Strange Combinations

A Sermon on Luke 3:7-18 & Zepheniah 3.14-20

“Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment?!” (Luke 3:7 MESSAGE)

Luke calls it…proclaiming the good news.

I know we have a lot of strange combinations in today’s service. We have a hymn that uses the tune of a favorite joyous Christmas carol, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” only we are using different words that reflect this mornings text of judgment and repentance. If it feels odd to you, it does for me too. The theme of the third candle and this week of Advent is joy, and we have before us a story, well, we have John the Baptist’s sermon of fire and judgment-strange combinations, it is true.

But it is precisely in these strange combinations where we discover the deep logic of the gospel- the deep undercurrents of God’s Spirit. It is in these strange combinations that we discover something about what God has given (and is giving) to us, and also something about what God expects from us. These strange combinations are precisely what John’s preaching is about.
John was in the wilderness. This strange guy with funny clothes, a diet of bugs, and a loud mouth, went into the wild and preached. He scolded. He berated. He tore down those who were in positions of status and power. He called out sin like nobodies business. He challenged all. And yet they came, and they kept coming. They kept coming because he was a prophet. they sensed something deep-something true-in his hellfire and brimstone preaching. They sensed good news.
They sensed good news because all could come, no matter who they were, ordinary folk, and even tax collectors and soldiers, hated, in their day, for the ways they oppressed their neighbor. All could come and make a fresh start.

The crowds flocked to him, and they were baptized-washed clean. They could make a new beginning, based on God’s grace and love. As they repented, as they turned to God, they could hear the echo of the prophet Zepheniah’s words,

Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
he will renew you in his love;
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home,

That’s good news. That’s good news for those of us who feel as if we are out in the cold, for those of us who, in this season of joy, find it hard to smile, and those of us who hear that a savior has come and at the same time look inside and at our world and see so much that still needs to be saved. In the midst of our need, it is good news to encounter a savior who brings hope, and peace, and joy. This is a strange combination we can live with.

But John, like a preacher who can’t stop preaching, keeps on going! “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” he shouted at them. This ritual is not enough; repentance means your lives must change. The renewal of baptism has changed you, now show it!

“Then what are we supposed to do?”

Did you notice John’s response? What did he tell them they should do?

To everyone in general he said, ““If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the same with your food.”

Tax men also came to be baptized, the ones who abused the system for their own profit, collecting for the occupying Romans along with a little extra for their own pockets, and they asked, “Teacher, what should we do?” He told them, “No more extortion—collect only what is required by law.”

Soldiers appeared in the wilderness, the occupiers, the ones who oppressed, and stole, and bullied and harassed, and they asked him, “What should we do?” He told them, “No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be content with your rations.””

John does not tell them to pray, or to fast, or to study scripture, or even to go to church. He tells them to share and to be just. All of them had specific ways that God called them to share, and to be just. God’s grace and love puts all things in perspective. God sets us free. But the path to a faithful life, and to meaning in life, and to joy, is to combine God’s gift of freedom and grace with our response, to live as God intended: with generosity and justice, with sharing and openness to both God and neighbor.

If we want the joy of Christmas to bring us life, John informs us, we must be willing to allow God to change our life, to free our life from all the things that bind us, whether it is greed or fear or high or low expectations, or loneliness or sickness, or addiction, or whatever. This holy baby comes not to leave us alone, but to open our lives to God and neighbor. Building upon that grace and love, God gives us strength not just to survive but to share. This strange combination of God’s freedom and grace, and our own resultant generosity and nurturing of justice is what leads us to the joy of Christmas. This is the deep logic of the gospel. It is good news, and our world needs good news.

I’d like to share a story with you that I received from a rabbi friend of mine. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Jews were expelled from Spain. Many went to France, Germany, Greece, and some went to the Holy Land. Among them was Jacoby, a shoemaker by trade.
Jacoby was a kind man; but most of all, Jacoby was a devout man. He went to the synagogue every Sabbath and listened to what the rabbi was saying even tough Jacoby spoke Spanish and the rabbi spoke Hebrew.

One Sabbath, the rabbi mentioned in his sermon how at one time twelve loaves of bread were offered to God. Jacoby heard and understood the words bread and God, and he got very excited. He ran home and said to his wife, “Esperanza! Guess what? God eats bread! And you are the best baker in the whole country! This week make your best bread, and I’ll bring it to God.”

So that week, Esperanza kneaded in the best ingredients and braided the dough with much love. Jacoby later took twelve loaves of bread to the synagogue.

“Señor Dios,” Jacoby said to God. “I’ve got your bread. You will love it. My wife, Esperanza, she’s a wonderful baker! You’ll eat every crumb!” Then Jacoby took the bread and put it in the Holy Ark, where the sacred Torah scrolls are kept.

No sooner did Jacoby leave than in came the shammes, the man who cleans the synagogue. He had little means of support. This time he came not to clean the synagogue. The expression on his face was not one of pleasure or concentration on work. Instead, his face wore an expression of desperation. “Lord, you know I want to be here in this holy place; that’s all I want to do. But for seven weeks now I haven’t been paid. My family is hungry. Lord, I need miracle.” The prayers of the shammes became more and more intense and he approached the ark, and finally he pounded on the ark in despair. Suddenly, the doors of the ark were knocked open and 12 loaves of bread came falling out.

Just enough to feed his family for one whole week.

The next day, Jacoby and Esperanza came to the synagogue to worship. Both of them were excited and a little anxious to see what happened to the bread. They couldn’t wait until it was time to read from the Torah. Finally the doors of the ark were opened and they saw the bread was gone. A look of joy passed between them. The next week it was the same, and the week after. This went on for months. The shammes learned to have faith in God. He learned that if he hung around the synagogue, or came too early, there would be no miracle. And so thirty years passed by.

Now an old man, Jacoby came one day to the synagogue with his loaves of bread. “Señor Dios,” he prayed, “I know your bread’s been lumpy lately. Experanza’s arthritis-maybe you could do something? You’ll eat better!”

He put the bread in the ark and started to leave when suddenly the rabbi grabbed him. “What are you doing?” the rabbi demanded.

“I’m bringing God his bread,” Jacoby replied.

“God doesn’t eat bread!” said the rabbi.

Jacoby said, “He’s been eating Esperanza’s bread for thirty years.”

Then the two men heard a noise, and they both hid.

No sooner did they hide, than in came the shammes. “I hate to bring it up, Lord, but you know your bread’s been kind of lumpy lately. Maybe you could talk to an angel.”

When the shammes reached into the ark for the bread, the rabbi jumped out and grabbed him.
The rabbi angrily told the two men that what they were doing was sinful, going on and on, and all three men began to cry. Jacoby cried because ho only wanted to do good. The rabbi cried because all this happened because of his sermon thirty years ago. And the shammes cried because he realized there would be no more bread.

Suddenly they heard laughter from the corner. They turned and saw the great mystic, Rabbi Isaac. Shaking his head and laughing, Rabbi Isaac said, “No, Rabbi, these men, they were not sinful. These men are devout! God has never had more pleasure than watching what goes on in your synagogue. On the Sabbath, he sits with his angels, and they laugh, watching this man bring the bread and the other man take the bread, while God gets all the credit! You must beg forgiveness of these men, Rabbi.”

Then the mystic turned to Jacoby and said, “Jacoby, you must do something even more difficult. You must now bring your bread directly to the shammes, and when you do, you must believe with perfect faith that it is the same as giving it to God.”

Share your bread. Share your talents. Share your time. Share God’s justice. Share your love. You will discover a greater share in the the joy of Christmas.

(To listen to the sermon in full, please click below)

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  • Patience–for the Lord is Near

    I don’t often read from the book of James in the New Testament.  It’s a relatively short book, with instructions for Christians ranging from words about poverty and riches to warnings against judgment upon others, and finally to instruction on patience in the midst of suffering.

    Patience in the midst of suffering…  I confess that doesn’t sound very appealing.

    Suffering comes in so many forms, and all of them are significant and legitimate. Suffering varies, of course, and as a person living in the United States of America, I’m often reluctant to claim that I suffer from anything egregious. I have food, shelter, companionship, and various freedoms. But we do suffer. We suffer from lots of things. Isolation, job loss, self-doubt, economic uncertainty, criticisms or judgments from others. Criticisms or judgments from ourselves. There is no doubt that in one way or another we are even suffering from this COVID-19 pandemic. I miss you all. Meg and I are your pastors. We should be seeing you each week and praying with you, rejoicing at the good things in life, and comforting each other amidst the difficult time in life.

    It’s impossible to determine when we might get to the end of this, but I feel like we are about to turn a corner thanks to the hard work and miraculous creativity of scientists who are making COVID-19 vaccinations possible. I was in Colorado for a few days at the end of January to visit my father again, and it was such a blessing to drive him to a hospital where we received his first vaccination shot. The next one will be available in a few more weeks, and only then will I feel more secure about him, and the rest of us, making it through this.

    While reading James recently I came across this passage in the fifth and final chapter.

    Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

    James is writing to a group of people in first century Palestine who are wondering when Christ will return. He suggests they be patient for the coming of the Lord. I hope they were able to be so, because here we are two thousand years later…awaiting that same return. But in the midst of our ‘waiting’ we’ve learned something else about the Kingdom of Heaven. We don’t have to wait for the return of Christ for Christ to be present in our lives and across this world. The Kingdom of God is at hand. We help bring it about. We help bring about that kingdom of love and grace and comfort.

    James goes on to suggest that just as a farmer waits for his or her crop to sprout up and grow with the rains and flourish for time of harvest, we too must be patient. He then instructs them to strengthen their hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Patience. It’s been a long time, but I hope and pray we are doing well with patience during this pandemic.

    I am still in shock that around 3-4,000 Americans are dying each day from COVID-19 or related complications. It is staggering. The number is higher around the world. How do we mourn such a time? I’m not exactly sure, but perhaps the season of Lent which begins on February 17th will give us some room to do just that.

    This all brings me back to one of the central purposes of us as a congregation—the faithful worship gathering that we hold each week. I thank you for your patience and support while we worship on YouTube and occasionally via Zoom. I’d rather be in person with you, but not at the risk of anyone’s health or life. It’s a bit strange to me, being the church in this ‘digital age’ forced upon us by quarantine and social distancing. We’re doing our best, and I hope we’re doing it well. But I’m having a struggle with patience as I dream about seeing you all again in person. Session continues to discuss future plans; we will continue with our current setup for now and pray for a day when vaccinations are widespread and transmission rates approach zero. Not only for the sake of our worship, but also because of the value we place upon the health and well-being of each person.

    I’d like to also thank you for the love and support you have extended to my family as we’ve grieved my mom’s death on December 28th. My father received many cards from you, and he sends his thanks; they were all very meaningful. As you know my parents regularly visited Logan and enjoyed worshiping the Lord with us. Dad says when we’re back in person for church you can be sure he’ll be around to worship with us again. He, along with all of us, can’t wait to hear the Praise Band, Chancel Choir, and Westminster Bell Choir live and in person. Once again, thank you all.

    As James pleaded to those early Christians living in very uncertain times, may we strengthen our hearts, for indeed the Lord is near.

    Peace be with you all,  

    Derek

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