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 (

Hopes and Fears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Could it come today?”

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

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

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

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

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

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Debie Thomas, “Like a Thief,” in the Journey with Jesus webzine (

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

[iii] Amy Frykholm, “Our Hidden Future,” in the Journey with Jesus webzine (

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Matthew 24:30-31.

Searching for Truth

The Sunday before Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12; John 1:1-18

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 

“You will know the truth,” Jesus said, “and the truth will make you free.”  He said it a long time ago, but it couldn’t be any more relevant than it is right now, when we Americans seem to be having such a hard time agreeing on what is true.  Seriously, is it only me, or have you had some conversations in the past few years where you think you are saying two plus two equals four, but the other person says, “No, it doesn’t; it equals five”?  And you say, “How is that possible?  Two plus two has always equaled four,” and they say, “No, it hasn’t.”  And you stand there, with your mouth open, not knowing what to say next, because you can’t even agree on the facts.

One nonprofit global public policy think tank notes that “the line between fact and fiction in American public life is becoming blurred.” [i]  They call this phenomenon “Truth Decay,” and this is how they explain it on their website: “America’s current era of Truth Decay is defined in part by an increasing disagreement about objective facts that exists on a scale not observed in previous periods,” and that includes the period in which I grew up.

When I was a boy my family didn’t have a television, but when I visited friends I would sometimes watch theirs.  I was so fascinated by TV itself that I didn’t care what was on and once ended up watching the evening news with my friend’s parents.  There was a man with a mustache telling us what had happened that day.  It lasted about half an hour and when it was over he said, “And that’s the way it is.”  That man was Walter Cronkite, and although I was seeing him for the first time a lot of Americans thought of him as “Uncle Walter.”  They loved him and trusted him to tell them the truth, and night after night that’s what he did, in about thirty minutes, on black-and-white TV.

But a few years later some crazy person decided that what America needed was a 24-hour cable news network, and CNN was born—all news, all the time.  But there’s really not that much news, not even if you look for it all over the world.  So, what we began to get was news plus commentary, and we didn’t mind that; sometimes it helps to have a little commentary.  But then, as competing cable news networks began to spring up, we began to get news plus commentary plus opinion, and we didn’t always mind that either.  Sometimes we like our news with a saucy side helping of opinion, especially if it’s an opinion we agree with.  But then social media made it possible to “like” those opinions, publicly, and to share them with our friends, until our friends who had different opinions began to argue with us, and call us names, so that we had to unfriend them and find other friends who agreed with us, who shared not only our opinions about things in general, and not only our commentary on the news, but also our understanding of the facts.

That’s where we are today and this is how the people at Truth Decay sum it up.  They see: 1) an increasing disagreement about facts and data; 2) a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; 3) the increasing relative volume and resulting influence of opinion over fact; and 4) a declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.  And then they list the consequences of Truth Decay: 1) an erosion of civil discourse; 2) political paralysis; 3) alienation and disengagement; and 4) Uncertainty, when we just don’t know what to believe any more, when we have no real way of knowing what is true.[ii]

So, to hear Jesus say, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” is exciting.  “Yes!” we say.  “Give us some of that!”  And if we had lived in the time when the Gospel of John was written, we might have been even more excited, because that’s what those people were searching for: a truth that would set them free.  John was written near the end of the First Century, AD, at a time when a new philosophy called Gnosticism was gaining in popularity.  Gnosticism is the idea that each of us has within us a “spark” of the Divine, but it is trapped inside this physical body, and the flesh is essentially evil.  So, what we need to release that spark, so it can return to its source, is some kind of special knowledge (that’s where the word Gnosticism comes from: gnosis, the Greek word for “knowledge”).  That knowledge has to come to us from outside the physical world, and the one who brings it to us will be our “savior.”

With that in mind, hear Jesus say, once again, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  For those who were just getting acquainted with Gnosticism, it may have sounded like an invitation to learn from Jesus the special knowledge (or, as he put it, the “truth”) that would liberate the divine spark within them from the prison house of the flesh so that it could return to its Divine source.

Today is the Second Sunday of Christmas, and in Greek the Gospel lesson from John 1 begins like this: En arch hn o logoV: “In the beginning was the Word.”  Rebecca Denova explains, “In the philosophical thought of the time, logos was the principal of rationality that connected the highest god to the material world.”[iii]  In other words, the logos was the mediator between God and people.  Keep that in mind as you hear John say, “And the logos was with God, and the logos was God…and the logos became flesh and lived among us.”

It would have been very exciting to those early adherents of Gnosticism to think that they might learn from Jesus the truth that would set them free from the prison house of the flesh, in the same way it excites me to think that we Americans, who have become so polarized by our competing versions of the truth, might find in Jesus something that would bring us together, and set us free.[iv]  At a time when we can’t agree on the facts, is it possible that we might come to know the Truth?

Today is the Second Sunday of Christmas, but it is also the Sunday before Epiphany, when we focus on the story of the Wise Men from Matthew, chapter 2.  You’ve already heard some references to that story in today’s worship service, but I don’t think you’ve heard this: that the wise men may have practiced a religion called Zoroastrianism.  I had heard that rumor somewhere before, but last week I began to do some research and was amazed by what I learned.  First of all, this religion was named for an actual man, a Persian named Zoroaster who lived hundreds of years before Christ.[v]  He grew up in the religion of his time, a religion which had many gods and offered animal sacrifices, but when he was thirty years old he had a vision of an angel standing on a riverbank who said that he had been sent with a message from the one true god.  From that message came a new religion, or at least a radical reformation of the old religion.  One of the first things Zoroaster did was put an end to animal sacrifice.  But he also taught that there is only one God.  He called him Ahura Mazda—“the Lord of Wisdom”—and believed that he was not only all-wise, but also all-good.  He believed that human beings should reflect that goodness through good thoughts, good words, and good deeds.  And finally, he believed that each of us has free will to choose between good and evil.

Joshua Mark writes, “The central value of [Zoroastrianism] was human free will. If one chose to follow the precepts of Ahura Mazda, one lived a fulfilling life; if not, one became tangled in deceit and experienced strife and confusion.”[vi]  And so to believe in the one true God, to believe that he was not only all-wise but also all-good, meant reflecting God’s goodness by thinking good thoughts, speaking good words, and doing good deeds, specifically:

  • Telling the truth at all times – especially keeping promises
  • Practicing charity to all – especially those less fortunate
  • Showing love for others – even if they did not return the sentiment
  • Moderation in all things – especially in diet

The new religion caught on, and it spread throughout ancient Persia, not so much through evangelistic efforts as through the virtuous behavior of believers who adhered to three core values:

  • To make friends of enemies
  • To make the wicked righteous
  • To make the ignorant learned”[vii]

I have to confess: I didn’t know any of this before doing my research for this sermon and I am astounded by all of it.  I’m not planning to become a Zoroastrian, but on this first Sunday of a New Year I can hardly imagine a better set of resolutions than these: to tell the truth at all times, to practice charity to all, to show love for others, and to practice moderation in all things.  And I can also hardly imagine a better way to win converts to the Christian religion than by doing what these Zoroastrians tried to do: make friends of enemies, make the wicked righteous, and make the ignorant learned.

And so I wasn’t all that surprised to learn that the wise men, the magi, who show up in our Gospel lesson from Matthew, chapter 2, were probably not three kings named Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, and probably not Professors of Astrology at the University of Persia,[viii] but were instead probably Zoroastrian priests.  Listen to this description: “While little is known about how the faith was observed or how rituals were conducted, sacrifices, probably in the form of food, grains, and precious objects, were delivered to the magi—the priests—in return for their intercession with [God], and this practice made the clergy one of the wealthiest and most powerful social classes of Persian society.”  Nevertheless, they remained seekers of the truth, and they scanned the night skies perpetually looking for signs from Ahura Mazda—“the Lord of Wisdom”—that would lead them in the right direction.

They used logic, they used reason, but when they saw a new star blaze into existence in the Western sky, they must have been like schoolboys, jumping for joy, and they must have saddled their camels almost immediately to follow this sign to where they first spotted it, rising above the mountains of Israel, announcing by its very presence the birth of a new king.

It’s a long way from Persia to the Promised Land.  It would have taken them more than a year to get there.  And when they did they would have followed the same road everyone else took from Jericho up to Jerusalem, the royal city, the place you would expect a king to be born.  But something happened as they traveled up that road, something that may have happened to you.  Do you know how it is in the city, that you can’t see the stars at night?  Their feeble glow is overwhelmed by the bright lights of the big city.  And so it was for these wise men: the closer they got to Jerusalem the less they were able to see the star, until finally it was gone altogether, lost in a blaze of ambient light.  So they asked Herod, “Where is the child that has been born king of the Jews?”  And although he didn’t like it, he asked his wise men what they knew.  “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they said, which was a little town just seven miles from Jerusalem.  Only as they left the bright lights of the big city were the Wise Men able to see that star again, and they followed it until it seemed to rest on top of one particular house, and when they saw that, they were overwhelmed with joy.  Their long journey was over.  When they entered the house they saw the child with Mary, his mother.  And they did something that tells us a lot about them: they knelt down and paid him homage, that is, they worshiped him, this little boy with dirty cheeks and shining eyes.  And then they opened their treasures and gave him gold, frankincense, and myrrh—gifts fit for a king.

In a story about the wise men Garrison Keillor says, “They came from a great distance, following a star, which for wise men was not really very smart.  Because a star is up in the sky, and so the sense of direction you get from a star is going to be a little bit general, and which [house] the star is ‘right over’ kind of depends on where you are standing at the time.  So these guys were navigating on faith.  They took a long trip based on less hard information than a person might like to have.  But, they came through, and they found Christmas, on faith.  They actually found it, and so may we, although it may be even more of an adventure for us today than it was for them back then, because there is so much artificial light during Christmas, and so much reflected light, that there’s kind of a general glow, and it may be hard to pick out stars in the sky, just as it is in the city, even a very bright one.  But it can be found, and it can be followed, and we can find [Christmas].

“There is hope.”[ix]

You’ve seen that bumper sticker: “Wise men still seek him.”  So they do, and so do wise women and children.  They are seeking the truth, the special knowledge that will set them free, and what today’s scriptures tell us is this: that the truth we are seeking can be found in Jesus.  When we know him—when we truly know him—that truth and that knowledge will make us free.

Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] The 70-year-old RAND Corporation, which claims to be nonpartisan.


[iii] Rebecca Denova, “Gnosticism,” in the World History Encyclopedia (

[iv] Just to be clear, Gnosticism was denounced by the early Christians as a heresy: they didn’t believe that that flesh was evil, and if they had John certainly wouldn’t have told us that the Word that was with God and was God became flesh (ugh!).  But they did believe there was a truth in Jesus that was liberating, a truth that liberates us still.

[v] Joshua L. Mark, “Zoroastrianism,” in the World History Encyclopedia (

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] As I have sometimes imagined them, bumping across the desert on camelback smoking pipes and wearing tweed jackets with leather elbow patches.

[ix] Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion, “Faith: Stories from the Collection” (