Life and Life

A Sermon For the 1st Sunday in Christmas; Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, John 1:1-18, Psalm 147 or 147:13-21

 

Thank you to -Br. James for his vision about singing on Christmas Day’s (Koester). He wrote: We don’t have to give Christmas to some Hallmark moment

 … – we can sing. We can sing, … in hope of … a world of mercy, justice and peace, a Magnificat world.

which got me thinking about John’s prologue in musical terms as a different way of understanding it. Eventually , remembered as a kid going to hear an Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performance of Peter and the Wolf. Before the performance began the conductor lead a sort of prologue. It goes like this

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MfM7Y9Pcdzw&feature=youtu.be

The musical prologue framed how the story would be told, so we could hear and understand it.

Early Christians have a problem. Every other civilization around them has a divine system of many gods.

  • The Romans have multiple pairs of gods: Jupiter-Juno, Neptune-Minerva, Mars-Venus, Apollo-Diana, Vulcan-Vesta, and Mercury-Ceres.
  • The Greeks have: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Ares, Athena, Apollo, and Artemis.
  • Egypt has: Ra, Geb, Nut, Shu, Osiris, Isis, Set, and Horus.
  • Persia has: Adad, Ashur, Anu, Dagan, Enki, Ereshkigal, Inanna, Marduk, and a bunch more .

The Christians’ Jewish background believes in one God – God. And now these upstart Christians who claim to follow God also claim that God has come to earth, born of an earthly mother, is named Jesus, lived and taught among us, just as we do, died, and has risen from the dead, and is now back in heaven with God. This incredible story is completely unbelievable and so offensive they are being accused of believing in two gods. Others charge them of following various Greek philosophies. John’s prolog says no and sets the stage for the Gospel by revealing how God and Jesus are mystically one from the very beginning in poetry. He does so because poetry is a way to explain the unexplainable, through the beauty of the words, … underneath {which is}, the beauty of the truth (Rice)

John begins in an unusual place before the beginning, which is intended to turn our attention to God’s character (Harrelson). He draws on familiar Old Testament traditions, but none of them are in their usual form (Harrelson). From Genesis we know God’s word speaks the world into being (Gen 1:1–2:4a) (Gaventa and Petersen). Jewish writers, like Philo,

[spoke] of Wisdom … who represented God in human history, but … stopped short of saying that God became human (Slater).

He builds on Proverbs’ teaching that Wisdom was created before the beginning (Prov. 8:22-23) (Keener and Walton; Gaventa and Petersen) He makes use of Wisdom being linked with God’s creating Word in the Wisdom of Solomon (7:22; 9:1-3) (Keener and Walton). and references to God’s Word as light and life in Deuteronomy (8:1; 11:9), Baruch (4:1; 4:2; cf), Psalms (119:105) and the Wisdom of Solomon (7:26) (Keener and Walton).

John does makes use of The Greek philosophy, by using the Stoic’s idea of logos as the harmonious web of reason that holds all things in being to present a complete picture of the source and causes of creation (Gaventa and Petersen). The introduction of light and life shifts the story’s focus to humanity. It also provides us a source of strength by assuring us that though there is darkness and shadows in the word, they will never overcome the light of creation and the incarnate divine presence (Harrelson).

John also encourages us to think differently about who we are (Rice). He teaches us that God loves us so much that God/Jesus chose to leave the glory of heaven, become human, just as you and I are human, so that we might become more like him (Slater). We are so beloved that the Divine makes the invisible and unknowable visible and present sharing the perfect intimacy between God and Jesus with us to be a model for our relationships with each other and our relationship with God/Jesus/Spirit (Gaventa and Petersen).

John closes the prologue saying no one has seen God, implying no one can see God, that only the Son, Jesus, has made, can make, God known. This tells his readers, including us, that the story that follows is not about Jesus, but about God who creates us, rescues us from our misbehavior that distances us from God and each other and supports us through all the travails of life’s journey (O’Day; Harrelson).

John’s prologue does more than set the stage for his gospel story, reveal the mystery of God’s presence in human form, and define Jesus’ ministry. He also sets up the Gospel as a calling to review our behaviors, acknowledge the shadows we cast, and accept the power of light to transform our ability to nurture others by introducing Jesus who makes God known. As theologically complex as John’s gospel is he reminds us that our behavior, what we say and what we do, is more important than what we profess (Slater). John gives us a strong place to anchor our souls (Slater). He opens the world of poetry to share the unexplainable. He opens the world of song through which we can share a Magnificat world of hope, mercy, justice, and peace (Koester). In poetry and song, we are empowered, by the love enkindled in our hearts to share how all the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. (O little town of Bethlehem). and not just 2000 years ago but every night until night is no more.


References

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Koester, James. “Sing.” Brother, Give Us AN AdventWord. SSJE, 25 12 2017.

Rice, Whitney. “In the Beginning…, Christmas 1.” 31 12 2017. Sermons that Work.

Slater, Thomas B. Commentary on John 1:1-18. 31 12 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.

 

 

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So Why Shepherds?

A Sermon for Christmas: Isaiah 62:6-12, Psalm 97, Titus 3:4-7, Luke 2:(1-7)8-20

 

For a year we had been working with this customer. It was an important project, the first of this a major national franchise. The project involved our well-established product-line of jobber outlet and retails systems, and our new product of warehouse systems. The owners’ primary store and all their branches were up and running, and had been for a while. All was going well. I went there on my regular weekly visit. When I walked in the door I knew something was not right. It didn’t feel right.

As I walked in the countermen scurried into the inventory stacks. All the secretaries answered phones that had not rung. The store manager’s head dropped. And there were two or three teams of workers, on ladders pulling communications cables through the ceiling on a path to reach all the offices and workspaces. When the company owner saw me, he paused; his face dropped; he took a subtle but deep breath and waved me into his office. The short version is he told me they were exercising their contract option to return our equipment at the end of the month because they had decided to use their franchise’s computer system, not ours. There are times when you instinctually know things are not right.

Reading Luke’s story of Jesus birth is such a time. Well, it should be. Only we, and our parents, and our grandparents, and all our ancestors for generation after generation, and all our religious institutions, for century upon century, have taken the story for how it is written. Everyone has forgotten the state of the times.

The story begins with a census. Only there are no historical records that confirm that an empire-wide census (Gaventa and Petersen; Harrelson). Even if there was a census the Romans did not care about your family of origin, their concern was that property was registered at its proper location. Whatever might have happened its primary purpose was a symbol of Augustus’s sovereignty, and to ensure the collection of taxes (Culpepper).

And for a story that is about Jesus’ birth, Luke dedicates 2 whole verses (6 and 7) to this blessed event. So much for the focus of the story.

The majority of the story (10 verses, 8 through 18) are about shepherds. Shepherds, who are leftovers from Israel’s nomadic culture, were the lowest rung on the social ladder. Shepherding was a despised occupation. Nobody liked shepherds. They were a necessary evil. They were smelly and suspect in character. They were sometimes rough, unclean and maybe dangerous. They were scorned as shiftless, and could not to be trusted, and yet, it is to them that the Good News has been entrusted (Pankey, Merry Christmas; Culpepper; Keener and Walton)

In this morning’s gospel story Jesus is said to be the Son of the Most High, heir to the throne of his ancestor David, who will reign over the house of Jacob forever, (Luke 1:32-33). In this evening’s gospel story Jesus is given the additional titles Savior, the Messiah, and Lord. All of them are claimed by the emperor. Luke’s narrative sets up a sharp contrast between Jesus and Augustus. (Harrelson).

Christmas is our celebration of the expectation that Jesus will be King, on the restored throne of David. So why all the mess about census? Why is the birth announcement distinctly not regal? Why does the news of Jesus’ birth go to shepherds, the lowly and not to the elite and the powerful (Harrelson)? Why does Luke subtly place Jesus over against Augustus? It appears that King Jesus, pretender to the throne of David, is not who we should be looking for.

Last week we explored John the Evangelist’s vision of Jesus as the Lamb of God being the perfection of humanity as image of God (Genesis 1:26). This week Luke, in all this disruption, also seems to point to Jesus as the perfection of humanity as the image of God. Only this evening, there is a different take.

In his December 14th column David Brooks writes:

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Communism fell with it. Liberal democracy seemed triumphant. Democracies sprouted in Central Europe. Apartheid fell in South Africa. The Oslo process seemed to herald peace in the Middle East.

28 years later is has all gone bad

Tribalism and authoritarianism are now on the march while the number of democracies declines. Far worse has been the degradation of democracies.

Brooks then introduces Thomas Mann’s The Coming Victory of Democracy. Mann argues

Man is made in God’s image. Unlike other animals, humans are morally responsible. Yes, humans do beastly things — … but humans are the only creatures who can understand and seek justice, freedom and truth.

Brooks continues noting Mann that

Democracy… is the only system built on respect for the infinite dignity of each individual man and woman, on each person’s moral striving for freedom, justice and truth.

 

It is not just a procedural or a political system for the principle of majority rule, it is a way of life. It encourages everybody to make the best of their capacities — [it] holds that we have a moral responsibility to do so. It encourages the artist to seek beauty, the neighbor to seek community, the psychologist to seek perception, the scientist to seek truth (Brooks).

What Mann says is what defines any righteous and just governance.

Though Caesars are credited with bringing peace to the world, Luke proclaims that the true bringer of peace is Jesus the Savior (Culpepper). Jesus replacing the Caesars as the true source of peace points to the restoration of the moral base of society, which bearing the fruit of radical equality of all God’s people is the purpose of the Kingdom on earth. This morning, in her song of praise to God, Mary’s intent is that her ministry as the God bearer is to reveal the greatness of God for all the world to see. By proclaiming that God has looked with favor on an unwed mother Mary reveals that God is already in the process of turning the world upside down (Pankey, Proclamation). By re-entering human history, born to an unmarried mother, whose birth is revealed to the least in society, with titles claimed by the reigning emperor, God identifies with

  • the powerless,
  • the oppressed,
  • the poor, and
  • the homeless

which reveals the moral corruption of the status quo Jesus’ birth is turning upside down (Culpepper).

The kingdom Jesus is bringing is not the restoration of a regal earthly kingdom. Jesus is bringing the kingdom of moral authority of righteousness and justice. The birth of Jesus is a sign of God’s abundant grace (Culpepper).

  • For a child has been born for us, and authority rests upon his shoulders
  • The people who walked in darkness see a great light
  • The joy of the nations has been multiplied
  • The yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, has been broken
  • The boots of the tramping warriors are burning fuel for the fire
  • He will establish the throne of justice and with righteousness and uphold it from this time onward and forevermore
  • His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace
  • The love of the Lord of hosts will do this (Isaiah 9:2-7).

These are treasured words They are ours to mull over, to quietly consider the meaning they bring. (Gaventa and Petersen) (Culpepper). They are ours to use as inspiration that our lives may reveal the love of God. They are ours to use as strength for restoration of our moral base, and perhaps quietly being a model for others witness and ponder.

Amen and a blessed Christmas.


References

Almquist, Br. Curtis. “Meet Jesus Again.” Brother, Give Us A Word. Cambridge, 23 12 2017. <ssje.org/word/>.

Black, C. Clifton. Commentary on Luke 2:[1-7] 8-20. 24 12 2017.

Brooks, David. “The Glory of Democracy.” 14 12 2017. newyorktimes.com. <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/14/opinion/democracy-thomas-mann.html&gt;.

Culpepper, R. Alan. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Luke. Vol. 8. Abbington, 2015. 12 vols. Olive Tree App.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 6 9 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Pankey, Steve. Merry Christmas. 21 12 2017. <https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/333491&gt;.

—. The importance of proclamation. 20 12 2017. <https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/333491&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

Just say yes!

A Sermon for Advent 4: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

Gabriel has a message to deliver. The angle knows what to do because that is what angels are, message delivers. So, Gabriel follows the pattern, he tells the receiver “Do not be afraid.” calls the receiver by name, and assures them of God’s favor (Culpepper). It is exactly what the Gabriel tells Zechariah (Elizabeth’s husband and John the Baptist’s father) in the Temple several months before (Luke 1:5-25). To say that Mary is perplexed is an understatement (Epperly). She has not been yearning to have a baby like Rebekah, or Hannah. She is not ready, she’s barely old enough. She is not like Sarah 80, or Elizabeth who is not quite but almost as old. She hears that she is favored by God, but it feels so strange; where are the customary ideals that connect it all to day in and day out life (Culpepper)? If that is not enough there the folktale from Tobit about the wicked angel Asmodeus visiting Sarah, the daughter of Raguel, on her wedding nights and killing her husbands. Seven deaths have raised suspicions (Tobit 3:7-8) (Culpepper). With all this running through Mary’s mind, I wonder if Mary really hears Gabriel’s message? So, with more and better reason than Zachariah Mary answer the divine question with a good question: How can this be? You can easily imagine her asking Why will this be? (Hoezee).

Gabriel now has a different role the giver of comfort in perplexity. Steve Pankey writes:

Mary wasn’t just confused by the reality of an angel standing in her room [~] she is downright scared, anxious, confused, and totally taken aback.

We know Gabriel tells Mary not to be afraid, we know she is called by name, but we may not realize how rare this is for women in biblical days, thus we may miss how Gabriel assures her that she is valued, that she is beloved of God (Pankey).

I’ll credit the divine muse for drawing my attention to Mary’s answer. She follow’s Hanna who answers Eli’s somewhat curt answer to her prayers Let your servant find favor in your sight (1 Samuel 1:18) telling Gabriel Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word (Luke 1:38).

Mary follows a long line of divine servants,

  • from Moses, who when the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, … [and] called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” … [answered], “Here I am.” (Exodus 3:4)
  • to the young Samuel, who after 3 ttimes getting up to serve Eli, who had not called him follows Eli’s advice, and when the Lord called again Samuel! Samuel! answered Speak, for your servant is listening (1 Samuel 3:10)
  • to Isaiah, who heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? answers, Here am I; send me! (Isaiah 6:8).

Christopher Seitz notes that the emotional response to a divine call is the experience of standing in the presence of God (Seitz). Like the prophets, like God’s servants before her Mary now claims a place in God’s household, her partnership with God (Harrelson).

Far beyond simply holding Mary in high esteem her reply Here I am, … let it be with me according to your word (Luke 1:38) has implications for how we live into our baptism. Mary is not unique because she was so perfect; no, Mary is unique because she was willing to say “yes” to the unexpected and the apparently impossible (Epperly). In our baptism we are called to believe that the world is transformed when we say “yes” to the unexpected, and to what we see as impossible. God still presents possibilities for new birth and we are called to carry these possibilities to term and nurture them into the fullness of their lives (Epperly). A measure of how we are following God’s will is how our obedience flows from divine blessings. And the greatest of blessings are bound up in our fellowship with God (Culpepper).

Gabriel’s reply to Mary’s perplexity Do not be afraid reverberates throughout the rest of Luke’s story and, if we are honest, throughout our stories. When the status quo is about to be altered and the rhythms of the everyday life are about to be disrupted our calling is to speak and be the comforting image of God’s presence (Smith).

The glory of Christmas came about because of Mary’s and other ordinary people’s willingness to obey God’s claim on their lives. The light continues to shine as you, and I, and our neighbors, and other ordinary people follow Gabriel’s role to provide comfort in perplexity, and Mary’s “yes” Here I am, let it be with me according to your word (Luke 1:38). Thus, as we just say “Yes” we will sing as our souls proclaim the greatness of the Lord.


References

Culpepper, R. Alan. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Luke. Vol. 8. Abbington, 2015. 12 vols. Olive Tree App.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 24 12 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel Luke 1:26-38. 24 12 2017.

Pankey, Steve. “A comfort in perplexity.” 24 12 2017. Draughting Theology.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Seitz, Christopher R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Isaiah 40-66. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Song of Songs 8:8. Vol. IV. Nashville: Abingdon Press (NIBC) Song of Songs 8:8, 2015. XII vols. Olivetree App.

Smith, Shively. Commentary on Luke 1:26-38. 24 12 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

 

 

 

 

Witnessing – Crossing the Line

A sermon for Advent 3: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8,19-28 (extended to 31).

Yes, I expanded this morning’s Gospel reading a few verses to include the phrase Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29) In John’s Gospel story John the Baptist’s the main role is to witness to who Jesus is. He never misses an opportunity to announce, “Look” (Lewis; Gaventa and Petersen). It is a role he claims for himself through the words of Isaiah (Harrelson). a voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isa 40:3) Even telling the priests and Levites Among you stands one whom you do not know, (John 1:26) is a form of witnessing (Hoezee). The title “Lamb of God” connects Jesus with the rich symbolism of the Passover lamb; but at this point, we do not know what John means when he calls Jesus “Lamb of God.” (Gaventa and Petersen).

For Karen Lewis, being a witness is a central Advent task (Lewis). To be a witness involves wrestling with Isaiah’s question “Who am I?” His answer is to go out and bring healing (shalom) to our broken world. In Advent language I am – is one who leads people to Jesus, is one who witnesses to Jesus (Carvalho). Witnessing is not easy. It calls us to break the silence that allows abuse, oppression, and injustice to continue in the shadows. Lewis reminds us that our Advent texts tell us how expecting the birth of Jesus calls us to be witnesses (Lewis).

It may help lower our anxiety, just a bit, to revise ‘being a witness’, to ‘being a storyteller’. John shares the stories of his experiences. We are simply asked to share the stories of our experiences with Jesus. And we all have stories to share (Rippentrop).

Storytelling involves a certain amount of humility. We hear Jesus called the Lamb of God (John 1:29). It is the first in a long line of titles Jesus is given just in John’s Gospel. There are so many because every follower sees something different in Jesus, every follower responds to something different when they meet Jesus. No single title reveals all there is to know about Jesus. And there is no limit to the number of titles Jesus can be given, and there are new titles that might be bestowed at any time; we should keep our eyes, ears and our hearts open. And we should be self-aware so that we do not greet new titles with suspicion or hostility, as they often are (O’Day).

 It is Advent; a time when we look forward to celebrating Jesus’ birth. It is also a time when we look forward to Jesus’ return. Of all titles that Jesus may carry, the one associated with his return most often is King. It makes sense in all sorts of ways. He is a descendent of the house of David, the model King of Israel. Jesus is also known as the great shepherd; and you know that shepherd is an Old Testament metaphor for Israel’s Kings. It may have been a moment of inspiration that hearing Jesus called “the Lamb of God” sounded very different to me this past week, I mentioned this title fits nicely with the Exodus Passover sacrificial lamb, but, we cannot what it implies. The inspiration I had was a kind of reversal. If ‘shepherd’ is a metaphor for king, could ‘lamb’ be a metaphor for ‘the people’? Can the incarnate Jesus be the perfection of humanity as the image of God?

This has a couple of implications. One is that when we witness does our story point people to see Jesus towards the regents of our day? To the modern equivalent of the kings / bishop s/ priests and prophets? Or do our stories point people to see Jesus in the everyday ordinary working people? In spite of all the regal imagery we associate with Jesus all the Gospel stories place Jesus in everyday places, among everyday people, struggling to get through life on an everyday basis. Even the story of his birth, we are so eagerly waiting to celebrate, is in a very merger setting. From our stories what does our audience expect Jesus to look like: a king a bishop, a priest, a prophet, a faithful lay servant, a wealthy philanthropist, or the one sitting next to you in traffic delayed by the construction on 18 near Big Lake? Where does our audience expect Jesus be: in a palace, a cathedral, or among poor huddled masses, with the Cratchit family, or among the Muslim Rohingya fleeing Myanmar?

A second implication defines our relationship with those we share our stories with, those we witness to. There is an element of being a prophet when we are a witness to Jesus. Both involve radical truth telling. And as Isaiah shows us a prophet stands in solidarity with the poor, the powerless, and the marginalized. A prophet becomes a voice for the voiceless … a prophet is the voice of a voiceless God here on earth (Whitley). The implication is that being a witness to Jesus means to stand with the poor, the powerless, the marginalized, to be a voice for the silenced, to be a voice for God here on earth (Whitley).

In today’s world standing in solidarity with the invisible and giving voice to the silenced requires us to cross the line. In his opinion piece, published Friday, Spencer Platt writes: Americans are a generous people — so it is always said. But our generosity comes with moral judgments: There’s a thin line, in the minds of many, between the poor who deserve help and those who should get off their butts (Platt). He goes on to note that these are old arguments, dating to Dickens’s heartless Ebenezer Scrooge and the noble Cratchit family. The line our story sharing prophecy crosses is the one of judgement.

In a few chapters Jesus will answer his disciples question about a man born blind, who could have just as easily have been a man born poor,

Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him (John 9:3).

It can be translated

Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was born blind. Now we must work the works God has given us to work.

The point is for Jesus there is no judgement, there is only restoring all god’s people to shalom or wholeness of life. The story John witnessed to is the story of the presence of one you do not see who is restoring all people to shalom. We all have our experience of God/Jesus/Spirit’s restoring shalom that we are called to share those stories.

Stir up your power, O Lord, that we may witness, without ceasing, and in all circumstances, to the one who is not known, yet is the Lamb of God who restores

  • good news,
  • liberty,
  • divine favor,
  • provision,
  • gladness,
  • righteousness, and
  • who brings shalom to the world.

 

 

References

Bratt, Doug. Advent 3B Isaiah 61:1-4, . 17 12 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Carvalho, Corrine. “Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11.” 17 12 2017. workingpreacher.org. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3020&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 17 12 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 3:1-17 . 12 3 2017.

Lewis, Karoline. Witnessing. 17 12 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Platt, Spencer. The Deserving Rich and the Deserving Poor. 12 12 20107. <nytimes.com/2017/12/15/opinion/class-rich-poor-americans.html>.

Rippentrop, Jan Schnell. Commentary on John 1:6-8, 19-28. 17 12 2017.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Whitley, Katerina. “Do Not Despise the Words of Prophets.” 17 12 2017. Sermons that Work.

 

Comfort God’s people

A Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Advent: Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

We all know that ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’. We may not know that the word ‘gospel’ in a Greek world context can mean good news “from the battlefield.” For Mark’s audience, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God is good news in the midst of the struggles of life (Jacobsen). After his opening declaration Mark combines material from Isaiah (40:3), Exodus (23:20) and Malaki (3:1) revealing that John is preparing the way for the Messiah, the Son of God. (Gaventa and Petersen). John and Jesus are literally in the wilderness, at the river Jordan at the very edge of Israel. Mark’s people are in the wilderness of chaotic life. We are also in the wilderness, perhaps not geography, we are not at the very edge of Arkansas, but we are close, but we are certainly amidst the disordered, dis-shoveled state of our lives. Both John and Jesus are in the proclaiming business, a sign that we should be listening, following, and also proclaiming (Jacobsen).

Mark’s Gospel story begins about 26 CE and clearly invokes the beginning of 2nd Isaiah (Bible-Hub). The part of Isaiah, we know as 2nd Isaiah, is in the time of the Persian expansion under Cyrus the Great, about 711 BCE (Bible-Hub). It has been more than 150 years since the Assyrian defeated the northern kingdom of Israel, and the destruction of Jerusalem, which lead to the exile in Babylonian (Carvalho). The Lord addresses the angles, who comprise the heavenly host, who are gathered in council (Harrelson). This heavenly council responds to God’s command to comfort “my people” by ordering that a wilderness highway be prepared (Harrelson). The recipient of this order is a prophet, who is to cry out to all of Israel God’s consoling words (Harrelson). Jerusalem, also known as Zion, is commanded to proclaim God’s message of good tidings alongside the prophet, which indicates that the people of God have an active role to play in the divine plan (Harrelson). This proclamation stands over everything else that happens in 2nd Isaiah and specifies the terms of how God is going to treat a people once deaf and blind (6:10) and how God is going to treat a city that was once unfaithful (1:21) (Seitz). The proclamation comes following a time when a prophecy was believed to be long gone. So, it shows us that prophecy has not died out; it is being transformed in ways that make it forever reliable and forever alive (Seitz).

In a grand reversal, the great Babylonian processional highway for gods and kings, prepared for triumphal entry into the city of Babylon, which Israel walked lo those many years ago as chattel, will become the way for the exiles to travel from Babylon to their home, Jerusalem (Seitz). I read an article this past week about the AR Dept. Transportation’s plan to fund AR Highways for next ten years. It makes it clear that Arkansas is responsible for her highways. There is help, but only if we first accept our local responsibility. It was curious to learn that in the days of ancient Persia, highways, which were generally unpaved, intended for wheeled transport, thus often called “wagon roads” were the responsibility of the local populations (Keener and Walton). Some things never change. That got me thinking about who is responsible for today’s wilderness highway?

Roughly 740 years after Isaiah’s prophetic vision of the divine call, Mark presents John as the prophet who receives, anew, the same call to make a way in the wilderness, a highway for the Son of God. 200o years after that, people are still in darkness. Some are oppressed, some are abused, some are marginalized in other ways. Some are in the darkness because of their own, our own, blindness and/or unfaithfulness. There are hearts, nearby and far away, that need to hear the prophetic words of divine promise, and hope. God’s people still need to hear divine words of comfort.

Advent, when it is not centered on Christmas, is often centered on Christ coming at the end of time, and every now and again on learning to see divine presence here and now (The Living Church). Advent is a time of old and new prophetic voices. Br. Jim Woodrum writes

We will come to know God’s presence with us … by teaching and healing, listening to our neighbors, both known and unknown to us (Woodrum).

It doesn’t take much awareness of the world, or our community, to realize the continuing need for comfort. One sign of the continuing need for comfort is the unending creation of winners and losers in all our social systems, especially in the ordering of our economics (Cross). In all the tax cut debates the largest disappointment has been the frequent remarks about the deserving rich versus the undeserving poor who suffer because of their own failure to make investments, without any consideration of their ability or wherewithal to make financial investments. These statements are simply demeaning to the least of God’s people. It is true, 2nd Isaiah never promises that all the suffering will cease. It does not deny or change the brokenness of the human condition. But ~ it does suggest the continuing need for messengers and that, as these messengers, we may be called to speak the truth that others will find hard to hear (Jacobsen)

Prophecies, especially apocalyptic, end of time, seconding coming prophecies tend to come with visions of cosmic disturbances, or perhaps grand social, political, or economic triumph or disaster. The language is futuristic. However, we don’t need to wait, we should not wait for God’s coming, because God is already coming, and to some extent already here, we need to be speaking comfort to God’s people right now (Epperly). The kingdom’s presence or arrival will not necessarily be this great big cosmic, the ends all things event. The Kingdom is coming into its fullness through the triumph of many small things, many small chance interactions (Brown).

The emphasis on apocalyptic, end of time return of the king tends to make time in the future more valuable to us, that is when the King will get here. In truth, all time is a treasure, because each unique moment ends. Each moment of every day is an exclusive opportunity to share the grace given comfort of God. Each opportunity seeks a deeply personal response that can occur in no other life and can occur in no other time (The Living Church).

2nd Isaiah’s Prophecy, and John the Baptist speak of the wilderness. The wilderness is where God’ s people are. Some are crying out from the margins where racism, oppression, and discrimination seek to strip them of their divine image. Some are lost in the confusion. Some are heartsick. Some are just plain tired. The Wilderness, whatever yours, or your neighbor’s, across the street, or across the world, looks like, is where God continually shows up (Lewis). The wilderness is where priest, preachers, prophets, and pedestrians belong. Thus, we are a wilderness, people.

A colleague of mine blogged this week that [John the Baptist’s] task was to point and to say, “Here is your God.” He did his job … faithfully (Pankey). This is Advent.

  • A time when we seek the comfort of the divine light in our darkness.
  • A time when we are called to speak comfort to the hearts of God’s people.
  • A time to remember 2nd Isaiah and Cyrus the Great, John and Jesus through whom the unexpected happened.
  • A time to remember that God still asks us to speak comfort into the frail lives of our neighbors.
  • A time to remember that the unexpected still happens, that God still sends comfort into our frail lives. (Carvalho).

It is Advent, the time of comfort revealed by voices that never fail.

 


References

Bible-Hub. New Testament Bible Timeline. n.d. 8 12 2017. <http://biblehub.com/timeline/#nt&gt;.

—. Old Testament Bible Timeline. n.d. 8 12 2017. <http://biblehub.com/timeline/#ot&gt;.

Brown, SSJE, Mark. “Start Small.” Brother, Give Us A Word. Cambridge, 7 12 2017. email.

Carvalho, Corrine. Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11. 10 12 2017. OliveTree App. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Cross, Casey. “The Rule of God, for Us, Advent 2.” 10 12 2017. Sermons that Work.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 10 12 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Jacobsen, David Schnasa. Commentary on Mark 1:1-8. 10 12 2017. OliveTree app. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Lewis, Karoline. Wilderness Preaching. 10 12 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Pankey, Steve. “Here is your God.” 6 12 2017. Draughting Theology.

Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Seitz, Christopher R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Isaiah 40-66. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Song of Songs 8:8. Vol. IV. Nashville: Abingdon Press (NIBC) Song of Songs 8:8, 2015. XII vols. OliveTree App.

The Living Church. 11/10: The End. n.d. <livingchurch.org/2017/12/04/11-10-the-end/>.

Woodrum, Jim. Imitate Jesus. 6 12 2017. Society of St. John the Evangelist. <http://ssje.org/word/&gt;.

 

 

 

The First Candle

 A Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Advent: Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

 

It happens every year. Still, it has been a long time coming. The fall equinox was Sept 22 and the nights started getting longer and longer. And then on November 5, we fell back, and the dark came even sooner. This past week I’ve been finishing spring choirs around the house; I worked until dark; when I got it was 5:30. The dark is here.

Last week a truck hit a power pole on Division St. right where W. Pecan intersects. Everyone was fine, but the power pole was not. We did not lose power; but, we did lose the street light; it is even darker. Now seems as if they are not going to replace that street light. That means I can’t see my driveway in the dark. The street light down the street works just fine; I can clearly see those driveways, but they aren’t my driveway.

So yes, it has been getting darker. And yes, it is really dark now. And I know there are months of darkness to come. Where do I find light?

Six or seven hundred years before Jesus’ day Israel was a Persian vassal. They were kind of independent, but they had to pledge allegiance to Persia to stay kind of independent. Life as a vassal state raises questions about who is really in charge? Who is in charge of political life, our economic life? Who is in charge of our religious life? It leaves you to wonder “Where is God?” It leaves you wondering about the peoples’ hopes and dreams. It is a stark reminder that Israel is not in control, which might lead us to ponder Are we in control (Carvalho)?

The self-reference to being like a “filthy rag” is a confession to being ritually unclean, which means Israel does not think of herself as worthy to come before God. And yet, they refer back to God’s self-revelation on Mount Sinai in a daring to hope that God will tear open the heavens and come down. Israel hopes the God they know (Seitz) will once again be the God of Judges and take the need course of action (Gaventa and Petersen).

We hear an echo of that plea in the Psalm, which repeatedly asks God to restore us. There are references to Israel’s past history. And those verses read like a request for a sign that God’s light will return, and Israel will, once again, be saved.

We hear another echo in Mark’s recounting of Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecy. At the beginning of this chapter, the disciples see the Temple and marvel at its sight. And it was stunning. It sits atop the highest the hill. The Temple soared some 164 feet high above the hill top and its sides plated in gold. It was a wonder of the world in its day (Gaventa and Petersen). It is helpful, probably even necessary, to know that by the time Mark wrote his Gospel account the Temple had been destroyed. The very center of Jewish life: political life, economic life, and religious life was gone (Jacobsen). Mark may well be using this particular story to give hope to a community whose life is now completely un-hitched.

Following the tradition of the prophets Jesus refers to celestial terrors in his apocalyptic imagery; the stars falling from the sky. Indeed, he makes references to Israel’s traditional apocalyptic prophecy (Keener and Walton; Gaventa and Petersen). Jesus’ use of ancient prophecies connects his ministry to God’s previous acts of salvation. Mark’s use of Jesus’ prophecy reminds his readers, including us, that Jesus’ death is not end of the story; that there is promise and power in the resurrection, that there is ancient truth in the promise of salvation (Perkins).

When Jesus finishes his apocalyptic, end of time, prophecy, the disciples also want to know when it will all happen. We get that, we are still waiting; we want to know when is all this going to happen. The depth of our curiosity is revealed in the commonness and popularity of end of time predictions (which popup every now and again) stories, and movies. Only Jesus won’t tell the disciples, or us, and he can’t, even if he wanted to because even he doesn’t know (Mark 13:32).

Jesus’ teaching continues with a common reference on how the servants of an estate should behave when the master is away. They cannot know when he will return. The only way to please their master is to get about their assigned responsibilities (Perkins). And so, it is with the return of God in Isaiah’s day, in Jesus teaching in Mark’s day, and today.

Today is the 1st Sunday in Advent. We are already looking to Christmas. I expect some of you are like us, we already have boxes piling up in closets. We may even be looking ahead to the celebration of Jesus birth. And that is a good thing, in a time of short days and long nights, when the darkness feels more and more prevalent, almost domineering. In the darkness Advent calls us to see beyond Christmas, to look at the world around us, to seek out the faint but strong light of Jesus (Tew). In the darkness we are called to be about continuing Jesus ministry of transforming the world and making the Kingdom of God known on earth right here, right now, where it is (Epperly).

When I was a kid coming home from my grand-parents’ house was a long all-day drive. There were twin water towers just outside Norcross, they were these big cylinder type towers, they had “Norcross” written across both of them. They are etched in my memory, because, they were reliable. When we saw them we always knew we had gotten almost home. They still are reliable, when I see them I know I am almost to my dad’s home. The path is a different, it certainly takes more time get there, none-the-less the sign is true, I am almost there.

Now days I am beginning to understand those towers to be a different kind of sign. They are not predictors of what is ahead, I know that. But, they are reminders, powerful, steadfast, firm reminders.

Today we lit the first Advent candle. It is a small light in the deep darkness; certainly, of the winter night, and perhaps the darkness of another source. It is the first reminder of the light that shines in the darkness (John 1:5). It is the first reminder that the world around us needs the revelation of the transforming gift of resurrection grace. It is the first reminder that the Kingdom of God on earth is right here, right now. It is the first reminder that the light will not be overcome (John 1:5).


References

Carvalho, Corrine. Commentary on Isaiah 64:1-9. 3 12 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 3 12 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Jacobsen, David Schnasa. Commentary on Mark 13:24-37. 3 12 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Seitz, Christopher R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Isaiah 40-66. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Song of Songs 8:8. Vol. IV. Nashville: Abingdon Press (NIBC) Song of Songs 8:8, 2015. XII vols. Olivetree App.

Tew, Anna. “Keep Awake!, Advent 1.” 3 12 2017. Sermons that Work.