Decisions, Decisions: Palms or Passion?

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

In the children’s Bible I had as a boy there was a picture of Palm Sunday. There was Jesus, riding on a donkey, and there were crowds of people around him, including children, who were waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!”  What I remember most clearly about that picture is that, while everyone else looked happy, Jesus did not look happy.  Even as a boy I wasn’t thinking about how cute the donkey was or how colorful the costumes were.  I was thinking, “Why does Jesus look so sad?”

Will you pray with me?

Lord, help us give our attention to the story of what happened on this Sunday so long ago, so that we might know you better, and know ourselves better, and know what you want for us even now.  We ask it in your name.  Amen.


A couple of weeks ago I got an email message from Janet Chase, who works in our communication office.  You may not know it, but Janet is the one who formats the weekly worship bulletin and who does her very best to make sure that all the “I’s” are dotted and all the “T’s” are crossed.  It is an enormously painstaking task and she does it exceptionally well.  But she knows I’m picky.  So she wrote to me asking a question about the bulletin she was working on for last Sunday’s worship service.  It was in that place where we announce the lectionary readings for the following week so that people can read ahead and be ready for worship.  But when she looked at the readings for today she saw that there were two different options: one was called “The Liturgy of the Palms” and the other was called “The Liturgy of the Passion.”  “Which one do you want me to put in the bulletin,” she asked: “Palms or Passion?”

Decisions, Decisions.

Janet may not have known that the choice between Palms and Passion is a fairly recent one.  Years ago Christians set aside the Sunday before Easter to celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  They called it Palm Sunday: they sang “All Glory, Laud, and Honor”; children came down the aisle waving palm branches; there might have even been a donkey involved.  But they didn’t talk about the Passion of the Christ—his suffering and dying—no, they saved that story for Good Friday, when there would be one of those special services at church, maybe “The Seven Last Words of Christ,” where everyone would come and sit at the foot of the cross for three hours and let the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice sink in.  But in the last twenty or thirty years church leaders have noticed that not all the people who come on Palm Sunday come back on Good Friday.  Many of them skip blissfully from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday—from “Hosanna!” to “Hallelujah!”—without any heart-wrenching stops along the way.  And so church leaders began to recommend reading the full story of Jesus’ suffering and death on the Sunday before Easter, so that when Easter came around, and we celebrated the Resurrection, people would know why we were celebrating.

We don’t do that here.  We don’t read the passion narrative on Palm Sunday, partly because it’s so long (this year’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew is 128 verses).  Instead we trust people to come back on Maundy Thursday (at 6:30 pm), when we combine the story of the Last Supper with all the events that followed on Good Friday so that on this Sunday we can focus entirely on Jesus’ triumphal entry.  To answer Janet’s question, we choose the Liturgy of the Palms. 

I told her that, and that’s what she put in the bulletin, but if you read ahead you may have discovered that the Liturgy of the Palms is fairly thin.  We don’t have four readings for this Sunday, as we usually do; we only have two: one from Psalm 118 and one from Matthew 21.  I added the Old Testament lesson from Zechariah 9, where the prophet says, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  See, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  When you read that and today’s psalm, with that wonderful line, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” it doesn’t seem appropriate to read the story of Jesus’ suffering and death.  This is a day for rejoicing, for shouting and celebrating!  And yet even in the Palm Sunday story there is a hint of what’s coming in the week ahead.

As Matthew tells it, Jesus, and his disciples, and a large crowd of followers are coming up the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, a distance of eighteen miles with an elevation gain of some three thousand feet.  It’s steep, and difficult, and it may have been why Jesus sent two of his disciples to fetch a donkey for the last mile of the journey.  But Matthew says it was to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah, the one I just read, about Zion’s king coming to her “humble and riding on a donkey.”  If that’s true, then Jesus may be doing this deliberately; at his Father’s direction he may be presenting himself as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah in order to give the people a choice: will they accept him or reject him? 

In his comments on this passage Brian Maas says you don’t need to be particularly astute to recognize that it’s Palm Sunday in church; as soon as you see children waving palm branches you know.  In the same way you wouldn’t have needed to be a particularly pious resident of Jerusalem to realize that when someone rides into town on a donkey while everyone else is waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” something big is about to happen.  He says these people would have been very familiar with Psalm 118, the one that we read as our Call to Worship.  It is a psalm filled with gratitude to God, who has not only saved his people in the past but who is also about to save them now.  Ten times in today’s reading the word LORD is used, and if you count the word God and the related pronouns, it’s nearly two dozen times. 

“It is the Lord who is acting,” Maas writes, “and the grateful people who are responding. Something indeed is about to happen.  This is the background to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem; those who are present read the signs of the palm branches and the donkey and colt and know that God is up to something. The ‘Hosanna!’ shouts aren’t just spontaneous utterances; they’re quotes from the psalm (Save us, we beseech you!). God is up to something in their very presence; something for which the faithful have prayed for centuries. For the crowds, this isn’t just about Jesus. The God of the cosmos is up to something among the chosen people, and they want to be part of it. This is a production of the Lord, a production in which the man Jesus has a starring role, but a production with implications far beyond him—cosmic implications.”[i] 

In verse 9 of today’s Gospel lesson Matthew writes, “The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’”  That sounds like a celebration.  But in verse 10 he adds, “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil,” and that doesn’t sound good at all.  The word in Greek is seio, from which we get seismic: the same word we use to measure the activity of an earthquake.  “The whole city of Jerusalem was in turmoil,” Matthew writes, rocking and reeling with confusion as the inhabitants of the city raced to and fro asking,

“Who is this?” 

It reminds me of that moment, earlier in this same Gospel, when the Magi ask Herod, “Where is he that is born king of the Jews?” and Matthew tells us that Herod was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  It’s a word that is used for waves tossing to and fro on the sea.  Because Herod thought he was the king of the Jews, he thought he was in charge, that he was in control.  And now here were these wise men telling him that someone else was about to take his place.  Do you remember what he did?  He called together his own wise men to find out where the Messiah was to be born, and then he sent the Magi to Bethlehem to search diligently for the child, saying, “When you find him bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  But do you think Herod actually wanted to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews?  No, he did not.  He wanted to eliminate any threat to his sovereignty.  And do you think those people who were in turmoil in Jerusalem, running to and fro and asking who Jesus was were eager to bow down and worship him?  Probably not.  They may have been among the religious and political leaders of Israel.  When they asked his followers who he was his followers said, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,” as if to say, “Not the King of the Jews; just a prophet.  And not from anywhere important; just from Nazareth in Galilee.  No threat, really, to the religious and political establishment.”

Or is he?

Last week I went to a meeting at St. Paul’s Baptist Church where 1,500 followers of Jesus had gathered to confront our city council members on the issues of affordable housing and gun control.  They didn’t use our slogan, but they talked like people who were trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.  They believed that if Jesus were king then everybody in our city would have a decent place to live.  And they believed that if Jesus were king then no one in our city would have to worry about being shot and killed.  They sat four city council members on the stage and asked them those questions directly: “What are you doing about affordable housing?  What are you doing about gun control?  You could feel the tension in the atmosphere, the power dynamics shifting this way and that way as the people who had elected our city council members called for accountability.  The whole room was in turmoil.  That’s what seems to be happening in today’s Gospel lesson.  The religious and political authorities of Jerusalem are being confronted by the One who comes in the name of the Lord and you get the feeling that if he is not careful things could get ugly.

Before the week was over they had.

I like the way Brian Maas suggests that it’s not just Jesus, but God who is up to something in this story.  Because I’ve struggled in the past with the idea that Jesus is presenting himself as the Messiah all Israel has been waiting for.  That doesn’t sound like him.  But what if it’s God who wants to present his son to his people as their long-awaited Messiah?  What if he’s the one who told him to ride into town on a donkey?  What if the people couldn’t miss the implications and began throwing their coats down on the road and stripping palm branches off the trees not because Jesus was so impressive in his own right but because God was getting ready to do something big, getting ready to save his people from their sins.  “This is a production of the Lord,” Maas writes, “a production in which the man Jesus has a starring role, but a production with implications far beyond him.”  Maybe that’s why Jesus looked sad in that picture in my Children’s Bible; maybe it’s because he knew that before the week was up he would be praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.”  So, which is it?  Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday?  I think you know.  I think you know that it is not either/or but both/and.

Last Monday morning I typed up some of these thoughts for the worship planning team and sent them ahead in an email, knowing we would be sitting down later that afternoon to plan this service.  What I didn’t know is that, just about the time I hit the “send” button on that email Jim Flamming, my predecessor here at First Baptist, was taking his last breath on this earth.  I got the news from Lynn Turner later that morning and she and I drove over to wait with Dr. Flamming’s family until the people from the funeral home could get there.  I asked her how she was feeling and she said, “I’m sad!”  Dr. Flamming was the one who called Lynn to serve as our youth minister all those years ago.  He was the one who believed in her and encouraged her to embrace her role as a woman in ministry.  He was the one who first gave her an opportunity to preach from the pulpit of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  “I’m sad!” she said again, “But you know, it’s like you said in your email to the worship planning team.  We can’t really choose between the palms and the passion, because it’s both.  Dr. Flamming lived a wonderful life, he had a successful ministry, his funeral will be a great celebration, and yet…I’m sad.” 

I was here for his funeral yesterday and it was a celebration.  I got to add my accolades to all the others that were shared.  Jim Flamming was a great man and a great pastor.  And yet there were many in that crowd who looked like Jesus on Palm Sunday: sad while everyone around them was celebrating.  It occurred to me then that that’s just how life is.  We don’t get to choose between palms and passion.  We don’t get to choose between suffering and celebration.  The cup of life is both bitter and sweet.  You can’t drink from only one side.  You have to put it to your lips and drain it dry.  Jesus knew that.  In the Garden of Gethsemane he asked one last time if God would take that cup away from him, and then, in an act of selfless obedience, he put it to his lips, and drained it dry.

Thanks be to God.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

[i] Bryan Maas, Lectionary Reflections for Palm Sunday in the Christian Century, March 27, 2023.

Be Curious, Not Judgmental: What Do We Do When Jesus Changes?

First Baptist Richmond, February 19, 2023

Transfiguration Sunday

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

I’m testing a theory, but before I tell you what it is I need to give you some background.  It started more than thirty years ago, when I had just graduated from seminary with a Ph.D. in New Testament studies and moved to Wingate, North Carolina, as the new pastor of Wingate Baptist Church.  Byrns Coleman, who was a member of the church and also chair of the Religion Department at Wingate College, asked if I would like to teach a class or two as an adjunct and that sounded like the perfect use for my new doctorate.

I said yes. 

I decided to start with a class that was required for freshman in those days, at that school: Jesus and the Gospels.  The first big decision I had to make was which textbook to use, other than the Bible itself.  I finally settled on a book called Mark as Story, by a religion professor named David Rhoads who invited his friend Donald Michie, an English professor, to show the students in his New Testament class how to read one of the gospels as if it were a short story.[i]  He writes: “As I listened to an English teacher interpret the gospel, I was fascinated by the fresh and exciting way in which he discussed the story.  He talked about the suspense of the drama.  He spoke of Jesus as a character struggling to get his message across.  And he showed how the conflicts come to a climax in Jerusalem.”[ii] 

Before I finished reading the introduction I was sold.  I chose that book and taught it for seven years.  And at the end of the first day of class I would give an assignment suggested by the authors themselves: I would ask my students to read through the entire Gospel of Mark in a single sitting.[iii]  “Find a comfortable chair,” I would say.  “Make sure you have a good reading light.  And then sit down and read through the whole Gospel as if you were reading a very short novel.  It should take about an hour.”  I don’t know how many of them actually did it, but when they came to class next time I assumed that they had, and I would ask them about their impressions of the Gospel.  Many of them were impressed by how quickly the Gospel moves: “Immediately,” Mark says, Jesus went from one place, to another, and then another.  Some were impressed by how impatient Jesus was with his disciples, and how dense they seemed to be.  And then someone would always ask why Jesus cursed that poor, innocent fig tree in Chapter 11.

Reading the whole Gospel in one sitting gives you a different feel for it than hearing one paragraph at a time preached over the course of a full year.  You come away thinking that Jesus was not as gentle, meek, or mild as you have imagined him to be.  He was in a hurry, anxious to get somewhere, and impatient with slow-witted disciples who couldn’t seem to keep up.  On at least one occasion he took out his frustration on a fig tree that he withered to the roots.  “Who is this guy?” my students would ask.  “And what does he want anyway?”  “Aha!” I would say.  “That’s just what we’re going to talk about…next time.”

On day three I would refer them to an old article by Genni Gunn called, “Getting Your Novel Started in Ten Days.”  “Now,” I would say, “let’s change the name of the article slightly.  Let’s call it, ‘Getting Your Gospel Started in Ten Days.’  And let’s imagine that Mark is sitting at his desk getting ready to write. 

“Day 1,” Ms. Gunn suggests:  “Define your idea.  Begin by asking yourself, ‘What is my Gospel about?’  Write a one-sentence summary.”  “Hmm,” Mark says.  “What is my Gospel about?  It’s the good news about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God” (and by the way, if you look up Mark 1:1 you’ll see that’s exactly the sentence he wrote down.  And then, I imagine, he took the rest of the day off). 

“Day 2,” Ms. Gunn continues:  “List your characters.”  “Not so hard,” Mark says, chewing the end of his pencil.  “There’s Jesus, and Peter, and the other disciples, and all the people he healed, and the Scribes and the Pharisees, and Pilate, and, and . . . .  That ought to be enough for one day.” 

“Day 3,” Ms. Gunn continues:  “List locations and settings.”  “That’s not so hard either,” Mark says, getting out a clean sheet of paper.  “There’s the Jordan River, and the Sea of Galilee, and all those little towns around it, and then, of course, Jerusalem, Gethsemane, Golgotha . . . .” And then he can’t bring himself to write anything else. 

“Day 4,” Ms. Gunn suggests, cheerfully:  “Define your characters’ goals.  Your main characters must want something that they are unable to get.  In one sentence, define what each of your main characters wants.”  And this is where I would usually turn away from Mark, sitting at his desk, and toward my students, sitting at theirs.  “In this Gospel,” I would ask, “What does Jesus want that he is unable to get?”  And then I would watch them struggle, those bright young men and women, many of whom had grown up going to Sunday school in Baptist churches, wrestling with the idea that Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, might want something he couldn’t get.  And then a light would break across the face of one of my brighter students, and she would raise her hand tentatively, and I would say, “Yes?  Do you know what Jesus wants that he can’t get in this Gospel?”  “I think so,” she would say, gulping.  “I think he wants to establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.”  “Exactly!” I would say, slapping my desk, making her jump in her seat.  “That’s exactly right!  Jesus wants to bring in the Kingdom and he can’t do it because we won’t let him.”

Again, if you read the Gospels carefully, you will find that Jesus talks about the Kingdom more than anything else.  120 times, mostly in the first three Gospels, he refers to the Kingdom of God or its equivalent.  He doesn’t say all that much about saving sinners.  He gives passing notice to helping the poor.  The main thing he talks about—the main thing—is the Kingdom of God, and from the beginning of the Gospel to the end you can see that he is trying to get that project off the ground (or rather, on the ground).  So, when my students came back to class on the fourth day we spent some time talking about the Kingdom of God, and what it meant to Jesus.

“A kingdom,” I would say, reading straight out of the dictionary, “‘is a territory, people, state, or realm ruled by a king or a queen.  It is any place or area of concern thought of as a sovereign domain.’  In other words, a kingdom is wherever the king is in charge.  The Kingdom of God, then, would be wherever God is in charge.  That could be a nation, or a city, or a household, or a human being.  I think Jesus would say that if God is in charge of your life, then the Kingdom of God is in you!”  And that’s usually where I had to stop talking about the Kingdom, because there is only so much you can say in a classroom, even the classroom of a Baptist college.  You have to maintain a clear distinction between instruction and indoctrination.  But in church it’s different.  In church you don’t have to hold back.[iv]

So, here’s my theory. 

I believe that if Jesus really was trying to establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, then everything he did and everything he said was part of his strategy.  Including the episode in today’s Gospel lesson, where Jesus takes Peter, James, and John, and leads them up a high mountain by themselves.  In the previous chapter he has told his disciples for the first time that he is going to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die, and Peter, for one, cannot believe it.  “God forbid it, Lord!” he says.  “This shall never happen to you!”  But Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”  And that’s when he turns to the crowd and says, “If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me, for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  It’s a hard passage to hear, but at the end of it Jesus says, “Listen, one of these days the Son of Man is going to be revealed in all his glory, and there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see it.”

And so, “six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves,” where they saw the Lord revealed in all his glory.  His face was shining like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white, and suddenly Moses and Elijah were there, talking with him. Peter said, “Lord, it’s good that we are here!  If you want, I can make three shelters: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  But while he was still speaking a bright cloud covered the mountain and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.  Listen to him!”  And the disciples fell on their faces, terrified, trembling with fear, until Jesus came and nudged them and said, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”  And when they looked up they didn’t see anyone but Jesus.

If you were curious you might ask, “Did that actually happen?”  I don’t know.  On the way down the mountain Jesus ordered them to tell no one about “the vision” (Gk. horama) until after the Son of Man had been raised from the dead.  Maybe all of it was a vision.  Maybe Jesus led those disciples up to the top of a high mountain and then turned aside, as he often did, to pray.  And maybe while he was praying the disciples fell asleep, as they often did, while waiting.  And maybe it was while they were sleeping that Jesus asked the Father to show them who he really was in a way they would never forget.  We don’t know.  We can be curious about these things.  We can ask questions.  But on this side of eternity we may never know the answers.  Still we can ask: what was the impact of this event?  How did it affect the disciples?  Why did Jesus take them up there in the first place?

The answer?  Jesus knew some dark days were coming.  He knew that when they got to Jerusalem, and when he was arrested and tried and crucified, the disciples would be tempted to fall away.  They would see him hanging there on a criminal’s cross and think that they had been wrong about him from the beginning.  And that’s why he took some of them up on a high mountain where God could burn this image into their brains—an image of Jesus in all his glory—so that when they saw him hanging on the cross that glory would still shine through.  When he was dying with a condemned criminal on either side of him, they would remember Moses and Elijah on either side.  When dark clouds filled the sky and the rain began to fall, they would remember that bright cloud, and the voice that thundered, “This is my beloved Son!”  The Transfiguration was strategic: Jesus knew that if the disciples were going to continue his mission through the dark days that lay ahead it would be because some of them had seen him in all his glory, and could say to the others, “Don’t give up; this isn’t over yet.”

Friends, we are living in some dark days right now.  The number of people who still believe in Jesus, who show up to sing his praises on a Sunday morning like this one, is dropping off at an alarming rate.  And not only that, but on Wednesday of this week we enter into the 40-day Season of Lent, where we will walk with Jesus as he makes his way to the cross.  These are some of the darkest days on the Christian calendar.  We need some people who have seen Jesus in all his glory, who can hold up that image in front of us no matter what else might be happening.  And maybe you are one of those people.  Maybe Jesus is so real for you that it’s like he’s sitting right there beside you, so that you can almost hear the sound of his breathing.  Maybe you know that he really is the Beloved Son of God.  You’ve been listening to him all your life and you’re not about to stop now. 

Well, don’t only listen to him: talk about him.  Be like those disciples who were with him on the mountain, like Peter, who says in today’s Epistle reading: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’  We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”[v] 

I think Peter would say it was no vision.  I think he would say it was one of those moments when heaven came to earth, and something like that will get you though some pretty dark days.  It will get you through the 40 days of Lent and all the days that follow.  So, let that image of Jesus in all his glory sustain you through the days that lie ahead.  No matter what anyone else may say about him see him for who he really is, and hear God say again, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased; 

“Listen to him!”

Jim Somerville © 2023

[i] David Rhoads and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: an Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982).

[ii] Ibid., p. xv. I also shared this paragraph in a November, 2022, sermon called, “King of the World,” from the Learning as We Go series.

[iii] These next few pages are from a sermon I preached in 2009 called, “Follow Me,” which was included in my book The Seven FIRST Words of Christ, published by Nurturing Faith in 2020 and available at

[iv] And now, back to this Sunday’s sermon (smile).

[v] 2 Peter 1:16-18

Be Curious, Not Judgmental: Are you talking to me?

Amanda Lott

February 12, 2023

I’ve had several people ask me how I feel about preaching, both today and as a general concept. My answer is usually the same, “I don’t mind to do it. I do it pretty often, actually, just in small parts!” In response to that answer, someone asked me this week if I knew how to give a sermon more than 3 minutes long, and I said, “You should probably ask my husband and daughters.”  

Before we jump fully into the text, I need to tell you what I told the boys and girls in Children’s Worship a couple of weeks ago: when I preach, I like to give a particular word for which to listen. Each time you hear that word, you can make a tally mark and after worship, we can compare notes to see how many you heard. This practice helps boys and girls – and grown-ups! – be active listeners. So, today’s word to listen for is “relationship.” 

I am glad to be here this morning, continuing the series of sermons in which Jim has invited us to be curious, not judgmental. Since this series began, I have found myself asking even more questions than usual about the texts we’re encountering. Am I asking 20 questions of every text? Probably not! But here are a few I have from today’s Gospel text: Number one is How did the children’s minister end up preaching on the passage that includes murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing? Is anger really that bad? What do all those sticky topics have in common? And what does all this have to do with Epiphany? Yes, we’re still in the season of Epiphany; more and more of who Jesus is, is being fully revealed to us. 

We’ve worked our way into the middle of the fifth chapter of Matthew – wading through the passage we know as the Beatitudes, which continues into the end of chapter 7 – and we’re sitting with the disciples and a good many other people as they listen to Jesus say things that are at once familiar and foreign, comforting and unsettling, straightforward and curiously veiled. We’ve heard, “Blessed are the peacemakers . . .” and “Blessed           are you . . .” and “You are salt and light . . .”  As we turn to verses 21 through 37 we encounter words that might sting and startle us as much as they did the people who first heard them. 

When I read and then sat for a while with these verses, my first thought was, and continues to be, the heart of this passage is relationship: relationship with God, relationship with the Law, and relationship with each other – and when I say relationship with each other, I don’t just mean those people who love God and follow Jesus like we do, I mean ALL God’s created people. 

 God is the God of relationship. God created us for relationship: relationship with God and relationship with each other. God gave us the Law to help govern and guide our relationships with God and with each other. In today’s passage, Jesus begins to give us a different, more expanded view of the Law. 

Included in last week’s text was Jesus’ statement that he had not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. This week’s text in a sense gives life and breath to that statement. Jesus had already captured the crowd’s attention, and as Lynn said a couple of weeks ago, had begun to turn their thinking about God’s kingdom upside down. Now he was about to shake that upside down and turn it inside out. 

Jesus, as most, if not all, the people listening that day, was Jewish. He knew the Law. He was not just familiar with it, he KNEW. IT. Jesus wasn’t Moses who brought the law down from the mountain, he was more than Moses. And here’s the epiphany: If you think about it, the Law CAME FROM Jesus, who is God with us. I’ve often thought that we give less time to thinking and talking about this aspect of Jesus than it’s due – I look at it like this: I believe a large part of the reason Jesus was here was to show us what truly living the law should look like. Jesus, who was and is God with bones and skin on, came to show us, in person, what God meant in the law that was given. I liken it to a parent TELLING a child how to make a bed or tie a shoe versus SHOWING them how to do those things. If this idea of Jesus sounds revolutionary to you, imagine what it must have sounded like to the community assembled that day.  

When Jesus said, “You have heard it said . . . “ he was reminding those present what they already knew. He was reminding US what we already know. “The law says this.” And all the people were nodding in agreement . . . until he began pointing out the difference between what was and what now is. Those listening that day were likely surprised to hear that there was more to keeping the law than they thought. Some of them might have interpreted Jesus’ words as blasphemy, misunderstanding extending the law for negating it. Modern biblical scholars have sometimes referred to the, “you have heard . . . BUT . . . “ construct as “antitheses,” which sounds like two ideas set against each other.  But Jesus’ extension of the law didn’t and doesn’t break or oppose the Law, it radicalizes it. Anyone who practices Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 won’t violate any commands of the Torah but will instead extend them, reaffirm them, give them breadth and depth. 

We all understand “don’t murder.” Got it. But Jesus said it’s THAT AND . . . 

  1. If you are ANGRY you are subject to judgment.  
  2. If you INSULT someone you have to answer to the authorities. 
  3. If you call someone “FOOL” you will be cast out to the hell of fire.  
  4. Don’t go to worship God if someone is mad at you for something. Go and fix it, THEN you are free from what’s holding you back and now you can worship.  
  5. Don’t wait to be taken to court to fix an issue; meet the person who’s got a beef with you and fix before it gets to court, or you’ll have to pay richly for it. 

Author Richard Rohr puts it this way: The life of the Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures is largely a life of relationship. Those who can be in relationship can learn how to appropriately relate to the other, not just to the self. . . In fact, the life of the Spirit is a life of relatedness and relationship.  

In Jesus’ extension of the law, we can see it this way: If we’re made for relationship, then the heart of all this is not just keeping the law but preserving the relationships. If we’re mad, we’re not in the best place to have a good relationship. If we’re hateful to each other, our relationships suffer or dissolve. If we have made someone else mad, the distance created makes relationship difficult.  

If you’ll notice in verses 23 and 24, the emphasis is on the OFFENDER initiating making amends with the one who’s been offended – not waiting until someone calls you out about it, but knowing in your heart you need to do the work to repair the relationship. This idea aligns with the perspective we see elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel that God’s community should embody practices of regular and repeated forgiveness. That work is hard! Good, but hard.  

We are imperfect people who live in an imperfect world. But we as people who love God and follow Jesus should work at regular and repeated forgiveness, truly working toward reconciliation, because broken relationships with each other hurt our relationship with God. When our relationship is broken or hurting, we might sometimes sit and wonder of God, “Are you there? Are you still listening to me? Are you still talking to me?” 

Have you been on a playground with a large group of children, lately? There is a lot of noise and a lot of relationship learning going on. Learning to share. Learning to take turns. Learning to include. So much fun to watch and play with the kids! But one of the things that can make a grown-up’s heart jump up into their throat is hearing these words, “You talking to me?! Hey! You talking to ME?!” All adults within earshot stand up straight, hearts suddenly pounding, trying to locate the source of the puffed-up question before it becomes more than words tossed in the air. And then the race begins to see who can get there before the first physical contact occurs, and before everyone else is involved in the altercation. 

Those words and whatever actions caused them don’t just affect the kids directly involved. Bystanders are sometimes caught up in the fray, choosing sides and egging on, or getting hit accidentally. The adrenaline lasts all the way back to the classroom, and sometimes even until dismissal and on the bus. Teachers and students and parents and siblings – a whole community of relationships – suffers the consequences of anger and harsh words.  

Grownups don’t often have playground scuffles, but we do have meeting room puff ups. And “someone cut me off in traffic” road rage. And “why didn’t YOU load the dishwasher?!” household set-tos. And “my party didn’t win at the ballot box” political rage. Sometimes those bumps lead to big blow ups that end up with the same kind of words heard on the playground, “Are you talking to ME?!” Sometimes those bumps lead to long, cold silences that end in words that sound more like, “Are you TALKING to me???”  As we try more often to examine ourselves – our hearts, our motivations – in light of the words of Jesus, those bumps can and will turn into relationship-preserving conversations about forgiveness and reconciliation.  

We often talk of searching for truth and love but ignore that God wants that, too. God wants that from us. God wants that FOR us. God wants us to want that for each other. Not because God is lacking in understanding and knowledge of love, but because God wants to be in relationship – and true relationship is built on trust and faithfulness and love.  

One of the things that should set us as Christians apart from other groups in the world is the way we relate to each other. As people who love God and follow Jesus, we are called to be part of God’s continued revelation in the world, agents of creation and re-creation, agents of salvation, restoration and reconciliation – not just sitting around waiting for the kingdom to appear, but ushering it in with the ways we love God and treat each other. That ushering in is some of what we mean at Richmond’s First Baptist Church we talk about bringing the kingdom of heaven to Richmond, VA and beyond. How are we able to bring KOH2RVA if we haven’t first worked at freeing ourselves from anger and resentment? How are we able to say and show others that God loves them if we as God’s people haven’t at least tried to do the same with each other? I am convinced that one of our largest witnesses to the world of God’s redeeming love and grace through Jesus is how we as Christians navigate life together and how we extend those grace-filled relationships into the world outside the Church walls. 

I’d like to invite you into some thinking space. We are living in this in-between time where we have seen and know the fulfillment of the law and we’re working and waiting for what comes next. How will you spend this time? Think with me about how you might answer these questions. I will pause for a few seconds after each question to give you time to think a bit. 

Is there anyone you are angry with that needs your forgiveness to be free?  

Is there someone you’ve insulted or made fun of and you owe them an apology? Is there anyone you’ve called “fool” or “jerk” or “idiot” or something I can’t say in church . . . and you need forgiveness for it? 

Is there someone holding a grudge against you and you need to release both of you by offering and accepting forgiveness?

Now that you know the depth and breadth of the fulfillment of the law, the fulfillment found in Jesus, take a deep breath . . . and GO . . . go and be living, breathing reconciliation, inside these walls and outside them. Build relationships that bring the kingdom of heaven to your car . . . to your home . . . to your classroom . . . to your workplace . . . to Richmond, VA . . . and beyond. 

Pray with me. God, help us be living salt and light, seasoning the earth and filling it with the light born of our relationship with you. Amen. 

Be Curious, Not Judgmental: “Why Do We Have to be Salt?”

First Baptist Richmond, February 5, 2023

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Matthew 5:13-20

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.

There’s a scene in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter where Loretta Lynn tries to impress her new boyfriend with a chocolate pie she’s made.  He takes one bite, makes a horrible face, turns and spits into a napkin, and says, “Make many pies, Loretta?” She says, “Naw, this is the first one.”  He asks, “How much salt that recipe call for?”  She says, “Shoot, you don’t put salt in a pie! You put in flour and eggs and sugar and… oh no,” realizing what she’s done.  Instead of sugar, she’s put two cups of salt in a chocolate pie.  He tries to make her feel better.  He says, “Well, it makes sense; salt and sugar are both white.”  But the look on his face when he bit into that pie is where today’s sermon title comes from: of all the things Jesus could have said about us, why do we have to be salt?  I’m curious.  Why not the sugar of the earth?  Why not the chocolate?  Why not the whipped cream on top?  But then I did a little research and discovered that, once again, Jesus knows what he’s talking about. 

The quote on the front page of your bulletin this morning is from Samin Nosrat, an award-winning chef who started as an apprentice at a world famous restaurant when she was only 19, and who, in her own words, didn’t know anything about cooking.  She says, “I didn’t know the difference between cilantro and parsley.”  But as she listened to the cooks at that restaurant talk about food she noticed that they didn’t talk about recipes, or look at cookbooks, or even use timers.  They talked about how much heat to use, and what kind of fat to cook things in, and whether something needed a splash of lime juice, and how much salt to use, you know: the fundamentals.  Nosrat ended up writing a book and doing a four-part Netflix series called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.  She introduces the first episode by saying, “Salt.  It’s fundamental to all good cooking.  It enhances flavor and even makes food taste more like itself.  In short, salt brings food to life.  Learn to use it well and your food will taste great.” 

I haven’t read the book, but I would recommend the series.  It’s wonderful.  And I learned so much about salt!  I learned that there are approximately 4,000 different kinds of salt, and that the difference is not only in where the salt comes from, but also in the size of the crystal.  Smaller crystals produce an immediate, intense flavor whereas larger crystals are slower to dissolve and more subtle.  Did Jesus have all that in mind when he looked around at that crowd of people gathered on a hillside in Galilee and said, “You are the salt of the earth”?  Probably not, but I think he would have agreed with Nosrat’s simplest description: “Salt brings food to life.”  “Yes,” he might have said: “You are the salt of the earth.  In the same way salt brings food to life, you have it in you to bring the earth to life.”

And then Jesus moves on to his next analogy.  “You are the light of the world!” he says, and this one doesn’t offend us.  We know about light.  We know what a difference it can make.  What’s that quote again?  “It is better to light a single candle than curse the darkness.”  But the opposite is also true.  I have a friend whose mother is very sensitive to light, and she got to the point where she couldn’t sleep if her bedroom wasn’t completely dark.  She began to travel with a roll of electrical tape, so she could cut off a little piece and cover up the annoying green light on the thermostat in a hotel room, or the little blue light on the smoke detector.  He says the worst part is that he has inherited that same sensitivity.  He’s tried to cover up the tiny green light on the printer that sits on the desk in his bedroom, five feet away from the bed, not with electrical tape but with a piece of black construction paper.  But if someone accidentally bumps that piece of paper, and he wakes up in the night with that light shining, he curses the light.  “It’s bright!” he says.  “It ruins the darkness.”

What a great line!  That tiny green light “ruins the darkness.”  Maybe that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said, “You are the light of the world.”  Maybe he meant that there’s a lot of darkness out there, and he needs some people who can go out and punch holes in it, shine light on it, ruin the darkness.  Can you imagine printing that on a business card: “John Doe: Ruiner of Darkness”?  In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus is calling us to be something like that: to be, first of all, the salt of the earth: that is, the kind of people who bring the earth to life; and secondly, the light of the world: that is, the kind of people who put darkness to death.  And there’s a reason for this:

Jesus is trying to bring heaven to earth. 

In the very next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel he will teach his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom will come, and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  I believe he not only wants them to pray for it, I believe he wants them to work for it.  He wants to bring heaven to earth and people are part of his strategy.  People like us.  People like those who gathered on a hillside in Galilee to hear him preach.  “You are the salt of the earth,” he says.  “You are the ones who are going to bring the earth to life.  You are the light of the world,” he says.  “You are the ones who are going to put darkness to death.  And between us—if you do your part and I do mine—God’s kingdom will come, and his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Because there’s a problem here, one that is only hinted at in today’s Gospel lesson.  Jesus not only talks about salt, he talks about salt that has lost its taste.  And he not only talks about light, he talks about light that is under a bushel.  And then, at the end of the lesson, he says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  So, I have a hunch: I think Jesus was saying that the scribes and Pharisees are like salt that has lost its taste, or like a lamp that is under a bushel.  And if the idea of salt losing its taste confuses you maybe you could think of salt that never leaves the saltshaker.  What good does it do?  It doesn’t season anything.  And what good does it do to put a lamp under a bushel?  It gives off no light at all.  My friend’s mother would be thrilled, but the world would be a darker place, the earth would be a less flavorful place, if salt and light kept to themselves.  And I think that’s what Jesus is saying about the scribes and Pharisees.

They are righteous, all right.  They are self-righteous.  The scribes were experts in the Law of Moses.  They were the ones who went through the Torah with a fine-toothed comb, looking for anything that could be interpreted as a commandment.  And they had come up with 613 of them!  248 positive ones and 365 negative ones, or as I sometimes say: “A ‘thou shalt not’ for every day of the year.”  The scribes identified the commands and the Pharisees kept them.  That was their claim to fame.  You may remember that the Apostle Paul was once a Pharisee and he was a diligent commandment keeper.  “As to righteousness under the law,” he says, “I was blameless.”  Is there anything wrong with that?  Keeping the commandments?  No, unless you become so obsessed with the letter of the law that you neglect its spirit.

And that’s what Jesus addresses in verse 17:  he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets (which is what some of the scribes and Pharisees may have been saying about him behind his back, that he didn’t seem to be very careful about keeping all 613 commandments, that he sometimes ate without washing his hands, and sometimes healed on the Sabbath).  I have come not to abolish the law,” he says, “but to fulfill it,” to fill it full.  And what did Jesus come to fill it full of? 

I think you know.

There’s a story in Mark 12 about a scribe who asks Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?”  I like to think it was a sincere question, that this poor scribe was exhausted from trying to find and keep all those commandments.  So he comes to Jesus and asks, “Look, if I couldn’t keep all of them, if I could keep only one, which one should it be?”  “Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,” and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’” (Mark 12:28-34). 

Here’s a scribe who got it: that the law was all about love: love for God and love for neighbor.  The scribes and Pharisees Jesus is talking about in this morning’s Gospel lesson don’t get it.  They think that it’s all about keeping the rules, and as a result they end up keeping score.  They start looking around, thinking, “Well, I’m not perfect, but I’m more righteous than Jacob over there.  He’s only kept 605 rules; I’ve kept 607.”  But that’s not the worst part: the worst part is that they are keeping all that righteousness to themselves.  It’s like salt in the shaker, like a lamp under a bushel.  It doesn’t flavor anything, doesn’t light anything up.  Love, in contrast, is only love when it’s shared.  You can’t keep your love for God to yourself.  What good would that do?  You can’t keep love for neighbor to yourself.  What good would that do?  Love that isn’t expressed isn’t love at all, and law that is only kept, and never shared, is not the kind of law God gave. 

“Don’t think I have come to abolish the law,” Jesus says.  “I have come to fill it full, full of the love God intended in the first place.  And you’re going to help me do that, by being the kind of salt that comes out of the shaker and flavors the earth, and by being the kind of light that gets out from under the bushel and lights up the world.”  And so, in the only true imperative in this entire passage, the only place where Jesus actually tells his hearers to do anything, he tells them to let their light shine before others, so that others may see their good works and give glory to their Father in heaven.  And that’s the challenge, isn’t it?  There are a lot of things we could do that would make people admire us.  We could come to church every time the doors are open.  We could read our Bibles and say our prayers.  We could keep the Ten Commandments.  Those are all good things, but they reflect directly on us.  What could we do that would reflect directly on God, that would cause people to see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven? 

It may have been the word reflect, but when I was asking myself that question I thought about shining a flashlight into a mirror.  If you shine it straight at the mirror it bounces right back at you, but if you tilt the mirror at a 45-degree angle, the light bounces up toward the ceiling.  I thought, “Somehow we’ve got to figure out how to do that, how to shine our light in such a way that it doesn’t reflect on us, but on God.”  And that’s when I thought about doing our good works behind a mirror tilted at a 45-degree angle.  It would be awkward, wouldn’t it?  Someone would hear the noise, all the banging and scraping, and ask, “What are you doing back there?”  “Shh! I’m doing good works!”  “But I can’t see them.”  “You’re not supposed to see them.”  “Well, good, because all I can see now is clouds.”  “Well, that’s close.  Can you see what’s behind the clouds?”  “Not really.  Is it the sun?”  “No, it’s the Father.  When you see what I’ve done I want you to give him the glory, OK?”

There’s got to be a better way, and maybe there is.  Maybe it’s to love God for his sake, and not ours.  To love our neighbors for their sakes, and not ours.  Maybe if we had a window instead of a mirror we could look through it at those who need the most love in this world and then quietly, stealthily, go to work on their behalf.  Maybe then we would become for them the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and they would give glory to our Father who art in heaven.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

Be Curious, Not Judgmental: A Divine Attitude Adjustment

Be Curious, Not Judgmental:  “A Divine Attitude Adjustment”

January 29, 2023

Lynn Turner

Matthew 5: 1-12

I wonder….how many of you have ever tried snow skiing? If you have…you know there are various levels of sking marked by signs on the mountain….green slopes for beginners, blue for intermediate levels, and black diamond for experts.

Following our pastor in a sermon series is a little bit like following an Olympic black diamond skier down the mountain when you’re only used to the green or blue slopes.

But I’ve been fascinated with his series on “be curious not judgmental”, and so I decided to follow him down the slope.

So hop on the ski lift with me and let’s head up the mountain and look at this introduction to the sermon on the mount, in Matthew 5,  the known as the beginning to what many have noted as the Greatest sermon ever preached by Jesus, the sermon on the mount . The full sermon is chapters matthew 5-7…111  verses that our pastor will continue in the weeks to come. Today we are looking at Matt 5: 1-12.



As our Pastor has emphasized these past few weeks, The Gospels are eye witness accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus of healing, teaching and preaching  Most of the time the audience were the people of the land….your common ordinary people making a living and trying to survive under the oppression of the Roman empire.

The setting is in the area of Galilee…..not a mountain as we might think of mountains like the Rockies….a hillside really….sort of like an Amphitheater,….where Jesus could sit below…..and the people could see him and hear here him teach…..the sea of Galilee is the backdrop… is a beautiful setting, I have visited this place in Galilee…and am always astounded by its beauty and this passage of scripture..

”And Jesus seeing the crowds, went up the hillside and after he sat down, his disciples came to him and began to speak……Blessed are the poor in Spirit….. 8 declarations of blessing by Jesus for true followers of Christ. Not commandments like Moses on Mount Sinai…..but Blessings….

Some scholars say 9, Some 10…but for today I’m focusing on the  8

You have heard our pastor read these.

I’m indebted today by the commentary and book by  the late J Ellsworth Kalas, the Beatitudes from the Backside, a different way of looking at what it means to be blessed.…..

If we were to take our pastor’s suggestion from the past couple of weeks and begin reading these words of Jesus today and asking the questions that emerge….so many questions come to mind for me.

1.Who was the audience? Was this teaching JUST for his disciples? Evidently not….

At the end of the sermon in chapter 7,


“Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teachings for he taught them as one with authority….and not like their scribes”l

It began with his disciples… but as scripture notes…crowds had gathered…those who had heard about Jesus…seen him heal people, cast out demons…performed all sorts of miracles.

Keep in mind that these were oppressed people living under the Roman Empire values of wealth, and power.

What they were looking for was a message of hope.

But I love WHAT  Kalas pointed out ….Perhaps…..of those who were among the crowds that day….some moved up to that inner circle of those who followed Jesus….perhaps some were in the group of 70 who were commissioned by Jesus in Luke 10, or some were among the 120 who received the Holy Spirit on the  day of Pentecost in Acts.

Some more questions that emerge:

2. “Are we expected to live out these 8 sayings in our lives each day?”

3. “Did Jesus really expect us to welcome persecution?”

4.. “And how could we expect ever to have such purity of heart that we could see God?”

5. “Was Jesus recommending a way of life for his followers in ordinary times, or was he simply trying to wet our appetite for a KINGDOM yet to come?”

6. “Was Jesus laying out a pattern for a select few, a company of extraordinary people who must be better than we can ever hope to be?  Is it really possible for any of us to live out the beatitudes in everyday life?

Don’t worry….I’m not going to tackle all these questions in today’s sermon…..or we would be here all day…..but I hope these will make you curious enough to go and search for the answers!

So lets take look at the beatitudes as a whole:

They are declarations about a way of “being in the world”


Some scholars point out that they can be divided into 2 parts which I think is helpful.

The first 4 refer to OUR NEED for God:

Poor in spirit recognizing our need for God and God only

Mourn our need for comfort that can only come from God

Our need to be Meek, humble in heart, not better than anyone else

Our need to be treated rightly with justice…

The second 4Our Response to God

To be Merciful-

To be Pure in heart

To be Peacemakers-

To be willing to be Persecuted…_

You have to admit they seem impossible and written for another people in another time. Don’t they?

Jesus had just called His Disciples in Chapter 4: 17 with the words, “Repent and for the Kingdom of God is near.” …… Why was it important  for this message  to be His first?

Repent is not a happy sounding word is it? There’s a judging quality to it as if the judge were saying guilty before you’ve even presented your case.

Jesus did not begin with Repent, not be sorry,….not even DO or BE…but Blessed or some translate happy….

Happy,  is one of those words we love……, so much so that we have written it into our declaration of independence.

We believe that humans are “endowed by their Creator, with certain un-alien-able rights, that, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness“ we think we are not only have a right to happiness, but even have a right to pursue it.

But when we start examining the beatitudes, we realize that in Jesus‘s view,  Happiness is not something we get by pursuing it; indeed, almost  the contrary. Happy  contains the root ‘hap’ which means ‘chance.’

In the Greek new testament, the word happy or blessed is the word , “ma kar-i-os”.

William Barclay goes on to say that “Ma kar-i-os” for the Christian goes beyond happiness.  Its joy that is self contained….completely independent from all the changes and chances of life.”  It embraces all of life… the good with the bad.

When we claim our dependance on the one in whom we place our trust and faith…..God alone….. happiness or Blessing..This kind of trust in God……is what Jesus was calling for in the Beatitudes. And declaring it HERE and NOW…not some day.

and who doesn’t need God’s Blessing today? 

I think I know what you might! thinking….wait a minute Lynn….

This is all upside down!  

Is it really possible to live out the 8 Beatitudes 


It just needs a Divine attitude adjustment!

Its all about character….the beatitudes….. a radical living out of our character with traits like  compassion, meekness, mercy and being a peacemaker.

Jesus is calling us here and now today to claim our true identity as Christians.

Do you remember the first time you encountered Jesus? You made a decision  to ask Jesus to be in your heart….to make him Lord of your life…to desire to follow him completely?

It was an intimate moment just between you and God. It was a life changing moment….

So how do we do that? You ask questions! The disciples had a lot of questions for Jesus along the way…that’s how they learned.


Author Mike Yaconelli says… “In the life of faith in God, there are no “wrong” questions….when you are hungry for God, every question is “right”. Faith opens our eyes and brings us face to face with a new reality of knowing.

Curiosity requires courage….a bold grasping of God’s truth. We march into the presence of God with armsful of questions. God is not afraid of them…People are afraid….institutions are afraid, but God is not”.

 The Beatitudes are not another thing on our “to do” list, but a change in our character to be who God created us to be.  

Encountering Christ is transformational.  Our way of perceiving the world radically changes.  We become more sensitive to others’ hurts and struggles.  We are able to identify the evil of oppression and unjust power systems.  

Our attitude toward the world dramatically shifts to be more in line with God’s attitude of love and compassion.  

The key to understanding the transformative shift lies in the word itself.  “Be” “Attitude”.  Our attitude towards existence undergoes a revolutionary change with Jesus at the center of our life.

So another curious question came to my mind this week.

How do we do this? 

Do we do this on our own? Or can we do it together with others?   

and my conclusion was YES! To both!

It begins with a personal relationship with Jesus.  The realization that you need and desire to enter a relationship with Jesus that is deeply and intimately personal.  The decision to bravely follow Him.

A man asked a 5 year old little girl one day, “Does God like you?  Without hesitation she replied with confidence..”yep”……”How do you know? He asked”

Because he tells me and I recognize his voice.”

Followers of Jesus hear His voice.

He taught not only with authority, but his message was different from anything else they had ever heard… was full of grace and hope and blessing.

It was an invitation to enter into the Kingdom of God in its purest form from now and throughout eternity.

The message began  with the need of repentance…..but quickly changed to that of  having as passionate a  love for Christ as He has for us.…

And then….I thought about Jesus surrounding himself with those who were like minded….his small group of 12……knowing that these with the exception of one…..would follow him to the end.

I was challenged and moved this week as I read the following

story from  Congressman John Lewis: Great Civil Rights Leader

“When I was four years old, the only world I knew was the one I stepped out into each morning, a place of thick pine forests and white cotton fields and red clay roads winding around my family’s house in our little corner of Pike County, Alabama.

We had just moved that spring onto some land my father had bought, the first land anyone in his family had ever owned—ten acres of cotton and corn and peanut fields, along with an old but sturdy three-bedroom house.

On this particular afternoon—it was a Saturday, I’m almost certain—about fifteen of us children were outside my Aunt Seneva’s house, playing in her dirt yard.

The sky began clouding over, the wind started picking up, lightning flashed far off in the distance, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about playing anymore. I was terrified.

Aunt Seneva was the only adult around, and as the sky blackened and the wind grew stronger, she herded us all inside. Her house was not the biggest place around, and it seemed even smaller with so many children squeezed inside. Small and surprisingly quiet. All the shouting and laughter that had been going on earlier, outside, had stopped.

The wind was howling now, and the house was starting to shake. We were scared. Even Aunt Seneva was scared. And then it got worse. Now the house was beginning to sway. The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend. And then a corner of the room started lifting up.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. None of us could. This storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky. With us inside it.

That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands.

Line up and hold hands, she said, and we did as we were told. Then she had us walk as a group toward the corner of the room that was rising.

From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, the wind screaming outside, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof.

Then we walked back in the other direction, as another end of the house began to lift. And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.

More than half a century has passed since that day, and it has struck me, more than once over those many years, that our society is not unlike the children in that house rocked again and again by the winds of one storm or another, the walls around us seeming at times as if they might fly apart.

But the people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came together, and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest.

And then another corner would lift, and we would go there. And eventually, the storm would settle, and the house would still stand. But we knew another storm would come, and we would have to do it all over again.

And we did. And we still do, all of us. You and I. Children holding hands, walking with the wind (John Lewis, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998).

When the storms of life come….we need each other!


“What if we  as  the church decided that we were going to join hands together as the storms of this life seem to be pulling us apart?

What if we are were to shift our attitudes and claim once again our identity in Christ Jesus ? The one who loves us just as we are…..who desires a relationship with us more than anything?

Imagined it  like this……

From Acts 2:

44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved..

Barbara Brown Taylor describes is like this:

,“I think Jesus should have asked the crowd to stand on their heads when he taught them the Beatitudes, because that is what he was doing. He was turning the known world upside down. “Upside down, you begin to see God’s blessed ones in places it would never have occurred to you to look.

“Upside down, you begin to see that those who have been bruised for their faith are not the sad ones but the happy ones because they have found something worth being bruised for, and that those who are merciful are just handing out what they have already received in abundance.

The world looks  |Different| upside down, but maybe that is just how it looks when you have got your feet planted in heaven.” [4] Taylor, Barbara Brown. Gospel Medicine,  ix.

Let us Pray:

First, Jesus…..forgive me…. I want to follow you Lord with my life , my attitudes and my actions….….I need you to Bless me Lord.

And Jesus, forgive us  as a body of believers, we want as your church to follow you completely today…whatever it takes…We need your blessing  Lord!  Through the grace of your Son Jesus….

….open our hearts to believe that we can live the life you’ve called us to….Amen.

Be Curious, Not Judgmental: “What Were They Thinking?

Be Curious, Not Judgmental:

“What Were They Thinking?”

First Baptist Richmond, January 22, 2023

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Matthew 4:12-23

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

Today’s Gospel lesson is the story of how those first disciples dropped everything to follow Jesus, and it may be the perfect passage for this series, where we are trying to be curious and not judgmental.  Because it would be easy to judge.  It would be easy to say, “What were they thinking!?  How could they walk away from their homes, their jobs, their lives, their loved ones, to follow someone they had only just met?  It doesn’t seem very responsible!”  But if we can stay curious, then the question becomes an actual question: “What were they thinking?  What was going on inside their heads that made it possible for them to walk away that day?”  Because there are things we probably need to walk away from, and things we probably need to walk toward, but for whatever reason we haven’t been able to do it.  We would love to know what those disciples were thinking.

We’ll get to them, but let’s begin with Jesus.  In the opening verse of today’s reading he hears that John has been arrested and “withdraws” to Galilee.  That’s an interesting word, withdraw.  It comes from the same Greek word that is used when Joseph is warned in a dream to take Jesus and his mother and flee to Egypt.  It is used of those who, “through fear, seek some other place.”  I can’t imagine Jesus being afraid of anyone or anything, but maybe he didn’t want to end up like John, maybe he knew it wasn’t time for him to be arrested—not yet.  And so he withdrew from that region down around the Jordan River where John had been baptizing and came to Galilee.

But he didn’t come back to his hometown and that makes me curious.  Why not?  Why didn’t he set up shop in Nazareth?  Why did he go to Capernaum?  Matthew has an answer: he says it was to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles…the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  For Matthew Jesus is that great light, and it makes perfect sense that he would go to the darkest place he could find: Galilee of the Gentiles, a place Isaiah calls “the region and shadow of death.”  But there’s another line in that prophecy that may be even more relevant.  It’s the line about “the road by the sea.”  Did you know that the Via Maris, the ancient highway between Asia and Africa, ran right through Capernaum?  Strategically speaking, if Jesus wanted to get his message out to the whole world he couldn’t have found a better place than Capernaum, where he could stand by the side of the road and preach to the whole world as it passed by.

And what did he preach?  This part is interesting: Jesus preached exactly what John the Baptist preached.  If you go back and look at Matthew 3:2 you will see that John was preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” If you look at Matthew 4:17 you will see that Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”  The message is exactly the same, but the ministry is not.  Skip down to the end of today’s passage and you will find that where John followed his preaching with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus “went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (Matt. 4:23).  I sometimes refer to it as a ministry of “show and tell,” where Jesus was showing and telling people what the world would be like when God had his way. 

There is actually a moment in this Gospel when the disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus because John is in prison and he wants to know if Jesus is the One to come or if they should look for another, maybe because his ministry is so different from John’s or so different from what John was expecting.  But Jesus says, “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.”  He says it as if it were proof that he is, in fact, the One to come, as if these were exactly the kinds of things the Messiah should be doing.  “And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me,” he says, finally.  Maybe another way to say it is, “Blessed is the one who can say yes to this way of bringing heaven to earth.”  And that brings us to those four fishermen. 

In verse 18 Matthew tells us that as Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, both of them waist-deep in the water doing what they had been doing all their adult lives.  I love the way Matthew explains that they were casting a net into the sea, “for they were fishermen.”  Yep.  That’s what they were.  Like it or not.  But along comes Jesus and says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” and the world turns upside down.  Their world, at least.  Without a word they drop their nets, wade out of the water, and begin to follow him.  A hundred yards down the shore he sees two other brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, in the boat with their father mending their nets.  He calls them and immediately they jump out of the boat, leave their father behind, and begin to follow Jesus. 

It’s not wrong to be a little judgmental at this point in the story, to ask, “What were they thinking?”  I’m sure Zebedee was, standing up in the boat and shouting after them, “Hey!  Where do you think you’re going?”  They had work to do.  They had mouths to feed.  Peter, at least, had a wife (we know this because in one of the Gospels Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, and in my experience you don’t usually have one without the other).  But what if, instead of being judgmental, we could stay curious?  What if we could ask those disciples what they were thinking?  What’s your best guess as to what they might say?  I don’t know that I have any of the right answers, but I have plenty of good guesses.  Are you ready?

  1.  They didn’t know what they were getting into.  No, seriously.  Jesus said he was going to teach them how to fish for people and that sounds interesting.  Maybe they thought he was going to lead a workshop.  If he had said, “Hey, why don’t you come with me on a three-year adventure that is likely to end very, very badly?” they might have said no.  So, maybe they just didn’t know.  Maybe this whole thing evolved over time and what began as an afternoon workshop turned into a three-year adventure.  Maybe they found that once they said yes to Jesus they couldn’t say no.
  2.  Or maybe they did know what they were getting into.  Matthew tells us in verse 17 that Jesus “began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near,’” but he doesn’t tell us how long he was teaching and preaching and maybe even curing the sick before he called those four fishermen to follow.  What if he had been at it for weeks?  What if they had heard every sermon and every parable he had to preach?  What if they had seen him heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, and cast out demons?  It would make fishing look pretty tame by comparison, wouldn’t it?  And when he said, “Hey, do you want to stop fishing for fish and start fishing for people?” they might have said, “Yes!  Yes!  A thousand times yes!  We thought you would never ask!”  Maybe even Zebedee, maybe even Peter’s wife, maybe even his mother-in-law knew enough to know that if Jesus ever asked, those fishermen would go.
  3.  Or maybe, they didn’t feel like they had a choice.  I appreciate my friend Brian Blount’s description of this scene: He says, “When Jesus calls his disciples and they follow they are not making a lifestyle choice.  There is not a chance in Hades that the choice they make is an appropriate lifestyle choice.  There is no lifestyle logic that makes their drop-everything-and-follow-Jesus choice make sense.  We don’t have sense.  We have flames.  The fire that fuels this foolishness is Jesus’ claim that the Reign of God is an apocalyptic forest fire on the historical horizon.  When somebody comes believably proclaiming that God is about to visit, you drop whatever it is you were doing and you start doing whatever you can do to get ready.  The disciples got out of their boats and got underway…with Jesus.”[i]  I love that line, “an apocalyptic forest fire on the historical horizon,” because, as you well know, if somebody shouts, “Fire!” you drop whatever else you were doing.  The disciples did just that. 

Now, maybe none of these educated guesses has answered the question of what those first disciples were thinking, but I’m moving on.  I’m going to be curious, not judgmental.  I’m not going to decide that one of those is the right answer.  I’m not going to pretend that I know what those disciples were thinking.  But I am going to ask another question: not what were the disciples thinking but what was Jesus thinking?  Why would the Son of God—who could preach the Good News of the coming Kingdom like nobody else, who could teach people what the world would be like when God finally had his way, who could cure every disease and every sickness among the people—why would somebody like that need four fishermen? 

I have an idea.

When I came to First Baptist in 2008 our mission was to “make disciples.”  That’s a solid mission statement.  It comes straight out of the Great Commission in Matthew 28 where Jesus tells his followers to go into all the world and do what?  “Make disciples.”  But then I began to ask around.  I said, “Suppose we were successful in that mission.  Suppose that fully formed, fully functioning disciples were rolling off the assembly line every day?  What would they do?”  And I didn’t get a lot of good answers.  The most common answer was that they would make more disciples.  I remember thinking that a fully formed, fully functioning coffee maker doesn’t make more coffee makers, it makes coffee, but I didn’t say that.  I just spent a little more time thinking about the word disciple and what it means.

In Greek the word is mathetes, and it means “learner.”  As I thought about it I thought about the way Jesus must have learned the work of carpentry, and I began to think that a better word would be apprentice.  Can you picture Jesus as a boy, sitting in Joseph’s carpenter’s shop, watching him work?  At some point he might have asked his abba to teach him how to do what he was doing.  Joseph would have started with something simple, like a doorstop, would have shown Jesus how to measure twice and cut once, but then he would have watched him while he did it and eventually let him try it on his own.  I think that’s what Jesus was doing with the disciples.  I think he called them into an apprenticeship.  But instead of teaching them the work of carpentry he was teaching them the work of the Kingdom.  Because bringing heaven to earth is too big a job for any one person to do by himself, even Jesus.  He needed help. 

He still does.

By chapter 10 of this Gospel he’s ready to let the disciples try it on their own.  He gives them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.  And then he says, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”  In other words, he sends them out to do exactly what he has been doing.  In Luke’s Gospel, when he sends them out to do the same thing, the disciples return with joy, because the work of the Kingdom is joyful work!  Why would anyone want to do anything else? 

I can’t speak for the disciples.  I can’t tell you what they were thinking.  But I can speak for myself.  Back in 1984 I was working as a graphic artist.  It was good work and I enjoyed it.  I had actually gone into business for myself and was making more money in less time than I ever had before.  But one night my father-in-law, who was also my pastor, took me out for a steak dinner.  While we were there he said, “Have you ever thought about going into the ministry?”  “No,” I said, trying hard not to laugh.  “Never.”  But once he said it I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  I prayed about it; I read my Bible searching for clues; I talked to anyone who would listen.  A few weeks later I was in church on a Sunday morning—in worship, mind you, where anything can happen—and a woman stood up and played a song on a guitar.  I don’t even remember what the song was, but I remember that as she sang I felt released from all other obligations.  I felt free to do what my heart wanted to do.  At the end of the service I got up from where I was sitting, walked down the aisle, and told my pastor I was ready to go into the ministry.  My wife, Christy, was sitting beside me when it happened.  I didn’t tell her what I was going to do.  She must have been wondering, “What is he thinking?”  I’m not sure I could have told you myself.  But it was as real for me as it was for those disciples that day.  It was as if Jesus was calling,

And I couldn’t say no.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

[i] Brian Blount, “Look at These Fools!” A Sermon for Every Sunday, January 22, 2023 (

Be Curious, Not Judgmental: “What Are You Doing Here?”

First Baptist Richmond, January 8, 2023

Baptism of the Lord

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

 Today we begin a new sermon series suggested by my friend Don Flowers, who pitched it to us at Preacher Camp last summer by saying, “For Epiphany, how about a series called ‘Be curious, not judgmental’?”  “OK,” we said (trying to be exactly that), “tell us more.”  And then Don started talking about a television show called “Ted Lasso.”  Have you seen it?  It’s about a football coach from America who is hired to coach a soccer team in England even though he knows nothing about soccer.  What he does know something about…is people.  Ted Lasso (played by Jason Sudeikis) is a folksy, good-natured, fish-out-of-water who wins you over from the first episode with his one-word philosophy: “Believe.”

Lasso is hired to work with the Richmond Greyhounds, a football club (because that’s what they call soccer teams in England) that has fallen on hard times.  He brings his friend and fellow coach “Beard” along with him as they try to learn the rules of soccer while digging into the psychology of the fractured team and the football club’s manager, Rebecca, who is going through a bitter divorce from Rupert, the club’s former owner.[i]

In one of the most memorable scenes from the show Ted challenges Rupert to a game of darts, which makes everyone laugh.  What could this American possibly know about darts, a game the English have been playing in pubs for generations?  In fact, after accepting Ted’s challenge, Rupert produces a small leather case containing his own, custom-made darts and proceeds to show Ted how the game is played.  As you might expect, Ted is losing badly when he steps up to take his final throw.  But he asks the barkeep, “What’s it going to take to win?”  She mumbles something like, “Two triple twenties and a bullseye.”  Rupert chuckles and says, “Good luck.”

But Ted says, “You know, Rupert, guys have underestimated me my entire life.  And for years I never understood why.  It used to really bother me.  But then one day I was driving my little boy to school and I saw this quote by Walt Whitman painted on the wall there that said, ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’I like that.” And then Ted throws a dart into this tiny red rectangle on the dart board, right where it needs to go: double twenty.  A murmur goes up from the crowd.

“So, I get back in my car,” he says, “and I’m driving to work and all of a sudden it hits me.  All them fellas who used to belittle me, not a single one of them was curious.  You know, they thought they had everything figured out.  So they judged everything.  And they judged everyone.  And I realized that their underestimating me?  Whew!  Who I was had nothing to do with it.  Because if they were curious, they would’ve asked questions.  You know, questions like, ‘Have you played a lot of darts, Ted?’”  At which point he throws his second dart and sticks it right beside the first one: another double twenty.  Everyone gasps, and Ted says, “To which I would have answered, ‘Yes sir.  Every Sunday afternoon at a sports bar with my father from age ten till I was sixteen when he passed away.”  And then Ted pauses, lines up his third shot, and says, “Barbecue sauce.” And sticks the dart in the center of the bullseye to win the game.[ii]

It’s a great scene, and a great quote: “Be curious, not judgmental.”  But apparently Walt Whitman didn’t say it.  As I searched the Internet for the actual source I found this quote by Martin Luther King, whose birthday is coming up next week.  It’s not exactly the same, but sixty years ago, while giving a speech at Cornell College in Iowa, King said, “I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other.  They fear each other because they don’t know each other.  They don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other.  And they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”[iii] 

But what if they weren’t?  What if we weren’t?  What if, instead of separating ourselves from one another, we became curious, and started asking questions?  How would that change the world?  I remember spending Thanksgiving with my family back in 1984, an election year, when my brother and I nearly came to blows over our differences of opinion.  I was only 25 years old, but at some point during that long weekend I realized there is a way to talk to people that opens them up, and another way that shuts them down.  Maybe it’s the difference between being curious and being judgmental. 

If that’s a good way to think about our conversation with people, it might be a good way to think about our conversation with Scripture.  Too often we stand above Scripture, telling it what it’s supposed to mean instead of standing under it, asking questions, and listening for answers.  One of the best things I do in my weekly sermon-writing process is go to a coffee shop on Monday afternoon and spend an hour reading through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday.  An hour!  Just reading and re-reading.  And then I get up, get a cup of coffee, come back to the text I’m planning to preach, and try to come up with twenty questions.  It’s not easy! Ten questions is easy, but twenty questions is hard.  It takes another hour.  But when I’m finished I can hardly wait to get to the commentaries and look for the answers.  If I had gone to the commentaries first I might have found answers to questions I would never ask. 

That’s been a good approach for me as I study Scripture.  It’s kept me curious, and not judgmental.  Today’s Gospel lesson is a good example.  It would be a little too easy to say, “Oh, right.  The baptism of Jesus.”  And then to stand up here without even looking at the Bible and tell you what the baptism of Jesus is all about.  It might not be a bad sermon, but it would come not from the text, but from what I think the text is about, or even what I think baptism is about.  It would be judgmental.  It’s harder to spend an hour asking the text questions, but it keeps me curious.  So, let’s take a look at today’s Gospel lesson and see what kinds of questions come to mind. 

It’s Matthew 3:13-17—just five verses.  Can you imagine how hard it would be to get twenty questions out of that?  That’s an average of four questions per verse!  It starts with the news that “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him,” and I have some questions about that.  How did Jesus hear that John was baptizing?  Did someone stop by his carpenter’s shop in Nazareth one day and say, “Hey, Jesus!  You should go down to the Jordan!  John is baptizing and people from Jerusalem and all Judea, and all that region along the Jordan are going out to him to be baptized!”?  Did Jesus ask, “What kind of baptism is it?”  And did this person reply, “A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”?  You see, if I were the sinless Son of God, that’s when I would know I didn’t need to go. Because there would be no need to repent, and no need for forgiveness!  But for some reason, Jesus packed a bag, kissed his mother goodbye, and went.  Why?

If you’ve been counting, that’s five questions already.  But let’s look at the next verse.  When it was Jesus’ turn to be baptized, when John looked up and saw who was standing there, “[He] would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’”  Aha!  So John knows who Jesus is!  But how?  When did he get to know him?  And where?  In this Gospel Matthew doesn’t say, but in Luke’s Gospel when Mary is told by an angel that she is going to have a baby she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and as soon as Mary calls out a greeting from the front gate Elizabeth’s baby (John, who is still in the womb) jumps for joy.  So it isn’t too much to believe that these two boys would have gotten to know each other through the years, and that their mothers would have told them that story.  But it’s not in Matthew’s Gospel, and it’s not in Mark, and it’s not in John.  The best we can do is assume that Jesus’ relationship to John was a matter of common knowledge in the early church, and that John’s need to ask “What are you doing here?” would have been understood. 

But let me pause long enough to ask: what are you doing here?  What are you doing sitting in a church pew on a Sunday morning, or sitting at your kitchen table watching a worship service on your laptop or tablet, or sitting in your recliner watching First Baptist on TV?  If someone asked you that question in the wrong tone of voice you might get defensive and say, “It’s none of your business what I do with my own time!”  But what if they asked you in the right tone of voice?  What if they were genuinely curious?  What would you say?

I asked that question on Facebook last week—“Why do you go to church?”—and got some beautiful answers.  Kenny Park wrote, “To see God’s face in the faces of those gathered, to hear God’s voice in the interactions, conversations, questions, and (sometimes) answers expressed.”  Jen Tsimpris wrote: “Some of the happiest, most sustaining, edifying, and peaceful times in my childhood were spent in church, as a part of the community of believers. I want my children to have the same experiences, from which they too can draw strength, courage, and hope in the years to come.”  Margaret Spencer wrote: “You want honest?  Sometimes it’s because it’s really hard to break the habits of a lifetime.  Sometimes it’s because if I didn’t go to church, my already-small social circle would be downright tiny.  Sometimes it’s because it’s my scheduled day to greet.  Sometimes it’s because it’s time to make baked ziti casserole for one of our social service agency mission partners.  And then there are the days when a sermon suddenly ‘connects,’ or the choir delivers a wonderful/challenging/brand-new or old favorite anthem that resonates, both literally and figuratively, and I remember that, with any luck, I go to church to make a difference.”

I could go on.  There were over a hundred comments on that post last time I checked and if you are my Facebook friend maybe you will take a look at them this afternoon.  But maybe you can keep those three in mind for now and keep your own reasons in mind when I ask you to bring your pledge card forward at the end of the service, or make your commitment to give online.  Maybe you can see that there are some very good reasons for being with us in person or connecting with us in other ways, and that what we do in church is worth supporting: it’s not only life-giving, but often also life-changing.  When someone is baptized, for example: when they give up their old life, renounce their old ways, and announce to the world that from now on “Jesus is Lord.”  When they go down into the water still covered in sin but come up clean.  When they gasp for breath and fill their lungs with the Holy Spirit.  That’s life changing.  That’s why we Baptists have taken our name from that act.  

Have you noticed the stained glass window in our baptistery?  The one that shows John getting ready to baptize Jesus?  It is an illustration of today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 3.  And above that illustration is a portion of verse 15, carved into the marble of our baptistery: “Let it be so now; for it is proper in this way for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  If you haven’t come up with your twenty questions by this point, you should have no trouble now.  Because I don’t know what that means—“to fulfill all righteousness.”  I’m curious.  The way it’s carved into our baptistery could make you think that this is how we fulfill all righteousness: that being baptized is what makes us right with God.  But even if that were true it’s not why Jesus was baptized.  He didn’t need to be made right with God.  So, why did he do it? 

Through the years it has helped me to paraphrase Jesus’ response by saying: “Let it be so now, John; it’s the right thing to do.”  That’s one of the possible translations of this verse.  And if you read on in this text you can see why it was the right thing to do.  Because no sooner had Jesus come up out of the water than the heavens were opened, and he saw the Holy Spirit fluttering down in the form of a dove, and a voice like thunder said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 

I sometimes explain the word epiphany to children by saying, “It means, literally, ‘to shine upon.’  Like when you hear a noise behind your house in the middle of the night, and you go out there with a flashlight, and you find a raccoon standing in the alley, with another raccoon on his shoulders digging through your garbage can.  You shine your light on those two and say, ‘Aha!  So that’s what’s making that noise!  A couple of raccoons!’”  It’s an epiphany with a lower case “e.”  But in the baptism of Jesus we have an Epiphany with a capital “E.”  God shines a light on him from heaven and we say, “Aha!  So that’s who that is!  The Beloved Son of God!” 

If you have eyes to see it, it can be an answer to the question of why Jesus would come for baptism at all: because it was the right thing to do, because, in this way, he could be revealed for who he really was.  And if that’s true—if he really is the Beloved Son of God—then it might be the answer to that other question as well: “What are you doing here?”  I don’t know what you would say to that, but if Jesus really is the Beloved Son of God then let me ask my twentieth and final question:

Where else would I be?

—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 (