Sunday, December 26, 2010

December 26, 2010 - "The Master Plan"

Matthew 2:13-23

Did ya’ notice any reoccurring pattern in our reading this morning?

There are three stories to be told:
The escape to Egypt …
Herod’s infanticide ….
The return when Herod dies …

Three stories …
Three decisive moments …
Life hangs in the balance …

Three stories …
And three affirmations:
Did ya’ catch the recurring pattern?
The theme?

Fulfillment of what was spoken by the prophets …

The Master Plan …

God’s Master Plan … from the moment of creation, Big Bang and all … to this very moment, here and now - our lives, just as they are … and to the very end of time … and however it shall end, and whatever it’s like … God’s Master Plan moving history, and all of its torment and sorrow, along the ways of hope and peace.
Not that any of this is easy for God.

The whole story of God is one of struggle and challenge.
But God never gives up.
Or shall I say,
God gave up once!
God said, “I’m gonna wash these people right outta my hair.”

Remember the Noah story?
God was wearied of our foolish ways.
God said, The world needs a good cleaning.
Into the wash with all of ya’.
And if no one survives, tough!
You have been a huge disappointment.

Oh yeah, there’s one guy, Noah.
He’s not too bad.
Noah, build me an ark.

And you know the rest of the story.
And when it was done, no further ahead.
All of God’s anger and all that death – and we’re right back to square one.
So God points to the rainbow – a promise – I’ll not do that again!

God chooses the harder course of action.
To work with us.
To work in and through all the junk of history.
Abraham, Sarah, can I have a moment of your time?
We’re gonna work together.
I’m not promising you a rose garden, but I am promising to make your name great, and to craft a new world through you.
Together, we’re going to bless this world.
Whether it wants it or not.
And sometimes the world won’t want any of it.
And you may be rejected.
And the road ahead could be rough.

But, come on … we can do it!
Take my hand, and we’ll do it together.

When God sees the rainbow against the storm clouds.
God is reminded of the promise.

I suppose we could say that even God needs an attitude-adjustment now and then.
To remember the promise.
The love.
The hope.
And to keep on keepin’ on.

Even God has to remember the Master Plan.
And not give up.

The Master Plan …
The flight to Egypt in the middle of the night … as it was spoken by the Prophet …
The insane rage of Herod … yes, we knew this would happen … as it was spoken through the prophet.
And the return … and the danger that remains … as it was spoken.

Here is the power of hope.

There is a Master Plan …
Not that any of it easy.
Between here and there, a lot of nasty stuff.

But the Master Plan remains intact.
God at work.
At work in all things for good.

The power of hope.

I don’t know about you, but this I much I know about me … attitude is just about everything.

We cannot control what happens to us … we all know that.
But we can manage what happens inside of us.

The power of prayer …
Faith …
Trust …
Love …
Hope …

The promise of God …
The Master Plan … that our lives, such as they are, are a part of the Master Plan …
We cannot always see the details.
Sometimes we’re lost in the swirl of life and its circumstances.
But hope is just that.
Paul the Apostle writes so beautifully in his letter to the church in Rome:
Hope that is seen isn’t hope at all.
It’s a sure bet.
But we hope in things that we can’t always see.
We hope for a promise God makes to the world.
A promise made to each of us.
So we wait for it.
We wait with patience.
And the Holy Spirit helps us.
All along the way.

The Master Plan, here and now, through out lives … the life of Covenant on the Corner … our life together in the fellowship of faith … with Christ at the center, and the Holy Spirit all around us.

I saw that Spirit at work on Christmas Eve here.
The young voices, the eager faces.
All of us here …
Singing, O Come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant …
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.

The Master Plan.

None of us can control what happens to us.
But with Christ, we manage what happens inside of us.
Attitude is just about everything.

Even the Psalmist speaks of walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death …
Fear and worry and anxiety … these are real emotions … and they have their way with us sometimes … don’t’ they?
Yes they do.
And try as we might, we still lay awake at night.
Fretting and fussing.

But the Psalmist adds:
I will fear no evil.
For thou art with me.

The companionship of God.
I am with you always.
I will never leave you or forsake you.

I’ve spent hours telling others, and myself, that it’s okay when the attitude collapses … look, we’re not supermen and superwomen … we’re flesh and blood and bone … we’re mortal to the core, and we know it … life isn’t easy, and that’s okay, too.

It’s okay to be real.
To be human.
To be what we are.
The last time I checked, we don’t have any choice.
We are what we are.

And sometimes we just need a good cry.
A put-a-hankie to the face kind of cry.

Last night, a great movie: The King’s Speech.
All about George the Sixth who took the throne when his brother abdicated to marry Wallace Simpson … it seems the new king had a terrible stammering problem, and he had to make a speech … and he was frightened and sad.
In the arms of his wife, he breaks down.
I’m not a king. I’m not a king at all.
We can’t always be strong.

But I’ve noticed something quite remarkable about life.
The Master Plan.

When I’m not strong, someone else is.
And many a time, it’s Donna.
Or my children.

Many years ago, Josh and I took a trip to Wisconsin … and what’s a trip back home without a visit to the cemetery, right?
To see where my Mom and Dad are buried.
So we drove to the cemetery, found the area, parked the car, walked up a little grassy slope surrounded by hundreds of graves, and there it is – a single stone marking both – my father, buried many years, my mother, cremated some years later … a simple stone marking their journey – a beginning and end …
I stood there … lost in thoughts.
And all of a sudden, tears.
And Josh came up to me and put his big arms around me – he was already much taller than me … and he just held me … the son holding the father … and he said, “It’s okay Dad.”

And for King George the Sixth, God provided a teachers … Lionel Logue, a speech therapist from Australia … when all teachers failed to help the king, this self-taught man enabled the King to make the speech and become the King of England.

When we’re weak, others are there, with their strength.
When we’re ready to give up, God sees to it that someone else isn’t.

And through the Valley we go.
We don’t run … we can’t.
We can only walk.
A slow walk sometimes.
But that’s okay.

God is with us.
With you and with me.
In all the peculiarities of our lives.

Doing great work.
The Master Plan unfolding.

And you and I are a part of the Master Plan.
We are a part of Christ.
And Christ dwells within us.

The child born in Bethlehem’s manger is born within us anew … a thousand times a day … and a million times in a lifetime …

The young boy in the Temple,
He’s in our heart even now, speaking to us as he spoke to the teachers in the temple … amazing them with his insights and faith, and amazing us, too … as we abide in his word, and his word abides in us …

The man who stood in Jordan’s water with John.
To whom the Father said, This is my son, with whom I’m well pleased.
That man is with us, here and now.
The man who called Peter and Andrew and James and John, calls us still … Come, and follow me, and I will give you my purpose, and my passion … yes, and I’ll give you my cross, as well … I will give all of that to you, and then some …
The man who healed the lepers and gave sight to the blind, is still at work.
The man who welcomed the woman at the well … the man who dismissed the crowed so eager to stone a woman caught in adultery … that man is still with us, welcoming everyone … most especially, the outcast and the lonely, the flubs and the failures and the flunkies … and who hasn’t been a flub a time or two?
Who hasn’t failed, and failed badly?
Who hasn’t been a flunky?

We’ve all crossed thresholds we’re not proud of.
We’ve all disappointed ourselves, and others, too.

But the Master Plan is at work.
God knows we’re dust, says the Psalmist.
God knows our weakness and our temptations.
God knows the contours of our soul.

And above all of us, Noah’s rainbow, still!
A promise, to work with us.
Just as we are.
Calling us to Christ.
Come on, take my hand.
We’ll walk this way together.

The Master Plan.

As it was spoken …

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

December 19, 2010 - "Joshua Is His Name"

Matthew 1:18-25

Joshua fit the battle of Jericho …
With trumpets a-blaring for six days …
And on the seventh day, with one loud long blast of the trumpets and a mighty shout of the people, the walls came tumbling down.
Joshua fit the battle of Jericho.
And with sword and shield, fought his way across Canaan, to make a home for the people of God …

Joshua is a Hebrew name, and its means, Yahweh will save.
Translated into Greek?
Iesous … Jesus.

Born of Mary.
In a tiny stable in a tiny town in a tiny country under the iron rule of Rome and the tyranny of King Herod, who would brook no threat to his throne.

When Herod gets wind of a possible claimant to his title, a child born in Bethlehem, Herod unleashes a brutal attack and kills all the children two and under in and around Bethlehem.

Mary and Joseph and Jesus, warned in a dream, hightail it out of there to Egypt, and there they stay, until Herod dies.

And only then do they return, but not Bethlehem … that’s too close to Herod’s kin … so they go to Galilee instead, and in Galilee Jesus is raised …
Of his upbringing, we know nothing …

Luke reports an incident in the temple when Jesus is 12 … but other than that, silence.

Until his 30th birthday or thereabouts … when a rabbi is old enough to begin teaching.
Jesus travels south to the Jordan, just above the Dead Sea, and is confirmed by John the Baptist in the rite of washing, the rite of baptism.
And a voice from heaven: This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.

By water and by word …
Jesus, Son of God.
God with us.

Joshua is his name.
Yahweh will save!

What does it mean to be saved?

For a long time, Christians were taught that being saved means going to heaven when we die.
And before we die, to live a righteous life.
And for most American Christians, the righteous life has been defined by frontier preachers from the early part of the 1800s … Kentucky and Tennessee … with their emphasis upon the sins they saw: drinking, smoking, cussing, card-playing and theater-attendance.
These frontier preachers saw families being ripped apart and social coherence unraveling on the rough and wooly frontier.
Baptists and Methodists and a few Presbyterians crossed the Appalachians and headed west into America’s frontier, preaching the gospel and planting churches.
They held giant camp meetings, lasting days on end.
Folks traveled from afar to gather together and learn of Christ.
Those were hard days, and people were desperate for hope and meaning and the consolation of God’s love.
Infant mortality rates were high, and if anyone made it to their 10th birthday, life expectancy was just under 60.
Women died in childbirth.
Men were killed on the farm.
People needed the gospel.

The revivals were intense.
The frontier preachers used lurid images of hellfire and brimstone, and folks responded with emotional outpourings and dramatic signs … probably baptized in a nearby river, swearing off the sins of the day, and promising to live a better life … with an eye on heaven – pearly gates and golden streets, and mansions in the sky.

What does it mean to be saved?

Life for us these days is considerably easier than it was on the frontier.
And no one seems to be particularly bothered by anything, and we’re not likely to mention sin.
American Christians are not likely to hear much hellfire and brimstone these days.
If we’re evangelical Christians, we’re likely to hear a good many therapeutic sermons dealing with anxiety, fear, addictions and sermons about success and achievement and goal-setting and marriage and family.
If we’re mainline Christians, we’re likely to hear sermons about justice and social responsibility … and the big issues of poverty and health care and war.
If we’re conservative Christians, we’re likely to hear doctrinal sermons … such things as substitutionary atonement, original sin, the two-fold nature of Christ, the inspiration of Scripture, the trinity and sanctification and justification and predestination.

So, what does it mean to be saved?

It means a lot of things.
Because God is very big, and so is the world.
And the needs are enormous.
Clean water for the world and healthy souls and fair wages and loving homes where children are safe and good schools and the pursuit of peace and protection for endangered species and feeding the hungry and clothing the poor and preaching the gospel and teaching what Jesus teaches and loving one another and giving ourselves away and singing and praying and bagging groceries at the LAX Food Pantry and serving rice and beans at the Catholic Workers’ Soup Kitchen downtown … it means quite moments with Jesus, it means tons of Bible study and lots of fellowship dinners and committee meetings and hymnbooks and choirs and baptism and the LORD's Supper and preaching and repentance and sorrow and gladness and praise and laughter in the joy of the LORD and tears for the passion of it all

What does it mean to be saved?
It means a lot of things.
Because God is really big.
And the needs of the world are huge.

For God so loved the world, that’s why God gives us the Son.
For the sake of the world.

And for whatever reason, known but to God, the Holy Spirit has moved in our lives, and makes it possible for us to be a part of Jesus Christ, and for Christ to be the anchor of our soul.
He is the first and he is the last, the Alpha and the Omega.
The reality greater than everything else.
Our all-in-all.

To him we belong, now and forever more.
In life and in death.
In body and in soul.
In such a way that not a hair can fall from our heads without our Father’s will … because God is at work in all things for good … and we are ambassadors of God’s love to the world.

What does it mean to be saved?

It means a lot of things.
With Jesus Christ at the center.
His words and his life.
His cross and his death.
His tomb and his resurrection.
His ascension to the right hand of God, and the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Day.

What does it mean to be saved?

It means to be rescued.
Rescued from ourselves.
From out little tiny worlds.
From upside values.
Vengeance and jealousy and foolish pride and the love of money and violence and greed and graft and the abuse of people for our own pleasure and needs.

God rescues us from the darkness of our own shadow.
From our relentless self-interest.
From our feeble attempts to put ourselves on the throne of our soul …

God takes us out of the darkness and brings us into the kingdom of light.
God restores our spiritual orientation.
And gives us the LORD's Prayer … Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name … not my name, nor the million names of any given moment … but your name be hallowed, O God … your name, and your name alone!

What does it mean to be saved?
It means a million things.

It’s deeply emotional and its profoundly intellectual and tearful and joyful and transformational.

What does it mean to be saved?

It is whatever it is for any of us, in the characteristics of our life …
Salvation is tailor-made for each of us.
Salvation is one thing for my wife and one thing for me and one thing for my children …
It means something slightly different for Presbyterians and Lutherans and Pentecostals and Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox … for a small congregation in Nebraska and a megachurch in Nashville … for folks in Haiti and folks in Marin County … for farmers in Central America and engineers in the aerospace industry … for Christians who live in a culture where Christianity is dominant and for Christians who live in cultures shaped by other religious traditions.

What does it mean to be saved?

I think there are some bottom-line realities for all us.

To be saved is to gather together for worship.
Because there is strength in the company of fellow-believers.
Jesus never calls us by ourselves, but calls us into fellowship with one another.
To love one another as he loves us.

We study the Bible.
It’s our book.
We’re people of the book.
Genesis and Exodus, and Jeremiah and Hosea and the Gospel according to Matthew and Paul’s letter to the Romans and the Letter of James and the wonderful book of Revelation.

We serve … we put our faith into action … so the world can see our faith.
We make a difference.
We strive for justice and for peace.
Because this is our Father’s world … and we cannot rest if there’s but one lost sheep … one lost coin … or one lost soul.

We confess our sins with confidence in the forgiveness of God.
We’re humble in our achievements, for everything is a gift from the hand of God.
We’re merciful toward one another, for all of us have weakness and sadness and dark materials.

Salvation in all of its glory, works its way through each of us, just as we are.
Some of us are deeply moved by theology.
Some of us love to study.
Some of us are gifted with putting our faith into words.
Some of us are motivated by mission trips and the hard work of Habitat for Humanity.
Some of us spend a lot of time on our knees.
Some of us spend a lot of time in picket lines and social action.

When I lived in Michigan, a friend and I would travel once a year to the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky, the abbey where Thomas Merton did his work.
It’s Trappist Monastery, a place of deep silence, 150 years old, filled with the prayers of the monks over the decades … the chanted psalms and the hymns and meditation and reading and thinking and good cheese and incredible bourbon fudge.
The day begins at 3:00 in the morning, and as the rest of the world sleeps, the monks are in prayer, for it’s in the night that the world faces its greatest danger.
These monks are called by God – for a life of prayer and chanting the Psalms …

Some are called to a life of writing …
Some are called to be evangelists …
Some are sent to the mission field.
Some are called to preach.
Some are called to sing … to teach Sunday School … to be elders and deacons.

Because the world is huge with many needs.
And God sees to it that salvation in each of our lives meets a need somewhere in this world.

And wherever we are, in the classroom or the lab, behind a desk or behind a wheel, we are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

To let our light so shine that others will see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven.

And in the center of it all?
Jesus, born of Mary, suffering under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried and raised on the third day and ascended into heaven, at the right hand of God, from then he shall come again to judge the living and the dead.

It is he, this Jesus, who leads us into the Promised Land and gives us life.
Who leads with a sword, not of steel, but of grace.
Who takes down walls – not of brick and stone, but the walls of prejudice and hatred and fear.
Who conquers, not with might and force, but with love and mercy and forgiveness and the giving away of his life for all the world.

And his name is Joshua.
His name is Jesus.

Our LORD and our Savior.

Amen and amen!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

December 11, 2010 - "Jailhouse Doubt"

Matthew 11:2-11

Virtually every family can tell the story - when the children asked for a dog.
Mom and Dad say, “Well, ya’ know, you’ll have to feed it. Take it for a walk. Clean up after it.”
And, of course, we all know how the script goes.
“Yes,” say the children, “we’ll take care of the dog. We’ll do everything. Don’t worry!”

So, off the family goes, to get a dog.
A cute little thing, for sure.
And before ya’ know it, everyone loves the dog.

But in a month, a reality check.
How many times did the children feed the dog?
Take it for a walk?
Clean up after it?
It seems that Mom and Dad end up taking care of the dog.

Oh well … a bit a shadow between the promise and the payoff …
Between what was offered and what was delivered.
Lots of shadows between hope and reality … between the interview and the job.

Which reminds me,
One day a highly successful woman stood by the Pearly Gates.
"Welcome to Heaven," said St.Peter. "Before you get settled in though, it seems we have a problem. Because of some accounting issues, we’re not really sure what to do with you."

"No problem, just let me in," said the woman.

"Well, I'd like to, but I have higher orders. What we're going to do is let you have a day in Hell and a day in Heaven and then you can choose whichever one you want.

"Actually, I think I've made up my mind...I prefer to stay in Heaven,” said the woman.

"Sorry, we have rules..."
And with that St. Peter put the woman in an elevator and down it went to hell. The doors opened and she found herself stepping out onto the putting green of a beautiful golf course. In the distance, a country club and standing in front of her were all her friends - folks that she had worked with, all dressed in formal evening wear and cheering for her.
They talked about old times … played an excellent round of golf, and at night went to the country club where she enjoyed an excellent surf and turf dinner.
She met the Devil who was actually a really nice guy (kinda cute) and she had a great time telling jokes and dancing. She was having such a good time that before she knew it, it was time to leave. Everybody shook her hand and waved goodbye as she got on the elevator.

The elevator went up to heaven and opened back up at the Pearly Gates and St. Peter waiting for her. "Now it's time to spend a day in heaven," he said.

So she spent the next 24 hours lounging around on clouds and playing the harp and singing. She had a great time and before she knew it her 24 hours were up and St. Peter came and got her.

"So, you've spent a day in hell and you've spent a day in heaven. Now you must choose your eternity," he said.

The woman paused for a second and then replied, "Well, I never thought I'd say this, I mean, Heaven has been really great and all, but I think I had a better time in Hell."

So, St. Peter escorted her to the elevator and down she went to Hell. When the doors of the elevator opened she found herself standing in a desolate wasteland covered in garbage. She saw her friends dressed in rags and picking up the garbage and putting it in sacks.
The Devil came up to her and put his arm around her.
"I don't understand," she stammered; "Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and a country club and we ate lobster and steak, and we danced and had a great time. Now all there is a wasteland of garbage and all my friends look miserable."

The Devil looked at her and smiled. "Yesterday we were recruiting you; today you're staff."

The shadow between the promise and the payoff.
Between expectations and reality.
Between what we wanted and what we get.

John had hoped for better days, but now he sits in Herod’s jail.
From the fresh air of the Jordan to a dark dungeon.
From crowds to confinement.
From high hopes to bitter disappointments.
The shadow … between the promise and the payoff.

So we ask, “Is this the job I’m supposed to have?”
“Is this the life I really wanted?”
“Mom never told me it would be like this>”
After grading 32 test papers and dealing with three irate mothers, the teacher asks, “Is this what I went to school for?”

The shadow between the promise and the payoff.

Perhaps we should give some thought to why John is imprisoned.
It’s a rather complicated story – but in a nutshell, John couldn’t keep his mouth shout – he spoke out about sexual shenanigans in Herod’s family – a little incest and some adultery.
Maybe John should have kept his mouth shut.
But he didn’t.
And it didn’t take long for King Herod to do what kings do.
John is arrested and imprisoned.

When John hears what Jesus is doing, he sends a few disciples to ask Jesus, Are you the one? Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

The shadow between the promise and the payoff.

John had hoped for something more.

Clear the threshing floor, John says.
Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees.

What did John expect?
Fire and storm?

Jesus sends word back to John:
The 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.

I can hear John say, But what about me? What have I done to deserve this? Is this how my life is to end? In Herod’s jail with the bite of a sword on my neck? What about me?

The shadow between the promise and the payoff.
Between what we want and what we get.
Who hasn’t been disappointed in Jesus?

Not the blind who receive their sight.
Nor the lepers who are healed.
Or the deaf who can hear again.
Or the dead who are raised.
And the poor who hear the good news of God’s love.
They’re not disappointed.

But when the disciples see Jesus rebuffed in a Samaritan town, they ask Jesus, Do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them? [Luke 9.54].

Who hasn’t felt that way a time or two?
Fire and storm.
Come on God, hammer the bad guys!

A rude driver cuts us off, and for a fleeting moment, we’d be okay if his car spun out of control.
Susie gets the promotion, and for a fleeting moment, we can wish the worst for Susie.
We’ve all had dark thoughts about those who get in the way, or cause us ill.
“In our hearts there is a ruthless dictator,” writes Graham Greene, a ruthless dictator, “ready to contemplate the misery of a thousand strangers if it will ensure the happiness of the few we love” – The Heart of Darkness.

The disciples wanted fire and storm … Jesus rebukes them  … I suppose they were a disappointed.

The crowd that caught a woman in adultery and brings her to Jesus with stones in their hands, is disappointed …  when Jesus bends low and doodles something in the dust and sends the crowd packing.
The powerful are disappointed when Jesus disregards their advice and continues to preach.
Judas is disappointed, and sells him out.
Pilate is disappointed when Jesus refuses to defend himself.
The thief on the cross is disappointed when Jesus does nothing but suffer and die.

In the end, the disciples are all disappointed … as they quietly slip into the night and return home.

A pastor goes off to the Philippines for a few weeks of mission work, comes home and falls ill with a liver parasite, and there’s no cure, and within six weeks, the pastor dies, leaving behind his children and wife and his congregation … in spite of all their prayers and hopes.

For all kinds of reasons, we echo John’s words:
Are you the one?
Are you really worth my time and my love?
Or am I to wait for another?

But if not Jesus, then who?
If not him, then where?

When Jesus was preaching some difficult things, folks began to take leave of him.
The Bible says painfully: Many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him [John 8:66].
Jesus asks those closest to him, Do you also wish to go away?”
Peter replies, LORD, to whom can we go. You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.

If not Jesus, then who?
If not him, then where?

Jesus isn’t always what we want.
And what we want is rarely what he gives.

We want a crown … he gives us a cross.
We want wealth … he gives us only our daily bread.
We want healing … he gives us hope in the face of suffering and death.
We want some fire on our enemies … he invites us to love our enemies instead.
We want ease … he gives us great responsibilities.
We peace and quite … he gives us the world and the cries of the children.

Are you the one, Jesus?
Or shall we wait for another.

We’re not told anything more about John, other than his death in Chapter 14.

We’re not told how John responded.
Because it’s up to us … to finish the story in our own way.
Here and now, at Covenant on the Corner.

How do WE respond to Jesus?
Is he the one in whom we put our faith, hope and love?
In the worst of times, in the best of times?
At the Jordan River or in Herod’s prison?

Are you the one?
Or shall we wait for another?

We all ask, don’t we?
And it’s okay.

Amen and Amen!

My thanks to Fred Craddock for both the inspiration and some of the ideas expressed herein.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

December 5, 2010, "Road Building"

Matthew 3:1-12

I was on the 405 a few days back, over the Sepulveda pass … where the 405 is being widened …
Big machines moving lots of dirt … retaining walls being built … steel and cement for bridges and barriers … so that traffic will flow better on the west side of Los Angeles.

It’s a lot of work to build a road … low places have to be filled in  … mountains cut down … uneven ground made level … rough places smoothed out …

Sounds almost biblical, doesn’t it?
Well, it is biblical.
From the prophet Isaiah …

Chapter 40 … the very chapter that Matthew quotes, to describe the work of John the Baptist … a cry to the people, Prepare the way of the LORD, make his paths straight.

Get busy, build roads … build roads for God … build roads for one another … you see those high and rocky places over there? … take ‘em down a little bit … you see those dark and narrow valleys just across the way? … fill them in a little bit … you see all that rough, uneven ground ahead? …  smooth it out … make it easier for people to meet God …

I can’t think of a better image to describe the Christian life than road building … that’s what you and I are called to do … build roads in the rough and tumble places of life.

On Thursday, our Presbyterian Women held their annual Christmas Luncheon … with a special guest from the Angel Interfaith Network, the Rev. Ann Mills, who presented to us a certificate of appreciation.

Let me read what was written about us:

“The Deacons, Presbyterian Women and members of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Westchester have assembled and donated hygiene kits in decorative bags, blankets, baby supplies, greeting cards, and funds for food-assistance for Angel Interfaith Network to distribute to patients every year since 1995, under the leadership of the Rev. Frank Marshall, now an Angel Interfaith Network board member.”
Frank Marshall served Covenant for 32 years and is our pastor emeritus.

In other words, road building.
Smooth out the rough places.
Fill in the ditches.
Make life a little easier for folks who are having a hard time of it.

Friday afternoon, I made a pastoral call on a family where there’s been some illness … and when folks are ill, folks are often cold, even when it’s warm … during the course of our conversation, the sweetest thing: they told me of a friend, whom we all know, who knit a cap and sent it to the husband to keep his head warm and to make him feel a little more comfortable.

Yesterday, two memorial services here … for Dr. Ed Ricketts and Richard Brubaker … men who embodied the very best of road building … their careers and their vision and their faith made life a little easier for a lot of people.

But not all roads are built easily.

In Friday’s LA Times, columnist Hector Tobar writes about Orange County in 1947 … the struggle of Latino families for integrated schools … prior to their efforts, Latino children had to settle for separate and often poorly maintained buildings and second-rate programs.

Mr. Tobar writes of brave and loving parents who went to bat for what was right and good.
They confronted school administrators, held community meetings and eventually went to court, and in 1947, they won the case.
Their victory changed education throughout California and impacted the nation.

These parents were road builders for their children.

In the town of Orange, just a block north of the Plaza is an old theater that today houses a religious center. In the 1940s, it was the Orange Theatre.
Whites sat in the orchestra section, Mexicans in the balcony — until a Mexican American soldier returning from World War II refused to obey the rules.

"If you don't move up to the balcony," an usher told him, "I'll have to call my manager."

"I just came from fighting the Nazis," he said. "I'm pretty sure I can handle your manager."

The soldier was a road builder. In the war, he built a road for freedom.
When he refused to sit in the balcony, he built a road for justice.

I think of Rosa Parks, a seamstress on her way home after a long day’s work, who refused to give up her seat to a white man and sit in the back of the bus.
She was tired.
Tired of the humiliation.
And she became a road builder for a new generation of Americans who would no longer sit in the back of the bus, or drink at “colored only” drinking fountains … or be denied a hamburger and French fries at the local lunch counter … 

All of these examples, from hygiene kits to the knit cap to the solider home from war - illustrate Isaiah’s image of the road builder … take down the mountains … fill in the low places  … make it easier for folks to find their way through life.

As our story goes, John was a man of the wilderness … he wore the clothing of the poor and ate their food … and gained the respect of many.

Folks came out to hear John.
And he baptized them in the Jordan River.
It seems that a lot of people came to see what John was all about … including a good many Pharisees and Sadducees …  read: “important people” … dignitaries from Jerusalem … muckety-mucks and big-shots.

They wanted baptism, too … but John doesn’t welcome them … calls ‘em a bunch of snakes, a brood of viperswhat are you doing here? Who warmed you about the wrath of God?

Whoa … “wrath of God”? … when was the last time we heard anything about that?
God is all love, right?
Well, yes, God is all love.
But tell me, is love blind?
Does God not see religion when it has no heart?
Churches that love themselves more than their neighbors?
Does God not see our cruelty and war and oppression and discrimination?
The financial shenanigans of nations and corporations for whom enough is never enough?
Lying and envy and strife and jealousy and quarrels and factions?
Is God’s love blind to all of that?

Of course not!
The wrath of God is God at work in hard places and tough times.

God’s wrath is proof of God’s love … a love that works hard to make all things new … and sometimes things don’t want to be made new; sometimes you and I don’t want to be made new.
 The world may need a savior, but the world is often quite content with the way things are; the world has little interest in being saved, especially that part of the world that sits on top of the heap.

John doesn’t mince words.
Nor is John buffaloed by these dignitaries.

He cuts to the chase.
And says to them, Bear fruit worthy of repentance … getting wet in the Jordan isn’t enough … God needs to see something real!

I find myself going back to the letter of James … a small letter with a giant message … worth reading this afternoon.

At the heart of the letter that James wrote is a classic statement we all know: faith without works is … dead … not just injured, or weakened, or tired … but dead … flat-out dead … without a heartbeat or brainwaves … dead as a doornail.

James writes the rest of his letter spelling out what a living faith is all about and coins a powerful definition of real  faith:  to care for the orphans and the widows in their distress and keep oneself unstained by the world.

And what are the stains of the world for James?
Partiality to the powerful.
Contempt for the poor.
A failure to act out the realities of faith.
A tongue that doesn’t know when to be quiet.
Boasting about our own powers and abilities.
Bad-mouthing others.
Impatience and irritability.
Failure to pray.
Failure to give thanks.
Failure to join with one another in mutual assistance.

A living faith spends a lot of time listening.
A living faith honors all people regardless of their place in life.
A living faith acts out the realities of God’s mercy and God’s compassion.
A living faith restrains the tongue.
A living faith understands that tomorrow is in God’s hands, not our hands.
A living faith strives to be patient in all places and times.
A living faith prays often, gives thanks eagerly, and sustains the fellowship of faith through mutual support and encouragement.

A living faith builds many roads.
Smoothes out the rough places.
Fills in the ditches.

The gospel of Matthew gives us page after page after page of insight into how to build good roads … roads for God … roads for one another.

Because we follow Jesus.
Who builds a road for us.

Jesus takes down the high mountains of religion that human beings love so greatly – the temples and the trappings, the rules and the regulations, the dogma and the doctrine, the pomp and the circumstance, so that we can approach God with ease.
Jesus helps us out of the ditches into which we’ve fallen, ditches we’ve often dug with our own hands, and then fills them in.
Jesus smoothes out the rough places in our soul.
Jesus levels the uneven ground of our confusion.
Clears the way and charts the course.
Come, and follow me!
We follow Jesus on the very road Jesus builds for us.

So we can build roads for others.
Whether it be a hygiene kit, a knit cap, or a stand for social justice.
We build roads.

Prepare the way of the LORD.
Make his paths straight.

Amen and Amen.