Expectations & Fulfillments

sermon for 2nd Sunday of Advent, (Malachi3:1-4; Luke1:68-79, 3:1-6)
Even though in church, the answer is always supposed to be Jesus, if we ask who the main character is for the season of Advent, we’d be hard-pressed not to answer John the Baptist. So today, it seems worthwhile to do a recap of his life, sort of a brief bio as refresher on this important character.

Starting at the start, in the Gospel of Luke his story actually kicks off the whole saga. Luke alone tells a version where John’s mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary are relatives. We’ll hear more about them in two weeks. But the story began with an old couple who had been unable to have children. Now, that should resonate as a standard biblical theme, going all the way back to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18). And, in the Bible, we come to expect that infertility of a barren couple will be met by a miracle from God and will come to bear fruit.

Sarah laughed at the thought of the promise, of her old body knowing pleasure. And that sort of hiccup along the way is typical. So in John’s story the first character we meet is an old guy serving in the temple when suddenly the angel Gabriel showed up and told him the good news that he could expect the birth of a son, to be named John. But this old priest named Zechariah had a hiccup, a moment of doubting the promise and wondering how it could be possible. “I’m an old man,” he said, “and my wife is getting on in years.” (Maybe from that kindly finesse we expect good things from Zechariah; after all, he had sense not to refer to his wife as “old.”)

Yet for that cautious doubt, Gabriel said that he’d be unable to talk until the baby was born. So Zechariah left the temple, suddenly speechless, and Gabriel went off to pay a visit to Mary.
Then about nine months later, along came a baby. Zechariah got a chalkboard and wrote that the baby’s name should be John, just as the angel instructed, and instantly his tongue was freed and he let loose the glorious song we sang as our Psalmody, a song of a Savior sent for rescue and deliverance. This father also set high expectations for his newborn baby, singing: “And you, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”

With those enormous expectations, it’s surprising how John responded and grew into—or maybe around—them. That’s probably true for us, as well. There are times expectations make us rise to meet a challenge, and also when you’ve instead felt a strong sense of failure, that you let down the expectations. Some of those may have chased after you from your birth. Some you may have evaded, others you may have been a surprise in how you responded and how it turned out.

So perhaps Zechariah thought John would follow in his footsteps to become a priest, serving in the temple, making offerings for sins. But instead, he wound up out in the wilderness. We’re told elsewhere that he dressed like a wild man and ate bugs (Mark 1:6). Not exactly the sort of thing that makes for a proud parent, one would suspect.

Except out there in the wilderness, he was doing something to prepare the way of the Lord. And he became an immensely popular attraction, for whatever that’s worth. We’ll get more on exactly what he said next week, the strange message that is labeled as “good news” even though his first words were to denounce everybody as “you brood of vipers.”

Among those who didn’t take his firm message of repentance all that kindly is the King, Herod. In demanding moral behavior from his ruler, John was met by corruption, by a crooked way not very interested in being made straight. And so he was put in prison and beheaded on an odd, spiteful technicality.

That could have meant the end of his story–from birth to death–but it stretches beyond that framework and timespan.

For starters, Christians have read that John the Baptist was already being foreshadowed in the Old Testament. We have words from the prophet Isaiah applied to him as the voice crying out in the wilderness, making paths straight for the Lord. And our reading from Malachi hints in his direction, too, as a messenger preparing for the Lord who is coming.

But that also begins to highlight some confusions. See Malachi wasn’t just predicting that John would show up before Jesus. It wasn’t simply a future forecast. Malachi was talking for his own time, about 500 years before Jesus and John. He was calling his own people to be ready for God’s arrival, for God’s work in their midst. Again, it’s confusing even whether Malachi is talking about himself or another prophet or some heavenly being. The name “Malachi,” as your bulletins indicate, in Hebrew means “my messenger.” And our word “angel” is also the Greek word for messenger. So are angels from heaven? Are they other humans we listen to? In one Psalm (104:4), even the wind and fire can be God’s messengers.

The next confusing part is how John and Jesus seem to get mixed up. Evidently John was popular and holy enough that he had to keep reiterating that he was not the Messiah, but was just preparing the way for one who was coming after (John 1:20-23). They even seem to get mixed up with each other; Jesus asked to be baptized by John and John wanted to refuse, to have Jesus baptize him instead (Matthew 3:13-14). And when Herod heard about what Jesus was doing, he thought that John, whom he beheaded, had been raised from the dead (Mark 6:16)!

That may not be what we’d expect or where we’d have confusion arise. You may even wonder why I mention it, why I started this sermon in trying to explain, nice and orderly, John’s biography, only to inject topsy-turvy puzzling into the whole thing.

But I do it for several reasons. First, this isn’t a sermon about John the Baptist. Sermons are for you. So this is a reminder that God’s work wasn’t only in some ancient time and place, not just an isolated event. Malachi spoke to his people, a word that we understand as having value still 500 years later, and a message that we continue reading in worship now because we believe it keeps applying and speaking to us. As we turn toward the baptismal font, we expect that Malachi’s image of refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap is active. We expect God is purging you of evil and cleansing you from sin. It’s not just ancient history, but is renewed and freshly powerful for you week-by-week.

The second reason is to realize that it is, indeed, confusing—but also chock full of blessing—that we get mixed up with Jesus and God. Perhaps most often we do it when bad things happen, wondering why God caused or let it happen to us. We identify our misbehavior or the ripples of sin in our world as being partly God’s fault. But it’s also in the good you do. Do you get credit for loving your neighbor? Does all love come from God? Do you do it naturally, almost by faithful instinct?

Tying this together perhaps attunes you to God’s preparations in your life, the ways God is trying to even out what is crooked and to level out your rough spots. This is vital for our expectations of this Advent season, for how God arrives, coming to work in our midst.

The realization that your life is mixed up with Jesus means you aren’t always waiting for someone else. Malachi wasn’t just predicting that John the Baptist would be helpful 500 years later. He was claiming that mantle of proclamation, letting those words of repentance and cleansing speak to himself and to his people. That message of self-examination continues for us. We’ll get more direct reflection on repentance with John the Baptist’s preaching next week, that it is about sacrifice, about changing your way of life, giving up what you think you’re entitled to so others can live better.

This calls to mind, I expect, the silly hoopla this week about thoughts and prayers and lip-service, that this is actually about what you enact, not just outrage or frustration at others; John could have just complained about that long list of rulers at the start of the Gospel reading. Rather, this is about you and how your life is changed.

Again, then, this is a reminder that we aren’t just waiting for some special moment in history, for the arrival of the next special guardian angel or next savior or superhero or next new whatever. It wasn’t when the stars were aligned just so that John the Baptist could be born, or when exactly the right leaders were in power for his message really to resonate. It was simply at his time and place.

We have a perspective that we need new John the Baptists to fit all kinds of circumstances—that another Martin Luther King will help address ongoing racism, that a woman in power will close the gender gap, that some political leader will solve the crisis of our lives. We’d said that Sandy Hook was supposed to be the moment for gun deaths, and we’ve been saying it through tragedy after tragedy since. We said the Holocaust meant never again, yet allow genocide and senseless death to continue escalating. I was reading an article from Bruce this week about waiting for another Yitzhak Rabin to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Yet we aren’t waiting for the environmental hero to fix the climate crisis with some magic bullet (to use an unfortunately violent metaphor). Neither will somebody show up with ready-made solutions to the ways we struggle to get along with each other. This isn’t about some golden age dawning on the horizon.

This is the age. This is the time. This is the place. This is always the confusing miracle of Advent. We are preparing for Jesus’ arrival in a birth that happened 2000 years ago while simultaneously expecting his arrival in the 2nd Coming, but not as if we’re twiddling our thumbs in the meantime. The paradox is that, even as we recall and even as we wait, still Jesus arrives to be with you now, speaking to you, assuring you of forgiveness and grace, of his compassion for you and from you, of love that continues to be embodied with you, of his presence at this table, filling you with his flesh and blood so that all flesh may see salvation.

You have knowledge of salvation, because your sins are forgiven. You have a savior who works constantly to rescue and deliver our hurting, fractured world. And, though it’s not the full or only story, we must believe that Zechariah’s song of hope and full of expectation finds fulfillment in your life.

Speaking of ancient words continuing to have new use and meaning, our Hymn of the Day is the first hymn I wrote here, way back in 2004.

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Barbara Ann Allen

29 July 1935 + 26 November 2015

Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; Psalm 23; Revelation 21:1-7

 

I don’t know much of what to say to start this sermon besides that life sometimes goes how we want it to, and sometimes it doesn’t. At least there seems to have been that mix for Barb, and for you around her.

For the part that goes right, we could hardly find better words than what Justin shared for us from the book of Proverbs. It even wove in words about thread that could make you think of the beautiful Christmas stockings she knit.

But so much more than that is just the concern for life shared that those words spoke and that Barb embodied. Beside those words in our own terminology, the phrase “high school sweethearts” seems like an epitome of things going right, of life being how it should be.

And lasting! What a gift not only that love from early on, but that was together for 60 years of marriage. Through the years, then, you can think of moves to each new place with your career, Bob, and her care to help in succeeding, and establishing a new home and getting settled and making everything right for another new setting in life. Proverbs says we should be certain to praise such a wife, and that is clearly one of the good parts today, in being able to recall and celebrate those parts of life well-lived.

And it wasn’t just as a wife, but also as a mother, and a dear friend, and as a grandmother who cared so much and could be such fun, riding the flume over and over, or traveling with the motorhome, or enjoying sunsets from the houseboat and even daily these last years from home, for that pause to appreciate. These are the things where we truly notice life is going how it should.

But that still leaves us with questions for the other times. Proverbs doesn’t address much of that. It just says “she does good all the days of her life.” But for Barb, those of us who are left behind can’t help but miss her and feel like we wanted more of those good days of her life. We wonder about how surgeries go and what should happen. We think of how our lives go on now without her. There doesn’t seem to be much explanation or clear-cut right answer for all of that.

And there are the things that are so much more complicated. Proverbs said to help the needy, and there’s a detail from Barb’s life: I’ll continue to picture her with the good she was part of in helping out at the Food Pantry. But it was a good that goes along with a bad, trying to alleviate hunger, but we’d have to confess that hunger shouldn’t need to be a problem in the first place.

Some multi-layered complexity goes also with this moment at the end of Barb’s life. Even when we aren’t ready to say good-bye, still she was accepting of the end, ready to be done struggling with too many bad diagnoses and too little energy. Yet her resolution isn’t always ours, as we’re ambushed by what happens in each other’s lives. So we don’t have larger explanations of why she went first, of what happened that she’s gone and we’re still here. And even for her, we have to know the ambivalence, that she really would have loved to be at Jenna’s graduation next month.

For all the right in life that goes how we want it to, and even being able to celebrate and enjoy and remember those many good times, still we can’t just ignore or forget about the other side. Today, at this gathering, we need to be able to address that, too, and need some sort of word for it.

That is where our faith comes in, including the reminders today from our other Bible readings. This life is not only for striving to be happy and helpful through however many days we have. As blessed as this existence God has given us can be, that is not the sum total of what we believe or understand.

The Revelation reading reminds us of what we can look forward to, that there is more to come, that for any of our uncertainties or resentments or sorrows now, for whatever we don’t understand and wish would be different, that in the end we will meet resolution, that God will come directly to be with us and so every tear will be wiped away, and mourning will be no more, and pain will be no more. And all of that because death will be no more.

That is the heart of our faith, the core of what Barb could trust, the promise of resurrection and life to come.

But even now, our faith points us toward something more. Just as God didn’t create us for the all-too-fleeting pleasures of this life only, neither are we just waiting for that eventual day of joy and being brought together again in a heavenly promise. Even for the hard days of life to come in these weeks, even for the sadness and crying and confusion that are part of this time of loss, even for these struggles of the last months for Barb of wearing out and not having doctors be able to do what they wished, for all these moments, this is also the core of our faith, a faith that we remember during this Christmas season identified in God who came to put on our flesh and be Immanuel, God-with-us. From heaven above, Jesus was born to enjoy family and to feast and to be part of this world. But he was also born to know our hurts and our brokenness and our yearnings.

This is what the 23rd Psalm holds all together for us almost as if summarizing: the God who walks along with us, is with us in times of plenty and peacefulness—the sunsets beside calm waters—and just as much accompanies us in the worries and the hardships of shadowy valleys and even going through dying and death. And beyond that, at the end, this God through our risen Lord Jesus will bring us again to our eternal home, to feast in unbroken celebration. In life, in death God abides with you.

Just as you knew the often private Barb through love, so God also is revealed in love that persists, endures, and brings new beginnings.

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Carol Stories, week 1

Creator of the Stars of Night (ELW #245, stanzas 1 & 2)

 

With this first one, there’s double trouble in claiming we’ll sing your favorite Christmas carols. A: it’s not in the Christmas section. B: it may not be a favorite. I picked it after reading a passage for staff devotions from this Advent Sourcebook. To start the book, it says, “for many, Advent would not be Advent if introduced by any other” carol. That says something about it being a favorite.

Yet I was surprised it wasn’t even in the Advent section of our old green LBW hymnals. There, in the “Christian Hope” section, it has a totally different translation that goes, “O Lord of light, who made the stars, O Dawn, by whom we see the way, O Christ, redeemer of the world: Come now and listen as we pray.” I think the translation in ELW has more ring.

And speaking of translations, the Sourcebook said that the original Latin word we have as “stars” was actually way more. It also included “sun and moon and planets and all the constellations and comets and meteors, these mysterious heavenly bodies that in some unfathomable way could affect human destiny. The point was not just some lovely nightfall scene studded with gently glimmering stars.”

That huge perspective is helpful in, again, reorienting us as this season starts. We love these quiet nights, and reflecting that Jesus will be born as a baby, because we can wrap our minds (and our arms!) around that. A tiny infant we can handle. But at the same time, this God who created the entire immense universe really is unfathomably big. I started to look up a scale model, of the sort like “if the sun were the size of a basketball, earth would be a grain of sand” and that the nearest star would be hundreds of miles away, which is even more shocking when we remember that our galaxy alone has at least 100 billion stars and there are at least 100 billion more galaxies. Yowser. That quickly becomes more math than I can do. And it can make us and our troubles seem awfully small.

Yet the original version of our carol describes the Savior’s sorrow for a “curse / that should doom to death a universe” and so came to “embrace / our gloomy world, its weary race.” It’s a remarkable understanding, that out of everything—the hugeness of the cosmos, the complexity of existence, the vast stretches beyond comprehension—that God should care for us. It’s like words we’ll hear from Psalm 8 in a bit, “When I consider your universe, what are mere mortals that you should care for us?”

Yet that is exactly what we understand of God and the arrival of Jesus. And, in another (though smaller still) amazingly expansive stretch, Christians have been singing the words of this carol to these same notes since at least the 800s. So let’s join them. Let’s sing.

 

Of the Father’s Love Begotten (ELW #295, stanzas 1 & 3)

 

Our second carol is more likely a favorite, at least for me and Brent Ruffridge.

Its sound may parallel the ancient chant plainsong we just sang; indeed, this is another old, old tune that’s been sung for hundreds of years, though it’s not as ancient as the words themselves. The words are by a man who has been called “the original Christian poet.” He was writing at about the same time that our Nicene Creed was composed, and we may sense some similarities between the two. Prudentius was a successful lawyer and judge in northern Spain, appointed to his position by the emperor. But he came to see life as too temporal or temporary, that what we work and strive for and build on all too soon collapses and disappears. So he gave up his position and wealth and moved to a monastery to write Christian poetry.

His words here also try to contain some of the enormous scope of the cosmos and all of history that we encountered in the last carol. Here it includes the term “Alpha and Omega,” again as we heard on Christ the King Sunday, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In a way, it reverses the idea that Jesus was a baby who would fit in our arms; this says that we are entirely in his embrace. So just as we’d say there is nothing before A and nothing after Z, within God’s reach and never outside God’s control is everything we know and have experienced and could ever be. The ancient prophets. The highest angels. The worst thing you’ve ever done. The Big Bang. Death. The things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see—Jesus is holding all of it and working to love and redeem it all. It sure does make our existence now seem temporary by comparison.

Speaking of knowing only in part, the version of this carol in our hymnals includes just five of ten original stanzas. In the full version, there are words about Jesus creating earth and heaven and depths of ocean and all that grows. There’s our frail and feeble bodies, doomed to die and departed souls. From Psalm 148, there’s the praise of elders, youth and maidens, and even infants, plus the praise of all creation—storm and sunshine, stream and forest, night and day. These are different words for what we have portrayed also in nativity scenes, that all come to worship the tiny, fragile, holy infant who is ruler of all times and places, from donkeys to angels, rich and wise kings down to poor ugly shepherds like goofy Gustav. For his sake and along with all creation, let’s sing.

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A Visit from Nicholas (Or, A Winter Helping of BBQ & Soul Food)

humbly stolen from Clement C. Moore,

since even Jesus said he’d come “like a thief in the night”

 

‘Twas the night before Advent when all through the church

not a creature was stirring, neither man nor perch.

The blue paraments were hung by Ruth Circle with care

for a season of hope—that Christ soon would be there.

The children had program lines in their heads

while Rena baked batches of Communion bread.

All was proceeding, according to reason,

just as it should for this time of the season.

But before settling down, ah! what was the matter?!

The fuzzy young pastor decided to scatter.

Around stained glass windows you saw a bright flash,

or was it merely a handle-bar moustache?

The moon on the breast of autumn’s fallen leaves

said something was changing here at St. Steve’s,

When, what to your wondering eyes should appear

but a guy on a bike, ped’ling with only one gear.

The scrawny goofball rider was as thin as a stick

and you knew in a moment it must be that Nick.

I called out Bible verses, began to proclaim,

and rapidly shouted out name after name:

“Now! Peter, now! Matthew! now, Mark, Luke and John,

Galatians! Isaiah! And on to the Psalms!

‘Christ has broken down the dividing wall,’

this gospel is good news for one and for all!”

As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly,

in the face of bad news make you keep asking, “Why?”

Yet our God knows exactly what to do,

with a chalice of wine—and baptismal water, too.

So it was you heard, though in faith and not proof,

the preaching and praying of your pastor, the goof.

As Amazing Grace was sung, “lost and found,”

down came this Nicholas, your faith to re-ground.

I was dressed in an alb, with Chucks on my feet,

and my mouth rarely tasted e’en a bite of meat.

Sometimes a canoe was up on my back,

others, a Bible I’d pull from my camel sack.

My job is God’s grace, which makes sinners merry

(including in times where we’ve “married and buried”).

My mouth said, “You’re forgiven; that’s where we begin,

I swear by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.”

Once more in these weeks as we’re gathered ‘neath

the candles and greens of our Advent wreath

you’ll hear me proclaim—but not with a bellow,

more like a round of good Lutheran Jell-O—

that is isn’t about fulfilling ourselves

but sharing and caring and offering help.

This is our faith, from Christ our head,

making us know we have nothing to dread.

We speak this word: Our hands, God’s work.

It’s what we’re up to, together as church.

This we believe, ‘mid life’s highs and lows,

for this Jesus was born, he died and he rose.

Before I pedal off into the sunset,

knowing that I am sure not done yet,

you can hear me proclaim, ere I ride to the west,

“I love you a lot, but Christ loves you best!”

 

+ nick

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