God's always "hooking us," pulling us back: back to the Word, back to the Meal, back to the Font...back to the community.

This blog is for the purpose of sharing around each Sunday's Bible readings & sermon at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church.

Get Sunday's readings here. We follow the Narrative Lectionary.
(In the summer, we return to the Revised Common Lectionary' epistle or Second Reading here.)

So, what's been hooking you?

So, what's been hooking you?

Here you can...

Monday, January 29, 2018

January 28 -- Nicodemus

Consider the thoughts that keep you up at night.  I think those thoughts give us real insight into what is important to us, what really concerns us, or what must be confronted in the day/s ahead.  What are the insights that come to you in the wee hours of the morning, the ideas – like skittish deer that creep up to the creek at dawn?  One sound, one distraction and they’re gone again.  Do you write those ideas down?
I always used to get really frustrated about waking up in the wee hours of the morning, trying to force myself back to sleep.  (I still do sometimes, thinking about all the things for which I need my rest when the sun comes up.)  But I once had a colleague, a friend when I was on my internship in St. Louis, say to me—when I was complaining to her about being awake the night before against my will—say, “Oh, don’t you just love those nights?  Holy time.  I thank God every time I am awakened in the night for no external reason.  That silence, that peace, that time alone with God.  I write, I sit in the darkness, sometimes I just walk around the house.  It is such a gift.”  I always try to think of her perspective when I wake up during the night, mind churning.
Nicodemus, in our Gospel text, must have had one of those rough nights.  I wonder if he couldn’t sleep.  Something was keeping him up too.  This episode follows the dramatic scene last week where Jesus overturns the money tables in the temple.  In John, already in Chapter 2, Jesus is driving out the money changers.  And Nicodemus, one of the Pharisees, one of the good teachers and keepers of Jewish law had seen it all.  And something about what he saw or what Jesus said, was keeping him awake.  [pause]
Nicodemus was a lot like a good Lutheran, by all cultural standards.  He had been in the church for years, he had family that had been in the church for years.  He was one of those legacy members.  He had roots.  He could tell stories about his father and mother and their faithful involvements with the church…the Jewish equivalents to altar guild, choir, confirmation.  He knew all the traditional songs, he had watched all the new trends come and go, he had been on councils and committees, he understood the flow of the religious calendar, and he had long eaten the traditional dishes – the ancient Jewish versions of carrot jello, cheesy pasta casserole, lemon bars.  He really knew everything there was to know about religious life.  And the more he thought about it, in those wee morning hours, the more he felt like he really should be the one instructing and inspiring and impressing Jesus.  His words and actions ought to be keeping Jesus awake at night, not the other way around.  Do you know anyone like Nicodemus?  Are you like Nicodemus?  Nicodemus was like a good, salt-of-the-earth Lutheran. (And if I was preaching to Presbyterians, I’d say he was like a good Presbyterian.)  He was one of the charters, on all the boards, the keeper of memories and customs and the great “how we’ve always done it.”  There was a formula for being religious and Nicodemus knew it.  
But something has rocked his safe and familiar world.  There’s something that shook him a little the day before, and he needs to iron it out, clear it up, smooth it over, so he can get back to sleep.  He probably just misunderstood Jesus in that big public display the day before.  “Jesus couldn’t have really meant what it seemed like he was saying, could he?” Nicodemus just needed to clear it up, a little one-to-one time oughtta do the trick...
Do you think we uber-faithful types could ever have our boats rocked, our tables turned, by Jesus like that?  Could we, who have heard before the message of salvation like 1000x, we who have sung the hymns of the faith, and sampled the potlucks and congregational meetings through the years, like Nicodemus, really have anything more to learn…from one of the most popular passages in the entire Bible – John 3:16 and surrounding verses?      
You know, on a few occasions I’ve had people say to me, regulars, salt-of-the-earth Lutherans say, “You know, I wish [so-and-so] could have been here to hear this message today.  They would have really benefited.”  [pause]  I think I understand that sentiment…usually comes from a place of concern and love for a close relative or friend, but sometimes it’s almost as if John 3:16, for example, isn’t really for the good church people anymore.  “Yeah, yeah, we’ve already heard this; wish all those others could hear it.”  But “God so loved the world...” is for all of us!  There is more room for all of us to grow in faith, thanks be to God.  Kierkegaard said that the hardest people to reach with the Gospel are Christians.  Either we think we already know it all, maybe like Nicodemus, or we just can’t seem to trust that it’s for us too – the gifts of God.  And the gifts of God are life in the Spirit, unconditional love and grace in the face of our faults.  Rebirth – a gift from God…this is what Jesus discusses with Nicodemus.  Life in the light. 
Rebirth is really all about baptism.  What a great day to baptize Landon and Sofia!  [pause] In fact, “being born again” was always a reference in the Christian church to being made new in Christ by water and the Spirit (i.e. baptism)...until the 20th century when some made it into a formula.  Some Christians, mostly in the United States, felt that Christianity was being seriously threatened by the Enlightenment and other philosophical movements in Europe, and started talking (and making threats of their own) about being born again as a formula to avoid the fires of hell. Every single one of us then grew up in -- at least the remnant or the ripple, if not the center -- of that early 20th c. theological reaction.  
But we aren’t “born again” by decision or formula.  Decision and formula has nothing to do with Jesus’ main thrust in the Gospel of John!  Rebirth in Christ’s love is what God decides to do for us, and we mark that in baptism with words and water and oil.  God (subject) so loves the world (object).  All we can do is open our hands and trust – “whosoever trusts that God so dearly loves this world, that God was made flesh and embedded into this earth”…all we can do is trust that, and then life in the Spirit is ours.  Trusting that God so loves this world, we then have joy – not “surface joy”, deep joy.  Not just after you die…you will live joyfully and eternally starting now.  Trust is a journey (Lenten theme this year is “walking”), it takes the community of faithful people around you.  And it takes openness, willingness to quiet ourselves and receive a gift (like welcoming a sleepless night).  Sometimes, those of us church folks have the hardest time receiving gifts.  We’re used to giving gifts, not receiving them.  We’re used to offering of ourselves our time and our money.  But this gift of faith, this visit from Christ, is for us too.  (And it comes long before we do any offering.)
I love the honesty of Nicodemus.  And I give thanks for this Gospel story of him struggling with Jesus under the cover of darkness.  Darkness gives us some space to be honest.  In other words, thank God for the night.  Sometimes there are things that are difficult to say by day…even to my spouse Heather.  But if we can lay in the dark at night and say what we need to say, I give thanks for that space, that darkness, to be honest.  Night time and darkness is not just for wickedness and deceit, as it’s often imaged.  The shadows give us some space to be honest before God.  Pillow talk with God. 

Once again, we may say in the safety and silence of darkness, “God here I am, a sinner, you know my thoughts and my wrongdoings.   And you love me anyway.  I am struggling to be honest about who I am.  Put me back together, God, in this safe space, in the cover of night.  Put me back together to be the human being that you made me to be.  Give me courage.  Give me wisdom.  Give me the willingness to trust in you.”  And God responds to us once again, “I so love you; I so love this world.  Trust and know that I am your God.  I will not forsake you. I will give you peace.”  AMEN.   

Sunday, January 21, 2018

January 21 -- Jesus Cleanses the Temple

Grace to you and peace, 

Sisters and brothers in Christ, God is always doing a new thing.  God is always moving us in the direction of change, evolving us  toward greater faithfulness, deeper peace, fuller grace.

That’s true in this exciting story as well.  All the Gospels have a story about Jesus in the temple overturning the tables.  But interestingly, this one comes right at the beginning of his ministry.  Chapter 2!  Matthew, Mark and Luke all have Jesus driving out the money-changers not until the beginning of Holy Week, at the end of his earthly ministry.  It’s part of what fuels the chief priests and scribes’ fire to have him arrested and finally crucified, remember?  But here Jesus does it at the beginning of his 3 year ministry.  What do you think did he do this twice?  Did John forget to mention him doing it again a few days before his passion, death and resurrection?  

Whatever conclusion you come to, what is happening here, is something different in terms of what this means.  John’s Gospel, as you’re probably learning this year is very different!  

For one thing, Jesus doesn’t show much emotion.  He doesn’t call names — he doesn’t call them “robbers”.  I don’t even think he seems all that angry, like in the other Gospels.  In John, it’s not an inditement on money corruption, economic inequalities, social injustice.  Jesus just says, “Don’t make this a marketplace.”  In John, it’s always a deeply spiritual matter...which can arrive us at those other issues.  But what’s happening here first is a radical theological replacement.

See, the people were used to buying cattle, sheep and doves when they arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover.  That’s what you did as part of the ritual sacrifice, that’s how the people celebrated Passover.  First, they sacrificed by traveling all the way to Jerusalem every year...specifically to the temple, the only place where God was believed to dwell.  And then, when they get there, after walking all those miles, they’d buy an animal to sacrifice.  Like Professor Karoline Lewis said, “You’re not gonna schlep a sheep from Galilee.”  

So everyone was used to seeing this mall of animals, like a farmers market, in the inner walls of the temple.  And for the “money changers” — by the way — this very well could have been their livelihood...  I have a friend who used to act out this scene, from the perspective of the money changers:  Jesus knocking over everything: “Man. That’s my dinner tonight, man.  How am I going to feed my family this month.  Who is this guy?”  I think that’s an interesting commentary on this story in Matthew Mark and Luke.  But here in John, Jesus is doing something radically theological (as opposed to political in the other cases):

Jesus is throwing out ritual sacrifice.  He is throwing out the idea that you have to buy something to earn God’s favor.  I’d even say, as a Lutheran, he’s throwing out the idea that you have to do something to earn God’s good graces.  Radical theological replacement, you see.  He’s throwing out the idea too that God only lives in the high temple, in the holiest of holies, there in Jerusalem.  

What’s happening here, already in chapter 2, is that we’re getting to see that God is breaking out, God — i.e. Christ himself — is breaking beyond the walls and the rules of the temple and the tradition.  In fact, Christ himself is the temple now!  There is no one place to go where you can visit God.  God is out there on the road.  
We see that in John as Jesus just. keeps. moving! 
Holiness is everywhere now, not just in temples or churches.

And because it’s everywhere we’re no longer chained to a checklist of sacrifices and journeys we have to make.  Jesus becomes the temple.  And this temple, that is his body, is nothin’ but love.  Nothing but abundant life and peace and forgiveness and grace! Overflowing, all encompassing holiness.

That’s what we’re offered now.  Here.

When holiness shows up everywhere, when we’re covered by Christ, then we do start to act differently, we do start to see differently, we do start to use our money differently, vote differently, speak differently, serve differently.  We don’t change our ways because there’s some kind of reward at the end!  That’s the old ritual sacrifice transaction:  I’ll give you this, God...so that will will give me that.  

We don’t barter with God!  We already have this reward!
We only respond to God...who through Christ, who always acts first in LOVE and generosity.  God always makes the first move, all we can do is respond (great statement of faith!).  

When people are doing cruel things, especially church people, or people that say they’re Christians, it always makes me sad because it’s like they’re reading the Bible but not understanding it.  They’re reading something, and at the same time not seeing/getting/receiving that this God is pouring out love and forgiveness FIRST.  Not after we make some kind of sacrifice or do some kind of ritual or good work to earn this.  
On this Martin Luther King Jr. week, I was listening to an interview of Rep. John Lewis of Georgia.  John Lewis was a Freedom Rider, marched with Dr. King and participated in those famous sit-ins in the Deep South, where he and other African Americans would walk into a diner and just sit quietly, longing to be served. People would spit on them because they were black, they’d pour hot coffee and syrup on them, call them all kinds of horrible names…

And as John Lewis talked about this and other forms of non-violent resistance he said at the heart of it all was love.  “You have to love your enemies and those who persecute you.”

And then he told this story from just a couple years ago, when a former KKK member requested an audience with Lewis because he wanted to apologize.  And with tears in his eyes this now-very-old white man says, “I’m sorry for what I did to you, those many years ago.  My heart was filled with hate.  Not anymore.  Will you accept my apology?”  And John Lewis said, “I accept your apology,” and then reflects calmly in this interview, “See, that’s the power of radical love, the love of Jesus.  It’s the most powerful force in the world, and it has the power to overturn the tables.”

Friends in Christ, Jesus in the temple, this “cleansing” is breaking us out of old, oppressive ways and systems.  And inviting us again — “come and see” — inviting us again down the road of discipleship, down the path of Jesus.  This is a radical theological replacement!  Love not law.  No more burdens or chains.  Freedom is walking the way of compassion and forgiveness.  New life.

This love, grace, mercy and cleansing healing is for you.  It’s right here and now.  Take a deep, Johanine breath: soak it up.  Chew it down, drink it in.  Taste and see that God is good.  Feast on this abundance that Christ offers freely to you today.  The old has been replaced with AGAPE — unconditional love — and so we. have. been. made. new.  Greater faithfulness, deeper peace, fuller grace.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

January 14 -- Wedding at Cana

Our scripture reading today starts by saying “On the third day” — “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana.”  Let’s think about Third Day Events here.  I suppose John’s suggesting that the first two days occurred in Chapter 1 because we’re just starting Chapter 2.  But with John, there’s always more to it:  The Third Day is a connection here at the beginning of this book to the resurrection that takes place at the end of this book.  Life conquers death.  This is what a Third Day Event is.

And we hear that this is the first of Jesus’ signs.  There are 7 signs of Jesus in John’s Gospel.  This is the first.  It’s like those puzzles that reveal a little bit at a time, or a spotlight that shines on just a little part of a greater whole.  Not until all the pieces, all the lights are shined will Jesus be fully revealed.  But this is the first!  And man, this one is exciting!
Unexpected extravagance is almost unacceptable for us.

Have you ever been lavished with goodness and you really have a hard time accepting it?  I know you have!  I’ve talked to many of you about it!  This is a tough text for us Lutherans...who don’t always act like Lutherans!  I mean we call ourselves Lutherans but we are often, if we’re honest, reluctant if not totally rejecting of extravagant grace and abundance.  “No, no, no,” we say humbly (and even self-less-ly, “I don’t deserve that,” we think to ourselves, “make sure someone else gets the extravagance.  Not me.”  If you’re resonating with this kind of struggle, this is the text for you!  

It’s kind of like struggling to let someone else pay for your meal, or a big meal.  Now, not everyone struggles with that.  Some are happy to let others pay for their food and drink and this text is for you too (if that describes you).  
But how about the ones who always cover themselves — and others too — so graciously and extravagantly?  Can you accept another covering you, grace...that comes flowing in such ridiculous amounts of abundance here?  
(150 gallons!  I personally translate wine images into beer: that’s 10 giant kegs!  1 keg at a wedding is always too much! 10??!!!  It’s definitely not needed!) 

Wine overflowing: this is our first glimpse of Jesus’ glory.  One scholar talked about this miracle as thing of “dissonance." *  It’s not only a surprise, it’s actually a little disturbing.  There shouldn’t be that much wine, right?  That’s scandalous (which literally means a stumbling block)!  Exactly.  Paul says Christ is a stumbling block.  Some simply can’t get past certain things about grace to fully accept this God-with-us, this Word that becomes flesh and dwells among us!  It’s hard to hear, it’s dissonant, this much goodness.  NO!  “You’ve got to earn it, earn it,” our little Western, Protestant-work-ethic brains are crying out.  But there’s this part of our hearts, maybe even our whole bodies, that is whispering (maybe shamefully), “Would be fun though…”

See, John’s Gospel again and again challenges the mind, threatens and seeks to annihilate the shameful voices in our heads, the “you’ve gotta earn it”, and instead draws us into extravagance!  That’s what grace really is.  It’s totally undeserved.  We have a hard time with that.
OK, the six 20-30 gallon jars?  Let’s talk about that:  Everything is symbol in John.  Six jars represent the old religion.  The old way of doing things, even the old way of celebrating.  They’re water jars for religious purification! Did you get that?  That’s like taking our holy things here in order to have a party?  

Can you imagine grabbing [this chalice] for a wedding you’re going to on Saturday night?

Jesus is consecrating the new by using the old.  He’s taking the holy and using it for the everyday, and in that way making the everyday holy.  

(Remember I said a few weeks ago that for Jesus in John, everything becomes holy? Everything becomes “a sacrament”?)  Jesus is blowing up religious tradition, and by that I don’t mean destroying it: I mean more literally blowing up [wider and wider, bigger and bigger] — YES, this is holy, but so is this and this and this and this!

Walking your dog and picking up her poop in the evening breeze is sacramental.  Scrubbing the gunk off of the dinner plates as you listen to a podcast is sacramental.   Going to the dentist and talking about about your plans for the MLK holiday   is sacramental.  Having a drink with a friend,  getting a massage, laughing together in a boardroom meeting, reading a bedtime story to a child, flying to San Antonio, shopping for fruits and vegetables...you see?  It just goes on and on!  Everything is holy now!  Grace overflowing, pouring out 150 ridiculous gallons, just more and more!

When you think about when you’ve most felt God’s presence in your life, which we have to ask ourselves often when studying the Gospel of John.  [pause]  Don’t just think about the toughest of times — when you/your loved one was sick or death at hand, but somehow you knew God’s deep, abiding, very real presence.  Don’t just think about the dark times when God was truly there for you.  Those are definitely true moments of God’s presence...But today reminds us that God is with us in the absolute overflowing grace-filled, joy-filled, love-filled, laughter-filled, beer-and-wine-filled, food-filled, family-and-friends-filled, glorious-nature-filled highlights — 
the very best that this life and this world has to offer, too.  Third Day Events.

I think of my brother Tim and Caitriona’s wedding in Ireland in 2009.  That was a Third Day Event for me.  Wouldn’t have missed it, so glad we did it.  Family and friends — new and old —  gathered together in an area that seemed like the edge of the world.  For days (in the rain — didn’t matter) we too celebrated a wedding, toured around, sat by the fire, laughed and laughed, ate and drank, and danced and sang, and told stories and celebrated life and love, and joy and peace.

And when you experience those things, you want to share them with others.  You want others to have Third Day Events too, you long for everyone to be so blessed...you just can’t help yourself from feeling that way...That’s the power of a Third Day Event...
Let me conclude by calling our attention to Jesus’ mother:  We should follow her lead and approach to Jesus pleading, “They have no wine.” In other words, we should come to Jesus tell him what to do too: We pray for other people.  We don’t just hoard all this goodness and grace for ourselves.  We don’t just revel in Jesus’ presence and then go home, forgetting what we’ve experienced.  That’s not a Third Day Event.  No, we accept this absolute wonder and joy, we swim in it -- laugh and eat and sing and drink and dance.  We party with Jesus, and we also, even during the party, like his mom, plead with Jesus, “They have no wine.”  Let’s try that now: let us pray...

“Give to others the grace that we have received so abundantly, loving God.  Blow open the old ways that come up empty.  And fill us and this whole world with newness, with joy and mercy and unity and peace.  In your name we pray.  AMEN”

*New Interpreters Bible, “John”, Gail O’Day

Sunday, January 7, 2018

January 7 -- Jesus Says Come and See

It’s one thing to know where a story ends and what the whole point is.  It’s another to experience it.  

I marvel every time I travel.  I know where our final destination is — I study the maps, look at road conditions and read about the area.  I just did this two weeks ago as our family drove all the way up to beautiful Oregon to an area we had never seen before…I love seeing the map of the area before we go, and now you can even see fancy Google earth images, not just a 2D beige-colored screen.  But nothing can substitute for the real thing — being there.  Smelling the pine.  Seeing your breath in the freezing air.  Talking to locals after getting a bit disoriented by the roundabouts in the neighborhood.  Embracing my parents and brothers and sisters and little after we had all traveled many miles to this place, slipping on the snow a bit as it crunches under your feet on the way to the door of the warm cabin…  Ah, welcome to Bend, Oregon!

You can grasp a place intellectually or on a screen, you can have some idea of where you’re going.  But it’s absolutely no substitute for actually being there.  

Ah, welcome to the Gospel of John, the first Chapter 1.  On December 24, I laid out a bunch of themes and shared that everything we need to know (as one professor put it) about John’s Gospel is in the first few verses.  We should keep referring back to that map.  But now, at the end of Chapter 1 the journey begins.  Let’s move now to that light that John describes, the light of life, the light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness, in the winter of this world.

Our text for today — appropriately at the beginning of a brand new year, 2018 — is Jesus inviting us into the journey: into the rich scent of grace and beauty, into the embrace of family members in the faith, into the cold of the world and whose who opt out of this sacred community and meal, even into the disorientation that happens when we follow Jesus, when we “come and see”.  

You can grasp John intellectually or in 2D, you can have some idea of where it’s all going.  But it’s absolutely no substitute for actually being there yourself.  Jesus today is inviting us to move, to move to a new place, which requires a journey.  We are invited to re-locate, to transfer, to move into God’s very heart.
“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks.  That’s a great question.  Are you open to exploring that?  New year, envisioning a clean slate — lot of us have been out of our regular routine because of the holidays, so maybe it’s a great time to ask this question...  

In this moment we stand at the trailhead and ask ourselves, what Jesus asks: what are you looking for?  What do you want, really?  What’s the whole purpose here?  [pause]  The world tries to tells us what we should be looking for, right?  Money.  Power, safety, material things, fancy clothes, rugged independence, cars, jewelry, success, successful children to be proud of, winning, winning, winning.  But we know all too well that we can’t take all those things with us when we die.  

It’s really the death bed that we have to imagine in order to get at the big question that Jesus is asking here:  “What are you looking for?”  What do you want out of this life?  What’s the point?  [pause]  New year: trailhead.

The great thing for Christians, trust-ers in Jesus — when we play out the deathbed scene — is that we believe/trust we have eternal life coming to us, right?  Because of Christ, not because of my good works or my earning this glorious heaven!  Simply and profoundly, only because of Christ!  “This is most certainly true,” right?!  So in faith, our answer to Jesus’ big question here “what are you looking for” doesn’t have to be about the life hereafter.  The great thing for us trust-ers in Jesus is that we get to answer that question for this life, here and now.  So what are you looking for...here on earth, now that you’re ok, now that you’ve already been saved, now that life eternal has been freely given to you through Jesus?

And I love that the disciples don’t have an answer for him:   Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” and what do they say?  They answer with a question:  “Teacher, where are you abiding?”  It’s like they’re lost in a roundabout.  They have know idea how to answer Jesus’ question.  Maybe that’s like us right now too.  “Uhhhh….”

All they know is that they want to be close to Jesus.  “Teacher, Rabbi, where are you staying?”  And that’s when Jesus invites them, like they’re standing at the trailhead, “Come and see,” Jesus says.  Come and see where I’m staying, where I abide.  

Friends in Christ, God’s got great things in store for us this 2018!  Things that might disorient us, or freeze us, make us slip perhaps...Jesus never promised that the journey would be easy.  But at the same time, in this journey and life of faith, in this abiding in Christ’s gracious and loving presence, we enter into the very heart of God!  We come to know and feel God’s love wrapped around us, comforting us, inspiring us, challenging us, moving us always outward into new places and new ideas and new positions and new experiences…

(Another remarkable feature of John’s Gospel is how much Jesus and his disciples move!  I once tried to track their movement on a map as I read through the Gospel, and I gave up — they moved so much, almost like they were being teleported!)  

Journeying into God’s heart changes us, fills us with grace and mercy...and then sends us out to find and share with others, just like Philip finds and shares with Nathaniel, even at the beginning of the journey, we can find others and share with them this same invitation to come and see, to enter into the journey with Christ, to abide with him, to meet God.  

This is a good day, and a good year.  Standing at the trail head.  God’s gonna see us through!  AMEN.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

December 31 -- Guest Preacher Cyndi Jones

John 1:19-34 (NRSV)
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 
21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” 
He said, “I am not.” 
“Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 
22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 
23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared,
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 
30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 
32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
Please pray with me.

Dear God, Come and live in us. Set us on fire to proclaim your Kingdom in this world. 
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

In the other Gospels -- Matthew, Mark and Luke -- we learn a lot about John the Baptist, -- that he was pointing to Jesus before he was born when he was still in Elizabeth's womb. We learn what he ate, how he dressed, and how he died.
but not so much in the Gospel of John.

Today we find John the Baptist being interrogated by priests and Levites from Jerusalem -- representatives of the Jewish authorities sent to find out who he is and by what authority is he baptizing?  
Who are you?   Tell us plainly. Let us have an answer for those who sent us.
What do you say about yourself?” 
This is high political drama. The wrong answer could prove deadly.
John answers by saying who he isn't:
“I am not the Messiah.” 
And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” 
He said, “I am not.” 
“Are you the prophet?” 
He answered, “No.” 
Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” You can almost hear the prosecutor demanding answers.
He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”.

John is very clear about who he is and -- who he isn't. 
I am not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the prophet --
I am here to clear the path -- to make way for the Lord.
To point to the Son of God.
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared,
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 
John's purpose is to point to the Lamb of God. 
Hey over here, don't miss this -- Here is the Messiah!
I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.
Look here he is! You're not going to want to miss this. 

John's ministry and witness is an important lesson for us -- knowing who we are -- and who we aren't. 
I am not the Messiah.
I am a follower of the Messiah. 
Maybe like John the Baptist -- we point to the Son of God.
But how often do we limit ourselves?
Do we ever sense that God is nudging us to step out in faith, only to back away from our testimony?
Our testimony may not be to use words to express our faith, but maybe to live into our faith, to point to the One we follow.

A few years ago my Spiritual director suggested that I spend some time at the beach. She thought a bit of nature would be good for me -- as I had been spending most of my time indoors studying. 
I drove out to mission beach and was watching the waves roll in and then recede back into the Ocean. It was very comforting. 
As I watched -- a short distance from shore -- I saw a dolphin do a back flip. Really! At first I couldn't believe it, but the guy a few feet away said, "Did you see that?"  We were both in awe.
This was amazing.  First that it actually happened and secondly that I could actually see that far. 
Now I don't know how frequently this happens,
but I do know that I am rarely at the beach. 
Did I use this as an opening to share how awesome God is? "Wow isn't God's creation amazing? And that we got to see this -- WOW!"
No. I just tucked this experience safely away, knowing I had just been given a gift -- touched by God. 
How often do I let these opportunities just slip away? 

I had a friend Mary Eunice Oliver -- she is now deceased -- who never let an opportunity to point to Jesus pass her by. If she was on a plane, or at the Kinko's Copy counter or the mail man delivering mail or -- really everyone -- she would engage them in matters of faith. She didn't see her role as having them come to the church she attended -- but rather to point them to consider their relationship to God. During her life time, she probably touched over 150 people in a meaningful way.

Do we feel comfortable pointing to the Son of God?
Do we feel comfortable pointing to Jesus, "Hey look over here -- here is the Son of God!"
When do we feel comfortable talking about our faith?
About the Word made flesh, God Incarnate, Jesus, the Christ,
the Light of the world? 

Over the last few years of my training and internship, I have had the opportunity to be at many churches. Most have bible studies, but very few have created the time and space to share the faith that is theirs. 
While I was here at Shepherd of the Valley, I had the privilege of hearing some of your powerful stories of faith.
Your stories are like John the Baptist pointing to the Son of God, pointing to your personal experience of God in your life.
When we share our stories of faith, what I call "God Sightings" with each other -- the whole community is strengthened. 

When we are open and vulnerable and share our experiences of seeing God in our lives -- experiences that we all hold closely, we clear the path for others to speak their faith as well.
Many if not most of us have had tangible ways that God shows up in our lives, but we largely keep these experiences to ourselves -- maybe because we worry what others will think if we share them.
Like maybe you need a psychologist?? 

This is the community of faith. It is here in this place we can safely practice sharing our experiences of God -- our God Sightings. 

And when we actually speak our personal experience of God alive in our lives -- we help others see God alive in their lives as well, and in the world that God loves so much that God sent his only son to live with us. 

But the real value in speaking out loud our personal experiences of God in our lives in a safe environment like Shepherd of the Valley, is that when we get nudged to speak up for God, we have practiced the words, -- we have heard ourselves speak them out loud before others. The words are near to us -- they are in our heart and on our lips.
So when it comes time for us to point to the Son of God, we can say, “Look -- Here is God, you won't want to miss it!" 

When we need to be there for someone, we know what our faith feels like and looks like and sounds like. We can readily share it because we have the words.

Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 

Tonight is New Year's Eve. 
Tomorrow begins a New Year-- a fresh, clean, start. 
But actually thanks to the Grace of God -- every day is a fresh start -- cleansed by Grace we begin each new day afresh.
In these turbulent times, we might be the only ones pointing to the light, to restore hope and to share God's love for his world. 

In Jesus' words: I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” John 16:33

Thanks be to God.