Wednesday, December 18, at 7:30 pm

We are all carrying something that feels heavy.  Even in a festive season like the time leading up to Christmas, we carry the weight of grief or worry or fear.  Join us for a special worship service the week before Christmas that will provide a space of hope and healing for anyone who is grieving the death of a loved one, trying to make sense of a difficult relationship, or struggling to stay spiritually grounded in our crazy world.  The service will include prayers, time for reflection, and music, including portions of the beautiful Holden Evening Prayer setting.  There will be an optional opportunity for individual prayer and anointing with Pastor Christa at the end of the service.

5:00 pm – Worship with Youth Ensemble and Kids’ Choir

10:00 pm – Candlelight Service with Adult Choir and Violin

Matthew 3:1-12 and Isaiah 11:1-10

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Matthew 3:2

I know there’s often angst at this time of year about how to greet people.  Do we say “Merry Christmas”? “Happy Holidays”?  “Season’s Greetings”?  Well, this morning we have our answer.  The correct greeting is clearly “Repent, you brood of vipers!”

This is the time in Advent when John the Baptist always makes an appearance.  It’s another way in which our sense of time gets distorted during this season. Last week our readings pushed us to think about the second coming of Jesus, which seems like a distant unknown, even though we were urged to “keep awake!”  This week we’re back to his first arrival, only this time we land in the story just before Jesus makes his debut as an adult in Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus is about to begin his earthly ministry, and John has come to get people ready for the ways that Jesus will shake things up.

This scene takes place out in the wilderness – the place where people in the Bible often go for clarity.  The wilderness is – well, wild – but in many ways it’s less chaotic than the distractions of the city.  I lived for a year in the high desert of Arizona, and there’s nothing like the wide-open spaces there, especially the sky at night.  Far from the light pollution of the city, you can see for miles.  You feel like you’re looking at the face of God.  So the wilderness makes sense to me as a place to prepare for the arrival of Jesus.

What John is saying and doing in the wilderness might seem kind of crazy, but that hasn’t kept people from flocking out there to hear it.  People are coming from all around to be baptized by John.  But pay attention to what John says: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

“Repent” is one of those words that makes us flinch.  Maybe it’s because we imagine someone yelling it at us, pointing a finger in righteous indignation, trying to make us feel shame or guilt.  Or we think of the guy holding a sign near Penn Station warning us to repent because the world is about to end.

One of the main reasons we don’t like to talk about repentance is that we don’t like to talk about sin.  It’s hard sometimes to tell the truth about ourselves, about our capacity to hurt other people, including those we love the most.

We understand sin theologically in several ways.  Sin means doing what is wrong according to the law of God.  Sin creates systems that oppress or harm entire groups of people.  Martin Luther tells us that sin turns us inward toward ourselves and away from God.  Sin is, in one translation, “missing the mark” in the way an archer misses her target.  Sin is all of those things.  And yet it is also something more than a moral failing.

I am intrigued by the way writer Debie Thomas describes sin.  She writes:

[Sin is] anything that interferes with the opening up of our whole hearts to God, to others, to creation, and to ourselves.  Sin is estrangement, disconnection, sterility, disharmony.  It’s the sludge that slows us down, that says, “Quit.  Stop trying.  Give up.  Change is impossible.”  Sin is apathy.  Care-less-ness.  A frightened resistance to an engaged life.  Sin is the opposite of creativity, the opposite of abundance, the opposite of flourishing.  Sin is a walking death.[i]

It helps me to think of sin as that which makes us resistant to being changed.  God’s creativity has no limits, and God created each of us with a unique combination of gifts to offer the world.  Bear fruit worthy of repentance, John says.  Repentance is not just an internal process.  It will be revealed in how people see us live.

The Greek word for “repent” means to “turn in another direction,” and that’s one way to think about it.  Building on Debie’s definition of sin, to repent would mean to turn toward the possibility that God wants something more for us, to turn toward the promise that God can change what we thought was impossible to change.

Repentance gets caught up for us in a fear of judgment.  And while we don’t like to talk about judgment either, Jesus is described in scripture as that righteous judge who comes, as we hear today, to separate the wheat from the chaff.  In other words, Jesus seeks to preserve what is useful for making bread and feeding people and to get rid of what needs to be discarded.

A couple of folks reminded me this week that judgment is not something to be feared.[ii]  Judgment does not have to be terrible.  Someone who judges fairly sees us with a clarity that means we are truly known and understood.  When someone who deeply loves us is the one doing the judging – seeing us exactly as we are – it opens the way to growth.

Jesus is that kind of judge.  He sees the wheat in us, sees how we can nourish others.  He sees what can be harvested for the common good, for creative and life-giving generosity to the people in our lives and in our communities.  He is able to transform what is destructive and to bring out what is holy and creative in us.[iii]

John says that he baptizes with water, but Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  If you’ll allow me to nerd out for a moment, there’s a term from metallurgy that I learned recently.[iv]  Metallurgy is the science of metallic compounds– how they’re made and how they can be transformed to produce other substances like alloys.  The term is called annealing.  It’s the process of heating a metal to a specific temperature so that it softens and becomes more pliable.  It’s also a kind of cleansing process because it gets rid of what can weaken the metal at the same time that it allows the metal to be shaped into something that is both strong and beautiful.[v]

That struck me as one way to imagine what Jesus does with that fire of the Holy Spirit and with us.  Maybe it’s a kind of annealing, shaping us into something more strong, more beautiful, more loving, and more giving than we thought possible.  The 20th century theologian Thomas Merton said it this way: “Advent is the beginning of the end of all that is in us that is not Christ.”[vi]

Advent is the beginning of the end of all that is in us that is not Christ.  What remains is reflected in a prayer we use during baptism, one that draws from the Isaiah passage we heard this morning.  Isaiah talks about the fear of the Lord, but think of that fear not as terror but as awe – awe for what the Lord is able to do with us and with creation.  Awe that God can imagine a world in which wolves can live with lambs, alongside leopards and goats, calves and lions, cows and bears, children and snakes.  A whole host of natural enemies living peacefully with one another.

I ask you to join me in that baptismal prayer again this morning.  Let us pray:

We give you thanks, O God, that through water and the Holy Spirit you give your children new birth, cleanse us from sin, and raise us to eternal life.  Sustain your people here today with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever.  Amen.

 

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

[i] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2470

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Thank you to Trey Graham for introducing me to the term in this beautiful piece about sacred music: https://treygraham.substack.com/p/aswim-in-the-unbearable-exquisite?fbclid=IwAR1J4YH-xUpb7iDy9QKMqWexzhtgEwAiXB7PJlAZDN3rO_2Hi62nN8VrG28

[v] https://www.cooksongold.com/blog/jewellery-tips/technique-focus-annealing-precious-metals

[vi] With thanks to the Rev. Elaine Hewes for this quotation and for her powerful insights on today’s texts, found in the latest issue of Currents in Theology and Mission: http://currentsjournal.org/index.php/currents/article/view/208

 

Matthew 24:36-44

“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Matthew 24:44

It was wonderful to have my sister Claire here for Thanksgiving. She’s a really easy houseguest, so it’s not at all stressful to get ready for her visit. But there are certain preparations involved. I cleaned out the clutter that had piled up in the guest room. I made sure there were clean sheets on the bed. I got one of her favorite kinds of candy to leave as a surprise for her. I was ready.

It was easy to time these preparations because I knew when she was going to arrive. I was ready to pick her up at the airport Tuesday night. I had her flight number so I could track it online. But what if she had decided to change her plans without telling me? What if she had shown up unannounced on Sunday night instead? I would have still been excited to see her, but I wouldn’t have been ready. She might have had to sleep on the sofa until I uncovered her bed.

Advent is, among other things, a season in which we prepare. One of the ways we prepare is familiar and easier to understand. We prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus. In story and in song, we remember how people looked for the messiah about which the prophets had spoken. We try to keep our hearts centered on the promises of God that are fulfilled in the coming of that child, even as we get ready in other ways – decorating trees, wrapping presents, making special foods.

The second way that Advent asks us to get ready is much less clear. Scripture talks about a time when Jesus will come again. It’s not necessarily going to be the kind of cosmic war that popular culture would lead you to believe – or a time in which certain people will magically disappear while others are left behind. Taken all together, those scriptural texts about a second coming promise a time when God’s vision for creation will be fully restored, when all that is broken in us and in the world will be healed. We hear fragments of that expectation in our worship. In the creed we say that “He will come again to judge the living and the dead…” We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” We may not know entirely what God’s will looks like, but we ask God to make it true on earth as it is in heaven.

We’ll be spending a lot of time in the gospel of Matthew over the next year, and we begin today in a strange part of the story. Just before this moment, Jesus has predicted the eventual destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The disciples understandably have a lot of questions. When is this going to happen? What will be the warning signs? They want to be ready.

Keep in mind that the gospel of Matthew was likely written down somewhere between the year 80 and the year 90 – after the actual destruction of the temple by the Romans in the year 70. So to the earliest audience for Matthew’s gospel, a few things were true. They had witnessed the horror of the destruction that Jesus had predicted. It was quite real to them. And by that point they had been living for decades with the hope that Jesus would return again, as he had also predicted. People kept hoping. They kept waiting. They wanted to be ready, but they were getting tired, maybe even a little distracted. It’s hard to keep waiting, especially when you don’t know the exact timeline.

I’m guessing that most of us, living centuries after that first coming of Jesus, don’t spend a lot of time thinking about when Jesus might come again. But as Christians we live in this in-between time, a time of now and not yet. A time when there are signs of God’s activity all around us and a time when we anticipate an unknown future that is also in God’s hands.

One of the things that feels most familiar to me about our strange gospel this morning is the reality that there are some things for which we cannot fully prepare. Before the flood, we are reminded, people were just going about their business, both the ordinary tasks of daily life, like eating and drinking, and the more significant moments, like getting married. They didn’t know that a flood was about to sweep them all away. We hear about those pairs of workers busy with their usual daily labor – harvesting in the field, grinding meal. In each case one is gone, and one remains. How do you prepare for that?

We also hear that the coming of Jesus is like a thief breaking into a home at an unexpected hour. Even with all our attempted preparations, from security systems to doorbell cameras, we won’t be able to keep him out.

Advent summons us in this in-between time to get ready. To prepare. To prepare not by designing ways to keep Jesus out, but by living as if he has already come again. To celebrate the ways that Jesus breaks into our lives again and again, even when we least expect it, giving us the grace to live as people who know something other than a competitive, me-first culture. To live as people who put God first instead.

A couple of weeks ago I met a young woman, whom I will call Ashley, though that isn’t her real name. She’s a high school student who works at one of the going-out-of-business Dress Barn stores. She helped me one night as I was doing some bargain shopping. It was almost closing time, so there weren’t many people there. At first she wanted to know where my accent was from – and then she wanted to know how I had ended up in New Jersey. She was surprised to learn that I am a Lutheran pastor. She hadn’t met a woman pastor before, but she thought it was pretty cool that Lutherans have women pastors. Then she asked me what it was like to be a pastor, and (among other things) I said that it was a privilege to be with people in some of their happiest moments – the birth of a child, a baptism, a wedding – and also to be with people during their hardest moments – an illness or the death of a loved one.

At that point she opened up with more of her story. Ashley’s father died unexpectedly when she was seven years old. She remembers the last morning she saw her dad. She especially remembers how she didn’t know that morning that it would be the last time she would see him. Ashley carries the grief of her father’s death always, though it has taken a different shape as the years have passed. And of course that loss continues to affect how she lives her life now. When she hears her friends say in moments of anger, “I hate my parents!” she will stop them. She’ll say, “Don’t say that. You don’t know what could happen.” Ashley had recently gotten involved in a fight between two of her friends, forcing them to make peace with each other. Her friends sometimes tease her that she’s never afraid to insert herself into difficult situations. I told her, “Well, when you’ve faced the hardest thing imaginable, it gives you a certain courage for things that scare other people.”

Ashley lives in a kind of in-between time. She is shaped by the time that she had with her father, though that time was all too short. And she is also shaped by the desire to make him proud now, in the hope that she will see him again. She lives differently because of what she has known and what she knows is possible.

Advent gives us an opportunity to wait in a different way, to live in an in-between. As the world around us gets more chaotic, more loud, more busy, Advent invites us to be still and quiet whenever possible. As the world becomes more violent, Advent calls us to be peacemakers, shaping our swords into plowshares, turning our resentments into reconciliation. As the world keeps insisting that we can buy happiness, we remember that we already have the greatest gift that money could never buy.

Advent summons us to live not just as if Jesus has come once a long time ago, but as if Jesus has already come again and is here now. As indeed he is. Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

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Chatham, NJ 07928-1659
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Meetings & Events

  • December 10 – Morris Music Men, 7:00 pm
  • December 17 – Morris Music Men, 7:00 pm
  • December 24 – Morris Music Men, 7:00 pm
  • December 31 – Morris Music Men, 7:00 pm
  • January 6 – Church Council, 7:30 pm