Sunday, February 9, 2020

You are Salt and Light - Sermon on Matthew 5:13-20

Sermon preached by Pastor Daniel Locke on February 09, 2020 @ St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Jacksonville, FL
Listen to the Sermon here

Matthew 5:13-20 
13 "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14 "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 

On the North shore of the Sea of Galilee, as the small hills climb right out of the water there is a small town called Capernaum. The small town on the North East edge of Galilee became well-tread territory within the public ministry of Jesus.  It’s near these shores that Jesus called his first disciples, ate fish for breakfast with Peter, calmed the storm, and fed the crowds. This is holy ground to be sure. And today, from the sea of Galilee, as you climb the hill side full of banana trees, there is a Roman Catholic Church known as the Church of the Beatitudes.  It is a beautiful church with an incredible view. And it is there that Christian history remembers the beatitudes and Jesus’ profound moment of teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount. Research says that the natural curve of the landscape would have made for great acoustics for Jesus to teach and the shade from large trees would make it appealing for listeners to sit and learn.

This is one of the many sites we’ll visit when we take our trip to the Holy Land in October.  It’s the site from which our gospel text comes this morning.

And as we dive in, I want to say a quick word about where we are and why the Sermon on the Mount is so important.  I mentioned last week that we’ve been following the life of Jesus in a chronological sense. From the Advent of his conception, through the birth narrative and baptism, through calling his first disciples and beginning his earthly teaching ministry.  Today we continue that chronology as we Jesus gathers on the Galilean hillside to teach, and it marks a significant shift within Jesus’ ministry.

You see, in chapter four of Matthew’s gospel, once Jesus has been baptized and called his first disciples, the text tells us that he Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 

Then it says, “His fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25 And great crowds followed him. 
In today’s understanding, we might say that Jesus has traveled from town to town playing all the local coffee shops and small venues.  His name and reputation is spreading. And now, after much proclamation and teaching, rather than going town to town to meet the people, the people have come to him.  His proclamation of hope, demeanor of love and acceptance and his power to heal have drawn the interest and desperation of the crowds. They now follow and press upon him.  
And in the 5th chapter of Matthew, it tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak and taught them.  With the crowds growing in overwhelming numbers, the time had come for the disciples to understand and accept the responsibility of their discipleship.  

The implication within Matthew’s text is that he is teaching the disciples.  But certainly, we can presume the crowds are close enough that they can hear him also.  And through the teaching moment, Jesus is educating and equipping his disciples for the full weight of the ministry to which they’ve been called.  

Telling them not who they should become, ought to become, might think about becoming, or here try this...but rather telling them who they are now.  Discipleship without action is not discipleship. Disciple as a noun is good and well, but to be a disciple of Jesus is to embrace the verb, to go about the work of being a disciple.  Discipling. And Jesus calls the disciples, indeed us, to so much more. By the nature of being a disciple, they carry a great privilege and responsibility within the ministry of God’s kingdom.  Called with reason. Claimed for a purpose.

And this section of passage is incredibly significant.  For one, it is the longest continuous teaching by Jesus in all of scripture.  Three chapters in fact of Jesus teaching on an array of subjects. And because of that, this is one of the most well-known and highly quoted portions of scripture.  

Jesus’ sermon on the mount is powerful discourse, not only about the glory of the kingdom of God and God’s grace-filled redemption God’s people, but it is also a lengthy discourse on the role, the identity, and the responsibility of being disciple.  What it means to be disciples. These chapters are an impactful commentary on what discipleship in action looks like and the responsibility of the call. 

So, Jesus says, YOU!  You are salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.  You are. Not you should be. You could be. Or, you ought to be.  But, you ARE the light of the world. You are salt of the earth. And salt that has lost its taste cannot be restored.  It is thrown out and trampled upon. And light shines to give vision. Clarity. And Direction. No one lights a lamp and then immediately covers it.  A light by purpose is lit to shine and reveal. You are light. You are salt. 

What does Jesus mean?

Salt, in Jesus’ day was an incredibly important commodity.  It was necessary to their daily life, and not something to be taken for granted.  They would harvest salt by pouring water from the dead sea into big pits or cistern to let it evaporate, leaving only salt.  Salt, as it does today, had a wealth of purposes. Salt was used not simply to season food but to preserve it as well. When rubbed on food it preserves the meat and stops slows the process of decay.  It prevents corruption. Salt was used to treat wounds. The law of Leviticus instructs the use of Salt in religious sacrifice. Scripture talks about the use of salt in making covenants and establishing relationships.  Salt is a valuable product of trade. Even newborn babies were said to have been washed in salt. 

Light was also a necessity.  Obviously, without light, you couldn’t see.  Light enabled and empowered the necessary functions of daily living.  Light creates vision. Clarity. Direction. Light unveils the darkness and reveals the hidden.  Light guides and makes clear the path ahead. Light was essential. And as the natural light of the sun set, it was necessary to spark new light.  And Jesus makes the point to say, no one, no one having lit a lamp immediately covers it up with a bushel. That’s ridiculous. Why light it in the first place.  Rather, a light is lit for the purpose of shining. That’s what light does, and to inhibit a light’s ability to shine is to intentionally hinder the light’s ability to be effective.  To dismiss its power all together. 

Salt has a purpose.  In fact, it has many purposes.  Light has a purpose. And you, Jesus says, YOU are light of the world.  YOU ARE salt of the earth. You have a purpose. And to be a disciple, to be a salt and light, as one commentator noted is to "be tasty and lit."    Salt on a shelf is a waste of good salt. Light hidden is a misuse of light.  

Given the busy nature of our callings, Sarah and I don’t always have the chance to sit down of dinner together.  Even more rare are the chances to cook a home cooked meal together. So, we’ve been quite fond of a company called Hellofresh?  Anybody familiar with Hellofresh? Or Blue Apron? There are other companies, but they’re all essentially the same. These companies allow you to pick any number of meals from their menu and then they send you all of the pre portioned ingredients and recipes in order to make the meal.  These have been life savers for us as a family. And I really like them because it’s affordable and it pushes us to try new things. They provide everything you need for the meal except three things: Oil, Pepper, and Salt.

Now, I would guess that over the years I’ve cooked at least 60 or so HelloFresh meals.  And in my brief but vast experience, I have learned that you can always count on two things: First, 90% of meals will use an entire onion.  And Secondly, the recipe instructs you to Salt and Pepper everything at every step of the process. 

I cooked a meal the other night - roasted poblano pepper and pork tacos.  And, as expected, it called for the use of an entire red onion. And of the 3 steps in the cooking process, each and every one said, add Salt and Pepper to taste in bold.  It’s becoming a running joke for us to question the recipe when a step doesn’t tell you to add salt.  

When Jesus tells the disciples that they are salt of the earth and the light of the world, he is using very real and understandable metaphors to explain their discipleship.  He is giving them a clear and direct mission to, as the commentator said, be tasty and be lit.

So, what does it mean to be salt and light for the world?  It means to act and live in such a manner that your Christian witness is seen with clarity and understanding.  It means removing the bushels of the world that we put in place to squelch the light. It means shining light in the face of injustice and revealing peace and hope.  It means denouncing the bushels of hatred, envy, greed, oppression, exploitation, abuse, and shame...denouncing, as we do in baptism, the forces that defy that light may be seen and reflected.  

To be salt is to season the world with flavor.  To spice up the despair of life. It means preserving the natural goodness of God’s creation.  It means stopping the world and our neighbors from the decay of sin. It means acting in the waters of baptism and promise of salvation to work for justice and peace.  It means seasoning grief and despair with hope, flavoring loss with accompaniment, oppression with freedom, and injustice and justice. It means rubbing the powerful systems of injustice with the healing power of God’s kingdom. 

Salt is such a powerful metaphor.  I was visiting someone in the hospital the other day, and it dawned on me…when you’re admitted to the hospital, what is one of the first things they always do no matter your symptoms or illness.  They start and IV. And what is an IV? It’s a saline solution. Essentially, saltwater because salt is important to your body’s natural healing.  
And if salt has lost its saltiness it is worthless and thrown out to be trampled on.   It’s said that untrustworthy vendors would sell salt diluted with white sand, rendering the salt useless and saltiness-less.   Therefore thrown out to be trampled under foot. Salt was essential to life. And if salt lost its flavor or saltiness, then it was worthless.  

Think about it, we don’t take things and add them to salt to dilute salt and make it better do we?  No. In the same way that we don’t cover a freshly lit lamp. Rather, a lamp is lit to shine, and salt is applied to preserve, season, nourish, and heal.

And I think for Jesus, he is teaching the disciples that as disciples they must denounce the bushels of the world.  They must reject the sins that dilute their calling. Rather than be impressed by the world around them, they’re called as disciples to form and reform the world and their neighbors.  Called to usher in the kingdom of God. To shine and season. To be light and to be salt.

My friends, YOU, You are salt and you are light.  In the waters of baptism, God removes the bushels of sin, and through confession and forgiveness, God calls us to season the world with God’s grace.  And like the recipe calls for...Salt everything, every step of the way.
And being salt and light looks like the ordinary acts of Christian witness in everyday life.
It’s serving at the food pantry or habitat build, working with volunteers in medicine.  
It’s being guardian ad litem, giving rides to the elderly to the Dr. and grocery store. 
It’s taking altar flowers to shut-ins, tutoring at our local school, and making chili to raise almost $400.  It’s a red wagon overflowing with food week-in and week-out.  It’s empowering a preschool that nurtures 120 kids and families.  It’s adopting children, caring for grandkids, and teaching Sunday school.  It’s baking a meal or sleeping on a couch so that homeless families may have a safe place to rest.  It’s singing the promise of God, leading the community of faith in worship, taking communion to our sisters and brothers.   It’s praying by name for anyone who asks. Salt is powerful and it doesn’t take a lot to be effective.  Light is powerful and once lit it stands for all to see. 

So, my dear disciples, You! You are salt of the earth.  You are light of the world. And as you were charged in baptism: Let your light so shine before others so they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.  Amen. 

©Sermon preached by Pastor Daniel Locke on February 9, 2020 @ St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Jacksonville, FL

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Presentation of Our Lord - Sermon on Luke 2:22-40

Sermon preached by Pastor Daniel Locke on February 2, 2020 @ St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Jacksonville, FL
Listen to the Sermon here

Luke 2:22-40
22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law,28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." 33 And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too."36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. 

For those of you who have been following along rather closely, we’ve been moving chronologically through the life of Jesus, starting back in Advent.  From the annunciation by the angel Gabriel, through Mary’s Magnificat. From the journey of an ordinary couple to Bethlehem, to the birth of Jesus in an unusual and less-than-ideal circumstance.  From Joseph and his family fleeing to Egypt at the threat of Herod’s infant massacre, to the arrival of the wiseman and the celebration of the Epiphany. Over the last few weeks, we heard John the Baptist announce the arrival of one who is greater.  Jesus was baptized in the River and was driven into the wilderness. Last week, Christ called his first disciples. As you might expect, we’ve had some forward chronological momentum as we work our way towards Lent, Holy Week, and Easter.  
But, to keep you on your toes, we embrace the two steps forward, one step backwards dance of our lectionary.  Today we cycle back to Jesus infancy, just weeks, days even, after he was born. And we open the word of God to the moment Jesus was presented in the temple.  Chronologically, we’re jumping several years. Next week we’ll return to Jesus teaching and his sermon on the mount, but for today, we step back.
And there are two reasons for us to do so.  First, we do not know much about Jesus’ childhood, and we have very few texts that reference him as a baby or young child.  Even less are the Sundays in which our texts talk about Jesus as a child. So, when the opportunity presents itself, it is good for us to take a moment and dwell within the Word of God as an infant, indeed a baby.
Second, we jump back in lectionary time because today, Feb. 2, just so happens to be the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ.  And it doesn’t happen often that th Feb. 2 falls on a Sunday, so we today we have to opportunity to celebrate this Feast Day - The Presentation of Jesus Christ.  
In many traditions, this is a significant day on the liturgical calendar, and admittedly, Lutherans are the most impassioned celebrators of the day.  In many cultures, this day is marked with major celebrations and town festivals. There are cultural traditions, with song, dance, and special food. In fact, the Feast Day of the Presentation of Our Lord is one of the oldest known traditions in the Christian church.  
Another name for this Feb. 2 feast day is Candlemas.  Within many religious traditions, it is common for families to bring candles from their homes to have them blessed on this day.  Since light is a significant symbol within the Christian church, the blessing of the candles used in the home and church serves as a reminder that each time the candle is lit, Christ is present.  The light of the world shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.  
Every year, on Feb. 2, whether we gather for worship or not, the Christian calendar celebrates the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, and we read this passage from the gospel of Luke.  
Now I know the liturgical calendar can be confusing, but if you’re a liturgical purist or nerd like some of us, this question is for you.  Why Feb. 2? Why is Feb. 2 the Feast Day for the Presentation of Our Lord? We know Christmas is celebrated for 12 days, starting on Dec. 25.  We know that Epiphany falls on Jan. 6 every year.  So why Feb. 2 for this feast day?
For that, we turn to Jewish law.  Within the laws of Leviticus, it says, 
If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days; 3On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. 4 Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed.  6 When the days of her purification are completed, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. 7 He shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female. 8 If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.
On Feb. 2, 40 days after the celebration of Christ’s birth and according to the law of Leviticus, Mary, the mother of Jesus, would present her sacrifice to the priest - a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a dove for a sin offering.  The priest would make atonements on her behalf and she would be made clean. This is why Feb. 2 is the Feast day of the Presentation of Our Lord, because on the 40th day, Mary and Joseph would have taken Jesus and their offering to the temple so that she may be made clean.  And in this moment, as Mary and Joseph adhere to the laws of their faith, Luke introduces us to a man named Simeon and the prophet Anna.
These are brief moments in the overall narrative of Jesus, but they’re important to recognize.  This story is another reminder to us that Jesus was Jewish, born into a humble, well-meaning and devout Jewish household.  Mary and Joseph were obedient and caring, diligent in their practice of the law of Moses. And Jesus, well Jesus was there son.  Flesh of flesh. He was a very real baby with all the quirks, joys, frustrations, and sleepless nights of any other baby. And according to Jewish law, on the eighth day of Jesus’ infancy, he would have been circumcised and named.  According to Numbers 18, on the 31st day of his life, Jesus would have been brought to the Temple to be redeemed. The law states, 
the first issue of the womb of all creatures, human and animal, which is offered to the Lord, shall be yours; but the firstborn of human beings you shall redeem, and the firstborn of unclean animals you shall redeem. 16 Their redemption price, reckoned from one month of age, you shall fix at five shekels of silver.
And on the 40th day of birth, the mother would appear to the priest in the Temple to offer her sacrifice and to be cleansed.  
So, why is this is significant?  Why does this Feast day matter? Well, I think there are two important things for us to glean from this text and this feast day.  The first, is that Jesus was a human being. God took on human flesh, became truly human. God came among us in the very plain, ordinary walk of life.  To a very ordinary, some-what poor, devout family - God was born. Jesus was born in a Jewish household, to Jewish parents, and was raised in Jewish tradition and law.
I think sometimes we tend to hold the incarnation of God at arm’s length.  As a divine moment that is almost inconceivable or relatable.  But we must not forget the confession of our faith in which Christ was born fully human, fully divine.  It’s one of the great doctrines and mysteries of our faith. And it’s an important understanding, because it reminds us that God has acted and continues to act in the ordinary of life.  God knows the daily realities of our lives. God knows the weight of human joy and pain. God knows the agony of defeat and the despair of loss. God entered the ordinary walk of life to offer a new way of life. 
Much like through the ordinary elements of bread and wine, of water and word, God uses these ordinary means to offer grace, forgiveness, and eternal life.  Go uses the plain and ordinary, like you and me, to bring about the kingdom of God. And the promise of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, is that God will continue to bless us in this extraordinary and unbelievable ways.  So I think this moment is significant in our understanding of God’s incarnation - God’s beloved promise to abide within our lives.  
The second important truth that our text teaches us, is that this 40-day old, ordinary baby, Jesus Christ, is God’s son.  Jesus is God incarnate, the salvation for the people, the revelation for the Gentiles. This ordinary tiny human, is the savior of the nations.  The Messiah. The one called for. While Mary and Joseph fulfill the laws and traditions of their faith, God fulfills the promise proclaimed by the prophets and the Angel Gabriel, that this tiny human, God fulfills God’s promise to redeem the world.
There’s this beautiful, but almost haunting moment in today’s text.  It’s the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis. There was a man named Simeon who was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah.  
To be sure, this is a man who is ready to die.  Following a full, righteous and devout life, he is near death.  But the Spirit of the Lord rests on him and reveals that he will not die until he has seen the Lord’s Messiah.  And so, he waits. Day after day at the Temple he waits. He waits for the Lord. Until the 40th day of Jesus’ life, when Simeon beholds the Lord’s Messiah, takes him into his arms and says,  
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.  
Having held and beheld God, Simeon’s lifetime of waiting is fulfilled.  And it’s a bit haunting because he sings a song about death. But for Simeon, it’s not simply that he may die, but that he may now die in peace.  Trusting in the fulfillment of God’s promise to redeem Israel. Simeon’s song is an affirmation of the Lord’s peace, gifted to the world, a gift of peace for the people Israel.  Indeed, a light of revelation. The long-awaited Messiah has come to restore God’s people and bring forth the reign of God. Simply beholding the son of God was the assurance of God’s promise fulfilled, which allowed Simeon to now depart in peace.  
Simeon’s song known as the Nunc Dimittis is one of the Christian church’s oldest songs.  It is often sung during evening prayer, vespers, or compline. In fact, every time we gather for worship on a Saturday evening, we sing it within our liturgy.  Do you know when? As communion comes to close, once all have had the opportunity to taste and see that the Lord is good, we sing Simeon’s Song, and the timing is not coincidence.  Once all have held and beheld the grace of God, we sing, “Now Lord, you let your servant go in peace: your word has been fulfilled.  My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people; a light to reveal you to the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.  Now Lord, you let your servant go in peace.”
Simeon was told by the Spirit that he will not depart until he saw the Lord’s Messiah.  And so Simeon spends his days, weeks, months, who knows how long waiting. Waiting in his old age.  With his physical ailments. With any infirmities. Waiting for this moment. And when he finally beholds the Messiah, he sings a somber yet hope-filled song - and what is beautiful is that he doesn't sing it for his own sake, but rather for the sake of the world.  
That the world around him will now behold the Lord’s Messiah.   The his eyes have seen God’s salvation, which God has prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  And with the world now safely enfolded into the care of God’s promise, Simeon can rest in peace.
Few and far between are the liturgical moments to reflect on the infancy of Jesus.  God, in God’s infinite and unconditional love, comes to us in this tiny human, in the ordinary customs and traditions of life, and offers and extraordinary gift for all people - a gift of redemption and freedom, marked with justice and peace.   God is present. Very, really present. And God’s presence is good news for all people, in all times, in all places.
And on this, the 40th day of Jesus’ life, we celebrate the presence of God as the firstborn of Israel, the new lamb, offered as a sacrifice for the redemption of the world.  God’s promise fulfilled. Amen.
©Sermon preached by Pastor Daniel Locke on February 2, 2020 @ St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Jacksonville, FL

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Going Fishing - Sermon on Matthew 4:12-23

Sermon preached by Pastor Daniel Locke on January 26, 2020 @ St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Jacksonville, FL
Listen to the Sermon here

Matthew 4:12-23
12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." 17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." 18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Let me preface today’s sermon by saying I am not a fisherman.  In fact, I have only been fishing a handful of times and I’ve learned that I am most successful if the rod is plastic, the line has a magnet on the end, and I’m trying to catch plastic magnetic fish in a kiddie pool.  I classify fishing as NMG - not my gift.

That being said, I can recall a few impactful experiences that taught me about the art of fishing.  As a boy scout, we once camped out around someone’s pond. One of the reasons for our weekend camping trip was for some folks to work on their fishing merit badge.  So, that evening, our scout master asked who wanted to go fishing in the morning. He offered to wake us up in the morning, and since I had never really gone fishing before, I thought, sure, why not.  When 4 am came, I immediately regretted my decision. Apparently, most fish are active at dusk and dawn. I guess early worm gets the fish, as they say.

My second lesson was that going fishing was not equivalent to going to catch fish.  That same camping trip I learned that you can sit for hours, doing nothing, and get no result. Fishing takes patience.

In high school I was invited to go fishing off the pier at a friend’s lake house.  I’d say that this experience was a bit more successful, but it was also the time I learned that fishing requires attentiveness.  Turns out, you can’t cast the line, lean the pole against the rail and trust the fish would bite and politely wait to be reeled in.  Apparently, fish like to eat on the go. I lost my friends fishing pole. 

Growing up, my dad got me a small tackle box.  Through scouts I had collected two or three bobbers, a few weights, some fun little lures and a variety of hooks.  I felt cool.  That is until I was invited to go fishing with a group of folks from scouts.  I took my cute little tackle box with more cubbies and compartments than things to put in them.  I really liked that when I opened the lid, the top compartment raised on its own, revealing the secret hidden compartment beneath.  Anyways, we arrived and got settled. I sat my box on the bench and opened up slowly so others could take notice.  

Meanwhile, I noticed the leader open what I can only describe as one of those giant metal rolling tool cabinets.  Cabinets lined with hooks and lures. Endless drawers full or artificial bait, bobbers, weights, sinkers, and... well that’s the extent of my fishing accessory knowledge.  He strapped on his sleeveless fishing vest. I was intimidated and overwhelmed. That was the day I learned that there are 1000s of species of fish, and every one of them is different and everyone requires a different approach to successfully catching them.  Fishing takes preparation, careful planning, and creativity.

Fishing, from my limited experience and observation is a profound hobby and sport.  And to be successful, it requires immense patience, perseverance, and experience. It requires that you know the fish that you’re trying to catch and that you have the precise tools necessary.  Successful fishing requires hope and endurance. It even means failing. And, perhaps the most profound lesson I’ve learned is that you absolutely cannot catch a fish if you don’t go fishing in some way or another. 

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Almost every time I read this text or its parallel in Mark or Luke, I get hung up on the immediacy of the disciples’ following.  How is it that at Jesus’ call and invitation, they drop everything to follow this minority voice of hope. They leave it all behind to be in the footsteps of something new - to take part in the reign of God’s kingdom.  

But, for some reason this week, I was hooked by the prospect of fishing for people.  Pun- intended. The notion that as Christians we are called by Christ to become people who fish for people.  To exhaust the metaphor, we are called to cast to the proclamation of Jesus, to shed light on the dark and dreary world, to offer a message of love, grace, forgiveness, peace and hope that is so lure-ing, that others’ can’t help but bite.  Right, and in Jesus’ day, it was more about casting a wide net in hopes that you might catch a few from the many.

And I’ve found myself so deep in prayer lately about Christ’s invitation to fish for people, mostly because I’m a terrible fisherman.  Fishing takes patience and endurance. It takes perseverance. Fishing takes pride and knowledge of the fish you want to catch. And to optimize success it takes the proper use of gifts and tools.

Now look, I don’t mean to suggest that our call as Christians is to bait and lure, or even deceive people into knowing Christ.  I don’t want to overplay the metaphor.  Rather, I think that to be successful in our call to discipleship, to fully honor the privilege and responsibility of proclaiming the grace-filled reign of God, it might take some practice.  Some patience. Some perseverance. If we understand our call from Jesus through the shores of the baptismal font to go forth in the name of Christ to make disciples then at some point we have to at least go fishing, trusting in God to guide us.

Our gospel text today marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  Following Jesus’ birth, he fled to Egypt for safety with his parents, he was baptized by John in the river.  The spirit descended upon him like a dove and drove him to the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil, and now he withdraws to Galilee and the area of Capernaum.  And it’s here that he begins his public ministry within the gospel according to Matthew.  

And our gospel text opens with a stark reminder of the hostile and tumultuous time that Jesus emerges.  Again, Matthew writes, “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” John the Baptist, the one who came crying in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord.”  The one who pointed to the Messiah and the one who is greater. John, who baptized Jesus in the river and pointed his followers to Christ, has been arrested by Herod.  
Now we won’t hear the story of John’s beheading this year, but within the other gospel narratives we can recall that John the Baptist was beheaded at the request of Herod’s stepdaughter Salome, influenced by her mother, Herodias.  Ultimately, it is a testament to Herod’s rage and violent temperament, sparked by John convicting Herod for divorcing his wife to take his brother’s wife.  

Jesus continues to live and move in the territory of a violent, tyrannous rulers.  In Jesus day, the region around Galilee was ruled by Herod Antipas. He was the son of Herod the Great, the one who tried to manipulate the wisemen into telling him where Jesus was.  Who, ultimately tried to have the baby Jesus murdered. Herod Antipas was known for his brutal nature and his utter intolerance for anyone who may threaten his power.   

Furthermore, the region of Galilee was under Roman Imperial Rule.  The roman rule was an oppressive force that affected a large portion of the population.  Most common citizens relied on brutal, physical, labor-intensive work to support their way of life.  But excessive, unjust taxes suppressed the fruits of their labor. Therefore, many also lived in poverty - void of basic life-sustaining needs.

The kingdom in which they lived was not necessarily one of hope or joy.   It is riddled with intimidation from authority, submission to the Roman Imperial rule, and a longing for the fulfillment of their ancestral promise. 

This is the power of the day that Jesus initiates God’s reign.  While there is a need to be diligent and careful in his ministry, God through Jesus has come to proclaim the presence of a new kingdom, a kingdom ruled by grace, forgiveness, justice, and love.  Jesus is the light of hope, freedom, and justice that is to shine as a light in the darkness of oppressive rule.

This is the time and place to which Jesus as a light to the darkness, proclaiming the promise of the Kingdom of God, a reign of hope, justice, mercy, and grace.  God, through Jesus, has come to offer salvation to God’s people. To raise up the lowly and cast down the mighty. To heal the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, make the blind to see and the mute to speak.  To bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and to set the oppressed free.  
And one of Jesus’ first actions is to invite others to follow, to risk it all and experience a new way of life.  Inviting them to come and see. 

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 

When Jesus invites the disciples to come and follow, our translation says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  This translation can make it sound as though fishing for people were a task to be completed. And if you’re like me, that’s terrifying, because as you recall, fishing is not my gift.

But thanks be to God, Jesus’ invitation is a richer than our translation might seem   In fact, a better understanding of the invitation might be to say, “Follow me, and I will make you to become fishers for people.”   In this translation fishing for people is no longer a task, but rather becoming fishers of people is a new identity. Jesus invites us to come and see, to participate and learn about the work for the kingdom.  Christ promises to equip the ones who will be doing the fishing. It is to become their new identity. 

They are to become fishers of people.  In a world desperate for the hope of something better, Christ calls and invites these disciples to use their gifts and abilities for the furtherment of the kingdom of God. This is the kind of discipleship that you and I are called to as well

Despite our anxieties or doubts or fears, Christ confidently calls us to be disciples.  To become fishers or people, casting the good news of the light of Christ to all people, all times, and in all places.   And the good news, especially for someone who is not keen on fishing, it is not about us. It’s not about what you or I do.  

It’s about what God does through us.  Using our God given, gifts, abilities, experiences, to cast the story of faith, to fan the spark of hope to a world deeply in need of healing.  And successful fishing, to be sure, successful discipleship is not measured in the number of fish you catch, but rather the passion and commitment to the craft.  True discipleship takes time, patience, endurance, knowledge, experience, trust, and hope.  

Jesus entered the world at a tumultuous time.  God, the Emmanuel, came forth so that the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.  It was true then and it is true today.

And, as I understand it, most fishermen and women don’t just go fishing in order to catch something, but rather they often go fishing, because they’re people who fish, and fishing is what fishermen and women do.  


©Sermon preached by Pastor Daniel Locke on January 26, 2020 @ St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Jacksonville, FL

Monday, January 13, 2020

Identity and Promise - Sermon on Baptism of Our Lord Sunday - Matt. 3:13-17

Sermon preached by Pastor Daniel Locke on January 12, 2020 @ St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Jacksonville, FL
Listen to the Sermon here

Matthew 3:13-17

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" 15 But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.17 And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

As pastors, I think we’re discouraged from picking favorites.  I know it’s not the right thing to do, and it’s not fair to give preference to one over another.  But I need to be honest and tell you that I think Baptism is my favorite sacrament of the Lutheran sacraments. At least, for right now.  

To be fair, both sacraments, Baptism and Holy communion are abundant expressions of God’s grace.  In both, the graciousness of God’s mercy and the promise of abundant life are freely given.  Both are gifts to God’s people in which God again affirms the promise that all might have life and have it abundant.  Both are affirmations of God’s forgiveness of sins.  Both are important and both are foundation to the life of the community of faith.  But, I have to say, there is something about Baptism that warms for soul and affirms my faith.  Something about the water that draws me into the arms of our maker, healer, and redeemer.

Baptism gives us identity.  Identity in Christ.  Identity as children of God.  And forever and ever, there isn’t a thing that can diminish, remove, or compromise that identity.  The font is where the labels of the world wash away.  The font stands as the foundation of our inheritance to life and life eternal.  God created.  God claims.  God names.  In the waters of salvation, all doubts of who we are are washed away.  In the sacrament of the water, God names us beloved.  And everything else about our lives ripples out from the fundamental, grace-filled truth.

On one of my first Sunday here 2.5 years ago, I was standing in the back by the font before worship and in came Pastor Bernie Jorn.  We had only met once before at the Oktoberfest meet and greet before I was called, and we had had a brief conversation on the phone about supplying at St. Mark’s.  But other than that, we didn’t really know much about each other.  And as I stood there waiting to start the announcements at 9:30, he came through the door and he said, “Good morning.”  Good morning, I said.  Then he looked at the me, then the font, then me, and he said “Hey, would you mind splashing me.”

It caught me off guard because while I safely assumed he meant, will you touch the water with your thumb and make the sign of the cross on my took everything in me not to take a handful of water and pour it on his head and say, “Pastor Bernie Jorn, remember that you are named and claimed in the waters of life, sweet child of God, and nothing will ever change that.”

Since then, every single time Pastor Bernie passes the font he invites me or someone else to splash water on him.  And there are lot of us who do the same.  When we pass from the Narthex to the Nave, or we leave worship and process into the world we dip our fingers in the water, cross our forehead and remember our baptism. 

And if you don’t do it, or haven’t thought about it, I invite you to try it today.  Anytime you pass that font, feel free to at least touch the water and remember who and whose you are. 

That moment with Pastor Jorn several years ago was so powerfully to me, not only because it’s a privilege and honor to remind someone of their baptism and the love of God that has claimed them…but to enter and leave worship through the water of the font is a statement to the world that no other name, label, identifier, club, organization, political affiliation, stereotype, or otherwise can come close to redefining your identity in Christ.  

Remembering your baptism at the start of worship is to reclaim the gift of grace extended to you and me.  To remember that all things will fade away.  All the hats we wear can be removed and set aside.  All the labels and qualifiers of the world are human made and exist to separate us from one another and ourselves.  But that water, that holy sacrament is a proclamation to the world that when all is stripped away, I am claimed by God.  I am God’s child.  I am beloved.  And the water unites us with Christ and with one another. 

To splash in the water is to tell the world that I belong to God.  God chooses me.  God chooses us.  And try as hard as we might to label and define one another, nothing holds a candle to the one and only who saves us.  The one and only who grants us life.  The one and only who claims us as children, as beloved.  

I want to pose a question for your reflection.  Ignite some self-curiosity if you will.  Plant a seed of self-assessment and discernment.  And if you were with us a few months ago, I put forth a similar question and actually invited you to write your answers down.  If you recall, I gave you the prompt “I am..” and invited you to fill in the blank.  Similarly, today, I want us to consider what it is that defines us.   What labels do we model, or better yet what brands us?  When you meet a stranger, who knows nothing about you, what might their impression be. 

Our world and our culture are proud on labeling and categorizing people, aren’t we?  It’s amazing that even the seemingly innocent things we do that can cause us to be defined, labeled, and prejudged.  Especially when you start thinking about the choices, we make in life that begin to define us to others.  The clothes we wear or the jersey we put on.  The car we drive or the bumper stickers we slap on the back.  Our political affiliations and ambitious, the groups we belong to and the organizations we support.  There are so many labels the world has created to define us.  

So, what is that defines you?  I often think about NASCAR cars.  Personally, I’m not a NASCAR fan, but we can all picture NASCAR cars, right?  They’re covered in labels and stickers and images and sponsorship.  And as the car goes around and round for 4 hours, you can’t help but see the relationships and organizations they support.  But, if you peel all of those labels back, and strip the car down, it’s only a car.  And if we think about our lives in a similar way, what labels and brands describe us, and when they’re all peeled back, who are we?  When someone meets you for the first or hundredth time, what labels has the world impressed upon you?

In the gospel according to Matthew, Matthew is working hard to leave no doubt within the world as to who Jesus is.  From his exhaustive lineage in chapter 1, to the multiple references to prophecy through chapter 2, to Jesus’ baptism, the descending dove, and the voice from heaven proclaiming Jesus as God’s son, in whom God is well pleased.  

Matthew wants there to be no doubt among his audience that this guy, Jesus, is the one called for.  He is the one longed for.  He is the Messiah, the great king of kings and lord of lords.  He is the wonderful, counselor, Mighty God, and prince of peace.  He is God’s son.  Emmanuel - God has come near to us.  And he shall be the savior of the people.  All of God’s people.  Matthew wants to ensure that there is no question about his identity.

And I think that deep down, when I splish and splash in the waters of life back there.  
When I touch the water to my forehead and recall my baptism, I think deep down I first lament and confess that the world may have doubts about who and whose I am.  And I desperately long for the world to have no doubt about my identity as a Christian.  As God’s child.  God’s beloved.   As Christians, washed in the waters of new life, should we too be about the word of God so that there is absolutely NO doubt as to who we are.  More importantly, whose we are.  

In the waters of baptism, God claims us as God’s children.  Marked with the cross of Christ, Sealed by the holy spirit.  The heavens torn apart; 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.   Our identity, in the most holistic sense is inextricably connected to God.

And out of the waters, our new identity ought to define the world - not the other way around.  Everything else in our lives ought to be an expression of that grace.  A testament to that gift.  A ripple.  

On Nov. 11, 1943, Martin Luther was baptized in Eisleben Germany at the church of St. Peter and St. Paul.  The church was refurbished several years ago, and when they renovated the inside of the church, they did one of the coolest things.  One of the most powerful images of baptism I have ever seen.   In the front and center of the church, they placed a baptismal font in the floor.  It’s a big, deep font in which someone could easily be submerged.  And in the concrete floors of the church they etched concentric circles all rippling out from the font.  So that, no matter where you sat or stood in the church, you were within the ripples of the font.  It’s incredibly beautiful and I put in on a slide for you to see in Hart Hall.  

This is such a powerful image of Baptism, because try as hard as we might, we absolutely cannot escape the waters of our identity.  We are God’s children, grafted into gracious gift of eternal life, wading in the ripple of salvation.  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.

We are called to be a member of the body, working for justice and peace in all the world.  We are called to proclaim who is greater, to point to the great I am, to tell of a love so deep and rich.  Called to extend compassion for the less fortunate, advocacy for the lost, and respite for the wandering.  God’s grace-filled claim on God’s people never, never fades away.  Never expires. No label of the world can supersede “Beloved child of God.”

And here is the beautiful thing, when we lose sight of who and whose we are...when the world would work to convince us otherwise, we remember that in the waters of the life also come the promise of the community.  We are not alone.  As members of the body of Christ, we are inextricably connected to one another always called to reflect Christ to others.   And I think it’s so important for us to remember that.  And if ever there were a day to be reminded, it’s today.  

Do me a favor, pull out your cranberry ELW and turn to page 228.  Page numbers at the bottom.  Hymn numbers at the top. 

*At this point I left the pulpit and my sermon to read through the promises of baptism and the communal renunciations.  The sermon closed at the baptismal font where I challenged everyone with two actions:
1) Contact someone in your life you fulfilled the baptismal promises for you
2) Fulfill the promises of baptism for someone else in your life.

©Sermon preached by Pastor Daniel Locke on January 12, 2020 @ St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Jacksonville, FL


Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Prelude and its Promise - Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12

Listen to the Sermon here

Matthew 3:1-12
1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.' " 4 Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume 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. 10 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. 11 "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

When Sarah and I first met, we quickly discovered our mutual affection for all things Broadway.  We both spent some time working in our local school or community theaters growing up, and musical theater was an important part of our life.   So, when we first started dating, we started a Sunday night tradition, where Sarah would come over to the apartment to watch a Broadway musical on DVD.  And we didn’t just watch the DVD, we would belt out each tune to the top of our lungs, singing along with the musical. Sarah was always partial to Little Shop of Horrors because she played Audrey in high school.  That’s the musical about Seymour, a bumbling, geeky florist who discovers a talking venus fly trap. The plant thrives off human blood and begins to grow. Ya know what, that’s irrelevant to the point of this sermon.  If you want to discuss Broadway musicals in more detail, see me after worship.     

A few weeks into our tradition, it became a running joke for our friends from upstairs to text us and guess which musical we’re watching based on our singing.  Then they would ask us to stop singing.  

Actually, one of our first dates was to the local community theater in Columbia, SC to see Les Misérables.  So good.

Our affection for broadway musicals is deep, and so naturally we feel a responsibility to pass on the joy and beauty of musicals to Bennet.   I don’t sit down at the piano at home as often as I’d like, but when I do, I try and play a lot of show tunes. Bennet requests them. 

About three weeks ago, Sarah and I started our vacation by going to the Times Union center to see Wicked.   Anyone seen Wicked? An incredible musical written by Stephen Schwartz.  
It’s the story of Elpheba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and it’s told in parallel to the classic story the Wizard of Oz.   

So, in preparation for the musical that night, as we typically do, we were listening to the soundtrack as we cooked dinner.  Bennet and I were at the table. I was working. He was eating. And when the overture started, I found myself teaching Bennet about the musical.  “Bennet,” I said, “This is the beginning of the show. It’s sort of like a prelude, but in theater we call it an overture.”  

For most folks, it’s a signal that the show has started and soon actors will appear on stage.  It may not seem all that important, but the overture is one of the most important moments of the show.”  Bennet took another bite and nodded along.  

I explained to Bennet that the overture is significant because it establishes the themes and moods of the show.  And a really good musical overture plants a seed in your ear, so that when you hear the same tunes or riffs later in the show, the music draws a red thread through the narrative.  The overture sets the mood. It presents the themes. It essentially makes you a promise about what is to come. And, if it’s a musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber, then you’ll essentially the entire show in the overture.   

And as we listened to the overture for Wicked, Bennet and I discussed the various musical themes.  The riff for “No One Mourns the Wicked.” The teaser for “Unlimited” the transition between minor and major chords and the resolutions that symbolize and preface the overarching narrative.  
Certain to say that Bennet was enamored by the conversation of overtures and preludes.

The use of preludes and overtures goes well beyond Broadway musicals, doesn’t it?  Think about some of your favorite move trilogies or sagas. The opening of Star Wars?   Indiana Jones. Jurassic Park? Home Alone. Harry Potter… Well, I guess anything by John Williams.   

In literature, we often think of the foreword and preface as a sort of prelude to the Author’s work.  They often introduce themes, moods, or motivations behind the narrative that follows. 

Certainly, one of our most common encounters with the power of preludes is in worship.  Each and every time we gather for worship, we begin with a musical offering. We commonly refer to it as a prelude.  And the final piece as a postlude. But within worship, especially here at St. Mark’s, it is so much more than that.  

We are truly blessed to have a cantor that is incredibly talented and gifted, not only with his abilities, but with musical knowledge, insight, history, and diversity as well.  Each and every time we gather for worship, we begin with an Opening Voluntary, or prelude. And I don’t mean to speak for Tony, but I’m confident to say that Tony does not pick a prelude or opening voluntary for prelude’s sake.  He doesn’t choose a piece of music haphazardly or flippantly. Each piece is selected with discernment and care because the opening voluntary, the prelude of our worship, establishes a mood. It sets a tone. It often previews musical and theological themes.  It makes a promise, and that promise becomes fulfilled throughout the course of worship. 

More often than not, Tony selects an opening voluntary that is arranged around a particular hymn we sing later in worship.  Or the text of the voluntary is rooted in the texts of the day. And to be sure, Tony takes special care to account for the melody, the tone, the tempo, the setting, the arrangement, etc, so that the opening piece is a precursor to the rest of worship.  

Even today, our St. Mark’s ringers played “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” and the arrangement used two different tunes for the well-known hymn.  That piece set the tone for our worship, establishing themes of longing, anticipation, movement, hope, and in the end a tension between the two settings, both conveying the same text, but with different, inter-laying melodies that ring balance to the difficult now and not yet of our Christian faith.  Celebrating the coming of the Emmanuel - God with us, while dancing with eagerness, waiting for the second coming of Christ.

Preludes are important, intentional contributions to the overall work or narrative.  In fact, by definition, a prelude serves as an introduction preceding and preparing for the principal or a more important matter.  It is essential to the overarching event and it demands our careful and reflective attention. 

Now I say all of that because I think it is the perfect lens by which we should approach the season of Advent and our text for today.  Of all the seasons of the church year, Advent is consistently one of the shortest. It’s the first season, and it comes and goes with the blink of an eye.  The world we live in and the consumerist culture does not favor a slow, intentional, and meaningful seasons of anticipation.   

Sometimes Advent feels like the opening of our favorite TV show.  We know it. We’ve heard and seen it. So, we play on our need for instant gratification, use our technology and jump ahead 10, 15, even 30 seconds to get to the good stuff.  Fast forward through the opening credits.

Advent then becomes a steppingstone to a larger, more robust and drawn out story that we breeze right past it or snooze our way through it.  And if we’re not careful or intentional, we miss the power of these texts. We’ll miss the emphasis of their proclamation. The themes they establish.  The mood and tone of their delivery. If we’re not attentive to the season of prelude and precursor then we sacrifice our experience of the whole narrative. 

Matthew’s gospel account opens with an exhaustive and complete genealogy, laying out 28 generations from Abraham, to David, the Messiah.  Then the birth of Jesus is announced, and the wise men make their journey. Joseph and his family flee to Egypt and Herod sought out and killed all of the children in and around Bethlehem.  

And today, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom of God.  John the Baptist is our prelude to the Messiah. The voice of the one crying out in the wilderness. JTB is our overture to the coming of the Kingdom of God.  John the Baptist sets the tone. Establishes the mood. Presents the themes of the overarching narrative, and there is a reason for his place in the story. There’s a purpose for his overture.  
I think we would do very well to lend a careful and attentive ear in preparation for the whole of the gospel narrative. 
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'  John’s appearance and proclamation establishes some very important themes.  

First, the kingdom of God has come near.  God’s reign is ever present. God’s love for God’s people becomes incarnated in the Emmanuel - the Christ child.  God has come down, to live among God’s people, vulnerable to the depths and fears of human emotion. God loves the people so much that God chooses to be among them and accompany them through the extremes of life, even death.  The kingdom has come near, and we do well to keep watch. To see the presence of God at hand.

Second, John proclaims that God’s kingdom will be far reaching, diverse, and more inclusive than they imagined.  Do not presume 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.” 

God’s good kingdom is not and will not be exclusive to the descendants of Abraham, but rather there is a place for all people all nations.  The Kingdom of heaven is expansive and diverse. We do well to keep watch for the breadth and depth of God’s kingdom.

Third, repentance is central to the coming of God’s kingdom and the reign of the Emmanuel.  John cries out, “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”   

This prelude is immediately realized a chapter later when Jesus begins his earthly ministry with the exact same phrase, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”   
John presents an important and powerful theme that will play out again and again as Jesus encounters people throughout his ministry.  Repentance is more than an apology or an admission of wrongdoing. It’s not about dwelling our mistakes and confession of sin.  Repentance is a complete turning around.  

Repentance means to turn away from poor values, unjust practices, and sinful behavior.  To deny false idols and self-righteousness. Repentance is a turn towards. A returning to God and the values of God’s good kingdom at hand.   

Repentance is an intentional first step in a new direction. A new and different path.  It’s to charter a new course, veer in a new way, set forth a new destination. We would do well to keep watch for the power of repentance and forgiveness as we go forward.   

This is the power and conviction of John the Baptist’s proclamation.  It is the power of Advent as a prelude to the rest of the liturgical year and the gospel narrative.  In Advent we set a new path, re-recognize the themes of our identity. We set the tone and establish the mood.  Advent is the gift and opportunity to reclaim the gift of repentance and turn towards God. 

Looks friends, Advent is such an important season in the year of the church.  It presents a valuable and essential foundation to the truths of faith we share.  In this season, we wait for the Lord. Not only for the Emmanuel born at Christmas, but we remember again our desperate longing to the coming again of God’s only son to reconcile all people, all nations, all times.
And we do well this brief but powerful Advent season to relish in the motifs of our faith.  To embrace the salvific themes of God’s goodness. To be attentive, intentional, and careful as we embark on the narrative of our faith and the fulfillment of God’s promise to the world once again.

The season of Advent...season of anticipation and longing...of waiting and eagerness, plays out like the brilliant overture.  This season makes us a promise...a promise of God that the kingdom is at hand. It is expansive, diverse, and inclusive. A promise the God’s kingdom will be like none-other and will not be ruled as the world expects.  The promise of Advent is God’s abiding and grace-filled presence in the Christ-child, Emmanuel. 

Let the overture play.  Let our hearts be attuned.  Let our souls be filled. Let our Spirit yearn for the story to be told.  Be present in this moment, for God’s promise will be fulfilled.


© Pastor Daniel Locke, preached by Sunday Dec. 8, 2019 @ St. Mark's Lutheran JAX, FL