4th Sunday of Advent
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who comes to us in unexpected ways. Amen
Have you ever wondered about Joseph’s role in the Christmas story?
I mean it seems peripheral at most.
Given that the Holy Spirit is so active,
is Joseph even necessary?
Today Matthew answers that question with an emphatic yes!
As Matthew tells it
the story of Jesus
is all about God fulfilling God’s own promises
but in radically different ways than people expect
especially since along the way
ordinary people of faith
are called to take part in the fulfillment of promises,
people like Mary and Joseph.
Luke is the one who tells us
more about Mary’s faithful response to God’s call
but Matthew is where Joseph shines.
Mary and Joseph are engaged
which back then was a more solid legal agreement than today
but before they actually get married
Mary is found to be with child from the Holy Spirit
and this presents a dilemma for Joseph
who we are told is righteous,
meaning that he is a follower of the law
and the law says in instances like this
that it is legal for the man to dismiss or divorce the woman
with varying degrees of potential punishment,
Deuteronomy allows for a public stoning,
not that stonings were common in the day of Mary and Joseph
but a very public dismissal
would have brought great shame on Mary and her reputation.
But even as Joseph wants to follow the law
we are told he is unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace,
he tries to find a way to be kind and follow the law.
So he plans to dismiss her quietly,
meaning he wouldn’t expose her supposed infidelity
and thereby take the brunt of the shame on himself
since it would look like he’d gotten a young woman pregnant
then decided to divorce her for no apparent reason.
Which is quite a remarkable decision when you think about it.
“But just when he had resolved to do this” Matthew tells us,
an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream
and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife,
that the child is from the Holy Spirit
and this is how it’s going to play out the angel says:
“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.” and the angel quotes Isaiah.
This is classic Matthew,
remember Matthew is intensely interested
in showing that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s past promises
and the angel’s announcement
shows that Jesus fulfills two,
the promise in Isaiah of a child born to a young woman,
and the promise that the messiah will be a descendant of King David,
and this second part is where Joseph becomes crucial,
Joseph is a descendant of King David
as Matthew has established with the genealogy of Jesus
at the very beginning of his gospel.
By naming Jesus,
as the angel instructs,
Joseph acknowledges Jesus as his son
and as his son Jesus too is a descendant of King David.
But Joseph is more than the connection to the family of David,
he is a faithful person,
who encountering the unexpectedness of God
even as what is required of him
goes against the prevailing teaching of the day.
When faced with a choice between following the law
and acting faithfully
Joseph choses faith
and his faith cares for and nurtures Jesus
as he comes into the world and grows up.
Joseph shows from the very beginning
the truth that “the faithful thing to do and the faithful way to be are sometimes at odds with social convention” (Feasting on the Word Year A volume 1 pge 94)
even in our religious communities.
We look to our systems of religion,
the rules and rituals,
to guide us through life
and they are generally helpful
until we pay more attention to them than to God,
because God continually does new things,
calling us outside of the comfortably established rules and rituals.
Joseph shows us that it is possible to remain faithful to God
even as God’s work falls outside the established definition of acting faithfully,
and actually, while it may seem wildly different to us
God’s actions are always consistent with God’s priorities.
Later in the gospel in the sermon on the Mount,
Jesus will say “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Matthew 5:17
and then he goes on to interpret the law
to protect those without power under the law,
‘yes murder is against the law’ Jesus says
‘but I say that even anger should be judged
because it is anger that precedes murder’
later he continues (Matthew 5:43-47)
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”
Jesus’ fulfillment of the law is based on the love of God
the love that led to creation,
the love of God for that creation
made manifest in Jesus himself,
the love Jesus showed to the poor, needy and outcast he encountered,
love that took him all the way to the cross,
love that burst out again three days later.
All of this love flew in the face of social convention,
God was not supposed to be human,
the poor, needy and outcast were not supposed to be noticed,
the messiah was not supposed to be crucified,
people who are dead are not supposed to rise again.
And yet that’s how God chose to work to save the world,
doing the unexpected through ordinary people
who when faced with the dilemma of following social convention
or following the call of God,
chose to follow God.
That’s what Joseph did,
and Mary and the disciples,
and that is what we are called to do,
to listen for God’s call in the unexpected
and when faced with a choice between doing what is expected
or unconventionally acting out of love,
we are to choose love,
and we do so trusting that God will be with us
because we are following Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. Amen
Second Sunday in Advent
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who comes to transform the world. Amen
So we’ve got trees all over our advent readings for today,
images of trees
and talk of preparing for the coming of the Lord,
and while the images seem to be contrasting
they both point to the promise
that God will come,
judge the world
and that God’s judgment
will transform the world in ways human judgement cannot.
First we have Isaiah,
and the image of a shoot coming out of the stump of a tree
and a branch growing out of its roots.
This is an image of hope
for a people who feel like they’ve been cut down
and all that’s left is a stump,
yet new life is possible from that stump.
Appearances can be deceiving says the prophet Isaiah,
the people of Israel
may look like a stump
but God will make sure that new life appears,
in the form of a leader,
one anointed by God
“The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
we understand this passage
to be referring to Jesus,
and the prophet continues,
this is what this leader will be like:
“He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth”
Now this is a very different way of judging
than we’re used to as humans,
our system of justice is based on proof,
what eyes have seen and what ears have heard
and this organized system
is a step up from the initial way we judge
which is based on our gut instinct and prejudices,
but whether we’re judging based on intuition or on evidence
as humans we only have the smallest amount of understanding
of the people and situations about which we are making judgments.
The judgment of the anointed of God
is judgment through God’s perspective,
a perspective ruled by righteousness,
with the full picture of all that is going on,
all the contributing factors
including God’s belief in the goodness of creation.
And the effects on the world will be astounding,
former predators and pray living side by side
without anyone getting eaten,
children playing with deadly snakes without harm coming to them,
knowledge of the Lord filling the earth
and the shoot that has become a strong branch
signaling to the rest of the nations that God is the true God.
The one who will bring this vision to reality
is the one for whom John the Baptist is preparing,
and he too uses a tree image
but from a very different angle,
he is recommending some logging take place:
“But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for Baptism he said to them ‘ you brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves ‘we have Abraham as an ancestor; for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is laying at the root of the trees; every three therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Where the people Isaiah was preaching to needed comfort,
the people John is speaking to
are people who need some shaking up,
there hasn’t been a prophet for a long time
and then John comes onto the scene
with the very prophetic message of: Repent! Turn back to God!
And the people come flocking to him,
they are ready for God to do something new,
they are ready for God to judge the injustices of the world
and make them right
but then the leaders come out,
leaders who tend to be more cautious
about prophetic change
preached from the mouth of a guy dressed in camel’s hair
dunking people in the river,
and John has a special message for them
“don’t think God’s done working and that you have it all figured out” he tells them
‘something new is coming
and that means change,
and to get ready for that change
we need to clear out some of the old ways
that aren’t working anymore
actually that’s what God is coming to do,
to cut off the branches that don’t make for justice or righteousness anymore
And It’s my job to get you ready John says
“but I can only get you clean on the outside,
the one who is coming will clean you up on the inside
he will baptize you with the holy spirit and fire.”
Now we tend to associate fire with punishment
but it can also be an image of purification, cleansing.
The purest gold comes from melting it down
and getting it so hot that the things that aren’t gold burn away.
If we want to clear a section of land for farming or building a house
we make a pile of the trees and branches
which we burn to get rid of,
we have judged those trees and branches unnecessary
and we clear them out of the way to create room for something new.
This is what Jesus is going to do John says,
judge what needs to be cleared out in each of us
to create space for new life in God.
This is the image of separating the wheat from the chaff,
both are part of the same plant
but the chaff gets in the way of using the wheat.
There is wheat and chaff in each of us,
Jesus will judge what needs to go
and what needs to stay
and will create space for new life in each of us,
in a word save us.
To meet Jesus
is to be judged and saved at the same time,
to be seen fully with the eyes of God
that see both the sins and imperfections
and the worth inherent in all creation,
worth so great that Jesus went to the cross
to bring Isaiah’s vision to reality
and with his resurrection the turning of the ages began
but it is not yet complete,
Lions still munch on antelope
and I don’t intend on going near any rattle snakes any time soon,
but our call is to live into the vision
that has already begun,
this is the work of advent,
during which we are called to repent,
turn toward God and face the judgment and salvation found there,
purifying and creating,
and then we are sent back into this world in transition
to live out the new life we have been given
this is the baptismal life,
the daily dying to sin and rising to Christ,
the continual pruning of our branches
so that fruit might grow
and the reassurance that fruit will grow,
fruit that will turn enemies into friends,
violence into peace,
fruit that will transform the world
in the image of God. Amen
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who draws us to God. Amen
Welcome to the beginning of a new church year,
as always we start off with Advent and waiting.
For what do we wait?
We wait for the day of the Lord,
Jesus’ return that will fulfill God’s will on earth as in heaven.
When will this come?
We don’t know,
not even Jesus knows
he tells the disciples in our gospel from Matthew today,
the time is unexpected
Jesus uses the example of the homeowner
who, if he knew his house was going to be broken into
would have stayed up all night
to prevent the thief from breaking in,
which while true
is an unrealistic way of preparing
for an event occurring at an unknown time.
This is the way we usually think of preparation,
that last minute house cleaning
for the guests arriving in the next few days,
the bustle of preparations made
when we know that the time of the special occasion is at hand.
But that kind of preparation
is not possible when we don’t know when it’s going to happen.
Yet Jesus still tells the disciples
to be ready for the coming of the Lord,
and the readiness he is talking about
is more a way of life
than a last minute shoving of things into closets.
It’s living as if the Lord were coming tomorrow
all the time.
Paul in Romans
uses the image of clothing,
“put on the Lord Jesus Christ”
he tells the waiting community,
clothing is something separate from us
that becomes a part of who we are
since we generally speaking wear clothing all the time.
and it impacts how we live our lives
choosing to put on sweatpants
leads to something very different
than donning a three piece suit.
And sure sometimes a new pair of pants feel uncomfortable
but the more we wear them
the more comfortable they become
and soon we don’t even notice them.
Putting on Christ is similar,
at first it may seem strange and uncomfortable
but like with many things,
the more we do it
the easier or more natural it becomes
like putting on a comfortable sweater.
Much like the sweater Mr. Rogers puts on
at the beginning of his show.
Fred Rogers, is someone who lived a life
prepared to meet Jesus in everyone he met.
There’s a movie based on his life out now
so there’s been a lot of talk about him again,
how he genuinely loved people
in a way that people didn’t expect,
that love was the love of Christ,
an ordained Presbyterian minister
Fred Rogers clothed himself in Christ,
and lived the love of neighbor taught by Jesus.
He didn’t advertise his show as ministry
(though for him it was)
and people weren’t drawn to him
because of a title of position,
they were drawn to him
because of his love for people,
and his love changed the lives of the children who watched his show
and the people with whom he came in contact.
It’s that kind of love and lifestyle
that we are to put on,
to live in a way that draws people to God
because they want to experience the life we have in God.
This is the image in Isaiah,
the purpose for the chosen people,
they are to live with God
and it will change their lives in such a way
that the rest of the nations will say:
“we want to live like that! Let’s go to the house of the Lord,
let’s learn what the secret to that life is”
and the result will be peace,
not just the absence of war
but harmony that erases even the need for the tools of war.
And yes that may sound too good to be true,
in the same way many people thought that Mr. Rogers
was too good to be true,
that he was playing a character
when in reality the gentle, curious, brave, loving man seen on tv
was the same one that people met in real life,
and they were transformed by knowing him.
Even now after his passing
people are still drawn to him and his message of love.
Put on Christ,
This is how we are to wait and be ready
and in the process spread the good news of God,
something we are also called by Jesus to do.
And the best way is not by focusing on the church
or advertising or having the hippest music
or the coolest pastor
but by living lives oriented toward God,
lives that have been transformed by God
and transform the lives of those around us.
We have all have these people in our lives
whether we’ve been aware of them or not,
who have shared their faith with us
by way that they lived out their faith,
and when they invited us deeper into faith
we were glad,
as the psalm says “I was glad when they said to me let us go to the house of the Lord”
at text study this week
we there were talking about how hesitant Lutheran Christians are
to invite someone to church,
mostly because we don’t anticipate
that invitation being me with joy.
But if we are glad to go to the house of the Lord,
to be in relationship with God
why wouldn’t others?
they need the peace that a relationship with God brings
and they might just realize it by watching us,
we might be the one
whose life the holy spirit uses
to draw them to God
and when we live like this,
we are prepared for the day of the Lord
whenever that comes,
we won’t need to hide things in closets
because we have nothing to hide.
Now this lifestyle of advent preparedness
is not perfected overnight
but over the course of a lifetime,
washed in the waters of baptism
we are called to daily put on Christ,
and sure sometimes it will feel like a new pair of pants
that need breaking in,
or like that coat that we are really tired of wearing come April,
but Christ keeps reaching out to us,
through the holy spirit and those around us
with love and forgiveness,
drawing us to himself,
sustaining us with his body and blood at the table
and every advent
calling us to wake up,
to renew the practice of preparation,
to be ready by being clothed in Christ. Amen
Christ the King Sunday
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who reigns in unexpected ways. Amen
I’ve been doing a lot of pre-marital counseling with couples lately,
there just seem to be a bunch of weddings coming up,
and in the first session of pre-marital counseling
I sit down with the couple
and we talk about how relationships are based on expectations,
for example when we set a date and time to meet with someone
we expect that they will arrive at the agreed upon time, right?
And if that doesn’t happen,
our expectation is broken
and so is the relationship at least in a small way
and that break needs to be repaired,
it can be as simple as the other person explaining that they were stuck in traffic
and their phone was dead, apology accepted the relationship moves on.
If the break isn’t fixed, even the little ones,
They tend to pile up until something small sets off a big explosion
Like the straw the breaks the camel’s back
It’s fairly straight forward right?
But often times our expectations are unspoken,
and many times we don’t even realize we have them
and so when they are broken by another person
thereby breaking the relationship
the odds are that the other person has no idea
that there’s been a break in the relationship
and therefore cannot work to repair the break
unless the other person tells them.
You can see how this is useful to understand
when going into a marriage right?
And it doesn’t have to be about big things,
which way the toilet paper roll goes
or how the dishwasher is loaded etc.
All this by the way applies to being a member of a group,
especially say a church congregation...
now these expectations don’t just appear overnight,
we’re not born expecting the toilet paper to always roll from the top
or knowing how to load a dishwasher,
these are things we are taught
whether directly from someone or through our life experiences.
And these expectations based on past experiences
help us navigate new situations or relationships
by giving us a framework for understanding
how to act and how the other person might act,
but these frameworks can also get in the way
when the new experience doesn’t line up exactly with our expectations.
All the people in our gospel for today
have expectations for Jesus.
Jesus is someone they are trying to figure out
and yet every set of expectations they use
to explain who he might be fall through
because Jesus doesn’t live according to the expectations of the world
which is initially disappointing
but in the end, really good news.
Our gospel is Luke’s account of the crucifixion,
the culmination of Jesus’ life (so it seems).
Jesus has been preaching and teaching publicly,
feeding crowds and healing outcasts,
gathering followers and enemies
and all have been trying to figure out the answer to the question,
who is Jesus?
And while each of the roles they assign to him carries a measure of truth
ultimately their expectations are disappointed.
We are told the people stand by watching,
the people that followed Jesus,
who hoped he might be the messiah,
the way out of oppression and misery
and yet here he is,
for all the wondrous things they have witnessed,
about to die on a cross.
The leaders of the people,
who have heard the crowds hoping that Jesus is the messiah,
scoff to see him up on the cross
“he saved others, let him save himself, if he is the messiah of God his chosen one.”
they expect that the messiah will be powerful enough to save himself
and that he will use that power
The empire of Rome sees Jesus as a rival,
one who has disrupted the peace
brought by conquering all in its path.
If the Jews think Jesus is their King,
they need to be reminded
that they have been defeated by Rome
and what better way to be reminded of that
than with a humiliating execution of the so called King.
The soldiers mock Jesus,
their experience of Kings is that they have power
and they wield it,
usually to save their own skin.
One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus
expects the messiah be powerful enough to save himself from this death,
oh and while you’re at it, why don’t you get me down from this thing too?
Some messiah you are he
says to Jesus when Jesus just hangs there.
All these expectations, all these disappointments.
So who is Jesus?
The person, the criminal, on the other side of Jesus
sees something else,
he sees an innocent man being put to death,
and perhaps he senses the true power that that takes,
more power than fighting to get off the cross,
because he says “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And Jesus replies “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise.”
It turns out that Jesus is all these roles
that people have tried to place him in,
king, messiah, human
and instead of breaking expectations
what he’s doing is exceeding them.
As Colossians reminds us,
Jesus is not just another charismatic human
who gathers crowds based on personality and skills,
no Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation...He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together..for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…”
crafted for humans
based on human experiences,
hold no chance against the fullness of God made visible,
our expectations have been set too low.
We have come to expect rulers
who wield power first for themselves,
then for the people they rule.
Jesus reigns as king on the cross,
for the sake of the greater good,
the destruction of death.
In the same way the expectation of the messiah
was an earthly expectation,
one who throws off oppression with military might
instead of one who takes on death and heals all creation.
Jesus’ fulfillment of the roles we have used to try to understand him
far exceeds our expectations,
sometimes even our imaginations
And even though Jesus is the image of the invisible God
in whom the fullness of God was please to dwell,
in many ways our own expectations of Jesus
are still earthly expectations,
like the second criminal
we expect to be judged according to our actions under the law,
and we expect to get what we deserve,
punishment and ultimately death,
and we are astonished each time Jesus judges us according to grace,
and tells us that we deserve to live.
Yet still we say to Jesus
remember me when you come into your kingdom,
hoping but not believing
And Jesus responds to us,
truly I tell you today,
you will be with me in paradise.
A response far beyond our expectation
but completely in line with who Jesus is,
the fullness of God
who reigns with grace and mercy,
beyond our expectations.
This is Christ the King. Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.