Let us pray. May I decrease so You may increase and may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to You, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
My sermon title this morning is “The Way is Prepared.” Again the sermon title is, “The Way is Prepared.”
The River Jordan is a fascinating geographic phenomenon. In Northern Israel, the Jordan flows into the Sea of Galilee. You may recall the Sea of Galilee as the location where Jesus says to Simon Peter and Andrew “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” And immediately they did. Also at the Sea of Galilee, Jesus calls James and John, the sons of Zebedee out of their boats and they too immediately leave their nets and follow Him.1
Why are Peter, Andrew, James, and John at the Sea of Galilee? Because they are fishermen. And if you know anything about fishing, you know fishers go to where the fish are biting. There are a lot of fish biting in the Sea of Galilee. According to the Gospel of Luke, there are enough fish to rip the nets of the fishermen and even sink their boats.2
It is interesting that the Jordan runs into the Sea of Galilee and leaves it teeming with life. Then the very same Jordan River, the very same water, runs into the Dead Sea and stays there. The Jordan River and its life-giving water stops dead in its tracks in the Dead Sea.
The difference between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea is that the Jordan River both enters and leaves the Sea of Galilee, while it only enters in the Dead Sea. The Sea of Galilee is teeming with life, while the Dead Sea is filled with salt and minerals, which might be great for your skin if you have $28 to burn at the mall, but even the quick-to-follow-fishermen turned dumb-as-doornails-disciples knew that you can’t catch a fish in the Dead Sea. In fact, the mineral deposits left in the Dead Sea have killed everything, even the vegetation, in the water.
The story of the River Jordan, the Sea of Galilee, and the Dead Sea teaches us about life. What goes up, must come down. What goes in, must come out. To have life a river must run THROUGH it. Not to be too crass, but this is true with our bodily functions also. If we keep taking food in but never let the food out, we would have problems too and ultimately we would be as lively as the Dead Sea. But when what we take in also flows out in a healthy manner, we will be filled with life like the Sea of Galilee.
Saint Paul reminds us not to keep our spiritual drink3 and life-giving-water4 to ourselves but “that with one heart and mouth” we “may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”5 Brothers and Sisters, we cannot keep the Good News of Jesus Christ to ourselves and be alive! We must glorify God if we want to be the Sea of Galilee. If we keep it to ourselves, we will suffer the same fate as the Dead Sea.
Let’s face it. Let’s be real with ourselves. Overall, Lutherans have problems with this. We are justified by faith through grace, and not by works. We don’t need to do anything to be saved. Even if Lutheran Services in America serves 6 million unduplicated clients a year,6 we don’t have to do it. That’s just a nice little bonus.
In an interview with Dr. Lauren Artess, a specialist in Labyrinths, Artess explains that the whole Christian tradition has a false sense of the relationship between contemplation and action. We do not think going to Church and contemplating God’s grace and unconditional love has any real impact on our actions in the world. We say “Go in peace and serve the Lord” or “Go in peace and remember the poor” or “Go in peace, Christ goes before you.” But when we leave the prayerful house of God where we have contemplated the Law and Gospel in our Scriptures and our world, do we then forget what we just contemplated when we watch the evening news? As Luther put it, “it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.”7 And we should not forget, John the Baptist prepares the way for the One who “will baptize … with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”8 We are not baptized with apathy or cultural amnesia, but quite the opposite. We are baptized by a God of the living, not of the dead.9
We tend to put our contemplations and our actions into different compartments. When Luther said a thousand monks could pray for a thousand years and not do the good that a father does changing one of his son’s diapers, Luther was not putting faith and actions into different compartments - just like you can’t put heat, light, fire, and the Holy Spirit into different compartments. It doesn’t work that way. As Garrison Keillor put it, “going to church no more makes you a Christian than standing in a garage makes you a car.”10
So, now, what is a Christian, then, if it is not someone who just goes to church? A Christian, by definition, is Christ-like. And Christ, or the shoot from the branch of Jesse according to Isaiah, bears fruit. Notice in verse 1 of Isaiah 11, Christ doesn’t hold onto the fruit, He doesn’t keep the fruit for Himself, He only bears the fruit or produces the fruit. The fruit passes through Him, if you will. Isaiah’s words are not meant just for Christ. Isaiah’s words are meant for the bride of Christ – that is the Church – also. Isaiah’s words are meant for us.
This shoot from the branch of Jesse has the Spirit of the Lord resting on Him, with the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord-and He will delight in the fear of the Lord.11
What if we delighted in the fear of the Lord? What if we were Christ-like?
According to Isaiah, we would not judge by what we see with our eyes or decide by what we hear with our ears. But with righteousness we will judge the needy, with justice we will give decisions for the poor of the earth. We will strike the earth with the rod of our mouths; with the breath of our lips we will slay the wicked.12 Does this mean we maintain our Lutheran quietism? I think if we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to get a little louder as a Church!
If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to tell someone that there’s too much violence in Philadelphia.
If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to tell someone that it is not okay for the elderly to be choosing between medications and groceries.
If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to tell someone that it’s not very Christian for a nation to have 1 out of every 99.1 adult citizens in prison.13
If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to tell someone that it’s not righteous and just that more black men go to prison than to college. We need to tell someone that the rates in wealthy, predominantly white, Chestnut Hill and Lafayette Hill are much smaller 1 out of 99 while the rate in poorer, predominately black, North Philly and West Philly is much larger than 1 out of 99.
If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to start by admitting that “the land of the free and the home of the brave”14 is in a social exile in this enslaved, imprisoned, and fearful country.
If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to judge the needy with righteousness.15
If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to give decisions for the poor with justice.16
If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need stop judging by what we see and hear17 and start loving our neighbors as ourselves.18
If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to open up our hearts and mouths19 and breathe out the spiritual blessings that we have received, for we do not fight evil with evil, but overcome evil with good.20
If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to love our enemies as Christ loved us21 even as we were still His enemy.
If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to love because “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”22 and “force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness,”23 and apathy begets apathy, and love is the only way.
If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to find those religious folks who are not accepting others as Christ accepted them and call a spade a spade24: “You brood of vipers!”25
If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we just need to shout: Hey World! Jesus loves you!
If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we will overflow the banks of our Dead Sea with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit because we are filled with all joy and peace as we trust in God.26 We can’t keep it in. We can’t hold it in any longer. The flood is coming in the form of a Child.
The Reformers could not hold it in any longer. We have a Lutheran tradition of overflowing. We have embraced our label of Protestants or protesters because we protest the wicked with our breath. When we found religions that preach buying and working your way and others’ ways into heaven, we protested. When we found religions that lifted up a quote-unquote sinless person in Rome as having spiritual powers, we protested. When we find religions that are oppressive and teach people that if they are poor God doesn’t love them and if they have become wealthy by oppressing the poor then God really loves them, we protest and say Jesus was poor. When we find religions that claim if you just pray harder you will be healed, we protest because Jesus prayed pretty hard on the cross and yet He still died to wash us clean in His blood.27 When we find religions that judge sinners, we must protest because we are all made in God’s image28 yet fall short of the glory of God,29 we are saints and sinners. When we find religions that say there is a separation of church and state so quiet down and keep your beliefs out of politics, we must protest and say God is God of everything – spiritual and political!
When we find religions that say modern people are intelligent, sophisticated, scientific, secular, post-enlightenment, critical thinkers who either disperse with the supernatural and miraculous as mythical elements of ancient and bygone dreamers who simply didn’t know any better. Or we tolerate Scripture as perhaps having allegorical significance or metaphorical value at best. “The wolf will live with the lamb?”30 Most of us don’t believe that even as we read it. Please …. Let’s face it: we no longer believe the earth is flat or that the sun revolves around us. We won’t believe we can take a passage like this seriously.
The wolf will live with the lamb? That is about as likely as having a black man, a woman, and a person over 70 as serious candidates for president.
The leopard will lie down with the goat?31 That is about as likely as having a black man and two women being the three finalists for Bishop in the SEPA Synod.
The calf and the lion and the yearling together?32 That is about as likely as the 18 and 0, previously undefeated New England Patriots losing their recent Super Bowl dominance to the lowly and unlikely New York Giants.
And a little Child will lead them?33 That is about as likely as the Word becoming flesh.34 God becoming a baby, God becoming a carpenter, God allowing God’s-self to suffer, cry, be rejected, tortured, mocked, taunted, scoffed at, nailed to a cross, God actually dying and being buried and God raising God-self three days later.
The cow will feed with the bear and their young will lie down together?35 That is about as likely as God using a prostitute like Rahab,36 the youngest son of Jesse: a shepherd boy named David,37 the “I don’t want to go to Nineveh!” Jonah,38 the zealous for the Lord39 Christian-persecuting Saul, or a belt-and-camel-skin-wearing locusts-and-wild-honey-eating40 voice in the wilderness41 preparing the way for God. It is about as likely as God using me and all my sins or you and all your sins.
The lion will eat straw like the ox?42 That is about as likely as the human race persisting through the historical record of human sacrifice, the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, slavery in all its forms, genocide and ethnic cleansing to continue to reach for the societal ideals of life, liberty, justice, freedom, righteousness, and peace.
Water coming out of a rock?43 That is about as likely as the third rock from the sun in this particular solar system having just the right conditions for life.
6 jars of water turned into 6 jars of wine at a wedding feast?44 That is about as likely as a prodigal alcoholic being accepted back into their family.
5 loaves and 2 fish being multiplied to feed 5,000 people with a surplus of 12 basketfuls?45 That is about as likely as Gandhi fasting so India could gain independence from England through non-violence.
7 loaves and a few small fish being multiplied to feed 4,000 people with a surplus of 7 basketfuls?46 That is about as likely as a black preacher moving America to social change in the 1950’s and 60’s.
People walking on water?47 That is about as likely as the world’s largest religion beginning from a motley crew of 12 uneducated men, 4 of whom were going-nowhere-fishermen, who hardly ever understood their teacher.
The blind receiving sight, the deaf hearing, the lame walking, the leper cleansed, the demon-possessed exorcised, sinners forgiven, the lost found, the dead raised? That is about as likely as a group of people coming together every Sunday morning to serve rather than to be served48 and to worship a God they cannot see.
Jesus Christ coming again? That is about as likely as the same Jordan River connecting a lively Sea of Galilee to the lifeless Dead Sea.
It was in that very Jordan River where Jesus was baptized.49 We too are baptized into a death like His.50 We enter this torn up world filled with people divided among themselves. Through our baptisms, we enter this dire place as new creations.51 New creations filled with hope that “Thy kingdom WILL come” through the power of God which has been given to us.52 Hope that our faith in Jesus’ resurrection is not in vain.53 And an unfailing certain hope54 that our sins are forgiven, that if the Son sets us free, we will be free indeed,55 and that as Christians we are free to sin boldly (and have faith more boldly still) to prepare the way for “Thy kingdom”56 to come.
Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Saint Paul did what they could to prepare the way. They prophesied about the ills of society, they proclaimed the forgiveness of sins, and they raised money for the poor in Jerusalem.57 All of those things prepared the way for “Thy kingdom” to come. They have passed on that tradition to Augustine and Ambrose and Athanasius. Who used theology to prepare the way for “Thy kingdom” to come. And they passed it on to Jerome and Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas. Who refined theologies for their world to prepare the way for “Thy kingdom” to come. And they passed it on to Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon and all the Reformers. Who reformed the world away from earthly kingdoms and corrupt theologies to prepare the way for “Thy kingdom” to come. And they passed it on to Jonathan Edwards and Henry Muhlenberg and John Wesley. Who did what they could to prepare the New World for “Thy kingdom” to come. And they passed it on to Dietrich Bonheoffer and Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa. Who fought against cheap grace, racial injustices, and poverty to prepare the way for “Thy kingdom” to come. And they passed it on to us.
Now, if I may ask one more question, what are we going to do with it? Are we going to keep it to ourselves? Are we going to stop dead in our tracks like the Jordan River in the Dead Sea? Or are we going to pass it on and rejoice while overflowing with hope until we are teeming with life? The way has been prepared for us to prepare the way. The way is prepared for us to prepare the way.
“There’s a voice in the wilderness crying,
A call from the ways untrod:
Prepare in the desert a highway,
A highway for our God!
The valleys shall be exalted,
The lofty hills brought low;
Make straight all the crooked places
Where God, our God, may go!” 58
1 Matthew 4:18-22
2 Luke 5:4-7
3 1 Corinthians 10:3
4 John 4:14
5 Romans 15:6 (NIV)
6 “Lutheran Services in America” http://www.lutheranservices.org. March 8, 2008.
7 Luthers Works, volume 35
8 Matthew 3:11 (NIV)
9 Matthew 22:32, Mark 12:27, Luke 20:38
10 Multiple citations online including “Garrison Keillor – Wikiquote.” http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Garrison_Keillor. March 8, 2008. and “Garrison Keillor quotes – Famous quotes from Garrison Keillor from Basic Questions.” http://www.basicquotations.com/index.php?aid=980. March 8, 2008.
11 Isaiah 11:1-3 (NIV)
12 Isaiah 11:3-4 (NIV)
13 Liptank, Adam. “1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind Bars, New Study Says – New York Times.” http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/28/us/28cnd-prison.html?ex=1361941200&en=9f78e91a7de6aabc&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink. February 28, 2008.
14 U.S. National Anthem
15 Isaiah 11:4
16 Isaiah 11:4
17 Isaiah 11:3
18 Matthew 22:39
19 Romans 15:6
20 Romans 12:21
21 Matthew 5:44
22 Mahatma Gandhi
23 Martin Luther King Jr. “Loving Your Enemies”
24 Luther would describe the Theology of the Cross as calling a spade a spade, where a Theology of Glory does not call things as they are.
25 Matthew 3:7
26 Romans 15:13
27 Revelation 7:15
28 Genesis 1:26
29 Romans 3:23
30 Isaiah 11:6 (NIV)
31 Isaiah 11:6 (NIV)
32 Isaiah 11:6 (NIV)
33 Isaiah 11:6 (NIV)
34 John 1:14
35 Isaiah 11:7 (NIV)
36 Joshua 2
37 1 Samuel 16
38 Jonah 1:1-4:11
39 Galatians 1:14
40 Matthew 3:4
41 Matthew 3:1
42 Isaiah 11:7 (NIV)
43 Exodus 17, Numbers 20, Nehemiah 9:15
44 John 9:1-10
45 Matthew 14:14-21
46 Matthew 15:32-38
47 Matthew 14:25-29
48 Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45 (also part of the mission statement of the congregation I imagine preaching to)
49 Matthew 3:13
50 Romans 6:3
51 2 Corinthians 5:17
52 John 16:15
53 1 Corinthians 15:58
54 Hebrews 11:1
55 John 8:36
56 Luke 11:2 (KJV)
57 Acts 24:17 and Romans 15:26
58 James Lewis Milligan. “There’s a Voice in the Wilderness.” Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Hymn #255. Augsburg Fortress. Minneapolis, MN. October 2006.