Sunday, December 18, 2016

"The Scandal of Faith" (Matthew 1:11-25)

Scandal does not fit the Christmas story we know so well . . . the Christmas story we celebrate.  In the story of Christmas we remember the birth in a stable . . . a babe laid in a manger . . . angels singing gloriously . . . shepherd gathering to worship . . . the wise men appearing . . . a star brightly shining.  We sing beautiful hymns to commemorate this holy event.  We worship . . . we rejoice.  There is no scandal in the story of Christmas we know . . . and, yet, it is there.

It is there in the words we heard from Matthew in our scripture reading: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.  His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child . . .”   Mary was pregnant with the child of another man.  True, the scriptures tell us that the “other man” was the Holy Spirit; but, at first Joseph does not know this.  All Joseph knows is that Mary is pregnant and it is not his child . . . it is the child of someone else . . . Mary has been unfaithful.  This was a scandal . . . a scandal punishable by death.

In Deuteronomy 22:23-24 it is written: “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife.  So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”

This was one of the options that Joseph had at his disposal for dealing with this scandal . . . have Mary stoned to death.  But Joseph was a good man, a righteous man the writer of Matthew tells us; and, because of this he did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace.  Nor did he want to have her killed even though it was allowable by his faith.  No, he decided to take a different route . . . he would quietly divorce her and be done with her . . . let fate have its way with her and this child she carried.

Of course, we remember, that God sends angels to Joseph in a dream to tell him that it is “okay.”  Tells him it is okay because the father of the child is none other than God through the Holy Spirit, and that this child would save the people from their sins.  The angel tells Joseph to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife . . . it’s “okay.”  And, we remember that Joseph wakes from his dream and took Mary as his wife.

Buried beneath all of the beauty and wonder of the birth of Jesus on Christmas . . . of what we celebrate . . . is this scandal.  This is not quite the stuff one wants when entering into any relationship, especially a marriage and starting a family.  There is distress, the sense of betrayal, and a whole host of other emotions and feelings Joseph must have been experiencing.  It was a messy situation.  These are real people--like you and me . . . with ups and downs, with bumps in the road, with moments of frustration and confusion, going through all kinds of things, some that are quite damaging, some that hint at scandal . . . and, yet God uses them nevertheless to accomplish God’s purposes.

The Christmas story is not a typical story . . . not a fairy tale or myth.  It does not start with some romantic vision . . . with some stylize success story from rags to riches.  No this story starts with normal people . . . people like you and me . . . people living in the real world, dealing with real problems, and hoping to make the best of it each and every day.  This is not some Disney story where everything seemingly ends “happily ever after.”  No, this is a story that grows out of a scandal to become the greatest story ever told.

Out of the ordinary comes the extraordinary.

The scriptures do not tell us much about Joseph.  He was a carpenter . . . a hard-working man we assume.  He was a righteous man . . . a person of deep faith we are told.  From what we little we know we assume that he is not much different than any other person . . . maybe a little bit, or a lot, like us.  And, we know that he is human . . . with hopes and dreams.  In this story we have to wonder about Joseph’s hopes and dreams.  I seriously doubt that this is the way that he envisioned his marriage to Mary . . . the birth of his first child . . . the life that he hoped it would be.  

Nothing seemed to work out as he probably hoped or dreamed it would.  The whole birth was not how he imagined it . . . God the father of his son.  No room in the inn . . . the birth of his child in a stable with livestock milling about . . . a bunch of strangers showing up--rough shepherds and a whole bunch of wise men from foreign countries.  Things weren’t supposed to be like this.  It was pretty messy.

And, yet, this is the way that God chooses to do business.

Out of this mess comes salvation.

Out of the ordinary comes the extraordinary.

Through it all, in the corner of our Christmas story, the plot is exposed.  The Holy is revealed . . . and it is not in the big time production, but in the simple everyday mess of life through normal people . . . through common people.  Common people like you and me.  Because we are not much different than Mary and Joseph . . . everyday people just trying to make it to another day.  

Through the ordinary, God creates and expects the extraordinary.  Therein lies the scandal of faith.  It is there in the story, the whole Christmas story . . . not the romanticized story of Christmas, but in the real story.  The story of two ordinary people who are chosen to carry the salvation of the world in the relationship they have together . . . in the birth of a child . . . in the marriage they share . . . in the lives that they live . . . in the ups and downs of daily life . . . in the frustration, disappointments, and sinfulness of living life.  It is messy . . . and it does not fit into any of the romantic, Disney-like ideas we celebrate on Christmas Day.

So, let us find hope in the whole story.  Let us embrace its message.  Let us receive this gift . . . this gift of grace.  It is a gift that none of us deserve, but is given to us freely.  And, let us live it each and every day of our lives in such a way that we, too, embody Jesus . . . Immanuel--God with us.  That is the scandal of faith . . . that God would choose us . . . common, everyday people to be in a relationship with the Holy . . . to be one of the children . . . to live within the Kingdom.

Out of the scandal the story of Christmas is lived.  Out of the scandal we are desired . . . we are wanted . . . and, we are God’s.  As we enter into the last few days of the season of Advent, may we discover this gift and receive it into our lives.  It is amazing how God works.  Amen

Sunday, December 11, 2016

"Waffling" (Matthew 11:2-11)

John the Baptist, while in prison, sent one of his disciples to Jesus to pose the question: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Are you the one?

That seems to be a pretty ironic question coming from the guy who baptized Jesus . . . who stated that he was unworthy of baptizing Jesus, that it was Jesus who should be baptizing him.  John had a pretty good inkling of who Jesus was . . . he was the one!  So, why is he now asking this question about whether or not Jesus is the one?  If anyone should know, it is John.

John is waffling.

Waffling, according to the dictionary, is a failure to make up one’s mind.  It is a kind of back and forth with a decision . . . one moment it is yes, the next it is a no, then maybe . . . back and forth.  John’s question is waffling.

Jesus’ time is not that much different than our times.  It would be silly to think that all the Jews of Jesus’ time thought alike . . . that they believed the same way . . . that they were all out of the same religious mold.  They weren’t; no, they had different teachers or rabbis, they have different theological outlooks, they had other religions to choose from . . . there was more than one way of faithfully looking at what was taking place in the world.  There were lots of choices.

One of my favorite children’s sermons had to do with ice cream and Baskin Robbins.  Ice cream is ice cream . . . but the reality is that there are lots of different flavors of ice cream.  Baskin Robbins proclaims that they have a minimum of 31 flavors, but that they are all still ice cream.  People have a choice of what they like in the flavor of ice cream.  Isn’t it frustrating to go to an ice cream parlor and get behind someone who cannot make up his or her mind as to which flavor of ice cream they want?  They can’t make up their minds . . . they waffle back and forth.

Well, God is a lot like Baskin Robbins . . . there is one God, but there are a whole bunch of flavors.  For example, let’s just take our community and the Christian bodies of faith that are represented within our town’s limit.  We have a Lutheran flavor . . . a Catholic flavor . . . a Baptist flavor--in fact, two Baptist flavors . . . a Wesleyan flavor . . . remnants of a Episcopalian flavor . . . and, of course, our own flavor--the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  If there were only one flavor, there would be only one church in the Joliet Community.  Beyond Joliet there are even more flavors . . . Presbyterian, Methodist, Mennonite, Greek Orthodox, a ton of Baptist--just to name a few in the Christian flavors.  There are also other flavors that are not Christian . . . Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist.  Each offers a flavor of God to those who would like to experience that flavor.  There are lots of choices . . . now and in the time of Jesus.

Waffling is not uncommon when it comes to faith . . . it is how we grow in our faith.  This “back and forth” . . . this internal debate . . . the questioning . . . the wondering.  John was taught one way to believe, but was also exposed to other ways of believing . . . including the theology of the Messiah.  They all sounded good.  One day it was this belief, the next day it was another belief . . . which flavor was the right flavor . . . the right choice?  “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Inquiring minds want to know.

In this little story Jesus does several things:  First, he confirms that he is the one . . . Jesus tells John’s disciples to go and tell John what he has seen . . . blind see, lame walk, people are cured, deaf hear, and the dead are raised . . . how much more evidence does one need?  Second, he squashes the rumor or belief that John the Baptist is the one everyone is looking for as the Messianic figure . . . John is the prophet . . . the one who brought the good news of the Messiah . . . the one who blazed the trail.  John is not the Messiah.  He is not the one.  Third, and last, he paints a picture that is the opposite of what the world views as a kingdom . . . it is not like the people were experiencing in King Herod or the Romans; no, it was not based on force, but on love . . . the power was in love, not violence, fear, and intimidation.

Jesus is the way.

But, guess what?  Just like there are many flavors of ice cream . . . many flavors of God, there are many ways of understanding Jesus and his way.  Not everyone agrees with exactly what are the ways of Jesus or even what the will of God is.  There are a lot of interpretations and beliefs out there . . . which one is the right one?  The correct one?  Not everyone likes the same flavor . . . think about it . . . we are a community of a little over 600 people and we have at least seven flavors of God to choose from.  

Wouldn’t it be nice if someone . . . maybe even God . . . would just tell us exactly what we are to believe, how we are to be faithful, and how we are to live a faithful life?  To give us something solid that we could hang on to so that we can quit all our waffling?  Especially when it comes to our faith?

You bet it would . . . but, it isn’t going to happen.

We are going to waffle.  We are going to waffle because the bottom line comes down to us understanding our personal relationship with God . . . not what someone else tells us to belief, but what we believe.  And, we all know that what we believe is constantly changing as we continue to grow . . . as we continue to be older.  What we believed when we were children is long gone and replaced with the lessons and faith we learned through years of making the journey towards a closer and more intimate relationship with God.  Our waffling is what has made us the people we are today.

Are you the one?  This is not a question of disbelief or unbelief, but is an honest question of inquiry in hopes of growing closer to the Holy . . . of growing closer to Jesus . . . to God.

The season of Advent . . . the journey of Advent . . . is a journey towards and into the Holy.  It is a season in which we are hit with a proposal . . . a choice . . . thrown a promise, and asked to explore it.  To explore it in order to grow closer to the Holy and to begin bringing forth the Kingdom of God.  It is an opportunity to grow.  It is not something that we have to wait around for . . . it is something we can experience right now.  We do not need to wait.  Jesus has shown us the way.

Asking questions is how we learn . . . how we grow . . . how we move from one place to another.  Advent seemingly gives us permission . . . expects us to ask questions in order to grow closer to God and bring forth the Kingdom of God.  In asking questions we are given opportunities and choices . . . and, if we take our faith seriously, there will always be questions . . . always be waffling.

Thus it is that we journey through the season of Advent . . . that we move towards the “promise” and the “gift” . . . and the struggle to understand.  We waffle.  We ask questions.  We flip flop back and forth.  But, in the end, the choice is up to us as individual . . . confirmed by the faithful . . . and lived in our lives. Yeah, it would be nice if someone just gave us the answers, but it isn’t going to happen . . . they are our questions, and the answers are up to us . . . the choice is always ours.  Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

"The Persistence of Hope" (Isaiah 11:1-10)

We have all seen it.  The image is simple.  It is a plant that has the guts to sprout in a crack in a sidewalk or driveway, surrounded by concrete in all directions, in an attempt to establish itself.  In our minds it is a futile attempt because we know that it doesn’t have a chance . . . someone will pluck it up . . .  or maybe spray it weed killer . . . or run over it with a tire from a car or truck.  True, it makes us smile at its persistence, but we know that it will never survive.  It is a “goner”.  We have all seen these errant plants.  

Now, I have a confession to make . . . I am not the best lawnkeeper or gardener when it comes to maintaining a yard.  I am happy to keep my yard mowed and green . . . I attempt to keep the weeds under control . . . and, yet, year after year--in the cracks of my driveway and sidewalk, these persistent plants keep showing up.  Not just once, but several times over the growing season.  They amaze me with their persistence to survive and grow where they should not be.  Despite my best efforts they keep showing up . . . they won’t give up . . . they are determined to grow and fulfil their destiny despite the odds against them.  I must admit, I have to admire that.

Our reading this morning comes from the prophet Isaiah.  We should be quite familiar with the story of Isaiah and his time as a prophet with God’s people.  We know that he attempted to warn God’s people that their attitudes and actions were going against the desires and will of God . . . that their attitude and actions were disrespectful of God . . . that they were pretty much ignoring God.  Isaiah warned them that this would not be good and that the consequences would be nasty.  And, sure enough, it came to be.

The people of God were overrun by their enemies--the Babylonians, defeated, stomped, destroyed, and made captives in a strange land far from the familiarity of home.  In being crushed, the Babylonians yanked the foundation of  faith from the people of God.  All that they knew and understood was taken away from them, and they were left to deal with this traumatic event in their lives with nothing more than shattered faith.  They were struggling with finding something to hang on to . . . something that would get them through the night.

Central to that grasping for anything to help, was the feeling of revenge . . . an “eye for an eye” feeling in which the people of God wanted to inflict the same sort of pain and hurt that they had experienced upon their captors.  But even that was not going to happen.  The God that had been their protector has seemingly abandoned them . . . there would be no revenge inflicting pain and hurt upon the captors.  No, what the people needed was a rescuer . . . someone to come and take them away to allow them to start all over.

These were the people that the prophet Isaiah had to deal with once they were in captivity . . . a broken, hopeless people.  With this in mind, the prophet offers them hope.  The problem is that the hope that he offers them is not quite in the form of hope they desired or expected.

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse . . .”

As I stated earlier, I am not much of a gardener, but I do know that when I cut down a tree I am doing so because I no longer want that tree . . . I want it gone.  Isn’t that why we cut down trees . . . to get rid of them.  They are no longer of use to us.  Imagine then my reaction to seeing a shoot popping up out of the stump.  Reminds me of that persistent plant that keeps showing up in my driveway or sidewalk.  Out of something useless and what I thought was dead, comes a shoot . . . a silly, persistent shoot that thinks it is going to make it.  What do I do?  I cut the shoot.

But the shoot comes back.

The image of the God’s people’s rescuer is that of a fragile shoot that pops up on a stump of tree that has been left for dead.  Not quite the powerful image that the people of God want; after all, the shoot--like any shoot growing where it supposedly is not suppose to be growing, is that it is weak and doesn’t stand a chance.  This is not what the people are looking for; no, they are looking for that powerful warrior who rides in to conquer the oppressors and set the people free . . . not some flimsy, wimpy shoot coming out of a stump.

Then to top it all off, as Isaiah describes this rescuer, he provides a description that goes against the views of the world in which the people are actually living.  This rescuer will not be like what the world knows.  This rescuer will be the complete opposite.  This rescuer will be having enemies lying down with one another . . . eating with one another . . . there will be peace and justice . . . there will be a new way of doing business . . . of living.

Again, this is not quite what the people were hoping for.  Like any person who has been hurt there is always that feeling and desire that those who have hurt them receive the same consequence for their actions.  The old “eye for an eye”.  It is only a natural feeling and something that the people remember from their past relationship with God.  It is one of those straws that the people grasp for and hope to hold onto to get them out of this terrible situation.  Yet, in their pain and suffering they cannot see . . . or won’t admit to . . . that their relationship with God has changed.  It has changed drastically.

Now they are given the image of hope that is difficult to comprehend . . . a shoot from a stump . . . a plant poking its head up through the concrete of the driveway.  There is no way this can be a symbol of hope that will carry them through these difficult times.  And, yet, the prophet is adamant about this hope . . . certain in the words that are being spoken.  So certain is the prophet that he tells them that not only will this rescuer save them, but this rescuer will save the world: “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious.”

There is an advantage of 20/20 hindsight.  As the followers of Jesus we know who that shoot of Jesse’s stump is . . . we know who that rescuer is.  It is Jesus himself.  Jesus, a person like no other . . . a person who seemingly goes against the known mores and morals of the world we live in . . . a person who calls us to a world that is not like this world, but of God’s desires and will . . . a person who leads not in the ways of power, but through love.  We know this shoot to be Jesus . . . for over two thousand years we followers have known; and, yet, each year we deal with the same image of hope since the time of Isaiah.  Over and over again, the image of this persistent plant popping up through the concrete keeps showing up.  


Well, I am not the smartest person in the world, but I would guess that maybe it keeps showing up because we keep plucking up that image of hope and throwing it away.  Or we ignore it.  I don’t know, but I do know that it keeps showing up each and every year that we celebrate the season of Advent.  And, I also know that it will not go away until we embrace it and begin to live it despite what the world around us thinks.

“Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”  That was a quote that was recently on our church’s Facebook page.  I like it, but for this morning I would like to change it.  I think that it should say: “Hope is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this hope is to see what you believe.”  In other words, to embrace that which is our hope and to live it each and every day.  Instead of plucking it up, cutting it off, dousing it with weed killer, or running over it with our car or truck tires, we embrace it and allow it to grow into what God intends it to be.

On this second Sunday of Advent the theme is always the peaceable kingdom . . . Isaiah offers such a picture this morning with his description of the rescuer to come.  The gospel reading this morning, offers another picture.  The second Sunday of Advent points to God’s Kingdom of what could be if we chose to truly follow the one who leads us in that direction.  That person is Jesus.  He is the shoot that comes from Jesse’s stump.  He is that persistent plant that grows where no one wants it to grow . . . constantly showing up over and over again . . . year after year . . . generation after generation.  And, the odds are that he will keep popping up until the world finally gets it.

Thus it is that Isaiah offers the people an odd symbol of hope . . . persistent hope.  I am not sure he was thinking of those persistent plants that keep showing up in our sidewalks and driveways, but he understood how the power of persistence . . . especially when it came to hope.

As followers of Jesus we hope for . . . and, strive for . . . that peaceful kingdom of God that is not like that of the world in which we live.  A kingdom that is based on love and grace . . . where a “wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat; the calf and the lion and yearlings together; and a little child shall lead them.  The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.  The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.  They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the earth.”
We are not there yet.

This Advent season will we embrace the shoot of Jesse’s stump . . . embrace it and make Jesus’ ways our ways; or will be pluck it up, throw it away, and continue to conform and make ourselves in the image of the world around us?  Isaiah spoke of hope.  Again, this year, we are offered hope.  The choice is ours.  Let us be persistent in our hope . . . and, let us live our hope.  Amen.