Advent and the Gospel of Mark: A Sermon for Advent 1, Year B

I’ve been fascinated by the power of the season of Advent ever since I first encountered it 30 or 40 years ago. I grew up in a branch of Christianity that didn’t pay close attention to the liturgical year, at least not back then. We had Good Friday and Easter, of course, and Christmas but that was pretty much it. Our preparation for Christmas was the same as other Americans’ preparation for Christmas, buying trees and decorating them, Christmas cookies and other tasty items, shopping for presents and the like.

It wasn’t until I was in college, and especially later, as a seminary student and lay person in my mid twenties, that I first experienced the lectionary readings and hymns that are used in these four weeks leading up to Christmas. Coming at them as an adult, and as student of theology, the tone of the season had a powerful effect on me. It still does.

It’s not just that Advent is at least to some degree a penitential season. Here at Grace, we use the same liturgical color, violet that we use during Lent. But more than that, it’s the emphasis in the lectionary and hymnal. The focus is not just on the coming of Christ at Christmas, it has another focus on Christ’s Second Coming.

That’s clear from our readings. The portion of Isaiah that was read is a plea for God’s intervention in history. While it was written by an author who hoped that intervention would come soon, in his own lifetime, Christians have interpreted it and many similar passages from the Hebrew Bible as descriptions or predictions of the Second Coming.

The gospel reading from Mark is from the so-called “Little Apocalypse” chapter 13 of that gospel, which occurs during Jesus’ teaching in the temple in the last week of his life. In that way it connects with the readings we’ve been having from the Gospele of Matthew over the last months which come from Matthew’s treatment of the same material and same period of Jesus’ ministry.

It might be helpful to remind you of some of the important themes of Mark’s gospel as we begin this year of the lectionary cycle. While there continues to be scholarly debate about the relationship among the gospels, for over a century, the consensus has been that Mark was the first gospel to be written, around 70 CE. Mark is by far the shortest of the gospels and it’s unique in that it starts in media res, in the middle of the story, with Jesus’ baptism. There’s nothing about his birth or origins (although his mother, brothers and sisters do make an appearance) and it ends with the empty tomb. Originally, there were no stories of the Risen Christ’s appearance to the disciples. Those were added later. That doesn’t mean that Mark didn’t know about the resurrection—clearly he did. Rather, he wanted to tell a story with different emphases. As an aside, the other two synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke, knew the Gospel of Mark and used it, in addition to other sources, in telling their version of Jesus.

Mark is written with an extreme sense of urgency. One of the most repeated words in the gospel is “immediately.” Everything seems rushed. He typically doesn’t take a lot of time to describe the settings or background. When the same story appears in all three synoptics, Mark’s version is almost always the briefest. I will have a great deal more to say about Mark’s perspective in the coming year. I encourage you, as I do each year, to take the opportunity to read the gospel in its entirety several times over the course of the year. It’s something I do as it helps me remember the overall story arc, as well helps to orient me when I get bogged down in the week-to-week lectionary.

We see Mark’s (oh, and by the way, the names of the gospels are traditional, very ancient from the 2nd century, but we actually don’t know who wrote them or where they wrote them) overarching perspective even here in this “Little Apocalypse.” We call it an apocalypse because it reflects that type of literature and world view, describing God’s intervention in history. Apocalyptic is dualistic—it presupposes a cosmic struggle between good and evil. It is pessimistic about the present and immediate future. Things are really bad and they are going to get even worse before they get better. And it assumes that the world as we know it is about to end.

Now what’s interesting about Mark’s version of apocalyptic is that while many of these elements are prominent, signs of the second coming, for example, other aspects of apocalyptic are notably absent—the final judgment isn’t mentioned, and the overall message seems not to be that the Second Coming is imminent, but that it as been delayed, no one knows when it might come, so it’s important to stay awake, be alert, watch.

In that respect, Mark’s message is consistent with what we read from Matthew over the last few weeks. But there’s something else that I find quite intriguing. At the very end of our gospel reading we hear the following:

Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, (Mk13:35)

Those time references, evening, midnight, cockcrow, or dawn, will appear again, in the next two chapters of Mark, which contain the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. I don’t think that’s an accident. I think Mark intends to make the connection, for there elements here in chapter 13 that reappear in the passion narrative, the darkening of the sun, for example.

What’s going on? Well, to begin with, the Greek word that is usually translated or interpreted to mean the Second Coming is “parousia” which literally means “presence.” What Mark is doing is trying to reorient our perspective away from a focus on the future, second coming. He wants to draw our attention to all the ways that the world has already changed by the coming of Jesus; all the ways the world has changed by Christ’s death and resurrection. And of course, because of the resurrection Jesus Christ is present among us now—the Parousia has already occurred.

But what might all of that mean for us, this Advent? We are inclined to think of this season as a time of preparation for Christmas. Often that means little more than a liturgical imitation of what we’re doing in real life, decorating our homes, buying presents, making holiday plans.

But I think Jesus’ admonition in Mark is sage advice for us this Advent. Keep Watch! Be Alert! I talked briefly last Sunday about looking for signs of Christ’s coming among us. I think that’s part of Mark’s message here.

But I think there’s something else. While Mark has Jesus say “They will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds and with great glory” Mark has something else in mind. For Mark, the most important, clearest evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God came in his crucifixion. That was the first time a human being confessed Jesus to be the Son of God.

For Mark we see Jesus’ identity, his divinity, not in his power but in his weakness, in his willingness to be crucified.

We live in a difficult time, where it very much does seem as if things are going from bad to worse, and we can’t see how bad they will get. We live in a time when the loudest voices in Christianity proclaim a message that has almost nothing to do with the Jesus of the gospels; it’s a Christianity connected with political power and nationalism, not with weakness and humility. Looking for signs of Christ’s presence in these days is difficult, because of the noise, the anger, the hate.

But Advent reminds us that Christ came into a world of violence, he came preaching a message of peace, he came not to the center of power and wealth. His presence was not announced by the media or accompanied with the trappings of royalty.

For us in this season, let us keep watch, and remain alert for the presence of Christ among us, even when we are most fearful and full of despair. Let us look for signs of Christ’s presence, be signs of hope and light to others in these dark days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The imprisonment of John the Baptist, the carceral state and Advent hope: A sermon for Advent 3, Year A, 2016

Today’s readings are here

Most of you know that over the last year, Grace Church has begun to develop a relationship with the Dane County Jail. It began with a visit to Grace last January from Christa Fisher, chaplain to the jail, who preached and talked about her work in an adult forum. The relationship has deepened, as Grace offered to host the ongoing tutoring project and participating in the jail ministry’s winter clothing drive.

The jail ministry has touched me on a personal level. It may have begun, not with my first encounter and conversation with Christa, but even earlier. I don’t know exactly when it was, but I found myself reflecting on the familiar and powerful parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46, you know the one in which the King says:

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

It struck me at the time, for whatever reason, that in all of my life, I had never set foot in a prison, let alone visited or talked with a prisoner. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like I think I’m going to burn in hell for eternity because I never engaged in prison ministry. Rather, I began to realize that prison ministry, especially in this age of mass incarceration, had simply never been of much interest or concern to me. In fact, I probably didn’t even know where the Dane County Jail for the first 3 or 4 years I lived in Madison; that’s shocking to admit, given it’s only two blocks away.

As part of Grace’s involvement with the work of the Madison Jail Ministry, I have challenged myself to take an active role in supporting the work of the chaplains. Last May, I participated in a tour of the jail that is intended for new employees and volunteers. It was an eye-opening, unforgettable experience. It wasn’t just that parts of the jail, the two top floors of the City County Building that could serve as a movie set for a 1930s era prison. That’s the part of the jail where they repeatedly have difficulties opening cell doors and evacuating inmates during fire drills. It was the demeanor of those who were incarcerated. Their body language and demeanor were those of people without hope, living in despair. They were lonely, abandoned by society, living at the arbitrary whims and actions of their jailors.

By now, we should all be familiar with the statistics, so I won’t belabor them. As Michelle Alexander argued with great passion and eloquence in her book The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration targets African-Americans, especially African-American males disproportionately. It’s not just that an unconscionable number of African-Americans are incarcerated in the US, it’s that they are incarcerated for longer sentences and for crimes for which White Americans walk free.

The racial disparities and hopelessness of mass incarceration are on full display in the Dane County Jail. Many of those in the jail are there for parole violations that can be as minor as having used a computer. What struck me during my tour of the jail was that I hadn’t been anywhere that looked quite like the Dane County jail, or encountered such despair and hopelessness in the eyes and body language of the incarcerated, since my visit to East Germany back in 1980. The Dane County jail, like the former East Germany, is the carceral and surveillance state on full display.

All of this came to mind this week as I read and reflected on our gospel. It’s another episode concerning John the Baptist and the contrast between his demeanor here, in Matthew 11, and in the reading from last week, from Matthew 3, couldn’t be more stark. Last week we saw him railing against the religious and political elites for their corruption, and prophesying that the wrath of God would soon come down upon them. He was courageous, resolute, unworried about the response his preaching might arouse in his opponents.

Now, a few weeks or months later, he is in prison, having crossed Herod one too many times. But Herod isn’t quite sure what to do with him; the gospel of Luke suggests even that Herod kind of liked having John around,, he brought him in for conversations. According to Matthew, Herod wanted to have John executed, but feared how the people might respond.

In any case, now John is in prison. It’s puzzling given what we know about John, that he wonders about Jesus’ identity, that he sends his disciples to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

I mean, how could he not know? They are cousins, for crying out loud (at least that’s what Luke tells us). John baptized Jesus. John told everyone that Jesus was the one sent by God, that he, John, was only his messenger. John may even have heard the voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved.” How could he have doubts?

Well, there are a couple of answers to this question. First, there’s the issue of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, and what from the gospels seems to be something of a competition between them, perhaps even a struggle between followers of John and Jesus later, after their deaths, over who was the greater. There’s all sorts of evidence, even in the Book of Acts, that John continued to have a following, and that his followers competed with the followers of Jesus for popularity.

There’s also the fundamental problem for the early Jesus movement that Jesus was baptized by John…

Finally, there’s the little detail that the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, agree that Jesus began his public ministry only after John was arrested; that he waited until then to begin preaching publicly and healing people.

So there’s something very interesting going on in the gospels’ depiction of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist.

But I don’t think that’s the only reason that John asks this question about Jesus identity from prison. Prison, in the first or the twenty-first century is a place of hopelessness and despair. Too often, it’s a waiting room for death. Think of all of the people on death row across our nation, and think about the decades many of them have been languishing there.

I think John’s question may come out of his hopelessness and despair and I’m not sure Jesus’ response to him, reassured him. Jesus tells John’s disciples, “‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus omits something in that response. When that list of things appears in Isaiah, and when in Luke’s telling, Jesus proclaims those words in his first public sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, there’s another group mentioned:

 

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

The blind may see, the lame walk, the poor here the good news, but Jesus makes no mention of prisoners in his response to John’s disciples, no promise of freedom, no freedom for John himself.

John’s doubts and uncertainties were well-founded and it’s an open question whether Jesus’ reply to him did anything to reassure him as he lay in prison and waited for his death.

That should be unsettling for us. It may even raise our doubts and uncertainties. If John couldn’t or didn’t know, and if Jesus’ words offered him no consolation or hope in his particular situation, may our doubts and uncertainties are warranted. Maybe hopelessness, despair, cynicism are appropriate responses in our situation, too. After all, it’s not just John. There is still suffering in the world—the blind, deaf, disabled; and millions upon millions of people who languish in poverty and are food insecure.

So there is cause for despair, cause for doubt, cause for uncertainty. In the midst of all of that, there are also signs of hope—signs of the inbreaking of God’s reign in this dark world. Signs of hope in the work, faith, and spirit of the chaplains at the Dane County jail, signs of hope in the work and witness of our food pantry; signs of hope, signs of God’s inbreaking reign in the coming of Christ in a tiny and distant village in the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire. This Advent, may we look for signs of Christ’s coming and signs of God’s coming reign, in our hearts and in the world around us, and when we see those signs, may we know that Christ is coming, that he is the one for whom we are waiting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Advent Wilderness: A sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, 2016

 

Well, it’s certainly good to be back at Grace and in Madison after being away from here for six Sundays. I’ll be sharing some of what I saw and experienced later at our annual meeting which I hope many of you will attend. As is so often the case, the things we set out to do, the goals we make for ourselves, don’t always materialize in quite the way we anticipated or hoped, but such opportunities often lead to quite unexpected things—discoveries about oneself and the world that are powerful and transformative.

That certainly happened to me. The time I spent at the monastery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. Arriving there on Election Day, spending four days mostly in silence, the days punctuated by the rhythms of the Daily Office offered a wonderful respite from the noise, anger, and anxiety of the world beyond the monastery’s walls, and an opportunity for me to encounter God more deeply and be a part of a praying community.

At the monastery and as I traveled up the East Coast and in the Pacific Northwest, I re-discovered another important truth. I mentioned before leaving that this time away would be the longest period I would be away from Grace and Madison since coming here in 2009, that it would be the longest period I would be away from an altar since my ordination more than ten years ago. Time away is important. It can be refreshing. It can also help to provide perspective; to give us the opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been, what we’ve been doing, and to plan for the next season of our lives.

But it’s not just the time away. It’s also the distance. I’ve not traveled much since coming to Madison. Indeed, although I was blessed to be able to live abroad for two years, apart from weekends in Chicago, visits to my mother, or a few days spent up north, I’ve not traveled much at all recently.

I discovered in these weeks of travel as I visited cities that were mostly unfamiliar to me, and visited churches I’d never been at, talking with clergy from very different backgrounds and working in very different contexts, that all of this can provide important perspective on my ministry and on our shared mission at Grace Church. We will talk much more about this in the weeks to come—you’ll have an opportunity to hear some of what I learned later at our Annual Meeting. But for now, I want to highlight simply the clarity of vision, the new perspective I’ve gained on our work together here in Madison.

And this may be where what I’ve been about these last two months connects with our gospel reading. As I was beginning to reflect on this text, Matthew’s depiction of John the Baptizer’s ministry, the opening words grabbed my attention.

“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea.” John is a wild, crazy figure. He wears camel skins and eats locusts and wild honey. He shouts, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He prophesies doom and destruction, painting images of unfruitful trees being hewn down and useless chaff being burnt in an unquenchable fire. It’s dramatic, powerful, and frankly, somewhat scary.

But all of this takes place in the wilderness, far from the center of power, away from the settled existence of Jerusalem and the towns and villages of Judea. And I wonder whether his message would have had the same impact if he had proclaimed it in the streets, public squares, or the temple mount of Jerusalem. I wonder whether he would even have been able to preach those words if he hadn’t come out into the wilderness.

The wilderness is a place of great symbolic power in the biblical tradition. The Israelites wandered for forty years in the wilderness after their miraculous exodus from Egypt. In the wilderness, they grumbled at their plight; the text repeatedly calls them “a stiff-necked people.” Because of their grumbling and their sins; God condemned that first generation who had come out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, they would not live to possess the land promised to them. Even their leader Moses would only see it from a mountaintop just before his death.

For the Israelites, the wilderness was a place of struggle and disappointment; but nevertheless, God was present there with them. It was in the wilderness, at Sinai, that God appeared to Moses and gave the Israelites the Torah, the commandments by which they were to live and order their common life. Throughout their time in the wilderness, God was present with the Israelites as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and dwelt with them in the tabernacle.

In the gospels, the wilderness is where Jesus encounters John, is baptized by him, and then goes away by himself for forty days, where he’s tempted by Satan. In Matthew’s telling of this story, one could imagine that through this time in the wilderness Jesus comes to understand better who he is and what his ministry will be. Rejecting the temptations Satan offers him, Jesus chooses a different way, a different model of Messiahship, a different sort of Kingdom.

The wilderness is a desolate place but in the biblical tradition it can also be a place of personal and communal transformation, a time of preparation for the next stage of life. Time in the wilderness built the foundation for the Israelites’ conquest and occupation of the promised land. Time in the wilderness helped prepare Jesus for his ministry. Time in the wilderness gave John the Baptist the perspective he needed from which to judge the religious and political life of Jerusalem.

Yes, the wilderness can be a desolate, forbidding place. But it can also be a place that helps prepare us for the work we are called to do. In December each year, we are surrounded by the all of the hustle and bustle of the season; the round of parties, the preparations that we make for family and friends, even the typical year-end and semester-end tasks that confront us. It’s hard to find time for ourselves; it’s even harder to find time for God in our over-scheduled lives. I wonder whether it might be helpful simply to carve out a few minutes here or there, to step away from it all, to enter silence, or to create a wilderness for ourselves where we might open ourselves to encounter with God. This Advent, look for, make way for, a place or time of wilderness.

There’s something else about the wilderness that might be helpful. I’m thinking of John, out there, proclaiming his message of repentance, challenging the political and religious leaders of his day. Many of us might be inclined to feel, at this time in our national life, that we are in a wilderness, that we have lost our way, that our hopes for a better future, a more just society have been deferred indefinitely, perhaps even utterly destroyed.

John did not lose hope. Alongside his prophesies of doom and destruction, he saw the coming of God’s reign, its very nearness. Our hope dare not rest in the political process or in the vagaries of history. Our hope rests in God. Our hope lives in the one whose coming we await even now; the one whose coming promises and proclaims the reign of God; the one whose coming in weakness and humility challenges all of the world’s power; the one whose coming in love shows us the way of love and peace. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Singing Advent with Luke and Mary: A Sermon for Advent 4, Year C

 

We are in the third year of the three-year lectionary cycle and this year, the focus of our readings for our Sunday morning Eucharistic lectionary is the gospel of Luke. We will talk much more over the course of the year about Luke’s perspective—about his particular theological interests and the way he shapes the story of Jesus in light of those interests.

Today, I want to point to offer by way of background to the gospel one of Luke’s unique techniques or contributions to the story of Jesus’ birth. Throughout the first two chapters, Luke interrupts the story and inserts a song, placed in the mouth of key characters in the narrative. We’ve already heard, and said, one of those songs—the Song of Zechariah, which he sang (Luke says “prophesied”) after the birth of his son John. There are others-the song the angels sing to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest.” There’s the song of Simeon, which the aged prophet sings when he encounters Mary and the infant Jesus in the temple: “Lord, now you may let your servant depart in peace.” In today’s gospel, there are two songs—the Song of Elizabeth: “Hail Mary, full of grace.” And there’s Mary’s own song, the Magnificat: “My soul doth magnify the Lord.”

It’s likely that these songs were not composed by Luke himself. Rather, we think that he adapted them to his purpose from songs that were being sung in early Christian worship. It’s no surprise that they have become among the most familiar and beloved songs of the church—Ave Maria, The Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis—if you say morning and evening prayer regularly, you will know them by heart. But it’s important to note that they aren’t innovations. They draw on the language and imagery of songs, psalms, from the Hebrew Bible.

Think for a moment about the singers of those songs. An aged prophet, an elderly married couple that are rejoicing in the birth of a son, and a teenaged girl, pregnant in suspicious circumstances. How old was she? Twelve, thirteen years old (that’s the age most NT scholars suggest, given what we know about marriage patterns among Jews in 1st century Palestine). Twelve or thirteen years old, according to Luke’s story, she’s already heard from an angel that she is to give birth to a son. When the angel Gabriel appears to her and greets her, Hail Favored One, she is perplexed. When the angel tells her that she will bear a son, Jesus, who will be named Jesus and ascend to David’s throne, she asks, “How can this be?” The angel then tells her that her son will come from the Holy Spirit, that he will be the Son of God, and about Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Then she responds, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’

She then goes to visit Elizabeth where today’s gospel picks up with Elizabeth’s greeting, “Hail Mary, favored One!” and then her final words, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

Before we reflect more on this little vignette, I would like to point to another passage in Luke’s gospel, a later reference to Mary. A woman shouts out from the crowd, in language reminiscent of Elizabeth’s blessing, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” To which Jesus replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” Similarly, Elizabeth’s blessing concludes by blessing her for believing the word that had been spoken to her.

This later episode helps us to understand what Luke is getting at, for Mary, in chapter 1 is shown to be someone who hears the word of God and obeys it. She accepts the responsibility of bearing Jesus, and we can assume that the angel’s mention of her cousin Elizabeth is a gentle nudge to get her to pay a visit. To put it bluntly, Luke depicts Mary as a model disciple, one who hears the word of God and obeys it.

But it’s easy to misinterpret what Mary’s discipleship means, how she is meant to be a model. The tradition has shaped her image in so many ways that’s hard to get back to what Luke is really about. We think of Mary as a passive recipient, someone who accepts what happens to her without complaint. The tradition has turned her into a model for a certain kind of discipleship, a femininity that is meek and mild, passive, receptive, quiet.

But that’s wrong. Listen to her song again:
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

These are not words of pious sentimentality, docility, or humility. The faith Mary proclaims is a faith in a God who takes decisive action on behalf of God’s people, a God who vindicates the righteous and condemns the wicked. The God to whom and of whom Mary sings is a God of liberation, a God who intervenes for the oppressed, the powerless, the poor and hungry. These are words proclaiming in a God who saves, but the salvation on offer is not for individuals, it is a salvation for all God’s people.

Indeed, so powerful is this God, so vivid the imagery in the song, that it is hard to imagine they are the words of teenager, a young woman who has just learned she is to be a mother by miraculous means. And the fact of the matter is that Mary’s words are not hers alone. They are also the words of another woman from the history of God’s saving acts, another woman who found herself with child, almost miraculously.

The Magnificat, Mary’s wonderful song, is a reworking of the Song of Hannah, which Hannah sang when she learned she would give birth to Samuel, a boy who would become judge, priest, and prophet over all of Israel. Like Mary after her, Hannah sang in praise of her God, confident of her people’s salvation through God’s continuing care for Israel, confident that God would bring justice and righteousness to the world.

Hannah’s words were put in the future tense. Her song of praise was a song of hope that God would one day make things right. Mary’s song is in the perfect tense, suggesting that God’s liberating action has already begun to take place, but that it is not complete. God’s reign, with its promise of justice for the poor and the oppressed still lies in the future, though Mary can see signs of that reign in the world around her.

God has scattered the proud in their conceit, cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. God has sent the rich away empty and filled the hungry with good things. It’s hard to hear these words without thinking of our own society and economy where income inequality is greater than at any time in a century, where the elderly and the poor risk losing what few benefits they have, where money equals power and our political class seems oblivious to the deep need in our nation.

When we sing or reflect on the Magnificat our tendency is to see these words as Mary’s words, not our own. We lack the imagination and faith to make these statements ours. But if we believe in a God who comes to us in a manger in Bethlehem, it shouldn’t be beyond our capacity to believe in a God who acts in history on behalf of the poor, powerless, the hungry and the oppressed. But more than that, we need to do more than sing the song, to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Luke reminds us that a true follower of Jesus is one who hears his word and obeys it. This Advent and Christmas, this year and beyond, we should proclaim our faith that God is acting in history to vindicate the oppressed, and we should do all in our power to usher in God’s reign.

 

The Tender Compassion of God: A Sermon for Advent 2, Year C

 

A couple of months ago, the great American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson published a profound reflection on fear in the New York Review of Books. She begins with a two-part, very simple thesis: “first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” Later, she writes:

Granting the perils of the world, it is potentially a very costly indulgence to fear indiscriminately, and to try to stimulate fear in others, just for the excitement of it, or because to do so channels anxiety or loneliness or prejudice or resentment into an emotion that can seem to those who indulge it like shrewdness or courage or patriotism. But no one seems to have an unkind word to say about fear these days, un-Christian as it surely is.

Though published in September, these words seem oddly quaint and old-fashioned today. They were written before Paris, before the Planned Parenthood shootings, before San Bernardino. However prevalent fear was in our society three months ago, it is overwhelming today. A Sikh woman was taken off her flight this week because other passengers feared the breast pump she was carrying with her. Islamophobia runs rampant and on Black Friday, the day of the Planned Parenthood shootings, the number of firearms sold broke all previous records. Our presidential candidates are fanning the flames of fear and xenophobia and are benefiting from the fears of the voting public.

This leads to absurdities. On Friday, Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, the institution his notorious father founded, asked his student body in a public address to purchase weapons and apply for concealed carry permits. He is quoted to have said, “I’ve always thought if more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in.” That this would be said by the president of what is likely the largest Christian university in the nation, probably the world, is a sad symbol of what America has become in the second decade of the twenty-first century, and also, even more sadly, of what Christianity has devolved into. As Garry Wills pointed out in a brilliant essay in the wake of the shootings at Newtown three years ago, as Americans, we worship guns and we sacrifice ourselves and our children to Moloch.

We do that, in large part because fear is all-pervasive. It’s not just terrorism, however. Some years back, I remember preaching a sermon at the church I was then serving in Greenville, SC. For some reason, I can’t find the text, but my memory puts it in Advent. There had just been several incidents of random shots fired onto I-85 from pedestrian overpasses, in fact quite near the church. A newspaper reporter interviewed commuters about the shots. One man was quoted to say that he said a prayer every time he left his house because of his fear of what might happen to him in the outside world. That was so memorable to me because I couldn’t imagine having that sort of worldview—mind you it’s not that I don’t think prayer is a good thing, but because of the underlying sense of the evil and danger that lurks just outside of the safety of one’s home. That was over ten years ago, and I would guess that fear is even more pervasive, more present, for many in our society.

It may be that fear is an appropriate way to approach this season. As the world darkens around us, as hate and violence seem to surround us, the nights grow longer and the light of the sun dims with the approach of the winter solstice. For all the joy that our season of Advent and Christmas proclaim, the real world promises sadness and danger.

Nevertheless, in this very world, this dark and gloomy place, we go forward with the rituals of the season. In the darkness of night and gloom of day, we light the candles of Advent; we listen again to the promises of salvation proclaimed by prophets long ago. Our faith may falter; our hope wane, but the good news of the coming of Jesus Christ can continue to make a difference, in our lives and in the world.

We can hear the hope in our texts today, especially in the canticle we said together a few minutes ago, the Song of Zechariah. It is a song that looks back to Israel’s salvation history, reciting the mighty acts that God performed on behalf of God’s chosen people. It looks forward to a future when once again God has intervened to make things right. As Luke tells the larger story of the birth of Jesus, he sets it in an even larger story, the story of Israel’s salvation. We see that clearly both in this song and in the story of Zechariah, which we do not hear today. You may recall some of it.

Zechariah is an elderly priest. He and his wife Elizabeth are childless. One day, it is his turn, perhaps the only time in his life, to enter the sanctuary and offer incense. While performing his duties, an angel appears to him. Zechariah is terrified, but the angel, as always, says to him, “Be not afraid. You and your wife Elizabeth will have a son.”

Zechariah points out to the angel that he is old and his wife is barren, that a child is impossible. Gabriel strikes him mute and indeed, Elizabeth becomes pregnant. Zechariah remains speechless for the length of the pregnancy. One can imagine that during that time, he has the opportunity to figure out what he might say when his voice is restored to him. After the birth of the child, and after Zechariah writes the name “John” on a tablet when asked to name him, his voice is restored, and he praises God.

This song is what comes out of his mouth. As Luke puts it, Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel…”

This canticle is appointed for morning and evening prayer so it is very familiar to me. We read in the translation provided in the Book of Common Prayer which differs slightly from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible that we ordinarily use in worship. There’s a phrase in it, near the end, as Zechariah moves from praising God for God’s action in history, and begins to speak of the present and future: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.”

It’s an image I love because of its simplicity and tentativeness. We think of God’s power and might. Even in this season of Advent which is as much about Christ’s second coming in power and majesty as it is about Christ’s first coming in the incarnation, we tend to focus on God’s promises to make things right, to undo the evil in the world in one fell swoop. But the image of God’s tender compassion coming as the dawn breaks is a very different thing. Dawn comes like the light of advent candles shining in the darkness. The first signs of the sun are subtle, barely detectable. It’s only later that it becomes clear that the light we see is the rising sun. Dawn breaks, one might say, tenderly.

And so too, perhaps, God’s compassion or mercy. We may live in despair of the dark, terror-filled world in which we live. We may despair that injustice and oppression reign, that violence holds sway not only in distant parts of the world, but here in our country, in our city, in the hearts of people overwhelmed by fear. But the dawn from on high leads to a new day, a new world. In those faint signs of light, we can also begin to detect God’s tender compassion. It can take away our fear and heal our violent hearts. Through us, God’s tender compassion brings light and hope to a dark and hurting world.

 

 

 

Mary–Perplexed, Pondering, Prophetic: A Sermon for Advent 4, Year A

What comes to mind for you when you think of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ? Do you think of a painting of her, perhaps a masterpiece from the Renaissance depicting her as a young woman, clothed in a beautiful blue dress, sitting demurely as the angel announces to her, “Hail Mary, full of grace!” Do you think of her at the foot of the cross, or holding the dead body of her son? Do you think of the theological and doctrinal debates surrounding her virginity or immaculate conception? Continue reading

What shall we cry? A Sermon for Advent 2, Year B

Whenever I read today’s reading from Isaiah 11:1-11, I find myself reading it in the cadences of Handel’s Messiah, the beautiful Tenor aria that begins that oratorio. I have no idea how many times I have heard that music; it was an annual accompaniment to Christmas throughout my childhood and youth. Although it’s been years since I’ve attended or sung in a performance of it, the music remains in my memory.

I’m fascinated by the different ways in which we encounter and interpret scripture. Take Messiah, for example. If you’re familiar with it, it’s very hard not to hear it when you read, or listen to, the scriptures that Handel set to music. There’s a sense in which the music has shaped our experience and interpretation of the texts. By the way, that’s one of the wonderful things about the Lessons and Carols service we’ll have at 10:00—our experience of scripture is enhanced and deepened by the music. Continue reading