Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

12-4-16: Make Room for the Kingdom

My call sermon at Family of God Lutheran Church on December 4th: 

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Imagine, if you will, what a “John the Baptist Christmas card” would look like.  We see pretty much every other thing every other thing associated with Christmas on cards… so why do we leave out John the Baptist? Perhaps such a card might look something like this – a big hairy man with crazy hair out in the desert, knee deep in the river he has been baptizing people in, with a Santa hat on, singing “I know if you’ve been bad or good, so repent for goodness sake!” Or maybe holding out a tray of honey covered bugs and saying “I made you Christmas cookies!”

But of course John the Baptist doesn’t bake cookies or stand still enough to get his likeness on a Christmas card. He is far too busy baptizing, of course, which is well, you know, part of his name, after all!

Often we associate baptisms with babies, because babies are cute, especially when they cry when the pastor pours the water over his or his head. Often too we think about Jesus coming to us as a cute baby as we head toward Christmas, like the chubby infant pictured perfectly clean and happy on Christmas cards.

But John the Baptist reminds us that the coming of Jesus is not about cute babies or Christmas cards. Christmas is actually an invasion. Not an alien invasion or a British invasion, but a divine invasion. This is an invasion, not of weapons and power, but of peace and love. Jesus is about to invade our own world, and enter fully into our realm that is ruled by sin, death, and the powers that defy God. And the sign of this invasion in your baptism.

Jesus enters our world so that he can snatch you out of Satan’s hand, right out from under his very nose. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor in Germany during World War Two, who lived out his baptism in some very scary times, wrote that wrote that, “Christ invades the realm of Satan, [and] lays hands on his own…” (The Cost of Discipleship). 

That’s you. You are his own. When the water was being splashed on your head, Jesus was saying, “Excuse me, this one is MINE.”

We became God’s children and given the promise of being part of God’s kingdom forever.
But the world tries hard to convince us that we aren’t children of the promise – that instead, we are children of snakes. “Brood of vipers,” to quote John the Baptist. People like the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Pharisees who were the religious score keepers. And the Sadducees had cozied up to those political power – the Roman government, who had conquered their people and ruled with a heavy fist.

The Pharisees and Sadducees heard the snaky voices of the world calling to them, voices that said following “the rules” are the way to earn God’s love, and that seeking after power and influence are more important than seeking God’s justice. We hear the same voices calling to us every single day from every direction. These voices tell us that following certain rules or lifestyles will make us more deserving of God’s love and those who fall short are worth less than us. These voices tell us that seeking after more money, power, success, the newest gadgets, and the most popular friends is the right way to live our lives.
And right now, when we in the church are celebrating Advent but the rest of the world is in full-blown Christmas mode, the voices tell us that our Christmases are supposed to look and feel like the most perfect Hallmark card.

Those voices, for all their promises of happiness and fulfillment, do not deliver. Following these voices takes us down a road that ends in credit card debt, strained relationships, a planet in peril, conflicts and wars and poverty and national anxiety, leaving our lives as dead as a stump left behind after chopping down a Christmas tree.

Another voice, coming from John the Baptist, a voice from the wilderness cries out that the kingdom of heaven is coming near to us. We are Children of the Promise, and the promise is about to be fulfilled. It’s time to remember who we are. It’s time to remember what kingdom we belong to. We belong to a kingdom where new shoots grow out of dead stumps. We belong to a kingdom where the old, “snaky” person in us dies, so that a new person, a new creation in Christ, can be born. It’s time to get ready for this kingdom to arrive.

But there is certainly a lot of junk left over from the old life, the “brood of vipers” life that is cluttering up the way and making our paths of following Jesus pretty crooked. This extra stuff needs to be given up and left behind – like getting rid of extra files on your computer or apps you never use on your smartphone so it can run faster. Or like those boxes that you take with you on every single move, boxes you have not opened in five or ten years, boxes that are filled with things you can’t even remember. But every time you see them you think, “Gosh, I shouldn’t get rid of this, what if I need it later?” So you drag it to your next move so it will take up room in your closet for the next five years. 

Let me remind you what’s in those boxes we’re carrying around. Things like trying to keep up with the Joneses and having the picture perfect Christmas. Things like the fear of people who are a different gender, sexual orientation, were born in a different country, celebrate a different religion, and those who struggle with homelessness, addiction, or mental illness.
We are told to cling to all the things in these boxes, but none of these things belong in God’s kingdom. These things need to be left behind, in the kingdom of snakes. These things belong by the side of the road along the way of the lord.

In the baptismal liturgy, we are asked if we renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God, the ways of sin that draw us from God. Our response is to renounce them, to abandon them, to turn our backs on them.

We renounce them when we use our income to give back to our communities to help those in need, or to patronize businesses that ethically treat their workers and the environment.

We renounce them when we do not give into the messages of hate and fear, or listen to the loud voices telling us that some of God’s children are worth less than others.

We renounce them we make way for the needs of someone else rather than looking out for ourselves first.

Renouncing these boxes is really hard, though. We will be called to live differently than many of the people around us, even our friends and family. We will be called to leave behind what feels comfortable or secure. Others may see us as weak, as easy marks, as losers, as not keeping up,” or being hopefully out of touch.

In our baptisms we were given everything, but we were also given a call to follow. We may not be imprisoned or beheaded as John the Baptist was, or to be sentenced to death in a Nazi prison camp like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But we will be called to make tough choices in our daily living. As Bonhoeffer also wrote, “When Christ calls [a person], he bids [them] come and die.”(The Cost of Discipleship) 

In our baptisms, though we have died with Christ, we have also been raised with him in new life. It’s scary and wonderful newness.

Isaiah reveals to us the vision of what we have to look forward too, as we make room for the coming of a new kind of kingdom in our lives. Isaiah describes a world where mighty predators coexist with the most helpless and vulnerable among us. A world where the powerful and the powerless live together in peace.

We may even recast Isaiah’s vision in different ways. What do you imagine the coming kingdom of God to look like? I think it might look something like this, from the reflections of a colleague: “The CEO will dream with the peace activist … the senators will dance with the undocumented farm workers … the American military leaders will dine with Pakistani mothers… children from all nations will play together and learn together and grow in to their full God given potential … animals and the earth will be treated with respect and care … war will cease and they will not harm anywhere in this holy creation “ Now THAT would be a pretty amazing thing to see on a Christmas card, wouldn’t it?

This is the vision of how life can be that we are making room for - the vision of a new kingdom getting ready to be born in the world, a kingdom you are a part of. This is the kingdom we are turning TOWARD, turning to face as it arrives, like the dawn that comes after a long dark night, like a shoot growing up from a stump long thought dead.

Leave those boxes behind. God is doing something new. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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