Sermons by Rev. John Kidd John 1 Walk in the Light December 25 2016
There is a deep darkness descending upon our nation and world. It is falling hard. The darkness comes for some as their worst fears will be realized in less than a month when a new administration takes office. There are the ongoing attacks in Europe. The dark powers of white nationalism are on the rise in the United States and Europe. The notion that we must protect our tribe at the expense of all others is on the rise. Fear is our overarching concern and our guiding principle in decision making. In the midst of that we are interrupted by a celebration.
It’s an odd celebration. It takes place right after the winter solstice when there is more darkness than daylight in the Northern Hemisphere. It is a birthday celebration in which gifts are given not to the one who is celebrating the birthday but to the ones doing the celebrating. We sing our favorite carols that evoke memories of days gone by. At the same time, because they are so familiar, we fail to hear the defiance and resistance that the hymn writers and scripture are calling us to in dealing with the forces of darkness that appear in control.
In the midst of family gatherings, torn wrapping paper, and the smell of favorite foods, we stop and gather before God to worship, to be encouraged, and commit ourselves anew to seeing the light and walking in the light. We recommit ourselves to bear witness to the light in the world with our lives and the life of our congregation.
This Christmas morning, we will give thanks to God for coming into the world in the person of Jesus, the Word made flesh. We will praise God that Jesus is the light of the world. We will commit ourselves to listening to the Word, following the light and bearing witness to the light in the world. We will continue to walk in the light individually and together as a congregation.
This morning we are gathered to praise God for coming into this world as a human being. Matthew tells us that Jesus is Immanuel; God with us. Luke tells us that the baby born is the one promised to sit on the throne of his father David. He is the long looked for and hoped for Messiah. John tells us that Jesus is the Word made flesh and the light of the world.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth is a powerful statement that God has come among us. John goes back to the very beginning when he reminds us that the Word was present at creation.
Creation came into being by the power of God’s Word spoken. God has spoken again. This time through a son. God’s Word is born of Mary and named Jesus. This baby is God dwelling among us as one of us. God has taken on human flesh and all of its limitations, in order to speak to us and demonstrate to us what God is like.
God shows us what love looks like, and teaches us through demonstrations of love and compassion about the very nature of God. The preacher of the book of Hebrews said that God has spoken to us in diverse ways through the centuries. Now in Jesus, God has spoken to us by a Son. The only Son of the Father.
God speaks his Word to us in Jesus. That Word never goes silent. That Word is never tamed, domesticated or conquered. The world might think it can silence the Word. Rome thought it had when it ordered Jesus crucified and executed. God raised the Word from the dead and conquered death and the power of evil.
We try to silence the Word today as parts of the church try to align themselves with political powers who are bent on ignoring the poor and the suffering, who want to build up the strong at the expense of the weak and who want to suppress the rights of those who do not look or act like the majority. The Word will not be silenced. It may struggle to be heard, but the Word will not go away. It will be heard. John uses another image to describe Jesus. It is the image of light. Light that is powerful enough not be extinguished by any form of darkness.
John describes Jesus as the light of the world. The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. In the Northern hemisphere, the image of light shining in darkness and light overcoming darkness is a powerful image at this time of year. That is the driving force behind our decorating for Christmas. It comes at the darkest time of the year.
John describes Jesus as the light that overcomes the darkness of human evil and sinfulness. In the world that Jesus was born into, his people were under the domination of Rome. Their freedom to be Jews and to practice their faith was at the whim of each new emperor. Just as in our day, there were people who would oppress and exploit others.
They would exclude rather than include, they would define a person by their economic status, or how well they kept the rules of the society. Jesus, God with Us, came to shine a light upon that and drive it out. As Jesus, the light of the world, drove out the darkness of hate, inequality, and strove for justice, the powers of darkness, who refused to hear the Word, grew more emboldened until they had him arrested. At trial, he was accused of being an enemy of the state and of his religion. It was determined that must be done away with. Jesus was ordered executed. The people thought the troublesome light was extinguished once and for all. They could get back to business as usual. As John said the darkness could not overcome the light. The Word was raised from the dead and the light continues to shine, driving out the darkness. We have heard the story. We know it backward and forward. It is part of our makeup. We give thanks to God for the Word made Flesh and the Light that shines in the darkness. Knowing about it is not enough. We are called, as John was called, to bear witness to the light. We bear witness to the light by walking in the light of the Living Word of God, Jesus the Christ.
In this troubled time of deep darkness, we walk in the light of Christ. We walk in Christ’s light as we welcome into our midst gay and straight, white and black, Hispanic, single people, people of means and people with little means.
We walk in the light as we feed the hungry, as we provide a space for recovery and sobriety, for children to receive help in their education. We walk in the light as we open our doors each Sunday and declare that no matter what is going on around me, no matter how dark the world might be that we are going to resist the darkness and offer our thanks and praise to the Word made flesh.
Walking in the light means that no matter what anyone says to the contrary we will always welcome anyone who wants to join with us. We will feed the hungry, we will provide help with temporary accommodations, and other requests, and we will include all people. We will follow the light of Christ’s light where it goes and try not to worry about the cost. We know deep inside of us that the Word has been made flesh in Jesus and in him God’s light is here. We know that the light will not go out and the Word will not be silenced. That inspires us to sing with the Psalmist.
Long before the Word became flesh and dwelt among us the Psalmist was inspired to sing out and invite us to sing along the declaration that “The Lord has done marvelous things, his right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory. The Lord has made known his victory and revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the nations will see the victory of our God.” The Psalmist goes on to call us to sing our praises with our voices and other instruments, making a joyful noise before the Lord, the King. Then the Psalmist invites the rest of the creation to join the song.
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it. Let the floods clap their hands and the hills sing for joy at the presence of the Lord for he is coming to judge the earth with righteousness and equity. Today let us join in that song. Let us sing loud. Let us sing with joy. Let us sing with confidence to the one who is the Word made Flesh. Let us sing praise to the one who is the light of the world that will break the darkness and not be conquered by it. May the grace and peace of the Word made flesh be with you. May the Light drive out your darkness. Thanks and praise be to God for this precious gift.
Isaiah 7 Matthew 1 18-25 December 18, 2016 Forth Sunday of Advent
One of my favorite movies is Fiddler on the Roof. The movie is based on stories by a Russian Jewish author, Sholem Aleichem. The stories take place in the fictional village of Anatevka. The movie is set in 1905. That year was the beginning of the Russian Revolution that would culminate with the execution of Czar Nicholas II and his family in 1917. Not long after that the Bolsheviks would prevail and Russia would become Communist.
The main character in the story is a milkman named Tevye. Tevye is a deeply faithful man. He is determined to live by the best traditions his Jewish faith. Throughout the movie Tevye carries on a conversation with God about everything that goes on in his life. Tevye has five daughters. His three oldest daughters are trying to figure out how to be faithful in ways that make sense to them. The give and take between Tevye and his daughters over how to be live with righteousness and faithfulness drives the plot. There are many poignant scenes as each of the three oldest fall in love and marry.
Tzietel is the oldest daughter. In their traditional culture the parents use a match maker to arrange the marriage of their children. The matchmaker comes to the house with a match for her. It is Lazar the butcher.
Lazar is a sixty year old widower. He makes a good living. Tevye agrees to the match. Tzietel is heartbroken. She is 20 years old and is in love with Motel the village tailor. In that culture righteousness requires one action and faithfulness requires the opposite action. There are conversations about tradition and traditional ways. There are conversations about marrying for love. There are conversations about what it means to move away from tradition and it’s expression as righteousness.
Tevye is caught between his righteousness which requires him to honor his word, which will alienate him from his daughter. His faithfulness as a father will cause him to have to go back on his word to Lazar. Tevye had to wrestle long and hard with his decision. Tradition and righteousness are important. Love is more important. Love and faithfulness overcome.
Tevye goes back on his word to Lazar. Tevye gives permission for Tzietel and Motel to get married. They are happy but Tevye is struggling. Change is overtaking him. It scares him. Tradition is the one thing that is constant in his life and it is also changing. Then it starts again with daughter 2 Hodel.
During the course of his daily business, Tevye meets a young teacher named Perchick. Perchick is Jewish by birth but not by practice. He is a supporter of the revolution. Tevye is impressed that he is a teacher. Out of faithfulness he desires his daughters have some education. Tradition sys this is not necessary or desirable. Hodel falls for Perchick. It starts again.
Tevye disapproves of the relationship. Perchick goes back to his revolutionary ways. Hodel loves him and wants to marry him. She wants to go with him to Kiev. What can Tevye do?
Righteousness on his part would alienate him from a daughter he loves. Faithfulness requires he act with love toward his flesh and blood and set aside his beloved tradition.
Then there is daughter number three Chava. Chava meets Fyetka. They fall head over heels for each other. The problem with this relationship is Fyetka is a Christian. Now Tevye is in a real bind.
With Tzietel and Hodel they fell in love with and married Jewish men. Chava falls in love with and wants to marry a Christian. For Tevye this is too far. It is the Christians that have been behind the persecution of Jews for centuries. They were behind the persecution now. Tevye is being asked to not only set aside righteousness, he being asked to set aside faithfulness as well. It is too much. In a very moving but sad scene Tevye declares that Chava is dead to him and he declares they will never speak again.
While Tevye is dealing with the challenges in his household, a pogrom begins. A pogrom is when the Russian government forces a Jewish community to leave their homes and move somewhere else. In the closing scenes of the movie the people are leaving their homes in Anetevka. Tevye, Golde, and their family are at the train station.
Tevye, Golde and the youngest two daughters are on their way to America. Tzietel, Motel, and their baby are going to Poland. Hodel is heading to join Perchick in Siberia where he is a political prisoner. Chava and Fyetka are going to Krakow. Golde and her daughters beg Tevye to say goodbye to Chava and Fyetka. He will not. He turns his back. Tzietel speaks and blesses her sister. Very quietly Tevye says to Tzietel say to Chava God be with you. They are heading to new lives perhaps separated for the rest of time. There the movie ends.
I love this story because it is a wonderful tale of God breaking into lives, challenging them with signs of what it means to be faithful. It also reminds sometimes what seems to be the righteous course of action, is not the most faithful course of action.
In our texts for the morning we have two stories of righteousness challenging faithfulness. They have very different outcomes. King Ahaz chooses what he thinks is the righteous course of action. Joseph sets aside what he believes to be the righteous thing to do in order to be faithful to God and to his beloved Mary. In our Old Testament text, Isaiah has a conversation with King Ahaz about the current political situation. Ahaz is worried about the kings of Israel and Aram uniting to attack Judah. The Lord sends Isaiah to Ahaz. Isaiah tells him do not be afraid or worry about them. They will not attack and conquer you. Stand firm. Ahaz as King has a country to protect. For a prophet to tell him to have faith and do not be afraid goes against every instinct he has. God through Isaiah, decides to give Ahaz another chance.
Ask for a sign. Make it as bold as you want. Ahaz’ righteousness takes over. I will not ask and I will not put the Lord to the test he thunders. That sounds righteous, but in this case it is arrogant. God invited him and he refused God’s invitation on some pious notion that he was capable of handling his own problems and responsibilities. I will not put the Lord to the test he says. Ahaz does have a point.
The scripture does say do not to put the Lord your God to the test. Jesus used that very counsel when Satan tried to get him to jump of the temple roof, telling Jesus that God promised him protection. What God was doing was asking Ahaz to act upon faith and allow God to show him that he was worried for nothing. When Ahaz refuses, he discovers God will not take no for an answer. Isaiah speaks to him again. God is going to give you a sign whether you like it or not. This is what it is; A young women will bear a child and shall name him Immanuel. Before the child is old enough to know right from wrong, good from evil, the threat of the two Kings will pass. The threat that had worried Ahaz so much never materialized. They were safe for the moment. Ahaz acted with righteousness. He did not act with faithfulness. Acting with faithfulness means he would have asked for the promised sign and realized that the threat was unfounded. He would have demonstrated trust in God’s protection and provision. They would survive a while longer. That act of Ahaz refusing to take God up on the offer of a sign was just one more thing that would ultimately lead to Judah’s downfall.
Our text from Matthew has a similar story to tell. The difference is, this is a matter that is far more personal, involving a man and his fiance rather than a King and the security of his nation.
In Matthew chapter one, we have the story of Joseph and his response to the unexpected pregnancy of his fiance. Matthew’s account comes from the perspective of Joseph the carpenter and descendant of King David.
In Luke, we have the story of the angel announcing the pregnancies of Elizabeth and Mary. Mary singing about what her son will be like. Then there is the journey to Bethlehem for the birth. There are angel songs, shepherds and a heavenly choir. Matthew is different. It is quiet and takes place in a dream.
Joseph, Mary’s fiance, has found out that she is pregnant. You can only hide that for so long. He knows the baby is not his. With a broken heart, he has to decide what he needs do. Righteousness requires him to publicly shame her. By the law she should face death for adultery. Joseph could not do that. He loved her. He was going to marry her. They were going to have a life and family together. It is all ruined by her action. He decides he will do what he has to do in such a way as to minimize the humiliation of both of them. He would divorce her as quietly as possible. He would explain only what he must and work on putting his life back together. He gets it all worked out in his head. He is ready to put the plan in motion the next day. He figured out how to act in a righteous way with compassion. He goes to sleep.
An angel comes to him in a dream. God gives him instructions through the angel; “Joseph son of David do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give him birth and you are to name him Jesus for he will save his people from their sins. It will fulfill what was spoken of by Isaiah; “the virgin will conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel.” Joseph wakes up. With courage, he acts with faithfulness. He listened to and acted on what God told him to do even though it went against the righteous requirements of the situation.
Both of these men, King Ahaz and Joseph, had to make a choice of whether to be righteous as they understood the requirements of righteousness or would they be faithful to the God that was calling them to act in ways that defied tradition and convention. It is a question that we all face. How will we act?
Let’s go back to the closing scenes of Fiddler on the Roof. They take place at the train station as the family is fleeing Russia after being forced out of their ancestral home. Tevye has disowned his daughter Chava for marrying Fyetka the Christian. Tevye declared her dead in his eyes and they will not speak again. As the scene unfolds you can see that the man, who was trying so much to be both righteous and faithful, was coming apart inside. He wanted so much to embrace his daughter but he could not. The stakes were too high. At the end when she goes away he asks his oldest daughter to bless her. As much as he would like to Tevye just can’t do it. He does find a way to do it that leaves the door is open to reconciliation.
Maybe you have had a situation in your life when you perceived the righteous thing to do was to break off a relationship. You felt you had no choice. The struggle came when you knew the faithful thing to do would be to set aside your righteousness to be faithful, seeking to love and be reconciled. You struggled back and forth with your decision. What did you do? Did you stand on righteousness or did you try to be faithful and set righteousness aside in order to do something that was loving?
That is the challenge of our faith. Doing things and acting in ways that defy convention. It is acting at times against our perception of righteousness so we can act with faithfulness, loving and attempting to understand, when judgement seems to be so much more appropriate. It is easy to rest on righteousness, as we understand it, because it keeps us from fully responding to what God is calling us to do. It challenges us because we are afraid that God will cause us to change our minds, see someone differently, or maybe have to call into question our own motivations and understanding. Will we be faithful and listen to what God is calling us to do and be or will we rest on our perception of what righteousness is even if it conflicts with what God desires from us and for us?
Luke 1 Mt 11 James 5 December 11, 2016 Third Sunday of Advent
The color of the candle for the day is pink symbolizing rejoicing. The banner on the wreath says joy. Our anticipation of our holiday plans is building. For our family, there are many performances yet to attend. We will hear a wide variety of music to help us rejoice, at least for a little while. We will go to a performance in the Meymandi Concert Hall. That is a beautiful venue downtown. It is not very far from many neighborhoods where if you lived in that neighborhood, attending a concert there would be impossible to afford. We will drive in and drive out through the beautifully lit buildings of downtown and not see the suffering and grinding poverty that is so close to us. Later we will go to a performance at the Durham Center for the Performing Arts. It is another beautiful venue that its neighbors cannot afford to go to. The difference is, in Durham it is hard to miss the challenges that the surrounding neighborhoods face.
We go for the beauty and the joy that the performing arts bring to us. They are a welcome distraction from the challenges around us. For a time they turn us away from the ugliness of poverty and injustice, hunger, hopelessness, fear and anger that are all around us. That is what the great movies and movie musicals did during the great depression and World War 2. That was the function of the touring big bands that would go from town to town entertaining us and reminding us that in the midst of deep darkness, there is beauty, there is light and some hope. That distraction gives us the space to dream about the day when things will be made right and justice will prevail. This entertainment is a two -edged sword. Those very distractions that help us keep perspective can also cause us to deny that anything is wrong. Back to our entertainment venues.
These beautiful venues draw us to their respective downtown. They allow us to get close to poverty but not close enough to see it too well. We can drive in and back out winding our way through the impressive buildings of the capital city. We cannot see the pain and the need, the fear and the hopelessness that exists down there. Our texts speak to that reality.
In our three texts, one is set before Jesus is born, one is about a faithful servant of God raising questions about what he has believed and done as he sits in prison. The third is giving counsel to Jesus’ followers to be patient and wait.
In Luke, Mary is excited and singing out about who unborn son would be and what he would do. In Matthew and James people are frustrated. In Matthew, John is questioning his life’s work and to some extent his faith that Jesus is the Messiah. James is urging patience to Jesus’ followers over the pace of change. Each has something to say to us in our day and age. First let’s hear from Luke.
Luke is the writer that gives us the most detail about Jesus’ origin and birth. Luke starts by telling us a story of an elderly priest and his wife who are childless and past the time that that would change. An angel appeared to the couple and told them they are going to have a son. He would be tasked with preparing the way of the Lord. He would be a prophet like the ones of old. Elizabeth is ecstatic and Zechariah her husband, is understandably skeptical. Time passes and the angel appears again. This time the angel appears to a young women named Mary who is engaged to Joseph.
The angel says to her “Greetings favored one. The Lord is with you.” The angel goes on and tells her she has been chosen to bear a son who would be named Jesus. He would be known as the son of God and take the throne of his father David. Mary argues that she is a virgin and having a baby at that time was not going to happen. The angel says otherwise.
The angel tells her of Elizabeth and she goes to visit her. They converse about their remarkable experiences of the angel visits and the resulting pregnancies. It sinks in as the women talk and reflect. Mary is unable to contain herself and bursts out in a song.
“My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior. He has looked upon me with favor… the Mighty One has done great things for me.” “God’s mercy is for those that fear him. God has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful from their thrones, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good food and sent the rich away empty.” This is the plan for the life of her unborn son. This is his mission. This is what God is promising. This is our hope, our dream, and our deepest desire. This is going to be realized through my son. The son of God. Oh may I live to see the day.
The months pass. Jesus is born. More time passes and he grows up. Jesus is raised in the synagogue. He knows what his mission is. The time comes. He embarks on his mission. Much of what Mary sang about is realized as people are healed and people have hope renewed. It dawns on the people that not all that Mary sang about has come to pass.
The rich keep getting richer. There are hungry people. The Romans are still in charge. There is still economic exploitation. Jesus keeps preaching and things happen, just not enough. While Jesus is doing his work, John is doing his.
John the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah grows up and does the work God had for him. John’s work is to be a prophet. It is his task to bear witness to what God is doing through his cousin Jesus. John is very good at it. He draws crowds and calls them to repent. He points them to Jesus and urges them to follow Jesus. He does this faithfully and well. He does it so well he ends up in Herod’s prison for calling out Herod’s affair.
Ending up in prison was an occupational hazard for effective prophets. It is both encouraging and discouraging. It is encouraging because it means that someone has heard what they have said. They are angered by it because they realize the prophet is right. It is discouraging for the prophet because you know you have so much more to say and you are effectively silenced.
As John sits in Herod’s prison, he has time to think and reflect. He knew the expectations that Mary sung about. He knew the promise of God. He was announcing the Messiah was here. Yet nothing much had changed. The Romans were still in charge. Herod was still a boot licking puppet who strutted like a bantam rooster. The poor were just as poor and no one was free. John gets some trusted disciples of his to go ask Jesus; are you the one or should we look for another?
John is struggling. He is wondering if he was wrong about Jesus. Had he misunderstood his task and wasted his life and breath announcing what would amount to a pipe dream? Was he in prison for nothing? Would his life have any meaning after he was dead? His disciples go to Jesus and they put John’s questions to him. Jesus answers.
“Go tell John what you see and hear. The blind receive their sight, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus goes on to commend John and his ministry affirming that John had done what God had called him to do. The work Jesus was doing is the work that John said that he would do.
Matthew nor the other Gospels tell us how John received the answer from Jesus. We don’t know whether he was satisfied or if he went to his execution with doubts in his mind. The value of this story has nothing to do with John’s satisfaction with Jesus’ response. The value of the story is that it invites us to ask the same questions.
All of these centuries later, when it seems like very little changed, do we still cling to the hope that Mary sang about before Jesus was born? Do we have a hard time reconciling the hope of Mary’s song and the reply of Jesus to John with what we observe in our time? With John we ask is Jesus the one or should we look for another?
Like it or not we look for others. We look for military might to change regimes that we deem dangerous. We look up to the wealthy and think that somehow they are going to change things for us. We hope that they have a charitable nature that will shower some donations our way to make things better.
We embrace people who talk tough and bluster about how we are going to make things great again. We are going to deal with the poor and the ne’re do wells who are a drag on our economy. We are going to deal with the immigrants who steals our jobs. We are going to make it so you can keep more of your money and not worry so much about the hungry, the sick, the poor, the left behind, the wounded, and the broken. We will leave them for the poor saps in the church who seem to like those kind of folks. We think yah. Let’s go for it. Jesus and his mother Mary come speaking to us again.
The proud will be scattered, the powerful brought down, the lowly lifted up, the hungry fed with good things and the rich sent away empty. God’s mercy will be the overriding concern of all. God’s kingdom and shalom will rule the earth. Like John we cry out are you the one? Nothing seems to change. With countless other voices, we cry out when will this be? To borrow a favorite expression of poets in the Psalms, How long O Lord? How long O Lord indeed. James offers counsel to us. After James declares God’s judgement on the rich and the oppressors, James turns his attention to the fledgling Christian community. “Be patient therefore beloved until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and late rains. You must be patient, strengthen your hearts for the coming of the Lord is near. Remember the prophets and their example of suffering and patience.”
The exhortation to patience is fine if everything is going well. It is fine if you can at least provide something for your family. Patience is fine if you are not waiting for justice to be done. When does the time for patience end and action begin? Those are powerful questions that deserve to be wrestled with. How long O Lord? How long?
We raise the questions. We sing our prayer, “O come O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel. We sing bid envy strife and discord cease, fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.” We sing we ain’t gonna study war no more. We pray for healing. We pray for an end to hunger, oppression and greed. We for an end to leaders who lust after power and control. WE ask for leaders who will practice justice and mercy. Is it whistling in the dark? Is it wishful or magical thinking? Is it something we do out of custom four Sundays before we tear into the gifts under the Chritmas tree because it is just something we do as a part of our celebration. Is it just a beautiful fantasy with no basis in reality? I don’t know. At different times, I would answer different ways. What I do know is Advent is here and it raises our hopes of something better. It brings to mind the possibility that no matter how distant it may be, God is coming back to make things right. Advent makes us want to join with Mary to sing about justice, righteousness, and shalom.
This advent season comes at a time in our world when there is little visible movement forward on this and whole lot of movement backward. That causes us to join with John as he asks of Jesus are you the one who is to come or should we look for another? The passage of time keeps John and our questions relevant.
We who are part of the privileged majority in our society can identify and embrace James’s call for patience and endurance. We have what we need. We are not imprisoned by our poverty. We are able to seek help for our medical needs. We don’t have to worry about seeking assistance from someone else to keep food on our table, clothes on our backs and a roof over our head. We can have patience. We are not waiting for justice to be done for family members whose lives are taken from them by violence.
For those who are suffering and oppressed, patience is a cruel word. In the end, those who suffer and those who do not can only do one thing. All we can do is look and hope that we will see the signs that Jesus pointed out to John. Now there are blind who are seeing, deaf who are hearing, hungry people who can eat, sick people being made well. All we can do is look for glimpses of God’s judgement on the rich and powerful and hope we will live to see the day when Mary’s song is reality for all.
Isaiah 11, Matthew 3 In the Brood of vipers or the Kingdom of God? December 4, 2016 Second Sunday of Advent
I must make a confession that so far the season of Advent has far greater appeal than Christmas. The reason is because of what is going on in our nation after our elections and what is going on in Europe and other parts of the world. There is a deep darkness descending upon the world that makes me very discouraged.
There is the shear ugliness of the resurgence of racism and white supremacy that erupted during the campaign and election. I confess that I thought we had taken care of it many years ago. It turns out that all we really did was to let a crust build up on it like a crust builds up on a volcano. With time the pressure builds up. When the crust, that seals the volcano can no longer bear the pressure the volcano erupts and does much damage.
I confess I thought we had moved forward on the treatment of and respect of women. I thought we had full equality. I thought we were beginning to get sexual misconduct and harassment under control. The hard truth has erupted in front of me. We have not.
I confess I thought we had turned the corner and were moving to full acceptance of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. We have not. These brothers and sisters are living in fear that their long fought for rights to marry and to be free from workplace and other forms of discrimination are in real danger of being stripped away. Now I realize how insecure the gains are.
Our immigrant population who came here seeking a better life for their family and the opportunity to succeed, are living with threats of violence, intimidation, and harsh judgements about their character. People who came for the opportunity to live and to practice their faith in peace and contribute to their community, are feeling threatened to the point of wanting to strike back.
Having confessed my denial or ignorance of these matters, I need to repent of my ignorance and denial of the role I have played in all of this. I confess that it is my privilege that has blinded me to the plight of the poor and my non-white neighbors. I have exercised either denial or just closed my eyes and ears to ignore what is happening around me.
I say all this in the season of the year when we do not expect to hear this. This is the time that one songwriter called “The most wonderful time of the year.” The call to confession and repentance clashes with the sounds of Silver Bells, Here Comes Santa Claus, and Away in a Manger. The call to confession and repentance breaks into the Silent Night Holy Night and jolts us with John’s vivid description of us as a “Brood of Vipers”
John’s call to confession and repentance is a stark contrast to taking a look at the new born king and acting like the proud grandparent who is sure that this infant they are seeing is the finest ever born on the planet. We are unable to comprehend that this baby, as sweet and quiet as he is, is the person who will demand repentance of all people. He will command us to conform to his vision of the world in which all people being cared for, where predators of every form or fashion are no longer preying on the weak, the poor, the vulnerable and the ill.
John calls us as, he called the people of Judea, to repent, give up old ways and values, and embark on a journey of living like the one who was born of Mary and laid in the manger.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, John bursts on the scene with no announcement in chapter 3. The first two chapters are taken up with Jesus lineage, birth, visit from the Magi, flight to Egypt and return home. Then the gospel goes silent for many years.
The silence is broken by John the Baptizer appearing in the wilderness. John comes proclaiming a message in a way that had not been heard or seen for about four hundred years. He has an old message that is delivered in a tried and true fashion, to a new group of people. John looks the part in his camel hair clothing and his living off the land for his food.
John cries; “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He goes on to say “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Some thought we have heard this all before. The man is crazy with the desert heat. Something must be wrong with him as he lives in the desert, dresses funny, and eats locusts and honey. He can cry out all he wants, but unless he can raise up an army, nothing is going to change. They blow him off. They ignore him like people ignore the man who preaches outside the gates of the State Fair or between the Natural History and North Carolina History Museums. There are some others who listen.
These folks know that things are not right. They know they are not living as God wants them to. They know they do not always follow the law or take care of each other as they should. Some have gone to work for Rome and exploit their own. Others have simply moved away from their faith as it seems it makes little difference in their life. They hear John’s message and they respond with repentance and turning away from their sins. They desire to turn their lives around and live as God intended them to live. They take the extraordinary step of being baptized in the Jordon River to signify their repentance and their new commitment to live as God desires them to live. Further out in the crowd are Pharisees and Sadducees.
John spots these religious leaders in the crowd. They have vastly different ideas of what God wants from human beings. The Pharisees are very particular about how they worship, obey the rules of the law for all things, they are careful about who they associate with. They believe it is the purity of their observance of the rituals and laws that God desires of them. The Sadducees are different.
They are about going along to get along. They are about endearing themselves to the powers that be. They are the ones who will practice the rituals to keep up appearances but not enough to get crossways with the powers that be.
John spots them and addresses them as a brood of vipers. Who warned you to come out here to flee from the wrath to come. He reminds them that they cannot rely on their heritage as children of Abraham to save them. Remember God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones John thunders. The only reason for you to be here is that you have a desire to repent and change. You have desire to live as God desires us to live. The time of judgement is coming. In a graphic image John declares judgement.
“Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree that does not bear fruit is to be cut down and thrown into the fire. The judgement is coming. I am only the messenger. “After me comes the One who will separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
These are powerful words in a season in which our culture picks up on the theme peace on earth goodwill to all. This is the season in which we confuse Santa Claus and God. This is the season where we see the poor or the hungry and help out a little and think we have met our obligation for the year. The question for us is are we prepared to repent? Will we be found among the wheat or the chaff on the day of judgement? That is not the questions we usually ask this time of year.
Are you getting ready for Christmas is the question that gets raised about as soon as the table is cleared from Thanksgiving dinner. We have decorations to put up, a tree to buy and decorate, gifts to wrap, foods to prepare. There are cards to send and donations to be made. It is a lot to do. That preparation is not what I nor John are referring to. The preparation that John has in mind is are you prepared for the judgement of God to come.? That is much more significant.
Are you ready for God’s judgement is a question that asks are you ready to be a part of God’s kingdom and live as God desires? It calls us to ask ourselves are we going to continue to live as we have and receive the judgement that God will pronounce upon us? We must ask, do we want to remain with the brood of vipers or do we want to be a part of the so called peaceable kingdom?
If we don’t want to change and repent we can remain in the brood of vipers, living for ourselves, not worrying about what is going on around us. We can think about only what is good for us and not worry about those who are being oppressed, who are being chased down, intimidated, threatened, or harassed. We can remain a part of the brood of vipers if we do not want to confess and acknowledge our roles in the worlds troubles and challenges. We can do that but we must be ready to accept the consequences of being like the unfruitful trees who are cut down and burned.
We can choose to repent and become part of God’s kingdom. We can confess our responsibilities for the racism, sexism, anti-immigrant, anti-equality and fear based discrimination against others. We can repent and ask God to change our hearts, to remind us that we were washed in the baptismal waters and made Christ’s own. We can reclaim our heritage as people who live as Christ followers who reject the ways of the world and embrace the ways of the Christ. We can repent and ask God to grant us the ability to demonstrate the fruits of repentance as revealed in the prophet Isaiah.
The poetry of the prophet Isaiah in chapter 11 gives us a beautiful image of the fruit of repentance. In the opening verses, Isaiah gives us the image of a clear- cut piece of land. Perhaps the clear cut is the result of unproductive fruit trees being cut and burned. As we look out over the desolation we see a stump with a branch beginning to grow out of it. There is life in the midst of death. There is hope in the desolation of judgement. Isaiah says it is the shoot of the stump of Jesse. Jesse being the father of the Davidic line of Kings of Judah.
The Davidic kings were utter failures as God said they would be. They led the people into destruction rather than into faithfulness. God promised that someone would rise out of that line who would be the messiah king that they needed, but never had. In the desolation of destruction there was hope. Out of death would come life. When this shoot from the stump of Jesse reached maturity, God’s spirit would rest upon him and he would act accordingly.
He would bring judgement. He would bring transformation. He would judge with equity and righteousness, with the breath of his lips he would slay the wicked. The shoot from the stump of Jesse would build a new kingdom and world where the predators and the prey would live together in peace. There would be peace. Deep peace that comes from caring for and reconciling with others. There will be no more violence and destruction of anything. Nationality, sexuality, racial heritage, economic status, or gender will not matter. All will live in peace because we are filled with the knowledge of the Lord.
The question for you and for me is where will we stand? Will we refuse to repent and follow Jesus and remain living in the brood of vipers? Will we repent and allow Jesus to shape us so that we are a demonstration the reality of the vision of the Kingdom of God?
Every day we have to have the courage to ask God to show us the areas of our lives that need changing. You and I must ask is God calling me to repent of my unrecognized privilege in our society? Are you and I being called to repent of our racism? Do you and I need to repent of letting our fear of others be our guiding principle? Do you and I need to repent of attachments to the old ways of being church and community? Do you and I need to let go of a judgmental spirit?
Only you know what you need to repent of. Only you can do it. No one can make you do it or do it for you. When you or I do repent will we fully realize the promise made at our baptism that we were baptized into Christ, sealed and marked as Christ’s own. This Advent I urge you and me to strive to meet the expectations that Jesus has for us as his followers. Then we can recognize God’s kingdom breaking in and demonstrate it with our lives.