Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Attentiveness - Sermon on Luke 2:1-22 - Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.All went to their own towns to be registered.Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,14 "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" [15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us."16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.]

There’s a profound sense of attentiveness this night.  I wish you could see what I see. Ya know, every week I stand in the pulpit and read from the gospel.  Typically, the majority of folks are reading along in their bulletin. A few are looking at me as a I read, but most are readinging along.  

But on a night like tonight, there is a intriguing sense of awareness and attentiveness.   Tonight when the gospel was read, a few eyes followed along in the bulletin, but an above average amount of people looked to me as I read.  Or rather, looked to the gospel as it was proclaimed. 

There is a profound sense of attentiveness this night.  Now whether that attentiveness comes from genuine intrigued, fascination, and wonder with what God is up to in this story...or if it is rooted in “yah, we know the story, hurry up and get to the good stuff so we can get back home to our presents and packages, our dinners and cookies...our family traditions ...or bed.  Either way, tonight’s proclamation of the gospel beckons us into a renewed sense of wonder and attentiveness.

That nativity story is one of great familiarity.  Perhaps we can’t all recite it perfectly with its many details and nuances, but I suspect the majority of us gathered here can paraphrase it with confidence.   It is the same gospel story proclaimed every single year on Christmas Eve, and even if this is your first time worshipping in a Lutheran church on Christmas Eve, I would venture to guess that we all know what to expect this night.  The Spirit has brought us all together in this place, and I doubt there was much question as to what passage might be read from scripture.

It’s a familiar story, and we’re glad to hear.  And I think the familiarity of the story makes us extra attentive and aware not because we’re eagerly waiting to hear something new, discover a new angle or detail, uncover some new nugget from within the story that will blow our minds… I think the heightened attentiveness and awareness is because we know the story so well and we rely on this night, we depend on this story because it is constant.  It is certain. It is reliable. 

So That no matter what is going on in our world...no matter the consternation, brokenness, or despair….the nativity story remains a light of hope.  A beacon of love that proclaims a God who is abundantly up to good… A reminder that God defied all expectations and fulfilled a promise to intimately abide with the world through Jesus Christ - the Emmanuel.

In tonight’s story, a young, unwed, and unexpectedly now pregnant couple are required, mandated to return to their place of family origin to be counted in the census.  The requirement comes as a decree from Emperor Augustus for all the world to be counted. So they journey to Bethlehem, not by choice but by obligation. 

They traveled wearily for days only to be un-welcomed as though they are strangers in a foreign land.  They didn’t feel welcome. There was no place for them to stay. No room. They were lost and alone in the city of Bethlehem.  And even though they were filled with the promise of God in the form of a baby child...the bearer of God made flesh had no place to lay her head.  

In tonight’s story the shepherds, minding their own business were keeping watch over their flocks by night.  They were on high alert with intent listening in order to protect the flock. And all due respect to Shepherds, but in that day they did not hold a very high status on the vocational totem poll.  They were filthy, dirty, overworked, and underpaid. They worked long hours and slept outside with animals. They were at the bottom of the first century socio-economic world. 

And in tonight’s story, the story we so dearly love, God acts in the most scandalous way.  God becomes incarnate in the form of a baby boy, born to a lowly, unwelcomed and wandering family, born in a setting least suited for a king.  Casting the mighty and powerful aside, the heavenly angels declare good news to the poor and lowly. 

The angels go to the fields and seek out the discarded and underappreciated shepherd workers and says Today...we bring you good news of great joy for all the people, because a Today a baby is born and that baby is God’s son.  And he is the Messiah. He will reign in such a way that the world could never expect. 

And Honestly, at its surface, nothing about this story makes sense.  Nothing about is deserving of a headline or media frenzy. Nothing about this unknown, unwelcomed couple having an illegitimate child in an unsavory location in the middle of the night is cause for any attention.  There is no reason for the world to care. There is no reason for the world to listen to shepherds proclaiming all they’ve seen and heard.

And yet, here we are this Christmas eve to hear the familiar story.  With eager anticipation and an attentive ear we lean into something faithful.  Something reliable. Something genuine. Something true. 

I think we trust this story and its place within our lives because it is a proclamation of truth and hope in amidst a world ravaged by false testimony, unfaithful witness, insecurity,... a world that can be experienced as luring and deceptive, bearing false hope to those least, last, and lost. 

We tune our ear, like shepherds in a field by night, to the glory of God’s victory.   In this precious moment we remember that God took on flesh, for the sake of the whole world.  God became incarnate to live and breath among us. To wander in wade in the experiences of life.  To know true joy among family and friends and to dwell in the deepest moments of grief. God became incarnate to share in the breadth of human emotions and experiences, even to the point of death on a cross.  

And I think we’re so attentive to this oh so familiar story because we know the ending.  
We know the completeness of God’s work in the world.  
We know that this Christ child, born of lowly parents in a place not worthy of being called a bed or home...we know this Christ child, the emmanuel, God with us changes the world.  Changes the course of humanity by flipping the world’s expectations and proclaiming a message of hope, life, love, and peace to the whole world, especially those considered the lowest among us.

We attend to the scandal of this night--God breaking forth to dwell among us, in the vulnerable moments of human existence because the proclamation is reliable.  It’s truth. It’s promise. It’s hope. It’s for you and me, and for the whole world.

And while the world might work desperately and tirelessly to oppose this message of hope...as the world bends, fractures, and breaks...dividing, distorting, and abusing relationships….as the world lures us to believe that wealth, power, status, and self indulgence is life giving or life saving….God humbles the world. 

Through a virgin named Mary and a man named Joseph, God blesses us with divine presence.  For no other reason than the fact that God loves us that much.

So dear friends, while we lean into God’s victory tonight...as we tune in attentively to the old, reliable, message of hope.  May it be a reminder that God is still just as active among us today. Christ, the emmanuel, being born among us is but a turning point in a the greater narrative of God’s hope for the world. 

May this night, this O so holy night, be a reminder...No, an invitation to remain attentive.  Attentive not only to the glory of God in the story of Jesus, but attentive and alert to the work of God here and now.  The power of God among us today...casting the mighty down from their thrones and uplifting the lonely. 

Like shepherds in the field, attentive to their flock and their lives...may we keep watch, be alert...heighten our awareness because 

Dear siblings in Christ….Tonight we proclaim good news of great joy!  For us and for our salvation, a child is born this day in the city of David. a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  Emmanuel


© Pastor Daniel Locke, preached Dec. 24, 2018 @ St. Mark's JAX

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Wait in the Present - Sermon on Luke 3:7-18

Listen to the gospel lesson and sermon here.

Luke 3:7-18
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."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."18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Again, I promise you, the well known and wonderful texts of Mary and Joseph, the babe lying in a manger, shepherds of the field, and the great tidings of joy….those texts are coming.  Hang in there. In fact, join us for Christmas Eve worship next Monday because I have a good feeling you’ll hear them then. They’re coming.

But until then, we continue to wade in the season of Advent.  The season of waiting. Of expectation. Of preparation. Of wandering and wondering.  Reflecting and anticipating the return of Christ. We remember that our waiting goes well beyond the next 9 days when Christ is born and we celebrate the season of Christmas, but we wait anxiously for the return of Christ the newborn king.  Of Christ and the fullness of the kingdom of God. We wait and wait and wait some more. And Advent is our friendly, 4 week reminder that our waiting, our anticipation...it is life long.
In those days, the people were unsettled with great expectation.  Great anticipation. They were eager for a Messiah, as proclaimed by the prophets of old.  They were pacing for a savior that reign over Israel and restore power over all nations. And so when a man named John, who resembles the prophet Elijah comes out of the wilderness proclaiming repentance for the forgiveness of sins because a savior is near….the crowds gather.

And I love this moment.  Because it feels so unexpected.  So out of place..

Recall last week’s text, when Luke paints the scene for the arrival of John the Baptist.  Luke begins by saying, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler[a] of Galilee...during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  

And here is a what I love...the word of God passes by all these powerful government and religious leaders, where people likely expected the prophecy of a Messiah to take place...and God’s word speaks to a simple man named John.  John of Zechariah. A man of the wilderness...the dark, dingy, despairing wilderness. And out of the wilderness, John emerges with the word of God….and the crowds gather with great anticipation and excitement for the word of God...and the word speaks through John by saying, “You Brood of Vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!!” 

Love it!  We might expect “Grace and peace to you friends…”  Or “Behold, I bring great news because a savior is coming soon”....Nope… “You brood of Vipers!” 

Oh man, what an entrance.  And admittedly I admire his opening strong word of conviction.   You brood of vipers! ...It’s such a bold and risky approach to proclaiming the word of God to eager crowds.  I admire his confidence. 

Sarah and I took a prophetic preaching class in seminary.  And one of the biggest challenges to preaching prophetically is to speak truth in love.  Knowing full and well that those truths might be unsettling and will likely be met with resistance.

Now I’ve been here over a year, and I feel like I’ve gotten to know a lot of your fairly well...but there is no amount of confidence that would empower me to begin as John the Baptist did.

He spoke to the crowd gathered, folks who had come to hear what he had to say and be baptized in preparation for the possible arrival of a messiah...and the first thing he does is scold them.  Convict them. Speak hard truths.. 

He tells them that just claiming Abraham as an ancestor is not enough.  It’s empty and fruitless...for anyone can claim than ancestry. And for you who claim Abraham as your safety net but act in selfish and harmful ways...the ax is nearby...ready to cut down trees that bear bad or no fruit.  To the tax collectors skimming off the top...the soldiers abusing their power….he speaks convicting truths.

And the remarkable thing is that unlike the prophet’s before him… who spoke convicting truths in love...who used aggressive language and often received hostel responses from the crowds...the people gathered around John don’t revolt.  Despite is strong, aggressive intro...They don’t raise up. They don’t walk away. They don’t stone him or rebuke him. 

No, what do they do?  They lean in...they push in closer...and what’s even more powerful is that they’re struck with curiosity.  Three times they inquire, “What then should we do? What should WE do? What SHOULD we do?”
That’s an honest question isn’t is?  A raw, vulnerable question? The crowds whether full of fear for being axed due to bearing bad fruit or genuinely interested in becoming better people...they ask John, “What then should we do?” 

I think deep down we all wrestle with this question.  As Christians, we know we’re clothed and cleansed in the water of baptism, and we know that baptism is being claimed by God...washed in abundant grace….and absolutely nothing we do or don’t do can change that….

but I think deep down we all know that baptism alone doesn’t prevent or excuse us from bearing bad fruit.  Just because we claim our ancestry...our identity in Christ the waters of baptism...we all wrestle with sin.  We all struggle with abuse of power and relationships. Despite doing our best or trying our hardest we all wrestle with selfish ambition...pride...sinful behavior...and bad fruit.

What then should we do?

I’ve spoken before about a Spiritual retreat called Teens Encounter Christ.  It’s much like Via De Cristo, but oriented towards youth and young adults. It’s a weekend of intentional spiritual renewal.  I went when I was in high school, and I remember upon arrival they asked us to leave behind our watches, phones, alarm clocks or anything that told time. 

The intention was to remove any and all distractions that would prevent us from being full present.  And the mantra they taught us was “Don’t anticipate, participate.” That is don’t worry so much about the next thing...the next event or session. Don’t worry about how long or when...but rather worry about the present.  Be present. Participate fully in the now.

What should we do?  I think John offers a remarkable answer.  He doesn’t say Go to the synagogue or temple and repent and pray.  He doesn’t say, go be with family or community...go confess sins or practice sacramental rituals.    He doesn’t say go and obey the law and religious traditions..

No, John says, if you have two coats, share one.  Share with anyone who has none. If you’re a tax collector then don’t cheat people…collect amount due and no more.  If you’re a soldier, be a soldier, but extort money or abuse your position of power.

John says, be who are you are.  Be you who you are called to be.  Live out your vocation, and while doing so...be no more or less than you were called and created to be.  Be present. Be respectful. Be welcoming. 

If you’re a tax collector, be honest and trustworthy.  Be dependable and genuine. If you’re a soldier, be a protector, defender, and advocate.  Be equitable and fair. 

John says, be who you are called to be.  And for us dear friends, we are called by God, washed in the waters of baptism...claimed by God...to be who we are called to be. 

What should we do?  In Greek, the word “do” as in what should we “do” shares it’s root with bear as in “bear good fruit.”  John exhorts the people to bear fruits worthy of repentance. And the people respond, what should we do?  What should we bear?

Friends, in this season of Advent, this time of year, we’re really good at anticipating.  Anxiously waiting for the Christmas season. Easy to look ahead to the next thing. To get wrapped up and consumed by the business of the season.  To be distracted by upcoming plans, travel, or celebrations. 

The same is true for life.  Always looking ahead, caught up in the whirlwind of life… commitments to our jobs or friends or family.  Obligations to committees and boards… Drowning in the business of life… the events, practices, meetings, ..all the places we have to be and when.   Seem to always be looking ahead, in the distance, worried about what is to come. 
But perhaps, the call of Advent, the season of preparation and waiting is a 4 week reminder...not just that God came to be among us in the Christ child.  But a reminder to be present. To be present. To breathe in the now. To be who we are called to be here and now. To be children of God. 

Caring for others. Sharing in resources.  Giving our extra coats. Living out our vocations in the richest way possible, as a light to the world that Christ is present here and now.   Faithful, diligent, patient, and humble acts of mercy in our everyday lives. Being no more or less than God has called us to be.

That is what we should do.  That is how we wait. All the while, bearing good fruit.  Amen

© Pastor Daniel Locke, preached 12.16.2018 @ St. Mark's Lutheran JAX, FL

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Turning the World Upside Down - Sermon on Luke 3:1-6

Listen to the gospel lesson and sermon here.

Luke 3:1-6
1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "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.' "

Well, we seem to be getting closer to the holiday texts we know and love.  Last week we read from Luke 21, where Jesus sits on the temple mount and offers an apocalyptic discourse to the disciples.   Today, we go back just a bit further in time to the time of John the Baptist. Today’s text in the third chapter of Luke actually occurs after Jesus has been born and raised.  

I promise, if you hang in there, we’ll eventually get to the picture perfect holiday texts that we all know and love.  The manger, shepherds, Mary and Joseph. All of the good stuff. I promise it’s coming.

But until then, it is important that we spend some time in Advent being reminded that we wait not only for the story of Christ being born, but also we wait for the second coming of Christ.  We wait anxiously for the time in which God will make all things new. A time when God will turn the world upside down. Restore all of creation and make us whole.

We wait ever so patiently for the completion of God’s kingdom, praying daily for thy kingdom come and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  For now, in the season of Advent, it is good for us to dwell with the gravity of what it is we’re actually waiting for.

Today’s text sets up the time of John the Baptist.  We don’t actually hear from the John the Baptist until next week, when he comes out swinging from the wilderness and he shouts to the crowd, “You brood of vipers…”.  

But until then, today’s text only introduces the one crying out in the wild.  We are introduced to his presence, and the stage is set for his arrival. The arrival of the one written about in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” 

I think it is interesting and worth noting in today’s text, that the text isn’t about Jesus.  It’s actually not even about John the Baptist. In fact, today’s text opens with an unexpected litany of political, economic, and religious leaders and officials.  Luke sets the stage for John’s entrance by rattling off the who’s-who of first century people in power. 

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…when pontius Pilate was governor of Judea.  When Herod was the ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the the region Ituraea and Trachonitis, and lysanias of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…

Luke is setting the scene for the time of John and Jesus’ arrival.  And between you and me, Luke is baiting his audience, the readers,...he’s baiting you and me to learn a valuable lesson about God and what God is up to.  This text is about God and what God is up to.

The text isn’t actually about Jesus.  And it isn’t really about John the baptist.  Nor is it about the list of powerful leaders.  This text is really a subtle proclamation about God and God’s intention for the world.  It is a subversive message about God’s plan for salvation to a broken creation. It’s about God and what God is up to. 

During my time at Lutheridge as a camp counselor, I learned a lot of songs.  And one of the camp favorites was a song called One Name. The lyrics read, “One name under heaven, whereby we must be saved.  Forgiven of our sins, baptized in the water, filled with the Holy Ghost, washed by the blood of the lamb. Free to be free my friends, freed by the blood of the lamb.”  

Then the 4th and final stanza of the song goes, “God’s goinna move this pla-a--ace, God’s goinna move this place...God’s goinna turn this whole world, upside down.”

God’s goinna turn this whole world upside down.  That’s the subtle message of today’s text and I suspect it went right by most of us when we first read it.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius...with Pontius Pilate governing Judea...with Herod and his brother ruling Galilee and beyond.  With Annas and Caiphas ruling the high priesthood.. God is up to something. Something new. Something unexpected. Something that will turn the whole world upside down.  Something that will shake the status quo to its core. 

You see, in those days the world in desperate and eager for a Messiah, a savior.  Someone to fill the centuries of prophecy that came before. Someone who would be raised up as a might ruler, a king of kings, a leader of nations, a great and powerful savior of the people.  

And so with each powerful political and religious leader that Luke rattles off he challenges the expectations of the world.  God’s up to something …but it won’t happen through the mighty Emperor Tiberius. God is up to something, but it won’t be through powerful Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judea.  God is up to something, but it won’t be through the revered king Herod or his brother. God is up to something but it won’t be through the religious elites, Annas and Caiphas.  

With each and every name Luke announces he not only establishes a timeline to set up the time of John and Jesus, but Luke announces the mighty and powerful leaders of their time and then sets them aside.   And with the world’s greatest economic, social, and political leaders aside, Luke tells us that the word of God came to a man named John. Not an emperor, not a governor or king..not a religious leader. Just John, son of Zechariah...king of the wilderness.

God’s goinna turn this whole world upside down.   God’s word...God’s word incarnate...comes in complete opposition to the world’s expectations.  To a wild man in the wilderness...a lowly guy named John, the word of God comes forth as a voice in the wilderness, crying out, “prepare the way of the lord” proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 

Do you see what God does?  And honestly, as people who know the complete story it should come as no surprise, but God is flipping the script.  Turning the world upside down. Dismissing human expectations and understandings of power. 

God breaks forth not in the mighty and their thrones, but in the lowest, smallest, most unexpected way.  In fact, it is out of the wilderness, the very place that represents wandering, doubt, darkness, and uncertainty, that’s the place that the word of God shows up.  

That’s where the word of God prevails.  Not in the rich, mighty, and powerful. But in the damp, dark, dirty wilderness...God is up to something. God’s goinna turn this whole world upside down.

Luke makes it a point to tell us that God shows up in the most unexpected, counter-cultural way. The fact of the matter is that the systems of power in place in the world will crumble at the presence of God.  God will humble everything that is proud and self-satisfied. God will cast the mighty down from their thrones and uplift the lowly. Out of the wilderness, God is up to something. 

And whether we like it or not...whether we admit it or not...this upside down turning of the world is what we wait and long for in the season of Advent.   It’s what we hope for. It’s what we pray for. It’s what the world is desperate for.

A savior who turns the world upside down.  Who actively seeks out the outcast, poor, lost, lame, and last.  A savior that proclaims good news to the oppressed and sets the captives free.   A savior who challenges and opposes the systems and cycles of power still rampant today.  A savior who confronts any and all abuse of power and restores justice. A savior who flips the script, restores right relationship, and calls forth all of creation to be made new. 

As you most of you know, I have a 4 month old son, Bennet.  And raising Bennet is a learning curve that I know many of you can attest to.  Well, he recently learned a new trick. He has learned how to roll over onto his stomach.  But...and I think this is the important part...he doesn’t know how to roll back over. 

So while it may be cute and adorable at 3 in the afternoon to watch Bennet roll over on his play mat...it is less than cute at 3am ...and 4am..and 5am...when he rolls himself onto his stomach and then screams because he’s stuck.  He finds such joy in his new ability, but it ultimately leaves him stuck, annoyed, and lost.

The world is just like Bennet.  Infatuated with our abilities, our human-made structures and systems, enamored by power and status.  Humankind is wading in sin, wandering in the darkness...stuck and lost from our ways. Screaming out for a savior.

Two nights ago, in the span of 8 hours...Sarah and I responded to Bennet’s screams for help 10 times.  10 times in 8 hours we awoke to him rolled over..stuck, annoyed, and lost. And each time, we crept into his bedroom, gently turned him over, reminded him that he is ok and he is loved, and then soothed him back to sleep...knowing good and well he’d do it again.

God’s goinna turn this whole world upside down.  That’s how God is with us. In the time of John the Baptist and Jesus, the world had lost its way.  Humankind was living for their own sake. 

The emperor Tiberius, the Governor Herod...the religious and political leaders and officials… they lived for their own benefit.  For their own wealth. They thrived on systems of power the abused relationships, discarded other human beings, neglected the sick, poor, oppressed, lost, last, and lonely.  The world was stuck in sin. Screaming in the night for someone to come and save.

And God did just that.  God became incarnate, took on human flesh to be among us.  God’s word came out of the wilderness...the very place of wandering, doubt, despair, and darkness.  And God’s word spoke. Calling all people into repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Sins that got us stuck in the first place.  

Repentance, by its very definition is to turn around...to turn away from harmful, corrupting, and indulging sin...and turn to God.  A complete 180.

And God, gracious and abounding in steadfast love responds every time to our cry.  God’s gonna turn this whole world upside down..

The good news my friends is that God is still up to something.  God is still active. God is still the one meeting us in the darkest wildernesses of our lives and proclaiming a word of hope.  God is still moving among us. God is still calling us to repentance and forgiving our sins. God promises to always be present.  And God promises to turn this world upside down….or perhaps...right side up.

So, I suppose the question is: Do you ever stop, pray, listen, and wonder...what is God up to?  Where is God moving and stirring? Where in life do you find yourself in the wilderness? In the dark, desperate, and despairing places?   Do you cry out to God? Is God responding? 
And if so, is it making you uncomfortable?  Unsettling your foundation? Is God moving in a way that challenges you to evaluate and reexamine your life?  Is God turning your world upside down?


© Pastor Daniel Locke, preached 12.08.2018 @ St. Mark's Lutheran JAX, FL

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Perfect Christmas Tree Tradition

Every year, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, my family and I would travel to the mountains of North Carolina to seek out and cut down the perfect Christmas tree. Once the tree was acquired, we would eat stuffed-crust pizza from Pizza Hut, and then we would return home to decorate the tree while watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  Our yearly tradition was never without its hiccups and challenges, but that’s what made it wonderful. That is what made it ours.

Our tradition became bit more challenging once my mom’s health and mobility declined due to her battle with cancer.  But the tradition was important to all of us, and we were not going to let cancer slow us down. So, in 2005, we journeyed up the mountain for what would be mom’s final trip to the tree farm.  And on this particular day, the snow was falling and the ground was icy.

The cancer, in addition to the winter conditions, made it nearly impossible for mom to climb the mountain.  Although her mobility was limited, we searched high and low for the perfect tree as she would point off into the distance and say “what about that one?”  After analyzing her selection, I would trek up the mountain, and shout back, “this one!?” “No? How about this one?!” The search went on and on.

After an extended and fruitless search, my mom turned around and gazed across to the mountain on the other side of the road.  We had never ventured there before. Mom raised her finger and pointed off into the distance and said, “I think I see it. That one. Over there.”  The road was icy and steep. It would not be a welcomed journey down one hillside and up another. But it was our tradition, and if cancer was not going to stop us, then neither was a steep, iced-over road to the perfect tree.
My mom had a deep affection for the holidays, and if I had to guess, I think her love for Advent and Christmas was rooted in the many traditions of the holidays, of the church, and of our family.

Advent and Christmas, more than any other liturgical season, are rich with tradition.  Some families decorate Christmas trees, bake cookies, and hang stockings. Some families travel to distant relatives, exchange gifts, go Christmas caroling, or volunteer.  Some families traverse treacherous winter conditions in their Dodge Caravan to secure the “perfect tree,” eat pizza and watch their favorite holiday movie.

What makes these traditions wonderful and special are the stories that accompany them.  Traditions create experiences, and experiences make memories. These memories, good or bad become the stories we share with one another.
This is the power of the Advent and Christmas season.  We tell the story of a virgin teenager receiving word from an angel that she will give birth to the son of God.  We tell the story of shepherds in the field keeping watch over their sheep by night. We tell the story of Wise Men from the East.  We tell the story of a scared, vulnerable, young couple trying to find a place to stay for the night. We tell the story of God shining a light in the darkest moments.  

After mom died, my dad, brother, and I journeyed back out to that mountain to find the biggest and healthiest tree we could justify fitting in our house.  Although mom was no longer with us, the tradition continued and the story was told. It may seem trivial, but in the darkness of her cancer and death, our 12’ Christmas tree towered as a symbol of promise and hope.  It was a full of life and growth. It was our story, our tradition, our tree, and I have no doubt that mom would have approved.

We tell these stories and share in the tradition because they are our story, gifted to us by God in a baby boy-- Emmanuel.  We tell these stories, not just as distant memories, but as proclamations of hope. Proclamations of life. What’s your tradition?  What’s your story?

© Originally published in St. Mark's Lutheran Church Jax, FL, Dec. Messenger

Signs: here and now! - Sermon on Luke 21:25-36 - 12.02.2018

Listen to the gospel lesson and sermon here.

Luke 21:25-36
25 "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.27 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."29  Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees;30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.34  "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly,35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

December 31, 1999.  New Year’s Eve. My family and I thoroughly enjoyed celebrating the holidays, but by New Years’ Eve the steam was usually waning.   I don’t have very many memories of celebrating New Year’s Eve. At best I remember sitting in the living room with mom watching, napping, waiting,. And then once the ball dropped we called it a night.   But in 1999, this particular News Years’ Eve was different. We did something drastically different; almost as though the world was ending…We went to a party.
Anybody remember Y2K?  

Well, a member of our church hosted a party that evening.  And full disclosure, I was 12 years old…so the concept of the world crashing at midnight because of technology was a bit lost on me.  But I remember walking the house at the party and there being a weird tension in the air. Like an anxiety. Almost fearful. 

I remember seeing a stockpile of bottled water in the corner of the basement along with batteries, canned food, and other doomsday-esk paraphernalia.  I remember thinking, “Goodness, I’ve heard about Y2K, but could this really be it?” 

As midnight approached our parents encouraged us to stay upstairs, playing in one of the teenagers rooms.  I don’t know if they were trying to spate the generations in case we had to lead the world into a new age, or if they were trying to distract us so we couldn’t countdown the seconds to our demise.   

We crept out of the room and down the split-level staircase to peak over the banister as all the adults had gathered in the basement for the final moment.  Ten – nine – eight...do you remember where you where? 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1…then in a moment like a movie, where everything freezes into slow motion and the camera circles the room…the clock struck midnight. And do you remember what happened?! That’s right, nothing! 
Jesus sits opposite the temple and talks about the end times, "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.27 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.  It seems that ever since that moment, humankind has worked overtime to predict and prepare for the end. And every time, believe it or not, human kind is wrong.  

Do you remember May 21 2011?  Christian radio broadcaster, Harold Camping told us the world would end on May 21, 2011.  They spent millions of dollars getting the word out. Do you remember what happened? Nothing.  In fact, Camping said he’d rather predict and be wrong then not believe at all and miss out. So, he said the world would certainly end by Oct. 21, 2011.  Still, nothing happened and humankind survived. 

There was the infamous blood moon on Oct. 7 2015.   Spoiler alert, we all survived.
In fact, you may be delighted to know that according to a Google search humankind, you and I, have persevered through more that 150 failed end-of-the-world predictions. 

And just so you can’t say you didn’t know…the world will end in Jesus will return on June 9 next year. That’s my birthday by the way.

Or in case that’s wrong, keep an eye out for an asteroid in 2026…or countless other predictions.  And I suppose the good news is if we make it to 2026, there are no current recorded predictions until 2129.

The point is that Humankind has exhausted itself predicting and preparing for the end times. You ever get tracks on your window shield?  Or the bathroom stall? Or in a case of beer? ..or so I’ve heard.

What’s alarming about all of these signs and our predictions is that not only are they wrong… not only do they negate Jesus telling us that no one knows the hour or day….but they all foster a climate of fear.  They instill fear…fear of the end…fear of missing out…fear of the unknown…fear of what happens next. 

The world seems to always be searching for a sign.  Natural disaster, political uprising, famine, deep space discovery, Biblical numerology…society is obsessed with predicting the end times or spin current events to convince others it’s here.

Well today Jesus sits on the temple mount and teaches about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The disciples demand a sign. And Jesus says, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”

He goes on to say that Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”   For Jesus, the signs of the final judgment will be crystal clear for those who live by the way of Christ.  But until then, no one knows. No one knows. And when it happens, you’ll know….so don’t ask for the signs.  Don’t fabricate signs. Don’t exaggerate what you think could be signs. Don’t stir up fear for fear’s sake. 
In fact, Jesus says, "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life…so that the day does not catch you unexpectedly,35 like a trap.”   Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."
It seems to me that Jesus is less concerned about that signs of the end times as he is about the signs and actions of the disciples then and there…of you and me, here and now.   To be not s focused on signes of the sun, moon, stars…signs of the heavens and the son of man, but focused, called, committed to the signs of the kingdom here and now.

Rather than seek out signs of the final day and be drowned in fear of the end, perhaps Jesus would have us be signs to the world.  Signs that dispel fear, darkness, and endings…Signs that point to new hope, new beginnings, a new heaven and a new earth. Signs that point to the nearness of the kingdom of God now.  Jesus is a sign that the kingdom of God has come near.  And perhaps that is the only sign we need. The only sign needed to know that repentance begins now, a new beginning is ushered in.  Be alert! Wait, sure, but wait actively.

Today we enter the Advent season.  The colors have changed, the Advent wreath is up, the Chrismon tree is standing tall, and the crèche is on our front lawn.  Today begins a season of waiting and anticipation…not only as we remember the Virgin Mary and the world eagerly waiting for a Messiah and Savior…but as we continue to wait today.  Actively waiting for the return of Christ to reconcile the world and make all things new.

We begin Advent not with our typical story…Mary and Joseph, a manger and no room in the inn.  Shepherd and wisemen. No, we begin this season with a reminder that the Advent season is one hope and anticipation…anxious and active waiting for the return of our savior – the messiah – Emmanuel.  

And with Jesus as our sign we proclaim a message of hope.  Of love, grace, joy, and peace. Not fear. Jesus is the first fruit, the first sign in God’s grace-filled kingdom.  Jesus calls us to lives of joy and abundance, love and hope. And until the kingdom of God comes to complete fullness, we are called through baptism to be visible, tangible, and faithful signs to the world.  Signs of hope.

That is why today, we light the 1st candle of the Advent wreath, also known as the hope candle. It is also sometimes called the Prophet’s candle.  Until that candle is lit, the wreath stands in darkness. After lighting, the darkness is dispelled and the promise of hope is ignited.  

It burns as a sign that it is only the beginning.  There are more signs to come. As the prophets of old, when given the world of God upon their lips, they could not help but proclaim the good news of God.  
We too have been blessed by the waters, nourished by the body and blood, called and sent into the world to dispel darkness and fear, burn with the brightness of God’s promise for everlasting life.   Called to be a sign of hope, peace, joy, and love. 

And friends, if God calls us as Christians to be a sign unto the world, then we better be crystal clear about our message.  Go out of our way to articulate and proclaim without a doubt the goodness of God’s love. So that all the world may take notice. We live, serve, and act with clarity and humility.

So for the poor, hungry, and…the very people Jesus spent his life loving hear of a message that God’s kingdom is open to all, it’s welcoming, generous, and full of hope.

            So the oppressed and discarded of society read a message that God’s kingdom is just, equal, and equitable. 

            So that victims to unjust systems of power and cycles of abuse and neglect see a sign that declares God’s kingdom as a home for all people.  
So that the ill, lame, and unclean...those kicked down by the stench and darkness of disease or death may take sight of the kingdom of God.  and know that in Jesus the burden is light and the Kingdom of God thrives to heal, restore, and make whole. 

As a system of love and justice that cast the mighty down from their thrones and uplifts the humble of heart. 
So that the outcast, the different, the abused, the neglected, and the bullied find a light in the kingdom of God that welcomes all and celebrates each and every individual gift and ability.
So often the voice of opposition…those who misinterpret the promise of God. Those who abuse the prophecy of final judgment and act out of fear...they carry big posters…big signs...celebrating injustice and fostering division...those are signs of fear.

But as Christians, the signs we are called to proclaim take form not in banners, posters, and billboards...but in action.  Tangible and visible witnesses...testimonies. Signs that God’s love dispels all fear and and infects the darkness with hope beyond hope.

My friends, oh my friends, what an opportunity and privilege we have to be claimed by God…to know the ending of the story…to know and believe in the promise of a new and heaven and new earth…and to be called by Jesus to worry not about the final day but to live here and now proclaiming the goodness of God’s love.  

When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.  Speak with authority and love.  Act with humility and justice. Serve with patience and kindness.  Love without fear. Hope without a doubt. Welcome all. Proclaim, cry out, share, witness, testify, and be alert.  Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape the fear and trembling of the world, but rather stand before the Son of Man….in the promise and hope of Jesus Christ.  God’s gracious sign for the world. Amen. 

© Pastor Daniel Locke, preached Dec. 02, 2018 @ St. Mark's Lutheran Jacksonville, FL

Sunday, November 11, 2018

80th Anniversary and Renovations of Growth

Let me first say, Happy 80th Anniversary!!  On October 14th we celebrated our anniversary with worship and a pig roast.  Former Florida-Bahamas Synod bishop and St. Mark’s pastor, William Trexler, joined us as our special guest to preach.  It was an incredible event and I am so thankful to not only everyone who volunteered their time and energy to make the event a great success, but to all of you who made the trip to be with us as well.  It was joy to see old friends reunite, share stories and memories, and honor St. Mark’s history in this community. St. Mark’s has a rich history and we excitedly look to the future as we continue to grow, learn, and serve.  May we always be asking, “What is God up to in this place?”

In preparation for the 80th anniversary, I reviewed the history of leadership at St. Mark’s.  You can read a brief synopsis of our history on our website under the “history” tab. And as I reread our history, I noticed that under the tenure of each pastor we lift up not only the flourishing ministry and mission during their time, but also significant changes and additions to our physical building.  From the beginning, during the tenure of Pastor George Hart, our history notes purchasing our first property as well as constructing the original church building at our current location. During Pastor Nordsiek’s tenure history notes new plans for a Fellowship Hall and Education Building. During Pastor Biemiller’s tenure renovations were made to the education facility and faceted glass was added to the chapel.  During Pastor Trexler’s tenure a new nave was built. During Pastor Scholl’s tenure, the church expanded to include a new fellowship hall, music suite, kitchen, and offices.

This observation made me reflect on why building renovations are important to our history.  Why take the time to honor and record renovations and updates within our church’s history? Is it that building renovations and additions are the most tangible result of a pastor’s tenure?  Or, perhaps, building growth is a parallel to membership growth and mission outreach.

Perhaps a thriving congregation necessitates updates and renovations and, therefore honoring those physical changes honors our congregation’s vitality.  After all, it is the continual update, improvement, and modernization that allows St. Mark’s to have such an impact in the community. The Nordsiek building is home to 120 preschoolers and more than 30 staff.  The music suite and nave ensure safe venue for not only worship, but Bach Vespers, San Marco Chamber Music Society, Organ Concerts, guest musicians, clinicians, and other artists. General repairs and updates exemplify our commitment to being a warm and inviting, albeit temporary, home for Family Promise.  Additions and renovations like Hart Hall and the Fellowship Hall allow us to host groups and partners in ministry like Lutheran Social Services, yoga, community band, chess tournaments for kids, and more.

I am excited that 80 years later, renovations and updates continue still today.  Most recently the library and office (rooms used for hosting Family Promise) received a fresh coat of paint and new flooring.  Over the next six months the catalog and content of our library will be updated. As our new collection grows, I invite you to check out a book, offer a review, share with a friend, or start a book group.  The library is an incredible resource and we are working hard to restore its relevance. In the weeks to come, we will be replacing our Nave roof, which is our oldest roof. As we look to the future, plans are in being put in place for the installation of a fire protection system and grants are being written for updates the St. Mark’s Ark playground and kitchen.

I never imagined that my first year at St. Mark’s would involve so many conversations regarding facility maintenance, renovations and upgrades.  I am beyond excited that they are happening because these conversations are a testament to the Spirit’s movement here and now at St. Mark’s. God is always forming and reforming us.

It is an exciting time to be a part of this community of faith, and if you have ideas, interests, or a heart for handiwork, please contact me.

© Pastor Daniel Locke, originally printed Nov. 2018 in the St. Mark's JAX Messenger.