My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

Wild, Dangerous, and Full of Grace

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on December 10, 2017. The scriptures for this sermon are Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8.

A couple of days after Thanksgiving, some friends of mine had a dinner party. They invited some people over, there was soup and sandwiches and drinks and conversation. My wife, Mariah, didn’t want to go — it was Saturday night and she had to preach the next morning — so I went on my own.

When I got home, I discovered that Mariah had put up the Christmas decorations. Our wreath was on the front door. Our little Christmas tree was in the window. Our nativity sets were out: a stately one on the mantle, a little rustic Peruvian one on an end table, and a duck nativity on some shelves.

And as I was reflecting on the readings for this morning, my mind kept wandering back to those nativity sets.

You see, Christmas is all about the nativity. In just a couple of weeks, we’ll be sharing a story about a manger and some shepherds, a man and an angel, a woman and her child.

And Advent anticipates that nativity. In some homes, people put up their nativity set week by week and Sunday by Sunday. First, an empty manger. A week after that, the shepherds. A week after that, the angels. A week after that, Mary and Joseph. And then, finally, on Christmas day, the Christ child.

And, if they want the wise men, they wait a couple of weeks. Those wise men have to travel a long way.

This morning, though, we’re in the gospel according to Mark. And Mark doesn’t give us a nativity scene. There are no shepherd here, no angels, no manger. There’s no room at the inn because there’s no inn, no census, no journey to Bethlehem. There’s no Joseph, no Mary, and no child.

Instead, Mark starts in what feels like the middle of the story: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God… John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

It’s a strange scene, and it’s worth some context.

Israel is ruled by a foreign nation. In that nation, the emperor is worshipped as a god. But the tradition of that nation is that ancient religions are allowed to keep going. So, as long as the people of Israel aren’t too much trouble, they can keep worshipping God and going to the temple, and observing their customs.

But things are tense. Outright war is a few decades off, but war is on the horizon. There are people who want to work with this foreign empire.. There are people who want to fight it.

And then there’s this man, all camel hair and locusts and wild honey, living in the wilderness, crying out.

It doesn’t fit in with the nativity set. Not the stately one on the mantle, or the rustic Peruvian one on the end table, or even the duck set on the shelves. John is not stately or rustic… or a duck. John is wild and dangerous and full of grace.
There are no shepherds here, no angels, no manger. There’s no room at the inn because there’s no inn, no census, no journey to Bethlehem. There’s no Joseph, no Mary, and no child. Instead, there’s a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

But that’s not all.

This is the second Sunday of Advent. And on the second Sunday of Advent, we celebrate — we anticipate — peace.

Now, it is tempting to celebrate and anticipate the peace of the nativity set, of the shepherd and angels, of Joseph and Mary, of the baby Jesus, meek and mild, swaddled in a manger. And nativity sets have a peace about them. The stately figures on the mantle don’t quarrel. The little rustic Peruvian figures on the end table don’t fight. The ducks don’t march to war. But of course there’s peace there… none of them are people, none of them are caught up in this messy thing called life.

But here’s the thing: peace is not just the absence of conflict. It is the presence of justice.

When Mark opens his gospel, he knows what he’s going when he quotes the prophet Isaiah.

Today’s reading seem Isaiah opens with the hope of peace: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God… Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.”
Then there is the part that Mark quotes, “A voice cries out… ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’

And then Isaiah continues: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Isaiah longs for peace. Mark longs for peace. I long for peace.

But the peace we long for isn’t a nativity set peace. It isn’t a meek and mild peace. It is a peace where valleys are lifted and mountains made low, where uneven ground is made level and rough places a plain. It is a peace where the glory of the Lord shines through.

It is a peace that — in a world that is constantly investing in the machinery of injustice and destruction and death — is a revolutionary act. It is the peace that comes from being baptized with the Holy Spirit. It is a peace that is wild and dangerous and full of grace.

And so here we are, on the second Sunday of Advent, celebrating and anticipating and waiting in hope for peace to come. But that is not enough.

Advent is a time of preparation. It is a season when we remember that God came into the world. It is a season when we renew ourselves as the body of Christ. It is a season when we prepare ourselves again to be poor in spirit; to hunger and thirst for righteousness; to be makers of peace.

Because peace is not something that we can wait for. Justice is not something that we can wait for. The Kingdom of God is not something that we can wait for.

It is something that we must make. It is hard work that we must do. It is the people and the community that we must strive to be.

Mark starts in what feels like the middle of the story: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God… John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

And we know — we know from what came earlier in the story and we know from what will come later — that baptism is not a safe choice. We know that being the church is not a safe choice. We know that following Christ is not a safe choice.

It means standing up for people who are being pushed down. It means giving our voices to people who are silenced. I means feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger and caring for the imprisoned.

It means being a a voice in the wilderness, crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

It means taking the risk of being transformed.

This Advent season and every Advent season, John calls to us, all camel hair and locusts and wild honey. This Advent season and every advent season, Isaiah calls to us, exhorting us to bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly. This Advent and every day, Christ calls us to be his disciples, to be his kingdom, to be a people who are full of hope and peace and joy and love.

In a little while, you’re going to something special and risky: you’re going to vote on whether to call a new pastor. I pray that the search committee and the Holy Spirit will guide you. I trust that the decision you make — whatever it is — will be the right one for this community.

And, if I can take a moment of pastoral privilege, I will say this:

In my house right now there are three nativity sets: a stately one on the mantle, a little rustic Peruvian one on an end table, and a duck nativity on some shelves. And I like those nativities. They are quiet and serene and have their own kind of peace.

But I know that the church is not a nativity set. We do not not stand still. We do not stay in our places. We are not quiet and serene. We move forward.

And on this day… every day… God calls us forward into a life that is wild and dangerous and full of grace.

Or, to put that another way, God calls us into abundant life. Amen.

People I Listen To: The Uncertain Hour

A while ago, I did a series of posts called ‘People I Read’. In that series, I gave little blurbs about the other blogs and sites I regularly read. It was sort of a callback to the blogrolls of the early days of blogs. I thought it would be nice to do something similar for the podcasts I listen to. So here is a new series of blurbs. As with the previous series, I’ll try to put up a new one every couple of weeks.

Today’s podcast I listen to is The Uncertain Hour.

One of my favorite newish podcasts is The Uncertain Hour, from the same people who bring us Marketplace. Each season of this podcast tackles one issue, allowing host Krissy Clark to take a deep dive into things like welfare reform (season one) and regulation (season two). The first season, for example, was an excellent primer on welfare form, thematically tied together by a single weird album focused on welfare-to-work. I highly recommend it if you want to learn the backstories behind some pressing current events.

Listen on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Pragmatic Progressivism

It’s no secret that I’m on the political left. It’s no secret that, as much as there’s a left-right divide in the church, I’m on the theological and ecclesiological left. I support things like a robust welfare state, universal healthcare, a universal basic income, an emphasis on diplomacy, and a host of other progressive causes. More than that, I support a charitable society; I hope for a world where there is not a needy person among us, because we share freely with each other as there is need.1Acts 4:32-37

I also recognize that, given the current political climate and the broader culture of the United States — let alone the world — many of these things are unlikely to happen without direct divine intervention. We live in an imperfect world. While I can hope — and work — for the Kingdom of God, I know that the most I will accomplish in my lifetime will fall far short of that.

Which bring me to the point I made in this post: there is eschatological hope and there is immanent hope. My eschatological hope is for the Kingdom of God. My immanent hope is for more immediately attainable things, like winning elections.

That is to say: I am a pragmatic progressive. I am interest is furthering our movement towards a world of greater justice and mercy, and I recognize that doing so may mean accepting imperfect incremental improvements. That doesn’t mean that I abandon my eschatological hope. It simply means that I don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Footnotes   [ + ]

People I Listen To: Preet Bharara

A while ago, I did a series of posts called ‘People I Read’. In that series, I gave little blurbs about the other blogs and sites I regularly read. It was sort of a callback to the blogrolls of the early days of blogs. I thought it would be nice to do something similar for the podcasts I listen to. So here is a new series of blurbs. As with the previous series, I’ll try to put up a new one every couple of weeks.

Today’s person I listen to is Preet Bharara.

Preet Bharara is the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Near the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, the administration asked for resignation letters from all 46 U.S. Attorneys who were still serving at the time. Bharara refused to resign and was fired. He is well-known for his anti-corruption stances  work and for being largely apolitical and fair-minded.

Stay Tuned with Preet is a podcast about justice and fairness, featuring Bharara talking with figures like John Miller, Bill Browder, and Jeff Flake about issues ranging from civil rights to the Russia investigation and beyond.

Listen on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.