The Holy Gospel according to John, the first chapter. Glory to you, O Lord.
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." 46 Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" 48 Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." 49 Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" 50 Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." 51 And he said to him, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you. O Christ.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
We have heard two wonderful Bible stories this morning. In our first lesson, we hear the story of the call of Samuel. We learn that God doesn't just call adults. God calls children.
God does things differently from us. God is more into "on the job training" and it seems that even children get assigned important tasks. God doesn't care how old people are or where they come from either.
I have always loved the story of Samuel, perhaps because I was blessed to know I was called to serve in the church ever since I was a little girl. At a very basic level I knew that God calls little children, because the Bible tells me so. This story has always been very affirming for me.
You remember, Samuel is the son of Hannah. She was barren for many years. The other women bullied her because she didn't have any children. Hannah promised God that if she had a son, she would give him back to God. She would bring him to the Priest to serve the LORD all his life. So that is how Samuel came to serve Eli, the priest at Shiloh.
It was bed time and Samuel thought Eli was calling him. Three times he goes into Eli and asks him what he wants before Eli finally figures out that the LORD is calling the child. Notice how persistent God is about it. When Samuel goes back to bed the LORD calls him again.
The child Samuel is entrusted with an important message from the LORD. It is a difficult message. Samuel is called to speak truth to power. The LORD tells Samuel that Samuel must tell Eli, “Your sons are corrupt and they will be punished.”
God is persistent and when God calls you, sometimes it’s because you need to speak truth to power.
In our gospel today, we hear the story of the call of Nathanael. Jesus has already called Andrew, who had been a disciple of John the Baptist. Andrew invites his brother Simon Peter to follow Jesus. The next day, Jesus finds Philip, who lived in the same town as Andrew and Peter.
Philip found his friend Nathanael and invited him to follow Jesus. Nathanael's response is interesting. He is somewhat sarcastic and asks if anything good can come out of Nazareth. It seems that the idea that, “the place I come from is better than the place you come from" goes back at least to Bible times.
If we are honest with ourselves we must admit that all of us have some level of this attitude today. The Onion News, a satirical online newspaper, offers a t-shirt for sale that says, "the sports team from my area is SUPERIOR to the sports team from your area".
Unfortunately, the attitude often goes beyond friendly sports rivalry. We are suspicious of people who aren't like us, who haven't had the same experiences growing up in the same place. We feel the need to make them prove they are good enough to associate with us or even live in our country.
This weekend we observe the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., the famous civil rights leader. This Baptist preacher knew the Bible was not just about personal individual faith. Dr. King knew following Jesus leads to public ministry. He knew that following Jesus meant very concrete things for the world, society, and government.
Dr. King knew Jesus came to call all people, no matter where they came from. Even if their ancestors came from Africa on slave ships. He knew following Jesus meant that we must work to reform our country and our communities so that all people have equal rights and opportunities, no matter who they are or where they come from.
We have made some real progress since Dr. King's death, but we still have a long way to go before all God's children are free to follow their dreams. Those of us who are white people still enjoy privileges that we take for granted.
People in our community and in our country are still being oppressed because of color, class, religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation. I even hear people categorize each other based on which Northern European country our grandparents immigrated from.
Nathanael was a man who said what he thought, even if he was being sarcastic with the remark about Jesus' hometown. Philip must have known Nathanael would say something like that. So he doesn't argue about it. He just says, "Come and see".
Maybe Philip has a good idea there. Don’t argue with people who make remarks about where others come from. Just invite them to come and see. Invite them to come and meet Jesus. Invite them to meet Jesus in the face of someone who comes from a country that they compare to an outhouse.
I have a classmate in my doctoral program named Nathaniel. Nate is an Episcopal priest in New York City. He’s preaching on this text this weekend, too. He’s proud to be a black man from Haiti. I meet Jesus in the face of my friend Nathaniel.
I served for several weeks in Tema Lutheran Parish in Tanzania. Amos is the pastor there now. Florence is an elder in that church. Woinde is the kindergarten teacher. I meet Jesus in the faces of my friends Amos and Florence and Woinde.
One of my seminary professors is Jose David. He’s originally from Puerto Rico and he teaches about World Christianity. One of my preaching professors is Eunjoo Mary who is originally from Korea. I meet Jesus in the faces of Jose David and Eunjoo Mary.
Jesus tells Nathanael he saw him under the fig tree. Rabbis sat under fig trees to study the scriptures, so Nathanael is an intellectual, a scholar. Jesus is calling a disciple who will ask hard questions and debate the scriptures.
I think perhaps, God also wants us to use our brains and study the scriptures and ask the hard questions.
God calls us no matter how old we are, no matter where we come from.
But we hear lots of voices and plenty of competing messages. How do we know which voice belongs to God?
One thing we know from Samuel is that God is persistent. Samuel went to Eli to ask about the voice he heard. Eli had been a priest for many years. It is good to ask for advice from someone older and wiser, someone who knows the scriptures.
Nathanael followed a trusted friend, but came to see for himself. He was a student of the scriptures and asked the hard questions. It is good to talk and pray with people you trust, to study the scriptures, to ask the hard questions, and come see for yourself.
God calls us no matter how old we are and no matter where we come from.
So what do you do when God calls you?
First, you listen to God because you will meet Jesus.
Then you follow Jesus and learn from him.
Dr. King followed Jesus when he worked for justice, peace, and equality for all God's children. One of the promises we make when we affirm our baptism is to work for justice and peace in all the world. We are doing this through our advocacy work with the ELCA and our contributions to Lutheran World Relief.
We work for justice and peace whenever we speak up for someone who is being bullied. We work for justice whenever we say something to someone who makes an insensitive comment about people who are different from us.
What did Andrew and Philip do when they heard Jesus calling them? One of the first things these disciples did was invite others to join them.
God is calling you. Listen to the voice. Follow Jesus.
Then invite others to come and see Jesus for themselves. Be prepared to be surprised, though.
Sometimes Jesus might look like you, because he is your brother. But sometimes Jesus might look like Nate, or Amos, or Florence, or Woinde, or Jose David, or Eunjoo Mary, or Martin Luther King, because he is their brother, too. Amen.
The Holy Gospel acccording to Mark, the first chapter.
Glory to you, O Lord.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This week we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. When Jesus came up out of the water, God ripped open the heavens.
And we heard the voice of God.
Have you ever wondered what God’s voice sounds like? Do you think it’s a deep booming male voice the way it is portrayed in the movies? Sort of scary? Very loud? Commanding? Demanding? Like a father yelling at you and telling you to behave?
That’s the stereotype many of us are familiar with. Certainly, all attempts to portray God’s voice in our time are simply speculation. But I need to warn you. I think the stereotype is wrong.
God can absolutely use any voice God wants to use, but I wonder if perhaps there are better ways for us to portray the voice of God.
There are surprisingly few places in the Bible where God speaks directly. Our first lesson is one of those places. It is the beginning of a beautiful poetic account of the creation. In the first chapter of Genesis, the voice of God calls creation into being.
And God said, and it was so. The voice of God is a powerful voice. The voice is a strong voice. That strong voice creates everything that exists.
Strength doesn’t always mean loud, though. Singers know that. A strong voice is clear, understandable, and of course, on the right pitch.
A strong voice doesn’t have to be a soloist. A strong singer leads others to be on the right pitch and blends with them, harmonizes with them, without drowning them out.
The prophet Elijah didn’t experience the voice of God as a loud voice. He knew that the voice of God was not in the earthquake, wind, or fire. Elijah recognized the voice of God in the sound of sheer silence.
Our psalmist today compares the voice of God to some of the sounds in nature. The psalmist believes that God’s voice is heard in creation.
The voice of God sounds like a storm to the psalmist. The God of glory thunders. The voice of the Lord bursts forth in lightning flashes.
It is understandable to think of God sounding like a storm. Storms are powerful and storms can be very frightening. This stormy voice knocks down trees and entire forests.
But the psalmist doesn’t sound frightened by the stormy voice of God. Perhaps “awed” is a better word.
Because the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor. This is a voice that makes whole nations dance like young animals. I have never seen calves dance and I have definitely never seen young wild oxen dance.
But we have all watched kittens and puppies play, and we have seen how they dance around each other. I remember seeing a litter of rabbits in our backyard in Lincoln. The bunnies were beautiful to watch as they were running and leaping over each other and playing in the sun.
Perhaps the voice of the Lord is also like music. It seems like maybe the psalmist hears the voice of the Lord as sounding more like an orchestra playing a symphony or a dance tune with loud drums and cymbals.
It appears that there are many ways God’s voice is expressed. Many people over the centuries have claimed to hear God speaking to them.
So how do we recognize that the voice is God? How do we know that the words we hear are from God and not from our own minds or the minds of someone who is leading us down the wrong path?
I believe that main way we know the voice is God's - is that we have the words of Jesus. We can ask if the words we hear are consistent with the things Jesus said when he walked the earth. We can ask if the words we think might be from God are consistent with the message of the scriptures.
Of course, that means we need to read and study the Bible. We may think we know what it says, but if we don’t read and study regularly, we forget what we learned in Sunday School.
We can forget something we heard a few minutes ago. We need to be reminded constantly. There are always so many distractions, both from the outside world and from the thoughts in our own minds.
We need to be reminded to listen to what the Lord God is saying. Today in the gospel we hear God’s voice tell Jesus he is the beloved Son.
We can be sure that when we hear a blessing, especially one that calls us beloved, that the voice comes from God. Because all love comes from God. We cannot say we love another person on our own. The gift of love always comes from God.
When we hear a word of forgiveness, we know that the voice comes from God. No one can say "I forgive you" on their own. The voice of forgiveness always comes from God.
When we hear a word of hope, we know that the voice comes from God. No human can manufacture hope. All of our hope is based on God's gift of grace. Our hope comes from knowing that the God who created all things in the beginning is busy redeeming, restoring, resurrecting, and recreating all things.
When we are listening for the voice of God, we don’t just have the words of Jesus, we also have his actions to follow. Jesus was baptized and instructed the disciples to baptize as well. We follow in his footsteps as we are baptized in his name.
And when we have identified that the voice belongs to God, how do we answer? Luther gives us four responses. He says we surely ought to: Thank, praise, serve, and obey.
We serve and obey God when we follow Jesus, both in baptism and on to his death, knowing that neither is the end of the story. But you can’t have one without the other.
The Bible tells us that the heavens were ripped open twice. The first time was at Jesus’ baptism. The other time was at his crucifixion. When we follow him into our baptism, we follow him to the cross. When we are joined to Christ in baptism, we are joined to him in his death. And when we are joined to him in death, we are joined to him in resurrection.
We respond to the voice of God with our thanks and praise in worship.
In both creation and baptism we heard that, “the voice of the Lord is upon the waters.”
Our response is to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. May God give us the blessings of peace. Amen.
The holy gospel according to Luke, the second chapter.
Glory to you, O Lord.
22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus 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"), 24and 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.
The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today is the seventh day of Christmas. So, Merry Christmas! That’s right, it’s still Christmas. I know many of you have already put your Christmas decorations away. Your tree is down, the lights and the wreaths and the nativity sets are boxed up and back in their places in your attics and garages. And some of you are willing to openly admit that you are relieved the season is over with for another year.
That’s OK, too, because the things you are glad to be over with are only the trappings. They aren’t what Christmas is really about. They are just things we use to help us celebrate, but they aren’t the source of the celebration.
For the church, it’s still Christmas. You may have thought that the 12 days of Christmas started on December 13th and ended the 25, but that’s not how it works. The 12 days started on December 25 and go through until January 5th, the 12th night. Epiphany is the season that starts January 6th.
So, now that we know the days of Christmas, what about New Year’s Eve? After all, today is December 31st, the last day of 2017. Tomorrow is the day we start being forgetful and writing the wrong year on everything for a week or two.
Tonight is New Year’s Eve. In African American churches, it is traditional to have a worship service called “watch night” to usher in the New Year. This service started on New Year’s Eve in 1862, because Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation to take effect on New Year’s Day 1863. The African American community watched and prayed and rejoiced that they would be soon be free. Watch night, or “Freedom’s Eve” services have continued every year since.
It seems to me that it’s a good thing that we can continue to celebrate the joy of Christmas on New Year’s Eve. Maybe remembering the Christmas story will help us as we enter into 2018. For us, the story is a blessing for the new year.
Our gospel today is the wonderful story of two elderly prophets named Simeon and Anna. It’s a story about hope for the future, and that’s something we certainly need in 2018, for the church and for the world.
Luke tells us the story of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. This is his follow-up story to the Nativity scene. Mary and Joseph were observant Jews. They did what was required by the law.
It was also customary for the Jews to offer a sacrifice for the life of the first born son. You see, in the time of the Old Testament, other religions, not the Jewish religion, but other religions in the area, required parents to sacrifice their first born child in order to appease their gods. They believed their gods would then reward the parents with many healthy children.
The Jews did not do this. Instead, Numbers 18:16 says that the first born child is holy to the Lord, and the parents should sacrifice an animal instead. The sacrifice of the animal redeems the life of the child.
Animal sacrifice is very foreign to our way of thinking. We can’t imagine doing that, but it is important to understand a little about it, to make sense of this story. If you were able to afford it, you brought a sheep or a goat. If you were poor you brought a pair of turtledoves. Joseph and Mary were poor. They brought the turtledoves.
Observant Jews presented their first born sons to the Lord, thanking God and recognizing that the child was a gift from God. Mary and Joseph performed this ordinary Jewish ritual. As we remember in our offering prayer, God blesses ordinary things. On this day, God used Simeon and Anna to bless this ordinary ritual.
SImeon was a prophet. He was often found praying in the Temple. He lived his life under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the promised Messiah.
Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and he praised God. His prayer is the song that we use in worship sometimes, “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace…” How wonderful for Simeon! Isn’t that what we all desire? To be able to say at the end of our lives here that we have seen the salvation of God?
Think about it. Simeon is saying he is ready to die. He recognizes that he is at the end of his life. Simeon isn’t saying that he, Simeon, has accomplished all that he wanted to do in life before he dies.
Wouldn’t it even be nice to even be able to say that we accomplished everything we set out to do in 2017? But, Simeon knows it isn’t about him. It isn’t about what he has done this past year, or even in his whole life.
No, Simeon is saying that he has seen what God is going to do, not just what God has done, not just what God is doing, but what God is going to do. Simeon’s message is a message of hope for the future. He knows the future is in God’s hands and that God is already in the process of saving the world.
His message is qualified though. Simeon blessed Mary and said, among other things, “your child is destined to be a sign that will be opposed.” He has lived in this world long enough to know that things are never perfect.
Humans always seem to mess things up. God’s blessings are perfect, but blessings interfere with the status quo, and that brings change, and people, especially powerful people don’t like God’s changes.
Simeon knows that being a part of God’s blessings in the world will bring opposition. Sometimes, we Christians get things backwards. Instead of realizing that blessings will bring opposition, we start looking for opposition to see blessings.
We find ways to oppose other people and antagonize them and we feel self-righteous doing it. We act like we are the only ones who know and do what is right. We try to justify ourselves and the result is self-serving.
What Simeon says is clear though. The blessing of Jesus in this world will not be welcomed by everyone. There will be opposition.
Mary would not have been shocked by this part of the message, though. The God she knew was the God who filled the hungry with good things, lifted up the lowly, and sent the proud and rich away empty. She knew that God was found with the people at the margins of society. She knew that the privileged would try to upset those who threatened their power. Mary knew that those who try to live out the blessings of Christmas will find opposition around the corner.
Mary knew this blessing from Simeon revealed the very heart of who God is. God is in the person of a poor baby who’s parents couldn’t afford a lamb and had to sacrifice 2 turtledoves.
Blessing and opposition are the heart of what it means to live Christmas in the new year. The African American churches celebrated watch night on New year’s eve 1862. Their blessing of freedom was met with opposition. The civil war lasted 3 more years and there are still those who oppose equal rights for all people in our society.
Blessings are met with opposition. But, opposition never has the last word. The baby that Simeon and Anna held in their arms that day gives us reason to keep praising God and celebrating.
No matter what the new year brings, God has come into this world. As Paul tells us in Galatians, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent the Son. You are no longer a slave, but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”
The fullness of time has come! Happy New Year. Amen.