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Luke 1:39-56 "Luke's Pageant"

VW-magnificat1nfI think Luke’s Gospel should be considered the first Christmas pageant.  Luke’s first two chapters are governed by four great canticles, known by their Latin names:

Starting with Mary’s Magnificat, followed by Zechariah’s Benedictus, where he celebrates the birth of his son John the Baptist.  Angels then sing Gloria in Excelsis to announce the birth of Jesus, and finally Simeon, a devout man promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he saw the messiah, sings Nunc Dimitis at the dedication of the baby Jesus in the Temple. Of the four the Magnicat has captured the imagination of composers from Mozart, Monteverdi, Mendelson,  to Vivaldi, Frescabaldi, Schubert, Ralph Von Williams and Jon Rutter, and the most famous version by Johann Sebastion Bach.


It seems very clear that Luke felt the best way to introduce the story of Jesus was through a burst of songs that tell the significance of his birth to the world – a Christ-Mass Pageant.  Someday I want to read the first two chapters of Luke and sing the four canticles to hear the joy and hope he is trying to express.  Here is what I think we would notice.  These canticles are a creative remix of Psalms that tell the salvation history of Israel, in other words, an “oldie but a goody” remade with a contemporary beat.  The Magnificat is a remix of The Song of Hannah, which was written over a thousand years before in the Old Testament book of First Samuel.  Hannah also sang to give thanks for her pregnancy, and her son was Samuel, the first great prophet of Israel, who was known to be prophet of the lowly and marginalized in society.  It was Samuel who challenged King David about his conduct of sending Uriah to his death to have Bathsheba to himself.


Luke is therefore telling the Gentile/Greek reader that Jesus did not come from nowhere to found a new religion. Rather his birth and vocation is the terminus of a long line of faithful actors carrying out God’s hopes and destiny for humanity.  Jesus is linked to a peoples’ journey out of slavery in Egypt, the forming of a new nation called to live by a covenant of justice with their God.   They rise and then fall short, only to reform and be redeemed again, coming out of exile in Babylon to rebuild again, and now live once again under the sword of Rome and longing for divine deliverance.  Only great and passionate song can launch a message of such import.  These four canticles embody the story not only of Israel, but of humanity trying to find peace with itself, a cure for our warring madness; longing for a healing, saving, just God who will not leave us to our own devices, even when we may deserve it.


This is clear in the Magnificat: 

God’s mercy is from generation unto generations…

He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty. 
He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy, 
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’


The verb tense here is not a future tense, this is not merely a prophecy of what Jesus will do when he grows up.  This is the “present perfect” verb tense – “God has scattered, has lifted up, has helped” these are things God has already done several times in the past and is continuing to do now through the hope growing in Mary’s womb.  Mary’s joyous song celebrates God’s past and continuing action in the world, as now she is becoming a part of the story.


This is a radical statement for us today, when we can barely think past the last news cycle.  We can be such a cynical, bored, “been there, done that” kind of society.  How do we hear a proclamation that says to us, “God is faithful from generation to generation?”  To the modern ear it may sound naïve, arrogant or anachronistic to speak this way.  But I believe it is the modern sensibilities that are in error, for we are but a moment on the earth, but the Great Story of faith has been told for a long time.


In the midst of life, it may seem that we are constantly stymied, that injustice is static and the change we desire is a distant dream.  But my short sojourn on this earth says otherwise.  Great reversals are the norm of my nearly half century of life.  I was born in 1964, the next year The Civil Rights Act was signed into law.  I watched Neil Armstrong take that first great step out of Apollo 11 and walk on the moon.  I have lived during the time of Roe v. Wade, the Fall of the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall and Apartheid in South Africa.  When I performed a Holy Union Ceremony in a church sanctuary 12 years ago, people were fearful that I might be asked to resign.  Now that is the law of this Commonwealth and headed to the Supreme Court.  I have watched Bill Clinton go from the man from hope, to impeachment and disgrace, to a beloved vegan, elder statesman.  Nixon would now be seen by many as an ultraliberal.  So by the time I retire, Elizabeth Warren might be seen as the last of the conservative old guard in the Senate. 


Life has a way of turning today’s certainties into yesterday’s silly ideas, and today’s dreamers tomorrow’s heroes.  And what of our own lives?  There is a pageant that contains our story, a great song that expresses our hopes.  For we have a part to play, young and old, we are shepherds tending our flocks, angels speaking words of hope to one another, wise travelers, gift bearers, Mary and Joseph, trying to raise our children well. This is your story, and I hope that this coming year you will all become pregnant!  I stand ready to baptize all the new signs of life coming from you.  Pregnancy doesn’t always have to start in the womb, for we can all have pregnant hearts ready to give birth to love, pregnant minds full of the birth pangs of hope, pregnant souls longing to give birth to Christ within.  Pageant rehearsal for 2013 starts immediately in the new year.  There are plenty of parts for all of you.  As long as you are willing to play your part, the great story continues, and God keeps turning the world right-side up again.  For Christ was born of Mary, and longs to be born in you.  

Luke 3:7-28 "John, the Thundering Pragmatist?"

VipersHow many times have you gone to church thinking, “I would really like to hear a sermon that begins with the words ‘You brood of vipers...?”  When you first read John the Baptist and his preaching about vipers, the axe is ready at the root of the tree, and all who do not bear fruit will be chopped down and thrown in the fire to be burned, our minds are ready to put this into a category of “hellfire and brimstone” preaching.  You are probably already thinking, “That is not our kind of religion, Pastor.”  We have moved on from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  We believe in a loving, forgiving, inclusive God.  The last two verses probably magnify our confusion:


17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.


That is the good news?  Pitchforks and fire, that is the good news?  It does not feel like good news.


Why should we bother with John the Baptist at all, here on this Sunday when we have lit the candle of love?  The only answer I can give is that Jesus dealt with John.  John was his cousin, perhaps his mentor, the one who was to prepare the way for him.  Jesus went out into the wilderness with John and was baptized by him, something that caused the Gospel writers and theologians a great deal of difficulty.  How could Jesus, the sinless one, go for the baptism of repentance?  This is why all the Gospels are clear to say that John was not the messiah, and John says he is not the one, he shouldn’t even be touching the of the messiah’s sandals.  (Still followers of John the Baptist out there!)


There must be something else going on here in this text than a simplistic “save your souls from Hell” and “accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior” kind of sermon.  For all this fiery preaching, John sounds like a thundering pragmatist when giving advice.  Once he has the attention of his audience and they are doing some real soul searching, they ask “What shall we do?” 


“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”


OK, that isn’t too bad.  I was expecting that I was going to need to fast in the wilderness for 40 days, or sit down and make a fearless moral inventory and write down every sin I ever committed and make a public confession that I will change and sin no more.  Sharing of my extra with those in need doesn’t sound so bad in comparison-except for the moochers and takers out there, of course.


The text then says tax collectors and soldiers are coming out to hear John.  Now it is getting interesting.  John is getting to the conscience of those who participate in the prevailing unjust order, When those who grab the money and wield the guns pay attention, you are making an impact.  And these folks couldn’t just watch John preach on You Tube.  They had to make a days’ journey out to the wilderness.  What did John ask of these notorious seekers?


To the tax collector, John says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”  To the soldier, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” 


It sounds to me like John is just calling everyone to be decent human beings.  Share with those in need and don’t be corrupt in your work.  Be caring and don’t make your living off of exploiting people. Really that should be the low bar for what it means to be a spiritual person.  When Jesus starts preaching he says to the rich young ruler, “Go sell all you have and give it to the poor and follow me.”  I’m sure the man would have preferred to run the coat and food drive as John suggested. 


For all the thundering about axes chopping, fires burning and vipers brooding; John’s simple message is to bear fruit.  Paul says the same thing in Galations 5, when demonstrating what it means to be a follower of Jesus he says,


The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.


In the Sermon on the Mount, this is what Jesus has to say about recognizing false prophets:

You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.


“Don’t just be hearers of the word,” says the Epistle of James, “but be doers of the word, for faith without works is dead.”  Bear fruit. 


How will these words begin to take root and blossom in our own souls, so that we may feel like the tree of our soul is producing rich, full, sweet fruit in season?  There are times when I feel it difficult to know the right thing to do, when I miss the mark, or wonder if I bear any fruit at all.  The most dangerous hour for me is 3 AM.  Somehow my conscience is wide open at that time.  That is when I question if I am a good parent and agonize over my missteps.  At 3 AM I realize I misspoke to someone and wonder how I can ever make it right.  No matter how much good I may do, that is the hour when even one small critical comment can hold sway in my thoughts.  It is the hour I feel most powerless, wondering how I can begin to respond faithfully to episodes like the mass slaughter of innocent children just going to school in Newtown, Connecticut.  Do I re-write my whole sermon, organize a candle light vigil, or dedicate effort to a grass roots campaign for gun control?  Will any of it matter?  If I awake and use the bathroom at 3 AM, I try to stay close to slumber and fall asleep quickly, because once I give the slightest ground to these thoughts, I am lost.  It is hard to truly be a decent person.  John understood, and simply asked that we seek to bear fruit, help those in need and do no harm.


Over time I have found it impossible to be a person of conscience on my own.  To live morally by ourselves is a path of much sadness and sorrow.  Isn’t that why we are here this morning?  To live a decent life we need a set of practices to live by and a community that shapes you and supports the health of your soul.  What we do here at 10 AM on Sunday morning is vital to how we deal with 3 AM the rest of the week, and how you deal with your life.


This is how we face our brokenness, our powerless frustration, our guilt and our pain.  We light our Advent candles in the face of the world’s darkness.  We sing precious melodies and let the organ tune our souls.  We listen to the ancient words of scripture to find wisdom from the communion of saints who have gone before us. We say our prayers – to confess, to be express gratitude, to express our hope for change and healing.  We bring our offerings to preserve our sacred space and support ministry and mission around the world.  Here we have gifts for a few needy families, we have school supplies for children in Haiti, and we hope those who receive them will know they are not alone and forgotten in the world, and they will find reason to hope.  Everything we do here in this hour or so, is a practice session for how to live fully alive, bearing good fruit for the rest of the week.  


Look at it this way.  When a pianist begins a concert, they have done hundreds of hours of scales, extra work on the tricky runs and chords, and practiced until the melody is so a part of them, so that the crowd just off stage no longer matters.  The fruit of their practice is that the music now lives in them and they can share it to bring joy to the world.  A lawyer spends many hours reading cases, learning logic, writing briefs, staying prepared for the moment when someone needs their expertise to find justice in their lives.  The golfer hit the winning put a thousand times in practice before winning in Augusta. 


So too when we face the challenges of conscience, we have the wisdom we need because the scriptures are firmly planted in our souls.  When tempted with despair and cynicism, we prevail because we have sung a thousand hymns.  When evil gathers round us, we know we are a part of communion of saints around the world who will act with us for justice and peace.  We death draws near, we have already walked in the valley of shadow and we will not fear. 


Our practice is to set aside this hour together, to tend the tree of life that grows within, so it will bear the fruit of God’s spirit.  Together we are God’s orchard, and can feed not only our own spiritual hungers, but also offer rich fruit to a needy world.  Whether you feel you are a sapling or a sprawling fig, your fruit will matter.  Slowly and patiently we will stay prepared and the fruit we bear will be enough for the world.



Luke 3:1-6 "I Wasn't Prepared for This!"



Advent is a spiritual force we never see coming.  We watch the news where history is apparently being made by politicians, generals, and CEOs, by sex scandals, drug dealers and mass shootings.  But off camera, a young woman is pregnant.  She will give birth to a baby and feed it with her dreams and her breast milk.  She will change his diapers and he will change the world.  In the quiet of a library, an author is pregnant with a story and scribbles the first few words of a world-shaping narrative.  A young engineer is daydreaming in class again, about the new world that is sitting in his garage.  A woman squints into a microscope and sees for the first time the cure in a single cell.  Somewhere a paint brush is poised, numbers are being crunched, fingers tap the keys, a shoelace is tied and the world-changing journey begins with a first step.  A woman sits down to pray.  Someone is quietly breathing in and out trying to find their center.  A Bible is opened by a man wondering what comes next and the pages turned to the Gospel of Luke.


‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every 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; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”


That sounds like a welcome change, but first we have a problem:


In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.


Right! Back to politicians, generals and CEOs; sex scandals, mass murderers and drug dealers.  What is the point?  We may brush over this list of leaders in our reading, thinking Luke is only locating Jesus in time and place, but who is on this list and how they lived is the point.  They are the crooked that need straightening, the rough that need smoothing, the flesh that are in the way of seeing the salvation of God.


Here’s a modern version of Luke’s proclamation:

It was the year 2010, during the Presidency of Benjamin Netanyahu, when the Ultra Orthodox controlled the Knesset in Israel, and Bashir Assad ruled in Syria; the King Faisal controlled the House of Saud, Hamas had power  in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt; Mohammar Khadafi ruled in Libya. And the Great Powers; Vladamir Putin of Russia and Barack Obama; like a series of United States Presidents, supplied them all with foreign aid and weapons.


That was the world picture just before the Arab Spring, the completely unforeseen and unpredicted shaking of the Middle Eastern order, which toppled quite a few of the most brutal dictators on that list, and certainly shook up the rest.  Those who study international relations will debate for decades what caused the Arab Spring.  Was it rampant inflation that drove up the price of food, which led to an uprising in the streets?  Or did the advent of new technology, cell phones and social media, give access to new ideas, like a voice in the wilderness, so people could imagine a new world?


Luke is not merely telling us who was in charge when John and Jesus began preaching.  He is showing his reader the same kind of world-shaking disruption as we saw in the Arab Spring.  The educated readers of Luke’s Gospel probably knew something about this list of world leaders, especially if they had read the popular ancient historian Josephus.  What would Luke’s readers have known about his list?


In 29 AD, the year John began preaching out in the wilderness, Tiberias was engaged in a bloody purge of imagined opposition back in Rome.  Tiberias was much more content as a general crushing the Germanic peoples to the North than being an emperor.   He was moody, distrustful and reclusive at this point in his reign.  He died four years after Jesus was crucified. 


Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, who authorized the crucifixion, soon overstepped his authority. Three years later, in 36 AD, a Samaritan prophet claimed that the sacred vessels of Moses were buried on Mount Gerrizim.  The prophet had a large following gathered to go up the mountain, but Pilate trapped them between his foot soldiers and horsemen and slaughtered them.  In a shocking moment of justice, Pilate was ordered back to Rome, judged for his excessive cruelty, and sent into exile. 


Herod, who beheaded John the Baptist, bled his treasury dry with a disastrous war against his ex-father-in-law, a war started over divorcing his first wife to marry his brother’s wife.  His brother returned the favor by accusing Herod of conspiracy against Caligula, and he died in exile in Gaul.  The High Priests, Caiaphas and Annas, had their fortunes go down the drain with their benefactors.  I was surprised to learn that the high priests were Roman appointed in Jesus’s day, so as Pilate was sent packing, the Roman proconsul in Syria dismissed the high priests “for heartlessness when they sit in judgment.” 


In sum, all the immediate authorities, both the Roman and Jewish, who ruled Israel in Jesus’s day; a heartless, powerful and entrenched oligarchy, were dead, dismissed by Rome, or in exile within five years of the executions of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazereth.


Prepare the way, indeed. I guess Luke really meant it.  Of course none of this was obvious in 29 AD, when John began baptizing and preaching.  The Advent Spring was still just a longing, a plea, a dream of seemingly naïve dreamers, a voice in the wilderness crying out, hope against hope, that what is crooked will be made straight and the rough made smooth. 


Luke is making a claim about history that is either stunning or ridiculous, depending on your point of view.  Sit down and home and read the first three chapters of Luke in one read.  It is an unlikely series of dreams, prophecies and angels, from John’s parents, to Mary, to shepherds.  Luke is saying that the powers that be- those who make the laws, collect the taxes, send the armies- they can so quickly be undone by prophets and dreamers.  The powers can kill the prophets, but they can’t kill the dream.  Luke seeks to explain John the Baptist and Jesus, two executed prophets, by reaching back to the words of Isaiah, words of a prophet that are perhaps five to seven centuries old, words from flesh long dead, to be made flesh and alive again, proclaimed by John and fulfilled in Jesus.  Its like saying, you have learned that history was made by people like Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Eisenhower, but don’t forget the people who contemplated out in the wilderness; Edwards, Thoreau, Rachel Carson and Wendell Berry.  Thank God for Teddy Roosevelt, a president who preserved the wilderness so we still have places to go where we can contemplate and be moved to wonder.  Is that where he found the courage to break up the rich and powerful monopolies?  Perhaps we should sequester Congress in Yosemite for a few weeks. 


Luke is an educated man, a physician, who wrote beautiful Greek, and probably encountered the best of the Stoics, Aristotle and so on.  Why did he get so caught up with all these dreamers and prophets?  When it comes to John the Baptist, even Luke seems to lose his nerve.  Mark and Matthew mention that John dressed in camel hair and ate locusts and wild honey.  These crazy details are too much for Luke.  Even though, by modern standards, he plagiarized vast chunks of Mark’s Gospel, he edited out all the strange, quirky, hippie, vegetarian, locovore stuff about John the Baptist.  He didn’t think his educated Greek audience needed to know all that. 


I can empathize with Luke, having preached for over 20 years.  In trying to make the Gospel relevant and real to the 21st century, I appeal to reason, science, psychological and social research, and sometimes edit out the particulars of the strangeness of God’s voice, coming through the lives of the odd and ordinary.  In my busy ministry, filled with the hours of committees and phone calls, budgets, bulletins, and building use requests, am I ready for the Advent word?  As we do our jobs, raise our kids, grandkids, count our aches and pains, push our causes, finish our shopping and cross things off our lists, are we preparing the way for God to move among us?  Perhaps our problem is that we are too prepared, over-scheduled and set in our routines.  And Advent comes, and I learn I am so busy preparing that I am unprepared for the voice of God, crying out in the wilderness.  Oh God, please unprepare my heart so I may truly hear.



Luke 21:25-36 "The Fig Promise"

474215376_85c3acde84We often see what we want to see.  Abraham Maslow is credited with coining the phrase, “If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.”  Another psychologist, Aaron Beck, realized that looking for negative things can be a contributing factor to depression.  Beck noticed that many of his clients had ingrained destructive thought patterns nearly worn into their brains, like ruts in a muddy road.  We can hit a state where we feel so beaten down by life, that the brain no longer registers hope. Depression acts like a filter that only lets in negativity, failure and criticism, while stopping compliments, positive feedback and hope at the border of consciousness.  Depression is like a drought of hope.  Beck’s life work was the creation of cognitive behavioral psychology, trying to find the ways through the filters, ingrained thoughts, the ways that we feel habitually beaten down, so that hope can still spring in the mind and soul.  We all need to have a candle of hope lit somewhere in our soul.


One of the ancient signs of hope is the fruitfulness of fig trees.  Fig trees are right there in the beginning of the Bible, when Adam and Eve suddenly discover they are naked, after eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they cover themselves in fig leaves.  This is probably symbolic.  Look at the enormous fig tree on the cover of the bulletin, and you see how incredible a shelter that a fig tree can become.  Fig trees can live hundreds of years and are some of the oldest living things on the planet.  Rabbis often studied Torah on the cool shelter of fig trees, and the tree was associated with a quiet place to seek wisdom.  The Buddha attained enlightenment that liberated him from suffering, sitting on the Bodhi tree, which is in the fig family. 


The fruit of the fig tree is often symbolic of blessings and prosperity in the scriptures. Many times the Old Testament prophets spoke of the hope of grape vines and fig trees.  If they saw trouble on the horizon, they spoke of fig trees being cut down by their enemies.  Eating figs in the shade of the tree is the good life.


Jesus speaks of fig trees three times in Luke’s Gospel.  In each case he spoke of the importance of tending the fig tree, and being patient for its fruit to come, and working towards bearing fruit in our own actions.  In Luke 13, he tells a parable of a man who is contemplating cutting down his fig tree because it has not given fruit for three years.  He is persuaded to wait one more year, fertilize and tend it, but after that he is not going to keep a barren tree wasting the soil.  Here the message is that God will be patient with us and tend us till we bear fruit, but hopefully we will get around to it and not just waste our space on earth. This would have been perceived as practical wisdom by his audience, since fig trees often took two to five years to bear decent fruit. The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictutus, born 20 years after Jesus, said,


No great thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.


In todays parable, Jesus uses the fig tree to note that we also must be patient with the work of God.  The rest for our souls and peace in the world we long for does not always come quickly.  So we have to be watchful, paying attention to the signs of hope in our midst.  Jesus says,

Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that the kingdom of God is near.”


Let me note two interesting words of advice Jesus gives on how to be hopeful through tough times.  Jesus notes that there will be times when “people faint with fear and for what is coming upon the world.”  In those times Jesus promises to come to us, so “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  To me, that sounds like the opposite of what we do in times of trouble.  Most often when there is conflict, confusion, hardship or threats to us, we hunker down and wait for it to pass.  That doesn’t naturally seem like a time to raise your head.  The Marines have a TV ad that says they are trained to run towards the sound of chaos, towards tyranny, injustice and despair.  Maybe Jesus words are challenging us to get involved before the Marines come in were their version of fixing things.  When others faint with fear, we are called to lift our heads and look for the signs of God’s presence. 


Jesus also councils us to not get caught up either in wine or worry.  Don’t fall into the trap of sedating ourselves in times of trouble (and in our times we have so many ways to anesthetize our fears with prescriptions, TV and Angry Birds), nor should we give in to the temptation of constant worry.  Worry stifles hope.  It keeps us looking for trouble rather than being vigilant for the signs that God is near.


It is Advent, and time to be vigilant and watchful for a light shining in the darkness.  We have lit our own candle of hope this morning, and during the coming week it is our job to protect and nourish the flame.  Sometimes we must be patient with God, like waiting three or four years for the fig tree to bear fruit.  Wishing for quick fixes is not true hope.  Band aids and duct tape wear off. The wound or the problem are still there underneath.  Hope seeks true healing, lasting fixes, real change in our lives.  Hope is like planting and tending a fig tree, paying attention and being patient that we may reap a lifetime of good fruit.

How will you live into God’s hope this Advent season?