Sunday, December 23, 2018

Phil Kniss: Love and revolution

Advent 4: “LOVE: Blessing and restoration”
Luke 1:39-45

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Fourth Sunday of Advent—Love Sunday.
Wait! Isn’t every Sunday Love Sunday?
I think we rarely, if ever,
get through any Sunday worship service,
without specifically naming and appreciating, the love of God.
As it should be.

Love is central to who God is…
Love is one word, and I think the only word,
that scriptures actually say defines God.

Yes, there are many different adjectives that describe God in scripture.
The Lord is righteous, is just, is compassionate,
is merciful, is patient, etc.
And there are many different titles attributed to God.
The Lord is the Creator, the Ruler, the Judge,
the Provider, and lots more.
But if I’m not mistaken, correct me if I’m wrong,
Love is the only noun, the only concept by which God is defined.
It says it in exactly those words, multiple times.
Not just God is loving. That’s a description.
Not just God is a lover. That’s a title.
But God is love. That a definition.

So if love is so essential to understanding who God is,
and we talk about the love of God every time we worship,
then in a way, it’s a little odd
that we designate one Sunday out of four,
in this one season out of many,
as a Sunday to think about love.

So don’t expect me, in this sermon,
to say something entirely new or novel about love.
But I do hope to challenge us anew,
to help us think more deeply, more clearly,
and maybe from a fresh angle,
about the love of God, as demonstrated in Jesus Christ.

One other preliminary observation . . .
We didn’t really set out to do this as we planned our Advent series,
but every Sunday in Advent, in every sermon,
we have lifted up the word for the week—
hope, peace, joy, and now love—
and made a direct connection between that word, and justice.
Justice is like a thread that has wound its way through this series.

On Hope Sunday,
I said how Jeremiah, and Jesus, and the mad farmer Wendell Berry
all saw, against all evidence to the contrary,
that the God of justice was coming to set things right again.

On Peace Sunday,
we examined Isaiah’s vision of the mountains being brought down,
and the valleys raised, so that the God of Justice
could come in without hindrance, and set things right.
And we heard justice in the preaching of John the Baptist,
and the song of Zechariah.

Then last week, on Joy Sunday, Moriah perhaps most explicitly
named the relationship of joy to justice.
Even her sermon title, Just Joy, made that clear connection,
and called us to do the same,
with our actions as well as words.

Well, today I want us to understand how the love of God,
is an expression of God’s promise
to turn our world order upside down and bring about justice.

And much of it comes down to Mary’s song of revolution—
a song we like to soften by giving it a lofty Latin name,
the Magnificat.
I guess it helps us keep our mind off
the disturbing, revolutionary aspect of this song,
and focus on sweet Mary magnifying the Lord,
with her humble words of praise and adoration.

But the Magnificat is anything but a sweet song.
It ought to elicit strong reactions, from everyone,
like any call to revolution would.

The Magnificat is a prediction
that the entire social order as we know it will be undone.
Will be turned on its head.

It is more than strange, don’t you think, that this song
has been written into the greatest musical compositions,
and sung in the world’s largest cathedrals,
and performed by the world’s most elite choirs,
and in the audience, applauding loudly,
have been members of royalty, the military elite,
and giants of global wealth and industry?
I guess they just don’t pay attention to the words.
The song is all about God humiliating the rich and powerful,
tearing them down from their thrones,
and sending them away empty-handed.
And putting the poor and lowly in their place instead.

This song has been set to music
by Bach, Bruckner, Vivaldi, Rachmaninoff,
and is performed frequently during the holiday season.
And, every time an Anglican or Episcopal church
holds an Evensong service,
this song about social and economic revolution is reverently sung.
Every time.
Every high-church evening vespers—Catholic, Lutheran, and more—
incorporates Mary’s song in the prescribed liturgy:
“My soul magnifies the Lord . . .
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”

How many sitting U.S. presidents,
or pompous politicians or greedy Wall Street barons,
have gone to an evening service in any high church,
and were so oblivious they weren’t even offended?
The irony in that is almost beyond belief.

This song describes a world that doesn’t yet exist,
and would never exist,
if those in power, had any say in the matter.

So what does it have to do with love?
What’s love got to do with it?

It’s not hard to find love in this song . . . if you are Mary,
or if you can put yourself in Mary’s shoes.

Mary, the unwed teenager, engaged to a carpenter,
is called to be the host for God,
and is now, obviously . . . and scandalously . . . pregnant.
Mary had always lived under the radar in her quiet hometown.
An unremarkable person,
with no wealth or power or legal standing,
in a small town,
in a little country,
under military occupation.

And here they are in Bethlehem,
sneaking around hoping for an out-of-the-way place
to deliver a baby, where it wouldn’t draw attention,
and add to the scandal.

I guess you realize the Bible never mentions an innkeeper.
We don’t know that they were sent out back to the barn.
That part is only legend.
The Bible doesn’t even say all the inns were full.
It only says, and I quote, “there was no place for them in the inn.”
That phrase could also be read to mean,
“the inn was no place for them.”
Sure, maybe all the rooms were booked.
But maybe an unmarried couple about to have a baby in public
knew that a bustling inn was “no place”
for them to quietly do what they had to do.
Maybe they never even knocked on any doors.
Maybe, on their own accord,
they were scouting around for any safe and quiet place.
A livestock barn would have been perfect.

The fact that Joseph even brought Mary along, says a lot.
Joseph had to pay the tax, not Mary.
He didn’t have to put her at this kind of risk.
But leaving her home alone in Nazareth was not safe, either—
living in shame and social isolation, about to give birth.

Not safe at home, not safe on the move.
If you want to get close to the real human experience here,
forget every picturesque manger scene
you’ve ever laid your eyes on.
Nostalgia is well and good.
But those pictures are entirely made up,
by people who don’t want an uncomfortable Christmas story.

Picture instead,
one of many hundreds of families at our southern border—
the families Moriah was talking about last Sunday.
Picture a family at the mercy of total strangers,
on the move because they have no better, safer, choice,
picture them huddled in a makeshift tent,
hoping someone might have the heart not to judge them,
but provide them food and shelter instead.

I assure you.
That picture is factually, much closer to the real Nativity of Jesus,
than any Christmas card image you have ever seen.

No wonder Mary could sing such a song of revolution.
She was living life on the underside of the social structure,
the most vulnerable side.

So of course, that song sounds like love, to her.
A loving God sees her plight,
and the plight of her people,
and shows tender mercy to them—
provides for their needs,
removes the oppressor from them,
and fills their empty stomachs.
What a beautiful expression of God’s love!

But what about us, and I mean most of us,
who live on the upper side of our social structure,
who don’t have to worry very much about safe shelter,
or where the next meal is coming from,
or when the next person will take cruel advantage of us,
exploiting our labor,
exploiting our bodies,
robbing us of our dignity.

What about us,
the ones with power, privilege, prestige, and protection?
Does God love the rich and powerful?

Well, if we believe scripture, that God . . . is . . . love,
then God’s actions cannot be a denial of God’s character.
So all of what God does must be motivated
by God’s core defining nature—that of love.

So clearly, God loves all people, including the rich and powerful.
Sometimes we are tempted to take a story like this,
and use it to vilify the rich and glorify the poor.
That’s not what’s happening here in this story.

God is not acting out a cruel vendetta,
God is not executing punishment for the sake of humiliating anyone.
God is setting things right again.
God sees where things went wrong,
and is upsetting the structure,
so as to save and restore ALL the people.

God affirms wealth, and its capacity to do good.
That is why God has such compassion on those without wealth.
God appreciates power, and its ability to enact God’s will.
That is why God feels so tender toward those
who have power taken from them.
God is on the side of joy and beauty and abundance and freedom.
Which is why God loves the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden,
and seeks to show them the kind of life they deserve.

God does not ruthlessly seek revenge against the wealthy and powerful,
just for the sake of vengeance.
God is setting them free of the very thing that has enslaved them,
and made their lives less than
the good whole life God created them for.
The rich and powerful are also, in a real way, imprisoned.
They are captive by their own making.
They are shackled by the very injustices
they have foisted on others,
those injustices have kept the powerful from living fully.
They have lost the joy-filled, beautiful, and abundant life
God created them for.
In oppressing others,
they have oppressed themselves, without realizing it.

God is about setting everyone free.
When those with the capacity to do good,
don’t do it,
they find themselves enslaved by their own greed and anxieties,
and they fail to live out God’s purposes.
So God upsets the order of things,
and turns to those
who still have a chance of seeing a better way.

God allows
the strong to be upstaged by the weak,
the big to be shamed by the small,
the high and mighty to get lost in the shadows
of those who formerly were invisible.

I can’t think of a more poignant present-day example, again,
than our southern border.
How is it that one of the
richest and most powerful countries in the world,
would feel so threatened and anxious and angry,
that we feel it necessary to send 6,000 armed military troops,
to meet a caravan of 1,000 Central Americans
living in abject poverty,
fleeing violence in their home country,
carrying little more than the clothes on their back?

We have made ourselves captive by our own wealth and power.
We also need liberation.
A different kind, but liberation nonetheless.
We need to be freed from our anxious, fearful,
half-way kind of living,
and be freed, by love,
to open ourselves to the full life God made us for,
a life of self-emptying, generosity, hospitality.

Sadly, the number of times these days,
that the powerful have this kind of epiphany,
and voluntarily free themselves from this anxiety,
and choose love and vulnerability—
those times are few and far between.

Occasionally, this kind of love gets exhibited.
And we can point to it as a sign of God at work,
to enact restoration and salvation,
showing love for all God’s creation,
from the least to the greatest.
But more often, it’s those on the underside
that can see and name what’s really going on.
And when those persons speak,
it would be wise for the rest of us to listen.
Again and again in scripture,
the small ones shame the great ones.

This is the dynamic at work in our hymn of response,
if you’ll turn to your bulletin,
It highlights Mary and the Magnificat,
but also names other women without power and standing,
who spoke necessary truth to the powerful.

“With Mary sing Magnificat, with Miriam dance in praise,
with prophet Anna, speak a word of faith . . .”
Then it names Rizpah, a woman who suffered horrors in 2 Samuel,
and the Hebrew midwives who stood up to Pharaoh.

And I love the third verse
that invites us all into the song of love and justice—

With confidence we may proclaim Love’s liberating power,
bear witness to the saving Grace still with us every hour,
and sing with thanks, delight, and praise a new yet ancient song,
together sing Magnificat with voices clear and strong.

Let’s sing this together, in voices clear and strong.

—Phil Kniss, December 23, 2018

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Sunday, December 16, 2018

Moriah Hurst: Just Joy?

“JOY: Rejoicing in God’s justice”

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

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Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice.

The third Sunday of Advent, Joy! We get to light the pink candle, sing

cheerful songs of rejoicing and think of what is bright and light. I approached this weeks texts thinking of joy. What brings you joy, what delights you? Fluffy kittens and gurgling babies. Oh how the lectionary likes to surprise us with curve balls. I read the first few texts and heard “sing praise”, rejoicing, “sing aloud and shout for joy, rejoice always and don’t worry.

And then I read Luke. This text picks up right where we left off last week and it hit me, oao! Judgment. If you don’t bear fruit you will be cut down, the chaff will be burned. Wait a minute, this is joy Sunday, we must be confused! But there it is at the end of the Luke text, people filled with expectation as they hear the Good News. So this week we delve into Joy and judgment to see what is being offered here. Is John speaking only judgment and are these other passages just joy?

Some of you may hear these texts, and music pops into your heads of songs you have learned with the words from today’s lectionary. It happens a lot this time of year with familiar text and for anyone who knows the Messiah we can hardly stop ourselves from singing along. When I hear this passage of John’s preaching captured in Luke’s gospel, I am taken back to the Cotton Patch Gospel “You sons of snakes! Tell me, who put the heat under you to run from the fury about to bust over your heads? You got to reshape your lives, because God’s new order of the Spirit is confronting you.”

As a child I watched this retelling of the Gospel set in the south, down in 1
Georgia and this cassette would run again and again until I had much of it memorized. We don’t get much of that kind of preaching here, but maybe we need to sit up and pay attention to this text.

John is laying down some condemnation here and people were flocking to hear him. Normally when someone is condemning me or criticizing my way of life I want to turn around and run away. But these folks wanted to be baptized by John. So he stands by the Jordan River proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John doesn’t want to just symbolically wash people, he wants to see transformation in their hearts, lives and actions. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” John calls out. Then he goes on, adapted for our Mennonite ears, You can’t just get in on the coat tails of your grandparents and your heritage – you can’t say my Grandfather was a CO and my parents did MCC. God could make Mennonites of the rocks sitting around us in the parking lot. John doesn’t mince his words at all. Any tree not bearing good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire, as the Cotton Patch Gospel puts it, a chainsaw is set at the trunk of the tree.

We may ask like the crowds gathered around John, What action is he calling for, “what should we do?” And we get the straightforward reply – whoever has two coats, share one with someone who doesn’t have one. Whoever has food share it with people who don’t have any. Oh no, I have 4 coats and a whole closet worth of clothing. I have a pantry full of canned and dried goods and a well- stocked fridge. I can almost hear the chainsaw revving its motor at my roots. Is this literal, do we take it that way?

If we look at the larger books of Isaiah and Zephaniah around the text we read today there is a lot of condemnation and judgment. John is in line with these prophets and their words. But the texts today are a small reprieve from all the judgment, they are the happy bits.

In all of these prophetic words, Where is this joy coming from? “The Lord has taken away the judgment against you” “God is in your midst and will renew you with love”

“I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise”

“Surely, God is my salvation”

God, is saving! There it is – the reason for the joy. God’s divine compassion winning over God’s divine judgment. An author I read this week told of a “fascinating exchange recorded in the Talmud – a collection of writings that covers Jewish law and tradition. A question is raised as to whether God prays. “What does God pray?” According to (Rav (Abba Arika) in the portion of) the Talmud (called "Berakhot,)" the Lord prays, “May my mercy overcome my wrath!” (b. Berakhot 7a). In other words, God prays that divine desire for compassion be greater than divine demand for justice.”
( ) 

God is not just saving us...this salvation is for the outcast and down
trodden, the fringe dwellers and those who have been silenced with their power striped.

Last week as I reflected on peace with the MYF we talked some about the idea of Shalom wholeness peace. Part of what strikes me about Shalom is that if this is true wholeness, I can’t have wholeness if you don’t.

I can’t be at peace unless you are also at peace. I wonder if this pairing of texts is inviting us to make that same connection with joy. Can I truly have joy while another suffers?

Let me tell you a few of the spaces I’ve encountered joy in my life recently. What has brought me Joy – someone willing to work on organizing more

small groups here at church. This is something that I know we need and have needed for a while but didn’t know who had the time or energy to do it. And someone volunteered – Joy!

Joy number 2: Middle schoolers at Kids Club arriving early and staying late to help set up and clean up. I thought we would loose this group of kids once middle school rolled around but they still keep coming. We decided to get them to help and have made them Jr leaders. We got t-shirts for them, similar to the ones that the adults leaders wear. When they were given their shirts they proudly put them on and then said “ok if I’m a leader, how can I help?” My heart did a joyful leap.

Joy story three: Sitting at the Christmas parade with some of my little people yelling Merry Christmas and affirmations to every passer by. One parade participant told us that we were the most joyful group in the crowd.

Why did these things bring me joy? They were an answer to prayer for something we need. It was seeing love and community grow and young people drawn to something that is life giving, something they are willing to work for. And being together – my middle school nieces not caring as much about what others think (we were in the middle of many of their school friends) but enjoying the rush of the moment, giving way to joy.

So much of this joy is around the community of God’s people – gathering, loving each other, being together. My joy is not really about me. Where are your joy moments and why were they joyful?

In these texts we hear of rejoicing because of God’s salvation. Yet the Luke text reminds us that it is not only what we are saved from but what we are saved for.

When we hear calls to give away our second or third coat or to share our food with the hungry we don’t often picture God’s salvation or feel bursts of joy. I end up feeling guilty, like I haven’t done enough. For those of us with power and monetary privilege this stuff can hit pretty hard. But I don’t think John’s intention was to change us into puddles of guilt. Guilt shuts us down as we collapse in on ourselves.

If we look and listen again to these texts there is another theme that runs throughout, one that should be familiar to your Advent ears. “I will trust, and will not be afraid.” From Isaiah “Do not fear” from Zephaniah. “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything” in Philippians. This message that the angels often bring to announce God’s presence – Do not be afraid!

Those hearing these words for the first time had good reasons to be afraid. There were political power plays, religious shifts, clashes between cultural groups. Sounds kind of familiar to the litany of fears we rehears today.

Again we ask – what do we do? And we hear the reply. We are able to rejoice because, God has taken away the judgment against you, removed disaster and reproach. This comes alongside God’s judgment and is part of our Advent hope. Because God doesn’t leave us in our fear and guilt. A path of repentance and forgiveness is stretched out before us.

“When repentance and forgiveness are available, judgement is good news. The primary aim is to save the wheat, not to burn the chaff.” 

(Interpretation – Luke, page 49)

We are here in Advent making our hearts ready. I think of John as a stellar 5
fireworks display and then he says, that was nothing wait for what is coming next! We are longing for the change and shake up that Jesus will bring. We are called to immediate action but also to the long view of God’s slow work of restorative justice. Zephaniah says “do not let your hands grow weak”, we still have much work to do.

John reminds us that baptism doesn’t save us but is a sign of our repentance and commitment to lead a changed life. Isaiah echoes this idea “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord”

Yet I’m left asking: Is this changing us enough? Are there too many problems out there that seem far away and not our problem? This past week a friend of mine visited those from the migrant caravan who are waiting for processing in Tijuana. When I told her that I’d like to hear about the trip she replied “I'm glad to talk about the trip. They need some fierce clergy there ;-) And I would be glad to serve as your interpreter, if needed!”

This reminded me of stories I’ve heard from South Africa in the time of apartheid, where churches started committing part of their church budgets to getting pastors out of jail when they would get arrested for protesting and standing up for justice for the least of these,

I wonder what this church would do if I was arrest in similar circumstances? Are we willing to do bold and simple acts of giving coats away and sharing food? Do we need to hear more the words directed at the tax collectors and soldiers – don’t exploit your power, don’t use the poor for your economic gain.

We need to reshape our lives, so that God’s new order of the spirit can confront us.

Can we have the hope to not respond with fear but to seek the joy for all? I pray that God will come and take us – move and shake us. But more than anything I believe that God can make us anew – showing us the paths of Kingdom living, divine compassion and joy. Amen, let it be so! 

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Sunday, December 9, 2018

Phil Kniss: The low road to high ground

(Advent 2) “PEACE: Proclaiming”
Luke 1:68-79, 3:1-6

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In this season of the year, everyone wishes for peace.
It may feel like this year, given all that’s going on in our world,
it’s an especially ripe year to wish for peace
But this year’s peace-wish is not unique.
It’s this way every year.
Advent and Christmas is a season that awakens our longing for peace.

Maybe it’s the songs we sing.
So many of them express this longing
for a world put right, and at peace.
Just look at the hymns and songs being sung today—
the Advent hymns we’re singing,
and the Christmas songs brought to us so beautifully
by the Clymer-Kurtz band.

Maybe our peace-wish is awakened because
everyone is oozing with holiday nostalgia,
longing for a day of peace like the days gone by,
when life was simple and beautiful,
candle-lit and snow-covered,
when Christmas was a time for slowing down,
reading a book by the fireplace,
breathing in the smells of cookies baking,
and ambling through the village streets
caroling to your happy neighbors.
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year . . .
it’s the hap-happiest season of all.”

In all likelihood, it was never like that at all,
but Christmas is a time when these images and dreams abound,
when everyone longs for a world at peace,
for enough of what everyone really needs,
for neighbors and families that actually, consistently,
get along with each other,
and value each other’s differences and eccentricities.

But, seasonal nostalgia aside,
there are deeper, and more theologically rich reasons,
why people like us should think about peace right now, 
and long for peace.

It’s the Biblical image of the “Promised One”—the Messiah—
the one that would reveal God’s real presence, 
Immanuel, God with us.
The promise of the real presence of God among us
makes us able to see peace as a real possibility,
and not just a wish-dream.
If deep peace in the world seems hopeless most of the time,
here is one time of year Christians specifically talk about
a pathway that might actually get us there.

But the thing about wishing and praying for peace,
is that it often stops at the wish,
and rarely goes much further and deeper.
So few of us are willing to make the sacrifices necessary,
to actually change the dynamics of the conflict.

I think about the famous Christmas Truce
a little over 100 years ago,
during World War I on the Western Front in France,
where British and German soldiers
were fighting each other from the trenches.
On Christmas of 1914, early in the war, there were dozens
of these informal, soldier-initiated 1-day truces
scattered all along that 300-mile front,
where British and German soldiers got out of the trenches,
met in the middle and fraternized,
told stories, sang carols, traded souvenirs and cigarettes,
and in one location, at least, they played a game of soccer,
until Christmas ended, and they went back to war.

Folk singer John McCutcheon wrote a great song about that truce.
He sang it here at Court Square Theater a few weeks ago.
It’s one of my all-time favorite ballads of his,
telling this true story in detail,
about how these soldiers saw the humanity in their enemy,
and were changed forever.

And I imagine that part is true,
that they were changed forever, in some way.
But the harder part of that story is not in the song.
It’s the fact that this peace did not last.
The next Christmas, 1915, there were only a few
of these 1-day truces that popped up along the same battle line.
The authorities had come down hard on them the year before,
and ordered them not to happen again.
And by Christmas of 1916, with the war still raging,
there were no truces on the Western Front.
The bitterness between these enemies became even deeper,
especially after poison gas was introduced to the conflict.

The Western Front was one of the longest and deadliest
in human war-making history.
By the time it ended four million soldiers were dead.
Plus, almost one million civilians.
It was an unprecedented loss of life
that left Germany bankrupt and in semi-starvation,
cut off from the rest of the world,
and led eventually to the rise of Hitler and Naziism.

This, despite the inspiring and touching Christmas Truce of 1914.
Peace takes more than wishing,
and more than a feel-good story about our shared humanity.

So . . . where can we find the path to peace?
Are we doomed to keep repeating the mistakes of the past?
Are we forever going to be at each other’s throats?
as a human race? and as a nation?
Where is the path to lasting reconciliation and peace and shalom
between racial and ethnic groups? between neighbors?
at our country’s borders? in our political institutions?
in the church? in our marriages? in our family relationships?

I certainly cannot spell out for us the answers to those questions.
They are in many ways, unanswerable, for now.

But I think there is something to say
about the path to peace and shalom.
I think there is a road to the high ground, so to speak,
where we can find the fulfillment of our greatest aspirations.
But the road does not follow the path you might expect.
There is a road, but it’s not a shortcut.

And to look at it, we’d say it’s not a very appealing road.
It doesn’t draw us in, like the Blue Ridge Parkway,
with its lofty beauty and charm.
It’s more like a pothole-filled, gravelly, and dusty road,
that takes us off the beaten track.

If that’s the road to peace,
we could say—it’s a low road to high ground.

The road is named repentance.

It’s not the road most of us spend any time looking for.
It’s the road we’d rather avoid,
find a detour around,
or a shortcut that eliminates the need for that road at all.

It’s obvious why a road of repentance does not appeal to us.
To repent requires that I lower myself.
It involves the posture of bowing,
of acknowledging that I had it wrong,
or had done wrong.
It is a posture that looks like, and feels like,
a posture of weakness.

And that’s not very appealing—
especially at a time when power politics is on the rise,
when the winners have been those
most willing to exploit their own power,
and take power from their opponents.

No matter what the public arena—
politics, sports, entertainment, business, religion—
the winners are those that end up on top of the pile,
standing on top of the losers beneath them.

So, it seems counterintuitive to say,
in order to reach the high ground
of becoming the best and most fulfilled version of us
which God intended for us all along—
requires that we admit we are something considerably less.
At least, that’s how this road appears to us,
as we look at it from a distance.

But maybe . . . once we start down this road, following Jesus,
things are not quite the way they first appeared,
as is often the case when Jesus is involved.

Yes, repentance can be hard.
It can be daunting.
But I want to suggest that repentance,
what I’m calling the “low road,”
is actually, and paradoxically, not low at all.
Repentance is not about debasing ourselves.
It is not self-flagellation, self-punishment.
It is not meant to demean or diminish our selves.
Yes, it is hard, and it can be humbling.
Because repentance requires us to change our way of thinking.
And who wants to do that?
Who gets joy from saying, “I had it wrong all this time.”
Repentance means, quite literally, in the Greek,
“to change our minds”—metanoia.
We can’t change our minds,
without admitting we had it wrong the first time.
It need not be humiliating, but it is, by definition,
an act of humility.

This so-called “low” road of humility is the only path
that leads to the high ground of peace, of wholeness, of shalom.

So the invitation to repentance
is the invitation to live more fully and joyfully.
It has to be seen in that light if we read the Gospels.
People would not have been lining up
to be baptized by John the Baptist—
kind of a scary person to begin with—
if what he was offered
was demeaning or humiliating or shaming.
No, John’s invitation was an invitation to life!

We get stuck at his wild clothing and his brood-of-vipers language.
But that’s just style and rhetoric,
and made perfect sense to those in his culture.
They would have seen, easily, the hope and the promise in John.
John was inviting them into Isaiah’s grand vision,
of a world at peace, accessible to all—
of valleys exalted and mountains made low.

This picture in Isaiah, and repeated by John,
of the mountains being made low
is by no means a picture of a violent God
behind the wheel of a bulldozer destroying the landscape.
This is a positive and hopeful and liberating image.
Barriers are being removed.
The Berlin Wall is being toppled, so to speak.
Under God’s reign,
mountains are lowered,
valleys are lifted,
twisty roads are straightened.
And nothing will hinder the coming King.
No barrier will prevent the nations from coming together.
This is a picture of freedom.
This is a picture of the path of mercy.

And the way to get there is repentance,
it is to change our way of thinking.

We have forgotten who we really are.
We are confused by the message
with which our dominant culture bombards us daily—
telling us to avoid any appearance of weakness or vulnerability,
to shun compromise and never yield to another,
to lift myself up by pushing others down.

So the calls to repentance of John—
and of Malachi and Isaiah for that matter,
and scores of other harsh-sounding biblical prophets—
are actually words we should welcome.

They are saying, “Here’s life!”
Here’s the shalom God intends for all people and all creation.
Here’s peace.

Repent and return to the covenant God made with you
from the beginning.
To love God with all your being.
To love your neighbor as yourself.
To treat the poor with respect.
To care for the widows and orphans and aliens,
and all people susceptible to exploitation by the powerful.
Stand up and accept the mantle God has placed on your life—
to reflect God’s good image,
to join with God in God’s good purposes in this world,
to not give in to any base desires you might have
to prove your worth at the expense of others.

If you embrace this vision,
and live into it by the power of the Holy Spirit,
you will be living the life God intended for you.
And perhaps you will inspire in others the kind of sentiment
that inspired Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.

When John was born and Zechariah got his speech back,
he was overcome with gratitude
for what God was up to through his son John,
who would prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah.

We heard Zechariah’s song of praise from Luke 1, our psalm of the day.
He was filled with hope for the future,
at a time when his world was actually in shambles,
under occupation by Rome, ruled by the brutal king Herod.

At that point, he sang a song of praise to God’s justice,
that still rings with hope for us today.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace,
to guide our feet along the low road leading to high ground.

Let us sing our hope and expectation,
by turning to the song printed in the insert.
This hymn is proposed for the new hymnal.
It’s the same as the one in our current hymnal,
except there is a new verse, stanza two.
The hymn text by Charles Wesley has only two stanzas,
but the hymnal committee was wishing for a third,
so Adam Tice wrote this second stanza,
based in part on another hymn text by Charles Wesley.

So this is one of the first times
this stanza is being sung by a congregation,
and how appropriate it is to the morning’s theme—
Come, thou universal Savior; come, redeem the human race.Life and joy spring from thy favor; cheer each soul in need of graceStill we wait for thine appearing—make our senseless struggles cease.Guide us from our weary wandering into paths of perfect peace

—Phil Kniss, December 9, 2018

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