Rejoicing in the Dark

Preached on 16 December 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The third Sunday of Advent, Year C

“Rejoice in the Lord, always!  Again, I say, rejoice!”

“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!  Rejoice and exult with all your heart.”

“Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy!”

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Joy; Rejoicing.  In some churches, they use a pink or rose candle in the Advent wreath to represent the Joy of this week.

At the end of our gospel lesson today, we read, “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the Good News to the people.”

You can hear that recurrent theme of rejoicing throughout the readings this morning.  But there is another common thread, in the background of each of these readings: Darkness.

When Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord, always,” to the church in Philippi, a community that is very dear to his heart, he is in prison.  He doesn’t know what awaits him.  But even in this darkness, he knows hope and can rejoice in the Lord and encourage others to do so as well.

Zephania is prophesying in Judah, not long before the people of Israel are taken into captivity in Babylon.  Most of the book is pronouncing judgement and ruin to a people who have turned their back on God.  Yet, at the end, the part we hear today, he offers the hope of restoration even as they are in the darkness of violence and corruption.

Then, there’s our canticle from Isaiah.  Again, the prophet is living in the time before the exile, warning the people of the coming judgement of the Lord, yet offering the hope and promise of salvation, one day.

The chapter begins, “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away and you comforted me.” And then he continues with what we sang in our canticle this morning, “Surely God is my salvation, I will trust and will not be afraid.”

When we hear John the Baptist call the people a Brood of Vipers, and go on to talk about the winnowing fork in the hand of the one who is coming, who will clear the threshing floor, and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire, we don’t exactly take comfort.  How do the people, how do we, hear Good News in all that judgement language?

It’s been said that those with power, those who live in comfort, hope that God is merciful and that those with little power or money or comfort hope that God is just.

Judgement is Good News to people who suffer from unjust systems and policies.  For victims, judgement is Good News.  For people stuck in patterns of behavior that harm themselves or others, judgement is Good News.  Because, you see, Judgement is not simply about punishing wrong-doing.  Judgement is bringing about right order and right relationships.  It’s refining and purifying.  Judgement is about liberation and redemption.

So, when John preaches to a people suffering in poverty or from the extortion and abuse of power and authority, and tells them the Lord is coming to judge the world, that the winnowing fork is in his hand, that is Good News.

When he tells them that it is not their lineage that matters but their behavior, the fruit that they bear, they ask, “then what should we do?”  And his responses are very reasonable and doable.  When we truly repent, turn back to God, it shows in our lives; we bear the fruit of repentance.

He tells them what we all learned at our parents’ knee:  Share, be fair, and don’t bully.  Care for the needs of others.  Don’t abuse your authority or power.  Don’t exploit other people.

John doesn’t tell them they have to quit their jobs or join him in the wilderness.  He points to the reality that they can bear the fruit of repentance right where they are in their own lives: in their homes and families, in their work, in their communities.

It’s not to earn salvation, mind you, but to do their part to create a more trustworthy society.  We are to do what we can to embody God’s love and justice and righteousness in whatever way we can, right where we are.  God is at work through us for the sake of the world.

It seems so incredibly simple, doesn’t it?  Except, apparently, it isn’t.  I know that I have a closet full of coats, and to be honest, I don’t plan to give them away.  Just as an example.  What about you?  The truth is, if we all shared what we have with those in need; if we made sure our systems were fair, there wouldn’t be people who don’t have housing or enough food or work or health care or education or… you get the picture: There wouldn’t be people in need.

How are you already living your faith right now?  What would it look like for you to bear the fruit of repentance; of aligning your life more closely with God?

Here’s the Good News, borrowing and paraphrasing from  David Lose,

Because Christ has already saved the world, we can devote ourselves to care for our little corner of it to bring about a more just, a more generous, a more compassionate world right where we are.

And because Christ is coming and will judge with righteousness, we don’t need to judge others, but rather we can proclaim the mercy we ourselves have experienced. And, perhaps in this way, and through our lives, we, like John, will proclaim the Good News. Even when the world seems dark, we can Rejoice in the Lord, always.

Awaiting Christ’s Coming: in History, in Mystery, and in Majesty

Preached on 9 December 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The Second Sunday of Advent, Year C

Where do you go to hear the Word of God?  Where have you found it?

The Word of God came to John.  In the wilderness.  Do you think the author of Luke was trying to accentuate a point by naming all the power players of the day?  God didn’t speak to the emperor or the governor or the regional rulers or the high priests.  And God didn’t speak in the city or even in the Temple.  No, God chose John, son of Zechariah; chose him even before he was conceived, to be a prophet.

At the end of the first chapter, as soon as John is born and named, Luke tells us, “he grew and became strong in spirit and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.”

So, John didn’t just happen to be in the wilderness; he didn’t wander out there.  The wilderness was familiar ground; it was home.  And he was ready; prepared to hear and proclaim the Word of the Lord.  It is time for him to fulfill the prophecy his father proclaimed when John was born, the prophecy we repeated in the canticle this morning, the song of Zechariah.

God has come to God’s people to set them free,” he says, “God promised he would save us from our enemies, from those who hate us.  To show mercy and remember his holy covenant.”  “You, my child, will go before the Lord to prepare the way, to give the people knowledge of salvation.”

A song of such hope!  Assurance of God’s continuing love and mercy.

We hear a lot from the Holy Spirit, speaking through prophets about God’s salvation of the people.

In our Old Testament reading, we hear a prophecy attributed to Baruch, Jeremiah’s secretary.  He offers words of comfort and mercy to a people living in exile in a strange, foreign land; a people longing for a home they may never have seen.  God promises to clothe them in righteousness and glory and to prepare a level road for the people to return safely to their homeland.  God will lead Israel with joy, with the mercy and righteousness that come from God.

And in our gospel, Luke quotes Isaiah, another of the exilic prophets, to talk about John.  He is the voice in the wilderness, crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord!  Every hill shall be made low and every valley filled… and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Good News to the people of Israel living in exile in Babylon.  Good News to the people living in a sort of exile in their own land but under the oppressive rule of Rome – as our writer so carefully laid out at the beginning of the reading.

Notice that in each of these prophecies, it is God preparing the way, God extending mercy and righteousness.  The people are not sending out engineering crews to blow up mountains or build roads.

John is not selling a self-help movement for moral reform of individuals who will achieve righteousness through personal will.  No, he’s proclaiming God’s presence and activity among the people.  God preparing the way, shining light in the darkness, that all will know the salvation of God.

What a message of hope!

It’s a message we never grow tired of; a message we need to hear over and over.  A message we need right now.

Advent is a time of waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ; the coming of Christ in history, in mystery, and in majesty.

When I think of Christ coming in mystery, I think of the mystery of Christ’s presence in our lives, in the world right now.  So, I’d like for us to ponder and wonder a bit this morning in Advent, preparing for the coming of Christ.

What is the wilderness where we can hear the voice of God speaking to us?  Are we willing to go there?  To silence the noise and distractions that draw our attention?  To wait and listen in a stillness of spirit so we can hear God’s word?

And what about darkness and exile?  We may have an inkling of the darkness and exile faced by the People in Babylon or under Roman occupation.
What about in our world, though?  In our own lives?  Do we experience an exile or sorts?  Have we sent others into exile?

It’s not hard to look around us and see darkness – especially in these long, dark, winter days.

But what if we looked for the light?  For signs of hope?  For places where God’s love and mercy and righteousness are breaking through?  Where do we see God preparing the way for Christ in our lives and in the world?  The world is yearning for that light; for someone to point to it and show them it’s there.

In this season of Advent, as we await and prepare for the coming of Christ, may we always remember that it is God who is preparing the way, preparing our hearts.

Or in the song of Zechariah,
In the tender compassion of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us

To shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death,
and guide our feet into the way of peace.

Thanks be to God.

Dwelling in the Kingdom, Being the Light

Preached on 25 November 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The Reign of Christ, Year C

About 230 years ago, we fought a war to rid ourselves of our king.  And yet, we raptly follow all the coverage of the current royal family.  Just look at how many of us were glued to the TV watching the royal wedding in May; and all the coverage leading up to it?  And he’s what, 5th or 6th in line for the throne?  I can never keep track.  We ooo and ahh over William and Kate and their growing family.  We wonder if the Queen will one day step down in favor of Prince Charles who has waited so long to become king.

Maybe we just like our royalty mostly for show and ceremony; a monarch who is benevolent, but virtually powerless.

At the same time, I think it may be human nature to long for a monarch, or a ruler or leaders, who will make the world Good and eliminate all evil; who will make all the bad stuff in our lives stop.  We long for a leader who is on our side.  The trouble is, human leaders, no matter how good they are, all of them fall short.  The fact of the matter is that truly great or even good leaders, whether kings or presidents or popes, are rare, if we look through history.

What we hope for; what we ask of them is not possible.  So, we place that hope in God: all powerful, all Good, totally in charge and in control of everything; a god who is on our side.  That is risky theology because if God is in control, then God is causing the evil and all the bad stuff, too.

Where does that leave us, then?  What do we make of Christ as king?

As we approach the season of Advent; looking forward to the coming of Christ, who is this Jesus we are waiting for; looking for?

Not only are we looking back to the birth of the baby, born in a stable at Christmas.  Not only are we looking to some elusive future when Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, as we recite in our Creed.  But in our lives today, who is this Jesus, this king, we’re waiting and looking for?

Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you king of the Jews?”  It’s a political question.  He’s wondering if Jesus is a rival.  Will Jesus challenge Pilate’s authority?

Pilate is caught in the middle.  He’s a mid-level ruler; the governor of the region with significant power locally – life-or-death power over Jesus at this moment.  Except he is also answerable to Rome.  If his decision causes an uprising, it may not go well for him.

Jesus’ response is strange.  They go back and forth a bit and then he explains, “my kingdom is not of this world.”  Huh?  “The reason I’m here is to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  And Pilate asks, “What is truth?”

Earlier in the gospel, Jesus already claimed that he is the Truth.  Truth is in his person.
Jesus’ kingdom is not a place.  It is not a hoped-for future or a place to go after you die.  No, the Kingdom of Christ is at hand.  It’s a way of being.  It’s hearing and following the Truth that is Jesus.

We’re used to thinking of kingdoms as defined by geographical borders and characterized by visible, tangible exhibits of wealth and splendor and power; of majesty and authority and the list descriptors goes on and on.

But that’s not what characterizes or defines Jesus’ kingdom.  As Karoline Lewis describes it,
“Jesus’ kingdom is anywhere and anytime.  We find it whenever “kingdom behavior” is exemplified. Whenever kingdom character is lived out; wherever the kingdom witness can be seen and heard.

“Jesus’ kingdom is a perspective, a way of living life; even a way of interpreting the world and expressing this perspective, this interpretation in everything we do.

“Jesus’ kingdom is seen in people’s lives; lives that embody a commitment to love and liberty; a commitment to striving for justice and freedom for all people.”

Jesus’ kingdom is not a geographical location, but in the hearts of people.  Those who dwell in the kingdom of Christ have a particular way of seeing and being in the world and toward the world that is different.  So, why don’t we all dwell in Jesus’ kingdom all the time?

Well, changing how we see the world is hard.  Often, we can only do it for a moment at a time. We get a glimpse of Christ’s kingdom. And then a little longer, and eventually, we may come to see so clearly, that we can never go back and see the world any other way.

Dwelling in the kingdom is also risky.  The kingdom of Christ challenges the powers of the world, the rulers, those in charge.  And power doesn’t give up without a fight.  Embodying the kingdom; a commitment to love and justice and freedom means speaking Truth; it means challenging the status quo.  Not as an individual savior, but as an inhabitant of the kingdom of Christ, a partner in Christ’s mission.

I think the key is a commitment to practice seeing with kingdom eyes; interpreting the world with the heart of Christ.

A couple of years ago, I read a commentary that quoted Leonard Cohen:

“There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets through.”
Then she went on to write.

“Look for the crack and be the light of Christ that shines through it.

“Be the light that exposes attempts to justify hatred, intolerance, and violence.

“Be the light that allows us to truly see those who are ignored, overlooked, marginalized, disenfranchised, starving, used, abused, silenced.

“Be the light that we so desperately need; a light that shines as a glimmer of hope for all people, for all the world.”

As we enter into this season of Advent, may we practice being the light.

Bearing Witness in Terrifying Times

Preached on 18 November 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28, Year C, Thematic track

Mark wrote this gospel right around the time that Jerusalem was under attack and the Temple was destroyed.  The people he wrote it for were not just going through difficult times, they were terrifying!   The events Jesus describes to his disciples are happening now, all around them.

What does it all mean?  What do these events reveal to them about God?  People have always struggled with calamity and death and disaster and what it tells them about God and what God wants of us; from slavery in Egypt to the Exodus, to exile in Babylon, to the plagues of the middle ages, to the Holocaust, to AIDS and even hurricanes.

For Mark’s audience, is this a sign of God’s judgment against Judaism?  Was Jesus actually a false messiah?  And what about Rome?  Are their gods winning?  How do they survive when Rome rains violence and persecution and destruction on them?

In that context, Mark’s gospel and Jesus’ apocalyptic warnings may have offered comfort, even hope to the people.  Jesus addresses the question, How do we bear witness during hardship; in the face of opposition and even oppression?

Jesus warns the disciples not to be deceived by the appearance of power and safety, like in the large stones and grandeur of the Temple.  He warns them not to be led astray by fear; as he tells them of coming wars and earthquakes and famines and even persecution.

The Good News must first be proclaimed to all nations, Jesus tells them.

We bear witness to the enduring presence and love of God and the activity of the Holy Spirit by continuing to trust in that Truth and to live accordingly despite all the terrifying stuff that is happening in the world around us.

We proclaim Good News by being Good News.  Bearing witness is so much more than speaking; and in fact, words often get in the way.  Our lives, our actions, our way of being in the world must bear witness to our trust in God, to the presence of God.  We share what we have that all may be fed, all may be sheltered, all may find refuge and be safe.  This is how to bear witness to the Good News of God in Christ in terrifying times.

Today’s psalm also offers some insight.

“Protect me, O God, for I take refuge in you,” the psalmist begins.  This is a song of Trust composed by a member of the tribe of Levite, the priests.

Now, the Levites, had no land of their own.  When the land of Canaan was divided among the Tribes, the Levites did not receive a portion.  That’s why the others give a share of their produce to the Levites.  When he says, “my boundaries enclose a pleasant land,” he means God.  “The Lord is my portion and my cup,” he sings.

His trust is in God.  In the totality of his life and his very being, he rests in God.  His Heart is glad, his Spirit rejoices, and his Body rests in hope.  This is about his whole being.

He takes refuge in God and trusts God to show him the path of life.  This is not simply subsistence, bare survival; no, he is singing about an abundance of life.  “In your presence there is fullness of joy!
And in your right hand are pleasures for evermore,” he sings in praise.

When we discover that what we put our trust in isn’t quite as dependable as we thought whether it is human institutions or the ground under our feet, we know we can take refuge in God.

It always feels awkward at this time of year when we have all these apocalyptic readings right when we’re celebrating Thanksgiving.  Talking about doom and suffering and judgment and end-times just as we celebrate the many blessings of life – family, friends, good food.

Still, maybe it is particularly appropriate because then we don’t have to pretend that everything is perfect; that there is no hunger or suffering, that nobody has to bite their tongue when a family member says something at the dinner table that we find outrageous, or they respond instead of biting their tongues.

Even through all that, we can bear witness; through hardship, through tumultuous, dangerous, frightening times.  We can give thanks and praise to God even then, for the abundance of grace and joy in our lives.

We can because, as the disciples learned and as Mark’s church knew, the Good News in Christ Jesus is that Resurrection is more powerful than Rome.

May we always hold fast to the knowledge that Resurrection is more powerful than any evil in the world and bear witness to that Good News through how we live our lives.