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Posts from the ‘God’s Family’ Category

Called by Compassion

Proper 6A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


[Jesus] “had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36) This is the third of three sermons exploring Martin Luther’s theology of Christian vocation in recognition of the approaching 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  How does Jesus our Good Shepherd call us to be good citizens?

The question has special resonance here in Chicago where we are experiencing the perfect storm of political dysfunction in our City, our State, and Federal governments all at the same time.  The question only deepens as we lift our eyes beyond our borders and consider the plight of people around the world ravaged by poverty, war, and natural disasters.  Since we were little children we learned to pledge allegiance to the flag but to what extent has our baptism made us citizens of the world? Or put another way, does citizenship in the kingdom of God take precedence over loyalty to country?

Of course, the short answer is yes.  Luther wrote, “God is the kind of Lord who does nothing but exalt those of low degree and put down the mighty from their thrones, in short, break what is whole and make whole what is broken.” (LW 21:288-300)  We are called to speak truth to power, to be a voice for the voiceless, to strive for the greater good, to put the human in our humanity, to protect and defend the life of all creatures, and to do all this as far as the light of our shared faith and conscience will guide us, trusting in God’s forgiveness and mercy when we fail. Love of the other and our neighbor became our calling starting with baptism.  We live out our calling whether at home, at work, or in the world cleaving to the grace that embraces us just as we are regardless of what we do and at the same time calls us to be than we have ever been. Like Jesus, we become who God created us to be when we are moved by compassion for the harassed and helpless.

As many of you know, this was a frenzied week in the Johnson household. We went two for two high school graduations and all the events that go with it. This week it was Sam’s turn to graduate. The ceremony was at the Auditorium Theater in downtown Chicago.  He dropped off his books, paid his fees, picked up his cap and gown, and eight commencement tickets on Wednesday afternoon. In a few hours all the tickets were gone —lost!  He left them on CTA redline train.  It looked like two grandmas, a grandpa, mom and dad, step-mom and step-dad were all going to have to find something else to do Thursday night because we weren’t going to get in to be seated at the graduation.

But as grace (not luck) would have it, the tickets were found by a CTA conductor who saw they were graduation tickets for Jones College Prep High School, went online to the Jones website, somehow recognized one of the senior students, contacted them through Facebook—who then contacted another friend who knows Sam, who then went to the station and picked up the tickets.  That conductor was moved by compassion and that made all the difference for our family.

What would a compassionate budget for our state, our nation, or our city look like and who would pay for it?  As U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky frequently points out, the United States has never been more wealthy at any point in its history than it is today.  We can afford to be more compassionate for the harassed and helpless and maybe that is how our nation, our state and our city will find its true calling again and help restore our civic life to health.

Greed is one of the seven deadly sins squeezing the life out of our neighborhoods and communities.  Evening parking in the lot across from Sam’s school is usually $8.  I suspect you won’t be surprised that for graduation the rates go up.  You want to guess how much?  We paid more than 300% the usual rate or $25.

Many people know Martin Luther protested about the abuse of Pope Leo using fear of God to extract money from the poor throughout Germany and the rest of Europe to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Lessor known are his complaints about the newly forming business community. Luther writes, “The merchants have a common rule which is their chief maxim: ‘I may sell my goods as [costly] as I can.’ They think this is their right.  Thus occasion is given for avarice, and every widow and door to hell is opened.” (The Forgotten Luther: Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation, Edited by Carter Lindberg and Paul Wee, p. 34)

Luther famously taught the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of the world are separated by God with Christ ruling in the one, and civil authorities ruling in the other.  But this does not mean God intends for people of faith to be passive in the political realm or to respond to the needs of the harassed and helpless only with our charity. We are called to battle injustice with clarity about our values, the dignity God affords every human life, and the call of grace to be people of compassion just as Jesus was and is.

And here we must go beyond what Luther taught if we are to be consistent with his vision of our Christian vocation as citizens operating by grace out in the world.  We must become more aware of the original sin of the United States of America and how we have all either benefited or have been diminished, and often a combination of the two.  I’m speaking here about the deep and pernicious sin of racism.   As Bishop Miller said at last week’s Synod Assembly, racism is the text, the subtext, and the context of any meaningful conversation about justice. We must be going about the difficult and honest work of raising our awareness and rooting out racism within the powers, principalities, institutions, political parties and economic systems in which we live, beginning with our congregation and our church.    (The 2 1/2 anti-racism training sponsored by our Synod is the envy of our church across the nation.  If the Spirit is moving you in any way toward this opportunity you should know the Immanuel Council is resolved to pick up the fee.  All it will cost you is your time.)

As Jesus said “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” (Matthew 9:37) You are called and equipped.  You are filled with the Spirit and are able.  With your hands, your words, your listening, your actions God is ready to fill you with an animating compassion so none of us have to live like sheep without a shepherd, but all shall dwell in peace and in dignity in the house of the lord—because we are a living sanctuary of hope and grace!

A Glorious Life

Easter 7A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


Memorial Day means the end of school is near. For lots of families, it means graduation. Yesterday evening Kari and I spent about an hour filling our phones with prom photos. I took pictures of Sam and his date in a locked condo courtyard near Chinatown. Kari snapped memories of Joe and his date in the backyard of somebody’s home in Evanston.

Joe’s baseball team is in the playoffs. When they face off against archrival New Trier this Wednesday, it will likely be Joe’s very last baseball game after twelve years of organized play. Sam, who attends CPS, still has finals. The next three weeks on our family calendar include two commencement ceremonies and one shared graduation party.   We will have caps and gowns, valedictory addresses, and well wishes times two.   The end of school, of course, is only the beginning for both of them. The are already planning their next big thing. Joe is heading off to Colorado State in my hometown, Ft. Collins, Colorado; while Sam will be attending DePaul here in Chicago. Within this community there are six High School graduates this year—all of them headed of to college. In addition to Sam and Joe, congratulations are due to Katie Brink, Savita Gupta, Ruby Massey, and Allison McDonough.

The high priestly prayer in our gospel today is a kind of commencement address for the early church and the apostles on the night of his arrest following the Last Supper. Jesus prayed his death and resurrection would be just the beginning of zoe ionias, or life eternal (John 17:3). Here Jesus himself explains what this phrase means: “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus the Messiah whom you have sent.”

Jesus’ commencement prayer is that we may have an abundant life starting today. In the Hebrew context, the great project of God’s redemption was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay. (NT Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, pp. 44-45) Jesus’ wish for abundant life is different than what most parents say they most want for their kids.

Years ago I was involved in the peaceable schools project at Lyons Township High School in La Grange, Illinois near St. James Lutheran Church, which was my first call. At that time, parents became concerned that their race for greater academic achievement and higher test scores was having ugly and unintended consequences contributing to bullying and racism.

In extensive surveys parents said over and over what they most wanted for their kids was not Harvard or a high-flying career. They just wanted for their kids to be happy. This insight provided clarity about the importance of taking time within the school day to teach conflict resolution, teamwork, service and citizenship skills to support growth in emotional maturity among young people at LTHS. But as an over-arching life goal it turns out, just wishing our kids to be happy in life is not enough.

Generations of youth launched with this heart felt advice have sought meaning in being constantly entertained and pampered. They’ve sought salvation on cruise ships, adventure vacations, and in Las Vegas –not to mention food, drugs, alcohol, sex, and massive quantities of new stuff mostly bought on credit only to discover this does not make them happy but depressed, stressed, and alone. Jesus did not die so you and I could live worse in a bigger house. Jesus’ commencement prayer was that we might have abundant life by dwelling in relationship with God.

We have met life itself. He has told us his name is Jesus. Jesus is the key that turns the tumblers in us to open the way to abundant life and our true self. By the way, Christians do not own the copyright on this Jesus. In John’s gospel Jesus is the revealer of all life on earth and throughout the universe. Therefore, if any religion is true, it is true only to the extent it reveals the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus—whether in the name of Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, Vishnu or any other name.

Jesus prayer for us, and all God’s children, is not happiness but glory. It is a life full and overflowing, a higher life centered in interactive relationship with God and with Jesus. Glory, not happiness, is Jesus’ ultimate goal for us and in a great insult to our ego it comes as God’s free gift and not by anything we can do or achieve. Among the gifts God imparts for glory I’ll name three—compassion, forgiveness and wisdom.

From God the Father we receive the gift of steadfast love and compassion. “The Hebrew word for compassion whose singular form means ‘womb,’ is often used of God in the Old Testament.” (Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 48). To say God is compassionate is to say that God is womblike. Like a womb, God is the one who gives birth to us. As a mother loves her children and feels for them, so God loves and feels for us. One who is alive in Christ dwells in God the Father abides in compassion and reflects this love for all life.

From Christ Jesus we receive the gift of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. Jesus prayed that we might all be one (John 17:11). Jesus came among his betrayers and imparted his peace. Forgiveness is the great gift of glory that breaks the endless circle of vengeance and acrimony and leads us out beside the still waters of belonging and community. By this gift we find resilience in relationship and the ability both to impart strength and to receive strength from one another.

From the Holy Spirit receive the gift of wisdom. In scriptures, lady Wisdom or Sophia, is like a master worker, working with God to bring all things into service of grace. Factors that promote wise reasoning spring from humility, an openness to other perspectives, and the ability to compromise. Wisdom often flows from adopting third-person perspective that places our own well-being in the same framework with that of others.

Jesus’ prayed that we may have zoe ionias. The eternal and abundant life Jesus desires for us is a glorious life often filled with happiness, but also sorrow and a willingness to tolerate pain and sacrifice.

We can glimpse what glory looks like in Facebook videos posted this past week of ten people on marching on our behalf along lonely stretches of the historic highway route 66 on their way from Chicago to Springfield. They’ve carried on now for 14 days through wind, rain and generally miserable weather since we sent them off with cheers and a rally on May 15th from the James R. Thompson Center. They’ll arrive on Tuesday like the ragtag bunch Joshua led around the walls of Jericho hoping to bring down the walls of inaction, greed, and hard-heartedness that’s led to the budget impasse in our State that has stretched on now for 1 year, 10 months and 27 days. On Tuesday they’ll deliver a people and planet first budget that generates billions in new revenue by closing tax loopholes for corporations, eliminating the flat tax, and placing a small fee on financial transaction. I plan to be there with them when they do and I invite all of you to come with me.

The great 14th century English saint and mystic Julian of Norwich said of God: “I am the one who makes you to love; I am the one who makes you to long; I am the one, the endless fulfilling of all true desires.” As we yet linger in these days after the ascension and before Pentecost and prepare to commence in discipleship and the long season of being the church, a living sanctuary of hope and grace in the world, Jesus has called us beyond mere happiness and to reach for glory. We strain forward for glory knowing that even if it eludes our grasp the mere pursuit of it fills our hearts and illumines our lives with dignity. We live the good life by living the life Jesus lived. It is the glorious life for you and me. Life eternal and abundant, the life of the Father to the Son, the life of the Spirit of our ascended Savior, life in God, now and forever. Amen.

Living Water

Lent 3A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


Many of you have noticed there’s something different about Lent this year. We have Cabernet Sauvignon. There is Cabernet at communion.   Cabernet goes down well paired with heavy food, but it leaves something to be desired as a stand-alone drink. I’m not sure what the worship team was thinking, but for me, Lenten cabernet makes me wonder. Is this what my prayers taste like in God’s mouth when mixed with the bitterness of my own selfishness and sin?

Today’s gospel offers a wonderful reminder of the abundant and refreshing gift of grace poured out for us in baptism like living water in a thirsty world. Yet sadly, it also reflects the timeless sin repeated again and again by all the world’s religions: God with us begins to mean God is not with you. The purity of God’s grace becomes embittered. This is not the living water that is our birthright.

In nature, water that does not flow soon becomes stagnant and unhealthy to drink. Religion that does not open our hands, hearts and fisted minds to welcome the stranger as we would welcome Christ is no longer healthy religion.

Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well was shocking in part because it transgressed time honored religious lines. Like it says in today’s gospel, “Judeans, of course, do not associate with Samaritans.” (John 4:9b) Samaritans were of Jewish ancestry mixed with other races and practiced an unorthodox religion. Once again Jesus exhibits his tendency to fraternize with all the wrong people.

Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus will tell a famous parable about a Good Samaritan of extraordinary kindness (Luke 10:25-37). He will single out a Samaritan among a group of ten lepers for having faith in giving thanks to God for being healed (Luke 17:11-19). He will rebuke the disciples for wanting to send hell fire to destroy a Samaritan village (Luke 9:52-56). Today Jesus travels through Samaria (already odd because he did not detour around it as was the custom) and surprises both the disciples and a Samaritan women (breaking another taboo about gender) by talking to her directly, engaging her in a conversation about deep spiritual matters (John 4:4-42).

It’s not just the Samaritans who find favor with Jesus, of course. The Syrophoenicians living north of Israel were also considered outsiders and pagans. But when a Syrophoenician woman, desperate for her daughter to be healed, appealed to Jesus he also praised her for her great faith (Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:22-28). Jesus welcomed tax collectors, and sinners and ate with them.

While affirming God’s special relationship with Israel, Jesus demonstrates God’s grace toward and inclusion of people of all backgrounds. Historically, we Christians make a mistake when we see Jesus as a wall and not a bridge to fellowship with other communities of faith.   It’s the miracle of Canna in reverse. We turn living water into bitter wine.

As Christians and Disciples of Christ, that’s why we bear a special burden to oppose anti-Semitism and cannot ignore its recent rise. Although we may never know the motives of the terrorist who phoned in a bomb threat Tuesday, March 7th to Emanuel Congregation and Day School, we can safely assume it had something to do with a tragically misinformed Christian theology. The bitter death-dealing wine of religious terrorism is not in keeping with the spirit the God we know, whether it is perpetrated in name of Christ, Muhammad, or Moses.

It was good to see so many of you Friday night for Shabbat at Emanuel Congregation –and so many from our diverse faith communities in Edgewater—to stand with our brothers and sisters of faith in solidarity against hate. The spirit of God’s grace and hospitality was poured out on us there like living water.

The focus of our Lenten devotions this week was the Apostles Creed, were we read that all people are created in the image of God. Rozella Haydée White wrote, “Believing that God created all makes a difference in how we interact with each other and with creation. We begin to see that everything and everyone is sacred, reflecting the beauty, depth, and breadth of God. Sometimes this reality is easier for me to grasp than another one—that I too am not only created by God but actually created in God’s image. This truth can be daunting because I struggle with my own worth and enoughness. To believe that a bit of the divine resides in me means that the totality of my existence has the capacity to reflect the love, compassion, and humility that define the very character of God.” (Free Indeed, Devotions for Lent 2017, p. 27)

As author and poet Madeleine L’Engle wrote in Walking on Water, “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”

We were talking about the political strains in our country, our state, and our city when one of my pastoral colleagues this week loudly announced she was giving up despair for Lent. After talking with Jesus, the woman at the well left her water jar and went into the city bearing living water she shared freely with anyone she met (John 4:28). Five gallons of water weigh more than forty pounds. This nameless woman in our gospel has pretty much everything stacked against her: she is a Samaritan in this Jewish story, a woman in a male-dominated world, has lived a challenging and probably tragic life, and is very likely dependent on others. And yet after her encounter with Jesus she leaves her water jar behind to live a new and different life and to share with others what God has done for her.” (David Lose)

She leaves the weight of her past at the well. She exchanged stigma and hopelessness for joy. She gave up despair for Lent. She preached good news to thirsty people in the city and a new community in Christ was born.

We, who are thirsty for God, find living water here in our baptism. The old bitterness is flushed away. Here, Christ comes among us in word and meal. Never forget we have good news of great joy to share. In sharing it we are repairing the world in some small way, we become a living sanctuary of hope and grace and this task has only become more urgent in these days.

On Friday night, our hope and joy was rekindled as we sang and prayed led by our friends at Emanuel Congregation. On page 124 of the Jewish prayer book I noticed one in particular that could be a re-statement of our own mission and a way for the living water of the gospel to flow freely among us, through us, and from us:


May the door of this synagogue be wide enough

to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for friendship.


May it welcome all who have cares to unburden,

thanks to express, hopes to nurture.


May the door of this synagogue be narrow enough

to shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity.


May its threshold be no stumbling block

to young or straying feet.


May it be too high to admit complacency,

selfishness and harshness.


May this synagogue be, for all who enter,

the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.

(Mishkan T’Filah: A Reform Siddur, p. 124)

The Pursuit of Perfection

Epiphany 7A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus said, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) In the operating room, surgeons have a saying, ‘perfect is the enemy of good.’ Trying to make good enough better can result in something even worse. In the classroom, educators say perfection is the enemy of learning. This may be especially true of adults. Embarrassment at the possibility of looking foolish is a barrier to building new skills with language, a musical instrument, sports, or almost anything that takes you beyond your comfort zone. In religious circles perfection is virtually a synonym for self-righteousness. No one is perfect, least of all those who think they are.

So why does Jesus lay this challenge to be perfect on us? The definition of a SMART goal is that it must be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. I’m not sure Jesus’ admonition is any of these.

The Founding Fathers agreed perfection may not be attainable but, nevertheless, they thought we are right to pursue it. The idea is enshrined in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Way back in 1787 our forefathers said striving for an ever more perfect union is an essential part of the American experiment in democracy. Without that striving, the project is at an end.

I don’t really know any perfect people. Neither does God. Jesus said, ‘no one is good but God’ (Matthew 19:17). I take it, that’s the whole point about grace. On Thursday in the side chapel we were studying Paul’s letter to the Romans with our friends from St. Gertrude Catholic Church as part of our recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We encountered a quote from bible scholar N.T. Wright that helped us unravel some meaning from the super-dense thicket of words in chapters 6 and 7. About grace Wright says, “God accepts us where we are, but God does not intend to leave us where we are. Justification is by grace alone, through faith alone. But grace is always transformative.”

In Christ, with Christ, through Christ, little by little and sometimes all at once we are being transformed through the renewal of our hearts and minds. As surely as water finds its way to the sea, so grace works tirelessly to lift us ever deeper into God’s embrace. We are carried on currents of grace in the direction of perfection.

The word Jesus used for “perfect” is the Greek word “telos.” Telos is less about where you are than in is about where you end up. The telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target. The telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches. The telos for us is to be the person and community God created us to be.

Jesus’ words are less command than promise. “God sees more in you than you do. God has plans and a purpose for you. God intends to use you to achieve something spectacular. And that something spectacular is precisely to be who you were created to be and, in so doing, to help create a different kind of world.” (David Lose, Working Preacher)

“Be perfect just as God is perfect.” There are two temptations here. The first is to not take the challenge seriously. We Lutherans tend to flee for refuge in grace too quickly instead of wrestling with these more difficult sayings of Jesus. We must face up to challenges of really changing our behavior in order to better reflect the image of God that is in us. The second temptation is to take these words too seriously. As in, believing we’ve got it in us to do all this. The result is less tragic but more deadly. Religious people who forget to be humble quickly become arrogant, judgmental and exclusive rather than generous, welcoming and open.

Martin Luther once said that the Christian life is not about arriving but always about becoming. “We are not now what we shall be, but are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.”

Jesus calls the new world being patiently, persistently, passionately made in us the kingdom of God – where violence doesn’t always breed more violence and hate doesn’t always kindle more hate. Can we do this – turn the other cheek, love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us? No, not perfectly. Some days, maybe not at all. But that’s not really the point. It’s not our job to bring in the kingdom; Jesus does that. It’s our job to live like we are already part of God’s kingdom, and to practice living like Jesus’ disciples and citizens of this new kingdom in the meantime.

Remember, Jesus’ sermon was directed to a small and powerless community, in which it was easy to give up hope and want revenge. Jesus proclaimed that God is present in the lives of the oppressor and enemy, and that although we are small our love can be transformative.

You heard Paul remind us, you are God’s temple. We strive to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace. Therefore take care not to deface the holiness and divinity in yourself or others. Let God’s Spirit shine forth in your life and support the emergence of this same Spirit in others. In order to be perfect as God is perfect, we humbly ask ourselves three critical questions: What can I do? What can you do? What can we do together?

We do not forget or even minimize the presence of sin in us or in the world. But neither do we assume God is limited by our sin. Rather, we are always being called by Jesus to be more than we ever thought we could be. Jesus’ challenge to reach for perfection is an invitation to claim our identity as God’s chosen and beloved people.

May God bless this house from roof to floor. May God bless each pilgrim seeking refuge at our door. May God fill every room with peace and grace, so that all who sojourn here may find healing in this place.” (from This House of Peace, Ralph M. Johnson, Earthsongs)

From Chaos, Peace

Epiphany 6A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

You have heard it said from days of old, in the beginning God swept over the face of the waters, God created order out of chaos. Even now, God works to bring order out of disorder. Chaos and darkness were the norm before humanity was invited to be in relationship with the divine. From ancient times we either live in God’s love, or continue down the road to hellish violence

Today we are living in a time when some praise chaos as being a shrewd political strategy. Others worry it is evidence of deep dysfunction. Regardless, we are all pulled into playing a part in the confusion. A friend of mine said, “On Facebook everybody’s a politician and everybody’s right.”

We come by our self-righteousness honestly. Our anger is well founded. We deserve to be dismissive. It’s feels good to stand together and fight when we know how much we are right and they are wrong.

But this path leads in only one direction. The longer we stay here the chaos that threatens us only gets bigger. The outcomes are stark. As we speak facts are erased and replaced with tribal loyalty. Our common humanity is divided among insiders and outsiders. Moses set before the people life and prosperity, death and adversity. (Deuteronomy 30:15) As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King once named it, we must choose between chaos or community.

A pastor wrote about a young mother she knew who was severely abused as a child. She and her children lived in daily chaos. She was getting help but a pattern that kept appearing. Just when her life began to “stabilize,” she created a situation that caused her to be thrown into chaos again. It was almost as if chaos was her place of comfort, control, power, and security. It was where she found her identity.  (Rev. Jolene Bergstrom Carlson, Executive Director/President Ministry Mentors, 2/07/17)

Whether you like it or not, whether you watch television or read the newspaper, regardless of party affiliation, we are all becoming part of a crazy national family system. Experienced Twelve-steppers know the symptoms. From outside and all around us we are increasingly compelled to do three things: don’t trust, don’t talk, and don’t feel. The question is how we renew and root ourselves in the Holy Spirit so we can begin to create community that trusts, talks and feels again?

People in Jesus’ time had a similar problem, although for very different reasons. The threat to the beloved community wasn’t disorder but an overly rigid religious system that taught people to do all the wrong things for all the right reasons.

Our ancestors in faith joined God’s project bringing order from chaos with gusto. The first five books of the bible (or Torah) became the basis of their legal code and cultural norms. The bible was their creed, covenant, and constitution all rolled into one. Christians are familiar with the Ten Commandments. By Jesus’ time these commandments mushroomed into 613 rules to live by, all based on scripture—and all this order and clarity wasn’t working.

The laws couldn’t make people actually love each other. It only made people judge each other –and of course—just like today, there were clear winners and losers, insiders and outsiders. In today’s gospel Jesus is talking about replacing the law with unconditional love. Jesus expects us to love as we have been loved.

Jesus said, ‘You have heard it said of old, do not murder, but I say to you if you are angry you will be liable for judgment’ (vs. 21). “You have heard it said, do not commit adultery, but I say to you anyone who has looked at a women lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (vs. 27, 28). Again and again Jesus takes commands too many of us already do not keep and raises the bar. “I tell you,” Jesus says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

What’s going on here? If you live by the law you die by the law. Jesus opens the door to see inside our hearts and minds to examine the swelter of internal dynamics going on there: anger, derision, slander, false generosity, litigiousness, arrogance, lust, temptation, alienation, divorce, and religious speech.

Most of us are content if we can avoid doing bad things. But Jesus has raised the bar on what it means to be a good, godly person cause the alternative is violence, division, and chaos. We religious people get it all wrong. God is not in the judging business but business of grace and mercy. The way to restoring community that is once again able to trust, talk, and feel begins with seeing each person at the foot of the cross, in need of grace, just like us, and just like us, finding the warmth of God’s love and embrace.

The cross of Christ reveals that God is present in communion with victims of hatred and violence, not the perpetrators of it. You and I may decide to have enemies, but then we must know the consequence of that choice is that God stands against you with them.

Elie Wiesel illustrates this with his gripping story called “Night.” A child hangs from an SS gallows and the question goes up, “Where is God?” Wiesel writes: “And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is … He is hanging here on this gallows.’” (Night, Bantam Books, 1982, pp. 61-62.)

Jesus brings an end to end all our judging and blaming and smug self-righteousness in order to turn for grace. The way of Jesus brings an end to the bitter divisions afflicting our lives today by orienting us toward the needs of our neighbor. Jesus came to teach us how to live in God’s love, so we don’t have to keep going down the disastrous roads that our anger and lust lead us on.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Through violence you may murder a murderer but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that.”

(Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community?)

It’s the perfect life for imperfect people. Jesus has opened the way to life that is more Godly –more peaceful, joyful, and purposeful. We are called and equipped for this absurdly blessed life. God bless this house from roof to floor. God bless each pilgrim who seeks refuge at our door. God fill every room with peace and grace, that all who sojourn here find healing in this place.” (from This House of Peace, Ralph M. Johnson, Earthsongs)

Fishing for People

Epiphany 3A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Matthew 4:19)

Christians have been listening to Jesus’ invitation to go fishing for over two thousand years. We know fishing for human hearts and minds is a learned skill. Just like normal fishing it takes practice, persistence, and patience. It’s not easy—even though Jesus made it as simple possible. There’s only one Divine Lure in our tackle box: the good news.

Good news begins in the heart of God, in God’s determination to have a family. God shows a relentless resolve not to leave the world to its own devices. The 66 books of the Bible could be described as the long story of God’s refusal to leave us to ourselves. For Christians, Jesus is the supreme act of God’s eternal self communication, God’s determination to have a family at all costs.   (William Willimon, “Fishing with Jesus,” 1/24/99)

The word “evangel” means “good news.” Evangelism is fishing for people by telling the story of what God has done in our lives, our families, and our community. Like the first disciples we reach out to others in the name of Christ because in Christ, God has reached to us. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Cast it out there. Let God do the rest.

We cast the good news as far as we can into the dark, turbulent waters of the world to join the master fisherman, the Holy Spirit, in the work of pulling people out of hatred, despair, enmity, poverty, consumerism, racism, sexism, and any other thing that degrades, devalues and dehumanizes human life.

As with most acquired skills, to become a good fisher for people, it helps to have a good teacher. The booklet and slide presentation lovingly prepared by our self-appointed historian Richard Anderson, each given later today, honors seven founders of Immanuel who left us great examples of how fishing for people is done.

One of them is Emmy Evald (1857-1946). Emmy was the daughter of Immanuel’s first pastor and the second wife of the second pastor. In a church run exclusively by men she outshined them all. The windows of Immanuel give a hint. Emmy is the only person depicted in color. She was a teacher, scholar, suffragette and champion of women’s rights, advocate for Christian missions, skillful organizer of local and national societies, long time friend of Jane Addams and Susan B. Anthony. Emmy Evald may have been the most outstanding woman of Swedish descent of her generation. Not surprisingly male clergy did not always love her.

I couldn’t help but think of Emmy while walking down the middle of Michigan Avenue yesterday morning with friends, family, and 250,000 other people at the women’s march. Emmy epitomized the founding fishers of this church. Richard writes about them, “…they were not merely creating congregations and buildings…they were building a Church…community that cared for the health and well-being of all people, that affirmed the value of education, that struggled against the evils of poverty and neglect, that sang songs of faith in languages old and new, that nurtured spiritual insight and expression, that sought in humble ways to carry out the commands of its Lord and Savior.” (Founders, p. 24)

To become good fishers for people, we must tell the good news in both words and deeds. We stand with Jesus fishing both for souls and bodies; hearts and minds. We stand with Jesus for justice. Little by little and all at once, by the grace of God, our very lives become the divine lure for adding to God’s family.

Our gospel comes from the fourth chapter of Matthew. Already we’ve followed Jesus to Bethlehem, to Egypt, to Nazareth, and now to a small fishing village of about 1,000 people called Capernaum beside the Sea of Galilee. From his earliest days in ministry—God’s Messiah—Jesus will be a wandering, homeless preacher.  His place is among those who suffer.

Where we find him today, Jesus has rejected the comforts of nearby cities like Tiberius or Sepphoris –places you’d expect a young talented Rabbi of his day to go—and has instead embraced God’s call to seek those in need of a word of grace wherever they might live.

The village of Capernaum is in the back-water territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. This was the “wild west” of Palestine, a rough, unruly place with bandits and revolutionaries wandering among a population considered by the religious elites in Jerusalem to be uncivilized, semi-literate, and infected by paganism.

For centuries, these northern regions had been vassal states to a series of Assyrian kings. At the crossroads of international trade routes, these regions were familiar to foreign armies who at various times, marched through, or stopped in to occupy these lands.

It was a land familiar with brutality, poverty and hunger, a land unaccustomed to hope. It was the land of a frequently conquered people, subject to the whims and demands of overlords. Imagine—a place where security and safety are stripped away. Every asset may be claimed by the conquerors. Every child born can be taken by the more powerful into slavery. Every harvest in a field planted with crops could be seized by the mighty. Every hope for the future might be stolen by masters who have the final say.” This is “the land of deep darkness” into which Jesus journeyed. (Amy Oden, Dean and Professor of History of Christianity, Wesley Theological Seminary)

That is the place Jesus called the disciples. These were certainly not among the best and the brightest of his time. To them Jesus declared the fabulous, preposterous news: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” First he called Peter and Andrew, two brothers whom he encountered beside the sea mending their nets. Next two more brothers, James and John, whom he found sitting in the boat with their father Zebedee. He called them and they also left their nets and their father and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22)

The divine lure works to draw people without any work or help from us but faith. Jesus has shown us where we belong.   You belong with me, Jesus says. Come and follow me, Jesus says, let me introduce you to your many thousands of brothers and sisters. Come and follow, Jesus says, let me show you the truth and the life to which you are called, which is your birthright. Let me show you how you have become a precious part of that which is so much greater, the undying life and work of God. Let me show you the divine lure of God that is already within you—the light to drive away darkness and fear. Come and see.

What Are You Looking For?

Epiphany 2A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus asked them, “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38) This week I stepped into a spice shop looking for the Ukrainian Village seasoning I like. I must have been standing with a blank look on my face because as soon as she saw me, the shopkeeper asked, “Can I help you?” She took me straight to the spot. Sometimes we know what we’re looking for but need help finding it.

Other times we don’t know what we’re looking for but have confidence we’ll know it when we see it. We have two high school seniors at home right now applying for colleges, Sam and Joe. It seems there are few things more mysterious than trying to figure out which schools appeal to a kid. They just have to search until they find it for themselves. Of course, there are many, many people to help them along the way including guidance counselors, college admissions staff, print journalists, electronic media—not to mention friends, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles—all lending a hand.

Other times it feels like what we’re looking for can’t be found. We just have an angry, confused, hurting longing for an end to our pain, for resolution of injustice, or for the truth to emerge from the shadows of deceitfulness. A man came to my office this week looking for answers. He lost his job after the son of the boss’s friend stole from the company. He lost his apartment when he couldn’t pay the rent. He lost his wallet and his I.D. when it was stolen while he slept on the Blue Line. “Why is this happening to me?” he asked. “What does God have against me? I’ve always tried to do the right thing but its only getting more and more difficult.”

This week we will celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday and the inauguration of a new administration in many ways antithetical to that legacy on Friday. Jesus’ question, ‘What are we looking for?’ has found new urgency, rising up in our own minds, up-ending even the settled lives of people who are not sleeping on the Blue Line tonight. What are we looking for—for our nation, our neighbors, our families, and ourselves?

The disciples in today’s gospel could not have imagined where their decision to follow Jesus would take them. He just said, “Come and see.” (John 1:39) He would take them to the cross. He would show them the way to live under and within the shelter of God’s abiding presence even while they walked through the valley of the shadow of death.

Martin Luther King famously said, “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” In his letter from a Birmingham jail King also warned the universe won’t bend toward the better all by itself. Come and see.

Christ has shown us how to walk toward abundance of life paradoxically by following him in the way of the cross. Sacrificial love—giving ourselves to something greater than narrow self interest—bending our strength together for the common good, however we are given to understand the common good—this is how we make life better for ourselves and for everyone and find the answers to our deepest questions.

We know it when we see it. To be a Christian means we see in Jesus a widow to the Divine Reality underneath and inherent in the world somehow we have always known but couldn’t name. To be a Christian is to affirm the truth there is a natural human capacity and longing for God in everyone because everyone is a child of God. To be a Christian is say—‘Yes! that’s it!’—at Jesus’ vision for all existence in union with Divine Reality in what scripture has variously called the kingdom of God, or the body of Christ, or the vine and the branches, or a living sanctuary not made with hands.

Being a Christian is one of the things in life we can’t do alone. We find answers with the help and guidance of one another, or if not, then we find the encouragement and strength we need to keep searching, or to keep hoping for love to win out. To be a Christian is to be witnesses to these things.

In fact, the gospel of John, from which we read today is sometimes called the book of “signs.” It’s all about giving witness. In chapter 20:31 John says, “These [things] are written so that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

To find what we’re looking for, to know what is important, to decide which path to follow, to recognize who Jesus is, or even that Jesus is important, the bible tells us there needs to be a witness. We need one another. John the Baptist “…came as a witness to bear witness to the light, so that all might believe through him.” (John 1:7)

Like a helpful shopkeeper John is full of things to say about Jesus. There are no less than five images of who Jesus is in our lesson today: “Here is the Lamb of God.” “…who is taking away the sins of the world.” (1:29) Jesus is “the one who existed before John.” (1:30-31) Jesus is “the one on whom the Spirit descends and rests.” (1:32-33) “This is the Son of God.” (1:34)

It must have caused quite a stir. By all accounts, John had a large following. He had his own disciples. Many came to listen to him and to prepare for the messiah. The people of Israel had been waiting almost 900 years. It had been centuries since the golden years of King David. For centuries, the people of Israel had known only the bitterness of division, exile, slavery, imperialism, and betrayal.

In the decades before Jesus’ birth the dream and longing of the Hebrew people for a savior grew and deepened. The prophets wrote about it. The Psalmist sang about it. Their longing for a savior, for a messiah, for a king who would restore the nation and lead the people in faith was so strong in the century before Christ, it could be called a national obsession.

In other words, the church was born in times like this—the church was made for moments like this—when confusion, hatred, and empire appear to hold sway over truth and justice.

Jesus answered the disciple’s longing and our own in a most unexpected way. He was not a political savior, but a personal one. The power he wielded was not military might, but of vulnerability, mercy and love. He showed us we all have this power and this presence of God with us too.

Yet even Jesus, the messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, would have been just another man passing by the disciples along the riverbank of the Jordan that day without the witness of John the Baptist. As Jesus walked by, John exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36)

From that day the disciples turned their hearts and minds toward Jesus. They began to follow him, and little by little, they began to have faith. Jesus said to them, “Come and see.”

What do people see in our congregation? What kind of witness do we make? To those without hope; to those who are hurting or grieving; to those who are searching for a purpose in their lives; to those our economy has left behind; to those being scapegoated; to those experiencing injustice, to anyone afflicted by the improper use of authority and privilege?

Life can be overwhelming. The choices confusing. Let them see hope. Let them see the kingdom. The people need a witness. We need to see Christ in one another. We need to hear Jesus’ invitation from each other’s mouths. Come and see. Just be a living witness to the power and presence of grace. Let God do the rest.

Given For You

Christmas Eve A-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The prophet Mohamed, peace be upon him, describes the nativity scene at the birth of Jesus in the Quran (Surah 19) featuring a great tree. It’s the first Christmas tree if you will—centuries before the tradition developed among Christians. The tree is a date palm, rather than an evergreen. Mary and baby Jesus rest beneath the shade of its branches. Fresh dates from the tree restore Mary’s strength after delivery and a spring miraculously flowing from the base of the tree provides water for her to drink.

To me what’s striking about the Islamic nativity is first—that the story exists at all—and second how it reflects a very non-European cultural setting. I wonder, has Christmas as we know it in the West, become disconnected from its Middle Eastern roots? Jesus was born in the city of David called Bethlehem. Our gospel was likely written in the ancient city of Antioch of Syria (which today is part of Turkey). It is just sixty-five miles from Aleppo.

I wonder, might we have more natural empathy with the suffering of people throughout the Middle East if our Christmas celebrations had less to do with snow, holly, and conifer and instead helped us “turn back” toward the birthplace of the nativity? (See Mariam Sheikh Hakim, “The Little-Known Story Of The Islamic Christmas Tree” Huffington Post, 12/16/16)

Like the ones waiting for us under the tree, the gift of Christmas must be un-wrapped before we learn what it is. When we peel away two millennia of culture and tradition—we re-discover the surprising/challenging/wonderful message—Christ Jesus and the holy family are refugees (!) fleeing violence, desperately seeking safety, and welcome like so many others today.

To be sure, each of you will find a gift God has chosen specifically for you at Christmas. Each of us finds welcome, belonging, joy and love to warm our soul beneath the Big Tent of incarnation, but we can only remain there in God’s abiding presence while we keep the doors open for others –including our Muslim brothers and sisters.

That’s why the strength and beauty of this church is renewed each week in our mission to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace as we open our doors and draw close with the dying whose family lives far away; with families and playgroups hungry for community connection, with children eager to learn who find here a patient teacher as well as something under the tree; with neighbors through ONE Northside, who this week helped make sure the men’s shelter at People’s Church in Uptown did not close yesterday as planned, but will remain open at least until winter’s end.

Once again the savior goes knocking in search of shelter. Each Christmas we hear how the unfeeling innkeeper turned him away. But, of course, the gospel really is addressing us—will the Lord Jesus continue to find welcome in our hearts, our lives, our community, in this congregation? We find Christ as we open to one another and lay claim to our common humanity as beloved children of God. From the people of the world learn to hear again the true meaning of Christmas.

There’s a wonderful Latino Christmas tradition called Las Posadas. Las Posadas literally means “hotels”, or “inns” and traditionally involves a procession through the neighborhood, stopping at each house to plead for shelter. For nine evenings, from December 16th to the 24th, Christians in Mexico, Guatemala, and parts of the Southwestern United States go door-to-door asking for shelter reenacting Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem. It lasts nine days to represent the nine months of pregnancy in which Mary played host and shelter to the infant Christ. Mary was the first person to say yes to the incarnation.

The answer at every home, of course is, “No!” There is no room at the inn and the door is ceremonially slammed in the face of the faithful procession. Then residents at each stop come out from their homes to add to the parade. Finally, the night ends with singing, prayer and a party as Mary and Joseph do a find room.

The story ends happily for Mary and Joseph. But we know the search for sanctuary and welcome is on-going for many thousands of families tonight who are still without shelter. Our mission is timely and urgent. Where would Mary and Joseph find room today? Where will the Christ child find room among us this Christmas?

Christmas is never about the lights we light, the decorations we make, the gifts we give, or anything we do to attempt to make things perfect. It’s about the wonder and mystery of God’s light already within all people, all places, all things—no matter how lowly, desperate, or forlorn they seem. This is the true source of Christmas joy –the surprise at discovering the fullness of the presence of God that is always already pleased to dwell in fullness within each moment of our lives. As we unwrap the gift of Christ at Christmas we find instructions for how to love God and ourselves by better loving one another, across cultures, religions, and nations.

Earlier today, across Russia this Christmas Eve Orthodox Christians fasted until the first star appeared. As darkness fell believers contemplated the star that led the magi to Bethlehem, and Christ the Daystar who illumines our lives. The early church taught Christians to look for the Light coming into the world at the darkest time of the year – nine months after the spring equinox. This gentle, obscure light emerges from the darkness in the most fragile form of a newborn baby, born into poverty, a refugee seeking shelter in a foreign nation.

You and I, together with Joseph and Mary, are gifted and challenged this night to open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to behold—a gift wrapped in swaddling clothes and nestled upon straw who fills our life to overflowing with the presence of God that is given today—for you.

Hope is On the Way

Advent 3A-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

December 11, 2016

I have a new friend named Betty. I met her in Diakonia class. Diakonia is the lay academy of spiritual formation and theological education that meets every Saturday in the basement of Grace Lutheran in Evanston. You’d like Betty too. We were talking about the season of Advent and about how sometimes we’re stuck waiting, watching, and longing for grace to show up in our lives. Betty said every year she gets out her Advent wreath and sets it on the dining table –and every year, that wreath is soon buried in a pile of cards, letters, papers, and lots of other stuff that inevitably flows into our house this time of year. She used to fret about cleaning it. When it hit her: that’s what Advent is all about. “God comes into my messy life despite all my junk!” In Advent we rejoice ‘cause hope is on the way.

Few of us could imagine landing in a bigger mess than the one John the Baptist faced—all because of his faith. Pacing back and forth in his narrow cell, imprisoned by King Herod, he is losing hope. Last Sunday John was shouting down Pharisees and baptizing sinners in the River Jordan. Every word he spoke exuded certainty and confidence. But now, while he faces death, he’s not so sure. He sends word to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3)

Like John the Baptist, we live in the Already and Not Yet. We stand in the discomforting quiet waiting impatiently for the salvation of the Lord and simultaneously we celebrate that our salvation has already come.

John has doubts. Jesus performed deeds of power in cities throughout Galilee—in Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum—but the people did not turn to follow him. Instead they said, “Look, [this Jesus is] a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19). So now, even John the Baptist, wonders if he made a mistake. Soon, Jesus’ mother and brothers will show up too, presumably wanting to question their problematic child and sibling. They will come try to take him home and out of the public eye.

Who is this Jesus? If Jesus is the Messiah shouldn’t it be clear to everyone? Our gospel prompts us to ask why God remains so hidden—even when the earthly Jesus stands right in front of them? Remember, John’s questions about Jesus arise after he’s listened to an accounting of Jesus’ deeds (11:2-3), not in ignorance of them.

The fact is—so far Jesus had not fulfilled any of John’s spectacular promises: John preached the Coming One would baptize with Spirit and fire, and cast the wicked into a furnace of fire (3:10-12). John is confused when he hears reports of Jesus’ ministry and realizes that Jesus is not the supernatural judge his preaching had foretold. (Paul S. Nancarrow)

If Jesus is the Messiah, why doesn’t he do more to protect us? Isn’t a savior supposed to save people? Why didn’t he save John? Why didn’t he come knock down the walls of Herod’s prison and break his chains? What kind of Messiah is this Jesus of Nazareth?

Jesus’s response affirms John even as he remains steadfast in his Godly mission. Jesus answers our questions. Jesus responds to John’s dark night of the soul. Hope is on the way.

It’s as if Jesus opened the bible to our first reading today from Isaiah 35 to re-direct John toward a different set of messianic expectations deeply rooted in scripture: not the destruction-filled imagery from the book of Daniel and later apocalyptic literature, but the shalom-filled imagery of peace from Isaiah: “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” (Matthew 11:5). Jesus invites John (and us) to catch a different vision from within the pages of scripture about who the Messiah is. See, hope is on the way.

Jesus is the key to unlock our prison doors. Jesus is the One coming to break the walls of oppression and loose the chains that restrain us. Jesus does this not with military might, nor with a heavenly host of angels, but with the gentle-sure instrument of God’s peace that, even now, draws all people into the refining fire of his renewing grace.

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35) The kingdom comes and grace abounds through simple acts of mercy fueled by faith. We become part of an unstoppable force as we do God’s work through our hands.

For 28 years, our Parish Nurse, Michelle Knapp has given witness to today’s gospel among us. Her counsel and care and have given comfort to the people of Immanuel, Ebenezer and the surrounding community. I believe Michelle’s playgroups alone have made a difference in the neighborliness you can feel for blocks and blocks around our church. Again and again, Michelle has shown up when we are most overwhelmed with difficult decisions about healthcare or assisted living, or end-of-life to provide options and solutions. Hope is on the way every time Michelle gets in her car, or sits with us in the pews.

In the gloom of his prison cell, Jesus prepared John to meet the living God who is always more, whose coming is always different, whose power is always greater and more glorious than we could have imagined. We need the hush of Advent to know that another world is possible.  New life can emerge from the ruins; the dessert can bloom; and lives be restored.  Hope is on the way.

Christ Jesus is the one who stoops down from heaven to put a song in our heart. He is the one who comes to join us, and to walk with us. Jesus is the one who comes into our life no matter how messy or fraught with ugly strife, bickering or bitterness. Jesus comes not in wrath but in love; not as one who seeks to destroy, but as one with power to transform and renew. Jesus took on flesh and lived among us. This same spirit of Christ is upon you. Our hope is on the way.

Impossible Possibilities

Advent 2A-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


Lions and lambs lying down together make a nice Christmas card, but we know what would happen—not a pretty ending for the poor little lamb.   A shoot growing from the stump of Jesse, who was King David’s father, provides inspiration for the Advent custom of the Jesse trees like the raw wooden branches we have decorating our chancel. But what actually comes from a stump? Nothing! You cut down the tree. The roots die. Eventually the stump rots, is eaten by insects, and turns into mulch.

From beginning to end Isaiah’s poetic prophecy describes impossible possibilities. Lions and lambs cannot lie down together. Stumps do not produce shoots. Death cannot produce life. It’s impossible—right?

Aggression and domination fuel the process of natural selection. It’s what makes the great wheel of evolution go ‘round. But Isaiah doubles down. The day will come when little children will play with poisonous snakes—what! Maybe in Disney movies, otherwise any child playing with poisonous snakes isn’t long for this world.

But then, Isaiah isn’t talking about this world. Isaiah is talking to this world, about a very different world. Could the impossible become a possibility? In many ways Isaiah lived in the same world we do. It was a world of corruption, violence, and injustice. Powerful nations conquered weaker ones. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen to the invading Assyrians. The rulers of God’s people trusted in military might more than they trusted God. Those in power saved themselves. Those who needed protection most received the least.

We know this world. It is a world where everyday people are killed in drive-by shootings and by suicide bombers. It is a world where walls are erected between people and hatred is on the rise. Poisonous snakes take many forms. It is a world in which the richest nation, today more wealthy than it has ever been in its entire history, has billions for bombs but less and less to offer the hungry and the homeless.

Into this violent fallen world Isaiah paints a picture of peace—an impossible possibility. It is a picture of creation—restored. A world God once again deems fit to call “very good.” It is a picture of life—transformed.   Dog-eat-dog survival of the fittest gives way to the world as God intended it to be. It is a world of people who rely solely upon grace. “God will wipe every tear from their eyes:” and “death will be no more.” (Revelation 21:4)

Actually, we have not one but two Advent prophets in today’s scriptures. We have Dreamy Isaiah, and Fiery John the Baptist. In this season of warm-fuzzies, John makes us a little uncomfortable. You won’t find any Christmas cards with him on the cover. He’s another one who is hard to figure out.

“John planted himself in the middle of nowhere. He set up shop in the wilderness, and anyone who wanted to hear what he had to say had to go to a lot of trouble to get there…” and not just trouble, but plenty of danger too. (Barbara Brown Taylor)

To hear John preach about repentance and baptism, a pilgrim from Jerusalem had to take that treacherous Jericho road, made famous in the parable of the Good Samaritan. They had to trek through blazing desert, carrying all their own food and water, traversing hills and lonely canyons infested with bandits to Jericho and then beyond—to the wilderness beside the Jordan far away from everything.

Ask yourself. Who would have made such a journey? Who would risk it? Who would be so desperate? I bet you know. They were people hungry and thirsting for justice. People fed up and impatient with the world as it is, eager to be part of the world as it should be—the world as even now it struggles to be. They are people who know God fills the world to overflowing with promise and grace. They went to the desert to become midwives of a new creation of impossible possibilities. In other words, they were people like you and me.

Many had nothing left to lose. Their lives counted for very little. They had lost hope of building a life for themselves. Often God’s little ones are the first to hear the angels or to follow the leading star. They were people like we hear so much about in scripture—people on the margins, outcasts, thieves, and sinners who flocked to hear John the Baptist—and right behind them came a second group of people—those sent out to keep tabs on the people who live on the margins, to be sure things didn’t get out of hand.

That sets the scene of our gospel today. John announces the Lord’s coming. He calls the religious leaders a brood of vipers. He speaks of fiery judgment, and of wrath to come. Clearly, John the Baptist didn’t get the memo on having a very merry Christmas.

John’s Baptism of fire is bad news to those in authority and anyone peddling Christmas like a commodity, but good news to the poor, the grieving, the victims of violence, those who suffer injustice, and anyone longing for the kingdom of God.

Isaiah’s dream and John’s baptism is impossibly good news for everyone. Isaiah and John boldly declare God’s peaceable kingdom is closer than we realize –even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. The old ways are passing away. Even now, God is bringing something new out of the old, making what was impossible possible. A branch now grows from the dead stump of Jesse. See there is something that sparkles now among these dead branches. Lions may lay down with lambs. Death has given way to life.

In his little book, called Peace, bible scholar Walter Brueggemann writes about Isaiah, “…the effect of the poem is to expose the real abnormalities of life, which we have taken for granted. We have lived with things abnormal so long that we have gotten used to them and we think they are normal.”

 John and Isaiah reveal the nearness of God’s reign –and expose the upside-down dreams our so-called common sense is built on. Isaiah and John awaken us instead to be a part of God’s dream for this world.

In a time when we can’t seem to agree anymore even about the facts, John and Isaiah have clearly set out the goals: strive for justice and peace. We can find the truth among our wildly different social and political policies by measuring how effective each is in helping us make progress toward realizing the peaceable kingdom—end of story. But they also warn, “The peaceable kingdom for which we long may require that we put an ax to resentments and biases that are rooted in our hearts. We may have to winnow our greed and overindulgence; we may have to let God burn away the chaff of our impatience. Only then will the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, the child and the cobra find rest under widespread branches of a sheltering tree in the peaceable kingdom” (Dianne Bergant). Only then will we find a new way of life between the already and the not yet—find the opening, by God’s grace, to what is possible hidden within the impossible.