First Sunday of Christmas: A Sermon

A sermon preached on December 27, 2015, at Christ Church (Tara).

I.

It’s every parents’ nightmare – to have a child go missing. Even for the briefest of moments when a child is off the parental radar seem like an eternity of panic. In today’s Gospel reading, St. Luke moves us from the emotional high of Christmas to the sheer terror experienced by parents when a child goes missing. You can imagine the added terror experienced by Mary and Joseph – we’ve lost God’s Son! This seems like a rather strange way for Luke to follow up the joy of the nativity story and the tenderness of Jesus’ presentation in the temple where he is blessed by Simeon and Anna. Both the Gospels of Mark and John completely omit the nativity and Matthew focuses on Joseph and Mary’s flight into Egypt to protect Jesus from King Herod’s order to massacre all boys under the age of 2. The Bible certainly is not as neat and nice as we want it to be sometimes.

II.

Like all the authors of the other Gospels, Luke is primarily focused on answering the question: who is Jesus from Nazareth and why is he important? Although each of the Gospel writers formulate their answers differently, they each come up with the same answer: Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God; he is important because he brings us salvation and shows us God’s kingdom. Luke sets out to answer the ‘who’ and ‘why’ questions about Jesus in what he calls an “orderly account” based on eyewitness testimony (Lk 1.1, 1.3; cf. 1.2). Luke intentionally place his account in historical context and frequently ‘name drops’ in order to underline the reliability of his Gospel.

One of the questions often asked about the Gospels is: why do they not offer us any stories about Jesus’ childhood? Aren’t these stories important too? Why do we have only one story about Jesus as a young boy and why does only one Gospel, in this case that of Luke, include it?

I suspect that had any stories of Jesus’ childhood been included in the Bible, the might seem mundane to the point of belaboring a point that the nativity story already makes poignantly clear: God took on human flesh and came to earth to live among us. The effect of Christ’s living among us is clear only in the context of his earthly ministry, culminating in his death and resurrection. The addition of childhood stories about Jesus would be, from an editorial standpoint, needless filler. Of course, none of this is to suggest that childhood itself is unimportant; we know that Jesus welcomed children as his followers and enjoined his adult disciples to practice childlike faith. The fullness of Christ’s humanity, including his childhood, is best represented by the Christmas story.

Keeping in mind that Luke is offering an answer to the ‘who’ and ‘why’ questions about Jesus, Luke offers the story of Jesus in the temple as a narrative ‘hinge’ between the nativity and Jesus’ adult ministry.

At first glance, the texts seems to paint an unflattering picture of Jesus as a petulant pre-teen. His response to his mother’s frustration and relief sounds like disrespect. We expect that Jesus should know better than to not tell his parents his whereabouts and that he would show a bit more respect to his parents. However, we should not let our expectations cloud our reading of the Bible; when we do, we often end up making the Bible conform to our demands rather than let the God speak to us through the Bible in order to transform us as God intends.

When we look at the structure of text, Luke’s intended meaning becomes clear. Luke is a masterful story teller; every part of the story is intentionally placed for maximum effect.

This episode begins with the journey to Jerusalem and ends with the journey home to Nazareth. The next parallel in the text is between Jesus remaining as his parents depart unaware and Jesus’ parents being unable to understand why he stayed. The next parallel is Jesus’ parents finding him and Jesus’ parents reproaching him.[1]

Each of these three parallels create a structure to the story that is meant to highlight the heart of the text: that Jesus is God’s wisdom in the flesh. The heart of the story is the amazement and astonishment that the teachers of the temple and Jesus’ parents had regarding his knowledge of the Torah. Luke depicts Mary and Joseph as pious Jews who make a yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover (cf. Lk. 2.41) and the piety of the temple leaders is certainly assumed. And yet, here is a twelve-year-old-boy, on the cusp of manhood (at least as it was understood in that time and place), showing knowledge and wisdom beyond his years.

Through the narrative, Luke is offering an answer the ‘who’ and ‘why’ questions about Jesus: Jesus is both fully human and fully divine.

Jesus’ physical and mental growth underlines his full humanity: Jesus grew, as we all do, from babies utterly dependent on our parents for everything, into teenagers who begin to spread their wings, into adults who must take responsibility for their own lives. Indeed, the fact that Jesus was twelve in this story underlines his transition into manhood and all that goes with it, including accepting religious responsibility, which is why he responded to Mary’s question with such seeming flippancy: I am in the temple because I am no longer a little boy; I am taking my mission form my heavenly Father seriously.

To be clear, Jesus’ human development in no way should suggest his limitation of his divinity; Luke includes this story precisely in order to underline the truth of the nativity: God became human. The very fact of the Incarnation is a reminder that Jesus did “not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, bring born in human likeness”, as St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Philippians (2. 6-7).

Indeed, the heart of today’s Gospel reading serves to underline Jesus’ divine nature. There is no what that the teachers of the temple would have even allowed a twelve-year-old-boy to sit among them, let alone grant him an audience or even let him speak to them. They would not let them do this, unless it was patently evident that he was special. That Jesus made this impression on them is clear. Moreover, it brings to mind the story of Jesus’ appearance to two travellers on the road to Emmaus where he opened the Scriptures to them. Both on that road and in the temple in today’s reading, Luke is suggesting that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Torah; all the Scriptures point to him as the Messiah, the Christ, the promised deliverer who will inaugurate a new Passover and a new Exodus.

However, as often is the case in the Gospel stories, the crowds, the religious leaders, and even those closest to Jesus – his disciples and his parents – either cannot understand who Jesus is and why he has come or, like the Israelites in the Old Testament, they constantly forget. This is why Mary’s actions are so important. Like Mary, we must treasure the Scriptural stories about Jesus in our hearts, lest we forget who he is and why he came.

III.

God’s people have an embarrassing tendency to forget God’s promises, which is why God is constantly reminding his people to turn back to him – to repent. Following the story of Jesus in the temple, Luke tells how John the Baptist went about “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk. 3.3). Caught up in our own anxieties about the future of the church, our religious piety, and our discomfort with the seeming antiquatedness of the Bible, we forget both God’s faithfulness and our baptismal vocation to proclaim the gospel.

We are “God’s chosen one, holy and beloved” (Col. 3.12). Our mission in and for the world is to embody Christ in everything we do and say as a community of Christ-followers. We are called to remember who Jesus is and why he came and then put those very things into practice. We are to extend patience, forgiveness, love, and peace to each other. We are to practice gratitude, study the Scriptures, sing and pray together. We are to follow the self-giving example of Jesus Christ who emptied himself for our sake. It is when we gather to receive God’s wisdom in Word and Sacrament that we remember Christ and our calling as a Church.

The church’s witness to the world is wrapped up in the way that Christians within the church act together as a community – from their worship to the way they deal with conflict among ourselves. We worship the Triune God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and we practice the way of forgiveness and gratitude.

These are the very core of our being and mission as a church; and these are the very things that our world so desperately needs to know. In a world where the worship of Me, Myself, and I is central and where the desire for revenge is normal, the church is called to stand as an alternative, ambassadors of a different way of life rooted in Jesus Christ.

This Christmas, let us remember who Jesus is and why he came so that we can be a community that treasures Christ’s words in our hearts and lives as his presence in a world starved for grace.

Amen.

[1] John Carroll, Luke, 85.

Christmas Sermon

A sermon delivered on Christmas Eve, 2015, at Christ Church, Tara, and St. Paul’s, Southampton.

I.

Every family has Christmas traditions; they are part of what makes the celebration so special and meaningful.

Growing up, one of my family’s Christmas traditions was watching the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. For those who haven’t seen it, the movie is a hilarious send-up of what the main character, Clark Griswold, calls “a good ole fashioned family Christmas”. However, despite his best efforts to create his ideal Christmas, Clark fails at every turn. Clark’s antics and the growing number of dysfunctional relatives who show up to stay in his increasingly cramped house only add to the chaos. Clark takes all the noise, mishaps and pandemonium in stride, because, after all, bigger is always better, right? The chaos increases throughout the movie until, at the very end, a SWAT team is breaking through every door and window of the house, destroying what little is left of Clark’s numerous Christmas decorations. A good ole fashioned family Christmas this is not.

You see, Clark is blinded by nostalgia. He tries to fabricate something that is simply not attainable: the perfect Christmas from an imagined past. However, he keeps being interrupted by the realities of everyday life and the messiness of human relationships. He is so fixated on what could be that he completely misses what is going on around him. Indeed, Clark’s attempts to make the perfect Christmas amplifies the chaos around him and yet, because of his idealism, he remains deaf. It seems that Clark’s motivation is to escape the chaos around him; indeed, the louder the chaos grows, the more unwilling and unable Clark is to face what is going on around him.

While his confusion, frustration and detachment is played to hilarious effect, I think the movie offers us a profound reminder that Christmas is not a season of nostalgia as often depicted by holiday songs and movies. It is easy to get caught up in the hustle-and-bustle as we prepare for Christmas; for some people, the noisiness and busyness of the season is what makes special and exciting.

Now before I get accused of being Scrooge or the Grinch, please hear me out. Yes, there is space for the excitement that Christmas brings. However, if our excitement is entirely focused on buying presents, visiting family members, preparing Christmas dinner, and creating a wonderful picturesque Christmastime, the chaos will deafen us to what God is doing in and through Christmas. Christmas is “not a reminder that the world is really quite a nice place”.[1] Rather, as Bishop N.T. Wright suggests, Christmas is a reminder that “the world is a shocking bad place”.[2] We need only consider the news of the past few months to remind ourselves of this.

Now, some of you might be ready to run me out of town for wrecking your Christmas; how dare I suggest that Christmas is a reminder of our world’s brokenness! Christmas is supposed to be a happy time full of good cheer and goodwill! The suggestion that Christmas is a reminder that our world is messed up is rather shocking. However, if we, like Clark Griswold, attempt to use Christmas as a way to ignore the chaos of our world, we will be unable and unwilling to accept what is going on around us and we will be unable to see and hear what God has done and is doing in our midst.

II.

The first Christmas some 2,000 years ago was not the idealized scene we often see memorialized in crèches and paintings.  Rather, it took place right in the thick of human history. St. Luke intentionally sets the nativity in historical context to underline this. We read of an imperial decree enacted by Caesar himself in order to determine how much money he will be able to raise through the taxation of nations under his rule. One does not have the option of ignoring an imperial decree; you can imagine the chaos this created within the Roman Empire. In the midst of this, Joseph is simply one man among hundreds of thousands following a command under the threat of punishment; they are all cogs in the machinery of the empire.

In a few short verses, St. Luke masterfully creates a background that describes the messiness of human history, a history written by the rich and powerful, but borne on the backs of the weak and powerless. Here we are reminded that the Israelites are a subjected people, conquered by military invasion. They have no autonomy; any rebellion will be quashed by Roman might. However, St. Luke is setting the stage for events that will create a revolution.

This is precisely why Advent is a time of preparation. We are not preparing by wrapping gifts and backing shortbread. In Advent, we are preparing for a revolution.[3] We are preparing for an event that will completely undermine and undo all earthly power, an event that will fundamentally change the course of human history, an event that exposes, interrupts, and overturns the chaos of our world. In Advent we are preparing for the unexpected and unfathomable arrival of God amidst the chaos of the world. This is God’s revolution.

God enters into our history as one of us. But God does not come as a warlord in command of an army; he comes as an infant, utterly dependant on his human parents. And despite this helplessness, there is, as a friend once put it, “danger in the manger”.[4] He is the one who will bring God’s kingdom, a kingdom that will overturn all human kingdoms, not by the violence of the sword but by what Archbishop Oscar Romero called “the violence of love”. This is God’s revolution.

This fundamentally challenges the traditional view of the serene pastoral setting of that first Christmas. Indeed, the silence of the night is broken by the noise of animals, the groans of childbirth, the cries of new life, and the choir of angels, praising and proclaiming that the baby born in manger is dangerous because he is “the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11). He comes as an ordinary human to save ordinary people like you and me. This is God’s revolution.

I suppose it is possible that there was silence when the shepherds came to visit, a collective silence as all of creation holds its breath in holy reverence. But this silence is quickly punctuated by the joyful witness of the shepherds who “made known” to everyone who would listen about what they saw (cf. Lk. 2.20). They were so overjoyed were they that they went out into the sleepy village, waking any and all with in their proclamation of the gospel. And rather than be angry at being awoken to the mundane news that a baby was born that night, they “were amazed at what the shepherds told them” (Lk. 2.20): that this baby is the long-awaited Messiah! This is God’s revolution!

III.

We today should be no less amazed at the Christmas story: that the God who created the universe entered the chaos of human history in order to set us free. One of the things that our culture likes to tell us is that we should not put God into a box; we should not pretend to know about God or to make any definitive claims about God; that all claims about God, regardless of religion, are, in the end, all the same. However, the Christmas story reminds us that God put himself in a box and that this changes everything and challenges all our assumptions about who God is.

Like the shepherds, the witness of seeing God as a baby in a box should drive us into the world to proclaim that we have seen God and his name is Jesus. Jesus Christ is God’s body language; he is God in the flesh. The shepherds stand as a figure of the church; they anticipate the church’s mission: to go into the world telling everyone what God is doing in and through Jesus Christ, to tell everyone who will listen that God’s heavenly kingdom of peace and love will overcome earthly empires of death and suffering, to share the good news that Christ will bring an end to all earthly chaos and invites us to join his movement of love and reconciliation.

However, this good news can be difficult to hear amidst the noise of the season, amidst the sadness that many of us experience at Christmas. This good news impossible to proclaim if we are not prepared for God’s revolution, a revolution that beings in our hearts when he hear and accept the voice of the Holy Spirit. There is danger in the manger, but it can be easy to miss if we assume a noiseless Christmas removed from the messiness of human history, if we insist on a picture perfect Christmas celebration.

So, where does this leave us this Christmas Eve? Does this spoil our attempts to create a “good ole fashioned family Christmas”? The good news is that nothing can spoil Christmas because Christmas is not something that we can somehow make ‘perfect’. Not even the chaos and messiness of human history can interfere with what God is doing precisely because at the first Christmas God entered into the chaos and messiness in order to redeem it and to bring us a new way of being in the world. Christmas is already perfect because Jesus Christ took on human flesh and sets us free. This is the root of our Christmas joy; this is the reason for our celebration! “Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness”.[5]

O come, let us adore the God in the box, the baby in the manger, who is Christ our Lord. Amen.

[1] N.T. Wright, For All God’s Worth, p.2.

[2] N.T. Wright, For All God’s Worth, p.2. Wright continues: “Christmas is God lighting a candle; and you don’t light a candle in a room that’s already full of sunlight. You light a candle in a room that’s so murky that the candle, when lit, reveals just how bad things really are. The light shine in the darkness, says St. John, and the darkness has not overcome it”.

[3] A point made by Bishop Robert Barron in one of his videos.

[4] Kudos to The Rev. Ian Martin.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God in the Manger.

Fouth Sunday of Advent (C): A Sermon

A sermon preached at Christ Church, Tara and St. Paul’s, Chatwsowth, on Sunday Dec. 20, 2015

Texts: Micha 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55

I.

Although I have four children, this hardly makes me an expert about pregnancy. I witnessed the physical changes and the process of giving birth, but my experience of pregnancy remains second-hand. I simply do not and cannot know what it means to be pregnant – to grow a human life inside me, a life that is physically dependant on me and a genetic extension of me. Nevertheless, for men and women alike, a pregnant belly swollen with life inspires a sense of awe at the wonder of the female body and evokes images of tender intimacy between mother and child.

Pregnancy is also a time of waiting. While the first months are filled with excitement and anticipation, the final weeks seem like an eternity of waiting for the baby to finally make its exit from the cramped womb and enter into the world: when will this baby finally come out?! Pregnancy is, I think, an apt metaphor for the Advent season in which we are waiting for the arrival of Jesus. Yes, we await the coming of the baby in the manger and the joyful celebrations with family and friends. But in a world torn apart by warfare and suffering, by hunger and addiction, we also await the coming of the risen and ascended Lord to reconcile and renew all things. Waiting for Christmas is like the excited anticipation of early pregnancy; waiting for Christ’s return in our broken world is like the agonizing discomfort of late pregnancy: when will he finally return?

II.

            The scene of today’s gospel reading is an encounter captured in numerous paintings throughout history. The joyful affection shared between these two pregnant women offers a stirring portrait of familial intimacy. But more than that, this scene remains a turning point in human history. The mundane and the miraculous are beautifully intertwined demonstrating God’s sovereign care in his interactions in human history. Not only is Elizabeth post-menopausal, even when she was able to have children, her womb remained barren. Like Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah, Elizabeth, once unable to have children, now finds herself six months pregnant with a child promised to her by God. Then there is Mary, an un-wed teenager coming to help an older relative “negotiate the last trimester of an entirely unanticipated pregnancy”.[1] Without any indication offered in the text that Elizabeth even knows about Mary’s pregnancy, which is in the earliest stages, she nevertheless knows about the life developing in Mary’s womb. Elizabeth does not chastise Mary for sexual immorality as an unwed mother; rather, “filled with the Holy Spirit”, Elizabeth exclaims “with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’” (Lk. 1.42).

Two women: one getting on in years (cf. Lk. 1.7) and one just entering womanhood. Two women: both miraculously pregnant by the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that hovered over the face of the deep in the beginning and gave birth to creation (cf. Gen.1).

Indeed, the work of the Holy Spirit pervades the entire scene, from Elizabeth’s greeting, to John’s in utero somersaults, to Mary’s song of praise; the presence of the Holy Spirit transforms the mundane into the miraculous.

It is only through the Holy Spirit that Elizabeth is able to identify Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (Lk. 1.43; cf. 1. Cor. 12.3b). Even before Jesus is born, he is identified as Lord. That the baby in Mary’s womb is the promised Messiah is underlined by John’s joyful movements. Already John, who will become John the Baptizer, is preparing the way for the coming of the Lord and pointing to him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (cf. John 1.29).

It is through the Holy Spirit that Mary magnifies the Lord, telling of what God has done and will do through the child she bears.

It is through the Holy Spirit that, in the words of Ephrem the Syrian, a 4th century theologian that “Our Lord prepared his herald in a dead womb, to show that he came after a dead Adam. He vivified Elizabeth’s womb first, and the vivified the soil of Adam through his body”. God is in the business of creating life and restoring life. Adam stands as a figure of all humanity, ensnared as it is in sin. But God does not abhor human flesh; he sent himself as the Second Adam (cf. Rom. 5.12-21), took on human flesh and was born of a woman, in order to liberate human flesh, indeed all of created reality, through his very birth, death, and resurrection. The Holy Spirit works within humans, in all our physicality, to birth new life.

This is precisely why Mary is such an important figure in Christianity. While some Christians protest that others make too much of a fuss over Mary, the reality is that Mary stands as a powerful reminder of Jesus’ humanity; we cannot think of Mary apart from Jesus. Moreover, Mary stands as the culmination of the entire Old Testament. In her song, she summarizes God’s actions through the Old Testament and the new thing that God is doing through Jesus Christ. Through her very body, Mary carries and births the Word-made-flesh, the one who is the very fulfilment of the Law and Prophets. Mary stands as a representative of both Israel and the new community birthed by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

Mary’s faithfulness to God is key to understanding her centrality. Elizabeth, the older of the two, shows deference to Mary, her younger relation because of what God is doing through her. Both Mary and Elizabeth exhibit a radical trust of God, a trust that is clearly on display in today’s gospel reading. Mary’s song echoes the worship of her ancestors and anticipates the worship of the Church. Indeed, the Magnificat is still said or sung as part of Evening Prayer in the Anglican tradition. Mary’s song of faith is an expression of the Church’s faith. Therefore, the Church echoes Elizabeth’s exuberant greeting of Mary – “blessed are you among women” (Lk. 1.42).

Mary accepts God’s promises that she will bear and give birth to the Messiah; Mary trusts that “nothing is impossible with God” (Lk. 1.37). Mary’s faith stands in stark contrast to that of Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, whose faith faltered when the angel told him his barren and aged wife would bear and give birth to a son. The one whose name means “God has again remembered” (Jeffrey, 22), has completely forgotten that God has done and continues to do the impossible.

You see, faith is born of trusting in God’s promises without qualification. Although Mary was initially perplexed when Gabriel announced to Mary what was to come, her response is born of faith: “Let it be with me, according to your word” (Lk. 1.38). Mary accepts God’s word at face value; her faith opens her to giving birth to the Word itself. Her faith sings about God’s faithfulness to his promise, the promise she now bears in her womb. Mary’s ‘yes’ to God, her acceptance of her role as God’s servant, her willingness to participate in the new thing God was doing, was the beginning of new life for the entirety of creation. Mary’s ‘yes’ to God gave birth to God’s ‘yes’ to humanity some 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem.[2] Mary’s ‘yes’ ensured the means by which Christ was born as a human baby into human history.

III.

The first two chapters of Luke open with two miraculous births, that of John and Jesus. Moreover, the opening chapters of Luke are full of worship – the songs of Mary, Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon in the temple – and witnesses to Christ – Elizabeth’s greeting, the shepherd’s sharing what they saw in the manger, and the prophetess Anna’s recognition of Jesus as the promised Messiah. In first century Palestine, the testimony of women was inadmissible in court (Jeffrey, 19). However, in today’s gospel reading, the worship and witness of the women is brought to life by the Holy Spirit. The same is true of the testimony of the Shepherd’s on Christmas. The testimony of shepherds was, like that of women, inadmissible in court. And yet, Luke tells of how the shepherds, following their encounter with Jesus in the manger, went out and “made known what they had been told them about this child” (Lk. 2.17): that this new born baby is the Savior of the world. . St. Luke’s point is perfectly clear: the Holy Spirit makes our worship of and witness to Jesus Christ possible and it is precisely because of the work of the Holy Spirit that all testimony about Jesus Christ as the Messiah is equally valid regardless of the social status of the one who testifies.

The Holy Spirit stirs up our worship and propels us to witness to what God is doing in our midst. Through eyes of faith, we will see God birthing new life in impossible ways and in impossible situations; we will see God working the miraculous through the seemingly mundane. We do not need to look far to see God at work; if we, like Mary, say ‘yes’ to God, opening ourselves to his plan for us, we will begin to see signs of new life and rich fruit being born in our lives.

The Church is a community of people chosen and called by God to be those who give birth to Christ in the world and to prepare the world for his second Advent. In a world where death reigns, we are called to be a people who bear witness to the new life that God makes possible. This requires the kind of faith exhibited by Mary, a faith that does not get caught up in the limitations of what might be possible for God or calculates the potential risks, but a faith that trusts in God’s faithfulness to remain in our midst.

God is in the business of bringing new life. As we both celebrate Christ’s birth and yearn for his second coming, let us renew our faith in God and reflect upon the ways in which we can say ‘yes’ to God in our lives.

Where are you, right now, ignoring or resisting God’s call on your life? Where do you need to make room for God to bring you his new life? Where do you see evidence of God working in your life? How are we as Christ’s earthly body witnessing to and embodying the new life made possible by the Holy Spirit? Where do we see the fruit of this new life?

This Advent and Christmas season, may we discern the prompting of the Holy Spirit in our midst as it moves among us that we might be a people who faithfully proclaim to all the world the good news that because of Jesus Christ, new life is possible, even in impossible situations. Amen.

[1] David Lyle Jeffrey, Luke, Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2012, 32.

[2] To be clear, I am not suggesting that the possibility of the Incarnation hinged upon Mary’s ‘yes’; the Incarnation was part of God’s plan from the outset of creation (i.e.pre-Fall). Jesus’ birth was according to and a fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets.

The Second Sunday in Advent (C): A Sermon

A sermon preached on Dec. 6, 2015 at St. Paul’s (Southampton) at a joint service of the Anglican Regional Ministry of Saugeen Shores, Tara & Chatsworth

Texts: Malachi 3.1-4; Philppians 1.3-11; Luke 3.1-6

 

I.

The human lot in life is one of perpetual waiting. There is not a time in our lives when we are not waiting for something, whether it is for the meal to arrive or for the sermon to end. Indeed, the whole of humanity has been waiting for what seems like an eternity for liberation from suffering, and death. We need only consider the wreckage of history as a clear testimony to humanity’s bondage to sin. The news of the past month alone is enough to confirm our brokenness.

Where are we to find hope in the darkness of our suffering? Is hope even possible or is hope merely the result of delusional thinking in the face of the inevitable?

Despair and cynicism are, it seems, the only options we have. Of course, optimism is a possibility, but such the power of positive thinking often rings hollow, even for the perpetually cheerful in the face of darkness.

Despair, cynicism, and optimism are all, in their own ways, coping mechanisms born of the assumption that humans are simply left to their own devices in the world; we are left with the choice to either try to make something of ourselves, be it through our cunning or resources, or to accept our fate that life is short and we are all going to die. We can either face our future with stoic resignation or sunny optimism while we watch those we love die and as the world around us burns.

And yet, there is a quiet yet insistent voice that speaks of promise and hope, if we have ears to hear it.

It is an ancient yet urgent voice that continues to sound throughout the cacophony of our modern world, if we are willing to listen.

It is a voice that echoes through the ages, the voice of God himself, promising that suffering and death do not get the final say; a voice that speaks of hope and life amidst darkness and depair.

Despite the stories of exile, chaos, and destruction throughout Scripture, this voice remains constant: God will intervene, decisively and completely, to undo the power of sin and death, to restore creation to its original goodness.

And yet, we, like the ancient Israelites, wait for the fruition and fulfilment of the promises of this voice. We, like the ancient Israelites, so easily tune out this voice when the brutality of reality roars in our ears. We have been waiting so long, the voice must be wrong or, even worse, lying. The world is so dark, the voice must be unable to do what it promises. Bait taken, the trap of despair and cynicism snaps shut.

After all, how long can one wait for the improbable, let alone, the impossible? Hope is for the naïve.

II.

The book of Malachi stands at the end of the Old Testament. God’s people are still waiting for the promised and long-awaited Messiah. Tired of waiting, God’s people turn away from God, time and again, in the attempt to manufacture reality to their liking, assuming they are left to their own devices, worshipping idols and flirting with the aspirations of human empires. The result is always the same: in their unfaithfulness to the covenant, God’s people find themselves caught up in the machinations of the world where the innocent and powerless bear the scars of brutality and suffering. God’s people would rather live life according to their own devices and desires rather than under God’s caring sovereignty and promised faithfulness because these seem to take too long.

Despite their unfaithfulness, God remains faithful to his people, a faithfulness evidenced by God’s steadfast promise to deliver his people from their self-imposed bondage, a promise that is repeated over and over again throughout Scripture. The diversity of voices in Scripture intone the same promise: God will send a deliverer, a Messiah. And so God waits patiently for his people to hear his voice and return to him.

God’s patient waiting requires that God’s people patiently wait for the fruition and fulfilment of God’s promise. And waiting is so hard to do, particularly in a culture where there are a myriad of voices demanding our attention: the ring of the telephone, the blare of advertising, the most recent e-mail, the latest scandal in the news. So caught up in the false urgency of our culture, we fall yet again into a cycle of unfaithfulness, cynicism and despair. We become anxious about the future, striving to bend it to our demands, desperate to keep the darkness at bay and to avoid the inevitable. We simply do not have the time to attend to God’s voice or the inclination to trust his promises. Life is short, so we must get on with it while we can. Who has time to wait?

And yet, our lives are defined by waiting. Moreover, our lives are affected by the manner in which we wait; we wait either impatiently or patiently.

Frustrated with the reality that the world does not operate on our preferred timeline, we become impatient. This impatience, in turn, often breeds hopelessness and cynicism as we become aware that we cannot bend time according to our will. Impatience is ultimately born of the selfish demand that the world unfold in the way that I want it.

Patience, on the other hand, “is the virtue of waiting. It involves waiting for all things to reach their end: waiting for others, as well as for ourselves, to take the time they need, and above all waiting for God to fulfil his purposes in his own good time. Patience is the virtue which encounters frustration with a calm and steady frame, waiting steadfastly for time to be fulfilled” (John Webster, The Grace of Truth, 243). Patience is born of the realization that God will use whatever befalls us, whether good or ill, for his good purposes; patience and perseverance go hand-in-hand.

As Christians, patience is “trustful confidence about our lives” (Webster, 246). This patience is born of the confidence that “he who began a good world in [us] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1.6). Christian patience is rooted in the trust and hope that “time has a telos, a goal” (Webster, 246); the goal of time is the first and second Advent of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Church is always ready and willing to wait patiently. The Church does so because it rests in the assurance that time itself belongs to God.

As God’s people, we are called to witness to the telos of time. The prophetic purpose of the Church is to proclaim that despite all seeming evidence to the contrary, that the world is and will always be “the place of God’s compassion and mercy” (Webster, 247).  This proclamation is not born of frenzied urgency and it does not require that we attempt to shout above the noise of the world. Born of the confidence that God is faithful to God’s promises, our proclamation echoes the quiet yet insistent voice of those who’ve gone before us; our proclamation harmoniously reverberates with the prophets and apostles, the melody of which is the voice of God himself, Jesus Christ.

Therefore, Christian waiting is not a passive resignation to our fate, but it is an active and joyful anticipation of God’s promised future. Indeed, amidst the darkness of the world, the Church celebrates as if the fulfilment of time were already a fait accompli. Indeed, with the first Advent of Christ, we have the assurance that God’s promised future is already moving toward us. Through Scripture and Sacrament we are both reminded of and participate in this future.

The first Advent of Christ also means that the waiting of the Church is undergirded by the expectation of the unexpected. The fact that God would come to earth as a baby as the promised Messiah is utterly unexpected. That God would call an assortment of misfits, rejects, ne’er-do-wells, and sinners to proclaim his message of liberation is utterly unexpected. That God would call someone as strange as John the Baptizer to prepare the way for the coming of Christ is utterly unexpected. And so the Church patiently waits for the Second Advent, expecting the unexpected as harbingers and signs of God’s promised future breaking into our present.

Prophets and spiritual sages have and will continue to come and go throughout human history, each claiming a new revelation, a new form of enlightenment. The Church can continue to expect prophets who claim to speak on behalf of God, offering the latest in spiritual innovation in some seemingly unexpected ways. However, if the patient proclamation of the Church is to remain faithful to the one who sends it, the Church must always point to Christ.

In the early 16th century, German artist Matthias Grünewald painted a famous work known as the ‘Isenheim Altarpiece’ depicting Jesus’ crucifixion. One of the most noticeable things about the painting is the finger of John the Baptist. John stands on the right side of the painting holding a Bible with his index finger pointing to Christ on the cross. The message is unmistakeable: the message of John the Baptizer and of the entirety of Scripture point to Jesus Christ.

crucifixion Grunewald

If the Church is to remain faithful to its calling to patiently proclaim the gospel, it must clearly echo the shared testimony of the prophets and apostles as attested by Scripture. Only in pointing to the scandal and mystery of the manger and the glory of the cross, is the Church able to fulfil its purpose to prepare the way of the Lord

III.

Like John the Baptizer before us, the Church is called to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Like John the Baptizer, we are called to be a voice crying out in the wilderness of our culture, a culture marked by despair and cynicism. We proclaim that the forgiveness of sins is possible and that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Lk. 3.6), the God who came to earth and took on the flesh of a human baby; the God who will come again to renew and reconcile all things.

The question is: in a world scarred by brokenness, are we ready to patiently wait for Christ’s Second Advent with the confidence that God will remain faithful to his promise?

In a culture marked by both despair and false optimism, are we willing to wait with hopefully anticipation, joyfully proclaiming the good news that Jesus Christ is the fruition and fulfilment of time?

Come, let us wait with patience and perseverance, celebrating all that God has done and will do and let us share with all the world the hope that is in us because of Jesus Christ.

Let us pray.

Father in heaven, we confess that amidst the brokenness of our world that it is easy for us to lose hope. Despair and cynicism are constantly waiting in the shadows. When the chaos of the world and the noise of our anxiety deafen us, help us to hear your voice. Grant us patience and perseverance that we may rest in your promises and proclaim to the world the life and hope that you offer. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

The Reign of Christ (B): A Sermon

A sermon delivered on Sunday Nov. 22 at Christ Church (Tara).

Texts: 2 Samuel 23.1-7; Revelation 1.4b-7; John 18.33-38a

I.

“What is truth?”

Although Pilate posed this question to Jesus during Jesus’ first trial with Pilate, it is a question that echoes some 2000 years later. Indeed, the question ‘what is truth’ is one with which humans have wrestled with throughout human history. Despite the seeming simplicity of the question, it continues to challenge and confound us. One need only consider the myriad of answers suggested by various philosophers and theologians over several millennia to underline how difficult a question ‘what is truth’ truly is.

Of course, there will always be those who insist that truth is simply the way things are and have always been. Others will challenge this by suggesting that truth is always a matter of perspective, that truth depends on how I see the world from within my particular place in the world. Still others will assert that since our finite minds simply cannot grasp the complexity of the world, truth is merely an illusion.

So, the question remains: what is truth?

II.

While it is possible that Pilate is genuinely interested in seeking an answer to this question, it seems more likely Pilate’s response to Jesus is born of entitled cynicism, the same kind of entitled cynicism that one often hears intoned today by those who can afford to leave this question unanswered insofar as the answer does not threaten to change their way of life. Pilate’s tone, I think, is rooted in his own entitlement as a political ruler, one who has the power to bend the truth favorably in his direction.

We know very little about Pilate. Outside the Gospel accounts, there is scant archaeological and textual data to flesh out Pilate’s identity. We know that he was a Roman prefect; his primary job was, therefore, to provide military control over Judea, including the collection of taxes of the subjugated residents of the area. You can imagine how and why taxes were such a contentious issue at the time and why Jewish tax collectors were seen as traitors. Pilate also had limited judicial oversight; Jesus was sent to Pilate by the high priest under the pretense of Jesus being a traitor, someone who not only refused to give proper fealty to Rome but who also had revolutionary aspirations of driving out the Romans by force.

Pilate was well aware of the Zealot faction and other revolutionary groups that would be more than happy to get rid of the Romans. And although their concern was with ritual purity and zealous piety, the Pharisees also reviled Roman rule and saw here an opportunity to manipulate a fragile political situation to their own end: getting rid of someone who posed a direct threat to their teaching and publicly ridiculed them on more than one occasion. This is precisely why Pilate’s first question to Jesus is “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18.33). Are you the King of Israel? Are you the heir to David’s throne? Are you a political and military threat to Roman rule?

In today’s Gospel reading, we are witnessing a direct confrontation between two rulers, between two kingdoms.

On the one side, we have the Empire of Rome, an empire whose conquests, military prowess, civil engineering, and duration of rule has few historical rivals; if we were to compile a top-ten list of the most powerful empires in human history, Rome would almost certainly hold the top-spot. Pilate has all the power in the world on his side; he can be rid of Jesus with one simple word or gesture.

On the other side, we have a kingdom “not from this world” (John 18.36) lead by an itinerant Jewish preacher and miracle worker, who has a core group of twelve followers, with at least one of whom has some serious misgivings about Jesus and the rest who are confused about what exactly Jesus is doing and what his kingdom is like. This is hardly a recipe for world domination.

Is Jesus a deluded madman, as seems to be the case with the rather ridiculous answers he offers Pilate? Is Jesus a genuine threat to Roman rule in Palestine? Although Pilate’s motivations are never clear, he seems amused and, perhaps even intrigued, by Jesus. After all, craziness is not a punishable offense and Jesus offered no resistance when he was arrested, hardly the behavior of a revolutionary bent on overthrowing Rome. Although Jesus’ aspirations for kingship were laughable to Pilate, nevertheless, Pilate sees to it that there is an inscription placed on the cross reading “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jesus”, written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, the latter two being the lingua franca of the time. When some of the leaders of the temple read this, the rejected the word, demanding that the sign say “This man said, I am Kind of the Jews” (John 19.21), a demand that Pilate immediately rejected. Pilate uses his power to unwittingly to publicly underline the truth of Jesus’ identity.

The irony in these events is thick: Pilate asks ‘what is truth’ to the one who is the embodiment of truth; the truth of God’s kingdom is most clearly revealed on the cross. Indeed, the military might of Rome, cruelly displayed through the crucifixion of political insurrectionists is unveiled as utter weakness on Easter Sunday when Jesus’ tomb is found empty. The power of the kingdom that is not of this world is revealed to be the power over life and death itself. The cross and the empty tomb demonstrate that the truth of the world is utter foolishness.

The question is, therefore, not what is truth, but who is truth? Truth is not a matter of correct and verifiable statements; truth is not enforced through physical power; truth is the person of Jesus Christ, the God-made-flesh who came and died to set us free from the curse of sin and death and promises to return to establish his kingdom on earth where justice and peace will reign. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life not in an abstract way, contained in propositions about him; rather, Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life insofar as he is the God who calls us to repentance and offers us forgiveness and new life. Jesus is Truth because he is Lord over all creation, the one who by death defeated death.

The entirety of the Christian faith can be summarized in the simple phrase: Jesus is Lord. Indeed, it was this phrase that the early Christians used as confession of faith. Moreover, if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not. Pilate did not realize just how Jesus truly is a revolutionary. Though the Roman Empire had power over life by the means of death, it did not have the power over death; this is a power that no human empire can or ever will have.

III.

Today the Church celebrates Christ the King Sunday. Aside from Easter, Christ the King is probably the most counter-cultural feasts in the church calendar. The focus of this feast is the claim that Christ is King and Lord. Moreover, this claim runs counter to and challenges everything else that lays claim to my life, be it my family, my work, my hobby, even my church.

If Jesus is Lord, then nothing else can be.

If Jesus is King, then I am not.

If Jesus is Lord, then death and sin are not.

If Jesus is King, the kings and rulers of the world are not.

However, if Jesus is King, where is his kingdom?

Christ the King Sunday is the final Sunday in the Christian calendar, the Sunday before the first Sunday of Advent. During Advent, we prepare for the arrival of King Jesus. We prepare for his arrival in the straw-filled manger of Bethlehem, hardly the birthplace of a king. But during Advent, we also prepare for the second coming of Christ, when he will return to establish his kingdom on earth.

In the Lord’s Prayer, one of the petitions is: your kingdom come, your will be done; we are asking for God’s kingdom to be manifest in our world. God’s kingdom is most clearly visible in the transformed lives of forgiven sinners as they extend forgiveness to others in Jesus’ name. God’s kingdom is most clearly visible when the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and the stranger is welcomed in Jesus’ name. God’s kingdom is most clearly visible when the church, a community of broken and restored people, gather together around Scripture and sacrament to be united with our risen and ruling King who promises to meet us in the opening of the Word and in the breaking of bread. God’s kingdom is most clearly visible as Christ’s ambassadors who proclaim in word and deed that Jesus is Lord!

When the Church prays “thy kingdom come”, we are praying for Christ’s second coming. We are also praying that the church would, through the power and prompting of the Holy Spirit, anticipate and prepare for Christ’s coming through the way the Church is and acts in the world.

This requires that the Church, both local congregations and individual believers, continually ask ourselves: is Jesus the King of the kingdoms of our lives? Does he alone reign in our hearts and minds? Is Christ’s kingship reflected in our decision-making, in our budgets, in our relationships with others, and in our day-to-day lives? Are we witnessing to the reconciling love of the King who hung upon a cross, defeated death itself, and promises to return again to reconcile all things in heaven and earth?

Come, let us worship the king of kings and be ambassadors of the one who is the Truth, publicly proclaiming the good news of his kingdom. Amen.

A Sermon for the 25th Sunday After Pentecost (B)

A sermon delievered on Sunday Nov. 15 at St.Paul’s (Southampton) and St. John’s (Port Elgin).

Texts: 1 Samuel 1:4-20; 1 Samuel 2.1-10; Hebrews 10.11-25; Mark 13.1-8

 

I.

Christians maintain that Holy Scripture is a unified whole. Of course, we also know that the writing of Scripture took place over hundreds of years and the compilation of what we now know as the canon of the Bible was not settled until the 5th century A.D. However, none of this diminishes the fact that Holy Scripture is a central element in “the drama of God’s redeeming and communicative self-giving”.[1]

If revelation is God making himself spiritually present, and if God reveals himself to us through Scripture, then it is through attending to the words of Scripture as a unified whole that we, the Church, are brought into fellowship with God and come to “know, love, and fear [God] above all things”.[2] The various genres within the Bible and the different time periods in which they were originally written, find their unity and coherence in God’s decision to reveal himself to his people.

This means that the Church must carefully attend to Scripture every time we are gathered, putting ourselves under its authority and, in so doing, putting ourselves under God’s authority. Now, putting ourselves under someone else’s authority is something which we modern Western folks tend to resist; after all, aren’t I the master of my destiny, the captain of my fate? Don’t I get to decide what is best for me, what I like and dislike?

This is part of the problem that modern Christians face when we assume that we have the final say about Scripture and its meaning: I don’t like the text, so I am going to ignore it; this text seems culturally backwards, so let’s skip it. The truth is that the modern church, indeed the modern Anglican Church, seems to have forgotten how to read Scripture, unable to allow Scripture to both comfort and challenge us. At most, we seem tolerate Scripture as part of our tradition, however, we don’t necessarily assume that God reveals Godself to his people through Scripture.

We assume that this leaves us stuck to choose between two extremes: of fundamentalism, which obsesses over the Bible to such an extent that the Bible becomes an idol, and progressivism, which insists that Scripture is a purely human construction that merely reflects the beliefs of ancient cultures and therefore has little value for us today. Both poles fail to account for the breadth and depth of Scripture as God’s self-revelation to his people and cannot account for the thematic echoes and figures that reverberate throughout. Consequently, both fundamental and progressive views of the Bible fail to see the underlying unity of Scripture as it testifies to Jesus Christ.

Indeed, the overarching unity and final meaning of the Bible is Jesus Christ. This conclusion is essential to the church’s careful attention to the text; we read Scripture as a whole, unified by and pointing to Christ. We read Scripture not first and foremost as a spiritual or ethical guidebook, but as God’s self-revelation in Christ; Christ comes to meet us in and through Scripture. In some texts, this Christological focus is easier to discern, in others, it is more difficult. This week’s lectionary readings, I think, offer us a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the unity and coherence of Scripture.

Because God reveals Godself through the entirety of Scripture, the themes and figures in Scripture echo and reverberate. This is why the Church reads from the Old and New Testaments alike; in reading the Bible as a whole, we get a clearer picture of who God is and how God acts in the world, culminating in the life and ongoing ministry of Jesus Christ. There are a number of interrelated themes in today’s appointed scripture readings that reverberate with each other that I would like to briefly explore.

II.

Hannah is a woman who is dedicated to God. She is also a woman who longs for God to deliver Israel. While 1 Samuel immediately follows the book of Ruth, the context of 1 Samuel is the conclusion of Judges, a book that ends in chaos, summarized in its concluding verse: “in those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21.25). From her song in chapter 2, it is clear that Hannah is longing for God to deliver Israel, longing to deliver the world from chaos.

So, Hannah praises God; however, she does not sing when her son is conceived, but when she hands over her long-awaited son to the temple. It seems rather odd for a woman who was desperate to have a child to sing praises to God when she entrusts him to the care of Eli, the priest, only to see her son once a year. He song is born of hope and trust in God’s faithfulness, even in the low-points of life. Hannah sings “my heart exults in the Lord…the Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exults. He raises up the poor from the dust” (1 Sam. 2.1b, 7-8a). Her song is a forward look in hopeful anticipation of God’s deliverance of his people, caught as they in the machinations of power and living under the shadow of sin and death.

Mary, like Hannah, is a woman who is dedicated to God, as evidenced by her song. Mary’s song, known as The Magnificat, directly echoes Hannah’s song. Listen: “my soul magnifies the Lord…for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant….he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he was filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Lk. 1.47-48a, 52-53). Do you hear the echoes between Hannah and Mary’s song?

In the stories of Hannah and Mary, we see God bringing life so that his people can live. Moreover, these women stand, as “a type of the church”;[3] their singular dependence on God, especially during the turmoil of life, anticipates the faith of the church. The worship and the witness of the Church stands in direct continuity with Hannah and Mary, indeed with Israel itself, people chosen by God to play integral roles in God’s deliverance of his people. [PAUSE]

Both Hannah and Mary’s sons, Samuel and Jesus were children born of God’s promise. Each one also had intimate relationships with the temple. Although the temple in Samuel’s time predated the great temple in Jerusalem built by King Herod in Jesus time, the function of the temple remained the same: the temple was a microcosm of the entire created order and it was the place where priests offered sacrifices in order to atone for the sins of the people.

Hannah dedicates her son’s life to serving as a priest in the temple. God calls Samuel to be the new high priest. Samuel serves God as both priest and prophet and, as chapter 3 describes: “the Lord was with [Samuel] and let none of his words fall to the ground” (1 Sam. 3.18). Through his life, Samuel served God’s people, prophetically speaking God’s truth, even when it meant confronting kings. In many ways, the life and ministry of Samuel stands as a figure of and in anticipation of Jesus’ life and ministry. In other words, Samuel points to Jesus.

Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus prophetically spoke and enacted God’s truth. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus remarks that the temple will be destroyed. Earlier in Mark, Jesus cleansed the temple of the money changers and in last week’s Gospel reading, we heard of how Jesus called the teachers of the Torah hypocrites for their exploitation of the weak. Now, Jesus says the whole temple system, including its very centre of gravity, will come crashing to the ground.

Jesus himself is the end of the sacrificial system that the Temple represents. The curtain of the temple tearing in half while Jesus hung on the cross is a symbol of the end of this system and the opening of a new way (cf. Heb. 10.20); Christ himself is the “single sacrifice for sins” (Heb. 10.12) who ascended to sit at the right hand of God the Father where he serves as our heavenly high priest, offering himself to us through Scripture and sacrament. Christ’s death and resurrection are birth pangs that reverberate with those of Mary and Hannah; Christ’s death and resurrection are the birth pangs of the renewal of creation and the nativity of the church.

III.

The church is the new temple created by God (cf. 1 Cor. 3.16), a people chosen by God and dedicated to participating in Christ’s priestly ministry, serving as agents of God’s reconciling love. Therefore, the church is rightly called a royal priesthood, a priesthood whose origins can be traced back into the Old Testament, through Samuel, culminating in Jesus Christ; the church is a priesthood baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and liberated from the bondage of sin and death.

So liberated, the Church meets every week to remember Christ’s death and resurrection and to sing praises to the same God praised by Hannah and Mary for his promised deliverance of his people and of all creation. Because God is faithful, from beginning to end, we have hope and assurance that the future is firmly in God’s hands. However, we so easily forget this amidst the turmoil of life, amidst “wars and rumors of wars” (Mk. 13.7), which is why the author of Hebrews enjoins his readers to continue to gather to be reminded through word and sacrament. The life of the gathered and worshipping church is non-negotiable for the life of the sent and witnessing church; we worship and we witness to the God who is faithful to his promises, the God who has power over life and death.

Therefore, the church also meets to “provoke one another to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10.24). What a great phrase – “provoke one another to love and good deeds”! Not politely remind or gently cajole or passive aggressively guilt-trip, but provoke. Because our faith is rooted in God’s faithfulness, we are free to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. This is not the drudgery of religion or the vacuousness of ‘spirituality’, but life lived in the presence of God in community and as a community that shows Christ’s love to others and tells of what God is doing in and through Jesus Christ. This is part of our priestly and prophetic vocation: provoking others, both inside and outside the church, to worship the faithful God of Hannah and Mary and to follow Christ’s way of love.

Provoking others to worship and to Christ’s way of love is risky business because it means that we move out of our comfort zones. It also requires that we are continually nourished by Christ’s self-giving love in Scripture and Sacrament. It also requires that we do not get caught up in building temples or kingdoms of our own glory, but that we encourage and provoke one another to fix our eyes on Christ alone. So, let us together faithfully read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Scripture so that we may hear, know, and meet Christ on every page and provoke each other to love. Amen.

[1] John Webster, Holy Scripture, 42.

[2] Webster, 13.

[3] St. Cyprian of Carthage, as cited in Francesca Aran Murphy, 1 Samuel, 21.

A Sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (B)

A sermon delivered at Christ Church (Tara) and St. Paul’s (Chatsworth) on Sunday November 8, 2015.

Texts: Hebrews 9.24-28; Mark 12.38-44.

I.

The Revised Common Lectionary follows a three-year cycle. That means we read the same texts once every four years and, assuming the preachers focuses on the Gospel text, we hear roughly the same sermon based on that text once every four years.

So, following this logic, then:

  • This is the sermon where I am supposed to tell you that we all need to be like the widow and give money to the church, even if we have very little to give.
  • This is the sermon where I am supposed to cause you to feel a little bit of guilt about how much more you should be giving the church.
  • This is the sermon where I warn against the dangerous of consumerism as we head into the Christmas season (and it’s not even Advent yet!) and implore you not to spend all your money on unnecessary gifts.

However, this is not the sermon I will be preaching today.

Yes, following the Old Testament instruction of tithing our money, that is giving 10% of our income to the church, is an appropriate rate of giving. Stewardship of our God-given financial resources is important.

Yes, vigilance against the consumerist excesses of our culture is an important way of guarding against greed and the accumulation of stuff.

But, our Gospel reading is not concerned with tithing or stewardship.

Rather, Jesus is focused on justice, particularly justice for the poor. Jesus is not centering out the widow as an exemplar of generosity; he is condemning the religious elite for their exploitation of the poor.

II.

At this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has already ridden into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. His triumphal entry is not what the crowds were expecting; you see, the Israelites were expecting their Messiah to be a military ruler who would overthrow the Romans. However, the only thing Jesus overturns is the tables of the money changers in Jerusalem. Prior to cleaning out the temple upon his arrival to Jerusalem, Jesus is challenged about whether or not people should pay taxes to Caesar. While those who asked this question were trying to trap Jesus in order to create a reason to arrest and kill him, Jesus out maneuvers them by giving an unexpected answer. Jesus is clearly not the Messiah the people were expecting, which is why their cries quickly turned from ‘Hosanna!’ to ‘Crucify him!’

Prior to Jesus’ remarks about the widow’s offering, Jesus was also asked “which commandment is greatest of all?” (Mk. 12.28) To which Jesus replied: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…soul…and strength” and “love your neighbor as yourself”.

You see, the author of Mark’s Gospel is setting the stage to describe the kingdom Jesus will inaugurate. God’s kingdom is not inaugurated with military power of extensive wealth; it is shaped and determined by God’s love and justice. Jesus is God’s kingdom in the flesh.

God’s intent for the temple was that it was to be a place where all people could worship (cf. Mk. 11.17a); however, when Jesus arrives on the scene, the temple is a place of economic exploitation and probably has been for some time.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus observes “the crowd putting money into the treasury” (Mk. 12.41a). He notices that “many rich people put in large sums” (12. 41b) and that “a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny” (Mk. 12.42).

Having prophetically enacted God’s judgment against the economic exploitation practiced by the money lenders in the temple by overturning the tables of the money changers, Jesus now turns his attention to the temple leadership, placing them under God’s judgment: “Beware of the scribes…they will receive the greater condemnation” (Mk. 12.38a,40b).

The scribes were the temple lawyers; they were the ones who arguably knew the Torah inside and out; they were the ones who should know what God’s law expects, particularly as it relates to the care of widows, orphans, and the poor. And yet, they were the ones, who, according to Jesus “devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers” (Mk. 12.40a). Jesus is saying that these pious men are hypocrites who use their power not to defend the weak but for personal profit.

Therefore, Jesus is not commending the woman’s offering and he is not contrasting her piety with that of the scribes. Rather, Jesus laments what he sees: “she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk. 12.44). Jesus laments that those whom God has called to be a blessing, are using their calling for their own glory.

Jesus completely exposes the situation as that which should not be: the temple should not be a place of economic exploitation; the religious leaders should not be abusing their power at the sake of the weak; the poor should not be expected to give everything they have. Jesus is not pleased by what he sees; what he sees falls under his condemnation and judgment.

This serves to underline not only the plight of the widow, ensnared in an unjust system, but also the plight of the entire human race, ensnared in sin. Sin manifests itself in a myriad of ways, but always results in brokenness, injustice, and suffering.

III.

We want to applaud Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes – Let ‘em have it, Jesus! They are despicable so-and-sos! Indeed, the language of judgment and condemnation is in three out of four of this morning’s readings. We assume this language is always directed at others, but certainly not ourselves, after all, we go to church, we give to good causes, we are decent people.

Kinda sounds like what the scribes might say, eh?

When God’s judgment and condemnation are directed toward us, we object, saying “well, this kind of language can be a bit much! God is speaking metaphorically, of course. We certainly don’t want to make God too extreme!” However, these objections are often rooted in the deep-down realization that if we were honest with ourselves, we too stand under God’s judgment along with the scribes, the unrighteous and the wicked. Deep-down we know that we are ensnared in sin; deep-down we know that our world is broken, that we ourselves are broken, in need of salvation from our own desires and devices.

This is why we want the focus of today’s Gospel reading to be about tithing and stewardship because it means we do not have to take a hard look at the systems that perpetuate injustice and our involvement in them. Like the scribes, our piety can easily blind us to our complicity in injustice, whether intentional or unintentional; we become self-righteously indignant: “I deserve what I have, it’s mine and I’ve earned every penny”; or complacent: “Let the poor take care of themselves, God knows their poverty is their own fault, the way they waste what they have”; or self-righteous: “I give enough of my time and money to the church; I am tired to being asked to give more to everyone who asks”. However, these responses serve as weak moral justifications for our refusal to consider the ways in which we are perpetuating injustice.

So, where does this leave us? Our ignorance and justifications will only exacerbate the problem. Furthermore, our attempts to ‘fix’ the world, despite their noble intent, cannot liberate us from the injustice wrought by sin. These attempts often leave us exhausted and cynical, paralyzed in the face of the enormity, indeed the impossibility, of the task. As if we could end suffering and injustice by sheer force of will.

The good news is that it is not ours to save the world; the world has already been saved by Jesus Christ. It is only through his death and resurrection that the world is saved. The Church is raised with Christ, but it is not raised as Christ. The Church is not in the business of completing what Jesus started; that task belongs to him alone for he alone is the only one who can complete it. Rather, the Church, goes into the world as “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1.23), as a community that is filled by the Holy Spirit. The world is not ours to save – and this is good news because it liberates us to participate in the new thing that God is doing as he redeems and restores creation.

Therefore, we cannot sit idly by; with Jesus we are called to grieve the plight of the poor and to demonstrate the same righteous anger at systems of exploitation. However, it also means that we confess our own involvement in these systems and accept that we cannot save the world, be it through our piety, our ‘good intentions’, or our good deeds.

It is not our hands and actions that save the world, but rather the one who “has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9.26b).

The church is called to be Christ’s earthly body and continue his earthly ministry, but we do so in remembrance of what Christ has already done to defeat sin and in anticipation of Christ’s second coming (cf. Heb. 9.28) when he will establish God’s heavenly kingdom on earth where justice and peace for all peoples will be established, where the hungry will be fed, the low will be lifted up, and where strangers, orphans and widows are swept up in God’s loving embrace (Cf. Ps. 146-7-9a).

The world is not ours to save, so let us work for justice and for the common good in joyful anticipation of Christ’s return.

Let us pray:

Heavenly Father, we give you thanks that you are not a passive observer of human affairs, but that you are intimately involved because of your love for what you’ve created. We confess that we are entangled and complacent in the injustice of the world. We confess that in an attempt to justify our behavior and ‘fix’ the world’s problems that we lose sight of what you have already done through Jesus Christ. Remind us that the world is not ours to save so that we may enjoy the liberation that Christ’s death and resurrection brings us, freely serving the world with the same self-sacrificial love of your Son, in whose name we pray, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.