Text: John 3:1-21
The NFL playoffs are well underway, and that brings back memories. How many big games have we watched where the kicker is getting ready for a field goal, the camera focuses on the end zone, and somebody holds up a big sign that says John 3:16.
You don’t see that much anymore, and I kind of miss it. The John 3:16 sign was presumably an attempt at evangelism, or at least it started that way although after awhile it may have become just a fun tradition. But in recent years they have tightened up on security, and it is a little harder to carry a big sign into the stadium. (Although having said that, somebody will probably hold up that sign this afternoon).
But don’t fear! Others have taken up the mantle. If you shop at Forever 21, it turns out that John 3:16 is stamped on the bottom of their shopping bags. To be honest, I don’t shop at Forever 21 a lot and I just learned this - it's been going on for years.) And if you go on Amazon this afternoon, Tin Haul Shoes sells a John 3:16 cowboy boot. It has a crown of thorns circling the top of the boot and a cross and John 3:16 on the bottom. They have it in stock in my size for $326.99, with free Amazon Prime shipping. In the reviews, one person said that he bought the boots for evangelism – he sits and crosses his leg so people can see the bottom of the boot.
The problem with these efforts is that the intended audience would seem to be people who in many cases would be completely unfamiliar with the Bible. Some probably would not know John 3:16 from John Deere or John F. Kennedy.
On the other hand, a good number of folks, whether they are particularly religious or not, may be familiar with John 3:16 because it is probably the best-known verse in the Bible. Can you say it with me? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Most of us memorized that verse in the King James, of course.
Our text today begins when Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a Jewish leader, comes to Jesus at night. If it had been a chapter earlier, he may have come in the daylight, but after that incident with driving out the money changers from the temple, Jesus’ popularity has dropped significantly, and Nicodemus doesn’t want to publicize this visit. Jesus tells him that no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born anew, born from above, born again. As Jesus explains what this means, you may have noticed some pretty weird stuff going on, particularly in verse 14. “… Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
We may have memorized John 3:16, but most of us haven’t memorized that verse. This refers to an obscure story in Numbers about a time when after the Israelites escaped out of Egypt, the people started complaining about all of the hardships, and about then there was an outbreak of poisonous snakes. It was the conviction of the people that God had sent these snakes because of their complaining, so they asked Moses to pray for them. God told Moses to make a snake and put it on a pole. So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and whenever someone was bit by a snake, they were to look at this snake on a stick and they would be healed.
The comparison drawn is that just as those who looked at the snake lifted up would find healing, those who look to Jesus on the cross will likewise find healing.
We often may think of John 3:16 in terms of how – it tells us how we are to come to faith: by believing in Jesus. This morning, I would like for us to think about this most familiar of verses in terms of why. Why does God send Jesus? Why does God provide salvation? The answer is, “God so loved the world.”
We need to hear these words – maybe more than ever. It is easy to fall into the idea that God loves us, and while God may love others, it is probably not as much as God loves us. There is a long history of signing God up to cheer for one’s own side. It’s funny, but in wars, everybody seems to think that God is on their side. And that includes wars of words.
It is the conviction of our faith that God created the world, indeed, God created us and everything in this world. Even those snakes – whether you put the snake on a stick or not, God created it. God created the continents and the oceans, the mountains, the forests, plant life – corn and soybeans as well as daffodils and honeysuckle. God created the birds and the fish and deer and chipmunks and you and me.
God created this world, and God loves this world. Not just parts of it, all of it. God so loved the world. Why did God take on human flesh? Why was Jesus born and walk this earth and heal and teach and love? God so loved the world. Why did Jesus die on the cross? God so loved the world.
Robert Coles is a child psychiatrist, now in his 90’s. He is an Emeritus Professor at Harvard. Coles’ life’s work was research on children under stress. Back in 1960, he was put in charge of a psychiatric hospital in Biloxi, Mississippi. One day, while in New Orleans, he passed by a school where there were a bunch of demonstrators. He discovered that these people were protesting that an African-American child named Ruby Bridges was allowed to go to the school. She was escorted each day to and from school by federal marshals to ensure her safety because the local police would not protect her from the crowds who yelled and screamed and threatened this six year old girl.
There was more. The school had been totally boycotted by the white population. So as the school year began, here was a six-year-old black child going to a school all by herself in the fall of 1960. This is part of our American history.
Coles was interested in doing a study of the social stress Ruby was facing. With the help of Thurgood Marshall and Kenneth Clark, a black psychologist that he knew in New York, Coles eventually was able to make contact with Ruby’s family. Twice a week, he would go to visit, sometimes with his wife. He would ask Ruby how she was doing, and she always said, “I’m doing fine.” He talked to her mother and found that Ruby was sleeping well, her appetite was good, she had fun playing with her friends, she was learning to read and enjoyed that, she didn’t seem to be anxious or upset. This went on for months.
Coles thought that everyone was in denial, that this was their coping mechanism, but it went on. A few months later, Ruby’s teacher told him that she couldn’t understand how the child could be so happy and cheerful after facing the mobs, 50-75 people, twice a day, every day she went to school.
Ruby lived in poverty. Her parents were illiterate – they couldn’t even write their own names. They worked long hours at menial jobs for little pay. They were going through tremendous strain. And yet, Ruby seemed better adjusted than the children of well-to-do parents facing significantly less stress that Coles saw in Boston all the time. He couldn’t figure it put.
Then one day, the teacher told Coles that she had seen Ruby talking to the people on the street. He followed up when he visited Ruby’s home that night. “Ruby, your teacher told me she saw you talking to people on the street.”
“Oh, I wasn’t talking to them,” she said. “I was just saying a prayer for them.”
“Ruby, you pray for the people there?” “Oh, yes.” “Why do you do that?” “Because they need praying for.”
Ruby’s mother came into the room--she had been listening to this line of inquiry. “We tell Ruby that it’s important that she pray for the people.” She said that Ruby prayed for them all every night. Ruby had been told in Sunday School to pray for the people. Coles discovered that the pastor at their Baptist church also prayed for these people. Publicly. Every Sunday.
Ruby told him that the minister said that Jesus went through a lot of trouble and that Jesus said about the people who were causing trouble, “Forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.”
She was six years old. Six years old. And better than most of us, she understood that God loves the whole world.
We could all learn a lot from Ruby Bridges. Instead of demonizing those who are different, instead of living as though God loves part of the world – our part of the world - instead of thinking of other nations as threats to be feared and defeated, what if we thought of them as part of this world that God loves?
I’m thinking there are a lot of places that could use those John 3:16 signs. As our Congress deliberates, and our state legislature and city council meet, maybe we need to hold up a sign, “God Loves the Whole World.”
As we make decisions that impact the environment – our land and water and air – as we face the prospect of increasing climate change - maybe somebody needs to hold up a sign, “God Loves The Whole World.”
As we think about children out there who may not be our own children, we need to be reminded that yes, they are our children – and we need to hold up a sign, “God Loves the Whole World.”
As we make purchases and deposit checks and make decisions about what to do with our money, maybe somebody needs to hold up a sign for us, “God Loves the Whole World.”
Taking John 3:16 seriously – taking the message of Jesus seriously – moves us from Me to We. It moves us from concern for ourselves and those just like us to concern for others, concern for those who may be very different from us.
I think of the early Baptists, a persecuted minority who struggled for the right to worship as their conscience dictated. Because of that history, because of that experience, they argued passionately for the rights of all people, even people they did not personally agree with. We have lost some of that. We need to be reminded, God loves the whole world.
It’s not just a sign to hold up at the Super Bowl, or put on shopping bags and boots. It is a sign that we maybe need to put on our desks, and post on our refrigerators, and dangle from our rear view mirrors, and most of all just get it into our heads: God loves the whole world.
You. Me. Friends. Enemies. Neighbors. Strangers. Old. Young. Men. Women. Gay. Straight. Democrat. Republican. Christian, Jewish, Muslim. American. Iranian. Haitian. Mexican. Russian. Guatemalan. Even Hawkeyes. All of us. No exceptions.
God so loved the world. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Saturday, January 22, 2022
Text: John 3:1-21
Text: John 2:13-22
While I was in seminary, I spent a summer working at a church in my hometown as youth minister. And I remember a controversy that broke out in that church. A local hospital wanted to increase its community outreach by offering wellness classes. Our church was approached and asked if we would be willing to host aerobics classes. The hospital would pay rent for use of the building.
It sounded like a win-win, right? Opportunities for health and wellness would be extended in the community and the church would be a partner in a worthwhile program. It would be good publicity and good stewardship of the space, and there would be some income, not a lot but enough to pay for utilities and cleaning and maybe a little more.
So I was taken aback when there was pretty strong opposition voiced at the monthly business meeting. Why were people so opposed to this idea? Were they concerned about wear and tear on the facilities? Had there been a bad experience with the hospital’s programs? Did they think the income might be a headache for tax purposes?
No, nobody was concerned about anything like that. The problem was, Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the temple. And if money was changing hands in the church building, it was wrong. Period.
Being a young seminary student and not knowing any better, I spoke up and advocated for the plan. But as you might guess, the proposal did not pass. Later, one woman told me she should have spoken up but she was too stunned to say anything. She told me that she had been in a terrible depression a few years before, and as far as she was concerned, aerobics had pretty much saved her life.
All of this is to say that I have a history with this passage, and it has been interpreted in various ways over the years, not all of which are especially helpful. To be fair, it is not an easy story.
I think what we notice first - what really grabs us – is how angry Jesus is. This is not the way we generally think of Jesus. So far in John, there haven’t been any big controversies and Jesus has not encountered opposition. His disciples follow him gladly and then he turns water into wine at a wedding. It’s not like his patience finally wears out or that he just snaps from the constant opposition.
It’s Passover. The biggest celebration of the year. Everyone is thrilled to be at the temple at Passover. The cheerfulness of the crowd is in stark contrast to the anger of Jesus. What is Jesus’ problem? Why is Jesus so angry?
Now, the temple was an enormous complex. There were four parts. The most outlying part was an outside court, the Court of Gentiles. Anyone could go there. For a Gentile who was drawn to God, this was as far as one could go. Closer was the Court of Women. Closer still was the Court of Israelites—only the men could go there, and this was where worship took place. And then there was the Holy of Holies, where only the priests could go.
Jesus was observing what was going on in the Court of Gentiles. Everyone who came to worship had to pay the temple tax. People brought their Roman money with them – it was the coin of the realm. But a Roman coin, bearing the image of Caesar, was considered a graven image, and the temple tax had to be paid with temple currency. And so, as a public service, a person could exchange one’s money for temple currency.
The Talmud, the Jewish commentary on the law, said that when worshipers came to exchange their currency for temple shekels, the moneychangers had a right to some gain. This was their livelihood and they were providing a useful service.
And then there were the animal sellers. Offering a sacrifice was a part of temple worship. For many, it would be difficult to bring an animal with you, especially if you were traveling a long way, and according to Leviticus, animals for sacrifice had to be perfect and unblemished. If you brought your own animal it might not pass the inspection. And so a lot of folks would purchase an animal at the temple.
Why did Jesus get so upset? Some have argued it was because the moneychangers and animal sellers were ripping off people, charging exorbitant fees and getting rich off people who were simply trying to do their religious duty and come to the temple for Passover.
Now I expect Jesus didn’t approve of shady business practices concerning selling animals and currency exchange, and that he had an issue with those who took advantage of those who had come to worship. But he doesn’t say that.
Imagine what it must have been like at the temple and how many animals there must have been there. Even if the vast majority were poor families who only offered a dove as a sacrifice, this was still a massive operation.
Archaeologists have uncovered a large dump outside the walls of the ancient city of Jerusalem, dating from around the time Jesus lived. The dump contained an unusually large proportion of animal bones, and analysis showed that the animals came from a wide geographical area. (You’ve got to love modern science.) Basically it confirmed the image that we get in scripture of this very large animal sacrifice operation. Animal sacrifice was a huge economic driver in ancient Jerusalem.
This is all happening in the outer court of the temple, the court of Gentiles. Remember, if you were a Gentile drawn to the Hebrew God, the only place you could go for worship was in the midst of this vast religious marketplace that must have been like a zoo. I mean, almost literally.
Jesus becomes angry. But he doesn’t just suddenly go off, impulsively; he seems very purposeful about this. The text says that he made a whip of cords. He takes cords and braids them together into a whip. There is drama. There is spectacle. There is a theatrical component to this.
Jesus uses the whip to drive the cattle and sheep from the temple. Then he overturns the moneychangers’ tables, with coins going everywhere. It is pandemonium. Jesus is livid. He is out of control.
Frankly, we are kind of shocked by Jesus’ behavior. What is his problem? He says, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” He drives everyone out. And John tells us, “He was motivated by zeal for his Father’s house.”
Jesus’ concern had to do with the temple itself - his Father’s house. Jesus wasn’t simply protesting economic exploitation or unfair trade practices; he was protesting the entire sacrificial system. He is protesting the way the entire temple operation. And to make it clear, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” People are scratching their heads, wondering what in the world Jesus is talking about. “It took 46 years to build this temple, what do you mean you will rebuild it in three days?”
John tells us that he is talking about the resurrection, and the implication is that Jesus himself would be the temple where God’s Spirit dwells. Of course, nobody knew what he was talking about at the time, but later they looked back and remembered.
Sometimes, to change things, you have to upset the tables. The prophets had spoken against transactional religion for a long time. Samuel said to King Saul, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice.”
And the prophet Micah had asked, “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil?” And the answer was, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God?”
The sacrificial system had not only grown to overshadow doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God, it had become big business. It had become the tail wagging the dog.
By Jesus’ actions, he was saying No to the selling of salvation. What had once been a symbol of one’s commitment and repentance had become a matter of buying God’s blessing. And a person should not have to have material resources in order to worship God.
With the worship taking place at the temple, belief or action or change of heart and life are not really a part of the equation. Commitment and involvement and service and mission have nothing to do with it. Doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God could be forgotten with this transactional, Marketplace Religion.
This weekend we are remembering the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. King pastored the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, a sister American Baptist congregation. Dr. King led our nation to move toward racial justice and equality. Lord knows we have a long way to go on that dream, and King faced opposition and hatred and violence along the way. But what really got King in trouble was when he questioned economic systems. And we don’t hear about that so much.
Speaking at the Riverside Church in 1967, Dr. King said, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing‐oriented’ society to a ‘person‐oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered… A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”
King spoke those words over 50 years ago, and they sound as though they could have been said yesterday. Like Jesus, King called us to put people first.
That church back in my hometown had it right that Jesus did not want the church to be a marketplace. But they completely missed the point of Jesus’ actions and the kind of religious marketplace he was protesting. Jesus doesn’t really care about our car washes or rummage sales or pancake suppers, or renting a fellowship hall out for aerobics classes. Actually I think he might like a good pancake supper. What Jesus was really worked up about was putting up barriers to keep people from worship, and creating religious systems that can actually keep people from living faith in God.
For us it can be a lot more subtle than it was at the temple in Jerusalem, but we can create our own sacrificial system. Get out of bed, come to church, sing the songs, try to stay awake, stand for the benediction, go back home. We made our sacrifice and God is lucky to have us on God’s team. We fulfilled our duty and as a result we will be blessed.
When we have rules about who is welcome in church, we are basically saying that if you pay the price of admission by dressing a certain way, then God accepts you. When we give the message that those of certain education or with a certain sophistication or with a certain cultural point of view are more welcome than others, we are setting a price of admission to worship and making God’s house into a marketplace.
When we give off the message that you need to have your life together, at least to a certain extent, before you can really fit in here, we are setting a price of admission and making God’s house into a marketplace.
And as Dr. King warned us, when we by our action or inaction support systems that widen the gap between those who can afford a bull and those who can’t even afford a pigeon, we have turned our backs on God’s justice, and our worship is empty.
This is a tough passage of scripture, but here is what I think it is really about: this is Jesus’ angry, loving disruption drawing us back to the heart of God. Amen.
Text: John 2:1-11
Everybody wants to have a picture-perfect wedding where the church or venue is beautiful, the ceremony goes off without a hitch, and everyone has a wonderful time. But because people can have such highs hopes and expectation, when things go wrong it can be magnified. And the way life works is, stuff happens.
When I was in college, I was a groomsman in some friends’ wedding in Cincinnati. Sally and Ron were trying to light the unity candle and Sally dropped her candle on the open Bible on the table. A Bible going up in flames is not the image you really want to begin your marriage.
There was a wedding rehearsal in Illinois where I was off in a side room with the groom and groomsmen, waiting to enter the sanctuary when the organist began the processional. There was a woman at this rehearsal who seemed to be semi-in charge of things. So I asked who the woman in the orange dress was, and one of the groomsman let out an expletive to describe this woman. That’s when I remembered my microphone was on. We were pretty scared for a moment, but fortunately, nobody was paying attention to anything at this rehearsal, and no one noticed what this guy said.
And then there was the wedding where the bride and groom were to come down the aisle to recorded music. The song was by Luther Vandross, “Here and Now, I promise to love faithfully.” Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. The usher who was to unroll the aisle runner, an uncle of the bride, was nowhere to be found. He was out taking a smoke or something.
We waited and waited until finally, the maid of honor said, “I’ll do it, and she pulled the runner all the way down the aisle, unrolling it, and then came back to take her place.
The problem was that by the time the bride and her father were ready to enter the sanctuary, the song was over. The cassette – this was back in the olden days – went on to the next song. The next song was, “Love the One You’re With.”
Things can go wrong at weddings. But this is no recent phenomenon.
In the first chapter of John’s gospel, we have the prologue, which speaks of Jesus as the Word become flesh; then Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist. After that, he begins to call his disciples, Andrew and Simon and Philip and Nathaniel, which we looked at last week.
Then we come to our text for today. After these preliminary stories, on the third day – apparently 3 days later - Jesus attends a wedding. Jesus’ mother was there, and then we are told that Jesus and his disciples were also invited. Which is interesting, since Jesus had just met his disciples 3 days before. But generally, the whole community was invited to such an occasion. The wedding is in Cana, near Nazareth.
A wedding in that culture was like having a massive open house that could go on for days - eating and drinking and dancing. The wedding was all about joyous celebration with family and friends.
The poor, which included most of the population, had cheese and bread and olive oil for their basic diet, with water to drink for most of their meals. The water was often of poor quality, but that is what they had. Wine was a cash crop and while many worked in the production of wine, the poor had little wine to drink, just as they had little meat to eat.
It is still that way in a lot of places. Those who work in the harvest don’t necessarily share in the harvest. I was in Costa Rica a few years ago. People there tend to drink coffee with warmed milk and sugar. The reason is that for many years, all of the really good coffee was exported. You could be living in an area that produced some of the best coffee anywhere, but all you could get yourself was the B or C grade stuff. The coffee they drank wasn’t very good, so everybody put milk and sugar in it.
For much of the population in Israel, when they had wine, it was wine of a poor quality. But a wedding was different. A wedding was a time for extravagance. A family would scrimp and save in order to do it right. There would be plenty of food and there would be good wine.
Somewhere through the course of this wedding, long before the celebration is over, the wine runs out. Mary seems to be an insider here – perhaps a close friend of the bride’s family, or maybe she is related. She gets wind of this and reports it to Jesus.
For the wine to run out in mid-party would be a great embarrassment. People would talk about it for years to come. “Remember the Cohen wedding, when the wine ran out? Oy! What a disaster.”
For the family, this would have been a social faux pas, a great embarrassment. But Jesus does not seem especially concerned. His response to his mother seems rather harsh. “Woman, what concerns is this of ours? My time has not yet come.” In the first place, it seems just tacky and disrespectful to call your mother “woman.” In English, it just wouldn’t happen. It is not so harsh in Greek, but still, it is rather impersonal.
Jesus seems to be saying, “It’s not our problem, and besides, this is not the time for me to act.” Mary seems to have some insight into what Jesus is capable of. Jesus is saying, either, “It’s not time for me to go public,” as though he has a strategy for that, or he is saying “To publicly display my power is going to set things into motion that I am not ready for.” My hour is not yet come.
But Mary seems to have no doubts about it. “Do whatever he tells you,” she says to the servants. Again, she seems to know the servants.
Mary knew her son. Despite whatever misgivings he may have had, Jesus does something. There were six very large stone jars used to hold water for Jewish rites of purification. Jesus told the servants to fill them, all the way to the brim, and then draw some out and give it to the chief steward – basically the head waiter.
They did what Jesus asked – and the water had become wine. Not just any wine, but fine wine, far better than what had been served up until that point. The steward was amazed. Everybody serves the good stuff first, and then when people’s senses are perhaps dulled a bit they bring out the cheap stuff. But the chief steward says to the bridegroom, “You have saved the good wine until now!” Of course, the groom had no idea what he was talking about, but he wasn’t arguing.
Now, one of the details that is easy to miss is the amount of wine we are talking about here. There were 6 large stone jars that held water for rites of purification. These would typically hold 20 to 30 gallons each. So we are talking about a huge quantity of wine – 120 to 180 gallons. We are given this detail about the jars in order to point out the extravagant way that Jesus responds. When Jesus supplies a need, he really supplies a need.
Like most of what goes on in John, there is meaning at two levels in this story. First, there is the very practical level. Wine is running out and the party is going to fall flat on its face. This will be an embarrassment for this family, and so Jesus acts.
This was not a life or death circumstance, but it mattered to someone. It mattered to this family. One of the things we learn here, right at the outset, right at the beginning of the gospel of John, is that if it matters to someone, then it matters to Jesus. If it matters to you, it matters to Jesus.
Jesus’ first miracle - or sign, as John calls it - is not some big, splashy, pyrotechnic event. In fact, hardly anyone even knows about it. Mary and the servants and Jesus’ disciples are the only ones in on it. The bride and groom don’t know, the guests don’t know, the chief steward who discovers that the good wine has been saved for later does not know. The miracle is not for public consumption. John calls it a sign but the irony is that hardly anyone sees it.
Miracles are not just for those extraordinary moments. Miracles are not just for the holiest persons among us. And perhaps, each day is filled with miracles if only we will look and listen. How many times a day are we blessed in ways we don’t even realize? How many miracles are there around us of which we are unaware?
Perhaps there are miracles all around us, miracles in abundance. It is important for us to know that even those matters which are not life and death are important to Jesus. If it matters to us, it matters to Jesus.
This is one level, the obvious, up-front level of meaning. But John always seems to have more than one thing going on at a time. It is helpful to know the symbolic importance of wine in Israel. Our call to worship, from Psalm 104, kind of summarizes the Hebrew understanding of wine when it says that “wine to gladden the human heart” is a gift of God.
Wine was so vital to the culture and economy of Israel, that it took on important theological significance. Wine was used throughout the Scriptures as a symbol of holy joy. Wine was not just something to drink, but it was a powerful metaphor that everyone understood.
And what does Jesus do? He provides wine in great abundance, extravagantly providing far more than was needed. This is not just about a beverage for a wedding; it is about God’s grace. It is about God’s love and care and welcome that is poured out for everyone – for the whole community. It is about grace that God pours out to us when we are feeling empty, when our spirits are depleted, when the well is running dry. Jesus is the connection to a deep and boundless spring of God’s grace.
Now, one more thing: it is interesting that Jesus said, “My hour has not yet come,” but he acted anyway. It was not his intention to perform his first sign. But he does.
Basically, Jesus had a Plan A, but life intervened. Jesus was flexible enough to make up Plan B on the fly.
That’s life, right? We may have a Plan A, but we often have to go to Plan B, and maybe Plan C or D. The Good News is that God provides new wine in the midst of the losses and disappointments and general disruption of life. God is there when Plan A doesn’t work out. God is there when life takes an unexpected turn. God is there when the wine runs out.
Some of you have known tragedies that could make you sour or angry or completely defeated, but you are not.
Some of you have been so bruised by life that you could become cynical and hardened, but you are not.
The last couple of years have been very hard for a lot of people. The pandemic could have just sapped our spirits – but it hasn’t.
Some of you have honestly faced challenges and new realities and with God’s help, you have been open to new possibilities, new approaches, new people, new ways of living. Jesus is there when the wine runs out.
For all the times that things do not go the way we had planned, for all the ties that the wine runs out, Jesus is there. The well never runs dry, and in whatever circumstance, Jesus pours out grace upon grace. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Text: John 1:35-51
A Happy New Year to all of you! Looking at the forecast a couple of days ago, I wasn’t sure we would be meeting here this morning, but I am glad I did not have to get out the snow blower this morning. And the wind chill when people needed to leave to go to church was only 12 below, not 25 below, so here we are – although there may be a few more than usual on Zoom today, and it’s nice to be able to do that..
Since the Sunday after Labor Day, we have (mostly) been following the Narrative Lectionary, a set of scripture readings for each Sunday that sees the Bible as a continuing story, a narrative. Over the course of a year, we cover a pretty wide variety of Biblical material. We began with the book of Genesis and the story of creation. Through the fall we hit some of the great stories of the Old Testament – Jacob and Esau, manna in the wilderness, God calling the boy Samuel and the anointing of King David. We heard from the prophet Isaiah. We looked at Jesus’ Advent and birth, and now we are in the gospel of John. We will be in John through Easter, taking in a story or episode from the gospel each week as we follow the life of Jesus.
This morning we have this very interesting passage from the first chapter of John, which tells about the calling of the first disciples. How did they learn about Jesus? How did they come to follow Jesus? How did this whole movement get started? On this first Sunday of the New Year, we will be looking at what is in a sense a story of beginnings.
John reports on how the ball got rolling, how a community began to form around Jesus, and what is perhaps remarkable about it is how laid back it all is. There is no pressure, no arm-twisting, really not a lot of drama about it.
John the Baptist – who you will remember is the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, and a cousin of Jesus - John had developed a following, with disciples of his own. Part of John’s message, of course, was that he was preparing the way and that one greater than him would come. One day, while John was with a couple of his disciples, Jesus walked by. John said, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” John basically says, “This is the guy,” and John’s disciples right away decide that they will follow Jesus.
The dialog is very interesting. Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” And they reply, “Where are you staying?”
What kind of answer is that? If someone asks you, “What are you looking for?” would you reply with “Where are you staying?”
Well, the word is actually a little stronger than “staying.” It’s more like, “Where are you abiding.” The question may have had to do with geography, but Jesus does not answer it that way. He doesn’t say, “I’m staying over there on Lynn Avenue, it’s the third house on the left.”
The deeper question is whether Jesus is the one for whom they have been looking. Where are you abiding? Where are you hanging out? What are you really about? What’s your story?
Maybe that is more of what they are asking, but still, Jesus doesn’t really answer. He just says, “Come and see.”
Come and see. You can’t really get the answer ahead of time. To get the answer, you have to follow Jesus. You get the answer through lived experience.
Now you may have already known this, or maybe you just noticed this morning, but John is somewhat different from the other three gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all follow pretty well the same story line and contain many of the same stories, much of the same teaching from Jesus. John is a little different. It was the last of the four gospels to be written. It is more theological in tone - not just reporting what happened but explaining it for us. Although explaining might be overstating it, because there always seems to be multiple layers of meaning, and in John, everything is not always spelled out.
In Mark, Jesus’ first words are “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” In John, Jesus’ first words are “What are you looking for?” and then “Come and see.” It is about looking and finding and inviting. As the gospel begins, Jesus makes no big dramatic claims. Now John does – he begins the gospel with a very theological prologue, saying “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.” We read those words on Christmas Eve. But Jesus himself simply says, “Come and see.” Check it out.
It is a low drama, very invitational way to call people - through their own curiosity and interest, a way that respects and honors their own experience. And that’s the way it actually works for many of us, maybe most of us.
Many years ago, what was then the American Baptist Convention had something called Life Service Sunday, a day to especially encourage people to consider ministry as a profession. In 1959 they published a brochure which told about how various leaders had been called to ministry. Joan Thatcher, publicity director of the American Baptist Convention, asked Martin Luther King, Jr. to compose a statement for that brochure. In her request, Thatcher noted, “Apparently many of our young people still feel that unless they see a burning bush or a blinding light on the road to Damascus, they haven’t been called.’
This is what King wrote:
My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular. It came neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road of life. Moreover, it did not come as a sudden realization. Rather, it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me. This urge expressed itself in a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry. At first I planned to be a physician; then I turned my attention in the direction of law. But as I passed through the preparation stages of these two professions, I still felt within that undying urge to serve God and humanity through the ministry.
During my senior year in college, I finally decided to accept the challenge to enter the ministry. I came to see that God had placed a responsibility upon my shoulders and the more I tried to escape it the more frustrated I would become. A few months after preaching my first sermon I entered theological seminary. This, in brief, is an account of my call and pilgrimage to the ministry.
For King, his calling was a process, a journey. It was a matter of, come and see.
Two potential disciples expressed interest in a life of faith with Jesus. And Jesus’ call to them was: come and see. And they did. These two followers of John become followers of Jesus.
One of them is identified as Andrew. He finds his brother Simon and says, “We have found the Messiah.” Which is a pretty strong description of Jesus, based on Andrew’s brief interaction with him, although I suppose he is going by John the Baptist’s word as well. But the fact is, at this point, he really has no idea what it means to be the Messiah. This is something that he will have to come and see. But he brings his brother Simon to Jesus and Jesus immediately calls him Cephas, or Peter, which means Rock.
The next day Jesus heads to Galilee. He finds Philip, from Andrew and Simon’s hometown, presumably a friend of these brothers, and says “Follow me.” And Philip does. And like Andrew who immediately went and found his brother, Philip immediately goes and finds his friend Nathanael. He tells Nathanael about Jesus of Nazareth.
Nathanael’s immediate response is, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ You’ve got to love that response. Nazareth was kind of a backwater, Podunk town, with Gentile and Samaritan territory nearby, Roman soldiers and citizens in the area, far from the good influence of the temple in Jerusalem. Nazareth was not exactly known for producing religious leaders, much less Messiahs. And so Nathanael understandably rolls his eyes.
Now, Philip might have tried to argue with Nathanael. Or he might have just let the comment slide and said, “Whatever, suit yourself.” But I like his response. It is the same approach that Jesus took. “Come and see.” Why don’t you check it out for yourself?
And Nathanael does. For his part, Jesus seems to appreciate Nathanael’s honesty and straightforwardness. “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” he says. And Nathanael winds up making a great profession of faith: “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Nathanael repeats some of the traditional language. At this point, he really doesn’t know what these words mean. But he has signed up to find out.
There are a great number of people who find meaning and value in being part of a community of faith. There are countless people who find love and healing and community through the church and who find hope and joy in following Jesus.
But the trend isn’t so great. Every year, surveys indicate that more and more people claim no religious affiliation. People read about misconduct on the part of church leaders or see self-proclaimed Christians who seem to be way more interested in political power than in serving a hurting world, and they are turned off.
Taking a stance of superiority and just assuming we are right and we have all the truth is not going to cut it. It’s not real attractive. I’ve had strangers knock on my door and tell me that I need to turn my life around, and I have to say that their message was not very compelling. I have heard preachers on campus yelling at students as they walk by, and their approach is not very effective.
There is a way of sharing the Good News that respects the other person. I love these words of Jesus that we also hear from Philp. “Come and see.” We can bear witness to our own experience and invite others to come and see for themselves.
To say “Come and See” is to honors each person’s unique experience. And we understand Jesus, we grow in faith, we come to know God as part of our journey. That journey may be different for each person, and it can take us places we never would have imagined. Faith can’t be completely explained in advance, if it ever can. It has to be lived.
We are at the beginning of a new year. It is an opportunity for a new beginning. And perhaps what Jesus is inviting us to do is to “Come and see.” That can mean not necessarily knowing where the journey is going, exactly, but trusting in the one with whom we are journeying. Jesus continues to say to each one of us, “Come and see.” Because following Christ is not a once-and-done thing – it is a daily choice, a continuing journey. Come and see. Amen.
Text: Luke 2:1-14
Traveling in the holiday season is a tradition for a lot of us. When Zoe was really little, we had an 8:30 Christmas Eve service at our church in Illinois. We loaded up the car with all of our stuff and presents before the service. As soon as it was over, we changed clothes, got the dog, and drove all night to Susan’s parents in Arkansas. It was easier traveling with a 2 year old that way. Zoe and the dog slept most of the way, but Susan and I were just wiped out on Christmas Day and in the end decided not to try that again.
A lot of you may be traveling over the holidays, or maybe someone is traveling to your house. It is wonderful to get together with loved ones, but whether you are driving or flying, the trip is not always so easy, and in this age of COVID it is even more difficult. The whole over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go routine is not always so exhilarating in real life. And that has always been the case.
Traveling is a huge part of the Christmas story. After being told by an angel that she will bear a holy child, the long-awaited messiah, Mary is told that her older relative Elizabeth, who was well past child-bearing age, was also with child. Mary decides to go and visit Elizabeth. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah lived in a small village near Jerusalem. It was at least a 5 or 6 day journey, maybe 8 or 9 days to journey from Nazareth on foot. Mary would have traveled along with others going to Jerusalem.
Elizabeth was an older, maternal figure who was not her mother – someone who would believe her, encourage her and hopefully help her make sense of what was happening.
So Mary makes this arduous journey and as soon as she walks in the door, we read that Elizabeth’s child, who was John the Baptist, leaped in her womb. Elizabeth said, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth and Mary comforted and helped one another as they shared in this amazing work of the Holy Spirit. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months and then returned to Nazareth. Another long journey. And now she is 3+ months pregnant.
So Mary had already made two long journeys. And then as the arrival of her child approached, there came the announcement that everyone would have to return to their hometown for the census – in order to be taxed. Joseph and Mary were formally engaged, which meant that legally, they were married. They made the long trip to Bethlehem, Joseph’s home town. Bethlehem was just a couple of miles from Ein Karem, the traditional site of Elizabeth’s home. Another long journey, but this time Mary was 9 months pregnant, which would have made it even longer. Perhaps Joseph was able to get a donkey for Mary for this trip.
It is hard for us to imagine how difficult that journey was - long, tiring, exhausting, dangerous, unpredictable. I wonder – those of you who have had children: how would you feel about a nine day journey on a donkey when you were nine months pregnant? It is almost unfathomable.
But this was not Joseph and Mary’s idea. They are not taking a vacation. Caesar Augustus has called for a census, and everyone has to go to their hometown. Joseph is living in Nazareth in Galilee, about 90 miles to the north, but Bethlehem is where he was from. Folks no doubt had to go to their family home because they might own property, or at least a share of property there, and they had to pay property tax.
And so many days of difficult travel ensue, Mary threatening to go into labor at any moment, and it is all so they can pay taxes to Rome. I am sure this did nothing to add to Caesar’s popularity; it is stuff like this that can really make you really hate an invading, occupying power.
Count Mary and Joseph among the countless people down through the ages who have suffered under some soulless bureaucracy. They represent all of the poor, powerless, defenseless people who suffer under the whims of whatever Caesar happens to be in power. They represent all of those who are disrespected, oppressed, put down, and feel out of control.
Joseph and Mary go on this long, arduous journey at the worst possible time. Why? Because they have to. Once there, the best Joseph can do is find a stable where they can stay - maybe because it offered more privacy than a bunch of relatives in a small home - and that is where Mary winds up having the baby. This is not at all what she had planned.
They go to Bethlehem so that they can be counted, but the irony is, they really don’t count – not to Rome. They are nobodies. Their only hope, if they have any hope, is not in Caesar Augustus, not in the power of Rome or the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, but in the God of Israel, who is with them through this long journey.
Tom Long points out that as American power and influence grew over the last century, hope became a casualty.
We became more confident of our strength and promise, and we began to imagine ourselves as those who need no hope. Who needs hope when you have unfettered progress? Instead, we began to express our longings for the future as “hope nots”: I hope the stock market doesn’t crash… I hope my children don’t get hooked on drugs... I hope I don’t [have to go to a nursing home] – all expressions of the fact that we were steaming along complacently, simply hoping that no icebergs lay in our path.
A lot of folks come to the point where they feel they really don’t need anything beyond their own resources. If you have arrived, if you have it all together, if you have caring friends and a supportive family, if you have health and a good job and relatively few worries, then you don’t really need hope. If you are in such a place, as Long points out, “hopes” can become “hope nots”: we hope not to lose the good thing we’ve got going.
But life can change our minds pretty quickly. Losing a job, facing illness, losing a loved one, going through divorce, struggling with addiction, worrying about your children, watching someone you care about make terrible choices – we can quickly be disabused of the idea that we don’t need hope beyond ourselves. At some point, we all become Marys and Josephs, traveling a weary road that we did not necessarily choose.
It is 90 miles or so miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. A long, hard journey. According to Google Maps, it is 6393 miles from Ames to Bethlehem – that is in straight-line travel, although if we were to go to Bethlehem, we would certainly not travel in a straight line. It is a long way, but with modern travel, it’s really not so bad. You can leave at 8:10 AM tomorrow from Des Moines on United Airlines and after layovers in Chicago and Istanbul, arrive in Tel Aviv at 8:50 Tuesday morning local time. Another hour and a half in a vehicle and you are in Bethlehem.
We can get from Ames to Bethlehem more quickly and much more easily than Joseph and Mary did from Nazareth. If we wanted, we could make it all the way to Bethlehem and back to Ames and Mary and Joseph would still be traveling that difficult road along with others going toward Jerusalem for the census.
But for us, the road to Bethlehem is more a journey of the heart, a journey toward hope, a journey toward the wonder and promise and love that God sends into our world and into our lives, so often in unexpected times and places and ways.
Bethlehem was known as the ancestral city of David, and people hung on to that past. It had been hundreds of years since the time of King David, but for a lot of people, that was still what came to mind when they heard Bethlehem. A small town whose glory days were long past.
There were a few references to Bethlehem in the scriptures, including Micah speaking of the glory of Bethlehem. But these hopes seemed like a quaint idea, or something that was still yet a long way off. There were prophecies and dreams about a messiah coming from Bethlehem, but it is not as though anyone really expected anything to happen anytime soon. Depending on how you looked at it, Bethlehem’s best days were either long past, or somewhere out in the distant future. The present did not offer much promise.
But in a time of foreign occupation, when the nation was at a low point, and in this place with a glorious past and a possible future but not much of a present, Jesus was born. He was born not just in Bethlehem, but at a particular place – a stable, a place for animals, a most humble, inauspicious place, and that is where Mary gave birth.
Luke tells the story of that night. The child was born in a stable and placed in a manger - a feeding trough. We have head this story so many times that we have romanticized it, but I doubt that many of you would want to have a baby in a barn and then finally set that baby in a feeding trough because that is the only option you had. It wasn’t romantic, it wasn’t glamorous, it wasn’t comfortable, it wasn’t sterile or hygienic, it wasn’t easy.
That night, angels announced the birth – not to religious leaders, not to leading citizens, not to world leaders, but to shepherds – lowly shepherds, out working in the fields.
This was an unexpected birth in an unexpected place, announced to unexpected people. A common, humble birth. And it was a birth that brought great joy and great hope. It still brings joy and hope, because if the birth of Christ was celebrated by rough shepherds, then what the angels said was true: this really was good news of great joy for all people.
This season, some of us find ourselves, like Mary and Joseph, traveling a hard road that we may not have chosen. A road filled with pain, with obstacles, with hard choices.
A journey can be 90 miles or 6393 miles, but sometimes the journeys that take place in our hearts and souls can be the longest and hardest ones.
We can all reach the point where our own resources, our own strength and intelligience and good fortune are not enough. And when we reach that point, then maybe we are ready, maybe we are open, to the hope and the wonder to be found in Bethlehem. And we find that sometimes God arrives in unexpected ways, in unexpected places, even in the midst of our difficult journeys.
In Christmas, we celebrate the love of God who came to us in all the weakness and vulnerability of a baby born in an out of the way place in an out of the way country to young, poor, parents. A birth announced by angels to lowly shepherds. Good News of Great Joy to all people.
Kate Compston offered a prayer which speaks to the joy that may found on the road the Bethlehem:
Thank you, Scandalous God, for giving yourself to the world, not in the powerful and extraordinary, but in weakness and the familiar: in a newborn baby.
Thank you for offering, at journey’s end, a new beginning; for setting, in the poverty of a stable, the richest jewel of your love; for revealing, in a particular place, your light for all nations.
Thank you for bringing us to Bethlehem, where the empty are filled, and the filled are emptied; where the poor find riches, and the rich recognize their poverty; where all who kneel and hold out their hands are unstintingly fed.
It can be a long and arduous road to Bethlehem. But at the end of that road, we find hope and joy. Love came to us in Bethlehem, and that Love is with us, even here, even now. Amen.
Text: Isaiah 11:1-9
As teams went through the handshake line after a high school basketball game, a player on the opposing team sucker punched a Nevada player, hitting him in the abdomen and then the jaw and briefly knocking him out. That student is facing felony charges. The incident was widely reported on the local news and found its way to national media. The video has been downloaded millions of times. The very next night, there was an altercation after players shook hands at another Iowa high school basketball game. Thankfully no one was injured or arrested at that game.
It is sad, but in a way those incidents are a commentary on the state of our society and really the state of our world right now. We do not know how to deal with conflict in constructive ways. We can have trouble dealing with differences. This is by no means a high school phenomenon; our children learn what has been modeled for them, and this is what they see every day. Hatred and division and violence are more or less in the air we breathe.
The traditional theme for this second Sunday of Advent is peace. We recall the angel’s song: “Peace on earth, goodwill to all people.” How we long for that – for our children, for our community, for our schools, for our nation, for our world. For ourselves.
In the chapter preceding our reading for today, Isaiah writes, “The Lord of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.”
The nation of Judah had seen a procession of mostly lousy rulers. Corrupt kings who turned their backs on God, who had no concern for justice, and now the nation was now reaping the fruits of turning from the Lord. It was a dark time. The people were in captivity in Babylon, and the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. Judah was like a forest that had been clear cut. It is the stump of Jesse. How is that for a national identity? Jesse was the father of King David, and this is what his progeny had come to. This is what the nation had become - just a stump of a tree in a once proud forest.
We were at my mom’s over Thanksgiving. Whenever I am there I try to do some projects. Painting or repair or yard work or whatever needs done. Back in July, she had a lilac bush, a huge thing that had got to the point where it was about 1/3 lilac, 1/3 invasive vine, and 2/3 I don’t know what. I know that adds up to more than 3/3, but that is what it looked like. It was a mess. It was beyond saving, so we got the loppers and a chain saw and got after it.
So we were there at Thanksgiving and guess what? There was all kinds of new growth from that stump. There were shoots from the stump of what had been.
The nation was like a stump of a tree, a stump of what had been, a mere shadow of its former self – but that was not the end of the story. A branch shall grow from the roots. And now the prophet is speaking more of a person, saying that the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding and counsel and might.
This is one who will turn things around. With righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek. Those who have no standing, no say, no power, no influence shall find a friend in this coming one.
And then there is this amazing passage that we know as the peaceable kingdom. It is an image of those thought of as predator and prey living in peace.
I was taking our dog Rudy for a walk last week. Rudy is not a big dog - he is about the same size as our cat Harry. We are walking along when suddenly this big dog – I mean a huge dog – comes running straight at us from across the street. He is really moving and he is going right for Rudy. I was afraid he would attack Rudy and so I tried to get between them, and I was a little afraid he would go for me. I yelled at this dog and he backed off just a bit, and then a woman was yelling from across the street. “Rudy! Rudy! Get back over here!” It turned out that the big dog was also named Rudy. She was training him, she said, but it appeared that Rudy had a ways to go in his training.
I share this because according to our scripture, the results of this shoot from the stump of Jesse, this righteous branch, this coming ruler who would be filled with the Spirit of the Lord, filled with wisdom and understanding and faithfulness - the result of his coming would be peace.
The wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear – they would lie down together in peace. Lions would become vegans. And there would no longer be predators and prey.
This is a bit hard to imagine, because in my experience, it is hard enough just for dogs to get along with other dogs. And don’t even get me started on cats.
You have probably seen some of these videos on social media – where a mother tiger at the zoo adopts some orphaned piglets, or a Great Dane mother dog nurses some abandoned raccoon babies. Or a young deer becomes friends with the family pit bull and stops by at the same time every day so they can frolic in the yard for awhile.
These kinds of stories are sweet and endearing, but they can also serve to distract us from the really big issue: what about people? The nation of Israel had been the prey, the Assyrians were the predator. Now Judah was the prey and the Babylonians the predator. Would things ever be different?
We look throughout history and there have always been those who prey on others, who manipulate and cheat and abuse and take advantage of other people, other groups, other nations.
Our scripture this morning asks us to imagine a time when the lion shall lie down with the lamb and the cow and bear shall graze together. And we find that hard to imagine.
Lions eating straw? Children playing with poisonous snakes? Come on. This is not the way the world is.
And you know what, I think that is exactly the point. This is not the way the world is. Isaiah is calling us to have bigger imaginations, to see a reality beyond our present reality, to see a time when God’s reign becomes real. It takes imagination to grasp the breadth and depth of God’s will for this world, and it takes poetry to have any chance at all of describing it.
Isaiah lived in a time of turmoil. A time when hope was in short supply. But in the midst of all this, Isaiah has this soaring, wonderful vision of what God would do. It was a powerful vision of unexpected hope. And if there was anything the people wanted and longed for, anything they hoped for, it was peace.
This theme keeps occurring in Isaiah. A vison of turning swords into plowshares. Of studying war no more. Last week we read of boots and bloody garments burned as fuel for the fire. Garments of war were no longer needed.
At one of its lowest moments, Isaiah saw a glorious future that God had prepared, and at the least likely time, he shared a vision of peace. We read this scripture during Advent because we are reminded that at the least likely moment, in the most unlikely way, God broke into our world. And even today, in unexpected places, at unexpected times, through unexpected events and people, God breaks in, bringing peace where there is no peace.
To have such hopes for peace may seem naïve and even silly given the world we live in. But seen another way, having such dreams and visions can be a counter-cultural act of defiance.
The conventional wisdom may be that the poor may always be with us, don’t worry about it; but it is an act of defiance to believe that things can be better, that the world can be more fair, more equitable.
The conventional wisdom may be that people of different races and ethnicities and faiths cannot peacefully coexist. It is an act of defiance to live with and work with and befriend those who are different.
The conventional wisdom may say it’s a dog-eat-dog world, only the strong survive, you have to look out for #1. It is an act of defiance to put other values, like compassion and love and family and making a real difference, ahead of simply “getting ahead.”
Isaiah says that a shoot shall grow from the stump of pain and loss and broken dreams. He goes on to paint a picture of a transformed world. He speaks of a place where there are neither predators nor prey.
Isaiah foresees a world where there are no scam artists who take advantage of seniors, no pedophiles who abuse children, no drug dealers creating young addicts. It is a world where bullets are not used to settle disputes and where the strong do not take advantage of the weak. There will be no ill-treatment or corruption, and the vulnerable will not be in danger.
As hard as it may be to imagine peace in our world, it may be just as hard to imagine it in our own hearts. After many months of a pandemic that goes on and on, many months of exhaustion and anxiety and uncertainty and terrible loss, and with all of the heartaches and setbacks of life that we have to face, how we long for peace.
How we long for the peace of Christ, a peace that passes all understanding. How we long for the Prince of Peace to bring peace to our world and peace to our hearts. How we long for there to be peace on earth and goodwill toward all people.
Such hoping and such longing may seem naïve. But we remember that green shoot rising from a stump. And we remember that child who came to bring peace. Amen.
Text: Isaiah 9:1-7
On this first Sunday of Advent, we are beginning this season with one of the best-known advent texts, from the prophet Isaiah. The background of this moving passage is pure doom and gloom. The nation of Judah had been taken into captivity in Babylon. The first verse that Phyllis read for us recalls nearby nations that had fared far worse than Judah. There did not appear to be a lot to feel hopeful about.
Interestingly, the prophet writes in the past tense – as though all that was written had already taken place. The readers and hearers of this prophet understood the idea of the prophetic past. God’s action was so sure that the prophet wrote as though it was already accomplished.
Isaiah uses a variety of images and metaphors that make this such a rich passage. He begins by saying, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.
Most of us here have not experienced the kind of literal darkness that the people did when these words were written. For that matter, most of us have not experienced the same kind of darkness that most humans experienced for most of human history. Today we talk about light pollution – the phenomena of having so much light that it is hard to see the stars. We may have various devices charging in our bedrooms, with their little LED lights, and a dusk to dawn light outside, along with streetlights and maybe a motion detector light that may get set off by the wind, or by a squirrel or raccoon, along with vehicle lights driving past all through the night. It is never really dark, not like it was in a pre-electrified, pre-industrial society.
In other words, for the ancient Hebrews, when it was dark, it was really dark. And so if you were having a difficult time of it, you couldn’t wait until the dawn, until the break of day. The Psalmist wrote, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” There really was joy about the light of day breaking in.
Now in our own experience, what happens when we turn on a light? What changes? What is different?
With light we get clarity and awareness. We can get our bearings. Things are less scary. We feel less vulnerable, more in control.
To be out in the darkness in the ancient world was to be vulnerable – there were no streetlights, no flashlights, no cell phone lights, no emergency call boxes. And this described the state of the nation. This described the people. It was a very precarious time.
But here is the thing. When we turn on the lights, we see what was there all along. And so often, we realize that there was really nothing to be afraid of. For the Hebrew people, even in captivity, God was there the whole time. Even when we are feeling vulnerable and uncertain, God is there. The light is reassuring.
The image of darkness and light is powerful, and it is frequently used in scripture, but I do want to say that it can be powerful in ways that are damaging. In a racialized society, it is easy to say light is good, dark is bad. The hero wears white and the villain is dressed in black. There are all kinds of subtle ways that this goes on.
This is not about pigment. It is not about color at all. This is about clarity. This is about being able to see.
And so, those who are feeling afraid and vulnerable will gain awareness and clarity and security. There will be rejoicing. Isaiah compares the rejoicing to a couple of things. It will be like rejoicing at the harvest. Some of you farm or maybe grew up on a farm, and you understand how important the harvest is. The joy of the harvest means security, life, less vulnerability. You can pay the bills. You will make it through the winter. It means that you have made it through an anxious time. You can be happy that new green plants have emerged from the ground. You can be happy that a crop is growing and looking pretty good. But harvest is another level. It is joy. In an agrarian society like ancient Israel, there is a reason that pretty much all of the festivals were harvest festivals.
There will be rejoicing. Like the harvest, a joyful time. And then, it says, like people exult when dividing plunder. I have to say, I wish this verse were not in there. An image of war and violence. But again, it means that the war is over, and the people are no longer vulnerable. And so there is joy.
That is what the joy will be like. What is the reason for this coming joy – joy so sure the prophet uses the past tense? Three things are mentioned:
First, the yoke of their burden has burden lifted, and the rod of their oppressors broken like the day of Midian. This is a reference to a battle where Gideon led the Israelites and God said there were too many soldiers. So Gideon comes up with a smaller force and God says, it’s still too many. Gideon pares down the troops until finally, God tells Gideon to have the remaining warriors get a drink from a lake. Some cupped their hands to get water and some lapped it up like a dog. God said, just take the lappers. There were 300 warriors, a pitifully small force. They didn’t even use weapons, just clay pots and torches and trumpets. They smashed the pots and held up torches and blew the trumpets and it caused such a commotion that their enemies ran in fear and were done in by friendly fire, as it were.
The point was to show that it was God that brought the victory and not the Israelites. And so there would be a celebration because God would end their oppression in a powerful way.
And then, the boots of warriors and bloody garments were burned like fuel for the fire. Again, it is an image of a time when fighting is not necessary, when vulnerability and fear were gone away.
And finally – the big one, the one we have heard so many times.
For a child has been born for us,From darkness to light, from uncertainty to clarity, from vulnerability to safety, from oppression to joy – and it is all God’s doing. And it comes about through the birth of a child.
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
It is really interesting that a nation that was feeling vulnerable, that was experiencing powerlessness, would find hope in a child. I mean, a newborn child does not seem like the solution to vulnerability. A newborn child is the picture of vulnerability, the essence of vulnerability, right?
And yet, so often it is in children, in young people, that we find hope.
Ask a group of people where they find hope for the future and I can almost guarantee you that several will talk about young people they know who they find committed and inspiring. Some of those young people are in our church, and it gives us hope.
I think of college students who are studying here and going out to become teachers and engineers and scientists and veterinarians and people of faith who make a difference. I think of middle school and high school students who share their gifts and talents and are so much fun. I think of our younger children who are funny and kind and imaginative and thoughtful, and when we think of them we know that the future will be in good hands.
And in fact, many of us have hope because the younger generations today seem more concerned, more attuned to the big problems our world is facing. More concerned about global warming and care for the earth, less concerned about race and tribe and more concerned about including everyone. Children and young people can certainly be sources of hope.
But for Isaiah, this seems on a different level. A nation in captivity would find its hope in a child.
Passages like this gave hope to the Hebrews in captivity, and the people would indeed be freed and return to Jerusalem. It was prophetic hope that saw them through such times. Centuries later, Christians would read these verses and see in Jesus the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, a child who would bring a great light and a great hope.
Now, today is the beginning of the church year. The liturgical calendar begins with Advent, a time of preparation and anticipation leading to the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas. Christmas is followed by Epiphany, and then after a few weeks comes the season of Lent, concluding with Holy Week and the great joy of Easter. The season of Easter, 50 days, culminates with Pentecost, when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit and the establishment of the Church. Then there are many weeks of what is called Ordinary Time, or simply Sundays after Pentecost, ending with Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday, celebrating Christ’s rule over creation. And then we start with Advent again. And do the same thing. Again and again, over and over.
That is the way the church year works. And really, that is the way life works. It is the same thing, over and over and over. Same as it ever was. Nothing is really new. And yet it is not the same thing over and over. Because we are always different. We change. We grow and learn, hopefully. And it is not the same thing over and over because the world keeps changing and so the way we see and understand is always changing. This year is not like last year and last year certainly wasn’t like the one before. And by God’s grace we become open to new light, to new clarity, to new understanding. We become open to serving God in new ways.
And so life and faith are always the same and always different. Church is always the same and always different. But for things to really be different, for change to really happen, there has to be hope. It begins with hope. I mean, we can start with complete hopelessness, and that is no doubt where many of the people were when Isaiah wrote these words – and no doubt where many are today. But something has to bring a glimmer of hope. We can live without a lot of things, but we cannot really live without hope. The prophets spoke honestly about how things were and in the midst of that brought hope to a beleaguered people. They spoke of the coming of Christ, and Christ continues to bring us a great light and a great hope.
For a child has been born for us,Our great hope is that in Christ, God will take our vulnerability and fear and our captivity to all sorts of things and bring security and joy and freedom and life. It is not just the same thing over and over again. We have a great hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.