Sermons for Occasions

An Advent Wedding Meditation

We are nearing the close of the season of Advent, tomorrow being the fourth Sunday before we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the great mystery of God becoming a human being.  It is in the darkest season for us in the northern hemisphere, a fitting time to observe the spiritual practice of waiting.  We wait for the Light of the world to shine in the darkness each year, and indeed as the apostle John has testified, “the darkness has not overcome it.”

In many depictions of the nativity, a glow emanates from the manger.  We have come to see light as a sign of holiness and revelation.  Yet there was probably very little light in that crude anteroom where God’s Son entered the world.  The light was of a larger nature, far brighter and deeper than the human eye can bear.  It was a dazzling, fierce, eternal love that birthed an infant that night.

This is the love that illuminates us and in whose spectrum we celebrate your union today.  How beautiful and precious is this moment!  You proclaim not only your love, but in the words of Matthew 5, your commitment to come together as a light for a world gone dark with sin and confusion and despair.

A few years ago this congregation was blessed with the light taken from Bethlehem itself and relayed, flame by flame, until it glowed among us here.  It was humorous and ironic that the Christ candle was low on oil and failed to remain lighted, yet we had a spare with the deepest of symbolism, come from the site of the manger where Jesus was born.

Indeed, there are times when the light of Christ seems dim among us.  It is in these times that our tending of the light is most critical.  How blessed we are, then, to have God’s own life within us to ensure that the light never goes out!  As God’s beloved, we are the burning bushes of our world, whose flame and illumination never die.  In us, others sense the holiness of God and are captivated by the glow of God’s love.

Even so, you want to let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory not to you, but to your Father in heaven.  Each of you will need to keep this light burning within so that you can tend the flame to which your marriage will bear witness.  At times you will need to be light for one another, as discouragement or disease, loss or loneliness threaten to obscure the flame of God’s love that burns within.  You will open the Scriptures to claim God’s enduring promises.  You will drive your faith deep into the hope that the cross of Jesus Christ has established within all who believe in him.

Light carries within it all the colors of the spectrum.  God willing, you will have a lifetime together to explore the many colors of God’s love refracted into and through you.  You will find the deep satisfaction of dwelling in the color of love that is longsuffering, enduring pain and loss and your own failings.  Another color of love is patience, as you bear the waiting for goals to be achieved, for healing from sickness, for God’s work of growth in each other, for the birth of children.  And the colors of delight, and sacrifice, and faithfulness, and so many others, are yours to explore as well.

But you do not intend to keep this love to yourselves.  You have stated your mutual desire to be like the light of a city set on a hill.  I am among many others here today who remember the days of looking out over the fields of rural Iowa and seeing many dots of light in every section.  Some sections had so many lights that they seemed almost like small towns.  This is no longer the case.

All the more reason to make your light count.  Not only because there are fewer farms, but also because those that remain–like the Showalters’ and Brugmans’ farms and all others represented here—can  be lights of leadership and hope as you choose to make them so.  To do your work as unto the Lord, to conduct the work as faithful stewards and to provide food for our world.  And you, Laura, like your mother and so many others who see their medical work as God’s calling, do the work of healing in the name of Jesus, also much needed among the rural folk you serve.

Not only in your vocations, but also in your love for each other and for others, you will be a light in this world.  In our conversations together, we discussed how you will thoughtfully identify your mission as a couple, as God’s beloved individuals united for a higher purpose than you might accomplish separately.  What a privilege to be God’s instruments of light and healing and provision for the world God loves!  What a joy to spend a lifetime together heeding what amounts to both blessing and command from Jesus himself, the Light of the world: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”


Confirmation Sermon on Genesis 32:9-31

“Growing Up”

Chances are very good that today will not change you.  It is an important day, certainly.  We need to publicly speak the words of commitment and faith, whether it is in baptism, holy communion, weddings, or as you are doing today, affirming your baptism as part of your coming of age.   We stand before God together and stake our lives on Him, the One who has revealed himself to us purposefully.  This is a piece of our story as a community of faith.

Here at Bethlehem we have been scanning the big story of the Bible here at Bethlehem in the past year, dipping into various episodes.  Some were familiar, others were more obscure, even a little surprising.  And it is through that big story that I have attempted to teach you what matters about God, and faith, and yourself these past three years.  We have talked about God calling a people to be His own, to love and trust God in spite of the folks who try to claim power for themselves, the “big deals.”  Over and over we have seen that God provides our daily “manna” out of love for us.  We have underlined passages in the Bible that speak of God’s great love for you that I hope will help you as you continue your story of faith in the years to come.

Today I want us to go back to the story of one of the patriarchs of the Bible, those characters in Genesis whose lives are given to us as the setting for God’s first dealings with humankind after all the drama of creation, Adam and Eve, and Noah.

You remember Abraham, and his wife Sarah, whom God called to live in a new land to get this story started.  Abraham had great faith, to obey God’s call to uproot his family and move to the land God would show him.  Just like us, sometimes Abraham had trouble trusting God, but God made him the father of the nation of Israel nevertheless.  Remember how he and Sarah had their first child when they were old enough to be great-grandparents?  Their son was Isaac, and Isaac was the father of Jacob and Esau.  So Jacob was Abraham’s grandson.

Jacob was not a person I would have nominated to be a patriarch.  He hung around the family compound, whereas his brother Esau roamed the hills and valleys hunting game.  Jacob might have had too much time on his hands, because he often brooded over the fact that his twin brother would inherit their father’s land because he was only five minutes older than he was.  Of course he thought he was far more deserving, more intelligent and refined than his brute of a brother, who seemed to be content with having enough to eat and a tent over his head from time to time.  He wondered if he could find a way to change his fortune.

When Esau came home famished after a couple of unsuccessful days of hunting, Jacob saw his chance.  He offered his brother some soup in exchange for his rights as the firstborn.  Esau carelessly agreed.  Some time later, when it was time for the ceremony of the birthright blessing, their mother Rachel talked Jacob into fooling his blind father. This would seal the deal.  (Jacob came by his scheming nature honestly.)  He disguised himself as his brother and pulled one over on his own father, who pronounced the blessing of land and food, leadership of the family and community, and God’s stamp of approval.

When Esau found out what had happened, Isaac was already miles away, having realized that this birthright deal had consequences.  Jacob did not have half his brother’s strength, and he would be the loser if Esau got hold of him.

While he was on the run, Jacob had to sleep out in the open, maybe for the first time in his life.  It was on one of those starry but uncomfortable nights that Jacob was given a dream, a vision of the traffic between heaven and earth.  For reasons that only God knew, God renewed the promise made to his grandpa Abraham and his father Isaac: land, offspring, and the privilege of being the vessel for God’s blessing of all peoples.

Did it change Jacob?  No, it did not.  I wonder whether it even surprised him, so deep was his attitude of entitlement.  He had the nerve to tell God his conditions for the covenant God was making with him.  He vowed to trust God if God would protect him, give him enough to live on, and keep his brother from killing him in revenge.  That is as close to trusting God as Jacob would come for a long time.

Fast forward to at least twenty years later.  Jacob has gotten married, acquired great herds, and is on the run again, this time from his father-in-law Laban.  Jacob had met his match:  Laban was as much of a shrewd and scheming man as he was.  Life together in the same family compound became unbearable.  As they say, the place wasn’t big enough for the both of them.  Jacob got to thinking again, and a future with Laban was worse than facing the music back home.  Surely the land he was promised in the blessing was not his to claim by now, but maybe Esau would be willing to grant him a small corner.  So Jacob took his wives and herds to return home.

Jacob got more and more nervous the closer he got to his homeland.  He had nightmares of his brother Esau coming at him with his hunting weapons.  As they got close enough that Esau might be around the next corner, Jacob sent his family and possessions ahead of him, ready to forfeit most of it if Esau would only let him live.  He spent the night at the River Jabbok, and it is there that his life was changed.

He was sitting by the river at dusk, pleading with God to spare his life and those of his family, and trying to work out plans A, B, and C when somebody grabbed his shoulder and tried to pin him down.  At first he had thought it was Esau, but this man didn’t smell right or feel hairy like his twin.   Jacob fought for his life in a wrestling match that lasted all night long.  By daybreak he had suffered an injury to his hip; it was pulled out of its socket.  Yet his opponent seemed to be giving in, asking to be released.  Jacob said he would only give up if the man blessed him first, making Jacob the winner.  His blessing amounted to a new name: Israel, which means “one who strives with God” or “perseverance” for short. Suddenly it was clear who this man was.  Jacob realized that he had been wrestling with an agent of God himself.

Jacob was never the same after that.  He limped, for one thing.  And it seems that he finally understood that it was not through striving and grabbing that he would find life.  We see it when he meets up with Esau not five minutes later.  Jacob was repentant.  He apologized to Esau.  He owned up to his past and faced his brother instead of sending a peace offering and hoping for the best.  His eyes were opened to see his brother with love instead of competing with him.  Listen to what he said to his brother about his gift:  “please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor. Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” (Gen 33.10-11)

Quite a change.  It seems that Jacob finally grew up and stopped trying to make the blessing happen.  He had to admit his brokenness before God and other people.  The pain in his hip reminded him of it daily.  Not that his life was easier after that.  Some of his sons inherited their father’s deceitfulness, and they developed a mean streak to go with it.

Not everybody learns how to trust God as Jacob did.  He strived and strived a long time before he discovered that it was never enough to satisfy his restless heart.  He had to learn that the most important things can only be given, and received.  That the beautiful life he was striving for couldn’t be found in things or even people; it is instead a result of allowing God to bless us out of love for us.

To be fair, it is not easy to trust a God like that, a God so generous, who blesses us out of sheer love and doesn’t require any sort of striving to earn it.  But Jacob had one son who learned this early on, and didn’t seem to lose sight of it.  I’m pretty sure you’ll remember the story of Joseph, Dad’s favorite.  God gave Joseph dreams of being the favored one, even though he was toward the end of the line as far as birthrights go.  It irritated his brothers to the point of violence.  Just as his father had been shocked by a hand on the shoulder and an all-night wrestling match, Joseph found himself unexpectedly at the bottom of a dry well with his brothers shouting curses and spitting at him.

Joseph’s story, while vastly different from that of his father, is also a lesson about faith.  His innocent trust in God never seemed to leave him.  Remember how Jesus said we should have the faith of a child?  Joseph seems like a good example of that.  Even though he was sold by his own brothers, enslaved, framed and thrown into prison, Joseph seemed able to keep his eyes focused on a faithful God.  As he grew up, he didn’t lose that simple faith.  We can be sure it wasn’t easy.  He had to be scared out of his wits and beaten up often enough.  Bit it appears he inherited the best of his father’s ability to scheme, because he always seemed to rise to the top, whether as a slave, a prisoner, or an aide to Pharaoh himself.

Two very different stories.  And there are dozens more in the Scriptures.  All of them have one thing in common: a faithful God even when we are faithless.   Even when we try to weasel other people out of their blessings and grab them for ourselves.  Even when the best of them gave in to their appetites like David in his adultery, and their fears, like Peter in his denial.

What changed them was not a declaration such as the one you will make today.  What changed them was being broken and finding themselves utterly dependent on God.  And that is where we come in today.  Although your vows today are important, and will serve as a touchstone and resource for you in the years ahead, it is the act of coming to God with your brokenness and sin that will always be what changes you.  Maturity and faith do not come through wishing for them or by osmosis.  We do well to study God’s faithfulness when we are comfortable.  But deep faith is developed only times of crisis.  We learn it when we come to the end of ourselves, our striving, our pain and the injustices of life and find that God is the only constant.

Chances are that you have already faced some real pain, have had to grow up sooner than expected.  Then you have had the chance to realize that God’s love is yours no matter what, and that God will never abandon you.  Through the scars and disappointments, and in times when you realize that your own plans are insufficient and flawed, you will find that God is faithful.  You will have begun to grow up in the faith.

And that is why we come to the table together.  We come as beggars.  We come with grateful hearts.  We eat the bread of Jesus who was broken for us.  You will lay the bread that is his body in the hands of your fellow believers today, as one broken person feeding another with the beautiful food of God’s goodness.  You will be on your way to growing up in the faith that we all share, faith in a God who loves us throughout and beyond our stories.

Wedding Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  (1 Cor 13.4-7)

 There are a few passages from the Scriptures that many people know, even people who do not believe in God.  Psalm 23 is one example.  The Beatitudes of Jesus are also popular.  The passage I just read from 1 Cor 13 is another.  We love them because they are easy to understand, and they reflect the beauty of God’s goodness that meets us at our deepest needs.

But I think there is something even more mysterious about what is happening when we hear these words.  They expand our hearts and our minds to hope for something greater than ourselves.  Scripture reminds us that we have a deep and special connection with the Creator of the universe, the one who loves us beyond the confines of this life and this world.

One of the mysteries of this connection with God is that we somehow reflect God’s image, and are invited to share in God’s very being.  And so when we hear the words “Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres,” we don’t have to despair because of our inability to achieve such love.  We literally have access to the divine stores of love that are limitless and eternal.

The apostle Paul wrote 1st Corinthians to the early church, to help them practice the love of Christ among them.  In another letter to the early church, the book of Ephesians, there is a prayer that would be mine for you today as well: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph 3.18-19)  It seems contradictory to hope that you will comprehend and to know the enormous scope of the great love of Christ, but also to state that it is a love that surpasses our ability to grasp it.  But I think that is the point; we need to see that this love is without limit, but it is our purpose and joy in life to explore its vast dimensions.  To tap into this love that is ours, unbelievably ours, by the grace of God.  Just think, we can spend all of our lives probing the size and shape of God’s love, and embodyng it ourselves in all its variety and creativity.

In The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis wisely depicts the places where God dwells as—listen closely—bigger on the inside than they appear on the outside.  You see a small cottage door, but when you step inside, you are in a spacious, beautiful place.  It is not unlike some scenes by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass.  But I’m thankful that in Narnia, C.S. Lewis reminds us that this is God’s doing.  As God’s beloved, we are privileged to inhabit and also to create such places.

Odd as this sounds, I think it is familiar to all of us to one degree or another, perhaps even so familiar that we no longer notice it…if we’re lucky.  Have you ever entered someone’s home and spent time with them, and felt your life somehow enlarged when you left?  Is yours a home where love is so palpable that it seems to enliven the conversation and make everyone present seem more precious?  Don’t you want your home to be this kind of life-giving place?  Your marriage itself can be like this, a source of life and joy, for each other, and for other people in your life, something that is bigger than it appears at first glance.

But it will not happen if you do not tap into the Source of that kind of love.  Paul says that it is a love that looks beyond each other’s faults.  In fact, I would venture to say that keeping score makes your marriage and your home smaller, more confining.  Pride, rudeness, selfishness all accomplish the same thing, to shrink your life until it is fearsome and oppressive.

Instead, the characteristics of the love Paul talks about, the love whose dimensions are beyond our reach, these are the instruments for making our lives and our homes and our marriages large and expansive and welcoming.  Patience and kindness, grace and forgiveness do not always come easily, but if we use them daily they become second nature.  The beauty of this, the joy of life, is that these are not only mundane tools to keep our relationships working properly.  They are gifts, treasures–however small–that we give to one another.  And they don’t cost us a dime.

We don’t always do this well.  But we know that; no reason to dwell on it today, as we celebrate the best of life and the joy of this beginning.  Today we ask the blessing of the God who loves us all, whose love is real and deep and everlasting.  We ask it because God has shown us that it is ours simply for wanting it.  God is pleased to bless you and to offer you the love shown by Jesus Christ, self-giving, compassionate, and freely given.  Love in unlimited supply, perfect in quality, fierce in its power to reach its beloved.  May we live in the light of his love and let it flow among us, one to the other, always.  Thanks be to God!