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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  • After all this time…

    Well, this is it my fellow followers of Jesus, we are returning to in-person worship at First Presbyterian Church. It has been fourteen long months of us learning to be a worshiping community in the best ways we could figure out (thank you Jesus, even for things like YouTube and Zoom). It’s been challenging for me as your pastor (I imagine Pastor Meg would say the same). It’s been challenging for all of you in faith and life and with family and friends. 

    But we’re going back to church, praise the Lord.

    Many things seem to be happening in our world at this moment. How are you handling it all? We’re opening the church doors again. There was a verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis. Many of you have your Covid-19 vaccinations. It’s Springtime and the tulips are starting to bloom. The Sandhill Cranes and other migratory birds are back in the valley. So how are we doing as we process all of this? How are you doing?

    Relief? Sorrow? Joy? Sadness? 

    All of the above?

    I’ve heard several phrases of late, including ‘pandemic pain.’ I’ve felt fatigued myself. But having received the vaccination shots, I am ready to be back in our church building with you praising the Lord together. With high vaccination rates among our church members and several safety precautions, Session has voted for our return to in-person worship. Details are listed in another article inside this edition, but our first Sunday back will be Sunday, May 9th, with our regular service times of 9 & 11 a.m.

    This worldwide pandemic is not over. Not by a long shot as I watch the news from places like India and Brazil, or even Michigan. But many of us have received our vaccinations and we are implementing some practices that should allow us to worship the Lord together, safely. And to be clear (I cannot say this enough), if you do not feel safe coming to church in the near future, please continue to worship from home. I will do my absolute best to make sure our worship live-stream allows you to connect with God and connect with the rest of us from the safety of your own home. We have purchased a small and simple (yet high quality) camera that will live-stream Sunday morning worship directly to YouTube. You have the option to watch it ‘live’ as we are worshiping or watch it at a later time that is more convenient for you.

    So, what might we expect on Sunday mornings in May when we go back? First and foremost, we will be together singing, praying, and praising the Lord. Hallelujah! There will be a few changes, of course. We ask that everyone wear a mask while in the building. We will not have indoor fellowship to prevent ‘grouping’ around the food. Both services will be in Bruner Hall (this is to allow for social distancing). We will initially space chairs out in groups of one, two, three, four, etc. (please find a group of chairs that matches your household). Our air handling system will be on during the service. We won’t use hymnals so that multiple people aren’t touching them each morning (lyrics will be in the bulletin and projected onto the wall). And finally, if you are feeling under the weather, we ask that you please be extra-considerate of your fellow worshipers and remain home.

    Every day of life is a new endeavor. The same is true for us in this process of returning to worship. May we prayerfully and carefully take actions that promote good community health, along with our spiritual health. Thank you for your patience with us, and I look forward to seeing every one of you, whenever that might be.

    —Pastor Derek

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