A sermon for Advent 2

Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

The stump, the brood of vipers, unity, and repentance.

Isaiah opens with the image of a stump. Until today I’ve always seen the stump from the illustration in The Giving Tree, cleanly cut. No longer, the stump is what’s left after the tree has fallen because it rotted from the inside out, and could no longer stand. It’s fallen so long ago, the stump is all that’s left. It’s desolate. It’s an image of death. And yet, for Isaiah, for Judah there is more, there is hope, there is a shoot, tiny, fragile, but green, full of new life, full of hope [i] for a future as grand as a perfect image of its predecessor.

For John the Baptist, it’s a brood of vipers. Until today, it’s been a like the scene from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusades with all the snakes slithering around all over the floor of the hidden chamber. Now it’s a vision of the common room of Slytherin House at Hogwarts, whose members put all their trust in “pure blood heritage.” [ii] It’s ego centric, exclusive, it could not see what may be for its focus on what was.

For Paul it’s unity. Until today it has been a utopian image, of all kinds of folks, who all agree on everything, who walk in perfect harmony, enjoying a magnificent banquet, where one eats all the fatty salty food imaginable, with no health consequences. Now, it’s a group of very different people, where no one is quite comfortable, where everyone is at risk, while everyone shares a diverse but common faith in Jesus’ promise of life in the glory, the presence of God. [iii] 

For the Psalmist, well it’s a psalm, perhaps a poem, perhaps a song, perhaps a liturgical setting. Until today it’s been a crucible expressing the values of days past. Psalm 72 enthrones a king; not very relevant to democracy, we elect leaders; not very relevant to Christians, Christ is King. Now it’s repentance, it’s a change in how we envision political, elected leadership, and what we expect of them. Now we ask God to deliver justice and righteousness to the world through our secular elected representative leaders. [iv] 

What might all this look like? Think back to the early 1990’s, recall South Africa, ruled by an oppressive minority by the principles of apartheid. Apartheid is Afrikaans meaning being apart. It is a corrupt racist political philosophy. It was a stump, morally deficient, it was dead. It had its supporters, a brood of vipers, pure bread of Slytherin house, in South Africa, and in the United States. But from that rotted stump there was a shoot, actually many, one we remember today is Nelson Mandela. Born in 1918 to a royal tribal family, he actively fought Apartheid, until his arrest, conviction and sentence to life in prison in 1962. He was granted release in 1990, elected President of South Africa in 1994, and unlike other  African revolutionary leaders served only one term. [v] Think back to the 1990’s to the brood of vipers, dedicated to true blood heritage. There were voices from around the world crying in the wilderness for repentance, for a change of behavior; naming South Africa’s leaders for what they were, ego centric, exclusive, oppressive leaders of a stump. All heard, some listened, at least one caught a vision of what can be nothing less than Christ centered unity, at least one repented, truly repented, changed his ways, and lead his people to justice and righteousness in rejecting apartheid and accepting a more democratic system of governance. F.W. de Klerk was president of South Africa when Mandela was released. He engaged with Mandela in negotiations for peaceful transition to freely democratic elections. In 1993 he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela. [vi] 

A stump, a brood of vipers, a vision of unity, true repentance.

We live in a world of stumps; in a world full of institutions that because of their own actions, or inaction, that because of rapidly changing context are rotting away, are failing are dead. It’s easy to be depressed. Today’s scripture readings call us, to see and name the stump, and then, to see and nurture the shoot, the possibility for new life.


We are surrounded by broods of vipers, with Slytherin House commitment to pure blood, to true ideology, of all stripes. They are cleaver, speaking in language of security, and prosperity; in truth, they are egotistic, self-centered oppressive thinkers. And we to one degree or another are in their midst. We hear the prophetic voice, and we cringe at its biting truth. Today’s scripture readings offer us the hope they offer the invitation to repent, to change; and we know, the one who calls us, will walk with us through all the challenges that journey will bring.


We are surrounded by clusters of common identity, racial, political, economic philosophy, religious, you name it there’s a group claiming to be the [quote] true believers. They all promise acceptance, security, and a whole host of worldly values, if we look like, think like, worship like, act like, the group’s definitions. Today’s scripture calls us to unity in Christ, while feely acknowledging that to truly invite others in, or to accept another’s invitation into requires us to risk, because we will be changed. That is the truth with our now very different neighbor; it’s the truth with Jesus.

It is Advent; we are surrounded with the language of repentance. We’d shake our heads in agreement, and leave church headed to the nearest special sale, so we can check off one more box on our pre-Christmas to do list. It is Advent, we are surrounded with the invitation to change, how we see the world, shoots not stumps, neighbors not others hope not despair, a divine presence here and now not out there some day. It’s a vision that can change the world, that begins with one new shoot that begins with one transformed person, that begins in our common bond in the incarnate God, whose dynamic presence is continually emerging.


[vi] ibid


Center for Excellence in Preaching cep.calvinseminary.edu http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php
New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press, 2010
Walter Harrison, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Abingdon Press, 2003

Change how we smell

Last week a colleague of mine tells the story of a food pantry. The weather was terrible, wet and cold, many of the patrons were severely under dressed.  As is their custom after the distribution was over they reviewed the process for improvements. Someone commented on the patrons being in the cold. Another said we could let them in, but where? Someone else suggested the sanctuary. After a time of silence the minister said no. After the review broke up in a select group of people, the minister noted his decision was primarily based on the fact that the public is … well dirty.

So that evening I am reading the lections for Sunday.  N.T Wright notes that Isaiah 11:3  His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. ‘delight’ actually means smell.  Wright goes on to note the custom of having people posted at the doors of churches and mosques who refuse entry to people who carry a scent of evil. [i]

This has got to connect.

This morning I got to thinking about walking into my mother’s kitchen and always taking delight in the wonderful delicate aromas swirling about when she was cooking. That reminded me that an origin of burnt offering is the smoke carrying the delicate delightful aromas to God.

As I finished my sermon, which includes John’s call to repent, his call to change, the idea of our need to change how we smell popped into my head.  To Change how we smell. has both a verb and adjective implication. In following John we change how we smell by turning from our sinful, evil ways. On the other hand would change how we smell by changing the odors we are searching for, to those that delight God.


[i] Tom Wright, Twelve Months of Sunday, Morehouse, 2012

A Litany for Coronation

Officiant:       The King is dead
People:         Long live the King
Officiant:       Let us offer Psalm 72  ….

Some of you may recognize the pseudo-liturgical setting above. I dreamed it up to help us connect with Psalm 72 a one of the Psalms offered at the coronation of the kings of ancient Israel and Judah. [i]  The psalm asks for God to give the king and the king’s son righteousness and justice; it asks for the land to yield prosperity, for the king to defend the cause of the poor and needy and to crush the oppressor. The psalm ask for a long list of good things to come to the king, each petition beginning May he  … It follows with rational for granting the petitions For he delivers the needy and poor, has pity on the weak, redeems their lives, for their blood is precious in his sight.  The psalm concludes with a petition for long life and a second list of May he petitions. It all sounds pretty good, if the king is to be ours. But we don’t have kings. We elect leaders. 

No, I have not forgotten that Christians believe Jesus the Christ to be our King, and he is. Nonetheless, as Henry Langknecht points out, this psalm really gives us pause when we move the object of the Psalm 72 to modern day leadership. [ii] There is really no need to pray for Jesus to have such attributes, Jesus and God are the source of justices, righteousness, etc. Langknecht asks: What if  … we took the petitions at their real-world face value and ask God to deliver justice and righteousness to the world through a new, surprising referent, a tangible contemporary entity ordained into leadership by God: … our secular representative republic. [iii] 

  1. Such a request is not contrary to the Constitution, it speaks only to what the government shall not do.
  2. Such a prayer does not preclude the church from any action.
  3. Such a prayer might be inspirational to our leaders; maybe, even ourselves. 

It is Advent, a time when we prepare for the completion of the coming of the Kingdom of God. The vision of Psalm 72 is a work bearing fruit of the Kingdom’s emerging presence.


[i] The New Interpreter’s Bible One Volume Commentary, 2010, Abingdon Press
[ii] Henry Langknecht , Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1907 
[iii] ibid

The gathering storm

The prophetic voice that has our attention at the moment is the Weather Channel (sic) as we prepare and await the coming winter storm with up to ¾” of ice.  The milk and bread run is already visible. Many scheduled events, Christmas Tree lightings, Christmas Parade, Concerts etc are being rescheduled.  Conversation at lunch today was about generators, some are natural gas powered, and just turn on, others have been in storage for years and there are questions about their status, some are new out of the box – though at least one of those did not work. There are even the forward looking folks pondering Monday when the second wave of winter weather sweeps across the land.

And I know there will be those who do not listen. I’m sort of one as I don’t see the radar projections indicating our town in the way of rain, sleet or ice.  And so I wonder why some people ignore a prophetic voice; why some listen but, at least as judged by their actions, do not hear; and why others really hear the prophet’s voice and change what they are doing? I especially wonder about folks who know better, like me, I’ve been through one of these ice debacles before, don’t pay closer attention. I wonder about the Sadducees and Pharisees, they should know what John is up to, because they are educated to know, because it is a part of their vision to know; nonetheless some, at least those approaching John, don’t get it. I’d love to know why.

But what I’d really love to know, is what prophetic voice I’m not getting and why, so that I can follow John’s advice and change my ways, not so such for my benefit, but in order to honor God, in Jesus the Christ.

Change is coming

It is Advent; we are preparing the greatest change since creation, God becoming incarnate in humanity; we are preparing for the greatest change since Jesus’ ascension, Christ’s return. Change is coming. Isaiah prophesizes about change, John calls the people of Jerusalem and Judah to change, and Paul calls the Gentiles in Rome to change. I believe those who observe Advent, as best we can in a Christmas obsessed land, realize Advent is about change. However, I am concerned we’re focusing on the wrong sorts of change.

For those who are drawn to the feast of the incarnation, I suspect our efforts are to more or less be the misplaced Kings bearing gifts, and through some sort of gift giving, to family and friends, those in need in our community, or perhaps through a charity like Episcopal Relief and Development or Heifer Project, or one of the many good charitable organizations around the world.  For those draw to the return of Christ, it’s a bit more Lent like, and the focus is attaining a status of purity, of which similar generosity would be considered a sign. But it’s a phrase from Paul and a chance story that catches my attention.

Paul writes a prayerful petition to live in harmony with one another. [i] It is Paul’s belief God wants us, indeed empowers us to live in harmony with each other, and gives us the gifts to do so.

Thanksgiving is thought of as a family time; though some families do not gather because they are divided. There is a family that has been divided for some nine or ten years. Members have not even spoken to one another. Facebook cracked the shell of separation. But this thanksgiving, disparate family members, of differing faith traditions, took a common teaching of their faith, God wants to reconcile broken relationships, seriously, and their division was healed. Thanks be to God.

At the heart of the family’s healing is a change of behavior, on everyone’s part. That change is what repentance is all about. The healing such change brings about is what repentance is all about. Healing of broken human relationship is the greatest gift one can offer God. There can be no purity if there are any broken relationships.


[i] Romans 15:5

Does anyone know what time it is?

A sermon for Advent 1

Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

play Chicago 1968  Does Anybody Know What Time It Is [i]

Does anybody know what time it is? Isaiah believes it is the time for redemption. His prophecy is that: God will redeem God’s people, that they will be released from captivity, that they will return home to Jerusalem, to Zion, the highest and oldest part of the city, and to the Temple. His prophecy tells us that all the world will learn about justice, about righteousness from God’s teachings. 800 or so years later, Paul also believes it is a time of redemption. He is writing to the Christian community in Rome that Jesus’ return is soon, it is closer now than when they first believed. He is urging them:  to be ready, to live honorably, and be satisfied with what they have, to put aside quarreling and jealousy, to give up drunkenness, dishonesty and extravagance, to live as if Jesus  ~  where in their midst.

Do you know what time it is? My tablet says its 9:15. I asked and gave you an answer in what Greeks would call ‘chronos’ time, the logical, methodical, liner marking of the passage of events that allows us to refer to them and place them in order. There is also ‘kairos’ time. You have heard it in phrases like: It was her time. or It is the right time. You intuitively know which time people are referring to by the context of its usage. And all is well; until the two times get mixed up. 

Last week we heard Jesus talk about the walls of the Temple being torn down from Luke’s Gospel account. This week we are hearing from Matthew’s Gospel account. At the beginning of this chapter the disciples make the same observation about the Temple. Jesus says beware, then he speaks about persecutions, about desolating sacrilege, about the coming of the Son of Man, about fig trees, and that no one knows the time … and the need for watchfulness. The disciples ask a chronos question, and Jesus gives a kairos answer. I do not think it was his intention to confuse things; but he did. The disciples are confused at least until Easter morning, and may be later. It seems that Paul and the early Christian community are confused. I know people today are confused, it’s apparent in all the end of time hubbub; they even have their own Cable show.

So what is it all about? Why does anybody care what time it is? Jesus makes a remarkable prediction about the Temple, the center of Jewish life. The disciples want to know when it’s going to happen. That’s perfectly natural, wouldn’t you want to know? I know I would. But Jesus tells them, no one knows, not even he knows. And then he talks about the times of Noah before the flood and about women working in the field and in the grist mill. Note, although judgment is a part of the story, Jesus makes no judgment. In other words, the people of Noah’s day are going about daily life, the women are going about daily life. That is followed by a parable about being watchful to keep the night thief out of your house. Again it’s a normal thing to do, you lock your doors, perhaps set alarms. In that way you are being watchful for the night thief.

But what Jesus wants the disciples, wants us, wants you to be watchful for is him. And it’s not about guessing when he will come. You can’t do that. Scott Hoezee tells the story of a couple that learns they are expecting. They make all the preparations to be ready: a nursery is created; there are baby showers, all the needed items:  strollers, toys, clothing, baby monitors, and car seats are gathered. It’s no secret they know when the baby is due. They are ready! And then, nearly 3 weeks from their due date, stuck in traffic during a terrific thunderstorm out of nowhere momma goes into labor! She ends up having the baby in the backseat of the car with two police officers assisting while her husband is about to go berserk!!  They never expected anything like that!” [ii]

It is no secrete God is coming, that Jesus is coming. We’ve been waiting for 2000 years for Jesus, and another 1000 or more for God, so it’s no secret. So … what’s the problem? Well, the problem is, we keep trying to guess when. Sometimes, so we can continue doing what we are doing, till the last minute. Sometimes, because we are afraid we will miss it; there is some thought the Christians in Rome are afraid they had. And some folks just don’t get it.

A week or so ago I read an article in Bloomberg about the historically skewed distribution of earnings and wealth in the US. My Dad connected that story to one I told him, some years ago, about Chuck Colson, of Watergate fame. After his was released from prison he began sharing his religious conversion and talking about faith and ethics in everyday life, including business life. It turns out he spoke to a Harvard business school class. What bothered Colson was that no one in the class even got the basic premise of faith and ethics; never mind that it relates to everyday life. Jeffery Skilling, CEO of Enron in 2001, when it filed for bankruptcy, the largest in history at the time, was in that class.  He is currently in Federal Prison for conspiracy, securities fraud, making a false statement and insider trading. [iii] Colson was right. Dad is right. We have wandered so far from God, so far from divine values that we are getting into deep trouble. And too many of us who are churched are obsessed: with righteousness as following the jot and tittle of Leviticus, but not building daily life around relationship with God; so many are so concerned with justice as sexual purity but not about radical equality with all our neighbors, in business in access to health care or education.

 Does anybody know what time it is? It’s Advent, a time when we look back and prepare to celebrate the wonders of God becoming incarnate in humanity; a time when we look to the future, the unknowable time when Jesus will return, and we will stand before God. It’s time, to begin to living every moment of every day expecting to bump into Jesus with every decision we make. It’s time for unabashed honesty with ourselves. It’s time for hope, for our Lord is nigh.


[i] Robert Lamm, Chicago, Does anybody really know what time it is                http://www.lyricsfreak.com/c/chicago/life+is+what+it+is_20029958.html

[ii] Scott Hoezee, cep.calvinseminary.edu, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php, This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching, Next Sunday is December 01, 2013 (Ordinary Time), The Lectionary Gospel Text is: Matthew 24:36-44

[iii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeffrey_Skilling