A Blue Christmas Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

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Lutheran Campus Ministry / Creighton University
11 December 2016 + Third Sunday of Advent
Matthew 11.2-11; Isaiah 35.1-10



He had been so sure, so confident, so certain.

He proclaimed a bold message of repentance and the dawning of the messianic age: Repent! For the reign of heaven has come near! One who is more powerful than is coming! Here is the Lamb of God!

He baptized the crowds in droves. He was sought out by all and attracted an impressive following.

He was prophetic, firmly rooted in the social justice tradition of Israel’s prophets before him. He took risks and called out the hypocrisy of the religious elite.

And what did it get him? Prison. Next stop: execution. Desperate for some vindication that he hadn’t gotten it all wrong, he sends his disciples to Jesus: Are you… the one… who is to come? Or… are we to… wait… for another? You can hear the undertones of regret, the disappointment, the dashed hope, the confusion.

A Blue Christmas, indeed.

On a day when many churches will light a pink candle, representing joy, on the Advent wreath, and when outside our churches we’ve been inundated for weeks with nonstop reminders of a joyous Noël, such a scene from Matthew’s gospel seems out of step.

Maybe, though, it’s the Christmas season that’s out of step. After all, it’s still Advent, a season marked by waiting, by yearning, by hopeful expectation, by a promise yet to be fulfilled.

I suspect that many of us might identify more with the dismayed and disenchanted John the Baptist in a prison cell than the manufactured cheerfulness of a Hallmark holiday movie.

This time of year on a college campus, the anxiety and stress of final exams and papers is palpable — only matched in intensity for some with the thought of going home for the holidays, when “family” conjures up images of discord, conflict, and estrangement. Or if you’re anything like I was: a freshman at the end of your first semester wondering if your degree program is right for you, or a senior at the opposite end of the spectrum wondering what life will bring after a suddenly much-less-distant graduation.

Still for others, it’s the death or illness of a loved one, or strained or broken relationships, that color the holiday blue.

In a way, John the Baptist—revered as a saint on our liturgical calendar—gives us permission to observe a Blue Christmas. His despair and his questioning remind us that doubt is not the opposite of faith but is itself a very real part of the life of faith. John offers us an example of faith that makes room for doubt, for grief, for questioning, for not having it all together—and says that’s okay!

Christian Wiman, a poet and author who grew up in the Christianity of West Texas, was diagnosed with a rare, incurable form of blood cancer in his late 30s. In the wake of his diagnosis, he wrote candidly about his struggle with faith: “Faith is not some hard, unchanging thing you cling to through the vicissitudes of life. Those who try to make into this are destined to become brittle, shatterable creatures.” [1]

In other words: There’s no point in pretending. There’s no point in pretending everything is okay when it’s not. And there’s certainly no point in questioning one’s own faith, or self-worth, because of it.

Blue Christmas, dear people, is oftentimes more faithful to the season than the opposite.

It’s no accident the color of Advent is blue, the color of the night sky just before dawn. As Diana Butler Bass writes, “Blue holds the promise that the sun will rise, and that even after the bleakest, coldest, longest night, the light will break forth, as the new day arrives. Blue may be the color of sadness, but blue is also the color of hope.” [2]

That’s not meant to be some grand answer for we who find ourselves “blue,” but it is meant to be hope — and hope is much better than a definitive answer. Hope is the product of memory and imagination.

Hope is the central message of Isaiah’s vision. With imagery of wilderness and desert, journey and liberation, this is meant to be deliberately evocative of the exodus,  the way out of slavery in Egypt and into freedom, pointing an exiled people to their collective memory of God’s past faithfulness to give hope for the future.

That hope is rooted in memory, but it also begs to be recast, reimagined, for a new reality. Even as Israel was once delivered from slavery, here they imagine a new future free from exile. And even as Jesus has already come in history, we still sing for Emmanuel to “come, o come” because we still live with real pain and real problems.

Jesus’s answer to John’s pleading questions is intentionally open-ended: What do you hear? What do you see? The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear. Images evocative of Isaiah, of God’s action in the past, of a yearning for God’s continued action. Hope, rooted in memory, fueled by imagination.

Still, in the mire and in the muck, it’s easy to imagine one type of Messiah, as John might have, a victorious conquerer who would make everything right again. But what we get is something much more profound, as Christian Wiman again reminds us:

If Christianity is going to mean anything at all for us now, then the humanity of God cannot be a half measure. He can’t float over the chaos of pain and particles in which we’re mired, and we can’t think of him gliding among our ancestors like some shiny, sinless superhero…

No, God is given over to matter, the ultimate Uncertainty Principle… what a relief to befriend contingency, to meet God right here in the havoc of chance, to feel enduring love like a stroke of pure luck. [3]

The Messiah for whom we wait, the promised one for whom we yearn, the long-expected one for whom we hope, is Emmanuel, God-with-us, indeed one of us, struggles and all, who holds us and reminds us that through it all, we are not alone.


[1] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 17.

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/25/forget-red-and-green-make-it-a-blue-holiday-instead/?utm_term=.ca7ed04709a2

[3] Wiman, 17.

A Sermon About Calling Out Injustice Even When It’s Uncomfortable (or costs you your head)

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Louis Stokes VA Medical Center
15 July 2015 + Pentecost 7B
Mark 6.14-19; Amos 7.7-15

[Now with audio for your listening pleasure]


Sometimes I wish I didn’t come from a tradition that compels me to preach the lectionary because sometimes the preacher winds up with texts like this one, texts that make you add a question mark, “The Gospel of the Lord?” Texts that make you feel uncomfortable. But I wonder if maybe that’s the point of this text—discomfort. Hold on to that thought.


Our reading from Mark’s gospel begins on a note that beckons us back to the verses that immediately precede it: “King Herod heard of the disciples’ preaching.” It’s enough to assume, as the text leads us to believe, that Herod had simply caught wind of Jesus’s rapidly spreading ministry. At this point in the gospel, Jesus is well into his public ministry and has caused so much of a stir that he’s just been thrown out of his hometown of Nazareth. And so he sends his disciples out to keep the momentum going.

Feast of Herod, Bartholomeus Strobel

But I think there’s something more to what piqued Herod’s interest. The message that disciples preached, we’re told, is repentance. When Herod heard of it, the text goes on, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” It made him remember another man who preached repentance, a man whom he had killed. And I suspect that it made him afraid.

The way Mark tells it, Herod had married his brother’s wife, a direct violation of Torah, and John the Baptist called him out on it. Even though Herod was a Jew, he was first and foremost a government official working for Caesar. His interests were the interests of the Roman Empire, not God’s law. But because Herod was a Jew, the text tells us that he still feared John, a righteous and holy man, and protected him, even in prison.

Herod’s new wife, on the other hand, not so much. And so when Herod threw his birthday party and promised his stepdaughter whatever she asked for, she went to her mother who finally had a chance to act on her grudge and demand John’s gruesome death. This put Herod in a difficult place, but in order to preserve his authority and the respect of the people, he gives her what she asks for.

John called out Herod for violating Torah, and he ultimately got himself killed for it. John risked his life for the sake of asserting that God’s law trumps the practices of the Roman Empire. John’s message of repentance was rejected, like Jesus’s message after him was rejected. Jesus announced his ministry saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The kingdom of God, not the kingdom of Rome. The kingdom where demons are cast out, where lepers and paralytics and hemorrhaging women are cured, where the dead are raised to life. The kingdom where outcasts are sought out and gathered in, the kingdom that makes those who struggle to hold on to power fearful of losing it. It’s not difficult to imagine why Herod was afraid.


Of course, this emphasis on justice was nothing new. The Hebrew prophets before John and Jesus had been preaching God’s concern for the oppressed, widows, orphans, foreigners, for a long time. Perhaps no prophet is more scathing in his indictment against those who exploit the poor than Amos.

Our first reading today contains the third of three visions about God’s judgment against Israel. In it, God shows Amos a plumb line. Now in construction a plumb line is used to make sure walls are built in a straight line. Here, it’s a religious and ethical plumb line, and God’s people have failed to align themselves with it. And Amos names their sin, as one translation puts it: “Listen to this, you who rob the poor and trample down the needy! You can’t wait for the Sabbath day to be over and the religious festivals to end so you can get back to cheating the helpless. You measure out grain with dishonest measures and cheat the buyer with dishonest scales” (Amos 8.4-5, NLT). God condemns their exploitation of the poor and even goes far as to condemn their worship practices: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5.21-24, NRSV).

sign from a “Moral Monday” march in Chicago, protesting Governor Bruce Rauner’s proposed budget cuts

Hypocrites, God calls them. The festivals and observances prescribed by Torah are meaningless when they neglect justice, the heart of God’s law. And Amos calls the people out on it. But it’s not a popular message. It’s not a message King Jeroboam or his priest want to hear. “O seer,” they say to Amos, “go, flee away to the land of Judah… but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” We don’t want to hear it. It makes us uncomfortable. We like what we got going on here. Go away.


Such is the prophetic tradition in which John takes his place in our gospel text. But it doesn’t sound much like gospel. This text reminds us that the calling out of injustice is risky business. It’s uncomfortable, life-threatening even. This text, it seems, is not good news. This text is more like Good Friday. The powers that be appear to win. Like Amos, John the Baptist is silenced. And the text foreshadows that, like John, Jesus too will be silenced. All for preaching repentance and justice.

This text reminds us that human power so often struggles to maintain itself at the cost of human life. It hinges on corruption and stems from greed and fear. It is power misused and has no regard for the other. It is power that seeks to control and feel better than the other.

The Resurrection, El Greco

But God’s power is vastly different from Herod’s power. Herod’s power is oppressive and exclusive and ends with death. But God’s power is always concerned for the other, the outcast, the outsider, the oppressed. God’s power is disarming and unexpected. It breaks in and says there’s another way. God’s power comes to us in the form of a baby born in a dirty barn stall. God’s power comes to us in the form of a peasant carpenter-turned-rabbi. God’s power comes to us in the form of a crucified Savior. And God’s power finally comes to us in the form of a resurrected Christ. God’s power ends with life.

That might not be immediately obvious when you just look at this banquet, but you see, there are actually two banquets in Mark’s gospel. This week’s reading ends with Herod’s banquet of death, but immediately following is Jesus’s banquet of life and abundance. Jesus feeds five thousand people, with leftovers. That banquet points us back to God’s power and God’s justice. And that’s where the good news is.


Like Amos and John the Baptist and Jesus’s disciples, we are called to call out injustice. We know it’s risky business. There are consequences. And it’s uncomfortable. But we do it because we know that resurrection is always the last word. To paraphrase one preacher this week (Barbara Lundblad), we do it because we believe that God’s promise of life is stronger than the threat of death and because we believe God’s kingdom, God’s reign of justice, has come near, and that makes all the difference. [1]


“Moral Monday” protest with Bishop Wayne Miller of the Metro Chicago Synod (ELCA)

In my home state of Illinois this summer, it’s what has given dozens of clergy and people of faith the ability to risk arrest in protest of the governor’s proposed budget cuts that would be especially devastating to society’s most vulnerable. They risk calling out injustice where they see it, and yes, they disturb the comfortable status quo of those in power.

Martin Luther King, Jr., knew something about disturbing the status quo too. He knew something about God’s justice back in Montgomery, Alabama, when he took charge of a movement that began by challenging where someone gets to sit on a bus. He risked saying there’s another way because he knew that all people are created in the image of God and are of inherent sacred worth and dignity. He knew that until the very end when his preaching and activism took him to Memphis, Tennessee, to advocate for sanitation workers.

When King railed against injustice and the powers that be, he knew what it was like to live in Good Friday. But he knew Easter was coming, as he preached in his Easter sermon from 1957: “Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the drums of Easter.” [2] He was no stranger to struggle and despair and rejection, but he was more confidently acquainted with the inevitability of God’s justice.

God’s justice says that all eat and are filled. God’s justice says that all are welcome. God’s justice says that black lives matter. God’s justice says that love wins. And we can continue to call for God’s justice because we know God’s kingdom has come near and we know there’s another way. We can live with the risk and the discomfort and even read difficult texts like this one because we know where the story ends. Thanks be to God.

Amen.


And then I played this song:


[1] http://day1.org/6698-truth_and_consequences

[2] http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/questions_that_easter_answers/