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Starting Out Well

And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. (Mark 1:17-18)

The word “immediately” in the verse above is a word we will see often in Mark’s gospel. Things happen fast – one right after the other. Stories are short, to the point and then press the reader forward into the next event. Mark wants people to see the power, the focus and the urgency that Jesus brings to his work.

As we begin Mark’s gospel, this chapter reminds us how important it is to start well. The more clarity you have and the more ducks you can put in a row as you begin, the better things are likely to unfold.

Jesus has someone prepare the way for him and also set him apart for his work. John the Baptist’s role is both to show people who Jesus is before he comes and then to point to him clearly when he arrives. John’s message prepares the way. John’s baptism sets Jesus apart to begin his work as Messiah.

When this goes well and things are ready, then you can deal with whatever challenges you face. It is no accident that once Jesus is set apart to do his work that the next thing that happens is the temptation in the wilderness. The word “immediately” is in this part of the story as well and Jesus encounters Satan in the wilderness and withstands the test. He is ready for work.

Even then, Jesus doesn’t feel able to do this work alone. God always prefers to work with others and Jesus embodies that with the call of the disciples. He finds allies for the work and builds a team from the beginning. These first disciples would also be the ones on which the church would be built after his resurrection. In fact, many believe Peter was the first pope for the church.

For us, Mark wants the church to be able to share the story with power and urgency. He wants us to be able to take what we receive and work quickly and with a sense that what we do matters. And he wants us to be able to show people Jesus and invite them to see what we see and share what we have received.

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The Obedient Path

He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed.  (Luke 1:63)

Zechariah (and his wife Elizabeth) is one of the characters on our Jesse Tree, so you may encounter him a couple of times this Advent. They are the unlikely parents of John the Baptist. Zechariah worked in the Temple and was a part of the establishment. John the Baptist would become a rebel and a part of the anti-establishment. God would use them all to get the world ready for Jesus, but Zechariah was a bit slow to want to join in.

Zechariah’s resistance had led to him losing his voice. An angel had told him about the child and urged him to name the boy as “John.” This was no normal name for a family working in the Temple and Zechariah was resistant. Add to that the fact that he and Elizabeth were getting older and children seemed unlikely, and the Angel Gabriel’s message was met with doubt. It was this doubt that had been the reason the angel muted Zechariah’s voice.

 But Elizabeth did become pregnant and eventually the son who Zechariah never expected to see arrived on the scene. It was time for him to be named and circumcised. Elizabeth announced the name and no one believed her. John was no name for a son of a Temple priest! As Zechariah stood silently watching and listening to this unfold, he called for something to write on. He wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his voice returned.

All of us can be resistant to doing what God wants. Sometimes it is hard to get our lives together when we and God are so out of synch. But God’s Spirit urges us to continue to be open to listening and obeying God’s call. While we may not always like what it is that God is calling us to do, obeying God’s voice brings us meaning and life and helps us share in the work that God is doing in the world.

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God Can Use Anyone!

[Cyrus of Persia said], “Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord…” Ezra 1:3

A basic tenet of the Lutheran understanding of Christianity as that God can use anyone. In fact, God uses all sorts of people to love, protect, serve and set people free. It is how the world works and how God has intended it from the beginning. Each of us is created in the image of God and given gifts to use in service of living God’s image out in our lives.

In the quote above, the Exile is near its end. The Babylonian Empire has been replaced by the Empire of the Medes and Persians. Cyrus of Persia is the emperor in charge of things now. God has prompted Cyrus to set the Jews free and send them home to Jerusalem where they will rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and return to the homes they lost decades before. Cyrus is not Jewish but he is someone referred to as a “Messiah” in the scriptures. Messiah means “chosen or anointed one.” It is Cyrus’ calling to set the Jews free and send them home.

This is important because it helps each of us see how to view the world and the people around us. The people in our lives are from a wide variety of backgrounds, faiths, and ethnicities. They have all sorts  of ideas about how the world works and about who God is. Some of them have ideas that we may find strange or confused. There is no doubt that they are not exactly like us.

But God can and does choose to use anyone and everyone. Cyrus was an outsider and the head of the oppressor’s empire. None of the exiled was likely to have had much use for him at all. But God didn’t see this as an issue. God would and will work through anyone who can get the work done. God wanted the people to go home, and Cyrus was the guy who could make it happen.

This is a great reminder for all of us to remain open. First, we should be open to seeing God at work in all sorts of people – some of who would surprise us. Second, living among the baptized, we are on notice that God wants to use us and we should be open to saying yes to God’s call. In the process, we may find our lives taking on new significance.

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Faith and the Big Picture

Sunday is the second week of Advent as we anticipate and prepare for the coming of Jesus.  We also continue to hear words from the Old Testament prophets who bring a call to change and words of hope to God’s people who haven’t gotten things right, but who continue to be God’s people in spite of this.

This week we’ll be taking a look at Isaiah 40.  Two very familiar passages come from this lesson. The words to the Advent hymn “Comfort, Comfort Now My People” begin this chapter to people who have been in exile for a very long time, and need to hear words of comfort and hope rather than condemnation. Immediately following this we read, ”A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  Words from the Old Testament for hope, the promise that God will soon be coming.  These are the same words used by the author of Mark to describe John the Baptist in announcing the coming of Jesus.

The exile of the people of Judah was about 70 years.  I wonder how often they asked, how much longer before this suffering ends?  How much longer before we can return home?  Will we ever be able to return home?  These may not be our questions, but in the midst of struggle, we wonder how much longer before we see some relief, or how long before things get better?  We want things fixed now!

This is when we need to hear words of hope and promise. We all need them from time to time.  God doesn’t come in to fix all of our problems, but God is in this for the long haul with us.  God and God’s word stands the test of time, long past the brief span of our lives. In the end, God always has the last word, a word of restoration and life.  And this is a word of hope, for the people in exile and the people of 2019 and beyond.

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Trusting a God Who Can Be Trusted

All Saints A

Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” 1 Kings 18:21

Life is full of choices – some of them easy and of little consequence like, “What should we have for dinner?” But some of them are deeply serious and matter a lot. If we choose one option the outcome can be wonderful – pick the opposite and the results are devastating.

Elijah is confronting the people with a serious choice. If they believe that Baal (the God of the other tribes in the region) is better – they should place their trust in Baal. If not, then they should put their trust in the God of Israel. But for Elijah, this was not like watching a sporting event where you didn’t care which team wins. This was a real issue and the place you put your faith matters.

In our world, there are many places to place our trust and many things that claim to offer peace, joy, power, security and more. They tempt us all the time. All of them may have something to offer in the short-term but all of them pass away and fade eventually. Recognizing that God is the one who made us and who can be trusted, even beyond the grave, is ultimately the basis for meaningful a confident lives.

This coming weekend we celebrate All Saints Sunday. It is a day to remember those who have gone before us and to honor God’s faithfulness to them, even beyond death. These people, whose faith shaped our faith, have finished the journey here and gone beyond any place where the promises made by other sources can be kept – they have gone on to be with God.

As followers of Jesus, part of what our faith is grounded in is the promise of Jesus. He has gone into death itself. He has been raised from the dead. And he has promised that there is a place for us where he has gone. That hope reminds us why our faith in Christ is so important and so unique. That hope has given life to generations before us. That same hope promises life for us as well.

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Are You Hearing God Call?

Burning bush A

Then God said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5)

There is some debate about how we encounter God and who it is that God comes to. Does God come to a few based on some unique gifts and special criteria? Or does God come to all of us and simply gets noticed by whoever is paying attention?

Moses met God in the familiar story of the burning bush. God declared that it was holy ground on which Moses was standing. This encounter would be Moses’ call to leadership, the start of the Exodus, and the beginning of Israel as a covenant people. A lot was riding on Moses’ response! And Moses answered the call and amazing things happened as a result.

Perhaps there are times when God is looking for “just the right person.” The task is big, specific and only a few people could pull it off. But much of life is not that way at all. In our community the questions are related to feeding the poor, improving health care access, working with kids who need assistance in school, accompanying people as they age, and the list goes on and on and on. God cares about and is pressing people to rise up and be involved in all of these and more.

So sometimes the call from God is specific and focused. But at other times, perhaps all the time, the call of God is broad and wide. God asks, “Will you join me in the inbreaking of the reign of God?” And all who say “yes” find their lives taking on new meaning and making an impact in ways that only saying “yes” to God can provide.

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A Persistent God

Persistence

Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Genesis 32:28

Have you ever had a friend or family member with whom you had a messy relationship? You know the kind. Things are going well and you get along. Then they aren’t. But you are too connected and too committed to just give up on the relationship – it is a part of who both of you are and there’s no denying it. So you stick it out and some amazingly wonderful things happen. And some bumps happen. It is uneven and a bit unnerving. But it is authentic and your love and friendship for each other is real. And so you persist.

That’s the way Jacob’s relationships are. He is a bit volatile and a bit fragile. But he is persistent and refuses to give in to much. Even God is impressed with his stamina. And so God blesses him – not because he is the perfect role model but because Jacob is tough enough to not just throw in the towel and quit. God needs someone whose nature is to keep going and Jacob fits the bill.

Jacob will go on to be named “Israel” as a result of his encounter with and wrestling with God. It will be the name given to his ancestors and the nation they inhabit. Like Jacob, it will be their toughness and durability that will be a trademark of their existence. And from within their midst will rise the Messiah, one strong enough and committed enough to love the world in a way that would change it forever, even when the world would push him away and eventually kill him on a cross.

God likes persistence because God is persistent. If we are to live in the image of God, we need to be persistent. It is not always easy to press into the future. Not all of us will have the same stamina nor face the same circumstances. But whether we succeed at being persistent or not, one thing all of us can count on: God will be persistent with us. Sometimes, that has to be enough.

Thanks be to the God who persistently pursues us with the love we find in Jesus.

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Blessed to Need Each Other

Needs C

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” (Genesis 2:18)

Ask most people what God did when God saw that Adam was alone and they will talk about Eve. But first God started with animals. God gave Adam a wide variety of animals and charged Adam with the task of naming them. When it was over, Adam was still not satisfied. Adam did not need something to be in charge of – Adam needed someone who could be a partner and a peer.

So God took another tact and used a rib from Adam to make a woman. Having a partner and a peer would prove to be the action that would change everything.

We often think that this text is about the formation of genders – male and female. And of course, the story includes that. But there is something deeper that may provide us a clue about what God was up to when God made humankind and what God hopes for us as a result.

When God said, “It is not good…” this is the earliest reference in scripture to something not being good. Up to this point, everything is referred to as “good.” And the key thing that is the initial “not good” is aloneness. God sees that just as God contains a relationship with God’s self (the Trinity), so humankind is essentially relational. Without relationships with others, each person is in a “not good” place.

Adam’s needs open him up to receiving “help” from someone else. It is needs that point us outside of ourselves and open us up to receive from each other. We often think of needs as a signs of weakness. This is particularly true in American culture, where “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” is practically a mantra for being a real American.

But needs are apparently not signs of weakness. They are woven, by God, into the fabric of creation and it is God’s intention and hope that we will all have both gifts and needs and then share our gifts to assist each of us in our needs. The result is a mutual way of living, where we are drawn out of ourselves by our needs and receive from others as they share their gifts with us. Likewise, we offer ourselves to others in their needs with our gifts. The result is a community where we are drawn to each other and together reflect the goodness of God.

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Sabbath – The Sacred Rhythm of a Healthy Life

Sabbath and Rest

And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 2:2-3)

Scripture teaches that rest is built into the fabric of creation. It is part of the rhythms of life that are grounded in who God is and how God works. These things are then seen as “blessed” and “hallowed,” words that speak to the sense that Sabbath is more than just a good idea – it is a sacred one.

Studies of Americans show that sleep deprivation is a serious issue. People work too much, stay up too late, and sleep too little. Binge sleeping on a Saturday to catch up isn’t enough. Rest is important and sleep enhances the body’s ability to recover and to function well.

We often ascribe words to God like “almighty” and “omnipotent” or phrases like “the most high.” They are word that describe how strong and amazing God is. Yet scripture paints a more nuanced picture of God. Yes, God is amazing and capable of much – perhaps anything. But at the same time, God is not able or perhaps simply not willing, to just take care of everything and work all the time. After something big like creating the world, God steps back and takes a break.

God sees this act as a sacred beginning to the way we created creatures should structure our lives. Working all the time without a break is exhausting. Working all the time means too little time to step back and take stock of what is. Working every day limits our ability to recover and eventually weakens us. We need rest and we need to build it in routinely and with regularity.

One of the ways church life helps us with this is by calling faithful people to gather each week. By ordering our week in this way, we ensure that our attention will not be on work but on something else. We are reminded who we are and whose we are. And then we are sent out to return to the world of Monday through Saturday life where we do the work of God before stopping, resting and renewing again next week.

Sabbath refreshes and provides a rhythm to our lives. God needed the break. God knows we do too.

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Believing Changes What We See

Hebrews 11-1

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

Faith is the most amazing thing. Believe it or not (pun intended), everyone has some kind of faith. We all believe in something. And what we believe impacts what we see and what we hope to and expect to see

Saint Augustine said, “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”

What we believe shapes our worldview. While it has been said that seeing is believing – it is often not true. Ask two people who saw the same thing to tell you what happened and the story you get will be as much a reflection of what they believe as what they experienced. We see this as we interpret what is happening with race, border issues, class and all sorts of places in our world. One person with one belief system about how things are and should be shares the story one way. Another person with different beliefs shares it completely differently.

As Christians who trust that the God we meet in Jesus has changed everything, we see the world differently. God is working on something amazing in our world – the reign of God. We know it is coming because we know we carry the assurance of things hoped for. And we can hopefully see the world in which we live through the eyes of a God who loves us, loves our neighbors and has come in Jesus to connect us, heal us and make us whole.

We long for a world that is the way God promises it will be. The death and resurrection of Jesus ensures that we will indeed receive that promise. Our faith in that assures that what we long and hope for will come to be.

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