Christmas Eve sermon: Doubts at the Manger

manger scene transparent

Text used – Luke 2:1-20 (NRSV)





One of the things that I love to do on occasion is write poetry inspired by Scripture and use that as my sermon. Special holidays, like Christmas Eve, feel like especially appropriate times for that. So that’s what I did this year! 

Someday, I would love to turn these poems into a book, so to preserve my individual creativity, I will not be posting the text of my Christmas Eve sermon. However, if you’d like to listen, please feel free.

I hope and pray you and yours had a blessed and restful Christmas celebration.

Pastor Lisa sign

Sunday’s sermon: Old Thing, New Thing, Bold Thing, True Thing

Old Testament New Testament

Text used – Luke 1:5-25, 57-80





  • So, I need your help this morning, y’all. You’re going to help provide the sermon illustration this morning. I have a question for you:
    • What’s a holiday tradition that you cherish? Something that was handed down from family? [ANSWERS]
    • Okay … follow-up to that (and be honest!): Have you tweaked that tradition at all? Have you made any alterations to it – slight or otherwise? [ANSWERS]
    • There are few times of year as steeped in tradition as Christmas, right? We have traditions about how we decorate – when we put up the tree, what ornaments go on, what goes on the top. We have traditions about what we eat – recipes handed down, meals that we replicate from year to year, tastes and smells that transport us immediately back to Christmases past. We have traditions about things that we do and places we go – special days and ways that we shop and wrap gifts, special light displays that we visit and revisit year after year, organizations to which we give our financial support or our time or both. But every so often, a tradition changes, right?
      • New traditions born
      • Old traditions given a bit of an update
      • Doesn’t make the original iteration of the tradition any less meaningful or important → just means that we are growing and changing and making our mark as our families and lives grow and change, too
  • Throughout the fall, we’ve been winding our way through the Old Testament, hearing some of the old stories of our faith. Some were stories we’ve heard before and were hearing again. Some were stories we’d never heard before. Today, we make the shift from Old Testament to New Testament with this story of the pronouncement and birth of John the Baptist. → story that really has a foot in both worlds – OT and NT
    • First part of the story = angel Gabriel bringing news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and the impending birth of a new prophet
      • Gabriel to Zechariah in text: He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.[1] — Zechariah’s response = disbelief – flat out asks Gabriel, “How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old.”[2] → This first part of the story sounds a lot like another out-of-the-ordinary, amazing birth story that we read back in Sept.[3]
        • Abraham and Sarah camped out under the Oaks of Mamre for the day
        • Visited by 3 strangers → tell Abraham that his wife, Sarah, is going to have a baby
        • Because of her advanced age, Sarah is so disbelieving at this that she laughs
        • 9 mos. later, Isaac is born
        • So even in the beginning of our story for today, we get a story that is old being retold and relived and rewritten by the God who started it all.
          • Scholar picks up on this repetition and its significance: From the very beginning of his Gospel, Luke reminds us of an even earlier beginning, the beginning of the story of God’s relationship with God’s people Israel. … The entire story of God’s covenant relationship with Israel, beginning with the promise to Abraham and Sarah, is coming to fulfillment in this story Luke tells – this story that begins, once again, with a promise and a birth against all odds.[4] → That’s what today’s Scripture reading is all about: God doing an old thing in a new time, a new place, a new way – a way that is bold and world-altering, a way that is true and sacred and holy.
      • Twist on the old story in today’s text = Gabriel’s response (a bit of a holy mic drop) – text: The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. Know this: What I have spoken will come true at the proper time. But because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.”[5] → Maybe it’s crazy, but I find this part of the story just a bit comical. I mean, can’t you just imagine Zechariah’s doubt and disbelief. Can’t you just imagine him saying, “Wait … what now? Is this a joke? How can I be sure of this? How can I be sure this is real? How can I be sure this isn’t a dream? How can I be sure of this?”
        • Gr. “sure” = dense word – layers of knowing (to be struck by something + realize + acknowledge + understand) → This is more than just a shallow, surface understanding. It goes layer upon layer down to a deeper understanding – from that initial, shocking revelation to the dawning of realization to acknowledgment and finally to a deep, foundational understanding. It’s the same way we process any kind of earth-shaking, life-changing news.
          • Story of finding out we were having twins: very first doctor appt/ultrasound → initial inkling = line down the center of the image on the u/s screen → doctor’s words: “Oh, it looks like you’re having twins. Did you know that already?” (How could we know that already?!?!) → understand more fully as she pointed out various images on the screen → finally processing and taking in the information as we waited for blood work following that appt → calling our parents from the lab waiting room and hearing ourselves disbelievingly say, “Ummm, Mom? Yeah, everything’s fine. But there are two of them. Yup. Two of them. Twins.” → It is this deeper, fuller, more comprehensive kind of understanding that Zechariah is asking about, and really, who can blame him, right?
        • Gabriel’s response is a bit “tit for tat” = Zechariah’s protest: “But I am old.” Gabriel’s response: “But I am Gabriel.” – goes on to enumerate not only his credentials as an angel (“I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you.”[6]) but also add a bit of a kick at the end (in an exasperated tone, I imagine) – text: Because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.[7] → And there’s the new twist on the old story. Lucky Sarah who laughed in disbelief and simply got chastised for it. Unlucky Zechariah who asks a question and gets muted for 9 months while he waits for the birth of this truly unbelievable boy.
      • One thing we can’t ignore in this first part of the story = the setting – text: One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God because his priestly division was on duty. Following the customs of priestly service, he was chosen by lottery to go into the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense. → So Zechariah is a priest who is in the midst of worshipping in the house of the Lord when Gabriel appears to him.
        • Scholar highlights importance of this: Here is a story of a priest who was praying fervently but who was not prepared for his prayers to be answered. He was officiating in the sanctuary itself, but he did not really expect to experience God’s presence. The scene once again challenges us, this time to trust in God expectantly and to be prepared for God’s response to our needs.[8]
    • 2nd part of the story = physical answer to those fervent prayers – birth of this long-awaited child → more old-vs.-new mash-ups
      • Big deal is made of the naming of the child
        • Tradition = name this child after his father
        • BUT both Zechariah and Elizabeth had the words of Gabriel circling in their minds: The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John.”[9]
        • Reads a bit like a church basement ladies skit, doesn’t it?[10]
          • 8 days after birth = circumcision and naming ceremony (called a bris) → nosy-but-well-meaning neighbors and relatives and religious officials (Zechariah’s colleagues, remember) want to name the baby Zechariah
          • Elizabeth tells the nosy-but-well-meaning neighbors and relatives and religious officials, “His name is John.”
          • Assembled crowd can’t believe that she and Zechariah are bucking this time-honored Hebrew tradition (commence the meddling!) – text: They said to her, “None of your relatives have that name.” Then they began gesturing to his father to see what he wanted to call him.[11]
            • SIDE NOTE: Y’all, this is why so many people I know don’t reveal the names they’ve picked for this children until the ink on the birth certificate has already dried!
          • Zechariah motions for something to write on and reinforces what his wife has already said: “His name is John.”
          • Instant affirmation – text: At that moment, Zechariah was able to speak again, and he began praising God. All their neighbors were filled with awe, and everyone throughout the Judean highlands talked about what had happened. All who heard about this considered it carefully. They said, “What then will this child be?”[12]
    • 2nd half of the 2nd part of today’s story = Zechariah’s prophecy → Zechariah declaring boldly and truly both the old and constant faithfulness of God and the brilliant newness of the thing that God was about to do – text: Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house, just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago. He has brought salvation from our enemies and from the power of all those who hate us. He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and remembered his holy covenant, the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham. He has granted that we would be rescued from the power of our enemies so that we could serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes, for as long as we live. You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way. You will tell his people how to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins. Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.[13] → Zechariah seamlessly weaves the old and the new together, speaking simultaneously of what God has done for the people of Israel in the past and what God is about to do, all the while boldly declaring the goodness and mercifulness and steadfast love of God, a truth that rang true throughout the ages … a truth that rings true for us today … a truth that will continue to ring true throughout the ages to come.
      • Love of a God willing to enter into sacred and holy covenant relationship with a people flawed and broken and inconsistent
      • Love of a God willing to reach out to those people again and again through words, through actions, through miracles, through story after story after story
      • Love of a God willing to do the ultimate new thing based on the old love – to be born as one of us: vulnerable and needing, able to laugh and to cry and to love in a whole new way, the same old flesh and bone with a spirit wholly and holy new and bold and true
      • It is this old thing for which we wait. It is this new thing for which we wait. It is this bold thing for which we wait. It is this true thing for which we wait. And hallelujah, friends … the wait is nearly over. Amen.

[1] Lk 1:16-17.

[2] Lk 1:18.

[3] Gen 18:1-15.

[4] Elisabeth Johnson. “Commentary on Luke 1:5-13, [14-25] 57-80” from Working Preaching, Accessed Dec. 22, 2019.

[5] Lk 1:19-20.

[6] Lk 1:19.


[8] R. Alan Culpepper. “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 9. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 49 (emphasis added).

[9] Lk 1:13.

[10] Lk 1:57-66.

[11] Lk 1:61-62.

[12] Lk 1:64-66a.

[13] Lk 1:68-79.

Sunday’s sermon: Joy That’s Bittersweet

joy bittersweet

Text used – Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13





  • Are you all familiar with the idea of the tongue map?
    • Concept that various areas on your tongue contain different taste receptors
      • Back of the tongue = bitter
      • Sides (toward the back) = sour
      • Sides (toward the front) = salty
      • Tip/front = sweet
    • Well, I was prepared to use that as my sermon illustration this morning, so I started looking into it a little more deeply, and I discovered something: the idea of the tongue map is … a myth.[1]
      • Origin in some research done by a German scientist back in 1901 – research confirmed that there are parts of our tongues that are more sensitive to flavor in general (more taste buds concentrated around the edges of our tongues) → The problem arose in the way the scientist presented his finding. It was a vague graph that was ambiguous to read at best. The graph made it look like different parts of the tongue were responsible for different tastes as opposed to showing that different parts of the tongue are more sensitive or receptive to taste in general.
      • Taste map itself (as its been taught for decades) came from a Harvard psychology professor in 1940 who decided to reimagine that original (inaccurate) graph and drew up the taste/tongue map we know today

tongue map

      • Tongue map = concept that’s been debunked for a long time
        • Questions started with medical experiments in 1965
        • Continued by American researcher in Florida in 1993
    • I have to be honest with you: when I learned that what I thought was going to be a great sermon illustration was actually completely untrue, I was a little confused for a bit. But then I did a little more reading, and I discovered that in the last 15 years, researchers have discovered that the way our tongues and our taste buds distinguish between these different flavors – salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and the fifth flavor umami (a savory flavor that the original researchers didn’t test or name) … The way that our tongues and taste buds distinguish between these different flavors is through receptor proteins in the cells in our taste buds.[2]
      • Bitter receptor proteins = different than sweet receptor proteins = different than salty receptor proteins … and so on.
      • Receptor proteins ≠ grouped in specific areas of the tongue (as originally presented by the tongue map) but exist simultaneously side-by-side
    • So I started thinking about this information, and I realized that even though it wasn’t what I had originally been thinking about, it works even better than I had initially thought it would. You see, we find ourselves in Advent – in this time of waiting: waiting for Christmas, waiting for a star and angels and shepherds, waiting for the birth of the Messiah. And we’re waiting with sweet joy knowing that the birth of this baby will bring about salvation for all … but we also wait knowing the rest of the story, knowing how that salvation will have to come about: through the bitterness of betrayal and arrest, trial and false conviction, crucifixion and death, and ultimately resurrection.
      • Also cannot inhabit this space of holiday preparation without acknowledging that it’s not a holly jolly holiday for everyone
        • Those grieving and missing people
        • Those dealing with difficult family dynamics in this season when Hallmark pushes harmonious family togetherness
        • Those dealing with financial struggles and all the stress that presents in the face of the giving expectations of this season
        • Those battling illnesses and those watching loved ones battle illnesses
        • Those who don’t have a home to take refuge in
        • Those who are barred from being with their loved ones by distance, work commitments, prison, and other reasons
        • Words from Julie Beck a few years ago: “This year the sweetness of Christmas has been dented … light shines in the darkness but it is very still and very, very small.” → not the reality for everyone this holiday season, but it is certainly the reality for some
  • So here we are in this time of year sitting simultaneously with both the sweet and the bitter, holding them both in tension with one another, and in that space, we hear this morning’s Scripture.
    • Context:[3]
      • We’ve talked about the Babylonian captivity a number of times.
        • 597 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (modern day Iraq) conquered the southern kingdom of Judah → deported all the best and brightest of the people of Israel (scholars, politicians, priests, etc.) and forced them to live in Babylon
        • Captivity ended when King Cyrus the Great of Persia (modern day Iran) conquered the Babylonian empire in 538 BCE
    • Today’s passage = the end of that captivity! → reading = 3 separate parts to the story
      • Pt. 1 = declaration of the end of captivity – text: In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia’s rule, to fulfill the Lord’s word spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Persia’s King Cyrus. The king issued a proclamation throughout his kingdom (it was also in writing) that stated: Persia’s King Cyrus says: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has commanded me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. If there are any of you who are from his people, may their God be with them! They may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the house of the Lord, the God of Israel – he is the God who is in Jerusalem.[4]
        • Doesn’t stop there → instructs all the Babylonian neighbors of the exiles Jews to supply them with silver and gold, goods and livestock = “spontaneous gifts for God’s house in Jerusalem”
        • I want you to stop for a minute and imagine what this must have been like for the Jews who had been exiled in Babylon for so long.
          • Imagine the initial fear they must have felt – people of Israel had been conquered so many times, and there they were in a foreign land being conquered yet again → The previous conqueror had torn them from their homeland and their families, their friends and the heart of their worship. What would this new conqueror do? Would he be better? Would he be worse? What did this Persian King Cyrus have in store for them?
          • Imagine the shock and disbelief when they heard the decree – that they were not only to return to Jerusalem but that Cyrus was going to help them “build the house of the Lord, the God of Israel” → Remember, the First Temple was destroyed in the Babylonian siege on Jerusalem. The siege itself took a few months with the Babylonian army pressing closer and closer to the heart of Jerusalem – breaching city walls, destroying homes and property, bringing the famine and disease that were inevitable with any and every siege, and killing thousands of Israelites in the process. When they finally reached the Temple, they set fire to it. According to the Talmud, the fire began just after the conclusion of Sabbath worship (Friday), and by Sunday night, the Temple was completely destroyed.[5] There would certainly have been Jews in exile who would have remembered that horrible experience. And yet here they were a generation later, not only being released from their forced captivity but being encouraged to return to Jerusalem and being provided with assistance in rebuilding the Temple.
            • Importance of the Temple = only place in which holy sacrifices could take place
      • Pt. 2 = return and the beginning of the building process
        • Text gives us a little bit of the passage of time: When the seventh month came and the Israelites were in their towns, the people gathered as one in Jerusalem.[6] → And what was one of the first things they did once they finally returned to Jerusalem? – text: [They] started to rebuild the altar of Israel’s God so that they might offer entirely burned offerings upon it as prescribed in the Instruction from Moses the man of God.[7] → Before building walls, before building any kind of sanctuary or seating, before worrying about any of the other sacred accoutrements, they built the altar so they could worship.
          • Powerful thing to imagine: brand new altar built there among any remaining rubble from the first Temple, open to the air and the elements and the sunshine and the desert wind, people gathered around it in a crowd for the sole purpose of worship
          • Not just a simple “one and done” worship – text: They celebrated the Festival of Booths, as prescribed. Every day they presented the number of entirely burned offerings required by ordinance for that day.[8]
            • Festival of Booths (a.k.a. – Festival of Tabernacles or Festival of Shelters) = harvest festival → Each family present for the celebration would construct their own booth with palm branches and an open roof as a reminder of when their ancestors wandered in the wilderness.[9] So even in the midst of the sweet joy and celebration of this new Temple, this new beginning, this return to their holy homeland, the people of Israel held the sorrow and bitterness of many forms of exile in their memories and in their worship.
      • See that in pt. 3 of the story = the people’s reaction → best illustrates both the bitter and the sweet in this Scripture reading
        • Speaks of the joy of the priests as they fulfilled their duties and the foundation of the new Temple was laid
          • Priestly garments and trumpets and cymbals
          • Text: They praised and gave thanks to the Lord, singing responsively, “He is good, his graciousness for Israel lasts forever.”[10]
        • Speaks of the enthusiastic, jubilant response of the people – text: All of the people shouted with praise to the Lord because the foundation of the Lord’s house had been laid.
        • But in the same breath, it also speaks of the people’s lament and grief for the experiences they’d had, the first Temple that they’d lost, and the pain that they’d suffered at the hands of others. – text: But many of the older priests and Levites and heads of families, who had seen the first house, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this house, although many others shouted with joy.[11]
    • Final verse = crux of it all: No one could distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, because the people rejoiced very loudly. The sound was heard at a great distance.[12] → And there it is. The sweet, sweet joy of a new beginning inhabiting the same space … the same worship … the same breath as the bitter pang of grief and loss and pain. Joy and pain that had lived side-by-side in the hearts of those in exile for so long. Joy and pain that couldn’t help but be built into the walls and woven in the rich fabrics of the tapestries for that new Temple as it grew up on the site of the destruction and desecration of the old Temple. Joy and pain that would be incarnate in that little baby for whom we wait – a baby who would be born to save the descendants of those rebuilding that Temple, who would teach and worship himself within its walls, who would be tried and convicted within its walls as well, who would hear both the sweet joy of “Hosanna!” and the bitter pain of “Crucify!”
      • Fellow clergywoman and Ph.D. candidate Rachel Wrenn: Ultimately, this is a story of redemption, but painful redemption; of return, but a return marked with grief; of rejoicing, but of a joy that is inextricably linked to the losses that came before. It is a story of ambiguous joy—and are not our lives? For that matter, is that not the core of Advent itself?[13] [PAUSE] Amen.

[1] Steven D. Munger. “The Taste Map of the Tongue You Learned in School Is All Wrong” from The Smithsonian, Posted May 23, 2017, accessed Dec. 15, 2019.

[2] Munger,

[3] “Babylonian Captivity” from Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Accessed Dec. 15, 2019.

[4] Ezra 1:1-3.

[5] “Destruction of the First Temple” from, Accessed Dec. 15, 2019.

[6] Ezra 3:1.

[7] Ezra 3:2.

[8] Ezra 3:4.

[9] Rabbi Jack Zimmerman. “Sukkot, The Feast of Booths (known to some as the Feast of Tabernacles)” from Jewish Voice, Published Dec. 2, 10215, accessed Dec. 15, 2019.

[10] Ezra 3:11.

[11] Ezra 3:12.

[12] Ezra 3:13.

[13] Rachel Wrenn. “Commentary on Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13” for Working Preacher, Accessed Dec. 15, 2019.

Sunday’s sermon: Wilderness Walking and Comfort Calling

John Muir Trail Yosemite

Text used – Isaiah 40:1-11




  • “Wherever we go in the mountains, or indeed in any of God’s wild fields, we find more than we seek.” – John Muir[1] → Once upon a time, there was a man named John. John was born in a small coastal town in Scotland, but when he was 11 years old, his family emigrated to America and settled in one of the wildest, wooliest places on earth: Wisconsin. Portage, to be exact. Being a dutiful son, when he got older, John went to college and began a career in mechanical invention. It was the 1860, and John was riding the powerful, unstoppable wave of the Industrial Revolution … but John got a little too caught up in that wave. Four years after graduating from college and beginning his career, John was involved in an industrial accident that nearly cost him his eye. Instead of returning to such a perilous career, John Muir devoted himself to nature.
    • Walked from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico (wrote a book about it published posthumously: A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf)
    • Traveled extensively in parts of the southwest (Utah and Nevada) and along the west coast of the U.S. (California, Oregon, Washington, even Alaska) → first to propose theory that the incredible natural Yosemite formations were made by glacial erosion (widely accepted today)
    • 1876: embarked on what would be his most important contribution: advocating for forest conservation
      • Published myriad of articles in magazines
      • Differed from his contemporaries who wanted to establish protected land but also utilize the resources of that land → Muir’s approach: lands should be preserved in their entirety and off-limits to development/resource harvesting of any/all kinds
      • Co-founded the Sierra Club along with Professor Henry Senger (Berkley, CA), an organization dedicated to environmental advocacy and protection to this day
      • Influential in the establishment of a number of national parks including Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park (California), Mount Rainier National Park (Washington), and Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)
      • Photography (bulletin cover photo): recognized the impact visual images can have on people’s opinions and decisions → allowed him to share his profound wilderness experiences with a wider audience
    • “Wherever we go in the mountains, or indeed in any of God’s wild fields, we find more than we seek..” It’s easy to see how John Muir earned the nicknames “John of the Mountains” and “Father of the National Parks.” Clearly, for him, the wilderness was something to be treasured, something to be preserved and protected, something special and sacred. But for so many, “the wilderness” is something intimidating – something vast and unknown where all sorts of scary things could be hiding. Or “the wilderness” is something remote and detached from their day-to-day lives – something “out there,” something reserved for the once-in-a-lifetime family summer road trip to Yellowstone a la Clark and Ellen Griswold. Or “the wilderness” is only a commodity – wasted space to be mined and drained and developed and dominated. And yet, another of John Muir’s quotes resonates: “And into the woods I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”
      • Advent = season of preparation and reflection → season meant to mirror the contemplation, self-examination, and even repentance of Lent
        • Notice the liturgical color for both = purple → purple = color of royalty and also of repentance
      • Advent = surely a season of spiritual wilderness wandering → something we usually shy away from/try to avoid … But maybe – just maybe – wilderness wandering isn’t such a bad thing after all.
  • Scripture presents an interesting relationship with wilderness wandering
    • Now, if the idea of wilderness wandering makes you nervous or uncomfortable, you are far from alone. → certainly have a history of negative wilderness wandering in the Bible
      • Hagar and Ishmael = forced to wander in the wilderness after Sarah’s jealously compels Abraham to expel them from his home[2]
      • People of Israel = forced to wander in the wilderness for 40 yrs. when they refused to trust God after being liberated from Egypt[3]
      • Jesus’ encounters with Satan in the wilderness following his baptism in the Jordan River[4]
    • And while the wilderness of the Bible definitely looked different than the wilderness that John Muir dedicated his life to, it was just as wild, just as unpredictable, just as simultaneously full of delight and danger, possibility and peril. → more positive wilderness wandering experiences in Scripture
      • Moses wandering in the desert with sheep and encountering God in a burning bush[5]
      • Elijah encountering God on Mount Horeb in the utter silence that followed the wind storm, the earthquake, and the fire[6]
      • And, of course, we have another John of the Wilderness – John the Baptist. – Lk’s gospel: God’s word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. This is just as it was written in the scroll of the words of Isaiah the prophet, A voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight. Every valley will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be leveled. The crooked will be made straight and the rough places made smooth. All humanity will see God’s salvation.”[7] → Sound familiar? That’s our text for today – a text that speaks of wilderness wandering not in a scary sense, not wilderness wandering as a punishment or a consequence, not as something to be feared or dreaded, but as a blessing … as a comfort … as a calling. Wilderness wandering with a purpose.
    • Today’s text: Comfort, comfort my people! says your God. Speak compassionately to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended, that her penalty has been paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins! A voice is crying out: “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. The Lord’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together.”[8] → Today’s text is actually a call to go out and wander in the wilderness. It’s a call to find those wild places, those rough places, those places that pull you so far outside your comfort zone you can’t even see the borders of that comfort zone anymore. Because that’s our “wilderness wandering” today, isn’t it, friends?
      • Wilderness wandering today = intentional time in uncomfortable spaces
        • Situations that tug at our growing edges
        • Places that look nothing like our norm
        • Relationships that challenge us to more clearly understand both ourselves and the other person
        • IMPORTANT NOTE: not dangerous places – not places/situations/relationships that put your physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual health in jeopardy
        • But at the same time, wilderness wandering isn’t supposed to be easy and carefree. It’s not supposed to be something taken lightly. It’s not the kind of experience from which you emerge exactly the same as you were when you went in. Wilderness wandering is supposed to both challenge and change us.
          • Implied in the Heb.: “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!” → “clear” (translated “prepare” in many texts) = expectation of work and effort attached to it but also expectation of a change of course
            • = “turn away/turn around/turn aside”
            • = “concern yourself with”
            • = “clear up/clear away”
            • = “pay attention”
            • When you swirl all these ideas together – all of these layers of meaning – into one word, you’re left with an intentional experience that changes both the world around you and the world within you. You’re left with wilderness wandering.
          • Documentary on Amazon Prime: “All Who Dare”[9]
            • Eagle Rock School outside Estes Park, CO – school that combines standard learning with wilderness experiences → from their website: “Eagle Rock School serves adolescents who are not thriving in their current situations, for whom few positive options exist, and who are interested in taking control of their lives and learning.”[10]
            • Documentary follows one “patrol” (group of 9 new students) as they embark on their very first course/experience at Eagle Rock: a 24-day wilderness excursion meant to test them and encourage them and help them build relationships with each other and confidence in themselves
            • These students all choose to come to Eagle Rock. They recognize that the situations they’re living in at home – whatever those situations may be – aren’t the best for them, and so they apply to Eagle Rock hoping for a change. Not just a simple change. Not just a slow and easy, comfortable, nearly-undetectable change. They apply hoping for a drastic change – a change in their circumstances, a change in their outlook, a change in themselves.
  • You see, friends, that’s what wilderness wandering is all about – recognizing the need for something different, something new, something out-of-the-ordinary. And taking that first step – that first step into the wilderness, that first step into the unknown. Because you know what? That’s where God is.
    • No matter whether it was a positive wilderness experience like John the Baptist’s or a more distressing wilderness experience like Hagar and Ishmael’s, God was there in the wilderness
      • God found Hagar and Ishmael and provided for them
      • God wandered along with the people of Israel throughout those 40 yrs., protecting and leading and teaching them
      • God stayed with Jesus in the wilderness as he rebuffed Satan’s temptations
      • Moses encountered God and a whole new calling in that burning bush
      • Elijah heard the voice of God calling him to leave the safety of the cave and find his successor, Elisha
      • And of course, John the Baptist not only heard God’s call in the wilderness and found his place there but also called others to God in the wilderness, baptizing hundred in the Jordan River before Jesus himself would find John in the wilderness for the very same thing.
    • Today’s text: A voice was saying: “Call out!” And another said, “What should I call out?” … Go up on a high mountain, messenger Zion! Raise your voice and shout, messenger Jerusalem! Raise it; don’t be afraid; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” Here is the Lord God, coming with strength, with a triumphant arm, bringing his reward with him and his payment before him. Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock; he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap. He will gently guide the nursing ewes.[11]
      • Calling is clear – a call to call
        • To share the good news
        • To share our faith → what it is for us, what it means to us, what it’s been for us
        • To share our own wilderness wanderings
      • Comfort is clear as well → even in the midst of the difficulty and unfamiliarity and challenge of wilderness wanderings, God is with us, guiding and protecting like a shepherd caring tenderly and steadfastly for even the smallest, most vulnerable lambs in the flock
  • So be reassured, friends. We cannot avoid wilderness wanderings in our lives, and to be honest, we shouldn’t avoid them. Because in the wilderness, we find both a calling and a comfort.
    • Line from Lord of the Rings: “Not all who wander are lost …” → And to that I say, “Thanks be to God.” Now with all the love I can muster, I say, “Let’s get lost.” Amen.

[1] “John Muir: Scottish-born American Naturalist” from Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Accessed Dec. 7, 2019.

[2] Gen 16:1-16; 21:8-21.

[3] Num 13-14.

[4] Lk 4:1-12.

[5] Ex 3.

[6] 1 Kgs 19.

[7] Lk 3:2b-6.

[8] Is 40:1-5a.

[9] Kiera Faye, director. “All Who Dare,” released by Jakfoto Films, © 2017.



Sunday’s sermon: One Promise to Rule Them All

one ring

Text used – Jeremiah 33:14-18




  • [READ The Fellowship of the Ring[1] – pp. 48-49] → “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness, bind them.” So begins probably The Most Epic quest story of all time. You know, if we had a screen, I could really nerd out for a minute and play the movie clip for you … but since we don’t, you’ll just have to make do with what has become probably one of the most famous lines in movie history: “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”
    • One Ring = ring of power forged by evil Lord Sauron
    • Purpose = basically world domination
      • Rule over the other rings of power
      • Rule over the free will of those unlucky enough to be bearers of the ring
      • Rule over all the various races: elves and humans, dwarves and hobbits alike
    • One Ring to unite all the power, all the darkness, all the evil in one single, simple-looking gold ring and impose dominion for all time – “One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”
    • And throughout the entire epic adventure, Tolkien’s beloved cast of characters puts life, love, and limb on the line time and time again just to make sure that the One Ring doesn’t achieve its evil purpose of uniting all in evil and darkness. “One Ring to rule them all … One Ring to rule them all.”
  • Throughout the fall, we’ve been traveling through story after story in the Old Testament.
    • Began with the story of God creating humanity in the Garden of Eden
    • Touched on the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and various kings of Israel and Judah
    • Lots of ups and downs in those stories
      • Lots of challenges
      • Lots of big issues and ideas to grapple with
      • Lots of insights into faith and God
    • Lots of variety in these stories, too → But throughout all of them runs one common thread: relationship.
      • Created by God to be in relationship with God
      • Offer of special, sacred relationship from God to Abraham
      • Offer renewed over and over again
        • Through Jacob with whom God wrestled → result: God gave Jacob a new name, Israel, which means “triumphant with God” (inextricable relationship implied)
        • Through Joseph who carried the sacred relationship to a new land: Egypt
        • Through Moses who renewed the relationship in a burning bush and liberation and tablets of stone and 10 commandments
        • Through prophets like Elijah and Hosea
        • Through kings like David, Solomon, and Josiah
      • Special name for this relationship used throughout Scripture: covenant.
        • Powerful word throughout Scripture – Dr. Schlimm: The fundamental idea is that God and the covenant people are bound together in the closest imaginable ways. … It’s amazing that God willingly enters into such an agreement. … [Covenant making] created a powerful bond between two parties.[2]
        • Each covenant different slightly. The covenant – the sacred, binding promise – that God made with Abraham wasn’t exactly the same as the one God made with Jacob or Moses or King David. And none of them were the same as the unspoken covenant in which God created humanity – beings who could create and love and imagine and hope in God’s own image … what stronger sacred relationship could there be?! But as I said, the common thread that ran through each of those individual covenant promises was the promise of sacred, unprecedented, inimitable relationship with God Most High.
    • PROBLEM: in creating beings who could create and love and imagine and hope like God, God had the silly idea to give us free will → Because when you think about it, is love really love when choice is removed from the equation? If we didn’t willingly choose to love God and be in relationship with God, would it actually be a relationship … or would it be something more mundane, more passive, more subservient? So in hopes of a love more genuine and reciprocal, God gave us free will so that we could, in turn, freely choose God every minute of every day. If that’s what we choose … which time and again, we fail to do.
      • Failure to freely choose God = reason for so many covenants → Every time the people turned away from God, God reached out to them – through pilgrims, through prophets, through kings, through every possible way God could think of. And it would work for a while. The people would return. They would worship God lovingly and freely, reveling in that holy promise and that sacred relationship. But inevitably, the people would fall away again.
  • And so we come to today’s text: The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people if Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord is Our Righteousness.[3] → And God said, “It’s time to do a new thing.” After centuries of the people falling away and returning and falling away and returning and falling away again, God knew that something different – something drastic! – needed to be done. And so God prepared to do the most drastic thing of all: to fulfill that sacred promise of relationship with humans as a human. God chose to come down to earth in the form of one of those beloved, vulnerable, messy and messed up creature God had created: us.
    • Way for God to fulfill that holy and unprecedented promise of relationship that God made in creation and tried so diligently and purposefully to maintain → This promise spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was truly God’s One Promise to bring all the other promises to fruition and fulfillment.
      • See this in the Heb. in a really interesting way – Heb. for “I will fulfill my gracious promise”
        • Expect “promise” to be the typical word for “covenant,” right? Nope. → The Hebrew word used here is actually “word.”
        • Heb. “fulfill” = complex word with lots of meanings including “recover,” “continue,” and “rise up to” → So God is essentially saying to the people, “I will rise up to the word that I gave you before. I will recover that word. I will continue that word.”
          • “Fulfill” also has interesting connotations both cost and belonging → So is God also implying that this new form of the promise – this re-creation and re-statement of that same sacred promise … this baby soon to be born in a stable … this God Incarnate, God-Made-Flesh, God-With-Us, Emmanuel … this fulfillment of promise in its most genuine, organic, intimate, human form ………… Is God implying that this promise will bring both belonging and cost as well?
            • Belonging = final, definitive, everlasting grace that welcomes us into God’s arms as children adopted through the free gift of grace offered to us through Jesus Christ
            • Cost = cost for both God and for us
              • Cost for God = painfully simple and complex at the same time → It’s as simple and as intricate, as beautiful and as brutal as the cross – the love that God displayed there, the sacrifice that God made there, the grace that was laid out for us there.
              • Cost for us = also simple and complex – cycles back to that pesky free will → As I said, in hopes of a love more genuine and reciprocal, God gave us free will so that we could, in turn, freely choose God every minute of every day. Choose God in the midst of easier, flashier, more instantly-gratifying options. Choose God in the midst of questions and doubts and uncertainties and fears, those of the world around us as well as those we harbor within ourselves. Choose God in the easy moments and the hard moment. Choose God in the light moments and the dark moments. Choose God in the hopeful moments and the hopeless moments. And what is sometimes hardest, choose God in all the routine, day-to-day, in between moments.
  • Because here’s the thing about this promise that we read today – these words from Jeremiah. They are eternal. Yes, they were spoken in a specific time and place to a specific people thousands of years ago. But their promise still stands. “I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land … And this is what he will be called: The Lord is Our Righteousness.” He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.[4] He will be called a prophet and a king, a rabbi and a friend, a blasphemer and a seditious radical, the One who comes in the name of the Lord and the One to be crucified. He will be called Jesus, and he will indeed be the ultimate, eternal, grace-filled fulfillment of God’s blessed and sacred promise of relationship. One Promise to rule them all, One Promise to find them, One Promise to bring them all and in a humble stable, bind them. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring. (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), 48-49.

[2] Matthew Richard Schlimm. 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2018), 101, 102.

[3] Jer 33:14-16.

[4] Is 9:6.