Three weeks ago, when I was looking at the scriptures for this week, I chose these three because at the time I intended to speak to the way that God has welcomed all of us into God’s kingdom, the new heaven and the new earth which is shown by the story we heard from Acts earlier this morning. And that we make that truth manifest when we love one another as Jesus commands us in John. There you go–a sermon in two sentences. Probably the quickest sermon you’ve ever heard.
But, as I’m sure you’re aware, a lot has happened in those three weeks. And so, these texts–visions about who and where God works, about a new heaven and a new earth, about who we are to love take on a deeper meaning.
The New Revised Standard Version of our Revelation text reads:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 5And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
Revelation is an account of a vision that John of Patmos had. It’s part of a larger genre of ancient literature called Apocalypse–a genre that deals with the end times–with that fundamental question: what’s next?
Theologian Dana Fergueseon offers this insight: “We humans spend a lot of time conjuring up images in our minds of the physical nature of the place–heavenly mountains or beaches, divinely paved roads or rolling soft hills. In the Revelation to Joh, that image is revised. The new heaven is plainly and simply the place where God is. This is the first and most important detail: heaven is the place where God is and humans are fully united with God.”
Interestingly, John describes the New Jerusalem by telling us what’s not in it: “The first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” Ah, the sea. The sea, in the Bible at least, is a powerful symbol for chaos. Think back to Genesis 1–the story that starts it all: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
Those waters are understood to be the waters of chaos–that which God created good things out of and that which still separates us from one another. So one of the beautiful things about this dry, New Jerusalem is there are no stormy seas to separate us from one another. John envisions a place where humans and God live in harmony with one another.
But given all that’s happened these past two weeks, the line that strikes me as the most hopeful is this one: “See, I am making all things new.” Because, Lord, don’t we need some new–some new hope, some new faith in humanity–in the promise that Good will overcome Evil. I hear those words, “see, I am making all things new,” and I think of the images from the Boston bombings or of the destruction an un-inspected fertilizer plant caused in Texas, and it’s easy for me to go to God and say “are you? are you making all things new?” If things are being made new, then why do such acts of destruction take place? And I’m not just talking about the ones that directly affect us–I’m talking about the ones that take place around the world.
Following the bombings, a group of Syrians made a sign and took a picture holding it that reads “Boston Bombings represent a sorrowful scene of what happens everyday in Syria. Do accept our condolences.” There’s such sadness in this world–such heartache and destruction. Don’t we need for all things to be made new?
But then I think about the response we saw in the last two weeks. Yes, we met destruction head on, but what we also saw (as I’m sure you’ve seen pointed out on the news) were people rushing to help. Literally–running toward the smoke the Boston bombs created–to help–anyway they could. The community of West, Texas is finding support flooding in from across the nation. A day after that picture was taken in Syria, one showed up from Boston: Friends in Syria, we too hope for the safety of your families and FOR PEACE.
And it’s moments like that–seeing people running toward the smoke, the outpouring of support, and photos sent in love to people half a world away that act as notes of comfort and support from God. I imagine God saying “I’m working on it. See, I am making all things new.”
That’s really what Peter is recounting in the eleventh chapter of Acts–that God is making all things new. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this story. In fact, this story is told twice in Acts–the first time being just a chapter before–in chapter ten. It was an important story for the early Christians because it dealt with a fundamental question: Who could be Christian? Christianity was, at its beginning, a sect of Judaism. The earliest Christians wouldn’t have considered themselves Christian. They would’ve thought of themselves as Jews who believed the Messiah had come. And in the ancient Jewish world, there were Jewish and there were Gentiles. And one did not just switch between the two.
And so, as the early church was established, the question soon came to the forefront–can someone be what we would call “christian” if they weren’t Jewish first? After all, Jesus was said to be the fulfillment of the Jewish prophecies.
So, Peter recounts this story, this vision of a large sheet coming down from heaven. And as that sheet got close to him , Peter saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. AND he heard a voice saying–Get up, Peter; kill and eat.
Of course, the animals Peter was commanded to eat were unclean–not kosher. Peter protests, to which the voice replies, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter claims this happened three times. Then something interesting happens (as if voices and animals and floating sheets are interesting!). Peter tells us he was set by the Spirit to go with three men, Gentiles, and to treat them without distinction. He was also told to share the Gospel with them. And then Peter asks the pivotal question: “If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
Who was I that I could hinder God? Who am I to hinder God? To hinder God’s ways of making all things new? We are not called to hinder God’s work in this world. Friends, we are called to be God’s work in this world.
Jesus, of course, knew this. In the gospel of John, Jesus explains to his disciples: “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said tot he Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
That is how we will be God’s ongoing work in this world, how we will witness to God making all things new, how we will march to Zion, to that New Jerusalem–by loving one another. Which means that we will discuss the merits of one paint color over another, then we will paint together. It means that we will stand by one another. That we will reach into the hurting places of this community and find a way to offer comfort, to say to the people who long for a message of hope: Look. See, God is making all things new. And it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done. Whether you look like me or sound like me or eat the same foods as me–there is nothing, nothing we can do to hinder God’s ongoing work of making all things new.
So, we will choose to love one another and to welcome strangers and friends, everyone, everyone, everyone alike into our community of forgiveness and grace–all the while standing in astonishment at what God has done and in gratitude that we are part of it.
This sermon served mostly as an invitation to my congregation to observe holy week–with all of its ups and downs, to its full extent.
Well, we’ve made it. Today is, as I’m sure you’re aware, Palm Sunday–the start of Holy Week. It’s a day of celebration. A last hoorah of sorts. Theologians and scholars have long delved into the scriptural tellings of this story in an attempt to figure out just what it meant for Jesus, and for us. Most agree that this story, while able to stand alone, is far better heard in the context of the whole of the passion narrative.
This is a story about Jesus’ humanity. It’s a story about a man who knew what was coming, and needed strength to face it. His return to Jerusalem, the triumphal entry as it’s called, offers the human Jesus that strength.
It’s a story about our humanity. These are the crowds that five days later would turn on him. It’s a story about our own fickleness, our weakness, our ability to acknowledge the good in someone, in something, and forget about it in the blink of an eye.
It’s a story about walking. In all of the Gospels, is the first physical manifestation of what’s coming.
Luke’s version of the triumphal entry appears in the middle of Luke 19 just after Jesus interacts with Zacchaeus, you remember him: Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he! But John’s version is a little different. If we look at the Gospel of John, for instance, we find Jesus turning to Jerusalem early on. The Disciples know something is coming, but it isn’t until they reach Jerusalem that they realize something big is on its way.
We’ve been reading from John recently. You remember the story last week, yes? Mary anoints Jesus’ with nard, an expensive perfume. Anointing is hugly symbolic for the Jews of the time: Kings were anointed. The dead were anointed. Just before that, John tells us the story of Lazarus. You remember this: Lazarus had died and was dead four days before Jesus brought him back to life. It’s all part of the story we’ll be part of this week. It foreshadows what we know is coming. The women approach Jesus: if you had only been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. There’s a moment this week, when we will hear Jesus utter similar words, words of human suffering, of wanting things to be different, of knowing they can’t be. We’ll witness Jesus’ raw emotion as we did last week. We’ll cry with him.
While Jesus was it Bethany (during the visit when Mary anointed his feet), he, according to John, sent his disciples to get a donkey from the next village over. Do you know there’s a reason it was donkey and not a horse. Kings rode horses when they left for war. But when Kings would approach towns as part of a peaceful mission, they would ride a donkey. So, the Prince of Peace rode into town on a donkey.
You heard the story. There were palm branches and cloaks. The crowds chanted the words “Hosanna in the Highest! Blessed in he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Words we spoke this morning from Psalm 118, words we speak every time we share communion.
But this day is more than donkeys and palm branches. It’s the beginning of the end, and so of the beginning.
Let’s walk through Holy Week together. It all starts today. Like a roller coaster, the high of today makes the low of the latter part of the week all the more meaningful. We’ve sung songs today of celebration, but soon it will be time to turn toward the cross. So often churches want to skip this part. They want to jump to the resurrection. I recall passing a church on the way to on Palm Sunday service that advertised their Easter Cantata for that night–for Palm Sunday evening. But you see, that’s a problem. Because if we’re following it all the way through, if we commit ourselves to the story, the resurrection doesn’t matter if Jesus hadn’t died. Do you see, we’ve got to join Jesus in his suffering. There has to be an element of sitting and waiting and watching. There has to be uncertainty, a twinge of doubt that is overwhelmed by the hope of a promise.
Soon, we’ll gather here on Thursday evening. Maundy thursday. The name comes from the latin, mandatum meaning commandment. We’ll hear the stories of the last supper and of the words of Jesus offering a new commandment–to love one another as he has loved us. We’ll gather around the table sharing this gospel feast. Literally. We’ll have chairs up in the chancel area, and you can choose to take communion at the rail or around the table.
After we share the meal, we’ll watch as the symbols of our faith are stripped away, piece by piece. It’s beautiful symbolism, really. The closer we come the cross we find those familiar symbols are no longer there to give us faith, that soon, we, like Jesus, are going to have to go it alone. That night we leave in silence, knowing what will happen the next day. Wishing there was something we could do to stop it, to avoid it. Realizing there’s no such action to take.
The next day, Friday, we’ll gather in this room in the dark at noon. We’ll hear the passion story told in word and song. We’ll sit clustered together, a little too close for comfort. But this isn’t a day to be comfortable. It’s a day to hover close to the ones you love. A day to come together as a whole and pray. A day to remember the sacrifice, and to be grateful for it.
And then it’s time to wait. We, like the women waiting at the tomb, have little to do but wait. It’s the part we like to skip the most, the waiting. But in a way, it’s the most critical part of the whole week. It’s the part of the week that makes us sit in the uncomfortableness of what’s happening. This is why we can’t jump ahead. Yes we know what Sunday holds, but that coming Sunday, Easter Sunday, isn’t here yet. We’ve got to wait, we’ve got to mourn, we’ve got to encounter Jesus’ death for his resurrection to matter.
Early Sunday morning, we will hover together on top of a hill in Brooklyn and we will proclaim Jesus risen from the dead. But friends, the fact is, we aren’t there yet. That’s the story we claim as our faith. But to get there, we’ve got to claim this story first. This story that Jesus lived our life, faced our fears–that he new our joys, our hope, our love, our uncertainty, our doubts–that he faced our death, and still the tomb was empty. Can you hear the hope in that? What that empty tomb means when we put it in perspective.
Welcome to Holy Week. A week filled with emotion, faith, hope, love.
Six weeks ago, we started on a journey toward a hill far in the distance. With ashes on our foreheads, we were each invited to observe a holy Lent. As we’ve journeyed, we’ve become pilgrims of sorts– listening to stories of Jesus ministry and time with his disciples–each week bringing us closer to the cross, each week bringing us closer to God. And now we find ourselves here, at the start of the week that changed everything.
So it seems appropriate to start this week the way we started this season, with an invitation.
Brothers and sisters in Christ: The early Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church that before the Easter celebration there should be a week of remembrances of the suffering of our Lord.
This is a time to hear the story retold in our midst. It is a time to pause from the secular world and focus on the holy. This is a week during which the time slows and events millennia old become real to us today.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to observe this holy week: by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.
I invite you to throw yourself into the story, to let it become your story. Find a labyrinth and walk it. As you follow it’s path, journey inward to all the places God knows. Meditate on the stations of the cross. As you pray over the last hours of Christ, remember that those last hours were spent for you. Come to the services. Hear the Gospel. Remember the sacrifice. So that when Easter comes, and it will come, we each can share a new appreciation for the gift we’ve been given.
I invite you to walk with Jesus through these next days, and so walk with over one billion people around the world and countless more through time who have remembered these days similarly.
I invite you to observe a meaningful holy week, filled with prayer, gratefulness, and hope.
In the name of the Father, and the Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This sermon was preached at Westfield on Sunday, March 17 from the Gospel Lection for the week.
I love a show. From last night’s fantastic Coffee House to broadway musicals, I love the idea that we can tell the human story through plays and musicals and songs. One of my favorite shows is Fiddler on the Roof. Have you seen it? It’s not a particularly happy show–not one of the ones you go to see for it’s toe-tapping, show-stopping production numbers. This is a musical that weaves through story and song the tale of the human condition. The musical tells the story of a Jewish family and their village–their sorrows and joys, and their forced departure from their home. At the beginning of the show there is, as the title tells us, a fiddler on a roof playing a lone tune. Tyve, our protagonist, walks onto the stage and says “a fiddle on the roof. sounds crazy, no?”
Lent is a time of the crazy. Lent is a time of the illogical, of the unexpected. Lent is a time of paradoxes. It’s a time when everything is turned on its head. Shane Claiborne reminds us in his book Jesus for President that these paradoxes aren’t unique to Lent, they are the story of our faith. He writes that this is “the greatest paradox and humor of God’s audacious power: a stuttering prophet will be the voice of God, a barren old lady will become the mother of a nation, a shepherd boy will become their king, and a homeless boy will lead them home.”
For the past weeks, we’ve been walking with Jesus toward Jerusalem, toward the town that will name him both king and criminal. But, before he reaches Jerusalem, Jesus decides to stop at a familiar place, a home of sorts.
John tells us that Jesus had just come to Bethany six days before the Passover. Now this wasn’t Jesus’ first visit to Bethany, a village near Jerusalem on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. Just a chapter earlier than where our reading began today, Jesus was called to Bethany by Mary and Martha to help their ill brother Lazarus. Well, I’m sure you remember what happened there! Jesus doddles, doing some kind of work for the Big Guy, and ends up running late.
When Jesus finally arrives four days later, Lazarus has died. He is greeted by a less than content Martha who walks up to him and says “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Jesus replies, stating that Lazarus will rise again. Martha, confused, dismisses Jesus’ comment: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
You can almost hear her think, “but that doesn’t do anything for me, here, now!”
Jesus then offers one of his more iconic teachings on the Resurrection. You remember this part: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”
Even though they die will live. Sounds pretty crazy to me.
Jesus approaches the tomb and tells the people gathered there to roll away the stone. Martha runs to him. “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” Jesus pays no mind and calls Lazarus back to life. The dead come to life again, that which was rotten is made well.
This is the event that is fresh in everyone’s mind when we pick up the Gospel lesson today. It’s six days before the Passover. Now, John has three Passovers in his narrative. This is the final, and most critical, one. It is during this Passover that Jesus will be crucified–our paschal lamb sacrificed for us. Jesus, of course, knows what’s coming and decides that a visit with friends might soften the blow. I can imagine wanting the comfort of a dear friend if death was knocking at my door.
He arrives at Mary and Martha’s house. Both women are there, along with Lazarus and, of all people, Judas. Here, gathered in one space we have the span of humanity–the worker, Martha; the adoring disciple, Mary; the betrayer, Judas; and the resurrected, Lazarus.
They ate supper, and afterward, we are told that Mary took a pound of pure nard, a perfumed ointment imported from the Himalayas, and anointed Jesus’ feet with it. Then she wiped his feet with her hair. Judas, ever the realist, jumps at Mary and scolds her: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
Three hundred denarii was a lot of money, nearly a year’s wages.
The writer of John adds his own aside here: “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.”
Jesus jumps to Mary’s defense. “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Mary’s action here, Mary’s anointing of Jesus, is one of the paradoxical moments of Lent. At once, she is anointing a king and preparing a body for burial. Jewish custom held that Kings, upon their coronation, were anointed with perfumed oils as a symbol of God’s abundance and choosing. Tradition also held that when someone died, they were anointed with oils as a symbol of honor (the nicer the perfume, the higher the esteem). This anointing was also practical, it made the process of death a little more bearable. Frankly, it helped to control the stench.
We are told earlier in the story of Martha and Mary that Mary was the model disciple–sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening. Here, she doesn’t even speak. Rather, her actions speak for her. She, at some level, understands what’s coming. Mary understands that what is will no longer be. She sees that God is doing a new thing.
Judas however is blind to the beauty of this action. He protests. In fact, he offers a logical reason. Feed the poor! We could do so much more with this money! Why waste it?
But Mary’s action is beyond reason or logic. Mary’s action is one of love, of embrace. She sees the new things that are part of her future, while Judas wallows in the the things of old.
Jesus‘ last words in this story emphasize this. “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Here, Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 15: ‘For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand…to the needy and to the poor, in the land.” Jesus isn’t dismissing the poor, but pointing to the new thing that is happening in the midst of what always has been.
But hear this: we can’t see the new thing God is doing in our midst if we are consumed with the former things.
Our reading from Isaiah today warns us against just that: being so caught up in the former things, the way things always have been, the way things always have been done, that we become blind to the new things happening in front of us.
Do you remember Isaiah words?
Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
Did you hear what Isaiah tells us? God is still working in our midst. The prophet doesn’t write “Thus says the Lord who made a way in the sea…who brought out chariot and horse.” No. He says “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea…who brings out chariot and horse.” You see, God is still working in our midst. Yet, despite his on going work, we are blind to it.
So Isaiah decides to spell it out for us. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth (or in another translation, “even now it’s coming”, do you not perceive it?”
Do you not perceive it? Think back over the past weeks of Gospel readings. We’ve seen Jesus as both lamb and shepherd, both prince and slave. We have seen him clothed in light upon the mountain, and we look toward him being stripped of his might upon the cross.
Even in our Gospel lesson this morning, we see the broadness of his grace–accepting the generosity of Mary and the presence of the one who would betray him.
He is at once earthly and cosmic. He was defeated and is victorious. God is doing a new thing! Do you see it?
My last congregation, back in Georgia, has a beautiful building. It’s a smaller sanctuary built a hundred years after ours. It’s built from Georgia granite and is graced by stained glass windows in different shades of purple and green.
I recall one summer, when it became clear that our church building, with all its beauty and all its grace wasn’t accessible in ways that it needed to be. Like many old churches, accessibility issues weren’t really a consideration–not like we’d think of them today. There were lots of steps–sound familiar? No elevator. We wanted everyone to be welcome, but we particularly wanted a little girl to know she was welcome. She has a condition that keeps her in a wheelchair. It was clear that she needed to have as much access to our church as anyone else.
Not even a year later, good work was afoot, money was being raised, and necessary action was being taken to make sure that anyone and everyone that wants to be part of this community has that opportunity. Some pointed to the cost of these additions as more than the church could handle. They asked this question: couldn’t this money be better spent somewhere else?
Could we spend that money on another program? On outreach? On the roof? Yes. But if we ask that question, then we must ask this one: Did Mary waste perfume on Jesus’ feet? Did Mary waste perfume anointing Jesus’ feet? Hardly. He accepts her extravagant gift with grace and gratitude realizing that generosity breeds generosity.
Soon, in this church, we’ll be talking about structural improvements. Our good team of steeple people have been faithfully figuring out how to address our beautiful and slightly leaky steeple. But we’ll also be looking beyond that–about being sure that our structure matches what we as a congregation already are–welcoming, inviting, loving.
As theologian William Carter writes “either we love generously, or we do not. Either we are already engaged in providing for the poor, [the outcast, the other], or we are secretly hoarding what might otherwise be shared.”
The poor Carter speaks of aren’t just economically troubled. No, the poor encompasses the outcast, the other, the ones who don’t look like us, who don’t speak like us, to don’t eat like us. And when we look in the eyes of these, we are looking into the eyes of Christ. When we provide for these, we provide for Christ.
What we are called to do today is to not remember the former things. To be clear, I’m not suggesting we simply forget the many and beautiful ways that God has worked in our lives and the in the life of this church. To do that would be to sin. What I am suggesting is this: the way things always have been is not an acceptable reason to keep our eyes closed to the ways God is working right in front of us in this very sanctuary. No longer can we say “We’ve never done it that way before” as an excuse to keep from doing God’s work.
Gone are the days where security and stubbornness disguised as tradition can keep people from our midst. This is not just our problem. This is a problem for the church universal. We are called beyond hiding behind our traditions to live risky lives.
Because here is the Good News: God loves us. And because God loves us so much, God sent his son, Jesus. And Jesus taught us to live risky lives. To risk loving one another. To risk feeding people. To risk nourishing them. Jesus taught us to risk hope and to risk joy. To risk extravagant generosity. To risk radical hospitality. He taught us to risk using the good oil, to risk anointing the beloved. He taught us to risk opening our eyes to the new thing that is happening.
Yes, it’s risky. Yes, it’s messy, Yes, the answer might not be clear just yet. Yes, it’s frightening. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. But God is doing a new thing; even now it’s coming. Do you see it?
I intended to preach this sermon on the first Sunday of Lent (2/17). At 7:15, my moderator and I decided that, despite a little snow, we would have church. I mean, I live in New England. These people are hardy. They see a couple of inches of snow and think “Good. We’ll take the sled to church!” We were all set to go, when the town of Killingly implemented a town-wide parking ban. For us at Westfield, this is a problem. Mostly because our on-site parking consists of 8 or so spots in a small lot directly behind the “new part” of the building that was built in the 1920s. What’s now the parking lot was once the carriage house. Seriously.
Anyway, there was this town-wide parking ban which is pretty clumsy because Killingly includes an area of 50 square miles–and the ban covers the whole place! The problem, as I’m sure you can guess, is that snow issues in one part of Killingly aren’t necessarily snow issues in other parts.
All of that to say this sermon that was meant for the first Sunday in Lent was actually preached on the second Sunday of Lent (our first together in the season). I spent some time deciding whether or not to keep up with the lectionary on this one, but what finalized the decision was our need to be reminded just what Lent is about.
The scripture for the sermon are:
What are you giving up for Lent? It’s a question asked often to church-goers this time of year. What are you giving up for Lent? Some people think it’s a pointless tradition; others seem to confuse it New Year Resolutions. Still others, decide to add something to their lives. I had one friend say, “I think I’m gonna try to be nicer for 40 days.” One of my classmates in seminary joked “I think I’ll give up homework until Easter.”
Lent, however, is much more than giving up fried food or promising to do the dishes every night. Lent is a time of journeying, a pilgrimage of sorts. It is a journey from being lost to being a found, a journey from temptation to salvation, a journey from ashes to fire.
Pilgrimages aren’t easy journeys. They are treks with much to be lost and much to be gained. These can be lonesome journeys–journeys taken in solitude to the center of one’s being through the wilderness of the desert and the soul. St. Augustine once said “Solvitur ambulando. It is solved by walking.” And so, we begin Lent with texts about doing just that–walking.
Lent is a intriguing season in the church year. Like Advent, it is a season of preparation, of waiting. In the early church, Lent was a time for the catechumens (those Christians-in-training) to make their final preparations to join the church at Easter. It was an intense period of fasting and prayer paralleling the time Jesus spent wandering the desert–a story which we heard this morning.
It’s a time of the already and the not yet; a time of looking back on the ways we have marred our lives with sin, and forward to the grace of Christ which rights all of those wrongs. It’s a time when we tune ourselves to God. It’s a time we (as the prophet Joel commanded us on Ash Wednesday) render our hearts to God.
Most importantly, Lent is a time of wandering in the wilderness. It’s a time when we examine our lives in the crucible of desert sand and heat, looking at the temptations that have charmed us away from the path of righteousness, and long to return our hearts to God.
Wilderness experiences aren’t particular to the season of Lent. I can think of a three year long excursion into the wilderness I was recently in called Seminary.
Throughout our lives, we have wilderness experiences–times we feel lost, times we are searching. This isn’t a unique experience. In fact it’s a common theme in the Bible–wandering in the wilderness.
The Old Testament lesson today instructs the Israelites of what they should do when they finally end their 40 years of searching the wilderness for the home God had promised them. Countless prophets found themselves drawn away from communities into desert wilderness where through fasting and praying they confronted their own challenges. And, as we heard today, even Jesus found himself spending 40 days in the wilderness fasting and praying.
Before we get too far into this story, it is important for us to remind ourselves what’s been happening up until this point. A mere four chapters ago, we are drawn into a story of prophecies and births. We hear the birth of John the Baptizer and Jesus foretold, and see their births come to pass. You remember, shepherds and angels. Suddenly, Jesus is twelve and teaching the rabbi’s in the Temple in Jerusalem about their own faith.
And then, in the blink of the eye, our boys are all grown up. John comes out of the wilderness to proclaim the arrival of Jesus. Jesus is baptized, and then led into the wilderness by Spirit.
The synoptic gospels, that is, Matthew, Mark and Luke all share this story, but with some slight variations. Mark presents us with the bare bones of the story. We’re told that Jesus was in the wilderness and was tempted by Satan. The Matthean account lines up more closely with the version in Luke. All the same elements are there, with a few revisions to the order of the tests.
So, Jesus has just come out of the waters of Baptism, and is full of the Holy Spirit when, we are told, he is led by that Spirit into the wilderness. Mark presents it another way: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”
You see, sometimes, we don’t find ourselves in the wilderness of our own accord. Sometimes, we are driven into that wilderness by the Spirit.
We enter this new place, stripped of the things we thought were important to us to fast and pray. Soon, we begin to encounter the raw nature of temptation, and find that our reliance on God is our only salvation–a fact that remains true whether we are wandering the wilderness or the streets of Loganville. But you see, Luke tells us that Jesus was led by the Spirit. Jesus wasn’t simply dropped off in the wilderness like some Divine carpool line in the desert. The Spirit led him and abided with him during his days wandering the wild lands.
After entering the desert, Jesus faces three tests. Now each version of this story suggests a different name for the tester. Matthew introduces him as the tempter (little “t”), and later refers to his as “the devil” (little d). Luke refers to him as “the devil” through out his version of the story. Mark is the only one to give this role a name–Satan.
Whatever the name, we know we are dealing with evil. It’s easy for us to think of evil as being personified as Satan–horns, pitchfork, tail–stroking an evil, pointy goatee. But somehow, I doubt that is what Jesus is facing here. Don’t misunderstand me, Jesus is facing evil. But, I think it might be more productive to think of this evil in terms of that which draws us away from God-which is exactly what the “devil” is attempting to make Jesus do here.
The tests (or temptations) Jesus faces are not inherently bad. According to Luke, the first test is one of basic human need. Jesus has been fasting, which means, like any human, he’s hungry. The devil places a stone in front of him and tells him to turn it to bread–a quick fix for sure. Imagine all the hunger in the world and all the rocks in a desert–bread could abound. This could be it! This could end world hunger! All those images of malnourished children, gone. All those tear stained faces of mothers grieving their lost babies because there was no food–non-existent! But to do this, to turn rocks to bread undermines Jesus’ true mission and message–to trust God in all things. Jesus replies with a simple line “One does not live by bread alone.”
Now, if we look at the passage this line of Scripture came from, we find this words of explanation: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.” This temptation isn’t at all what the evil one presented it as. It’s not about food or hunger, it’s about pureness of heart and willingness to rely solely on God.
The second test, one of world domination, offers Jesus power which, again, could be used for good. Jesus could rule the world and bring justice. But to do so would again undermine God’s work in the world as the creator and ruler of all things.
To this test, Jesus responds from another line from scripture: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” By taking this power, Jesus would be honoring the power of the devil and so, serving him, not God. Just before this quotation from Deuteronomy, we are reminded to “take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Soon, we are once more implored not to “follow other gods, any of the gods who are all around you.”
This test is about who and what we worship other than the God who created, redeems and sustains us.
Finally, the devil demands Jesus prove his own goodness as the Son of God, by testing the word of God concerning the righteous. This test begins with the devil saying “If you are the son of God.” Often, we interpret this to mean, “if you are the son of God, you need to prove it!” But the greek can be translated another way. Another reading it is “Since you are the son of God.” Since you are the son of God “throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Christ’s baptism has already answered the question of who Jesus was. There is no “if.” The Spirit has already proclaimed him as the son of God. The question now is what kind of son will he be. This is a trick question! If Jesus tests this scripture (which we heard in the psalm today), then his righteousness is lost–for we are called not to test God, but to trust him.
Jesus responds yet again with scripture from Deuteronomy, saying “do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Jesus responds to all three tests by quoting scripture from Deuteronomy, the book which follows the Israelites through their wanderings and sees them finally reach the promised land. The text we heard earlier today reminds us that while the Spirit leads us into the wilderness, it also leads us out of it. And when it does, we are obligated to continue embodying the lessons we learned during our wandering–namely to trust God.
This is our purpose, to trust in God despite the temptation to put our trust in other things. It is easier for us to trust ourselves or our jobs or our army than it is for us to trust God. But our days in the wilderness teach us that no matter how much we want to trust ourselves or our jobs or our armies or our money or our power or our control, we have no hope in any of that. Our only hope is in God. Around every corner, we are tempted by false idols, desperate for our praise and thanksgiving. But friends, hear it again–our only hope is in God.
I’ve always loved the symphony. It amazes me that so many separate people can play totally different parts and have it all come together so beautifully.
One of my favorite parts of the concert is the ritual at its beginning. As the audience is gathering, instrumentalists are getting a few minutes of practice in before the performance begins. Soon, more performers gather, and more audience members find their seats. The concert is about to start, and all the musicians have arrived on stage. But there is one seat empty, a seat to the conductor’s left. This seat is for the concertmaster.
The concertmaster finally appears and is greeted by applause. He acknowledges the audience, then turns toward the orchestra. A hush falls over the audience, and the concertmaster begins to play a lone note. From this one note comes an explosion of sound–every instrument matching that pitch and checking to make sure it is in tune.
This is Lent, my friends, a time to tune our hearts to God. In the words of the beloved hymn: “Come, Thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace.” We spend these 40 days in the wilderness, brought here by the Spirit and the church to tune our hearts to the grace of God. We acknowledge our shortcomings, repent of our sins, renounce the work of evil in this world, and tune ourselves to trust in God.
As Jesus walked, so we walk in the clutch of temptation and the light of grace, hopeful that we can resist the test of evil, and confident that God’s salvation can overcome it.
And so, let’s walk with one another through these days of penitence. Let’s walk with one another to the cross. And indeed, let’s walk with one another to the empty tomb.
And when we finally come out of the wilderness, we will continue to praise God and we will continue the celebrations of the Israelites for all that God has given us!
So, perhaps for this Lent, we give up trying to trust ourselves alone. Perhaps we give up trying to place our value in bank accounts or cars or trips. Maybe this Lent we allow ourselves to be led into the wilderness that we might once again tune our hearts to sing of the love that will lead us home again.
I preached this sermon on Sunday, January 27th at Westfield. The annual meeting referenced is commonplace in churches with congregational policy. Churches gather annually to address the official business of the church. At Westfield, we gather twice–once for our annual meeting for finance (which was today’s meeting) when we review the treasurer’s report from the previous year and adopt a budget for the coming year, and once in June for programatic needs. Because of that pending meeting, the sermon this week was shorter than usual.
Before you reading the sermon, read the scripture it’s written from here: 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31.
A note: Our children’s message highlighted different kinds of shoes (slippers, snow boots, galoshes, flip-flops, tennis shoes). We talked about how how each shoe achieves a common goal differently. During the sermon, each shoe was placed along the the pulpit railing, reminding us of our individuality and our common purpose.
Last Sunday, after I joined the church, I said to you: Well, It’s official, we’re in this together. I’ll admit to you that that’s not a new feeling for me towards this church. Honestly, I’ve felt that way since my first visit all the way back in June. Richard Mellen and Kim Aubin brought me into this sanctuary. And I remember walking in and just being in awe. What a church! What beauty! What history! What a story to tell. And even then, I remember thinking “This is the church. We’re going to do some pretty great things.” It was the start of a feeling, of an emotion that became full grown last week as I joined this church.
This week we hear from Paul as he writes to the church in Corinth. You see, the church in corinth, I suppose by American church-naming standards we could call it First Church, Corinth. You see at First Church, Corinth there have been issues. Paul, the widely known founder of churches around that area, has heard of their troubles and has written to them to offer some advice. It was the first time anyone had done church. This was new territory–and like any community endeavor, you’ve got lot’s of shoes: all out to serve the same purpose, but striving to do it in different ways. They, like us, had the striking yellow galoshes–glad to go out in the name of the church and draw attention to it; the flip-flops–easy going and laid back; the snow boot, that pair of shoes that helps you truck through the cold; the sneaker that helps you run through the rough patches; and the slipper–those that hold you close and offer words of comfort and warmth.
Anyway, there were lots of shoes that had forgotten their common purpose, so Paul writes to the good folks of First Church and does a little setting straight, a little encouraging, and a whole lot of loving. I’ll be honest with you, Paul isn’t my favorite New Testament author. But the man could write, and write he does through this first letter. Some of the most iconic segments of the New Testament come from this letter: “now, we see through a glass, darkly,” or “when I was a child I thought as a child,” or the passage we’ll hear more and more of as we approach Valentine’s day: “Love is patient, Love is kind” or “and now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Among these passages in ours today, one that has spoken to millennia of preachers, teachers, churches and church-goers: The body of Christ. Paul is known for his rhetoric, for his ability to eloquently prove his point and this is a prime example:
“Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
Beautiful when you dissect it from a literary standpoint. Meaningful when you when you really listen to what Paul is saying–that all of us with all of our gifts are a vital part of the body of Christ.
But the next line is my favorite in this passage: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” Or, if I were to publish the Jon Chapman translation: “Now, we’re all in it together.”
It’s rather fitting that this is the reading assigned by the lectionary for today, when we head into our annual meeting for finance, our first annual meeting together–a time when we put into action Paul’s reminder that we’re all in this together.
This past week, I’ve had several conversations that reminded me of this fact–that we’re all in this together, and I have to say, what a gift, to be reminded that we’re not alone in this journey as a community, as a church.
I’ve mentioned to some of you how it’s hit me, just in the last week or so that I’ve only been here for just under 4 months, but how it seems like much longer to me–in the best way, I feel settled in, like this is my home, and that’s comforting. It also makes me sometimes wonder, because it seems like longer, if I’ve done enough. We’ve had a great Christmas where we saw lots of new faces and a beautiful sanctuary and found new energy, and we hit January–when, y’all, it has been COLD. And dark, and it’s easy for me to think: What’s next.
But there’s a problem with that thinking. You see, inherent in that “what’s next” is the phrase “for me to do”—what’s next for me to do. And what I have to remind myself and we must remind one another is this: the question for us as a community and as a congregation is never “what’s next for me to do?” It’s always “What’s next for us?”
Paul reminds us: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.”
It really is a beautiful sentiment, that we’re all part of the body of Christ. But in reality, it’s hard to live out isn’t? It can be a challenge to live fully into that particular vision of the church. It requires deep honesty and openness. So, here with that in our minds, here are some things you should know about me. I love terrible jokes. I really like to sing, and there are some songs that I’m pretty good at singing. I can be particular and that particularity can border on demanding. The reason that I’m particular about stuff is because I think God deserves our best and that sometimes its easier for us to do the easy thing than it is for us to the excellent thing. I totally get how this trait might come across as bossy–I’m working on it. Thank God grace abounds, right? I am not Alice or Barbara or Jim or Bill. I am Jonathan, who grew up 9 states away in a different land. So they way I do things will look different. Because I grew up far away, I could absolutely use any advice you’ve got in general, but particularly when it comes to navigating the North. Also, Sometimes, I wear glasses because I like the way they look, not because I need them.
I screw up. I make mistakes. And when I do, come talk to me, tell me about it so that I can apologize and work on fixing it and on not doing it again.
When I came here, four months ago, I was so excited to have a church to be part of, and that it wasn’t just any church, but Westfield church. That excitement is still there and abides in me as deep pride–pride that you chose me, pride that you chose ,e to welcome new members, to baptize our children, to bury our dead, to remind you week in and week out that God loves, you, God loves you, God loves you, and thateveryone, everyone, everyone is welcome, pride that my name is on that sign by our front door, pride that you all are willing to listen to me talk week in and week out. Simply put, I’m proud to be your pastor, to stand in this pulpit among all those who have stood here before. That pride can also become heavy with expectation. Will the church grow? Can we get my job to full-time? Can we have a choir? How do we do more for our kids? For our youth? For our building? And that’s where it’s easy for me to feel a little overwhelmed–overwhelmed in a good way by your love and care for me and overwhelmed in a less good way by what lays in front of us.
But thankfully Paul reminds us, doesn’t he, that we are all in this together–and he reminds me that there’s nothing I can do by myself to make any of that happen, that it has to be all of us, and that is such–a–relief., isn’t it–that we’re all in this together.
All of that to say, I’m learning right alongside you, what it means to be your pastor, to love you the way you need to be loved, to help you see and realize your potential. And what I need from you is just that–learn with me, what it means for me to be your pastor, to love me the way I need to be loved and help me see and realize my potential.
To be clear, and hear this, I have felt that love and support all along…I’m not telling you any of this as a criticism, but rather in principle that if I’m honest with you I can expect your kind honesty in return–so that we can faithfully say that this is our church and that we are in it together.
Friends, we are indeed the body of Christ–all different parts of it all with different gifts to share in this beloved community. Consider this your invitation. As we get going on new project, setting forth new goals, I want you, we need you to be part of it–to be part of it all. Because, at the risk of sounding like my favorite PBS show–Mr. Roger’s neighborhood–you are special, each of you has something offer. I could go down the list right now for each of you, seriously, and highlight something wonderful you bring to this congregation.
Can we do it with out you? Yes. But without you, it would be less than it could be. So you’re invited–jump in the deep end of God’s grace, hope and plan for this church and we’ll learn to swim in that love together.
This is the sermon I preached at Westfield Church on Sunday, January 13th.
I feel as though we’ve been running a marathon for the last month and a half! It started in the beginning of December with the first Sunday in Advent. We waited and kept watch through those four Sundays until Christmas–which we all thought was the finish line. Then, we were reminded last Sunday that Christmas is actually a season, not just a date. A season that ends at Epiphany when we celebrate God’s manifestation in the world through Christ.
In the early organized church, the feast of Epiphany actually celebrated three occurrences in scripture: the arrival of the wise men which symbolizes Christ coming for all people; the baptism of Christ that reminds us of Christ’s Divine nature; and the wedding at Cana (our scripture for next week) that celebrates Jesus’ first miracle–his Divine nature made manifest in acts. In the 4th century the celebrations were separated out, and we begin to see Epiphany and the days following it celebrated much as they are today.
Scripturally, we’ve made it through a lot by now. We’ve heard the birth of John the Baptist foretold, then of the Angel visiting Mary. We’ve visited Elizabeth along with Mary then heard Mary’s song–the Magnificat. Jesus was born; there were shepherds and more angels. Jesus was presented at the Temple then suddenly is twelve! He returns to the temple and beings teaching the teachers. And then, we hear John the Baptist preaching and find him baptizing.
We’re told that John was causing quite a stir; many among him wondered if he were the Messiah. John tried to clear that confusion up: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
I think we need to start like John–with water. In the 2003 film, Big Fish a grown son returns home during his fathers final days to figure out one thing: were all the stories he had grown up hearing true. His father, Edward, was, you see, not just a storyteller, but a Southern storyteller–known for his tall tales. Tales, we find out through the movie, that include giants, hidden towns, witches, and one particularly big fish. It’s really a beautiful film–both visually and in the way that it speaks to the human condition and searches for an answer that we still search for now–what is truth? More on that in another sermon.
Toward the end of the film, as the father’s death approaches, there’s a poignant scene where he’s lying in a bathtub full of water in his pajamas–completely submerged. He finally comes up for air when he opens his eyes to find his dear wife looking at him through the waters. “I was drying out,” he says to her.
When we were watching this movie in our Jesus and Film study, one of the ideas we talked about was the way this movie points to baptism. There’s the obvious connection with water–a central theme for the duration of the film. But it’s more than just the water. It’s what the water represents. In the film, the water is at once Edward’s identity and his destiny.
We can say the same, or close to it, about Christian baptism. Our baptisms are at once our identity in Christ and a symbol of God’s work in our lives.
How is baptism our identity?
Well, Luke tells us that “when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came form heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
In Luke, God speaks to Jesus but in Baptism that you is meant for us. In Baptism, we are claimed by God as God’s own children, cared for and loved. Baptism, then, teaches us who we are–God’s beloved children.
There are lots of ways for us to identify ourselves–the names our parent’s gave us, what grade we’re in school, what job we have, which degree we hold, where we live, who our parents are. Despite all these ways that we know ourselves and are known to others, we still struggle to learn who we are. David Lose, professor at Luther Seminary, writes “In response to this craving and need, baptism reminds us that we discover who we are in relation to whose we are, God’s beloved children. We belong to God’s family, and baptism is a tangible sign of that.”
Now, that we understand a little more about baptism as part and parcel to our identity, how is it a sign of God’s work in our lives?
The hard thing about baptism is that different denominations and churches understand it, I’m sure this will come as shock to you, differently. But, one common thread that weaves its way through all those different interpretations is this: Baptism is, primarily and fundamentally, God’s work.
Did you notice what’s different about Luke’s version of events from the story Mark and Matthew tells? I’ll give you a hint. Here are the three verses the lectionary for today skips over:
“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.”
Then, we get to what turns out to be the second part of this story: “Now when all the people were baptized and when Jesus also had been baptized.”
See what’s missing or, more specifically, who’s missing? John the Baptizer! The one who baptizes Jesus in Matthew and in Mark. Luke does this to answer a couple of questions. First who is the Messiah–Jesus or John? Clearly, John is locked up, yet Jesus still gets baptized. The answer is: Jesus. Secondly, what happens when you speak the truth to people? Answer: Sometimes, you get locked up. While it might not be persecution for us, it could mean avoidance, disdain, dislike. It’s the cost of proclaiming Christ.
But back to our original question: who’s missing? John! So who baptizes Jesus in Luke? The Holy Spirit. Likewise, it’s the Holy Spirit that baptizes us. Baptism, then, is God’s work–wholly and completely God’s work. This is Good News for us. Because this is God’s work that means that it doesn’t matter how often we fail, screw up, fall short of God’s glory. Nothing we do or don’t do can remove the identity God conveys as a gift.
Lose offers more good insight here: “Our relationship with God is the one relationship in life we can’t screw up precisely because we did not establish it. We can neglect this relationship, we can deny it, run away from it, ignore it, but we cannot destroy it, for God loves us too deeply and completely to ever let us go.”
Can you feel the Good News pulsing through that statement? Let’s hear it again: “Our relationship with God is the one relationship in life we can’t screw up precisely because we did not establish it. We can neglect this relationship, we can deny it, run away form it, ignore it, but we cannot destroy it, for God loves us too deeply and completely to ever let us go.”
So, we’re confident in our identity through baptism and in God’ work in our lives. What do we do now?
Lot’s of things.
Most importantly, We baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We do this because of Jesus’ great commission at the end of Matthew but also because of the hope we find in the deep well of the promises of God that abides with us because of our own baptisms. We do not re-baptize. Since baptism is God’s work, re-baptizing would imply that, for whatever reason, it didn’t take–that God made a mistake. God doesn’t make mistakes nor does God renege on his promises.
We baptize adults and children. We believe that “Baptism with water and the Holy Spirit is the mark of their acceptance into the care of Christ’s church, the sign, and seal of their participation in God’s forgiveness, and the beginning of their new growth into full Christian faith and life.”
When we baptize children, we, the gathered community of faithful, make certain promises. In the Book of Worship of the United Church of Christ, the congregation present at a Baptism is asked: “Do you who witness and celebrate this sacrament, promise your love, support, and care to the one about to be baptized, as she lives and grows in Christ?” The congregation responds: “We promise our love, support, and care.”
Those are big promises. They are promises that make sure the baptized never run the risk of ‘drying out.’ While they seem simple, they imply so much. Because I promise my love, support, and care to you (and through to all the baptized), I promise to do my darndest to be sure you’re OK. To help you when you need help, to put up with screaming babies during prayer time, to make hot chocolate and cookies for Victorian Christmases, to give how I can and when I can to support the work of the church, to volunteer at Vacation Bible School, to take every opportunity to tell that newly baptized person that God loves them and that this church loves them and that you love them.
You see, when we baptize someone, God’s work isn’t just being done in their life. It’s being done in ours, too.
Which is why, on days like today, we gather to remember our baptism–to remember what it means for us to have been washed in this water, to have been claimed as one of God’s own. We really have the opportunity to do this every day, don’t we? Every time we shower or even wash our hands, we can say a simple prayer of thanks for the gift of this sacrament that washes away our brokenness and welcomes us into God’s kingdom. Remembering our baptism reminds us that baptism isn’t a one-time affair. It’s not something that was done to us, that we wore a nice outfit for, that we as a congregation, made promises during. It’s a way of life–of being God’s, of keeping our eyes open to God’s work in us and in the world, and of sharing just what that means with any who will listen.
In just a little bit, we’ll gather around our own baptismal font. In the bowl, there are small stones covered in shallow water. You’re welcome to come up, take a stone and touch the water, remember your baptism–the promises made to you and for you, and be thankful. Be thankful that God works in such wonderful and mysterious ways. Be thankful that you belong to such a community of love and grace that they would be willing to make such promises to you. Be thankful that when we’ve almost dried out, we can get ourselves wet in the waters of baptism time and again. But mostly, be thankful that God, the one who created you and formed you, has called you by name and has done and is doing wondrous things in you.
I preached this sermon 3 years ago on January 17, 2010. I was in my last semester of seminary, deep in thought about what the future held, when on January 12th an earthquake in Haiti stopped us all in our tracks. Over 316,000 people lost their lives in a country that is still rebuilding. For those of us preaching, sermons were scrapped. There was just no way to talk about the tragedy that had occurred on such a massive scale in our world and what God had to say about it. Here’s what I had to say about it.
Before I begin, I’d like to present a small disclaimer. This is in no way the sermon I intended to write. This service is in no way the service any of the staff intended on having today. In fact, the title listed is more a reflection of my personal feelings in preparation for this morning than the actual sermon.
But as the reports continued to flood in and the scale of the tragedy in Haiti began to come to light, there was simply no way we could gather today and sing “Joyful, Joyful.”
If you have a TV or a radio, surely you’ve seen or heard of the devastation. Streets lined with bodies. Children orphaned. The elderly unable to help themselves. Destruction at every turn.
Many of you may not realize this, but I have a brother in Haiti. A brother whom I have not heard from. A brother who worked at one of the resorts that crumbled on Tuesday.
I also have a sister who works in Haiti. She was one of the UN staff who died.
My mother is there too, still searching the body-lined streets to find her other children. She and my uncle have found a few of them alive, but most are dead.
You see, we all have family in Haiti. In the gospel of Mark, we are told of a rather tense interaction Jesus has with his followers around the idea of family.
The story opens with Mary and her other sons standing on the outskirts of the crowd that had gathered around Jesus. His family sends to him, and the messenger tells Jesus “Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”
Do you remember Jesus’ reply? It’s shocking, not at all the good ol’ boy we’ve made Jesus into over the years. His reply is a simple question: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?”
What? Who are your mother and brothers? Easy–your mother is the one you gave birth to you. And your brothers are her other children. Right?
Jesus doesn’t seem to think so. He looks at those who are surrounding him, the ones who have come to hear him speak words of wisdom and of truth. “Here,” he exclaims, “Here are my mother and my brothers!” Realizing that he’s probably lost some of his followers in this statement, he adds “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.
What, then, does it mean to do the will of God? Despite a myriad of possible answers to this question, there is only one true response. It’s the action that we see prevail time and again in the Bible. It is the theme we see over and over and over again in the Gospels. Jesus sums it up in his teaching about the two greatest commandments.
In the New Testament canon we are first introduced to these commandments in Matthew. The writer of the gospel of Matthew tells us that it was the Pharisees who brought about this teaching. You see, the Pharisees were trying to test Jesus’ knowledge about the law, or Torah.
This particular pharisee, a lawyer, asked him this question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Now a lawyer in Jesus’ day was not a lawyer as we think of them. A Lawyer was someone concerned with the meaning of the law. In a sense, he was a theologian. The question he asked in no way was a serious one. He starts by addressing Jesus as Teacher, a obvious and insincere shift from Jesus’ believer’s use of Lord.
This conversation between the Pharisees and Jesus is a recurrence of a common theme in Matthew. Once again the Kingdom of God is at odds with the kingdom of religion.
The way the question is phrased is an attempt on behalf of the pharisees to catch Jesus off guard. Traditional understanding of the law is that all 613 commandments found in the Torah are equal in stature and value. Asking Jesus to choose one commandment or one kind of commandment over another is essentially trying to ask him a trick question.
Jesus doesn’t skip a beat. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Now this is part of what is known in Judaism as the Shema.
This statement of faith is the closest thing to a creedal statement in Jewish tradition. The Shema is spoken upon going to bed and upon waking from sleep. It is even uttered with one’s last breath.
In the Markan account of this story, we hear the whole of the Shema as the first commandment: Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all you heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
Jesus knows of its importance, and offers it as the most important commandment, but then he adds his own explaining that “the second is like it.” Jesus isn’t suggesting here that the second is similar to the first in meaning. Rather, he is emphasizing its equal importance. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
For Jesus the love of one’s neighbor is inseparable from the great command to love God. One professor writes “To love God is to love one’s neighbor, and to love one’s neighbor is to love God.”
Jesus isn’t finished quite yet. Just to hammer home his point, he adds: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Essentially, love God and love others. The rest is commentary.
So, if we are to be family in Christ, then we should do God’s will. And from what we just discussed, it seems like a pretty fair statement to say that God’s will is for us to love God and for us to love one another.
But what does that look like? This is our true challenge: what does love look like? What does love of God and love of neighbor look like? Notice what Jesus doesn’t talk about. Jesus doesn’t seem to believe that our job is to judge our neighbor or blame them for their misfortunes. He doesn’t even seem particularly concerned with their past. Time and again, we hear stories of Jesus calling people from their tragic past into a hope filled future.
So how, then, do we figure out what love looks like? Lucky for us, we’ve got a whole book of clues.
As we read the pages of the Bible, we are presented with answer after answer to this question. The reading from Isaiah that we heard this morning is one answer: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest.”
We flip to Micah: “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
The psalms speak of love as refuge and shelter: “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.”
We flip to the New Testament and find Jesus’ words reminding us of what our call to love means. Every time we face a tragedy, these words are at once words of comfort and words of action. Hear these words:
Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
It seems to me that almost every time we hear these words spoken we dismiss them as some sort of hippie speak. We live in a world of concrete success. Spiritual things are rarely touted as markers of success. Rather, we look to salaries and bonuses and cars and houses and trips. But we look at these teachings, the beatitudes, and hear nothing about split-levels and Mercedes.
Then we hear these words in the midst of crisis and they take on whole new meaning. What does it mean to be “poor in spirit?” Could it mean being so broken by the devastation around you that all you can do is fall on your knees and wail? What does it mean to mourn when a whole society has been torn apart? What does it mean to be merciful? What does it mean to be a peacemaker in a country not ripped apart by war, but by brute natural force?
Hidden in these words of comfort are words of action. They are statements that urge us to be a merciful people convinced of the importance of peacemaking. They are statements that not only affirm the hardship of life, but call us to respond to them.
But there are also more direct calls to action. Take the story of Jesus teaching his disciples about the return of “the Son of Man.” As part of this teaching, he tells us that the sheep will be at his right had and the goats at his left. He explains that those at his right hand are blessed by his Father. Why? “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
The righteous, confused, ask him “When did we do any of these.” And the king will reply “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
These aren’t menacing instructions. If anything they are empowering. Often God’s greatest commandment: to Love God and your neighbors is intimidating. Exactly how can we ever repay the love God has shown us. The short answer is: we can’t. But we can try. And Jesus gives us a starting place.
How can we repay that love? We can feed those who are hungry. We can care for the sick. We clothe the naked. We can lift up the downtrodden. We can be merciful. We can be a refuge. We can love kindness. We can work for justice. We can shout of love and truth and hope from the mountaintops.
Yes, it is a daunting task. But Paul reminds us that we are equipped for the job. The words from his first letter to the church in Corinth which we heard earlier remind us that we share a variety of gifts all inspired by the one Spirit. In times of need or distress, we can claim these gifts and use them to lift up a world which is broken and hurting and in desperate need of help.
You see, the Good News here, is not just some heady theological notion that Jesus came to save the whole world. The Good News is that we are equipped to aid in this salvation. I’m not talking about bringing people to Christ. While that is a good and worthy endeavor, its not what is needed here and now.
Our call today, in the midst of this crisis, is to be the hands of Christ in this world–to not remain silent when hatred is spewed about reasons for this catastrophe. To send aid–to send as much aid as we can as fast as we can. To pray, to pray hard, and hope against hope that more living are found. To hold the families who’ve lost loved ones in our hearts and lift them in God’s grace. To remind ourselves that God has indeed been our help in ages past and is our sure and confident hope in the days to come. To look toward the day with our faith may become sight and all will be made well.
Friends, can you see it? Can you see our call to be the light of Christ in this situation? Can you see our call beyond the politics of money and government to help those in need? Can you look at the people in Haiti and claim them as your own family?
For in Christ, we each have brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts and children and god-daughters and nephews to call our own. What will you do to help them?
Happy New Year! It’s so good to see you here in this new year. Today’s a big day. It’s our first Sunday together in the New Year. I love this Sunday. I love this season–the beginning of something new. It always feels like a clean slate.
It’s also Epiphany. Every year, Epiphany falls on January 6. This year, we’re lucky. Epiphany is actually on Epiphany Sunday! Epiphany is the end of the Christmas season, the end of, you know, the twelve days of Christmas. Epiphany has a couple of meanings. In every day usage, we think of an epiphany as a “moment of sudden revelation or insight.” It’s a instance of clarity, when everything comes into focus. In religious terms, it’s “a manifestation of a divine or supernatural being.” Another big word we could use is theophany, meaning appearance of God. We’ve had these before–remember the Burning Bush? But today, we celebrate Epiphany–capital E–the holy day which commemorates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles who are represented by the magi.
Oh, the Wise Men. In my hometown, the nativity scene out in the park, much like the one here in Davis Park, had the fireman’s helmets on the wisemen. When asked why, the guy in charge said, “Geez–y’all don’t ever read the Bible do you?–The wise men came from AFAR!”
Forgive me. There’s one Sunday a year I can use that joke.
I think we often miss the point of the wise men. We either get caught up in the logistics–what did they really bring to Jesus? Some claim they were there the night Jesus was born. Others say they visited a toddler-aged Jesus. They have traditional names: Melchoir, Balthazar, and Casper, but we don’t know that for sure. Really, their facetime in the Bible is minimal. In fact, the Bible doesn’t even tell us how many there were. It’s tradition that dictates the number three.
What the Bible does make clear, is that it is these magi who set a string of events, unintentionally, in motion. Because of their visit to Herod, Jesus and his family must flee to Egypt–we get the first taste of the hardship Christ must endure and of the way God cares for him.
Historically, these wise men are viewed as the first Gentiles to become Christian. This is important for us. You see, the prophecies all speak of a Jewish Messiah. That’s what and who the Jews were waiting for–a Messiah that would come to save his people. They were thinking chariots and horses–a King. He certainly wouldn’t come as a child and certainly wouldn’t come for the Gentiles. You see, for the Jews folks were dividing into two groups–Jews and everyone else. The Messiah was supposed to come for the Jews, NOT everyone else.
But the appearance of the Magi and their adoration of Jesus set an important precedent. Their appearance and adoration of Jesus makes clear that this Messiah came for all people. He came for the Jews and for the Gentiles. He came for the poor shepherds and the rich kings. He came for all of them. For all of us.
The Magi’s adoration of Christ is significant to us in another way: the wisemen are symbols of conventional wisdom. They were the bearers and holders of knowledge, of wisdom. In their travel to Jesus, their gifts to Jesus and their adoration of him, what we witness is not just power bowing to Christ, but wisdom–the old wisdom didn’t disappear, but bowed to new wisdom, new hope, new love made manifest in Christ that night.
And that is what we celebrate today both as part of Epiphany and as part of our first service in the new year–that God has indeed come into the world and that God is indeed doing a new thing.
Isaiah exhorts us to Arise, shine for our light has come. So friends on this day of new beginnings, let’s do just that–let’s rise, let’s allow God’s love shine through us this and every day so that we can proclaim the good news that the way things were is no more, that conventional wisdom has given birth to God’s new reign of grace, mercy, and love, and that God has been and will continue to make all things new!
This morning is the first time I addressed the tragedy in Newtown directly in a sermon. In order to do so, I used the Lectionary from Year C for the First Sunday after Christmas known in Biblical circles as the Slaughter of the Innocents–a fitting scripture when talking about such sad affairs. Here’s the lesson for the day.
The holidays are a time of traditions. From watching Santa arrive at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to favorite Christmas dishes, traditions define our time together during Christmas. One of my family’s traditions is to read the Nativity story on Christmas eve. We read it from the same old family Bible that’s been passed down from generation to generation. My dad turns to Luke, and in a quiet voice begins to read one of the most iconic stories of our faith. It’s a tradition that Greg and I have picked up. Once we made it back from the airport Wednesday afternoon and finished wrapping presents, we sat and read the story that has been so loved by generations of Christians.
We didn’t read this part, though. We rarely read about this. Partly, that’s because in Luke the next scene we are offered is Jesus’ circumcision then, bam, he’s teaching in the temple. In fact, if we were following the lectionary to a “t,” we’d be reading that passage today–the story of Jesus schooling the temple leaders. Luke also offers a much tidier ending to the birth narrative. “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” That’s nice.
Matthew is hardly as neat. Matthew presents a more frantic story; and while we like to read the birth narrative reverently and calmly, there are some pretty anxious moments in Matthew’s version of events. We all know the first part: Mary finds out (by way of an Angel, mind you) that’s she’s pregnant even though she has done nothing that might make her with child. Joseph is visited in a dream by an angel encouraging him to stay with his wife who is expecting a baby that isn’t his. The baby is born in a cowshed out back behind an inn as a star rises above that is brighter and bigger than any other star that night. Shepherds somehow make their way to see the newborn child. So do wise men who bring a wealth of gifts. and For an instant, there is a Kodak moment of Christmas perfection.
Then things get even crazier, according to Matthew. Joseph gets this intense dream where an angel says “Hey, listen up Joe, get the kid and haul it to Egypt. Herod’s out to get him.” And Joseph does as he’s told and uproots his family for Egypt (the land that enslaved his people generations before—just so we’re clear). And, with the holy family safely stowed in a far off land, Herod proceeds to kill all the boys under the age of two in the region around Bethlehem in an attempt to thwart any sort of revolutionary child king. And Rachel weeps for her children. Jesus is saved.
This is the other half of the story, the other half of Christmas. And it’s a hard half to confront, particularly now as we read it through eyes that witnessed the endless news reports of the horror and tragedy that happened just 2 and a half short weeks ago in Newtown. It’s taken me a while to make it to a place where I felt like I could preach a sermon about that. Many of my colleagues responded that first Sunday after the tragedy with sermons about what had taken place. But it just felt like it was too soon for me, for us.
That Sunday we had no fewer that 15 congregants in attendance who worked in schools in one way or another–that’s not to mention the many who volunteer or who are parents. We needed to be gentle in our response, intentional in our healing. That Sunday I told you that we needed to hear the stories and songs of our brokenness and of our salvation. Today, the same remains true: this is a story of humanity’s brokenness
The first time I preached on this text was while I was in seminary. I remember reading the text closely and realizing just what a challenge lay before me. There I was: twenty-two and barely a semester into my theological education and I was being asked to discuss quite possibly one of the most theologically challenging passages in the Bible. It’s challenging because it forces us to fundamentally wonder about the nature of a God that would allow the death of children for the sake of his own. It makes us question the notion of a savior that would run while not warning others to flee as well, or of a God that wouldn’t make that part of the plan.
And I had to wonder, “Am I old enough for this?” That question has been the common denominator of the past six months. Am I old enough to have a mortgage? Or a cat? Am I old enough for my friends to be getting married? Am I old enough to be fixing the tiles that crumbled off my shower? Or to be I receiving major kitchen appliances for Christmas?
And beyond the little changes have been much larger ones. Twice a week, I donned my security ID and made my rounds on Four East at Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital in Atlanta. Rarely were there patients that had been there for more than a few days. So my time was spent making initial visits to patients and families, and attempting to assist them in some way. Mostly, after I went into a room and introduce myself as a chaplain (talk about wondering if you’re old enough…), the families would politely answer a few questions then indirectly or, sometimes painfully directly, let me know it’s time to go. But every once and while, someone opened up. A young parent wants to know why this is happening to their child? If it was something they did? They want to know why bad things happen, or why God lets the innocent become ill. And I would stand in those rooms, with these people bearing their souls to me and I want to say “You know I’m twenty-two, in my first semester of seminary and barely making a B in Hebrew, right?”
That question was quickly followed by two more questions: “Wait, your serious?” and “Where do we go from here?”
But that isn’t their concern. Their concern was finding a way to get through the ordeal they are facing, and they wanted me to help them.
I think Mary and Joseph might have felt the same way. I can imagine Joseph thinking “Am I old enough to be taking my family to Egypt?” Mary might wonder “am I old enough to be a mother?” We all question our own preparedness in the world around us. Somehow, I don’t think you ever feel old enough. Joseph could’ve just as well asked the angel “Wait, your serious?” You can almost hear Mary look at her husband: “Where do we go from here?”
These are the questions that linger in our minds now, over two weeks after the tragic Sandy Hook Shootings. I think we all remember when we first heard about it–the conflicting reports, our inherent disbelief–no, this can’t be–who would do something like this? We stared at the at the TV–”wait, your serious?”
None of it made sense. Why? Where do we head next? Where do we go from here? There are no easy answers to these quesitons. No answers that wouldn’t seem trite or dismissive. Where do we go from Newtown? Where do we head after this other half of Christmas?
But hear there is good news in this story–it is the the Good News of God’s faithfulness. This, the other half of Christmas, is the promise coming to life. Until this point, the story has been grand—angels and singing, shepherds, magi and gifts. The promise is said to have been fulfilled.
But if we journey with the story as though it is the first time we’ve heard it, we don’t know that yet. We don’t know about Lazarus coming back to life or the sick being made well. We haven’t gotten to the part where Christ walks on water or feeds a hillside of hungry followers.
We just have a manger, a new mother and father, a small child and an angry king. The flight to Egypt and the mere survival of Christ, then, is a morsel of promise made real in an otherwise fairy-tale of a story.
And in this morsel of survival is a world of truth and hope and certainty in the midst of the most uncertain times much like the ones we live in now. But friends, God is faithful.
Like Rachel we weep for the brokenness of this world. We cry out when it seems that good has been slaughtered by evil. We tremble when we witness the destruction of war and famine and drought. But friends, God is faithful.
I think about my patient Bobby. The four-year old had been admitted to the hospital with an abdominal wound which came from his brother who stabbed him (accidentally) with a box cutter while playing power rangers. I sat with Bobby for 3 hours or so, playing candy land, watching power rangers, and talking about what he wanted for Christmas. He knew he was being released later that day, so he talked about home, and how he was ready to “get out of this town.” What he didn’t know was that the Department of Family and Children Services would be picking him up. He would be leaving the hospital, but he wouldn’t be going home.
And I wept for Bobby as I left that day. I felt like I had abandoned him like everyone else had in his life. I was angry at a society that would let a child be harmed like he was. I was angry at the God that didn’t protect him. It didn’t seem to me that God was faithful at all.
Don’t you see, this is the other half of Christmas—It’s a bit of reality in an otherwise fairytale experience. And in the midst of that harsh truth, there is the light of the fact that the Christ lived through trying times, and suffered with us so we might be able to survive this world. God remained faithful through his own humanity to offer us salvation.
This is the joy of the other half of Christmas—we can make it. God is indeed with us, because as the author of Hebrews reminds us, Christ has suffered along side us. And for this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters.
The Nativity isn’t just a pleasant little tale that weaves a story around angels and sheep.
It is a promise made real. For, friends, God is indeed faithful.
Before you read the sermon, check out the Gospel Lesson.
Also, watch this video:
We are living in the meantime. Do you realize that? That we are living in the meantime? We are living in a time between two realities. A time between what has already come to pass and what is yet to come. We are living in the meantime.
We are all pretty familiar with living in the meantime. We judge our lives by major life events–births, weddings, graduations, birthdays, Christmases, deaths. The time between these events is “the meantime.” And almost all of us are there, now.
It is a strange place to be, the meantime. We know what has already occurred. We have records and stories and traditions that point to that. We also know that something is coming. We have other stories and traditions and prophecies that point to that. But, for now, we live in the meantime somewhere between what has been and what is to come.
Advent is the perfect time to talk about living in the meantime. It is a season of waiting and preparing. It is a time during which we sweep out the cobwebs of our outside lives, throw away the trash of the worries that have been piling up since last Advent so that we might have room to witness and hold the miraculous beauty of Christ. We wait and we prepare for the coming of Christ–not just as the babe in the manger, but also as the Son of Man on clouds descending from heaven. Advent is one of the most confusing seasons for most Christians. Many simply don’t understand the point. Can’t we just get to Christmas, already? Christmas, of course, is the fun part–presents, food, family and friends, fun.
But we aren’t to Christmas yet. In fact, we have a ways to go until we get there.
The church year is a curious way of organizing time in the church. It has grown out of two millennia of Christian tradition, and is influenced by millennia of Jewish tradition before that. The church year, or liturgical calendar as it is often called, calls Christians to remember the life of Christ within the life of the church. As we walk through the church year, we walk with Christ from the manger to the cross to the triumph of the resurrection.
And it begins with the season we start today, Advent. The word advent comes from the Latin “adventus” meaning coming. In Advent, we prepare for the coming Christ. At Christmas, we witness his arrival and celebrate the implications of the Word made flesh. This is the reason that the nativity on the old Communion Table features an illuminated Bible. On Christmas eve, we will find Jesus in its place–the Word made flesh, indeed.
Next, we look toward Epiphany–toward a time of new beginnings and miracles. We then start to walk with Christ through the first part of his ministry. Soon, we arrive at Lent.
At the beginning of Lent, of course, is Ash Wednesday when we are reminded of our mortality and sinfulness by wearing ashen crosses on our foreheads. The forty days of Lent are penitential ones–days where we are particularly mindful of our shortcomings. Yet, through these days of refinement and cleansing, we still find ourselves called by Christ to follow him to the cross.
Soon, the day is upon us. We share the meal and wait in silence hoping against hope that it isn’t true–that Christ isn’t really dead. Then comes Easter morning and the fresh breath of the Resurrection. We find ourselves reassured that life has indeed overcome death. The next months are ones of reflection on the teachings of Jesus as we work to align our lives with his life. With all of these celebrations and teachings and miracles piled one upon the other, we have no other choice but to acknowledge to reign of Christ, so we celebrate Christ the King Sunday (which we celebrated just this past week). We sang songs of rejoicing in the Lord our King who is sovereign over heaven and earth.
It seems strange, then, at least to me, for us to suddenly leave such a triumphant frenzy in the midst of our church life to sit and wait and pray–which is exactly what Advent calls us to do. It is a dramatic move from celebration of Christ’s reign to the anticipation of it.
And it’s a surprisingly counter-cultural shift. A little over a week ago, we were confronted with a barrage of sales encouraging us to buy early and cheap. Calendars are filling up with Christmas get-togethers and holiday parties–our own on Dec. 14 included. It’s overwhelming. The voiceovers of advertisements and our own wants drown out the call to wait, to hold tight, to be on guard and to keep awake.
But the scripture lessons today offer a different vision of what we should be doing to prepare for the coming Christ. The readings for this first Sunday of Advent are always apocalyptic in nature. This isn’t done out of intimidation; but rather, to remind us of the ways that God is working in the world. These texts remind us that the story of Christmas is far larger than a manger and a star. As beloved preacher Fred Craddock puts it the fact that “God comes to us is certain, however uncertain the when and how.” It is this certainty that God comes to us that causes us to move, to keep awake and pray as we wait.
The first part of the Gospel reading is undoubtedly intense. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
We hear the words and become a little uncomfortable. It is easy to look around and see these things happening. it is easy for us to read our particular situation into Luke’s Jesus. We think back to the past years: the devestating earthquake in Haiti, the floods in the mid-west, our own Hurricane Sandy. Is this what Jesus was talking about?
We think of wars and nuclear weaponry, and the way that hatred seems to pervasive. Is this what Jesus was talking about?
The culture we live in champions terrifying perceptions of the end times. In the past decade alone, we’ve had a deluge of motion pictures that imagine our world during apocalyptic times. Books have been published which try to guess what it will be like when these signs occur, not to mention pop-culture’s obsession with the end of the Mayan calendar is 2012. Are these stories true? Is this what Jesus was talking about?
Here is the question it all boils down to: What will happen next?
It’s a simple question, really. What’s next? It’s a question we all want answered. It comes in all sorts of forms, some more mundane than others. What will I eat for the next meal? What will my child’s next tantrum be about?
Sometimes, it is asked in far more significant terms: What happens when we die? What will happen when the world ends?
The simple fact is, we are obsessed with knowing what will happen next.
Jesus, of course, realizes this. The gospel lesson for today is smack in the middle of the long Lukan journey to the cross. For a while, in the middle of Luke, we hear the parables–stories Jesus used to make a point about the spiritual life. Soon these parables are interrupted with some of Jesus’ most noted conversations (like with the Rich Young Ruler and Zacheus), miracles of healing, and prophecies. Jesus repeatedly foretells his own death.
Then, starting in the 21st chapter, Jesus begins an apocalyptic pattern–a Biblical TV guide of sorts. First, he tells of the coming destruction of the temple, then of signs and persecutions. Jesus then tells of the destruction of Jerusalem, followed closely by the passage we read today. You can image the uneasiness that swept through his followers. It is the same uneasiness we felt today when we heard these words read. You can imagine the confusion that must have descended upon them. In a way , it parallels our own confusion about what the end times just might be like.
Jesus keeps talking about the coming of the Son of Man. Now the structure of Luke, and of all the Gospels for that matter, is about proving a particular point–that Jesus is the Christ, or as the gospel writers often put it: the Son of Man. Yet here, Jesus keeps pointing to the coming Son of Man. But isn’t Jesus, who is already here, the Son of Man? Then why does Jesus say the Son of Man is coming?
This only adds to their confusion. But Jesus doesn’t seem particularly concerned with their understanding of the details. Instead of delving into the theological implications of his return, he instead gives them these instructions: “Now, when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.”
Notice what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say run around frantically stocking up on bread and milk and plywood. He doesn’t say head for the hills. He doesn’t say to grab the nearest helmet and elbow pads. No, he says to stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near. Besides this there is no action on our part to be done. You see, God doesn’t need our help to make these things come to pass.
To prove his point, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree. Now the fig tree is a common fruit tree to the Middle East. Those hearing this parable would have certainly been familiar with it. Like our own spring and summer seasons, the shift to warmer weather brought with it an explosion of flora. Jesus tells us to look out for even the simplest ways, like the fig tree blooming in summer, that the kingdom of God draws near to us.
His final words about this are not ones of desperation. Rather ones of instruction: Be on guard, keep watch, so the things and worries of this world won’t weigh you down and cause you to miss the glory that is coming.
You see, Jesus himself reminds his followers that even he doesn’t know when he will return, but he knows it will happen. We hear echoes of his earlier discourses of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. Let God take of it. Instead of worrying about when it will occur, Jesus is far more concerned with how we live our lives while we are waiting. Jesus is most concerned about the how we live in meantime.
What is important to him isn’t that we perform the right ritual or are part of the the right church. Rather, what matters to Jesus is that we keep awake, that we keep watch and pray.
In that classic movie musical Sister Act 2 a showgirl played by Whoopi Goldbergis lured to a school staffed by her old nun friends from the first Sister Act. She is assigned to teach music to a class of misfits and troublemakers. After a few sessions of tough classes where the students are nothing but disrespectful, her character, Sister Mary Clarence, begins to take care of business. After setting the class straight, she offers her first lesson: If you wanna be somebody, if you wanna go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention.
Jesus encourages his followers with similar urgency: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly.”
Wake up and pay attention. Put down the things that distract you from this great day. Live in the anticipation of hope, not the expectation of fear. To merge the two: If you want to be somebody who follows me and tastes my glory, you better wake up and pay attention. Pay attention to the things that really matter–which incidentally are not necessarily holiday parties or sale bargains.
His words are not ones of desperation. He doesn’t want his followers to be on guard so that they can avoid terrible happenings, for there is nothing terrible about Christ’s return. He doesn’t want us to run to the cellar and hunker down. He wants to stand up, pay attention and pray for the day that is coming–the day that is not of judgment, but of grace. We have no reason to fear, only reason to rejoice.
And so we find ourselves here on this first Sunday of Advent. Looking forward not only to the coming of the Christ child, but also to the coming of Christ in glory. We see our future in the manger and in the clouds. We remember the story of our Salvation and look toward its completion. In the meantime, that is to say now, keep awake. In the meantime, keep watch because, friends, God is doing great and glorious things, even in the meantime.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.