Where is God?

Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 29C, October 16th, 2016

Jeremiah 31:27-34, Psalm 119:97-104, 2 Timothy 3:14—4:5, Luke 18:1-8

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

When you’re reading the Bible, one of the important things to do to help you understand it better is to consider the context.  What else is going on around it?  How does this passage fit into the larger pattern of Scripture?  This is tough to do in a worship service, since we usually don’t have time to read large swathes of the Bible, and so focus on smaller passages.  Today’s Gospel reading, for example, is a parable.  This single parable that we read is just one part of a section that goes from Luke 17:20 through 18:14.  It starts with some Pharisees asking when the Kingdom of God was coming.  And Jesus started by saying that the kingdom of God was already among them, that it wasn’t coming in the big obvious things but in the little ones we might overlook.  Then he spends the rest of chapter 17 and the first half of chapter 18 explaining what he means by that.  The parable of the widow and the unjust judge is part of that explanation.

So this is a parable about the need to pray always and not lose heart, but it’s also a parable about God’s kingdom among us.  There’s a widow—and in those days, a widow was a lot worse off than widows are today.  Women usually couldn’t own much property or a business, so a widow—a woman with no male relations—would have very little way to support herself.  And women couldn’t bring legal suits or use the courts to defend themselves without a man to support their claim, which a widow probably wouldn’t have.  In other words, the system gave them almost no protections, economic or legal, against anyone who wanted to prey on them.  A judge didn’t have to be corrupt to add to a widow’s misery; all he had to do was follow the letter of the law.  You can imagine what a corrupt judge such as the one the widow faced might do!

But the widow was persistent.  The widow kept on demanding justice.  She kept on showing up, even when people tried to shut her down.  I imagine the judge wasn’t the only one annoyed by that widow.  I bet you that everyone else in society—all the judge’s friends and neighbors, his colleagues, and the leaders of the town—thought she was aggravating and irritating.  I can almost hear them: “She lost!  Why does she keep harping on it!” or “Yes, of course it’s a shame, but that’s life—what did she expect?” or “He was wrong, but she’s just too loud—if she were quieter, more polite, maybe he would have listened,” or even “Well, he’s a judge, he must have made the right decision, I bet she’s just hoping she can get special treatment or cheat the system.”  The whole system was against the widow, the judge was against the widow, and it’s very likely that the rest of the community was against the widow, too.  But she persevered, she kept on, she never lost faith in God or faith that justice could come even for her.  And eventually, that faith and persistence paid off, and the judge relented and gave her justice.  Not because he agreed with her or saw the error of his ways, but just to shut her up.

So this leaves me with two questions: where is God in this parable, and what does this parable have to do with God’s kingdom?  Let’s start with the first question.  Although we usually assume that God is the authority figure in a parable, that is obviously not the case here.  The unjust judge is not a metaphor for God—he can’t be, because we are told both that he is unjust and that he does not fear or care about God.  And the widow obviously isn’t a metaphor for God, either—she’s the one seeking God’s justice!  God’s place in this parable is a little less obvious: God is supporting the widow and giving her courage.  God is helping her in her quest for justice in a million ways, big and small.  God is working behind the scenes to change the judge’s heart and mind.  This is made more obvious in a different translation of verses 7 and 8: “Then will God not produce the vindication of his elect who cry out to him day and night, even bearing patiently with them?  I say to you that he will produce vindication to them in quickness. When the son of humanity has come will he find faith in the earth?”  Where is God?  Bearing patiently with those who cry out to him.

As I studied this parable this week, I was reminded of a friend’s struggle with her insurance company.  She has a chronic condition, which can be treated with medication.  Without this medication, her quality of life is pretty bad.  There are two different meds that are commonly prescribed for her condition.  One is expensive, the other relatively cheap.  Her insurance company only covers the cheaper one.  But while that cheaper drug works for most people, it is not effective for her.  Not only that, but she finds that the side effects it creates are almost as bad as the condition it’s supposed to treat.  So she’s been struggling with her doctor and her insurance company for quite a while to get the medication she needs that will actually manage her condition instead of making her feel worse.  Where is God?  Helping her get through each day.  She is not suffering is because God isn’t listening to her; she is suffering because her insurance company isn’t listening to her.  And because our entire health care system is messed up.  Like the widow, she prays and draws strength and courage from God and has faith that one day she will receive justice.  One day, she will get the medication she so desperately needs.  One day, if she makes enough trouble, even if the insurance company never gets better, they’ll give her what she needs just so they don’t have to keep fighting about it.  And meanwhile, God is with her.  Just like God is with the widow in the parable; just like God is with us in our struggles against the injustices of this world.

So if this is a parable about the kingdom of God, where is the kingdom in the parable?  Partly, the kingdom of God is in the future when the Son of Man comes back to earth.  Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and he is a righteous judge (unlike the one in this parable), and we are to have faith until that day.  But remember, Jesus starts this whole section by telling his listeners that the kingdom of God was already there among them.  So where, in this parable, is the kingdom of God?  Again, it can’t be the judge.  Because we are told throughout the Bible that God’s two most important desires for humans are justice and mercy, love of God and love of our neighbor.  The judge has neither justice nor mercy, and loves neither God nor his neighbors.  The unjust judge is, in fact, the exact opposite of God’s kingdom.

The judge’s whole job is to work for justice, and he isn’t.  And it is the job of all human beings to love God and love their neighbor, and the judge isn’t.  In fact, he’s taking his God-given job and actively working against God’s wishes.  He is a part of an unjust and unmerciful system, and instead of working to correct it or help those hurt by it, he is completely upholding the worst parts of it.  He is taking something meant for the good of all people and using it only for his own good, not caring how that hurts people and interferes in God’s will.  Unfortunately, this is something that we are all too familiar with today.  The healthcare system is supposed to heal people, or at least help them.  We all know just how often that isn’t the case.  Our justice system is supposed to protect all people, and all too often it persecutes the most vulnerable people and ignores the crimes of the powerful, just as it did in our parable.  There are so many cases in our world today where people who desperately need justice or mercy are denied both.

And yet.  Even with all the injustice and cruelty in the world, Jesus says that God’s kingdom is here among us.  Now.  In our hearts and in our communities.  And I wonder: is the kingdom in the parable the widow’s persistence?  Is that what the kingdom looks like in the present world?  Jesus says the kingdom of God is here, and it is not coming in things that can be observed.  We look around us and we see a world filled with injustice, a world filled with hate, a place where there is little justice and mercy for those who need it most, a world where people love neither God nor their fellow human beings.  Where is God’s kingdom in all of that?  God’s kingdom is in the people who persist in faith and love.  God’s kingdom is present every time someone strives for justice in the face of greed and prejudice.  God’s kingdom is present every time someone chooses to respond with love instead of hate.  God’s kingdom is present every time we have faith that this world is not the sum total of reality.  God’s kingdom is present every time we have faith that God will win in the end.  May we persist in our faith until Christ comes again.

Amen.

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What kind of a Messiah are we looking for?

Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 17th, 2016

Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

People gathered around Jesus and asked him, “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  Now, the thing is, this is half-way through the Gospel of John.  Jesus has already spent ten chapters teaching, preaching, and giving miraculous signs that he is the Messiah, the Son of God.  And there are, by this point, PLENTY of people who have recognized who Jesus is.  It’s not like it’s this hidden, secret thing.  Jesus has not been hiding his light under a bushel.  And he’s in the Temple, right?  The home of the Jewish faith.  If anyone in the world could recognize the Messiah, the chosen anointed king of the God of the Jews, it should be these people here.  And they’ve figured out he’s something special—that’s why they’re asking the question—but they’re still on the fence.  Still wondering.

Now, there were probably a couple of reasons for that.  A couple of reasons why they couldn’t bring themselves to accept that Jesus was the Messiah, the Good Shepherd, the anointed king of David’s house sent to save them.  And the first reason was simply that Jesus was not the first claimant to come along.  There had been, by that point, several Jewish leaders who claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah.  Some of them had had pretty good evidence to back them up, at least in the short term, and still ended up disappointing everyone by not actually being the Messiah.  We forget, now, but in the couple of centuries around the time of Jesus’ life there were half-a-dozen men who claimed to be the Messiah—and probably at least that many more that are lost to history.  Reason enough for people to be a little skeptical at the latest wandering holy man.

The other big reason for them to be skeptical, though, is that Jesus … didn’t look that much like a Messiah.  I mean, by this point, they’d had almost a thousand years to build up a picture of what the Messiah would look like.  And the greatest thing they knew about him was that he was to be David’s descendent.  So they expected him to be, well, like King David.  A king, a great warrior who could slay the giant.  David slew Goliath and defeated the Philistines, the great enemy of his day; they expected the Messiah to slay the legions and defeat Rome, the great enemy of their day.  It was a reasonable assumption.  After all, the Messiah did come to slay the great enemy … except on a rather larger scale than they were expecting.  The great enemy that the Messiah came to slay was death, the enemy of all living things that ever have been or ever will be, not just the empire that was the current enemy du jour.  They had their eyes firmly on their current political problems, and wanted God to fix them.  They were faithful people, who believed that since they were faithful people, all the things they were concerned with must also be God’s concern.  They assumed that God thought the same way they did; they assumed that God agreed with them.  And so they assumed that the Messiah would kill their enemies, help them and their friends, and establish the kind of earthly kingdom they most wanted to see.  But God had his eyes firmly fixed on the far greater problems facing all of creation.  It’s not that God didn’t care that the Romans were oppressing them; it’s just that God was trying to save the universe, not limiting himself to a small group of people in one place and time.

But that was not what Jesus’ contemporaries wanted to hear.  Sure, they hated death, who doesn’t?  But it never even occurred to them that the destruction of death could be on the menu.  In any case, the empire that currently had its boot on their neck was a far more immediate problem for them.  And because they were concentrating on that problem, they assumed that God must be too.  They saw their immediate problem, but couldn’t see beyond it.  And so here’s this Jesus fellow, obviously some sort of holy man.  And he went around preaching and teaching, which the Messiah was supposed to do; he went around talking about the Kingdom of God, which the Messiah was definitely supposed to do, because after all, wasn’t Israel God’s Kingdom?  And as for heavenly signs, well, between miraculous feedings and healings and whatnot, this Jesus fellow obviously had signs of God’s favor.  And he drew crowds, a very promising thing for someone who is going to have to start raising an army pretty soon if he’s going to start taking on the Roman legions.  Except … he’s not raising an army.  He’s not even trying to.  He’s just continuing to teach and preach and heal and feed.  You can see why they’re a bit confused.  “Tell us plainly!” they say.  “Are you the Messiah, or not?”  In other words, are you the political and military leader we think God is going to send us who’s going to solve our immediate political and military problems?

You can see why Jesus doesn’t give them a straight answer.  Because yes, he is the Messiah!  But he’s not the Messiah they’re expecting.  If he says “yes,” straight up and unambiguous, they’re going to assume he fits neatly into the little box in their heads marked “Messiah.”  They’ll probably start buying weapons and recruiting soldiers for the army they assume he’s going to need.  And they’ll go back and interpret everything he’s ever said in light of “how will this help us beat the Romans.”  Which will be completely missing the point.  I mean, they’re already missing the point, but they will miss the point even more if they get the straight answer they want.  So instead Jesus continues to talk in metaphor and tells them to look at what he’s done and judge by that.  And, by the way, by this point the middle east had been using the “shepherd” metaphor to describe kings in general for centuries.  It’s kind of like if we asked someone if he were the President, and he started soliloquizing about what it means to be Commander in Chief.  It’s pretty much answering the question—but it’s sidestepping it at the same time.  You can see why they were annoyed with him—why wouldn’t he just tell them what they wanted to hear?  And if he wasn’t the Messiah, if he wasn’t going to free them from the Romans, why was he taking up their time?

We don’t assume that Jesus is going to save us from the Romans—in fact, the Roman Empire has been gone for a long time, which the people of Jesus’ day would have been shocked about—but we’re just as likely to put Jesus and his message into a nice neat box in our heads and assume that we know what it means that he is our Savior and Lord.  We tend to assume we know what he wants; we tend to assume that our goals are his goals; we tend to try and fit him into our view of the world, rather than conforming our minds and our lives to him.  But if you’ve been sitting here shaking your heads at those crazy people in Jesus’ day who assumed that getting rid of the Roman Empire was God’s greatest worry in the world, maybe you should take a look at the things we tend to assume are God’s greatest worries in the world today.

If you ask the average American Christian what problems they think God is worried about in the world today, they would throw out a lot of different answers.  But we’re like those Jews who questioned Jesus because a lot of those problems are based more on our own immediate worries than on the true scope of God’s saving power.  Like the ancient Jews, we tend to assume that because we are faithful followers of God, God agrees with us.  We tend to try to fit God into our preconceived notions of what God should be like rather than let God shape our hearts and minds.  We focus on changing morals, or our worries about America’s future, or our worries about terrorists and other foreign enemies, our or worries about the future of church institutions—buildings, denominational structures, that sort of thing.

And God cares about those things, of course.  But, just like the military might of the Roman Empire, these things are not necessarily God’s primary concern.  Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  He came to destroy death so that we—and all people, all of creation—might live.  The people in the Temple asked him if he was the Messiah, and he told them to look at the works he had done in his Father’s name, and that would answer their question.  It forced them to look beyond their preconceptions to see what God was actually doing in them and among them.  Because while Jesus’ mission and his ultimate work, his death and resurrection, was great beyond their imagining, the seeds he was planting were often too humble for their notice.  This is what Jesus did in our Father’s name: he brought forgiveness where there was sin and separation.  He brought love where there was hate.  He brought healing where there was illness.  He brought food where there was hunger.  He brought wisdom where there was ignorance and confusion.  He brought life where there was death, and he brought it abundantly.

We can’t fight the great battle that Jesus fought in his death and resurrection.  We don’t have to; Jesus has done it for us.  But we can participate in the work that supports it in our world today.  We can work for forgiveness and understanding and love.  We can work for healing, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.  We can feed the hungry.  We can bring life, in a thousand different ways, great and small.  And we can trust that God, who created the world, who saves us from the great enemy which is death, will lead us in his path.

Amen

Wars and Rumors of War

25th Sunday after Pentecost, November 15th, 2015

Daniel 12:1-3, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-13

 

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Wars and rumors of war. What a thing to read about the Sunday after 43 people were killed in a bombing in Beirut and 128 died in shootings in Paris and the Iraqi Kurds repelled a massive ISIS attack earlier this month. We have certainly had wars and rumors of war. Then Jesus says that there will be earthquakes and famines, too. I don’t know of any famines that are especially bad right now—that doesn’t mean there aren’t famines, just that famines in some places are so “normal” they don’t make the news—but Japan had an earthquake this week that touched off a tsunami. Fortunately, it was a lot smaller than the one a couple of years ago, and the damage was manageable. Jesus’ predictions were right on the money. But that shouldn’t be surprising, because they’ve been right on the money for the last two-thousand years. There have always been wars. There have always been catastrophes. There have always been famines, persecutions, betrayals. These are not signs of the end of the world, Jesus says—the end is still to come. This is what it means that the world is broken by sin and death. God’s kingdom will break in; God’s kingdom, when it comes, will break all the chains of evil, but we’ve got to live in the meantime. Jesus knew what his disciples would have to face, and he knew what we would have to face. And he wanted to give us comfort, cold though it sometimes is, to face it.

Our Gospel reading takes place at the Temple in Jerusalem, just days before Jesus was taken away and crucified. Jesus was at the height of his influence; his disciples were sure that any day now, a rebellion would begin and Jesus would sweep out the hated Roman oppressors and their toadies, replacing them with his loyal followers. They were high on life; they thought for sure that with Jesus at their side, nothing could touch them. Everything was going to go perfectly, because, after all, he was the Messiah, right? The great palace and temple in Jerusalem would be theirs for the taking—and that was saying something. In Jesus, day, the Temple was a pretty amazing place. It had been built by King Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians, re-built by Ezra and Nehemiah, and greatly expanded by King Herod, making it one of the grandest buildings in the Roman Empire. It was huge, and it was grand, and it was glorious. It wasn’t just a building, it was a whole complex—they’d had to build out the top of Mount Zion so that it would fit. It was designed so that all visitors could see the glory of God. But it wasn’t just a pretty building. It wasn’t just the core of Jerusalem. It wasn’t just a place of worship. It was a symbol.

That Temple was the core of Judaism. It was most obviously the center of Jewish religious practices of the day, but it was also the center of Jewish culture and the center of Jewish politics. God could be anywhere, of course, but he was especially present in the Temple. Nothing too terribly bad could happen to the Jews as long as the Temple stood, because it showed that God was with them and they were faithful to God. Being Jewish meant worshiping at the Temple. Take the church building you love the most—multiply that feeling by ten and add to it the feeling you have for every iconic building in Washington, DC—and you can imagine what they felt like. The Temple had withstood invasions, wars, earthquakes, famines, every catastrophe imaginable, and it stood. It would always stand, they believed. Because God was with them, and the Temple was God’s, and God would not let the Temple fall.

The disciples looked in awe at the great and mighty Temple, and one said to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” You can almost hear them nudging each other and giving each other meaningful looks—what’ll it be like to live in the best houses in Jerusalem and come to the Temple every day? What’ll it be like when all this glory and grandeur is theirs? But Jesus knows that, in this life, the Temple will never be theirs. He’s not going to reign in glory in this life, he’s going to be crucified instead. Then Jesus asks them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Now this, to the disciples, was the greatest catastrophe they could imagine. For some, it might have been more than they could imagine. This isn’t just the end of their hopes and dreams, this is the end of their whole people, their culture, their religion, their everything. The Temple, destroyed? The heart of their faith, gone? The proof of God’s presence, smashed? How? When? Why? They pestered Jesus with questions, anxiously needing answers. Would it be part of his battle with the powers that be, after which the Temple would be re-built even grander? Would it be part of the end judgment of the world? What would happen? They wanted names, dates, a firm timeline.

Jesus didn’t give them one. Because the point wasn’t the Temple itself. The Temple would be destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, in retaliation for a failed rebellion. To this day, only a wall remains—the Wailing Wall, where devout Jews go to pray. There’s a Muslim Mosque where the Temple once stood. But that’s not the point. If they focus on the glory, the grandeur, the ambition, they’re going to be totally caught off guard when trouble strikes. The more they imagine that following Jesus will bring only happy fun times, the more devastating it will be when they realize that’s not the case. And the crucifixion was going to happen in just a few days. They needed to face reality, and they needed to face it fast.

Jesus didn’t give them specifics. He gave them words so generic that pretty much every generation since has tried to claim that they applied specifically to that generation—in every age, there are people who believe these words of Jesus’ mean that the end is coming now, here. Because the point isn’t when these things will happen; the point is not to be surprised by them.

There will be people claiming God’s authority and using it wrongly, to promote their own ends, and they will lead many people astray. As a student of history, I can tell you that in the two thousand years since Jesus’ day, there have been many people who have used God’s authority to do evil, and some of them have been very popular. We vilify the Muslims who do this, while forgetting the crimes Christians have committed—and are committing right now, across the globe—in the name of God.

Jesus said there will be wars, and rumors of war. But when has there ever been peace on earth? There hasn’t been peace on earth since Cain slew Abel in Genesis chapter 4. This is part of the way sin corrupts human nature. We hate. We fear. We betray one another. We hurt one another—and then we get together in groups to do it on a larger scale. There will be famines—and boy, howdy, have there been famines. Some of them are caused by weather or blight; some of them are caused by political corruption diverting food from those who need it most. Earthquakes and storms—those happen all the time, too. Have you ever seen one of those half-sheet inserts from Lutheran World Relief asking for money for the disaster du jour and felt nothing but a drained since of déjà vu? I know I have. And as if that isn’t enough, Jesus says, brother will turn against brother and parent against child.

Quite a litany. All of that to go through. Are you feeling depressed, yet? But the point of these words isn’t to be depressing or hopeful. The point is to be ready. Where’s the Good News? Where’s the Gospel in Jesus’ words? Here it is: the end of all this misery is coming, and we don’t have to face the in-between times alone, and no matter what happens between now and then, Jesus will reign. You see, all of these terrible, horrible, evil things? That’s what the world’s been like since sin came into things. That’s “normal” for Planet Earth. At least, that’s what “normal” has been up till now. But it’s not going to stay normal. The world isn’t trapped any longer in a round of one damned-thing-after-another. It may seem that way—particularly when the news media gobbles up every tragedy, hungry for the most grotesque pictures that will shock and titillate the viewer—but it’s not. These evils are no longer meaningless, because the birth pangs have begun. This is not God’s plan for the world. There will be justice, and there will be mercy. Our call as Christians is to live out faithful lives in the meantime, responding to a broken world with love and justice and trust that this is not the end. This is the beginning.

And we don’t have to do it alone. Whether we live ordinary lives in relatively quiet parts of the world or in places where there is actual persecution, we are not alone, for the Holy Spirit is with us. We don’t have to worry about having all the answers, or solving all the problems, or being good enough or strong enough or brave enough or faithful enough. Because no matter what happens, the Holy Spirit will be with us.

And it doesn’t matter how powerful the things of this world seem to be. It doesn’t matter how much damage any country or ruler or terrorist or corporation or politician or anyone else does—they can’t change the fact that this world is God’s world, that Jesus redeemed it with his sacrifice, and that God’s kingdom will come.

Amen.

The kingdom of God has come near

Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, January 25, 2014

Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Psalm 62:5-12, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:1-14-20

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news—that is, the gospel—of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” And in our reading from First Corinthians, Paul writes: the appointed time has grown short … the present form of this world is passing away.” Two thousand years later, it’s kinda hard to believe that the time has grown short, or been fulfilled. And a week after having two funerals in the congregation, with another member in his last weeks and months, Paul’s instructions not to mourn seem … off, if not cruel. If the kingdom of God has come near, where is it? If the time between this world and God’s kingdom to come is short, when is it going to get here? And just what is the good news, anyway?

This is one of those places where our modern, high-quality, literalistic educations get in the way of reading the Bible. We are trained as children to take things literally. 2+2=4, history is about a provable series of names and dates, time is measured precisely down to millionths of a second, poetry can be logically analyzed. If something can be proved in a science lab or a court of law, we’re good. We understand it. But when you start talking about intangible things, about the things that don’t fit into nice, neat, logical categories, that can’t be proven—or disproved—in a science lab or court of law, the deeper mystery at the heart of existence … that’s when we trip up. That’s when we get confused. That’s when we try and force that mystery into nice, neat, logically-provable categories that are easily understandable to modern people with fact-based educations. And, all too often, we try to do that with the Bible. And that’s a problem.

You see, in Jesus’ day, they looked at the world almost exactly opposite to the way we do. We see the provable facts as the most important thing. They saw the intangible mysteries of the universe as far more important. Sometimes, when they’re talking about those deep mysteries, we try to interpret their words as if they’re talking about literal, easy-to-prove things. So when they start talking about the time being fulfilled, about the time being near, we expect that in a few hours or days or weeks (sometimes even a few years), the time will arrive. And it should be obvious from an objective, fact-based point of view. So when we read passages like this, it’s not that we doubt it—obviously, if Jesus said it, it must be true—but we sort of gloss over it. Because any ‘time’ that was near two thousand years ago can’t possibly also be near to us. And the Kingdom has not obviously shown up in the last two thousand years and the present form of the world hasn’t passed away, well, we start to wonder where it is. And since we can’t see it, we stop looking for it, and continue on about our daily lives. Business as usual.

And yet, Jesus says, the Kingdom of God has come near. What does it mean for the Kingdom to be near? What does it mean for the time to be at hand? Obviously, he didn’t mean that God’s kingdom was going to visibly take over the world in the next few years, because that didn’t happen. Yet all throughout his ministry, Jesus kept talking about the kingdom of God being near, and the time being close at hand. So what does he mean?

Well, first and most obviously, the kingdom is near because Jesus is near. Jesus is, after all, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Prince of Peace. And his kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world, so we shouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t look like the kingdoms of this world. And you know what? Jesus may not be physically present any more, but Jesus is still with us, in our hearts and minds, in our community and in communities across the globe. I mean, this is basic stuff, what we teach to our children. Jesus is always with us even if we can’t see him. So if the king is always with us, even when we can’t see him, does that mean the kingdom is, too? Does that mean the Kingdom of God is, right here and right now, one of those deeper mysteries that we can’t see or touch but can experience through the love of God? Does that mean that even when the kingdoms of this world overwhelm us and break us down and lead us away from our Lord, God’s kingdom is surrounding us, too, building us up and healing us and calling us back to faithfulness?

When Paul says that the present form of the world is passing away, is that what he means? When we participate in God’s kingdom, when we treat others according to God’s will instead of the world’s power, are we helping God’s kingdom to poke through into our everyday reality? When we live a God-filled life, are we helping God to replace the kingdoms of this world with his own? When we see people act according to the love of God even in the midst of hate and fear and conflict, are we seeing the present form of the world pass away, to be replaced by the world God is calling us to?

And the time has come near, Jesus said that and Paul affirmed it. Does that mean that the time has come for us to live kingdom centered lives? Does that mean that the time has come for us to stop listening to all the cares of the world that drag us down and keep us tied up in ordinary pettiness and pain, and let God open us up to the joy of the kingdom? When Paul says not to mourn or rejoice, is he talking about the kind of mourning and rejoicing the world shows us: shallow, selfish, and brief, and not at all the kind of deep abiding joy the kingdom brings? Because Paul mourned with his congregations and he rejoiced with them, we know that from his other letters. Grief is natural and right, and so is joy … but there’s a difference between the kind of hopeless, carefully stage-managed and abbreviated sorrow you see in the world today, and the kind of grief that knows however much we miss those we have lost, we will see them again, and God will be with us in the midst of our sorrow. And there’s a difference between the kind of manufactured artificial happiness you see on television with smiles pasted on, and the deep and abiding joy that God’s love can bring.

The time is fulfilled, Jesus says—the time is now! God is here, with us, now, today. God’s kingdom is here, with us, now, today! Get off your hind ends and live like it! God’s kingdom is deeper and more real than the kingdoms of this world—they will pass away and God’s kingdom will remain. That’s the good news! That’s the Gospel! All the problems of this world, all the things that drag us down, all the injustices large and small, all the pain, all the hatred, all the evil, all the banal mundane awfulness, that’s all temporary. And you don’t have to live your life as if this world is the most important thing. You don’t have to struggle alone in a sea of worldly concerns disguised as ultimate truths. You can follow Jesus instead, into a life filled with God’s love and joy, a life that sees and celebrates the kingdom of God that is poking through in so many different ways in so many different places.

“Follow me,” Jesus says to the fishermen beside the sea. “I’ll make you fish for people.” This isn’t about ordinary life being swept away, this is about ordinary life being changed into something better. They were fishermen before Jesus’ call, and they were fishermen after it—but their ultimate goals changed. They left their nets by the sea to follow Jesus’ call, but they came back to those nets regularly. Think of how often in the Gospels we hear about the disciples fishing or being out in boats. And really, the area that Jesus preached and taught in wasn’t that large. It’s about the equivalent of calling local Underwood farmers to go out and farm for people and mostly spending time in the communities between Wilton and Max, with occasional trips to Minot and Bismarck. They’d still see their family and friends a lot. They’d have time to participate in the ordinary life. They could still help out some on the family farm.

And yet, in and among those ordinary days of work and family and friends, in and among those ordinary communities they grew up in and knew well, something extraordinary was happening. God was there! God was with them, in the person of Jesus Christ. God’s kingdom was breaking in, little by little, and they were learning to live according to God’s time, not the world’s time. They were learning to live according to God’s kingdom, not the kingdoms of this world. They were learning to follow Jesus, and learning that in the darkest times imaginable—with the world against them and all hope lost—God was still with them. God was there, in their darkest days of grief and happiest days of joy, in their confusion and doubt and faith, the kingdom of God was near, working in them and through them and around them. All they had to do was learn to see it. And to see it, all they had to do was follow Jesus, and keep following, no matter what.

May we, too, learn to follow Jesus and see his kingdom.

Amen.

The Holy Spirit and the Kingdom

Third Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 14, 2014

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

John the Baptist was one of the rock stars of his day. People came from all over to see him, to hear him talk, to watch him do his thing and to be baptized by him. If anybody had an excuse to be arrogant, to be confident of his own abilities, it was John. Yet when the chief priests in Jerusalem sent people to ask him about himself, John was quite clear: he wasn’t the Messiah, nor any great leader in his own right. John the Baptist’s job was to point to Jesus, to get people ready for him. That was his mission, and he never strayed from it. When others might have gotten a swelled head, John did not. He kept pointing to Jesus, even when it would have been easier not to. His job was to see God and point him out. Now, for John, this was easy; Jesus was his cousin, right there physically near him. It’s a little harder for us, two thousand years later, because Jesus isn’t physically present with us. So how do we point to Jesus?

The prophet Isaiah writes: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners … to comfort all who mourn.” Now, if this sounds familiar to you, it should. This, after all, is the passage Jesus quotes in the Gospel of Luke at the beginning of his ministry, saying “today this has been fulfilled in your sight.” And Mary’s song when she heard she was going to bear the messiah was very similar: the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled with good things. And most of the depictions of the kingdom of God in the Bible contain these same elements: the oppressed are set free, those who mourn are comforted, the hungry are fed, true justice is given to those who have been abused and who have suffered. If you recall, about a month ago we had the parable of the sheep and the goats, and the sheep—the ones who were welcomed into heaven—were the ones who had fed the hungry, nursed the sick, clothed the naked, comforted the mourners, visited the prisoners, and in general acted to bring good news to the oppressed, just as Isaiah says here.

It’s a common thread, all through the Bible: the will of God is that all people should be free from the chains that bind them, whether chains of sinfulness or chains of oppression. The will of God is that no one should have to face grief or sorrow alone. The will of God is that all people should have enough to eat and shelter to live in and clothes to wear. The will of God is that all the brokenness in our lives and in the world—whether injury or illness or accident or evil—should be made whole. The will of God is that no one should suffer. And, in God’s kingdom, nobody will suffer. So when God comes into our world—when God moves among us, whether in the person of Jesus Christ or in the Holy Spirit—that’s what God is working towards. Passages like this one from Isaiah are common in the Bible because that’s what happens when God shows up.

As I look around the world this December, I see so many places where people are broken-hearted, where people are held captive by injustice and fear and hate, where people hunger and thirst and lack basic necessities, where cruelty reigns and love is nowhere to be seen. In Mexico, for example, many thousands of families mourn for loved ones who have been kidnapped by drug cartels with the collusion of local authorities. In Central America, too, gangs have killed thousands of people. But even in the midst of the violence, ordinary people work to protect their families and bring justice for those who have been killed. I think the Holy Spirit is working with them, in them, and through them. In China, pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong face police armed with tear gas. In North Korea, the leaders posture and spend huge amounts of money on weapons while their people go hungry. And yet, despite the worst their governments can do, people still continue to work for peace and freedom. I think the Holy Spirit is there.

In the Middle East, extremists and terrorists oppress their own people and build power bases to attack the rest of the world. Any who speak out against them live in danger of their own lives. Girls who want to go to school, women who want to drive or vote or go to the market, boys who don’t want to fight, ordinary people of all ages and genders who want to live in peace, all are in danger. In the midst of it all, people like Malala refuse to be cowed. Palestinians are turned out of their homes and sent to refugee camps, Israelis fear terrorist attacks. Yet there are people on all sides working for peace and reconciliation. I think the Holy Spirit is there.

People in the Central African Republic try to rebuild their homes and their lives after the civil war, while many of the leaders who ordered and committed war crimes continue to brutalize their enemies. People in Liberia and Sierra Leone continue to suffer from the devastating disease Ebola, without enough resources for the basic protections that can stop the disease from spreading. In Nigeria, most of the three hundred girls kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram earlier this year remain in terrorist homes, forced to marry their kidnappers. But even in the midst of all this, hospitals are built, schools are opened, and people care for one another even at the risk of their own lives. I think the Holy Spirit is there.

In cities across the US, African-American families mourn men killed by police for little or no reason. Protestors take to the streets at injustices, and policemen who try to do their jobs well resent being blamed for the failings of others, and often make things worse out of their own fear and bitterness. Black children in schools face harsher punishments than white children, causing resentment and deep emotional wounds. And yet, even in the midst of fear and anger, people of all races are working together to try and bring justice and healing. I think the Holy Spirit is here.

Here in North Dakota, drug use is on the rise, ruining lives and tearing apart families. Children and teens, particularly girls, are forced into sex slavery and trafficked across the state, not just in the oil fields but even in places like Bismark and Jamestown. Rising costs of food and housing have pushed hard-working families into poverty, yet social assistance programs have been cut back. Domestic violence, abuse, neglect, and rape can be found in all corners of our own communities, and all too often we protect the abusers and blame the victims. And yet, there is a growing group of people working to stop the abusers and help the victims. I think the Holy Spirit is here. I look at all these places and I see so much evil … but I also see God at work.

Sometimes I wish God would come and put all these things right. Where is God when human beings hurt one another? We know that when God’s kingdom comes, there will be justice and mercy for all—so why can’t the kingdom come now, soon? The Spirit moves among us, helping us to see the wrongs in our society, and even in ourselves, and it inspires us to work for God’s peace and justice and healing, but surely it would be better if the problems never happened in the first place? Healing is wonderful, but wouldn’t it be better if nobody needed it in the first place? I thank God for the gifts of the Spirit, but I yearn for the day God’s Kingdom will come. Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Lord Jesus. Break into our world, break into our lives, and make us new. Whenever there is healing, whenever there is light in the darkness, whenever there is comfort for those who mourn, we have a foretaste of the feast to come. The Spirit that inspires such things is a gift from God, to help us until the day the kingdom comes. But there are times that taste seems awfully small, not enough to go around. I want the banquet. I know it will come, one day, but I want it now.

The question is, what do we do while we wait? We know that God’s kingdom is coming. The job of a Christian is to live the kind of life that anticipates the Kingdom. The job of a Christian is to point to the things God is doing in us and among us. The job of a Christian is to open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit’s work in us and in our midst. Healing, hope, justice, growth, love—these are all the things God wants us to have, the things Jesus Christ was born and died to give us, the things the Spirit inspires in us while we wait for Christ to come again.

None of these are easy things. It’s hard to bring justice in the midst of fear and oppression. It’s hard to stand up to the evils of this world. It’s hard to love when there is hate. It’s hard to heal and grow when there is danger. It means getting outside our comfort zone. It means taking risks. It means being willing to stand up to the powers of this world. That’s why we need the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to do it. But when we open ourselves up to the Spirit—when we let God open our eyes to the problems around us, when we let God guide us in truth and love—amazing things become possible. Not because we ourselves are great, but because God can use us to accomplish great things.

Amen.

Waiting for the Baby’s Birth

First Sunday of Advent, Year B, November 30, 2014

Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

 

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

If you’ve been coming to church regularly the last month or so, you may have noticed a focus on the Kingdom of God. We’ve had parable after parable about the coming of the Kingdom—about staying awake, and how to prepare, and who is invited. If you were hoping that to change now that we’re in Advent—the season of preparing for Christ’s birth—you’re going to be disappointed. Because preparing for the coming of Christ doesn’t just mean getting the tree and presents ready, and lighting an advent wreath and admiring crèche scenes about the beautiful baby in Bethlehem. Preparing for the coming of Christ also means preparing for his coming in glory at the end of the age. The baby’s birth gets the ball rolling. The king coming again in glory is where it finishes.

And here’s the thing: for all that people—both Christians and people of other faiths—have spent thousands of years trying to predict when the end times come, nobody’s been right yet. We spend all this time and effort trying to figure out how to tell, when in our Gospel lesson Jesus says that even he doesn’t know when it’s going to happen—nobody knows but the Father.

When you think about it, it’s kind of like pregnancy. I mean, when a woman is pregnant, you know that baby is going to come out eventually. And, it will probably be roughly nine months from the time of conception. But exact dates, times? Nope. That baby comes in its own time. The best we can do is guess—and sometimes, our guesses are pretty wrong. My baby brother was due around June 12, 1998. Now, my middle brother and I were both in choirs that were going to be going on tour that summer. My choir was going to England, and Nels’ choir was going to Canada. And both of us were flying out with our choirs on June 22nd.   We might miss our baby brother’s birth, which we both wanted to be there for. There was only about ten days between his due date and the day we were scheduled to leave the country. So you can imagine how nervous we all were. Would we be there? What if the baby was later than we expected? We prayed for him to be early. As the day we hoped he’d be born came and went, we prayed each day that he would be born soon.

By June 20th, two days before Nels and I flew out of the country, we were all on tenterhooks waiting. We were looking for the signs. The baby had rotated head down, just like he was supposed to—that was great! That was a sign he would come soon! But not a definite clue as to when. Was mom getting backaches, which sometimes come just before contractions? Was anything happening? Was the baby ever going to come? And as we were waiting, we had stuff to do. So much stuff! We had to help Mom pack for the hospital—things she and dad and the baby would need, and also snacks and games and stuff to keep Nels and I occupied and out of the way. (Nels, by the way, kept drooling over the snacks—we rarely got chips and cookies and things, and so having a whole basket full them right by the front door for a couple of weeks was torture for him. All that good stuff that he could see but not enjoy, yet.) But, since we also were going on tour, we had to do all our packing for that. We needed to be packed before the baby was born, because what if he came the day we were supposed to leave? We’d be too busy then. So we packed early. While Nels and I were practicing music for the tour and making sure everything was packed, Mom and Dad were doing last-minute preparations, gathering supplies, practicing childbirth techniques, staying in touch with the doctor, and doing all the other things to keep ready. And we waited. And waited. And waited.

That’s kind of like what the life of a Christian is. We’re waiting for a baby to come, and we’ve got a lot to do to prepare for it. There’s the normal everyday stuff that still has to get done. But there’s also the stuff that needs to get ready specifically for the baby. What kinds of things do we need to do to be ready for the coming of Jesus? When a baby’s coming, you prepare the house. For the coming of Christ, shouldn’t we prepare our world? Our hearts? Ask yourselves this question: what do you think needs to be prepared in your life for the coming of Christ?

We spent a lot of time preparing for my baby brother to come. We waited, and waited. And then, just when we were starting to think that it was going to be too late, that Nels and I would have to miss it, Mom went into labor. And off we went to the hospital. It was quite a process: Dad driving and taking care of Mom, Nels and I handling the baggage and trying to help with Mom as much as we could. Then we got to the hospital, and things really got hectic. If you’ve ever had a baby or been present for a birth, you know what I mean. Doctors and nurses in and out, Mom yelling in pain, Dad taking care of her, me trying to keep Nels and I out of the way, blood and other bodily fluids … about as far from the serene and pretty picture that you see on Christmas cards as possible. But, eventually, it was over. The baby was out, cleaned, and nursing. And we were all so happy. Our baby brother Lars was born on June 20th. He was only two days old when he came with Mom and Dad to drop Nels and I off at the Portland Airport. We thought he would be too late—we thought his timing was bad—but it turned out, he was coming in his own time, not ours.

The thing was, we knew what the signs of labor were. I only knew from books and things because I didn’t remember Nels’ birth that clearly. But Mom and Dad, this was their third kid. They’d done this twice before. They knew the signs to look out for. But that didn’t mean they knew when he was coming. And that didn’t mean they couldn’t get fooled by false contractions or other symptoms. “Is this it?” Dad would ask Mom. “Well, maybe,” she would say. Until the labor was well and truly started, we didn’t know whether or not it was going to be just another false alarm.

That’s what the coming of a baby is like, but it’s also a little bit like the coming of the kingdom. Jesus lists signs and symbols of what will happen beforehand. The sun will be darkened, stars falling from heaven, powers shaken … Our reading from Isaiah mentions some more symptoms. Earthquakes, nations trembling. And Jesus says that we should be able to look at the signs and tell when the coming of God’s kingdom is near, just like you can look at a fruit tree budding out and tell that the seasons are changing. But the thing is, as anyone who lives in cold climates knows, the trees beginning to bud out is not necessarily a sure-fire sign that the season has changed—you can still get killer frosts after that point. In the same way, all those other signs Jesus and Isaiah point to—celestial events, natural disasters, political events—people have spent thousands of years looking at those signs and saying “see—this meteor shower means God is coming soon!” or, “That earthquake is a sign of the kingdom!” or, “This political catastrophe means the end of the world is coming!” But each time, the signs they were pointing to weren’t the real thing: they were like Braxton-Hicks contractions, false labor, that got people all excited and yet weren’t the big event. Christ is coming—he came to Bethlehem two thousand years ago, and he’s coming again—but we don’t know when.

The point isn’t to know for certain exactly when it’s going to happen. If you bet on an exact date, you’ll probably be just as wrong as people generally are at predicting the date of a baby’s birth. We can’t know, because even Jesus doesn’t know. The point is to be ready and waiting, to be paying attention and asking the question: is this it? Because, as sure as a baby can’t stay in the womb forever, sooner or later God’s kingdom will come. And if you’re not paying attention, if you’re not looking for it, you may miss the signs—just like pregnant women sometimes dismiss or ignore the signs of labor. My mom did that when my middle brother Nels was born. She assumed it would be a long labor, like she had with me, and so when she felt the first stirring she ignored it. Well, Nels came out a lot faster—and by the time she realized that, well, we almost didn’t make it to the hospital in time. It made his birth a lot more stressful and hard than it would have been if we’d been paying attention.

Then there’s the matter of preparation. Because once labor starts, you don’t have time to pack your bags. The time of getting ready is over and done with. If you’re not ready, well, you’re going to have to go as you are. You won’t have clothes to change into, or a toothbrush, or a camera, or anything else you might need. And that, too, will make the birth a lot more stressful than it needs to be.

We know how to get ready for an ordinary baby, but we’re not always sure how to get ready for the Holy Baby.  I mean, really, we know about Christmas trees and lights and things, but how much attention do we give to preparing our hearts and minds?  Preparing our world?  May we learn to watch and wait for the coming of Christ.

Amen.

A New Kind of Kingdom

Christ the King, Year A, November 25, 2014

Ezekiel 34:11-24, Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

 

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

At the ripe old age of 32, the holiday season turns me into a bit of a curmudgeon. Which holiday season, you may ask? ALL OF THEM, because these days the commercial rush to profit means they’re all in stores at the same time. By the time Halloween was over, the Christmas decorations were up in many stores, with Thanksgiving stuff shoehorned in anywhere it could go and the leftover Halloween costumes still in displays advertising half off. It makes me grumble, because back in MY day, Christmas preparations didn’t start until AFTER Thanksgiving, and there was a break between each holiday to catch your breath. This mish-mashed-everything-at-once is NOT the proper way to do things! Particularly when you consider that in the Church the Christmas season doesn’t start until December 25th. The month of December is the season of Advent, where we wait for Christ’s coming. Christmas, the celebration of his birth, doesn’t happen until the actual day! And the Wise Men don’t show up until Epiphany on January 6th!

But today I myself will be guilty of mixing up holiday seasons and mashing them together. You can see by the colors that today is a special day—not many days within the church calendar get the color white. Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church year. The Church year doesn’t begin in January, it begins in late November/early December with the First Sunday of Advent. So, Happy New Year! And, as at the secular New Year, it’s good to take a look back and a look ahead, as we contemplate what it means to proclaim that Christ is King.

What I noticed, as I studied our texts for today, is that the cute little baby we’ll see in the manger a month from now is the king on the throne on the day of Judgment, the one calling all people to account for their behavior in the earthly kingdoms before they enter God’s heavenly kingdom. And that cute little baby is also the one prophesied by Ezekiel in our first lesson, the new King David, who will come to create a kingdom based on justice and mercy, and not the power and inequity our worldly kingdoms are based on. And that baby, lying in a manger, will suffer and die to bring that kingdom to reality.

Let us be honest with one another. Our world, the kingdoms we build, falls far short of God’s desire for us. Instead of the justice God wants, we build up injustice. Instead of mercy, we act all too often out of hate, jealousy, fear, and greed. Consider the sheep metaphor from the first lesson. The strong sheep butted the weaker sheep out of the way so that they could get at the best food and then trampled it so that the weak got nothing. And the strong sheep drank their fill of water, and then fouled up the rest so that the weak sheep didn’t get any. The strong got stronger and the weak got weaker, and the ones who were supposed to shepherd the flock did nothing. That’s kind of like our world. Since the economic bust of 2008, there has been a great recovery in the economy … but outside of North Dakota, most of that recovery has been among the richest Americans, passing the majority of the middle class by and leaving the poor even poorer. Even here, where we’ve got the oil boom to rev up the economy, the number of people in need of help with basics such as rent and food has soared. Some have been left behind. Others have gotten pushed out of the way of progress.

It happens in sports, too. Consider the Sayreville Football team, where ‘hazing’ meant that older players sexually assault younger players. When the coach found out and cancelled the football season, the parents were outraged. Many of the parents of the older boys were more upset that their son couldn’t play than that he had participated in horrible crimes. Consider the many professional sports players who have been caught on tape in the last few years abusing their families: wives, children, girlfriends, and then getting little or no punishment or intervention because their wealth and status protected them from consequences. The powerful abuse the powerless, and use their position to protect themselves from justice.

Think about your own life: how many times have you seen somebody powerful and well-respected get their way, while others get pushed aside? How often have you seen people get hurt by someone else’s desires? How often have you seen someone spoiling something so that nobody else can have it? How often have you been the one getting pushed out, and how often have you been the one doing the pushing? This is not the good and abundant life that God wants for us. This is not the way God wants God’s people to live. This is not the way God’s kingdom will be. In God’s kingdom, there will be justice. In God’s kingdom, all will be fed, and all will have enough. In God’s kingdom, there will be no divisions between people. In God’s kingdom, there will be no abuse or domination.

And so God sent a new David, a Messiah, an anointed King to establish his own reign of justice. To call all people to a world in which there is justice for all. Not just for the rich and powerful, not just for the respectable and popular, but for all people. A world where everyone gets enough and nobody gets too much. There’s a reason he was born in a stable, with no room in the inn—this new David, this baby Jesus, this God in human flesh, is going to know with every cell of his being what it’s like to be the one getting shut out in the cold. He’s going to know what it’s like to be hungry, to be naked, to be sick and alone. He’s going to know all this because he’s experienced it, he’s suffered it, he’s been abused and shut out and he knows what it’s like. So every time you see someone suffering from hunger, Jesus is there. Whenever you see someone without a home, Jesus is there. Whenever you see someone who is sick and alone, Jesus is there. Whenever you see someone imprisoned, Jesus is there. We like to focus on the nice pretty stuff—the things as pretty as a newborn baby—and forget the messy stuff. The hard stuff. The painful stuff. But Jesus is present in the pain and grief as much as he is in the joy and healing. No one suffers alone, because Jesus is with them. Jesus, who gets what you’re going through because he’s lived through it.

And this baby Jesus out in the cold is going to grow up. He’s going to give his wisdom and his miracles and his justice to any who will listen—rich and poor, old and young, healthy and sick, powerful and powerless. He’s going to tell them about God’s kingdom. And he’s going to die to plant the seeds of God’s kingdom, and one day he’s going to come back and bring those seeds to their full growth. And so, a few weeks before he was killed, Jesus told this story about what his kingdom will be like. It will be a kingdom where Ezekiel’s words will be true, a kingdom where the powerful will not abuse the powerless, a kingdom where everyone has enough to eat and clothes to wear and no one is sick or hurting. And as people come streaming in to this awesome, incredible place, this wonderful kingdom, the king will know about us. Our deepest fears, our deepest hopes, the things we did that are worthy of him and the things we wish he didn’t know.

And for some people, the kingdom won’t be completely new. It won’t be completely unexpected, because they’ve been participating in it all along. They’ve been spending their time in this kingdom trying to make it look more like that kingdom. So when they see someone hungry in this world, they feed them. When they see someone thirsty, they give them a drink. When they see someone sick, they take care of them. When they see someone in prison, they visit them. When they see any kind of injustice or abuse, they speak up. Even if they don’t see Jesus in what they do, even if they don’t see Jesus in the faces of the people they help, Jesus is there. Whether or not they’re even looking for him, whether or not they even believe in him, Jesus is there. And he will say to them “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

But other people are going to get a rude surprise. Because they weren’t participating in the work of the kingdom. They saw people in need, people hurting, and didn’t do anything. Maybe they didn’t think there was anything they could do. Maybe they didn’t think that the people deserved help. Maybe they thought someone else would do something. Maybe they were afraid of what people might think. Maybe they were the ones hurting people, or maybe they benefitted from it. For whatever reason, they haven’t been living the kind of life God calls us to. And so while they’ve been looking for their king in the bright and powerful and glorious places, they’ve been missing the king living among them, in the corners and shoved off to the side and forgotten.

Because that’s the kind of king we have. He doesn’t do what we expect—he doesn’t surround himself with the rich and powerful, he doesn’t dole out grace by the teaspoon to those who deserve it. He gives of himself freely, to all people. He lifts up the lowly and knocks down the powerful. He feeds his flock with justice, and is present wherever there is pain, or hunger, or thirst, or nakedness, or sickness, or fear, or hate. He brings joy and hope and justice in the midst of hopelessness and he calls his people to do the same. May we lead lives following our king’s commands.

Amen.