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That Essential Question Answered

[This message was given on the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, January 12, 2020, at Gates Presbyterian Church, Rochester NY, based on Matthew 3:13-17.]

 

No question is as essential to human life as this one.  No question is more frequently asked, though often silently, as this one.  It is the basic question of self-identity and we wrestle with it for the span of our lives. The question: Who am I? We are born into families and given names. Some of us have been blessed to have loving parents and families that surrounded us with loving affirmation; others have never had that. Some are born in wealth, some in poverty, and most of us in between. We—everyone of us—are always working at identifying who we are.

 

My wife and I saw “The Lion King” in Rochester over the holidays. We have seen “The Lion King” many times in various forms. On stage, the animal portrayals and choreography are dazzling. But at its core is that essential question. There is a young Lion, Simba, born to royalty, his father Mufasa being the king. Yet he is looking for the answer to that question: Who am I? He hears different voices and gets confused. For a season his identity is lost. Finally he hears that voice that tells him who he is: “He lives in you.” Simba realizes who he is and returns to his homeland and acts on his true identity.

 

“And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Did Jesus wrestle with the question, Who am I? I expect that he wrestled with his identity more than any of us do. Was he the Son of God or another carpenter? If he was royalty, why did he live in such humility. Psychologists call it individuation, the process of discovering who we are. For some of us it is an easier process; for others a tortured process. We are not human doings, but human beings. And we wrestle with the question of who we are.

 

This scene is filled with irony. The setting is the Jordan River, in the north of Israel. It is a wilderness area. It is interesting that Jesus is born in a little town called Bethlehem and raised in a back-water town named Nazareth. Why not Rome, or Athens, or even Jerusalem? And now, after most of his 30 years lived out in obscurity, he gets in line to be baptized by John the Baptist. John sees the irony better than most would: John objected, ‘I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you.’” Do we see it? It is incongruous. It is disorienting. Jesus, the heaven-sent Messiah, the one promised for centuries, has finally arrived. His mission: to save sinners; to save us. John has been preaching about the need for sinners, which would be everyone except Jesus, to repent, to turn from their sinful ways. John has been pointing everyone to Jesus, the Lord and Savior. And Jesus gets in line with all the sinners.

 

First, we might say, he should go to the head of the line. After all, he is Jesus, the son of the Most High. During Lincoln’s presidency, people would line up on the front lawn of the White House for the opportunity to go in and meet the president. That was common then. One day, Frederick Douglass, who spent some years of his life in Rochester, got in line. He wanted to know if Lincoln was really concerned about ending slavery. Douglass was an imposing figure with his black skin and his main of graying hair. Some White House employees noticed him and went in to tell Lincoln. When Lincoln heard this, he said, “Get him out of the line and bring him right in. I want to talk with this man.” Douglass was ushered in. At the end of that conversation, Douglass knew that Lincoln was the real deal. At least they could let Jesus go to the front of the line.

 

Second, did anyone in the line to be baptized that day recognize Jesus? No. He hadn’t done anything in public yet; he was an ordinary carpenter in Nazareth, for goodness sake. Only John that recognized him. And John connected the proverbial dots: “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” Rather than send him to the front of the line, John sees the second incongruity: John should be baptized by Jesus, rather than the other way around. By all common sense, John is precisely right. This whole scene looks precisely wrong. Peter will do the same thing three years later when Jesus is washing the feet of his disciples. Peter correctly deduces that he should be washing Jesus’ feet, and not the other way around. Just as Jesus insisted that he wash Peter’s feet, Jesus insists that John baptize him, along with all those sinners wanting to repent. Jesus takes the path of humility. He identifies with those he comes to save.

 

“But Jesus insisted. ‘Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.’ So John did it.” We cannot overstate how stunning this is. But it fits right in with everything about this gospel, this story of good news. Jesus is born to poverty and lives in humility. He is ultimate royalty, yet he lets go of all the perks of his royalty to identify with us. With the needy. With those living on the margins. With those scraping to get by.

 

It was in the news last Wednesday that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are choosing to let go of their senior royal status. While fully honoring the Queen, Harry’s grandmother, they want to live more like commoners. They want their son, Archie, to spend time both in the United Kingdom, where he was born to royalty, and in North America, closer to his commoner mother’s roots. I don’t know if they can pull it off, but I commend them for this. Jesus pulled it off. He left the courts of highest royalty to live among us as a commoner. He did it. He experienced hunger, poverty, physical and spiritual weakness, and public humiliation, including suffering and a ghastly death. He refused to go the front of the line. He refused to be treated as anything but one of us.

 

He steps into the water of the Jordan with all those sinners. In those common waters, he gets his answer, his answer to that essential human question, who am I? And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”

 

What happens in baptism? I know all the theological answers, but I don’t really know. But I think that at the heart of it, in baptism we are getting an identity. God is saying, “you, too, are my beloved child and I am pleased about you.” Have you been baptized? It doesn’t matter to me whether you remember it or not. When babies are baptized, responsible adults answer questions for them. When people are baptized as believers, they answer their own questions. I affirm both. The key is that God is present in the sacrament. God is blessing the baby, the child, the young adult, the older adult. God is responding to our question with a resounding answer: “you are my child and I love you.”

 

Now we have the opportunity to identify with Jesus, just as identified and identifies with us. Some studies have shown that when an actor plays a part and really gets into it, her brain experiences some changes. One of my favorite actors is Daniel Day-Lewis. During his career, he would only play a role in a movie every two years at most, because he put himself in his parts so fully that he needed ample time to prepare for and then recover from the parts he played. In “Lincoln,” one of my favorite movies, Day-Lewis. He got into the character of Lincoln so fully that he was never seen on the set in his own clothes. Even off camera, everyone there referred to him only as Mr. Lincoln. Day-Lewis is from Ireland and holds Irish and British citizenship and has lived most of his life in those countries. Yet, he played the role of the greatest American president with utter conviction and authenticity. I am a Lincoln buff and have over 30 Lincoln biographies. When I first saw that movie, there was one scene in which I said to the person next to me: He just became Lincoln. Though he was acting, he nearly became the role given him.

 

Jesus isn’t acting when he identifies with us. He is identifying with us when he gets in line and steps into the Jordan River. He is identifying with us when he submits to John’s baptism. He is identifying with us when he hears these words: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, the delight of my life.” When we identify with Jesus in baptism and faith, those words God speaks to Jesus include us. Our “who am I?” question is answered resoundingly. “This is my child–my son, my daughter– chosen and marked by my love, the delight of my life.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2019 Favorites

 

 

For some years I have kept an annual log of books read, movies and plays seen, etc. Then at year’s end, I review them and identify the ones that stand out. Here are my favorites for 2019; they are not listed in order of preference.

 

Movies (some of which were 2018 releases that I saw in 2019)

If Beale Street Could Talk. I loved this movie based on a James Baldwin story.

The Green Book. Critics didn’t much like it; won best movie Oscar; I loved it.

Apollo 11. There were a number of retrospectives marking the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. This CNN produced version was the best documentary, especially experienced on the big screen in a theatre.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. More than a tribute to Mr. Rogers, this movie shows how Fred Rogers influenced a hardened, skeptical Esquire reporter who was given the assignment to write something about Mr. Rogers. This is a beautiful movie in every way.

Amazing Grace. A documentary of the young Aretha Franklin singing pure gospel in a black church in LA in 1972. Watch for Mick Jagger to sneak in and sit in the back row.

They Shall Not Grow Old. Peter Jackson restores original film of British soldiers in WW1. A look at some of the terrors of war and the humanity of warring soldiers.

Two oldies re-watched

Glory. My favorite Civil War movie, made in 1989. In a great cast, Denzel Washington shines.

A Guy Named Joe. One of my favorite WW2 movies. Spielberg said he became a filmmaker because of this movie and produced a remake, Always, in 1989, which is also very good, but removed from the WW2 context.

 

TV

When They See Us (and When They See Us Now, which features interviews with the real men and the actors that portrayed them). Netflix. Griping portrayal of the so-called Central Park Five, found guilty of a crime they didn’t commit (as happens to too many young men of color).

CBS Sunday Morning. From the opening trumpet notes by Winton Marsalis, I find this the best Sunday morning viewing on TV. And yes, I worship on Sunday mornings and preach on most of them, so this is taped and watched later.

60 Minutes. It just keeps doing outstanding investigative journalism.

On the Road with Steve Hartman. Short American human interest stories shown on CBS Evening News on Fridays and repeated on CBS Sunday Morning.

Les Miserables (PBS). The eight-part non-musical portrayal gave more of the story than any other version I have seen.

Blue Bloods. This continues to be my favorite TV weekly drama.

Jeopardy, when James Holzhauer was on. It was amazing how one player, a professional gambler, re-imagined how the long-running game show could be played and did it.

 

Stage

Hamilton

Come From Away (this was my second viewing of Hamilton and Come From Away, first on Broadway, then in touring companies in Rochester; both got better with a second viewing)

Guys and Dolls (featuring my grandson Evan at Gates-Chili High School)

 

Books

Becoming, Michelle Obama. An amazing woman; an amazing life.

Leadership in Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin. After her magisterial biographies of Presidents Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, she puts them side by side in how they responded to the challenges before them.

Educated, Tara Westover. The most gripping book I read in 2019.

Holy Envy, Barbara Brown Taylor. A fresh and open look at world religions by one of the best preachers alive today.

Desk 88, Sherrod Brown. The senator from Ohio was assigned desk 88 (of the 100 in the senate chamber), when he was sworn into office. Most senators mark their desks with their names and initials, and they are only replaced if they can’t be repaired. Brown studied the senators that preceded him at desk 88 and wrote sketches of eight of them, some well-known and some not.

Faith Unraveled, Rachel Held Evans (read a second time shortly after her death). Held Evans’s death last spring was a shock. Still a young woman with two young children, her thinking and writing were influencing great numbers of people, including me. And that continues.

Is This the Right Reading for the First Sunday of Christmas?

[This message was delivered at the Community of the Savior, Rochester NY, on 12/29/19, based on Matthew 2:12-23 and Hebrews 2:10-18.]

 

I would never have selected this Matthew reading for the first Sunday of Christmas. What were the people that determine the lectionary readings thinking? We have been working counter-culturally to keep Advent for four full weeks while our society has been in full Christmas mode. We have resisted breaking out all the magnificent Christmas carols (except when driving or home alone). And now it is the first Sunday of Christmas. We don’t read Matthew 1 about Joseph’s righteousness. Or Luke 2 about Mary birthing the baby in Bethlehem and laying him in a manger. Or even John 1 with the word becoming flesh and blood and moving into our neighborhood. No. We get Herod’s rage.

 

My former colleague at Northeastern Seminary, Esau McCaulley, wrote in the New York Times two days ago (12/27/19) about the bloody fourth day of Christmas, sometimes called the Feast of the Holy Innocents. This fourth day is not about four calling birds, but about a jealous political leader threatened by the thought of a rival entering his domain.

 

My current colleague and member of this worshiping body, Richard Middleton, wrote an article a few decades that I re-read every year about this time, entitled, “Let’s Put Herod Back in Christmas.” Richard reminds us what the popular culture wants us to forget; that Herod’s rage rages still in this world. Philips Brooks’s carol rings as true today as ever: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

 

No nativity set can tell this whole story. This is not a precious moments story. This is not a Hallmark Christmas movie. This story is filled with troubled people:

  • Zechariah: he couldn’t believe the angelic announcement and lost his voice for nine months.
  • Mary: she was troubled by the angelic greeting, sensing something unexpected was coming. She was right, and said, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
  • Then when she and Joseph brought the baby to the Temple, Simeon said to her, “A sword will pierce your heart.” Had any woman ever been in such circumstances?
  • Joseph: the silent, righteous man was preparing to end his late stage engagement with Mary. Had any man ever been in such a dilemma?
  • John the Baptist: languishing in a prison cell, even he would dare to ask Jesus, “Are you the one, or should we start looking for another?”

 

Herod is another category altogether. His reign in Israel was based on fear and bullying. He had already ordered the murders of three of his sons. He held in suspicion any rival, political or otherwise. Just over three decades later, the adult Jesus would stand before another insecure political leader named Pontius Pilate. There is a direct line from Herod to Pilate and it continues through the centuries right to our day, when leaders, both political and religious, are self-absorbed and seek to reign without rivals. We cannot help but note that all through his earthly life, Jesus’ greatest enemies were people in power, both political and religious. In some dark sense, they were right. Jesus comes to turn the present order upside down. Mary has it right in her song of praise, the Magnificat: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Except it isn’t fully that way in our world yet.

 

The angel appears again. Is this making Joseph an insomniac? In the span of two chapters in Matthew, Joseph is awakened four times. “Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” My, there is a lot of travel in this story. Nazareth to Bethlehem. Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Bethlehem to Egypt. Egypt back to Nazareth. I hope they had frequent flyer membership.

 

And this story is filled with hope. In Jesus, God is with us. The author of Hebrews makes clear that Jesus is not God above us, but God with us, in every aspect of life. “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, should make the pioneer of our salvation perfect through sufferings.” Jesus didn’t float two inches above terra firma, he experienced the fullness of earthly life. As a toddler, he becomes a political refugee, an undocumented alien forced to leave his birthplace for a foreign land. His suffering isn’t incidental; it is essential to his full humanity. My life is cushy compared to what Jesus knew. Hebrews makes it precisely clear that his suffering makes him relatable to all that suffer. “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

 

There is darkness in our world today.

  • About 65 million people are displaced globally, including 26 million refugees;
  • About 14 million in Yemen are at risk of dying due to starvation;
  • About 40,000 die in our country each year from gun-related violence (homicide, suicide, and accidental);
  • Over 60 thousand die from drug addiction each year in the US;
  • About 38 million Americans live in poverty in our country, while the wealthy are growing in their wealth; about 12 million of them are under 18 years of age;
  • This year there have been about 70,000 migrant children held by our government in detention centers;
  • Meanwhile, the 500 wealthiest people on earth added $1.2 trillion to their wealth in 2019.

The Rachel mentioned in Matthew 2 is still weeping as children around the world suffer, including those at our southern border. Suffering is never unnoticed by Jesus. His suffering did not immunize him to our suffering, but made him eternally sensitive to all human suffering.

 

What can we say to those weeping at the darkness and cruelty that still lingers in our world? I think of a letter President Lincoln sent to Lydia Bixley on Nov. 21, 1864: “I have been shown in the files of the War Department … that you are the mother of five sons who have died … on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.” –Yours, very sincerely and respectfully, A. Lincoln.

Did anyone write letters of consolation to the grieving mothers of Bethlehem? We remember them today, the mothers of the Holy Innocents that didn’t escape Herod’s wrath-filled rage one day long ago. They, without their consent and not knowing why, sacrificed their young sons at the hands of a tyrant, while the young savior was able to find safe haven in a foreign land. Our hearts go out to them. Jesus can never forget them and their sons, his brothers in suffering.

 

While Herod has a place in this story called Christmas, reminding us of the continuing reality of darkness, this is not his story. Tyrants and bullies never have the last word. Self-absorbed politicians never have the last word. Self-appointed religious leaders never have the last word. The super wealthy never have the last word. This is not Herod’s story. This is the story of the entrance of the light into our darkness. That light is shining brightly and the darkness is powerless to extinguish it. Howard Thurman’s great poem rings as true today as in that dark day in Bethlehem:

 

“When the song of the angels is still

When the star in the sky is gone

When the kings and princes are home

When the shepherds are back in their fields…

The work of Christmas begins,

To find the lost

To heal the broken

To feed the hungry

To release prisoners

To bring peace among peoples

To rebuild the nations

To make music in the heart.”

 

The light shines in the darkness. There is work to do. Let us be about the work of Christmas.

 

 

 

 

Joseph, Did You Know?

[This message was delivered at First Presbyterian Church, Pittsford, NY, on Advent #4, December 22, 2019, from Matthew 1:18-25.]

The spotlight can be blinding. Some people gravitate toward the spotlight, while others seek to avoid it. The spotlight can show every imperfection. On stage, it can even melt the actor’s makeup. It can disorient the players. Yet, some people are drawn to the spotlight. Not these two. Not Joseph and Mary. They are the most ordinary of the ordinary. Simple Galileans. Content to live out their days in the backwater town of Nazareth, they find themselves thrust into a spotlight not of their choosing. Eager to get married in the traditional way, to honor custom, they find themselves in a spotlight they don’t desire. All Joseph wants is to be a good carpenter, a faithful husband, a quietly righteous man, loving God and neighbor. All Mary wants is to be a faithful wife, a careful homemaker, and a nurturing mother, loving God and neighbor. They have entered the final stage of their engagement, which was more advanced than ours today. It means they are just about legally married, but have not consummated their union in the physical sense. Their commitment to each other is public. A wedding is coming soon. Though they are poor, they have scrimped and saved and will have a lovely wedding, making their vows under a canopy. Nazareth is eager for their wedding; these are good people, good neighbors. The wedding won’t be opulent, but it will be simply beautiful.

 

And, then, a piercing spotlight nearly blinds them. It fascinates me every December how the four gospel writers handle this. Mark says nothing at all about it. His is generally acknowledged to be the first written gospel, and he just doesn’t know about Christmas shopping, children’s Christmas pageants, and Christmas Eve candlelight services. Mark begins with the spotlight on John the Baptist and then shifts quickly to Jesus, with both fully grown. No wonder the common lectionary we use is on a three-year cycle. If we had to use Mark, it wouldn’t be much of a Christmas. There is a bit of Scrooge in Mark.

 

John, on the other hand, takes a cosmic perspective. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us….” Thrilling! I love John’s lofty, starry take on this. But we couldn’t have a Christmas pageant based on John.

 

Luke gives us the fullest account, with the most active spotlight, first on an old priest named Zechariah, then on his old, barren wife Elizabeth, and then on a very young woman named Mary. In Luke 1, each of them gets a song (where they the forerunners of Peter, Paul, and Mary?) Joseph is merely mentioned in Luke 2 as taking Mary to Bethlehem. He pretty much stays out of the way, which is fine with him.

 

But Matthew won’t let him off so easy. Matthew puts the cosmic spotlight right on Joseph. Matthew builds carefully. The first 17 verses trace the line of Jesus from Abraham through 42 generations. That list travels through men, as was the common way then, but it has four women named. Three of them were “Me, too,” women. Tamar, Bathsheba, and Rahab had been violated and abused by men. The fourth was Ruth, who was a widowed foreigner from Moab, a long-standing enemy of Israel. And God includes them—three Me, too women and a brokenhearted foreigner—in the line of Jesus. That line culminates in this: “…and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.” Matthew doesn’t call him the father of Jesus, but the husband of the mother of Jesus.

 

Matthew describes Joseph so simply: “… Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” I can’t help thinking of my father, who died 30 years ago. Like Joseph, my father was a carpenter. Like Joseph, my father never sought any spotlight. Like Joseph, my father loved his wife, my mother. Like many of his generation, my dad served in World War 2 and never talked about it. I wish I had asked him more about his service. I’m not sure he would have told me much, because that wasn’t his way. My day was not big on words. I don’t remember him telling me that he loved me, but I always knew he did. While he didn’t say it, he showed it. In playing catch with me and hitting me baseballs until there was no more light in the evening sky. In taking me to endless games and coaching teams I played on. Its why I continue to love baseball, because my dad taught me to love baseball and he taught me well. I see Joseph teaching young Jesus carpentry in the same way.

 

Joseph doesn’t say much. I like to memorize some scripture each week for the sermon I’ll be preaching. This week I memorized everything Joseph says in the New Testament. First, we need to know that Mark never mentions him, John does but twice, Luke five times, and Matthew seven. That makes 14 mentions of Joseph. Listen to all that Joseph says. Ready?  [Silence.] That’s it. The New Testament never quotes one word from the lips of Joseph. If God was planning a quartet in Luke 1, it became a trio: Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary sing praises to God; Joseph doesn’t even hum along. He is a carpenter, a silent, righteous man,

 

But there is this major dilemma. They aren’t fully married yet and Mary tells him that she is expecting, which he was not expecting. And she is so young. The current issue of Time magazine is the end of year “Person of the Year” issue. That person is on the cover, a 16-year-old named Greta. A friend of mine who questions whether Greta should be named “person of the year,’ said to me that she is just a minor. Yes, and that makes Mary even more minor, probably younger than Greta by two years. Being pregnant before full marriage could ruin her life. Joseph has a huge dilemma on his splintered, carpenter’s hands: What to do? All wisdom said that he should end the relationship. Perhaps Mary could move to the next village and get a fresh start. Maybe he would have to move to yet another village. He could end the relationship in public court, which would be to his financial advantage, perhaps saving his reputation while ruining hers. Or he could do it quietly, relinquishing his legal rights while keeping her from public disgrace. Knowing this silent, righteous man, we know he will choose to protect Mary as best he can.

 

The truth is that just about everyone in this story is troubled. Zechariah is troubled when the angel says his old wife is going to have a baby. Mary is troubled when the angel greets her, sensing that something strange is about to happen—she is right. Joseph is troubled that his almost bride is pregnant not by him. And Herod is so troubled he orders the slaughter of the boy children of Bethlehem. This birth announcement is causing no small amount of trouble.

 

Then an angel steps in. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” My guess is that that sounds better to us than it did to Joseph. How do you tell the men drinking coffee at the Dunkin’ Donuts that your intended is pregnant, not by you, but by the Holy Spirit? Even a Pentecostal would be hard pressed to fall for that line.  Like George Bailey, Joseph does what needs to be done. He is a righteous man. “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”

What shall Joseph name this baby—Jesus (as the angel said) or Emmanuel (as the prophet said)? It’s alright for a baby to have two names. Jesus means “God saves,” which tells what he has come to do. Emmanuel means “God is with us,” which is who he is. We may call him Jesus and Emmanuel.

 

“When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” Thank you, Joseph, for being a quiet and righteous man. Thank you for obeying an angel’s voice, when common sense might have told you otherwise. Thank you for standing by your woman. Thanks for taking good care of that child. The one who saves. The one who is God with us.

 

Are You the One?

[This message was delivered the third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2019, at Pearce Memorial Church, using these texts: Isaiah 35:1-10, Matthew 11:2-11.]

 

Our Subaru with 87,000 miles needed new brake pads three weeks ago. Our mechanic did the job. Shortly after I drove away, the tire warning light went on. I drive cars a long time, so these warning lights don’t bother me much. I stopped at Costco, where they have free air. (Free air! What other kind is there?) I added a pound or two of pressure to each tire, getting them at the same pressure level. I drove away. The warning light stayed on. The next morning I took it to Van Bortel Subaru, where we bought it. About 20 minutes later the service supervisor came to me in the waiting area and said, “Harry, we have found the problem. Your rear right wheel and tire are from a Mazda. Someone is driving around Rochester with three Mazda wheels and one Subaru wheel. Until you find that wheel, the warning light will stay on.

 

I went out and looked at it. The Mazda wheel looks just like the Subaru wheel, the same spoke pattern, but the logo in the center cap was different. How didn’t I notice that the day before? I called my mechanic from right there. He said that sounded strange; he would think about it. The week before that, I had Mavis Tires rotate the four tires I had bought from them. I drove directly to Mavis and explained the situation. Maybe a Mazda had been right next to my Subaru. Then my phone rang. It was my mechanic. “Harry, get right over here.” I told Kevin at Mavis that he was off the hook and drove to Sparky’s. I walked in the waiting room, in which maybe four people can stand. There is a short scruffy bench along one short wall. I started to say something, when a man seated there looked at me and asked, “Subaru?” “Mazda?” I replied. “How did you know?” “After I was driving home yesterday, I heard a strange sound from the right rear of my car. I just drove it back here this morning.” “What does your Mazda look like?” “What does your Subaru look like?” Sure enough, they looked very much alike.

 

I learned to drive in the 1960s, when cars didn’t all look alike and there were no Subarus and Mazdas. We bought Fords or Chevys or VW Beatles and everyone could tell them apart. My mechanic made an honest mistake, a case of mistaken identity. John sends this question to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Is this a case of mistaken identity?

 

John is languishing in a prison cell. In a short time, he will be killed, beheaded. Every so often we deal with circumstances that try and trouble our faith. A few days ago I received an email from a friend about a common friend in desperate need. That prompted my friend to write, “This is one of those stories where I want to say, ‘What are you thinking, Lord?’”

 

There is a consistent stream through the Bible of God’s people asking God the hard questions, and expressing disappointments and doubts, and not just Thomas.

  • The most common question asked in the Psalms, the Bible’s prayer book, is “How long, O Lord?That occurs about 20 times. No other question comes close.
  • Heartbroken Naomi says to Ruth, “… this is a bitter pill for me to swallow—more bitter for me than for you. God has dealt me a hard blow.” (Ruth 1:13, “The Message”)
  • After a healing, “… the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’” (Mark 9:24)
  • We go to the ultimate day in the faith: Easter, the day of Christ’s victory. In every Gospel account, there is doubt and disappointment. I look at Matthew, since I have been reading Matthew this Advent: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17)
  • And John the Baptist, God’s prophetic voice, the one who points everyone to Jesus, asks Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

 

Why bring up such things at this time of year, when we are to be most joyful? Because living in hope means we will know disappointment. Because living with high expectations mean we will at times be discouraged. If the way of never being disappointed is to live without hope, I will always choose hope and accept times of disappointment. If the price for never being discouraged is to live without high expectations, I will not pay that price. If we take a close look at most of the people involved in Christmas, we see questions and doubts.

  • When the angel told the priest Zechariah that his aged, barren wife was going to bear a son, Zechariah said to the angel, ‘Do you expect me to believe this? I’m an old man and my wife is an old woman.’”
  • “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (Matt. 1:19)
  • Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.  You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.’  How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’” (Luke 1:29-34)

 

Disappointment is not the final word: we have good news. Isaiah tells us that “…the desert and the wilderness will be glad and rejoice and blossom… Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy…. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” In our wilderness times, Immanuel is with us. God is with us in Christ. We are not left alone in the wilderness.

 

Wilderness is an important biblical theme. The great Old Testament saving event, the Exodus, means a long wilderness journey. Right after Jesus is baptized, where does he go? The Spirit led him into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil. John’s ministry begins in the Judean wilderness and now he is in the wilderness of a miserable prison cell. I can understand him asking Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

 

When John’s question, this most piercing question, reaches Jesus, Jesus doesn’t upbraid or chastise him. Rather, he speaks highly of John: “Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.  This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist….” Jesus can handle our doubts and disappointments just fine. Ask Thomas. Ask John. Ask the psalmist. Ask Naomi. Ask the slow-to-believe disciples.

 

Augustine, about 1600 years ago, wrote these words that speak to John’s question of Jesus and the great mystery of this season:

“The Maker … was made a man, that the ruler of the stars might suck at the breast; that the Bread might know hunger; the Way, be wearied by the journey; the Truth, be accused by false witnesses; the Judge of the living and the dead, be judged by a mortal judge; the Vine, be crowned with thorns; the Foundation, be hung upon the tree; the Strength, be made weak; the Health, be wounded. To suffer these undeserved things, the He might set free the undeserving….”

 

John asks, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus answers, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see…. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

 

This Advent I have been reading a poem a day from a book entitled “The Incarnation.” The poem of several days ago included these verses:

Is there power in God’s powerlessness,

In the humanity of God, which can penetrate our pride…?

So heaven rejoices in God’s downward mobility

And sings of peace on earth and glad tidings to all people….

And this shall be a sign of God’s humility:

‘You shall find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes

and lying in a manger.”

(From “The Narrow Way,” by Thomas Ryder Worth)

 

Oh, great mystery. The paraphrase called “The Message” captures the mystery of God becoming one of us (in John1): “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son….  John pointed him out and called, “This is the One! The One I told you was coming after me….” This is the one. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Voice

[This message was delivered at Pearce Memorial Church, Rochester NY on December 8, 2019, the second Sunday of Advent. The texts: Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12.]

 

My wife and I have quite a collection of nativity sets from many lands. To come up with the traditional crèche, we have to do some conflating. We expect a magnificent star over the manger, when in fact, that star came some time later. We expect three magi arriving with camels and kneeling before the babe in the manger, when in fact, they arrived when Jesus was a child living in a house. We expect Mary to look positively fabulous after giving birth in crude outdoor circumstances. We expect Joseph to look appropriately proud to welcome a baby that he didn’t father. We expect shepherds looking cleaner than they would have been. We expect precious little animals. There is someone we forgot. Like in the movie “Home Alone,” we forgot someone: John the Baptist! His role was crucial in the story.

 

Pearce Church, let’s say your bishop or superintendent gives you a short list of candidates for your new lead pastor. One is a seasoned preacher, well known for homiletical excellence; his sermons are polished gems and several collections have become best sellers. One is a former missionary in Latin America and she has a PhD in cultural anthropology and a doctor of ministry in pastoral care. Both are held in the highest esteem in Free Methodist circles and beyond. The third is kind of an outlier. His wardrobe is limited. His diet is extreme. His preaching draws crowds and then regularly offends them. Could you imagine any church calling John the Baptist to be their pastor?

 

No one would mistake John the Baptist for Mr. Rogers. His wardrobe includes no cardigan sweaters. There is nothing warm and cuddly about him. He doesn’t care about which fork to use for salad; he is more likely to use his hands. His diet was rather extreme paleo: locusts and wild honey. Let me know if there will be any locusts served at your next congregational supper.

 

But as a preacher, watch out, for he is a force of nature. He can preach fire and brimstone as well as lamb of God. He seems to me something like a blending of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Billy Graham. He has King’s prophetic edge and Grahams evangelistic heart. He can move from a thundering call for social justice to singing “Just as I Am” in two minutes. His kind do not come our way often, but oh, how we need them. They may not fit in our neat categories, but oh, how we need them. They may not dress up to our expectations and have the social graces we desire, but oh, how we need them.

 

John was not hesitant to name the darkness. Neither was Isaiah. He lived and prophesied in a time of spiritual and political darkness. Israel had already split into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom had been taken captive by global power Assyria. The southern kingdom, called Judea, was feeling the emerging Babylonian kingdom breathing heavily on their necks. Soon, they would be taken into Babylonian captivity. The Jewish kings of both south and north were generally corrupt leaders, building their own fortunes and doing whatever would keep them in power, playing fast and loose with God’s standards for servant leadership.

 

Isaiah is often called the fifth evangelist, as he points to coming Messiah with vivid images of the coming kingdom of God. But most of Isaiah’s prophecies deal with naming darkness in high places and have lots of doom and gloom. But not always. God gives Isaiah a preview of what will be someday: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them…. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” In the darkness, the light of Christ is needed, for the darkness can never extinguish the light of Christ.

 

After Malachi, the last prophet in the Old Testament era, there is a time of prophetic silence. Then John breaks the silence. Boldly and dramatically, John bursts on the scene and revives the prophetic office, evoking Elijah and fulfilling some of Isaiah’s prophecies. He too enters a time of darkness. Assyria and Babylon have declined, but Rome has more than filled the void, putting little Israel under it ominous boot. It is no surprise that he will die a violent death.

 

John was not hesitant to name the darkness. I teach preaching at Northeastern Seminary, right across that parking lot. One of the skills we work on is developing interesting, inviting introductions. I tell the students that a good sermon introduction opens up some space and invites the congregation to come along with the preacher and see what they will find there. For my students, I call it, “Look for a hook.” I don’t recommend the one John uses in our gospel passage today: “You brood of vipers! [Your den of snakes] Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Such is John’s unconventional boldness. And people stay to listen.

 

His preaching vocabulary is colorful, to put it mildly. What turns of phrase: ax, cut down, thrown in the fire, winnowing fork, unquenchable fire. John’s preaching was pretty simple. He has two short stump sermons and he keeps preaching them over and over, the way politicians running for office keep giving the same speech over and over.

  1. Repent: ”John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judeaand saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’…. ‘Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.’”
  2. Look to Jesus:But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

The message is clear. Get everything ready for Jesus. The day after Thanksgiving we started getting our home ready for Advent with Christmas in sight. I want to do the same thing in my heart. I welcome John’s two sermons: to repent and turn from my sins and get ready for Jesus who makes everything new. If we put a John the Baptist figure in our nativity sets, whether as a toddler next to baby Jesus or a prophet, be sure of this: he will be pointing to Jesus. John always points people to Jesus. In the darkness, the light of Christ is needed, for the darkness can never extinguish the light of Christ.

 

Isaiah names the darkness in his time. John names the darkness in his time. So, too, we live in a time of darkness.

  • In the west African nation of Burkina Faso, 14 worshipers were killed last Sunday. There is darkness.
  • The Rochester school district is the third neediest in the country. Last week over 200 school employees were laid off. There is darkness.
  • In 2017, 70,000 Americans died from opioids and illicit drugs. There is darkness.
  • About 40,000 Americans die from gun violence every year. Those include homicides, accidents, and suicides. There is darkness.
  • Since we met here one week ago, there have two shootings at Navy bases, taking several lives and wounding more. There is darkness.
  • We are facing the near certainty of an impeachment trial of our president, that will further aggravate the political division in our country. There is darkness.

In our darkness, the light of Christ is needed, for the darkness can never extinguish the light of Christ.

 

These lines were scratched into the wall of a German concentration camp during WW2. In the midst of horror, someone declared their faith in the God that did not answer the way they thought He would.  “I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining. I believe in love even when I don’t feel it. I believe in God even when He is silent.” In our darkness, the light of Christ is needed, for the darkness can never extinguish the light of Christ.

 

On December 4, 1991, Terry Anderson was released after six years of darkness in captivity in Lebanon. He was the AP bureau chief covering the civil war in Lebanon. When he was released he was flown to Wiesbaden, Germany, for medical treatment and re-orientation. Two days after his release, he met the press and answered questions. One report asked him, “What do you do with those wasted years?” Anderson answered, “those were not wasted years.” He reclaimed his faith. He worshiped with fellow captives, putting together Sunday liturgy from memory. In the midst of horrendous darkness, he saw and lived by the light of Christ. In our darkness, the light of Christ is needed, for the darkness can never extinguish the light of Christ.

 

We do not honor God when we deny the presence of darkness. Rather, we honor God when we name the darkness and let the light of Jesus shine in the darkness. That is what John did. The best summary of John’s ministry is in John 1: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe.  He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.”

All of us here have had at least one John the Baptist in our lives; otherwise we wouldn’t be here. We have some people, maybe one or two or three, that pointed us to Jesus. These people served God’s purposes in pointing us to Jesus. Now let’s take a time of silence to remember them by name and give thanks to God for their ministry in our lives, the imprint they left on our souls.

In our darkness, the light of Christ is needed, for the darkness can never extinguish the light of Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coming–Just Now

[This message was proclaimed at Pearce Memorial Church (Free Methodist) on the edge of the Roberts Wesleyan College campus, for the first Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2019. The texts are Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44.]

 

Picture slowing down from 12,300 miles per hour (MPH) to five MPH. A year ago, we landed the InSight space probe on the surface of Mars. After a six-month journey covering 300 million miles, the InSight had to slow down, from 12,300 MPH to five MPH in under seven minutes. The NASA engineers called it the seven minutes of terror. If InSight hadn’t slowed down it would be crashed on the surface of Mars and been obliterated in a moment. InSight succeeded; talk about power brakes! It slowed down and made safe landing and is now exploring the red planet.

 

Advent calls us to slow down. Our word advent has two meanings: the first is to arrive (an arrival, a coming); the second has to do with something about to happen. The first carries the sense of an event. The second carries the sense of journeying toward something or someone, often with some hazard or danger, from which we get our word adventure. The first meaning was caught in Jesus’ coming to be among us in Bethlehem; the second meaning is caught in how we are to live because of that coming and in light of the promised coming yet to happen.

 

Our Advent begins with glorious promises first heard by Isaiah. “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshare and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” (Isaiah 2:4-5) Keeping Advent does not come readily to us. We have this countdown: Thanksgiving Thursday, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, giving Tuesday. Why not throw in Christmas Eve on Wednesday and Christmas on Thursday—get it all over in one week! Radio stations have already been playing every imaginable Christmas piece of music.

 

Advent calls us to hear the words of the prophets and not be consumed with bottom-line profits. Just over a year ago, Eugene Peterson died, one of my pastor heroes and mentors. Eugene called me to be an unbusy pastor. I make an admission: pastors sometimes try to look busy because they think it will cause the congregation to think they are really important with all these demands on their time. Eugene helped me to be an unbusy pastor. I always took a full sabbath day once a week. I always used all my vacation and study leave time. I kept reasonable hours. I sought to be a fully engaged and healthy pastor rather than a busy pastor. I needed and need the call of Advent in all seasons, and particularly in this season of unfettered busyness and rampant commercialism.

 

Jesus tells us to be watchful and ready. But first, he clearly teaches that no one knows the day or hour of his second coming, except God the Father. I was reared in a faith tradition that was always trying to nail down exactly when Jesus would return. That was used to leverage fearful living in us youth. We were given a list of activities in which we were never to engage. Why? Jesus might return at just that moment and we would be left behind. The thrust was not to be attentive to loving God and neighbor, but to getting out of this world asap. They wouldn’t have believed that some of us would be here in 2019. And here we are. Jesus has come; Jesus is coming every day in a million ways; Jesus will come again one day in glory. In the meantime, let’s slow down and be watchful and attentive. For Jesus is Immanuel; God with us now—here and now.

For twenty centuries faithful Christians have believed that they were living in the last days. And here we are in the 21st century reading these words of Jesus. For four decades I lived in eastern New York, not far from where there once was great fervor about the return of Jesus. A student of the Bible named William Miller calculated that Jesus would return between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When March 21, 1844, came and Jesus didn’t, they recalculated: April 18, 1844. Ditto. Recalculating: July, 1844. Ditto. Recalculating: August 10, 1844. Ditto. Recalculating: October 22, 1844. They banked on those dates. Some quit their jobs. They went to a mountaintop in the early morning and waited for Jesus. At the end of those days, they returned to their homes in sadness. October 22, 1844, was called the Great Disappointment. Are we living in the last days? Yes. We just don’t know what that means in terms of chronological time.

Miller died in 1849, just as three notable people were living and working near where I now live in the greater Rochester area. One was Susan B. Anthony. She was working tirelessly for the full humanity and citizenship of women. One was Frederick Douglass. He was working for the full humanity and citizenship of African-Americans. The third was Benjamin T. Roberts. He was working tirelessly for the full humanity and citizenship of women and blacks in the Church. We are at the edge of the College named for him. He was as radical in working for the rights of women and blacks as Anthony and Douglass. That is living in watchfulness and readiness. That is a far better way to prepare for Jesus’ return.

A new movie just came out about Mr. Rogers and his influence on a skeptical reporter assigned to write an article about this kind man. My daughters were young children when Sesame Street was just beginning to dazzle children. If I were home in the late afternoon, I would sometimes watch over their shoulders and be laughing more than they were at the wondrous ways Sesame Street taught numbers and letters. But then came on another show, so very different, called Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. At first I thought it slow moving, even boring. Then I watched as Fred Rogers spoke directly to my daughters and assured them of their value. He helped me to be a better person and, perhaps, a better father. When Fred Rogers was a boy, in frightening times his mother told him, look for the helpers. There will always be helpers. Look for them and become one of them. Mr. Rogers makes me want to be a kinder person. More ready to see our common humanity in other persons. More ready to listen to others. More ready to see God at work in the ordinariness of everyday life. More ready for Jesus’ coming. The gospel is more than mere kindness, but it is not less than kindness. One of the fruit of the Spirit is kindness. God’s kindness leads us to repentance, Romans tells us. What better way is there to be watchful and ready for his coming than to be kind to others? Mr. Rogers is still helping me to slow down and attend to what are the really important matters.

 

Advent calls us to slow down and be attentive to God all around us. Here are some biblical hints for Advent living:

  1. Let’s look at people. While we don’t want to stare at people, let’s look at people. Let’s slow down and appreciate people. Let’s not look away from or overlook anyone who bears the image of God.
  2. Let’s listen to people. Jesus is the master listener. Let’s work at talking less and listening more. (Yes, I, a preacher, am saying that.)
  3. Let’s leave room for God’s presence among us, not me but us. My favorite name of Jesus is Immanuel, God with us (not God with me, but God with us).

An acid test for these simple disciplines is when shopping this season. The cashier is tired of angry and impatient shoppers. The retail worker has been blistered with criticism from customers and unreasonable demands from supervisors. Let’s show these workers kindness and civility. When they ask, “Did you find what you were looking for?”, let’s not grunt but respond warmly. Let’s thank them and smile at them.

 

The trend for the Church in our part of the world is unmistakable: The Church is in decline. One of the reasons is that the unchurched and church dropouts around us perceive the Church as harsh, judgmental, and arrogant. We come through like the Pharisees that gave Jesus such a hard time for being so gracious instead of legalistic. I have this hunch that we can do a better job at walking in the light of the Lord. By appreciating people that look different than we do. That we could do a better job of bringing the good news of Jesus without harshness and judgment, without discrimination and arrogance, but with kindness and tenderness.

 

In my college years I spent a summer doing mission work in Trinidad. Shortly after arriving, we were waiting for a bus. “When it is coming?” we asked a local. “Just now,” he said. When is just now? When it comes. Wait for it. That summer we learned the meaning of just now. Instead of our American way of having watches, deadlines, and time tables for everything, Trinidadians live with a sense of just now. The bus was coming. Don’t worry. It is coming just now. Wait in watchfulness and readiness. Jesus is coming again, just now. He promised. And he tells us to wait in hope and watch in readiness.

 

A day is coming. God promised: “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshare and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” A day is coming. Jesus both promised and warned: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come….  So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”