Peripatetic U-Turn

Mark 1:1-20 New International Version (NIV)
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”—
3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
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Sometimes I wonder about things that I have always believed. Sometimes I have doubts about what I am learning in seminary. Sometimes I think that much of what I’m expected to believe is hocus pocus, made up by old men who had too much time on their hands.
I’m not the first. I’m not the only one. If we don’t ask questions, we don’t learn much. No matter how many lectures you’ve had, the lessons you learn best are those that answer your questions. The toddler knows that. One of the first questions a child learns to ask is “Why?” “Don’t do that.” “Why”” If the child does not receive a satisfactory explanation, the child goes ahead and touches the hot stove or spills the glass of milk or hits a sibling. How many times is a “why” question impossible to answer? “Why do I have to wear clothes?” ” Why do I have to put my toys away?” “Why do I have to eat?” The answers to those questions are long and complicated, so often we parents resort to answering with “Because I said so.”
That is a never a satisfactory answer, but it is a somewhat effective, if veiled, threat.
What questions do you wish you would have asked in high school? I wish I would have asked why communism was evil. I don’t think I was ever told why. I was just told that it was evil. After teaching my own students lessons from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, I know why it’s bad and I taught them so. The weird thing, is if communism worked like the dictionary definition, it would be a good thing. In fact, probably one of the best lessons you’ve had on the benefits of communism is in the book of Acts.
Acts 4:32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
How does communism fail? It morphs into something different, like totalitarianism, or a dictatorship or an oligarchy. In other words, tyranny, with a handful of people grabbing all the power and the other 99% doing without the means to pursue happiness.
And how does that metamorphosis happen? Sin. Sin. Sin and all its cousins: greed, selfishness, mistrust, jealousy, lust, pride, sloth.
Which brings me to the question raised by today’s gospel lesson: “Why did we need to have our sins forgiven?” I’m sure I’ve been told why my sins need to be forgiven, but it escapes me in these later year of my life.
John, known as John the Baptist, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, had one message: repent! You need to confess your sins.
John’s message didn’t stop there. Repentance was the only way to prepare for what was coming: Jesus Christ.
“After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
I am going out on a limb today because I don’t have answers. Maybe by the time I’ve completed all sixteen classes at Wartburg Theological Seminary, I’ll know the “right” answer. In the meantime, I can’t let this question rest. It is important for me to understand why repentance is important, not only for myself, but for you. As your preacher and teacher, I am obligated to help you nurture your faith. Your faith does not exist in stasis. It is not unlike a plant that needs sustenance. It is not unlike a plant that continues to grow. Our faith is alive, and, like a plant, needs nourishment. Without nourishment, it can die. With nourishment, it grows. It doesn’t just sit there.
With that in mind, what part does repentance have in the nourishment of our faith?
John is not the tent revival or television preacher haranguing the crowd for their sins. My gut feeling is that his focus is not on particular sins. He is not a single-issue voter. We live in a culture where some sins are more newsworthy than others. Anything having to do with human sexuality is fair game. Murder is a popular topic on the evening news. Stealing can get headlines. John is not interested in the details. He is interested in the results. He expects results via one method: repentance.
Repentance in its English translation and in common usage has lost some of its power. Many of us think of repentance as an emotional reaction of feeling sorry. The founder of Habitat for Humanity, Millard Fuller, used to say, “For most people, repentance means feeling sorry for getting caught.” (John Petty, https://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2018/12/advent-2-luke-3-1-6.html).
The original Greek word is metanoia. Metanoia is used to describe an action of “turning” and then “moving in a new direction.” It has very little to do with one’s emotions, and everything to do with a change in one’s actions. (Ibid.)
John’s call for repentance for the forgiveness of sins reflects a common practice of the time: cleansing oneself before entering the Temple. It was not unlike the practice in our family: we bathed once a week, on Saturday night, to get ready for church. We did’t bathe on Sunday night to get ready for another week of school. The purpose was to be clean for church. That sounds gross to a culture that bathes daily, but it suited us just fine.
This brings me back to my question: why do we need forgiveness? To be clean. But why do we need to be clean? That is, why should we want to be free of sin?
Sin can be a pretty comfortable state of being. After all, sinning seems to often be the easier alternative. It is easier to be angry with someone than to have patience with them. It is easier to steal something than to work for it. It is easier to swear than to hold our tongues. It is easier to slap and hit than to reason with someone. It is easier to repeat gossip than to ferret out the truth. It is easier to ignore someone than to help them.
So, if it’s easier, if we sin all the time, why is forgiveness important?
I’m trying to figure that out. Here is what I’ve come up with—so far.
Sin is like a barrier. God made us to be in community with each other—to love each other. Commandments four through ten are all about loving our neighbor, loving our family members. Sin puts up a barrier between us and prevents us from living in harmony.
Likewise, sin puts a barrier between us and God. Remember the story of Adam and Eve in the garden? Why do they hide from God? Because they had sinned.
In our culture, and every culture before us, we’ve been able to rationalize sin, even flaunted it. Simultaneously, that sin removes God from our operating systems. When we shut God out of our lives, via sinning, we live differently. We still have values, but they shift. We become loyal to power and money and pleasure. We spend more time and money grooming our own bodies than caring for the body of Christ. Our loyalty to God and our neighbor shrinks into a tokenism of going to church once in awhile and donating used clothing to the Salvation army.
Let’s visit that word metanoia again. Raj Nadella, Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary explains that metanoia
describes a process of stepping out of one’s existing mindset and adopting a characteristically different mindset. Metanoia has the connotation of having one’s perception of the world and of oneself transformed, adopting a radically different worldview and relating to the world in new ways. Metanoia can also mean making a U turn and changing course. (Raj Nadella, http://www.workingpreacher. org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4335)
What does this call to repentance mean for us? Karoline Lewis, Professor of Preaching at Luther Theological Seminary, puts repentance in a broader perspective.
For this week, we are being called to repentance not for our own individual sins which we know are many and perhaps easier to admit because we can keep them to ourselves. Who would even have to know? It’s just between Jesus and me. The harder truth this week is to admit our communal sin, our national sin, our global sin, in the presence of one another, that seems regularly to refuse repentance in favor of blame and ignorance. (Karoline Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3446)
Words from these wise professors shines a different light on forgiveness.
It is not about me in isolation. It is about me in relationship to all of God’s people and all of God’s creation. It is not to make me a better person. It is to make me a better neighbor.
Forgiveness of sins is not the end goal. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been confused. Forgiveness of sin is about goodness of action.Forgiveness of sins allows us to make that u-turn and move forward to participate in the Kingdom of God.
Think, for a minute, of a time when sin became a barrier between you and another person. Think, for a minute, of a time, when you let inexperience or ignorance dismiss an entire group of people as being bad. Think, for a minute, of a time, when sin separated you from someone you love. Think, for a time, when sin made you cross to the other side of the street, metaphorically, to avoid someone. Was it the other person’s sin? Or was it your sin?
That brings us to another perspective on sin: forgiving each other. Again, sin puts up a barrier. Have you ever waited for someone to ask for your forgiveness before you could forgive them? What if we offered forgiveness without being asked? What if I forgave you for hurting my feelings without you saying you’re sorry? What if husbands forgave wives and wives forgave husbands for hurting them—without pouting or getting even? What if parents forgave children and children forgave parents for disappointing them—without throwing shortcomings in each other’s faces? What if neighbors forgave neighbors for crossing boundaries—without calling in a lawyer? All without being asked to forgive. Just do it!
John preached repentance for forgiveness of sins. Why? Maybe it’s because we need to get rid of sin before we can be the good people God created us to be.
I think I have a better understanding of forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness of sins is not for my personal benefit. It is for me to be the nourishment, the inspiration, the safety net, the chicken soup, the bouquet of flowers, the sunny sky for someone else. Forgiveness frees me to be the kind of person God created. Forgiveness sends me in the right direction, following in the footsteps of Jesus.
Thank you for listening to me try to figure this out. Thank you for walking this journey with me. May we always freely forgive, not waiting, not giving up, but freely forgiving each other so that we can walk together, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Celebration Luke 2

2 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
 and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
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What more is there to say? Did you hear anything you haven’t heard before?
Caesar Augustus. A decree. City of David. Bethlehem. Mary. Joseph. Birth.
In fact, we know this story so well, that we’ve added details. Mary rode a donkey. Luke doesn’t say so, but, well, why not? She wouldn’t have walked the 90 miles form Nazareth to Bethlehem. That’s how people traveled in those days. On foot. One step after another. And we’ve built a wooden stable in our minds, a stand alone structure with a peaked roof. Over the years, via carols and hymns, we’ve added animals to the scene—-“where ox and ass are standing.” We’ve made assumptions—the innkeeper must have been cold-hearted to turn away a pregnant woman. And to save time, we throw in the wisemen, probably a year or two earlier than their real-time appearance. And we limit them to three. Three wisemen. Not two. Not fourteen. Three. It all makes for a neat organized tableau that fits on a side table in the living room. Probably dwarfed by the tree and the presents.
I want to present to you a different picture of Luke’s narrative, to show you how the story has not only been retold, but remodeled to fit our own environment, our own experience.
I ran across an interesting article about the setting of Jesus’ birth. It is written by John Petty, a graduate of Warburg Theological Seminary.
There was no room for Joseph and Mary in the kataluma. The word refers to the upper room of a house, the guest room–not, in other words, some wayside hotel, barn, or cave. In the case of Joseph and Mary, the guest room was already taken–Uncle Zechariah from Wichita had already claimed it–and they had to stay in the other “room” which, at night, would be home for animals, but during the day would be cleaned up and used by the family.
Joseph and Mary were not alone in the dark of night somewhere. Mary had the baby in a home, surrounded by family. ( https://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2011/12/lectionary-blogging-christmas-eve-luke-2-1-20.html)
Frankly, if this is a more accurate rendition of Mary and Joseph’s stay in Bethlehem, I am relieved. I am relieved that Joseph did not have to deliver his firstborn by himself. I am relieved that Mary did not go through the hell of labor by herself. I am glad that someone else lifted up the baby to her to latch onto her nipple. I am glad that someone was bringing them food and blankets and checking on Mary. I am relieved that Jesus was welcomed not just by his parents, but by an extended family. Welcomed, not in isolation on the edge of town, but surrounded by the love that he came to symbolize.
It has been human nature to enhance this simple story over the centuries. In fact, we have decorated our nativity scenes with borrowed items from many ancient traditions.
Many of you will return home to unwrap gifts that are stacked under a pagan symbol of everlasting life. That tree was not standing in the stable or the guest room. The wisemen did not put gifts under a tree. It was not some marketing genius who added the Christmas tree to our celebrations. It was Martin Luther, in the 16th century. Legend has it that he was inspired on his walk home, one night, by the stars sparkling through the branches of the evergreens and moved the whole scene into the house with a tree and some candles.
Our traditional holiday conventions are a combination of practices from many times and places. In fact, many of our traditions have their roots in Saturnalia, a Roman harvest festival. And some of us noted the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night. All of these traditions blend together in a joyous time of thanksgiving and celebration. In our joy, we swap and adapt traditions and celebrate during this dark time of year. It is wholly appropriate to celebrate God’s gifts of light and fertility and harvest all at once, with a variety of symbols and traditions. They all find their source in God’s miraculous creation. The length of the night, the evergreen, the poinsettias—all are created by God.
Even the quiet, nondescript birth of Jesus was followed by the riotous singing of angels and the shouts of shepherds. Or was it singing? Luke says “praising God and saying;'” nothing about singing. But why not? God gives us voices that not only speak but also sing, so, of course, in our time we sing our praises.
All of the traditions from which we borrow celebrate the coming of light. It is no wonder that we call Jesus the Light of the World.
But then comes December 26 or January 2 and what’s to celebrate? Let me share a poem with you. It was written by Howard Thurman, a theologian, educator, and civil rights leader.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
Christmas is never really over. That’s why we celebrate it every single year, for over two thousand years. Every year. We celebrate a birth of a baby who still, through the darkness of death and the triumph of the resurrection, lives among us.
That’s why we celebrate that birthday every single year. Every year. We celebrate a baby who was born as ordinary as you and I and was as extraordinary as the God we worship, because he is God.
So, when you imagine Jesus’ birth, you can elaborate however you like. If Jesus in a manger of hay surrounded by cows and sheep and a worn-out donkey warms your heart and inspires you, that’s good. If you read about Biblical Archeology and are pretty sure Jesus was born in a cave and laid to rest in manger carved from stone, that’s good. If Jesus were born today, where would it be? Would it be in the RV that had been stored for the winter? Would it be on the living room floor? In the backseat of a car? It could happen.
Where Jesus was born matters most to scholars. It had to be Bethlehem, to maintain the connection to King David, Israel’s greatest king, and to fulfil the ancient prophecies. But just as where you and I were born, at home or in a hospital, doesn’t say a lot about us, Jesus birth place doesn’t say a lot about the man he became.
This Child whose birth you celebrate is still walking with you, talking with you, inspiring you. So, like all birthdays, we celebrate once a year. But we don’t forget about the honoree, do we? We continue to be active in the lives of our spouses, siblings, children, grandchildren, friends, after the birthday, after the candles are blown out, after the gifts are unwrapped, even after the dishes are washed and the lights turned off.
As a preacher, as a Christian, I’m not here to remind you that today is a special day. I’m here to tell you to keep celebrating. I’m here to tell you that the party is not over, that we must continue celebrating the life of this child, grown to man, always eternal.
How do we celebrate? By doing the work that Jesus modeled for us. By reaching out beyond our comfort zones. By praying for people we’ll never meet. Or to paraphrase Howard Thurman:
by finding the lost,
by healing the broken,
by feeding the hungry,
by releasing the prisoner,
by rebuilding the nations,
by bringing peace among the people,
by making music in the heart.
How will you continue the celebration? Amen.

Expecting Luke 1:5-25; 57-80

Luke 1:5-25 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
5 When Herod was king of Judea, there was a priest by the name of Zechariah from the priestly group of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was from the family of Aaron. 6 Both of them were good people and pleased the Lord God by obeying all that he had commanded. 7 But they did not have children. Elizabeth could not have any, and both Zechariah and Elizabeth were already old.
8 One day Zechariah’s group of priests were on duty, and he was serving God as a priest. 9 According to the custom of the priests, he had been chosen to go into the Lord’s temple that day and to burn incense, 10 while the people stood outside praying.
11 All at once an angel from the Lord appeared to Zechariah at the right side of the altar. 12 Zechariah was confused and afraid when he saw the angel. 13 But the angel told him:
Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayers. Your wife Elizabeth will have a son, and you must name him John. 14 His birth will make you very happy, and many people will be glad. 15 Your son will be a great servant of the Lord. He must never drink wine or beer, and the power of the Holy Spirit will be with him from the time he is born.
16 John will lead many people in Israel to turn back to the Lord their God. 17 He will go ahead of the Lord with the same power and spirit that Elijah had. And because of John, parents will be more thoughtful of their children. And people who now disobey God will begin to think as they ought to. That is how John will get people ready for the Lord.
18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know this is going to happen? My wife and I are both very old.”
19 The angel answered, “I am Gabriel, God’s servant, and I was sent to tell you this good news. 20 You have not believed what I have said. So you will not be able to say a thing until all this happens. But everything will take place when it is supposed to.”
21 The crowd was waiting for Zechariah and kept wondering why he was staying so long in the temple. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak, and they knew he had seen a vision. He motioned to them with his hands, but did not say a thing.
23 When Zechariah’s time of service in the temple was over, he went home. 24 Soon after that, his wife was expecting a baby, and for five months she did not leave the house. She said to herself, 25 “What the Lord has done for me will keep people from looking down on me.”

Luke 1:57-80 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
57 When Elizabeth’s son was born, 58 her neighbors and relatives heard how kind the Lord had been to her, and they too were glad.
59 Eight days later they did for the child what the Law of Moses commands. They were going to name him Zechariah, after his father. 60 But Elizabeth said, “No! His name is John.”
61 The people argued, “No one in your family has ever been named John.” 62 So they motioned to Zechariah to find out what he wanted to name his son.
63 Zechariah asked for a writing tablet. Then he wrote, “His name is John.” Everyone was amazed. 64 Right away, Zechariah started speaking and praising God.
65 All the neighbors were frightened because of what had happened, and everywhere in the hill country people kept talking about these things. 66 Everyone who heard about this wondered what this child would grow up to be. They knew that the Lord was with him.
67 The Holy Spirit came upon Zechariah, and he began to speak:
68 Praise the Lord,
 the God of Israel!
He has come
 to save his people.
69 Our God has given us
 a mighty Savior
from the family
 of David his servant.
70 Long ago the Lord promised
by the words
 of his holy prophets
71 to save us from our enemies
and from everyone
 who hates us.
72 God said he would be kind
to our people
and keep
 his sacred promise.
73 He told our ancestor Abraham
74 that he would rescue us
 from our enemies.
Then we could serve him
 without fear,
75 by being holy and good
 as long as we live.
76 You, my son, will be called
a prophet of God
 in heaven above.
You will go ahead of the Lord
to get everything ready
 for him.
77 You will tell his people
 that they can be saved
when their sins
 are forgiven.
78 God’s love and kindness
 will shine upon us
like the sun that rises
 in the sky.
79 On us who live
in the dark shadow
 of death
this light will shine
to guide us
 into a life of peace.
80 As John grew up, God’s Spirit gave him great power. John lived in the desert until the time he was sent to the people of Israel.

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Would you recognize an angel if you saw one?
Today’s scripture is yet another story from our tradition that has an angel appearing to someone to announce, not a birth, but a conception, a future pregnancy.
Do any of you mothers remember the first time you discovered you were pregnant? Who told you? For me, it was my doctor or probably his nurse. And from then on, Bim and I did the announcing.
I’m thinking of three couples who found out about their pregnancies from an angel. And all three should not have been pregnant.

Remember Sarah and Abraham? They were old. Frankly, I’m surprised that they were even trying.
And in today’s text, it is again the father, Zechariah, who is visited by an angel. Again, Zechariah and Elizabeth are past child-bearing age.
In both cases, these couples had given up on having a child. They knew it was physically impossible. In the terminology of the day, these women were considered barren and thus, they had lost their most important reason for existing. Women were valued for one thing and one thing only: the ability to bear children. Beyond that, they were, legally and culturally, little more than slaves.
Our third example is not old at all. In fact, she is quite young, maybe thirteen or fourteen. But again, she is not supposed to be pregnant. She is engaged to be married, but the marriage has not been consummated. Mary and Joseph evidently played by the book. However, if any pregnancy should be announced by an angel, this is the one. This pregnancy is more than a longed-for child. This child of this story is a longed-for Messiah.
One of the tenets of our faith is that Jesus is wholly God and wholly man. He is not fifty-fifty—half God and half human. He is 100% God and has been since before creation. And he is 100% human, exactly like each of us, with eyelashes and blood vessels and sweat glands and ear drums. There is nothing supernatural about his humanity. He cried, he laughed, he scolded, just like any human being. If he would have been born in our lifetime, he would have fit in at the Pub, at the Fish Fry. He would have dressed like us, talked like us.
But no matter the date of his birth, he was longed-for, hoped for, anticipated.
Children are important in the Bible, because they are the carriers of promises.
The promise for Abraham and Sarah was a family of descendants that would be more numerous than the stars. The family name and legacy would be carried on. That promise remains true: today scholars consider Abraham and Sarah’s legacy to include three great religious bodies: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. It doesn’t take a scholar to figure that out: read the Koran and the Old Testament and the New Testament. The three Scriptures have much in common including honoring Abraham as the role model and ancestor for all generations. More numerous than the stars and contributors to humanity and civilization are the descendants of Abraham and Sarah.
The promise for Elizabeth and Zechariah was different, but equally impressive:
16 John will lead many people in Israel to turn back to the Lord their God. 17 He will go ahead of the Lord with the same power and spirit that Elijah had. And because of John, parents will be more thoughtful of their children. And people who now disobey God will begin to think as they ought to. That is how John will get people ready for the Lord.
John had a specific task for a specific people. He was sent to those descendants of Abraham and Sarah to bring them back to the God of Abraham, the God who created their ancestors. But John’s task was not only about returning people to God; more importantly, he was to prepare people for the returning of God to the earth, in the skin and bones of Jesus.
The promise for Mary was also about the purpose and destiny of her child:
31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
And that’s where we come in: his kingdom will never end. The kingdom of David had ended as an earthly institution. But God reinstated that kingdom through Jesus and expanded that kingdom to include all of humanity, not just the descendants of Abraham and Sarah.
It was important to the writers of the gospels to “prove” that Jesus was descended from Israel’s greatest king, David. In Matthew 1 and Luke 3, the genealogy of Jesus is recorded. That genealogy is meant to bolster the claim that Jesus is the longed-for Messiah. His family history establishes his place in the history of the Jewish people.
So is that history important to us? It’s interesting. It confirms once again that God makes and keeps promises for God’s creation.
But what about the longed-for Messiah in this century?
Here’s the thing: we still long for the Messiah. We still long for Jesus to answer our prayers, to walk with us, to inspire us, to save us. In this Advent season, we are also reminded that we, too, can anticipate the coming of a Savior. Jesus has promised to return to this earth, to this place in the universe, to this space in time, to us. Come, thou long expected Jesus.
The arrival of Jesus is not past-tense. A children’s song that I learned in Sunday School prays, “Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.” That is our prayer every day, is it not? Come into my heart, every day, Lord Jesus. And our prayer, whenever we pray our Savior’s prayer is “Your kingdom come.”
What does that kingdom look like? I asked my confirmation kids that question. If the kingdom of God is present on earth, what does that look like? What does it look like in the cafeteria, in the locker room, on the school bus? Those are the places where kids are most likely to hurt each other, not with fists but with words. What does the kingdom look like where people are most vulnerable?
What does the kingdom of God look like around the dinner table, the card table, in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, at the family reunion?
In the first century church, the physical arrival of Jesus was expected at any time. We’ve blown that off. Do we need another John the Baptist, another miracle son of a geriatric couple, to remind us that Jesus plans a return trip to gather us up? Or maybe we just need an angel to tell us, not that we are expecting to go through labor again, but that we should be expecting the return of Jesus.
Or maybe it is enough for us to embrace this Advent season as our own time of expecting, expecting the Messiah, both as a baby who was born in a land and time far away and as the Son of God who will gather us up and “take us to heaven to live with thee there.” Amen.

What are We Waiting For? –or– Advent of What?

Ezra 1:1-4 New International Version (NIV)
1 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing:
2 “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:
“‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. 3 Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. 4 And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’”
Ezra 3:1-4 New International Version (NIV)
3 When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled together as one in Jerusalem. 2 Then Joshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. 3 Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening sacrifices. 4 Then in accordance with what is written, they celebrated the Festival of Tabernacles with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day.
Ezra 3:10-13 New International Version (NIV)
10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the Lord, as prescribed by David king of Israel. 11 With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord:
“He is good; his love toward Israel endures forever.”
And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 12 But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. 13 No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away. New International Version (NIV)
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This is the season of Advent. Advent of what? Advent of Christmas? If the advent of something marks the arrival of something, Advent started way before Halloween. Did you see Christmas decorations in the stores before Halloween?
A friend and I were discussing Christmas hymns and the annual Advent conflict between pastors and the congregations about singing Christmas hymns during Advent. My friend calls me an Advent purist, because I think Advent is quite separate from Christmas. He, on the other hand, wants to experience that feeling of Christmas excitement sooner, rather than later.
My argument is that 1) there are plenty of great Advent hymns and 2) Advent is not Christmas. When I checked Wikipedia to learn more about Advent I was reminded that we’re not only awaiting the Coming of Jesus’ birthday party; we’re also awaiting the SECOND COMING!!! That is something I kind of blow off, is it not? Other than the promises we repeat at funerals. So, I’m going to be more intentional about the Second Coming in my remaining two Advent sermons.
The Greek word for advent is parousia. It occurs 24 times in the New Testament. Seven times it is used to indicate the arrival of someone, to indicate that a visitor will be there in person. The remaining 15 times it is used to indicate the arrival of Jesus, physically and wholly present on earth.
I never preach about the parousia or Second Coming. Why not? Is it obsolete, because, lo, these many years. nothing has happened? Have we given up on Jesus coming back to earth visibly and physically?
The advent of Jesus was very real to first century Christians. They had heard that promise second hand from the people who had heard it first hand from Jesus. It wasn’t just gossip or exaggeration or wishful thinking.
Matthew 24:3 New International Version (NIV)
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
The idea of Jesus returning was not something his followers made up or misunderstood. They were quoting Jesus. And Jesus made it clear that his return would not be just a theological metaphor.
27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Matthew 24:27 New International Version (NIV)
Jesus describes in some detail his arrival:
30 “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. Matthew 24
There was some concern among the early Christians that those who had died would not be a part of the Second Coming; Paul reassures them:
15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.1 Thessalonians 4:15 New International Version (NIV)
The promise of Jesus’ return brings some comfort to the early Christians in the midst of the persecution they experience at the hand of the Roman government.
From 2 Thessalonians 1:
6 God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7 and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.
It seems to me that we overlook the advent of the Second Coming and bury all those promises in the promise of eternal life. Why?
When I was a kid, I dreaded the Second Coming. I just knew Jesus would arrive, astride a giant white horse, and accompanied by a bunch of bright angels with very stern looks on their faces, just as I was hitting my sister or sassing my mother. Straight to hell for little Dianne.
Dread and advent should not go together. We should look forward to the Second Coming. But perhaps we know too much about our own sinful nature to be eager to appear before the One who taught us to live in goodness. Perhaps we have not followed Jesus’ commandments to love God and love our neighbors. Perhaps we have harbored in our hearts unkind thoughts about those around us.
Let me give you one recent example. I worked at the North Scott Food Pantry on Friday. We put together 91 Christmas baskets in fifteen minutes! Naturally, we hung around, talking to each other afterwards. Two of my fellow volunteers and I were talking about how smoothly the food pantry operates and I mentioned how the clients were treated with dignity. But the other two then went on to say how it irritated them that “those people” smoked and drank and had cell phones while they (the volunteers) were giving them food. I would guess that most of us harbor a grudge against those we are so nobly helping. Our charitable deeds are not always accompanied by charitable thoughts. Luther’s explanation of the Eighth Commandment comes to mind: “Put the most charitable construction on all that your neighbor does.”
Here’s the thing. When Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” he didn’t add “unless they have bad habits.” Did Jesus say, “Love your neighbor as long as he is as lucky and blessed as you are?” Did Jesus say, “Love your neighbor unless he is unemployed?” Did Jesus say, “Love your neighbor unless she can’t get a job that pays enough to cover rent and babysitting and food?” Did Jesus say, “Love your neighbor unless he is an alcoholic?” Did Jesus say, “Love your neighbor unless she has tattoos?”
Maybe somebody forgot to write that down in the Sermon on the Mount.
Here’s what we know from Scripture. Jesus said, “Love God. Love your neighbor.” That’s it. So simple. So hard. Love your neighbor—as you love yourself. How do you love yourself? You take care of yourself. How do you love your neighbor? You take care of your neighbor.
Those are the instructions Jesus gave us as we wait for him to return.
In these times, I often find myself referring obliquely to the Second Coming. When I discuss current events or when I see evidence of unending conflict I mutter under my breath, “Come, Lord Jesus.” I’m not the only one.
I want Jesus to come and put an end to all the pain and sorrow and anger in the world. That’s the only time I really think about the Second Coming.
But you know what? I don’t expect that prayer to be answered. When I say, “Come, Lord Jesus,” I don’t look up at the sky expecting a light show like none other. I don’t look up, waiting for the sky to rip open and a thousand angels to come charging through.
I say it in resignation. “Come, Lord Jesus.”I say it as if it were a careless cuss word. I might as well say, “Darn it.”
What if Jesus Second Coming is not just wishful thinking? What if Jesus’ Second Coming is looming ahead of us, something that we can anticipate?
What if we use Advent as more than a list of tasks to be performed before Christmas Day?
What does this have to do with our passage from Ezra? Not as much as I’d hoped. But I look at those people who had been set free from captivity, who had left Babylon to return to the land God gave them. They were encouraged by King Cyrus to rebuild their temple. So they did. The old people cried because they remembered the temple in its original glory. They yearned for the old days, for the glory of the old kingdom of Israel. But the younger ones cheered, because they saw a new day coming.
So, let Advent be a time of yearning, of anticipation, not for the return of the good ol’ days, but of a yearning for things to be made right but the coming of Jesus.
Revelation 21 says it beautifully:
21 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
In the meantime, we are not invited to sit on our hands and wait for the amazing entrance of the real live Jesus into the current events of this world. We are invited to Love God and Love Our Neighbor. The temple in Jerusalem did not build itself. The Kingdom on Earth doesn’t build itself. And furthermore, Jesus is not history. Jesus is present, present in us. Who are the builders of the Kingdom on Earth? We are!
We can be like the returning exiles and weep about how the church used to be. Or we can rejoice in the church that we are building, one loving deed at a time, knowing with certainty that we will meet Jesus face to face, whether it be on our deathbeds or at the parousia! Amen.

Let’s eat Grandma.

Isaiah 40:1-11 New International Version (NIV)
40 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
3 A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low;the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6 A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
“All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”
9 You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain.You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout,lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm.See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.
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Do you remember having to copy sentences from a textbook and having to add the correct punctuation? Sometimes you’d have to decide where to put commas. Sometimes you were expected to demonstrate how to correctly place a semi-colon. The classic example of comma importance is “Let’s eat Grandma.” Does the speaker really want to take a bite out of Grandma? Or is the speaker inviting Grandma to the dinner table? If you put a comma in after “eat,” you have a much kinder sentence. Commas show us where to pause. “Let’s eat, pause Grandma.” And Grandma breathes a sign of relief and takes her seat.
The translation of this passage is challenging for a number of reasons. One is punctuation. Hebrew, as written in Old Testament times, did not have punctuation. You have in your bulletin a translation of verses 1-5. You will notice that all the punctuation and capitalization are missing. Take a minute, become your eighth grade self and fill in the missing marks.
Bulletin Insert: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION
comfort comfort my people says your god speak tenderly to jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed that her sin has been paid for that she has received from the lords hand double for all her sins a voice of one calling in the wilderness prepare the way for the lord make straight in the desert a highway for our god every valley shall be raised up every mountain and hill made low the rough ground shall become level the rugged places a plain and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all people will see it together for the mouth of the Lord has spoken
Now, imagine that the spaces between words are gone. Imagine all the words run together. Thus another problem for translators. Where does one word end and the next begin?
comfortcomfortmypeoplesaysyourgodspeaktenderlytojerusalemandproclaimtoherthatherhardservicehasbeencompletedthathersinhasbeenpaidforthatshehasreceivedfromthelordshanddoubleforallhersinsavoiceofonecallinginthewildernesspreparethewayforthelordmakestraightinthedesertahighwayforourgodeveryvalleyshallberaisedupeverymountainandhillmadelowtheroughgroundshallbecomeleveltheruggedplacesaplainandthegloryofthelordwillberevealed andallpeoplewillseeittogetherforthemouthofthelord has spoken
Next challenge: there are fewer than 9,000 words in the Biblical Hebrew vocabulary while you probably know about 20,000 words. That’s a difference of 11,000 words. Then think about figures of speech, metaphors based on raising sheep and grapes, and you begin to understand the difficulty of translating our sacred Scripture into something that we, a few thousand years later, can understand.
Knowing this, you can understand why new translations of the Bible appear, if not year after year, at least decade after decade.
Many of us grew up hearing from a version that was commissioned by an English king who lived during the time of William Shakespeare. Did you have to read any sonnets or plays by Shakespeare when you were in high school? Did you understand what you were reading? If you did, you need to teach me.
So, for a few centuries, these words were heard:
40 Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. (KJV)
I used to hear those words, Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People in a passive sort of way. I used to think the comfort was meant for me, because, after all I am one of God’s people. I used to hear it in a eschatological sort of way, too. Jesus will return to earth, gather us all up and take us to heaven. That, too, was comforting. Those words made me feel safe.
In 1946, the Revised Standard Version was published, but most churches continued to use the King James Version. I received a copy of the RSV from godfather as a confirmation gift—by then it was 17 years old.
40 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. (RSV)
The New International Version was published in 1973.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. (NIV)
(Same as the RSV.)
The Contemporary English Version was published in 1995.
40 Our God has said: “Encourage my people! Give them comfort. (CEV)
Here the word “encourage” is added, which gives another layer of meaning to God’s message. Comfort seems passive, like patting someone on the shoulder, but encourage implies some energy is being initiated. If you are comforted, you can just sit there and appreciate the attention, but if you are encouraged, that means that you are expected to do something, to get out of your chair and do something!
This is the difference that has dawned on me over the years. The “comfort” in this passage is not about making me cozy, although there is nothing wrong with that. But now I see this as meaning to encourage. And that means I am the one who has to offer comfort. I’ve changed from receiver to giver. I hear a call to action rather than a suggestion to take it easy.
God did indeed comfort God’s people. They were returning from exile in Babylon. God reminded them that their exile was a punishment for turning their backs on God. But now God says they have served their sentence and they can take comfort in the fact that they can return to the land they love. They can once again own property and open businesses and continue in the traditions of their ancestors—-but they must remember that God is the one who has brought them back to the land, back home. They must never again forget God.
I think reading this passage correctly is important. If we expect to receive the comfort, if we expect to sit in the pews for an hour on Sunday, if we return home, go to work, play cards, watch television, bake cookies, and put on the blinders of fear and disgust, then we are missing the point of being a Christian. We are the ones who need to reach out and comfort people.
Friday, Dorothy and I did that. We visited some of our members at Grand Haven. Friday, I also reached out in a different way.
An event* at a church in Bettendorf on December 2, 2019, troubled me, angered me, really. The event, even though it was at a church, promoted hate. That was its primary purpose. I could not let it go. So I wrote to people—that’s the beauty of email—I wrote one letter and sent it simultaneously to fifteen people. Some of those fifteen people took my advice to “comfort” and “encourage.”
The thing about this event at that church in Bettendorf is that it could easily have been used to create comfort and encouragement. But it was not. It promoted hate and fear, two tools that create more problems.
These verses that tell us to “comfort” and “encourage” were written at a time when Israel had suffered in hate and fear. God brought that to an end. A historian might tell you that Cyrus, king of the Persians, was the reason the Hebrew people were allowed to return home. But God takes credit. If Cyrus initiated Israel’s return, it was God who gave Cyrus the idea.
If we turn away from God, if we forget to care for the foreigner, the stranger, the widow, the orphan, are we punished? God doesn’t pull up to the door with a cattle truck and herd us in and make us live in the desert. Punishment comes in a different form. It comes in the form of people meeting in a church to frighten each other into spreading hate. It comes in the form of trying to solve problems without consulting the words of Scripture. It comes in the form of rushing to judge without trying to understand. It comes in the form of punishing instead of helping. Our sin, our own sinful actions, punish us. A wrong is returned with a wrong. We try to take an eye for an eye, but all that brings is more pain. Jesus had a different idea. He even said, “Turn the other cheek.” That is, get slapped twice. He did not say, “Turn your back.” He taught us in parables—-the prodigal son who is welcomed back home, the man lying the ditch who is rescued by the guy from the other side of the tracks.
Today’s verses are part of Handel’s oratorio, “The Messiah.” They inspired the hymn we are singing today. They do bring great comfort.
Perhaps we most need that comfort when we are called to comfort, to encourage others. Following Jesus is not a part-time job. It is full-time and it has all the demands of a full-time job. Long hours. Poor communication. Not enough resources. Pointless meetings. Co-workers who don’t cooperate. Sometimes following Jesus puts us in danger. But here’s the Good News.
There is a great benefits package with working for Jesus. The benefits are never taken away by corporate bosses. The benefits do not end when we retire. We are always God’s people. Even when we turn away, God remains faithful. We can expect comfort from God whenever we trust God to have our best interests at heart. God, even in our most vulnerable, most heart-breaking times, is mourning with us. The parents at that meeting on December 2 have lost their dearest treasure, their children, to the violent actions of others. God does not forget those parents. I doubt that God expects them to spread hatred. But I don’t think God turns his back on them because of the actions imposed by their grief.
Sometimes it is easier to throw up our hands and say, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Sometimes it is easier to turn our backs. Sometimes it is easier to accept evil as “that’s the way it is.” That’s the way it is, but let me say one more time: we can understand these words “Comfort, Comfort my people,” to mean “get to work!” Amen.

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*From the Quad-City Times https://qctimes.com/news/local/political-forum-at-bettendorf-church-warns-of-illegal-aliens-non/article_27be85a7-1076-5f1c-8b76-eb604c6d4cab.html
BETTENDORF – It was a Republican political rally, complete with politicians, voter registration and speeches about conservative issues.
But unlike President Donald Trump’s boisterous rallies, Monday night’s forum at the Pleasant View Baptist Church in Bettendorf was often somber.
That’s because the topic was immigration — or “the crisis of illegals,” as one attendee put it.
The packed church hall heard from several “angel parents,” or men and women whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants.
They spoke from a stage adorned with Christmas trees and an Iowa flag, which hung below a large cross. Their stories were often emotional, recounting some of the worst days of their lives.

During intermissions, loudspeakers played Kanye West’s newest album, “Jesus is King.”
The parents came to east Iowa from around the country to advocate for the end of illegal immigration, the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and the re-election of Donald Trump in 2020.

“You’re all a victim of illegal aliens in this room — whether you’ve had tragedy or not,” said Mary Ann Mendoza, an “angel mom” from Arizona whose son, Sgt. Brandon Mendoza, was killed five years ago in an auto accident.
Kiyan and Bobby Michael, of Florida, spoke about their son, Brandon Randolph, who was killed 12 years ago by an allegedly twice-deported illegal immigrant.

“We don’t hate immigrants,” Kiyan said. “We don’t have that in us. We love immigrants. It’s those who come here illegally.”
Though the attendees and speakers railed against “illegals” broadly, their stories centered on Mexican immigrants. Many used “illegals” and “Mexicans” interchangeably.
The final speaker was Nick Fuentes, a far-right activist who attended the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and has been condemned by some on the political right as racist. Fuentes railed against both illegal and legal migration due to the “drastic consequences” of immigration from non-European, non-white countries. He argued that immigration into the U.S. should be shut down so that a “monoculture” can be created for “others to assimilate into.”

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

Mark 8:27-29 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
27 Jesus and his disciples went to the villages near the town of Caesarea Philippi. As they were walking along, he asked them, “What do people say about me?”
28 The disciples answered, “Some say you are John the Baptist or maybe Elijah. Others say you are one of the prophets.”
29 Then Jesus asked them, “But who do you say I am?”
“You are the Messiah!” Peter replied.
Jeremiah 33:14-18 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
14 The Lord said:
I made a wonderful promise to Israel and Judah, and the days are coming when I will keep it.
15 I promise that the time will come when I will appoint a king from the family of David,a king who will be honest and rule with justice.16 In those days, Judah will be safe;Jerusalem will have peace and will be named, “The Lord Gives Justice.”
17 The king of Israel will be one of David’s descendants, 18 and there will always be priests from the Levi tribe serving at my altar and offering sacrifices to please me and to give thanks.
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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Do you recognize those words? That is the opening paragraph to Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens was writing in 1859, just as the Civil War was about to break out in the United States. He was writing about 1789 and the French Revolution. He could just as well have been describing 2019.
Are we living in the best of times? The economy is strong. The stock market is up. Unemployment is down, but layoffs are up.
Farm bankruptcies are up 24% from 2018. Crops are still in the field. Our country is officially in a trade war with China. And let’s not even think about climate change. What we think won’t make any difference anyway. Two out of five Iowans are diagnosed with cancer, but treatments and life expectancy continue to improve. Mental health has become a priority in government and private institutions, but mental illness rates are increasing, especially among children and young adults. We have more information available to us than any people in history, but we don’t know if we can trust that information.
Best of times. Worst of times.
Jeremiah lived in the worst of times. He was a prisoner in a besieged city that was running out of food and resources. The enemy was outside the city walls. It was only a matter of time. Jeremiah had the misfortune of being a prophet. Prophets never have an easy life. They’re only popular when they have good news. When they have bad news, they are chased out of town or imprisoned or executed. Prophets in Jeremiah’s time spoke primarily to kings, who then could make decisions that would best benefit the people in his kingdom. Or at least that was how it was supposed to work. But if a king did not like the prophet’s message, he ignored it and did what he wanted, based on his human understanding. Jeremiah’s words did not reflect human understanding; they reflected God’s reality. God’s view is not always a pleasant view.
Jerusalem lay strategically at the crossroads between two mighty empires, Babylon and Egypt, thus making the city vulnerable from every direction to invasion. Because travelers passed through the city frequently, so did news of the growing armies of these countries. Imagine living in fear of armies marching toward your borders.
God had not been absent during these times of encroaching armies. God spoke through Jeremiah, to warn King Josiah and his successors to abandon false idols and return to the dedicated worship of the one true God. During King Josiah’s reign, the people did purify their religious practices, but as soon as King Josiah died, they returned to worshipping the idols, the gods of the surrounding cultures. God’s anger infused the words of Jeremiah’s prophecies. To abandon God is to abandon hope.
Even in the midst of destruction, even in the midst of God’s disappointment and anger, God offers hope.
Even while Jeremiah was imprisoned, even while Jerusalem was surrounded by the Babylonian army, God remembered God’s people and promised them that they would never be forgotten, even in defeat, even in exile. Listen to these words that must have given many hope for a better, happier future:
6 Then someday, I will heal this place and my people as well, and let them enjoy unending peace. 7 I will give this land to Israel and Judah once again, and I will make them as strong as they were before. 8 They sinned and rebelled against me, but I will forgive them and take away their guilt.
10 Jeremiah, you say that this land is a desert without people or animals, and for now, you are right. The towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem are deserted, and people and animals are nowhere to be seen. But someday you will hear 11 happy voices and the sounds of parties and wedding celebrations. And when people come to my temple to offer sacrifices to thank me, you will hear them say:
“We praise you, Lord All-Powerful!You are good to us, and your love never fails.”
The land will once again be productive. 12-13 Now it is empty, without people or animals. But when that time comes, shepherds will take care of their flocks in pastures near every town in the hill country, in the foothills to the west, in the Southern Desert, in the land of the Benjamin tribe, and around Jerusalem and the towns of Judah.
I, the Lord, have spoken.
14 The Lord said:
I made a wonderful promise to Israel and Judah, and the days are coming when I will keep it.
15 I promise that the time will come when I will appoint a king from the family of David, a king who will be honest and rule with justice.16 In those days, Judah will be safe; Jerusalem will have peace and will be named, “The Lord Gives Justice.”
17 The king of Israel will be one of David’s descendants, 18 and there will always be priests from the Levi tribe serving at my altar and offering sacrifices to please me and to give thanks.
25 Jeremiah, I will never break my agreement with the day and the night or let the sky and the earth stop obeying my commands. 26 In the same way, I will never reject the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or break my promise that they will always have a descendant of David as their king. I will be kind to my people Israel, and they will be successful again.
We need to hear those words today. We know that the Hebrew people returned from exile to rebuild Jerusalem. It took many years, it took more wars, but when Persia, under King Cyrus, conquered Babylon, the Hebrew people were allowed and even encouraged to return home to the lands they had been forced to abandon. We know that God kept God’s words.
Just as the actions of the Hebrew people brought about their hardship, so our actions bring about hardship. Our sins are not harmless; they impact our fortunes, and perhaps most dismaying, they unknowingly impact the lives of others. My demand for perfectly formed fruit year around forces farmers to adapt practices that may be harmful to them. My demand for cheap clothing forces children to work for pennies a day to construct my clothing.
We need to return to God on a daily basis. I am not talking about the people who no longer worship God. I am not talking about the people we wish would join us for worship. I am talking about us. We can try to legislate our version of God-fearing behavior, but it hardly ever works. The only people we can force to return to God are ourselves.
Where can we find hope today? There’s a movie out right now about a Presbyterian minister. This minister’s name is Mr. Rogers. He left a legacy of hope to thousands of children. Where can we find hope today, in the midst of violence and destruction? Mr. Rogers left us with these wise words: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
You will always find people who are helping. That is where I find hope. Whether we know it or not, when we are helping we are helping in the name of Jesus. Jesus taught us how to be the humans God intended. God did not create us to hurt each other. God created us to help each other. As Christians, we have eternal hope, eternal hope that we will be reunited with God in a time and place that has no destruction, no sorrow, no evil.
This Advent Season is a time of waiting, a time of preparing. My hope is that we use this season to renew our anticipation of bringing the kingdom of God into this broken world, knowing that even when we don’t succeed, we have the God-given hope to keep trying. God has given us the ability, through Jesus Christ, to turn the worst of times into the best of times. Amen.