“Do You See What I See? Look in Unlikely Places”

Do You See What I See?

Look in Unlikely Places

First Baptist Richmond, December 17, 2023 The Third Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 64:1-4, 8-11, John 1:6-8, 19-28

John answered them, “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 thong of his sandal.”

Last Monday I went down to the lower level of our building to mix and mingle with the people who come for our shower ministry. I got there a little early, and Michael Lacy looked at me and said, “Did you come to do the devotion?” I said, “No, but I can if you want me to.” He said, “Cool!” And so I had a full five minutes to come up with a devotional thought.

I racked my brain for a Christmas story that might have some spiritual substance and eventually settled on one from my childhood. I must have been about twelve years old. My brother Ed, the oldest, would have been fifteen. We were hanging up our stockings on Christmas Eve when Ed had an idea. He went out to the barn and came back a few minutes later with an empty burlap bag and a bushel basket. He tacked the burlap bag to the mantelpiece, cut off a bottom corner, and put the bushel basket under that, so that when Santa started filling up the bag all the goodies would go right into the basket. He did it all with a smile, as if he wasn’t really expecting to get a bushel basket and a burlap bag full of goodies, but I thought, “Two can play at that game.” So, I went and found a tiny baby doll sock and tacked that up next to his burlap bag with my name over it.

We went to bed that night not knowing what would happen, but can you

believe it? When we went downstairs the next morning that burlap bag and bushel basket were overflowing…with coal and switches, and a scolding note from Santa about not being so greedy. But my little sock had been removed, and in its place someone had tacked up a stocking that was bulging with every good thing on Santa’s sleigh: chocolates, peppermints, oranges, hard candy, nuts, and way down in the toe a Hot Wheels race car.

I told that story to everyone who had come to the shower ministry that morning, and they seemed to enjoy it. But then I heard myself say something I hadn’t planned to say. I said, “It’s the Great Reversal, and it’s everywhere in the Bible! Jesus said, ‘The last shall be first and the least will be great!’ The ones who hang up a burlap bag will get coal and switches but the ones who hang up a tiny sock will get every good thing and more!”

I elaborated a little further, but it wasn’t supposed to be a sermon, just a devotional. Still, the message that the last would be first and the least would be great resonated with that audience. Afterward one of the volunteers told me she had seen one of our homeless neighbors wiping a tear from his eye. Why? Because if you are clinging to the bottom rung of the ladder and someone tells you that one day the ladder will be turned upside down, that’s good news!

I’m not sure why I told that story about the Christmas stockings last Monday. I thought it just came to mind. But it’s possible that I was already thinking about the Great Reversal because only the day before I had sneaked a peek at today’s lectionary readings and that appears to be the theme. We didn’t read the psalm for today, but it’s Psalm 126, one of my favorites. It’s about God’s people in exile, and how astonished they were when God set them free from their long captivity in Babylon. It says:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

They had been clinging to the bottom rung of that ladder, but now, suddenly, by a miracle of God, the ladder had been turned upside down! The psalmist prays:

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

It’s the Great Reversal, and I think about that homeless neighbor wiping a tear from his eye last Monday morning. Wouldn’t he love a psalm like this?

And then one of the alternate readings for today is the Magnificat, from Luke 1: that beautiful song where the Virgin Mary, after having her miraculous pregnancy confirmed by the miraculously pregnant Elizabeth, sings:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

But then, listen for it. Listen for the Great Reversal:

The Lord has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their

thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Don’t you think that would make my friend in the shower ministry smile? But wait! That’s not all! Listen to the opening lines of Isaiah 64:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;

And then again, thinking of our friend in the shower ministry, listen to verse 10:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Do you hear that? Can you put all that together, that God is a God who restores the lost fortunes of his people, who turns weeping into shouts of joy? That he is the one who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly? That he is the God who brings good news to the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captive, and those who mourn? As I said on Monday morning the Great Reversal is everywhere in the Bible. It’s even in today’s Gospel lesson.

It’s not as obvious as it is in some of these other readings, but it’s there. It starts with the announcement that, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” This is important, because there were some people who thought that maybe John the Baptist was the Messiah. Even when John the Evangelist was writing this Gospel near the end of the first century there were people who

thought that maybe John the Baptist was the one the world had been waiting for. But John himself says no. When some priests and Levites came out to the wilderness to see what was going on they asked him, “Who are you?” And he confessed (he did not deny, but confessed), “I am not the Messiah.” “What, then?” they asked. “Are you Elijah? Are you the Prophet?” “No.” “Well, who are you then. Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” And John said, “I am the voice that Isaiah talked about, the one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

You might wonder how they could suspect for even a moment that John was the Messiah. You heard the description from Mark’s Gospel last week: “His clothing was made of camel’s hair and he wore a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” He sounds a good bit like Elijah the prophet, but he doesn’t sound like the long-awaited King of Israel, the one who would sit on the throne of his ancestor David and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. Until you remember how David was chosen.

When Samuel went to anoint one of the sons of Jesse he was immediately drawn to Eliab, the oldest. He was tall and handsome. In our time we might say he looked “presidential.” But God said to Samuel, “That’s not the one I have chosen. People look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Based on that precedent it might be possible that John the Baptist—this scruffy-looking prophet with dust in his beard and locust legs between his teeth— was the Messiah, but he himself said no. “I’m just the voice: the one shouting in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

But the priests and Levites weren’t finished with him yet. They asked, “Why, then, are you baptizing, if you are not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet?” And

John said, “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 thong of his sandal.” And the priests and Levites may have started looking around for anyone who looked like a Messiah, but they would have been hard pressed to find one in that crowd. I’m guessing that most of the people who came to the Jordan to be baptized by John looked a lot like the homeless neighbors who show up for our shower ministry: like people who really need a bath.

But among them, John said, “is one you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” And according to the author of the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist didn’t know who Jesus was either. In spite of Luke’s assertion that the two of them were cousins of some kind, in John’s Gospel the Baptist says, “I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel” (1:31). And then he says, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God” (1:32-34).

But apparently there was nothing else about Jesus that would have set him apart as the Messiah. Isaiah 53:2 has often been applied to him: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” In other words, he didn’t stand out from the crowd. He didn’t look presidential. In fact he may have looked like any one of those people who come to our shower ministry. It’s the Great Reversal, isn’t it? The last will be first, the least will be great, and the Messiah may be in the last place you look.

Erich Bridges is one of our members who regularly volunteers in that ministry. He is also a retired journalist who sometimes still practices his former trade. A few months ago he wrote an article called “The Jesus Room,” that practically went viral. It starts like this:

The Jesus Room lies in the bowels of Richmond’s cavernous First Baptist Church, one of those stately old churches that takes up most of a city block.

It’s a part of the basement floor of the church, comprising a community area with some round tables and plastic chairs, a back room with racks of donated clothes and shelves of groceries, and some men’s and women’s shower rooms down a short hallway.

I call it the Jesus Room because it’s where I see Jesus on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays as a volunteer in the church’s ministry to homeless people.

Where is Jesus, you ask? He is in the face of every person who walks through that back door.

I subscribe to Mother Teresa’s literal interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46, the passage where Jesus says, “You did it to me” (or didn’t) if you serve the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the prisoner. Teresa believed Jesus wasn’t speaking metaphorically but was saying he would come to us personally, daily, in the “distressing disguise” of the hungry, the sick, the inmate, the refugee, the one with no home.i

Erich’s article goes on from there and it’s excellent. I hope you will read it. But when I think about those people who come to our shower ministry I think some of them come in the hope that all this talk in the Bible isn’t just talk, that one of these days, when the Messiah comes or when his Kingdom comes, the Great Reversal will actually happen, and people like them, who have been clinging to the bottom rung of life’s ladder, will suddenly, miraculously, end up on top.

But I also think they come because, until that day arrives, they have a

chance to experience heaven on earth right here, in the Jesus Room, where they are treated not like problems, but like people; where they get a hot cup of coffee, a sweet pastry, and sometimes a hug; where someone looks them in the eye and calls them by name, that is, where someone sees them.

Do you see what I see? If you had been in that crowd at the Jordan River would you have recognized the Messiah, standing there with everyone else, waiting to be baptized? Here’s the Good News, friends: the Lord has come. Not everybody saw it, not everybody knew it, not everybody celebrated it, but eventually those with eyes to see could see in Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah of God.

Those of us with eyes to see can see it still. And we look forward to that day when his kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, when the last will be first and the least will be great. For those of us who have been waiting for it, watching for it, working for it.

It will feel like Christmas morning.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

“Do You See What I See? Look for the Prophets”

Do You See What I See?

Look for the Prophets

First Baptist Richmond, December 10, 2023 The Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.

The year was 1996.

It was my second trip to the Holy Land and I was there with a few dozen members of my church and my friend Jim Eastin, the Methodist minister in town, who had brought a dozen or so of his. We were in the Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem, a twelfth-century edifice with incredible acoustics. Every note that was sung in that place reverberated off the stone walls and vaulted ceilings, building in volume, growing stronger and sweeter until you could hardly believe it was the same note that had been sung only a moment earlier. Our little group was told that the softer we sang, the better it would sound, and so we sang “Amazing Grace” as quietly as we could and marveled at the way the music seemed to swell and the notes began to blend in a harmony we could have never produced on our own.

We waited until the last note died away, but then finally, reluctantly, began to move toward the door, because there is always somewhere else to go and something else to see in the Holy Land. I was getting ready to step outside when I heard a clear tenor voice lift up the first few notes of “Comfort ye, My People,” from Handel’s Messiah. Do you know that song? Christy and I used to listen to the Messiah on a cassette tape, in our car, all through the Season of Advent. When I

was by myself and that song came on I would sing along. I didn’t sound anything like that tenor from the London Symphony Orchestra, but this guy, whoever he was, sounded just like him. And then I turned and saw that it was my friend Jim Eastin, with whom I had shared many a slap-happy lunch at the local Hardee’s. He was standing there in the choir loft, singing like an angel. It transformed the moment. It transformed him. There I was, in the Holy City, and there he was singing, “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, and her iniquity pardoned.”

I got goose bumps.

But can you imagine how those words would have sounded to God’s people in exile, those who had been languishing in Babylon for more than two generations? Can you imagine how they would have rejoiced over the idea that their warfare was accomplished and their iniquity pardoned, so that after all those years of suffering they could finally go home? Friends, there are times when the Word of the Lord is the sweetest word you could ever hope to hear, but there are other times when it is not, when it is, in fact, just the opposite. In today’s readings from Isaiah 40 and Mark 1 we have a little bit of each, and yet both of these readings are found between the covers of a book we call the Bible, a book the church values so highly we have placed a copy in every pew. Take it out of the rack if you can. Hold it in your hands. Pass it to a neighbor. Feel its weight. Appreciate it for what it is.

I love the way Tim Mackie describes it in a video called “What is the Bible?”i He says, “The Bible is a small library of books that all emerged out of the history of the people of ancient Israel. And in one sense, they were just like any other ancient civilization (you can see them there in the video: an animated cartoon of

ancient people going about their everyday business). But among them were a long line of individuals called prophets,” Mackie continues, “and they viewed Israel’s story as anything but ordinary (and that’s when a wise-looking man with a long beard steps into the frame). They saw it as a central part of what God was doing for all humanity,” Mackie says (the man turns toward the temple and closes his eyes as a bright light begins to shine). “And these prophets were literary geniuses (and that’s when the man turns back toward the camera and triumphantly raises a quill pen over his head to trumpet fanfare).

Tim Mackie’s friend, Jon, seems skeptical that the prophets were really literary geniuses but Tim insists. He says, “They expertly crafted the Hebrew language to write epic narratives, and very sophisticated poetry. They were masters of metaphor and storytelling. And they leveraged all this to explore life’s most complicated questions about death and life and the human struggle.” His friend says, “So there’s a lot of different authors writing this book.” Tim agrees and says, “These texts were produced over a thousand-year period, starting with Israel’s origins in Egypt, then leading up to their kingdom with their first temple. But eventually, they were conquered by the Babylonians, who took them away into exile.”

I’ll leave Tim’s description there so we can get back to our readings for today, but I want you to know how much I appreciate what he says about the prophets, and the fact that he calls them “literary geniuses.” It reminds me of something I wrote years ago, long before I saw Tim’s video, in a poem that I dedicated to my atheist friends as a way of helping them appreciate the Bible. It’s called, “While Looking at Pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope,” and it goes like this:

Look at these:

Aren’t they amazing?

These are pictures of deep space,

the far reaches of the universe

and what can be seen in every dark corner

is light.

Towering nebulae,

whirling galaxies,

clusters of stars so dense

they dazzle the eyes.

There is an ancient text that claims:

“God is light.”ii

Work with me for a minute:

Imagine that it’s true,

that all the brilliant beauty in those images—

is God.

That He, or She, or It, is a luminous, swirling, benevolent


That fills the universe,

and touches every dark corner

with light.

And then imagine that here—

on this tiny blue-green planet—

among humans who have evolved slowly

over millions of years

some humans

have been especially sensitive to that


in love with the light,

listening for its low vibrations,

and that they have tried to put into words

what they have heard and seen,

tasted and touched.

Imagine that other humans—

not so sensitive—

have found meaning in those words,

some sense of connection

to something they cannot name,

so that they have gathered up those words

and written them down

on tablets, scrolls, and in books.

Suppose that’s what the Bible is,

the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita:

books full of words that bear witness

to some greater presence

by those who have heard the low hum

of the heavens, singing,

by those who have seen the light

and called it by name?

It doesn’t mean that they got it all right—

this is testimony, not Truth—

but suppose there is a kind of truth there

for those who can hear it

and Good News (if you want to call it that):

The news that we are not alone:

That there is a luminous, swirling, benevolent


Watching over us,

Nurturing our slow growth

and stuttering evolution

over eons,

Believing in us

Even when we cannot

Believe in ourselves,

And touching every dark corner

with light.

Remember that this was written for my atheist friends, a kind of gentle nudge in God’s direction, but to my Christian friends I might say that there have been people through the years who were especially sensitive to God’s presence, people who listened carefully for God’s voice, people who then wrote down what they heard, and they were called prophets. And whether or not they were literary geniuses I might say that we should thank God for people who take the time to listen for a word from the Lord, because not all of us can. You can’t do that if you’re a neurosurgeon, or a school teacher, or a factory worker. So, thank God that there are some people whose calling it is to listen for a word from the Lord and then share that word with people who need to hear it.

If you will indulge me, that’s my calling. And if you will let me, I’d like to say thank you. I am deeply grateful for people who make it possible for me to spend hours each week reading the Bible, and listening for the Word of the Lord, asking God: “What do you need to say to your people in this place at this point in history?” Most of us don’t have time to do that, but all of us need to come to worship, and sit for a while in God’s presence, and open ourselves to a word from outside ourselves: a word from the Lord. And if we are fortunate enough to have someone who has been listening for that word all week and thinking about how to communicate it to us so that we can hear it, then good for us.

We should feel lucky.

God’s people in exile were lucky. They didn’t feel that way. They felt like they were being punished for something they didn’t even do, something their ancestors before them had done. But while they were licking their wounds the prophet Isaiah was listening for a word from the Lord. His predecessor had been

the one to tell the people that if they didn’t change their ways God was going to punish them. And then God did punish them. He punished them for a long, long time. But now, as Isaiah strained his ears for God’s voice, he heard something new. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” And then the music swells and the tempo quickens as the soloist sings about every valley being exalted and every mountain and hill being made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain, so that a highway can be paved through the desert and God can come to his people, bringing not punishment, but redemption and release. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd,” says the prophet; “He will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom.”

That’s good news! And sometimes that’s what we hear in church: the good news that God has looked upon our wretched circumstances and taken pity on us and come to deliver us. But then there are those times when the news doesn’t sound good at all. Hundreds of years after the exile the word of the Lord came to John the Baptist. He was out there in the wilderness, looking very much like the Prophet Elijah, with clothing made of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey, and if the truth be told he wasn’t much of a literary genius; as far as we know he never wrote a word. But he had a message from God and the message was this:


It doesn’t sound much like good news, but years later another prophet named Mark (who was a literary genius) introduced his Gospel with the words, “This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And it

wasn’t so much about repenting; it was about the reason for repenting. God was getting ready to do a new thing in the world: God was getting ready to come to his people in the flesh. Quoting the Prophet Malachi Mark writes, “See, I am sending my messenger before you who will prepare your way.” And then quoting Isaiah he writes about a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight.” You can almost hear the prophet singing “Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low. The crooked straight and the rough places plain.”

It’s exciting to think about God coming to us, but just like when you get the news that your rich uncle is coming to see you, you need to get ready. In that case you might race around the house, picking up the mess, putting a pot roast in the oven and setting the table with your finest linen, crystal, silver, and china. But in John’s case it was a matter of getting people’s hearts ready, getting their lives ready for the One who was coming. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. Why did they do it? Because of what John was preaching. This prophet, who had spent years in the wilderness, listening for the voice of God, was now preaching the Good News, saying, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

How do you get ready for that? You confess your sins. You repent. And if you need to, you get baptized. It sounds almost like bad news, this demand for repentance. But if you can see the reason behind it, if you can see that it is simply

the way you get ready for the One who is coming, then it begins to sound like the good news it is. “Repent!” says John, and the whole Judean countryside, and all the people of Jerusalem, come down to the river to get ready, to wash away their sins, to change their clothes to change their lives before the One who is to come, comes.

So, how about you, you who are sitting in the pews, opening your lives and your selves to a word from the Lord? Can you hear the call to repentance as a call to get ready? Can you think of anything in your life that would keep Christ from coming? Last week I talked about looking for the signs, and how, when you look for them, you begin to see them. This week I’m asking you to look for the prophets, and not only to look, but to listen, because when you really listen to what they have to say you begin to hear what God is saying, and what God is saying to us in this season is, “I’m coming.

“Get ready!”

—Jim Somerville © 2023

“Do You See What I See? Look for the Signs”

Do You See What I See?

Look for the Signs

First Baptist Richmond, December 3, 2023 The First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

It’s the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a season of waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ. It’s also the beginning of an Advent sermon series called “Do You See What I See?” that takes its name from a line in a song by Noel Regney and his wife, Gloria Shayne, written in 1962 as a plea for peace at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis.i But that’s not what most people remember about the song. They remember Bing Crosby singing it in that wonderful, intimate way he had, where it sounded as if he were singing just for you. The song became a Christmas classic, with the night wind asking the little lamb, “Do you see what I see? A star, a star, dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite.” The star served as a sign that would lead people everywhere to a child, a child, sleeping in the night, who would bring them “goodness and light.” But don’t forget that other part: the part about the Cuban Missile Crisis. In those days Regney and Shayne found that they couldn’t perform their song without being overwhelmed by emotion, especially when they got to the line about people everywhere praying for peace. “Our little song broke us up,” they said. “You must realize there was a threat of war at the time.”ii With the United States and the Soviet Union aiming nuclear weapons at each other, the Cuban Missile Crisis may be as close as we

have ever come to the end of the world, and in times like those we look for signs.

Today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 64 was written in a time like that. God’s people were in exile, praying for their redemption. They were “alienated from their homeland, living among foreigners, suffering for their sins, and estranged from God.”iii And yet the prophet seems to believe that God deserves at least some of the blame. In the second half of verse 5 he says, “[Because] you were angry with us, we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.” And then the prophet describes their present, pitiable condition: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”

And then the prophet remembers the special relationship God has always enjoyed with his people. He stands up a little straighter and says, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.” And that’s when he becomes bold enough to ask God to intervene. Looking back up to the first verses in this passage Isaiah says, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” And I can almost see him, standing out there in the desert under the night sky, looking up in the hope that he will see the first little rip in the fabric of heaven, and the light of God’s glory pouring through.

At Tuesday’s staff meeting I tried to sum up the good news of Advent—or at least the good news of this First Sunday—in three lines. I said: 1) the world is broken, 2) we can’t fix it, and 3) help is on the way. I don’t think I have to convince you that the world is broken. If you read the news or watch it on TV you know what a colossal mess we humans have made of things. As the prophet says, “All our righteousness is like a filthy cloth.” And although we talk a lot about bringing heaven to earth here at Richmond’s First Baptist Church we know that we can’t do it on our own. Sometimes heaven seems so far away that we’re ready to give up, shrug our shoulders, and walk away. But in those times we often remember, as the prophet did, that God is our Father; that we are the clay and he is the potter. And that’s when we become bold enough to say—as the prophet did—“O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” O, that you would take everything that is wrong in this world and make it right. That’s the hope of this First Sunday of Advent. That’s what we are waiting for and praying for in times like these.

And that brings us to our Gospel lesson from Mark 13, a passage that has been called “the Little Apocalypse” because it sounds so much like the Book of Revelation. It, too, was written at a time when people were looking for signs. The late Fred Craddock, who was not only a great preacher but a renowned New Testament scholar, said, “At the time Mark wrote his Gospel, Jerusalem and the temple lay in ruins. Civil strife had outlived Roman patience, and the threats begun by Emperor Caligula thirty years earlier had now been carried out. What did this disaster mean for the purposes and promises of God? Jewish prophets had fed the war effort with messianic ideology, but how were the followers of Jesus to understand the end of the Holy City and the temple? Added to the

persecution at the hands of religious and political authorities and the anguish of families torn apart by differing loyalties was the unbearable confusion created by false messiahs and false prophets. False messiahs were claiming, ‘This is the second Advent; I am Christ returned,’ and false prophets were turning religion into an almanac: ‘The signs are right; this is the end.’ Experiencing most heavily now the absence of Jesus, the faithful are torn between giving themselves up to despair or reaching for any flicker of hope.”iv And that’s when Mark digs down deep into the story of Jesus, remembering a moment shortly before his death when he shared with his disciples these famous last words.

They were in the temple in Jerusalem, and the disciples were asking Jesus to notice how big it was, and how large its stones. But Jesus was not impressed. He said, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” And of course they wanted to know when this was going to happen, and what the signs would be. So, Jesus took them to the other side of the Kidron Valley, sat down with them on the Mount of Olives, looked back toward the temple, and began to tell them what was about to take place. He said, “Beware that no one leads you astray, for many will come in my name saying, ‘I am he.’ And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. All this is only the beginning of the birth pangs.” And then he told them that they, themselves, would endure great tribulation, and not only them, but everyone: “For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

There are some people who get excited about those kinds of apocalyptic predictions, and in my experience they are often people who are on the fringes of society. I remember one in particular, a member of a former church, who dressed as if he had three big cardboard boxes in his closet: one that said “Shirts,” one that said “Pants,” and one that said “Socks.” It looked as if he got dressed each morning by reaching into those boxes in the dark and pulling one item from each. He loved the Book of Revelation, which seems to be all about the world coming to an end. He didn’t love it when I tried to explain that it was written near the end of the first century, AD; at a time when Christians were being persecuted for claiming that Jesus, and not Caesar, was Lord; and that it was written to encourage them in their faith, and help them hold on no matter what, even if it resulted in their death. Over and over again in that book it says that the one who endures to the end will be saved. But he read it as if it were written for Christians living in the twenty-first century, as if it contained the secret codes that would help them know when everything was about to come undone. People like that keep an eye on the skies, and when they witness a solar eclipse or see a blood-red moon hanging low over the horizon they say, “There! You see? The end is near.”

They want it to be near. The world, as it is, is not working for them. And so they hope, they pray, for an end to the way things are and a beginning to what can be. They are ready for God to turn this world upside down, to usher in his glorious kingdom. But the people who are not on the fringes of society don’t feel that way. The world is working pretty well for them. They don’t want things to be turned upside down; they want them to stay just the way they are. Which raises an interesting question: if you are not eagerly awaiting the return of Christ and the radical upheaval that will precede the coming of his kingdom, why not? Is it

because things are going well for you and you don’t want them to change? If that’s true, then put yourself in the sandals of those people addressed by today’s Gospel lesson, looking out over the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem. That’s when the next words out of Jesus’ mouth might come as a comfort.

He says, “In those days, after that suffering, they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” And if you were among the elect, if you were a member of one of those first-century churches hearing someone read this chapter from the recently released Gospel of Mark, you might be comforted. You might think that it wouldn’t be long before Jesus would come for you, and you might find that his next words were not troubling, but instead hopeful. He says, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

And then, just like those original disciples, you might want to know when. “When will all these things take place?” And you might be as disappointed as they were to learn that, “About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So, what do you do in the meantime? In a word, you keep on doing the work of the kingdom. “Beware, keep alert,” Jesus says; “for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for

you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Jesus says it to those who are eagerly awaiting his return, like that former church member who loved the Book of Revelation. But he also says it to those for whom things are going well, whose lives are working out just fine, and if that’s you then remember this: 1) there may come a time when things are not going well, when your life is not working out, and 2) remember that it is not some vengeful judge who is coming back, but rather Christ himself.

I know I’ve told you this before, but sometimes I talk to people whose circumstances have changed overnight. They were doing fine, life was going well, and then, suddenly, they felt a pain where they had never felt one before. They tried to ignore it for as long as they could but when it only got worse they went to the doctor, and after undergoing a number of diagnostic tests they were told that they had cancer, the bad kind, the kind that probably wasn’t going to get better. And so they came to me and asked me to pray. What they wanted was to be cured of cancer. They thought that maybe I would know the secret word that would make them well. But I don’t; I don’t know any secret words; my prayers are just as ordinary as everyone else’s. But I do have a secret, and this is it: I say, “You probably know what kind of answer you would like to get from God, but maybe instead of asking for that you could ask for this: maybe you could say, ‘God, show me all the ways you are already at work in this situation.’” And that’s when they begin to see signs—signs of God’s love, signs of God’s care—sometimes signs of God’s healing activity in their lives, but not always. And yet, the next time I talk to them their faces light up with joy. They say, “God is at work everywhere, all the

time! And because I’ve been looking I’ve been able to see it!” What about you? Can you see the signs of God’s goodness and grace? Can you see the signs of God’s love and care? Can you believe that when your world is broken, and there’s nothing you can do to fix it, help is on the way?

—Jim Somerville © 2023

“Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned: The Lord is King!”

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:

“The Lord is King!”

First Baptist Richmond, October 22, 2023 The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 45:1-7; Matthew 22:15-22

They said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

Jesus taught what Jesus learned, and one of the things he learned was that Caesar is not Lord. He may have learned it while he was still a boy, going to that little synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath, “as was his custom” (Luke 4:16). We know that they had the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in that synagogue, and in their regular cycle of readings there must have been days when someone stood to read and opened that scroll to the place where it said, “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,” which is the beginning of our Old Testament lesson for today.

Even as a boy Jesus would have known who Cyrus was. Everybody in Israel knew who Cyrus was. He was their hero! He was the one who had delivered them from their exile in Babylon after he became King of Persia. I once described it like this: “For fifty years the exiles had been saying, ‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.’ And then one day they heard the sound of the Persian army marching toward Babylon, and when they looked up they saw a multitude of soldiers advancing: their shields and helmets gleaming in the afternoon sun; their swords flashing like lightning; their

chariots rolling like thunder. They smashed through the defenses of the city as if they were made of paper. The Book of Daniel claims that Babylon fell in a single night and when the sun came up the next morning Cyrus, King of Persia, was in charge. With one royal edict he set God’s people free and allowed them to return to Jerusalem.”i

No wonder he was their hero, and yet Isaiah makes it clear that without God’s help Cyrus would have been nothing. Listen again to these verses from today’s reading: “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him—and the gates shall not be closed: I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. I am the Lord, and there is no other.”

If you haven’t figured it out by now, Isaiah is saying that Caesar is not Lord. Cyrus was the King of Persia, he was the emperor of that particular empire, he was its “Caesar,” and yet, without God, he would have been nothing. God danced him across the stage of history like a puppet on a string, he used him to accomplish his own purposes, he called Cyrus his anointed one, his messiah, but Cyrus was anointed for one purpose and one purpose only: to set God’s people free. Once he had done that, and once he had sent them home with enough resources to rebuild their ruined city and restore its ravaged temple, God had no further use for him. Cyrus wasn’t Lord. As God reminds us in verse 5 of today’s reading, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.”

Jesus would have heard those words when he was still a boy, sitting in that

synagogue in Nazareth. He would have weighed those words against the Roman emperor’s claim to be divine, because that’s what the emperor claimed. After the Persians conquered the Babylonians someone else conquered them—the Greeks. And after the Greeks it was the Romans. The first of the Roman emperors, Augustus, began to think more highly of himself than he ought to think. Not only did he brag about his many military victories, but he claimed to be a god, and his subjects revered him as such.

When Augustus died in A.D. 14 and his son-in-law, Tiberius, took the throne, he had coins minted that bore his own image and the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus.” In other words, Tiberius claimed to be the Son of God. Can you imagine how Jesus looked at those coins as a teenager, knowing who he was and knowing—because he had grown up going to the synagogue—that Caesar was not Lord? If God was going to use Tiberius at all he would use him like a puppet on a string to accomplish his own purposes.

And so we come to this morning’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 22. Jesus is in the temple precincts. He has silenced the chief priests and elders with three pointed parables. And now the Pharisees, his old enemies, come to him with a question about paying taxes to Caesar. But again, this is no innocent question. It’s not that the Pharisees are unfamiliar with the tax laws. As Matthew points out, they are “plotting” to “entrap” him in what he says. In fact, the next few verses of Matthew 22 read like instructions for how to build a Jesus trap;

1. Send your disciples to question Jesus rather than going yourself. That way you won’t be implicated if things go wrong.

2. Send some Herodians along with them. They don’t really get along with each other but the Herodians are big supporters of the Roman government

and they may prove useful if Jesus says it isn’t lawful to pay Roman taxes.

3. Put the Herodians on one side of Jesus and your disciples on the other, like the jaws of a trap, ready to snap shut if he gives the wrong answer.

4. Butter him up. Call him “Teacher” as if you were really interested in learning something. Remind him that he’s a straight shooter who always tells the truth, that he doesn’t care what people think and isn’t afraid of anyone. That way, he won’t pull any punches; he’ll tell you exactly what’s on his mind.

5. And then ask the question, and ask it like this: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Because it’s a yes or no question, and either answer will get him in trouble. If he says no, the Herodians can jump him, since he’s not supporting Rome, but if he says yes your disciples can jump him, since he’s not supporting Israel. Either way, you will have him in your trap.

But as my friend Annie Campbell says to people who think she’s only a retired school teacher or the wife of an Episcopal priest: “You didn’t see me coming.” The Pharisees and the Herodians didn’t see Jesus coming. They thought he was some itinerant prophet from Galilee, but Matthew tells us he was “aware of their malice” and said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.”

And someone held out a denarius.

We need to pause right there for a moment so you can appreciate the “hypocrisy” Jesus refers to. We didn’t use it in worship but two weeks ago one of the lectionary readings was from Exodus 20: the Ten Commandments. If you are familiar with them you may remember that the first one is, “You shall have no other gods before me,” and the second one is, “You shall not make for yourself an

idol” (or, in the King James Version, a “graven image”). Well, we didn’t use it in worship either, but the next week’s reading was from Exodus 32, where Aaron makes a golden calf, a graven image, and tells the people, “These are your gods, O Israel!” And the people bow down to worship. They couldn’t keep the Ten Commandments for twelve chapters! But the Pharisees in today’s Gospel lesson are no better. There they are, in the temple with Jesus, and when he asks for a coin they hand him a denarius with Caesar’s graven image on it and an inscription claiming that he is the Son of God. The first two commandments are broken again, but this time right there in the temple!

Jesus calls attention to it, in a way that must have been terribly embarrassing to people who claimed that they followed the Law of Moses to the letter: He said, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” He didn’t say “blasphemous inscription,” but that’s what it was, and that’s what it would be for any ordinary mortal to claim that he was the Son of God. If you know anything about Tiberius you know that he was far from divine, and yet there was his image, and there was that claim. The Pharisees must have hung their heads when they acknowledged that both the graven image and the blasphemous inscription belonged to Caesar, whose coin had somehow ended up in the holiest place in Israel. “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus said, “and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, Matthew says, “they were amazed; and they left him and went away.”

On my first reading of this text last week I ended up thinking about what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar. And since the Pharisees were talking about taxes I did a quick search on the Internet. One site suggested that the average American pays 13.3 percent in income tax. You may pay more than that

because you are clearly above average, but let’s use that number as an example. I thought, “Well, there you go: 13.3 percent of your annual income goes to Caesar and, if you follow the teaching of Leviticus 27:30, ten percent of your annual income goes to God. That makes a total of 23.3 percent, leaving 76.7 percent for you.” For some people it really is that simple: they do the math, they write the checks, and then they go to bed with a clean conscience. But other people, like me, get stuck on the question, “What really does belong to Caesar, and what really does belong to God?” And maybe, “Why does the government get 13.3 percent while God, who gave me my life and every good thing that is in it, gets only 10 percent?”

But then I looked at the text again, and saw the word lawful in the Pharisees’ question. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” I realized that the Pharisees lived in a world where there were two different laws: the Law of Rome and the Law of Moses. Of the two, the Law of Moses was much more important to them. The scribes would go through the Scriptures with a fine-toothed comb, trying to ferret out every commandment, and then the Pharisees would try to follow every one that they found, with a commitment some would call “Pharisaical.” But when it came time to pay their taxes they had to pay them, just as we do. They wondered: “Is that in the Law of Moses? Is there anything that might get us off the hook?” Jesus’ response makes it clear that you can pay your taxes without breaking the Law of Moses, but there are some times when it is not so clear.

When I teach the newcomers class I talk about Baptist history, and say the Baptists got their start, in part, because the government was asking them to do something they didn’t think was right. It was asking them to baptize their babies.

This was at a time when the Church of England was the state-sponsored church, and the way the English government kept track of its citizens was through its baptismal records. Every baby born in England was required to be baptized, and when it was, its name was written into the books. But the people who would become Baptists couldn’t find any evidence of infant baptism in the Bible. They wondered why the government was making them do something that didn’t seem biblical. They got to that place where they felt that they couldn’t keep God’s law and the government’s law so they pulled out of the Church of England and ultimately came to this country in search of religious liberty. They could no longer tolerate the government-sponsored baptism of their babies.

Think about that before you sign up to be a Christian Nationalist. Do you really want the government telling you what to believe and how to behave? No. Caesar is not Lord. Don’t fall for that foolishness. Our Baptist forebears were willing to die for religious liberty. Paul would say, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). And that’s why we can be grateful to live in a country where the Constitution itself promises that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (First Amendment). A country like that you can feel good about supporting with your taxes. You can give to Caesar what is Caesar’s without feeling any qualms, and you can also give to God what is God’s.

In this country we have the freedom to do that. All we have to do, really, is figure out what “that” is. Jesus held up a coin and asked the Pharisees, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” “Caesar’s” they said. But he might have asked them, “When you hold up your life for inspection, whose image is on it and

whose inscription?” And even those Pharisees would have said, “God’s.” Because they knew their Bible. They knew that we human beings are made in God’s image. Everything we are and everything we have belongs to him. “Then give it to him,” Jesus might have said. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s because it’s not yours anyway. Come to that place where you care so little about his filthy money that you can throw it on the street. But give to God what is God’s, because that’s not yours either. It’s his. You are his. You belong to him. Give yourself gratefully, generously, because he’s worth everything you can give. He is King! He is Lord! And Caesar?

Is not.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned: A King Gave a Banquet

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:

A King Gave a Banquet

First Baptist Richmond, October 15, 2023 The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 25:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Today’s Old Testament lesson includes some of the most beautiful language and imagery in the Bible, and with your permission, I’d like to read it again, so you can sink down into it like a warm bath. Speaking of Mount Zion in Jerusalem Isaiah writes:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

That’s Isaiah 25:6-9: a vision of a bountiful feast, prepared for all the people of the earth, a kind of heavenly banquet where death is swallowed up forever and the tears are wiped from every face. Notice how generous it is: “the Lord will make for all peoples a feast of rich food…he will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.” It would have been nice if Isaiah had left it right there, or if the lectionary committee that selected today’s Old Testament reading had left it right there. But they didn’t. Today’s reading actually begins with Isaiah 25:1, which says, “O LORD, you are my

God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.” And then there’s the shock of the next verse: “For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.” In other words, “I will praise your name, O Lord, for you are getting ready to prepare a feast for us, your people, but only after you destroy the lives of our enemies, and reduce their capital city to a pile of rubble.”

I can’t read those verses today without thinking of what is happening in the Middle East, in the war between Israel and Hamas, knowing that there are people on both sides who would love to see their enemies’ cities reduced to rubble. But the people who read these verses originally also read them in historical context, and in that context I’m sure they would have made even more sense. Old Testament scholar Gene M. Tucker says that although most of the first part of the Book of Isaiah was written in the Eighth Century, BC, when Israel was being threatened by the Assyrian Empire, these four chapters—24-27—appear to have been written sometime after Israel’s return from exile, in the Sixth Century, BC. In that context it might have been understood that God would prepare a great homecoming feast for his people on Mount Zion, but only after Babylon had been destroyed by the Persian Empire. So the prophet can say, “You have done wonderful things, O Lord! You have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt! Hooray!”

Context is everything.

I learned that lesson from New Testament scholar Gail O’Day years ago. She was speaking at Wingate University in North Carolina and I was the pastor of Wingate Baptist Church, just at the edge of the campus. So, I walked over to hear

what she had to say. She spoke in the theatre, and when she stepped out on stage she said, “Context is everything.” She explained that she had just been backstage, waiting to come out, and noticed that someone had spray-painted on the back wall the words, “Break many legs.” Dr. O’Day said, “When I see those words in a theatre I know what they mean, because that’s what you say to someone when they’re going onstage: you say, ‘Break a leg.’ It means, ‘Good luck.’ I can only assume that ‘Break many legs’ means even more good luck. But when you see those words spray painted in some back alley in New York City they mean something else entirely, and that’s why I say, ‘Context is everything.’”

Jesus taught what Jesus learned, and in today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 22 he tells a parable that seems to be inspired by Isaiah 25. Let me see if I can put it in context. Jesus is teaching in the Temple the day after he has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the day after he has turned over the tables of the moneychangers. The chief priests and elders have confronted him, asking him by whose authority he has done these things. Jesus responds by asking them a question about the authority of John the Baptist: did it come from heaven or earth? They refuse to answer the question, knowing it will incriminate them. And so Jesus refuses to answer their question. Instead he begins to pepper them with parables: one about a son who said he would work for his father, but didn’t; one about some wicked tenants who wouldn’t give the owner of the vineyard the fruit that was rightfully his; and a third one, today’s Gospel lesson, about some people who refused to attend a royal wedding banquet.

If context really is everything, then we need to be aware that Jesus is face-to-face with the very people who are plotting to have him arrested and crucified, and he knows it. As early as chapter 16 in this Gospel he has been predicting his

passion, telling his disciples that, “[The Son of Man] must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21). So, there’s no innocence here. The chief priests and elders are not innocent people, hearing an innocent story. These parables have a point, as sharp as the point of any spear, and Jesus is hoping that the crowd of people standing around him will get it. He’s hoping that we will get it. So, what does he say?

He says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” And since we’ve heard this parable before we know that when Jesus talks about a king he’s talking about God, and when he talks about a son, he’s talking about himself. “[The king] sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet,” Jesus continues, “but they would not come.” Again, we know that those who have been invited to the wedding banquet are God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel, and the slaves who have been sent to them are the prophets. So far, so good. But now comes the hard part: why would they not come to the wedding banquet? Why would any of us not come to a wedding banquet? It’s a party! There’s plenty to eat and drink! And we don’t have to pay for any of it; the king is picking up the entire tab! The only reason I can imagine that they would not come to this party is that they do not believe the king’s son is who he says he is. They think he’s some pretender, some imposter. So, they scorn the invitation and go their own way. But the king is determined to honor his son.

So he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: ‘Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and

went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.” And now you have to skip ahead a few decades, realizing that Matthew is writing this Gospel some fifty years after the earthly ministry of Jesus. He has some historical perspective that seems to be influencing his telling of the story. He knows that those who were inviting God’s chosen people to the wedding banquet of his Son were seized, mistreated, and killed. And he also knows what happened next. “The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.”

Again, from Matthew’s perspective, this is something that actually happened. Fifteen years before he wrote his Gospel another empire—Rome—had conquered Israel, destroyed the people he called “those murderers,” and burned their city. Anyone who was hearing his Gospel read aloud would immediately think of the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. It doesn’t make sense in the context of the parable. You don’t put your dinner on hold while you send your soldiers off to destroy your enemies. But it does make sense in the context of history, and if you know just a little bit of Israel’s history this parable gets a whole lot easier. So, after this, “The King said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’” You can see this as the early church inviting not only Jews, but also Gentiles, to come to the banquet, and the next verse seems to support that. Jesus says, “Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

That would be a good place to end the parable. It may have been where Jesus ended it originally. It’s where we ended our reading of the parable today. But it is not where Matthew ends it. Matthew includes a brief paragraph that is

found nowhere else in the Gospels. He writes: “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” Ouch. That’s a brutal ending to the parable, and if you read it out of context it doesn’t make sense. How could Jesus say such a thing? But if you read it in context, if you read it in the context of the early church and perhaps especially Matthew’s church, it does make sense. Because Matthew seems to be talking about baptism.

I love it that we’ve had a baptism today, because Zane Frye may be the perfect example of what Matthew is talking about. He didn’t presume anything when he came asking for baptism. He didn’t say, “I’m one of God’s chosen people; you have to let me in!” No, he came humbly, knowing that he was just another sinner in need of God’s amazing grace. He stripped off his old clothes—his old life if you will—and put on a white robe as a symbol of his new life in Christ. You might call it his wedding robe. And then he entered the waters of baptism like someone who knew he hadn’t done anything to deserve this, and when we asked him for his credentials all he could say was, “Jesus is Lord.” And that was enough. Because that seems to be all God really wanted and all he really needed: for someone to acknowledge his son as Lord. But in Matthew’s day, apparently, there were people who were trying to crash God’s party, forcing their way into the church without being baptized, without acknowledging Jesus as Lord, without even putting on a wedding robe. And Matthew was having none of that.

I can sympathize.

Early in my ministry I was counseling with a couple that wanted to get married in the church, but the groom, in particular, seemed very flippant about it. He said, “Yeah, well, her parents wanted us to get married here so I guess we’ll do it, you know, to make them happy.” But he wasn’t making me happy. He wasn’t a Christian, and he didn’t seem to have any respect for Christian marriage. He kept asking if we could change the order of worship. “Do we have to read Scripture? Do we have to say prayers? Can’t we just light a unity candle?” I was biting my tongue. At the end of the session I was filling out some paperwork and asked him for his address. He gave it to me, but when I asked for hers he said, “Oh, it’s the same.” This was thirty years ago, mind you, back when some people still waited until they were married to move in with each other. So I asked, “Are you living together?” “Yeah,” he said. “Do you have a problem with that?” Well, yes. I did. Context is everything, and in that context I felt like this guy was crashing God’s party; like he wanted all the blessings of the church without any of the discipline. I finally said, “Friend, if I’m going to do this wedding your fiancée is going to have to move back in with her parents and live with them until I pronounce you husband and wife.” And here’s the amazing thing: she did.

“That’s all I want,” Matthew said, speaking not about marriage but about membership in the church. “I want people to respect my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I don’t want them presuming on God’s grace or crashing his party. I want them to show up in a proper wedding garment. I want to hear them say, ‘Jesus is Lord!’ just like Zane did. Because if they could do that, if they could only do that,

“It would be enough.”

—Jim Somerville © 2023

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned: What More Was There to Do?

Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:

“What More Was There to Do?”

First Baptist Richmond, October 8, 2023 The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 5:1-7; Matthew 21:33-46

Jesus said, “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country…”

My first trip to the Holy Land was in 1994, and it was pretty much my first trip anywhere outside the United States. I was very excited. A member of my church, a retired pastor, asked me why I was going and I said, “Why wouldn’t I?” It seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime. He said he had spent his whole life imagining those places in the Bible, and he didn’t want to ruin all that by flying to the other side of the world and getting on a tour bus and driving all over Israel just so he could stand in line with a group of other pilgrims to see the gaudy shrine built over the place where Jesus may or may not have done something miraculous. I didn’t think of it like that at all. I said, “I want to see the rugged landscape of Israel. I want to hear the waves lapping up against the shore of the Sea of Galilee. I want to smell the air of the Negev desert. I want to taste falafel from a food cart in Jerusalem. I want to put my hand down deep into the waters of the Jordan River. I want to haggle over the price of souvenirs in an open-air market. In other words, I want to experience the Holy Land with all my senses and just see what it does for my understanding of the Bible.”

Well, it did a lot. I can’t read the Bible these days without seeing those places in my head and remembering those experiences. For example: when I read

today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 5 I remember being on a bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It was the middle of the afternoon. We were all a bit drowsy from jet lag and a big, Mediterranean lunch. We were beginning the climb from the coastal plain up to the hill country of Judea. But as I looked out the window I kept seeing these small, rectangular plots of land surrounded by low, stone walls. When we passed close to one I could see that it was a vineyard. I asked our tour guide about the walls. Were they supposed to keep something out? He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Not really. Those are just the stones they had to clear out of the vineyard.” And that’s when I realized how rocky that part of the country was, and how much effort it would take just to clear enough land to plant some grape vines. I could picture someone lugging heavy stones, one at a time, from the middle of the vineyard to the perimeter, stacking them up to make a wall, not so much because he needed one, but simply because what else are you going to do with all those rocks?

So, the next time I read Isaiah 5 I could see it in my mind. The prophet says:

Let me sing for my beloved

my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

That trip to Israel helped me see that digging the vineyard and clearing it of stones was just the beginning. Then you have to plant the vines, build the watch tower, and hew out a wine vat, and if my other experiences in Israel are any indication,

the wine vat would have been hewed out of solid rock. What I’m saying is this: a vineyard would have been an enormous expense of time and effort. It would have been hot, sweaty, backbreaking work. And when you finally got those choice vines planted in that fertile soil you would expect them to produce nothing but the plumpest, sweetest grapes in the land. So, when the prophet says of his beloved’s vineyard, “He expected it to yield grapes,” you think, “Yes, of course he did, especially after all that work!” But the prophet’s beloved is God, and God’s vineyard is Israel. He expected it to yield grapes, but instead it yielded wild grapes.

What are “wild grapes”? I’m so glad you asked! According to the McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia, published in 1880, “Wild Grape is the rendering of the A.V. at Isa 5:2, 4 of the Heb. word which occurs only in the pl. beushim, בּאֻשַׁים, and indicates a noxious species of plant or kind of fruit. In form the word is a pass. participle of בָּאִשׁ, beosh, which means to smell offensively, as many poisonous vegetables do; and this connects it radically with בָּאשָׁה, boshah (translated as ‘cockles’ in Job 31:40), although the two seem to denote different plants, but both useless.”i After a few more paragraphs of explanation, including the rendering of the word in Greek in the Septuagint, McClintock and Strong conclude by saying, “It seems probable that no specific plant is referred to in the passage; but that the word is simply used as an adjective with its substantive understood, as a designation of bad or worthless grapes. The Lord expected that his vineyard should produce grapes, but it produced only beushim, vile, uneatable grapes.”ii

Jesus taught what Jesus learned, and this is one of the things he learned while he was still just a boy: that the nation of Israel was God’s vineyard, and God had given his people every possible advantage. He had brought them out of their slavery in Egypt; he had carried them in his arms through the wilderness; he had

brought them into a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey; he had said to them, “If you will be my people, I will be your God.” It was his marriage vow. But they had not been his people. They had chased after every foreign god and bowed themselves down at every pagan altar. He had expected grapes, but his people were wild grapes; they were bad, worthless, they “smelled offensively,” and he had no choice but to send them into exile. Everyone knew that story. It made perfect sense to them. But Jesus taught what Jesus learned and in today’s Gospel lesson he has something to teach the chief priests and elders of Israel.

Before we get into the parable itself let me remind you that Jesus is under attack. The chief priests and elders are upset by his lack of respect for their authority. He has ridden into the city on a donkey to shouts of “Hosanna!” He has turned over tables in the temple and healed people in its precincts. He has refused to tell the chief priests and elders the source of his authority, although everyone else seems to know. And so now they stand there, wondering what to do with this troublemaker, when he says, “Let me tell you a story,” the text of which can be found in Matthew 21:33-46.

“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard,” Jesus began. “He put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.” As soon as he said it, everyone knew that he was talking about the nation of Israel, because everyone had heard Isaiah’s parable. It was what you might call “common knowledge.” “Then he leased it to tenants,” Jesus continued, “and went to another country.” And that’s when the people listening began to wonder who the “tenants” might be, and to suspect, with a kind of perverse delight, that Jesus was referring to the religious leaders of Israel, the very people who were opposing him. “When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce,”

Jesus said, and the people rightly guessed that the slaves were the prophets of Israel, sent to collect the produce of justice and righteousness. “But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another,” Jesus said, and the people recalled that this is how the religious leaders of Israel had treated the prophets through the years.

“Again he sent other slaves,” Jesus said, “more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.” Sure enough, everyone in the crowd could remember that many of the prophets had been beaten, or stoned, or killed, simply for telling the truth. “Finally,” Jesus said, “he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’” And the people in the crowd must have wondered, “Is he talking about himself? Is he the Son of God?” “But when the tenants saw the son,” Jesus continued, “they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’” Which doesn’t even make sense, right? Why would the owner of the vineyard give it over to those who had killed his son? Nevertheless, “They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.” And then Jesus asked the question that would cause his opponents to condemn themselves: “Now,” he said, “when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And the chief priests and elders, still unaware that he was talking about them, said, “Why, he will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Jesus said, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one

who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” It was only then that the chief priests and elders realized that he was talking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Now, all of this took place nearly two thousand years ago. We weren’t there, and it would be easy to imagine that it doesn’t apply to us. But even the people who were there might have said that it didn’t apply to them. They weren’t the “wild grapes” in Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard. Those were their ancestors from hundreds of years earlier, the ones who didn’t give to God the fruits of justice and righteousness, the fruit he had hoped for when he planted his vineyard. If you read on in that parable you will find that God removed the hedge around his vineyard and allowed it to be devoured; he broke down its wall, and allowed it to be trampled down. Those who knew the story would know that the Babylonian army ran roughshod over God’s vineyard and dragged its inhabitants away to exile. “I will make it a waste,” God promised; “it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” And that’s what happened. The nation of Israel, the city of Jerusalem, was completely and utterly destroyed. But can’t you imagine that when God’s people returned to the ruins some seventy years later they said, “This time we will give God what he wants; we will produce the fruits of justice and righteousness so that he will not have any cause to send us into exile again”?

And when Jesus confronted the chief priests and elders of Israel it was easy for the crowds to stand back and listen, knowing that the threat of judgment wasn’t intended for them. They weren’t the ones who had kept from God the fruit

that was rightfully his; it was these people, the religious authorities. It was to them that Jesus had said, “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the fruits of the kingdom.” But years later, when Matthew’s Gospel was written and shared among the early Christians, they must have realized: “He’s talking about us! The Kingdom of God was taken away from those religious authorities and given to us!” But if that’s true, then even though they weren’t there when Jesus told the story, there is still an important lesson to be learned. And for us, even though we were never the focus of Jesus’ parable, we can come away from this morning’s Gospel lesson realizing, “If the Kingdom of God is taken away from those who will not produce the fruits of the Kingdom, and given to a people who will, then we had better be that kind of people—the kind who give to the King the fruit that is rightfully his!” And what is that fruit? According to Fred Craddock, “the owner of the vineyard is still expecting 1) righteous living, 2) human caring, and 3) courageous witnessing, these three being Matthew’s understanding of ‘fruit.’”iii

Because it’s a little too easy to stand back and listen to Isaiah blast the residents of eighth-century Israel for not producing the fruit of justice and righteousness; a little too easy to sit in our pews and listen to Jesus condemn the chief priests and elders for not giving to God what is rightfully his. What’s harder for us is to realize that now we have been made the tenants of the Kingdom, and that someday God is going to send his servants, and possibly even his own son, to collect the fruit that is rightfully his. On that day can we give him what he wants? Can we hand over bushel baskets full of “righteous living, human caring, and courageous witnessing”?

Take a look around you. Take a moment to appreciate this beautiful

sanctuary. Think about the manicured grounds around this building; our enviable location at the corner of Monument Avenue and Arthur Ashe Boulevard; our capable, hard-working staff and our multi-million dollar endowment. Is there anything more God could have done for us that he has not already done? And yet, when he comes looking for grapes, will he find wild grapes? When he comes to collect what is rightfully his, will we give it to him, or will we keep it to ourselves?

—Jim Somerville © 2023

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” (

[ii] I have summarized his remarks.

[iii] Steven Garber, “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 (