Epiphany 2, John 2:1-11
I’m sure that you’ve attended your fair share of weddings and wedding receptions. And I have no doubt that some of those wedding festivities are more memorable than others for a host of reasons.
As a pastor, I could tell you some tales of unusual experiences at wedding banquets. The pulpit is obviously not the place to do that!
But today we have the story of the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee, its own compelling and usual tale. According to the gospel writer John, this is the first event Jesus attended just days after he began his public ministry. Jesus was there with his new disciples along with his mom.
In John’s telling we have this fascinating exchange between Jesus and his mother at the banquet. I can picture Jesus and Mary off to the side observing the proceedings and making comments to each other in the familiarity of a mother-son relationship:
Mary: “They have no wine.”
Jesus: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”
Then Mary to the servants [sensing perhaps what might happen next having pondered in her heart the mysteries about her son for his entire life]: “Do whatever he tells you.”
This could easily be played as a humorous moment in the gospels, a comedy duet, but the exchange also sets the stage for the first of Jesus’ public signs which revealed his glory, namely, when he changed water into wine after the bridegroom’s wine gave out.
We’ve all known those disappointing parties where there’s not enough food and drink. Or the eats and drinks are of poor quality and not very satisfying. Or there’s enough of the good stuff to make a good first impression and then an abundance of cheap food and drink to get people drunk so they don’t notice or care much about the poor quality. And on and on.
Bear with me. This is not a sermon about social etiquette and good party planning, but about Jesus Christ and how he addresses the human condition with good news.
Here’s the thing. The way of the world is the way of the banquet which runs out of wine. That’s the human condition. In our finitude and mortality, it’s the way of scarcity and limited resources. And in our sin, we seek to hide the realities of our limitations.
Sometimes we engage in anxious deception of the kind that the late 19th Century economist and sociologist, Thorstein Veblen (an alum my alma mater Carleton College) termed conspicuous consumption, that is, acquisitively flaunting luxury goods and services as a way of showing status in overstated and impractical ways – theologically speaking, a sin of pride.
Surely our overstated, relentless pursuit of consumer commodities masks our fears of our limitations, our ultimate poverty when it’s all said and done. The fear weighs on us and is a source of what ails so much in society, as we consume ourselves to oblivion, perhaps extinction as a species. Eventually we’ll run out of wine…. Our pandemic supply chain struggles reveal the reality of our limits in un-nerving ways.
But this is precisely the reality Jesus addresses when he changed water into wine, something common into something extraordinary. Despite his hour having not come, as John reports Jesus having said, Jesus enters the scene of the wedding banquet by providing abundance, the best of created goodness, more wine to replenish the supplies.
The miracle of Jesus turning water into wine is described by John as a sign. The Greek word shares the root for the word and thing and practice, semaphore, a system of sending messages by code. A sign is a distinguishing mark, or token, or portent that points beyond itself to different reality, in this case, transcendent realities.
The sign that Jesus offered was quite something. I don’t know how much wine the bridegroom started with, but what Jesus did was produce anywhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine (six stone water jars each holding twenty or thirty gallons). That’s as much as perhaps 900 standard bottles of wine! That’s a lot of wine for quite the party. That’s abundance, not scarcity. It’s an amount that is not likely to give out.
And the wine that resulted from Jesus’ intervention was of an excellent quality and vintage, the best of God’s good creation. The steward said to the bridegroom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”
This was the sign that revealed Jesus’ glory. Again, we’re not talking about Jesus and his mom going into business as wedding planners and consultants. Not at all. This wasn’t about the wine in and of itself. Nor was the sign about the miracle. Rather the sign pointed to Jesus himself and to a different time in his life, namely, when his hour would come, the hour when he would be glorified at the end of his life.
Here we have at the very beginning of his public ministry according to John a foreshadowing of the end of that earthly ministry. For Jesus’ glory in John ultimately is his being lifted up on the tree of the cross at that right hour, namely, the final hours of Jesus’ earthly life.
The sign offered at the wedding in Cana of Galilee occurred on the third day since the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry after he had called his first disciples. When we hear that phrase, with the 20/20 vision of post-resurrection hindsight, we cannot help but also hear “on the third day he shall rise again.” That’s when the real party begins, the feast which knows no end, the best wine saved for last that doesn’t give out.
It's noteworthy that John’s gospel does not explicitly recount the story of Jesus’ baptism. But here we have featured in this story six stone water jars intended to be used for the Jewish rites of purification. Is this not for us believers an allusion to the waters of baptism which purify us?
Further, John’s gospel also does not include an account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper at the Last Supper. John emphasizes Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in the Last Supper segment of the story.
But that doesn’t mean that John’s gospel isn’t eucharistically sacramental. In the story of the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee we go from water to wine, metaphorically in some poetic, non-linear sense, from baptism to Eucharist, for the Eucharist with its good wine is likened to a wedding feast. At the wedding feast at Cana Jesus himself is the good wine that does not give out, the very wine we imbibe at this our sacramental table conveying Jesus’ real presence, his real self.
This is good news that signals the reality of the eternal abundance of God’s good creation, the fruit of field and orchard. And it was and is glorious to behold. The revelation of Jesus’ glory inspires faith – “and his disciples believed him.”
Yes, it’s glorious also for us to behold. We see Jesus’ glory in baptism. We see Jesus’ glory in the Eucharist where the best wine, Christ himself, quenches our thirst and that of all believers throughout the world and for all time, endlessly. Amen!!
In this sacramental light, I invite you to hear portions of today’s first reading from Isaiah as a kind of invitation to the communion table: Come to the table, for “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her… for the LORD delights in you…. So shall your builder marry you, and as one rejoices in marrying one’s beloved, so shall your God rejoice over you” (cf. Isaiah 62:3-5). This kind of blessing is what this table of feasting is about!
And when we leave this foretaste of the heavenly wedding banquet to return to our homes and venues of engagement with the world, in God’s generous abundance, we offer varieties of gifts, varieties of services, varieties of activities all inspired by the one Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of Jesus himself.
And to a hungry, thirsty, needy world, a world scared to death of scarcity and limitation, we give gifts of abundant wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles (that is to say, more signs to Christ), prophecy, discernment of spirits, various kinds of tongues and the interpretation of the same – all for the common good.
Come to the feast, enjoy the best wine who is Christ. Leave in joy to quench the thirst of a dry and parched worldly landscape. Amen.
Baptism of Our Lord/Epiphany 1, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
A striking thing to me in today’s gospel reading, appointed for Baptism of Our Lord, is how Luke matter-of-factly narrates Jesus’ baptism: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…”
It’s almost as if Jesus’ baptism was an afterthought for Luke. Given Luke’s rendering of this event, mentioning it almost in passing, I picture Jesus simply as one among many in the crowds of people being baptized. Other gospel writers zero in on the singularity of Jesus’ baptism. Not so with Luke.
Thus, in Luke’s telling, I see in my mind’s eye the waters of the Jordan River teeming with people of all kinds, sinners, tax collectors, the poor, the rich, soldiers, and others. And there was Jesus in the midst of the hoi polloi.
That’s a great image to convey concretely the theological affirmation of Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us – in this case as a person in the crowd, standing in line with many others of all stripes to be baptized by John.
Again, in my mind’s eye, there they all were in the water together, bodies touching bodies no doubt, Jesus immersed in dirty waters without the benefit of chlorine.
It’s all so viscerally physical, embodied. Thus, it’s also striking that Luke makes a point to say that the Spirit descended on Jesus in bodily form like a dove.
This happened after the baptism when Jesus was praying. Prayer is often understood as a spiritual, dis-embodied kind of activity. Indeed, prayer can be one of those points of contact between the immaterial and material when the heavens are opened to us.
But Luke insists that the ethereal Spirit came in bodily form amidst Jesus’ prayer.
How seemingly ordinary, if not profane, that the Spirit would take bodily form like a dove, one of the common, everyday animals that was among the teeming menagerie on Noah’s Ark during the flood and which Noah deployed in the service of determining whether or not the flood waters had receded.
But all of this is the point – Jesus with us among the crowds being baptized in the earthy, dirty water. And even the ethereal Spirt coming to rest on Jesus in bodily form. It’s all in keeping with John’s affirmation that the Word became flesh to dwell among us, to pitch a tent with us, full of grace and truth, even amidst unclean waters that somehow, by God’s grace, end up cleansing us.
And the striking features of Luke’s telling of Jesus’ baptism is also in keeping with the earthiness of Luke’s narrating the whole story of Jesus. Luke, among the gospel writers, has a heart for the earthy, the sacred finding expression in the ordinary, the physical, the visceral, the lowly, even the unclean. Tradition has it, after all, that Luke was a physician, one focused on bodily realities.
The good news is that Jesus’ baptism among the crowds sacralizes our bodily earthiness, claiming in sacred ways even our dirtiness. Our baptism into him, into his earthy, physical, death and resurrection restores our earthen sacredness, the ultimate goodness of bodily creation, one of the main points of one of the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis.
Think also of this: We just celebrated Epiphany and the Magi who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the holy family. The gift of myrrh points to Jesus’ death, for myrrh was ointment for the anointing of dead bodies. There is nothing more visceral, and unpleasantly so, than a corpse. But Jesus’ death, which the gift of myrrh foreshadows, along with Jesus’ bodily resurrection, redeems, makes holy even our own death, even our own lifeless bodies.
Thanks be to God for those of us – all of us – who are weighed down, feeling the burdens of our broken, ailing bodies. This is all good news for us, we who also struggle to see the holiness of teeming crowds of ordinary people who these days can erupt too easily into violent, raging mobs.
Jesus was baptized to inaugurate a ministry with the crowds of sinners, which as Luke reports, John the Baptizer described in this way: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. With a winnowing fork is in hand, he will clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.” That’s the essence of Jesus’ ministry, according to John, separating wheat from chaff which is to be burned.
Thus, our being baptized into Christ means being baptized with fire not just with water. Baptism into Christ, our Messiah, means that we are blown with the winds of the Spirit that separate our wheat from our chaff. And it’s our chaff, our unusable husks, that are burned with unquenchable fire.
This fiery word sounds like a threat, and it is a judgment, our being held accountable for that which in our lives does not bear good fruit.
But the fiery ordeal of our baptism into Christ is also a promise, and good news, as suggested by the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isaiah 43:1b-2)
The Spirit’s winnowing of us, that is, the holy winds as at creation blowing onto us to separate the chaff from our wheat, that which is unusable, unhelpful, sinful from that which bears fruit, this winnowing is ultimately gospel grace that generates and continues to renew our faith, our trust in a messianic judge who also is the compassionate, merciful God of love.
Which is to say, when it’s all said and done, as the prophet Isaiah assures us, the fire does not consume us, the fire does not damage us, but rather purifies us, justifies us by grace. Yes, this may hurt, but it’s for our healing and being made whole once again toward becoming and bearing the fruit of wholesome grain to feed a starving world.
And when it’s all said and done our fruit is ultimately sourced in the fruit that was born on the cross, our tree of life, a tree watered by the dirty torrents of the River Jordan when Jesus was baptized among the crowds, among us, when the Spirit descended in bodily form, for our salvation.
And with all of this, God is well pleased. Amen.
Second Sunday of Christmas, John 1:1-18
Our Christmas worship thus far has featured the stories from Luke’s Gospel about the birth of Jesus and then also the narrative of Jesus’ visit to the temple in Jerusalem at age 12. All of this has been in keeping with the character of Luke’s gospel, which promised to offer an orderly account of the events of Jesus’ life.
Today we turn from a more empirical accounting of events of Jesus’ birth and childhood to a more theological interpretation of these events featured in the prologue to John’s Gospel. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
Jesus was and is in John’s understanding the very embodiments of God’s word which existed already and was part of the whole world’s coming into being at creation – this is admittedly a great deal more abstract than a baby in a mother’s arms.
But the point is that in these latter years of this thus-far two-thousand-year epoch, the eternal word of God came into this world of God’s creation to become one us in the fullness of both humanity and divinity.
All of this happened in and for this world. What were the characteristics and conditions of this world into which the word of God entered in the flesh?
According to Jeremiah in today’s first reading, the world that the prophet addressed was one characterized by exile in which there was much weeping and mourning and sorrow, stumbling along crooked paths. People were scattered. There was much languishing.
That’s the language the prophet Jeremiah employed to describe the condition of the exile of God’s people. But that chosen language also describes the condition of the world in which we find ourselves.
Of all the descriptive words, I am most drawn to the theme of languishing. Much has been written about this state of being during these pandemic days as we soon enter into the third year of this global upheaval, made still more intense and acute by the Omicron variant of the virus.
Languishing, according to those who have written about it, is not a state of diagnosable depression strictly speaking. And it certainly is not one of thriving or flourishing. Sociologist Corey Keyes coined the term languishing as the opposite of flourishing. Languishing is characterized by apathy, restlessness, feeling unsettled, or having a lack of interest in life and activities that used to bring joy. Stagnation, monotony, and emptiness also describe languishing. Languishing sounds quite similar to ennui.
The Word who is Jesus Christ enters our languishing world to pitch a tent with us.
And yet, we may not even recognize this good and holy word, nor believe it. Indeed, the gospel writer John in today’s passage suggests the world into which God’s word was sent to become flesh did not know that word. And many did not accept the word. It was a world of shadows and night, bereft of the benefits of the light the word brought.
So, too, in the world of our day, as we languish in night’s shadows often without recognizing the ongoing, eternal word among us, failing thus to trust that word.
Even so, God’s word breaks into this world with good news, a salutary message, a gospel that makes for flourishing, the opposite of languishing.
Listen to the language of today’s scriptural readings that describe the nature of God’s intervention in this world by way of both the prophetic word and the divine word that became flesh.
“With consolations I will lead them back,” we hear in the reading from Jeremiah. The prophet continues speaking the word of the Lord: “I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble.” “They shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord.” “Their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.” “I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness instead of sorrow.” Even the priests will have their fill of fatness “and my people shall be satisfied with God’s bounty.”
That is not the language of diminishment and languishing. Rather, the opposite, again, that of flourishing. These are words of promise and return from exile.
Then listen to the language from Ephesians in today’s second reading. Let these words wash over you, we who live in a needy, diminished, languishing world: We are promised every spiritual blessing; are destined for adoption; and all of this according to God’s good pleasure and will, glorious grace, freely bestowed; with riches of grace lavished on us; occurring in the fullness of time, God gathering up all things in Christ; accomplishing all things according to divine counsel and will. (cf. Ephesians 1:3-14)
Likewise, John’s gospel offers language of flourishing and thriving beyond languishing. The word that takes flesh is full of grace and truth. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” “[And] to all who received [the word made flesh] who believe in his name, he has given power to become children of God” born of the will of God.
These are lovely, wonderful words. But what difference do these good messages concerning God’s good, fleshly word make? Has the world really changed since the word became flesh two millennia ago? What we know of and experience in the world is more in keeping with the prevalence and persistence of exiled languishing.
Perhaps the word becoming flesh is less about changing the world and more about introducing or revealing realities in this world that we cannot otherwise see.
The power and significance of God’s word is perhaps that this word guides us to perceive reality that our unbelief prevents us from seeing. The coming of God’s prophetic word and the word becoming flesh make for hermeneutic shifts giving us the eyes of faith to see reality as it really is from God’s perspective.
It’s the same world, but we come to see realities through faith that were otherwise hidden in our languishing.
Maybe we can say that it’s a matter of seeing is believing and then also believing is seeing.
Seeing Christ, we perceive God, and then come in faith to see how God sees. That makes all the difference. Or as John reports: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.”
Consider our circumstances in Christian assembly here in this place. Water in the font is just that – water – in the shadows of the world’s darkness. But by word and the Spirit in faith, such water is integral to our becoming God’s children.
From the perspective of the world’s shadows in unbelief, words are mere words. From the perspective of faith, words accomplish what God intends in proclamation and in absolution, making us forgiven children of God.
From a merely worldly perspective, the bread we eat and the wine we drink at this table are just bread and wine. In faith, we apprehend that our sacramental meal contains the fullness of Christ’s presence.
And this change of perspective in seeing scared flourishing amidst languished diminishment can indeed make for real change in a real world when we become God’s word in deed in loving service to neighbors in need.
If the word was at the beginning in creation, that word is likewise living and active in creative ways in our own time, now through us – once again, God’s work, our hands.
To get a sense of how Christian perspective has changed the world, as a case in point, consider the radical idea of God’s word becoming flesh, central to Christian thinking. This theological affirmation introduced an equalizing dynamic in the world of ancient hierarchies such that we have come to affirm the sacredness of all persons, which was not the case in ancient thinking. We take it for granted that all are created equal. But this basic affirmation arguably has roots in basic Christian understanding of God becoming one of us in Christ.
In the word, dwelling with the word, we become the realities to which the word points, which the word signifies. This is yet another gift to all of creation at Christmas.
And all of this makes all the difference for the world into which the word became flesh. Thanks be to God. Amen.
First Sunday of Christmas C, Luke 2:41-52
Just yesterday we were celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus. Today, at least according to our appointed lectionary readings, Jesus is already 12 years old. These kids, they do grow up quickly!
The story of the boy Jesus in the temple is the only account in the scriptures of Jesus’ childhood. This episode also conveys in striking ways Jesus’ humanity and that of his parents, Mary and Joseph.
As we heard in Luke’s gospel, Jesus stayed behind after the customary family trip to Jerusalem to observe Passover and he found his way to the temple where he engaged and was engaged by the teachers there.
Mary and Joseph assumed that Jesus was among family members heading back home. Then, to their shock, they discovered that Jesus was missing. Mary and Joseph headed back to Jerusalem and when they found Jesus, they had a poignant, but typically human encounter with their son. Mary said to Jesus, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”
Jesus is 12. He’s an adolescent. And if we take his humanity seriously, and we must if we are to be faithful to our theological affirmation of the fullness of his humanity alongside his divinity, Jesus engages in some very normal behavior revealing self-differentiation from his parents.
Jesus said, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
This response baffled his parents: “they did not understand what he said to them.” Indeed, sometimes we simply do not understand our children. But differentiating from our parents is a completely normal and expected part of growing up.
Like all human children, Jesus was in formation to become an adult. Adolescence is that rocky road between childhood and emergent adulthood when hormones rage within us.
Jesus at 12 also knew the tumult of this period of life – again, we must acknowledge that if we take seriously Jesus’ humanity. To put it plainly, he was going through puberty. Maybe you’ve never heard a pastor acknowledge that about Jesus in a sermon before!
A crucial element of this rough and tumble of maturation to adulthood is to claim and be claimed by our callings to become who we are meant to be. And part of this involves separation from parents. It’s just the way things are for us human beings. All of us go through it. Jesus did, too.
Like the boy Samuel in today’s first reading, Jesus was being prepared for what lay before him when he took up the mantle of his public ministry at about age 30.
But here’s the thing about human parenthood: we don’t always want to let go of our children and our own particular visions of what we want them to become. Martin Luther’s dad wanted him to become a lawyer. Instead, Luther became an Augustinian Friar and studied Old Testament. Most of us can tell such stories.
Parents can hold on too tightly, though, often trying to live through their children, maybe trying to redeem themselves in their children’s achievements. The old sinful Adam finds its ways even into our attempts at parenting.
The long and the short of it is that the rough and tumble of formation toward what we will become is indeed a difficult road for children and for their parents.
It was true for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. It’s true for us.
But here’s the good news: God is not absent from all of this. Indeed, we Lutherans affirm that God has a vocation, a calling, for each and every one of us.
This was certainly true in Jesus’ case. Mary and Joseph were getting major indications of this all along. According to Matthew, an angel visited Joseph in a dream telling him that Jesus to be born of Mary would redeem people from their sins. Gabriel visited Mary to announce the great things that would become of Jesus. The shepherds, too, reported the good news of great joy of the angels’ message to Mary. All of this served to reveal God’s vocation for Jesus, God’s only Son.
But it’s not just Jesus who has a divine call. Again, according to Martin Luther, God calls each of us. That’s a centerpiece of our Lutheran heritage. God has a vocation for all people lovingly to serve neighbors in need in many and various ways according to who they are in their unique configurations of gifts differing.
When we are drawn to embrace the particularity and uniqueness of holy vocations, especially those of our children, then we can begin to let go of our parental needs to control and we can more willingly abide in the mystery of the unfolding of our children’s lives.
Mary certainly came to this kind of embrace. Luke records that she more than once “treasured all these things in her heart,” in the case of today’s reading, Jesus’ time in the temple with the teachers. With this Luke reports that Jesus “increased in wisdom and years, and in divine and human favor,” with Jesus’ calling unfolding according to God’s intent.
But even when Mary was treasuring all of this in her heart, this did not make the road any easier to travel. For when Jesus was presented in the temple years earlier than his time with the teachers at age 12, the old seer Simeon said to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the intentions of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:24-35)
The sword piercing the soul is perhaps hinted at even in the reading for today when Jesus was 12 in the temple.
Jesus’ family traveled to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover – a foreshadowing, perhaps, of when Jesus, decades later, would keep the Passover with his disciples to inaugurate his own Passion, ushering in for us the paschal mysteries, his and our Passover from death to new, resurrected life, a set of events that most definitely pierced Mary’s soul.
And then there’s the reference in today’s gospel passage where Luke chooses language that also points us to Jesus’ Passion and ultimately the resurrection: “After three days [Joseph and Mary] found Jesus in the temple.” After three days. After three days, he rose again, his resurrected body becoming a new temple for us all. Yet another revelation of what would become of Jesus according to divine intent.
Thus, even on the First Sunday of Christmas during these twelve full days of celebration and feasting we have a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the telos, the culmination and fulfillment of Jesus’ divine and human vocation, his calling from God, the one whom he calls Father.
This Jesus, he who died, he who was raised by God, also forms us in our life-long callings – our children and ourselves – all of this undertaken in our communal life as Christians.
Even as Samuel wore the little robe that his mother made for him each year, we, too, are clothed with Christ’s love, as Paul suggests in our second reading for today. We are clothed with the garment given to us when still wet from our baptisms into Christ.
Thus, in Christian community, we, the chosen ones, holy and beloved, are clothed with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” for the sake of bearing with one another and forgiving each other, the peace of Christ ruling in our hearts.
All of this made possible by our dwelling richly with the word of Christ in our worshipful and studied gatherings as we teach and admonish each other in wisdom and with gratitude as we “sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God, ever giving thanks to God, the Father, through Christ. (cf. Colossians 3:12-17).
And all of this in service of our God-given callings lovingly to serve our neighbors in need in and for the sake of the world. Amen.
Christmas Eve, Luke 2:1-20
Think of it. Can you imagine the Christmas story without the creche and its figurines – Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus in the manger, the animals in the barn because there was no room for them at the inn, the shepherds, the angels, the star of Bethlehem?
These are constitutive elements of the story recorded in Luke’s Gospel. They have been at the heart of Sunday School Christmas pageants for generations. [Even here today, the features of our beloved biblical Christmas story were made clear when our children lovingly placed the figurines in their proper places in the manger scene at the altar].
Moreover, the characters and configurations our manger scenes appear in the lyrics of so many of our beloved Christmas Carols – “Away in a Manger,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Silent Night,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “What Child is This.”
I’m here to tell you this night that none of the features of the Christmas story would have been possible without the interruptions of a government bureaucracy in Mary and Joseph’s life. It’s true, a bureaucratic mandate made it all possible. Remember how the story in Luke begins: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”
So, it was a government directive for a census that made possible all of the elements of our beloved Christmas story. If a registration, a census, had not been ordered, then Mary and Joseph would have had no reason to travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem. Then there would have been no occasion for there to be no room in the inn. And no stable and no manager and no animals and no shepherds and no angels.
Our beloved Christmas story was made possible by a government directive. Imagine that! How profane. How devoid, seemingly, of the holy. But also how incredibly significant.
All of this reveals the radical contingency of our lives and our circumstances. So much of our life experience is dictated by circumstances beyond our control. And so much occurs by seeming happenstance.
I like to tell the story to my son, Nathan, that he and I would not exist if it were not for the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad which had a steam locomotive maintenance facility where I grew up. My mother travelled from South Dakota to live in my Illinois hometown because one of her sisters was married to a steam locomotive mechanic who was transferred to work in Monmouth, Illinois. My mother went to live with them, and when my dad came home from WWII, he fell in love with the pretty young blonde from South Dakota who was singing in the choir of the Lutheran Church. The rest is history, and here I am. Without the railroad job of my Uncle Soren, I would not exist as who I am today, nor would my son.
You all can tell similar stories. And I encourage you to do so, for it’s a compelling exercise.
The radical contingencies our lives and circumstances can be frightening. It seems so random. If one little piece is out of place, our lives, who we are, would be entirely different, or we might not be at all.
But here’s the thing that makes all the difference: God enters into the particularities and peculiarities of human history, our stories, to advance the divine will.
So be it that all of the elements of the Christmas story which we hold dear came about because of a governmental bureaucratic decision about taking a census. God used all of that for sacred purpose, and when it’s all said and done, we would not have it any other way. Isn’t that right?
What otherwise seems random and beyond our control is used by God for God’s purposes, very much under God’s guidance and control.
This is a significant feature of the sacred mystery in the story which treasure and which we, like Mary, ponder in our hearts on this holy day.
Here’s another mystery. The baby Jesus grew to be the one who was lifted high on the tree of the cross for our salvation. His being put on the cross was the result of yet another governmental directive, an order of execution. And yet, God made good of that, too, by raising Jesus from the dead for the life of the world.
In all of the changes and chances of life, the message is that we cannot escape God’s good and gracious will for us and for all of humanity.
That’s one of the central meanings of the sacred story which we celebrate at Christmas and in all of our Christian stories. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Luke 1:39-45
We live in an age seemingly dictated by the adages “bigger is better” and “more is always desirable.”
This all comes into bold relief during the Christmas holiday season when our focus turns to consumer spending inspired by long-standing traditions of holiday gift giving.
A national retail trade association suggests that holiday retail spending this year may exceed 850 billion dollars, which apparently tops the Pentagon’s budget by somewhere around 100 billion dollars.
That’s a lot of stuff. The pandemic has exacerbated some of this. In the absence of spending on services, people staying home are buying more consumer goods and products which has put pressure on international shipping logistics and has contributed to the highest inflation rates that we’ve seen in decades.
All of this consumer spending on retail goods contributes to higher quality of life in some respects, but it also creates enormous burdens. There are the personal burdens of responding to loved ones’ expectations of receiving particular gifts, goaded by advertisements and pressures to “keep up with the Joneses.” And then there are burdens on the environment – consumer by-products create enormous amounts of waste, especially plastics which don’t easily decompose.
There’s no real need to belabor these points about our society’s acquisitive energies to have more and more. Except to say that the Christian faith tradition, as evidenced in today’s readings, offers a very different view than that encapsulated by “bigger and more are better.”
In fact, the witness I see in our readings for today suggests the opposite, that less is more, and little is great and very holy indeed.
The prophet Micah proclaims God’s word in our first reading for today, “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me the one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2)
So it is that we sing, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! …yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and dreams of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Then the author of Hebrews in today’s second reading focuses on the immense significance of one body being offered once and for all for the sins and burdens of the whole world for all time. The Hebrews author concludes, “it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:10)
Once again, the witness here is “less is more.” A single offering of Christ’s body does far more than centuries of countless sacrifices and burnt offerings.
Then there’s the witness of today’s gospel reading featuring the visit of Mary to Elizabeth who lived in a Judean town in the hill country, a little rural place of little worldly significance compared to the holy city of Jerusalem or of Rome, the imperial capital.
At the time of Mary’s visit, Elizabeth was pregnant with the child who would become John the Baptizer. Luke reports that Elizabeth said that when Mary greeted her, the tiny little child in her belly leaped for joy.
Yet again, less is more, little is great, even the tiny movements hidden inside Elizabeth’s womb.
Then there’s Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which served as today’s Psalmody. Mary sings that God has “looked with favor on [her], a lowly servant.” Moreover, Mary sings that “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” And “God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Still more evidence the reversals that come with the logic of God’s dominion, that less is more, little is great, small is holy, all in contradistinction to the dominant values of our wider society, a counter-cultural but grace filled witness against the burdens of “more and bigger are better.”
And there’s more to be said about less is more.
The cross of Christ is at first glance an inconsequential thing, a common form of execution in ancient Rome. Yet, look at what God did to make the cross the tree of life for the salvation of all people.
The empty tomb is an understated reality, but from it emerged resurrected new life that has changed everything.
Turning to our own routines here in this place, a small quantity of water poured over us at the font is akin to an ordinary bath. Yet we come out from the font a bit wet but as new creations in Christ, as adopted children of God.
Then there’s the tiny bit of bread and sip of wine at this holy table, a tiny meal that contains the full banquet of everything that Christ has to offer for our salvation.
Likewise in our assemblies here at Resurrection Church, fewer than one hundred people usually, small by megachurch standards – yet here, too, is the fullness of Christ in word and sacrament.
You see, again and again, Christian values and Christian practice extol the greatness of the small. Less is more. The ordinary is extraordinary.
That’s all good news in a world increasingly incapable of delivering on the seductive illusion that bigger and more are better.
And the Christian witness restores our faith not just in God but in ourselves, that we, in our seeming insignificance are also sacred vessels used by God in ordinary ways for sacred, extraordinary ends.
So it is that we leave this place trusting that God will use our small efforts to advance the heavenly, eternal dominion. Think of just this one example in our life together where a little goes a long ways: your offerings translate into gifts that benefit those in need in our local community and extend across the entire globe where Lutherans embody the saying, “God’s work, our hands.”
Once we see and embrace that “less is more,” that the tiny and modest contains God’s greatness, we begin to see more and more examples of the truth of such divine realities.
Thus, in this holy season, we embody in our ministry and mission the wisdom contained in the final stanza of today’s Hymn of the Day: “We are called to ponder mystery and await the coming Christ, to embody God’s compassion for each fragile human life. God is with us in our longing to bring healing to the earth, while we watch with joy and wonder for the promised Savior’s birth.” (ELW 258, “Unexpected and Mysterious, text by J. Lindholm)
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Third Sunday of Advent, Luke 3:17-18
Today, the Third Sunday of Advent, has been known as “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete, a Latin word, is an exhortation to rejoice. So, Gaudete Sunday is a day of rejoicing. This was significant in liturgical practice when Advent had a more penitential quality, more like Lent. In former practice, Advent was also a season for fasting and restraint. Except that on the Third Sunday, the more solemn was set aside briefly for rejoicing.
You may remember that the color for the season of Advent used to be purple, like Lent. And some at Resurrection have recalled to me the use of three purple candles for the Advent wreath, and one pink one, the pink being for Gaudete Sunday.
In current liturgical practice and understanding, Advent is less a season for penitence and more a season for hopefulness – hence the color of blue for this season, including the four Advent candles, blue being associated with hopefulness. Some of you have shared with me how much you like Advent blue.
All of this said, by way of liturgical history lesson, themes of rejoicing are retained in the lectionary appointed readings for today. So it is that we hear from the prophet Zephaniah in today’s first reading, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, and has turned away your enemies.” (Zephaniah 3:14-15a) And so the prophet continues with the good news of the promise of restoration for God’s people, all causes for rejoicing to be sure.
Then also, in today’s second reading, we hear from Paul, writing from prison, who exhorts the church at Philippi to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” (Philippians 4:4-5)
Then, in an abrupt reversal of mood, we have John the Baptizer remembered by Luke as having said to the crowds gathered about him for baptism: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance…. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7-8a, 9)
Where’s the rejoicing in that on Gaudete Sunday, a day for rejoicing? “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Can you imagine if I began a sermon addressing you all as a brood of vipers? After such a sermon’s beginning, Council President, Glen Mason, might be directed by you all to call the Bishop’s office to have a word with her about your pastor’s behavior in the pulpit….
Luke concludes the passage appointed for today with these words: “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” (Luke 3:18) What’s good about the news containing words that threaten judgment? Again, what’s there to rejoice at in that?
Well, there’s quite a lot of cause for rejoicing, actually, if we take a closer look at the passage. John’s threat of judgment provoked the crowds to ask John, “What then should we do?”
Luke reports that John gave some very specific answers. People who are blessed to have two coats are instructed to share one with another who has no coat. Likewise, people who have plenty of food are instructed to share their food with the hungry who have no food. Tax collectors, reviled and hated in ancient days, were instructed by John to “collect no more than the amount prescribed for [them].” For ancient tax collectors could extract from people any amount they could get away with. To the soldiers, John said, “Don’t engage in extortion by threatening or falsely accusing people.” Moreover, soldiers should be satisfied with their wages and thus not to resort to plundering and pillaging to gain the spoils of war.
What we have here in Luke is John giving instruction to the crowds that served to even out the playing field, thus fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah we heard invoked last Sunday describing John the Baptizer, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:4-6 and cf. Isaiah 40:3-5) John’s instructions serve to level the playing field for all.
This evening out, this restoration of balance, is good news indeed for those on the short ends of the sticks. Those in want will be clothed with warm clothing and have plenty to eat. And the victims of extorting tax collectors and pillaging soldiers will have their day of reckoning to be victims no more.
But when it’s all said and done, the restoration of balance, of commonwealth, is even good news for the rich, those who have more than enough, and the tax collectors and pillaging soldiers. For they, too, suffer from the systems of injustice in their own ways.
Isn’t true that underlying the greed that leads to injustices of hoarding, and pillaging, and extortion is a deep insecurity and fear? Surely such insecurities and fears are a burden which seeks release, a bondage and captivity that yearn for freedom.
Think about it. Even the rich, the tax collectors and soldiers followed John into the wilderness to hear his harsh proclamation and to receive the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that John offered in the River Jordan.
They may have discerned that the prophet John the Baptizer had good news for them, too – otherwise, why would they have been attracted enough to head in the wilderness to hear the word of judgment and to gain baptismal release from the bondage to their sins?
So it is that a harsh word of law spoken can have its own dimensions of good news – or certainly lead to the good news, which is the gospel of grace and forgiveness and freedom for burdened sinners that leads to restoration of justice for all people.
Which includes all of us (though I am not moved to refer to you all as a brood of vipers!). Rich and poor alike, all of us are sinners, yes – and that very much includes me.
The crowds wondered about John the Baptizer, and whether or not he was the Messiah. Luke reports that John made things clear that he was not the Messiah: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. With a winnowing fork in hand, he will clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Think of the baptism of Jesus’ own death and then his resurrection which we symbolize with the new fire at the Easter Vigil, a fire usually larger than we’re accustomed to in worship, a little bit out of control, that lights the Paschal Candle, an eternal light, unquenchable fire that burns in the shadows of our nights.
Then John reports that the coming one will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Think of the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit entered the room and tongues as of flame descended on each of the apostles enabling and empowering them to proclaim in the languages of all the nations God’s deeds of power in raising Jesus from the dead.
Think of our own baptisms when after the water bath and anointing with oil and laying on of hands for the coming of the Holy Spirit, a lighted candle is given to the baptized reminding us of the unquenchable fire of the light of Christ in our lives.
Moreover, think of the baptismal life, our life of faith, as a life-long process of purgation when Christ through the Spirit working in word and sacraments in our assemblies burns our chaff and preserves the fruit of the wheat of our faith and good deeds for the sacred granaries.
This purgation is not about some people being damned and relegated to eternal, unquenchable fires and others being saved for God’s granaries in heaven. No, it’s that the old, sinful Adam in each of us is winnowed away by God’s grace in the Spirit over the course of a lifetime, even as our good fruit in the Spirit is made available to the world in our works of loving service, a granary for all people and all needs.
All of this is good news indeed!
As if we hear the words of the prophet Zephaniah echoing again in our graced, faith-filled lives: “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, and has turned away your enemies. The Sovereign of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more…. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; the Lord will rejoice over you with gladness, and will renew you with love; the Lord will exult over you with oud singing as on a day of festival.” (Zephaniah 3:15, 17-18a)
And so it is that the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard [our] hearts and [our] minds in Christ Jesus,” (cf. Philippians 4:7) as we heard in today’s second reading.
So it is, rejoicing at the grace of God given in the good news, we leave this place with spirits uplifted to give coats to those who have none, and food to those who hunger, seeking justice and commonwealth in our wider society, restoring balance and well-being for all.
People of God, Gaudete, rejoice in Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the one who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty. Amen. (cf. Revelation 1:8)
Second Sunday of Advent
The gospel writer, Luke, begins his work by stating his intent to “write an orderly account” of the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, “after investigating everything carefully from the very first” (cf. Luke 1:1-4).
We get a good sense of this careful attention to detail in today’s gospel reading from Luke. Luke wants us to know in no uncertain terms exactly when in world history John the Baptizer began his work: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…”
These names and places and timelines mean little to us in our day, but all the detail makes the timeless theological point that God’s word comes to us through God’s appointed messengers at very particular times and specific places in human history. God’s word is no mere abstraction in the ether, but is part of parcel of the nitty gritty circumstances where we find ourselves.
What I am most drawn to in this listing from Luke is the particular place where the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah. God’s word came to John in the wilderness in the region around the Jordan River. Wilderness was the place.
I’ve had occasion to be in the wilderness areas named in various biblical accounts, including the region about the Jordan. They are some very forbidding places, with the exception of the verdant areas near the river itself.
The wilderness can be the place of temptation, as we know in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness after his baptism by John. And wilderness can be the place of scarcity, extremity, and danger, even if these places offer up vistas of austere physical beauty.
Here are some words that describe and characterize wilderness: uncultivated, uninhabited or neglected or abandoned areas. Untamed. Undomesticated. Inhospitable. Desecrated perhaps. Apparently Godforsaken. Or we might also say that wilderness is a place of lawlessness and disorder, at least from human perspectives. Think of the old tales of the Wild West in US history. Moreover, wilderness can be the place of exile, where people are marginalized, forgotten, abandoned.
Wilderness is often typically understood as a place of physical geography. But wilderness can also be more metaphorical like a mental state that we experience within ourselves. Or wilderness can be social, as in the lonely crowd.
The bottom line is that on first glance, there is nothing particularly inviting or hospitable about places or states of wilderness. In short, wilderness may be those places or conditions or circumstances in which we experience the harsh burdens and suffering of our lives.
I daresay, we are living in a kind of wilderness as the pandemic persists and new fears about the omicron variant make us wonder if this particular wilderness journey will ever end. And each of us can name other ways in which we experience wilderness – literally, metaphorically, socially, and more.
And yet, the biblical witness is unmistakable: the wilderness in not ultimately Godforsaken. In fact, wilderness can be the place of intense divine encounter. Think of Moses called to the mountaintop in the Sinai wilderness to receive the Law. Yes, think of the holy angels ministering to Jesus in the wilderness of temptation.
And of course, we turn our attention on the Second Sunday of Advent to John the Baptizer in the wilderness around the Jordan where he proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and fulfilled in his presence, proclamation, and baptizing the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of the Lord.’ Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
John reportedly dressed in camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey. He was a wild man in a wilderness proclaiming a wild message about valleys being filled and mountains and hills being brought down to size and straightening out the crooked and smoothing out the rough places. In short, the message is about God upending business as usual in ways that even things out, in ways that restore balance, but in doing so also turn the world upside down.
We hear language like this as well in today’s first reading from Malachi, about God’s messenger being like a “refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” refining and purifying silver and gold (cf. Malachi 3:2-3).
The result of such proclamation is that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Let’s turn our gaze now to Christ, to whom John the Baptizer points. In Christ, all flesh, all peoples, all nations ultimately see God’s salvation in the wilderness, the wild place, that is the cross and the empty tomb. That’s the outcome of the story.
But at the beginning of the story, all flesh sees the salvation of God in the wilderness around the Jordan where John was baptizing and where John baptized Jesus and the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in bodily form like a dove (cf. Luke 3:21-22).
And now turning to the places of our assembly in these latter days, all flesh sees God’s salvation in the wilderness of our lives when we, too, are washed in baptismal waters with the word and Spirit descending on us as well.
And there’s more, of course, in God’s gracious abundance in the places of wilderness scarcity in our lives. The wilderness of wandering on the part of the people of Israel was the place where manna was given to the people who hungered for bread.
Such manna, such bread from heaven, Jesus himself being the bread of life, is rained down on us in our wilderness journeys right here at this table when we might otherwise be given to complaint and lament, and we find that the eucharistic bread of life is enough for our journeys.
And God’s word comes to us right here in our assemblies in wilderness conditions and circumstances just as the word came to John the Baptist around the Jordan, and just as the word came to Jesus in the wilderness of temptation when Jesus remembered the words of scripture to combat the attacks of Satan, the deceiver.
Thus, in many and various ways, God finds us in our places and circumstances and states of wilderness. Wilderness is, thus, not godforsaken at all. Thanks be to God.
God’s finding us when we are gathered around word and sacraments turns our wilderness worlds upside down bringing hospitality to inhospitable regions, the sacred dwelling with us as Immanuel, God with us, when we were otherwise abandoned. God finding us in our wilderness brings order to chaos, lavishes favor on us in the places of disfavor, makes sacred the apparently desecrated, and more and more.
God has planted the cross, the tree of life, in our wilderness deserts to make them places of luscious growth and harvest, even as vegetation is abundant in the immediate wilderness areas surrounding the Jordan River.
Thus rejuvenated and enlivened in faith here in this place, the Spirit then drives us back into the wilderness of our world to do as John did, to proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and to introduce a taste of paradise in the wilds of our lives and that of the world, our God-inspired love overflowing more and more with knowledge and full insight which produces the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God, all as suggested by Paul in today’s reading form Philippians.
For the one who began a good work among us will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ – as God tames the wilds of our world and our days.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
First Sunday of Advent
Listen to this again: “There will be… distress among nations confused by the roaring of the seas and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world….”
While it is true that there’s always been distress among nations, and the seas have forever in the human imagination been places of foreboding mystery and danger, maybe this passage from today’s gospel speaks in ways unique to our age.
Given the changing climate, sea levels are rising throughout the world, threatening the ever-increasing numbers of people who live in coastal areas. Moreover, hurricanes and other storms are gaining in intensity, also adding to the threat of the seas and the waves.
Increasingly, people report to those in helping professions that the threat of climate change is affecting their sense of well-being and even decisions about whether or not to have children, given the precarity of the world into which children will grow to adulthood. So, in a sense, more and more are perhaps “fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”
Our days, thus, can be filled with terror. We may be inclined to bury our heads in virtual sands, or to seek escape or ways to numb ourselves from the claims of impending stark realities. Some may want to stay in bed with the covers up over their hands.
I’ll admit to you that I no longer watch the news on TV. Yes, I read the news each and every day, but I find that watching it on TV is more than I currently want to bear. Reading about the news is one thing, and a step removed. Seeing it pictured in videos is quite another.
But these impulses to put our heads down and cower are the exact opposite of what Luke reports Jesus said in response to apocalyptic times. Immediately after talking about the distress among nations and the fear and foreboding, Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Stand up and raise your heads – this is not what I or perhaps most people are inclined to do in the face of distressed nations and the confusion of the roaring seas and waves.
Moreover, Luke reports that also Jesus said this: “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the dominion of God is near.” How on earth can the dominion of God be near when so much seems so very God-forsaken?
Jesus spoke of the nearness of God’s dominion in relation to his brief parable recorded in Luke about the fig tree and all the trees, about their sprouting leaves as a sign of the coming of summer.
When we see these things taking place, that is, trees coming into luscious foliage, then we know the nearness of God’s dominion. With the hindsight of reading today’s gospel through the vantage point of the Passion, how can we not but see the fig tree and all trees as anything but the cross of Christ, our tree of life?
Indeed, in Luke’s Gospel, the beginning of the Passion story immediately follows today’s passage. So, today’s reading becomes yet another pointing to the cross and the empty tomb.
Moreover, as we begin Advent and approach Christmas, we catch glimpses of the cross perhaps in today’s first reading from the prophet Jeremiah, a prophecy we associate with the Incarnation and Advent and Christmastide: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, who shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jeremiah 33:14-15) That branch, born to Mother Mary, grew to find his culmination on the cross, the tree of life. The little branch becomes the full, flowering tree to give new life, shelter and shade to the whole world.
Centered, and indeed carried on the cross, is all the distress among the nations, all the roaring of the seas and waves, all the fainting from fear and foreboding when the powers of the heavens are shaken. It’s all there on the cross.
On the cross, because of the empty tomb, we catch a glimpse of the Son of Man’s coming with power and great glory.
On the cross and in the empty tomb, God’s dominion is near and our redemption is in fact here.
In sure confidence of these bedrock realities, Luke reports that Jesus also concludes, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
And so it is to this very day, in this very place, at this tumultuous time in world history, Jesus words of promise echo through the centuries in our ears here and now.
But even with this wonderful assurance from Christ Jesus, these are not easy times to endure. It may be the challenges of apocalyptic times that motivated Jesus to say and Luke to record, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.”
Well, that’s exactly where many find themselves, namely, weighed down by dissipation, drunkenness and worry. Remember that dissipation is defined as the wanton squandering of our resources. Is such dissipation not on almost pornographic display in our new gilded age? And drunkenness, numbing ourselves through many and various means, is common. And so very many people are weighed down by worry.
In such states of mind and habits of behavior, the day of the Lord may catch us unexpectedly like a trap, as we hear in today’s gospel.
Thus, Jesus offers this exhortation, again, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down… Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son-of-Man.”
Stay alert and be on guard are some of the common refrains of this Advent season. “Wake, awake, for night is flying” so the beloved hymn has us sing.
How do we nurture the alertness to which Christ calls us? We cannot really do it ourselves, on our own. As always when it comes to Jesus’ exhortations, we need help. And the good news is that we have help from the very one whose words will not pass away. In fact, these eternal words are our help.
For God’s word, Christ’s word, comes to us from outside of ourselves to wake us up and enliven our faith. A well-said, salient word from our Lord emanating from the pages of the Bible, has that effect doesn’t it, to arouse us from our lethargy? The word sounds the alarm to rouse us. Truly, scripture is like that.
We are also jolted awake and made alert and on guard with a splash of bracing water from the font. Those baptized, are aroused to new life in a cold-water bath, with the word and the Spirit. When the presiding minister walks through the assembly sprinkling water on us for baptismal remembrance and thanksgiving, we may be startled and brought to greater attention, roused to renewed faith.
Likewise in preparation for the sacramental meal, at this very table in the dialogue between you the assembly and me as presiding minister, I intone “Lift up your hearts” and you reply in singing voice, “we lift them to the Lord.”
So, at this meal, our hearts are indeed lifted up and not weighed down, as Jesus warned against. And with hearts so lifted, we take into ourselves the bread and the wine, the body and the blood of Christ, and leave this place rejuvenated, made more attentive, in body and spirit, to a fearful world’s needs. A good healthy meal has that effect on us, doesn’t it, to make us more energetic and alert? All the more so with the sacrament of Holy Communion.
Thus, awakened in this place of assembly around word, water and table, alert, on guard, we are in a better position to fulfill Paul’s exhortation from 1 Thessalonians featured in today’s second reading, “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may the Lord so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13)
In such godly love for one another and for the world, we leave this place to engage in the mission that God has entrusted to us, waiting, enduring, but alert, on guard, and active as we serve our neighbors in love for Christ’s sake. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
Last Sunday after Pentecost 25/Lectionary 34B, Reign of Christ, John 18:33-37
Picture Pilate’s headquarters, the place where Jesus was summoned to be questioned concerning the complaints about him brought by the religious authorities. Pilate was the Roman governor for the territory of the Jewish people, an agent of an ancient superpower, the Roman Empire.
Given that, Pilate’s headquarters may well have been an impressive place architecturally, and no doubt outfitted with some very nice things. Roman ruins suggest some pretty opulent buildings.
To help your imagination, think of the many embassy buildings located throughout the District of Columbia. Such images might help you imagine Pilate’s headquarters.
Surely Pilate’s place came with all the trappings of power. Power in a worldly sense. Maybe there were mosaics adorning the walls, ceilings and floors that pictured the emperor or perhaps military conquests by Roman armies. Maybe chariots and horses were depicted. All symbols which suggest raw power, perhaps that conveyed through violence.
Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost, known as the Reign of Christ, or Christ the King Sunday.
Thus it is that those who decided which biblical stories to include in the Revised Common Lectionary chose the story from John’s gospel for this day, the story about Jesus coming to Pilate’s headquarters to be questioned about being a king.
Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jewish people?” Jesus then queried Pilate, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate then revealed, “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Then Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world.”
The world in John’s Gospel cannot finally be reduced to the spatial qualities of ancient cosmology, with the world or the earth “down here” and heaven or eternity or the divine realm “up there.”
Rather, world in John designates particular qualities of power relationships and ordering of societies that stand in distinct contrast to eternal or heavenly or sacred qualities of such ordering. Remember that for John, eternal life is something that begins here on earth even now. Thus, God’s reign is on earth, as it is in heaven, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.
So, when Jesus says to Pilate that his kingdom is not from this world, he’s saying that the qualities that mark the dominion with which he is associated are distinct from the ways of the world.
Jesus elaborates, revealing the ways of the world, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Judeans. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
That is to say, Jesus seems to be implying that worldly ways would involve violent rebellion, insurrection to keep imperial hands off Jesus so that he might assert his own power over against that of Rome, fighting fire with fire, exchanging force with force.
Of course, it’s noteworthy that Jesus doesn’t directly admit to being a king. Pilate asked in response to Jesus seeming to imply he was a king, “So you are a king?” Jesus continues some evasion so as not to be labeled and misunderstood, and replies, “You say that I am a king.”
So, what’s going on here? How do we begin to make sense of this exchange between Pilate, the representative of empire, and Jesus who represents something quite distinct from empire?
The light of clarity begins to shine in the final half of the final verse of today’s gospel: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
“To testify to the truth.” That’s the opening to seeing what kind of kingdom, what kind of reign and dominion Jesus is associated with. The mission of this reign is to testify or witness to the truth.
“I came into this world to testify to the truth.” The Greek word translated testify here is the same word from which we receive the word martyr. So we might say that Jesus is to be martyred to the truth, or martyred because of or for the truth.
Which brings us directly to the cross.
I began this sermon by inviting you to imagine in your mind’s eye Pilate’s headquarters. What about Jesus’ headquarters, as it were? In Jesus’ kingdom, where does Jesus hold court? Where is his throne?
That place is Golgotha, a barren hill outside the city walls, a place of execution by Roman powers. That’s Jesus’ headquarters, if you will, a very different setting from that of Pilate’s place of power. The cross, then, is Jesus’ throne. Jesus holds court there offering words, final sayings from the life-giving tree of his throne, arms outstretched to take us all to himself, testifying to the truth about himself and about God:
- To his executioners, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
- To the repentant criminal hanging next to him, Jesus revealed, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
- To his mother and beloved disciples, Jesus lovingly offered, “Woman, behold your son…. Behold, your mother.”
- To the divine one whom Jesus called Father, Jesus pleadingly asked in agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
- Describing his condition, Jesus stated, “I thirst.”
- Testifying to completion, Jesus proclaimed, “It is finished.”
- Finally, again addressing God, Jesus says on his final breath, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
These are not statements from the worldly kind of king housed in the likes of Pilate’s headquarters. Indeed, Jesus’ realm is not from that world.
What happens to Jesus on the cross is his embodied testimony to the truth, the truth that God loves us and gives all for us. “For God so loved the world that he gave is only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Truth is a big word in John’s Gospel. The truth about Jesus’ identity has its fullest and most vivid display on the cross and in the empty tomb.
Jesus’ kingdom, his reign, his dominion is one of truth and truth telling, a truth that sets us free. Elsewhere in John, Jesus is recorded as having said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32)
All of this is indeed in stark contrast to the qualities of dominion in the kingdoms of this world, which are more often marked by death not life, imprisonment not freedom, hatred not love, lies not truth.
Fast forward to our own day. Where now is it that Christ reigns? How is it that this kingdom, this dominion comes about even now? Martin Luther helps us here in the Small Catechism and his explanation to the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come.” Luther explains that God’s kingdom in Christ comes about “whenever our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that through the Holy Spirit’s grace we believe God’s holy word and live godly lives here in time and hereafter in eternity.”
In other words, this kingdom is not located in a headquarters, but in the meeting place of assembly. Right here in this place when the Spirit assembles us around word and sacrament when the truth is testified to again and again right here in our midst, the Spirit generating our belief in God’s holy word, the Spirit birthing our godly lives here in time and ultimately in eternity.
This kingdom of Christ finds its way to us in the power of the Spirit, even entering into our night visions which are often night terrors as suggested by today’s first reading from the apocalyptic narrative from the book of Daniel which speaks of a throne of fiery flames, wheels burning with fire, and a stream of fire flowing from the One who sits in judgment of all people.
But in Christ, these night visions also reveal, as Daniel writes, “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.” To this one, Christ, was given a dominion that is everlasting, that will not pass away, a reign that will never be destroyed (cf. Daniel 7:13-14). Thanks be to God that night terrors give way to the reassuring, calming presence of Christ, offering the peace of Christ.
It’s into this reign of Christ that we are baptized, the dominion of Christ finding its way to us in water and the word all wrapped up in the Spirit’s coming for our own personal Pentecost – thus fulfilling in small but powerful ways what appears in today’s reading from Revelation where we hear the truth that Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. Christ is the one who loves us and frees us from our sins by his blood, and makes us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and father, Christ who is given glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (cf. Revelation 1:5-6)
Moreover, this reign of Christ also finds its way into our own bodies when we eat the bread and drink from the cup, becoming participants with Christ in his holy reign.
Finally, the reign of Christ finds its way to the wider world when we leave this place, fed and thirst quenched, to go back to that world bearing the truth of Christ the king in word and deed as we lovingly serve our neighbors in need.
This is what we celebrate and extol on this last Sunday in the church year, another day to honor Christ our King. Amen.
Pentecost 25/Lectionary 33B, Mark 13:1-8
Jesus’ disciples were understandably impressed with the temple in Jerusalem and the surrounding temple complex. “Look, Teacher,” one of them said to Jesus, “what large stones and what large buildings.” Truly, the temple in Jerusalem was quite a wonder. If you’ve ever been to Jerusalem, the Western Wall of the temple remains and is a place of prayer. And yes, the stones are very large.
Such fascination with the human capacity to build grand places is not lost on us in our day. We love our skylines. My office in New York City looked out onto commanding views of Midtown Manhattan and its increasingly taller skyscrapers. Here, we marvel at our secular temples related to the federal government and museums of the Smithsonian.
Listen again to Jesus’ reply to his disciples’ wonderment: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Marks’ gospel was compiled and written after the fall of Jerusalem which occurred in the year 70, so the hearers of Mark would have understood the remembrance of what Jesus said in light of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by Roman authorities in their attempt to quash a rebellion led by zealot fighters among the Jewish people.
And then we, twenty years ago, suffered the terrorist attacks that saw the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the extensive damage to the Pentagon right here in Arlington. Indeed, our great buildings have their endings.
In Mark’s narrative, the disciples were curious about when all the destruction would take place. Jesus used that query as the occasion to talk about the end times. Thus, we have a moment of apocalyptic predictions in Mark. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and country against country; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.”
We hear similar kinds of language in the apocalyptic literature that characterizes the book of Daniel, a passage from which is today’s first reading. “There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence.” (Daniel 12:1b)
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? That’s because, in human history, there have always been wars, and anguished conflict between nations and earthquakes and famines.
One way or another, we’re always living in end times and last days. End of the world themes come up at this point in our liturgical seasonal calendar as we approach the end of another church year. Next Sunday is the last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday, and after that we begin a new year, a new cycle with Advent.
It’s crucial thusly to acknowledge the realities of end times. In our personal lives as individuals. Among our families. Among our human institutions. And among nations. People come and go, as do organizations, as do nations and even whole civilizations. People and human institutions have their endings in death and dissolution. That’s just the way things are. So, today in the church year allows for some of this reality therapy.
But here’s the thing. Our own age arguably presents special challenges. Given the ongoing specter of all-out nuclear war (that’s still very much a reality even though we don’t hear about it much these days in the news cycles) and given the realities of climate change, we may well be nearing more ultimate end times for our species and for the viability of habitable ecosystems on our fragile planet.
Early Christians expected the immanent return of Christ. From our perspective, we see delay. After all, it’s been two thousand years, a long period of history from a human perspective. What is God in Christ waiting for?
But two thousand years is but the blink of an eye in the larger scope of the history of human evolution and geologic time, not to mention cosmic time. In the grander scheme of things, two thousand years is a punctuation point.
One way or another, the point is, sooner or later, we cannot escape the reality of endings, individually in death and now maybe even more macroscopically with the possibility of ecosystemic collapse.
These are scary times. I have to wonder at the burden that our young people carry as they ponder what kind of life and world are before them as they emerge into adulthood. There is so much bad news.
But there is also good news embedded in today’s apocalyptic reading from Mark. The gospel writer’s recounting of Jesus’ bad news predictions about wars and conflict and earthquakes and famines ends with this saying from Jesus: “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Birth pangs. They are the acute pains that are associated with being in labor for child birth. Intense agony perhaps, but the necessary forerunner of and herald for something great, that is, bringing new life into the world. Most mothers I know of say the birth pangs are worth it. Such pains never stopped human beings from having babies.
Jesus knew his own birth pangs on the tree of the cross, the labor he endured such that God would bring about resurrected new life from the tomb. This was a new kind of birthing – not just life from life, but life from death, the tomb being the womb from which resurrected life would emerge. This is the good news of promise for us that takes the edge off the burden of the pains of our various last days. Death and ending do not have the last word. Rather life and new beginnings have the final say.
And there’s more: we who are baptized have known our own birth pangs microcosmically in our personal lives when we are drowned in the waters with the sacred word only to emerge in the power of the Spirit as new creations in Christ.
Likewise, when we eat the bread and drink the cup, we have a foretaste of the feast to come when God in Christ promises to birth in consummation and completion what was begun on the cross and in the empty tomb in ushering in the fullness of the divine reign.
Still more, when we receive the forgiveness of sin, remembering that we are baptized as we do regularly at our liturgy’s beginning at the font, we are reborn again and again, daily. There may be pangs of pain when we confess our sins, but certainly the release and freedom of forgiven life in the words of absolution.
In faith, nourished by our weekly assemblies in this very room, we cling to the realities of new birthing even amidst the pain of labor in a world in many ways seeming to come to an end.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews says it well in describing our lives of faith lived in the season of birth pangs and endings toward new beginnings. The author writes of our Christian life: “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that Christ opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for the one who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:19-25)
Confidence to enter the sanctuary. Approaching God with a true heart in full assurance of faith. Hearts sprinkled clean. Bodies washed with pure water. Holding fast to the confession of hope without wavering. Provoking one another to love and good deeds. Meeting together. Encouraging one another.
All of these wonderful qualities of the Christian life are made possible by Christ, by his birth pangs on the cross and in the tomb, giving us the gift of new life in Christ, that we may live the life of faith all the more as we see the Day of the Lord approaching.
May our life together be marked by the qualities enumerated by what we hear today in the letter to the Hebrews. Let it all be so as we are sent together in mission for the sake of the world enduring its pangs of labor, that all creation may know the new life that God has promised. Amen.
Pentecost 24/Lectionary 32B, All Saints, Mark 12:38-44
Look at how I am dressed, where I am standing, where I sit, and consider what I do during this hour. How can I not feel indicted by the first part of today’s gospel reading? To reiterate and reinforce, here’s what Mark reports that Jesus taught about religious leaders of the day: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Ouch. That’s quite the indictment of religious leaders in Jesus’ day and perhaps many clergy today.
We religious leaders are not let off the hook and are cut little slack when it comes to the Jesus we see in the gospels. That’s the bad news, and I stand convicted in my own ways (I hope I’ve never had any part in devouring widows’ houses, though I have happily devoured a lot of home cooked meals from the skilled hands of widows in my thirty years as a pastor!).
But then there’s the good news in the second half of today’s gospel reading, also concerning widows, some of the least and the last and most vulnerable in ancient society. A widow put into the treasury two small coins worth a penny in contrast to the rich who put in large sums. Here again is what Mark reports that Jesus said to his disciples: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
The widow offered everything she had to live on. How did she do it? And where is the good news in this?
To help us understand, we can turn our attention to today’s first reading from 1 Kings, the story of yet another widow, but one who had a holy encounter with the prophet Elijah who asked of her something to drink and to eat. At first blush, Elijah seemed to be seeking to devour the widow’s house!
Her response to Elijah’s request for food and drink? She said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”
Then came the divine word, the good news, from the lips of Elijah: “Do not be afraid…. [Do not be afraid] The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”
So, it was by the mercy of God working through Elijah that during a time of drought and famine, she and her household ate for many days, nor did they run out of provisions.
The widow in today’s reading from 1 Kings was empowered to respond generously to Elijah’s request and could offer all that she had left because a divine word of promise came to her from the prophet Elijah. In short, that sacred word evoked, called forth, the generous response in faith, in trust, even amidst the scarcity of drought and famine. That’s what God’s word does to us – it inspires faith and results in the fruit of generosity.
Perhaps the widow who put two copper coins into the treasury during Jesus’ day also had a divine encounter which evoked her faith, her trust in God’s abundance amidst her poverty.
Perhaps she herself had encountered the divine word in Jesus that made all the difference in her faith-full generosity.
Such radical, trusting generosity is a very different stance than that of the scribes, the religious leaders, and many clergy who seem to trust more in their own stature and works than in the promises of the word of God. And the widow’s generosity towers over that of the wealthy who gave out of their abundance, meaning that they had plenty left over to maintain their rich lifestyles. When you’re a billionaire, giving away even a tithe of your wealth is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things…
Today is All Saints Sunday, a day to remember with thanksgiving the unnamed, unremarkable by worldly standards, saints in our lives. The widows in today’s readings are such unsung heroes of the faith – of Judaism and of Christianity.
And what ultimately makes a saint a saint in the Christian tradition, at least from a Lutheran point of view? A saint is one who in faith points beyond themselves to Jesus Christ.
The scribes and religious leaders and the wealthy may well be named and remembered in the history books. But with their long robes and places of honor and long prayers, they may not be as transparent in pointing beyond themselves to the divine as the humble widows in our lives.
Indeed, think of the witness of the widow in today’s gospel. She put in, she offered, everything she had, all she had to live on. That self-offering foreshadows and points to Jesus’ own self-offering on the tree of the cross, where God ultimately offered all God had, namely, Gon’s only begotten Son, only child, our sibling, our savior.
Again, that’s what saints do; they point beyond themselves to Jesus. In offering all she had, the widow in her foreshadowing draws our attention to Jesus as he is referenced in today’s second reading, that from Hebrews which elaborates on Jesus’ offering of himself. Here’s what it says in Hebrews: “But as it is, Christ has appeared once and for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” The generosity of God in Christ was of such an extent, that the loving self-offering needed only to happen once. It’s done, and in Christ, him dead, him raised, we have life and salvation. Thanks be to God. From the vantage point of the wider story, the widows’ generosity witnesses to God’s generosity.
And those who eagerly wait for the fullness of Christ’s appearing are the widows, the unsung hero saints of our lives who have gone before us and who rest in the nearer presence of God.
God uses their witness to inspire our faith. So it is that we, today, name their names, and will do so during the concluding petition of the prayers of intercession when the toll of a bell will follow the naming of each name.
Think about the saints like the widows. It is more likely the case that you and I have come to faith through the Holy Spirit working in the lives and witness of persons among our family and friends and church members who have never made it into Christian history books and listings of the official saints of the church.
It is these whom we celebrate on All Saints Sunday because they have pointed the way to God in Christ via the guidance of the Spirit working in them.
Thus, we come to this table with the widows, in the company of all the saints who have gone before us of blessed memory, to eat a tiny morsel of bread and drink a sip of wine, food and sustenance that will not fail or run out even in times of scarcity until the day of the Lord’s coming. Like the widow in 1 Kings with Elijah, like the widow in Mark, we, too, give in symbolic form all that we have in offering with thanksgiving bread and wine, the fruits of God’s good creation.
And in this meal, we discover that this food, these provisions do not run out. A little bit goes a long way – all the way to eternity – in giving us what we need for life’s journey in mission for the sake of the world.
Then, we leave this place fed in communion with Christ and with the saints to go out into the world to do as they all did – offering ourselves to others in faith, in trust that God is good, pointing beyond ourselves, we pray, to Christ, who is food for the hungry, and light to those who languish in the shadowy places, and life amidst so much death as the pandemic continues its plodding, ravaging way through all of humanity.
In due course, perhaps we, too, shall be remembered alongside the widows on some future All Saints Sunday….
In the meantime, thanks be to God for the widows, the unsung saints whose witness offers such a sharp contrast to that of the scribes, the religious leaders and the wealthy. Thanks be to God for the humble saints of our lives who faithfully point us to Jesus Christ. Amen.
Pentecost 22/Lectionary 30B, Mark 10:46-52
“Go; your faith has made you well.” We hear such words from Jesus recorded again and again in the gospels. Your faith has made you well.
Note that it’s not Jesus saying, “I have made you well,” or even, “God has made you well.” No, it’s your faith has made you well.
Alas, this phrase and ones like it have been mis-used and abused by so-called faith healers, ones, for example, we see on TV. When I served in Pittsburgh, friends and I took a field trip to visit a Friday evening faith healing event at Earnest Angley Ministries. Angley died this year at age 99. His operation was located in northeastern Ohio, not far from Pittsburgh.
Angley was a classic TV faith healer, often parodied by satirists. When we visited, it was actually moving to see the infirm and others seeking healing gather in the auditorium space. I felt the pathos and had empathy for those prayerfully gathering in silence. But then the show began. After a good bit of music to amp up the crowd, Angley appeared on stage, and this is what he said: “Tonight, you’re going to see an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that exceeds even that of the first Pentecost. There will be healings and miracles tonight like you’ve never seen before. But God has no time for back-sliding doubters and those weak in faith. In fact, God will bulldoze you doubters over if you don’t believe and if your faith is not sufficient….”
For those who went home that night without experiencing a miracle cure, I wonder how they felt after hearing the threat that God would bulldoze over those weak in faith.
Abusive faith healers seem to blame the victims when their healing efforts don’t result in miracles. The implication is that because one’s faith is weak, one doesn’t receive the miracle one desires. This makes faith into a kind of work that depends on us and our natural capacities. This is not what Lutherans believe and teach about faith.
But how are we to regard our faith, its strength and endurance? Faith, in its essence, is trust in God and God’s promises. But we know from our own experience that faith, our capacities to trust, wax and wane. Sometimes we’re more trusting. Other times not so much.
In today’s story from Mark’s gospel, it seems that blind Bartimaeus, judging by his behavior, had in that moment of encounter with Jesus a pretty enthusiastic, energetic, robust faith. Mark reports that he was shouting out after Jesus – “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” – and when told by others to shut up, he cried out all the more. When invited to approach Jesus, Bartimaeus threw off his cloak and sprang up to meet Jesus. This behavior seems to point to a faith full of enthusiasm, full of trusting expectation in what Jesus might do.
But was it the extent of faith and its exuberance that made Bartimaeus well? Is it a kind of math equation that the more faith you have the more miracles you’ll enjoy? Or was gaining sight – or insight – the result of just a bit of faith existing at all?
Because if healing and coming to see depend on the extent of our capacities for faith, we’re all potentially lost. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Again, we know that our faith waxes and wanes. Sometimes it burns brightly. On other occasions and in differing seasons of our life, faith can seem just like a flicker.
I confess to you that I am currently experiencing something close to a crisis of faith, much more so than I have ever known in my adult life. My son’s near fatal stroke, the second anniversary of which was this past Friday, his ongoing struggles with recovery alongside the upheavals of adolescence and the seemingly endless crisis of the pandemic along with all of the other troubles of nation and world – all of this occurring at the same time has pushed me close to the edge of a diminished life of faith. Perhaps this is what they call a dark night of the soul.
So, my cry these days is more in keeping with that of the father whose son was possessed by an unclean spirit recorded earlier in the gospel of Mark. When the father encountered Jesus, seeking his son’s deliverance, he said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (cf. Mark 9:14-29). Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.
What about you? How is it with your journey of faith these days?
Quite helpfully and definitively, Jesus spoke elsewhere in the gospels of faith the size of a mustard seed. A mustard seed is the smallest of seeds and yet it produces the abundance of a great bush, we are told by Jesus, which gives shelter and shade (cf. Matthew 13:31-32 and Matthew 17:20).
Here’s the thing: The seed of faith doesn’t exist within ourselves; it does not occur within our nature. Faith comes from outside of ourselves. Lutherans teach that faith itself is a gift, a gift that is planted in us by the Holy Spirit active in word and sacraments. Faith is provoked or evoked, called forth.
And all the while, as the Spirit is doing her work, Christ, our high priest, continues to this day to intercede for us. For as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews states in our second reading for today, “Jesus holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently [Jesus] is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (Hebrews 7:25) Jesus’ ceaseless intercession for us also does its part in calling forth our faith under the direction of the Spirit.
Today we celebrate a First Communion, that of Ethan Kramer. In a few minutes, he will come forward with his mother and grandfather to receive for the very first time the gift of Christ’s very self, Christ’s real presence given in bread and wine.
A little tiny piece of bread is like a mustard seed planted in Ethan and in us for growth in faith. Such that we are given the gift of sight and insight to know that we taste and see that the Lord is good.
Then we, like the formerly blind Bartimaeus, can cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on [us]!” echoing the shouts of the ancient Israelites as we heard in today’s first reading from Jeremiah: “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.” (Jeremiah 31:7b)
Again, I am moved to make a similar point that the prayerful cry to Jesus did not well up in Bartimaeus of his own accord. No, it was Jesus’ presence in the vicinity that provoked and evoked the prayerful plea, “Jesus, have mercy on me.” Jesus’ physical proximity called forth the cry of faith. In short, Jesus called forth the faith, the trust.
Thus it was then. So it is now. Jesus’ real presence known in word and sacraments evokes our faith.
So, we are freed by Christ from the burden of thinking that the strength and extent of our faith depends on us and our efforts, blaming ourselves for any apparent lack of faith.
Trying to measure the extent of our faith matters not and ultimately makes no sense. When it’s all said and done, it doesn’t matter how I feel about my faith. Of course, our subjective sense of faith comes and goes; it blows hot and cold. That doesn’t finally matter. What matters is the source of faith in the first place, that is, Christ’s presence and the Spirit calling faith forth in word and sacrament. Christ, therefore, is the constant. That’s the objective, bedrock truth, which cannot be altered by our doubts and misgivings and fears of having too weak a faith. Thanks be to God.
I wish the people who attended Earnest Angley’s Friday night faith healing extravaganza years ago knew this truth that faith comes from outside of ourselves as a gift, and that a tiny seed planted by the Spirit goes a long way in giving growth and ultimately making us well in Christ, even if we are not healed in the precise ways we seek.
Thus, Ethan and all of you will soon come forward to gather ‘round this table to receive into yourselves the seed of Christ’s presence that makes for faith. And we will leave this table and this place to go back into our world which cries out for healing, for sight, for insight and wisdom, with the words of our wonderful, seasonal prayer after communion on our lips, in our hearts, and in our words and deeds:
Lord of life,
in the gift of your body and blood
you turn the crumbs of our faith into a feast of salvation.
Send us forth into the world with shouts of joy,
bearing witness to the abundance of your love
in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Pentecost 21/Lectionary 29B, Mark 10:35-45
James and John, sons of Zebedee, also known as the sons of thunder, came to Jesus with a bold, perhaps thunderous, request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
That’s quite something, but you know what? I applaud their shameless honesty. Because if we are honest with ourselves, many of our prayers can end up sounding like “Lord, please do for us whatever we’re asking you to do.”
Such prayers understandably emerge often from the circumstances of our acute suffering. If that’s the case, pray those prayers. God will sort it all out. But purely self-centered prayers can also come from our lesser angels, for we enter into the life of faith with many mixed motivations informed by the old, sinful Adam in us. We sinners are prone to a tit for tat kind of spirituality driven by what faith in God can do for us.
Again, let’s be honest with ourselves – some of what motivates our church attendance has a lot to do with our expectations of what we personally might get out of being here.
Pastors are not exempt from this dynamic. In fact, pastors might be more prone to self-serving professional motives than many. Given our fallen state, we enter into pastoral ministry and other forms of leadership in the church in part so that we can be personally fed and egotistically puffed up in one way or another. Religious leadership is very seductive in these ways and can attract a lot of the wrong people for the wrong reasons.
Which brings us back to James and John, among the circle of the closest disciples and leaders. Jesus asked the sons of thunder what they wanted. Again, they were shamelessly honest and asked something over the top in keeping with their nickname. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
That’s quite a request indeed, again revealing the glory seeking that is often behind the motivations to go into public religious leadership.
Jesus was also shamelessly honest in his reply to James and John: “You do not know what you are asking.” Jesus then basically asked them in response: are you able to suffer the things that I am about to suffer?
James and John offered an impetuous, unthinking response: “We are able.”
Jesus then prophetically responds in essence, yes, they’ll undergo suffering in Jesus’ name, but it’s still not Jesus’ authority to grant them to sit at his right or left in glory.
This whole exchange provoked the ire of the other ten disciples who took offense at James’ and John’s pompous request.
In response, Jesus then claimed another occasion to teach the disciples. He said, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers are domineering and lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”
Gentile rulers, namely the Roman emperors and their governors, were indeed ruthless in their exercise of raw power. They were truly tyrants. Jewish people in Jesus’ day knew this full well from their communal first-hand experience under Roman imperial oppression. Jesus knew tyrannical rule from his time on the cross, a tool of deadly humiliation by those in power.
We’ve seen tyrants throughout human history. And it’s shocking to me today to see how many people in populist, nationalist movements are attracted to authoritarian leaders, so-called strongmen – and yes, they are almost always men….
Jesus, of course, teaches about a different way of leadership. In contrast to the Gentile rulers lording it over their subjects as tyrants, Jesus says, “But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
Then in reference to himself, Jesus concludes: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life [as] a ransom for many.”
What does this servant leadership look like in particular? In the case of Jesus of Nazareth, this leadership has the shape of a cross. That Mark refers here to Jesus giving his life as a ransom for many is yet another pointing to the Passion, the last days of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the atoning effects of Jesus’ self-offering on the cross in love.
But we also see poetic expressions of such servant leadership in the servant song in today’s first reading from Isaiah, passages made famous to many of us by Handel’s Messiah. “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5) Reading aloud these words, I cannot help but hear the music of Handel which adds to the depth, poignancy, and gravitas of Isaiah’s prophetic vision of the suffering servant.
The author of Hebrews, today’s second reading, also reveals the nature of Jesus’ servant leadership, conceived in terms of the priestly nature of Jesus’ ministry, where it reads: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (Hebrews 5:7) Christ, as our high priest, a mediator between God and humanity, interceded and intercedes on our behalf, and did and does so with empathy, in suffering with us, expressed in loud cries and tears.
This is what it means for Jesus to exercise servant leadership.
But today’s encounter with Jesus in Mark does not end with what Jesus did. No, Jesus calls James and John and the other disciples – and ultimately us – also to the life of servant leadership.
Here’s what Mark reports that Jesus said to James and John: “The cup [of suffering] that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism [of martyrdom] with which I am baptized, you will be baptized….” These words echo through the centuries to us today, we who claim to follow Jesus.
Here’s the thing, engaging again in a moment of reality therapy: How can broken, sinful people who are still beguiled by the ways of worldly power and glory ever hope to be imitators of Christ in servant leadership in how we go about the business of leadership in the church and in the world?
We, of course, cannot do it on our own. That’s the bad news. The good news is that in Christ, we have help. Jesus endured the baptism of his death on the cross which was transformed into the reality of resurrected life. When we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, and thus receive as a gift Christ’s power in en-Spirited sacramentality, to take up the cross to follow him. In short, Christ Jesus leads the way to and opens the door for the possibility of our servant leadership.
Moreover, when we drink from the sacramental cup, we take in what Christ did when he drank the cup of his own suffering. Because Christ drank this cup, we are emboldened to drink from this cup as well, empowering us when we suffer in Jesus’ name. Likewise, when we eat the bread, which for Jesus was bread of tears on the eve before his death on the cross, we receive from Christ what enabled him and us to persevere through a vale of tears.
Think about what happens when we eat and drink at our meals. Whether it’s meat or vegetable, we take into ourselves in dead form what was a living organism. We ingest all of its nutrients, everything that made for its life and vitality. We cannot live without consuming, eating and drinking, that which once also was alive, even if we are vegans. In meat and vegetable, we consume the energy of the sun in the form of carbon, the energies of which make all of life possible.
Eating and drinking, therefore, even commonly understood in our ordinary, everyday life experience, shares in dynamics that parallel and suggest death and resurrection.
How much more so when it is Christ’s very self that we consume. Christ is the cup from which we drink. In drinking from this cup, we take on the energy of the Son – not the solar entity, s-u-n, but the Son, s-o-n, of the living God.
Wow. That is quite something. So, we are not left without the means through which we can be empowered to engage in servant leadership in our ministry and mission.
Another way of putting it is perhaps this: We are what we eat. When we eat and drink Christ, we incorporate his very presence and power which makes it possible for us, even feebly, to offer ourselves to others in loving service.
Still more, that which is foreign to us, alien to us, apart from us, in drinking and eating, we take in, incorporating that otherness into ourselves to become what had been foreign to us, and then to do what is foreign to our nature, namely, to serve and not to be served.
In this sacramental case, it is God’s alien righteousness, a righteousness not our own, which is Christ’s gift to us, that which we eat and drink.
It’s a marvel. So it is that we proclaim, “for as often as [we] eat this bread and drink the cup, [we] proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:26)
Then we also proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Thus, through sacramental means in being bathed in the water of baptism, and in eating and drinking in Holy Communion, we can approximate becoming in fits and starts the servant leaders Christ calls us to be precisely because we take on, incorporate Christ’s very powers, his very dynamism, into ourselves so to do. Again, we are what we eat. Or we become what we eat – as Luther said, little Christs for the sake of the world.
Thus, in the length and breadth of Christian history, countless saints immersed in word and sacrament have offered to the world their servant leadership in Jesus’ name, servant leader saints like Martin Luther King, Jr, prophet for justice and martyr; Elizabeth Fedde, Lutheran deaconess who served the downtrodden in Brooklyn; Perpetua and Felicity and companions, martyrs; Oscar Romero, martyr; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyr; Jan Hus, martyr; Bartolome de Las Casas, servant of justice for indigenous people; Florence Nightingale, servant in nursing; Dag Hammarskjold, servant in diplomatic service – to name just a few of those whom we commemorate in our Lutheran calendar of commemorations, persons who offered themselves in loving service in Christ-like fashion.
Thus, too, in Christ, and in communion with countless servant saints, we go out into the world enabled, empowered by word and sacrament to lead in our own fledgling versions of serving. Thanks be to God. Amen.