Advent 1: Jeremiah 33.14-16, 1 Thess. 3.9-13, Luke 19.28-40

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Throughout the season of Advent we will focus our attention on the OT readings.  This is because there is, in my opinion, an extraordinary ignorance of the OT.  That ignorance is not just in Western Christianity, but also among us as a congregation.

In Jeremiah God promises action for Israel.  Israel is being bombarded by Babylon and in the middle of that God promises Israel that his Grace and Favor will outlast the current onslaught.  He will work in the future to end Babylon, but so much more.  He will finally work to bring about the Reign of God through David like he promised.  He will send out a Branch.  And that descendant of David will execute the Justice and Righteousness of God in Israel.  What a wonderful promise!  All of Israel’s waiting for a Messiah will end, and end soon.  This is a message of Grace but also one of condemnation.  The current King of Israel, and the current path he and the people are taking, is contrary to the Justice and Righteousness of God.  So God says through Jeremiah, “the day is coming when I will send my servant, a Branch from David, and He will execute Justice and Righteousness on my behalf.”

Move ahead a few hundred years and we reach that point.  The point of fulfillment, the point we are reminded of in this Season of Advent. Jesus was born.  He was born to an Israelite woman Mary, and to a Father (Jospeh) from the lineage of King David and also of Abraham.  But is Jesus the Messiah?  Is he the branch of David?  Is he the one who executes the Justice and Righteousness of God?  That is the tense question.  He is doing something and if it is the Justice and Righteousness of God, it is not the kind of Justice and Righteousness Israel is expecting apparently.  Who is it shouting the praises of Jesus?  Prostitutes, tax-collectors, swindlers, lepers, men like Zacchaeus and women like Mary Magdalene.  They are the dregs of society and it is they that Jesus forgives, and they that he heals, and they that he eats with.  But it is not they that the Pharisees praised.  It is not they that Israel strove to aide.  What do the Pharisee’s say to Jesus in the midst of all this?  “Tell these people to shut up.”  The Pharisees wanted nothing to do with Jesus or, as they saw them, the rabble praising him.  Finally, they would show how much they hated Jesus and his ideas of Justice and Righteousness.  They killed him.  They thought they had shut him and his disciples up for good.  But, it did not work.  This Jesus is raised from the dead by God the Father.  He is the finally authority on the Justice and Righteousness of God.  Skip ahead again.

Here we sit as 21st Century Christians living in America.  After Israel rejected Jesus and God raised him, God then sent out Apostles with the Gospel.  And as the story goes, and as time goes, now we according to our Baptisms are mixed up in this Kingdom of God that came through the Israelite man of Nazareth, Jesus.  It is like that parable.  Those originally invited rejected the invite (Israel), so they lost their place.  Then the king sends out messengers to all the lands, every corner, inviting anyone they could find…and here we are.  But this does not mean that the Justice and Righteousness of God just go away.  The Justice and Righteousness of God did not remain nailed to the Cross even when Jesus was taken down.  If Jesus still lives then his Justice and Righteousness still live.  And since you and I are the people of God, since you and I and in the Kingdom, the justice and righteousness of God fall on US!

Israel failed as the embodiment of the Justice and Righteousness of God.  We see that in the simple fact that they Killed Jesus!  But, what about us?  What about our ideas of Justice and Righteousness?  I think this is an area that we Christians today might find very confusing.  What does the Justice and Righteousness of God look like now?  To say the least, this is a hard image to find.  Sadly there are few examples I can bring into this sermon.  But, I do have one example to bring to you today and I think it is especially relevant given the time of year we find ourselves in.  What does it look like for us Christians living in America to execute the Justice and Righteousness of God for the life of the World? 

In May 2002 Philip Pan wrote an article in the Washington Post titled “Worked Till They Drop: Few Protections for China’s New Laborers.”  In this article he spotlights the death of a 19 year old women named Li-Chun-Mei.  She collapsed and died after working 16-19 hour shifts at a factory for 60 days straight!  What type of factory was it?  A factory turning out stuffed toys.  What time of the year?  October and November.

Now, few of us heard of Li-Chun-Mei, and I am sure few of us have heard about many, if any, of the deaths that have occurred in similar fashion over the last ten years.  But, I hope this serves to shed light on our habits in this Season of Christmas.  Do you think it is the best and clearest confession of the Justice and Righteousness of God that our demand for stuffed toys might lead to the death of a woman in China?  Now, this woman’s death was not because any one of us in this room is a particularly evil, blood-thirsty, or greedy man or woman.  But, I do believe it is because we simply have little contact with what is going on in the production of our stuff.  And as we buy and sell this holiday season, I hope Li-Chun-Mei’s death stands as a reminder to us all about our calling as Christians.  If Jesus came, and in the Righteousness and Justice of God served his neighbors, even those not of his race, aren’t we too to be mindful and caring of all our neighbors even if we do not see them?

Now, I must be clear about what I am saying and not saying, endorsing and not endorsing.  I am not endorsing an American Political party’s agenda here, nor am I saying buying goods from China is an evil act.  What I am doing is attacking the often mindless way we go about buying this time of year.  I am saying we need to do more work than pitching things into our baskets because of particularly low discounts.  If by our buying there is the possibility of doing harm to our neighbor we must not act until we are absolutely sure our neighbor’s life and property will be upheld and protected by our action rather than harmed.  And that takes work—the enactment of the Justice and Righteousness of God NOW kind of work.  That might look like holding off on Christmas shopping for a while, or buying stuff that you can see made, I am not sure exactly all the different ways it looks, but I know this…

My friends we are the Children of God Now!  We are the Church.  We are called to be the visible embodiment of the Justice and Righteousness of God for the World to see.  And as we are now on the tip of this Advent season heading toward Christmas let us refocus our attention and devotion on this man Jesus of Nazareth and the Justice and Righteousness he embodies still to this day.  Let us eat this body and drink this blood and remember it is because of the Justice and Righteousness of God that Jesus died, but was also raised, and that we non-Jews were gathered into his Kingdom.  And, as we head forward into the Justice and Righteousness of God, let us always remember to Love God with all our heart and soul, and our neighbors as ourselves.  Amen. 

The 4th Sunday after the Epiphany: Luke 4.16-30

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In his latest work, “How God Became King,” New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham N. T. Wright describes a huge problem he sees manifest in the Church.  He observes, “It has been slowly dawning on me over many years that there is a fundamental problem deep at the heart of Christian faith and practice as I have known them.  This problem can be summarized quite easily: we have all forgotten what the four gospels are about.  Yes they are about Jesus, but what exactly are they saying about Jesus?”  Wright then goes on to paint a picture of just what this problem looks like in action.

He reflects upon a boyhood project that he and some of his friends engaged in.  He and his pals took to answering questions regarding Jesus.  Why was Jesus born?  Why did he live?  Why did he die?  Why was he resurrected?  and so on.  Even though he admits that he does not remember the answer to the question that he took to investigating, “Why did Jesus live?” or even if he came to an answer at all, he  reflects on how difficult the task proved.  What Wright seems to be getting at is the way we Christians have been trained to read, or not read, the whole story of the Gospels with these basic questions in mind.  We have accepted shorthand answers.  These answers are handy and easy and seem to be universally accepted and understood.  But, because they have been “understood” for so long we Christians have lost the way we came to them as good answers in the first place.  This is Wrights point I believe.  We no longer know what the Gospel accounts are about.  We rather work backwards from the answers and assertions we have in place, if we work at all, and bend the story to fit. 

Today we are going to look anew, afresh, at this passage from Luke as a snapshot of the whole Gospel account.  And we are going to read with this question in mind, “Why did Jesus have to die” according to Luke?  Now, be prepared to be uncomfortable, and confused, because we are going to come to answers that seem to go against the intuitive answers you have grown up with.

We have, of course, all learned the answer to that question (Jesus died to save me from my sin) through the teaching and preaching we have heard over the last few years and decades of our lives.  And, in many ways, that answer is reinforced in our minds because the greater portion of “the Church” in America answers the same way, which is a powerful witness to that answers validity.  Now, that answer is certainly true.  We can claim that our sins are forgiven by the authority of Jesus, because his life, death, and resurrection testify to his identity and authority.  But, do we get an answer like that from our reading in Luke today?  Can we reasonably say that Luke wants to communicate that Jesus death forgives the sins of individual American Gentiles in the 21st century?  If you had to answer the question based on this passage what might the answer be?

Take a look and read again the passage from Luke that we have today.  Jesus is in the synagogue of Nazareth—his hometown.  He reads the scroll of Isaiah and declares that the Promises of God given through Isaiah now stand fulfilled in His flesh and blood and Word.  Even more amazing than that is the way Jesus claims to be the “Anointed One.”  Does anyone happen to know what the Hebrew word for “anointed one” is?  Messiah.  Jesus claims that the prophecy of the Spirit Anointed Messiah is fulfilled in this town of Nazareth.  To this amazing declaration the people of Nazareth respond by acknowledging the gracious nature of Jesus’ words to them.  I would equate this to Oskaloosa’s hearing Tyler Sash make a statement on national T.V. about how the town helped make him the great athlete and man he has become.  The town would hear that with pride and expectation.  But, with Jesus this is different.  He is not claiming Nazareth has made him great, but that God has made him great and sent him as Messiah of Israel.  This is not a gracious claim, not really, which is why the people’s next response is, “This is Joseph’s kid right?”  In response to Nazareth’s reaction to Jesus’ Messianic claim Jesus gives them a proverbial warning focusing on Elijah and Elisha.

Unless we are very familiar with the OT we are going to miss the significance of these references by Jesus.  I dislike the idea of being brief with such a thing.  And since I cannot get away with reading the story of Israel like Ezra did (for the better part of 6 hours) I will be brief.  Elijah and Elisha were sent away from Israel by God because of Israel’s wickedness.  The prophets were sent to a gentile widow and a gentile warlord with leprosy, even though there were many widows and lepers in Israel during their time. Now, these words from Jesus change the attitude of the people of Nazareth toward Jesus.  His graciousness has swiftly vanished.  What do they do now?  They reject him and they drive Jesus out of town to the edge of a cliff with the intent to kill.  But, what reason do they have to kill him?  If Jesus had died here how would we explain his death?  Well, there are a few ways to answer the question given what we have read so far. 

Jesus is going to die because Jesus is fulfilling the Scriptures, it is because Jesus reveals his words are not to be heard and treated as the gracious ramblings of a simple local boy but as the very Words of Israel’s God—the same Words that led Elijah and Elisha to leave Israel in favor of Gentiles.  He is to be treated as Messiah.  So we could say, Jesus is about to be killed because he is being the Son of God, he is Being the Messiah, He is fulfilling Scripture, or exercising the Authority of God.  I think these are all good answers that flow out of this Gospel account and are maintained throughout the story Luke is trying to tell about Jesus of Nazareth.  But, why are these answers important for us to come into contact with?

The first reason is that these answers are drawn from what the Gospel writer wants to communicate to the readers/hearers of the Gospel.  That is not to say that at some point Luke is not trying to communicate that Sins are forgiven by Jesus—because he tells us that.  But that is not the only answer we can come to, if it is even the main answer Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John want us to come to.

The second reason is that trying to answer these questions forces us to interact with the WHOLE Gospel if we are going to answer them well.  And by “Whole Gospel” I mean what Luther meant as the whole story of Jesus, which extends from Abraham and Moses to Jesus to the Apostles and to the Church where the teaching and preaching of the Apostles still takes place.  When we read the whole Gospel this way, with these questions in mind, we are in a better place to answer the question “Why did Jesus die” but also, and perhaps more importantly to us, how do I (a 21st century Gentile) now get to claim that this Hebrew man named Jesus claims authority over my Sin?  Answering this way, rather than our normal shorthand (Jesus died for my Sins), more than anything else emphasizes that I, Me as an individual, am not the first or only focus of Israel’s God’s action for salvation in time.  That might be the point that hits harder than any in this time and culture. 

It was Israel who was at the center of God’s attention for salvation.  And through Israel salvation would come to other nations.  When we easily say, “Jesus died for my sins.”  Whether we intend to or not we are denying that it was Israel God came for first.  And in denying Israel we cheapen, if not totally negate, the Grace extended to us by Israel’s God to us Gentiles, as outsiders, as those not from Abraham.  If we were the ones God first had in mind to save then what is Grace?  As it stands we are not Israel, we are the happy fools standing around on street corners who get dragged into the feast of a King we did not previously know.  We are the ones given a kingdom we have no claim to.  We are given an inheritance we have no blood claim to. Grace has been showered upon us Gentiles.  And, as I am fond of telling you, the story of how that Grace is showered upon us is a long one. 

In the name of Jesus—Amen.