Monthly Archives: December 2013

No Consolation – Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23

Have you already taken down your Christmas decorations at home?  We haven’t.  We leave them up as long as possible.  In fact, one year, we barely got Christmas put away in time for Ash Wednesday!  I grew up in a church that did not really observe the liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.  For us, Christmas was a day, or two at most, if you counted Christmas Eve.  The twelve days between Christmas Day and Epiphany were nothing more than a vacation from school.

As an adult, however, I began to appreciate this span of time that forms a bridge between the birth of Jesus and his presentation to the world as its Savior.  We know so little about the years between Bethlehem and Jesus’ appearance at the Jordan River, asking to be baptized by John.  It seems appropriate that we should pause here, on the first Sunday of the season of Christmas, to consider how Jesus got from the manger to Nazareth, the village where he would grow to adulthood.

Matthew follows a clear pattern to tell us this story.  He uses three dreams, three “obediences,” and three geographic locations to describe how prophecies about the Messiah are fulfilled in the birth of Jesus.  Today’s reading picks up the tale where we left off on Christmas Eve.  The magi have come to pay homage to a king.  On their way, they have stopped to ask Herod where to find him.  Herod tries to smooth-talk the magi into letting him know how their quest turns out, but an angel of the Lord warns them to go home by a different way than they came, and they follow this advice.  The main character in this story is not the magi who have just left, and it is not Mary who gave birth to Jesus. It is not Herod, the evil and paranoid king.  This is Joseph’s story.  Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel of Matthew, the second chapter, beginning at verse 13:

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

This passage falls neatly into three sections: God’s call into Egypt, what happens “meanwhile, back at the ranch,” and God’s call back from Egypt, to a final destination in Galilee.  While the writing may be tidy and well-organized, the story Matthew tells is certainly not.  This young family did a lot of traveling, and many preachers choose to focus on Jesus the Refugee as the main point of the story. 

Such a focus offers plenty of preaching material. We could talk about the obvious parallels in Matthew’s Gospel with Old Testament writings.  We could consider how Joseph’s flight into Egypt recalls another Joseph, back in Genesis, who went to Egypt against his will, but who became Pharaoh’s right-hand man and made it possible for the nation of Israel to survive, grow, and thrive, even under the hardship of slavery[1].  Matthew reminds us of the story of the baby Moses, hidden in the bulrushes to protect him from Pharaoh’s slaughter of newborn Hebrew boys in Egypt[2].  It is clear that Matthew draws a connection between the return of Moses to Egypt after Pharaoh’s death, and Joseph’s sudden return when he learns through a dream that Herod is dead.  The young family’s trip back home to Israel reminds us of the journey Moses led through the wilderness, as the Israelites escaped their captivity in Egypt and headed toward the Promised Land.  Matthew connects the story of Jesus’ early travels to God’s call, protection, and provision for his people throughout history.  It’s a powerful connection.  And there are certainly strong connections between Jesus the Refugee and the plight of refugees throughout the world right now.  Refugees who have been displaced by politics, war, and poverty struggle with the same fears and anxiety that Joseph and Mary must have experienced, as they did whatever they could to protect the young child, Jesus.

But nagging in the back of my mind, and perhaps in the back of yours, is the horror of what happens “meanwhile, back at the ranch.”  While it’s important to see how the greater story of God’s activity among his people is connected to, and completed in, the story of Jesus, we cannot ignore those middle verses, the ones that speak of an unspeakable tragedy.

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

The question has been bothering us since the beginning of human history:  How can a just and loving God allow evil to exist?  How can God let innocent people suffer, while evil people thrive and prosper?  The book of Job is filled with this question.  In seminary, they even give us a name for the problem: theodicy.  But giving it a name, and even knowing that brilliant theologians have been struggling to find an answer for as long as we can imagine, doesn’t help when it becomes personal.  When it’s your child being put to the sword, the question is no longer hypothetical.  The pain is real, and the only question we can raise is “Why, God?”

Make no mistake: the slaughter of those children in Bethlehem was not God’s idea.  It was Herod’s.  Herod the Great wasn’t even a Jew; he was an Idumean, or an Edomite – descended from Esau, not Jacob, whose sons would become heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.  Herod never felt his position was secure, and he was known for his paranoia and brutality.  He even had his favorite wife and some of his sons murdered when he suspected them of treachery.  He decreed that forty Jewish nobles should be brought to Jericho to be killed when he died, so that there would be abundant mourning throughout the land at his death.  Thankfully, the son who succeeded him decided not to carry out this final wish.

Matthew is the only source to describe Herod’s murder of the children in Bethlehem.  Some scholars think the event wasn’t noteworthy for first century historians to record, partly because it was only one of many atrocities committed by Herod, and partly because the number of children affected was probably no more than twenty, given that Bethlehem was such a small village.  Such violence against innocent children may have been unremarkable by first century standards, given that children were considered to be little more than property at that time.  They were expendable.  But Matthew names it as an atrocity.  United Methodist pastor Cherie Baker writes, “Matthew tells us that God cares that children are massacred.  Misuse and abuse of children was common then, and the Good News names that as wrong.  Misuse and abuse of children is far too common now, and the Good News names that as wrong”[3].

For example, fighting in South Sudan has taken countless lives and sent over a hundred thousand refugees to neighboring countries over the past two weeks.  Two of my former students are there, with their missionary father, attempting to help displaced children find their parents as they work to get food and supplies to overcrowded camps where children are only slightly safer than they were in South Sudan.  Please pray for my friend and his family, as they work to protect innocent children from becoming “collateral damage” of the growing conflict in South Sudan.

But that’s only one example.  Halee Gray Scott writes,
“The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that Christians suffer persecution, discrimination, and harassment in 133 countries—a full two-thirds of all countries worldwide.  In September, 85 congregants were killed in bombing of All Saints Church in Pakistan while a consecutive attack at Nairobi’s Westgate mall claimed the lives of 72 people. On October 21, … Islamic rebels invaded the Syrian town of Sadad and carried out one of the largest massacres in the country’s history. Forty-five Christians, including women and children, were tortured and murdered.  The Syrian rebels documented the massacre in YouTube videos.”

We hear of the children in our own country – in our own state – who are victims of human trafficking.  Child abuse continues to escalate throughout our country.  Atrocities against children are just as real now as they were in Bethlehem in 4 BC.

Meanwhile, many of you have suffered the terrible loss of your own children.  Maybe they did not die violent deaths, as those twenty children did last year at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but the loss is still real, and the pain is still acute.  You know, as others may not, what it means to weep with Rachel, who will not be consoled, because her children are no more.

So, when we ask, “Why, God?  How is this Good News?” it may not help to know that Matthew is painting a Bigger Picture of God’s providence and protection for his people.  Being reminded that God is not willing for any to perish, but wants to give each of us eternal life might seem like an empty promise.  Knowing that bad things happening to innocent people has more to do with our sinful condition than God’s will for us might be difficult to explain.  We can’t just shrug off the sorrow.  We can’t diminish the pain of the here and now.

It’s a dangerous thing to be human, to be vulnerable, to face the fact of our own mortality. The Good News is not always sweetness and light. That pretty baby in the manger grows up to die on a cross. God has to watch his own Son, his only Son, die a horrible death. And God grieves.

God grieves all the Herods and the Pharaohs and the murderers of innocent children. God grieves us when we turn away from him. God grieves as only a bereft parent can grieve.  Friends, that is exactly why this story is part of the Christmas story.  Christ came to be God With Us – Immanuel.  He came to be God with us in our sorrow, God with us in our fear, God with us in our wandering, God with us.  Always.

The world is filled with darkness, with evil evident in every corner.  But God is with us.  The violence that surrounded Christ’s birth was the same violence that would eventually lead to his crucifixion.  Christ went into every dark place we humans must go, even into the darkness of the grave.  But he rose again.  There is no darkness that can frighten God.  God is with us.

Christmas is a dangerous holiday.  It’s dangerous to be human, to admit our mortality, to hold in tension both this awareness of our vulnerability, and the awareness of God’s great gift to us in the person of Jesus Christ, who made himself vulnerable to the power of evil, and yet conquered it.  The joy of Christmas depends on the joy of Easter resurrection.

There’s a little detail in this story, Joseph’s story, which we need to notice. Every time an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, Joseph immediately did what he was told to do.  He did not ask, as the weeping mothers of Bethlehem must have asked, “Why, God?”  He got up in the night, packed his family’s belongings, and he went where he was told to go.  Even when he was afraid, he obeyed.

Only Joseph saw the angel.  Only Joseph had the dreams.  Only Joseph knew the magnitude of his task, to protect the Messiah from the danger of Herod’s henchmen.  Just as Mary did not argue with the angel who told her she would give birth to the Savior of the World, Joseph did not argue with the angel who said, “Go!”  He just went.  He answered God’s call with action.

God is calling us, today.  He is calling us to be a voice for peace, justice, and grace.  He is calling us to challenge the way things are in the world, to stand against evil when we see it, to be the presence of God for those who suffer violence and abuse, to let them know that God is with us, Immanuel.

When we challenge the world, we make enemies.  Herods and Pharaohs will try to crush us.  But our job is to connect the human story with Christ’s story, to rescue our history from being reduced to a timeline, and allow it to be converted into God’s event.  That event is the breaking into our sin-filled world of the kingdom of God.  As we become aware of God’s constant working in our lives, we are called to participate in that work.  Whether we are sent to Egypt or Nazareth, whether we are called to feed the hungry or clothe the naked or heal the sick, whether we are tasked with comforting the bereaved or spreading hope to those who have lost it, God calls us. May we, like Joseph, answer that call without hesitation, knowing that God is with us, Immanuel.  Amen.


[1] Exodus 1:7

[2] Exodus 1:22; 2:15

[3] Comments by Cherie Baker, UMC pastor, in online chat.

How is this good news?

Pharaoh murders innocent babies, but Moses escapes in a basket.
Herod murders innocent babies, but Jesus escapes into Egypt.
Rival factions in South Sudan have killed more than a thousand, but over 100,000 have escaped into neighboring countries until the conflict can be resolved.

How, exactly,  is this good news?

Biblical scholars say, “You have to keep the Big Picture of God’s story in mind.” I get that. I understand that God does not desire for anyone to perish, but for all to believe and to have eternal life. I know that Bad Things Happening to Good People has more to do with our sinful human condition than God’s will for us. If I want to blame someone for atrocities, I might as well go all the way back to Adam and Eve. There are times when I’d like nothing better than to pound their chests with my fists and yell, “What were you thinking!”

All that knowledge doesn’t help much when I sit next to a woman whose son died, and she asks me, “How could a loving God let this happen?” A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more (Matthew 2:18). How do you comfort a grieving parent who refuses to be consoled?

You don’t.

Just because I can’t explain it doesn’t mean I can shrug off the sorrow.  Just because I know God has a bigger plan in mind for eternity doesn’t diminish the pain of the here and now. It’s a dangerous thing to be human, to be vulnerable, to face the fact of our mortality. The Good News is not always sweetness and light. That pretty baby in the manger grows up to die on a cross. God has to watch his own Son, his only Son, die a horrible death. And God grieves.

God grieves all the Herods and the Pharaohs and the murderers of innocent children. God grieves us when we turn away from him. God grieves as only a bereft parent can grieve. How do you comfort a grieving parent who refuses to be consoled?
You don’t.
You weep, too.

 

Quiet Christmas

It’s Christmas Day.  The flurry of activity that led up to Christmas Eve has settled into a quiet day of rest and family time.  Later, I will put together the lasagna for our Christmas supper, and tomorrow will be filled with cleaning up after last night and preparing for Sunday’s worship, making visits and phone calls, and getting ready for next week.

But this is Christmas Day. It marks the beginning of the season of Christmas. Isn’t it good to know that there are still twelve days to celebrate peace on earth, good will to all?

Christmas Pageant

“You are out of your mind,” I thought, as I heard myself say out loud, “We should do a children’s Christmas pageant!”  I had seen those things.  I had managed to avoid being connected to them in any way for my entire adult life. I had been an elementary school music teacher, and had still escaped from getting sucked into the Christmas pageant frenzy.

But this is a new calling, and I’m pastoring a church that has plenty of kids.  “We’ll keep it simple,” I said.  “Let’s just have fun with it,” I said.  “It doesn’t need a lot of lighting or sets or new costumes – we can work with what we have in the storage closet,” I said.

“I can put it together in four rehearsals, I’m pretty sure,” I said.

At the first rehearsal, I realized the script I had was too wordy to keep the children engaged in the story.  We had sheep climbing up with the angels and shepherds staring off into the hallway instead of lovingly looking at Baby Jesus.

The day of the second rehearsal,  the schools closed because of the weather, and when the schools shut down in this town, everything shuts down.  We had to cancel.

By the third rehearsal, I’d found a Christmas Eve Children’s message that I could adapt into a simple script. It had the children repeating just one line at intervals throughout the brief narration, and it got the whole Christmas story right, without being cute or overly romanticized.

Then someone volunteered to take care of the costumes.  Someone else volunteered to bring hay for the manger.  Someone came and read a picture book to the children that explained what a manger was, what a stable was, what a shepherd was … and the children listened.  Someone organized a treat bag filling party. Someone borrowed a spotlight for the angel, that we decided we didn’t need, after all.  Someone baked Happy Birthday Jesus cupcakes to eat after the Wednesday night presentation (aka, dress rehearsal).

Then the angel said, “Don’t be afraid.”

And a sheep crawled up the steps to sit next to the angels.

And when Joseph didn’t show up because he’d caught the bug that’s been going around and was home sick in bed, one of the shepherds turned into a wise man, and a wise man became Joseph, and no one whined or argued about it.  They just did it.

The parents sang as many stanzas of “Silent Night, Holy Night” as it took to get three shepherds transformed into wise men, but it only took two stanzas, not three.

And the wise men marched up the center aisle, exactly five rows apart, just as they’d practiced.

At the end of the story, we sang, “Go, Tell it on the Mountain” while the wise men filed slowly out, and the shepherds led the sheep (and one cow) down the center aisle, followed by the angels, Joseph, and Mary with the Baby.  Parents applauded.  Children beamed.

Somewhere in there, Christmas happened.

Magnify – Sermon on Matthew 11:2-11 and Luke 1:47-55

In the traditional church calendar, the third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete” Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice!” and it is the first word of this Sunday’s customary opening sentence, or introit, taken from Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” We light a rose-colored candle, to contrast with the purple or blue candles used on the other three Sundays of Advent. In many churches, Advent is still considered a penitential season, much like the season of Lent, and there was even a time when fasting during Advent was quite common. Gaudete Sunday was a break from that fast, a time to rejoice in the nearness of Christmas, less than two weeks away.

One of the features of Gaudete Sunday is the use of Mary’s song from the first chapter of Luke in place of a Psalm. We used the beginning of it earlier, as our call to worship. Here’s the whole song:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” – Luke 1:47-55

Mary’s song echoes the song Hannah sang when she brought her son, Samuel, to the temple and dedicated him to the Lord. You may remember that Hannah had been childless, and had begged God to give her a son. When Samuel was born to her, Hannah kept her promise to God, and gave him over to the priest Eli, to serve in the temple. Samuel became the last of the judges, and it was Samuel who anointed Israel’s first king, Saul. Later, Samuel also anointed Israel’s greatest king, David.

When Mary learned that she was to become the mother of Emmanuel, God With Us, she went to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who, much like Hannah, had become pregnant after many years of childlessness. Mary imitated Hannah’s song, while Elizabeth reflected Hannah’s story. Mary and Elizabeth may have been related to one another by blood, but they were both related to Hannah in spirit. When Hannah sang, she prophesied that Israel would one day have a King. Mary’s baby would become King of Kings, and Elizabeth’s baby would be the prophet who introduced that King to the world.

Fast forward about thirty years. Just last week, we heard Elizabeth’s son, John, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'(Matthew 3:2-3”)

In today’s lesson, John is in prison, and Mary’s son, Jesus, has established his own ministry of preaching and performing miracles. But John wonders if the Kingdom he foretold is really as near as he thought it was. John isn’t sure that Jesus is THE King, because he isn’t bringing down the judgment that John expected Messiah to bring. Hear the Word of the Lord, from Matthew 11:2-11:

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

A lot has happened since John ate locusts and honey out in the wilderness. Now, John has found himself in prison. In the first century, prison was not a final destination, but a place where one remained until trial, waiting to be acquitted or condemned. This waiting could be a cause of great anxiety, and John’s circumstances may have contributed to his doubt. After all, if Jesus really was going to inaugurate a new Kingdom, wouldn’t getting his friends out of jail be a high priority? What was he waiting for? Wasn’t it about time for Jesus to overthrow King Herod’s corrupt government, and then get Israel out from under the oppressive rule of Caesar? This wasn’t panning out the way John had hoped it would. Jesus wasn’t measuring up to John’s expectations for a Messiah King.

Perhaps we can take courage in John’s disappointment. After all, if the greatest prophet who ever lived can wonder whether or not Jesus is the real deal, maybe our doubts and disappointment are a little more understandable. As we frantically try to get ready for Christmas, we may find that fear and doubt come creeping in. If we’re just scraping by, how can we afford to buy presents for those we love? When we get sick, or we lose people we love, when stress rises and hope fades, how can we pretend to be cheerful? How can we sing “Joy to the World” when our personal worlds are crumbling around us? Where is God when we really need him? Maybe we can understand John, as he paces around his prison cell, wondering if he made a mistake. When will the Kingdom finally show up? Could he have been wrong about Jesus? There’s only one way to find out, and since he can’t go himself, he sends his disciples.

Jesus tells those disciples, “Go tell John what you are seeing and what you are hearing. The Greek tense used here indicates continuous action, not a one-time event. Look at the evidence that is right in front of you, Jesus says. That work is continuing all around you. There’s an old adage that says, “When your work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt.” Jesus must have heard that saying, because instead of going into a long defense of his kingship, Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah and says, “Look around. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” In John’s Gospel, we read that Jesus says, “the very works that I am doing bear witness about me that the Father has sent me” (John 5:36). In other words, this is the kingdom. No matter what you were expecting, this is what it looks like.

The problem isn’t with the kingdom, it’s with our view of it. John’s disciples were looking for the wrong thing. We fall into that trap, too. We don’t see the kingdom at work around us, because we are looking for the wrong thing. We may be looking for more people attending church, or larger offerings, or better publicity in the community. And we miss seeing the healing, the resurrection, the good news happening right under our noses.

John was expecting military power and swift judgment, but Jesus came offering forgiveness.

Others were anticipating a king in a palace, wearing soft clothes, but Jesus came to die on a cross, wearing only a crown of thorns.

We may be looking for a quick solution to all our problems, but Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him.

“And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” Jesus says. Blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me, might be another way to put it. If John was offended by the way things were turning out, Jesus wanted him to know that this was the way God intended his kingdom to come. Jesus wasn’t trying to ignore John or belittle his work. Jesus knew that John was in a very dangerous situation, and he also knew that his own ministry had depended on John’s “preparing the way” before him. Instead of downplaying John’s importance, Jesus lifts him up to the crowd as the greatest person who has ever lived, up to now. And yet, …

John was great, but the least in the kingdom of heaven will be greater than John. How can John be both the greatest person ever born, while the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John? The answer lies in John’s unique place in human history. John’s ministry marks both the end of the old order, and the beginning of the new. He is the bridge between the kingdoms of earth and the Kingdom of Heaven.

John is the climax of the old order. Biblical scholar Donald Hagner writes, “He is the one in whom the OT expectation has finally been distilled into one, final, definitive arrow pointing to the presence of the Messiah. Thus from a human point of view no one greater than John has ever been born.”[1] John lies at the turning point of history. This is the point where promise becomes fact, where prophecies become reality. Nothing can ever be the same again. This is the beginning of a new era. This is where grace takes over, and the kingdom of God breaks into our world in the person of Jesus Christ. John is the pivot point between the old and the new, between the prophecy and its fulfillment, between what was, and what is now.

John himself says of Jesus, “he must increase, while I must decrease” (John 3:30). John knows that his job description has changed. No longer is he the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Now, John must exchange his prophetic stance with that of a disciple, whose only job is to magnify the Lord. Instead of preparing the way for Messiah, John must learn to follow him. John is no longer the messenger, the one who goes before Christ, announcing the way of the Lord. John must become a disciple if he is to participate in the kingdom that has come, is coming, and will come in Jesus Christ. Theologian Karl Barth says that “true discipleship [is] simply to point to all that God has done for us in Christ.”[2]

John the Baptist asks, Who is Jesus? Jesus asks the crowds, Who is John?
But the real question we must face is this: Who am I, then?

It’s a question every Christian asks at some point. In John the Baptist, we find an answer: to be a disciple is no longer to look backward or forward or even deep into our own hearts, but rather to look only at Christ. In pointing to him alone, our identity finally becomes clear. It isn’t who we are, but whose we are that matters.

Once we grasp this truth, that we belong to God as followers of Jesus Christ, we have a job to do. Like Mary, our job is to magnify the Lord, showing Jesus to others so they can see God better. That’s our mission here: pointing people to Jesus, so they can experience the same grace we have experienced, choosing to follow Jesus as we follow Jesus.

Here we are on the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, preparing to welcome the Savior on Christmas Day. As we make our hearts ready, our joy may be mixed with disappointment. Like John, we may be wondering where God is in the midst of all the trouble that swirls around us, trouble that seems to be magnified by the pressures that go with making a holiday merry and bright. Yet, Mary calls us to remember that God has done mighty things, and is continuing that amazing work right under our noses, right now, right here. Rejoice! Again I say it: Rejoice! The Kingdom of God is at hand!


[1] Donald Hagner, Word Biblical Commentary (Vol. 33a): Matthew 1-13, 305-306.

[2] As quoted by John P. Burgess, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, 72.

A pause in the middle of Advent

Three pots of chili are cooling on the back porch, along with the chicken that will be boned and chopped into bite-size bits to make chicken soup (for those who don’t like chili). Three big pans of cornbread are ready. We have no idea how many people will show up to go caroling tomorrow afternoon, but those who sing will be fed a bowl of something warm. In the midst of all the cooking, a call comes from the hospital’s ICU unit. The mood in our kitchen switches from joy to concern in a heartbeat.
Tomorrow is Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of rejoicing in Advent. Christmas is less than two weeks away, and Mary’s Song beckons, encouraging us to rejoice in God our Savior as we see the many ways God’s Kingdom has broken into our world, turning things right-side-up that were upside down before.
Yet, in the middle of our rejoicing, another voice can be heard: John the Baptist, wondering from his prison cell, “Hey, Jesus! Are you The One? Or should we look for another?” John’s question may come from his own discouraging situation – wasn’t the Messiah, for whom John had been preparing the Way, supposed to overthrow this corrupt pseudo-king, Herod, and set things right? What was taking him so long?
Here we are, in the middle of Advent, and Mary’s rejoicing can swing into John’s concern in a heartbeat.
Then Jesus says, “Look. The Kingdom is right in front of your face. Maybe you are hunting for the wrong thing. This King doesn’t sit in a fancy palace, wearing soft robes. This King is busy healing, caring, sharing good news.”
Rejoice, then.
The Kingdom of God is at hand.

Preparing the Way of the Lord – Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12 – Advent 2, 2013

December 8, 2013 – Hanging of the Greens

 When Bruce and I moved to New Ulm, one of the first things we did was subscribe to the New Ulm Journal.  We are big believers in print news, and we knew we would learn things about this town through the local paper that might take us years to learn by other means.  We were delighted, then, to find that most of our favorite comic strips run in the Journal.  We’ve always loved “Shoe” and “Frank & Earnest,” because we love bad puns.  “Dilbert” and “For Better or For Worse” have just the right touch of real life to help us laugh at ourselves.  But we were especially glad to see that the New Ulm Journal carries “Sally Forth.”  (If you love bad puns, you have to love a comic strip with a name like “Sally Forth,” right?)

Sally is preparing for Christmas this week, and she has had to come to terms with the fact that Hilary, her daughter, has reached an age when decorating the house as a family is not nearly as important as spending time with her boyfriend.  Sally has been reminiscing about years past, when Hilary participated in the traditions of Christmas decorating with a little more enthusiasm.  Just as in real life, Sally’s cartoon memories of happier times might have suffered from too much sentimentality.  Like her memory of the year, when Hilary was five, and Sally tried to explain to her how an Advent calendar worked.  Sally remembers this as a moment of togetherness, but in reality, Hilary has pushed aside the goal of finding a piece of chocolate behind a little door every day.  What she wants to know is this: “Are any of those doors direct portals to Christmas Day?”  Hilary would skip all the decorating, all the chocolate even, if she could somehow jump directly from the Thanksgiving table into the joy of Christmas morning.

The Hanging of the Greens we have just experienced this morning might be the trigger for some of us to wish, along with Hilary Forth, that one of those little doors in the Advent calendar might be a direct portal to Christmas morning.  I mean, it looks like Christmas in here, doesn’t it?  What are we waiting for?

But we aren’t there yet.  We’d like to skip over the hard work of Advent if we could, and get right to the presents and eggnog, but here’s the reality: getting prepared for Christ to come into our lives takes more than garlands and wreaths.  Advent is, after all, the season of waiting.  We might think that seventeen more days is a long time to wait for Christmas to come, but the people of Israel had been waiting for hundreds of years, in expectation of the Messiah.  Prophets had been promising for centuries that God would send a Redeemer.  That kind of longing, that patient expectation, puts our impatience for Christmas to get here in a little different perspective, I think.

As John the Baptist began his ministry, some hoped that perhaps he was the promised Messiah.  He certainly spoke with prophetic authority.  But … he was a bit strange.  He lived out in the wilderness, for one thing, and ate whatever he could find.  His message was relentless, and he didn’t seem to care whom he offended with his preaching.  Matthew introduces John early in his gospel, knowing that the story of Jesus had to begin with a prophet preparing the way for the One who was to come.  John knew, even if the people who heard him preach did not, that he was not the Promised One.  He was eagerly waiting for the prophetic word he preached to be fulfilled.  John knew his job was to prepare the way for the Savior, and that the time was very near.  Hear the Word of the Lord, as we find it recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter three, verses 1 through 12.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Hmm, that’s not really an encouraging message, is it?  I don’t know about you, but being called a brood of vipers doesn’t really make me want to curl up by the Christmas Tree with a cup of hot cocoa.  No wonder John had enemies.  No wonder his ministry was a short one.  He certainly doesn’t sugar-coat anything. “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near!” he shouts.  “Get ready!  The Messiah is coming, and you don’t want to mess with him!  This Messiah you’ve been waiting for is going to judge the whole world, so you’d better confess your sins and repent of them, before it’s too late!And yet, even though John’s message is harsh, people flocked out to hear him preach.  Instead of going to the center of town to stand on his soapbox where more people could hear him, John lives out in the wilderness, in the wild country, where no one wants to go.  Yet people from Jerusalem, even all of Judea, come out to hear him, and to be baptized by this prophet of God.

John’s baptism is a curious thing.  Like his camel-hair clothing and his diet of bugs and honey, John’s baptism just doesn’t fit into any idea of “normal.”  You must understand that baptism had been around for a long time.  It was a ritual cleansing practice for gentiles who wished to convert to Judaism.  Converts were baptized to signify that they had been purified, and could now enter the temple to worship.  Jews who were born Jews needed no such purification ritual; normal washing and following Kosher laws were enough.  But a gentile coming into the faith was completely immersed, to show that sin had been removed, and the new convert was now acceptable in the temple.

So why were all these Jews going out to the wild lands by the Jordan river – not the cleanest river in the area, by all accounts – to be baptized by this strange man?  They were already practicing Jews.  In fact, Matthew tells us that even the Sadducees and Pharisees, the most influential and faithful groups of Jewish leaders, were coming out to hear John and be baptized.

But John’s baptism wasn’t a standard ritual.  John’s baptism was a symbol of repentance, of turning away from sin.  The people who came to John to be baptized wanted to be ready when the Messiah came.  Like their ancestors, they had fallen into complacency; taking for granted their status as the chosen people of God, going through the motions of ritual worship, without experiencing the presence of God in their lives.  John’s preaching had awakened in them a memory of what it meant to be God’s people, holy and set apart.  John’s preaching also awakened in them a hope for the future, and the expectation that the future was nearer than they’d thought.

The Sadducees and Pharisees, as the most religious Jewish leaders, thought their very Jewishness would be enough to save them.  John says, “Not so – you need to repent, too.”  What’s more, John tells us, we need to bear fruit that is worthy of repentance.  Our lives need to show evidence that we have turned away from sin, and have turned toward God.

So what does that look like?  How do we prepare the way of the Lord?

According to theologian Alyce McKenzie, “The way not to prepare is to rely on our spiritual credentials.” “We have Abraham as our ancestor” the Sadducees and Pharisees proudly argued.[1]  But John tells them that isn’t enough.  McKenzie continues, “Presumably, relying on any other assurance or past accomplishment than God is not the way to prepare.  Inaction is not the way to prepare.  Making excuses is not the way to prepare.  Being distracted from Jesus’ coming kingdom by possessions, prestige, and power is not the way to prepare.  Not then and not now.”  You can read her entire essay here.

Preparing our hearts for Jesus looks a little different than preparing the Sanctuary, as we have just done.  The season of Advent is a time for us to prepare, not by putting up more greenery or strings of lights, beautiful as they may be.  Decorations can help us remember the deep truths they represent, but they can also sometimes be the way we cover up the messiness of our lives, the dark places in our hearts.

The season of Advent is a time to reflect, to ponder, preparing ourselves for Christ to enter into us, and transform our lives into something new, something holy.  This season is an opportunity for each of us to allow God to work in us.  Just as we prepare the sanctuary for Christmas with garlands and wreaths, we prepare our hearts for Christ through repentance.  Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near!  Repent and believe the Good News: In Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven.

Prepare the way of the Lord.  It doesn’t take much, really.  Just a turning away from our own desires, as we turn toward God’s deep desire for us.  That’s what repentance is, after all. Turning away from our sinful selves, as we turn toward God’s love for us.  It doesn’t take much space to turn around, but we have to do the turning.

Last year, Mary Luti wrote an Advent hymn that might give us a clue to preparing the way of the Lord, in the world, and in our own hearts.  You can find it here.

Our lives need to show evidence that we have turned away from sin, and have turned toward God. But we can’t manufacture that evidence. It just shows. As you find the “little room” God needs in your heart this Advent season, don’t worry too much about making sure your “fruit worthy of repentance” is showing.  Trust that it will.  Trust that God can change you, if you just give him a little room.  Amen.


[1] Matthew 3:9