Wednesday, December 16, 2015

What Can I Do?

Isaiah 12:2-6
Luke 3:7-18  

The three books of Isaiah are beautifully bound together into one book that tells the story of God’s presence and the lives of the people of Zion or Israel.  It wasn’t an easy time in their mutual covenantal life together so they really did need a prophet, someone who could be the ‘go between’ if you will.

Isaiah, among others, was their prophet! Old Testament Palestine, as it was called then, was a divided kingdom, Israel to the north and Judah to the south.  This is around 742 BCE.  They were churning through king after king, not at all organized.  Things were beginning to crumble and eventually it would.

Now Isaiah was politically astute at domestic politics and he also knew the international scene around them. The Babylonians had been conquered by Tiglath-Pileser, King of Assyria and the Assyrians advance into the region to become the leading power in the Middle East. As it is today, that part of the world was in terrible conflict.  Soon an alliance between then Syria and Israel, who were once enemies, would form to combat an international conspiracy.     

But Isaiah’s charge was to take care of Israel.  In the first book he warned them of God’s impending judgment, then in the second book he spoke words of comfort to God’s people while they were in exile in Babylon.  The third book addresses the dire situation that they found when they finally returned home to a devastated land. 

So what we heard earlier, this little chapter of thanksgiving and praise, was a welcomed breath of fresh air amidst oracle after oracle after oracle of doom and gloom, failure in keeping covenant, straying after idols and abandoning God.  They had it rough, God had it rough. (Now don’t go off thinking that this ‘Old Testament’ God was vengeful, that would be a mistake.  It was how ancient people understood God and the other gods at that time) But God, being  ineffable and caring promises to be present with them no matter what happens, no matter what they do, no matter how far they stray.

From good news to joy, it doesn’t get any better than that! God was angry but then it ceased and they were comforted.  They rejoice that God is their strength and salvation. And of course Zion cannot help but ‘greatly rejoice’ in all of this.  God is back in their midst, this Holy one of Zion.    

And this is the promise of this scripture on this third week of Advent, this week of pink candles and joy.  We are heard and God is present even in adversity, even in darkness, even when the winds threaten to blow away our very existence, in this we can find joy.  And all of that is good news and something for us to remember too.

Many years later another prophet comes along.  Out of the wilderness, clothed in course camel hair, eating locusts and wild honey comes John, called by some John the Baptist, son of Elizabeth, and cousin of Jesus. Hear now today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke the third chapter.

 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “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. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

John was a powerful prophet.  In fact, many of the people thought he was Elijah, the prophet for whom they had been waiting to return.  It had been a long time since they had heard from any prophets.  And, like in Isaiah’s time, like Jeremiah’s time, like in Malachi’s time, like Elijah’s time and all the rest, they needed a prophet.  If you haven’t caught on by now, prophets tell the truth and they were not afraid to share that truth and so we have these very challenging words from the wilderness man.

In pulling apart this passage we see that really what he is demanding is fairness and justice.  His advice to the crowds, the tax collectors and soldiers is practical.  To the crowds who ask “What should we do?” he answers, share.  To the tax collectors who also ask “What should we do?” he replies, be fair, take no more than what you need.   And to the soldiers who ask again, “What should we do?” he states don’t extort, don’t torture, no violence, treat others fairly.  John is summoning them to ethical living, a way of being.  In very simplistic terms be a decent human being and help others.

I find it interesting that three times, the author of Luke asks the question, “What should we do?”  They did that you know, repeat words or phrases as if they are personally inviting us into the story.  But thinking about this question, “What should we do?” to me sounds helpless as if none of us has control and are waiting for someone to tell us what to do.  Or we have no thoughts of our own.  You don’t really have to think too deeply to answer that question because someone else can answer it for you.  When you ask the question, “What should I do?” and you are given an answer you have the choice of doing it or not.

So I want to offer you another question that might help you during this Advent season to better reflect what you ‘should do’.  You could ask yourself, “What can I do?”  “What can I do?” moves you into action, the action that John the Baptizer is calling us to.  You are taking responsibility for your life and I think ultimately the question that I think God wants us to ask.  “What can I do?”  “What can I do to change myself, change a situation?”  “What can I change for the better?” 

When you ask these questions you can be sure that you are tuned in to the gospel message of John and of Jesus Christ because they want us to take action, to take part in a transformative experience that just might bring about the kingdom of God here on earth.

A story is told by Pastor Edward Markquart, former pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Washington State, “I was at the men’s breakfast at church and we were talking about Christmas that is upon us.  The men started pontificating like men will often do.  They muttered, ‘Christmas costs too much,” “All the bills show up in January,” “We’re too materialistic,” or “Why can’t we have this Christmas generosity all year long?”  To all of this muttering and blubbering, one man suggested, “A trip of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” 

Miraculously, the conversation shifted dramatically and the men began talking about taking the first step in their path.  One man told a story about caring for his elderly grandma.  Another talked about working with the young men at the juvenile court.  Still another told of caring for a handicapped person for years.  Finally, someone looked at Floyd, good old Floyd, mid-eighties, wearing a red bow tie, using a walker…. One knowing man asked, “Tell us your story, Floyd” Floyd, in his high pitched voice quietly said, “My wife and I were married for thirty years.  We couldn’t have any children so we raised seventy-two foster children.”  Silence.  Stone silence.  And then the miracle happened.

All the men began clapping…It was just for a moment…and God walked into the hearts of us men and we were moved to ask the question, “What can I do?”  “What can I do to be more like Floyd?”[i]

What can YOU do?  John the Baptizer is specific because God is specific, make no mistake about that.  When you see a child in distress, what can you do?  When you see a box at the grocery store asking for canned food donations, what can you do?  When you hear a racial or ethnic slur, what can you do?  When you hear hatred spewing from someone’s mouth, what can you do?  When you hear that an elderly member is in a home and rarely gets visitors, what can you do?  When you have too much of anything, what can you do?  When you know someone is going for chemo treatments, what can you do? 

It is a simple question but one whose answer will have far reaching effects on so many people, maybe even yourself.  And I think that’s what God wants, a world and a people that has been lovingly curated by its inhabitants. 

So now enter into this needy world from this safe little sanctuary asking the question, “What can I do?”


[i] Rev. Edward F. Markquart, Sermons from Seattle, Series C. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Refining Moment

Malachi 3: 1-4
Luke 3: 1-6
2nd Week of Advent
Like last week, neither one of today’s scripture readings will make the top ten devotional classic’s for your tender Christmas reflection for they are neither warm or fuzzy.  So it’s not my job today to make you feel good but it’s my job today, as a preacher, to make you uncomfortable.  No apologies.  No warnings.  It’s just that time of year when the tides of the world are going one way and Christians are going another.  But then again, that’s what we are all about and these Christian holy days which have mutated into secular holidays are, for us, refining moments in our lives of faith if we take them to heart.

We heard from Malachi.  Malachi was temple prophet during the Second Temple period, around 515 BCE, who became very disgruntled with the priesthood who just happened to be the sons of Levi.  Levi, of course, was one of the 12 tribes who were singled out as the temple priests.   So Malachi writes this critique of 5th century priesthood.  Now herding clergy is never easy, I’ll admit that.  And in Malachi’s time the Levitical priesthood had spiraled totally out of control.  Malachi says, “Get your act together!”  “The messenger of the Covenant is coming, you’ve been waiting…but what have you done with your time, what have you done to prepare yourself?  And what in the world have you done to this temple while you were waiting?” 

He asks, “How are you going to make it because that messenger is going to be like ‘white-hot fire from the smelters furnace and like the strongest lye soap at the laundry?’” as Eugene Peterson says in The Message.  “You’ll be cleansed alright; you’ll be scrubbed clean and refined like gold and silver until you are fit for God; until you are purified for God’s presence”.  Even though that was long ago and the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the questions remain.  They are the ones that we need to be asking ourselves today.

The questions of Advent are not, have you started your Christmas shopping yet?  Does your company have a Christmas party?  Are you cooking or do you go somewhere for Christmas dinner?  Would you like to come to my Christmas cookie swap?  These are holiday questions.

Holy Day questions, the questions of Advent are more profound and are meant to shake you up a bit and get you thinking.  Malachi asks, “Who can endure the day of his coming?” (Mal 3:2)  German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in his Advent sermon of 1928 while he was in Barcelona, Spain, “The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.”  Bonhoeffer, an active resister against Hitler, wrote this just before the beginning of the Holocaust.  He saw what was beginning to happen and the decay in the moral fabric of Germany in the 1930’s.  Later Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and executed only days before the end of the war.

Most people have a conscience.  So, indeed, the coming of God in our midst is frightening news because all we have to do is to look around and see the decline and suffering in our human condition, that’s easy enough.  God wouldn’t be too happy. 

Or, more intimately you can look inside your own heart and soul and see pain, stubbornness, or maybe even unhealthy living.  You and only you can answer the Holy Day questions of Advent.  Is your heart prepared to be God’s dwelling place and to receive the miraculous gift of the Christ within you?  For this is a refining moment in your life, these Advent days.

What needs refining in your life?  What can the coals of the hot-white fire sear away in your pattern of living?  What needs to be scrubbed with lye in your relationships with others? You see preparing for Christmas is not about putting up decorations but it is a taking down of all that impedes your connection with God.  Advent is a stripping away of the fa├žade that we hide behind so that God doesn’t see us for who we really are.  This is a laugh!!  Advent is all about preparation of the Holy Day kind.

Five hundred and nineteen years later another prophet comes along who walked the same byways as Malachi, who gazed at the same temple and who dispatched a similar message to the people because the world was still in disarray.  Hear now the Proclamation of John the Baptist from the Gospel of Luke, the Third Chapter…..

3In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of
Judea, and Herod was ruler* of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler* of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler* of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.
5Every valley shall be filled,
   and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
   and the rough ways made smooth;
6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

Proclaiming repentance, that’s John the Baptist cry, repent so that you can prepare the way for the Lord.  Make his path straight; raise up the valley and flatten the mountain so that the avenue into your heart is a clear route, an even, smooth byway for Jesus.  Examine and de-clutter.   Scrutinize and expunge.  Study and edit out your nemesis. 

Advent questions our worthiness, our readiness, and our willingness for Jesus to come.
When all this work is done then you will be able to see the salvation of God, so clearly and so brightly, it will be like thousands of sparkling diamonds shining in the night.  Then you will see the Christ, and be able to receive him in your heart ever more so profoundly.

The refining moment has come. Truly the news of Christ’s birth is glad and happy tidings when we have undergone the heat of the fire and the sting of the lye.  Go ahead, begin the process.  There are only a few weeks left.


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Figs and the Future

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Luke 21: 25-36
1st Sunday of Advent                                                                                               

Jeremiah has long been one of my favorite prophets because mostly Biblical prophets were unusual characters, to say the least and Jeremiah fits that bill.   They were everyday sort of guys usually with some sort of impairment for doing God’s work, and so they argued with God about why they should NOT speak on behalf of God.  And, rightly so, they were up against a system that was oppressive and failing and hurting people.  It’s hard to tell people to change their ways even if their ways just aren’t working for them anymore, no body wants to hear that.  You won’t win any popularity contests by being a prophet.  And, to top it all off, for a prophet, this nagging voice of God just won’t let up on them. 

Jeremiah’s prophetic career coincided with very critical events in the history of the southern kingdom of Judah.  There was horrible political turmoil, the past monarchy under the rule of David had failed and finally fell.  It divided into two kingdoms.  The northern kingdom, Israel, fell and in 627 BCE the southern kingdom of Judah also fell and the people were taken to Babylonia into exile.  It was a mess.

So in the passage that we just heard, Jeremiah is reassuring the people (prophets continually warn and then reassure, warn and reassure).  He is reassuring them, that yes, God will restore their people back in their land, yes, they will return from Babylonia, yes, there will be someone who will execute justice and righteousness, yes, Jerusalem will be the heart and soul of her people again, and yes….everything will be ok.  Sweet words of comfort this must have been for the people who lives had been turned upside down. 

This passage from Jeremiah has long been used to foreshadow the coming of Jesus and while I loathe to use it solely as such it does lend its comfort and reassurance to us just when we need it most in the darkest time of the year as we prepare for the birth of a tiny baby. We all need such words of comfort when our own lives are topsy-turvy don’t we?  Relax, it’s in God’s capable hands now, everything will be ok, you just need to wait it out.  And then finally the light will come.

We know that some people returned to Israel and some stayed in Babylonia because they had reoriented their lives and after a few generations thought, why bother, it’s not so bad here.  But the people who decided to go home again must have had questions.  What must they do to prepare?  What should they do with their time waiting it out while the camels were being packed?  That was their question not unlike ours for today, what must we do to prepare now that we know that the birth of Christ will happen soon? How will we ‘wait it out’?

We too, now are in a season of waiting and preparation of our hearts.  Advent. It’s joyful everywhere you turn out there yet here in the church, we won’t be singing many of those happy and joyous carols just yet, that’s in the future.  If you need to hear them you can tune to into some radio station for all the Christmas cheer that you need or go to Shoprite.  I was recently shopping with a friend at Shoprite and she was singing along with the musak and she said she comes to Shoprite just for the musak! 

You see, for us, Advent is a study in minor musical keys, it’s not joy filled but it is soul filled.  Music in minor keys has a different sound and emotional feel, and develops differently than music in a major key.  Music in a minor key sounds more solemn, mysterious, or ominous than music that is in a major key.  It aptly describes this time of waiting and anticipation. 

O Come, O Come Emmanuel, God be with us and ransom us from our captivity.  There is longing in the sound and the words and the music is a reflection of that.  This is Advent, it is not Christmas. Call me a ‘Debby Downer’, I’ve been called worse but this is tone for the four weeks before the Christ event in Bethlehem that we will celebrate.  So what must we do to prepare?

Lukan Context
Jesus knew nothing of Advent.  He didn’t know about the sweet story that we tell every Christmas Eve - about the inn and the lowing cattle and the shepherd’s keeping watch or even the star that lead the Magi to the stable.  All he knew was what he saw and what he saw was political oppression, an occupied country, torture and crucifixion.  He saw people begging in the streets and people with leprosy and other such diseases who were cast aside as untouchables.  This was his reality.

Today’s reading from the Gospel is not a sentimental musical passage in a lovely opera.  It’s harsh.  It’s scary. It’s not comforting at all like Jeremiah’s words.  It’s a vision of apocalypse and that’s always disconcerting when spoken by someone with influence, like Jesus! 

In fact, you might wonder, what in the world is this text doing here, when we are patiently waiting for the birth of our sweet little Jesus?  What you need to know about this passage, and to put it in context is that Christ’s birth, the coming of the Messiah is not an isolated event but it is part of God’s salvific work that is ongoing, that it is God’s saving grace of humankind.  From the flood and the rainbow to Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, to Jeremiah bringing the people out of exile, God saves.  Here now the words of Jesus as recorded by Luke in the 21st Chapter……

The Coming of the Son of Man
25 ‘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.’

The Lesson of the Fig Tree
29Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

Exhortation to Watch
34 ‘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, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’

Some good news, eh?  Those are some words to begin our Advent time of waiting and preparation, right?  But they show us the tension that we sit in. We sit in the tension of ‘now’ and ‘not yet’.  Jesus knew what he saw, and what he saw wasn’t good.  He knows that what we have here on earth is nothing in comparison to what God has in store for us in the future.  There eventually WILL be a time when the kingdom will be restored to righteousness, right living and there will be justice and equality for each and every person…everyone, it’s just not now, but it will come.  And that’s Advent.  It is the tension of living in the reality of our times knowing the future will be better.  The now and not yet. 

 In their book, “The First Christmas”, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg state: “The Christmas stories are not about spectacular series of miraculous events that happened in the past that we are to believe in for the sake of going to heaven.  Rather, they are about God’s passion, God’s dream for a transformed world.”  They are yet another beginning in God’s ongoing work revealing God’s salvation.  Christ’s birth, another beginning.  God tries over and over again to save us.  It’s God’s story of redemption.

God’s dream for a transformed world just hasn’t happened yet and this is what Jesus was trying to say back then, and the message that we must hear for today.  God’s dream is still alive thank goodness, God hasn’t given up on us that this world and our lives will be transformed into something much better all when the figs begin to blossom.  The tension of Advent is that we wait for Christmas - that’s the yearly short term wait.  But we also wait in expectation for a much greater gift through the coming of God’s effable kingdom and that’s the long term wait that we carefully balance.

Waitin’ Around
And how are we to wait?  How do we sit patiently and watch and wait for the fig blossoms to appear?  How do we stay alert and watch?  We do this by giving prayerful attention to the people around us and our daily activities.  We do this by living vitally in the here and now, missing not one opportunity to lift another person up or to repair the world, tikkum olam in Hebrew, in the many ways in which it needs repair.  We remain alert at all times so that we can live in the present knowing that the best is yet to come.

Christmas will be here before you know it.  Don’t rush it, don’t miss those abundant opportunities of growth and love that will appear between now and then, the now and not yet.  May the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit be with you today.