Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Warm Embrace of the Kingdom - Sermon on Luke 13:31-35

Listen to the gospel lesson and sermon here.

Luke 13:31-35
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you."32 He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, "Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.'34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.' "  

Well friends, We’re 10 days into the season of Lent now, and since I asked last week, I figure I’ll ask again, How is your Lenten experience going thus far?  Have you encountered, resisted, or given in to any temptations? Have you confronted any demons or experienced any release in your self-assessment and discernment?

Lent is such a unique gift for us as Christians.  We intentionally enter into a 40 day journey of exploring our faith with the grace to weed out all the noise and false hope in our lives.  I was talking with a friend the other day who has Lutheran tradition in her past, but now attends a non-denominational church. And she was lamenting that while deep in her liturgical soul she knew it was lent, but she was now in a community of faith that didn’t recognize or celebrate the liturgical calendar.

And my heart was heavy for her because even though she could certainly take on the season of Lent on her own, I could tell that she was deeply longing for a community to journey with.  A community that was willing to be vulnerable with her and intentionally take on a season of penitence and reflection. Introspection and contemplation. 

That’s what Lent is, and the beauty of it all is that it is something we choose to do.  It’s an opportunity we take on, Perhaps begrudgingly at times, but as a community of faith, rooted in our liturgical tradition, we spend a mere 40 days looking within ourselves and our lives to discern the aspects that disrupt our relationship with God.   And we do so among our siblings in Christ. A community committed to the humble and vulnerable practice of Lent, which helps us to be mutually accountable. 

Ya know, God is fully invested in us.  God abundantly and endlessly pours out grace upon grace, naming and claiming us as children of God, brining is in to the one body of Christ. 
And so it is together, as a community, as a whole that we spend time confessing and repenting that we have fallen short.  Naming the temptations that fester, disturb, and destroy our God-given relationships. 

This is why we Lent.   Starting with Ash Wednesday- a service of extended confession and an imposition of ashes.  Reminding one another that we were created by God from dust and to dust we shall return. And God does remarkable things even with dust.  And on our dusty foreheads we bear the overwhelming yet freeing witness that we are utterly and wholly dependent upon God. Everything else fades away, but God and God alone creates, empowers, sustains, and saves.  This is why take on Lent. This is why we journey through Lent together.

So, as I asked last week and will likely ask again, how is your Lenten journey going?  10 days, are you weary or even renewed? 

In our gospel text today we meet Jesus already in the midst of his own journey.  Last week we read about Jesus’ own battle with temptation in the wilderness, as the crafty and luring devil makes several valiant attempts to lead Jesus into false power and false hope.   Since then Jesus’ has been busy with the work of the kingdom, teaching and healing, restoring lives, extending grace, and ushering in hope. 

In chapter nine, there is a definitive moment when Jesus turns and set his sights on Jerusalem.  He gathered his disciples and said, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law.”  And so in the 13th chapter of Luke today, Jesus is working his way to the great threes days.  He’s journeying to a final destination, a city that will reject, ignore, beat, and ultimately kill him.  

Our text today begins with a word of warning from the Pharisees.  They advise Jesus that if he stay on his current trajectory, Herod lays in wait.  And even the Pharisees, for whatever reason, advise Jesus to turn around. To go the other way, lest he risk being killed. 

Last weekend I had the privilege of meeting with a 7 year old girl and her family to talk about baptism.   And during our conversation of talking about Jesus, I mentioned that they killed him. And she looked at me stunned and said why?  Why would they want to kill Jesus? All he wanted to do was love people and be nice. Why would they kill him. And all I could think to say was, “That’s a brilliant question.”

But that’s what we do with prophets.  Those who speak with prophetic voices...Whether a message that convicts or confronts our comfortable way of life, or a message that rocks our core because deep down we know it to be true, but don’t want to face the weight of truth.  We like to rejected because the message they carry is not one we want to hear. Or at the very least ignore. Maybes it’s simply fear or ignorance, but we, and I mean our history of saints as well, tend to have an aversion to prophets and those who speak prophetically.  So Jerusalem, and us still today, like to suppress the prophet. In Jesus’ case they kill him.

But Jesus is not provoked nor is he deterred.  His journey to Jerusalem and ultimately his death is unwavered because Jesus knows something that we have yet to full learn.   That is the work of the Kingdom of God...the work of healing and justice, of releasing demons and ushering hope...the kingdom work is not conditioned or dictated by Worldly structures, political leaders, or human influence.  The work of God in Jesus Christ and the work of the Kingdom will continue and it will come to fullness on God’s time. On the third day.

So rather than turn around, Jesus looks ahead to this broken city and laments.  
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  Jesus uses such powerful imagery. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wing.

Beautiful.  Jesus has such a gift for using incredible imagery to help the disciples and others understand what he is teaching.  This is one of the things that makes him such a great teacher. 

Just prior to today’s story, Jesus taught the disciples about the kingdom of God using images like a mustard seeds, yeast in dough, and a narrow door.  Later, in chapter 14, he describes the persistence nature of God with parables sheep, coins, and children.  Jesus has such an eloquent way of using the aspects of common day life to teach about God’s abundant grace and love and the impending kingdom of God.  And Jesus always spoke this way to help people understand what he was teaching. So as he laments over Jerusalem this morning, he does it again….How often have I desired to gather the children of Jerusalem together as a hen gathers her chicks beneath her wing. 
The image of Jesus as a mother hen is such a beautiful image.  It’s delicate, much like the image of Jesus as a lamb, but it carries a sense of  strength, authority, and protection, like the image of Jesus as a shepherd. 

We know that feeling don’t we?  If not, I’m sure we long for it.  Who among us hasn’t experienced or desired a longing to be brooded like a chick to a hen?   Maybe you recall a time when we were younger, more innocent. Perhaps it came from our own mothers or fathers or a family friend?   An experience with someone so loving that they offer both sense of authority and security while also offering an embrace of warmth and comfort?  

I remember so fondly as a kid, I would climb on my dad’s bed and provoke him into a wrestling match that I knew I would lose.  He would bear hug me...I would struggle to break free. After only a few min, I would be so tired and body would go limp...and I would lie in the protection and comfort of my dad’s arms. 

Perhaps you know that feeling?  Or have experienced that embrace?

Story about losing my passport in Germany.  Listen to audio above.

This image of a hen is so powerful. Jesus wants an intimate connection with the people of Jerusalem.   Like a hen with her chicks - and if you’ve ever seen a picture of this or actually seen a hen covering her chicks with her wings, it’s something very special.  The hen puffs out her feathers and ushers them all in and the chicks almost disappear completely beneath her wings. The chicks are so absorbed in the hen that it’s hard to see where the hen ends and the chicks begin.  So what Jesus is saying with this image is that he wants the children of Jerusalem to come and be protected and intimately connected to him - absorbed into him and his ministry. He wants to offer them protection through salvation. He wants them to see and encounter the kingdom of God that he is proclaiming. 

And maybe it would seem a bit ironic that this is how he wants the people of Jerusalem to feel.  Ironic that Jesus wants to gather these people up and protect them.  Jerusalem, this supposed holy city, that continues to turn against God and against the prophets and messengers that God sends to them - this city that Jesus grieves over.  Jerusalem is the city that will, in just a few weeks, turn Jesus over to the authorities and cry out for his crucifixion.   This is the city that, even after Jesus’ death, refuses to turn toward God and follow Jesus’ disciples.  

Jerusalem, the city that is unwelcoming and unkind to prophets, the very city that will reject, deny, punish, and kill Jesus...these are the people Jesus longingly desires to pull in, comfort, protect, and envelop in his love.

And maybe that’s not simply ironic...But rather the epitome of the gospel.  God’s unwavering and unconditioned love for the world. The the gospel in one image.

This kind of unity, this kind of brooding is what Jesus calls us to when he calls us under his wings. He desires for Jerusalem to come under his wings and participate in his work with him, going along as he goes, healing as he heals.  Jesus wants to pull people into himself so intimately that they are a part of him, participating in the work that God has called him to do. He longs for all people to be brought into the kingdom of God. As we say now, becoming the body of Christ. 

Jesus wants us - you and me - to be caught up in this kind of work too. Like a mother hen endless offering embrace, Jesus is constantly coming after us.  Relentless pursuing us for participation with the kingdom work he is doing in the world. Like the children of Jerusalem, Jesus longs for us to witness and participate in the kingdom of God today. It is in our baptism that we are first called into the body of Christ and every time we eat the bread and drink the wine, we are renewed and sustained in the body of Christ. It is these two practices that keep us in synch, that keep us nestled under the protective wings of Christ. 

In this season of Lent, when we are called to examine ourselves and examine our lives, we hear something calming, reassuring, warm - as if we are being nestled under the wings of our savior.  We hear of Jesus’ relentless love. We hear of a God so loving that God would send God’s son to heal the sick, bind up the broken, give sight to the blind, and raise the dead to new life. We hear of a savior that wishes to save and comfort the very people who have denied him and so many prophets before him. We hear of a savior so heartbroken for his children that even as they put him on the cross, he asks his father in heaven to forgive them. We hear of Christ’s relentless love that never fails, even when it is crucified. 

So despite all of our fears and failures...despite how your lenten journey may or may not be going...despite that we too often deny the voice of the prophet, just like Jerusalem, Jesus still desires to gather us in, like chicks under his motherly wings, so that we might come to know, to taste, and see the power of relentless love.  So that we might participate and join others to nestle within the kingdom of God. Amen.

© Pastor Daniel Locke, preached March 17, 2019 @ St. Mark's Lutheran, Jacksonville, FL.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Confronting Temptation - Sermon on Luke 4:1-16

Listen to the gospel lesson and sermon here.
Luke 4:1-13
1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread."Jesus answered him, "It is written, "One does not live by bread alone.' "Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours."Jesus answered him, "It is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.' "Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,10 for it is written, "He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,'11 and "On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.' "12 Jesus answered him, "It is said, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' "13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

Welcome, everyone, again to the season of Lent.  If this is your first time experiencing Lent within the context of the Christian or even the protestant church, welcome.  We’re glad you’re joining us. I deeply enjoy the season of Lent, and I often envy folks who get to experience it all for the first time.  From Ash Wednesday, through the next 40 days. Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil. Oh man, I don’t recall my first ever experience with Lent, outside of giving up soda as a kid….but could you imagine if you were new to Christianity and experiencing the Protestant season of Lent for the first time.    

Well, if that’s you, welcome.  I pray that the next forty days of Lent is meaningful, pleasantly penintial, contemplative, enlightening, and above all full of personal and spiritual growth. 

I think too often we take not just Lent, but the whole Christian liturgical calendar for granted.  For those of us who have been in the Protestant or Lutheran church for our entire lives, we know it’s coming.  We know what to expect...and we know the routine. I think that is both good...and unfortunate. Good because we embody the seasons.  Our lives ...hearts, bodies, minds, and souls sync to an internal liturgical pattern that empowers and sustains. A Liturgical pattern that never disappoints.  It’s stable and reliable.

But it’s a bit unfortunate because embodying the ebbs and flows of the liturgical calendar shares a fine boundary with complacency and apathy.  We risk taking it for granted. 

Our lectionary calendar technically has six seasons - Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.  These season have a natural flow to them - 1st, a season of reflection and contemplation, then a day or season of celebration, and then a season of Growth.   So, in the winter we have Advent, Christmas, and Epipany. A pattern of Waiting and reflection, a season of celebration at Christmas, and then a season of growth - Epiphany.  This is why the color of the Epiphany season is green.

Today we start the pattern over again.  Reflection and contemplation, celebration, and growth.  Lent, Easter, and the time after Pentecost, which is also green.

Lent is a season of penitence and reflection.  Introspect and contemplation. For 40 days we look within ourselves and our lives discern the aspects that disrupt our relationship with God.  God is fully invested in us. God named and claimed us. God abundantly and endlessly pours out grace upon grace. And for these short 40 days we acknowledge and confess that we have fallen short of God’s gift for us.  We identify all the temptations of our life that fester, disturb, and destroy God’s relationship with us. 

This is why we start Lent with Ash Wednesday.  A service of extended confession and an imposition of ashes.  Reminding one another that we were created by God from dust and to dust we shall return.  And God does incredible things through the dust. Ash Wednesday ushers us into the season of Lent with a humble and powerful reminder that we are utterly dependent upon God.  Everything else fades away, but God and God alone creates, empowers, sustains, and saves. 
We’re 4 days into Lent now, and I’m curious, how is your Lenten experience going thus far?  I suspect for some of us, we might be thinking...Oh shoot, did I miss ash wed. I completely forgot it was even Lent.  I forgot to give something up...or take something on...oh well too late. 

Let me say, not true!  Lent is not like new years.  You know...how you promise yourself that you’ll join a gym on Jan 1 and before you know it it’s March and you think...eh, next year.  No, Lent is an intentional 40 day journey, with each and everyday to self-assess, confront the temptations in your life, repent, and try again.  If you completely missed the Lent train, jump on today.

Plus, you’re likely in good company.  How many of us have every “given something up for lent or promised ourselves we’d commit to some new spiritual practice or exercise of self care..and then once we miss or forget a day we say, oh well?!?!   I promised myself I would read 30 min everyday for Lent. May I confess, I haven’t made it past the title. 

But for those of you who did make a personal decision to improve, correct, or challenge yourself for 40 days….we’re on day 4, and this is probably about the moment you’re starting to get jittery.  Jonesing for that chocolate bar or adult beverage. Craving that diet coke or cigarette. Maybe you're tired of passing up your fiction vampire novel for the Bible. This is probably about the moment that you’re famished and starting to gasp for air.  Reaching for a way out or an excuse to have a cheat day. You’re about ready to say oh well, next year. Anybody reach that point?! 

You’re fighting temptation.  And every time we fight temptation we grow.  It’s like committing to running on the treadmill for 20 min only to look up and see that you’re 2 min away from the next mile marker.  Gasping for air you could be done and walk away. Or you could you push forward, finish that mile and know you had every reason to quit but didn’t.

Life is an endless cycle of fighting temptations.  Temptations that lure you into believing you’re not capable or powerful.  Taunting you to believe that you’re important, strong, smart, or beautiful.  Temptation mocks, laughs, teases, taunts, and destroys our sense of self-worth and self value.  Of who and whose we are. Temptation promises to fill and fulfill us in all sorts of empty ways.  And Lent...Lent is 40 days of intentionally acknowledging and fighting the temptations. Even if it is a mountain dew or Milkshake...red meat or netflix.  For forty days we choose to acknowledge and fight the lure of temptation itself, to confront our own personal temptations, and they’re different for each of us….but we fight them and we grow...and as we grow we are reminded that we are not dependent upon the things...the stuff...the power or status...the false ideals and temptations…we are reminded that we are only truly and wholly dependent upon God. 

And when we’re committed to the season of lent and the beauty of repentance, we can hear the voice of our tempters...dismiss them...and turn to God.  Lent can be a rough but rewarding 40 days of spiritual growth. And admittedly, it’s not something that we would typically bring upon ourselves. 
It seems appropriate then that our Lenten journey today starts not only within scripture, but with the familiar story of Jesus own experience of temptation in the wilderness. 

In today’s story, Jesus who is full of the Spirit and likely still dripping wet from his baptism is led into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.  He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.

And it’s then, famished, tired, and alone that the devil mocks Jesus and makes three final attempts at temptation.

First, the devil asks Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  It should be noted that the devil isn’t question if Jesus is the son of God.  In the original language the answer is implied within the question. So, the devil says, if you really are the son of God, and I know that you are….command this stone to become bread.”  The devil preys on Jesus being famished and tempts Jesus to convert stone into food. But Jesus fires back without hesitation that One does not live by alone. That is to say that while bread would be delicious for a famished stomach...it would only provide simple, temporary satisfaction.  Rather it is trust in God and God alone that nourishes and sustains life.

Next the devil tempts Jesus with power and authority over all the kingdoms of the world if he but worship the devil.  But again, Jesus is quick to quote scripture and say, “It is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”  

The devil offers Jesus the power to impose his control and dominion over all people, and while that sort of power may be tempting, God has a greater kingdom in mind.  A kingdom that reaches far beyond the earthly, political realm. The kingdom of God is one that is equitable and fair...one that empowers its people rather than reward status.

Finally, the devil tries a new tactic by quoting scripture himself.  He says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,10 for it is written, "He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,'11 and "On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”  But Jesus, truly knowing scripture as opposed to memorizing it says, "It is said, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Jesus faces significant temptation.  Temptation that looks nice. Sounds wonderful.  Even tastes good. But these temptations, while shiny and luring, are empty promises.  Promises that only leave the fleeting feeling of power, satisfaction, or fullness. But Jesus, famished, tired, and alone denies the devil’s lure...and resists with an utter and complete dependence upon God.  

Now to be clear, it is not my intention to suggest that our own experience with temptation is anything close to Jesus’.  After all, Jesus definitively resist all temptation, whereas we fall short endlessly. I think Jesus is a model and witness by which we all strive to match, but continuously fail to achieve.  This is what sets Jesus apart, and he’ll ultimately go so far as to defeat the devil through the cross in the resurrection.

In fact, it’s the resurrection of Christ that even empowers us to choose the discipline of Lent in the first place.  It’s the power of Christ and the promise of God to abide beyond sin death and the devil, the we approach lent with penitence and intentional self-reflection. 

I think today’s story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, which is perfectly placed at the start of Lent is not simply a lesson or tutorial for fending off satan’s lure, but I think Jesus’ experience in the wilderness is a lesson about just how tempting the devil can be.  And it’s different for each of us. Everyone experiences and confronts their own breadth of temptations. 

And Lent invites us, if only for 40 days to recognize and acknowledge temptation.  Knowing full and well that we will not always be faithful or successful in dismissing the lure.  And that’s what we call a wilderness journey. A time of wandering and wondering. Of self-assessment and discernment.   Of mirage and false hope. These 40 days are a voluntary trip into the wilderness to face the devils in our life, the very things that destroy or disrupt our relationship with God.   And and as we journey, we grow. We confront the all the things that cannot save us, losing our appetite for fleeting power, false wealth, and temporary worth. 

And most of all, we grown in our faith, learning and re-learning to trust the Holy Spirit.  Trusting that it is God and God alone who saves. Because at the end of our 40 days, at the end of our introspection and repentance, Christ rises from the dead.  Amen. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Claimed by God and Nothing Can Change That - Sermon on Luke 3:15-22 - 01.13.2019

Listen to the gospel lesson and sermon here.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

A little show and tell for you this morning.  “This certifies that Daniel Brady Locke, son of John and Susan Locke was received into the Holy Christian Church through The Sacrament of Holy Baptism in the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church Claremont, NC on July 19, 1987.  Signed by Pastor Stanely L. Stiver.

This is my Certificate of Baptism.  My show and tell for the day. I also have, believe it or not, a bulletin, a picture, and the baptismal cloth used to dry my head.  I can never remember what hymn we sang that morning, so it’s nice to look back and see we sang “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me.”  

July 19, 1987.  That’s the day God washed over me, cleansed me, made me whole, and made me an heir to the promise of eternal life.  That is the day that God named and claimed me as God’s child. And from that moment on, there was NOTHING, is nothing that I could/can do, thank God, to change that.  Daniel Brady Locke, child of God.

Now, believe it or not, I don’t remember much of anything about that day.  And to be completely honest, I didn’t know many of the specifics of my baptism until my seminary application directly asked questions about my baptism.

But pictures from that day tell me that I was surrounded by my parents and grandmothers, my 5 year old brother, aunts and uncles, and of course a entire congregation of people I didn’t yet know.  
At 6 weeks old, I was introduced to the sacrament of Holy Baptism.   Water was poured over my head. I was cleansed. I was washed clean from the power of sin, death, and the devil.  God intimately and inextricably claimed me forever. 

How many of you can recall your baptism?  Certainly most of us have no actual memory of the event, but rather do you know what day you were baptized?  Who were your sponsors? In what community of faith were you baptized. Do you recall the promises made by God? By your parents and/or sponsors?  By the community of faith.

Or if you haven’t been baptized, have you given any thought into being baptized?  Do you desire to be apart of the body of christ, to die in a death like Christ, and rise into new life like Christ?  
To be washed by the water and claimed by God as a child of God?

Or best yet, how many times have you participate in a baptism?  As a family member, sponsor, or simply a member of the congregation?  How many times have you replied “We Will and we ask God to help and guide us” when the pastor asks, “Do you promise to support and pray for the newly baptised in their new life in Christ?”

I grew up in the church.  The ELCA was born when I was a year old.  The Lutheran church is all I’ve ever known.  And even though as a kid I didn’t know much about my baptism or the significance of being baptised, I distinctly remember the font.  It was made of wood and stood about 4.5 half feet off the ground. It was about a foot and a half wide and was in the shape of an octagon.  It had pretty, decorative wood carvings around the edges. I have seen many like it since then.
But what I remember most is that it had a silver, metal bowl that sat in the top and there was a wooden lid with a cross on the top.  And for my entire childhood, the font sat off to the side of the sanctuary, with no water, and the lid on top. It was only opened and filled when there was a baptism. 

In retrospect, it seems so strange to me that we would keep something so central to our faith, a sacrament none-the-less, something so foundational to our identity, that we would keep it off to the side and out of mind unless needed.  Why not bring it front and center.  Prominent and overflowing.  A constant visual reminder of the grace of God.  A testament to who and whose we are?

Today we celebrate Baptism of Our Lord Sunday.  Following Advent and Christmas, we continue to the season and Spirit of Epiphany...of Christ being made known, and we celebrate Christ being baptized in the river Jordan.

And Today, our gospel text brings baptism front and center.  John the Baptist was busy preaching and teaching. He was on the scene out of the wilderness and he had developed quite the following. 

Our text says that people were filled with expectation, eager with anticipation. They were questioning whether John might be the one.  The messiah they had longed for. 

Then John does what in my opinion is one of the most humblest things in all of scripture.  Rather than play up the crowds and anticipation and soak in their affection and curiosity. John steps out of the way.  He moves to the side. He points to Christ. John redirects their attention. He bows out and lifts up Christ. 

And out of the crowds, out from among them, Jesus comes forth to be baptized.  And what seems like just another baptism, this one has a different result. The heaves split open and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 

Front and center, at the start of Jesus’ public ministry, God declares Jesus as God’s son, a beloved child, in whom God is well pleased.   Jesus is the Messiah, the one hoped for. All of the crowds’ and the world's expectations fulfilled and assured in that moment.

About the time I was in late elementary school, Pastor Stanley Stiver retired from St. Mark’s, and we welcomed a wonderful man, named Jim Stephenson.   Within his first week, he made two major changes to the worship space. 

First, he pulled the altar away from the wall.   I’ve since learned that they were called Walltars.  Anyways, he moved it forward so that he could stand behind it during communion. 

The second thing he moved was the font.  He placed the baptismal font in the front of the sanctuary, just in front of the steps.  He removed the lid and filled it with water.  And every single sermon, after reading the gospel from the pulpit, he would make his way to the font and preach from the water.  He had a small index card for his notes, and no matter what the topic of his sermon, no matter the text he would always always find some way to play in the water.

He was notorious for splashing around in the water, reminding us of our baptism.  His affection for the font and the water gave deeper meaning and and appreciation for who and whose we are.   He was known for dipping his hands in the water and saying, “in the name of the father, the name of the son and the name of Holy surprises.”

On his last day as our interim, after reading the gospel from the pulpit, he made his way to the font.  Looked down and Smiled as three goldfish swam around in the font. He said, “I wondered how long it would take for this to happen.” 

Pastor Jim brought baptism front and center.  I couldn’t tell you much detail about my baptism, but to this day I can tell you with confidence that Pastor Stephenson's commitment to keeping the sacrament front and center has stuck with me.  I credit him for my love and affection for the sacrament. 

Jesus, God made flesh, born among us took on death and was victorious.  Jesus conquered the grave and the abiding promise of God was fulfilled. God overpowered sin, death, and the devil, making way for new and life eternal.

And it is in the waters of baptism that God claims us as God’s children.  Marked with the cross of Christ, Sealed by the holy spirit. The heavens torn a part, the Spirit descends.  God makes us heirs of God’s promised salvation. God’s victory over death. 

God folds us into the story of compassion, love, grace, peace, and forgiveness.  God clothes us in mercy. And NOTHING, absolutely nothing, thank God, can change the life we have in God.  

Baptism is God’s action.  God’s claiming of us. God’s choosing and naming.  God welcomes us into the body of Christ and makes us heirs to the most incredible promise.  God does this purely out of God’s own goodness. God’s love is that powerful.

On this second Sunday of Epiphany, we celebrate baptism, we bring it front and center intentionally, lest we ever forget who and whose we are.  In the waters we die to our old selves, we are made new. We belong to God. Our identity, in the most holistic sense is inextricably connected to God.

And out of the waters, everything else in our lives is to be a expression of that grace.  A testament to that gift. That child of God and the body of Christ is our one and only true affiliation.  

In the waters God washes away the divisions of world.  Race, ethnicity, sex, gender..all the marks of human-made division fail in the grace of God to offer salvation in this holy sacrament.

Make no mistake that every group, organization, party, club, or other affiliation is a choice we make in our lives.  Some may have dues or regulations, rules and commitments, but in the end, they’re all choices and they all have the ability to fade away.  But baptism, God’s grace-filled claim on God’s people never, never fades away. Never expires. 

This is why baptism and remembrance of baptism is so important.   I love love love our font. I admit I wish it was deeper, but I’ll save that fight for another day.  I love that we literally have to walk around it in order to enter and exit the worship space. And if it weren’t cemented in the back of the church, there’s a good chance I’d be splashing in the water right now.

A few weeks ago, during the birthday for Christ service, I was standing in the back with Tracy Williams and her two daughters.  Cassidy and I were looking at the font and whispering to one another about the font and what it means. So I dipped my fingers in the water and sprinkled a bit at her and said “remember your baptism.”  Cassidy, without missing a beat took her hands in the water like you would in a pool and shoved a big ol wave back at me. Tracy turned around immediately and I confessed that I instigated.

Martin Luther said that we should rise every morning, splash water in our face, make the sign of the cross, and remember that we belong to God.  

The waters are a foundational, integral part of who and whose we are.  If you don’t already, I encourage you to acknowledge the gift of God’s grace each day.  Make the sign of the cross when you wash your face. Open the ELW to page 228 and remember the promises made.  Run your fingers through the water when enter and exit this space. And thank God, who is well pleased, that there is absolutely nothing in all of creation that can change that truth.  


© Pastor Daniel Locke, preached Jan. 13, 2019 @ St. Mark's Lutheran Church, Jacksonville, Florida

Monday, January 7, 2019

Roadwork, Pathways, and Transformations

The roadwork on Hendricks Avenue is endless.  I was warned when I first arrived in Jacksonville that “they” like to “work” on Hendricks Avenue every other year or so.  But ever since I arrived at St. Mark’s, “they” have been paving, stripping, repaving, and paving some more.  Some days I feel like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” stuck in repetition.  Didn’t they pave this exact lane yesterday? 

Last week, I was sitting in traffic on University Blvd, waiting to turn on to Hendricks Avenue, and I heard the words of the prophet Isaiah in my head as John the Baptist is introduced in Luke 3, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

If Advent is a season of anticipation and preparation, anxious yet patient waiting-- a season calling us to prepare the way for the king of kings and to straighten and smooth pathways-- then it seemed oddly appropriate that I sit in traffic waiting for a giant truck to lay a new, shiny path for me to journey on.  So I waited to turn right, said a prayer of thanksgiving that the return of Jesus was not dependent upon FL-DOT or Duval Asphalt, and then waited some more.

By the time you read this, Advent has come and gone (here’s to hoping we can say the same for the work on Hendricks).  We transitioned from Advent to Christmas, and now Christmas to Epiphany as the liturgical cycle continues.  But I wonder, have our lives been changed by all the hard work of Advent-- the waiting, anticipation, and preparation?  We spent a significant amount of emotional and spiritual energy preparing the way, making straight the paths, filling the valleys, and lowering the mountains.  Are we at all changed by the labor of Advent?  Or like Hendricks Avenue being “worked” on every other year, are we resigned to simply wait around for another time of waiting?  Do we wait for waiting’s sake because that’s what “we” like to do?

True, our waiting comes to somewhat of a culmination on Christmas Eve as we remember the birth of Christ but, deep down within our Christian identities, waiting is deeply rooted in the promised return of our Messiah.  And with every season of waiting-- active waiting-- the path is formed, reformed, and transformed.  Each cycle of waiting brings new light to the imperfections of our way.  Once corrected, lowered, raised, or straightened, our new, shiny way yields a renewed sense of waiting-- active, proclamation-filled waiting.  A re-reformed path should be easier to traverse, clearly marked with signs and direction. 

Maybe I’m naive and hopeful because I’m still new to Jacksonville, but I think the work on Hendricks Avenue will come to an end (even if temporary).  Then we will travel Hendricks again and again until such a time that it needs to be “worked” on once more. 

The same is true with us.  Advent was a season of waiting and preparation, making straight the paths.  Now that Advent has gone (and it will come again), how has your life in Christ been changed?  Illumined?  Reformed? Transformed?

© Pastor Daniel Locke, published 01.2019 in St. Mark's Lutheran January Messenger, Jax, FL.

A single flame - Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12 - 01.06.2019

Listen to the gospel lesson and sermon here.

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 "And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.' " 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.


Today is a significant day, not only because it’s Epiphany, but because I, as a preacher and pastor have reached what I believe to be a Rite of Passage in my preaching career.  In fact, I think it’s a significant moment in every pastor’s career. It’s the moment that I decide I really want to share a relevant story to start my sermon today, but I can’t remember if and when I might have already told it.

So, let me preface by saying, if you’ve already heard this story, I’m sorry to be repetitive.   And I hope, despite the repetition, that it might resonate with you today. On this day of Epiphany.  And to be certain, as I continue to grow in wisdom and age here at St. Mark’s, this undoubtedly won’t be the last time I repeat myself.  

In the mountains of Tennessee, near Chattanooga, there is a place called Ruby Falls.  Ruby Falls is the nation’s tallest and deepest underground waterfall. In 2007, dad and I took a tour a Ruby Falls.  We entered the elevator and descended nearly 1200 feet below Lookout Mountain.

And as the doors opened, we stepped into a large cavern, busy with tourists.   And just beyond the souvenir stands and food vendors was this enormous waterfall, Ruby Falls.  It was backlit with red flood lights, making it look like...well...Ruby. The falls were named after the discoverer’s wife, Ruby.

Once in the cavern we joined our tour group. The tour would take us deeper into the cave system, so we could take in the stalagmite and stalactites and the wonders of naturally made beauty.  After walking a way, we stepped through a big metal door frame into what I would call a dead end… a nightmare for anyone claustrophobic. Once we gathered in the room, the big metal door slammed behind us.  Our tour guide said, “don’t panic...I’m going to turn off the lights.”

He turned off the lights and gave us a minute to adjust.  He then said, “you are now standing in completely darkness.”  100% darkness….” The room was completely deprived of light. And he told us that no matter what we did or how hard we tried, we would never be able to see even our hand in front of our face.  And what’s even more terrifying is that he said if we stayed down there long enough, eventually we would become temporarily blind because we weren’t using our sense of sight.

Now here’s the fun part, and I had no idea this was a thing.  But he said that actually if you take your hands and rub them together like this really fast, eventually the static friction between your hands would create a warm blue glow.

After about a minute of everyone furiously rubbing their palms together, he cracked and said, I’m just kidding.  That’s not true.

Then he said, “Let me show you something that is infinitely true.  He said, “no matter how dark it may be, even in 100%, complete darkness, the light of a single flame can illumine an entire room.  A single flame has the power to overcome and dispel the darkness.” He struck a lighter, and instantly we were able to once again see our own hand, our neighbor.  And after enough time, we could see across the room.”

A single flame has the power to overcome and dispel the darkness.  Even in complete, oppressive darkness, a single flame gave us vision, direction, and hope.

That is Epiphany.  That is the manifestation of Christ to the whole world.  That’s the power of God incarnate, born to the world to live, breath, reign, and rule as a king of kings, a lord of lords, and wonderful counselor, and a mighty prince of peace.  Christ as the Messiah, Emmanuel - God with us.

A single flame ignited in the dark to drive away the darkness.  To overcome sin, death, and the devil. To dispel the oppressive darkness in the world.

The celebration of Epiphany is a celebration that the light of Christ shines in the darkness and the darkness does not, cannot, and will not ever overcome it.  It is a celebration that God has become incarnate and taken on life for the sake of the whole world. All people. All nations. All Races. From the shepherds of the fields watching their sheep by night to wisemen in the East.  

Every year on Epiphany we hear this story from Matthew.  The story of wise men from the East, journeying to Bethlehem, guided only by a star, to see the child that has been born king of the Jews.  

Tradition has romanticized this story.  We have grown to appreciate the sentimentality of three wise men bringing three gifts worthy of a king.  Tradition has gone so far to name these three wise men and predict their origin. Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar.  

The reality is, we don’t know how many wise men there were or even exactly where they came from.  All we know is that they were born into a priestly lineage within a religion that valued the reading of stars.  They were astrologists, reading the sky. And their place within scripture is recognized on Epiphany to celebrate the reach and breadth of the message of God with us in the birth of Christ.  The story of the wise men marks the overwhelming inclusiveness of God’s love and salvation through Jesus. From the shepherds of the field to the wise men in the east.

Through Christmas and Epiphany, we celebrate and remember that God’s promised Messiah is for all people.  God’s love incarnate in the world to live, breathe, and save is for all peoples. All places. All nations.  All races.

That the light of Christ has been born among us to ignite the world with a promise of everlasting love, peace, grace, and above all, hope.  The love of God shines in the darkness, revealing the way for all people, restoring hope to all nations.

But I think there is another important story to be told on this day of Epiphany.  The text tells us that “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;
4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born…

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.

“So that I may also go and pay him homage.”  Let’s be clear that homage in this case does not mean public honor and respect.  King Herod’s motives are not out of admiration or mutual respect. Herod, frightened and worried, wanted to find the new born king of the Jews because he was threatened.  

He knew good and well, not only of the prophecy of a Messiah born from the lineage of David, but he knew that he was not that king.  He was not of the prophesied lineage and therefore not the king of kings. And some day, if prophecies were fulfilled, his reign as king might be usurped.  

And let’s remember that shortly after Jesus is born, Joseph, Mary, and the new born king of the Jews flee to Egypt as refugees because King Herod out of fear and terror orders all children 2 and under to be killed in and around Bethlehem.   An entire generation of children killed because Herod feared his power was at risk.

On this day of Epiphany, we celebrate the light of Christ shining in the darkness...giving way to vision, direction, and hope.  Revealing the way for all people. Epiphany calls us to proclaim this message of hope. To remind the world that even in the darkest situations, the light of Christ, a single flame, has the power to overcome and dispel all darkness.

But I think there is another power to this light.  The brighter the light shines, the more it is reflected, the stronger it burns and the more it unveils.   

In our new house Sarah and I have hardwood floors throughout the entire house.  And many of you know that we have a dog. A husky. A very hairy husky. He sheds like it’s his job and hobby. And for the most part you don’t notice the dog hair all over the floor.

But when I pull out the vacuum, plug it in, and turn it on...there is a small light on the front of the vacuum cleaner and it just illuminates every single strand of dog hair.  The way the light hits the hardwood at such a low angle….1000s of hairs that were previously unseen become ever so present.

That’s the power of the light of Christ. The light of love, truth, justice, grace, forgiveness, and peace.   

It burns to shed a light on the fractures and cracks of society.  Light to illumine darkness and unveil injustice. Light to convict wrongdoing, and false witness.

Light shines not only to the lowest, least, and last among us, like shepherds in the field watching their flock by night, empowering a renewed sense of hope and promise.  

But the light also shines to reveal the brokenness of creation...so the mighty and self-righteous might be cast from their thrones.  

If the light of a single flame can illuminate a single room, giving way to vision and hope then how much more powerful can the promise of God in the Emmanuel burn with each of us. Empowering the body of Christ to burn as a beacon of hope, casting truth in the face of fear, hate, and terror.  

That is Epiphany. God’s fulfilled promise to be among us.  As the Messiah. To clothe the downtrodden, faint of heart, discarded, and hopeless in the light of love, truth, grace, and hope…

To expose and convict the brokenness of the world.  Even to the point of death.

Friends, there is no doubt that we continue to live in a dark, broken world.  The cracks run deep and there is so much darkness….so much oppressiveness, sin, injustice, hate, fear, terror, and brokenness that needs to be illuminated.

But let me tell you something that is infinitely true.  The light of Christ still shines this day. In all places.  For all people. In all nations. For all races. And At all times.  The light of Christ shines and it cannot, and will not ever by extinguished.  Especially by darkness. There is nothing we can do about that…. except perhaps fan the flame, reflect the light, and proclaim the good news...until all the brokenness of the world is unveiled, and brought forth to repent, believe, and be made whole.

That is the invitation and power of Epiphany.    Amen.