“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.