A prophetic voice in an active Advent

A sermon for Advent 2

Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

Today we are surrounded by prophets. We hear Isaiah the prophet proclaiming freedom is coming. We hear John the Baptist, proclaiming redemption in baptism, and also the coming of the long awaited Messiah. Psalm 85 has a prophetic ring to it. And when we remember prophets explain the future based on current behaviors (Lewis) even 2nd Peter has a prophetic ring to it.

So, I’m in a bit of a pickle, because I’ve always held that I’m not a prophet, and cannot be prophet because I am of the institution. And prophets always come from the outside, and have to, because they have to see the present differently in order to see and proclaim the future God is offering, the future we are all ignoring. However, Karoline Lewis offers a different vision of prophets. She says they are truth tellers. By implication brutal truth tellers. She quotes Gloria Steinem: “The truth will set you free, but first it will really [tick] you off” She continues that when the truth gets suppressed crucifixion happens. She includes Ferguson as a manifestation of suppressed truth; (Lewis) I’d include New York and Ohio both in the news this week for revelation of questionable police actions. And nothing suppresses the truth more than fear.

In his column last week Thomas Friedman wrote about the continuing effects of September 11. He writes from David Rothkopf’s National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear in which Rothkopf names this as the age of fear. In response to Friedman’s inquiry he wrote:

Largely, this is because 9/11 was such an emotional blow to the U.S. that it, in an instant, changed our worldview, creating a heightened sense of vulnerability.” In response, “not only did we overstate the threat, we reordered our thinking to make it the central organizing principle in shaping our foreign policy.

Friedman writes: “the focus on terrorism, combined with our gotcha politics, has ‘killed creative thinking’” (Friedman)

In his column in the Gazette this week John Brummett notes how remarkably effective the political use of fear is.  (Brummett) I believe they both correct, in fact I believe the gotcha politics itself is a response to fear. The scriptural use of wilderness is a good metaphor for us as we find the way to face our fear, and our fear driven destructive behaviors.

There’s another emotion / belief that contributes to destructive behavior, and that is that there is no second coming. That is a concern addressed in 2nd Peter. Folks are of tired of waiting, (Hogan) and they have crafted some bizarre beliefs allowing them to get on with life in some rather risqué ways. If 100 years is a long time to wait 20 time 100 is really a long time. The loss of belief in Jesus’ return and fear are combining to create the deeply troubled times in which we live. And that brings us back to the prophetic voice.

Isaiah’s prophetic voice we heard this morning always rings with today’s opening hymn, and I always want to wrap up in a warm blanket, or go get some warm blankets for others to wrap up in. Not bad, but just perhaps, it’s a bit shallow. Scott Hoezee notes ‘comfort’ comes from the Latin cum and fortis or with strength. (Hoezee) The people don’t need warm blankets, they need strength. They need strength to follow the prophet’s map to Jerusalem, because it is not the water laden normal route; nope, it’s straight through the desert wilderness. Harsh? Perhaps, but it’s so very similar their origins in the wilderness journey through Saini on their Exodus journey to freedom. (Wendland) Mark’s Gospel has John quote Isaiah, and Malachi and Exodus. But the point we often miss is that neither the prophet nor the people are on their own. God’s servant is preparing the way. (Powell) The word here is singular, and it’s clearly a reference to John. However, in the broader context of scripture and of our times, it’s God many servants who will make the preparations who will give strength to the people. ~ Just who are these servants?

Karoline Lewis, David Lose and Lucy Hogan all have the same observation … us. Lewis suggest that we join the prophetic ranks by radical truth telling. (Lewis) Lose suggest that we quit waiting for Christmas and get in the game, (Lose) that we join the prophetic ranks. Hogan suggests we hear 2nd Peter as if it were written to us and live into the new creation, the new heaven and earth [we] find right here and right now. (Hogan) But what about all that I can’t be a prophet stuff because I’m part of the institution.

I’m beginning to believe all bets are off, because the church institutional and Church – body of Christ is outside our political and secular institutions. And in so much as the shepherds, as Isaiah referred to in the latter verses of today’s reading, is always a political metaphor everything we’ve heard is a call to us to be a part of the prophetic voice that challenges all our political and power brokering intuitions by speaking the hard truth.

And let’s be clear, I’m not talking about policy truth, thought there is room for that, I referring to the truth Advent lays before us. We believe in the incarnate presence of God, that’s looking back. We believe in the resurrected presence of Jesus, that’s looking to the future. We believe in the continuing presence of the Spirit, that’s looking at the here and now. Therefore we are not afraid not even of death! And as we come to believe and as we come to trust we will lose our fear, and we can make faith based loving good news bearing decisions about everything. They will be seen as counter cultural, because they will be; they will be seen as courageous because they will be; they will be seen as a manifestation of the Kingdom of God right here, right now because they will be.

Afraid? I am. And every prophet in scripture was afraid, and tried to wiggle out. But every time God’s presence prevailed. God always has been God is and will be with us as we begin to see and speak the truth. Join in an active advent, (Lose) and a fearless future.

Amen


References

Brummett, John. “Down Texarkana way.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette 3 12 2014. web.

Friedman, Thomas L. “The Gift That Keeps Giving.” New York Times 3 12 2014. web.

Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Isaiah 40:1-11. 7 12 2014.

Hogan, Lucy Lind. Commentary on 2 Peter 3:815a. 7 12 2014. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lewis, Karoline. Dear Working Preacher – A Truth Telling. 7 12 2014. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Advent 2 B: Active Waiting. 7 12 2014. <davidlose.net>.

METZ, THE REV. DR. SUSANNA. Sermons that Work – Finding comfort vs. being comfortable. 7 12 2014. <http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/&gt;.

Powell, Mark Allen. Commentary on Mark, Mark 1:18. 7 12 2014.

Wendland, Kristin J. Commentary on Isaiah 40:111. 7 12 2014. <workingpreacher.org>.

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.