Sermon for Christmas Eve 2015

Luke 2:1-20

Christmas is about family. This seems like a rather obvious statement. Of course Christmas is about family. We have visions of what a perfect Christmas should look like: everyone gathered together in one home, all bundled up in warm fuzzy sweaters—maybe even those infamous ugly Christmas sweaters—to go outside and play in the snow, and to be greeted by Grandma with fresh-baked cookies and hot chocolate when you come inside. Then everyone cleans up and gets dressed in beautiful Christmas dresses and suits to come to worship on Christmas Eve, singing carols and praising God for sending little baby Jesus to Mary, who, with Joseph, is huddled in a cold barn with her newborn baby, all alone except for the shepherds who the angels hustle off of their hills and who leave their sheep to come and worship Jesus. Then, the family returns home, where the children go to sleep, Santa comes during the night, and in the morning, everyone gathers around the tree to open gifts. This picture sounds like the American dream of what Christmas should be like, doesn’t it?

Well, it’s true, Christmas is about family. But family isn’t always perfect like that, is it? Families come in all shapes and sizes: divorces and remarriages make blended families; families may be celebrating a Christmas without someone they love because of death or illness or distance; and even in families that are “whole,” there may be disagreements, resentments, and arguments simmering just under the surface, ready to be whipped out if the wrong person says the wrong thing at the wrong time. Then there may be the accident, like in the movie, “A Christmas Story,” where the neighborhood dogs get in and eat the perfectly cooked turkey, forcing the family to go out for Chinese food on Christmas Day. Christmas is rarely perfect.

And you know what? That’s okay. Because the day when Jesus was born was not perfect, either. Because of a far-off distant governmental order to go and register for taxation, Joseph and a heavily pregnant Mary had to travel, by foot, 70 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. When I was young, I took horseback riding lessons, and during one lesson, my instructor, who was eight months pregnant at the time, got up on a horse who was misbehaving for a student to try and get him to behave. We all thought she was going to give birth at that moment! Thankfully, she didn’t, but that’s the image of Mary that we should have: walking 70 miles, maybe riding a donkey, from Nazareth to Bethlehem. No wonder she was ready to give birth by the time they got to Bethlehem!

But, here’s the thing: when Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem, they were not alone. Luke tells us that they went to Bethlehem because Joseph was of the house and family of David, and Bethlehem was David’s hometown. We don’t know what made Joseph relocate from Bethlehem to Nazareth in the first place, but it was certain that there were still members of the extended family living in Bethlehem. And our image of the holy couple being all alone in a stable comes, in part, from a mistranslation of the Greek: the word kataluma in Greek has been translated into English as “inn” for many centuries, and we modern English-speakers picture a quaint little motel with an innkeeper flashing a sign in the couple’s faces saying “no vacancy”. But the word kataluma should not be translated as “inn,” and if Joseph was returning to his family home in Bethlehem, no way would he and Mary have stayed at an inn. Inns in those days were more like saloons were out here in the Old West. No, kataluma more properly means “guest room”. There was no place for Mary and Joseph in the guest room in the family home, because it was already crowded with other out-of-town members of the family who had come to be registered. And so, when it was clear that Mary was about to have her baby, she went to the part of the house where the animals were kept. There she would have had more room to have her child. But, family would have been nearby, and they probably would have sent for a midwife to help her out.

I tell you this not to ruin anyone’s idea of what Jesus’ birth was like, but to bring deeper meaning to this story for you. What does it mean for us to imagine Jesus being born in the midst of family? How would Joseph have introduced Mary to his family: “Hey, everyone, I want you to meet Mary. Oh, by the way, no, we’re not married yet. Yes, she’s pregnant, but no, the baby’s not mine. An angel of the Lord came and told her that it was God’s Son. I believe her, and I’m going to claim the baby and be his father here on earth.” Well, how would something like that go over in your family? Not well, I’m guessing. However “not well” it would go over in your own family, multiply that by about 100 times, and you’ll get an idea of how “not well” that would go over in a Jewish family living in Judea in the first century.

Luke, though, leaves all of that to our imagination, and zeroes in on the moment of birth. In a short, two-sentence description, he says, “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the kataluma, the guest room.” I think that, when Mary went into labor, all questions, doubts, and possible condemnations by the family were put aside as everyone became tense with waiting and anticipation: Would Mary survive the labor? How about the baby? Would the baby indeed be a boy, as Joseph said? And even with these strange circumstances surrounding Mary and Joseph, shouldn’t we welcome the baby as one of our family, even as Joseph already has? After all, it’s not the baby’s fault. And so, when the cry of a healthy baby rings out from the area where the animals are, the whole family breathes a sigh of relief, and, one by one, begins to crowd into the area to take a look.

But then, as Joseph’s family surrounds the happy couple, oo-ing and ah-ing over how cute the little baby Jesus is, and maybe helping Mary to be more comfortable—and just when those previous questions and doubts are coming back to the surface–there is a knock at the door. When the door is opened, in come a group of dusty, dirty shepherds, perhaps with a stray lamb or two frolicking at their feet. Now, remember, this is a moment for family—how would you feel if, moments after your child had been born, the neighbors who you don’t know very well, if at all, came knocking on the door asking to see the baby? That’s what these shepherds do, though—and they tell an incredible story about angels coming to announce this baby’s birth—the baby that Joseph’s family probably suspects is the result of Mary sleeping around, because who would believe this fantastic story about the baby being God’s Son? But that’s exactly the message that the shepherds come with: the angels told them that this baby is the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. Part of me wonders now if the shepherds served more than one purpose for God: not only to worship Jesus, not only to tell others about Jesus, but also to give proof to Joseph’s family that the story that Mary and Joseph told about Jesus was true.

So, what does all of this mean for us? It means that Jesus came, not into a perfect, Christmas-card family, but he came as a baby to an unwed young mother. Jesus came, not to the halls of royal power, but to a poor and insignificant family in the backwater Roman province known as Judea. And Jesus came, not just for his family, but for those shepherds out on the hills who were intruding on what should have been a private family moment. Jesus comes today for everyone: those who seem like they have it all together and those who think that if one more bad thing happens to them, they’re going to call it quits; those who have absolutely nothing in life as well as those who want for nothing; those who have the perfect family and those who have been divorced three times and are estranged from their current spouse; the citizen of this country as well as the immigrant and the refugee. God came down to Earth as a baby, born of a human mother, to show us what true love and mercy is. And all flesh—ALL FLESH—has seen and will see God’s salvation.

So, don’t worry if you don’t have the perfect Christmas. Don’t worry if family arguments cloud memories of Christmas. Jesus is still there with you, offering forgiveness and reconciliation. If you’re sad because you’re missing someone important this holiday, it’s okay to be sad, for Jesus is still there with you, and he mourns with you. Jesus has come for you and for me, giving salvation and healing, and welcoming all of us into his family to greet him, no matter who we are, where we’ve come from, or where we are in our life’s journey. Come and worship the newborn King. Come and be part of Jesus’ family. Amen.

 

Sermon for Advent 4C

Sermon for Advent 4C

Luke 1:39-55

 

Songs are funny things. Everyone has their favorites and everyone has those songs that they wish would be buried and forgotten forever. If you have any doubts about that, come and sit in on a worship committee meeting some time as we wrestle over hymns to pick each week: each one of us has our favorites and our “most hated” list, and very rarely do we agree with one another on which belongs in which category. One song that falls into either the most hated or the most loved category and that has made the rounds each Christmas season in recent years is, “Mary, Did You Know”. The song asks if Mary knew that her new baby boy, Jesus, would heal people, rule the nations, etc. Every time that song floats over the airwaves and my mother hears it, she says, “Oh that is the stupidest song ever. OF COURSE Mary knew all of those things! Why are you wasting your time even asking? Go read your Bible.” Or, something along those lines. I have to admit that I tend to agree with her. But this week, as I was thinking about today’s Gospel lesson, that song crossed through my mind and I thought to myself, “Did Mary really know those things that the song asks, or are my mother and I just assuming that she did because she was, you know, Mary—she was holy and all that.” And it occurred to me that we can get a good idea of what Mary knew and didn’t know about her coming baby from today’s Gospel lesson. So, today, let’s see if we can figure out what, exactly, Mary did know about her baby Jesus.

The first thing the angel Gabriel tells Mary about the son that she is going to bear is that, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” We who live after the resurrection and who have 2000+ years of Christian interpretation automatically know that Jesus was not an earthly king. But let’s try to put ourselves in Mary’s place for a moment. Mary has grown up hearing the stories of her people put under the oppression of a Greek king named Antiochus about 150 years before she lived, when Antiochus used all sorts of atrocious methods to get the Jewish people to worship him as a god. She has heard the stories of the revolt of the Maccabees, which I referred to last week when I spoke of Hanukkah. Mary has heard these stories, and she is living under another oppressive empire, the Roman Empire. And now here comes an angel telling her she is going to bear the Son of the Most High, and that her son will be given the throne of his ancestor David. She is not imagining, even in her wildest dreams, that for her baby boy to gain a throne he would be crucified and resurrected. Instead, I’m willing to bet that she’s dreaming her baby boy will grow up and somehow throw off Roman rule, and be king over a free Israel, and that they will never live under foreign rule ever again. Perhaps she’s even imagining the kind of power she might gain as the queen mother. With that in mind, think of verse 52 of her song once more: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”

So, Mary knew that her son was going to be a king, even though she didn’t know that God defined the term “king” differently than she did. But Mary also knew that her son was the Son of God, and therefore would be different than other people’s children. Now, this might seem obvious when we think about it, because Mary makes it a point of asking the angel how she was supposed to give birth when she hadn’t been with a man. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” Can we imagine what it would be like to be mother to God? Wouldn’t we feel some sort of fear and trembling if we were to tell Jesus to pick up his toys? This is an absolutely huge responsibility—and yet, after Mary’s “how will this be” question is answered, she boldly reaches forth and grasps this tremendous gift and responsibility with both hands. The promises that God has made to his people are about to be fulfilled—and God has chosen Mary, a young girl low in status from a nothing little town in Galilee, and she grabs that chance to be part of God’s salvation of God’s people. One of my professors at seminary said that one of the silliest things that the church has ever said about Mary is that she was “meek and mild”. There is nothing meek and mild about Mary at all—in saying yes to bearing God’s child, she believes that she is now part of the resistance to the Roman Empire, and her status is elevated beyond her wildest dreams.

And yet . . . there is something more to Mary than simply dreams of being the queen mother and the mother of God. And that something shows up in her song, which generations of Christians have called the Magnificat: mercy. The dictionary defines mercy as “kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly; it is kindness or help given to people who are in a very bad or desperate situation.” Throughout the stories of what we call the Old Testament, God has shown mercy to his people over and over again when he could have treated them with justice. Mary sings of God’s mercy in her song when she says, “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” She claims that God is showing mercy again when she sings, “He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” Mary believes that God has shown mercy to her, even though she knows that when she returns to Nazareth after visiting Elizabeth, she could very well be put to death by the justice of a community outraged that she is pregnant, and not by her fiancé. And yet, she trusts in God’s mercy towards her; she trusts that if God has chosen her to be part of his plan for salvation, then God will protect her from the justice of her people.

Justice and mercy are two sides of the same coin. God looks upon us and sees all of the sin that we have committed. Justice would be death for us—for each and every one of us. Justice would be what John the Baptist warned us of last week: that we would be swept away like chaff. But instead, God looks upon us and chooses to be merciful: he chooses to be kind and forgiving towards us and all of God’s creation. God chooses to send us his Son, Jesus, born of Mary, to teach us what mercy is and finally to demonstrate mercy for us by dying on a cross. Mary did not know that this is what her son would do. She knew that Jesus would save, because the very meaning of the name Jesus is, “The Lord will save,” but she did not know that Jesus would have to die in order to bring us salvation. And yet Mary sings of God’s mercy to Elizabeth, and to those of us through the generations since who are disciples of her son.

We human beings like justice. We love the TV shows and the movies where the forces of good win and the forces of evil are defeated. Look at all of the excitement surrounding the new Star Wars movie, for example, with the light side and the dark side of the Force doing battle against one another again. In the real world, when we see a criminal put behind bars, we cheer. For example, the Internet cheered this week when Martin Shkreli, the guy who raised the price on a necessary drug to combat AIDS by 5000%, was arrested on charges of securities fraud. We love justice, at least when it’s not directed towards ourselves. And when it is directed at ourselves, we plead for mercy. We are hypocrites.

And so, in the final days before Christmas, what are some ways that we can repent of our unwillingness to be merciful and to show mercy to one another instead of demanding justice? Martin Luther’s explanation to the eighth commandment might be one place to start. The eighth commandment says, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Luther’s answer to the question, “What does this mean?” goes like this: We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.” When we hear something bad about someone, let’s not automatically jump to the worst possible conclusion, but look for the kindest explanation for their actions that is possible. For, as William Shakespeare once wrote, “Though justice be thy plea, consider this, / That, in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy; / And that same prayer doth teach us all to render / The deeds of mercy.” Let us be merciful to one another, because we all know that without God’s mercy upon each one of us, we would be hopelessly lost.

Mary knew this, too. She knew that without God’s mercy upon her and upon her people, she and they would be lost. This is what she sings of and praises God for, and what we continue to sing of and praise God for. But what she couldn’t imagine was how God’s mercy would take shape in the life, death, and resurrection of her son. She knew that her son was the Son of God and she knew that her son’s very name, Jesus, declared that God would save, but she didn’t know what that salvation would actually look like. So, before we close this meditation and sing Mary’s song once more, I’d like for us to listen to the song “Mary, Did You Know.” It’s still not my favorite song, but as I’ve worked with Mary this week, I don’t have as strong a reaction to it as I once did. And let’s remember as we listen that salvation and mercy do not always take the shape that we think they will, but that God brings these things to us even though we do not deserve them.

Sermon for Advent 3C

Luke 3:7-18

This week marked the festival of Hanukkah for our Jewish brothers and sisters. Hanukkah is a Festival of Lights which commemorates the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Jewish people retook it from the Seleucid Empire, which was ruling over the area at the time. The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus himself went up to Jerusalem for this Festival of Dedication. The story of Hanukkah says that, when they went to rededicate the Temple, there was only enough oil for a candle to be burning for one day, but that, miraculously, the candles burned for eight days instead. Present-day Jewish people mark Hanukkah by lighting a special menorah with eight candles, four on each side, and a ninth candle in the middle. That ninth candle is the one which lights the other candles, and is called a Shamash. Some of my Jewish friends, in celebration of Hanukkah, put up this meme by a famous rabbi:

Shamash

“The Shamash is the candle that lights the others. Be a Shamash.” I think we can instinctively understand his meaning, but let’s unpack this a little bit in light of today’s readings, because, as we’ll see, I think this is what they all boil down to.

John the Baptist is always a fun and intriguing character to talk about. He is our original fire-and-brimstone preacher, and he always shows up in Advent to make us just a little bit uncomfortable. Not too long ago, when I was asking my mother what she wanted for Christmas, she said she wanted a flag that she could put up outside with an Advent theme, like a wreath with the candles in it. I started laughing and said if she really wanted an Advent-style flag, I could get her one with a picture of John the Baptist on it, like this one:

John the Baptist Christmas

She was not amused, but that’s what she gets for having a daughter who’s a pastor, I suppose. John the Baptist is supposed to make us uncomfortable, though. He is preaching an urgency that we don’t always feel 2000+ years after Jesus has walked this earth. One is coming who is more powerful than I, he says. If you’re scared of me and my preaching of the judgment, he says, then wait until this one comes—he’s going to be even more frightening. You’re about to be cut down like that apple tree in your yard that has stopped bearing apples and is just taking up space, he says, so it’s time for you to get right with God. No wonder the people start asking him what they should do—they are rightly afraid, and they want to know what they have to do to avoid this judgment and to be the wheat, not the chaff.

What is perplexing to me is how Luke concludes this section of John the Baptist’s preaching: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” How in the world is all of this good news? Is Luke making some kind of inside joke, smiling to himself as he writes this? Who is this good news for? Doesn’t it place all kinds of obligations on me? Do I not feel the weight of my sin when I look at how I’ve failed to do all of the things that John is telling the people they need to do? Matthew Skinner, a professor at Luther Seminary, says that perhaps we need to look at the bigger picture here as we struggle to understand this as good news. Yes, judgment is coming, he says. But the good news is this: God’s demands of us are not unrealistic. They are not extraordinary or heroic demands. In fact, they are extremely ordinary. Those of us who have many things need to share our food and our clothes with those who do not. We must not cheat anybody in our daily dealings with others. And, we need to do our job and to be satisfied with what we receive in payment. It’s very simple, really. We are to be a Shamash and to spread light to others in the face of the darkness that surrounds us.

And darkness has certainly surrounded us this Advent, creeping upon us just as the shadows of darkness are literally coming upon us with the journey of the sun going further south in our skies. The darkness has come in the form of terrorist acts in Paris and in San Bernardino. The darkness has come in the form of the front runner for the presidential candidate of the Republican Party calling for a ban on all Muslims coming in to the United States and having an ID system for those Muslims who are already here. The darkness has come in the form of continued racial incidents in this country. The darkness continues to creep forward in the form of climate change, and the world making preparations for the worst even as we struggle to turn it around a little bit. Fear is everywhere, and the darkness gains strength.

What John tells us, though, is that the darkness will not win. One is coming who is more powerful than John, and through that one, Jesus Christ, the darkness and the evil will be judged and burned like chaff. While we are waiting for Jesus to return and make all things right, John tells us, we are to do those ordinary, mundane things that seem only like drops of light in the vast ocean of darkness, but in the end, will gather strength and turn the ocean to light. John stands in the line of all of the Old Testament prophets, especially Micah, who said, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Do justice: Speak out against the evil that comes in forcing people to identify themselves as one particular race or religion. The Nazis did that with the Jewish people in Europe. We did that here when we interned the Japanese in camps like the one right down the road from us. We should be learning from our mistakes and speaking out when people, out of fear, suggest we should do the same with another particular group. And I was pleased to see the editorial in Thursday’s Powell Tribune saying the same thing, and reminding the community of Powell what happened when we forcibly moved Japanese people into the internment camps. Love kindness: Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. Do not pre-judge people based on their race, or religion, but look for the good in others. Walk humbly with your God: Don’t think that you know everything there is to know. Don’t think that what you believe is right and if someone doesn’t think the same way that you do, that they are automatically wrong. I guarantee that, once we start thinking like that, God will find a way to bring us down a notch. Listen to the experience of others and learn from them. And then put that learning into practice.

The good news of John’s preaching also comes in the form of his baptism. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Even though John makes us squirm with his fire and brimstone preaching and his calling out of our sins, he proclaims that there is forgiveness of sins when we do repent. And even though John’s baptism was not quite the same as the baptism with which we are baptized, it reminds us that when we are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, our sin, too, is washed away. We, too, have forgiveness of sins. And that is, ultimately, what John was pointing to: the one who was coming who was more powerful than he was, who brings judgment, yes, but who wants to give us every chance to repent and to be forgiven, so that we can be the wheat gathered into the granary and not the chaff burned in the fire. This Jesus is who we wait for in Advent: not simply remembering and celebrating his birth, but also the one who we eagerly wait for to set all things right once more, all those things that we have done wrong on this earth.

The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called Gaudate Sunday, or Joy Sunday. Advent used to be a time of fasting, just like Lent was, but the third Sunday was marked as a kind of break in the fast, and the readings for the Sunday worship still reflect that Joy. That’s why we have a pink candle in our Advent wreath, to mark off this Sunday as special. Yes, John the Baptist is proclaiming good news, preaching that forgiveness of sins is freely given wherever there is repentance of sins. The Lord has taken away the judgments against us, as Zephaniah proclaims. And we are able to rejoice in the Lord always, as Paul urges us to do, in spite of the ever-threatening darkness which is all around us. That joy is not a happy clappy Pollyanna type feeling that ignores what is going on in the world. Instead, it is a deep joy that comes from the peace that the Lord gives us, that peace that knows that evil will not have the last word and the darkness will not win. It is the peace and joy that comes from knowing that Jesus will come again, in spite of everything that the world says, and that the judgment has been taken away from us through what Jesus will do for us on the cross.

Jesus is coming. While we wait in eager anticipation, we are to do the work which God has given us to do in order to spread that hope to others, not bringing in the kingdom ourselves—for only God can do that—but to be signs of that kingdom, drops of light, islands of hope, in this world. Do justice, share what you have with others, love kindness, don’t cheat others, walk humbly with your God, and be content with what you have. And above all, trust in the forgiveness of sins which Jesus freely gives to us. In other words, bring light to all those around you. Be a Shamash. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 2C

Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the twenty-first century, when Barack Obama was President of the United States, and Matt Mead was the governor of Wyoming, and Don Hillman was the mayor of Powell; when Elizabeth Eaton was the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA and Jessica Crist the bishop of the Montana Synod, the word of God came to Hope Lutheran Church in Powell. And the people of this congregation went into all the region around the Shoshone River, proclaiming . . . what? What is the word of God that has come to us here at Hope Lutheran Church of Powell, Wyoming? And are we going out into our community and proclaiming that word? Or do we think that the word of God comes only to figures like John the Baptist, and that God doesn’t speak to us anymore? Or, perhaps, some of you might be thinking that the word of God only comes to the pastor of this congregation, and therefore it’s the pastor’s job alone to go out and proclaim the word.

There are a couple of reasons that Luke starts out his story of John the Baptist by mentioning who the men in power were at that time. First, Luke is grounding this story in world history: he is showing us that this is not some kind of fairy tale, but that our salvation history took place in the context of real world figures. Secondly, and more importantly, Luke is being political. He is saying that the word of God did not come to people in power. God did not speak to the Roman emperor, who ruled all of the known world. God did not speak to any of the lower, more local officials like Pontius Pilate and Herod, who would both play a role in Jesus’ crucifixion. God did not speak even to the high priests, Annas and Caiaphas, the religious authorities who presided over the Temple in Jerusalem. No, God spoke to an obscure man living in the wilderness of the backwater part of the Roman Empire known as Judea. John was descended from the priestly family, yes, but he was not taking part in the rites at the Temple when God called him. So, in other words, Luke tells us that God was subverting all human expectations when he called John: he did not speak to the wealthy and the powerful, but he spoke to the poor, the lowly, and the obscure. And this is how our salvation story plays out: with apologies to Star Wars: Subversion Awakens.

Luke quotes the prophet Isaiah when he tells us that all flesh shall see the salvation of God. This in itself is subversive enough. As human beings, we often still have the mindset that good things happen to good people, those people who do the right things, who make lots of money, who have lots of power. Those would be the people that we would expect God to favor with his salvation. But no, Luke tells us that all flesh will see God’s salvation: and all means all. It means not only us good churchgoing folks, but it also means the homeless man who sits and begs on the streets in Billings. It means not only the 99% who struggle to make ends meet, but it does also include that 1% who seem to have everything they need in life. It means not only Americans but also Syrian refugees and illegal immigrants from Central and South America. All flesh will see God’s salvation.

So, I think the question we need to ask ourselves is: what does God’s salvation look like? How do we see salvation and where do we see it? And once we have seen it, how do we go about proclaiming it? Well, let’s start with what salvation looks like. As I was reading through Luke’s account of John the Baptist, I discovered that, unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke does not tell us about John’s appearance. I was surprised, because I was all ready to talk about John wearing clothing of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and eating locusts and wild honey. And I was going to compare him to the street preachers that we see sometimes, wearing sandwich boards, looking dirty and unkempt, and how we cross the street and walk on the other side so we don’t have to talk to them. But, folks, Luke doesn’t give us this description of John! So I’m not sure that I can quite go there, although perhaps there may be an opening for that line of thought when we hear the rest of John’s story next week.

On the other hand, though, this gives me more leeway in speaking about where and how we see God’s salvation. When Luke speaks of the word “salvation,” he does not mean only the idea of God forgiving us our sins so that we can go to heaven when we die. No, in Luke’s gospel, salvation happens right now. It is in Luke that we hear, for instance, Jesus telling people that “Today, salvation has come to this house.” Salvation has come and is here now, on this earth, in our lives right now. Salvation in Luke is also not just an individual salvation, but it is about bringing wholeness to the community in which it is proclaimed.

So I ask again, what does salvation look like? For John the Baptist, the word of God that showed salvation was a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins. For John, repentance was a vitally important first step: it not only brought forgiveness of sins, but it prepared the hearts and minds of the people for the one who was coming after him: Jesus, the Messiah. And true repentance was not just saying the words, “I’m sorry,” it also involved a complete reorientation of one’s life. Later this year we’ll hear the story of Zacchaeus, that wee little man who climbed the sycamore tree to see Jesus. When he repented of what he had done, that change in his life did not just mean for him to say, “I’m sorry,” and invite Jesus to come and live in his heart. Rather, it involved some major restitution to people that he had cheated, thus restoring peace not only to himself, but also to the community around him. Repentance means not only saying that we’re sorry, but it also means that our encounter with God’s salvation changes something inside of us, and that inside change motivates us to turn our entire life around 180 degrees from where it was before.

In this Advent season, when we’re all running around buying gifts for family and friends and attending parties, do we ever stop to reflect on what sins we have to repent of? Taking some time to reflect on both our individual sins and those sins of our society and repent of them would be an even better way to prepare for the arrival of Jesus than all of those things that we busy ourselves with in this month. I trust that we all are aware of the things that we do wrong in our individual lives, and so I’m not going to speak of those here today. I encourage all of you, in your devotional time with God, to reflect on what your individual sins are, to repent of them, and to find ways to restore right relationships with your friends and families.

What I’m going to speak of now is a sin in our society, and that sin is gun violence. I approach this topic with fear and trepidation. I’ve been with you all for over three years now, and I understand that for most of you who own guns, guns are necessary tools for hunting. I know that you are responsible gun owners and that you do what is necessary to keep safe, for example, taking hunter safety courses frequently. But, folks, we have a major epidemic of gun violence in this country, and this week’s mass shooting in San Bernardino is just the latest. Our country is turning into a society where mass shootings are now expected, and that is not the way that God wants us to live. When we see these mass shootings taking place, we need to start calling them what they are: they are acts of terrorism, whether or not the persons who commit them are white or Arab, Christian or Muslim, it doesn’t matter. And the truth is that we live in a society where those who govern us are afraid to pass sensible regulations about who can buy guns, what type of guns they can buy, and how many they can buy in a certain amount of time. This is something that we as a society need to stand up and repent of; something that we need to have a 180 degree shift in our thinking about. Whole living, where we live at peace with one another in our society, means to not live in fear of going to an office Christmas party because someone might have had enough and start to shoot everyone in sight.

Salvation is for all people, and all means all. Salvation is that wholeness, that peace, of living in harmony with one another. Salvation means that when the hard work of repentance, of 180 degree change in our lives, is done, there is forgiveness of sins. Salvation looks like this: some people of First Evangelical Lutheran Church-Redlands, in the area where the shooters of San Bernardino lived, taking flowers to the local mosque to let them know they are praying for them as well as the entire community. This group of God’s people has chosen to not live in fear, but to live in hope: hope that, despite what a couple of people have done, Christians and Muslims can live in peace with one another. In the fifteenth year of the 21st century, the word of God came to the people of Hope Lutheran in Powell. Will we now go out into all the region and proclaim that all flesh—all flesh—shall see the salvation of God, no matter what that looks like and how it will come? May God give us the courage and the strength to do so. Amen.