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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Advent 12/08/2019

I sometimes wonder if at some point the church will cave in and join the rest of the world in making December pretty much a month long Christmas celebration. Of course the buildup to Christmas begins way before December with Hallmark movies and Christmas advertising starting in October but by now, the Negaunee Male Chorus had their concert last night, the Marquette Choral Society concert was last night and this afternoon, I think school programs were last week and this week, the library open house was yesterday and that’s not to mention many other “holiday” parties and activities large and small. Add to that, there’s lots of snow to put you in a white Christmas frame of mind! None of this is bad; it’s all very nice and enjoyable even though as awful lot of it has little to do with Christmas as the Incarnation, the celebration of Jesus’ birth.

Amid all the commercialization and secularization of Christmas though, one could argue, actually some have argued that the church might do better to use the weeks of Advent to keep Jesus a part of things and more obviously nudge people in the direction of the manger. It might happen someday although I hope not. I like things the way they are with Advent as a distinctive season with its own themes instead of it just being a four week Christmas Eve. Unless the distinctiveness of Advent changes, we’ll continue with the pattern of the first week being about the end times and the second coming of Jesus, that followed by two weeks of John the Baptist before week four does begin to nudge us closer to the manger.

Last week I had some good things ready to say on the end times and the second coming of Jesus; I think you would have liked it, but because of the weather, for me it wound up being another week of writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear like Eleanor Rigby’s Father McKenzie. What are you going to do? It’s waiting there in the file.

Today though, we do welcome John the Baptist, although it may be that welcome is the wrong word. It might be the right word if you’re one of those people who think the church and its pastors have gone soft, seldom if ever preaching words of judgment and repentance; if that’s the case then John might be your guy. If however you’re looking for holiday cheer as you come to church during these weeks of Advent, John the Baptist is not your guy. For one thing, he clearly missed the preaching class when the professor said that starting your sermon by calling the leaders of your congregation a brood of vipers is not a good idea. It would serve to get their attention but it could also run you the risk of being asked to look for a new call.

I’m not convinced though that John’s approach is the right one for our time: it might work for a few people but I think more would just tune out such rhetoric. My guess though, is that John lit into the Pharisees and Sadducees because he questioned their sincerity about repentance. They had the reputation of thinking they were better than everyone else thus having no need for repentance.

These days, for those of you who are still attending church, I don’t think you’re showing up because you think you’re better than others. My sense is that it’s quite the opposite, that those still involved in the church are quite aware of their failure to always be who God would have them be, quite aware of their need for repentance and forgiveness, attending church not to be reminded that they’re sinners, they already know that, but instead it’s to hear a word of forgiveness and hope as they are reminded of God’s grace.

For me, in today’s readings, that word of hope is more readily available in the poetic words of Isaiah, the wilderness prophet that John the Baptist quotes. Isaiah’s words today start with what winds up being interpreted as a prophecy concerning the birth of Jesus, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse. 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.” Jesse is the father of David and…the Messiah is said to come from the family of David so with the “stump of Jesse” reference there is at least a slight nudge in the direction of the manger on this second Sunday of Advent.

That’s followed by Isaiah’s image of the peaceable kingdom, “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.” There’s more but it’s a beautiful image of hopeful possibilities, an image of peace on earth. “A little child will lead them” is another move toward the manger. Anyway, I’m drawn to these words of Isaiah and I’m also drawn to the end of the Romans reading, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” That too is beautiful. Advent is about hope and both the Isaiah reading and the Romans readings are sources of hope.

But what about John the Baptist with his call for repentance and his brood of vipers and his image of Jesus with a winnowing fork in his hand, gathering the wheat but burning the chaff with unquenchable fire? Is there hope in any of that, or is it all just judgment? I’m not sure that very many people would accuse John the Baptist of being a prophet of hope unless, perhaps, one happens to be Lutheran. It might be that John was another one of those people who was Lutheran and didn’t know it, although it’s probably more accurate to say that John the Baptist was one of the people Luther had in mind when he struggled with the paradoxes of the faith, one of those paradoxes being Law and Gospel.

For Luther, Law was about judgment, Gospel was about hope, but both were necessary: the judgment of the Law revealed the need for the hope of the Gospel. John the Baptist was very much a Law guy: he didn’t pull punches, he told it like it is or was. He was perhaps a little too “in your face” for our taste, at least my taste, but on the other hand, his harsh words do point the way to and are a reminder of the hope of the gospel. In that sense, he was a prophet of hope.

John called for repentance and remember that repentance isn’t just acknowledging and feeling bad about sin, it’s a turning from sin and moving toward a new way of life. So I don’t think that the repentance John calls for is so much about making a list of sinful acts, especially knowing that try as we might, we will continue to sin. Real repentance is more about what we say in confession every week when we recognize that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. That recognition is the beginning of repentance.

My sense is that John goes after the Pharisees and Sadducees in particular for thinking they could free themselves, that they were good enough. John though points to the one who will come after him, Jesus, as the one who will make us good enough. That opens us to the hope and possibility of new life knowing that even as we continue to sin, we are forgiven, simultaneously saints and sinners, another of Luther’s paradoxes. We have the joy and hope of knowing that God can work through us despite our sin.

Still, there’s that image of Jesus separating the wheat from the chaff with the chaff thrown into unquenchable fire. For sure it’s not how we like to think about Jesus as it’s hard to find any grace in that image; lots of judgment but not much grace. You might say, “Well, that’s John the Baptist talking, that’s his image of Jesus and maybe he was wrong.” But then Jesus himself spoke words of judgment, the sheep and goats remember, where judgment is based on what you did or didn’t do. Not much grace there either.

There is judgment here; it would be foolish for me to say otherwise. What we do or don’t do does matter. With dramatic imagery both John the Baptist and Jesus make that clear and we have to take that very seriously. Taking those words seriously though, as law, we follow Luther in recognizing that we cannot free ourselves and with that we are guided to the hope of the gospel, the grace of new life in and through Jesus.

Another way to think about that winnowing fork in Jesus’ hand is that it’s not for judging between one person and another but that it’s about judging each of us individually. It’s a judgment where Jesus gathers what is good about each of us, the wheat, and blesses it with his divine nature and at the same time he takes on himself what is bad about us, the chaff, and carries it with him to the cross. It’s our sinful nature in exchange for his divine nature, another Lutheran thing, what Luther called the “happy exchange.”

So there is hope in John the Baptist’s harsh words. He doesn’t nudge us toward the manger, that’s true; but he does nudge us toward Jesus even if it’s Jesus wielding a winnowing fork of judgment. But…as we embrace Lutheran paradox, we know that with Jesus, even where there’s judgment, there’s also the promise of grace.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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