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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sermon from Sunday, December 12, 2010: The Third Sunday of Advent

“Not Even Fools”
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen (Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace, from the one who was, who is, and who is to come; in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

My mother’s father Jack was a kind and gentle man. Except Jack also had a stubborn streak which included an utter rejection of any advice on directions. He’d even get angry if told where to turn or go. Once Jack and my grandmother Irene were on a long car ride, and Jack missed an exit. He kept on driving, oblivious to his mistake. About an hour later he mused out loud, “I wonder if we’re coming to that turn yet.” Then, and only then, did Irene tell him that he’d missed the exit about sixty miles back. I love that Jack didn’t criticize her for not speaking up – he knew himself well enough. He simply and quietly found a place to turn around, and headed back the other way without another word.

Finding one’s way in unfamiliar territory can be a tricky thing, especially if you’ve developed a reputation for not taking advice or following signs. But even if you try to follow a map or signs, real life doesn’t always look like a two dimensional map, and signs are not always clear. You have to do some interpreting. You have to make some educated guesses. You might start down a road or path, peering at either side for road signs or natural formations. Sometimes you reach a point where you have to make a decision. Do I turn back and try again? Do I keep going, and hope?

Isaiah proclaims a highway today which he calls the Holy Way – it’s his metaphor for the time to come when God will restore the people and guide their paths. It will be like a highway in a wilderness, Isaiah says, and it will be safe, and clean, and easy to walk. And it will be clear which way to go. Not even fools will get lost in God’s way, Isaiah says.

I have to say, that’s very comforting to me. Because even though I’m happy to get directions, unlike my grandfather, I know it’s easy to get lost. I’m pleased that when God guides us, even fools can find their way. It means I’ve got a chance.

But what if the guides to God’s way disagree on which way it goes? What do we do when there are differences of opinion as to the way of God?

In the great plan of God to come to this world to save our very lives, John the Baptist is an important guide.

In his harsh and even frightening words we heard last week, John shouts out his directions. “Repent,” he bellows. Literally, “turn around. You’re going the wrong way!” “If you’re looking for the coming of the Lord,” he says, “you’d better be ready. The kingdom’s near.”

And John’s words indicate great judgment from God upon those who are going the wrong way. He speaks of axes and fire and destruction. He has the zeal of a traffic officer a half-mile before a washed out bridge. He just needs to get the cars to stop, pull over, and turn around. The people’s sin is great and John wants them turned around in time to recognize and welcome God’s coming.

But John has two purposes: one, to get people prepared for God’s coming, and two, to point out the Lamb of God when he comes. So when he sees Jesus coming down to the Jordan, John proclaims, “Here’s the one.” This is the one whose coming I’ve been telling you about. This is the One from God. This is your new Guide.

Now the Gospels pretty much lose interest in John and they focus on Jesus, the One.

But something happens between John’s traffic cop and Jesus’ proclamation. Jesus preaches repentance, just like John, a “turn around” from the direction you’re going. But he does it with love and grace, not fiery words. He invites people to follow, and doesn’t condemn them when they can’t. He reaches the worst of sinners (at least according to the viewing public) and simply spends time with them. Eats with them. Treats them with grace. And they follow him. In fact, the ones most attracted to Jesus are the ones most lost, most outcast, least religious.

And Jesus preaches about the coming kingdom, just like John, but again, differently. He says the kingdom is already here, in him. And it is known by his grace and love. He heals the sick, and forgives the sinners. He offers wisdom from God on how to live.

This way is so different than the way John spoke, the way John expected Jesus to speak, that John becomes very concerned. And remember, John the Baptist is now on death row. He knows this. He has no time for second-guessing or for doubts. He needs truth and he needs it straight and clean. So he sends some of his disciples to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” He doesn’t want to die thinking that he pointed out the wrong one.

But Jesus doesn’t answer “yes” or “no.”

He says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk. The lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear. The dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them.”

Now you, my brothers and sisters, have just heard three Scripture readings, including one from Isaiah, and you’ve sung a psalm. So do you see what Jesus has done? He’s pointed to the signs, the markers on the way, as one guide to another. And he knows John knows those signs.

Jesus says as clearly as he can: “look at what I am doing. Don’t you recognize the signs, John?” He says, “Don’t you remember, John, what Isaiah said? That when God came to save and restore Israel, the blind would see, the deaf would hear, and the lame would leap for joy, and the oppressed will be set free?” He says, “Trust me, John. I’m leading them down the right path, God’s path. All the signs are there, and they’re multiplying.”

So all is well and good. Except Jesus ends by saying something very strange. We should hear it.

He ends his message with these words: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” What an odd thing to say – who would be offended by blind people receiving their sight? Deaf their hearing?

He seems to be saying, “blessed are you if you believe who I am, and stop doubting.” Stop worrying that just because I’m not shouting in judgment or wrath I must not be from God. And maybe he’s talking to us, not just John.

Maybe he’s reminding us to look at the signs God has given us in Scripture, signs we can trust, signs that point our way, and not be offended by them. Offended because Jesus doesn’t come and knock heads and take names, he comes in grace and love. Lots of congregations are growing in numbers because they are absolutely clear who’s in and who’s out, what’s right and what’s wrong. They speak with the certainty of John the Baptist, and that’s attractive.

Except that’s not how Jesus spoke. He understood that we’re all fools, we’re all broken, we’re all easily lost. And instead of giving us a set of rules to follow, Jesus gave us himself. So he drew in all those who regularly failed, even fools like us, and the religious ones, the good ones, were offended. Perhaps even John was.

But Jesus said that what we need to know is we can trust him, follow him. And if we do, we’ll not only be forgiven for all our failings. We’ll also never get lost. He says, “I don’t want you to be offended, but I’d like you to know that the signs you are to follow as you follow me are the signs I gave, not the words John spoke. You have come to trust what has been written in God’s Word, and you know these signs. You can trust them, so you can trust me when they and I tell you that I the one you are to follow.”

And so Jesus shows us by his life, death, and resurrection that the true God is a God of healing and restoration. A God who heals our deafness and opens our ears and helps us hear the voices of those who need God’s love, that we might be that love for them.

A God who heals our blindness and opens our eyes and helps us see the world as full of people whom God loves but whom we often do not, but people whom we now can love once we see them as God does.

A God who raises us from the death of our own sin and brokenness and sets us on new paths of life, as signs ourselves of God’s life and love in the world, paths on which we will not get lost.

Friends, the signs all point to Jesus. We know this.

The healing he did. The teaching of love and grace, and repentance. His death for us. His resurrection to new life. His invitation to follow in love. Jesus is the Promised One. He is our true Guide.

Which means we can follow the other signs he has given us as well, signs that lead us to him and show us the good paths. Signs like love of God with our whole heart and being, and love of neighbor as ourselves. Signs like his servant Paul gave us, the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, self-control. These are the markers for our paths, and they can be trusted. Because our Guide who died and lives again can be trusted.

When we live in ways that show these signs, we can trust we are living in God’s ways. When we call to others to follow, we call them to walk in ways that reflect these signs. And even fools like we are won’t get lost when we follow our Lord Jesus. And that’s very good news, indeed.
In the name of Jesus. Amen

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