Isaiah

Be Curious, Not Judgmental: Where Are You Staying?

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?”

Last week I told you that part of my sermon-writing process involves going to a coffee shop and reading over the lectionary texts for the week, and then seeing if I can come up with twenty questions for the text I’m planning to preach. I told you that it’s often hard to come up with twenty questions, but last week I came up with twenty seven because the text I was looking at was from the Gospel of John, and of the four canonical gospels that one is easily the most enigmatic, the most mysterious. For me, taking on the Gospel of John is a little like whacking a hornet’s nest with a stick: the questions come at me in a swarm.

I’m not going to talk about all twenty seven of them, but one of the most obvious is the one my assistant, Lori, asked on Wednesday of last week. She was curious, not judgmental, but she wondered: “Why does John the Baptist say that he doesn’t know Jesus?” It’s a good question, especially since in last week’s sermon I said (and I quote), “We can assume that Jesus’ relationship to John was a matter of common knowledge in the early church.”i But here John says that he doesn’t know Jesus. He says it twice, once in verse 31 and again in verse 33: “I myself did not know him.” In the notes I took at the coffee shop I was judgmental, not curious. I wrote, “Hasn’t John the Baptist read the Gospel of Luke? Hasn’t he read the Gospel of Matthew? Doesn’t he know that Jesus is John’s cousin?”

Apparently not.

As I told Lori last week (in a more charitable moment), you can think of the four Gospels as a kind of storytelling festival, where Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John step out onto the stage, one at a time, to tell the story of Jesus. And the thing to do is not to interrupt them and tell them they’ve gotten it wrong, but to listen to the particular way each of them tells the story, to be curious, and not judgmental. So, in John’s story of Jesus, John the Baptist doesn’t know who Jesus is. He says that’s why he came baptizing with water, that the Messiah might be revealed to Israel, and that reminds me of one of my favorite movies.

It’s Romancing the Stone, with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. Have you seen it? It’s a story about a lonely romance novelist from New York named Joan Wilder, who ends up in a real-life adventure in South America, accompanied by a swashbuckling mercenary named Jack T. Colton, who offers to help her find a hidden treasure. They follow a map that leads them to a cave under a waterfall, and to a milky pool where they dig down into the mud and come up with something wrapped in wet burlap. As Jack unwraps it Joan catches a glimpse of what’s inside and says, “It’s a priceless statue!” But it turns out to be a cheap ceramic bunny rabbit, the kind you might find at a souvenir shop. She says, “Wait a minute. In one of my novels a jewel was hidden inside a statue. Break it open!” He does, and for the first time we see this fist-sized emerald called El Corazon—“the heart”—that sparkles in a beam of sunlight like the priceless treasure it is.

It’s kind of what happens in this story. Jesus comes to John at the Jordan and John doesn’t know who he is. No one knows who he is. But John baptizes him with water and when he does a shaft of sunlight falls from heaven and shines on him, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove and remains on him, and that’s how Jesus is revealed as the

priceless treasure he is. From that moment on John can’t stop talking about him.

As this morning’s Gospel lesson opens John is there at the Jordan. He sees Jesus coming toward him and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” And that was another of my coffee-shop questions: “When did John say that about Jesus, that ‘after me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me’?” It’s not in today’s passage. Where is it? So, here’s another good practice when you’re studying Scripture: don’t read only the assigned text; read what comes before it and what comes after it. Read the text in context so you can see how it relates to the rest of the story. If you do that with this passage, if you look back to the previous paragraph, you find John being interrogated by some priests and Levites who have come down from Jerusalem. They want to know who he is.

“Well,” John says, “I’m not the Messiah, if that’s what you’re thinking,” because apparently some people were. By the time the Fourth Gospel was written, late in the first century, a kind of cult had grown up around John the Baptist. There were people who thought that he, and not Jesus, was the Messiah. Can you see why the author of the Fourth Gospel would want to correct that, to have his readers hear John confess, “I am not the Messiah!”? John goes on to say that he is not Elijah or the prophet, but simply the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord!” So the priests and the Levites ask, “Why, then, are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answers, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal.” In chapter 3 of this Gospel John reminds his followers, again, that he is not the Messiah, and refers to himself allegorically as “the friend of the

bridegroom.” “He must increase,” John says, “but I must decrease” (John 3:28-30).

And so we come to that place in today’s reading where John is standing with two of his disciples and Jesus walks by. “Look!” John says. “Here is the Lamb of God!” And in that moment the disciples stop following John and start following Jesus. “Why?” I asked at the coffee shop, but maybe a better question is, “Why not?” John has already said that Jesus is the One who takes away the sin of the world, that Jesus is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. John, on the other hand, is simply the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” He would tell you himself, “I am not the Lord. Jesus is the Lord. He’s the one you should follow. He’s the one who can actually do you some good.” And so these two disciples who have been following John, begin to follow Jesus.

It’s as simple as that.

Do you remember that place in the Book of Acts where Paul is visiting Ephesus and comes across some members of the John the Baptist cult? Paul might have been judgmental, but he chooses to remain curious. He says to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They said, “No, we didn’t even know there was a Holy Spirit.” So Paul explains: “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the One who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, and when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 19:1-6). Remember what John said about Jesus? “I baptize you with water, but the One who is coming after me is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”

Well, there you go.

The disciples in today’s reading make the right choice, they begin to follow Jesus,

and it isn’t long before he hears their footsteps behind him, turns and asks, “What are you looking for?” Debie Thomas comments, “It’s the first recorded question Jesus asks his disciples, and I believe it’s a question for the ages. What are you looking for? In your heart, in your secret and quiet places, what are the hungers that drive you forward in your life of faith? Why do you still have skin in this game we call Christianity? As you say goodbye to an old year and welcome a new one, what are you hoping for, asking for, looking for, in your spiritual life? Do you know?”

She writes, “I’ve been mulling over this question all week. When I go to church, when I pray, when I open the pages of Scripture, what am I looking for? Am I looking for anything, or am I just going through the motions of a religious life I inherited from my parents? Am I seeking consolation? Affirmation? Belonging? Certainty? Am I looking to gain power, or to surrender it? Do I want to know, or can I consent to trust? Am I looking to arrive, or to journey?”ii

She says, “I suppose it’s no surprise that the disciples who first hear the question simply dodge it. Perhaps, like us, they don’t quite know what to say. Whatever the case, instead of attempting a response, they ask Jesus their own question: ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’”iii Which is a rather odd response. He had asked them what they were looking for and they asked him where he was staying. But he doesn’t correct them. He invites them. He invites them to “Come and see” in the same way he invites us. And they do. They go with him to wherever he is staying in that region around the Jordan. I’ve actually been there. There are plenty of good places to camp along the riverbank and caves in the hillside that are clean and dry. Jesus may have been staying in one of those and the disciples may have gone there with him and waited as he built a small fire and heated some water for tea (doesn’t the text say “it was about four o’clock in the

afternoon”? And isn’t that teatime everywhere?). But then it says, “And they remained with him that day.” And that may have been what they were really looking for.

The Greek word menō is used five times in today’s passage. It’s a very important word in John; it means “to abide” or “remain.” You may remember it from John 15 where Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” In this passage the Holy Spirit descends and remains on Jesus, it abides with him, and John says, “The one who sent me to baptize said, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” And then the disciples ask Jesus where he is abiding and he says, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was abiding, and they remained with him that day: the disciples, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were abiding together.

On this day when we are talking about the importance of small groups, can you imagine any small group experience more important than that one, or any more life-changing? Jesus once said that wherever two or more are gathered in his name there he is in the midst of them (Matt. 18:20). That is an incredible promise for any small group gathering and one we quote whenever only a few of us show up for something. But can you imagine this gathering? Jesus, those two disciples, and the Holy Spirit? Maybe John mentions that it was four o’clock in the afternoon not because it was teatime, but because the disciples would never forget what happened that day.

In the same way you and I remember when our children were born or when our parents died or when we walked down the aisle of a church, these disciples may have remembered the time they spent with Jesus. If you had asked them about it years later they might have said, with a faraway look in their eyes, “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. We abided with Jesus. We remained with him, and as we did we realized that

we had found what we were looking for.” And no offense to John (as Jesus himself once said, “Among those born of women no one has arisen who is greater than John the Baptist” [Matt. 11:11]), but the disciples didn’t have that kind of experience with John;

They had it with Jesus.

We don’t know what they and Jesus talked about, but I would love to have listened in on that conversation, because when it was over they were convinced that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. Have you noticed all the titles that are used for him in this passage? He’s called the “Lamb of God” (twice), the “Son of God” (once), “a man,” “Rabbi,” and finally “the Messiah.” If I were ranking those titles I might put “Son of God” at the top and “man” at the bottom, but Andrew goes off to find his brother Simon and when he does he says, “We have found the Messiah.” And that’s all Simon needs to hear. Apparently that’s what he’s been looking for. He follows Andrew who brings him to Jesus, and while he’s standing there Jesus looks at him and says, “You are Simon, the son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated “Peter”).

In the end, it wasn’t only his name that was changed: it was his life. That’s what can happen when you spend time with Jesus, when you abide with him, when you remain with him. That’s why you want to ask him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” And when you find out, you want to go there, and spend some time with him, whether it’s in a small group where two or three are gathered or in a church sanctuary with many, many more. Because years from now you might look back on this day and say, with a faraway look in your eye:

“It was about 11:57 on a Sunday morning.”

—Jim Somerville © 2023

Weariness and New Life

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 7:10-26; Matthew 1:18-25

Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit….

            We are so accustomed to hearing the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke, that when Matthew steps up to the microphone and says, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way,” we hardly know what to think.  Especially when his Christmas story turns out to be so much different from the one we are accustomed to hearing.  No Joseph and Mary making a long journey to Bethlehem; no baby lying in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn; no angels singing alleluias to a group of very surprised shepherds.  “No,” says Matthew, “No matter what you may have heard elsewhere the birth of Jesus took place in this way.”  And then he writes, “When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit….”  And the question that leaped into my mind when I read that verse this time around was,

Who found her?

No, seriously.  Taking that verse at face value it would appear that Mary wasn’t very forthcoming about her pregnancy, that she didn’t tell anyone she was expecting, that she had to be found out.  So, who found her?  Was it Joseph, when he went to see her after she got back from visiting Elizabeth?  She’d been gone for months, helping her elderly cousin bring a new baby into the world.  Did Joseph brush the sawdust from his shirt and head over to Mary’s house as soon as he heard she was home?  Did he want to hear all about her trip and tell her what he had been up to while she was away?  And did she at some point smooth her dress over the swell of her belly without thinking?  Joseph would have seen it, and recognized it at once for what it was:

Mary was pregnant. 

She would have seen the shock on his face.  Her hands would have moved instinctively to cover the evidence.  But then she might have said, “Um, Joseph, there’s something we need to talk about.”  And after taking a deep breath and letting it out she would have told him all about her visit from the Angel Gabriel (which is not in Matthew’s Gospel but only in Luke’s); how he had told her that she was going to have a baby and how she had questioned him, asking, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (looking up to make sure Joseph had heard that part).  But Gabriel said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.”

Which was a lot for Joseph to take in. 

Not only was Mary telling him that she was, in fact, expecting a baby, and not only was she telling him that it wasn’t his baby, she was telling him that it was God’s baby, and asking him to believe it.  She could see the shock on his face slowly turning into something more like skepticism, or even suspicion.  She added, “I didn’t believe it either, at first.  But that’s when the angel told me that my cousin Elizabeth was expecting a baby, even though she was way past her childbearing years.  He told me it was evidence that ‘with God, nothing will be impossible.’  And so I said yes to him, Joseph.  I said, ‘Let it be with me according to your word.’  And then he was gone.  But the very next morning (and you may remember this) I went to see Elizabeth to see if he was telling me the truth—and he was!  Joseph, he was right about Elizabeth’s baby, and he’s right about mine.”  She smoothed her dress over her belly once more and said, “No man did this to me, Joseph.  This child is from the Holy Spirit.  You’ve got to believe me.”  But it was a lot to ask.  Joseph didn’t know what to say.  In the end he told Mary he’d have to think about it, and then he got up and headed down the road toward home without even saying goodbye.

That was the night it happened.  That was the night he tossed and turned for hours, wondering what to do.  Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous” man, which means, I think, that he was not only a good man, but also a man who was “right” with God, and who kept himself right through strict obedience to the Torah: the Law of Moses.  And the Torah was clear about this.  Deuteronomy 22:21 says that if it can be determined that a young woman was not a virgin when she married, “then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house, and the men of her town shall stone her to death, because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house.  So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”  Whatever he could imagine about how Mary became pregnant, Joseph could not imagine that: he could not imagine accusing Mary in front of the village elders or being the one to throw the first stone. 

But here’s the other thing he could not imagine: he could not imagine taking Mary as his wife and having everyone find out that she was already pregnant when he married her.  In that time and place the thing everybody wanted most was honor, and the thing everybody wanted least was shame.  To marry a woman who had been defiled, to allow her to have the baby and then to treat it as one’s own, would have heaped mountains of shame on her cuckolded husband.  The Torah said you should “purge the evil from your midst” by stoning a woman who had prostituted herself.  But if he married her, then everywhere Joseph went he would be known as the man who married a prostitute.

And so, somewhere around midnight he chose the middle path.  He made up his mind not to accuse Mary, but to break things off quietly: to tell her parents that for reasons he’d rather not discuss he simply couldn’t go through with the wedding.  Although he wanted to.  He loved Mary.  He’d been dreaming about their wedding for weeks.  He’d been dreaming about the life that would follow, with a wife and children to fill up his empty house and turn it into a happy home.  If he broke off the engagement none of that would happen.  But if he didn’t, ah, the shame!  “I have no other choice,” he thought.  “I have to do it.”  And then he promised himself, “I’ll do it first thing in the morning.”  Only then was he able to roll over and go to sleep.  But he hadn’t been asleep long when he had a dream, and in this dream an angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

In a little book called A Coming Christ in Advent, biblical scholar Raymond E. Brown writes: “That Joseph should not divorce Mary was crucial in God’s plan, not primarily for the sake of Mary’s reputation, but for Jesus’ identity.  The child must be the son of Joseph, who was a son of David, thus fulfilling God’s promise to David, ‘I will raise up your son after you…I will make his royal throne firm forever’ (2 Sam. 7:12-13).  The angel points to this essential element by addressing Joseph as ‘Son of David’ [the only person in the entire New Testament other than Jesus to be addressed in this way].  Yet the most frequent question asked by modern readers is: ‘How can Jesus be Joseph’s son if Joseph did not beget him?’”[i]

Good question.

And Raymond Brown has a good answer.  In Judaism, he writes, “The royal lineage of the Messiah had to be traced through a series of fathers to David.  Matthew gives the answer to the modern question when Joseph is told, ‘She is to bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus.’  Judaism wrestled with the fact that it is easy to tell who is a child’s mother, but difficult to tell who is a child’s father.  To establish paternity, it is not sufficient to ask the wife because she might lie about the father in order to avoid being accused of adultery.  Rather the husband should give testimony since most men are reluctant to acknowledge a child unless it is their own.  A commentary written some 200 years after Jesus’ birth is lucidly clear: ‘If a man says, “This is my son,” he has to be believed.’[ii]  Joseph gives such an acknowledgment by naming the child; thus he becomes the legal father of Jesus (which is probably a more accurate description than ‘adoptive father’ or ‘foster father’).  The identity of Jesus as Son of David is in God’s plan, but Joseph must give to that plan a cooperative obedience that befits a righteous man.”[iii]

So, God needed Mary to give birth to his son, but he needed Joseph to name him, so that this child could be both Son of God and Son of David, and therefore eligible to claim the title of Messiah.  He was the Messiah, but that’s not all he was.  The name that Joseph was instructed to give the child was Jesus, because, as the angel said, “He will save his people from their sins.”  The Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived in New Testament times, explained that the name Jesus can be interpreted ‘salvation of the Lord—a name for the best possible state.’  But Matthew’s explanation of this idea goes beyond this basic idea of salvation.  ‘You shall call his name Jesus [the angel says], for he will save his people from their sins.’”  And if you were Joseph you might hear in that announcement an echo of the story of Moses.  Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, once wrote about a dream Moses’ father had, in which God told him that the child about to be born would ultimately “deliver the Hebrew race from their bondage in Egypt.”  In Matthew’s understanding this child, Jesus, would not only save his own people but all people, and not from their slavery in Egypt, but from [their slavery to] sin.[iv]

Now, that’s a lot to take in, and if you are still listening, good for you.  I’ve been talking about first-century philosophers and ancient Jewish paternity protocols.  But if it’s been hard for you think how it must have been for Joseph, who in the space of a single dream learned: 1) that Mary’s pregnancy was, in fact, from the Holy Spirit; 2) that he, Joseph, was supposed to claim this child as his own by giving him a name; and 3) that the name he was supposed to give him was Jesus, meaning “He shall save his people (and potentially all people) from their sins.”  And then Matthew rises even above that.  Turning to the audience he says: “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son (which is what it says in the King James Version of Isaiah 7:14), and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’”  It’s a lot to take in.  Joseph was being asked to believe that this sweet, young woman he had proposed to had become the vessel of God’s salvation, and that even now, in her womb, a child was growing who would be the very incarnation of the Divine: one who would be “God-with-us.”

Can you imagine how he woke up the next morning, and how long it must have taken him to clear his head, splash some water on his face, and get dressed?  Can you imagine how he must have sat at the breakfast table struggling with the choice that lay before him?  He was weary from a sleepless night, but he couldn’t help wondering: “Do I say yes to all this, even though no one will ever believe my story?  Or do I say no, and go back to my old…empty life?”  And that’s what did it; the thought of all that emptiness.  The hollow echo of a life without love in it, without Mary in it. 

When he finished his breakfast he pushed his chair back from the table, stood up, and marched himself down to Mary’s house.  He called her out to the front yard and said to her (while she was still standing there in her bathrobe), “Look, I’m in.  I’m in this thing for better or worse.  Even if they call me every name in the book.  Even if they call you a… a name no woman should ever be called.  I’m in.  I will be your husband, and I will be this child’s father.  You can count on me.”  Matthew doesn’t say so, but there must have been great rejoicing in Mary’s heart that day, and great rejoicing in heaven.  Just as in the Gospel of Luke there must have been angels somewhere singing alleluias, and “Glory to God in the highest.”  Because a crucial piece of God’s plan to save the world was now firmly in place. 

Joseph had said yes.

I don’t think I realized until I began work on this sermon just how much God’s “salvation project” depended on others.  It depended on Mary, of course.  But it also depended on Joseph.  And finally, it depends on you.  If God is going to save the world he is going to have to do it one human heart at a time, which means that, like Joseph, we will have to find it in ourselves to say yes to God’s preposterous plan for salvation.  We may have to toss and turn through a few sleepless nights, but in the end we will have to open the doors of our hearts,

And let Jesus in. 

—Jim Somerville © 2022


[i] Raymond E. Brown, A Coming Christ in Advent (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1988), p. 33.

[ii] The Mishna Baba Bathra (8:6)

[iii] Brown, A Coming Christ, pp. 33-34.

[iv] This information is gathered from Brown, A Coming Christ, pp. 34-35.

(False) Expectations and Delight

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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.  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

December 1, 2022:  Dear Diary: I saw the strangest thing today.  Christy and I went for a walk in the neighborhood, and at one point we stopped to admire someone’s front yard.  I said, “Wait a minute: isn’t that an Azalea bush?”  She said it was.  I said, “But it’s December.  Why is it in full bloom?”

December 7, 2022:  Dear Diary: I was walking home after my Wednesday morning workout with one of the other people in my group when I noticed the trees that had been planted behind the Museum of History and Culture back in the spring.  I said, “Hey, aren’t those cherry trees?”  She said they were.  “Then why are they blossoming?” I asked.  “It’s December.”  We went a little closer to see if they were artificial trees, but no, when I plucked at one of the blossoms it came away between my fingers: small, and pink, and fragile.

December 8, 2022:  Dear Diary: Today was my day off.  I went for another walk with Christy, and at the corner of Grove and Tilden I saw a small tree that was covered with fat, green buds.  “Are these buds?” I asked.  “Like buds that are about to open?”  She said they were.  It was strange.  It made me wonder: “What’s going on?  Why is everything budding, blooming, and blossoming in December?”

Those are not the only strange things I’ve seen lately.  Back in November I found an article called, “20 climate photographs that changed the world.”[i]

  • The first was from July 2018: It was a picture of a 300-foot tall iceberg looming over a small, fishing village in Greenland.  Villagers were evacuated, knowing that if the iceberg “calved,” that is, if a huge chunk of it split off and splashed into the water, the resulting tsunami would wipe out their village.  Eventually it drifted away from shore but the article warned that as glaciers melt we can expect to see more and more of this.
  • Another was from January, 2013, when wildfires were raging in Australia.  This one showed a woman and her five grandchildren up to their necks in water, clinging to a wooden dock as smoke filled the air and the fire behind them destroyed their home.  The photo was taken by her husband, who told reporters later: “The atmosphere was so incredibly toxic.  We were all just heads, water up to our necks, just trying to breathe.”
  • Another was from August, 2022, just a few months ago, and it showed a Pakistani man pushing his children through neck-deep flood waters on a satellite dish.  The catastrophic floods submerged a third of the country, affecting 33 million people, and killing at least 1,700.  Waterborne diseases and malnutrition are among the main continuing health threats.
  • There was an aerial photograph from December, 2021, taken in Kenya, that showed the emaciated carcasses of six giraffes who had died after getting stuck in the mud when trying to drink from a reservoir that had almost dried up.  In this photograph they look as if they had been dropped from a helicopter, their long necks arched backward, their legs akimbo.
  • And at last November’s international summit on global warming the foreign minister of Tuvalu, an island nation in the South Pacific, broadcast his address to the group from a podium, the flag of his country behind him, while standing knee-deep in the ocean. “This is not a joke,”[ii] he said. “We are sinking.”

There were fifteen other photographs in this series, and if you want to see them you can Google: “20 climate photographs that changed the world.”  I don’t know what effect they will have on you, but when I saw them I kept wondering,

“What’s going on here?” 

            The scientists would say that it’s us: that in the past 200 years we humans have burned enough fossil fuels, and piled up enough garbage, and cut down enough forests to upset the delicate balance of nature and throw the entire planet into a tailspin.  But what would they say if the desert should suddenly start to blossom, or if waters should break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert?  What would they say if the burning sand became a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water?  Well, I don’t know what they would say, but the Prophet Isaiah would say that’s not us—that’s God!

In today’s Old Testament lesson he speaks to God’s people in exile, in Babylon, 500 miles west of Jerusalem across the burning sands of the Arabian Desert.  If they wondered why there were there he would have told them: It’s you!  You didn’t keep God’s covenant.  You didn’t walk in his ways.  And now you are getting what you deserve: a really, really, long time out.  But God hasn’t stopped loving you.  He hasn’t given up on you.  And if you don’t give up on him then one of these days when you least expect it the desert will burst into bloom; the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy, because God is going to take his people home.  He’s going to pave a highway through the wilderness, with rest areas every 500 yards.  He’s going to do away with every natural danger and when he does, “the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” 

Yes, when you can’t see the sunrise from your kitchen window because an enormous iceberg is blocking your view, you know that something is wrong, but when the desert bursts into bloom you know that something is right—that God is up to something, that the world is about to change. 

And that’s the message of our Gospel lesson for this morning.  John the Baptist is locked up in prison and he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”  Apparently John was disappointed in Jesus.  Jesus hadn’t done any of the “Messiah” stuff John had promised.  He hadn’t laid his ax at the root of the trees and cut down every tree that didn’t bear good fruit.  He hadn’t separated the wheat from the chaff, gathered the wheat into his granary, and burned the chaff with unquenchable fire.  He hadn’t run the Romans out of Israel, or taken his place on the throne of his ancestor David, or ushered in a new era of peace and prosperity.  So, John wanted to know: “Are you the one who is to come?  Or should we look for another?”

And Jesus said, “Go and 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.  This is the real ‘Messiah’ stuff.  And if you have eyes to see it you can see that God is up to something, and the world is about to change.”  John may not have been able to see it; he was locked up in prison.  But don’t you think those people whose lives Jesus touched had something to say?  “Dear Diary,” they might have written, “Today I met the Messiah.  He opened my blind eyes, he straightened my crippled limbs, he cleansed me of my leprosy, he opened my stopped up ears, he raised me from the dead, he brought me good news, he made a believer out of me, made me believe that God is up to something, and that the world is about to change!  And blessed is the one who takes no offense at him.”

A few years ago I was invited to speak at the Senior Adult Christmas Luncheon, and I told stories about some of the winter adventures I had when I was a boy: about spending the night in a homemade igloo; about going over a ski jump on a pair of strapped-on, secondhand skis; about floating down the river on an ice raft until it broke apart and dumped me and my brothers into frigid, waist-deep water.  “But after those kinds of adventures,” I said, “I loved to come inside where it was warm and cozy, make a mug of hot cocoa and curl up on the couch with a good book.”  My favorites in those days were the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis, and in one of those books a character named Tumnus tells a girl named Lucy about the White Witch, the one who has cursed the land of Narnia, so that it is always winter there and never Christmas.

Even as a boy who loved winter, I could tell what a curse that would be. Lewis was writing as a Christian, of course, and looking for ways to weave the Christian message through this story of four English children who end up in a magical, snow-covered world where animals talk, and where they often talk about Aslan, the Great Lion, who will one day come to break the witch’s spell and undo her evil curse. One of the reasons those books have been popular not only with children but also adults, is because many people live in a world where it can sometimes feel as if it is always winter and never Christmas.

Dr. Steven Garber of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture remembers reading the Narnia books as a boy.  He says the words, “Always winter but never Christmas,” captured his imagination, that even then he understood them, though now he understands them much more fully.  “At that first reading,” he writes, “they made sense of my life and world, young as I was.  Now I have lived with them, and within them, for most of life, and I feel their weight deeply.  Like every other son of Adam and daughter of Eve, I feel the winter of this weary world.  This week the death of a long friend, and the death of a long marriage; this year the deaths of other friends at moments that seem ‘too soon.’ For every one of us, with our families, our friends, our neighbors, our cities, in every relationship in every way we are burdened by what is tragically not the way it is supposed to be.  And beyond what we see with our own eyes, the day by day onslaught of the news of the world is more often than not a window into a heartache and horror that seem impossible to explain.”[iii]  And yet, as Garber would say, we are believers.  We believe that things are not always the way they appear, and that even when it looks as if the White Witch is winning, Aslan is on the move. 

Listen to this excerpt from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis:

What the children saw [once they had rubbed the sleep from their eyes] was a sledge, and reindeer with bells on their harness. But they were far bigger than the witch’s reindeer, and they were not white but brown. And on the sledge sat a person whom everyone knew the minute they set eyes on him. He was a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as holly berries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest. Everyone knew him because, though you see people of his sort only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world—the world on this side of the wardrobe door. But when you really see them in Narnia it is rather different. Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly.  But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn’t find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn. “I’ve come at last,” said he. “She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last.  Aslan is on the move.  The Witch’s magic is weakening.”  Then he gave gifts to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and special gifts to each of the children, and just before he left he brought out (I suppose from the big bag at his back, but nobody quite saw him do it) a large tray containing five cups and saucers, a bowl of lump sugar, a jug of cream, and a great big teapot all sizzling and piping hot. Then he cried out, “Merry Christmas! Long live the true King!” and cracked his whip, and he and the reindeer and the sledge and all were out of sight before anyone realized they had started.”[iv]

When I was a boy I loved winter, but I don’t think I would have loved it without Christmas. There’s got to be something more than long nights and cold weather in this world. There’s got to be something to look forward to, something to believe in.  Steven Garber says that it sometimes feels as if we are living in a world where it is always winter and never Christmas.  “But then,” he says, “I know that I have staked my life on something more: that this wounded world, this…broken world, is not the last word. Simply put, I believe in Christmas, and what it is we celebrate when we celebrate its true meaning—God is with us!  Cursed as we are, cursed as this life so often seems, it will not always be winter….  Christmas has come, and is coming…” he concludes, “and I am longing for its blessings to flow far as the curse is found.”[v]

Me, too, Steven Garber.  Me, too.  And when I see Azalea bushes in full bloom in December, and cherry trees covered in fragile pink blossoms, and the little tree on the corner heavy with fat, green buds, I begin to believe that Aslan is on the move, or Christ is coming, or God is up to something we haven’t even imagined yet. 

And my heart leaps with joy.

Jim Somerville © 2022


[i] Gabrielle Schwartz, “‘It was like an apocalyptic movie’: 20 climate photographs that changed the world” (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/nov/05/20-climate-photographs-that-changed-the-world)

[ii] I have summarized his remarks.

[iii] Steven Garber, “Always Winter, Never Christmas” (https://washingtoninst.org/always-winter-never-christmas/)

[iv] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (HarperCollins, 1950), pp. 106-109.

[v] Garber, “Always Winter”

Repentance and Delight

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Please don’t hate me for this, but I live in the same town as my grandchildren.  Not only that, but I work four blocks from home, where my wife watches them on weekdays, and where I am often able to slip away for lunch and a quick visit.  But I think it’s a good thing for me as a preacher to have some children in my life.  They help me see the world through their eyes: to appreciate all over again how wonderful it is, how full of beauty, and to remember what is most important. 

Last Wednesday I went home and found that Leo (who is two-and-a-half years old today!) had conked out on his way home from preschool.  He was asleep on his nap mat in the living room.  I ate lunch quietly in the kitchen with Christy and Vivi, but when it was time to go back to work Christy mentioned that it was also time for Leo to wake up from his nap.  So, I went to the living room, and sat on the floor beside him, and began to rub his back and tell him a story, and the one I told him was the story of the first Christmas.  I talked about Joseph and Mary making the long journey from Nazareth, and about how, when they got to Bethlehem, they couldn’t find any room in the inn.  I talked about how they ended up in that stable with donkeys, cows, sheep, and chickens (making all the animal noises in an effort to rouse Leo from a very deep sleep).  I talked about how worried Joseph was and how hard Mary worked and how, eventually, she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy.  While I was telling that part of the story I was looking on Leo’s face, and thinking what a beautiful boy he is, and wondering how long people have been doing this: telling stories to their children.

As I read through the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah last week I could imagine the people of ancient Israel telling that story to their children, partly because it has so many animals in it: wolves and lambs, leopards and goats, lions and bears, and a little child who leads them all (notice I didn’t say anything about snakes).  But before all that it has a king, and not just any king.  Isaiah predicted: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots,” and anyone who knew anything about Israel’s history would know that he was talking about Jesse, the father of King David, the greatest king who had ever lived in Israel.  He was saying that another king would spring up from the stump of Jesse’s family tree.

Isaiah wrote: “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord (fear in this case meaning profound respect).  His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.  He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with [God’s kind of ] righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth (meaning the people of Israel); he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,” Isaiah continued, “and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (meaning their enemies).[i]

Isaiah tells the story of a perfect king, one who is descended from the family of King David, one who will be full of the wisdom and power of God, one who will decide with equity for the meek of the earth, and one who will smite the wicked with the breath of his lips.  “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,” Isaiah promises, “and faithfulness the belt around his loins!”[ii]  And for centuries afterward, when parents were putting their children to bed at night, or trying to wake them from their midday naps, they would tell the story of that king.  “One day he’s coming,” they would say, “and when he does the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.  In those days “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” says the Lord; “for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

It’s the story of a perfect king and a peaceable kingdom.  It’s the kind of story parents would tell their children whenever things got bad and through the centuries they had been given plenty of reasons to tell that story.  The Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC.  The Babylonians conquered the Southern Kingdom of Judah in 587.  The Greeks took over what was left of Israel in 333 and the Romans did the same in 63.  In between Syria to the North and Egypt to the South fought over the tiny nation of Israel like two dogs fighting over a piece of meat.  But even when the sounds of battle could be heard in the streets, or maybe especially then, grandfathers would rub their grandsons’ backs and tell them the story of the king who would someday come, and how, when he did, the wolf would live with the lamb, the leopard would lie down with the kid, and a little child would lead them. 

But before that day—before God rendered his terrible judgment on all of Israel’s enemies, before he placed his Chosen One on the throne of his ancestor David—God would send the prophet Elijah to call his people to repentance, “to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.”  It said so in the very last sentence of the very last book of the Old Testament.[iii]  And so, when John the Baptist stepped onto the stage of history looking very much like the Prophet Elijah—making his home in the wilderness, wearing clothing of camel’s hair with a wide leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and wild honey—the people of Israel got very excited.  All those grandchildren who had been told the story in their youth must have thought, “This is it!  This is what Grandpa was talking about!  This is the beginning of the great and terrible day of the Lord!”  And so when John began to suggest that people needed to repent and get baptized they came, they repented, they were baptized in the Jordan River.  Even the Pharisees and Sadducees came.

But when John saw them he said, “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (See? There are snakes in both of these stories).  Bear fruit worthy of repentance!  Do not presume 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.  Even 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” (And see?  There are also stumps in both of these stories).  What John is saying is what I’ve heard some of the old preachers say: that God doesn’t have any grandchildren.  You don’t get to heaven because your parents were good Christians and you don’t get a seat in God’s banquet hall because you’re a descendant of Abraham.  Every tree bears its own fruit, and the kind of fruit John is looking for is the fruit of a changed life.

He says, “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.”  That, too, sounds like something I’ve heard the old preachers talk about—“unquenchable fire”—but as I looked at this passage again it occurred to me that fire could be a very positive thing, and maybe just what we need.

Some of you have been reading through the Bible with me this year.  I don’t know where you are in your daily reading, but last week I was making my way through Paul’s letter to the Romans, and I came to chapter 7, where Paul laments the state of his soul.  He writes: “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”[iv]  Eugene Peterson paraphrases it like this: “The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.  I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?”[v]  The real answer, as Paul writes in the very next verse, is Jesus Christ.  And in his own way that may be what John the Baptist is saying.

“Look,” he says, “I baptize with water,” which means, “I can get you cleaned up on the outside.  I can get you looking pretty good externally.  But I can’t do anything for you internally.  Jesus is going to have to do that.  He’s the One who’s coming after me.  He’s the One who is far more powerful than I am.  I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  I baptize with water for repentance, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  And fire is what it will take. 

I know you don’t hear me talk a lot about sin.  I’m not one of those preachers who dwells on that.  I talk a whole lot more about working with Jesus to bring in the Kingdom of God.  But sin can get in the way of that, and sin can trip you up.  When I talk about the Lord’s Prayer I say that Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come and his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  That’s what he really wanted.  But he also taught them to pray that God would forgive their sins, because sin can be a stumbling block: it can keep you from fulfilling the mission.  I think about Paul, wrapped up in a wet wool blanket by the side of the road somewhere on one of his mission trips, unable to sleep and thinking about the sin in his own life.  There couldn’t have been much, could there?  He spent all his time working for the Lord!  And yet in a moment like that he may have thought, “Wretched man that I am; who will deliver me from this body of death?”  And that’s when it hit him: Jesus.  The one John was preaching about.  The one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  “That’s what I need,” Paul may have thought.  “And especially on a night like this one, when I’m cold and miserable and unable to sleep because of worrying about my sin.  I need some refiner’s fire.”

You may remember that Paul was a saint.  He was precious to God, just as you are.  But even precious metal needs to be refined.  Gold, for instance, is heated in a crucible to as much as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  According to the experts, “When the gold reaches this temperature it melts.  The metals in the alloy separate and the gold sinks to the bottom of the crucible.  The other metals and impurities are left behind.”[vi]  When John says that the One who comes will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire he doesn’t say how hot the fire will be.  Maybe it depends on how many impurities there are and how much dross needs to be burned away.  Maybe it’s different for each person.  But the good news is the same: when the refiner’s work is done, “the…impurities are left behind.” 

I don’t know how you feel about that but I would love it.  I would love it if every impurity in my life, anything that might offend God, could be purged.  And I think I would be willing to go through it even if the process itself were painful, which is what being baptized with fire sounds like.  John says that the One who is to come will have the power to do that, and not only that, but also to baptize with the Holy Spirit.  I picture it like this: I picture Jesus baptizing me with refiner’s fire, purging away every impurity from my life, but then baptizing me with Holy Spirit, filling up all those places where the sin used to be.  Can you imagine that?  If your life could be flushed of every impurity and then filled with the Holy Spirit?  Can you imagine how different things might be?  In your own life at least that internal conflict could come to an end; that “war” Paul talks about, between what he knows is right and what he actually does, would be over.  The wolf would live with the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the kid, and a little child would lead them.  This little child; the one whose birth we will celebrate three weeks from today.  The perfect king of a peaceable kingdom.  The one who has the power to make us perfect.

Thanks be to God.

—Jim Somerville © 2022


[i] Isaiah 11:2-4 (all Scripture references are from the NRSV unless otherwise noted).

[ii] Isaiah 11:5

[iii] Malachi 4:5-6

[iv] Romans 7:21-23,

[v] Romans 7:21-24, The Message

[vi] “How Gold is Refined,” a step-by-step guide from Pease and Curren (https://peaseandcurren.com/how-gold-is-refined-a-step-by-step-guide/).

Hopes and Fears

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.

 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

 In the past few months, I have come to appreciate the biblical insights of a woman named Debie Thomas, who was born in India but grew up in Boston, the daughter of an evangelical pastor.  Now she works at an Episcopal church in California and writes for the Christian Century.  In her comments on today’s Gospel lesson, she explains: “I didn’t grow up observing Advent.  My childhood church didn’t follow the liturgical calendar, so the holiday lineup I remember went straight from Thanksgiving turkeys and pumpkin pies to Christmas trees and ‘Jingle Bells’—one consumer feeding frenzy pressing hard into the next (that may sound a lot like your childhood).  But,” she writes, “as I’ve moved deeper into the liturgical tradition, I have come to love the holy season we are now entering.  I love that the Church begins its new year when the days are still getting darker.  I love that the season rejects shallow sentimentality and false cheer.  And I love that the Gospel gets us started with images that startle me out of my complacency—not swaddling clothes, twinkly stars, and fleecy lambs, but Jesus as relentless pursuer of my soul.  Jesus as thief.”[i]

You may not love that the Gospel gets us started on this season with such startling images, but there they are.  The word advent means “coming,” and the one whose coming we anticipate is not Santa Claus, with a sack full of toys, but Jesus, with who knows what?  Justice?  Mercy?  What will the world look like when God’s will is done and God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven?  We don’t know, exactly, and it makes us a little anxious.  We’d probably rather talk about Santa than Jesus during this season because with Santa at least we know what to expect.  Jesus has always been a little too unpredictable for our tastes.  In today’s Gospel lesson he talks about the coming of the Son of Man and says that it, too, will be unpredictable.  It will happen when we least expect it.  He urges us to stay awake, therefore, and be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour— “like a thief in the night.”

This Advent sermon series is called “What’s the Word?” and it was dreamed up by my friend Dorisanne Cooper, pastor of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina.  She’s one of the preachers in my Preacher Camp group, and in the notes she shared with us last summer she wrote:

The question, “What’s the word?” is something we ask when we want to know what’s going on, when we want to get a picture of things. (Or when we can’t quite think of what we want to say).  Advent is a season with lots of familiar words (stable, swaddling clothes, shepherds), but as we more deeply engage the Advent texts themselves, other words arise that both reflect and shape our days and call us to deeper living. In many of the weeks’ texts, the Gospel reading tends to be more of a reflection of our days while the Hebrew Bible reading (all from Isaiah) points us toward the possibility of what might be.

So, is the Gospel reading for this Sunday, with all its frightening images, a “reflection of our days”?  Maybe so.  Dorisanne writes:

Ah, the tradition starting Advent with the apocalyptic texts! It’s actually one I lean into, usually borrowing from Fleming Rutledge’s phrase, “Advent begins in the dark.” [As a preacher] I don’t mind on this Sunday giving space to naming how hard life really is, and how bad things are or feel, to allow for people to be honest about where they are in response to the way the world of television commercials and glossy magazine ads tends to paint a picture of a perfect season with diamonds and new cars and everyone getting along. I find this Sunday gives extra permission to name how things aren’t like that for most all of us, but the truth of Advent is that that’s exactly what God comes into. The Matthew text allows us to name the feeling of the uncertainty of our days while diving deeper into the “word” that Isaiah saw and the hope of the ways and paths of God.

Dorisanne chose the title “Hopes and Fears” for this Sunday, two words suggested by the readings themselves.  The reading from Matthew is unusually fearful, while the Isaiah reading is abundantly hopeful.  Both words have something to do with Advent and as I thought about them last week I thought about how both words look forward, toward something that hasn’t happened yet.

In a sermon I preached a few weeks ago I talked about children, and how one of the things I love about them is the way they live in the moment.  Over Thanksgiving I asked the family, “When does that change?  When will Leo, for instance (my two-year-old grandson), start looking forward to Christmas?”  We agreed that he is already getting excited about Christmas lights and the prospect of presents, but he isn’t yet able to say, “Remember what we did for Christmas last year, Opa?” or, “Do you think it will snow on Christmas this year?”  For the most part, he is still living very much in the moment, and if the moment has Christmas lights in it, so much the better.

I’ve heard that anxiety occurs when our bodies try to respond to something that hasn’t happened yet.[ii]  We perceive a threat—real or imagined—and some internal alarm goes off.  Our hearts start beating faster, adrenaline is pumped into our system, we get ready to fight or flee, while actually there may not be anything to fear.  Amy Frykholm, a journalist who focuses on religion in America, seems to have that phenomenon in mind when she writes:

Lately I’ve been trying out a new discipline: reading the news without engaging in speculation about the future. I’ve been curious about how much of my daily news intake is not about what has happened, but various predictions about what might happen. As far as my new awareness indicates, my own news-reading routines are full of predictions: weather predictions, election predictions, economic predictions. Who will say or do what. What it will mean.

I’m aware of how attractive these predictions are to me. I almost always heedlessly give a part of my morning to participating in this collective project of predicting the future, for good or for ill, right or wrong. It is almost as though I am trying to replace faith with a false mastery of the future. Given the number of these articles in the various news media that purport to know the future, I am guessing I am not alone.[iii]

“Trying to replace faith with a false mastery of the future,” she writes.

Hmmm.

Maybe that’s why Jesus told his disciples not to try too hard to figure out when the Son of Man would come.  “But about that day and hour no one knows,” he said, “neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  So don’t waste your time making a list of the “88 reasons Christ will return in 1988” (like the one I remember seeing back in 1987, replaced the next year by a list called “89 reasons Christ will return in 1989”), and don’t waste your time putting up billboards announcing that Christ will return on May 21, 2011, as some people did, or that the world will be destroyed six months later, on October 21, 2011 because that didn’t happen either.  Amy Frykholm writes:

We tell ourselves these stories about the future because they allow us to imagine that we can prepare, that we know what’s coming, that if we only analyze the future rightly, we can create viable safety plans. The bigger the predicted catastrophe, the greater we imagine that just by knowing it is coming, we can avoid its most adverse effects. In other words, we use predictions about the future to try to escape the basic vulnerability of being human.[iv]

“Don’t even try” says Jesus, “for as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”  And this may be a good time to admit that some of the warnings in today’s Gospel lesson are really scary.

Jesus talks about the days of Noah and then reminds his disciples that “in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away.  So, too, will be the coming of the Son of Man,” he warns.  “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.  Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.  But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.  Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

When I was just starting out in ministry I talked about the return of Christ as a good thing, a happy thing, like when you were a child and your father had been away on a trip and then he came home a day earlier than you expected and you jumped up and down and said, “Daddy’s home!”  So shall the coming of the Son of Man be, I preached.  But when I look at this passage closely I hear Jesus warning of devastating floods, and sudden disappearances, and thieves breaking down our doors.  It’s not very comforting.  It could make you anxious.  It could make you fearful.  It could make you turn to the Old Testament lesson for this Sunday, from Isaiah chapter 2, which looks forward not with anxiety, but with expectation.

This is “the word that Isaiah saw,” a vision of the future that could make your heart beat faster with hope.  Listen: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.  Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.  He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

This passage comes from the Eighth Century, BC, a time when the nation of Israel was surrounded by enemies, when the threat of war was an ever-present prospect that must have made everybody anxious.  Into that grim reality Isaiah speaks this word of hope, a vision of a future in which everyone will want to know the Lord, that he may teach them his ways, that they may walk in his paths.  When that happens then “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”  Can you imagine?  Can you envision the people of our time, the people of this world, hungering and thirsting for the word of the Lord, hearing it and obeying it until they saw the foolishness of their ways and gave up their lust for power, until Russia, for example, turned its tanks into tractors and its helicopters into hay balers?  If you could hold onto that kind of vision you might be able to look toward the future with hope.  You might even begin to feel a sense of expectation, wondering,

“Could it come today?”

Which is what I think Jesus wants us to feel when we consider the coming of the Son of Man.  I don’t think he wants us to feel anxious; I think he wants us to feel expectant.  If I were advising him I might say, “Jesus, do you think you could cut out some of this language about floods and sudden disappearances and thieves?  That kind of talk just scares people.”  And he would say, “I didn’t mean to scare anyone.  What I meant is that you can’t predict these things.  You can’t wait until you know they’re coming and then get ready for them.  You have to be ready for these kinds of things at all times.  So it is with the coming of the Son of Man.”  And if you read all of Matthew 24 and not just today’s passage, you will find that Jesus is talking about something really hopeful.  “When the world around you is falling apart,” he says; “when you think things couldn’t get any worse; that’s when you need to lift up your heads, because that’s when the Son of Man will appear, and that’s when he will send out his angels and gather his beloved from every corner of the earth.”[v]  Whatever else that might mean, I think it means that if you belong to Jesus, you have nothing to fear.  And that’s good, because looking toward the future with fear leads to anxiety in the present, while looking toward the future with hope leads to expectancy.

And that’s what we love about Christmas, isn’t it?  We expect something wonderful.  We don’t know what it will be, exactly, but we believe it will be good.  If it wasn’t they wouldn’t call it Christmas.

I think about my own Christmases as a boy.  I’ve told you about them before.  We were poor.  I couldn’t have looked forward to them because I was going to get so many presents or so many sweets.  And yet I looked forward to Christmas with an excitement I have rarely felt about anything since.  On the night before I couldn’t sleep.  I would lie awake in my little twin bed waiting until six o’clock, because my parents had told me I couldn’t wake them up before then.  And finally, when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I would pull my mattress off the bed and drag it down the hall to the top of the stairs, where I could lie on my stomach and see the clock on the wall and hear it tick-tick-tick ever so slowly toward the appointed hour.

I was well past that age when I was living in the moment.  I was living with the memory of Christmas past and the hope of Christmas future.  I was quivering with expectation, just waiting for that minute hand to reach the top of the dial so I could leap out of bed, run down the stairs, throw open my parents’ bedroom door, and shout “Merry Christmas!”

The coming of Christ is going to be kind of like that, Jesus says, and if you’re not ready it could scare the (what’s the word?) bejeebers out of you.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Debie Thomas, “Like a Thief,” in the Journey with Jesus webzine (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2466-like-a-thief).

[ii] Andrew D. Lester, Coping with Your Anger: a Christian Guide (Philadelphia:  Westminster, 1983)

[iii] Amy Frykholm, “Our Hidden Future,” in the Journey with Jesus webzine (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Matthew 24:30-31.