Tag Archive: God


Sunday’s sermon on the Holy Trinity from Community Lutheran Church!

It’s Holy Trinity Sunday.  The day when it is incredibly easy to try to explain the mystery of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to end up either committing heresy or making everything even harder to understand.  As a result, there is a picture the Episcopal Church has made that has been circulating around the Internet this past week.  It features an adorable kitten and has these words: “How not to commit heresy on preaching the Trinity: Say nothing and show pictures of kittens instead.”

Adorable Kitten Trinity Meme

While this sounds like a wise plan, I think I’d be shirking my pastoral duty if we just watched cat videos this morning.  They might make us say, “awww,” but I want to focus on a different type of awe.

The call story of Isaiah, our first reading, is one of my favorite passages.  Isaiah, the prophet of God has this vision, in which he finds himself in the throne room of the Lord.  There, the Lord is sitting upon a throne and the Lord is so huge, so powerful, the hem – just the edges of God’s robe – fill the Temple! That’s a big robe.  Flying around the Lord are Seraphs or Seraphim.  Usually we think of these as mighty angels, some sort of winged, human-like figures, but in the Ancient Near East, these were understood to be fiery serpents with wings.  Yes, flaming, flying snakes! In Egyptian culture, these terrifying beasts were thought to protect the gods, but here, in Isaiah’s vision, they are serving God and covering their faces to shield themselves from God’s glory.  Now if I were Isaiah, and I saw terrifying fiery serpents with wings flying around and sheltering themselves from the power and might of God, I would know that I was in deep trouble.  And if I were there when the Temple started shaking because of the sound of their voices, I know I would have been looking high and low for a place to get out of dodge.  And then all the smoke! Oy veh!

With all this going on, Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”  He knows he’s unworthy to be standing there, filled with awe in the presence of the LORD, and he’s worried about what is going to happen.  No one can see God and live.  The holy and the unholy shouldn’t mix.  But amazingly, God overcomes his fears, forgives his sins, and asks who will go out into the world on God’s behalf.  Forgiven and empowered, Isaiah says, “Here I am; send me!” and sets off to declare a difficult message to God’s people.

Isaiah is filled with complete awe as he stands before the Lord, bathed in the glory of the Lord of hosts, the Lord whose voice alone shapes, shakes, and remakes creation.  I know I’d be petrified if I were in his shoes, but even if we aren’t standing before God, aren’t there plenty of moments in our lives when we are filled with awe, wonder or a sense of the holy? Think about it.  How did you feel seeing a magic trick when you were a child? Or what about accomplishing something you didn’t think possible in school or sports? How about visiting a new place? Or surveying the wonders of nature? What about on your wedding day? Or when you saw your children born? What about at a joy-filled baptism? Or coming forward to receive communion? How about the sense of the holy at the bedside of a dying loved one?

Each of us has had moments that have taken our breath away, and filled us with a sense of wonder, awe, and a glimpse of God’s glory.  As the Seraphim say, and we sing every week during Communion, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”  The whole earth is chock full of the glory of God.  God’s presence and work in the world inspire fear, respect, awe and a sense of wonder.  But do we cultivate that in our lives? Do we pay attention to all of the wondrous things that point to the awesome majesty of God? The chirping of birds or the miracle of beautiful flowers springing forth from bare earth.  The smell of sweet honeysuckle in the cool night air.  The laughter of children playing outside.  Music or dance that send your heart soaring.  The unexpected kindness of a stranger.  Being invited to the table to receive the body and blood of the most holy, magnificent God, humbled and broken for our sake.

There is plenty of bad news in the world along with plenty of distractions, but the mysterious, triune God we have invites us into lives of wonder and awe.  And we practice living those lives by being in worship together.  We listen to Scripture that tells us of God’s glory and love.  We are wondrously forgiven and fed.  We sing words of praise.  We look with awe and joy on the things God is doing in and through each of us.

We are a people who seek answers.  We are, after all, a Google people who have access to the world’s information at our fingertips.  We want proof.  We want certainty.  We want the concrete.  We want to know beyond a shadow of a doubt.  But maybe, just maybe, in the divine mystery of the Trinity, we’re invited into the shadow of a doubt.  We are invited to be like Nicodemus, searching for answers in the darkness and asking, “how can these things be?” We are invited to slow down and revel in the mystery of God and embrace that which is so much bigger than ourselves.  To delight in, find joy in, and swim in the amazement of this God who cannot possibly be put into a box.

That’s the kind of God I want to worship.  A God that’s bigger than anything I can come up with on my own.  A God that continues to challenge and push us beyond our comfort zones, to cross boundaries, to take risks and to love with abandon.  We cannot do that on our own, but we can do it with God’s help.

You see, that’s the truly wondrous and amazing thing about God.  God is not only the God of Isaiah’s vision – awesome and powerful, seated on a lofty throne.  No, God is also a God of relationship.  Not only relationship in the sense of God as three-in-one and one-in-three, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but as a God who desires relationship with us.  As Paul explains, this is a God who has made us God’s own beloved children. We are children of that Almighty God on the throne, able to come to God through Christ and the Holy Spirit.  God is our loving parent and Christ our brother and, even more, we’re co-heirs of everything God has to give to Christ.  Wow.  That’s incredibly good news!

It’s news that means that God wants to be present and active in our lives and in our world – not distant, but near, and at work bringing about transformation in and through us.  When I really slow down and think about the fact that the God who commands the Seraphs, whose voice is thunder and lightning, who reigns over the heavens and all creation, wants to be at work in each of us, in you and me – that’s an extremely humbling thought that fills me with awe.  It’s the same thought that I have when receiving Communion – “thank you for using something so ordinary so that we can know your presence and your love.”

It must have been the feeling Isaiah had standing before God.  An everyday man, forgiven and cleansed by the purifying power of a hot coal, empowered to proclaim God’s word.  He wasn’t able to do this on his own, but through God at work, he was able to bear God’s message.  The holy touched the ordinary and transformed it.  So I ask you, in awe of God’s action in your life and the world, and forgiven through Christ, is the Spirit stirring up something in you? How might you spend time cultivating a sense of awe, wonder and even mystery toward God in your life? How might that affect your worship? And how might that affect how you live each day?

19-Isaiahs_Call

Holy Trinity Sunday invites us to think about the awesome God that we worship.  To step back and behold with humility, wonder and awe the glory of a God we cannot possibly pin down or understand completely.  May we see with eyes of faith the glory of God that fills not only the heavens, but earth as well.  Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

The sermon I preached last Sunday on Mark 1:9-15 at Community Lutheran!

The first Sunday in Lent is always the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  But all of the details that we have in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, the dialogue between Jesus and Satan, the specifics of Jesus’ temptations, are all absent in Mark’s Gospel.  Mark’s Gospel spends two brief sentences on the temptation before moving on.  Why doesn’t Mark spend more time on this epic showdown between Jesus, the Son of God, and Satan, the adversary?

I think there are two reasons.  First, Mark is more interested in the fact that Jesus has the power to resist Satan’s temptations and to conquer the ruler of this world, then spending time dwelling on details.  Second, Mark’s Gospel is constantly on the move, driving us toward the cross.  Part of Mark’s frenetic, no frills telling of the story is inviting the hearer into the action, asking the question, “how would you respond to this situation?”  Mark wants each of us to become part of the story.  Will we respond with our minds on the things of this world, or on the things of God?

The text begins as Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan.  As he comes up out of the water, the Spirit of God descends like a dove into him.  The Spirit fills Jesus and then immediately drives him out into the wilderness.  We heard that Jesus drove out an unclean spirit a few weeks ago and, here, the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness.  It’s Mark’s way of saying Jesus is prepared for his mission in baptism and thrown out into the field.

Stanley Spencer - Christ in the Wilderness Driven by the Spirit (From: http://uploads6.wikiart.org/images/stanley-spencer/christ-in-the-wilderness-driven-by-the-spirit-1.jpg)

Stanley Spencer – Christ in the Wilderness Driven by the Spirit (From: http://uploads6.wikiart.org/images/stanley-spencer/christ-in-the-wilderness-driven-by-the-spirit-1.jpg)

The wilderness is the place where the Israelites wandered for 40 years.  It’s the place of danger where wild beasts and bandits roam, but it’s also a place for meeting God.  It’s a place of terror and testing, as well as a place of learning, growth and insight.  Throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus goes to the wilderness to find solitude, rest, and to spend time in prayer.  And now, Jesus finds himself in the wilderness, being tested by Satan.  He’s surrounded by wild beasts, which could be life threatening, but he is unharmed.  The coming of the Son of God, now filled with the Holy Spirit, brings order to the wild places and the beasts that inhabit them.  Angels wait upon Jesus, and at the end of 40 days, Jesus rejoins society to proclaim that God’s rule is breaking into the world.  That people should continue turning toward God and having faith and trust in the news that God has won a victory for their sake – and for ours.

As I mentioned before, Mark wants us as the hearers of this story to become a part of the action.   God’s reign is bursting onto the scene and we’re invited to be a part of it.  Jesus’ defeat of Satan in the wilderness will keep playing out in the ways he casts out unclean spirits, heals the sick and suffering, confronts leaders whose hearts are in the wrong place, and finally, defeats sin, death and the devil through the cross and the resurrection.  Mark wants us to know that Jesus not only subdues the wild beasts in the wilderness, but that he’s capable of taming the beasts that dwell in us as well.

We are filled up with the Holy Spirit at baptism and sent out into the world.  And we often feel tossed and blown about by the winds and storms, like Noah with the animals in the ark facing 40 days and nights of torrential rain.  But no matter how bruised and battered we feel, the Spirit is always sustaining us, just as it did Jesus as he battled Satan’s temptations.  And as we face our own trials and temptations in life, we too, have angels, messengers of God, who serve us in the middle of our wildernesses and deserts.  If you take a moment and look at the faces around you, you’ll see exactly what the angels of God look like.

The Holy Spirit fills us up and takes us where we need to go, much as it drove Jesus to the place where he could say “no” to the temptations of this world in order to say “yes” to God.  However, I’ve found that when the Spirit of God takes us where we need to go, sometimes it’s the place we’d least like to go.  Now, please listen carefully.  I’m in no way saying that God causes us to suffer so that we can learn.  God does not wish us ill, but longs for the wholeness and the restoration of the world.  God loves us and wants us to thrive.

Even so, we know all too well that trials, temptations, and difficulties will touch each of our lives.  Jesus’ temptation shows us that the Spirit abides with and sustains us in our wildernesses.  The question is then, “how is the Holy Spirit at work in this? How might God use this situation to bring about good or transformation in my life?”

Even in the good times, the Spirit of God urges us to confront the wilderness and wild beasts in ourselves. Whether that’s examining the ways we focus too much on ourselves and our egos, meditating on our penchant for looking out for ourselves first and foremost, or admitting our unwillingness to take a hard and honest look at our flaws.  We are called to examine ourselves throughout our lives, but especially in this contemplative season of Lent, as we prepare to walk with Jesus to the cross.  As we, too, prepare to say “no” to the priorities of the world in order to say “yes” to God’s priorities.  It is at the cross that we are able to let go and crucify our sins, flaws, errors, mistakes, and hurts, in order to be resurrected with Christ into new life in which we can freely serve and give of ourselves.  Even so, that journey to the cross can be scary.

As we slow down enough to begin the hard work of prayer and reflecting honestly, we hear those voices in our minds – the whispers that tempt us to despair and to doubt.  “If people really knew who I was, they wouldn’t want anything to do with me.”  “I’m not good enough.”  “I don’t know what I’m doing – I feel like an imposter.”  “I have to put on a brave face – I have to hold it together, but I’m falling apart.”  “Does God really forgive me? Does God really love and welcome me as I am?”

We find ourselves surrounded by those wild beasts, threatening our fragile, man-made security.  We hear the snarling and we’re afraid because we think we’re alone in the wilderness.  But Jesus has already defeated the temptations of this world and tamed the beasts.  In him and through him, he’s doing the same in our lives.  In Jesus’ temptation we are reminded that the Holy Spirit is always with and within us, and that God’s messengers, our sisters and brothers in Christ, are present to help us in our difficulties.  We are reminded that God’s rule is breaking in, even in the middle of the awful things we experience.  And we are reminded to turn toward God and to believe – to lean on and trust – that the good news is really for us.  For each and every one of us, no matter what we’ve done, haven’t done, or the ways in which we feel inadequate.

We may think about this text in terms of our own individual struggles and temptations, but it also has a lot to say about our life in community.  The church is drawn together by the Holy Spirit.  We are people from all different backgrounds, journeys, and experiences brought together to worship God.  And we may disagree on some things – that’s only natural -, but at the heart of who we are and what we do, we are united through our belief in Christ.

Where might the Spirit be driving this church? Is it to places we’ve never been? Places we feel uncomfortable going to because “we’ve never done it that way before?” Or might the Holy Spirit be nudging us to stop doing the things we’ve always done because we need to spend our energy on new things to which God is calling us? Today is our Annual Year-in-Review Congregational Meeting.  Rather than being tempted by individual agendas or the worries of the world, it is a time to be filled with the Holy Spirit, sustained in our work together, and driven forward into the future by the breath of God.  It’s a time for us to celebrate the ways we’ve served, learned and grown in the past year, as well as to dream about how God may be calling us to serve, learn and grow in the year ahead.  It’s a time for us to come together as the body of Christ and to spend time in prayer and discernment as to how the Holy Spirit is kindling a fire in our hearts.

Whatever your temptations and difficulties, whatever wilderness you find yourself wandering through, you are not alone.  God is with you and will never leave you, and the community is walking with you.  When I was in the wilderness of discerning where the Holy Spirit was leading me to serve my first call, there was a Phillip Phillips song that spoke to me.  Although it’s a pop song, it reminded me of God’s faithfulness:

Hold on to me as we go
As we roll down this unfamiliar road
And although this wave is stringing us along

Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home

Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear

The trouble—it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found

Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home

May the Holy Spirit fill and sustain us as we contemplate where God is leading and calling us to serve this Lent.  Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

My sermon from Transfiguration of Our Lord Sunday, preached at Community Lutheran Church

I love mountains.  You could probably even say it’s in my blood since my maiden name is actually Peake!  On my dad’s side are Scots and English folk who settled in the mountains of western North Carolina, probably because it reminded them a bit of the old country.  Almost every year growing up, we’d travel to western North Carolina to visit the land grandparents and great-grandparents called home.  It’s on the side of Roan Mountain where there’s a wonderful Rhododendron festival every year.  I love that land.  I love hiking around it.  And I love the connection to the past I feel there.

It also holds a special place in my heart because it’s where my Grandpa is buried.  And it was at his funeral that I first really heard the Gospel and tried to mumble along as best I could with the words of the Lord’s Prayer.  On a sunny day, on a mountainside in North Carolina, I encountered Christ and had my own mountaintop moment.

My family's land in North Carolina

My family’s land in North Carolina

The festival of the Transfiguration of Our Lord comes at the end of the season of Epiphany.  It comes at the end of the season of light as we’ve been hearing about the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry to Jews and Gentiles alike.  The season where Jesus has been revealed through not only his words, but in his actions.  And now, we find ourselves on a high mountain with Jesus, Peter, James and John.

They’re just hanging out and all of a sudden, Jesus is transformed before their eyes, shining in dazzling white clothing – clothes so white, no one on earth could bleach them that white.  This is not only an Oxyclean moment, rather the Gospel is getting at the fact that Jesus was divinely transformed, what we call the Transfiguration.  He’s shining brilliantly in glory and not only that, but Moses and Elijah, two figures who represent the law and the prophets are chatting with him.  Looking at Moses and Elijah, people thought to come before the Messiah, the disciples are terrified.  And poor Peter, in his shock and terror, stammers out, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  He’s trying to be productive and helpful, but he’s missing the point.  Jesus is revealed in divine light and radiance and Peter wants to start a construction project.

Then, suddenly, a cloud overshadows them and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved listen to him!”  And before they know it, Peter, James and John are alone again with Jesus on a high mountain.  They’re confused and wondering about what they’ve just experienced when Jesus tells them not to say a word about this until he’s risen from the dead.  Well, that should help clarify things! If we keep reading, we’d find that the next verse says, “So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.”  These poor guys have just seen something crazy and wonderful and now they’re baffled about what rising from the dead means.

In Mark’s Gospel, there are three major events that occur: Jesus’ baptism, his transfiguration and the crucifixion.  At each of these moments, Jesus is identified as the Son of God.  In between, Jesus keeps telling people and unclean spirits to be quiet about his identity.  However, at the Transfiguration, Jesus is transformed so that the disciples can catch even a fleeting glimpse of him in glory – a preview of the resurrected and victorious Christ.  They don’t understand what it means at the moment, but after the resurrection, they will.

Maybe you’ve had a moment when you’ve encountered a glimpse of the glory of God.  Maybe it was very clear that it was God at work.  Or maybe it was baffling and confusing and you found yourself questioning what happened.  Maybe you wanted to share it, but didn’t know how.  Maybe you can’t think of a time when you’ve had such an encounter.

Whatever the case may be, mountaintop experiences can be beautiful, terrifying, inspiring and confusing.  But we are doing ourselves a grave disservice if we live searching for these experiences.  The reading for today shows that as quickly as this amazing event happened, it was over, and it was time to go back down into the valleys and wildernesses of everyday life.

I know that I have had some mountaintop encounters in my life and I long to experience those things again.  But as wonderful as those moments are, I know that the more important question is how do I live in the every day? The struggle is, how do I continue to be faithful in the meantime when things aren’t so clear? The Transfiguration shows us that Jesus walks with us in the valleys of our lives, too, and not just on the mountaintops.  Jesus does not abandon the disciples for glory or to keep chatting with Moses and Elijah, but comes down off of the mountain to live with them in the difficulties of the world.  He descends in order to go all the way to the cross – the place where the love of God and the brutality of the world collide.  While glory is alluring, the way of God is a downward path – it’s not the climb up the mountain, but the one down to which we should pay attention.  In the words of one of my favorite hymns, “When I was sinking down, Beneath God’s righteous frown, Christ laid aside His crown for my soul for my soul.”  Christ lays aside his crown, comes down off of the mountain, and walks with us.

Peter says, “it is good for us to be here.”   And it is good for us to be here in worship and in the church, but how do we come down from the worship high of Sunday morning and go back to living in the mundane and weary world?  The disciples hear the voice of God speaking from within the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved listen to him!”  This command to listen has the sense of, “keep on listening” or “continue listening.”  It’s as if God is saying, as you go down into the valleys, away from the brilliant glory you’ve experienced on this mountaintop, keep on listening for Jesus’ voice.  Don’t stop listening.  Remember what you’ve experienced and keep on listening.

So how do we listen in the middle of our overflowing days and weeks? One way of listening for God is keeping Sabbath or finding ways “live Sabbathly” throughout the day.  Our Lenten series this year will look at what it means to observe and keep the Sabbath, especially in the middle of our jam-packed lives.  What does it mean to slow down and to spend time simply delighting in God? Peter, rather than taking in the glory of God and rejoicing in the moment, tried to capture it – to spend time building dwellings.  Part of living Sabbathly is not trying to commoditize everything, but to appreciate work and play, rest and delight in the goodness of God.

Another way to keep listening is to be mindful of the ways that God’s light is shining around us, even in the most difficult of situations.  I will be the first to admit that it’s sometimes really hard to see God’s light while navigating crowded roadways with crazy drivers, or dealing with bureaucracy, or in difficult relationships.  But I am often surprised and amazed at where and how I encounter Christ.  In a child reaching out for bread at Communion.  In my dog as she reminds me to slow down and take in the sights and sounds of the neighborhood.  In laughter and teasing over a family meal.  And, often, in pain and suffering.

In moments when I’ve felt most isolated and troubled in my own life, I have experienced more clearly Christ’s comfort and love.  And I’ve encountered this in others as well.  Once, I saw it in the beautiful way a man in hospice looked at his death and trusted heaven to be the most incredible and unimaginable surprise.  Lately, I’ve been reading about Christ present in the lives of every day Rwandans who, after the horrific genocide, practiced unfathomable forgiveness and reconciliation.

And this week, I see Christ’s light shining through the life of twenty-six year-old Kayla Mueller, captured by ISIS while trying to assist refugees escaping the war in Syria.  While it is still unclear how she died, it is clear that even in captivity, in the valley of the shadow of death, she reflected the light of Christ.  In a letter to her family, she wrote, “And by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.  I have been shown in darkness, light and have learned that even in prison, one can be free.  I am grateful.”  In another letter, she wrote, “I find God in suffering.  I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”  She also explained how she was even trying to teach the guards how to make origami peace cranes.

We may have wonderful mountaintop experiences that move us, confuse us, and cause us to reflect.  But our Gospel reading reminds us that we always come down from the mountain, and more importantly, that Christ comes with us.  We are never left to fend for ourselves in the difficult, messy and sticky parts of our lives.  No, Christ is always there.  And along the way, we catch glimpses of his glory in our lives and in the lives of those around us.  We are recipients of Christ’s glorious light as it shines through others, but we are also called to reflect and shine God’s resplendent light in our lives.  And in this process, we, too, are transformed and transfigured.  As we go out into the world, may we continue listening for God in our lives and paying attention to the way we encounter Christ, not only on the mountaintops, but in the highways, valleys and wildernesses of our lives.  Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

This was the sermon I preached on February 1 at Community Lutheran Church.

Sitting here on a Sunday morning, maybe it’s hard to see what this morning’s story about casting out demons has to do with your life today.  But can you imagine what it would be like if this passage was playing out before you? Shut your eyes for a moment.  Imagine the stone walls of the synagogue.  You hear a man speaking at the front of the room on a raised dais.  He’s teaching about the Scriptures you’ve heard your whole life, but there’s something different in his voice.  Instead of debating and discussing what these Scriptures mean, it sounds like he knows.  There is a confidence and authority that carry his every word.

As you listen, all of a sudden you hear a cry – eerie and otherworldly, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  You see a man crying out in this voice, running to the front of the synagogue.  The teacher speaking at the front of the room yells sternly, “Be silent, and come out of him!” Before your eyes, the man shakes violently and cries out loudly.  You cannot believe what you’ve just seen and heard and you’re wondering who this teacher could be.  Who is this man who carries such authority in his words and actions? You cannot wait to tell others.

https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/f9/ea/40/f9ea4079b6eed15e4e40d0b8765adf5e.jpg

Open your eyes.  Welcome back.  When we hear this story, I think we tend to lump it into a group of biblical stories that we feel may have been relevant to people thousands of years ago, but feel like they have little to say to us today.  We hear about Jesus casting out unclean spirits – exorcising a man! – in the middle of a worship service and it makes us feel… well, maybe a little uncomfortable.  Do we just ignore this story? I don’t think we should – I think we’d be foolish to do so.

Mark’s Gospel has been moving along with lightning speed.  So far, God has torn open the sky at Jesus’ baptism, sending the Holy Spirit to dwell within and empower Jesus for his ministry.  Then that Spirit drove him into the wilderness to be tested by Satan.  And last week, we heard that Jesus called disciples to follow him.  Today, we have Jesus’ first recorded ministerial act in Mark’s Gospel – and it’s an exorcism!

The Gospel tells us that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath when all of this occurred. On a day when people are called to rest, take delight in God, worship and renew relationships with others, an unclean spirit causes chaos.  But Jesus will have none of it – where chaos, destruction, and harm try to reign, Jesus ushers in God’s kingdom and restores the natural balance once more.  Jesus brings healing to the possessed man and restores him to his place in his community.  In essence, Jesus frees and allows him to once again enjoy the Sabbath given by God.

And while the spirit inhabits one man, it utters, “what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” This spirit could be speaking on behalf of the forces of evil as a whole.  But I also think this tells us that Jesus is not just engaging in a one time battle with one spirit, but in a fight against all that would seek to threaten, destroy or enslave creation.

This language may sound odd, but we actually hear it every time we celebrate a baptism.  In the baptismal rite, which is basically an ancient form of exorcism, we are asked, “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?” and “Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?”  Three times we are asked to renounce sin, death and the devil, and three times we affirm our faith in God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  The unclean is washed away, and we are given the Holy Spirit – “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy” in God’s presence.  From baptism on – often the very beginnings of our lives in the church – we are shaped by Jesus’ authority and power to drive out sin and the forces that defy God.

So why do we skirt these readings? Why do we relegate them to stories from the past? We write these stories off, but they have so much to teach us about God.

I think sometimes we tend to get comfortable with God.  We forget what Mark’s Gospel is trying to tell us– that this is a God who tears apart the heavens to be with humanity.  A God whose first act is to get rid of the dangerous spirit that is impeding a man’s ability to be a part of his community, his ability to worship God, and keeping him from enjoying life.  A God who tears apart chaos, confusion and hurt in order to bring healing and wholeness.  A God who will be broken and torn to bring redemption to all of creation.

We get a little too comfortable and settled, thinking we know what God is up to – that we’ve heard it all before and there’s nothing new.  Maybe we even think God acted in the past, but we feel that it’s clear from the news that God is nowhere to be seen or powerless to act. I think we all do this, myself included.  But I think when we find ourselves thinking this way, we end up selling God short.  We don’t trust that God wants to be at work and is at work in the world and in our lives.  Each of us has our own demons and unclean spirits we struggle with.  Pride.  Greed.  Insecurity.  Lack of trust. Judgmentalism.  Lack of confidence.  An inability to say no. Fear. Consumerism. All of these things can possess and paralyze us – making us unable to move forward as followers of Christ.

As Frederick Buechner wrote, “God knows we have our own demons to be cast out, our own uncleanness to be cleansed. Neurotic anxiety happens to be my own particular demon, a floating sense of doom that has ruined many of what could have been, should have been, the happiest days of my life, and more than a few times in my life I have been raised from such ruins, which is another way of saying that more than a few times in my life I have been raised from death – death of the spirit anyway, death of the heart – by the healing power that Jesus calls us both to heal with and to be healed by.”

Christ offered healing on the Sabbath to the man possessed and he offers healing to each of us today.  Through the Word speaking to our lives, bread broken and wine poured out for us, and this incredible community of loving saints, Jesus offers us healing and a way forward through the confusion.

One thing that strikes me hearing this passage is that the unclean spirit Jesus cast out did not go quietly – it convulsed and cried out before finally departing.  Sometimes the way to healing is going to be loud, messy, and confusing, but always, Jesus is at our side, working for our well-being.  We are followers of the cross – and Jesus hasn’t promised that the road will be easy.  The cross is at the heart of Mark’s Gospel – it is where Jesus will be revealed as the Messiah.  And just as the sky ripped in two at Jesus’ baptism and God declared Jesus’ “Beloved Son,” on the cross, the curtain in the Temple will be torn in two, showing for once and all who Jesus is and that God’s people are no longer separated from God.  The road may be difficult, but God is always with us.

As Buechner pointed out, the healing we experience is never just for us as individuals alone.  Often, God uses others to heal us and uses us to heal those around us.  We are blessed to be given the opportunity to walk with others in their difficulties, to pray for and encourage them, and to reassure them that God cares for them.

We think of some of these stories as meant for people far different from ourselves, but are they really that different? We hear of violence around the world or even in our own backyards, or struggle with addiction, chronic illness, or the memories and regrets of the past. There is evil in the world and there are real, undeniable difficulties in our lives. Why wouldn’t we say that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, crucified and risen from the dead, has the power to heal and make whole all that is wrong in this world?

So today, on this Sabbath, and in this house of worship, where do you desire healing in your life? Where do you feel broken and long for Jesus to put you back together again? What demons and past regrets would you have Jesus cast out?

Our healing may not be as dramatic as this morning’s reading or always look like what we were expecting, but Christ is working to bring healing in all areas of our lives.  Healing in our relationship with God, with others, with ourselves, as well as physical, emotional and spiritual healing. Thanks be to God! Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

This was the sermon I preached on January 4th at Community Lutheran Church.

Well, here we are in 2015! Another year has rolled by and I find myself reflecting on the past year, as well as this coming year.  After the holidays, get-togethers and parties, I can at least say that I feel this much from Isaiah’s reading is true: “Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry.  I will give the priests their fill of fatness…” After so many delicious meals and wonderful treats, I can certainly attest to the last part!

In all seriousness though, we’re still in the Christmas season, even as we’ve celebrated the turning of the year and the beginning of something new.  In John’s Gospel, we hear an echo of Genesis – of a new creation.  Of the Word taking on flesh to live with us and to show us who God is.  In each of the texts for the day, God is up to new and exciting things, but they also remind us that it’s through the birth of Christ that these new things are springing up in our lives.

john-1-001This first chapter of John has come up a couple times in the past few weeks, and what jumped out at me this time around was actually the last verse: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”  The phrase that particularly caught my attention was “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart.”  Close to the Father’s heart. It sounds like Christ is near and dear to the heart of God.  There is an intimacy and a type of tenderness there.  Jesus, who is God, is at the very heart of God – he knows God’s heart.  As I did a little more researching, this phrase actually means “in God’s bosom.”  It’s a very maternal type of image.  This matches up with one of the descriptions of God found throughout the Old Testament – God is described frequently as Rachoom, which is often translated as “compassionate,” but literally means “having a womb” or “womb-y.”  These are images of care, tenderness, affection, connection and relationship.

Ok, so now you’re thinking, where on earth is she going with this?! All of this imagery helps to show not only who God is, but also the relationship of God and Jesus.  John’s Gospel is trying to say that while no one has seen God, Jesus, who is so intimately connected with God, has shown God to us, by becoming human and living with us.  John is trying in every which way to show that a God, unfathomable, mysterious and cosmic, has become fleshy and earthy in order to have a close relationship with us.

Not only does that mean God living among us, but it also means us becoming the daughters and sons of God.  As John’s Gospel puts it, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” And Ephesians says, “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. … In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.”  Through our dying and rising in Christ in baptism, we have been adopted as God’s own beloved children and given the inheritance of God’s promises.

At the turn of the year, we make resolutions and, yet, we don’t often keep them.  Maybe they are only halfhearted attempts at changing and that’s why they often fall by the wayside at some point early into the New Year. Habits are hard to change and new habits difficult to implement, but maybe it’s a mindset that needs changing.  As children of God, when it comes to thinking about resolutions for our faith and our lives as disciples, maybe it’s helpful to think about continually growing and maturing in our faith.  Maybe it’s more helpful to reframe our thoughts in terms of children growing in God’s grace rather than checking the box for a completed resolution.

Think about being in a loving relationship with a parent who has our best interests at heart.  When you’re a child, you take delight in being with your parents, spending time with them, and learning from them.  Prayer, reading Scripture, and service do take effort, but they are also activities that bring joy and delight because we encounter God in doing so.  In a relationship with God, the loving parent, we receive joy, support, care, affection, encouragement, but also gentle correction and forgiveness.

Growing and transforming are difficult.  Maybe we really don’t want or know how to change.  Maybe we don’t even know what changes we need.  Perhaps we don’t really want the kind of intimacy with God that Jesus has – being close to the Father’s heart.  That can sound wonderful and yet also a bit threatening or uncomfortable to us and our independence.  Maybe we worry that that kind of relationship with God will put us out of sync with those around us, our culture, or our world.  I have wrestled with these questions – wanting to grow in my faith and yet wondering what changes might need to occur.  Wondering what others might think.  Wondering what I might have to face about myself.  But that kind of loving relationship is what we are called to as children of God, as disciples of Christ.  It’s interesting, but the only other time the word “bosom” is used in John’s Gospel is when the disciple whom Jesus loved leans on Jesus at the Last Supper.  We, too, are the disciples whom Jesus loves.  We, too, are being invited into a deeper relationship with God, this year and every year.

We make resolutions – I should eat better, exercise more, spend more time with family, watch less TV, spend less time online, devote more time to my relationships, pray more, spend more time serving others, etc.  And it all seems so overwhelming. We want to make better choices and form healthy habits, but we think it all needs to come at once.  We want to grow up and have our lives together.  Maybe we think that when we reach a certain age or time of our lives, things will suddenly fall into place.  But I think what we actually learn as we grow is that change happens over a period of time.  We slowly begin to understand that we are always a work in progress and, maybe, we begin to extend more mercy to those around us who we know are also works in progress.

Jesus is born as a human child, experiences the growing pains of childhood, and lives life into adulthood.  Yet he does it as the divine Word of God, succeeding where we fall short and revealing at each step the overwhelming love – the face and the grace – of the Father.

And even when we fail at our resolutions or fall short of who we are called to be, we remember that, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”  We are in God’s grace, forgiven and strengthened to keep trying and doing our best, calling on Christ and other disciples for help.

Because we can’t do it alone.  Maybe part of the reason our resolutions fail is because we try to do them by ourselves.  But we have been given the gift of the church – the gift of relationships with other disciples.  In the community of faith, we help one another as we grow in grace.  We, too, bear the love and the face of God to one another as we stumble and stagger, fall and succeed on the bumpy road of life.  We need encouragement and insight from each other, and we need people to challenge us to help us grow and to take the next steps.

So thinking about being close to the Father’s heart, how do you hope to grow in your faith this year? What keeps or holds you back from pursuing or entering into a greater intimacy with God? Over the coming weeks, I invite you to spend time in prayer, listening for what God might be calling you to.  Find a friend, talk it over with them and test what you’re hearing.  Pray together, encourage and support one another.  And if you feel inclined, let Pr. Joe or me know what you’re thinking so we can help support and pray for you, too!

Just as Jesus is close to the Father’s heart, we have been invited through him to be close to the Father’s heart.  To experience the love, care and tenderness of God, while continuing to grow and mature as children of God.  To receive grace upon grace through God’s outrageous love.That is part of the mystery and promise of Christmas.  That is the promise that we can cling to no matter how many resolutions we break or how many times we fall short.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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