Tag Archives: Karoline Lewis

Mark 9:2-10; 2 Kings 2:1-12; and 2 Corinthians 4:1, 5-6 Trying to Bedazzle the Already Dazzling

Mark 9:2-10; 2 Kings 2:1-12; and 2 Corinthians 4:1, 5-6

Trying to Bedazzle the Already Dazzling

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 15, 2015

 

[sermon begins after the two Bible readings]

Mark 9:2-10 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

2 Kings 2:1-12 Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. 3 The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” 4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. 5 The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.” 6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

 

[sermon begins]

In the last several weeks, different people from this congregation have asked me what I think of The Interim Process.  The number of times I’ve been asked is translates in my mind as a tip-of-the-iceberg kind of number; meaning that more of you likely have a similar question and just haven’t had a chance to ask it.  Let’s get everyone here up to speed on what is meant by “The Interim Process” before I tell you my answer to their question.

Last June 8th, Pastor John Pederson retired as the Senior Pastor of 15 years.  In late August, we welcomed Pastor Tim Drom as the Interim Senior Pastor.  In addition to working as the Senior Pastor, his main task is to guide a team of Augustana people in leading us through the transition to a calling a new Senior Pastor.  This team of people is appropriately named the Transition Team.  They are compiling information from questionnaires, staff interviews, committee interviews, and more, to be able to describe this congregation’s current moment and envision its future.  The Transition Team will hand off their work to a yet-to-be-formed Call Committee who will begin interviews.  The Interim Process ends when a newly called Senior Pastor begins their work here.

Now to circle back, what do I think about The Interim Process?  I think it’s long.  Is it long enough?  I don’t know.  Is it too long?  I don’t know.  What I do know, is that it’s long.  I don’t know many people who are able to earnestly and honestly say, “Wow, transition is great…bring it on!”

Look at Elisha.  He’s about to enter a transition and those pesky prophets almost seem to apparate in Elisha’s path.[1] They pop up in Bethel to tell Elisha that Elijah is going to be taken away from him.  His reply?  “Yes, I know, keep silent.”  They pop up in Jericho to tell Elisha again that Elijah is going to be taken away from him.  His reply?  “Yes, I know, keep silent.”  He longs to spend every last minute of the time remaining with his mentor, Elijah.  In no way, shape, or form is Elisha looking forward to being without Elijah.  It’s as if the council of prophets is already rubbing salt into Elisha’s fledgling wound.  Not a “bring it on” in sight.

Elisha’s longing to remain with Elijah is so great that he asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit before he is taken away.  Many of us can relate to the longing for the person who gives us a sense of place and belonging.  For Elisha, Elijah is that person.

Look at Peter and the other disciples.  Six days after Jesus teaches them for the first time about his being killed and rising to life again, they go mountain climbing with him.  What must the week before must have been like after Jesus dropped that bomb on them?  It’s as easy to imagine the behind-the-scenes conversations, nerves, and worry as it is to imagine their longing for time with Jesus to themselves.

And look at Jesus.  “He was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.[2]  All that dazzling Jesus light spilling out onto Elijah and Moses.  All that dazzling Jesus light spilling out onto Peter, James, and John lighting up their longing for hope and peace.

This is no subtle Epiphany – Jesus can and will be noticed.[3]  Peter’s reaction?  Terror.  Afraid and not knowing what to say, Peter babbles on about building tents for Jesus and the two prophets.  He wants to bedazzle the moment that is dazzling in its own right.  But this is not a moment to fix in time, setting up tents to keep the elements out.[4]  This is a moment that transfigures time, shredding the flimsy notion that protection is possible as past, present, and future collide on that mountaintop.  Past, in the form of Moses and Elijah; present, in the form of Peter, James, and John; and future, in the person of Jesus, beloved Son of the eternal God, all come together.

Transfiguration means change.  Or, more to the point for us today, transfiguration means transition which also includes the element of time.  The Interim Process that began with the retirement of one Senior Pastor and will transition again with the call of a new Senior Pastor includes the element of time.  Is it long?  Yup.  Is it long enough?  We don’t know.  Is it too long?  We don’t know.  Hindsight will get us closer to 20/20 on that answer.  In the meantime, our temptation is similar to Peter’s myopia.  We’re in the thick of the action which makes immediate perspective blurry at best.

Transfiguration reorients us to Jesus who seems to hold some sway in the time-space continuum.  And we are supposed to listen to Him just as the disoriented disciples in the fog on mountaintop are called to listen.  In addition to the disciples’ call to listen, I invite us to ask the question they asked amongst themselves on their way down the mountain. And that is this, “What could this rising from the dead mean?”  If God is a transfiguring and resurrecting God, then what might new life look for this tiny corner of God’s church-catholic called Augustana?  Both during The Interim Process and beyond it?

Let’s bring that question even closer to home because the dazzling light of Jesus shines, here and now, on you.  So, given whatever is going on in your life, I ask again, “What could this rising from the dead mean?”  If God is a transfiguring and resurrecting God, then what might new life be looking like for you?  If you’re in a particularly blurry moment, like the disciples sitting in the fog on the mountaintop, disorientation rules the day but it doesn’t rule forever.

Paul words to the Corinthians are also then for us. “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart…For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’s sake.  For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”[5]

Our God is a reorienting, transfiguring, and resurrecting God.  “What could this rising from the dead mean?”

Alleluia and Amen.



[1] A nod to the Harry Potter book series by J.K. Rowling.  “Apparate” means to instantaneously disappear and reappear somewhere else.

[2] Mark 9:3-4

[3] Matt Skinner.  Commentary on Mark 9:2-9 for WorkingPreacher.org, February 15, 2015.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2341

[4] Karoline Lewis.  “Why We Need Transfiguration” for WorkingPreacher.org, February 15, 2015. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3527

[5] 2 Corinthians 4:1, 5-6

Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11 – God All Up In Our Voids

Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11 – God All Up In Our Voids

Caitlin Trussell on January 11, 2015 with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

[sermon begins after these two Bible readings]

Genesis 1:1-5  In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Mark 1:4-11  John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 

[sermon begins]

There are wild, unimaginable things happening in this Genesis creation story.  Formlessness and void of the earth.  Imagine that for a moment – formless…void…utter darkness.  Nothing to distinguish one part from another.  Nothing through which to capture any imagining of its future.  A wind in the form of breath, as the Spirit of God blows over the mystery and threat of the deep.  Sound in seismic proportions.  No quiet or tame God picking up a bit of clay and pottering away.  From our human-sized perspective, this is massive.  This is earth and heavens – loud, windy and wild.  This story doesn’t allow us to cozy up into a calm, domesticated God.   This is the sheer power of God beyond our imagining, beyond our understanding.

The God of creation is not to be tamed.  And yet, for many of us, our first inclination is to tone God down.  As if we can make God easier on the heart and mind if we craft just the right language about God.  Or at the very least we can distract ourselves from the problem of the power of God if we spend our time arguing about the accuracy of the story.

Several years ago, when my daughter Taryn was in preschool, I had only been back in church as an adult for a few years.  Taryn’s preschool was attached to our church and some of the school’s parents seemed to know that I was involved in the church too.  It was common to have conversations with other parents during the dropping off and picking up times.  One day after dropping Taryn off, I was sneaking a peek into the classroom to watch her.  One of the dads hung back too.  A few minutes went by and he sidled over to chat.  He confirmed that I went to the church and then, without any preamble or build-up, he asked, “If God is all about love then why do some people say they fear God?”  I fumbled and stumbled around the idea of God’s power for a minute or two but clearly was not passing muster on any kind of answer that settled this man’s mind.  And there’s the problem, right there, when it comes to God’s awesome, creating power, there is nothing that settles our mind.  No matter how many days or millennia you think it took, the creative force of it is mind-blowing – and it blows our soft and squishy imaginings right out the window with it.

Here’s the thing.  When we’re tempted to talk about God as exclusively merciful and loving and forgiving, we forget the fearsome breath of God that moves over a formless, dark void; the Spirit of God that moves over what Jurgen Moltmann calls “creation-in-the-beginning.”[1]  When we soften or negate the power of God in any way, we don’t have to ask the question, “What would happen if God does this again?”

So let’s hang onto the fearsome power of God and ask that question.  “What would happen if God uses that kind of power again?” Oh…wait…God does do it again.  Anyone hear that part of the baptism of Jesus where the heavens are torn open?  The Spirit of God that moves over formless, dark voids, is the same Spirit who tears apart the heavens and descends, untamable, into the wild, over a river, onto a person, and names him “Beloved.”[2]  This baptism of Jesus is a revelation of the redemption to come and the unmitigated power infusing that redemption.

Moltmann talks about the “creation-in-the-beginning” being in continuity with the redemption of all things.  In the whole Bible, “the words used for the divine act of creating are also used for God’s liberating and redeeming acts (e.g. Isaiah 43:19); redemption is the final new creation of all things…”[3]

Oh, how we long for the redemption of all things – all our formless, dark voids in need of the fearsome breath of God.  Voids in which we struggle and wonder about.  Voids in which we lose ourselves, not knowing which way to turn or to take the next right step.  Voids in which we lose the people we love or lose strangers in Paris who other people love.  Voids in which freedom suffers under political tyranny or disintegrating terror.

Into these voids comes the Spirit of God.  The same Spirit of God who breathes light into the darkness.[4]  Light into the darkness, now think about that one.  God spoke these words, “Let there be light” as God’s breath rushed over the mystery and threat of the deep.   What does creation of light sound like?  Is there a crack of thunder as light creates heat?  Is there a deep and resounding vibration that would quake us to the core and make us aware of every cell in our bodies?  What does even a single blaze of light through unfathomable darkness look like as it bounds through creation with power strong enough to sustain life through all the mornings and evenings of the millennia?

We know a lot about light, or at least the scientists do, but did you know that we still don’t know what it is?  Einstein spent a lot of his time researching the interplay between light and time, challenged the orthodoxy of the previous 100 years of physics and won a Nobel Prize.[5] Einstein did all this and yet we still really don’t know what it is.  We mimic it but we cannot create it. [6]  Light is more than a convenient nuance in our days.  Light is sustaining, life giving energy.  It shows us how limited we are as creatures that we still don’t understand it.

God’s breath, God’s Spirit, creates light and life out of formless, dark voids.  And God gives this same sustaining breath to you as you move through your days.  God’s power and imagination creates an earth out of no earth.  God’s power and imagination makes a way out of no way.

This same, fearsome God breathes that power into redemption for you.  This same, fearsome God breathes that power into love for you.  The magnitude of God’s power is not simply a show of sound and light to wow us all and leave us shaking in shoes.  The magnitude of God’s power is the same sheer power of God that breathes grace, forgiveness and love into you.  And your God-infused life and breath bear witness to God, as the power of God’s Spirit moves through Christ in you for the sake of the world.  There is hope in the power of God’s redemption.  What might be possible if we go out and live it?



[1] Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 9.

[2] Karoline Lewis, Commentary on Mark 1:4-11 for WorkingPreacher.org https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3459

[3] Moltmann, 9.

[4] Kathryn Shifferdecker, Commentary on Genesis 1:1-5 for WorkingPreacher.org https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2328

[5] Richard Harris.  “Albert Einstein’s Year of Miracles: Light Theory” for NPR on March 17, 2005.  http://www.npr.org/2005/03/17/4538324/albert-einsteins-year-of-miracles-light-theory

[6] Troy Wanek, Renewable Energy Faculty, Red Rocks Community College, personal conversation, November 8, 2010.

John 1:6-8, 19-28; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 – Dressing Points to Skin and Solidarity

John 1:6-8, 19-28; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 – Dressing Points to Skin and Solidarity

Caitlin Trussell for Augustana Lutheran Church on December 14, 2014

[sermon begins after these three Bible readings]

John 1:6-8, 19-28 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,'” as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
8 For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. 10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil. 23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

 

[sermon begins]

Like many of you, my family has a few traditions when dressing up our home to get ready for Christmas.  The first part of our tradition is to panic a bit about when we’re going to get started. This year it’s especially delayed because I went to California for a few days to go see Mom and Larry right after Thanksgiving.  So, for now, Advent candles sit in a wreath on the dining room table and one of my favorite Nativity sets in the living room.  Eventually, there will be a tree with white lights and a few other treasured family mementos.  Things like the kitschy plastic, “stained-glass” Santa with the green beard. And things like the silver tinsel star taped together on the frame of a bent-up wire clothes hanger.  All these things in our home point to the birthday of the one was birthed in skin and solidarity among us.

Here at church, we have traditions of dressing up the sanctuary to get ready for Christmas, too.  Trees and stars and the blue cloth to convey the sense of hope during Advent.  Today we include in the mix children dressing up to sing and point us toward the one who was birthed in skin and solidarity among us.  And this evening we include the in the mix the Chancel Choir and Musica Sacra Chamber Orchestra whose dressed up music and singing also point us toward the one who was birthed in skin and solidarity among us.

Isaiah does his fair share of dressing too:

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”[1]  It’s important to note here that Isaiah talks about a garland, oil, and mantle specifically using those things to dress the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, and the prisoners.

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton is elected by the people of the ELCA denomination of which this congregation is a part.[2]  She extended an invitation made to all churches by the historic American Black Churches. Their invitation is to dress in black clothing today as a sign of solidarity. Given the short notice, some of us are dressed in black and some of us aren’t. Some may be excited to respond to the invitation.  Some of us may be relieved we didn’t know about it to have to make the decision whether or not to dress in black.

Regardless, the language of solidarity used in the invitation from the American Black Churches is an important one.  Solidarity is not sameness.  Solidarity is reaching out to connect through difference.  Solidarity is relationship across difference even if it’s not entirely clear where we’re all headed together.  Make no mistake, in solidarity or not, we are in this creaturely existence together.  Perhaps we are even here in this place for such a time as this to see what might be possible in solidarity rather than separation.

Dressing in black clothing points us and other people towards the ones with whom we are in solidarity.  This is just one way to do it. There are many.  Dressing up our homes, our churches, and ourselves to get ready for Christmas points to the One who dressed in skin to walk in solidarity with us.  This is just one way to do it.  There are many.

John, the man sent from God in our reading today, is someone who understands his job of pointing.   John says, “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.”  This is not a self-esteem crisis.  Rather it’s a declaration of John’s clarity.  Nope, not Elijah, not the Messiah, not the prophet.  His simple, “I am not,” is the negative declaration to all those “I AM” declarations by Jesus in the Gospel of John.[3]   John is telling them to stop asking him for answers.  As John is pointing them to the One who is the answer.

We dress our homes, our churches, and ourselves to do all this pointing.  In the meantime, first and foremost, we rely on God’s act of solidarity to walk on the planet in the person of Jesus.   We do not create the solidarity with God by dressing up; God creates the solidarity with us by showing up.  God dresses us.

God dresses us.  Isaiah puts it this way, “ I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for [God] has clothed me with the garments of salvation, [God] has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”[4]

These are the clothes of freedom, my friends.  Because when God dresses us there is nothing to fear.  In the clothes that God gives, we can walk around the mall or sit at our sports events or in these pews or even around our kitchen tables and marvel that God loves ALL of those people too.  In the clothes that God gives, we can walk into worship and be held accountable through confession that we have not loved those people as we love ourselves.  In the clothes that God gives, we can walk out of here forgiven and free people who are accountable to those people because God showed up in skin and solidarity with us and for us…for the sake of the world.

As Paul writes to the Thessalonians, may you also receive this blessing, dressed by God…

“May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”[5]



[1] Isaiah 61:1-3

[2] ELCA – Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  “Evangelical” is an historic term that means “good news” at its simplest.  “Lutheran” is a strand of the Christian church that was inadvertently kick-started by Martin Luther’s reform attempt of the Church in the 1500s.

[3] Karoline Lewis on Sermon Brainwave for Third Sunday in Advent 2014 at WorkingPreacher.org: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=565

[4] Isaiah 61:10

[5] 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

Luke 3:7-18 “God’s Righteous Wrath Rocks On”

Luke 3:7-18 “God’s Righteous Wrath Rocks On”

December 16, 2012 – Caitlin Trussell

Lutheran Church of the Master, Lakewood, CO

Luke 3:7-18   John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His 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.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

 

I’m going to skip right over the question about how many of you even knew there was a prophet named Zephaniah and whether or not you knew there is a book in the Bible with his name on it.  Not one of our more commonly referenced prophets, the book is only three chapters long and filled with fierce, angry, wrath of God type stuff.  Somewhere along the way, this God who gets angry fell out of favor and not often discussed.  Because really, who’s in favor of being on the receiving end of anyone’s anger, much less God’s? [1]

So this brings me to a question – one that you could answer easily, unlike the Zephaniah Bible quiz.  Have you ever had someone stand beside you and get angry on your behalf?  You’ve been down and out through no fault of your own or cheated or bullied and someone stands with you railing against the injustice of it all.  Your friend is angry for you and maybe even with you.  Well, this is a small scale way of appreciating the wrath of God message of the prophets – an historic tradition of people who call attention to injustices perpetrated by people against each other and against God.  There is a temptation we need to be careful to avoid as we compare our friend’s righteous anger and God’s righteous anger.  The temptation is that we often view ourselves on the side of God over and against whatever is happening that we may dislike – as opposed to standing apart from God along with everyone else.

I, for one, want a God who gets angry – a God who gets angry about the horror in Newtown, Connecticut rather than being absent or apathetic.  Because a God who died on a cross is there in these crises.  Where else would God be but with those who are suffering and dying at the hands of an evil act?  And now, likewise, with those who are suffering and grieving in its aftermath.  A God who gets angry shows up in defiant compassion and righteous truth.

Zephaniah’s words of hope come at the very end of a two and a half chapter prophetic rant.  And it includes a beautiful promise about God.  Zephaniah says, “He will renew you in his love.” Hear this again, please… “He will renew you in his love.”  How easy would it be view this promise through the soft, filtered light of a dewy, spring morning?  Too easy, if you ask me.   Too quickly, we are inclined to move to a sentimental notion of renewal that leaves the power of God dull and lifeless in our own minds.  And has us saying things like, “I’m not sure I like that Old Testament God.”  Or, “The Old Testament God came out for war and the New Testament God came out for a game of golf.”  In the desire to distance ourselves from the anger, we disconnect God’s story into two distinct pieces rather than appreciating the continuity of  God from the Hebrew Scriptures into the good news of the Gospel.  And sometimes I wonder if we’re not leaving out the better part.

Well, John the Baptist didn’t get the memo.  Listen to him! “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?”  John’s words reveal him to be part of the continuity between what happened as described by the prophets of old and what is happening now to the crowds who are swarming out to meet him.[2]  Although, after John’s greeting, I would guess that a few of them were wondering why they made the trip.

But John gives more than accusation and threat.  He says to them, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” It is good to pause here to remember all that is embedded in repentance.  Repentance assumes that God’s mercy is available.  Repentance assumes that God’s grace will come.  Repentance then also assumes our need for both of those things.  What good is repentance if God is not merciful?  What good is repentance if God’s grace is unpredictable and easily or capriciously withheld?

Another way to think about repentance is through this lens of being renewed in God’s love, being revealed in all that we are in the fullness of the good, the bad and the ugly.  The crowd, tax collectors and soldiers ask, “What then should we do?”  The crowd is apparently hanging onto more than they need, the tax collectors are collecting for Rome but lining their own pockets by overcharging, and the soldiers of the time are bullies, extorting money from the people.  In short, John tells them to share, play fair, and be kind.  This is not rocket science.  This is renewal that stands you with your neighbor rather than against them.

We can so easily stand apart from the crowd, the tax collectors, and the soldiers, feeling grateful that those aren’t our particular sins.  However, I see us smack in the middle of this crowd wondering why we came in today only to hear John’s words push against us, too.  After all, it’s difficult to fully celebrate the arrival of a savior if you don’t see much need for one from the start.

But then John lobs out a power-filled promise of God’s renewal and I’m left breathing deeply and overflowing with hope:

“16 John answered them all by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His 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.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

The power of Pentecost is on fire just under the surface of this Advent text.[3]  The Holy Spirit, at work in Mary’s pregnancy, has more in mind than the gentle quiet of a nativity scene.  The Holy Spirit has us in mind, my friends.

John’s proclamation that “the one who is coming…will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit,” is indeed good news.  One of the ways John’s words help us today is by working us toward an understanding of this wild promise.   This begins with the distinction he makes between the wheat and chaff.  I see each of us here today as one of those grains – a grain sitting all warm and cozy within the chaff that surrounds it.  We get used to our chaff.  Some might even argue that we’ve made peace too easily with our chaff, our sinful selves.  But part of the promise is that our repentance, our surrender to the one who has the power to renew us, is that the sin gets called out in truth, gets forgiven and gets worked with.  And once that happens, look out!  This kind of renewal is more than a spa day – it is a salvation day in the here and now.

There are all kinds of ways God’s renewal in God’s love by the power of the Holy Spirit looks in people’s lives.  It can look utterly dramatic on the outside – like the woman with whom I’ve worshiped who killed her lover’s wife and has been incarcerated in Denver Women’s Correctional Facility for the past 20 years.  This woman sits in a Bible Study about the 10 commandments and confesses to breaking all of them.  She has a powerful ministry within the walls, reaching out in faith to other offenders –taking responsibility for her crime and living with the consequence as she sings of Christ’s freedom at Friday evening worship.  Renewal for her is being freed into a new future; one not defined by her past or the perception of those around her or even her location.

God’s renewal in God’s love by the power of the Holy Spirit can also look more subtle.  It can look like people who rage, gossip, gloat, hoard, cheat and bully, in both clever and unaware ways, and those same people walking up to bread and wine, surrendering to the Holy Spirit’s power to renew us in forgiveness and hope.   In short, it looks like people in need of a Savior, people who may or may not see or understand this need, and who celebrate his birth.

We are a people who need a Savior and who, very soon, will celebrate our Savior’s arrival.  Because we do not have a God who uses power to do us harm out of anger.  Rather, we have a God who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, came among us in skin and solidarity under star and comes among us now in Word, water, bread and wine – forgiving us and refining us by the power of the same Spirit.  We are prepared to receive our Savior in this Advent time by “the one who is and who was and who is to come.”[4]

Amen and Hallelujah!

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Abram Heschel, “The Meaning and Mystery of Wrath” in The Prophets (New York: Harper &Row, 1962), 358-382.

[2] Rolf Jacobson, WorkingPreacher.com, “Sermon Brainwave #267 – Lectionary Texts for December 16, 2012.”

[3] Karoline Lewis, WorkingPreacher.com, “Sermon Brainwave #267 – Lectionary Texts for December 16, 2012.”

[4] Revelation 1:8