LAKEWOOD UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST
2601 54th Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33712
On land originally inhabited by the Tocabaga
Date: December 4, 2022 Second Sunday of Advent
Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12
Sermon: Seeking Christ
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
There is an old folk tale about a poor man who sometimes could not find work so he had to resort to stealing to provide food for his family. He didn’t like to do it, and he wasn’t good at it, but sometimes he felt he had no choice. There were mouths to feed. And there was nowhere to get help.
According to the law of the land, the penalty for theft, of any kind, was death by hanging. No exceptions.
Finally, the poor man got caught with a loaf of bread in his hand. He was arrested, jailed, and sentenced to death. He was scheduled to be hanged in public as a warning to others.
The man sat in jail desperate about what would happen to his family without him. The night before he was to be put to death, he mentioned to the guard that it was a shame that he was to be executed since he had a very special secret, a great skill, that had been passed down to him by his father that no one else knew about. It was too bad that he could not tell the secret to someone wise who would protect the secret. Certainly the king would want to know this secret.
The guard said that he would be willing to share the secret of the condemned man with the king. So the poor man explained to the guard: “I can take a pomegranate seed, plant it in the ground, water it, and make it grow so that it will bear fruit overnight. My father taught it to me, as his father taught him, for generations. But tomorrow the secret dies with me.”
The guard could hardly believe his ears and he immediately went to tell the king. The next day, before the execution, the king arrived and had the poor man brought forward. “Let me see you do this marvelous thing,” the king commanded. And so the man asked for a spade, dug a hole, asked for a pomegranate seed, and then turned to the king and spoke: “The seed can only be planted by someone who has never stolen anything in his life or someone who has never taken anything that did to belong to him by right. Of course, I am a thief, caught stealing bread for my children and my wife, so I can’t plant it. You’ll have to have someone else do it.”
The king turned to his counselor and commanded him to plant the seed. The man froze and stuttered: “Your majesty, I can’t.”
“What do you mean, you can’t?” the king roared.
The counselor explained, “Once, when I was young before I was in your employ, I took something from a house where I was staying. I returned it, of course, but I can’t plant the seed.”
The king was annoyed and turned to his treasurer and commanded him to plant the seed. The man went pale and shook. “I can’t, your majesty,” he confessed.
“What? You, too? What have you done? Have you stolen from me?”
“No, no, my king,” he protested. “But I work with figures calculating all the time, and it’s easy to make mistakes, and I am forever trying to balance accounts, taking from here to put there. With huge sums of money, land deeds, contracts, and so on, it’s easy to overlook something. Besides I often have to make deals with people so that better deals can be made later. It’s business, sire.”
The king turned to another counselor and instinctively the next man shrank away from him. This happened again and again.
Finally, the poor thief spoke. “Your majesty, perhaps you could plant the seed yourself.”
This time it was the king who hesitated. So many things went through his mind. He remembered stealing from his father in anger, impatient to be king himself and wanting that power and freedom, that access to wealth. The poor man spoke boldly, “Your majesty, even you cannot plant the seed, you who are mighty, with power over life and death; you who have wealth and much more than you need to live on; you who make laws that destroy even the poor who are desperately hungry and caught in the web of other’s greed and insensitivity. You can’t plant the seed. You are a thief. Why are you so hard on me, a poor man who stole bread to feed his family? You are going to hang me, leaving others in need with no recourse.” The king stopped. He hung his head, aware of his harshness, injustice, his callousness, and disdain for others. He repented. He pardoned the poor man. He changed the laws. And then he set to work to make things better for everyone in his realm. The king was so impressed with the poor man’s wisdom, cleverness, and understanding, that he took the man into his employ. And things continued to get better for everyone.
You see, the question for this season is not if we are naughty or nice. We know that we are all culpable in some way. All of us are in some way complicitors in systems and behaviors that do harm to others. What we hear from Isaiah and from Matthew is about a way forward. We are told of a God of love, love so vast, that there is no sin, no wrongdoing, nothing that can separate us from that love. It is a love so compelling, it reaches out to us even in places of death like the shoot coming out of the stump. It is a love that will always find us. A love that never dies.
This Love is the heart of reality. And for us, its most vibrant expression is in the life of Jesus the Christ. Our faith story tells us of a love so great that a precious child is sent, given, and then put to death, as an expression of that ultimate, unconditional, universal love. That is why we celebrate Christmas.
In the scene with John the Baptizer, out in the wilderness by the Jordan River, we are told of the people flocking to him: coming from the cities and surrounding towns and regions. Even the sophisticated city slickers are making their way out to the desert where there are no hotels, no restaurants, no comfort stations; so hungry are they for John’s word of repentance and renewal.
You see, we want to repent. We want to be part of a new reality. We want to change direction. We want to be part of communities of peace. And Advent is the season that we remember that our God, the God of Divine Love, wants that for us and is showing us the way. Our God is providing the vision, the leadership, the spirit, and the love to re-create the world so that all might flourish in peace especially those made poor and those who are weak and vulnerable. Our story is of a God that does not want to punish us. But a God that wants to empower us to be part of this new, redeemed future.
We heard today a version of the vision of the peaceable kingdom – the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling, the cow and the bear, the lion eating straw like the ox, the baby and the adder. It brings to mind the famous paintings by Edward Hicks, an American Quaker. In one version of his peaceable kingdom paintings with all of the animals down in the corner there is a representation of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania and a Quaker, and other leaders making a treaty with the Native Americans. Hicks depicts God’s dream for all to live together in peace.
Advent is not about whether we have done anything wrong, it’s not about assigning blame, it’s not about condemning ourselves or others. It is about recommitting to a future of peace for all and for the planet. It’s about celebrating the God that does not give up on us. It is about rejoicing in the one who comes to show us the path to peace. No matter how dead the stump, with Divine Love, there is still the possibility of a new shoot. New life. Bearing fruit so that the Arab shall sit down with the Israeli, and the English shall play with the Irish, and the Ukrainians shall live peaceably with the Russians, and the Republicans shall sit down with the Democrats, and the Chinese people and the Taiwanese shall live peacefully as neighbors. And all, all of them, all of us, shall work together to create a world that supports the flourishing of all children. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.