Covenant Renewal – 12/29/2019

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Matthew 25:31 –46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Sermon Text

    Today we gather to recommit ourselves to God. Whereas there is the secular custom of setting resolutions for the New Year, the Wesleyan tradition has often made use of the New Year as a time of reflection and prayer. With the changing of the calendar, the recognition of another journey around the sun, we now take time to look at the most basic aspects of our faith, and what that faith means for us as believers and children of God.

    Covenant, as the back of your bulletins go into detail, is not easily defined. The, “בְּרִית” which God made with God’s people throughout time were more than mere agreements – the words of the covenant encompassed the relationship between the parties involved. In the same way that a marriage covenant is described with the words of the marriage vows, the marriage is also somehow much more than those words. “Till death do us part,” carries as much meaning for the people who say them as they are willing to live them out.

    The Christian life is defined by the work of God. However, our enjoyment of the Christian life and our ability to grow is dependent on our willingness to take part in God’s work. We participate in God’s grace and are drawn into it. The gifts of God enable us to take more and more on. This does not mean that we get more and more work piled on us, but that we take on more of God’s goodness, hone our skills to act out what God has set us apart for. We do not live our Christian life by exhausting ourselves, we live it out by knowing ourselves and God enough to work to our fullest.

    That each of us take on particular calls in life is natural. Some of us are called to work in service industries, others in production, other to work directly in the work of the Church. Whatever the vocation that we choose in life is, we do so as Christians participating in God’s vision for the world. There is a lie that we choose to believe that we serve God only when we pray or only when we proclaim the Gospel. While both of these are aspects of the Christian life, simply pursuing excellence in what we do is a form of service to God. It shows that we wish to contribute to the goodness of others, to work earnestly to help others.

    Outside of working to the best of our abilities are the ways that we should serve one another. Helping one another by lovingly serving those we are community with – whether we know them through work, as part of the church, or as our friends and family. We serve those around us by doing what we can to further their good. This means helping them in times of need, supporting them in their pursuit of a good life, and meeting their emotional and spiritual needs. We should be a people that speak with one another, that pray for one another, that help one another. We cannot be passive participants in one another’s life.

    Our community is not limited to those we know, not even to those we like. The stranger, those who pass through our life for only a season or even a day, these people we have obligations to. While we can never truly treat someone we do not know with the same fullness as those who we know well, we can show them what God has put on our hearts. When we meet the eyes of those who are begging on the streets and in the medians. When we give to honest charities and to people we know need it. When we fight for the rights of people who are not like us, or who we will never meet. These are all expressions of our love of those we do not know, of hospitality for those outside our households.

    Today our scripture captures two moments that are fundamentally important to the history of God’s work with God’s people. The first was in the giving of the Mosaic covenant. Here God sets the stakes in clear terms. 

    The pursuit of God’s Kingdom is a benefit for all who participate in it. The language of blessing and prosperity here is not to be confused with the preaching that is popular today. Money and power is not a sign of God’s favor. No matter how much we make or how much we have, our worth in the eyes of God and God’s favor toward us is not manifested in the material. The reality is that God sets out an ideal way of being through the Covenants of God’s people. The community of the faithful is one that, when lived out fully, produces abundance for all people.

    The Teachings that were wrapped up in the Covenant on Sinai centered around a few key things. Religious devotion to God, respect of nature, and ultimately care for other human beings. The care of animals was regulated to see that they were not abused, crops were to be grown on rotation to preserve the integrity of the soil, and all of Creation is considered as fellow participants in God’s world. The prayers of the people Israel were founded in the words of Moses, the way that sacrifices were to be carried out, even the ingredients to be used in anointing oil written down. Finally, and perhaps most relevant to the day to day – prices were made to be fair, exploitative business practices forbidden, and systems put in place so that no one would ever need to go hungry or suffer unnecessarily.

    This same ethic, the ideal community, exists in Jesus message in Matthew 25. Those who see Christ are those who care for others. Religious devotion and preservation of the nature feed into the care of one another. God sets us in relationship with the Godhead, but that relationship is realized in how we treat one another. This covenant that we cut today is between ourselves and God, between each one of us gather here today, and it is to the service of God throughout all the world. Let us take this moment of reflection to recommit ourselves full to God’s vision, to repent of all evil, and to see the start of this New Year as a return to our faith. – Amen

Christ is Born – Christmas Eve 2019

Isaiah 9:2-7

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Sermon Text

The birth of a child is never a casual affair. Despite the fact that two hundred and fifty children are born every minute, their arrival always causes a shake-up. For the family who receives the child the joy of the new life in their midst is met with the anxiety and uncertainty about their future. The birth of the child means that their community is given hope, a reminder that the world is oriented toward life, it also means that the world goes on beyond us, a future is possible without us. The entry of a child into the world is never as simple as a birth.

In the ancient world the perils were multiplied. Giving birth to a child was a risk to the one being born and to the mother. Mortality rates were high – the luckiest family would see half their children grow up, but most would see only three or four for every ten they had. Mother’s died almost nearly as often. We sometimes forget how much modern medicine has done, we sometimes let the sterile image of Christmas that we have made for ourselves distract us from one simple fact – the incarnation was risky.

God could have entered the world fully grown, as a divine spirit or as a human being who never had to be born. God could have planned to be born among the wealthy and secure of society, allowing the best chance of survival and of a pain free life. God could have done many things, but God decided to live among the poor. A woman and her husband hardly capable of feeding themselves, a risky birth in a cramped room, life entering in and immediately facing the threat of death.

The beginning of a story sets the stage for its end. Christ’s birth was dangerous, and he lived a dangerous life. He was among the poor, and his ministry was with the poor. It was to a mother whose reputation had been ruined by this pregnancy, and he lived among those of bad reputation – those who people were able to write off as sinners, whores, deadbeats – all those who so-called “righteous” people rejected.

A life on the fringes, this was the life of Christ. The King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, our Wonderful Councilor was given no throne to sit on. Even as Jesus ministered to all people, he showed a particular appreciation for those who went without. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, he removed obstacles to people’s pursuit of livelihood, he opposed anyone who used their power to abuse others. His ministry was to those in need and when necessary against those who created the conditions that led to their need. When the Kingdom broke out, it was among the untouchables of society and religion, when God came near it was a journey from the furthest places of society inward.

The story of Christmas is not a clean story of a child being born without any trouble. Almost from the beginning there were problems. Traveling long miles while pregnant can’t be healthy for mother and child. Whether Jesus was born in a stable, a cave, or a side-room the conditions for his birth were cramped and not ideal. Roman soldiers patrolled constantly, and despite laws limiting their actions against citizens – the only people to police them were themselves – to travel on their routes was to risk meeting one willing to kill, steal, or worse.

Christmas was risky, Christmas was dangerous, Christmas was dark and cold. Jesus, this little child of Mary, came to be with us during a time of oppression and economic instability. Jesus was born into a world of war and of aggression. The advent of God was nearly covered up by the compounded troubles of the world. Shadow encroached on each side, darkness pouring down on the world and leaving all people lost. The world needed hope, it needed life, it needed a savior.

We are no different today. Despite our advancements in medicine, in culture, in society there are a great many evils that would be just as home in the first century as they are now. The poor freeze to death every winter on American streets, and they die of heat stroke in the Summer. Children are taken from families, left to wander in the foster care system, or go to bed hungry. Rulers across the world have taken the easy way of stoking fears in their people, in promoting aggression rather than peace. Herod rules our modern kingdoms, we have let our faith alienate rather than reconcile, we have forgotten service in exchange for the easier path of piety without community.

Jesus is born on the fringe so that we move our eyes away from ourselves. The message of Christmas is that a light breaks out in the darkness of winter, that death and evil have no place in the world to come. Jesus chose to be among us, to be a child and to live a full human life. Jesus did so as a poor person, as someone who would spend their youth fleeing those who would have him killed, a life spent with an empty stomach. Poor, born to a woman the world had decided was unclean, Jesus became fully human by taking on the life of someone who we would often overlook. When we see the poor, do we see Jesus? When we see the needy, do we love them as we would our savior? When we see children suffering, do we adore them as we do this child in this manger?

Christ is born today, the light of salvation shines. We have hope now, hope that endures. The promise that all oppression will cease and our deep darkness end. The light of Christ, the only light that endures from everlasting to everlasting is offered freely to us all. We prepare through Advent and now at Christmas, to receive this light. We must not let it go out, we must not keep it to ourselves, we must spread the light of our Savior. We must seek it on the fringe, shine a light on the troubles of the world, love the Christ child in the needy around 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

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.