What Can I Give Him?
Sermon for Advent 3, Dec. 5, 2013
On the Prairie Home Companion show last night on Public Radio, Garrison Keillor began by reflecting on the snow that fell on Lake Wobegon. He pointed out how delighted everyone was with it. And I was listening to it, and nodding in agreement. I get that. The wonders of new snow that’s fallen. And yes there are challenges in all that, but back in Minnesota, we accept that as part of life.
Then he went on to talk about Pastor Liz at the Lutheran Church. It seems she has a boy friend, who is in the State Patrol. A few times he’s come to church, but doesn’t do that very well. He can’t quite juggle the Sunday bulletin and the hymnal very well. And then Pastor Liz had a Christmas party for all at her home, and one of the parishioners noticed a pair of men’s socks under a chair. Garrison Keillor said, men do that in Minnesota. They can just take their socks in a house. It doesn’t always mean something more.
Such are the times back in Minnesota and in the Lutheran Church in Lake Wobegon.
And we’re going to talk about time in that way. Thinking about the time we’re in here. This time of transition at St. Matthew’s. Yes we know it’s happening in a particular year, but it’s not really about that. It’s about what’s happening to us in this church. How we’re living through these times. And how we’re finding meaning in such a time. And how this time is about a time to come when you will welcome a new rector.
If we go back in time, back just a week, you may have been here in church to hear that John the Baptist was in the wilderness by the Jordan River and there he baptized Jesus. It’s a week later, and we’re eight chapters later in Matthew’s Gospel. We have just heard the story of John the Baptist sitting in prison having been arrested by Herod. It’s pretty easy to imagine that he was thinking about time.
As you know there is digital time and there’s analogical time. In the Greek language the word “Chronos” from which we have the word, “chronological”—that is digital time. It’s precise. Scientists rely on it. The other kind of time, in the Greek language is “Kairos.” It’s not about a particular date on the calendar, or an hour, but about meaning in the context of a story we are living in and through. Or as the times they are living through in the Lutheran church served by Pastor Liz.
For this sermon, though, lets use the terms digital time and analogical time.
Digital time as I said is precise, or its suppose to be that way. Thus our wondrous smart phones, can tell us exactly what the time is, to the precise second.
But some of us live by analogical time. Which watch are you wearing today? Mine is an analogical watch, and that means I can only tell you it is close to____. Some of us wear analogical watches actually set head of digital time lest we be late for an important date.
I want to ask you in just a moment to turn to your neighbor and compare the way you tell time. If you were sitting next to my brother-in-law Eldon, he wouldn’t have a watch to show you. He’s the ultimate analog person. He’d tell you he quit wearing a watch the day he retired. See who has a digital watch or who relies on a smart phone to tell the time. And see if someone around you is actually one who is kind of a retrograde analogical time person like I am. (Please take a few moments now and compare the time, or what you think the time is.)
I hope you discovered a few analogical people near you. That’s the way John the Baptist saw time. Last week in the Gospel we heard our that he saw a day of doom, a day of judgment, a day even of the wrath of God coming. The implications of his vision, with the kind of urgency contained in his message, suggested that this end was near. But he couldn’t say on what date it would happen. He also said, that he was not bringing the end about— he was not making it a reality — but that, the reality of the end would come, he was sure, with the one who followed him. Thus he said in last week’s gospel:
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Eight chapters later, in Matthew’s Gospel, John was sitting in prison, Arrested by Herod, the Jewish king who ruled with a iron hand. We can presume, I think accurately, that Herod collaborated with the occupying Roman army.
Why was John the Baptist arrested? He had learned about Herod’s infidelity with the wife of his brother Philip. John made it pubic news. It’s like he announced it on the first-century version of Entertainment Tonight, and then leaked that information to the Jewish National Enquirer. Had photography been invented then he would have had some Paparazzi take some sleazy pictures of his brother Philip’s wife. Actually I made up some of that.
What Matthew, Chapter 14 tells us, is that John the Baptist was arrested for having accused Herod of having an illicit relationship with his brother’s wife. Let’s go back to Chapter 11.
Today gospel is about the question that John the Baptist was asking of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Before we consider what Jesus wanted John the Baptist to know, remember the question is about time. Yesterday a small group of us gathered for a quiet day in this Advent season — it lasted five hours, time that we all agreed, in a strange way, flew by so quickly. Our retreat was centered on W. H. Auden’s long poem, called “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio.” It was written during some of the darkest days of World War II. Its title?
That Title? For the Time Being — it’s analog time, not digital.
At one point, fairly early on in the poem, the narrator, as he is called, says
“These are stirring times for the editors of newspapers:
History is in the making; mankind is on the march.”
Think about how we have been taught to think about our time: our place, as it were, in the history of the world. A common premise, at least within the last century, was that history could be the framework for the improvement of the world as well as humankind in general. The presumption was that if we put our minds to it, and made the effort that eventually things could just get better and better and better. We believed in that God called Progress. Or did, until, it seemed like it wasn’t happening. But realistic thinking, even pessimism, isn’t always bad.
The question of John the Baptist, “Are you the one to come, or should we expect another?” That was grounded in his pessimism about the world: remember, John spoke of the wrath of God, and he left only a crack open for the rescue of the converted.
But the world of Herod, of the Romans, and the same-old same-old just continued. In the timeless run-on days of his prison time John had heard of this Jesus — but he was wondering about him. This Jesus didn’t further John’s message. John was preaching a violent end or talking about God’s wrath. The reply that Jesus made to John? 180 degrees opposite to what John was saying.
As one theologian put it, “… Jesus sets the message of the Baptist on its head.” [Kasemann, On Being A Disciple, page 6]
Jesus said go tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear,, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them…”
The blind, the lame, the lepers, the dead, and the poor — that’s the vision of Jesus for the church—for his disciples. It wasn’t the vision that John the Baptist saw. It certainly wasn’t a vision that the Pharisees or the religious elite could embrace. And such a vision would clearly upset the order and rule of the disdainful political authorities whose governance was predicated on their authority and their rights—and not those who were at the bottom of the pecking order.
So in those times, but also in these times, there’s a real challenge to the vision of Jesus regarding the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus talked about a kingdom to come, but not just to come after this world, but it was to come into this world. And as it became visible in the ministry of Jesus it was creating a community of friends, that is marked by the paradox of weakness. It’s focus of membership: included the little people who weren’t easily seen. Even that man named Lazarus, in one of Jesus’es parables, who wasn’t seen to be lying outside that rich man’s door.
Listen if you will to this sentence by one theologian: “As disagreeable as it is to say, the true church was never of fellowship in which decent people formed the majority.” (Kasemann)
So we have this list of people who were gathered together in that very strange community through the ministry of Jesus. The blind, the lame, the lepers. The Jesus adds two more groups he was reaching. He said that the dead are raised to life and then he said the poor have good news brought to them. Wouldn’t it have make more sense to say that the most astounding news of the ministry of Jesus was that he brought the dead to life? But the last group are the poor who hear good news.
Now a better translation is probably to say that the ministry of Jesus is what encourages little people. You might translate it: the poor are evangelized. That’s more important than raising the dead to life.
As one biblical scholar put it “Giving life to the dead is something; but giving the living a way to live is something too.” [Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: A historical/theological commentary/Matthew 1-12, page 412]
So here’s what it boils down to: for Jesus, those who stumbled in life, those who can’t see, can’t hear, can’t walk, can’t live, and can’t believe that life is worth living, they receive an invitation to belong to God’s kingdom now and forever.
Notice that Jesus didn’t say “Shape up yourselves!” — Jesus wasn’t making a call for morality, or looking to correct for political system. And Jesus wasn’t telling John the Baptist that I put in place some social service networks, and eventually things going to be better.
Remember, the key line from St. Paul. “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” Salvation—our reconciliation with God, it’s nothing we do, and it never is earned, and it is always gift. It’s not improvement from self-help books; it’s not a better life because we’ve negotiated a way to live with one another. It’s simply that God calls us to practice welcoming one another as we have been welcomed once we see what it means to be one of the disciples of Jesus.
I wonder. I wonder. I wonder if John the Baptist ever learned the Lord’s Prayer? What sometimes is called the “Disciples Prayer.” Our father who art in heaven give us this day our daily bread.
Can you imagine if I taught it to you this way? My father who is in heaven give me my daily bread. How does that sound to your ears? It grates on mine. It‘s wrong. It’s not Jesus. It’s not the church as it’s meant to be.
Think moreover, of the way you and I come to communion. When the invitation is made this morning. The gifts of God, for the people of God. And you come, walking forward in the company of even strangers. How often is it in this world that we intentionally eat and gladly eat with people we don’t know?
But the more important gesture, and really in some ways the unbelievable gesture, that we each make comes when receive the bread. Please note, you hear the words. “The body of Christ, The bread of heaven.” It’s gift to you, gift to me, and we each stand there with a hand out— an empty hand . Our hands out, but empty! And waiting.
Yes it’s still true, there is poverty here. Maybe not as the world sees poverty, but if we are deep down honest, [and that’scnot always easy to do] but if we are deep down honest then we know how much we hunger. How each of us hungers for something money can never by, which possessions can never secure, and investments can never promise.
To come here today, it’s good that we hear that question of John the Baptist: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Who is this Jesus?
Jesus is the Lord of my life. Jesus calls me in my poverty. I do not deserve his love, but it’s there because God is Love. I have not earned his grace and love, I accept it, and the sign of acceptance? Walking forward to communion. Bringing nothing but my empty hands. And if I fully understand what Jesus was telling John the Baptist, then I welcome the company that joins me in this Kingdom meal. They are my family. And your’s.
Soon we shall sing that marvelous Christmas Carol, In the Bleak Midwinter. And the last stanza is an appropriate close to this sermon.
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him: give my heart.