Whom then shall I fear?

A sermon for the third Sunday after Epiphany, January 22, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”

Last week, our gospel story was from the Gospel of John, and in it was the call of Andrew and then the call of Peter. Today’s gospel story is from the Gospel of Matthew and in it is the call of Peter, Andrew, James and John. Two different Gospels, two different writers, two different stories remembering the call of Jesus’ first disciples.  In John, they were over by the Jordan, east of Jerusalem while John the Baptist is still out baptizing people. In mending-netsMatthew, the story takes place after John was arrested. They are on the beach at Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, far to the north of Jerusalem.

The lesson begins: “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” It was a very dark time. The leader of the movement for repentance and hope had been taken—the powers would no longer tolerate him and by extension, they wouldn’t tolerate this movement, of which Jesus, by being baptized, was a part. Precise time frames are difficult to draw out of ancient texts like the Gospel of Matthew. But we know that after his baptism, Jesus withdrew into the wilderness and was tempted and then he heard that John was arrested and then went to Galilee. Time has passed between Jesus’ baptism and the point at which he proclaims, “the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” During that time, Jesus reflected. He knew the darkness and lived among those who were in darkness.  And Matthew refers to our lesson from Isaiah:

“In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

Jesus began to proclaim: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”  Though John the Baptist had been saying pretty much the same thing, now Jesus IS the light.

What does Jesus mean when he says repent. Repent of what? Repent of the shadow of death. Of fear. Of hatred. It is time to live in God’s Kingdom and not in the kingdom of Herod or the Empire of Caesar. But what is God’s Kingdom, how do we know it? Jesus gave his disciples a prayer, which we have all been taught, and which we all say every day. It describes the Kingdom—indeed in living it, it is God’s Kingdom.  “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth, just like in Heaven. Give us today the bread we need. Forgive us our offenses as we forgive anyone who offends us. Keep our faith and character from being tested, but save us from evil.”  Living in God’s Kingdom is simple, easily understood, but also challenging—especially challenging to our selfishness, our anger, our fear, and our inner darkness. And Jesus calls on everyone to repent. Jesus calls us to repent. He is the light. God’s kingdom is the light that shines light on our inner darkness and gives us a way toward a life of generosity of spirit and of compassion.

And as he is saying this, Jesus walks down on the beach of that big lake in northern Palestine that is sometimes known as the Sea of Galilee. He sees these guys working. “Come with me, we have much more important work to do.” Jesus invites them to invite others into the kingdom. And they come along with him as “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

Jesus is here to heal the sickness and darkness in this land too. We are called to follow him in the good news of the kingdom and to share the light of his love.

Come and see

A sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.”

st-andrew-iconWhen I became the director of the library at the General Theological Seminary, my wife Paula gave me a special gift. She commissioned an icon of St. Andrew to be painted (or as the Orthodox more properly state it, written) for me.  On a luminous red background with a gold border and nimbus around his head, it shows a man with scruffy hair and beard holding one hand up in blessing and in the other, holding a scroll—identifying him as a preacher of the word. There is a caption written in Greek on the red background, “ho hagios Andreas Protokletos.”

That caption refers to our Gospel story this morning. It means “Holy Andrew, the first-called.” St. Andrew is important to me—largely because we share a name, I identify with him.  So, what does this mean, “the first-called?”

This story is very early in the Gospel of John, in the first chapter, immediately following the Prologue and the introduction of John the Baptist. John is at the Jordan baptizing people for repentance. Andrew was a follower of John, working with him, learning from him. John says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” And Andrew and one other disciple followed Jesus. And when he turns and talks to them they ask, “Teacher, where are you staying?” They are asking to listen to the teacher, and his response is immediate, “Come and see.”  We don’t know who the other disciple was, but Andrew was the first of the Twelve Apostles. He spent the day listening to Jesus and went and found his brother, Peter: “We have found the Messiah!” After this point, Peter is chief among the disciples, the most important leader of the church and Andrew pretty much fades into the background. But Andrew was the first one to be called.

Think about that for a minute. We human beings like to put things in order of priority; the most important or the most powerful first. We can only focus on a few things, often only one thing at a time, so we focus on the biggest, the most important and then, wanting attention, we seek to become the most prominent or the most powerful. But our focus and wants have nothing to do with reality as God gives it to us.  The First Called was an obscure disciple and not a hero or a leader—not the biggest or the best, nor any other superlative, not even the least or the worst. Andrew heard John: “Behold the Lamb of God.” And he responded by following—and in interacting with Jesus he was called: “Come and see.” His call did not come out of the blue, it came in the context of a life of searching. The call of God never comes without the context of a life—of human possibilities and needs.  We see here that this obscure Apostle is also deeply important in the development of the church—how can you tell the story of Christianity without St. Peter? Yet Andrew knew that Jesus was the Messiah from sitting in his presence and listening—even before any of the rest of the story unfolded.

We are all called to know God and to witness to God in the context of our own lives. Like St. Andrew, the most significant things in our lives are not the big achievements or awards, but our simple witness to the truth of God and our simple living of Christ’s love. “He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter, or Rock).”

Tomorrow we celebrate the life of a saint of our church, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In his “drum major sermon,” Dr. King acknowledged that he had received many accolades in his life. But he also said that upon his death, what he most wanted was for people to remember the following:

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”


King makes it clear, that he means that it was not any of the attention or awards that he received, that were of any significance, but the ways in which his life was of service to others. We are also called to use our gifts, individually and as a congregation to serve the good of others.

Since Fr. Bill Rontani retired, St. James has been in a period of transition. This interim time is not a time of drift or emptiness. It is an opportunity to reflect on God’s call to us—to “Come and See” Jesus and discern the direction where God may be inviting us to travel. As God’s disciples, we live realistically in the real world. We live in hope, but not in delusions. We know the love of God as we have experienced it, not as we imagine it might happen at other places that get the attention or success.

An important part of this time of discernment is today. After our final hymn, we will gather for an exercise that has the label “Appreciative Inquiry,” after the method in which I have been training to be a certified Interim Minister.  The most important part of Appreciative Inquiry is that every person’s story will be heard.  No matter how retiring or insignificant a person may think of himself or herself, every person has a story and that story is a vital part of who St. James Church is. I invite each of you to come and hear and tell one other person’s story.  There is a simple, concise and un-embarrassing structure of how we will do this. The goal is to have people who know each other the least interview one another, and to introduce their new partner to a small group. I assure you, the depth of insight from this exercise will enhance the life of this congregation, and the most important statements will come from surprising sources. After this week and next week, the information from our experience will be used by the Parish Profile committee to help draft the document that will guide St. James’ search for a new priest. That priest is not some sort of savior or solution to all problems, the priest will hold you accountable to your vision of who you really are as a congregation, and will assist you in your life as disciples of the true Messiah.

As St. Paul said in today’s epistle:

“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him…”


“Come and see.”

The darkness did not overcome it

A sermon for Christmas Day, December 25, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“The Light Shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Each time that I am the celebrant at the Eucharist, after the service I say the beginning of the prologue of the Gospel of John, which is our Gospel lesson today. I say it as a prayer of thanksgiving, and I end with those words: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

The Gospel today is the Christmas story, as John tells it—and Christmas is the essence of Christianity. Whether the story we read is the baby in the manger, with shepherds running out of the hills to see him, or later on when the astrologers from the East come asking at the palace of Herod, because they want to give gifts to the infant king. (oops–not such a good idea, see Matthew 2:16-18–), or as we say it today, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”—God is in this world with us, born of a human woman. God’s choice was not to do this in the most secure or powerful place, like the palace of the Roman Emperor, or even of the King of Judea, but rather in the most precarious of circumstances.

Oil Lamp with Ancient Inscription in Background

Oil Lamp with Ancient Inscription in Background

The image of the light shining in the darkness would have been understood in antiquity as a lamp—a little dish with oil in it, and a wick—with a flame like a candle. In those times, a room at night would be black with overwhelming darkness, but one small light would push the darkness back—indeed with your eyes accustomed to the dark, you could see everything in the room. The tiny light would overcome the huge darkness. Just as the baby—born in poverty and vulnerability—brings salvation into the world.

Soon, people will start to throw away their trees. Christmas is over as soon as the presents are opened. Nobody, except for a few Episcopalians, pays any attention to the twelve days. But our celebration is not of a day, or a season, or of trees or of gifts. The Gospel puts it, where? “In the beginning”—that is to say, in the beginning before anything at all was created, the Word was there with God, and it is the life of that Word that is the light that shines in that little baby in Bethlehem and continues to shine and overcome the darkness of the cross in his Resurrection.

This light, then, shines in the darkness. It does not need to be the great white lights on Broadway, nor the TV lights in a football stadium that outdo the sun during the broadcast of a game, nor the sun itself or even a star. Our faith is in that small, quiet light, the light that tells of the life of the Word, of Jesus.

Christians sometimes get confused. Sometimes they think, oh, if we can do so much with this little light, how much more could we accomplish if we had more and bigger lights, and lots and lots of power? And maybe then we could get EVERYBODY to celebrate Christmas our way, then everybody would be much better Christians. Of course you need a lot of power for all those lights, so maybe you should deal with the people who have the power and forget about those guys in the stable.


Our hope, as Christians, is not in the big lights and the big productions, but in that one small and humble light. That hope is not wishful thinking, but the sure and certain triumph of the love of God. Though we might live a life of vulnerability along with Christ, and we might lose one thing or another that we might like to have, the reality that is the love of God will never fail. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father… And from his fullness have we all received all the gifts of God and lives filled with confident hope.


Merry Christmas.

Tell it out among the nations: The Lord is King!

A sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Tell it out among the nations: ‘The Lord is King!’ he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.” Ps 96:10

When I was a kid, I wondered if I would ever see a shepherd.  I understood that they were these guys with sort of a hood over their head, and they carried around a big stick with a hook on the end of it. Shepherds were some sort of dreamy, Bible kind of character, who had a life far away from anything that I knew. The thing is, I grew up in Idaho, my father’s business was selling insurance to farmers, both sets of grandparents lived on farms, and at one of those farms, I saw sheep all the time. But there weren’t any shepherds. At my grandfather’s farm, the sheep were kept in pens or enclosed pastures, or sometimes over on a little island in the middle of the Snake River, where nothing could get to the sheep. Bigger sheep operations had people out taking care of the sheep, but those were sheepherders—I never associated shepherds with sheepherders.

Sheepherders were sort of rough, hired hands that spent summers camping out with their sheep in the mountain meadows. You mostly didn’t see them, even if you were up in the mountains

A Sheepherder's camp

A Sheepherder’s camp

where they were, and saw the sheepherder’s wagon, and I think that parents mostly wanted to keep the kids away from them. As a category, they were regarded as disreputable characters.

It took me by surprise that sheepherders and shepherds are the same thing. Even more so when it turned out that the shepherds of the first century would have been described the same way as sheepherders were by my parents’ generation. It was rough work, the guys were pretty much at the bottom of the social heap, and they received little money and less respect for doing their job.

So they are hanging out, out in the hills and it’s cold—not a blizzard, but it’s night and it’s not the tropics, maybe like around here in the foothills in early spring. And. The Angel of the Lord shows up—right there, in front of them. And the Glory of the Lord –not seeing God, but a byproduct of God’s presence. Perhaps it shines, perhaps it feels like electricity, perhaps…perhaps the universe is falling apart, or coming together—who can say? But the Glory of the Lord is showing around these sheepherders.

Then the Angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them … and they were terrified.

And, let me tell you, they were afraid. And they were right to be afraid, because they weren’t crazy, and if anything was ever dangerous, coming this close to the living God, with His Angel standing right there, that was dangerous. These ordinary guys are there, looking at the angel, and he begins to speak: Does he say, ‘don’t worry nothing is happening?’ No. When the angel says “fear not” he’s saying “fear not because…” One insightful commentator translates the Greek to say, “Fear no longer! I am announcing to you good news that will be a great joy for all the people.”

The representatives of all the human race, are this little band of underpaid and overworked hired hands, trying to keep warm while making sure the sheep don’t get lost. And when that angel said, “Do not be afraid,” it was about far more than how those guys felt about this unusual experience. “I am bringing you good news of great joy” : “to you is born this day, a savior, the Messiah, the Christ, your Lord.” The savior is the one who heals us, who delivers us from our sinfulness of fear and anger and alienation from one another. The savior is not someone who takes us out of the world ruled by spiritual forces that rebel against God and the evil powers which corrupt and destroy the creatures; our Savior has come among us, and lives among us to confront, heal and transform those powers.

We live in a country and a world that has been going through a lot this year. Anger and fear have characterized the whole year. Disrespect and jockeying for power among people have been the order of the day.  Who will get more power, or lose power?  When will we get the next piece of news of more people being killed, intimidated, or hurt? How many families are there, whose holidays are disrupted by illness or personal loss? It was not that much different when that young couple set off from the hills of Galilee along roads infested with robbers, all the way down to that little town south of Jerusalem. There was plenty of fear and sadness in those days, and there were plenty of people who thought that the answer would be to get more power or wealth, or the security of great armies.

But it was God’s judgment to send our Savior as a powerless little child, of a poor, young and humble mother, to deliver this world from that kind of fear and that kind of anger. And to whom was it announced? To philosophers? To bishops and archbishops? To kings and political operators? No. The angel appeared to this group of shepherds, out in the hills, who were just trying to keep warm and not lose any sheep. Ordinary guys with no power or influence. God revealed his salvation in the real world of ordinary people, who don’t get recognition, or power or wealth from their lives.

And our Savior is among us, a human being like the rest of us. Born in humble circumstances, and he is a Shepherd. He is the shepherd of our flock, and he loses not a one of us, no matter how fearful we might be.

And our psalm continues:

“Let the heavens rejoice and let the earth be glad; let the see thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein.

Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord when he comes, when he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with his truth.


Be not afraid, and have a happy and holy Christmas.

Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid

A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

This morning, it was dark when I woke up, and it was dark when I started driving from Sacramento to get here in time for the eight o’clock service. The days are short and it’s a dark time of year.

The Gospel of Matthew starts at a dark time for Joseph. Unlike the Gospel of Luke, which tells the story from Mary’s perspective, the Gospel of Matthew begins by reciting forty-two generations of Joseph’s genealogy and then we find Joseph in a very dark and difficult situation. The woman to whom he was betrothed was going to have a child and he was not the father. Remember, the first churches where the Gospel of Matthew was read did not know anything of the Gospel of Luke—of the Annunciation of the Angel to Mary, her journey to meet Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, the journey from Galilee to Bethlehem, the shepherds or the manger.

The story opens with this man in a crisis. It’s a life turned upside down. You can feel his despair and his resignation when it says, “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” In that cultural context, he could see no way out. Life was over, hope was gone.

ALI142914“But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” The reality of Joseph’s world was that this sort of baby, this sort of wife, were just not possible, his expectations of life going forward just couldn’t happen—he couldn’t imagine a way forward. But then—he had a dream.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph’s story moves forward by dreams just like the Joseph in the book of Genesis, who was forced to go down into Egypt and then saved the children of Israel in the transformation of Egypt and making a place for them to thrive.

So just as Joseph had decided to put Mary away, an angel appeared in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary for your wife.” Do not be afraid. That’s a statement that’s much more radical than our 21st century American culture might be inclined to think. In Joseph’s time, being told not to be afraid wasn’t akin to our everyday nostrums, like “Live in the present.” No, in Joseph’s time, having a child who came from wherever violated the structure of the villages, and of the nation, and of religious and cultural propriety.  Everybody was going to be ostracized and everybody was going to suffer. His wife would be regarded like a prostitute—would it even offend God to take such a woman as your wife?  But the angel persists: “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

In this dream a new world, a new picture, a new hope takes shape. None of the facts, indeed none of the difficulties, really changed, but God entered in, and brought hope. And this hope was not so much to address Joseph’s personal issues, but God’s blessing for all people.

In our lesson from Isaiah, King Ahaz, a much earlier descendent of King David, refused to look for God’s sign—he wanted to look to himself and his own solutions to the wars he faced with the neighboring nations. “I will not put God to the test,” in other words—“let’s not let God have anything to do with our business.” Then the prophet says to him: “Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary God also? Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall call him Immanuel.” The sign from God brings a new perspective, a new picture, a new world. Ahaz was refusing to see and God sent the sign anyway; Joseph could not see and the angel appeared in that dream. With Jesus, God had a different idea for the world. “God’s son, descended from David according to the flesh and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship,” as St. Paul put it.

The good news for the church is the same as it was for Joseph. “Do not be afraid … the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. he will save his people from their sins.” The years ahead were not easy, safe or secure for this young family, and Christians should not expect those things for themselves, either. The soundness of this beautiful church building is due to our family moving forward in hope to build it, work on it, and keep it up.  Yesterday we opened our doors and welcomed children with special needs and their families, because the hospitality of Jesus is why we gather at all. “They shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.”

So Joseph awoke from sleep, and he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife and had no marital relations with her until she had borne that son; and he named him Jesus.  His hope is our hope—to welcome Jesus and to live simply as servants of Christ.  It is in that that the glory of God is in the life of this world and its people.

The one who is to come

A sermon for the third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Are you the one who is to come?”

Last week the sermon was about the preaching of John the Baptist. This week, John got himself thrown into prison—imagine that. He preached repentance and justice. He told tax collectors to collect only what they owe and soldiers not to extort and abuse people. So, Herod Antipas, a ruler who lived for power and self-indulgence, heard the call for repentance as a challenge and he had John put in jail. Imagine that.

But John heard of Jesus, of what was happening out in Galilee and he sent the question, “Are you the one?” Jesus’ reply was very simple and specific: “the blind receive their sight, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus was not about random miracles and showy acts of power—he is here healing those things that are wrong in this world, that disrupt and destroy the fabric of human life.

Of course, one could speak at length of each of these: blindness, leprosy, deafness, the dead and the poor.  All of these can refer to physical or literal conditions or be spiritual or metaphorical at once. But it’s also important to understand Jesus is grounding them in real, physical conditions. Blindness, deafness, and leprosy are all conditions that isolate people—while the person is suffering, others withdraw, out of fear, or indifference, or impatience to get on to the easy comfort in their own lives.

Likewise, Jesus says, “the poor have good news brought to them.” You may remember that Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth of Galilee was on the text, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” This morning, rather than a psalm, the lectionary has appointed the song his mother Mary sang, when she knew Jesus was in her womb: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior: for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” Her description of how God loves his people is this:

“He has shown the strength of his arm and has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”

The Kingdom of God is good news to the poor. Specifically, it is God’s promise to those who are suffering or oppressed that God remembers them and will comfort them. There is no comfort to those who are proud, who regard themselves as entitled to comfort and privilege because they have wealth or power. The gate into the Kingdom is narrow—it requires humility—acknowledgement that we are each on the same level as the leper, the blind, the deaf, the poor.  Indeed, the isolation of the blind is nothing in comparison to the isolation of those who trust in their wealth. Or in games to get and hold power.  That isolation is death. Jesus brings life, which is generosity and humble acknowledgement of the infinite value of all God’s people.

In case you didn’t notice, when Mary’s son and nephew said these simple things, people were not pleased. Both of them were arrested and killed. The reality is, people do not like their wealth or power to be challenged—even by an offer of life.

This Christmas season, we celebrate that God is here in this world, blessing the things of this world.  But it is not our wealth that God blesses, it is our generosity and compassion for others. It is in our willingness to learn and to be blessed by the deaf, the lepers, the blind and those we might think of as poor that we receive the gift of life. Jesus tells the disciples of John, “the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.” We receive the blessing of resurrection from the dead, not in our comfort, or even in our focus on being spiritual and good, but in our own brokenness and humility. God brings the blessing of life in our ability to hear with the deaf, and see with the blind.  Indeed, I have realized over the past few months that I receive life and blessing in visiting and remembering with and for those who have lost their memory.

From our lesson from the prophet Isaiah: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom: like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” The blessing of God, the majesty of God is in opening life for all people. “Then they shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and makeleap-like-a-deer firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God…’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

We rejoice in the coming of Jesus. He is the one to come, the one who brings us life.

Give us grace to heed their warnings

A sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee the wrath to come?”

john-the-baptist-el-grecoI love John the Baptist. Not because of his haircut and wardrobe.  He was known as a prophet, and indeed he was. But let’s get clear what that term “prophet” means. Biblical prophets were not guys who sat in a room with Ouija boards and made predictions.  They weren’t predicting the stock market or the outcome of the Super Bowl. When the prophets spoke, they were holding people accountable to God. They pronounced God’s love for God’s people. They reminded the people, especially the rulers and the wealthy, that God’s love included justice for all the people God loves. The prophets pointed out that God was not there to protect the gains of the proud, the privileged, or the wealthy, but rather God protects and heals those who have suffered and lost, and is with every person in their grief.  When the prophets pronounced the judgment of God, it was with the ferocity of God’s love for justice for all people.

So that’s what we hear from John the Baptist this morning. “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.”  “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” What John was doing was calling people to repentance, to a change of heart, a change of how they lived their lives, and he baptized people as a sign of that repentance.

So it says, “the people of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him.” It was quite a trek, going out there into the desert by the Jordan River, down a steep mountain trail, from the hills down almost to sea level. It was almost like going out into the Nevada desert to attend Burning Man.

And, like going to Burning Man, it became a pretty fashionable thing to do. If you wanted to show off that you were really pious—head out to the Jordan, get baptized and then everyone will know you are the real deal.

So John looks up and sees a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees—that is to say, the religious establishment. They were there to receive baptism and demonstrate that they had ticked off every possible box of pious behavior, just as they had been doing all along. So John says to them: “You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” A prophet can be harsh. Certainly that’s how John came across.

What does this have to do with pronouncing God’s love? The key thing in John’s presentation of the word of God was Repentance. That is to say, a change from how you have been, a transformation of life. A transformation into the compassion of God—this is why John is pointing toward the one more powerful than himself, to Jesus who is the compassion of God, incarnate. The thing about being pious and religious is that we have a tendency to get comfortable and complacent; patting ourselves on the back for observing one respected practice or performing an act that will gain approval from all the other pious folks.  Sometimes, even the term “faith” or “love” becomes a check box for the complacent, a way to defend against the need for transformation, the need for repentance.

In the context of first century Judea, John says to these people, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our ancestor.’” Today he might say, “Don’t presume to say that you are a Christian, or that you say you have faith, or that you have received the sacraments of the church duly and in order.”

Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

What fruit? This sounds complex and out of this world! No. It is quite simple. The fruit of repentance is humble respect for others, it is compassion that gives up on being self-interested and takes up being interested in the well-being of others instead, it is generosity that seeks not return, it is good news to the poor—that they are respected—not as objects of charity—but as the true children of God, from whom we learn of God’s Kingdom.  Repentance. Transformation into a life of compassion happens throughout our lives, we are constantly called back, because heaven knows, we are constantly tempted to turn inward to self-interest and complacency.  John the Baptist reminds us that no one is entitled to be smug, no one can dismiss the dignity of others and claim to be righteous. Everyone is called to be transformed into the generosity of Christ.

Our lesson from Isaiah describes the ideal king of Israel. It was written at a time of difficulty—invaders had conquered and taken away much of the population—it was a time of desolation. The image is of a stump of a tree that has been cut down or destroyed. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Life emerges from that desolation, hope in the midst of discouragement.  But this prophet then explains what the characteristics of that new hope, that anointed king, that Messiah, will be: “He shall not judge by …what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity FOR the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”  Justice, equity, for the meek, the poor, the powerless. And that same justice is fierce judgement against the wicked—those who profit from exploiting those with no power for their self-interest.

Advent is a season which is focused on the judgement of God, the final coming of God’s kingdom. Some people think that it is separate from Christmas, but I don’t think so. We are preparing for that season where God came into this world, not just as a human being, but as an infant in a poor family. Before he could properly walk, they became refugees in Egypt, because of the violence of a powerful king. It is in him, that we are called to transformation, to respect those who we might dismiss and to live in generosity in every season.

Let us once more pray our collect for today:

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.