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.

Emerge from the ashes

A sermon for Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:12, 12-17, or Isaiah 58:1-12, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, Psalm 103:8-14

Earth to earth, ashes to ashes and dust to dust. With each phrase a handful of heavy dirt lands on the coffin to a deep resounding thump. Gathered family and friends grow quieter and quitter and quitter. It is the singular moment from our Easter grounded burial rite I believe emerges from today’s fasting rite. And I do not see the two as of some sort of divine clock with the imposition of ashes marking the beginning and earth, ashes, dust marking some final ending. Both are markers of repentance, and both mark an occasion of self-reflection and our own efforts, or lack thereof, to align all our lives with our created roles as the image of God.

It’s been a challenge since the beginning. The prophet Joel proclaims God’s decree to rend our hearts, not our cloths. The Prophet Isaiah gives voice to our question:

Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?

He gives voice to God’s answer:

Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after: a day to show off humility? (Isaiah 58:5 (MSG))

This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
[to] get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
[to] free the oppressed,
[and] cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.  (Isaiah 58:6-7 (MSG))

One difference between the two voices is a focus on the individual verses a focus on the entire community, especially the least within its boundaries. Repentance is not about our behavior with respect to ourselves, like dramatically tearing our shirts off or putting on a good show of humility, on the appointed day. Repentance may be understood as how we go about reflecting the image of God, with our focus on the other. On occasion we can be the image of God to another within ourselves. But, as a rule, to bear the image of God requires of communal commitment to those exploited by:

– a self-serving justice system to those exploited by self-serving  business enterprises,

– who set wages so employees qualify for public assistance,
– who set hours  to avoid benefits all together,
– who keep the debate about immigration all stirred up , allowing them to benefit from the fear illegal    immigrants have of officials, allowing business to exploit their work ethic,
– intentionally overly complex process to get needed help,
– enticing pay-day loans that lead to crushing debit by smartly designed ads, that prey on pressing needs.

We often give generously as individuals. As a society we are increasingly hard-hearted. Evidence: We will begrudging pay millions to incarcerate offenders, when we could pay thousands, to house the homeless, care for the mentally ill, provide real services to youth in trouble. We’ll make bold pronouncements about the immorality of those with differing sexual orientations; and totally ignore sexual abuse by white male, family members. I suspect you get my point.

As to changing our behaviors? Well it, has been, is, and will be hard work. However, the reluctant Jonah’s lack luster effort in Nineveh is enough for an entire city, who previously worship other gods, to repent, to change their ways, in dramatic fashion. God is merciful. Secondly, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, links us to that strange Easter hope that even at grave side we know eternal hope, we know our beloved, is, and we will be received into God’s eternal presence. And as we are thereby certain that God is with us at the grave’s edge, so may we be certain God is with us in every effort to be the image of God we are created to be; even as we emerge from the ashes.

What’s your center?

A sermon for Epiphany 2

Isaiah 49:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42, Psalm 40:1-12

I love gifts, especially unexpected gifts from unexpected places. I received on last night. I joined our Friday Families group for pizza as we watched Rise of the Guardians a clever tale weaving many children’s characters together into one story. It is cute, with Hugh Jackman, think Wolverine, doing Bunny’s voice, it has to be; and as with many of these movies within the story are many great lessons. 

My gift is a conversation between Jack and North. North is trying to explain to Jack about his center. He hands Jack a Matryoshka Doll, one of the Russian stackable dolls, painted like North. He says: This is how you see me, very big and intimidating. Jack opens the dolls and seeing the next one says: You are downright jolly, and the next layer: and serious, then the next: and fearless, and the last: There’s a tiny wooden baby. North replies: Look closer. What do you see? You have big eyes. Yes! Big eyes, very big, because they are full of wonder. That is my center. It is what I was born with, eyes that have only seen the wonder in everything! Eyes that see lights in the trees and magic in the air. This wonder is what I put into the world, and what I protect in children. It is what makes me a guardian. It is my center, what is yours?  Jack: I don’t know. i

The conversation is about identity, who are we, and how that identity shapes our lives. It’s the same conversation that’s the subject of Isaiah’s prophecy, that John is having with his followers, and Paul is writing to the Corinthians.

Whoever Isaiah’s servant is: himself, another prophet, Israel, or the expected messiah, Christians believe to be Jesus, he is tired. He has given it his best, but things have not worked out, and while knowing, or at least saying his reward is with God he is done. Scott Hoezee notes everyone gets discouraged, weary.
What I suspect is in the weariness the servant’s center shifts, their identity changes, it moves from being of God and about God, to being me and about me.
God’s reply

It’s not enough for you to restore  Israel. Now I want you go to all
nations and share the story of my salvation till it reaches the ends of the earth.

at first it appears harsh and uncaring. However, it’s effect is to re-center the servant it’s reminder that from time in the womb till now, till the end of time, the servant is of God, is in unbreakable relationship with God.

What is it six centuries and a decade later? John is walking through town with a couple of his followerswhen he points to Jesus and shouts:

There is the Lamb of God
who takes away the sins of world!

The next day he sees Jesus again, and shouts out:

Look! here is the Lamb of God!

We all know what Lamb of God means. Or do we? Scott Hoezee ii and Richard Swanson iii point out that lamb of God, and takes away the sin of the world  are both far more complex than you’d think. To begin with the phrase lamb of God appears only here, there are other references to Jesus as lamb, but this exact phrase is used only here. iv If Jesus is a Passover lamb, there are image difficulties arising from the rabbinical understanding of God joining us in the meal, and eating his lamb so you the trouble. If Jesus is a sacrificial lamb, well lambs sacrificed for atonement, which is taking away sin, are female, and while male goats are included, male lambs are left out!  v Additionally, lambs are typically a symbol of gentleness, meekness, and vulnerability not exactly a model for a messiah. There is also the story of  the sacrifice of Isaac, when God provide the lamb, but there are still translation difficulties. vi

So what about the phrase: who takes away the sins of the world. How? Take away  is rooted in the Greek lift up,which may imply lifting up, or pointing out sins so everyone can see them, not to embarrass, but to encourage repentance. Or it may refer to the firey serpent story in Numbers vii when the bronze snake is lifted up so those snake-bit can be healed. Or perhaps it’s a reference to being lifted up during crucifixion.

All this being said, knowing the Lamb (sheep, sacrifice) of God, takes away (lifts up) the sin of the world, reveals an image of God providing for the healing, which means restoring to wholeness,and wholeness is relationship with God, providing for the healing for God’s people. In short, John is telling his followers, anyone who will hear, here is your identity, the divine Jesus is your center.

We read the greeting and introduction from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians this morning. Because we’ve read it before, we know there are troubles. Corinth is a bit self-impressed viii which is understandable. It is an urban trade center of about 250,000 people,served by 400,000 slaves. There are 2 harbors making it a commercial hub of the Roman Empire. The many peoples from many nations have established 12 major temples. Stan Mast writes: What happened in Corinth doesn’t stay in Corinth. ix It’s easy to see how such self-importance creeps into the life of the church.

It’s revealing to note Paul does not give thanks for them, he gives to God for the spiritual gifts entrusted to them through Christ. He is alluding to deep divisions among them, to the truth that even though they are spiritually gifted, they are immature and unspiritual. In today’s parlance, they’ve lost their center. They have forgotten God … has called them into communion with one another and with Christ. x   N. T. Wright notes

Paul is reminding them they are summoned to be saints and worshippers, [that] they belong to a koininia partnership with God and Jesus [whose]
     purpose  is a servant vocation [that] model[s] and implement[s] genuine new humanity. xi

Paul is saying it’s not about them, or their gifts, it’s about Jesus, it’s about God. He is pointing out their true center, their true identity as sanctified, or set aside, by God, for God, through Christ.

All three lessons call their audience, then and now back to  a life an identity centered in God through Christ. All are directly applicable to us. From Isaiah, we are tired, weary, given it our best, but the world, and declining everything conspires against us. We’ll hold on, but we are done. Such thinking reveal that our center has shifted to our survival. And when we are centered on our  survival we will miss the opportunity to proclaim the Kingdom of God is here. And that opportunity is here!

There is a similar lesson from John; we can get so caught up in our definitions of what scripture says we miss the point of scripture – our relationship with God. John is pointing to Jesus as the one who heals, restores to wholeness our relationship with God, who is, with God, the center of our being.

And Paul points out the dangers of self-importance born of success. It’s interesting that the same risk is in struggling churches who afraid they cannot survive. In such fear, we double down on meeting our needs or on building up our skills which are as powerless as we are afraid they are. Either way our center shifts.

Epiphany is the season of light, a time to seek divine illumination. I wonder if we are looking so hard for the light, for who Jesus is, we forget who we are. And we are already: illumined by Word and Sacrament, we are already children, heirs of God through creation, and through Jesus’ redemptive ministry. Perhaps it’s time to simply live in that relationship xii and allow it to become what it already is our center, our identity, our essence.

It’s my center.

I love gifts, especially unexpected gifts from unexpected places. I received one last night. I joined our Friday Families group for pizza as we watched Rise of the Guardians a clever tale weaving many children’s characters together into one story. It’s cute, with Hugh Jackman doing Bunny’s voice,[i] it has to be; and as with many of these movies within the story line are many great lessons.  One that stuck out is North speaking to Jack We are very busy bringing joy to children, we don’t have time for children. [ii]

My gift however is the conversation between Jack and North where North is trying to explain to Jack about his center. He hands Jack a Matryoshka Doll, one of the Russian stackable dolls painted like North. Handing it to Jack he says This is how you see me, very big and intimidating… Jack opens the dolls and seeing the next one says: You are downright jolly, and the next layer: and serious, then the next: and fearless, and the last Jack says: There’s a tiny wooden baby. North: Look closer. What do you see?  Jack: You have big eyes… North: Yes! Big eyes, very big, because they are full of wonder. That is my center. It is what I was born with, eyes that have only seen the wonder in everything! Eyes that see lights in the trees and magic in the air. This wonder is what I put into the world, and what I protect in children. It is what makes me a guardian. It is my center, what is yours? Jack: I don’t know. [iii]

‘Center’ is another way of saying identity, who you are. Isaiah, John and Paul are all speaking to identity, the servant’s, Israel’s, Jesus’, and ours. It raises a question: Are we more like North, knowing and living who we are, or more like Jack and not knowing?

 

Obeyed

A colleague of mine has focused on a line from collect for Sunday … illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth. It’s a powerful bit of prayer. I don’t know a Christian who wouldn’t agree with the first to bits of being so illumined: for Jesus to be known and worshiped. I rather suspect that many would just as soon ignore the obeyed bit, if for no other reason than we really don’t anybody telling us what to do.

However, as I read through Isaiah 49:1-7 there is an implicit piece of obedience, perhaps no so much. The servant’s response to God’s speech is I’ve wasted my time; I’ve done my best to no avail! God’s reply is:

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

At first reading God seems to be pilling on; so you haven’t done any good, okay, in addition to Jacob/Israel, now you are to tell the story of salvation to the ends of the earth. (And no matter how big one’s vision of earth may be, it’s big.) On the other hand, God expresses increased certainty that the divine plan will come to fruition as he speaks of a once despised Israel being respected and honored by rulers of the earth.

To some extent there is persistence message here; God wants the servant, either the prophet or Israel, to be persistent irrespective of what they perceive the results to be. On the other hand I see an element of obedience, precisely because the servant cannot correctly see the future, nor the effect of the work. That means doing the work anyway, and that means trusting God, which is at the very heart of any relationship.