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Epiphany 3 Jonah 3:1-5, 10 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 Mark 1:14-20
Let us pray: O God, just as Jesus came to a waiting people and pronounced the Kingdom of God near at hand, draw near to us; speak to us; let your reign on earth surround our hearts and minds, that we might be faithful to follow you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
We all remember the story about Jonah being swallowed by a whale, but what we might have forgotten is why. This is the story: God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, a corrupt city, and tell them that if they repent, God will not destroy them. This annoys Jonah, who thinks that the Ninevites deserve whatever they get. So he pouts, and frets, and finally runs away. He takes a ship as far away as he can possibly go, to the ends of the known world. But there is a storm, and in desperation the sailors toss Jonah -- who had told them he was fleeing from God -- into the sea, and Jonah is swallowed by a great fish. Jonah prays to the Lord for three days, and at the end of that time the Lord tells the fish to deposit Jonah on dry land.
After all this, God again asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, and he finally does so, reluctantly at best. The king and the people hear Jonah’s message, and they fast and repent. God saw this, and the scripture tells us he changed his mind and did not destroy them. While God is pleased, Jonah is very displeased that God relented, and God rebukes him for his lack of charity.
In contrast, we have the gospel from Mark, the story of the call of Simon and Andrew and James and John. According to Mark, the men “immediately” left their fishing nets and boats to follow Jesus. And then there is Paul telling the Corinthians that time is growing short, that they should live with the knowledge that “the present form of this world is passing away.” We sometimes interpret Paul as being against “the world,” against marriage and emotions and family ties, but it is really more his sense of urgency that comes through his letters. It’s not that he’s against these things so much as it is this urgency that informs his understanding of discipleship.
This same urgency colors the gospel accounts of Jesus. Mark’s tempo or pace is so much more rapid and less literary, if you will, than the other gospels. He is in a hurry to tell his story, and the spoken tradition of Mark’s gospel comes through clearly. There is also that same sense of urgency, of no time to waste -- the early church really believed that the end of the world was near. So it would have been unthinkable to Mark that the disciples would have done anything else but respond to Jesus immediately.
Being human, it is likely that the apostles really didn’t drop everything that minute to follow Jesus. They probably had to make arrangements for their workers, check in at home, and all the usual things that we have to do before going on a trip. But Mark is telling a story and trying to make a point: this wasn’t just any journey, this was important.
How often do we drop everything and follow when God calls? We tend, rather, to be more like Jonah than James and Andrew in our response to God. We are slow and reluctant, we drag our feet, we are reluctant, and we are annoyed when God doesn’t do what we think God should do. We have lots of excuses about why we can’t do it that way, or why we can’t do it now. Often God’s plans for us, God’s interventions in our lives, have very little to do with our own plans, and they are usually inconvenient. It’s not what we had planned, the way we thought things would work out, or what we thought we would do with our lives. Sometimes, like Jonah, we just simply don’t want to do it.
The other interesting thing about Jonah’s story, aside from his reluctance, is how annoyed he was that God was willing to give the people of Nineveh a second chance (or third or fourth). Jonah just wanted God to smite them. He didn’t think they deserved a second chance, didn’t deserve saving. How often do we feel the same way? How often do we think that people with whom we disagree or people who are different from us don’t deserve God’s mercy, don’t deserve saving? Republicans or Democrats, liberals, or conservatives, female or male, straight or gay, environmentalists or developers, black or white, young or old, Christian or non-Christian -- the lists we make are endless in terms of differences, real or perceived, and where we draw the line in the sand. Usually we feel it is only people like us who will be saved, and who are deserving of it.
We may find Jonah amusing, ridiculous, or appalling as he mutters and whines against God’s offer of redemption to the Ninevites, and as he tries to run away from God. But if we let the story touch us, if we plumb the depths of our own hearts, we will find Jonah there within us -- that part of us that judges and condemns, that desires revenge rather than justice, vengeance instead of mercy.
Jonah spends three days inside the whale, in the darkness, so he will have time to think, so he will learn a lesson. We, too, spend much time in darkness. The vengeance that we desire, the hurt feelings and grudges and rages that we carry for years weigh us down and eat at us. We are the ones who suffer the most in these situations. It doesn’t hurt the other person--the Ninevites were not hurt by Jonah’s reluctance, only Jonah was -- but it damages us spiritually, relationally, emotionally, and physically. We are the ones spending time in darkness, we are the ones imprisoned.
Like Jonah, we sit outside the city, angry and hurting, separating ourselves from God and others. But there is a way out. We can choose to let go of our hurts and move on. As in the story of Jonah, God is ready to offer us love and mercy, too. It is that love and mercy that heals us and allows us to move out of the darkness. It doesn’t change the fact that we were hurt, it doesn’t mean that we weren’t right to be angry, but it moves us beyond that into a different place where we can go on.
Maybe that’s what those first followers saw in Jesus: a way to move beyond the things that were keeping them stuck and in the dark. Maybe they could sense his acceptance, his love, and his mercy toward them. In a society where they lived under Roman rule, where they were the downtrodden ones, perhaps they sensed the freedom he offered them to live in a different way, more wholly and more alive.
Is it possible that our judgment and condemnation of others is really a commentary on how deserving we feel ourselves? If we do not believe that we are deserving of God’s love and mercy, it is easier to deny others as well. If we feel stuck in the dark, downtrodden, not free, not whole, not really alive, we are in desperate need of what God offers us through Jesus Christ. Opening ourselves to that possibility is the only way we will be healed.
How much healing could we bring to ourselves and our broken world if we could accept God’s love and mercy for ourselves and for everyone else, as we have seen it lived out and made real in Jesus? How loving and generous could we be with others if we could learn to be loving and generous to ourselves? In a world torn by division and strife, these could be the most important questions we ask ourselves at the beginning of this new year.
Let us pray: Lord, you call us not only to follow you; you also call us to go out into the world and to feed your sheep, and be fishers of people. Strengthen us in our calling as your disciples through your Son Christ Jesus, our Lord and our Savior. Amen.
Epiphany 1:Baptism of Our Lord Genesis 1:1-5 Acts 19:1-7 Mark 1:4-11 Let us pray: Most gracious God, as the heavens were opened at Jesus’ baptism, so open to us the gates of your mercy. As the Spirit descended upon him, keep your Holy Spirit upon us also. As Jesus heard your voice above the waters, may we listen and keep your word so our thoughts and actions are pleasing to you and a blessing to others and to ourselves. We ask it in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Today, we remember the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John in the River Jordan. Now, John’s the guy we’ve been hearing a lot about lately (since the beginning of Advent), and after today, he drops into the background.You see, we no longer need that voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” For the Lord is here, born on earth to save us. And we no longer have any confusion about who is the Messiah, for the one more powerful than John has come.John’s role as prophet, foretelling the great story of salvation as known in the person of Jesus Christ: that role is fulfilled with Jesus’ baptism today. John is sometimes seen as the last of the old order: the last prophet in the line of Isaiah and Jeremiah, the last to baptize with water only and not also the Holy Spirit, and the last to demand repentance before the coming of the kingdom of God.
For Jesus proclaims over and over again that the kingdom of God has drawn near us; it is here, and now. No longer coming, or far off, or even just the other side of a thin divide—but here, very near us.Among the very first documented acts of his earthly ministry, the twelve-year-old Jesus picks up a scroll and reads from an earlier prophecy of Isaiah: that the spirit of the Lord has anointed him, and that he has been sent to announce good news to the poor—and that this prophecy has been fulfilled. “Today, in your very hearing this text has come true,” he says.
So, this baptism of Jesus: it seems to have achieved a radical transformation in him. No longer just the carpenter’s son, no longer a refugee in Egypt, no longer just another human being to walk the face of the earth.He moves on from here to teach in synagogues and have people sing his praises. He will heal the sick, and make the dead live again. He will preach and perform miracles. He will amaze people with his teaching, and baffle us even today by submitting to a shameful death on a cross.And he will appear again when he ascends into heaven, prophesying of his return in glory to judge the earth—a second coming we still anticipate, two millennia later.One day people know him as that clever boy, Joseph’s son. And the next he’s revealed as the Christ, the Messiah, the chosen one—God’s son, the beloved, with whom God is well pleased.In his baptism, Jesus seems to have become an entirely different person.
So, too, with our baptism:None of us is Christ, but each and every one of us is the beloved, with whom God is well pleased.And each and every one of us was forever changed and transformed in our baptism.And each and every one of us continues to be changed and transformed—in ways big and small—throughout our earthly ministry.Now filled with the Holy Spirit, we—like Jesus—are commissioned and sent forth to proclaim the good news of God’s favor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim that the time of God’s favor is here.
That’s our job: to live baptismally.We are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.Baptism is an amazing gift. By the waters of baptism, we are lead from death to life, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life. In it, we are buried with Christ in his death. By it, we share in his resurrection. Through it, we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. And baptism is also an awesome responsibility. We are also no longer simply to live as ordinary people in the world:We are to boldly confess Jesus as Lord and Savior;to strive for justice and peace among all people;and to seek and serve Christ in everyone we meet.
Those of us who profess and call ourselves Christians are called to live a different kind of life, a life set apart from the world around us and yet somehow also very much in its midst.By baptism, the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled—in Jesus, and in each one of us. God looks at us—the beloved, with whom God is well pleased—and says, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of God has risen upon you.” Amen.
Isaiah 61:10-62:3 Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7 John 1:1-18
Let us pray: Almighty God, you have made yourself known in your Son, Jesus. In his birth you have restored the dignity of human nature. In your love, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, let us share in his divine life – just as he shared our humanity. As we hear and reflect on your word this day, help us to respond with believing hearts and to put our faith into practice. We ask in his name. Amen.
Have you ever noticed that when you get together with your family and start telling stories about when you were growing up, or what happened years ago, the same events sound very different as different people tell the story? Depending on who’s describing it, the guy who used to live across the street was a scrooge or a saint. Moving from one town to another was either a disaster, a wonderful escape, or a thing indifferent, hardly noticed. Same event, different folks in the family, different point of view, radically different ways of telling the same story. Consider the wonderful poetry of those first 18 verses of John’s Gospel we just heard. This is the Christmas story, the third time the Bible tells it. It is the same story we may have heard on Christmas Eve—the story of the manger and the shepherds and the angels—and it’s the same story Matthew tells in his gospel—with Joseph’s dreams, the wise men and the flight to Egypt. But the point of view is different, and John’s Gospel sounds strange to ears more accustomed to crowded inns and angel choirs. That’s because different folks in the family are telling the same story.
You see, Luke, who wrote the familiar story of Christmas Eve, was a bit of an historian. He was very concerned with getting the dates and rulers right, and with locating everything in time and space. Also, he may have been a gentile convert, and he was very concerned about the role of people who, like him, were considered outsiders. So, Luke is more concerned with shepherds—who were social outcasts—than about kings. And Luke focuses on the perspective of Mary—a radical move since women were even lower on the social ladder than shepherds.
Matthew is more traditional. He was certainly a Jew and may have been a scribe. He was very concerned with making it clear that Jesus fulfilled all of the Old Testament prophecies as Messiah, King of Jews. So, shepherds didn’t interest him as much as the royal wise men, and he paid a lot of attention to the flight to Egypt because of the parallel between the Exodus led by Moses and Jesus’ own return from Egypt to Israel. Also, the more traditional Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s point of view.
Then there was John. John may well have read Matthew and Luke and, if so, he assumes that we have, too. But John is a theologian and a mystic. So, he isn’t concerned with historical details. Instead, he writes of the meaning of Jesus’ birth, and he writes from his theology, and from the holy imagination of his prayers. But he is still telling the same story—all three are talking about the same birth—all three are saying the same thing.
John begins the story earlier—he reminds us that Christmas really begins where Genesis begins—in the beginning, with God in creation. So, using language evocative of the first verses of Genesis, John begins by talking about the beginning, and about the Word of God. “The Word” here is God in action, God creating, God revealing himself. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. Then he tells the Christmas story—in nine words (in the Greek and English). “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” He who was with God in creation, the one who is God revealing himself to humanity—this one became a person, became flesh—as completely human as you and I. Not God with a people-suit disguise on; not a really good person who God rewarded and made special; not a super angel God created early and saved up for Bethlehem.
But a person, who was the Word—who was God’s own self. (A chip off the old block.) Soaring words for the most down-to-earth thing that ever happened. But it’s still the Christmas story, still the story Matthew and Luke tell—the story of the birth of Jesus.
In addition to telling the same story, Matthew, Luke, and John also share one special way of telling it—there is one image, one symbol, and only one, that they all use to talk about that birth in Bethlehem. (Can you think of what it is?)
They all talk about light—the light of the star, the light that shone around the shepherds, the true light that enlightens everyone. They all continue Isaiah’s vision of light shining on those who live in darkness. Where Christ is, people who understand talk about light. They have to—there is no better image of what is going on. The light shines in the darkness—John proclaims. And somehow, we understand this and we understand that this truth cannot be better expressed in any other words.
In large part, we understand this because we know about darkness—we know what it is like to live in and with darkness. Remember what it’s like to try to walk through an unfamiliar place when it’s really dark—or to wake up confused in the middle of the night in someone else’s house, trying to get somewhere? We know what it’s like when we don’t know where things are, and we don’t know what we have just bumped into, or whether we’re going to get where we want to go, or if the next step will be OK or if we will break something and make a mess. We know how easy it is to go in circles in the dark and to get turned around and to stub a toe and get angry and hit whatever is handy.
And we know what it is like to live like that in broad daylight.
What John and Luke and Matthew all say about Christmas is that a light begins to shine—suddenly, quietly, but with absolute certainty. And by that light, we can begin to see. By that light, we can begin to see who we are and who we are created to be. For it is in the person of Jesus that what it means to be fully a human being is finally made clear. In him, we see that our lives are made whole as we surrender them in love and service; in him, we see that really being alive means risking everything for—and because of—the love of God and the Kingdom of God. In him we see that hope need never be abandoned—never—and that we contain possibilities beyond our imagining.
Also, by that light that has come into the world, we begin to see God clearly for the first time. “No one has ever seen God,” John reminds us. But God is made known to us in Jesus. So, everything we thought about God, everything we had figured out, everything that we were sure we knew about God—all of this is put to the test in Jesus. Who God is, in relationship to us, is fully revealed in Jesus. Not in one saying or one parable or one miracle—but in all of him: in his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Through all of these together, we finally have the light to see God.
The light of Christ, the Word made flesh, comes among us at Christmas—and we celebrate its coming into the world. God had revealed himself and his love to us in Christ. That first Christmas, the stable stank but the light shone—and it continues to shine. It continues to allow us to see—and to show a world living in darkness what we have seen. For by that light we have been given power to become children of God—and to take our places with the light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. We know there is much darkness in our world but we need to remember the good news. There is light in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.
Let us pray: Our Father and our God penetrate our hearts with your eternal gladness and light. Let us face suffering, darkness, and discouragement with hope and cheerfulness, knowing they are pathways to your glory. Fill us with peace and rejoicing in your many blessings. Give us deep abiding faith and hope because of Christ, in whom we pray. Amen.
Christmas Day Isaiah 62:6-12 Titus 3:4-7 Luke 2:1-20
Let us pray: Almighty God, we praise you for entering into the world you have made so you can draw us near to you. We give thanks that, you have come in great humility as the baby Jesus in the manger, you also have made him to be the Messiah, the Christ, for the salvation of the world. Thank you for your love and grace in the birth of Christ. Amen.
Luke’s nativity story is familiar to most of us, whether we know it or not. That famous account of Jesus’ birth that we hear, year-in and year-out, begins with those ever-so recognizable lines, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…” You know where this one’s going right from the very beginning. Christians don’t memorize much scripture anymore. Smartphone in hand, any one of us can command verse after verse with a few swipes of our thumb. Come to think of it, nobody memorizes much of anything at all anymore. Yet even today, the children in the Christmas pageant commit themselves to those words that seem to rain down from heaven: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” We also heard a very short reading from the letter to Titus which we usually pay little attention to: “When the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” Even though these words from Titus might not be quite as memorable as some others, they are surely just as applicable as we gather not only to observe the nativity but to celebrate the Incarnation. You see, Christmas is just as much about giving birth to a firstborn son and wrapping him in bands of cloth and laying him in a manger as it is about the grace of God appearing, bringing salvation to all. In fact, they are two sides of the same coin, one in the very same.
At Christmas, God’s grace appears like never before: in the flesh. By coming in the flesh, God is making sure we understand how very close to us the holy presence really is. God not only wants us to see that presence, God invites us to feel it—in the flesh! And so that is precisely where grace appears. Through the miracle of the Incarnation, God did away with the silly notion that we are mere drones slogging our way toward some heavenly home, slowly but surely trudging through the earthly muck and mire. By becoming flesh in this world, God sanctifies our flesh, making it possible for us to be agents of God’s grace – right here on earth. In other words, eternal life starts now. You don’t have to wait to get to heaven to live in God’s kingdom. Ever since God appeared in a flesh like ours, and lived a life like ours, humanity and divinity have been inextricably linked. I know it’s hard to believe. The paradox of this great mystery is certainly worth considering, but on this holy day, we do not worship in order to ponder exactly how the Incarnation is possible. We come to worship to renew our commitment to living in the world as if it is true. “A child has been born for us, a son given to us.” “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” None of this means that the world is perfect. If you weren’t already convinced, 2020 should have taken care of that. If ever any year was filled with earthly muck and mire, it was this one. So much so, in fact, that not all Christians—not even some of the most privileged Episcopalians—will be able to worship together today, to pass the peace, to break the bread. A year ago, we could never have imagined the number of lives that would be lost or hearts that would be broken. Jesus doesn’t guarantee that the world will be perfect, but he does supply the grace that we need in order to live like we ought to live. The author of the letter to Titus reminds us that it is this grace that teaches us how to live a life that is self-controlled, upright, and godly. Will this be a faultless life? No. A flawless life? No. A totally unspoiled life? Absolutely not! But it will be a life in which we can respond following the example of the one who appeared to us in flesh. Because God became flesh and dwelt among us, each and every one of us, our bodies, our lives, our selves, are conformed to God during the good times and the bad. In the manger baby, God sanctifies all that we experience, even our suffering. Perhaps at this point, it’s best to get specific. The life that God’s grace makes possible for us is not a life in which we go around blaming gay people for hurricanes or rioters for wildfires. It is not a world in which COVID-19 can simply be chalked up to God’s wrath upon all those people who are different from us. The life that God’s grace makes possible for us is a life in which we, as Christians, operate from a place of compassion and love. It is a life in which we recognize the turmoil and the tragedy, the trauma, and the deep grief of the world and simply ask how we can help. “What do you need? Where can I meet you? Stay right there. I’m on the way!” The world cries out for a response rooted in the grace of God’s appearing. Not, “What did you do to deserve this?” More like, “Given these circumstances, where do we go from here? How do we walk forward together?” That is grace in the flesh, dear friends. That is what the world needs. That is what God offers us in Jesus: the grace of gifts given, not gifts earned; grace that comes to us in our own image and inspires us to live the Christmas life. Amen.
Advent 4 2 Samuel 7:1-11,16 Romans 16:25-27 Luke 1:26-38 Let us pray: Come, Lord Jesus. Fill our minds with your word, fill our hearts with your love, and fill our lives with your light. Come, Lord Jesus, we pray. Amen.
"Mary said, 'I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me as you say.'" When Gabriel announced to Mary that she would give birth to a son she was troubled, and perplexed. She said, “How can this be?” This was not in her plans for her future with her betrothed husband Joseph. But Gabriel told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and she would conceive and the child to be born would be holy. And Mary responded, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” She said, “Let it be.” One of the greatest Beatles hits was the song “Let it Be.” Some of the words are: “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, Speaking words of wisdom, let it be. And in my hour of darkness, She is standing right in front of me, Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” Let it be. But, how difficult it is for us to let it be. When we can’t find a rational explanation for something unplanned it haunts us. We want things to be as WE plan them and want them to turn out. How frequently do we lose sleep at night, worry, pace, fuss and fume about problems that we probably can’t solve? We want things to be as we want. We become obsessed with answers and explanations only to become totally overwhelmed and anxious over things we can’t fix. To let it be means to let God be God. To let go of the need to figure everything out, or the need to have a rational explanation for everything that happens. Sometimes we just have to resolve that things are the way they are for reasons beyond our control or our knowledge. I’d like to share a story with you written by Robert Fulghum, in his book titled Uh-Oh. “It was the summer of 1959. At the Feather River Inn in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California. A resort environment. And I, just out of college, have a job that combines being the night desk clerk in the lodge and helping out with the horse-wrangling at the stables. The owner/manager is Italian-Swiss, with European notions about conditions of employment. He and I do not get along. I think he’s a fascist who wants peasant employees who know their place, and he thinks I’m a good example of how democracy can be carried too far. I’m twenty-two and pretty free with my opinions, and he’s fifty-two and has a few opinions of his own. One week the employees were served the same thing for lunch every single day. Two wieners, a mound of sauerkraut, and stale rolls. To compound insult with injury, the cost of meals was deducted from our pay. I was outraged. On Friday night of that week, I was at my desk clerk job around 11 p.m., and the night auditor had just come on duty. I went to the kitchen to get a snack and saw a note to the chef to the effect that wieners and sauerkraut are on the employee menu for two more days. That tears it. I quit! For lack of a better audience, I unloaded on the night auditor, Sigmund Wollman. I declared that I have had it up to here; that I am going to go get a plate of wieners and sauerkraut and go and wake up the owner and throw it on him. I am sick and tired of this crap and nobody is going to make me eat wieners and sauerkraut for a whole week and make me pay for it, and who does he think he is anyhow, and how can life be sustained on wieners and sauerkraut, and this is un-American, and I don’t like wieners and sauerkraut enough to even eat it one day, and the whole hotel stinks anyhow, and the horses are all nags, and the guests are idiots and I’m packing my bags and heading for Montana where they never even heard of wieners and sauerkraut and wouldn’t even feed that stuff to the pigs. Something like that. I raved on this way for about twenty minutes, and needn’t repeat it all here. You get the drift. My monologue was delivered at the top of my lungs, punctuated with blows on the front desk with a fly-swatter, the kicking of chairs and much profanity. As I pitched my fit, Sigmund Wollman, the night auditor, sat quietly on his stool, smoking a cigarette, watching me with sorrowful eyes. Put a bloodhound in a suit and tie and you have Sigmund Wollman. He’s got a good reason to look sorrowful. Survivor of Auschwitz. Three years. German Jew. Thin, coughed a lot. He liked being alone at the night job—it gave him peace and quiet, time to read and even more, he could go into the kitchen and have a snack whenever he wanted to—all the wieners and sauerkraut he wanted. To him a feast. More than that, there’s nobody around to tell him what to do. In Auschwitz he probably dreamed of such a time. “Fulchum, are you finished?”“No, why?”“Lissen, Fulchum. Lissen me, lissen me. You know what’s wrong with you? It’s not wieners and kraut and it’s not the boss and it’s not the chef and it’s not this job.” “So, what’s wrong with me?”“Fulchum, you tink you know everyting, but you don’t know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. “If you break your neck—if you have noting to eat—if your house is on fire—then you got a problem. Everyting else is inconvenience. Life IS inconvenient. Life IS lumpy. “Learn to separate the inconveniences from the real problems. You will live longer. And will not annoy people like me so much. Good night.” In a gesture combining dismissal and blessing, he waved me off to bed. He concludes by writing, “Seldom in my life have I been hit between the eyes with truth so hard. “For thirty years now in times of stress and strain, when something has me backed against the wall and I’m ready to do something really stupid with my anger, a sorrowful face appears in my mind and asks: “Fulchum. Problem or inconvenience?” For Mary I’m sure this was a significant inconvenience. Why was Mary able to say “let it be?” First, she had a deep, abiding faith. She trusted in the wisdom of God and therefore could submit to God’s plan. How often do we find our personal agendas in direct competition with what God would have us do? Mary and Joseph probably hoped to have a happy marriage in the quiet little village of Nazareth. God, however, had different plans for them. That’s the way it works with God. Just when we think we have our lives going along smoothly—not great—not bad—God shakes us up with a call. The difficulty is perhaps that we are often willing, even anxious, to settle for less than what God offers us. We are offered God, and want the world instead. Sometimes it takes a drastic event to prepare us to accept God’s offer. To say, “Let it be,” means to resolve that because of circumstances beyond our control, things are going to be different than we may have anticipated. That could be a shift in our priorities. It could mean we will be embarking on new adventures. Or, it might mean our life has many surprises in store for us in the future. God doesn’t choose the way we would. God chooses worldly weakness to proclaim divine power. That’s the reason Mary was chosen and the reason we have been chosen. An unknown teenager in an unknown, out-of-the-way place. We share Mary’s vocation. She was chosen to bear the Savior. In our baptism, we have been appointed to do the same, to bring Christ to the world, to be Christ for the world. Mary gave Jesus a body, so do I, so do you. God has chosen us to be bearers of Christ for the world. Perhaps we each need to ask this question. “What does God want me to do with my life and am I giving God a chance to work through me?” What is it that you can’t let go of, or, what is it you can’t say, “Let it be” to? To say, “let it be,” really means to say, “yes” to God. The story of Mary is our story, too. Or, can be. The key is in our response. The whole story of Christmas depended upon one woman’s willingness to say, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me as you say.” Are we willing to say the same? When you are in there getting knocked around, bruised and bloodied, and you have a chance to drop out, you drop out! That’s what Robert Fulghum wanted to do. And so do I. And that's healthy psychologists tell us. The healthy person doesn't enjoy suffering. He wants to get out of it. He wants to resolve it. He wants to move the situation to something comfortable. That is why it is so difficult to identify with the Biblical Theme of voluntarily accepting the bruising and the bleeding. When we see how Jesus volunteered and accepted suffering and humiliation and death on our behalf, we discover there is no hiding place, no escape hatch, no way to get out from under, for those who want to be His disciples. As we celebrate our final Sunday before Christmas, Mary’s willingness to say “yes” to God’s call is an example and a challenge to each of us. Am I as ready as she to say, “Yes!” to God’s call to bring Christ into the world? Am I as ready as she was to risk what doing the will of God might mean in my day-to-day life? If I can follow Mary’s example, then my life will be Christmas for my brothers and sisters, the birth of Christ in unlikely places and circumstances of the world. We have no choice about experiencing the many interruptions of life. They come simply out of the grace of God. Your only choice is deciding if you will embrace them, allowing them to mold you into someone who looks a lot more like Jesus Christ. Like Mary and Joseph, say "Yes" to the interruption. Don't resist it. Look for the creativity of the Holy Spirit within it. And say, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word."
Let us Pray: O Lord, let it be to us according to your word – even when that word frightens us. Even when it is not the word we were expecting. I pray that we may be people who continue to trust in your word despite the inconveniences—the impossibilities and improbabilities we may think we see. Grant that like Mary we may be willing and humble servants. We ask all things through Christ Jesus, the Babe of Bethlehem, and the one who is both our brother and our Lord. Amen.
WHEN LIFE TUMBLES IN December 13, 2020 Advent 3 Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 John 1: 6-8, 19-28 Let us pray: Gracious God, help us to hear again your still small voice, your word even in silence, and so recognize that, though we may not see it, you are always there and always active, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. John the Baptist, the Gospel tells us, was traveling around baptizing people. This was a departure from traditional Jewish practice, and that and the fact that he was drawing crowds of people attracted lots of attention: people were interested, and the authorities were interested. In addition, the people were looking for someone that Jewish tradition had promised the arrival of a messiah. Life under Roman rule was difficult, unless you were a Roman citizen, so the people of Israel and Judea were hoping for a messiah to rescue them, to drive out the Romans. With these high expectations, they questioned John: are you the messiah? But John said, no, he was not. There was another coming, he said, for whom he was only preparing the way. We hear how he speaks of Jesus, the one to come. The Old Testament lesson also makes this connection for us. It is the lesson from Isaiah that Jesus reads in the synagogue at the start of his public ministry. So, we have John and his ministry, Jesus and his ministry, and the description in Isaiah of the ministry to which we all are called. John was baptizing people and calling them to repentance and forgiveness, to a new relationship with God. Jesus did so, too, calling his followers to a new life in the Spirit. Just a few weeks ago, on the last Sunday of the church year, we heard the parable of the sheep and the goats from the Gospel of Matthew. This parable speaks of those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and those in prison, and those who do not. This is exactly in line with what we heard today from Isaiah, and again, with the words Jesus chose to introduce his public ministry. (In Year C of the Sunday lectionary, when we read the Gospel of Luke, we will once again read these same phrases from Isaiah.) And we hear this message repeated again and again in Jesus’ words and actions: care for the poor and the sick, strive for justice, and bring hope to the outcast and release to the captives. We are now, of course, in the season of Advent, part of the church year, the season of waiting. In the northern hemisphere, people wait as the days become shorter. As the darkness grows, we are like our ancient ancestors awaiting the turning of the seasons and the return of the sun, the return of the light and warmth. As Christians, we also wait. We await the birth of the Holy Child, the return of the Son, the Light of the World, just as John waited in his time for the coming of the Messiah. Our earthly waiting mirrors our spiritual waiting. So we have this paradox set before us, between waiting and action, for we are called to both. Even in this time of quiet, of waiting, of anticipation, the world is also waiting for us. Just as John carried out his ministry while he waited for Jesus, we must remember that waiting does not preclude action. Often, we think that we must either be contemplative, as in this contemplative season, or active, busy, doing. Yet, we need both. We may naturally be drawn more to one aspect than the other, but there is room for both in each person’s life. In fact, some of each is necessary for a rich and balanced life. Most of us live pretty unbalanced lives in so many ways we work too much; we eat poorly; we don’t exercise or we are obsessed by it; we allow too little time for rest, play, or prayer; and so on. We live in an unbalanced society that equates doing and busyness with self-worth. And the irony is that this time of waiting comes at such a busy, stressful time for most of us in the holiday season. But perhaps, therein, lies the greatest lesson of Advent, and the greatest challenge. In the northern hemisphere, this is the time of year that the natural world slows down. The light wanes, the days grow shorter, lakes and streams slow and freeze, the mountains retreat into their snowy vastness, animals and plants hibernate and wait for spring. We are invited to slow down as well. Our bodies want to slow down, to sleep more. And in the old days, this was the time to mend the fishing nets and farm tools, the time for sewing and telling stories around the fire, for going to bed early. Life slowed down. It was part of the natural cycle. But with all our modern conveniences, we pay little heed to the rhythms of nature and besides, it’s the holiday season and there’s too much to do! And yet, and yet we know that even in the midst of what is supposed to be a more unhurried time, the world still cries out in need, still groans in travail. The terrible virus still rages around us. The hungry still need food, the naked still need clothing, the sick and imprisoned need our attention, the poor and the downtrodden need justice. That is the heart of our call, and the heart of this season. After all, we speak of Jesus as Emmanuel, as “God with us, wonderful counselor, Prince of Peace.” If we believe that, if these are more than just fancy words, we have to find a way to make them real, to embody them. We may feel worn out by the needs of the world crying out from every corner of the globe: disease, poverty, hunger, disaster, homelessness, greed, and injustice. And this past year has been devastating, with hurricanes and fires in some parts of the country. Protests and violence, and killings. All over the world, including in our own country, children go to bed hungry. Violence and abject poverty walk the streets of our wealthiest cities, on reservations and in villages, and in the quiet homes of our own neighborhoods. How do we begin to meet these overwhelming needs? Since we are not God, we cannot fix everything. We can only do what we are called to do by the Spirit. And to understand that, we need Advent and other times of quiet contemplation where we can go deep inside and hear the whisperings of the Spirit as it calls us to our own individual and communal work in the world. Advent serves as a reminder of this need to take time out from the usual clamor of our lives. Just as babies are not born without a period of gestation in the darkness of the womb, and just as spring bulbs do not blossom without a waiting period in the dark soil, so we do not bloom and flourish without times of quiet and rest. The season of Advent is one of those times, a time of dark and quiet and preparation. Take advantage of this gift of time, don’t let all your time in the next couple of weeks be totally caught up worry and frenzy of the world. Find some time to reflect on John’s call to repentance which is not just about sin and forgiveness, but about turning around, turning back to God. In that process of turning around, if you are willing to listen, you may hear more clearly the promptings of the Spirit deep in the quietness of your heart, and receive a clearer vision of how you are called to live out the words of the prophet Isaiah to bring freedom to the captives, sight to the blind, and good news to the poor. And may the Advent season help you find that essential balance between being and doing, between action and contemplation, so that one may inform and nourish the other. I read somewhere that life will come crashing in on each of us at some time. And different people will have different reactions... It's Advent, and that's what Advent is all about. It's about the hopes and fears of all the years, the triumphs and tragedies of all the years, the joys and griefs of all the years and in all of our lives... coming into a healing focus in the person of God's Messiah. The great classical Advent images are of darkness giving way to light, grief to faith or even joy, the barrenness of a desert to the beauty of paradise – paradise restored, longing to hope and the arrival of God’s salvation – in the advent of the Messiah, Jesus our Lord, then and now.And so, when life tumbles in on us, what is the ‘Advent secret’? I’d like to close with a prophetic Advent prayer. Somewhere in this prayer each of us is included:Come, come, long-expected Jesus. To those who have too low a view of who they are, come Lord Jesus. To those in the valley of the shadow of death or despair, come Lord Jesus. To those who have nothing much to be happy about, for whom life is too hard, come Lord Jesus. To those for whom the griefs of yesterday or the fear of tomorrow is just too much, come Lord Jesus. To those of us who care too little or care too much, come Lord Jesus. To those who are living out the consequences of bad choices made by them or for them by others, come Lord Jesus. To parents of difficult or sick or wayward children, or to those who have been abused, or to those who are single and would like to find a partner, or who wish they didn’t have the partner they’ve got, come Lord Jesus. To those for whom work is hard to find or hard to enjoy, come Lord Jesus. To those who long for better bodily and mental and spiritual health, come Lord Jesus. To those who have lost their joy, come Lord Jesus. To each of us here, and to those absent today, in the real situations of our lives, come Lord Jesus with your healing touch. Amen.
Let us pray: Gracious God, open our hearts to what you say even when we would rather not hear it. Open our lives to what you would have us do, even when we would rather not do it. Help us to respond to your challenging word, in the name of Christ. Amen.
How long, O Lord? How long do we have to endure the “new normal?” How much longer can we endure the delay until a long-awaited messenger brings us the news that our season of anxiety and fear is over?
Our patience is growing thin. Certainly, the cure, the solution, the remedy is out there! How beautiful will be the day when the herald announces that relief is finally coming, that this dreadful, restricting season is finally behind us!
Look what our confinement has done to our families, our marriages, our plans, our battles with depression. Our hopes for a quick resolution have been dashed. When will the news come that will bring us consolation and hope that the days of this scourge are finally coming to an end and we can all be restored once again to the glorious way things, at least as we remember them, were before?
The enduring challenge during Advent and Christmastime is to hear anew the familiar story we all know. We all know the story. We’ve all seen the Christmas pageants. We’ve set up the crèche with the holy family, cow, donkey, and shepherds. It’s become almost too familiar. In part, that’s why we have the season of Advent. These four weeks serve to prepare the way to Christmas by way of a bit of liturgical wilderness. The penitential season provides a time of reflection and contemplation so that we can hear the good news of Jesus’ incarnation afresh and let the gospel sink more deeply into our lives.
This year is a bit different, to say the least. For many, this does not feel like the usual joyous march toward Christmastide. Hundreds of thousands around the globe will be spending their first Christmas without a loved one who has passed on due to the pandemic. Millions more will be attempting a celebration without their usual large and festive gathering, due to travel restrictions. For almost the entirety of the year, we have all been a people anxious and waiting in a lockdown-long Advent. And with no cure or vaccine, there is no clear path forward out of this dark season.
This has been a year full of novel experiences, and every little thing is cast in new perspective. And yet, while the harshness of wilderness may be felt more deeply this year, the same ageless truths remain constant. We are just able to see them more clearly. The fundamental truth of these wilderness seasons is that we are waiting on an imperfect and broken world to pass. The season of Advent reminds us that no matter who we are or where we are in time or space, all earthly things will come to an end.
Nearly 30 centuries ago, Isaiah wrote to God’s exiled people, who were longing to return home. God’s message to them is one of comfort. The Lord is coming. On first hearing, Isaiah’s message hardly seems one of comfort: “The grass withers, the flower fades… surely the people are grass.” That does not sound like a fairytale ending – and it’s not. The comfort offered in these verses is more complex than a “happily ever after” conclusion. The comfort comes by putting things into a divine perspective. All people will fade like grass, but God is mighty and endures forever. The goodness of God will prevail. The prophet does not give an immediate timeframe or an immediate solution to the heartbreak and suffering of the people in exile; what is offered instead is a message of hope for the future.
Second Peter is also written to a people longing for God’s return. The author’s message is not unlike Isaiah’s: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire.” All things will, in the end, pass away. And in the end, God’s justice will prevail. While we don’t know the exact date of its writing, we do know that this epistle was written to the fledgling Christian community experiencing persecution at the hands of the ruling empire. They are looking for Jesus’ return and immediate relief from their suffering. But God does not descend with thunder from the clouds in triumphant material salvation. Instead, God’s word instructs the early Church to step back and seek a divine and cosmic perspective. A thousand years is like a day, and a day is like a thousand years to God. Again, this does not seem like a happy fairytale message for a people experiencing immediate pain and anguish. The author goes so far as to say that God’s lack of thunderous return is not to cause more suffering but instead is an act of love and patience. Once again, we are given a word of hope for the future, but we are also given instructions on how to live in the present: “Strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.”
In our gospel reading, we read the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark. Without much fanfare, we are placed into the action in the desert. The prophet John the Baptist proclaims in the wilderness a familiar message. At this point in history, Israel has been invaded and occupied by the Roman Empire. And now John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Though crowds flock to John—the reading says, “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him”—John still points away from himself and toward someone greater to come. John points to a hopeful future by promising one who will come baptizing, not with mere water but with the eternal Holy Spirit.
Our readings also show us that waiting is not a passive action. We are to live out our hope. In waiting for the fullness of the Kingdom of God, we proclaim God’s message of justice. We name sin. We turn toward justice. We stand in the wilderness, pointing to the one more powerful than us. As the psalmist writes, “Righteousness shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.” Where righteousness and peace are actively enacted, God is there.
Our Advent message from John the Baptist is not to adopt a bug-and-honey diet or de-clutter the closet to make room for the camel skins. The message isn’t even to level mountains or make a straight highway running through the desert! Our Advent message is that we are called to be a people that await the coming of the Lord. We are always in waiting—through victory and defeat, triumph and loss. It is certainly our job as the church to proclaim peace on earth, goodwill towards all, and joy to the world. But it is just as much our job to be visible in the wilderness, naming injustice, oppression, and apathy as sins. We name these things as sin not to cast judgment or humiliate or ridicule. And least of all do we name sin in order to exclude people from our “in” group; it is precisely the opposite. We stand in the wilderness and welcome all to journey with us in the power of the Holy Spirit. We point to something better. We point to the Christ, the one who is more powerful, more patient, and more loving. We point to the Christ, the one who is to come.
This Advent, many of us are already in the wilderness. Let us step back and pray for a glimpse of the divine perspective. We remember that all things here on earth are temporary and fleeting, and we work to embody God’s patience and love here in this world. Let our lives be shaped by our hope in the truth that God is coming. As our collect says, let us live in such a way so that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.
Let us pray: God of all hope be with us as we await your coming. Come, Lord Jesus. Fill our minds with your word, fill our hearts with your love, and fill our lives with your light. Come, Lord Jesus, we pray. Amen.
Waiting is the hardest thing to do because it feels like you’re not doing anything. And it seems twice as hard when you’re young. When we’re children, Christmas always seems eons away and we think the end of school or our birthday will never arrive.
And we 21st-century people certainly have an ever-shrinking attention span; our wealth and technology allow us to access virtually anything we want any time we want. Everything is sooner, faster, now. And boy, do we love that speed, especially technological speed. Wait ten seconds to let a webpage load? Are you kidding? Get a faster connection! Wait five seconds for a document to print? What the heck is wrong with this printer? Wait to let yourself cool down before sending that email or posting that social media rant? Are you kidding? Go, go, go! You snooze, you lose, that’s our motto. If anyone needs to learn the Advent virtue of waiting upon the Lord, it’s us.
Virtually the only things we haven’t been able to speed up or shorten are our basic biological processes. It still takes nine long months to have a baby, whether we want to wait that long or not. And so, if we want to be with Mary in her journey toward giving birth to Jesus, we need to settle into the long haul. We’ve already been busy doing other things for the first eight months, and now in her last month of pregnancy, we’re just going to have to take these four weeks of Advent and wait.
Our reading from Isaiah today has an interesting take on waiting. The writer is marveling at how different the God of Israel is from the other gods in the cultures of the time. And then the writer remembers, “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.”
What is it like to wait for God? Many of us know exactly what that is like. We wait for God to explain why a family member died too young. We wait for God to open a path out of a marriage that has ended, into a new place where healing might begin.
And of course, virtually this entire year has been a time of waiting. We’ve waited during lockdowns and quarantines. We’ve waited on masks and respirators and toilet paper. We’ve waited on test results for the coronavirus, wondering whether we are positive or not. We’ve waited endless weeks and months, not able to visit our loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes, in order to protect them.
We’ve waited on our kids going back to school and waited to see if our jobs would hold out during the crisis. We’ve waited on unemployment checks and stimulus checks. We’ve waited in line to vote and waited to see if our mail-in ballot went through, and then waited on the results of the election. We’ve waited for a vaccine. And we’ve waited and waited and waited to go back to church in the old ways that were familiar and comfortable to us.
2020 has been nothing but a year of waiting. Perhaps we are better equipped now than we ever have been to understand the Biblical mandate to wait upon the Lord. The Good News shared with us today is that God is working for us as we wait for God.
And we’re actually doing two kinds of spiritual waiting right now. We’re waiting for the coming of the Christ Child on Christmas Day, that glorious moment of incarnation when God comes to be with us in human form. That’s a fixed endpoint that we know ahead of time. Come December 25, we will be celebrating Jesus’ arrival.
But we’re doing another kind of waiting. We’re waiting for the signs of the Incarnation in our own lives. We’re waiting to see the new and next way that God will be manifest in our own individual time and place. God is with us, but where and how? That is how we keep company with Mary: as the watchful sentinels always on the lookout for the new revelation waiting to be discovered among the everyday.
Patience is a hard-earned virtue, and many of us are deeply wearied by all the waiting we’ve had to do, all the times we’ve had to say no to ourselves and our children this year in order to stay safe and keep others safe. It might feel like 2020 is a year out of time, a wasted and empty expanse that consisted of nothing but life on hold.
But is that true? Was this time of waiting really wasted? Mary’s time of waiting was almost as long as ours has been. What has been blossoming and growing in your heart during this time of waiting? What new thing is ready to be born in your spiritual life after having been forced to slow down and really ask what is most important about your faith? How has your family found new strengths by the call to adapt and the sudden multiplication of time together and new challenges with school and work?
Mary’s time of waiting was for a purpose. It had a goal and an end, and she faithfully pursued it with God’s help. As you reflect on your waiting this year, what has God grown in you? What will be the gift you offer the world this Christmas as Mary did? It takes awake and alert eyes to see the grace even amid the suffering we’ve endured.
And Paul reminds us of what we most need to hold on to through the long weary days of waiting for grace: “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end.” Look back on this year and see the strength with which you endured its trials. See the call to justice and peace that rang even through our most bitter divides in society. And know that it has all led to this, the season of Advent, the time of upheaval and waiting, of change and pause, of grace and truth.
And so, we pray, and we stick together, and we love one another, and we wait upon the Lord. And Isaiah, the great prophet of the Advent season, announces the Good News:
“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Amen.