Getting Schooled by Jesus

Sermon on Luke 2:41-52 for the 1st Sunday after Christmas, C, Dec. 27, 2015

Luke 2:41-52Screen Shot 2015-12-26 at 1.24.46 PM
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming 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. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.

When 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.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

We had a wonderful Christmas Eve service in which we re-told the story of the birth of Jesus.  Time flies, in the bible, so now, two days later, we have a story of Jesus, already twelve years old.

So Jesus bolts from his family at age twelve, leaving them upset at first, Screen Shot 2015-12-26 at 12.49.37 PMand confused afterwards.  This is an odd story.  Why would Luke (and only Luke) tell us this story?  What are we supposed to get out of it?

We tell our kids that we want them to walk the Jesus path – but none of us wants to find an open window and an empty bed in the morning, without even a note left behind to give us a clue.  This is the part we want to skip over.  Did it happen this way?

The Historical Jesus

First, let me say that scholars of the historical Jesus tend to believe that the most authentic layer of the Jesus tradition are the aphorisms and sayings of Jesus.  The narrative settings are often secondary additions.  This little story is likely secondary.  But if it is, what made Luke want to tell it?  What is it about Jesus that we come to understand in this story that we need to know, in order to get Jesus right?

Second, scholars have noticed that the stories in Matthew and Luke of Jesus birth and infancy function as foreshadowing of his life.  Prophecies are made over the baby by people like Zechariah and Simeon, angels give him titles like “price of peace,” and all of these function as harbingers of the events and meaning of the Jesus story that they are telling.  And it turns out that this story of Jesus in the temple functions exactly like a foreshadowing of the future Jesus.

Third, in Luke’s day, there were lots of “histories” being written, especially stories about famous people.  They developed a recognizable style.  Scholars call it the style of first-century Greek, or “Hellenistic” historiography.  One common feature was to tell a story of an event from “a hero’s youth that gave a glimpse of his future significance.” (see Luke by Luke Timothy Johnson, p. 60)

A perfect example of this comes from a Jewish philosopher named Philo of Screen Shot 2015-12-26 at 1.08.02 PMAlexandria who lived during Jesus’ lifetime.  His quest was to make Moses come out sounding like Plato, to make Judaism palatable for his Neo-Platonic culture.  Most people think his attempt was a failure.  But I mention it because of this: telling the story of Moses as a Hellenistic history, he inserts a story, not found in the bible, from hero-Moses’ youth.  Let me read a few sentences:

(20) “Therefore the child [Moses]  being now thought worthy of a royal education and a royal attendance, was not, like a mere child, long delighted with toys and objects of laughter and amusement, even though those who had undertaken the care of him allowed him holidays and times for relaxation, and never behaved in any stern or morose way to him; but he himself exhibited a modest and dignified deportment in all his words and gestures, attending diligently to every lesson of every kind which could tend to the improvement of his mind. (21) And immediately he had all kinds of masters, one after another, some coming of their own accord from the neighboring countries and the different districts of Egypt, and some being even procured from Greece by the temptation of large presents. But in a short time he surpassed all their knowledge, anticipating all their lessons by the excellent natural endowments of his own genius; so that everything in his case appeared to be a recollecting rather than a learning, while he himself also, without any teacher, comprehended by his instinctive genius many difficult subjects;…”   (Philo’s Life of Moses 1:20-21)

Why tell that story about Moses?  Because Moses was going to become the great teacher of the Torah, the Law.  Why tell a story like this about Jesus?  Because Jesus is going to grow  up to become a great teacher too.

Going Way BeyondScreen Shot 2015-12-26 at 1.47.34 PM

But there is more to it.  It gets much deeper and more significant.  Jesus did not just become a great Jewish rabbi.  Jesus did not just teach the Torah to people.  Jesus represented a huge innovation, a new way of looking at God and faith and life, including family, that went way beyond the law of Moses.

How was it that Jesus was able to do this?  He had the kind of religious wisdom and insight that surpassed all others of his day.  So, you could tell a story of Jesus at age twelve that has him impressing the Rabbinical scholars in the heart of Judaism, the temple in Jerusalem, already by age twelve.

But notice how Luke tells the story.  Jesus did not just impress them the way a twelve year old science student could impress scientists with his knowledge of things that they already know as PhD carrying adults.  Jesus said things no one expected.  Here is how Luke tells it:

 “And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”

The word “amazed” may even be too soft.  One scholar translates it “utterly astonished.”

Well Luke is only foreshadowing, not explaining, so we are not given any clues about what astonished them so utterly.  But later, Luke will tell us stories of Jesus’ teaching that should astonish everyone.

Temple and Retribution Overturned

There are so many teachings of Jesus that sound utterly astonishing, given his context.  The biggest, at least to me, is Jesus’ complete over-turning of how we are supposed to understand God.  In other words, how Jesus radically transformed the view of God that Moses gave the people in the Torah.  The tragedy is that for lots of reasons, Jesus has not been very successful.  Let me explain.

If you read the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ final speech to the Israelites, which, according to the story, he delivers after their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, just before they cross the Jordan river to enter the promised land, you will notice two predominant themes.  Nobody misses them.
They are first, that the Screen Shot 2015-12-26 at 2.50.32 PMlegitimate worship of Israel has to be centralized at one place.  Moses, from the edge of the wilderness on the other side of the Jordan has not been there yet, so he keeps calling it by its generic name, “the place that the Lord you God will cause his name to dwell.”  That place, it turns out, is the temple in Jerusalem.  That is the only legitimate place of Israelite worship.

The other theme nobody misses is called the doctrine of retribution.  You get what you deserve.  God will bless you if you obey, and curse you if you disobey.  It is just that simple.

The reason I said Jesus was unsuccessful was that most people still believe that today.  They think that when something bad happens, from a flat tire to a tragedy, that God is punishing them.

Friends, if you knew anything at all about Jesus, it should be this: that Jesus overturned both of these major themes of Moses.  For Jesus, spiritual life was not restricted to a temple.  You could pray all night long on a mountain.  You could go in to a private room at home.  You could experience God along with a multitude on a hillside.  You did not need a temple to get to God, and you did not need a priest to help you.  God could be encountered immediately.

This is huge. So to foreshadow this massive overturning of Moses’ view, to prepare us to accept this kind of paradigm shift by the adult Jesus, Luke tells a story of the boy Jesus, “utterly astonishing” the people who sat on Moses’ teaching seat in the temple in Jerusalem.

Jesus did the same radical removal of the other theme of Moses, the Screen Shot 2015-12-26 at 1.52.02 PMdoctrine of retribution.   Most people who know anything about Jesus know that he taught us to love our enemies.  Do you know why we should?  Luke records Jesus saying this:

“love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”  (Luke 6:35)

We should love our enemies because that it what God does:

“he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”  

In other words, he is not going around cursing them, but rather blessing them with kindness.

Matthew records Jesus saying it similarly but differently:

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  (Matt. 5:44-45)

The sun and rain were specifically what Moses said came as a blessing for obedience and were withheld, by God, as a curse for disobedience (Deut. 28:7-34)

Jesus is going to teach us that this view of God is utterly inadequate; in fact upside down.  Instead of going around cursing the bad guys, God loves them, seeks them, calls to them – to us (we need to include ourselves here); with a loving invitation to come to God who is the Good Shepherd, the Loving Father.

Luke likes to use the word lost to describe people who are needing God’s merciful grace.  The Good Shepherd searches out the lost lamb.  The father of the prodigal son says that he was lost, but then, when he returned, he was found. (15:32)  Lostness is our condition, but seeking and finding is what God is like towards us.

So, to foreshadow this way of looking at God, Luke tells the story of Jesus being “found” in the temple, after a three day search.

Jesus and Authority

There is one more important reason to tell this story this way.  It has to do with Jesus and authority.   There is a parallel here between Jesus’ relationship to his family’s authority, and with the authority of Moses and the Old Testament.

Both are legitimate authorities.  Jesus is a dutiful son (at least at the end of the story) and a faithfully pious Israelite.  But he has an authority of his own that goes beyond the traditional demands of family and OT law.

Overturning both the exclusive importance of the temple and the doctrine of Divine retribution meant going beyond the authority of Moses.  Jesus’ willingness to go beyond the authority of his earthly father so that he could be about the business of his Heavenly Father is a perfect parallel to and foreshadows Jesus’ willingness to go beyond the authority of the written word of God, as Torah was to the faithful of his day.

Getting Jesus and God Correctly

I hope this story helps us all to see Jesus correctly.  We follow the Jesus path for a reason.  Jesus showed us a revolutionary way to understand our own spirituality and God.  Screen Shot 2015-12-26 at 2.54.21 PM

We know that we can respond to that luring, non-coercive beckoning Spirit that draws us to God anytime, anywhere.  We can experience God in the wonder of the world.  We can experience the love of God seeking and finding us in every experience of beauty – musical beauty, artistic beauty, and natural beauty.  We do not need a temple or a priest to commune with the God Jesus taught us to know spiritually.

And when we do encounter God, we do not ever have to fear.  “God is love”  and  as the latter New Testament teaches us:

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4:18)

Please know this: God is still at work today, calling us, seeking us, finding us, welcoming us into his family, hosting us at his table.

This is, as we said recently, why Christmas is such a powerful, wonderful celebration for us.  Jesus has come to utterly astonish us with a new way to know God.

Let us be among those who learn, and respond, and follow.


The [literal or metaphorical] Meaning of Christmas

The [literal or metaphorical] Meaning of Christmas

Screen Shot 2015-12-24 at 9.03.41 AMOn Christmas Eve we have a service of “Lessons and Carols”.  We read “lessons” from the bible. We hear the huge sweep of the biblical story, from the original blessing of all creation in Genesis, through the prophets’ imagination of a peaceful kingdom, of the wolves living with the lambs, all the way to the stories of the birth of Jesus.  Tonight we get to see the big picture.

I love Christmas!  We get to celebrate the birth of the person that means so much to us.  In this church we want to be, and seek to be, followers of Jesus.  We believe our whole life direction is about being on the journey, the Jesus-Path, as we call it.  We try to live our lives according to the teachings and life-example of Jesus.  So, of all the birthdays we could celebrate, this is right up there at the top.

Now, I am aware that there are lots of different people here tonight.  I want to say I am so glad you came.  I hope you feel welcome.  I want to put you at ease and say that I am glad you want to celebrate Jesus’ birth with us, but I do not make any assumptions about what you think it all means.  It is fine, whatever you are thinking.  We are here to celebrate a birthday.

I know that there is a wide range of opinion about all these biblical stories.  Lots of people take them completely literally, and if you do, you are welcome to.  You are in good company.

But many others do not take stories of angels, stars, and wise men literally.  I want you to know that we are comfortable with those opinions too.  You too are in good company tonight.

Some even have issues with taking the concept of god as meaningful.  I so wish I had time to have that conversation with you.  There are many versions of god that I do not believe in, and nobody should believe in, in my opinion, but we have time only to briefly touch those concepts tonight.  This is Christmas eve; I will not keep you long.

But here is what I would like us to reflect on tonight.  Whether these stories of angels, stars, and shepherds, of wise men and incarnation, are literal or metaphorical, what do they mean?

Here is the meaning I take from them.  For me, these are the story of God.  How do you tell the story of God?  What kind of story will help you get God right?

A Blessed Creation

For me, it starts with a Creator God who makes a good physical world and blesses it.  Never mind the method of creation – six-day miracle or scientific evolution – either way.  The story has to be that this world is good.  It is wonderful.  It is beautiful.  It is awesome.  It is complex and fragile, it is diverse and interconnected.  This world is blessed.  Life is a gift.  I am so thankful to be alive in this amazing world.

The story of God, that the bible tells, says that people are special.  Humans are made in  God’s image, according to the Genesis story.  Whatever that means, it has to mean that people, all people, men and women, without any exceptions, are blessed and significant.  All people; all races, all languages, all cultures, all ways of being human, are worthy of dignity, should be treated with justice and fairness, without discrimination or oppression.  That’s how the story starts.  The original blessing.

A Hopeful Vision

The story of God includes a vision; a hope; a quest.  It is for all that is wrong to be put right.  God’s story is that the non-coercive God of Love has a dream of all people at peace, living in harmony.  Violence is a distant memory.  Reconciliation is the rule.  That, is God’s good dream for the world.  That, is what we feel lured and called to work for, to dream of, to live into.

God Embracing Humanity

The story of God, to be told well, includes God’s overwhelming love for us, for people.  How can you tell this any more clearly than to tell a story of God becoming one of us, living life as we live it.  Being a baby, born to real human parents, growing up among animals, earning his bread by the sweat of his brow.  What does this mean other than that God embraces all of human life?

The story of God we tell is not the story of an aloof God up in the clouds looking at  our lives from a distance.  It is the story of an involved God who must at least be conscious as we are conscious; must at least be personal as we are personal; must at least have values, will, emotion and purpose as we do.  Maybe more so; maybe so much more so that we cannot conceive God adequately, but certainly not less so.

God for the Vulnerable

But it gets even better.  The story we tell is of God becoming a person in a particular way.  Not a nobleman; not an aristocrat.  Not a person of pedigree and grooming.  No, our story is of a baby boy born to peasants.  A baby born into poverty, without any special advantages.  A baby born under times of political unrest and oppression.

Our story even includes a refugee episode in which his parents, for political reasons, have to flee across borders as immigrants.  The story we tell suggests that the way to understand God is that God has a special place in his heart for the weak of this world.  Typically the biblical stories have the triad of characters in these contexts.  They are the widow, the orphan and the stranger, meaning, non-citizen.

So it is to illiterate shepherds that angels appear.  They sing of the glory of God on display in a manger in a stable.  God in a feeding trough, smelling cow breath.  Now that is a picture.

That is our God; the one who walks through real life with us, down at dirt level, not ashamed or embarrassed at any aspect of our humanity.

Huge Story, Memorable Characters

This story of God is huge in its effects.  God is no longer to be conceived as some wrathful judge, waiting for people to mess up so that he can punish and smite.  This God does not dangle people over hell, this God experiences the hellish conditions that real life can include.  This is Emmanuel, “God with us.”

And so this story has to be told with a cosmic star; it is just that huge.  It has to include wise men from a far away foreign country because it is a story for the world, not just for one ethnic group.  It is a story of gifts given to a king because Jesus will grow up to announce the kingdom of God as a present reality.

And Jesus will invite everyone to know God as Abba, as Father, the kind who is waiting for the prodigal to return, and when he does, throwing his arms of love around him, and putting the family ring back on his finger, and putting on a feast of welcome.

A God-Thing

This is what God is doing; so this story has to have a virgin birth in it.  It has to be a story of God inviting people to love; it cannot just be a prophet’s dream or a  wishful thought of a pleasant, well-meaning sage.  The story has to be, as it says in “Joy to the World,” a story of “God and sinners reconciled.”  That is a God-thing.  And that is joy to the World!

So this is the only way we know how to tell that story: a virgin birth with shepherds and angels, a star, wise men and gifts, a manger and peasants.

Take it all literally; or take it all metaphorically; either way, it means something huge to us.

An Invitation

This story invites us all to open our hearts and receive this love.  God is love – that is what this story means.  God loves each of us.  That is what this story means.

God comes to us, not to lord it over us, but to be a part of our lives.  To walk though the hard times with us, to constantly lure us to what is good, what is beautiful, and what is true.  To love each other the way God loves us: completely, without discrimination.  To be on the side of those God cares for the most; the weak, the vulnerable, refugees, children, poor people, people living under oppression.

That is what the Christmas story means to me.  That is why we light lights.  To us, this is the story of a light of love shining in the darkness.   So that is why this story-telling evening has to end with each of us receiving the light, passing on the light, and leaving in the light of love.  God bless you all!

Last Year’s Gifts and Last Night’s Sunset

Last Year’s Gifts and Last Night’s Sunset

Sermon on Zephaniah 3:14-20 and Luke 3:7-18 for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year C, Dec. 13, 2015

Luke 3:7-18
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.

All my life, I have been trying toScreen Shot 2015-12-12 at 8.42.55 AM figure out God.  It is probably a fool’s errand, since I am a finite creature, but I cannot help myself.  I am not interested in theology because it is fun, but because it is, for me, necessary.

Every time some new horrible event happens the god-questions come back.  Recent terrorist attacks at home and abroad are poignant examples.  We wonder what is going on, we wonder why, we wonder what it means to be a person of faith in a world in which so much bad happens.

Some Perspective on our Times

But it is also helpful to get some perspective.  These are not the worst of times.  Not by a long stretch.  In my quest to figure out God I read books by people who have been on this journey ahead of me.  Recently I started re-reading a book from the 14th century by an unknown English author called The Cloud of Unknowing.

It is a book of instruction, written to help serious Christians learn how to meditate using an anchor word, which we would call a mantra, but without any other words.  We call it “contemplative prayer,” or “centering prayer.”

The central idea in the book is that God cannot be known mentally, by theological concepts, but only by love; by directly experiencing God’s love.  We experience God’s love by entering the “cloud of unknowing” in which we leave mental concepts behind.Screen Shot 2015-12-12 at 4.49.47 PM

Anyway, the introduction to the book describes the conditions the book was written in.  In the 14th Century, the bubonic plague was raging through England.  Millions of people died.  Like Ebola, it filled people with fear.  One man, in that time, wrote:

“Neighbors never helped neighbors, and even relatives shunned each other.  Brother deserted brother… sister forgot brother…. Worst of all, parents abandoned their children as if they did not know them.”

To make matters worse, that was also the time of the “100 Years War” between England and France, and a bloody, chaotic peasants war.  The church, at the time,  according to the book I am reading, “worshiped opulence, [popes] ate from golden plates, fought expensive wars and meddled in politics.” (Carmen Butcher, p. xv)

These are not the worst of times.  Nevertheless, our fears and our anxieties are real to us.  It is not easy to hear the call from the prophets to “rejoice greatly.”  In fact, it is quite easy to get depressed.  From terrorism to climate change, and from politicians’ rhetoric, to the vitriolic reactions to the politicians that people express in the press and on social media, if you chose to, you could spend your entire day in negative thinking.

But there  is another way to live; a much better way to live; in fact a much healthier way to live.  What I am going to talk about is not anything like escapism, or ignorance, nor un-involvement.  Rather, there is a way to be in this world, with all its problems, as a positive, healthy person; even a force for good.

Signposts of Goodness
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I am sure that I will never reach the end of my quest to figure out God, but there are a couple of essential signposts pointing towards a horizon that give me hope.  One is that in spite of all the badness around us, we sense that God is good, and that God wants the good, and is working to bring about the good.

The goodness of God is hard to reconcile with the evil in the world, but one thing must be clear: God does not like the evil anymore than we do – probably a lot less.

This is what the prophets rant about.  Zephaniah is a tiny book, and we only read the last bit in which he forecasts a future day of hope, which is why he calls the people to “rejoice greatly.”

But before he got to the solution, he did a lot of huffing and puffing about the problem.  He has God threatening to

“sweep away everything, …humans and animals, …bird and fish,”

– all the bad guys and everything else with them – that is how angry at the evil in the world the prophet thinks that God is.

But for Zephaniah, God’s displeasure at evil is only a prelude.  What God really wants is to “exalt over [his people] with loud singing”.  And the people will join the rejoicing, knowing that God is in our midst.  God is good, and wills the good, and is working for the good of his people – wanting nothing better than to be with us!

John mimics prophets like Zephaniah with his own rant against the evils of his day.  When people came to him to be baptized without any intention of repenting from their oppressive lifestyles, John the baptist, sounding to me like John Cleese, calls them a “brood of vipers.”

But his point was not to be rude, his point was to get everyone ready for the new, good thing that he believed God was doing for his people.  And John believed Jesus was the key figure in God’s goodness on behalf of his people.

Jesus and Christmas

This is why we make such a big deal about Christmas; this is why we Screen Shot 2015-12-12 at 5.02.21 PMcelebrate Jesus with such outlandish decorations and why we give gifts.  Jesus came to announce that God is with us!  God is for us.  God is good!

For Jesus, God is not standing over us with a club, God is like a lady looking for lost coin, a shepherd searching for a lost lamb, a father looking down the road every day, and running when he sees his prodigal returning at last.

From the gospels, it looks as though John thought that God’s goodness and love was part B of a two-part plan, just like Zechariah believed.  The wrath of God against evil would come first, then the good part would follow.  So, John announced that Jesus would come, after his baptism with water, and would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  Jesus would wield the axe of God, chopping away at the pretentiously tall trees.

Jesus, however, did not go around hacking at people, he instead, healed them.  He did not baptize sinners with fire, he ate supper with them.  This confused John so much that when he was in prison he sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was, indeed the real deal, or if they were mistaken about him.  Where was the fiery wrath?

Jesus did not say it exactly like Paul did later, but Paul seems to get it right when he speaks of the “wrath of God” being witnessed already, in the present, not as something extra that God does, but naturally, as people have to live with the consequences of their behavior (Romans 1).  Hell is real: it is what some choose to make of their lives.
God Makes Goodness

That is not what God makes.  What God makes is good.  What God makes Screen Shot 2015-12-12 at 5.07.15 PMis beauty.  God makes music possible.  God makes sunsets.  God makes  communities of forgiveness and inclusion possible.  God makes, as Zephaniah said, communities where the lame and the outcasts have cause to rejoice, and where shame is a distant memory.

God makes communities of caring, as John said, in which two-coat people give up one so that the no-coat people will be warm at night.  Where the food-in-the-fridge people share with the no-food-in-the-fridge people.  Where even tax collectors are honest and where law enforcement acts with integrity.

So, there are plenty of reasons for rejoicing: God is rejoicing over us!  The Holy One is in our midst.  Where two or three gather, the Spirit of the living Christ is among them.

Children usually rejoice over the presents at Christmas, right?  Well, knowing this, I wanted to help them think a bit more deeply about the meaning of Christmas this past Wednesday.  So I ask them a question: name three presents you got last year.  Not surprisingly, it was hard.  Some could not remember any.

But everyone can remember the gift of last night’s sunset.  Everyone can remember the last beautiful song they heard.  Even when bad things happen we can choose to look at the goodness and love shown by those who come to respond.  That is where we see the goodness of God, the presence of God with us.

Focus on Goodness

So let us not simply focus on the bad.  We need to be aware, and we need to be involved.  But we do not need to spend every moment of our lives wallowing in the  world’s mess.  Watch the news, but do not leave it on all day.  Be well informed, but beware of the fact that people have an economic interest in keeping you upset, fearful, and angry: it keeps you watching the commercials.  Your anxiety puts money in their pockets.  Do not play their game.  Turn it off.

Take time to enter the Cloud of Unknowing.  Take time to be in the silent presence of a loving God.  There is a time for trying to figure out what God is doing, or not doing, in this world of evil, but there is also time to simply

“be still and know.”  And for those who do, there will be plenty of reasons, as

Zephaniah said, to :

“rejoice greatly…  
“The Lord has taken away the judgments against you…
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst…
Do not fear…
The Lord, your God, is in your midst”

The Salvation We Seek

Sermon on Luke 3:1-6 for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year C, December 6, 2015

Luke 3:1-6
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In 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, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as 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.
  Every 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;
  and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”

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Mike Wetzel is the man in a video taken in his church last week.  He is holding an infant child.  Four of his other children are standing with him.  They are there, in their church, to light the Advent Candle.  Mike holds the microphone which the baby tries to take.  It is an awkward moment.  He introduces himself to any who may not know him, explaining that his “better half” is unable to be there with them because she is at home, tending another child.   Mike is the father of six children.

As he does the reading, with his fidgety children around him, he is clearly out of his comfort zone.  At one point, he uses the baby’s blanket to mop perspiration from his brow, and comments that he is missing his support team – his wife.

Mike closes with a prayer.  He mentions hope; the hope that Advent celebrates.  He speaks of Jesus as “hope to the world.”

The video of Mike and his family was posted on Facebook by a friend of mine.  Mike is a friend of a friend of hers in San Bernardino, California.  Mike was one of the 14 people shot and killed there this past week.  Now, his wife, his support team is left alone, to raise those six children without her support team.


What does hope mean?  What does it mean in a world of random acts of violence?   What is the salvation that we seek in the birth of Jesus?

Mike was there to light the first candle of Advent.  This is the nature of our hope, and the salvation we seek: lighting a candle, in spite of the darkness, because of the darkness, as a protest against the darkness, as an alternative to the darkness.

“God Isn’t Fixing This”
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Where is God in this?  You may have seen the headline in the New York Daily News announcing that “God Isn’t Fixing This.”  The headline was meant as a retort to politicians who announced prayers for the victims, but who would never work to change any laws in our country about guns or ammunition.

To me, the headline was all wrong.  It is not true that God is standing idly by, refusing to fix the problem of violence.  A God who would not step in to protect the father of six little children, or the scores of victims in Paris, or Beirut, or  Syria, or anywhere else, would not be good.

Our hope is not that we will be saved from evil.  How could it be?  Jesus, himself  was not saved from evil, violence, and death.

Our hope is that God is at work in this world, not as a separate observer, but as part of this world, on the side of the suffering victims.  This is what we celebrate at Advent; that God is at work in the world now, and always, as Jesus was in the world.  God is at work, luring us towards goodness, towards truth, towards beauty; towards the light.

Advent starts with John
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The Advent story begins with John the baptist.  At John’s birth, Luke records for us a poem spoken, in the story, by John’s father, Zechariah.  It is a remarkable poem.  In it are echoes of Israel’s past.  Zechariah recalls Israel’s hope which was set in motion by the covenant God made with the ancestors, with Abraham and Sarah.

Remember that story?  Abraham goes into a deep, dark dream.  He has a vision experience.  Animals are cut in two, and arranged in rows to form an aisle.  It is a solemn covenant ceremony.  One of the parties to the covenant would swear loyalty to the other by walking down the gruesome aisle, between the pieces.  It was considered an oath.  He would be saying, “May the same fate be mine as was these animals, if I am ever disloyal to the covenant.”

And in his vision, Abram must have imagined that he himself would walk between the pieces of animals, swearing loyalty to the God who had promised him a future family, and a worldwide blessing.
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But no!  Remarkably, God, symbolized by a flaming torch and the smoke rising from coals, passed through the pieces.  God was cursing Godself, lest God every be disloyal to God’s own covenant-promise to Abraham.

So, Zechariah prays that his new son, John, would be a part of that promise coming true.  He evokes the memory of king David and the covenant God made with him.   God, through the prophet in the story, promised that there would always be a king on David’s throne.

Even in exile, even during occupation, even after all the violence, the mistakes, the human betrayal, somehow that hope was still alive.  God had, for God’s own reasons, bound Godself to God’s people, for their good, for their well being, for their future.

Zechariah prayed that his baby, John, would grow up to be a voice, as Isaiah had imagined, of one crying out in the wilderness; “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

The Way of the Lord

How?  By stockpiling swords, ready for the final battle?  This was the wish of many.  This is still, the wish of many.  They amass weapons; they gather ammunition.  They are ready to shoot and kill.  They believe the myth that they will be saved by violence.

But violence only begets violence.  Those who live by the sword die by the sword.  Those who think that a country, awash in guns, in military style assault weapons, in automatic pistols, in huge ammunition clips, will be anything but a country of mass shootings, and dead children, and dead fathers of children, are walking in a deep, deep darkness.

We are the fix

How is God going to fix this?  By faithfulness to the covenant-promise of loyalty to his people.  By being among us to teachScreen Shot 2015-12-04 at 1.58.38 PMh us to light candles of hope, instead of joining the darkness of violence.  By luring us towards goodness, towards truth, towards beauty; towards the light.

God fixes this by coaxing into life a community of people who will not give in to the darkness.  An Advent community of people who live by an alternative set of values.  A community that practices patient waiting as Advent teaches us to do, for the celebration of Christ’s birth, the birth of hope that violence and death will not have the last word.

The birth of hope that there is a king on David’s throne, that his worldwide kindom is big enough to gather in all humanity, so that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, but all are one.  All share one bread.  All share one cup.  All gather around one table, in peace.

Zechariah ends his dedication prayer with these words:

“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high
will break upon us,
to give light to those
who sit in darkness and
in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

To guide our feet into the way of peace.”  That is our hope.  This is our salvation.  That God’s people would hear the call to prepare the way of the Lord by refusing violence at every level.

That we would be those who live in the light of Jesus, who is called “prince of peace.”

That we would open our eyes, in the light of Advent, so that we could see God at work fixing us, healing us, transforming us from people of instinctive, primitive, beast-like violent reactions, into people of compassion, people of reconciliation, people of the spiritual kindom of God; people of hope.

People who would rather die than kill.

People who believe that no matter how many mass shootings are yet to come, no matter how many people ISIS can kill, no matter how much darkness there is, evil will not win.  Love will win.  That one day, as the prophet imagined,

“all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”