Monday, December 7, 2015

The Word of the Lord Comes...Sermon for Advent 2

In the seventh year of the Presidency of Barak Obama, when Pat McCrory
was governor was governor of North Carolina, and Larry Williams was
mayor of Rural Hall, during the term of ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth
Eaton, the word of God came to Nazareth Lutheran Church in Rural Hall,
NC.

   This is the way Luke introduces John the Baptist to us…setting the
imperial and political and religious scene. But- lest we miss it in the
midst of all the pomp and circumstance- there is this significant fact: the
word of God came to a nobody, a lone, strange, eccentric mystic and
prophet in the wilderness, in a wild, harsh no-man’s land far from family
and government and temple. There in that wild and threatening place,
John heard a voice not his own…God coming, as God does, to one of
God’s people, to one clearly outside the establishment of the day, to one
who would not be expected to be the bearer of God's word...Godspeaking and John listening... clearly, fully listening.      

   But John did not simply listen. John acted. Luke tells us that this out-of-
the-ordinary man of God went into all of the region around the Jordan,
proclaiming repentance, proclaiming forgiveness, proclaiming the
powerful presence and promise of God to those who would listen- as
well as to those who turned away, shaking their heads at this truly
bizarre preacher, clad in animal skins with uncut- and most likely
uncombed- hair, striding along in bare feet, and shouting out his altar-
call to everyone he encountered, according to the words of the prophet,
Isaiah.

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the
Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every
mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made
straight and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the
salvation of God.’

   John was calling the people to repentance, to a change of life, to an
opening to permit the very God of Israel and all the nations to grasp
them and change them and bring the kingdom to full fruition in and
through them. ‘Present yourself for baptism’, John roared. ‘Let this
washing in the river Jordan be a sign of the washing away of your old
life, your old way of doing business and relating to others, your old way
of ignoring your neighbors in need- the lonely, the heartbroken, the
poor, the blind, the  lepers, the ones with AIDS, the homeless people on
the streets, the refugees fleeing a war over which they have no control,
those overwhelmed with grief- and open yourself to God’s presence here,
now…in you, in the world. Turn around. Go in a different direction.
Repent. The salvation of God is God’s gift to you.’
   And we are among that “all flesh”, aren’t we? The rough and crooked
likes of you and me. So, what would it mean this Advent season to have
our self-centered highs lowered, our self-deprecating lows raised, our
rough places sanded smooth? Will we have the courage to open
ourselves to the change of direction the word of God asks for? For that
IS the meaning of repentance- not just saying you’re sorry, but
CHANGING DIRECTION…going in a different way, living as a forgiven,
redeemed, re-formed, re-born, loved being…a child of the God who
creates and calls and comes...the God who always makes the first move,
whether it is through a wild-eyed prophet like John…or a singing group
like the Gospelaires. The word of the Lord comes.

   Luke, you see, Luke, that great and wonderful story-teller; Luke, the
erstwhile historian; Luke begins his story by making the outrageous claim
that God is at work in the weak and small and ordinary and unexpected-
babies and barren women and unwed teenagers and wild-eyed prophets-
to change the world. And God’s word and work continue today- still
through often-unlikely characters like unpopular teens and out-of-work
adults, through corporate executive and stay-at-home parents, through
underpaid shelf-stockers and night-shift workers and volunteer soccer
coaches and English-as-second-language teachers and nursing home
CNAs and even struggling preachers. Oh, it’s easy to miss, I grant you,
especially in this busy, fast-paced world of ours, especially if we’re not
paying attention- but it’s there, all the same, I promise you.

   A good friend of mine, an artist and photographer and worker for peace
and justice who, with his wife, recently moved to NYC, posted this
commentary on Facebook just the other day and I share it with you in
the hope that…well, here it is.

Riding on the subway just now, I sat and thought about what a civil
invention mass transit is. I have witnessed people being generous with
strangers while riding the subway; offering dollars for a heart-felt song;
giving a seat to the tired other. Two nights ago while riding to
Manhattan, I laughed with a man from Georgia (the country, not the
state), who spoke less English than he thought he could. We soon
figured out his route and parted with smiles and a handshake. Today,
I thought of the massacres in CA and searched for a sane reason why so
many Americans are expressing themselves through such violent means.
As I sat looking at the beautiful and varied faces around me, I could not
get a handhold as to why I would ever want to kill them. I walked up
into the Brooklyn daylight, staring first at the steam rising into the blue
sky from atop the old Brooklyn Bank tower. As my gaze settled on the
sidewalk, I saw two nuns stopping to talk to a homeless old man…As I
passed, I looked up to see a large black woman walking toward me,
wearing a black sweatshirt with the giant word LOVE written in white
across it. Sometimes God speaks softly from inside; sometimes She flat
out yells as She swaggers past.

    So- no matter how small, insignificant, or ordinary you feel; no matter
how small, insignificant, or ordinary your life seems, the word of the
Lord comes sidling up to you when you least expect it- or shouts out the
reality of Holy Presence right in front of you. Your part, my part, our
part, is to PAY ATTENTION…to see…to hear… to open our hearts to the
reality and challenge and difficulty of repentance, of change, of going in
a different direction.

    So- will we collaborate in our transformation? Will we hear and
respond to the call of the Baptist? Will we join the people at the river
Jordan, heeding John’s altar call to open themselves to God’s very
presence in their lives? For part of our life together as a Lutheran
congregation is the weekly “altar call” known as Holy Communion. The
invitation is issued by the presiding pastor, and as we come forward to
the altar, we are making ourselves available for the intervention of God,
for the reality and hope and wonder of the indwelling of God’s Holy
Spirit. We are saying, ‘I believe; help my unbelief’. Then, as we
consume the bread and wine, we take into ourselves the very presence
of the Christ…we welcome the Holy and open ourselves to the trans-
forming power of God’s grace-filled forgiveness…God coming TO us, in a
way we can neither explain nor deny…only accept, in gratitude and
wonder. And we leave the altar re-born, re-made, sent out to BE the
Christ in our world, to share the truth of God’s ever-presence- the Good
News. 

   Today, let’s ask ourselves, to whose voice have I been listening this
Advent season? If you, each of you, each of US, could take a detour
from your usual route, could turn off the clamor of this ever-present
and persistent world, would you? Would you bother? Would you DARE?
Turn OFF your cell phone. Turn OFF the TV. Power down all of the
internet-fed devices which link us to every bit of everything that is
happening everywhere. Turn OFF, power down, and listen…just listen…
and then- respond to what you hear…and see…and witness to the
truth of God present and active and alive in our world.

   And now, I invite you to do something just a bit different for a
moment…as I pass out these index cards and pencils, be thinking about
a place or time this week when you saw/were aware of God at work…
of God actively present in your life/your world/our world. Then, write
that on the card and when you answer the altar call of Holy Communion,
place your card on the blue posterboard so that, together, as a
congregation, as a faith community here in Rural Hall, NC, we can bear
witness to and affirm the reality of the Presence of God…God coming to
us...God at work in God’s world, in our world. And together, as a
congregation, as a faith community here in Rural Hall, NC, we can lift
our voices in prayer and praise and thanksgiving. Thanks be to God!
Amen

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