Sermon: Hearing the Gospel

Our faith is not a static set of rules, nor is it a deep understanding of tradition and scripture. Our faith is a constantly evolving and ever deepening and broadening dialog between our selves, our neighbors, and our God.

joachim-patenier-the-baptism-of-christ-1515-kunsthistorisches-museum-viennaA couple of weeks ago I woke up to find snow covering the ground outside our bedroom window. But there were warmer temperatures in the day’s forecast, I was concerned we’d soon have a thick layer of slush outside. And frankly, my snowblower is not terribly useful in slush! So I hopped right out of bed, taking care that my sleeping sweetheart, who’d been up a lot the previous night, was undisturbed, and ran to the front door.

I stepped out to see what I had to deal with. Hmm: still pretty cold. So, I was pretty sure I had time for some coffee. As I turned around, I saw that the inner door had swung almost shut, but I knew it wouldn’t latch on its own.  So, I pulled open the storm door to go back in and … “click.”

It was not quite 6:00am in the morning. It was 28 degrees outside. It was dark. I’m wearing only socks, sweat bottoms, and a T-Shirt.

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Sermon: Repent

Would God’s love for us have any meaning or value if God did not expect something of us in return? The death of Christ on the Cross is proof that Love does not come cheap. So, while the Love of God is freely given to all, there is a price to accepting it. And, that price is Repentance.

sermon-of-st-john-the-baptist

There are lots of wonderful old traditions we celebrate this time year: the annual church rummage sale. The men’s pancake breakfast. The live nativity scenes. Going Caroling. Maybe in some churches the youth group sets up a tree in the sanctuary; and the younger children make ornaments to hang on them. Perhaps we have an “Angel Tree” or a box to donate gifts for those who would not otherwise have a Christmas at all. And then there’s my personal favorite: all those Christmas cookies!

These are all beautiful and very worthwhile traditions; they express who we are and what is important to us. And, many if not most of them are centered on Christ’s call to take of each other and take care of those in need. This is a good thing. But, such traditions, as wonderful and good and appropriate to Christmas as they are, are not what Advent is about.

Advent is about who we are about to become, not about who we are now. Advent is about preparing for the gift of God: the Christ Child who is not yet here. It is a call to prepare for what is about to happen.

So, what is Repentance? And, why is it a theme of this, our Second Sunday of Advent? I’d like to begin by exploring what Repentance isn’t.

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Just the Facts

Advent encourages us to choose God BECAUSE of the facts, not in spite of them; and to remember that it is God who writes our story, a story that always ends in the embrace of God’s eternal, fierce, and unrelenting love for us.

rays-of-light-shining-throug-dark-cloudsSermon: “Just the Facts”

Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, December 7, 2014; (Second Sunday in Advent).

Scripture Readings:
Isaiah 40:1-11 (NRSV)
Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)

The year is about 540 BC. The place is Babylon, capitol of the Babylonian Empire.

Only a generation ago, in the year 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar’s army destroyed the Nation of Judah, the City of Jerusalem, and Solomon’s Temple. Much of the surviving population, including most of the upper classes of Judah – priests, nobility, scholars and their families – are imprisoned and then exiled here, in an alien land totally unlike the isolated mountaintop fortress of Jerusalem. Their new home is perhaps the greatest city on earth, containing people of many cultures, languages and faiths. Strange people, strange ideas, and strange gods are all around them, challenging the Jews and their faith in ways they never imagined.

They are strangers in that strange land. The fact is, they have lost everything – friends, family, home, possessions, status, and even – or so they think – their God. And even if God is not lost, what good is God, since the strange gods of this strange land are clearly more powerful? And besides, how can they hear from God, even if God still lives? God’s home among them was destroyed, too.

The news from back home is just as troubling: the prophet Obadiah tells us that marauders and armies from nearby lands, such as Edom, are sweeping through the ruined land, murdering those left behind, and plundering what little of value remains.

The People of God see themselves as the walking dead, soon to forever vanish and be forgotten. All is darkness. All is lost. They are lost: whether they are scrabbling to survive among the ruins of Judah, or living in exile in the all too alluring and exciting materialism and corruption of cosmopolitan Babylon.

The facts are indisputable: the future holds no hope at all for them, nor for their faith.

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Waiting…

John the Baptist in prison

Presented at Centre Congregational Church, UCC in Brattleboro, VT
December 15, 2013  (Advent, Week 3)

Scriptures: 

Luke 1:47-55 (The Magnificat)
James 5:7-10 (“Be Patient … Strengthen your hearts”)
Matthew 11:2-11 (“Are you the One who is to come?”)

This is Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent; and tradition tells us it is “…a day to be joyful even in the midst of long waiting and keen awareness of suffering.”   

Our Advent readings started two weeks ago with a focus on the future: “The reign of God is coming. Prepare!” They end next week with a focus on the past: “The Messiah is about to be born in Bethlehem. Rejoice!”  And, as I said earlier, the word Gaudete is a Latin word meaning “to rejoice” in the imperative – meaning we are commanded to rejoice.

As Advent progresses, our emphasis on the future declines as our emphasis on the past increases.  Our readings for Advent begin with a mature Jesus teaching us about the reign of God, and they close with the unborn Christ Child in Mary’s womb.

This movement reflects our Christian understanding that the sacred story, to be understood fully and correctly, has to be told backwards.  The birth and ministry of Jesus are incomprehensible until we know of his death and resurrection.  To put it another way, our understanding of the past is muddled and incomplete until we grasp the nature of the future and purpose of History.  Christianity sees History as having a definite start, a definite end, and that it reflects the plan and purpose of God, reaching its crescendo in Christ.

Advent binds the future and past together.  It reminds us that there is a tension between them, and that this tension is where our faith is centered – the conviction that there is a known end to the road we are called to follow through History, and that God is continuously involved, even though the path that our feet tread at the moment is never clear to us.  You see this tension in each of our scriptures for today.

In the Magnificat from the Gospel of Luke (much of which we sang as our first hymn this morning) Mary begins by saying “My soul rejoices in God my saviour!” and she ends with “He has helped his servant Israel … according to the promise he made to our ancestors …”  Mary is linking past, present, and future – naming the promise made to Abraham long ago; and rejoicing because the long wait for its coming fulfillment is over.

In our first reading, in his Epistle to a Church that wonders why the Messiah has not returned, and why the suffering continues, James tells us to be patient and take comfort, in the same way that a farmer waits for the crop to mature, and warns us that the Judge is standing at the doors.  In other words, the time is at hand, and God is waiting to see the results of the work of the Messiah.

All of this comes to a head in this morning’s Gospel reading, where the Baptist’s disciples confront Jesus.  But first, let’s consider the setting of the story.

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A Prayer for the Second Sunday of Advent

Lord God, like our predecessors who sought out John the Baptist so long ago, we are seeking you because we are in a wilderness of loneliness, pain and desperation.  We see only walls and closed doors when we look for your presence.  We feel cut off, isolated and forgotten: unseen in a dark and uncaring world.

Yet, You are our God: the One who calls us out of that darkness, the One who sees and heals our pain, the One who never forgets us, and never looses faith in us.  Paul prays that You will sanctify us entirely, keeping our spirit, soul and body sound and blameless for the return of Your Son, Jesus Christ.

And so, we are assured, and are certain – through the witness of the Holy Spirit within us – that this is true. You are faithful, and You are calling to us, even now, calling us out of your love for us, a love that overcomes all the pain, imperfection and injustice in this world, a love that transcends and conquers even death.  We are awed and restored through this love that you have so freely given us through the gift of your son, Jesus Christ.

Lord, we bring our prayers to You in faith, certain that nothing is impossible for You, not even the impossibly deep love you have for each of us and for all of humanity.

Hear now our prayers: for those of your Body who are suffering illness, job loss or other challenges, and for those who are grieving any loss, many of whom are known only to you.  Grant them healing, comfort and peace.  We pray for those who wrestle with addictions, for those caught in the trap of domestic violence, and for those who love and suffer alongside them.

Lord, in this Winter Season, we pray that all who seek warmth and shelter find it.  That all who need healing and peace are granted it.  That all who hunger for sustenance and companionship are satisfied.  May all of us be touched by your grace and power.  May all who serve our community and country be kept safe from harm, especially those in the military, and may and their families enjoy Holiday Seasons that are safe, warm and happy.

Finally Lord, we ask that we be granted the courage and grace we need to follow you faithfully, and with integrity.  Let our actions bear witness to the words we speak, and our worship and love for you overflow into every corner of our being, bringing light and hope into the lives of all we meet through our love for you and your son, Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Copyright (c) 2011, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

Oh, THAT Prayer!

A Classmate gave a sermon in “Preaching Class” that made me realize how my current experience parallels that of Zachariah (the father of John the Baptist, in the Gospel of Luke) in some ways, and how thankful I am for the grace of God in my life.

In “preaching” class recently, a fellow student gave a message that was deeply moving and poignant.  The text was Luke 1, the story of Zachariah, father of John the Baptist.  She talked about how Zachariah had been chosen to burn incense on the altar in the Temple and pray.  Then, an angel appeared and said “your prayers are answered.”

Then she asked “which prayers were being answered?”  At the time, Zachariah was praying as part of a public ritual, he was not praying solely for himself.  He must have done a double-take, thinking “Oh, THAT prayer!” when the Angel said “Elizabeth will have a son” instead of saying something like “the Messiah is coming and Israel will be restored.”

Zachariah was old, as was his wife.  Would they have bothered talking about wanting a child to anyone, any more?  Was that long-unanswered prayer one that they only thought-about in the dark hours of the night, when sleep could not find them, when (as my classmate said) they stared at the empty spot in the corner where they had once hoped a cradle, someday, would be?

These are the types of prayers that we hide and bury down deep because we can no longer bear saying them out loud.  Was God answering a prayer that Zachariah had given up-on himself?

His response to Gabriel seems to indicate this was the case: “How will I know this for certain?”  At this point in the sermon, a whole train of thought hit me: All those unanswered prayers of my own broke upon me, and I completely lost track of the rest of her message.

All of us can identify with Zachariah’s “hidden prayers” all too well.  We have all spent many lonely nights, remembering those earnest prayers that never seem to have been answered.  And yet here, those hopes were answered in an unexpected way, at an unexpected time: Zachariah was completely unprepared for it.  What can his story teach us?

First, God’s timing is not ours.  Zachariah had given up on his hidden prayers being fulfilled.  There was no longer any reasonable expectation that they could be:  Zachariah certainly didn’t expect it, nor did I when my own such prayers were answered.

Second, that God’s means of fulfilling those hidden and buried prayers is not ours.  If someone, on July 9, 2005, had told me that my life would be anything like where I am today, I’d have (bitterly) laughed in their face: at the time I felt that all of my life’s prayers were beyond reach, any hope of attaining them gone forever.  Yet, a day later, my feet were firmly on the path to the life I have now.  Like Zachariah, the change was sudden, startling, and irrevocable.  For me, the path forward was not clear, nor was there any certainity to it, but I knew that the path forward could only be far better than where I had been.

Third, that attaining the fulfillment of those hidden prayers is not easy – even once the door opens.  There was a high cost, at least for me and Zachariah.  Yet, I don’t think either of us would think about paying it all over again if we had to.  For us, every step of that journey has been worth it.  In Zachariah’s case, it was the birth of a son.  For me, it has been a whole multitude of things, not the least of which is my wife, my new (and restored) family, and the opportunity to pursue the career that itself had been a hidden prayer for many years.

Finally, the journey is not done.  The need for God’s grace and presence didn’t end with Zachariah’s naming his son “John”.  Although we are not told the rest the story, I am certain that John’s walk towards becoming a Prophet was marked by unnumbered examples of God’s grace and guidance, and that his parents were on their knees frequently: thanking God and praying for their son.  In my own case, a similar journey is one of several that are just beginning for me.

Other “hidden prayers” remain in my own life, as in all of our lives.  For me, one unanswered prayer that I think about every day, if not several times a day,  is seeing the relationship with my daughter healed and restored: a hidden hurt that has become all the more poignant for me, now that her brother’s birth is imminent.  I pray that the gulf between us is somehow bridged, so that I can at least know that my constant prayers for her safety and happiness are being answered.

But, maybe those prayers aren’t as hidden and forgotten as we think: from Zachariah’s example, we know that those prayers are not hidden from God, and so that hope of their fulfillment never needs to die.  But, we can also be sure that God will fulfill them in a way and time of His own choosing, not ours.  So, I will also remember what Romans 8:6 teaches us: “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.”  If we focus on worldly means of achieving our prayers, as Zachariah and I did, those hopes will die.  But, by staying focused on the inner witness of God’s Love for us, we will have peace even when all worldly hope is gone.

 

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

Amen!