This message was offered at Wesley United Methodist Church (Culver, IN) on Sunday, December 16, 2012.
Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear, that together we might learn and be inspired to live your Word in the world. Amen.
I thought that this would be the week… We’ve been dealing with so much in our own community, I thought that this was the week we could focus our thoughts on something other than tragedy. In fact, I was so ready to move our focus to something else, that I actually had my sermon written and proofed by noon on Thursday (I couldn’t let it go to waste, see below)!
Friday morning: another tragedy. Sixteen six-year olds, four seven-year olds, and six adults between the ages of 27 and 56 were killed by a 20-year old who eventually took his own life: 27 people died Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It’s the eighth mass shooting in the United States this year: the highest one-year count in American history.
So, it is here, as we’re brutally reminded of how addicted and afflicted our culture is to violence that we continue to count down the days till Christmas when we’ll celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace (see Isaiah 9:6), Jesus Christ our Lord. And, in the words of the crowd in our Gospel Lesson for today (see Luke 3:10), I wonder, “what then should we do?”
Sure we could talk about the need to reform gun laws in the United States and the need for better mental health services. We could talk about school security. I have a lot of opinions on these topics as I’m sure you do too. They are discussions for us to have, but in the end, they’re simply superficial. They do not get do not get to the root of the problem. The problem is much more personal for us as individuals, for us as a community of faith, and for us as a part of the church universal.
We can complain saying that God has been kicked out of public life, including our schools. But the fact of the matter is God has not abandoned our schools nor has he left us or our public life. God does not just show up in our churches on Sunday morning. God does not sit in some divine control room in heaven for five or six days a week and then show up when we decide to worship. God is ever-present everywhere. God isn’t missing from our public life and schools. God is already there!
What’s missing are Christians who will demonstrate by their lives the very presence of the ever-present God. As Christians we must continually remind our community and world, by the way we live our lives, that God has not abandoned the world.
The hope of Christmas is that God has made a personal appearance in our world in the person of Jesus Christ.
For “look!” writes Matthew, “A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will call him, Emmanuel. (Emmanuel means “God with us.”)”
“A child,” write the prophet Isaiah, “is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be on his shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”
If we believe these things to be true about Jesus: that he is Emmanuel (“God with us”), Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace, then, as his followers, we need to show the world by the living of our lives who he is.
We’re in the third week of Advent, just 9 days away from Christmas, we’re overcoming our own community’s tragedy and another one has occurred: 27 people dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut: it’s the eighth mass shooting this year in the United States. “What then should we do?” We should remind the world that on that very first Christmas the Prince of Peace came to be with us and all the world: Emmanuel (“God with us”), Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father. “What then should we do?” As followers of Emmanuel (“God with us”), Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace let us through our living help others know who Jesus is.
May we be faithful in reminding the world this Christmas season that God has not abandoned it. May we be faithful in promoting and living in a way that leads to peace for our Savior, the Prince of Peace’s, sake. Amen.
 “Sandy Hook school shooting: Victims’ names released,” by Brady Dennis and Steve Vogel. Washington Post.com <http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/gunman-kills-mother-then-26-in-grade-school-rampage-in-connecticut/2012/12/15/9017a784-46b6-11e2-8061-253bccfc7532_story.html> Accessed December 15, 2012.
 “A Timeline of Mass Shootings In The US Since Columbine” by Aviva Shen. Thinkprogress.org <http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2012/12/14/1337221/a-timeline-of-mass-shootings-in-the-us-since-columbine/> Accessed December 15, 2012.
 “First, We Cry: Reflections on Sandy Hook Elementary School,” by Rev. Jim Harnish (Senior Pastor, Hype Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, FL). HydeParkUMC.org <http://www.hydeparkumc.org/all-posts/first-we-cry-reflections-on-sandy-hook-elementary-school/> Accessed December 15, 2012.
 Matthew 1:23, Common English Bible.
 Isaiah 9:6, Common English Bible.
The original sermon: no sense in letting it get dusty…
Last week we talked about John’s mission to those who are wandering and, perhaps, forgotten in the wilderness. As a word of reminder: it was in the wilderness—in a place of struggle and darkness—that the word of God was made real for John; and, it was in the wilderness that John was called to proclaim the Good News of the coming Messiah to all who are struggling.
John’s words in our Gospel lesson for today are pointed and startling. Striking, really, that it’s the only formal teaching, or sermon, we have of John in the entire Gospel of Luke. They are words that, when preached today, would cause immediate division and a lot of “coffee talk.” It is the type of sermon that would get discussed after worship at Café Max or in other “closed” circles where the preacher isn’t present.
“Brood of snakes! [John proclaims] What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin. And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father.’ Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there—children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”
John’s message is harsh. It’s unsettling. And, it makes the seemingly “faithful” folk (I mean they came out into the wilderness to be baptized) uncomfortable. But this message—this abrasive, harsh, unsettling and uncomfortable message—is necessary to shake people…to shake us enough to change our lives. It takes a harsh, unsettling, uncomfortable message to move us beyond our complacency…to motivate us to be about the difficult work of transforming the world for the sake of Jesus Christ.
Remember the prophecy about John (Isaiah 40:3-5, quoted in Luke 3:4-6)? It is written that there will be a “voice crying out in the wilderness” that will (my paraphrase) lift the lowly and level the lofty, make the crooked straight and the rough smooth so that “all humanity [might] see God’s salvation,” and experience the love of God found in Jesus Christ.
John’s message is, for us, abrasive, harsh, unsettling and uncomfortable. And, that’s not all bad. In fact, I think it is Good News to those who are wandering in the wilderness. It is Good News to those who are struggling and have found little to no support from “God’s people.”
If John were to preach today the sermon he gave in our Gospel lesson (Luke 3:7-9), I think it’d sound something like this (don’t worry I’ll leave out the curse words I think John might use today):
Who do you think you are? What do you think you’re doing by coming to church, attending Bible studies and prayer meetings? Do you think a little praying, singing, and Scripture is going to deflect God’s judgment? “It’s your life that must change” (Luke 3:8, The Message). And don’t think that you can pull rank by saying “well, I’ve done my part” or “I go to church” or “I profess Jesus as my savior.” You’re missing the point. Even the demons believe (see James 2:18-26). And, God can cause rocks to sing of his praises (see Luke 19:37-40). What God desires most is that you live a life that makes God’s love real for others: God desires that you dedicate your life, all that you have and all that you are (even your reputation), to growing in love of God and neighbor.
Now it is interesting to me that in our Gospel lesson, the crowds’ response is not to leave or dismiss John. To their credit, the crowds—even the crooked tax collectors and the rough and tumble soldiers—do the healthy thing. Rather than stewing and making assumptions (saying their preacher doesn’t like them or is too young to understand anything), the crowds ask their preacher, John, to clarify: and so, the crowds, including the tax collectors and the soldiers, came and asked John, “What then should we do?”
And, John responds to them and, I think, to us:
Make God’s love real by sharing (see Luke 3:10-11), being fair (see Luke 3:12-13), and looking out for others instead of just yourselves (see Luke 3:14). And, in so doing, others will “see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16, Common English Bible).
If you have “two coats share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Your money and the things you have do not really belong to you. They are on loan to you by God who expects that you will do good with the things you have. The more you have the more you responsibility you have for doing good. By sharing, you will “prepare the way of the Lord” by lifting the lowly and leveling the lofty (see Luke 3:5a) so that the needs of everyone are met. Make God’s love real by sharing all that you have with those who do not.
Tax collectors in John’s day were crooked. They were notorious for collecting more taxes than the law required and then skimming off the top in order to line their own pockets. John’s advice to the crooked tax collector was to “collect no more than you are authorized to collect.” In other words, don’t use your power to coerce or manipulate people for your own personal gain. Treat everyone the same, be fair and in so doing the crooked will be made straight (see Luke 3:5b).
Look out for others instead of just yourselves.
Soldiers in the first century were a rough bunch. They would often intimidate others in order to gain wealth and status. John’s instructs the rough soldier not “to cheat or harass anyone…be satisfied with your pay” and status. In other words, look out for others instead of just yourselves. Stop using your status to pursue your own agendas and preferences; instead, seek out and strive for the common good of ALL! Live a life for others instead of for yourself so that “just as it was written in the scroll of the words of Isaiah the prophet” the rough places might be made smooth (see Luke 3:5c).
John’s message is abrasive, harsh, unsettling and uncomfortable because he’s not satisfied with where we are. He sees a vision of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom that Jesus ushers is about to usher in; and, he desires nothing more than for others to see that vision too.
The Kingdom of God looks very different from the world in which we live. It’s a Kingdom where people share, are fair, and look out for others instead of just themselves. It’s a vision that raises the lowly, levels the lofty, straightens the crooked, and smooths out the rough. It’s a vision that, when lived into, will surely “prepare the way for the Lord” and transform our world into a place of peace.
Filed under: Sermons Tagged: Christmas, CT, Emmanuel, God, Immanuel, Jesus Christ, Newtown, Prince of Peace, tragedy