Archives for December 2008

Full of grace and truth, 1 Christmas (B) – 2008

December 28, 2008

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

“Fast away the old year passes.” So goes the last verse of the old Christmas carol, “Deck the Halls.” For Christians, our celebration of Christmas is but three days old. We have nine more days, and would that we could have all the world join in; some will, but for many, once the tree is out with the trash, it’s time to move on.

The 12 days of Christmas are intended as days of celebration, but also for reflection. The majestic hymn that opens the Gospel of John sets the stage for a whole new order of life, forged in the beginning of Creation with the presence of the Word, now made flesh among us, full of grace and truth.

Once in awhile, people get a glimpse of what God is doing among us. Once in awhile the light shines so brightly in the darkness that nothing can dim it. Once in awhile people feel an upwelling of joy in their hearts, and they don’t even know where it comes from.

These days of Christmas call us to celebrate, to re-order and perhaps re-frame our lives so that we can live differently, not because it’s the time of New Year resolutions, but because Jesus has come to live among us to show us the way.

As this particular, some might say peculiar, year comes to a close, think about what has happened. The world economic engine has all but collapsed. We are officially in a recession in the U.S. We have a new president-elect who will take office amidst the ravages of war and terrorism and economic chaos. Some have lost their jobs, and more likely will. Others have seen much of their retirement disappear. Many of the things that we rely on for our security have vanished.

So, in the midst of our lowliness, in the time of our testing, the Lord appears among us. God enters our hearts with a love that cannot be extinguished. God offers us a guide to faith and salvation that no economic collapse can erode or cheapen. God takes our puzzlement and our failure and redeems them with new insight.

If the light truly shines in the darkness, then where have we been living? Some would say we have chosen darkness over the light. We have chosen to live on credit. We have chosen to live beyond our means as a nation and a people. We have forgotten that there is always a price to pay for greed – a price paid by all of us. And if we were honest, we would admit that deep down, we all knew this economic splurge would have to end; perhaps “not with a bang, but a whimper,” as T.S. Eliot wrote in one of his poems.

But in that darkness comes the light of the Word made flesh. Within the darkness can always be found the seeds of light.

In a neighborhood shelter there was a financial crisis. Grant money that usually supported the shelter had dried up, and the place that many relied on for a daily meal was faced with imminent closure. A local rabbi came by to see the director and asked, “Why are you closing?”

“We’re out of money, rabbi,” she said.

“Well,” he replied, “then go get some!”

She looked at him oddly for a moment and then realized she hadn’t thought about any alternatives. In a month, with the rabbi’s help, seven churches and a synagogue had taken on support of the shelter. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

So, how is it with you as the old year passes? Are you simply waiting to see when the other shoe will drop? Are you waiting for a new president to do something big and bold? Well, he doesn’t have any money either. It has all been committed to war and bailouts.

It is time to go to work, time to act like the gifted people God created us to be, time to be about God’s business in our churches, communities, and families – business that is committed to redemption, and business that brings graciousness to the lives of all people. That is what we should be doing, b–ecause that is what God has done for us.

“Fast away the old year passes;
“Hail the new, ye lads and lasses.
“Sing we joyous all together;
“Heedless of the wind and weather.”

Welcome to the 12 hallowed days of Christmas. May they be days that you see the Word made flesh scatter the darkness from before your path and empower you to give light to others.

 

— Ben Helmer will shortly complete an 18-month assignment as interim ministry developer with the Episcopal Church in Micronesia (Guam). He and his wife, Jane, will be returning to their home in West Missouri.

Something remarkable, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2008

December 25, 2008

Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-12; John 1:1-14

One of the readings suggested for Christmas Day is from the first chapter of Hebrews. It starts out with this introduction:

“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs.”

How appropriate it is that we leap from the birth narratives of Christmas Eve to the full, exalted maturity of the Hebrews passage overnight! It is a pity that so few of us attend services on Christmas Day, thus missing out on sermons that delve into the mysteries and wonders of the Letter to the Hebrews. This magnificent theological treatise is not studied frequently enough in the lectionary, maybe because it is so profound that it is not easy to preach on its riches.

But something remarkable happens in the prologue to this letter, or long sermon, by an unknown writer. Over the weeks of Advent, we have been almost lulled by the sweetness of anticipation and the tenderness of Luke’s and Matthew’s narratives into thinking of Jesus the infant; Jesus, born poor among the poor; born of a woman. We are sensitive and emotional and longing to give gifts of love not only to those who are close to us, but also to those we have never met but only heard about. We are overflowing with generosity, food, and images of angels.

And here comes this remarkable, brilliant writer to remind us that it is the Christ of God we should be thinking of and worshipping, not a child in a manger. With breathtaking beauty and with alliteration of explosive consonants in the Greek, the writer opens his letter to remind us in one very long sentence that the one whom we have been anticipating through Advent and adoring on Christmas Eve is God’s heir, a reflection of God’s glory, God’s exact imprint, sustainer and redeemer. We have been singing about angels, but this writer assures us that the Christ is superior to the angels.

We have been kneeling before a mother holding a baby in her arms. We now kneel before the One who was at the beginning of creation with God the Creator.

We have no way of knowing whether or not this writer knew the prologue to John’s gospel, but the two here converge. These two prologues in all their earth-shaking faith and profound thinking encompass the grand theology of the Incarnation. They are not concerned with the earthly Jesus but with Christ the Son of God. They remind us how quickly the early Church arrived at a solid, complex, and intricate theology and that the people writing of the Christ possessed not only great hearts but admirable brains; they confirm also that the doctrine of the Trinity emerged early and was not a creature of the minds that gathered in Nicaea.

Reading these two prologues, we leave the comfortable realm of storytelling as found in the birth narratives and enter the complex realm of intricate theology. These writers have already moved from Jesus to Christ. It is the glorified Christ that matters to them, the same one who appeared to Paul and changed him and the history of humanity unto eternity.

The one who emptied himself to take on human form is on this day the One who was at the beginning with the Father, the one whose word creates with the Father and sustains all things. The writer of Hebrews sees the Christ as the one who, after he has made “purification from sin,” is sitting “at the right hand of the Majesty on high,” both in control and in touch with those he has created.

We feel a tremendous sense of connectedness as this magnificent prologue and the one that opens the Gospel of John take us to the beginning of creation and lead us to this moment of acknowledgment – that the one who came as a helpless infant is the one who is superior to the angels, superior to the prophets and to Moses. He is the Logos of God, the expression of God; but above all he is the one who gave us power to become children of God.

Knowing all this, why should we be afraid? Knowing all this, why should we worry that Wall Street has fallen?

“The Word became flesh and lived among us.” What is more important than this reality that we are urged to grasp onto on this Christmas morning? Nothing! The eyewitness of John’s gospel assures us: “We have seen his glory as of a father’s only son full of grace and truth.” Let us then rejoice and be glad.

 

— Katerina Whitley teaches communication at Appalachian State University and is the author of two books on Advent: Waiting for the Wonder (Morehouse, ) and Light to the Darkness (Morehouse, ).

What’s your response going to be the next time you hear God calling?, Christmas Eve (B) – 2008

What happens when authority calls?

David, the military general, is now king, and thinks it’s time to end the military campaign. David has been able to settle down, and act like peace really has come. He’s even built himself a great palace, with pillars and beams made from those great cedars of Lebanon. So why should God’s ark still be in a tent? He’s acting with authority in that scene from 2 Samuel, and Nathan agrees with his strategy. Until Nathan has a dream that night. That dream reminds them both who is the ultimate authority and strategist, the one with a view from above. God basically says, “No thanks. I’ve been wandering around with these people from the very beginning; I’m not going to stop now. But I will build you a house, David – a dynasty that will last.”

What happens when authority calls on Mary? Her encounter with the angelic messenger starts in an odd way. The usual opening line of an angel is, “Fear not!” but this one begins with the salutation, “Greetings, favored one.” It could also be translated, “Rejoice, blessed one.” The angel might even be saying, “I salute you.” She’s startled by this unconventional opening, and it says she “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” What’s going on here? This isn’t a normal encounter between angel and mortal, and it’s not a normal encounter between superior and subordinate. The angel’s not saying, “Don’t be afraid, the cavalry’s on its way,” nor is the angel saying, “Atten-hut! here are your orders.” The angel’s opening a conversation – as if between equals.

The angel’s message is about orders, but in a rather different sense than we think about them. This isn’t a military order, a command that expects immediate and almost unquestioning obedience. Military orders can be refused, if the recipient believes them to be unlawful, but the consequences are pretty unpleasant, and you can’t expect to use a defense of illegal orders and get off scot-free. There is absolutely no sense of forcible compulsion about the angel’s order.

This conversation between Gabriel and Mary is about sharing a vision, the kind of perspective a general might have. The strategy of a strategos, the general who climbs up the hill to survey the battlefield. Gabriel is offering a big picture and asking if Mary will cooperate. Sort of like the old Mission Impossible opener, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it … .” It is a choice that can be accepted or not. The strategos has other options if the answer is no.

Mary’s first response is, “Sorry, unable. The equipment’s not ready.” And Gabriel responds by saying, “Doesn’t matter. Elizabeth thought the same thing. And she’s six months into this deployment.”

Mary’s next response is remarkable. She says, “Here I am, ready to serve.” And then, what’s usually translated as, “Let it be with me according to your word,” actually starts out the same way a command does, “Let it be done.” In Latin, it’s “fiat.” She claims the authority offered her. She commands, in full cooperation with the one who has asked. She claims authority, and responds with authority.

This is a hearing, responding, and claiming, not mindlessly following orders or only because a gun’s to your head, but out of a deep conviction that this is God’s call. This is what is sometimes called submission to God – putting yourself under orders out of faithfulness to God’s larger mission.

Here is a connection that may challenge you, but it’s an important link to God’s larger mission. Mary is also revered by Muslims, who recognize her as a righteous woman, and deeply value her example of submission to the will of God. Muslims do not see her son as divine, but they do believe he was born to a virgin. The Quran actually mentions Mary more often than the New Testament does. The word Islammeans “submission to God,” and Mary is revered because she is such an important example of what that looks like. That word Islam has the same root as shalom and salaam, words usually translated as “peace.” God’s mission, the mission of the Prince of Peace, is about reconciling the world. The Christian story of that reconciling work begins with Mary.

In a very real sense, Mary is the first human being to make a Christian response. Her cooperation with that larger mission is at the root of Christianity. Faith in divine authority and claiming one’s own authority to partner with God the strategos is part of our Christian life.

We’re all people under authority. Clergy – deacons, priests, and bishops – are called “ordained” because they have taken vows to live a disciplined life, obeying the pastoral authority of others. All the baptized are under authority – at baptism we make solemn vows to give our hearts to God and live in particular ways that build up the body, both the body of our own existence and our existence in the community called the Body of Christ. Living an ordered existence is about discipline, practice, and askesis – a Greek word that means athletic training.

The ascetic practices of our faith tradition are about training for mission, God’s mission to heal this world, to build a world of peace, with justice, for all. That’s what all that prophetic language about building straight roads in the desert is about. That’s what God has in mind for David and his dynasty – to build a society where no one goes to war anymore, where there isn’t any more poverty or the violence that results, where everyone has the opportunity for meaningful work, and no one stays sick because he can’t afford medical care.

That’s what the song of Mary is about – the one she sings after the angel visits:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. The almighty has done great things for me; he has mercy on those who fear him, he has scattered the proud, cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has fed the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Mary’s “yes” is a choice to participate in God’s work of healing the world. It’s the same choice you and I get every day – to say “yes” to the free and open invitation to cooperate and co-create as part of the healing, redeeming work of God in Christ. It’s not about taking orders simply because they are written down, or spoken, or demanded. It is about a careful and thoughtful and whole-hearted decision to participate. It is about claiming the authority God has given us.

“Let it be with me according to your word.”

What’s your response going to be the next time you hear God calling?

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Written by the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. This sermon was originally delivered at Bolling Air Force Base on Sunday, December 21, 2008.

Freedom of choice, 4 Advent (B) – 2008

December 21, 2008

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle 3 or Canticle 15 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

Of today’s gospel lesson, Frederick Buechner, in his book Peculiar Treaures, wrote:

“She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he’d been entrusted with a message to give her and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. ‘You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. And as he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.”

The whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl. Imagine all the angels gathered around, looking down, holding their collective breath. “What will she say? Will she do it? C’mon, Mary, say yes!” Because they all know the way God works is only by allowing people freely to answer “yes.”

Freedom of choice, the exercise of free will, has always been at the top of God’s priority list when it comes to interaction with human beings. God would never force a “yes” from anyone, would never trick anyone into a response of love, would never make obedience the best choice if people didn’t truly have the option of disobedience as well.

That’s the way God has been from the beginning. God would even allow people to continue in their own disobedience, turn them over to their own ideas of how to make their own way, to get their own way, to find themselves in the prison of their own designs, hit bottom if necessary, if only to give them a firm place from which to say, “Okay, yes. Your will be done.”

God respects our freedom – has, since those days way back in the garden. If it weren’t so, God wouldn’t have to come up with new ways to reach out to people, to ask them again and again to say yes – freely say yes to God. And now those ways had culminated in this moment, when an angel stands before a girl, answering her questions, his knees knocking together, trying to keep the quiver out of his voice, as he and all the angelic host and even God wait. Will she do it? Will she say, “Yes”?

We know the answer Mary gave: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

Here am I, the servant of the Lord. With this answer, all the heavens rejoice, and the plan is set in motion that would cause a new light to shine in the darkness, new hope, new peace, new freedom. And Mary’s answer gives words for us too. These are words that change everything.

During Advent, we hear about how to prepare for the coming of the Lord, how to become more and more the disciple – the follower of Christ – you are called to be. We hear about Advent’s gifts to us: a time for self-examination, a time for repentance, for turning away from things and people and ways of life and behavior that keep us from drawing close to the God who is always rushing to meet us, whether we acknowledge that God and God’s open arms of love for us and the whole world or not. Today’s Advent gift is the gift of commitment, of turning toward God and making the commitment to offer ourselves as no less than the servants of God, to say, along with Mary, our own “yes”: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” These are words that change everything.

Mary wasn’t the first to say these words. She stands in a long line of witnesses who have been brave, or ignorant, or joyous, or adventurous, or grateful, or obedient enough to say to God’s request, “Here am I.”

Noah said, “Here am I,” and God told him to build a floating zoo and told him that he would spend the next forty days feeling seasick and wondering about God’s sense of humor in making this his reward for being righteous.

Abram said, “Here am I,” and God told him to get his wife, pack his things, and go sight unseen to a land God would show him.

The boy Samuel said, “Here am I,” and then began a long career of speaking truth to the powers that be, King Saul in particular, and being the bearer of the unpleasant news that Saul had done wrong in God’s sight. Samuel had no way of knowing if he would still have his head, let alone his job, in the morning.

And Mary, this young girl, probably just old enough to bear a child, ponders and asks and wonders, and then says the words that change everything: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

And she would give birth to the one who would make service, even service unto death, the way of life. She would give birth to the one, in the words of our Prayer Book, “in whose service is perfect freedom.” The name of Mary’s baby was Jesus. In Hebrew, his name is Yeshua, which means, “Yahweh/‘God’ liberates.” God brings freedom.

When we are willing to serve God and do what God asks of us, it is freeing. When we can stop asking, “What’s in it for me? How does this help me? What can I get out of it? What have you done for me lately?” then we will know freedom.

When we are freed from all attempts to be self-important and self-serving, we can be truly freed – freed for service, for purpose, for meaning.

When we present ourselves as God’s servants and are open to hearing what it is God asks of us, we will take our places in a long line of faithful people who have done just that. Then we will find ourselves set free to perform both small acts of care and compassion and large ones. We will be made available for the adventures God has in store for us, for the work God needs us to do, and the work God has designed us, uniquely, to do.

That’s the beauty of it. Even though you may never have thought about what God is asking of you, it doesn’t mean that God hasn’t been preparing you to do it. Or that God doesn’t need you, and you in particular, to do it.

Mary has already taken care of giving birth to the Divine Word Incarnate, so God isn’t asking you to take that on. But don’t think the angels aren’t all holding their breath to hear your answer when God approaches you with a task. And don’t think, just because you can’t hear it, that all the heavenly hosts aren’t singing, “Alleluia!” when you say, freely, “yes.”

God works with groups this way too. God asks particular things of particular communities, gives them particular gifts and opportunities, and only asks that we answer “yes.” But don’t get distracted thinking that someone else is taking care of things. Sometimes it’s through a group like the church that you will be asked to help a group answer “yes” to God’s call.

Either way, you don’t need to find new words. These will do: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

 

— The Rev. Amy E. Richter is Missioner for Lifelong Christian Formation for the Diocese of Maryland.

4 Advent (B) – 2008

December 21, 2008

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle 3 or Canticle 15 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

What happens when authority calls?

David, the military general, is now king, and thinks it’s time to end the military campaign. David has been able to settle down, and act like peace really has come. He’s even built himself a great palace, with pillars and beams made from those great cedars of Lebanon. So why should God’s ark still be in a tent? He’s acting with authority in that scene from 2 Samuel, and Nathan agrees with his strategy. Until Nathan has a dream that night. That dream reminds them both who is the ultimate authority and strategist, the one with a view from above. God basically says, “No thanks. I’ve been wandering around with these people from the very beginning; I’m not going to stop now. But I will build you a house, David – a dynasty that will last.”

What happens when authority calls on Mary? Her encounter with the angelic messenger starts in an odd way. The usual opening line of an angel is, “Fear not!” but this one begins with the salutation, “Greetings, favored one.” It could also be translated, “Rejoice, blessed one.” The angel might even be saying, “I salute you.” She’s startled by this unconventional opening, and it says she “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” What’s going on here? This isn’t a normal encounter between angel and mortal, and it’s not a normal encounter between superior and subordinate. The angel’s not saying, “Don’t be afraid, the cavalry’s on its way,” nor is the angel saying, “Atten-hut! here are your orders.” The angel’s opening a conversation – as if between equals.

The angel’s message is about orders, but in a rather different sense than we think about them. This isn’t a military order, a command that expects immediate and almost unquestioning obedience. Military orders can be refused, if the recipient believes them to be unlawful, but the consequences are pretty unpleasant, and you can’t expect to use a defense of illegal orders and get off scot-free. There is absolutely no sense of forcible compulsion about the angel’s order.

This conversation between Gabriel and Mary is about sharing a vision, the kind of perspective a general might have. The strategy of a strategos, the general who climbs up the hill to survey the battlefield. Gabriel is offering a big picture and asking if Mary will cooperate. Sort of like the old Mission Impossible opener, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it … .” It is a choice that can be accepted or not. The strategos has other options if the answer is no.

Mary’s first response is, “Sorry, unable. The equipment’s not ready.” And Gabriel responds by saying, “Doesn’t matter. Elizabeth thought the same thing. And she’s six months into this deployment.”

Mary’s next response is remarkable. She says, “Here I am, ready to serve.” And then, what’s usually translated as, “Let it be with me according to your word,” actually starts out the same way a command does, “Let it be done.” In Latin, it’s “fiat.” She claims the authority offered her. She commands, in full cooperation with the one who has asked. She claims authority, and responds with authority.

This is a hearing, responding, and claiming, not mindlessly following orders or only because a gun’s to your head, but out of a deep conviction that this is God’s call. This is what is sometimes called submission to God – putting yourself under orders out of faithfulness to God’s larger mission.

Here is a connection that may challenge you, but it’s an important link to God’s larger mission. Mary is also revered by Muslims, who recognize her as a righteous woman, and deeply value her example of submission to the will of God. Muslims do not see her son as divine, but they do believe he was born to a virgin. The Quran actually mentions Mary more often than the New Testament does. The word Islam means “submission to God,” and Mary is revered because she is such an important example of what that looks like. That word Islam has the same root as shalom and salaam, words usually translated as “peace.” God’s mission, the mission of the Prince of Peace, is about reconciling the world. The Christian story of that reconciling work begins with Mary.

In a very real sense, Mary is the first human being to make a Christian response. Her cooperation with that larger mission is at the root of Christianity. Faith in divine authority and claiming one’s own authority to partner with God the strategos is part of our Christian life.

We’re all people under authority. Clergy – deacons, priests, and bishops – are called “ordained” because they have taken vows to live a disciplined life, obeying the pastoral authority of others. All the baptized are under authority – at baptism we make solemn vows to give our hearts to God and live in particular ways that build up the body, both the body of our own existence and our existence in the community called the Body of Christ. Living an ordered existence is about discipline, practice, and askesis – a Greek word that means “athletic training.”

The ascetic practices of our faith tradition are about training for mission, God’s mission to heal this world, to build a world of peace, with justice, for all. That’s what all that prophetic language about building straight roads in the desert is about. That’s what God has in mind for David and his dynasty – to build a society where no one goes to war anymore, where there isn’t any more poverty or the violence that results, where everyone has the opportunity for meaningful work, and no one stays sick because he can’t afford medical care.

That’s what the song of Mary is about – the one she sings after the angel visits:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. The almighty has done great things for me; he has mercy on those who fear him, he has scattered the proud, cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has fed the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Mary’s “yes” is a choice to participate in God’s work of healing the world. It’s the same choice you and I get every day – to say “yes” to the free and open invitation to cooperate and co-create as part of the healing, redeeming work of God in Christ. It’s not about taking orders simply because they are written down, or spoken, or demanded. It is about a careful and thoughtful and whole-hearted decision to participate. It is about claiming the authority God has given us.

“Let it be with me according to your word.”

What’s your response going to be the next time you hear God calling?

 

— The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. This sermon was originally delivered at Bolling Air Force Base on Sunday, December 21, 2008.

The light, 3 Advent (B) – 2008

December 14, 2008

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

A Sunday school teacher in Kansas reports this conversation in her class:

“If I sold my house and my car, had a big garage sale and gave all my money to the church, would that get me into Heaven?” she asked the children in her Sunday school class.

“No!” the children all answered.

“If I cleaned the church every day, mowed the yard, and kept everything neat and tidy, would that get me into Heaven?”

Again, the answer was, “No!”

“Well, then, if I was kind to animals and gave candy to all the children, and loved my neighbor, would that get me into Heaven?” she asked them again.

Again, they all answered, “No!”

“Well,” she continued, “then how can I get into Heaven?”

A five-year-old boy shouted out, “You gotta be dead!”

These Advent lessons lead us to think about such things as salvation and mission. And we may as well admit it, we tend to think in terms of such questions as: From what are we being saved? God’s punishment? The Devil? Our own Sins? Death? All of which tends to make us think of salvation in terms of “getting into heaven.”

Such thinking inevitably leads us to see mission as the work of getting as many people into heaven as possible. Further, such thinking makes us ask questions like “Who will be saved?” Or “Who will be in heaven?” And underneath it all is the little boy’s assumption that the single prerequisite for salvation and heaven is death.

Along come Isaiah and John. Isaiah is a poet. John, in today’s rendering is “a man sent from God” who came “as a witness.” Both Isaiah and John have something to say about salvation. What they both seem to be saying is that salvation is not about another place or time. Both Isaiah and John announce that salvation is the reality of this world as it should be.

Isaiah offers a vision of just what salvation looks like: we are to turn our attention to those named as recipients of God’s Good News – the poor, the oppressed, the brokenhearted, captives, prisoners, the mournful, and the faint of spirit. Our mission to, with, and among them defines God’s people as those people who exist for the sake of others.

Further, Isaiah the poet says we will know we are involved in God’s saving mission work when others, “the nations of the world,” notice that God’s people live differently – that is, we live for God and for others, all others. Earlier in Isaiah 49:6 the poet says, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Enter “The Light” from before time and forever. In the first chapter of the Gospel According to John (which would be John the Evangelist, not John the Baptist) one is immediately struck by the fact that he is not named “John the baptizer” as he is in Mark, or “John the Baptist” as he is in Matthew, or even “John the son of Zechariah” as we find in Luke. John is simply “a man sent from God … as a witness to testify to the Light.”

The Light, of course, is “the Word,” or logos, which has been with God and is God since before creation, and as it says in the first chapter of John, through Him “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” This same Word or Light, we are told, “became flesh and dwelt among us – pitched his tent to tent among us.”

As God’s Word, God’s Light grew up and lived in our midst, he would one day read Isaiah chapter 61 in his hometown synagogue and declare, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” That is, the time is now to begin living out the vision of salvation and mission Isaiah proclaimed. It is time for salvation as the reality of this world as it should be! It is this vision of salvation and mission John was sent to witness. John is a witness, in Greek he is a martyria, from which we get the word “martyr.” Witnesses say what they have seen or heard or attest to the truth of another’s testimony.

John’s role is to recognize the true Light that has come into the world – a light that the darkness has not overcome – and to call attention to this Light so that others might recognize it and believe. Belief in this sense means to recognize, trust, and commit ourselves to the Light – the Light which is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision.

This in turn means to commit ourselves to the kind of salvation and mission that Isaiah proclaims, that John recognizes, that Jesus lives, and that both John and Jesus call us to follow so that our lives might become “a light to the nations.”

John was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. John did not come to decorate everyone and everything for Christmas. John did not come to announce the beginning of the Christmas sale season. He did not come to stir us into a frenzy of shopping and spending. He came to remind us and to bear witness to all who will listen that the darkest forces of the world are not as powerful as they claim or appear to be.

We begin this Third Sunday of Advent by praying, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with Great Might come among us.” Will we take the time this Advent to allow God to stir things up within us and within our parishes and throughout the Church, so that we might become more like John, “a man sent from God?” For that is, in fact, who we really are – men and women sent from God as witnesses to testify to the Light, so that all might believe through him.

And maybe, just maybe, as we testify, bear witness to, and proclaim the glory of the Light, we will embody the Light and become those who reveal the life of Christ anew in the world – a world that increasingly is desperate to see and know the Light.

As it says in John, in the Light is “life, and the life was the light of all people.” All people look to us to see the Light. When all that we say and all that we do bears witness to the Light, heaven and salvation will be understood not as a time and place after death, but rather the world as it should be, here and now.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also travels throughout the church leading stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word.

Take the challenge, 2 Advent (B) – 2008

December 7, 2008

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

We encounter two voices crying out from the wilderness on this Second Sunday of Advent. The prophet Isaiah calls, “Comfort, O Comfort My People,” and John the Baptist shouts, “Prepare the Way of the Lord.” These stories are joined by more than the prophetic voice. In both our gospel reading and the reading from Isaiah, we take up a story after a significant gap of time.

The gospel reading for this morning was the opening eight verses of the Gospel of Mark. And after a brief preamble, in which the evangelist writes, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” letting us know what sort of story we are going to hear, we get a quote from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah foretold of one who would come to make straight the paths before the coming of the Lord. Then, so there will be no mistake about who this text refers to, Mark introduces the wild and wooly prophet of the New Testament, whom he calls John the Baptizer.

This is how Mark bridges the distance of roughly five centuries. Mark reduces that time gap of half a millennium by following the words of the prophet Isaiah with the words of John the Baptist. In doing so, Mark reveals that the story of God’s love, begun in the creation, is ongoing. As it was foretold long ago, so now God’s story takes up anew with the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.

This gap between the Old and New Testaments is one more familiar to us. Even if you did not know how long a gap was involved, you probably already knew that there was a break between the two testaments. We encountered a similar break in Isaiah 40, though this one was less obvious.

The earliest Christian writers whose works were revered, but not included in the Bible are usually called as a group, the Church Fathers, and they wrote in the first five centuries of Christianity. These early commentators on scripture agree with modern scholars that there is a considerable gap of time between Isaiah 39 and Isaiah 40. In chapters 1-39, the prophet warns that if the people do not repent and return to the Lord then Jerusalem will fall to its enemies. History shows that this very thing happened.

In 587 B.C., the Babylonian army defeated Israel and took the bulk of the populace, including all of the leadership, into captivity in Babylon. The Jewish people remained in this Babylonian captivity for 48 years. Isaiah chapter 39 was written about Israel’s impending doom. For example, in chapter 39, verse 6, the prophet wrote, “Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left says the Lord.”

This prophecy did nothing to make Isaiah popular. You see, the people of Israel had assumed that as God’s people, God would protect them from any real harm. Surely God would not let Jerusalem and its Temple fall into the hands of the enemy.

Yet the prophets warned that the people were to repent – to turn away from sin, to turn back to God. The prophets warned that unless Israel acted like the People of God they were created to be, God’s protection would not hold.

Jerusalem did fall to the Babylonians, bringing a great social, political, and theological tragedy. After all, how do we know if God loves and cares for us when we see all we care about crumbling around us? Where is God when your dreams lie smashed at your feet?

Isaiah 40 comes into the crushing reality of defeat with a very different word from God. In the midst of the distress created by their defeat in battle and deportation to a foreign land, God sends the prophet to call out, “Comfort, O comfort my people.”

Then we get the words that connect this passage in Isaiah 40 to the opening of Mark’s gospel, for the prophet writes:

“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’”

Prepare the way for the Lord. This was Isaiah’s message, and it is John’s message as the New Testament opens more than five centuries after Isaiah. Isaiah goes on with a not-too-comforting message, reminding us of how transitory human life is from God’s perspective. He writes, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.”

What then is permanent? What then shall we count on?

The prophet answers that it is God’s word that never fails. He writes, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” It is this word of God that endures.

Isaiah, having reminded the people of how temporary they are, then reminds them of the everlasting nature of God’s word. Why do this? Because it was God’s word that the people ignored before they found themselves in captivity. And it is this word of God that has the power to reinvigorate them and return Israel to acknowledging that they are God’s people and to living into that knowledge.

The prophet then describes the comfort God gives with a reassuring image, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” These were written as words of comfort to a people who had come to wonder if God cared for them. They were not worried whether God existed. In experiencing judgment, they more likely came to the conclusion that there is a God, but that God is unloving. Then the prophet gives these words of comfort, reminding the people that “the Lord is our shepherd.”

The pattern is all too familiar. Tragedy strikes and the question rings out, “Where was God when this happened?”

How can we account for all the chances and changes of this life, from child abuse to wild fires? Scripture does speak to those concerns, but one can have trouble hearing the voice of God in scripture if the context for hearing the answer is wrong. Tragedy strikes; then we run to the Bible for answers. The text wasn’t designed to work that way. The Bible is not a troubleshooting guide for life. The Bible is God’s living word created to speak to your heart each day.

This has long been the Episcopal Church’s way to encounter scripture – as part of a pattern of daily reading. The daily offices of The Book of Common Prayer were designed centuries ago with daily reading of scripture in the context of worship for all the church. Forward Day by Day, a free daily devotional booklet that the church puts out each year, was created to encourage that daily reading of scripture. The same lectionary readings that are used in The Book of Common Prayer for morning and evening prayer are used in Forward Day by Day. Either source will take less than half an hour to read each day.

With this brief commitment of time added to your morning routine or your commute time, you can marinate your life in God’s word. What this will do for your outlook over time is revolutionary. Rather than encountering issues in life and running to the Bible for answers, you will immerse yourself in the Bible daily and live into the answers from that new outlook.

From God’s standpoint, human life is as fleeting as the grass of the field. Yet God has given our fleeting lives something enduring to which we can anchor – the words of scripture. These are the words that bring comfort and challenge as needed after a long pause of being away from God. These are the words that reveal God’s glory.

Take the challenge. Transform this coming year of your life. Read the Bible a little each day, and in so doing, prepare the way of the Lord.

 

— The Rev. Frank Logue is a church planter in the Diocese of Georgia and the vicar of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland, Georgia.