Sermon transcript for December 7, 2014
Through Wilderness—Toward Home
Mark 1:1-8; Psalm 85-1-2; 8-13
Belmont UMC—December 7, 2014
Second Sunday of Advent
Ken Edwards, preaching
One writer imagines what would happen if John the Baptist were to set up preaching camp in the middle of the modern day shopping mall:
“Now imagine this: in comes John, right into the mall. It’s deep winter but he’s wearing sandals on his bare feet, and, yes, he’s wearing his camel’s hair coat, tied with a leather girdle. Now he strides through the double doors of the mall and comes out into the open space near the fountain, and he’s crying, ‘Repent!’
Unreal! What’s this awful man got to do with Christmas? Get him out of here, so we can get our shopping done! But wait; imagine this: John is a powerful preacher, and the adults cease their frantic shopping and start to gather round him. The teens stop their wandering to laugh, but then they find themselves listening. The children hear him and leave Santa’s line, tugging on their parents’ coats and asking questions: ‘What is he doing?’ What’s he saying?’ ‘Why is he here?’
He’s crying out: ‘Repent! Turn around! Change your lives!’
And John is such a powerful preacher that the lights, the carols, the crèches, the shopping, the seeing, even Santa’s line—all are forgotten, and the people begin to ask, ‘What shall we do?
And John says, ‘Repent, and be baptized.’ Then he begins to baptize them, right there in the beautiful mall fountain.” (by Donna Ross, other source material unknown)
On the second Sunday of Advent we always encounter John the Baptist. He is a prophet in the tradition of those Old Testament prophets, like Elijah, Jeremiah, Amos and Isaiah. He’s eccentric like those prophets. His hair is wild and uncombed, honey drips from his beard and his breath smells of crunchy locusts.
He has set up camp way out in the wilderness near the Jordan, away from Jerusalem, away from the center of religion and the center of power. But the people were going out to him—amazing really. Some have suggested that it had been 300 years since God had spoken this clearly and people were going out to the wilderness to hear.
Isaiah had predicted a messenger would come, a messenger who would make the mountains low and the valleys raised up and the path made smooth. This messenger would not draw attention to himself but to one who was to come.
John did not have all the details yet, but he pointed his boney finger toward one who would come, not with John’s cold Jordan baptism, but a Holy Spirit baptism that would usher in a whole new world, a whole new way of thinking and being. John said, “He is coming and you have to get ready!”
Every Advent we meet John the Baptist again and we are not going to get to Christmas without going head to head with John and his message to get prepared.
And so we will spend a little time in the wilderness with John. The wilderness is that barren place where our sight lines are clearer. The wilderness is that place where the sheer silence enables us to hear the beating of our own weak and fearful hearts. The wilderness is that place of knowing and perspective. The wilderness is the place where we see the truth about ourselves and even without John’ preaching, we would know that we need to change. We would know our deep need for God. We know our deep need to cry out to God for help--for forgiveness.
Frederick Niedner describes the wilderness this way, “Precisely here, however, in the wordless void, where over and over our theologies get tested, fail, and disintegrate, God meets up with us.” (Sundays and Seasons, Year B, p.7)
We might like to shut our eyes to this wilderness experience, but we only need to turn on the news and read the morning paper to know that we are a world in need of God, and that we need to repent and turn things around. We are broken and lost. We are territorial and exclusionary. We are self-interested and too self-assured. We are filled with hatred and racism.
In my undeserved privilege I do not know what it is like to live under the ugly shadows of racism, but racism is real and persistent and we must confess those times when we have been complicit in it. When I was a little boy, living in the country on a gravel road, my Mom would visit a Doctor here in the city. She never liked to travel alone so she would take me with her to the Benny Dillon building downtown. She’d give me some money to walk down the street to a lunch counter where I’d buy a piece of apple pie and a cup of coffee (I started drinking coffee when I was a toddler). I thought this was the best thing in the world, but I was completely unaware of how many Nashville citizens could not sit at that lunch counter with me because of the color of their skin.
In the wilderness let us confess our failures as human beings, failure to see each other as God sees us, failure to value and respect one another, failure to see that all people matter, and failure to see our need for God.
Here in the wilderness we might want to offer this traditional wilderness confession: “Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
We decided on the theme “Imagine Peace” for this Sunday long before Ferguson and Staten Island and today we may be wondering how we can imagine peace for a world where hatred breeds violence.
But John the Baptist is not asking us to linger long in the wilderness, wallowing in our lostness and self-pity, but he is pointing the way to the one who is to come, the one who helps us see God and know that God has a better way for us to live.
And the prophets do not invite us to stay in the wilderness forever. They invite us to move on toward a home with God, to imagine that future where truth springs up from the ground, and people put down their weapons and live in peace with one another, where war and hatred and racism are no more, where flowers bloom and bring beauty to the desert places, where water gushes up into life in the driest of places, and where justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.
Sermon transcript for November 30, 2014
1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Sunday, November 30
Chris Allen, preaching
Have you ever been to a Christmas Party where there is a White Elephant Gift Exchange, Dirty Santa, or whatever else you may call it - I'm talking about the exchange where you bring a inexpensive gift to a party, an order for opening the gifts is established, and when it's your turn you have the choice to open a wrapped gift or steal one of the already opened gifts. We'll even have one this coming Saturday when the Belmont youth group gathers for our Christmas party.
I am going to let you in on a little secret of mine. If I am ever involved in a White Elephant gift exchange I am going to do one of two things:
1. I will steal an already opened gift or
2. I will open the gift that I brought to the party.
I cannot stand the unknown of what may be inside the wrapping paper. I have been doing this for as long as I remember. I like the certainty of knowing what I am getting. I don't want to be deceived by the pretty wrapping paper or how big the box is. Who knows what could be inside? Sure you can pick up the package and shake it around to hear what rattles around but that will only get you so far. Why take on that risk when I can go for the unwrapped gift?
So my inclination is to go for the gift I can easily identify - it either has to be already unwrapped or the gift that I wrapped myself. I don't want any surprises even though there very well may be a better gift still wrapped up, a gift that is better than I can currently see. But I just can't bring myself to take that risk. I have a hard time imagining the hope in the wrapped gifts. And at a gift exchange I don't want to get stuck with a gag gift.
Needless to say, I am settling. But that's exactly what Paul is telling the Corinthians they are doing. The Corinthians find themselves in a place like the third servant in the "Parable of the Talents" who buries the master's money. There are two things that Paul identifies here as gifts among the Corinthians - knowledge and communication. However, what's not clear at this point in Paul's letter to the Corinthians is the way they are using these two gifts have got them into some trouble.
While Paul is giving them high praise for their knowledge and communication, he will rebuke them in later chapters for the misuse of their gifts. This is to say that there are some in the Corinthian church who are full of themselves because of their knowledge about God and are now unintelligible in communicating the Gospel. They're now sitting on their gifts and seem to have forgotten the reason God gave them these gifts. They forgot they were living in the in-between times as they wait and hope "for the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." They become satisfied about the way things were. They were ready to settle for the unwrapped gift. The Corinthians were complacent.
Complacency is part of human condition called sin that causes us to become complacent, to be okay with a half-hearted attempt, to be satisfied with the way things are. But hear the good news, even when we are complacent and satisfied with the status quo God rips off the wrapping paper and bursts into the world. Today, we begin the period called Advent, the first season in the church year, where we are keenly aware we are living in-between the coming of Christ in a manager and Christ's second coming. The scandal of grace begins with Jesus coming to dwell among us. How scandalous that God would come among the creation!
God ripping off the wrapping paper, tearing open heaven, and bursting into the world threatens our status quo. Jesus coming among us threatens the status quo of each one of us on a personal level. To confess with your mouth that Jesus - the human one who died on a cross - is Lord of your life is to say that you open your life to being turned upside down and inside our by God's grace. There are often the testimonies of faithful Christians people who tell about how their life was a wreck until they encountered Jesus, but my story has been that I felt like I had life figured out until I read the gospels and it wrecked me forever with the story of God's grace.
Not only does Jesus threaten each of us individually, Jesus coming among us threatens the status quo of our whole society. Just ask King Herod. In Matthew's gospel there is the story that as the news of a new king born in Bethlehem spreads, the government grew fearful at this threat to the status quo so they allowed the systematically killing of all the young boys living in their community. Doesn't this sound familiar?
So how do we imagine hope? In today's Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus gives us this apocalyptic scene of the sun and moon becoming dark and the earth quaking. Then Jesus says that no one but God knows when all this will happen and there is no use in trying to figure it out. However, there is one thing that Jesus does tell us to pay attention to and that is the fig trees. Jesus says when you see the new spring growth summer is near - those early, sweet-tasting figs will soon be appearing. Those early figs are our foretaste to what the fullness of God's kingdom will be like at Jesus' second coming.
Let me make this a bit clearer for you. Do you remember when you were younger and helped out in the kitchen and got to lick the spoon? I remember helping my grandmother out in the kitchen when I was a kid. She makes the best pound cake in the world. She would mix together the eggs, flour, sugar, and butter with her electric beater. When she was done, she would pour the cake batter from the mixing bowl into cake pan. As the cake was being put into the oven, she would offer me the cake batter covered spoon to lick and allow me to scrap any of the remaining batter out of the bowl. And boy did this taste good but it was just a foretaste of what was still to come. While I am licking the spoon the best pound cake ever is still in the oven. That's what it's like to imagine hope as wait for the coming of Christ among us again.
To imagine hope is to imagine God's future breaking into the now, our present reality. Imagining hope is what we do when we pray the Lord's Prayer and say "on earth as it is in heaven." Imagining hope is in police officers welcoming demonstrators with coffee and hot chocolate. Imaging hope is what I experience each Wednesday morning when I walk down to Eakin Elementary to tutor in Mrs. Jackson's class. When I step in the room I am greeted by a chorus of "Hello Mr. Chris." Spending an hour each week with these fourth graders is a foretaste of the kingdom that is to come. They are reminder to me that God is with us.
However, I wish I could say it was an easy week to imagine hope. There seemed to be more bitter tastes in my mouth as I watched the news cycles of injustice, arson, and looting in the city where I spent my college years. Maybe you felt a little hopeless this week as well. Maybe your Thanksgiving meal didn't turn out like you had planned. Maybe you find yourself closer to hopeless than hopeful as you will celebrate your first Christmas without a loved one. Or maybe you find yourself worried about how you are going to pay for this year's Christmas gifts.
If you are having a hard time imagining hope right now, let me tell you that's okay. That's what Advent is for, that's what we are doing here. Advent is a chance to pause and admit that we can no longer hope in ourselves, our government, that deal of a TV we got on Black Friday, or that pill or bottle to save us. We are here to essentially say we are out of hope.
Our hope must be in someone out there who comes to us. We can imagine hope only because Jesus tears into our world and gently leads us home. If you remember nothing else about the sermon this morning what I want you to hear this: On this first Sunday of Advent, know that Jesus is coming into the world, tearing open the heavens to be among us. This is our hope. This is the foundation from which we imagine hope. Among the pain of our lives, in the midst of the many injustices in Ferguson and deaths from a preventable disease like Malaria, there is still a gift we have not fully unwrapped, God bursting into world. It is coming in the small things like the new growth of a fig tree. This season, watch for the foretastes and know that God is faithful.