Last week, we read from John’s Gospel which spoke of Jesus as the Word. The Word of Jesus, the Wisdom of Jesus is our guidepost. It provides us with direction. One of the themes of Epiphany is the Light of Christ. The light of Christ is a beacon, the torch that leads us on. The three wise men followed the light of a star, a star that was put there by God. Once again we focus on following the light of Christ, being committed to his word and his will for us. And we respond to this guiding light with our commitment to love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ. People have tried for centuries to provide additional details about the visit of the wise men. Matthew does not tell us how many wise men visited Jesus. He doesn’t tell us where exactly they came from. And he doesn’t tell us how old Jesus was when they arrived. Our understanding of the rest of the story is discerned from what Matthew wrote or perhaps just someone’s interpretation. We often refer to the wise men as three kings but they were not. We call them by the Greek word Magi. According to the Catholic resource center there are four possible meanings for that word Magi. “(1) a member of the priestly class of ancient Persia, where astrology and astronomy were prominent in Biblical times; (2) one who had occult knowledge and power, and was adept at dream interpretation, astrology, fortune-telling, divination and spiritual mediation; (3) a magician; or (4) a charlatan, who preyed upon people using the before-mentioned practices”. We believe it means court priests or astrologers. They may have come from Parthia which was in current day Iran. They were given the names Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Those names did not appear in Christian literature until five hundred years after the birth of Jesus. Saint Bede writing in the country we now call England in the seven hundreds wrote this "The magi were the ones who gave gifts to the Lord. The first is said to have been Melchior, an old man with white hair and a long beard... who offered gold to the Lord as to a king. The second, Caspar by name, young and beardless and ruddy complexioned... honored Him as God by his gift of incense, an oblation worthy of divinity. The third, black-skinned and heavily bearded, named Balthasar ... by his gift of myrrh testified to the Son of Man who was to die." (from Catholic Resource Education Center). People believe that it would have taken several years for the wise men to arrive in Bethlehem and Matthew refers to them entering a house, not a manger. They probably didn’t come when he was an infant. Matthew certainly doesn’t tell us much about the star. It could be from the East. In our translation it is his star at its rising. It is hard for me to understand how a star would move before them and then stop and stand over the house where Jesus was staying. Was it a comet, a supernova or a collection of planets that caused the wise men to come? We are not sure. “German astronomer Johannes Kepler proposed in 1604 that the star was a conjunction of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C”. Grant Matthews, a theoretical astrophysicist from Notre Dame, proposed that it was a conflagration in April 17, 6 B.C., when the sun, Jupiter, the moon and Saturn aligned in the constellation Aries while Venus and Mars were in neighboring constellations. (AP 12/1/2007). Astronomer Michael Molnar, agrees that it was on April 17, 6 BC. But he believes it was Jupiter alone that caused the wise men to look for Jesus. Molnar described how Jupiter moved in the sky both East and West and how it rose. (theconversation.com.) All of the hard work and speculation about these details concerning the wise men is not as important as how we understand the story and what it means to our Christian practice. When the Magi saw the star they knew something important had happened. They believed that someone had been born who was destined to become a ruler. That is why Mathew wrote his star at its rising. The Star of the East encourages us to look for that important person as well. We look to Jesus for guidance in our lives. It means that we should be looking to God, and specifically Jesus, to help us on our lifelong journey. We need to find and follow the star of Jesus, a star that keeps us on track and makes sure that we keep following our God and king. When we use the word Epiphany outside of church it means “an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure”. Something special happens that switches on a light in our minds. It is an aha experience. The celebration of the Epiphany in the church is similar. It is the manifestation of Jesus, the Son of God. Manifestation is just a big word that means a public showing or a perceptible, outward, or visible expression. Jesus is publicly shown to the three wise men. It is the first time in Scripture that someone other than a Jewish person came to pay homage to Jesus. That matters to us because we are all Gentiles, non-Jewish people. Epiphany is like our anniversary of the first time that people like us saw and understood who Jesus was. This is the first time that the light switched on in the minds of Gentiles. This is God! The reading from Isaiah fits so well with the concept of the light of Christ. It begins, “Arise, shine, for your light has come”. The light of Jesus has come and will lead us in all that we should do. Later, Isaiah writes, “For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you,” The Lord Jesus illuminates our lives and chases away the darkness that is in our souls. This past week, I went to see the movie “Wonder” which is about a boy with a disfigured face. The boy must deal with all the perceptions of other students and parents when he goes to school. But for me the story tells about the struggles each person faces in their life. Even the bullies had problems. Everyone has some darkness that they must overcome. Jesus is the light that helps us out of the darkness and into the light. One Scripture commentary said, “We are all in need of the Light - and of more light to enlighten our hearts. We need Christ to fill our emptiness, relieve our fears and anxieties and bring us hope of life eternal”. In 1951, composer Gian Carlo Menotti wrote an opera called Amahl and the Night Visitors. The opera was shown on TV many times. Menotti had grown up in Italy where the custom was that the Three Wise Men brought the Christmas gifts for children. In his Opera, Amahl is a poor disabled boy whose mother worries that he will become a beggar. The three Kings visit their house. Amahl’s mother tries to steal the gold meant for Jesus. She wants to protect her son. Although she is caught, King Melchior tells her to keep the gold because Jesus will not need earthly power or wealth to build his kingdom. Amahl offers his crutch for Jesus and is healed. Then Amahl goes with the Three Kings to visit Jesus and gives his crutch to the newborn Christ Child. We learn much from the actions of children. I think it was the Sunday before Christmas that a young boy who is 5 years old told me before the service that he had something to give me. After the service he handed me this small lego toy person. He asked me to give the lego to Jesus. I placed it in the manger with Jesus and it has stayed with Jesus the entire Christmas season. I am so appreciative of the thoughtfulness of the boy. His actions encourage us to consider what gift we will give to Jesus. The Wise men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. What will our gift be? Perhaps it will be something small but important to us, something personal. Maybe our gift will tell everyone what Jesus means to us or pronounce what Jesus means to the world. It might only be our faith. As we give our gift, we also remember that Jesus is God’s gift to us. Jesus is the light of the world. We are so thankful that Jesus became the light of the world to all people, Jews and Gentiles alike. We pray that this light, this star, will fill the world with God’s glory and that God’s light will shine throughout the world. And we pray that Jesus will be the light that shows us how we can help make this happen. Amen.
On Christmas Eve, we had many people attend the two services at 4:00 PM and 10:00 PM. Everyone at those two services heard the Christmas story as told by Luke. There was no room at the inn and the shepherds and angels came. Only a few people attended the Christmas morning service. They heard John’s gospel, which is about the meaning of the birth of Jesus whereas Luke told the story with visual images. The Episcopal Church chooses to deviate just a little from the accepted set of readings. We normally use the same readings as other faith traditions but today we use the gospel story from John rather than the story of the Holy Family. We will have one more chance to hear about the Holy Family when we celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in early February. Unlike those who are already finished with Christmas, we take time to understand what the birth of Jesus means to John and what it might mean to us. John wrote that the Word became flesh. God stepped out of eternity into human time and taught us how to live our lives. Jesus was God and man at the same time. John points out that Jesus has been around forever. Jesus existed before the world began and Jesus participated in the creation. John refers to Jesus as the Word. In Genesis when we read about the creation of the earth, seven times we hear the words God said. When God spoke the whole of creation responded. Much later, God realized that in spite of all the efforts of the prophets and all the good people that lived their lives faithfully more was needed. God spoke and Jesus took the form of a human. There is another meaning for God’s word. As my study Bible would say, the Divine word is “also the divine principle of reason that gives order to the universe and links the human mind to the mind of God”. That is what we celebrate when we come to church and that is the importance of Jesus to our lives. Jesus means everything to us, Jesus makes our lives have meaning. Without Jesus we would have no direction or purpose in our lives, we would be lost and uncertain. It might be fun to go on a trip where we have no idea where to go. It might be fun to take a trip without a GPS system to tell us where to go. But the direction of our life is much better when we take the Word of Jesus with us to decide how we will live our lives. Jesus connects us to the divine. Peter Abelard was a twelvth century theologian who wrote about the importance of the Word of Jesus. He said, “I think that the purpose and cause of the Incarnation was that God might illuminate the world by his wisdom and excite it to the love of himself.” And that is why we are thankful again today: Thankful for the life of Jesus, thankful for his presence on this earth and thankful for his impact in our hearts. The wisdom of Jesus is like food for our souls. It nurtures us and helps us to grow in God’s grace. Scripture helps us to see what it means to be connected with God. Isaiah wrote “God has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness”. God’s clothing is so elaborate that it is like that of a bride or groom. Some verses were skipped in the reading from Galatians today which reiterate Isaiah’s message. Paul wrote that “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ”. This armor of Christ is the Word of Jesus that we carry with us every day. It is the light of Christ that lives inside of us. It is the Divine Wisdom that keeps us aligned with God. Jesus brought his love to us. He encouraged us to love one another. He taught us about truth, not the truth that we experience in the opinions of others but rather the truth of God that lasts forever. Paul also wrote that all of us are one in Christ, all of us are equals. He said that Jews and Greeks are equal, slave and free are equal and man and woman are equal when we live in the life of Christ. Isaiah offered us another image that seems so relevant for us at Transfiguration. In the Advent season, I spoke of tilling the soil, preparing ourselves for the coming of Jesus. As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we can receive the fruits of that preparation. Isaiah wrote “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations”. Paul spoke about this in the letter to the Galatians. Jesus helps us to mature in our relationship with God. We no longer need to be watched over by rules and someone to provide discipline. We are so filled with God’s spirit that we know how to behave. Just as a garden grows, we grow in faith. Jesus brings us into a proper relationship with God. He makes us righteous. When we hear the Word of Jesus and seek to live it in our lives, we grow in grace and truth. It is as if we have tilled our ground and made it holy and allowed Jesus to find a place where truth can spring up in abundance. Athanasius served as Bishop of Alexandria in the fourth century and was a well-known theologian. He wrote that “He (Jesus) became what we are that he might make us what he is”. We strive in our lives to be like Jesus. Athanasius words let us know it is not really we who do the work but rather it is the work of Jesus living in us that makes everything happen. Jesus brings us salvation . It is through his work that we become sons and daughters of God. We are not born of God but we were adopted by God. We belong to God because of the love and life of Jesus. I always appreciate what C. S. Lewis said about the coming of Jesus. Some people like to call Jesus a prophet, a holy man or a good role model for us. But Lewis would say we cannot consider Jesus just a prophet. Jesus told us that he was the Son of God. He told us that in order to be close to God, we must go through him. We either believe what Jesus said or we must decide that he was deranged. But most important, we wish to use the Wisdom of Jesus as our guidepost. So many times when we pray we ask God for things. Less often, we pray in thanksgiving for the gifts we have received from God. Given the story of Jesus coming to earth, our thanksgiving should be about the presence of God among us, the willingness of God to take on our human characteristics, the sense that Jesus understands exactly what it is like to be human. At the same time, it is about Jesus helping us to understand better what it is like to be God and to understand better what God wants for us and from us. I often think about the power of evil in this world. I wonder why the good that Jesus brought into this place has not spread further. But then I realize that evil is a strong power in human lives. People allow themselves to be controlled by the devil. But when I think deeply about evil, I think I should be amazed at the power of good. If we look carefully, we will find good in so many places. We find good in the many people that pray for us. Looking for the good is why I started a program to remember the acts of kindness that we have experienced. Although there are many non-believers, The number of people who seek to live their lives the way Jesus taught us is significant. And I pray that the Jesus movement will continue to grow so that more and more good will be found. Let us allow the Word of God to spread in ourselves and help it to be heard by others. Let us be thankful for all that God has done. Let us live our lives following God’s will and not our own. Then we will be able to experience a fulfilling life. Amen.
A little over 100 years ago, the United States was on the verge of entering World War I. The United States Army was in need of recruits to help the anticipated war effort. A well-known illustrator by the name of James Montgomery Flagg painted a poster which has become an iconic symbol. The poster shows a stern face of a man dressed in patriotic clothes. The piercing eyes look directly at you and the index finger is pointed towards you. Yes, the character is the one we refer to as Uncle Sam. The caption says “I want you for the US Army.” The image was first seen in a weekly news magazine with the caption, “What are you doing for preparedness”. The US would not enter the First World War until April 1917, but this poster represented the importance of the war effort. The poster suggested that every US citizen had a patriotic duty to assist. The face on the poster provides our image of Uncle Sam. It was most likely that of a meat packer from 1812 who sent food to the US Army. The poster was so special that it was modified slightly and used again in World War II. The poster was modeled after a similar one used by the British government using the image of a war hero named Lord Kitchener. The I Want You poster was a call to action and it expected a response from all who experienced it. The correct response was yes! Today, we hear the story of Mary. She responded to a call from God and she gave a resounding yes to the call. Mary gives us encouragement to accept our own call from God and today we seek to answer yes to that call. I don’t think that you will find God staring out from a poster with a finger pointed at you but I do think there are ways for each of us to seek and understand God’s will for us. During Advent we have been preparing for the coming of Jesus. Much of what we have read in Scripture is about the second coming. But today, we shift and focus on the story of the first time that Jesus came to earth. It is the story of a miracle. And it is a story of human response to God’s will. We begin with God’s gift to us. The angel proclaimed to Mary “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” This greeting is meant for every one of us. God is with each and every human. Despite what seemed like a wonderful blessing, Mary was confused and probably afraid. Then the angel proclaims God’s will for Mary, that she will bear Jesus, the son of God. To Mary, it seemed impossible but the angel shared those important words “Nothing is impossible with God.” Mary then responds “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” I repeated some of the dialogue to help you focus on each of the steps of the exchange. I think they are steps that each of us experience in our interaction with God. First there is the understanding that God is with us. Yes, God is here for you. Second, we have some level of confusion, perplexity and doubt. How is it possible that God is with me? I am not worthy. I am just a small little person in the universe. I don’t matter. And yet we all do. After some reassurance, God asks us to do something or to be something. And then we have a choice. While it does not come across so clearly in the gospel, Mary had a choice as well. We have free will and we get to decide if we will follow the will of God. I would say that today we are encouraged to say yes to God and to follow God’s will. Mary was not the only one to say yes. The gospel of Matthew tells us about the yes of Joseph. Joseph had planned to dismiss Mary but he was told in a dream not to do so. Joseph said yes to God’s will and Joseph cared for Mary and cared for their newborn son, Jesus. Mary’s commitment to follow God’s will sounds a great deal like the words of Jesus himself. When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his crucifixion, he decided to follow the will of his Father, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” There are many other examples in Scripture of people who said yes to God. Often they were reluctant or confused when they first were approached. Their struggles give us great encouragement as we too often struggle to accept God’s will in our lives. Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, received a visit from the angel Gabriel and was told that he and his wife would have a son. But Zechariah did not believe and the angel took away his voice until his son, John, was born. I think of Abraham and Sarah. The Lord appeared to Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre. After the meal, the Lord told Abraham that Sarah would have a son. Sarah laughed. It wasn’t laughter of joy but rather laughter of unbelief, how could this be she must have thought. When the Lord heard Sarah’s laugh, the Lord said to Abraham, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Sounds a little like what the angel said to Mary, Doesn’t it? Sarah and Abraham said yes to God’s will that they raise Isaac and that the generations that followed would be faithful to God. I also think of Moses. He was tentative as well. When God asked Moses to deliver his people out of bondage in Egypt, Moses had lots of excuses. Moses said I am not good enough to do this for you, and What am I to say to the people? And he said they won’t listen to me and Moses said I don’t speak eloquently. God persisted, God was with Moses and Moses finally said yes to God. Or how about Paul who persecuted the followers of Jesus and was even on his way to do more destruction when God woke him up. It took some lightning from God to get Paul’s attention but finally Paul said yes to God and became one of God’s most dedicated missionaries. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he wrote about God’s work and our response. Today’s verses are a summary of all of Paul’s beliefs and all that he wrote in the letter to the Romans. God will give us strength through the words of Jesus Christ and God’s strength will help us to be obedient in our faith. Obedience is the yes to God; The positive response to God reaching out to us. Let us all ask God for the strength to be obedient, to say yes. I have never been visited by Gabriel or another angel and told the will of God. I have been visited by a human being who suggested what might be God’s will for me and it has helped me to ponder what response I might give. Nathan, the prophet shared God’s will with King David. Perhaps if we can quiet ourselves down enough, we will hear God speaking to us. In addition to hearing God’s will, we must be ready to respond. Our first thought is often to say that we can’t or send someone else. We just may need a shot of courage. This week, a clergy friend suggested that I go back and read a poem by Denise Levertov. She found courage in the glory of nature. I would say that she found God in nature. Please listen to this A certain day became a presence to me; there it was, confronting me--a sky, air, light: a being. And before it started to descend from the height of noon, it leaned over and struck my shoulder as if with the flat of a sword, granting me honor and a task. The day's blow rang out, metallic--or it was I, a bell awakened, and what I heard was my whole self saying and singing what it knew: I can. A being came from the sky and struck her shoulder with a sword just as a king might commission a knight. Will you keep your senses open for God to strike you with His sword and may you feel the strength of God’s will and respond just as Mary did. Perhaps you will be perplexed at first but then you will realize that you can and promise to do God’s will. When you celebrate Christmas this evening or tomorrow morning, I hope that you will look on the baby Jesus, worship him and say to him, Yes, I will follow you. Amen.
Last week, I introduced a theme for our Advent season. The theme is tilling the soil. On Monday, I watched two powerful horses plow the ground in our new Chile garden. I once again experienced how hard the top layer of the ground is here. The horses traversed the ground many times, digging through that top crusty layer until they found the soft and rich soil beneath. This week, I feel that tilling the soil means allowing God to work in God’s way and time to make us whole people. We want to allow God to break through that hard crust we have developed, the protection that we have created to keep ourselves from being hurt. We want to let God find that fertile layer of our souls that lies beneath.
All of us are made in the image of God. We were created to live as God’s children. Theologian John Philip Newell wrote about this in Christ of the Celts. He struggled with the idea of original sin. Newell believed that we weren’t created as sinners but rather carried God inside ourselves. God’s goodness is deep inside. He wrote, “wisdom is deep within us, deeper than the ignorance of what we have done or become.” Newell said similar things about having God’s passion for justice and righteousness and God’s love is deep within us. Today I ask you to consider how you connect again with the core of your being, that part of us that mirrors God so closely. We may have lost contact with that core as it has been covered over by years of neglect, even years of selfish action. We seek to allow God to dig through the crust that has covered our souls and find that freshness beneath.
There are times we question where God is in our lives. We want God to swoop down and correct all that has gone wrong and we want that to happen now. When God’s work is not obvious to us, we worry. Christians have had this reaction from the very beginning. The author of 2nd Peter must have been responding to a community expecting Jesus to return quickly and restore their lives to peace and tranquility. We are so like them in many ways asking when God will correct all the evil. We can mask the feelings of disappointment when God does not appear.
The author of 2nd Peter gives us one explanation. “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” We really do think of ourselves first and continue to ask God why things we want cannot happen immediately. Yet we know that God works on God’s time.
How can we understand God’s time? It might help to consider how short human life is especially compared to the length of time scientists tell us the universe has existed and the earth has flourished. Astronomers recently reported that they had measured the impact of two stars that collided 130 million years ago. Scientists estimate that the Grand Canyon started to form some 6 million years ago. We see the Grand Canyon as it is now but our view is like a single snapshot not a picture of what happened over so many years. Geology and astronomy help me to understand just a little about God’s time. I know God can do anything but it’s hard to see God’s work throughout the ages.
Still, we are inpatient. We wish that Christmas would hurry up and come. We want to see the baby Jesus lying in a manger. We want to be with our family and share presents and a lovely dinner. Is there another choice? We could chose to enjoy the experience of Advent, the anticipation, the preparation, the waiting, and the gradual change. For in the waiting and looking, perhaps we will allow God into our souls.
As I read the Scriptures for this week, I felt the powerful images presented to us. Isaiah provides metaphors for us of God’s work. God leveling out the rough places. People are like grass. They wither and fade away but God’s word will stand forever. God will feed his flock like a shepherd. It sounded like poetry to me.
I am not an avid reader of poetry. But I remembered some favorite poets like John Dunne and Robert Frost. What poetry inspires you? Poets often present us with images and I found something helped me think about God’s time and our time in a set of poems by T S Eliot called the four quartets. They were written just before and during the Second World War. The first, Burnt Norton, begins like this
“Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future,
and time future contained in time past” and later
“Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.”
I am sure that others have a better sense of the meaning of this poem. I hear it saying that we are made up of all the things that have happened throughout our lives. Humanity is made up of all things that have happened before us. History is present today in our lives. Later in the poem, Eliot speaks of a garden which has fallen into decay. Yet in the midst of the garden are the memories of better times. If we have fallen into decay in our lives, then Advent is a good time to remember what we were like earlier and remember that our former self is still inside of us. I believe that God works in us throughout our lives. We may just not feel it or see it. God is waiting for the chance to work magic in our souls again if we will only let God in.
When we listen to Scripture we hear of God’s marvelous work. “Comfort, O comfort, my people”. Yes, God will give us comfort. For the Jewish people of Isaiah’s time, comfort was release from the bondage of sin and the bondage of exile. It was a comfort that could only come to them when God brought them home once again. Home is a special place for all of us. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her penalty is paid”. God forgave their sins. For the Jewish people, sin is both a communal act and a personal act. God forgave the sins of those who had come before and those who had sinned now. We have forgiveness from God as well.“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” God has the power to change the world. God made the lives of the Israelites better and as they returned from exile in Babylon, they were so ecstatic in their freedom, a gift from God, that their trip back to Jerusalem was easy, joyful.
The Psalm offers a special note of God’s power and grace given to us. “I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people.”
Today, we celebrate the second Sunday of Advent. We pray that God will give us a peace that is beyond measure. It is a peace that passes all understanding. It is a peace that we wish to hold in our hearts forever.
I often think about our lives as a journey. We journey through work and family and most especially in our faith. I don’t think anyone’s journey with God is constant, correct, perfect. We fall from the straight and narrow at various times along the way. This Advent, I hope that you will find some time to pause and reflect on your journey, where you have been and where you are now. The last of T S Eliot’s four quartets is called Little Gidding which was the site of a 17th century Anglican monastery. This quote comes from Sparknotes. “The poem (Little Gidding) considers those who have come to the monastery, who come only ‘to kneel / Where prayer has been valid.’ It is here that man can encounter the ‘intersection of the timeless’ with the present moment, often by heeding the words of the dead, whose speech is given a vitality by a burning fire.”
Is it possible that you might hear the voice of God’s truth in that place where prayer is valid, in a person that inspires you, perhaps even a prophet like John the Baptist, calling from the desert. May you find the timeless truth of God in your reflection. May you let God till your soil until God finds the fruitful soul beneath. And when that happens, I believe that you will know God’s peace. Amen.
I have always been amazed by the work of a farmer. And I know several people in this congregation who grew up in a farming family or worked as a farmer, earning their livelihood growing crops. I think farmers are gamblers. They risk so much on the vagaries of the weather and the price they will get for their crops. Diseases and creatures feast on their crops reducing their yield. Through all of this uncertainty, farmers live in hope that their efforts will be fruitful. Despite the risk they face, each year they break ground, plowing their fields. The people who work in our Chile garden are somewhat similar. This past year bacteria attacked the Chile plants. It killed many of them. The disease did not affect the chile we harvested. It just impacted the amount of Chile powder we could process and offer for sale. Our farmers learned that we needed to rotate the crops. So, the vestry decided that we would take some of the land behind the parish hall and create a new plot to grow chile, a place where the bacteria has not yet grown. But plowing this new plot was not easy. It was not until Bob Despegliare took matters into his own hands and rented a tractor that we were able to break ground. Since then others have continued to prepare the land for new chile plants. I would like to draw a parallel between the work of the farmers in preparing their soil and our Christian efforts during this Advent season. The word Advent means coming. Jesus is coming soon and we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus. Just as the farmer prepares the soil for planting, we prepare our hearts and minds for this year’s coming of Jesus. That is why I have chosen to use the phrase “tilling the soil” as our theme for this advent season. We break through the dirt and dust, the sins that have covered our souls. We break through our human failings as we prepare. We have hope that Jesus will be here soon. I grew up in the Midwest and late spring was the time that farmers tilled their fields. I often considered it to be the beginning of a new year. But time is marked differently here in the valley. We prepare the soil earlier than in other climates. There are many ways that we mark the beginning of a New Year. The most common is January 1st, the calendar turns over to something new. But the beginning of an academic year and the beginning of a fiscal year can differ from the calendar year. Advent marks the beginning of a new Church or liturgical year. Each of these new starts helps us to consider what we must do to prepare for the coming year. Advent comes one month before our calendar changes to the new year but still it is a time to think of new beginnings, new starts, preparing anew. How will you till the soil and prepare your heart for this new year, this coming of Jesus? For the children that are here with us, each Christmas they have experienced feels like something new, something exciting. But those of us who have been around a bit longer have experienced the birth of Jesus many times. What makes it new this year? Perhaps that is why the theme of tilling the soil works so well. Each year the farmer plants and each year, we need to turn over the feelings of our soul, to start something different, to prepare again for the coming harvest, to get ready for the coming of Christ. The reading from Isaiah puts a slightly different spin on the issue saying “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.” It is as if God disappeared from the people of Israel. And later, “for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” The Psalm has a similar tone when it says, “O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people?” The people felt deserted by God and called upon God to return. Perhaps that is another good way to think about this coming of Christ. Of course, God is always there. We have just lost sight of God. But in our humanity, we act as if God is the one who has left. We say that God has left us because of our sin. And yet it is really the other way around. We have left God because of our sin. That’s why, in this Advent season, we seek to prepare ourselves. We need to plow away the things that keep us from God. We need to break the soil of our resentment and the blame that we place on God. We need to find a way to cleanse ourselves again so that we can allow God back in our lives. The theme for Advent today is hope. As we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus, we look forward to his coming with hope. Hope can be difficult in times of trouble. When Paul left the church community he founded in Corinth, they were grounded in their faith and several leaders had come forth giving Paul confidence that the community would continue to be faithful followers. But that Christian community encountered great challenges after he left. They were divided by class and some even refused to come together at the Lord’s table. Many had returned to the ways of sin. Paul wanted them to remember that hope was one of the gifts that they had in Jesus. Jesus had been with them before and Jesus was with them now and Jesus would come again. Their gifts would give them strength as they await the return of Jesus. It is as if Paul were speaking to us today. Our divisions are different and involve not this church but our broader community. We know that Jesus has given us the strength to live our lives in his name and we know that Jesus came to be with us. But we may have strayed just a little. Today, we remember that we too have been given gifts. Our gifts will carry us through this time of preparation. Our gifts give us hope. As we are reminded today, the Israelites struggled to find God in their lives. Because of their sin, they thought God had left them, was angry with them, and was hidden from them. In Paul’s time, the people had been strong in their faith but had lost their sense of Christian community. Some had also turned to sin. But they knew and we know also, that God has never left us. God is just waiting for us to return. So, we prepare, we once again till the soil scraping away the crust of sin so that we may experience God freshened and renewed. What might we do to prepare for the coming of Jesus once again. Some will choose to follow a daily devotion that is put together specifically for Advent. Others will chose to have an Advent wreath and offer special prayers at mealtime. When our daughter was a child, she loved to hang objects on a felt wall hanging. Each day, she would add a new ornament to the felt Christmas tree hanging and we would discuss the meaning of Christmas. Others may choose to set aside some time in prayer or reflection. Still others may choose to volunteer with an organization that helps the needy. Another way to prepare ourselves is to be fully present as we worship God together. I read a reflection by Karoline Lewis suggesting that Advent was a time to look for God in our church lives. If we stay awake as the gospel suggests, perhaps we will experience the revelation of God. Perhaps God will arrive in our time and place. We may experience the power of God that transforms our lives through Jesus Christ. God will direct us to find in ourselves and in our community all that is good and true. We may come to the full realization that Jesus came before now and will come again. Jesus is also with us now while we await his coming again. Whatever you do, seek to place yourself in God’s presence. All of the things we do to prepare, to till our soil, are just reminders that we wish to live our lives with God now and as we look with hope towards his coming again. Amen.
There is a beer commercial that has been running recently that is set in the court of a king in the middle ages. One person brings a gift up to the king and it is a case of the beer which is being advertised. The king is pleased. Another person does the same. Then a third person presents a gift of some home made wine in a beautiful container. This last gift is rejected by the king and the person who brought the gift is sent to prison with a sentence of some terrible punishment. The commercial plays on our sense that kingly judgment has often been offered on the whimsy of the king and not particularly just. I would say it is a direct contrast to our readings.
Trying to understand what the monarchy meant in the time of Jesus can be difficult. In our time, most kings and queens hold a more ceremonial position. There are a few absolute monarchs in the world today but we hear little about them. Many of us are enamored by the ruling family of Great Britain. We often see them visiting and supporting people who are in the hospital or going to an event to help a non profit organization. We just don’t have much experience with a king or queen that rules over a country with total authority.
For the people of Israel, kings were much more important and personal. They had been looking for a Messiah ever since the time of King David, almost 1,000 years, and they had lived for many years under foreign rule. For them, kings were in total control of their lives. They had the power to put people in jail, to put people to death, to conscript them into the army, to take away their land. No decision was beyond their control. When Matthew wrote these words about Jesus coming back to be the King of the Universe, it spoke directly to the people of his time. His followers knew that Jesus would be coming again and be their Messiah.
Jesus never acted like a king as we know them. First, his kingship is not of the earth. Jesus was not a military leader or a rich person or even a famous temple priest. Jesus was not born to a wealthy family, but rather was born in a stable and had to flee from the king who threatened his life. When Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus immediately told all of his followers that he would go to Jerusalem and be killed. I love the story in the gospel of John where Pilate asks Jesus “Are you the King of the Jews?’ And Jesus responds with a question something like, ”Who told you that?” Pilate later says, “So you are a king?” and Jesus replies, “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Truth can be so difficult to find sometimes. I wonder how we can find the truth in the world today. Perhaps we should look to Jesus. None of the ways of Jesus sound like a king as we understand it.
In our readings, we hear about the judgment that all will receive. In Ezekiel, God says I “will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy”. I presume that the fat and strong are those who took advantage of others. After hearing from Ezekiel, it is no surprise that Jesus cares for those who struggle. In the Gospel, the sheep will be separated from the goats. I learned this week that those who cared for both sheep and goats did separate them every night. The sheep liked to sleep out in the open but the goats needed shelter to keep warm. Separating the sheep and the goats made sense then. People today often speak about the judgment, the wrath of the God of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scripture. Ezekiel described God as caring for the weak. And in our gospel, God’s wrath is reserved for those who have sinned against God.
How many of us have a reason to fear God’s judgment? On the surface, we might think about the things that we have done wrong, all the sins we have committed. I have a more optimistic view. We have asked for God’s forgiveness for our sins, we have promised that we will do better and we have worked to live a life following the leadership of Jesus. But the devil is always around us, tempting us in many ways, trying to rip us from the arms of Jesus. Perhaps that is what causes us to fear God’s judgment.
What is more striking to me is not God’s judgment but the choice Jesus makes about what is valued. We knew Jesus didn’t value money or nice clothes or wonderful gifts. Instead, he cared about how much we have helped one another. He speaks specifically of those who have been starving or have no clothes or are in jail. You might say that he is the king of people who are downtrodden or lowly rather than the king of the wealthy or self centered. This is a totally different kind of king. It is a day to be surprised once more by the shift that Jesus makes from the kings we are familiar with.
It is a little surprising that Jesus chose this way to judge humans. Yes, it is contained in the second of the most important commandments, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. But this passage doesn’t mention judging us for how we love God. It does not mention other commandments like honoring your father and mother. I think Jesus chose to judge us this way because of his own experience. He chose to come to earth and to experience humanity personally. We don’t know whether Jesus ever found himself homeless, without clothes and without food but I would not be surprised. We do know that he was captured and tortured and put to death so we can understand how he would feel about those in prison.
If we truly believe what Matthew has written, then we know what we must do. We don’t go looking for Jesus in the courts of the king or in the wealthy places. Jesus, our king, is found in the midst of the outcast, the hungry, the naked and those in prison. Sometimes, our salvation is found in the people of Jesus. A few weeks ago, someone encouraged us to go to see the movie, “The Same Kind of Different as Me”. A wealthy art dealer, someone who had turned from God, a man who had turned on his wife and his father, was encouraged to change his ways. His wife dragged him to a place that fed the homeless in the worst part of town. He had no interest in being there. The man had no interest in meeting one of the homeless men. But he eventually found a friend in that homeless gentleman. This homeless man taught him a lot about life and about God. The homeless man helped him find himself and supported him in times of grief. Together these two men raised millions of dollars for homeless people in the US. There are times when we can learn from poor people. They can teach us and we can become even better people than we are today. That is why I encourage you to seek God in the smiles of others, especially those whom we help.
And more than the question of judgement, I hope you remember the kind of person Jesus was, the kind of king Jesus became. He is the king of each and every person. I remember the words of C. S. Lewis from last week’s adult formation, “When Christ died, He died for you individually just as much as if you'd been the only (man) HUMAN in the world”. Jesus is your personal king. He is there for you when all seems lost. He is there for you when you are afraid of the terrible violence we see all around us. Jesus is there for you when you don’t know where to turn next.
It is common for people to bring gifts to the king. Today, as we celebrate Jesus as our king, I ask you to consider what gift you will bring to him. Christmas is one month away. It is not too soon to think about our gifts and it is not too soon to give it early if we wish. It is really quite simple. All that Jesus wants from us is that we open our hearts to him and we care for one another. Amen.
People have a tendency to dwell on the end of the world. Books have been written about it and movie after movie has been made about what is going to happen. There are some references to the end of the world in the Bible. The book of Daniel in the Hebrew Scripture and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament are good examples. Revelation, in particular, speaks of the pitched battle that will occur between the forces of good and evil and does so in the strongest of images.
Jesus spoke about the end of the world. In a couple of weeks we will read about the judgment on the last day. Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats and the way we treat each other is the basis for the decision Jesus will make about whether we are welcomed into heaven. But our readings today speak of the end of the world with less fighting and violence than all of those movies or of Revelation. Today we hear about being lifted up to Jesus and about a wonderful banquet.
How does the second coming of Jesus affect our faith and our actions today? The Christians of Paul’s time thought that Jesus would return to earth while they were still alive. They were worried about those who had already died. Paul reassured them that Christ will raise the dead as well as the living. The dead will be taken up first. Those that are alive will rise up and meet Jesus in the air. All followers will be reunited. This event will be accompanied by trumpets and archangels will be seen. What a lovely image for us to hear today. Paul’s conclusion is that all who have lived in Christ will be raised. He was confident in that because of the love of Jesus. Paul even wrote that he wanted them to encourage each other, to comfort each other with these words about God’s love.
Our sense of heaven has evolved and we often speak of joining our loved ones when we die. Perhaps our understanding has grown because of the writing of Paul. Our gospel lesson invites us to think about the church community as the bride and Jesus as the bridegroom. The coming kingdom of God is like a joyful wedding banquet. It will not be some huge battle but more like a celebration. I like that much better than the violence found in movies. As bridesmaids we are to be prepared at all times for the second coming of Jesus. Another way to think about this lesson is that we never know when we are going to die and we always want to be ready, to find ourselves in a holy place, to find ourselves with Jesus so that we can join the other saints in heaven when that day comes. It is as if we are all boy scouts and we should follow their motto, “Be prepared”.
Haven’t most of us stopped waiting? Jesus has not come back for a very long time and in spite of those who say the end of the world is coming soon, we really have no idea when Jesus will come back most likely not in our lifetime. That is why the most important words Jesus gives us is that the bridegroom has been delayed. We accept that Jesus has not come back yet but that doesn’t change our expectation that he will return. Worrying about the end of the world coming is not a healthy way to live. I find it difficult to be motivated by the fact that God will judge me when I die. I don’t think we should live in fear that we will make a mistake and not be in God’s grace at the end of our life. Something so distant, so far away that it is hard to prepare for.
I am reminded of some management training that I received many years ago. It was all about what makes people tick and about how to help motivate employees. The training suggested that people are best motivated when they know exactly what they face in the short term. The expression was that people will work on things that are personal, immediate and certain. Each of us prefers to pay attention to things that impact us as individuals. Even athletes know that while they play for a team their own actions matter a great deal. It is harder to envision that my actions will impact the outcome of a large corporation. Folks are more likely to work on something when the result is immediate. Finally, we are all willing to work on things when the outcome is certain or predictable. Imagine what it is like when you go bowling. Each time that you roll the bowling ball down the lane, you get immediate feedback about how well you did. You trust that the pins will fall if you hit them correctly. The results are personal, immediate and certain. On the other hand, a goal that is delayed or has a gamble associated with the outcome, is not very motivating. Imagine if you will, a smoker. At any given time, a smoker can decided that the possibility of dying from having one cigarette is not very significant. After all, the possibility of getting sick from smoking may happen a long time in the future. And after all, there are a few people who never do get lung cancer even though they may have smoked all of their life.
You see, it is a gamble as to whether or not I will survive and one cigarette does not change the outcome. Most smokers are more motivated by the satisfaction they get from that one cigarette because they know that the result of having that one cigarette is an immediate and certain satisfaction. That is why I worry about how we will interpret this parable. If the only way you think about this parable is that Jesus is telling you to be ready for the second coming, I don’t think that you will change your behavior in any way. Certainly it is better to be prepared. I could never give a sermon if I didn’t prepare. I just think we have to have some immediate feedback about the value of preparedness.
The feeling that I get when I have finished writing a sermon is so good, a sense of accomplishment. You see, just the writing of the sermon is a positive experience. I believe the same is true in our relationship with Jesus. When I find myself in God’s presence, when I am able to follow what I understand to be God’s will, then a sense of peace and comfort comes over me. Yes, I have some wish inside that I will be ready for the day I die, but the feeling I get today is much more valuable.
In the parable, some are identified as the wise bridesmaids for they brought along extra oil. Is that why they got into the banquet? I mean they were selfish, they refused to share their oil with the other less prepared bridesmaids. Jesus is telling us that the Last Judgement is too late to help others such as our neighbor so I want us to always think of our neighbor throughout our life. There must be something else going on here. I believe it is in the presence of the wise bridesmaids when the bridegroom came. You see, the foolish bridesmaids left. It is as if they left the presence of Jesus while the wise bridesmaids remained. The wise ones always sought to be there when Jesus came. I like to think that their satisfaction was not the welcoming into the banquet but the happiness that they felt throughout their time of preparation. For us, then, it is about the comfort and peace that we feel knowing that Jesus is with us always. I say this many times but I think it is about the love and grace that we receive each day from Jesus. Reinhold Niebuhr once said, that “Only a combination of serenity and preparedness can do justice to the whole of our life”. He encouraged us to remember that “both tomorrow and today are in the hands of God”. Let us be prepared for each day. Let us experience Jesus each day. Let us not live in fear about the bad things that will come but rather in joyful hope that the best is yet to come. It will be a time when heaven and earth will be united and a great party will begin. Amen.
Today, we remember saints past and present. I hope you do so with great joy. We joy in their ability to live holy lives, we are thankful for the example they give us and we are hopeful that we can live like them. Sometimes, when we think of saints, we remember people who were persecuted. I think of saints like Stephen who was stoned to death or Perpetua who was mauled by animals in the arena, or perhaps Eric Lidell, a missionary, who died in a concentration camp in World War Two. Maybe you think of quiet, solitary people, like Catherine of Sienna who spent much of her life in a darkened room in prayer and meditation, or Dame Julian who lived her life as a recluse in Norwich. We think somehow that the life of a saint is sad, lonely or depressing. But it is not always so. Many saints were joyful, even funny. They often poked fun at themselves and their human failings.
I found some saintly humor in an article by the Reverend James Martin. In the fourth century, the famed theologian Augustine of Hippo once prayed, “Lord, give me chastity… but not yet”. A little known saint named Philip of Neri lived in the 16th century. He once shaved off half of his beard and went out in public. He said, “Christian joy is a gift from God, flowing from a good conscience”. When a young priest asked Philip what prayer would be the most appropriate to say for a couple after a wedding Mass, the future saint said, “A prayer for peace.” Here is a story about Pope John the 23rd. “the pope visited a Roman hospital called the Hospital of the Holy Spirit. Shortly after entering, he was introduced to the sister who ran the hospital.
“Holy Father,” she exclaimed, “I am the superior of the Holy Spirit.”
“Well, I must say, you’re lucky,” said the pope, delighted. “I’m only the Vicar of Christ!”
I share these stories to remind you that saints come in all types and sizes and colors and attitudes. You do not have to be persecuted to become a saint and you don’t have to live a solitary life either. You can be joyful and funny. Today is also a day to remember loved ones who have gone before us. Many of these people are just ordinary, unknown, normal people who lived their lives as part of the Jesus movement.
The scriptures for today were selected to help us focus on the lives of saints. In Revelation, we are given hope and we look forward to the glory of that heavenly kingdom. Many saints went through an ordeal just as Revelation indicates. All of us have struggles in our lives. The saints come to the throne of God and they join together in worshipping God as one unit. Someone pointed out to me the words in our collect: as followers of Jesus we are knit together in one community as members of the body of Christ. We come here to Transfiguration intertwined and connected, supporting each other and praising God together.
Revelation also offers us words of comfort. “Jesus is our shepherd, he will guide us to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Can you feel God’s presence in your life, wiping away your tears?
Comfort is offered to us in the Psalm, “those who seek the Lord lack nothing that is good. The Lord ransoms the life of his servants, and none will be punished who trust in him.”
We hear it often in scripture that we are God’s children. But I ask you today to consider those words of 1 John, all of us are God’s children. We are blessed and when we put ourselves in the hands of Jesus and follow him, we will be pure in our hearts. Our sins will be washed away.
Just as our other readings offer words of comfort so do the beatitudes. ’Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. If you are in mourning, perhaps over the loss of a loved one, this reading is for you. God blesses you and wants you to know that God is with you.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you …Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven”. If you have been attacked or maligned or feel as if the world is against you, God is ready to take you up into God’s kingdom. God cares for the saints, God cares for the followers of Jesus. Our loved ones that have gone before us are cared for by God. It is a source of comfort.
This week, I have been thinking about the various ways to consider our gospel reading of the Beatitudes. One day I found it to be comforting, another day I found it to be challenging, and one day I found it to be about God’s kingdom. Each perspective has the support of various theologians. I believe that God speaks to us in a way that we need to hear his message and that is different for every person. How is God speaking to you?
The Beatitudes challenge us to live our lives in a certain way. Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness. Just as the Good Samaritan went out of his way to help someone who had been left for dead, we may have to go beyond our normal limits, for those who have been mistreated and wronged. Blessed are the merciful. We must be sensitive to the misery that surrounds us and respond with grateful hearts. After all, we might be where the other person is if not for the blessings we have already received from God. Blessed are the meek. Meek in this case means that we are to be humble, not prideful. Blessed are the pure of heart. Now that one is virtually impossible. All of us are sinners. Yet, the more we stay away from our temptations, the more we focus on Jesus, the better are our chances. The goals are lofty and difficult to achieve. I don’t think Jesus wants us to be discouraged. It is as if Jesus wants us to follow in the path of the saints. Saints are people who made mistakes, people who sinned. We just strive to be a little better than we are today and know that God will accept us as we are.
There is one final way for you to consider these beatitudes. Jesus often turns the world upside down. These beatitudes challenge our world view. For example, our world view is that nice guys finish last. But Jesus said blessed are the meek. Isn’t Jesus asking us too reconsider what we have been taught about the meek. Our world view is that you must have a positive attitude in order to succeed. Jesus said, blessed are the poor in spirit. God’s kingdom is different than the one we encounter on earth. In God’s kingdom, the meek will inherit the earth. Our world view is that we must be stronger than everyone else so we will not be harmed. But Jesus said, Blessed are the merciful. It is just another example of how God’s kingdom will be different than what we have accepted.
Many people think we should seek power, success, fame or wealth. Jesus may be telling us that there is another way. God’s way is different. A former Lutheran professor, David Lose, wrote that this is less about a particular ethic and more about God’s in-breaking kingdom, a promise that God’s kingdom is real and transformative. David invites us to imagine that kingdom, different than the one we experience. It is not about working harder to follow the rules but more about having a new heart, ”one created by God’s own promise to continue to surprise us by who is blessed, who is loved by God”.
When we are able to set our hearts on God’s kingdom, then we no longer feel that we have lost our loved ones. Rather, we celebrate because they have come to that place where God blesses those whom we cannot bless on earth. They are not far off in our memory and love. Rather they can now shower us with love that we find difficult to understand because of how we see things on earth.
When all is said and done, I prefer that last view of the beatitudes. We should be comforted today. We should try to live our lives as each blessing suggests. But those two things are difficult to achieve. Let’s instead look forward with joyful anticipation to God’s kingdom, seeking to bring it to earth and ready to receive it when we die. Let’s celebrate with all the saints, both here on earth and there in heaven and together sing, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might
be to our God forever and ever”. Amen.