Snake Bit

by: Rev. Jason Radmacher

Fourth Sunday in Lent

John 3:16 is one of the Bible’s most treasured passages. Many Christians regard it as their favorite scripture, finding in these words a beautiful summary of the Good News and a powerful source of inspiration.

Given the esteemed place John 3:16 holds in the hearts of God’s people, therefore, and the number of bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets, and religious nick-knacks it’s inspired, it’s more than a bit ironic that the verses that immediately precede it and give it its context reference one of the most mysterious and problematic objects ever mentioned in the Bible—the Brazen Serpent of the Exodus.

Hear again John’s words.

Jesus said,

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

This morning I hope to help us dig more deeply into the Good News of Jesus Christ by recounting the Brazen Serpent’s history, a story that begins in the book of the Bible called Numbers.

Numbers tells us that there came a point on the Exodus journey from Egypt to the Promised Land when God’s people became angry with Moses. Actually, the scripture says that there were many points on the journey when the people became angry with and questioned Moses. In this specific instance, the issue was a detour from what would have been the most straightforward road to their destination.

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way.

This is an imperfect analogy, but imagine if you and I left the church this afternoon to drive to Boston and as soon as we turned onto the Bronx River Parkway I told you that we were going to Boston by way of Chicago.

You’d certainly want to know why, and I’d probably have a hard time convincing you that I knew what I was doing.

Perhaps this helps us to empathize with the Israelites’ point of view just a little bit.
But even still, the Exodus wasn’t just a road trip. It was a pilgrimage, a journey with God that was filled with sites and wonders. After all, these were travelers who had walked over the Red Sea without getting their feet wet, witnesses to the thunder and lightning at Mount Sinai, and recipients of manna from heaven on a daily basis. Their journey had been filled with grace, and God had never left them wanting, so when the people grumbled, Moses took it personally, and so, it seems, did God.

Numbers 21 says that the people complained against God and Moses—rejecting the gifts they’d been given to accomplish the task at hand.

[So] the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

What a wild story, right? Of all the moments in Israel’s history Jesus could have referenced—of all the people, places, and events he could have invoked to make his point about God’s love and the gifts of salvation and new life—why did he choose the one about a shiny snake on a stick?

But wait, before you answer that. There’s even more to this story.

The scene from Numbers isn’t the only time the scripture mentions the Bronze Serpent. It actually shows up again—several centuries later—in a book called Second Kings where it’s revealed that the object made by Moses became an idol, a bronze god that corrupted the peoples’ hearts.

In Second Kings, the Brazen Serpent is such an odious thing that a good king named Hezekiah destroys it.

[Hezekiah] did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done…He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.

And that’s the last mention in the Bible of the serpent until Saint John wrote his Gospel.

So, what do we make of this?

Let’s review.

The Brazen Serpent was a relic from the Exodus fashioned by Moses at God’s command. Initially, the people associated this object with their prayers for deliverance and God’s gift of healing. The serpent was the sign that the Lord heard their prayers and wanted them to live.

Over time, however, the object that was once a sign of God’s healing presence became an end to itself. The serpent, divorced from the story of God’s love, became an idol and King Hezekiah destroyed it.

Centuries later, Jesus said that the Son of Man would be lifted up like the serpent, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Again, of all the moments in Israel’s history Jesus could have used to make his point, why this one?

I suppose the answer could be very simple.

Maybe Jesus is saying, “Way back then people looked up at the serpent on the stick and lived, and now, people will look up at me when I’m lifted up and live, too.”

That’s a possibility, but it leaves out a lot of the story, doesn’t it? And it seems strange that Jesus would make a one-to-one favorable comparison between himself and an object that had to be destroyed because of the ill effects it had on God’s people.

No, I think if we want to understand what Jesus says in John 3, we need to remember the ultimate fate of the Brazen Serpent in Second Kings. We need to remember that when the people forgot the connection between the serpent and God’s love, the serpent ceased to be of any benefit to them.

Without the Good News of God’s mercy and forgiveness, the bronze serpent was just as bronze serpent.

Jesus, then, seems to be cautioning those who would be his disciples from separating his story from the epic story of God’s love for all Creation.

In John 3, Jesus pushes us to recognize that when he welcomed the poor and outcast into his heart, when he healed the sick and cast out demons, when he died on a cross, rose from the grave, and ascended into Heaven he was bringing to life—bringing to flesh—the steadfast, all excelling love of God.

Without love the bronze serpent was just as bronze serpent.

Without love, to paraphrase Saint Paul, Christians and the story we tell is just a lot of noise.

Some Christians live with so little joy that they make people think that Good Friday is the end of our story.

Some wear a bejeweled cross over a heart filled with greed and materialism without a hint of irony.

Some seem so intent on condemning others to Hell that we have to wonder if they think that really matters is how many people they crucify, not their willingness to pick up their own cross and follow Jesus.

Think about it. One of the vilest expressions of hate in our culture is a burning cross, a symbol used by racist Christians to demean, intimidate, and terrorize their neighbors.

These are people who have forgotten their story, who have forgotten God’s story. Their sinful attitudes are Brazen Serpents that need to be smashed.

And whenever we act as though Christianity is more about putting people in their place, rather than lifting them up in Jesus name…

More about the indignation we feel at our perceived loss of privilege, than the compassion we feel for the outcast and marginalized…

More about us than anything else, then we have to confess that we’re still vulnerable to snake bites, too.

Thank God there’s a healer in our midst.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

Create in Me

by: Rev. Jason Radmacher

Text: Pslam 51

Few people capture the imagination of Old Testament readers like King David. When he first came on to the scene, he gave hope to underdogs everywhere by bringing down Goliath, the ultimate one man wreaking crew. Although he was a youngest son, God chose him to be king.  And when he ascended to the throne he proved to be an able and faithful ruler.

Under David’s authority, God’s people prospered.  Their borders grew.  David even redrew the map by establishing Jerusalem by Israel’s capital.  And along the way, he wrote and inspired some of the world’s most treasured words of hope and assurance.

Psalm 23—“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Psalm 40—“I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined and heard my cry.”

Psalm 103—“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me.”

Psalm 141—“I call upon you, O LORD; come quickly to me; give ear to my voice when I call to you.”

David’s life is an inspiration.  His importance is undeniable.

Maybe that’s why we’re still talking about his greatest personal failure some three thousand years later.

David and Bathsheba—two lives forever joined by one man’s arrogance.

The 11th chapter of Second Samuel lays out the disturbing story. With his army at war, David was enjoying an afternoon in the sun on the palace roof when he saw Bathsheba, the beautiful wife of one of his generals, bathing nearby.

The king sent for her, he had sex with her, and Bathsheba became pregnant.

And then David used the same creative mind he used to write songs for God, to save himself—regardless of the cost.

As soon as Bathsheba told David that she was pregnant, he called her husband, Uriah, home from the front line hoping that a baby born nine month after a soldier’s homecoming would raise few eyebrows. But Uriah was so honorable that he refused to sleep under his own roof while his men were fighting. Even after David got Uriah drunk, the general still wouldn’t go home to his wife.

So David had to make a decision.  He could come clean about what he had done, or he could simply eliminate the problem.  David chose the latter.

He sent Uriah back to the front line.  He also sent orders to another general to abandon Uriah once the fighting became most fierce, and Bathsheba’s husband was killed in battle.

The scripture tells us that soon after all this took place God sent the Prophet Nathan to talk with the king.  And in that encounter with someone who had been inspired and equipped by God to speak the truth to power, to speak the truth to someone who was waist deep in a bloody conspiracy, David got called out.

He had become the man he did not want to be.

He had turned his back to God.

It’s said that Psalm 51 was David’s first step back toward the light.

Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love.

Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins.

Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin.

For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night.

Confronted with the truth about himself, David chose to face up to reality rather than doubling down on denial. And David’s reality was that of a man who had made a complete mess of his life and caused harm and destruction in the lives of others.

“Blot out the stain of my sin,” he says.

Nathan’s ministry confronted David with the truth about what he had done, but the prophet also centered David in the truth about who God was.

The tension between David’s sin and God’s mercy, therefore, not only gives Psalm 51 its life, but extends to us an invitation to enter the space in which Good News transforms brokenness to healing and violent division into wholeness and peace.

Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow…

Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.

Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you.

As we begin this season of repentance, we’d do well to consider the significance of David’s prayer.

Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.

These are the words of one who had seen the futility of giving in to arrogance and pride, of one who had seen that when a heart is consumed by conquest and bending people to its will, rather than being in the will of God, that heart becomes broken, that life, a distortion of its God given potential.

When he heard the Word of God, David recognized that he was not where he needed to be.

It’s a basic building block of Christian faith that the Word of God—the word made flesh in Jesus—still has the power to shine a light into the darkness of our lives and reveal the ways in which we’re still bound by the chains of sin.

The Word also has the power to set us free and point us in the right direction.

That’s exactly what happened in David’s life.

David had any number of vices and pleasures at his fingertips to try and fill the void in his heart.  He could have tried to ease his conscience by trusting in his wealth to buy his way to a better life.  He could have trusted in his power to make people do what he wanted.  He could have lined up sycophants to tell him how great he was.  He could have had a lot of sex.

Basically, the same voices that clog our inbox’s spam filters were whispering in King David’s ear, but he charted a different course.

He realized that none of these things, that nothing at all in his power could make him right again. David needed God to bring about an inward change, and so do we.

We need to pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.”

You see, every year in these weeks leading up to Easter, the Church—that is the faithful brothers and sisters who have gone before us in worship, in prayer, and in service—every year during Lent, the Church invites us to hear the great invitation of the scripture and to respond to that message with an honest confession of sin and a humble submission to God’s transforming grace.

“Repent—turn around—and prepare the way of the Lord. Get your heart, get your house ready, to receive Jesus in a new and powerful way.”

Every year in these weeks leading up to Easter, we can do one of three things with this invitation.

We can ignore it and continue on our own way.  “No, thanks, God.  I’ve got this thing called life pretty much taken care of.”

We can accept it, but only on our terms, saying, “Sure, I’ll get my ashes.  I’ll give up something, but I’d prefer if you not go digging too deeply into my life, God.”

Or we can say, “Here I am, God, and I know that I am not where I need to be.
Change my heart, fill me with something new, move me in a new direction.  Draw me closer to you.  Make me a better friend, a better spouse, a better disciple.  Have mercy on me.  Wash me.  Restore me….Create in me a clean heart, and let the work begin today!”

I pray that we’ll choose wisely and faithfully.

I pray that God will change our hearts.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Not Free Not to Love

by: Rev. Jason Radmacher

Text: First Corinthians 8:1-13

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus… (Philippians 2:1-5)

The Apostle Paul delivered this stirring admonishment to Christians living in an ancient Greek city called Philippi in order to highlight the essential qualities of their community—a community gathered in Jesus’ name and proclaiming his Good News.

Paul indicates that these essential qualities include virtues like humility, self-sacrifice, and love; qualities, he points out, that Christians embody because we recognize them in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Paul continues,

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

These verses from Philippians chapter 2 are some of Paul’s most treasured. The exhortations found here to leave selfishness and arrogance behind still resonate with us, reminding us that humility, self-sacrifice, and love are at the heart of our identity as Christians.

Likewise, Paul’s insights into the Christ who freely chooses to empty himself are also an invaluable contribution to the New Testament faith we profess.

We worship neither a victim of circumstance nor a prophet who paid the price for ticking off the wrong people, Paul reminds us, but God in the flesh who freely and willingly took up the cross out of love for us.

And then there’s this passage’s most significant revelation—in our relationships with one another, in our attitudes and conduct toward others, we aim no lower than to be like Christ.

Be humble and loving and self-sacrificing as Christ is humble, loving, and self-sacrificing, Paul urges. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

There’s little doubt that Philippians 2 is one of Paul’s notable contributions to Christian thought. In fact, it’s such a wonderfully distilled statement of theological belief and ethical expectation that, if it lacks anything, it lacks only a case study, a practical application of this teaching to a real world situation.

I propose to you this morning that, just a few years before writing Philippians, Paul provided just such a study in a letter to Christians living in another ancient Greek called Corinth. First Corinthians 8, which we’ve read this morning, is that case study.

On the surface, the issue encountered by the Corinthians—eating food sacrificed to pagan idols—seems far removed from our daily lives.

Labels like “Grass Fed,” “Organic,” and “From Farm to Table” mean something to us, but something that reads “Sacrificed to Zeus” or “Butchered on Apollo’s Altar” would just be nonsense.

However, if we follow Paul’s line of thought on this matter, we do find something relevant to our experience. We find a method for discerning what faithfulness looks like in our relationships and interactions. We find a real world application of what it means to love one another as Christ loves us.

At issue for the Corinthian Christians was the fact that the meat available to them in the marketplace had been butchered in rituals that honored gods and goddesses like Apollo, Aphrodite, and the Imperial Cult. Some Christians believed that this association with pagan worship tainted the meat and made it unfit for them to eat. Others argued that since there was only one god—the God revealed in Jesus Christ—whatever happened in the city’s temples amounted to nothing more than elaborate food prep.

“We worship the One and Only God,” the argument goes, “so how could this meat be tainted by its association with a deity that doesn’t even exist?”

There was a difference of opinion in the Corinthian Church. Unfortunately, rather than seek a constructive way forward together, the two sides drifted apart with the pro-meat camp apparently labeling the would-be vegetarians ignorant, stupid, foolish, and all the other things people call those with whom they disagree when they’re too lazy to make a more convincing argument.

Thankfully, someone in the church eventually had the good sense to ask Paul to settle the dispute.

“Paul, are we free to eat meat sacrificed to idols?” they asked.

“Yes, you are free to do so,” he replied, “but…”

[Yes, you are at free to do so, but] some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

They were free to eat the meat, but they were bound by a greater commandment.

They were free to eat, but they were not free not to love one another.

Whatever they did, therefore, Paul insisted that it be motivated by love.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up… But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

Haven’t we heard something like this before?

Haven’t we heard about seeking a greater calling that satisfying one’s own desires?

Doesn’t it sound a lot like the Big Idea Paul shared with the Philippians?

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…

Christians, you are not free not to love.

We are not free not to love.

Notice the radical way Paul has directed the Church forward. He doesn’t dismiss the existence of differences among the membership. He doesn’t assume that Christians will always agree and see the world in exactly the same way.

Rather, he says that when differences become apparent (and they will become apparent) Christ leads us first to ask, “How am I to love those with whom I disagree, those from whom I differ, those with whom I quarrel?”

How do I love you?

Not “How do I defeat you, prove you wrong, or win you over to my side?”

Paul wants us first to ask, “How do I love you and what does love look like here?” because Paul knows that Christ binds our wandering hearts.

We are not free not to love.

When addressing the church’s concern about food sacrificed to idols, Paul reframes the question—taking it out of the realm of who’s right and who’s wrong, of winners and losers—and steers it back toward a discussion about the loving relationships that should define what following Christ is all about.

He is far less concerned about what’s going into one’s stomach, than he is about the attitudes and actions arising from what’s in one’s heart.

Paul’s response to the Corinthian question pushes the congregation toward a more honest accounting of the way in which they’re answering the deepest, most basic question of the Faith that we share with them.

Are we loving others with the same love with which Jesus loves us, a love that brings down walls, builds up honest and genuine community, and encourages all whom it touches to live, and serve, and pray with the confidence that they, too, are children of God?

While Paul might have agreed with the logic behind the point that the people who wanted to eat the food made (and I think he did), he ultimately called the people to be righteous, not just right.

The hungry poor and the poor in spirit, the strong headed and the weak willed, the lonely and lost, the faithful and just—Paul knew that there is room for all at the table of God.

Gay and straight, the beaten down and bullied, the wanderers and the resolute—grace makes a way for all of these.

There’s even room here for you and me.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

Choose Carefully

by: Rev. Jason Radmacher

Text: Book of Jonah

Cedars of Lebanon is the final song on U2’s 2009 album No Line on the Horizon. Lyrically, the song comes from the perspective of a weary war correspondent. It speaks of homesickness and loneliness while juxtaposing images of human decency with flashes of violence. There’s an ache in Bono’s voice as he sings the thoughts of a tired man.

It’s the song’s final lines that capture my imagination this morning, however, for in the end, inspiration strikes and the writer shares his wisdom.

Choose your enemies carefully, ’cause they will define you
Make them interesting ’cause in some ways they will mind you
They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends
Gonna last with you longer than your friends.

“Choose your enemies carefully, ‘cause they will define you.”

The fights that we fight, the people at whom we direct our anger—even if our cause is just and our motivation is righteous—these take a toll.

And let’s be honest, even if our cause is just and our motivation is righteous, we easily succumb to temptation.

Hatred takes root in our hearts.

Inflicting pain becomes an end in itself.

Words dehumanize, self-awareness is lost, and attitudes calcify.

“Choose your enemies carefully, ‘cause they will define you.”

The ancient Israelites told a story about a reluctant prophet named Jonah to guard their hearts against hatred’s temptation and to encourage each other to embody God’s love for all people. It’s a story that speaks a timeless and fundamental truth that challenges arrogant and bigoted attitudes in every generation, including our own.

Like so many of the Bible’s stories, Jonah begins with a calling, an invitation, from God.

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah…saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”


Unlike others who responded eagerly to their calling, Jonah wanted nothing to do with his assignment, that city, or the God who would send him there.

The prophet Isaiah’s iconic response to God was “Hear I am, Lord. Send me.”

Peter and Andrew dropped their nets to go with Jesus.

Jonah’s reply was just as clear.

“Not a chance, God. There’s no way I’m going to those people.”

Ninevah, you see, was the capital of Assyria, one of ancient Israel’s fiercest enemies. It was a place from which war and devastation had rained down on Jonah’s homeland and the prophet hated the city and its people.

Therefore, when God called Jonah to go to Ninevah, which happened to be east of Israel, the prophet bought a ticket on a west bound ship, intending to put as much distance as possible between Assyria, God, and himself.

His plan failed miserably.

When the sea rose up against the boat, its crew rose up against Jonah and they threw him overboard.

But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights…

Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.

There can be no doubt that this is Jonah’s claim to fame. If you spent any time at all in Sunday School as a child, odds are you heard this part of the story.

I remember well the coloring pages and felt board fish of my youth.

I’m not sure any of those lessons went to teach me about God’s desire to see enemies become friends and the prejudice uprooted from my heart and community, but I was crystal clear that Jonah was the guy who spent three days in a fish’s belly.

I don’t want to belabor the point now, but it’s worth noting that if our take away from Jonah’s story is a strong opinion about the likelihood of somebody surviving inside a fish, yet we remain wishy-washy on our commitment to barrier-breaking reconciliation, then we’re probably telling the story the wrong way.

Or maybe the point is that we often act as though we’d rather be thrown overboard than to do the hard work of giving up our prejudices.

Regardless, Jonah’s is so much more than a big fish tale.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying,

“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

And this time, “Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.”

The prophet preached, the people responded, and God forgave.

But Jonah became furious.

There are plenty of examples in the Bible of people becoming angry because others ignored their message, but I think Jonah is the only one who became upset when people listened.

And why was that?

Because Jonah’s hatred of his enemies had become intrinsic to his identity, and the realization that God wanted to take these things away from him was disorienting.

Listen to this incredible exchange.

[Jonah] became angry…[and he] prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”


A misunderstanding isn’t the cause of Jonah’s anger.

He’s angry because he knows the truth too well.

He’s angry because God loves and blesses the people Jonah judged to be unworthy and unlovable. God shows mercy to those he would deny mercy.

And Jonah knows that if he’s going to worship a God of patience, love, and mercy, then he’ll need to find room in his own heart for these qualities, too.

But letting go of his prejudice is a price Jonah doesn’t want to pay.

“O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live…[without these enemies I love to hate].”


“Choose your enemies carefully, ‘cause they will define you.”

Called by God, pulled by God from the raging sea, empowered by God to be a channel of peace in a foreign land—all these things are accurate descriptions of Jonah’s life and experience, but, by his own admission, he sees his hatred of Ninevah, not these signs of God’s grace, as intrinsic to his identity.

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry…?” And [Jonah] said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”

One of the most important elements of Jonah’s story is that this is the note on which it ends.

There’s no clear resolution of the prophet’s inner turmoil, no teary-eyed redemption scene, no Come-to-Jesus-Moment.

Reading the book, it feels as though there must be a missing chapter in which Jonah admits his error, rushes back to Ninevah, and professes his love for the people living there.

But that chapter doesn’t exist.

In the end, there’s Jonah’s bitterness and the radical truth about God’s love.

And then, ultimately, there’s our response.

Which example will we follow?

Will we open ourselves to the truth about love and the realization that there’s divine mercy for even those we would deny mercy, or will we double down on anger and prejudice?

Will we faithfully worship the One who causes the sun to shine on the righteous and unrighteous alike, or will we act as though grace is a sucker’s bet, and that the love and blessings in our lives are the obvious results of our own greatness?

Today we pray that the Spirit will keep our hearts so tender that we would overcome temptation and choose wisely.

Today we pray that, even as we pursue justice with passion, we must rise above the lie that our opponents are less human than us, farther beyond redemption’s reach than us.

Today we pray that, even when we walk through the valley of death’s shadow, we would always stay in the light, that never in the name of fighting a monster, would we become monstrous.

“Choose your enemies carefully, ‘cause they will define you.”

Choose carefully.

Called by God, pulled by God from the raging sea, empowered by God to be a channel of peace in a foreign land—all these things are accurate descriptions of Jonah’s life and experience, but, by his own admission, hatred of Ninevah, not these signs of God’s grace, was intrinsic to his identity.

So where are the signs of grace in your life?

What lesser loves would ask you to deny them?

Today we pray and worship and give of ourselves so that we might truthfully answer these questions and walk on in the light Christ shines on our way.
Let’s do so with joy and a renewed desire to see the walls around our hearts come crashing down.

Let’s say “Yes” to God’s barrier-breaking gospel and move forward with thanks.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

All This

by: Rev. Jason Radmacher

Text: Mark 1:4-11

The Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John agree that the turning point in Jesus’ public life was his baptism in the Jordan River by the hand of his cousin John.

Today, we’ve heard Mark’s record of that event.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”


Jesus’ temptation, his ministry, his death and resurrection all flow from this moment, as do the Church and our faith as Christians.

There’s a strong current running between the manger, the Jordan, the Cross, and what we do here today at this celebration of the Lord’s baptism and remembrance of our own. That current carries Good News of God’s grace through the ages and refreshes faithful hearts everywhere with the promise of Christ’s eternal presence.

Baptism gives shape to our identity as a Christian community and reveals something essential about who we are and what we’re all about.

Given the vital function in plays in our lives, therefore, it’s important for us to think deeply about baptism.

Why do we baptize?

How do we baptize?

What do we believe is happening when we baptize?

Questions like these can fuel our thoughts and invigorate our prayers.

Likewise, I recently came across a passage written by Bishop Will Willimon that pulls our reflections on baptism into even deeper waters.

Bishop Willimon writes,

Baptism is essentially something which God does…From [our] point of view, the question asked of…baptism is, “What does this mean to me, and what am I doing when this happens?” [but the better question is,] “What does this mean to God, and what is God doing when this happens?” (Remember Who You Are, p. 33)

“What does baptism mean to God, and what is God doing when baptism happens?”

What a remarkable question!

For me, the difference between answering Willimon’s question and the question “What does this mean to me?” is like the difference between warming up a frozen dinner in the microwave and being treated to anything off the menu at your favorite restaurant.

I don’t believe thinking about what baptism means to us is bad. It probably won’t hurt us. Something is just lacking from the experience.

But shifting our question to God’s point of view, to God’s activity, the possibilities appear limitless. Instead of thinking about what our experience lacks, instead of cultivating thoughts of scarcity, we’re drawn deeper and deeper into the reality of God’s abundance—abundant love, abundant grace, abundant possibilities.

Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy church.


We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit.


All this is God’s gift offered to us without price.

We hear these words regularly in worship, but we need to be clear about what’s being said.

Initiates, incorporates, gives, offers—God does these things. We receive “all this” and more.

It’s true. This statement—it appears in your bulletin today as the Invitation to Reaffirm the Baptismal Covenant—is loaded with promise and meaning. But, far from being just a nifty little liturgical turn of phrase, it expresses the heart of the Gospel. In fact, when compared to what the New Testament says about baptism, we could be accused of saying too little.

Take the work of Saint Paul, for example. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul proclaims that God gives us in baptism a new identity that transcends the barriers once thought to determine so much about who people were and what they could accomplish in life.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Society’s roles, the privileges and obstacles of your birth, your upbringing, your experience; Paul says that the various roads we’ve traveled, the paths upon which we’ve stumbled and been denied access, have no power over our destiny because of the new identity God gives us in baptism.

Paul goes on to say that the basis for this new identity is nothing less than Jesus’ resurrection. In other words, Christian unity and our identity in Christ aren’t simply the product of a new point-of-view or perspective. Our identity is tied to history’s crucial event.

Paul elaborates on this in his letter to the Romans.

We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.


For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

“Incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation” is fine, but it just doesn’t have the same punch as what Paul said, does it?

The New Testament goes on.

Revelation speaks of those who “have the seal of the living God” who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

In Acts, baptism was the Ethiopian Eunuch’s response to the Good News that he wasn’t a second class citizen in God’s kingdom.

And Saint Peter boldly compared baptism to Noah’s ark.

Baptism, which [the Ark] prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

What does baptism mean to God, and what is God doing when baptism happens?

Pondering this question helps us to recognize that, thanks be to God, the font before us is filled with Good News, overflowing with God’s goodness, and brimming with the promises that God would realize among us.

The waters of baptism have the strength to bring down barriers.

They carry the gift of life to desert places.

They quench our deepest thirst.

They wash the foulest clean.

The chapel at Belmont Abbey College not far from Charlotte, North Carolina is home to a unique baptismal font. Belmont’s basin is carved into a large stone, a stone with an incredible story to tell.

The baptismal font at Belmont Abbey College is carved into a piece of granite that’s been on the school’s property for hundreds of years—but that property hasn’t always been a school, and that rock hasn’t always been a tool of worship.

Before the Abbey’s monks came to that part of North Carolina, you see, the land where their college now stands was a plantation and the stone that would become their baptismal font was an auction block.

Men, women, and children were once made to stand on the stone so that they could be inspected, purchased, and sold into slavery.

After the Civil War, a priest bought the old plantation and gave it to a community of Benedictine monks who built a chapel and a college there.

And the monks turned the millstone into a baptismal font to which they affixed a plaque that reads,

Upon this rock, men were once sold into slavery. Now upon this rock, through the waters of baptism, men become free children of God.

Friends, Belmont Abbey’s chapel holds something unique, but the promises spoken round that roughhewn stone are proclaimed wherever God’s waters flow.

“What does baptism mean to God, and what is God doing when baptism happens?”

Baptism means that the past doesn’t get to write the future and that change is possible because God brings to the water new life, and forgiveness, and transformation.

The waters of baptism have the strength to bring down barriers.

They carry the gift of life to desert places.

They quench our deepest thirst.

They wash the foulest clean.

And “all this is God’s gift offered to us without price.”

Thanks be to God for this gift and for this Good News. Amen.

For Us

by: Rev. Jason Radmacher

Text: Luke 2

Tonight we tell a very familiar story.

Long, long ago, the prophets of ancient Israel foresaw a leader, anointed of God, who would deliver them from physical and spiritual futility. Rooted in their community’s experience as a displaced people, the prophets envisioned a messiah, which means “anointed one”, who would end the exile of their discontent and lead them home.

The first act in that homecoming brought to a chaste couple named Mary and Joseph heavenly messengers who said that Mary would miraculously give birth to a holy child.

When her time came, at a town called Bethlehem, Mary delivered her child in a humble manger and Joseph named the baby Jesus.


On that same night, just outside of town, shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks in the neighboring fields when suddenly a magnificent sight shattered the darkness.


And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.


And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.


For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.(Luke 2:9-11, KJV)

Then appeared a choir of angels who were singing, “Glory in the highest!” And when the angels departed them, the shepherds made their way with haste to the manger.

Finding Jesus where the angels said that they would, they told Mary and Joseph about what had happened in the fields, about the angels, and their message. And while “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”, “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”

That’s the story that brings us together tonight, the biblical account of Jesus’ birth.

Oh, there were wise men, too, but they came onto the scene a little bit later, and they get their own holiday in twelve days, anyway, on The Epiphany. Tonight, though, it’s all about the prophet’s vision, Messiah’s birth, and the shepherds’ joy.

On Christmas Eve we read, tell, and remember a very familiar story. This holy night inspires us to worship, however, because Christmas is for us.

A sermon preached by Martin Luther on Christmas Day nearly five hundred years ago sheds some light on to this point. On that occasion, the great reformer said,

The Gospel does not merely teach us about the history of Christ. No, it enables all who believe it to receive it as their own, which is the way the Gospel operates. Of what benefit would it be to me if Christ had been born a thousand times, and it would daily be sung into my ears in a most lovely manner, if I were never to hear that he was born for me and was to be my very own? (Martin Luther, Christmas Sermon, c.1521)

Christmas is for me. Christmas is for you. Christmas is for us.

Christmas is for us in the sense that it is a gift given to us.

One thing that the New Testament makes abundantly clear is that Jesus’ birth, the Incarnation of the Divine Word, was neither the wage paid to pious people for their good works nor an action required by God in any way. Rather, like the news that a virgin was pregnant, it was a surprise, and the people received it as an unmerited blessing, an act of grace and divine favor.

And that’s Good News because that’s exactly how we receive our Savior, too, as a gift.

We actually profess this to be true throughout the year whenever we celebrate a baptism. Be it the sacrament, our place in Christ’s Church, salvation, or new birth—“all of this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.”

Christmas is for us because Christ is a gift given to us.

But it’s also true that Christmas is for us in the sense that it is exactly what we needed.

Only a people aware of their need for salvation rejoice at the news of the Savior’s birth. Such awareness, therefore, is vital to the transformation we seek tonight.

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is the traditional Advent hymn of yearning. It is not a song for holiday revelers. It is a prayer for God to take action on behalf of a hurting wounded people.

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here.”

Come to your people, God, for we are alone.

Pay our ransom, Lord, for we are indebted beyond our means.

End our exile and set us free, O Christ, for we long to go home.

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is a captive’s plea for release, release that was granted in and through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Mary’s boy.

As Saint Paul put it,

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…so that [all of us] might receive adoption as [God’s] children…So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. (Galatians 4:4-7, NRSV)

In the fullness of time, God sent his Son who is our Savior to pay our ransom and end our exile.

Christmas is for us in the sense that it is exactly what we needed.

Christmas is about grace. It’s also about our greatest need. Grasping these ideas we take hold of something fundamental about the gift of Christ. However, truly to probe the depths of this holy night, we must also note something about this gift’s intended recipients.

When we say that Christmas is “for us” of whom do we speak?

We speak of all people, of any who reap the consequences of Adam’s folly because this night, this story, this Christ, is all for sinners’ gain.

Oh how tempting it is to convince ourselves that this gift of love is merely for us, in the most narrow sense imaginable—for people who look like us, act like us, believe like us?

How easy it is to resist God’s grace and ignore our need?

How quickly we forget that the manger of Bethlehem cradled not just a baby, but a king, our king.

If this night is a gift given to us, then it must be a gift given to the world God loves.

If this night is for sinners like us, then it must be for any who walk in darkness and traverse the valley of death’s shadow.

If this night is for us, then it is for all.

On Christmas Eve we tell a very familiar story.

The Gospel does not merely teach us about the history of Christ. No, it enables all who believe it to receive it as their own, which is the way the Gospel operates. Of what benefit would it be to me if Christ had been born a thousand times, and it would daily be sung into my ears in a most lovely manner, if I were never to hear that he was born for me and was to be my very own?

People of God, hear the Good News.

Christmas is for me.

Christmas is for you.

Christmas is for the lonely, the lost, and the last.

Christmas is for us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Brave Girl

by Rev. Scott Summerville
Luke 1:46-55

My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior. God looks on the lowliness of his servant henceforth all ages will call me blessed. The Almighty works marvels for me. Holy is God’s name! There is mercy from age to age, on those who fear God, God puts forth his arm in strength scattering the proud-hearted; casts the mighty from their thrones, raising the lowly, fills the starving with good things, sending the rich away empty.  Continue Reading