There was a lady lawyer from California whose name was Scharlette Goldman. Her legal practice consisted of defending inmates who were on death row. She was defending an inmate whom she believed was legally insane. (He was schizophrenic with an IQ of 58 and very much out of touch with reality.) She had to prove his insanity to the court to save this man’s life because it’s illegal to execute someone who is unable to understand why he is being executed. The state of California didn’t agree with Scharlette’s interpretation of the defendant and had him medically assessed. The psychiatrist testified that she believed the defendant was able to understand his fate because he’d played tic-tac-toe against her and won. Scharlette believed that one’s ability to win at tic-tac-toe did not indicate the ability to appreciate the finer points of execution. But the court agreed with the psychiatrist.
The lawyer struggled with her defense. She racked her brain trying to find a solution. Then suddenly she had an ah ha moment. She remembered visiting the fair when she was young and seeing chickens that could play and win at tic-tac-toe. She searched for and found an upstanding chicken to prove that one doesn’t need a high IQ to win at tic-tac-toe. Can you imagine a chicken being called to testify in court? Well, Goldman’s challenge was successful.
In the gospel, Nathaniel has one of those Ah ha moments. When Philip first told Nathaniel that he had found Jesus, the Messiah, Nathaniel responded with doubt, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” He didn’t think it was possible for Jesus to be the Messiah. Then Nathaniel met Jesus and Jesus told Nathaniel that he knew him before they met. Suddenly, Nathaniel’s heart was changed and he declared “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Do you remember some Ah ha moment in your life? It is a moment of sudden realization, inspiration, recognition or comprehension. Sometimes we say that a light bulb goes off in our head. I say that light bulb might come from the light of Christ.
Have you ever had a sudden realization about God or about Jesus? I remember once feeling the presence of Jesus beside me. It was a sudden realization. I have felt the crucifixion of Jesus as a personal gift to me.
I also think about times when a passage of scripture hit me suddenly and I found new inspiration. I remember questioning the legitimacy of Jesus speaking about the lilies of the field. He said why do you worry? God takes care of the lilies and God takes care of the birds. My thoughts had been negative because I felt that God hasn’t stopped hunger in this world. My moment was when I chose to consider the words about fear. Jesus told us not to fear because God was always with us. Of course, I later concluded that part of the message is the expectation by Jesus that people who have should help those who don’t. It changed my entire perspective about the passage.
Sometimes our moments of new-found inspiration come from another person. Philip shared his understanding with Nathaniel that Jesus was the Messiah. Without Philip’s witness, Nathaniel would not have seen Jesus as God. Our witness is important.
In Hebrew Scripture, we hear about the words of God that were given to Samuel. God spoke three times before Samuel heard it and it took the help of his mentor Eli for Samuel to understand that it was God speaking to him. We may miss God’s message to us if we don’t listen.
In Epiphany, we focus on Jesus as the light of the world. Our lessons for today point to Jesus bringing us the light of knowledge and truth. We use the teachings of Jesus to understand God’s wishes for us.
The light of Christ, Jesus reaches out for us, seeking to bring us out of our darkness. Let me share some thoughts from a commentary I read. John’s account of the calling of his disciples reveals the concern that Jesus has for every individual. Jesus can see the true nature of each person and offers himself in a unique way to each. Jesus approached Philip, and before this Andrew and Simon, one way. He approached Nathaniel differently. Jesus referred to Nathaniel as an Israelite in whom there is no deceit. Nathaniel was being honest in his creation and Jesus accepted and helped him to see the light. And Jesus told Nathaniel that there were more ah ha moments to come. Nathaniel would see the heavens opened.
A person’s epiphany is often unique and not something that is easily understood by others. As a child I remember the story of Archimedes. The king had a problem because people were making things out of silver, making it look like gold and charging him as if it were gold. Archimedes looked for the answer. While sitting in the bathtub, he thought about how his body displaced water. He suddenly realized that silver would displace more water than gold because it is less dense. Archimedes jumped out of the bath and ran to the king yelling Eureka, I have found it. How many people laughed with scorn when watching Archimedes run? I am sure people thought he was crazy.
And we might react in the same way to what Nathaniel experienced. What made his exchange with Jesus a moment when lights flashed in front of his eyes? It is not clear to me. I think even Jesus was a little taken back by Nathaniel. Jesus gave him a little kidding joke something like, “what did I say that got you so excited? Stick around and you will see more than that.” Jesus recognized Nathaniel as he sat under the fig tree and said some nice things about him. That doesn’t seem so special to me. It is helpful to know that some religious texts of the time would say that a person is gathering figs when what they really meant was they were seeking God, studying the Torah. Jesus was probably saying that Nathaniel was a genuine person, a sincere follower of God. Nathaniel thought the words of Jesus were special, insightful, something that could only be seen by the Son of God.
As Jesus continued to share with Nathaniel, his words seem to be directed to all believers not just one. We are followers who search for God and who proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. And Jesus responds to our efforts, proclaiming that we will experience magnificent things, that the gates of heaven will be open to us.
I believe that God is always reaching out to us, trying to touch us in our own unique place. And our response may be unique to us. I am reminded of that line from amazing grace “I once was lost but now am found”. John Newton who wrote the words Amazing Grace was found by God. Newton was at the helm of his ship ashamed of his sins when Got came to him. Newton would later write, “On that day the Lord sent from on high and delivered me out of deep waters.” It was his ah ha moment.
Not all of us will hear the voice of God speaking to us as Samuel did. None of us will have the chance to speak with Jesus during his time on earth. Some people never hear a message from God directed to them. But all of us have the opportunity to open ourselves to the power of Jesus’ words. We can all learn from the steps that Jesus took while he lived on earth. Let us search for Jesus just as he searches for us every day. Let us look for the light of Christ in our lives.
Paul wrote this so clearly in 2nd Corinthians, For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
An unknown author wrote, Let us not ask of the Lord deceitful riches, nor the good things of this world, nor transitory honors; but let us ask for light. With the light of Christ and with knowledge and strength, we become witnesses just like Philip was a witness to Nathaniel. It doesn’t take some brilliant oratory or some long discourse to be a witness. For Philip it was a few short words. We too can be witnesses. If we just let our own light shine, people will see that we love Jesus.
I believe in the power of prayer. Over and over people tell me how important it was that people prayed for them. Pray is especially important given our situation today. We struggle with peace in our country and we struggle to survive during the pandemic. Prayer will make a difference. Our collect today mentions our belief that Jesus is the light of the world. Let us pray again that God will illumine our lives through the Word and Sacraments. Let us pray again that our hearts will shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth. Amen.
When I was in college many years ago, I sang in a men’s glee club. There are about fifty men’s voices in the group. We loved to sing all kinds of music but the songs that were our favorites and the ones most remembered by the alumni were powerful and strong songs with an important message. I am sure there was a sense of masculine pride coming out in our wish to sing in a controlled and blended but louder voice. One of the songs we sang was called “The Creation”. The first words of Genesis were put to music. It began quietly and grew in volume. The song ended with the verse, And God said, Let there be light and there was light. The last word “Light” was sung with the full force of everyone in the group.
I often reflect on the personal relationship that I have with God and with Jesus because it is such an important part of our spiritual life. But in so doing, I leave out some of the other attributes of God such as Omnipresent (always with us) and Omniscient (all knowing). Today I ask you to consider another attribute of God which is omnipotent or all powerful. Our all-powerful God gave us light in a physical sense, made life possible and gave us light through the presence of Jesus, our Savior.
Our first reading takes us back to the beginning, as we read the first words in Scripture. I love the images we are given in the Bible and I ask you to close your eyes and imagine that you were there when God created the heavens and the earth. In our translation it says that the earth was a formless void, a mass of uncertain dimensions. And on the surface of this strange mass was a darkness. One translation indicates that the earth was covered by a raging ocean that kept everything in total darkness. And God decided it was time for life on earth. God said Let there be light and boom, there was light over the earth. Can you feel and maybe see in your mind’s eye the power of God’s mighty hand creating Light? Forty years ago, Mount Saint Helens exploded. The explosion leveled millions of trees, killed 57 people and impacted people hundreds of miles away. If that explosion was impactful, it is hard for me to imagine what the creation was like, how powerful it was.
As someone who believes that evolution took many years, that things didn’t happened suddenly I have wondered if God’s creation may not have been so immediate. But in the last few years, astronomers have given us amazing pictures of things going on in the Universe, like a massive black hole swallowing a star. Incredible things can happen quickly. Perhaps God’s light came all at once onto the earth. All through the power of God.
This is the God I ask you to consider today. God created light. God created order out of chaos. God’s light shines and all things make sense. God’s light creates order.
The power of God continues in our readings today. Let’s go forward to the gospel. John the Baptist is out in the wilderness with the locusts and the wild bushes and walking around in a strange outfit. God chose the wilderness as the place for Jesus to be baptized. It was another case of God bringing order to the wildness of the earth. It wasn’t just a quiet little event either. We may think that the dove descending upon Jesus was a quiet event but that is not what Scripture says. It says that the heavens were torn apart. God may come to us in the stillness of a quiet sunset, but God can also come to us in the majesty of the mountain or the power of an earthquake. God is present in powerful ways.
How quickly we have moved from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The baptism of Jesus occurred when he was an adult and is one of the early stories of his public ministry. Jesus’ baptism was a declaration, God jolts us into the importance of Jesus’ life on earth. Jesus declares that he is one with God, that he will bring God’s kingdom to earth. It is a time to remember our own baptism and what it means to our life.
My own baptism happened when I was still a baby. I have seen pictures, but I remember nothing. At a baptism the child is usually dressed in white and everyone else has smiles. The water usually is sprinkled on the baby’s head. All those nice surroundings may cause us to miss the point. For baptism is our commitment to God. We enter into a covenant, an agreement to be one of God’s children. Some faith traditions actually have a baptism with full immersion in the water. The idea is that all of our sins are washed away. I like the significance of the physical act of immersion. Everything about us is making a commitment to God. It is powerful just like the baptism of Jesus. Perhaps you can imagine putting your entire body including your head under water and coming out into the light of Christ, being changed by God’s awesome power and grace and love.
When we were baptized, we were changed, I like to say we were transformed. Because we opened our hearts to God, we allowed the light of Christ to enter into us. God is with us and in us. However your baptism occurred, whether you remember it or not, I ask you today to reaffirm your covenantal relationship with Jesus. We will once more make those promises again right after this sermon.
Scripture is filled with stories about God’s covenantal relationship with humans. As Christians, we are thankful for the covenants between God and Noah, Abraham and Moses, but we focus on the new covenant based on the coming of Jesus Christ. Each time we experience a communion service the priest lifts the chalice and says, “This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus brings us into a new relationship with God and offers us forgiveness for the sins we have committed.
In today’s world we think of the covenant that is reached when two people come together in marriage. They agree to live together in good times and bad, supporting each other for whatever comes. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, offered this perspective of marriage, “Marriage has a unique place because it speaks of an absolute faithfulness, a covenant between radically different persons, male and female; and so it echoes the absolute covenant of God with his chosen, a covenant between radically different partners.”
Today, as we listen to the story of Jesus’ baptism and remember our own baptism, I ask you to reflect on your relationship with God. Is it one of absolute faithfulness? Do you remember our promise to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior? Are you committed to put your whole trust in his grace and love? Are you ready to renew that commitment again?
The other day, a group of us were speaking about the three most important virtues of faith, hope and love. This individual said that love and hope have been inconsistent experiences in life, but faith has always been present. It is the rock of that person’s relationship with God.
Commitment is a hard thing and we know of many examples of people who have struggled with it. I think of times when a repair person has promised to show up at a certain time but doesn’t. I am sure that you have your own stories of commitments made but not completed. As a priest, I receive commitments from people all of the time. Some say they are going to attend church here but never show up. I have become jaded by talk without action, no longer expecting people to do what they say.
But I trust in God. We understand that the commitment we make to follow Jesus is a hard one to live up to all of the time. That is why we come together in community. We seek to support each other as followers of Christ, hoping that our joint efforts will make it easier to stick to our commitment.
In a covenant relationship, each party gives something to the other. Our baptism is not just about what we commit to but about the promise that God makes to each of us. In the water of baptism, we are cleansed from all of our sins, we are washed in the glory of Jesus and we become one with him. We receive God’s grace, and God’s love and yes, even God’s power and might.
The theme for Epiphany is the light of Christ. It is a statement about the coming of Jesus, for he brought God’s light into our world. During the season of Epiphany, I will ask you in many different ways how that light has impacted you. But today, I wish that you would remember that at the creation, God brought light to bring order to chaos. God’s light calmed the violent waters of the world.
In our baptism, Jesus and the Holy Spirit bring order to our life. Our lives are grounded, they give us guidance and help us to find our way. It is not the same cataclysmic event as that described in Genesis, but it is a dramatic shift in our lives. May you feel the presence of God transforming you and may the light of Christ keep you on the path of peace. Amen.
We all agree that we enjoy adhering to the Church’s liturgical calendar. However, I am always amazed at this time of the year, when I realize that little over a week ago, we all thought adoringly of that precious baby, warmly wrapped and lying in the manger, under the watchful care of His mother, Mary, and Joseph.
In today’s lectionary, somehow, that precocious infant has climbed out of the manger and gone off on a road trip with Mommy and Daddy, AND, has somehow become 12 years old, and made an independent decision to hang out in the Temple at Jerusalem – without conferring with His parents. All parents know exactly how Mary and Joseph MUST have felt upon discovering their Child’s absence. And we can relate to the mixture of grateful thanksgiving, and parental exasperation with which this blessed couple greeted their beloved child.
I imagine that Jesus’ rather flippant “Why were you looking for ME?? I’m where I‘m supposed to be” must have pained His folks. But the Creator God, present in the Incarnate Christ, understands the worried parents’ troubled minds and hearts, and we are assured that the Child returns home with His parents, and behaves as they expected. And our Savior makes good use of His time, and “increases in wisdom,…and in favour with God and humanity.
I pray that in this increasingly difficult time, with so much sickness, pain, loss, sorrow, and deprivation, we, too, may choose, as did our Lord, to grow in wisdom, and learn all that God desires to teach us, that we begin to understand that unless we open our eyes to the conditions afflicting those around us, we cannot hope to be safe, to be comfortable, to be healthy; nor can we assure for our children and ourselves the peace for which we long, and for which we so frequently pray. No peace comes out of ignorance of the needs of our sisters and brothers. There is no true well-being for any of us to be derived from the depravation and suffering of others. Actually, there NEVER has been. But many delude themselves that they have no responsibility for all that our God creates. Unfortunately, that has always been a familiar response, despite God’s many and varied warnings through Scripture, Prophecy, and the Incarnation.
The prophet Jeremiah tells us that our God says to us, “I will lead them back, and let them walk in a straight path in which they shall not stumble.” SEE! Our God promises to ENABLE us to BE, and to live as God teaches! Christ assures us of God’s AMAZING love, in that when we turn to our Lord for help, we are met, BY GOD, with God’s love and provision for us. We CAN be that which will enable us to live in complete confidence of God’s love, understanding, and care for us.
We have lamented now, for many months, being unable to meet together in the beloved fellowship of our parish family. With the Psalmist, OUR souls have “desire and longing for the courts of the Lord!” We long for the beloved fellowship, we yearn to sing the music that has healed our hearts for decades. A few months ago, around Easter, when our hearts ached for our familiar liturgy, music, and for one another, I began to think of the fellowship shared by our Lord Christ and His ‘homies,’ the Disciples. Whether, as so often, in the Synagogue, the Temple in Jerusalem, or in the surrounding countryside, wherever they found themselves, they engaged in a constant process of worship and love for Our Lord, and for one another, much as we dearly love to do when we are able to gather, wherever THAT may be. And I began, then, to imagine what grief, sorrow, and pain was that time for our Disciples. Not just the horrifying Crucifixion, the amazing, joyous resurrection, but also the Accension, and it’s aftermath. Jesus’ followers worshiped with Him openly, but as those numbers grew, the attention of the government increased. And so those early Christians began to find it necessary to hide their worship, to meet where they hoped NOT to be detected. In private homes, in caves, and even in catacombs, isolated places set aside for human burial. The joy and delight they had celebrated in Jesus’ presence had to become a secret practice, and ultimately, for many, the cost of their faith was their lives here on Earth.
As much as we miss our familiar, inspiring and comforting worship and fellowship, I think it would benefit us to look at the result of THEIR faith commitment, to see whether there is a blessing for us in the example of these early Christians. On an immediate basis, they became, of necessity, EXTREMELY creative in their choices of places to meet. I doubt they encounted masks, or social distancing, but they, too were removed from their comfort zones. In our lexicon of saints, which we celebrate on All Saints, All Souls, and specific saints’ days, we have a GLORIOUS heritage of courage and faith, left us by those early Christians. So enamored of Christ, and so concerned for all creation were they, that many gave up the lives they had led to seek God’s children wherever they might find them. To assure them of the Good News of God’s Gospel of Love. We do, indeed have a ‘goodly,’ and rich heritage from those of God’s worshipers who have gone before us. Perhaps we are called, NOW to emulate such faith and courage, so that those who follow us may find their faith still and forever on that firm foundation of God’s amazing Love!
In the past months, I expect that you have heard, as have I, from so very many people, that “Change is constant.” Thus far I have been able to stifle the impulse to say, “Thank you, Capt. Obvious, for that observation. I do hope, and intend, to keep that response to myself, because I believe it just may be that our Lord calls US to embrace the very change we instinctively resist, and against which we struggle. After all, while change solely for the sake of change is often a less than well thought-out waste of time and energy, we need to recognize that change may well be a vehicle of growth and improvement. Change may lead us into relationships that enrich our lives. If we can learn to evaluate change for it’s possible benefit to humanity, to hope that change may implement justice, without which, we cannot hope for peace, to search for what God is doing, no matter the inconvenience of change, to remember that our God is NEVER wrong, that though we may not know WHAT our God is doing, we assuredly DO know that it is RIGHT, and that GOOD comes from all that God intends and brings into being. If we can approach even PRESENT times of trouble and suffering with the grace that our God WILL bestow, if we but ask, might it not be that WE, like those early followers of JESUS, could take what has been given us through God’s grace and the faith of our predecessors to strengthen that faith we CHERISH. We might remind ourselves of Tevye, in “Fiddler on the Roof, when he says, “God expects us to be joyful, even when our hearts lie beating on the floor.” Folks, in human history there have ALWAYS been times of hardship and trouble, through which our God ALWAYS triumphs.
MAYBE, if can learn to tolerate, and perhaps even embrace these difficult times of change, we, too, might “grow in wisdom” as did that clever baby Jesus, and live, as Paul says, in the hope to which God calls us! THANKS BE TO GOD!
In T.S. Eliot’s poem, Journey of the Magi, one of the three kings from the East says: “We returned to our places, these kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods.” In many cases the Magi are pictured as restless men, unwilling to settle down into the routine of their former lives. William Butler Yeats describes them as he sees them in his mind’s eye: “the pale unsatisfied ones, in their stiff, painted clothes, who appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky.” For the Magi, there had to come a time when they would be “moving on,” so to speak. They knew that the great events of life do not usually last for ever or even for very long. No matter how exhilarating an experience they were having in Bethlehem, they realized that they could not remain there indefinitely. For one thing, Herod knew where they were. He had asked them to find the young child and bring him word, so that he, too, could go and worship him.But St. Matthew tells us that “being warned by God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.”We heard in this morning’s gospel that Joseph and Mary were warned in a dream to take their newborn child and travel to Egypt in order to avoid Herod’s wrath. After Herod’s death, another angel came to them and encouraged them to return to the land of Israel. But, fearing Herod’s son, Archelaus, they chose not to return to Bethlehem, but to go to Nazareth in Galilee instead. One of the fundamental truths regarding our life and our relationship to God is contained in this part of the Christmas story. Many of us manage to miss it most of the time. It is that God calls us out and sends us back into life, but he doesn’t always send us back to the same place. The implication in the story of the Magi is that they returned home by another route because they were now different people; their lives had been changed. In both stories, angels appear in dreams to bring about the changes that occur. For that reason, I would like to reflect with you briefly this morning upon dreams, upon returning, and upon God’s presence.A horse-betting man once had a strange dream. He dreamt about hats - dozens and dozens of hats floating in space. As a horse player, the man thought his dream might be symbolic - especially when he noticed that one of the horses running in the next race was named “Hatfield.” So he placed a bet on this filly and she came in first! "Derby” was running in the second race, so the man took all his earnings from the first race and placed them on “Derby.” And sure enough, “Derby” came in first! There was a horse named “Stetson” in the third race. “So,” said the man, “I placed everything on ‘Stetson’ and he came in first.” “What happened in the fourth race?” a friend asked. “By this time I was feeling quite lucky so I bet all I had previously won plus $1,000 on a horse named ‘Blue Streak’ since I saw no horse with a hat name. I lost everything! Some horse named ‘Yarmulka’ took the field.”An expert on dreams appeared on a television program a few weeks ago. She testified that we think of many things in our dreams because our brains are actively working then, even though the rest of our bodies are not. This is a modern day explanation for what happens in our sleep. Dreams may also be a way of coming to understand our past. We certainly don’t use them anymore to predict our gambling future or to account for messages from God. However, in all fairness to the Bible, I think we can say that the language of dreams was a way people had of expressing the conviction that they had a vision of God which influenced their lives. They had acquired a new kind of wisdom or insight into life because of having found God in their day- to-day secular world.And so it is with many of us modern-day Christians. We have been to Bethlehem this past Christmastide, and like the Wise Men, we, too, are “on our way back,” you might say. But it is different this year. There has been a damper on things. We most likely did not have our traditional festivities of gift-giving, holiday merry-making and entertainment, and goodwill because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We will not immediately be going back to our normal work-a-day world of competition, big business, the false security of social position, glamour of notoriety, and other things that we seek to build around ourselves, to inflate our own egos. At least not for the moment, that is. Hopefully, once we, or most of us, are vaccinated, in time things will return to normal, and even then it will be a “new normal,” as the medical and scientific communities remind us. And if we are restless and unsatisfied after what we have been through this past year, with so much, sickness and death and displacement, then things will look different to us. And if Christmas has meant anything to us this year, as we hope it does every year, then that is all the more reason why things will look different to us. For once we have been to the manger, no matter what else is happening to us in the world around us, then our return to our worldly kingdoms, and to an alien people clutching their gods, will look different to us. For everything — world, home, church, school, business — and especially our way of looking at them, will be different. If it does not, there is cause for concern.The Wise Men returned home another way because they realized that violent, self-serving power, like Herod’s, only spelled out destruction for themselves and for others. Mary and Joseph returned to a different place because they realized that fear and its consequences were no atmosphere in which to raise a child. God sends you and me back, but not the same way, not to the same place, especially not this time. Hopefully, this Christmas, and during this pandemic, you and I have had a vision, however momentary, of God in our lives, a clue as to the meaning of all life. Hopefully, we have seen the power of love, the beauty of goodness, in the self-sacrificing actions of doctors, nurses, scientists, first responders, police, firefighters, store owners, food suppliers, postal employees, sanitation workers, and countless others who have sought to keep the world around us running. Hopefully, we have witnessed the liberating effect of God’s judgment and forgiveness, and all false pride and deceit has been swept away in its face.God calls us out and sends us back, not only at Christmas, but at other times as well, and especially at this time in our life together as a nation and a global community. Some time ago, I supported a young woman in her decision to spend some time at a nearby convent to sort things out in her mind and to get away from her normal routine in life for awhile. Occasional retreats, withdrawal for prayer, rest, and self-examination are all part of God’s way of forming the whole person you and I were meant to be. If you have been out of a job for awhile, or been away at school, or laid up with an injury or an illness, or acting as a caregiver for the sick and elderly, or simply staying sheltered at home to avoid spreading the COVID virus, these are all ways God has of calling us out of the mainstream of life for awhile. They may be ways of providing us with the opportunity for a deeper vision, a clearer insight into the nature of God’s activity in the world, and his purposes for us. For when he sends us back, it is not always to the same place and in the same way. The world has changed and so have we. Things look differently through our eyes afterwards, after any length of time removed or away; we are not the same people anymore.The message that God conveys to us at Christmas, or at any other time that he calls us out and sends us back into life, is that through Him we are no longer slaves, but his children. In the words of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: “God chose us before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children, according to the good pleasure of his will.” That is the “good news” as we begin our New Year of 2021, and face once more the challenges of recession, poverty, war, politics, healthcare, recovery from illness, and the education of our youth. The Good News is that God has placed his might and his strength on our side; the power of slavery in our life has been broken; he has offered freedom to those who have become prisoners of life. He has called us out, and He sends us back into the world, but he sends us back with a new outlook, with new strength, with new faith, to do his will. We can call him, “Abba,” Father, because we have become his children by adoption and grace.And because we are his children, we know that he is always with us. God may call us out and send us back, time and time again in life, but no matter where he sends us back and in whatever way, no matter how restless, and how unsatisfied we may be, we take our hope from the knowledge that he is always with us.There is a familiar story about a French soldier who returned from war suffering from amnesia. Alighting from the train at a station, he wandered around aimlessly, saying aloud over and over again, “Who am I? Whose am I?” He was put in touch with local authorities who sought to find the answers to his questions. Because his face was so badly disfigured, three families in three different towns claimed him as their own. So he was taken to the towns where the first two families lived and allowed to wander about on his own. Nothing happened. But as he entered the third village, recognition lit up his face. He walked unhesitatingly down an avenue, turned into a side street, walked through a little gate, and up the front steps to his home. The old familiar surroundings had renewed his memory. In a sense, they had helped him to come to himself. He knew from that moment on who he was and whose he was.How like amnesia victims we all feel from time to time: the pressure of the world; the tensions in our lives; the sadness and cruelty all around; the endless routine that stifles. Sometimes we have to stop and ask, “What is it all about? Does someone care? Where do I belong?” Then Christmas comes, and the old familiar story of a manger and a family and a baby is read again. And suddenly the pathway is familiar, the landmarks friendly, and we come to ourselves and feel at home again. This is familiar. We have been here before — and before that as many times as we can remember.But it is familiar because of Him, as well as because of the story and the place. Once more standing in the old place, we sense the overtones of His life, His faith, His demonstrated purpose of life, His sonship. And we remember the time when we first sensed all this about Him. And the time we first felt the claim of His life making sense in our own. And then all those busy things seep in to interrupt and crowd and claim us. And the old questions grow tall again to haunt us. But we now know that there is a difference. We go back having sensed his Presence, and having felt his Spirit touch our spirit, and we now know that He is with us, and that is the difference.Those of you who have read the book The Hiding Place, know that its author is a Dutch woman by the name of Corrie ten Boom. The book, and later a movie by the same name, chronicles the lives of the ten Boom family, who established a hiding place for Jewish refugees in their home during World War II. For this act they themselves were betrayed and imprisoned by the Nazis. The story is one that describes the trials, courage, and witness of those who lived and died in the concentration camps. The author, Corrie ten Boom, has to struggle with the claims of the Lord’s Christ upon her life in the midst of that horrible situation, where it is hard to believe that any love could have existed. At one point in the book, Corrie finds herself thinking about what she could do to her captors. The naked struggle between hate and love is visible in her soul, from which derives the paradoxical title of the book. There is no hiding place from the Lord.God sends us back into the world. The going back is never easy. It may make us, like the Wise Men, restless and unsatisfied. It is rarely to the same place from which we began. But remember, wherever you go, whatever you experience, He is there. There is no hiding place from the Lord. The good news of this Christmas season is that we are able to know who we are and whose we are because God has adopted us “as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.”Amen.
Help us today to put aside all of the worldly issues that we bring to this place and help us to turn our hearts and minds to you.
All babies are special. I love to watch a baby sleeping. They look so peaceful and so relaxed. Babies are innocent, not yet affected by the good and the bad of the world. Their skin is so soft and smooth. There is a sense of purity when you see a baby and I am drawn into that world of newness and purity. Babies are so needy and I want to protect them in their need They feel so wonderful when you get to hold them. Every child is a miracle.
This evening, we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus. Jesus was a baby just like many others. I am sure that the shepherds who came and visited thought about his innocence and purity. Maybe one of them even asked if he could hold him. The birth of Jesus was as normal as another child’s birth and yet very special for us. For we know that Jesus is God come to earth. We call it the Incarnation, the time when God took on a bodily form and became human. I often wonder how it is possible for Jesus to be both human and divine at the same time. Is there a way to know whether something Jesus did was a part of his humanity or a part of his divinity? Or I am just trying too hard to find a logical answer for something that humans cannot easily explain. There are many characteristics of Jesus that are certainly divine. Isaiah spoke about the Messiah as the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”.
In the Advent Hymn, O Come O Come Emmanuel, we sing about the gifts that Jesus brought with him to earth. It all begins with the word Emmanuel, which means God with us. What a blessing, what a gift, God is here for us. In that hymn, Jesus is called a shoot from Jesse’s tree. Jesus can trace his story all the way back to the father of King David. Jesus brings with him the entire history of the Jewish community, the relationship that the community had with God from the earliest times in human history. Jesus also brought new life and a new relationship, a new growth from that tree of Jesse.
Jesus is called the wisdom of God for everyone on earth. He used that gift to teach us in how to follow God. The wisdom of Jesus guides us and all of creation. The wisdom of God gives us strength to deal with all the challenges we encounter. Jesus brings us the keys to heaven. Jesus is the one who opens the gates of heaven for us. Jesus is the one who forgives our sins. Jesus brings the eternal light of God into our lives. Isaiah wrote about what that light has given us. The light of God increases our joy and deals with our enemies. For the yoke of our burden, and the bar across our shoulders, the rod of our oppressor, God has broken. God wipes away the tears, the anxiety and hurt that we sometimes feel. Jesus puts the light of God in us so we can share it with others.
The birth of Jesus brought us so many gifts including the gifts of grace and mercy. Of the many gifts Jesus gave us through his birth, this Christmas I am most moved by the gift of God’s love It began last Sunday when we lit the candle of love, and I have been feeling God’s love all this week. I recall the words we used when lighting the Advent Candle “God's love is a perfect love. It holds nothing back." God, in love, gives us everything we need to live a life of hope and peace. The bible says that "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life." Jesus shows us God's perfect love. Jesus brings us God's love and shows us how to love others.”
God’s love has been described in many ways throughout Scripture and through the writings of famous theologians. One of my favorites is a poem that was written by a nineteenth century English poet whose name was Christina Rossetti. Rosseti had a strong Christian faith that was often an inspiration for her poetry. She authored two well-known poems used at Christmas.
I like the poem called Love Came down at Christmas. It became a popular source for composers and many wrote music for this poem. My favorite musical version is the one composed by John Rutter. The theme is clear because 8 of the 12 lines start with the word love. But this poem is not about love between two humans. It is about God’s love for all people. Here is the first verse.
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.
Rossetti used the word love instead of the name Jesus. Jesus is love. Jesus brings God’s love. God came to be with us one Christmas. The child was both lovely and divine at the same time. It was the angels who let us know that God had arrived. Here is the second verse
Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?
We worship Jesus, because of all that he brought us. We worship all three persons of the Trinity, the Godhead. How will we show our praise for God?
The final verse gives us the answer
Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
God’s divine love is a key to our life, it is important that we accept that love. God’s love is given to everyone. It is a gift that we have been given and a gift that we should give to others. Rossetti has invited us to realize and reflect on the importance of God’s divine love being so strong that God decided to come to earth to live among us.
We sometimes think that we are unloveable or that God will never forgive us and take us back. We sometimes think that others are so much better than we are. But that is not how God thinks. Saint Augustine said it best, “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” Out of the billions of people who have lived on earth, you’re the most important person to God.
Sometimes we think that God might change God’s relationship with us based on how we behave. C. S. Lewis would suggest just the opposite, “Though our feelings come and go, God's love for us does not.” God’s love never ends.
Rossetti wrote another poem that has become a Christmas hymn called In the Bleak Midwinter. This poem focuses on the birth of Jesus. One of the lines in this poem goes like this,
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
I have this image of Jesus bursting forth from heaven, that heaven could not hold him from us. The love that Jesus brought to us cannot be held in heaven alone. Let us carry this image with us.
Rossetti reminded us that when Jesus returns for the second time that the separation between heaven and earth will no longer exist. It will be beautiful. Rossetti calls us to action in this poem. In the first poem, Love Came Down at Christmas, we are called to love one another. In this poem, while the shepherd gave a lamb and the wise man gave gold, frankincense and myrrh, we are asked to give Jesus our heart. There is no greater gift that we can give to Jesus.
The year 2020 has been difficult for everyone I know. Many of us have lost loved ones. People have gotten sick and struggled to find care and to recover. People have lost their jobs and find it impossible to pay for the simple daily needs like food, clothing and housing. People have missed times to share with their families. We are often isolated from others. It has been hard to worship together and to stay together as a faith community. On this Christmas, I hope that you will personally feel the many gifs that you receive from God. Which of the gifts is most special to you this Christmas? May this coming of Jesus give you strength and hope. May you feel God’s peace and comfort because we know that God loves us. Let us all pray that the year 2021 offers us a new opportunity and that we enter 2021 knowing that God is with us always. Amen.
There was a man who had worked all his life, had saved all of his money, and was a real "miser" when it came to his money. You might say that he was the ultimate hoarder. Just before he died, he said to his wife..."When I die, I want you to take all my money and put it in the casket with me. I want to take my money to the afterlife with me." And so he got his wife to promise him, with all of her heart, that when he died, she would put all of the money into the casket with him.
Well, he died. He was stretched out in the casket, his wife was sitting there - dressed in black, and her friend was sitting next to her. When they finished the ceremony, and just before the undertakers got ready to close the casket, the wife said, "Wait just a moment!" She had a small metal box with her; she came over with the box and put it in the casket. Then the undertakers locked the casket down and they rolled it away. So her friend said, “I know you were not fool enough to put all that money in there with your husband." The loyal wife replied, "Listen, I cannot go back on my word. I promised him that I was going to put that money into the casket with him." You mean to tell me you put that money in the casket with him!?!?!?" "I sure did," said the wife. "I got it all together, put it into my account, and wrote him a check.... If he can cash it, then he can spend it.” I suppose you could say that the wife fulfilled her promise and obeyed her husband’s request, but perhaps not exactly the way that he meant for her to do so.
In today’s Scripture, we are reminded of God’s faithfulness. God has and will keep the promise to be with us always. God will love each and every one of us. In response, we are faithful to God. We choose to obey God’s wishes. The story about David in the book of 2 Samuel is an example of faith and trust. God lived up to the promise to watch over the Hebrew people. God cared for David, took him out of the farm, helped him to become king, provided a country and a house for David. We know that King David made many mistakes and sinned. But he always was faithful to God. As a faithful servant, David wanted to provide a permanent house for the Ark of the Covenant. But God was not looking for a physical space. God wanted the people to offer praise and glory, to follow his commands. So, King David listened to the prophet Nathan and did not build a shrine to God. The Ark remained in the tent. David was God’s obedient servant.David wanted a house for God. God wanted a home for God’s people. It reminds me of the Christmas song, I’ll be home for Christmas” The singer did not want to arrive at a particular place but rather wanted to see some special people. Everyone is important to God. God welcomes us home when we respond to his faithfulness with our own faith in God.
The psalm also relates the story of God’s promise, “I am persuaded that your love is established for ever; you have set your faithfulness firmly in the heavens.” The words may have been written originally about the reign of King David, but they speak to us as well. As we wait for the coming of Jesus one more time, let us not forget that God is always with us. We have reached the point where we cannot wait for the vaccine to be distributed to all people. Let us be comforted as we wait by the presence of God in our lives. God is faithful to us, let us be faithful to God. Let us respond with the words of the Psalm, “My faithfulness and love shall be with him”.
Today, I am thankful for the gospel of Luke. For Luke told stories about what happened before Jesus was born. In the telling of these stories we hear of God’s gifts to the people and incredible journeys of faith and trust and obedience to God’s wishes. Luke told us about Elizabeth and Zechariah. They were both faithful to God. Zechariah was surprised when an angel appeared and told him that he would have a son. He was so surprised that at first he did not believe. The angel told him he would be unable to speak because of his doubt. Later, after his son was born and they brought him to be circumcised, the couple planned to name the child Zechariah after his father, but Elizabeth said he would be called John. When Zechariah wrote that his name was John, he received his voice back. That is when Luke shared the proclamation of Zechariah, praising God, predicting the birth of a mighty savior and foretelling that John would be the prophet of the most high. Trust in God brought a son. Elizabeth’s faith gave the child the name John and Zechariah demonstrated obedience.
Luke also tells us about the visit of the Angel Gabriel to tell Mary that she will bear a son. At first, Mary is afraid that she has received such a visit and she is uncertain how it is possible that she will bear a son. But after all is explained to her she accepts the word of God that has been given to her. “Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” I think about so many important figures in Scripture who responded to God’s call with statements like I am not good enough or I couldn’t do that. Not Mary. How quickly she accepted. Her faith was strong. Her trust was complete. Her obedience was total. This is not a half-hearted statement. It doesn’t come out like OK if you say so. No, it is a positive acceptance. Yes, I am ready and I will do what you have asked.
A group of us are using a book called “Come Thou Long expected Jesus” as our Advent study. We talk about our yearning for Jesus to come. This week, as we reflected on the angel’s visit, we were reminded that Mary had a choice. God gave Mary free will and God will respect human freedom. The author of our book wrote about the universal desire for God to come. “All creation groaned for this moment and now awaits the virgin’s response” he wrote. When Mary said yes, great joy broke out. Even now, we are thankful that Jesus will come.
This passage about Mary is also about God. “God is here portrayed as a God of grace and power.” Grace fills the story because God is sending a gift to the world. Gift is the correct word because all of the conditions of human action and achievement are absent. We remember the Scripture passage, “This is the Lord’s doing”. We realize just as Mary stated, “Nothing is impossible with God.
Some think about faith as a set of beliefs or a group understanding about how we experience God. But our book study group spoke about faith as personal and intimate. It is about our own individual relationship with God. When faith is a personal thing, we realize that trust in God is not just about the big things. Obedience to God is not about letting go of the so called “Big” sins. It is about what we do every day. Each day we have the chance to show our obedience.
Today, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we lit the candle of Love. We anticipate the coming of Jesus. It is so close. We have waited for a while now. We know that Jesus came to be among us as a sign of God’s love. And Jesus loved us and gave himself for us. God is faithful to us. God has given us grace and mercy. And God can be relied on to be with us always. It is out of this love from God that we are able to respond with faith and trust and obedience. It is in response to God’s faithfulness that we are faithful.
C.S.Lewis said it this way, “The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us; just as the roof of a sunhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it.” We have only a few days before Christmas. On Christmas day, we remember that God fulfilled a promise and sent his son, the Messiah, to earth. It was and is a gift of love. Let us be thankful for that gift and prepare ourselves for his coming with our faith and obedience. Amen.
The early days of World War II were very difficult for the people of Great Britain. Bombs were falling on their cities and the people were unsure of what the future would be like. They turned to Winston Churchill for strength. Churchill was committed and persistent. He would say, “we will never, never, never give in. Others looked to God for strength. A gentleman named James Dillet Freeman wrote a prayer that was intended to be used by people who were threatened by the conflict. His final product is called a prayer for protection. Now Freeman was not a part of an organized religion but his Christian faith comes through in this short prayer. He wrote,
The light of God surrounds us;
The love of God enfolds us;
The power of God protects us;
The presence of God watches over us;
Wherever we are, God is!
What I especially like about this prayer is the image that the light of God is like a cloak that is all around us, giving us protection.
Light is a key image of our scripture for today. In the gospel we are told that John the Baptist came to testify to the light so that all might believe through him. This is the second week in a row that we read the story of John the Baptist. Last week we heard the story from the Gospel of Mark. Today we hear the story from the Gospel of John. There are similarities in the proclamation that we are to repent and prepare for the coming of Jesus and the importance of Baptism. But this passage also focuses on the role that John played and especially in John’s understanding of what he was called to do. Today, let us consider our calling to live in the light and also about what God might be calling us to do this year.
The call to live in the light comes from John and others. Jesus, himself said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” We follow the light of Jesus because Jesus himself offered it to us.
We also find our call in the 2nd letter to the Corinthians. “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” We learn about God through Jesus.
Peter Abelard, the twelfth century theologian, said it this way, “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 God”. With light comes an understanding of God’s love.
What does it mean to be in the light of Christ? Light can be different from one day to the next, it changes what we see. I always look at the Superstition mountains each day. In the early morning when the sun is just coming up, the Superstitions look so dark, foreboding and so rough. In the evening when the sun shines on them we see the details with the mountains looking bright and inviting. Sometimes, the mountains stand out as the sun seems to shine just on them while the surrounding valley is cloaked in darkness.
The different kinds of light change and light affects us in different ways as we encounter it. Watching a candle flame is an interesting experience. The light flickers and you can see different colors. The wick and the wax are constantly interacting in fascinating ways.
Just as light changes things around us change. The Light of Jesus Christ may impact us in different ways as well.
- The light of Christ brings us a knowledge of God that we cannot have without Jesus.
- The light of Christ helps us to be humble and to live in better relationship with each other.
- The light of Christ helps us to see the needs of others and to reach out to help.
- The light of Christ helps us to find peace.
- The light of Christ helps us to accept the forgiveness that Jesus offers and to help us forgive others.
- We often see the light of Christ exhibited by others and it help us to live a life in the light.
John the Baptist must have been a very charismatic person. Many people came out into the desert to listen to his words and to follow his encouragement. He must have been well known throughout the Jewish community. So much so that priests and Levites came out to see him, presumably at the direction of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. I wonder if they were trying to trick him. Their questions suggested that some people wanted him to be something that he wasn’t. I am not the Messiah, I am not Elijah, I am not a prophet. Well then, who are you? They asked. I am just a voice calling people to prepare for the coming of the Lord. I baptize people with water as a sign of their repentance and their commitment to God. But someone will come who baptizes people in the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist was very clear about what he was called to be. He came to testify to the light.
Today, we heard the words of the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of reflection when she visited Elizabeth. It comes soon after the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would bear a son, Jesus. Her response at that time was, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ The Magnificat continues Mary’s commitment to God’s call. She said I am blessed by God. God has done great things for me. I believe that God will do great things for us and I will be part of that.
Each of us has his or her own call and each call is different. Our call is not as well known or public as the calls that John the Baptist and Mary received. We may not know our call so clearly. God may call and we may not listen. Perhaps we do not expect the Lord to be concerned with us. Or we may refuse to recognize the call that we have is from God. But each call is important. John the Baptist was a witness to the light of Christ. We too can be witnesses. Being a witness can be difficult. We believe in Jesus and sometimes when you believe in something so deeply it makes it even more difficult to find the words to share with other people. I wonder if we sometimes put too much pressure on ourselves to say the right thing. Maybe it is just as simple as saying, I believe that Jesus is the Light of the World. Please come and see what you think.
Our call may be as simple as letting the light of Christ shine through us and sharing it with others. We find that message in the Acts of the Apostles, “For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” Acts 13:47 We have the light of Christ in us and we should share it with others. The Light of Christ can penetrate even the places where people are mean to each other or fight with each other. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about how the light of Christ can change. He said,
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Mother Teresa spoke about why we are to bring the light of Christ to this world,
“We need to give Christ a chance to make use of us, to be His word and His work, to share His food and His clothing in the world today. If we do not radiate the light of Christ around us, the sins of the darkness that prevails in the world will increase”.
Now, more than ever there is a feeling of darkness that has descended upon us. It is a time of fear and uncertainty. Many people find it difficult to be joyful, to be positive when there is so much sickness all around us. I have entered into that space at times as well. This week has been a struggle for Jan and I. We lost our brother-in-law to Covid-19 and we know of others that are sick. I struggle with how I can keep the doors of the church open when there are so many cases in our state. That is why we are called to bring light to the world. If we can just bring a sense of peace and comfort, a sense of hope, then we are giving the light of Christ to others.
My friends, let us open our hearts to let the light of Christ inside. Let us allow the light of Christ to be a part of everything we do so that others will see that light shining through us. What a gift to give this Christmas. Amen.
The very first words of Handel’s Messiah are sung by a single voice, “Comfort ye, comfort ye. My people, saith your God”. It is both strong and soothing. Just as the strong words of comfortbegin the Messiah, those same words are the beginning of our lessons. We are at the beginning of a new liturgical year and many can’t wait for the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021.
I believe this summary accurately describes our situation. “Public health experts are warning us that we can expect a hard winter ahead, with a pandemic largely out of control in the United States and surging in many other parts of the world. Thanks to the heroic efforts of scientists, there are effective vaccines in the works, but it will be several months before they are widely available. And people are suffering from fatigue, fear, and loneliness”.
In the midst of other problems, it has been a hard two weeks for us. We have not been able to gather in the church. During the time we were away, the season of Advent began. Advent, of course, means coming. We anticipate the coming of Jesus. It happened once a long time ago when the tiny baby was born in Bethlehem. While the shepherds and the wise men may have found great joy in the birth of Jesus, the rest of the world took little notice. Now we prepare once more for the coming of Jesus even as we know that Jesus is already with us now and always.
We also look forward to the second coming of Jesus. We think about a time in the future when Jesus will come again and the earth will change dramatically. Jesus will usher in a new kingdom of heaven. A kingdom come to earth. We think that when that happens all of our troubles will go away.
During Advent we anxiously wait for the coming of Jesus. We expect it will come and we live in hope of that coming. As we hope we act. That is why Advent is a time of preparation. We wish to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus. We find the words of preparation throughout our readings for today. Most prominently we hear John the Baptist cry out in the desert that we must repent and prepare. We are called to cast off our sins so that our hearts will be pure when Jesus comes.
In spite of the obvious importance of preparation and repentance found in Scripture today, I am not sure we are ready. I think we need the words of Isaiah more than the words of the gospel. This passage from Isaiah was written during the exile. It was a time of deep despair for the Jewish people. Listen to how it was described in Lamentations; For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.
The passage from Isaiah looks forward to better times. It was written to say that God had not forgotten the Jewish people. God was still with them even though Jerusalem had been destroyed and so many people had been taken to Babylon. The writer was saying that the people had atoned for their sins. Help is on the way.
We can relate in a way to what the Jewish people experienced. Life in our world has been difficult for everyone. Many have been confined to their house. People were unable to be with their loved ones for Thanksgiving. We are sad and we are tired. We are worried about what might happen to us. We want this time to end.
I have had those feelings. It has been hard to bring church services to this parish in a meaningful way. Our efforts have been stymied by technology challenges and the protocols that we have been following. I have even had people share with me their sorrow for my plight as your rector. Some have said to me that they are thankful for my efforts. And I do so appreciate the thoughtfulness and the encouragement.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I think my situation is so easy compared to others. I do not worry about how I will pay the bills. I do not worry about what I will do if I become homeless. I don’t worry about where I will find my next meal. I am not out looking for a job. I have not had a loved one get sick and die from Covid-19. I have not had to worry about how I will pay for medical expenses. I don’t struggle with how my child will learn in this environment. While our time may be different, the words of Isaiah speak to us just as they did to the Jewish people during the exile. They bring us hope.
Let us live in the space of Advent hope. A theology professor named Kathryn Schifferdecker wrote about advent hope: Advent hope is not the same thing as optimism, which relies on positive thinking and rose-colored glasses. Advent hope in fact acknowledges the pain of present reality, but it also dares to see God’s presence in the midst of that pain. Advent hope, the hope of which Isaiah speaks, is grounded not in anything we can see, not in politicians or bank accounts or the market. This hope is grounded in God’s faithfulness, and for that reason, it is true, and real, and solid, something to ground you, too, in the weeks and months ahead. We live in that space of Advent hope and we offer it to others.
In the passage from Isaiah, the first phrases are the words the prophet hears that came from God. God called on prophets and others to provide words of Comfort. As the passage continues, we hear the voices of others declaring that God is near, calling on people to repent and sharing the good news with everyone. I think we too are called to provide the good news of God’s comfort to people who are struggling. We are called to get up to a high mountain, we are to lift our voices with strength. We are to say to all the people, “Here is your God!” It is a time for our voices to bring people closer to God, to help them move from being despondent to hope. We send God’s comfort to others when we send a card to a friend or check on someone by telephone. We give comfort when we offer a needy person a meal.
I think hope is one outcome of God’s comfort. What else might the words from Isaiah mean to you? The psalm continues the message of comfort. We hear of God’s graciousness making the earth a good place to live. We learn of the promise of salvation, a gift for God’s followers. But I choose the message of peace. I am comforted when I feel God’s peace. God’s peace takes away my anxiety. And the psalmist describes the comfort ground in the connection between peace and righteousness when he wrote, “righteousness and peace have kissed each other”. God’s comfort is not given just to the successful and it is not limited to the weak. It is a gift for every one of us.
Eleonore Stump wrote about God’s comfort this way: The Gospel says that Christ baptizes his own with the Holy Spirit. Because of this baptism, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within each person who comes to Christ. That is why no one who comes to Christ and receives his baptism of the Holy Spirit walks the wild and rocky road of life alone. God is so much with him that, in the person of the Holy Spirit, God is within him. If God is for us, even within us, who can be against us? This is strength indeed. And so no wonder that the other name for the Holy Spirit is “the Comforter.
The baptism we receive brings us closer to God. It is just what John the Baptist called for while out in the desert. In the gospel many people went out into the desert to hear John and to be baptized. They willingly came to humble themselves, to admit their sins, to ask for forgiveness and to be lifted up by God’s grace. The desert is a place of wildness, a difficult place to live. It can be a place of loneliness. We might feel like we are in the desert now. Let us remember our baptism, Let us feel again the membership we received in Christ’s body, the gift of God the creator and the presence of the Holy Spirit, our Comforter. We experience God’s comfort through God’s presence with us. God the Creator is present with us as is Jesus, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The Latin word for comfort means “with strength”. As Christians we receive just a small slice of the strength of God. We accept that comfort and strength as we prepare for what will happen in an uncertain time. We look forward to the future. And we know that whatever our situation is when Christmas arrives, it will be a time of celebration. For Jesus, our God, is coming. He is here. Amen.
The gospel reading brings back strong memories of the time when I was interviewed for the position of rector at Transfiguration. For me, it was a time when I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life and the love and care of many others. You may have heard parts of this story before. As you listen, I hope you will think about times when God has guided your life.
I finished seminary in May of 2013. I had already received a placement for a church in Cincinnati, Ohio. I had interviewed for a position in Arizona but not heard whether they were interested in me. I took a trip with one of our seminary professors to England to learn about the Anglican Church in that country and how it might help in my own ministry.
While I was on my trip to England, I received an email telling me that I was not selected for the job in Arizona but I was asked to call the bishop. I called bishop Smith and he asked if I would be interested in the position here at Transfiguration. I was but I also shared with the bishop that I did not have a lot of time to decide since I was due to start my job in Cincinnati on July 1.
Things were very busy for me. Within two weeks, I was on my way to Arizona to interview for the position at Transfiguration. Before coming, I had to do a mandatory retreat for three days outside Indianapolis. In the rush of things, I did not clearly understand the interview schedule or the expectations for the interview at Transfiguration. I had been given the information but it didn’t sink in. On our arrival in Mesa, Jan and I went out for dinner but before we ordered, I received a call from Chris Whitehead that he was at the hotel to pick us up for a dinner with the vestry and search committee at Ruby Seyffert’s house. So, we quickly went back to the hotel, met Chris and had a wonderful dinner. On the way home that evening, I asked Chris what we would be doing the next day and he told me that we would start with a Bible study that I was to lead. I had not done any previous preparation for a bible study. But I had recently done a presentation on the parable of the bridesmaids, our gospel lesson for today, for a seminary class. So, I used that parable in my bible study the next day. Despite my mistakes with the schedule, things worked out. I was thankful that Chris Whitehead, on behalf the vestry, offered me the position that evening.
Looking back, I know that I should have been more careful and better prepared. But I also found myself being watched over and cared for. I felt guided by the Holy Spirit throughout that journey. Each time, it looked as if I would stumble, God found a way to lift me up. I was supported by two bishops, by clergy and lay people who showed their love and care. Some of those folks I did not know well at all. I am thankful and blessed.
In the gospel, we hear a parable about a wedding. In those days, the bridegroom would go to the house of the bride. He would enter into an agreement with the bride’s father. Then the bride and groom would return to his house for a grand party. Those in wait did not know exactly when the bride and groom would arrive.
In this parable, we learn about ten bridesmaids who were supposed to light the way into the celebration. When the groom’s party was delayed well beyond their expected arrival, some of the bridesmaids ran out of oil for their lamps and they were not let into the celebration.
It seems clear to me that the parable refers to Jesus as the bridegroom and the parable refers to the return of Jesus to bring God’s kingdom to earth and the end of the world as we know it. If we were to look at the passages that come before this in Matthew’s gospel, they are all about the end of the world. Jesus told the disciples that the Temple would be destroyed. He gave them signs that they should look for. He told them that people would be persecuted. He said they should be watchful. Jesus said that the Son of Man would come. It would be like this, “Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.” Then, “the Son of Man will come on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory.
The followers of Jesus during Matthew’s time were expecting Jesus to return during their lifetime. The delay in his return caused many to be worried and uncertain. That message is found in the Epistle for today. Paul’s followers believed that they needed to be alive when Jesus returned in order to be taken up to heaven. They were concerned what would happen to their relatives who had already died. But Paul put them at ease by writing and telling them that Jesus would carry them up to heaven along with the followers who were still living.
In the gospel, Matthew wanted to reassure his community. While Jesus had not yet returned, he was still coming. They needed to be ready for Jesus to return at any time. His coming will not be foretold, they will not have time to prepare. So, they must always be ready. They must live a holy life so that when Jesus did return they would be accepted into heaven. Being prepared means following the words of Jesus. We want to be like the wise maidens not the foolish ones.
We live in a different time. We don’t expect Jesus to come while we are still alive. But the words of Matthew still apply to us as well. We want to be prepared for we have no idea when we will die. We want to live our life in holiness and not risk the possibility that we will be judged harshly by God when we die.
In many works of fiction, the ending of the book neatly ties up every problem and all is well. The man and woman are in love and ride off happily into the sunset. The detective catches the bad guy and everyone is safe. Parables don’t always work that way. They may tell us an important message but the answers do not answer all of our questions and they may leave us hanging.
Clearly, half of the bridesmaids were not prepared for the delay. The message is that they should have been prepared. They should have been ready for a lengthy delay. But I struggle with the question of why the other bridesmaids did not share some of their oil. On the surface, we can understand that each of us are responsible for our own actions and it is the responsibility of each of us to always be ready for God’s coming. But I still wonder where is the mercy that Jesus always offered? To answer that question though would take away from the meaning of the parable.
This week, our bishop wrote about liminal places. A liminal place is a transition stage. It is a position at or on both sides of a threshold. The bishop said it is as if we are walking through a door and we still have one foot in the past and one for in the future. We may not even see the future very clearly. Our country will now go through a transition and none of us really know what that will be like. Covid-19 may mean that more people work from home even after the pandemic is over. Our church has entered into a transition. Some of the changes may be wonderful. I think we will always live stream services so that people can watch the services from their home. Other changes I may not appreciate. Change can be difficult especially for people who are older. That is why I say it is a time for us to search for peace and comfort and healing in Jesus Christ. The bishop reminded us of the passage in Romans which says that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
In the gospel today, we find the words like watch and prepare. I wonder if we might instead use the words like stay steady and trust. I prefer to think about staying steady in our faith, seeking to not fall from God’s grace. I prefer to think of trusting in the presence of God rather than to find fulfillment in other ways. I said that I felt the presence of God guiding my life as I transitioned into this position and I know that God’s presence will always be with me regardless of the changes I will go through. May God bless you in this time and may you remain in the arms of God always despite whatever is to come. Amen.
Today, we remember and celebrate saints past and saints present. As we celebrate, we may ask what are the qualities of a saint and what are the actions saints have taken to become a saint? I think about all of the saints that we know so well. I think about Saint Francis who has always been very popular. Saint Francis gave up all of his world goods. Francis also had a love of animals that many of us appreciate.
How about Saint Patrick who brought Christianity to Ireland. He is one of my favorites. Patrick became a missionary in the land where he spent his youth in slavery. What a commitment it must have taken to return to a place where he was so poorly treated.
In the earliest days of Christianity, people often believed that they needed to be a martyr in order to truly show their love of Jesus. They wanted to follow in his footsteps. So we might think of Saint Stephen, the first known martyr or Jonathan Myrick Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian, who in 1965 left seminary to join the freedom marchers in Selma, Alabama. He was shot to death trying to protect a sixteen-year old girl who had been threatened with a shotgun.
Some saints spent a great deal of time in prayer or solitary living. I am thinking of Dame Julian of Norwich who lived in a small room adjacent to the church. I don’t plan to be a recluse so I hope I don’t have to do that in order to become a saint.
Some saints didn’t take life too seriously. Saint Francis of Assisi was often willing to make fun of himself. He called himself a “fool for Christ”. Francis took seriously the words of Jesus to preach the gospel to every living thing. That is why he sometimes preached to the wild animals. But Francis knew that others would laugh at the idea of “taking to the animals. May we also find a little humor in our journey of faith.
Famous saints did many outstanding things but we can be saints too. A saint in the New Testament is often a term used to describe all Christians. A good example can be found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians which begins with this introduction, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus” (Ephesians 1:1).
Some people have interpreted the messages found in Revelation to be an indication that the number of people will be limited that go to heaven. But I prefer to hear the words from a verse in today’s lesson which says, “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne.” You see, I prefer to understand the number of people who will go to heaven as limitless.
Many saints went through an ordeal just as Revelation indicates. All of us have struggles in our lives. In Revelation, the saints came to the throne of God and they joined together 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. Even though Covid 19 has made it difficult to be together, we are still one community, worshipping God together.
Revelation also offers us words of comfort. “Jesus will be their shepherd, he will guide them 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?
When I think about what it might take to become a saint, I focus on the overwhelming mercy of God. Today, I am thinking about the parable of the vineyard. Specifically, the parable where the owner of the vineyard goes out and brings in laborers at all times of the day. At the end of the day, all the workers received the same wage. Some have interpreted this parable to mean that even if you become a Christian late in life, you will be rewarded by going to heaven. I prefer to think about God’s all abiding mercy and God’s willingness to bring us into heaven even if there are times we stray from the path God has chosen for us. I prefer the description of the saints found in a hymn, “for the saints of God are just folk like me”.
And so, we are inspired by the people we know that have been saints to us. They may be parents or other relatives. Perhaps we have experienced saints in those we meet at church or at work. I think of the people I have known at this church since I have been here and have sadly left us. Their saintly work lives on is this place. I most especially remember those who died in the past year. All of these saints are an inspiration to us. They may have passed but their legacy lives on through us.
When I read the beatitudes or hear them read as in today’s gospel, I find the Beatitudes move me in multiple ways. One day I find the beatitudes to be comforting. I am comforted when I think one of the beatitudes applies to me, knowing that God is sending blessings to me when I feel challenged by the world. Another day I find 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 to 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. On 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 understood
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”.
Today, scripture can touch us in many ways. We should be comforted today by the blessings God offers us in the reading from Revelation and from the Beatitudes. We should try to live our lives as each blessing suggests. Let’s also 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.