I want to focus today on Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth. And just a reminder that when we hear Paul speaking to this particular congregation, we should also hear Paul speaking to us here at St. Matthias. That’s how God works. He definitely gave words to Paul to speak to a particular time and place and context, but God’s word extends well beyond that particular place and time and so even to us today. How so, because we have been made members of this same body, the Church, through Jesus Christ. So what Paul says to the Corinthians, he says to us too.
So what does God have to say to us through his servant Paul? Well, here we go:
3:1 And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh.” Ouch. What does Paul mean here that this Christian body is still ‘of the flesh?’
This is what Paul says: “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” So quite literally, Paul is looking at the behavior of these Corinthian followers of Jesus – these folks like you and I who have been baptized into Christ and brought into his body which we call the Church – and he says look you’re behaving in ways that suggest you are setting your goals in accordance with the ways of this corrupt world rather than with the ways Jesus lived and showed to you. So what exactly does Paul mean.
He’s called out jealousy and quarrelling as particularly problematic in the Corinthian community and I’ll bet that all of us have had this same sort of experience. Jealousy gets acted out in a whole variety of ways from gossip to intentionally tearing another person down so you can appear to be better than them or at least better than you really are.
Because of course underneath jealousy is our feeling of insecurity and lack of value and worth. We are jealous of another because we feel they make us less valuable, or less worthy to other people. But when we act out of jealousy in a community of people, we end up not just hurting others by tearing them down, but we create an environment where those hearing our acting out either come not to trust us – so we hurt ourselves – or come not to trust the whole environment of the Church, and so they withdraw or leave altogether.
This jealousy Jesus calls out as problematic in the Gospels when he says, my friends, the least of you will be first. That is, those who refrain from acting out of jealousy – which often manifests as the need to appear first, better than, more than, whatever the cost to others – will be most open to grace and so receive it and so receive the kingdom of God. You who do this will be most capable and so also my best witnesses for you will show me instead of your own jealousy and insecurity to the world.
And of course usually where we see jealousy – insecurity about who we are and what value we have in God’s kingdom – we also see quarrelling. And where quarrelling exists, it is hard for anyone to see Jesus Christ as the one whom quarrelers worship. Think for a moment about the story of the brothers Cain and Abel. Both Cain and Abel are going about their business of being the people of God, worshipping and offering to God through their labor. God accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. Cain is angry, he is deeply jealous of Abel. So he says to Abel, ‘let’s go to work for God, let’s go out to the field,’ let’s get together and do work in the church … and when they’re doing their work for God, Cain rises up and kills Abel. But of course God sees this and says, “Cain, your jealousy will be your curse; your quarrel with your brother has destroyed your own capacity to work for me, the Lord.”
God will end up providing for Cain nonetheless, but the consequence of Cain’s jealousy and quarrelling remain to us this day a sign of tainted fruit; an unproductive fruit tree; to have one’s work burned up and to thereby suffer loss and so saved, as Paul says in the verses just beyond those we read today, “only as through fire.” In other words, it is not that your works will necessarily lead to your damnation – for God has mercy on his people through the glut of their deepest sins – yet one must know that that mercy comes with the consequence of experiencing Cain’s own consequence: a life saved but only through the refining fire, that, because of his own actions, will bring much personal struggle and suffering.
Jealousy and quarreling then are symptomatic of one’s failure to recognize something essential to faith: we don’t belong to a particular congregation, to a particular Church, to a particular job, to a particular human being. These things DO NOT define who we are. No, my friends: we belong to God through Jesus Christ who draws us ever closer to him in his Holy Spirit. Listen to what Paul says here:
3:4 For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you not merely human? 3:5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 3:6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 3:7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
You see the Corinthians here were doing something the disciples had done with Jesus: they were attempting to secure themselves, to get rid of their fear and anxiety and insecurity by asserting that they belonged to Paul or to Apollos, and so because of this, they possessed the truth and everyone else was wrong. This assertion to have the truth and to be right because they belonged to a particular leader or congregation – Paul or Apollos – led to jealousy and quarrelling with one another, to the point that it blinded them to the actual truth: they belonged first and foremost to Jesus Christ. That all their self-assessment, all their work, all their lives, belonged to God in and through Jesus. To grow as a Christian, and particular as a witness or disciple, one must learn, as Cain had to, to accept this reality. You belong to Jesus Christ. This is who saves you, IN ORDER THAT, you might show his light to the world. And if you’re going to show his light to the world, then you have to choose to live not for your own needs and comforts, not out of fear, not out of insecurity, but out of the confidence that God has accomplished all things for you in Jesus Christ. This goes to your life right here and now: how do each of you, who in just a few minutes will hear the results of our survey, decide to witness to Jesus Christ? Is it out of fear or faith? Is it out of a sense that you ought to be served, or that you are a servant of God? Are you willing to set aside your fears, anxieties, jealousies, and quarrelling for the sake of showing this community to whom you belong? This is the decision before us, just as it has been before every Christian community through time right back to the Corinthians. We belong to God in Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit. We are held, secured, moved, loved, shaped and formed by this reality … are we willing to acknowledge that and step into what might seem scary, worrisome, frustrating, with a sense of faith and hope? Or will we demand that we belong in to a modern day Paul or Apollos?
Last week I talked about what I think all our readings focused on: humility. And then I expanded on our gospel and Epistle lessons to explore what God means by humility. In concise summary, what I think God means by humility is to let go of what we cling to so that we can receive God’s grace and then share that grace, through our particular lives, gifts, and circumstances, with other people. In this way, we show people who Jesus is. That’s why humility is so important: so that we can get ourselves out of the way to show people who God is. It’s not that we’re unimportant. The particular people we are is extremely important or God wouldn’t have made us at all, or in the particular way he did. It’s that who we are has a purpose greater than and ultimately more fulfilling than mere self-fulfillment. What truly fulfils is to use the fullness of who we are to point to the very being and meaning of life: God whom we encounter, see and seek to follow, in Jesus Christ.
This week we hear, most particularly in our OT reading from Isaiah, a specific aspect of exercising humility. God’s message to his people starts as it might for us. Hear these words of God to us:
58:2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.
58:3 "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.
58:4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.
58:5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
Just for a moment think about how we often conceive of being humble. Ironically, it’s often all about us! I remember in seminary everyone talking about how they were going to do some elaborate fasting. It was hilariously emotionally and spiritually immature, like children or unformed disciples saying, ‘I’m first, no I’m first,’ Lord tell me who is the first among us, see how much I fasted today. People made their fasting into a kind of competition of suffering. God will see that I am THE MOST HUMBLE and MOST DESERVING because I’m going to fast the hardest: nothing but mere sips of water through Lent my friends. Surprise surprise when one of my professors pointed out that fasting wasn’t about us and our capacity, but rather about opening up to receive God more fully, so that we could direct our particular gifts to witness and so to caring for and serving others.
What was my professor getting at? God’s rebuke to this false notion of humility that is about securing one’s own sense of security and righteousness. Listen to God’s words: 58:6 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
58:7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” Humility shouldn’t be confused with doing things in order to gain recognition, or notoriety, or acceptance. The true humility, a true fast, is about letting go of the things that push God away, that shield you from his fire, his cleansing, his rebuke, so that when cleared out of your life, you can make space, time, effort, and enduring and persevering commitment to care for others.
Now let me correct a wooden interpretation here. When we hear about the hungry, the poor, the naked, we tend to think only of those who are maybe out on the streets, or who are somehow socio-economically lesser than us. This is literally true, but it is not the whole truth. The whole truth is that every single person, whether rich or poor, in high or low status, every single person can be poor or naked or hungry. How so? For love, hungry for love, for attention, for acceptance. Everyone can be poor. Poor in character, poor in ability to understand, to endure, to persevere, to survive, to sustain mental or physical health. Everyone can be naked. Naked in having been stripped down through abuse, through shame, through crippling anxiety, exposing them in their raw, unclothed state, to the thorns of our cultural demand for endless stamina, productivity, and excellence; a habit that makes so many, though naked, cover themselves with arrogance, anger, hatred, bigotry, alcoholism and drugs.
So yes, absolutely, we are called, as Christians, to make space in our hearts and minds for those who are literally poor, on the streets, who are hungry because they literally don’t have enough carbohydrate and protein to sustain their body weight or they struggle to know where they can get enough from day to day. But we are called to recognize that this is not the limit of what God is saying to us here. God is saying that we must recognize that all of us have and will fallen into this state, and therefore that as we look around this room, this neighborhood, this city, this province, this country, our continent and this world, we are called to see everyone as those in desperate need of God’s grace, of his food, of his water of life, of his body and blood, of his ark, the cross, upon which all human life depends.
It is not enough to put money on the plate for some special cause of poverty, even though we absolutely ought to consider doing this if we can. The widow comes and she gives all that she has, though she has so little. What it is that she gives, what God demands from his people, Israel and Church, you and I, is that we give up clinging to things for security, power and control in this world, so that we can be made catalysts, witnesses, examples, knowers and lovers of God for others to see; so that all those who hunger and thirst, all of those who are lost and desperately seeking, might not be turned away by our wickedness and our selfishness and our self obsession and our entitlement and our grandiosity and our laziness, but turned to God, by our love, by our patience, by our kindness, by our willing to step out of ourselves and our fears and anxieties and hatreds to love our neighbor and our enemy, to give to the other our whole lives, as Jesus gave himself to us.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
58:10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
58:11 The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
58:12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
If you do these things: 58:9a Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. AMEN.
One of the saddest hypocrisies I’ve encountered in Christian life in the academy and in the Church, is the extremely basic and clear overarching demand God has for his people to act with humility and so with love, patience, kindness, self-control, compassion and gentleness, and the all too often boisterous, ego driven striving for power, control, influence, winning, achieving, and lauded work-a-holism lived out by far too many theologians, ordained and laypersons within the Church. To be blunt, this hypocrisy is a turn off to the faith. It makes it appear as if Christians don’t believe what they say about God’s power, God’s timing, God’s ordering and God’s faithfulness, so that their own works appear to be mere human desires with Jesus mentioned to up the ante of legitimacy.
What do I mean here? Well, just a few examples: I’ve seen really famous and well-respected Christians scholars repeatedly (not just one time) speak of other scholars in their own or other fields, with condescension and vitriol. And so while said scholar might make a valid critique of another’s work, that valid critique is lost because of the lack of humility, kindness, and self-control exercised by the critical scholar. Likewise I have encountered bishops who, pressured by high profile priests with power in a diocese, have unfairly condemned a priests with lesser power when that priest calls out some behavior or action of the higher powered priest. I have seen rampant examples, within numerous Christian Churches, of tattling on someone to a third party rather than, as God in Scripture commands, ‘going directly to that person.’
The result, in almost all of these cases, is a loss of trust in relationships and so a loss of capacity to exercise any authority, order or discipline. In other words, what I have seen – over the last fifteen years of being a Christian – are far too many examples of impoverished witness. And I think it is this impoverished witness that, over time, has broken down relationships where people willingly submit and commit themselves to one another. After all, when civil law, or one’s capacity to obtain a position in government, or in business, or in society in general, is no longer dependent upon one’s belonging to a church, why would one willingly submit themselves to a group of people who claim to have this particular God, but whose lives do not take the shape of the one true relationship they purport to proclaim: Christ’s own. Why would someone willingly submit themselves to any relationship, let alone a mere moral rather than civilly enforceable authority, when the life of those to whom you would be joining do not have the humility, kindness, gentleness, patience, and self-control displayed by Christ?
Jesus says today: “5:3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” He does not say, blessed are those who are self-righteous and don’t mind telling everyone what they always think is ‘the right way to do things.’ In fact, Paul says to the Corinthian Church about that today: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” What Paul is echoing in Jesus’s own thought here is not that knowledge and wisdom and debate are bad things at all. What both are driving at is the basic need for humility, patience, listening, hearing, being gentle, and seeking to teach and be taught, when speaking to one another, rather than seeing relationships in the church and in life, as something to win, or as those we’re in relationship with as those to be conquered. To ‘win over’ someone to Jesus Christ isn’t to convince them of your truth; it is rather to give them the time and space, to provide relational structure and even sometimes discipline, to help them to drop their defenses so they can hear and go up to Jesus Christ so that HE can change them.
Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I have sometimes seen Christians treat a death, a funeral, or someone’s suffering, as a personal pulpit opportunity for their own individual niche issue. In fact, I was talking to someone this week – someone seeking pastoral advice – who told me that she trusts few priests because she’s been to several funerals where priests have lambasted those in the congregation for not coming to Church. This is the foolishness of the world because it turns people away from God. It closes off the space the Church, in obedience to God, has created for those who have lost someone, to lament, to cry out, to express their sadness at loss, their recognition of our frailty, and to hear of grace and of our hope for reconciliation and restoration and resurrection in God. Jesus says here: pay attention to the particular context you are in. It is not wrong to express sadness or to lament or cry out in anger or frustration or loss; make space for this so that God might come into that person’s life more deeply to comfort them. And Paul would add, do not use this time of sadness, of emotional breakdown and vulnerability for someone else, to fulfill your agenda.
"Blessed are the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are pure in heart, for they will inherit the earth, and see God.” Too often people have characterized meekness as a kind of passive or weak character trait. This is not what Scripture means by meek. When Jesus is speaking here, what he means is that those who exercise humility will inherit the earth. Those who exercise humility will first listen to, watch for, and wait on God’s presence, his will, his timing. They will, therefore, be slow to anger, quick to listen. The reason they will inherit the earth is quite simple: to exercise humility in relationships is to live into Jesus Christ himself. To exercise self-righteousness, generally born out of fear and ensuing anger, frustration, and learned helplessness, is to live into the flesh, which is dead; which, that is, has no purpose and so must endlessly be refilled by seeking self-affirmation, or consumption.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. The thing is, when one lives with humility, living into the righteousness that Christ displayed for us, our expectations begin to change. Look for example at Paul. Recall how he tells us in the Epistles about his ‘successful career’ as a Jewish leader. He had everything, he was a man of the world and of God, he was strong, powerful, influential and given power and authority by others. Today, he says, and then when Jesus spoke to me through his Spirit, I realized that all the worldly things that I thought should order my life, they are nothing, meaningless, in the Kingdom of God. All the things of this world are just tools of this time to get us through life, but we do not bring these with us when we die, and they do not dictate our life after with God. So they are transient. Cling to them as if they are eternal and you shall live a foolish life. Cling to your power and your authority, cling to ways that harm others and distract them or dissuade them from Christ and you will live a meaningless life, a thwarted life ordered to the death of the flesh. To live the life of Jesus Christ – of humility, of kindness, self control, patience, generosity, etc – this stuff really does look foolish to this world that is perishing. It makes no sense. It can make us look as if we’re suckers, even lazy for not working our fingers to the bone like those rich execs or entrepreneurs of the world, of being patient and filled with self-control where a stronger person might fight, conquer, win, and prove strength and power, and gain a false authority (God has already said is overcome in Christ). The merciful receive mercy because their expectations of what they are owed and what they feel freed to give, what they feel the desire to give, changes. Life is no longer a matter of entitlement and control, but of learning to love and recognizing in that, the mercy of having first received life in the love of God by which that happens.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” When we live with humility, when we seek to live out Christ who is within us and also drawing us to him as we see in Scripture, we come to recognize God’s mercy in our having life at all. From this, we can seek to live righteously because we know by whom we’ve been made, and to whom our lives are to be conformed. This might make us look foolish if we compare how our lives might look to the ways of the world. The ideas of poverty, chastity, self-control, giving for the sake of others, being slow to anger, working to overcome our disagreements and anger or fear or frustration, yeah, that does look foolish – or at least unusual given how we see so much of our world look. But then, I go back to my opening statements: when the Church does not follow this way of Christ’s foolishness, history demonstrates that it repels rather than attracts others. The odd thing about the foolishness of living as Christ himself did for our sakes, is that it is precisely when this self-giving humility takes place, that new life, that followers, that seekers, come knocking. Why? I would suggest it is because this life – Jesus’s own – is the core self, our home, our very being, that every human made in his image seeks. So let us then seek to follow this foolish one into true life. AMEN.
Today we hear Jesus repeat what John had proclaimed before Jesus was born: repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Matthew’s Gospel repeats the prophecy from Isaiah, that the gentiles would see, wake up, and come to know Jesus; they would be enlightened and the figurative darkness, or literal lack of knowledge they had of who God is, would no longer exist. God is near: get yourselves ready to encounter him!
Repent, Jesus says, for the Kingdom of God is near. This isn’t a claim about a place coming near, or at least not a literal place. Rather Jesus is claiming that he – this one who is God – is coming for us and coming to us. He’s in fact taking on who we are, assuming everything we are, so that we are in him and he is in us. It’s kind of a weird thing to think about. But Jesus is saying that this kingdom of heaven that arrives is him and when he comes, he will reestablish relationship with God and between all created things: he will bring about a kingdom that is not of this world. Nope, it’s God’s own desire that he comes into the world in the Person of Jesus Christ, to establish.
The thing this kingdom who comes near – Jesus – asks of us seems pretty simple: repent. What does it mean to repent? Why does Jesus ask us to repent? What is repentance about? (ASK) … Repenting is actually about, as we’ve been discussing, first, coming to know who God is, learning what his desire is for us; and then second, it’s about seeing where our lives – decisions, choices, ways of engaging one another, ways of thinking about situations – isn’t reflecting how God asks us to live with him and one another. So first we have coming to know God, second, we have a step of reflection: am I living in the way God desires me to when I say, interact with my friends, my enemies, when I respond to this or that situation, third, we have the step of moving toward God.
That is, of letting go of the things that keep us knowing God more deeply – maybe this has to do with how we prioritize our time and energy – and that keep us from weighing our lifestyles, our choices, our decisions with him as the focal point of our lives – maybe this has to do with fear of letting go, fear of changing, fear of being challenged, fear of other people, frustration or disagreement with others, etc.
Because the very next thing Jesus says after, ‘repent for the kingdom of God is near’ is: follow me. He goes to two sets of brothers who are fishing – Simon Peter and Andrew and then James and John – and he says to both of them: let go of what you’re doing, drop your nets, let that go, and come and follow me. If you drop what you were holding and follow me, I will recast you: I will make you into who you are supposed to be, ‘fishers of men’, fishers of people. In other words, you’ve got to let go of your stuff so that I can remake you into who I intended you to be: my disciples, witnesses, missionaries, my children who can point other people to me: fishers of people, disciples of Christ, children of God, followers of the way.
Our Gospel reading says, ‘as soon as Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘follow me’, they left their nets and their boats and immediately followed him. As I think I’ve said before, I had this sort of experience upon coming into the Church: God broke through my daily work, my busyness, my rational defenses, he entered into me – my mind and my heart – when I was opened by suffering in my case, and he said, ‘follow me and I will make you a fisher of people.’ Off to church and then to seminary I went. I was highly zealous as were the four brothers here who first followed Jesus.
In fact, I dare say that at one point or another, many who have an awakening from the slumber of this life, to the fullness of God percolating new life in them, follow God with a sudden zeal of intense desire, focus, exclusivity and love. The difficulty, as these same disciples will later reveal, is that that simple phrase Jesus utters, ‘follow me’ which we now affirm requires repentance not just once or twice but over and over, can be as challenging, frightening, confusing, frustrating, as can be a human relationship that moves from childish lust and romance, to commitment through sickness, struggle, disagreement, loss of passion or drive, etc. The gravity of following God is so often lost on us for whom complacency rather than danger is more often a barrier to learning anew, knowing, and following him.
But think, for a moment, about what it has meant for people to follow God: for Job – seeing all lost, family and friends turn on him, yet not straying in his faith, for Peter to whom Jesus will say three times, ‘do you love me, are you following me’. Feed my sheep, Jesus says to Peter. And of course this caring for Christians will lead Peter to his death and the hands of enemies of the Way Jesus had set out. Think of all the martyrs over the last two thousand years, in the last year, in the last month, who lost their lives in order to follow God.
Grace is not cheap. While we may receive it for free, to live into the grace of God, we must learn to give up our former lives every single day. This might mean you have to let go of your animosity or disagreement with others. It might mean that you need to back down from a fight or to actually engage more deeply. It might mean that you need to accept a situation or reality you don’t want to for the good of others in your household, or in your church, or your diocese, or your national church, or the whole catholic church. It might mean you have to sacrifice your comfort or the things you hold most dear, or the things that you’ve always done a certain way. It might mean that you have to give up putting yourself and your worries and concerns first. It might mean that you do not get to claim priority in choosing what you do next.
To follow God, to take up your Cross, is not about your comfort. It’s not about getting your way. Look at this passage again: to follow God is to let go of your old life – the figurative fishing nets here – and allow your life, your words and actions and ways – to be reshaped by God. This will require humility. It’s why Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter really loves him. Because while Peter says, ‘yes Lord you know I love you,’ Jesus knows that to step into his grace, into the light and new life, is to often be taken (as he will to say to Peter) “where you do not wish to go.” This isn’t punishment. It isn’t that God is unfair. It isn’t that God working through his Church has failed it or you. Rather it is that to truly be a fisher of people, well this mission will lead you through the trials, tribulations, the muck, the frustration and disagreement, that simply is human relationships.
To be a fisher of people you will get figuratively wet, messy, you’ll be blown about by the winds of uncertainty and the cold sleet of rejection, disappointment, confusion, worry, frustration and lack of fit and fulfillment. You might even get pulled down into the water, treading so you do not drown, or swimming with no shore in sight. That’s what it is to step into a relationship with God, when that relationship is fundamentally about you participating in his gathering frail and broken people like you and I to him. To follow God is not to be first, but to be open, willing, ready, humble, and ready to serve others to engage with others. So my friends whom shall you follow in the months to come?
This morning we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. So first we read from the prophet Isaiah whose words to Israel told of God’s coming into the world: “here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. Then we read from the Gospel of Matthew, that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise: he himself is God, the Son of God, sent, or coming into the world to bring about God’s own righteousness: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him … And as Jesus came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And God the Father said, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And there we have God’s promise to come into the world to “fulfill all righteousness.” What is that righteousness: to make things as they were intended, to bring them to perfection, and since human beings failed to accomplish this, to reconcile, or to remake them from nothing. This in short, is the gospel: God came into the world and took on our sin, so that we could live as God intended us: to love God, to do his will, to follow his perfect ways by which he established everything that exists. This is manifested in Jesus’s baptism: God’s giving himself to us so that we can go to him and find our way, the righteous, true and faithful way to live here and now.
In our Triune God – Father, Son and HS – then, we receive life; a new life, created from nihil, non-existence, death. We enter into Jesus’s own baptism and of course we mark this with baptisms of our own. But this isn’t solely a mark of finality. It is also a mark of beginning. To be initiated into the new life in Christ, is to be initiated into a mission, into words and actions that communicate and share God’s life with others and to learn to give up those that don’t do this. So we are, by grace, made new.
But the acceptance of grace brings with it responsibility not unlike that of parents gifted with a child. Yes, you have this new bundle of joy – a new baby, a gift and miracle of new life – but that new life comes with a set of responsibilities as those who are to nurture this new life. As a parent must learn how to care for, teach, nurture, discipline and structure the new life of this new being, so too must the new Christian learn how to care for, nurture, discipline, and eventually communicate and even teach their new faith.
Where does a new Christian go, where does a Christian who has been in the Church for 60 years go, to learn what the faith is? How to care for and nurture and share it? Yes, to the Scriptures. Why? Because this is where God has revealed what his intention is for us; it’s where he tells us what it means to love him and to thereby, love our neighbors and even enemies. It is where God shows us – in his lived life amongst us in Jesus – revealed through time by the Holy Spirit – what our actions and words should look like if we want to follow him; if we want to love him, to be obedient and faithful.
The difficulty that we have everywhere, but particularly in the Western Church, is that we like to imagine that we can know who God is and that we can follow his will without knowing our Scriptures. For some reason – in most mainline churches – reading Scripture seems to be assumed to be superfluous to knowing God or doing his will. Reading Scripture, coming to know it deeply, has been replaced with a sense that, ‘hey if I’m a nice person and know some snippets of the text, and maybe do some nice stuff or put on good works, I’m being a faithful Christian. After all, I have my baptismal certificate.’
I’m not sure exactly how or why this has occurred, or perhaps there are so many reasons that it’s impossible to assign one particular reason for this occurring. I would suggest though that one of our greatest issues is that if we really dig into Scripture, we read things that challenge us, that make us uncomfortable, that call us out on our words and behavior, and that shine a spotlight on our sin: our failures to know God, to thereby love and obey him and to care for and nurture our neighbors. Furthermore, when we really dig into the Scriptures, and we then talk about them with other people, we inevitably find that we might disagree with one another. Those disagreements have too often been held in an environment of anger, bitterness, envy, and hatred, rather than as the Scriptures straight forwardly tell us, engaged in with love. And of course this extends to the doctrines, discipline and practices we have in our Churches.
So often, instead of engaging in a God revealed, i.e. Scripturally informed discussion about matters, we instead table discussions i.e. we delay them or stop them, and often simply go forward doing our own will because we lack the courage to face into Scripture, that is, into grace head on with other people. We avoid reading, understanding, learning, or seeking to consult Scripture, or doctrine, instead, thinking somehow we can avoid God’s notice if we just do our own thing in accordance with our own belief system. Or we ignore or write people off, or gossip in order to undermine them socially. But this is not consistent with what God asks of us when we are initiated into his life through our baptisms. God tells us straight up that following him is going to be really difficult. Why? Because we will have to constantly consult the truth – his life revealed in Scripture – and then talk about it not out of anger, judgment, bitterness, or frustration, but out of love (hope, patience, self-control, compassion, gentleness). And furthermore, this will require us to be courageous. It is unacceptable, God says through Paul, to be cowardly in our faith and witness. We cannot go about our lives in the Church, or outside of the Church engaging in gossip, slander, or with envy, jealousy, bitterness or anger. Why? Because these things hurt others who will respond in kind. Collectively, this will end up tearing down the Church, or a congregation, and it will push the weakest, or those just seeking, away from God and from us.
Let’s get really concrete here. Last week I came downstairs after service to overhear a conversation about someone’s unhappiness with Theo handing out bread during the service. This wasn’t said directly to me, instead, I overheard it second hand. When I spoke with the person directly, I was told that ‘several people were thinking of not coming up to communion because Theo was handing out the bread.’ This was the situation. Now let’s address this drawing on what we’ve learned from above about consulting Scripture together.
First and foremost, we spoke about the need to know God’s will for how we live with one another. This means, how do we engage one another as we try to live out the faith. I’ve said repeatedly that we need to know the Scriptures. So if someone has a problem with what a member of the congregation, whether priest or another staff person, or another member is doing, what do the Scriptures i.e. what does Jesus say to do? “if [you believe] your brother or sister [has] sin[ed] against you, go PRIVATELY TO HIM OR HER and point out the fault.” This did not occur. Instead, I overheard a complaint being made to a third party, something known as, ‘triangulation.’ The difficulty here, as Paul will raise in the Epistles, is that not going directly to a person doesn’t allow for a conversation about the actual topic at hand and so the ability to check, test, and clarify whether a practice is consistent with Scripture and with acceptable church practices. This practice of not going directly to someone communicates a lack of trust in the capacity and competence in them and so raises defenses as the other person will often feel undermined. Now perhaps the criticism is deserved. But Scripture is quite explicit that the WAY in which this situation was approached was inconsistent with God’s will for relationships, and the concrete result was, as Paul discusses in the Epistles, a break in trust, which is of course the foundation of relationships and the capacity to build up.
Let’s say that all those who were uncomfortable with Theo handing out the bread had actually come to speak with me one on one and we had gone to Scripture. What would we find? Now this gets a little more tricky to interpret because we have to look at several factors: what does Scripture say, what does church practice, policy or canon say, and why, and what is our concrete situation in the parish. In Scripture, what does God say about children and his relationship to them? In mainline Churches, where is Jesus Christ bodily encountered? In Word and Sacrament. So let’s go to Scripture to see what Jesus says about children and encountering him: God throughout the old and new testaments anoints and appoints children as his leaders and prophets (see Jeremiah for example, I am just a boy he says). But what about their seeking him? Let’s go to the Gospels and what do we hear? So there is this situation where Jesus’s disciples see children coming up to Jesus and they go to stop the kids from doing so. What does Jesus say to those disciples? “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” So Jesus dismisses his disciple’s attempts to hinder children from approaching him in person, in his body. Where again did we say Jesus is most present in an Anglican service? Right, the Eucharist and in our reading and preaching i.e. the Word. So when I am holding Theo during the Eucharistic Prayer, when he is present at the words of Institution said during the Eucharistic Prayer, he is present with the body of Jesus Christ. When, with me speaking the words, he hands you the bread that I have consecrated during the Eucharistic Prayer, he is participating in the mission of Jesus Christ, and by Christ’s own power, he is fulfilling his baptismal vows in a capacity permitted to baptized members of our church who are not ordained.
Now let’s go to the actual issue of distribution. Here we have to move into theology a bit. From the Scriptures, the Anglican Church, along with other mainline Churches, determined that an ordained minister was to be set apart or assigned to perform a particular portion of a liturgy along with a whole lot of other administrative or management duties. The liturgy portions for which a priest is set apart are these components and these alone: the absolution after we collectively confess, the words of institution during the Eucharistic prayer – this is when the bread and wine are consecrated, or when they become the body and blood of Jesus Christ (arguably), and finally, in the blessing. That is it. An unordained person can do the entire rest of the service. The distribution of the bread is usually done by the priest because of custom; but there is no unique particularity to the bread that is not also so for the wine. This should raise a question as to why it is okay for a baptized lay person to distribute the wine, as is done in our diocese, but not the bread? We have no requirement for licensing by the diocese, or else only Paul would be able to distribute the wine or bread (not Carolyn or Christine). To believe that only the priest can hand out the bread is false. It is inconsistent not only with Scripture, but with how the Anglican Church, at least here, presently understands & practices sacramental ministry. The ultimate result of not first seeking God’s will, which would lead someone who has an issue with another member of the church to go directly to the person, is a cascade of wrong presumptions, which could lead to wrong actions, frustration, resentment, and finally break down the trust upholding relationships in the church.
We continue to wonder, in the West, why a next generation of people is not coming into mainline Churches. I would suggest that one of the biggest deficits we have in ‘attractive ministry,’ is actual knowledge of our faith, our theology and tradition and our polity: what our faith is and how we are to come together to struggle with life’s challenges. Secondarily, I think we have lost the courage to dig into the Scriptures when facing hard questions, disagreements and challenges. I have asked for the last four weeks and now I ask again, do we know who God is? Do we know what he asks of us, how he speaks to us about how we are to live together, to go and share this with others? If we don’t know this, how are we going to fulfill the baptismal vows we took? If we do know these things, if we have faith that God has equipped us to share our faith in love, why are we so hesitant to rely on the Scriptures and to follow them when we engage in life with one another, and when we go out of here, with our neighbors and family? Amen.
Our Gospel reading today is one of the most difficult passages of the New Testament to deal with for several reasons. It is widely known as the Slaughter of the Innocents. While there are a number of stories in the Bible that are difficult to read/hear, Herod's murdering the innocent children of Bethlehem in his attempt to kill a potential threat to his throne must be among the top. Part of our abhorrence at the passage of course is simply the idea that a ruler of a nation would order the massacre of little children and babies; but it is utterly astonishing that this passage could come so close to and in fact just after our celebration of the birth of Jesus who brings the promise of healing, restoration and salvation to the world. How on earth can we hold these two things together?
To begin we need to understand that Herod's brutality was legendary as the 1st century historian Josephus recorded. In the passage itself, Matthew writes that Herod became distraught when he learned from the Magi that an astrological sign had indicated the birth of a Judean King (2:1-8). When the Magi did not return to report the location of this newborn King, Herod realized that he been tricked and "he was infuriated, and he sent and killed the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under" (2:16). Already, we’re given our first hint about having to hold together Jesus’s coming into the world and the stark reality of violence we see around us. We live, as I’ve said before, ‘in between times’ the already of Jesus’s coming and the ‘not yet’ of the final consummation when all of us will be gathered to him completely. But what does this mean? Well it means that there is a reason, some reason that we have all been given time – your grandparents, your parents, you, your children, grand children, even great grandchildren – that all things weren’t completed with Jesus’s death and resurrection i.e. that time simply didn’t end there.
The tremendously difficult part of this (especially for those who suffer brutal losses) is that we’re often left wondering how or why God could allow something that seems to defy God’s love for us to occur. After all, some of the things that we know have happened in history, let alone our own lives have consequences that will sometimes shatter our beliefs, hopes and dreams, and leave us wailing with Rachel, as Matthew puts it, with the parents of those children massacred by Herod, with those snuffed out in the furnaces of the holocaust, crushed by the Ottoman Empire, or civil warfare, or thrown into pits body upon body in the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of former Yugoslavia, or Rwanda or Burundi, or murdered in homes or on the streets of Toronto for money, or drugs, or sex or uncontrolled rage.
Now if Jesus were just a man who said nice spiritual things that we could follow in some way, or if he were God masquerading as a human, then I’m afraid that in fact the horrific events I’ve just described could only point to a world and to a human race that is rotten at its core. Why? Because the good acts of some people simply cannot overcome the consequences of the distortions in what it means to be a good human being or to live a good and faithful life that our history bears. These consequences are shared by all people and they’re referred to in Scripture as sin. But nor would it fit with God’s having created ‘good people’ if he was the one who had to end up exercising power to compel their love and obedience.
For when God created all things out of nothing, he made them all good. And because God is good, good is what all things must become. The catch is that goodness is concrete acts of living not for one’s own self, but for others. We know this because even when human beings turned away from God and made themselves the focus of their own love, bringing a cascade of consequences that often tears our relationships and our lives apart, God himself sent his Son, Jesus, who willingly and freely gave up his own life on the Cross to reconcile us to relationship with him and with one another. Therefore, we know what a good human life is: it is a life of willingly giving of ourselves for the sake of relationship with others. And we know why this is a good human life: because it points to who God is and thus to goodness itself. And so to the sure hope we have as Christians that God is making all things good in and through Jesus, even if we can’t always or ever see the fruit of God’s own labor in this matter.
This of course is the incarnation that we are in the process of celebrating. In theological terms, God sent Jesus into the world not thereby changing himself, but radically changing the world. That is, by coming into the world as the one who is eternally both fully human and fully God he is arranging what makes up this particular stretch of time – our human relationships – to his own life: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. An existence and an act of pure love for God and neighbor. In practical terms this means that his own life death and resurrection is where all of our lives, in each of their particular struggles, sufferings, premature and or atrocious deaths, learnings, transformations, understandings, joys and ends, find their existence and their meaning.
But as we’ve seen, this reconciliation is not instantaneous. It’s actually a sort of repairing of the very fabric of our reality (what we call time) that creates a space for relationships that help us to recognize, learn about, tell about and thereby willingly be drawn near to God.
How do we know this? Well our passage tells us fairly explicitly. The passage makes reference to events that happened in Israel’s past, showing that each of the three parts of the gospel--the flight to Egypt, the killing of the children, and the settling in Nazareth--fulfilled prophetic words. I’ll focus on just the first two here. If you recall Egypt plays prominently in the life of the Israelites. First Joseph ends up in Egypt after having been left by his own family who stripped him and leave him for dead in a cistern … remind you of anyone? He is treated as royalty for a time by pharaoh. But by the time of Moses, with the Israelites in slavery ill treated by the Egyptians, God has condemned both Pharaoh and Egypt with plagues. He then calls his ‘first-born’ (Israel) out of Egypt, led by Moses. Well this of course parallels Joseph and Mary’s escape with Jesus, from Herod’s clutches: to Egypt they flee and seek refuge; but so too out of Egypt will they go obediently following God’s calling. Jesus’s life, his protection, is foreshadowed by the protection afforded Joseph out of whose line will come Jesus himself. But so too is Egypt’s redemption, a redemption to be afforded to all as promised to Abraham, fulfilled with Jesus’s death and resurrection. This fulfillment of history in Jesus therefore points both back in time, and forward in time to Jesus as the center or goal of time and history. It also shows us though, that Jesus in a sense both makes history and gives it a meaning that someone living at a given time could scarcely imagine.
In the second passage cited in our Matthew reading, Jeremiah records his vision with tears of lamentation as he watches not only the city of Jerusalem being destroyed, but innocent children being slaughtered in the Babylonian invasion. He imagines, with his poetic vision, that Rachel, the wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin, is weeping for her descendants, her children. Rachel becomes the ancestral representative of all those mothers in the land who wept for their little children. But his lamentation is in the middle of four chapters, Jeremiah 30-33, that are filled with comfort and consolation and joy. These chapters look beyond the grief of death to the dawn of a new age that will come with the Messiah’s coming, One whom Jeremiah calls the Branch. And with that new age there will be a New Covenant that will pave the way for everlasting peace and righteousness. Out of the chaos of violence and death at the hands of wicked rulers there would come a New Covenant, bringing forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life.
Following this idea of God’s ordering history, the early church preached that the infants, in their deaths, were the first martyrs for Jesus Christ. Far from insignificant babes lost in the plot of the life of a more significant story, Jesus’s life, death and resurrection elevates the lives of children to the pinnacle of Christian witness, celebrated by Christians for thousands of subsequent years: martyrs for Christ.
Although of course not aware, and so not willing martyrs, these children’s lives are not insignificantly brief moments; but are rather joined in Christ with others across time who have suffered similar fates as a witness of judgment against the evil consequences of sin and Jesus’s own overcoming this on the Cross. And just here, we find not reason, or explanation for the suffering that would have been caused the family and friends of those murdered; but rather the sure promise that suffering and death are not the final end of our lives. Our lives find their meaning in Jesus Christ because they have their very existence in him: “see the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away … see I am making all things new since I am the beginning and the end (Rev 21:4-5)” Jesus says.
So then if what we have been handed on as the gospel is true – that Jesus in his life, death and resurrection has reconciled our relationship with God – as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, then we know what it means to be a human being living for an extended time. We know this involves a process of learning through participation in all sorts of relationships and in various forms of learning to come to know God. To come to know, in him, what is good; so that we can willingly give ourselves to one another for the sake of pointing to or witnessing to Jesus who gives purpose and meaning to our own lives and to our relationship with others. AMEN.
Every year we celebrate the season of Advent in ‘liturgical churches’ like the Anglican, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic. The season is of course about God’s coming first and foremost, and then in some way about our preparation for this. Traditionally, and still in the Eastern Orthodox tradition especially, this preparation during Advent is a penitential season. That is, a season that involves taking stock of our lives before God and seeking to reconcile our actions and our behaviors to draw closer to him so that we can live as faithful witnesses.
I suppose this might seem a bit strange for those of us who have grown up with a rather watered down notion of preparing for God’s coming through a call and a response to change our ways. Watered down so that ‘the way to Jesus’ we proclaim might be made more acceptable to those outside the faith who we’re hoping to invite in. Watered down so that we don’t present the ‘way to god’ as a way to a ‘god’ whom we think to be a vengeful, wrathful tyrant who does not accept us just as we are. But actually, this notion of who God is and our relationship to him really isn’t all that helpful because it doesn’t take seriously the reality of our struggles, our fears, our diseases, mental and physical, our recognition that our relationships with each other and the world in which we live aren’t ‘all good.’ We end up presenting – in this watered down version – a God who is okay with our brokenness, our mistreatment of ourselves and of one another. We end up presenting a god detached from the narrative of the Scriptures that tells us who he really is and why his coming is indeed good news for us.
But our passage from Matthew makes it clear that the sort of god both that we’ve become fearful of presenting and the god who would merely accept our brokenness is not the promised Messiah who will reconcile us to himself. To witness to such a God would be to miss out on seeing and pointing to our maker and redeemer.
Indeed in the messiness of life, it’s so easy to do. Even John the Baptist asks of Jesus: are you the one who is to come? That is, are you the one to meet our hope and expectation that, as our reading from Isaiah says, we, “shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God … Are you the one by whom the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped … Are you the one who is the highway, the Holy Way; the one through whom the unclean shall be made clean ….”
And Jesus says to John’s disciples, go tell John who I am. Through me, “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.” I have come to do, for all, what no one else could do. I have come to reconcile all things, all people, to God. I am the way, the highway, the holy way, the one whose way is prepared by the prophets, like, John. I am the truth and the life and I will open this life up to you who follow me. Good news, the Messiah is making all things new, your life included. So take hold by enduring in the way; that is, the way of life that involves the struggle of seeking me out day by day, year by year; a life that will make you servant of all; a life that will require you give up those things you hold dear but that form only shadows on the dawning reality of the kingdom of heaven. Good news, the kingdom of heaven is here in Jesus Christ who comes into the world here and now.
The Church proclaiming God’s word, telling the story of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, tells us: good news! Good news. What is this good news? Christ has come and you have got to change or you’ll end up something you do not want to be! WOAH -- Yikes! Do we appreciate such honesty and calling? For this is, after all, part of what our gospel reading is getting at today. Are we preparing the way to receive the coming of Jesus Christ into our own lives? Are we really ready to be “the least in the kingdom?” That is, not proclaiming Jesus’s coming by equivocating it with some agenda, or feeling, or identity we think we have; but rather by enduring with others in following him with humility, gentleness, patience, and perseverance where it is that he leads us. Into the fulfillment of a life we cannot ourselves construct. This is the only way to see Jesus’s coming, to let go of the shadow of reality onto which we hold for temporary balance, and to live now in a way that demonstrates and shares with others our sure faith and hope of full reconciliation to life with God.
I suppose one of the greatest challenges we all face at one point in our lives is the common sense of hunger to find relief, to find purpose, place, hope, and meaning. The circumstances are unique for each person; but we all struggle in various ways whether we have a mental or physical illness, so too do those who are homeless, those who live in places of great poverty, or corruption, those who struggle with addiction or loved ones who are addicted, those who struggle with loss, loneliness, anxiety, those who have been abused, those who lose their way in life for one reason or another. Yet as challenging as these things are, the events that leave us in the mucky troughs of life are not hidden from God. Jesus reaches even into these dark crevasses of our circumstances and of our minds, to draw us out of the shadows and into his light and life. He moves us, if we will but open up and turn to him.
Of course we’re opened up by some of the most joyful and positive things that go on in life as well. We have most recently welcomed little Liam into the household of God and so into our family. And we recently heard that Erika is pregnant again and she and Tyler will prepare to be parents for a third time! What miracles, what profound gifts, what possibilities … what challenges! Oh yes those. These new arrivals, in light of the lectionary reading, made me think about the stories of scripture where we hear about struggling to bring life into the world and struggling to sustain life, to find meaning and purpose for that life. In the case of new parents – just as with the lives of so many I know who struggle with various things – I wonder how these folks will grapple with the ways in which they are going to be pressed, pulled, turned inside out, torn apart, and put back together again, as they learn to listen, to love, to let go, to be a servant, to give way, to take hold, to expose, to weep, to encourage, to ask forgiveness and give it... Are you really ready for this I’d ask them? Should I say that? Imagine what honesty would entail here! But if someone were to speak such truth as this – and it is true, my friends -- it would only be because we as Christians have this underlying hope: Good news! Good news! Exult! Rejoice!.... For you will not be left, but instead, changed!
Indeed, the universality of our circumstances – whether painful and horrific, or joyful and hungered after – is in that all of these circumstances belong to God. And so through them, he will change us, transform us, if we are willing to let him. If we are willing to let go, to give ourselves up and away to receive his coming to us over the course of our lives. You see, God cares enough about us to have a hope, a desire, and a purpose for us. “I made you to be free! Not bound to your fears, or to your passions or to you hates or greeds, or to the circumstances that imprison you mentally or physically. I made you to love and to take joy in others and in their hopes and needs.” God loves us such that he refuses to just leave us where we are, with merely who we think we amount to. He loves us such that he tells us when we do not measure up, when we have strayed, when we are going off the rails, even tipping into the abyss, regardless of how we got there. Pay attention! Seek me, he says. I will not betray you. Do not get stuck in your customs and rituals and personal habits, or your fears and anxieties. Open yourself to the possibilities I have already planted in you. Seek me and I will guide you where I made you to go. AMEN.
Today marks the second Sunday of Advent. This Sunday begins week two of the Church’s new year. The next three Sundays, we’ll read passages from Scripture that are all about recalling Jesus’s first coming, his incarnation, and what this meant and means for people, so that we can prepare for his second coming. His return. His coming judgment when everyone and everything will be gathered to him.
Our Advent readings seem like they have a pretty simple and straight forward message that were summarized for us in last Sunday’s gospel lesson from Matthew: “Keep awake … for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” God’s coming again in judgment and mercy to reconcile us to him really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. The Prophets’ words recorded in our OT books are filled with God’s own promise to come to his people, to lead them out of slavery, to rescue them and set them free to live the way he intended for them to live. And of course, we read these passages, from each of the four Gospels, each Advent.
Our reading from Isaiah today says, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”
And today we hear John the Baptist continue this prophetic ministry of announcing God’s coming into the world, continuing the legacy of those prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc., before him: “’Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’" This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"
Last week Jesus spoke of God’s judgment – the Flood, and of God’s mercy – the Ark upon which a remnant were saved from that flood. And Jesus layed claim to have this very power of God’s judgment in his own coming: as the flood came in judgment and swept them all away, so when I come, will I sweep away those who are not bound to me. As the wood of the Ark raised up a whole people from the union of male and female, up above the flood waters of death, so the wood of the Cross held the Son of Man whose union with human nature raises people from the dust, from dry and desiccated bones buried in a tomb, to life now and eternally.
But let’s look a little closer at the last two weeks of readings in Advent. Just in case you thought God was a giant teddy bear, let’s be clear what Jesus has said here: pay attention, do not take grace for granted. Do not dare think that you will be able to flee from the wrath to come; that is do not think that you can somehow avoid the judgment of all of humanity. You cannot turn from it saying you do not believe. You cannot hide from it saying you didn’t see or hear about it. And my friends who think yourselves so righteous, beware that you have not deceived yourselves in thinking you are righteous when you are not. You brood of vipers, John says to the religious righteous persons of his day, who told you to flee? Turn around, turn back to God. That is, do not think yourselves to be righteous. Like everyone who stands before God, you, my friend have sinned. Take responsibility. Do not pass the buck, so to speak. Do not blame others. Instead, know that I love you and desire you and open up to me. Take a step back from your self-determined righteousness so that you can see the log in your own eye. For only in humility, will you be able to see the gap between what I desire, and what is. And when you see this, know that I will bridge that gap. To be humble is to accept what is true: that I alone can rescue you from sin. Only then, will you be able to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
So last week we heard: pay attention. In other passages, we find, ‘lift your heads.’ Why? Because we hear today, the judgment of God is coming. And that judgment – if we follow John’s words here of those who are unworthy being thrown into the fire – is actually a warning of impending death and destruction for those who are not bound to God. It’s a warning of an unnatural end: life without God, whatever that might mean, whether annihilation, or hell, or the worst of our living experiences repeated over and over without end. The Son of man will come and every tree that does not bear fruit, that is, everyone who does not seek God and turn to him, will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
Take heed. This is a warning not to be ignored. Do not let yourselves fall away, Jesus says. Now this might seem a strange statement for Protestants to contemplate. We cannot save ourselves right? It is God who came in Christ to save us right? It is God in Christ alone – our God who became man for our sakes – who joins us to himself, which we mark in our baptisms and in the Eucharist, as a sign of grace working in us. And then of course there was a rather large and complex debate about justification and about human action and about whether one could lose one’s salvation. Let me tell you now that there still isn’t really a clear or coherent consensus about these matters.
I think we could debate questions about salvation and justification and whether salvation could be lost until Jesus comes and still not arrive at a consensus that would convince even a portion of Christians. Fortunately and quite mercifully, it would appear – if we read scripture – that God was quite aware of our individual and collective inability to make sense of his commandments not because they are unclear, but because we are blinded by our own ‘stuff’ our sin and because frankly, we live short, limited lives with exceptionally limited knowledge. So instead of having to resolve a complex philosophical or theological puzzle to determine who’s in and out with God, God said this: my friends, you do not know when I shall return. That’s what we heard last week. Stay ready; stay alert; don’t forget what happened to others when they didn’t stay alert and when they got distracted by their work, their daily affairs, their emotional issues, their social issues, etc.
Folks: keep your eye on the ball: ME. If you’re struggling, seek me. If you’re worried, seek me. If you’re wondering what to do, seek me. Then let go of your stuff – let go of your jealousy toward others, your anger, your self-pity, most especially your fear, your sense of worthlessness, let go of feeling jaded, stop being so narcissistically self-focused and entitled, stop bowing to the idols you create to keep you reveling in your own sin, stop engaging those things or even people after whom you lust sexually or emotionally, stop ignoring God and the challenges and difficult paths he puts before you because you prefer a kind of secular Canadian comfort. Let this stuff go when you’re seeking a better way, because that’s the only way you can hear me calling you.
To let go of what you think gives you control over life, over yourself and others …. this demands humility. And humility is the basis for honesty. Honesty is the basis for self-reflection before your creator and redeemer, God. And self-reflection in accordance with the Scriptures will bring you face-to-face with God’s demands on how you live in relationship with others, your friendships, your working relationships, your marriages, your children, and indeed even in all those ways your find yourself tempted away from God’s design. That’s what we heard last week in Romans. Not some theological trope, or some philosophical reflection, but rather the ‘how to manual for those who are willing to heed God’s warning that he’s coming’: I am coming. Do you know me? Do you know who you are before me? Do you pursue your own ways, or mine?
Whom do you follow? Follow me, Jesus says again and again. Jesus doesn’t give some complex formula, or some promise clearly developed by people who think solely with the flesh rather than the spirit. So what do we do while we’re waiting for Jesus’s return? What does it mean to be prepared? John tells us really bluntly, “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Concretely, that means you need to know not your own will, but God’s – for every aspect of your life. And so really concretely, instead of going bowling, or playing cards; instead of blaming other people, or hiding behind your money and possessions and your ability to consume more and more and more, or behind your self pity and anger and inwardly or outwardly directed rage and punishment, attend to the one who is coming in judgment: God and attend to the Scriptures to find yourself this day, and every single day, in every situation you find yourself. For it is here alone that you will find where you are before God as he comes to us. If you don’t know the Scripture, learn them. For it is there alone that you will find yourself putting on, as Romans put it last week, the armor of God who will deliver you to life eternal. AMEN.
This Sunday of gathering is in many ways a celebration and sign of both beginnings and ends. This Sunday of course ends our Church year. We call it, the Reign of Christ because this day serves as a marker to look back, to reflect back on our journey with Christ this particular year as we anticipated his life in Advent, celebrated his birth at Christmas, heard of the call to go out and proclaim Christ as God and King throughout Epiphany, and then to journey to the Cross of Good Friday with humility, confession, a commitment to renewed casting off of sin, and then our three day wait for Easter when we are reminded that we have been joined to Christ in his Resurrection, set free from slavery to sin in order that we could learn to love and so serve our neighbor and even our enemies.
This year, we have been gifted with young Liam, his mom, dad, and grandma who have joined our community. And today, we gather to recognize a particular end – the end of sin’s victory over us, even young babes – and a particular beginning: Liam’s initiation or baptism into Jesus’s own life, death and so resurrection. On Liam’s behalf his parents and grandma will promise to help guide him in accordance with Jesus’s own life that we find in Scripture and to work on casting off those ways of living that aren’t in keeping with Jesus’s own.
But who is this Jesus? What does it mean that we are baptized into his life, death and resurrection? Why does this matter? Let’s go back and hear our passage from Colossians which I think concisely paints a picture of this Son of God and King of Kings: May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
So to summarize: this powerful one Jesus has been born. He’s taken on human flesh, we’ve heard, he’s been born of the virgin Mary. The King of the Jews has been born to set ALL people free from sin and he is enlightening the world. What does this mean? I’d suggests it means that he’s actually unveiling how the world really looks, what it’s all about, who we are in it, who others are, what is good and evil. How can he illuminate or show the world as it really is? Because when we look at his life what we’re seeing is God’s own life. The perfect life of Jesus who is fully God and fully man. So when we look at how he interacts with people, how he interprets the teachings of the OT Scriptures, how he acts, judges, the way he doles out criticism, love, kindness, healing and mercy, we see how God intends things to be. We see God begin his gathering work, reorienting his lost and wayward children and showing us, leading us, inhabiting us so that we can begin to follow him. That is the way – the person – into whom young Liam is being baptized. That is Liam, baptized into Christ, is being initiated into a whole way of seeing the world anew, through Jesus’s own life.
Jesus does indeed transform the world with his incarnation, his being born a human baby and living out a human life, and dying a human death. But here’s the critical bit that matters for us: when God sent his Son into the world for our sakes, he did not leave his ‘God self’ behind. Jesus is God; God who is eternal; God who is not created. Jesus is also human, and as such, like every other human who follows him and through him becomes a child of God, Jesus is baptized. We celebrate this as a festival of the Church for Jesus’s own baptism: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven from the Father, “you are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
This passage about Jesus’s baptism helps us to understand the claim being made in our passage from Colossians. That is, it helps us to understand who Jesus is and why his life, and our baptism into his life, is so important. You see here we find that Jesus isn’t just a prophet or rabbi or good moral teacher as so many claimed. No: Jesus Christ, is in fact God himself. And here, the one we call Father, Abba, whom Jesus will call Father and Abba, is in fact God. And finally, we hear affirmed that this Holy Spirit whom we encounter at several points in the Old and New Testaments as wind, or breath, or the Spirit or the Holy Spirit, that this Holy Spirit is also God. So our God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But it’s actually in Jesus’s own life – and his baptism is a central moment (as is his transfiguration) – that we see God actually manifested here as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; one substance, three persons, never working apart, never working to different purposes, no good God and evil God at different times, never changing his mind even if we use these words to describe how we see history unfold. If this were not the case, we would be left in sin and left to the often nasty, brutish and short reality of life in this world.
Instead Jesus reveals who God is most profoundly in this moment of his baptism, a claim made in more intellectual terms in Colossians. His baptism then, isn’t simply about ‘going through with the rituals, of his Jewish birth; it is the fulfillment of his very being as both God and man: To be baptized is nothing other than to be brought into perfect communion with God. To be baptized is nothing other than living the life of God himself as the particular person God created you to be, receiving instruction, challenge, chastising, cleansing, and correction as you see your own life in the characters of Scripture you encounter each week in Church and/or at home. That is the life Liam’s parents and grandmother are promising to raise him in accordance with, relying on God’s own grace, his mercy, his love.
What then will God expect of Liam, what does he expect of us? To follow, to do so obediently, to be willing to accept the correction offered through the Scriptures and life in the Church, so that ultimately, his and our following would look like the act of loving God and neighbor. To love is not an emotion. To love is active response to a relationship, to the challenges, to the contingencies, to the frustrations and failures, to the struggles – to all that stuff that each of you experience in your families, with friends, with those whom you care for. To love is an active and willing response to prioritize maintaining your relationship with someone through time; sometimes this means sacrifice; sometimes it means praising, sometimes sharing weaknesses, lament, hopes, dreams and of course needs. To love God however, requires being adopted and raised beyond our own limits of being by God himself. And this, God accomplishes by baptizing us into his Son, through his Holy Spirit so that we too might become his beloved children. Being baptized and held in Jesus Christ without fear of our own frailty, we are set free to seek Jesus’s own ways of engaging the world. Set free from the fears this world can bring on – frailty, disease, death, failure, lack of purpose or meaning – we can stop focusing on these things and instead, begin to see by the light (as if Jesus were a kind of flashlight that shone true light on the world)of his life with people (which we discover in Scripture). We’re set free to step into his mission and we are empowered by his Spirit to – in our own unique ways – become a light for others to see his purposes for their lives. AMEN.
Our reading from Isaiah today begins, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” The passage comes after 64 chapters that speak both of God’s judgment upon Israel – upon her leaders, both religious and political, and upon the people as a whole, for their failure to worship God rightly, but so too of his mercy upon them after exile, with the final promise that he will create this new heaven and new Earth.
Following the work and wisdom of one of my mentors who wrote a theological commentary on the Book of Revelation and on ‘the last things, heaven in particular, I don’t think the idea heaven involves our ‘going up’ to some place in the sky. Rather our psalm, psalm 98, says that it is God himself who will come to the earth to renew all things, heaven and earth: “Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.”
To whom are these passages of judgment, of mercy and of redemption referring? Well Jesus would seem to indicate that what has been said here about God coming to create a new heaven and a new earth is precisely about his own coming into the world and the effect this will have not just at one particular point in time, but across all of history and for all things. He says in our passage from Luke, “you will face personal tribulations for various reasons, you will face disasters of natural and man-made events with no explanation for why, you will be abandoned by loved ones and you may even experience violence and persecution because you proclaim my name. But by your endurance in following me, you will gain your souls.”
But if we bring the passage from Isaiah about God creating a new heaven and a new earth together with Jesus’s exhortation to persevere in following him, this is what I think he is saying to us: I will make all things new through a return: a return to a restored life, a restored worship, a restored service and life with him. A restored life brought about by Jesus, who in binding all of creation to himself through his life, death and resurrection, utterly transforms this world and each of our lives in all their diversities and particularities, their trials, tribulations, and sufferings; all things past and present, being reordered in light of his coming down. And we can grasp hold of this transformation by holding onto – or in classical terms – clinging to the one who, in a figural sense, walks the earth to bring this about, Jesus Christ himself.
Now I don’t know about you, but when I look around at the world, it can seem rather hard to imagine that God has made anything new, that he has restored things as they’re ‘meant to be.’ All you have to do is turn on the news or read your facebook feed and you’ll immediately be inundated with stories of violence, war, murder, corruption, natural disasters, all wreaking havoc on peoples’ lives. We could recount any of the stories of hurricanes we’ve had this year; school shootings all over the United States; acts of terrorism and civil conflict all across Africa; the violence between the military and protestors in Hong Kong.
Last week, I went to visit a young woman in the psychiatric ward of a hospital. At seventeen, her world, for reasons only really understood fully by her, came crashing down. After months of struggle, of refusal to eat, of refusal to accept the help of her parents and friends, she tried to take her own life. She woke up the morning after taking 50 antidepressant pills covered in and choking on her own vomit. After being admitted to the hospital she recounted to me that she had to tell her story over and over again until it was beginning to sound like she was telling someone else’s story and not her own. Her desire to disassociate from and diminish the circumstances that led her to a suicide attempt are understandable; but they formed a reality for her that she is beginning to realize she is going to have to face and address if she wants to be healed. Her perceived reality – regardless of her actual reality – is rooted in a complex set of social, cultural, psychological, and circumstantial dynamics. And it is this perceived reality that she wanted to talk to me about. I grew up in the Church, she said to me. My parents are faithful Christians. I think I believe in God, but I’m not really sure. How, she asked me, can I go on from here? If God is who the Church says he is, will he abandon me because I tried to take my own life; because I denied that my life is his own?
I reckon that many of us have struggled with the chaos life seems to throw at us in various ways, maybe not to the extent of this young woman, but in ways that have brought a sense of confusion that makes it seem as though the very fabric of reality is being pulled out from under us as is talked about in our gospel reading today. “When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." Beware that you are not led astray ... "When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately … Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.” Into the midst of life that seems ordinary – adorned with all we think is right and orderly and beautiful – can come a tornado of chaos, or perhaps a rip tide that slowly sucks us out into the deep sea further and further from the safety of shore.
And for us, maybe this has come about by the death of those we love, by illness, by successions of failure and broken hopes, by our own sin even – dishonesty, selfishness, greed, hard-heartedness, indulgence – all of which has pulled us into the pit of our own misdoings. Who among has not felt this? Who amongst us has not questioned whether God really exists; let alone whether he has and is now renewing all of creation through this supposed ‘God-man’ Jesus Christ. It is easy enough – when we look around at the world and at our own circumstances – to seek solace in withdrawing from a relationship with God that by its very nature, by God’s own drawing us out of ourselves, presses us to witness to him. It is easy enough to become discouraged or even to lose desire to cling to Jesus in the face of the various types of calamity and chaos that seem to encompass our lives either directly or indirectly. Thus Jesus warns in Luke today, “do not be led astray by the calamities you’ll face.” But just as did the early Christians we hear about in the gospels or in Paul’s letters so too we might ask: What’s the point? Where is the restoration he has promised? How could I convince others that he is restoring the world if I myself can’t even see it?
And yet oddly, it is in the midst of these circumstances of seeming personal chaos of loss and fear, of depression, of day-to-day struggles with our jobs, or spouses, or children, or relationships of all sorts, that we are opened up. That we’re in a sense, forced to take stock; to question whether our circumstances are all that reality is; and whether the person we’ve become in light of our varied circumstances is all that we really are. And it is just here that we’re open to realizing that we are participants in something beyond our contingent circumstances and to living in light of this new reality, this, new earth.
But how can this possibly be so? As contradictory as it may seem and as completely abhorrent as it might feel in the midst of it, suffering that usually comes with holding still in the midst of chaos – of facing into it without running – can serve as a form of mercy, of renewal. Not suffering so as to be tortured. But so as to allow ourselves to be opened up to God. Opened up that comes through obedience, patience, waiting, perseverance and journeying with. The fullness of dedication to what we cannot always believe or see or hold in mind. Indeed the very thing, or the very person, or the very circumstance that seems to be the cause of chaos, however we experience it, can in fact press us to ‘go up’ and cling to God himself; to take stock; to be moved to examine our lives from a viewpoint beyond the limited scope of current circumstance; to confess and open ourselves to be drawn into the reality where we gain our souls and have true life: God’s own life, won for us through the suffering servant himself, Jesus, who bore the sin that separates fallen creation from him. So we can endure in ‘going up’ over and over again – in spite of experience and evidence that seems to contradict God’s coming to restore and make things new – because God fulfilled his promise to do this by sending his Son into the world for our sakes. AMEN
The Rev. Dr. LEigh Silcox
Born in Windsor, ON, Leigh moved around Northern and Southern Ontario during his childhood. He attended North Carolina State University to play soccer, but after repeated injuries, instead took up mountain biking, road cycling, bouldering, trail running and hiking, which he continues to do to this day.