Today we keep the feast of the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus comes down to the Judean desert, along with hundreds of others, to hear an eccentric preacher named John, and to step into the muddy waters of the Jordan River and be baptized. He wouldn’t have stood out from the crowd. Jesus wasn’t famous yet. He was just an unknown carpenter from an obscure Galilean village. Yet, as we know, by virtue of his identity and by virtue of his destiny, Jesus was not just like all the others who came for baptism. He should have stood out from the crowd.
Even the most skeptical of biblical scholars, even those of no personal faith, whose interest in the New Testament is purely academic, those for whom the crucifixion has no meaning, and the resurrection has no reality—even these skeptics do not doubt the historicity of today’s gospel account. Whoever Jesus was, he did get baptized. The early church was embarrassed by this event because it implied that Jesus was subservient to John, that he had a need to repent of his sins, which is what everybody else who got baptized was doing.
What was embarrassing to the early church is more likely to make us just say, “So what?” But this is something worth taking a closer look at. There is a larger context into which we must put our understanding of the baptism of Christ. Jesus’ baptism was a critical turning point. Before he went into the Jordan, Jesus was a private citizen who minded his own business. After the event, he was a charismatic public figure whose fame spread rapidly and who eventually became so popular that the civil and religious establishment considered him a dire threat and had him killed. Before the baptism—no preaching or teaching, no disciples, no healing, no miracles. After the baptism—he wears himself out talking to crowds, he attracts a loyal band of followers, and he is constantly healing and casting out demons. From a purely biographical perspective, the baptism of Jesus looms pretty large.
There’s also the larger context of our prayer and worship as his latter-day disciples. We are about to bring down the curtain on that part of our annual cycle in which we anticipate and celebrate the coming of the Messiah, the incarnation of the eternal Word of God. The feast of our Lord’s baptism brings Advent and Christmas to a head, and reveals, as it were, a “mature” savior—one who can actually do something for us, one who can actually be effective on our behalf. It’s nice to sing carols about our “newborn King” and our “infant redeemer,” but before he could become really either a redeemer or a king, Jesus had to grow up. In the Eastern Church, a wet Jesus standing in the Jordan River is the primary image of Epiphany, and rightly so.
A few weeks from now, we will begin that part of our yearly cycle in which we anticipate and celebrate the Paschal Mystery—Christ our Paschal Lamb, the one who is both priest and victim on Calvary, in whose death and resurrection we participate as we renew our baptismal vows and celebrate this very Mass. Our celebration of the Lord’s baptism today helps prepare us for that very important work. We see that the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry in his baptism is a model for the inauguration of our ministry in our baptism. When we are baptized, we are baptized into nothing less than the life, death, resurrection, and ministry of Jesus. In the incarnation, God shares our human life. In baptism, we share God’s divine life.
This is a simple declaration, but it has profound and far-reaching consequences. It affects our basic understanding of what the Church is, and what our place in the Church is. Jesus’ experience becomes a model for ours. At his baptism, Jesus inaugurates his public ministry. He’s now a man with a mission. In effect, Jesus takes his “mission statement” from the prophet Isaiah:
I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. …he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth… I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
And our mission, the mission each of us received on the day of our baptism, is not really anything less. If we need to flesh out the details, we need look no further than our Baptismal Covenant, which we are about to renew together. In it, we promise to remain faithful to the teaching of the apostles, the community of the Church, the Holy Eucharist, and to a life of prayer. We also promise to work for justice, freedom, and peace; to seek and serve Christ in every person; and to respect the dignity of every human being. That’s our mission; that’s our shared ministry. It takes place in hundreds of thousands of different ways, but that’s the core.
After his baptism, Jesus discovered that his Father had blessed him abundantly, through the Holy Spirit, for the work he had taken on. He discovered his gifts, and he began to exercise his gifts for ministry. And since his baptism and ministry make up the model for our baptism and ministry, that’s what we need to be about as well. For us, the discovery of our ministerial gifts, and the exercise of those gifts, is critical. It is well past time for a flourishing church culture that is grounded in the notion that “all members are ministers.” Yes, I’m a minister, Mother Beth is a minister, but not any more than you are. Our ministry may be more visible, but yours is probably more important. All baptized persons are ministers; all have a ministry. Relatively few have discovered that ministry and begun to exercise it, and to the extent that the church has “problems,” that fact is where most of the problems originate.
Yet, it need not be so. We need not operate in fear, fear of taking the plunge into ministry. The Spirit rested on Jesus at his baptism, taking the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father approved him: "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” And if Jesus’ baptism is the model for ours, how can we go without those same blessings? The Spirit also rests on us, my sisters and brothers, and the voice of the Father gives His approval of our ministry. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.
Happy 10th day of Christmas! Again this year, I am grateful to be an Episcopalian to celebrate the full 12 days of the season, and to be able to reflect and give thanks for the incarnation of our Lord for a longer time.
Today’s lectionary offers three possible gospels, all dealing with events in our Lord’s life after his birth and before his public ministry began. They are rich passages and give much material to think about. I had some difficulty with my choice of texts to use today because each is so wonderful.
I finally decided to use the passage from Matthew 2:1-12, the wise men coming from the east. In part I made the choice because of the recent convergence of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. I hope you were able to see that and experience how bright they were. As I read the material in the modern press regarding this convergence I was reminded of the book that came out about twenty years ago, titled “In the Fullness of Time”. This is an historian’s account of events that correspond with several Biblical stories and in part speaks to the convergence of these planets. You might remember that I have talked about this book before, though it has been some time.
The gospel at the beginning of the second chapter of Matthew tells of wise men coming from the east looking for the child who had been born King of the Jews. They were wealthy astronomers, scientists of their time, whose curiosity sent them out to find the one whose star they had seen. They traveled long and far following that star, seeking to meet the king that they thought the star predicted.
In the beginning was God. There was nothing except God.
In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God and the Word was God.
In the beginning, God spoke. He spoke a Word, and the Word was the means of creation. He said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. Light that shines and illumines, light that reveals and gives life. Light that defeats darkness, and confusion, and chaos. In the Word was light—not just the physical light, but true light that enlightens the heart and the mind and the soul as well. The light of God that illumines every dark corner of our souls and minds and hearts.
The light of God shining on a world that chose darkness is what Christmas is all about. In the beginning, the first word of all creation was “be light.” And there was light. God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.
Throughout Scripture, God reveals himself through light. When God revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush, it was in the light of the supernatural fire of God that burns but does not consume that God was present. God was present with the people of Israel in the desert, revealed in the fire that consumed and accepted their sacrifices; and in the pillar of fire that gave them light by night.
When Moses returned from speaking with God face to face on the mountain, the reflected light of God left Moses’ face so bright that he had to cover his face with a veil so as not to terrify the Israelites. Moses’ face shone with the reflected glory of God’s light.
When God gave the Israelites the blueprint of the tabernacle and the temple, which was a microcosm of God’s heavenly dwelling, he commanded that the light of the golden lamp stands never go out to show a glimpse of what the eternal, unchangeable, heavenly glory was like.
When the prophets had visions of that heavenly temple, and they saw God seated on his heavenly throne in unimaginable and truly terrifying glory, they saw a figure of a man so bright that eyes could not behold him, like glowing molten metal, on a pavement of refracted rainbow light.
In him was life, and that life was the light of men. That glorious figure in the heavenly visions was the same that the disciples saw on the mountain of Transfiguration, when Jesus was revealed to them in his nature as truly God. When the disciples saw who Jesus truly was, he was illumined, transfigured, even his clothing was whiter and brighter than any bleach can ever get it. The glory of the one and only Son of the Father, the Godhead made human was revealed in the flesh of a mortal man. And unlike Moses, this was not the reflected light of having spoken with God, but the very source of all light revealing himself to them.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. On the day when Christ, the light of the world, took our sin upon himself and died upon the cross, darkness fell. He took our darkness on himself that by his power he might destroy our death, our darkness so that the people who walked in darkness might see a great light. On that day, the darkness pursued the light of the world to destroy it or chase it away. But on that day, when the darkness seemed to have won, the light of Christ set an ambush for the darkness. When darkness had killed the light of the world, the darkness itself was destroyed. In Christ’s resurrection, darkness is defeated.
On the day of Pentecost, when the followers of Jesus were assembled, the Holy Spirit came on them in the form of the holy fire of God—not on the sacrifices of the temple anymore, but resting on the living people, transforming them into children of the light, boldly proclaiming the good news of Jesus.
When Stephen, the first martyr and deacon of the church, was being stoned to death for his faith in Jesus, he looked and saw heaven opened, and the light of God shone reflected in his face as he beheld the glory of his beloved Savior.
When the Apostle Paul, persecutor of the church, was on the road to Damascus, he saw a vision of the risen Christ—a vision that blinded him and transformed him into Christ’s most ardent witness.
And the Apostle John saw visions of Jesus coming again in glory to rule the world and judge it and make it new; he saw it purified and made spotless by that same fire of God which consumes the dross but purifies the gold. And he saw the new heaven and the new earth in which there was no more need for lamps, for there was no more night, no more sin, no more darkness or hiding or shame or death or despair. He saw a city shining like gold, lit by the presence of the glory of God himself—the glory of the Lamb who was slain for us and rose again in glory.
In the Beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made. Without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. The true light that enlightens everything was coming into the world.
That light shines into our darkened hearts and transforms us: it shows up the darkness in our hearts and, for all who believe in the Light of Christ, transforms us into children of God—children of the light who can see and hear and know the transcendent, glorious God.
The true light, the Glory, the Word of God, the fullness of the God who encompasses all creation, became on Christmas one of the created. All the glory of God was encompassed in a tiny baby, fully human and fully God. And that is what we celebrate.
Just as Moses and Stephen looked on the face of God and were themselves illumined with the glory, so we, who partake in his Spirit, his Body, his Blood, we who are members of his Body, we are illumined with the glory of God. And unlike Moses’ reflected glory which faded, we bear in ourselves the Spirit of the living God, the light of Christ and the glory of the Godhead. We have received into ourselves that light, which shines on our darkness—and our darkness cannot overcome it. It shines into every corner of our lives, purifying, cleansing, revealing, and redeeming.
And someday, when our purification is made complete, we will look on his face, the burning brightness of our Lord and God, and we will witness the fullness of the glory of God which our mortal frames cannot now bear. We will be made like Him, the Word, who became mortal that we might become immortal, and who allowed darkness to overcome him in death that he might vanquish death for us forever. That is our goal, that is our purpose—to become glorified with the glory of the Son of God.
So as we live in this world where there is much darkness, let us keep our eyes on Jesus, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God in glory. Because in him is the light of the world, and if we fix our eyes on him, we bear the light of his glory out into this dark and broken world. Therefore let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Because his light is in us, let us repent of the darkness in our hearts, imploring our God to burn it out of us with the fire of his love, making us pure and holy—making us worthy reflections of his most glorious light. And let us live in hope, awaiting the day when we shall see his glory face to face.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
and his name shall be called Emmanuel, God with us.
For us, to us, with us.
It’s hard, this time we’re living through. Everything is so different, and in some ways it just doesn’t feel like Christmas. Over the strange, painful, and challenging months of this past year, and perhaps especially recently as the days have grown shorter and the weather colder, we’re seeing more and more advice on what we should do to improve how we’re coping. And now that it’s Christmas, on what we should do to make this season merry and bright.
In pandemic days just as much as ordinary days, the human heart gravitates to the illusion that I make my Christmas, I make my comfort and joy, I make my meaning, I make my identity, I make my community. Theories on how to do all that are endless and self-contradictory, but they have one thing in common: the subject of the sentence is always me.
Eugene Peterson in an old article in the Christian Century poins out, “Christian spirituality… is not about us. It is about God. The great weakness of American spirituality is that it is all about us: fulfilling our potential… expanding our influence, finding our gifts, getting a handle on principles by which we can get an edge over the competition…. [But] Christian spirituality is not a life-project for becoming a better person. It is not about developing a so-called [better] life. We are in on it, to be sure, but we are not the subject. Nor are we the action. We get included by means of a few prepositions.”
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
and his name shall be called Emmanuel, God with us.
For us, to us, with us. Peterson goes on: “[These] are powerful, connecting, relation-forming words, but none of them makes us either the subject or the predicate. We are the tag-end of a prepositional phrase… The prepositions that join us to God and God’s action in us within the world” [the for, the to, the with]… “are very important, but they are essentially a matter of … participating in what God is doing.”
Christmas – either this year amidst the sparse calendars of the pandemic or any year amidst the overstuffed calendars of family and social obligations – Christmas can sometimes seem like it’s about what we do, who we gather with, what decorations we put up, what celebrations we attend or host, whether we go to church and with whom, what gifts we buy, what foods we cook. If that’s what really makes Christmas for us, if without those things Christmas will just not come, then we are not yet fully inside what Christianity means by Christmas, and our comfort and joy are both at risk. If Christmas depends on us, Christmas can be lost. If we are sick, or completely alone, if we burn the cookies, if there’s a fight about which party to prioritize or we can’t even have a party this year. All that stuff is painful, of course, but Christmas doesn’t depend on it.
But, if what really makes Christmas for us is what Christianity means by Christmas, nothing can take it away. Whatever happens, it will come just the same. If Christmas – either this year amidst the sparse calendars of the pandemic or any year amidst the overstuffed calendars of family and social obligations – if Christmas is about what God does for us, to us, with us, nobody can touch it. Nobody can take it away. We cannot do it wrong, or lose it, or improve it, or make it happen, or fail to make it happen.
Nobody can do one thing to change Christmas in the sense of what Christianity means by Christmas, because God already did everything. God already came in Jesus Christ, for us, to us, and with us. In Jesus Christ, God already made another world possible. It’s a world we are invited into at every moment by his grace and truth, and a gift nobody can ever take away. Those are the tidings of comfort and joy that come and stay, when you are not the subject of the sentence, when your Christmas - when your life! - isn’t about what you do, but what God has done for you, to you, and with you.
This gift, these tidings, God offers over and over for us, to us, with us.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
and his name shall be called Emmanuel, God with us.
Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel. Merry Christmas.
Just a few days ago, I spent an entire afternoon singing to my daughter, Pepper, because she’s decided that she a) will be cheerful just long enough for me to finish dinner if I’m singing and b) absolutely won’t sleep unless I sing to her—which has essentially turned my life into a movie musical when Trent’s not home. I’ve cycled through my favorite hymns and sampled July Andrews’ repertoire and eventually just googled famous lullabies because I was tired of singing the Sound of Music. One of the first songs to pop up was Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
It’s a song I’ve always loved, if only for Judy Garland’s velvety voice and the memories I have watching The Wizard of Oz as a kid. But I had never really thought about the lyrics until I was singing it to my daughter in the late afternoon sunlight. What had once been simply a beautiful song sung by a beautiful woman unfolded into a moment where I realized—or admitted to myself—that I, too, wanted to escape, to fly away to a land where troubles melt away like a piece of candy on your tongue.
Our world feels like too much sometimes. We go about our lives trying to make the best of things when an unexpected bill shows up in the mail or we hear from our loved ones that no, they can’t make it for Christmas. Yet just as we think we can’t take much more of this, just as we turn toward our various habits of denial or depression, that is when the Church tugs us in another direction entirely.
Advent is a season to reorient ourselves, to take stock and change direction. It’s a bit of godly choreography that this in-between season happens at an in-between time of the year, when the days have grown short and the weather capricious, when we’re all exhausted from holiday preparations and end-of-the-year considerations—because the reality of the world’s brokenness can no longer hide. The summer isn’t here with sunshine and late-night barbecues to smooth away old regrets, and the hope of springtime is months away. We are stuck, perhaps to our dismay, in a time of unveiling, of reckoning, and of dealing with the consequences. Faced with that pressure, we get the itch to find some kind of deliverance at the end of our yellow-brick road, whether that’s a bottle of wine or the latest television hit. But Advent insists we look elsewhere. It dares us to look at our world and ask: Where is God in all this mess?
Where is God in all this mess? We might first think to look around, to try and find the bright spots in our lives, the early morning snowfalls and surprise letters in the mail. Which wouldn’t be wrong—all good gifts do come from God. But if we want an answer that will counter the temptation to escape or deny reality, that will cut through the fog of depression or despair, we need something stronger than that, something that we are actually given in our Gospel lesson today.
“Greetings, O favored one,” Gabriel tells a very surprised and fairly frightened Mary. “The Lord is with you.” And he begins to unfold the story of Jesus’ imminent arrival on earth. He wasn’t to leap fully formed from the sky, nor was he to be born into wealth or royalty. He was instead placed in the womb of a young and unmarried woman who could offer him no protection but her own body and her own love. Oddly enough, the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, decided to send the savior of Israel into the world in such a way that he was set up to experience the worst the world could give.
And yet rather than cave under the weight of what could go wrong—the imagined terrors and the real fears—Mary bursts into song. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Mary sings with such jubilation because God’s entry into this world in just this way proves that he loves the least and even the lost. He has not forgotten his promise to David, that a son shall establish his throne forever; but he has gone about answering it in such a way that the Messiah will be one with the poor and with the powerless. By choosing to come as a baby, to come into this world as the son of a laborer, our Lord has chosen to identify himself with each and every one of us in our weakness and our poverty, chosen to bestow riches and goodness on us even though we doubt him, even though we sin.
On this last Sunday of Advent, we remember how, in that one moment, everything changed for us and for our world. Where is God in the mess? He is with us. God himself has entered into the mess, into our mess. He knows what it’s like for family to disappoint us. He knows what it’s like to wonder if life will ever get better. He knows because he’s here with us in every moment of weakness and in every moment of strength. Life may not be the easiest in the coming weeks and months. We may feel as though we are powerless, as though there’s no hope for it but to escape to another place entirely. In those moments, may we remember Gabriel’s words: “Do not be afraid. The Lord is with you.” AMEN.
As a part of a get-to-know-you event some years ago the question was asked to name our favorite day of the year. Some said the last day of the school year, others their birthday and so on. I was so intrigued by people’s answers that I began asking everyone I knew, “What is your favorite day?” I still remember my mother’s choice: Dec. 21. I was amazed because that is the darkest day of the year—the one with the least daylight. My mother loves the sun; I was not sure why that would be her answer and so she explained. That day is the shortest but it also means that the light will begin to return; it cannot get any darker. The light is returning!
Today is Gaudete Sunday, Rose Sunday. The third Sunday of Advent, when the color is a little lighter to remind us that the true light is coming into the world! Advent is a time of darkness and of waiting, waiting with expectation of the coming of the light of our Lord. Waiting is never easy, at least at first, until we settle into the rhythm that it holds.
In a lot of ways this time of the pandemic is an extended advent. We are waiting: waiting for this time of separation, fear, and grief to be over, waiting with expectation for the development and distribution of a vaccine, waiting and expecting our lives to find some sense of normalcy. Waiting and expectation. At times the waiting is frustrating even painful and often we want to be distracted from it and that is ok. But, hopefully we can learn from the liturgical season of Advent and use some of this time of waiting to pray and seek God’s presence in our lives. The joy we can experience in this time is precious and comes directly from our relationship with God and the love he has for each of us.
Of all the dreams I can remember, I’d say probably 45 to 55 percent of them have to do with sleeping through my alarm and missing an important meeting or arriving at school only to find that I’m the lead in a play I’ve never heard of. I particularly hate these dreams because I wake up stressed out, sure that I’ve forgotten something, that the deadline is past, or that I’m definitely not going to graduate from high school regardless of the fact that I did 10 years ago.
I’m guessing that we’ve all had dreams like that or, heaven forbid, experiences like that. A crisis is at hand, and no matter how hard we try, no matter how fast we talk, we are still going to have to walk out onto that stage when the curtain rises.
When I first began preparing for this Sunday, that same kind of ominous feeling crept over me as Jesus spoke to his disciples about the end of all things, the final coming of the Son of Man. In those days, the sun will be darkened, and the stars will fall. Children will betray their parents, and parents will turn against their children. All of the beauty and power we see in the world will come crashing down just before the Son of Man returns in glory. “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come.” Which sounds sort of like a nightmare. How many of us can imagine ourselves dozing off and then waking up, dozing off and then waking up, torn between the need and desire to sleep and our anxiety at being caught sleeping when the boss gets home. The master in the parable doesn’t sound like a particularly understanding guy. “I’m leaving,” he says, “and I don’t know when I’m getting back, so stay awake because I don’t want to get home and catch you sleeping.”
There’s no caveat, no get-out-of-jail-free card. Just stay awake until I return. To be fair, the parable doesn’t actually tell us how the story will end—and the foreboding feelings may just come from Jesus’ description of all the terrible things that will happen before he gets back. But if we really think about it, if we look hard at ourselves and ask why we feel so nervous about this brief story, we may realize that we’re anxious and resentful because we know we would fail.
It’s not that we’re undisciplined or lazy. It’s not even that we don’t know what to do. It’s that we know our limitations. And I, at least, like the bridesmaids in a previous parable, would absolutely fall asleep.
What will happen, then, when the master returns? Will we luck out and be awake, with all our work done and our affairs arranged? Or will we be asleep and thus liable to whatever punishment the master can cook up?
When I look at my life, I have to conclude that my odds are not good. I am too conscious of my failings to feel sure that I will succeed in the task our Lord has set. After all, I’m human and I live in a fallen world. I’m sinful, selfish, and sleepy—which makes me, which makes everybody, not really that different than the exiled Israelites, whose plea we hear in our OT reading. “Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.” The Jewish people knew all too well what sins they had committed—sins of pride, of greed, of idolatry. They knew how noxious they had become to a holy God. They sensed that he had turned away from them once and for all because he was tired of always finding them sleeping. “We have become like those over whom you have never ruled, like those who are not called by your name. . . . But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people.”
The Jewish people beg the Lord to rend the heavens and come down just as he once did. But in the end, he doesn’t—or, at least, he didn’t come back in the way they expected. When the Jewish exiles finally returned to Jerusalem, when they finally rebuilt its walls and finished its temple, they waited for the Lord to descend, to manifest himself, to rekindle the glory that they had once known. And they waited. And waited. And continued to wait for 400 years—only to find that, in the end, God didn’t come in lightning and thunder as he once had at Sinai; but instead came into the world as a baby boy, whose precarious life ended in a horrible death.
Stay awake, for you do not know the day nor the hour.
The people of Israel and each one of us here today have the same thing in common: we’re all waiting for the Lord’s return, and we don’t know when he’ll get back. Until that day, we go about our business as best we can, checking and rechecking ourselves to make sure that we’re awake, that we’re doing enough to please our master, so that when he gets back, he won’t reject us. Stay awake, we mutter to ourselves. Try harder. Do what you’ve been told to do.
But is that really what the master wants? What he intends for our lives to look like?
Not a single one of us, not even the saintliest of saints, not even Jesus’ own disciples can stay awake through sheer striving. We are weak, we are sinful. And we are constantly distracted by our own needs and wants and problems and pain. Where, then, does that leave us?
“I give thanks to my God always for you,” the Apostle Paul tells us, “because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus . . . . who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of [his return].”
We do not know when that end will come. We may even think anxiously that when it does we won’t be ready. Our confidence in ourselves is brittle—we know how bad we can be. But it is just when that realization hits us, just when we confess that our iniquities have taken us away, that we find the truth and find our hope. Because it’s not ultimately up to us to save ourselves. Only Christ can do so. And he has done so, waking us from the sleep of sin and death.
The master has gone, it is true, and we don’t know when he will return. But that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to wander the world in perpetual aimlessness. It doesn’t mean that we’re left to fend for ourselves. Every time we open our Bibles, every time we gather as a Body, every time we reach out our hands and hear “the Body of Christ, given for you,” Jesus shakes us gently awake, saying, “Here I am. Don’t be afraid.”
We worship a holy God who wants perfection, who will settle for nothing less than utter devotion—and Lord knows we can’t give it to him. But there is someone who can, someone who is for us, someone to whom we can cling when we’re afraid, who will lift us up when we stumble. Stay awake, he tells us, because you don’t know when I’ll be back. When you’re tired—and I know that you will be—don’t be afraid. Just think of me. And when you’re frightened, when you wake up without knowing that you had been sleeping, remember me, ask me for strength. I have overcome death. Can I not also overcome a little sleepiness?
Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. Until then, we wait for him, relying not on our own strength but on his perfect obedience, for he will not rest until all are gathered under his wings. AMEN.
Around the time Paul wrote our epistle from today, Ephesians, the Roman Empire was abuzz with excitement over the new emperor who had taken office. He was full of energy, popular with the common people, eloquent and charming. Since they didn’t have Twitter or cable networks in those days, in case you had somehow missed the news, coins were issued with his image, showing him wearing a crown symbolizing his divinity. Statues of him went up in outlying towns, so that you would remember whose subject you were. I think I should tell you his name: It was Nero, who became one of the greatest persecutors of Christians.
So the government sent heralds from town to town announcing the good news of this new emperor. And let me assure you that, as the NT scholar NT Wright has written, “when the emperor came to power, the imperial heralds did not go around saying, ‘There is this new experience you might like to try on for size, namely, you might like to give allegiance to Caesar if that suits you and if that’s where you are right now in your own personal journey.’ No, they said, ‘Nero is emperor! Get down on your knees!’”
It is into that world, which is not really so different from our world, that Paul wrote his own good news, which boils down to: “Jesus is Lord! Get down on your knees!” Today is Christ the King Sunday, the day when we proclaim the universal rule of Jesus Christ over all nations, all principalities, all powers, all time and space, and every domain of human endeavor. When we make the great Christian confession: Jesus is Lord.
Jesus is Lord. This is a phrase we can use without anyone troubling us if we mean by it only something private and interior. Now everyone knows that the Roman empire eventually persecuted believers, but one of NT Wright’s interesting insights – I’m going to be borrowing from him a fair amount – one of his interesting insights is that this empire had no problem with believers who talked only about a personal interior experience with Jesus, something private and spiritual that gave them comfort and strength.
There were believers like that, just as there are now, people who had a sort of breakaway church. To oversimplify drastically, one big part of what this breakaway group believed was that what you did on the outside, in the public sphere, didn’t really matter. You could surround yourself with wasteful decadence, or wipe out the livelihoods of your fellow countrymen with crooked loans, or have promiscuous sex, or exploit people of a different race or religion -- none of that mattered as long as you had a private spirituality.
Well of course, this was perfectly fine with Nero and the empire. No threat to their agenda at all. No reason you can’t say “Jesus is Lord of my heart, but the system I live under is the practical lord of the real world and determines everything I actually do.” The Roman Empire could behave any way it wanted, crush anyone it wanted, and the privatistic believers wouldn’t care because it didn’t have any relevance to their personal spirituality.
So the Roman empire liked the breakaway Christians fine. But the traditional Christians – now that was a different matter. When traditional Christians said “Jesus is Lord,” they didn’t mean ‘There is this new experience you might like to try on for size, namely, you might like to give allegiance to Jesus if that suits you and if that’s where you are right now in your own personal journey.’ No, they meant, ‘Jesus is emperor! Get down on your knees!’”
And this was something very different. This was a claim that Jesus’ lordship was for every realm of life, not just for your private comfort and interior spirituality, and that it just might come into conflict with something Nero or Rome was doing. And those were the Christians who got thrown to the lions.
The empire had proclaimed: There is a new world order! Nero rules! But Paul proclaims in Ephesians today: There is a new world order! And it broke into your world of death the morning Jesus Christ rose from the grave. Paul writes: God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.
For mainstream Christianity, Jesus’ resurrection is the first installment of a new reality that has a public, not just an private effect. Real physical public resurrection entails belief in a God who acts to put real, physical, public things to rights. And that’s why we have Matthew 25 as our Gospel this morning, one of the Bible’s best known passages about serving the hungry and visiting the sick and making a real, physical, public difference in this age and in the age to come. In Matthew 25, we hear Jesus commending those who have already been living publicly Christian lives in the midst of the empire, for, he says, I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
If Christ is King – if Jesus is risen from the dead and bringing his Kingdom into being, we cannot but do what those people in Matthew 25 were doing, act in the world as agents of that Kingdom. We cannot but love. We cannot but serve. And we cannot but do it, not in private but in public, in the real world, the world where Christ rose from the dead and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, in this age and in the age to come. Amen.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
It is a great joy to be speaking to you from the nave of Emmanuel today. The stained glass windows, the organ, the high altar with the unique Sarum frontal, the Lady Chapel. It is all still here and such a pleasure to be in it. The quiet, calm as the sun streams through bouncing colors on the walls bring such a peace as I sense the “great cloud of witnesses” who have prayed in this space over the past 100 plus years. We have received a true gem from those who have come before us; the corner of State and University has been a beacon of Christ’s love in the downtown area for all these many years. And as has been said before, now it is our turn to see that this very special place continues to reflect Christ’s light and love into the world. Circumstances have changed since the early 1900’s and circumstances have certainly changed since March 2020 but the church’s mission and God’s love for us remains the same. God’s arms remain open to hold and help us and yes, to push us to show His love to the world. It is here for the experiencing.
This morning’s gospel contains a parable that Jesus told near the end of his life on earth. He told it to those closest to him; those who would become the church, his body on earth, once he was crucified and risen. I would like to look at this lesson with this in mind. Hear it as a parable given then to the church that would be, and today as a parable given to this church, Emmanuel, at this specific time, the time of pandemic.
Upon first read the gospel this morning seems to be contradictory of what we know from other scripture about Jesus and his teachings. What is a talent anyway, what is the point Jesus is making? Are these lessons about capitalism, investment strategies, how to deal with a floundering stock market, or what? This is a difficult parable, I admit, made up of powerful images, both literal and metaphorical, and one that will lend its gems only when we have worked at it some. We will need to dig a bit to see its beauty and to see what it means for us.