Zechariah’s Song

For a guy who wakes up at 5 am most days, I’m really not a morning guy.  I hate getting out of bed.  It takes me at least 90 minutes and two cups of coffee to feel safe operating a motor vehicle.  I rarely wake up excited to start a new day.  So it is that I’m not one who can pull out their Book of Common Prayer and a Bible and read morning prayer.  Navigating the Psalms, appointed lessons, and the Collect of the Day is enough to make me want to crawl back in bed.  I rely instead on the good people at Forward Movement who provide up-to-the minute accuracy on the Daily Office website.  It might be cheating to not have to do the page flipping, but that it keeps me from cursing seems to be a fair trade off, and besides, I own a pellet smoker, so I’m kind of OK with taking the easy way out.

Still, I’m not a morning person, and so I’m often either teetering on the edge of falling back asleep or pushing my luck in the amount of time I have before the kids get up.  Should I be planning my own Morning Prayer office, I’d probably choose the shortest canticles every morning, but because I rely on the coding skills of the FM staff, I’m at their mercy.  If they choose all three section of Canticle 12: A Song of Creation, I’m stuck reading it.  I can remember early on in this phase of my Daily Office habit getting frustrated with what seems to be a strong affinity on behalf of the coders for Canticle 16: the Song of Zechariah.  It’s pretty long, and it spends half of its time rehearsing Old Testament prophecy.  Couldn’t it just jump from the first verse to “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High…”?

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In the years that have passed since restarting a Morning Prayer routine, I’ve learned to love Zechariah’s Song, which is appointed in place of a Psalm for Advent 2C.  I love it contextually, as it comes from the mouth of the temporarily mute priest Zechariah who doubted God’s ability to produce a child for this long barren couple. I love that it is sung in direct response to his fear-filled neighbors who wonder, “What will this child become?”  And yes, now I even love that it takes the time to cover the promise of God to the people of Israel through the prophets, all the way back to Abraham.  What I love the most, however, is the blessing Zechariah bestows upon his son.  Like it is for Mary, I’m sure that Zechariah knows that this particular blessing will bring with it pain for John and his family, but in faithfulness, the blessing is proclaimed nonetheless.

“You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prayer his way,

To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guid our feet into the way of peace.”

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A Good Work Begun

Given the baptismal theology of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, that is that baptism is “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church,” it has often been said that Confirmation is left as something of a vestigial service, a liturgy in search of a theology.  While I’ve not done the deep research to confirm, I have it on good authority that in the months leading up to the 1976 General Convention, it was thought that Confirmation would not end up in the final draft of the revised Book of Common prayer.  Evidence in the book suggests that even as it was inserted late in the game, its placement in Pastoral Offices, rather than the Episcopal Services, betrays the fact that many thought that it was unlikely Confirmation would stick around as the thing bishops did when they showed up in a parish.

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Deep within this vestigial liturgy, tucked way behind eight graders looking to graduate from Sunday school and that certain kind of person who actually takes changing traditions seriously enough to mark it liturgically by way of Reception, is the possibility for one to reaffirm their Christian faith.  It gets nary a mention in Concerning the Service or the Additional Directions, so we’ve had to kind of make up what it means.  Still, I think it is actually the most useful portion of this service, and we ignore it to our detriment.  Although it only gets less than three lines of text, the prayer that the bishop is to pray for those who are reaffirming their baptismal promises is a powerful one:

N., may the Holy Spirit, who has begun a good work in you, direct and uphold you in the service of Christ and his kingdom. Amen.

If you’ve been reading ahead to Sunday’s Second Lesson from Philippians 1, you might recognize these words as being grounded in Scripture.  In the opening acclamation appointed for Advent 2C, we hear Paul doing his normal thing by heaping prayers and praises upon the heads of the Christians in Philippi.  Included are these words, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

In the Greek, the words translated as “completion” has its root in telos, which means something deeper than simply checking a task off the list.  Instead, the telos of God’s good work begun is its perfect end.  It is Paul’s prayer for the Church in Philippi, and while the Reaffirmation prayer doesn’t include the full text, I believe it is what we are praying for in that service as well.  Those who come to make a public reaffirmation of their baptismal promises do so for a reason.  It might be because they are coming back to the Church after time away.  It may be because they’ve found a new calling in lay ministry.  Whatever it is, the prayer we offer to God on their behalf is that whatever good work has begun, whether 9 weeks or 90 years ago, might be brought to its perfect end, to the benefit of the Kingdom, through God’s direction and upholding.

The Bishop won’t be coming for several months, but this Advent 2, my prayer for each of you, dear readers, is that God’s good work begun in you might be sustained and fulfilled by its perfect completion.

Repentance isn’t a bad word

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John the Baptist preached repentance, there is no denying that fact, but the myriad of self-proclaimed, English speaking John the Baptists who have followed in his footsteps seem to have missed the point.  Repentance isn’t a bad word, something to be beaten into a would-be disciple, but instead, the baptism of John, the precursor to discipleship under Jesus, was about entering into a relationship of love.

According to Dictionary.com, the English word “repent” means to feel sorry, regretful, or contrite for some past word or deed, which is woefully short of the Greek word “metanoia” that Luke used to describe the Baptism of John.  Even the second definition, which goes on to include felling so sorry as “to be disposed to change one’s life for the better…” misses the mark, in my opinion.

Instead, I’m drawn to the  Young’s Literal Translation of Luke 3:3, which more appropriately captures the depth of meaning behind metanoia. “…and [John] came to all the region round the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of reformation — to remission of sins…”

Metanoia, as you no doubt know dear reader, literally means “to turn around” or “to have a change of heart.”  While it is likely that the impulse for metanoia might well be sorrow or guilt, to place the focus on that is to lose the real meaning.  God isn’t so much interested what brings us to a change of heart, only that it happens.  When the YLT calls John’s baptism a baptism of reformation, it captures that idea wonderfully.  We are called to be remade in the image of Christ, to seek after the will of God in all circumstances, and, ultimately, to a life of love for all creation.

 

What Zechariah Teaches Us

Between Canticle 16 and the Gospel lesson from Luke 3, we get just enough of JBap’s origin story to leave your typical congregation thoroughly confused.  We find out that JBap is the son of Zechariah, and we hear his daddy’s song, but the context as to why it is important eludes us.  The preacher who is dealing with JBap and Zechariah would do well to spend a moment or two reminding her members, roughly 20% of whom have never read the Bible, where this story comes from.

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If you’re reading this blog, you probably aren’t a part of the growing trend toward biblical illiteracy, so I will spare you the gory details.  Suffice it to say that Zechariah has experienced the wrath of God.  Having doubted the word of God’s messenger, Zechariah was made mute for the duration of his wife, Elizabeth’s, gestation.  The words we hear in Canticle 16 are the first words spoken by Zechariah since he asked, “How can this be” 40 or so weeks earlier.

Imagine how frustrating that time must have been.  Zechariah had no one to blame but himself, and yet, he couldn’t  tell of God’s great miracle in Elizabeth’s pregnancy after years of barren sadness.  For 9ish months, the anger could have welled up within him, but it didn’t.  Instead, in his quiet time Zechariah learned of God’s great love as he watched the promises made to him, the promises he doubted so honestly, come true again and again.

When Zechariah finally did speak, he didn’t warn of God’s coming anger, but instead, he sang the Good News of God’s “tender compassion,” literally God’s bowels of mercy that will lead to the way of peace.

There is plenty to learn from Zechariah, but rather than steering negative (i.e. don’t doubt God), I wonder if we might follow his example and highlight the good in his story; God’s love overflows and his tender compassion is open to all.

Pure and Blameless

Another week of Advent, and another opportunity to preach an Epistle lesson that is full of joy rather than doom and gloom.  In fact, thanks to the RCL’s decision to keep the introduction of JBap short, other than an almost sidebar reference in the Gospel lesson, you don’t have much of a chance to preach repentance at all on Advent 2C.  As you might guess from my constant complaining about Advent, this doesn’t bother me much.  Still, if I were preaching both Advent 2 and 3 in Year C, I’d save my JBap sermon for next week and focus on Paul’s joy for the Church in Philippi.

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One of the chief complaints about Paul’s letters is that they are overly moralistic and, as such, they are heavily dependent on time and place.  We hear this often in the conversation around human sexuality, especially the three of “Those 7 References” that occur in the Pauline Corpus.  While this is probably a fair critique of the way Paul gets used in contemporary Christianity, I’m not sure that it is really Paul’s fault.  In fact, while Paul did spend considerable time calling the early Christians to live lives worthy of the Gospel, his focus wasn’t so much on self-sanctification, but on the power of Jesus at work in the lives of believers.  We get a glimpse into that hope in Sunday’s lesson from Philippians 1.

While it is true that Paul calls the Philippian Christians to lives that are “pure and blameless,” he makes no mention of a moral code of discipleship.  There is no law in his call to sanctification, save the law that Jesus gave, “that you love one another.”  For Paul, the key to living lives that are pure and blameless is living lives of love.

“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” – Philippians 1:9-11

By modeling Christ’s life of love for the world and following his commandment of love for our neighbor that our lives our changed.  Sanctification doesn’t come by beating the sin out of ourselves, but by living lives of love empowered by the Holy Spirit, we will become pure and blameless as the sinful desires of our hearts slowly melt away.  Discipleship, or as the Season of Advent would have me say it, being ready for the return of Christ, need not be about following a strict codes of ethics.  Instead, if we choose to live lives that overflow with love, the moral life will naturally follow.