God’s word to the people of Judah who are facing the collapse of everything they hold dear and the chaos and suffering of life is: I love you, you are mine. (Isaiah 43)
This pronouncement is made over us as we are baptized, giving us an identity and purpose that transcends all the other attempts to make us fear and doubt ourselves in this world. When the government is shutdown, the economy uncertain and even the church seems to be fading, God still proclaims this essential truth.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. The season Advent, however, seems to throw a wet blanket on all the jingling bells and decked halls. Scripture readings (Luke 21) turn to images of the end of the world and collapse of heaven and earth. Not very festive, it seems. That makes the preacher a bit of a buzz kill until we see that Jesus proclaimed a word of great hope in the midst of the destruction and death of this world. The fig tree puts forth leaves declaring summer is at hand and a harvest is on the way. Jesus is that fig tree, and our salvation is at hand.
Jesus says, “Don’t worry.” That is harder than it sounds. We worry about food, clothing, housing and a host of other things that seem to matter more than anything else. Thanksgiving seems to provide a one-day break to give thanks for what has gone right in life and suspend worrying about what could happen for at least an afternoon. What if gratitude is more than that? What if gratitude is a means of worry-free living? Listen to the sermon here!
For most folks, “Gentle Jesus” is the image we carry of the Messiah. The whip-wielding, table-turning, angry Jesus who cleanses the temple seems to be an aberration. When Jesus finds that the noise of livestock and clatter of coins is louder than the prayers; when he sees that the name of God is being used for personal gain, he gets angry, righteously angry. We do the same kind of things today. So, what does “cleansing the temple” mean for us?
When most of us think about spiritual things, we think of self-improvement, or happiness, or success. Faith should lead to joy and glory. Religion should help us avoid the “bad things” in life. The scriptural witness however, doesn’t support these notions. Instead, Jesus invites Peter to follow to the cross. Peter doesn’t want to go. Psalm 22 begins with the words, “My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?” – the dying words of Jesus. The psalm answers this lament by pivoting to praise and the promises of God from this heart-wrenching lament. In the midst of our suffering, we don’t reject God, but embrace God all the more.
When we hear stories about Jesus casting out demons, I’m not sure we know quite what to do with them. Is this possession as illustrated by Hollywood, complete with spinning heads, shaking beds, and evil voices? Or is it just an ancient way of pointing out what they did not understand – mental illness, convulsions or some other such disease? Those kinds of questions obscure two basic truths of these strange stories. First, evil exists and if we are not “possessed” by the Holy Spirit, we are likely to be possessed by something unholy. When I see a world full of violence, abuse, horrific stories of awful deeds done by humans to humans, even children, I find myself asking “What possesses people to do these things?” And there it is – something that drives us to rob life, liberty and peace from others takes our identity as holy people away. Second, fascination with what is unholy in these stories often leads us away from the central truth – God in Christ, revealed in Jesus has power to cast out the unholy and grant peace and life in its place.
The very first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel according to John is a question: “What are you looking for?” Most of us would be able to come up with some kind of spiritual shopping list for Jesus: Prosperity, health, forgiveness, assurance of life after death. The question is, do we really know what we want, what we need? The Jesus presented in John’s gospel knows his followers better than they know themselves. God in Christ, the Word made flesh, invites us to “Come and see.” Maybe what we will see is more than we can imagine. Maybe what we can see is not just God standing before us. Maybe in this Messiah we will see ourselves, our real selves, for the very first time.