From a Crowd Into God’s people

A Sermon for Advent 3; Luke 3:7, Zephaniah 3:14-20, Canticle 9, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

[pace agitatedly]

“You brood of vipers!”

Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (Luke 3:7 [pause] Yes, a brood is a family of young animals, born in one hatching. And yes, vipers are venomous snakes with long, hinged fangs that enables them to bite deep to inject their venom. But John isn’t calling the crowd a bunch of really poisonous snakes. About 4 decades ago I lived in an apartment complex. One of my neighbors was about 6’6, weighted like 250 pounds, and was a city police officer. One Friday night I was at a party, with lots of people crammed into someone’s apartment. All of a sudden, the door burst open; it’s full of police blue, and a loud booming voice proclaiming “Hi ya’ll!” He had our attention.

The crowd – brood is every one Jew & Gentile, the powerful and their functionaries, and every-day folks. John’s chides the crowd for relying on their family relationship to Abraham for salvation. Yes, he was faithful, but that doesn’t matter, God can raise up another Abraham any time God chooses; besides, as we heard in Isaiah’s Canticle it is the faithfulness of their relationship with God that matters. Abraham can help, he can point the way, but their relationship with Abraham is not the saving relationship. I wonder if some folks don’t think of their church, the way the crowd thinks of Abraham, a sort of I belong so I’m okay membership card to God’s presence.

So yes, John has a prophetic warning to share, but more importantly John wants to get the people’s attention, he got it (Culpeper).

The change in wording from ‘crowd’ to ‘people’ is one sign he has their attention (Culpeper). Another sign is that they ask him what to do. There are three broad groups of people. Those who have plenty, who are symbolized by the two coats. It almost makes me ashamed of the number of coats in my closet. Tax collectors specifically, or more generally government or officials of any kind. Finally, soldiers, who actually function more like the police, their job is to keep the peace. John tells those with plenty to share. He tells the officials not to use their office for personal gain. He tells the soldiers, the police, to be satisfied with their wages. The summary is to quit doing things the way you want to, or the way society tells you is okay, and do it better, do it honestly, do it as an act of service for others; be truthful and above board in your work, be faithful to whatever task is yours to perform (Nagata; Hoezee).

In listening to the what is going on in the world I wonder who would be in the crowd today John directs his abrupt prophecy too? Who is John calling to be faithful,

  • a county clerk treating people differently, because they are different than the clerk
  • a doctor stealing million in Medicaid dollars, perhaps contributing to the desire of some government leaders to cut cost by cutting benefits,
  • a college president kicking back state grant dollars to legislators who coordinated it,
  • police and jail officers covering up the misdeeds of their partners,
  • teachers, coaches, priests, and others who abuse the children in their charge,
  • a secretary embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the church whose books she keeps,
  • builders taking advantage of disasters, offering work at inflated prices and lesser materials;

there were others Luke did not include in this Gospel story; there are others today.

John’s prophetic call is an Advent call, a call to reorient your life (Lewis); it is an invitation into a joyous companionship with God (Epperly). It is an invitation made to all of us.

~~~

All of us, not everybody, but all of us know the gifts under the tree represent God’s gift of Jesus to all of us. John reminds all of us that what matters is how we live our lives, not as points earned, but an outward and visible sign of the inner, spiritual relationship with our creator God (Lewis).

The Christmas story is the beginning of God changing the world, all of it, all the universe, everything, every living creature in it. John gives us peak ahead, by letting us know the change is happening one life at a time. The people were not called to try and change the world on their own, or start the newest spiritual practice, or begin an ambitious project; they were called do what they had been doing all along; just do it better, in righteousness and justice (Hoezee). Neither are we and so are we.

All this is hard work. It is hard to look at our own behaviors, to strip away all the social, religious stamps of approval, and see with divine eyes. It is hard to give up the benefits our culture gives us. It is hard to give up the advantages we’ve been lucky enough to have, or clever enough to claim. It is hard to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God. It is hard to be transformed from a crowd, into a community of God’s people. The authors of today’s collect know this, which is presumably why they begin with the phrase Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us. God listens, God hears, and God is ~ stirring things up; right here, right now.


References

Culpeper, R. Alan. The Gospel of Luke, Introduction, Commentary and Reflections. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Mark 16. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols. OliveTree.

Dinkler, Michal Beth. Commentary on Luke 3:7-18. 12 12 2018.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 16 12 2018. <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 3:7-18. 16 12 2018.

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

Lewis, Karoline. The Time Is Now. 16 12 2018. <workingpreacher.org>.

Nagata, Ada Wong. “What Should We Do? Advent 3.” 16 12 2018. Sermons that Work.

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

 

 

Advent Crockpot

A sermon for Advent 3: Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11, Psalm 146:4-9 and Canticle 15

Williams Concrete was the largest concrete company at home. They poured most of the concrete for the interstate system. The owner built a home on a bluff overlooking the Chattahoochee River. The driveway was far too steep for trucks to get up, so, they built conveyor system to get all the concrete to the building site that was powered by a truck. They burned up 3 trucks to get all the concrete to the building site. Itconcreteficent home. You can see if from the river, a marvelous sight. You can also see it from a narrow road on the other side of the river; at least the passenger can, the driver has to pay attention to the road’s narrow curves.

Herod, King of the Jews, and the Roman Empire’s officials had similar magnificent villas along the Jordan River. Jesus asks crowd who overhears his exchange with John’s disciples “Who did they really go to see? The grandeur of Herod and Rome?” perhaps pointing to the magnificent villas; before he continues “Nope you went to see the prophet!” Saying that the crowd is more interested John’s baptism than Rome’s opulence is  a way Jesus supports John (Allen) (Harrelson).

John could use some support. His situation has dramatically changed. The last we heard he was down by the riverside baptizing people and challenging Pharisees and Sadducees who were more than interested, more than curious to see what he was up to that drew all those people to him. Now John is alone in a dark prison cell ~ perhaps ~ waiting for death (Lose).

A change of place and or circumstance like that can cause a change in one’s perspective; which leads to different questions (Lewis). When we learn that not all Jewish communities were focused on the return of a messiah or even how God is active in the world or what God might be up to John’s new question is all the more understandable. (Allen). Questions that arise from a change in circumstances, or anything else, are not necessarily bad. They do represent that the asker has a clear-eyed understanding of the world around them. So yes, John’s question indicates he has preconceived ideas about who the messiah should be and how the messiah should be acting (Nagata). And yes, John may express some doubt; but, his doubt just may be his seeking the path from uncertainty to confidence; from disappointment to anticipation (Lose). It is important to hear that Jesus understands John’s question as an expression of faith (Lewis). And we know this because Jesus’ reply is not full of fiery judgment but it is full of compassion (Boring) and the hopeful vision of Isaiah 35 (Epperly).

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters, shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.

And so yes, Jesus is indeed the “coming one,” but he has reversed all the expectations; and questions should arise. And yes, John faith does waver, but such wavering is the nature of discipleship and faith, which must constantly be renewed (Boring).

I’ve always found it just a bit curious that Jesus tells John’s disciples to go tell him what they see, and then he tells them what they see. For a while, I wondered if he was just preempting the foolishness he has come to expect from his disciples. But not so any more, I think Jesus was/is seeking to reassure John, and anyone else who might be wondering what he is up to. He is seeking to reassure folks that healing the sick, feeding the hungry, bringing sight to the blind, really are grounded in the prophetic vision of God’s redeeming work.

So, we have answered John the doubter’s questions about the Jesus’ authority. However, there is more to explore. John’s imprisonment and change of circumstance led to his questions.

What imprisons you?

-What so changes your circumstances, or which of your preconceptions have been so badly shaken that they are limiting your imagination of God’s redeeming work, and raising new questions (Lewis) (Nagata)?

-What events in your life, or of your community or of the world, are raising fundamental questions:

• Is there really a God who knows and cares?
• Is there a divine purpose for the world?
• Is there a purpose for me?
• Is Jesus the definitive revelation of that God,
• or should we look elsewhere for answers to ultimate questions (Boring) (Nagata)?

–  What new idea has you all stirred-up (Pankey, Stir Up!)?

Can you place all those emotions in an Advent crock pot? Will you use this Advent time, while we are waiting for Jesus, to slow down, to reflect, and to pray ~ lifting all that has you off kilter to God in Jesus through the Spirit? Will you allow your questions and doubts to actually bring you closer to God (Nagata) (Boring)? Will you allow God’s reply, to your Advent waiting question, to inspire you to action?

Waiting for Jesus’ Second Coming is not a passive venture. God is already coming to us and wants us to use divine answers to get us all stirred up with new ideas to act with grace and persistence for the well-being of the planet and for all its peoples (Epperly) (Pankey, Stir Up!). And yes, new ideas are ugly, messy, and frightening, they threaten what we know, they scare us, and they are fragile. But when we nurture them with God’s light they bring beautiful transformation into the world (GE).

ideas

New Ideas can reveal how we can participate with God in restoration; they can help us identify other communities that share similar hopes and seek common purpose (Allen).

This morning’s collect asks God to stir up divine power and come among us. It is a great, though dangerous, idea. In it, we are asking God to turn lose power and light that we would much rather keep under a basket. In it, we are inviting the Spirit to work in our lives for the restoration of not only our souls ~ but the whole world (Pankey, Stir Up!) . We are unleashing God to help us be the prophets pointing to The Kingdom’s presence right here – right now, not only in what we say but most importantly in how we love all our neighbors. We are asking for directions and inspiration and power to follow Mary as

[Her soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
[and her] spirit rejoices in God our Savior.

 

References

Allen, Ron. Commentary on Matthew 11:211. 11 12 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Boring, M. Eugene. The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X!! vols. App Olivetree.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scriture Notes. 11 12 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 11 12 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

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

  1. “Ideas Are Scary.” 2016. web. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfmQvc6tB1o&gt;.

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

Hoezee, Scott. Advent 3 A Matthew 11:2-11 . 11 12 2016.

Lewis, Karoline. Are You The One? 11 12 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Advent 3 A: John’s Blue Christmas. 11 12 2016.

Nagata, Ada Wong. “Can You See and Hear God’s Presence in Your Life? Advent 3(A).” 11 12 2016. Sermons that Work.

Pankey, Steve. How are we judged? 11 12 2016.

—. “Stir Up!” 11 12 2016. Draughting Theology.

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

 

 

 

 

 

Do We Want God In Our Midst?

A sermon for Advent 3

Zephaniah 3:14-20, Canticle 9, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

Stir up your power O Lord, and come among us. Oh really? We want God among us. Really? Think about it for a moment. I know what we hear Zephaniah say this morning; how divine judgements have been taken away. I know we hear that disaster has been removed. I know we hear God will:   save the lame, change shame to pride, bring us home, make us renown, restore our fortunes. I know we hear similar words from Isaiah:  that we trust in God, and do not fear. I know we hear how God is our stronghold, how we will sing praises about God’s mighty deeds. But really, do we want God among us?

You see what we don’t know are the first three chapters of Zephaniah. He is a prophet in the time of Josiah, one of Israel good kings, who tries to institute reforms. Unfortunately, he is killed in battle with Babylonians. Israel is thrown into turmoil, political and religious leaders cave in, and fall completely away from God. Zephaniah opens with a call for worldwide, for cosmic destruction. Oh, there will be a remnant, but they are not spared; they just survive (Luther Seminary).  Zephaniah is one of the grimmest, saddest most frightening books in the whole Bible (Hoezee, Advent 3C | Zephaniah). Isaiah is in a similar position. Israel is now in exile. The fires of faith have absolutely gone out (Jacobson). It is a cold, dark world.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the parallels between Zephaniah’s and Isaiah’s world and ours. Some politicians and religious leaders conspire against the people they are called to serve. Some loudly profess to believe in God and then serve other gods, other values, by their actions. Others claim God for themselves, ~ and us, and then use that claim to dismiss “the nations of the world” be they refugees, or a different race, or a different faith. It seems most people don’t really believe   God gets angry (Bratt). It doesn’t take much imagination to see the similarity between falling religiosity in the US and Europe and the cold fire of faith of Israel in Babylon. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand the fear the death of Josiah evoked, as the equivalent to the perceived fall:     of respect for or the power of the US across the world.

It’s a dark, cold world. So absolutely YES!    Stir up your power O Lord, and come among us. But really? Are you really ready, really willing to stand on the banks of the Jordan? Are you really ready to face the prophet whose has come out of the wilderness? Are you ready to answer him? Not the question about who warned you; oh no, the implied question of the opening salvo “You brood of vipers!” Are you ready?

I hope so, we should be   ~ the light is growing. Today is as Gaudete Sunday, marked by the pink candle, symbolic of the growing dominance of divine light. In the midst of darkness, it really is time to rejoice (Pankey, we are sorely hindered). As much as Zephaniah justifiably rants about unfaithfulness, and hypocrisy, at the end of the cosmic day it is God’s commitment to restoration and new life that makes the difference (Hoezee, Advent 3C | Zephaniah) (Stewart). And so yes, we want God’s power and might to root out or keep out all the evils. If only. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s wrote:

If it were only that simple. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being (Jones).

 

John the Baptist points to the same truth. The people by the riverside want to know what’s to be done. Notice that John does not take on the imperial oppressors, political conspirators, or the corrupt religious officials. John answers them literally:   if you have 2 shirts give one away; if you have food do the same. There are no qualifiers:   for what you have; or the worthiness of the recipient. He tells tax collectors and soldiers there, don’t steal, don’t extort money. A colleague puts it this way:   John says: share, don’t cheat and be nice (Pankey, The Terrifyingly Mundane). John sends those people, sends us, back to ordinary lives, only to live them better, more honestly, as service to others; to live spiritual lives in the ordinariness of our little corner of the world (Lose) (Hoezee, Advent 3C | Luke). John does not ask us to change or save the world; God is taking care of that. John is asking us

to witness the change already in process, by actually living like it’s here, like we believe it’s really coming, like we think it actually matters (Lose).

 

Stir up your power O Lord, and come among us. The prayer is already being answered. It is not always comfortable for us. We will have to continue to acknowledge:   our other allegiances, where our actions do not meet our commitments or professions (Stewart). It is a daunting reality, but the light [point to advent wreath] is dominated and continues to overcome the darkness; it will never fail. By the light, we can recognize our illness:    physical, mental, spiritual, or moral; acute or chronic. By the light we can be healed, brought to shalom, wholeness of life; we can walk the right path, we can see the Kingdom, present and possible. By the light, we can witness to God’s truth in the face of worldly powers that tries to suppress it (Expertly) (Lewis). By the light we know:

The LORD, our God, is in our midst (Zeph 3:15b), surely, we will trust in him and not be afraid (Isaiah 12:2a).

 By the light we know:

the peace of God, which passes all understanding, is keeping your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord (Phil. 4:7) (BCP, 339).


References

Bratt, Doug. Advent 3C | Isaiah. 13 12 2015. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 13 12 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Hoezee, Scott. Advent 3C | Zephaniah. 13 12 2015.

—. Advent 3C | Luke. 13 12 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

—. The Lectionary Gospel Mark 7:24-37. 6 9 2015.

Jacobson, Rolf. “Commentary on Isaiah 12:26.” 13 12 2015. Working Preacher.

Jones, Judith. Commentary on Luke 3:718. 13 12 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. Advent Expectations. 13 12 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Advent 3 C: Ordinary Saints. 13 12 2015.

Luther Seminary. Zephaniah. n.d. <http://www.enterthebible.org/&gt;.

Mast, Stan. Lectionary Epistle — Philippians 4:4-7. 13 123 2015. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/&gt;.

Pankey, Steve. “The Terrifyingly Mundane.” 10 12 2015. Word Press: Draughting Theology.

—. We are sorely hindered. 13 12 2015.

Pillar, Edward. Commentary on Philippians 4:47. 13 12 2015. <workingpreacher.org>.

Stewart, Anne. Commentary on Zephaniah 3:1420. 13 12 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Taylor, Jemonde. “Rejoice and Seek, Advent 3(C) – 2015.” 13 12 2015. Sermons that Work.

What’s going on?

A sermon for Advent 3

Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11, Canticle 15

 

It’s been a week, and we tend to forget readings from previous weeks, especially since we didn’t hear them ‘cause ice caused us to cancel corporate worship. We would have heard Matthew’s account of John down by the river side; he was calling the people of Judah and Jerusalem to repent. Actually he calls for them to prepare the way of the Lord; either way, the people need to change their behavior. We also hear John talks about the ax at the root of the tree, a reference of divine judgment against Israel. He also goes on about the chaff being burned with unquenchable fire, a likely reference to Israel’s corrupt leadership. So we have a pretty good idea of Matthew’s vision of John the Baptist.

Skip forward some time, not sure how much, though it is eight chapters, and this morning we hear John asking Jesus a question, through his disciples, because he is in jail. He wants to know if Jesus is the messiah. It’s a queer question, he did baptize him. However, only Jesus hears God’s voice, so we cannot know for sure that John knows Jesus is God beloved son. In fact we have a previous hint that there are questions; in chapter 11 John’s disciples ask Jesus’ disciples why they (John’s disciples) fast and they (Jesus’ disciples) don’t. There is no way of knowing if John’s disciples ask of their own or if John asks them to, because he is already in jail, having been arrested in chapter 4.

What we have is John down by the river side at his prophetic best; Jesus’ baptism, John’s arrest a question about fasting that may be from John, a question if Jesus is the messiah that is from John. 

John has put everything he has into this prophet thing, and now he is in jail; not what is expected. And to top it all off, Jesus isn’t exactly acting like a messiah, he isn’t wielding the ax, he isn’t burning chaff, and when he confront sinners, he eats with them. This is not what is expected. What is going on?

What is going on? Recently we’ve heard news of: Adam’s brain tumor, Mary Gay’s brother’s death, Bill’s arrest, Sally’s death, Brandon’s ATV accident, Jenny’s health concern’s, Joey’s heath concern’s, Mrs. Gladden’s death, Jerry’s cancer, Laura’s accident, and Gladys’ death. What’s going on? None of this is expected, at least not now!

I mean look around town, everything is decorated there are bright lights, brilliant vivid colors, the radio if a constant stream of holiday music. Our mail boxes are collecting more and more cards wishing us Happy Holidays! This is a happy, joyful time of year. We are looking forward to celebrating Jesus birth, we are looking forward to the return of the King, Jesus in full divine regalia! Yesterday the Ignite Christmas Box ministry gave 800 families a box of food, a box of hygiene products, a box of Avon products, a ham and a loaf of bread. That ~ is what is expected this time of year. So, what’s going on?

What’s going on is life. All of life, including those parts that are: grievous, frustrating, frightening, and emotionally and spiritually debilitating. The raw edges of life didn’t stop on the occasion of Jesus birth. We glamorized Luke’s version, but there is nothing glamorous about a day long (or more) donkey ride, to pay taxes to a foreign King. Matthew’s version is far less glamorous; he takes a scant six verses to tell the tale of Jesus birth. That is followed by the terrorizing tale, of Joseph, Mary and Jesus escaping Herod’s rage, and the slaughter of thousands of innocent infant boys.

Life goes on. The dark side of life continues. Whether we expect it or not, whether it is fair or not, whether we are prepared or not, whether it causes us to question Jesus or not, life goes on.

 And now we come to Jesus answer. Well actually he doesn’t answer the question. He tells John’s disciples to tell John what they see. I wonder if he gets a blank stare, you know the kind teachers sometimes get, because then he tells them what they see: the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, the lepers being cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised, the poor having good news brought to them, and anyone who takes no offense at me is being blessed. ..

Each scene, relates to a portion of Isaiah’s messianic prophecy. Each scene, is evidence that the Kingdom of God is already on earth, is already transforming all creation.

The transformation of all creation is a facet of Jesus’ birth I fear we ignore. The incarnation is God’s fully divine presence being birthed in the fully human Jesus. The incarnation is also an infusion of the divine presence in every human, in every micro-corner of creation. That transformation of all creation is a facet of our messiah’s return I fear we tend to miss, ‘cause we get all caught up in judgment etc. Nonetheless our messiah’s return is the end of a transformation already in the making. In short, even as life goes on, God is in our midst. God is present in every corner of our lives, the resplendently bright bits, the surprisingly righteous one, the ones where justice reigns; even the scary, dark and lonely corners. But that presence is not static, far from it.

When we accept it, listen for it, listen to it, respond in faith and trust, God’s presence will enable ~ well some call it miracles, we know it to be the power of God in everyday life.

So, what’s going on? Life in the presence of God is going on, and there is no waiting because it’s right here right now. Amen!

___________________________

David Lose Working Preacher, Craft of Preaching, Disappointed with God at Christmastime, Sunday, December 08, 2013 12:43 PM

Arland J. Hultgren, Working Preacher, Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11, 12/15/2013

Brett Younge, Ministry Matters, KeepHerod in Christmas, November 30th, 2013