Tag Archive: Expectations


Scandalized by God

This was the sermon I preached at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA on Sunday.

 

This week I received a chain e-mail from a friend of mine.  Now normally I skip over these things pretty quickly, but I was intrigued by the subject line, “The ‘W’ in Christmas,” so I opened it up and read.  Maybe you’ve received this as well, but for those who haven’t, the story goes like this.  There was a mom who, despite all her best efforts to cut back, still found herself running around like a crazy person trying to get ready before the holidays.  She found herself exhausted, frustrated and unable to focus on the true meaning of Christmas.

Her son was in kindergarten that year and he’d been excitedly memorizing songs for his school’s “Winter Pageant.”  Unable to make the actual nighttime performance, his mom went to the final dress rehearsal that morning.  Joined by other parents in the audience, she watched as each class stood and sang their song.  Being a public school, she expected songs about winter, snowmen, reindeer and joy.  However, when her son’s class was up, they announced they’d be singing “Christmas Love.”  As they sang, the children in front held up large letters: “C is for Christmas,” “H is for Happy,” continuing on down the line.   Everything was fine until they reached a small, quiet girl in the front row, holding her “M” upside down.  As the elementary school kids began to snicker, the teachers tried unsuccessfully to quiet them down, but the girl continued, proudly holding her letter, unaware of her mistake.

As the final letter was held up, a hush fell over the crowd.  Suddenly people realized why they were celebrating Christmas to begin with, and why, in the middle of all the chaos, there was still plenty of room for rejoicing.  The message spelled out on the cards: “Christ was love.”

Now, even if this story isn’t something that actually occurred, it still tells us something powerful about expectations.  A mother’s expectations that her son’s pageant would be full of secular songs were turned upside down when she encountered the very Christmas message she’d been seeking in the chaos.

This morning’s reading from Matthew is all about expectations as well.  Pr. Joe reintroduced us to our wild and fiery prophet John the Baptist last Sunday.  Well, John finds himself in a difficult position in this week’s Gospel.  Sitting alone in prison, John is wondering if Jesus really is the Messiah.  Now remember, earlier, John had baptized Jesus in the Jordan River.  And not only that, but John initially didn’t want to baptize Jesus at all, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ Now, locked in a prison cell, he’s wondering if he’s really picked the right messiah.  After all, Jesus wasn’t walking around with his winnowing fork in hand burning up chaff with unquenchable fire.  He hadn’t overthrown the oppressive Roman rulers.  He hadn’t come in like a powerful king, ready to reestablish the Golden Age of King David.

Instead, of fulfilling all of John’s expectations, he’d been teaching and healing people, wandering throughout the land and consorting with all the wrong types of people.  I imagine John pacing around his cell, wondering about this Messiah he’d decided to support, wringing his hands and muttering, “is Jesus really the one?”  Finally, he can’t stand it any longer and he sends his disciples out to ask Jesus directly if he’s the Messiah.

But Jesus doesn’t answer him directly.  He tells John’s disciples to report back to John, bearing witness about what they’ve seen and heard and experienced with their own senses.  “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  Jesus tells them to tell John they’ve seen and heard the promises of Isaiah’s oracle coming true before their very eyes.  In other words, the proof is in the pudding… and maybe since it’s around Christmas, we can say, “the proof is in the Figgy pudding.” It’s up to John to decide who he believes Jesus to be.  This is a theme we will hear ripple out through Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus asks his disciples, “who do you say that I am?”

Jesus doesn’t just tell John’s disciples to bear witness to these healings, he also tacks on this last sentence: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  Hmmm…  what’s that all about?  The Greek word used for “offense” is one we’re more familiar with that you might think: it’s scandalitzo (σκανδαλίζω).  Say it with me: scandalitzo.  “Blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me.”

While this word is used figuratively here to indicate taking offense at Jesus and his words, it literally means to cause someone to stumble.  Is Jesus telling John not to be offended or not to trip up over the fact that he doesn’t meet John’s expectations of who the Messiah should be and how he should act?

I hear these words about taking offense at Jesus and I don’t think they’re just meant for John the Baptist.  I hear Christ asking each of us if we are offended, scandalized or tripped up by who he is.  What do we find difficult about this Messiah we follow?  Where do we find ourselves stumbling?  Is it when Christ speaks words of judgment in the Gospels?  Is it when Christ calls us turn the other cheek or welcome outcasts?  Is it when we hear Christ’s call to pray for our enemies? Or do we find ourselves tripping up over really believing that the good news is real? And that it’s for each of us?

Rather than being upset or distraught that we are scandalized by Jesus, it’s an opportunity and a challenge to reflect on why we are offended.  It’s a chance to examine where God may be inviting us to grow in different areas in our lives.  If I am scandalized by the fact that Jesus lifts up the poor, perhaps I am being called to grow in my understanding of stewardship and generosity.  Or, if I find myself stumbling over the fact that Jesus calls us to forgive others seventy times seven times, perhaps I’m being called to look again at what it means to forgive and be forgiven.  And in doing this work, it’s important to keep in mind that even John the Baptist was scandalized by Jesus to some extent because he didn’t meet his messianic expectations.  I know I take comfort in hearing that one of the great heroes of the faith struggled with doubts and uncertainties even after he baptized Jesus!

In this morning’s reading, after encountering John’s disciples, Jesus affirms the Baptist’s important role as not only a prophet, but, “more than a prophet.”  In fact, Jesus says he’s the very one who prepared the way for the coming Messiah.  But Jesus isn’t one to just explain things.  Instead, he asks the crowds who have been listening to him about John the Baptist.  “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet?”

Jesus makes it very clear that this person who appeared to be a wild, raving man was actually the greatest among those born of women.  The one preaching in a wasteland was the one come to prepare and point the way to new life and growth.  He wasn’t what he seemed.  But this isn’t just a message for the crowds that gathered over two thousand years ago.  It’s a message for us.

“What did you go out to look at?  What then did you go out to see? What were you expecting? When you came to church this morning, what did you expect?”  Jesus asks us to think about our own expectations about encountering the holy.  What do we expect to see and hear from God? How do we expect or want God to act? What do we expect God to do? Have those expectations been fulfilled, let down, or changed altogether?

Our tendency is to try to make sense of things.  To organize things into categories and boxes so that we can understand them better, or at least pretend that we understand them! And I think we often try to confine God to a box, describing God in our own terms and putting boundaries on God.  But the amazing thing is that God keeps breaking out of the boxes that we try to keep God in.

C.S. Lewis’ children’s book and Christian allegory, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, describes this well.  In this book, Aslan, the magnificent lion that represents Christ, leaves to go about his mission in the world.  One of the characters explains his departure in this way: “He’ll be coming and going.  One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down–and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

I love that! God isn’t tame.  God is consistently breaking through the barriers we try to put up, which makes us a little uncomfortable and maybe even frustrated.  Bursting through the boxes we try to stick God in and shaking up our expectations, God is wild and mysterious.  And God, in Christ, comes to stir things up – to turn the world upside down through bringing about a new kingdom!  God is active and alive, not confined by our preconceptions.

This time of year, we celebrate God coming to earth and bringing about this kingdom.  We think about Jesus as an adorable baby in a manager surrounded by sheep, donkeys and oxen, which is totally appropriate.  But it’s also important that we remember that this baby is one who came to change the world and bring about an entirely new way of being – to bring life out of the barren wilderness, and to bring light into the darkness.

So, what do you expect see and hear when you encounter God? And how might God be changing that? Are you open to having those expectations changed, or does that offend and scandalize you?

I invite you to take the card you should have received when you came in this morning.  Write down your expectations of God and write down where you feel offended.  Pray about these things.  And listen for God’s response in your life.  How might these places be areas to grow and change in your life this Advent and into the coming year?

Let us pray… Open our hearts, O God.  Scandalize us with your gospel and your love!  And may we grow closer to you as you continue to challenge us to go beyond our comfort zones into the places and spaces to which you call us.  In the name of your dear Son we pray, Amen.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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Bitten

I was bitten…bad.  It happened 11 years ago and I knew I’d been bitten when it happened, but I didn’t know that there would be lasting effects.  More than that even – it had permanent effects.  The travel bug chomped down and refused to release me.  It happened in July of 2001 when I traveled to Germany and Austria with my high school German club.  I was bitten.  Infected.  And I haven’t been the same since.

And in less than a week, I will set off, driven by this same bug bite and an insatiable curiosity for the wonders of the world.  I will journey once more to Munich, my first international destination in 2001, to live in an ecumenical community and to study at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet Muenchen (the University of Munich).  I go not knowing what to expect, but only with the hope and expectation that I will learn and grow through my experiences.

I will miss my husband, family and friends tremendously, but I know that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.  I feel that grabbing such opportunities when they arise is so important to discovering who we are, challenging ourselves to go outside of our comfort zones, and growing.

My previous travels have always been so important in my faith journey.  It seems that seeing a new place, meeting new people and being filled with awe at each new sight or landscape helps me to reflect on my life and experiences.  Traveling invites me to reflect on the imaginative and artistic God who created the world and inspired humans to create.  Being in and exploring a new place helps to shed light on the places I have already been, or the places where I usually am.

And so as I prepare to travel, I pray that God will keep my heart and mind open to new things.  That this time will be one of learning in the university classroom, but also in the classroom of life.  I pray that this time will be one in which I grow in faith – a time of continuing to discover who I am in Christ.  I look forward to worshiping with my brothers and sisters from different denominations and various countries.  And I look forward to hearing how God has been at work in their lives.  I pray that God will be at work, transforming me through this trip (and always!) for a life of continued discipleship.

I hope to post more about my travel adventures and what I’m learning and discovering here on this blog.  Keep in touch!

© 2012. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

 

It’s Opposite Day!

This was the sermon I preached last Sunday at Trinity Lutheran Church in North Bethesda, MD for the Baptism of Our Lord.

Luke 3:15-17
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Luke 3:21-22 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I have two brothers and when we were younger, like many children, we would make things up. We were very creative, probably much to my parents’ exhaustion, and we’d invent all kinds of games. One of the games we came up with was “opposite day.” It never lasted very long, but here’s how it usually went: one of us would say something like “I’ll play with you when we get home” and then, when the other person went to go play, the instigator would say something like “Haha! Its opposite day!,” dashing the other persons’ expectations to pieces. Not very nice, I know, but we liked to pick on each other.

Oddly enough, I see a similar thing happening in the Gospel reading for this morning. No, God isn’t playing tricks like my brothers and I did, but God does act contrary to our expectations. John the Baptist, who could have pretended to be the Messiah, instead identifies the Messiah as one who is far more powerful than himself. John goes as far as to say that he is not even fit to do the job of a slave – that of untying this coming one’s sandals. However, completely contrary to what everyone is expecting, Jesus is born into this world to a poor family. In this reading, he encounters John on the banks of the Jordan and he does not declare that he is the Messiah or the Christ, but rather, has John baptize him with water for the repentance of sins.

What?! This doesn’t make any sense at all! Jesus, God made flesh, goes to a man with long hair who eats locusts and honey in the desert to be baptized?! That’s absolutely astonishing. My question, however, is why? Why would the Messiah, the anointed one, need to be baptized? I think in order to understand this a bit better, we need to look at the picture Luke has already presented of Jesus. Jesus is born to a poor girl in a small village – he doesn’t come as a powerful, earthly king in radiant glory as everyone was expecting. It seems that God isn’t into living up to anyone’s expectations or pictures of how redemption will come into the world. Already, Luke has painted a picture of God working in unexpected ways – in ways often totally opposite of what is expected.

In addition, Luke’s Gospel includes many details about Jesus’ humanity and how he followed the Law and Jewish customs to a tee. According to Luke, Jesus was circumcised and named on the eighth day as was the custom, and he was presented at the Temple and dedicated to God according to the laws prescribed in Exodus. As he grew, Luke describes Jesus as becoming “strong and filled with wisdom.” In Jewish tradition, wisdom was something highly sought after. It was through wisdom that one could glimpse God and through wisdom that one could flourish in life. Still later, when Jesus was twelve, Mary, Joseph and Jesus devoutly head to Jerusalem for Passover as they did every year. After the festival, Joseph and Mary begin the trek back to Nazareth when they notice that Jesus is missing. He is found discussing and arguing with the teachers in the Temple – engaging in the study of the Torah and the faith of his ancestors.

Seeing how Jesus had become human and was living the life of a proper Jewish man, it seems a bit more fitting that Luke and the other Gospel writers would also show Jesus being baptized. At this time, ritual washings were seen as necessary to wash away impurities that would defile the Temple and cause separation from God. So, perhaps, baptism is not only something that Jesus would later command his followers to do, but also something that he has done in order to more fully identify with us. In addition to showing us that we are also to be baptized, the baptism of Christ is one more way of letting us know who Jesus is. The presence of the Holy Spirit and the voice of God declaring that Jesus is the beloved Son of God, with whom God is well-pleased, point the way like neon signs. The Holy Spirit and the voice indicate that Jesus is someone who shares a particularly special, intimate bond with God. Jesus already knew where he stood in relationship to God, the Father, but humanity did not. What could direct us more clearly than the heavens parting and a voice declaring who Jesus is? Once again, contrary to what we’d expect, the one who least needs a baptism for the repentance of sins does so anyway for our sake.

What remains shocking to me is how incredibly short this description of Jesus’ baptism is. Luke writes: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” Luke mentions the baptism, but it seems almost like an afterthought. Instead, the author seems to put more emphasis on Jesus’ prayer and what happens after the baptism. It is interesting that Jesus prays after his baptism because none of the other Gospels describe Jesus as doing so. I do wonder what he was praying about, but perhaps it had to do with what comes next – the sky opens and the Holy Spirit descends along with a voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It is only after Jesus’ prayer that the Holy Spirit and the voice are revealed.

A voice from the heavens?! That’s epic – straight out of a Hollywood movie! I know I have never heard the voice of God coming from the heavens! I would like to think that if I heard the unmistakable sound of God’s voice from above, I would be inclined to listen up! Sadly, as I begin to think about the voice of God more, I realize that maybe I wouldn’t listen, even if I did hear a voice from above. Maybe I haven’t been listening as well as I should and maybe, that’s an area where we all need to be paying more attention.

In seminary, we talk about our “call stories” – how we feel we’ve been called to various ministries and where we are in our journeys. I love hearing peoples’ stories because it reminds me that God is still speaking. Perhaps it’s not with a voice from above, but God is speaking through Scripture, prayer, the Sacraments, and even through the lives of ordinary, everyday people. After all, God worked through a man in a desert who felt he wasn’t good enough to untie Christ’s sandals in order to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. Today, in the kind or comforting words of a friend during a difficult time, or even through a piece of music or art, we can hear God speaking to us. When I realize that, I cannot help but feel a rush of amazement and gratitude that God would choose to speak through you and me, however imperfect we are. Once again, God has chosen to work through unexpected mediums – through ways opposite of our expectations.

The other day, I caught the last half of Evan Almighty, the sequel to Bruce Almighty, on television. In this film, the main character, Evan Baxter, is chosen by God to become a modern day Noah. He is tasked with building an ark in our very own Washington, DC. As people mock and ridicule him and his family nearly gives up on him, a reporter asks, “Evan, what makes you so sure that God chose you?” His response floored me: “God chose all of us.” I was floored because there I was watching a comedy and yet, this amazing theological truth came through loud and clear. As we heard this morning in Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” God has called and claimed us. Is there any clearer expression of love?

God chose us when Jesus came into the world to live and teach among us. God chose us when Christ died on the cross for our sake and God chose us when in the Resurrection, Jesus defeated sin and death, leading the way for us to have eternal life with God. In baptism, God claims us, marks us with the cross of Christ and seals us with the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of his ministry, our baptisms mark the beginning of ours. We are called and claimed by God in order to do the work of “bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.” But how do we do that? That is where the voice of God comes in.

One of my favorite verses throughout my discernment process has been Isaiah 30:21: “And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” God is right here, right now, with us, guiding us along the way if we will only take the time to stop and listen. We have been given the gifts of the Scriptures, of prayer and conversation with others in the body of Christ in order to help us hear that voice, that word, guiding our way, showing us how we can take part in bringing about God’s kingdom on earth.

We can give thanks that God is still speaking to us and through us and we can look forward to discovering what God may be calling us to do. While we are daily remembering our baptisms and how God has lovingly claimed and filled us with the Holy Spirit, we can be carefully discerning how God is communicating with us. We just need to be open to the unexpected, surprising and often contrary ways God has of creatively reaching us.

You may think that God is only found in glory and not among the poor. You may think that you are not good enough to talk to or be of service to God. You may think that God has ceased talking to or through lowly sinners like you and me, but guess what? Its opposite day! AMEN.

© 2010. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.

Baptism of Jesus from the LA Cathedral (Also in My Home Congregation!)

A Most Beautiful Sight

A poem I wrote on the Metro one day in May…

I have wondered at the peaks of Alps,
Viewed from the sky high above.
I have marveled at breath-taking cathedrals,
Built from blocks of stone and love.

I have stood before the mysterious Sphinx,
Staring back into his regal eyes.
I have hiked at night the Black Forest,
Darker than the darkest of all the dyes.

These wonders that I’ve seen,
I count as blessings from on high,
but I ponder what I’ll see,
In the moment after I die.

When I encounter the One
I’ve longed for, face-to-face,
What “on earth” will I do
Consumed by overwhelming grace?

Will I kneel as a servant of a liege
As in days of yore?
Or will I run to meet Him,
Unable to fight the allure?

Or will I cast down my eyes,
Unable to meet His gaze,
Thinking of all those many times,
I failed to follow in His ways?

Or instead, will I rest
In His loving embrace,
Knowing that I have indeed
Finished the greatest race?

Do I dare reach out and touch
The scars upon His hands,
Feeling at once that which freed me
From these iron bands?

Do I speak or stand in awe,
At last without remark?
Or do I burst forth in all my joy,
Singing like a lark?

The answer is, “I do not know”
Nor shall I e’er while I’m here,
Instead, I shall await a glimpse,
Of Him, where in this life He should appear.

In the face of the man begging,
Too poor to buy something to eat.
In the weary face of a woman on the Metro,
Who waits to sit and rest her feet.

In the laughter and smile of a child,
There does His joy shine through.
Among the poor, the weak, the broken-hearted –
They are His unlikely crew.

Yes, it is not only in the Kingdom to come
That we can glance upon our King.
It is also in the everyday,
Every mundane and earthy thing.

Though I await eagerly that day,
When my precious Savior I behold,
It is my most fervent prayer,
That I may serve, be I young or old.

That I might look for Christ in those,
I encounter along my way,
Seeking to act well my part
In this divinely-appointed play.

© 2009. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.

Sun Streaming Through St. Peter's Basilica in Rome

Sun Streaming Through St. Peter's Basilica in Rome

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