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How to Be Beloved, Epiphany 1 (C) – January 13, 2019


[RCL]: Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

I want to talk a bit about the Baptism of Jesus, about what it means. The place to start, of course, is with the story we just heard. We heard the first part of it just a few weeks ago. Remember how John was at the Jordan River (the place where the people of Israel crossed over into the promised land), and how he preached about repentance and judgment? He promised that the ax was lying at the root of the tree and that any useless chaff would be burned with unquenchable fire—and remember how he told people, sometimes in great detail, what to do if they wanted to live out their repentance?

It was to this place, and into this context, that Jesus came to be baptized. Now, we Christians need to remember that our basic understanding of baptism—and of our own baptism—comes from Jesus and from what happened at his baptism, and from what happened after and because of his baptism—and not from anyone else John baptized, and not from anywhere else.

The first thing I want to point out is that when Jesus was baptized, no one told him what to do. John the Baptist didn’t tell him what to do—and John was truly delighted to tell absolutely everybody else, including the king, exactly what to do. But not Jesus. And God the Father didn’t tell Jesus what to do, either. Notice that carefully. The Father told Jesus who Jesus was, how the Father regarded him—“You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” But there’s nothing in there about what Jesus was supposed to do, about what it looked like for him to be the beloved, the uniquely named Son of the Father, about how to live out the identity that was revealed to him.

Jesus had to work that one out for himself, by himself. And today I want to look at some of the options and expectations that were in front of Jesus as he decided what it would mean for him to be the chosen one, to be the Messiah. Remember, Jesus was a real person who had to make real decisions, just like we do—he wasn’t a puppet or God the Father in a people-suit. Jesus didn’t decide what to do in a vacuum. He lived in his particular world, and that means that he was surrounded by a variety of traditions and expectations of what it meant to be the Messiah, the beloved. What’s more, many of these different visions are still with us, and lots of folks are still pretending that Jesus chose one or another of these other options, and not the one that he did, in fact, choose.

After Jesus was named the beloved of the Father, here are some of the places he could have looked to determine what this meant.

First, he could have looked up and seen John the Baptist and stopped there. Jesus could have lived a rigid, ascetic life, ignoring or disdaining physical and social pleasures. He could have preached a rigorous moralism, worn weird clothes, eaten odd food, and promised that if you were not good, God would get you good. Jesus, like John the Baptist, could have confined his ministry to the people of Israel and waited for the wrath to come. A lot of people thought the Messiah would be like that—in fact, a lot of people thought John was the Messiah precisely because he did these things. Jesus could have looked there.

Or he could have looked at the headlines and the issues of the day and become an anti-Roman agitator—allied perhaps with the Zealots, who pretty much invented guerrilla warfare, or with one of the other nationalist parties. He could have organized an army and set out to restore to God’s people their rightful heritage by force of arms. Many who claimed to be the Messiah or who were considered to be the Messiah did exactly that with more or less success. Jesus could have promised military victory, economic prosperity, and national greatness. This was probably the most common expectation at the time—most everybody knew this was what the Messiah was going to do—and this was possible. Within a generation, Palestine was in full military revolt against Rome. Jesus could have looked there.

Or he could have looked to the Hebrew Bible—our Old Testament—and chosen one of its many and varied images of what those books say it looks like to be the beloved of the Father. He could have gone to the Book of Kings and taken David or Solomon, the great kings of ancient Israel, as his model. They were stellar soldiers and politicians, players on the international scene, and they remained to Jesus’ day symbols and constant reminders of Israel’s past greatness as an independent nation and world power. People wanted those good old days back, and lots of them expected the Messiah to bring them back.

Or Jesus could have looked to the Book of Daniel and its apocalyptic vision of God’s triumph, where God suddenly and unambiguously appears in history and brings one horrible trial after another on all of creation—until the evil are clearly and decisively defeated and destroyed, and the chosen are given a whole new creation as the old one passes away. This was also a popular hope among a number of small but influential religious groups that Jesus knew about and that knew about Jesus.

Or he could have turned to Haggai or another of the lesser prophets. They saw the Messiah as the one to purify Israel, to destroy the gentiles, to cleanse and perfect the temple and its sacrifices, to bring about right worship and study, and to create a racially and religiously pure community.

Those were just a few of the choices—there were lots more. All of these were popular visions of the Messiah in Jesus’ day, and there were self-styled messiahs who modeled themselves on each and every one of them. In fact, these options are still with us. There are not a few who want, and who pretend, that Jesus and his Church are really all and only about preaching morality, or causing social reform, or gaining personal prosperity, or bringing in renewed national greatness, or bringing back the good old days, or just hanging around until God brings down the whole shebang in one great explosion, or creating the perfect, pure, and isolated community—a group as homogeneous as it is holy. All of these are still around today, just like they were around for Jesus. They are all temptations for us, as they were for Jesus.

But Jesus chose none of them. Guided by that spirit he received at his baptism, Jesus did go to the Bible for his vision of what it meant to be the beloved of the Father, but he went to a generally ignored and fairly obscure part of the Bible—to a part no one, up until then, had much bothered with.

He went to the servant songs of the prophet Isaiah—four powerful and perplexing poems. (The part of Isaiah we just heard is right in the middle of them.) In these passages, God’s chosen one is portrayed not as a king or conqueror—but as a servant: weak, gentle, patient, and burdened with pain. He is a servant who somehow, mysteriously and through his obedient suffering, redeems not only Israel, but all of humanity.

In these passages, the servant of God, the beloved, fulfills none of the popular expectations of a messiah. Instead, he embraces a faithful obedience that leads only through great affliction to his justification and to the victory of God. It’s no accident that the Church insists that we hear these reading from Isaiah during Christmas, during Epiphany, and during Holy Week.

When Jesus came out of the waters of baptism, he was given his identity just like we are at our own baptisms—he was named beloved of God, just like we are. He had to decide where to look to discover how he was to live out that identity. There were lots of options; there still are.

On this Sunday, the Church bids us reaffirm our own Baptismal Covenant to remind ourselves that we, too, have been named beloved of God and that we, too, must live that out day by day. What does that look like? What will that look like today and for the rest of our lives? Jesus thought about this. Of all the options he could have taken, he chose the image of the suffering servant, the one who gives up everything for the sake of faithful obedience to God’s word. Today, we again choose Jesus and his vision. That is our glory and our challenge.

[Note: the liturgy for Renewal of Baptismal Vows can be found on pp. 292-293 of the Book of Common Prayer.]

The Rev. James Liggett is the retired Rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 1 (C).

Stars, Epiphany – January 6, 2019


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

Long before telescopes and computers, people named the stars and charted their long journeys through the heavens. These early stargazers noticed patterns and consistency in their movements. Perhaps we can imagine they felt the stars were part of a greater story, and that the stars had the power to influence events on earth.

Early books of the Bible testify to the power of stars in the life of ancient people. Job mentions three constellations: the Bear, Pleiades, and Orion. Childless Abram goes out at night and hears a promise from God that he will have many children, as numerous as the stars. Stars are said to “Sing together” and “shout for joy” in the Book of Job, and Psalm 147 tells us God names all the stars and determines their number. Clearly, the stars held meaning for the ancient people of God.

In our Gospel reading, we see wise men coming from the east, following a star. It is not clear to a modern reader how they knew this rising star announced the birth of “the king of the Jews,” as the connection between the rising star and the birth of a king is shrouded in mystery. What is even more strange, perhaps, is how everyone in the story—especially Herod—just rolls with it, accepting the wise men’s account of the star and the birth of the king. In fact, King Herod takes the wise men’s astronomical report so seriously that he drops everything to search for and eliminate the baby.

There are dozens of theories on where the wise men originated and how they knew so much about stars; the Greek word used in Matthew’s gospel is Magi, a group of learned scholars who advised kings by interpreting dreams and astrology. While much about the wise men is unclear, what is clear is that these men are not Judeans, but Gentiles. They are bearing witness to a cosmic event of astronomical proportions: the birth of a baby—though nobody seems to know exactly where he is.

We can imagine their shock when they discover that Herod is clueless about where this baby was located. Surely, King Herod would know if a king were born in his kingdom. It is in this detail that we can see how foreign these wise men are; they are seemingly naïve, unaware of the dangerous politics of Judea and unaware of how different this new king will be from other kings. They are simply seeking the king whom the star announced.

They follow the star until it stops over the place where Jesus was. It’s so simple. While it may seem mysterious and strange to us to follow a star this way, it is not strange for them. It is simply how they understand the world. It is simply how they found Jesus.

We must be open to the many ways people find Jesus, especially the ways that people different from us find Jesus. The Feast of the Epiphany commemorates the manifestation of Jesus to the peoples of the earth. Just as every human culture is unique and different, the ways in which different cultures find and understand Jesus will be different, too. We cannot predict or assume how the diverse cultures within our own communities will find Jesus. We must be open to all the ways the Spirit leads people to our Savior, Jesus Christ.

The vision John sees in his Revelation contains all the diversity of the human species: “And there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” They are all worshipping Jesus, celebrating the new life they have found in him. Like the wise men who watched the star stop over Jesus and were overwhelmed with joy, the people in John’s vision are overwhelmed with joy in the presence of God.

Today, we are a community of people from many different backgrounds and places, gathered in the presence of Jesus. This itself is a miracle. This means that there is hope for a better world. This means the good news that Jesus died and rose again is a story for everyone, no matter how far they have come to find him. So, rejoice today that the wise men followed the star and found Jesus. Rejoice today because we found him, too.

David W. Peters is the author of Death Letter: God, Sex, and War (Tactical 16) and Post-Traumatic God: How the Church Cares for People Who Have Been to Hell and Back (Church Publishing). He currently serves as the Vicar of the Pflugerville, Texas, Church Plant in the Diocese of Texas. Find him on Twitter @dvdpeters.

Download the sermon for Epiphany.

After Eight Days, Holy Name Day – January 1, 2019


[RCL]: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

 “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” – Luke 2:21

January 1, the Feast of the Holy Name, is a day when we encounter an interweaving of spiritual traditions: a mystical attachment to the importance of dreams, Jewish tradition and practice, the Christian emphasis on Jesus as fully human and fully divine, and themes of redemption and the power of God’s name. Not to mention the secular customs of New Year’s greeting and resolutions, a cleansing and a hopeful new start.

Let’s go back to Nazareth, to the scene of the Annunciation, where the angel reveals the name of the child Mary is to bear. “The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David” (Luke 1:30-32).

The name Jesus comes from the Greek transcription of the Hebrew name Yeshua or Yehoshuah – Joshua. It means, simply, God saves. A powerful name indeed.

In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph receives a visit from the angel of the Lord, in a passage sometimes called the Annunciation to Joseph. Joseph, learning that his young fiancée is pregnant, and being a kind man, has resolved not to expose her to public disgrace, but to “dismiss her quietly.” The angel appears to Joseph in a dream and reassures him, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her 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” (Matthew 1:20-21).

Clearly, this child’s name, “given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb,” is particularly important, for it names his mission on earth: to save God’s people.

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which is still the authorized version in common use in our Episcopal churches today, observes January 1 as the Feast of the Holy Name. Earlier versions of the Book of Common Prayer, up to and including the 1928 version, observed January 1 as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. In the collect for the Holy Name, we pray to God who gave “the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation.”  The collect for the Circumcision emphasizes circumcision as a sign of obedience to the law of God, in body and in spirit.

Circumcision of Jewish male babies originates in Genesis 17, as a physical sign of God’s covenant with the people of Israel. God promises the faithful, elderly, and childless Abram that he will be fruitful, and the ancestor of nations. God’s covenant is to be with Abram’s offspring down through the generations, and as a sign of the covenant, all male children are to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth. A naming occurs at the establishment of the covenant: Abram is re-named Abraham. Here is the passage from Genesis 17: 3-7:

Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

Circumcision is a tradition that links the Jewish people to Abraham and Isaac. It is a sacred act that binds Jewish families to the multitude of generations who preceded them—and the generations to follow. The eighth day circumcision ceremony, called the bris or brit milah, is also a ceremony when the child is given the blessing of a name. Thus, on the occasion of today’s feast day, Jesus is doubly marked. He is circumcised as a sign of God’s faithfulness to God’s people and of his connection to Abraham and his Jewish ancestors. He is named with a name that expresses his nature as the savior sent from God to redeem God’s people.

The circumstances of Jesus’ bris were likely to be humble. It’s possible that Joseph performed the circumcision himself. Were they still in the stable or had the family moved to more comfortable accommodations? Wherever they were on the eighth day after Jesus’ birth on December 25, the contrast with the naming of a poor baby boy and the name Paul exalts in the letter to the Philippians is as stark as the contrast between the earthiness and physicality of circumcision, and the mystical, divine nature of Jesus’ name. On this day, we are reminded that Christ is fully human and fully divine. Paul’s theology is explicit. In human form, Christ was humble and obedient to the point of death.  At the same time, God

“gave him the name
that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

Since the Holy Name stands as a complete summary of Christ’s nature and God’s mercy, it is particularly powerful as a focus for contemplative prayer. Devotion to the Holy Name began with the apostles and early disciples, as we have seen in the reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. By the Middle Ages, mystics such as Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux encouraged adoration of the Holy Name. In the Eastern Church, the Jesus Prayer dates as far back as the fourth century C.E. It appears in the Orthodox Philokalia as “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.” The prayer is said repeatedly, sometimes with the aid of a prayer rope. The knotted prayer rope is similar to rosary beads, and the practice of saying the rosary is similarly contemplative in its repetition. Anglicans and Episcopalians may use the Holy Name or Jesus Prayer while praying with Anglican prayer beads. We say the Jesus Prayer during the Eucharist when we pray the Agnus Dei: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us,” and the Kyrie Eleison: “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.”

The more you listen for the Holy Name, the more you notice it. Like this, from Psalm 33: 20-21:

Our soul waits for the LORD;
he is our help and our shield.
Indeed, our heart rejoices in him,
for in his holy Name we put our trust.

We pray with the Holy Name in intercessory prayer: “In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.” All of these practices connect us with our wider Christian heritage, as Christ’s circumcision and naming on the eighth day connect us with our Jewish roots.

Let us pray:

Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation. Plant in our hearts the love of Jesus, truly God and truly human, and grant that we may praise and bless your Holy Name with our whole mind, heart, body, and spirit, that we may know your boundless compassion and mercy. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.

Susan Butterworth, M.A., M.Div, is a writer, teacher, singer, and lay minister. She leads Song & Stillness: Taizé @ MIT, a weekly ecumenical service of contemplative Taizé prayer at the interfaith chapel at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She teaches writing and literature to college undergraduates and writes book reviews, essays, and literary reference articles.

Download the sermon for Holy Name Day.

A Tent Among Us, Christmas 1 – December 30, 2018


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

In today’s Gospel, St. John uses a fascinating image that most of our Bible translations miss. Some of us are accustomed to hearing this majestic and abstract prologue to John’s mystical-leaning Gospel: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” But we aren’t so used to hearing this: “Jesus became flesh and pitched a tent among humanity.” The image of God dwelling among us is beautiful and a bit abstract, maybe even domesticated—but Jesus pitching a tent? Hmm…

This week, our small-town paper has been running a series of articles about the growing population of homeless people. The paper reports, “Word has gotten out beyond our kith and kin” about a local storefront ministry that serves hot breakfasts and lunches seven days a week, as well as a 90-day transitional housing program. Folk are coming here, pitching tents on vacant lots, and trying to get enough food and respect to survive another day. Predictably, town fathers and mothers, as well as non-profit donors, fear that we won’t have the resources to provide care for them. Right now, the idea of anyone pitching a tent in our town—except for scouts in the backyard—is viewed suspiciously.

Recently, I heard a friend talk about pitching a tent in a very different context when she attended a Woodstock-like music festival called Bonnaroo. She recalled pitching her tent in a sea of thousands of other tents. One day, exhausted and exasperated by the constant stimulation, she went into her tent and had a miniature breakdown: she complained (loudly) that she was tired of the noise, the humidity, and the smiling strangers everywhere she looked. When her temper-tantrum ended, and she emerged from the tent, she realized with great embarrassment that all her “neighbors” had borne witness to her discontent.

The idea of God Almighty pitching a tent among us temper-tantrum prone, smelly, needy, and shame-filled human beings is quite shocking. This earthy image is such a contrast to the more central metaphor for Jesus at the beginning of John’s gospel, the logos, translated as the Word. Logos connotes order, rationality, an “operating system” designed by a masterful creator. But St. John doesn’t allow us to indulge our de-personalizing tendency when it comes to relating to God. Instead, he brings us back down to the gritty reality of the Incarnation by juxtaposing the logos with tent-camping among humankind.

In fact, I think many of us might recoil a bit at the idea of the Christ showing up in our backyard and asking us to pitch our tent right next to his.

Why might we be reluctant to go camping with Jesus?

First, I bet most of us wouldn’t want to be exposed; every conversation can be overheard, not to mention the snoring and that annoying zip-sound in the middle of the night when a fellow camper needs to relieve him or herself. Not to mention the shadows on the side of the tents revealing the silhouette of our actual lumpy, unruly flesh.

And secondly, tents are always a bit dirty, no matter how stringent you are about keeping your shoes outside.

Dirtiness and exposure. So much for putting on our Sunday best to meet Jesus! So much for the obsessive nature of reputation-management that consciously or unconsciously drives how we present ourselves on social media.

But you know, our aversion to tent-pitching God is about something more than our desire to “look good” for God. Our deeper fear is being known by Jesus, inside and out. Of, in a phrase, personal intimacy.

Intimacy is in trouble these days. A recent cover story for The Atlantic explored the steady delay and decline in intimate relationships (not just marriage) among younger people. We live in an age and culture where self-sufficiency and independence are upheld as attainable goals. If you lack a cup of sugar, don’t bother your neighbors, just run to Wal-Mart. Don’t know how to fix something? Pull up a video on YouTube on your private smartphone. And if that fails, just call a serviceman. Need a ride to the airport? Don’t ask a friend for a favor (who wants to be indebted?), just text Uber for quick service, requiring only your credit card and small-talk, not meaningful conversation.

Genuine intimacy means that we’ll be exposed, flabby flesh, anxious ruminations, perfectionist tendencies, short-tempers, and all. And more and more of us, in the United States anyway, say, “No, thank you. I’ll take care of myself.” And then, even when we can’t, many of us prefer to pay a professional to provide for our physical needs.

Later in the same verse, when St. John tells us that the Word, the logos, the Christ, Jesus, has come to pitch his tent among us, he says that we have seen Jesus’ glory—and it is full of grace and truth. Grace and truth. For most of us to even begin to entertain the idea of Jesus pitching a tent in our backyards, much less his Spirit taking up residence in our hearts, as Paul puts it in Galatians, we need the assurance of Christ’s grace—the assurance that God sees us through the lens of mercy and loving-kindness, unconditional love.

And that assurance of God’s grace, of God’s desire to be with us—no matter how much we want to avoid being exposed, being caught with metaphorical dirt under our nails, no matter how much we want to hide because of our shame, our guilt, or just the fact that we are imperfect, never measuring up to the person we’d like to be—that assurance is the greatest gift we can receive. It is the gift of the Incarnation, the gift of Emmanuel – God-with-us.

The invitation for us this Christmas is to accept the gift. And I’m not talking about some sort of formula where we “accept Jesus Christ into our hearts” and are, from thenceforth, “saved.” Accepting the gift of grace, of God-with-us, isn’t a one-time transaction. Rather, it is a lifelong process of growing more comfortable with intimacy, with showing up in the world, showing up for life, “Just as I am,” as the old hymn says. Accepting the gift of grace sometimes means letting go of the demands of the law, the cultural law, anyway, that suggests that dependence or interdependence is anathema to maturity. The law tells us we must always be engaging in some type of self-improvement project to be worthy of another’s affection. The law keeps us from intimacy with ourselves, our spouses, our families, and, of course, the Christ who wants to pitch a tent and come to know and love us as we are, rather than as we want, or even ought to be.

The Incarnation, Christmas, is about Jesus pitching his tent in the messiness of the human condition, coming to understand our struggle, our messiness, our finitude, our sin, our truth, and then redeeming it all by assuring us that we are worthy of being Jesus’ brother, or sister, of being adopted children of God. Emmanuel, God-with-us, full of grace and truth, so full, in fact, that we can’t help but receive that fullness, grace upon grace. God-with-us, so intimately, that in our quiet moments, when we tune down the law, the fear of intimacy, the running from our imperfections, we can hear Jesus’ spirit in our own hearts, crying out, “Abba!” And Abba saying to each of us, “This is my son, my daughter, with whom I am well-pleased.”

Amen.

The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as the Rector of Grace Church in the Mountains, in Waynesville, NC. She has degrees from Davidson College, University of Edinburgh and Episcopal Divinity School. In this phase of life, most of her discretionary time is lovingly devoured by small children. Her two primary spiritual disciplines are child-rearing and sermon-writing, and she is regularly humbled by both.

Download the sermon for Christmas 1.

Beyond Words, Christmas Day (III) – December 25, 2018


[RCL]: Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12); John 1:1-14

Words fail.

Stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Feel the wind rising off the canyon walls. See the light dappling in the crevices of the great chasm. Then try to describe this in words. For those who have stood there for themselves, your experience will bring back their own. But tell of feelings felt so deeply on the edge of the Grand Canyon to someone who has never been outside the confines of the cornfields of Iowa and words alone will fall flat.

A mother holds her newborn baby, seeing for the first time the child that has been growing in her womb. Those perfect hands touch her own. She counts and recounts the ten tiny toes—flesh of her flesh. We only have the power to evoke the faintest shadow of the vast ocean of emotions felt by the Virgin Mary as she held Jesus. Yes, words are powerful and can be life-changing, but some moments in life are beyond the power of language to contain.

One can craft tasty sentences that amuse, arouse, or anger. Yet language falls short of the breadth of human experience. Wittgenstein studied language deeply as an important philosopher of the last century and he found that words are not up to a task so simple as describing the aroma of a cup of coffee. He noted that if we can’t describe a cup of coffee, how much more difficult is it to portray God with words.

Yet portraying God with words is the task of scripture. Inspired by God, the Bible’s authors gave us moving passages of great depth of meaning, knowing that God is still beyond words. With soaring language, John’s Gospel begins with a poetic passage placing Jesus in eternal context:

“In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.”

On this Christmas Day, John takes us back to the beginning: the “In the beginning” of the Book of Genesis. He reminds us that the story of Jesus started before the world began, when the spirit of God hovered over the waters in creation as chaos swirled into order. There before the story of humanity was Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word of God creating the world.

John uses poetry to point to the triune God beyond all language. In doing so, John uses words laden with meaning. He calls Jesus the “Logos,” a word from Greek philosophy, which meant much more than the basic unit of a sentence. Logos is the idea or concept behind the words of language. The Logos is the eternal pattern, the perfect ideal the word tries to express. So, the word “square” means a shape equal on all sides. Even if we can never draw a perfect square, the word square still refers to that perfection. Jesus is that perfect Word, that Logos.

John also tells us that this perfect Word dwelled among us using a word that literally means “pitched a tent in our midst.” For Jews, this would naturally bring to mind the idea of the tent where God’s glory dwelt with Israel during the Exodus from Egypt. This was the same glory of God that dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. The poetic words, “God pitched his tent among us,” say that in the same way that the very glory of God present to the Hebrews in the Exodus and the Jews of the first century in the Temple is present in Jesus. In dwelling among us, however, Jesus is out among the people, rather than contained within the Temple.

In this poetic way, John pointed to so much more than he said. For the Temple was the nexus—the meeting place—of God and humanity on earth. Jesus becomes that place of connection between God and humanity. In Jesus, the glory of God became visible on earth.

This prologue then sets us up for all that follows. When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well and he accepts her, showing her the loving care others did not, we see the heart of God lived out on earth. Again and again, in John’s Gospel, we see signs that point to Jesus being God among us. In his life, as well as in his teaching, Jesus reveals more about God than we could learn otherwise.

I could go on showing these connections, but John’s Gospel does it so well in two verses. In verse 18, which is just beyond our reading for today, John writes, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Then at the end of chapter 20, John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

While all the words in the world could not contain the Word made human in Jesus, the words John chose are written so that we might believe and have life. John knew God’s own glory had pitched his tent among us in a stable in Bethlehem. Then God gave the Holy Spirit as a first gift to those who come to believe. The Jesus who was the Word made flesh would always be present with those who heard John’s Gospel. This is why Christians have always emphasized reading scripture, as the words convey God’s own heart.

In sharing The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus Centered Life, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has offered this church patterns which have nourished Christians for centuries. Captured in the words Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, and Rest, are practices proven to move one over time toward a life more like Jesus. Learn is reflecting on Scripture each day, especially on Jesus’ life and teachings. There are many ways to live into this practice and each makes the eternal Word Jesus more present through the words of the Bible.

The same Holy Spirit who inspired John’s Gospel inspires you as you read and reflect on scripture. It is that inspiration for the reader as well as the author that makes the Bible more than words on a page.

The God whose presence dwelt in fullness in Jesus of Nazareth is also fully present in your heart and here in our worship in both Word and Sacrament. Jesus was present in our readings and as we come forward to receive the Eucharist, our triune God present in creation is here with you.

If you have never stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon, my words would fail to convey that experience. You may never be that mother first laying eyes on the child that has been forming inside her, so my words could fail to explain the depth of feeling. Words fail to convey the presence of God in your life, but God’s presence is every bit as real, and even more vital, than all those experiences in your life that are beyond words.

While words can and will fail, Jesus, the eternal Word of God, never fails. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia and a member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church. Frank blogs on church development topics at loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for Christmas Day (III).

O Come All Ye Faithful, Bored and Irritated, Christmas Day (II) – December 25, 2018


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

Why are we here today?

That’s actually a more complex question than we might think. Many of us are here out of habit and/or tradition. We’re here either because we come to this church every Sunday and Christmas Day is part of the deal, or we’re here because we simply always go to church on Christmas and Easter.

We might be here because our parents made us come, or we might be here for the sake of the children or grandchildren. We might be here to sing favorite carols and see the greenery and just generally feel festive. Every one of those reasons is a fine and good reason to be in church today.

But there might just be another reason working in the background, whether we realize it or not.

Think about the people who were at the first Christmas. Mary was there because she literally had no other choice. Biology took over at that point and she was obviously present at the birth of her child. Joseph was there because he loved his fiancée and wanted to do right by her and take care of her. The sheep and camels were there because their stable had been invaded by this couple who could find no room at the inn. And the shepherds were there probably out of curiosity, to find out if their vision of the angelic host was real or just a result of being oxygen deprived in the thin air way up on the hillsides with their sheep.

And the fact that they were in Bethlehem was not on purpose either. Mary and Joseph would probably have wanted to have the baby at home in Nazareth where they had friends and family to help them. They were only in Bethlehem because they had to go there for the census ordered by the emperor. Perhaps it was an equally strange mix of seemingly meaningless circumstances that brought you here today.

The old Christmas hymn, Adeste Fideles, calls all of us to this moment. “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” We hope to feel joyful and triumphant on Christmas. Mary likely felt joyful and triumphant after just going through labor with no family or friends to help her and successfully delivering a healthy baby boy.

But it’s okay if you’re not feeling joyful and triumphant. O come, all ye faithful, bored and irritated. O come, all ye faithful, exhausted and worried. O come, all ye faithful, cynical and angry. O come, all ye faithful, heartbroken and grieving.

Simply come, all ye faithful, no matter what you’re feeling.

No doubt Joseph and the shepherds had mixed feelings as they entered the stable. But once they gazed on the face of the Christ Child, the Baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, everything changed. Whatever reason had brought them to this moment no longer mattered, and all of their complex, self-directed emotions faded to simple awe. When they saw him, their hearts cried out to do only one thing: fall to their knees and adore him.

What does it mean to adore someone?

It’s a term that we use lightly all the time to express admiration and love for someone: “Oh, I just adore her, she’s wonderful.”

The term “adore” is actually used very sparingly in the Bible. There are a variety of words used in relationship to worship: praise, glorify, rejoice. But adoration only happens in circumstances when people feel their smallness and imperfection in the face of the greatness and perfection of God. But rather than the people feeling bad about how small and imperfect they are, they are instead completely taken outside of themselves and enraptured and lost in the love and wonder of God.

Most of us probably do an okay amount of praising God, and we sure do a whole lot of petitioning God, asking God to fulfill our wishes and plans. But how often do we adore God? How often do we let go of our own agendas completely because we can’t help it, because we are so overwhelmed by the goodness and love of God streaming over and through us? Maybe not often enough.

There’s something in us that resists adoration. With praise and petition and even rejoicing and glorifying, we’re still in control. We’re generating action toward God based on our evaluation of God’s goodness and what we want to get out of it.

But to adore God is something else. Adoration means we are brought to our knees by the grace we’re experiencing, and it’s no longer about us. For once, we have forgotten our needs and our wants, and simply bask in how very good God is.

But if we find it hard to adore God in God’s majesty and greatness, it seems even less likely that we will want to go to our knees in a dusty, dirty stable for a newborn baby in a manger. There’s nothing awe-inspiring about a helpless baby. What has a baby done to impress me? What can a baby do to answer my prayers?

But even as we’re thinking these thoughts, we suddenly do stumble to our knees. God could have come to earth in any giant, majestic, theatrical way God wanted to. God could have shown up with lights painted across the sky and trumpets and fireworks and earthquakes. But God came as a child. God sent God’s beloved and only son as the most vulnerable and fragile creature imaginable: a human baby.

And that is what strikes us dumb and finally, finally takes our focus off ourselves and our needs. The raw power and depth of love that God must have for us to send Jesus to us this way when something terrible could so easily have happened is humbling. Think about how astronomically high the rate of infant mortality was in those days. Cold, exposure, infection, injury—a thousand things could have gone wrong in the first hours, not to mention the days and weeks and months to come, days and weeks and months in which Jesus had nothing to protect him, no modern medicine, no safe shelter, nothing but love.

The courage of that love, to come to earth as a fragile human baby and risk it all for us in this obscure and humble place—suddenly there is nothing we want to do more than go to our knees at the manger and adore him. The fragile courage of this small child awakens a similar fragile courage within us, to kneel down and open ourselves completely to this love, to let go, to adore.

Jesus had no protection from the many dangers that could harm him as a human baby, and he has no protection from the coldness of our cynicism and indifference. But the love and promise that he radiates emit a light brighter than the star shining overhead, a light that can melt the cold shield of ice we have wrapped around our hearts to protect ourselves from the intensity of pain and joy that comes with loving.

So we the faithful have come as we were called. Joyful and triumphant, bored and irritated, cynical and angry, exhausted and worried, or grieving and heartbroken, we have come.

Maybe we expected to drift off into daydreams during church, or ask God for something special in our stockings, or simply relax and have a good time with friends and family, and all of those things are fine to do. Maybe we came here worrying that we would have to hide the fact that we are afraid that we are the only ones that sometimes can neither see nor feel the magic of Christmas.

But as we approach the manger and see that God has had the courage to risk it all for us, out of the sheer depth and passion of God’s love for us, let us answer that courage with a courage of our own. Let us answer with the courage to let go of our agendas and our needs, kneeling at the manger and gazing into the face of love, fragile in form but stronger than steel in intent.

O come, all ye faithful. O come, let us adore him. 

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest, recently named an Evangelism Catalyst for the Diocese of Indianapolis, who currently serves at St. Francis In-The-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. She has contributed to Lectionary Homiletics, the Young Clergy Women’s Project journal Fidelia’s Sisters, and other publications. She is a researcher and community ministry grant consultant for the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, and a founding partner in the newly-forming women’s spirituality collective The Hive (www.thehiveapiary.com). Find more of her work at her website Roof Crashers & Hem Grabbers (www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com).

Download the sermon for Christmas Day (II).

Christmas Is a Choice, Christmas Day (I) – December 25, 2018


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

Christmas is not an event. Christmas is not a holiday. Christmas is not a church service.

Christmas is not a set of familiar carols or decorations of red and green or a jolly man in a red suit with eight tiny reindeer. Christmas is not an occasion or a party or a festival. It is not a piece of history or time off work or a gathering with family.

All of these things are connected to Christmas, but fundamentally, Christmas is not an event.

Christmas is a choice.

Mary didn’t have a choice about being on the road when she went into labor. Joseph had to register for the census and that meant traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Joseph didn’t have a choice about the fact that this child was not biologically his own. It was a done deal by the time he found out about it. Neither of them had a choice about the fact that Jesus would be born in a stable. There was no room at the inn, so it was either the barn or a ditch by the side of the road.

They were made vulnerable by their circumstances: vulnerable to gossip about Jesus’ parentage, vulnerable to physical pain and danger in Mary’s case, vulnerable to a feeling of failing to provide for his family in Joseph’s case.

The shepherds didn’t have a choice about being out in the fields with their sheep in the dark and the cold. The sheep needed tending and guarding, and the sheep were the shepherds’ livelihood, their means of economic survival. The shepherds were vulnerable to the weather and the terrain. They also didn’t have a choice about the visiting angels. The heavenly host descended on them out of nowhere, and suddenly Glorias were filling the air. They were terrified, and had no defense against their fear.

As you think about your life this year, where do you feel like you didn’t have a choice? It’s likely that many things come to mind. You don’t have a choice about the Alzheimer’s or dementia that has taken over not just the life of your spouse or parent, but your life as well. You don’t have a choice about the heart attack or cancer that took away a loved one all too soon. You don’t have a choice about the job you hate or the job you lost or the job you can’t get. You don’t have a choice about your own struggles with food or relationships or sleep or alcohol, the fight to make good choices that you seem to lose over and over.

And so, we come to Christmas. And Christmas is all about God giving us a choice.

God places the power in our hands. God comes into the raging inferno of our insane world and says to us, “Do you want me? Will you allow me to be born among you? Will you accept this tiny infant as your savior and your friend and your hope?”

And we’re free to say no. Because underneath that choice is another choice, and that is the true choice of Christmas.

We have to choose to be vulnerable to joy. Vulnerable to joy? That doesn’t seem to be much of a choice. Who doesn’t want to experience joy?

Well, it’s more complicated than that. Despair and cynicism and even hatred are actually the paths of least resistance. When something offends us or frightens us, the easiest response is to lash out in anger and vicious self-defense. And with the difficult situations in our lives compounded by the conflicts in our society, our walls are very, very high right now. We will not be caught defenseless. We will not be left unaware. We will not be caught off guard, made to look foolish, victims of a surprise attack. Our fear almost makes us seek out darkness everywhere we go, if only to justify the walls we’ve built around our hearts.

And how does God answer our minds and hearts and communities bristling with self-defense so aggressive that it actually seems to be offense?

God gives Godself to us in the most vulnerable form possible: a fragile human baby.

And how could we respond with anything but joy?

Joy is surprisingly difficult to let ourselves feel fully. We hedge our joy. We celebrate and give thanks, but in the back of our minds, there is the knowledge that this goodness could be lost in a moment, that it will probably all turn bad in the future, that even this light does not erase the darkness in our lives. We hedge our joy, unwilling to let go those last shreds of defended self-consciousness, the final walls that protect us from being utterly vulnerable, able to be hurt.

That is why true joy requires vulnerability. We have to set down our weapons, take off our armor, lay aside our power and control, in order to even see the infant Christ in each other, much less kneel and adore him. It is a terrifying prospect.

But the choice of Christmas that we make is in answer to the choice that God made, the choice to come to us fragile, undefended, vulnerable, utterly reliant on us humans for his survival in the world. And God took joy in giving Godself to us in this way. So if we can take the same risk that God did, we can feel the same joy God feels. Light meets light, joy touches joy, and the darkness itself bows in awe at the radiance that shines out of the fragile infant Christ.

And what happens when we do take off the armor? What happens when we stop trying to be right all the time, safe all the time, in control all the time? What happens when we let the light radiating from that small face in the manger penetrate our hearts?

Oh, it is so beautiful. You may laugh. You may cry. You may laugh through your tears and cry in your laughter. Joy is deeper than happiness or celebration or giddy exuberance. Joy is a force that knocks down all the walls around our hearts and levels us with the goodness, the grace, the unearned and unending love and healing that is our newly arrived Jesus.

Joy remakes us, tears down our cynical and fearful identities and gives birth to a self that is trusting, patient, believing, knowing that all will be well and all manner of things will be well. Joy is the reward of the long nurtured faith that got us here. Joy is a quiet and lasting foundation that endures while the currents of happiness and grief wash back and forth over the surface of our hearts.

Joy is the first breath the resurrected Christ takes in the tomb on Easter morning. It is the breath behind the healing words he speaks to you when you clutch at the hem of his robe. It is the quiet, sweet breaths of the sleeping baby in the manger as we look on, feeling our hearts overflow. The joy of Christ becomes our own breath, and if we surrender this far to grace, we could no more choose not to live in him than we could choose not to breathe.

That is what awaits us behind the choice of Christmas. That is what being vulnerable to joy feels like. That is what joy can do to us if we let it—if we have the courage to let go into the miracle.

It’s all up to us. What choice will you make?

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest, recently named an Evangelism Catalyst for the Diocese of Indianapolis, who currently serves at St. Francis In-The-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. She has contributed to Lectionary Homiletics, the Young Clergy Women’s Project journal Fidelia’s Sisters, and other publications. She is a researcher and community ministry grant consultant for the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, and a founding partner in the newly-forming women’s spirituality collective The Hive (www.thehiveapiary.com). Find more of her work at her website Roof Crashers & Hem Grabbers (www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com).

Download the sermon for Christmas Day (I).

A Song of Hope, Advent 4 (C) – December 23, 2018


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

Liturgical seasons are worthwhile because they reflect the rhythm of life itself. Advent reflects seasons of our lives that are filled with hope and anticipation. We often associate these with happy times: waiting for a wedding, waiting for a baby to be born, or waiting for the arrival of a loved one who has been away for a long time.

But the first Christmas wasn’t exactly happy and bright, and the readings of Advent itself aren’t particularly happy, either. Advent speaks of awaiting God’s help in the midst of desperation, reminding us that we can find echoes of Advent as clearly in the homeless shelter as in the maternity ward.

Advent calls to us in the midst of the weight on our shoulders, and it speaks hope. As we watch the news and see the pain in the world, we are faced with our own powerlessness. As snow and ice and cold weigh down the landscape of many northern climes, we too feel weighed down: by our ever-extending holiday to-do lists, by the suffering in the world, and by our own personal struggles.

Advent is here to remind us that we cannot save ourselves, but that there is yet hope.

Today, with four candles lit, the Song of Mary soars through the Gospel reading and into our hearts again, as it does every year.

Mary, the unwed mother, the fiancé of a poor carpenter. Mary, who knows depths of desperation that many of us will never have to know. Mary, who felt herself powerless but sang to God who was about to save the whole world.

We often think of Mary as gentle and meek, but today, Mary is brave and bold, singing loud and strong.

Everything — the very shape of human history — is about to change.

The new dawn is on the way, and Mary sings out to greet it. The weight lessens; hope is born.

In the first installment of the three-part series The Hunger Games, there is a scene in the movie that is not in the book, but it well sums up the trilogy’s theme. President Snow, the dictator of the dystopian, futuristic country of Panem, is walking in his rose garden with the chief “game maker,” Seneca Crane. Crane is the man responsible for creating a game that pits young people from the twelve districts of Panem against one another in a highly publicized fight to the death each year. The winner of the Hunger Games is then held up as a brave, strong hero that represents the spirit of Panem.

President Snow asks Seneca Crane why the games must have a winner. If the Capitol simply wanted to show its power and to instill fear and control, he says, why not simply execute people? Why the games? Why a winner?

Seneca Crane does not understand. He stares back, confused.

“Hope,” President Snow says simply. “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.”

A little hope, says Snow, would allow the games to entertain the people and would allow them to have a hero to root for, while also keeping the Capitol firmly in control. A lot of hope would topple Snow’s oppressive regime entirely. The books and movies, as you either know or can probably guess, are about that spark not being contained. The second installment of the story is called Catching Fire as hope — a lot of hope — is revived in the country of Panem.

Hope is more than mere optimism. A lot of hope can shake the foundations of everything that weighs us down. A lot of hope can change the course of history.

For Mary’s part, she doesn’t initially greet the news of her pregnancy with her soaring song and blazing hope. When Luke’s Gospel first introduces us to Mary, she is more like the traditional image of Mary — young, meek, seemingly timid, but ultimately faithful. When the angel tells her the news, she consents, but she’s not singing yet.

As she’s absorbing the news from the angel Gabriel that she will conceive and bear a child, he tells her, perhaps to console her: Elizabeth, your relative, is pregnant too, even in her old age!

Gabriel doesn’t actually tell Mary to go to Elizabeth, but Luke says she still “made haste” to go to the Judean town in the hill country to see her.

Mary wants to be near someone who understands. Elizabeth is also pregnant by a miracle. Elizabeth, Mary knows, won’t think she’s crazy. And here, with another human being who understands that God works in really weird and unexpected and direct ways, Mary is able to find the courage to sing her song of hope. Not ordinary optimism, but great hope. The kind that catches fire. The kind that sings loud.

Today, Mary sings as she invites us into the vulnerable territory of daring to hope big. Optimism looks behind us to find comfort in what we’ve experienced before. Hope — the big, world-shaking, musical hope of Mary — looks ahead, knowing that we cannot imagine what God is able to do.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with optimism. Optimism hopes for good fortune, for fun with friends and family during the holidays, for a blessed and happy new year, and for love and warmth to surround us. There is nothing wrong with a little optimistic Advent cheer.

But if you have experienced the depths of despair, if you have seen the pain that exists in the world, you know that optimism is not enough on its own. It is too difficult to sustain. The world is too broken, too violent, and too divided, and we alone cannot fix it. Our one spark of hope is that God has spoken and told us that someday, all things — all things — from our personal struggles to the weight of the world’s pain, shall be made right. That hope is why Mary sings.

Today, the Gospel story invites us, like Mary, to seek out others in order to find our song of hope. It wasn’t until Mary was with Elizabeth in the Judean hills that her hope burst into song. And maybe, whether we know it or not, that’s what we’ve done today, too. We have made haste to seek one another out, to gather together so that we, too, can sing songs of hope.

Our song is one of extraordinary hope. Hope that has seen the broken and divided state of the world and knows that it cannot afford to hope too small because we cannot repair the world on our own. Only God can, and only God will. In the meantime, we are called to make our corner of the world that God so loves a less divided, more trustworthy, more hopeful place. We are called to sing.

The best part about Mary’s song of hope is that it is never hope unfulfilled. Every year, we remember her bold song to remind ourselves that God has already broken through. Even in the darkness, even in the deepest disappointments, even when we are betrayed, and even when the world looks most broken, we keep this crazy hope alive that God has and God will break through. And today, we make haste to find each other to sing that hope again, to fan that spark into flame again.

The Reverend Joseph Peters-Mathews, an Episcopal priest in Washington State, puts it this way: “That’s why I love Advent … Jesus never doesn’t get born. We long, hope, wait, anticipate, and we are never let down at the last minute.” Every year, Christmas always arrives. Even if we are exhausted or brokenhearted, the Light of Christ always comes to the Church. Always. The final candle is always lit.

Advent and Christmas are here every year to remind us that God has already broken through. Despite the world’s pain, the dawn is well on the way.

And that is why Mary finds Elizabeth and sings her heart out. So, let us today find one another and sing our hearts out to the God who breaks through, who sustains our lives, and who dares us to hope big — and beckons us to sing loud. Amen. 

The Rev. Anna Tew is a Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta home, and lives in and adores New England. She has worked in a variety of ministry settings, urban and rural, both in the parish and in hospital chaplaincy. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics.

Download the sermon for Advent 4 (C).

What Should We Do?, Advent 3 (C) – December 16, 2018


[RCL]: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, traditionally called Gaudete – or Rejoice – Sunday. It comes from today’s lesson from the Letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”

In the other two lessons, the prophet Zephaniah also calls for shouts of joy: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” It is because the King of Israel is in her midst. The prophet Isaiah also tells people to rejoice and sing the praises of the Lord, “for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.”

Advent is a season of waiting, expectation, and preparation for the coming of the Lord. We know that Jesus the Christ will be born very soon. We certainly need to rejoice.

However, in the Gospel reading, there comes the straight-talking prophet, John the Baptist. He is yelling at those who came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers!” It does not sound like he is rejoicing, though. What has caused John to call others vipers?

After this outburst, John continues his theme of repentance. He tells the crowd not to take for granted their status as children of Abraham as a guarantee of salvation. He tells them they need to bear fruits from repentance. He warns them that an ax is waiting by the roots of the tree, should no fruit be borne. It is not who they are or who their ancestor was, it is what they do that is most important.

One might have thought that those who came and were yelled at would turn around and leave. Nevertheless, they did not leave John. John may sound harsh to us, but people probably felt his sincerity, his telling the truth with love, and his concern for the people.

There is a joke that people like to go to Episcopal churches because there is absolution of sins every Sunday. They say that people can do whatever they like and sin during the weekdays and be absolved every Sunday. Is that what confession and absolution are about? Only doing lip service? It is probably these kinds of people that caused John to call them a brood of vipers. In the confession, people say, “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.”

We are truly sorry and humbly repent. This is a confession from the heart. It is not lip service; it is not just showing up and reciting the Confession of Sin.

These people not only do not leave, but rather they stay and ask John for an alternative: “What then should we do?” — a true wish to repent, to get into action so as to turn from their old ways of life. John the Baptist knows the Messiah is coming soon. He feels the urgency, he wants people to be prepared and to bear fruit. He gives them advice.

John’s advice to the crowd is much easier than Jesus’. John tells people to share what they have—an easier task than when Jesus tells the young man to sell all he owns. John says if they have two coats, share. If they have food, share. In other words, care for others who have less than they do.

Then come the tax collectors. They too ask, “What should we do?” At that time, the tax collectors were mostly Jews hired by the Romans; these collectors were paid a portion of whatever they collected, so they tended to collect more than was required from the people. John tells them to be fair and not to collect more than they should.

Here comes the third group, the soldiers, probably Roman. They ask the same: “What should we do?” This time, John tells them not to exploit people or make false accusations. That is, they should live with integrity and honor.

This passage shows the diversity of the group. The crowd seems to represent the Jews who have enough; the tax collectors, the outcasts; and the soldiers, the gentiles. They all seek to change their lives. Even though John is harsh in the beginning, he gives advice to them all. John’s advice is not dramatic, he just asks them to turn from what they are doing their own way, and instead to start doing things the right way—God’s way.

The people want to change and are waiting for their Messiah to come. With John’s urgent teaching, they suspect him to be that Messiah, but he knows his call is to clear the way for the real one to come. John is to introduce the coming of Jesus, guiding people to see God’s way. He tells the people that the Messiah, the Christ, is coming with the Holy Spirit and fire. Jesus the Christ will come with the power and great might of God to be among us. The great fire is to cleanse us from our wrongdoings.

John the Baptist is teaching us to care for those in need, to seek justice, and to have integrity. Actually, those are part of what following Jesus the Christ is about. With true repentance to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, rejoice!

John the Baptist is preaching in the wilderness, a place where one may get lost, a barren place that seems to have no life or hope. Wilderness is a good metaphor for us right now. We are in a world bombarded by media, especially social media. We are certainly bewildered by news and fake news, truth and alternate truth. There seems to be no peace in the world. Natural disasters seem to be occurring more often than usual. Hope seems to be dwindling in the world.

We Christians need to ask a question: “What should we do?”

We should carry the prophetic voice of John the Baptist, calling out to the brood of vipers for true repentance. We should change our way of life. The gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” is increasing in society; are we willing to share with those with less? Or are we to continue taking more from others who are already struggling to fill their pockets? Are we to continue to benefit ourselves? Are we to elevate our status at the expense of hurting others? Are we to offer false accusations by telling half-truths or even totally lying? Are we willing to call out ourselves and those who do these things?

John the Baptist has given us the direction to be prepared for the coming of Christ. Are we willing to turn around? Are we courageous enough to hear and heed his prophetic voice?

The third Sunday of Advent is also called Stir-Up Sunday because today’s collect says, “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.” May God the Almighty with the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit also stir up our hearts to truly repent and to follow Christ. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Ada Wong Nagata is priest-in-charge and director of Ah Foo Jubilee Community Center at Church of Our Savior, Manhattan, a bilingual congregation with English and Cantonese in Chinatown, New York. She is a board member of Li Tim-Oi Center, an Asian Ministry Center of the Episcopal Church based in the Diocese of Los Angeles, and honorary canon of the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, Diocese of Los Angeles. Ada earned her Doctor of Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School in 2015. She served as Convener of the Chinese Convocation of Episcopal Asiamerican Ministries (EAM) from 2009-2016. Ada loves hiking and meditative walk.

Download the sermon for Advent 3 (C).