Sunday, December 9, 2012

(Advent 2) The fiery hand of God and other good news

Advent 2
Luke 3:1-6; Malachi 3:1-4

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It wouldn’t be Advent, without paying our dues to John the Baptist.
Every year, the designated Gospel readings—
be it Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John—
focus on John the Baptist for one or two Sundays in Advent.
Why pay so much attention, you might wonder,
to such a character as John,
such an off-beat, strident, fringe personality,
who is only the “set-up guy” for Jesus—
who doesn’t do a whole lot except
call down judgement and condemnation,
and baptize people who pay attention and repent.

He really is a strange bird,
he didn’t just take on the establishment, like most prophets,
he jumped on the public.
Huge crowds came to hear him, and he yelled at them,
calling them a brood of vipers.
Or as Clarence Jordan said it, 
in the Cotton Patch version of the Gospels,
“You s-s-sons-s-s of s-s-snakes-s-s!”

There seems to be a disconnect between John the Baptist
and the one he was setting up for—Jesus of Nazareth.
Yes, Jesus showed some righteous anger sometimes,
at the authorities, the self-righteous, the hypocrites.
But as a whole, Jesus seems more kind-hearted, more tender.
Little children were drawn toward Jesus.
Try to picture, if you can, some two-year-olds
sitting on the knees of John the Baptist.
I guarantee you, John’s disciples never had to 
send the children away from him.
They were already running the other direction,
away from this loud, and hairy, and scary man.

But I like John the Baptist. I like him a lot.
I don’t understand him completely,
but I like him.

This wilderness prophet and baptizer is one of the more
colorful characters in the Bible.
I admire colorful characters.
Probably because I’m not colorful myself.
I have always admired John . . . from a distance.
But lately, I am coming to like him.

Enough that, if I had the chance, I think I’d invite him over for coffee.
And visit for a few hours.
We could be friends.
All except for his diet of insects, his animal-skin wardrobe,
his living in the wilderness,
his miraculous birth,
and his habit of yelling at people and calling them snakes,
except for those few things, 
he and I would have a lot in common!
Seriously, strip away his weirdness,
and get down to the core of his message,
and I would say, “Amen. Preach it, John!”

John’s message was not a one-time-only sermon,
to prepare the way for Jesus of Nazareth.
I think if we look closer at what he was saying,
and do just a little cultural translation,
it’s basically the same thing I try to preach,
only without the yelling and name-calling.

Think about this Jewish community he was preaching to.
The children of Abraham were losing sight of their peoplehood,
becoming more distant from the covenant.
The Empire was slowly crushing their identity.

Some of them, the conservative ones,
tried hard to hold on to their religious identity,
and they formed different religious parties—
Sadducees, Pharisees, Nazarites, Zealots,
They all had different agenda,
and got into conflict with each other
over different ways of living out their Jewish faith.

But others, when it came down to it, 
either didn’t notice, or didn’t care,
how much they were becoming like the Empire.
It was easier not to be in the persecuted minority.
So they accommodated.
Some, like the tax collectors, even collaborated.

Now think about this description—
a faith community once close and cohesive,
now fragmented and polarized,
and losing their sense of peoplehood in a hostile culture,
losing touch with their core identity as the people of God.
Pressured to either assimilate into the dominant culture,
or to fight it, and set themselves up over against culture.

Sound vaguely familiar?
To me, sounds a lot like the 21st-century Western church.

When you think of the spiritual state of affairs
in these two faith communities—
1st-century Palestinian Judaism,
and 21st-century Western Christianity—
I think we are more alike than we are different.
And I think John’s message has something to say to us.

And for that matter, John’s message was not original to him,
he borrowed from an even earlier time in Israel.
John’s sermon came straight from Isaiah 40,
where Isaiah called the people back into covenant,
when they were floundering in exile.
Isaiah talked about preparing the way for God,
“make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted, 
and every mountain and hill made low.” . . . 

Anyone else have Handel’s Messiah 
going through your head right now?

So John was in a long line of prophets,
whose messages had a lot of similarities.
Including the Old Testament reading for today, from Malachi,
from which came today’s worship theme—
refined by fire.

Malachi, apparently, is prophesying during the Restoration period,
in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah,
when God’s people are gradually returning from exile,
back to Jerusalem and Judah,
after the temple was reconstructed.
So likely, some are back, some are still in exile.

Since the people were gone so long, many generations,
and the restored temple practices are still so new to everyone,
including the descendants of Levi,
it seems that corruption was rampant.
The temple was physically restored,
but now it was time for the people to be spiritually restored.
So the prophet chooses two metaphors
to describe what God is doing among them.
God is purifying them,
like the fire of a metal-smith, that purifies gold and silver,
and like the soap of a fuller, one who cleans the sheep’s wool.
Whatever trials the people are experiencing,
as they re-establish the covenant,
God is using that to get rid of the waste matter,
the extraneous stuff that gums up their spiritual life,
makes them less than the people God wants them to be.

This is not the fire that consumes, the fire of final destruction.
This is a welcomed, though perhaps unpleasant, refining fire.
The result of which is a people who delight again in the covenant,
who give pleasing offerings to the Lord, according to our text.
And later in this chapter, v. 12,
we read that they will be a “land of delight.”
And in v. 17, God reassures them that when the judgement falls,
“I will spare you as parents spare their children.”
The fiery hand of God, is a Good News fire.

Prophets then, and prophets now,
have a reputation for being harsh, 
and full of judgement and condemnation.
We can certainly find plenty of quotes to support that view.
But in the best of the prophetic tradition,
these people are not merely doomsayers.
They are proclaimers that God is showing up in new ways,
and that when we align ourselves with what God is doing,
good things happen.
Ultimately, they are bearers of good news.
They are evangelists.

When John says, the valleys will be filled, 
the mountains and hills made low, 
the crooked made straight, 
and the rough ways smooth . . . 
that is truly good news to a people 
stuck in a wilderness,
surrounded by impenetrable mountains,
trapped in a prison of Roman occupation, 
of violence and brutality.
It really helped to see first-hand this summer,
the landscape of Israel-Palestine.
Rugged mountains and high cliffs surrounded them,
and on top of a number of these mountains,
were the armed fortresses of the brutal King Herod,

But God, John says, is about to change the landscape.
To tear down the mountains that entrap them.
To make the winding road straight, 
to carve a route to freedom.

This kind of refining work is what God is up to in the world,
right now.
Where are we?
That’s the question of the prophet.
Where are we? And what are we doing to collaborate with God,
instead of working against God?

From Isaiah and Malachi, 
to John the Baptist, 
to the voice of today’s prophets . . . 
over the span of three vastly different cultures,
over two-and-a-half millennia,
the same message is being preached.
“People of God,” the message goes,
“remember who you are.
Repent. Return to your God, to your covenant.
Return to your mission and identity as a people of God.
God is fully of mercy. God will abundantly pardon.
God wants to move among you,
to form you as a people,
to partner with you, as a people,
to establish God’s reign in the world,
to bring about what is right and just,
to restore what has been broken.”
So repent, my people. Prepare the way for the Lord.

The call to repentance, is a call to the lost people of God.
That’s us.
This repentance is not the modern, individualistic, 
private and internal kind.
There is a place for individual repentance, of course.
When we sin, which is often,
we are called to repent, seek forgiveness and freedom,
and return to the God of our salvation.
But the emphasis here in the preaching of John,
and Isaiah, and Malachi, and Jesus, for the most part,
has to do with the whole community returning to its calling.

Repentance means, literally, to “think again,”
to change our way of thinking.
That is the invitation of the prophet to their community of faith.
If you can get past the yelling and name-calling,
what John the Baptist was really saying, in plain English, was,
“People of God, change your old ways of thinking.
Think rightly about who you are, about who God is,
and about how you are called to live in this world.”
Repent. Think again.
And your sins will be forgiven—
as a people and as individuals.

That’s a good word. A very good word.
It was good for John’s hearers who took it seriously.
It would be good for us, if we would hear it anew, for our times.

To whatever extent we have become lazy in our thinking,
or have failed to see how the forces of Empire are still at work,
and dominate our lives,
and corrupt us as a people, as a community of faith,
how we are losing our story as God’s covenant people,
how we are failing to think of ourselves rightly,
in relation to Empire,
and in relation to our dominant pagan culture,
how we are becoming aligned, at all levels, 
with powers that are working against the kingdom of God,
instead of on behalf of the kingdom . . . 
to whatever extent that is happening in and among us,
we must repent.

We must change our way of thinking.
We must reorient ourselves.
This is more than mental gymnastics.
Change of mind brings change of life.
Thinking rightly leads us toward living rightly.
It won’t take us all the way there.
But it leads us toward the kingdom.
It puts us in a place where God can do God’s work,
where the Spirit can transform and empower.

So this morning I invite us to become a repentant community.
As a church, let us repent. Let us think again.
Let us think Christianly.
Let us think our faith clearly, with the mind of Christ.
Let us examine our thought patterns as a community.
Our thought patterns shape what we do as a church.
They shape the kind of organizational structure we adopt.
They shape the way we make decisions.
They shape the way we distribute our financial resources.
They shape the way we plan worship.
They shape the way we engage in outreach.
It is wise to ask ourselves, “Church,
do the thought patterns that shape our life together
have their origin in God?
Are they of God?
Or do they have their origin in our dominant culture?
Are they of the world?”

Of course, as we think rightly about our identity as a people of God,
our personal decisions and choices will also be impacted.
Every day we face a multitude of choices 
influenced one way or another by how we think of ourselves
in relationship to the people of God.
The choice of what movie to watch this weekend,
or choices about television viewing habits,
or what kind of Christmas presents we give,
or the size and cost of the houses we buy or build,
or the cars we drive,
or the food we eat,
or the books and magazines and websites we read . . .
these choices should be influenced less by their popularity,
what our culture defines as must-see, or must-do, must-own,
and more by whether watching it, doing it, eating it, owning it,
is consistent with my identity
as a part of the people of God.
That is the case with nearly every choice we make.
Thinking rightly, as a member of the people of God,
makes a difference.
It’s what repentance does to us.

Thinking differently won’t automatically change the landscape.
Filling valleys and lowering mountains is the act of a saving God,
who works in and through the people God is saving.
As we yield ourselves, in repentance,
as we pour out our very selves, individually and communally,
God will change the landscape.

So I invite us, as a people, to true repentance,
to pour out ourselves,
empty ourselves of those things that keep us from thinking rightly,
of behaving rightly,
as a church, and as individuals.

I invite us to a ritual of repentance,
where we will pour out literally,
a bit of water into a bowl,
as a symbol of yieldedness, and vulnerability,
as a symbol of emptying ourselves, of release.
And invite God, to pour back into us, into our emptiness,
the life-giving Spirit of God.

I invite us to come up individually, as we choose,
but not to come only as individual penitents.
Come on behalf of the church, and/or on your own behalf,
to repent.
Come, to symbolically and silently,
pour out those aspects of our church, in its brokenness,
that we experience as life-draining, or anti-kingdom of God,
and invite God’s Spirit to fill the church anew.
And/or come, to symbolically pour out those things in your own life,
that are preventing you from living the life 
God is calling you to live.
Whether you come on your own behalf, on behalf of the church,
or both,
I invite you to come to one of these two stations here at the front,
take one of the glass vessels, 
and pour out a small amount of water into the bowls,
leaving enough for those who follow you.

I will begin with some spoken words of confession,
and pour some water into the bowl up here on the platform.
Then, as we begin singing,
any of you are invited to come forward to pour water,
as a symbol of repentance.
We you are finished,
I will come down and pour out whatever water remains,
as a symbolic act of collective repentance
on behalf of you who may have wanted to come,
but were unable or chose not to.

At that point, I will invite us to read the unison response,
the words of assurance that God has received our repentance
and that God’s salvation is sure.

Spoken confession:
Merciful God, Holy One, ever faithful and full of steadfast love,
we pour out ourselves to you in humble confession.

We pour out our misguided attempts as a church,
to shore up our own interests,
at the expense of your kingdom.
We pour out our individual failures
to live into our identity
as your beloved sons and daughters.
Pour into us your life-giving and cleansing spirit, we pray.

Words of assurance:
Blessed are you, Lord our God;
you have come to your people to set them free.
In your tender mercy
give us knowledge of your salvation
through the forgiveness of our sins. Amen

—Phil Kniss, December 9, 2012

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