Linus and Lucy are standing at the window watching it rain. You know who they are, I’m sure -- two of the children from the classic comic strip Peanuts. The cartoon I’m thinking of is based on today’s Old Testament lesson from Genesis 9. Lucy says, "If it doesn't stop raining everything will be washed away."
"Oh no!" Linus assures her. "Genesis chapter 9 says that never again will God wash everything away."
A relieved Lucy says, "Thank you, that is a great comfort to me."
Linus replies, "Sound theology will do that."
The story of the flood, despite the fact that it comes from the most ancient and murkiest period of stories handed down in Scripture, actually has a lot to teach us. It is full of sound theology -- which, as Linus reminds us, is the only kind that really works because it is the only kind that describes reality.
The story goes that God looked down on earth and saw what a mess people had made of everything -- of the ecosystem, their government, their communities, and their own lives. So, they say, God decided to try and solve that problem by ditching his whole "creation experiment," flooding the world out, and starting over again with a better gene pool. (We may smile at how simple this sounds, but let's remember that stories like this have played an important role in people's spiritual lives for centuries.)
Only Noah and his family, who had so far shown nothing but obedience to God's Word, were allowed to take refuge from the flood and save their lives. Surely a planet with nice folks like this as its ancestors would turn out better. So they build their ark, load on enough animals to repopulate the world, and set sail. They pass through the waters, and the ark keeps them safe, and when they have made it to dry land everything starts over again.
But then what happens? Just a few verses later, good-guy Noah reveals himself as bad-guy Noah, getting blind drunk and passing out in the living room, and his family in turn begins behaving as dysfunctionally as you might expect the family of such a man to. So much for the idea of starting a new world with only the nice people. And in fact, as Genesis goes on to the story of the tower of Babel and of the patriarchs and matriarchs, it's clear that the world is just as full of violence and lies and bigotry as it was before the flood.
So where’s the comfort and the sound theology Linus is talking about in this story? Well, it all turns on God's choice to make a promise.
You probably noticed that Genesis 9 repeated several times the word "Covenant." God says over and over that now that the flood is finished, he is making a covenant. A covenant in Hebrew society usually was a two-way deal, like a contract. This covenant, however, is different. It's not a two-way deal. God promises something, but Noah doesn't have to promise anything back. He doesn't have to earn the benefits of the covenant. He just has to be in the covenant -- like all he had to do to be saved from the flood was to be in the ark -- and like all we have to do to be saved from nothingness is to be in Christ. And in fact, God says the covenant is not just for Noah and his family, but for every living creature, the entire earth.
So note that God doesn't tell Noah, "If you do these sacrifices and don't sleep around and don't tell lies and don’t miss worship too much, I will be good to you." He says, "I myself unconditionally am making a promise. Here is what I covenant with you: I will be for you, not against you. And I am putting a rainbow in the sky as a reminder to you and to me and to the entire creation of what kind of God I am."
The story reads almost as if God has figured out something very important: that relying on human goodness will not produce reliable results. We can't be counted on to behave the way we ought, and even when you think you have managed to create an environment which will exclude the so-called bad people, badness just crops up again. So rather than promising to give people what they deserve, God promises not to give us what we deserve. He promises to be for us, to take the responsibility for goodness himself.
Throughout this Lent we will see in our first reading a series of Old Testament covenants. And what they show, and Scripture in general shows, and our own daily lives show, is that no matter how much people try to better ourselves and live our best lives, or to exclude and cancel others whom we think have transgressed, God does not deal with us that way. God’s love and forgiveness are never because of what we do but always because of who he is. God's solution to the problem of people being so unreliable is to be reliable himself, and invite us to rely on him.
The ultimate invitation to rely on God comes in the story this season of Lent leads up to: God goes to the Cross to die for our sins and rise for our redemption, and he welcomes us all into the living ark of salvation that is Jesus Christ. We are saved not because of what we do, but because of who God is. That's a great comfort to me, but no surprise there -- sound theology will do that.
One of the great Presbyterian preachers of the past generation, Horace Allen, used to talk about how uncomfortable it is to hear the Gospel of Ash Wednesday right before ashes are administered. He’d put it this way: “So, first you proclaim the words of Our Lord: And whenever you fast, do not look dismal and disfigure your faces, and then you say: now kindly please come up and disfigure your faces.”
A seeming irony, but one that doesn’t go very deep. As usual, Jesus is not really giving a command that can be fulfilled by following one specific outward rule, by controlling what you do to the skin on your face. He’s not a simplistic thinker like that. Instead he’s talking about the attitude of the will. What Jesus is warning against is using self-presentation as a way to feel superior to others. In his day if you showed off that you were keeping a fast for God, that self-presentation won you acclaim; you would likely feel very proud to go out in public visibly marked with a sign that you were under a religious vow of fasting.
I doubt there are many people here who feel like that about the blotch you’ll have put on your foreheads when you leave. If you will be out in public in any way, my wager is you’re much more likely to feel a little embarrassed about your black stain than proud of it. The era when American culture admired the Christian way of life and honored its symbols is over; few people have any idea what this sign of ashes even means anymore. Lots will just think you forgot to clean your face.
As so often with Jesus, we need to read his specific commands looking for the intention of the will he is getting at:
Whenever you give alms, he says today, do not sound a trumpet before you.
And whenever you pray, do not…stand and pray at the street corners, so that you may be seen.
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal and disfigure your faces so as to show others.
What’s the intention he’s looking for? What kind of person would you be if it would never occur to you to do any of those kinds of things? One that doesn’t need to feed your own ego with self-presentation, but is free to act for God alone.
So in our day, it may actually fulfill the point of Jesus’ teaching better if you deliberately do leave the ashes on your face, to feel that ego embarrassment that comes with caring what others think. I think it also fulfills his point to have to receive ashes in the contactless way we are doing it this year, from individual cups. It’s awkward. It will probably not work as well as having the clergy put our thumbs on your foreheads. Your cross may not be as well-formed and dark as it might have been last Ash Wednesday.
But again – all of this makes it just a little less possible for us to feel pleased with ourselves that we are keeping Lent. And a little more aware of the sting of our own egos wanting to be gratified, and thus a little more able to notice our need for God’s grace. And noticing our need for God’s grace is what this season is all about. So I invite you to stand now as we enter into this holy season, and then we will kindly come on up, and disfigure our faces.
If we are to take the way St. Mark writes things up for us at face value, the verses we hear in today’s reading may actually be Jesus’ first real day in public. Mark just gives us a blizzard of vignettes here in chapter one of his Gospel. Jesus comes into Galilee “saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe.” He abruptly calls Simon and Andrew to follow him, and then James and John.
As Mark tells it, the first thing they do is go to synagogue together, where Jesus has a public confrontation with evil and sets someone free from an unclean spirit right in front of the whole congregation. Everyone sees this. Capernaum is a small city. It would to be hard to believe that there are more than a couple people who don’t know the guy.
And that’s where this morning’s Gospel reading came in, partway through that day, still on page one of the book, with the blizzard of vignettes continuing. They’ve been to synagogue, and when they come home, it turns out Peter’s mother in law has a fever. Jesus reaches out his hand to her and she too is healed, and then finally they get a little break to engage in whatever the average family does at home on a Sabbath afternoon in Capernaum.
But then at sundown, Mark tells us, this huge crowd shows up. Word of what happened in the synagogue has gotten around. Why sundown? Well, on the Sabbath of course, you can’t work, and work includes carrying things. So the villagers wait until the sun recedes beyond the horizon, and then they start to work, to carry their loads.
They pick up the broken bodies of their aging relatives and ease them onto stretchers, they hoist their feverish, wailing babies onto their shoulders, and they come. They can’t wait till morning. They’ve been waiting too long already. They come to Jesus the moment it’s possible for them to come, at sundown. “The whole city,” it says, “was gathered around the door.” So Jesus goes about the work of setting them all free. As the night wears on and these newly minted disciples (Simon, Andrew, James and John) sit there, I assume, gaping in astonishment, Jesus over and over reaches out to person after person, and everyone who takes his hand that night is raised up, set free, made whole.
How long does this take? If the whole city gathered around the door at sundown, what time is it when Jesus bids the last weeping, grateful family farewell? Midnight? The text doesn’t say but it does tell us that later on, “while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” You sometimes hear a modern interpretation of this verse preached that basically uses it to induce guilt for our self-care routines not being good enough, suggesting that we ought to work harder to emulate some disciplined regimen of self-care that Jesus allegedly held himself to.
Apart from the issue that prayer isn’t about self, I’ve long found that use of the verse really implausible. If the day Mark shows us on page one is the day as it was, I wonder if Jesus may have been up so early for a different reason. If his first day started by coming face to face with evil, and ended with a line of human anguish that stretched around the block three times, might it have been more likely that he just couldn’t sleep? It’s actually a rather important part of Christianity, you know, that Jesus doesn’t float tranquil and unmoved above the daily pressures and concerns of human beings. He is a human being, not just God in a costume.
At any rate, for whatever reason, Jesus is awake before dawn, and eventually he gets up and tiptoes out of the house. And he walks for awhile in the dark, until he is far away, until he feels himself safe from observation by anyone who won’t understand, out in the middle of this ocean of divine Life and Truth that is in him as it has never been in anybody else, and he prays. But eventually the disciples come find him, and what does he say? OK, he tells them, let’s keep going. That’s why I’m here.
This – from gathering a community, to worship in the synagogue, to victory over evil, to healing and mercy, to responding to the needs of a city, to deep union with the Father, to renewed mission each morning – this blizzard of vignettes on the very first page of the earliest Gospel to be written shows us through Mark’s eyes who Jesus is.
We see here the most compelling, fascinating person who has ever lived, launching the most important work anyone has ever had. We see someone who is caring enough to take the time to tend to one woman with a fever, and someone who is focused and competent enough to address the issues of a whole town. And when we look at him, we see God.
There’s nobody else like Jesus. And even more astonishingly, he is there to be met every time you pick up your Bible. This unique person who is God and man, Jesus Christ, is right there, just as he is right there when you come to an in-person Mass or receive contactless communion at home. It’s never too late to start really taking in these Words of Scripture, to ask God questions about them, to come to this Jesus who is every bit as extraordinary in person as he is in Mark’s description. Even if you’ve been waiting for years to get to know him, it’s never, ever too late.
Conflict has always been a part of group life. And discussion and resolution of conflict is how relationships stay together. This is true of couples, of families, of churches, of work environments, and of governments. Conflict happens.
Recently I have been wondering what the Bible might have to say about how we deal with opposing viewpoints in peaceful ways? How might we come to resolution of differences without violence? How do we exist with those with whom we disagree and how might scripture help us as we wrestle with these questions.
Today’s Epistle, I think, has some relevance to this.
What we have heard today is part of a lengthy letter Paul wrote to the early church in Corinth. This letter, as do most of Paul’s letters, speaks of actual life in a particular church at a particular time. While the questions and disagreements of that place and time are not ours now, I think we can learn from Paul’s approach to their conflict.
“After the arrest of John, Jesus went into Galilee and proclaimed the gospel of God.‘The time is fulfilled,’ he said, ‘and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe in the gospel!’”
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It took a little while for the news to filter down to John’s prison cell; but it did after a few days, thanks to some gossipy prison guards. There was a man—a wandering rabbi from Galilee named Jesus—who was going from town to town saying that the time was fulfilled and the kingdom of God was at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel was his message. The guards themselves didn’t know exactly what that meant; but they had a guy in Cell B who might. After all, he had been doing something very similar just a few days earlier.
What does this mean, this good news? they asked John.
It means that God has come to set his people free.
The guards laughed. Tough luck for you.
What is it like to hear the good news of the dominion of God — the vanquishing of Satan, the return of God’s rule, the glorification of an oppressed people — when imprisoned?
Happily for us, we are not literally chained to the wall in a prison cell awaiting who-knows-what-verdict from a king with a grudge against us. Though I think we can empathize in small part with John. Because it must have been disappointing if not devastating to hear that God’s kingdom had come only moments after his arrest had taken place. The good news from Galilee might be good news, but it wasn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. John still faced one of several nasty ends. He would possibly not even see the effects of Jesus’ proclamation.
While most of us, I hope, haven’t been in a situation that is literally like John’s, I think it’s fair to say that many of us have felt the weight of chains — be they financial issues, health scares, or a season of overwhelming sadness — locking our minds or our hearts in something like a figural prison. We have heard the stories of Christ, perhaps even witnessed a miracle and yet we can’t quite reconcile our circumstances with the promises Jesus represents.
If we flip over to Luke’s gospel, we’ll find that John himself may have felt that same kind of tension. Sending two disciples to question Jesus, John asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus, after giving the blind sight, healing the lame, and cleansing the lepers, said, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard.”
But the next time we hear of John, his head is being served to Herod on a platter.
John the Baptist, whom Jesus called the “greatest of men,” doubted the good news. For his entire life, John had been prepared to make way for the One Who Was to Come, the Messiah of the Jewish people. We can imagine his mother telling him stories of his cousin, who had been born in a stable with angels singing overhead. John would have begun his ministry knowing that this was a pivotal moment in time and that he was on the right side of history. And then, of course, he himself baptized Jesus. John himself saw a dove descend from heaven and a voice from on high call out that Jesus was the beloved Son with whom God was well pleased. John witnessed all of this and still he sat in his prison cell and wondered if something had gone wrong somewhere.
What are we to make of that? After John was arrested, Jesus traveled through Galilee proclaiming the arrival of the dominion of God. Repent and believe in the gospel, he said. Was this good news for everyone but the Baptizer? We can feel the tension in John’s heart when he says through his disciples, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
When we are tempted to doubt, when we can’t see God’s grace for the pain in our lives, Jesus tells us, just as he told John’s disciples, that God is forever working to overcome sin, slavery, and death, and that he himself is at the center of it. The reign of God is bound up in this man from Galilee who would willingly walk to the cross for the sake of a people who shouted “Crucify him!” And the gospel does not fail, though the devil does all he can to stop it, though death comes for the ones who bear it.
Because death is not the end anymore in the kingdom of God. Death does not have the final say when God sits on the throne.
There will be times in each of our lives when we struggle to accept God’s promises, struggle to trust the one who lets us stay in whatever prison confines us. When that time comes, when we ask “Are you really the one who will save us, or should we look for someone else?” Jesus is always there, ready to respond, holding out his hands, hands that have healed the sick and raised the dead, hands that are forever marked by the nails that held him to the cross. “Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love.”
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” And it is on that Word we can rely, for he reigns even now while we await his return. AMEN.
Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
This reading from the Old Testament book of 1st Samuel shows us the character who eventually became the namesake of the book itself, the great prophet Samuel, as a boy. In this passage we see him being spiritually mentored by Eli. God is actively calling Samuel, but Samuel isn’t able to imagine what’s going on. He tries to find a natural explanation – it must be the old man Eli calling him from the next room. And so not once, not twice, but three times, Samuel interprets God’s action as a natural human action, until finally Eli realizes that Samuel needs help understanding the reality of a God who speaks, who acts, who calls, who sends.
So we contemporary Western people are not alone in having a problem taking seriously the notion that God does speak, act, call and send, and that he could do those things to and for us. All we have to do is look around to see the effects of our not taking that seriously. We have the chance to listen to and learn from God as part of God’s community, and instead God gets co-opted as a symbol for already-held individual opinions, even opinions that directly contradict what God has revealed to his church or said in Scripture. More than once in history the name of Jesus has been invoked over nationalist or racial or religious violence, for example. We saw it in the Crusades, we saw it at the lynching tree, we saw it in the Rwandan genocide, and we saw it at the Capitol. There is a term for that in our tradition, and the term is blasphemy.
Blasphemy is showing contempt for what God is and treating him as secondary to something else. It always goes hand in hand with idolatry: if anything other than God holds ultimate title to who we are, our identity, where we get meaning and purpose, and then what we as a consequence do, we are in thrall to an idol. And the less we really know about who God is and what he has revealed, the more likely we are to let our thoughts and behaviors be determined by idols. The more likely we are to treat God as an adjunct, or to claim him for something he has already told us in Scripture he finds repugnant. But today’s reading reminds us, and our whole shared way of life as disciples reminds us, that it is possible in the community of Christ’s Body to know God, to learn who he is and what he has revealed, and to put that first in our actions.
This God who spoke three times to Samuel before being noticed as God is still revealing himself in community to people today. This God who acted in the lives of Mary and Moses and Lydia and Isaiah and Samuel and Eli is still acting today. This God who called Eli as a prophet and a mentor is still calling people today. This God who sent Mary Magdalene to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus to the apostles is still sending his church today. This God whom we see in the Old Testament is the same God whom we see in the New Testament who is the same God we see in the myriad communities who have followed Jesus since then, and the same God whom we see right now in our discipleship and our daily lives.
That is, unless we’ve remained unable to notice God. Unless we assume that any so called deity that was out there would so obviously have to be on our side that it isn’t even worth seeking God or studying his word to find out who he is and what he teaches and how we can live in him. See, when we do that together, we are going to find things we don’t already agree with. It’s inevitable, and it’s a good thing, to have your point of view corrected by your Creator. God is not you. God is not me. God is not a footnote to another agenda. God has revealed himself and we can learn to pay attention.
God reached out over and over to Samuel, trying to help him learn what relationship with God is like, but it took help from someone who had known God longer, from Eli, for Samuel to understand what was going on. It took learning to listen in community. Have you ever taken time, with someone like that, to learn how to notice God’s dealings with you? Have sisters or brothers in a Bible study, or perhaps one of your clergy, or a more mature Christian friend, listened to you as you talked about your moral decisions, or about an inexplicable moment of beauty at Communion, or about the sense of someone invisible standing by you at the hospital bed?
It’s so important, if you are not used to living as if we do have a God who speaks, acts, calls, and sends, to put moments like these into words with other people who know Jesus. To let others who are a bit further along in the journey teach you or remind you who God is and how he acts in our lives. Yes, we should also consult the primary sources in Scripture, and do that regularly all our life long, but we need mentors. We need reality checks.
If you are a baptized Christian, God is seeking to reveal himself in your life. God is acting in your life. God is calling you and sending you in his name. This is already happening; you may just not know how to perceive it. You may be like Samuel. You may need an Eli, a mentor in Christ, to talk with – most of us do. Who might that be? Are you aware of your need for a reality check? Are you aware that God may have already answered your question? And are you willing to treat God as God, and to say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
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.