way to happiness. In that system, we might need to protest against notions that people don’t matter, are expendable, or that any of God’s creation can be treated as if it doesn’t have value, as if God’s presence and blessing are more intensively found elsewhere. We need to fight against false demands set on people’s lives and to denounce empty hopes that turn lives away from the truth of God’s constant and abundant blessing.

Those are huge challenges against the fiercest powers and most entrenched beliefs existing today. But Luther again is a good example. He didn’t set out to topple an institution. He raised a question about one small practice, the concern of indulgences. From that focus everything else arose and God’s goodness was set loose. I believe we can expect the same.

With that confidence in God’s gracious, liberating mission, I want to conclude by admitting I’ve set Solomon up as a bit of foil in this sermon, pointing out plenty that was negative and flawed. But there is an aspect of his grand celebration that I don’t simply want to discard.

Some Reformers after Luther tore apart their churches, thinking any display, any fine artwork, any shiny object, any ostentatious display was problematic, idolatrous, against God. Luther didn’t agree. Another of the 95 Theses, number 55, highlights how valuable—of what rich value—our religious celebrations can be. He says that if insignificant things in life are celebrated by a bell, then whenever we hear the gospel, the word promising God with us in grace and love, it is worth celebrating with 100 bells, 100 processions, 100 ceremonies.

Solomon rightly threw a big party, because we have a God who cares for us, abides with us, wants always the best for you and your neighbor. Today, in continuity with that right understanding of Solomon, with the faithfulness of Luther, with the generations before and behind us, with the song of all creation, we join brass and guitars and pianos, and other Protestants and protesting voices, and the UCC and Catholics and all who celebrate God’s goodness, knowing and trusting that more than any structure or building or wealth or earthly power, we proclaim and confidently keep living together with the word that this with-us God ensures the kingdom’s ours forever.

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a wedding sermon

for the Wedding of Colleen and Roanna

 

This is a rather formal event for in some way being a formality. Neither does it quite fit the traditional definition of a shotgun wedding, though there’s some element of that pressure and being under the gun here.

Which is to say that I’ve been reflecting on why we’re here today, what we’re doing, what this is about.

In the most basic regard, that might actually be a question about location. See, we know that you need to have a lawful signature on a piece of paper stored in a government building. We know that the previous way you’d been registered and officially partnered together is going away and so you need this new-fangled thing: a marriage license. Although for the question of why, we might first think to answer about insurance and legality. But for the simple sake of that signature, this could well have happened downtown in an office room. That it’s here instead extends the why question also to involve “where.”

As I told you Roanna and Colleen, I’d identify the central part of a wedding usually as the exchange of vows, those promises of love for each other. And though that captures some of the insurance sense of things with the standard promise of “in sickness and in health,” still after seventeen years (or so?), it doesn’t really seem like you two would need to do that formal promising. You’ve already been practicing those commitments and dedications of giving yourselves to each other in love for a long time, so this would seem like something not so new and doesn’t seem like exchanging those words will really change your relationship.

I suppose I also have to concede that even though I define the vows as the central moment of a wedding day, there’s probably at least as much validity in the popular notion that weddings are about parties, about getting the family and friends closets to you and dearest around to celebrate. So there’s strength to that explanation for this day, since something like your love for each other is indeed deserves enjoyment and to be praised and enlivened with good music and your relationship is well worth toasting.

We could also do well to notice that festivities and celebrations were where Jesus hung out. Though we don’t often think of him as a party animal, that was sort of the reputation he had in his own time, that he wasn’t one to avoid a good time. Particularly, we could observe that the only story about him at a wedding wasn’t to lecture on how to love or what is right or wrong, but simply as the beverage service to make sure the wine kept flowing. That Jesus!

While we’re on that track, we could—and should!—say that a very worthwhile reason for this wedding is because this is exactly what God wants. God is pro-love. God is in favor of your love. God celebrates your love and nurtures and sustains your love and accentuates your love. God blesses your love for each other, Colleen and Roanna, and God enables your love with God’s own love. As your Bible readings declare and proclaim for us, when we think of love, we’re envisioning godliness and practicing what God’s will is for our lives. You two bear God’s presence for each other, and then also extend God’s goodwill to our lives and to the world. The rest of us depend on your love as sharing God’s love for us.

And though that’s the message I am most eager to announce to you today, I feel it also needs to be paired with another word. As a straight white male and an official of the institutional church, I want to apologize. We or I must confess that part of the circumstance for this wedding and this moment here, once more on the “why” of today, is that places like this and people at least sort of like me for far too long have warped and controlled church and society to say your love was not right. I’m so sorry for that and am also very grateful, because you still asked me to be here today, because you are rightly faithful and you recognize and you continue to show us—through 17 years, in this moment, and on into the future—that you are engaged in the godly work of love, that your love is not only for each other but also makes our lives better, and, yes, God encourages your love, celebrates your love, and God blesses your love.

So thank you, Roanna and Colleen, and congratulations. Now let’s get on with this formal stuff to the heart of the day so we can party.

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Sermon for Christmas Eve, Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

You know what would be great, if on Christmas we had one of the best reasons ever in the history of the world to celebrate and instead turned it into another lame lecture on morality.

I apologize for starting with rotten sarcasm on this cherished evening. But the appointed Titus reading messes up Christmas, with its aloof austerity and expectations that because of Jesus we have to act proper. I can’t help but point out how in faith sometimes we got it, and sometimes we royally blew it.

Let’s get you up to speed with about three sentences of backstory Bible study. Jesus was born, right? Over the years, he did and said some stuff until he was crucified—killed on a cross—and on the third day rose from the dead. With me?

From that first Easter Sunday (if not before), his followers have been left trying to figure it out, to make sense of him. They called him Savior. They said it was good news, that he showed us God in a way nothing else had, which made a huge difference for our lives and maybe all creation, the whole cosmos. The earliest Christians saw it as an abundance of grace, as forgiveness that left out or forgot or excluded nobody. They practiced radical hospitality and sharing and compassion and peace, because that’s what they understood Jesus to be about, what God wanted for all of us. The earliest practicers of the good news saw everyone as favored by God and had understandings on taking care of each other and including females and class-relations and economics that were ahead of their time.

Way ahead. See, Titus and his next generation came along, seemingly intent on flubbing it up. They decided to ditch the amazing equality and abundant love and the entirety of life absolutely drenched in God’s grace. Forsaking that, they wanted instead to cling to power and re-entrench patriarchy and male dominance and privileges of status. And since, it’s taken us 18 or 1900 years to get back to standing against oppression and allowing women to have a voice and saying you don’t have to be special to be welcome here. Some of those persistent problems we still struggle against, with the church too often toiling the opposite direction, naming sinners to be cast out while claiming divine sanction for ourselves.

And so Titus—that forgettable dog of a reading dragged out all over the world for tonight—botches the birth of Jesus, turning gift into demand. But there it is anyway, showing that sometimes we get it and sometimes we get it backward. Here’s a repeat for you (as if you asked for the reminder): it blathers on about “training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly.” Lest there’s lingering doubt about what malarkey this is, earlier in the chapter tells women to be submissive to their husbands and take care of children and the household. It says slaves shouldn’t talk back to masters. It was written directly to undermine the grace-filled lives of earlier Christians.

More to the point, I’m just sure you arrived here on Christmas Eve yearning, practically begging, to hear a lesson on what Titus calls “temperance, seriousness, and prudence.” Any “amens” to that? You know already that’s not what Christmas is about. It’s not why Jesus was born. It’s not how we celebrate. Prudish self-control and lack of passion is not the heart of what God is up to. It gets God backward, cramming God into a message of self-serving morality. Worst, it replaces joyful abundance with a lame, droning threat.

A related example of such ditching the good news for a threat is familiar in what we’ve been doing for two months with Santa Claus. He should be the mark of generosity and free gifts this season, but instead we turn him into a surveillance camera of “Santa’s watching and knows if you’re naughty.” It reverses the main point. So, of the discipline-surveillance Santa, Titus is a theological version, which makes it an even more rotten corruption.

To explain, I’d like to switch from sarcasm to sacrament. Sacrament is a word that means something like “sacred thing” or “holy stuff.” Sacraments are physical signs of God. We look around us and try to figure out where God is in the midst of our existence. We tend to figure certain people or situations are more blessed, to locate God’s presence as more involved in one place than another.

Titus claims this locale is in acting proper, that good behavior gets you closer to God and so work ethic dictates whether God is with you. Our society goes on to add the association with power and prestige, further guessing that wealth is a sign of blessing, making money our sacrament, our sign of God. Likewise, the old saying “cleanliness is next to godliness” imagines that dust and debris and grime block God, that clearing away bad things gets you next to God. So our tendency is almost toward anti-sacrament, not about stuff where God is, but what we get rid of or escape in order to find God, separating God from the mess of regular life.

But now visualize Christmas…the birth of Jesus…this baby lying in a manger. We may choose antibiotic sterility, but God was born pro-biota, amid the bacteria, the germs, and—we should be honest—the animal poop! Picture how much spit and saliva livestock drool out of their snouts. Then notice how those suspect, podunk first-timer parents put baby Jesus right in the manger feed-trough where the cud-chewers had been licking! They also came with poor planning, without reservations booked at the inn, had no huffy claims to privilege, were left out in the cold.

That’s where we look to find God! Christmas upends our typical sacramental biases of where we wanted to implicate God. If God isn’t primarily in our morality. If God isn’t invested in the “bigger is better” development program. If God isn’t running an exclusive operation. If God isn’t flashy or austere or high and mighty in any regard. With this ultimate revelation of God for us, our sacrament, our sign of God turns up far from power or glory or success or perfection or acting so self-righteously upright or being neat and tidy. Our sacrament at Christmas is the opposite of the magnificent, immaculate, proper, or in any way “just right” but is rather stinky and crowded and a bit crude.

Yet this also says that God’s presence is in some truly miraculous places. If we are able to see God asleep in the feed-trough, waking only to bawl his head off, with grungy shepherds not lingering out in the labor and delivery waiting room but busting right in—since God is there, God is also able to be many other unexpected places. Most importantly, God is abiding with you, not waiting for you to get your screwed-up act together. God is with you when life seems like a big ol’ mess and way too cluttered and not going well at all. God is most definitely there when things are not “just right.”

In fact, that’s exactly why Jesus arrived, not to be a heavenly boss or to reinforce our dominating stereotypes but to be with you in compassion, in blessing through the worst moments, otherwise you wouldn’t really need a Savior. He was born poor and outcast. He spent time with the sick and the losers around him, not to mope or reprimand but to host a party. In the end he went to the cross and into his tomb so you may know God doesn’t evaporate into thin air but abides with you through it all. That’s what we begin to see tonight, not a conquering overlord sealed off behind a hypoallergenic barrier, but one who is passionate about giving himself away, intimately involved in the care of sustaining life, from a vulnerable baby to the stretch of solar systems, and you in the complex, messy midst of it.

One more word on sacraments of this God, words from Jesus himself. This has been about seeing God in sorrow or suffering or sloppiness. But in our usual sense of sacraments, we typically point to two events that Jesus shares with us, where he promises to be found. We started the service turned toward the baptismal font, and near the end, we’ll gather around this table. In water, and in bread and wine, whether completely drenched in grace or snuck in under the smallest morsel, these common, crude elements of our world become holy stuff because with them Jesus has promised forgiveness for what you’ve done wrong, to connect you again to God, to remain with you in love.

So you may expect, then, the presence of Jesus with you, not just on the most holy and peaceful night of the year, but through the grind of every day. Not just when you get exactly what you want, but in disappointments. Not just when all is calm and bright, but through the disturbing darkness. Not just when things are going well and you’re doing exactly what you should be, but when it’s all screwed up and you’re in pain or you are a pain.

Nevertheless, in Jesus, God is here, always for you. That’s why we celebrate and can say Merry Christmas.

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