Year A — The Third Sunday of Advent

Commentary for December 12, 2010

Click here for today’s readings

 Isaiah 35:1-10

“Inconceivable!” It is one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite character actors in one of my favorite movies. (Wallace Shawn playing Vizzini in The Princess Bride. ) The line comes to my mind when I read Isaiah’s inspired description of the day the desert will sing.


Blind eyes opened, deaf ears unstopped, the formerly lame leaping about as deer; it’s all a fairly incredible scene when you stop and try to visualize it. God is coming to save God’s people. Incredible, inconceivable  things will happen!


God’s Holy Way through the wilderness is a safe and inviting path. Once you’ve been found and have walked upon it, you really can’t miss it or mess it up. (NRSV: “not even fools shall go astray.”)


That’s a good thing to know. That, and “never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line!”


Psalm 146:5-10


“Forever God is faithful…” is the lead-in to Chris Tomlin’s excellent praise chorus, Forever. (You can listen here if you don’t know this song.) 

The Psalmist knew this to be true a long time before Chris put guitar chords to the words. God does keep faith forever (v. 6), and manages to do some other pretty cool things, as well: gives food to the hungry, justice to the oppressed, freedom to prisoners, and sight to the blind.


Luke 1:46b-55


Mary’s words upon learning that she will bear the Savior of the world give a powerful witness to just how “upside down and inside out” the world of the Messiah will be. 

Notice the series of contrasting images: Mary is lowly, but will be called blessed; proud people will be scattered; powerful rulers will be brought down; hungry people will be filled; rich people will understand what it means to be emptied.


James 5:7-10


Advent is, after all, a season for waiting. For patience. We’re kind of a hurry-up-and-get-it-now society, but James reminds us that patience is required. 


I don’t suppose that the farmers of his time had access to the modern methods of irrigation that are available today. But, even big-time agribusiness can be brought to its knees by a drought that is severe enough. (For some perspective on the problems of drought around the world, check this link.)

“The farmer waits…being patient…until the crop receives the early and the late rains.”


Matthew 11:2-11


We saw in last week’s gospel lesson that John the Baptizer was all about the action. You snooze, you lose; the proof is in the pudding; by their fruit you shall know them. That sort of thing.


When he sends disciples to ask Jesus whether or not he’s the real deal, Jesus understands and tells them to tell John what they have seen him doing.


Hmmm…when the world outside looks at the church, can they tell whether or not we’re the real deal? Or should they wait for another…someone else to show them a Savior?


Sermon
by The Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“Are you the One?”

Back in the early 80’s, I spent a year doing post-M.Div. studies at the Lutheran Seminary in Columbia SC.
One Sunday I was scheduled to preach in Pomaria, SC. (It was a long time ago, maybe it was Prosperity, or Pelion. It was one of the P’s.)

If you’re not familiar with the area, the Dutch Fork is West and Northwest of Columbia. It’s where the German Lutherans settled in the 1700’s and it’s full of Lutheran churches.

I couldn’t find the town or the church. Every road had a couple of brick Lutheran Churches, but none of them was the one I was looking for. It was less than 15 minutes before the service and I still couldn’t find the church.

My moment of ultimate frustration came when the road I was on dead-ended into another road. There were two signs facing me, pointing in opposite directions, each saying “Pomaria 5 miles.”

There was a farmer in the corner of the field, working on his tractor. I rolled down the window and asked, “Does it matter which way I go to Pomaria?” He looked at me, he looked at the signs, he spat on the ground and looked back at me, “Not to me it don’t.”

One thing you can say about John, it mattered to him which way people went; he was a sign pointing to the Christ. That was his role and he knew it, and he consistently deflected attention away from himself and onto Jesus, pointing to Jesus as the Messiah, the Anointed one, the Christ.

In today’s gospel lesson, we find John in jail and in doubt. He had been preaching Jesus as the Christ, but now he was wondering and questioning.
Here we read that even the one whose job it was to direct others to the Christ sometimes had a hard time believing the Good News was really true.
Perhaps John had expectations that the Christ would be more aggressive, more decisive, more “out there” as a leader, more political and “in your face.”
Perhaps, just like everyone else, John thought the Christ, the Messiah, would go upside some Roman heads, kick some heretic backsides, clean the infidels and backsliders out of Israel’s household of faith.
Or, perhaps John’s doubt was more personal than that; perhaps John thought that his cousin would take his imprisonment, well, personally.
Here he was rotting in prison. And there was Jesus, the Lamb of God, walking around free. Why don’t you get me out of here, Jesus? After all, I’m your cousin, I baptized you, I’ve been singing your praises and leading your cheering section; how can you let me rot in here?
Whatever the seed of John’s doubts and questioning, they are there and Matthew shows us Jesus answering these doubts and questions by
1) Making reference to Isaiah’s prophecies in our Old Testament reading from chapter 35, and
2) Stating in Mt. 11; verses 4-6 that he has fulfilled the promise of the Messiah, then
3) Stating in Mt, 11; 10-11, that John’s life and ministry are a fulfillment of Isaiah 35 as well, that John is “the voice crying in the wilderness.”
In short, Jesus sends John a message, “Yes, I am the Messiah, and yes you were right to say so.”
The confusion about the meaning of the coming of the Christ is not limited to John and his disciples in first century; it is very much with us in the “run-up” to Christmas, 2010.
About a month ago, Nov. 14, 2010 to be exact, I was driving out from Jackson, Mississippi to preach and install a new pastor at a small country church.
As I rode down I-20, I fiddled with the radio, not looking for anything in particular, just station surfing. Suddenly I heard someone who sounded like Anne Murray singing Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . . .
“What!” I thought, “Why, it’s not even Thanksgiving yet and they’re playing Christmas music. Argh!”
Alas, it got worse. The announcer came on, and in a well modulated yet folksy baritone, said, 
Hi, if your house is anything like mine these days, the little ones are getting pretty excited about what’s coming. They get so excited, they forget about how to behave, so I have to remind them that Santa’s coming and if they aren’t good, they won’t get anything. 
Would you like to put some real teeth in that threat? All you have to do is call this number and for a small donation, Santa Claus will call your home and warn your children personally.”
Would you like to put some real teeth in that threat? “Oh my word, did he really say that,” I thought. Yes, he really did.
Just as the people in Jesus day were fascinated by him, but not really sure what to make of him, we modern people are fascinated by the birth of Christ. We’re just real unclear about what it means so we plunge into the traditional trappings of trees and presents and dinners and plays, hoping to find the real Jesus, the real Christmas in there somewhere.
Perhaps we can take our lead from Jesus in the Gospel Lesson; after all, he told us where he was active in the world, where we should look to find the Messiah,
“. . . the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (verse 5)
In an almost counter-intuitive way, it is likely that we will find the Christ when we stop searching for him for ourselves, and start serving those around us who are in need of God’s love, Christ’s love.
After we do that and begin to forget ourselves and our search for the Christ, we will look around one day and suddenly realize Christ has come to us– and in us and through us.
Amen and amen.
Our thanks to a new sponsor, FlagstaffsBestAutoGlass.com, for their support.

Year A — The Second Sunday of Advent

Commentary for December 5, 2010

Click here for today’s readings

Isaiah 11:1-10

In our Advent state of mind, Jesus is the “stump and root of Jesse” that we read about today. We prepare for the coming of the One who will bring ultimate peace; the promise is tantalizing, is it not? “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” Cool…let it be so!

But, then there is this business about striking the earth with the rod of his mouth and killing wicked people with the breath of his lips. Hmmm…as Antoine Dodson might say, “Run and tell THAT, homeboy!” (You can click here if somehow you managed to miss the “Bed Intruder Song” sensation earlier this year.)

Again — and at the very least– we are reminded that even the most comforting of images we hold of God’s salvation are not subject to our domestication. In the words of the old gospel song, there WILL be peace in the valley someday. But it will be God’s peace, not any work of ours (despite our efforts at peacemaking.)

Psalm 72

A prayer for the protection of the king, and of the king’s son. The themes of defense for the poor, deliverance for the needy, and revenge upon the oppressors are re-emphasized.

Notice the especially pungent description of v.6: “May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.” I hope you have had the opportunity to experience such moments; be sure as a preacher that you pause long enough to bring them to mind. Smell the grass, feel the moisture in the air, realize the refreshing that rain upon the earth often brings.

Romans 15:4-13

The Apostle’s words remind us of our need for hope and encouragement. Yep, most of our listeners could use some of that, too. A gem of a lesson is tucked into the midst of this passage in v.7: “Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you.”

Might be a really neat opportunity to address the power of Christian hospitality. Especially in the midst of the sometimes-forced joviality that is a part of the holiday season, to hold up the virtue of simple, warm hospitality in the name of Christ might be a real treat for our parishioners.

Matthew 3:1-12

Personally, I’ve always wondered why we have to stick the brash, brazen John the Baptizer in the midst of the Advent/Christmas season! Of course, I know he is irrevocably a part of the story. But he is so…so…disconcerting!

I suppose that’s exactly why he’s here. Can you imagine John bursting in to the church fellowship hall in the midst of Christmas cookies and punch? Or into your family’s dining room or den as you’ve gathered for your celebration?

The first thing I imagine we would notice is the SMELL! Geez, oh Pete, John…take a bath, for Christ’s sake! And that outfit! Camel hair and leather. Wouldn’t he be a popular fellow on the runway?

Point is, I don’t think John would fit all that well into the homogenized, “It’s a Wonderful Life” version of Christmas that most of us have in our minds. What does his message mean for us, since we can’t help but pay attention to it?

“Get ready. Straighten up. Bear fruit.” All action words. Good intentions alone won’t cut it.

Your baptism is a good start, but there’s a good ways to go just yet in this kingdom-of-God-come-to-earth world John is announcing. “Get fired up,” John says. Alrighty, then…guess we’d better get to it!

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“If God Is Going South…”


A few years ago, a pastor friend told 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.

As the truck drew closer and my friend saw that the side of the trailer read Guaranteed Overnight Delivery, a question came to 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 your spouse 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.” “Well, 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 spouse 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.

John’s words to the Pharisees and Sadducees strike at the root of the matter. The text says they were coming for the baptism of repentance, so why does John reject them?

It is because he recognizes that they were coming to join the crowd, they were not coming as people who knew they needed to change, nor were they willing to change.

BEAR FRUIT WORTHY OF REPENTANCE!

John thunders at them, and what he means is pretty simple; Let me see some evidence of a changed direction in your life.

Many of the Pharisees and Sadducees assumed that just being members of the Chosen People was enough. They had latched on to the Chosen part without remembering the “chosen for a purpose” part. God’s people were Chosen to follow God and to lead the world to follow God. The Pharisees and Sadducees had forgotten the responsibility to others that goes with being a part of a Covenant People of God.

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?

John’s word to us today is that GOD is coming, and we need to get ready. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Listen again to Isaiah’s version of the promise:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.


The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.


They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious
.


That is the kingdom that is coming, that is the world that Jesus brings with him, that is the side of the road GOD is traveling on.

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.

Year A — The First Sunday of Advent

Commentary for November 28, 2010

Isaiah 2:1-5

You’ve got to love an “Aussie” translation of the text, by Nathan Nettleton at laughingbird.net:

Come now, all you people of God,
……..let us stick to the tracks that the LORD lights up! (Isaiah 2:5)

Images of longing for a better day dominate this opening reading for the first Sunday of Advent. We long to be taught things that really matter, to walk in paths that lead to safety and contentment. We wish for a way to resolve the disputes that too often arise between neighbors — both down the street and across the world.

“Swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks” still rings true in some primal recess of our spirits, doesn’t it? No swords, no war — far fewer funerals, more money for nutrition, education, health care for all. It is a brilliant way that the Lord is lighting up amongst us!

Psalm 122

Praying for the peace of Jerusalem is a good thing to do, regardless of your Zionist sympathies (or lack thereof.) Imagine the possibilities for peace to break out if the world’s Jews, Christians, and Muslims (approximately 60% of the world’s current population) could agree to sit together simply to pray for the peace of Jerusalem!

Romans 13:11-14

Jean Valjean, the protagonist in Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg’s musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, sings:

“One day more! Another day, another destiny….
Tomorrow we’ll discover what our God in Heaven has in store! One day more!” (full lyrics here)

He might well be singing the heart of the Apostle as he writes, “The night is nearly over, the day is almost here.” An appropriate sentiment for this season of light shining forth in the darkness. Christ calls us to live in the light each day, day after day…one day more!

Matthew 24:36-44

God never gives us a timetable for living in God’s will. “Just do it,” is the implication of this apocryphal message from Evangelist Matthew. Don’t  try to figure it out, don’t over-think it…just live today as if it were the day the Lord will come again.

Maybe easier said than done, but sound advice nonetheless. As the old saw goes, “Live every day as if it were your last — because one of these days you will be right!”

Sermon
by The Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“Are You Ready for Christmas?”

I’ll come right to the point. Today’s Gospel lesson is an extremely odd way to start our celebration of the Christmas season. Here we are all decked out in Advent blue, we’ve lit the first Advent candle, many of us are getting ready for our first Christmas party.

There are announcements in the bulletin about Christmas poinsettias and the Christmas parades and the Children’s Christmas program and the choir cantatas.

One thing’s for sure, we’re ready for Christmas, but the Gospel lesson isn’t about Christmas.

It’s about Noah and the flood and people dying and thieves breaking in and stealing and we have to wonder:

WHAT DOES ANY OF THIS HAVE TO DO WITH CHRISTMAS?

Well, if by Christmas you mean the Mid-winter American festival of excess and partying and gift-giving, the answer is practically nothing.

Don’t get me wrong; mostly I like that Christmas is kind of fun. I like bright colored lights and shiny Christmas trees and Lord knows I like to get presents. I like parties and I like singing Christmas carols. Heck, I even like singing, “Grandma got runned over by a reindeer.”

But almost none of that has anything to do with the Christmas we celebrate in the church. That’s the world’s Christmas, the secular Christmas, but it is most definitely NOT the Mass of Christ, the Feast of the Incarnation.

The Mass of Christ is a time to celebrate the fact that, in the words of St. John, “God so loved the world that he sent his only beloved Son.” (John 3:16)

And in the words of the Nicene Creed, “For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.”

If we’re talking about the Christmas that is the celebration of the coming of God to Earth in human form, then our Gospel lesson is a perfect guide for our preparation.

One of the problems with what we can call XMAS, the secular celebration, is that it is focused primarily on the past and on the present without any thought to the future. We see the distant past, “The First Noel,” that long ago night when Christ was born, through the misty lens of our personal past. We struggle to recreate family traditions, we get all muddled up in images of real stables and hay bales and plywood in the sanctuary, between real shepherds and five-year old boys in bathrobes.

We focus our energy on evoking the Spirit of the Christmas season, as if by faithfully observing the right rituals, singing the right songs, sending the perfect card to just the right perfect people we can somehow make ourselves feel warm and fuzzy and right with the world.

And what gets lost in all this is the sense that we are waiting on God; that we are not just thinking about the past, we are looking for God to DO something NEW, again. Instead of expecting God to come suddenly, we have tamed God, domesticated the deity.

We know when God is coming, one minute after midnight, December 25. We have just so many more shopping days ‘til Christmas. God’s coming is within our control, we can schedule it, plan it, orchestrate it, organize it; and if we can just get everything just right, it’ll be the best Christmas EVER!

Somehow, we have allowed ourselves to reduce the greatest miracle in the history of the world to a matter of guest lists, recipes and the correct display of gaudy colored lights.

AND OUR GOSPEL FOR TODAY IS A STARTLING REMINDER TO US THAT GOD ALWAYS REFUSES TO PLAY BY OUR RULES.

For, while Christmas is, quite appropriately, the celebration of that night 2000 years ago when Christ was born, it is more than that. And though Christmas is — again, quite appropriately — a time when families gather and we remember Christmases past with fondness and affection, it is also something more. And the season of Advent is designed to remind us of that Something More.

Advent is the season of Hope, a time when we are called to look to the future with confidence, a time to prepare ourselves for the new miracles God will work in our world. It is a time to get ready for the NEW movements of God’s Spirit in our lives.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus uses three illustrations to help us realize the suddenness and unpredictability of God’s activity in the world.

First, he cites the familiar story of Noah and the flood, pointing out that the other people went about their normal business, ignoring God until it was too late.

Second, he gives twin examples about how some, even in the midst of their normal business, are ready to drop everything and go when Jesus calls.

And third, Jesus makes reference to the age-old problem of burglary, and makes the simple point that if you know when the bad guys are coming, you can be ready for them. But you don’t, so you have to be ready all the time.

And that’s the way it is with God; you never know when the God-moment is going to show up, so you have to be ready all the time.


This readiness is not a matter of hanging decorations and baking cookies and sending Christmas cards and going to office parties. This readiness is tenderness in the heart, a willingness of the spirit to hear God’s word and to go God’s way.

To be ready for Christ to come into our lives and into our hearts, we must beat our personal swords into plowshares and our private spears into pruning hooks.

We must make peace in our families and in our churches and in our workplaces before we can make peace in the world. For us to be ready for Christ to come, we must lay aside all the works of darkness, we must put on the armor of light. We must examine our lives, and repent of our sins, and commit ourselves to acts of charity and goodness, to lives of love and generosity.

Advent is a time to Wake UP, a time to prepare ourselves to receive God into our lives. And, as you know, God has a habit of sneaking up on people. God tends to make appearances in unusual ways, through unlikely people, in unexpected places.

2000 years ago, it was a little baby, the child of an unwed teen-age mother, in a dirty smelly cow-stall, on the other side of nowhere.

Who knows who, or when, or where it might be next time?

Who knows? It might be you! Now! Here!

Get Ready! Wake Up! God’s Coming! The future is upon us.


Amen and amen.