Is Jesus the one? a sermon

You can listen to this on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.


What a difference a few months can make.  It was just last week that we heard the story of John’s bustling ministry down by the riverside.  John was a baptizer, but more than that, he was a prophet.  To say he got it honest would be an understatement.  His father, Zechariah, was a priest, and his mother, Elizabeth, was from the priestly tribe of Aaron.  Even before he was born, John was already in touch with the power of God, leaping in his mother’s womb when he heard the voice of Mary the Mother of our Lord.  Thirty years later, John was out in the wilderness, on the banks of the Jordan River, baptizing people and calling them to repentance in preparation for the Messiah who was coming.  Matthew tells us that John’s life and ministry were the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah some seven hundred years earlier.  He was the one who was sent ahead of the Messiah to prepare a path.  As Bishop Russell told us, John’s job was to smooth out peoples’ hearts in preparation for the love of God that was enfleshed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

There on the shores of the River Jordan, John the Baptizer seemed so confident.  He was even willing to challenge, head on, the religious leaders of the time.  He called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers,” right to their faces.  He promised them that judgment was coming upon them and upon the whole world.  The one who would follow him was coming with a winnowing fork, and the chaff would be burned with unquenchable fire.  When Jesus came to be baptized by him, John balked at the idea.  He wasn’t worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals, and yet he was faithful in his call, and watched as the heavens opened, and the dove descended, and the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

If anyone had reason to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, it was John the Baptist, and yet here we are, just a few months later, and doubt seems to be creeping in.  Of course, a lot has happened in the meantime.  John is no longer working down by the river.  His brash preaching style went too far when he openly challenged King Herod’s marriage.  See, Herod’s wife, Herodias, had been married before – to Herod’s brother.  Aside from being generally uncool, this sort of marriage arrangement was unlawful, and John made sure Herod knew about it, which of course didn’t sit well with the King or his wife, and so John’s ministry came to an abrupt end when he found himself arrested and put in jail.  We can’t be sure how long John was in prison by the time our Gospel lesson for today takes place, but context tells us it’s been a while, and John has had plenty of time to think.  Too much time, in fact.

While it was the state that could put you in jail in Roman occupied territories in the first century, it wasn’t the state’s responsibility to take care of you once you were there.  Food and clean clothing came to prisons from their families and friends, which meant that communication lines with the outside world were wide open.  While John was behind bars, he was able to keep up with what his cousin Jesus, the Messiah, was up to.  The first thing he heard was that Jesus decided to set his basecamp in Capernaum, a small fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, at least a four days hike from Jerusalem.  Why had the Messiah who had come to save Israel from her captors, to set her free from oppression, and to restore right religion in her Temple decided to set up shop so far from the seat of power?  John could not have been too happy with this turn of events.

Next, he would have heard of the crowd with whom Jesus surrounded himself.  Guys like Peter and his brother Andrew, James and John, all small-time fishermen from Capernaum and Matthew, a tax collector from the same backwater burgh.  Who were these people?  What could they possibly do to help Jesus in his role as Messiah?  They weren’t military strategists.  They weren’t men of much means.  There wasn’t anything about any of them that was particularly impressive.  What good could possibly come from Jesus hanging out with this ragtag group of country bumpkins?

Eventually, word came to John about Jesus’ ministry; how he was preaching repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of God.  Certainly this made John feel a little bit better, their messages were in agreement, Jesus must have been on the right track.  Not long after that, however, heard about a big sermon Jesus gave from the mountainside.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit?”  “Blessed are the meek?”  Blessed are the peacemakers?”  No, no, no!  This wasn’t right at all.  If Jesus was the Messiah then he was supposed to come with power and might.  His message was to be one of revolution and God’s vengeance of those who had led Israel into sin.  What was Jesus doing?!?

Finally, he heard of the miracles.  There might have been just a little relief in John when he heard that Jesus was tapping in to his God given power, and yet, the miracles he was doing, what was the goal?  Healing a leper?  The servant of a Roman Centurion?  A couple of blind men?  Even raising the daughter of a synagogue official from the dead?  To what end?  What was Jesus up to?  Why was he wasting his time on these small time parlor tricks?  Why lavishly waste the power of God to help a Centurion or synagogue leader?

John had heard enough.  After months of bouncing around a jail cell with nothing but thoughts to fill his time, John needed some reassurance.  Was Jesus really the one he had been waiting for?  Was the scene at his baptism for real, or had he imagined it in a hope filled hallucination?  Is Jesus the Messiah or not?  And so John sent a few of his disciples to go and ask Jesus plainly, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus stops short of answering “yes” to the question, but this might be the closest thing we ever get to a straightforward answer from Jesus.  Note that his response is exactly what caused John to ask this question in the first place, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard.”  What John has seen and heard has him doubting the whole enterprise, but Jesus turns it on his head.  “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them.”  Like John in his ministry, Jesus goes back to the prophet Isaiah.  There, in the thirty-fifth chapter, Isaiah describes what the restoration of Zion will look like, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

John, like many others in his day and ours, had fundamentally misjudged what God was going to be up to when his Kingdom came to earth as it is in heaven.  Instead of coming with power and might, God comes to us in the form of a child, born in a stable, to a frightened, unwed mother.  Instead of overthrowing the religious and political powers-that-be with armies of men and violence, Jesus took down the power of evil by being crucified by those very same powers-that-be.  In the years in between, God didn’t coerce, he didn’t surround himself with the rich and powerful, he didn’t do favors for the elite.  Instead, Jesus ministered to the poor, the vulnerable, the meek, and the outcast.  Jesus brought the Kingdom of God to precisely those who never thought it could be for them so that he could bring the Kingdom of God for everyone: even John the Baptist, even a Centurion, even a Synagogue official, even you and me.  This Advent, we once again prepare for God to come to earth in a most unexpected way and to bring about his Kingdom for a world that desperately needs it.  We may doubt God’s way of doing things, and we would be in good company, but Jesus reminds to see, to hear, and to take part in his work in the world about us: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and poor have the good news brought to them.  That is good news my friends, Good News, indeed.  Amen.

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Stir Up!

n_stirrup9965-a

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 forever.  Amen. – The Collect for Advent 3

As I mentioned on Monday, for all my dislike of Advent as it plays out in 21st century America, I love Advent 3.  I love the pink candle.  I love the Magnificat.  Above all, I adore the Collect for Advent 3.  Dating all the way back to the Gelasian Sacramentary, this prayer has been on the lips of Christians since c.750.  It was the last of what used to be a series of four “stir up” prayers that were used in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  It is a 1979 novelty that it falls on Advent 3.

Because of its age, I dug out my copy of Massey Shepherd’s Oxford Commentary on the [1928] American Prayer Book to see what the good Doctor had to say about this prayer.  What I discovered there is that this comforting phrase “stir up” doesn’t actually appear there.  Instead, the 28 Book reads, “O Lord, raise up, we pray thee,…”  In his Commentary on the 79 Book, Marion Hatchett seems to infer that the Latin excita means “to stir up,” but what is actually happening there, is he is showing us the translation.  So, I went digging, and found that excita, can be translated in several different ways.  The Latin Word Study Tool from Tufts University suggests, “to call out, summon forth, bring out, wake, rouse.”

It is doubtful that there are resurrection connotations to this word, but it certainly assumes that something has gone dormant.  How often do we quell the power of God in our lives?  Isn’t is so much easier to lull that piece of us to sleep so that we can go about the motions of life, unencumbered by the fearful power of God?  It is a common fact of modern, western Christianity that the Spirit, that dangerous force that calls us to God’s will, is undervalued and systematically hushed.

This prayer, then, is a dangerous one.  It is asking God to rouse that power that we would much rather keep quashed.  It invites the Spirit to work in our lives for the restoration of our souls and the whole world.  It ought to be taken quite seriously.  This Advent, are you interested in stirring up, rousing, reinvigorating the power of God in your life, or would you rather keep things safe and calm, removing yourself from the possibility of being an agent of God’s reconciling love in the world?

How are we judged?

When John’s disciples approach Jesus with their teacher’s question, Jesus doesn’t balk at it.  In fact, it might be the only question Jesus answers in a straightforward manner in all four gospels.  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” is, despite my attempts to soften it yesterday, a question of judgment.  Even if there is hope behind John’s question, there is also a question of truth.  “Are you, Jesus, really the Messiah?” is about as forthright a question as you can get, and Jesus doesn’t shy away.  In fact, he responds the their question by giving them the criteria by which he wishes to be judged; which also happens to be the criteria by which his Body, the Church, and her members will also be judged.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus asks to be judged based on his words and his actions.  He wants the disciples of John to take back to him the lessons they have heard, specifically Jesus notes “the good news for the poor,” as well as his acts of mercy: the blind see; the lame walk; the lepers cleansed; the deaf hear; and the dead alive.”  These are the criterion of the Kingdom of God, and as such, they serve as the basis of discipleship in our everyday lives.

Advent is a season in which judgment is at the forefront.  It is a season that makes us uncomfortable because we don’t like being judged, but I think our fear of judgment is mostly based on the fact that we feel like we don’t know the rules by which we will be judged.  Here, we get those rules laid out for us very clearly.  As we prepare for the coming of Jesus as a child born in a stable and descending with power and might to judge the world the season of Advent is a perfect opportunity to take stock of our lives.  Are we being faithful in sharing the Good News to the poor, that is, the good news of God’s economic reversal to the physically poor and the Good News of God’s saving grace to the spiritually poor as well?

Only then should we begin the process of answering the “what do you see” question.  Are we reaching out in loving service to our neighbors?  Are we challenging unjust systems?  Are we bringing healing to the world?  Or, as Jesus says to wrap things up, “are our words and actions creating a stumbling block for Jesus, or are we living lives worthy of the Gospel?”

Doubting John?

Saint John the Baptist in Prison 19th-Century Print

Sick Eye Roll Bro

John the Baptist gets plenty of love.  Off the top of my head, I think he is featured in the Lectionary at least three times each year.  We hear the story of his ministry as a baptizer (often multiple times a year), his beheading at the hand of horny Herod, and, at least in Year A, the story of his crisis of faith in prison.  With all the love that we pour on John, I can’t help but wonder why this particular story doesn’t stigmatize him in the same way the story of Thomas’ doubt follows him around.  Why do we call Thomas “Doubting Thomas” but not call John “Doubting John the Baptizer”?  There are other stories about Thomas in the Bible.  In fact, Thomas is the disciples who proudly announces that he will follow Jesus to his death (John 11:16) and at the Last Supper inquires as to they might follow Jesus to the Father (John 14:6).  So why all the dap for John and no love for Thomas?

The answer, I think, lies in this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, and it comes with the help of the Matthew, our narrator.  You see, Matthew uses this story to reintroduce a word that has been absent since the birth narrative, Messiah.  The scene is set this way: John has been arrested and while in prison he heard stories about what the Messiah was doing.  In Greek, Matthew uses the Greek word “Christ,” which essentially means the same thing.  Anyway, by choosing this story to be the first place he identifies the adult Jesus as the Messiah/Christ, Matthew sets this encounter up not so much as one of doubt, but of assurance.

John has heard the stories of Jesus preaching and teaching and healing all sort of people with all kinds of conditions, and he is hopeful.  John sends his disciples, at least as I read this story, in expectation of the answer.  He wants to be sure that the one who he saw as the Lamb of God really is the one that he was waiting for.  Even though the message and ministry of Jesus doesn’t quite look like burning the chaff with unquenchable fire, John seems to know, or at least that’s what Matthew wants us to think, deep down, that Jesus really is the one.

I’m not big on calling Thomas a doubter.  In fact, I don’t think he doubted at all.  Equally so, I’m glad we don’t put the weight of the doubter tag on John the Baptist either.  These were both good men, faithful disciples, who loved Jesus, but needed to see his Messiahship with their own eyes.  I, for one, can understand that.

Aorist Mary’s Song

Despite my oft written about uneasiness with the season of Advent in its current 21st century Amercian incarnation, the third Sunday of Advent, often called Gaudete Sunday, is one of my favorites of the entire church year.  To start, we get the last remaining “Stir Up” prayer in the American Prayer Book.  More on that later this week.  The lessons for Advent 3, a day that is set aside for joy, are always interesting, even if John the Baptist’s doubt leads to some difficult preaching.  More on that later as well.  Beyond all that, the absolute best part of the Lectionary for Advent 3 is the opportunity to sing Betty Carr Pulkingham’s setting of the Magnificat.   Unfortunately, I can’t find a recording of it to share with you.

marys-magnificat

The setting is beautiful, but only because the words of Mary’s song are so powerful.  You’ll recall that this song comes from Luke’s Gospel account of the birth of Jesus.  Shortly after Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and informed of her new identity as the theotokos, the Mother of God, Mary heads to the hill country to spend some time with her cousin Elizabeth.  Elizabeth was old and had long since given up hope of having a child, but she too is pregnant, miraculously, with the one who be known as John the Baptizer.  The unborn John leaps in his mother’s womb when he hears the voice of Mary.  Elizabeth offers the first Hail Mary, and in return, Mary sings her song.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior…”

What I find particularly striking this morning is the verb tense that Mary chooses.  My favorite Canticle, sung on one of my favorite Sundays, uses my favorite Greek tense: the aorist tense.  As I’ve written before, the Rev. Dr. Tony Lewis, my Greek professor, taught the aorist tense this way.  Occasionally, the refectory [a fancy word for cafeteria] will feature the sausage bar.  There are Kielbasas, hot dogs, Italian sausages, and the fiesta dog.  The aorist tense is like the fiesta dog, you eat it once, and its effects last forever.”

Listen to some of the things Mary puts in aorist tense: that is, it has already begun and is ongoing:

“He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.”

A brief study of the news will tell you that none of this seems true.  It was perhaps less true in Mary’s day and age, and yet she sang with confidence and hope that her being chosen to bear the Son of God meant that God’s plan for salvation was already underway.  The lowly were being lifted up. The hungry were being fed good things.  The social structures that oppressed people were being subverted.  The world was being turned right-side-up.

It may be really hard to see the truth of Mary’s promise.  We may scoff at her choice of the aorist tense, but that’s what Advent is all about.  We wait.  We watch.  We work.  We proclaim the greatness of the Lord who has already defeated selfishness, pride, oppression, and death

Mary’s Song – a sermon

My Advent 3 sermon is now available to listen to on the Saint Paul’s Website.  If you’d prefer, you can read it below.

Imagine for a moment that you are a thirteen year-old girl living in first century Nazareth.  Life isn’t easy for you, and, quite frankly, it never will be.  You’re already betrothed to a nice carpenter named Joseph.  He’s quite a bit older than you, but that’s how things work these days.  At this point, you are learning the last bits of wisdom from your mother: how to keep Joseph’s work shirts clean, what spice combination she uses in her lamb stew, things like that.  Joseph will be back from adding your room onto his Father’s house soon, and life as a married woman is about to begin.  Right now, life is all about waiting.

Then, one day, everything changes.  In a moment, the whole world was turned upside down.  There is, standing before you, something like you’ve never seen before and yet something that is amazingly familiar.  As the fear wells up within you, this being, this angel, this whatever-it-is opens its mouth and speaks, “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.  Blessed are you among women.”  “What sort of greeting could this be,” you wonder as the fear grows into terror.  It speaks again, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  In an instant, the panic turns to peace, as if the angel spoke peace into existence.  The angel knows your name, and called you by it!  It continues, “Now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High…”

Conceive?

A Son!?!

Now!?!?!?!

“How can this be,” You ask, “for I am still a virgin?”  After a brief explanation of the intricacies of the divine conception of your first-born son, the angel looks you in the eye and assures you, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

Luke doesn’t tell us how long the silence between the powerful promise of Gabriel and Mary’s response went on, but I’m guessing there was a very long, awkward pause, as this young woman – a girl, really – ran through her mind the ramifications of all that had just happened.  Getting pregnant outside of marriage was a serious problem for her.  The dowry had already been paid, agreements had already been made, and her new home was already under construction.  She could be killed for this!  And yet, the fear did not take over.  The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, even the understanding of a young teen-aged virgin, abided as she responded, “Here I am, a servant to the Lord: let it be with me according to your word.”  And with that, she went from an unknown girl who wasn’t even a blip on the historical radar to The Ever Blessed Virgin Mary.

Since that day on or about March 25th in the year 0, the tradition surrounding Mary has been the most divergent in Church history.  It seems as though there are two ways to handle Mary.  Protestants remember her in the early chapters of Luke’s Gospel, and once Linus has finished reciting the Christmas story in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, they put her away for another year.  Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, seem to worship Mary at level almost on par with Jesus himself.  There isn’t time here to go into the various legends associated with the Mother of our Lord or to parse the doctrines of her perpetual virginity or immaculate conception, but what I found interesting as I spent the week with Mary is that while we have the opportunity to hear Mary’s Song, The Magnificat, every Advent, theologians have spent very little time an energy dealing with what it means that Mary’s “yes” made her not only the Theotokos, the God Bearer, but also made her, in the words of Alyce McKenzie, “a reluctant prophet.[1]

Following Mary’s divine encounter with Gabriel and the Holy Spirit, she does what any wise, young, unmarried, pregnant girl in the first century would do, she leaves town.  Mary packs her bags and heads to the hill country to visit Elizabeth, the aged-and-formerly-barren-yet-soon-to-be mother of John the Baptist who was kin to Mary.  It only seems fitting that this two miracle moms should spend some time together.  As Mary entered the house, she called out the traditional greeting, “Shalom,” which means “peace.”  When she heard Mary’s voice, Elizabeth was overjoyed, her baby leapt in her womb, and filled with the Holy Spirit, she shouted at the top of her lungs, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  The two women are ecstatic to the point that Mary breaks out in song, a prophetic oracle of hope.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.  From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name. He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.”[2]

It is a beautiful hope-filled song, but what I find most interesting is that Mary has her verb tenses all mixed up.  Here she stands, still a virgin, yet somehow pregnant, and surely fearing for her life, yet she is able to proclaim, “The Almighty has done great things for me…”  How can she make this claim?

Before the heavenly chorus sings “Glory to God in the highest;”

before the shepherds and the Magi; before the proclamations of Simeon and Anna;

Before the heavenly chorus sings “Glory to God in the highest;”

          before the shepherds and the Magi; before the proclamations of Simeon and Anna;

before the twelve year-old Jesus stays behind in the Temple that he calls “his father’s house;”

before his baptism and temptation;

before he turns water into wine, calls his first disciples, heals his first leper, or dines with his first sinner;

before his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem;

before he turns the tables in the Temple Court;

before his betrayal, arrest, and trial; before his crucifixion and death;

before those three days in the tomb;

and long before his resurrection; Jesus’ mother, Mary, proclaims with boldness that Lord has already fulfilled his promise of mercy.  Mary sings of the future redemption of the world in past tense; the Lord has already done these things.  Like every other prophet in history, Mary was able to see beyond the constraints of the current hardship into the hope-filled future that God promised long ago.

This morning, as we continue to wait for the coming of our Lord through another Advent Season, I’m aware that the world is still full of difficulty.  It is often hard to see the future vindication of history when the news is full of stories of teen-aged drunk drivers getting a slap on the wrist because they are too rich to know right from wrong, or high school students who respond to getting cut from the debate team by taking a shotgun to school, or three people being stabbed to death over a football game, but the promise is sure: the Lord has done, is doing, and will continue to great things.  Mary’s Song invites us to see beyond the bad news of today, to imagine a better future, and to remember the words of the Angel Gabriel, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”  Amen.

“Some Anglicans”

Over the last 30-some years, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with my Church.  I love The Episcopal Church, but sometimes it drives me crazy.  I love our liturgy, but hate it when our liturgy becomes the object of or worship.  I love our flexibility, but hate it when it feels like we believe nothing at all.  I love our tradition, but hate that tradition means the 1950’s American Church , the 1549 Prayer Book, the 11th century Sarum Missal, or any number of other dates to which we affix undue import.  All in all, however, I love The Episcopal Church.  Hell, I wouldn’t invest so much of my time and energy in seeing it flourish in the 21st century if I didn’t.

I was reminded of that love this afternoon as I went about doing research on the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  I started out by trying to track down a legend I thought I had heard once that Mary laid hands upon John of Patmos to make him a Bishop.  I never found that particular legend, but I did end up on my favorite source of theological wisdom, Wikipedia.  In the section entitled “Christian Doctrines” there is a list of the various doctrinal statements made by the Church about the Virgin Mary.  Some are rather innocuous: The Mother of God and the Virgin Birth.  While some are widely speculative: the Assumption and Perpetual Virginity.  And then there’s the one that everybody misunderstands, Immaculate Conception, which isn’t about the Virgin Mary conceiving Jesus in her womb, but instead that Mary was conceived without “original sin,” which thanks to the stain of Augustine means here mommy and daddy didn’t have sex.  What I found fascinating was the chart that goes along with all of this, indicating which Christian denominations subscribe to which doctrine.

some anglicans

I like that the tree more hotly contested doctrines: Assumption, Immaculate Conception, and Perpetual Virginity are said to be accepted by “some Anglicans.”  The BVM is perhaps the most bifurcated soul in the Biblical Christian tradition.  It seems as though she is treated either as an object of worship, the Theotokos on par with Jesus Christ himself, or entirely ignored after Christmas Eve.  If you are a Presbyterian or Baptist or Congregationalist, Mary plays no role in your religious life whatsoever.   If you are Roman or Orthodox, she is at the forefront of your religious practice.  But in the Anglican Tradition, that bridge between Roman Catholicism and Reformed Protestantism, our Marology runs the full spectrum.

I love my Church because there is room to struggle with Mary and what she means for our lives.  “Some Anglicans,” indeed.