Tag: advent

Podcast: God of the Impossible

Some people have difficulty believing that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary because that seems impossible.  But when we realize that the virgin birth of Christ is one in a long series of impossible things that God has done, then it’s not so difficult to believe. Here’s the link to the podcast of my sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent, God of the Impossible.

My podcasts are available in the iTunes Store under Podcasts> Religion & Spirituality> Christianity> Chuck Warnock, or by searching for Chuck Warnock in the iTunes Store search bar.  You can also subscribe to my podcasts via RSS feeds by going to my podcast site, Chuck Warnock Podcasts.

Podcast: When God Comes Down

On the first Sunday in Advent this year, I chose Isaiah 64:1-9 as the text for my sermon, When God Comes Down.  Here’s the link to the podcast from that sermon. http://traffic.libsyn.com/chuckwarnock/When_God_Comes_Down.mp3

1st Advent: When God Comes Down

Isaiah wanted God to come down, but Isaiah wanted God to come down big.  Instead God comes in the form of a baby.  Not big by first century standards, but life-changing in ways no one could imagine. That’s what Advent is about — anticipating God’s coming in love and power. 

When God Comes Down

1 Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
2 As when fire sets twigs ablaze
and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!
3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.
4 Since ancient times no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.
5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
6 All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
7 No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and made us waste away because of our sins.

8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be angry beyond measure, O LORD;
do not remember our sins forever.
Oh, look upon us, we pray,
for we are all your people.  – Isaiah 64:1-9 NIV’84

The Beginning of the Christian Year

Here we are again.  Usually on this Sunday after Thanksgiving, although there is the rare exception, we find ourselves at the beginning of the Christian Year, which is the beginning of the story of Jesus.

This first season in the Christian Year is called advent, which simply means “coming” or “coming toward” from the Latin adventus.  But adventus is itself Latin for the Greek word parousia which means “appearing.”

In other words, the season of Advent is the anticipation of the coming of the Christ, the Messiah.  So, it is fitting that we begin our journey through the life of Christ with the anticipation of Christ’s coming, both as the promised messiah and as the future coming king of all creation.

Advent incorporates both a looking back to the promises of the messiah, and of course to his actual birth, and a look forward into the future when “this same Jesus” shall come again, as the apostles believed and taught.  This is not just religious history then, but a story whose beginning and end are both marked by the appearance of this extraordinary figure we call Jesus.

Let’s get started then.  Today we start with the scene in Isaiah’s day, about 600 years before the birth of Christ.  Because Isaiah’s life spans several kings, the fall of the northern kingdom, and prophesies the Babylonian captivity, Isaiah has a lot to say about a nation that needs God.

When God Comes Down, We Want Him To Come Big

In the passage we read today, Isaiah is pleading for God to come back to his people.  As I mentioned, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are no longer united as they were under David and Solomon.  They are divided, and the northern kingdom has been splintered by the Assyrians in 722-721 BC.

Although Isaiah’s actual lifetime does not encompass the Babylonian captivity, he prophesies the result of that tragedy when he speaks to God in the verses we did not read and observes:

10 Your sacred cities have become a desert;
even Zion is a desert, Jerusalem a desolation.
11 Our holy and glorious temple, where our fathers praised you,
has been burned with fire,
and all that we treasured lies in ruins.

This sounds very much like the situation after the Babylonians captured the southern kingdom of Judah and overran Jerusalem in 587-586 BC.  The “holy and glorious temple” – Solomon’s temple – had been destroyed, and the city pulled down to rubble.

Isaiah then pleads,

12 After all this, O LORD, will you hold yourself back?

Will you keep silent and punish us beyond measure?

But the heartcry of Isaiah is in verses 1-3 –

1 Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
2 As when fire sets twigs ablaze
and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!
3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.

The idea that Israel had during this period, and which persisted until the first century, was that if they were in exile being ruled by a pagan power, that God had left them.

Why did they think that?  Because God’s promise to Abraham was to make his off-spring into a great nation, a nation with their own special place, a nation that would be blessed and be a blessing to the world.

The story of Israel was built on that idea.  They were God’s chosen people, and when things were going well, God was blessing them. But when things went badly, God had deserted them.  So, their prayer, and Isaiah’s prophetic cry is that God will come down from his throne of indifference, but come down in God’s unmistakable majesty.

But Isaiah doesn’t want God to come down from his throne in just any old way.  Isaiah wants a show, a spectacle, a little supernatural shock-and-awe when God makes his appearance.

Both Old and New Testament writers connect the manifest presence of God – God’s intervention – with cataclysmic events.

Here Isaiah talks about the mountains trembling, and the nations quaking before God.  As though he needed to remind God of what God’s appearances had been in the past, Isaiah says –

3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.

Perhaps Isaiah has in mind God’s brooding presence on Mount Sinai.  The mountain peak was covered with fire and cloud, thunder and lightning, and all the nation of Israel was afraid.  So they sent Moses to meet with God on the mountain.  It was unmistakable that God was there, and when Moses came down off the mountain, his own face glowed with the glory of God, so much so that he wore a veil to keep the people from being afraid.

But here’s the problem.  Isaiah was sure that God was so displeased with Israel being held captive by Babylon that God would come down and show those pagans a thing or two.  And that God would come down big and hard.  Mountains would tremble, fire would fall, lightning would strike, thunder would roll.  It would be spectacular!

And don’t we still want that today?  Don’t we still want God to intervene in a big way?  And don’t we still try to explain natural disasters as God’s judgment on some group or people.

When the tsunami hit one of the most stridently Islamic sections of Indonesia – Banda Aceh – there were American Christians who impetuously explained that natural disaster as God’s punishment on that Islamic region.

We want God to come big, and we want to see his coming in the quaking mountains, or in the case of Indonesia, in the earthquake and tsunami that followed.

But be careful because when God did come to his people about 600 years later, he didn’t come big.  He came in the form of a baby.  That’s about as small, as helpless, and as insignificant as you can get when compared to the power of world kingdoms.

The first lesson of Advent is this:  God comes to us in many ways.  And as Elijah found out, God comes not always in the wind, earthquake, and fire, but sometimes in the still small voice.

When God Comes Down He Comes To Save

But Isaiah recognizes that God isn’t just coming down from heaven to put on a spectacular display.  When God comes down, he comes judging his people.

Isaiah is right to say that God has come to those who wait on Him.  But then, Isaiah continues by admitting –

5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
6 All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
7 No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and made us waste away because of our sins.

How can we be saved is the question.  How is it possible for God’s people who have disobeyed God’s law, broken God’s commands, and with them God’s heart, how is it possible for God to come and not destroy this rebellious people?

Because when God comes down He comes to save us.  Isaiah articulates the sins of the nation.  We are unclean, he says.  Even our religious practice – our righteousness – is like a filthy rag, unfit for the presence of worship much less God’s presence. As a result of the sin Isaiah identifies, he said that they are shriveling up like November’s leaves, with no more substance than to be swept away by the wind that blows them about.

So, how do we know that when God comes he comes to save us?  Because we have the words of Jesus, reading from the same scroll, the scroll of Isaiah.

As Jesus begins his ministry, Luke records the scene.  Jesus has gone back home to Nazareth, to the synagogue there.  Here Luke picks up the story in the 4th chapter –

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. 17 The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[e]

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21 and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

And there it is.  Right from the very same prophet, from the very same scroll.  Jesus identifies himself at God’s anointed – that’s what the word “messiah” means – and them proceeds to describe what he has come to do.  It all sounds like salvation to me.

“To preach good news to the poor;

to proclaim freedom for prisoners;

the recovery of sight for the blind;

to release the oppressed;

to proclaim a Jubilee – the year of the Lord’s favor in which all debts are canceled and things are restored to their rightful order.

 

When God comes down, he comes to save us.  And so to get people ready for the coming of the messiah, John the Baptist calls the nation to repentance, and as a sign of that change of heart, baptism in the Jordan.  Which in itself was a kind of crossing over into the promised land again, only this time to get it right, to follow God’s messiah, the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world.

When God Comes Down, He Comes Because He Loves Us

I may be stretching this passage a little here, but Isaiah identifies God as “our father.”  Which is also how Jesus tells us to address God in prayer – “our Father who art in heaven.”

And the idea of God as our father means that God not only brought us into being, and that we are his children, but that God also cares for us, guides us, nurtures us, corrects us, and has a purpose for us.

God does indeed have a plan for our lives. And that is why God sent Jesus.  Because when things look their darkest, when it appears as though God has forsaken his people, turned his back on them, and abandoned them to the mercies of the kingdoms opposed to everything God stands for, God comes down.

God comes down because he loves us.  He loves us so much that he sends his only son to show his love.  His son shares the father’s love.  His son also has a purpose.  His son will give himself a ransom for many, will become the sacrificial lamb, and will take on the sin of the world and the calamity of God’s people, to save them.

That’s what we look forward to during this Advent season.  We look back on the coming of Jesus as both a spiritual touchpoint, and a model for the future.  For God still comes in many ways to save his people because he loves us.  That is really something to look forward to.

 

Sermon 2nd Advent: God Prepares The Way

God Prepares The Way

Malachi 2:17-3:5
17 You have wearied the LORD with your words.
“How have we wearied him?” you ask.
By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the LORD, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?”

Malachi 3

1 “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.

2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.

5 “So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty.

Good News and Bad News

Two 90-year-old women, Rose and Barb, had been friends all of their lives. When it was clear that Rose was dying, Barb visited her every day. One day Barb said, “Rose, we both loved playing softball all our lives, and we played all through High School. Please do me one favor: when you get to Heaven, somehow you must let me know if there’s women’s softball there.”

Rose looked up at Barb from her deathbed and said, “Barb, you’ve been my best friend for many years. If it’s at all possible, I’ll do this favor for you.” Shortly after that, Rose passed on.

At midnight a few nights later, Barb was awakened from a sound sleep by a blinding flash of white light and a voice calling out to her, “Barb, Barb.”

“Who is it?” asked Barb, sitting up suddenly. “Who is it?”

“Barb, it’s me, Rose.”

“You’re not Rose. Rose just died.”

“I’m telling you, it’s me, Rose,” insisted the voice.

“Rose! Where are you?”

“In Heaven,” replied Rose. “I have some really good news and a little bad news.”

“Tell me the good news first,” said Barb.

“The good news,” Rose said, “is that there’s softball in Heaven. Better yet all of our old buddies who died before us are here, too. Better than that, we’re all young again. Better still, it’s always springtime, and it never rains or snows. And best of all, we can play softball all we want, and we never get tired.”

“That’s fantastic,” said Barb. “It’s beyond my wildest dreams! So what’s the bad news?”

“You’re pitching on Tuesday.”  (courtesy yelp.com)

Of course, that’s a silly way to start a sermon, but it helps us to get some perspective on the text we read for today.  The actual lectionary text is Malachi 3:1-4.  But, if you read that part of the text, which is right in the middle of a speech that the prophet Malachi is giving, you only get the good news.

Malachi’s news was that God is sending a messenger to prepare the way, and that the Lord is suddenly coming to his temple.

Now, that sounds like good news.  But, when you know why God is coming to his temple, that’s the bad news — God is coming to sort things out, to refine and purify, to judge and to set right everything that’s wrong.  And, of course, a big part of what’s wrong is with the people of God.

The back story to Malachi is this —

  • A rival group of priests have taken over the temple ministry, wrenching it from the descendants of the first priest, Levi.
  • As a result, life among the people of God is not good.
  • They have lowered the standards of worship so that now they sacrifice the worst of the flocks instead of the best.
  • The new priests have betrayed both God and the community by changing the standards, relaxing the teaching, and profaning their office.
  • The people have responded to this lack of leadership by dishonoring their marriages and stealing from God.
  • But, they also complain about the way things are, asking “Where is God?”  as though God were not looking out after them.

So, God sends the prophet Malachi about 450 years before the birth of Jesus to say “God is coming, but before God comes, he’s sending someone to prepare the way for his coming.”

The Coming of God To The People of God

When we think of Christmas, when we look forward during Advent to the coming of the Christ, we seldom think of God’s coming in judgment.  And, we even less often think that we’re the ones God is coming to judge.

But in the first century, as in Malachi’s day 450-years before Christ, the religious system was corrupt, the priests were on the payroll of the pagan Roman empire, the religious leaders were an extension of the politics of Rome, and worship in the Temple was ritualistic and meaningless.

Okay, we get that part, but why should we be wary of the “good news and bad news” of God’s coming?  After all, we’re not Pharisees or chief priests and we aren’t part of the evil Roman empire.  Why should we be concerned?

We are God’s people.  We are the community of the one true God.  When God comes, He comes to his own, he comes to God’s own people.

Let me back up a bit.  One of the things that God through Malachi accuses the people of is betraying the covenant with God.

It starts with God’s love.  In Malachi 1:2, Malachi says —

“I have loved you, says the Lord.”

So, the community of faith begins with God’s love.  God loved and called Abraham and made a promise to be Abraham’s God, and to make Abraham the father of a great nation.  That nation in turn would be blessed, and was then to be a blessing to the whole world.

So, God has a lot at stake in his relationship with the nation of Israel.  They are God’s plan for the future, for the salvation of the world.  And, God expected that they would follow him, obey him, and love him in return.  The 10 Commandments and the other laws of the Torah were to given, not to punish the people of God, but to distinguish them from all other peoples and nations on the earth.

So, God’s people were to

  • Worship Yahweh, God, only, and not worship idols or other gods.
  • Respect the name of God, and not invoke it lightly or profanely.
  • Take one day out of seven to give to God.
  • Honor their parents.
  • Not murder.
  • Be faithful in their marriages.
  • Not steal.
  • Not give false witness or testimony.
  • Not covet anything anyone else had.

These laws, this new code of ethics, was unheard of in the very primitive and pagan world of Moses.  Power was the rule of the day, and it was not unusual for the powerful to have their wives, their parents, or their families killed at a whim.  Not to mention taking by force what was not theirs, and so on.

The 10 Commandments distinguised God’s people from all other people of that day.

So, when God shows up, He shows up where His people are.  God showed up to provide a sacrifice for Abraham, so that Isaac would be spared.  God showed up for Moses when he and Aaron appeared before Pharaoh.  God showed up to preserve the Israelites through the Exodus experience.

Then, as they are on their way to the land of promise, God shows up to lead them, and to dwell among them in the Tabernacle first, and later the Temple.

God then shows up in the form of the judges, such as Samuel to guide the nation.  He shows up to select Saul, and then David, as King.  He shows up to guide the nation, but always calling His people to faithfulness, and dealing with their unfaithfulness when necessary.

God shows up and speaks through the prophets when the nation forgets Him.  And then, God sends John the Baptist to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ to God’s people.

God comes to His people out of love, but not with lenience.  It is important that the people of God fulfill the mission of God, which is to save the world.  So, when God comes, he always comes to His people.

God Comes To His People For A Purpose and With A Mission

So, the first thing we need to learn about looking for the coming of God during Advent, is that God comes to His people.

The second thing we need to know is that God isn’t just dropping in to say “hello.”  God has a purpose for showing up, and a mission to accomplish.

God’s purpose is to preserve the community begun with Abraham that is to be the salvation of the world.

We are now that community.  Of course, we’re not alone.  There are millions of us — over 1-billion to be exact — who have named the name of Jesus Christ as our own.

And, we as God’s people are gathered in an extraordinary variety of communities.  From those who claim to be the descendants of King David in Ethiopia, to pentecostals in Africa and South America, to Chinese Christians meeting in thousands of clandestine house churches, to expressions of faith most familiar to us as Americans — we are all God’s people.

But what is it that precedes God sending someone to prepare the way for God’s coming?  It is this statement in Malachi 2:17 —

You have wearied the LORD with your words.
“How have we wearied him?” you ask.
By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the LORD, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?”

Here’s the problem:  God’s people think they know more about how God should do his job than God does.
In Malachi’s day they were wearing God out with their complaints.  Those complaints were that God didn’t see things like they saw them. That God wasn’t judging everyone else harshly enough.
In other words, God’s people had grown so accustomed to the privilege of being God’s people, that they thought they knew more than God about how things ought to be handled.
The Problem With Arrogance

So, in short, God’s people have a problem with arrogance.  They have all the answers, they know that God isn’t doing what God ought to be about certain types of people, and because their society doesn’t favor them, they complain not just to God, but about God.
Now, here is where this gets really difficult.  Because the problems God’s people had in Malachi’s day and in the first century, are problems God’s people still have today.  Let’s go through the list found in Malachi 3:5.  This is what God is going to do when He comes:
“So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty.
  • He’s going to bear witness against the sorcerers. This doesn’t mean burn your Harry Potter books.  Sorcery, in Malachi’s day, was calling on the power of something other than the God of Israel.  Idolatry and idol worship in another form.  Two commandments that begin the agreement of God with God’s people.
  • God will testify against the adulterers and perjurers.  I don’t want to pick on Tiger Woods here, but he’s the latest example of celebrity “transgressions” as he put it.  A writer this week said we used to call “transgressions” sin.  But, that’s not really my point here.  My point is that the people of God break their covenant agreements with each other, and 2 of the 10 commandments in the process.  God’s people aren’t living according to their agreement with God to be different.
  • God will testify against those who defraud the hired workers in their wages, who oppress widows and orphans, and who “thrust aside the alien.” In other words, God’s people are not only not taking care of the worker, the widow, the orphan, and the alien, they are taking advantage of them.    God is always on the side of the poor and the weak.  Always.  Write that down.  Always.  No exceptions.  That’s why we have the story of the Good Samaritan, the strong story of the sheep and the goats, the story of Jesus healing, eating with, and ministering to the outcasts of society.
Let me put it this way. The coming of God in the form of baby Jesus should be a time for us to examine our own lives and see if we are living our lives differently than the rest of the world.
That means that we don’t rely on the power of the stock market or international economics, but we look to God.  That means that we keep our commitments to our families, our spouses, and tell the truth in all our dealings.  Those things are corny and old-fashioned, and there are new examples every week of celebrities, sports figures, politicians, and movie stars who violate those values.  But we are the people of God, we are the contrast society, we are the ones different from all the world.
God Prepares The Way
In Malachi 4:5-6, the last two verses of Malachi, God says —

Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.  — Malachi 4:5-6 NRSV

So, the preparation for the coming of the Lord is receiving the word of the Lord from the messenger of the Lord, which heals the most basic of relationships.  In theological terms, we call this “reconciliation” — making peace between one party and another.  In other words, remembering what we are supposed to be with those closest to us because of God’s covenant with us.

Madeleine L’Engle has this to say about remembering who we are supposed to be —

“When spring-fed Dog Pond warms up enough for swimming, which usually isn’t until June, I often go there in the late afternoon.  Sometimes I will sit on a sun-warmed rock to dry, and think of Peter walking across the water to meet Jesus.  As long as he didn’t remember that we human beings have forgotten how to walk on water, he was able to do it.”

“If Jesus of Nazareth was God become truly man for us, as I believe he was, then we should be able to walk on water, to heal the sick, even to accept the Father’s answer to our prayers when it is not the answer we hope for, when it is no.”

“In art, either as creators or participators, we are helped to remember some of the glorious things we have forgotten, and some of the terrible things we are asked to endure, we who are children of God by adoption and grace.”

“One of the great sorrows which came to human beings when Adam and Eve left the Garden was the loss of memory, memory of all God’s children are meant to be.”

“Perhaps one day I will remember how to walk across Dog Pond.”  Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, p. 11-12.

We may not remember how to walk on water this Advent season, but we can remember this — we are God’s people, and God has come, is coming, and will come to us over and over again.
Cardinal Suhard said, “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery.  It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”  Walking on Water, p. 26.
The mystery no longer resides in the manger, but in our lives.  We are the living presence of God in this world, and when God comes to us, He comes to this place, to our church, so that we might live out His mystery in this community.

Sermon for Advent: God Keeps A Promise

God Keeps A Promise

Jeremiah 33:14-16 NIV

14 ” ‘The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah.

15 ” ‘In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.

16 In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it [a] will be called:
The LORD Our Righteousness.’

The Good News Defined

Well, here we are again — the beginning of Advent, the season of anticipating the coming of the Christ.  Followed closely, of course, by Christmas.  As a matter of fact, most of us not of the liturgical tradition see Advent as the run-up to Christmas.  It is that, but even more.  For not only is Advent the preparation for Christmas, it is an event in and of itself.  In Advent we are looking for, anticipating, preparing for the coming of God’s Messiah.

To us on this side of that event, this doesn’t seem like such a big thing.  On our way back from Amy’s yesterday, we stopped to eat at a Cracker Barrel restaurant.  We have probably eaten at more Cracker Barrels than any other human beings, and we are expecting an award any day now for being such loyal customers. That, however, is not my point.

My point is — while waiting in the checkout line after our meal, I noticed one of those “count down to Christmas” cardboard gizmos.   You know, the ones where you open a little door in this brightly-colored cardboard display each day before Christmas, and behind each door is a little piece of candy.  Usually the doors have the date on them and you open one per day until Christmas comes.  That’s one way to anticipate Christmas.

But suppose you lived before the coming of God’s Messiah.  Your perspective would be totally different.  And that is what Advent should do for us — remind us of what life would be like if the Messiah had not come.   A kind of spiritual “It’s a Wonderful Life” if you will.

And that’s where this word “gospel” comes in.  Of course, the word “gospel” doesn’t appear in this passage, but bear with me because I do have a point here.

The word “gospel” means “good news.”  It comes from two Greek words — “eu” which means good, and “angelion” which means message or news.  Put them together and it comes out “euangelion,” which is the one from which we get our English word “evangelism.”

But back to the gospel or the good news.  I ran into an interesting discussion the other day about the definition of the Gospel.  So, let me ask you the question — If you had to define the word “gospel” how would you define it?

Most people, including the account I was reading, said something like this —

“The gospel is the account of man’s sin; God’s sending Jesus to pay the penalty for that sin, and rise from the dead; and, the gift of eternal life which Jesus provides to all who will receive him.”

Now, that is the story of what the Bible tells us, but is it the gospel — the good news?

The Good News in the First Century

If our definition is correct, it will hold up in the New Testament uses of the word.  Let me give you an example:  In Mark 1:14-15, Mark says this about Jesus:

14After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Jesus uses the word “gospel” or “good news” himself.  And Mark says Jesus proclaims the good news, and he gives us an example of how Jesus proclaims the gospel — the good news of God.
“The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Now it would make sense to us to use our definition of the good news here.  Jesus says “Repent and believe that man sinned, God sent Jesus to die on the cross and rise from the dead, so that all could have eternal life.”  That would make sense to us, but it wouldn’t make sense to anybody that Jesus is speaking to.
Here’s why:  Our definition of the good news makes sense to us because it’s already happened.  We know God sent Jesus, who lived, died, and rose again for the forgiveness of our sin.
But at this point in Mark’s gospel, none of those things has happened. So, what was the “good news” that Jesus proclaimed?  What was the good news they were supposed to repent and believe?
Well, we have a clue, actually we have a definition of the good news in Acts 13:34 —

32“We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers 33he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.

Here’s the definition of the good news:  “God keeps His promises.”

“What God promised our fathers, he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus.”
That’s the good news — God keeps his promises.
Why Is God’s Promise Important?
So, why is this the good news, that God keeps his promises?  Why is it so important that God keep his promises?
To answer that question, we need to know what the promise of God is.  God made a lot of promises, or covenants with people, but the gist of all of them is found in God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17:7 —

7 I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.

God will be with them, and they will be with God.

 

Of course, that is exactly the way we started out in the Garden of Eden. … Or at least Adam and Eve started out that way.  God would be with them, walking with them in the Garden in the cool of the evening.

And, as we read last week, that is how things will be in the New Heaven and the New Earth —

3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  — Rev 21:3

 

So, God with the people of God is God’s plan from beginning to end.

What Went Wrong?

If you look at the stories of God with his people in the Bible, you get a wonderful picture that the dwelling place of God is indeed among God’s people.  From the Garden of Eden to the call of Abraham to the Exodus.  The story of the Bible is the story of God with his people.

And when God’s people abandon and betray God, God seeks them out, corrects their disobedience, and welcomes them back again.  The entire book of Hosea is the story of Hosea and his unfaithful wife, Gomer.  Hosea takes Gomer back in spite of her unfaithfulness to him, and that story becomes a symbol of God and his people.

The people of God are in this repeating cycle of relationship with God, exile from God, and return to God.  We see it in the Garden, we see it in the story of the Exodus, we see it in the kingdom of Saul, we see it in the lives of the prophets among God’s people, we see it in King David himself.

But the bottom line is — God is always with His people.

  • If you want to find out what God is doing, get among his people.
  • If you want to know God’s will, find it among his people.
  • If you want to understand God’s ways, look at how God deals with his people.
  • If you want to experience God’s love, get to know his people.

But what went wrong is that God’s people have a very bad habit of rejecting God.  Beginning with Adam and Eve, and zooming right on through the Old Testament the idea of relationship, exile, and return plays itself out.

Until we get to New Testament.  We somehow see the New Testament as having nothing to do with the Old, and nothing could be further from the truth.  the New Testament is the continuation and culmination of everything the Old Testament was telling us.

The story of Jesus’ birth is not just a good story to kick off the New Testament.  The story of Jesus’ birth is the ultimate “God with us” story.  It is the climax of what God has been doing for 1500 years leading up to the birth of the Messiah.

God With Us

Remember what Isaiah said about the Messiah —

14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you [a] a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and [b] will call him Immanuel. — Is 7:14

 

Of course, Immanuel means “God with us.”  There it is again, God with his people.

Jeremiah says —

14 ” ‘The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah.15 ” ‘In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.

16 In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it [a] will be called:
The LORD Our Righteousness.’

There it is — a righteous Branch from the line of David.  And the result is Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem live in safety.

Now, that doesn’t just mean the nation of Judah and not Israel.  Judah represents all of God’s people, and the city of Jerusalem contains the Temple, God in the midst of his people.  So, God is saying, everything will be fine.  God will be in the midst of his people again, and the nation will be “saved” — made whole and healthy — and live in safety and peace.

That’s God with us.  That’s what the Messiah was to do.

Back To The Good News

So, you see why this idea of the good news is important?  Here’s what we covered so far —

  • The good news is God keeps his promises.
  • The promise if that God will be with his people.
  • The presence of God is with his people, but they continue to reject him.
  • Finally, God comes in the form of a man, Jesus, and literally lives in the midst of his people.

God kept his promise.  That’s good news.  That’s what we look forward to in this Advent Season.  God with us.  Really with us.  God keeping his promise to be our God, whether we keep our end of the deal or not.  God with us, with a face like ours, with a physical body like ours, with the limitations that are ours.  God with us to save us, not just for heaven, but to save us for this life.  To save us by making us healthy and whole spiritually.  To save us by fixing the brokenness of our relationships both with God and our fellowman.

That’s what this Advent season is about.  Looking forward to the One who will come among us, who has come among us, to repair our relationships, restore the image of God in us, redeem us from the penalty of our own sin, and transform us into his body, where again he can continue to be among us through his Spirit.

Look for the coming of God among us this year.  Watch for the ways in which God repairs that which is broken, heals that which is hurt, opens eyes that are blind to his presence, and feeds us with the bread of life.  After all, the good news is — God keeps his promises.

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Advent: A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

The Voice in the Wilderness

John 1:6-8, 19-28
6There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. 8He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
19Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.” 21They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” 
      He said, “I am not.” 
      “Are you the Prophet?” 
      He answered, “No.”

 22Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

 23John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ ”

 24Now some Pharisees who had been sent 25questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”

 26“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know27He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

 28This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Who are you?

A recent article by Oprah Winfrey asked the question, Who Are You Really?   In the article, Oprah stated that we have many labels for ourselves, and if you were asked to complete the statement,

“I am ___________________________”

how would you finish it?  The list of possibilities is almost endless.  You might say:

  • I am a man (or woman)
  • I am an American
  • I am an optimist
  • I am overweight
  • I am too busy
  • I am a grandparent
  • I am a teacher or doctor or painter or brick mason
  • I am a Baptist
  • I am a Christian
  • I am searching
And all of those descriptions, assuming you told the truth, would tell us something about you.  Society identifies us by a variety of factors, such as:
  • Our work
  • Our race
  • Our age
  • Our financial status
  • Our education
  • Our place of residence
  • Our faith or lack of it
  • Our relationships
  • and so on…
Our identity is bound up in a lot of different things about us, but there is always something about us that is unknown to someone else.  So, while most of your friends might know that you live in Chatham, some will not know that you are a Civil War buff.  Or, while many might know what you do for a living, most will not know that you are an expert in your field. 
Who Is John the Baptist?
 
When the priests and Levites came to John the Baptist, they asked him, Who are you?  Of course, they already knew some things about John.
  • They knew that he was Zechariah’s son, a former priest in the Temple in Jerusalem.
  • They knew that he lived a strange, ascetic life in the wilderness.  Stories had been told of John’s strange diet of locusts and honey, and his self-styled wardrobe of animal skins.  
  • They knew that others listened to John, so many that they were becoming concerned about John’s influence over those who had previously come to the Temple for ceremonial cleansing, but now after being baptized by John, did not return so regularly.  This cut into the income for the Temple, challenged their authority, and diminished their followers.
  • They knew that John’s message was powerful.  Hundreds make the journey out from Jerusalem to hear him preach.
  • They knew John’s crowds were growing.  
  • They knew they didn’t know everything about John.
So, one day a group of priests and Levites, selected to confront John, made their way to the place where he was preaching.  Bethany was a village about 2-miles from Jerusalem, on the slopes of the hills of Palestine.  Sheep grazed there on its sparse vegetation, and about an hour’s walk from Bethany was the Jordan River.  Archaeologists believe they have discovered a possible site where John might have baptized those early followers of his.  
But, the priests and Levites were concerned that John was not a pretender to the role of Elijah, or another mythic figure in their nation’s imagination, the messiah, also called in Greek, the christ.  
Malachi, the last prophet of Hebrew scripture, had prophesied himself that Elijah would return before the day of the Lord, which was the coded phrase Jews used to talk about the coming of the messiah.  Here’s what Malachi said, 

 

“For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and… all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch… And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do [this], saith the LORD of hosts…. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD” -Malachi 4:1-5

 

If John were labeling himself as Elijah, that would be outrageous enough.  Jewish tradition taught that Elijah the prophet would return before the coming of the messiah.  At every sabbath meal, on Friday evening, as the family gathered for prayers around the table, an empty chair was kept for Elijah in case his sudden appearing during their meal should catch them unprepared for his return.  
“If John the Baptist were pretending to be Elijah, then there were ways to deal with that,” the priests and Levites must have thought.  First, Elijah was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire.  No one had seen this John descend from heaven in a chariot of fire.  He had been born to his mother and father like everyone else.  Born after some strange malady had stricken his father, Zechariah, but born like all humans are born.  No, this couldn’t be Elijah, because John had not returned, he had just been born.
But, of course, John wasn’t Elijah, because he said he wasn’t.  “I’m not Elijah or the messiah or the Prophet,” he said,  possibly meaning the great prophet Isaiah.  But, John did say, quoting Isaiah, “I’m the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord!’” 
What Are You Doing?
Apparently there were also some Pharisees in the group sent to question John.  It wasn’t enough for them that John said, “I’m not Elijah.”  Nope, they couldn’t leave it alone.
“Why are you baptizing if you’re not the messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet?” they asked.   Baptism was a sign of cleansing, and only the priests had the authority to baptize others ceremonially.  The Pharisees practiced a ritual bathing, letting the water run down their forearms and drip from their elbows as a sign of purification.  But, what’s John doing, baptizing without authority.  Telling people the stink of their unholiness has been washed away.  A stink John attributed to the failed spirituality of all the religious leaders — priest, Levites, Pharisees, and Sadducees.  
John’s answer was to the point — “I’m just using water,” he said.  Now, by that he didn’t mean to diminish the baptism of repentance that he preached.  What John was doing was distinguishing between his very symbolic work, and the work of the true messiah, who would wash away the sins of the world.  
John’s baptism was the baptism of getting ready.  The religious system of the first century was so political, so corrupt, that it makes Illinois politics seem tame.  The chief priest was a lackey of the puppet king Herod.  The religious offices, deemed as holy assignments in the Law of Moses, had become political appointments.  Rather than serving God on behalf of the people, and the people on behalf of God, the priest, Levites, Pharisees, and Sadducees all had one thing in common — they had failed God.  
So John’s baptism of repentance indicated a change of heart in the lives of the people baptized.  They were repenting — turning from the corrupt system of patronage and politics that had overtaken the religious culture of their day — and turning toward God.  Turning again to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Turning, or returning, to the God of their fathers.  John was just helping them give symbolic expression to that new desire to serve God and live rightly before God.
Who Don’t You Know
If political influence is based on who do you know, John’s concern for the committee of inquisition that confronted him was who they didn’t know.  They knew all the political power brokers, but there was one person they had overlooked.         

John said, “…but among you stands one you do not know.

 

William Stafford’s poem, A Story That Could Be True, goes like this —


If you were exchanged in the cradle and
your real mother died
without ever telling the story
then no one knows your name,
and somewhere in the world
your father is lost and needs you
but you are far away.


He can never find
how true you are, how ready.


When the great wind comes
and the robberies of the rain
you stand on the corner shivering.


The people who go by–
you wonder at their calm.


They miss the whisper that runs
any day in your mind,
“Who are you really, wanderer?”–
and the answer you have to give
no matter how dark and cold
the world around you is:
“Maybe I’m a king.”


William StaffordGoing Over to Your Place: Poems for Each Other (Selected by Paul B. Janeczko, Bradbury Press, New York)

While Stafford’s poem is a lovely sentiment — that we might be more than we had ever imagined — John’s concern is real.  John is telling the Pharisees, the priests, and the Levites that they have missed the one person whose life can give theirs meaning.  Whose sandals, John says, he is not worthy to unlace.

Only the lowest servants were assigned the task of removing the sandals from the feet of guests, and bathing those dirty, dusty feet until they were clean.  Touching the sandals and feet of others was itself considered a degrading act.  Yet John says, “I’m not even worthy to touch his feet, untie his sandals, perform the most base of services.”  
In all of their religiosity, all of their concern that someone might pretend to be the messiah, or a prophet, or Elijah, they had missed the One who was in their midst right then.  They had missed Jesus.  
Who Are You?
Which brings us back to our original question, “Who are you?”   The Pharisees, and we, are very much like the man who just died this past week — Henry Molaison.  Never heard of him?  Well, Henry Molaison was the longest surviving extreme amnesic that scientists have ever studied.  At the age of 27, in 1953, Henry underwent brain surgery to relive debilitating seizures and blackouts.  The surgery was successful in that regard, but Molaison was unable to retain any short term memory.  Although he knew his name and could perform tasks he remembered from before his surgery, he had no short-term memory.  He met friends and family members every time as though it were the first time they had ever seen each other.  Even the doctors who studied him until his recent death were complete strangers to him each time they saw each other.  Molaison knew who he was before 1953, but after that everything was a blank.  
Remember the article from Oprah Winfrey I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon?  Well, Oprah said that a good way to fill in the blank to the statement, I am _____________________, is to sit quietly until your thoughts, emotions, and recollections reveal your innermost being.
That’s not a bad thing to do, goodness knows we need more quiet time.  But our problem this advent is not looking into ourselves, it’s looking out to see Christ in our midst.  To actually see the Messiah that the Pharisees missed.  To see the One about whom they had studied, taught, and were preparing to meet, but who was unrecognized as he moved among them.  
Who are you?  Advent reminds us that we are people who are looking for God.  Not looking in a mindless, idealogically -closed way in which the Pharisees looked, but really looking to see the God who walks among us.  To see his presence in our lives, and the lives of others.  To define ourselves, as John did, not by who we are — unworthy servants — but by who he is.  
The tragedy of advent is that we will repeat the blindness of the Pharisees, having eyes that do not see the Messiah in our midst.  John’s voice crying from the desert calls us again to ask, not who we are, but who Christ is.  Only then will we truly be watching for his coming in this and every season.  

Waiting for Christmas

 

christmas-decorations1When I was a kid, time seemed to stand still, especially in the weeks before Christmas.  I remember asking my mother, “How many days ‘til Christmas?”  

 Her patient reply to her 6-year-old reassured me that Christmas would indeed come someday soon.  We didn’t start decorating for Christmas at our house until the middle of December.  But I could see the signs of Christmas long before it actually arrived.  Mama would start getting out the boxes of ornaments and the strings of colored lights — the big ones, not the tiny ones like we have now — and I knew that Christmas was coming. 

Gifts arrived by mail from cousins and aunts and uncles whom we only saw a couple of times a year.  Christmas cards began to pile up in the living room as friends and relatives near and far sent greetings of Christmas.  Some cards contained Christmas letters, catching us up on the lives of families we seldom saw, but cared about deeply. 

Another sign of Christmas coming appeared at the church.  Eastern Heights Baptist Church in Columbus, Georgia was a working-class church.  I remember firemen, mechanics, store owners, factory workers, and truck drivers who made up most of the membership.  These men dressed up in suits on Sunday morning, filing in to sit on the front pew, as the deacons did back in those days in Georgia.  At Christmas, the old sanctuary came alive with color.  Now, this was long before Baptists ever heard of an advent wreath or liturgical colors.  No, the sanctuary brimmed with poinsettias, Christmas garland, some candles, and Christmas lights.  Always prominently displayed was the Lottie Moon Foreign Mission Offering board.   Big white lights were lit for each $100 given toward our goal of $2,000 — a big sum for working folks to give. 

Of course, the Christmas that all the red and green gave way to purple and gold was one to remember.  Seems that the son of one of our members, who owned a flower shop in Atlanta, volunteered to decorate the church.  Instead of pine garlands that year, we had lemon trees with silver and gold ribbons.  Instead of red-and-green, the colors were lime, purple, and gold.  As you can imagine, that caused quite a stir at Eastern Heights Baptist Church.  The next year we were back to our traditional décor.

 All of those signs told a little boy that Christmas was coming.  So I waited, and Christmas did come.  Just like the world waited 2,000 years ago, not knowing what to expect, not knowing what to hope for, but seeing the signs.  This year, as you wait for Christmas, watch for the signs of His coming.  That was always my favorite part of Christmas.