Abraham as our Ancestor

Third Sunday after Advent, December 13th, 2015

Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last week we heard about John the Baptist’s birth, and this week we’re hearing about his message. And I have to ask: when you think “good news,” does being called a “brood of vipers” come to mind? No? Being told there’s an axe waiting to cut down any tree that bears good fruit—implying that you’re one of the trees to be cut down—that doesn’t relieve your fears? How about “the wrath to come”—does that make you think of Good News? I mean, there are some ultra-conservative hardliners who seem to positively rejoice in the misfortunes of others with a ghoulish delight in how they see God punishing them, but let’s be honest. Does this really sound like Good News?

We’re familiar with this hellfire-and-brimstone preaching. We hear it all the time. You better watch out, people say, or you’re going to go to Hell. Are you sure you’re really saved? Shape up! You have to be morally perfect, because if you do ANYTHING wrong, you’re going to hell—unless we like you well enough, in which case we’ll make excuses. You better believe EXACTLY the right thing, because if not, God won’t accept you. Are you saved? Turn or burn!

And then on the other side of the Christian community, you have the people who hear all of this and—quite rightly—see that such preaching is both harmful and misleading, because the Bible tells us over and over again that God’s deepest, truest nature is love, and that while his anger lasts for a short time, his love lasts forever. And they see that focusing on hellfire all the time makes people fear God, and drives away most people who aren’t always true believers, so they just kind of ignore Bible passages about judgment. But the thing is, while love is God’s defining characteristic, that doesn’t mean that God is a doormat: there’s judgment, too. But whether you’ve spent more time listening to the hellfire preachers or to the people who just kind of ignore Hell altogether, I would bet you anything you please that our preconceptions get in the way of how we hear John’s message.

First, it’s a lot better news than the scare-the-Hell-out-of-you types would have you believe. Yes, there is judgment. Yes, we are a brood of vipers—and can you look at the news and our politicians across the spectrum and all the evil that humans do to one another and disagree? But the thing is, let’s take a good hard look at what John tells people to do: share with those less fortunate, and treat people fairly. That’s it! That’s all you have to do. Of course, it’s easy to say that, and less easy to do it, when everyone around you is coming up with reasons why it’s okay to cheat people or ignore the poor or blame others for their misfortunes—after all—everyone is doing it. But still, we’re not talking superhuman feats of goodness, and we’re not talking the perfect faith that believes all the right things and never wavers. We’re talking about things people can actually do. No impossible standards here! That’s good news! Set your mind on God, live a just and charitable life! Let God take care of the rest! Bear fruit worthy of repentance, and trust that God’s Messiah will come and save you.

Humans like to make things complicated. And we like to think that it depends on us—what we do, what we believe. We like that because it gives us power, it puts the ball in our court, makes salvation about our actions and our choices. But it’s really not; we are incapable of earning our salvation, because we are incapable of perfection. God knows that, and that is why he sent Jesus. We can’t get rid of our own sin.

Last week, we heard the prophet Malachi talking about God burning away our impurities. This week, we hear John the Baptist talking about how the Messiah will separate the wheat from the chaff, and burn up the chaff. Now, we tend to hear this metaphor saying “good people will be saved by Jesus, and bad people will burn in hell,” but that’s not it. I remind you that wheat and chaff are both part of the same plant. Do you know anybody who’s really, totally, 100% good? Or really, totally, 100% bad? Even if you think you do, I bet things are a little bit more complicated than that. We all have wheat and chaff inside us, and when the Messiah comes—when Christ comes again, to judge the living and the dead—that chaff is going to be taken out of us and burned. We can’t do that. We can’t separate out the good and evil in any human heart. If salvation depended on making ourselves good enough to enter God’s kingdom, we would all be damned. But we don’t, because it’s not about us. It’s not about our actions. It’s about God choosing to save us, God loving us even though we are sinners, God sending Jesus Christ his Son to break the chains of sin and death, and, at the end of the ages, Jesus Christ coming again to judge the living and the dead.

It’s not our job to make ourselves perfect for God; God will purify us. It’s our job to live until he comes, to do the best we can in this sinful, fallen world, to do God’s work, to spread God’s love, to share with those who need help and live our lives with justice. The prophet Micah put it this way: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It’s not about being perfect, in action or belief. But there is action required.

When we focus too much on judgement, we tend to think it’s all about our own actions—do this, or say this, or believe this, and you’ll be saved. Yet when we forget about judgment it’s really easy to get complacent. It’s really easy to go, “Yeah, God will fix everything eventually, and he loves me, so it doesn’t matter what I do. I can do or say anything selfish or hateful, and it doesn’t matter.” Which is wrong, of course—yes, God forgives us, but that doesn’t mean we should do bad things just because we can. There are consequences to our actions, in this life and the next. Jesus will burn away the chaff in our hearts, but obviously our lives and the whole world will be much better if we keep the chaff to a minimum. God loves us, and God forgives us, but what we do still matters.

And then there’s the other reason people get complacent. John warns about that, too. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” See, in those days, Jews took a lot of pride in being children of Abraham. God chose Abraham, which meant God chose them, so they could sit comfortably in that knowledge without ever looking at their own lives and asking themselves if they were doing what God wanted them to do. After all, they already knew, right? They were children of Abraham! They had all that history! They’d heard the stories, they’d heard the words of Moses and the Prophets, they knew the promises, they had it made. No need for uncomfortable examination of their hearts, their actions, or their community, because after all, they were the Children of Abraham! God had chosen them and given them that land!

When modern American Christians get complacent, it’s not about being children of Abraham. It’s usually about things like denominations and theological heritage: “We’re Lutherans!” Or “We’re Baptists!” “We’re God’s chosen people!” Or sometimes it’s about our congregation and building: “God brought our ancestors here to the prairie, and built a great community of faith here!” Or sometimes it’s about our politics: “We’re the Republicans!” Or “We’re the Democrats!” Whichever group you’re part of, a lot of people will say “We’re the ones who know how God really wants us to vote!” There are a lot of things we put our trust in and take for granted. And it’s not that any of these things are bad—on the contrary, many of them are very good and have brought much good into the world, just like the children of Abraham did. The problem comes when we use them as an excuse to ask ourselves what God wants us to do now. The problem comes when they become more important to us than following God’s call to repent, to live with justice and mercy, to trust in the salvation to come.

May we heed John’s call to repent, to live lives of justice and mercy.  Most of all, may we learn to trust in the salvation of our Lord.

Amen.

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A New Kind of Kingdom

Christ the King, Year A, November 25, 2014

Ezekiel 34:11-24, Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

 

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

At the ripe old age of 32, the holiday season turns me into a bit of a curmudgeon. Which holiday season, you may ask? ALL OF THEM, because these days the commercial rush to profit means they’re all in stores at the same time. By the time Halloween was over, the Christmas decorations were up in many stores, with Thanksgiving stuff shoehorned in anywhere it could go and the leftover Halloween costumes still in displays advertising half off. It makes me grumble, because back in MY day, Christmas preparations didn’t start until AFTER Thanksgiving, and there was a break between each holiday to catch your breath. This mish-mashed-everything-at-once is NOT the proper way to do things! Particularly when you consider that in the Church the Christmas season doesn’t start until December 25th. The month of December is the season of Advent, where we wait for Christ’s coming. Christmas, the celebration of his birth, doesn’t happen until the actual day! And the Wise Men don’t show up until Epiphany on January 6th!

But today I myself will be guilty of mixing up holiday seasons and mashing them together. You can see by the colors that today is a special day—not many days within the church calendar get the color white. Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church year. The Church year doesn’t begin in January, it begins in late November/early December with the First Sunday of Advent. So, Happy New Year! And, as at the secular New Year, it’s good to take a look back and a look ahead, as we contemplate what it means to proclaim that Christ is King.

What I noticed, as I studied our texts for today, is that the cute little baby we’ll see in the manger a month from now is the king on the throne on the day of Judgment, the one calling all people to account for their behavior in the earthly kingdoms before they enter God’s heavenly kingdom. And that cute little baby is also the one prophesied by Ezekiel in our first lesson, the new King David, who will come to create a kingdom based on justice and mercy, and not the power and inequity our worldly kingdoms are based on. And that baby, lying in a manger, will suffer and die to bring that kingdom to reality.

Let us be honest with one another. Our world, the kingdoms we build, falls far short of God’s desire for us. Instead of the justice God wants, we build up injustice. Instead of mercy, we act all too often out of hate, jealousy, fear, and greed. Consider the sheep metaphor from the first lesson. The strong sheep butted the weaker sheep out of the way so that they could get at the best food and then trampled it so that the weak got nothing. And the strong sheep drank their fill of water, and then fouled up the rest so that the weak sheep didn’t get any. The strong got stronger and the weak got weaker, and the ones who were supposed to shepherd the flock did nothing. That’s kind of like our world. Since the economic bust of 2008, there has been a great recovery in the economy … but outside of North Dakota, most of that recovery has been among the richest Americans, passing the majority of the middle class by and leaving the poor even poorer. Even here, where we’ve got the oil boom to rev up the economy, the number of people in need of help with basics such as rent and food has soared. Some have been left behind. Others have gotten pushed out of the way of progress.

It happens in sports, too. Consider the Sayreville Football team, where ‘hazing’ meant that older players sexually assault younger players. When the coach found out and cancelled the football season, the parents were outraged. Many of the parents of the older boys were more upset that their son couldn’t play than that he had participated in horrible crimes. Consider the many professional sports players who have been caught on tape in the last few years abusing their families: wives, children, girlfriends, and then getting little or no punishment or intervention because their wealth and status protected them from consequences. The powerful abuse the powerless, and use their position to protect themselves from justice.

Think about your own life: how many times have you seen somebody powerful and well-respected get their way, while others get pushed aside? How often have you seen people get hurt by someone else’s desires? How often have you seen someone spoiling something so that nobody else can have it? How often have you been the one getting pushed out, and how often have you been the one doing the pushing? This is not the good and abundant life that God wants for us. This is not the way God wants God’s people to live. This is not the way God’s kingdom will be. In God’s kingdom, there will be justice. In God’s kingdom, all will be fed, and all will have enough. In God’s kingdom, there will be no divisions between people. In God’s kingdom, there will be no abuse or domination.

And so God sent a new David, a Messiah, an anointed King to establish his own reign of justice. To call all people to a world in which there is justice for all. Not just for the rich and powerful, not just for the respectable and popular, but for all people. A world where everyone gets enough and nobody gets too much. There’s a reason he was born in a stable, with no room in the inn—this new David, this baby Jesus, this God in human flesh, is going to know with every cell of his being what it’s like to be the one getting shut out in the cold. He’s going to know what it’s like to be hungry, to be naked, to be sick and alone. He’s going to know all this because he’s experienced it, he’s suffered it, he’s been abused and shut out and he knows what it’s like. So every time you see someone suffering from hunger, Jesus is there. Whenever you see someone without a home, Jesus is there. Whenever you see someone who is sick and alone, Jesus is there. Whenever you see someone imprisoned, Jesus is there. We like to focus on the nice pretty stuff—the things as pretty as a newborn baby—and forget the messy stuff. The hard stuff. The painful stuff. But Jesus is present in the pain and grief as much as he is in the joy and healing. No one suffers alone, because Jesus is with them. Jesus, who gets what you’re going through because he’s lived through it.

And this baby Jesus out in the cold is going to grow up. He’s going to give his wisdom and his miracles and his justice to any who will listen—rich and poor, old and young, healthy and sick, powerful and powerless. He’s going to tell them about God’s kingdom. And he’s going to die to plant the seeds of God’s kingdom, and one day he’s going to come back and bring those seeds to their full growth. And so, a few weeks before he was killed, Jesus told this story about what his kingdom will be like. It will be a kingdom where Ezekiel’s words will be true, a kingdom where the powerful will not abuse the powerless, a kingdom where everyone has enough to eat and clothes to wear and no one is sick or hurting. And as people come streaming in to this awesome, incredible place, this wonderful kingdom, the king will know about us. Our deepest fears, our deepest hopes, the things we did that are worthy of him and the things we wish he didn’t know.

And for some people, the kingdom won’t be completely new. It won’t be completely unexpected, because they’ve been participating in it all along. They’ve been spending their time in this kingdom trying to make it look more like that kingdom. So when they see someone hungry in this world, they feed them. When they see someone thirsty, they give them a drink. When they see someone sick, they take care of them. When they see someone in prison, they visit them. When they see any kind of injustice or abuse, they speak up. Even if they don’t see Jesus in what they do, even if they don’t see Jesus in the faces of the people they help, Jesus is there. Whether or not they’re even looking for him, whether or not they even believe in him, Jesus is there. And he will say to them “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

But other people are going to get a rude surprise. Because they weren’t participating in the work of the kingdom. They saw people in need, people hurting, and didn’t do anything. Maybe they didn’t think there was anything they could do. Maybe they didn’t think that the people deserved help. Maybe they thought someone else would do something. Maybe they were afraid of what people might think. Maybe they were the ones hurting people, or maybe they benefitted from it. For whatever reason, they haven’t been living the kind of life God calls us to. And so while they’ve been looking for their king in the bright and powerful and glorious places, they’ve been missing the king living among them, in the corners and shoved off to the side and forgotten.

Because that’s the kind of king we have. He doesn’t do what we expect—he doesn’t surround himself with the rich and powerful, he doesn’t dole out grace by the teaspoon to those who deserve it. He gives of himself freely, to all people. He lifts up the lowly and knocks down the powerful. He feeds his flock with justice, and is present wherever there is pain, or hunger, or thirst, or nakedness, or sickness, or fear, or hate. He brings joy and hope and justice in the midst of hopelessness and he calls his people to do the same. May we lead lives following our king’s commands.

Amen.