Advent 2: There’s Something About …John

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If you want an irreverent, funny, occasionally course take on the story of Jesus (and John the Baptist) – this book’s for you.

Anybody wanna try this tongue twister?

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was the ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonotis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Ananias and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John.” 

Ah, John the Baptist, or John the Baptizer, if you want to use the clearest terminology (since “Baptist” these days means something pretty specific to us). Our old, weird buddy John is introduced to us in this way in Luke’s Gospel, placing him in a particular historical context that would’ve been pretty familiar to his early readers. 

I think Luke’s doing a little more than that by introducing him this way, though. You see, you’ve got all of these names that people would immediately recognize. If they didn’t recognize the names, they’d recognize the places and institutions. And then, after that long list, you’ve got this incredibly common name. 

It’s as if you said of someone who lived fifty years ago: in the fifth year of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, when John Volpe was the governor of Massachusetts, when Pope Paul IV was the pope and Nathan Marsh Pusey was the president of Harvard, the word of the Lord came to Bill. 

Immediately, we’d be irritatedly asking, “Who is Bill?!”

Luke breaks the chain of familiarity by talking about this common guy. Not a priest, though his dad was — not even a scribe, just a guy, and guy who might be a little off his rocker, at that.

In Christopher Moore’s book Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Biff, Christ’s childhood pal, tells the story of Jesus. Biff calls Jesus “Joshua,” saying that’s what they actually called him. Biff is a goof, and the book is irreverent and hilarious as Biff tells the stories of the young Messiah. Biff claims that the other Gospel writers got things all wrong, trying to make his best buddy Joshua sound all pious and stuff, and that they leave out the struggle and the funny and crazy things — including Jesus’ entire childhood and teenagerdom. So, long story short, Biff fills in the gaps. 

When it comes to John the Baptist, Biff describes young John as a 13 year old. Sure that he, John, is himself the Messiah (John the Baptizing Kid yells at young Jesus, “My birth was announced by an angel too, you know!”), John nearly drowns some of the other children trying to wash away their sins. Though he would indeed grow up to preach baptism and point the way to Jesus as Messiah, in this book, at 13, John is an obnoxious, pious little punk.

Of John, Biff says, “If there was anything I learned from John the Baptist, it was that the sooner you confess a mistake, the quicker you can get on to making new and better mistakes.” 

Wisdom, I guess.

One evening when the boys are all 13, Biff, John, and Jesus (or Joshua, as Biff calls him), have dinner, along with Mary, Joseph, and Zechariah and Elizabeth (Joshua’s and John’s parents, who are cousins). 

Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s proud elderly mother, goes on and on about the encounter with the angel, talking about it as if it had happened yesterday, beaming with motherly pride.

Biff tells the story: “When [Elizabeth] paused to take a breath, [Mary] started in about the divine announcement of her own son’s birth….
After supper, Joshua and I built our own fire, away from the others… and John joined us. 

‘You are not the [Messiah],’ John said to Joshua. ‘Gabriel came to my father. Your angel didn’t even have a name.’

‘We shouldn’t be talking about these things.’ Joshua said.

‘The angel told my father that his son would prepare the way for the Lord. [That means I’m the Messiah.]’ 

‘Fine. I want nothing more than for you to be the Messiah,  John,’ [Joshua said].

‘Really? John asked. But your mother seems so, so…’” 

Just then, Biff, the good thirteen year old best buddy, interrupts John to brag about the miracles that Joshua had performing, including raising the dead. John grabs Biff by the tunic, calling him a liar, but eventually, Joshua admits that indeed he has performed a miracle or two. Biff continues telling the story:
“John released me, let out a long sigh, then sat back in the dirt. The firelight caught tears sparkling in his eyes as he stared at nothing. 

‘I am so relieved.,’ [he said.] I didn’t know what I would do. I don’t know how to be the Messiah.’ 

‘Neither do I,’ said Jesus.

‘Well, I hope you really can raise the dead,’ John said, ‘because this will kill my mother.’” (1)

John the Baptist, you see, isn’t a prestigious figure. He’s described in the Gospels as the kind of guy you’d probably try to avoid if you saw him on the street. He’s the kind of guy that you’d definitely think was a little off. He would likely smell a little funny, wouldn’t be dressed right, and you’d probably wonder if he was drunk or otherwise intoxicated by the way that he was talking. John isn’t just ordinary. He’s less than ordinary. He’s the kind of person you dismiss using words that we use to dismiss people: “He’s weird. Crazy. Kinda scary.” 

And the Word of the Lord came to that guy.

Do you ever think that God just has the oddest personnel or nominating committee? I mean, really. 

Yet, John becomes a prophet, a truth-teller. Luke pulls a poem from the prophet Isaiah to help him describe John: 

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, 

make his paths straight. 

Every valley shall be filled, 

every mountain and hill shall be made low, 

and the crooked shall be made straight, 

and the rough ways made smooth; 

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” 

This is in Isaiah 40, in the same poem where God says, “Comfort, comfort, my people; speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” 

Mind you, this was in the age where travel was a difficult thing. You had to go on the back of an animal or on foot. It often involved camping, if there was no town or city in sight when night fell. There were no cars, no interstate highways. Trips of more than several miles could easily take days, not minutes or hours like they do for us today, and you had to climb all the hills yourself.

Lots of people died while traveling, either from the elements or from robbers along the way. So when Isaiah says that every mountain and hill in God’s way shall be made low, and every valley lifted up, and every crooked way be made straight, Isaiah is saying nothing less than all the barriers between us and God are about to be removed, which would’ve seemed like even more of a miracle to Isaiah’s original hearers. 

How fitting that a weirdo like John would carry that message. 

How fitting that Luke would use this song from Isaiah to talk about John, the kinda scary, kinda crazy person of very little fame who will point the way to God, who comes in flesh as the son of a poor carpenter. 

The barriers are gone. Nothing is going to stop God from getting to you. Not anxiety or depression, not grief or shame, not your sexuality, not your broken relationships, not your disappointments in yourself and other people, not your political views, not your addiction, not even your theology. Not even death itself. 

Perhaps the most powerful message of Advent is that nothing is powerful enough to keep God away. You’d have better luck convincing the sun not to rise in the morning. 

Advent reminds us that hope is always on the way. Always. And it never fails to reach its destination — even if it’s eventually. 

The word of God came to John, and everything changed.

It changed because this message of hope isn’t best conveyed by the powerful. Comfortable people don’t do well in spreading messages of hope, because the natural response is, “Easy for you to say.” 

No. Hope speaks most clearly to and through the broken, the grieving, the sick, the lost, the outcast, the mentally ill, the forgotten, the anxious, the depressed, the addicted, the people who are just trying to make it to the next paycheck and the people who couldn’t find work if they tried. People who have seen the lowest lows — which is most, if not all of us, at some point — know exactly how badly human beings need hope in our lives. Only by having been through pain can you possibly assure someone in pain that everything will be alright. Otherwise, we’re back at “easy for you to say.” 

And so, in 2018, in the second year of the presidency of Donald J. Trump, when Charlie Baker was the governor of Massachusetts, when Michael J. Sullivan was the town administrator of South Hadley, when Elizabeth Eaton was the presiding bishop of the ELCA and James Hazelwood was the bishop of the Lutherans in New England, the Word of the Lord came to Our Savior’s. 

It does. Every year, without fail. The arrival of Christmas never has a last-minute letdown. It is the word of love, of newfound hope, of trust, of God. It is love found in bread and wine and water and words. It is the love found in this building and in all the relationships that have formed here over the years. In you. 

Never underestimate your own power, for nothing can stop God from getting to you.
The word of God, the word of hope, has come, is coming, will come, to you. Sho’’nuff. Amen.

1. Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Harper Collins, 2004, p. 88-89.

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Advent 1: Sho’Nuff

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Jeremiah 33:14-16
Luke 21:25-36

There’s a wonderful little book out there that’s been turned into a musical about the life of Jesus. Now, I’m not really often one for the documentary-style PBS specials about the life of Christ, to be honest with you. I find that the material is a little too well-worn to say much that’s new, and that most of them depend more on the audience’s confirmation bias than anything else. In other words, they tend to preach to the choir.

That view entirely flips, however, if you want to talk to me about books and musicals and Jesus memes. Books like Lamb (a book written from the point of view of Jesus’ very goofy childhood friend) have lit up my life, and I do love a good (funny, please) Jesus meme. 

Now back to that wonderful little book: it’s written by Baptist pastor Clarence Jordan and it’s called The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John. It tells the story of Jesus as if he’d been born close to where I was born: specifically, in Southern Jesus’ case, rural Georgia. It was turned into a musical in the early 1980s by Tom Key and Russel Treyz with music by Harry Chapin. It’s called, naturally, Cotton Patch Gospel. It’s a one man show performed with a quartet of bluegrass musicians. So in other words, we definitely did a version of this bluegrass musical about Jesus at the first church I pastored in Montgomery, Alabama. 

Now that happened to lead to an entire sermon series for Advent that year based on the song of John the Baptizer, a song called “Sho’ ‘Nuff.” (For the one to two of you needing a translation, that would be “Sure enough,” or a thing that Southerners say almost interchangeably with “Amen.” It’s an affirmation, a call of support, a declaration that what has been said will surely come to pass.) 

And it goes like this: “If I told you he was comin’ to interrupt your dinner, what could you say ‘cept ‘sho ‘nuff? If I told you he was comin’ for the losers and winners, what could you say ‘cept ‘sho ‘nuff? If I told you he was comin’ to save all you sinners, what could you say ‘cept ‘sho nuff?” 

Seriously. When you get home from church, go and search YouTube for Cotton Patch Gospel. (1)

I need your help, though. You see, you’re in for a little Southern treat. It’s like grits, but better. 

I’m revisiting one of those little sermons from 2012. And in the musical as in the sermons as in my home culture, if someone says, “Sho’ ‘nuff,” you should say it back. It’s the liturgy. 

So let’s try it. Sho’ ‘nuff!
If I told you he was comin’ to interrupt your dinner, what could you say ‘cept sho’ ‘nuff? (Sho’ ‘nuff!)

So, an obvious warning: today’s Gospel reading is probably not the one you wanna read at your Christmas dinner this year, unless you’re trying to call down judgment on your relatives, which — if that’s the case, you do you.

Point is, it’s not very Christmassy. That’s because it’s Advent. 

I know. Retailers have told us all that it’s Christmas 2018 since basically October of last year. But in here, it’s Advent. Advent is about waiting when we don’t have to wait for anything anymore, save, of course, for two day shipping. Sure, we’ll go sing carols everywhere this month, including in a bar tomorrow night.

But in here, in worship, it’s Advent. We’re waiting. And we’re reading about the end of the world. 

Merry… Christmas?
“If I told you he was coming to interrupt your dinner, what could you say ‘cept sho’nuff?”

Some Christians think this passage is about a final struggle. Lutherans are pretty firm that God doesn’t do much struggling, you know, being God and all, outside of that whole cross thing. According to us, the struggle between good and evil was won then. Love won over death. We don’t have to fear a struggle.

What happens in between? Well, yeah. That can get a bit scary. But you live in the world, and you already knew that. Everybody knows that we get scared sometimes. Some of us get scared of monsters in our closets; others get scared from reading news. You tell me which is better.
“Stand up and lift up your heads; your redemption is drawing near.” 

“If I told you he was coming to interrupt your dinner, what could you say ‘cept sho’nuff?” 

Jesus talks about this in our Gospel reading. Luke tells us that Jesus told them a parable about a fig tree. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” The kingdom of God is at hand. The leaves have already started to sprout. The Kingdom is breaking in already. Better keep watch — the time is near!

“If I told you he was coming to interrupt your dinner, what could you say ‘cept sho’nuff?”

Jesus tells them that this generation wouldn’t pass away until those things had taken place. And they did have their worlds shaken; probably less than fifty years from when Jesus said this, Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed. This is the kind of event that would have you fainting from fear. 

But as for the rest of it? As for Jesus coming on a cloud? Is that a literal cloud? Lord, I don’t know. I’ll just be here with my Jesus memes. But I’ll tell you what I do know. 

The “kingdom of God” is kind of a bad translation since the word “kingdom” in Greek is active. It’s better to say “the reign of God.” When God reigns, God turns the world upside down and shakes it (in a good way). In the kingdom of God, Jesus tells us, the first are last and the last are first. Every mouth is fed, and every tear is dry. There is no more death or mourning or crying or pain.

“If I told you he was comin’ for the losers and winners — what could you say ‘cept sho’ ‘nuff?”

The color that we use for Advent is blue. It used to be purple, you see, before some people decided that we need to separate Advent from Lent. And I like that idea, because you see, the new color they chose is the color of the sky. 

It isn’t just the color of any sky, though. 

It’s the color of the sky right before the sun rises. In that moment that the dawn is breaking, but you haven’t seen the sun quite yet — the sky turns this color of blue. But the sun is on its way, and nothing, it seems, will stop it. No matter how big you think that monster under your bed is or how scary the news got that night.

I don’t know about you, but I need Advent. 

Because every year, I come back to Advent with more pain. Every year, I have seen more death in the world. Every year, my memory is filled with new wars and injustices and terrible things on the news. Every year, I’m missing at least one new person, usually several, because a friend or family member or another dear saint of God has died. Every year. New signs of the brokenness of the world, new divides have ripped through our relationships and our nation and our world. Every year, I have seen more hungry people. Every year, we lose someone else to cancer or addiction or heart disease or mental illness or an accident or one of the many ways we lose people. Every year, we bring our tears in here during the literal darkest days of the year, and we wait for the light.

“If I told you he was comin’ to save all you sinners — what could you say ‘cept sho’ ‘nuff?” 

Our ancestors weren’t dumb, you know. The ones from northern climates like this one gathered evergreen branches this time of year for a reason. We come together and we gather anything that looks alive outside and we light candles and we string up lights and we decorate this altar in blue to remind us: winter isn’t forever. The light is coming back. No matter how deep the darkness is sinking, the dawn is on the way. 

“If I told you he was comin’ to save all you sinners — what could you say ‘cept sho’ ‘nuff?”

Sho’ ‘nuff?
Sho’ ‘nuff. Amen.

1. You can listen to a cast recording here.

Guest Post for Christ the King Sunday: On Being King – Speaking Truth to Power

This sermon was written and preached by Debbie Brown, current council president and faithful member of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in South Hadley, MA. 

John 18:33-38a
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ 38aPilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 11.14.55 AM.pngScreenshot from the game Civilization by Sid Meyers.

I hear a lot of complaints from parents about the amount of time their kids play on video games. And anyone who has spent more than a day with a gamer will understand why. Bill and I were fortunate enough to have our grandsons Jaleel and Tyrese living with us for a couple of years. While they were with us, both of their computers were on either side of the dining room. So I got a chance to watch them play a variety of games. Although some of the games were definitely cause for my concern, I especially enjoyed watching them play Sid Meier’s Civilization. 

The game involved creating civilizations and building cultures in historical time periods. Each of the boys had their own style of play with differing strategies. When they first started playing, Jaleel decided he wanted a civilization based on a form of socialism. He made sure everyone had an abundance food, water, a roof over their heads, and a meaningful job. It soon became apparent that this tactic wouldn’t work. Without challenges for growth, his people became lazy. They had no incentive or need to excel at anything. As a result, his civilization collapsed when stronger civilizations overpowered them. 

Tyrese on the other hand decided to be a heavy-handed dictator. Any infringement on the law was rewarded with jail time and/or execution. Before he knew it, he had more people in prison than free. The prisoners soon violently revolted, resulting in complete anarchy. It wasn’t a pretty sight. His civilization rapidly collapsed and he was killed.

With each successive try, the boys learned more about what motivates human beings and how to be an effective leader. Jaleel built a strong economy, supported the arts and humanities, and provided for his people. But his brother had an even better idea. He created a strong faith-based civilization, sent missionaries into Jaleel’s territory and stole everything from him. Jaleel’s only recourse was to buy his own missionaries to convert Ty’s people who would then tithe, making him enough money to pay even more incentives to his missionaries.

Ty summed up his experience to me like this, and I quote, “Jaleel wanted to let me have some power while also maintaining his supremacy. I only had the leg up on him once in our many games. It always came down to me trying to kill him before he killed me. Any alliance with Jaleel was a ticking time bomb. We each wanted to win, but we couldn’t without breaking the alliance.”

Ty’s insight was spot on. It turns out the game is programmed to follow what is known as the 4X theory of power. Players achieve victory through four routes, “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate.” 

Does this sound at all familiar? It seems to be the same story played out over and over again throughout history. Worldly power, both secular and religious, attempts to maintain itself, to win at all cost using any means necessary. It is manipulative and can even present itself as being altruistic and faith-based. 

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus finds himself on the wrong side of people with great power. The Jewish leaders see him as a threat to their fragile existence under the Romans. They want him gone, so they twist the truth about his teachings and accuse him of blasphemy. But they don’t have the power to put him to death. They plot to have him killed by taking his teachings out of context and making a case for him to be brought to Pilate as a traitor to the Roman Empire. 

We have to give some credit to Pilate. He doesn’t really buy their accusations. But this situation was turning into a political nightmare for him. He questions Jesus about the charges, asking him if he is the King of the Jews. But Jesus takes control of the conversation, putting Pilate on trial so to speak. Was Pilate wondering for himself or only repeating what others told him?  

Pilate avoids the question and asks Jesus what he did to deserve death if he isn’t a king? Jesus reassures Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world and that he has no aspirations to become an earthly king… wouldn’t his followers have put up a fight if he were? Confused, Pilate scoffs…. oh, so you are a king?  Jesus reminds Pilate that HE is the one who referenced him as a king and went on to explain that his purpose has been to testify to the truth. 

Pilate then responds with the very famous line, “What is truth?”

I don’t know about you, but lately I have been thinking a lot about truth. With terms like alternate truths and claims of fake news, I have been left asking the same question as Pilate’s…. “What is truth?” 

We spent some time talking about this at one of our adult Bible studies on John. Like Pilate, I was focused on truth as it applied to statements, events or stories. But Pastor Anna reminded us that everything in John’s Gospel is meant to be a revelation of Jesus.

He is God’s word, originated beyond time and space, made flesh, and lived among us in human form. Throughout his life, he did God’s work as a healer and miracle worker. He is the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, good shepherd, and true vine. He is the way, the resurrection and the life. He IS the truth.

Jesus may be sitting in the presence of one of the most powerful men in the known world, but he is very much in control. His kingdom is not of this world, and his power does not manipulate and destroy like human power does. 

Pilate was all too familiar with the workings of kings and their power over the people. Kings used their wealth and knowledge of the human condition to manipulate them by invoking fear of punishment, hunger, isolation, and even fear of the other in order to motivate loyalty.

Conversely, Jesus’ power is evident at his crucifixion. In that moment, his love is displayed on the cross where he willingly gave up his life to free all people from the power of sin and death. HIS power is centered in love and self-sacrifice rather than in wealth and self-preservation.

We may not be governed by kings anymore, but we are still subject to the never-ending cycle of earthly power in our lives. Worries about safety, health, wealth, hunger, loneliness, unworthiness, and powerlessness are a result of fear – fear that threatens to snuff out the hope we have in the one who came to set us free from the power of sin and death. 

Jesus’ willingness to lay his life down for us is proof of God’s love. God provides us with an abundance of resources, a community of faithful followers, and the ability to reason and think creatively. Under Jesus’ reign the destructive cycle of earthly power governed by the 4X principle of “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate” is broken.

Instead, we are gathered into the kingdom of God, joined together in our baptism and at the table where we receive food for our journey. We are not motivated by fear or armed with wealth and weapons. Instead, we are armed with Jesus’ instruction to love one another as he loved us. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. This undeserved, unearned love has the power to transform all of life.

On this day, at the end of the church year, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday and are reminded that Jesus loves us, freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom…..priests serving his God and Father.  

With Jesus as our King, we are freed to live a new life based on a principle that I call the 4V principle: serVe, loVe, forgiVe, and inVite others.     

Next week, we begin the season of Advent. Using Luke’s Gospel and the prophetic readings, we will be challenged to come face to face with our need for freedom from the earthly powers in our lives. 

This Advent, may you be fed in body and spirit, may you be freed to serve others and proclaim God’s love for all people, and may you be transformed by a greater power … the power that is TRUTH… 

Amen.

References to Sid Meier’s Civilization taken from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilization_(series)

References to Advent themes taken from: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=1985