In Jesus’ day, you counted years by who was in power.
“In the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip rule of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
Notice, the word of God does not come to Emperor Tiberius or Pontius Pilate or Herod or Philip or Lysanias or even Annas or Caiaphas the high priests. The word of God comes to a nobody, John, who lives in no man’s land, the wilderness.
If we look at the Gospel lesson for next week, John will tell people what that means. It means if you have two coats, share with someone who has none. If you have extra food, share it with someone who has none. Don't use your authority and power to cheat or extort money. Loved your neighbor, in other words, and live in expectation. Here are a few things we are doing to prepare the way for Jesus to come here at St. John. As part of their pageant, the Sunday School children are bringing gifts for Jesus as he comes to us in young mothers and their babies at Life House.
After church today, young people, who are often stereotyped as selfish and shallow, sometimes even encouraged to be so, will go to sing Christmas carols to Jesus, to homebound folks who often feel isolated from their community. They really express deep appreciation.
In addition, we have a giving tree by which we can provide a goat or chicken or honeybees to a family, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, in the developing world.
Women of the ELCA just gave me a stack of grocery and gas cards for Jesus as he comes to us in folks who show up at our door needing emergency help. One thing consistent with Jesus as he comes, is that people are exhausted, strung out.
We have an online worship service, ten minutes long, that if you get home at 11:00 P.M. and are strung out, would like a connection, a touch of prayer with your friends at St. John, you can turn out the lights, light a candle, Click on the “More” button on our website, and just listen or sing along.
Lots of things we do to prepare the way of the Lord.
But all of those ministries have taken a couple of months to plan and a lot of work to bring about. So the things that have happened in the last three weeks have been different.
It has been a tough few weeks, has it not. Paris several weeks ago, Colorado Springs last week, San Bernardino California this week.
So if you would allow it, I would appreciate the privilege to speak a little bit on what that means.
In the early sixties, my father served a small Lutheran mission church in East Knoxville, called Gloria Dei. My Dad could make you feel comfortable just by being around. He was a walking party. He wanted everybody to have a good time and everybody to treat each other well. When he preached, he often said, basically, God loves us. We are sinners, but Jesus died for us. Let us love our neighbor.
Well, it was the early sixties and lots of things were happening with the civil rights movement. African American people were asking for equal rights, to be treated like anybody else. Some people didn’t like that. There were racial tensions. So one Sunday after one of the main events in that era, my Dad preached this really low-key sermon about how we are supposed to love our neighbors.
A couple of days later my dad pulls into the gravel parking lot of the church one morning and there on the church lawn, in the middle of a circle of charred grass stood a burned cross. Somebody had burned a cross on the church lawn. And it wasn’t any fifteen feet tall like the crosses they burn at Klan rallies. It was, like, two feet tall by a foot wide. Nobody had made threatening phone calls or letters. Probably a some stupid person, not connected with the Klan or other organizations like it in Knoxville.
But the intention was clear. Somebody wanted to scare my father, and the congregation. That’s what they want. To make us feel afraid. They want us to run away and submit to their demands, or to overreact, out of panic and fear.
They love that, because it feeds their story. They say “Look at those people.” Terrorist groups of one sort or another talk about all sorts of people this way. “Look at those Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, what a demonic race they are, beyond redemption.” It’s what they feed on, fear.
Do you remember what the angels say in the Christmas story? We’ll hear about it in a few weeks. “Do not be afraid.”
Angels say the same thing to both of John the Baptist’s parents, both Zechariah and Elizabeth. “Do not be afraid.” Angels say the same thing to both of Jesus’s parents, Mary and Joseph. “Do not be afraid.”
My Dad went around back to the tool shed behind the church, took out the shovel, dug up the cross, turned the charred grass over, back into good Tennessee soil, broke up the cross and threw it in the trash.
That Sunday, during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, when Buford Ellington was governor of Tennessee and John Duncan, mayor of Knoxville, when Franklin Clark Fry was president of the Lutheran Church in America, the Word of God came to Billy Rutrough, on the east end of Knoxville, at a small church in a denomination nobody listened to because it wasn’t important enough in that area. And this is what he said.
God loves us. Jesus died for us. Let us love our neighbor.
Part of loving our neighbor means is saying to those who want to hurt other people, “No, you may not intimidate and bully and shoot and bomb and rape and kill other people in order to get your way. And yes, if we have to, we will send committed and courageous people who will use appropriate force to stop you.”
But we cannot let the people we send to stop them do all the work of courage. If we give in to fear ourselves, if we run from the reality of terrorism, if we and cannot be bothered to educate ourselves about the history and roots of terrorism, if we overreact out of panic and hate, we waste their commitment. We dishonor their courage.
They cannot do this on their own. They need us to be courageous too.
You want to do something about religious extremism in America, get to know your Muslim neighbors. Invite them to your Christmas party. Go to theirs. For God’s sake, make sure their children do not get harassed or bullied in school.
We have a message, that there is something bigger than terror, deeper than death or destruction.
So, in the seventh year of the presidency of Barack Obama, when Steve Beshear is governor of Kentucky and Greg Fischer mayor of Louisville, When Francis was pope and Elizabeth Eaton was the bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the word of the Lord comes to you and me, and says something like this:
God loves us. We are sinners but Jesus died for us. Let us love our neighbor.