Grace Presbyterian Church
January 13, 2019, Baptism of the Lord C
Baptized Among Us
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.
Those words from the prophet Isaiah were probably familiar, at least a little bit, to many (not all, necessarily, but many) of those who had made their way out to John in the wilderness to be baptized. All of the prophets and their words mattered, of course, but sometimes it seems as if Isaiah’s words mattered a little bit more. And this is a passage of comfort and protection, unlike many of the oracles recorded in the books of the Hebrew prophets, with words of judgment and promises of doom. So it’s not at all unlikely that someone among those being baptized, in being called into the water by John, might have had those very words on their lips:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you
It’s doubtful, however, that anyone in that crowd that day expected that old prophetic oracle to take quite such a … literal turn.
After all of the people had been baptized, some were probably trying to dry off, others might have been making small conversation, or possibly watching to see what John would do next, or praying. That’s where it happened, to one man, about thirtyish, who was praying. See how carefully Luke has to say it: “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” You can imagine somebody getting all flustered trying to describe what happened later.
But there was more:
“And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
There he was – there he had been along – the only Son of God, being baptized, just like the rest of us. Even waiting in line to be baptized, just like us.
Every year in the lectionary cycle this Sunday, marking the baptism of the Lord, follows after the cycle that begins with Advent, runs through all of Christmas, and concludes with Epiphany, which we observed last Sunday. One of the results of this placement is that it becomes clearer just how much this event, Jesus’s baptism, resounds and echoes with themes we hear in those seasons and observances.
Clearly we can say that as Luke tells the story, Jesus’s baptism is itself a kind of epiphany. Out of nowhere, one person out of many, praying, probably still dripping, is descended upon by the Holy Spirit and called the only Son – the Beloved – of God. If that’s not a revelation of Christ, I don’t know what is.
But also, remember words like “Emmanuel” and “incarnation,” words from Advent and Christmas. “Emmanuel” – God with us; incarnation – God as one of us, remember? And indeed this is revealed to the surprise of those still drying off from the waters of the river. God – right here with us! Waiting in line to be baptized with us! Not far off in heaven somewhere, but right here with us!
It is Advent and Christmas and Epiphany all in one. God among us, one of us, baptized among us as one of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #485, We Know That Christ Is Raised; #480, Take Me to the Water; #482, Baptized in Water; #741, Guide My Feet
Grace Presbyterian Church
January 6, 2019, Epiphany C
The Star-Struck Part
Having passed through all of Advent, from its unsettling look at the end times through all of its anticipation of the birth of a Redeemer, the call of John in the wilderness and the prophecy of the unwed mother Mary, and finally through the manger at Bethlehem and the song of the angels to the shepherds, and through all twelve days of Christmas, there is one more part of the story to tell.
Our story so far has come from the gospel of Luke. The details found here in the gospel of Matthew are quite different. All of the business about John’s unlikely birth and angels visiting Mary and the journey to Bethlehem are absent; instead, late in Chapter 1, it is Joseph to whom an angel speaks, warning him off of divorcing Mary over her pregnancy and confirming just who this child Jesus would be. Joseph follows the instructions of the angel and marries Mary, and then Jesus is born.
As Chapter 2 opens, the story shifts to Jerusalem, where an unstable king is visited by foreign dignitaries asking about the birth of his successor – to Herod, what else would the “king of the Jews” be? He consults his advisors in a panic, gets an answer from them about where this was happening, and then tries to con the visitors into betraying this new child’s location to him so he could eliminate the threat to his throne. These visitors, most likely astrologer/astronomers from Persia, make their way to Bethlehem following this strange star, and there they find the child, probably about two years old by this time (and in a house, not a stable). They pay their homage, leave their strange gifts, and then…head home, “warned in a dream” to go a different way and avoid spilling the beans to Herod.
If Luke’s Nativity story is all sweet and romantic, Matthew’s narrative has more elements of conspiracy thriller, with intrigue and double-dealing aplenty. One can understand why Luke’s account is so much more popular. Nonetheless, the account of these magi and their visit is compelling, and presumably we do need to be able to take some sort of instruction from it. But what?
In tandem with the psalm we read earlier, we could speak of how Jesus fulfills the prayer of the psalmist for a good king and what that should be (especially when contrasted with the double-dealing Herod). Or we could talk about the meaning of those odd gifts, or how these magi were the first non-Jewish persons to behold the Christ child as far as we know – they are us, so to speak. But maybe there is something else. Maybe, in the case of this story, we need to look up.
These wise men (and there’s nothing that says there were three of them in this scripture) were prompted to take this journey by the appearance of that star. As noted above, these men were most likely a cross between astronomers and astrologers, and watching stars was certainly part of their business. But to be provoked into such a journey certainly suggests something powerful and compelling in what they saw, and how it matched up with their studies and learning. They were prepared for its appearance, and were ready to act accordingly when it appeared.
What this star did just isn’t normal. To speak of a star, or frankly any kind of heavenly body, that not only rises, but then moves ahead of the travelers and finally stops over this particular house in Bethlehem…that’s not how heavenly bodies work. Something different was happening here.
And it’s not as if these particular sky-watchers should have been the only ones who could see it, right? Any number of observers probably saw this thing going on if they watched with any sort of attention. But no one else was moved to make such a journey.
Only these particular magi, we might say, were star-struck.
Only they were prepared to see the sign, and ready to act upon what they saw.
Might we learn from these people?
We Christians (which these magi were not, we should remember) will sometimes use the term “followers of Christ” or “followers of God” or some variant thereof to describe who we are or what we are to be about. That implies that we are watching, observing, looking and listening to see where Christ leads us, one assumes.
Are we, though?
Are we truly alert and ready to act when we see, for lack of a better word, a sign from God? Are we truly motivated, charged, energized to get up and follow, to act, to move should we see and hear such a call? What would it take for us to be so prepared and so ready to act?
The trip on foot and by camel from Persia (what we now call Iran) to Palestine is neither short nor easy, and yet these astrologers took it, seemingly without flinching or hesitation, all to pay homage to a child-to-be-king of a foreign nation. What does it take to get us inspired to act? What does it take to get us to do the work of the church, to carry out Christ’s work in God’s world?
Are we truly watching and listening for the Spirit to do something in our lives, to lead us into something that might even be challenging and difficult?
Maybe what we need to learn from this final part of the story is that, after all, we could stand to be a little more star-struck.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #147, The First Nowell (verses 3-6 only); #149, All Hail to God’s Anointed; #151, We Three Kings of Orient Are; #145, What Child Is This
Grace Presbyterian Church
December 30, 2018, Christmas 1C
The Practical Part (or, Now What?)
Well, we made it. We have survived what the world defines as the “Christmas season.”
Note that distinction. The church, or some of it anyway, remembers that the season of Christmas is something else altogether, that the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” actually corresponds with the season of the church year that begins on Christmas Day and concludes with the day before Epiphany. Today is the sixth day of Christmas, by that reckoning, and in fact the season of Christmas lasts the rest of this week.
But it’s pointless to deny that the world’s definition of “Christmas season” has its hooks in us pretty securely, so that I’m guessing this past Wednesday was more or less a day of collapse, if that sense of physical and emotional crash didn’t in fact kick in sometime late on Tuesday, depending on how your day went. In many families presents get exchanged, a big meal gets consumed, and then…it’s over, to some degree.
In truth, though, many families are still in a sort of holiday limbo, since children have not yet returned to school. There may be extra daycare involved, or perhaps extended vacation time to deal with this particular situation, but even though everything isn’t quite back to normal, it’s discernibly “not Christmas” anymore.
Even the church will come to the end of the twelve days of Christmas. The days can be marked through this week and next Sunday will bring the observance of Epiphany, the occasion on which the so-called wise men or Magi arrived to see and honor the child Jesus. (Even though they’re always in those manger scenes, they arrived much later.)
So let’s jump ahead to next week, a week from tomorrow, let’s say. Epiphany is past, all this stuff in the sanctuary is ready to be put away, and…then what? What do we do when Christmas is over?
In thinking about this question, it might help if we can shake away some of the tinsel and greenery and remember the substance behind what we celebrate.
For one thing, we celebrate Emmanuel – that word from Isaiah, the one that translates as “God with us.” Not “God off in the heavens somewhere,” “God with us.” God among us. This isn’t about just a cute baby set in an animal feed trough (a baby that looked nothing like this one here in this manger scene) through seeming circumstances of divine intervention. This is God down to earth.
Furthermore, along with Emmanuel, we also should remember the word Incarnation. You might say it takes the whole idea of Emmanuel – “God with us,” remember – and extends it even further, more shockingly, more unthinkably. God isn’t just with us, or among us; God is one of us.
Remember the Nicene Creed: “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven and became truly human.” (emphasis mine) This just a few lines after Jesus is described as “true God from true God,” every bit God all the way through. The Scots Confession we use for our Affirmation of Faith today also speaks to this theological truth:
When the fullness of time came God sent his Son, his eternal wisdom, the substance of his own glory, into this world, who took the nature of humanity from the substance of a woman by means of the Holy Ghost. And so was born the very Messiah promised, whom we confess and acknowledge to be Emmanuel, true God and true man, two perfect natures united and joined in one person.(emphasis mine)
God among us as one of us: this is your miracle of Christmas.
Now, with these two things in mind, let’s go back to our dilemma. What is our life to be in the wake of Christmas? Do we resort to cheesy song lyrics about “keeping the Christmas spirit all year long”? Or is there something more?
Now, in my experience there are some preacher types out there who will tell you (if they even know big words like “Incarnation”) that these are things you don’t really need to worry your precious little head about. You see, they’d say, those things are about the one thing that matters: making sure you get yourself “saved” and get that all-important Get Out of Hell Free Card. It doesn’t mean anything about how you live your life, just keep the Ten Commandments and do what we tell you (they’d say) and you’ll be fine.
Let’s be clear about this. I’m pretty sure (and I’m hoping my professional theologian friends will check me on this) that the precise theological description for such an idea is, and again I’m pretty sure about this, “loony.”
Of course God-with-us makes a difference in how we live.
Of course Incarnation makes a difference in how we live.
Of course these two truths are absolutely vital for the way we conduct ourselves to one another and to the world.
Our epistle reading takes a stab at describing this Emmanuel- and Incarnation-infused life with an interesting metaphor. Having spoken earlier in the book of “putting off” the things of the flesh – those sins that mire us and hold us down – the author now describes the new, Incarnation-led life as something like putting on a new set of clothes.
Clothe yourselves with compassion. The novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner describes compassion as “the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside someone else’s skin.”
He goes on: “It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” This is not merely personal change; it matters because it changes how we live with others.
In a similar vein the epistler exhorts his readers to clothe themselves in kindness, humility, meekness, and patience – all things that come from within us to govern how we relate to others – and finally to “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Again, like so much we ignore, our living out Incarnation doesn’t happen individually – it is about living with one another, in community, and how that community reflects the incarnate, with-us God we claim.
Finally, these instructions add a few more practices to help us along: the Word of Christ within us; teaching one another and checking one another; and oh, goodness, singing! “Sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” out of a heart filled with gratitude. (If you wonder why we sing four hymns in a typical service instead of three, blame this verse.) These practices aren’t merely about having fun at church any more than Christmas is merely about pretty decorations and pretty manger scenes. These practices form us. They shape us and mold us and keep us fast to that Word and that incarnate God and that God-with-us. (This is where I put in this plug: sing the hymns. If you can’t sing, sing them anyway. If you don’t know them, sing anyway. This is how we show (and learn) who we are, or one of the ways at minimum.)
Want to “keep Christmas” all year long, as Ebenezer Scrooge might say? Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, love; let Christ’s Word live in you; teach one another; and sing with grace and with gratitude in your heart. It’s hard to do better.
For the new clothes of the God-with-us life, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #143, Angels, from the Realms of Glory; #127, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing; #137, He Came Down; #136, Go, Tell It on the Mountain
Grace Presbyterian Church
December 23, 2018, Advent 4C
Luke 1:39-55 (note: since much of the rest of the chapter is referenced in the sermon, the whole chapter is linked)
The Disruptive Part (Or, What Mary Did In Fact Know)
Have you ever heard of the Bechdel test?
The Bechdel test is an informal one, typically applied to movies or works of fiction, that asks of that work two (or sometimes three) questions, to determine if the work has any sort of substantial female characters at all or is simply overrun with dominating males and subservient females. It’s amazing, to be honest, how many movies don’t manage to get an affirmative answer to the two or three questions that follow:
- are there two women in the film (or story) who actually talk to each other without a man around?
- do they talk about something other than a man?
- (sometimes added) do we actually know the women’s names?
It’s a fairly minimal test, to be sure. One conversation between two women doesn’t necessarily change the balance of power in a movie or novel by any means, but that half of the films that get released, on average, don’t even manage to have one such scene in them is pretty amazing.
While the Bible is by no means a work of fiction, it’s pretty heavily male-dominated, if we’re honest about it. For much of the scripture that’s kind of inevitable – Jesus, after all, is pretty much the whole point of the gospels. But today’s reading is pretty remarkable for being exactly that kind of scene described above – two women, Elizabeth and her young relative Mary, in a conversation with each other, no men around (Zechariah doesn’t seem to be present, and even if he were he couldn’t interrupt), and not merely talking about those men. It’s a remarkable enough scene that perhaps we ought to pay attention to it and what is said.
Both of these women have had an adventurous first chapter of Luke already. Elizabeth, a woman well advanced in years, has now been pregnant for six months after the angel Gabriel announced to her priest husband, Zechariah, that the two of them would bear a most important young boy, specifically to be named John. This son would be “great in the sight of the Lord” (1:15) and who would “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (1:17). Zechariah didn’t respond well to the angelic announcement, and as a result was struck mute; he would only get his voice back after the child’s birth, when he managed to confirm the angel’s command in writing and got his voice back.
Perhaps deciding after that incident it would be better to go directly to the woman involved, Gabriel next appeared to Mary, announcing to her (1:26-38, immediately preceding this passage) that she would bear an even more important son. This son is to be named Jesus. Gabriel rattles off a rather substantial list of characteristics that will be attributed to him: he will be great, called Son of the Most High, receive the throne of David, reign over the house of Jacob (i.e. Israel) forever, have an unending kingdom, will be holy, and will be called the Son of God. She also learns of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. While Mary is seriously perplexed by all this, and does have to wonder how this will all work since she and Joseph aren’t even living together much less married, she avoids Zechariah’s mistake and actively gives her consent to what the angel has announced (in a modern movie, her reply would probably be something like “all right, let’s do this”).
So, by the time Mary makes her way to Elizabeth’s house, she’s already been pretty well informed about what’s going on. She will learn more about all this in her encounter with Elizabeth, some of it in a most unexpected and unusual way. Elizabeth literally gets a kick out of Mary’s presence, thanks to that infant in her heretofore-barren womb.
I obviously cannot pretend to know what that sensation would be like, but I’m guessing that those of you who have experienced such gymnastics from a child in the womb probably didn’t have an experience of the Holy Spirit and prophetic utterance immediately afterwards. That’s what happens to Elizabeth, though – she (not the child in the womb) was “filled with the Holy Spirit” and let out an exultation of praise to God and celebration of this young woman before her. In Elizabeth’s words, Mary was to be “blessed among women” and the “mother of my Lord” and in particular blessed because she “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” through Gabriel.
As if all that wasn’t enough to overwhelm Mary, there was more to come from the Holy Spirit. It was Mary’s turn to speak, and she clearly shows that she’s been paying attention not only to the messages she has received from Gabriel and Elizabeth, but to the history of her people.
Her song (Luke likes to make such utterances into songs) begins with praise to God, appropriately enough. She acknowledges that she’s not exactly a person of great status, and yet God has chosen to bless her with this extraordinary event.
Then things get interesting.
Here Mary becomes, at least for these few moments, a prophet. What she sings here is rich with echoes of those prophets of old in Israel and Judah, declarations of the Lord’s favor for the unfavored. God’s mercy is for those who fear God (and by implication not for those who don’t). God has “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” (but not the humble). God has brought down the mighty, and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry, and “sent the rich away empty.”
This really is the language of prophecy, from Isaiah to Jeremiah to Ezekiel and Amos and Micah and on through Malachi. God overturns our world, upsetting what we tend to think of as “the natural order of things,” or even more resignedly “the way things are.” A world in which the powerful and rich trample over the poor and powerless is not God’s world – not in the prophets, and not in Mary’s song. Our way of living gets disrupted and turned upside down – or perhaps, in God’s view, turned rightside up.
Mary knew plenty. And if we truly listen to it, it might make us uncomfortable, with the vast majority of us here being much more “the rich” in Mary’s world than “the hungry.”
Maybe that’s why it has become so popular to sing this song that keeps asking “Mary, did you know?” It keeps asking her about all sorts of cool stuff that does happen in the life of Jesus – walking on water, healing a blind man, calming a storm. It goes on to all these grand attributes that are going to be – Lord of all creation, one day rule the nations. Somehow, though, that song manages to avoid this uncomfortable stuff that Mary very clearly knows and has very plainly told us right here in Luke’s gospel. It doesn’t somehow get around to the stuff that, in Mary’s song, isthe gospel – the “good news.”
Maybe what we most need, as Advent rapidly segues into Christmas, is to listen more diligently and more honestly to Mary’s song. Maybe we should even sing Mary’s song, and not just in the form of the next hymn. Maybe it should be something we make a part of our song, this celebration and exultation of the overturning and disrupting God.
In the end, maybe we should listen more to what these women, Elizabeth and Mary, have to say to us, through the Holy Spirit, in this most unusual text of scripture.
For Mary’s very real song, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #—, When Isaiah Spoke a Word; #88, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (v. 1-4); #100, My Soul Cries Out With a Joyful Shout; #88, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (v. 5-7)
Grace Presbyterian Church
December 9, 2018, SHW
When Epaphroditus Got Well
We don’t know much else about this Epaphroditus character, aside from his being mentioned among Paul’s co-workers as in passages like this. This is in fact his one big scene, so to speak. Apparently he had been part of the community at Philippi, which had sent him to help Paul in some way – possibly during one of his many imprisonments. At some point he had become ill, very severely ill to hear Paul describe it, but had recovered, and Paul had decided to send him back to Philippi so that his fellow members of that community might be reassured of his health and able to celebrate his healing.
Simple as it is, that’s a pretty good picture of the body of Christ in action. We are grieved and sorrowful and concerned when one of our body falls ill or is seriously injured or suffers some manner of other setback, be it personal or professional or anything else, and we rejoice when that member is restored to health or recovers from any injury or is somehow restored from that setback.
Or, if those things don’t happen, we grieve more.
These things happen in the community. That’s not always easy. It’s not always easy to talk about these things – sometimes because it’s just painful or embarrassing or other things, sometimes because it’s still not always clear exactly what is going on (the uncertainty is the worst, isn’t it?), and sometimes we’re just too tired and frustrated to talk about it.
And sometimes because everybody around us is being joyful and festive, celebrating a time of year like this one. Finding a space for grief, or for remembering and acknowledging grief lest it overwhelm us and drag us down, is never all that easy, but at this time of year – “the most wonderful time of year” as the late Andy Williams somehow manages to sing over and over again – it can seem darn near impossible.
Since I’m the one bringing this up, I should be transparent here: I can name two such griefs that haunt my season every year whether I want them two or not. It was twenty-nine years ago that my mother, the single parent who raised me, died a week to the day before Christmas. Six years ago this coming Friday (and it was a Friday six years ago too) I underwent surgery for cancer. It was a success – I’ve been cancer-free since that surgery and the chemotherapy that followed – but complications from the surgery itself began to appear a little more than a year ago and have become, well, more complicated of late. That particular grief has been haunting me a little more concretely this year than usual, you might say.
Still, whatever that grief, we know that Advent still calls us to watch and wait. We still prepare for the coming of the Christ child on Christmas Day, and we still watch for the coming of Christ the King in the fulness of time. These things do not change.
And these things are not diminished by the fact that we bear sorrow as we wait. The child will still be born no matter the tears we shed. Christ will still return and call us to be reunited with him in eternity no matter our infirmities or physical setbacks. We are still Christ’s people. We are not abandoned in our grief. Christ does not abandon us, and we don’t abandon each other.
Epaphroditus got well, and his people rejoiced with him. Still, one day we know not, he did die. His friends grieved and lamented his loss. And yet all of that company will know that great resurrection and reunion with our Lord, as will we.
In the end there’s no good reason not to grieve. Frankly, we’d be less human if we didn’t. We’d be less Christ-like, even – remember how Jesus wept at Lazarus’s tomb. Our sorrows do not disqualify us from celebrating the coming Christ.
I know all those old gospel songs talk about how Jesus will wipe away every tear. I’m not sure about that; I wonder if Jesus will in fact sit down and weep with us. Either way, we will be – we are – loved and welcomed and rejoiced over every day of our walk in the Spirit, weeping or laughing.
For the welcome of the sorrowful, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Grace Presbyterian Church
December 9, 2018, Advent 2C
The Loud Part
One thing you learn pretty quickly about John, the one sometimes called “the Baptist,” is that he was no disciple of Dale Carnegie. When you’re drawing these crowds out into the desert to come see and hear you, and the first words out of your mouth to them are “You brood of vipers!”, you’re pretty clearly not all that concerned about winning friends and influencing people, am I right?
No, John isn’t in this for the popularity. That will be made clear at the end of his career, as recorded variously in the gospels. Luke will later record that John sends messengers to Jesus from prison (ch. 7; also Matthew 11:2-6), and that he was executed by Herod (ch. 9); it’s the gospel of Mark that records the whole sordid story about Herod marrying his brother’s wife (which John would not stop condemning), and Salome’s dance that ends up in John’s beheading (Mark 6:14-29; also Matthew 14:1-12). No, John wouldn’t let up once he got hold of a particular message.
This is a long way, it seems, from the child whose birth prompted the song of Zechariah, his father, that was our responsive reading today. Zechariah names John’s call pretty effectively when he says the infant shall be “the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins” (1:76-77). That’s what John is doing out in the wilderness, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3), whereupon Luke cites Isaiah as the prophetic forth-teller of this call, in one of those passages famous partly for being included in George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Messiah.
Despite his penchant for direct language, John doesn’t get quite the weirdo treatment from Luke that he does in other gospels, which make much of his clothing made of camel hair and that diet of locusts and honey. Still, he’s been living out in the desert for ages now (according to 1:80), and you have to figure that his eccentric qualities were at least as much as a draw to those crowds coming out from Jerusalem and Judea as any expectation of what he had to say.
So, one would think, being greeted with that “brood of vipers!” talk might seem to be off-putting at minimum, and of course John doesn’t stop there. First of all is the demand that repentance not only has to happen, but it has to be visible – “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Then, just as some of the crowd was probably starting to mutter, “how dare he talk to us like that? We’re children of Abra—“ John jumps in with the flat declaration that being descendants of Abraham doesn’t get you off the hook, and that God could perfectly well raise up descendants of Abraham from the stones scattered about them. Capping off the message with talk about axes at the root of trees, and fruitless trees being thrown into the fire, had to be pretty disconcerting to the first-century equivalent of “good church folk” who had made the day trip to hear this quaint old-fashioned prophet-type guy.
Here’s the thing, though; for all of John’s bluntness of language and demeanor, something about his message seems to have hit home with the crowds. Rather than seeing these crowds scoffing and walking away or (worse) seeking to cause John harm for his harshness, we see a succession of people asking some variant of “what should we do?” And perhaps even more surprisingly, instead of setting the bar for repentance impossibly high, John gives answers that are … well, pretty practical. You have a coat and your neighbor doesn’t? Share. Same with food; you have it and your neighbor doesn’t? Share.
When tax collectors (the über-sinners of first-century Palestine) stepped up to ask what to do, John’s answer is pretty simple: “collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Don’t cheat. Soldiers? “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”Don’t cheat. Don’t bully. It seems that as John is teaching repentance, the first thing to do is to do the right thing. It sounds so simple.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that people started to ask questions about just who this John guy was. After all, it’s not likely that any of them were around for the whole story of the old couple who had never been able to have a child suddenly told they were going to have a child (and not just any child), or of how Zechariah had been struck mute for months for scoffing at the prediction. All they see is this guy from nowhere calling people vipers and yet somehow getting through anyway. What kind of guy is this? He’s gotta be some kind of prophet, right? Or maybe something more…
John is nice and quick to quash those thoughts. His only interest is, to borrow those words from Isaiah, to “prepare the way of the Lord.” John baptizes with water; the One to come, the one whose sandals John is not worthy to untie, will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (John does seem to have a thing about fire in Luke’s gospel). Even here John can’t quite contain his bluntness, what with the chaff being winnowed out of the wheat and burned “with unquenchable fire” – there’s that thing again!
And on top of all that, Luke has the nerve to conclude this little account with verse 18: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”Yeah, all that “brood of vipers!” and ax at the root of the tree and winnowing fork and fire and fire and fire…that’s the stuff of good news. In fact, I clearly need to change the way I preach. More fire. More insults. Right?
Except, somehow, it does turn out to be good news.
Somehow, it does turn out to be liberating, to be set free from all of that sinfulness, to be liberated by the act of repentance and set free to do what’s right instead of constantly grabbing and grasping and seeking to “win” over everybody else. There is freedom in that, and that freedom is good news indeed.
And in that freedom, in that liberation from the need to strive and grasp and grab and get get get get GET, something else happens. Peace happens. Deep, abiding, life-redefining peace starts in the being set free from the mania of more more more.
Somehow, even with all the brusqueness and “brood of vipers!” talk and such, John’s call and message does turn out to be the way of peace. Even for a “brood of vipers!”
For the one who prepared the way of the Lord, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #—, “A voice cries out in the wilderness”; #106, “Prepare the Way, O Zion”; #96, “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry”; #102, “Savior of the Nations, Come”
Grace Presbyterian Church
December 2, 2018, Advent 1C
The Awkward Part
I know what you’re thinking.
You’re thinking: really? This is how Advent starts? This is “hope”?
Well, I’ve got news for you: you are not alone. In fact, I can promise you that a whole lot of preachers had the same reaction when they sat down to start sermon prep in earnest for this week. And I can promise you that a whole lot of those preachers ran right to the reading from Jeremiah that the lectionary offers for today – a lovely little passage about God’s promises to Israel and Judah, and how “the Lord is our righteousness” – rather than hang around for the Apocalypse in Luke.
But at some point we need to deal with these apocalyptic readings; it doesn’t work to put them off forever and wish that they didn’t exist. For one thing; all three of the synoptic gospels – Matthew and Mark as well as Luke – have such an apocalyptic text at about this point in the story. Here in Luke this bit of teaching actually represents the end of Jesus’s public teaching ministry; the final three chapters of the gospel are given to the Last Supper and the betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus, and of course the resurrection as well. If this is important enough for all three of these gospels to make a point of including, we need to deal with it.
We also need to deal with it in this case because this particular bit of teaching in fact does have something to say about Advent, and it does have something to say about hope.
First of all, we should deal with it because the church, for good or ill, has long had a fascination (to put it kindly) with this apocalyptic business. The church in this country in particular has been particularly fascinated with it, and has read this obsession with the apocalyptic into much of its own history. Take that hymn we’re singing right after this sermon. I’m guessing you never expected to find this in a service order from me, much less during Advent. But look at this hymn, look at all the apocalyptic imagery in it (especially the first stanza), and look (down at the bottom of the page) at when it was written; just as this country was plunging into the Civil War. Again, for good or ill, we’ve taken the apocalyptic to heart, and it has permeated much of our theology, both religious and civic.
But in our context today, this particular bit of apocalyptic literature operates differently, or should. For one, placed as it is on this day, it does remind us that the waiting we do in the season of Advent is not all “past waiting,” so to speak; even as we mark the first coming of the Christ child, we are reminded that we also await the coming of the Christ again, in a very different appearance than that of a child in a manger. And if we’re not actually waiting that return of Christ, that ultimate reunion with our Lord, then frankly, why are we here? Seriously, if we do not live in expectation of being united with Christ, why are we bothering with all this? I don’t know about you, but I could use the sleep on Sunday mornings. But no, that expectation is part of our faith, even if we have to be reminded of it sometimes.
But also, and ultimately, today’s reading really does remind us to hope.
Many times, when one reads such apocalyptic texts, one gets the warning to hunker down into a defensive position, or even to go into hiding – “flee! fly! run to the hills!” or such warnings. But that’s not how Jesus finishes his teaching here, is it?
We get the warning that “there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars” – I suspect the folks out in California who had to run for their lives from those wildfires have seen quite enough of those; “distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” – well, a tsunami in Indonesia, a monster typhoon in Saipan, Hurricanes Florence and Michael in the US…we’ve seen plenty of that too. “Fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world”? Yep, got that too.
But look what’s next.
Then they will see ‘the son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. (emphasis mine)
No fleeing to the hills, no hunkering down, no hoarding in a ultra-fortified bunker – just “stand up and raise your heads.” It’s like knowing summer is near when you see the fig tree sprouting leaves, is how Jesus describes it. You know what these signs mean. It’s not about fear and uncertainty for us, not if we’re really following Christ in faith and being led by the Spirit. We stand; we watch; we wait – not in fear, but in hope.
Finally, we are instructed not to get distracted or weighed down with the things of the world – keep living as Christ has taught us, and keep watch. That’s how to live in end times.
Of necessity, this sermon ends with a hymn. Between today’s scripture and the liturgy of the service, the ending of the sermon came out as a hymn, and it’s one we can sing, I promise.
[Congregation sings “When the world tells us“]
For hope in the darkness, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #83, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus; #352, My Lord! What A Morning; #354, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory; #348, Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending