A sermon for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany

The prophet Micah was one of the four great prophets of Israel in the 8th century before Christ. It was the time of Amos, Isaiah, and Hosea.

These prophets did sometimes talk about things that were going to happen in the future, but their prophetic words shouldn’t be confused with fortune-telling. They were warnings more than predictions.

Their primary role as prophets was to show their people how the lives they were living fell short of the lives God intended for them.

In seven chapters, Micah had much to say about the shortcomings of his society. He railed against injustice; he called out the wealthy who prospered at the expense of the poor.

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A sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany: The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord

So Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan River and presented himself to be baptized.

Whatever that ritual looked like, we can be sure that it wasn’t much like a baptism we might have here at Good Shepherd. There was no dainty basin of nice clear water, waiting to be dripped over his head. He would have gone right into the water – you can see pictures of the site on the official Baptism Site of Jesus website.

Yes, there really is such a thing. It’s about the site in the nation of Jordan where we think the baptism of Jesus actually took place. It’s a tourist destination now, and people still go there to be baptized.Wouldn’t that be amazing – to be baptized in the same place as Jesus himself?

But for Jesus, this wasn’t sacramental Christian baptism as we know it. It had a different purpose. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins in preparation for the coming reign of God. It was about personal transformation. The people who came to John at the Jordan were ready for a new way of living, as preparation to live in a new and better world.

Of course Jesus didn’t need to have his sins forgiven, but he chose this baptism as a sign of commitment to his Father’s purpose – and in order to align himself with those others who were so eager to see the passing of the old order of “sin and “error” – of political oppression and hardship.

Moved by John’s preaching, the people who came to be baptized at the Jorden were ready to change themselves in hopes that it would be the beginning of changing the world.

And there came Jesus, the change himself.

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Funeral sermon for Peter G. Noll

In a small church community like Good Shepherd, the death of a member touches everyone. People have been talking about Pete this past week, trying to process the grief and shock we’re all feeling, and expressing their concern for the Noll family, and one thing that’s been said more than once is that it’s a shame that this happened at Christmas.

I think what they mean is that this Christmas has certainly not turned out to be the occasion of joy the Noll family might have been looking forward to, not all that long ago. And there’s also the recognition that some of the grief they’re feeling now might return to overshadow their celebration of Christmas in years to come – though of course, all of us who have ever lost a loved one realize that this probably will happen, no matter the season when that person died.

But Pete also has another connection to Christmas here in the Good Shepherd community. The Nolls often served as ushers at our Christmas Eve service.

I know I’ll always remember how seriously Pete took that role, coming up to me soon after he and Becky arrived at church to ask if there was “anything special” happening that day, anything in particular the ushers needed to do. And I knew that that I could count on him to make sure that whatever I mentioned in that regard would be taken care of, exactly as I requested.

And I missed him already last Saturday, Christmas Eve, as we got closer to 7 pm and I realized there were a couple of details I’d lost track of in the planning, and I could really have used his help with them. I imagine I’ll miss him a little every Christmas, in that way.

What a shame, people said, that this had to happen at Christmas.

There’s no ignoring it – we’re surrounded by reminders of the Christmas season as we gather here today to pray our farewell. But I think in a way that could be a good thing. That touching back to the meaning of Christmas might help carry us through the sadness we’re feeling today.

Not because the light and decorations will remind us that we’re supposed to be happy now, as if enough seasonal jolliness could simply wipe away our grief. No, I’m talking about something deeper, recalling the true meaning of this holiday, in the context of faith.

Because what is Christmas all about, when you get right down to it? What is the true meaning of Christmas?

As Christians we celebrate it as the feast of the Incarnation. We believe that God entered our world in the form of a baby, and that changed everything. Divine Love came directly into our world, and made it holy.

There’s a Christina Rossetti poem that appears in our hymnal as a Christmas carol – number 84 – Love came down at Christmas.

Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine;
love was born at Christmas: star and angels gave the sign.

God in human form lived a human life like ours – and in sharing our life, opened the way for us to share in the life of God, which is eternal. And we do that through love – love of God, certainly, but also through our love for each other.

We believe that this love which has come to us through Jesus has conquered death forever. That when we die, we do not cease to be, but only pass from this life to our true life in God.

Do not let your hearts be troubled,”[1] Jesus tells his friends near the time of his own death, in the Gospel reading Pete’s family chose for today.

In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places.”[2]

And Pete has “passed on” – that phrase really works in this context – passed on to another place.

In some ways, though, through love, he is still with us.

I’ve heard Becky, Steve, and Laura speak with love and humor about the ways they have felt his presence – even in as they experience the pain of his absence – during the past few days.

They will know his presence through love – through loving memory, and through their love for each other as a family.

As in a similar way, we experience God’s love and presence through human love.

There are those among us who experience the reality of God generously, easily. They just know that God is here with us.

For most of us, though, it isn’t like that, at least not all of the time.  Sometimes our best experience of the love of God is through other people.

That is another aspect of Incarnation, the presence of God in human form. And love is all around us in that way.

We know love in the many communities we belong to – large and small – even and maybe especially as small as a single family.

Love came into this world when Pete was born, and when he and Becky joined their lives together, and in the births of their children and grandchildren.

And this life – and this love – that is what we have to hold on to now.

So let today be a celebration of life and love.

Let it be a celebration of the love of God in our lives, and our participation in that love through our love for each other.

Let it be a celebration of the love that Pete brought to the world in his life.

Let us find joy and comfort in the love that continues – the love of family, the love of this community.

Let it be a source of strength, and reassurance.

Love came down at Christmas, as Christina Rossetti wrote.

Love shall be our token, love be yours and love be mine.

Amen.

[1] John 14:1 NRSV

[2] John 14:2 NRSV