God Enters Our Broken World and Broken Lives

4th Sunday in Advent
December 18, 2016
Matthew 1:18-25
Peder Stenslie

We are now very deep into the season of Advent.  As we try to grasp what it means that the creator of the heavens and earth, of all matter and life, of all things, seen and unseen… took on human flesh… became one of us… became our brother and friend, at the same time he became our savior and teacher.  As we try to grasp what that means, a strange and painful scene emerges in today’s Gospel lesson.

All of this mystical wonder begins in a terrible mess.  We have this story of a simple working man… a member of a conquered and oppressed people living in a dirty and forgotten corner of a vast empire.  He is engaged to a girl… who he has discovered is pregnant before their marriage.  And he’s not the father.  That is a mess.

Mary and Joseph are common, ordinary people; so we can relate to them.  And we can imagine what it would be like to have this crisis suddenly erupt in our lives… the terrible disappointment, a broken engagement, broken dreams, a moral dilemma; people’s whole lives completely upended… a terrible mess of a situation.

This situation of great disappointment, uncertainty and brokenness is the setting for God’s arrival.  We stand as witnesses as God makes the mess of the lives of Joseph and Mary part of his saving work in the world.  Today, as we prepare for the joy of Christmas, we are reminded that God reveals himself in the messes and troubles that afflict the lives of his people.

God’s angel reveals to Joseph two wonderful names that Mary’s baby will have.  The first is “Jesus,” which means “God Saves.”  The other is “Emmanuel,” which means “God Is with Us.”  These names remind us that Christmas is an event like creation itself; and we are like Joseph.  Our role is to stand aside as God acts… and then let our lives and selves be redefined and reshaped by those acts.

The names “God Saves” and “God Is with Us” remind us who God is and how he works in the world.  They remind us why we live in hope even when life overwhelms us, even when our lives are a mess… even when our limits, weaknesses and failures fill our lives with grief, even when the world around is us confusing and frightening.

Advent and Christmas are seasons of promise… promise that our lives shine with hope, because God’s pleasure… God’s will and his way… is to enter the mess of human life to bring healing, joy, and new life to us.

Joseph is called a “righteous” man in today’s lesson, first and foremost, because of what he does not do.  He does not force his way.  He does not put his honor before the well-being of others.  He doesn’t impose his sense of justice on others in order to protect himself.  Rather, he listens to God and follows where he leads.

Certainly, Joseph’s decision to take Mary as his wife will create problems for Joseph.  It will get people to gossiping in market-places and streets around the community.  Any decent, self-respecting man would not accept a woman like Mary.  They would have her condemned and put to shame in order to show what they stand for.

Joseph provides a critical model for us as we prepare ourselves for Christmas.  He shows us the proper response as the Kingdom of God enters our world and our lives.

We are not the source of goodness or greatness.  We do not have the power to start or stop God’s work of creation in Christ and the unfolding of the kingdom of God in our world.  Yet we are called to be a part of this transforming event… just as Joseph (and Mary) were.

God is the actor.  He is the source of power and goodness in this world.  Our choice, then, is either to assert our puny selves and pursue our own pathetic agenda of self-interest… to follow our delusions of self-importance; or to trust in the goodness and grace of God and let him lead us and work in our lives the blessings of his kingdom.

God commanded Joseph to take Mary as his wife, putting aside his own ideas about what is honor, what is right.  Joseph does as he is commanded.

Recognizing that the miracle of Christmas lies far beyond our power does not mean we have nothing to do.  Quite the contrary, like Joseph, Christmas calls us to a life of action.   We are called to follow God away from selfishness and fear.  We are called to open our hearts, soften our will and let ourselves become a part of what God is doing.  We are called to let Christmas enter our lives and change us forever.

Joseph was called to put aside his selfish pride in order to accept Mary and love her and her son, even though that would invariably mean public embarrassment.  Mary, of course, was called to a very a difficult task bearing and raising this son in a situation where she had no real control or understanding.

Like Joseph and Mary, we are all called to be a part of God’s kingdom of grace in this world.  And like Joseph and Mary, if we heed that call, we will get swept up in activity and be led into places we would never go if left to ourselves.  We will see the world in a new way… and that will lead us to live in a new way.

Our Gospel lesson has a messy beginning.  But as we see, God is Lord of our messes, just as sure as he is Lord of the universe.

As Lord of the mess of our small and common lives… and as Lord of the mess of our world, God is always present and moving, drawing new life out of loss and broken dreams, making our lives… with all our disappointments, failures, and weaknesses… a part of his work, taking hold of our hearts and weaving us beautifully into the fabric of his kingdom.

Amen.

Are you the one?

Third Sunday in Advent; December 11, 2016; Year A

Isaiah 35.1-10; Psalm 146.5-10; James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson

 

Grace and peace to you from the One who brings healing to the earth, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

It has been shared with me that one has quite a bit of time to think when confined to a prison cell. Today in our Gospel reading John the Baptist is in prison and he’s thinking about a lot of things.

Just last week John was in the wilderness calling people to repent and get ready Jesus. One day John is baptizing Christ himself, and the next he is enclosed in a jail cell wondering what his future holds, wondering what the world’s future holds. John has lost his freedom.

So what happened? John lived in a certain time and place where if you said something against someone in power, you could be locked up just like that. This still happens today in many parts of the world, where freedom of speech is not a human right, but this happened in John’s day all the time.

The person John spoke out against was no one to mess with. His name was Herod. Herod, was given the power to rule over his fellow Jews by the Romans who occupied the land. Somewhere along the line Herod thought it would be a good idea to marry his half-brother, Phillip’s wife, Herodias.

So John the Baptist, a very well-known and well-respected prophet and person, spoke out against Herod’s marriage to another man’s wife, publically saying, “It’s unlawful.” Herod didn’t like that and had John arrested.

It was in prison that John started to reflect on his life, not only his life but mostly on this one called, Jesus. John’s whole identity was wrapped up in preparing the way for Jesus, the one he believed was the savior of the world, God in the flesh.

John had big expectations for Jesus. If we can remember back to last week’s Gospel reading John confidently proclaimed on the riverbanks to the people: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3.11-12).”

This is what John expected Jesus to do: to gather like a shepherd those who were repentant and prepared for his coming and to judge people like Herod with unquenchable fire.

John really believed that when the Messiah would come in his own lifetime, it would be the final judgment and people would receive what they deserve, whether good or bad. Jesus would have at least brought an end to the Roman occupation and lousy rulers like Herod. The vision that was in our first reading today in Isaiah would be realized: “He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you (Isaiah 35.4).”

Jesus has finally arrived and John gets thrown in prison. This wasn’t supposed to happen. No rulers have been driven out and the same old injustices keep happening. It is no wonder he sends some of his followers from prison to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

John’s question is an important question, even for us here today. Who are you really, Jesus? Who are you for me? Who are you for the world?

If you are God in the flesh, God with us, I have expectations: I expect people to not be locked up unjustly. I expect drugs to no longer rule people’s lives. I expect an end to economic injustice. I expect war to cease. I expect everyone to have shelter, and no one to go hungry.

We, like John, can find it easy to question and doubt Jesus when he doesn’t save us (or others) from the harsh realities of the world. It is so hard to keep hoping when we’re sitting in prison, like John, or when we know that the outside world is even tougher than it is in here. It is so hard to hope when it seems like we keep waiting and waiting for something, anything…mostly for the promises of God to be real.

John knew well the promises of God, God’s promise to save and redeem the world, to make all wrongs right, and to destroy death forever. He had been waiting his whole life for Jesus. Sitting in his jail cell, he needed to know: Are you the one I have been waiting for, the one for whom I prepared the way?

When Jesus hears John’s question out of the mouths of John’s followers, he does not give a straight answer.

He says: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus leaves it out there for John and everyone else to decide for themselves who he is.

I wish we could hear from John again, but we don’t get to. He asks the question and remains in prison until his death. In chapter 14 we learn that Herod has John beheaded. John never gets to witness the end of the story. John never sees Jesus die on the cross, and he doesn’t get to see the resurrected Jesus who conquered death.

Jesus didn’t save John from prison; he didn’t even save himself from death on the cross.

What do we do when Jesus disappoints us or does something other than we expect? Years ago I came across some writing by a man named, Nicholas Wolterstorff. His son died and he wrote a book called, “Lament for a Son.” In the book he questions God. He writes:

How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song—all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself. We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God. A new and more disturbing question now arises: Why do you permit yourself to suffer, O God (p. 80)?”

Instead of raising his own army and driving out the Romans, instead of freeing John from prison, Jesus is raised on a cross and dies. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus says, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

The cross and Jesus dying on it can be offensive in many ways. It can be offensive that Jesus would rather die for us than strike down our enemies. It can be offensive that Jesus would rather love and forgive those we might hate. It can be offensive that Jesus would rather be present with us in the people around us than come crashing in and fix everything we think is wrong in life.

Maybe our prayers aren’t always answered, or at least answered in a way we are hoping for. But Jesus tries to tell John, if in directly, “Yes, I am the one you have been waiting for.” People find healing in me. Lives are transformed. People who were lost are found. People who didn’t think they had anyone, have me and a community that will come to be known as the church.

You don’t know it yet, John, but the dead will be raised to eternal life, including you. Freeing you from prison and driving out the Romans won’t accomplish this, but giving up my life in love for the world will.

We know the end of the story when John didn’t. Maybe we would never choose the way God chose to save us and the world, but we trust that God’s way is the best way.

Rev. Katie Hines-Shah, in the Christian Century writes: “Jesus comes to be fully one of us—to know our joy and sorrow, our goodness and sin, our life and death. Jesus will know what it is to be poor, to lose someone you love, to be friendless, to suffer. Jesus will, like John, face an imprisonment that ends in death.”

Whether we like it or not, this is the kind of God we have. I’m thankful for this God and I look forward in hope with all of you to once again celebrate the birth of Christ into the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crush the Oppressor

Second Sunday of Advent; Dec. 4. 2016; Year A

Isaiah 11.1-10; Psalm 72.1-7, 18-19; Romans 15.4-13; Matthew 3.1-12

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson

 

Grace and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

35 years ago my father-in-law, Judd, who happens to be a pastor, preached a sermon on our Gospel reading. It was probably the shortest sermon ever in the history of preaching. He and his wife, April, had twins that were three months old at the time. To say Judd and April were exhausted was an understatement. Falling asleep on a Saturday night, Judd asked April, “What should I preach tomorrow on this text?”

Joking, April said, “Why don’t you just walk up the sanctuary and tell people to repent.”

The next morning April had the twins in worship and was sitting next to one of the ushers. Judd proceeded to walk from the back of the sanctuary down the middle isle to the front yelling, “Repent, Repent, Repent!” as he went along. He kept walking right through the door to the sacristy at the front of the church and disappeared.

After a few minutes of awkward silence, the usher leaned over to April and said, “Should we collect the offering now?”

I was tempted to give the same sermon this morning.

We are welcomed to worship this day with the words of John the Baptist, and they are anything but welcoming, maybe even offensive: “Repent!,” and, “You brood of vipers!” Axes laying at the root of trees and chaff being burned in an unquenchable fire.

Nothing says happy Advent and Merry Christmas like: “You bunch of poisonous snakes, bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

These words are hard to hear and maybe we don’t even know what they mean.

When Jesus himself launches into ministry his first words are exactly the same as John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

When we hear a call to repent, to consider that maybe we aren’t living the kind of life God wills for us, that maybe we have some rough edges that need some refining, that maybe we need to surrender to the accountable and loving arms of God, often times our first reaction when told to repent is one of defensiveness.

There are some things in my life I really don’t want to change, not only my life, but the way I think about and see the world and Christ in the world.

But sometimes I need to change, sometimes you need to change, and Jesus is often the one pointing out where that needs to happen in our lives.

Advent, the season we are in right now, is about preparation. We prepare to celebrate Christmas, the coming of God into the world in the form of a human being, a baby. This type of preparation doesn’t mean putting up the Christmas tree, or baking cookies, or buying presents. These can be wonderful, fun things in our lives, but they are not what it means to prepare for the coming of God into the world in human flesh and bones.

John says that to prepare for the coming of Jesus means that we are to repent. But what does repentance mean?

Repentance is much more than an apology or feeling sorry for what you did. Apologies are for spilling milk and forgetting someone’s birthday. Repentance is even more than confessing our sins.

Repentance is about a way of life, a changing of the mind, a turning towards what is life-giving. It is a willingness to let God influence and change your life. This includes daily surrendering to God and an earnest prayer to make you new again.

There is a saying I once heard that goes like this: “God loves you just the way you are, but God loves you too much to let you stay that way.”

It is part of God’s mission in the world to constantly remake us.

The words of John the Baptist are not to make us feel beat down as if we are terrible, awful people. What he does is level the playing field. No one has an advantage over another, but all are called to waters of repentance.

I’m sure the Phairsees and Sadduccees, the religious leaders, were wondering why John wasn’t seeking out all the pagans to repent, or outsiders, or people who didn’t go to church on a regular basis. John wasn’t concerned with that, but rather interested in calling people of faith, God’s chosen people to repent.

Part of our life in reading Scripture and coming to worship is that sometimes we are going to hear stuff we’d rather bury or ignore. There is strong language of judgment at the end of our reading today where it ends with chaff burning with unquenchable fire. This is to serve as a wake up call to us. What in your life needs to go?

I came across an Advent devotion written by Matthew David Morris (medium.com). He focused on a verse from our Psalm today. Verse 4 says: “Let God defend the needy among the people, rescue the poor, and crush the oppressor.”

In reflecting on the state of being of our world and what it might mean to “crush the oppressor,” he writes:

Until quite recently, I’ve never been the kind of Christian who delighted in the imagination of God’s wrath. But now I read “crush the oppressor” and I think, Yes. Please, God. Please crush the oppressor. Please make it a crushing worthy of John’s Revelation. Please crush the oppressor that lives within each of us and make us anew out of clay. Wipe the slate clean. Pillars of salt. Lake of fire. Whatever—anything!…

It’s okay to feel a bit convicted by Scripture.

When Scripture convicts us we can forget that God also loves us, even gave up his life for us in Jesus. It is precisely because God loves us that we can let ourselves be convicted, maybe even have the oppressor crushed within each of us, and then let God shape us into who we are created to be.

Think about some of the closest people in your life, whether they are family or friends. Have any of them told you the truth, maybe something that was difficult for you to hear? You know they are telling you the truth because they love you.

If Jesus offends you in any way then it’s time to pay attention. If Scripture convicts you, let it move you to repentance. We an ask ourselves: What am I holding on to or making an excuse for? How does my mind need to be changed? How can I be stretched to further participate in the kingdom Jesus is ushering into this world?

Our Gospel reading can be a tough text to hear so close to Christmas, but maybe it’s what we need to hear. It cuts right through all the music, the lights, and the illusion that we should all just be happy during this time of year. We long for a world in which the poor are judged with righteousness, where equity is for the meek of the earth. We long for the vision in Isaiah of transformation and peace.

But this vision begins with God and then takes root within each of us.

In the Gospel of Luke “Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’ (Luke 17.20-21) Some translations even read: “the kingdom of God is within you.”

When Jesus’ kingdom, his rule of peace, lives within us we bear fruit worthy of repentance.