4 Advent (B) – 2014

Greetings, Favored Ones!

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.

3 Advent (B) – 2014

Inflection is everything

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.

2 Advent (B) – 2014

Finding comfort vs. being comfortable

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.

1 Advent (B) – 2014

Reading the signs on our journey

November 30, 2014

Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Imagine traveling in a foreign city where English is not the official language. All the street signs, menus, billboards, bus schedules, everything needed to navigate the streets are in a different language. You stop people on the street for assistance, but it seems no one speaks English.

For novice travelers, this could be a scary and intimidating situation, whereas more seasoned and experienced travelers seem to relish such a challenge. Fortunately, today there are electronic devices that can translate foreign text into English. All a person has to do is point the device at the written text you want translated, and – voila! – it gives the English translation.

Sometimes Christians may feel as if their spiritual journeys have taken them to an unknown place where all the signs are in a strange language, and they just can’t seem to figure out where they are or where they are supposed to go. As much as they attempt to discern the signs in their lives, they find themselves feeling more and more confused while trying to navigate in a strange land.

For new Christians sitting in the pews, reading the signs and navigating their new surroundings can become tricky and very confusing. This is especially true with all the conflicting religious messages coming at them from every direction. But whether a new convert or a lifelong Christian, the spiritual journey is wrought with signs along the way requiring translation.

Making things even more troublesome are the modern-day, self-proclaimed prophets who incessantly talk about the End Times. They use scripture to weave fanciful tales of horrific proportions, which, if accepted as truth without a discerning heart, can derail people in their journeys.

To a similar degree, Jesus’ disciples were confused by the signs of their times. Israel was under Roman rule, contemporary prophets were routinely spouting apocalyptic predictions, and the Jews were desperate for a Messiah who would reinstate the Davidic line and establish Israel to its former glory as an independent kingdom. In the midst of all the confusing signs and false prophets, Jesus warned his disciples – and his believers today – to stay awake.

This implies being alert and cognizant of what is happening in our surroundings, living in a constant state of readiness and anticipation. It does not, however, suggest believers should be pouring over scripture in a vain attempt to find a prophetic interpretation for every single event in history or in the news. Much time and energy has been wasted on End Time books, movies and prophecies. Now is the time to focus on proclaiming the Good News in Christ by being his hands reaching out to those in need.

As the church enters into this Advent season, the world is in a race to read the signs of the time in an attempt to make sense of all that is going on. The news media is rife with reports of increased terrorism, nations rising against nations, and rising religious extremism and intolerance. Political and religious leaders are under continual scrutiny as reports of indiscretion and malfeasance surface, and crime seems to be taking over the streets. Diseases such as Ebola indiscriminately kill, and people are being pitted against each other in a continual competition for limited resources while those who are vulnerable in society suffer the most.

When looked at as a whole, we can easily begin to wonder what all this means. It’s no wonder that some begin to interpret all these events as signs of the End Times. Misguided religious zeal and emotional nihilism are ripe and dnagerous in times such as these. People begin to lose hope and an insidious spiritual and intellectual apathy sets in.

In the midst of suffering and despair, the world longs for some cosmic event that will wipe away all that is wrong in a single stroke. In the midst of doomsday predictions are those who warn that Christ’s return is just around the corner. Despite the confidence of some who say Christ’s Second Advent is imminent, Jesus clearly states that no one knows the time of his appearance, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Apocalyptic predictions in social media and from pulpits are indicative of the fear and anxiety filling people’s hearts in light of life’s uncertainties; however, the church’s emphasis on scripture, tradition and reason is the lens through which these signs can be put into focus and better understood. Part of remaining alert in these times is a commitment to continual study of scripture in light of historic teachings of the church, developing critical-thinking skills, and seeking a discerning spirit.

The church is firm in her belief in the return of Christ Jesus, but exactly how and when this culminating cosmic event will take place remains a mystery. Scripture doesn’t give a clear explanation; however, it does provide signs to help navigate life’s journey with the help of the Holy Spirit until the Lord’s Second Advent. Until Christ’s return, the church is reminded to remain awake as she diligently carries on the ministry of the Lord. She learns from the past while maintaining a confident faith in the future, all the time tending to the work of the Kingdom of God today. Now is not the time to be caught sleeping while the master is away, but to be busy about managing his affairs. The people of the world may be driven by fear and anxiety, but believers can be confident that God will strengthen them to the end, so that they may be blameless on the day of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In light of all that troubles the world today, this Advent presents a unique opportunity for the church to stand in the gap and proclaim the Good News of Christ Jesus through word and deed. Now is the time to be diligent in proclaiming the Kingdom of God in word and deed. If believers are to interpret any message from the signs of the time, it is that God’s grace is sufficient to sustain his people even in the worst of circumstances.

History teaches us that the Church Militant is victorious even under the most extreme conditions. The early church faced systematic persecution under Roman domination, but their hope in Christ’s Second Coming gave them the courage to boldly proclaim their faith in Christ. Eventually, the church settled into the knowledge that the Second Coming was an event that would take place sometime in the distant future, and they began to systematically spread the Good News that is found in Jesus Christ.

With every generation that passes since Christ’s ascension, the danger of complacency threatens the church’s overall mission to proclaim the Good News. Some in the church are happy living with the status quo, while others adopt a “religious country club” mentality. Even worse and more detrimental to the mission of the church is when believers become embroiled in debates that result in division. Self-proclaimed prophets have misread the so-called signs and made false eschatological predictions of apocalyptic proportions, only to push people away from the church rather than draw them into the Kingdom. They fail to listen to Christ’s words spoken to his disciples in our gospel reading today. The church proclaims that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again in the Eucharist.

In the meantime, the church has a job to do until the master returns.

Whether Christ returns today, tomorrow or in a hundred years, today is the day of salvation. If one looks closely at the signs of the times, they point to the One who holds all the answers to all that ails the world. Christ’s mission to the church remains as clear today as when he first sent his disciples into the world.

May she be faithful to proclaiming God’s love for all creation, and labor tirelessly in proclaiming God’s justice and righteousness until the master returns.

 

— The Rev. Timothy G. Warren is a vocational deacon at Trinity Episcopal Church, Redlands, Calif. He is a 26-year retired Air Force veteran, and he has 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 of California.

4 Advent (A) – 2013

The faith of Joseph

December 22, 2013

Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

In our gospel lesson for today, the spotlight falls on Joseph. On this last Sunday of Advent, before we gather to celebrate the birth of Christ, the mystery of God coming to us as a child, we have this story about an ordinary, quiet, faithful man named Joseph. Joseph might have been uncomfortable in the spotlight. But our gospel asks us to look closely at him, because through the quiet faith of this ordinary man, God was accomplishing extraordinary things.

In the history of Christian reflection on the birth of Jesus, from the heights of Renaissance art to the folksiness of Christmas pageants, Joseph is almost never front and center. In paintings of Mary and the child, Joseph is often absent. If he is present, he seems set off uncomfortably to one side. He seems like a guy who is not too fond of family pictures. When the camera comes out for the family photo, Joseph is like the husband who is a bit embarrassed by the whole thing. He knows that as wonderful as pictures are, they distort reality, because life isn’t all wonderful moments. Life is more about the grace of daily obligation, the hundreds of small decisions we make every day. For Joseph, a carpenter, a man who was probably more comfortable working with his hands than talking, life is more like finding the right tool for the right job than a series of photographable moments.

In Christmas pageants we all know who the star is: Mary. While we’ve all probably heard plenty of stories of little girls who were disappointed because they did not get to play Mary in the Christmas pageant, there are fewer stories of little boys who felt slighted because they didn’t get to play Joseph. If you are a little boy, you want to be one of the three kings, or, if not a king, at least a shepherd so you can wear a bathrobe and your father’s tie wrapped around your head. After all, when you think of Christmas pageants the images that probably come to mind are of Mary and the baby Jesus, the three kings bearing gifts, shepherds and angels, maybe even oxen and sheep. Joseph almost seems like an afterthought.

If Mary was the first to hear the good news of the birth of Christ, Joseph must have been the second. But for Joseph, the news that Mary was pregnant was anything but good at first. In fact, it must have been quite a shock, because he knew the child could not be his. Our gospel says, “Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child.” In those days, there were two steps leading to marriage. The first was betrothal. This was a legally binding period that lasted a year before the couple actually married and started living together. If anything happens during the betrothal to dissolve the relationship, it’s legally the same as getting a divorce. Mary and Joseph are in this first stage, legally bound to one another, awaiting the day of their marriage. So when Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, it is not good news. It’s bad news, very bad news.

Joseph, like any man in his position, might have felt hurt, humiliated, disappointed and even angry. But Joseph must have been a man of few words. At least, Matthew does not tell us what Joseph was feeling. What we do know is that Joseph was an ordinary man. He learned the woman he was engaged to was pregnant. He knew the baby wasn’t his. He drew the obvious conclusion. What more was there to say?

But Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man, which means Joseph loved God and tried to follow God’s law. In all things, a righteous man will try to follow the commands of God. So when Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, he turns to God’s law for guidance. According to the law, he has two options. His first option is to bring charges against Mary in public. He could publically accuse her of the sin of adultery. The penalty for adultery under the law is death. His second option is to divorce Mary privately. In the presence of two witnesses, he can write out a paper of divorce and present it to her. In this case, there would be no public charges against Mary. There would be no penalty. People would eventually find out that Mary was pregnant and unwed, but she would be at least spared the public hearing and punishment.

Because Joseph was a righteous man, he had to choose one of these options. As much as he might have loved Mary, he could not disregard the law. He could not put his own will above the will of God revealed in the law. To do so would be to say that his relationship to Mary exists outside of their relationship to God. Unthinkable. He was a righteous man. But as Joseph surely knew, God’s righteousness is always tempered with mercy. He decides to dismiss Mary quietly. Righteousness tempered with mercy.

Then something extraordinary happens to this ordinary, righteous man. Joseph has a dream, and in this dream an angel of the Lord says, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her womb is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

This is an amazing revelation! Yet, how does Joseph respond to this extraordinary news? Matthew’s narrative is terse, but it fits exactly the character of Joseph. He responds like the ordinary, righteous man that he was. When he awoke from his dream, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded. Period. Joseph was a righteous man. He spent his entire life trying to follow God’s commands. Out of a lifetime of devotion to God and to following God’s law, Joseph knew when he was being given a message from God. He needed no extra words, no extra explanations.

The young Mary, when she had heard the news of the birth of Christ, quite naturally asked, “How can this be?” But Joseph was older. The fruit of a lifetime of devotion to God’s law are eyes and ears attuned to the Lord. Joseph would have known the passage from Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” When Joseph awoke after the angel of the Lord told him he should take Mary as his wife and name their child Jesus, that is exactly what he did. No extra words. No extra explanations. Joseph, an ordinary man, a faithful man, a man of few words, did what the Lord commanded him to do. He had been doing it his entire life.

The wonder of this story is that through the faithfulness of an ordinary man, God was doing something extraordinary. The amazing news that God is sending his son to be born of a virgin, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world, is working itself out in the faith and obedience of a humble man like Joseph. The angel proclaims the miraculous news that God is coming among us as a little baby, and unlike Mary, who responds with joyful exuberance by saying, “my soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” Joseph speaks no great words. Joseph was not a big talker. He was a carpenter, a practical man.

Joseph was also a faithful man, but he didn’t need to make a big show of it. He listened for God’s word, and he tried to follow it. And when God spoke to Joseph in a dream, Joseph got up and did all that the Lord commanded. He married Mary. He got them to Bethlehem. He named the child Jesus. And through his no-nonsense, faithful response, God was working out his plan for the salvation of the whole world. And this is amazing!

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md., and co-author of “A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love” (Wipf & Stock, 2012).

3 Advent (A) – 2013

Expecting the unexpected Messiah

December 15, 2013

Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

What happens when our expectations don’t get met? How about when it’s our expectations about God that don’t get met?

A few years ago, Steve Johnson, a wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills, voiced his surprise on Twitter when things didn’t turn out the way he hoped during a football game. After Johnson dropped a potentially game-winning touchdown pass during overtime, the Pittsburgh Steelers won the game 16-13. The New York Daily News reported that Johnson blamed God and tweeted:

 “I praise you 24/7!!! And this how you do me!!! You expect me to learn from this???How??? I’ll never forget this!! Ever!! Thx Tho.”

If your theology says that praising God causes God to reward you by favoring your football team, then what if you drop the ball?

Maybe Johnson should just be commended for the honesty of his prayer, for being in communication with God about his questions and doubts.

Maybe his expectations were not met. Either God wasn’t keeping God’s end of Steve Johnson’s deal, or Johnson’s world had just shrunk, with God operating outside the box he tried to fit God into.

Or maybe God doesn’t like Buffalo.

John the Baptist’s world had shrunk. Literally. The one who was preparing a way in the wide-open wilderness is held captive in a prison cell. The one who baptized the Son of God in the Jordan River is dependent on his jailor to bring him a cup of cold water to drink. The one who was so sure of who Jesus was, now wonders, Are you the one who is to come? Really?

Matthew writes, “When John heard what Jesus [the Messiah] was doing  …” Actually, what Matthew could have written is, “When John heard what the Messiah was not doing …”

Jesus was not following John’s outline for his ministry. Jesus was not following John’s mission statement for him, his step-by-step plan for successful Messianic ministry. John had told people the axe was lying at the root, ready to chop down the unworthy trees. He had promised the chaff would burn with unquenchable fire. But Jesus didn’t seem to be pointing the finger of judgment. There was no smoldering woodpile of sinners. And this must have meant more than mild disappointment for John: He was at that very moment sitting in prison, awaiting his own beheading because he had dared to stand up and challenge King Herod for Herod’s unrighteous marriage. If Jesus were looking for some chaff worthy of burning, he could start by lighting a match to King Herod, and get John out of prison.

Instead, Jesus is pronouncing forgiveness, healing the sick, bringing Good News to the poor. Was this really what Jesus was supposed to be doing? Are you the one who is to come? Or should I hope for someone else?

Sometimes Jesus said and did some strange things, or certainly unexpected things, or things that aren’t what we hope for. And because of that, John asks, and the disciples ask, and we ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for someone else?”

Each of us has expectations about the kind of Savior we want. Some do want a brimstone and fire-breathing Messiah who points out where everyone else is going wrong. Some of us want a Jesus who will champion our favorite cause, who will assure us that God is on our side of the issue.

Or maybe we want a gentle shepherd who will not demand anything of us, but only assure us that he loves us.

Sooner or later, though, our ideas of Jesus bump up against reports of what he is doing, either in Scripture or the world. Jesus – the real Jesus, the real Messiah, Lord, Shepherd, Savior, Friend, Redeemer – will at times upset our expectations. And he will ask, “Do you want to follow the living Christ, or do you want to worship your idea of who he should be? Do you want the thrill and hope and challenge of a life with the living Christ? Or merely the comfort of worshipping an idol of your own making?”

John wondered if Jesus was really the one in whom he should hope. So he went to Jesus to ask. John couldn’t get there in person, so he sent his disciples. But John went to the source instead of just muddling along, or making assumptions, or staying in the dark about who Jesus is.

We are invited to do the same – go to Jesus with our questions, concerns, wondering. Participate in the ways Jesus has given to his church to know him better. Gather in community. Study with other Christians and wonderers. Pray. Take communion. Worship. Praise him – even when you drop the ball.

Maybe Jesus wasn’t exactly what John was expecting: He brought fire – but it was the fire of the Holy Spirit. He sought out sinners – and forgave them. He really let the unworthy have it – but what he let them have was grace. Grace upon grace.

John couldn’t see it for himself, locked away in his prison cell, so he asked; and in reply, he received a beautiful vision: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

 

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

2 Advent (A) – 2013

New life stirring in an old stump

December 8, 2013

Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

We encounter a strange image for the coming Messiah in our lesson today from Isaiah 11: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Now picture what this looks like, you’ve seen it before. A tree gets chopped down to a stump, and a little shoot starts growing out of it at some point.

Most people view this as an unwanted eyesore. These little shoots that grow out of stumps are actually known by the unflattering name of “suckers,” and there are all kinds of remedies on the Internet for how to seal off a stump and prevent it from giving out new shoots of life. Having these ragged little branches growing out of it makes a tree stump look unkempt and messy and homely.

Israel’s enemies had tried every way they knew to seal off the stump of Jesse that was the root of the throne of David. War, slavery, imprisonment, starvation – Jesus’ ancestors suffered all this and more. There had not been a viable king on the throne of Israel for generations. And yet, somehow, there is still life stirring in this burnt-out old stump.

Now, in the season of Advent, is when we see the little tiny shoot begin to sprout. It is so fragile! One wrong move and it could die. Too much water, too little water, the wrong amount of sunlight or wind, even a tiny bug could come along and destroy it, and it is totally defenseless.

When you think about it, it is an odd image to use to describe Jesus. He’s the new King of Israel, and he is described as a fragile branch growing out of an unsightly old stump. Not a very triumphant or powerful image. But that’s what Advent is all about. It is about coming to terms with the profound knowledge that God chose to come to Earth in such a vulnerable state: a defenseless human baby.

Neither a baby nor a wee branch growing out of stump is going to last long against any enemies. But that is also part of reorienting our mindset during Advent. The angel says to the shepherds, “Be not afraid.” That is what lies behind the courage to let Jesus be born as a helpless baby, the little shoot out of the stump that could be cut down at any moment: The knowledge that we have entered a new era of peace. God’s kingdom has arrived. Isaiah paints a picture of what that kingdom is like in our lesson today: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

Peace and wholeness, the Kingdom of God, have arrived. We are in a safe place. It is safe to be vulnerable, to reach out, to stretch out and grow. The interesting thing about branches on trees is that they grow right on the edge. Very little of the growth of a tree happens internally, down in the trunk. New cells are produced right at the very edge and build outward, fragile but brave.

What are the edges of your life that need your attention to really start growing? What are the parts of you that feel unfinished and vulnerable, that you are afraid to let out into the light? We must internalize the message of the angels of peace, we must hear and respond to the command “Be not afraid” in order to let that new growth within ourselves have half a fighting chance.

It feels strange to be talking about the fragile budding growth of new tree branches when we’ve just now really settled down into winter. But that is an important sign as well. The new life and new growth that Jesus brings do not always arrive in the obvious places. We need to look for birth and growth within ourselves and our neighbors in the cold, forgotten, frosty and inhospitable places as well.

And the storms that we experience are important also to our new growth. Back in the ’90s you may recall there was a project called Biodome, an effort to create a totally self-contained biological environment, a mini-Earth sealed away from the outside world. Some of it was successful, but one of the most baffling disappointments was the trees. They had the sunlight and water and nutrients they needed, but as they grew, they couldn’t stand up straight. They flopped over on the ground, weak and limp.

The scientists finally realized one vital ingredient of the outside world they had forgotten: wind. In nature, the wind blows and causes tiny microcracks in the trunk and branches of trees. Trees rely on this trauma for their growth. Standing straight to the wind, breaking a little but rebuilding at the same time, is what helps them grow stronger. Did you ever think that you might need the fierce storms of your life? That they might be as pivotal to your growth as the good days of sunshine?

Because John the Baptist does descend like a furious storm in our gospel today. He arrives with locusts and vipers and axes and fire. How does his warlike message of the wrath to come square with the promised peace of the wolf lying down with the lamb?

Remember the image of the shoot growing up out of the stump? Take a step back and consider how that environment was created. A tree had to be chopped down to a stump in order for the new shoot to grow up out of it.

John the Baptist says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.” He is the very personification of that message. He has arrived to shock us out of our complacency, to call us to chop down and root out all the old habits of greed and shame and selfishness that have grown up in our souls.

Advent is the beginning of the new church year, and it is time to begin with a fresh slate. We are told by John the Baptist to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” What does that mean? All the old condemnations of ourselves and others are to be chopped down and thrown away, making room for the new shoot of Jesse to grow up within us. That is how we prepare the way of the Lord. John the Baptist is not preaching a message of condemnation, but rather one of liberation, of freedom from the thick, choking overgrowth of sin that has trapped us in misery and hopelessness.

And for all the ferocious strength of his message, which we must take seriously to heart, what action does John the Baptist take? From what act does he take his name? Baptizing. Even as he pours down the fire of his words, he also pours out the gentle stream of water on the heads of the inquirers and seekers at the River Jordan, blessing them with the cleansing stream that foretells the Living Water. He waters the potential of the believers, that a new shoot of life might have the chance to blossom and grow.

So too is the season of Advent our own opportunity to test the edge of the waters of Jordan, gathering our courage to let the Holy Spirit of baptism – with the fierce fire that burns away the brambles of sin and the gentle water that nurtures the fragile growth of new life – once again cleanse our souls as we prepare for the Christ child.

In the season of Advent, the season of expectation and possibility, the spirit of the coming Christ is looking for fertile ground in which to grow up, a new shoot out of the old stump. Isaiah proclaims that “on that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

We can make ourselves that dwelling place, made glorious and new by Christ’s presence. Let us dedicate ourselves to hosting the coming Christ within us, and we will find ourselves manifesting grace in completely new ways that we never expected, newborn shoots of life growing up to bear good fruit.

Let’s be like Jesus, and branch out.

 

— The Rev. Whitney Rice is priest-in-charge of the shared ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Shelbyville, Ind., and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Franklin, Ind., in the Diocese of Indianapolis.

 

1 Advent (A) – 2013

Remembering God's time during our time

December 1, 2013

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

How does your time look between now and Christmas?

Is your calendar for the next four weeks a jumble of “musts”?

There’s shopping, wrapping, shipping, delivering. There are the Christmas cards. There’s the tree to be bought, trimmed and watered every day. There’s the outside decorating. There’s whatever baking we might do. There’s a “Messiah” concert and a family gathering. There’s an Advent wreath-making dinner and a caroling party in two weeks. There’s the school holiday program and the office Christmas party. Don’t forget the gifts for the folks who help us get through: the person who cuts our hair, the letter carrier, in some places the doorman and the super. There are people to pick up the airport, perhaps. Maybe there are some December birthdays, for good measure.

It’s all there on your calendar, be it paper or digital, and it’s all your time.

And then there’s God’s time. It’s all contained within the circle of the Advent wreath, the wreath with the first candle lit this morning. It’s the beginning of Advent, the beginning of the church year, that big wheel of time that every year turns us from the waiting of Advent to the joy of Christmas, to the waiting of Lent to the joy of Easter, to the waiting of Eastertide to the joy of Pentecost, to the joy of life in ordinary time and back again.

So here is the span of God’s time we enter this morning. This candle marks the beginning of the time we will spend with the prophet Isaiah, that prophet from the Hebrew Scriptures known and trusted and quoted by the writers of the New Testament.

The light of this candle infuses today’s readings. Isaiah implores his listeners to walk in the light of the Lord into the kingdom where people do not learn how to make war but instead turn their energies toward cultivating the earth and not destroying it.

Paul echoes Isaiah’s vision when he urges his listeners to wake up, to leave the works of darkness and to put on the armor of light. Paul also echoes what he had heard that Jesus said to his disciples, the words that Matthew attributes to him: “Keep awake therefore.”

Next Sunday we will light the first and the second candles, and Isaiah will remind us what happens in the light: growth, a green shoot from a dead stump. Paul will remind us of Isaiah’s prediction about that dead stump of David’s line bearing new fruit in the person of Jesus. John the Baptist, the one Isaiah predicted would come, will appear in the blinding sunlight of the desert, telling us to prepare the way for the one who will use water and fire to make us his own.

On the third Sunday when we light three candles, Isaiah will tell us about deserts that bloom, the blind who see and the lame who leap. James will remind us in his letter that it takes time for the earth to bloom. He will use the prophets as examples of those who waited patiently for their faith to bear fruit. Jesus will confirm John the Baptist’s suspicions about him: indeed, he is the one whom Isaiah predicted. Through him the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the people hear the good news of the coming of the kingdom.

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, four candles will burn in this wheel and the promises will soon be fulfilled. Isaiah will tell us about a young woman who will give birth to a son and name him Immanuel, “God with us.” Matthew will set Jesus’ birth to Mary and Joseph in the light of Isaiah’s prediction. Paul will tell the Romans that Jesus fulfills everything the prophets promised us.

Finally, we will light this central light and on Christmas morning we will hear John begin his gospel with those mysterious and powerful words: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all the people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us … full of grace and truth.”

And so the circle of Advent time comes around again. But Advent is not a time when we go through the motions of remembering a story whose ending we already know. It’s worth remembering that we begin our journey around this wheel this morning with Jesus’ own prediction of how he will come to us again. Advent is about Jesus coming once and promising to come again. This time of Advent is about the light shining in the darkness but not obliterating the darkness. It is about the kingdom having already come near to us but not yet having been fulfilled.

There is much work left to be done – and not just all we face these next four weeks. But you know what? Christmas always comes whether we get it all done – perfectly – or not.

Will the kingdom come in a similar inevitable way? What will we have done to hasten its coming? Will we recognize it when it comes? Who are we? Which farmer in the field? Which woman grinding meal? Will we go about our pre-Christmas tasks, marking out our time, and forget about the Advent stories of God’s time?

Or, perhaps, can we overlay these two arcs of time, taking good care of the tasks that will make for a special holiday season and staying awake for the signs of the kingdom – of God’s time – breaking into our time?

Because it is not that we shouldn’t enjoy the hustle and bustle of the secular season of “X-number of days until Christmas” – even though some preachers are known to guilt us into thinking it is less-than-Christian to fall for this month’s commercialism. Last year about this time, J. Mary Luti who is a United Church of Christ pastor, wrote in her blog that she was “simply getting tired of listening to sermons in Advent that draw a sharp line between the bad world of getting and spending which barely acknowledges or even notices the reason for the season, and another good world in which none of that goes on and into which Jesus is born properly, cleanly, to the sound of angels singing, not cash registers ringing.”

That second world, she said, doesn’t exist. We only have one world – this world we live in, the one in which God finds us and loves us because of our longing for something beyond ourselves. Jesus never asked us not to be human, Luti pointed out. Jesus became human and came into the chaos of our world to show us how to navigate our way through it using love and compassion as our touchstones.

In a book of prayerful poems called “Being Home,” Gunilla Norris strives to live in the overlap between our time and God’s time. She wants to be a steward of her everyday tasks in such a way that allows her not to despise the din of the world and its tasks, but to use them as a portal into deeper living.

In a poem called “Polishing the Silver” she prays:

As I polish let me remember
the fleeting time that I am here. Let me let go of
all silver. Let me enter this moment
and polish it bright. Let me not lose my life
in any slavery – from looking good
to preserving the past, to whatever idolatry
that keeps me from just this –
the grateful receiving of the next thing at hand.

 

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg, D.D., is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service. Prior to joining ENS in the fall of 2005, she was curate and then assistant rector at Christ Church in Short Hills, N.J. She is priest associate at Christ Church in Shrewsbury, N.J. and lives in nearby Neptune. She worked for nearly 25 years as a journalist before becoming a priest.

4 Advent (C) – 2012

Reflections at the end of Advent

December 23, 2012

Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

Don’t you love it when people ask you, “Are you ready for Christmas?” A good answer is, “No, but it’s coming anyway, so let’s all be joyful!”

This week we pay for that bridge week between Thanksgiving and Advent by having a truncated fourth week in Advent. It barely begins before we move to Christmas Eve, then Christmas itself. But, truly, we’re never ready. Advent is a deliberate escape from the frantic pulse of getting ready. It gives us breathing room; only, this year, almost a week less than usual.

In today’s readings we are taken to a very different space from preparation, a space of ancient prophecy in Micah, theology in Hebrews, and a docudrama of Mary and Elizabeth in Luke. You will not likely find any holiday arts or crafts for sale that help us reflect on these spaces, yet each of them contributes greatly to our end-of-Advent experience, and spills over into Christmas. Let’s look at them in turn.

Micah was an eighth-century prophet. He is one of a group whose prophecies are primarily designed to call the Kingdom back to its common core values of righteousness and justice, especially for the poor. This passage today should not be understood in any other context. It is not to be viewed as a prediction of the birth of Jesus, though Christians often interpret it that way. It is rather a vision of restoration, of righteousness with kingship that cares for the values of a nation that have been lost.

While the image “she who is in labor has brought forth” is often equated with Mary, the phrasing in its original Hebrew is ambiguous, and the “she” could refer to the nation or something else. Micah is concerned about political history and its future, and how God will deliver God’s people, but he is not necessarily prophesying a Messiah in the way many have chosen to interpret his prophecy.

The significant message of Micah is that in the midst of turmoil and in a nation that has lost its bearings, God’s plan will continue to be revealed and it will involve leadership that brings in a reign of peace. This is a message of hope we badly need to hear in our time.

“Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” The psalmist picks up this longing for restoration and is a great lead-in to the reading from Hebrews.

Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that God’s plan involves a restoration not based on sacrifice and expensive offerings, but on God’s gracious action of sanctifying each of us as holy beings, worthy of being loved by our Savior and Redeemer. Now that’s a Christmas present!

You can feel the emotional movement from Micah to Hebrews, a faint hope now answered in the birth of Jesus, a resounding message of peace for all humanity; those who have gone before, the living and those yet to come.

Finally, we get to this wonderful drama in the Gospel of Luke, the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. It helps to recall that Mary is a very young girl, likely in her early teens, while Elizabeth is older, mature. They have the intimacy of being related; but did they talk only of domestic things? One doubts they did. Both of them had remarkable experiences surrounding their pregnancies, and they share the awareness of Divine involvement. Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, rings down through the centuries, a fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy, and the validation of a God who cares for all creation and loves it into redemption with justice and grace.

The early Christian church used this story of the Visitation in Luke as a foundation for the Incarnation. Luke includes it as part of the birth narrative because the church was seeking to explain and affirm that the birth of Jesus was not just another one of those “virgin births.” Many rulers had claimed similar origins to justify their deification. The forming church wanted to clarify the God incarnate, man divine, as an affirmation of humanity, and that is what begins to attract people to this remarkable gospel and to Jesus.

This last Sunday of Advent gives us a brief time to reflect upon and kindle within ourselves the light of the incarnate Lord. The foundation is laid for what we will find at the manger. Now let us prepare to join the shepherds and the angels in great joy over what God has done for us.

 

— The Rev. Ben Helmer is an Episcopal priest serving as vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Ark.

3 Advent (C) – 2012

Complex darkness

December 16, 2012

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6); Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Technically, Christmas lasts 12 days. It starts at sundown Christmas Eve and continues until January 6, the Epiphany. In the old days, Christians refrained from Christmas celebration until Christmas Eve. Not even the tree would go up before then, as people respected the holy anticipation of Advent.

However, faith often follows practice, and practice has effectively changed the timing of Advent and Christmas Advent no longer occupies the four weeks before Christmas. To the extent it exists at all, Advent falls between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Christmas is inaugurated by a regal Santa floating down 34th street, at the end of the Macy’s parade. It continues until Christmas Day, when it stops cold in its tracks.

So here it is, nine days before the end of pop Christmas, and we’re weary-worn, tired of hearing “Silver Bells” waft through the canned-goods section at the grocery store.

But why complain like Scrooge? This isn’t the first time Christians have folded to pop culture. Both Christmas and Easter arrived at their current locations on the calendar in part because of pagan celebrations: Easter, mimicking both popular spring fertility rituals and the vernal equinox; and Christmas, honoring winter solstice celebrations. So what if retail stores command Christmas observance long before the exact day? Who are we to complain?

The problem is, John the itinerant Baptist does complain. He refuses to let you or anyone else skip Advent.

John is shouting at the top of his lungs: “You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?”

You just wanted to buy one more Christmas present.

“I’m talkin’ to you!” John continues as you walk down the sidewalk toward him.

Who? Me? You look up to see this homeless guy pointing his boney finger at you, spittle coagulating at the edge of his thick beard.

“God doesn’t need your so-called-faith,” he continues. “God can turn these stones into Christians!”

You can tell – this guy is crazy.

Only he isn’t crazy. He is tenacious; but he isn’t crazy.

Time to live your faith.

You mutter to yourself about the city and how it won’t take care of the riff raff, all the while fishing in your pocket for a $5 bill to drop into the Salvation Army bucket.

“That paltry donation isn’t going to buy anybody anything! I’m talkn’ to you. Who told you to flee the wrath to come?”

The man is exhausting your already waning Christmas spirit. If he hopes you’ll give him a ten, he’s sorely mistaken.

Only, he doesn’t want your money; he wants your soul. He wants to know: What difference do you really make? In this confused world of complex darkness?

The man’s eyes are God’s eyes, and now you can’t help but wonder the same thing: What difference?

Complex darkness.

The winter solstice takes place this coming Friday, December 21, at 11:12 a.m., Greenwich Mean Time. At the solstice, the complex darkness of an empty winter expands like bellows inhaling light, exhaling darkness. Darkness overwhelms and crushes; the soul is lost in a sea of nihilism. It is winter yet again? And your imagination wonders, just like John asks, What am I doing here? Do I have purpose?

Seasonal affective disorder, holiday blues, simple self-questioning. What’s it all about, anyway? Winter darkness can seem so very, very oppressive.

Only, don’t you know? Darkness is not the same as eternal night. Paradoxically, light is hidden within darkness, in its corners, beneath thick blankets. Playing hide and seek, light waits eternally for you to discover grace.

In her poem, “Twelfth Night,” Laurie Lee writes:

“No night could be darker than this night,
no cold so cold …
O never again, it seems, can green things run …
from this dark lung of winter.”

Darkness and cold, night and eternal sleep. John the Baptist frames the darkness for you: What are you doing here, anyway?

What you don’t know is this: Hidden in the dark words of John’s question is resplendent light. When John wonders, “What are you doing here?” he is actually claiming, “You have purpose.”

But John is not one to let you off the hook easily. Meaning: Faith is not simple; it isn’t easy; it takes attention. “God can turn these stones into Christians!” he reminds us. Don’t take your faith for granted.

But this is Christmas, and all you want is a little peace.

“You brood of snakes.”

The Revelation of Peter is an extra-biblical text that was discovered in 1945 among the Dead Sea Scrolls. When written at the end of the first century, Christians faced fierce persecution, and many, Peter included, were being tortured and killed. Christians needed to know that God had not abandoned them – in the stadiums, facing lions, being crucified upside down. They needed to know their life was not being given in vain, that they had purpose.

The times were dark, and these people needed light.

The Revelation opens with a visit to Peter from Jesus. Peter sees himself in the Temple, when a murderous hoard of people run up to attack him. Peter is afraid, but Jesus reassures him: “Put your hands … over your eyes, and tell me what you see.”

Peter covers his eyes, and answers, “Nothing.”

Jesus tells him to do it again.

This time in the darkness, Peter sees a bright light – brighter than the sun. Only the light is not new, it is a light that had been there all along, only Peter couldn’t see it. This light infuses Peter with strength and hope, enough to face persecution and ultimately death.

Enough to share with the other Christians, also facing death. Light – hidden under the thick blanket of darkness.

Light – and hope and confidence that there is more to reality than what you see.

This is the same light neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander observed and described in his new book, “Proof of Heaven.” During his very real, near-death experience, Dr. Alexander was ushered into a pitch-black void, a darkness that Alexander described as paradoxically and simultaneously brimming with light. Complete darkness containing absolute light.

Later, Dr. Alexander quoted the 17th century poet Henry Vaughan to explain his experience: “There is, some say, in God a deep but dazzling darkness.”

In God, a dazzling darkness.

John the Baptist, full of the Spirit of God, interrupts your dull light of Christmas cheer with disturbingly dark words. But these dark words are meant not just to break, but to heal; not just to crush, but to build.

Do you need real light this Christmas season? Do you need real hope?

Perhaps you will find tucked deep into John’s dark accusation some ray of hope. For there you will find the promise that God refuses to leave you, or anyone else, alone.

Laurie Lee continues her poem: “For see, beneath the hand, the earth already warms and glows.”

And it is out of utter coldness that the babe is born. That hope is born. Which is what Isaiah meant when he beat John the Baptist to the punch and proclaimed, “The people who lived in deep darkness, on them a light has shined.”

Fear not, for I bring you good news of great joy.

 

— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the interim rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California. Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years, he is the author of The Episcopal Call to Love (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.