The third week of Advent is often labeled Gaudete, Latin for Rejoice! It’s a command word. But commanding someone to rejoice is a non-starter. True Joy is pulled out of us. It is the natural reaction of the loved seeing the lover. This sermon reflects on these themes and how God coming from outside of us brings for that Rejoicing.
I’ve just start reading this book, only just past the theses declarations, but I’m somewhat amazed at them. The book is supposed to be the culmination of a generations scholarship on sexuality in the ancient world. And that culmination is supposed to be the upsetting of prior or simplistic thinking. This is what is startling to me: his theses are more or less what I have been taught my entire benighted life in the church and that horrible bastion of it called the LCMS. My guess at what that means is that scholarship is now distant enough from the church that it can “discover” the church’s understanding and roughly agree with it without really knowing.
How does that intersect with a small parish sermon. Well, the text is Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. (Our kids program is next week, so instead of doing John the Baptist, The Return we took Advent 4’s texts on Advent 3.) And Matthew’s account is really about the virgin birth. Coming off of the genealogy, Matthew had something to explain and an Old Testament prophecy to link in (Isaiah 7:14). In the ancient world (which the modern world is growing ever closer to) shame was the regulatory principle. Actions were governed less by any personal sense of a cosmic right and wrong but more by a social agreement upon what is honorable and what brings dis-honor or shame. The gospel disrupts all of that. It is a proclamation of freedom. Freedom from shame and freedom for right action. The core of the shame system was slavery. A slave could not have honor, so it didn’t matter how they were treated. And many were treated as sex slaves. It was an everyday occurrence. So, sexuality would be a defining sphere of shame. Caesar’s wife had to be beyond repute because Caesar was at the top of the honor pyramid and less than that would bring shame. And you can fill in the rest from slave to Caesar and all the forms of human sexuality.
Now the Jews had a much better grasp of sin or personal adherence to a cosmic code, but they were always fighting the honor system. Think of every time Jesus goes to a meal with the Pharisees and takes note of how they are sitting(Luke 14:7) or mocks those who like to parade around in fancy clothes (Mark 12:38-40). Pure honor/shame status clubs. Hence why Jesus calls the woman giving two mites better because she is much closer to the cosmic standard of justice.
Then comes the story of Joseph and pregnant Mary. This is pure shame vs. sin. Mary is sinless. The child is from the Holy Spirit. This is how God has chosen to act. How God has chosen to act, if Joseph goes along with it will bring him great shame. His village was still calling Jesus “Mary’s Child” at the start of his ministry (Mark 6:3). Honor/shame called for stoning. God said this is how I am going to save my people. Honor/shame says that God couldn’t be associated with anything that is shameful or lowering of status. God is born as a baby from a humble virgin. God is Immanuel in the midst of his people. In the midst of their shame. And he brings grace. And grace itself is shameful, because you can’t pay it back, because you are not in control.
God is no respecter of shame. He does care about sin and the law, but he also has given the remedy. Jesus, who saves His people from their sins.
I attempted something in this sermon through a couple of methods that I think most people would say don’t. John the Baptist is an enigmatic figure. He was a huge deal to those in Jesus’ time. The whole “there is not one greater born of woman” phrase that Jesus employs. John had disciples that lasted long in to the first century. The apostles in Acts run into them as “ones who’ve had the baptism of John” but didn’t know about Jesus. Even in secular literature John gets more time. Josephus records the extent of the Baptist’s following which was enough to cause Herod to come after him. But in our day and for most of Christian history John is just an almost forgotten per-cursor. He would have liked that. “He must become greater, I must become less.” But preaching from John to me has renewed vitality. My intention was to create the picture of how we and those people streaming out to John are very close, probably closer than we have been for at least 500 years if not 2000. Want to hear more of that take a listen.
The pay-off is that the proclamation of John can be the direct proclamation to the people of God today. Not that it couldn’t have been 50 or 100 years ago, but I think, if I was successful with the first part, then the second part becomes one of those “ah-ha” type experiences. That is what was so powerful, combined with oh, and it applies to me in some very specific way.
So, my guess is this either “works” or you wonder what the heck I’m talking about. Either I was successful in casting “in those days” over today, or the proclamation falls on deaf ears.
The text for the first Sunday in Advent always seems a little off. There is an alternate to the Palm Sunday Triumphant entry, so I had to check if that was because this was a change in the appointed readings that went along with changing Palm Sunday proper to Sunday of the Passion. But that is not the case. I guess someone else just had the same odd feeling that you don’t expect to show up in Advent and hear Palm Sunday.
But the text actually establishes the time. Jesus is committing a political act declaring himself a king. But not like any King the world would recognize. Neither the Galileans marching him in, nor the residents of Jerusalem, as Matthew makes clear, understand. Both want a messiah of their own making. Not this messiah who comes humbly. Not this messiah who stops to give sight to the blind. Not this messiah who is willing to suffer violence instead of inflicting it.
Nothing has really changed. We still want Jesus in our image. But thankfully we don’t get that. We get a King who comes right now in grace. To those with eyes that have been opened, this kingdom calls us to be its witnesses and its hands. One day this Kingdom will come in glory, but right now, it comes humbly. Through flesh and blood, through word and sacrament.
St. Augustine, in a sermon long ago, said: Bad times, hard times, this is what people keep saying; but let us live well, and times shall be good. We are the times: Such as we are, such are the times.
We have been hearing lots of calls for action and change in the wake of another school shooting. But most of the calls that I’ve heard have been forms of taking something away from the other guy. Take the guns away. Lock up or medicate the mentally off. Everybody thinking they are safely on the other side of some bright moral line. Nobody looking at the culture that we collectively produce and allow. Looking at that would put us all on the same side of that moral line. We might have to repent i.e. change. But, such as we are, such are the times.
Until we are willing to really change, to live well as Augustine would define that, things like Newtown will continue to happen. We are simply staring in a mirror. And the deepest gospel, in the middle of this Advent season, is Come Lord Jesus. That is the only thing that finally changes the image in the mirror.
The word peace in the Gospel according to Luke is a big word. This was the First Sunday in Advent and the gospel lesson is often the triumphal entry or Palm Sunday. The theological theme of the that text is the Kingship of Jesus. No different in Luke, but Luke adds this strange cry from the crowd leading Jesus into Jerusalem. “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest! (Luk 19:38 ESV)” Did you catch the strange word? Peace in Heaven. The entire phrase is an echo of the Angels at Christmas, but instead of peace on earth, now it is peace in heaven. And if you do the word study, roughly midway through Luke you find this, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. (Luk 12:51 ESV)”
The peace of God is not a generic peace. The Angels were never singing just “peace on earth”. They sang “on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! (Luk 2:14 ESV)” The specific peace is the Kingdom of God, the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The specific peace is one imposed…through grace. You can take it or you can leave it, but you can’t work for it. You can’t earn the peace. The Father just declared it. The war was over on the cross.
The only question is our response. Do we accept the peace, or continue an insurgent war. Which Kingdom do we choose, the Kingdom of this World, or the Kingdom of Heaven. The tyrant Satan or the humble Christ. Choose your prince.
I’m not sure why but Advent 4 (Mary’s week in the lectionary) and Thanksgiving are probably the two occasions that I almost always feel real good about the sermon. On firm Lutheran grounding I’d just say that they are opportunities to proclaim a very clear gospel. In my theological understanding I’d say they are times that give themselves to Christology – and the gospel is first and foremost a proclamation of Christ. If I was being a little more spiritual and sentimental (or Roman Catholic) – I’d say an extra measure of the Spirit is given to preachers talking about Jesus’ mom or eucharist/thanksgiving. Whatever the reason, this a sermon that all I can really say is take a listen…
If I don’t get back here this week, I hope to see you at Christmas Eve or Christmas day services. If you are a remote reader/listener, Merry Christmas and please find a church to celebrate Christmas with this week in your hometown.
Mark’s gospel as we have it full of odd turns. He boldly states as his first words the title of this post. But the climax of the story is the cross. The demons and the Roman Centurion crucifying Jesus are the only people in the story who recognize the Son of God. Peter might see the Christ, but not the Son. The last scene is the women running confused from the tomb. A reader might ask how such a story is Good News – a Christ who is defeated, disciples who scatter, proclamation of resurrection that causes fear and flight.
It is good news because of the totality of the story. God has acted. God continues to act. God continues with beginnings. God continues guiding beginnings to proper endings. But Mark knows that those stories are not simple. There are no easy epiphanies. We hear the Christmas angels and wonder what that could mean. We read the prophets and are stupefied at times. We run with those women away from that angel in the tomb. We’ve heard the good news, but we don’t know the good news. Not in our bones. As Origen says that requires the heart, not the head. We prepare our hearts. We keep our paths straight. We live under the cross, to instruct the heart. So that we might one day know the depth of the good news of Jesus Christ – The Son of God. The Son of God who knows our beginnings, our middles and our ends.
First comment, the Thanksgiving sermon was the better sermon this week. Page down and read that one if you didn’t hear it. That one was winsome and inviting and still crunchy, which by that I mean it had a message behind it that didn’t duck reality. This Sunday sermon was crunchy, but winsome…not so much. Which is a deep error when you are trying to get people to do something. In this case pick up the bible and read it.
It was the first Sunday of Advent which means it is new years day in the church. The lectionary rolls over to a different gospel, this year Matthew. The text was Matt 21:1-11 which is the triumphal entry or Palm Sunday. The main textual point is the welcoming of a king. That day 2000 years ago they welcomed a king who came humbly, but wanted the one who came in righteousness. Somewhere in the future, we welcome a king who comes in righteousness, but what is our impression of Jesus? How do we prepare for the coming of a King?
If the Gallup pole is right, we don’t prepare at all. We probably spend more time preparing for Santa than for Christ. And there are many multiple ways of preparing. Reading the scriptures is not the only way of being in the Word. But it is the seedbed. The scriptures are the authoritative way that God has chosen to speak to us. And here I go ranting again. Being open to the scriptures is just that important. Emotionally, I’m grabbing everyone I can by the lapels and shaking – these words are life. Its that important. Make time for it. Make sure your lamps have oil.
I ended the sermon with three questions. Three questions that a Bible literate loving people could chew on. I think these three questions might get to the core spiritual problem of today. I’ve got some personal answers to them, but they are dangerous and tough. And they require a people grounded on the truth of scripture.
1) What does it mean for how we should be living if the first time he came humble, but with righteousness the next time?
2) Where are we like the Galileans hailing the Galilean messiah today, going home and letting Jerusalem do to our messiah as it wills? [That is a question for laymen and women – because we clergy are probably the Jerusalem.]
3) How does a church forced out to the margins of society – forced to live from the Mount of Olives – respond like David – “weeping for the son who forced him out”?
The middle two weeks of advent are the weeks of John the Baptist. He’s a forgotten figure in modern Christianity. He doesn’t seem to have much meaning or purpose. We continue to read the stories of the patriarchs. We will talk about the OT prophets. We will give due to the apotles. The later church fathers will also be discusses. John the Baptist, who Jesus declares to be the greatest born of woman, gets left out.
One really good reason is that he more or less gets subsumed under Christ. The life and mission of Jesus overwhelm John who doesn’t leave any writings outside of the voice captured in the gospels. But that doesn’t account for it alone. I think it has more to do with the baptist’s message. It is a sparse and clear proclamation -repent, be baptized and bring forth the fruits of repentance. It is a message that Jesus picks up (Mark 1:14-15).
So much of life is spent finding the middle way. And that is usually the course of wisdom. Stay away from the extremes. Find the middle path through the mess. Just that in regards to truth, finding the middle way leaves you with nothing. God’s grace is not found by splitting the difference with the Baptist. I’ll admit I sin, but living the life or repentance seems extreme. Why this thing called baptism? Isn’t there something grander or more meaningful? The middle way would seem to ask for more than baptism as a sign and seal. In Luke even John seems to have questions. John has not followed the middle way, but things aren’t looking like he expected. He asks Jesus, “are you the one?”
And Jesus doesn’t apologize for the form of grace or the proclamation one bit. In fact he turns to the crowds and asks what did they come to see? They all came to see a prophet. They recognized a truth in John (and in Jesus) that was not just natural wisdom. And that recognition requires more than a middle way response. If you came to see a prophet, and the prophet says God’s grace is here, in water and word, in a crucified peasant, then we should align ourselves with that grace.
It is a great question to many people who come to churches. What did you come to see? If you came to see anything other than the presant grace of God, you’ve got the wrong purpose. Ask youself, what did you come to see? Does the answer require you to make changes?