The Word Became” John 1:1-18

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

The opening of John’s Gospel is one of the most beautiful passages you will find in the scriptures.   John turns a phrase in his concise little poem that strikes a chord deep within us.  Somehow it says what we know to be true, that God comes, and God’s coming to us is like something we have vaguely heard before and intuitively understand.  – God is “the Word.”

It all begins with the Word.  That is the genius of John’s introduction.   With this image of an arriving Word, John moves us to connect with experience.

He could have, like Mark, said that this is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, laid the arrival of God out like a story.

He could have, like Luke, given us a brief introduction to tell us why he writes his Gospel, explain who this is for and why it’s been written.

He could have begun his Gospel like Matthew, with back story of important people and events.

But John is after something else.

John wants us to hear God as God speaks to us though Jesus, and to do that, John introduces Jesus as “The Word” — the pre-existent word. — in Greek, the “Logos”.

Who is Jesus?   He’s the “Word” that becomes flesh, becomes alive.  Doing what a word will do.

What does a word do?

Well that’s the real genius here, because a word will do what it will do to you.   It will strikes you.

The right “word” just reaches right out and grabs you by the collar and won’t let us go.

The right word, when it is spoken to us, reaches deep into our consciousness and grabs us viscerally.

It may be a word that disturbs.

It may be a word that brings comfort.

It may be a word that challenges, but when you’ve heard it, that “Word” like a dog with a bone, just won’t let you go.

We know how this works, but a couple of illustrations will help to make it clearer.

If you are married or in a relationship, there was that moment when changed everything.  A question was asked, or you asked it of the beloved.

“Do you love me?”

And once asked, that question, that “word” was pregnant with possibility, but also fraught with spirit crushing failure to disappoint.

It’s just a word…. “love”…. But so much hangs upon it.   How this question is answered will set the course, define direction, determine the outcome of the rest of one’s life.

From the moment that word “love” is uttered to the other, a direction is set, and all the words that followed would take on new meaning.

You felt differently having said it.

You felt differently having it said to you.

And after it was spoken, every “I love you” that followed would be heard now in a myriad of different ways.

Sometimes tenderly.

Sometimes defiantly, willing love to come into the hurt of the present moment.

Sometimes with passion, and will all the physical response that was sure to follow, a prelude to actions and intimacy.

And, sometimes with a sense of what will come to be said out of habit, a well-worn word that fits now like a comfortable shoe.

But, it all begins with a word uttered, that then takes on a life of its own and changes your life.

Or, If you are a parent, you will remember that moment when you found out what your child was to be.

Maybe it was at an ultrasound, when the blurry image proudly announced to the technician what it appeared the sex would be, and he or she said, “it looks like a girl” or “you’re having a boy.”

Maybe for you it was at the moment of birth, when the doctor or nurse spoke the words amidst the furious crying of both child and parents.

But, a word was spoken, “it’s a…..”  and from that moment on that the word was spoken, a who new series of events was determined.

Now you knew which name to use.

Now you knew what outfits to purchase, or to ask for.

Now you knew how to decorate the room, what color for the walls, and what kind of toys aisle to stroll together in anticipation.

Now you could begin to dream of what the years would bring, the activities you would take part in, going fishing or dance recitals, prom dresses or the tuxedoes, … oh there will be lots of twists and turns and changes no doubt along the way for gender roles are ever changing in culture, but with a single word a direction was set and a path now chosen for you all.

Such is the power of the Word.

The right word spoken reaches out and grabs hold of you.

It becomes a living thing, something you can’t ignore.

So it is when John wants to describe for us how God will enter this world, this phrase “the Word.” fits.

How do you hear “the Word?”

How do you hear and see Jesus?

When you think of the Word of God entering your life, do you imagine a word that is soft, half whispered?  Is it like overhearing someone call your name, making you look in that direction?  Is it like a gentle “I love you?”  Is that how you picture Jesus?

Or does hearing about “the Word” strike you like thunder and lightening, fire and brimstone and power?

Is “the Word” about Jesus, something that shatters the foundations of your world.

Is that “Word” something that conjures up images from Genesis, of God’s raw creative power shaping continents and gouging out rivers and scooping out seas?

What do you think of when you hear Jesus described as “The Word?”

Do you think of him as something which moves your heart to joy?  Something that surprises you and makes you laugh out loud at the unexpectedness?

Or does the Word move you to tears?  Does it speak to you of comfort and hope in the midst of your despair?

Does “the Word” of Jesus come near sound to you like healing?    Or does Jesus’ close presence remind you of your own sinfulness, your own inadequacies? Of your desire to hide or go unnoticed but make you aware that you simply cannot?

What picture of Jesus comes to mind when you think of him as a “Word” spoken into the context of your life?

Do you picture the Jesus who lovingly moves among the cripples and the sick, pronouncing forgiveness and healing?

Or, do you picture a Jesus who speaks to bewildered followers in parables and riddles that you can’t quite comprehend?

Or, when you hear of Jesus as “the Word,” do you picture a Jesus who fashions a whip out of a piece of cord and who begins to drive people and to purge this world of its offenses?

How do you hear “the Word?”  How does Jesus strike you?   As friend?  As comforter?  As judge?   As healer?

“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.”

John wants us to understand that Jesus is going to strike us in the way that we need him to.

A Word that becomes flesh to dwell among us is a living thing.

John begins his telling of the story of Jesus this way because he wants us to see that this Word called Jesus is still alive.

God has his own spirit, his own will, and how you hear him and see him is how he is showing God’s own self to you.

Jesus, this “Word of God,” has a way of speaking that captures your attention as if someone were calling out your very name, and when God strikes you as only a word can do, it is time to pay attention and to listen.

It all begins with the “Word,” however that word strikes you.

This is how God calls to you, and whether you hear it as a gentle voice or a loud accusation, as a judge or a healer, know this.   Behind “the Word” is Jesus, who is really all of these things, that he might be there to speak the right Word to you at this moment.

I don’t know how the Word will come to you today.

That’s one of the amazing things about preaching.

Sometimes when I think all I’ve said is just so much drivel, God somehow manages to shape the words to reach someone.

Sometimes when I think I have carefully crafted the words so that all anyone can possibly hear is pure gospel, someone will tell me that the sermon made them angry,

And sometimes when I try to craft words that will move people to passion and activity, I can tell by all the blank faces that the time for such action was not yet in God’s plans.

I don’t know how the Word will come to you today, how it will hit you.

I don’t know if you will see Jesus as a comforter or friend, or as a judge and accuser of your life choices and decisions, or just as a polite irrelevance in this world.

But I do know this.

The Word has become flesh and is alive.  That is what Christmas promises.  And if you think that Jesus doesn’t have anything to say to you, watch out, because that’s when he is most likely just about to call you by name.

That’s when God is most likely to grab you, because that is what God came to do.

May the Word become flesh within you this day, filling you with life and light.

May the Word made flesh in Jesus, however he may speak to you, speak clearly this day, grabbing your attention.

God may come forcefully upon you, demanding as an infant’s screams, or tenderly as a child’s hand.  But my prayer is that today that Word will come upon you, and that you may indeed receive from him grace upon grace, according to God’s will and mercy.

The Other Christmas Lesson Titus 2:11-14

I’ve been doing this for 32 years, and I’ve never preached on the Titus lesson for Christmas eve.

It’s always been there, of course, for the lessons for this night never change.

We are reminded every year by Isaiah that the “people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”    We look forward with the prophet to that piece of good news in the post-winter solstice world, and recount all the places where we have seen a little bit of light breaking into our dark world.

We imagine, perhaps the heavenly chorus from Luke’s account of the birth.   Shepherds bathed in the light of God’s love and grace, from bright shining messengers.

Or we imagine the glory of a Christmas morn, light glistening on new fallen snow, and our memory of happy and joyful times is tickled back into focus.

Or, perhaps you have walked in the darkness of the soul and known the depth of depression, or the weight of difficult times, illness, tragedy, and have come through to a new day and fresh hope.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Yes, Lord Jesus come into our dark, cold world, for we sorely need a little light right now.

Every year we hear the story from Luke’s gospel of how the babe is born in Bethlehem, but the great and the powerful miss the events of the manger.   Augustus is in his palace. Quirinius is in the Governor’s house, issuing the orders that account for and disperse people as so much property to be counted, managed and taxed.

God is doing great things right under the noses of the rich and powerful, but they are too preoccupied with their own affairs to know it.

We hear the story of the child born and laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn.   We are reminded of the visitation by shepherds, and how the lowly and those whom the world has little regard for are given visions of God’s entrance into the human story.   We weave then our own stories around this one, adding characters to the manger scene, and narratives of friendly beasts and other visitors to the stable in our Christmas specials.   We want to be part of this story, and so find ways to write ourselves into it.

And, as I said, every year we hear this reading from Titus, but I must confess that I have paid little attention to it.

Maybe we play little attention to it because it doesn’t have quite the visual elements the other readings have.  No light in the darkness and no manger scene.

Or, maybe we overlook it because Titus’ words speak both of gifts given and of responses to such gifts, and we’re not so used to thinking much about response on Christmas eve.

We’re used to focusing on the gift alone.

The Light shining in the darkness, the good news of great joy found in the city of David – we focus on the gifts that come our way.

We focus on the gift of God given this Christmas night, much the way we focus on the packages wrapped in our own homes. We enjoy the convivial spirit conveyed, the time with family and friends, — all the gifts.

But Titus links the gift given with a response from those who receive them.

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”

That is the gift.

It is perhaps a more generous gift than we are willing to admit or allow.  “Salvation to all”… given without reservation.  That’s what the Grace of God appearing has brought. This gift given freely to all.

We might not have been so generous as God.

We might have been content with “Salvation for some.”    We like to imagine that of the other lessons.

Some are left in darkness, we imagine when we hear Isaiah.   The oppressor, left behind and out of the light.

Augustus and Quirinius, they are denied the salvation the Christ Child brings because they missed his birth.

“Salvation for some…”  That is what we would be content for God to bring, so long as we are part of the “some.”

But in Titus’ vision, salvation is a “free gift” for all, but it is also a gift that carries with it expectations, or at least some implications.

The gift of God’s grace appearing does something to us, it evokes something in us.

This is not a gift that we look at and say, “how nice” and then put to the side to see what else may be waiting under the tree for us to unwrap.

This is a gift that trains us, Titus says.

This is a gift that purifies us, redeems us, and one that is meant to make us into a people who become “zealous for good deeds.”

In short, this is a gift that is meant to change us.

I think that is both our longing on this night, and our great fear.

Part of us wants to be changed.

Part of us wants the world to be changed this night.

We want to be made better somehow, stronger, more compassionate, more zealous to do what is good and right.

That’s why we tell the Christmas stories of “lives being transformed” or hearts “growing three sizes.”

In each Christmas story told we feel the joy and warmth of lives transformed, and we long for such a thing to happen to us.

We want it at least to happen for others.  We can make a whole list of people we’d like to see changed.  A whole list of candidates who could use a little more “Christmas” in their hearts.  Individuals whom we hope desperately will be touched by the Grace of God and transformed before our very eyes.

And I think down deep, we want such a transformation for ourselves as well.

“Make me as light as old Scrooge after his visitations.”

“Give to me the childlike faith of a Linus who tells the Christmas story with earnest intent.”

What we are not so keen about is what living a transformed life will mean, but that is what Titus drives us toward.

The Grace of God appears… and it trains us to renounce some things.  Impiety, worldly passions.

The Grace of God appears, bringing salvation to all, and because it is given to all, we must treat others as if they have received such a gift –for they have!

And this, this is the hard part of Christmas, living into the gift we have received.

You have seen this, perhaps done it from time to time.  You open a gift with eager anticipation, excited for what may lie beneath the colored paper, and once open……

You muster a polite smile.

You make a general comment, and on you move….let’s see what else there is.

What you got was perhaps not what you expected, or maybe it is something that you have no intention of ever using.

Still, it was given to you.

This is the moment that Titus speaks to.  What will you do with the gift freely given to you?

Will you let it train you?

Will you let it change you, purify you, make of you a people who are God’s?

I have never preached on Titus on Christmas eve, but maybe this year it just seemed that it was time to.

Maybe this coming year will be one in which we will all have to pay a little more attention to the gift we have received from God of our salvation.

Maybe this will be the year when we will need to be made acutely aware of the impiety that will have to be renounced, and the worldly passions and pursuits that will need to be put in check.

Maybe this will be the year when the present age requires us to live lives that are more self-controlled, more upright and godly because the manifestation of Jesus is all the more needed to push back the gathering darkness.

This might be the year of God purifying us to be his own people, ready to shine our lights.

We are eager to write ourselves into the story of the people who walked in darkness seeing a great light.

We are ready to picture ourselves in the manger scene with lowing cattle and quiet babe.

May we be ready this year to also picture ourselves as Titus does, a part of those who have been redeemed by Jesus for good deeds, purified and made ready now for the age in which we live.

“A Well Ordered Life” Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph is a sensible man.

Confronted with what will surely be a scandalous situation, a bride to be who turns up pregnant, he carefully considers his options.

It would be best to simply divorce her quietly, he concludes.  This will spare her the public humiliation, and himself the legal questions of responsibility.  Divorce her quietly and avoid the wagging tongues of the neighbors.  Let her go.  End the family contract, find another arrangement.  Yes, this is the sensible course of action.

Who would argue with him?  Would You or I?  This is one of those stories in the bible with which we can completely identify.   We can imagine ourselves having this very same kind of conversation over a cup of coffee with a friend or a relative precisely because we have had this conversation!   Oh, maybe not with our own situation, but with a brother, or a sister, or a co-worker or someone we know.

We have had a conversation with a person in obvious of pain over apparent infidelity, or the feeling the betrayal of their relationship.

“My fiancé is pregnant, and the baby isn’t mine.  I don’t know who the father is.”

If this were our friend or child sitting across from us in the coffee shop, at the kitchen table, asking us what we think he should do, would we advise any differently?

Yes, best to just let her go.   We want the best for that person, the one right in front of us, and in our fog of care for them we are quick sometimes to dismiss the pain or situation of the apparent betrayer.

Who would dispute with Joseph the logic, the sensibility of his decision?

And yet, there is someone who will dispute with Joseph.

God has other plans, a better idea.  God sends an angel, a messenger to Joseph in a dream.  “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid…” the angel says.

It turns out that God does that quite a bit in this story of Jesus coming, sends messengers to say, “Do not be afraid.”

Such a messenger comes to Mary, to announce the events, and his first words to her are “Do not be afraid.”

God sends such messengers again, to lowly shepherds in the field on the night of the birth, and their first words are, “Fear not, for I bring you tidings of great joy.”

So, a good question to ask might be, “What is there about this story; about the coming of Jesus that causes fear?”

In Mary’s case, that’s pretty easy to understand.  She’s a young girl about to become pregnant.  There is a lot to be afraid of in all of that!

The Shepherds too, we can understand, being startled out of half sleep by lights in the sky and multitudes of angels flying around and shouting praises to God.  That would get your attention and cause your heart to pound a bit.

But what does Joseph have to be afraid of?

What Joseph fears, is really what we all fear when it comes to Jesus; he fears a radical change in his life.

He fears how he will be viewed by those around him, what others think of him, and how he will have to live now with a pregnant betrothed.

Like it or not, this unexpected, inexplicable child will bring major upheaval into Joseph’s life.

This is not the way Joseph thought things were going to be as he and Mary started out their life together.

He did not plan on having to endure the questions and ridicule of others.

He did not plan on the financial strains of having to provide for another mouth to feed right away.

He certainly did not plan on having to spend his honeymoon changing the diapers of someone else’s child!

Joseph did not plan for all the demands that the arrival of this child would force upon him, as you know the arrival of all children do!

This is what puts fear into Joseph.  He’s afraid of what the arrival of this child will do to his well ordered and sensible life.

And this, this is where Joseph’s fear and our fear come together.  For you see, we’re afraid of the same thing!

We’re afraid that this child, born of Mary and the Holy Spirit, will force changes on our well-ordered and sensible lives.

We do not always plan for all the inconveniences that this Christ Child will impose on us.

He surely cramps our lifestyle as he reminds us, from his manger, of the plight of the poor and the homeless in this world.

You cannot look at the Manger on Christmas eve and not at least for a moment bring to mind the picture of that child in the ambulance in Aleppo.   I wonder where he is this Christmas?   Is there a place for him to lay his head?  Did someone respond to the call of Jesus of “as you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me?”

We will all agree that it is terrible that some people have to live on the streets, or depend upon food pantries and social safety nets, but to work to change that?  That is way too hard and runs against our well-ordered life of not interfering with market forces or setting minimum wages too high as to stall the economy.

We also know that when Jesus comes, he spends an awful lot of time with the poor and the homeless and the outcasts.

We know that when his disciples tell him to send those folks away, let them find their own food, he fires back, “you feed them.”  And we surely know that as his followers, that is indeed the command given to us, for his great command was that we were to “love one another.”

And don’t even get me started on the command to forgive.  That’s the one I want most to divorce myself from, for I love holding my grudges.   It serves me well to put away those who annoy me, or with whom I don’t agree, or who see the world differently from me.   Yes, best to just avoid them, put them away.

In all these we find ourselves considering ways to quietly divorce ourselves from that command of Jesus to love, or to work for improving the lot of our neighbor.

We try to let ourselves off the hook by making comments about people’s laziness, or their offenses to us, rather than examining the privilege we have been the recipients of, or the things we may have done to incur the breech or contribute to it.

We decry their ability to “work the system” all the while never examining how we have benefited from systems ourselves that out of their reach.

What we are really doing is politely trying to find ways to divorce ourselves from that complications that Jesus will bring for us, and there we are, right there with Joseph.   We are just like Joseph, who is looking at all the messiness that Jesus’ coming into his life will bring, and in a very sensible way trying to avoid it.

Now we’re not alone.

The people of Bethlehem didn’t much want Jesus messing up their lives either.  That is how he ends up in a stable.   No room in the Inn.

No room in the hearts of those who did not want their lives complicated by this pregnant woman during the Census.

It is, in the end, mostly fear that stands in the way of us accepting Jesus.  Fear for ourselves, fear of what people will think of us.  Fear of how much Jesus will ask of us once we start doing what he commands us to do, to love one another.

Where does it all end once you start with a command like that?

Fear, of how this little babe will change our lives if we let him in.

We all need, therefore, Joseph’s dream.

We all need some reassurance, some messenger to tell us that even though Jesus is going to complicate our lives, it will be worth it, because through all those complications, God will be working to bring in his Kingdom.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel tells Joseph, for yes, this child will change you.  He will transform you, and complicate your life.

He is sent to save his people, and God intends that you will have a part in that!

You are to name him.

You are to claim him as your own, and in so doing you will be a part of fulfilling the promise made to your ancestor, to David.  Through you all people will come to know what it is to have Emmanuel, God with us.

Our fear, is Joseph’s fear.  And so, that means that the Angel’s words to him, are also God’s message to us.

Do not be afraid.

Do not divorce yourself quietly from God coming into your life, for if you do, you will have missed your opportunity to be a part of God’s work of fulfilling the promises made of old.

Yes, Jesus will complicate your life.

Yes, he will change your senses and your sensibilities.

And Yes, Jesus will often ask you to do some things that you would not choose to do on your own, and getting involved in the Kingdom will mess with your well-ordered life.

But do not be afraid to receive him, for in doing so you receive God.

You are the one to whom God chooses to send the child.

You are the one chosen to cradle the babe in your heart.

You are the one chosen to change the world, to bring near the Kingdom, to help the world see Emmanuel, that God is indeed with us.

“Shoots and Axes” Isaiah 11, Matthew 3

A favorite childhood board game is “chutes and Ladders.”   It’s a game simple enough for the very young.   Roll the dice, advance the playing piece.  If you land on a ladder, you immediately move up to the top.   Slow progress is made toward the finish, but the folks who hit the ladders can really leap ahead.

But if you land on the Chute?    Ah, it is a slippery slide that takes you back to where you started or worse.

It is a game of contrasts.

Players would sense elation at the prospect of progressing up the ladder, taunting their fellow players when they got the chance to leap ahead.

Frustration would come out at hitting a chute and having to go back.

Sorrow comes at seeing how far behind you could get, with little hope of ever getting back in the game except by the misfortune of your opponent, so you would root for them to hit a slide and fail.

The lessons for the second Sunday of Advent is a little like that, only here in the bible we are playing “Shoots and Axes.”

We hear Isaiah give us a vision of new growth, restoration, a “reaching up to the sky” kind of promise.   “A shoot shall come forth from the stump of Jesse…”

What was once thought long dead and gone now shows signs of life.

Visions are given of a peaceable kingdom where old foes are able to live together, not compete or taunt.

We long for such a day, and wonder why it is delayed?  Why does God not usher in this vision?

We have waited since the days of Isaiah.

We wait still.

John the Baptist comes swinging the Ax.  “Already the ax is laid to the root of the trees….”

If Isaiah gave us visions of reaching to the sky, John gives us visions of how such growth is achieved.

Here is the hard truth.  New visions can come only when old ones are cut away.   The Kingdom of Heaven comes via repentance of what we have built for ourselves, or with the clearing away of what “used to be.”    It comes when you no longer appeal to the privilege of who you are based on ancestry or privilege.  It comes by not going back, much as it may still be longed for.

The one who brings in the new has some winnowing to do, and some pruning.

The way must be prepared, and the worthless disposed of in the unquenchable fire.

So, this is the game that we find ourselves caught up in.  This game of life is one of trying to figure out what exactly our time is, and what must be done?

Is this a time of Shoots, or a time of Axes?

Are we making easy progress toward a desired future?  Is what we see now new growth from cut off promises?

Or, are we living in a time of pruning and cutting back when the ax will fall upon perhaps many of our hopes, and there will be much sorting and winnowing before the Kingdom comes?

How do we play this game God?  This game of life that seems to be filled with ups and downs; hard progress that is won at great cost by some, while for others life seem to be an easy rush toward their desired goal?

This game of waiting and watching for your return, how do we play it well?

So much of life seems to be just a dice roll these days.

Sometimes it feels like we are just one dice roll away from disaster.

First of all, it might be good to note that the game has not changed much through the centuries.

Isaiah’s longings are still our longings.

We still long for a leader who will have a spirit of wisdom and knowledge.

We (as Isaiah did so long ago) still look for one who “will not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear, but with righteousness…”

We long to be known for our whole selves, not just our outward appearances, or the sum of our mistakes, or the glitter of the façade we can erect or project.

Oh, to have leader who sees the heart and knows the intent, and can cut through the clutter to bring justice for the poor and the oppressed!

We (as John did long ago) are still looking for someone who will bring near that promised Kingdom.  We long for one who will come to winnow in the best of ways.   We would like someone to sort out and get rid of the worthless that passes for the way things “simply are” or “have always been” in our world so that a new “Kingdom” that  has been promised by God can emerge.

So, not much about the game of life has changed in the way of our hopes and longings.

The game of life may seem more complicated now, or so we are led to think.

We may have different pressures, different complications than those who watched and waited so long ago, but curiously we still seem to have the same players.

The meek and the poor, still have no power and no chance to achieve on their own.   The ladder is blocked to them at every turn.

The powerful and those who exploit still seem to flourish. They seem to always land on the coveted “ladder square” as the rules of this world favor their dice rolls.  They gain and rise in the eyes of this world paying little or no regard to those who slip and fall, often laughing cruelly as if they were like children delighting in the downfall of their playground friends.

No, the players really haven’t changed, not from Isaiah or John’s time up to now.

So what has changed?   Are we doomed to play the same silly game over and over for as long as humans persist?

No!

This is what Isaiah is confident about, why the prophecy is spoken out loud and written down.  The day is coming, promised by God, and it’s not like the way we might work it out.

See, you and I, we get so frustrated at the game of life that what we want to do is role reversal.  That’s really all that we can think of to do.

We want to see the poor and the meek come out on top for a change.

We’d like to see the rich and powerful brought down and watch them slide back behind us for a change.

No, if I were to proclaim the proper end to the “Shoots and Axes” game, I’d have the lambs enjoying some Lion B-B-Q, maybe a little wolf stew, while the cows reclined on bear skin rugs contentedly chewing their cud.

Oh, and that little child would be whomping the ground with the snake, using it like a whip in the same way that big cave woman in the cartoon “B.C.” does.

I’d want to see the folks who get the chutes in life all the time leapfrogging over the ladder folks and dishing out some appropriate retributive justice against them!

But that’s not Isaiah’s vision.

No, the one who wears the belt of righteousness gets to do the striking if it’s needed, but the former predators?   They are redeemed!  Now we live together, not in competition!

And John’s vision?   Oh, he can get plenty upset in the here and now with those who come out hoping to get in on the goods. Like the good “ladder climbers” they are, expecting to find favor because of their ancestry.

John has sharps words for the Pharisees and Sadducees, but he’s only John, and he’s only pointing the way, preparing the way for the one who is to come who will truly sort and winnow, and it’s a darn good thing it’s not up to John because he’d do a lot more burning than gathering I’m sure.

But the one is coming who will gather the wheat.

The One who is coming who will look for the fruit that you bear.

The One is coming who will sort things out, and this one whom we meet in Jesus turns out to be pretty good at that sorting thing!   He sees things that we would miss.

We find out that he’s even better at the gathering thing.  He welcomes and makes disciples of the most unlikely candidates.   He makes them of Tax collectors, fishermen, women who become able to teach and minister, those of scurious and curiosity backgrounds…Jesus sees something of value, something fruitful in them all.  He gathers them all at the table together.

Tables in their homes.

Tables in the homes of those who question him.

Eventually at the table where he offers himself as True Bread and True Wine, giving himself body and blood and all to those in whom he finds value.

This is not a feast of vindictive triumph at winning the game and reveling in the spoils.

This is truly a feast where we taste what it will be like when old opponents are brought together, when hatchets are buried instead of swung at one another, and where old rivalries are brought to an end.

Jesus, you see, ends up being the game changer.

He always has been.

He always will be.

And it is Jesus who we wait and watch for in these days of Advent.

We remember his first coming, and how he lived and taught and showed us how to follow and to live, and we strive to follow in his way.

But we also look for his promised return, not to make people pay for their sins, but to forgive them once again.

His return, not to turn the tables, but to set one in our midst where all will be welcome and all will be satisfied, and all will find a peaceable place together with him.

This is the promise of Advent.

This is what Isaiah, and John, and really we all longing for.

A savior who will sort and winnow, yes… but who sees the fruitfulness in us as well, and who helps us see that in one another.

Shoots and axes, that’s the game of Advent, and it has much less to do with who wins, than how we play this game of life in the time that is given to us.

Does the world still set the rules and dictate how we play?

Or in Advent do we dare to do and to dream with Isaiah and John, and follow the game changer?