Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
A sermon may seem a bit redundant on this particular Ash Wednesday, as we live through a grim reminder that we are frail and mortal. In all my years of ministry in Illinois I never thought to talk about the fact that Dante Alligheri, in the Inferno, depicts the very bottom of Hell as a place of frozen cold. As both my old friends up north and my new friends in Texas have reminded me, weather like this is familiar to me and should be no big deal.
And of course they’re right. I’ve been through plenty of weather like this before, at times in my life when I had to spend a lot more time outdoors than I do now. There have even been a few moments this week when I was tending to something outside at my house and the sheer bracing hardness of the cold air gave me an almost nostalgic feeling. Yes, I used to feel this way at least once each winter. The snow sinking under my feet. The gloves drying out by the air vent. The moment of defiance of the elements--I’m outside and I’m not defeated, I’m enduring.
But as we all know, and as I am learning for the first time, there’s a lot more to it than tolerating cold air. I didn’t bring my big winter boots or almost any heavy winter clothes down here in the first place. We don’t keep a giant fleet of snow plows and salt trucks on standby all year for this. Our electrical grid, which I’ve learned more about in the last few days than I had learned in my entire life to that point, is not designed for this.
So we, or our neighbors, lose power. Pipes freeze. Movement becomes dangerous. This weather might be in some places an inconvenience or a discomfort. For kids it could be a delightful opportunity to play in the snow while school is out. Instead it becomes a crisis. And we get stuck. I would like to have opened the church as a warming site, but our building has often been without power over the last few days. I would like to go out and help people from the relative security of my own home, but the roads are untouched by a plow and I don’t want to end up needing rescue myself.
In Dante’s vision of Hell, those stuck at the absolute bottom are literally frozen. They can’t move. They can’t free themselves. As I learned in ninth-grade science, heat makes particles move. Cold makes them slow down. At a point of absolute zero, there’s no movement at all. No union of separated particles. No coming together. No advance or retreat.
And as we begin this season of Lent, it’s worth remembering how sin does this to us. It separates us from each other. It isolates us. It freezes us. The Devil wants each of us on our own. The Devil wants us stuck in place rather than moving toward our Creator. When you fast or pray or give alms, Jesus says today, don’t do it like the hypocrites who want to make a show of their piety. Don’t try to put yourself apart, for the admiration of other people. Our fasting should be out of love, to draw us closer to God and to one another. Our prayer should be made out of love, to draw us closer to God and to one another. Our giving should not be to our individual glory but for the relief of human need and the glory of God’s kingdom.
If sin freezes us, Lent should be a season of spiritual thawing out. A season when we resume, or speed up, our movement toward God. And this is something we can only do together. This is why we make a public confession of sin, today and throughout Lent. It’s why we pray and fast and give together, our prayers and works of mercy imparting energy and power to each other.
The cold weather will pass soon. The snow will be gone. I’ll forget that nostalgic sharp feeling of the bitter wind on my face. Life will resume the painful level of normality it had last week. But we, in the church, will only begin to stretch ourselves toward God. To be set free from the cold prison of sin and death, and to do it together. Amen.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When the door to the ark finally opened and Noah stepped out with his family on dry ground, with each animal according to its kind and, as a tradition of the rabbis teaches, Noah’s wife with the seed of every plant of the old world in her pockets to sow in the new world, what did they feel?
After hundreds of years of building the ark, to the ridicule of his neighbors, what was it like for Noah to see the full, terrible truth of the prophecy he’d been given? After the face of the earth had been purged of all evil except that which they carried in their own hearts, what future did they expect? What did they promise to leave behind in the old world? What mistakes did they resolve not to make again in the new world?
The story of Noah and the ark is one of many ancient stories of world-ending floods, from cultures and civilizations all over the world. The story in our Bible is not the oldest version of the story of a great flood, not by a longshot. The disaster of the flood seems to have a special place in human memory. It is both myth and history. It is an event in a deep, unsearchable past and it happens over and over again today.
In the New Testament, the story of the Flood comes up in a few different places. Jesus warns the people who listen to him that the present age is like the age of Noah: men were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, and no one expected the disaster until it comes.
And in the first letter of St. Peter, we hear the ark as a type, an early image, a forerunner of the grace of baptism. You have been shepherded into the ark of baptism, Peter tells us. You will endure beyond this present age of God’s patience.
The flood and the ark. Disaster and surviving disaster. It is a terrifying theme in our Scriptures. But for people my age and younger, our adulthood has been marked by a series of disasters that were met with public and institutional failure. Natural disasters are one thing. There will always be extreme cold sometimes in the South and extreme heat sometimes in the North. There will be forest fires and earthquakes and hurricanes. There will be viral pandemics. The question is how resilient we are to disasters, and how effectively we respond together. This makes the difference between a natural disaster and a man-made one.
Hurricane Katrina was always going to be a bad storm. What shocked Americans in 2005 was how chaotic and inept the public response turned out to be. And this pattern was repeated over and over again. Wildfires. Floods in Missouri and Iowa. Hurricane Harvey. Hurricane Maria, leaving the people of Puerto Rico, all of them American citizens, abandoned and ignored for months. The coronavirus pandemic itself. In all of these cases, we’ve seen systems break down. People actually do very well. They look out for each other, they take in their neighbors, they help out. But governments, utilities, and private corporations seem to have lost the ability or the will to meet human needs in a disaster.
After Katrina, there was at least some accountability. The mayor of New Orleans and governor of Louisiana were both defeated for re-election. President Bush was not eligible for re-election but his popularity never recovered. We promised we’d do better next time. We promised we wouldn’t make the same mistakes before the next disaster.
But at some point we stopped promising that. And we apparently stopped expecting accountability either.
As I saw pictures of friends melting snow for water in Austin or taking down their fences for firewood, I thought about this. Who, in a position of authority and responsibility, was ignoring this humanitarian tragedy in our midst? Who was prepared to really learn from it? Who would help and who would run away from the scene? And would it matter? Would anyone who ignored the plight of Texans pay a political price? Or will we simply move along and forget about it until it happens again?
This brings us back to Noah and that second planting of the world. Natural disasters are, ultimately, human stories. Deforestation, climate change, loss of natural wetlands, neglect of infrastructure, inadequate public resources to respond to a crisis, short-sighted decision-making, denial, optimism bias, extreme inequality: all of these things reflect our choices, not the whims of nature.
Noah and his children will mess things up again almost immediately. Humanity will be just as heedless after the flood as it was when Noah’s neighbors mocked the big boat. Human sinfulness will prove so stubborn and so profound that the only fitting response will be the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God the Son. God himself makes clear that one flood will never be enough. Flood after flood after flood is never enough.
So God makes a covenant: never again will God send a flood to destroy all life. The inclination of the human heart is evil from youth, God observes just a few verses before what we hear today. No point in starting over every time it gets out of hand.
God will be faithful to this promise. God will not destroy. God will mend instead. God will stretch his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross far enough to embrace all humanity. God will make of the waters of the earth an ark that can expand to protect anyone. There will be disasters and chastisements and suffering until the last day. But there will be no second great Flood.
And as always it will be our role to reflect that faithfulness in those decisions that are within our power. To draw on the strength we have seen and known as individuals, families, neighborhoods, churches that did not need to be asked to gather supplies or to take people into our homes, and extend that to the structures of power we all share. Can we, who have been brought into the ark of baptism, act out of love even if the human is not worthy of that kind of loyalty? Can we insist on justice and accountability today even if tomorrow will create problems of its own? Can we be a mirror of God’s love for our neighbors? Can we commit not just to generosity but to making things work, to making a vision for a better future where we are not doomed to lurch from disaster to disaster, always waiting for the next shoe to drop?
When the doors of the ark opened and the new world began, the answer to all those questions was Yes. The answer with God is always Yes. And the answer today is still Yes. The question is whether we will do it.
Sisters and brothers grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“He would not permit the demons to speak because they knew him.”
It's a rather curious passage. If you've been with us on Wednesday nights, studying Mark's Gospel together, you've heard me say that this is characteristic of Mark's Gospel, where Jesus is always telling people and demons not to speak about him. And it reminded me this week of a sculpture that I saw at the Meadows Museum last month. It was part of an exhibit of the work of a 16th century Spanish artist who did sculptures and carvings for churches in Spain. This particular statue--you might have seen it on billboards for the Meadows Museum if you didn't go in person--was really cool. It was about three feet tall and it was of a man carrying a child on his back. The sculptor did this incredible job of showing the man sort of straining and turning back toward this child with a look of strain and suffering as he struggled to carry this child on his back.
The statue depicts the the legend of Saint Christopher, which is part of what I like to think of as the Jesus Christ expanded cinematic universe. The story of Christopher belongs to the legends that are probably not real or are based on something very different. Christopher meets a young boy as he's about to ford a river on foot and the boy needs a ride so Christopher picks him up and carries him out into the water. Then he starts staggering under the weight of this child, the child gets heavier and heavier to the point where Christopher the man is just going to get sunk under the water and drown. “Who are you,” Christopher wonders, and it turns out the child is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ is carrying the weight of the world on his back. In picking him up, Christopher has taken the weight of the world onto his own back. This is why he was the patron saint of travelers. The name “Christopher” means Christ-bearer or Christ-carrier. He is remembered as the one who carried the infant Jesus across.
Now I love this story of Christopher and I love this sculpture that depicted it so much because it highlights two aspects of who Jesus is for us. First, it shows us that Jesus is hidden in his ordinary humanity. There is nothing about Jesus to look at him that indicates who he is and what power is contained within him. He is an ordinary person of the land as,they were called at the time. He was a peasant from Galilee. Even his physical appearance was apparently so ordinary that no one writing about his life thought to record any detail of how he looked. No one, to the eyes of human understanding, would see anything special in this person. And so he approaches humanity unguarded and unaware. The second thing about the story of Christopher that appeals to me is that it shows Jesus Christ carrying the weight of the world.
So we have a Messiah who is in some sense hidden to human understanding and yet who is at the same time carrying the weight of the world on his back.oday in Mark's Gospel we see this unfold over one day.
I'm always saying that in Mark's Gospel things are happening immediately, one after another after another with no break. Last week we heard about the morning synagogue service where Jesus speaks, where he heals someone and his fame begins to spread. Today's reading is from that afternoon, that same afternoon of his first day of public ministry in Capernaum, he goes to Simon Peter's house. He heals Simon Peter's mother-in-law and then it's katie bar the door. Everybody from the city, when the sun goes down and the sabbath ends, comes to him to heal their infirmities and cast out their demons. Because the word is going out to the point where Jesus forbids the demons to speak. He forbids the demons to be the ones who proclaim him.
And early the next morning, he wakes up before anyone else in the household and he goes out into a wilderness place--the place recurring over and over again in the Scriptures, where humanity encounters God in an unmediated and powerful and even dangerous way. Where John the Baptist goes out into the wilderness to call the people of Judea and Jerusalem and the countryside to him; Moses out in the wilderness encountering the burning bush; Elijah the prophet in the wilderness hearing the voice of God.
And so Jesus follows this pattern. He goes out into a deserted place. It's a very human thing to do when the world's obligations are weighing heavily on us, when the expectations placed upon us are so unrelenting. There is a part of us that needs to get away from it and put ourselves in a different environment where we can exist for our own sake or for the sake of God. And while I do not want to say that Jesus somehow needed a break that he needed to “recharge,” because he is after all fully divine and he does not need things, he does not grow faint and grow weary as we do, all the same Jesus goes out to a deserted place to pray and be apart from the people who are seeking him in order to do something.
And here he reaches a decisive moment. He can remain in Capernaum where he is already a local celebrity. He can be the holy man, the teacher, the healer who is sought not only by the people of Capernaum, not only by the people of Galilee, but by the people of all Judea and Samaria and eventually the whole world will find out. People will come beating a path to his door, asking him to heal the infirmities that no one else can heal, asking him to cast out the demons that will not go away, asking him to unfold for them the secrets of the kingdom of God.
He can live there safely and securely and it can be the world's burden to come to him.
Or he can accept the weight of the world that is already gathered around his feet and he can go out into the fields, and the roads, and the villages and towns. He can go out and accept the sins of the people to load them onto his back. He can accept the battle with the demons that he will put on his own back. He will accept the conflict with the civil and religious authorities of his world that he will put on his own back. He will go forth and accept the weight of the world rather than making the world come to him.
Paul, in his words to the Corinthian church today, reflects this in his own way. Looking on his career as an apostle, a messenger of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he says that he has become all things to all people so that by all means he may save some. He has expanded his own humanity, not to be a fraud, not to deceive anyone, but to come to people on their own terms: to speak to Jews as a Jew, to speak to those outside of the law as one who is outside of the law, to speak to the weak as one who is weak himself, to embrace and to bring all of this humanity into himself so that he can speak to anyone who comes his way. Not that he might win them all, but so that he might win some. Jesus was hidden to him in his church when Paul was persecuting them, and Jesus was revealed to him in that vision on the road to Damascus.
And now Paul has found that this has become a burden that he could not have anticipated, that he did not invite, and while it is it is a joyful burden, it is a burden all the same of carrying the Gospel to those who have not yet heard it. You can hear the strain in his words if you read his letters. This has taken everything from him and yet he counts himself exceedingly wealthy and blessed to share in this work.
Next week, Peter on the mountaintop will confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. And as Lent begins it will bring us all the way to Good Friday, where the weight of the world will come down finally and fully on Jesus of Nazareth and he will die on a cross. The centurion in Mark's Gospel who witnesses this death on the cross will say, truly this man was God's son and the hidden Jesus will be revealed at the moment of his death. And there are times when this experience of Saint Christopher and Paul the Apostle of carrying the weight of the world--in the person of Jesus, in the ministry of Jesus--when that burden will fall to us when we will have to speak a word that someone needs to hear. When we will have to act in charity when no one is demanding it of us except our God. When we will have to carry the infant Christ across the water to the other side.
But what we are told today in those early morning hours in Capernaum is that Christ already took that burden upon himself, and that those burdens we cannot carry, including the burden of our own lives, he has picked up and put on his back. He has borne the weight of the world already across to that other side. As it was in Galilee so long ago and as it is at every river dividing now from then, we are along for the ride.
This Sunday we get some great readings. Up first, the Prophet Isaiah has a word for people being oppressed by earthly rulers:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Isaiah is a book that unfolds in the shadows of Israel's domination by great regional powers. And here the words of God through the prophet take a vast, even cosmic perspective. The rulers of the earth may seem to be dominant, even permanently so, right now, but they are frail plants, no sooner planted than plucked up.
For Americans, who are favored citizens of an imperial power, this may not sound like an oracle of hope. If anything, we have come to over-identify with our elected leaders. It is not hard to attribute the wrong kind of religious significance to our own rulers, good and bad. The words of the prophet here are meant to encourage people who believe themselves to be overwhelmed by the forces of history:
Why do you say, O Jacob,
Our second lesson for Sunday continues Paul's address to the church in Corinth. Paul can be a bit defensive about his credentials and career as an apostle and evangelist. He explains himself rather poignantly and eloquently this week:
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
Martin Luther borrowed from this passage in his famous treatise "On Christian Liberty," in which he says that the Christian is a perfectly free ruler of all and a perfectly obedient slave to all. This is a central theme for Luther, but I suspect Paul is making a more modest claim. He writes here of his apostolic mission. He has approached people, so to say, on their own terms. He addresses them from a place of solidarity. He speaks as an insider and an outsider. He comes in weakness to the weak. "I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some." This can sound manipulative or inauthentic to our ears, as if Paul were engaging in some kind of subterfuge, like Steve Buscemi's character on 30 Rock:
But I don't think that's the right way to read this. Charity and piety forbid us to simply assume that Paul is impersonating people. Rather, we might look to the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to address everyone wherever they may be, and whoever they may be. The apostle has to meet them, as we might say today, "where they are" to show that this message is really for them.
And while the Gospel passage each week is thematically connected to the Old Testament rather than the New Testament reading, maybe we can hear some of this in the story of Jesus in Capernaum:
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Jesus can barely get a few hours' respite from the demands of his community. The people need healing, the casting out of demons, and the preaching of hope. And Jesus could retreat to the deserted places. He could stay in Capernaum and become a respected local holy man, no doubt drawing visitors from all Galilee and Judea, if not beyond. But instead he goes out to where the people are, in the villages and towns, to meet them on their own turf and their own terms. Paul becomes all things to all people for the sake of saving some. Jesus remains one thing to all people, for the sake of saving all.
I'm not sure what I'm going to preach about all this, but I hope you'll join me in person or online to hear what God has to say to us this week.
February 4, 2021
Dear Christ Lutheran Church family,
Our Re-Opening Task Force met on Tuesday to discuss recent developments and future plans. We are updating our practices for this ever-changing situation:
With enhanced ventilation, briefer liturgies, and limited singing, the risk to in-person worship should remain very low. Every third pew will be open, and we ask everyone to continue practicing social distancing and wearing masks. If you can upgrade a single-layer cloth mask to a three-layer, surgical, or N95/KN95 mask, it will enhance the safety of in-person worship further. We ask everyone receiving Communion in the sanctuary to maintain their distance from fellow worshipers and keep their mask on until they’ve moved away from the ministers. With continued care and attention, we can protect each other and ourselves.
Starting with the first Sunday in Lent, February 21, we are moving our worship times. The sanctuary livestream will take place at 9 a.m. and the outdoor service at 11 a.m. As circumstances allow, we hope to move some of our educational offerings back to Sunday morning, at first online and, as more people are vaccinated and the local conditions improve, in a hybrid model. We have no specific plans to announce at this time, but we are looking to and preparing for a better phase of this pandemic when more options are possible.
A few things we ask everyone to keep in mind:
Yours in Christ,
The Re-Opening Task Force
Connie Uhri, Council President
Ginger Hagens, Council Vice-President
Sharon Karol, Secretary
David Marshall, Treasurer
Greg Nelson, Financial Secretary
Dr. Tina Tonti, Preschool Board
Joanne Osterland, Preschool Director
Dr. Hando Nahkur, Director of Music Ministry
Marc Hatcher, Director of Youth and Family Ministry
Rev. Ben Dueholm, Pastor
Looking back over thirteen years of sermon manuscripts, I found a few sermons on this week's readings. But it turns out I haven't preached on the passage from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. So I've been thinking about that a lot this week, because it's a fascinating and challenging passage. Paul is writing to a local church with plenty of internal differences and conflict, part of which falls along the lines of people who are "wise" or philosophically inclined versus those who are not. The behavior of some of the more sophisticated and worldly members of the community is damaging to the faith of those who are not so knowledgeable. So Paul begins his argument with a sort of thesis about knowledge and love:
Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.
Paul here turns the tables on the wise and sophisticated members of the community. Knowledge without love is not a blessing or a virtue, because it leads to pride and self-regard. Indeed, claiming to possess knowledge is itself a symptom of a deeper ignorance. We should seek to love God, and therefore be known by God, first and foremost.
This is important because the community is in conflict over how its members relate to the customary religious practices of the city:
Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
"Food offered to idols" may be the sacred meals of pagan temples, or oblations placed before household shrines to departed ancestors. Christians acknowledge only one God. So the question is whether eating food offered to idols is itself idolatry (the worship of idols), or whether it is just plain old eating, since the idol itself is an illusion. Some Christians in Corinth eat, some refrain, and there is conflict about what those choices mean:
It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. ‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.
So Paul is clear that the actual food is indifferent. It can't harm or help you. So the consideration is not in the food itself, nor even the idol to which it has been offered, but in the conscience of the brother or sister who still experiences the pull of idol-worship:
But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.
Paul is saying here that the exercise of your liberty, in good conscience (eating food offered to vain idols) can become dangerous because it can cause those of weaker conscience and understanding to stumble. So your Christian liberty needs to be weighed against the effect of your actions on your siblings:
But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
The word here for "I may not cause one of them to fall" is skandaliso, which we recognize from the English word "scandalize." There are acts that are permitted in themselves, but that are destructive to the brother or sister and therefore must be given up. So Christians are obligated to bear the burdens of sisters or brothers who are struggling in their conscience, weak in their faith, or otherwise entangled with the world and not to add to them by making a license of our freedom.
I actually think about this a lot. "Freedom" or, if you prefer, "liberty," is a big an often under-discussed aspect of Christian faith (especially if you don't happen to be worshiping in a Lutheran church or attending a Lutheran seminary). It is very important for us to recognize that the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross and his life-giving proclamation of God's kingdom set us free from vain taboos and destructive religious compulsions.
But for Paul (and for Martin Luther), this is not "liberty" in the secular political sense we often use it today. It doesn't mean "you can't tell me what to do" or "I can do whatever you can't stop me from doing." Instead, it delivers us to a relationship of care and obligation for our neighbor, starting with the Christian community itself. I am free to eat, and yet obliged to bear with my sister who will fall if I do. Therefore I do not eat.
It's worth thinking about how this applies in our own lives. It's easy for Christians to adopt a morality of strict purity, or at least of the appearance of purity (especially with respect to women's bodies and sexuality), often justified by the danger posed by anyone setting a bad example or creating scandal. And it's easy, though less common, for Christians to express simple scorn for norms and public decency. I think here of the seminary professor who would drop the occasional f-bomb in class to reassure himself that his salvation owed nothing to his own merit, or of the many pastors and teachers these days who take evident delight in being "politically incorrect" and insulting or demeaning their siblings as a show of freedom and dominance.
But I think Paul points us to another way, which is to start with love. How will my actions, even if they are neutral in themselves, affect my neighbor? If I wish to contribute to the welfare of my brother's soul, and not just mine, how might I speak and act to foreground the love for God that is the basis of all knowledge? Even if I have understood that profanity* is just a convention of language and not a moral issue, how will my words affect those around me?
These are the things Paul pushes us to consider. I hope you'll join me on Sunday as we ponder what this means for us, in a world of infinite options and limited rules.
*note: not blasphemy, which is an actual sin (believe me, I'm not any happier about this than you are)
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The world of the Scriptures is full of spirits. Some are evil, some may be ambivalent, but they are all over and they are busy. Into this spiritually-charged world comes God’s Holy Spirit, to engage with, cast out, and destroy the evil spirits. To plant faith. To empower believers to do good works. To give gifts of perseverance, hope, and charity.
Today we hear the story of creation, when the Spirit from God hovers over the waters. If you grew up with the older translations, you might have heard that the Spirit “brooded” over the waters (don’t listen to our wimpy translators who insist on calling it “wind”). We hear the story of the baptism of Our Lord in the Jordan River, when he sees the sky opened and the Spirit descending on him. And we hear the story of some of John the Baptist’s followers who have received the baptism of repentance but not the indwelling of God’s Spirit. Paul baptizes them and they speak with tongues of fire.
The Holy Spirit gives order to primal chaos. The Holy Spirit anoints the Christ. The Holy Spirit takes hold of believers, casting out the evil spirits that have battled for their souls, and turning them to the true God.
On Friday I found myself reading a story about the woman from San Diego who was shot and killed by Capitol Police as she attempted with the large crowd to occupy the capitol and overturn the election. As is so often the case these days, much of her story was committed to social media. She journaled her transition from someone who had more or less normal beliefs about the world into someone completely captivated by the mass delusion that’s become known as QAnon.
It was very strange to me. I try to keep my distance from Facebook and the sites where this kind of delusion takes hold. But still we can see it happening around us. We probably all know people who’ve gradually allowed their minds to be taken over by conspiracy theories, brainworms, factually incorrect views that are never questioned or challenged within the online communities they find or make for themselves. Captivated. Perhaps literally: taken captive.
And while the whole spectacle on Wednesday left me feeling very anxious and angry, I ended up feeling something like pity for this woman who had died in a reckless attempt to overthrow the government under which both she and I are citizens. I find it hard to acknowledge this, as the actions of people like her led to the killing of a Capitol Police officer and the deaths of three other people. And there should be no such pity for the politicians and media figures who have encouraged this delusion and this recklessness, who know very well that the last election was not stolen and do not think the vice president of the United States is a traitor who should be executed on the capitol lawn, as many of these protesters were chanting on Wednesday. They just found it convenient to make use of people like the woman who was killed.
The truth is that we can’t be deluded or captivated like this without our own consent and participation. But evil spirits make the most of any opportunity they get. And it can be a very short trip from that first unhealthy fascination to becoming completely chained. It is frightening. This is the soil in which terrible destruction can grow. That’s the point of it, from the demons' point of view.
And it’s worth remembering that we’ve lost democracy in America before, in the 1870s. Democratically-elected state and local governments all over the southern United States were attacked, sometimes by nothing more than a few angry people who were able to raise an armed mob. They were not caught or punished, their actions inspired others, and pretty soon our brief experiment in universal male suffrage was over. It took almost 90 years to bring it back. And we can lose it again. Nothing to it.
The Church of Jesus has been through everything, and has endured and even flourished under every kind of government. But the promise of democracy--the idea that we all get to speak and vote with an equal voice--from a Christian point of view, is that it requires all of us to be citizens. It reflects the full humanity for which Jesus Christ shed his blood. It denies that fullness to no one. It requires us to want good things for each other, even when we disagree. It requires us to be responsible for each other, even when we imagine we have the power to destroy each other. It requires us to accept that sometimes we will lose and sometimes we will win, and it requires us to accept that both our wins and losses will come with limits that we all respect for our sake and for each others’. Without that, it will all be over, sooner or later. Democracy is not about specific institutions of government. At heart it’s about our relationship with each other. And if that relationship lacks charity, lacks responsibility, lacks prudence, it will fall apart.
This is why we pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit--to do battle with the powers of hatred and madness and destruction that will crowd in wherever we give them space. To vanquish and expel them. To give us the power to believe, and to hope, and to love, and to resist the voices of violence that surround us. And we are probably not aware of how, daily, the grace, and indulgence, and strength of God sustains us and keeps us from falling into so much worse.
When we baptize a new believer, we lay our hands on their head, and we pray “GIve to [this person] the gift of your Holy Spirit: the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord, the Spirit of joy at your presence.” We repeat these words at confirmation. Luther’s version of the baptism ritual has the priest saying over the one being baptized, “Depart O unclean spirit and give way to the Holy Spirit.” Over the gifts on the altar we pray “send your Holy Spirit upon these gifts.” Because we need the Holy Spirit to do anything pleasing to God. Every day that gift must come to us anew. It must lift us up from the powers that would consume us. It must equip us to do what we cannot do on our own. It must fight the battles we cannot win without it.
Because it is a constant struggle. We see that with horrible clarity when the seat of our elected government is overrun with people bent on destroying it. And it was only a matter of a minute or two between what happened and something much, much worse. This power must not reign in our hearts. The Holy Spirit must reign instead. We can argue, we can disagree, we can have different interests that create inevitable conflict. But we must not give ourselves over to destruction.
So we pray for the coming of that true, good, and Holy Spirit. We pray that it may guide us, keep us safe, and bind us together in love. Jesus came down to the Jordan with the crowd, unknown even to John the Baptist in this version of the story, to be baptized with this great mass of totally ordinary people from all Judea and Jerusalem--he came down, the one who brought forth the waters on the earth, who set the stars in their courses, who formed creation and lowered himself into the water, into his water, and was baptized in his ordinary humanity. God coming down to humanity, so that humanity could be lifted up to God. And heaven opened, and something new appeared and a new age began: that is the coming of the Holy Spirit in the ministry of Jesus and in our own life as believers. May it be so for us, as we seek to love and serve this world that is under such constant threat and in need of such generous love.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
We are gathered today in the last embers of the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty, two hundred and two decades (more or less) since the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a year we will struggle both to remember clearly and to forget cleanly. There has been so much death and so much suffering, beyond the death and suffering which is our lot as children of Adam and Eve in any year. There has been so much disruption and frustration, beyond the disruption and frustration we impose on ourselves in any year. If we are healthy, housed, and employed, we may count ourselves blessed even more than we might in any year. If we have kept our household or family together, done useful work, or made a contribution to the greater good, we might well take some comfort in that, beyond the comfort we might take in greater accomplishments in another year.
I have had to tell myself all of this, over and over again. Church kept going, thanks be to God. The preaching of the Gospel continued week in and week out, sermons and devotions and articles for the newspaper and newsletter pouring forth as fast as I could do it and surely that should count for something in the scheme of things. And it does not work. Rome was not yet at the peak of its power when Jesus was born in an insignificant town in a provincial backwater of its empire. And yet by the Year of Our Lord Four Hundred and Seventy-Six, it was in ruins. Despite everyone working hard and doing their best through plague and conflict and war and bad harvests.
It has never ended--plague and conflict and war and bad harvests, mass migration and desecrated environments and chaotic inequality--and we have never been equal to it. Perhaps you have felt this insufficiency in a year of lonely labor. Who among us has handled online school as well as we think we should? Who has seized the ambivalent opportunities of a crisis? Who kept family game night going more than three weeks? And would it have mattered if we had?
Each moment, each encounter is infinitely important. And what is a year but a parade of infinitely important moments, one after another through a decade and a century and a millennium and all the two-thousand and twenty Years of Our Lord from that night in the manger down until this day. It is the same world into which Jesus was born. It is the same sky above us, the same slowly shifting human genome within us, the same relentless timeline around us. We breathe his air. We walk his earth. We die his death.
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” I think a lot about those shepherds every year. What was their life like? Very hard, I imagine, by our standards. There was no retirement plan. There was no real career advancement. No vaccines. They weren’t citizens of any kingdom but God’s. Weather and viruses and the boots of the tramping warriors marched over them without a thought. On the other hand they probably didn’t have annual growth targets to meet. They could safely assume that their rulers, whoever they were, would be pretty bad. They never had to live through, let alone participate in, the most important election of their lifetimes every four years. They lived and died in a world that took no note of them. They were not the heroes of anyone’s story.
And the messenger from God comes to them. They were terrified. Of course they were terrified. On what grounds could they expect anything good from heaven or earth? But the messenger tells them not to fear. A Savior has been born to them this night in the city of David, the Messiah, the Lord. A child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. The sky opens and the whole heavenly host appears to them, the shepherds, proclaiming peace and good will on earth. The earth where they scraped out their little living year by year until they died.
So they go with haste to see their Messiah. They find him, wrapped up and lying in the manger, with his mother and Joseph. It is the most ordinary thing in the world. And yet it is a miracle. They rejoice and praise God.
The shepherds counted for little in the eyes of the world. Their names are not even preserved in the Gospel. But they were enough. They were enough for God to come to. The world was and is wracked with sin and death and violence and injustice. But the world is enough for God to come to, in all its fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains. You and I, for all our inadequacies and failures, all our griefs and sorrows and anger this year and every year, are enough for God to consecrate with his gracious appearance among us.
If you were the only human being ever born into sin and in need of redemption, all of this would have happened just for you. God would have done it all for each and every one of us. God would have sanctified this world with the light of his Incarnation for you. God would have bent down from the heavenly sanctuary to crush hell under his infant foot and call forth the joy of these shepherds for one solitary soul. And those shepherds would have gladly given their praise, and that mother would have borne her child, and that foster father would have protected them both, and that manger would have been filled with the quiet power of God for you because you, right now at the end of the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty, are enough to save.
“Mild he lays his glory by,” the hymn says. “Born that we no more may die. Born to raise each child of earth. Born to give us second birth.” This is the gift of God for you this night: the Messiah, the Lord. Amen.
Zephaniah 3: 14-20
Romans 13: 11-14
As my Bible notes, Psalm 96 is all about ‘exhortations to praise’. My favorite lines are in the twelfth verse: ‘Let the field be joyful…then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice before the Lord…’. It makes me wonder how all the trees along the Katy Trail, or all the trees on Mount Penn in my native state of Pennsylvania, would rejoice? Would they turn the most vivid assorted colors of autumn, all at once? Would their limbs be dusted with sparkling snow? After all, they are all Christmas trees.
‘Sing unto the Lord, bless His name…’. We do that every time we sing a Christmas carol, sing a hymn or sing to a child. When we sing, we give unto the Lord praise, glory and strength. He comes to judge the world with righteousness, and the people with his truth.
The verses from Zephaniah also instruct us to sing, be glad and rejoice because the Lord is in the midst of us. God will gather the sorrowful and will end all that makes them sad, and will…’get them praise and fame in every land where they have been put to shame’. God will turn their captivity before their eyes.
God’s presence may surprise people, and the prophets share grave warnings for those who are complacent and unaware of His importance and presence in their daily lives. We should ask ourselves: Do our actions match our faith commitments? Are we ready for God to live among us?
In the passage from Romans, Paul tells us it is time to awake out of sleep, for ‘…now is our salvation, nearer than we believed’. Let us cast off darkness because ‘ the day is at hand’. God urges us to walk ‘…honestly, not in rioting and drunkenness…not in strife and envying. Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ.’
Referring to Psalm 96, verses 12-13, draw your idea of ‘all the trees of the wood…’ rejoicing. Use crayons, colored pencils, paints, Magic Markers to make your trees as colorful and festive as possible. If you’re using a pen or pencil, cut some colorful images out of magazines or newspapers to paste on the tops of your trees. Do your trees look joyful? Do they make you want to rejoice, too?
“Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.” (Zephaniah 3:13)
Recently as I was driving, the Bach cantata “Sheep May Safely Graze” came on the radio (I like to listen to WRR, especially while I’m driving and liable to get temperamental). I was brought back to the day of my installation as Christ Lutheran Church’s pastor in November, 2019. Suzanne Dunkelberg sang, and Hando Nahkur played, that piece at my request. I assumed Bach was working on a Biblical reference but apparently he wasn’t; it was a secular lyric, representing pagan stories.
But that’s fine, because what I’ve always wanted church to be is a place of safety, where Christ’s flock might be free and at peace. “No one shall make them afraid” is such a simple, basic, and yet beautiful promise. Just to be able to enjoy the fact of existing, as a loved and protected sheep of God’s fold, is a bliss greater than anything wealth or power offers us.
As we move to the days of the celebration of Christ’s birth, consider the feeling and experience of safety. Where and when have you felt it? How have you contributed (or not) to that feeling for others?
Pray: Today’s O Antiphon
O come O King of nations, come
O Cornerstone that binds in one:
Refresh the hearts that long for you;
Restore the broken, make us new.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel
Our Father, who art in heaven...
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
Pastor Ben Dueholm
God's Work. Our hands.