Archives for 2014

Reaching those who long to be loved, 1 Epiphany (B) – 2015

January 11, 2015

Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

In today’s gospel reading, we hear God saying to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus is short, sweet and to the point. It marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but first our Lord must go through baptism and face 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. Jesus starts off his ministry and ultimate journey to Calvary with the reassuring words of his Heavenly Father ringing in his ears.

What encouraging words these are: “With you I am well pleased.” When spoken to a child by his or her parents, these words can evoke a deep sense of assuredness in one’s self worth. Sadly, many children and teens never receive words of encouragement from their parents or caregivers. They only know what it feels like to be reminded of their failures or ridiculed for their shortcomings. Unfortunately, neglected and abused children often repeat the same behavior when they become parents.

“You are my son, the Beloved.” These six simple words from the gospel message speak volumes. To be called someone’s beloved child creates a deep, unshakable sense of belonging and acceptance. But to those who have never experienced the enduring love of a parent, these words can bring up a sense of deep longing and emptiness. Such folks can only barely imagine what it must be like to be loved by a father or mother, let alone comprehend what it means to have a parent say, “With you I am well pleased.”

Oh, to live with the knowledge that someone is well pleased with you just because of who you are! That’s the basis of God’s grace to us, His unmerited favor. We don’t earn it; we can only accept it. God’s grace is given to us at birth and sealed by the Holy Spirit at baptism. Without His grace, we have no hope; but once His grace is realized in our lives, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

It is one thing to grow up without a loving mother or father in one’s life. Sadly, many children today struggle through life without ever knowing the love of a parent, often with tragic results. According to research, fatherless boys face an extra challenge in life. Young men who grow up in homes without fathers are twice as likely to end up in jail as those who come from traditional two-parent families. Boys whose fathers were absent from the household had double the odds of being incarcerated. Children from fatherless homes represent well over half of youth suicides, youth with behavioral disorders, high-school dropouts and juvenile detainees. This is cause for concern when one considers the inordinate percentage of poor homes where children are growing up without a father figure. Who is there to call them “beloved,” and tell them that someone is pleased with them?

Just because a child grows up in a fatherless home doesn’t mean he or she is doomed to a life of despair or failure. Far from it; it is safe to say that most children raised in loving single-parent homes headed by a mother or mother figure grow up to lead successful and productive lives. Never underestimate the importance of a mother’s love. And many uncles, brothers, family friends, teachers and mentors act as father figures in children’s lives in the absence of their biological fathers.

The church’s calling is to help support single-parent families – and all families for that matter – and ensure they don’t have to raise these young people alone. Parental love isn’t dependent upon biology, but comes from the love that God has freely bestowed upon us. But where are the father figures? Where are the big brothers, uncles, teachers and neighbors, the men who can take a stand in a child’s life and be a dad who can help raise the child? Who is around to say, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased”?

In our Baptismal Covenant, we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. One way we do this is by reaching out to the unloved, the hard to love, and the rejected in our midst and loving them, emulating our Heavenly Father’s love for us who are called by His name. It doesn’t matter if we’re related or not, the only requirement is that we love them as God loves us as His own.

You see, all of us were once fatherless in a manner of speaking, before we entered into covenant with God through the waters of baptism. If we were destined to be adopted as God’s own children through Christ, then are we not also called to be fathers and mothers to those who have none? Are we not loved by our Heavenly Father so that we can in turn love one another? For what is love if it is not freely received and shared with those around us?

We live in a world of fatherless children, sons and daughters who have been rejected by their parents because of sexual orientation, teen pregnancy, disability, substance abuse or just because of the parents’ own selfish narcissistic interests. These young people often lead very solitary lives and are easy prey for society’s predators. When faced with life’s temptations, they often make wrong choices because there is no one there to guide them. If we truly take our Baptismal Covenant seriously, we must do all we can to protect those least able to protect themselves and help them find their inheritance awaiting them in God’s family, our family.

Every time we who are baptized into the Body of Christ approach the Eucharistic table, we are reminded of God’s love for us. It is around the holy table gathered with our brothers and sisters in Christ that our Heavenly Father graciously accepts us as living members of his own Son our Savior Jesus Christ, and feeds us with spiritual food in the Blessed Sacrament.

In the Sacrament of Baptism, we welcome new believers into the family we call the Body of Christ. As they pass through the waters of baptism, we are asked to do all in our power to support them in their life in Christ. All of us have an important role to play in their spiritual development. It is no small thing what we do around the baptismal font, since all of us take solemn vows for which God will hold us accountable.

God is saying to us today, “You are my beloved sons and daughters; with you I am well pleased.” Embrace each other in the love God has freely given us, and reach out to those who long to be loved. Go and spread the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near.

 

— The Rev. Timothy G. Warren is a vocational deacon at Trinity Episcopal Church, Redlands, Calif. He is a 26-year retired Air Force veteran with more than 15 years’ experience as an educator in the private and public sector. Deacon Warren is the founder of Trinity Victorville Outreach, an emergent ministry that reaches out to at-risk young adults and families in the High Desert Region, Calif.

Seeking God’s Light, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2015

January 6, 2015

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

In the reading from Isaiah, we are called to “arise” and “shine”; we are called to get up and be in relationship with this light that is God’s love breaking into a world that has been covered in darkness. This darkness has covered the earth, this thick darkness that the Magi walk through; we have been promised that it will vanish in the dawn of this new light that is the Glory of the Lord.

Isaiah says that the nations shall come to this light and the kings to the brightness of this dawn. And then in the gospel reading this morning we see the nations streaming to this light. We see these kings on a long journey through the dark. Weighed down with their gifts and riches as they seek. These treasure chests they have brought with them from the East.

Exactly who they are is difficult to discern. Are they wise men? Kings? Persian magicians? The text says “Magi,” and our tradition of song and story has overlaid a multitude of meanings – for example, that there were three of them, and what their names were.

But in the text, there are not three men, but three gifts. The Bible does not say how many Magi there were; there could have been three – or 30.

There is room in this magical caravan for all of us.

What is clear is that they are other definitely otherworldly, mysterious. These travellers are not part of the Jewish world. They come from far away. They are the world flocking to the light of God.

These Magi have been traveling in the dark, following a star; we don’t know for how long they have been seeking any more than we know where they started,or how many of them there are.

But as they get close, they seek council from Herod. We in the audience want to shout “No! Don’t ask him!” Herod is afraid of the child, and we all know there is nothing more dangerous than a powerful man when he is afraid.

From the text, we know that when they find this child with his mother, they pay him homage. The word that gets translated as “homage” is a wonderful combination of the Greek words for “to fall down” and “to kiss.” This is worship at its most pure. They find this child, which is the goal of their journey, and they fall down in praise. And then, of course, they offer the gifts.

These wise men, these kings, these magicians from a far-off land offer the baby three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There is tradition, too, around the meaning of these gifts.

The gold is because the baby is a king, and they say just this to Herod and all of Jerusalem – that they are looking for the child who has been born the King of the Jews.

They offer the baby frankincense because he is God, and the incense symbolizes prayer rising to the heavens like smoke.

And they offer the baby myrrh, which was often used for burials and symbolized death, because even here at the beginning of this story about Jesus as a baby, we remember that this story goes to the cross and beyond.

We are all on our own journeys through the dark, carrying our own gifts within us. We, too, seek to find the truth of love in this world of darkness. We, too, bear our gifts and are seeking the right place to lay them down.

We come bearing gold, our gift for our king. To whom and to what do we owe our allegiance? Who is our king? What orients our lives in the political spectrum, and how do we work together? There are any number of authorities who would eagerly have our obedience and fealty. How do we know which loud voice in the clamor of the world should be obeyed?

We come bearing frankincense and seeking what is holy in this world. We are looking for the thin space, the gap between this world that we see and touch and the other world that we long for and know to be true. Is it our selves, our families, our nation? Is it our ideologies, our own opinions? Is it personal growth? Is there anything that makes you fall on your knees in honor of something greater than yourself?

We come bearing myrrh, in all that we mourn. We are all bearing grief in this world, and we are looking for a place to lay it down. What is it that makes you weep? What do you do with the grief in your life? Myrrh was used for the anointing of a dead body. What are you ready to bury? What do you need to let go of and mourn the loss of?

Whom do we obey? What do we worship? Where can we lay our broken hearts? The answer is: the Kingdom of Love that Jesus preaches about.

This new kingdom is the Light that illuminates the deep darkness. This new kingdom has broken into and shattered all we thought we knew about the way the world works.

If we obey the Kingdom of Love, we will find ourselves overflowing with compassion, and forgiving our enemies, and giving away all we had thought was “ours.”

If we worship in the Kingdom of Love, we find ourselves falling down at the feet of Love and joining with angels and archangels and breaking bread with God’s beloved.

If we allow the Kingdom of Love to break our hearts, we will realize that all the world’s children are our children, and that the heart of God is overflowing with gracious compassion for everyone.

It sounds like loss – the loss of being the center, the loss of “treasure.” But in this loss there is overwhelming joy. That is what is said of these Magi: that in their encounter with this infant incarnation of Love, they were overwhelmed with joy.

There is something out there that is so bright and beautiful that it draws the shepherds, and the Magi and us. This is what we look for in the dark, burdened by our treasure, longing to lay down our obedience, our worship and our grief.

And so we walk through the dark, our eyes eagerly seeing a speck of light – a star we can follow. That is what Epiphany is about – it is a time to look for the light of God shining in unexpected places. And it is a time to fall down and kiss the light when we do find it.

 

— The Rev. Kerlin Richter is the founding priest of Bushwick Abbey, a creative new Episcopal church plant in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Zigs and zags, 2 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2015

January 4, 2015

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84 or 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23 

The start of this new year invites us to take out the map of our life and look at it carefully. This is a time to recognize where we have been, so that we may be better prepared for the future that awaits us.

Where have you traveled in your life during these past 12 months? What is there to celebrate? What is there to lament? Who have been your companions on this journey? What have been the regrets, the surprises, the delights, the moments of judgment, the seasons of grace?

The end of one old year and the start of a new one invites us to look at our maps, review our travels and reorient ourselves for whatever road lies ahead.

The gospel for this Second Sunday After Christmas Day presents us with a map to look at. It is a map of where the Holy Family traveled in the months, perhaps years, after the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem.

This is a zigzag map. The silent night, holy night when all is calm, all is bright, does not last long for Joseph, Mary and the baby.

It seems that when Christ’s birth is made known, King Herod trembles for his throne. The news of another monarch born in his territory raises in his mind fears of insurrection, the end of his time as ruler, maybe the end of his life.

Meanwhile, Joseph wakes up in the dark of night out of a troubled sleep. In his dream, an angel demanded that he take up the child and his mother and leave town, because Herod’s soldiers, the servants of his paranoia, were already about the cruel business of slaughtering every baby boy in that vicinity in order to eliminate the newborn Messiah. Even as husband and wife stumble about, making the briefest of preparations, the devouring sword draws near.

The angel does not send them back to their hometown of Nazareth. Instead, he sends them on a journey lasting hundreds of miles, which takes them in the opposite direction.

They are to go to Egypt, a strange and alien land. This route saves their child’s life, yet it is a zigzag, not what they expected when they lay down to sleep the night before.

In Egypt there are large Jewish colonies, and probably it is in one of these that Joseph and his family find a place to live. The baby prospers in that strange land, and days and months go by quickly for the young family.

Finally Joseph, the man of dreams, is awakened again from his sleep. Again an angel has appeared to him with momentous news. Herod, that killer of children, is now dead. It is safe to return, safe to go back to the land of Israel, that place they left in haste and fear. Joseph, Mary and their toddler son pack up and leave, invigorated by a sense of relief and hope.

Perhaps they had expected to remain permanently in Egypt, but there is another zigzag. Back home they go.

Once they arrive in the land of Israel, they hear that Herod indeed is dead, but his son has succeeded him, Archelaus, who is no better than his father. So Joseph and Mary decide to keep away form Judah, the region where Archelaus holds sway. In response to yet another dream, they continue northward to Galilee, to their own town, Nazareth. There they find safety and familiar faces welcome them. This is yet another zigzag,

A long and unpredictable journey, a zigzag trip, has taken them back home again so long after that census in Bethlehem. It’s a strange sight to see on the map, the life of this young family and their travels over many months.

Matthew’s gospel recounts events around the early life of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecies from the Old Testament. Thus, the opening chapters of Matthew are studded with Old Testament quotations.

This happens, in particular, with the zigzag trip taken by the Holy Family. Two quotations are cited to shed light on this journey. The first, from Hosea, is applied to the flight into Egypt and the return to Israel. “Out of Egypt I have called my Son” are the words attributed to God.

The other quotation, of uncertain origin, is applied to Jesus when he’s finally a resident in Nazareth. A single word describes him: “He will be called a Nazorean.”

The significance of this second quotation is unclear. It may represent a play on words referring to Jesus as the long-expected branch growing up from the stump of Jesse, father of King David.

But the significance of the first quotation is clear. “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” The reference here is to Egypt as that place where Israel was enslaved centuries before the birth of Jesus.

God heard the cry of his oppressed people and acted decisively to win their freedom. Moses became the Lord’s agent in the struggle that culminated at the Red Sea. There the people of Israel passed through on dry ground while the Egyptian army that was pursuing them was swept away by the returning waters.

The Exodus was the Lord rescuing his beloved child, calling his son out of Egypt. This was the event that made Israel a people, the people of the Lord.

That God also calls his son Jesus out of exile, out of Egypt, back to his home, means that Jesus is a new and better Moses, about to lead a new and better Exodus, one that will deliver all people out of the realm of sin and death.

So in the story of the Holy Family, the zigs and the zags have their purpose. The path taken by this little household – driven as they are by angels, led by a man who listens to his dreams – is no purposeless wandering. It serves the intention of God’s mercy: to offer new and lasting freedom to all the people of the earth.

Now is a season for each one of us to look at our own map; not simply the past 12 months, but all the years we have lived, and those still to come.

If we consider that map with care and honesty, we will recognize zigs and zags along the way, times that seemed to make no sense, moments when the road simply disappeared or led to places that should be avoided.

Look at the map, and there may be those nights, those days, when what drove you was a dream with a good angel, one seeking your safety, your redemption and new life not for you alone.

There may be for you no straight, consistent, logical lines, no paths that make ordinary sense. There may be instead greater themes, themes that take more time to satisfy, that make sense only further down the road, themes that require you to listen to your life for what is both very old and yet still fresh.

You may find that some phrase sums it up, like a prophecy fulfilled. For once Israel was led forth from Egypt. Then Jesus, still a child, came forth from Egypt. God remains in the Exodus business, and it may be that your story, your map, reveals that once again God has brought forth his child out of some slavery into the bright hope of freedom.

God writes straight with crooked lines. Let’s amend that saying just a bit: God uses zigs and zags to prepare an open road for his people.

Like the Holy Family, you may find this true if you look intently at the route you’ve traveled. Like Jesus, you may discover that time you spent away, literally or metaphorically, was for the sake of calling you home and so that others could march home with you.

Now is the season for each of us to pay attention to what we’ve lived, the map we’ve traveled. The zigs and zags may point to angels who speak in good dreams, who in turn point to One who still calls each of us “Child” and welcomes us back home.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of ”A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

The power of a name, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2015

January 1, 2015

Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21

“All hail the power of Jesus’ name, let angels prostrate fall!
Bring forth the royal diadem and crown him Lord of all!”

So proclaims one of the great hymns of the Anglican tradition. It calls upon the people of God to worship the Name of Jesus in anticipation of the day when every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. This what the church does today, on the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus: We gather together to glorify his name.

In worshiping Christ’s name today, we join a long line of believers before us who have invoked God’s blessings by calling on the Savior’s name. But the questions arise – what is the importance of Jesus’ name, and why do we celebrate it today, a week after Christmas?

Names can be powerful things, and throughout the Bible God uses names to communicate his purposes and to mark his covenant blessings on those who enter into relationship with him. Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah when they embrace the call to become the forbears of many generations of believers. Their son is named Isaac – “laughter” – on account of the joy God gave them. After a night-long struggle, the shadowy stranger changes Jacob’s name to Israel because he had wrestled with God. In the burning bush at Sinai, God reveals the Divine Name to Moses. He is Yahweh, the great “I am,” the Holy One.

Today’s lesson from Numbers, Chapter 6 tells us that God commanded the Old Testament priests to bless the people of the covenant with this holy Name: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

God promises to bless his people when they invoke his Name. The Name of God is blessing to those who call upon him faithfully. In the Ten Commandments, we learn that reverence for God’s Name is serious business: “The Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”

Because to honor God’s Name is to honor God himself, centuries ago pious Jews ceased pronouncing the name revealed to Moses, saying instead only Ha-Shem, “the Name.” The more familiar custom of English Bibles replaces the divine name Yahweh with “the LORD” in all capital letters.

Several centuries after Moses received the Law, the prophet Isaiah declared that among the titles of the long-awaited Messiah would be the name Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.” From the gospels we learn that before this Messiah was to be born, the Angel Gabriel announced to the child’s mother that he was the Son of God and would be named Jesus because he would save his people from their sins. It was an auspicious announcement that brought both exceeding joy and grave concern.

In St. Luke’s account of the Nativity, a portion of which we have read today, the evangelist informs us that indeed the Son of God was born as the angel had promised. Despite the difficult circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth, it was an occasion of great happiness that brought hope to the many people who eagerly waited for God to save his people – people such as the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, the shepherds of Bethlehem, and later on people such as Simeon and Anna. Matthew’s gospel shares how the news spread quickly throughout Judea and especially in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

A week after Christ was born, in obedience to Jewish Law, Mary and Joseph circumcised him and named him Jesus, just as we read in today’s gospel from Luke. This is why we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus today on the Eighth Day of Christmas. We remember that a week after he was born, Jesus was circumcised and received his name in obedience to God’s commandments.

The angel’s message that Mary’s baby would save his people helps us to understand the significance of the child’s name. “Jesus” (or Yeshua) literally means “Yahweh saves.” The child whose birth the angels praised with songs was destined to save God’s people – a covenant people drawn from all the nations of the earth – by shedding his blood and giving his life for ours. The name of Jesus is above all other names, and in the words of the psalmist, is “glorious throughout the world” because it reveals what the covenant God we believe in is like: He saves.

Christians ought not to forget that, while still a baby, Jesus shed his blood for our redemption when he was circumcised. As the Apostle Paul writes in today’s reading from Galatians: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”

The law required that boys who were born to Jewish parents had to be circumcised as a sign that they belonged to God’s people and that they shared in the God’s covenant promises to Israel. In a way, Jesus’ circumcision was his first public act of obedience to the Father’s will, and the blood Jesus shed on this occasion was the same blood he would shed later on the cross.

Although he was fully divine by nature, the Lord Jesus was born in the humblest of human circumstances in order to save us from our sins. He was willing to undergo suffering, shame and death in order to fulfill God’s desire to save the world. What kind of obedience could be more perfect, and what kind of love could be more merciful? Jesus Christ loves the whole world.

When we understand that the Holy Name of Jesus is a sign and symbol for us of God’s great love and of his desire to save the world, we can see why God would honor his Son’s name by declaring it the most glorious name of all. In his love, God’s Son came to the earth, took on our human nature and willingly gave his life so that we could be reconciled to God.

Because God has honored the Holy Name of Jesus, we, as Christians, ought to do the same. We ought to respect his name and love his name.

As St. Bernard of Clairveaux, an 11th-century French abbot, tell us, to praise the Holy Name of Jesus is to receive light, food and medicine for the soul.

So, what is so special about the Name of Jesus? The answer is to be found in what the name tells us about the God we worship. The Holy Name of Jesus tells that “Yahweh saves.” For those who turn to him in faith, the Holy Name of Jesus is joy, hope, peace and eternal life.

 

— The Rev. John J. Lynch is rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church, Yorktown, Va.

Christ doesn’t belong back in the box, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2014

December 28, 2014

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

The poet W.H. Auden captured the after-Christmas feeling very well. Toward the close of his long poem, “For the Time Being,” he wrote:

“Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Leftovers to do, warmed up, for the rest of the week –
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully –
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.”

Auden’s “For the Time Being” is a Christmas oratorio written for the bleak mid-winter, post-Christmas malaise. The excitement of the holiday is past, and now we get back to our daily lives, made all the more dull by the brief holiday.

“For the Time Being” was written on the heels of Auden’s conversion to Christianity. The lengthy poem gives Auden’s understanding Christianity, particularly the meaning of the Incarnation – God becoming human in Jesus. Auden wrote:

“To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.”

Auden wrote this oratorio in England in 1941 and 1942 and published it in 1944. He, like other Christians of the time, desperately wanted the brief glimpse of the Christ child to sustain the world in a time of war. The world was full of people naming other humans “it.” That’s how you get well-educated, thoughtful Germans to participate in the horror of the Holocaust. You rename another person as an “it” instead of a “you.” You dehumanize the other person. You certainly don’t try to see Christ in them. That the temptation to demonize the enemy existed on both sides of the conflict did not escape the poet. He concluded:

“There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.”

In lives full of work, keeping bills paid, writing papers or memorizing multiplication tables for school, it would seem impossible to redeem everyday time from insignificance. Yet, that is just what scripture tells us is the Good News of Jesus’ birth. The Good News is that all time is redeemable. Nothing has to be insignificant.

The Gospel of John begins with a cosmic view of time. John tells of the Incarnation from a heavenly perspective, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

The prologue to this fourth gospel introduces Jesus as the preexistent Word of God, the second person of the Trinity. John does not begin his gospel with Jesus’ birth, but with the creation, telling that not one thing is, that Jesus did not create. This ties Jesus very closely to the everyday stuff of life. Before he was born to a poor couple in a lowly stable, Jesus had worked to create dirt, water, air and all life.

These words from the start of John’s gospel are most likely the words of an ancient hymn, perhaps written by the John the Apostle, perhaps known in the community where he led the church. The hymn itself is verses 1 through 5, 10, 11, 14 and 16. A closer look at those verses shows that each verse contains a keyword picked up in the next verse. To introduce us to the person of Jesus of Nazareth, John weaves together a tightly written hymn of praise of Jesus as the eternal word of God, with John the Baptist’s affirmation that this eternal word has come among us as the light of the world.

John wrote: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

John carefully and beautifully shows us how the two great ages – our time-bound world and eternity – coexist in the person of Jesus. By weaving the story of the eternal Word with the story of that Word being made flesh, we see that those two ages are not mutually exclusive. In the person Jesus, we can meet eternity in the here and now.

Through Jesus’ life, his words, his actions, we see the will of God lived out in the flesh. John’s prologue tries to stand at the crossover point between this age and the next. For John that nexus is the manger, when the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. God did not send Jesus to redeem merely a stable in Bethlehem, or even all of first-century Palestine, but to redeem all creation.

Let us lay these two visions of life alongside each other – Auden’s vision of a Christmas celebration now morphing into a mid-winter malaise, and John’s vision of the light of Christ spreading into the darkest corners of our lives.

Do you entertain Jesus as merely an agreeable diversion? Or are you ready for something more? John wanted us to let the Word of God that created all that is pitch his tent in our day-to-day existence. I’ll warn you: This is risky business. It will always be far easier to confine Jesus to holidays and perhaps Sunday mornings. It will always be far more difficult to invite the light of Christ into every area of your life.

Are you ready for the light of Christ to shine in your darkness? What about the parts of you that you hope no one notices? What about the parts you like to keep tucked under the bed or in the back of the closet, so to speak? Are you ready for the light of Christ to shine there, too?

The celebration is over. As Auden writes, “Now we must dismantle the tree, putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes.” But the light of Christ was not meant to be tucked back in the attic with the decorations. The love of God as it shines through Jesus was meant to take root in your soul. And it still can, if you make room in your everyday life for light to shine in your darkness.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

 

The perfect Christmas and the real Christmas, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2014

December 25, 2014

Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

Crossing the minds of almost everyone around this time of year is the fantasy of the perfect Christmas. This fantasy appears in many versions, but a standard one goes something like this:

An attractive old house sits securely on its wooded parcel of land. There’s plenty of snow on the ground, and more is falling – gently, silently – through the cold, crisp air.

Inside the house, members of a large extended family are caught up in their holiday celebration. Parents host their grown children and young grandchildren, various aunts, uncles and cousins, and the occasional in-law, fiancé or friend. The entire clan is attractive, respectable, well-mannered and well-spoken. Each member is either successful in school, advancing in a career or enjoying a comfortable retirement. No one is mentally unbalanced, seriously ill, chronically unemployed or even socially inept. All have broad smiles and straight teeth.

Most extraordinary about this gathered clan is that all the members get along with each other! Despite hours of proximity, rich food and potent drink, no simmering hostilities boil to the surface. No grudges are revived, no harsh words are spoken or even muttered. The animated conversation is mixed with frequent laughter, celebrated memories, and new stories.

Many hands in the kitchen make the preparation of Christmas dinner go quickly and peaceably, and soon the table is covered with a variety of fragrant, tasty dishes. Everyone sits down and the family enjoys a splendid meal. After the dessert, the air echoes with compliments for the cooks. The entire family helps clear the table and clean up, and it’s not long before the kitchen counters are empty, and the automatic dishwasher hums contentedly.

The presents stacked beneath the tree are opened one by one, and each gift delights its recipient. It’s always the right size, color and style. Children gleefully tear off the brightly colored paper and smile gratefully at their elders. No one lashes out in envy, bursts into tears or damages one of the remarkably complicated toys. A dreamy state of tranquility overcomes the revelers as the fire in the hearth burns low. Outside, the gentle snow continues to fall.

There’s a problem with this lovely fantasy. Christmas never happens this way. Christmas Day may feature drizzle rather than snow. Someone precious may be missing from the family circle, or someone hard to tolerate may be present – a ne’er-do-well, perhaps, or an obnoxious, screaming child, or a critical, controlling adult, or an insufferable boor. As for the rest, they are down-to-earth people with less-than-perfect profiles. A little overweight, perhaps, a little eccentric, a little shy. The fact is that most of us do not qualify as the best and the brightest. We do not live the lives of which fantasies are made.

Then there are the fights – arguments or heated discussions or vigorous fellowship, depending on your family’s particular euphemism. One brother-in-law remembers how much he resents another. A grown-up daughter again feels suffocated by her elderly mother. A nephew despises the uncle who sold him the car with the cracked engine block. An argument erupts in the kitchen over the way to make turkey dressing, and raised voices defend rival orthodoxies about the matter.

It’s not that all this happens every year, but any of it could! There’s testimony to the indomitable human spirit in the way families gather again and again despite the often painful consequences. Add to this the labor, so much of which falls on the women of the household, who are expected to make everything perfect – the cookies, the decorating, the tree, the gifts, the music, the food, the cleanup.

Our fantasy of Christmas – our pursuit of an elusive perfection – leads to frustration and disappointment. When the leftovers are stored away, the tree taken down, and the trash put out, we may find ourselves wondering whether Christmas is for us. Perhaps Christmas is for the perfect – those perfect people who live in an imaginary subdivision just over the horizon.

When the fantasy of the perfect Christmas fills our heads, we can do ourselves a favor by going back to the beginning. We can look at the original Christmas and recognize that this first Christmas was far from perfect.

Forced by government bureaucracy, Joseph brings his pregnant wife to Bethlehem for the sake of the census. Not a single relative with a bedroom to spare remains in the old hometown. And there’s not a hotel room to be had for love or money. The young couple find some space out back, inside a barn filled with farm animals. A couple of local women help with the birth and chuckle over the new-born boy.

Joseph, meanwhile, tries to get his wits about him. The months since he found out about this disturbing pregnancy and nearly brought his relationship with Mary to a sudden end have been hard. The dream, demanding that he accept the child, was followed by this awkward travel to Bethlehem, and now this sleepless night in the barn.

Nor is it a perfect Christmas for Mary. The unease of pregnancy and discomfort of travel give way to the pains of labor. Once her baby is delivered, Mary soon yields to her hunger for sleep. Yet this sleep is suddenly broken by the unexpected arrival of shepherds from the hills. These ruffians approach, caps in hand, their eyes wild as they proclaim a story of angels filling the night sky with song. Joseph wonders if there’s wine on their breath. Falling to their knees, they ask to see the baby. They delight in Mary’s little one, then, as quickly as they came, go off into the night, shouting songs of praise. They are drunk, but not with the wine of this world. Their hearts overflow with heaven’s joy.

Christmas in the barn is far from perfect. The circle around the manger is made up of people with problems. But Christmas in the barn is real. The baby is born, wet upon the blankets. Hard-living shepherds hurry to meet him. The small stable becomes a wide enough place to encompass the world, a world of imperfect people like you and me. The gospel makes clear that there’s room at the manger for imperfect people.

The perfect Christmas of our fantasies is something we try to accomplish on our own. If we just bake more cookies, give more presents, smile more broadly, then it is sure to happen – or so we imagine. Yet we become frustrated time and again. We try to live up to some fictional standard, and we end up sorely disappointed.

The gospel comes to us as an awkward surprise, a Christmas gift we did not foresee. God in Christ accepts us in our incompleteness, our imperfection. God in Christ comes to us in an eminently imperfect, unmanageable way, with all the disruptions of a baby born in a barn and put to bed in an animal trough. God in Christ relates to our little, imperfect selves by becoming smaller, less powerful, more dependent than any of us who are old enough to walk and talk. The good news is that God knows our imperfection, and God loves us as we are. God does not require us to be perfect. God asks only that we become real, as real as the events in that Bethlehem stable, as real as divine love.

What we need to do is remarkably simple: put down the burden of the perfect Christmas and accept the freedom of the real Christmas.

We can gather around the manger with people who have problems, like Joseph and Mary; with hard-living people like the Bethlehem shepherds. Here imperfect people like you and me find a surprising acceptance.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is rector of St. Paul’s, Baden, Maryland in the Diocese of Washington and is the author of ”A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

 

 

The time has come, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2014

December 24, 2014

Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Mary’s time had come. After the long journey, the road to Bethlehem, and the days of worry before that – what would Joseph say when he found out she was pregnant? How did this happen anyway? But Joseph had stood by her, and now the time had finally come, in a strange city, with no family there to help, and the barn would have to do. There was no room in the inn, but how could they have afforded that anyway? Money was hard to come by. The baby at last was coming, and Mary was terrified.

And the shepherds, too, were terrified. Like Mary and Joseph, they weren’t sleeping inside that night: They were out in the fields, and it was cold. And suddenly this Angel of the Lord was confronting them, and this glory of the Lord was nearly blinding them, and this multitude from heaven was declaring peace on earth. There hadn’t been peace for a long time; how was this baby lying in a manger going to bring peace now? It didn’t make sense.

We have heard this story before, and we are probably not terrified tonight, as Mary and the shepherds were. But maybe we should be. Because if Christmas really comes, the way we say we want it to, things will have to change. The world will be reborn. The Kingdom of God will come on earth, as in heaven.

Still, like Mary, we have been waiting, and praying, and hoping for this night. When the Angel Gabriel told her she would bear God’s Son into the world, Mary’s response was, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary agreed to do this, despite the strange and unusual circumstances. She knew people would think the wrong thing and look down on her. She knew that Joseph might not understand. Even knowing how hard this would be, she said yes.

We also have a choice. We are not here merely to remember what happened so long ago on a cold night in Bethlehem. Like Mary, God is asking us: Will you bear Christ into the world? Will you carry Jesus in your heart?

Our road is different from Mary’s, but it is challenging in its own way. A new baby always changes things. Your life is no longer your own. If you agree to let Jesus be born again tonight, your life will change, maybe in ways you don’t expect. So be careful how you answer.

The Christmas story can so easily be lost under a sentimental blanket of snow, with cows gently lowing and stars brightly shining. This is true with the carols we sing, too. They are so familiar that we sometimes miss the real meaning.

For example: “It came upon the midnight clear.” The really interesting stuff in this carol happens in verse 3. This is true of most Christmas carols, actually: The real theology happens two or three verses in. Here’s the third verse of “It came upon a midnight clear”:

“Yet, with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and warring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing.”

And here’s the second verse of “In the bleak mid-winter”:

“Our God – heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.”

Christina Rosetti, who wrote this carol, is making a bold theological claim in this verse. When God comes – if God comes – heaven and earth will “flee away.” Heaven and earth as we know them now – everything we know, everything we see – will simply stop. Vanish. And then what? What comes next? Well, what comes next – what happens when God comes – is what Rossetti wants us to think about.

Perhaps the best example of Christmas carol theology is “O little town of Bethlehem.” The first couple of verses are sweet, almost cloying – all those “Christmas angels” and “silent stars.” But Phillips Brooks, the famous 19th-century preacher who wrote this carol, knew what he was doing. He has given us a perfect sermon in miniature. Here is the last line:

“O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

The carol has gotten rather serious by this fifth verse. “Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today” – not so sweet, is it? It may be what we need – it may even be what we want, what we are praying for – but it doesn’t sound easy.

“Cast out our sin” brings to mind some lines from the Magnificat, the Song that Mary sings after she hears from Gabriel that she is pregnant:

“[God] has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.”

There’s some resonance between God’s tearing our sin from us and casting it out, as in the carol, and God casting down the mighty from their thrones, sending the rich away, empty. Being sent away empty isn’t a punishment, you see – its a blessing. If we allow God to cast out our sin – if we allow God to empty us out – then we will be blessed indeed, just as Mary was.

And what is it, exactly, that we need to be rid of this year? What is the sin that needs casting out, the thing that’s getting in the way of God being born in us? Our desire to be important? To have all the right things? To have more than we need?

What is it that occupies your heart this Christmas? Maybe it’s sadness, frustration, anger? The feeling that you’re not good enough or smart enough or kind enough? Or maybe you’re lonely or afraid?

Whatever is in there, God wants to be in your heart, too. And if you let God in, even just a little bit: Watch out! Cast out our sin and enter in. He has sent the rich away, empty.

It is only after we have been emptied – of all the ridiculous things, all the needless stuff that gets in the way of God’s love – only when we are emptied of these worries, these desires, are we ready to be filled with the love of God. Only when we are empty can Christ be born in us. Only when we are empty will Christmas come. We can sing the carols and put out the crèche, but unless we are willing to be emptied out, there won’t be any place for God to live.

This is the inside work, the thing that must happen inside our hearts, in order for the outside work to move forward. And the outside work is the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Heaven and earth shall flee away, you see, when he comes to reign. We are being asked to bear God into the world, just as Mary did. And just like Mary, we know that this is not going to be easy, and it’s going to change everything. Are we brave enough to do this, knowing that if God’s kingdom really comes, our lives change forever? Are we willing to be cast down, emptied out, so that God may be raised up?

This labor, this bringing about the Kingdom of God, will not be easy. But this is Christmas; the time has come, and our call is to bear Jesus into the world, just as Mary bore him so long ago.

We are called to put flesh on the values of God’s kingdom, to put hands and feet and brains and shoulders to work for peace and justice and love.

Come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel. Be born in us today.

Merry Christmas.

Amen.

 

— The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector for Youth Ministries at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.

Greetings, Favored Ones!, 4 Advent (B) – 2014

December 21, 2014

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16;  Canticle 15; Romans 16:25-27Luke 1:26-38

We always celebrate some aspect of the Annunciation on this Fourth Sunday of Advent. Each year, we hear a different part of the great story involving the Angel Gabriel, Joseph, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. And all of this foretells the imminent birth of the Savior.

In today’s story, the angel says to Mary, “Greetings, O favored one! Our God is with you.”

Luke tells us that Mary was much perplexed – greatly troubled – by these words, and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. And no wonder: She was a peasant girl, at the dawn of what we now call the first century, in Nazareth. You remember Nazareth: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It was perhaps the equivalent of the worst slums of our age, a place from which no one expected much of anything.

And Mary has just become accustomed to the idea of her engagement to a carpenter. Steady income and honest work, carpentry. And her marriage to Joseph probably represented a great improvement in her social location.

Then along comes Gabriel, who greets her with these astonishing words: “Greetings, O favored one! Our God is with you.”

Not just appearing as a man, with whom she is forbidden to speak. Women were not ordinarily allowed to have casual conversations with strangers, you see. And not just any old low-ranking angel, but the Archangel Gabriel.

And this angel guy doesn’t demand a drink from the well, or the washing of his feet, or even directions to the nearest inn. He really came to speak with her. And he greets her not as a slave, or a woman, or even as an equal – but as the favored one of God.

What must it have been like for her to confront the messenger of the Lord God of power and might in this way? It makes sense that she must have been quite startled – “much perplexed” as scripture tells us. We cannot help but leap to the conclusion that these words sound as strange to us as they did to Mary.

We may find these words strange. We may not like them. We may ponder in our hearts what sort of greeting this might be. But we hear these words, and perhaps come to rejoice in them.

Greetings, favored one! There is good news here for everyone.

Those who lean toward the more Catholic can revel in the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Those who prefer the Protestant end can take comfort in Gabriel’s word of grace. Feminists note that the willing assent of a women was necessary for the whole plan of salvation. Those who are more fond of patriarchy insist that the angel – who appeared as a male, after all – set the whole thing in notion. Humanists delight that a human vessel could contain God. Believers claim authority for the divinity of Christ. Skeptics repeat the words, “How can this be?” Optimists find hope in the phrase “Nothing will be impossible with God.” And all of us are invited to accept our call to vocation, proclaiming, “Here am I, the servant of God.”

In this, Christian people everywhere imagine themselves ready to let go and take the plunge, like Mary – responding to God’s messenger with the only words we can utter that help carry out the plan of salvation: “Let it be.”

This very text reminds us that God loves us, all of us. God has a message for each one of us. We are – all of us – the favored ones of God.

And God has a plan for us – each and every one of us: to help bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly; to fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty.

Those are the words from the Song of Mary, the Magnificat. And that is what follows immediately after today’s story in Luke’s gospel.

It may seem rather odd to you that much of the time we hear the Magnificat it is sung by a very civilized and expensive-to-run choir in, say, a very historic cathedral in a perfectly staged liturgy by clergy of the upper-middle class. Have you ever been to one of the great English cathedrals for Evensong? Or perhaps one on these shores? The liturgy is so beautiful, so lovely, and so very odd.

Evensong can be gorgeous, but the message of the angel and Mary’s glad song in response are seditious, politically charged and highly volatile – even today.

God will bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, send the rich away empty, and scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

Now, there are some of us who don’t much care for delving into things political in sermons. And don’t worry: There won’t be any specifics mentioned today. But how can we hear these texts from the gospel we hold so dear and not engage with the political realm?

Because poverty is a religious issue. Oppression, too. And hunger, injustice and untruth. Not to mention war.

And God is enlisting us in the cosmic struggle for good over evil, to help make the world a better place for all his children.

Because the God we worship is not a far-off, distant judge. Not someone who punishes bad behavior from a lofty paradise by sending down thunderbolts. And not the sort of deity who must simply imagine what it is to be human.

No, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In Jesus, God has become fully a human being, with flesh and bones – one who hurts and cries and laughs and sings. No longer are we separated from God, pleading for mercy from an omnipotent judge.

Our God is among us, “with us,” Emmanuel – and God knows what it is like for us.

What it is like to feel the power of the attraction to light in the darkness.

What it is like to be drawn by glittering images.

And what it is like to struggle to resist temptation, or even to recognize the difference between divine light and the alluring glow that grows out of wickedness.

This is the message of the angels, really: God understands us, God forgives us, God loves us.

And perhaps our inability to accept the message fully, to believe we really are the favored ones of God – perhaps this accounts for our unwillingness to cooperate sometimes with God’s plan for us.

It is far easier for us to store up treasure for ourselves than it is to ensure that all human beings have their rightful share in the earth’s bounty.

It is far easier to command armies to annihilate those whom we believe to be evil than it is to weed out the roots of injustice.

It is far easier to engage in a bit of “retail therapy” than it is to confront the painful possibility that we may be the rich who God will send away empty.

And so, our God has given us a sign. A young woman is with child, and shall bear a son, and shall name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.

And he shall be Emmanuel – “God with us.” For nothing will be impossible with God.

And this great Good News begins anew this season by putting our faith in mere words. This Christmas, may we hear the words of the angel and know in our hearts that they are intended for each and every one of us: “Greetings, O favored one! Our God is with you.”

 

— The Rev. Barrie Bates currently serves as interim pastor of Zion Lutheran Church on Staten Island, New York.

Inflection is everything, 3 Advent (B) – 2014

December 14, 2014

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Inflection is everything.

What do Americans call the game of table tennis? Do we say, “ping pong”? No. We call it “ping pong.”

In English, men’s names such as David, Matthew, Isaac, Daniel, are emphasized on the first syllable. We tend to inflect with emphasis. In other languages inflection is handled differently. In Turkish, for example, even a four-syllable man’s name such as Selahattin [“Se-la-ha-teen”] has equal emphasis on each syllable.

Inflection can make all the difference.

Imagine a husband and wife: One says something, tells a story, perhaps makes a request, and the other says, “Yes, dear.”

Now, is that “Yes, dear, I fly to do thy bidding, I fall at your feet, I adore the ground you walk on”? Or is that “Yes, dear, grumble, grumble, darn you, drat this day anyway”?

Inflection. Such a simple thing.

It would be good to know the inflection the questioners put on their words when they came to question John.

We have yet another John the Baptist lesson this Third Sunday of Advent. John’s gospel tells the story of priests and Levites from Jerusalem, sent by Jews to ask John, “Who are you?”

There are many ways to ask that question. To snivel and snarl: “Who are you?” To be downright rude and dismissive: “Who are you?” Or like the caterpillar blowing smoke rings in “Alice in Wonderland,” rather haughty and arrogant and curious: “Whooooo. Are. You?”

Inflection is everything, and clearly, it’s an important question they are asking John. The identity of John the Baptist is explored, questioned, established in all four gospels. He is asked this question in today’s reading in the context of “testimony,” according to John’s gospel.

It’s a question that Jesus much later puts to his disciples, challenging them to answer: “Who do you, my disciples, say I am?”

The story of John the Baptizer is in all the gospels. That level of agreement between evangelists is unusual, so this must be something significant.

“Who are you?” they ask John.

And what is his answer?

John says he is not the Christ, not the Messiah – not Elijah or any other hero. He says he is not the prophet. John says, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

This quotes a lovely passage from the prophet Isaiah, but what does it mean?

Mark’s gospel makes things a little clearer by invoking a passage from the prophet Malachi: “I am sending my messenger before you to prepare your way.”

And in the Gospel of Luke we hear a fuller text from Isaiah:

“Prepare the way of the Lord.
Make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled –
Every mountain and hill shall be made low.
And the crooked shall be made straight –
And the rough ways made smooth.”

The religious authorities had sent folks to question John, and John quoted scripture to them. Their own scripture! Their own prophet. Every one of them would have been familiar with this text, would have recognized it. They knew it, studied it, memorized it.

Even in our own day, when most of us know very little of the Bible, we will recognize this passage from Isaiah because we listen to Handel’s “Messiah” at this time of year. Do any of you, in hearing the words of this passage, hear Handel’s music in the background? Handel’s “Messiah” plays on PA systems in department stores, and in many communities it is a center point of holiday celebration. This is a well-known biblical passage in our day.

In John’s day, it was the focus of their hope for a Messiah, a great leader and liberator sent from God. They knew these words.

The people came to John and asked, “Who are you?”

And John answered: “I am a voice – a voice crying in the wilderness. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make paths straight. Fill in low places. Level the high places. Make the crooked bits straight. Make the rough places smooth.”

It sounds a lot like instructions for highway engineers, doesn’t it?

There are roads in this country – perhaps you have driven one? – that are mostly straight, perhaps even mostly flat, with just one interesting curve. Just one single, solitary, interesting curve. And the road engineers and safety folks decide that one interesting curve has to go.

The idea, we are told, is that accidents often happen at such places, and straightening the curve and flattening the land makes it a safer road. That is essentially the idea with Isaiah’s prescription that John quotes.

And John said, “Prepare!”

The season of Advent, which runs from late November or early December until Christmas Eve, is all about preparation. We know we’re preparing for the birth of a baby, and some of us may even know that we’re expecting the Messiah to come – but there’s more to it than that.

John says to the people, “Prepare!” Not “I am preparing,” but “You prepare.” Prepare the way of the Lord. Prepare the world: Lift up, bring down, straighten, smooth. Level the field on which my people stand, John might say, so that all of my people can bask in the glory of God.

If this lesson is to be instructive at all, then we must hear and heed John the Baptist’s proclamation of God’s Word. If this lesson is to be instructive for us, then this is also our proclamation, rooted in baptism. We are baptized in the manner of John’s baptizing – with water, but in the knowledge of Jesus and strengthened by the promised Holy Spirit of God.

That lays on us some obligations, some responsibilities, which are part of our baptism by definition. Not luxuries. Not conditional. Not optional. Promises made. Vows taken. The proclamation of the Lord’s coming put in our mouths.

It’s not just John who carries the news.

This is part of the story of Jesus, included in all the gospels and read in Christian communities for nearly 2,000 years to remind us, to embolden us, to open our mouths. Prepare the way of the Lord – even as we are lifting up and filling in and smoothing.

So not only are we to do the work of making that field level, we are to proclaim the work to others in the building up of community.

The men who were sent to question John asked him why he was baptizing if he wasn’t the Messiah. In other words, “You’re not one of the important ones. Why bother?”

Listen for the inflection.

John, in essence, said: “I do this because I can do no other. I have heard the news, and my mouth is opened, and my heart must love.” When John is later asked about Jesus, he says, “This joy of mine is now full.”

Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann reminds us:

“Advent is anticipation of the new community in the world, wrought by the power of Jesus, mandated by the way of Jesus, and living toward the hope of Jesus. … The person of Jesus presses us to think about the people of Jesus.”

In Paul’s words, from today’s epistle:

“Admonish the idle. Encourage the fainthearted. Help the weak. Be patient with all of them. Do not repay evil for evil. Pray constantly. Give thanks in all things. Hold fast to what is good. Rejoice always!”

We have the joyful duty of this proclamation laid upon us, placed in our hearts for our lives together – and in our mouths for the world to know about the goodness of God.

There is more to Advent than an early “Merry Christmas!”

How will you proclaim what you know? Remember: inflection is everything!

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religious studies for Park University, Parkville, Mo., following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses and making anything chocolate.

Finding comfort vs. being comfortable, 2 Advent (B) – 2014

December 7, 2014

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

“Comfort ye! … Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain made low.”

What heart-lifting words we hear from our God shouted across the millennia into our very own day. Isaiah offers us images in just 11 verses that have become the focus of artists and musicians who have turned the words into pictures and music that channel our thoughts deep into the heart of God. We lay grasped by God’s arms and held tightly – our fears and concerns known by this immanent God who wants us to share those worries, and trust they are as important to God as they are to us.

A tenor opens Handel’s “Messiah” with a delicate, yet brilliant “Comfort ye!” When you listen to it, does your hear not soar with the beauty? This is our God calling out to us in our world – this world torn by evil, war and debilitating poverty.

Can there be any comfort for us? Maybe, for those of us who live in a relatively safe country, for those of us who have more than we need – a roof over our heads, food, clothing, safety. We can become comfortable, which is different from finding comfort. And we can feel that being comfortable is enough, perhaps until life takes a disastrous turn.

We can take God’s presence in our hearts for granted. But this isn’t the comfort Isaiah is talking about. His comfort is an overwhelming truth that surpasses the feeling of having “enough,” his comfort is the comfort of our God, who lives deep in our lives, even when we don’t think about it, even if we may not believe it, even if our fear blinds us to that presence.

The prophet goes on to explain what the truth of God will do for us. Valleys will be raised up, mountains will be laid low! No, Isaiah is not talking about a disastrous environmental exercise, he’s, of course, using an image to explain how the coming of the Lord will level the way for all people to see God’s glory and share in God’s goodness.

What a wonderful image! Instead of struggling over the rocky wilderness paths up into the mountains and down across arid deserts, the people will have a safe highway, broad and smooth. Even in life’s most difficult moments, God leads the soul along that safe, broad highway.

“But,” we may want to argue, “look at our world. See the things happening to people that would make a rocky path and an arid desert walk look like a picnic in the park. This image doesn’t work.”

And that’s true. Life does seem to throw ever more obstacles into our paths. Where is this highway?

And so, we continue reading the prophet’s words and find that, yes, we are all grass, and grass withers and fades; we are mortal, and life is often difficult. So, to make this highway image work at all in our world, we are told we must work together. We must want this world to change, we must also see beyond this mortal life and trust in God’s promise of eternal life.

“All people shall see it together,” says Isaiah. One way to think about this image is that we won’t see it if we harbor exclusion in our hearts. When we choose to separate ourselves from any of our neighbors, we begin to see only ourselves. We may not be aware of it, but doing that makes us stumble along the rocky path of injustice and sadness – a path that causes us to circle only inward, blindly into the darkness of self.

Another way to think about it is to look at what happens when groups join forces out of hatred for others, or ignorance or fear. The Israelites sometimes found themselves carried off to foreign lands because of their unfaithfulness. Some then took on the practices and idolatry of the pagan nations, to their downfall. They lost everything. We see the same thing happening today. Children get caught up in bullying, out of fear or a need to be accepted. Young people join gangs. People are drawn into terrorist organizations, to the horror of their families and friends. Sadly, we can be lured off the highway of our God by temptation and the false, bright promises of evil.

But all is certainly not lost. If we keep reading, we come to the final image of our passage and can’t help but hear again Handel’s “Messiah,” when the soprano’s beautiful voice sings, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd and he shall gather the lambs with his arm … with his arm.”

On our worst days, the Shepherd is with us. We need only to turn back and allow him to offer comfort and forgiveness. The sheep of his flock are a community – a community like us. Together, a community can offer healing and love to those who have been excluded. A community can begin dealing with their issues of poverty and helplessness.

We don’t have to build that level highway; God does that for us if we open our eyes and hearts to the gifts God has placed in our midst. We can begin demolishing the lure of evil, the temptation of ill-gotten power and greed if we work together with our children, being unafraid to teach about the power and graciousness of our God – if we ourselves are unafraid to trust that God is our shepherd, that God is our comfort.

In just a few weeks, the Incarnation of our God will descend over us like a blanket of stars, and we will be filled with the song of angels, the gentle amazement of shepherds, and the humility of the kings. If the image and the songs of Bethlehem can fill us that day, we might pray during these last few weeks of waiting that our hearts will be filled with the comfort of God and strengthened to bring that Good News to all.

 

– The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.