Beginnings are always exciting.
Well, maybe not always, sometimes they are pretty nerve-wracking, like the birth of a child or a new job. My heart skips a beat just thinking about it!
But, often, beginnings are exciting. Like the birth of a child or a new job.
Sometimes new beginnings are a chance to start over, to try again.
I don’t know about you, but the mistakes I make are often the same mistakes over and over again, a bad habit that won’t go away despite how many times I quit forever and ever amen.
New Years is a fun time, a new time, a fresh baby new year not worn out yet, a chance to set aside the resentments and grudges that we bury each other in, and start over, over and over again.
Starting over seems to be one of those habits that rarely takes but we keep at it anyway.
The persistence of that habit of starting over itself seems to be the important thing. It reveals something about life and about the God of life. The invitation and gift of beginning again is always there.
Jesus comes up out of the water of Baptism. The sky is torn open, the Spirit descends like a dove and the words of love and delight are heard from above.
It is a new beginning, like the Spirit brooding over the waters of creation at the beginning of all things, like the dove returning to Noah with the olive branch, the promise of the world starting over.
A starting over moment, the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, when he is anointed as the Messiah, the one who brings freedom from the accumulated grudges of history, and freedom means work.
A creation moment, when creation starts over, like Noah’s Ark finding land and starting the world over again. What will the new world be like this time? Will the same bad habits persist?
All these Bible stories remind us that freedom is an elusive thing.
If you know anyone involved in the 12 Step Movement, recovery from addiction means always working at it.
Recovery means always living with brokenness, never fully recovering, just sobriety one day at a time. Living with that brokenness becomes the means of grace. That recovery of freedom comes with the work of reconciliation, of healing past wrongs and passing on that gift of freedom.
Freedom means work.
To live with the gift of God’s grace means being given a job to do, of always helping the world start over, of living with our brokenness and finding the means of grace.
We worship a messiah who was anointed by more than the Spirit, he was anointed by his own blood, by the cross. We worship a crucified messiah, in God’s brokenness the world finds the means of grace and freedom.
Today we renew our baptismal covenant as we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord and the gift of the Spirit that joins us to Jesus.
The work of the anointed, the work of freedom, the work of living with brokenness, that is what comes with Baptism.
Today we celebrate the New Year, the New Creation starting over with the renewal of our Baptismal Covenant.
This is one of those good and holy habits that persists.
God never gives up on us.
God never stops pushing us toward freedom.
God never lets us rest for very long from the ministry of making all things new.
Find God’s demanding grace in the wounds of the crucified Messiah and the wounds of this life.
This is one of those beginning moments.
It is exciting and nerve-wracking, like the birth of a child or a new job.
Let us begin.
The circus comes to town! But no one notices…
They parade down the street, Elephants striding, Tigers growling, Lions leaping, clowns clapping, the trapeze artists flipping, the music bombasting, the greatest show ashowing, and no one sees…walking by, stepping around, driving away.
It was such a sight not to see.
They set up the Giant Circus Tent, with those bright red and yellow stripes so as not to call attention.
They set up that Big Tent right on the city square and start selling tickets to just about nobody.
The greatest show on earth! Hidden in plain sight.
God moves into the neighborhood, God pitches God’s tent, God tabernacles on the city square, and no one notices.
That is how John’s Gospel begins: with glory, wonder, and a deep lonely sadness. With an irony that breaks the heart. The glory of God is unrecognized and rejected.
That is who Jesus is, the bright red and yellow circus tent of God that no one sees.
And we are invited to become children of this lonely forgotten and rejected God.
To join the circus with the great big empty tent, a sight not to see.
That is Christmas in the Gospel according to John.
Over and over the same story plays out again and again, of not seeing, of rejecting and for a blessed few who do see, the ones we least suspect, life begins anew, born again.
That great line from the hymn Amazing Grace, “ I once was blind but now I see” comes from John’s Gospel.
The Christmas Season continues today with a deeper darker message, of wonders unseen, of God’s children walking out of step and of gathering darkness blinding the sight.
And with that beautiful sadness comes the invitation to become the children of God, to participate in the divine revealing that is not well received.
The power to become the children of God that is always the message on this first Sunday after Christmas Day.
It is an ironic invitation, the power to become unnoticed, the power to become powerless, the power to be rejected, the power of grace in a world that knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing.
John’s Gospel was written by and for the people who feel the pain of not being seen for who they are. For those who are turned away, rejected, cast out for recognizing the glory of God shining in their lives.
Jesus brings an unwelcomed restoration, and God’s children share in that glory and that pain.
It is the strangeness of God, to take that blindness and make it sight, to take rejection and make it invitation. To take the darkness and turn it into light.
Jesus, the unseen, is God’s sight of all who are unseen.
Jesus, the unheard, is God’s attentive listening to of all those who unheard.
Jesus, the forsaken and forgotten, is God’s remembering of all that are forgotten.
Jesus is God’s Big Circus Tent, with lots of room, the roominess of God for those who are cast aside.
The one who is unseen and cast aside is the one who sees and makes room.
Jesus is God’s turning that darkness back on itself, the dark becomes light.
The strangeness of God that takes death and turns it into life.
And God’s children are strange in the same way.
We have been given the power of Jesus, to hear, to see, to remember, to make room for the glory that is the light of all humanity, to turn darkness back on itself.
That is the message of the Christmas season.
The strangest circus has come to town.
The greatest show on earth.
The children of God have returned.
They parade down the street, Elephants striding, Tigers growling, Lions leaping, clowns clapping, the trapeze artists flipping, the music bombasting, the greatest show ashowing.
Most don’t see it, walking by, stepping around, driving away. Some oppose it and a blessed few join in on the parade, beholding and showing forth that bright circus tent, such a sight not to see.
Hear, see, remember, make room. Make the dark light.
We have been given the power to pay attention, to see the wonder and the glory that fills this life.
Join the circus and behold.
Well surprise, surprise, surprise!
Whenever I read the Christmas story from the Gospel According to Luke I think of Gomer Pyle from the old Andy Griffith show saying, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!
How is God experienced?
What is the God of Christmas like?
Surprise, surprise, surprise!
The God of Christmas is a surprise to a cynical, cranky and worn out world.
Every encounter, every episode in the story we can hear the characters thinking, “Who me?” as they become the center of God being revealed to the world.
And at every encounter where God is revealed, we can hear everyone else saying, “Why them?”
Just this morning we heard the Angel Gabriel telling Mary the strangest things ever.
And now here they are displaced by the government in a borrowed cubby and food trough for a bed.
And then there are shepherds and the angelic host being told the strangest things in the dark of night way out on the edge of things. Glory and singing and good news, go and see, go and tell the news.
The strangest things are happenings, and it’s all out there on the edge of things, happening to the most forgettable and unimportant people. Suddenly they are the center of all Creation. They are the heart of God being revealed.
Clearly, things are not as we thought they were.
This God of Christmas is found out on the edge of things, where people are vulnerable to the random cruelty of history, to people who are hard to count, hard to notice.
What was on the margins has become the heart of things.
Those who thought they were in the middle of things have lost their place and they don’t even know it. We are embarrassed for them. They thought they were the life of the party, but now they are at the wrong party.
The God of Christmas surprises is a jolly old elf having a good laugh at our antics and hubris.
Surprise, surprise, surprise!
The surprising present of the baby Jesus is peace, joy and singing.
That is what we learn from this story where we hear the strangest things.
So what do we do with this surprising Gospel of the God of Christmas?
Find peace and joy in this unlikely Savior and his unconventional salvation. Sing about it. Find the song in life.
Keep an eye out for the edge of things for those who are shoved around and forgotten, God is found there. They are where salvation enters into the world.
Discover God’s holy laughter at the surprise of it all.
And don’t be too surprised if you find yourself in the middle of God being revealed to all Creation.
Are you afraid of the dark?
Sometimes I am. Sometimes I’m not. I don’t know why.
Sometimes I can be alone at night on the side of a mountain and be fine, just me the woods and all the critters hopping and crunching, hooting and yipping.
And other times… I turn on every light in the house, like I can’t get enough of it, like a thirst that I can’t quench. Desperate and parched for light.
Darkness and light.
Pushing back the darkness.
Sometimes the dark seems to be all there is.
Then someone shows up and reminds us that there is light, there is light in the world.
We hear from John’s Gospel today, the gospel of light shining in the darkness, the light that is life itself, the light that the eroding darkness, the storm of devouring nothingness, cannot conquer.
John walks into that storm of devouring nothingness, and says that there is light, that it is on the way.
He is the witness. He is giving testimony in the court, that there is light in the darkness.
Prove it John. Show us John. You are the witness, John, make your case.
In the dark how do we prove that there is light? How do we make that case? What is light like? How can light be explained to a people lost in the dark? What is it like?
John is the one who makes the case.
How does he describe light? He points to Jesus. Jesus is what light is like. Jesus is the light that is life itself, life is coming back to the world, pushing back the dark storm of nothingness.
We have all heard the saying that Jesus is the reason for the season. In John’s Gospel Jesus is simply the reason.
The reason why all things exist. The reason that brings coherence to confusion. The reason that brings life where there was only absence. The reason that calms the nonsense of the world.
What is light like? Look at Jesus.
What is darkness like? The absence of Jesus.
That is the Gospel according to John. Belief. It is literally everything in John’s Gospel.
And today, John the Baptist is the witness to that light, that we may believe, and find reason again, that the world may make sense again.
Belief in Jesus. It is the difference between darkness and light in the Gospel according to John.
What does that belief look like?
It looks like Jesus.
Jesus is simply the reason.
How do we honor that? How do we believe in a way that brings light and life?
How do we lighten things up?
We are to be like John the Baptist, making the case, proving that there is light in the world, that there is reason, that there is sense, that there is coherence, that the universe has an inner logic. We are to be witnesses of Jesus.
It means caring Jesus as a gift, not as a weapon. Not like a chip on the shoulder daring someone to be offended or offensive. It doesn’t matter if we say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. It’s how we say it that counts. It is the gift of light and wonder and awe.
If Jesus is the reason, the internal logic that holds creation together, then to carry Jesus is to bring life to all the angry and habitually offended, bringing sense to nonsense.
Disarming the bomb, not throwing gas on the fire.
Do we present the Jesus who brings something good to those around us?
Or just another chip on the shoulder in a world full of shoulders piled high with the chips of grievance? Do we lighten that load? Do we lighten things up?
Bring light, life and coherence to the devouring darkness.
Testify to that.
Prove that there is light in the dark.
Lighten things up.
Nothing announces the beginning of the day like the crow of a rooster in the soft gray light between darkness and sunrise.
Sometimes you run across roosters in the most unusual places.
I love running early in the morning in that place of gray light before sunrise when the sky begins to hint at the arrival of dawn.
I frequently run across a rooster, right near here, just down the street, in the trees behind the police department. The rooster crows as I run by. It makes me smile.
It is out of place, and that makes it even better, the new day catches my attention. I feel like I am in on a great and wonderful secret.
Have you ever met one of those people who just doesn’t belong? Who is out of place? Like a rooster crowing on Main Street?
Have you ever been that person?
Not from around here. Out of place. Out of time.
Different mannerisms, different expressions, different expectations, neuro-atypical.
Who just sees things differently.
Who sees a different world than the rest of us, that we just miss, unaware.
John the Baptizer.
The rest of us see the world as the stuff of families, jobs, economies, culture, entertainment, consumer things, survival, suffering, grievance, conflict.
Then there comes up someone who sees the Way of God entering and arriving into the mess of life, like a rooster on Main street. They cause us to pause.
John the Baptizer.
He was out of place.
He made our world seem so small, that perspective that comes from seeing the arrival of the Way of God.
John, he made everyone feel like they were out of place, like they were missing all the cues and clues of how life worked. That Rooster belongs on Main Street. It’s Main Street that is somehow out of order.
John, nothing cozy or inviting about him, he brings us to that place of being out of place, and he leaves us there.
That pause where our attention is brought back into perspective, that is John the Baptizer. He left everyone around him confused and dizzy by sudden perspectivity.
Some rejoiced, a Rooster on Main Street, wonderful!
Others…not so much…disliking that experience of being out of place.
That rooster, he announces the arrival of a new day, not another day, but a new day, a new world, a world of baptism and Spirit, of being set free, of letting go of what was, of starting over, the arrival of the way of God.
The rooster crows as Main Street rushes on by.
Get ready crows the rooster, get ready to be out of place and awkward, the Way of God is almost here. It is the great and wonderful secret that starts the Day.
We hate to wait.
But so much of life is about waiting.
Waiting is a lost art.
Advent begins today. The Christian year begins today. Happy new years! Advent, we begin the season of expectant waiting.
More like a child waiting on Christmas Eve than like waiting to renew our driver’s licenses at the DMV ( I think that would technically be purgatory…).
More like waiting for childbirth than being stuck in traffic.
It is like waiting for suffering to end, for healing or for death.
For a cure, for a miracle.
Waiting for a special meal to begin.
Or to see a friend who has been a long time absent.
Waiting for it to rain after everything has turned to dust.
Jesus gives us two little mini parables today about waiting.
Waiting for a fig tree to put forth its leaves. Waiting at the door for the return of the master that could be at any time. Learn from this lesson.
Waiting for summer, for things to turn green.
Waiting for homecoming, for the longtime absent to walk back through the door.
Learn from these. Learn to wait.
Mark is the oldest of the four Gospels. It was written during a time of turmoil, Israel was tearing itself apart, and all the might of the Roman Empire couldn’t keep the peace. In fact, it only made it worse. Life became unpredictable, unstable, unsure.
So the country was consumed by power, control, stockpiling wealth, drawing lines and choosing sides. Sounds familiar?
In walks Jesus, in walks the gospel, in walks the church. And their response to uncertainty? More of the same? More pointing the finger, more wagging of the head and raising of the voice? More of that?
No, it was something else, a different way of being in the world.
These parables of waiting are the response to a vision of creation falling apart, wearing out, running out of time, even stars die and fall from the sky, even the moon loses its shine.
Has your world ever fallen apart?
That is when it happens. Expect something, or rather someone.
The return of summer, the return of the one whose words outlive the heavens and the earth, whose word brings the world back together, life out of death, hope out of darkness, joy out of despair.
I’ve pretty much decided that Christians are weird. When things fall apart, we get expectant, we dramatically hope, never surrender, never despair. Because something is about to happen, and we don’t want to miss it.
This Advent waiting, it is as contrary as southern politicians and as stubborn as a bent nail.
When the world falls apart, wait for God to speak the word that makes all things new.
That is Advent. Waiting for summertime, for the world to turn green.
Because even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!
But there it is.
Be that word, that walks back in through the door, that puts forth leaves, that hopes beyond reason, that brings life back to the dead places.
The lesson of these parables? 1) The world falls apart. 2) God can be trusted to bring it back together. We call it resurrection.
Which means that when life gets uncertain and the rest of the world hunkers down into fear and hate and anger, we get busy singing, inviting, loving and building up, contrary and stubborn until Jesus walks back through the door.
So what are we waiting for?
Hurry up… and wait.