The First Sunday after Christmas for Year B (December 28, 2014)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Isaiah gives voice to our praise — “I will not be silent!” When it comes to the blessing of God, what do you have to shout about?

Psalm 148 gives a nice baker’s dozen invitations to praise — 13 times in these 14 verses the word occurs. Notice also all the members of the “Choir of Creation” that are invited to join the song: from angels and the starry host to sea monsters and all people (young and old.) Talk about “We Are the World!”

Galatians makes a nice play on an image for today — God has sent His son (a child) into the world, so that we might be made the children of God.

From Luke‘s account, I nominate Simeon and Anna for most outstanding characters who are most often overlooked in the Christmas story. These two Spirit-led senior citizens have an awful lot of good stuff to say. Listen to them closer than you would to E. F. Hutton (if you don’t get the reference, ask someone who watched TV during the late 1970’s and early 80’s! Or, catch a vintage repeat here.)

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Believe it or not, 2014 is almost over.  New Year’s Eve, and its attendant parties, is Wednesday night.  While the new Football Playoff System has taken some of the finality of the games away, New Year’s Day will be still be a big day for College Football Bowl games and their attendant parades.  One of the most enduring symbols of the New Year is Old Father Time, with a long beard and dressed in a robe, walking away over the hill while the Baby New Year, wearing nothing but a sash with the year emblazoned on it, bursts onto the scene.   I thought of that image as I read about the old man Simeon taking the little baby Jesus into his arms.

Now the secular image often portrays the old year as stooped, weary, worn out, almost disgusted looking, ready to be shed of the whole thing.  Looking at the New Year with a combination of envy and pity, as if to say, “Yeah, I used to be full of pep, energy and enthusiasm too.  But you’ll learn, my boy, you’ll learn.  They’ll wear you out too.”

There is none of that in our Gospel Lesson, not from Simeon, nor from the prophet Anna, she of great age.  Both of these elders recognize in Jesus the dawning of a new age, the coming of a new blessing for God’s people; not only for Israel, but also for everyone.  Echoing the prophet Isaiah, Simeon sees in Jesus the promised salvation “which you (God) have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  Anna sees in the child as “the redemption of Jerusalem,” and both praise God and spreads the word.  Instead of looking at the baby and the changes he is bringing into the world with both jealous envy and cynical pity; both Simeon and Anna see in Jesus a new thing God is doing and they praise God for it and spread the word.

Most of us have seen more than a few Christmases come and go.  We have listened throughout many Advents to the promises of a Messiah, a Savior who is coming.  We have heard, year after year, that John the Baptist is the one preparing the way of the Lord.  We have come faithfully to Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion, singing joyfully and lustily, hymns and carols full of words about the Son of God coming to bring hope, and joy, and peace.  And we believe it, we really do.

But here, on the back side of Christmas Day, after all the parties and the presents and the family dinners; as people begin to go back home and go about their regular business – just as Mary and Joseph had to leave the stable at Bethlehem and go to the temple to tend to the requirements of the law and then hit the road for Nazareth because, after all, Joseph has a business to run and they have a son to raise; we find ourselves staring at bills and empty boxes and a world filled with the same old problems of race and politics and poverty and violence as before Christ came and we have to wonder – did Christmas actually change anything?

If we’re not careful we can become more Old Father Time, looking upon the gospel of Jesus Christ with a combination of envy and cynical pity, than spiritual descendants of Simeon and Anna.  We can begin to think, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s all very nice – you can try that peace and love stuff, but in the end, it doesn’t work. You’ll learn, my boy, you’ll learn.”

Part of our problem is that we have failed to pay enough attention to the hard-nosed practicality of the Bible itself.  We have somewhat cleaned up the Christmas story itself, leaving out the hard parts in the interest of having a pleasant and joyful Christmas.  In this, we have failed to pay enough attention to the harsh and mean world into which Christ came.  We have failed to talk enough about the “Slaughter of the Innocents” that happened in Bethlehem after Jesus birth.  We have too often failed to draw the straight line from this bouncing baby boy’s birth and his cruel yet redemptive death just over thirty years later.  It’s all there in the Bible, including in this text.  Simeon tells Mary the hard truth that, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your side too.” (vs.34-35)

On this first Sunday after Christmas, our call is to embrace the Christ Child with the clear-eyed enthusiasm modeled for us by Simeon and Anna.  They are both joyful and realistic.  They are joyful that God has acted.  They are realistic about what God’s action means.  What begins in the Christ Child will take an eternity to accomplish.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, the arc of history is long and it bends toward justice.  We are called to follow Jesus, to grow and become strong and wise in battling the injustices of our world.  Our hearts will be pierced with compassion and our souls filled with love; for once we have seen God’s salvation, we have no option but to praise God and join the parade.

Amen and amen.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent for Year B (December 21, 2014)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Samuel’s message is a reminder that, while the tangible expressions of God’s presence with us — things like Temples and Churches, candles and wreaths — are nice and helpful, they are NOT the actual presence of God with us. We must never confuse the building with the blessing, as it were; or, as Wes Avram so aptly put it writing in Christian Century recently, “…God’s presence is not assured in the building, but in the promise.” (Click here for the link.)

Psalm 89 stands as a steadfast reminder that — boon or bust, scarcity or plenty —  it is the love of the Lord that remains in our lives and sustains us, somehow.

The benediction from the book of Romans is simply not surpassed for lofty language praising God for God’s work of salvation — from beginning to end, from eternity past to eternity yet-to-come. It’s all part of “the Christmas story!”

Luke‘s telling of the encounter between Mary and the angel Gabriel illustrates for us that God always has — and always will, I suppose — use quite ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Just a girl — just a guy — just a handful of shepherds — just the Savior of the world!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I saw this in a magazine a few years ago. Margaret was having a tough Christmas season. Her husband was out of town on business for most of December. Her kids were sick half the time, work was driving her crazy with year-end deadlines. Nothing was going right. About a week before Christmas she did some shopping at the mall during her lunch owner. She darted into a card store and bought a box of 50 Christmas Cards, already on sale because it was so late. That night she printed some labels using the computer and put the kids to work. One signed the cards with the family’s last name, a second stuffed the cards into the envelope, a third put on the address lapels and the youngest stuck on the stamps, mostly upside down or sideways; but it got done, just in time.

The day after Christmas, Margaret was cleaning up and found a stray card between the couch cushions. She realized she had been so busy she never even read the card.  She sat down on the couch and then cried after she read: “We’re sending this card just to say, a little gift is on its way.”

A little gift is on its way. That is the message of the Fourth Sunday of Advent. It’s the message Elizabeth and Zechariah got about John. It’s the message Joseph and Mary got about Jesus.

And it’s the message we are getting about the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior. In the midst of our running around and gift-buying and card-sending and house-decorating; we need to pause and remember why we’re doing all this. We’re doing it because God has sent us a message that a little gift is on the way, a little bundle of joy is coming, a Word of Hope and Peace is just around the corner.

It is a gift and a word that the world needs now as much as ever. A glance at the daily paper, or 30 minutes of watching the news is enough to remind us that the world is all too often a dark, scary and lonely place run by the proud, the rich and the powerful.

And we, like Mary, have been called to carry the gift that is Christ into the midst of that hurting world. The lowly still need lifting up. The hungry still need to be fed. The poor still need a chance to live. The world still hungers in its heart for true goodness to reign supreme.

Caroline was active in her church. A few years ago she was asked her to do something more, something extra. The churches in the area were opening a Homeless shelter and they needed a director – would she help? Although she was already quite busy Caroline agreed. She went into it with great enthusiasm and high commitment; she wanted to help, she wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.

By Christmas Eve, she was quite tired of the whole thing. She had come to see her job at the shelter as a thankless chore. When she started, she thought: Give these people a little love and they’ll turn around and soon become useful and productive citizens. But her high hopes and great expectations were soon dashed. “These people will never change,” she thought, “they’re all the same ; take, take, take and never give anything back.

It was in this mood that she met a young man named Christopher. She had gotten everyone bedded down for the night on Christmas Eve, which was a lot like every other night, except that they had turkey for dinner instead of soup; and everyone received a Christmas package of soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes from the Ladies Auxiliary of Greater Hope Baptist Church.

Caroline turned out the lights and retreated to the kitchen for a cup of coffee when Christopher came in, wanting to talk. She agreed, nodding her head, but not really interested. He told her the usual story – the kind of story you hear a hundred times a year if you work with the homeless. His father drank and beat him, his mother slept around. He dropped out of school at 14 and did a lot of drugs, married at 19 to a woman 36 who was already pregnant. She left him and the baby a little while later, so he gave the baby up for adoption and hit the road.

By this time Caroline was looking at her watch, ready to send the young man back to bed, when suddenly Christopher said, “God has really blessed me.” Caroline jerked her head up. “How can he say that?” She thought. “After all he’s gone through, how can he say that?” “Yes,” Christopher said, “God has really blessed me. He let me see the darkness, so I’d recognize the light.”

Christopher – the name means “one who bears Christ.” That night, Christopher lived up to his name. He brought the light of Christ to a tired and bitter woman. A woman who learned one more time that God specializes in surprise packages, in coming to us in unlikely places, in speaking to us through unlikely voices.

As Caroline thought about Christopher’s words about light and darkness, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small, worn Bible and from it he took a dried and pressed Monarch butterfly with radiant colors. “Here,” he said, “Merry Christmas. This is for you. Put it in your Bible and remember that on one cold Christmas Eve you took the time to let your light shine on some tired and lonely people.”

The mystery and miracle that is Christmas is just around the corner. Our little gift is on its way. We are invited to be like Mary and receive the gift of Christ with glad and joyful hearts. And we are invited to be like both Mary and Christopher in sharing the gift of Christ with the world.

Amen and Amen.

Special Feature: Advent in a Time of Mourning

“Advent in a Time of Mourning”

Grey hills fade into overcast skies,

night falls before we are ready,

prompting us to light up our world,

with brightly colored luminations.

It’s a good time to think upon

the coming of divine light

into profane darkness;

it is not a good time to ponder

the loss of one who carried that light

into your own life.

Advent is a time of waiting,

of being alert to the signs and signals

that God loves us

and is in our midst.

It is hard to wait, to be patient, to be alert, to see God

when one is filled with a sadness

that cuts to the bone

and reaches out to the horizon.

Advent in a time of mourning is,

like all the things in life that really matter,

both bitter and sweet.

To taste the emptiness that comes

when the one who brought you into this world goes out

is bitter.

Yet, to recollect her laugh, to relish her humor,

to recall her toughness and her love,

is sweet.

Advent in a time of mourning,

is waiting tinged with both sadness and hope;

sad for what is lost –

and hope for what is to come.

Delmer Chilton, 12/04/2014

The Third Sunday of Advent for Year B (December 14, 2014)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Isaiah‘s message is about the reversal of fortunes for those who have been beaten down by life (which happens a lot, right?) Oppressed, captive, brokenhearted, mourners — that pretty much covers lots of the folks that will sit in our pews on any given Sunday, not to mention all those within a stone’s throw of our front doors! God’s work takes time and patience on our part — not to mention a bit of effort. Notice that it is the brokenhearted, et al, who actually do the work of rebuilding once God has lifted them up. And them is us.

Psalm 126 echoes the same idea — God restores the earth every season (winter, spring, summer, or fall.) Likewise, God restores our hope, our fortunes, our faith.

The “Magnificat” portion of Luke’s gospel serves as an alternate psalm reading for this day. I refer you to the opening portion of today’s podcast, Lectionary Lab Live, for some explanation of this.

Thessalonians gives us some practical ways to live out the Advent concept of “active waiting.” Pretty much any one of us can find something on this list that we can be about.

John‘s gospel — which gives us another portion of the story of John the Baptist (no relation) — reminds us of the importance of the church’s responsibility to point toward Christ. John drew lots of attention to his exciting ministry. Any pastor would be proud of the “numbers” John put up in gathering crowds. Yet, he clearly said, “It’s not about me! You need to pay attention to the one who is coming after me. He’s the man!”

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

The world’s celebration of the Nativity of Christ is surrounded by song. No secular artist puts out a Thanksgiving CD or an Easter Album, but almost everybody tries to “cash in” on Christmas, either with new songs or old favorites. Christmas songs fill the Malls and Stores and Radio playlists from early November until Dec. 25. And the question arises: What is it about Christmas that causes the heart to sing?

It was like that from the beginning. In our reading from Luke’s Gospel: Mary visits Elizabeth and breaks out in song – the Magnificat, elsewhere in Luke Zechariah celebrates the birth of his son John (to be called the Baptist) with a song that points to the birth of another child, the Coming One.  The angels sing to the shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth and at the dedication of the child old Simeon sees the baby and bursts into praise.

Again, what is it about Christmas that causes us to sing?

We have lots of good Easter hymns, but the non-church world is much more likely to know “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” than “Thine Is the Glory.” But not so with Christmas Carols. Almost everybody can sing at least one verse of “Away In a Manger” or “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and can recognize the tune of a dozen more. Is it just the vast exposure on Radio and TV, or is there something about the Birth of the Christ Child that makes us want to sing?

A couple of things occur to me.

First: the only really appropriate response to mystery is adoration, and what better way to adore than to sing. The story that we anticipate in Advent is a “something more” mystery. Underneath all the theological baggage and argumentation there is this for all of us: life can be very ordinary and difficult and painful and short and depressing. The birth of a child as the Son of God, a message from beyond that God does love us after all, that this world is not “all there is,” that peace and love and joy are real and are really important and are really possible is a message we all need to hear.

So even those who have their doubts about God, and Jesus and the Church, often will themselves to believe in the “something more” that Christmas represents to them: the potential for good in a cold and lonely world. And that Mysterious Possibility is something to sing about.

Second; for those of us who receive the story as a true story, a story about how the God of the universe let go of all the trappings and power of Heaven to come and be born in a stable, taking on as the Eucharistic prayer says, “our nature and our lot,” that too is a mystery beyond words. We cannot comprehend a love that big and that deep and that complete, and when ordinary words fail us, we, like Mary and Zechariah and Simeon and the angels; burst into song, for we have no other choice.

Amen and amen.

The Second Sunday of Advent for Year B (December 7, 2014)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Isaiah‘s words — which contrast quite starkly with the apocalyptic tone of last week’s gospel reading — are all about comfort and atonement. The glory of the Lord that is about to be revealed, Isaiah says, will be about reward and recompense. That’s all good, right? Well, if you consider what it takes to level a mountain (“made low”) or to fill up a valley (“lifted up”) — I don’t know. Could be a little less gentle than we might imagine. Whatever else the result of this waiting season of Advent may be, when it is all said and done, we’ll be able to say, “Here is your God!” (v.9)

For the writer of Psalm 85, forgiveness and sin go hand-in-hand. When you have a problem with one (sin) you really need the other (forgiveness.) John the Baptizer will have a little something to say about that in today’s gospel text, as well. One of the images of “sin” is as an obstacle in the path to completing a good and desirable action. Sin blocks us from doing God’s will, from developing meaningful relationships, from loving neighbors as ourselves, and all such as that. Forgiveness is key in removing that sin-obstacle (kind of like lowering a mountain?) With sin removed, righteousness and peace are free to kiss. Faithfulness can spring up all around us; steadfast love strolls about, finding its purpose in lives made whole.

Peter‘s text reminds us of the double nature of Advent; we are glancing backward at the events of Bethlehem’s manger as we await the coming of the Christ Child, but also are keeping an eye on the future and the promised return of that same Child, now turned King of kings. “God’s timing” is oft-discussed in church circles — it being a curious and apparently unknowable sort of thing. Peter says, “Don’t get too worked up about that; God moves on such a different time scale from us, you’d never grasp it in a million years.” What matters is what God is up to: that all may come to repentance, however long that may take. (See Dr. Chilton’s sermon below for more about that totally cool word.)

Mark starts at the very best place for his gospel: the beginning. Immediately, we realize that what he will tell us, and what we will read, and even all that we will experience in this life of faith in following Christ — it’s all only the beginning. Or, since John’s message is about repentance, you might say that it’s only the beginning — again. Fresh starts, change of minds and hearts, reversing field and making better choices — all of that and more is involved in this gospel message. No wonder it takes us an eternity to get it!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

A few years ago a pastor friend told me of meeting God on the highway. He said that he and his wife were traveling North on Interstate 85 when a semi began to top the crest of the hill ahead of them heading South. Above the cab, across the front of the trailer were emblazoned the letters G – O – D.

My friend’s mind began to whirl with silly questions and ideas: What kind of music does God allow the truckers to play in the cab. Is it all Contemporary Christian, or can you pop in a little Rap or Country? Would God ever break the speed limit? And if God did speed, would the State Trooper give God a ticket? As the truck drew closer and Warren that the side of the trailer read Guaranteed Overnight Delivery, one final question flashed through Warren’s mind:  If God is going south, what am I doing going north?

John the Baptist came out of the desert and the wilderness, right down the middle of life’s highway as loud and as noticeable as a semi. He was a clear and unmistakable sign that God was headed south and everybody else was going north, headed the wrong way.

The key word in John’s preaching was repentance. In Greek the word is metanoia. It means literally to “turn, to change, to reverse oneself.” In the Greek language, it is not a particularly religious word. It is rather an ordinary, everyday usable word for turning around and going the other way.

Bible Scholar Alan Richardson says, “In its New Testament usage it implies much more than a mere “change of mind;” it involves a whole reorientation of the personality.”  If God is going south and we are going north; what should we do?

Well, maybe when we see God going in the other direction, we could be deeply sorry that we are going the wrong way. We might hit ourselves on the forehead, or beat our chest, and say something like:  “God be merciful to me, a miserable driver with a poor sense of direction. I know I’m going the wrong way, but – – -I don’t know anything I can do about it. After all, I’m already headed in this direction, and I’m making good time, and I’m getting good gas mileage, and it would be very difficult for me to change and go the other way, and besides, I know you’re a God of grace and love and you’ll forgive me for going the wrong way.”

Put in those terms, it sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it? But all too often, that’s how we think about repentance; being sorry for going the wrong way in life, asking God to forgive us, but not doing anything about it, not changing direction.

Another popular response when finding oneself going the wrong way is to blame others for our misdirection. You could look at someone else in the car and say, “you told me to go this way,” or “going this way was your idea,” or, “it’s not my fault, everybody else was going this way, how was I to know?’ (This option is an old favorite, dating back to Adam and Eve, “You ate the apple,” “You gave it to me.”) Or, you could blame the map or google or the guy at the gas station.

A modern response is to blame God for going the wrong way. We could spot God in the southbound lane and look over at our passenger and say, “Would you look at that? God’s lost, God’s going the wrong way, God’s out of touch with the modern world’s sense of direction.”

People have always been good at explaining failure and avoiding change. We fall back on a variety of excuses and reasons, all designed to protect things as they are. We avoid change, especially when the change God calls for will be painful for us personally. We are usually quite willing to ask others to change and equally unwilling to make changes in ourselves.

.Once during the Civil War Abraham Lincoln had a conversation with a minister who was a fervent abolitionist and war supporter. He said “Mr. Lincoln, don’t you believe that God is on our side?” Lincoln replied, “I certainly hope so Sir. But a more important question would seem to be: Are we on God’s side?”

That is still a very important question: Are we on God’s side? If God is going south, why are we going north? If the Kingdom of God is at hand, what must we do to be ready? God is traveling south on the side of Peace and Justice and the Poor. It is not for us to debate as to whether or not that is the side God is on, or whether or not God should be on that side.

God is barreling down the highway in that direction and the only question for us is “Are YOU ready to follow? Are you ready to repent, to change direction and to follow God wherever God leads?

Amen and amen.

The First Sunday of Advent for Year B (November 30, 2014)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Isaiah‘s vivid text — it’s not actually all that comforting, as we sometimes expect on the first Sunday of Advent — turns on three moments, evinced by three expressions: O, But, and Yet. “O” opens the first section in which we are confronted by our feeling of distance, or separation, from God; in effect, the people of God admit that “it’s been a while” since they felt the presence of God in the ways they heard about in the past. “But” moves into the second part of the text, in v. 5, in which they admit that it is their own sin that has put this distance between them and God. Finally, it is the “Yet” of v. 8 that finishes the text in hope for God’s renewal. Though the prospect of being tossed about like clay in the hands of a potter is not really all that comforting (or comfortable), either, it does remind us that there is not really anything that God can’t “fix” or restore. Amen to that!

Psalm 80 has two repeated refrains that echo throughout the season: “Stir up your might…” (v. 2) is part of the prayers that will be offered in many congregations; “Let your face shine, that we may be saved…” is repeated throughout the text, offering an opportunity for personal and corporate response to God. “God, if we have any hope here, it will come from the light of your face — so, shine, please!”

The Corinthians are reminded that, whatever gifts they have received from God, the gifts have been given for a purpose. What you have is what God knows you will need — and it will be enough to fulfill the ministry God has for you. Don’t worry about what you lack; use what you have!

The gospel from Mark is, like Isaiah, somewhat jarring when read in public worship; it seems strange and a bit judgmental. Scary, even! But on deeper reflection, its purpose is quite the opposite — not to scare or alarm, but to comfort and strengthen. The world around us changes quickly (“passes away”) — it’s not the same as it used to be (insert here every harangue you have heard about “the good old days!”) But, we are reminded that Christ’s word to us never changes — Jesus, while seemingly absent for a very long time now, is actually still with us in the hearts and lives of his people. The word is still alive and doing its work in us (of course, I know that Jesus is the Living Word and should probably be referred to as He, but you get my drift.)

Be Jesus’ people; be Jesus’ presence in the world. I have always loved the concept that underlies “praying the hours” around the 24 time zones of our planet. Literally, as we join with the members of Christ’s body, the Church around the world, somebody is always awake and praying. I think that’s what we’re after here!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

One time when we were in college, my then girlfriend/now wife and I went from Chapel Hill, NC over to downtown Durham to the art-house movie theatre to see some European movie with subtitles.  We got lost several times and then had trouble finding parking and finally we rushed in and got a seat.

By the time we settled in, the movie had already started.  It was strange – the actors were really terrible and the dialog – such as it was – was in English, not Italian. We looked at each other with puzzled faces and then, almost at exactly the same moment, it dawned on us that we were in the wrong place and how really wrong that place was.  We got up and got out quickly and went for pizza instead.

Sometimes the First Sunday in Advent can have a similarly jarring effect on folks.  We have just finished the family warmth of Thanksgiving dinner and parades and football.  In many churches children are already practicing the Christmas pageant and the choir is working on a cantata and calendars are full of Open Houses and Christmas parties and such.  At home we’re getting decorations out and putting up the tree and getting the cards signed and sent out, etc.

And then we come into worship and the Lector gets up and the first words we hear during this warm and cozy season are:  “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” and more about things like mountains quaking and water boiling.  We think, “Well, that’s a prophet, that’s the ‘Old Testament.’  What do you expect?  Wait for the Gospel.”  But the Gospel lesson is worse; “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Are we in the right place?  It’s less than month before Christmas; what is this all about?”

Advent is designed to remind us of why Christ came.  The lessons and hymns during Advent were carefully created to help avoid rushing through December to Christmas Day without taking the time to ponder why we needed God to intervene in our lives and what we must do to be ready.

The text from Isaiah, which begins with those frightful words, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” was written in the midst of Israel’s exile in Babylon and the early days of their return to the devastated and destroyed promised land.  As they look at the destruction around them, the Children of Israel are profoundly aware that they brought this on themselves.  Their behavior, as individuals and as a nation, led to their destruction.  And they are sorry.  They remember the good things God did for them in the past, they remember how God led them and provided for the.  As verse 4 says, “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him,”

They remember the bad they have done which has led to their current predicament and they remember the good that God did for them in the past.  And they repent.  They are deeply sorrowful for what they have done – not sorrow as a feeling, as a sentiment, as an emotion – but sorrow as an action, sorrow as a positive move in a new direction, sorrow as repentance., sorrow as the act of turning from going their own way and turning to go in the way of God.

And in verse 8, the prophet asks God to not only to forgive the people, but also to restore, renew, remake them.  “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Advent is a time when we look at ourselves and at our world and recognize that we need God.  It is also a time for deep and serious reflection upon the way in which we live our lives, the ways in which our actions are either supportive of God’s will and way in the world, or are hindrances to it.  It is a time for repentance in the sense of reorientation, of redirecting our lives to be more in line with the way God would have us go.

Advent is a time to wait for God to come.  But this is not a hopeless and helpless waiting, alternating wishful-ness with moments of despair.  No, Advent waiting is, in the words of Jesus in the Gospel lesson, a matter of being “alert,” and “awake,” watching not the sky, but the world, paying attention to the times and places where opportunities for mission and ministry to present themselves.

Advent is a time to open ourselves up to the possibility that the God of all our tomorrows has a new and exciting future in store for us.  Rather than looking forward with fear, let us look to the future with faith and hope, spending our days serving “the least of these,” always on the lookout for more needs to fill and more people to love.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Reign of Christ (Christ the King)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

In Ezekiel, it is the Lord GOD who takes personal responsibility for shepherding the sheep (“I myself….”) We may note that this is because the earthly shepherds of Israel, aka the kings, haven’t really done the job God wanted them to do. IMHO (in my humble opinion) — this does not lessen the impact of the idea that God, sooner or later, takes on the job of becoming the Savior of the world. It is, after all, God’s world — all of it — in God’s role as Creator. Without arguing over the origin of evil, entry of sin into the world, etc., what we learn about God from this passage is that God assumes full responsibility for the “lostness” of God’s sheep. “I will save my flock….” Enough said.

Psalm 95 supports this reading of Ezekiel; we see God’s creative power detailed and God’s role as our Maker affirmed. That God is King is significant on this day, as well.

If you are going to ascribe a title to the Lord Jesus on this day, you could do worse than Paul’s phraseology in Ephesians. The man certainly knew how to stack up some power words: “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” As if that is not enough to describe this Christ, the King, we get this tidy summary: “God has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things….” That’ll do!

Matthew‘s gospel closes out the liturgical year with a description of the kind of life that is “fit for a king.” Feeding the hungry, slaking the thirst of those with nothing to drink, welcoming those without a voice and a place in the world, clothing those with nothing to wear. Add to that tending the sick and visiting the imprisoned (read, “undesirables.”) Jesus’ people do these things. Again, that is simply reason enough to consider them, don’t you think?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I saw a copy of the most recent People magazine.  There on page 11 was what I can only assume is a regular feature:  “Royals Round the World.”  The big picture was of the future king, Prince Charles, in a beige suit, twirling a handkerchief over his head while participating in a traditional dance on a state visit to Mexico. There were smaller pictures of Prince Harry in fatigues, Prince William and Princess Kate shaking hands with firemen or some such, and then a fashion shot of Kate, the caption of which mentions her invisible to the male eye “baby bump.”  Is she pregnant?  Somehow I missed that. Maybe because it’s none of my business.

Little wonder that it is so difficult for us to get a handle on the meaning of “Christ the King” when these people are almost the only modern reference point we have to go on.  (Okay, there is Burger King, and Elvis the King of Rock and Roll, and LeBron “King” James the basketball star, but those don’t really work either – believe me, I’ve tried.)

The Hebrew concept of “kingship”, at least in its purest and most prophetic form, had little to do with either the pomp, circumstance, and chivalry we associate with the great houses of Europe, or the images we’ve picked up from fairy tales, or the celebrity foolishness of the Windsors.  Biblical kingship had to do with justice and righteousness and a compassionate God.

This is shown to us by the fact that Israel’s favorite image for the king was as a shepherd.  Other nations and peoples saw their kings as gods or as fierce creatures, as powerful and destructive people bent on conquest and domination. While a shepherd could be fierce and war-like when protecting the flock from predators, it was a much more domestic and nurturing image.  A shepherd’s job was to protect the sheep from harm and to provide for their growth and happiness.  A shepherd had to think of his or her own needs last and the needs of the herd first.  This is the image Israel chose for their king.

Ezekiel shows us a God who is angry that the Hebrew kings have not been good shepherds.  In the first part of our text, YHWH boldly says – “Since I can’t trust the shepherds, I’ll do it myself.”  In this section we hear from the very mouth of God what a good king, a good shepherd provides, “I will make them lie down.  I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and strong I will destroy.  I will feed them with justice.” (3:15-16)  Then there is a shift and God promises a new king, an earthly king, a king, a shepherd, who will do all these things in God’s name and on God’s behalf; “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them.” (34:23) This is the promise that a descendant of David will come to take care of God’s kingdom.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus tells a story, not a parable, really, but a story,  really a vision of what will happen when the Son of Man, the descendant of David, comes “in his glory.”  This set-up ties into ideas that were then popular about a final judgment, and right being good, and left being bad, etc. etc.  Matthew turns this vision into both an opportunity for ethical teaching and a call to the young Christian community to take on its role as shepherds for all God’s people.

The vision is of all people of all time being gathered before the “judgment seat.”  The king will separate the people into the sheep and the goats; sheep on the right, goats on the left. Then comes the explanation of the division.

It is noteworthy that the situations mentioned aren’t extraordinary and none of them are at all religious.  One neither has to believe in God, nor believe anything in particular about God in order to pass muster.  There is absolutely no mention of either theology or liturgy in this list.  These are realities all of us confront on a regular basis.  Hunger and thirst and homelessness and nakedness and sickness and imprisonment.  We are not asked to solve these problems.  We are invited to respond to the human need right in front of us.  Feed people, give them water, give them shelter, give them clothing, provide decent healthcare, visit and console them in prison.

The element of surprise is the key to this story. The sheep on the right were surprised to learn that they had done something for the king, something the king would reward.  They were surprised to learn that they were being singled out for being good – they had thought they were simply being human and humane.  The goats on the left were surprised to learn that they had failed to do something for the king, “Why, had I seen the king in such conditions, of course I would have taken care of it.  But I didn’t see the king, I just saw – – -those people.”

The point here is both ordinary and mystical.  The ordinary is the argument that atheists make all the time, and I agree with them.  They say, “You don’t have to believe in God to be moral.  You can be good without looking to gain a reward or avoid a punishment.” And that is exactly correct, and is truly Jesus’ point here.  Reward and punishment as a motivation for goodness is a dead-end street; we end up focused on ourselves and wondering if we’re being good enough, and if we’ve done enough, etc.  Jesus says, “Forget yourself and focus on doing what you can for the other, it’s that simple.”

And here’s the religious, mystical part.  We are called and empowered to do these things for others because we are the church, and Ephesians reminds us that as the Church, we are the body of Christ. We are the active agency and activity of God in the world, we are the ones who are fulfilling the role of “king/shepherd,” tending to God’s beloved children, who are, strangely enough, also the Christ.  The hungry, the thirsty, the homeless stranger, the naked ones, the sick and suffering, those in prison, all of them are Christ, and our call is to respond to their need with active love and simple compassion.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (November 16, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Judges 4:1-7
Well, first of all, let’s hear it for Deborah; it is nice to recover at least one remembrance of a woman in a place of authority in Israel. (Sorry for those who may still be caught in the “God can’t call a woman” trap…guess that’s exactly what God did here. But, I digress!)

Sisera, the villain of the story, is going to meet a painful end at the hand of another strong woman, Jael (see v. 21 in this same chapter.) But, the point of the story — as always — is that God is in control and will respond to the cries of God’s people.

Sure, there’s a little retributive justice that they have to go through first. But, God works through the circumstances of our lives to bring about God’s own good purposes, in God’s own good time. Thank God for the Deborahs and Jaels and multitudinous others who have listened and obeyed when God called.

Psalm 123
It may be a bit of stretch for most of us to truly understand what it means for a servant to look to a master for the OK to live, work and breathe. A “maid” depending on her “mistress” for sustenance and support doesn’t ring that true with most of us, either, I would suspect.

Regardless, we do look to God for relief in our distress…and for mercy when what we find in our world is contempt.

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Do we serve a “do-nothing” God? That’s the question that the prophet raises here. There are those that believe neither that God will do good, nor that God will do harm. The just don’t believe much about God at all!

I don’t know that the way to their conversion will be through blood-pouring and dung-flinging…but “the day of the Lord” is coming, nonetheless. What do we have to say about that, preachers?

Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12
I like the thought of God’s existence being “from everlasting to everlasting.” God lives in all of the time between the boundaries of eternity…and exists outside those boundaries, as well. There is simply nowhere — no place, no space, no time — that God is not.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Back in the way cool 1970’s, there was lots of interest in the ending of the world and the image of “the thief in the night” received a good bit of airplay in the popular culture. Hal Lindsey made a mint from the publication of The Late, Great Planet Earth (28,000,000 copies sold and counting!)

I remember lying awake at night, pretty much scared to go to sleep, wondering if I might snooze through the Second Coming and miss the excitement. (It wasn’t until a few years later that we learned from Tim LaHaye about being “Left Behind.”)

Notice that Paul tells the Thessalonians, “but you are not in darkness;…that day will not surprise you.” (v.4) The purpose of this passage is encouragement, not warning (though I’m brushing up on my apocalyptic imagery, just in case!)

Matthew 25:14-30Like so many of the parables we have been reading during this stretch from Matthew’s gospel, this one has a bit of a tough pill for us to swallow at the end. We’re not fond of weeping and gnashing of teeth, when it comes right down to it.

As my colleague, Dr. Chilton is wont to say, “Jesus calls us to leave our fear behind and give ourselves over totally to trust and faith in God.” I believe that is, indeed, the message of the parable. Don’t worry that you might mess it up; go ahead and live life with the “talents” God has given you.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When I was a child, we have week-long revivals at Slate Mountain Missionary Baptist Church. The revival preacher generally centered on issues of Jesus coming again in judgment, While he spent a lot of time on the lake of fire, most of his effort was put into the rapture and how the Christians would be taken up to heaven and the evil people left behind.

When I was 9 or 10, I was mighty shy and mighty scared of going to hell. If there was any way to get saved and accept Christ and avoid Hellfire other than going down to the front of the church during the invitation, I would have done it. But there wasn’t and I was too shy to go down there in front of all those people. So I prayed each night in my bed for forgiveness and please, please Jesus, don’t leave me behind.

One morning during the fall revival I awoke at dawn to a completely empty house. My parents and my four siblings weren’t there. Even the dog was nowhere to be seen. The electricity wouldn’t work. I immediately jumped to conclusions. Oh my God! Jesus came back, and took everybody else, and left me behind. I’m going to hell.

It sounds funny now, but I assure you – it wasn’t funny then. Imagine a nine year old boy, in his underwear, down on his knees in the frost covered backyard, tears streaming down his face, pleading with Jesus to spare him. It was an awful few minutes.

Then I heard a familiar sound, “Putt, putt, putt.” Our farm tractor. Suddenly the dog burst over the hill behind the house followed by the tractor pulling a trailer load of cured tobacco, my family riding along. They had gone to get a load of cured tobacco out of the barn and transfer it to the pack house, and decided that since I had the sniffles to leave me in bed. And, the power had gone out, which happened once or twice a month, for no known reason. Instead of the Devil coming to devour me, it was just my parents coming to fuss at me for being outside in my underwear and my siblings to laugh at me for being afraid.

When I read our Gospel lesson for today, the fear and terror of that morning came back to me. As I read the harsh judgment pronounced upon the fearful servant, the one-talent wonder who was so afraid of failure that he hid his talent for fear of losing it; I shook once again with the recollection of my evil and my failures and my fearful retreats into silence.  I thought to myself – “The ‘master’ will return some day and judgment will come upon me, unexpectedly, as Paul says, ‘like a thief in the night,’ when I least expect it. What am I going to do?”

This text is a warning against complacency, against merely maintaining the status quo, against quietly holding down the fort.  As our reading from Zephaniah says, “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs,” (1:12) Even the Psalm reminds us that “We are consumed by your anger; we are afraid because of your wrath.” (90:7)

One time in Lent I preached a sermon on the crucifixion and a man came out of church and complained, “I don’t come to church to hear all that negative stuff.  I come to church to feel better.”  Looking at these texts, I know exactly how he felt.  As a person and as a preacher, I find myself wondering “Where is the good news here? Where is the grace note?  Where is the positive word of forgiveness and love that will lift me off my knees and back into my life?”

Today, it’s not in the lesson from Matthew, but the letter of Paul to Thessalonica: – “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” (5:9-10) Though Paul too has just talked about the end times and the coming Judgment, he reminds us that our salvation is not in ourselves or in anything that we do or don’t do.  Our salvation is in God’s hands, in Christ’s death and resurrection. Here we are called upon to recognize our need to respond to God’s love with love and care for others without fearing that our failure to do that perfectly will land us in eternal flames.

For in the meantime, in the time between now and the eternal then, there are no small moments, no insignificant actions.  Whether we have five talents, two talents, or one – we are invited, encouraged and expected to use all for the glory of God.

John A Broadus was the first Professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, back in 1850. He was a recognized scholar of Classics and the New Testament. He had taught at the University of Va. and was well respected in all academic circles. When the Civil War erupted, the seminary closed and Broadus served as a military chaplain. After the war, in the fall of 1865, the school reopened with one student. But Broadus soldiered on, lecturing on a regular schedule to this one student, teaching him Theology and Bible and Preaching. He carefully prepared his lectures for his one student, and in 1870 those lectures became a book called A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons.  It is still in print, it was the standard preaching textbook in many American seminaries well into the mid twentieth century.

John Broadus did not teach his one student because he was afraid of the wrath of the “master.”

No, John Broadus taught his student because that was what God had called him to do. He never considered burying his talent.  He believed God wanted him to use what he had to the best of his ability and to leave the ultimate outcome up Divine Providence and Intention. Broadus did not prepare his lectures expecting to write a book. He prepared his lectures in order to teach his one student to preach.

So it is with us.  These texts are not here to terrify us. They are here to remind us to take ourselves and our lives as God’s people in the world seriously. We each have gifts from God to use in the world.  It matters not how many we have.  It does matter greatly what we do with them.

Amen and amen.

Year A — The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (November 9, 2014)

Click here for today’s texts
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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
“Third time’s a charm!”

I’ve heard that all my life, though I’ve never thought much about the meaning (or original context) of the phrase. I suppose usually we mean it as either a token of good luck or persistence. Of course, I’ve also always heard that “the harder you work (persist), the luckier you are.”

Whatever the deepest meaning may be, Joshua makes the Israelites commit three times to follow Yahweh. I guess he didn’t want any backing up later…nobody saying, “Well, you didn’t tell us it would be this hard!”

Psalm 78:1-7
Gary McIntosh’s book, One Church: Four Generations was very helpful to me in understanding the challenges of “multi-generational ministry.” 

As we see from this psalm text, that concept has been around for a very long time! We must always be thinking of how we are doing at passing the faith along to the next generations — even “the children yet unborn.”

Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16
Wisdom is personified in Solomon’s writings — here as in Proverbs — and takes the form of a strong, authoritative woman. Interestingly, there would not be much of a cultural example of this type of character. Women were permitted very little share in the public discourse of the time, much less in teaching roles or roles of authority.

Another key that God’s wisdom is not like our human wisdom — you will most likely find it in places that you are not looking for it!

Amos 5:18-24
Verse 24 is oft-quoted from the prophet Amos; we think we like the idea of “justice and righteousness” rolling down like a river.

But, as faithful Amos reminds us, we also think that we want “the day of the LORD” to come, and that our worship must naturally be pleasing to God. Neither of those is what we seem to think it is, either!

Perhaps we ought to hold the headlong rush toward what we “think” God wants from us long enough to pause, reflect, and reconsider both our longing for God to hurry up, and the worship we offer in the name of Christ.

Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20
For those who use this text as scripture, these words continue the introduction to Wisdom given in the earlier reading. A “path of righteousness” of a different sort is laid out here.

Psalm 70
A classic juxtaposition — God’s greatness and my weakness. Hasten, indeed, O God…you are our help and deliverer!

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Paul gives the young Thessalonian church his interpretation of the “day of the LORD” — taking Amos’ themes of darkness and terror and viewing them through the lens of Christ’s coming again to unite God’s creation in himself.

We need not fear — whether alive or dead — at the ending of all things. Jesus is Lord, and God can be trusted. That’s pretty much that, whatever your personal eschatological interpretation of this passage. 

Matthew 25:1-13
“A day late and a dollar short.”

Since I began with homey colloquialisms today, let’s end with one.  I suppose you could just as well use, “Not much lead in the pencil” or “A few fries short of a Happy Meal.” All would be synonymous with “caught at midnight with no oil for the lamp.”

We are to be on the watch for the kingdom of God, always prepared to do the will of the One who has asked us to be ready.

After all, you don’t want folks to think “your cheese done slid off the cracker!”

 * Just for fun — a collection of colloquial expressions is found here on the “not too bright list” compiled by Dan Hersam

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“Why do you want the day of the LORD?” (Amos 5:18)

The county courthouse is across the street from my church.  Some people park on the street behind my church and cut through the narrow sidewalk that goes between the church and the real estate office next door, passing two feet from my desk, just outside the window.  If it is a couple or a family, I often hear them talking as they walk along.  Sometimes I hear them coming and going; this is the most interesting, for they are usually talking about the case and you can pick up what they think is going to happen.  Many are delighted, anxious to have their day in court – believing in their heart of hearts that they are going to be vindicated and those other people are “going to get what’s coming to ‘em.”  And about half the time I hear the same people walking back to their cars, complaining bitterly that the system is rigged, somebody lied, the judge is an idiot; because somehow, unbelievably, they lost.

Why do you want the day of the LORD?”  In our first lesson, Amos has clearly shown the people their failure to be the people God has called them to be.  He has condemned them for trampling the poor, and afflicting the just, and taking the bride.  He has warned them that such behavior will result in judgment.  And in our text he takes on those who presume upon the Lord, who look to “the day of the LORD” as a time when God will come and do battle and defeat Israel’s enemies.  And so it is.  The only problem is the “enemy” is not who the people think it is.

After Admiral Perry had won the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812, he sent a report to General Harrison which became famous for its brevity, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”  In the 1960’s, the social commentary cartoon POGO purposely misquoted him by saying, “We have met the enemy and they is us.”  That is the point Amos is making.  We must not be like the people walking past my window and assume a day of judgment will be a good thing for us.  We are called to take a good look at ourselves in the mirror of God’s desire for justice and righteousness and to evaluate how much we fall short of God’s hope for us and for the world.

This is also the point of the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. “Delayed” is a key word here. (Matthew 25:5) This is about the “delayed” second coming.  Most of the early church had assumed that Jesus would be back quickly, in a few years at most.  Time went on, and he did not return.  The bridegroom was delayed.  People found themselves wondering how to live in a time of uncertain certainty. They were certain Jesus would return, but they were uncertain as to when.  Some were hyper vigilant, thinking of little else, others had stopped thinking about it and were going about their business as usual, the rest were somewhere in between.  The parable is a reminder to remain ready, to wait expectantly, but not anxiously.  Those with oil were ready – those without were not.

What is it this text is calling us to do? The Christians addressed in Thessalonians and in Matthew were at most a generation removed from the life and death of Jesus; here we sit 2000 years later.

What must we do to be ready, what is the equivalent of having enough “oil in our lamps” for us?

This is where we must go full circle back to Amos and the coming “Day of the LORD.”  Amos says that the LORD desires for us to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.” (5:24) For Amos, “justice” was about due process and the fair and equitable distribution of resources.  So we are called to involve ourselves in making our society, our culture, our country a “just society.”  People of different political persuasions have different ideas about what justice looks like and how it is to be accomplished; and there can and should be open and free debate about that – but no Christian can deny that participating in the process by which we strive to become a more just and fair nation is both a Christian’s right and duty.

Righteousness, as used here, is about the integrity of one’s personal piety.  When Amos talks about the LORD despising festivals and solemn assemblies and the noise of our songs and musicians; he is not saying that God rejects our acts of public worship in general.  Rather, he is calling for a consistency between our orchestrated displays of love for God and our personal actions in loving our neighbors.  This is a consistent Hebrew Scriptures understanding of what it means to be a person of God.  As Jesus pointed out a couple of weeks ago – to love God with heart, mind, and soul (Deuteronomy) and to love the neighbor (Leviticus) are alike.  They are two sides of the same coin and you cannot truly, honestly and completely have one without the other.

Why do you want the day of the LORD?”

In the end we want the day of the LORD because we want Jesus. We want the day of the LORD because we want to honor the bridegroom.  We want the day of the LORD because we are ready to experience the pure justice and complete righteousness we have struggled with and for our entire lives.  We want the day of the LORD because we have no other hope than the hope of dying and rising with Christ.