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.

 

 

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.

 

There he is!

A sermon for Epiphany 2; Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-12, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

John has everyone’s attention; the Jewish leaders; and the people’s. He has a group of followers, disciples, people who are committed to his different teachings and expectations. We expect disciples to be dedicated and committed to their teacher or leader. We also expect the teacher or leader to expect their followers to, well, follow.

So, the other day, John is in a town near the Jordan river and has an encounter with Jewish leaders from Jerusalem, who want to know who he is. He says he is not who they think he is. His tell them someone else is coming.

The next day John is walking through town and shouts out “There he is! ‘The Lamb of God.’ The one who will take away the world’s sin!” He shares the story of Jesus’ baptism. It is a testimony to who Jesus is.

A day later John and a couple of his disciples are walking through town. John sees Jesus again and shouts out “There he is again.” The disciples may have made a curious face as John calls this unknown person the Lamb of God, which is a new title. Whatever their faces may have revealed, their action is unexpected. They give up their relationship with John and turn and follow Jesus. It’s almost like someone giving up their loyal following of the Hogs and becoming a fanatic Boll Weevil follower; it is unimaginable.

Jesus notices they are following him, and turns and asks them “What do you want?” They ask him “Where are you staying?” Jesus tells them “Come and see.” They followed Jesus till late in the day. Then Andrew went to find his brother, and tells him about their unusual day; and then claims to have found the Messiah, another new title for Jesus. Simon follows his brother to meet Jesus, who on first sight calls him by name and then renames him, Peter. It is such a simple story. But not really.

To begin with, ‘The Lamb of God’ is a completely new term, it has never heard anywhere before, and is not used anywhere else in the bible (Hoezee; Gaventa and Petersen). It is a reference to multiple ways God is present to Israel:

  • their liberation from slavery in Egypt
  • the sacrifice of Isaac
  • the Temple cultic sacrificial system and
  • the suffering servants from Isaiah (Gaventa and Petersen; Harrelson; Boring).

John says Jesus will take away the sin – singular – the sin of the world. Jesus’ purpose in not individual, it is universal. It is not about our specific moral misconduct. It is about the consequences of any action that

  •  creates distance in our relationship with God/Jesus/Spirit (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner)
  •  contributes to alienation and darkness or (Gaventa and Petersen; Harrelson;
  •  the world’s collective brokenness (Boring; Gaventa and Petersen; Harrelson).

So, this is not about me, or you, or even us. This is about everyone, the entire world, all the cosmos.

Secondly, the conversation between Jesus and John’s two disciples is simple. And not so much so. Jesus asks “What are you looking for?” But, because this is a bible story and because Jesus is asking a question, we know Jesus does not think these two strangers have lost their keys or its 1st century like thing. Jesus is inviting them to share from the depths of their hearts

  •  what are they seeking (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner)
  •  what they are longing for most hope for (Lose) and
  •  what motivates them (West).

The disciples’ answer is another question “Where are you staying?” Now, it is not unusual for a teacher to answer a student’s or follower’s question with a question. It is unusual the other way around. So, we know something is up which is that ‘staying’ is not reference to Jesus’ Inn number. What they want to know is where Jesus abides. (Clavier; Gaventa and Petersen). Later we will hear Jesus say:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. (John 15:4.)

and a little later

… Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, … (John 15:5)

and just a bit further

and If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (John 15:7)

All of which is about our relationship with Jesus, which reflects Jesus’ relationship with God. The disciples want to know about Jesus’ relationship with God (Boring). It also is their way of saying “We want to stay with you.” which really means “We want to follow you (Lose).” “We want to be your disciples.” There are also implications that they are also seeking some stability, some purpose in life (West; Boring).

Jesus’ answer “Come and see.” sounds equally ordinary, but as the question is more than it sounds so is Jesus reply. “Come and see” is an invitation, but an invitation to what (Clavier)? Well, invitations usually have some sort of relationship feature (Lose). Here it is an offer to come to know Jesus through the eyes of faith (Boring).

The structure of the story also teaches us something about Jesus’ invitation to “Come and see.” We know the disciples spend a good deal of the day with Jesus. The next thing that happens is? Well – what does Andrew do? That’s right, He goes and tells his brother, Simon, they have found the messiah. The invitation to come and see Jesus is evangelism (Lose).

And here the story links back to John. John’s witness leads to his disciples becoming Jesus’ disciples (Harrelson). Their story of hearing John’s witness, and moving into Jesus’ presence is not complete until they witness to someone else (Harrelson; Boring). We cannot see it in English, but the form of ‘see’ is a completed past action whose effect continues into the present (Boring). So, just as John’s witness of Jesus’ baptism is not complete until he witnesses to his disciples, and the disciples’ witness is not complete until they witness to someone our witness of their witness, which we experience by reading and hearing scripture, is not complete until we invite someone else to “Come and see.”

A final observation. In the other Gospels, the disciples give up a way of life to follow Jesus. This morning, John’s disciples give up their previous religious commitment as disciples of John to become disciples of Jesus (Boring). Together with the new title of “Lamb of God” this is a reminder for us not to limit God/Jesus/Sprit to our preconceived ideas, and to always be open to new images or metaphors for understanding and experiencing different relationships to the faith community (Boring).

God/Jesus/Spirit does not change; however, the world, the time and space we live in does change (Lewis). This means the nature of our relationships with each other and the universe changes, and so the way others encounter God/Jesus/Spirit will be different, and the way, the language others can receive our witness to our experience of God/Jesus/Spirit changes. Which mean to be open to new expressions of the presence of God is to be faithful to God’s presence right here, right now. It means that you are free to witness, share, your new experience of God/Jesus/Spirit as you dive deep into what in life you are looking for.


References

Boring, M. Eugene. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.
Clavier, Anthony. “There Goes a Lamb, Epiphany 2(A).” 15 1 2017. Sermons that Work.
Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 8 1 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 15 1 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 1:29-42. 15 1 2017.
Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 6 9 2015.
Lewis, Karoline. Timely Matters. 15 1 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.
Lose, David. Epiphany 2 A: A Question, Invitation, and Promise. 15 1 2017.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
West, Audrey. Commentary on John 1:2942. 15 1 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

See and Hear Differently

A sermon for 1st Sunday of Epiphany 1, Jesus’ Baptism; Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

On Monday, our oldest was born. On Tuesday, our youngest was born. On Wednesday, they were driving. By Thursday they had graduated High School. And Friday both graduated College Today they are married with children! How did that happen?

Last week Jesus was circumcised and named. Today, a week later, the fully-grown Jesus shows up at the Jordan River, where John is baptizing folks, and Jesus says “Me too!” John hesitates, but Jesus persuades him, and it is done. But what is done?

We met John the Baptist at the beginning of chapter 3. He wears funny clothes, cries out “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2.) He baptizes people for repentance of their sins. He challenges Pharisees and Sadducees calling them a “sons of snakes” perhaps a reference to Genesis 3 and the snake in the garden (Boring) and John challenges them, and everyone, to bear fruit worthy of repentance (Matthew 3:8).

John is not the first person to baptize. There are directions in Leviticus that tells the Israelites how to clean themselves up before entering the Temple. It is not about a bath; it is about washing away the impurities of:

  • moral failures
  • violations of rules like not touching anything dead
  • some natural occurrences, and
  • some illnesses.

This and other ritual cleanings are part of Jewish life. There were special pools for such cleansings; however, immersions in natural pools or flowing water were also used (Butterworth). John’s baptism does seem to have a different emphasis, he was calling on people to change how they were living, repentance, or change of course, and adopt a life that is a commitment to God, a new direction. (Carter) (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). John’s practices are similar to the ascetic community of the Essenes who lived way out in the wilderness in Qumran as a protest to what they believed were the corrupt practices of leaders in Jerusalem and the Temple. Some scholars believe that John belonged to this community (Butterworth).

I am sure you notice that John hesitates to grant Jesus’ request to be baptized. Some people think this is because Jesus is sinless. He is, but that is not a concern when Matthew wrote his Gospel and is not the cause of John’s hesitation (Carter). John hesitates until he realizes that this baptism is Jesus’ commitment to God (Butterworth).

It is interesting to visualize Matthew’s scene carefully. John is Baptizing in the Jordan river. Nothing unusual about this, it happens all the time. There are many people there. Several have already been baptized. It is a day full of usual activity. No one expects anything unusual to happen (Hoezee). There is nothing out of the ordinary for a solitary man to approach John. John’s hesitation is not typical, but it is not dramatic either. There is nothing different about immersing Jesus. And none of the Gospels are very clear about what happens next. At least for the crowd, nothing is different. For us, Matthew’s readers, may before John, and certainly, for Jesus everything is different.

As Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens open up, and the Spirit descends. These are signs of revelation and divine gifts that happened in biblical times (Old Testament times for us) but had not happened in a long time, but are expected to come again in the last days (Boring), and the arrival of the Messiah. The dove is frequently associated with the Spirit that hovers the chaotic waters of creation (Genesis 1:2). However, there is no reference to a dove-like form in Genesis. It is interesting to note that for the Romans birds are a sign of divine actions establishing the destinies of imperial officials (Carter). So, the image of the dove may be an indirect challenge to Roman oppression and a commitment to restoring justice (Ellingsen). The arrival of the spirit is a sign that God is equipping Jesus for his ministry, and links Jesus to Old Testament leaders of Judges (Judges 6:34), the Davidic Kings (Isaiah 11:1), and God’s suffering servant (Isaiah 42:1; 61:1) (Carter). Jesus, John, and we hear God’s voice “This is so awesome!” (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). I wonder if Jesus and John react the way Mary and the Shepherds did when the Angel unexpectedly appeared to them. God “declares Jesus’ identity and destiny” (Butterworth) in a way, it is very similar to last week when Jesus becomes a member of Abraham’s descendants and is given his name, which implies his destiny. The pronouncement “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” combines Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1, we heard this morning. You recognize Isaiah 42:1 as one of the suffering servant passages. Psalm 2 is one of the royal psalms; which is a bit curious because it has been 550 or more years since Israel had a King. That they still included these psalms is in their scripture a testament to Israel’s continuing belief that, God is faithful and the Davidic line of kings will be restored (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner).

This story about baptism tells us more about Jesus than it does about the baptism. We hear Jesus’ identity and ministry, as God’s son, affirmed (Butterworth). We hear how Jesus is the agent of the new creation (Isaiah 42:9) because oppression and injustice are not God’s will (Harrelson). We see, in the sign of a descending dove, that Jesus’ mission is divinely empowered (Sakenfeld). We glean how Jesus’ commitment to God is bearing the fruit John is referring to in his rant against the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:8) (Butterworth). And we may just catch a glimpse of the inner life of God as Jesus is named twice in his circumcision and baptism, revealing both his fully human and fully divine nature (Scoopmire).

All that brings us to the “So what?” question. What do we learn about us in all this? I suspect the first thing is that this story reminds us to open our eyes and look at the world differently. John knew Jesus because he saw the world differently than the Romans and their collaborators. God’s tells us to “Look at him!” but also to “Look for him!” (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). And it is important for us to look because there are those who proclaim another way.

In Jesus’ day, Roman Civil Religion threatened the world. Today an emerging American Civil Religion threatens the world. Its proponents disregard foundational doctrines like Trinity. Perhaps because belief in the Trinity requires belief in a fully human and fully divine Jesus that requires divinity and humanity to co-exist. In other words, Jesus has fully free human will within a divine framework (Mitchican). American Civil Religion rejects the Trinity because it cannot see how truly free enterprise can exist within any regulatory system. It teaches that Jesus went to the cross not to bring forgiveness of our sins but to get us out of financial debt, to give us the power to claim our prosperity, and to give us our best life right now. American Civil Religion teaches that Jesus is “not the only begotten Son of God,” just the first; and that we’re all divine and have the power to speak worlds into existence (Hughes). If that doesn’t evoke the memory of the original temptation to be like God Gen.3:5) then I don’t know what does.

And once we see the world differently, what are we to do? You know the answer: we follow the shepherds, we boldly proclaim Jesus as Lord and savior, and we preach and teach and witnesses to Jesus’ presence in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Is it hard? no, all you do is share your stories. Is it scary? yes, but it gets easier with time. How do we know when to speak? Well, you have already learned to look differently, and now is the time to listen differently, and then we will encounter the unexpected opportunity to share. And oh yes, you can relax because just as God was there when Jesus started his ministry God is here for you when you start or continue yours.


References

Boring, M. Eugene. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Butterworth, Susan. “The Baptism of Our Lord, Epiphany 1(A).” 8 1 2017. Sermons that Work.

Carter, Warren. Commentary on Matthew 3:1317. 8 1 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 8 1 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 8 1 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

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

Hoezee, Scott. Epiphany 1A Matthew 3:13-17 . 8 1 2017. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Hughes, Rosalind. An evangelical warns of “mainstream heresy.” n.d. <http://www.episcopalcafe.com/an-evangelical-warns-of-mainstream-heresy/&gt;.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 6 9 2015.

Lewis, Karoline. You Are All My Beloved. 8 1 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

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

Scoopmire, Leslie. Speaking to the Soul: Named and claimed. 8 1 2017. <http://www.episcopalcafe.com/speaking-to-the-soul-named-and-claimed-2/&gt;.

 

 

Advent Sacrament

A sermon for Advent 2: Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12, Psalm 72:17, 18-19

I grew up in metro Atlanta GA which, a score and more years ago, as I started seminary, was some 200 times the size of Blytheville. I have served churches in communities of 28,000, 15,000, 7,100, 2,400 and 743. In all these communities, people would ask the same question: “Where are you from?” What they really wanted to know is “Who are your people?” If anyone actually asks you who your people are, you are either in a lot of trouble or standing on the verge of being accepted wholeheartedly into their community family.

In this week’s commentary Karoline Lewis suggest that we are way too quick to skip past the opening phrase of the Gospel, especially the last half “appeared in the wilderness.” Her point is well made. To do so is to skip knowing where a prophet is from; and who a prophet’s people are (Lewis). Prophets are not soothsayers who by various means can see into the future. No ~ prophets are relentless truth tellers; pulling back the carefully woven curtain of our view of the present exposing deliberate ignorance and willful blindness to the sufferings of others; exposing the clever forms of evasion we use to deny pollution, climate change, food insecurity, the lack of clean water, burgeoning prisons, a failing cultural understanding of marriage, the plethora of single parent homes, that a quarter of our kids are living in poverty, acts of violence, our fragile access to healthcare, and exposing the illusions, we use to hide injustice and just plain ole meanness (Lewis; Lose). It is their clear vision of the truth of today that allows prophets to see the ill fortunes of the future that we do not want to hear. Prophets know where they are, they know the people they speak to. Prophets know where we are from; they know our people.

We all know that Advent is a season to cast aside the distractions of this world to make room for divinely inspired imagination. It is a season to imagine a Festival of the Incarnation. Not just the birth of Jesus, but a mystical divine fusion of God with all humanity. It is a season also to imagine Christ’s arrival – 2 (Lose). Only we allow ourselves to be distracted by illusions of a Christmas that are as false as the illusions of grandeur of the Kings of Israel. And we know this because John the Baptist is nowhere to be found in Advent unless you happen to be in a church that reads one the gospel stories like we heard this morning. I have never heard a Christmas Carol that features John the Baptist (Allen). It is a small wonder; can you begin to imagine caroling “You brood of vipers!”

Lewis’ insight leads us to examine John’s use of Isaiah’s prophecy:

 The voice of one crying in the wilderness: [pause] ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’

Only in the original books there is no punctuation so it can also read

The voice of one crying: [pause] ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (Allen).

The first way tells of someone crying in the wilderness and it is certainly John the Baptist. The second way tells of someone crying “go into the wilderness;” and this, I believe, is the subtle call to a fruitful Advent imagination. And it is all comes from our understanding of wilderness.

When we hear wilderness, I expect we see a wild, unsettled, inhospitable place. If it is in a bible setting it is vast dry landscape, with barren hills, some with scrub brushes and the occasional lost sheep. It is a dangerous, chaotic place to be. The wilderness is likely inhabited by equally inhospitable, dangerous people. But, when we think carefully about the story the bible tells us we may remember that the wilderness is a thin place; a place where we discover the edges of space and time. It is in the wilderness that God forms Abraham’s people. It is in the wilderness where the Hebrew people are tested and further formed. The wilderness is a place of chaos, but it is also a place of formation, a place of testing, and a place of purification (Sakenfeld). It is only in the heartfelt wilderness of our existence or our imagination that we experience the sacrament of Advent.

And yes, I know there is no such sacrament in the Book of Common Prayer. But, as you know, a sacrament is a visible and outward sign of an invisible and inward grace. And here both the visible and the invisible are repentance, which you remember, is about changing the orientation of your life.

Your Advent sacrament is invisible because you recognize and accept that you have a problem that is bigger you are (Benoit). It is invisible as you daydream about God’s vision for you as you face your problem, or your life, as a whole. It is invisible as you commit to start making one change. It is invisible as you commit to how that change is becoming a part of your relationships in your community (Lose).

Your Advent sacrament is visible as your commitments are witnessed in how you live life (Benoit). It is visible as people witness your continual discernment gradually transforming your spirit, your emotional well-being, your physical wellbeing, and your social wellbeing. It is visible as others witness you turn from “I” toward “us” and towards God. It is visible as your transformation mystically inspires all of us to turn towards each other and towards God.

It is Advent. It is the season for us, individually and as a community, to confront our inner viper, the quiet hissing voice that whispers “You too can be like God.” It is the season for us, individually and as a community, to see and be the prophet. It is the season for us, individually and as a community, to speak and hear the truth that pulls back our carefully woven curtain exposing the reality we would just as soon ignore. It is the season for us, individually and as a community, to trust the God, who came to us, lo those centuries ago as a mother’s child, will walk with us through this transforming wilderness, and will come again welcoming all into God’s eternal grace.


 

References

Allen, Ron. Commentary on Matthew 3:112. 4 12 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Beck, Norman. Lectionary Scriture Notes. 4 12 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Benoit, Arlette. “Bear Fruit Worthy of the Gift of Repentance Advent 2(A).” 4 12 2016. Sermons that Work.

Boring, M. Eugene. The Gospel of Matthew. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 4 12 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

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

Hoezee, Scott. Advent 1 A | Matthew. 4 12 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 4 12 2016.

Lewis, Karoline. In the Wilderness. 4 12 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Advent 2 A: Reclaiming Repentance. 4 12 2016.

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

 

 

 

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?

 

Isaiah 42:1-9, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17, Psalm 29

The horizon of our possibility reaches the very edge of the earth … and beyond.

I’m not exactly sure when but it was something like 10 years ago when I headed off to a conference in Nevada and we took the opportunity to go see Hover Dam. I had seen it in numerous pictures, and I expect a movie or two. But still it was very impressive. We were also take-in by Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the US. From our perspective, you could not see the vastness of the lake. You could see the steep white sides where the water was several feet below normal levels. It looked a bit like the white cliffs of Dover. It was kind-of cool, until you saw the boat docks sitting on the ground, because the lake wasn’t just seasonally low, the lake was low because of drought. Lake Mead, and the Colorado River basin provide water to the entire south west; from Wyoming to California’s imperial valley, the source of 15% of our food supply; the lake and river provide water to 40 million people.

This week there was an article in the New York Times about the 14 year drought, the worst in 1250 years, which has area reservoirs at less than half their capacities. Lake Mead is currently at 1106 feet, (above sea level) at 1075 rationing begins, at 1050 drastic rationing begins, at 1025 rationing is draconian, at 1000 feet, Las Vegas runs dry. The era of “big water” is coming to an end. But people are creatively responding: a desalination plant, recycling sewage effluent, treating and returning to Lake Mead nearly all in door water use of southern Nevada. Much has been done, there is more that must be, and can be done. [i] In the face of extreme threat people are positively acting.

In preparing for today, the connection between the water crisis and the centrality of water to baptism, and Jesus’ baptism by John merged. But before we get there, let’s back up a bit and look at the back story of Jesus’ baptism as told by Isaiah.

It’s some 2500 years ago Israel has been taken into, well actually Israel, as the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom has been destroyed, and what is now called Israel, Judah, the Southern Kingdom, has been conquered, which is bad enough, but she’s also been taken into exile. And that means she is separated from the Temple, the home of God on earth, which effectively separates God’s people ~ from God. People are wondering if has God deserted them. Given that God’s city, and God’s Temple have been burned to the ground, people are wondering:  Is there still a God? Isaiah’s prophecy emphatically says Yes!  And he does so by speaking directly to the pain of tragedy, the pain of exile. He does so by naming how a divine servant will bring justice. Amy Oden writes:

Isaiah shifts Israel’s gaze here from themselves back to the wide casting of God’s promise and plan. The horizon of possibility is no longer the hand in front of my face but the very edge of the earth’s curvature. [ii]

It’s important to note, the servant will not act alone, four times the prophecy quotes God I the Lord and then names a specific action.

Six centuries and a decade later, Israel, Judah, is once again conquered. I’m not sure they are ever not conquered. They are used to foreign Kings and Emperors but this one also claims to be god, well at least a demi god, or the/a son of god. Even though the Temple is magnificently restored, and all the proper sacrifices are being made it’s all a bit edgy, it’s not quite right. A sign of trouble are communities of folks, who live in isolated communities, like the Essenes who live in Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, who preach a different relationship with God. Many of them practice a baptism that washes away sins. Perhaps the most dramatic of them is John the Baptist. Not only is John baptizing folks, he is declaring the kingdom of heaven has come near. [iii] He is proclaiming

the [presence] of one who baptizes with water and the Holy Spirit, … [whose] winnowing fork is at hand. [iv]

One day, as John is baptizing people in the Jordan, this promised savior shows up and asks John to baptize him. John doesn’t want to, he isn’t worthy, he believes he should be baptized by Jesus. Jesus replies:

Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.

And John, humbly, obediently baptizes Jesus. Immediately the Holy Spirit appears, and God pronounces Jesus to be his son, with whom he is well pleased. Unlike Mark, who presents this as a private conversation, Matthew presents it as at least partially public. God’s voice parallels Isaiah’s prophecy:

Here is my servant                        This is my Son,

my chosen                                         the Beloved

in whom my soul delights           with whom I am well pleased. [v] [vi]

It is clear that Matthew is presenting Jesus to be the servant of Isaiah’s prophecy. Here is the one who will bring justice to all people.

The idea of Jesus as the servant presented by Isaiah several times, is common. It’s in the text of Handle’s Messiah. But, there is a wrinkle with the servant passage in Isaiah 42. Though there are problems with her ability to act, Isaiah’s prophecy reminds Israel that she is God’s servant. Verses 5-9 build on God’s previously calling Israel to be a covenant to the people, to be a light to the nations. [vii] It’s also clear in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus is inseparable from the body of Christ, inseparable from the church. And I’ll admit, if it were left up to the Church, to us  there would be reason for despair. [viii] But is isn’t; and we aren’t alone. Remember ~ four times in Isaiah’s prophecy God says  I the Lord …  and names supporting divine action. In submitting to baptism, Jesus is

Standing in solidarity with those who often feel unworthy of God’s love and grace [it] is a powerful act that is vividly portrayed in this text and throughout the ministry of Jesus. [ix]

In short, the church, we, never have been, and are not now ~ alone.

A final little interpretive bit: Jesus says it is right for him to be baptized, to fulfill all righteousness. In English, ‘righteousness’ infers following established norms and obeying the law. In scripture, ‘righteousness’  infers fulfilling the covenant relationship  with God and with each other. In short ‘righteousness’ is fully living in relationship with God, everything starts from and moves towards God. Remember Joseph, who is righteous because he seeks to follow established custom and law, and is going to quietly put pregnant Mary away, and who is so righteous, is in such strong relationship with God he violates all that and humbly obeys God, marries Mary, etc …. [x] Jesus is fulfilling righteousness in humble obedience to God, in bringing the Kingdom of heaven to earth. John is righteous, in humble obedience to Jesus and baptizes him.

And so what. Well here is where the water story comes in. It’s a story of crisis. What was carefully planned, has failed. But the leaders have not simply thrown up their hands in despair declaring Woe is us! They have set about making dramatic changes.

The church is in a crisis moment. What was envisioned has not come about. There has been too much Woe is us! too much holding on to what no longer is, nor can be. It’s almost as if the water of baptism, is of less consequence, [xi] of less value than drinking water. It’s almost as if we Do the baby as a hedge just in case all this God stuff is real, or to placate Grand Mother. It is our calling by our baptism to continue Jesus’ ministry proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven is here! And yes, it is a frightening task, it is an overwhelming task, but we are not alone. And yes, we will have to make dramatic changes, which we will intentionally set about this year, with:

Welcome Home,
Friday Families,
Brewing Faith, and
Stephen’s House,

and more; and we will not be alone.

Those planning how to respond to growing water shortage in the Colorado River basin cannot see the future; but they are not deterred from doing their best, and they are acting. I/we cannot see the specific details of the future of the Church, save faith that it will be,  and I believe that a cloudy vision shouldn’t deter us from acting. And we will begin acting by:

renewing our baptismal vows,
reminding ourselves of our relationship to God,
reminding ourselves that we are God’s people, God’s beloved
with whom God is well pleased,
reminding our selves we are called to bring justice to the world,
reminding our selves that we are not alone
that:
The LORD shall give strength to his people; *
the LORD shall give his people the blessing of peace.
reminding ourselves the horizon of our possibility reaches the very ends of the earth.


[i] MICHAEL WINES, Colorado River Drought Forces a Painful Reckoning for States,  nytimes.com,  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/06/us/colorado -river-drought-forces-a-painful-reckoning-for-states.html

[ii] Amy Oden |WorkingPreacher.org, 1/12/2014, Commentary on Isaiah 42:1-9

[iii] Matthew 3:1

[iv] Matthew 3:11b,12

[v] Ben Helmer, episcopaldigitalnetwork.com http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2013/12/31/1-epiphany-a-2014/, 1 Epiphany (A) – 2014, January 12, 2014

[vi] New Interpreter’s Bible, Matthew 3:13ff

[vii] New Interpreters’ Bible One Volume Commentary

[viii] Center for Excellence in Preaching ****

[ix] Karyn Wiseman, WorkingPreacher.org, 1/12/2014, Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17

[x] New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Holman Bible Dictionary, righteousness

[xi] David Lose, Baptismal Problems and Promises, Jan 5, 2014, WorkingPreacher.org