Not What You Expected

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Not What You Expected” Matthew 11:2-12

On a high bluff rising 3,500 feet above the surrounding desert, sixteen miles southeast of where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea, stood the hilltop fortress of Machaerus.  In the year 40BC, Herod the Great saw the strategic importance of the site.  From Machaerus, eastern invaders from Arabia could be easily spotted and signal fires ignited to warn fortifications to the west at Masada, Herodion, and Jerusalem.  Herod built a lavish palace and fortified compound atop the bluff.  A walled garden, elaborate Roman baths, ornate living quarters, two dining rooms, and carefully tiled mosaic floors were surrounded by massive stone walls with watch towers that soared ninety feet above the ramparts. Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder described the stronghold as the most strongly fortified place in all of Judea, a statement supported by its name.  Machaerus means “the sword” or “the edge of the knife.”

John the Baptist came to Machaerus as a prisoner. His prophecy of the coming Messiah and his criticism of the bigamy of the king’s wife had made him powerful enemies.  At Machaerus, John was likely held captive in an empty cistern, an enormous underground vault cut from the bedrock and lined with plaster.  Dark and windowless, the cistern would have been a miserable place to live in isolation.  There John brooded on his thoughts and prophesied to the echoing walls.  We know from scripture that the king feared John and the queen hated him.  When Oscar Wilde wrote the libretto for the Opera Salome, he imagined the king peering into the dungeon, both fascinated and horrified by the prophet imprisoned within.

By the time John sent word to Jesus in our reading from Matthew’s gospel, the prophet had been imprisoned for two years.  It was clear to John that, unless the king were overthrown, he would never walk out of Machaerus alive.  Back when Jesus had come to him at the River Jordan, John was convicted that the Messiah had finally come.  So certain was he that he refused at first to baptize Jesus, declining the honor on the basis that he was unworthy of the task (Matt. 3).  But two years in Machaerus can change a man, begin to break him, and rattle his faith.  Where was the fire and brimstone that John had imagined the Messiah would bring?  Where was the conquering army that the Messiah would lead?  Would the Messiah allow John, who had prepared the way of the Lord, to die in prison?

John the Baptist was not alone in his anticipation of a different kind of Messiah.  Some sects of first century Judaism, like the Sadducees, didn’t believe in a Messiah at all.  The Essenes at Qumran, on the other hand, believed there would be two Messiahs: one a military leader and the other a sage and teacher of the law. Most who looked for the Messiah agreed that the “coming one” would be a king like David.  This warrior king would unite the Israelites, put an end to the foreign occupation, and usher in an era of peace, independence, and prosperity.

Jesus failed to meet the messianic expectations of John the Baptist, the Essenes, and pretty much everyone else.  In the response that Jesus shared with John’s messengers, Jesus described the actions that the Prophet Isaiah said would be the sign of the coming Messiah (Isaiah 29, 35, 61).  The ears of the deaf would be opened. The blind would see. Newfound mobility would come to the lame.  The mute would speak.  The brokenhearted would find comfort. And the poor would be blessed with good news.  Instead of insisting on his messianic identity, Jesus urged John to simply take a look at what he was doing.  In Jesus’s ministry, the long-promised work of the Messiah was already underway in compassionate acts of mercy, forgiveness, and love.  “Consider the evidence,” Jesus was saying to John, “And please don’t be offended that I am not what you expected.”

We don’t need to be imprisoned in a mountaintop fortress like John, to feel that we need a Messiah. New Testament scholar Ronald J. Allen teaches that John the Baptist’s query, “Are you the one who is to come?” is the most important question of this Advent season.  We all need a savior, but like our ancestors in the faith, our longings and expectations for “the one who is to come” may or may not be met by Jesus.

We want a Messiah who will ride in on a white horse and free us from the enmity and bitter division of our political landscape.  We want a Messiah who will take away our grief and put a “don’t worry, be happy” smile upon our faces.  We want a Messiah who will smite our enemies, reinforce our world view, and describe a God who is created in our own image. We want a Messiah who will fix our marriage for us, make our children behave, and give us a nice pay raise.  We want a Messiah who will save us in the way we want, when we want it to happen, and that had better be sooner than later. 

If the Messiah doesn’t give us what we want, we just may take offense.  We say, “He’s not the real deal. God wouldn’t work in that way. God wouldn’t love those people.  This so-called Messiah isn’t worth our prayers, our devotion, or our Sunday mornings.” The Messiah comes on his own terms, with compassion, healing, forgiveness, and love, but we would rather sit in the dark prison of our disappointed expectations. 

We don’t know what happened when John’s disciples made the long journey back from Galilee to Machaerus and shared what Jesus had to say. I suspect that they shared with John not only the words that Jesus had spoken, but also the signs and wonders that they saw unfolding in Jesus’s ministry.  They talked about the demon-possessed man in Capernaum who had found his right mind with Jesus’s help.  They described the beautiful healed skin of the leper whom Jesus had touched. They shared the wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount and the exhortation to love God and neighbor. They shook their heads over the mystery of outsiders being welcomed, sinners forgiven, and fresh starts for hurting lives.  There was so much good news, even if it wasn’t the message that John wanted to hear.

I like to think that when John was executed not long afterward, he was at peace.  The gospels and the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus tell us that John was beheaded in the year 32, the year before Jesus would himself run afoul of Herod and Pilate and find himself in prison, facing execution.  God had confounded all John’s expectations, but this Jesus, this unorthodox Messiah, was a sign that God’s Kingdom and power were always at work in the midst of this hurting and broken world.  This unlikely Messiah and the improbable Kingdom would always grow within the kingdoms of the world, finding fresh expression wherever faithful people would follow the way of Jesus and commit to lives of mercy, compassion, and boundless love.  On this Advent Sunday when we light the candle of joy, I like to imagine that Jesus’s assurance brought John quiet joy amid the darkness of Machaerus. I like to imagine that we too can find joy in that assurance, regardless of the trials of our lives and our world.

In the year 66CE, Herod’s kingdom fell when Jewish rebels revolted and seized the fortress of Machaerus.  It took the Romans four years to put down the rebellion. In the year 70CE, they destroyed Jerusalem. Then, the Roman legion of Lucilius Bassus was assigned to exterminate the last rebel holdouts at Herodion, Massada, and Machaerus.  The Romans arrived at the Edge of the Knife in the year 72CE, set up camp, and began to build an immense earthen ramp to accommodate their siege engines and breach the stronghold’s walls.  When they saw the inevitability of their defeat, the rebels surrendered.  They were allowed to leave and disappeared into the trans-Jordan wilderness and the mists of history.  The Romans destroyed Machaerus, tearing down the impressive towers and stone walls, leaving behind only the dim outlines of its once mighty foundations. 

The kingdoms of man rise and fall: Herod, the rebels, the Romans. Yet the Kingdom of God persists whenever we surrender our false expectations and follow the Messiah with mercy, compassion, and boundless love.  Blessed are we when we do not take offense.


Stanley Saunders. “Commentary on Matthew 11:2-12” in Preaching This Week, Dec.  11, 2022.  Accessed online at

Ronald J. Allen. “Commentary on Matthew 11:2-12” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 11, 2016.  Accessed online at

Arland Hultgren. “Commentary on Matthew 11:2-12” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 15, 2013.  Accessed online at

James Boyce. “Commentary on Matthew 11:2-12” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 16, 2007.  Accessed online at

Markus Milligan. “Machaerus–The Palace Fortress of King Herod” in Heritage Daily, Dec. 28, 2020. Accessed online at

Biblical Archaeology Society Staff. “Machaerus: Beyond the Beheading of John the Baptist” in Bible History Daily, June 28, 2022. Accessed online at

Saeb Rawashdeh. “Lost biblical fortress of Machaerus restored after 50 years of excavations” in The Jordan Times, March 14, 2019. Accessed online at

Pat McCarthy. “Machaerus” in See the Holy Land: Jordan. Accessed online at

Matthew 11:2-11

2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the 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. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Photo by Eva Lacroix on

The Promise of Peace

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “The Promise of Peace” Isaiah 11:1-9

On this second Sunday in Advent, we light the candle of peace.  Yet peace feels hard to come by this year. Tensions are high on the Korean Peninsula as Kim Jong Un escalates weapons testing and the South responds with further sanctions. In Ukraine, as troops recover territory once occupied by Russian invaders, they discover a trail of human rights abuses left behind.  All the while, the Russian missiles fall, destroying Ukraine’s power and energy infrastructure as winter approaches.

We long for peace within our nation.  We are wearied by the polarization that casts our political rivals as mortal enemies.  We are heartbroken by the continuing tide of gun violence.  611 mass shootings this year have wounded 3,179 people and taken 637 lives. We are frightened by the rise in hate.  Last month’s shooting in Colorado Springs is the most recent attack in growing violence against our LGBTQ neighbors.  Dark memories of the Holocaust stir amid a surge of antisemitic rhetoric by celebrities, athletes, and politicians.

We long for peace in our homes. Christmas reminds us of the wounds that every family bears.  Our thoughts brush up against our estranged kin, once a part of our holiday joy and now a painful memory of alienation.  As we put on a good show for the gathered clan, we may struggle in marriages grown strained and distant.  We’ll face long-held patterns of family dysfunction: our drunken uncle, the harshly critical parent, the debt-burdened shopaholic. 

We light the candle of peace this morning, longing for the peace of our world, our nation, and our homes.

In the 8th century BC, when Isaiah spoke God’s promise of a coming king and a transformed world, the Hebrew people were far from peace.  The Assyrian Empire was ascendant, marching out of the north like a swarm of locusts.  They excelled at war, having mastered the art of forging iron weapons that were far superior to the bronze-age armaments of their enemies. The armies of Assyria had engineering units to set up ladders and ramps, fill in moats, and dig tunnels to breach walled cities. They were among the first to build chariots, which provided greater mobility and protection on the battlefield.  One by one, the cities of the ancient near east fell to the advancing Assyrian tide.

On a national front, the Israelites knew little of peace. David may have united the twelve tribes of Israel, but within a few generations, the alliance had crumbled.  The Hebrew people had divided into two nations, the Kingdom of Israel to the north and the Kingdom of Judah to the south.  They were often at odds, allying with greater powers on the world stage to the detriment of one another. As the Assyrian army drew near, Judah refused the call to arms to help their northern brothers.  City by city, the Kingdom of Israel fell and its people were defeated and deported.

According to the Prophet Isaiah, peace was hard to find on the home front.  In oracle after oracle, the prophet denounced a people who “called evil good and good evil” (5:20). They worshipped false gods.  They loved graft and chased after bribes. They failed to defend the rights of the fatherless and refused to give justice to widows (1:23).

Over and against this backdrop of conflict and division, the Prophet Isaiah described the peace that would prevail when the Messiah came and the priorities of God’s Kingdom prevailed. According to Isaiah, on that glorious day the nation would be ruled with wisdom, understanding, and fear of the Lord. Righteousness would abound and justice would be served. In a wonderful act of rhetorical exaggeration, Isaiah cast the vision of a new Eden unfolding as the peaceable human kingdom overflowed to all creation.  Wolf and lamb, calf and lion, all would live in harmony.

Isaiah reminded the Hebrew people that God’s longing for our world is peace with justice and righteousness for all.  Isaiah held out the hope that when God’s people choose to live in accord with God’s will, they can flourish.  It’s a vision that must have sounded like music to the ears of Isaiah’s listeners.  It’s a bold picture of peaceful possibility that continues to speak to our imaginations, here and now. 

When the early church read the words of the Prophet Isaiah, they recognized Jesus in Isaiah’s description of the Messiah.  Jesus, with his deep wisdom and keen understanding of God’s law, Jesus with his deep piety and reverence, Jesus with his care for the sick and heart for the outsider, Jesus would embody those character traits of Isaiah’s coming king.  Jesus would embrace peace by welcoming strangers, sinners, and enemies. He would walk the path of non-violence, turning the other cheek to his accusers and praying for his executioners.  As those first Christians carried the Way of Jesus out into the Roman Empire, they knew that the peaceable kingdom persisted whenever wisdom and understanding, piety and love of the Lord were shared and embraced.

On the second Sunday of Advent, Isaiah’s promise of the coming king and his peaceable kingdom remind us that the gap between the world that we have made for ourselves and the world that God would have us make can be bridged.  We can choose to live in accord with God’s promise of peace.  Indeed, when we live with faith and integrity as followers of Jesus, we invite God’s future into our present.  The peaceable kingdom awaits those who would serve it even now.

We can strive for the peace of our world.  We may not be able to bring Russia and Ukraine to the bargaining table, but we have worked for world peace all year long.  We have been seeking a path to bring an at-risk Afghan family from Kabul to America. We have provided much-needed care and support for vulnerable infants at the Crisis Care Nursery in Mzuzu. Through CROP Walk, we have sought to address the root causes of hunger around the globe with the programs of Church World Service.  This Christmas, we will bless our African neighbors with the gift of clean water as we receive a special offering for the Shallow Well program of Marion Medical Mission.  These are the things that make for world peace.

We can strive for the peace of our nation.  We may not be able to break the rancor and gridlock of Washington, but we can choose to make a personal difference for good.  We can refuse to call those whose opinions differ from ours “enemies.” Our dialog can be grounded in mutual respect, and we can keep the lines of communication open, even when we disagree.  We can practice non-violence and call on our elected officials to enact responsible gun legislation.  We can stand with vulnerable minorities and speak out against hateful speech that incites violence. These are the things that make for a more peaceful nation.

We can strive for the peace of our families.  This could be the year that we let bygones be bygones and reconcile with our estranged kin.  We can remember that God is at the heart of our marriage covenant and seek together to reclaim that holy center for our shared life.  We can meet those intractable family dysfunctions with love, openness, and a desire for change. Stop filling the glass of your drunken uncle.  Beg to differ with that hyper-critical parent.  Give your family shopaholic a copy of Bill McKibben’s book Hundred Dollar Holiday and encourage them to resist the relentless onslaught of commercials and catalogs that try to say Christmas is only Christmas if it comes from a store. These are the things that make for a more peaceful family.

This morning, we light the candle of peace and choose to live in accord with God’s promise of the peaceable kingdom.  Can you imagine it with me? 

The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon us, with wisdom and understanding,

counsel and strength, knowledge and a healthy fear of the Lord.

Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.

Ukraine and Russia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, North and South Korea, all will come to the table of peace. 

The hungry shall be filled, refugees will be welcomed, vulnerable babies will be blessed,

and clean water shall flow down in an unstoppable tide.

Ears will be opened. Truth will be spoken. Democrats will break bread with Republicans,

Libertarians will find common cause with Progressives, and the DC gridlock shall come to an end. 

We’ll beat our guns into ploughshares, trade our hate speech for songs of praise, and all God’s people will know safety and dignity.

There will be a balm in Gilead for the healing of our families. 

We’ll reach out with a willingness to forgive and be forgiven, and the hatchet of enmity will be forever buried. 

We’ll renew our vows and honor our children.  We’ll love more.  We’ll forgive often.  We’ll judge less.

The land will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the sea is filled with water,

and all will be well in these holy mountains,

and all God’s people will say,



Eli J. Finkel and Cynthia S. Wang. “The Political Divide in America Goes Beyond Polarization and Tribalism” Kellogg Insight, April 20, 2022. Accessed online at

National Geographic Society. “Assyrian Empire.” In National Geographic Resource Library, May 20, 2022. Accessed online at

Fred Gaiser. “Commentary on Isaiah 11:1-9” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 9, 2007. Accessed online at

Barbara Lundblad. “Commentary on Isaiah 11:1-9” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 8, 2013. Accessed online at

Michael Chan. “Commentary on Isaiah 11:1-9” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 4, 2016. Accessed online at

Isaiah 11:1-9

11A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The 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. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The 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. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Photo by Jonathan Meyer on

Your Lord Is Coming

Sabbath Day Thoughts “Your Lord Is Coming” Matthew 24:36-44

The Christmas preparations are underway.  No sooner had the Thanksgiving dishes been washed than the Black Friday shopping began. We can’t wait for Sparkle Village crafts next weekend.  We are hanging wreaths purchased to benefit the Youth Center, the holiday decorations are emerging from their attic lair, and our Nutcracker or holiday concert tickets have been purchased.  We are emerging from our COVID cloud and seeking a little holiday normalcy.

Here at the church, the signs of a new liturgical year are evident. The paraments have gone purple, the Advent devotionals are ready for your perusal, and the Advent wreath has a first purple candle glowing. The church calendar is bristling with Advent Study and kid’s pageant, special services and an evening of music and storytelling.  It’s beginning to feel a lot more like Christmas than it has since 2019.

 Not everyone is ready or eager for Christmas this year. In fact, these Advent weeks of preparation and anticipation may feel at odds with inner feelings of loss, fear, or even hopelessness for some. Some of us are mourning the loss of beloved ones.  We are bitterly and painfully aware of who will not be at the holiday table this year.  Some of us are living with big health concerns that leave us feeling lousy and a little cranky and not in the mood for all the falalalalalalalala. Others of us are feeling the pinch of inflation and economic hardship. We wonder if we can afford a merry Christmas without taking on a mountain of debt.  For some of us, this year’s holiday season confronts us with grief, uncertainty, and perhaps even hopelessness.

When Jesus first shared the unsettling words of our gospel reading, his disciples were gathered around him on the Mount of Olives.  They looked out across the Kidron Valley to see the Temple, perched at the apex of Jerusalem.  The Passover was near.  Jesus had been teaching and preaching some powerful sermons on the southern teaching steps of the Temple, and already it was clear that things weren’t going to go so well that week.  Powerful enemies were plotting to kill Jesus.  Just that afternoon, Jesus had given his opponents the perfect reason to sign the warrant for his arrest by foretelling the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. 

Jesus’ friends welcomed the apocalyptic words that he shared in today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel.  They would have felt comforted by the promise of God’s coming kingdom.  The disciples were powerless against Rome, Herod, and the Temple, but the promise of the Son of Man coming in glory to prevail over the powers of this world must have stirred hope in their hearts.  God had a plan and would ultimately prevail.

Nowadays, hope might not be the first thing we feel when we hear Jesus’ promise of an unexpected Second Coming.  It sounds scary, like a zombie apocalypse or a scene out of that Christian fantasy series “Left Behind.”  Some of our discomfort stems from the images that Jesus used to describe the advent of the Son of Man: destructive flood waters, mysterious disappearances, and thieves breaking into our homes.  Any one of those metaphors might set our hearts racing, but sandwich all three together to make a point, and it’s downright frightening.  It’s important to remember that Jesus was using a first century teaching style called hyperbole; he was ratcheting up the rhetoric to stress the importance of his point.

Jesus knew what awaited him at the end of the week – arrest, trial, abuse, and execution.  He also knew what his friends would undergo in the days and years to come. They would be persecuted: driven from Jerusalem, thrown out of the synagogues, and viewed with increasing hostility by the Roman Empire.  Most would lose their lives for the sake of the gospel: stoned, beheaded, beaten, or crucified.  As Jesus’ friends questioned when he’d be coming back in glory, Jesus realized that the greatest danger his friends would face in the difficult times to come was hopelessness.  Overwhelmed by the powerful forces that would oppose them, they could forget the promise that Jesus would return. 

In the years to come, it would be imperative that they remember that God wasn’t finished.  God had a plan and God would be with them in all the chaos, rejection, and persecution to follow.  On some days, the promise that Christ would come again would be the only thing that kept his friends from giving up, going home, and abandoning the gospel.  That apocalyptic promise encouraged the disciples to be vigilant and faithful no matter what.

That biblical-historical context of Jesus’s words to his disciples sounds completely disconnected from the world of our Advent and Christmas preparations.  Today’s reading is at odds with the world out there, where the shopping and partying juggernaut has left the station.  It’s also at odds with our world in here, where we are eagerly counting down the Sundays until Christmas and chomping at the bit to ditch the Advent hymns and sing some Christmas carols.

But Jesus’s apocalyptic promise might be exactly what those among us who are hurting need to hear. We who mourn hear in the assurance of Jesus’s second coming the reminder that God has won the victory over death.  On the far side of the grave, we will rise. We can trust that we will again hear our name on the lips of the beloved one whom we so dearly miss. When the Son of Man comes at that unexpected hour, our mourning will turn to dancing.

Those who struggle with illness and disability find in Jesus’s apocalyptic promise the comfort of God’s unstoppable power and final victory. We may feel completely powerless in a healthcare system that treats us like a disease, rather than a person. Yet God is always and ultimately all-powerful.  In the end, we are in God’s hands, not the hands of hospital, doctor, or hospice worker, and God’s hands are the very best place to be.  When the Son of Man comes at that unexpected hour, our healing will abound.

For those of us who feel the financial pinch of an uncertain economy and rising inflation, Jesus’s promise of his presence may bring the reorienting perspective that we need to step off the Christmas express. Jesus, who was born into poverty and lived with a radical simplicity, won’t mind a bit if we forego the shopping extravaganza and instead celebrate his birth with simple, heartfelt gifts that are given with great love. Perhaps it is only when we celebrate a Christmas of want that we begin to know the enormity of God’s great and loving gift to us in Jesus. When the Son of Man comes at that unexpected hour, the simple values and limitless love of the Kingdom will prevail.

At the end of Jesus’s apocalyptic discourse is the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matt. 25:31-46).  The Lord reminds his friends that, in this time between his first coming and his second coming, he would come to us daily.  He comes in our neighbors who hunger and thirst.  He is known in those who live in poverty and struggle as outsiders.  He is seen in those who cope with illness or languish in prison.  Jesus cautions that how we will fare in that promised second coming will be bound up in how we loved the hidden Jesus, who walks among us even now.

For I was hungry

and you gave Me something to eat;

I was thirsty

and you gave Me something to drink;

I was a stranger and you took Me in;

I was naked and you clothed Me;

I was sick and you took care of Me;

I was in prison and you visited Me.’

‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.”

In this Advent season, Jesus would put us to work. His apocalyptic words invite us to turn away, at least for a bit, from the decorating and baking, the buying and partying. It’s an encouragement to turn with understanding and compassion to those among us who yearn for the second coming, who are hurting and grieved, sick and disabled, broke and oppressed. In our love and care, perhaps we can impart a foretaste of that glorious apocalyptic day when every tear shall be dried and the eternal alleluia shall resound across the heavens.  May it be so.


Matt Skinner. “Advent Attentiveness” in Dear Working Preacher, Nov. 20, 2022.  Accessed online at

James Boyce. “Commentary on Matthew 24:36-44” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 2, 2007. Accessed online at

Arland Hultgren. “Commentary on Matthew 24:36-44” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 1, 2013. Accessed online at

O. Wesley Allen, Jr. “Commentary on Matthew 24:36-44” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 1, 2019. Accessed online at

Matthew 24:36-44

36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Photo by George Becker on

Call Me Blessed

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Call Me Blessed” Luke 1:39-55

Ma kara!  What was the meaning of this?!

The messenger had disappeared with a snap.  The place where he had stood seemed to pulse with an invisible energy.  The air had a whiff of ozone, like the Judean desert after the crack of heat lightening.

I shook my head and looked around.   Down below, some goats were foraging in the thicket next to the wadi.  Up above near the caves, chickens were scratching the packed earth by the bread oven.  No one seemed to know or care that I had just met Gabriel himself, the messenger of God Almighty, holy be his name.  The angel had left me with more questions than answers.  Had our prayers been answered?  Was God sending the Messiah?

I know that I had said yes, but as I walked home, my head filled with second guesses.  Nazareth was an unlikely hometown for a Messiah.  Here half-naked toddlers clung to their mother’s skirts and gnawed breadcrusts to sooth teething.  The Holy One of Israel should be born in a palace, wrapped in silks, tended by a legion of nannies.  The Messiah should be born to a princess, and I was a village girl with dirt under my fingernails from weeding the garden.  Had Gabriel really spoken, or had too much sun stirred my overactive imagination?

At home, my Ama greeted me with a smile.  “Ah, Mary!  It’s about time.  We’ve had news of our cousin Elisabeth.  At last, she is to bear a child.”

My eyes grew wide.  It was just as the messenger had said.  For as long as I could remember, we had prayed for Elisabeth, that God might open her womb.  But years had passed, and there was no child.  The skin at the corner of her eyes had creased in a web of fine lines, and still there was no child.  Her hair had begun to gray and the shoulders of her husband Zechariah rounded with age, and still there was no child.  Hers was the most hopeless of cases.  Yet my Ama was telling me the impossible: a baby was on the way.  I was needed.  In the morning, I would depart for Hebron with my uncle, my dohd, Joash.  There I would help Elisabeth until the child was born.

If Elisabeth was with child, then anything was possible.  I looked down at my flat stomach with my brow creased in wonder.  I should tell my Ama.

“But Ama . . .” I began.  She brushed my words aside.

“Not a word, Mary.  You are going to Hebron and that is final.  You would just be underfoot here, mooning over Joseph anyway.  This will be good for you.”

Joseph may have been the best future-husband ever, but I didn’t think he would take kindly to my news.  Maybe getting out of town was a good idea.

Early in the morning, before the sun had risen, Joash came with his two donkeys.  A slight man with a scraggly beard and bright eyes that took in everything, Joash was my mother’s youngest brother.  He was a trader of spices and opobalsam.  Twice each year, he traveled to Jericho at the edge of the Arabian desert.  Always he returned with fragrant treasures that he swapped for what was needed: eggs, flour, cheese, linen.  He also came with news of our people, news that often made my mother weep or turned my father’s eyes dark with rage.

Dohd Joash gave me a hug and went in to see my parents.  I waited in the courtyard, scratching his donkeys and wondering how long it would take us to make the eighty-mile trip.  Before long, Joash was back.  He handed me a sack of rags and some day-old bread from my Ama.  “Tuck these into your pack, Mary,” he said and handed me the lead for one of the donkeys.  Apparently, we were walking.  This would take a while.

Later that morning as ha shemesh neared the middle of his journey across the sky, we stopped in the no-man’s-land between Galilee and Samaria.  “Mary,” Joash instructed, “Take your sack of rags and bread and leave it there.”

He pointed to a broad rock, like a table, about fifty yards from the roadside.  It seemed ridiculous, but I did what I was told.  A movement in the brush caught my eye and made me scurry back to the safety of my dohd.  Before we left, I saw a dozen lepers at the rock, stick figures swathed in stained bandages, pawing through my sack with fingerless hands.  Such a terrible, lonely life!  “Can’t they be helped?”  I asked my uncle.

Joash gave a sad sigh and a little shrug. “Perhaps when the Messiah comes.”

On the third evening, at the edge of Shechem in the shadows of Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim, we stopped at the tax collector’s booth.

“Ah, Joash!  I see you are again on your way to Jericho,” the tax collector greeted us.  He was a fat man with grease in his beard and a gold tooth.  Beside his booth was a pen where some listless sheep and goats were attended by a scrawny, barefoot boy in a filthy, hand-me-down tunic.  His enormous eyes looked dull.

My uncle shared news of the Galilee while the tax collector greedily eyed the two donkeys.  Once the pleasantries were over, the tax collector got down to business.  “Ah, Joash!  What is a man to do?  Every year, Herod expects more of me.  I regretfully inform you that the toll has doubled.  Such a sad state of affairs.”  The two men haggled until they reached a compromise, then my uncle pressed a gold coin into his well-fleshed palm and we left.

As soon as we were out of earshot, I wanted to know, “How can he treat his child like that, Dohd?  Did you see how thin and miserable the boy was?”

My Uncle Joash raised a quizzical eyebrow.  “His child?  Your parents really need to get you out more, Mary.  That boy was a slave.”  My shock prompted my uncle to put a comforting arm around my shoulder.

“But uncle,” I asked, “To treat a child like this, surely this is something only the Gentiles do?  Who can stop such a thing?”

A bitter look crossed my uncle’s face.  He turned back to his donkey, “Perhaps when the Messiah comes, Mary.”

When we reached Alexandrium, we contended with even worse.  In the Decapolis city of Alexandrium, the Israelites, Samaritans, and Gentiles mix.  They don’t especially like one another, but there is mutual advantage in trade.  Before we reached the city walls, my uncle stopped.  He tucked my head scarf protectively across my face.  In a voice so stern that I dared not disobey he instructed, “Stay close and do not look up.”  I stood in my uncle’s shadow as we passed a small company of Roman soldiers sprawling in the shade and we entered the city gates.

In the middle of the market, we were stopped.  I recognized some of the soldiers who had sized us up as we passed.  They pushed and hassled my uncle.  Where was he going?  What was his business?  Was he a friend of the emperor?  At the same time, two men edged between me and my dohd’s protective shadow.  For every step they took toward me, I took a step back.  Within moments, I would be gone, lost in the crowd. 

“What have we here?” a soldier asked, plucking the scarf from my face with a practiced hand.  He cupped my chin and tipped my face up, as if assessing my value. 

Before I could shout “Dai!”  Enough!  He snatched his hand back with a curse, as if it had been burned.  He shook his head and pushed me back to my uncle.  “Leave them!” he ordered, backing away.

My uncle dried my anxious tears and tucked my scarf back across my face.  “You were born under a lucky star, Mary.  Do you have any idea how fortunate you are that they changed their minds?  Such is our lot until the Messiah comes.”

I know that Gabriel had called my blessed, and my Dohd Joash had said that I was lucky, but I hardly felt so.  In fact, every day that we traveled, I felt worse.  At first, my small breasts began to hurt and swell.  Then, I began to feel fatigue, so weary in the evenings that I was asleep within moments of lying down.  That day, I had felt queasy upon waking.  The smoke from the fire roiled my gut and made my head swim.  If this was blessed, then I wasn’t sure I wanted it.

The more I saw of Israel, the more I wondered what any child born to me could ever do to help.  Our people needed saving in more ways than I could count—from sickness, greed, corruption, poverty, occupation.  It would take more than an army of babies full-grown to bring that sort of change.  As we came to the edge of Hebron and looked for the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah, my thoughts were bleak.  It would take God Almighty himself, blessed be his name, to turn things upside down.

I watered the donkeys and gave them some grain while Joash went in to speak with Zechariah.  As I neared the door, Elisabeth rushed out, looking expectant and joyous.  She pulled me close and hugged me to her round belly.  I could feel her unborn child kicking and wriggling between us.  Suddenly, Elisabeth gave a cry and held her tummy.  She looked at me with keen eyes.  I sensed that somehow, she knew.  She knew my fear and worry and doubt.  She knew my truth.

The words she said next were like a healing balm for my troubled heart, “Would you look at us?  You, too young.  Me, too old.  We are filled with the promises of God.  It may not feel like it right now, Mary, but you are blessed.”

She reached over and rested her hand on my stomach, “And blessed is this child within you.”

And in that moment, it seemed anything was possible.  God Almighty, holy be his name, could set Israel aright.  The proud could be humbled; the lowly lifted up.  The rich sent away empty; the poor filled.  A peasant girl from Nazareth could give birth to the Messiah.  Why not?

“Visitation” (In the predella: Episodes from the Infancy of Christ)
Mariotto Albertinelli (Florence 1474 – 1515), The Uffizi Gallery

Luke 1:39-55

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Siskin Green perform “The Canticle of the Turning,” based on the Magnificat, filmed for BBC Scotland’s Reflections at the Quay.

The Choice for Joy

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “The Choice for Joy” Philippians 4:4-7

This Sunday has long been known as Gaudete Sunday.  That name derives from ancient Latin words that began our worship on the third Sunday of Advent, long before the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.  I’m talking about Paul’s exhortation to the church in Philippi.  Gaudete in Domino semper, rejoice in the Lord always.

In the days when Advent was closely observed as a season of repentance, fasting was eased on this Sunday as Christians anticipated the joyful celebration of the birth of Jesus and his triumphant return in glory.  These days, the only reminders of that celebratory observance are the name Gaudete or Joy Sunday and the pink candle on our Advent wreath.  The pink is a softening of the season’s penitential purple.

“Rejoice in the Lord always!  Again, I will say rejoice.”  The theme of this Sunday may feel like a jarring, dissonant message for some this morning.  As we acknowledged in our midweek service of the Longest Night, the joy of Christmas may feel at odds with our personal feelings of sorrow, pain, and hardship.

Burt won’t be merry this Christmas.  His wife Lois died last summer.  This year on Christmas Day, there won’t be a salty, savory ham baking in the oven.  Nor will there be a platter of deviled eggs or a sticky, sweet pecan pie.  This year, the kids and grandkids won’t be coming home for the holiday dinner.  Burt has a big, painful hole in his life.  All Burt can feel is the emptiness and sorrow in his heart.

Kristin is struggling this Christmas.  The kids will be spending the day with their father and his new wife—and they’re expecting a baby.  While her kids are unwrapping presents from Santa, Kristin will have a second cup of coffee and watch one of those Hallmark Christmas movies.  Kristin wonders how her “happily ever after” ended with adultery and divorce.  She feels lonely, betrayed, and defeated.

Joanie and Curt don’t have much to celebrate this year.  Their small business was a casualty of COVID-19.  They have found other work, but it may take years to pay off their mountain of debt.  This year instead of shopping, they’re making special gifts for the kids and upcycling some used toys and clothes.  All the same, Santa won’t have much under the tree.  Joanie and Curt feel stressed, disappointed, and powerless.

“Rejoice in the Lord always!  Again, I will say rejoice.”  That’s what the Apostle Paul said to his friends in Philippi.  Bible scholars tell us that the circumstances of the Philippian church were hardly joyful.  Their Greco-Roman neighbors viewed them with suspicion.  In fact, Paul and Silas had been driven out of their community by prosperous merchants who said they were bad for business.  The young church needed Paul’s leadership, but his return to Philippi had been long delayed.  When news came that Paul was in the imperial prison, the Philippians sent Epaphroditis to Rome to provide support.  Then, came the news that Epaphroditus was sick—near death.  We can imagine the worry and concern of the Philippians as they waited and feared the worst.  It must have felt to some felt like a jarring and dissonant message when Epaphroditus finally returned, bearing Paul’s epistle with the exhortation to rejoice always.

We don’t like it when folks make light of our suffering.  It feels like a gut punch when we are lost in grief and someone assures us that our loved one passed because God needed another angel.  We feel like failures when a more skilled or experienced friend offers to help—after our plans have come to ruin.  Early in my tenure here, I was approached by an older woman who had been a member of the church as a child.  When her father divorced her mother—a scandalous turn of events in that day and age, Rev. Gurley, our pastor at the time, told the bereft wife and children that all would be better when they met a “nice guy.”  Poor Reverend Gurley was well-intended, but his words felt like gall in the ears of those he had sought to comfort.  Almost seventy years later, the anger and hurt of the daughter was still palpable as she told me her story.

It’s important to note that the Apostle Paul wasn’t speaking platitudes or empty promises to his friends in Philippi.  He wasn’t making light of their struggle and fear.  On the contrary, Paul believed that joy was a core characteristic of the Christian life in all circumstances, and he modeled that for others.  The Book of Acts tells us that when Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi, they sang songs of faith and prayed—much to the amazement of their jailor.  When Paul described to the Corinthians the difficulties of his service for Jesus, Paul said he was “grieving yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10).  Even as Paul wrote to the Philippians, his end was near.  Condemned to death for the sake of the gospel, Paul had appealed his case to the emperor himself—and everyone knew that would not go well.  Despite every adverse circumstance, Paul lived in joy and hoped that others would, too.

The secret to Paul’s joy was its source.  Paul rejoiced in the Lord.  This wasn’t the fleeting, superficial feeling of happiness that comes when everything goes our way.  Rather, Paul’s joy was found in the knowledge that he belonged to God, who loved him enough to enter the world’s darkness and die for his salvation.  Paul trusted in God’s love in every circumstance.  He boldly wrote to the church in Rome that God’s love was always victorious, saying, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Paul’s joy in the Lord sustained him through rejection, persecution, beatings, stoning, shipwreck, imprisonment, and even the shadow death because he knew that he belonged to God both in this world and the world that is to come.  Now that was something to rejoice in.

Henri Nouwen, one of the finest pastoral theologians of the twentieth century, taught that joy is a choice.  Sounding a lot like the Apostle Paul, Nouwen wrote in his 1994 book Here and Now that “Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing—sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death—can take that love away.”  Nouwen saw joy as a spiritual discipline, the daily choice to remember our belovedness and to live in the light of God’s unquenchable love for us.  This joy is ours always, regardless of what is going on in our lives.

Nouwen himself used daily quiet times of prayer to reflect upon his life and attend to his mood.  In that stillness, in the choice to remember the love of God revealed in Jesus, Nouwen’s world would change.  Worry, stress, irritability, and sorrow would give way to joy.  In Nouwen’s words, the daily choice for joy transformed him from a “victim,” overwrought by the pain and challenge of life, to “victor,” resting in the eternal goodness of God.  Joy can be ours for the choosing.

The choice for joy that Paul and Henri Nouwen described might seem like a dry theological assertion or an unlikely turn of events if we didn’t see it in action.  We have all encountered folks who knew tremendous adversity and grief yet continued to shine light for the world around them.  I think about Anna Ferree, who lost her two sons in tragic accidents.  After their deaths, a friend asked Anna for help with watching her children.  Before she knew it, Anna had a daycare in her home.  There Anna provided love and support for many of Saranac Lake’s children.  Anna still mourned the loss of her sons, yet she chose to make a helping and healing difference in the lives of local families.  There were story times and naps, snacks and tea parties, play time and even prayer time.  Anna saw her experience as a vocation, a gift from God who called her from sorrow to joy. 

We all know people like Anna.  The mother who raised three incredibly successful kids alone.  The dad who never misses a Little League game, despite his battle with cancer.  The older brother who skips college and works hard to provide the resources for others to get an education.  They do the impossible with grace.  We all know folks who have shown us an inner strength and remarkable faith that chooses joy, despite the odds.

Beyond the difficulties and problems that every life holds, there is cause for joy on this Gaudete Sunday, a joy that is both holy and improbable.  When we stand fast in God’s love and make the choice for joy, we can be bowed down by grief, like the recently widowed Burt, and yet we can rejoice.  We can struggle with broken, dysfunctional families, like Kristin alone on Christmas Day, and yet we can rejoice.  We can know hardship and failure, like Joanie and Curt who lost their business, and still we can rejoice.  Joy is ours because we are beloved.  Amid adversity, we belong to God who has overcome the grief and sorrow, pain and problems of this world.

May we rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I will say rejoice.


Holly Hearon. “Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 16, 2008.  Accessed online at

Carla Works. “Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 21, 2021.  Accessed online at

Michael Joseph Brown. “Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 13, 2009.  Accessed online at

Henri Nouwen. Here and Now. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2006.

4 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. — Philippians 4:4-7

Photo by David Orsborne on

Changing Minds

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Changing Minds” Luke 3:1-6

Christmas is a beautiful and magical time of year in Saranac Lake.  On Friday evening, I was working in my home study when the windows began to vibrate with the thump and boom of over-amplified bass guitar.  The night sky pulsed with the bright flash of holiday lights.  Big wheels rolled up Park Avenue.  It was Santa, paying neighborhood children a visit pandemic-style, riding through the village streets in a convoy of fire engines.

After a forced hiatus, Sparkle Village returned to the Town Hall this year.  Our favorite crafters, like Martha, shared their one-of-a-kind hand-made wares with neighbors in search of that perfect holiday gift.  There were birch baskets and handknit sweaters, wooden toys and sweet jams, fragrant soaps and hand-poured candles.  This year, to mitigate the risk of sharing COVID along with our holiday cheer, immunization records were checked, masks were worn, and entrance was staggered.

Fortunately, some of our Christmas traditions seem naturally suited to pandemic life.  We can still admire the village Christmas tree on Berkeley Green while sipping a peppermint latte and grooving to Santa’s jukebox.  We can go for an evening stroll and check out our neighborhood Christmas lights.  We can take the kids to drop a donation in the red kettle while a masked bellringer wishes us, “Merry Christmas!”  Despite COVID-19, we are finding ways to enter the spirit of this special season.

For the majority of our neighbors, this is what preparing for Christmas is all about.  It’s Santa and shopping.  It’s seasonal music and decorations.  It’s gift making and gift giving.  I, for one, will freely admit that those are some of my favorite pursuits of the season.  After all, it is Saranac Lake, there’s a fresh snowfall, and it’s just so beautiful.  But John the Baptist always pays us a disruptive visit on the second Sunday of Advent to see if he can change our minds about what this time leading up to Christmas is all about.

Advent is a prophetic, preparatory season, so after Jesus’ apocalyptic message last week, it is only fitting that this week John the Baptist strides across the wild country surrounding the Jordan River, looking and sounding a lot like a Hebrew prophet.  John had heard a message from God Almighty, a word so significant and relevant that he felt compelled to preach it.  Drawn by his powerful preaching, crowds came from the cities and villages.  They flocked to the banks of the Jordan to hear John speak.

Luke calls our attention to the political and religious landscape of the day by naming seven of the most powerful and affluent men in John’s world.  Tiberius rose to the rank of emperor after military conquests in Pannonia, Dalmatia, and Germania and the mysterious deaths of those who were closer to the throne.  Annas and Caiphas were part of a priestly dynasty that would control the Temple until its destruction in the year 70.  Herod and Philip had followed in the footsteps of their father Herod the Great, living lavishly amid the poverty of the people they ruled.  Pilate, a military man like Tiberias, would govern Judea for ten years with a brute force that would eventually lead to his recall to Rome.  These men called the shots in the life of the Hebrew people with an earthly dominion that was brutal, costly, and oppressive.  That’s one heck-of-a context in which John shared the prophetic word of God.

We no longer contend with emperors and high priests or client kings and procurators, but we have our own less than desirable political, religious, and social realities that we contend with this Advent.  Don’t get us started on the gridlock, corruption, acrimony, and big money of partisan politics.  Don’t remind us about multi-million-dollar mega churches, high-flying televangelists, and miracle working faith-healers.  Don’t remind us about the rise of the “nones,” those neighbors, friends, and sometimes family members who say there is no God and scoff at our Christmas joy while putting up a Christmas tree, hanging stockings for Santa, exchanging gifts, and perhaps even coming to church on Christmas Eve.  How weary are we of twenty months of pandemic with shots and boosters, masks and hand sanitizer, social distance and unending variants?  Our world is not the same as John’s world, but we need God’s word to come to us, every bit as much as John’s listeners did.

And what a word it was.  John called his listeners to trust that God was still at work in a world dominated by petty despots.  God’s plan for the salvation of all people was unfolding in their midst.  A Messiah had come to usher in a holy and eternal Kingdom that would have no end.  Tiberias, Caiaphas, Herod, Philip, Pilate, all would one day be footnotes in the greatest story ever told, the story of a holy child, born in lowly circumstance, God Almighty, who would enter all those hard political, religious, and social realities to reveal to us an eternal love strong enough to break the powers of sin and death.  John called his listeners to be a part of that story, to join their purpose to God’s purpose with repentance that would prepare the way for that coming King.

Repentance—metanoia—means to change your mind, to turn around, to be reoriented.  John called his listeners to change their minds about what power and authority looked like.  John summoned the crowds to turn away from the powers, principalities, and preoccupations of their world and to turn instead to God.  John longed for his neighbors to be reoriented, to prepare for the coming Messiah, who alone would be worthy of their ultimate allegiance and devotion.

Alan Culpepper, who served as dean of the McAfee School of Theology for more than twenty years, teaches that John the Baptist continues to remind us that God is at work to bring salvation to all people.  We can trust that John’s prophetic word is true, regardless of our challenging political climate, our daunting religious landscape, the economics of inequality, and the limited social circumstances forced upon us by COVID-19.  Each Christmas, we remember that God continues to enter our world and work in ways that bring healing, redemption, new beginnings, and a love that is stronger than death. 

That promise of God’s salvation calls for our repentance.  Amid the beauty and magic of these weeks, the music and decorations, Santa and shopping, gift-making and gift-giving, we return to God.  We change our minds about what is really important in this busy and overscheduled season.  We turn our lives around.  We make straight the behaviors that have gone crooked.  We smooth out the rough places where we have been captivated by political powers or we have been preoccupied with consumption, or we have lost sight of religious truth.  As John the Baptist preachers, we reevaluate our priorities and grant God the authority and reverence that God so richly deserves.

As the crowds sat on the banks of the Jordan and listened to John preach, their perspective shifted.  They worried less about the trifling despots of their world.  They remembered God’s long history of raising up heroes, toppling empires, and delivering faithful people.  They began to trust that God was still at work for their salvation and the redemption of all people.  Repentance came in the changing of minds, hearts, and priorities.  They returned to God.  Then, as an outward sign of that inward shift, they were baptized.  Afterward, as the people returned to their villages, their political and religious realities hadn’t changed one bit.  Tiberias remained the emperor, Caiaphas still held sway in the Temple, and Herod would continue to collect their taxes.  But John’s listeners felt freer, lighter, more hopeful.  God was at work.  The Messiah was coming.

As John’s prophetic word finds us this morning amid the beauty and magic of a Saranac Lake Christmas, may we, too, find that our perspective has shifted.  In the first year of the Biden presidency and the second year of the pandemic.  When Kathy Hochul was the first woman governor of New York, Clyde was marking his final year as mayor, and the Atlanta Braves shut out the Astros to win the World Series, the word of God comes to us.  God is still at work, my friends.  The Messiah comes with the promise of salvation for all people.  It’s a promise powerful enough to change our minds, turn us around, and reorient us in God.  May it be so.  Amen.


R. Alan Culpepper.  “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

David Lose. “Commentary on Luke 3:1-6” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 6, 2009.  Accessed online at

Audrey West. “Commentary on Luke 3:1-6” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 5, 2021.  Accessed online at

Kathy Beach-Verhey. “Homiletical Perspective on Luke 3:1-6” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Veli-Matti Karkkainen. “Theological Perspective on Luke 3:1-6” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Photo by Vladislav Murashko on


Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Signs” Luke 21:25-36

The gap between church and society is at no time more noticeable than it is on this first Sunday of Advent.

Out there, enormous, electric snowflakes hang from village lampposts as a sign of the season.  In here, the Advent wreath has returned to its seasonal home, above the baptismal font. 

Out there, we have weathered the buying frenzy of Black Friday and small business Saturday, and we are anticipating the online deals to be found on Cyber Monday.  In here, we are thinking about using our resources to help neighbors in need throughout the coming weeks.  We are bringing in canned corn for Christmas Food Boxes or undertaking a Reverse Advent Calendar or planning the gift of clean water with shallow wells for Africa. 

Out there, strings of Christmas lights are decking the eaves.  Snowy yards are about to sprout inflatable snowmen and Grinches.  In here, we have donned the penitential color of purple and hung Advent greens that speak of eternal life amid winter’s death.

Out there, the feasting and merriment have begun.  The grocery stores are filled with holiday treats, we can place our order for Buche de Noel at the Left Bank Café, and we are revving up for holiday gatherings with family and friends after twenty long months of social distance.  In here, Advent has traditionally called us to fasting, study, reflection, and repentance.  We probably won’t fast, but we’ll take home Advent devotionals for reading and prayer, or we’ll Zoom together to learn from C.S. Lewis.

Out there, we’ve been hearing Christmas carols ever since Halloween.  In here, we listen to the somber sounds of “Wachet Auf,” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.”

Out there, we are more than a month away from champagne toasts, the ball dropping in Times Square, and the joyful greeting of “Happy New Year!”  In here, we keep God’s time with a holy calendar that today marks the start of a new year.

In these weeks of Advent, there is a palpable gap between our church life and the spin that our culture has put on preparing for Christmas.  Can you see it?  Can you feel it?

That gap between the sacred and the secular seems even more pronounced when we ponder today’s reading from Luke’s gospel.  Sounding a lot like the Old Testament Prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Joel, Jesus got downright apocalyptic, warning his listeners of a coming Day of Judgment.  There would be signs in the heavens, chaos among the nations, and tumult upon the waters.  Amid the discord and disruption, Jesus called his followers to vigilance, saying: look, be on guard, stay alert, pray.  All that eerie, end times prognostication sounds ominous and hard to swallow along with our holiday eggnog.

It helps to remember that when Jesus stood in the Temple court and got all prophetic, he was in the midst of a different holiday season, and he was surrounded by people who were sadly and fearfully aware of the gap between God’s Kingdom and the world that they lived in.  It was Passover week. From around Israel and across the Roman Empire, the Jewish people had come to Jerusalem to remember that God had once delivered them from the cruel bondage of Egypt.  With plagues of frogs and gnats, darkness, disease, and death, God had shown Pharaoh who was boss, and then Moses had led the people forth to freedom.  That Passover week, Jesus and his friends would remember God’s deliverance with the sacrifice of a lamb, the signing of psalms, and the sharing of a final Passover seder.

There was a tense, politically-charged gap between those Passover memories and the everyday reality of Jesus’s listeners.  Israel was again in bondage, a vassal state of the Roman Empire.  A legion of Roman soldiers had ridden out of Caesarea and up to Jerusalem amid the Passover pilgrims.  Any dreams of Jewish freedom would be promptly and brutally quashed.  The local political and religious powers served the emperor’s purpose, not God’s purpose.  As that week continued, this would become increasingly clear as the Temple authorities conspired with Judas to arrest and condemn the Lord.

Given the context in which Jesus’s prophetic words were originally spoken, they take on a hopeful tone.  As Jesus spoke in the Temple court, he reminded his listeners that it was God, not Rome, who had ultimate authority.  God, who had launched creation with a Big Bang, hurled a billion stars across the heavens, and delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, God was still at work and would one day bring all things to completion.  Indeed, before the week was out, God’s epic plan for the world’s redemption would embark on a new chapter as Jesus took on the sins of the world on the cross and launched a revolution of self-giving love that continues to ripple through the corridors of time.  God’s Kingdom was coming.  They could count on it.  There was hope to be had amid the world’s darkness.

In the UK, the train conductor encourages travelers to “mind the gap” as they step off the platform and onto the train, to notice and attend to the divide between the two.  In this Advent season, Jesus’s apocalyptic words are a little like that conductor’s call.  We are to be mindful of the gap between God’s Kingdom and life as we know it.  It’s terribly tempting to board the Christmas juggernaut, to be swept along in these coming weeks by the non-stop shopping, eating, decorating, celebrating, and partying whirlwind.  That train is leaving the station and it’s standing room only, but Advent invites us to a different kind of journey.  I’m not telling you to give up your seat on the Polar Express, but Jesus and I are asking you this morning to simply mind the gap.  Remember the true reason for the season.  Notice the people and places where redemption is needed, God feels distant, and the love of Christ would sure make a difference.

This Advent, we could resolve to live as signs of that coming Kingdom where justice is served, the wounded find wholeness, and love prevails.  This Advent we could dare to bridge the gap between “in here” and “out there.”  Would you like to know how?

Be hope for those bowed down with sorrow or grief.  Send them a caring note.  Include them in your holiday plans.  Invite a hurting friend to join you for our Longest Night service on December 8th, when in shared worship, prayer, and music we will be reassured of God’s steadfast love.

Be care and compassion for a neighbor who feels lost and alone.  Take them an Advent devotional.  Share with them a link to our online worship.  Bring them along to a Sunday service or for story-telling and music in our Blest Be the Tie Christmas Evening on Dec. 15.

Be generous with and for those who know poverty and privation in this world of terrible abundance.  Ring the bell for the Salvation Army.  Make a donation for a Christmas Food Box.  Volunteer with the Holiday Helpers.  Help us meet our goal of giving shallow wells to six African villages.

Be love for those people who are hard-to-love.  You know them: the prickly and the grumpy, the mean and the miserly, the bigot and the bleeding heart.  Try a random act of kindness.  Turn the other cheek.  Listen deeply, pray fervently, and don’t give up.  Be your best Bob Cratchitt to the Ebenezer Scrooges of this world.

Mind the gap, my friends.  Be signs of Christ, who bridge the gulf between “in here” and “out there.”  As we stand, like Jesus did, in that uncomfortable gap between life as it was meant to be and life as we know it, we just may catch sight of that other Kingdom, the heavenly one that Jesus anticipated all those years ago.  May it be so.  Amen.


Wesley D. Avram. “Pastoral Perspective on Luke 21:25-36” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Kathy Beach-Verhey. “Homiletical Perspective on Luke 21:25-36” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Mariam J. Kamell. “Exegetical Perspective on Luke 21:25-36” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Photo by k andy on

Luke 21:25-36

25“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”