Sermon: An Opportune Time

cartoon angel and devil

Luke 4: 1 – 15:  Jesus is Tempted in the Wilderness

When I think about temptation, I think back to when I was watching cartoons as a kid.  There was one cartoon where Sylvester the Puddy tat, was eyeing Tweetie Bird in his cage, and suddenly a red devil Sylvester with horns appears on one shoulder and says, “do it.”

Immediately, an angel Sylvester, dressed in a long white robe, complete with harp and halo appears and says, “don’t do it.”  Sylvester is clearly torn until finally the devil Sylvester jumps across to the other shoulder and kicks the angel Sylvester out of the picture. Sylvester grins, Free at last, and attempts, as always, to gobble up poor Tweetie Bird.

As a child, I would often imagine those two figures, devil and angel, balancing on my shoulders whispering “do it”/”don’t do it” with great enthusiasm, when I found myself internally debating the wisdom of one of my Mom’s rules regarding sharing with my little brother; or the practicality of my teacher’s admonitions against peeking at my neighbor’s test when I didn’t know the answer; or even debating the reasonableness of the great commandment about loving everyone, because the boys that lived next door to us could be so annoying!

I would like to say the angel always won out…but that is far from true, apparently I was quite a handful.  But I can look back at those childhood times of wrestling with temptation, and see the beginning of my development of a conscience, and a heart, and a sense of justice, and a consideration for others, all within a child’s idea of what it means to try to tag along behind Jesus.

I wish I could say that as an adult it’s easier to wrestle with temptation but the dilemmas we face get more challenging and the choices are not as simple and clear cut as when we are children.

Wouldn’t it be great if temptation really did appear to us as a red devil with horns and cloven hooves, and a long pointy tail?  It would be so much easier to resist because the right choice would be so obvious and temptation would be so scary that we would run away screaming in fear and terror instead of giving in.

Unfortunately, temptation comes to us with a pleasant smile and an outstretched hand of friendship.  Temptation speaks to us with a soft spoken voice that makes solid and logical arguments, or a vibrant and commanding voice that seems to make complete sense.

Temptation comes to us covered with chocolate frosting, or wearing our favorite color, or offering us our heart’s desire for nothing more than the cost of shipping and handling, or our mere signature on a deal that’s too good to be true.  That is because our greatest tempter dwells within our own hearts and therefore, intimately knows our wants and our desires.

Today, when we join Jesus, he has already been in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, eating nothing at all, tempted by the devil.  His 40 days are over and he is famished, starving to the point of death.”

During this time of testing, Jesus is his most human, his most vulnerable… What is more fleshly than starving?  What is more human than being near death?  And his time of depletion and suffering is exactly when Satan, the tempter, the adversary, raises his most insidious and compelling arguments.

The adversary makes very reasonable and practical suggestions to Jesus, after all, why shouldn’t Jesus satisfy his hunger with a little bread – it’s only a stone after all – no harm, no foul; and wouldn’t it be GREAT if Jesus ruled the world instead of all the corrupt and oppressive rulers, like Rome for example; think of all the good Jesus could do if he took their place…what a better world it would be with Jesus in charge of everything…

…and how impressive would it be if Jesus flung himself from the temple roof and a thousand angels came to rescue him?  That would show the Sadducees and Pharisees who was boss!  That would be all the proof anyone would ever need!  That would end all debate and convert every non-believer in one grand, heavenly gesture, Wouldn’t it?  Huh?  Wouldn’t it??

Wouldn’t it be worth it Jesus…to just bend your knee…to me?

Seems like a fair trade-off, but Jesus reminds us with each of his replies that what is at stake, is his trust and faith in God.

-“One does not live by bread alone…but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

 -“Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

 -“Do not put the Lord your God to the test…you must diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God…do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord…”

The greatest temptation going on here is that Jesus has the power to change the whole world for the better, but it would change Jesus…it would change who Jesus is…it would change Jesus relationship with God, and he won’t do that….not for anything.

Jesus prevails because he rejects power as defined in human terms illustrating most clearly that he is a Messiah unlike any other.  Jesus’ time of testing increases his reliance on God and makes it clear that his ministry is going to be about saving, not enslaving,

…that his power will only be used for others, never for himself…not even when he is starving to the point of death, or taken prisoner in Gethsemane, or hanging from a cross.

Temptation hits us at the most opportune time…when we are weak and vulnerable…when we are hungry or hurting.  When we are feeling frail and fearful….that is when we are most vulnerable to doubt…

…in the midst of our suffering when we most need God, we most often distrust God’s ability to help us, to lead us, to comfort us, to heal us…to save us.

No one ever said that following Jesus would be easy….and yet here we are…doing our best to resist the daily temptations in our lives that can separate us from God and God’s word…that can isolate us from one another, that can trip us up as we try to tag along after Jesus.

The disciples had no idea what they were getting into when they left their nets in their boats and followed after Jesus.  Neither do we when we gather together to try to discern God’s will.  That’s where the trust part comes in.  That’s where the faith part comes in.

That’s when we brush the little devil off our shoulder or at least put a finger in our ear…and try to listen for where the voice of God is calling us…we to try to reach out and grab hold of the hem of Jesus robe so that we can follow blindly, faithfully, where he is leading us.

Jesus resisted using his power to save the whole world.  He left the whole world in God’s hands and instead, he used his power to save people, one at a time, face to face, heart to heart, renewing their faith and trust in God with a smile, a touch, a look, a loaf of bread, and water jugs filled with wine at a wedding.

Jesus didn’t use his power to save the whole world, he used it to build God’s kingdom…he was God’s kingdom. Everywhere we go is God’s kingdom.  Like Jesus, we carry the power of God’s kingdom within us.

And so each week we gather and we pray as Jesus taught us to pray saying, …lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil..

Each of us has our own demons that we wrestle with…those things that cut us off from God, or interfere with us being our own best self, or isolate us from others.  And Our trials and temptations are many….There are all manner of things that lead us into wilderness places where we can wander lost, feeling abandon and alone, but,

“John Stendahl, a local pastor and blogger, says, “the desert is not God-forsaken nor does it belong to the devil.  It is God’s home.  The Holy Spirit is there, within us and beside us.  And if we cannot feel that spirit inside of us or at our side, perhaps we can at least imagine Jesus there, not too far away, with enough in him to sustain us, enough to make us brave.”

So next time you feel lost and alone in the wilderness being tempted with doubt and hopelessness, Imagine Jesus on both your shoulders, patting you on the back, pointing out the way to go.  Imagine Jesus at your side, his gentle voice cheering you on.  Imagine Jesus, opening you to the presence of the Spirit and strengthening your trust in God.

Imagine Jesus leading you through the wilderness and bringing you safely home to God.

Sermon: A Wedding, A Beginning

champagne toast

John 2: 1 – 11

When Bob and I got married, we made a weekend out of it because people were coming from all over the country to attend.  Family that hadn’t seen each other, some of them for years, were coming and we wanted time to visit and reminisce.  Our wedding and reception were on a Friday night.  We had an all day and late into the night open house on Saturday, and then a send-off brunch on Sunday.

Because, after all, a wedding is about a lot more than just the two people at the center of the celebrations.  A wedding is also about champagne toasts, open bar, tossing the bouquet, drinking, eating, and chicken dancing late into the evening.  A wedding is about reunions, family catching up, fawning over the kids and telling them how big, how beautiful, how grown up they have gotten.  A wedding is about remembering weddings past, remembering those who have passed on, telling stories, sharing memories…..and making more memories.

At the heart of all of the celebration there is the excitement of witnessing and participating in something new being created, a new beginning between two people joining their lives together, entering into covenant together, entering into a lifelong journey of sharing and partnership.

At the heart of a wedding celebration, there is a new beginning that speaks to us of hope for the future, passion, joy, continuation of traditions, a sharing of values, and an expansion of family.  I’m sure my Dad told Bob that he wasn’t losing a daughter, but that he was gaining a son.

Beginning his gospel with a wedding celebration seems a fitting way for John to illuminate Jesus’ ministry which is about bringing a new way of thinking about God and a new way of being together into the world.  What better place for beginning his ministry about God’s new creation, God’s new day, than at a wedding, a joyous celebration of new beginnings and a new life together.

Notice that John doesn’t include any details about the wedding…when we join the party, we are already three days into the celebrating.  In those days, a typical wedding feast might last for 7 days.  When our story begins, they are only 3 days in and the wine has run out.

Running out of wine would be a shameful event.  A family’s reputation and standing in the community would be at stake.  Humiliation, shame, and ridicule could be the consequence.  Guests were also expected to help provide provisions for a wedding so shame could fall on the guests as well.  The whole occasion is at risk of becoming an epic fail.  So, when Jesus mother comes to him and says, “They have no wine,” it’s a big deal.  There is an implied, “Do something” in her statement of the problem.

She might be reminding him of his obligation as a guest and as head of their household to contribute something to the party.  We don’t know what she things he will do, but she clearly has an expectation for Jesus to act.  If we imagine Jesus smiling when he responds to her and says, “What concern is that for you and me?  My hour has not yet come.”  We could hear that as, “No need for you to worry while I am still here with you.  Problem solved!”

Seeming satisfied, his mother tells the servants to do what Jesus tells them to do.  She leaves no other instructions, confident that having given her problem into Jesus’ hands, he will take care of everything…that he will provide the best possible solution…something better than what she can even imagine.

The Gospel of John is often called the Book of Signs.  This wedding miracle is the first of 7 signs in John’s Gospel.  Just before this, Jesus has been baptized and he has called his disciples.  And then they are all invited to this wedding in Cana where Jesus gives his first sign.

An important thing to know, is that for John, the miracles – the signs- that Jesus performs, are not, in and of themselves, as important as what the miracles are revealing about Jesus and what they are revealing about the kingdom of God.  When we are reading John, we need to be looking for what the signs are pointing to for us to see.

So what does this story reveal to us?

Jesus doesn’t fill wine containers which certainly would have been small jugs or jars.  Instead, he has the tall water jars filled to the BRIM, and he provides gallons, and gallons, and gallons of wine…certainly enough wine to provide for the rest of the celebration…and then some!

Just as with the loaves and fishes, Jesus provides enough, and more than enough…enough for all to have their fill and still have leftovers.  This extravagant sign reveals God’s abundance and generous nature.  In God’s kingdom, there is more than enough for everyone.

What else is this story pointing us to see?

Notice that it isn’t the actual transformation of the water into wine that is the surprise.  It is the quality of the wine and the timing of when it is served that surprises the Steward.  The steward says to the bridegroom, “Everyone serves the good wine first and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.  But you have kept the good wine until now.”

This is the sign…the surprise, the unexpectedness, the twist.  This is a hallmark of Jesus ministry – he goes against convention, against the rules and customs that encourage a mentality of scarcity and hoarding.  He turns things topsy turvey.  He never does what is expected.

He is always God’s Word made flesh, bringing God’s Word to life, showing us what it means to participate in God’s kingdom here on earth.  Jesus always goes beyond our imagining for what is possible.  And he shows us that what is possible is the best of the best, and plenty and more than plenty to share among everyone.

Who is it that gets to see the sign?  Who sees and witnesses?

The servants.  The servants get to be in on the miracle.  They draw the water and fill the jars to the brim.  They get to draw the wine out and serve it.  They get to carry the surprise in to the waiting guests and see their faces when they taste its goodness.

They get to be filled with wonder and amazement.  One mark of Jesus ministry is that most often it is those who are not invited to participate in the feast, those who are invisible, those on the outside looking in…who are most often the ones who get to see Jesus in action and be witness to the miraculous.

And in the end, who is it who believes?

Our scripture says, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”  A first and most important step in their shared journey and ministry together.  It is a question for us to carry awhile as we prepare for Lent.

What do we believe?

Who can we turn to when we are running on empty, when we have spiritually run dry?  What can we do when we feel inadequate…when the obstacles and challenges before us seem insurmountable?

That is when we are to turn to Jesus and say, “There is nothing left.”

That is when we are to give our lives to Jesus, confident that having given ourselves into Jesus hands, he will take care of everything…that he will provide the best possible solution…something better than what we can even imagine.

Our human resources are limited.  We run out of energy, out of strength, out of hope, out of determination, out of inspiration, and we run out of ideas.  But fueled by the spirit and held by Jesus, we too can accomplish miracles.  We too can do our part to proclaim and reveal God’s kingdom through our love and our action as Jesus disciples, as doers of God’s Word.  This story encourages us to celebrate with excitement as we are called to participate in something new being created here and now.

We are vessels waiting to be filled, filled with the Holy Spirit, filled with grace, filled with love, filled with peace…filled to the brim, filled until our cups runneth over….Jesus has shown us that we can depend on God’s grace; gallons, and gallons, and gallons of grace!  We can depend on God’s abundant love that never runs out.

We are the servants who get to be in on the miracle.  We get to carry the surprise and Good News of God’s abundant love to the waiting guests and see their faces when they taste its goodness.  We all get to be filled with wonder and amazement as witnesses and as disciples.

Let us together, give everything into Jesus hands, and trust that he will take care of everything…that he will provide the best possible solutions…that Jesus will lead us to something better and more glorious than we can even imagine!




Sermon: Star Light in Dark Times

hubble sky pix

Matt 2: 1- 18

Like thousands of other families this holiday season, my family and I went to the see the latest Star Wars movie. It was great!  Everything you would expect…exciting chase scenes, tearful reunions, snappy repartee, a dangerous journey, and a seemingly impossible quest.

The lead characters have the choice of whether to use their powers and abilities for good, or to succumb to the dark side and use their power for personal gain and control over others – …wiping out all who stand in their way…wiping out those who threaten or question their power and authority.

Most of all, at the heart of every Stars Wars movie is an epic battle of good vs. evil.  The light of resistance fighting against the darkness of tyranny.  And of course, there are casualties along the way.  Don’t worry, I promise, no spoilers!  But we all know that in the battles between good and evil, it is impossible for even the greatest hero, to emerge unscathed, unbroken, or untouched.

Our scripture this morning could easily be a Star Wars episode.  Wise men are traveling on a dangerous journey on a seemingly impossible quest.  They come seeking a young hero who has been prophesied to be “the chosen one”, the one who will save the world. These wise men come seeking a newborn king, so naturally they stop at the palace in Jerusalem to inquire, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.”

When the current king, Herod, hears this, “he is frightened…and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod is frightened because, as a puppet king, his main purpose is to placate and serve Rome, the evil empire.  Herod is a tyrant who enslaves his own people to complete his huge building projects, including the Temple in Jerusalem.

In the years before Jesus birth, “there had been a lot of resistance, unrest and revolt in Jerusalem, so Rome wasn’t in a tolerant frame of mind. [Herod] knew any [hint] of rebellion would bring crushing retaliation against the city.  History tells us that Herod would stop at nothing to assure his position and authority – “assassinating anyone he considered a threat – including his own wife and two of his own sons.” For some time, he has been hearing “rumors that the long awaited liberator, prophesied by Isaiah and others, has been or will soon be born.”[1]

And now these foreign dignitaries appear and confirm all his worst fears…that a real threat to his throne, his position, and his power, has been born.  He calls together all the chief priests and scribes and asks them where the Messiah, God’s anointed one, was prophesied to be born.  They tell him……in Bethlehem.  While a pious man might have greeted this news with hope and joy, Herod only saw it as a threat – a threat to political stability and to his own status as king. “[2]

And so Herod tries to eradicate that threat by ordering all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, to be killed.  “And a voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Why is this horrific massacre a part of our Christmas story?

The last time this passage came up in the lectionary, it was in December of 2012….right after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, CT.  I couldn’t even read this passage, much less preach about it.  I put it away, and here we are three years later, and there are still children being slaughtered in the streets of our cities, in our schools, and even in our churches, here in our country and around the world.

It’s becoming a common occurrence.  Such a common occurrence that we want to turn away and just mentally walk on by. It’s natural to want to turn away from the evil we see in the world, to shut it out, especially when we think there is nothing we can do to stop it.  And that is when evil wins.  When good people give up hope and surrender to despair.

Why IS this horrific massacre a part of our Christmas story?

It’s so that we can see that this is a story of hope.  This story of atrocities against children is showing us what Jesus was sent to fight against, to preach and teach against.  Jesus, bringer of light, was sent to fight the darkness within human hearts that creates evil in the world.

Jesus was sent to shine God’s light and lead us away from the fear, greed, selfishness, indifference, hatred, and the misuse of power and authority, that gives birth to evil.  Jesus being born is the hope in the midst of the horror in this story.  Jesus, light of the world, teaches us that we must start with our own hearts in order to defeat the darkness.

Like our Star Wars heroes, we get to choose how we use our skills and talents, and our power and influence.  Will we harm or heal?  Will we conquer or surrender?  Will we hate?  Or will we love.

Jesus preaches empowerment, he teaches us that we all have authority and power over our own hearts – no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in we get to choose our response.  And change in the world begins by nurturing love and hope in our hearts.

 John Pavlovitz, posted a reflection over Christmas titled, “Just a Trite, Silly, Trivial Reminder about Love,” and in it he writes,

           “I am moved to step into the dense fog of grief and fear that seems to have settled upon these days and upon our collective hearts, to remind you that all is not lost.  I wanted to lift your weary eyes, which have been so fixed on all that hurts and all that is wrong and ask you to see beyond it, to the place where Love is.

 Love is, you know?  Love still is.

 Despite all the things around that would have you believe otherwise, despite so much evidence to the contrary, it is still doing its sacred work in this place.  Love is moving in these very moments. As you breathe so [love] breathes. As you live so [love] lives. [Love] is still out there discovering hidden goodness and noticing beauty in the ordinary and  finding reason to dance in suffering.

 [Love] is still sacrificing itself and embracing hurt and mending wounds.

[Love] is still there, firmly planted in the center of your chest.

Right now…two people are unknowingly beginning a beautiful lifetime together. … a reassuring hand is being gently placed upon another’s shaking shoulders. … new life is silently being formed within a hopeful mother’s belly. … exhausted parents are pouring themselves out yet again for their children. … songs are being written and memories are being made and laughter is bubbling up. … strangers are exchanging smiles and holding doors open and stopping along the roadside.

           In these very moments, people are being encouraged, relationships are being rebuilt, forgiveness is being granted, faith is being found, sobriety is being claimed, friendships are being forged, kindness is being exchanged. Scraped knees are being kissed, disappointed losers are being consoled, nervous proposals are being accepted, second chances are being given, simple victories are being celebrated.”[3]

My one comment to Mr. Pavlovitz would be that there is nothing trite, silly, or trivial about love.

Herod, in spite of all his scheming, eventually died.  The Roman Empire eventually fell.  Other empires have come and gone.  Despots, Dictators, and tyrants, gain and lose power.  Eras begin and end.  And even in these days when church as we know it may be ending, remember one thing….

Jesus’ light…still shines.

Jesus’ light continues to grow and spread.  Jesus’ message of love for one another is needed now more than ever.  Love is the greatest weapon we have in the battle against evil.  Love is what we offer to one another and love is what we cling to.  Love is God’s light in our hearts and in our world.

          So, we journey on, on our seemingly impossible quest against great odds.  Like the wise men, we look for a sign, we look for God’s sign, we look for God’s star shining in the dark night…

…and we follow…

 …faithfully, full of hope in God’s promise…

 And may the force be with us! May God’s force be with us all!


[1] Brian D. McLaren, “Keep Herod in Christmas”; The Christian Citizen, vol. 2, 2015 pg. 12

[2] Ibid

[3] John Pavlovitz, “Just a Trite, Silly, Trivial Reminder about Love”:, 12/2015


The Christmas Prodigal


On Christmas Eve, there is always one Prodigal son or daughter who slips in hoping to be invisible. One prodigal who sits in the back, near the door ready to make a hasty escape.

There is always one prodigal who has been battered by life’s storms, who has squandered themselves and their inheritance in some way…one prodigal who is lost and desperately hopes to be found…

or to find…


On Christmas Eve there is one Prodigal who has returned even if it is only to sip the bitter dregs or nibble on the crumbs under the master’s table.

I watch for the Prodigals on Christmas because Christmas Eve isn’t really for the faithful, the members, the committee activists, the Sunday regulars…

Christmas Eve is for Jesus’ lost lambs, the ones who creep inside hoping to find refuge, sanctuary, room in the inn, maybe even a glimpse of mystery…

But most of all…

…hoping to find home.

Unfortunately, like Esau, some are quick to judge the returning Prodigals. After all, where were they when the hard work needed to be done? Where were they when the fields were being plowed, seeds sown, crops tended, and the harvest was brought in?

Why do they deserve the fatted calf?

I’m glad I can’t remember the name some church folk use for those who only come on Christmas and Easter, because I watch for the Prodigals on Christmas Eve…

…slipping in late, sitting alone in the shadows of the back row. I watch for them and I smile and I wave whether I am reading or singing or praying.  I don’t stop or call on them or call them out…

I just I watch for them and I smile and wave so they know that they are not invisible…they are seen…they are welcome…and I am happy they have come.

At the end of the service, when we have sung Silent Night, Holy Night, and each of us has lifted our small light up to fill the darkened sanctuary with our combined and holy light, that’s when I move towards the darkness in the back of the church.

And like every parent of a prodigal, I smile and open my arms wide, meeting them in the shadows where they hide…

And in they come..

Safe harbor


For the space of a hug and a heartbeat.

Sometimes there are whispered, rushed stories of illness, death, elder care, jobs lost, jobs found, a move, a divorce…

There are always apologies that I brush away like the wisps of sacred smoke swirling around us.

Not necessary

Not needed

Just glad to see you

Glad you’ve come.

Sometimes there are quiet tears…or deep sighs…sometimes there is simply silence.

Then they sigh and smile and slip away into the quiet, soft, darkness of Christmas Eve night.

To come again..

…or never come again.

Doesn’t matter.

What matters is this…

On Christmas Eve, a moment of Christ’s peace beyond understanding was offered and received.

A breath of hope was inhaled between smiles.

A spark of joyful reunion and a moment of unconditional love was exchanged.

For the space of a hug and a heartbeat,

…a Prodigal found their way home.