The Word Became Flesh | Christmas Day

John 1:1-14

1 In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. 2 The Word was with God in the beginning. 3 Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being 4 through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

6 A man named John was sent from God. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him everyone would believe in the light. 8 He himself wasn’t the light, but his mission was to testify concerning the light.

9 The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world.

10 The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light.

11 The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him.

12 But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children, 13 born not from blood nor from human desire or passion, but born from God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (CEB)

The Word Became Flesh

It’s not often that I get to preach a Christmas Day sermon on a Sunday morning, and it’s not often that you get to hear one. Christmas Day falls on a Sunday in a repeating pattern of five years, six years, eleven years, and six years. The last time Christmas came on a Sunday was 2011, the next time will be 2022. So, savor this. It’ll be six years until the next one, and then eleven years after that. To put it into perspective, my eleven-year-old daughter will be seventeen the next time this happens, and twenty-eight the time after that!

Yikes!

At the same time, I wish Christmas came on a Sunday more often than it does. Things are different. They aren’t quite what we expect. On Christmas Day, we don’t talk about Mary, Joseph, or the baby born into the world. We don’t mention the angels, the shepherds, or anything to do with the Nativity. That’s all done on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve tells us what happened: Jesus was born of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the heavens and earth rejoiced. On Christmas Day, we hear about why it happened. Christmas Day is about incarnation and glory. It’s about the incalculable depth and breadth of God’s love, mercy, and grace.

John the Evangelist, as our Gospel writer is known, was writing to Greek-speaking Christians who would have been steeped in basic Greek philosophical ideas simply because it was a part of Greek culture. But, many of these people with a Jewish background would also have been steeped in Hebrew religious thought. He uses both brilliantly as he recasts the creation story of Genesis, starting with the same words: “In the beginning…” The words that follow are about the Word—the λόγος—which, in Greek thought suggests the idea of reason, rational speech, oral utterance. It’s also, alongside ethos and pathos, one of the three modes of persuasion in rhetoric.

In Hebrew thought, Wisdom was personified as a woman—Lady Wisdom—the first thing God made, who worked alongside God in creating the world and everything in it (c.f. Proverbs 8:22-31). Wisdom is viewed as its own entity. We’re told that “The LORD laid the foundations of the earth with wisdom, establishing the heavens with understanding” (Proverbs 3:19, CEB). In Hebrew and in Greek, however, wisdom is a feminine word: חָכְמָה (hachma) and σοφίᾳ (sophia). John the Evangelist is essentially using the Hebrew idea of personified wisdom, but altering it to the masculine Greek word, λόγος (logos).

At the same time, John is revealing more about the Second Person of the Trinity as the word that spoke creation into being. God didn’t think creation into being. God didn’t wave a hand, stomp a foot, shake a stick or anything else. God spoke creation into being. God uttered the word, the logos, and creation blinked into existence.

It reminds me of a couple I knew at my first church in Terre Haute. Herb and Jerri were kind of like this. Herb was the man of the house, but Jerri spoke for him. Whenever Joy or I sat with them in their living room, Herb would sit there and smile while Jerri prattled on, telling stories and occasionally glancing at her husband who would offer little more than a smile and a nod to encourage Jerri to keep going.

And she did.

Herb could sit back and let Jerri do all the work of talking, but he knew exactly what she was going to say. That’s how in tune with each other they were. In a similar way, God knew what God wanted to create, and the Word did the work of causing creation to appear.

In what are probably the most profound words in the New Testament, John declares, “The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, CEB). That word for lived among us, ἐσκήνωσεν (eskeynosen), means pitched a tent. This was no mere visit or passing through. This was all-in. The Word wasn’t here to observe us on the sidelines. The Word of God came to live among us as one of us and participate fully in human life. Jesus was a human being and he was just as squishy as the rest of us. The Word became flesh. Through Jesus Christ, the Word, God entered our world fully in order to redeem and recreate everything that has been made and broken.

Do we recognize the profundity of this gift? Do we recognize the measure of mercy and grace which God has thrust upon us? It’s so much more than sentimentality and sappy movies on the Hallmark Chanel (though, I’ve told you before I’m a sucker for a good sappy love story). God came down from heaven to be one of us, to live with us, to share life with us in all its tragedies and happiness, joys and heartbreaks, depression and euphoria, fulfillment and devastation. God even shared in our death so that we could share in God’s life. And Jesus, along the way, as he walked among us and beside us as a human being, taught us something about glory.

Glory is a difficult thing for us to understand. We have our own definitions and ideas of what glory is. So often, it means making it big. It means wealth or fame or power or authority. It means winning. I’m sure that, when Duke and Carolina tip off on February 9, the sports commentators will talk about the glory of the two programs, and how the winner will be crowned with glory, and how winning glory is the goal of the game.

John’s understanding of glory is different. Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana (c.f. John 2:1-12). He did it because his mother asked him to. He did it because it would make people happy, and save embarrassment for the hosts who hadn’t planned for enough wine and were likely relatives. Yet, this act of turning water into wine also revealed his glory. But what does that mean? At first glance, we tend to think it has to do with achieving something extraordinary. But God turns water into wine every year, as C.S. Lewis notes in his book, Miracles:

“Every year, as part of the Natural order, God makes wine. He does so by creating a vegetable organism that can turn water, soil and sunlight into a juice which will, under proper conditions, become wine. Thus, in a certain sense, He constantly turns water into wine, for wine, like all drinks, is but water modified. Once, and in one year only, God, now incarnate, short circuits the process: makes wine in a moment: uses earthenware jars instead of vegetable fibres to hold the water. But uses them to do what He is always doing. The miracle consists in the short cut; but the event to which it leads is the usual one” (Lewis, Miracles, in The Signature Classics, 422-23).

A broken grape will turn the juice inside into wine because yeast occurs naturally on the skin of the grape. This is how God designed it. So, in turning water into wine for the pleasure of his mother and the wedding guests, Jesus did the thing his Father is always doing: making wine from water so people can be joyous and happy.

When Jesus is told that Lazarus is sick, he says twice that it has to do with God’s glory (John 11:4, 40). He knows Lazarus has died, and goes to raise him from the dead. In healing Lazarus, he does what his Father often does: provide healing from illness, and he was present with Mary and Martha in their grief and despair. It’s what God does.

In every one of his words and actions, Jesus taught us about glory. He taught us the difference between false and true glory when he said things like, Those who speak on their own seek glory for themselves. Those who seek the glory of him who sent me are people of truth; there’s no falsehood in them” (John 7:18, CEB).

When Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with nard and wiped them dry with her hair, that kind of gift from one to another is glory (c.f. John 12:3). In the very next chapter (John 13), Jesus wraps a towel around his waist and washes his disciples’ feet. He does the thing his Father has always done: clean up broken and dirty people. That is the image of glory: showing love for—and service to—others. Jesus prays for us in John 17, saying, “I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one” (John 17:22, CEB). The thing is, the glory Jesus has given us is, in one sense, the example of his life.

Right before he was betrayed by Judas, Jesus fed his disciples with bread and wine: including Judas! He only did what his Father has always done—he fed people: good and bad alike. That’s because God’s love extends to the righteous and the unrighteous, as does God’s care and providence. I mean, isn’t it just like God to feed an enemy while, at the same time, opposing the evil they speak and do? That’s our example. That’s our call.

The Word became flesh to show us glory, and we have seen that glory in the life of Christ from birth to death: a life spent in love and service to the world, especially to those who are broken sinners, deemed worthless and rejected by the rest of the world. We, too, can be lights shining in the darkness who cast light, not upon ourselves, but upon the God who loves us, provides for us, redeems us, and saves us. We glorify God when we follow Jesus Christ. That is why the Word became flesh and made his home among us. That is why Jesus showed us the way of God’s glory, which is full of grace, and truth. The Word was, and remains, a light shining in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome. This is the gift of Christmas. The very Word that spoke creation into existence has come in the flesh to create us anew and transform our lives into the glory of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

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Emmanuel | 4th of Advent

Matthew 1:18-25

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:

23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel. (Emmanuel means “God with us.”)

24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife.  25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.  (CEB)

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Emmanuel

In writing fiction, I learned that tension is what moves a story along. Tension is what makes it interesting. It’s what makes you feel a little nervous when you read, even if you think you already know how the tension will be resolved. It’s the thing that makes you keep turning pages long after you should have put the book down.

When Matthew begins his narrative he declares, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” But when we read the text it’s clear that Matthew is not as concerned with the birth of Jesus as with his conception and his naming. The entire scene which follows is told through the eyes of Joseph, and it really is his religious and ethical dilemma that moves the story along.

The first thing we’re told about Joseph is his marital status. Joseph is engaged to Mary but they are not yet living together. The customs of marriage in Joseph and Mary’s day involved a two-stage process. The first stage was the betrothal or engagement, but in a much stronger sense than the word means in our day. When a woman was engaged to a man in the ancient Jewish world she was bound to him and he to her through formal words of consent. This betrothal would usually happen when the woman was quite young, twelve to fourteen years old. Once the woman and man were betrothed, they were already viewed by society as husband and wife, and they waited for a certain amount of time—usually about a year—for the second stage of the marriage process.

This second stage involved the woman moving out of her parents’ house and into the home of her husband. You might note that the United Methodist marriage service includes these two parts of marriage. The Declaration of Intention has its roots in the ancient Jewish betrothal ceremony, while the Marriage and Exchanging of Vows is from the marriage service. Joseph and Mary are in-between these two stages of the marriage process. Mary is, essentially, Joseph’s wife, but they are not yet living together.

The next thing we hear about Joseph is that he was faced with a life-shattering moral situation. Joseph was described as “a righteous man,” which means that he was careful to follow all of the commandments of God. He was careful to keep the whole of the Old Testament Law, he strove to live his life in harmony with God’s will, and to follow the Law of Moses to the letter. Because Joseph was a righteous man, he was a man in the middle of an ethical crisis. Mary was found to be pregnant and Joseph knew he wasn’t the baby-daddy. In Joseph’s mind there was only one possibility, and that was that Mary had been unfaithful to him.

What does the law say about this? The commandments are pretty cut and dry: Mary was to be cast aside, perhaps even put to death. While Joseph was a righteous man, he was also compassionate, so he intended to dismiss Mary, but to do so quietly. He cannot and will not swerve from the law. The law commands it, so Joseph will do it. Mary will be dismissed.

But here is where the text takes one of those surprising and unexpected turns. An angel of God appears to Joseph in a dream and reveals to Joseph that what appears to him to be a moral outrage is, in fact, a holy disruption in the sorrowful story of humanity. The child in Mary’s womb is not a violation of God’s will, but an expression of it. The child is not the result of human activity but a gift conceived of the Holy Spirit. The angel says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (NRSV).

Joseph is told not to be afraid. Yet, Joseph would certainly have been afraid to keep Mary no matter how deeply in love with her he might have been. He would have been afraid because keeping Mary would have been a violation of the law of Moses.

I think it would be extraordinarily difficult to be in Joseph’s position, even with the dream where an angel told him to take Mary as his wife I think it would be difficult. God is quite suddenly doing a new thing which, to all eyes, seems so contrary with the old established way. Joseph is given a new commandment, a new and higher law, and urged on to a new and higher righteousness when the angel says to him, “Take Mary as your wife and give to the son she is about to bear the name Jesus” (NRSV). Yet this new commandment, new law, and higher righteousness stands in contradiction with the old righteousness, old law, and old commandment. The angel is commanding Joseph to do nothing less than shatter the old law in order to keep this new law.

Can you imagine the difficulty? Can you imagine the ethical and religious dilemma this would present? I mean, I’ve had strange dreams before. If I were Joseph I might have chalked this one up to indigestion. So, will Joseph remain a “righteous man” in the old sense, or will he respond to God’s new thing and become a genuinely “righteous man” who walks in God’s new path of obedience?

The thing is, the dilemma Joseph faced was the same dilemma that Matthew’s first readers faced. They would have been pulled in two different directions by their Jewish roots and their Christian experiences. How are people to be righteous, in the old way or in the new? How are we to be righteous? Matthew’s answer is clear later on in the book: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20, NRSV).

Joseph is transformed by the announcement of the angel. He is astoundingly responsive to this new and very strange thing that God is doing. He chose to follow the new commandment instead of the old. He took Mary as his wife, and he named the child Jesus. Joseph, as well as Mary, is an example of true righteousness and faithful discipleship. He moved from his own understanding of Righteousness to God’s understanding of righteousness. And I think that’s what Matthew hopes all of his readers will do. The kind of discipleship that Joseph models for us is not the kind that goes and looks up a rule in a book and then does “the right thing.” Rather, Joseph models the kind of discipleship that wrestles with the complexities of an issue, listens for the voice of God in our midst, and does God’s thing.

To be a faithful disciple we really do have to prayerfully wrestle with and seek to discover what God is doing in the difficult situations we face. How is God at work in these tough situations to show mercy and saving power? I don’t think that being righteous is as simple as being pure and good in some abstract sense, but I have come to believe that genuine righteousness involves joining with God to do God’s work in the world in God’s way.

Who could blame Joseph if he had decided to stick with the established law, the rule written by Moses himself at God’s own bidding, and dumped Mary? Everyone in Mary and Joseph’s hometown would have said, It was the right thing to do. But our story in Matthew’s Gospel would be very different.

Instead, Joseph surely surprised and shocked everyone by taking Mary as his wife and adopting her child as his own, even giving the child a name like Jesus, which is the Greek form of Joshua, meaning God helps or God saves. After declaring the name Joseph is to give to this child of Mary, the angel says, “for he will save his people from their sins.”

In addition, Matthew provides another name for us: Emmanuel, which means God is with us. Jesus is able to help and to save because in him God is with us. Only God can save us from our sins and, in Jesus, God is with us as a savior.

The explanation of Jesus’ name is an important part of Matthew’s Gospel. It is Matthew’s Jesus who tells us to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. It is Matthew’s Jesus who tells us to be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect, to not be anxious about our basic physical needs and seek the kingdom of heaven. When we read Matthew’s Gospel it is easy to become overwhelmed by the demands of discipleship that Jesus places upon us and wonder whether or not our obvious shortcomings and failures can ever be overcome.

But at the outset, before all these demands of discipleship are made, we are told that the Jesus who will make these demands is the one who will save his people from their sins. The name of Jesus assures us of forgiveness and of presence. God is with us, and God will save us from our sins. That’s the definition of Good News.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

My Messenger | 3rd of Advent

Matthew 11:2-11

2 Now when John heard in prison about the things the Christ was doing, he sent word by his disciples to Jesus, asking, 3 “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

4 Jesus responded, “Go, report to John what you hear and see. 5 Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them. 6 Happy are those who don’t stumble and fall because of me.”

7 When John’s disciples had gone, Jesus spoke to the crowds about John: “What did you go out to the wilderness to see? A stalk blowing in the wind? 8 What did you go out to see? A man dressed up in refined clothes? Look, those who wear refined clothes are in royal palaces. 9 What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 He is the one of whom it is written: Look, I’m sending my messenger before you, who will prepare your way before you.

11 “I assure you that no one who has ever been born is greater than John the Baptist. Yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (CEB)

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My Messenger

I remember that one of my teachers at Evansville North High School had a corner of the chalkboard lined off to keep it from being accidentally erased (yes, they still had chalkboards when I was in high school). Inside the border were the words, “There are no stupid questions.” I honestly don’t remember which teacher it was (it’s been 21 years) but I do remember the quote. The point was to encourage us to ask questions, no matter how dim-witted we thought the question might sound.

We learn by asking questions and seeking answers. We find assurance in receiving answers from trusted or knowledgeable individuals. It’s important to ask questions, and when things are not turning out the way we expect, we turn to questions because we want to know why. We want to figure it out. We want to see if there’s some way to get this train wreck moving on the right track again. So, we ask questions.

Especially when it comes to matters of our faith, when we find ourselves in difficult times, we tend to ask questions. The only problem is that, when we have questions about our faith, we don’t want to voice them because they can sound faithless or make us look weak. No one wants to look like they have weak faith. We want to appear strong and confident. Sometimes, we’re willing to keep up that crumbling façade no matter how much our souls and minds and spirits hurt because we’re afraid others might know we aren’t all we’re cracked up to be. We’re afraid of asking what might appear to be stupid questions.

One of the ironies of the Third Sunday of Advent—a Sunday known as Gaudete Sunday, which means Rejoice—is that we’re presented with a text describing a man who likely is not rejoicing; a man who has questions because things are not going the way they ought to go. The Gospel text for Rejoice Sunday tells us about John the Baptist who is now in prison. That’s enough to make anyone doubt. It’s easy to believe in God and God’s plans in the brightness of day when everything is going well and we can whistle Zippity-Doo-Dah. It’s quite another thing when the cold darkness of a cell settles over us after the door slams shut. It’s in those moments when we can start to lose faith.

This is John the Baptist we’re talking about. He was the forerunner to the Messiah, the one sent to prepare the way. He’s the one who wanted to prevent Jesus from seeking baptism from him because he believed he needed to be baptized by Jesus. He knew, full well, who Jesus was. At least, he knew when he was free.

But, when the doors of a prison close him inside, he begins to wonder. He hears things about Jesus, but maybe the things he hears aren’t what he expected. We’re told in verses 2 and 3, Now when John heard in prison about the things the Christ was doing, he sent word by his disciples to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matthew 11:2-3, CEB). Matthew even takes care to use the word Christ here when he describes Jesus. In Hebrew, the word in Messiah. The use of the word reinforces that John knew that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the one whose way he was sent to prepare, the one who was to come after him, the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, the one whose sandals he felt unworthy to carry.

This is the one of whom Jesus said, “What did you go out to the wilderness to see? A stalk blowing in the wind? What did you go out to see? A man dressed up in refined clothes? Look, those who wear refined clothes are in royal palaces. What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. He is the one of whom it is written: Look, I’m sending my messenger before you, who will prepare your way before you. I assure you that no one who has ever been born is greater than John the Baptist. Yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:7-11 CEB).

Yet, John questions. As if to prove the point that there are no stupid questions, John the Baptist—whom everyone knew was the person who knew who Jesus was—raised his hand. He thought he was sure, but he needed to ask just to make doubly sure. After all, it didn’t look like God’s kingdom was doing much. It didn’t look near. Herod was still a power-hungry jerk who oppressed his own people. He threw John into prison; God’s own messenger was stuck in a cell because of this unrighteous king whose power had not yet been broken. You can almost hear John wondering from his cell, why has Herod’s power not yet been broken? If the kingdom of heaven were coming near, why didn’t things look different? Shouldn’t something look different? It seems the prison cell might have caused even John the Baptist to doubt, to question, to wonder if this Jesus really was the harbinger of God’s coming kingdom after all.

Our prison cells can do that, too. Our prisons need not be literal. Sometimes, we feel imprisoned by economics, by our jobs, by abusive situations, by the demands of our loved-ones. Sometimes it’s the dark pieces of ourselves—those shameful parts of us that we want to keep hidden and buried deep down where no one can see them—that hold us hostage and slowly sap the joy out of our lives. Maybe that’s why we need Gaudete—Rejoice—Sunday. It forcibly reminds us that, despite all that is wrong and twisted around us, there is room for joy.

The reasons for rejoicing which Jesus offers to John are simple. People are being healed from every kind of malady—even the insurmountable sickness of death, good news is being brought to the poor. The poor are always the ones who suffer most severely from injustice and oppression, whether it’s from individuals, corporations, or governments. The treatment of any society’s poor is the litmus test for whether justice or injustice reigns, just as it was the litmus test for whether or not the covenantal relationship of the Jewish Law was being kept or abandoned. Jesus tells John that he has come to bring good news to those who are abused and used and cast aside by the greedy and powerful. The good news is that God’s rule and reign are coming. Every injustice shall be set right. We catch a glimpse of this in Mary’s Song from Luke’s Gospel: the lowly shall be lifted up, the mighty cast down; the hungry shall be filled, the rich and satisfied shall be sent away as empty-handed beggars.

The kingdom of heaven will turn the world on its head, but it’s not until later on in Matthew, when Jesus teaches in parables, that we learn how the kingdom of heaven works. Parables like, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough” (Matthew 13:33b, CEB). We might not see it working, but the kingdom of heaven is subtly working its way through every corner of creation, transforming everything it touches.

The last words Jesus offers to John are seemingly cryptic: “Happy are those who don’t stumble and fall because of me” (Matthew 2:6, CEB). This last bit might, perhaps, have something to do with John’s unfulfilled expectations. Jesus is telling him, Yes, I am the one you were looking for, and I’m doing my thing which is God’s thing. It might not be what you expected, but this is God’s design. This is how the kingdom operates. This is what the kingdom looks like: subtle, patient, quiet, peaceful.

I’ll admit I find it a little comforting that someone with faith as strong as John the Baptist could be capable of doubts as strong as mine. I also find it comforting that he asked the question first. It gives us permission to ask the same kinds of questions.

Still, the answer Jesus gives isn’t a resounding YES, I’m the Messiah. He only offers a recap of what he’s been doing, which is probably the same stuff John had heard about while in prison. To me, it almost sounds like Jesus is asking John a question in return. This is what’s happening. This is the work I’m doing. What do you think? Who do you say that I am? It’s the question I want to leave you to think about during the third week of Advent. Who is Jesus to you? What are your reasons for believing? What evidence of the kingdom of heaven do you see which compels you to believe?

There are reasons to rejoice. Not the least of which is that fact that God has broken into our world and brought the kingdom of heaven near. There’s a stanza from an ancient Easter Proclamation called the Exultet which says, “Night truly blessed, when heaven is wedded to earth, and we are reconciled to you!” (U.M. Book of Worship, 372). That’s why we rejoice. No matter the twisted mess around us, no matter our doubts, fears, and the questions they bring, heaven has been wedded to earth and, in Jesus Christ, we are reconciled to God.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

In Those Days | 2nd of Advent

Matthew 3:1-12

1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, 2 “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” 3 He was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said:

The voice of one shouting in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.”

4 John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.

5 People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. 6 As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. 7 Many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John. He said to them, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? 8 Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. 9 And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. 11 I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.” (CEB)

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In Those Days

For any Christian who wants to jump too quickly into Christmas, the second Sunday of Advent acts as a bungee cord of sorts and pulls us back to the reality of Advent. Advent is not Christmas, it can barely even be described as “getting ready for Christmas.” While it is a time of anticipation, the anticipation is something other than December 25th and the birth of a savior. The Gospel reading from Matthew 3 presents a fully-grown John the Baptist preaching a message of repentance, axes, fruit, and fire. It’s hardly a Christmas story.

John appears in the wilderness like a man who has wandered out of some retirement home for old prophets. If Jesus is the door which opens to reveal a new age in the world, John the Baptist is the hinge on which that door swings. There is a turning of epochs in the hand of God, and time itself has shifted to reveal the coming Day of the Lord. John was dressed in camel’s hair clothing with a leather belt, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He looks like the old age, but he points to the new. He baptizes with the water of the ancient Jordan River, and promises that the one coming after him will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Everything is about to change. The old is passing away; the new presses in to take its place. The long night of darkness is coming to an end, and John cries out like a rooster, announcing the arrival of the new dawn to a sleeping world.

But who was John the Baptist? Much of what we know about him comes from the New Testament, but there are some sources outside the Bible that mention him. One of those sources is the book Antiquities of the Jews, which was written around A.D. 94, by Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian. Josephus says of John, “He was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice toward their fellows and piety toward God, and so doing to join in baptism.”

The Gospel of Matthew paints a very specific portrait of John, and he is depicted in three ways. First, he embodies Old Testament prophecy. He doesn’t speak as an isolated preacher, but as the voice of the great Old Testament prophetic tradition. The description of his clothing and food also places John firmly in the prophetic tradition. Anyone who looked at the guy would have been thinking of Elijah, maybe even thinking that Elijah had returned from the past. He is the symbol that the people were looking for which told them that the deepest hopes of the Jewish people were about to come true. It would be like Abraham Lincoln suddenly reappearing to speak before Congress and tell them to get their act together. Or like Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig suddenly showing up in uniform again to lead Baseball into to a new golden age. John the Baptist is more than a countryside preacher, he’s the heart and soul of the Old Testament prophetic faith.

Second, John the Baptist is a preacher of repentance. His basic message is given in a single sentence, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The nearness of this kingdom is connected with Jesus. But how can John say that the promised kingdom of heaven, full of mercy and peace has come near in human history? This is a kingdom where everything that opposes God and God’s good purposes for humanity and creation are destroyed, and all that expresses God’s purposes are lifted up.

It’s been a long time since John preached. There are still wars, there is still evil and oppression and hatred, and all the things that have always stood in opposition to God are still running rampant. How can we, who live centuries later, accept John’s message? The answer is that the kingdom is near, and in some ways it is here, but it is not yet come to fullness. It is in Jesus that the kingdom of heaven has come near. In Jesus, what will ultimately be true in the future for all of creation is a present reality. Jesus embodied and expressed the peace, love, and mercy that God wills for all people. The promise of the Kingdom of Heaven is still a promise of which we have been given a foretaste in Jesus Christ.

That kingdom is near, so we must repent, confess our sins, turn our lives around, and live today as citizens of this kingdom which is so near that its boundaries are pressing in against the age in which we live. But repentance is only possible when we are given a new way of perceiving what is true and real. If John had only been shouting, “repent!” he would have been wasting his breath. People only turn away from one way of life to another when they turn toward something deeper and truer. The reason for repenting, the deeper and truer reality, is the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Third, John is someone who points to Jesus. John’s mission was not only to announce the arrival of the kingdom, but to point to the one who brought it. John baptizes with water and makes it clear that his baptism is only a foretaste and a preparation for the baptism of Jesus who will “baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” But what does this mean? John is telling us that God will bring in justice and set everything right. For the moment, the greedy and the cruel and the indifferent and the powerful seem to have history in their grasp. They call the shots; they decide how human history will go. But this is a temporary illusion. The final judgment is God’s gracious and unchallengeable “NO!” to the petty schemes of human evil and oppression, and God’s “YES!” to all that is good. Tyrants and those who prey upon others may appear strong today, but no one and no thing that opposes God’s righteousness will be allowed to stand forever; all that stands against the Kingdom of Heaven will be “burned with unquenchable fire.”

Christians already begin to experience the freedom and confidence of those who belong to the kingdom of heaven. We can live in a world full of people who are stepping on the heads of others in order to grasp their fingers around a little more cash and know that true treasure lies elsewhere.

At a conference I went to in Florida back in 2010, I got to hear the true story of a woman named Rosa. She was described as a woman, a Latino grandmother living in Illinois, who had the gift of illiteracy. Her pastor, Andreas, told this story about her. Every Sunday she came to church and, when the Scripture was announced, she would open up her Bible and ask someone next to her to show her the correct page, and with that person’s help, she would carefully mark the text that Pastor Andreas was to read. Then as the Scripture was read and the sermon was preached, she was a sponge. She soaked up every word. Then on Monday morning, she would get on the bus to go to work, and she would sit next to someone she thought might speak Spanish. Then this little grandmother would pull out her Bible, open it to the place she had very carefully marked, and say to the person next to her, “I cannot read. Could you please read this to me?” How many people out there do you think would say “No” to a little grandmother who can’t read? Probably not very many. When this unsuspecting person finished reading the Scripture to her, she would say, “Hmm. That’s very interesting. What do you think it means?” And then off they would go. Rosa didn’t just do this on Mondays. She did this on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday as well. She used something as simple as her bus trip to and from work to be a witness for this kingdom of heaven that is so near.

Christians are able to discern that an anonymous life teaching children is of more value, in the kingdom sense, than being famous enough to appear on the front of a magazine. We realize that serving others will stand eternally, long after the satisfaction of pulling in a six-figure salary has been burned away. Christians can even stand graveside and look into the terrible face of the last enemy, the final foe, and affirm, “If we have died with Christ, we shall surely be raised with him.”

But for many of us there is a disconnect here. I think part of our difficulty is that we tend to compartmentalize things, we have difficulty recognizing that there is no secular life for Christians, there is only Kingdom life. We think of our jobs as secular, and when we serve God we do it at church or we go on a mission trip. And it’s for this reason that I told you about Rosa. Rosa recognized that every moment in her life was an opportunity to serve God and live life in the kingdom of heaven: even her bus trips.

Do you see your work, your career, as something that you have to do in the secular world to make a living, or do you see it for what I believe it really is: a calling and an opportunity? Whether you’re a banker, a teacher, a healthcare worker, a mechanic, a civil service officer, a farmer, a waitress, or if you polish shoes for a living, the work we all do in our every day is holy to God. It’s an opportunity to show the world how Christians can live life in the Kingdom in our every day. It’s how we bear fruit.

Christian people can show the marks of the kingdom, which include love, peace, mercy, humility, and restoration, in our daily work. The kingdom of heaven is near. John speaks of judgment when he says things like, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree, therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (NRSV). A lot of people read this and they start to get a little motivated because they want to avoid hell, they only see the negative side of the story, and they want to avoid being wood chopped for the fire.

But I read this and I see something more. I see an opportunity. I see that even a person like me can bear fruit. I’m even expected to bear fruit. I can be a force for the kingdom of heaven in my every day, and so can every Christian, simply by living out the kingdom in whatever we’re doing. That makes me get a lot motivated. I want to bear fruit. I want to be like Rosa. I want to use every opportunity God gives me—and the opportunities come just about every moment of every day—I want to use those opportunities to bear some fruit for the kingdom. I want to be a Christian because a kingdom has come near, and it’s banging on the door of the present age. Which kingdom are we going to live in? That’s what we have to decide.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!