Finding Grace

I Kings 21:1-21a           I Kings Lectionary Reading

Galatians 2:15-21

Luke 7:36-8:3               Luke Lectionary Reading

birch1 agedvign10x8We all have times in our lives when we lose sight of what’s really important.  There are times when get so focused on the small things that we miss the big picture.  We all have moments when we think to ourselves, “Hey!  I was told there was a beautiful forest around here somewhere, but I can’t find it because of all these darn trees blocking my view!”

Those are the moments when we tend to focus on ourselves and our ideas so much that we lose sight of what God is doing in our lives and in our world.  We focus on our own immediate situation and put our trust in our own power and our own works, rather than giving thanks for the grace and goodness of God.

In the Old Testament lesson that went with today’s readings — 1 Kings chapter 21, the story of Naboth’s Vineyard — King Ahab and Queen Jezebel had become so obsessed with inflated ideas of their own royal powers and rights, that they completely forgot about God’s power and authority over Israel.

Do you remember this story?  King Ahab wants to buy Naboth’s ancestral land — a vineyard that generations of Naboth’s family had worked hard to cultivate — so that he can tear out all those carefully established grapevines and use it for a vegetable garden, since it’s conveniently located close to his palace.  When Naboth refuses to sell, pointing out that this land is a trust from God, which Naboth is supposed to protect and pass on to future generations, Ahab is blinded by his own pride and greed.  Ahab sees Naboth as ‘the bad guy’, the villain in this story.  Naboth is the problem, because he is selfishly refusing to do as his king wishes, when in reality, of course, Naboth had merely told the king an uncomfortable truth:  that God’s will matters infinitely more than Ahab’s whims.  Ahab pouts and whines about it, turns his face to the wall and refuses to leave his bed or eat anything, until his wife Jezebel decides to fix the problem by having Naboth falsely accused of a religious crime and killed.

Then when Ahab goes to take possession of the dead man’s vineyard, he’s confronted by the prophet Elijah, telling him that God knows Ahab and his wife are murderers, and that they will be killed as punishment.  Again, Ahab completely misses the ‘big picture’ and thinks that Elijah is the problem, the one who’s going out of his way to be perpetually unpleasant to the king for no good reason at all!   The old meanie!

Ahab’s view of reality is so distorted that he completely ignores the power of God in his world.  So, everything he does — or that he gets his wife to do FOR him! — in order to ‘fix’ his problems only makes things much, much worse for them both in the end, adding to the sum total of broken commandments and shattered lives that God will make them answer for.   Jezebel, at least, has some excuse for her ignorance, since she was born and raised in a different country, and every other country outside of Israel and Judah at that time believed that the king was the ultimate power.  The king was the one who spoke for the gods, telling the priests and others what to believe, and the king‘s every whim was to be considered law.  But Ahab should’ve known better.  He’d been raised in Israel and should’ve been aware that the King was only one form of authority under God in Israel.  The King had certain rights and duties, but he shouldn’t dare to try to take over the  job of priest or prophet as well, much less directly flout the law of the land.  Ahab’s blindness to God’s ways had no excuse at all.

And we can see a similar sort of blindness afflicting the Galatian Christians to whom Paul is writing.

Paul had gotten them off to a good start in the faith, he felt, but recently they’d gone astray.  They were now so absorbed in squabbles over details of Jewish ritual law that they’d completely lost sight of the Grace of God that was the real and ONLY basis for their salvation.  The Galatian Christians — many of whom had been Gentiles rather than Jews before their conversion — were worried that Christ alone simply wasn’t enough to save them.  There were those who claimed that true salvation required keeping all the laws of Moses (including all the more detailed prohibitions and ritual requirements in the book of Leviticus and elsewhere, and not just the ‘big ten’ commandments in Exodus), with Christ’s death on the cross being just sort of a nice accessory to go with righteousness under the law.

In other words, some of the Galatian Christians had started to see faith in Christ as more like the ‘cherry on top’ of their own efforts to get right with God, instead of seeing that the grace of God in Christ was the whole ice cream sundae of their liberation from sin and death.  Put another way, Grace isn’t just the cheese sprinkled on top — it’s the ‘whole enchilada’, Paul tells them!

If anyone could be saved by being circumcised according to the Law from birth and keeping all the laws as perfectly as humanly possible from earliest childhood, Paul argues, it would have been he himself.  But it doesn’t work that way!  Instead, the law just makes you more and more aware of how sinful you are and how desperately you need God’s grace in Christ to save you.  This need for Christ’s salvation is so desperate and so radical, Paul argues, that it’s like being completely transformed from the inside out.  Salvation by grace means the end of the old life and the start of a completely new life, lived in Christ and only made possible by faith in Christ — faith which is itself a gift of God’s grace, rather than something we achieve through our own power!

Grace is everything, Paul insists, and he’s afraid that the Galatians are missing it, trading it in for a false faith in works righteousness under the old ritual laws!

And in Luke’s Gospel, the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner really lost sight of what was important.  This Pharisee was so blinded by his attention to details of ritual law and the need to keep himself apart from more sinful and ritually unclean people that he honestly couldn’t see what this sinful woman of the town was getting so emotional about.  All he could see was the impropriety of her behavior, coming into HIS house uninvited and putting her sinful hands and hair all over the bare feet of his male guest.  How incredibly inappropriate this was!  And all he could think about was how disappointed he was in Jesus for allowing this sinful woman to touch him — how much it lowered his opinion of Jesus as a possible prophet, that Jesus seemed unaware or uncaring of the many, many religious laws this woman had broken.

The Pharisee is so busy judging the sinful woman and Jesus, and finding them both lacking, that he feels no joy, no gratitude, no recognition, even, that the Messiah, the Son of God, the savior was seated at his table.  What a loss!  What a thing to miss out on!

Grace, as Paul reminds the Galatians, is the forest in which Faith, Hope, and Love stand like giant redwood trees.  Grace is the ground under our feet, as Christians, and the air that we breathe.  Grace is the very life in us, the new life lived by faith in Christ’s death and resurrection and by the power of Christ’s abiding presence within us.

And it is grace that this nameless sinful woman of the city had seen and heard in Jesus’ message and which brings her into the Pharisee’s house in joy and relief and wondrous, tearful gratitude.  All of which the Pharisee — a highly intelligent and educated man and devoutly religious, someone who would have been eagerly looking for the arrival of the promised Messiah — somehow managed to completely miss, even though it was literally right in front of his face.

How do you miss something that big, that momentous, that important when it’s happening right in front of you?  How do you not see the grace of God in Christ?

Well, the evidence of today’s Scripture readings — and my own, painful personal experience! — suggests that it’s surprisingly easy for us human beings to lose sight of what’s really important, to overlook the Grace of God which surrounds us and supports us and gives us life, like a fish in water, and wander off in search of something ‘better’.

But how do we get so turned around?  How do we become so willfully blind?  And how do we get back on track?  How can we open our eyes and begin to truly see again?

One way we can lose our sight is if we follow the examples of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.  Underneath all the many, many other things that are obviously wrong with these two people, I think their major problem is that they’ve made themselves the center of their universe.  They have no awareness of anything greater than themselves, anything more important than their own immediate wants or needs.  They may claim to worship the false god Ba’al, but Ba’al is really just a mirror to their own vanity and fear.

Because they are mortal and sinful and stupid, and therefore incapable of providing a stable center for their own world, Ahab and Jezebel have become willfully short-sighted, looking no further than the very next moment, the next appetite to be satisfied, the next small, selfish goal to be achieved.  They can only see other people as irrelevant details, at best, or — in the case of Naboth and Elijah — as problems to be removed from their path as quickly and ruthlessly as possible.  They’ve lost sight of where they are (Israel, God’s Promised Land) and whose they are (they — like all humans — belong to the God of Israel, the God who created all that is), so they have no sense of where they’re going in life or anything to hope for at the end of their journey.  They are hollow people, and can never be filled or satisfied.

Another way we can go astray is if we begin to undervalue the Grace of God, as many in the Galatian Church seemed to be doing.

Yes, the Galatians had been getting some very bad advice from false teachers.  There were people who had come to them during Paul’s absence and told them that they needed more than the Grace of God — that they needed to be circumcised and observe all the ritual laws of the Jewish faith, before they could derive any benefit from Christ’s death on the cross.  Christ had come to save the Jews, and so you had to become a good Jew first before the cross could do you any good.

But that bad advice, that false teaching, shouldn’t have found them so receptive.  They knew better.  Yet, somehow, they must have begun to question in their own hearts first.  They must’ve become discontented with the idea that Christ had done everything to save them, and that it was no credit to them.  They hadn’t earned their salvation through their own strength and wisdom, and so they began to doubt.  Surely, they thought, there must be more to salvation than just a whole-hearted, life-changing faith in Christ?  Again, perhaps it was vanity and pride getting in their way.

And Simon the Pharisee was a member of a group — the Pharisees — who had assigned themselves a huge task, the job of holding together the faith of Israel, in the face of Roman occupation of their country and persecution of their beliefs.  With such a big job to accomplish under very difficult conditions, it was all too easy for the Pharisees in general and this Simon in particular to fall into the trap of judging every person in terms of how useful they can be towards achieving their goal.  Only perfect obedience to the law (which was only possible if you were pretty well off financially, because many of the ritual requirements were rather expensive) was good enough, could set the right example for the rest of the Jewish people to try to live up to.

Simon is so busy trying to figure out whether or not Jesus is worth his time and worthy of his hospitality, whether or not Jesus can be useful to the cause, that he forgets to observe many of the hospitality customs himself.  He fails to welcome Jesus as a guest should be welcomed.  And when he sees Jesus’ tolerance — even compassion — for a sinful woman, he’s ready to write Jesus off completely.  Clearly, someone so willing to tolerate imperfection could not be a real prophet, much less a useful tool for encouraging the people to stick closer to the law and be more virtuous.  Therefore, blinded by his own prejudices and pride, Simon completely misses the fact that everything he wants and needs for the salvation of himself and his people is right there, offering him forgiveness and salvation.

Fortunately, others were not so blind, as Luke points out in the following verses, where he notes that in addition to the twelve disciples Jesus was followed by some well-known women of means who’d experienced Jesus’ healing power and had become the major financial supporters of his preaching mission.

The nameless ‘sinful woman’ left Simon’s house to go her own way in peace, forgiven and saved by the Grace of Christ, through faith.  Others, like Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Susanna, followed Jesus to the cross and then to the empty tomb and the resurrection.

We don’t know what happened to Simon the Pharisee, since he’s never mentioned again.  Perhaps he was never able to see past the end of his own nose and realize who Jesus truly was.  Perhaps, like the nameless woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, he eventually accepted Jesus’ forgiveness and went back to his regular life, freed and redeemed.  Perhaps he later joined the followers of Christ, after the resurrection.  But I hope, for his sake, that he did open his eyes to the truth of God’s grace, whether sooner or later.

Like a divine, loving father, God surrounds us with evidence of God’s love.  We’re surrounded by signs of God’s grace, which came at such a terribly high price — the willing death of God the Son, on the cross, for our sins.  But we can be very foolish, frightened, ungrateful children, at times.  With evidence of God’s grace — of God’s great love — all around us, we still go astray, we still lose our way.  Our sight becomes clouded and unreliable, and we complain that God has let us down or abandoned us, at the very moment when God’s arms are reaching out to us, holding us up, keeping us from falling or tripping over our own pride and fear.  If we were fish, we’d be swimming in Grace.  If Grace were dish soap we’d be ‘soaking in it’, as in the old Palmolive ads.

Finding Grace isn’t hard.  God offers it freely, through Jesus Christ.  God even gifts us with faith, as the Holy Spirit moves within us and helps us to accept the Grace that is offered, to believe in the gift of salvation from sin and death.

When we open our eyes and our hearts to the reality all around us, and when we accept the gift of God’s Grace, we affirm with Paul that Christ did not die for nothing!  Christ died for us, and we can only accept that gift with humility and joy.

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BURNING BUSHES

Exodus 3:1-15burning bush
Luke 13:10-17

Healing can’t wait. Freedom can’t wait. And God won’t wait—not when God’s children are suffering and living and dying in bondage. The God whose name, “Yahweh,” “I AM WHO I AM,” translates into “I am the God who is present in every moment of your history; I am the God who acts, here and now!”—this God won’t wait until a convenient time to heal us, to set us free from the chains of fear and pain and sin that bind us, that bend us over with their weight and tie us into knots and keep us from even imagining the kind of life God wants for us. Nor will this God wait until we’ve got our lives completely ordered and fixed-up before God calls us to go out and heal others, to bring good news and set others free. That’s what today’s Scripture readings tell us, I believe: that the God who called to Moses out of a burning bush and came to be born on earth in a stable and take all the worst that we humans are capable of heaping upon one another, . . . that this God won’t wait, but calls us to be burning bushes today, to be the body of Christ today, to be healed and set free today. God won’t wait, because God loves us and wants something better for all of us than the life we’ve known.

Let’s start by looking at the Gospel lesson, telling us about Jesus healing the woman who’d been bent over, crippled for 18 years. This passage shows us that God won’t wait to bring healing and freedom to God’s people, even when WE may think the timing is inconvenient, or resent the change that it represents.

First note that it’s Jesus who initiates the healing with this woman. The leader of the synagogue scolds the crowd, telling them they shouldn’t come looking for healing on the Sabbath, but it’s Jesus who decided to heal that day. Were all the sick and crippled people supposed to stay home, out of sight and out of mind, on the Sabbath, lest Jesus be moved to help them? The synagogue leader apparently didn’t want to confront Jesus directly, so he instead scolds him indirectly, through his words to the crowd. But Jesus isn’t having any of that nonsense. Jesus turns to the leader of the synagogue directly and says, “You hypocrite! If you had an animal that was tied up, hurting or in need, would you not untie it and lead it to water, to food, to whatever it needed, even if it was on the Sabbath day? Would not compassion outweigh your concern for the rules of Sabbath-keeping? So, then, why should this woman wait even two seconds longer to be healed, to be set free, to be allowed to stand up straight and look you in the eye?”

Now consider what this was like from the woman’s point of view, what she’d been through. She’s there in the synagogue, minding her own religious business, not asking for any help, nor even expecting anything. Probably she’d come to accept that this was all life had to offer her. Perhaps she’d even come to accept other what others often said, that she must’ve done something to deserve this infirmity, this crippling spirit that had tortured her so long. But Jesus insists that she’s important to God, that she’s a child of Abraham, a daughter of the covenant, and that her healing and freedom can’t wait even one more second! That here and now is the only appropriate place and time for her to be set free.

Then, let’s look at Moses’ story, showing us how unexpectedly and even sneakily God’s healing and freedom may break in upon us.
The first thing we notice is how subtly God approaches Moses (not something you associate with God in Exodus!). When we think of God in Exodus, we think of signs and miracles that were anything but subtle: the Plagues of Egypt, the pillar of fire and cloud, the parting of the sea, for instance. Here God reaches out to Moses using a lowly, measly, little bush (not a tree, even, much less a pillar of fire and smoke)—a bush which is on fire, yet not consumed, sitting on a rocky hillside. It’s just enough to stir Moses’ curiosity, to move him slightly outside the rut he’s fallen into. He’s probably told himself that this shepherding job is all there is for him for the rest of his life, that he needs to accept it and relax, that fixing the world’s problems is somebody else’s job. He’s gotten entirely too comfortable expecting little or nothing of himself. But God’s not going to wait for Moses to ‘get his act together’, to put all his childhood issues and identity questions and other problems behind him. No, God subtly, sneakily draws Moses off his path, a little way out of his comfortable rut, by appealing to Moses’ curiosity, his desire to see what’s going on with this little, minor miracle and mystery before him.

The next thing we notice is how unexpectedly God’s call comes upon Moses. God is telling Moses how He’s heard the cries of the Israelites and is determined to end their suffering and bring them out of bondage, and Moses was probably nodding along, thinking, “That’s great—you go do that, God!” But then comes the sneaky, unexpected twist. God concludes by saying, “…so that’s why I’m sending YOU, Moses, to go back to Egypt, confront Pharaoh, and convince him to let my people go!”

Say what?!?

And then, no matter how many excuses Moses comes up with for why this is really a bad idea, God persists. God insists that Moses IS the one God wants to use for this, even though Moses is no more impressive in himself than that puny, stunted little shrub growing there on the hillside. It’s not Moses’ inherent grandness and greatness that’s going to accomplish the task. Rather, it is God’s light and power shining through Moses that will do the trick.

When Moses asks God for a name, a handle, a handy label that can be used to cut God down to size, to make the majesty of God more understandable, more familiar to lowly humans, what Moses gets instead is a description of how God operates. Instead of saying something like, “Well, my name’s ‘Jehovah’, but you can call me ‘Joe’”, God instead lays the full complexity and majesty of God’s being on Moses: “I AM WHO I AM” (or some scholars translate it, “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”). God is “I AM”, the God who is being and acting and creating and healing and setting us free, whether or not we’re ready for that to be so.

What’s more, this same God of action calls us to action, to be “burning bushes”, filled with the Spirit of God from our baptism on—the Spirit which burns strong and bright within us, and yet somehow, paradoxically, does not destroy our puny, weak human selves. God won’t wait to call us to proclaim liberty, to shine a light on this world, to feed the hungry, to love the unloved, to welcome the unwelcome and unseen.

Today is the day that God calls us to be the church, to be the Body of Christ here on earth. God won’t wait for us to gain more members, or get more money in the bank, or to sort out any of the problems that we think make us ineligible or incapable. God won’t wait to heal us, to call us to stand up straight, to stand with dignity, secure in the knowledge of God’s love, and to send us forth to be light and love and healing for others in this world.

Trustworthy Prophets

TRUSTWORTHY PROPHETS:Jesus Open Arms
God’s Word of Hope for Weary and Wounded Would-Be Disciples

By Rev. Lori Patton

1 Samuel 3:1-20
John 1:43-51

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael asks.

Do you get the impression that maybe Nathanael has been around the block a few too many times? That maybe he’s just seen a little too much of the world? He is not exactly overflowing with confidence, there, is he? According to John, a cock-eyed optimist is something Nathanael is not.

Later on, in Romans 5:3-5, Paul will write that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

But that’s not where Nathanael is, now. In Nathanael’s experience, suffering produces more suffering, and more suffering produces world-weariness, and world-weariness produces cynicism, and cynicism does not disappoint . . . as long as you only expect to be disappointed!

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Can anything good come out of Wisconsin?

Can anything good come out of the government? Can anything good come out of Hollywood? Can anything good come out of Presbytery, or the Synod, or the General Assembly, or one more committee meeting? Can anything good come out of the Religious Right? Can anything good come out of the ‘too-Liberal’ Left? Can anything good come out of public education? Can anything good come out of this world, at all, anymore?

Or have we just come too far, seen too much, believed and been disappointed too many times by our families, our teachers, our friends, and our leaders? Do we even have it in us, anymore, to hope for anything better, from our world or from ourselves?

That’s Nathanael. And, maybe it’s some of us, here today.

I suggest, anyway, that this might be a fair summation of the feelings and thoughts of those Israelites who came to worship at Shiloh in 1 Samuel, while Eli’s sons were acting as priests, there.

You see, there’s a reason why God delivers such a grim judgment concerning Eli’s sons in the passage for today. Those two men, Hophni and Phinehas, were in a position of great power. As hereditary priests, in the line of Aaron, they were charged with interceding with God on the people’s behalf, standing between the people’s sins and God’s judgment. And they had been royally abusing that power for some time, now, using it to extort gifts and sexual favors, and doing it all in the name of a God in whom they had apparently ceased to believe – or at least, they had ceased to believe in God’s justice, and had come to look upon God as their servant, rather than the other way around. They seemed to have a lock on everything. Who was there who could challenge them? What hope could the people have that things would ever get any better, that God would ever hear their prayers and help them, when all access to God went through official channels that were the very source of the corruption and so much of the suffering?

That’s where young Samuel comes in.

Samuel – just twelve years old at this time, according to the tradition – is placed in one of the toughest positions any young person can imagine. Not only does he have to accept the unprecedented fact that God is speaking directly to him – for at the beginning of the passage, we are told that such divine messages were rare in those days, and I don’t imagine that even then 12-year-olds were encouraged to claim divine revelation denouncing their elders . . .

Not only does he have to wrap his young mind around the very fact of God speaking to him, but then, on top of that, the gist or core of the message is a judgment against the house of Eli, against his mentor and legal guardian, someone whom he seems to have held in real affection, and someone who certainly held real power over his young life. Even though Eli had already heard, via another prophet, this judgment against his family, Samuel still may have had good reason to fear being scape-goated, since he was the one messenger that Eli could ‘shoot’ with impunity, if he were inclined to ‘shoot the messenger’ carrying bad news.

So, Samuel stands at a crossroads: to play it safe, or not to play it safe; to keep his mouth shut and stick with the status quo, or to speak the truth that had been revealed to him. The choice would affect the course of the rest of his life, and the rest of the course of the history of Israel.

As we heard in the reading for today, though Samuel is reluctant at first, eventually he ‘lays it on the line’ and speaks truth to the major human power in his young life. That will turn out to be good practice for later on in his career, when he’ll have to stand up to King Saul, and train up his successor Nathan to be prepared to speak the truth (no matter how devastating) to King David.

Samuel decides to become a trustworthy prophet.

There are a lot of people looking for trustworthy prophets – both in biblical times and today.

That’s what Nathanael’s seeking – it’s why he does “come and see”, in spite of his cynicism. As certain as he is that everything in the world is rigged, that the deck is stacked against anything good coming into his life or into this world, he still has just enough hope left in him to “come and see” Jesus.

Lots of people are looking for trustworthy prophets today – people who’ve given up, perhaps, on expecting anything really good or truthful through the ‘official channels’ of school, family, church, the news media, and government. Instead, people end up looking for hope in unlikely or unhealthy places – in popular culture, or in drugs, or in abusive relationships. As many of you know, my special area of study in my doctoral studies was the relationship between popular culture, psychology, and religion. But what I learned is that popular culture – like psychology – is great at helping people to formulate the big questions in their lives, to identify the problems they need help with, but it’s not so great at coming up with the answers to those questions, or developing real solutions to the problems we have.

I subtitled my sermon today ‘God’s Word of Hope for Wounded and Weary Would-Be Disciples’, because there are many people in today’s world who would be disciples if they could find the way. They’re wanting to be, they’re looking. But the best that pop culture, for instance, can do is keep their hope alive from one day to the next (like a feeding tube or respirator for a coma patient) – it can’t ultimately save or cure anyone.

People who are searching for trustworthy prophets need to be told to “come and see” Jesus, and to find trustworthy prophets among all of us here in the church. People need to be able to see the Church as a safe place full of people who will look for real answers to the tough questions in our lives.

We’re here today because we have found a trustworthy prophet in Jesus – whose title ‘Son of Man’ means ‘final judge’ as well as the ‘messenger who makes God known’. But more than that, in Jesus Christ we have found God incarnate, walking and living among us, sharing our pains and fears and our joys and loves. We have found a God who always stands with the victim, and never with the abuser. A God who is on the side of the frightened child, and not the coach or priest who would abuse that child.

But having found Jesus, Nathanael himself became a ‘trustworthy prophet’, spreading the news abroad to all whom he met.

And that is also what we are called to do.

We are called to testify that yes, something good can come out of the church. Something worth believing in. To testify that God does not stand with abusers of power against the abused, or with the super-rich against the disappearing middle class and the ever-growing ranks of the poor in our country. Rather, God stands always with the abused, the wounded, the weary. God stands with the vulnerable and needy of this world, demanding justice, truth, and faithfulness.

Friends, in 1 Corinthians 6:20 the Apostle Paul reminds us all that we are precious in God’s sight, having been bought with a great price, and that therefore we should not let ourselves be dominated or enslaved or abused. We are God’s – we belong to God. And God has called each of us to become a trustworthy prophet, speaking God’s true words of hope and truth and love in this weary world of ours, and providing a safe haven for all who are weary and sick at heart.

As disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, we have been given a great gift – the gift of salvation, and of our eternal hope and knowledge of God’s love. Now, let us go forth to share that gift with a world that is desperately in need of that message, through our words and through our deeds this coming week.

Looking for the Why?

By Rev. Lori PattonLooking for Why

Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Psychologist Victor Frankl, a Jew who survived the Nazi concentration camps during World War II, came out of the camps with the conviction that the deepest desire of the human being is not for pleasure, as Freud seemed to think, nor for power, as Alfred Adler believed, but for meaning. People want to know why they live, want to know that their lives have purpose. People need context, a story that they’re a part of.

I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

I mean, from an early age, children want to know WHY things are, and will drive adults crazy with their incessant questioning, “Why, why, why?” Even when we grow up and learn that it’s obnoxious to ask “Why?” all the time, we still want to know “why?” Of necessity, we spend a good deal of our time just learning how life works – how to get a job, how to get food, how to make friends, how to drive a car, how to raise our kids, how to get along with our parents – but what we really want to know is why we live, and why things are as they seem to be. Beyond who we are and how we are, we want to know why we are. Carl Jung seemed to think that this search for ‘Why?’ was a task for the latter half of our lives, something that younger adults don’t need to bother with, but I don’t think that’s true. “Why?” is a question we wrestle with at every stage of life, I think.

Can you think of a time when you felt – perhaps for the first time in your life – that you were where you were meant to be, doing what you were meant to be doing? Perhaps it was because of the work you were doing, perhaps because of a relationship with someone, or some combination of those two – whatever. But if you were lucky enough to have one of those times, what you felt was, “Yes . . . this is right. This is what I’m for – this is why I am, at least for now.” And even if things were difficult, you still felt wonderful, because there was that deep-down sense of peace, of rightness, of not having to be constantly afraid that you belonged somewhere else . . . OR that you didn’t belong anywhere, that there simply was no reason for your life (which is the worst!).

Well, I think that that’s what we’re seeing happen in Luke’s story of the Baptism of Jesus. For Luke, the important part of the story is the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus, when he is praying after his baptism, and the effect that this has on Jesus’ life. In the very next chapter, Luke 4:16-21, Jesus stands in the synagogue and reads the passage from Isaiah 61, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor,” and then says that this passage is true of him.

The coming of the Spirit upon him is an anointing for public ministry. It comes not to make him the Son of God, – for Luke’s birth story makes clear that Jesus was this already and that through Jesus the promise of Isaiah was extended to all of us as sons and daughters of God – but to show him why he was born the Son of God, to show him what he had come to do, and give him the power to begin to do it.

In Luke, as in the rest of scripture, the Holy Spirit comes upon you for a reason – it brings a commission from God, a purpose for your life – it brings meaning and the beginnings of an answer for your “Why?”

Okay, so wonderful. So, we were all supposedly sealed by the Holy Spirit when we were baptized, right? So, what if we don’t feel particularly commissioned or empowered? What if we don’t yet know why we were put here? Or, maybe, we felt at one time that we did know why, but now things have changed, and that original purpose no longer serves or is no longer possible? What then?

If we still feel confused and adrift and full of questions, does that mean that our baptism was a ‘dud’, that it just didn’t ‘take’?

Not at all!

The wonderful thing about the readings from Luke and Acts is that they show that the Holy Spirit didn’t automatically come at the moment of baptism. It came afterward – perhaps considerably afterward, in some cases – and it came in the midst of prayer, in the midst of seeking after God’s will in the community of faith.

In a sense, our baptism is like Jesus’ miraculous birth story: it’s a sign that we are children of God, just as Christ is. But it may take us some time to find out why we have been born children of God, what commission God has for us. There can be years of searching, of wondering, of trying things out, like Jesus staying behind in the Temple when he was twelve years old, until his parents found him and in essence said, “You’re not supposed to go off on your own just yet, kid!”

But it’s important to note that Jesus didn’t just sit at home alone and pray and wait for a suitable revelation from the heavens. He was out seeking his mission, not waiting for it to come and find him. He was out participating in the religious life of his community, by coming out to be baptized, as so many others were doing, and it was after that that the Spirit came to him and filled him with power. It was after that that God told him, “Yes, this is it! now, you’re ready. Go to it, kiddo!”

By participating in the life of our church and our community, by seeking the right road and by praying seriously, we can be sure that – however long our commissioning takes – when it does come to us, we will be at the right place, at the right time to receive it. And if our work is completed, or the relationship which defined our purpose is ended by death or separation, if for some reason it becomes impossible for us to pursue that first purpose any longer and we have to once more seek a “Why?” for our life, I have faith that God will supply our need. I believe that through prayer and active seeking we will find a new commission, a new calling, a new ministry for which we have been anointed. We will find new meaning for our lives.

That still leaves one problem, one question: what if you get tired, or scared, or decide you don’t want to do what you feel God is calling you to do?

When Jesus returned from the Jordan after his baptism, full of the Holy Spirit, he was led straight out into the wilderness, where the devil told him, “Listen, chum, there’s an easier way! You’ve got all this power now, so why not use it to make life more comfortable for yourself? Take a few short-cuts! No one will blame you. You deserve a break, so take it!” Jesus held fast, of course, resisting the temptations that were put before him to trade his mission and birthright as the Son of God for a pot of the devil’s porridge.

But think about the prophet Jonah and how HE responded when God commissioned him to go and prophesy to Nineveh, the wealthy and powerful enemy of his people. Jonah pretty much said, “I’m not stupid, I’m not expendable, and I’m not going! Thanks for thinking of me, God, but you’ll need to look for a more gullible prophet than me for this job!” And Jonah hightailed it in the opposite direction. But from that moment on, nothing seemed to go right for him. and he could find no peace. It got so bad after a while that, when a storm came up, he felt responsible for it, because of his disobedience to God, and he told the sailors to throw him overboard in order to save the rest of them. But God didn’t let Jonah sink and die; God sent a great fish to swallow him and take him to dry land and belch him back up! (Not the easiest way to travel, by the way. Kind of makes being crammed into an economy seat on an airplane look like luxury in comparison, doesn’t it?). So, Jonah went to Nineveh after all, and it wasn’t as bad as he’d feared. In fact, it went a little too well for Jonah’s taste. The people of the city responded so quickly and wholeheartedly to his message that God spared them after all. Which ticked Jonah off! After all that he’d gone through in trying to resist this mission, he was enraged at God for sparing the lives of the humans and animals within the great city. Jonah thought his mission was about bad news and destruction, but it was actually about giving even the enemies of Israel a chance for redemption.

I think the point of the book of Jonah is to show that we can’t ever quite free ourselves from God’s commission, and that carrying out our mission, finding our ‘Why?’ can have unexpected results. There’s no real peace for us apart from obedience to God, and God always leans on the side of hope and redemption, even for the worst of sinners. Being true to your purpose, doing what God has meant for you to do at this point in your life, isn’t always a ‘bed of roses’, of course, but there’s never quite the same restlessness and lack of purpose, lack of meaning – never the same anxious feeling that you ought to be someplace else, doing something different, or be nowhere at all.

Friends, there IS a baptism with the Holy Spirit, a commission from God for each one of us. God always has an answer for our “Why?”, even though – as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 – we may not see it clearly until we see God face to face at last.

If we have not yet discovered where God wants us to be, or where God is calling us to go next, what God has meant for us to be and do, then we will. Soon.

But whether we have found our purpose or are still seeking, we are all called to work and pray together, in community, eagerly awaiting new visions, new possibilities, new jobs that need doing. We are all called to work together to discern new promptings of the Holy Spirit, telling us how we can best live out the promises of our baptism today.

 

Silent Voices

by Rev. Lori PattonCandle

Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:39-55

Twenty-four years ago, as a young pastor in Iowa, I came down with laryngitis for the last two weeks of Advent and most of the Christmas season. When I tried to sing Christmas carols, no sound came out. When I tried to talk on the phone, I could only whisper. When I tried to get someone’s attention, no one could hear me. I could only listen to the conversations around me, not take part. I was reduced to writing notes, clucking my tongue, and tapping people’s shoulders, in an effort to overcome my silence and attract people’s notice.

It was terrifying — what if my voice never came back? What if no one would ever be able to hear me again? I wanted to scream with frustration, but I couldn’t.

I bring this up, because ever since that ‘silent Christmas’ I’ve wondered how many other people feel that same way – terrified, frustrated, and yet forced to remain silent? Maybe the world is full of anxious, frustrated, lost people, whose whispers go unheard. People who feel as powerless as I did that December in 1991. People who want to scream to the world, “Hey, look at me! I’m a person like you! I’m hungry, or homeless, or I just lost my job. Or my marriage is in trouble, or I’m terribly, terribly lonely. I need help! I need someone to care! Can’t you hear me?” But the world just walks on by, not hearing their voices or seeing the pain on their faces.

Maybe . . . maybe some of us here feel that way, right now, as we sing the songs and say the prayers, and somehow still don’t get our message across.

Well, the Scriptures this morning speak to a world that is full of people who are unheard, unseen, uncounted.

 

Ralph Ellison, in his novel Invisible Man, famously said that being black in America is like being invisible — people look right at you, but they don’t see you; they can walk into you on the street, even, and still not see you, . . . not as a person.

People can learn to tune out anything or anyone that ‘disturbs’ them. We learn to tune out the sight of homeless people on the city streets, just as we learn to tune out the sounds of traffic, or the ever-present elevator music. We learn to tune out the whispers for help from our friends and neighbors, like we even begin to tune out the sight and sound of hungry Third World children on the television commercials.
We tune them out, because, finally, we can’t think of anything we can do about it. Or, we tune them out because they don’t seem like real people to us.

It’s a terrible, soul-destroying, infuriating, and paralyzing thing, to have someone look at you and not see you, to have them dismiss you out of their mind, because you’re “just a woman”, or “just a child”, or “just another senior citizen”, or “just another immigrant”, or “just another welfare mother”, or because your skin is another color, or you have an accent when you speak, or because they don’t think you’re attractive enough or dressed well enough, or whatever. And, yet, for most of us, these are only occasional hurts — can we even imagine what it must be like to have this happen every day of your life?

In the gospel lesson for today, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth didn’t need to imagine it; they LIVED it. They were among the perpetually unseen, unheard, uncounted persons. They were members of a poor, conquered race to begin with. And most people would’ve dismissed Elizabeth as of no importance, anyway, because she was an older woman and childless, and therefore worthless (they thought) — until God chose her to be the mother of John the Baptist. And Mary, being a girl and as yet unmarried, must’ve known for all of her young life what it was like to be of no account to anyone – a girl child, a liability, and therefore expected to be neither seen nor heard. Someone who could hope to take no active role in the practice of her religion, or in anything else outside the confines of her future husband’s home. She was a girl from a small, rural town, and betrothed to a man who, though he was of the house of David, was still from among the most insignificant of the rural clans of Judah — far away from the centers of power and influence.

So, when Mary sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” she really meant that. An angel had come to her, and suddenly she knew that she did matter, she was not invisible and silent, after all. God had seen her, God had heard her, and — what’s more — she had found favor with God. God had chosen her to bring the savior into the world, to bring life into the world, to nurture God’s son and teach him and love him.

And she sang with joy because she believed that all this was not just good news for her, personally, that henceforth all generations would call her blessed, but it was also good news for all the unseen, unheard, unimportant people of the world. All the people from small towns, all the people whose yells only seem to come out as whispers. It was proof to Mary that God’s mercy is on those who fear him. That God has and will put down the proud and the mighty, and raise up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things.

We share in Mary’s song of joy this morning, for this blessing has also been granted to us.

Unto us, the sometimes unseen and silent, the sometimes blind and deaf — unto us a child is born! A Child who has died and risen again to be living proof that God does see and hear and care for each one of us. A Child who calls us to see and hear all the children of the world, young and old, telling us that we can make a difference. God could work through Elizabeth. God could work through Mary. And God’s power can work through us.

Our voices are no longer silent, because Christ has been born to us.