Sermon: Sunday, December 11, 2011: Third Sunday of Advent: “New and Improved–Batteries Included”

Texts:  Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11  •   Psalm 126   •   1 Thessalonians 5:16-24   •   John 1:6-8, 19-28

Help me out here for a minute. We’re going to play a game of free-association. When I say “John the Baptist” what comes to your mind?

(The assembly is invited and encouraged to call out words, phrases and images connected with John the Baptist.)

That’s a great assortment of associations, but I have to be honest and confess that for me, John the Baptist reminds me of the teenager who comes to church showing too much skin, or people who don’t remove their hats during the national anthem at the ballpark. It’s not wrong, per se, but it’s distracting.

That’s how John the Baptist always strikes me, he’s distracting. He gathers people outside the city walls, wearing animal skins and eating weird food, making apocalyptic threats and, ultimately, losing his head. He is strange and wild and dramatic. He’s riveting. He’s hard to take your eyes off of. He’s doing guerilla street theater, insisting that we give him our full attention and then, just when he’s got us, John reveals that he is not the main attraction, not the headliner, not the one we’ve come to see.

All the costume, all the pageant, all seems designed to grab our attention so that John can deliver his overlooked and possibly his most important prophetic word. It’s not the one you’re thinking. Not, “among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” John’s most important prophetic word, I think, is his first response to the temple authorities who make a site visit in the wilderness to find out who this guy thinks he is. John provides them with a radically, deceptively, prophetically simple answer. He says, “I am not the Messiah.”

“I am not the Messiah.” That is John’s prophetic word for us this morning, so I’m going to ask you to repeat after me. Let’s preach John’s strong word together: “I am not the Messiah.” (“I am not the Messiah”) Again, “I am not the Messiah!” (I am not the Messiah!”)

Good! Now you are all prophets – just like John the Baptist! But do we understand what we’re saying, what John was saying, when we share in his proclamation that we are not the Messiah. I suspect we don’t, at least I’m sure I don’t. I know I’d like to believe, and generally conduct my life as though, I have the power to bend the world to my will. But I am not the Messiah, which means that I cannot be counted on to save anything. I can try my best, I may succeed at some things and fail at others, but I will never be the answer to any question of ultimate concern.

You are not the Messiah either. Odd how that sounds like an insult, when it should really come as a relief. Think about it. Consider the larger-than-life burdens this means you can finally lay down:

  • Parents, this means that despite the worries and burdens and pressure you feel to provide every opportunity for your children, you can relax a little bit. Frightening as it may be, you cannot control the world that surrounds your children and you cannot prevent every harm that might befall them. They will stumble along life’s path, they will hurt and be hurt, they will learn and grow, fail and succeed. You will always be a primal, formative influence in their lives – but you are not their saviors.
  • Children, this means that despite the pressures you feel to live up to your parents’ expectations, to make them proud, to carry on their traditions, to redeem their failures, to ease their grief, you can relax a little bit. No matter how dependent, or grateful, or resentful, or proud you are of your parents you are not their Messiah. You have your own separate existence and value apart from them, they are not defined by you any more than you are by them. You may be their most important relationship, but you are not their saviors.
  • Elders, this means that you are not responsible for ensuring that the legacy of all that you have learned, and experienced, and cherished is carried forward indefinitely into the future. God has reached out to you in amazing and powerful ways, but God will continue to reach out to the world to come in equally amazing and powerful ways – because that’s who God is, the one who saves and restores. You can lay that burden down, you are not the Messiah.
  • Young people, this means you are not responsible for maintaining and preserving the values and priorities, the dreams and visions of those who’ve gone before you. You have heard it said that you are the future, but you know your life is happening right now. You do not have to carry the weight of so much expectation from your bosses, your professors, your mentors, your elders. You are free to savor all the blessings of your one precious life right now, as it is happening. You are not the Messiah.

This is what John the Baptist says to the authorities who want to pin him down and lay the blame for civil unrest on his shoulders. They want him to say something as crazy as his clothes suggest he might be, but he does not. They ask him the question that faces each one of us, every day, as we go about the trying business of our lives, “Who are you? What do you say about yourself?”

In reply, John says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

Talk about grace under pressure. What a beautiful response. He says, “I am not the Messiah. I am the voice.”

  • I am not the news, I am the newscaster.
  • I am not the gospel, I am its preacher.
  • Or, in the terms we used with the children in this morning’s children’s sermon, I am not the light, I am the battery.

These two statements, taken together, represent so much freedom for us. The first, “I am not the Messiah,” frees us from the idolatry of believing that our thoughts, our beliefs, our prejudices, our practices, our habits, our methods, our culture, our nation, our politics, our religion are of primary importance. We are not God. It sounds silly and obvious to say it out loud, but so often we live our lives as though it were true.

flashlight batteriesThe second, “I am the voice,” guards against complacency, refuses self-negation and infuses with self-esteem, bespeaks a mandate, bestows a vocation, dignifies and ennobles our lives. God needs us. God has a message and we are its heralds. God has good news and we are its bearers. God so loved the world, and we are God’s lovers. God is light, and we are like the batteries in the flashlight – both perishable and essential.

The gospel says, “this is the testimony given by John.” St. Luke’s you have been testifying like John throughout your 111 years of ministry. You have been a voice in this neighborhood, across our city, throughout our church, and before the nations crying out, “Make straight the way of the Lord!”

Throughout this past year you have been offering your testimonies. Just like the religious authorities asked John, “what do you say about yourself,” you have been asked to share the faith that is in you as well.

  • You’ve done this in the one-on-one conversations with members of the Social Justice Team that helped shape the agenda of our work with the Community Renewal Society.
  • You’ve done it in small groups and bible studies and private conversations with one another.
  • Some of you have done it in front of the congregation, giving your testimony about how God has reached out to you and been present in your life.
    • Cynthia shared her faith story.
    • Judi talked about the church’s role in helping her and Bill raise their children.
    • Ben and Heather encouraged us to be proud of the ways that our commitment to the arts translates into real and practical resources for working artists – actors, dancers and musicians.
    • Pat reminded us that our community health mission has deep roots in a feeding ministry that has touched thousands of lives.
    • Dale showed us how a life lived in the church shapes us for service and supports us throughout life’s joys and sorrows.

You have all been giving your testimony, with words and with actions, and in the process you have been clearing a way for God’s presence to enter more fully into the world, one life at a time, starting with your own. You are not the Messiah but, oh, what powerful voices you have!

John the Baptist, so colorfully dressed, so dramatically inclined, was one you could not take your eyes off of. God used that, just as God is using our own colorful, dramatic lives as well. In times like these, when it can seem like the whole world is lost out in the wilderness, listening for good news, we can say with full humility and fuller confidence, “I am not the Messiah, but I am the voice!”



Sunday, November 27, 2011: First Sunday in Advent: New and Improved

Texts:  Isaiah 64:1-9  •  Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19  •  1 Corinthians 1:3-9  •  Mark 13:24-37

“New and Improved.” That’s the name that Pastor Tim and I have given to the sermon series we’re preaching during the four weeks of Advent this year. The title is an obvious reference to the season of consumerism we’ve all entered into, as the world around us puts all its persuasive powers to work to separate us from our money with the lure of all things new and improved, when what we’re really longing for is a world made new and improved. So that’s what we’re focusing on for the next four weeks, the promise that God’s Advent into the world is making all things new.

And, having spent six weeks in a series titled “God’s Politics,” we’re making a concerted effort to pull the focus back a bit and look at how these cosmic themes play out on the smaller stages of our individual lives. This is actually something of a preaching challenge, since the Advent texts are so grandiose in their scope. They don’t simply promise a changed heart, they promise a changed world. Still, change begins in the heart, with love, so we’ll start there as well.

A final word of preface, then I’ll dive right in. As you probably gathered when Pastor Tim was here two weeks ago, the fact that we are doing worship planning together and plotting out sermon series shared by both congregations doesn’t mean we’re each preaching the same sermon. Tim and I have spent time studying the portions of scripture assigned for these weeks, we’ve discussed how the themes in these passages connect with the experiences of our congregations, but in the end we are each interpreting these common elements through the lens of our own lives and the communities where we’re pastoring.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” Isaiah pleads. I remember praying a prayer very like this one, just over a decade ago. I’d been sitting at my desk, near the end of the day, when my phone rang. It was my father, and he was calling to tell me that my sister was in the hospital. She had taken a handful of pills and was found by her boyfriend lying on the floor of her dorm room. She’d been rushed to the emergency room, where they pumped her stomach, and then she was admitted to the hospital for observation. I hung up the phone and called my closest friends, asking them to come get me and drive me to Iowa.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” Isaiah pleads. It is the prayer no one has to teach you, the one that flows from the hearts of parents and children, sisters and brothers, spouses and friends, when the ones they love are in pain or danger. When death is in the room, and you are helpless to do anything but wait. When all illusions of power are stripped away no one has to teach you this prayer, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

Friends, you know this prayer. I know you know this prayer, because we’ve been praying it together. Some of you are pleading for the lives of those you love as dearly as your own selves. You are praying for your brother. You are praying for your grandchildren. You are praying for your husbands and wives and partners. Some of you are pleading for your own lives, fighting off the despair and exhaustion that refuses to leave you. You are praying for your marriages. You are praying for your health. You are praying for yourselves.

The fact that these prayers are so common doesn’t make them any less personal. The fact that millions of people are praying for a job doesn’t make any one person’s struggle to provide a merry Christmas for their children any less significant. The fact that tens of thousands of families are being torn apart by deportations doesn’t make the agony of families here in Logan Square any less acute. The season of Advent, filled as it is with such deep longing for the world to be made new and improved, doesn’t impose its agenda from above. It is the outpouring of millions of tears, pouring down millions of faces, gathering into a common prayer, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” A prayer rooted in our common identity, “now consider, we are all your people.”

After my sister was released from the hospital, I struggled to find a way to talk with her about the pain she carried in her soul that was trying to choke the life out of her. I had always been my sister’s translator, interpreting her needs after she came to this country from Thailand, speaking no English for months. How could I interpret this pain in a way that offered any hope?

I thought about the backyards we’d played in as children, and about the hours our parents had spent planting flowers and vegetables and even trees, and an image came to me. I brought her a brown paper bag filled with bulbs, tulips and daffodils, and I made up a parable.

“Tara,” I said, “there are people whose lives look – at least from the outside – like trees. Year after year they just keep growing bigger and taller. Sure, they go through seasons like the rest of the world, but each spring brings new height and new width. They seem to go from strength to strength.”

“Then,” I continued, “there are the tulips. Every year starts out looking so good as they break the surface of the earth with their tender green shoots. You can see them growing so much faster than a tree does, and soon they erupt in bright, beautiful reds and yellows and purples. Then fall comes and they lose their flowers and their stalks wither and dry up, and by winter it’s as if they were never there.”

“But that’s not true. Even though there’s nothing to see, no proof above ground, just below the surface the tulip bulb is preparing to emerge again, as it will – over and over again throughout its life.”

TreeLeafIn Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells a similar story about how God comes to us. “From the fig tree learn its lesson,” he says. “As soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.”

What I love about the parable of the fig tree is that, like the tulip or the daffodil, God’s coming isn’t translated to us as a once and forever event. Instead, it’s communicated as a part of the cyclical rhythm of life. We pray, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” and God answers, “he is near, at the very gates.”

Paul opens his letter to the Corinthians with words of thanksgiving and assurance. He writes,

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind – just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 1:4-7)

This makes the Corinthians sound like an exemplary community of Christians. If you read on, you discover that they’re not. They’re an incredibly diverse community, deeply divided by class and wealth, struggling with sexual ethics, worried about how to relate to people of other religions traditions, and conflicted about how to practice their own faith.

To such a community, you might expect Paul to open with a cold splash of water in the face, a wakeup call to straighten up and fly right. He doesn’t. Instead Paul enters into the conversation with words of assurance that God has already enriched the congregation with every good gift that it needs to live in the tension between the now and the not yet, the present struggle and the future hope.

Sisters and brothers, I want to affirm the same for you. I know that we are all living with some version of the common prayer, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” On this first Sunday of a new year in the church’s life together, hear this as well, “[Christ] is near, at the very gates,” and “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord.” It’s not a once and forever coming that we’re waiting on. It’s a fig tree putting forth its leaves, or a tulip sending up tender shoots. It is people and places left for dead finally returning to life. It is changed hearts that change lives that change the world. It is everything that has ever been being made new, even improved.