The Holy Family – Zechariah – Advent 1 2021

Luke 1: 5-23, 57-80

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home…

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

Sermon Text

 Today begins a new year in the Church. While our secular calendar turns over from the 31st of December to the 1st of January, the Church begins its year with advent. The celebration of Christ’s coming to the earth in flesh, and the celebration of Christ’s eventual return in the glory of his Father to set the world right. As we make our way through the next few weeks celebrating Christ’s presence with us, we will be looking at the people who raised Jesus up in the faith. Jesus was blessed to have two loving parents, Mary and Joseph, who we will talk about in later weeks. However, before Jesus was born, his mother was cared for by his cousins, the parents of his other cousin John the Baptist, and today we have heard the story of Zechariah. Comical as it is wonderful, terrifying as it is comforting, we look to a silent father from long ago to learn what God can teach us now.

We are introduced to Zechariah as a priest in the temple. Though practice shifted from time to time in the temple’s history, priests were ideally members of the tribe of Levi. These Levitical priests would take on their role based on a rotating shift, and our story opens when it is Zechariah’s turn to serve. He is described as “blameless,” not to say that he never sins, but that he is a reputable person and that he is by all accounts a “good and faithful servant.” This is important, because the first readers of this story might try to blame him or his wife for the next detail we learn, that they have no children.

While we now know that much more goes into fertility than a person’s morality, the ancient world saw fertility as a gift from God given to the righteous. Specifically, deities were described as “shutting wombs,” as punishment for sins. In the general pattern of the New Testament, Luke takes time here to remove this stigma from infertility. It is not a moral failing to not be able to have children, and Zechariah and Elizabeth epitomize this reality.

God still has power to bring the impossible to pass. Zechariah goes in to offer incense, a visible and fragrant representation of the people’s prayers, and finds an angel standing beside the altar of incense. The angel, later revealed to be Gabriel, brings him the good news that he will have a child. Zechariah, like Abraham long before him, cannot believe that someone as old as he and his wife would be able to have a healthy child. Gabriel responds by taking away Zechariah’s speech. While I’m not sure exactly how much public speaking Zechariah did, I can only imagine that a mute priest would have trouble with certain aspects of their job – not even considering how exhausting daily life would suddenly become. We only appreciate how easily we can communicate with one another when our ability to do so it suddenly snatched away from us.

Nine months pass with no one being able to know what Zechariah saw in the temple. His child is born and only after he affirms Elizabeth’s naming of the child “John,” (which means “God is gracious,”) does his speech return. The mouth which had been glued shut for that time now ran over with praise of God. Zechariah was now able to show the world just what he thought about God’s gift of a child. He calls on Abraham who God had also promised a child to, and like him lifts up his son and asks for God to bless him. Zechariah sees the future of John, to be the one who would clear the way for God’s redemption in the world, a source of hope and repentance unrivaled since the days of Elijah.

While it may seem that this is just a historical account of the time before Jesus’s birth, I think we can take some lessons away from Zechariah and what happened to him. Firstly, we must see that God kept a promise. We talk a lot about the promises of God, we just sang a bit ago about how we “Stand” on God’s promises. However, in our daily life the promise of God is not always at the forefront of our minds. Perhaps, in part, because we do not have angels telling us that we are going to receive the full benefit of God’s goodness.

If our scripture today proves anything, it’s that even the truly miraculous cannot always convince us God keeps God’s promises.. Zechariah spoke to Gabriel, a literal angel, and his response was still to be uncertain. “You may say I’m going to have a kid, but how do I know that I will have a kid?” The answer for him was, of course, “When you hold John, you’ll know it’s true” For us today, in the times we find ourselves waiting for God, the answer is not always so clear. With rare exception, we live into general promises of God, not particular. What I mean is that God promises to meet our needs, to save us from sin, and to love and care for us. We are seldom given a word from God that a specific event will happen, or a specific gift will be given to us. Because these promises are more general, we sometimes lose track of them.

When we wake up in the morning and find food in the cupboard, we might not think of God as being the one who put it there, and so we forget we are taken care of. When we get a call from a friend that uplifts us, we may forget that God has given us the gift of one another’s support. When we can go to sleep at peace that we are loved with an eternal love, we may forget just how amazing a thing that is. The promises that we live into everyday are commonplace in how they appear, but that does not make them any less spectacular. The problem becomes that we only notice how important our daily provision is when suddenly it becomes endangered.

We have all had times in our life where something upsets the balance of our life. Someone dear to us dies, we get a bad diagnosis, a bill comes in we simply cannot pay, an endless litany of problems stands just in the wings of our relatively blessed and privileged lives. In those moments, we suddenly realize how good the mundane things of life are. The cupboard that is suddenly sparce, the phone that does not ring with a loved one on the other end, the cold night where we cannot find any rest. In those moments we realize that we live each day by the grace of God, and that that same grace has to sustain us even when material comforts seem far away from us.

Zechariah experiences a particular promise at the same time he loses something he had always taken for granted. God tells him he will have a child, despite all logic to the contrary. God also robs him of his speech, making him suddenly much more dependent on others than he had been before. I described Zechariah’s story as comical in some ways, to think of how he would possibly describe, only by gestures, that his wife was going to have a baby. However, there is also something scary about it. The fear in that same man’s eyes as he realizes just how long the next nine months are going to be.

For many of us here, we have probably had these sorts of moments. We are going about life normally, and then all of a sudden, we have something snatched away from us. Maybe its mobility, maybe its dexterity, maybe our sense of hearing or taste or sight. In that moment we realize that we have been blessed up to this point simply to have these things. More than that, we realize just how little is done to make the world accessible to people with disabilities. Next time you’re at a store, see what is being done there for disabled people – do they have braille? Ramps? How can people reach things on shelves if they lack mobility? The same thing is important to ask here in this sanctuary.

As part of our next year of ministry, the trustees and I are going to do an audit of this church to see how accessible it really is. We have some things in place, but I know we aren’t doing all we could be. We all know that. The steps we take to make this sanctuary more accessible will be more than just clearing walkways and marking entrances and exits, it will be making this sanctuary more welcoming and useful to all people. Imagine, more accessible audio recordings of services that we could distribute to those who want to hear the service but don’t have internet. Better written and formatted text documents for us all to navigate more clearly. A cleaner, more carefully put together Church to gather and worship in.

Beyond accessibility, Zechariah’s story brings to mind some of the events of these past two years. When the pandemic set in, and all of us locked ourselves away to prevent viral transmission, we saw what it was to lose community. We could not gather in-person, we could not celebrate or mourn together. While our lips were not sealed as violently as Zechariah’s, we lost a large part of what it meant to be the community of God. We were forced to adapt, to improvise, and to trust that God was still working even when things seemed different than we expected. Good things came of being forced into this place: more care for shut-ins developed as we realized the struggle that comes from living apart from one another, we realized the ways we neglected online ministry opportunities, we proved the Church exists beyond our buildings, but, silver linings aside, the difficulties we faced also made it clear how blessed we were in more normal times.

Unlike Zechariah, I don’t think God sent this particular trouble to wake us up to our blessings. That would be cruel, to cause so much trouble and death simply to make a point. No, I think our awareness is a consequence of the pandemic, not its purpose. To find purpose in a disaster that widespread would-be dangerous thinking. Instead, I think that what Zechariah gives us in this story is an example of how to respond to the loss of something and to its eventual return. There was a particular promise to Zechariah, that he would have a child. While there is no specific or general promise from God that we will retain all our bodily autonomy in all aspects of life, we trust God generally seeks our good, and so even in the loss of some ability we have, we trust God will answer our needs somehow.

I believe that provision can come in multiple ways. Sometimes it is in the full restoration of our faculties, sometimes in those around us making the world more accessible to us in the face of our disabilities. Regardless of how relief comes our way, we are shown just how precious everything we enjoy is, when we are able to experience some measure of it after having lost it. God’s goodness, God’s commitment to promises, is shown most clearly on the return from trouble.

When Zechariah speaks after his long bout of silence, he has nothing but praise and prophecy to offer. Likewise, we should freely praise God whenever we can, even in the midst of trouble. We do not do this to deny the trouble we are in, or to pretend that it does not matter. We do it because regardless of the particular circumstance we are in, God has promised to take care of us, to save us from the darkness and from death. That promise sustains us even in the moments we are deprived of its benefits, and it sees us to the other side. In the same way that we make the world more accessible, we must also make it more grace filled. Those of us who are able must support those who are suffering, to make God’s sustaining presence clearer through the love and support of the Church.

Zechariah speaks to the promises of God by showing us that they are still true even when we cannot speak to them. Zechariah was not willing to believe God meant what he said in promising him a child, but over the course of his nine months of silence, God revealed truth above and beyond his initial promise to him. In the same way, the hard times between a promise being made and a promise being fulfilled, can make it even clearer how robust and wonderful God’s promises are. Does that baptize our suffering to make it good? Of course not, but it does mean that in the midst of silence a great deal more can be said than in the heights of celebration.

So, as we welcome Advent. Let us close our mouths, let us look to the troubles we presently face. Let them be a lesson to us about what God will remedy in all the world. Let us also try and lessen the troubles of those around us, so that when the time of our troubles is over, all of us may celebrate the birth of something new and the fulfillment of all God’s promises. – Amen.

We Wait for Justice – Advent 4 2020

Luke 1: 46-55.

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Sermon Text

            Tear it all down. Deep in our hearts, in the deepest moments of our despair we feel those few words, sometimes verbatim and other times given different form. The broken world around us, aspirating under the weight of the compound sin of thousands of generations of humanity. We look at the structures that have been propped up, often against our better sense and our better angels. We see cruelty pass on from one generation to another, the seemingly endless pain caused to those in need by those who have more than they could ever want. We see the injustice of the world and find – sometimes verbatim and other times given different form – the sentiment entering into us, tear it all down.

            Advent is a season of waiting, but it is also a season of penitence and of reflection. As we wait for the return of Christ, and to celebrate the incarnation of Christ in his Holy Nativity, we are supposed to look at the world around us and pray for it to be made right. Likewise, we are supposed to look within ourselves and pray, and work, to set ourselves right. We must seek out all that is wrong within us, we must dig deeper than we ever thought we could and root out evil. That sentiment which we hear in our most desperate moments, “tear it all down,” applies to ourselves as well. When we see how we have let ourselves become covetous or greedy, angry or wicked, when we see all that is wrong with us, we must turn our eyes to Heaven and ask for God to, “tear it all down.”

            That particular language that I am choosing, “tearing down,” is something that I have already said we might have different language for describing. Let me now take a moment to put it other ways. A gardener in a garden who finds weeds choking the life out of their plants must uproot the weed to save the garden. A surgeon treating a disease may need to isolate and purge a portion of the body of whatever infects it. Evil, present in creation, must at time be excised.

            Whatever the language used to describe it, the sentiment that our scripture today touches upon, and that we often feel when faced with the cruel and broken world around us, is that there are things that are wrong in this world, and they need to be dealt with. Sometimes the problems are obvious – personally or systemically. We know that we harbor hatred toward a single person, and so we search our heart to find how to transform our disposition from one of aggression and rage into one of love. We know that a specific policy hurts more people than it helps, and so we campaign to have it altered and for a more just solution to be reached.

            Yet, as with anything, the deeper we dig the more complicated we find the situations we are in. If I dig deep in my heart, I can find that the negative aspects of my personality and my behavior are usually not to do with specific situations or people. If I find myself easily angered by a person, it is rarely because of them specifically – although one cannot deny that some people are just difficult to work with – it is usually because something about them touches a raw spot in my soul. Maybe their mannerisms remind me of someone who hurt me or perhaps I have turned them into a strawman built from an archetype which I had previously constructed for a certain kind of person.

            Whatever the cause, if I do not examine my dispositions and my behavior toward other people regularly, then I may cause a great deal of harm, while all the time thinking that I am only acting naturally. Our conscience, that deep interface of the Spirit and the mind, must be examined constantly to ensure it is still aligned with the work and the will of God, the righteous things of God. Cruelty, spite, hate, arrogance, greed, all manner of other evils, can grow up in the shadows we are unwilling to examine. The unexamined heart is the breeding ground of all evils.

            The Magnificat, the prayer that Mary offers in our scripture today, is one of the most profound pieces of all scripture. Offered by a poor woman struggling to survive in a world that cares nothing for her. Carrying a child who society has written off as illegitimate, engaged to a man who has had his own doubts about the child, living under the oppressive rule of the Roman empire. Mary, at the moment this prayer is recorded in scripture, has gone off to live with her cousin Elizabeth while she prepares to have her child. She escaped her hometown to protect herself, to protect her growing child, to protect the Christ.

            Mary, alone like we can never understand, comes to her cousin, and finds that the stories of her own miraculous pregnancy were true. Her child, who would grow up to be John the Baptist, reacts in utero to the presence of Mary and Jesus, and Elizabeth blesses Mary as the Theotokos, the mother of the enfleshed Deity. Mary, suddenly greeted by her cousin in this manner, is given one final piece of assurance about where she is in life. She truly is the mother of the Messiah, of Jesus Christ the savior of all creation, she is truly not alone, not cursed, not abandoned. She is blessed.

            In a flood of gratitude and prophecy Mary lifts up a song to God. Like us, she is aware of the world being broken around her. She lives as a minority in a backwaters corner of an Empire known for zealous revolutions. She lives as a woman who no one will believe about her child’s parentage. She has been forced away from home to see that her child is taken care of. She has suffered everything you could expect a person could, she has been pushed to the extreme, and in the same way that we often do, she longs to see all this evil put aside. Yet, her words to God are not, “Tear it all down,” they are, “God is tearing it all down.”

            Every bit of evil in the Universe that has been piling itself up for centuries, God has hands upon and is ripping up at the roots. The axe is set to every tree that has produced poison fruit. The sickness of sin which has long afflicted the hearts of every soul on Earth is now to receive a physician capable of wiping it out for good. Evil is now to be excised from all the Earth.

            The Magnificat is bold in its claims about God. God shows, not just mercy, but covenant loyalty and loving kindness to all generations.[1] God seeks out those who, on account of their self-love have cast others into the cold and scatters them in the same way. God dethrones tyrants who rule by force and puts the humble in their place. God cares for the poor and the hungry and God cuts off the abundance of the rich. The Magnificat is Mary looking at all those who have hurt her – the holier than thou, Caesar and Herod, the nobility that bled her town dry – and when she looks to the blessing of her child, to the Savior she will birth, she suddenly sees how God has turned the world upside down to bring about Justice.

            The coming of Christ, whether in his first Advent in Nazareth or his second Advent at the end of history, is meant to disrupt the world in which we live. A savior comes to save us from all the evils of this world, and that means that a savior comes to do away with all evil. Christ the King must rule alone, not the wicked rulers of our own world. Christ the poor slave will liberate all people born of low estate, even if that upsets those who depended upon them to make their fortunes. Christ the incarnate Deity will conquer all evil in the universe, whether born of humanity or of evil itself. Everything that stands against God and goodness will be torn down. Our prayers to see our present state ended will be answered, of this there can be no doubt.

            However, the Magnificat is not a simple prayer of revenge, nor should any words that leave our lips be. Lifting up our desires to God as we do, our intent should never be destructive, but redemptive. We do not want evil done away with out of spite, not out of anger, we want to have evil done away with so that good may flourish, that God may be seen in all of creation.

            Whether it is evil within ourselves or within the world around us, we must trust as Mary did that God will bring about Justice. We as people of faith believe that God holds all of History in the divine hand. The arm of God is not too short to bring about justice and righteousness, nor can anything overpower God’s work in the universe.  We must not despair, nor give into our own anger or hatred or cruelty. In all things we must trust that God will topple all evil and that the end of all things will set straight any crookedness that has gone unchecked.

            Still, we do what we can to promote Justice in the here and now. Not through the taking up of arms or inciting violence, but through prayer and petition, through acts of mercy and of love. We must champion the oppressed, we must champion truth, we must champion the causes of God in all the world. We must love the stranger in our land, the poor at our doorstep, the enemy that spits in our face, and we must strive in all things to work alongside our God who is setting things right.

            This Advent has been different than any we have celebrated before. This year has been a bunch of ups and downs that has shown us every weakness within ourselves and in the world that we live in. Pushed to the edge, forced to live in situations we never would have even dreamed of before. I hope that we stare at the accumulation of all our unwillingness to do right, at all our accumulated sin, at all the towers of injustice and scarcity we have seen, and we cry out for God to tear it all down.

            Because from the ashes of the Towers and of the Asherah we have built against God will be born the promise of a new day. The hope of all ages emerging out of all the brokenness we cannot even give words for. From Bethlehem, in Judea, a light is shining dimly for all the world to see. Look now, let your heart be made glad in its weeping, Christ is coming soon. – Amen.


[1] The Greek word used for mercy in the Magnificat, ελεος, is used in Greek translations of the Old Testament to translate חֵסֵד which is a word used to describe God’s loyalty, love, and mercy toward members of the Covenant.

We Wait for Growth – Advent 3 2020

Isaiah 61: 8-11

For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots,  and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Sermon Text

            Our first look into Advent Scripture took us to the book of Isaiah. That text sought to bridge the gap between human evil and God’s grace. God, Isaiah assures us, was not willing to let anything get in between God and ourselves. The mountains quake like a boiling pot seated over a fire, the valleys gave up their depth to become flat ground. When God arrives, we suddenly encounter every historic act of salvation.

            Our text for this morning, taken from a little earlier in Isaiah, asks us to home in on another aspect of God’s work. We know that all will be set right in the triumphant return of Christ when all oppression ceases and all that remains in our actions toward one another is love and righteousness. Scarcity will no longer exist; God’s favor will be freely proclaimed to all people. Everything will be, in a word, perfect. The question that comes from such a grand vision of the end of history is what we are to do until then. If the end of all things is settled, and perfection awaits all the faithful in the world to come, then how do we spend our time on earth? How do we live out the wait before the return of Christ?

            There are many passages about our responsibility to be ready for Christ upon his arrival, as well as a fair few explanations of specific behavior to be encouraged and discouraged ahead of it. However, I want to speak about what we must understand to be our general responsibility in existing as Holy People awaiting a Holy God. That is, we must be a people who grow in righteousness over the course of our life. We must become steadily more and more invested in all that God has in store for us, more in line with the vision of life which Christ has shown us. The Church, in all that it does, must become a people where-in, “Righteousness and praise spring up,” wherever they are found.

            The Church grew in the early centuries of its existence precisely because it stood out from the Roman society which it inhabited. While the Roman people were certainly not some cartoonish vision of evil, there were certain societal and cultural practices which stood against the general morality of the Church. The Church, for example, was popular among societal pariahs who were not usually allowed in polite company. The Church and its egalitarian practices allowed for women, the poor, and non-citizens to participate more fully in a community than the wider culture would allow. Still more, in moments of disaster and danger – when people were sick or when children were abandoned to die of exposure on hilltops – the Church took these people in and cared for them.

            Even before the inception of the Church there are stories of righteous people among the Jewish people. Such a person is often called a Tzadik – one who is righteous. Scripture captures such images of righteous people. Joseph in his salvation of the Ancient Near East from starvation, Boaz in his redemption of Ruth, Ruth as the model gentile convert, Mordecai and Esther as the model of imperial opposition. Still more we have the example of those like Daniel, and the martyrs of the intertestamental books of the Maccabees, those who lived righteously and died for their faith as a result.

            Scripture, history, and all other stories that we tell record multiple layers of our understanding of the world. We record the plain happenings of an event on one level: what happened, who was there, and what came as a result of it. On another level comes our understanding of the morality of a situation. Regardless of whether we acknowledge it or not, most stories we tell take a side. Unless you find a truly great historian or storyteller, their own biases will leak into their retelling. Finally, the stories we tell, in light of our biases, usually demonstrate what aspects we as a culture value above all others – what do we value in people?

            There are many more aspects of stories that demonstrate other things about us than I could ever name. However, there are also aspects of our stories which hide away rather than reveal aspects of our world. For example, the actions of villains will be inflated to fit their evil character and, in the same way, the heroes that we lift up will often have their rough edges sanded off to ensure no one is scandalized by their actions. It would be hard to deny that many of our struggles today culturally stem from our willingness to villainize and to sanitize flippantly, from an unwillingness to acknowledge good and evil and instead to paint in broad strokes those we either support or oppose.

            The Biblical record is stark in that, on the whole, it does not shy away from presenting the evil and the good a person does and leaves the audience to decide what to do with that information. Those who participated in any way in our Genesis study will remember that at every turn, whether we looked at Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or his twelve sons, the good and the bad were there for everyone to see. In some ways it keeps us grounded in understanding that our “heroes,” are just as human as we are, but in others it also made clearer that humanity contains multitudes. The great hospitality of Abraham to those in need, contrasted with his seeming unwillingness to care for his family most of the time, paints a complicated image of what it means to be a righteous person.

            The promise of God, across all scripture, is a promise of redemption. The brokenness of the world is meant to be genuinely made right. This is not achieved through pretending all is well or through erasing the consequences of a person’s actions, but through genuinely transforming the heart of that person to allow them to act righteously in line with God’s will in the world. Through the slow death of evil within them and the gradual birth of goodness in its place.

            The most compelling stories that we can tell as a people are those stories where someone grows and becomes good over the course of the narrative. We want to see the growth of a character, not just to have a paragon of virtue from beginning to end. Les Misérables, the book more so than the films or musical, tells us about a petty thief who becomes a noble and philanthropic father. The Lord of the Rings shows us the journey of a King who is unwilling to take the throne, slowly taking on his role as a leader to his people. Even beyond the realm of simple narratives, we crave to see in others the growth we long for in ourselves.

            The life of the Apostle Paul is perhaps the most striking example of this in scripture. Raised up to be a good man by all accounts, Paul had a terminal case of hatred in his heart. While we are never given more of an example of this manifesting than his hatred toward the Christians, we can assume he probably had more than a few groups he felt this way about. His zeal for murder overcame his better angels and as he rode out to round up more victims, God intervened and started to transform him. He was healed by one of the people he had set out to destroy, and the process of making an apostle from an enemy of the church had begun.

            The Church, in whatever form it has taken throughout history, needs to be more proactive about growing in righteousness. From at least the time of Constantine, and probably before, the Church has complicated its mission through entanglements with all kinds of worldly business. Wrapped up in partisan politics, in acquisition of wealth, in striving to take power over government, and even the acquisition of military might. What began as a group devoted to love of God and neighbor, to doing what was right even when and especially if it was hard, became harder and harder to pick out from a sea of socio-political groups trying to get an edge over everyone else.

            The Church, as defined by Methodist doctrine, is found wherever the people of God gather, the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments duly administered. In a place where this is true, we should see people growing more and more righteous every day. The sacraments deliver grace to us, the word of God lights our heart aflame, and our gathered prayers open our ears and our hearts to the needs of those around us. To be the Church, is to grow, because to be alive is to grow. No living creature exists that does not have some sort of mechanism to allow its continued existence, and for the Church to be alive it must continue to move forward into righteousness.

            We must choose what we want to be in life. Whether it is to go about our three score and ten just checking occasional boxes and meeting the bare minimum of expectations, or if we will push beyond and really invest in the Kingdom of God which we have been called to be a part of. We should look at the kind of stories we tell and how they align or do not align with the vision of humanity which Christ offers us. Do we lift up heroes in our tales for being Christlike? Or do we lift them up for satisfying our earthly desires?

            If we succeed, and if we grow more holy each day that passes, we will eventually find ourselves inching toward perfection. Not to say we will not sin, because to err is human, but to say that we are perfectly intentional in doing what is right at all times. That we stand blameless before all we know because even our failings are produced by a desire to do what Christ wills of us. If we truly wish to find our time waiting for Christ to be fulfilled and blessed, we must spend it developing our ability to do what is right.

When people tell stories about us, about the Church as a whole, we must ensure that the stories they tell are redemptive, powerful, and glorify God. We are writing a story now to be told for all time, let us do our part to make it a good one. – Amen.

We Wait for Christ – Advent 2 2020

2 Peter 3: 8-15a

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Sermon Text

Impatience is a killer. Life, as short as it is, cannot be taken in a hurry. Rushing from one thing to another, grabbing onto whatever gives us the most satisfaction in a single moment, it all makes the short span we have on this Earth pass even faster. We cannot afford to be impatient people, because impatience ultimately wastes our time more than simply waiting out inconveniences.

I myself am guilty of trying to get things done quickly or with less work and instantly finding that I have trapped myself in more work that takes more time than if I had just done something simple and straightforward. Recently, my greatest offense takes the form of a pumpkin roll in which I thought that I could stop beating the eggs when they were frothy instead of stiff and that I could roll it once instead of the suggested twice. As a result I made a delicious, albeit messy and flat, pumpkin pile, rather than a tall and stately pumpkin roll. It did taste good though.

Beyond baking though, there are far more serious consequences that can come from rushing into a situation. Speaking too quickly when we are upset or angry. Rushing through important work at our job and thereby complicating someone else’s or even hurting those our job serves. Still more, there are few things that cause more strife in our hearts than the continual heartbreak that impatience can give us. When we are waiting for something and unwilling to dwell in that wait, then we find our heart broken every moment that we do not receive the outcome that we wish. An unwillingness to wait things out, produces pain, after pain, after pain.

Of course, it is not as though our impatience is always meant to be selfish or lazy. Oftentimes we become impatient for very good things, things that we must want to come as soon as possible. When we are waiting for test results to tell us what kind of or if any treatment will work. When we have a loved one who went out somewhere and we do not hear from them even as the snow begins to fall out our window. When the news is just too bad for too long.

In all these cases it would be wrong of us to be alright with the present situation. If we became complacent and apathetic to the pain of those around us, even of ourself, then we have deprived ourselves of some of our most basic and authentic aspects of our humanity. We are people born into a broken world. As we become more and more Christlike over time, it only makes sense that the broken world would break our heart as well. We are people who, for love of others and of goodness must cry out periodically, “How long, O’ Lord!”

2 Peter, the book from which our scripture comes, captures a moment in the biblical witness which is usually called, “The Delay of the Parousia,” or in other words, “The Delay of Christ’s Return.” This period marks the end of the first century in which the expectant Church, having believed that Christ would have come back to save them within a single generation, now had to accept that their wait would be much longer than that. The tone of the letters which the apostles and teachers wrote out in this period changed. No longer was their a sense that the church had only a few days to repent and to become good, but that they now had many years to remain good.

It is easy to reform one’s behavior or beliefs for a short period of time.  Afterall, we can always keep to a diet for a day or two, maybe even stop cursing for a day or two. Drag that out over a few months and a few years, suddenly the struggle becomes much harder. We all can be holy in a moment, we can ever be righteous in extremis, but the lingering question must be whether or not we can endure in goodness. Can we love beyond the superficial, can we keep the faith across months and months, years and years, and disappointment after disappointment?

Our scripture today gives us a vision for how we can endure, and that is to take time out of our hands and put it into God’s. The author, looking at the Psalms for inspiration, makes it clear that God does not see time as we do. While we are fixated on minute details of every second and squeezing the most out of them, simultaneously draining them of their worth, God is invested in a larger view. The momentary troubles we face, even those that seem insurmountable, are attended to by a God for whom a thousand years are as a day, and for whom a day is a thousand years.

The brilliance of 2 Peter’s conception of God’s time is that it can be read in either direction. For God a single second lasts and eternity, and yet at the same time eternity is just a passing second. God is intimately involved in every moment of the life that we live yet is also looking decades and centuries down the road to how that moment will be played out. God is active and involved in the short and long term, and we have to let God be involved in every moment we face.

We wait for Christ every day as the Church. We wait for the Kingdom to be truly inaugurated and all things set right in Christ’s victorious return, but we also wait for the occasional deliverances we receive every day. When the power of sin is broken in our life in a new way, when our hardness of heart is melted, when the miracle we have been waiting for finally comes our way. We wait and we wait and we wait, would it not be good to know that God is not only in control, but waiting alongside us.

When God is invested, not only in the big picture, but in every passing moment as well, then we can be confident of two things. Firstly, God is not acting cruelly by making us wait, because God sees infinite number of steps down the road. Secondly, God is not disinterested with our present feelings and worries because God is actively involved in the most minute of details and the shortest increments of time.

We must develop patience, not out of an unwillingness to acknowledge the dire straights we currently inhabit, but from an earnest belief that God is with us and looking ahead of us no matter what comes our way. We are told in 2 Peter that God is not waiting to test us, not dragging feet to put off setting things right. God is taking all the time that is needed to bring about a kingdom people by as many people as possible, a kingdom founded on righteousness and imbued with all the qualities that produce true community.

We must continue to pray to God to bring about goodness. We must continue to look to the future and the goodness that God will bring. However, in doing so we must not become impatient, breaking our heart with every passing moment. We must trust in God who has given us an abundance of goodness and somehow try and take the same view of time that God has. Every second, an infinitude in itself, must be treasured as though it were a millennium. In the same way, when something drags out and takes longer than we would like or expect, we must try and put that time in perspective of the long arc of history.

We must be patient and await God’s recreation of the world and of ourselves. Patience, like anything is a skill that we must develop over time. It begins with taking time in the little things we are given, in taking time to do something right the first time. It begins in patiently waiting through whatever delays we face in life. Overtime though, we see time as God does. Every moment invested with all the importance of every decade, and all things working together to bring us into something new and sacred.

We wait now for Christ, and we pray for Christ to come near to us. – Amen.

We Wait for Redemption – Advent 1 2020

Isaiah 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever.  Now consider, we are all your people.

Sermon Text

            Advent breaks upon us, like the first rays of light shining out on the horizon. Dawn is coming for the world, the arrival of the true source of all goodness. God returning to God’s people, and all things being set right in a rush of grace and justice and mercy. The dawning of a new era of God’s presence on earth with us. We look to the skies, we wait for the night to pass into the day, we wait for Christ to come and be among us. Advent, the season of arrival, is for us a season in which we wait.

            Anticipating the next act of God is nothing new. From the moment that humanity first found itself apart from God, it has looked for God to come to be among them. Though we stray from God, the call of the Spirit upon our life always brings us back to looking for more of God. We long to see God here, with us, and we long to benefit from the presence of God in all the ways that we possibly could.

            The brokenness of the world around us demands that something happen to set the world straight. God reaching down and scooping us out of it would be one thing, but we are offered something much better. God’s work was not to pull us out of the darkness of the world but to transform darkness into light, evil into good. God’s work in creation was to redeem it from its fallen state, not to abandon some of it and rescue others. As we wait for Christmas and for the fullest celebration of God coming to be with us, we do so with anticipation of a world set right.

            Our scripture for today, from the book of Isaiah, is written after the Babylonian Captivity of Judah had ended. The Kingdom was not functioning at its fullest potential just yet, but people had returned to their ancestral home and were finding their way back into patterns of life their grandparents had known. How surprising then, that they discovered that the world was not magically made better because they moved back into their ancient home.

            The final chunk of Isaiah is a mixture of prophecy describing God’s goodness and Judah’s continual failure to live as they ought to. In biting terms, the prophet describes the land of Judah as a place filled with cruelty, where the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Returning to the land of blessing which benefited them in the past was not enough to wash away the wickedness of the people’s hearts. Simply moving location or changing our situation will always do nothing unless our heart is likewise changed. The people, now several generations removed from the original Babylonian exiles, find themselves falling into the same pitfalls that their ancestors did.

            God, the covenant partner of all the faithful, expresses frustration at this through the prophet. “Though you are free from Babylon, you are not free from your sins!” The people have been freed from the empire that had enslaved them, but they were not willing to live into the freedom that they had been offered. What was God to do? Another exile? Another punishment or plague?

            God’s response to the continued rebellion of the faithful was to extend still more grace to them. The promise of the final chapters of Isaiah is that all will be made new, that the Heaven’s the Earth, and even the people themselves will be renewed. In the midst of the promises God makes to God’s people, our scripture for today breaks out. A powerful prayer to God to come and act, to come and redeem God’s people from the troubles that they face – both the problems of the world around them and that they cause for themselves.

            The opening line of our scripture, “tear open the Heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake…” Is meant to bring to mind in its hearers the Song of Deborah (Judges 5.) After overcoming the Canaanites that had threatened the Israelites, Deborah saw God as their deliverer – not her or anyone else involved. She describes God moving mountains to clear the way for God’s people. God’s love for God’s people was such that nothing – not even the mountains were willing to get in between the two.

            The prophet recalls the goodness of God but identifies that things are not as they should be. While immediately recalling the Babylonian exile in citing that God became angry and, “hid” from Judah, the reality is that human sin is never tied to a single era or action. Since the Garden humanity has transgressed, and in the process of our sinning we find ourselves removed from the presence of God. Does God hide? Or do we simply cease to look? The two feel much like one another and in the prophet’s prayer we see God given particular agency over the relationship.

            There are several things in life that can darken our view of God and seemingly hide God away from us. When we live our lives wrongly, chasing after darkness and not light, we will find it hard to see God. Likewise, when disaster overtakes us, and we are propelled into a place of uncertainty we can lose track of God. However, no matter how we find ourselves pushed away from the divine presence; we feel the need to find it again. God, the source of life, is what we need to truly be alive. When we feel cut off, for any reason, then we feel lesser because of it.

            God’s promise then to us is that we can be made alive, that the present darkness is not forever, that redemption awaits us even when we stray as far as we could ever dream away from God’s goodness. We are offered redemption through being remade into the image of what God would have us be. No longer are we the, “filthy cloth,” but washed clean and made beautiful. No longer do we “fade away” like leaves, but we are filled with life and made to shine out in beauty. Revivification is one thing, restoration to what was, but we are pushed somehow farther and given more life and more goodness than we ever had before.

            We have talked several times about the things that have happened in this year and oftentimes it seems like this is the worst year we could ever dream of. However, even in the midst of that, we must not pretend that an awful year can keep us from the love of God. Disaster shows us who we are, pushes back layers of pretention and posturing and opens us up to show the true content of our heart. For the people of Judah who had their own disasters, who found that coming home and being restored to life were not one and the same, it revealed that they were far from what they ought to have been.

            The prayer of the prophet offers a final word of hope. After describing God as a potter who can reform the clay of our being into its proper shape, the prophet calls to mind one final scripture from Judah’s past. The book of Lamentations, perhaps the most barren book of the Bible, ends with a cry for help. “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old – unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.” (Lamentations 5:9)

            The prophet’s prayer in Isaiah 64 seeks to soothe the troubled heart of Lamentations 5. God, do not be angry. God, consider that we are you people. The prayer of the prophets often contains the truth of God hidden away in their intercession. God will not remain angry. God will not forget that we are God’s people. No matter what barriers come between us and God – ones that we put up, ones put up against us – they cannot stand forever. God will not utterly reject us, but God will bring us close and set us right. As we wait throughout Advent, we wait for God. We wait for Redemption. We wait for mountains to quake as God comes running to our aid. God our maker will be God our redeemer, and our redeemer will live among us. – Amen

A Light in the Darkness – Advent 4 2019

Luke 1: 68-79

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty savior for us

in the house of his servant David,

as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,

and has remembered his holy covenant,

the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,

to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,

might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness

before him all our days.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

by the forgiveness of their sins.

By the tender mercy of our God,

the dawn from on high will break upon us,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Sermon Text

What messages do we bring to those around us? In our conversations, in our ways of life, what do we tell people who we meet? Beyond anything that we explicitly say about what we believe there are the statements we make in our day to day conversations and the things we do or do not do to those around us tell people about what we think and who we represent. To quote a popular apocryphal phrase, “Our lives are often the only Gospel a person will ever read.”

The proclamation of God’s word, of good news to the poor and of healing to the oppressed, it is not achieved in standing still and shouting loudly. The popular idea that Christians should be defiant observers of the world, standing at arms-length and inciting disagreements does not stand in the light of the biblical narrative. The posts we share on Facebook, our retweets on twitter, no amount of sharing Tik Tok videos can tell those in our life about the Gospel. For those of us who abstain from social media, it should be said that loud protest to things we do not like are not sufficient representations of the Gospel either. The call of the evangelist, the call of each and everyone of us, is more than just letting people know what we think and feel, it is showing them the real presence of Christ in our lives.

Scripture describes God and more specifically the Gospel as a light that shines into the darkness of the world. This light can only shine out if we uncover it. The bushel baskets that we put over ourselves, the caves that we hide our lamps in, they keep people from experiencing the fullness of God, the goodness of God. If we really are envoys of God’s love, messengers of God’s salvific work in the world, then we should take that responsibility seriously. At the end of it all, everything we do in our day to day can become an expression of the Gospel of Truth. We are each of us radiant because God has given us God’s own light. We are vessels of grace made to share grace to others.

We have focused this Advent on the life of John the Baptist. Charting how Jesus was preceded by John allows us to understand what our role of Christians, as proclaimers, as evangelists is really made of. As we go out into the world to baptize people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we also go out as representatives of the Triune God, of the God of Israel, of the God who saw fit to come among us, and who will come again.

John the Baptist is someone who is described as, “the greatest person born to women,” before the establishment of the Church. Jesus also is clear that, “the least of these in the Kingdom will be greater than John.” Which, in my view, suggests that each of us gathered here are more equipped than John ever was to share God’s word, to go forward and show everyone how God works for the good of God’s children, to produce real change in a world that badly needs it.

The ways in which we can show the world the work of God are too numerous to list. We can talk about our beliefs, we can show people kindness, but today I submit that there are three key features we can take away from this Advent we have spent together that aid us in understanding how we can proclaim the Coming of Christ into history this Wednesday and look forward to Christ coming in final victory every day. These are the need for us to have a clear understanding of where we have come from, where we are, and where we are going. If we can master our understanding of our own stories in this way, then we can meet people honestly and show them God’s goodness to the fullest extent.

As our scripture today tells us, proclaiming Christ begins with knowing that Christ is the fulfillment of a long tradition. Jesus was born out of an ancient household, born to God’s ancient covenant with Israel, and was told of by ancient prophets. The foundations of our faith are wrapped up in a history that spans, if we start if just at Moses, almost four thousand years.

The knowledge that the faith is something far older than us helps to ground us in the knowledge that we are working with something far bigger than ourselves. As you have likely noticed, I enjoy bringing Greek and Hebrew into our conversations about scripture. This is not just a means to add a bit more depth to our conversations, but it allows us to remember that these stories were not written in English only for us here and now. The root of scripture is in languages nobody speaks anymore – in Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew – the people it describes are not like us, they lived in a world fundamentally different than us. That is what makes God’s work amazing, that despite the differences of the past the present still gains insight and finds relevance in the words of God, in wisdom which transcends time and place.

In the same way we should know the corporate history of God’s promises and God’s people, we should be aware of our own histories. We know ourselves better than anyone else, we see God’s deliverances in us every day. Problems that were erased through faith, strength that we gained through prayer, even the silence we found ourselves centered in when we stand before God – whatever our experiences with God in the past, they have made us who we are now. If we wish to show God’s work in the world, we can look to famous stories and people – sure – but the experiences of our own heart, those moments when God has acted on our behalf, that is one of the surest expressions of God’s love and work in the world.

Being aware of the past we must also be able to look forward. John received his mission at birth, which as someone who struggled to find their call for a good number of years sounds like a pretty good deal. This meant though that he had a sense of what things were working toward. A church that can only describe what happened in the past is not a living thing, it becomes a historical society, and not a particularly popular one. God must have something planned down the line, or else our gatherings would be rehearsals of antiquity and nothing else.

Our knowledge of God’s future work is never complete, but it does not have to be. When John was given his charge we are told that he will be, “prophet of the Most High for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins…” That is not a specific calling, but it is enough to know the way forward. The reality is that each of us today is given the same calling. Christ has entered the world, but is physically absent until the reconciliation of all things. We give testament and knowledge of God’s work in the meantime.

When we are able to look ahead we can cast vision for a better world. We work to eliminate hunger because we know one day it will be gone. We comfort those who mourn because we know one day they will have every tear wiped away. We care for the poor because we know in the Kingdom their will be no rich or poor, only love and the beloved. The future reality of God, one free of pain and without suffering is a fuel for the work we do, not an obstacle to it.

Christmas is upon us. Our time with God’s prophet comes to an end as we celebrate the presence of Christ among us. The birth of a child, the entrance of God, two thousand years ago echoes into the present day. Will we be aware of the past enough to recognize Christ when we see him elsewhere? In the poor and needy? The future coming of Christ is foretold, the end of all suffering and pain, the realization of pure joy and love. Will we be able to look past our present problems to proclaim this message and to work toward the realization of the Kingdom here and now?

And can we now, recipients of the light of Christ. Acknowledge this moment, the nexus where past and present meet, and shine out the light which God has given us. The dawn from on high has broken upon us, let no one try and hide it away. – Amen

The Example of John – Advent 3 2019

James 5:7-10

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

 

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way before you.’

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Sermon Text

Questioning the work of God is something natural. The eternal and all-powerful God of the universe would not be working to their full extent if we could understand everything that comes our way. In the same way that a single chapter, removed from the context of an entire book, is hard to enjoy or understand the work of God is not always evident to us from our small view into it. While faith believes that the rest of the work is good and intelligible, our reason and our situations bring us to our questions.

In our Gospel, we see the way that John, the forerunner of Jesus’ ministry, reacted when he saw Jesus’ ministry. We remember that John proclaimed a message that the coming Messiah was to be a mighty person who would pour the Holy Spirit of God’s prophetic power on the world and send down fire to cleanse the world of all unrighteousness. John expected the coming of Christ to mean a quick and speedy resolution to the problems of the Jewish people. True faith would break out across the world, Rome would burn into dust, and the Messianic King would rule the people in righteousness and power for all eternity.

John was imprisoned before Jesus’ ministry really took off. He had been sent there because he refused to accept the work of Herod. This Herod was the son of Herod the Great, the ruler who had sought the death of Jesus following his birth. He was, for a time, considered for the title of King of the Jews, but lost out to his older brother. Though the scripture and he himself used the term, “King,” he was, in reality, a governor of two small provinces.

Herod was not as ruthless as his father but was just as politically minded. He has built fishing complexes all along the Galilee in an attempt to show himself fiscally minded and administratively savvy. These cities were designed to bring money into his coffers, to feed the Roman army, and to monopolize food production in the area. As one might expect, this put small fishermen out. They could either work for Herod as fishing serfs or keep their businesses for diminishing returns. Herod was not popular with the peasantry for many reasons, but his economic abuse of them was one of the chief ones.

When the Tetrarch found that his brother had died and his sister-in-law was no longer taken he divorced his own wife and married her. Herodias was brought in and his first wife Phasaelis was forced out to return to her family. Herod had added to his real estate mogul persona a penchant for womanizing. The ruler had established himself as a king who was capable of taking land, of destroying marriages, and of doing anything to take power.

It is not a surprise then that John the Baptist opposed Herod for his work. The prophet acted as a Nathan to Herod’s David. The Tetrarch trusted John to a degree, we are told in places he enjoyed John’s message of God’s coming deliverance. Yet despite this Herod decided John was too dangerous to let roam freely. He jailed John for his criticisms of the Herodian government. John sat in prison for opposing the injustices of his day.

While in prison John could only dream of the work that Jesus was doing. How his cousin whom he had baptized on the River Jordan was beginning his mission against the power structures of their day. Gathering the faithful people of Israel together and proclaiming the end of Rome and all its sympathizers. The divine army of God must be just around the corner, ready to start a new thing on Earth. John, sitting in his prison cell would have pictured all his messianic hopes coming true.

So, now… When John gets reports of what Jesus is doing… What confusion and disappointment must he have felt? “You’re telling me!” John says, “That he has been preaching and teaching about how to live together in harmony? He is instructing people on how to suffer? I thought he was coming to bring us out of suffering! He going around healing the sick and liberating the poor and oppressed? If he wanted to make their life better he would just get rid of Rome. He would kill them all and let God sort out the rest! Why won’t he just act like one!”

John sends those who told him about Jesus’ ministry back to Jesus and tells them to ask if Jesus really is the Messiah or if John was mistaken in thinking he was. The messengers meet with Jesus and ask him the question, asks him if he really is the Messiah. Jesus’ answer fills out what John’s expectations of Jesus had missed. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Jesus makes it clear that the coming of God’s kingdom was not in fire and in death but in the renewal of life. The healing of people who were sick. The freeing of people from systematic oppression. The removal of any obstacle between them and God. Jesus also reminds John, if you really believe in the coming of God’s kingdom, the fact is has broken out will not be an offensive thing to you. You will not be upset about how God has brought about the kingdom, even if it is not what you thought it would be. You have to have faith even as you question.

With the messenger returning to John, Jesus looks back to a crowd that has already probably started whispering among themselves. “Can you believe John?” “How could he question Jesus like that?” “He should be so ashamed!” “A faithful person would not doubt God like this…”

Jesus does not tolerate this attack on John. He reminds the people what John did. “Remember who you came to see in the Wilderness! How he washed you for your sins and did not hold anything back! Remember how he gave up his comfort to seek God, gave up respectability for holiness! Yet you would doubt him for having questions?”

The shame the crowd was ready to place on John was redirected to them. The reality is that even the holiest among us those of whom it could be said, “No greater person was born of woman,” than them, will have doubts. They will question God and God’s work in the world. Why wouldn’t they? When the bills aren’t paid, when the diagnosis is bad, when the world ain’t fair, you should question things because suffering is never something we should just accept. The job of a prophet is to push beyond questions and to provide an alternative vision of the future.

John, now reoriented toward how God sought to bring about the kingdom, could rest in his cell. God was breaking out a new and radical vision for the future. The poor would be taken care of. The rich would meet their needs. Those kept from seeking their livelihood would have obstacles taken away from them. The doors to the Kingdom would be opened to all people, to gentile and Jew, rich and poor, worthy and unworthy, and all people would have a great deal asked of them.

But if we wish to step into our prophetic role in that Kingdom, to follow the example of our prophet’s as James would have us do, then we must be willing to accept our questions as they come. We must also be willing to follow the example of John in our willingness to oppose the evils of the world. We must speak out against every Herod we meet, we must do so even if it means we lose the privileges of the world we are born into. With John as our example, and Christ as our aim, we can never be discouraged from our mission in the Kingdom. We wait, we question, but among all these things we must act. – Amen.

Rise up Children to Abraham – Advent 2 2019

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Sermon Text

John the Baptist is someone who we are not given much information about in scripture. He will appear in the Biblical Narrative, say a few words, and then disappear before coming back and saying a few more things. From birth to death we are not given a full biography of John the Baptist. What he taught, who he taught it to, or how he ran his ministry. The only thing we know is that whatever he did it must have worked. Whatever it was he did, he was immensely successful at it.

Despite the little bit that is written about him, the biblical text and other ancient texts give us a good idea of who he was and what the general work it included. John the Baptist firstly was non-sectarian. He was not a part of the Temple Sadducees or the Teaching Pharisees or the Monastic Essenes, he existed in a space betwixt and between all of them. Not only did he stand out in this way, but he is the first person in history to be given the title of “Baptizer.” Not only this but he created the concept of “Baptism,” by transforming existing Jewish and Greek which were repeated for the sake of ritual purity into a declarative act of repentant reorientation.

His washing was not just a means to becoming clean, but a moment to commemorate something new was happening. That the baptizand had died to this reality and was born into a new one. John’s baptismal ministry gathered a group of disciples who appear throughout the Gospels. Sometimes they worked alongside Jesus and his disciples, sometimes arguing with them.

The strange thing about all this is that, though John was Jesus’ cousin, John never really interacts with Jesus. They usually sent messengers back and forth, and the text following today’s scripture, the baptism of Christ is the only time scripture records a face to face conversation between them. John and Jesus, two distinct separate messengers working toward the realization of God’s kingdom.

Next week the scripture tackles the differences between the two an what that means for us, but today we will talk about the similarities. How John sets the precedent for Jesus’ ministry and our own. John’s ministry was radically inclusive. He preached a message that managed to reach people where they were. He was so effective in his speaking that no matter how he got it out there, people from all over Judea were willing to come out and see him. Judea was not very large, smaller than most states, but to travel from one side of it to the other would be a trip of days if not weeks. People were willing to uproot their lives to hear the message and receive the Baptism of John.

This message, far-reaching as it was, was simple – “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” We’ve talked about repentance before, we spent a whole month on the concept. We understand the idea that we reorient ourselves toward God. That we reorient our vision of the future to be in line with the goodness that God wants. It is the transformation that comes with the renewing of our minds so that we can become good and do God’s good work. That is the essence of repentance.

If we go a step further I would say that most of us, except in moments of intense doubt or despair, feel as though we have room to grow and are capable of growth. That something can push us to grow by the Grace of God and that we can attain something beyond our current state. With this confidence of self and of God’s goodness, we have a sort of assurance. Here is the question though, is that assurance of God’s grace and our hope of growth just for people like us? Is it only for people in circumstances and situations and churches and pews and denominations like ours? Has the Kingdom of Heaven drawn near to a select few or to all people?

John answers this question in ministering to two groups – the crowd who we can assume were likely peasants farmers or other laborers from throughout the region, and distinct from them the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These two groups controlled, on one hand, the religious instruction of the people and on the other the religious rituals of the Temple. Abundance and necessity, power and powerlessness, potential for action and inability to act met on the banks of the Jordan that day. In the way that Matthew writes a potential confrontation was set up. “John saw that many of the Sadducees and the Pharisees were coming to see him.” The moment they are set apart is the moment we know something is about to happen to them.

Many times in reading this we put ourselves in the place of the repentant crowd, watching on as the Pharisees and Sadducees are made an example of, but today I want us to take on the role of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Imagine that you have heard the preaching of this man that you come out from Jerusalem and step into the muddy waters of the Jordan to see him. Moving through a crowd of people you hear dialects and smell smells that you have never seen before. You walk between crowds of people who society tells you are all beneath you. You walk to see a preacher who your fellow leaders in Jerusalem have decreed a dangerous revolutionary. An apocalyptic preacher who only could cause trouble for someone in power like you.

But you know the power of this man’s preaching because it made a Pharisee and a Sadducee go up to see him. Two people who could not agree on anything religiously suddenly agreeing that this man was worth listening to. Imagine what it must be like then when this preacher you have come to see, looks at you from across the crowd and starts yelling. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you of the wrath to come?” And if it wasn’t bad enough that he insults you and calls you a snake he accuses you of not really being invested in what you’re doing. “Do not presume,” As I am assuming you are, “to say, “I am a child of Abraham because God could rise up children to Abraham from rocks if God wanted.”

Now step away from that time and place and join me back in the here and now. Reading this text I find myself asking a question, which rocks are John pointing to? Is he pointing to the memorial stones down the Jordan at Schechem, can God raise up children of Abraham from the past? Is it to the rocks of the Temple, can God raise up children to Abraham through religious devotion? To the pebbles under his feet, is he recalling Genesis? Or is he pointing to those around him, to the crowd and to the Pharisees and Sadducees, saying, “From these stones, God could raise up children to Abraham.”

The Gospel does not use any special word here to indicate a metaphorical or literal meaning. It does, however, use the same word for stone as Greek translations of the Ezekiel do in describing our hearts before God transforms them. “Hearts of stone,” transformed into, “Hearts of flesh.” So we see that while John is critical of these people he is still looking beyond their present state to what could be. That God could take even a literal rock and turn into a child of Abraham is a statement of God’s incredible power and grace not a statement about Humanity’s inability to meet expectations.

If the message is that a stone can become a child to Abraham what does it mean for a flesh and blood person if they are willing to take the leap? This is not to say that John is minimizing his criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees or that the wrong they have does not matter. John is clear in laying out the stakes. The people must, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” No free pass is given simply because you apologize to God or anyone else you have hurt, but if you are sincere in your commitment to change then the Kingdom cannot be denied you. If we are people who believe, who speak our contrition and act out our penance then the Kingdom is opened to us.

Yet we so often read this scripture as if it ends with John warning the Pharisees, “Bear fruit or perish.” Yet if we read the text honestly we see that his following statement does not change direction. He is still speaking to the Pharisees when he says, “I baptize you with water for Repentance, but the one who comes after me is mightier than I. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” John gives correction to the Pharisees and Sadducees but he also gives them hope. “Your present is not the endpoint of your life and even I, John the Baptist, am not the fullest version of myself I could be. But I lead the way for one who will transform all of this.”

Let us return now to the Pharisee walking toward John. Having been insulted, accused, and told to straighten up you are now dipped in the Jordan. You are told those words, “I baptize you with water for repentance.” Now you hold in yourself the hope of the coming Messiah. As you leave the river, the Grace of God literally dripping from your clothing. Ask yourself one simple question, “Can I deny others what to me has been so freely given?” Let that question lead us, shape us, transform us in how we give Grace to the world around us. – Amen

Be Alert – Advent 1 2019

Isaiah 2:1-5

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!

Matthew 24:36-44

But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.

Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Sermon Text

Throughout the Gospels, Christ constantly returns to two words when teaching us about his eventual Second Coming – Be Alert. The coming of Christ is always associated with this command that we be watchful so that we are not unprepared when Christ arrives. If we are not careful this concept of “Being Alert” does not become too vague to be useful. Or else so uncertain that we wrap ourselves in worry and look for whatever sounds good, losing ourselves without even knowing it.

The season of Advent is a time to look forward to Christ’s return. It looks forward to this return of Christ through the historical image of Christ’s birth just over two thousand years ago. The moment that the fullness of deity took on the smallest form of humanity. We do not use these four weeks to celebrate the birth of Christ. We are not yet to Christmas as much as we would like it to be here. Now we come to a time to wait, to prepare ourselves in silence. The birth-pangs are beginning, but they cannot be felt just yet. The silence that we inhabit now gives our heart space to reach out and offer up prayers heard only by God, carrying the ancient prayer of our church – “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”

Advent is not simply a recollection of what was. Christ was born once, Christ lived physically among us once, and Christ ascended once. If Advent is simply a reminder of this history, then we have no part in it. If Advent is us waiting for something that has already happened, then we wait for nothing. There must be more to Advent, to our lives as Christians than chasing after what already has been. There must be more for us, a future and a present for us to participate in.

We have entered into four weeks that invite us to look forward and within. Forward to the return of Christ and within to sort out what barriers we have put up in our life. We are charged to be alert in the face of distraction. To look beyond our daily worries that distract us from Hope. To put away our love of money and personal gain so we may enjoy Christ’s presence with us. We are invited to stop being selective in our histories so that we can see Christ’s movements throughout time.

The call of John the Baptist still comes out from the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” We can respond to this call by removing barriers in our lives, making sure there is no hurdle between us and Christ. The knowledge that at any moment we may meet Christ should lead us into a more considered way of life, should shape all our words and actions.

Christ’s return is not just a final end. We do not sit quietly in anticipation of Christ’s return. We do not gather just to remember what we’ve already seen. We are living people! We face every day knowing that God is working among us and that Christ is always knocking at the door, ready to be among us. The door to our heart, the door to our mind, and even the door to our homes. The doors even of this Church.

Christ asks us to be alert and is clear that this is not some arbitrary state of being. We do not wait by praying the right prayers or thinking the right thoughts. Christ asks us to wait actively, to be sure that we are not found sitting on our hands but are prepared. That we are working in God’s work. Christ always tells us how to wait by telling us how to love.

Following our Gospel reading Christ gives several examples of prepared people. There is a story about brides waiting for a husband, some bring enough oil to last longer than they expected and some bring too little. Those who prepared for the long dark are applauded for their planning. Then Jesus tells of people who are given large sums of money, some invest it well and produce more and one sits by and does nothing. Those who work, no matter the increase they produced are lauded and the one who did nothing is condemned. And lest we misunderstand what these parables tell us about waiting for Christ, a final message is made.

Christ describes those who are alert at his return as sheep and those who are not as goats. The sheep are told – you fed me when I was hungry, you clothed me when I was naked, you visited me in prison. In short – you met all my needs. The goats are told they did nothing to meet Christ’s needs. Both groups ask the same question, “Christ we have been waiting for you, but until this we did not see you. How could we have helped you? The answer is simple – Every time you helped one of the least of these, anyone who is in terrible need – you have helped me. The difference between the ready and alert and the blind and idle are those who saw Christ in those around them. The good servants met Christ whenever he arrived, no matter what he looked like, no matter when and where he knocked on their door.

To teach ourselves to be ready we should participate in an exercise I saw online that I think might be helpful. Anytime you see someone in need, or you read a headline, read that headline and look at that person as, “Jesus, the Son of God.” Here’s what I mean

As you drive down the street and see a homeless man begging on the median, read the sign they have, “Jesus, the Son of God – broke, cold, and out of work.” When we read the news:

  • “Jesus, the son of God, unable to pay for insulin dies at age 27,”
  • “Everyday Jesus, the son of God, is sent to an informal camp. He is taken directly to the encampment and often sleeps outside until he finds a tent,”
  • “Jesus the Son of God, – 11 years old was shot and killed during a party in Cleveland, Ohio,”
  • “Jesus, the Son of God is homeless despite service to country,”
  • “Jesus the son of God goes to bed hungry at night,” “Jesus the Son of God…”

Until we see Christ in the face of those around us, we can never claim to be prepared to see his face in his Triumphant Return. Therefore, as we now prepare to partake of Christ’s Feast of Grace. Let us learn to extend this grace to others. The day is coming when War will cease when God bends all swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. The day is coming when disease will end and pain will be a far off memory. The day is coming when there will be no question that God is with us, that we have Emmanuel. Until that day though, Christ has only two physical presences on Earth – the Church that is his body and those in need that are his Face. Let the body acknowledge its face and let us welcome those in need and love them, as Christ first welcomed and loved us. – Amen.