3 Advent (A) – 2010

December 12, 2010

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

“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”

When cooks attending services in villages all over England would hear these words from the Collect of the Day, they would hurry home afterward to stir up the fruity batter that had been fermenting in their kitchens for weeks, the prime ingredient for their Christmas plum puddings and fruitcakes. Although the reading of this Collect used to occur in November, since 1979 it has fallen on this Sunday in December. The traditional English batter for Christmas puddings and cakes would be too thick by now to stir, but we still refer to this as “Stir Up Sunday.” How many sermons have been preached on Stir Up Sunday on what needs to be stirred up in our souls, to be prepared to receive what God is birthing among us at Christmas?

Years ago, Bishop Harold Robinson, retired bishop of Western New York, addressing the Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, told a story of a bike tour he and his wife took through the English countryside. They kept finding the most curious signs. One said simply, “This is a sign.” That was all. Another read: “Do not move this sign.”

These signs are comical because they have no purpose beyond themselves. A sign is meant to point beyond itself, or it has no meaning at all.

John the Baptist, restless, in the depths of Herod’s prison, no doubt convinced of his impending execution, begins to doubt, or at least to wonder, “Did I get it right?” John had never held back. His incendiary sermons and actions had been relentless, proclaiming the coming wrath of God and pointing to the one with far greater power, who was to come after him.

John is always portrayed in icons with his index finger raised, pointing away from himself, toward Christ: John the “pointer.”

But as John sat in the depths of his dark prison, what he knew of Jesus confused him. It didn’t conform to the message of repentance and the wrath to come that lay at the heart of the prophecy he had been sent to proclaim. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are YOU the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus’ response is plain and clear. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” These are all the signs foretold in the prophecy of Isaiah, signs of the “year of Jubilee,” of the inauguration of the kingdom of God among us.

Perhaps what John has forgotten for the moment, are the different roles to be played by him and Jesus.

John is the hinge on the door of the gateway into the Kingdom of God. John, we are told, is the greatest of all who have come before Jesus, but all who live in the Kingdom of Heaven, creation transformed by the life of God-with-us, will know fuller life and purpose than John. John is like the doorman, who opens the door and ushers the rest of us through, pointing the way to life more glorious than what we have yet dared to expect or imagine.

Consider that hinge on the gate into such fullness of life as somewhat rusted – stuck in place. It takes the force, the harshness of the message of John the Baptist, to bust that gate open. But what lies before those who pass through with Jesus is life of an entirely different quality and tone.

Life transformed – brand new! Not just a return to the “good old days,” but as St. Paul will declare, “Glory to God whose power working in us will do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine!”

We are so busy these last days of Advent leading up to Christmas Day, bringing out and setting up the decorations and traditional trappings of this beloved holiday season, intent on revisiting the warmth of Christmases past, that we are too often distracted from the profound wonder of what God is birthing among us.

John points not to the best of what has been, but to a world transformed, the very advent of the Kingdom of God.

The prophet Isaiah proclaims the vision of barren desert rejoicing and blossoming abundantly, with joy and singing! Weak hands being strengthened; fearful hearts given hope; waters breaking forth to create flowing streams in the desert; the way home through that desert being transformed into a broad and straight highway that even a fool can travel safely through.

How much do we dare hope about the gift being given us this Advent and Christmas? Are we looking for the best of what we’ve experienced before, or dare we look for more?

Today, John the Baptist stands among us still pointing. He is not pointing behind us, that we might return to the “good old days.” John points us toward a transformative future.

The great challenge facing our congregations today is not how to revive or resuscitate faith communities gone stale. The challenge facing us is to offer the church and the world fresh visions of a renewed and transformed world – the Kingdom of God drawn near to all of God’s children, all of God’s creation, and not just the “faithful.”

The Kingdom of God being revealed in the person of Jesus Christ is different. It is far more than we have yet imagined. And unless we are yearning in this moment to discover something brand new among us and before us, we are likely to miss the point of all this entirely.

John the Baptist stands among us this day pointing to life transformed in Jesus. May we awaken Christmas morning to the joy of opening up that life, unexpected, more than we had dared even ask for. And thereby, through our life together, that life will be given not to us alone, but to the whole world.

And that’s the kind of “stirring up” we can all use!

 

— The Rev. Steve Kelsey is a retired Episcopal priest, living with his family in Arizona. He is currently serving part time with a team of ministry developers among the Diné (Navajo people) in the Navajo Nation.

2 Advent (A) – 2010

December 5, 2010

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

On the 12th of October, 2010, 33 trapped Chilean miners ascended to the surface of the earth. As spectacular as that event was, their exodus might never have happened were it not for the miners’ faith in action. Theirs is a story worth telling. It will deepen our appreciation of what should be a gentle season, namely Advent. It will empower many to reflect on the variety of December things people do, and let them see how some of those things enhance their spirituality, while certain other habits of our culture can do it violence.

There is no evidence that the miners understood themselves to be “theologians” per se, but that is not important. What really matters is what they did to successfully endure their entombment. These thirty-three inspired men made a deliberate choice about how to live, turning their nightmare into a challenge by forming a mini-society and dividing labor based on each person’s skills. One, for instance, was a natural leader with years of experience. Another had some expertise in first aid and hygiene. A third was chosen to be their spiritual leader or chaplain. Saint Paul would recognize this as their appreciation of one another’s diverse gifts, necessary for the miners to become a functioning body. By becoming such, they offered the mutual support they needed to renounce their individual panic and despair, identify tasks, and become a community of faith.

Apparently most, if not all of the miners, had a Roman Catholic background, so they knew how to pray together for God’s mercy. But more than that, what appears to have happened is that they developed a religious life of real substance. Their religion was not about abstract, formal ideas concerning the nature of God and the human soul. It was about the things each individual had to do again and again for the sake of the others in the group, following a structured daily pattern. Each man was also bound by his commitment to a higher authority than himself. There was no choice. The possibility of survival depended on it.

There are two ancient associations that come with the term “religion.” One who is “religious” is a person who has agreed to be bound. The second association is the idea of a repeated series of practices that must be done daily for the well being of others who are likewise bound. So it makes sense, then, that when we hear of people in a community living under a set of vows, we also understand that a member of such a group is “a religious,” as, for example, a Benedictine or Franciscan monk is “a religious.”

The miners were profound and effective at practicing religion by having a shared vocation. It was founded on the common values of selfless humility and submission, and the need for each individual to put aside all personal wants in order to cooperate with each other and follow the directives of their leader. They trusted their foreman, Señor Luis Urzua, to direct their life together. By doing this, the miners taught the world that God trusts the faithful to live in commitment to their neighbors’ well being.

During the entrapment, observers all over the world were inspired by how the miners worked at their vocation to survive their situation. What was so invaluable about the miners’ “theology” is that it did what abstract conversations– like sermons – cannot do. Ideas alone cannot find their proper homes in the ongoing story of salvation; they need the flesh and blood that can anchor them to their places so that specific events can happen and become real history.

The miners were the kind of people John the Baptist loved because they were so down to earth. Yes, two thousand feet down under it! There they repented of their ordinary behaviors in life and started moving in a spiritual direction.

Many of the details of exactly what the miners did to survive, and how they did it – especially during the first seventeen days of utter darkness and silence from above – will never be known. There will no doubt be varied accounts of how they rationed their supplies, bolstered their spirits, and practiced the necessary hygiene to preserve their health. But in the end, the fact is that the miners emerged leaving the on-site medics with incredibly little to do. In fact, one of them, Edison Peña, came to New York City to run a marathon less than a month later.

So this is a story of a victory in faith that does not need embellishment. It already is a parable, a “story lesson” of what we are called to be as a church.

The gift of this story from Chile is infinitely better than what we get from a world that places a high value on its material standard of living. The miners’ exodus to salvation is an example of how their flesh and blood was exercised to make them fit and ready for their return. They taught that salvation is more than anything humankind can do for itself; it is something initiated by a God who loves us, and who expresses that love by inviting covenants with us for our cooperation with God and one another.

As long as we, the people of God, are living our mortal lives in faith, we are called on a journey that begins the day of our baptisms and continues to the blessing of a good and holy death, because we know that it is the gateway – or escape capsule, if you will – to eternal life.

Like Lent, Advent is a good time to reflect on what is not needed to live in the wholesomeness of a holy journey. But the messages Christians get in this 21st-century civilization tend to persuade them to spend their resources on baggage they don’t really need. So it is a good idea to take time to reflect a bit on what we can do without. What kinds of unnecessary baggage are we carrying? Stuck for an answer? Then just imagine yourself asking the miners, “What did you discover that you could live without?” Meditating on that for a while could be helpful.

During the miners’ first seventeen days in darkness, with no signs from above, they decided to believe anyway that their gift of life was not to be forsaken and they would not give in to despair or suicide. Instead, they got to work. They became a living church down there. By the miners’ faithfulness, a transfiguring glimpse of people in the restored image of God was ours. Pray for the grace to remember it.

 

— The Rev. David Somerville is a retired U. S. Army Chaplain with credentials in hospital work and the pastoral care of people with the issues of recovery and adaptation after a life-changing diagnosis. He has been in the priesthood for more than 40 years, is currently interim priest-in-charge of Saint Athanasius Church in Brunswick, Ga., in the diocese of his canonical residence. He enjoys model railroading, traveling and tandem bicycle riding with his wife.

1 Advent (A) – 2010

November 28, 2010

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

Happy Advent! Today marks the beginning of Advent, the season when we prepare for the coming of Christ, a season when we hear again the Church’s emphasis on hope and future. Part of what we do during this season is to prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ as a baby in Bethlehem. But that is not where we start on this Sunday. We do not start at the beginning of the story. We start at the end.

This is not a foreign concept to us. We are people used to setting goals. We nod our heads in agreement with the saying, “The one who wants to make a good beginning must keep the end in view.” It makes sense to us. Athletes visualize themselves breaking the tape at the finish line or scoring the goal or blocking the shot. Investment counselors talk about what you would like to be doing in your retirement so you can plan accordingly. Career counselors ask you to envision what you would like to be doing in five years’ time so you can take the necessary steps to get there. No one advises: just wander off aimlessly and see what happens. Keep your options open, sure, but nothing beats having a compelling goal and setting off toward it.

The picture offered in today’s first reading is a beautiful destination. Someday, someday, says the prophet, this is the future that awaits us, God’s future for us: peoples from all over the world gathered together, all worshipping the one God; no more war between nations; swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. A beautiful vision of the future. A bright future to hope for.

Advent is the season of hope, a season to remind us that we worship the God of things that are not yet, the God of things that will be. Advent is the season to hold up before us visions of things that sound impossibly remote to us – Advent images, like today’s, of weapons of war turned into tools for producing food, the lion lying down with the lamb, light that the darkness will never quench, a child born of a virgin, whose name shall be called Wonderful, counselor, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

The church dangles these images before us in these Advent days, not in curmudgeonly protest against the more prevalent images of red-nosed reindeers, and elves, and mistletoe, but because the church knows that Christian hope must keep the future before us, not nostalgia for the past. And Christian hope must be big and bold. Sometimes our hope fails because of lack of imagination, lack of courage, or because we fritter away our hope on small, private things, such as a peaceful moment by ourselves, which is nice, and maybe sorely needed, but not as compelling as peace in the world.

But let’s be honest. It’s hard to hope big. Sometimes our hope seems doomed or just foolish. Can we really hope for swords beaten into plowshares, or spears into pruning hooks, or Christ descending on clouds to call a halt to all the pain or boredom or stress or evil or tension of everyday life on earth, so that God’s reign of peace can begin? Are we a little afraid that all those Advent images of lions and lambs, and an end to war are just wishful thinking?

It’s easy to think so when we look to the past – either the past as it actually happened or the past as we imagine it once to have been. Isn’t that part of what causes the disappointment and discouragement for so many during the secular Christmas season, now in full swing? Nothing we do can live up to the way we believe things once were. Or nothing we’ve experienced has lived up to the way it should have been.

Thankfully, advice is available to help with the holidays.

Starting in the fall, magazines start appearing in the grocery store and bookstore giving helpful advice for the holidays. You know: Christmas cookie recipes and home decorating ideas and ideas for reducing stress. Sometimes they provide sound advice, such as to be more realistic in expectations of ourselves and others. You need not do everything perfectly, choose perfect gifts, please everybody, lose weight, redecorate your house, cook like a gourmet, and satisfy your child’s every desire. No. In a nutshell, holiday articles advise us to do three things: set more attainable goals; learn from the past; and be more realistic about what’s possible. The result of all this is a shorter to-do list, a smaller set of expectations, more limited hopes.

Oddly enough, the church, in our observance of Advent, advises exactly the same things, but with dramatically different results. The church’s Advent advice is the same: set attainable goals, learn from the past, and be realistic about what’s possible. But the anticipated results aren’t smaller expectations, it’s greater ones; not limited hopes, but bigger ones. We become people who dream of swords beaten into plowshares, and lions and lambs lying down together. We hope for world peace, not as wishful thinking, but as something we’re expecting God will accomplish, and we want to help.

Set attainable goals. Our goals, in the words of today’s Epistle lesson: Lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; live honorably. Let Christ transform us into people who love one another.

We learn from the past. The Bible is a record of divine promises made and kept. God, who was faithful in the past, will be faithful in the future. We are free to give up any obsession we have with the past, past wounds, past anxieties, past hurts, fears, and doubts, and live freely in the present, hoping for the future because God kept God’s promises. God will keep God’s promises.

We are realistic about what is possible. Trusting in God, we are realistic when we hope for things yet unseen, even big things, like joy and peace and salvation and wholeness.

But we are realistic: all of these things lie ahead of us. All of these things are in our future. All our real wholeness, our real joy, our real love, completely, fully realized, is in our future.

That’s why Advent, and our Christian faith, is future-oriented. Yes, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem. Yes, he actually died and was buried and rose again and appeared openly to his disciples. Yes, all these things, historically, in the past, happened. But they all happened so that we can live into the future which awaits us, a future for which God is preparing us, a future of which Christ, raised from the dead, is the first fruits.

We cannot underestimate the importance of our future goals. They not only give us hope, but how we envision the future breaks into how we live our present. Our future can form our present, rescue it, revitalize it, give it meaning.

Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, tells of his experiences as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. In helping other people survive that brutal and horrible experience, he said that one thing that made a difference for people’s survival was hope for the future. He wrote:

“The prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold. … I remember two cases of would-be suicide. … Both used the typical argument – they had nothing more to expect from life. In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them. We found, in fact, that for the one it was a child whom he adored and who was waiting for him in a foreign country. For the other it was a thing, not a person. This man was a scientist and had written a series of books which still needed to be finished. His work could not be done by anyone else.”

When we know the “why” for our existence, we will be able to bear almost any “how.”

Hoping for the future is Advent hope – realistic, possible, practical hope, because God is the God who holds the future; God is the one preparing you for the future; God is the one calling us into that future and using prophets and wise people from every generation and even God’s own Son, to dangle some Advent images before us to whet our appetite: they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, the lion shall lie down with the lamb, and, behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.

 

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

4 Advent (C) – 2009

The winter Feast of the Visitation

December 20, 2009

Micah 5:2-5a; Canticle 3 or Canticle 15 (Luke 1:46-55) or Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)

In the beautiful month of May, in the springtime of the year, the church keeps a feast known as the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The gospel reading on that occasion is the one we just heard, the story of pregnant Mary’s visit to her elderly relative Elizabeth, who is herself pregnant with John the Baptist.

Now, at this time of year when the days are shortest and the nights are longest, we hear that visitation story again on the final Sunday of Advent, in preparation for Christmas, which comes in only a few days. We can call today the winter Feast of the Visitation.

What happens? Young Mary, a teenaged girl, has heard the angel’s monumental message that she is to be the mother of the Messiah, the other parent to the Son of God. In an exercise of the bravest faith and submission, she agrees.

Mary agrees, though this pregnancy seems to promise the end of her engagement to Joseph. She agrees, although her people remember well how in the past they would put to death a woman about to marry who was found not to be a virgin.

Mary agrees to this remarkable and scandalous motherhood. It seems she has been brought, all in a rush, to a dark stone wall. But her faith finds a door, her faith finds a door.

One barrier after another collapses in Mary’s life. Now she is on the road to Elizabeth’s home, a house in the hill country. Pregnant women in Mary’s time and place did not travel; they stayed at home. But Mary gets up and goes.

Why does she go? Is it to find refuge with an understanding relative against criticisms thrown against her because of the scandalous circumstances around her pregnancy? We do not know. But the meeting of these two pregnant women is thick with surprises.

It is common for babies to move in the womb in ways their mothers can feel. Sometimes these movements are called kicks. But John in his mother’s womb did much more. He jumped for joy! When Mary called out upon her arrival, John jumped in the womb of old Elizabeth. How startled his mother must have been!

The Holy Spirit then filled Elizabeth, and she cried out to her visitor, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Theirs is a culture that honors the elderly, but here we have the older woman offering extravagant honor to the younger one, a teenager mysteriously pregnant. Yes, the world is turning upside down! The old era, which Elizabeth represents, has not much time left. The new era, ushered in by Mary, is about to dawn.

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth is the first to utter this acclamation, which becomes a favorite Christian devotion down through the centuries.

She then says more. She asks:

Why has it happened that my Lord’s mother has come to visit me? As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby inside me jumped for joy! You’re blessed, Mary, because of the child you carry. You’re blessed, Mary, for believing that what the Lord told you would come true.

Here the older woman does not bless the younger, but recognizes that the younger woman is already superabundantly blessed. Yet we who know what will follow recognize that this blessing is not all springtime. It will have its winter season. A sword of anguish will pierce the heart of blessed Mary. She will cradle the baby at Bethlehem, yet years later she will cradle her dead son at Golgotha.

Suddenly the scene at Elizabeth’s house becomes a sacred opera. It moves into music. Mary does not speak; she sings. And what a song she sings!

We call this song the Magnificat, from the first word in the Latin translation. We also call it the Song of Mary. It is a universe away from any self-indulgent, sentimental ditty. Instead, what we have is an explosive celebration of the God who saves: the one who looks with favor on a humble servant, who does great things, whose name is holy. The God whose mercy is known by those who reverence him, who shows his arm to be mighty, who scatters the proud and throws down the powerful and throws out the rich, who lifts up the lowly, and leads the hungry to a banquet. The one who keeps his promise to our forbearers in faith, whose name is holy, who does great things! This is the God who sets Mary to singing, and maybe, as Herbert O’Driscoll suggests, Mary, pregnant Mary, footsore after trekking up the hillside, not only sings for all she is worth, but starts to dance as well.

Often we Christians don’t get it right about Mary. Protestants and Pentecostals and Anabaptists tend to ignore her, except perhaps at Christmas. Catholics and Orthodox appear sometimes to deify her, exaggerating the honor of she who is already higher than the cherubim. Episcopalians love the Mother of the Lord, but are rather diffident in talking about her. But sometimes we Christians do get it right about Mary. May this be such a moment.

For it seems that, in some mysterious way, reflection on Mary unlocks the door to Christian joy.

That joy rings out in ancient hymns – Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac – many of them modeled on Mary’s own song.

It sounds forth in the work of Anglican poets and preachers, among them Henry Vaughn, who calls out:

Bright Queen of Heaven! God’s Virgin Spouse
The glad world’s blessed maid!
Whose beauty tied life to thy house,
And brought us saving aid.
This joy radiates in the bright madonnas of Italy. It shines in stone in medieval cathedrals named for Our Lady.

Yes, reflection on Mary unlocks the door to Christian joy. Mary shares her song with us, asks us to sing the Magnificat. She invites us to delight with her in the God who turns the world upside down, who saves us through this girl’s courage.

Mary always points us to her Son, the one redeemer. Her existence reminds us that we can be as she is: the faithful disciple, the one who brings Christ to birth, the soul espoused to God.

Without such joy, Christianity is ever in danger of becoming less than itself, falling into respectable dullness or mean-spirited fanaticism.

However, where this joy of Mary singing the Magnificat is set free, Christianity becomes confident, the harbinger of an eternal springtime, rich with hope for this world and the next.

We live in a time, my friends, when people ache for such a hope. May we help them find it in the liberating God who is the subject of Mary’s song and the center of Mary’s life.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2002).

3 Advent (C) – 2009

God is still calling us to transformation

December 13, 2009

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

Have you ever heard the saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”? Networking has been an established social function in society for as long as there have been people. We often use our connections to get us into social circles and places we might have difficulty getting into alone.

On television shows and in the media we see people getting things they want because of their family connections or social circles. Most of us have probably done the something like that too. For example, we would rather go to someone we know or to someone recommended than go to a stranger for a haircut or to get our car fixed. That sort of networking is harmless, right?

But when does it cross the line? What about when we find ourselves connected to an individual or a group that demands respect when, in fact, they are driven by arrogance and a misplaced sense of entitlement? Have you ever heard someone say, “Don’t you know who I am?” Have you ever witnessed someone being excused from what would normally be inexcusable behavior because of their connections to a family, a community, or even a belief system?

It doesn’t just happen on TV; it happens anywhere there are people. And it isn’t just a modern-day issue.

We hear John the Baptist in our gospel today chastising the crowds before him for this very thing. “You brood of vipers!” he accuses.

“Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

What vivid imagery! What a dire warning. But most of all, what a reminder of the power of God.

John is telling the crowd and telling us that what our ancestors have done in the past doesn’t matter now. It is what we do in the present that matters. There is an immediacy in John’s declarations. God’s power is being stirred up, and we don’t know what form it is going to take or what the outcome will be. We are powerless before the mystery of God.

Like anyone who feels threatened, the people in the crowd listening to John wanted to avoid judgment, avoid God’s wrath, and avoid pain. They panicked. Human nature hasn’t changed much over the centuries. We still feel the same way in the face of the unknown. We want to control it, we want to analyze it, and we want to have power over it. When we can’t do that, we transmit our anxieties to others who we think we can control and have power over. Exploitation makes us feel better.

It seems as if greed, accumulation of material things, and apathy toward others can create a protective shield around the fearful trembling of our distorted hearts. Like the strange, frightening picture in Oscar Wilde’s story of Dorian Gray, our true selves, our inner selves that should be turning to God, end up atrophied and diseased as we slowly become monsters of our own making, while everything on the outside seems to be going along swimmingly.

“What then should we do?” We ask with the despairing crowds.

John tells us we must bear fruits worthy of repentance. We must turn to God – our hope and our salvation.

This calls us as individuals to decide how we will open our hearts, tearing down our useless shields, to let the love of God, through righteousness and justice, bear our fruits of repentance. It is through righteousness that we restore the relationship between us and God, as well as the relationship between each other; and through justice that we restore our relationship with material things – being good stewards of all that we have.

John, in essence, tells the crowds, the tax collectors, and soldiers that the first step to a restored community as God intended is to redistribute wealth and stop exploitation.

Each individual’s decision is key – it is the idea we have today of thinking globally, but acting locally. Systems don’t change all at once, but through one person at a time. This may be something as small as being honest if a cashier gives you too much change back or going through your closet to give away clothes that another can use. Every small action leads to a larger transformation, not just of ourselves, but of the world around us.

We are to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord. Our hearts are filled with expectation and questioning.

We know the answer to the crowd’s question of “Who is the Messiah?” because we have heard this gospel story before. Yet, even though we know that God is about to do something new by being with us in the flesh – Immanuel, “God with us” – and we claim to believe that God is still doing something new – revealing, redeeming, sustaining, and moving in the present time – what are the fruits of our repentance? How are we living our lives with righteousness and justice?

We hear the prophet Zephaniah and the prophet Isaiah proclaiming the goodness of the Lord in our scriptures today; what hope they hold! “The Lord is in your midst,” Zephaniah exults. How then, do our hearts respond? Are we living as if we believe this?

Sometimes it seems that since the gospels were written in a different time and different place, they are not applicable to the world we live in today. What we often forget is that the same God that came among us back then is in our midst now, stirring up power, doing new things. The God of the gospels is the God of the twenty-first century, and He is still calling us to transformation.

If a doctor diagnosed someone with heart disease or diabetes and then gave that person instructions on how to keep it from getting worse, we’d hope that person would follow the doctor’s advice. After all, we trust doctors to prescribe the right diet and medication. But if we ignore our doctor’s advice and adopted the attitude of “this can’t happen to me,” then we are just asking for trouble.

So, too, with our spiritual lives. John the Baptist is helping us prepare a way in our hearts for the Lord to come.

This is an exciting time. We do not know how God will stir things up – but we do know that God’s work always comes to good. If we don’t clear a path, then how will we be able to respond with joy when the Lord is in our midst? How will we be able to hear the call for transformation in our lives and in the community around us if our shields are up?

We have the choice to allow God to come afresh into our lives, giving us new eyes, deeper wisdom, and profound compassion. We have the ability to repent anew and to affirm the covenant made in our baptism, proclaiming the good news to all people. This is no longer our parents’ choice, or our grandparents’ choice, or our ancestors’ choice – we cannot rest on their laurels. The choice is ours. May we choose wisely.

 

— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is the associate rector at the Episcopal Church of St. Peter-by-the Lake in Denver, North Carolina. She is indebted to Whitworth University, Gonzaga University, and the School of Theology in Sewanee for her richly diverse theological education.

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.

1 Advent (C) – 2009

Choose: God or idol

November 29, 2009

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

Choose: God or idol? Given our druthers, what do we ultimately choose: God the Creator or those earthly things that command our attention, our concern, and too often, our devoted fascination? What is the real choice here? Can we exercise a balance of the temporal with the divine? In other words, can we have both?

At core, Christians believe that God is loving and merciful. In the scripture appointed for this first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the Church’s liturgical calendar, we again hear of the loving and merciful Creator described as a God of hope and expectation; a God of promise and fulfillment. These dual themes of hope and promise are fulfilled, historically and prophetically, in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

Advent is the season of preparation not just for the retelling of the story of the nativity of the Lord under the humblest of circumstances, but perhaps, more importantly, for the return of the Messiah in glory. There is an understanding amongst disciples of Jesus from the first century through to the present day that the Messiah’s first appearance “on this fragile earth, our island home” was to reopen the way to the Creator, to allow us to reconnect to the God of all creation. And those who have the audacity to humbly proclaim discipleship also wait – with a sometimes wavering or tentative expectation – for the second appearance of Jesus, when “the Son of Man” returns to complete the work of creation.
Wait. Why a wavering and tentative expectation?

Today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews and the gospel reading both describe a God of accountability. In short, God’s merciful love, hopeful expectation, and fulfilled promise are an offer to those who are ready to receive these gifts. To be accountable to God’s call, we must not give such centrality to what scripture calls idols or idolatrous living. Jeremiah’s and Jesus’ words in Luke are not some historical musings meant for our forbearers. These are powerful words that point to a choice in the here and now. Which god is worshipped? In whom or in what do we really believe, and in whom or in what do we really place trust? More than two and a half millennia after the time of Jeremiah, what do his words as a prophet say to us today? Almost two millennia after Jesus spoke, what do his words mean today?

Jeremiah’s prophetic work begins during a time in history when the King, Josiah, was attempting to reform the religious practices of the people of Judah. Indeed, the first part of Jeremiah’s work focuses on what will befall Israel because of their religious practices, which were displeasing to the God of accountability. Early in the book of Jeremiah the prophet proclaims:

“Thus says the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’ Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.”

These people lost the way of their God, choosing little “g” gods over the Creator. After the return from the Babylonian exile, that is, after suffering the consequences of their idolatrous ways, the loving and merciful God reappears. Jeremiah proclaims that “the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”

In the Gospel of Luke we hear Jesus say, “They will see the ‘Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” More importantly, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”

Jesus warns us to “be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Throughout our lives, we are faced with this choice between little “g” gods, idols, and the Triune God, the Creator, the Redeemer, the Sanctifier. What can we trust to the total exclusion of God: the lure of money or fame, the power of position, the fascination with technology, or the rightness of religion? To whom is our primary and sole allegiance: partner, self, employer, or mentor? We should know that these things and persons in and of themselves are not inherently idolatrous. Indeed, these very things and people can be a source of goodness for one and indeed for all. Yet, these things and people can become idols. We make the choice.

And in the midst of worries, how is it we can be distracted from God? When faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, why do we often forget to seek God’s peace? The disciple of Christ understands God as the source of all good things. Why not seek God in the midst of all the things in our lives, both good and bad?

Do not be distracted by earthly priorities, things, and worries at the expense of forgetting the “fount of all one’s blessings.” When we become preoccupied, the object of our preoccupation or the preoccupation itself can become an idol or little “g” god. When we are preoccupied, we risk cutting off the love and mercy of the real God. When we choose the idol over the expectation of God’s fulfilled promise, we forget the notion of divine blessing.

In the end, even though God calls us to faithfulness, remember that, ultimately, it is our choice. God calls. We choose.

And before choosing, take a moment and remember Jeremiah, the people of Judah, and the Babylonian exile. Before choosing, stop and remember the apocalyptic words of Jesus. At the outset of the new liturgical year, think this over with great care and choose wisely.

 

— John E. Colón is an active Episcopal layperson and is director of Human Resources at the Episcopal Church Center in New York City. He attends Grace Church, Brooklyn Heights, in the Diocese of Long Island. 

4 Advent (A) – 2007

December 23, 2007

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

Here we are, on the fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas Eve is just around the corner. Ready or not, it’s just about time for the Christmas story, told by carol, by pageant, by Sunday school children in bathrobes and tinsel halos. And when we say “the Christmas story,” we usually mean Luke’s version of the Christmas story. You know, the one with the shepherds kneeling at the manger, sheep illuminated by all the heavenly host. The spotlight shines on Mary and the baby. Joseph is there too, of course. Although Joseph usually doesn’t get any speaking lines, unless he gets to ask for room at the inn, or to inquire “please, isn’t there somewhere my very pregnant wife can lay down?” But that’s a story for Christmas Eve.

Here on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we also hear the Christmas story, but it’s the one told in Matthew’s gospel. Here, in Matthew, we hear the Christmas story from the point of view of the father. Well, er, not the “father” exactly.

Joseph is decidedly not the father of Jesus. And when Joseph hears that the woman to whom he is engaged is pregnant, and he’s not the father, he assumes what any normal person would: Mary has been unfaithful. And Joseph, being a righteous man, plans to dissolve in form the engagement commitment that apparently has already been dissolved in fact.

But Joseph soon learns that the disruption of his plans for a nice simple home life with his bride and his dreams of becoming a father are not actually the stuff of soap opera drama. His question of “Who’s the father?” is actually part of a much larger, divine drama in which he will play a pivotal role – but not the role of father, exactly.

How fitting that Matthew’s version of the Christmas story is about the father who isn’t one. You see, Matthew’s got this thing about fathers. Matthew has very strong opinions about how people who follow the Son of God should regard earthly fathers and the Heavenly One.

It’s in Matthew 29 that Jesus instructs his disciples, “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven.” Starting with Jesus, whose Father really is the one in heaven, Matthew gives those who want to follow Jesus plenty to think about in terms of reorienting our earthly relationships, including those between children and earthly fathers.

Jesus teaches his followers to orient their allegiance toward God, and all other loyalties need to fall into their rightful places in light of our relationship with God. That means privileges usually given to fathers in Jesus’ day, such as treating children as property in many ways, and authority granted to fathers, such as making decisions binding on all members of the household, were to be removed. This means a radical redefinition of family, which Jesus himself exemplifies.

In Matthew 12, Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are looking for him, and he replies, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? … Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” You’ll notice that in Jesus’ family configuration, there are only brothers and sisters and mothers, and these are whoever does the will of the only Father, the one in heaven. Earthly fathers become brothers, giving up their earthly privileges over others, and, like those who had less power than they in Jesus’ day, they too find their meaning and purpose in the will of the one Father in heaven.

As if to emphasize this reconfiguration of family, especially of fathers, Matthew’s gospel shows us a few earthly fathers. And it’s not a pretty sight. There are some real bad dads, starting with Herod the Great. This earthly dad had some of his own children murdered in order to protect his position as king. And when he hears that some visiting magi have identified a Galilean peasant’s son as a potential rival, he orders the slaughter of the children of an entire village.

One of Herod’s surviving sons, called Herod Antipas, is another bad earthly father. When he sees his step-daughter dance, he makes an oath that she can have anything she wants, even half of his kingdom. Children need appropriate boundaries, as any child psychologist will tell you, and Herod just can’t say no. When his darling child asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, he can’t bring himself to disappoint her. In Matthew 7, Jesus asks, “Who among you,” asks Jesus, “if your child asks for bread, would give a stone?” Well, Herod, bad father that he is, will give his child, not food and protection, but serves up a gruesome and tragic dish instead.

But even when Matthew isn’t showing us truly horrible earthly fathers, he still pushes us on what our relationship to one another should be, even to our earthly fathers. For example, early in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus calls James and John, the sons of Zebedee, to follow him. They do, and they leave their earthly father standing alone in his boat.

We get a hint at what Jesus means about becoming a new family with one heavenly Father by watching these two throughout Matthew’s gospel. When they’re acting like followers of Jesus, that is, as true sons of Jesus’ Father, they’re called “brothers”: “James and his brother John,” or “the two brothers.” But, when they’re acting like they’ve never heard of Jesus, for example, when they’re trying to get the best seats in the kingdom, or falling asleep as Jesus prays in Gethsemane, they’re called “Sons of Zebedee.”

Jesus knows it’s hard to break our familiar patterns, and that even now we may put the desires and demands of blood relatives ahead of our loyalty to our one heavenly Father and his son, our brother, and his family.

When Matthew shows earthly parents who are doing right by their children, they are bringing them to Jesus, they are asking for their children to be healed, they are letting Jesus bless them. When parents care for their children by putting them in Jesus’ care, they are acting as sons and daughters of the Father in heaven. When any one of us cares for the least, the lost, the vulnerable, the weak, the little ones in our midst, we are acting as sons and daughters of our one Father, and brothers and sisters of Jesus.

It’s at the beginning of this story that the spotlight shines on Joseph, who shows the baby Jesus the kind of care that is in line with what the child’s Father, and ours, desires. Joseph shows the kind of care that all of us are to show to those who are most vulnerable in society. Joseph follows the command of God. Joseph risks his own sense of what looks proper to the neighbors. Joseph aligns himself with someone others would call unrighteous. Joseph acts decisively when the child’s safety is at risk. Joseph is willing to act in such a way that Jesus will grow up knowing that his first allegiance is to God, and that means his family will be bigger, broader, and, yes, stranger than any family Joseph could provide. Joseph is no earthly father to be sure, but shows us precisely the sort of love our heavenly Father wants us all to show.

May we, like Joseph our brother, know and show the love of our Father in heaven, this Christmas and always.

 

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

3 Advent (A) – 2007

December 16, 2007

Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

The Season of Advent is perhaps the most confusing and most inspiring of our church seasons. In it, we anticipate both the coming of the Christ child at the first Christmas and the second coming of Jesus at the end of the world. It is a season in which the readings focus on the paradox between the sometimes harsh reality of the earthly world and the hopeful dreams of the heavenly realm to come. In Isaiah, the image of the wilderness as transformed by God’s hand is described quite vividly:

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom …. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground; springs of water.”

It may be difficult for those in an urban and modern perspective, to fully appreciate how threatening the desert was to people in the time of Isaiah, and John the Baptist, but the desert wildernesses in the Middle East were places of danger and death, places to be feared and avoided.

The concept of the wilderness is not restricted to physical places. We can find ourselves in physical, emotional, financial, social, or spiritual wildernesses. Those of us who have been in one of those places know just how terrifying such a wilderness can be. Now perhaps your world is that lush valley overflowing with the proverbial milk and honey. Maybe your life is so wonderful that you cannot relate to the metaphor of the wilderness. But as we observe the world, we meet people living in the wilderness. And when you, or someone you know, is in a wilderness, you know it intensely and profoundly. It assails your spirit and challenges your faith.

Dreams: that is what Advent is about; that is what being a Christian is about. The Isaiah and Matthew passages today called the people of those times to dream of escaping the wilderness. They challenged those people – and us today – to be messengers, to be prophets, to be dreamers of a better world. The question that is timeless and universal is, how do we keep our faith, our hope and our dreams when we fall into a wilderness?

We live in a world which worships success, power, wealth and beauty. We live in a world of expectations that are sometimes difficult, if not impossible to meet. As Christians, we must realize that many of these standards and expectations are not consistent with Jesus’ life and ministry; they do not promote love, justice, and compassion, but rather lead us into the wilderness of greed, deception, and selfishness.

How do we keep our faith, our hope, and our dreams in the midst of a secular world that is a wilderness of greed, lust, injustice, and hate?

The answer is simple: prayer, study, worship, community and service.

If a parish church is at its best, if it is faithful to Christ’s call, it will provide the environment to bring its members out from the wilderness. It will provide fellowship with other pilgrims and dreamers. It will nourish members by the Sacrament, the liturgy, and the preaching of the Word. Educational programs help members know Jesus more deeply so that they can follow Him more intentionally. Opportunities for service to the community are provided so that members can be the hands and feet of Christ in this world. This is why regular attendance at worship and participation in the programs of the Church are so important. This is how Christ’s people are fed and strengthened for the journey through the wilderness.

What are your dreams this Advent season? What is your image of the realm of God? What are you doing to make those dreams become reality?

Today, many of the maladies of which Isaiah and John spoke have been conquered by modern medicine, science, and technology. Medicine may not have fully conquered blindness, deafness or many other diseases, but physically, we are certainly healthier than our ancestors. We still do not raise the dead, as that power is reserved for God alone, but many lives are extended by scientific discoveries. Because of advances in transportation, we are no longer in danger of being stranded in the desert wilderness, and the technology of modern irrigation systems has made barren places fruitful.

As members of a parish community, of a diocese, of a national church, as followers of Christ, all are called to work and pray to bring about a world that fulfills the ministry of Jesus Christ. What does this world look like?

It is a world described by three words: love, justice, and compassion.

In the context of today’s society, this is a big dream. But those who share this dream are in good company. Throughout the ages, there are prophets and messengers who have held onto this dream and have given their lives to bring love, justice, and compassion to a world that rejected those values. From the monastic orders of the Middle Ages, the martyrs of the Reformation, the heroes of the Social Gospel movement, to those who struggled for civil rights, there have been people in the Church who have devoted their work and lives to proclaiming love, justice, and compassion in the name of Jesus.

This Sunday is also known as Rose Sunday as rose-colored vestments are allowed, but colloquially in the Anglican tradition, it is known as “Stir Up” Sunday from the first words of the Collect:

“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.”

If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that we all need some “stirring up” as we find ourselves in the wilderness of contemporary society. Advent is the time to renew our dreams and to resolve to work to make those dreams become real. Does this parish have a vision, a dream, and a mission which calls its members to work to bring the love, justice, and compassion of Christ to this community and to the world beyond? Advent is the time for us to renew your commitment to this vision and this mission. If we are to accept the challenge of being followers of Christ, we must be dreamers, and we must be doers as well. Being a Christian means that we are vitally engaged in ministries that will bring the love, justice, and compassion of Jesus to the wilderness of this world. We must be prophets, messengers and ministers of the Good News of Jesus.

Our dreams are precious. In good times and bad, our vision of a better world, a world in which we experience God’s justice and mercy, is what gives us hope and confirms our faith. Advent is the time that calls us to dream of the future coming of Christ, because we know that Jesus came to us once before. We know that the God incarnate came into a world that was sitting in darkness, a world lost in the wilderness, in the form of a vulnerable child; a child so poor that, like so many of today’s children, he had no place to lay his head.

Let us be messengers and ministers of God’s love, justice, and compassion in all that we say and do.

Let this be our Advent dream and hope!

 

— The Rev. Guyott received a Master of Divinity (1993) from the Episcopal Divinity School and a Master of Sacred Theology (1997) from the General Theological Seminary.

2 Advent (A) – 2007

December 9, 2007

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

“The lion shall eat straw like the ox.” Isaiah’s description of the peaceable kingdom offers us a hope-filled vision of a future world without conflict, but is it really good news for the lion? What sort of lion, shaped as a wild predator in sinew and tooth and claw, would resign itself to grazing meekly alongside the livestock?

The Messiah, the one whom Isaiah calls the “shoot … from the stump of Jesse,” will “decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” The meek creatures – lambs, kids, and fatlings – must surely welcome this new world in which they need not fear being devoured by fierce predators. As for the predators themselves, however, must the wolves and leopards lose all that they are in order to bring about this idyllic society?

Perhaps it would help to realize that the sheep, the cow, and the kids are changed as much in their own nature as are the lions and bears. For a deer to lose its timidity is just as radical a change as for a cougar to lose its ferocity. In fact, the entire equation of predator and prey is broken in this new and peaceful world. There are no longer victors and victims, but a new society in which all creatures thrive.

In place of a world of competition and scarcity, Isaiah shows us a peaceable kingdom full of astonishing abundance. The lion and the bear are grazing now, but what grass it must be! Enough to satisfy a ravenous wolf, and enough to embolden the wariest lamb.

Grass like this only grows in a landscape “full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” That same knowledge and fear of the Lord rests on the Messiah with the spirit of the Lord. Because of it he is able to judge not by appearances, but by the heart of things. The Messiah judges, yes, but with righteousness and equity.

Knowledge of the Lord is a dangerous draught; it is deep and life-changing water. It is in fact baptismal water, water that transforms us and births us into new life.

In today’s gospel reading, John the Baptist draws crowds to himself at the Jordan River with the call to repentance and the promise of the kingdom of heaven. John, too, judges people by their hearts, not merely by their outward appearances. The Pharisees and the Sadducees, the respectable and the pious, do not get a warm welcome to the Jordan. “You brood of vipers!” he calls them.

Yet even vipers will be transformed in the peaceable kingdom. John does not deny them baptism or refuse to hear their confessions. Instead, he admonishes them to “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Good fruit, good wheat, is the very food by which all are fed in the kingdom of heaven.

Fruit worthy of repentance cannot grow without deeply changing our self-perceptions. John would not allow the Pharisees and Sadducees to rest on their status, their past, or their ancestry. Goodness does not depend upon who you have been, or where you have come from. Rather, it depends upon what you choose to do, and upon who you are becoming. Choice and new growth are the essential elements of repentance.

John, like Isaiah, heralds the arrival of the Messiah as well as of the kingdom of heaven. John promises one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. This baptism will surely be no less transformative than rebirth through water. Indeed, while the Spirit might seem like a gentle dove, fire seems like a roaring beast.

But this holy breath and holy fire may in fact be one and the same substance. John describes how the chaff will be burned with “unquenchable fire,” while Isaiah tells us that the “breath of his lips” shall slay the wicked. Wind and fire can surely destroy, but they can also stoke the flames of the craftsman’s forge. Just as the Messiah both judges and redeems, the Holy Spirit both consumes and creates.

The kingdom, the end times, the world perfected, the second coming of the Messiah – these will arrive with holy fire. Fire is always a sign of transformation, and if we are not transformed by the spirit, then we will be consumed and destroyed. But those who have allowed themselves to be reshaped by the baptism of water and the Holy Spirit will greet the fire as warmth and light.

Advent reflection and repentance calls us to allow ourselves to be shaped into new creatures. As we ponder the earthly arrival of Jesus and prepare ourselves for his coming again in glory, we understand that our Messiah himself has been both a nursing child and a righteous judge. He appears as slain lamb and as mighty king.

As for us, it really does not matter whether we see ourselves now as lambs, lions, or vipers. The kingdom of heaven that draws near will not be filled with cowardly lions and oblivious oxen, but with peaceable lions and oxen freed from fear. In the kingdom of God, we will feed in abundance, and we will bear for each other the best fruits of repentance.

 

— The Rev. Cole Gruberth is a recent graduate of General Theological Seminary and a newly ordained deacon. He is an associate rector at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Poway, California.