New Hope Lutheran Church, Alvarado, MN
Advent 3C/December 16, 2012
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
I rarely start a sermon by commenting on the latest news, but this morning it simply feels wrong to skirt the profound tragedy unfolding in Newtown, CT.
I’m guessing that you’re with me on this.
Our eyes have been focused on the TV, the newspapers, the Internet these last couple days. We have needed a Kleenex or two, the tears have simply welled up. And we imagine the same sort of thing playing itself out in homes all across our world.
Our President has spoken movingly for us all, his own identity as the parent of two young girls showing…as he has reflected with us on the horror of so many young lives disrupted so suddenly, so cruelly, so senselessly. And isn’t that what grabs at our guts—this horrific realization that violence can erupt anywhere, even in a small, safe, rural community like Newtown, CT?
Violence erupts….and disrupts our lives, all too often….
And it’s all happening at what’s supposed to be “the hap-happiest time of the year.”
The tragedy in Connecticut is disrupting Christmas, and not just this Christmas of 2012, but for the community of Newtown, and particularly for the families and friends of the victims, this tragedy will continue disrupting Christmas for as long as they dwell on this earth.
And what good could ever come out of disrupting Christmas?
We want Christmas to be the ideal holiday we remember—a time of soft light, candle warmth, family closeness, peace on earth—but somehow, every year, all of that longed-for “Christmas” gets disrupted. As I think back I recall a host of events and circumstances that have disrupted Christmas, the idealized Christmas I long for…
….and as if that were not bad enough, we in the Christian church actually orchestrate such disruptions, even in how we observe this season of Advent.
Because, for some strange reason, every December we invite disruption into our lives, by coming to church and hearing from that great disrupter of quietude, John the Baptist.
And here we have him once again, this morning in our gospel lesson from Luke 3. John the Baptist shows up disrupting the peace and joy of this season with his rasping voice and sharp invective, throwing cold water on our burning yule-logs.
Do we really need this fiery preacher invading our sacred space this morning? With our own lives feeling disrupted enough by the school shooting out East, do we really need John the Baptist, too—disrupting Christmas for us once again?
Oddly enough, I think the answer is Yes.
We need John the Baptist’s jarring presence and arresting testimony, perhaps now more than ever….
….because even though John doesn’t do much to get us ready for the idealized Christmas we all long for, he does do a masterful job of preparing us for the Christ who comes at Christmas, the Christ who entered into this world’s story to give us boundless hope, even when we are fixated on 26 coffins in Connecticut.
John doesn’t really prepare us for Christmas, but he surely does prepare us for Christ….and this morning, we need Christ more than we need Christmas….and, in truth, as we become prepared to receive Christ, we’ll find that Christmas takes care of itself.
So what does John say to get us ready for Christ?
He says, first of all, that Christ always comes to us as a pure gift, born out of sheer grace. John says this, though, in a most disruptive way, by shaking us loose from imagining that we can make any claims upon God.
John’s fiery talk about “bearing fruits worthy of repentance” unfolds in the context of cutting out from under his hearers any sense of “entitlement” they might have. For good first-century Jews, being “children of Abraham” entitled you to make a claim upon God.
Today we have our own ways of expressing such a sense of entitlement: “I am a faithful Christian, after all. I am a confirmed Lutheran. I seek to do God’s will in my life—surely that has to count for something with God!”
But John will have none of that. John’s first word here is that we have no claim upon God—nothing that we are, nothing we do, makes God “beholding” to us.
We don’t have a claim upon God—but thank God, God has a claim upon us….and this claiming, naming God chooses to open up in our lives the way of repentance, setting aside all obstacles between us and God, clearing away all the rubble that thwarts our trust in God, our love for our neighbors and our care for the earth.
God makes a claim upon us, and in so doing God bestows on us a new rhythm--the rhythm of repentance—clearing away the old to make room for the New that always meets us in Christ Jesus.
But what will such a way of life look like? The crowds here in Luke 3 want to know…and John the Baptist is only too happy to sketch out for them, in broad contours, what this new life will look like.
But once again, John does so by delivering a jarring, disrupting word. He addresses real flesh-and-blood human beings, engaged in work that not everyone considered honorable—those whose work gave them food and clothing to spare, those who collected taxes for the occupation forces of Rome, those who shouldered weapons in the army….what would it look like for them to live in the newness that God was ushering into the world in Christ?
Oddly enough, John the Baptist doesn’t tell these folks to quit what they’re doing and find other employment. John doesn’t enjoin them to impoverish themselves, to stop colluding with the enemy, to refuse to bear arms.
In short, John doesn’t command his hearers to withdraw from the world as we know it….but rather, he invites them (and us!) to live in this world, but in ways that align with the startling newness of God’s unfolding Kingdom.
· So if you have the goods of this world, don’t give them all away (reducing yourself to a pauper)…but embrace a life of sharing, discerning the meaning of “enough,” and routinely giving away what you don’t need (because it’s all gift anyway!)
· And if you’re thrust into a position of financial power over others, collecting taxes for Rome (for example), do that work but in a new key, following a new Master, refusing to abuse your position of trust to line your own pockets….
· And if you’re commandeered into military service, conduct yourself in that station as a child of God, resist the urge to over-step your authority, or to use your power for violent, selfish ends…remember that you are called to protect and serve.
All three of these examples open up for us windows on what it means to live our lives in the world as we know it—but now as persons who bear the light of Christ, who know that in Christ everything we have and everything we do are gifts, sheer gifts from God above.
John’s disrupting presence and witness caught the attention of his hearers. They sat up and took notice, just as we are doing this morning, because John was pointing the way toward the One who was coming after him….the One who would drench us in the Spirit of God’s very presence, burning away all the “chaff” that separates us from God, opening our lives to Him who even now is making all things new.
Yesterday morning, I heard a Catholic priest in Newtown, CT being interviewed on MSNBC. The interviewer asked the priest how he helps persons deal with such immense grief…and I halfway expected the priest to talk about psychological tools or counseling techniques.
But instead the priest spoke naturally, compellingly about Christ.
“Most of all, these people need Jesus,” the priest declared.
And where is that not the case?
In the end the people of Newtown, CT and Alvarado, MN and every other community simply need Jesus. Jesus will heal us. Jesus will lead us forward. Jesus will usher us into the fullness of God’s light and love and light.
Jesus will lead us (by way of the Cross and the Empty Tomb)…Jesus will lead us into the broad, free, open space we call the Kingdom of God…where there will be no more persons whose personal demons break out in violent ways, no more children who are senselessly murdered, no more parents whose grief seems inconsolable, no more disruptions in the abundant life God wills for us all.
What do the people of Newtown, CT, need this morning? They need Jesus.
And so do we. Jesus will bring us home.
And that is enough.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.