Testify to the Light

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When approaching an airport in low light conditions, a pilot is trained to look for the airport’s beacon.  You’ve surely seen them as well.  They are particularly noticeable near a smaller airfield where roads often pass by in close proximity.  Often when there are some low level clouds lingering about, you’ll see the white and green beams streaking across the sky.  From the air, these lights are visible from many miles away, helping a pilot flying under Visual Flight Rules get their bearings and begin the approach process.  If you can’t see the beacon at the airport, you can’t legally land there under VFR.

The beacon image came to mind this morning as I was reading John’s version of the John the Baptist story.  The lectionary assigns selected verses from John 1 (6-8, 19-28), including three from the familiar and beloved prologue.  With its dual themes of Word and light, the prologue sets up for the reader the theological foundation of John’s Gospel.  The preexistent Word was sent into the world to shine the light of God for all people.  In our text for Sunday, John is careful to note that John the Baptist is not the light, but rather “he came as a witness to testify to the light.”

Both the noun “witness” and the verb “to testify” are translated from the same Greek root, martyr.  John was the witness of the light who was to witness about the light.  To stretch the flying metaphor above, JBap had been given the ability to see the beacon of God’s work in Christ, and was called to get on the radio to tell anyone with who would listen where to find the light.  He was calling everyone back to their home field.  He was inviting them all to see the light shining in the darkness of the world.

As disciples of Jesus in the 21st century, we are inheritors of this primary vocation.  We are called to share the Good News of Jesus; to help our family, friends, and neighbors to see the beacon that is so often obscured by the fog of fear, anger, hurt, and regret.  As followers of Jesus, we are to carry that light out into the world to help people see that in the light of Christ there is life, and that life is abundant with joy, compassion, grace, hope, and love.  The world is in a constant state of low light conditions, but with the light of Christ, Christians are called to shine in the darkness, for as we hear in the prologue, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

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Thankfulness Doublecheck

When State Farm signed Aaron Rodgers to be a celebrity endorser, they brought along his touchdown celebration as well.  Rodgers was known to do a championship-belt-wrestler-type move which is now better known for the Discount Doublecheck than it is for the star quarterback’s touchdown dance.  They even did a humorous spoof on his confusion for one of their 30 second ads.

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While I am not a State Farm customer, I do appreciate the doublecheck idea as the downhill slide toward Christmas begins.  With mere hours between Advent 4 and Christmas Eve, Advent 2 means you best be on the ball when it comes to Christmas preparations.  In the world, that means gifts should be purchased, cards mailed, parties planned, and above all, money must be spent.  In the church it means bulletins should be prepared, special music practiced, pageants rehearsed, and above all, money must be spent.  Unfortunately, the differences between how the world and the church celebrate Christmas can be difficult to discern.  The number of faithful Christians who flock to Black Friday sales on the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day are a clear indicator of that.

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Must spend money!!!!

This is why I’m digging the idea of a thankfulness doublecheck as we begin preparations for Advent 3.  In what seems like an oddly timed lesson from 1 Thessalonians, Paul admonishes his readers, and, by extension, us, to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  In the midst of a season predicated on spending money to buy stuff that people don’t need and likely don’t even want, this advice should catch us short.  Advent 3 is a time for a thankfulness doublecheck.

Am I so caught up in the Christmas Industrial Complex that I have forgotten to find joy in the gifts that God has given me?  Am I so busy running around like a chicken with my head cut off getting all my secular plans in place that I’ve forgotten to pray today?  Am I so obsessed with more that I am incapable of being thankful for what I already have?

I’m not trying to be a Scrooge about Christmas, just inviting us to gain some perspective on what this season has become for many.  Rather than it being about stress and debt, Paul invites us to make this Christmas about joy, prayer, and thanksgiving.  Today seems like as good a day as any for a Thanksgiving Doublecheck.  Won’t you join me?

My Mariology

Regular readers of the blog will know that I tend to skew to the low-church side of Anglicanism. I’m not big on vestments for vestments’ sake. I can see the beauty in a service of Evensong filled with incense and polyphonic choir anthems, but it isn’t a key part of my spirituality. I love the sacraments of the Church, but I don’t believe that baptism is, in and of itself salvific, or that the Eucharist becomes the physical body and blood of Jesus through the Words of Institution. Apropos to the title of this post, I don’t have much of a theology of Mary, let alone her perpetual virginity and immaculate conception, and she’s not a big player in my prayer life.

I do, however, think that she is an important character in the larger story of God’s plan for salvation, and I’m more than willing to give her the title of Theotokos, the Mother of God. It is through her faithfulness that humanity is able to find salvation in Jesus Christ, and in her life we find the example of what it looks like for someone who is fully human to live faithfully into the Gospel. I’d even go so far as to suggest that we replace those old WWJD bracelets with WWMD, What Would Mary Do?

There will be more to say on this topic next week, since in Year B, Mary’s story is highlighted not on Gaudete Sunday (Advent 3), but on Advent 4. However, included in this Sunday’s lessons is the option of replacing the Psalm with Canticle 15, the Song of Mary, the Magnificat. This song, sung by Mary during her visit with Elizabeth, is a profound statement of faith from a young girl whose life is full of uncertainty and fear. Even in the midst of her struggles, she finds enough strength from deep within to sing out, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” I mean, if only I could have such faith in the midst of even a quarter of Mary’s adversity.

She’s young. She’s unwed. She’s pregnant, and the story of her baby’s conception is 100% beyond belief. And yet, she has faith in the promises of God; faith so strong that her entire song is in the past tense. She sings a song of praise to God and the salvation of the world even as she struggles with morning sickness near the end of her first trimester. She is so certain of the promises of God, she knows that even as the plan is unfolding within her womb, they are coming true.

I’m thankful for Mary’s example of faithfulness, and I pray that the Spirit might give me the strength to trust in the promises of God, even as they continue to unfold in and through the Church, the Body of Christ, the Son of Mary.

The Will of God

It might not be as common as it was in the 1950s, but it is still not uncommon for a parishioner to call up either TKT or me to schedule a chance to sit down and chat during a major life transition.  I doubt the clergy of Saint Paul’s are alone in spending time with members who have recently changed jobs, gotten out of a relationship, or become an empty nester.  More often than not, they want to know two things.  First, they want to know if their anxiety is normal.  Second, they want to know, though maybe not in these words exactly, how they can be sure of God’s will for their lives.

That’s always a tricky question because God’s will has been tied up with some pretty ridiculous schemes over the years.  I’ve heard of at least one clergy person who told his congregation that it was God’s will that he have a new Cadillac.  God’s will has been yoked to miscarriages, abusive relationships, cancer, and get rich quick schemes.  It is amazing what the human mind can do to God’s will, when in the oldest piece of New Testament scripture, the Apostle Paul very clearly spells it out for us.

God’s will is that we might have the material things we want.  It isn’t that we stay in situations that are harmful to use physically and emotionally.  It isn’t that babies “come home” or young adults be “strengthened in their faith through suffering with cancer.”  God’s will is simply this, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, [and] give thanks in all circumstances.”  Joy, prayer, and thankfulness, that’s what God wants for us and from us.  That means that those terrible things that people call “God’s will,” well, even if they are a real opportunity for prayer, if they don’t provide joy or an opportunity to give thanks, then they fail the Thessalonians Test.

Living a life that aligns with God’s will and passes the Thessalonians test isn’t easy.  There are plenty of areas in the world and in our lives that don’t bring joy and are hard to be thankful for, but that, I think, is where prayer without ceasing comes in.  When the world doesn’t align with God’s will, we pray – by word and deed – for renewal, restoration, and redemption because God’s will of joy and thanksgiving isn’t just for you or for me, but for his whole creation, made new in Christ Jesus.

The Source of our Strength

The worst thing a preacher can do is believe what is said in the receiving line.  I’m sure I’m not the first person to say this, but I know it to be true, especially, I suspect, in The Episcopal Church.  Human beings tend to be conflict averse.  Most of us don’t like confrontation, so when we’re forced to shake hands with our preacher on the way to coffee hour, we follow grandmother’s advice, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”  Clergy, typically, only hear that their sermon was “nice” or that the service was “beautiful” and rarely, if ever, get called out on the crummy, slapped together, mess of a sermon they just preached.

If we only listen to and believe the words that come in the receiving line, we’re doomed to failure because the temptation is to forget where the praise should actually be directed.  I’m thankful each Sunday that I have to stand and shake hands for the final paragraph of the preamble to the Examination in the Prayer Book liturgy for The Ordination of a Priest, “In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come.”  In other words, it ins’t about me.  It’s never about me.

The Third Sunday of Advent in Year B is an “It’s not about me” Sunday.  The lesson from the Prophet Isaiah makes it clear that the source of his strength isn’t from within himself, but rather “The Spirit of the Lord is upon [him].”  Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, is a song about how God is going save the world through her. The lesson from 1 Thessalonians wraps up with a promise that the God who calls us to holiness is faithful and will help us.  Finally, the short narrative about John the Baptist that we hear from John’s Gospel is all about John pointing the people to someone else.

“It’s not me, y’all. Someone else is coming.”

Even the Collect for Advent 3 is couched in language that reminds us that the source of our strength, our hope, and our redemption is a God who can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.