I had a hard time getting this week’s sermon done. That happens sometimes. It’s like a form of writer’s block hits me every so often. I just don’t know how to start sometimes, and when I try to just start writing and see what happens, I look back several pages in and it’s just clearly not good, and so I hit delete and start all over. That happened multiple times this week.
And I guess that’s actually kind of appropriate, since I want to start today’s sermon at a place of no words. Here’s what I mean: The Hebrew word for word is “dabar”. The Hebrew word for wilderness is “midbar”. A colleague of mine shared at a text study this week that Walter Wangerine Jr – Retired Lutheran Pastor, theologian, author of many books and Professor of literature – has taught that this word “midbar” / wilderness
Can be understood as a negation of the word “dabar” / word, in other words, as meaning “no words”.
Thinking of the wilderness as a wordless place is intriguing to me, because into this wordless place – into this wilderness – comes one whose sole responsibility is to speak: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!” This one is called “the messenger”, “The voice crying out in the wilderness”. John’s job is to speak a particular word in this wordless place.
I already told you I struggled to get going with this sermon this week – I mean, how is one supposed to use words to evoke wordlessness? It’s ironic, no?
There are lots of things in our world today that make their way into the news, and onto social media, that make me so sad, or sometimes so angry, or maybe so disillusioned, that if I share or repost them, I don’t know what to say in the post. And when that happens, which, sadly, seems to be happening more and more often, I often simply post “No words”.
I mean, really, what are you supposed to say when a madman guns down a police officer, a husband and father, in cold blood outside of a station in PA, and then goes into hiding for days on end, disrupting the lives of people for miles around for weeks?
What are you supposed to say when what I can only think of as terribly sick young people are radicalized by terrorists on the other side of the world, and then decide to blow up finish lines at a marathon? Or attack police officers and soldiers with hammers, or hatchets, or guns? Or try to fly to some far away country to join forces with jihadists who have recruited them via the internet?
What are you supposed to say when a man, a husband, father and grandfather, ends up dead after being put in a choke hold by a police officer for allegedly selling single cigarettes on the street? Or when a 12 year old playing with a toy gun is gunned down by an officer who should never have been hired, but was anyway, by a city police force that never even checked his previous service record which clearly stated he was emotionally unfit to serve and to carry a weapon? Or when a grandmother is tasered in the back, falling on her face in the middle of the road? Or when a nation goes bonkers on all sides after an apparently not so nice kid is shot dead by a police officer who confronted him, and supposed eyewitnesses tell wildly inflammatory false versions of what happened?
What are you supposed to say when, decades after the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s, vast swatches of our populace believe and cry out publically that it is open season on young black men in America today?
What are you supposed to say when, as a result of the still all too present scourge of institutionalized racism in America, people of color are far more likely
- To live in poverty
- To be incarcerated for committing the same crime that will get a young white person a proverbial slap on the wrist like maybe a fine, or probation
- To be paid less than a white woman is paid for doing the same job as a white man – a statistic we don’t hear nearly as much about as the fact that women make 78 cents on the dollar compared to men – while people of color and Hispanics earn in the upper 60s to low 70 cent range.
What are you supposed to say after 50 years of the so-called War on Poverty? The statistics are grim as more and more people are turning to such services as food banks and food pantries since SNAP benefits were cut recently. What are you supposed to say when 54% of people who turn to food banks for help in America, are employed in full time jobs, but don’t earn enough to make ends meet?
What are you to say on the anniversary of the day that shall live in infamy when we humans continue to wage war all around the globe, as if we can’t conceive of any better way to work out our differences and conflicting interests.
What are you supposed to say in the midst of such wilderness conditions as these?
Well, but one thing is clear, and has been since the beginning of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America some 26 years ago. No words is not an option! We cannot and we will not remain silent! We will be a voice crying out in the wilderness, calling for justice, bringing down the lofty places of misused and abused power, raising up the low places of systemic injustice and oppression, leveling the uneven ground of systemic inequality and racism, announcing comfort to all people as all people are created in God’s own image and likeness!
The word comfort, taken to its Latin roots, literally means to fortify together – com, together; fort, fortify – to build up, or to strengthen together. Which begs the question, I guess, of to what end are we fortified together? Is it not to strive to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God? Is it not to strive for justice and peace in all the earth? Is it not follow our Lord Jesus’ example of service for the sake of the world?
In the very first social statement of the ELCA, titled Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective, it says:
The Church must participate in social structures critically. Not only God but also sin is at work in the world. Social structures and processes combine life-giving and life-destroying dynamics in complex mixtures and in varying degrees. The church, therefore, must unite realism and vision, wisdom and courage, in its social responsibility. It needs constantly to discern when to support and when to confront society’s patterns, values, and powers (pg. 3).
John the Baptist bursts on the scene today in the beginning of the Gospel of Mark as the voice the Prophet Isaiah has foretold, as the messenger sent out ahead of the Messiah, preparing the way by speaking up and speaking out! And, guess what… he loses his head in the end! But he does it! John, like Jesus after him, does not hold his tongue. He confronts the powers that be, bringing God’s word into the wordlessness of the wilderness of human sin. Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight! Repent and be baptized!
And the people come, confessing their sin, and receiving the baptism of repentance – a word that means to turn around in the sense of a complete turn around! The call to repent isn’t just a call to “be good” or “to be a little better, or a little nicer, than you have been.” The call to repent is a call to a whole new way of seeing life, and the world, and God’s saving work in the world that God has made that God loves enough to die for and to redeem!
And it’s a call to live in a whole new way – a way that speaks God’s saving love into the wilderness of our lives, and changes everything! It’s a way of living a life fortified in the saving word of the Gospel that is turned out for the sake of the world, not turned in on the self!
It’s a life that announces good tidings: Here is your God! The God of might! The God who rules by his own strong arm! The God who brings reward and recompense before him! Who is, in fact, coming to feed his flock like a shepherd. To gather his lambs in his arms. To carry them in his bosom. To gently lead the mother sheep.
This is what God’s might looks like. This is what God’s strong arm looks like. This is the model we are to follow as we go forth as those who bring good tidings, lifting up our voices crying out for God’s justice to be done, so that all might live into the reality of a whole new world – a whole new day in which we’ll never again have to stand in stunned silence with no words – a whole new world in which 10Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. 11Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. And 12The LORD will give what is good…
It’s time for us all to get up on the high mountain and to be the heralds of God’s good tidings! Amen!
Grace and Peace, Pastor Matt