Sunday, December 29, 2013

Generations -- A Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Christmas (2013)

Matthew 1:1-17

On Christmas Eve we watched as four generations of one family gathered to light the Christ candle. What a wonderful sight it was, because it doesn’t happen all that often.  In fact, largely due to the mobility of our society, our opportunities to gather across the generations has become increasingly difficult.  One of the few places where multiple generations do gather on a regular basis is at church, even if these multiple generations aren’t part of one specific family.
This morning’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew is known for its “begats,” because that’s the word the King James Version uses to count off the forty-two generations of Jesus ancestry, stretching from Abraham to David, from David to the Exile, and finally from the exile to the Christ child.  While some of the persons named in this passage are familiar, most are not.

When we read a passage of scripture like this one, our eyes can begin to glaze over and our minds begin to wander.  There are a few names in this list that are familiar, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Solomon, but many will seem strange and foreign.  You might even find one name rather intriguing, sinci it looks as if a fish made it on to the list!  That would be Salmon, the father of Boaz, but this isn’t a fish it’s a person.  While the name looks like that of a fish, it’s probably pronounced Sall-mon not sa -mon.

These names can easily merge into a long meaningless repetition of words, but each of these names has a story, even if some have never been told.  Some of these persons were faithful to God, while others were not.  But such is the nature of a genealogy – as anyone who has traced their family tree knows, there are always a few skeletons in the closet.

Tracing family trees has become a rather popular pastime.  There are many reasons why we do this, but one of the reasons has to do with our identity.  We want to know who we are and where we come from.  Maybe it’s because our society is becoming so mobile that we feel the need for a sense of rootedness, even if it’s in the form of a genealogy.  Some people are going so far as to trace their DNA to get definitive proof about their ancestry. But, if you do go this route, just be forewarned, you might even discover that besides the typical skeletons in the closet, you may even have a few Neanderthals in the family tree.

I haven’t gone so far as to trace my DNA, but due in part to the efforts of my father, I’ve been able to trace the Cornwall family tree back about fourteen generations.  That takes me back to late medieval England.  Like many, my ancestors served in the American Revolution, and the first Cornwall (or Cornwell, depending on the spelling), came to Boston in the 1630s and eventually helped found the town of Milford, Connecticut.  While it’s difficult to prove, I’ve been led to believe that I might even have some noble blood coursing through my veins.  Of course, since records become sketchy the farther back you go, much of the “evidence” is speculation. That speculation includes the possibility that we Cornwalls are descendants of a certain Wampanoag princess named Mary Hyanno.  That first Cornwall in America, William, is said to have married a woman named Mary in about 1640.  For some in the Cornwall family, this Mary has been linked to an Indian princess.  Of course, we’re not the only family that claims Mary Hyanno as an ancestor!  But, even if these claims to nobility or Native American ancestry are more legend than reality, they make for a good story.  I expect that you might have interesting stories to tell about your family tree!

Matthew opens his gospel with a genealogical statement because he wants to answer the question:  Who is Jesus?  Matthew offers us “a record of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.”  That means, whoever Jesus is, Abraham and David are important figures in his family tree.  But, not only is he son of Abraham and son of David, he is also the product of the Babylonian exile.  

Matthew begins by naming fourteen generations from Abraham to David.  Abraham is, of course, the one with whom God covenants and commissions to be a blessing to the nations.  David is the one whom God commissions to be Israel’s king.  There are fourteen generations linking David to the time of the exile, when the monarchy comes to an end.  Finally, there are fourteen generations between the transformative time of exile and the coming of the Christ. There is one specific claim that emerges from this reading, and that is Jesus is Israel’s messiah.  He is the anointed one, who, as the angel tells Joseph, will save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21).

While there is a beginning to this gospel, there is also an ending, and the two are related.  The gospel closes with Jesus gathering his followers together for one last word, and he gives them a commission, saying:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matt. 28:19-20 NRSV).      
In this commission, Jesus brings his disciples, and us, into a story that extends back to the covenant that God made with Abraham and with Sarah.

These genealogies, as Timothy Sensing notes, “highlight Israel’s greatest moments and expose her darkest days” (Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 1: A Feasting on the Word Commentaryp. 5). But even the darkest of days cannot keep God from being faithful to God’s promises, which Matthew suggests have come into their fullness in Jesus.

And so we return to the stories behind the names to see how God has been active in the larger story of redemption.

There is much speculation as to the reason why Matthew chose to highlight the four women who figure prominently in Jesus’ ancestry.  One thing we know from the biblical story is that all four were foreigners.  Among the men the stories are also intriguing.  There is Isaac, the one whom God commanded Abraham to sacrifice, and Isaac’s son, Jacob the trickster.  Then there’s Jacob’s son Judah, who has a son by his daughter-in-law, Tamar.  Among the many kings mentioned, some are considered pretty good – Hezekiah and Josiah for instance, but the majority didn’t measure up, and some, like Manasseh, were absolutely evil.  But, in linking Jesus to the royal line, Matthew lifts up Jesus’ royal claims.  Reference to the exile is a reminder that God is faithful to God’s people – for they not only survived the exile but became a new people.  In the end, even if we find  the good, the bad, and the ugly in Jesus’ family tree, we have been given assurance that God’s promise to Abraham remains in force, so that through his descendants the nations will be blessed.

In the closing verses of Matthew’s Gospel, in the Great Commission passage, Jesus includes us, his disciples, his followers, in this family tree.  That is, by faith we are grafted into his family tree, so that in him, we become children of Abraham.  Because we are sons of Abraham through Jesus our brother, we receive the commission, the promise, that the descendants of Abraham will be agents of blessing to the world.

Although Matthew starts out his gospel answering the question – who is Jesus – the gospel concludes with a word as to our own identity.  We are the ones who are called to make disciples and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Since the Christ Candle remains lit this morning, we can take from it a reminder that in Christ, the Son of Abraham and the Son of David, we carry the light of Christ into the world so that it might know the loving presence of God who frees the nations from their exile in the wilderness of Babylon.  

Preached by::
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
December 29, 2013
1st Sunday after Christmas

Note:  This text is taken from Beyond the Lectionary: A Year of Alternatives to the Revised Common Lectionarycreated by David Ackerman.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Trust in the Lord -- A Sermon for Advent 4A

Note:  The text for this sermon is taken from an alternative lectionary -- Beyond the Lectionary: A Year of Alternatives to the Revised Common Lectionary (David Ackerman).  

Daniel 6:16-27

When we last visited the story of Daniel, he was interpreting ‘the writing on the wall” for the Babylonian king Belshazzar.  As you might remember, the news wasn’t good.  Now, there’s a new king in town named Darius the Mede. Even though Belshazzar promised Daniel the number three position, Darius is hoping to make Daniel his Prime Minister.  That would be number two in the kingdom.  Unfortunately for Daniel, not everyone is happy with his promotion.  A group of his colleagues, who seem to think that Daniel is an interloper, begin plotting against him.  But, when their private investigators can’t turn up any dirt on him, they decide to use his religion against him.

Knowing that kings like to be flattered and that Daniel will only pray to his own God, the plotters suggest that Darius issue an edict commanding the people to worship him, and only him, for a period of thirty days.  It didn’t take long before Daniel’s enemies had enough evidence to convict Daniel.  Although Darius realized the error of his ways, he didn’t have any choice but to follow through on the threat and throw Daniel to the lions.  On the day of his execution, the king is both grief stricken and hopeful. Even as the stone to the den is being rolled into place, he tells Daniel: “Your God – the one you serve so consistently – will rescue you.”

The next morning, when the king goes to the lion’s den he calls out for Daniel, who replies: “Long live the king!  My God sent his messenger, who shut the lion’s mouth.” In rescuing Daniel, God affirmed both Daniel’s innocence and his faithfulness.

As is often true in biblical stories, there is a dark side to this story. Daniel might be saved, but his accusers and their families suffer the fate intended for him. For those who are experiencing oppression, it may seem appropriate to rejoice in the misfortune of your enemies.  It’s understandable, but I don’t it think it fits with the nature of a God who is defined by love and grace.

But, getting back to our story, Darius, who is exceedingly glad that his prime minster has been restored to him, issues another command.  Instead of worshiping him, the king, the people of his realm must now “fear and revere Daniel’s God because: He is the living God.” It’s Daniel’s God who stands firm forever, whose reign is indestructible and will last until the end of time.  It is he who “is the rescuer and savior.”

What does the story of “Daniel and the Lion’s Den” have to do with Advent and Christmas?  The link can be found in these words of Darius: the God of Daniel “is the rescuer and savior.”

There is a similar message in the opening verses of the Gospel of Matthew.  Joseph is sleeping – somewhat fitfully, because he’s trying to figure out what to do with Mary, who happens to be pregnant.  An angel appears in dreams, and reveals to him a name that he is to give to this child that will be born to Mary. “You are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21 NRSV).

The message of Christmas centers on this: that God is our “rescuer and savior,” and it is through Jesus that God will accomplish this task. This promise gives us hope and invites us into a life of faithful service.

This Advent season reminds us that in Christ, God turns the tables on human empires and begins to reveal the true nature of the kingdom of God.  We see this same message revealed in the story of Daniel, which was written during a time when Israel lived under an oppressive regime that threatened to stamp out every vestige of Israel’s faith. In this story, the reader is taken back to another time when Israel’s future looked bleak. The message that Daniel offers is this: while empires come and go, God “stands firm forever,” and that God’s “kingship is indestructible.”  Yes,  “God’s rule will last until the end of time.”  Daniel remains faithful, because he believes this promise is true.  He goes into the lion’s den believing that God can rescue him, even as God rescued his friends from the fiery furnace during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar.  But, the point isn’t that God will deliver us from the mouth of the lion or the fiery furnace simply because we have sufficient faith.  This isn’t the prosperity gospel. It is simply a recognition that God will be faithful to God’s promises.

In a few days we’ll gather to hear Luke’s version of the Christmas story, where the one whom the angels declare will bring peace and good will, will be born not in a palace but a stable.  It is important to remember that God often reverses things.  God does the unexpected. As followers of God, we must always keep this truth in mind.  

In thinking about all of this, I thought about life in Nazi Germany.  Some of you may remember those horrific days when Hitler claimed to be the messiah.  His supporters portrayed him as a semi-divine being who demanded their complete allegiance.  Those who failed to worship him could find themselves in prison and even executed, just like those who failed to give Darius “all glory, laud and honor.”

It’s important to remember that while many people hailed Hitler as their savior, many others, like Daniel in this story, remained faithful to the gospel and resisted this evil force.  Some who resisted Hitler did so through their preaching.  They refused to trade the Jewish Jesus for an Aryan one.  They refused to hail Hitler as the messenger of God.  They challenged the government’s decrees, especially when it came to disposing of those the government decided were a drain on society and a threat to the purity of the race.  Some who resisted were imprisoned, others faced exile or were banned from their pulpits, and some we executed.

I recently read a collection of sermons from that era entitled Preaching in Hitler's Shadow.   In this book you’ll find sermons by Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Niemoller, one of whom was exiled, one imprisoned, and the other executed. But while these voices are important, they weren’t alone.  Each of the preachers featured in this book knew that their words of resistance could lead to their death, but they chose to be faithful to the Gospel, knowing that God’s realm is  indestructible and will last forever.

One of those preachers was the theologian Rudolph Bultmann. Although Bultmann’s resistance to Hitler isn’t as well known as that of Barth, Bonhoeffer, or Niemoller, he spoke out clearly against the darkness that was Hitler’s regime in his sermon  on the Great Banquet (Luke 14:16-24).  In his sermon Bultmann calls on the congregation:
To be ready for God’s future, means to go into the darkness comforted and ready, ready for that which God has planned for our future (p. 154).
Daniel was ready for God’s future and therefore he entered the darkness, “ready for that which God has planned for our future.”  As we bring our Advent journey to a close, with Daniel we are invited to go into the future, knowing that God is faithful.  That God’s realm is indestructible.  That God is our rescuer and savior.  As Bultmann reminds us in his sermon –
“The future of God does not meet us only at the end of our days; rather, whoever hears this call is permitted always and again to experience something of it, how God makes it purer and stronger, quieter and more cheerful: how God answers the prayer: ‘make me simple, profound, detached, tender and still in Your peace!”  (P. 154).
There are only a few more days before Christmas.  This reading from Daniel invites us to stay faithful, even when we walk through the shadows, because we know that God is faithful and wll, through Jesus, save his people from their sins.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
4th Sunday of Advent
December 22, 2013

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Writing Is on the Wall -- Sermon for Advent 4A

Daniel 5:1-7, 17, 25-28

It’s been a while since I last preached.  Now that I’m back – as I promised I would – I have much to say!

On this third Sunday of Advent we lit the candle of Joy.  But what does it mean to be joyful?  At Christmas we sing “joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare him room, . . . “

”Let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare him room.”  We’re not singing that carol this morning, but what does it mean to receive the King, to prepare our hearts by leaving room to receive him?

That key word here is “prepare.”  God has promised to be present in our lives.  That is the basic plot line of Scripture.  But, are we ready to receive God into our lives?  Have we made room?  Or, have we stuffed our garages and our closets so full of junk that there’s no room for God to fit?

With this carol we proclaim that “He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness, and wonders of his love.”

Today and next Sunday we’re going to be visiting the Book of Daniel.  It’s not a book we regularly visit, but as children many of us learned the stories about  Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego, whose faithfulness to God puts them into the fiery furnace.  Then there’s the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den, which we’ll look at next week.  But in today’s reading, we hear the story about a mysterious hand “writing on the wall” of a Babylonian palace.

When you hear the phrase “the writing is on the wall,” you know that bad news is coming.  For instance, with Detroit’s recent bankruptcy ruling we all knew “the writing was on the wall.”  Whether you agreed with the decision or not, I doubt anyone was by surprise.  As the judge said – there was no other way.

Of course, what is written on the wall can be a prelude to good news.  So, if someone asks if you want to hear the good news or the bad news first, you might as well get the bad news over with, so you can find out what the silver lining is!

In the book of Daniel We’re transported back to the sixth century B.C.E.; to a time when the Jewish people were living in exile.  Remember how the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and then carted off the leading citizens to Babylon?  But that wasn’t the end of the story.  It might seem like God had abandoned the people of God, but here in Daniel 5 Babylon gets its due.

In Daniel 5, Nebuchadnezzar is long dead and a later king named Belshazzar decides to throw party to celebrate his power.  He invites all the Lords and Ladies to his palace.  Then he tells his servants to get the holy vessels that Nebuchadnezzar took from the Jerusalem Temple so that they could propose toasts to their gods using vessels that were dedicated to the worship of the God of Israel.  In doing this Belshazzar and his guests desecrate the holy vessels, just like the Seleucid rulers desecrated the second Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd Century B.C.E.  This was when Daniel was written.  

“Immediately” after this, a human hand mysteriously appeared and begins writing on the wall.  As you might expect, Belshazzar nearly faints with fear.  The author writes: 
“Then the King’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs give way, and his knees knocked together.”  (vs. 6 NRSV).
After all, when there’s “writing on the wall” the news can’t be good.

Belshazzar then calls in his religious advisors and demands that they interpret the meaning of these strange words.  Unfortunately, they don’t know what to say.  The king is increasingly frustrated, but then the Queen Mother remembers a man named Daniel who had interpreted the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar.   Perhaps he could interpret this ominous message.  When he hears this, a very frightened Belshazzar, agrees to bring in Daniel.  The king even promises to give Daniel the number three position in his administration.  Daniel agrees to interpret the message, but he tells Belshazzar to keep the gifts and honors – and with good reason, because Daniel could read the writing on the wall.  

The message consisted of three words, the first of which is repeated once:  Mene, Tekel, and Parsin.  What do these words mean?  According to Daniel the first word, Mene, means “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end.”  Why is this?  The answer is found in the second word, Tekel. Daniel says, “you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.”  In other words, God has audited your books and you failed the audit.  As for the third word – it is the penalty phase.  It’s no wonder Belshazzar was terrified.  He was standing before the divine judge.

This third word, which is parsin or peres, means that your kingdom is to be divided.  The banks might be too big to fail, but that’s not true of the Babylonian empire.   Belshazzar is about to lose his job, and in this case there aren’t any golden parachutes.  It’s interesting that when Belshazzar hears the news he decides to push the rewards and honors on Daniel.  I guess he thinks this will delay the inevitable.  But such is not the case.  The Babylonian kingdom will soon give way to the Persian Empire, and the exile will end.  But that’s another story all together!

As we celebrate Advent, what message do you hear in this story about the writing on the wall?

Perhaps we should consider the ministry of John the Baptist, who is born with a calling to prepare the way for the realm of God. He is, according to Luke, Jesus’ advance man.  He gets things ready.  He reads the “writing on the wall,” which is the call to repentance.  

Belshazzar wasn’t paying attention to God.  He wasn’t prepared.  So, when Daniel interpreted the message, it was already time for him to face the bankruptcy judge, and receive what he was due.  His kingdom was to be no more.

As we continue this Advent journey, we are reminded that there is one coming who will inaugurate the realm of God.  This divine realm, according to Scripture is very different from human kingdoms like that of Belshazzar, Antiochus IV, and Caesar.

According to Daniel, when we compare human kingdoms – even nations like our own – with God’s realm, they will be found wanting.  They will come and they go.  These human kingdoms can be evil and oppressive.  That was the case with the Babylonians and with the Seleucid kings.  And even if, like the Persian Empire, or our country, they are more agreeable, they fall well short of God’s realm.  The good news, the news that follows what is written on the wall, is that the realm of God is defined by the character of God.  Therefore, in God’s realm, there is peace, there is joy, there is love, and there is true justice for all.  

On this third Sunday of Advent, the day in which we light the candle of joy, where do you see God’s realm present?  Do you feel as if these human realms  have the upper hand, or do you see signs that God’s realm is pushing these realms aside, bringing to this world and to you as a person hope?    

In Daniel 5 we hear the promise that God is present and active. Human realms come and go, but God’s realm endures for ever.  

In the story that follows in Daniel 6, which we’ll look at next week, we hear a different question.  If God is faithful, will you be faithful?  Are you ready and willing to entrust your life to God’s care by preparing room to receive God’s realm?  In this, there is joy!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
December 15, 2013
3rd Sunday of Advent