Who Needs A Prophet?, Advent 2 (C) – December 9, 2018


[RCL]: Baruch 5:1-9 or Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 4 or 16; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Who needs a prophet anyway? Prophets have an annoying habit of pointing out our flaws, airing family secrets, and being all around nuisances. They love to call us out when we stray from God and when we have lost sight of truth. At best, they are a nuisance; at worst, they are meddling. Who needs these messengers of discomfort and sacrifice? What are they good for? Wouldn’t it be best for them to get on their soap boxes and protest and preach and prognosticate somewhere, anywhere else but here?

It is hard enough trying to be a good upright, churchgoing, tithe-giving, Sunday school-teaching person without one of these annoying prophets calling us to care for the poor, to look out for the downtrodden, to seek after justice and righteousness. Don’t we do enough already?

It would be nice if they would go bother the people in power, the people who can actually do something for the poor and the needy. Why do these prophets insist on bothering good people? But here they are, calling us once again to repentance, and forgiveness, and hope. You would think that they were broken records, spinning the same thing over and over and over again.

Here comes another one called John, son of Zechariah—John the Baptist, some call him. He’s no ordinary prophet; he doesn’t just preach that we need to repent, but he has the nerve to insist that people get baptized in the muddy River Jordan no less. It would be nice if John sang a different tune for a change. He is always running around, “Repent this! Prepare that!” Haven’t we heard this message before? And yet he persists. Like crazy old Isaiah preaching about paths being made straight, and valleys and mountains being filled and made flat.  The thing about straightening crooked places and valleys being filled and mountains being brought low is that we like our paths crooked, our valleys deep, and our mountains high. We like things the way they are and the way they have always been.

Who needs a prophet anyway?

We need prophets. The people who sit in darkness, in deep despair, they need prophets. The people who look around and see destruction and desolation, they need prophets. The people who have no voice, no rights, no hope—they need prophets, because prophets proclaim a new and better way. Prophets are truth-tellers to a world longing and praying and looking for glimpses of hope.

Our world needs prophets. Prophets are harbingers of hope and hope is found in the one whose coming we await. The message foretold by John breaks into our world with deafening silence and shatters the dark of despair with the light of love.

Who needs prophets? We need prophets. We need those annoying, nagging nuisances that call us to be better followers of Jesus. As Rachel Held Evans reminds us, “Biblically speaking, a prophet isn’t a fortune-teller or soothsayer who predicts the future, but rather a truth-teller who sees things as they really are—past, present, and future—and who challenges their community to both accept that reality and imagine a better one.”

We need the voice of one crying out in the wilderness because things happen in the wilderness. In the wilderness, the needs are raw and real, and sweet words and hollow sentiment are not enough. We need prophets especially when we have grown so full of ourselves that we neglect to see the orphan, the refugee, the migrant, the widow, and the stranger. We need prophets to call us back to God, back to a place where hope is found not only in church, but in the world around us—in the interaction of strangers, the joys of difference, and in the radicalness of love.

Like Jesus and John, we are tasked with holding lightly to the things that do not matter, in order to be open to a hope-filled future to which God calls us. Now more than ever, our communities, our nation, and our world are in desperate need of the glimmer of hope found in Jesus Christ. Now more than ever, we need to not only hear the cries of the prophets, but to take on the mantle of the prophets.

We, as the church, the people of God, the followers of Jesus, are called to claim our prophetic birthright and be the voice of the voiceless, the hope of the hopeless, the love of the loveless.

Often in the church, we can feel small and powerless, wondering how we will survive, being concerned about ourselves rather than those in need. But God’s prophetic grace often falls not on the powerful or the mighty, but on extraordinarily ordinary people who turn the world right-side-up. We are called to remember that we are not a group of people who believe all the same things; we are a group of people caught up in God’s plan of redemption and salvation with Jesus in the center.

The question facing us as Christians, who seek to follow where Jesus leads and to heed the call of John, isn’t “Do we need prophets?” The question we must answer is “Are we willing to be prophets?” Are we willing to let God’s light shine through us so much so that we can show the world a new and better way? Are we willing to be prophetic enough to walk out in faith and break bread with people who may not look like us, or talk like us, or vote like us or speak like us? Because that is the Good News that we have to share; that is the prophetic vision that has the power to transform our world.

There are prophets in our midst. There is one sitting next to you right now. Look around. Listen. Keep awake. There is still darkness and despair and shattered dreams. There are still sins to be forgiven and enemies to turn into friends. It may not look like it, it may not sound like it, it may not feel like it, but in Jesus Christ, love has already won. The light of love and the glimmer of hope has broken through the gloom. The crooked places have been made straight, the valleys and mountains made smooth, the rough places made plain. Look and you will see the salvation of our God breaking through in a thousand pinpricks of light.

So, tune your ears to the voices crying from the wilderness, pay attention to the weirdos who speak of Good News and forgiveness and repentance and hope. Be the prophet who points to Jesus coming once more into our world. Amen. 

The Rev. Deon Johnson serves as Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brighton, Mich. A liturgical consultant, Deon specializes in helping communities revision their worship spaces to better reflect both their needs and the theology of welcome found in the Eucharist. In his spare time, Deon enjoys working on websites and is an avid photographer.

Download the sermon for Advent 2 (C).

We Need A Little Hopefulness, Advent 1 (C) – December 2, 2018


[RCL]: Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

On May 24, 1966, a new musical opened on Broadway. Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, starring Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur.

It’s the story of the madcap life of eccentric Mame Dennis and how her bohemian, intellectual, arty clique is disrupted when her deceased brother’s 10-year-old son Patrick is entrusted to her care. Rather than bow to convention, Mame introduces the boy to her free-wheeling lifestyle, instilling in him her favorite credo, “Life is a banquet, and most [people] are starving to death.”

At one point in the course of the play, Mame and her new ward are feeling sad. Patrick is mourning the death of his father, and Mame her brother, after all.

She decides to make happy, leading into the song We Need a Little Christmas. In the midst of the song, Patrick protests, “But, Auntie Mame, it’s one week past Thanksgiving Day now,” as if to say it is too early to decorate or celebrate Christmas.

That was 1966, when one week past Thanksgiving was too early for Christmas.

Fast forward to 2018, barely fifty years later. In August, one could encounter Christmas decorations and trees in the local home improvement store. And by November 15th, the Singapore Airport was adorned with “Merry Christmas” banners and the PA system was blaring Frosty, the Snowman. (And that in a country where they recognize four official languages, and the Christians—who are mostly ethnically Chinese—represent less than a third of the population.)

In most of these United States, the stores have unleashed a frenzy of sales events, special promotions, and cheery ads featuring Santa and his reindeer.

The Hallmark Channel is advertising its Countdown to Christmas movie fest, which began on November 1st.

And now there are folks insisting that the twelve days of Christmas begin on December 14 –so they can end on Christmas Day. Traditionally, of course, the first day of Christmas is December 25, and at the end of the twelve days, we have the feast of the Epiphany, on January 6.

And all of this is not about the birth of a Savior, it’s about spending, spending, spending. And spending a lot.

Remember the song I’ll Be Home for Christmas? It’s a Bing Crosby song from 1943. It speaks of “presents on the tree.” These were just little and usually handmade trinkets. Not presents under the tree, huge stacks and piles of purchased merchandise—but simple little gifts that could be hung on the tree’s branches.

And in the midst of all this, the church offers the season of Advent, which is definitely not about shopping for presents. As we heard in today’s gospel story, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”

This is a prophecy of the end of times, a.k.a. the apocalypse, the Omega, Armageddon, Parousia, the End Times, the promised return of Jesus to judge both the living and the dead. It makes you feel a bit Scrooge-like, doesn’t it?

But perhaps you too have this odd, peculiar hope. Because we need a little hopefulness:

  • Hope that the severity of our political rhetoric is precisely what we need to come out of our illusionary comfort zones into a dangerous world and stand up for what is right and good and just.
  • Hope that we can rest in an unshakeable belief that we will be cared for in this life, that we will persevere in adversity, and that we will move on to life eternal.
  • Hope that we will be freed from our fear and become bright beacons to the brokenhearted, even as we too face the storm, knowing that God has our back.

But, wait a minute. What about this Christ returning in glorious majesty thing? What about last judgment? When we proclaim, “He will come again in glory to judge,” should that not make us quake in our boots? So—should we not be afraid that God will punish us?

Because, we need a little hopefulness, but, let’s face it, we are perfectly content to demand revenge when we get hurt, to live fat and happy surrounded by poverty, and to pick fights whenever we are confronted.

We are not sinister in this, just oblivious. We see only our own materialistic, xenophobic, retaliatory image. Not the image of God, who is quite different from the powers of empire and imperialism:

  • This Jesus we follow was born as a homeless traveler, whose family struggled to find welcome.
  • This Jesus we follow lived and ministered in poverty, at the mercy of the generosity of others.
  • This Jesus we follow offered no exceptions to his table of hospitality.
  • This Jesus we follow held more power than anyone on the planet—before or since—yet never once used the force of that power in the face of oppression, or violence, or even his own torture and execution.

Jesus showed an unquenchable, confident optimism—even in seemingly dire situations. And he commanded us not to fear, but live in hope.

And we need a little hopefulness.

  • Because horrors run non-stop through our news feeds, fanning our fear.
  • Because merchandise is offered to make us feel better, but really only increases that fear.
  • Because we fill up our lives with mostly meaningless activities, because it somehow is less frightening to keep busy.

In the relentless pursuit of acquisitions and wealth and power, we risk becoming spiritually disoriented, losing sight of anything sure and steady.

And then faith leaks out bit by bit, more and more fear seeps in, and we start sinking.

Once fear becomes the dominant force in our religion and our lives, we end up even more terrified, more desperate, more jittery. So we seek more and more stuff, we fill up more of our time with entertainment and events, and we grow more hostile to others, more contemptible of those who are different, more drawn to self-protection, mimetic violence, and even aggression.

In other words: we become less and less like Jesus. So we seriously need a little hopefulness.

The very heart of Christianity is inclusion and welcome and invitation. It is trust and contentment and hope that cannot be overtaken. It is serving and yielding and sacrificing.

It is not a scared narcissism that vilifies the other, relentlessly accumulates material goods and wealth, and seeks power or prestige.

And we can and will live in hope, not fear. Because you see, Jesus will come in glory to judge the living and the dead.

Adolph Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, every tyrant that ever was will one day stand before the judgment seat. So we need not fret about judging them—or anyone else.

Now, there’s a little hopefulness: the Last Judgment will put things right.

And, remember: we will stand before the judgment seat, as well.

Christ the King will know everything we’ve done or left undone. Everyone we’ve hurt. Every evil intent, every neglectful moment, every time we gave in to fear.

And he will say, “I forgive you. Welcome into paradise.”

Now, that’s more than a little hopefulness: that’s comfort, reassurance, glad tidings of great joy. “I forgive you. Welcome into paradise.”

So let us not be afraid. Let us prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior. Let us strive to emulate Jesus.

  • Jesus, who offers not fear but forgiveness.
  • Jesus, who offers not hate but sacrificial love.
  • Jesus, who offers not condemnation but life eternal.

What would this world be like if we, each of us, lived more and more into that sure and certain hope?

Father Barrie Bates lives in Jersey City and Michigan. He wishes to draw your attention to the Advent Project (theadventproject.org), which calls for a seven-week season of Advent, something the Revised Common Lectionary already supports. By this means, preachers will have the opportunity to speak of the Advent season and Christmas before the major Thanksgiving shopping rush. It’s worth considering.

Download the sermon for Advent 1 (C).

Finding Balance , Advent 2(C) – 2015

[RCL] Baruch 5:1-9 or Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 4 or 16; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

I’m reading a book right now by a person who really irritates me. I’m not sure that is the right description. She bothers me; she gets under my skin; she makes me cringe. I’m actually surprised that I’m even reading the book. I’ve never met her but I saw her at a conference once. I thought she was pushy and obnoxious. She interrupted people. She talked over people. She made off-hand comments that I thought were inappropriate. So when, for a variety of reasons, I had to read this person’s book, I thought to myself, “Oh great, this is going to be like listening to finger nails on a chalk board.”

And in some ways it has been a grating experience. Her writing is not really my style. She speaks in broad generalizations. She makes bold pronouncements about people and their spiritual lives. Her confidence can sound like superiority.

But here is the thing that caught me completely off guard: she is often right about what she is saying. I got to one section on the ways in which our spiritual lives are out of balance, and I had to put the book down. This person I had thought of as an obnoxious know-it-all had hit the nail on the head. She actually just knew. She was describing many of the ways in which my life was out of balance. I didn’t particularly care for the source or for the way she said it but I had to acknowledge a hard truth: my life is often out of balance and she made me confront this hard truth about myself.

Here’s the part that got me. She said,

“With the invention of the light bulb, balance became a myth. Now human beings could extend the day and deny the night. Now human beings could break the natural rhythm of work and rest and sleep. Now human beings could begin to destroy the framework of life and turn it into one eternal day, with, ironically, no time for family, no time for reading, no time for prayer, no time for privacy, no time for silence, no time for time . . . Our time gets totally out of balance. We spend it all on friends, or we spend none of it there. We spend it all on work, or we spend it all on our compulsions. We spend it all on the body, or we spend none of it on the body. We spend it all talking, or we spend none of it talking . . . We wake up one day and realize we haven’t heard from old friends for years; we haven’t been to see our ageing relatives for months; we don’t know the names of our cousins’ children anymore; we haven’t written a personal letter for years; we haven’t sat in a large easy chair and read a good novel for ages . . . and life is flying by. All skewed.”[i]

Ouch. This hurts. I still don’t like the way she puts things. But, if I’m honest, I have to admit, she is pointing out a hard truth. About myself. About the way I spend my time. About the way life seems to be flying by. It’s a hard thing to hear, but it is true. I can’t get out of it by saying I don’t like the person who says these things or the way she says them. If I’m really honest I have to admit it: “she has got my number.”

We are in Advent, now, and that means we are in the time of the Church year when we get to meet another person who may really irritate us: John the Baptist. When it comes to people’s lists of favorite saints, I don’t think John the Baptist would at the top of anyone’s. St. Francis, maybe, with love of animals and creation. Peter, whose hard-headedness is sort of endearing or can make us feel like geniuses compared with him. But, as I said, not many people really like John the Baptist. He’s an unsettling Old Testament type of prophet who comes on the scene proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Talk about spoiling the Christmas mood. We wouldn’t want to invite John to our holiday parties. He would seem an obnoxious and self-righteous intruder in the midst of our holiday cheer.

And yet, the Church says every year, we need to hear John the Baptist’s message because the season of Advent is not the season of Christmas. It doesn’t matter that in our contemporary culture we start celebrating Christmas right after Thanksgiving, with its relentless marketing and endless soundtrack of carols. In the Church year, it is Advent, and that means we have to confront John the Baptist. Bah, humbug. Right?

But here’s the point: as irritating as John the Baptist may be, as much as he may get under our skin, he has an important message for us. At least, that is what the Church is saying. It is saying that before we rush to the joy of Christmas, before we receive the great mystery of God with us, we have to prepare for this event through a time of self-examination and penitence. That is, we need to set aside some time to examine our spiritual lives, to look with utmost honesty at all the ways our lives are out of balance, to look at all the ways we are involved in self-destructive behaviors, and to try clean out the spiritual trash, to try bring about some harmony in ourselves and in our world. As John says, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” So in Advent, we hear John’s message as an invitation to spiritual reflection. Just as we might clean our house in preparation for a special guest, so the Church asks us to take stock of our souls and to be at our best when the special day arrives.

The writer who got under my skin, who got me thinking about John the Baptist and self-examination, is a religious writer named Joan Chittister and the book I am reading is on Benedictine spirituality titled, Wisdom Distilled From the Daily. Benedictine spirituality, which has had a great influence on the Anglican tradition, is a spirituality of balance and harmony and wholeness. Benedict is saying that all facets of our daily lives can be holy and sacred: what is needed is to bring all these things into harmony: a balance of work and prayer and study and leisure and service. As Chittister says, our time:

“was to be spent on listening to the Word, on study, on making life better for others, and on community building. It was public as well as private; it was private as well as public. It was balanced . . . No one thing got exaggerated out of all proportion to the other dimensions of life. No one thing absorbed the human spirit to the exclusion of every other. Life was made up of many facets and only together did they form a whole.”[ii]

And then, after she lays out this beautiful ideal of spiritual harmony and balance, she let’s us have it. Like John the Baptist, she starts pointing out all the ways in which our lives are out of balance these days. Here she is on our tendency to slump in front of the TV at the end of the day rather than to do something that truly feeds our souls:

“We all tell ourselves that things are just too hectic, that what we really need is play, not holy leisure. We all say we’ll do better tomorrow and then do not. We all say that the schedule is too crowded and the children are too noisy and the exhaustion is too deep. But, if we do nothing to change it, the schedule just gets worse and the noise gets more unrelenting and the fatigue goes deeper into the bone. The fact is that it is our souls, not our bodies, that are tired. The fact is that we are so over-stimulated and so under-energized that the same old things stay simply the same old things, always.”[iii]

Easier just to slump in front of the TV and delude ourselves by saying that tomorrow will somehow be different.

Like I said, “Ouch”! Who really wants to hear this? But, is it true? Are our lives really out of balance? Do we need to confront this hard truth about ourselves?

Here’s the good news, here’s the hope: we can get our lives back into harmony and balance. And here’s even better news, it doesn’t call for extraordinary feats of spiritual gymnastics. Benedictine spirituality, Anglican spirituality, is not saying that you should add more things, super-spiritual things, to your “to-do” list. Rather, it’s saying that you can and should rethink your whole list. Here is how Chittister puts it:

“people with a sense of Benedictine balance see that life is a medley of multiple dimensions, each of which must be developed. They have become more than either their work or their play. Nothing consumes them and everything taps something new in them. They walk through life smelling the flowers. They need enough money, some play, good work, steady friends, spiritual growth, intellectual stimulation, and harmony with nature . . . they make time for every facet of life. They live a rhythm of life that includes the natural, the spiritual, the social, the productive, the physical, and the personal. They can tell you each week what they have done in each area. They live life well. They are in fact fully alive.”[iv]

That sounds like a pretty good vision of spiritual wholeness and balance. Actually, that sounds like a classically Anglican vision of spiritual wholeness and balance. In any event, it sounds like something many people are longing for these days.

The hard truth is that for many of us our lives are out of balance. Perhaps that’s why we need people whose style we find grating to point this out for us. Perhaps that’s why we need confront John the Baptist every Advent. If we are to prepare for the coming of the Lord, we need to spend some time examining our lives and trying to get things in order. The painful truth is that life feels out of balance for many of us today. The promise and the hope, however, is that we can do something about it. We can change, and we can find a rhythm of life that makes time for every facet of our lives. Through humility and prayer and study we can move to a greater sense of wholeness and harmony in our lives. Advent is a holy season set aside for this type of spiritual reflection. The really amazing news is that even as we engage in this process of seeking wholeness and balance in our lives, we are also preparing for the greatest of all spiritual gifts: the gift of God coming into our lives once again at Christmas.

Amen.


[i] Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled From the Daily: Living the Rule of St Benedict Today (San Francisco: HarperOne Reprint Edition, 2009), 75-76.
[ii] Ibid., 74.
[iii] Ibid., 106.
[iv] Ibid., 77.

Download the sermon for Advent 2C.

Written by The Rev. Dr. Joseph Pagano
The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is associate rector at St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, MD. His ministry at St. Anne’s is focused on Adult Christian Formation, Outreach, and Pastoral Care. Dr. Pagano’s gifts for preaching, teaching, and care are all grounded in joyful and grateful service to God, to the Church, and to the world. He received a Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics from Marquette University. His research interests focus on theology and contemporary society, science and religion, religious pluralism, and the theology and ethics of H. Richard Niebuhr. He holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. He previously served parishes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Baltimore, Maryland. He also served as Assistant Professor of Theology at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and currently serves as an Affiliate Faculty Member in the Theology Department at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Pagano is married to the Rev. Dr. Amy Richter and is delighted to serve with her at St. Anne’s. They have co-authored two books, A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love, and Love in Flesh and Bone.

2 Advent (C) – 2012

This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be

December 9, 2012

Baruch 5:1-9 or Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 4 or 16 (Luke 1:68-79); Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Have you ever thought to yourself, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be”?

Maybe it was the latest report of rockets falling in Israel. Maybe it was images of the security fence along the West Bank. Maybe it was a report on dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay. Maybe it was the story of the mother of an aspiring 13-year-old cheerleader hiring a hit man to kill the mother of a rival cheerleader. Maybe it was the latest family gathering that ended in shouting. Maybe it was the stupid thing I said when I just should have kept my mouth shut.

“This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.”

If you have ever felt this way, then you have a sense of the biblical concept of sin. As you may have noticed, it is complex. Two things are actually going on when you say, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.” First of all, you have a sense that something is not right. But there is also a second thing. In order to say that something isn’t right, you also need a vision of what things are supposed to be like. So sin, in the biblical tradition, is a derivative concept. First, you have to have some sense of what is right. Only then can you say something is wrong.

In the biblical tradition the vision for how things ought to be is called shalom. We translate this word as “peace,” but it means much more than an absence of warfare or a calm state of mind. Shalom or peace in the scriptures means universal flourishing, wholeness, harmony, delight. The prophets spoke of a time when crookedness would be made straight, when rough places would be made smooth, when flowers would bloom in the desert, when weeping would cease, when the lion would lay down with the lamb, when the foolish would be made wise, when the wise would be made humble, when humans would beat their swords into ploughshares. All nature would be fruitful and benign, all nations sit down together for a sumptuous feast, all creation would look to God, walk with God, and delight in God.

As Cornelius Plantinga says in his book “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin,” shalom is a “rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights.” In the Bible, shalom, or peace, is the way things are supposed to be.

Sin, the way things aren’t supposed to be, is the violation of shalom. Of course, sin is an affront to God, but it is an affront to God because it breaks God’s peace. And what breaks God’s peace? Twisting the good things of creation so that they serve unworthy ends. Splitting apart things that belong together. Putting together things that ought to be kept apart. The corruption of personal and social and natural integrity. A moment’s reflection or a look at the evening news can easily supply specific examples.

Now, all this talk about sin may sound like a bit of a downer. Especially on December 9. Many of us are getting into the holiday spirit. Decorating the tree. Listening to Christmas carols. Feeling jolly. We even came to church this morning! But instead of the baby Jesus and heavenly choirs of angels, we get John the Baptist, a rough prophet prowling about in the Judean wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Not exactly “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas”!

But here’s the strange thing. We still refer to this message as good news. After the gospel lesson is read, the deacon or the person appointed to read this passage will have the audacity to say, “The gospel of the Lord.” That is to say, “the Good News of the Lord.” How can this be? Some of us will say, “No way.” An Old Testament prophet wagging his finger at us and calling us sinners is definitely not good news. Others of us may be willing to admit the importance of John’s message, but only as a prelude to good news, something we must do to get ready for good news of the birth of a savior. We need to go through the hard process of acknowledging and repenting of our sins so that we may make ourselves ready for the gift of Christ. It may be a necessary process, but we still wouldn’t call it good news. The doctor who tells us we have to give up fatty foods and start exercising may be telling us a truth we need to hear, but we won’t really rejoice and burst into song when we hear it.

And yet there is a way that John’s message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins can actually be seen as good news, and not just as a necessary, grit-our-teeth-and-get-through-it prelude to good news. After the lesson, the deacon will say, “The gospel of the Lord,” and we can respond, “Praise to you, Lord Christ” not with a palms-up, raised-eyebrow puzzled expression. We can really mean it.

How?

I think we can see John the Baptist’s proclamation of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins as good news in three ways. First, if we hear John’s message and it rings true, if we have ever said, “This is not the way things are supposed to be,” then we already know God’s peace. As noted before, in the biblical view, sin is a derivative concept. We must already have a vision of how things ought to be if we feel as though things aren’t that way. We must have some sense of God’s peace, to know when it is broken. And this is good news. We do have a vision of God’s shalom, God’s peace. It has been given to us in our scriptures, and in our religious traditions, and in our reflection on creation. We have been given a vision of the world as created and redeemed by our good and generous God, a world made to be fruitful, abundant, harmonious, life-giving, peaceful, whole, filled with deep and abiding joy. If we hear and respond to John’s message about sin, then we must already know about God’s peace. And that is good news.

A second way we can see John’s message as good news is that if we hear and respond to his call to repentance for the forgiveness of sins, then we must believe that there is something we can do about it. John is not saying things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be and they never will be; get used to it. His is not a message of futility in the face of the brokenness of God’s creation. Rather, it is a liberating and joyful call to realign our individual and collective wills with the purposes of God. If we already know of God’s vision of shalom, we can be people who promote flourishing, seek wholeness and restore harmony. We can be repairers of the breach. To hear and respond to John’s message is good news, because in spite of the fact that things aren’t the way they should be, they can change and so can we. People can stop killing each other. Hungry people can get fed. Parents can love their families and raise healthy children. Enemies can become friends. It is good and, indeed, joyful news to know that we are free to respond to God’s call to shalom.

Finally, we can hear John’s message about a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins as good news because if we already know God’s peace, if we can respond to the call of God’s peace, then in some deep way we already trust in the eventual triumph of God’s peace.

In our gospel lesson, John is described by the words of the prophet Isaiah as:

“the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough way made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

It is an emphatic message: all flesh will see the salvation of God. And this is good news, the Good News. Yes, things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. But we already know God’s vision of shalom. We can turn our hearts and minds to God’s purposes. And we can trust that someday all things will be put to rights, all tears will be wiped away, all swords will be beat into ploughshares, and all flesh will see the salvation of God. God and God’s peace will be triumphant in the end. And we know this because in the birth of Jesus, these eyes of ours have seen the savior, who is Christ the Lord, and he shall be called “Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

Things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. We know this because we already know God’s peace. Through a process of repentance we can align ourselves with God’s purposes, God’s peace, the way things are supposed to be. And we can do this in spirit of gratitude, joy and trust because we have been given a promise of the eventual triumph of God’s shalom in the birth of a baby who is the prince of peace.

That is Good News!

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md.

2 Advent (C) – 2009

Repent, turn around, accept help

December 6, 2009

Baruch 5:1-9; Canticle 4 or 16 (Luke 1:68-79); Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

What MapQuest had indicated was a real road was, in fact, a road under construction. He should have known, the man sighed to himself. When he had turned onto the road and left the main highway, there had been a warning: “Proceed at Your Own Risk. Construction Ahead.” But the sign gave no information about how long the stretch of construction was.

Just past the turn-off, the surface was paved, but there were no markings, just blacktop. After a few miles, the asphalt gave way to gravel and a thin layer of tar. The smell of the tar and the sound of gravel bouncing up against the bottom of the car got the children’s attention. They had been sleeping in the back seat, dozing while the family made its way to the next stop on their vacation. They had slept while their father had driven them through this vast section of forested wilderness on their way to the lodge in a national park where they had reservations. Now they were awake.

“Are we there yet?” “How much farther?”

“We have a ways to go,” said the father as he rifled through the glove box looking to see if he still had an old-fashioned map in the car.

When the gravel ended and they hit dirt, he started to worry. It didn’t help that they seemed to be the only people on this road, and they had seen no one else coming from the other direction. Worse yet, what at first seemed to be dirt was actually mud. He decided to keep driving and hope that this was just a bad patch – that the “real” road, the passable road, was just ahead.

It was clear, though, that the car had begun to sink. The pinging noise of gravel against the car’s undercarriage had given way to a slurping sound as the tires kicked up mud and then were enveloped by it.

“I have to keep going,” he thought. “If I can just keep moving forward, we’ll be all right. We’re way behind schedule, but we’ll be all right if we can just keep moving.”

But the mud deepened. The car became mired in the mud, sunk right up to the chassis, tires half submerged. He gunned the engine, pretty much expecting the result he got, but he did it anyway, because it was something to do.

He turned the car off.

“What’s happening, Dad?” the children asked from the back seat. “Are we there?”

He thought for just a moment about what to say. He considered a lie: “Why, yes we are. Look at this fascinating scenery.” Or perhaps, “I was hoping for some real adventure on this vacation, and here it is.” He thought about blaming MapQuest or the people who posted such a useless sign. Instead, he told the children they would need to be patient and maybe they could teach him some songs they had learned in school while they waited for some help to come by.

Help came in the form of a tow truck with great big tires that traveled that stretch of road a couple times a day in case things like this happened. The car was towed back to the main road, and directions were given for a much longer, but passable, route to the lodge.

That part of the vacation became known as “the repentance trip” because it embodied so well the definition of repentance – an active turning around, going a new direction, a change of heart, a change of mind, rather than continuing down the same path, moving in the same direction that is leading nowhere or somewhere dangerous, fast.

Repentance is not the same as remorse or regret. It is not listing all the ways things could have gone differently. It is not wishing you were a better person, that some things had never happened, that bad things wouldn’t keep happening to you. It’s not feeling guilty or ashamed. It’s not feeling afraid. It’s not something that leaves us stuck, or standing still, or spinning in circles, going nowhere.

Repentance is about movement, letting yourself be grasped by God, getting new bearings, and relying on God for directions.

The new life that follows repentance, the new direction that comes with a fresh start is what John was proclaiming in the wilderness. John’s message is a call to action: repent, turn around, accept help. God is coming to meet you on a road in the wilderness.

And when God comes to us, our response can look like the picture from Baruch: a widow who puts away her mourning clothes and instead puts on a beautiful garment. It’s not that sorrow has never happened or that there was not a reason to grieve. She accepts the robe of righteousness and a crown of glory because she trusts that her wholeness and joy lie ahead of her in some future that God is preparing, down a road that God is constructing.

Repentance can happen when you are confronted by something, maybe remorse, maybe disappointment or regret, maybe the sense that you are stuck or spinning your wheels. Maybe it comes from something as small as wishing you hadn’t said something, or wishing you could take back an action. Maybe it comes from something as large as the report from the doctor that indicates more tests are needed, and you decide that whether it turns out to be something or it turns out to be nothing, whether you have three more decades or three more weeks, you want that time to count for something, to be something you can offer back to God. Maybe it comes when you realize there are other people with you on your journey and that your decisions affect them too and the wilderness is not a good place to be forever.

Repentance comes in many ways. When God turns us around, offers us a way to get unstuck, move ahead with a new way of life, our response is to say thank you.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

2 Advent (C) – 2006

Treasure the child

December 10, 2006

Luke 1:68-79; Baruch 5 or Malachi 3:1-4; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” (Luke 1:76)

Imagine for a moment a world and society in which our worth and wages were not determined by our work but rather by an entirely different standard. Suppose we were not assessed for our adult skills, but for our childlike abilities – our capacity to be vulnerable and spontaneous, to show our feelings, and to live fully in each moment given to us. Suppose further that our annual performance appraisal was done not by our supervisor at work but by our children – or grandchildren – at home, or perhaps even by “children gathered from west to east,” to borrow words found in our first reading today.

It opens up all sorts of possibilities. Those of us who do not have children of our own would not be let off the hook. A child would be assigned to us for the occasion – preferably one not of our own choosing – just to make the evaluation fair and equitable.

Rather than a rating for promptness, we would probably have a scale reflecting the ability to lose all sense of time and place for hours on end. For the ability to lay carpet or hang wallpaper in a straight line, we would substitute skill with Legos or Tinker Toys or the latest video games. And original contributions to high-quality academic publications would be replaced by interesting bed-time stories, peer-reviewed and assessed by panels of children from the neighborhood. The talent for making tasty tacos, pizza, and hamburgers that taste like Big Macs – preferably seven days a week – would merit extra points on our performance assessment scale.

Our world would certainly be a different place. Some of us would be in serious trouble and would have a lot of catching up to do. However, instead of being encouraged to sign up for remedial courses in graduate school, we would probably be required to enroll in the neighborhood Head Start program for a couple of semesters. For all of us, priorities would change in a hurry as we came to terms with the new values and norms. After all, our livelihood would depend on it.

Perhaps we could even try this new way of doing things in the world of politics and high finance. There might be a little confusion at first, but it would be worth it. “No hitting” and “plays well with others” would take on new meaning as we appraised global leaders. And the world would be a more sensible place as Matchbox cars were substituted for BMWs as status symbols, Barbie-doll fashions replaced Prada and Armani, and baseball cards became the new coin of the realm.

Alas, the world has a long way to go in learning to cherish the child. Child-care workers are still among the lowest paid professionals in the country. According to some experts, they rank just below casual farm laborers and assistant zoo snake-handlers. As African professor, Lamin Sanneh, writes, “When I think how my own children, raised in the U.S., have their routine dictated by school and violin, piano, and ballet lessons, and how they move fluently from baby-sitting for hire to video for rent and then to microwave popcorn and hot pockets, I realize how our society has learned to dispense with child-inspired patterns of living.”

“Child-inspired patterns of living.” What an apt way of summing up what we seek to discover during this holy Advent season. It probably does take a child to lead us back to that which is precious and holy – to the kingdom of heaven itself. A child, after all, would understand about the kingdom of heaven – at least until an adult tried to explain it.

Perhaps this is on Zechariah’s mind in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke as he encounters his neighbors gathered in the temple for the circumcision of his child. “What then will this child become?” the neighbors ask, as they reflect on the events surrounding the birth of John, who is to become the Baptist. But they are not so much thinking of “child-inspired patterns of living” as they are the destiny and future of the extraordinary child before them.

For the aged Zechariah the answer to their question comes easily as he is “filled with the Holy Spirit” and speaks. “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High;” he proclaims, “for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” His words are an allusion no doubt to the traditional understanding of John’s future role as precursor of the Christ. Yet in some sense it is the child himself who is the prophet of the Most High because every child is an image of the loving and blameless God who sent his Son to be born among us in humble circumstance. Only a child can call us back to the simplicity and fullness of divine love.

If, in our contemporary world, we have “learned to dispense with child-inspired patterns of living,” we have also all too often learned to dispense with children themselves. Their images haunt us in scenes of famine in faraway lands. We read with horror of their abuse in our own country and elsewhere. In some quarters, children have even become as disposable as holiday wrappings and tinsel, lovely in their festive attire but otherwise nonessentials, neither profit centers nor revenue enhancers.

This Advent season we must learn again to treasure the child, whether it be children of our own families and neighborhoods or those “gathered from east to west” throughout the world. But we can only do this by first rediscovering and cherishing the child still within each of us – hidden beneath layers of needless complexity and sophistication. Midway through this Advent season of preparation and wonder, we open ourselves to the child who approaches our doorstep in the cold and dark of our winter hearts. Let us welcome that infant visitor and become what John – and we ourselves – are called to be: prophets of the Most High.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is priest-in-charge at Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church in El Cajon, California.