Midweek Worship on The Beatitudes (March 14, 2018)

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Weekly Worship Thought – The Words We Sing

cropped-2013-07-22-15-32-14.jpgThe words we sing in worship are important. When the sermon is done we hopefully have heard God’s word preached and the gospel proclaimed. But how much content from a 25 minute presentation will we truly remember? Something special happens with music. God has used music as a vessel to deeply embed in our hearts the truths of who God is and what God has done. The songs we sing in worship stick with us; great melodies can be carried around inside us our whole lives. And the words we attach to those melodies stick like glue as well. So the words we sing in worship have to be appropriate, beautiful, and richly convey the meaning of following Jesus.

“God Still…Draws the Whole World” Message

Magi_(1)Matthew 2:1-23 –
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead. 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus (Arche-Lay-Us) was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

  • Prologue
    Welcome to the first Sunday of Christmas; remember that there are 12 days in the season of Christmas. Unlike our house, the tree is still up here at Faith. Also this is the last Sunday of the year 2013 – which happens to be the most heretical Sunday of the church year! Why are churches across the nation filled with heresy today? Because this is the Sunday that every pastor takes off, thus leaving others to fill in the pulpit. Which leads to all sorts of heresy! (Hopefully not here.) Continue reading

Narrative Worship Script

Some Assembly RequiredDuring the month of August at Faith Lutheran Church, we are in a message series called “Some Assembly Required” (borrowed from the Synod Assembly title that I jokingly came up with). It is a four week series on worship, with each week taking up a different fold of the service:

  • August 5 – “Gathering: Worship and the Stranger”
  • August 12 – “Word: The Narrative of Worship”
  • August 19 – “Meal: The Down to Earth God”
  • August 26 – “Sending: Worship on the Way”

As part of the series, we decided to include a “narrative” script during each service that describes the significance of each action of worship. It works as a running commentary of the “whys” of the worship service. We printed the narration into the worship bulletins, and had a person read the narration aloud during the service.

Sources for the script include Evangelical Lutheran Worship (pg. 91-93), Musicians Guide to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (pg. 8-13), and original material.

Download Narrative Worship Script PDF

(before the Welcome/Announcements)
The basic pattern of this service – gathering, word, meal, sending – is a structure that originates from the earliest documented Christian liturgies. It is also a pattern we can observe in how God interacts with people throughout the Bible. As the people of God, we are joined together by the gifts of God’s grace, for the sake of the gospel, into the life of the one triune God.

(before the Confession and Forgiveness)
As we gather together as the body of Christ, we are reminded that Sunday is the day of Christ’s resurrection. We are assembled, brought together from different places, as a witness to the risen of body of Christ, active and moving in the world today. We begin in humility, confessing our sin and hearing God’s word of forgiveness.

(before the Gathering Hymn)
Singing during our gathering includes both hymns old and new. The songs that gather us together surround and support a people who come to worship with different frames of reference and different emotions. The gathering song moves each individual into the communal experience and purpose of worship.

(before the Greeting and Prayer of the Day)
During the gathering, the presiding minister and the assembly greet each other in the name of the triune God. The presiding minister gathers the assembly into prayer. All of worship is based on the foundation of prayer and can be understood as dialogue with God.

(before the First Reading)
The word of God is proclaimed within and by the gathered assembly. The first Bible reading, usually from the Old Testament, is followed by a psalm sung in response. This pattern of proclaiming the word is as ancient as the synagogue worship of the Jewish people.

(before the Psalm)
From their origin, the psalms were intended to be sung. Certainly the meaning of the text can be communicated when spoken, but the quality of this ancient poetry is inherently musical.

(before the Second Reading)
The second reading, usually from the New Testament letters, bears the witness of the early church. After the second reading, we stand to greet the gospel and sing an acclamation.

(before the Gospel Acclamation and Reading)
Christians have inherited the practice of publicly reciting the appointed biblical texts and responding to the recitation with singing. The read-sing-read-sing sequence continues. The gospel acclamation consists of two parts, alleluia and a verse of scripture, which acclaim the living Word, Jesus Christ, present in the gospel reading.

(before the Message)
Preaching brings God’s word of law and gospel into our time and place to awaken and nourish faith.

(before the Hymn of the Day)
God’s word is further proclaimed as we sing our faith aloud. The hymn of the day is the principal hymn of the service and is a distinctively Lutheran element in the liturgy. The assembly participates in proclaiming and responding to the word of God with a common voice.  The hymn of the day typically relates directly to the season or day, the lectionary readings, or the preaching.

(before the Prayers of Intercession)
As the assembly prays for the whole world, we remember we have a high priest who continually intercedes for us. The prayers follow a pattern that encourages us to turn our hearts and eyes outward to the world. We pray for the needs of the church, for all of creation and the people of the world, for those in need, and for the local community. We also give thanks for the lives of the saints who inspire us in our pilgrimage.

(before Sharing Christ’s Peace)
Passing the peace of Christ is an ancient component of Christian worship and liturgy. Our modern day version of peace passing is descended from an earlier act of worship known as “the kiss of peace.” The practice of verbally and physically sharing Christ’s peace trains ours hearts, hands, and tongues in the ways of peace.

(before the Offering, Choral Offering, Offertory Response, and Offering Prayer)
A collection of material goods for the church’s mission, including the care of those in need, is a sign of the giving of our whole selves in grateful response for all God’s gifts. The table is set with bread and wine, also part of the gifts we offer to God. The choir provides an offering of music, a sacrifice of praise.

(before the Dialogue, Preface, and Holy, Holy, Holy)
Before the Lord’s supper is shared, the presiding minister leads us into thanksgiving. The words of the opening dialogue are known as the “Sursum Corda,” which is Latin for “hearts lifted.” This dialogue is found in the most ancient of Christian liturgies, dating all the way to the third century. The presiding minister and assembly exchange a formal greeting. Then the assembly is invited to lift their hearts to God. The final exchange indicates the assembly’s agreement to the presiding minister continuing to offer the remainder of the Eucharistic Prayer on their behalf. The proper preface follows, which relates to the liturgical season or day. The assembly then joins with the whole creation in singing the angels’ song: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might.”

(before the Words of Institution and Lord’s Prayer)
The grace of God’s gift is always proclaimed in Jesus’ own words of command and promise at the table. The term “Eucharist” comes from the Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” The service of Holy Communion is connected to every meal in which Jesus gave thanks before breaking bread. The thanksgiving concludes with the prayer our Lord Jesus taught us.

(before Sharing the Meal and Prayer after Communion)
In Christ’s body and blood given to us, God forgives us and nourishes us for mission. We sing as the bread is broken and as the meal is shared. After sharing the meal, we pray, asking God to send us in witness to the world.

(before the Benediction, Sending Hymn, and Dismissal)
God’s mission sends us out. God’s mission includes the gifts of grace that we share in worship. Now, we are sent to continue our participation in God’s mission by sharing these gifts of grace with the world. With the blessing of God, we go out to live as Christ’s body in the world.

Fellowship Belongs

Transcript:

  • Acts 2:42-47
    42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
  • Robert Putnam wrote a book in 2000 called “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” In this book, Putnam puts out a simple premise: “Americans need to reconnect with one another.” He chronicles that many of the civic organizations that were started and thriving in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s have begun to collapse. Bowling leagues and garden clubs that had popped up and continually been replenished with new members, suddenly stopped growing. In the last 20 years, many of these groups have ceased to exist. The church hasn’t been immune either. The days when it was assumed that everyone would belong to a church somewhere are gone.
  • However, in the passage from Acts 2 we hear the story of the early church – the followers of Jesus that formed communities immediately after Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This passage presents a paradigm for church membership that includes four main actions: the teaching of the apostles, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer (v. 42). These four main actions are expounded on in the verses that follow (vv. 43-47). These four main actions synthesized the new faith of these Jesus followers.
  • The first action was that they “remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles” (Acts 2:42). The teaching is specifically related to how the apostles worked “many signs and miracles” (v. 43). In the modern mindset, it can be very difficult to link these two things: teaching and miracles. The Western, Post-Enlightenment, rational mind tends to view teaching favorably and miracles with questioning. However, in ancient Eastern cultures, as well as in many developing cultures today, miraculous events are seen as modes of authentication.  At one time in the church’s history, theology was naturally linked to miracles, spirituality, and mystery.
  • The next action that the earliest followers of Jesus remained faithful to was “the fellowship” (Acts 2:42). The Greek term used is koinonia which is also translated as “the community.” Specifically, the fellowship practiced by the early church is elaborated on by their familial sharing of possessions. They “owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and distributed the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed” (vv. 44-45). Actions such as these were the signs of a deep connectedness and humility toward one another. Jesus’ teaching that one should “lend without any hope of return” (Luke 6:35) was being actualized.
  • The third action that the early church committed to was “the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42). This action is expanded on with the description that they “met in their houses for the breaking of bread; they shared food gladly and generously” (v. 46). It is worth noting that the Eucharistic practice of the early church occurred during the sharing of a larger, common meal (known as the agape). When the early church had communion, it wasn’t in a continuous assembly line! It was in the context of the common meal the blessing and thanksgiving over the bread and wine would take place. Eventually the practice of the common meal fell out of use and the rite of giving thanks that Jesus instituted remained.  It is clear from the language in Acts 2:42 that the common meal was the practice in the context of Jerusalem. The sharing of food generously speaks to the context of the larger agape meal. The breaking of bread, however, is more specific language that Luke previously used when Jesus shared a meal with some disciples after the resurrection (Luke 24:35). When the disciples broke bread together, it was more than an ordinary meal. The breaking of bread recalled the death of Jesus, the mighty acts of God’s salvation fulfilled in Jesus, and the hope of his return. For Jewish believers, recalling Jesus’ death through the breaking of bread was more than detailed memory. It was the truth, fully alive and come to life before their eyes.
  • The fourth action to which the disciples committed themselves was “the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The disciples’ faithfulness in prayers related to how “they regularly went to the Temple” (v. 46) and “praised God” (v. 47). Just as the final parts of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem took place within the context of the Temple, so the apostles and early church continued to gather there for prayer. Despite the persecution and uncertainty that surrounded them, the early church was characterized by their praise of God.
  • These four main actions of the early church remain essential in the church today. It is vital to remain connected to the apostolic teaching and witness to Jesus’ life and ministry. Being bonded together with other Christ-followers in fellowship and commonality is also important today. Continually remembering, giving thanks, and looking forward to Jesus around the table are still central symbolic actions in the church. Jesus has also established his church to be a house of prayer and continual praise. These four actions provide the framework for membership in the New Testament church. These four things are still central to our church here at Faith today.
  • Today we are honing on one of the four actions from the early church in Acts 2: Fellowship. In our church we say, “Faith belongs.” The word “belonging” is such a fascinating way of thinking about fellowship and membership in the church. When we join a church – or I would suggest instead of saying “when we join” it is actually “when the Spirit draws us into a church” – it is more than signing your name on a line or attending a class. You are actually belonging yourself to a group of people. They belong to you, and you belong to them. And that is something that the world and culture around us is thirsty for – an authentic community. There is a brokenness in our culture, and it stems from our individualism. We prefer to close ourselves off from the rest of the world. We wear earbuds everywhere (work, shop, and exercise), we’ve got man caves (private dens of testosterone), we work in cubicles (usually wearing headphones). We see our world through an individualistic lens. Lead actors and actresses. Sports stars. Solo artists. Top chef.
  • Now compare that with Scripture. Start with the Passover. God rescuing his people Israel from the bondage and slavery of Egypt, delivering them to freedom and new life. Think about how the Passover is celebrated in the Jewish community. The central episode in Hebrew history is celebrated, not in a synagogue by priests, but in the home, by parents around a table set for an evening meal. Its been said that if all Christian churches closed their doors today, the faith would crumble. But if all the synagogues closed their doors, the Jewish faith would carry on as if nothing had happened.
  • The transformative aspect of a church community is not only the religious practices, but the friendships that are nurtured there
  • The new covenant that Jesus established – Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, opening the gate for belonging to the people of God (no longer race-related, no longer born into it, but available to everyone/everywhere) – The new covenant was instituted and is renewed in the context of fellowship, specifically in the act of table fellowship.
  • New research from Robert Putnam: He suggests pastors: “Spend less time on the sermons, and more time arranging the church suppers.” In a new Gallup-Healthways poll with more than 676,000 participants it was revealed that the more church friends a person has, the happier he or she is. “Church friends are super-charged friends, but we have no idea why,” “We have some hypotheses, but we don’t know for sure.” The researchers found that non-church friends do not provide the same benefit in terms of well-being, and that other measures of being religious — like belief in God or frequency of prayer — do not serve as a reliable predictor of a person’s satisfaction with life.
  • A meal is a real, valuable act in a church. It takes attention, the food has to come from somewhere, and it all has to be planned, prepared, and afterwards cleaned up. There is really good work, as Putnam indicates, for pastors (and other church leaders) to do in arranging church suppers, both for the act of fellowship and the friendships that will be nurtured around the table.
  • “People who frequently attend religious services are more satisfied with their lives not because they have more friends overall but because they have more friends in their congregations,” And churchgoing alone without making friends does not improve well-being, they found.
  • Putnam said, “In short, sitting alone in the pew does not enhance one’s life satisfaction,” Only when one forms social networks in a congregation does religious service attendance lead to a higher level of life satisfaction.”
  • The transformative aspect of a church community is not only the religious practices but the friendships that are nurtured there. Or perhaps it’s that developing friendships is a religious practice. There is a spirituality to being woven into the fabric of community. Sharing life, sharing possessions, sharing joys and sorrows.
  • Let me encourage you: Don’t be a “lurker.”
  • Belong to Faith – find a group of people that you can belong to and that they can belong to you – Faith Family Fun Days, Learning Groups, Congregational Events/Meals, service opportunities.

Message from 5/22/11 (Stoning of St. Stephen)

Here is the video from Sunday’s message at Theophilus. Marcus and I had a great time “tag-teaming” the message.

We each had enough material to preach our own individual messages, so I left a couple of points out due to lack of time. Here they are:

  • If you’re going to follow Jesus, you might have to follow Jesus (even to death). Is it possible that I could be killed for my faith? Or one of you? I don’t know. The point is this: If we claim to be followers of a Savior who was crucified, should we expect any different? The question is, will we allow our own crosses and our own martyrdoms to be an opportunity to imitate Jesus, his compassion and mercy?
  • (Hat-Tip to Peter Rollins for this point, taken from his blog post)
    Anecdote – “One evening a guy is driving home after a long and tiring day at work and gets a call from his concerned wife, “Dear, be careful on the way home as I just heard on the news that some crazy guy has been spotted going full speed the wrong way up the freeway” The husband says, “Sorry honey, can’t talk right now… there isn’t just one crazy guy, there are hundreds of them!!!”

    This is funny, but this is the situation the Jewish mob that murders Stephen find themselves in. They don’t even consider that they may be wrong. This situation is sadly all too common. Now look at this story in your own life – put yourself in the shoes of the angry mob. How do we encounter people with different political, religious, and cultural values to our own? When we’re confronted with someone who thinks differently than us, how do we respond? Most people respond in 1 of 2 ways: (A) Consumption – attempting to neutralize the difference by changing them to our way of thinking (making them like us), or (B) Rejection – rejecting them from our group as a foreign agent that must be expelled (protecting the integrity of our group).

    But there is a better option. The better option is Communion. Communion can be described as eating with the other who thinks differently. Here the community seeks to sit down with the other and seek out places of convergence. Communion is saying there are places where we are both right, lets see where those places are, and move forward together.

    To be in Communion with someone means we put ourselves in the other’s shoes, we look at the situation through their eyes. This is an alternative type of encounter with people who are different than us. And it’s what Jesus came to show us. Jesus came to show us that there is a different way to treat people. We don’t have to change them and we don’t have to reject them. God can save us as we are, whether right or wrong.

What if God is not who we thought?

Excerpt from Easter sermon by Nadia Bolz-Weber:

Once upon a time, the God of the Universe was basically fed up with being on the receiving end of all our human projections, tired of being nothing more to us than what we thought God should be: angry, show-offy, defensive, insecure, in short, the vengeance-seeking tyrant we would be if we were God. So, at that time, over 2,000 years ago, God’s Loving Desire to really be Known overflowed the heavens and was made manifest in the rapidly dividing cells within the womb of an insignificant peasant girl named Mary. And when the time came for her to give birth to God, there was no room in our expectations – no room in any impressive or spiffy or safe place. So this God was born in straw and dirt. He grew up, this Jesus of Nazareth, lefthis home, and found some, let’s be honest,  rather unimpressive characters to follow him.  Fishermen, Tax collectors, prostitutes, homeless women with no teeth, people from Commerce City, Ann Coulter and Charlie Sheen.  If you think I’m kidding…read it for yourselves.  These people were questionable. So, with his little band of misfits Jesus went about the countryside turning water to wine, eating with all the wrong people, angering the religious establishment and insisting that in him the kingdom of God had come near, that through him the world according to God was coming right to us.  He touched the unclean and used spit and dirt to heal the blind and said crazy destabilizing things like the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and sell all you have and give it to the poor.

And the thing that really cooked people’s noodles wasn’t the question “is Jesus like God” it was “what if God is like Jesus”.  What if God is not who we thought?  What if the most reliable way to know God is not through religion, not through a sin and punishment program, but through a person. What if the most reliable way to know God is to look at how God chose to reveal God’s self in Jesus?

 

Sermon on Luke 3:7-18 (Advent 3 C)

Zephaniah 3:14-20:

14Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;

shout, O Israel!

Rejoice and exult with all your heart,

O daughter Jerusalem!

15The LORD has taken away the judgments against you,

he has turned away your enemies.

The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst;

you shall fear disaster no more.

16On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:

Do not fear, O Zion;

do not let your hands grow weak.

17The LORD, your God, is in your midst,

a warrior who gives victory;

he will rejoice over you with gladness,

he will renew you in his love;

he will exult over you with loud singing

18as on a day of festival.

I will remove disaster from you,

so that you will not bear reproach for it.

19I will deal with all your oppressors

at that time.

And I will save the lame

and gather the outcast,

and I will change their shame into praise

and renown in all the earth.

20At that time I will bring you home,

at the time when I gather you;

for I will make you renowned and praised

among all the peoples of the earth,

when I restore your fortunes

before your eyes, says the LORD.

Luke 3:7-18:

7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Introduction – Already but not yet

Advent is the season of waiting. It is rich with symbolism. The season is marked by the color blue, which represents the color of the sky, just before the hopeful light of dawn breaks. The paraments on the altar table depict a crown and an olive branch, which reminds us that the One for whom we wait is the “Prince of Peace.” There is also the Advent wreath, its circular nature, with no beginning and no end, is reminiscent of God’s infinite nature and the eternal life found through faith in Christ. The branches of the evergreen are symbolic of the promise of new life that comes with the spring. The color of each of the candles holds special meaning as well. Purple symbolizes expectation, royalty, and penitence. Today we light the pink candle, which symbolizes joy. White symbolizes the purity of Christ’s light to the world.

This is also the season of “already, but not yet.” Call it a paradox, or an oxymoron, or whatever, but Advent tells us simultaneously that we are both “there” and “not quite there.” We experience the “already” because Bethlehem happened; Jesus has already been born. But we simultaneously experience the “not yet” because we await His coming again and the consummation of history. Through faith in Christ we experience the “already” because we are saved and made holy. But we simultaneously experience the “not yet” because we are still bound by our sinful flesh. We experience the “already” because Christ established His kingdom with His first advent. But we wait in the “not yet” for Christ to return to complete His promise and make all Believers co-reigners in His real, eternal kingdom.

C.S. Lewis quote

“When the author walks onto the stage, the play is over. God is going to invade all right. But what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe, melting away like a dream, and something else, something it never entered your head to conceive comes crashing in. Something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left. For this time it will be God without disguise. Something so overwhelming, that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you could choose to lie down when it is become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing. It will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen. Whether we realized it before or not. Now, today, this moment is our chance to choose the right side.
God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it.” (Mere Christianity)

The Gospel

Cutting down trees, and sweeping out the chaff, and being thrown in the fire, and name-calling: where is the good news? Today’s Gospel from Luke ends a bit abruptly: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Being referred to as a “snake” by John the Baptizer doesn’t sound like good news to me.

John the Baptizer has earned his reputation for fiery and provocative preaching, partly because of his startling message to those who came to be baptized: “YOU BROOD OF VIPERS!” Comparing one’s own congregation—the same people who came to hear him preach and be baptized! — to a hissing and writhing mess of poisonous snakes probably doesn’t earn too many fans. John continues to antagonize the people by dismissing their claims to entitlement from having been born into a faith community. “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.”

And so we ask with the crowds that day, “What then should we do?” This is the same question that the crowd asked on Pentecost after Peter’s sermon.

Here is the good news. Here is the heart of the Gospel today: we are all snakes, we are all children of Abraham, and our lives are both wheat and chaff. And then we hear John tell the crowd about the coming kingdom. We get a glimpse of what the rules will be in the kingdom of the One who is on His way. God’s new kingdom is available to them where they are, requiring only enough faith to perceive the sacred in the midst of the ordinary.  It is entirely within their reach. It’s doable: “Share. Be generous. Be fair.  Be honest. Don’t bully. Strive for simplicity.”

The God Who Sings

We’re familiar with the image of God described in today’s Gospel. We’re familiar with the God who throws in the fire those who don’t produce good fruit. But there is another image of God. A powerful image comes from the first reading in Zephaniah. On this Sunday devoted to joy, we hear the words that depict God as the one who bursts into song with joy over God’s beloved: “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival” (3:17-18).

Such joy is not subdued; it is not quiet or dignified. The Hebrew words used in verse 17 are used elsewhere in the Bible to describe great jubilation – leaping for JOY! The Lord rejoices over his beloved, over Judah and Jerusalem, as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride (Isaiah 62:5). As David danced in front of the Ark of the Covenant, in exultation, so God rejoices over God’s people (2 Samuel 6). As the morning stars sang at the creation of the world, so God sings with elation over God’s beloved (Job 38:7).

We’re familiar with images of God as judge. But how often do we imagine God as one who rejoices? One who sings? Yet here, in Zephaniah, God and God’s people alike are caught up in a joy that overflows into song, a joy that springs from love renewed, and relationship restored.

This joy is not one-sided. It is not only God’s people who rejoice because of the forgiveness and restoration that God provides. That is an understandable reaction to God’s redemption. But God’s people aren’t the only ones rejoicing. God also sings and shouts with joy over this love restored. The divine heart overflows with jubilation!

So when you picture God, and you see the angry parent, finger on the zap button, ready to pound us for our sins, then look again.  Or if your image of God is that of a distant and remote creator, who sets everything in motion and forgets to check in or intervene, then look again.

No, the God mentioned in Zephaniah is moved, is deeply affected, by human attitudes and actions. This God does not watch from a distance, but enters into the life of the world. This God “moved into the neighborhood,” in that mysterious and wonderful event we call the Incarnation. Because of the Incarnation, we experience redemption and reconciliation with God both now and in the world to come. And now we, the rescued ones, get to live our entire lives as an expression of God’s redemption. We get to spread this joy of recreation to all people. What then should we do? We who have two get to share one. We who have been healed can help the sick. We who have been provided for get to welcome the outsiders. We get to bear fruit worthy of repentance. It’s about your life. God cares about how you live your life.

Conclusion

Today is about joy, the joy of a people redeemed and restored, but also the joy of a God who is deeply invested in setting the world back in order. God sings. God shouts. God rejoices. And we, we who are gloriously and inexplicably chosen as God’s beloved, join in the celebration.

Resources:

Ways to Hear the Word of God in Worship – Sermon

The “scripting” of preaching can, like a bad play, be pre-
dictable and dull. Even worse, it can be manipulative. A play is
said to be “preachy” when it uses the medium of drama to coerce
a certain (and unvarying) response. Good preaching is direct,
understandable, and dynamic, but it also has a certain quality of
open-endedness. It is evocative—it stirs and “opens up” without
substituting for the work of the Spirit.

Furr, Garry, and Milburn Price. The Dialogue of Worship. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 1998, p. 11.