Living on the Edge 12-4-16

Isaiah 11:1-10 Then a shoot will sprout from the stump of Jesse, from Jesse’s roots, a branch will blossom. The Spirit of YHWH will rest on you—a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and strength, a spirit of knowledge and reverence for YHWH. You will delight in obeying YHWH, and you won’t judge by appearances, or make decisions by Hearsay. You will treat poor people with fairness and will uphold the rights of the land’s downtrodden.  With a single word you will strike down tyrants, with your decrees you will execute evil people. Justice will be the belt around this your waist—faithfulness will gird you up. Then the wolf will dwell with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf and the lion cub will graze together, and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear; their young will lie down together.  The lion will eat hay like the ox. The baby will play next to the den of the cobra, and the toddler will dance over the viper’s nest. There will be no harm, no destruction anywhere in my holy mountain, for as water fills the sea, so the land will be filled with knowledge of YHWH. On that day, the Root of Jesse will serve as a symbol to the peoples of the world—nations will flock to you, and your home will be a place of honor.

I had planned today to talk about my old friend John the Baptist, living in the wilderness – living on the edge. It was going to be a continuation of a conversation I started with Keith Nunnelee a few weeks ago in which he was talking about not trusting extremists on the right or the left because of how inflexible they can be. The sermon would have talked about John the Baptist the extremist and Jesus the extremist, the former being rather inflexible and the latter much more flexible in the way he expressed his extremism. But neither was a flaming moderate.

Anyway, I had to let that sermon go because I have to talk about my mother. I just don’t have any other gear to go into after being with her all this week. So I looked at the Isaiah reading about God’s spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and strength, the hope of the Hebrew people for a time of peace and coming together. And I decided I could hang my sermon about my mother on Isaiah just fine.

By the way, on my flight back from seeing my mother I sat next to Jesus. For real – the next to me on the plane was Jesus Carpenter. I’m not making this up. He likes country music and he said white people don’t use the name Jesus and it was difficult as a kid, so he changed his name to Jess. Jess Carpenter. He comes into the story too later. First, let me read the second assigned reading to you from Matthew about this extremist John.

Matthew 3:1-12 At this time John the Baptizer appeared in the desert of Judea, proclaiming “Change your hearts and minds, for the reign of heaven is about to break in upon you!” It was John that the prophet Isaiah described when he said, “A herald’s voice cries in the desert, ’Prepare the way of our God, make straight the paths of God!’” John was clothed in a garment of camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist.  Grasshoppers and wild honey were his food At that time, Jerusalem, all Judea and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him. John baptized them in the Jorden River as they confessed their sins. When he saw that many of the Pharisees and Sadducees were coming to be baptized, John said to them, “You pack of snakes!  Who told you to flee from the coming wrath?  Give some evidence that you mean to reform! And don’t pride yourselves on the claim, ‘Sarah and Abraham are our parents.’  I tell you, God can raise children for Sarah and Abraham from these very stones! “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the tree.  Every tree that is not fruitful will be cut down and thrown into the fire I will baptize you in water if you have a change of heart, but the One who will follow me is more powerful than I.  I’m not fit even to untie the sandals of the Coming One!  That One will baptize  you in the Holy Spirit and fire, Whose winnowing-fan will clear the threshing floor.  The grain will be gathered into the barn, but the chaff will be burned in unquenchable fire.”

December 4, 2016

Living on the Edge

At the age of 93, already struggling with congestive heart failure, my mom took a fall and got a compression fracture in the number 1 vertebra in her back a few weeks ago. She went to the hospital and they cemented the fracture to ease her pain, but she had trouble getting out of the hospital from what was supposed to be an outpatient procedure.

I feel justified in talking about her on this second Sunday of Advent not just because it’s hard for my mind to focus on anything else, but also because she was a person who taught me so much about the God of life, and the Child of God, the Prince of Peace for whom we wait this season.

The story I most wanted to tell you about this morning was a story about my youngest brother many years ago. He’s pushing 60 now, but when he was 6 years old or so, Rich could be a frustrated kid – particularly frustrated because his older brothers did not treat him well. I wish I could say it was my other two brothers who teased him, maybe even bullied him. But I was the oldest and I suppose I led the way. We loved him and still do but back then we were not very consistent about our love.

This is not a confession, just a fact. One day, Rich was having a hard time, my Mom says. She was watching him play with some toys and she saw him get frustrated and scatter the toys on the floor. He cried out, “What am I here for anyway!? Just to play, or what?” And my Mom sat next to him, and she held him and said, “You are here for me to love you.”


See, that’s why I say my mother has taught me so much about God. I’ve used stories like that often as sermon examples, because they were some of the first and deepest ways I learned about who God is. This is why we are here – to live in the grace and the love of the Living God. This is why we are here – to live out the grace and the love of the Living God, growing in love for life.

Let me relate this for just a moment to our assigned reading for this morning. The people in the time of Isaiah, you see, were frustrated in the land of Judah, living under the threat of the Assyrian empire – the bully to their east. The northern kingdom of Israel and the Aramaeans of Damascus tried to force Judah and King Ahaz to join their rebellion against Assyria. Isaiah advised King Ahaz not to join the rebellion against Assyria, but then, instead of joining the rebel alliance, King Ahaz called Assyria to intervene, which led to the destruction of Israel and Samaria in 721.

Isaiah was distraught at this move but was hopeful that a young new king Hezekiah who would follow Ahaz might be the righteous Davidic ruler they had long hoped for. Our passage today seems to be the hopeful words of Isaiah, looking to Hezekiah to be the longed for Messiah, the righteous king who would usher in the peaceable kingdom where humans and nature would live together in peace.

Sorry to give you more detail than you need, but to simplify it, Isaiah was telling a frustrated people, the little country of Judah, to live in hope. As they wondered how they could survive and lived in frustration at why they survived when their brothers and sisters to the north were overrun by Assyria, Isaiah told them, essentially, “you are here by and for the grace of the Living God. You are here for God to love you. You are here to show the way to a time of peace and fairness in creation.”

The image of the peaceable kingdom of course is powerful in our time as well as his – of predators and prey living together in harmony and peace, living in the light of God’s love. This passage has shaped the expectations of millions of Christians about what their hopes for a Messiah were about. Of course, we know the name of that Messiah as not Hezikiah, but Jesus the Christ. That is the One who’s birth we celebrate and await anew every year, in hope that that love and grace may be realized in our community as we live out that grace, as we realize that love.


It is frustrating for all of us as the time that we hope for seems to recede in the distance, as we see instead that we live in a land of bullying and self-centered profiteers, and as we face illness and untimely death. This vision of a peaceable kingdom seems far from reality, far from the promise which John and Jesus made to us – that the kingdom is at hand. “Make straight a pathway in desert; prepare the way for our God.”

Yet, we live in our time with the same promise as Isaiah gave to the people of Judah, the same promise that Jesus gave to people of Israel – the promise that we live in the grace and the love of the Living God. that in that grace, in that very promise, somehow God is already entering our lives, that that amazing kingdom of peace and love and fairness is being realized here and now.


When I got to Cincinnati, my mother was still in the hospital and she didn’t want to leave. She didn’t want to go to rehab where they would make her work and get better. She was having hallucinations about being at a friends house in her pajamas. She said, “Aunt May (who died 20 years ago at age 100), Aunt May is right there sitting next to you.” I said, “Oh hi Aunt May! thanks for being here.”

The hospital told her she had to go back to the Methodist Home for rehab, so we went and she started physical therapy, standing and sitting every hour during the day. The hallucinations stopped and she started to sleep a little less and eat just a little more. She has a great sense of humor about the whole thing and it was lovely to be with her, but honestly, she’s pretty discouraged and ready to go. She’s a midwesterner and we midwesterners never want to be a bother to anybody.

The last day I was there this week, Thursday, she was sitting with her eyes closed and she said to me, “What am I still here for anyway?” I couldn’t believe my ears. That’s exactly what she said. The same words as my little brother. And you know what I said to her, don’t you? When I told Jesus/Jess about it on the plane, he said it sounded just like a country music song, and I said yes it does. I said, it will sure make a sermon. I don’t know exactly how the song goes, but I know how it ends. It ends “And he held her in his arms and said: ‘You’re here for me to love you. You’re here for us to love you. You’re here for God to love you.’”

It’s true for us all. We are here to live in the grace and the love of the Living God. Make way, make way for this is the kin-dom that is on it’s way. This is God’s good news.