For the Children?

a sermon for St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr

Matthew 23:34-39 and Acts 6:8–7:2, 51-60

There is a poem by English writer Steve Turner that haunts me.

It is called “Christmas is Really For the Children,” and it goes like this:

Christmas is really
for the children.
Especially for children
who like animals, stables,
stars and babies wrapped
in swaddling clothes.
Then there are wise men,
kings in fine robes,
humble shepherds and a
hint of rich perfume.

Easter is not really
for the children
unless accompanied by
a cream filled egg.
It has whips, blood, nails,
a spear and allegations
of body snatching.
It involves politics, God
and the sins of the world.
It is not good for people
of a nervous disposition.
They would do better to
think on rabbits, chickens
and the first snowdrop
of spring.

Or they’d do better to
wait for a re-run of
Christmas without asking
too many questions about
what Jesus did when he grew up
or whether there’s any connection.

I think it’s that connection that haunts me, and I suppose that may be true for us as we gather one blessed day after celebrating a birth in a manger on this ancient church festival—quite possibly the oldest—to hear of a gruesome death by stoning. My guess is that’s how many of us react today, wondering just how we’ve jumped so quickly from a silent night to a bloody morning, something more reminiscent of Holy Week. Is there a connection between these two, December 25 and December 26? Angels, straw and songs one day, the gift of peace on earth. Then angry crowds, rocks and jeers the next day, the reality of sin on earth. So much for prolonging the good will toward men.

December 26 is the feast of St. Stephen, the day that one of the Christian faith’s earliest members was violently killed by a mob after having been seized by the authorities and accused by false witnesses. Stephen had been chosen as one of the first public servants in the church, a position knows as a deacon. He helped make sure that the church’s care for those who were hurting was extended beyond the priests and spread as evenly and fairly as possible. This Stephen is the deacon is where Stephen Ministry gets its name and the focus of its ministry. Our congregation is blessed by the ministry of Stephen Ministers who come alongside of people in need of careful and compassionate listening and prayer. There is solid evidence that the church was remembering Stephen’s martyrdom long before it was celebrating Christmas, so moved were the earliest believers by his ghastly death and his ability to remain loving as he died.

The Stoning of Stephen (Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld)

This festival, with its red paraments for the blood of martyrs, forms the first of three festivals that fall, one after the other, on the day after Christmas, and are set together this way on purpose by the church to illuminate the different ways of following Jesus into death and heavenly birth. December 27 is the feast of John, Apostle and Evangelist, the only apostle thought to have died a natural death. December 28 is the day the church commemorates the Holy Innocents and Martyrs, those children who were slaughtered by King Herod after he received the news of Jesus birth, which is recorded in Matthew’s gospel. Stephen was a martyr in will and deed, meaning he stood up for his faith in Christ and it got him killed. John was a martyr in will but not in deed, meaning he stood up for his faith, but it never caused his death. The Holy Innocents were martyrs in deed but not in will, meaning they never stood up for their faith in Jesus, but they still died as a result of him.

And so there is the connection: faith in Jesus Christ, who was born a baby and later crucified for his faith in his Father’s kingdom, leads to consequences for each of us. We may be like Stephen, like so many early Christians did, we may end up like John, or we may be like the Holy Innocents, especially if we’re young. Like Turner’s poem suggests, we may have a tendency to sentimentalize Christmas too much just as we may tend to forget that faith in Jesus impacts our lives in ways that usually involve suffering. Jesus himself warns his disciples of this at several points, and at one point as he comes near Jerusalem we hear him lash out at the Pharisees and scribes and other religious leaders of Israel within earshot of many others. His frustration and disappointment at the leaders’ hypocrisy is boiling over.

As he lectures them he explains to them that those who come in love to love are often misunderstood and rejected. Those who are full of grace and power, like Stephen would be, can still received in hostility or, at best, indifference: The church whose efforts at evangelism go unanswered in its own neighborhood. The family member whose invitations to friendship and forgiveness are continually rebuffed by the angry relative. The difficult conversations about social issues that are only greeted with eyerolls, despite calmly they are couched. No matter how gentle and how peaceful some words and actions are, no matter how nurturing the intentions may be, like that of a mother hen, a people in woundedness and darkness are still bound to see it as threatening. And this is especially true if the person’s words and actions challenge the status quo, which Jesus’ and Stephen’s certainly do.

Jesus Entering Jerusalem (Gustav Dore)

This is very silly, low-stakes example, but I remember once during seminary another first-year student and I were house-sitting for a professor who left South Carolina every summer for the Northwoods of Minnesota. I had to be away for the first two weeks of that house-sitting job, but the other student, a guy named Todd, was able to be in the house. Before I left, I told him approximately what day and time I’d be return, but I wasn’t sure of the specifics. Those were the days before cell phones and texting, so I had to way to let him know when to expect me. As it turned out, I rolled back into Columbia in the wee hours of the morning and I realized that I would be getting in while he was deep asleep. I had tried to leave a message on the answering machine a few hours before but had no way of knowing if he’d gotten it.

Todd was a big guy, athletic and built like a wrestler, and I knew that if I came into the house at 3:00am, which is what ended up happening, it would scare him out of his mind, and he could easily pile-drive me. I was mainly worried about frightening him, especially if he never heard my message. I fretted about this for the last few hours heading into Columbia in the middle of the night, wondering how I could soften my blow. Should I ring the doorbell? Be intentionally noisy downstairs? Be really, really quiet? I felt there was no way to avoid waking him and making him upset. I finally decided I’d let myself in and walk up the stairs and, as much as possible, demonstrate with my face and voice and hands that I’m not an intruder, I’m not armed and I come in peace, and just be prepared for his reaction. Sure enough, as I was walking up the room, I could see him suddenly sit up in bed, and then this look of absolute terror and anger came over him and he began to charge at me to protect himself. I thought he might try to tackle me, but eventually his eyes focused and he came to his senses and realized what was going on.

Jesus tells his listeners that God will send men and women will into the world, into all kinds of relationships, as people of peace and love, but sometimes people are not going to be able to “get focused” on it and come to their senses about them. Jesus words remind us that our baptism  compels us to serve all people in the manner of our Lord Jesus Christ. Stephen’s witness shows us that no matter how full of grace and power we may be, no matter how sincerely we devote ourselves to the service of others, we may still be misunderstood. It’s as if the suffering of Jesus is still born out in the lives of those who’ve been united to his body.

So instead of waiting for a re-run of Christmas, we can remember Jesus looks at Jerusalem and senses before he even goes in that his people will not accept him. They will set up false witnesses and give him a sham trial. They will choose to have a murderer freed on the Passover instead of him. He will come in love to love, but his blood will end up on their hands. He comes to love in love, but we still pick up stones and hurl them. And he will still lift up bread and a cup of forgiveness.

The way of love in Jesus will always encounter obstacles and hatred in the world, even obstacles within us. That love which begins in the light of Christmas reaches its true fulfillment on the dark of Good Friday and in the more glorious light of Easter. For this love is a victory love, able to overcome anything, even the deaths of its beloved servants like Stephen. Even the suffering of you and me.

For in that crowd that day, the crowd that hurled stones at him, stood a young religious leader named Saul, egging them on, who was zealous to see the church stamped out right there and then. That angry Saul would later find his own life turned upside down by the glorious light of the Easter Jesus. And he who was once eager to see love drowned, who wanted it stoned to death no matter how lovingly it came, would he himself go on, renamed Paul, to write these words: “Love is patient, love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. Love never ends.”

St. Paul Writing his Epistles (Valentin De Boulogne)

Aha. That is the connection between Christmas and Easter, between Jesus and the lives of his saints, between God and the suffering of this world. It is love—a love that forgives even as it breathes its final breath, love that sees beyond the darkness of our hearts to the good we are created for, a love that is willing to lie in the manger on Christmas because it has knows the tomb will be empty on Easter. A love that gathers us here this morning. Christmas really is for the children—the children of God, the children of brokenness, the children who need God’s unconditional love.

“Nails, spear, shall pierce him through, the cross be born for me for you.
Hail, hail, the word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary!”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

We Wait for Peace

a sermon for Advent – “The Wait of the World

Micah 2:2-5a

It’s about this time of the Christmas season when I think most people are needing some peace. The extra load of school concerts, dance recitals, parties and social events, not to mention the hoopla surrounding gift-giving and shopping, wears many of us us out. It’s fun to some degree, but there is a fine line where we cross into Scrooge territory if we’re not careful. We wait for peace…some peace and quiet. Maybe peace looks how one of my children recently described it—holding a cup of hot chocolate while it snows outside, curling up under a blanket on the couch with close family members with a fire in the stove and a movie on the TV.

We’re also in the time of the pandemic when we’re all needing peace. Peace from the constant vigilance against transmitting the virus and ending up in quarantine. Peace from the endless debates about vaccines and facemasks, mandates and freedom. Peace from the ceaseless decision-making about policies and procedures. It really seems like a war, a trauma-causing event, especially so for health care workers and teachers and others caught in the crosshairs, and we wait for peace to come. Maybe peace looks like whatever we were doing in 2019, or a day when we can gather indoors together without masks or whenever a medicine makes COVID no longer something to fear.

We’re also in a time of highly polarized politics in our country, and I think we all want peace. That one is more difficult to agree upon, because some seem to want strife and mayhem. In any case, we hear the messages of conflict and battle through the media, through social media, and even personal conversations. Long term friendships and family relationships are being severed due to divisive political and social stances. All branches of our federal government are possibly more divided than at any point in our nation’s history. Anger and adversarial postures are the norm, so we wait for peace. Maybe peace looks like agreement on major issues,  political breakthrough of harmony and unified vision for what America is to be.

And in the world, we wait for peace. Hundreds of thousands of Russian troops are standing at the border with Ukraine as we speak, perhaps poised for a Christmas Eve invasion.

Things are getting dicey around Taiwan. New space-age weapons are being developed as agreements to end nuclear proliferation are being threatened. Peace, in this case, looks like an end to war, or as the prophet Isaiah hoped, “beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.”

As we can see, peace is one of those things that is really hard to define, fairly easy to describe, and yet very easy to sense and feel. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “Peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.” That is, peace is not just not fighting or refraining from conflict, but taking part in something that benefits everyone, an action that affects all lives.

The word used most often for peace in Scripture gets at this. It’s also the word that Micah reaches for when he explains the leader who will come from Bethlehem, the anticipated one who stand and feed the entire flock in security and shelter. That word is shalom, and it encompasses so much that it you need about five or six English words to translate it adequately.

Shalom means wholeness, being intact, maybe like that feeling when the last puzzle piece finally gets placed and the whole picture can truly be seen.

Shalom is well-being, prosperity and kindness, all of the things one would associate with salvation, which is another dimension to the word.

Shalom can be used as a friendly greeting. Voiced with different inflections,“shalom” can mean “Don’t be worried,” “You are safe,” and “things are alright.”

All this is to say, shalom is the first thing said about Jesus’ arrival on earth after his birth in Bethlehem. The angels in the sky announce it to the shepherds, connecting him to the message of peace. And shalom is the first thing Jesus himself communicates after he is risen from the dead when he greets his disciples in Jerusalem. His whole existence and the point of his presence among us, from now until the end of the ages, is to embody shalom, to say, “Don’t worry. It’s alright,” in a way that the world can never say.

As we receive him in his word and as we practice service and kindness among our neighbors, his peace takes hold. We find that, more than being that final puzzle piece which, placed properly, makes all things right, he is the puzzle’s worker, the one who gives his life to make all things and all of us fit the way we were made. He alone brings that justice.

And with that perfect blessed wholeness that propels us forward, we forgive, we lay our own lives down, we beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. He is the Prince of Peace. We depend on him for righteousness, for purification, for joy, and for shalom…and so we wait, and work, and watch: Come, Lord Jesus.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Hiding the Gifts

a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent [Year C]

Luke 1:39-45 and Micah 2:2-5a

Did you ever have the experience of finding out where your parents or your spouse were stashing the Christmas presents? I think that is one of the biggest unnamed challenges of this time of year, especially in households with (ahem) overly-curious children: hiding the gifts.

I’m not saying I was one of those overly-curious children, but I do remember one Christmas where I innocently happened upon my parents’ hiding place. They had put the gift, which was not wrapped yet and in a long-ish, medium-sized box, in the trunk of my mom’s car. I happened to need to open the trunk door for some reason before Christmas and I spotted it there. I quickly shut the door so as not to ruin my surprise. What I thought I saw was a trombone, which was kind of an odd gift since I did not play trombone nor had I ever said I wanted to play trombone. I played violin, and I wondered if my parents were trying to tell me something. Turns out it was actually a boom box, which was so much cooler. It was the 80s, after all. What I learned, though, is that if I wanted to be surprised in the future about what I might receive on Christmas morning, not to look in the trunk of my parents’ cars.

Where would we look if we wanted to find the surprising grace of God? In which places would we look to discover the power and blessing and might of the Creator of the Universe tucked away? Where has God decided to stash the gift of his Son Jesus, until the time comes to unwrap and reveal him to all? You might say that’s the question for this fourth Sunday of Advent as we wind down our season of preparation and head into Christmas Day. It’s an important question, since we are still preparing to receive him, and it would help to remember and know where Jesus has appeared once before.

Would we think, for example, to look in Bethlehem, one of the little clans of Judah? Sure, Bethlehem is a royal city, where King David was from. It was a beloved little place, but it was still little and kind of forgettable centuries later, by the time of King Herod. Some experts in Hebrew prophecy might have pointed us there, if we thought to consult them. If you were looking for the gift of a new king, one who is to rule in all of Israel, one who is to stand and feed his flock with the strength of the Lord, and in the majesty of the Lord’s name, then Jerusalem might be a better hiding place or one of the many bustling new cities that the Emperor had constructed.  But the prophet Micah reminds us that it is little alleyways and shepherd hangouts of Bethlehem where God goes and hides his plan to bring forth a great ruler. Would you and I think to look there?

And then there is Mary. What kind of clever and unlikely hiding place is she—the womb of a young, unwed, no-name maiden from an even smaller and less important village called Nazareth! Again, for some really intelligent and tuned-in experts in what the prophets said, this approach isn’t so surprising, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s unprecedented! Whoever would expect the Most High God to stash anything with her, much less have her bear a holy son named Jesus whose kingdom will have no end? Even Mary herself is a bit taken aback by this move. When the angel Gabriel first announces the news to her she asks in wonder, “How can this be?” And then she consents. For a time the one whose kingdom will have no end will take up residence within her.

The first people to know of this incredible plan, the only other one who is “in on the hiding place,” is her relative Elizabeth and, apparently, Elizabeth’s unborn son. Here, in a Judean town in the hill country we have two women who by any other account are regular, ordinary people with no claim on power or prestige—two women who spend each day like so many other women around them busied with the mundane work of village life without many of the rights and privileges that men have. And yet here, in a Judean town in the hill country we have two women discussing the real future of the whole entire universe.

I mean, this is expert hiding, folks. The gifts of God’s mercy and unconditional love will be hidden away for a time in the most unlikely of places and people: Bethlehem, Judean hill country, Elizabeth, Mary. This is the work of a God who is really, really insistent on making sure his gift of love will eventually be found and received by everyone, when the time is right. This is the genius of a God who really can’t wait to surprise us. This is the hallmark of a God who plans to cast down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly—which is precisely what Mary sings about. She knows what this God is up to. The proud, the rich—they will meet their match with this God. This God has his eye on the hungry and the humble.

It is at this point when I need to say that perhaps only a woman could understand and explain what Mary’s decision here really entails. In consenting to God’s will to conceive a child within her, Mary actually puts her body and her life on the line in a way that a man can never do. In fact, I often fear it can sound a bit glib for a male preacher to speak about this subject, about the strength and bravery of her response, even though her faith and her decision clearly impacts me, too, because her Son’s kingdom includes me.

Pregnancy is a dangerous, risky endeavor, and even moreso for a peasant woman living about 2000 years ago. She may call herself lowly, but don’t confuse lowly with weak. She gets no permission from a man in her family to go through with this. She decides this on her own. Perhaps Mary thought, “Well, this is God’s child so it’s going to come to term without incident,” but on the other hand there are still so many burdens to bear for her—so many more emotions and hormones and fears involved in bringing forth a child regardless of what the situation is. We shouldn’t overlook this. When God goes looking for the perfect hiding place for his Son, God is somewhat at the mercy and confidence of Mary and Elizabeth and it is their faith and their humility that make it work. The faith and humility of regular, ordinary women in ordinary places who have no claims on power is where it all begins. Without their voices, it is doubtful we’d know this, which is one reason why lifting up the voices of women preachers is so vital, not just on this topic, but on all.

Given all this, where will we look for God’s movement these days if we’re one of those overly-curious children? In the platform of a major political party that wheels and deals with the proud and wealthy? In the halls of government where power is wielded? In the popular crowd at school who have the right clothes, who use bullying and clique-forming to keep people in their place?

Or somewhere more toward society’s other end, like in the shelter for those who are homeless? The woman in the nursing home who rarely gets visitors, even at Christmas? The rubble of a town in western Kentucky that has been all but wiped off the map?

Elizabeth, God bless her, can teach us. With her one little question to Mary, she becomes the first person to articulate the crux of the gospel message. Seeing Mary come in through the door from her journey, she bursts forth with, ‘Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Jesus isn’t even born yet, and still Elizabeth realizes something hits different. The Lord is coming to her—to her little room in her little house in her little life all the way here in the hill country. Considering who this is, the Lord of all, shouldn’t it be the other way around?

As she declares, the gracious movement of God is always towards us…always first. God never expects or requires us to come to him. God doesn’t say, if you’re good enough you’ll get me. Or if you’re smart enough, you’ll find me. This is a God who launches out in grace and determination into our direction, to find us, to seek us out, to meet us where we are. It is perplexing that our God would choose this. Perplexing, but wonderfully gracious and world changing. God comes to hide his grace, for a time, in each of us.

As many of you know, young children who are not receiving Holy Communion yet in our worship services usually get a blessing instead. They step forward in the line and, if the pastor is feeling especially limber that day, he will crouch down at the level of the child and trace the cross on the child’s forehead and say a blessing. A few weeks ago I looked up the line of people coming forward and noticed one four year old boy was already holding his bangs up for a blessing. He was still a couple of minutes away from me, several people back, but, man, he was ready. He walked all the way to me with that hand on his head holding his hair back so I could easily plant that cross right there. So he could easily receive the Lord who was coming to him. So he could become a little place for the Lord to hide, for a while.

He does this trick every week, in fact, and I think about the conversations his grandparents or parents must have had with him about what’s happening. It’s hard to know exactly what he’s thinking, but I can’t help but seeing him like a little Mary, open to God’s will, or a little like Elizabeth and the child in her womb, excited and amazed at the close presence of God.

May we each, like that child among us, learn to hold open our lives to be ready to receive this Lord who hides love in a cross, who conceals holiness in the ordinary. May we each, with the wisdom of Elizabeth, trust this God who comes to us as we are!

And then may we, with the courage of both women bear that news to the world. Stash it everywhere, in everyone we meet. May we sing the songs of a powerful God who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things.

And then may we be ready to watch the rich be sent away empty the mighty be cast down from their thrones!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Compelling Headline

a sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent [Year C]

Luke 3:1-6

It was one of the biggest goofs I’ve made of late and the whole congregation saw it. A few months ago, after the death of one of our members, I tried to send out an email blast to the congregation providing the Zoom link for the funeral. The church office made the transition to the Constant Contact format for email blasts back in the early summer. I hadn’t used the format by myself yet, but I thought it can’t be all that difficult to figure out. I went into the program and selected one of their pre-made templates for sending out important but brief emails. I inserted all of my information into the different fields, including a button for the Zoom link. I proofread it all, made sure the times and dates were right, no names were misspelled, and pushed send and the notice about the funeral service Zoom link went out to over 400 email addresses. Easy-peasy, right?

The only problem, which I discovered only after I pushed send, was that I hadn’t filled in quite all of the pre-set fields with information. Most significantly, I hadn’t inserted anything where I was supposed to put the subject or headline. So instead of opening with a brief subject line about the funeral service, which I had, of course, intended to be very serious and professional and pastoral, the email opened with the huge words, in gigantic font: “Insert Compelling Headline Here.” Technology always wins. The staff got a nice laugh out of that one and, graciously, no one in the congregation responded in any way. “Insert Compelling Headline Here” is no way to announce the details of something so solemn and important. But the send button had been pushed and it was out there. “Insert Compelling Headline Here” is what I was stuck with, like it or not.

John son of Zechariah, like him or not, is the compelling headline for Jesus Christ. And where is he inserted? It’s not in Jerusalem, or in Rome, where you think he’d belong, where he might, you know, be in constant contact with the powers that be, where he could easily blast the city with the news of a coming king. Rather he is way out in the wilderness, in the region around the Jordan, a place off the beaten path.

It is interesting to look at photos of the Judean wilderness. People tell me it is some of the most godforsaken territory they’ve ever seen. Dry and barren, desolate and unforgiving. The prophet Isaiah had foretold it this way, but it still sounds like a bit of a goof. This is where God inserts his compelling headline for the Lord who is on his way? So it seems.

All four of the gospel writers include John as some kind of precursor to Jesus of Nazareth, a voice crying out in the wilderness telling everyone to prepare the way of the Lord. Luke goes to extra length to give us all of the specific information about when his headline comes. And he starts at the top, working his way down to the local scene. The Emperor was Tiberius, the governor was Pontius Pilate, and the ruler of Galilee was Herod, and the high priests were Annas and Caiaphus, and so on. Our two congregational archivists, Barry Westin and John Hartmann, who work tirelessly to record our Council minutes and do things like convert old photos and drawings into a digital format for generations to use in the future, can explain better than I can why this list given by Luke is so important and helpful. It gives us some real context. It let us know what other things were going on during this time when God’s word was making an entrance.

As one of my colleagues says, Luke’s attention to detail reminds us that the story of Jesus is not a “Once upon a time” story. John Son of Zechariah appeared  preaching and preparing the way for Jesus at a specific time in human history and in a specific location. So often there is the temptation to treat faith like it’s the lesson from a fairy tale or the moral of a story (“be kind to your neighbor”) or that God is an abstract concept that we decide to accept or reject. The gospel writers do not do this. They don’t present argument for or against God’s existence. They, and especially Luke, are just concerned that we understand particular things happened. Particular historical events occurred in the timeline of the world and faith, then, is way of responding to that news. For Luke and the early Christians especially, faith in Jesus was not something to be arrived at philosophically but a new way they lived their lives after hearing that certain things had taken place—most notably the resurrection of a man who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died, was buried, and rose again.

That account, of course, begins, in large part, with John son of Zechariah hanging out in the wilderness while Pontius Pilate was governor. Here, of all places, the Word of God comes to John. And it begs a response. Paths need to be straightened. Valleys shall be filled in and mountains will be flattened. It’s like everything is being evened out. John is quoting the Old Testament prophets, who were likely talking about real highways in the desert. But with his themes of repentance and forgiveness, the preparation takes on a more personal, internal meaning. The Lord’s arrival among us involves clearing things away in our hearts, making our spiritual landscapes less convoluted, more straightforward, easier to travel.

That was perhaps the biggest thing I noticed when my My family moved to here to Richmond from Pittsburgh, the city where my wife grew up and where I spent about six years serving a congregation. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Pittsburgh, but it’s been said that in that city there is always at least one hill between where you are and where you need to be, and there’s not a straight road in that town. I was a runner back in those days, and was astounded at how easy it was to run in Richmond! Richmond was a running town like I’d never seen—almost everyone I met was in a running group. Even Epiphany had one back then. In all my years in Pittsburgh I don’t think I ever had one running partner. People probably considered me out of my mind!

The Lord wants a straight path to us—an easy run—right into the heart of you and me. He comes to take up residence in our lives, to bless us with his love and mercy, his compassion and wisdom. He comes to set us free, to save us from our enemies and those who would wish us harm, as John’s father, Zechariah sings.

And that way is prepared for him through the act of repentance. Repentance can be thought of as the act of bringing low those places in us which have gotten too high, those habits which may have made us aloof from the needs of others, as well as identifying those areas in us which have been tucked away in darkness, like a valley. Repentance is literally from a Greek word that means to change perspective or change directions, and what is road straightening and mountain-lowering but a form of changing perspective?

Our worship services almost always begin with a time of confession and forgiveness as a way to help us repent. “We confess our sin before you,” we pray together, “for that which we have done and that which we have left undone. We fail in believing that your good news is for us.” It’s easy to hear and say these words and think of sins as actions we’ve undertaken, a mental checklist of specific deeds we’ve committed or shied away from. But perhaps John and the prophet Isaiah want us to use words and practices of repentance, whenever we say them, like excavators and dump trucks, removing mountains and filling in valleys within us, opening up our perspectives, getting us ready, so that the word of Christ may come to us.

Removing mountains and filling in the valleys within us, being willing to take ourselves down a notch or two, opening up horizons, is very different from the dominant spiritual movements today. Right now most people it seems are more into digging trenches, re-drawing battle lines, hunkering down behind bunkers in order to take shots at the other side. John’s compelling headline about Jesus is that there are hills and valleys crooked roads within us that need to be made straight first.

Three years ago from right now this congregation was poised to begin a huge building campaign that we hoped would make the road to Christ here easier to travel. The vote to build and secure the loan hadn’t happened yet, but the final plans had been basically hammered out and we knew what we were getting ourselves into. One of the last additions that really caught us by surprise was the sidewalk along our property out front along Horsepen Road. The Building Team and Council were irritated, quite frankly, that the county was requiring us to create and pave it at our expense. Our architect was willing to apply for a variance so we wouldn’t have to pave it, but the builder and a couple of civil engineers on our team said they’d never grant it. We factored it into our plans and jokingly called it the Sidewalk to Nowhere, since it doesn’t link up to any other properties that we border, and indeed if you look out there, you’ll see it is literally the only strip of sidewalk anywhere along Glenside or Horsepen. Our church is in a sidewalk wilderness!

Well, three years later and hardly a day goes by when I don’t see someone walking on that sidewalk. It beats all I’ve ever seen.  One day last week I even saw a runner running on it, and last September there was a man taking a rest at the base of our cross. I don’t know where they come from and I don’t know where they’re going, but the way has been prepared, the rough place made plain, and people are using it.

That is the message that John announces. In a world that is so broken, so lost, so full of fear and doubt, the Lord will come. God’s Word came to John in the wilderness, God’s Word traveled straight to the cross God’s Word is coming to you today. He comes to give you forgiveness, to set you free from your enemies, to guide your feet into the way of peace. Make a way in your wilderness, for God can and will come to you, seemingly out of nowhere.

And then saved and set free, you are able go forth and—you guessed it, it’s not a goof— insert the compelling love of God anywhere.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.