Year A: The Second Sunday after Christmas Day (for January 5, 2014)

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A Commentary and Sermon

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
(Texts for Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon are not included in the teaching plan, but are covered in the previous Year A commentary — see link above.)

Jeremiah 31:7-14
One of the more striking features of this text (among several, actually) is its future orientation. The action of the Lord in redeeming and restoring Israel is in the future. They will be carried away into exile (as Jeremiah has prophesied throughout the book) and they will suffer — but, they will also be preserved and brought home. The promise is that, even before and in the midst of suffering and trials, God’s people can pray “faithfully” — having faith in advance — for God’s deliverance.

How hard or easy is this to do? What makes it possible to have faith “in advance?”

Psalm 147:12-20
There are a number of very tangible illustrations in this psalm. God strengthens the “bars of your gates;” God fills the belly with “the finest of wheat.” These are items that people can feel with their hands and know in their guts (literally!)

The storms that are mentioned are quite experiential, as well; who hasn’t felt the force of snow, ice, wind, or water? God’s presence and power are just as tangible as these elements. In what ways have your experiences — the everyday things you feel and touch — taught you about God’s presence with you? If you have never stopped to consider how God is just as close as the wind across your face or the steel-reinforced walls within which you dwell– give it a try this week!

Ephesians 1:3-14
It might be more than a bit mind-blowing to consider that God planned for our redemption in Christ “before the foundation of the world.” Before there was light or the sun or the stars; before there were seas or land or birds or cattle; before God ever breathed the “breath of life” into the first human being, God planned for our wandering and our return. How can that be? How wonderful is that?

John 1:(1-9), 10-18
The beginning of John’s gospel is quite different than that of the other three writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke.) There’s no baby born in a manger here; rather, there is a Word that exists before anything else — a Word that is with God and actually IS God! This same word becomes flesh and lives among human beings. John lets us know that he has Jesus in mind as he writes these things, by connecting him to John the Baptist, the word given to Moses, and the grace and truth that come from God as a proud heavenly Father.

How many things about Jesus can you learn from John’s description here in these first few verses? Make a list of the characteristics John includes. Also, discuss what the word “incarnation” means (anybody have a dictionary on their smartphone or laptop?) This is a big idea for John — one that he will write more about throughout the rest of his book.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Several years ago, before my Daddy died, I went to see him and my Mama in the old farm house out in the country from Mount Airy, NC.  As I headed out the two-lane road from town to the farm, I started to notice that every farm had what I grew up calling a “pole light” — an electric light that illuminated the farmyard all night. I played a game with myself, trying to see if I could find a place in that 8 mile stretch where I was out of sight of one of those lights.  It couldn’t be done.  All the way out into the country, a new yard light would appear up ahead before the last one was out of sight in my rear-view mirror.

So, I changed games.  I decided to count the houses that didn’t have a pole light.  Again, it couldn’t be done.  Every house, every shed, every trailer and barn was awash in the purplish florescent glow of pole lights. Every one, that is, except Daddy’s.  There was that big old farm house, sitting forlorn and silent and DARK in the middle of a field, not a speck of light visible except a night light near the kitchen window.

As I pulled into the driveway, I laughed quietly to myself, “Leave it to Daddy to be the only person for miles around too cheap to have a light in the yard.”  I got out of the car and gathered my things, and being too cheap and too careless to own a flashlight, I stumbled through the dark toward the back door, I fell over the lawn-mower and raked my shins over the well-house and bloodied my nose by walking directly into the corner of the house. Finally, I stumbled into the house and Daddy called out from the bedroom, “Well, you’re here then are you?  Cut that light out in there.  It’s burning ‘lectricity.”

Sometime the next day I pointed out to Daddy that his was the only house on the road without a yard light and, as politely as I could, I asked him why he did not have one. He looked at me, rubbed his nose, took a deep drag on his cigarette and said, “Well son, I was born in this house almost 80 years ago, in this very room.  I’ve lived here my whole life.  I know where everything out there is, so I don’t see as how I need a light.” In that moment I realized that pointing out to Daddy that other people might need a light to get around in his backyard was unlikely to be a persuasive argument, I let it go and forgot about it. Until this week, when I was reading today’s Gospel lesson, especially these words, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Then my experience of stumbling about in the dark in Daddy’s backyard came rushing back to me. There is one way in which my Daddy and God Almighty were alike; they had both been wandering around their respective back yards for a long time, they knew everything that was there and they didn’t need a light. But unlike Daddy, God has taken account of the visitors and strangers stumbling around in the world’s darkness and God has provided a light to show us the way. The true light, which enlightens everyone, has come into the world.  Jesus Christ, the light of the world, has come to show us the way.

Our Gospel lesson begins with the words, “In the beginning.”  This is a deliberate echo of the first words of the Bible, of Genesis, of the time of creation.  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  John connects Jesus to that creative moment, when light first shined into the darkness of the world. In the time of the Exodus, when the Children of Israel escaped The Pharaoh in Egypt and headed for the Promised Land, they wandered in the desert and were guided by a “Pillar of Cloud by day and a Pillar of fire by night.”  More light. Light is an image, a metaphor, we use all the time almost without thinking.

When someone gives us new information that helps us to understand something, we say they have “shed new light” on the subject.” What is the cartoon symbol for a good idea? A light bulb. We usually refer to a very good plan as a “bright idea.” We say an intelligent person is “very bright.” We refer to an indistinct time after the end of the Roman Empire as the Dark Ages and we call the time when education and learning began to expand as “The Enlightenment.”

All these references play off one essential idea: ignorance and the darkness of sin and suffering go together; while education and intelligence and learning will throw off that darkness and bring healing and wellness. It’s a wonderful idea.  There’s just one problem with it.  It isn’t necessarily so.

While it is true that education can and does improve life, it is also true that simply an increase in learning is not enough to change the human heart.   Our current economic crisis was created by some of the smartest people in the country, people whose good sense and prudence and concern for others was overcome by their willingness to do whatever it took to make money. The simple truth of the matter is that a simple increase in knowledge will not change the human heart.

That is why Christ came.  That is why Christ still comes.  We need a light that learning and intelligence and technology cannot provide.  We need to learn the lessons of love and caring and compassion and sacrifice. These are lessons that can only be taught by example, most especially the example of a Living God who has come into our midst to show us the way. “And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

God becoming flesh and living among us shows us that God was not willing to let us wander about the universe in the dark.  And God knew that the light we needed had to be more than words on a page and instructions from a pulpit.   The light we needed had to be “fleshed out,” and this fleshing out began in the birth and life, and yes the death and resurrection of Jesus.

And, this “fleshing-out” continues in the life of the church. The church is the body of Christ.  We don’t represent the body of Christ, we don’t stand in for the body of Christ, it is not an image, or metaphor or simile.  We are not a symbolic idea, we are a fleshly reality. We are called to embody our faith and love for God in our efforts to live lives of love with one another, and in the world.

The world is still dark.  It is still in need of light.  We are still called to be that light, beginning in our own backyard and expanding out into the whole world.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The First Sunday after Christmas Day (December 29, 2013)

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A Commentary and Sermon

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Isaiah 63:7-9
Isaiah’s text reminds us that we have a savior — none other than God. God personally takes responsibility for God’s people, refusing to turn the work over to an angel or a messenger. We are also reminded that when a savior is needed, someone is always in trouble. The text here calls it “distress.” Otherwise, no savior is required.

What sorts of distress is God able to save us from? How have you experienced the “salvation” of God in the midst of your own struggles and hardships?

Psalm 148
A great hymn of praise! As Dr. Chilton points out in this week’s Lectionary Lab Live podcast (see link above), John Milton, in Paradise Lost, imagines that this psalm is the morning song of praise for Adam and Eve in the idyllic Garden of Eden before the Fall (Book 5, line 153 ff.)

Take a moment to look back through the verses of this passage; pick one that stands out to you as an example of God’s power — or, a reason that God deserves praise. Why did you select that verse?

Hebrews 2:10-18
This Hebrews passage helps to make some bit of sense out of the gospel reading that follows. There is no deliverance from the sin and suffering that enslaves our world, apart from suffering, often on the part of the innocent. Jesus suffered in this way, and thus “he is able to help those who are being tested [by suffering.]”

While suffering, in and of itself, is not necessarily beneficial or redemptive — what is it about the suffering of Christ that opens the way for God’s redemption of our lives (and of the suffering inflicted on innocent people?)

Matthew 2:13-23
This is a difficult passage to read and interpret; it is shocking, disturbing, and a graphic representation of the presence and power of evil in our world. It is rarely connected to the “Christmas story” in our celebrations or remembrance. And, yet — here it is, told plainly by the evangelist Matthew.

What sort of evil is it that would lead a man like Herod to brutalize the families and children of Judea in such a way? Is it possible to describe God as present in this situation in any way? How does this story foretell the action Jesus will take by willingly going to the cross — after being falsely accused and abused by those in power (both Jewish leaders and Roman authorities?) Finally, does this story remind you of any places in our world today where people — or, particularly children — also suffer innocently? In your prayers, lift up these situations before God.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I was going through our household accumulation of videos and DVDs the other day and was sorting the children’s movies into live action and animated and modern stories and fairy tales when suddenly I realized just how many fairy tales and children’s stories have as a basic theme an evil ruler threatened by a special child; who then has to be protected and/or rescued by agents of good. Think “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Sleeping Beauty” and a host of others.

This sort of story was not unknown to the people Matthew was writing his gospel for – only to them it was not a children’s story or a fairy tale – it was both their history and their religion. Matthew taps into Hebrew people’s collective memory and story for images of Moses and Egypt and the Joseph of “the coat of many colors” and of exile and a mother’s anguish to tell his story of the birth of the Messiah and its violent aftermath.

The story Matthew tells is both very simple and very rich.  The simple part goes like this –

Jesus is born, Joseph has a dream in which an angel tells him that Herod is out to kill the child, so Joseph bundles up his wife and his newborn and hustles off to Egypt to hide out.  Meanwhile, Herod proves to be as evil as expected and because he cannot discover which child born in Bethlehem is the new “king,” he decides to kill them all in order to be sure to kill the one.  After a while, the evil king dies, Joseph hears of it in another dream, moves his family back, but because the evil Herod’s equally evil but profoundly more stupid son is now the king, he joins the witness protection program and moves his family to the small town of Nazareth, in another place up north that is governed by someone else. Pretty straight forward, right?

Ah, but the richness is in the details.  Matthew’s underlying theme is that Jesus is the Messiah and as the Messiah, he is the new Moses, bringing a renewal of God’s covenant that is both new and old at the same time – and the oldness is emphasized by the connections Matthew draws between the story of this baby Jesus and the story of both Moses and the entire people of Israel.

For example – Egypt is not only a place from which the people had to escape – it is also a place where they went for refuge and rescue.  Remember Joseph of the coat of many colors and how after his brothers tried to kill him and he eventually became the Prime Minister, then there was a famine back in the homeland and his family had to go to Egypt in order to survive and God had placed Joseph there so that things would be ready.  Joseph forgives his brothers for their murderous intent by saying “You meant it for evil, but God used it for good.”

It was also in Egypt that “a pharaoh who knew not Joseph” arose and who not only put the Hebrew people into slavery but also planned to kill all Hebrew male children.  Moses was born and was not killed and was hidden in a little watertight basket along the river, etc. A threatened ruler with murderous intent, rescue and protection of the innocent by the good and the pure: Joseph the righteous bundles up Jesus and Mary and takes them to Egypt until the danger is over.

Back in Bethlehem, Herod carries out his plot and has the children slaughtered.  Though there is no external historical record of this event – it is not hard to believe that this Herod did it.  This is a man who murdered his own wife when he thought she was going behind his back and plotting against him and as he himself neared death, he gave orders that most of the leading male citizens of Jericho should be killed when he died so that there would be crying at his funeral. (Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, p. 14) Rachel was the favorite wife of Jacob/Israel and in the reference to “Rachel weeping for her children” from Jeremiah, she is being used as a symbol and her children are the Hebrews carried off to exile in Babylon in 597 BC. Matthew is tying this moment of Herod’s cruelty to all the many moments of loss and despair that God’s people have suffered and at the same time reminding us that in the midst of this God is acting to save.

Finally, the move to Nazareth is both an explanation (why is Jesus born in Bethlehem but comes out of Nazareth as an adult) and another Messiah allusion.  “Nazir” means either “root,” “stump,” or “branch” in Hebrew – and Matthew uses it to refer to Isaiah 11:1 “a branch shall spring forth from the stump of Jesse.” Matthew makes a creative leap to connect Nazarene and Messiah and Jesus.

The first question today is this: Where does all this leave all of us on this First Sunday after Christmas? Those are very interesting facts and suppositions Pastor, but what difference does any of it make, really?

Well – there is this.  Life is no fairy tale or children’s story – life is serious business.  Not solemn, but definitely serious.  The Bible reflects this seriousness. There is both good and bad around us and in us, in each of us.  People are born and die; some soon after birth, others as children, some as young adults or in middle age, most later – some die naturally and well; others quite unexpectedly or cruelly or badly.

And the good news is that God has not abandoned God’s people to their fate.  God has not created this mess and then left us to our own devices.  The story the Bible tells, a story we hold to be true, is that God surveyed the mess we made of God’s good creation and acted to be with us and to care for us and to lead us in changing the bad fix that humanity is in.

The good news for us today is that the Messiah came in the person of Jesus son of Mary and Joseph.  He came to begin what has been a long and arduous and sometimes seemingly never ending rescue operation to pull us and all humanity back from the brink of our own annihilation.

And the second, and most important, question today  is this:  Are we ready to join the Messiah is this work?

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 22, 2013)

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A Commentary and Sermon

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Isaiah 7:10-16
Today’s texts turn around the issue of trust — especially the ways that we trust God (or don’t!) King Ahaz of Judah, one of the successors to David and a fellow who is beset on all sides by enemies and would-be conquerors, is challenged by the prophet Isaiah to put his trust in God. Isaiah even says, “Ask God for a sign!”

Ahaz’ answer sounds pretty pious — “I would never test God like that!” But, in reality, is a false show of humility, since he has already made his political bed with one of those foreign powers (Assyria) that he hoped was going to secure his place in history (and save his neck at the same time!)

Ahaz was wrong on all counts — he did not trust God and it was only a short time later that the kingdom of Judah was placed into political serfdom by Assyria. Ahaz died at the ripe old age of 36, in 715 BCE (a nice summary article is available here.)

Of course, all of this ancient drama is the setup for Matthew, in today’s gospel passage, who takes Isaiah’s words about the Lord’s sign to the people that God would always be with them — a child named Immanuel — and applies them to the coming birth of Jesus. As in the time of Isaiah, so in the time of Jesus: the ultimate “good news” is always that God will be with us!

How easy — or hard — is it for you to trust God with the details and challenges of your life? Would you be willing to accept a “sign” from God that God is with you?

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
The psalm text for today features a recurring prayer: “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” Some commentators believe that these words were written after a time of great trial in the nation of Israel. In what ways do you think they reflect either repentance, or trust (hope) in God…or both?

Romans 1:1-7
Paul is writing to relatively new Christians — and to people without much background in the Jewish scriptures — and trying to introduce them to the character of Jesus as one who has long been predicted to come as the “Son of God.” These few verses serve as a good summary of the belief of the early church about who Jesus was.

From these verses, what are 3-5 things you could identify as important to believe about Jesus?

Matthew 1:18-25
Coming back now to the theme of trust in God — Joseph is called to exercise a pretty extreme form of that trust. His fiancee, Mary, has turned up pregnant — a scandal at any time, but particularly so in the society of this time. Mary actually could have been put to death, according to the laws of the time. Instead, Joseph decides he will just “put her away quietly.” A simple divorce — let her get on with her life, and he will try to get on with his.

Then, lo and behold, he gets a message from God: “Go ahead with the marriage, Joe; this child is the Son of God and will save his people from their sins. Trust me on this one.”

So, Joseph does — unlike Ahaz, he places his reputation, his career, and his life in God’s hands. Matthew says, “And now you know why God told us about all that Immanuel stuff — because, in Jesus, God really is with us.”

Have you ever considered what a risk Joseph took to trust the dream and go ahead with his marriage to Mary? Are there any ways in which you can identify with Joseph, in terms of having to trust that a situation would work out, even if it didn’t look very good at the time?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Back in the early 90s there was a popular TV show called Evening Shade.  You might remember it – Burt Reynolds starred as a football coach in small-town Arkansas, but the stories were mainly about the daily doings in his personal life, with his wife and kids and friends.

One night, at the end of the show, his two elementary school-aged children were ready for bed and were looking out the bedroom windows over the porch and chatting.   The little boy said, “Do you ever feel lonely and scared?” His sister replied, “Well, sometimes; but then I remember what they say in Sunday School, about how God is always with us and I feel better.”  The boy thought a few minutes – then he said, “Yeah, well, that praying stuff is all right I guess; but sometimes you just need somebody with some skin on them.”

Most of us know how he feels. There is a lot of talk this time of year about “blue Christmas,” about people who are particularly sad and lonely and depressed this time of year, and I know that’s true.  Many of us have some sad memories associated with the Advent and Christmas seasons, and most of us have lived long enough to have lost a loved one whose absence is deeply felt at every holiday celebration. And in the midst of that loneliness and ache, there is often a nagging question of “Where is God in all this?  Why did God let this happen?  Why doesn’t God ease my suffering?”

On a larger scale, many of us look at the world around us and think– “How long, O Lord, how long?”  It is legitimate for us to wonder, “If God is good and powerful, why is there so much evil in the world?  Is God indifferent?  Or just incompetent? If God can do something about this, why hasn’t something been done?  And if God can’t, then why should we bother with God?”

These are not new feelings, or new questions.  Out text from Isaiah reflects a time when the southern Kingdom of Judah under King Ahaz was under great duress.  There was a web of international intrigue and political and military danger.  Short form: Syria and the northern Kingdom of Israel were attempting to free themselves from the Assyrian Empire and wanted Judah to join them in the battle.  They also threatened Ahaz, telling him if he refused to help they would invade.  In the midst of this the prophet Isaiah tells Ahaz not to worry, God will take care of it. The preacher advises him to put his trust in the LORD.  He even tells him, “Ask for a sign, any sign, God will give you a sign.”

Ahaz piously quotes scripture and says he doesn’t need a sign; but the truth is, he has already decided that he can’t trust God that much.  He has already asked Assyria for help against the two small kingdoms to his north.  Like the little boy in Evening Shade, he needs somebody with some skin on them. Though Ahaz has turned down the offer of a sign; Isaiah gives him one anyway.  7:14 reads, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”  Immanuel means “God with us.”  It’s as if Isaiah realizes that Ahaz is afraid enough that he needs some concrete, earthly assurance; he needs someone with skin on them, in order to feel confident in God’s presence and protection.  So the promise is made:  “Look, God will send someone with skin on them and before they are old enough to know Good food from bad, this crisis will be over, and Judah will be safe.”

This promise of “Immanuel,” of “God with us,” of God “with skin on,” is something that Matthew picked up and applied to the story of Jesus.  New Testament Scholar and Bishop N.T. Wright points out that until Matthew wrote his gospel; no one else had ever placed any significance on this passage as applying to the promised Messiah. But Matthew did, and using the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint, “young woman,” almah in Hebrew, came out as “virgin,’ parthenos in Greek.  But the important thing here is not the virginity of the mother but the divinity of the child.  Matthew plainly asserts that in this child, God is present, God is here, God is with us.

In his book God is Closer Than You Think, Presbyterian pastor John Ortberg makes the case that “The central promise in the Bible is not ‘I will forgive you,’ although of course that promise is there.  It is not the promise of life after death, although we are offered that as well.  The most frequent promise in the Bible is ‘I will be with you.’ ” (p. 15)

Over and over again from Abraham and Sarah to Jacob and Joseph and Moses to King David and on to Amos and other prophets, to the Virgin Mary and the Righteous Joseph; the word of comfort and promise keeps on coming, “Don’t be afraid, I am with you.”

Ahaz was afraid, and turned away from God’s promise and sign – and put his trust in the mighty armies of Assyria.  That worked for a while but ultimately failed.

Joseph was afraid, but in a dream God told him, “Do not be afraid.” And then made to him the same promise that was made to Ahaz – “The child will be a sign of Emmanuel, of “God with us.”

Our calling today is to trust in the promise of God and not be afraid; not be afraid of the ordinary trials and tribulations of life and not be afraid to stand for the Kingdom of God, and not be afraid to take action on behalf those suffering in poverty, and not be afraid to stand with and speak out for those who have been pushed to the margins of our society.

Our calling today is to be a sign of “God with us,” in the world.  Our calling today is to be someone with skin on them for those who are hurting and suffering.  Our calling is to reach out to the world with the love of God, realizing that when we do so in the name of Christ, we are the hands of Christ in the world.

And if we find ourselves slipping back into fear, searching either or hearts, or perhaps the night sky, for a sign of God’s prince in the world, if we find ourselves yearning for someone with skin on them – we must remember this: the church is the body of Christ in the world.  We can turn to those ordinary, sinful, frightened, people on the pews around us and know that God is here in our midst.  “God is with us;” in this place, and in this life.

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Third Sunday of Advent (December 15, 2013)

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A Commentary and Sermon

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

(For an update on our “new” format regarding this Teaching the Text section, click here.)

Isaiah 35:1-10
All of today’s texts, in some way or another, bring us back to considering what the “kingdom of God” will be like. The view of scripture is one that has been characterized as “the kingdom is now, and not yet;” there are characteristics of God’s kingdom that are part of our lived experience (especially as we seek to live them out.) And yet, we realize that the fullness of God’s kingdom is not yet come. There is something that we are still waiting for. As you read Isaiah’s words, what are the things that you can identify that are (partially, at least) part of our world — and what things are “not yet?”

Psalm 146:5-10
A similar question may be asked about the psalm text: just how real and valid do we find these kinds of descriptions to be when we consider life as we know it? If there are some things that don’t seem very evident to us, is this because these kinds of things simply do not happen, or is there some possibility that we just don’t see them — maybe we’re not paying attention?

Do you believe the assertions of vv. 9-10? Why, or why not?

Luke 1:46b-55
This brief portion from Luke’s gospel is a “substitute” reading for the psalm text for this day. It is considered to be a song, sung by Mary just after she has been told that she will bear a child that will be the Son of God. Pretty big news for any woman to receive, but especially a teen-ager who is just weeks before finishing her engagement and preparing to move in with a new husband.

Mary’s song is a testimony — almost a prophecy — of the things that God will do through the birth of this child. It’s a pretty tall order — and not one that will sit well with the “powers that be” (who will, apparently, be on the “brought down” list of those in power.) What do you sense in Mary’s words — excitement, anticipation, anxiety, fear and trembling, wonder, uncertainty…or what?

James 5:7-10
The writer here is James — by tradition, one of the half-brothers of Jesus who grew up with him and came to faith after the resurrection. James is an important leader in the early church, and was known for his bent toward the no-nonsense, practical side of faith.

What practical words of advice is he offering here, as we all are in a time of waiting for the coming of the Lord (and the fulfillment of the “not-yet” kingdom?)

Matthew 11:2-11
Even John, the bold Baptizer, got a little quizzical when considering the “wait” for the realization of God’s kingdom. Maybe he thought Jesus was going to work a little faster; he certainly would not have been alone in that camp. Lots of folks thought that the coming of Messiah meant God was ready to fix the world — RIGHT NOW!

Jesus had ultimate respect and high praise for John (see v.11.) But he pointed John — and us — to the things that God was doing through him and his disciples as evidence of God’s kingdom. What exactly do you think of when you pray, “Thy kingdom come and thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?” Does it look like the things Jesus is describing here?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When I was 5-10 years old, my favorite TV show was “The Cowboy Bob Show” (or something like that, it was about 50 years ago).  It was a local show, on Saturday after the early morning cartoons.  Cowboy Bob wore a stereotypical Western shirt and white Stetson and sat behind a table where he demonstrated card tricks and simple science projects in between episodes of old 1930s, serial westerns starring people like Lash LaRue and Hop-along Cassidy.  Cowboy Bob was my hero.

One day at school, I heard great news.  “Glad tiding of exceeding great joy,” at least for a third-grade boy with a cowboy fixation; Cowboy Bob was coming to town!  He was going to be in the annual Mount Airy Christmas parade on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I was agog with excitement, I made a calendar and marked off the days, just like I had seen one of my heroes do in a western, (except I used a red crayon and I’m pretty sure he used his own blood).

Finally the day arrived.  I persuaded my 6’3” father to let me sit on his shoulders so I could get a really good look when Cowboy Bob rolled through on his float.  After too many clowns and Cob Scout troops and church floats and high schools bands (2) for my taste, here he was, on the back of a flatbed truck – the floor covered with scattered hay, a few bales with little kids sitting on them and a short, paunchy man lamely spinning a rope and waving at the crowd.  The wind almost blew his hat off and for a moment I could see that he was bald.  I have never been so disappointed in my life. “Who is that?” I cried to my father, “That can’t be Cowboy Bob!” But alas, it was; it really was.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is the question John sent to Jesus.  I can’t help but think John was more than a little disappointed in Jesus up to this point.

John had boldly proclaimed that his cousin was the long-awaited Messiah.  He had pronounced that Jesus would baptize people with fire and the Holy Spirit.  I’m pretty sure he expected Jesus to come out shooting from the hip, with both guns blazing, to emerge from the desert with fire in his eyes and the vengeance of the Lord in his hands.  Uh, that’s not exactly what happened, is it?

Jesus and John kept on with their separate preaching and teaching tours, with word going back and forth about what the other was up to.  John ends up in prison for taking on the king. (He kind of insulted him for marrying the ex-wife of his brother – nobody really likes being called an incestuous adulterer, even if it’s true.)  So John is languishing in prison, anticipating his own death on any day and begins to wonder; is this Jesus really THE ONE, the MESSIAH, the SAVIOR of us all.  Nothing seems to be happening.  No riding in on a white horse to save the day, no main street-high noon confrontations with the head honcho bad guy and his minions; maybe I was wrong, maybe he’s not the one.

John is not alone in asking the question, “Who is this guy?  Is he the One?” One time later, after John’s death, Jesus polled the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  The replies are interesting, “Moses, Elijah, some say John the Baptist.” For the last two thousand years, many have asked the same question.  The answers have varied; some focusing on Jesus’ godlikeness, others on his obvious humanity, some questioning his importance, others his very existence.

Jesus’ answer to John deals with none of these things.  Jesus’ answer points John, and us, to the things that are happening because Jesus is in the world. Jesus’ answer points to the things that are happening that show his ministry to be a fulfillment of the Biblical promises of God.  Jesus’ answer not only shows a deep awareness of the Hebrew Scriptures but also attempts to draw a pretty straight line from the prophetic vision of the coming of the Lord to the life and ministry Jesus is living out.

In Isaiah 35:5 and 6 we read “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped, then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

In Psalm 146:7-8 we read “who executes justice for the oppressed, who give food to the hungry.  The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down, “

These, and many other Hebrew Scripture promises of the coming Kingdom of God, are what Jesus is referring to when he tells the messengers to go back to John and tell him, “. . . what you have hear and see:  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.” Matthew 11:5-6

This is the time of year when many of us are struggling to figure out exactly what it is we are waiting for. For many, the annual, early winter celebration of gift-giving and family get-togethers is exciting and exhilarating; filling hearts and souls with joy and renewal; for others, not so much. Some are quietly contemplating the meaning and significance of the incarnation, the audacious idea that God came to be with us in the form of a human baby, while others stand back, put-off and mystified by strange stories of virgin births, angelic visitations and stars in the night.  It’s an interesting story, but what does it mean for me, really?  Is this the one, or are we, am I, to look for another; another Messiah, another story, another way to make sense of our lives.

Jesus’ answer points us in the right direction.  The coming of Jesus, the coming of the Messiah, was the coming of the Kingdom; and the coming of the Kingdom is the coming of true goodness, real healing, and genuine justice for all.  To sort out the meaning of Jesus for our lives, we must first join in the work of the Kingdom with him.  We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines, working out the nuances and implications of Jesus Christ, son of God, of Man, etc. etc. in our minds while the parade passes us by.  Advent calls us to step off the sidewalk and onto the highway, leaping into the parade; becoming a part of the ongoing Kingdom of God in the world, following the stories and rumors of hope and healing, justice and joy, truth, tragedy and triumph wherever they may lead us.

Because, ultimately they will lead us to the cross and beyond, to the place where, “. . . the ransomed of the LORD shall return,  . . . where everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; (where) they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sadness shall flee away.”  (Isaiah 35:10)

 

Amen and amen.

Year A: The Second Sunday of Advent (December 8, 2013)

Click here for today’s readings
Click HERE for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast
Click here for previous Year A Commentary and Sermon

Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Isaiah 11:1-10

Reading Hebrew scripture texts “Christianly” should always be done with great care and respect. When we come to words like those of Isaiah, we want to realize that they had great meaning and import in the community of Jewish hearers for quite a long time before the Church came along and used them to interpret the life of Jesus as Messiah.

It is intriguing to see the work of the Spirit of God through the lens of this passage; there are seven “spirits” at work here — or, one could say there is a seven-fold manifestation of God’s Spirit described.  All of these are descriptors of the one that will be described as the “shoot” or “root” of Jesse. (The connection to King David is always important for Israel when thinking about the ultimate expression of God’s King.)

This passage is certainly read in the context of Jesus’ life; it also reads quite well for any leader who would follow the path of God’s will for God’s people. What do you think it means to have each of these qualities in one’s life as a “Spirit-filled” person?

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

The psalmist also sets the tone for the king (or leader) who would rule in the way God desires. Most of these qualities we have no problem acknowledging as good and helpful for a leader: justice, righteousness, prosperity, concern for equity, alleviation of suffering, defending the poor etc. But — then we get the phrase “may he crush the oppressor.”

What lies behind this concept in a long-ago, warlike culture like Israel’s? Is there any precedent for praying this kind of leadership in our time? How would you word this prayer for the leader and use it for your own national, regional, and local authorities?

Romans 15:4-13

One of the great things about studying scripture is realizing that it has been written “for our instruction….” We gain a real benefit from the wisdom and example portrayed in these ancient words. Will we continue to take advantage of the resource that is offered to us?

Paul is going to great lengths to help the Roman church understand that Jesus is very much connected to the Hebrew scriptures that have been written as instruction. Beginning in v.9, he lists seven different passages that, in his estimation, support the claim of Jesus as the fulfillment God made to the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, et al.)

[You can find the cross-references here at Biblegateway.com, if you’re interested.]

Of real interest to me: what does it mean for us to welcome others “as Christ has welcomed us?”

Matthew 3:1-12

Oh, boy — John! I think most of what I want to say about this passage can be found at my previous commentary here.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“I’m lost — where in the world is Bucksnort?”  Her friend’s plaintive plea made my wife, well, snort with laughter.  Jeannie and the kids had come up from Atlanta to Nashville and visited a few days; then they headed out to visit other friends further east at Tennessee Tech before heading back home in Georgia. They were supposed to get on I-40 East, but a little over an hour after they left, they called.  When they saw the “Welcome to Bucksnort” sign, they knew they had made a wrong turn somewhere.  After we finished laughing, we told Jeannie it was an easy fix, all she had to do was turn around and go back the other way on the Interstate.  It would take her a few hours now, but she would get to Tennessee Tech for supper.

What Jeannie and the kids did was repent; turn around and go the other way, head in a new direction. That’s the simplest meaning of the word metanoia which is translated repentance in our Gospel lesson.  It is a difficult word for us to hear right now, here in the midst of all our “getting ready for Christmas” business.  Most of us have a list of things that have to be done in the next couple of weeks; and truth be told, most of them aren’t done, or aren’t on schedule, or aren’t things we really want to do, or aren’t things that make us more aware of God’s will and way in the world.  But, but, it’s the list, and we’ve always done this for Christmas.  And it wouldn’t be Christmas without it.  Etc. Etc.   But, if there is any of this that is just getting to be too much, there is a simple fix.  Go a different way.  Put down the Christmas “to do” list and back away. Take some time to think before you celebrate.

To repent is not so much to beat yourself up for being a bad person, or crying out to God about how sorry you are; (believe me, God already knows).  John the Baptist called the people to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  We are called to do the same today.  We are called to look at our lives and decide if we are going in the right direction, following the correct path, adhering to the way of Jesus Christ.  And if not, now is the time to move in a new and better direction.  For no matter how far we may have gone in the wrong direction, there is always hope with God; and turning to go in a new way is always the dawn of a new day in the life of the spirit.

Our lessons for today are filled with images of hope, of the promise of renewal that God is bringing into our lives.  The first sentence of our first lesson from Isaiah is a promise of God’s new day in the middle of what looks to be a hopeless situation.  “A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse.”  In the last part of chapter 10, Isaiah has talked about how God will cut down the kingly like trees, “He will strike down the forest thickets with an ax,” (Is. 10:34 CEV) yet chapter 11 begins with a promise of hope; Jesse was King David’s father, so the stump of Jesse is the decimated kingly line of descent.  A righteous branch sprouting from these wiped out roots is a sign of God’s power to bring us all back from the edge of failure and death to the new dawn of joy and life; joy and life represented by the beautiful images of the peaceable kingdom to come.

For the promise of the Gospel is the promise of hope.  Our reading from Romans is full of Paul reminders that our God is a God of hope and our story is a story of promises made and kept.  We read the scriptures, “that we might have hope.” (15:4) Christ came to be a servant leader (a shoot from the stump of Jesse) “that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs.) (15:8)

And especially in the last two verses “. . . . ‘the root of Jesse shall come, the one to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.’  May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (15:12-13)

So, this Second Sunday in Advent, as you find yourself rushing through life to do the next thing on your list, to find the next place on your itinerary; if you find yourself in a Bucksnort of the soul; a spiritual place you neither expected nor wanted to visit; take a moment to reorient yourself. Consider this a call to repentance; a call to turn and take your Christmas and your life in a new direction – a direction filled with “fruit worthy of repentance.”

Amen and amen.