Advent 2A Sermon (2001)

2nd Sunday in Advent
Texts: Matthew 3:1-12;
Isa. 11:1-10; Rom. 15: 4-13


[Some extemporizing around bullet points]: Recap of last week — because I want to do something similar with this morning’s lessons, and tie them together under one theme — begin the recap with Left Behind series of books.

  • Idea of rapture, followed by a time of tribulation — patterned after the Book of Revelation.
  • The main idea of rapture is that it would be good to get whisked away by Christ, and that it would be terrible to be left behind to endure the time of tribulation.
  • The irony of this series of books — there’s been nine so far, with a tenth planned for next summer — is that the heroes in these books are several folks who are left behind. The rapture occurs in chapter one of the first book, so we don’t even get to know any folks who were lucky enough to be raptured away. The irony is that the readers then have to identify with a few of the unlucky ones left behind.

What I wanted to suggest last week, then, is for us to forget the rapture as a coming event, and to instead see the Cross of Jesus and the Resurrection as a rupture in time, the point in history where everything changes.

  • What’s crucial to see, then, is how Jesus changes around our ordinary ways of thinking. We might begin with this idea of being left behind.
  • Jesus himself recalled the days of Noah. Let’s turn that around — explain.
  • Why would Jesus be inviting us to turn that around? Because he was left behind on the Cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Explain.
  • Noah and his family began the world anew after the flood of violence destroyed it. Jesus begins the world anew with his power of loving forgiveness, after we destroyed him in our flood of violence.

I want to do something similar with this morning’s Gospel Lesson. The main image, out of the mouth of John the Baptist, is that of fire.

  • Again, our usual way of thinking would be that it is far better to be rescued from the consuming fires of our violence. John the Baptist himself still seems to think this way. The One who will come after him will baptize with fire. Fire is even more dangerous than a flood of water.
  • But something else happens first: Jesus himself is consumed by the fire of our violence. He is nailed up on the tree, cut down, and descends into the fires of hell — which is to say, the consuming fires of human violence.

A better book to read than the Left Behind series: Gil Bailie’s Violence Unveiled.

  • Bailie has the different approach to the Book of Revelation that we have talked about. Instead of predicting something far into the future, the Book of Revelation gives us clues as to how to interpret our own times in light of the cross.
  • The Greek word for Revelation that is behind the title of the biblical book is Apocalypse — a word that’s made it into English. So what is the Revelation or Apocalypse of John about? Another word for apocalypse is unveiling, so here’s what Bailie says:
      The word “apocalypse” means “unveiling.” What, then, is veiled, the unveiling of which can have apocalyptic consequences? The answer is: violence.
  • Obviously, this is where the title of his book comes from, Violence Unveiled, violence revealed, an apocalypse of violence. And where does this unveiling of violence begin to happen? The cross of Jesus Christ.
  • We don’t have to wait for some event of rapture and then an ensuing time of tribulation. The Book of Revelation is not only about something that will happen in the future. It’s about what has been happening, and will continue to happen, as the Cross reveals the nature of violence.
  • What about violence is the Cross revealing? That it’s purely our responsibility and not in any way God’s responsibility. In the Cross, God takes our violence unto himself in order to reveal it as our way of doing things. Violence is our thing, not God’s, in any way, shape, or form.
  • Humankind has had the tendency to idolatry since the foundation of our worlds, and the shape of that idolatry has been to constantly get our gods mixed up in our violence so that we don’t have to take responsibility for it. We sacrifice this creature — a lamb, an oxen, our firstborn child — upon an altar because God wants us to. We slay our enemy because we are righteous to do so; God wants us to stand for righteousness by killing them. In many and various ways, we do violence against one another and try to bring our false gods into the mix. The Cross of Jesus means to blow the cover off of all that.
  • That’s why we have been turning around these violent images the past couple weeks. Jesus himself is the one left behind; he resists getting caught up in the flood of violence. Jesus himself is hung on a tree, cut down, and thrown into the fires of our violence. He turns our fires of violence into a refining fire that can melt away our ways of violence and become a fire of love.

I mentioned last week that I think the Left Behind series of books can even be dangerous in their theology. This is how: they can bring back belief in the idol of a god who brings an ultimate violence at the end of time, a righteous violence that defeats all that is evil.

  • But this is to undo with a fictional account of Christ’s second coming what the true God is trying to reveal to us at Christ’s first coming! The Messiah does not come to fight fire with fire, if the fire is violence. The Messiah comes to fight our fire of violence with God’s fire of loving forgiveness. Period. It will not be different in the end.
  • When true peace finally comes at the Messiah’s second coming, it will not be with any form of violence or force. God is Love, and Love can never, ever be about violence.

But there’s another way to turn this around for us, under that one theme that I promised at the outset. It’s the theme of baptism. John the Baptist didn’t quite have the right idea about baptism yet, but he correctly understood that the One who came after him would get this baptism thing right.

  • Let me begin with a portion of our liturgy from the service for Christian Burial. That’s right, from our funeral liturgy. As we process in with the casket, the pastor reads these words from St. Paul (Romans 6):
      When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by Baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (LBW, p. 206)
  • This is an assurance in the face of death — not only in the face of the death of a loved one, but also an assurance for those of us left behind who still face our own deaths. It is especially an assurance for us to face the same kind of death that Jesus did — namely, being left behind when the rising tides of violence swirl around us such that we might risk becoming victim to it.
  • Remembering our baptisms into Christ’s death, we are able to resist being swept up in the floods and fires of human violence. How? Because in our baptisms we have already died to that kind of death with Christ! And we have risen to a new way of living that continues to shine Christ’s fire of love instead of imitating the fires of human violence.
  • Think of the temptations to violence that swirl around us everyday. A boss or co-worker harms us. Our children step out of line. Someone at church gossips about us. We want revenge. We want to force our sense of order on the situation. No! We can resist doing so because we have already died to that kind of response in Christ.
  • The biggest temptation right now is the one provided with that terrible act of terror perpetrated against us on 9/11. It is so easy to get caught up in our righteous response to such horrifying violence. But our bombing of Afghanistan, our relentless search for Osama bin Laden, is a rising tide of violence that I feel I must, as one baptized in Christ, resist. What — make no response to such violence? What if they go on killing more of us? Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone. I can only speak for myself. But, no, I cannot participate or support such a violent response. More and more, I see my identity as one baptized into Christ as centering on my being left behind when violence swirls around me. It is scary, yes, but I carry the promise of my baptism, that I need not fear such violence because I’ve already died with Christ to such violence and risen with him to a new way of living whose only law is love.

I pray that I have the courage if the day comes when such lethal violence comes close to me. I remind myself that I am baptized into the Spirit of Jesus Christ, that I may have such courage, if the day comes. Until that day, there are many everyday battles to resist getting caught up in the violence — at home, at work, in our community.

  • I invite you to remind yourself daily of what your baptism means: the courage to resist violence because you have died to all that, the courage to live a new life promised in the Spirit.
  • In that vein, please open to page 124 of the Lutheran Book of Worship, the prayer of confirmation in the baptism liturgy (#13). You have been confirmed in this prayer to have the wisdom and strength that you need to resist the powers of sin. (You’ll notice that it carries words from our First Lesson this morning, Isaiah 11:2.) Let us pray it together now, each one of us saying our own names to fill in the blank. You ready?
      God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we give you thanks for freeing your sons and daughters from the power of sin and for raising them up to a new life through this holy sacrament. Pour your Holy Spirit upon [name]: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence. Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, December 9, 2001


1. For Part One, see last week’s sermon, “Left Behind: Surviving the Floods of Violence.”

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