Posts Tagged ‘Advent’

A Righteous Branch 12-2-18

In this sermon, based on Jeremiahs 33:14-16, we kick off the Advent season by explore a sense of longing for the future fulfillment of God’s past promises.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/a-righteous-branch-12-2-18

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace of the Triune God is yours, now and forever. Amen

As I was growing up, back during my late elementary and probably jr high days…my aunt was the librarian at the local public library in town, which was located straight down the street a few blocks away from my school. And once I had gotten old enough to be trusted to walk these few blocks on my own, I would often head down the street after school on those days when we needed to stay in town and get picked up a little later.

This in itself isn’t really a very big deal, but there was something significant along that route that I would walk that I can still remember to this day.  On one of the corners was a great big tree…full grown…the type with a big trunk that went up about 10 feet before the first major set of branches came shooting out, creating a small open spot right there in the middle of the tree. And in that gap…at some point the seed of a pine tree found its way in there…and apparently there was enough debris present to allow that seed to kick out roots and grow. And I remember being amazed at the sight of this small, maybe 2 or 3 foot high pine seedling that was growing up in the midst of another tree…blew my mind.

Now, I know its not THAT uncommon…I’ve seen it in other places in the years since, maybe you have too…but I remember being so impressed with that little tree…thinking how tough it is…or maybe we could call it stubborn…but you know what…plants can be like that can’t they…especially trees or shrubs.

I’ve actually got a little seedling that keeps growing up through one of my hostas over at the house…doesn’t matter how many times I pull it or snip it off…darn thing just keeps growing back…and in a lot of ways, that reminds me of the way that suckers will shoot up around the base of many different types of trees here in the Midwest…same deal…doesn’t matter how many times you cut them off…they’re gonna on growing.

Now, admittedly, this is a bit of an odd topic, but perhaps you’re starting to see the connection…not so much with our gospel lesson…but rather with the Old Testament reading out of Jeremiah that we are sharing for today…and the promise made by God to raise up a righteous branch…or righteous shoot to be a little more precise for David. (pause)

Now you probably know that my normal style is to base the sermon off the gospel lesson…but this week that seemed just a little bit off…probably due to the season that we find ourselves in today.  All we have to do is take a quick look around the sanctuary and we can easily see that things have changed…the blue paraments…the presence of the Christmas tree and other decorations…and the Advent wreath which today only has a single candle burning.

We are, of course, in Advent…a season of anticipation…of waiting…or perhaps the best way to describe it, is a season of longing.  But when we start to talk along these lines, perhaps we wonder just what it is that we’re waiting or anticipating or longing for.  If we shoot from the hip, we’d probably say that we’re waiting for the birth of Jesus…which of course we’ll celebrate at Christmas in a few more weeks…and that’s not wrong.  But I can’t help but think that the season goes a little deeper than that…and that sense of longing that we’re probably all familiar with goes deeper too.

As we look around at the world that we live in…as we take a moment and ponder on the state of things…as we somehow witness evidence of the broken state of our reality…I think we all long for a something more…a time when there is no poverty leading to people standing on street corners…a time when there is no sickness or disease causing our loved ones to waste away before our eyes…a time when there is no hatred or violence leading to news reports of genocide or hate crimes or mass shootings. (pause) We know that sense of longing don’t we? Even in times when the sense lies too deeply within us to put words to, we know that sense. (pause)

But you know…Advent is bit of a funny time…a strange season…because it doesn’t quite gel into our linear experience of time does it?  We find ourselves looking forward to the birth of a baby which has already happened…likewise we find ourselves looking forward to the return of that baby who grew into a man…the man who lived and died and rose again…and who promised that this wasn’t the end…and that one day he would return in glory…an event that is promised but that hasn’t happened yet.

This ambiguity is telling, not only of the season of Advent…but of this oddball thing known as the kingdom of heaven that God ushered in though a past event…through past promises that even now, many thousands of years later, still points us into a promised but unknown future…an ambiguity that exists within this crazy thing called life…within this crazy thing called faith. This way of living that looks backwards to past events and promises which speak into our life right here right now, and yet point us towards something more to come.

And that sense is why I chose to focus in on Jeremiah today instead of the gospel. Now a touch of background…Jeremiah was a prophet. He was active about 600 odd years prior to Jesus…and while he was active for several decades, the most pressing historical aspect during his time was the fall of the southern kingdom of Judah to the Babylonian empire.

Jeremiah was active when they first came in and exerted their authority, hauling off the existing king and establishing a puppet government that would serve their interests…and he was still around a dozen years later when that puppet government got a little too big for their britches and tried to shake off Babylonian rule, only to have the Babylonians come in and lay waste to Jerusalem and haul everyone off into exile.

These were the events that Jeremiah talked about…a coming judgment…death and destruction and exile and isolation…prophetic words that actually landed him in jail when the local powers that be failed to listen…but words that would ultimately come true…and would result in the loss of the Promised Land…the loss of their national identity…the loss of their capital and the religious center of the temple…

When Jeremiah speaks these words, its still future tense…but it wasn’t far off and many of those who heard his words lived to see the reality…and yet in the midst of that turmoil…as their cultural and religious identity was utterly shunted to the side…they are reminded of the promises that God had uttered hundreds of years earlier…to the great King David as he still sat on the throne…that his descendent would hold the throne forever.

But here’s the thing about that past promise…David, as great as he was…and as much as he was praised for the heart he held for the Lord…David had his issues…his son Solomon…for all his wisdom…tried to “honor” the Lord by building the temple…by using slave labor…think about that…he honored the one who delivered their culture from slavery, through slave labor.  His son Reheboam…he made the foolish choice to treat the people even more harshly than his father had…resulting in the split kingdom and 10 lost tribes of Israel.  And all those kings that came after them, all the way down to Jeremiah’s time a few hundred years later…well they all had issues…and none of them managed to lead the people in the ways of God’s justice and righteousness…most of them did the polar opposite. That whole Davidic dynasty…can’t help but think that it failed on that front. (pause)

But then there’s Jeremiah…who in the midst of all kinds of turmoil, utters words that point the people back to that past promise…and gives them something to hold onto in the midst of pretty dire circumstances…a past promise that reminds them that whatever is going on right here, right now…that’s not the end…that there is more…that restoration is possible…and not only possible…but according to the Lord…is SURELY coming.

But what’s it going to be…or perhaps more importantly, who’s it gonna be?  This righteous sprout…the one who will bring about that divine justice and righteousness…the one who will lead the people in ways of honoring God’s justice…who will live their lives in a way that God will call righteous? Who will that be? (pause)
This is an important question to ask…and when we answer it…we tend to think that this must be Jesus right? We’re not wrong to do so…for Jesus was a descendent of David…and he has ushered in this new kingdom of Heaven…and as follower of Christ…we do have the tendency to view the scriptures through this lens…but its also important to remember that this is not the only way that the world sees or hears the promises uttered by the prophets.

But what we might just share in common with our Jewish brothers and sisters is the re-assurement that the promises of God will come to fulfilment and that somehow, someway, we will be included in that. Our understandings might be very different…our way of looking at just how God might bring about that future fulfilment is also different…but the promise is, I believe…the same.

Now how its gonna look, that’s open to interpretation…and I think its safe to say that no one really knows just how God’s gonna bring it all into completion out there in the unknown future…but what does seem to be apparent is this…that God’s going to bring about something utterly new.

God will raise up one from that line of David that will do what no earthly king was able to do…to live in a way that truly reflects and embodies that divine justice and righteous…and the very last words from Jeremiah reveal this…that the name of the city…the city we know as Jerusalem…it will be changed…and it will be called The Lord IS our righteousness.

Whenever something or someone gets a new name in the scriptures…it pretty much ALWAYS indicates a new identity…a new understanding…maybe we can even say a new creation…and however God is going to bring about the future fulfilment of this past promise…its gonna be something new…we don’t know what or how or when…but I believe however it comes about, we won’t be disappointed…and that in one way or another…the promise remains that we will be grafted into that righteous branch…the promise that somehow we are included…and this is true now…and at the same time the promise has yet to be fulfilled…and so for that future fulfilment of this past promise…we wait…we anticipate it…and that is what we long for. May we keep that in our hearts during this Advent season. Amen.

Oh There You Are 12-24-17

In this sermon, taken from Luke 1:26-38, I explore the encounter between Mary and the angel Gabriel, as she learns that she will bear the Christ Child. Note that this covers the final Sunday of Advent and is not the Christmas Eve sermon.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/oh-there-you-are-12-24-17

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Today’s a bit of an odd day isn’t it? Sunday morning…we’re celebrating Advent…and yet its also Christmas Eve…truly the calendar is playing a trick on us this year, but that’s okay…because despite our Advent focus this morning…I think its safe to say that we are all in the Christmas spirit aren’t we?

By now its impossible not to be…and Christmas is a wonderful time…one of joy…one of community…one of tradition…a time when we will often share stories of our own traditions and practices…of memories and stories…and I often find myself remembering the seasons of my younger years…and the overwhelming joy that a child feels at Christmas.

A feeling that perhaps connects to a famous literary character…Peter Pan…the boy who lives in Neverland…having adventure after adventure and never wanting to grow up. (pause) But what if he did?

There’s a movie that explored that very premise…Hook staring the late Robin Williams…a story in which Peter eventually did leave Neverland…and he grew up…forgetting all about his past…until the villainous Captain Hook kidnaps his children, causing the grown up, middle aged Peter Banning to return.

He finds himself with the Lost Boys for a few days…training…trying to remember…trying to find the youthful spirit once more…but all the Lost Boys see is a grown up grump…all except one little guy…In an emotional scene…he walks up to Peter…pulls him down to his knees to look him in the face…the boy pulls off his glasses…and starts turning Peter’s face in his hands…looking…searching…he smooths out wrinkles…he pulls back Peter’s hair…and then finally he lights up…a smile crosses his face…and he says “Oh there you are Peter.”  And with joy we realize that this little boy has found the one that he followed…the one that he remembers…the one that he loves and adores…the one that he favors. (pause)

Now maybe that’s a weird story to tell in connection with the Angel Gabriel showing up to give Mary this unexpected announcement…and yet if we consider the angel’s greeting…perhaps it starts to come into focus.

Greetings Highly favored one…the Lord is with you. (pause) Now we know why Gabriel is here don’t we?  He’s passing on the news that Mary has been chosen by God to serve in a role that is arguably one of the most important in all of history…that she has been chosen to bear the son of God…that she will be the mother of the one to save us all…the son of the most high…she will be the mother of Jesus.

But Mary’s reaction…well initially…its not great is it? (pause) The first thing we hear is her confusion at the angels greeting…that pondered what sort of greeting this might be…and then when Gabriel lays out the plan for her…her response? How can this be? (pause)

Now considering the plan that good ole Gabe has put on the table…maybe her reaction isn’t surprising…this is some pretty major stuff that God has mapped out…a baby, conceived within her…even though its physically impossible given that whole unmarried virgin thing…a baby who apparently is going to inherit the throne of David, even though the Romans utterly control the area and the throne is Israel is held by the bloodthirsty family of Herod.

It seems pretty unbelievable doesn’t it? But consider Mary’s status…she’s a nobody…a very young woman, still practically a child…she’s living in an era where both children and women have virtually no status at all…she lives in a backwater region of a conquered nation.  The news that she’s gonna have a baby out of wedlock would create all kinds of havoc for her…and even if it is true…and this baby is destined to take the throne, well that’s going to cause all kinds of turmoil for them with the political powers that be.

And as she’s thinking about all of this stuff…she remembers this crazy greeting that Gabriel had given her. Greetings Highly Favored One…Do not be afraid for you have found favor with God…now I can’t help but think that with all the turmoil that this announcement brings with it…all the hardship that she’s about to face because of what’s happening…God’s favor doesn’t exactly seem like the happiest thing in the world does it?

But maybe it isn’t suppose to. Maybe God’s favor doesn’t automatically add up to what our world has come to consider it to be…maybe it doesn’t equal ease, or riches…or popularity…maybe God’s favor actually points us in the opposite direction…and in the midst of it we can expect there to be struggle and pain and hardship…but only within the midst of those struggles do we find God-given strength to endure…not out of our own power…but out of the promise that we are not alone in it. (pause)

Now admittedly…this might be hard to wrap our heads around…especially as we consider the same things that Mary was considering…and that odd ball greeting and stipulation that she is highly favored.  But if we dig a little deeper, we find that our modern English translations…the ones that we’ve heard every year to the point where we can probably recite it from memory…it isn’t quite right…and if we start going backwards in the language we actually find that Gabriel says “Greetings, one who has found divine Grace with the Lord who is with you…Mary you have found Grace with God.”

Now when I realized that this week…it gave me some pause…because here in the Lutheran church…we’re big fans of Grace aren’t we…the free gift of God’s love…of God’s favor…of God’s salvation from sin…but as much as we love to hang our hats on God’s grace…there are times when we are honest with ourselves that perhaps we start to ask the question “Who am I that God would care? Who am I that God would look my direction. Who am I that God would love me?” (pause) We ask these questions because we know ourselves…we see…we feel the brokenness that exists within us and we know that we are not worthy of Love from the one who made this reality…and yet in making this reality…in making this world…that same God has made you.

This same God sees you in the midst of your brokenness…and God loves you anyway…and not only that but God desires that you will be with him…and since God is aware that we can’t get to him…he has come in search of us…but to truly accomplish this…he will enter into our reality in the same way do…as a helpless baby…one who’s name will be Jesus…as Gabriel instructs Mary today.

And you know what…sometimes there’s more to a name that we realize. In English we call him Jesus…in Greek it was Jeshua…which you might notice sounds kinda like Joshua…and its supposed to…and Joshua…the original Hebrew name means, quite literally Yahweh is generous…or Yahweh saves.

Today, here at the close of Advent…we hear the Divine plan laid out for Mary…and funny enough in just a few more hours, we’ll celebrate that plan in the flesh with the birth of Jesus…God in human form…the word made flesh…the light shining in the darkness…The Lord among us as one of us…showing us his divine favor…his divine love for each us.

For in Christ, God has come looking for you…and he’s willing to get right up in your face…he’ll go to any length to find the one that he loves…the one that he adores…the one that he favors…

Now maybe you ARE wondering Who am I that God would do this? Who am I that God would care. Who am I?  Know this, it doesn’t matter…because you are his beloved…and just like that little boy in the movie…imagine just how wonderful it will be to look God in the face one day…and to see the joy when he says “Oh there you are.”  Amen.

Just A Guy In A Hole 12-3-17

In this sermon from Mark 13:24-37, I explore several themes. We begin the season of Advent, and with it a change in our focus. And yet the passage and theme is still very close to what we’ve seen that past few weeks out of Matthew’s gospel. We live in the tension between anticipating the celebration of the coming Messiah at Christmas, and knowing that this event has already occurred.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/just-a-guy-in-a-hole-12-3-17
(note that at the time of recording, my voice was not in great shape)

You can also read along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

At some point in my elementary school days, I can’t tell you exactly when, but I know it happened…my class participated in a project similar to what you might find in a high school year book. We all worked together to decide who would receive each special title…titles like Most Likely to Succeed, or Class Clown. (pause)  My class voted me…wait for it…Most Likely to be Seen on the News Someday. (pause)

Funny enough…it happened, and I wasn’t even out of elementary yet. One day, early in the spring of my 5th grade year, I happened to be home from school as I was feeling a little under the weather…I remember it was a bright and clear spring day…and all of the sudden, my mom called me to one of the windows. She pointed out a column of smoke coming from the vicinity of town…a batch of smoke heavy enough that we could see it from almost 10 miles away.

A moment later the phone rang, and mom answered it…and a minute later we were in the car driving into town, because the fire was happening at our church…and in a short amount of time…the church where I was baptized was destroyed…and of course there were news cameras there to report…which is how I ended up on the news.

Admittedly, this really isn’t something that I should make jokes about, as it was a very serious blow to my home congregation…granted I was too young to really understand the depths of what was happening at that time…but I’m sure those in the generations that came before me felt like their entire world was being rocked in that moment.

Now I wish I could say that this is the only major catastrophe that has befallen my old congregation…but its not…and actually just last week, my small town home church was in the news again when it went public that their former financial officer has been embezzling funds for years…funds in the neighborhood of half a million dollars. And once more, the people there are reeling…trying to figure out how to move forward as their world has been rocked. When their church, and their community is in utter upheaval. (pause)

Today marks a change…as you can see from the Christmas decorations here in the sanctuary and out in the narthex…the presence of the blue paraments and banners…by the Advent Wreath right over there…we’ve entered into a new season…and with  it a new church year. We’ve moved from the year of focus on Matthew’s gospel into the year of Mark…and at the same time we switch our focus away from the long ongoing life cycle of the church through the season of Pentecost into the sense of waiting…the feeling of anticipation of the coming Messiah at Christmas.

But despite the new season and new church year…perhaps things still sound pretty familiar…perhaps it sounds like more of the same as we consider the gospel lesson out of Mark that we’ve shared today…and if it does sound familiar…if it seems pretty spot on with the various readings and themes that we’ve shared in recent weeks out of Matthew, it should…because honestly it’s the same exact setting.

Jesus and his followers are in and around Jerusalem for the pending Passover festival…its his final week of life before his death on the cross…and together, this small group of people has been in and out of the temple…and in one of their trips through the gates the disciples are marveling at the magnificence of the temple and its massive building stones, when Jesus tells them that there will come a day when not one stone will be left upon another…and this freaks them out so much that they ask him “what will be a sign that this is about to happen?”

Same story…and that same sort of result with today’s reading isn’t it? Apocalyptic…end times-ish. Daunting as Jesus gives the instruction to stay awake for no one knows the day or the hour. (pause) Admittedly, when I read this passage at the beginning of the week to begin preparing for today, it caught me off guard. Pentecost is over…its Advent now…we should be looking for the coming Christ child not freaking out over what the end times are going to look like right? And yet…here we are…apparently stuck in the tension between these two events…and I’ve asked myself over and over again…Lord what are we to say about this? (pause)

And pretty soon I found myself thinking about that original question that the disciples asked…which perhaps was not just about “the end times” but was maybe about the destruction of the temple that Jesus had been talking about.

Now the Jewish people are no stranger to cultural tragedy are they…and in Jesus’ day they knew this same reality.  A culture which truly began in slavery…a culture that spent decades wandering as aimless nomads…a culture that scrapped tooth and nail for a land of their own and held it for a matter of a couple generations before it started falling apart and the various superpowers of the day came in and took it over…and keep in mind that the Jewish people have REALLY good memories for history…its vital to their culture…but that’s not the only thing…for their faith is also a central aspect.

And for this people who’s culture is so completely wrapped up in their relationship with God…the temple is vital…the temple is where you go to worship…the temple is where God is…tucked clear inside behind a curtain…but who’s presence is there none the less…and they’ve lost the temple before…the first temple built by King Solomon had been destroyed…and now Jesus is telling them that there will come a day when the most important location in their entire culture will be destroyed again. No wonder his followers found this shocking. That reality would have been devastating for them to experience. (pause)

But you know what, there’s another aspect to consider. Mark’s gospel is the oldest of the 4…but it was recorded decades after the fact…the stories of Christ and his disciples handed down, told from person to person…and by the time Mark was actually recorded…Jesus’ prediction had already happened…and the temple was already gone…utterly demolished by Roman troops as they squashed a Jewish revolt about 40 years after Jesus. (pause)
So we’ve got all kinds of turmoil in the works here. Turmoil for Jesus’ disciples as they hear that the center of their whole worlds will be destroyed.  Turmoil for the original audience of the gospel as they were living in that reality…I can only imagine that for them…it literally seemed like the world was ending…and the Old Testament prophecies that Jesus shares about the powers of heaven being shaken probably wouldn’t have seemed out of line when the physical representation of your faith has been utterly wiped off the map.

I can only imagine that for everyone that hears these words of Jesus…it hits home…living in the midst of events so drastic…so dire…so earth shattering that maybe we ask ourselves “is this the end?” And we shake our heads in disbelief with the feeling that there’s no hope…there’s no light…its all darkness. (pause0
I wonder if that sounds familiar? If you are experiencing something like this that has you shaken to your core…and all hope is gone.  I can’t help but think that if that’s not the case for you…then it is certainly the case for someone you know.

We can hardly turn on the news or open a newspaper or click into our internet browser without hearing about something. Shootings…bombings. Genocide. Tension between nuclear powers. Pain, hunger, sickness. Countless stories and accusations coming to light of public figures who have abused their position of authority for their own gratification at the expense of another person. Storms, fires, we have chaos all over the planet…and often in conversation with other people I hear them say “I think the end times are already here.”

And you know what, maybe they are…maybe they aren’t…but the only thing that we can say is that at some point for some person…the world is rocking them to their core and they feel lost…hopeless…abandoned…and if they look to the heavens and think that there’s some cosmic force out there looking down maybe they place the blame right there…or maybe they just get angry or discouraged and wonder if a word will ever come from on high. (pause)
This is the state that the nation of Israel found themselves in…the prophets had been silent for centuries…the temple system was corrupt…the government were puppets of the Romans…and yet they looked forward to the coming of the Messiah…they longed for the day when God would, once again…dwell among his chosen people…they waited, perhaps in agony…living in the tension of wondering if it would ever come to fruition.

We live in this same tension now today…as the church begins to look forward to the celebration of the Christ child at Christmas…an event that we celebrate and look forward to, but also one that we remember has ALREADY happened. Yes we look forward in Advent but the event which we look to is in the rearview mirror…Christ has already come and when he did he has utterly changed this reality.

But its not perfect yet…and perhaps for those of us experiencing those dark nights of the soul…those moments when hope is lost and we are stuck…it just feels like we are caught. (long pause)

A man is walking down the street and falls in a hole…and the sides are so steep, and that hole is so deep that the man can’t get out…he tries and tries and tries on his own but he’s stuck.  Low and behold, a doctor comes walking by. The man yells up Hey Doc can you get me out of here? The doctor writes a prescription and tosses it down in the hole and he walks away.  Then pretty soon an architect walks by. The man yells up Hey can you help me out? The architect draws up a schematic and tosses it in the hole and he walks away. But then the guys friend walks by…and he yells up Hey its me…can you help me out…and the friend jumps down into the hole next to him.  The guy says What are you doing, now we’re stuck in here together. But the friend says I know…but I’ve been in this hole before, and I know the way out. (pause)

Ever heard the song What a Friend We Have In Jesus? (pause) Life is messy…its hard and it knocks us around…sometimes so much that we can’t see anyway forward…but we have a God who has come to us…where we are…even in the bottom of a hole to show us that there is a way out…there is a way forward…if we can simply believe that there is a God out there who loves us enough to claim us as His own even in the midst of our turmoil.

And God has gone one step beyond that too…and God has given us to one another…because together we are the body of Christ…and so maybe, just maybe, the friend that you’ll find willing to jump down and guide you is sitting right across the aisle right now…just waiting for you to call out of the hole. Amen

What Are We Really Preparing For 12-13-15

In this sermon, based on Luke 3:7-18, I explore the theme of Advent, preparing for the coming Messiah. John the Baptist plays a central role in this part of Jesus’ story, yet his message is quite blunt. I contrast the old with the new that comes with Christ.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/what-are-we-really-preparing-for-12-13-15

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

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

I’m going to start things off with a little bit of an advertisement today. Tuesdays at 7pm…our ongoing study of The Story…a Bible study in which we are discussing the overarching narrative of the Bible from start to finish. Lively discussion ensues…and you’re all invited.

One of the main points that we’ve been discussing in this study since beginning last summer as been the ongoing activity of God behind the scenes…asking the question of how the particular chapter highlights God’s greater work in the grand scheme of things…now sometimes its pretty obvious…chapter 1 for instance…the story of creation from the first couple chapters of Genesis…what’s God up to there? Well, making…everything…kind of a no brainer.

But on the flip side…sometimes we have to work a little harder to try and figure out just what God is up to…because its not nearly as obvious as the first chapter…and this week, was one of those times. (pause) This week we studied the story of Esther…a young Jewish girl living life within the great Persian empire…and she’s picked from obscurity…wins the favor of the king and becomes the new queen…and along the way she manages to foil a plot to annihilate the Jewish people…it’s a wonderful story…and our discussion was great…but one interesting fact came up. Nowhere within the Old Testament book of Esther…not even once…do we hear about God…which admittedly seems a little strange when we consider that the Bible as a whole is the word of God, and is aimed at revealing truth of what God is up to in the world to us…but its true…the book of Esther is silent when it comes to God. (pause)
Now I bring this up because there’s a similar theme in today’s gospel lesson…the gospel’s, naturally, are New Testament books…and the gospels more than any other books, are certainly aimed at Jesus…the son of God…God in human form…walking and dwelling among us. (pause)

But…in today’s lesson…we see one of the very few times when Jesus is neither present…nor is he named…The closest we get to hearing about Jesus is a few comments regarding the coming Messiah. (pause) Now how often does that actually happen? That we have a gospel lesson that fails to feature Jesus? Its pretty rare…but the main reason behind it today is the season that we find ourselves in…Advent.

Now, you’ve heard me talk about this before….but Advent is considered the season of preparation…as the world awaits the coming Messiah…something that we’ll celebrate together in just a couple weeks’ time at Christmas as Jesus enters into our reality, yet again…as a helpless baby. (pause) But we aren’t there yet are we?

And so, here at the half way point of this 4 week season of preparation, we find a gospel lesson that doesn’t feature Jesus…but rather…another familiar figure…John the Baptist. (pause) Now John is an interesting individual…and he shares in a pretty rare distinction…being one of the few individuals that actually shows up in all 4 gospels…he’s not one of course, but there aren’t many…and because of this distinction, we recognize just how important of a figure he really was…and I think most of us do. We know that he’s the precursor to Christ…we know that he was the voice crying in the wilderness…his name is synonymous with the idea of baptism…

Maybe, if you’re like me, you hear the name John that Baptist and you picture some hairy wildman with a huge bush beard and afro splashing around in a river and yelling at everyone…that’s the image that’s in my head anytime I hear about him…and for the most part, that’s a pretty accurate image to hold…because John’s part of the overarching gospel of Jesus Christ is pretty brief…mostly limited to this one story right here towards the beginning…with only a few brief references that pop up here and there throughout the rest of the gospels.

But as we think about our normal notions of John…not to mention listening to his rather blunt message for those who have come out to listen to him…doesn’t it seem to be kind of one note? (pause) Think about it…I say John the Baptist and ask you what his message it…and I’m guessing most of you think “YOU BROOD OF VIPERS!!!! WHO WARNED YOU ABOUT THE WRATH TO COME?” (pause) Sound about right?

I thought a lot about that this week…and kind of chuckled to myself as I realized that this one passage culminates in the single sermon that I get to preach this year during Advent…we have this one passage to help us get ready for the coming Messiah…and when we hear John’s words…it sort of resonates as the same old same old. (pause)

Think about everything you know about John…because it seems…at first glance anyway…that’s he’s really not broadcasting much that’s new. (pause) First off…he’s a prophet…the first one that’s popped up in the Holy Land for about 4 centuries…so the word of God has been pretty quiet for awhile…but the first thing this wilderness prophet rattles off…is a call to repentance…because wrath is coming…and if we’ve learned one thing trekking through the Old Testament in our Bible Study its that the word of the Lord tends to call the people to repent or face God’s wrath quite a bit.

But what else…what about the notion of Baptism…because John was doing that too…obviously right, just look at his name…but don’t be fooled. Even though we tend to think of Baptism as a fairly new innovation…something that came along with the rise of Christianity, its actually a lot older than that…Jewish people practice baptism…particularly when a foreigner would join the Jewish culture…and they would be baptized to cleanse themselves of all that which is ungodly…and so…this baptism that John practiced…was nothing new either.

So then, what about his interactions with the people…those who ask him “What should we do?” The crowds, and tax collectors, and the soldiers…at this point John gets into some life application that seems like kind of no-brainer…if you’ve got more than you need…share it with someone who doesn’t. Treat one another fairly…don’t lie…and be satisfied with what you earn…sounds pretty “golden rule-ish” doesn’t it…and it reflects the expected culture of the Jewish people…who’s lives centered around hospitality and the expectation of treating one another fairly….truly the message of John seems like nothing new does it?

And yet as we hear it…and we hear John screaming out at the brood of vipers who are only there to save their own skin…and his predictions that one is coming who is going to sort everything out…separating the good from the bad…the grain from the chaff…doesn’t it all sound…so…judgmental…so accusatory…so downright negative? (pause)

And yet…this seems to be exactly the message that the people expect…so much so, that they start to ask if John might just be the long awaited Messiah…the one who would usher in God’s blessed kingdom and throw out all that which oppresses God’s people. (pause) Crazy huh? That this, was their expectation…that the messiah would bring the same old judgmental, divisive story? (pause)

But here’s the thing…if John could make only one point, its this…he knows who he is…and he knows who he…isn’t…and he is very direct in pointing out the difference between himself and the coming Messiah. (pause)
I baptize with water…he will baptize with the holy spirit and fire…I am a lowly servant…not even worthy to untie his sandals…but HE…is more powerful that I am… (pause) Now we hear all this and instantly start thinking about Jesus don’t we…as well we should…but I think what we tend to miss about all this is just what John’s talking about when he references the power of the coming Messiah.

We hear John’s words of wrath and repentance…of separation and judgement of gathering the grain and burning the chaff…and if you’re anything like me you hear…DIVISION…that the coming Messiah will one day separate the evil people from the good people.

But here’s the thing…have you ever really known a person who was completely evil…or on the flip side someone who was completely good? (pause) Sure we’ve had some pretty decent examples on both sides of the coin…but I’m pretty sure even the worst of the worst probably had good intentions…and even the most saintly still harbored dark thoughts in their minds.

And that’s all because of the presence of sin and darkness in our lives…it has permeated us so deeply…into the very depths of our existence…and that’s why each and every one of us feels the effects of sin in our lives…and just being a person who professes faith in Christ…or a person who claims the promises of our baptism…it isn’t enough to eliminate the darkness that still resides within each of us.

We can’t separate the good from the bad and maybe just maybe, when we hear these words from John they seem so confrontational…so judgmental because when we are honest with ourselves we the darkness within us and can’t help but expect to be the evil chaff that gets thrown into the fire…and news flash…if you happen to take a look and only see the good stuff and fully expect to be gathered into the barn…well guess what…pride my friend…you just earned yourself the fire…that’s how deep this goes and there is NOTHING we can do about it.

But as John tells us…there is one who is coming…one who is MORE powerful…MORE able than any of us…Because God is coming…and God, who exists in ways far beyond our ability to understand or comprehend IS ABLE, to somehow, someway separate that which evil from that which God claims as good, from within each of us as individuals.

We are each made in the image of God, something that God called VERY GOOD…but likewise the power of sin has settled within each of us…but what if…maybe, just maybe, what John is talking about here…is the possibility that we have a God who lived this life…who came into this reality…then died and rose again to overcome the power of sin and death and somehow, someway, holds the power to separate them out from within the individual.

Isn’t that good news? That the savior of the world…who will enter into our reality at Christmas…just a couple weeks from now…did so in order to take away that from within YOU…that separate you from God…so that the aspect of YOU that God calls VERY GOOD…will remain to be with him forever. Isn’t that the best news in the world? (pause)

Now what if I told you that there are some out there who have never heard it? That there are some out there who think of the gospel and only hear the old judgmental accusation without understanding the love that God holds for us…that Christ came not to divide the good people from the bad people…but to redeem that which is good within each of us…and that this gift…this promise is for them too. (pause)

Soon…very soon, we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ…the messiah who is coming into the world…and as we do each and every Christmas we will sing the familiar hymn to Go Tell It On The Mountain…so that one day…all may know the Good News….and that my friends…here during the season of Advent…that, it what we are really preparing for. Amen