The 5th Sunday after the Epiphany: A Sermon

Readings

If it feels like someone hit the fast forward button to send us into the Lenten readings, that’s not accidental. In the older lectionaries in the West the three Sundays prior to Ash Wednesday were treated as part of a “the Greater Lent,” and some of our readings reflect this older treatment.[1]

So, certainly, the first reading, which pretty much says all we need to say about fasting as a Lenten discipline. Our Lectionary omits the last two verses, the verses about the Sabbath, which ignores the text’s logic. If I don’t receive the Sabbath as God’s generous gift, then the generosity the text describes toward the vulnerable is not going to come naturally.

The second reading, as we heard, continues Paul’s challenge to the Corinthians re wisdom. Centuries and tradition have distanced us from the shock of the cross; back then even words like ‘cross’ and ‘crucify’ would not appear in polite society. If Jesus on the cross displays God’s wisdom, then God’s and our wisdom are not the same, and the Corinthians’ wisdom is less effective than they assume.

Our Gospel reading makes at least three points. First, the images of salt and light restate the rationale for there being a “people of God.” It echoes multiple Old Testament texts, starting with God’s words to Abraham “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3b). Jesus is not starting a new project, but restarting that old project.

Over in the Gospel of John we hear Jesus saying “I am the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5). Here, “You are the light of the world.” We might say: Jesus is the light of the world so that God’s people can be the light of the world. To get into the spirit of it—and since we’re in Wisconsin—here’s Vince Lombardi: “Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.”[2]

Second, Jesus not abolishing, but fulfilling the Law. We’ll need to wonder about how that works as we continue in the Sermon on the Mount.

Third, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” That’s a warning that itself needs a warning label: Jesus is talking about the scribes and Pharisees as a group, so we can’t extrapolate to every member of that group. The scribes and Pharisees are supposed to be good at righteousness, but, like most groups in every time and place that are supposed to be good at righteousness, they’re vulnerable. Why not maximize the benefits and minimize the costs—also when it comes to interpreting the law? Like Isaiah’s audience, whose practice of fasting was simply self-serving. Joseph’s story, the first in Matthew’s Gospel, displays a different sort of vulnerability. Joseph is righteous, but without angelic intervention, his righteousness would have meant discarding Mary. And Jesus will spend the rest of the Sermon on the Mount describing what that righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees looks like.

As a sort of preview of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, let’s look at today’s psalm. And that means looking at Psalms 111-112, for the two psalms are a matched pair, the only such tight pair in the Psalter. Please find them on pp.754-755 of the BCP. Both psalms are acrostic, each line ordered—after the initial “Hallelujah”—by the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, running from A to Z, as it were.

Psalm 111

1 Hallelujah!

I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, *
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.

2 Great are the deeds of the Lord! *
they are studied by all who delight in them.

3 His work is full of majesty and splendor, *
and his righteousness endures for ever.

4 He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; *
the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.

5 He gives food to those who fear him; *
he is ever mindful of his covenant.

6 He has shown his people the power of his works *
in giving them the lands of the nations.

7 The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice; *
all his commandments are sure.

8 They stand fast for ever and ever, *
because they are done in truth and equity.

9 He sent redemption to his people;
he commanded his covenant for ever; *

holy and awesome is his Name.

10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; *
those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
his praise endures for ever.

Psalm 112

1 Hallelujah!

Happy are they who fear the Lord *
and have great delight in his commandments!

2 Their descendants will be mighty in the land; *
the generation of the upright will be blessed.

3 Wealth and riches will be in their house, *
and their righteousness will last for ever.

4 Light shines in the darkness for the upright; *
the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.

5 It is good for them to be generous in lending *
and to manage their affairs with justice.

6 For they will never be shaken; *
the righteous will be kept in everlasting remembrance.

7 They will not be afraid of any evil rumors; *
their heart is right; they put their trust in the Lord.

8 Their heart is established and will not shrink, *
until they see their desire upon their enemies.

9 They have given freely to the poor, *
and their righteousness stands fast for ever;
they will hold up their head with honor.

10 The wicked will see it and be angry;
they will gnash their teeth and pine away; *
the desires of the wicked will perish.

Back in Genesis we hear “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (1:26); we might hear these two psalms as a meditation on how that plays out: the righteous God, the righteous human being.

The divine-human relation is certainly not symmetrical. Both psalms begin with “Hallelujah!” (Not first “Praise Yah” and then “Praise Us.”) The first psalm ends with “the fear of the Lord;” the second begins by declaring “happy” (there’s that word again that we met in last week’s Beatitudes) “they who fear the Lord.”

OK; Sidebar. “Fear the Lord.” There are good reasons why that phrase makes us nervous, and we often gloss it with “reverence.” That gloss is not wrong, but something can be lost. Ellen Davis: “Fear is an elemental response; reverence is a head trip. Fear is the unmistakable feeling in our bodies, in our stomachs and our scalp, when we run up hard against the power of God.”[3] Recall that scene in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia in which Mr. Beaver is preparing Lucy to meet the lion Aslan:

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. 

Not safe, but good: not a bad framework for sorting out what sorts of fear are appropriate. But back to the psalms.

What is striking is the celebration of image/likeness, first in the identical vocabulary in vv.3-4 (the English translation’s decision to translate the same Hebrew words differently is a head-scratcher). The celebration continues, taking the differences of scale into account. The Lord is generous (vv.5a, 6b, 9a), as are the righteous (vv.5a, 9a).

God is glorious, and it is a glorious thing to be a human being. This pair of psalms can remind us of that when it’s not obvious, when we begin the day by putting our pants on backwards (last Thursday).

Besides the Creator/creature difference, perhaps the most obvious difference is that the Lord is unopposed; the idols of the nations are not worth mentioning. The righteous, on the other hand, live in the midst of the wicked. And here’s where the psalm notices a corollary to the fear of the Lord. The righteous fear the Lord. So they do not fear evil rumors (v.7), they do not “shrink” (v.8, same Hebrew word). So I wonder: if I feared the Lord more would I fear what Wall Street is doing to my IRA less? Anyhow, as the psalm lays it out, we might say that the righteous get the image of God right: generosity toward the vulnerable. The wicked get the image of God wrong: abusive, tight-fisted, egocentric. The righteous have a future underwritten by Lord; the wicked do not.

From the perspective of the two psalms it’s a no-brainer: we’re created in God’s image; image God’s generosity. But that it needs saying shows that it’s not self-evident. We see things not as they are, but as we are, and that includes “seeing” God. So some see a god who does whatever he wants, likes throwing his weight around, who’s accountable to no one, and set about imitating that.

So this pair of psalms that we’ve been examining also examines us. How do we perceive God? What elements of that perceived divine character are we in fact imitating? As we wonder about that we may be able to better hear what Jesus might be telling us as we continue in Matthew’s Gospel.

How do we perceive God? What elements of that perceived divine character are we in fact imitating?


[1] See, conveniently, https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2014/7-march/regulars/out-of-the-question/old-names-of-pre-lent-sundays (accessed 1/30/2023).

[2] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/32550-gentlemen-we-will-chase-perfection-and-we-will-chase-it (accessed 1/31/2023).

[3] Getting involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (2001), p.102.

The 4th Sunday after the Epiphany: A Sermon

Readings

Each of these readings deserves its own sermon. This time around let’s wonder about three things. First, the Beatitudes as a rereading of that last verse in Micah. Second, Paul on wisdom and folly. Third, that phrase in Paul’s letter, “the message of the cross.”

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah’s audience (Isaiah’s audience—they were contemporaries) was justly very proud of the temple. Solomon had built it, had spared no expense in building it, and it was breathtaking. And as long as the multiple sacrifices and festivals stayed on schedule, it was easy to assume that the Lord found it breathtaking. So prophets like Micah had the thankless task of reminding the people that while worship (including prayer) was essential, it was not the only essential thing. In characteristic prophetic hyperbole: “what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” And over the centuries we’ve periodically needed this reminder: worship is essential; it’s not the only essential thing.

(Parenthetically, we might hear today’s psalm, Psalm 15, as a reminder, in the temple, to remember the prophets’ teaching.)

Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God: we can hear Jesus’ Beatitudes as sketching out what, with Jesus’ coming, that looks like.

The Beatitudes, the beginning of what we refer to as the Sermon on the Mount, are set just after the calling of Peter, Andrew, James, and John that we heard last week. Matthew sets the stage: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (4:23-25)—and then our text.

Why’s that important? Coming at the Beatitudes cold (“Happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn…”) one might be tempted to call the local asylum: one of your patients is loose. But after that long list of folk Jesus has touched, it’s possible that he knows what he’s talking about. That’s important for us as hearers. We’re not meant to come to the Beatitudes cold. If Jesus hasn’t touched me in some important way, they’re not the place to start.

Micah set up his summary with “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you.” Jesus sets it up with “Blessed/Happy are…” Translation of the Greek makarios is a challenge, the English versions opting for ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’, both of which have drawbacks. ‘Blessed’ can suggest something disconnected from real life; ‘happy’ can suggest something fleeting. It helps to notice that it’s the opening word in the Book of Psalms: “Happy are they who have not walked…” We might say it’s about describing a truly human life.

Most of the beatitudes focus on character as seen in conduct, the merciful, the peacemakers, etc. The beginning and ending beatitudes focus also on the vulnerability tied to that character. While in a perfect world good character would produce good fortune, we’re not in a perfect world, so good character carries risks. As Ben Sira put it “My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing” (2:1). So “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” not because that’s how the world works, but because, as Jesus has been proclaiming, “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” As Jesus has been proclaiming, underlined in the last beatitude which shifts from “Blessed are the…” to “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” So the Beatitudes are news, tied to Jesus’ arrival, rather than timeless truths.

And the thing about news (worthy of the name) is that it guides the conduct of the wise. Snow’s in the forecast—so leave the sand and shovel in the trunk. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”—so that’s the character we want to encourage. Parenthetically, here, as in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, the focus is first on the community (the congregation), then on the individual. What sort of community are we? What sort of community are we becoming?

And the community/congregation is integral to when/how these futures happen (“they will be comforted…will inherit the earth…will be filled”). Only in heaven? That would make “inherit the earth” meaningless. “They will receive mercy” only from God? Jesus’ teaching seeks to mold us into congregations in which the Beatitudes are experienced to be true in our dealings with each other. (“Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’” (Matt. 18:21-22). The Beatitudes are news; let’s respond wisely.

Paul, as we heard, pays attention to what the message about the cross does to words like ‘wise’, ‘foolish’, ‘strong’, and ‘weak’. The way of the Beatitudes, executed supremely by Jesus, looks foolish and weak to the world, then and now. The meek will inherit the earth? Or, as Stalin put it, “The pope! How many divisions has he got?” So the Corinthians need to realize that being baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection overhauls the meaning of ‘wise’, ‘foolish’, ‘strong’, and ‘weak’. These “I belong to Paul/Apollos/Cephas/Christ” games need a second look.

That’s something we have trouble hearing. We categorize: there’s culture, economics, politics, religion, etc. “Christian” goes in the religion box, so leaves the other boxes undisturbed, leaves the meaning of ‘wise’, ‘strong’ etc. in these other boxes undisturbed. Or, worse, ‘Christian’ becomes another argument for whatever cultural, economic, or political positions I already hold. It’s easiest to see this in others. Putin invades Ukraine; the Russian Orthodox Patriarch declares that it’s God’s will. No. To be baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection means a mental asterisk on words like ‘wise’, ‘foolish’, ‘strong’, and ‘weak’ as I learn from Jesus how to use them.

So much—too briefly—for Paul. But what of “the message of the cross”? In today’s reading Paul focuses on what it does to words like ‘wise’, ‘foolish’, ‘strong’, and ‘weak’. But that’s not all, or even primarily, what the cross is about. So let’s pull back the camera. Micah: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Well, why is that good, why does the LORD require that? Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God: that’s what reflects God’s character, that’s what fits with God’s creation. And that, combined with the suffering it often attracts (think the Beatitudes, Jesus’ performance of the Beatitudes, “the message of the cross”) is how the LORD heals this world.

But that’s not the end of the story. Toward the end Paul writes “He [God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” That’s more than Jesus messing with our use of ‘wise’, ‘foolish’, ‘strong’, and ‘weak’. That’s our walking in the way of the Beatitudes, the way of the Cross, to participate in the healing of our world. We keep remembering Jesus’ story not because he’s back there and we’re here, but so that his story becomes our story.

Bottom line:

  • When we come to receive the Body and Blood we’re asking God to work in us so that we—and others—experience the Beatitudes in our common life.
  • When we come to the receive the Body and Blood it’s to receive Jesus as gift and to become the Jesus-like gift for others.

The 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany: A Sermon

Readings

One of the really interesting questions New Testament scholars are working these days is how quotations of the Old Testament work. When a New Testament writer quotes the Old Testament—as Matthew does Isaiah in today’s readings—is the writer concerned only with the words cited, or is the writer using those words to point to the larger unit in which the words are embedded? In today’s readings I think it’s more likely the latter. Let’s start with Isaiah.

Last month (the last Sunday of Advent) we heard part of Isaiah’s conversation with the Judean king Ahaz. Ahaz’s neighbors Israel and Syria were threatening invasion. Faced with Ahaz’s distrust, Isaiah delivered both good and bad news. The good news: Israel and Syria would soon be non-issues. The bad news: they’d be non-issues because a very hungry Assyrian Empire (modern Iraq) would be Judah’s new next-door neighbor.

Today’s Isaiah oracle reflects the situation just a few years later. A good chunk of Northern Israel (the traditional tribal territory of Zebulun and Naphtali) is now part of the Assyrian Empire. But that won’t be the last word: there will be deliverance like “the day of Midian;” a child has been born who will rule with justice and righteousness—forever. When? It all sounds pretty imminent—until the last verse: “The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this,” which turns out to be also a warning that it’s on the Lord’s timetable, not ours.

“The day of Midian” looks like a reference to the story of Gideon in the Book of Judges. The Midianites from across the Jordan were oppressing Israel. The Lord tells Gideon to gather troops but then, surprisingly, says “The troops with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand. Israel would only take the credit away from me, saying, ‘My own hand has delivered me’” (Jdg. 7:2). Under the Lord’s instruction Gideon gets the troops down to 300, equips them with trumpets, torches, jars to hide the flames, no mention of swords, and at night has them surround the Midianite camp, break the jars and sound the trumpets in unison. The Midianites panic and flee. So “the day of Midian” in Isaiah’s oracle suggests that this victory over the oppressor may not depend on the sword.

William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” So for Matthew, steeped in the Old Testament stories, the connection between Isaiah’s words regarding Zebulun and Naphtali and Jesus’ withdrawal to Galilee is natural. But it’s not just about geography. Now the oppressor is not the Midianites or the Assyrians, but the Romans. Matthew’s opening genealogy identified Jesus as the son of David, the Messiah. What’s the Messiah doing about the Romans? So I suspect Matthew really liked that “day of Midian” in the Isiah oracle to which he pointed back. Jesus, like Gideon, isn’t taking the expected route. It looks like he’s just calling some fishermen, Peter, Andrew, James, John—but something like—something greater than—“the day of Midian” is afoot.

Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light… He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness.” And Matthew records: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Light, certainly! And Matthew continues poking at our notions of what justice and righteousness are about.

In short, Matthew has cited a bit of Isaiah’s oracle to invite us to use the whole oracle to make sense of Jesus the Messiah’s very low-key beginning moves.

That would be a good place to end the sermon—except that we’ve got this classic banana peel scene in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Immediately after the cheerful greeting we heard last week, it turns out that the Corinthians, rather than continuing to learn from the Messiah (the Christ) what justice and righteousness are about, have slipped into taking up the sword, so to speak, and divided into competing factions: “I’m with Paul/Apollos/Cephas/Christ.”

Completely understandable, of course. One didn’t survive in Corinth without vigorous self-esteem, and it was only natural to take the church as simply another arena in which to guard and seek status. Like the disciples: arguing on that final trip up to Jerusalem about who was the greatest.

Thomas Keating, the Trappist monk who introduced many of us to Centering Prayer, used to tell this story about himself. As a young man he was proud of being able to hold his liquor, to drink everyone else under the table. He later joined the Trappists, one of the stricter monastic orders. They took Lent seriously, to the point that as they progressed through Lent it was common for members to seek dispensations from the Abbot from the rigorous diet. Not Thomas. By the end of Lent he’d fasted everyone else under the table. The Abbot observed, but said nothing. When Lent came around the next year, the Abbot gave Thomas an additional discipline: a whole Hershey bar and a glass of whole milk every day. So as the other monks were tightening their belts…

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us,” not so we can continue, metaphorically speaking, with the rod and sword, but so that we can learn from this Son new ways of living. Judging by the experience of the disciples and Corinthians, this is not a quick process. Judging by the experience of the disciples and Corinthians, our Lord is astonishingly patient.  Or, as Isaiah put it, “The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”

The 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany: A Sermon

Readings

Before we start, something about our first two readings. We’re going to be hearing parts of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth in the next few weeks, and it will help to have a few images in mind. Corinth is located on the very narrow isthmus that connects the northern and southern parts of Greece. It had multiple harbors, served as a provincial capital, and was the site of a major temple to Aphrodite, goddess of love. Combine mentally, if you will, New Orleans, Chicago & Las Vegas. God looks at that strange brew and says “That’d be a good place for a church!” And the presence of a church there, across the Mediterranean from Israel, signals the beginning of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words: “that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

In the Name of the Father…

Most weeks in the Eucharist we sing (or say) some form of “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world…” What does this mean? The source of the affirmation is John the Baptist in the text which we’ve just heard: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Let’s explore this a little.

The phrase is a little odd, because Old Testament sacrifices don’t characteristically use a lamb as a sin offering. You may recall the scapegoat, on which the sins of the people are ceremonially laid. But Jesus was slaughtered at Passover, when the Passover lamb is slaughtered, a fact deeply woven into the passion narratives and into the apostle Paul’s words “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” So it’s more a question of wondering what that connection between the Passover lamb and Jesus might be about.

So let’s wonder together. Passover for the Israelites was a commemoration of their liberation from Egypt, the most ancient and most important of their feasts.

Israel was enslaved in Egypt. God sent Moses: “let my people go.” Pharaoh refused. God sent plague after plague, and Pharaoh continued to refuse. The Passover lamb appears in the context of the last plague. Moses gives the people instructions: each family is to sacrifice a lamb, and put its blood on the door frame. For the houses with the blood of the lamb on their door frames, there will be life; for the other houses, death. The lamb, with its death, delivers that house from judgment.

John the Baptist takes this story and uses it to describe Jesus’ role, the one who takes away the sin not of one house, or one nation, but of the entire world, and opens the door to freedom.

Freedom. Oddly, that’s the part that we tend to forget. Our culture encourages us to forget it: “You’re religious? That’s nice. But don’t let it get in the way of what’s really important, like Pharaoh getting his bricks.” The Lamb takes away the sin, not so that Israel can remain in slavery, but so that Israel can go forth and enter into the full liberty of God’s reign.

Freedom. It’s not just about freedom from oppressors out there, but equally about interior freedom, like the freedom to see. Did you notice what John the Baptist said? “I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, `He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” Even John was unable to recognize the Messiah: God had to help him by means of the dove. And this is where all the movies I can recall which picture Jesus’ baptism get it wrong: Jesus comes to John and his robe is whiter or his teeth straighter or his face more beautiful and any idiot could tell which one was the Messiah. No. God Himself could be standing right in front of us and we’d be oblivious. Cue the Who’s rock opera Tommy: “deaf, dumb and blind.”

Back to the text. John combines the description “Lamb of God” with another description: “he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” John baptizes (submerges!) with water, recalling Israel’s passage through the Red Sea and through the Jordan into the Promised Land. The One Coming baptizes with the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that moved over the waters in creation, the same Spirit who empowered the kings and prophets of Israel, the same Spirit who swept into a valley filled with bones and turned them into a mighty people. And the baptizing image suggests not of a few little drops of the Spirit, but of submerging us in the Spirit.

“Lamb of God” and “he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit”: it’s worth keeping these two images in mind. It’s something like the tension between the servant’s vulnerability and power that we’ve been hearing in the Isaiah tests. Lamb of God, yes, but a Lamb who baptizes with the Spirit. One who baptizes with the Spirit, yes, but the one who baptizes with the Spirit is precisely this Lamb. And this means an ongoing tension between vulnerability and power among the Lamb’s followers.

The Gospel could have left us wondering about these two images, but instead plows ahead with the story. John says “Behold, the Lamb of God!” and two of his disciples follow Jesus… and end up spending the day with him. They begin with John’s strong images: “Lamb of God,” “he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit;” they end up spending a day with a man of flesh and blood, beginning a friendship.

Take away the sins of the world? Yes, we’ve got plenty of sins that someone needs to do something with. We’re part of a world that badly needs liberation. Baptize with the Holy Spirit? Yes, although it sounds pretty formidable, we need that too. Nevertheless, in the actions of that day Jesus offers to the disciples and to us something perhaps more fundamental: friendship: friendship with Jesus.

In our action-oriented context it’s easy to forget this friendship part, easy to assume that the important thing is what we do. There’s plenty of doing in John’s Gospel. But it starts with “They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.” Recall: the “greatest and first commandment” (Mt 22:38) is not “You shall obey the Lord your God” but “You shall love the Lord your God.” In our context that’s encouragement in our individual times of prayer/reading/reflection to hang out with Jesus, to waste time with Jesus. The Living Well Through Advent study we just finished included various ways of doing just that.

So, singing or saying “Lamb of God…” and coming to the altar each week, it’s worth remembering:

  • Extending our hands to receive this Lamb we’re saying “yes” to the liberation of our world, “yes” to recovering our sight
  • Extending our hands we’re putting ourselves in the hands of the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, that Holy Spirit that makes liberation happen. “Please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position…” doesn’t begin to cover it.
  • Extending our hands, we’re saying to Jesus “Yes, Lord, we would be your friends, live as your friends.”

And leaving the altar, the challenge is to let that same Spirit do his work. Come, Holy Spirit!

The 1st Sunday after the Epiphany: A Sermon

Readings

This sermon turns out to break into two parts: the task and the power. For the task, let’s start with our first reading.

I’m grateful that it’s not easy to identify with the probable audience of our first reading. Isaiah 40-55 is set in the period shortly before the Persian conquest of Babylon (539 bc), and probably addressed to the exiles (prisoners of war) in Babylon. They’re on the verge of despair (“My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God” [40:27]); the prophet assures them that the LORD still treasures them, still wants their service. Today’s text is one of the clearest descriptions of that service. What is the service the LORD wants? Micah, Isaiah’s contemporary had given one memorable answer: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8) Today’s text fleshes that out. As we’ll see, it shapes Jesus’ identity, and we hear echoes of it in Peter’s words in our second reading (“how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil”). But this doesn’t exhaust its meaning; Jesus hands it off to us. So take it home, tape it to the bathroom mirror, and wonder about where it might continue to point us.

The voice from heaven in our Gospel: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” These words combined with the descent of the Spirit of God enact the beginning of our first reading. Jesus uniquely, wonderfully, fulfills, fills full, Isaiah’s portrait of the servant. We meet this fulfillment repeatedly in Matthew’s Gospel; it reaches a crescendo in Holy Week. And Jesus does this not so the servant role can be mothballed, but so that it can be repeatedly enacted by those baptized in Jesus’ Name.

The commentators Davies and Allison see four themes in today’s text: “Jesus as Son, Jesus as servant, Jesus as the inaugurator of the new exodus and new creation, and Jesus as the one who fulfils all righteousness” (I.344). We’ve been noticing the second theme; what of the others?

“Jesus as Son.” The beginning of the heavenly announcement “This is my Son” echoes not Isa 42, but lines from Ps 2, the first of the royal psalms: “I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you” (2:7). A royal title, it’s echoed repeatedly in the New Testament, and prompted “Crown him with many crowns” as our opening hymn.

“Jesus as the inaugurator of the new exodus and new creation.” This is a bit more subtle, but suggestive. Matthew, recall, reminded us of the setting: “just as he came up from the water” (like Israel from the Red Sea), and the next episode is Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, mirroring Israel’s temptation in the wilderness. As for new creation, Matthew’s dove may recall the Spirit’s hovering over the waters (Gen 1:2). In any case, the new exodus/new creation themes appear repeatedly in texts recalling our baptism (“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” [2 Cor. 5:17]).

“Jesus as the one who fulfils all righteousness.” This picks up on that brief interchange between John and Jesus. But what does it mean? In the Old Testament stories, righteousness is often about doing whatever is necessary to fulfill one’s obligations. Jesus does whatever it takes—including identifying with this very motley crew—to inaugurate that new exodus/creation.

What Jesus does with righteousness here recalls the angel’s command to Joseph a few weeks back. Conventional righteousness meant putting Mary away; the righteousness Joseph and Mary needed went beyond that. Conventional righteousness in today’s text might have meant Jesus staying dry: “I don’t need that.” But Emmanuel (“God with us”) and ‘with’ means the righteousness that has Jesus in the water. And it doesn’t stop with Jesus. Conventional righteousness is reasonable, with forgiveness maxing out at, say, seven times a day. Peter makes the mistake of asking Jesus about this. “Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’” (Matt. 18:22).

The task: inaugurating the new exodus and new creation. Sketched out in Isaiah, incarnate in Jesus, continuing in his followers—and requiring more than conventional righteousness.

Part two: the power. Pulling the camera back from our Gospel to include the other readings, notice the central role of the Holy Spirit. In Isaiah: “I have put my spirit upon him.” In Acts: “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit.” In Matthew: “the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” If we ask how the Holy Spirit acted in Jesus’ life we get into very deep waters very quickly, so I’m not going to go there. But since it’s the same Spirit that we receive in our baptism, that’s worth some reflection.

The important point: following Jesus isn’t something we’re expected to do relying on our own resources. From John’s Gospel: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (Jn. 14:15-18).

The Catechism in the BCP captures it nicely. Please look at p.852:

Q.            How do we recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives?

A.             We recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation.

We don’t have to do it on our own, and we recognize the Holy Spirit’s presence in the effects of that presence the Catechism names, echoing today’s readings from Isaiah and Acts (“how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him”). Put negatively, there’s no encouragement in the New Testament to confirm the Spirit’s presence by introspection, by the presence of some sensation or a particular spiritual gift. The Spirit works, we might say, as a wonderful catalyst, enabling and empowering the reconciliation the Catechism describes, the servant’s work described in our first reading.

The other thing we might notice from our readings and the Catechism is that the Spirit is not about withdrawal from the world (as the Johnny Cash song has it “you’re so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good”). Herod, Pilate, and their modern counterparts are quite happy with that “spirituality.”

I love what the German theologian Moltmann does with this. In the Old Testament and Judaism “God’s Spirit is the life-force of created beings, and the living space in which they can grow and develop their potentialities.…The nearness of God makes life once more worth loving.” In the New Testament and Judaism “God’s Spirit is the life-force of the resurrection which…is ‘poured out on all flesh’ in order to make it eternally alive. In the tempest of the divine Spirit of life, the final springtime of creation begins.…The sick, frail and mortal body becomes ‘the temple of the Holy Spirit’” (The Spirit of Life p.84). Or, as Paul puts it writing to the Corinthians, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure (2 Cor. 4:16b-17).

The Spirit alights on Jesus; the Spirit alights on us. Rejoice, and fasten your seatbelts: the new exodus and new creation are still works in progress.

The Feast of the Holy Name: A Sermon

Readings

Merry Christmas, and welcome to the Feast of the Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The theme of the feast and the assigned readings present us with an ocean. So, deep breath, and let’s dive in.

Prior to our current prayer book, today’s feast was—as it still is in the Church of England—the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. Jesus assumes our humanity, not generically, but very specifically. Joseph and Mary are Jewish; Jesus is circumcised. And with that, a specific and life-long challenge: what does it mean to be Jewish in this time and place? For Jesus—for all of us—identity is the start, rather than the end of the conversation. (I’m Scottish-American, male, straight: what am I going to do with that?)

He “was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” Why ‘Jesus’? The reading from Matthew we heard a couple weeks ago (the angel talking to Joseph) provides the answer: “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (1:21). The “for” makes more sense in Hebrew than in English: the name ‘Jesus’ is built off the Hebrew verb for “to save.” And in the Greek text, Jesus’ name, Ἰησοῦς, is identical to Moses’ servant’s name (Joshua), the one who leads the people into the promised land. (So into what promised land is this Ἰησοῦς going to lead us?)

“For he will save his people…from their sins.” That maybe wasn’t how one expected the explanation to end. Save his people from the Romans? That would have been more welcome. Whatever the time and place, we personally have both exterior and interior enemies, and most of the time we’re understandably far more interested in salvation from the exterior enemies. Occasionally we realize that there’s an interior enemy to be dealt with, so we have groups like AA. More often, the angel’s words end up forecasting an ongoing argument: “No, Lord, that’s not a bug, that’s a feature!” Or, with Augustine, “Lord, make me chaste—but not yet.”

God, who’s out to save the entire human family, takes our external and internal enemies with equal seriousness. The problem with dealing only with the external enemies is that too little changes.

God brings Israel out of Egypt so that Israel can be free, so that Israel can model more human patterns of social life. Tragically, over the centuries Israel manages to simply replicate most of the patterns of Egyptian oppression. It’s easier to take Israel out of Egypt than Egypt out of Israel.

And we can count on this pattern repeating. Five hundred years ago, the Spanish in the New World were rightly (if hypocritically) criticized for being too interested in gold, for too many Indians dying in Spanish mines. But that’s only half the story, the second half of the story. Centuries earlier, when the Romans invaded Spain they went straight for the gold, and countless Spaniards died in Roman mines. The Spanish were eventually saved from the Romans, but they had—tragically—learned only too well what to do when they got the upper hand in a foreign country with even the faintest hint of gold.

So, back to the identity question, Jesus faces the ongoing challenge: how will he and his followers relate to these various internal and external enemies? And through this year’s lectionary readings we watch this play out in some detail with Peter, our patron saint.

Our Philippians text recalls the choices Jesus makes, and towards the end: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.” The name “that is above every name” is pretty clearly the divine Name that we guess was pronounced ‘Yahweh’. By that time it was considered too holy to pronounce, so another word—often ‘Lord’—would be put in its place. English translations generally carry on this custom, so that, for example, in our first reading, ‘Lord’ appears in small caps or all caps to indicate that it’s standing in for ‘Yahweh’. This is, by the way, the reason ‘Lord’ can carry such weight in some New Testament texts. “…and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:3): that’s saying far more than that Jesus is an authority figure.

Two corollaries. First, once you say “Jesus is Lord,” “Caesar is Lord” (the caesars really liked that word) comes with a serious asterisk. Following Jesus’ example, his followers usually don’t point this out, but it’s there in the background, and appears as needed (“We must obey God rather than any human authority” [Acts 5:29]).

Second, the bestowal of the unpronounceable Name means that there’s no space between Jesus and God, or, in the language of the Gospel of John, between the Son and the Father. The God of the New Testament is the God of the Old Testament. And, further, Jesus’ exultation means that there’s no reason to fear a hidden god, no reason to fear that Jesus is just the “good cop” in a cosmic good cop/bad cop routine.

Jesus, God-with-us, saving us from our sins, our “Joshua” on steroids leading us into the promised land. We get a sense of that promised land in our psalm: “You have made him but little lower than the angels; / you adorn him with glory and honor; / You give him mastery over the works of your hands; / you put all things under his feet.” Speaking of identities, that’s usually not the one we associate ourselves with. The loudspeakers typically address us as ‘shoppers’. Every two years we’re—briefly—‘voters’. Our dreams are too small; Psalm 8 would remind us that it’s a glorious thing to be a human being.

It’s like that very young eaglet who through very bad luck ends up in a chicken coop and grows up thinking she’s a chicken. A chicken who’s really lousy at laying eggs.

That’s the human condition. And when we pray, sometimes the prayer is some version of “Lord, please help me lay more eggs.” “Save his people from their sins:” often the sin is assuming one’s a chicken, not an eagle.

Identity: the beginning, not the end of a conversation; a life-long challenge. On this Feast of the Holy Name we celebrate what Jesus did with his, opening for us the way of salvation, the way of reclaiming our human identity. May we continue to learn from Him, to follow Him.

Christmas Day

Readings

Good morning, and Merry Christmas!

The puzzle in today’s Gospel reading (“He [John the Baptist] came as a witness to testify to the light”): why does light need a witness (and how does that work)? I’m going to wonder about that in this sermon slot, but since at best I’ll only scratch the surface, I’d encourage you to take the bulletin home to wonder about it yourselves.

Why does light need a witness? That light [pointing] is on. If that’s my shtick, I’d better have a day job. Light doesn’t need a witness—unless we’re visually impaired. And that theme, it turns out, is important in John’s Gospel. In the arguments after Jesus heals the man born blind: “Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,” your sin remains’” (9:40-41).

So even if we’re talking about “the light of all people,” or—as our epistle puts it—”the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being,” we need witnesses—like John the Baptist.

If we wonder how to unpack this metaphor there’s this aphorism: “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”

Chew on that, and it’s not hard to despair. We like to assume our vision is 20/20. But we see things as we are, so why do I assume that I’m seeing things clearly, that I’m reading situations correctly, that I have a reliable idea of who I am or what I need? We can spend a lifetime observing the visual problems others have without it registering that we’re vulnerable.

It’s not that we’re totally blind. John’s Gospel explores the ambiguities. Sometimes the obscurity is elective. From early in the Gospel: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (3:19). Sometimes it’s a strange combination of prophetic clarity and blindness. From later in the Gospel: “But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’” (11:49-50). From one angle Caiaphas sees more than any of the disciples, but is blind to Jesus having anything useful to show him.

The good news of the Gospel: God can deal even with our lousy vision, as evidenced repeatedly in the Gospels, whether with James and John (“sons of thunder”), who are all for calling down fire on a village that doesn’t receive them (Lk 9:54), or Thomas, the resident Eeyore, who greets the upcoming trip to Bethany with “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn. 11:16).

How does God deal with it? By sending folk like John the Baptist that nudge us towards Jesus, and then putting us together with others who are fumbling towards Jesus.

It’s not that John the Baptist gets everything right; he has his doubts about Jesus (Matt 11:3), but he points folk to Jesus, and that’s enough. The folk God sends to play John the Baptist’s role in our lives don’t get everything right, but that doesn’t mean they can’t nudge us towards Jesus.

And God puts us together with others who are fumbling towards Jesus. I like how Paul puts it: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). And that’s on our good days.

As you may recall, this mirror image comes toward the end of Paul’s description of “a still more excellent way” (love). The description is often read at weddings, but Paul wrote it to help the Corinthian church avoid self-destructing: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Cor. 13:4-5). We might hear those verses as a sort of warning label: churches—marriages, for that matter—can be difficult, and flourish only with liberal amounts of patience and humility. As the African proverb has it, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

My favorite example of what God achieves in putting us together comes toward the end of John’s Gospel. One week after the resurrection the disciples don’t even agree on whether Jesus is dead or alive. But there’s enough patience and humility–enough love– that they stay together, and together meet the risen Lord.

It’s John’s Gospel that has that memorable “God so loved the world.” The word ‘love’ doesn’t appear in today’s reading, but it’s the motor for the action. God loves, and the Word reaches out to us. God loves humbly, and the Word takes on human flesh. God loves humbly, and sends John the Baptist to nudge us towards Jesus. And as the text lays it out, we need some corresponding humility to engage the story: humility to recognize our need for various versions of John the Baptist, however off-putting we may find them, humility to hang with others fumbling towards Jesus. We’re not alone. The Holy Spirit who came upon Mary has come upon us. As Spufford puts it “Far more can be mended than you know.” One day we will see face to face.

Merry Christmas.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent: A Sermon

Readings

Let’s start by recalling the setting of our first reading. Solomon’s splendor and power: that’s about 200 years in the past. Israel is split between the larger Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the smaller Southern Kingdom (Judah); Ahaz is the Judean king. For everyone in the region the question is how to respond to the Assyrian Empire (modern Iraq). It’s something like having Russia as your next-door neighbor. Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Aram (modern Syria) want to fight, and, since Ahaz doesn’t, they plan to invade Judah to effect regime change.

In our text Isaiah is imploring Ahaz to trust the Lord. And, despite Ahaz’ refusal of a sign, the Lord offers one anyway: a young woman is now pregnant and will bear a son who will be named Emmanuel (“God with us”). The child will serve as a sort of calendar: before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, Israel and Aram will be non-issues. That’s the good news; the bad news—the last verse we heard—is that they’ll be non-issues because Assyria will be right at Ahaz’ doorstep. For Ahaz doesn’t trust. From the account in Kings: “Ahaz sent messengers to King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria, saying, ‘I am your servant and your son. Come up, and rescue me from the hand of the king of Aram and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me’” (2 Ki. 16:7). Servant and son, no longer of the Lord of Hosts, but of Tiglath-pileser. What a fall!

Nevertheless, the question that hangs in the air: Emmanuel (“God with us”): what will that turn out to mean? (That’s one reason the Book of Isaiah is long.)

Some 700 years later the question is not how to respond to the Assyrian Empire, but how to respond to the Roman Empire. (The factions we meet in the New Testament, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Zealots, etc. also separate by how they answer that question.) And in the middle of all that in a village formerly part of the Northern Kingdom, now in Galilee, the upper part of Herod’s kingdom, Mary is pregnant. For Matthew it’s an Ahaz moment, with Joseph and his generation facing the same choice Ahaz and his generation faced: trust or not. Emmanuel (“God with us”): what will that turn out to mean?

As Matthew tells the story, Joseph is the first to have to choose. Matthew describes Joseph as a righteous man, and that’s important, because the argument about what counts as righteousness runs through Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). For Joseph, “righteous” means not exposing Mary to disgrace, but quietly dismissing her. Ahaz had Isaiah; Joseph has “an angel of the Lord,” who redefines “righteous” behavior. And Joseph—thank God—trusts, and takes Mary as his wife.

“Emmanuel” (God with us): whatever that means, it doesn’t mean “business as usual.” Business as usual for Ahaz was a matter of arithmetic: how many divisions do we have? How many do Israel and Aram have? How many does Assyria have? Emmanuel? Hard to quantify that. Business as usual for Joseph meant the most compassionate of the possible righteous responses to Mary. But “Emmanuel” significantly shifted “righteous.”

Now, a sidebar. What did I just do with Matthew’s “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet”? There are plenty of examples of prophets speaking about the future and those words later proving true. Isaiah’s words in today’s reading about the fate of Israel and Aram—and Assyria’s arrival—are examples. But that’s not the only way “fulfill” works. In the case of Isaiah’s young woman, the text falls apart if the pregnancy is in the future, because then Ahaz doesn’t have a “calendar” for Israel’s and Aram’s defeat. So Matthew’s just taking advantage of the Greek text’s translation of “young woman” as “virgin” to support his Jesus-fulfills-prophecy agenda? But why assume that? What Matthew has recognized, I think, is that the situations Ahaz and Joseph face are similar, and that this time around God’s action is even more breathtaking. This time around “Emmanuel” points to a far more profound “God with us,” and Matthew writes his Gospel also to help us discover some of what that means. Isaiah’s words have been filled fuller than he could have imagined.

Paul does something similar in his first letter to the Corinthians: the situations faced by Israel in the wilderness and the believers in Corinth are similar, and the believers need to pay attention. In daring overstatement Paul writes “These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (10:11). We let the texts themselves show us how words like ‘fulfill’ work.

Notice, by the way, the narrative choices Matthew has made in this paragraph. “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way” sets us up to expect an account of the birth. But the birth appears only in a subordinate clause at the end of the paragraph. It’s the choice Joseph faces that occupies center stage. Why’s Matthew telling it this way? Perhaps because Matthew’s audience is in a similar situation. For the Jewish Christians in Matthew’s audience “righteousness” had meant having as little to do with the gentiles as possible. But Emmanuel, and now they’re part of a renewed Israel in which Jew and Gentile call each other “brother” and “sister.” They might be excused for thinking Joseph had it easy.

“Emmanuel,” we might say, can mean going off the familiar maps. We meet this in a different way in the opening paragraph of Paul’s letter to the Romans. “Declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead.” Jewish timelines had the resurrection of the body in the last days; Greeks mostly thought the resurrection of the body a hairbrained idea: one progressed by escaping the body. But Emmanuel: the resurrection starts in the middle of our history. That wasn’t on anyone’s map. Later in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus will talk about fresh wineskins for new wine.

Where am I going with this? Since 1966 I’ve been a Star Trek fan: “boldly go where no one has gone before.” That’s not a bad weak analogy for the journey to which the Christmas story invites us. The Messiah, the Christ, has come. There were plenty of scripts for how that was supposed to play out. But since this is a matter of Emmanuel (“God with us”) it’s not about following a script, and the first one who has to deal with this is not a scribe or a Pharisee, but Joseph. Sometimes, as in our Gospel, there’s a direct command to be obeyed. Sometimes it’s a matter of Spirit-led discernment. Paul in Romans: “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2). Or, more tersely in Ephesians: “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord” (5:10). We continually turn to Holy Scripture for nourishment, not because it’s the script, but because—under the guidance of the Holy Spirit—it enables us to faithfully improvise as we follow our risen Lord.

Joseph’s feast day is March 19; let’s use the collect for that feast to take us out:

“O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son and the spouse of his virgin mother: Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

The Third Sunday of Advent: A Sermon

Readings

How to do justice to today’s readings? The pink candle in our Advent Wreath signals a break from the penitential purple, so we’ll start there, with Mary’s joy.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, / my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; / for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” God is faithful; God is keeping faith with the promises, whether to the patriarchs, as Mary recalls, or with that vision from Isaiah we heard in our first reading: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, / the desert shall rejoice and blossom; / like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, / and rejoice with joy and singing.” No theory here; Mary’s body is telling her that on a daily basis.

And some years later that fruit of Mary’s body will pick up Isaiah’s words: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

So these readings in the middle of Advent are giving us, as it were, a preview of coming attractions. Mary and her song will be vindicated, not only in Jesus’ ministry, but in the Israel he renews—and Mary lives to see its beginnings. Recall Luke’s words early in Acts: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (2:44-47).

These texts (Isaiah’s vision, Mary’s song, Jesus’ words) help us hear James’ words about patience more clearly. Appeals to patience can be cloaked calls to accept impotence. There’s nothing you can do, so shut up. Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary: “Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.” That’s not what James is talking about. This Lord, whose presence has waters breaking forth in the wilderness, streams flowing in the desert, this Lord whose dependability Mary celebrated, this Lord whose mercy Jesus enacted: this Lord is “at the doors.” We can trust that, put our weight on that, be patient. It’s out of our hands in the best of all possible senses.

Alleluia? Alleluia!

And in the middle of all this John the Baptist’s question comes as a real buzz-kill. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It’s an understandable question. We heard some of John’s preaching last week: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12). John could have pointed to Isaiah’s vision: “Here is your God. / He will come with vengeance, / with terrible recompense. / He will come and save you.” John’s in prison and could use some of that “come and save.” John’s neck is on the line. Jesus has been very good at the blind seeing, deaf hearing, lame walking part, but not so much at the vengeance/terrible recompense part. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Why is Jesus giving more attention to some parts of that Isaiah vision than others? It has to do, I think, with the cumulative effect of the prophets’ witness. God’s job as judge in traditional theology is to vindicate the innocent and punish the guilty. Israel—like every nation—likes to believe that she’s innocent so God’s job is to vindicate her. So the prophets have an uphill battle from the start, not to argue that Israel is worse than the other nations, but that Israel is no better than the other nations. So calling for vengeance and terrible recompense is perhaps not a good idea. We need God’s justice; we need God’s mercy more.

All credit to John for posing the question. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And if my bumper sticker summary of God’s job description is “Gather the wheat and burn the chaff,” with the natural assumption that I’m among the innocent, I’m going to go with “wait for another.” Or not. Because the other option—which pops up repeatedly in the church’s history—is to confess Jesus and yoke him to the “Gather the wheat and burn the chaff” agenda.

Last week in reflecting on Romans I recalled that by the end of the second century we Gentile Christians were giving Jewish Christians the cold shoulder. That was partly the product of long-standing Jewish-Gentile hostility dating centuries before Jesus. But it also provided a convenient way for us Gentiles to see ourselves as the innocent: it was the Jews who cried “Crucify him!” Not us. We wouldn’t have done that. They’re the chaff; we’re the wheat. However many times we join in the confession of sin, for many of us there’s still a part thinking “Yea, but we’re still the good guys.”

If what I’ve bought into is some version of Jesus plus “Gather the wheat and burn the chaff,” then I’ve got the monumental task of continually persuading others and myself of my own innocence. And there are some days when that feels like a really attractive option, e.g., the period immediately following 9/11. Or I can try to pay attention to what Jesus actually does, and realize—slowly—that Jesus’ coming is good news for me not because I’m innocent but because Jesus came to save and transform guilty folk like me.

That’s the ironic thing about John’s question. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” That looks like a question about Jesus. Turns out it’s a question about us: who do we think we are, what do we think we need?

The Second Sunday of Advent: A Sermon

Readings

“Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light…” That’s from last week’s collect; it’s one of the primary projects of the Advent season.

How does God give us that grace? In many ways, also because there’s such variety in humanity—even in a parish—and what I responded to last year may not match what I respond to today or next year. In last week’s first reading from Isaiah God presents us with a breathtaking vision of the future, and caps it with “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!” Let’s drag that future into our present! We encounter other ways in today’s readings, so we have opportunity to notice these, and wonder about how we’re responding.

John the Baptist, for example: repent, flee the wrath to come! If we respond to that, alleluia! But today the guy with the “The End is Near” sign is usually a comic figure and, even if right, is mostly ignored. The more serious problem is that John’s wheat/chaff image tempts us to assume that the wheat and chaff are easily distinguishable, and that God loves the wheat more than the chaff. Once we start wondering about those assumptions, we’re able to wonder what repentance means.

Our first reading from Isaiah pictures a different divine strategy: a righteous ruler in whose presence the wolf and lamb can live together and, yes, the lamb can sleep soundly. Leadership matters, which is why the Book of Common Prayer has a whole series of prayers for our civic leaders. We pray for them whether or not we like them, whether or not we voted for them, because what they do matters. And their actions encourage or discourage us casting away the works of darkness.

We read that Isaiah text because we see in Jesus the primary fulfillment of that prophecy. The King—in the language of today’s psalm—is present. This is what much of the traditional choreography of our worship celebrates. We’re not dealing with an absent Jesus, but with a Jesus who is very much present. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt. 18:20).

So, does our belief in Jesus’ presence mean this is a place where the wolf and lamb can live together? “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain:” that’s not a bad test for what welcome we’re giving this King. Which brings us to Paul’s words in Romans.

We read from the fifteenth chapter. The entire fourteenth chapter focused on the conflicts caused by different beliefs regarding acceptable foods and the relative importance of particular days. The different beliefs about food probably related both to meat that had been slaughtered/offered in a pagan temple and to the Mosaic law’s distinctions between clean and unclean food. Paul’s bottom line—repeated in today’s reading—“Welcome one another.”

Pulling back the camera, the challenge of Jewish and Gentile Christians living together runs through pretty much the entire New Testament. Do the Gentile Christians have to follow the Mosaic food laws? No. Do the Jewish Christians have to abandon those laws? No. But getting that to work in practice… In the first century the challenge was creating space for the Gentile Christians; before the second century was over the challenge was preserving space for the Jewish Christians (“Are you really a Christian if you turn down a ham sandwich?”). And having usually avoided Paul’s “welcome one another” when it came to Jewish and Gentile Christians, we weren’t well-positioned do deal with all the other issues over which we Christians have split/splintered.

Dealing with our differences: that’s hard work, and for that Paul pulls out the heavy artillery. “For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’” Here, notice, Paul appeals not to Jesus’ presence (like our first reading), but to Jesus’ example. “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” Particularly in Lent we may do the Stations of the Cross. In Paul’s mind, if doing the Stations isn’t molding us to be more welcoming of each other, there’s a major disconnect.

Again, it’s hard work: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus.” So, those moments when parish life is difficult: not necessarily a sign that we’re doing something wrong. It could be that we’re doing something right.

Circling back to my opening question (How does God give us that grace?) in today’s readings we’ve already encountered three ways: unwelcome prophets like John the Baptist, Jesus’ presence enabling wolf and lamb to live together, Jesus’ example of not pleasing himself, an example that requires—alas—steadfastness and encouragement. We have time for one more, also in Paul’s letter: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.” Christ has welcomed me. That’s…more than a little surprising. Now, Christ has no interest in me making that the centerpiece of my spirituality. Christ has every interest in my being in touch with that surprise when I’m tempted to withhold welcome.

So, preacher, you’re saying that anything goes? Hardly: there are works of darkness to cast away. The problems arise when I’m too confident in my ability to identify just what those works are (back to the ham sandwiches!) Our history suggests that we’re much more likely to be erecting a wall where Jesus would like a door than vice versa.

Bottom line. “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light…” God answers that prayer, not in a one-size-fits-all way, but in a generous variety of ways: Jesus’ servants the prophets, Jesus’ presence, Jesus’ example, that “power of the Holy Spirit” to which Paul appeals at the end of our reading. Which of those ways might get some traction with us, individually and collectively, in the coming week?