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1/1/2017 Sermon: The Perfect Gift

Matthew 2:1-12 As of December 13th I have a new niece.  Her name is Scarlet, and although I haven’t met her I’m confident that she’s sweet and beautiful and perfect.  Hopefully I’ll get to confirm all that with an in-person encounter before too long. Christmas provided a great opportunity to compensate for my absence with an exceptional present… but this is tricky with babies.  Normally we select gifts based on what the recipient most likes, which in a newborn’s case is pretty much eating and pooping and sleeping (often in that order).  So I tried to go with what her parents liked.  I looked for a Tampa Bay Buccaneers onesie, or a Tampa Bay Rays bib.  Unfortunately, everything I saw failed to fit either my budget or my taste.  I gave up and bought something that fits with one of those few things a baby likes to do: Diapers. But what if I knew more about the person Scarlett will one day become?  If I had that ability, I could pick out a really amazing present – and it’d be worth blowing the budget over.  If she’ll become a Rays superfan, I could stalk Evan Longoria for a “Future Rays Fan” autograph.  Then, as an adult sitting in the stands (assuming the Rays are still in Tampa Bay), she’ll treasure that piece of paper.   Or maybe she’ll grow up to be a doctor like her great-grandfather.  In that case, I could get her an early edition of Gray’s Anatomy (the textbook, not the TV show).  I can just see her going off to medical school, placing that early edition...

12/25/2016: Word

John 1:1-14 “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” What a big, fat lie. I’d much rather have someone throw a stick or a stone at me than words.  The cuts and bruises from blunt objects heal in a reliable way; the scratch I get today will be gone in a week.  The wounds inflicted by words, however – they’re unpredictable.  The recovery is long, or impossible.  They can re-open without warning, years after we put away the bandaids and Neosporin. For better or worse, our words have power. We resemble our Creator in that way; we are, after all, made in God’s image.  In the beginning God made the world, not with hammer and nails but with words.  God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  Just like that. God’s words are powerful, and today we remember the mysterious moment when that Word became flesh. Matthew and Luke tell us the most familiar Christmas story:  a manger and shepherds, scared parents and wise men, swaddling clothes and an overbooked inn.  The Gospel of John is different.  John doesn’t start in the first century; John goes back to before time was ever recorded. “In the beginning was the Word…”  That creating Word, that life-giving Word – it has always been. But then came a moment when “the Word became flesh.”  God’s all-powerful Word came into the world with an infant cry.  That Word grew in body and soul, learned to speak words using human lips and lungs. What kind of words did the Word say? A lot; but I’m thinking of...

12/24/2016: Peace

Luke 2:1-7 Tonight we remember the birth of a first-born son, the moment when the Son of God was born to Mary and Joseph; when he took his first startled breath in and pushed his first tiny cry out. Birth is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed.  I’ve seen it twice – my daughter and my son.  I’d relive that moment over and over again if I could, a thousand times:  the heart-breaking beauty of a new life coming into the world. Pregnancy and labor, though – that’s a whole ‘nother story. Pregnancy does not feel beautiful.  It’s losing sleep and gaining weight.  It’s being desperately hungry and uncomfortably full.  It’s turning your confident strut into a humbling waddle. And we haven’t even gotten to labor yet. I think I’m a pretty tough woman.  I don’t mind a little pain for a little gain.  But I confess:  I crumbled like a soft sugar cookie at the arrival of real labor pains. “How long will this last?” I asked the nurse, trying to sound cool and confident while desperately clutching the side bars of my hospital bed. “Oh, we think the baby will be here in about 12 hours,” she said in an absurdly pleasant voice. TWELVE HOURS?  That’s like some kind of torture!  But I never got anywhere near the 12 hour mark.  Right after the blessed epidural kicked in the doctor came and assessed the situation. “We’ll need to do a C-section,” he explained, noting several reasons – my first-born’s positioning being primary among them. Recalling the previous timeline of a leisurely “twelve hours,” I...

12/18/2016 Sermon: Dream

Matthew 1:18-25 If you think about it, Joseph shouldn’t be that important. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, after all, not the son of Joseph.  Jesus is born to Mary before Mary and Joseph ever consummate their marriage.  Almost proving the point is Joseph’s absence from the gospels after the birth stories; while we see Mary following Jesus all the way to the cross, Joseph is just a biographical footnote (Luke 4:22). Joseph shouldn’t matter at all… and yet he does. Take the first 17 verses of Matthew.  Which, I realize, you have probably skipped over.  I totally get that; they’re boring.  But take a look at that long list of names in the genealogy of Jesus Christ; follow that family tree all the way out onto its last branch.  You might be surprised to find the name that Jesus’s newborn leaf is hanging from:  not Mary, but Joseph. Having traced Jesus’ lineage from Abraham to Joseph, Matthew begins his story in earnest.  He explains that Mary is pregnant – not in a scandalous way from adultery, but in a miraculous way from the Holy Spirit.  Then Matthew leaves Mary and focuses us again on Joseph, telling us about his reaction, his dream, his ultimate decision. Why?  If Jesus’ daddy is God, then what’s so important about Joseph? I’ll tell you what’s important:  he is the adoptive earthly father of the Son of God. In the dream, the angel tells him to do two things that give him this status:  marry the girl and name the baby. Marrying the girl means accepting Mary at great price.  Engagement was...
12/11/2016:  See

12/11/2016: See

Matthew 11:2-11 John the Baptist is in prison. Last week he was a free man – remember?  He was out in the wilderness of Judea, wearing and eating strange things.  He was preaching, “REPENT, FOR THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS NEAR!”  He was drawing large crowds to hear his message and be baptized. Not anymore.  Rulers don’t like radicals getting the people all riled up.  Worse, the Baptist dared to criticize King Herod’s choice in women (Matt 14:3-4).  Now John’s home isn’t the wilderness but a prison cell.  Eventually he’ll die there as a sort of side-show entertainment act for a wild dinner party.  Maybe even now the Baptist knows his life is on the line.  Maybe he can sense that there isn’t much that stands between him and an execution order. A prison cell, I’m told, is a place where you have so much time to think that you easily fall into depression.  Maybe John the Baptist is doing just that kind of dark thinking.  Remembering the “good ol’ days” where he was free to live out his God-given purpose.  Remembering how he explained it to the crowds: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12). Jesus, of course, is that one. John hears a report...

12/4/2016 Sermon: Turn

Matthew 3:1-12 Have you ever seen a sign like this? I’ve seen them in big cities, usually near downtown or outside of big sporting events.  In our remote area they’re not as common, but recently we had a guy holding a sign like this outside our WalMart.  He held his sign high and it was impossible not to read his quick, clear message:  REPENT, THE END IS NEAR! Sitting in the car line, held captive by the red light, I confess that I had a less than positive reaction to this man and his sign.  I was relieved when the light turned green and we didn’t have to be confronted by it anymore. Do you know what I mean? As someone who works weekly to communicate the gospel, I can’t help but wonder if these signs “work.”  Does anyone read them and want to learn more?  Does anyone ever walk up to talk to the sign-holder and say, “Ooh, would you please talk to me about how I need to repent, and how the world is going to end?”  Isn’t it only off-putting to those who the sign-holder is trying to reach? Which makes me wonder about John the Baptist. John the Baptist acted in a way that ought to put him in the “crazy sign-holder” category.  He lived out in the wilderness.  He wore weird clothes:  camel’s hair and a leather girdle.  He ate weird things:  locusts and honey.  He didn’t have a sign, I’m sure, but if he did here’s the message that would have been on it:  “REPENT, FOR THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS AT HAND”...