Monday, December 17, 2018

You Brood of Vipers

Luke 3:7-18
December 16, 2018

I think Prophets were kind of like the news analysts of the time,
the op-ed writers of their era, or the political bloggers
They never addressed personal, individual problems
they always looked at the whole country or world
and told everyone where they went wrong
from the top down, and what the possible
consequences and sad fates were: They knew
doom and destruction would fall on everyone.

Although the prophets used ancient terms,
the analysis of their times sounds a lot like that of ours:
corrupt and greedy leaders, religious leaders who’ve lost their way,
the apathy and hopelessness of the people,
and a lack of compassion for the poor and outcast.

And then, like now, the prophets knew that the country
and the world  were not on a good path,
but everyone felt unable or unwilling to
do anything about the situation.

Zephaniah is not a big player in the prophet hit parade.
He’s called a minor prophet.
This book or letter is only three chapters long.
the first two chapters are the same kind of analysis
that we’re used to hearing from the prophets,
God is not happy with Israel who refuses to get their
act together, destruction will be coming in one form or another.
And then they will want God, but they’d grown so distant
from God, they won’t know how to find God.
The word Zephaniah means “ Yahweh hides.”

They say Zephaniah was written pre-exile period
meaning before the Jews were conquered
by Babylon and other countries.
In other words, it was a time when things were still hanging together,
but there was a sense that things  could fall apart at any time,
the fabric of the society they knew was crumbling.

But after this inevitable destruction and collapse,
Zephaniah goes on, there is hope, God doesn’t stay hidden forever.
The collapse will be followed will be followed by 
rebirth and resurrection, God will be there and the relationship with
God and God’s people will be restored
and things will be back on the right track.

As we heard in the part we read today,
Zion is God’s daughter, and God will renew her,
her fortunes will be restored and everything will be
better than it was before.

And the evidence that the time has come will be this:
All the oppressors will be dealt with,
the lame will be saved and the outcast will be brought home.

Things will come back together,
but they won’t come back together in the same way.
Things will be reassembled in God’s image
things will be done in God’s way.

This seems to be a theme in all the prophets, major and minor.
Falling apart, coming together,
and the new way will be closer to God’s way.
They always end with a hopeful analysis of the future.
And our second reading is hopeful to, Rejoice!
Paul writes to the Philippians.
And then we get to John the Baptist.

In case we wanted to get prematurely Christmassy,
and sentimental, we’ve got John the Baptist to keep us in line.
John the Baptist is saying basically the same thing
as Zephaniah and the prophets have been saying,
but in a much more colorful and engaging way.

“You brood of vipers, who told you
you could escape the wrath to come?”
He made a spectacle of himself and people paid attention.
No one will be able to escape the consequences.
Everyone was in the same boat. Rich and poor,
faithful and not faithful, we’re all children of snakes.

But even with John’s doom and gloom predictions,
like the op-ed analyst and prophets before him,
there is still hope at the end.

The people there asked him “What exactly should we do?”
Now, I’m not sure what they were expecting from John the Baptist,
but he was living like a wild man,
alone in the wilderness, eating bugs and
just whatever he could find on the ground.

Maybe they thought he would tell everyone
to drop out of normal life, wear a camel’s hair coat and
and eat locusts and twigs with him in the wilderness.

But no. John tells them:
“If you have two coats, share one with someone who has none.
If you have any extra food, share that too.”

He’s not telling them leave their lives and hide in the woods,
but to go back to their cities and villages and just behave differently,
to not use their position or job to take advantage of other people,
To treat others with kindness, and fairness and justice,
in other words, to be the change in the world.

Like Zephaniah, John is saying that after the wrath to come,
God will be reordering the world in this new way,
but in a little shift from Zephaniah and the prophets of old,
John is clarifying and saying that we have an 
opportunity to be part  of the reconstruction, 
part of the rebirth, part of the resurrection.
We are participants in the change that God has in store for the world.
We don’t even have to wait for the destruction and the wrath to come
we can start the reconstruction and rebirth now.

We aren’t merely recipients of God’s good will,
God will work through our hands and feet and mouths.
And we will be signs that the resurrection is happening.

We will have an active role in dealing with the oppressors,
saving the lame, and bringing the outcasts home again.
We are the agents and the sign of God’s new order in the world.
When we treat someone with kindness who doesn’t deserve it,
when we forgive, even when someone isn’t sorry,
when we treat all people with respect,
when we welcome the stranger,
when we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
When we do those things that we can do right now,
We become part of the God’s restoration.

And all the stuff we do together,
Faith Mission, Play and Learn, the Food Pantry,
Habitat for Humanity, working with BREAD,
going to protests, writing our senators,
making quilts, making prayer shawls, making food for funerals,
when we pray for others, and share hope for the world,
whatever it is that we do to help build,
 and help share justice and peace and hope is
part of God’s plan to change this world,
and is a sign that God is already working.

Even when everything around us seems dark and evil,
the light of Christ in our own hearts can be our hope.

John Baptized with water, but there is another coming
who will baptize with fire. A fire to light us up and move us.
And that is why the word John had in the end was good news
for all us here and across the world.

You, Brood of Vipers!
You are part of the change coming to the world.

Our small, individual acts of kindness in the midst of hate,
of fairness and justice in the midst of corruption
of generosity in the midst of greed and the myth of scarcity
are all part of remaking our world in God’s image.

And those acts are a sign for us that God is with us and working.
You are signs that the world is about to turn.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Can You Stand It?

Advent 2
December 9
Malachi & Luke 3

Malachi is the last book of the Hebrew scriptures.
The book that comes right before the gospels.
We don’t know if Malachi is a proper name,
or if it just means “messenger”

Malachi warns the people about many of the same things that
the other prophets did: straying from God, corruption, greed,
political leaders who don’t care about the people,
and religious leaders selling out to political leaders.

Malachi says that God is coming into the world
and God will send a messenger first, 
who will get things straightened out.
This messenger, Malachi says, 
will not be sweet and mild,
this message will be painful and uncomfortable.
it will be like a refiners fire or a fuller’s soap.

When you get silver it’s combined 
with lead and other metals.
The refiner will heat it to a 
very high temperature, making it liquid
And then the bad metal rises to the top, then
the refiner would scrape off the impurities, 
or the dross, leaving the pure silver.  Ouch.

The fuller was the one who would clean the wool after it was sheared
from the sheep to prepare it for dying different colors.
Sheep aren’t clean animals, and they aren’t completely white,
so the soap was caustic. It was so caustic
that they made the fullers do their washing
outside of the city limits because of the smell. Ouch.

Refiner’s fire, fuller’s soap.
Not comfortable images, especially since
we’re the silver and the wool.

The messenger says, The Lord is coming,
God is coming into the world,
And the question Malachi asks is “can you stand it?”
Will you be able to take it when it happens?

I think when a lot of us think of the coming of Jesus
we like to think of a sense of well being, calm, joy and assurance,
especially around Christmas,
we get filled with images of sugar plums and sweet little babies.
But that is not the imagery we get today.
We get high heat and caustic soap.
We get John the Baptist yelling at us to repent
and change our ways.

Someone said that the coming of Jesus is like water.
The waters of baptism: now water is necessary, life giving,
beautiful, water, cooling, good, and pure.
But the problem really is, that the kingdom of this world is like pure sodium.
-- the pure metal sodium not table salt which is sodium chloride.
I had to look this up, and then I checked it with Violet, our resident Chemistry PHD. 
What happens when water meets sodium? Kaboom.

Our ways and God’s ways don’t always mix together well.
The prophets in the early days knew that
God’s coming wouldn’t mean instant peace and tranquility.
And so we get the gospels. Kaboom.

And they don’t open with a nice, sweet story of God’s reign coming
in peacefully, like a cool breeze washing over us on a summer’s day.
We get John the Baptist. Kaboom. Water meets sodium.

Actually, Luke begins the story of Jesus ministry
with a list of the  leaders that were contemporary with Jesus birth,
Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Traconitis, Lysanias, Annas Caiaphas.
History knows all of these reigns and leaderships to be
chaotic and corrupt. They will not last. By the word of God will.
Almost as if Luke is saying that their claims to authority are not ultimate.
John has been commissioned to prepare the way for a new kind of rule.
And we know people don’t give up their rule willingly.

Preparing God’s path towards peace means transforming the
world as we know it, valleys filled, mountains laid low,
crooked things made straight: it all sounds terrific, until we
remember that we all use those valleys, we live on those mountains,
we are part of what’s making the roads crooked.

Sin isn’t just a few isolated choices we make in our lives,
our lives are embroiled in sin,
we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.
We work in it, we watch it happen,
we are consumers of it, we benefit from it,
we enjoy it regularly, it’s part of our wants and even our needs.
All those words up there are not outside of us,
they are a part of us, a part of the world that we like and love.

Preparing the way means letting go of
things that we have become accustomed to,
things that have made us what we are.

And that’s why the messenger of Jesus starts
with a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins.
Because John the Baptist knows that
we are right at home in this world of sodium
and we need to let go of it.

And That is why the forgiveness of Jesus is so important
that is why the Grace of God is so vital to our life and our salvation.
Because we cannot extract ourselves completely
we need the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
So Christ is coming, but can we stand it?
Will we enjoy this change or will we latch on tightly to those
old ways, those temporary things that do not work in God’s kingdom?
Will we be able to stand the refiners fire,
can we take the fullers soap?
Will we be ready when the waters of baptism,
meet the sodium that is still in us? Kaboom?

Will we be able to hear the forgiveness that Jesus brings,
will be embrace the salvation that God is giving us?
Christ is coming, God is near, we can feel it,
The sweet breeze of forgiveness and salvation is just around the corner.

But first, the valleys will be filled, the mountains will be laid low.
the crooked will be made straight and the rough made smooth.
Then all flesh will see the salvation of God.

So repent and get ready, prepare the way
because the world is about to turn.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Beginning is Near

Advent 1
Jeremiah 33 & Luke 21:25-36
December 2, 2018

The prophet Jeremiah,
who wrote the first reading we heard,
lived about 500 years after king David.
There were many kings since David,
and most of them weren’t very good.

Starting with David’s son Solomon,
they began to lead the people away from
Yahweh to worshiping other gods.
And Jeremiah was called by Yahweh
to warn the people to change their ways.
The Beginning is Near
The Imaginary Foundation

Now Jeremiah is a whiny guy. 
He always seems pretty gloomy. A real downer.
He’s constantly railing against the people of the
southern kingdom of Judah.
He warns them about their worship of other gods
and their neglect of Yahweh,
about the greed and corruption of the leaders,
and the false prophets which are everywhere.

He warns the people of the consequence of following
charlatans promising quick results and ignoring the will of God.
He tells them that this way of life is not sustainable for them,
that destruction will surely follow, like it did decades earlier
for the people of the Northern Kingdom.

He was always telling them that they
needed to repent and change their ways
in order to continue as God’s people.
He warns them that unless they repented and changed,
they will be taken over by hostile forces. That God would
let the nation of Babylon win the battle they were fighting
against each other and they would be servants to King Nebuchadnezzar.
He was real wet blanket.

So, of course, instead of listening,
the people of Jerusalem think that the most expedient
solution is to shut Jeremiah up.
The typical story of prophets.
“He’s bringing down the morale of the troops” they said.
Just shoot the messenger instead of listening to the message.
They try to kill him, but when that doesn’t work,
they lock him up in prison.

So Jeremiah is locked up in prison,
and the country is embroiled in battles,
the country is pretty much leveled already,
the enemy is at the door,
and Jeremiah knows that they will lose.

It’s in these gloomy walls, with impending doom and
destruction all around him, suddenly,
Jeremiah turns into an optimist!
The warnings of doom are over,
and God has filled Jeremiah with hope.

After this inevitable destruction, the covenant will be fulfilled.
A righteous branch will spring up from the kingdom of David
which is now just a stump.

Even though the people didn’t hear the warnings and strayed
from Yahweh, God will not let these people go.
God won’t abandon them, God will still keep the old promises.

Now, things won’t go back to the way they were before,
back to the old days.  We can’t go back to yesterday.
That’s how we got into this mess in the first place.
It will be a new branch, a new day, new life.
Things will be changed, our suffering will have changed us. 
We will have learned, and repented.
And from that, new life will be able to form.

 And in every age, this is the promise that we wait for.
That out of the rubble of this age,
a new life, a better life, will be able to grow.
We know that with every end, there is a new beginning waiting.
We are assured that God won’t forget God’s promises to us.
That we won’t be abandoned,
even when we stubbornly lose our own way.

And we believe that branch, that promise was Jesus.
And new life has been revealed to us in him.

In the gospel reading, Jesus warns us again, though, that chaos is coming.
Distress among nations, people confused,
Foreboding and fear, the powers of heaven shaken.
It may feel like the end, but that is when our hope can start.
At the darkest times that is when the kingdom of God is nearest.
Look for the shoots on the fig tree.
Look for the new branch of Jesse.
Look for the places of hope and courage and light and life,
look for the signs that God is near.

We, the followers of Jesus are the whiny prophets of this age.
Habitually aware of the sin in ourselves and our world.
Uncomfortable with all the ways we live that are
contrary to God’s kingdom and vision.

These words on the wall show some of the things
in this world that stress today’s prophets out most.
Those things that seem utterly hopeless and insurmountable.
Things that plague our society and threaten to destroy us.
Like Jeremiah, we can feel the doom and gloom.
This is the time for warning, for alarm, for distress, and confusion.
Because this way of life is not sustainable forever.

But this is also the time to look for that shoot, that new branch,
Look for the peace makers, the helpers,
the ones who feed and house,
who act with courage,
the ones who speak works of righteousness and truth,
who work for justice,
who forgive and work for reconciliation

In the midst of inevitable doom and destruction,
these are the blooms on the fig tree.
That is God at work in the world.

We know when the end is at hand, the beginning is near.
We know then, that the world is about to turn.