Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Curious Twelve

1 Samuel 2:18-21,26; Luke 2:41-52
December 30, 2012
© 2012


I.                During my years of youth ministry, we typically used vans to get to and from weekend retreats, summer camps and mission trips. From New Jersey we went as far as Maine and Michigan, so were in close proximity to each other for a lot of hours. “Nurture notes” were a longstanding tradition for these events. All were expected to write a brief note affirming each person in the group. These were distributed just before getting in the vans to head home. As nurture notes were read, people expressed verbal thanks and further affirmation to each other. They recounted special experiences they had shared. They started singing songs that had been favorites of the event. Whether as a youth or an adult, how many of you have had that kind of experience? Yes, really raise your hands!

A.           Now I want you to go back a couple of thousand years and imagine the pilgrims returning to Galilee after the Passover festival. That’s the setting for the story of 12 year old Jesus in Luke 2:41-52. Like Mary’s visit to Elizabeth that we talked about last Sunday, the distance is about 75 miles. A group of pilgrims would cover less than 10 miles a day. The men would go ahead with the gear and set up camp. Then the women and children would arrive towards evening. With the packing up and getting organized, the first day of returning home would probably cover about 5 miles, which could be walked in a couple of hours by unencumbered adults.

B.            Now every year [Jesus] parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50But they did not understand what he said to them. 51Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

II.            This is the only incident from Jesus’ childhood recorded in any of the Gospels, but that didn’t stop others from inventing some very creative stories to satisfy their curiosity.

A.           The Quran (5:110) says, “O Jesus, Son of Mary! Call to mind My favour upon thee and upon thy mother, when I strengthened thee with the Holy Spirit, that thou shouldest speak to men in the cradle. … Thou didst create of clay the figure of a bird, by My leave, and didst breathe into it, and by My leave it became a bird.”

B.            The best known of the imaginary stories of Jesus as a child come from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which was written by Gnostic heretics in the 3rd century to suggest that Jesus was not a flesh and blood human. It has this story about Jesus creating birds from mud and making them live. It adds that when another boy splashed the mud puddles, Jesus cursed him and he withered up and died. He raised to life a boy who was killed falling from a roof and healed his brother James when he was bitten by a snake. He stretched a piece of wood that was too short for a project Joseph was building in his shop.

C.            Assorted other legends also sprang up later. On their way to Egypt after the visit of the Magi, the Holy Family stayed in a cave populated by a herd of dragons, who fell down and adored the baby Jesus. A sorcerer had turned a man into a mule, and when Mary put the baby Jesus on the mule’s back, it turned back into the man. People were healed of leprosy by washing in baby Jesus’ bathwater.

III.       All of these legends about Jesus’ childhood ascribe supernatural power to Jesus, a sort of Superboy. Luke points us in a different direction. Just as God’s greatness was hidden in Jesus’ ordinary childhood, God’s greatness floods our ordinary lives with light.

A.           When Jesus asserted that he must be in his Father’s house, his parents did not understand. Of course, they knew the extraordinary circumstances of his birth, but they had been living as an ordinary family for 12 years. Jesus undoubtedly called Joseph “Abba” and Mary “Amma.” But when he spoke of being in his Father’s house they knew he wasn’t talking about Joseph. Mary was the quintessential Mom, expressing her anxiety for her child and appealing to Dad for support. “Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

B.            Some have suggested that Jesus’ response rebuked Mary and Joseph for not recognizing his divinity. That strikes me as heading in the direction of some of those legends that dismiss Jesus’ humanity. Rather, I think Jesus was a typical, ordinary 12 year old. Now he was bar mitzvah, a son of the covenant and part of the adult community. That may be why Mary and Joseph assumed he was in the group of travelers. He had certainly gone to Jerusalem with the women and children. Joseph might have thought he was still most comfortable there. But now he was eligible to be with the men, and Mary might have expected he wanted to be with them. But with the teachers at the Temple, he had his first chance at an adult experience. He was thoroughly engrossed. He lost track of time. He wasn’t thinking about his parents. When they came looking for him, he expected them to recognize what was obvious to him. “Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house? Where else would I be?” Our New Testament theology (Hebrews 4:15) tells us that Jesus was without sin. I would conclude from that that for Jesus to be an ordinary 12 year old was not sinful.

C.            Yes, Luke tells us that those who heard Jesus were “amazed at his understand and answers.” But Luke does not suggest that this was supernatural, but rather Jesus’ emerging awareness of his own unique identity. Luke completely avoided the extraordinary exploits of the legendary stories. For Luke, Jesus was the embodiment of the greatness of God in a very ordinary 12 year old boy.

IV.      Last week we saw that Mary’s Magnificat was an improvisation on Hannah’s song when she gave Samuel for a life of service to the Lord. Luke again connects the child Jesus with the child Samuel when he wrote that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” I can’t help but ask how anyone would know if they or anyone else was increasing in favor with the Lord.

A.           Ambition for political, economic or even religious power disqualifies for spiritual leadership. Nevertheless, some humble folk have been remarkable public leaders: Moses and David, Deborah and Esther, Barnabas and Timothy, Benedict and Francis, Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa. But more often than not, spiritual giants are like Anna and Simeon who got a glimpse of God’s redemption when Joseph and Mary came to dedicate the infant Jesus at the Temple. Just as God’s greatness was hidden in Jesus’ ordinary childhood, God’s greatness floods our ordinary lives with light.

B.             If 12 year old Jesus was increasing in divine favor, I ask myself, how is a 66 year old Norm increasing in God’s favor? Or how is my granddaughter Elizabeth, who just turned 6 this week, increasing in God’s favor? The spiritual life is not a competition sport! It is not about who is ahead. It is about being in process with God right where you are right now, wherever that is.

C.            A Jewish tradition has grown out of the Talmud, which is commentary on the Law of Moses, and says that in every generation 36 righteous people “greet the Shechinah” – God’s glorious presence. The Hebrew for 36 is lamed vav, and these 36 people are called Lamed Vavniks. They are also called Tzaddikim or Nistarim which means “concealed ones.” The legend says that at all times 36 humble, righteous people keep the world from coming to an end with their prayers. No one knows who the Lamed Vavniks are. They themselves do not know that they are Lamed Vavniks, nor do they know who any of the other Lamed Vavniks are. Their spiritual responsibility is monumental, because the tradition is that if there are not enough qualified people to make up the 36, the world will end in disaster. Thus, everyone should act as though they were a Lamed Vavnik and lead holy, humble lives of prayer for the sake of all humanity. Throughout history since biblical times, God has worked through small, hidden remnants of faithful but ordinary people. As ordinary as you may feel, who knows, you may be a Christian Lamed Vavnik!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Magnify the Minuscule

Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-45
December 23, 2012
© 2012


I.                The Sunday after September 11, 2001 like many preachers, I tried to explain the greatest destruction and loss of civilian life on American soil since the burning of Atlanta and Sherman’s March to the Sea in the Civil War. Of course, nothing any of us could say would restore a sense of sanity and security in those days when it seemed the world had lost its moorings. I encouraged people to ration their news consumption to one or two brief times a day – just enough to stay informed without letting relentless repetition beat your heart into desolation.

A.           Violent mass killings such as took place in Newtown, Connecticut just over a week ago evoke a similar sense of humanity adrift in chaos. By relentlessly rehearsing and analyzing recent similar events on top of the political brinksmanship surrounding the fiscal cliff, commentators contribute to our perception of our world out of control.

B.            When studying German in high school, I read Wolfgang Borchert’s 1946 play Drauẞen vor der Tür.  Beckmann, the main character, is a German soldier returning home after World War II, only his home and wife and parents are gone. In a rather nightmarish state, he encounters an assortment of dreamlike characters who futilely try to reconnect him with a stable, secure reality. I have frequently thought of Beckmann as I have watched the parents leave funerals in Newtown, Connecticut.

C.            Psalm 11:3 asks, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Thankfully, it doesn’t stop there or answer “nothing.” The very next verse assures us that “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven. His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind.” This is God’s word to us on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The world may seem chaotic, but God sees and is at work. Both Micah and Mary assure us that when the world seems to have lost its moorings, Jesus appears from apparent insignificance.

II.            Today’s call of the Prophet Micah (5:2-5a) is an Advent favorite and the inspiration for O Little Town of Bethlehem, which we sang last week. It is an oracle of encouragement at a time when, to the people of Judah, the world seemed to have lost its moorings. Micah and Isaiah were contemporaries late in the 8th century BCE. The opening of Micah 4 and Isaiah 2 are almost identical. Both of them are filled with messianic hope that the New Testament writers saw as pointing to Jesus, which is why Isaiah and Micah are prominent in Advent.

A.           Isaiah was highly educated from a royal family with access to palace and Temple. Micah was from among the subsistence farmers. The kings of Judah imposed a tax on them that cut into what they needed to survive. To pay the tax, farmers moved from food crops to cash crops, which impaired the nutrition of the families. The kings also drafted young adult sons for the army and daughters for palace service. This reduced the labor available to raise crops just when they needed to raise more to pay taxes. In addition, the kings of Judah were not free monarchs but vassals of the Assyrian Empire, which confiscated land and conscripted the brightest and best youth. No wonder Micah and Isaiah cried for justice for the poor.

B.            Today’s call of the prophet is from the second half of Micah which turns from pronouncing God’s judgment on the wealthy and powerful to promising that God will bring a better day for the weak and poor. Micah says that their present tribulations were actually the birth pangs of that new day (5:3). The day is coming when God will turn everything upside down. What seems weak and insignificant now will someday be on top with strength.

C.            Bethlehem is the sign of that great reversal. Just as God brought the great King David from that little clan of Judah, God will one day bring, from little Bethlehem, the one who is to rule Israel, whose origin is from ancient days. The one of peace who shall feed his flock. That both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels pointedly place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem affirms that when the world seems to have lost if moorings, Jesus appears from apparent insignificance.

III.       Monica sang Mary’s Magnificat this morning. The beautiful poetry and music help us absorb the radical reversal in Mary’s song. Mary and Micah have the same message. The day is coming when God will bring down the wealthy, proud and powerful. The day is coming when God will exalt the lowly, the poor and the hungry. Luke 1:39-45 is clear that Mary did not sing her Magnificat on the stage of a great opera house or concert hall but in the lowly home of her relative Elizabeth. When the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to be the mother of the Messiah, he told her that her aged, barren relative Elizabeth was also expecting a child.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

A.           Mary’s Magnificat came in this private moment between two pregnant women. Some scholars have questioned whether a peasant girl such as Mary could have composed such eloquent poetry on the spot and suggest Luke added it later. Others have reacted to that skepticism by ascribing the Magnificat to a miraculous inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Both of these hypotheses underestimate a young woman without formal education. I have a hypothesis that I think is both more plausible and respectful. I am quite sure Mary knew Hannah’s song from 1 Samuel 2 and saw herself in Hannah. The parallels are obvious and striking. The distance from Mary’s home in Nazareth to Elizabeth’s in the Judean hills would be at least 75 miles. If Mary walked 15 miles a day (which would be optimistic), she would take at least 5 days to walk to Elizabeth’s. To have 5 days of solitary walking to meditate on Hannah’s song after her conversation with the Angel Gabriel, seems plenty of time for the Holy Spirit to have guided Mary in improvising on Hannah’s song to compose the Magnificat, by the time she got to Elizabeth.

B.            For scholars to discount this possibility is not only insult Mary, but to also the miss the very point of the Magnificat, that God is working through lowly and unexpected people. Here is the real meaning of Christmas. God intentionally chose to send the long awaited Messiah through a young peasant woman who lived in an obscure village in Galilee to give birth in another tiny town in Judea. God intentionally chose that the Messiah would be identified with the weak, the poor, the broken and the hungry. From her meditation on Hannah’s Song, the Holy Spirit inspired Mary’s exultant praise to the God who scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts, brings down the powerful from their thrones and sends the rich away empty. Mary herself was one of the lowly people on whom God had looked with favor, poured out great mercy and filled with good things.

C.            Advent is the season of waiting. Tomorrow evening our wait to celebrate the birth of Jesus ends, Christmas begins, and we rejoice that Jesus was born. But even as we come to the conclusion of Advent, we are reminded that we are still waiting for the completion of the great reversal of Mary’s Magnificat that the birth of her son Jesus would set in motion. Mary and Micah both assure us that though we continue to wait, the reversal is already happening among the lowly people and places if we will just look. When the world seems to have lost its moorings, Jesus appears from apparent insignificance.

IV.      Fred Rogers had a very special gift of helping children understand difficult things. He was asked what adults can say to children in times of disaster. He replied, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.(http://www.fci.org/new-site/par-tragic-events.html)

A.           Sometimes the helpers are obvious. At the funeral for Sandy Hook Elementary School special education teacher Annie Murphy, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said, “Like Jesus, Annie laid down her life for her friends. Like Jesus, Annie's life and death brings light, truth, goodness and love to a world often shrouded in darkness, evil, selfishness and death.” While I know nothing about Annie Murphy beyond what has been in the news, wherever people devote themselves to bring light, truth, goodness and love to others, Jesus’ great reversal is underway. (http://www.newstimes.com/default/article/Cardinal-compares-slain-teacher-to-Jesus-4135201.php)

B.            In this case a tragedy gave us a window into someone who would otherwise have gone unnoticed. Sometimes such people are recognized and honored publically. But more often than not, they do their transforming work in humble obscurity. They are the people of little Bethlehem. They are in the company of Mary and Micah and Jesus.

C.            As we make our transition from Advent to Christmastide tomorrow evening, be on the lookout for the lowly, obscure people in whom the transformation of Jesus is underway. When you recognize Jesus’ great reversal, join in with quiet exuberance. You never know when your humble contribution may be God’s sign to someone who is drifting that the Reign of Christ is on the move. When the noise of the season and the chaos of current events suggest the world has lost its moorings, look for Jesus to appear from apparent insignificance.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Clean Up Your Act

Malachi 3:1-5; Luke 1:68-70
December 9, 2012
© 2012


I.                Jesus’ birth has inspired amazing music. With the choir cantata, next Sunday’s worship will be almost all music. Mary’s Song, The Magnificat, has inspired exquisite female solos. We’ll get to that the fourth Sunday of Advent.

A.           Zechariah’s Song, The Benedictus, is not as well-known but is also powerful poetry. Zechariah and Elizabeth were an old couple with no children, though they had prayed for a child. Zechariah was a priest, and when he was on duty in the Temple, the Angel Gabriel appeared to him and said his prayers were answered, and they would have a son. Despite their prayers, Zechariah doesn’t believe it, so Gabriel tells him he will be unable to speak until the child is born. In those 9 months of silence, Zechariah ponders the redemption of God, and when the child is born and Zechariah confirms that his name is John, his silence is broken and he exclaims:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

B.            On this second Sunday of Advent, Peace Sunday, Zechariah’s Song celebrates the light of God’s dawn that guides our feet into the way of peace. Starting with One Candle Is Lit, peace is woven into today’s hymns.

1.              Hail to the Lord’s Anointed: v. 3 “Before him on the mountains, shall peace, the herald go.”

2.              It Came upon the Midnight Clear: v. 1 “Peace on the earth, good will to all, from heaven’s all gracious King” v. 4 “Shall come the time foretold; when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling.”

3.              God’s Love Made Visible!: v. 1 “Joyfully pray for peace and good will.”

4.              O Come, O Come Emmanuel: v. 4 “Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.”

C.            During Advent we prepare for the appearing of Jesus by permitting him to purify us to become people of peace.

II.            In slightly different ways, all four Gospels identify John the Baptizer as the voice crying out in the wilderness from Isaiah 40:3, and without naming Malachi, they imply John was the messenger sent to prepare the way of the Lord.

A.           John’s ministry calling for repentance matched the tone of Malachi’s prophecy in contrast with the exuberance of Zechariah’s Song. Zechariah looked ahead to the completion of God’s redemptive purpose. John preached in the midst of preparing for it by rigorous purification.

B.            Zechariah looked forward to serving God without fear in holiness and righteousness. For a millennium the people of Israel had lived in fear of foreign oppressors who often restricted, diluted or prohibited their worship. John the Baptizer was fearless in the face of the criticism of the religious leaders, the hostility of the wealthy and powerful, and the violent threats of King Herod.

C.            For the Hebrews, holiness was about character, righteousness about justice. John said “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” (Luke 3:8) Those with 2 coats were to give to someone with none, and to do the same with food. (v. 11). People who had power, such as tax collectors and soldiers, were not to extort but to be content with their wages. (vv. 13-14) Compassion and justice together.

III.       What emotions did you feel reading aloud the strong words of Malachi at the beginning of the service? How do Malachi’s words help us prepare for the appearing of Jesus this Advent, permitting him to purify us to become people of peace?

A.           Malachi may not be the prophet’s name. Malachi means “my messenger.”  He may have been a priest who was very concerned that so soon after returning from exile and reestablishing Temple worship, it had become corrupted. But Malachi was not the last of God’s messengers. The Gospels see John the Baptizer as the messenger to whom Malachi was pointing. Zechariah’s Song distinguished between the prophet who would “go before the Lord to prepare his way” (1:76) and the “mighty savior” (1:69) raised up in the house of David. When John baptized Jesus (3:21-22), God confirmed that Jesus was this mighty savior.

B.            Zechariah saw a day of serving God in holiness. Similarly, Malachi called for purifying worship in the rebuilt Temple, so their offerings could be pleasing to the Lord. Malachi called people to be faithful to God’s covenant. Zechariah saw God keeping the covenant with his people. When he wrote of sorcerers and adulterers, he addressed the tendency to add pagan practices and sometimes even pagan gods to Temple worship.

C.            Zechariah also saw a day of serving God in righteousness. Typically Hebrew, Malachi defined that righteousness as justice in relationships. He sharply criticized those who were dishonest, who took advantage of daily laborers, of widows and orphans, those who were poor and weak. He equated mistreating foreigners with disrespect for God.

IV.      I would not attempt to explain how or why, but my experience tells me the details of life connect. Back in the middle of November, I mapped out the hymns for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. I wanted the music to work with the Scripture selections for a progression from anticipation to celebration that got in all the standards (you’ll have to come Christmas Eve to get some of these) and mixed the familiar with the less known. I picked Dave and Iola Brubeck’s God’s Love Made Visible for today, having no way of knowing that Dave Brubeck would die this week. Dave Brubeck may be best known for performing Paul Desmond’s  jazz classic Take Five, written in 5/4 time. Remember that when we sing God’s Love Made Visible as our communion hymn.

A.           Dave Brubeck’s personal journey also connects to the Peace theme of this 2nd Sunday of Advent. As a young man he was deeply disturbed by the violence of World War II. This prompted a spiritual awakening that eventually led him to Jesus as the source of real peace. Though the words were written by his wife Iola, that focus on Jesus and peace is clear in God’s Love Made Visible. Eventually, he joined the Catholic Church but said, “I didn’t convert because I wasn’t anything to convert from.” (Rediscovering Dave Brubeck, PBS) I think many of today’s spiritually hungry people would say the same thing.

B.            Our society is caught up in preparing for Christmas: shopping, decorating, baking, mailing, partying. Christmas Eve at church may even be part of preparing for opening gifts on Christmas morning. Then it’s all over, with a week’s respite before New Year’s parties and football games and income tax. The Church’s rhythm is dramatically different. Advent: four weeks of intensifying spiritual preparation and anticipation. Christmastide: 12 days of joyous celebration of God entering our human experience of birth, life and death to give us hope of resurrection to eternal life. Epiphany caps this off on January 6 as we join the Magi in awe at the glory of God revealed to us in Jesus.

C.            We’ve got 2 weeks until Christmas starts. Will you be ready? O, I don’t mean will your Christmas cards all arrive before Christmas. And I don’t mean will you have all your gifts wrapped so you don’t have to make a mad-dash shopping trip on Christmas Eve. I mean, are you prepared for the appearing of Jesus? Yes, his appearing in our Christmas worship, his appearing in the gatherings of your family and friends, his appearing as you grow in holiness in the year ahead, his appearing in your relationships with the weak and wounded people God brings across your path, his appearing as this congregation anticipates a new era a ministry with a new pastor. That requires preparation. If you haven’t taken advantage of the Advent devotionals prepared by our Worship Department, you still have time. They are a good starting place for this spiritual preparation.

1.              Use Advent for some personal evaluation. What does God want you to leave behind or what venture to embrace in the coming year?

2.              During Advent, release to God whatever threatens your inner peace, and watch for the dawn from on high to guide you into the way of peace? We prepare for the appearing of Jesus this Advent, permitting him to purify us to become people of peace.

Friday, November 30, 2012

He Is Coming to Town

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-28
December 2, 2012
© 2012


I.                Several news commentators made a big deal that Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Nativity Narratives that Jesus was born around 6 B.C.E. and probably not on December 25, as though this would somehow shake people’s faith. He even questioned whether animals were at the manger since they are not mentioned in the Gospels.  New Testament scholars have known this for a very long time, and it raises no issues with the Gospel texts.

A.           Not only do the Gospels not mention animals at the manger, they say nothing about Mary riding a donkey. Nor do the Gospels say anything about a stable. The imaginative stories around an inn and innkeeper come from a misunderstanding in the 2nd century novel The Protevangelium of James. The word translated “inn” actually means “guestroom,” which Luke also used for the room where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper (Luke 22:11-12). Luke does use the word for “inn” in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34). A typical, peasant home would have a large “family” room with a lower area at one end where a goat or milk cow and perhaps a donkey would be brought in for the night. A small guest room would have been at the back or on the flat roof. This was already full, so Jesus was quite likely born in the “family” room. I know this tampers with our traditional imagery, but I find reading the Gospels carefully to be enriching. (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth E. Bailey, 2008, IVP Academic)

B.            Advent is countercultural to much of traditional holiday celebration. Advent is an opportunity for us to look at this most familiar of Gospel events with fresh eyes and see the real Jesus with renewed wonder. Advent is an opportunity for us to step out of the holiday frenzy and take time to savor the season.

C.            Advent is a season of anticipation and waiting. We start Advent with our own waiting for Jesus to come in the clouds with power and great glory. In the Scripture texts today we hear that when instability threatens, we can stand and raise our heads instead of fainting with fear and foreboding, confident that Jesus is on his way.

II.            Jesus offered that alternative in Luke 21:25-28, in the middle of a lengthy teaching on how to wait for his return in glory – what to expect and how to live until then. He said:

“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. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

A.           In the ancient world sun, moon and stars were the ultimate of predictable stability. So when he said the powers of the heavens would be shaken, people would naturally faint from fear and foreboding. The ancient Jews thought of Jerusalem as a kind of eternal city. For it to be destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. as Jesus predicted was devastating. For the Roman Empire to crumble like every human government before or since was unthinkable. We only need to look at the aftermath of hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy and the scientific and political debates about climate change to recognize in our own time “distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”

B.            Jesus referred to Daniel 7:13 when he spoke of seeing the “Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” It seems as unlikely to us today as the humble birth of the Messiah seemed 2,000 years ago. Yet, faithful people were waiting with great expectation that the Messiah would appear, perhaps at the moment of greatest darkness. As we begin the Advent season of anticipation, we are reminded that we, too, are waiting for the Messiah to come into the fearful instabilities of our time.

C.            In our highly individualistic culture, we tend to think we have to face threats on our own, sometimes even alone. But Jesus spoke to the community of his disciples in the plural. Though the Church as such wouldn’t emerge for another couple of months, Jesus was clearly calling us to find our stability together. He didn’t say, “You, there, lift up your head.” Emphatically no! He said, “You all, lift up your heads.” The themes of Advent remind us that when instability threatens, we can stand and raise our heads instead of fainting with fear and foreboding, confident that Jesus is on his way.

III.       We read from the Prophet Jeremiah at the start of the service because he also wrote to the people of God to wait together in a time of darkness for God to bring hope. A little Hebrew history will help us appreciate this call of the prophet. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah was alone and vulnerable. Though they had had some revivals, these did not endure. The Babylonian Empire had taken the wealthy, educated, leadership elite to captivity in Babylon. The common folk were left behind in despair. The first part of Jeremiah’s prophecy pronounced judgment on Judah, especially these wealthy, educated, leadership elites for enriching themselves at the expense of the weak and poor. The Babylonian Empire seemed so invincible, they thought the captivity would never end. They couldn’t have imagined that in just over a generation, the Babylonians would be overthrown by the Persians.

A.           Just when the circumstances seemed darkest and God’s judgment most severe, Jeremiah’s prophecy takes a dramatic turn. It is called “The Book of Consolation” and brims with hope. Jeremiah assures the people that, as unlikely as it seems, the day is coming when God will fulfill the promise to Israel and raise up a “righteous Branch” for David to execute justice and righteousness. I’m sure the people who heard that at Jeremiah’s time and for several centuries afterward imagined a restoration of the political-military Davidic monarchy as a major world power. As they waited through those generations they couldn’t have imagined that when Judah was under the heel of Rome, God would act on this hope with the birth of a baby to a peasant family.

B.            Jeremiah uses a clever play on words to make the same point Jesus would make over 4 centuries later. Jeremiah was clearly calling the people of Judah to find their stability together as the community of God’s people. The last king of Judah when they were taken into captivity in Babylon was Zedekiah. His name means “The Lord is my righteousness,” even though 2 Kings 24:19 and 2 Chronicles 36:12 specifically say he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as Jeremiah had prophesied. But in “The Book of Consolation” Jeremiah said that the name of the righteous branch will be “The Lord is our righteousness.” He has switched it from singular to plural. Hope shifts from depending on an individual to waiting together and watching for God’s hope.

C.            This Advent we can hear both Jeremiah and Jesus remind us that when instability threatens, we can stand and raise our heads instead of fainting with fear and foreboding, confident that Jesus is on his way.

IV.      Advent is not the season of Scrooge or the Grinch, scorning gifts, decorations, food, music and festive gatherings. Rather, Advent gives perspective and context to the delights of the season so we are not overwhelmed or derailed by it.

A.           As a congregation between pastors, you can appreciate the experience of waiting for someone to lead you on the next leg of your journey together with Jesus. Do not expect the next pastor to be your Messiah, but to point faithfully to Jesus. Wait with anticipation, not impatience.

B.            Back in the 70s, I remember Simon and Garfunkel’s melodic rendition of Silent Night sung over the 7 O’clock News. The incongruities were intentionally jarring. I have a lot of appreciation for Simon and Garfunkel, but this was just too easy. We know Christmas will be tough for many people on the East Coast this year. We know that the Christians in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Israel almost dread Christmas. We experience these same incongruities personally. Loved ones will be absent. Health or career challenges tarnish our expectations. Relational stresses undermine hoped for harmony. The prayer service we will be having at 4:00 this afternoon will give us a chance to release these incongruities to God.

C.            The call of the prophet Jeremiah during Judah’s waiting for hope was to seek justice for the weak and poor. Our participation in Christmas for Others is one example of that. Even the secular campaigns to provide gifts and food during the holidays are signs that in many small ways the hope of the reign of God is breaking into the instabilities of our time. As Advent invites you to step back from the holiday frenzy to reflect of the hope we await in Christ, ask God to show you where justice for the weak and poor is a sign of the hope we anticipate. Ask God to lead you to someone for whom you can be a sign of that hope. Ask God to shine that hope through this church.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Welcome to a New World

Revelation 1:4-8; John 18:33-37
November 25, 2012
Christ the King
© 2012

Christ the Savior
Andrei Rublev, 1410

I.                John wrote his Revelation perhaps as much as 60-70 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, during one of the most brutal persecutions of the Church under the Roman Empire. An old man in exile on the small island of Patmos, he wrote to encourage the churches who were terrified that they and all Christians would be crushed. How could he write to them that Jesus Christ was the ruler of the kings of the earth, when the most politically and militarily powerful empire in human history was bent on exterminating them? We may not personally expect to be hauled off and crucified, but expecting today’s political and military powers openly acknowledge Jesus Christ as their ruler is not only unrealistic but would dilute and distort what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Perhaps we’re not too different from John’s first readers.

A.           The week after the election Dr. Joe Bessler, professor of theology at Phillips Theological Seminary, led a discussion for the Oklahoma Central Area Disciples clergy on American politics and American Christianity.

1.              He analyzed the candidates’ nominating acceptance speeches at their party conventions since 1952 with the coming of TV. He identified a sequence of 5 elements in all of those speeches regardless of party, whether by incumbent or challenger.

a)              They affirm the goodness of the American people and claim to embody that goodness.

b)             They identify a threat to that goodness.

c)              They present themselves and their policies as the solution to the threatening problem.

d)             They envision what a renewal of the American community will be like.

e)              They promise a bright American future.

2.              Dr. Bessler suggested that these elements arise out of a Christian theology that has shaped American culture, even at its most secular and pluralistic.

a)              The goodness of humans is that we are created in the image of God and of infinite worth.

b)             Our own rebellion and sin has distorted and broken that image, threatening our potential.

c)              In both his person and work – birth, ministry, death, resurrection – Jesus Christ redeems.

d)             By grace appropriated by faith, we are called to participate in the community of the Church.

e)              Through our daily struggles we look forward to the consummation of the Kingdom of God.

B.            The interplay between the powers of this world and Jesus’ kingdom that is not of this world has been with the Church from its beginning. A large Egyptian obelisk in St. Peter’s Square in Rome was first placed in the center of Nero’s circus as a symbol of Rome’s power; they had conquered even Egypt. Tradition has it that Nero crucified Peter upside down facing that obelisk as a taunt that Rome was defeating the followers of Jesus. Centuries later when Christians developed that site for worship, a cross was mounted on the obelisk and it was moved to its present central location as a kind of “last laugh” that now Christ had prevailed. Of course, history has shown that the so-called Holy Roman Empire was closer to pagan imperial Rome than to Jesus’ Kingdom of God.

C.            In Jesus’ conversation with Pilate at his trial in John 18:33-37 we see this interplay between the powers of this world and Jesus’ Kingdom that is not from this world. Each of the Gospels tells of Jesus and Pilate in rather distinct ways. The Temple leaders were trying to bring a political charge against Jesus, rather than the theological issues of their own trial. A mob had been stirred up to call for crucifixion. Pilate was clearly confused as he tried to sort out what he didn’t really understand.

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”34Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”36Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

II.            Jesus welcomes us to a new world in which truth and grace release power, and force is useless. What does it mean to belong to Jesus’ Kingdom that is not from this world while we still live in this world?

A.           Jesus told Pilate that if his kingdom was from this world his followers would fight. Jesus’ Kingdom that is not from this world does not use force or violence to establish or maintain its power. As the one responsible to maintain Roman power by force in Jerusalem and Judea, Pilate understood the contrast but could not grasp how it could possibly work.

B.            When Pilate asked Jesus to confirm that he was indeed a king, even if an unconventional king, Jesus said that his mission was to testify to the truth and that all who belonged to the truth listened to him. Pilate responded by asking, “What is truth?” In the Roman Empire, as in the world through history, those who are in power by force define truth, which has no objective reality. Even a superficial survey of our courts, political campaigns and commercial advertising exposes that our society treats truth as what is useful not what is accurate.

C.            Revelation 1:5 points to another central quality of Jesus’ Kingdom. As our King, Jesus loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood. The world understands retribution, punishment and deterrence, but not grace. That is how criminal justice works. That is how international relations work, but not Jesus’ Kingdom.

III.       Jesus welcomes us to a new world in which truth and grace release power, and force is useless. The power brokers of this world continually challenge us by asking, who is king over God’s people? To whom do you give your loyalty?

A.           Pilate is acutely aware of this struggle for authority and loyalty. Like any occupied people, the Jews were reluctant to turn over even criminals to the Romans. So when the Temple authorities handed Jesus over to Pilate, he is shocked and asked Jesus, “What have you done?”

B.            Even though Pilate can find no case against Jesus, who said his kingdom was not from this world, when Pilate asked, “So you are a king?” he was aware that a king with followers who do not fight is a greater threat to the power of Rome than an upstart insurrection or army. The followers of such a king cannot be controlled or intimidated with threats of force or violence.

C.            In Revelation 1:6 John tells us that we are not a kingdom of soldiers but of priests. 1 Peter 2:5, 9 celebrates that we are a holy and royal priesthood, a chosen race, a holy nation, God’s own people to proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. Neither John nor Peter were making this up, they were claiming and celebrating that in Exodus 19:6 God called Israel a priestly kingdom.

IV.      Jesus welcomes us to a new world in which truth and grace release power, and force is useless. In his Revelation, John reminded the beleaguered churches of Asia, that as Christ’s Kingdom of priests, they had a power that the violent force of Rome could not crush. Rather than lament, he called them to celebratory worship! So today we celebrate Christ the King!

A.           Christ the King is the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Next Sunday we start a new year with Advent. All of those prophecies we associate with anticipating the birth of the Messiah reach their culmination in the celebration of Christ the King. But we are reminded that we are still waiting for the fullness of that Kingdom.

B.            Jesus told Pilate that everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice. To listen for the voice of Jesus you need to be where you can expect he’ll be speaking. You’ve heard me say it before: read your Bible, pray, be with the church. But it also requires paying attention. With all the commercial noise of the holiday shopping season, I suggest a daily discipline: as the evening quiets ask yourself, “What did I hear from Jesus today?” Writing that in one sentence can be a wonderful Advent journal.

C.            Though our situation is not nearly as dire as the churches of Asia to whom John sent his Revelation, we are easily disheartened by our short-sightedness. Just as John wrote to encourage the churches of Asia, this Sunday of Christ the King encourages our long-range vision. That long-range vision of Jesus’ Kingdom that is not from this world nourishes and guides our journey through the confusion and catastrophes of this world. As those who belong to Jesus and live by truth and grace, we exercise a power greater than any threat this world could bring against us. The 3rd verse of Lead On, O King Eternal says, “Not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums; with deeds of love and mercy, the heavenly kingdom comes.”

Personal Disclaimer:
If you have gotten this far and are concerned or irritated that my use of king and kingdom is hierarchy or gender insensitive or that I am ignorant of the variety of contemporary ways of speaking about this, I ask a bit of tolerance. First, I am an “old guy” (66) and changing deeply engrained habits is difficult and awkward. Second, while I appreciate the nuances of current alternatives, I do think they miss some of what the New Testament was getting at when speaking about kings and kingdoms (recognizing we are dealing with different languages and cultures in translation). I appeal to you to try to understand first century thinking without undue contamination by European monarchies, etc. I think it will enrich our understanding of what the New Testament was getting at and the power of Christ the King in the liturgical year.