Collection week is always fun. Getting to talk to the various folks that come in the door is a great remedy to the cynicism we are so often drenched in. None of them have to do this. And there is no immediate pay off unless you count a sticker or a piece of chocolate from me a payoff. But they do it out of charity. And that charity creates opportunities. For us this year was a good year not just in battling cynicism, but also in numbers various. 1,429 shoeboxes collected, 95 cartons, 65.5 volunteer hours, 114 boxes from our own congregation. Soli Deo Gloria.
The appointed gospel text for advent 3 was Matthew 11:1-19. Due to our Christmas schedule, we skipped it and went for Advent 4’s readings. When you are aiming for rejoice, the second John the Baptist lesson just doesn’t fit the bill. So we took it up in Bible Class Sunday and this morning. When I should be wrestling with the Christmas Eve message, I can’t let this one go. It seems so appropriate, yet so against everything the modern American church attempts to say.
It starts out with a question. John the Baptist sits in Herod’s prison and sends a couple of disciples to Jesus with a question. Are you the one, or should we expect another? Most of the commentators in Christian history have attempted to paint a fig leaf on this question. They have typically made comments to the effect the John was just moving his disciples along. He was asking the question and sending them for their benefit. We don’t know, but it doesn’t feel like that to me, especially when we encompass Jesus’ answer.
Jesus’ answer to me is twofold. A yes, look at the miracles. And when concludes the list with “the good news is preached to the poor” that is a textual referent to Isaiah 61:1. But then Jesus appends a “but”. “Blessed in the one who is not offended by me.” Why would someone be offended by Jesus? Especially why would someone sitting in prison who once gave a bold witness to Jesus be offended? Part of Isaiah 61:1 is “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Surely the greatest of the prophets, as Jesus would say the Baptist was/is, would be included there. Jesus, are you going to free me, or not?
The disciples are always asking are you going to establish the Kingdom now? The 5000 fed out in the desert tried to crown Jesus. He was eventually crucified because he claimed to be “the King of the Jews”. Did you come out in the desert to see a reed blown by the wind? No, we don’t need to come out to the desert to find someone who will tell us what we want to hear. Did you come out to find someone in fine clothes? No, if we wanted to see worldly power and authority we’d go to Congress (or K street). We’d get plenty of reeds in the bargain. No we came out to hear the Word. We came out to hear a prophet. And this prophet, this inbreaking of the reign of God is not by power and glory. It does not empty out the prisons, at least not the physical prisons. John, blessed are the ones who are not offended at this humble Kingdom. This Kingdom that only comes hidden. This Kingdom that only frees you of your sins.
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent bear it away. The Kingdom comes not in pomp, but as a child in a manger. It comes not at the head of an army, but on a donkey. It comes not by bread and circuses, but by every Word of God. It comes not by authority, although it has that, but through appeal. It comes to the poor, those who know they need it. It comes by grace.
And as with everything that comes by grace, that makes appeals, that feels soft. The violent take it. They took him…to a cross. They took the apostles. They killed the prophets and stoned those sent to them. Do we really think it is different for us? From the time of John the Baptist until now…
The kingdom can come with kind words such as these. It can come with crass words captured here. Doesn’t matter to those who don’t have ears. “We played the flute and you did not dance/We sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” From the time of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers, and the violent bear it away. There is just an order to these things. First they will come for the crass, and then for those who can use nice words unless they are quiet. I wonder what my 10 year old self would have thought soon after the miracle on ice if I had told him a Russian president, as Machiavellian as he might be, might understand the place of religion better than an American. (This is not an assertion that it is true, just that in 1984 I would have laughed at the thought – the Godless red commies, today after reading that from Cold-Warrior Pat Buchanan it can’t be laughed away.)
But this is Advent closing in on Christmas. Immanuel did come and did free us from our sins. “Jesus, friend of tax collectors and sinners.” And he will come in triumph and make all these minor trifles blow away. When the government shall be upon His shoulders (Isa 9:6), and with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked (Isa 11:3-4). And wisdom is justified by her deeds (Matt 11:19)
Biblical Text: Matt 1:18-25
I’ve just start reading this book, only just past the theses declarations, but I’m somewhat amazed at them. The book is supposed to be the culmination of a generations scholarship on sexuality in the ancient world. And that culmination is supposed to be the upsetting of prior or simplistic thinking. This is what is startling to me: his theses are more or less what I have been taught my entire benighted life in the church and that horrible bastion of it called the LCMS. My guess at what that means is that scholarship is now distant enough from the church that it can “discover” the church’s understanding and roughly agree with it without really knowing.
How does that intersect with a small parish sermon. Well, the text is Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. (Our kids program is next week, so instead of doing John the Baptist, The Return we took Advent 4’s texts on Advent 3.) And Matthew’s account is really about the virgin birth. Coming off of the genealogy, Matthew had something to explain and an Old Testament prophecy to link in (Isaiah 7:14). In the ancient world (which the modern world is growing ever closer to) shame was the regulatory principle. Actions were governed less by any personal sense of a cosmic right and wrong but more by a social agreement upon what is honorable and what brings dis-honor or shame. The gospel disrupts all of that. It is a proclamation of freedom. Freedom from shame and freedom for right action. The core of the shame system was slavery. A slave could not have honor, so it didn’t matter how they were treated. And many were treated as sex slaves. It was an everyday occurrence. So, sexuality would be a defining sphere of shame. Caesar’s wife had to be beyond repute because Caesar was at the top of the honor pyramid and less than that would bring shame. And you can fill in the rest from slave to Caesar and all the forms of human sexuality.
Now the Jews had a much better grasp of sin or personal adherence to a cosmic code, but they were always fighting the honor system. Think of every time Jesus goes to a meal with the Pharisees and takes note of how they are sitting(Luke 14:7) or mocks those who like to parade around in fancy clothes (Mark 12:38-40). Pure honor/shame status clubs. Hence why Jesus calls the woman giving two mites better because she is much closer to the cosmic standard of justice.
Then comes the story of Joseph and pregnant Mary. This is pure shame vs. sin. Mary is sinless. The child is from the Holy Spirit. This is how God has chosen to act. How God has chosen to act, if Joseph goes along with it will bring him great shame. His village was still calling Jesus “Mary’s Child” at the start of his ministry (Mark 6:3). Honor/shame called for stoning. God said this is how I am going to save my people. Honor/shame says that God couldn’t be associated with anything that is shameful or lowering of status. God is born as a baby from a humble virgin. God is Immanuel in the midst of his people. In the midst of their shame. And he brings grace. And grace itself is shameful, because you can’t pay it back, because you are not in control.
God is no respecter of shame. He does care about sin and the law, but he also has given the remedy. Jesus, who saves His people from their sins.
One of my favorite Christmas Hymns/Carols is one that I discovered only recently. Part of the inheritance from my brother was his massive collection of Christmas CD’s. After digitizing them all I guess I picked up that tradition. This year’s addition was the new Christmas album from the Lower Lights. The new one is much like the one from a couple of years ago and if you like folk-y/acoustic settings of what I call the non-staple carols it is pretty. And you can pat yourself on the back for avoiding one more rendition of “Santa Baby”. Their version of The Holy and The Ivy, a song I never appreciated, has been on repeat recently. But their first Album included a Christmas Hymn that I had never heard that just melts my heart.
The Carol is Stars of Glory . It appears to have found a place in hymnals in around the turn of the last century but then been dropped by newer hymnal committees. I can understand why. It centers around the angels’ anthem which is well represented already by Hark the Herold Angels Sing and Angels We Have Heard on High which are both bright and cheery. And you then go into the second tier or denomination specific such as It Came upon the Midnight Clear or Angels from the Realms of Glory. There really isn’t room for an angel song that is somewhat introspective. We like our angels loud and glorious. But the first verse of Stars of Glory invites us to consider what is of true worth and to whom it is given.
Stars of glory, shine more brightly,
Purer be the moon-light’s beam,
Glide ye hours and moments lightly,
Swiftly down times deepening stream,
Bring the hour that banished sadness,
Brought redemption down to earth,
When the shepherds heard with gladness
Tidings of a Saviour’s birth.
The stars, the angels, as the gospel according to Matthew is fond of using, say “look here”. The hours and moments swell in time’s deepening stream. A stream that can seem to overwhelm us. Yet here is the hour, “look”, here is the moment of true worth.
Technology and the web have been about the stream. Our facebook feeds, our twitter lists, our blog pages and tumblr’s – all of them are newest first scrolling off the page in the endless stream. And the type-A personality is stuck with the FOMO (fear of missing out). Hence all the pictures of 20-somethings staring at their phones. It is all stream and no “look” at this moment. Here is Alex Madrigal in the Atlantic thinking about “the end of the stream”. The technologists are figuring out how to say “look”. He quotes a theory dating from 2010 (ancient!) about the flow and the stock. Which translated into a different language is the income statement/cash flow statement and the balance sheet. The income statement and the cash flow statement are two ways finance takes a snapshot of the flow. The balance sheet is “time’s deepening stream”. It is the stock. Balance sheets are often full of things that someone once said “look” but now we don’t know why. It is just there as a stock and a mystery for those interested. “$200 bequeathed in the name of Someone we might not recognize”.
For some reason God chose to send the angels to shepherds. He said “look, here is a moment not to miss, a moment to ponder and rejoice” in a way that would seem destined not to go viral. I mean how many followers or friends could a few smelly shepherds have? Time rolls on. The stream deepens. But God marked that moment with Shepherds and Angels.
See the shepherds quickly rising,
Hastening to the humble stall,
And the new-born Infant prizing,
As the mighty Lord of all,
Lowly now they bend before Him
In His helpless infant state,
Firmly, faithful they adore Him
And His greatness celebrate,
The lowly, the humble receive the message, from the great. The helpless infant is the mighty Lord of all. The virgin brings Him forth in a stall where he is worshiped. The church is the collection, the stock, the saint of all times and all places, who have “looked”. The flow, started by this child, the alpha of creation, also finds its fulfillment, the omega, in this child. Firmly, faithful they adore Him. Sometimes the flow can overwhelm. But God has sent his angels in strange places saying “look”. And he promises to gather, to keep stock. When we are lost in the stream, God remembers and gathers. The Spirit does not forget time’s deepening stream but guides it along its appointed route.
The 3rd Sunday of Advent used to be called Gaudete Sunday. The Sundays used to be named by the first words of the introit (the entrance chant/reading) which were initially in Latin. Gaudete means rejoice. So, depending upon the parish you were a part of as not every parish did the same thing, Gaudete was often given over to a musical celebration – a rejoicing to the Lord with song.
We have continued, or tried to continue, that in various ways. This year we have a saxophone quartet who will be sharing some of the music of the season. They will be playing at the start or prelude to service, a bit during the offertory and then postlude. So, I just want to invite you to come a bit early to get a seat, and plan on sticking around for a little while after service.
(And Kristin, if you’ve got a better photo than my cheesy photoshop, send it along.)
Biblical Text: Matthew 3:1-12
Full Sermon Draft
I attempted something in this sermon through a couple of methods that I think most people would say don’t. John the Baptist is an enigmatic figure. He was a huge deal to those in Jesus’ time. The whole “there is not one greater born of woman” phrase that Jesus employs. John had disciples that lasted long in to the first century. The apostles in Acts run into them as “ones who’ve had the baptism of John” but didn’t know about Jesus. Even in secular literature John gets more time. Josephus records the extent of the Baptist’s following which was enough to cause Herod to come after him. But in our day and for most of Christian history John is just an almost forgotten per-cursor. He would have liked that. “He must become greater, I must become less.” But preaching from John to me has renewed vitality. My intention was to create the picture of how we and those people streaming out to John are very close, probably closer than we have been for at least 500 years if not 2000. Want to hear more of that take a listen.
The pay-off is that the proclamation of John can be the direct proclamation to the people of God today. Not that it couldn’t have been 50 or 100 years ago, but I think, if I was successful with the first part, then the second part becomes one of those “ah-ha” type experiences. That is what was so powerful, combined with oh, and it applies to me in some very specific way.
So, my guess is this either “works” or you wonder what the heck I’m talking about. Either I was successful in casting “in those days” over today, or the proclamation falls on deaf ears.
Biblical Text: Matt 21:1-11
Full Sermon Text
The text for the first Sunday in Advent always seems a little off. There is an alternate to the Palm Sunday Triumphant entry, so I had to check if that was because this was a change in the appointed readings that went along with changing Palm Sunday proper to Sunday of the Passion. But that is not the case. I guess someone else just had the same odd feeling that you don’t expect to show up in Advent and hear Palm Sunday.
But the text actually establishes the time. Jesus is committing a political act declaring himself a king. But not like any King the world would recognize. Neither the Galileans marching him in, nor the residents of Jerusalem, as Matthew makes clear, understand. Both want a messiah of their own making. Not this messiah who comes humbly. Not this messiah who stops to give sight to the blind. Not this messiah who is willing to suffer violence instead of inflicting it.
Nothing has really changed. We still want Jesus in our image. But thankfully we don’t get that. We get a King who comes right now in grace. To those with eyes that have been opened, this kingdom calls us to be its witnesses and its hands. One day this Kingdom will come in glory, but right now, it comes humbly. Through flesh and blood, through word and sacrament.
Biblical Texts: Luke 7:18-28, Matt 5:1-12
Full Sermon Draft
St. Augustine, in a sermon long ago, said: Bad times, hard times, this is what people keep saying; but let us live well, and times shall be good. We are the times: Such as we are, such are the times.
We have been hearing lots of calls for action and change in the wake of another school shooting. But most of the calls that I’ve heard have been forms of taking something away from the other guy. Take the guns away. Lock up or medicate the mentally off. Everybody thinking they are safely on the other side of some bright moral line. Nobody looking at the culture that we collectively produce and allow. Looking at that would put us all on the same side of that moral line. We might have to repent i.e. change. But, such as we are, such are the times.
Until we are willing to really change, to live well as Augustine would define that, things like Newtown will continue to happen. We are simply staring in a mirror. And the deepest gospel, in the middle of this Advent season, is Come Lord Jesus. That is the only thing that finally changes the image in the mirror.
The season of advent is my favorite. I don’t think there is a clunker in the hymnbook for the entire season, and it contains my very favorites. If you asked me why, I’d say look at the names down at the bottom. For example LSB 332 – Savior of the Nations, Come, which I hope to hear the kids sing on the 16th. Originally written in Latin by Ambrose, bishop of Milan, teacher of the faith to Augustine. Translated into German by Martin Luther. The English translator is not a name you’d recognize, but when you find out the other hymns he wrote or translated, he did his part. Just paging through the names: Paul Gerhardt, Charles Wesley, Catherine Winkworth as translator again and again, Charles Coffin, Latin (i.e. old enough to have been sung and cherished and translated for at least 1500 years). The rest of the world rushed on to Christmas. It still rushes on to Christmas. The decorations were in the stores before Halloween this year. I saw the Corona lighted palm tree on Oct 28th during a football game. The best that the church has nurtured through the ages have pondered and written about Advent. Ricky Bobby liked the little baby Jesus. An unknown Basque writer held off and pondered that pregnant time, when the great and glorious Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came and praised the lowly maiden Mary, most highly favored lady.
Why has Advent called to the best or at least brought out their best work? Again, I am making a wild guess, but Advent is the time on the calendar that speaks most to our actual felt situation. Christmas and Easter and Ascension have happened, but we didn’t see them in the same way. As Jesus once said to his disciples, “For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Mat 13:17 ESV).” We are more like ancient Israel. Like Israel, by the rivers of Babylon, we ponder Zion. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel. The Christian is a sojourner, a stranger in a strange land, one whose citizenship is in a different kingdom. We long to sing the coronation hymn and proclaim to the City Lift Up Your Head, You Mighty Gates, the King of Glory waits. In the midst of the birth pains, the wars and rumors of war, we hear Isaiah, What Hope An Eden Prophesied, Where tame live with the wild. The lamb and lion side by side, led by a little child. When we look around and all seems lost, On Jordan’s Bank a Baptist’s Cry, announces that the Lord Is nigh. Hark the Glad Sound. A Thrilling voice sounding and filling hearts with hope. Make straight the way.
Advent is not unsure of the fulfillment, but it feels pulled by both the now and the not yet. It employs all the metaphors we have. Like Mary, it put the hopes and fears of all the years in its heart and ponders them. That is what I’d encourage you to do this December, this Advent. Don’t rush on to the child at the manger, the Christ child has surely come, but ponder the coming – the ways and byways and means Christ enters in and makes our sad divisions cease. Are you prepared? O Lord, How Shall I Meet You, and welcome you aright? Those are the questions of Advent.
The word peace in the Gospel according to Luke is a big word. This was the First Sunday in Advent and the gospel lesson is often the triumphal entry or Palm Sunday. The theological theme of the that text is the Kingship of Jesus. No different in Luke, but Luke adds this strange cry from the crowd leading Jesus into Jerusalem. “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest! (Luk 19:38 ESV)” Did you catch the strange word? Peace in Heaven. The entire phrase is an echo of the Angels at Christmas, but instead of peace on earth, now it is peace in heaven. And if you do the word study, roughly midway through Luke you find this, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. (Luk 12:51 ESV)”
The peace of God is not a generic peace. The Angels were never singing just “peace on earth”. They sang “on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! (Luk 2:14 ESV)” The specific peace is the Kingdom of God, the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The specific peace is one imposed…through grace. You can take it or you can leave it, but you can’t work for it. You can’t earn the peace. The Father just declared it. The war was over on the cross.
The only question is our response. Do we accept the peace, or continue an insurgent war. Which Kingdom do we choose, the Kingdom of this World, or the Kingdom of Heaven. The tyrant Satan or the humble Christ. Choose your prince.