Grace Presbyterian Church

A Warm and Welcoming Church

Sermon: God Incarnate

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 29, 2023      

Psalm 22:14-18; Colossians 1:9-14; Matthew 11:2-6

God Incarnate

<sing> Credo in unum Deum…

Those notes have, for literally centuries, been the opening notes of many musical settings of a particular movement of the mass as set by composers from Palestrina to Mozart to countess others. The movement, most commonly known as the “Credo,” is (like all the other movements) taken from the liturgical texts used in the mass in Roman Catholic worship. That Latin word “Credo” is translated as “I believe.”

This traditional musical rendering shares that opening with the Apostles’ Creed as found in our PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions. In the case of the Apostles’ Creed, that reflects its frequent usage as a statement made by an individual, perhaps being examined for baptism or confirmation to be received into the full fellowship in the church. While it might have been administered by a hopeful and supportive membership, one doesn’t have to work too hard to imagine it as being a potentially nervous or fearful moment, struggling to get it right (and sound convincing) before an imposing panel of judges. 

This “I” statement stands in sharp relief to the beginning of part one of A Brief Statement of Faith which we examine today. It is not necessarily unique that this text begins with the word “we” instead of “I” (even the Nicene Creed has, over time, been adapted to begin plurally), it does make a point about how this text is to be used. The point of this statement is not judgment or evaluation or any kind of “gatekeeping.” This statement is one for the community to make in unison. We speak together, as a statement of belief.

Except…not exactly. We only have to speak one more word to see how this statement stands apart from those traditional professions of the church over the centuries. It doesn’t say “we believe“; it says “we trust.” We trust in Christ, and to trust in is a far different thing than to believe in. To believe in is far to easily reduced to a matter of mere verbal assent; say the right words in the right order and you’re in. To trust in is different; mere words won’t ever be enough to demonstrate trust. It has to be shown. It has to be lived. 

We put ourselves under the microscope, for all the world to see and evaluate, when we say “we trust in Christ.”

There is of course another difference in this text from A Brief Statement and those traditional creeds. That sung portion, “Credo in unum Deum,” translates fully as “I believe in one God,” and the text continues with “the Father Almighty.” A Brief Statement opens with Jesus, typically regarded as the “second person” of the Trinity in most ways the Trinity is named. We observed last week how A Brief Statement took its order from the benediction of 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Paul’s formulation of “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit,” and how that ordering reflected Paul’s encounter with Jesus in his vision on the road to Damascus at his conversion. We are thus confronted directly with God Incarnate, Immanuel, God-with-us, God present with humanity in human flesh and blood. 

Once those ancient creeds got to Jesus, those words wouldn’t be out of line. Take the Nicene Creed, for instance, which describes Jesus as:

the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,

begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father;

through him all things were made.

That’s a mouthful, but notice what it does and doesn’t say; a lot of trying to pin down who and what Jesus is, not a whole lot about what Jesus does.

That contrast becomes even more noticeable:

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven,

was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary

and became truly human.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

he suffered death and was buried.

Wait a cotton-pickin’ minute here. He was born and then he was crucified? Not a bloomin’ thing about Jesus’s life and works and teaching on earth? Those four gospels full of Jesus’s words and deeds basically ignored? 

A Brief Statement, by contrast, continues: 

Jesus proclaimed the reign of God:

and continues with nine lines reminding us of how Jesus proclaimed the reign of God.

Yes, the crucifixion does show up. The Statement doesn’t ignore that by any standard of justice Jesus’s crucifixion was immoral and unjust. That puts Jesus in the company of way too many people who get executed in electric chairs or lethal injection chambers or frankly on the streets of Memphis. When we sing about “fairest Lord Jesus” as in our last hymn of the morning, that becomes hard to reconcile with a man wrongly crucified.

Part one of A Brief Statement does take us to God’s raising of Jesus, carefully echoing scriptural wording of the Resurrection in numberous places. 

The reading from Psalm 22 echoes its usage on Good Friday, reminding us of Jesus’s crucifixion; the Colossians scripture shows us the resurrected and exalted Jesus, exalted and redeeming. Matthew’s words remind us of Jesus’s own view of his work on earth, in the face of John’s skepticism. And of course, there is a year-long Bible study’s worth of other scriptures cited by the authors of A Brief Statement of Faith to support this statement on Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human. 

As to the God who raised this Jesus from the dead, that’s part two.

Remember how this Statement came about; commissioned in the act of reunion of two Presbyterian bodies, divided since before the Civil War, into the Presbyterian Church (USA). To make the statement, as a denomination, that “we trust in” the Jesus described in these words is a remarkable testament. It is also one that this denomination has inevitably struggled with in practice, coming to live into its implications only slowly and fitfully, sometimes dragged kicking and screaming. Yet it remains for us as a call, a call to accept no human standard or dogma, but to settle for nothing less than trusting in the Jesus Christ who proclaimed the reign of God, was unjustly crucified for doing so, and was raised by God, delivering us from death to life eternal.

For Jesus Christ, in whom we trust, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #156, Sing of God Made Manifest; #—, We trust in Christ, both God and fully human; #630; Fairest Lord Jesus

Sermon: Reunion

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 22, 2023

Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Romans 8:31-39; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13


This church, as I’m guessing most of you know, is a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA). What you may not know or remember is that, as a denominational organization, PC(USA) is fairly young in the grand scheme of things. PC(USA) was officially formed only in 1983, at a special General Assembly that summer, in the reunion of two Presbyterian groups, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA) (sometimes called the “northern” church) and the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS, frequently the “southern” church).

Such an act of reunion should not be taken lightly. The groups in question traced their origins to a common body that first split in the United States in the years before the Civil War. Presbyterians were hardly the only religious entity in the US to split in that contentious time; almost every Protestant denomination experienced some form of schism in the period in which the practice of enslaving Black persons became the issue provoking contentious division, political secession, and ultimately armed conflict. Some of those denominations have never re-united (there’s a reason the large Baptist group is called the Southern Baptist Convention), and there were splits and reunions amongst a number of smaller bodies over many decades, but for Presbyterians the act of reunion gained momentum in the 1970s and was completed with the 1983 General Assembly.

As a marker of the reunion, that assembly established a commission to create a new theological statement of faith to become a part of the new denomination’s Book of Confessions. As you all know, Presbyterians are a deliberate bunch. Everything is done, as the old saying goes, “decently and in order,” and nothing is rushed. Combine that with the fact that theological confessions or affirmations of faith are not easy to create, and it was 1991 before that statement was completed, reviewed, revised, and finally affirmed and added to the Book of Confessions. While the Confession of Belhar is the statement most recently added to the BoC it was in fact completed earlier, so the Brief Statement of Faith remains the “newest” such statement in our Book of Confessions

Creating a statement that could be agreed upon by two church bodies that had been divided for more than one hundred years was no small task. One part of the process was to consider and examine the confessional statements already in use between the two groups. This was an area of some difference between the two, as the PCUS had no statement later than the Westminster Confession and its two catechisms of the 1600s, while the UPCUSA had taken in the Theological Declaration of Barmen from the 1930s and had created the Confession of 1967. The work of finding theological and confessional common ground was, despite the time it took to complete, an act of reaffirmation of the reunion between the two previously separated bodies.

That work was matched with extremely detailed examination of scripture. I wish I could show you just how extensive the scriptural annotations are for the various sections of the statement. In some cases you can find six or seven or eight or more scriptural references for a single phrase of the statement, much less sentence or paragraph. I want to point to three particular scriptures; one that is key to the statement’s preface, one to its conclusion, and one to the organization of the statement itself. 

The very first sentence of the Statement points to the Reformed heritage of theological statements: it is a very close echo of the beginning of the old Heidelberg Catechism, which (in its question-and-answer format) begins: 

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. 

A Brief Statement of Faith condenses this to “In life and in death we belong to God.” There are eight scriptures listed in support of that sentence. The preface continues with five more lines. We’ll get to 2-4 later, but the fifth and sixth lines take us to Deuteronomy. We heard what is known as the Shema, with its inescapable call reminding us that the Lord, and only the Lord, is our God. Statement lines 5-6 place that assertion directly next to the triune formula of lines 2-4 with the declaration of trust in “the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.” (We’ll get back to lines 2-4 momentarily.)

At the end of the statement, lines 77-79 should sound at least familiar after the day’s reading from Romans:

With believers in every time and place,

we rejoice that nothing in life or in death

can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Paul certainly goes through a longer list of things that can’t separate us from that love of God, but his point is retained and made explicitly clear. This makes as strong a conclusion as you could want for a statement of faith, too.

But let’s go back to the beginning again, and notice something about lines 2-4. How do we trust in the Holy One of Israel? We do so “through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit“. You can hear the echo of Paul’s benediction to the Corinthians very clearly here (and some of you are noticing that this formula is how I tend to pronounce the benediction at the end of the service). 

This might seem like an unusual formula. We’re accustomed to invoking the Trinity in a different order, traditionally something like “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit“, yes? 

On one level this is no big deal; the Triune God is the Triune God, yes? And yet it can be discombobulating when you get locked into the old way. It’s also worth noticing that the oldest confessional statements we use – the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed – proceed in that traditional order. They may give most of their words to God the Son, but God the Father is invoked first. So why the difference? Why does Paul phrase the Triune God in this order?

You might remember how Paul came to be Paul; the dramatic, blinding encounter on the road to Damascus. Who was it that Paul saw and heard in that encounter? Nothing less than Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord. Paul interpreted that saving encounter with Jesus with how the human heart first encounters God most directly through Jesus’s earthly intervention and salvation.

Taking this cue, the Statement addresses Christ first, then God, “whom Jesus called his father,” and finally the Holy Spirit. We will address these individual portions of the Statement these next three weeks. Understand here, though, that this ordering of the Trinity seeks to recount how we first come to experience God, not necessarily how we hear about God. Certainly not all will agree. 

What is shown in this document, with the rigorous application of scripture and Presbyterian theological heritage that went into its creation, is that the act of reunion that provoked its creation was no mere sentimental gesture or public relations flourish. The foundation of that reunion could not be anywhere but the scriptural heritage that both denominations held. Even more, that unity could only be founded in the God, the Holy One of Israel, the Triune God, to which those scriptures bore witness. 

No such act of church unity could flourish otherwise. If our foundation is in anyone or anything other than the Holy One, the Triune One, then we’re faking it and will inevitably come apart and be unmasked as a fraud, with nothing of Christ about us. May it never be so.

For the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #733, We All Are One In Mission; #317, In Christ There Is No East or West; #—, In life, in death, we are God’s own

Sermon: After the Baptism

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 8, 2023, Baptism of the Lord A

Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

After the Baptism

One of the quirks of the lectionary calendar, especially at this time of the year, is that the timeline of Jesus’s life on earth gets messed around with pretty severely. We begin Advent with teaching from the adult Jesus, near the end of his earthly ministry, warning of things to come and encouraging his followers to be awake and prepared – our one real acknowledgment of the “second Advent” for which we all wait. One week later Jesus isn’t born yet, and isn’t born until Christmas Eve (or the fourth Sunday of Advent if you’re in the year of Matthew’s gospel, as we are now). 

But the confusion only gets worse after that. Depending on which year of the cycle you’re in Jesus can be anywhere from infancy to as much as twelve years old (for that account in Luke of his parents losing him only to find him in the Temple discussing scripture with the Temple leaders). We then arrive at Epiphany, the visit of the Magi, at which point Jesus was probably no more than two years old. Then, with the whole holiday cycle done, we arrive at this first Sunday after Epiphany, where we find Jesus just at the beginning of his earthly ministry, coming to John to be baptized. 

Each gospel treats the baptism account slightly differently. The gospel named John, for all that passes between the two men in it, never actually has anybody get baptized. The gospels of Mark and Luke give accounts that are cursory at most. As brief as today’s reading is, it is the most elaborate account of Jesus’s being baptized in the gospels. 

It also includes the unique detail of John the Baptizer’s reluctance to perform the act where Jesus is involved. It makes sense, from his point of view. After all, we are told many times in these accounts that the baptism John gave was for the repentance and forgiveness of sins. Whatever John knew about Jesus, he knew enough to know that Jesus didn’t have anything to repent. Jesus insists, though, with the curious phrase that “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” 

There are a few different ways to read Jesus’s choice. If he was truly come to bear the sins of humanity, then one could argue that it was indeed proper to “fulfill all righteousness” by taking baptism for the forgiveness of all those sins of humanity. On a more basic level, if Jesus really was fully human, being baptized by John was a way to participate in that being fully human in a visible way, as a kind of act of solidarity.

However one reads this choice, John does consent, and Jesus is baptized. Two things then happen, and Matthew’s way of phrasing them almost sounds as if those two responses weren’t directed to the same audience. Matthew pretty clearly states that “he” – presumably Jesus from the context of the verse – “saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” That structure suggests the vision was for Jesus and no one else. However, when the voice speaks from heaven, it says “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Mark and Luke both record that statement as “You are my Son…”, suggesting that all around could hear the proclamation. If so, it was not just Jesus who was being affirmed in his ministry; all the crowd was being alerted to just who Jesus was. 

If the aftermath of Jesus’s baptism was actually public and noticeable in Matthew’s record, what Peter has to say about it in Acts expands that idea quite strongly.

A little context: this reading comes from the heart of possibly the book’s pivotal scene; the conversion of the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family. A pair of visions has prompted Cornelius to seek Peter’s aid and compel Peter to go to Cornelius, despite his own misgivings about being unduly associated with non-Jewish people. What is here in today’s reading is the beginning of Peter’s proclamation to Cornelius, or at least what Peter probably imagined to be just the beginning. It doesn’t seem as if Peter got very far before the Holy Spirit took over and showed everyone present, including reluctant Peter and his accompanying party, that the Spirit wasn’t going to wait around for humans to get it and was going to go to work in anyone who was willing, whether they were of the right party or the right nation or the right religion or not.

What is striking about this little snippet of speech is how the event of Jesus’s baptism – “the baptism that John announced” – is situated in Peter’s narrative, rather like a key event. Indeed this baptism is marked here as the point from which the “message” – the peace of Christ – spread out across all Judea. Jesus’s ministry starts here, and how that ministry and message and good news and reconciliation spreads out after the baptism of Jesus is, in some ways, the message of all of the gospels and of Acts as well. 

Whatever was Jesus’s motivation or reason for being baptized by John, Peter (who wasn’t around by that point in Jesus’s life) sees it as a pivotal starting point. From this point, this moment of anointing “with the Holy Spirit and with power” as Peter describes it, flows forth the ministry of Jesus, the very gospel itself. Given how the Holy Spirit moves among the household of Cornelius as they hear this message, it almost sounds like Peter is on to something. 

The baptism of Jesus wasn’t the end of anything. It was the start of everything.

You can guess where this is going. We may not have the Spirit descending like a dove or any heavenly voices breaking in, but for us, as for Jesus, baptism isn’t the end of anything. It’s the beginning of everything. Baptism is a point from which our witness as children of God and siblings of Christ begins to flow, whether the baptized one is a child later to be confirmed or an adult, just starting out or nearing the end of the road (and that confirmation is not the end of anything either; it is equally the beginning of everything). The decision to submit to baptism as Jesus did is itself a first witness, but only the first. It is a sign that there’s more to come.

It is not some kind of hocus-pocus magic to sprinkle someone with water or to dunk them in a spring. That’s not how it works. What does work is that God moves, the Spirit descends, and the witness begins. 

Big things happen after the baptism. That’s worth remembering, as we will do in a few moments. The trick is not to get in the way of those big things.

For what happens after the baptism, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #409, God is Here!; #164, Down Galilee’s Slow Roadways; #320, The Church of Christ, in Every Age

To All the World: A Service for Epiphany

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 6, 2023; Epiphany A


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

We gather here this evening for Epiphany, the event on the Christian liturgical calendar marking the visit of the Magi who traveled from the east to bear witness to the child Jesus, as recorded in the gospel of Matthew. It is an occasion easily skipped over in the Christian calendar, especially as those Magi are often conflated into our Nativity scenes and Christmas pageants with those shepherds (who only appear in the gospel of Luke). 

In many cases where Epiphany is observed (often on the first Sunday after this date), the emphasis of that observance is likely to be upon the star, the not-entirely-explained astronomical phenomenon from which those Magi took their cue to make that long journey. Themes about stars or light shining in darkness or being guided by the light of that star, as were those Magi, might be central to such a serivce, and that’s all good. In recent years I’ve noticed a trend towards such services including “star-words,” which participants can take home and use as a reference point throughout the coming year. (Last year I received from a pastor friend the word “balance,” and already this year, in an online variant of that practice, I have ironically received the word “grace.”)

Again, these are all good things. There is another side to the Epiphany event, though, one that perhaps needs to be heard in our own troubled time. Remember, those Magi came from the East; most scholars suspect from Persia. They came from “the outside,” apart from the ancestry or tradition or religion into which the child Jesus was born. To use the language found often in the New Testament, they were Gentiles. That makes these travelers, most likely, the closest representatives to any of us to appear in the different narratives around the Nativity in scripture. Unless you come from a long line of Jewish ancestors, you’d be a Gentile in the language of the gospels and epistles. These guys are us.

As the New Testament unfolds, we see more and more the good news bound up in Jesus being shared more and more with those Gentiles, first in Jesus’s own deeds and words, then in the scrambling history of the early church. In an age where many in the current church have appointed themselves guardians and gatekeepers and presumed to draw lines between those who are “out” and those who are “in,” we would do well to remember how this good news broke out and spread into all the world, sometimes despite the best efforts of its apostles. 

Let us then, in the pattern made familiar in the Service for Lessons and Carols popularized by King’s College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve, mark this day, the beginning of the gospel’s spread into all the world, with words of scripture and songs of faith, reminding ourselves of the boundlessness of this gospel and of the fact that only by God’s grace is that gospel made known to us. Let us mark, from the appearance of the Magi to the breathtaking scene in Revelation of a great multitude from all nations praising God in glory, how this good news has come to all the world, including to us. Let us all the more, then, go forward from this day with resolve to put no roadblocks whatsoever in the path of the gospel to all who wait to hear.

Let us hear the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Sermon: Keep Watch: The First Witnesses

Grace Presbyterian Church

(Joint service with Covenant and Westminster churches)

December 25, 2022, Christmas Day A

Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:8-20

Keeping Watch: The First Witnesses

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

I’m going to guess that some of you are like me and remember the beginning of today’s reading in this rendering from the King James Version. Maybe you remember it simply from countless sermons, or maybe a few Christmas pageants or plays in which you were wrapped up in a bathrobe playing a shepherd. Or maybe you remember it from Linus’s recitation at the climax of A Charlie Brown Christmas. (That’s how it sticks in my head, in Linus’s voice.)

For all that this passage sticks in the memory, we have to admit we don’t know much about these shepherds. In fact, we can’t even be absolutely certain, no matter how many Nativity sets might insist otherwise, that they were men. The history of the people of Israel includes a number of women first encountered tending their family’s herds, such as Rachel, the daughter of Laban who eventually (after fourteen years of labor) married Jacob. Or there’s Zipporah, one of the daughters of Jethro, who eventually ended up marrying Moses. Hired-hand shepherds were more likely to be men, but if this herd of sheep was a family flock we can’t know for certain who might have been out there tending it.

Whoever it was, these shepherds were not high-status folk. Some accounts suggest that in first-century Palestine their testimony was not to be counted as legally reliable, so low was their reputation. At the same time, some shepherd-types had achieved higher standing in Israel’s history, none more so than David, the shepherd boy turned king of Israel (who performed his shepherding duties in that very region). Still, the one thing that seems clear is that the sheep being tended by these shepherds were more highly regarded and valued than the shepherds themselves. The sheep, after all, provided meat, milk, and wool – all very valuable and even needed in society. In the end, shepherds almost seem to be in a status not unlike those workers in our society who were labeled as “essential workers” at the height of the pandemic shutdown: much public noise being made about their importance, but no particular effort to improve their working conditions or hear their concerns about what was happening to them, or even to respect them, really.

It was these shepherds who would become the first public witnesses to the coming of the Messiah, the Son of God, the one born to set his people free from their sins. 

These shepherds are out in the fields doing their job, when all at once “an angel of the Lord stood before them” – no swooping in from somewhere else or descending from heaven, just all in an instant there was an angel standing where there had not previously been anyone or anything. Can you really blame the shepherds for being “terrified“? Little wonder that the first word an angel speaks to humans as recorded in scripture is usually some variant of “do not be afraid” or “fear not.” 

For all the terror the shepherds might have experienced, though, they paid attention. They heard the angel’s greeting; they got the message; and they even picked up on the hint that the best thing they could do was to get themselves into Bethlehem and see this “sign for you” the angel described. 

As if one angel appearing out of nowhere wasn’t terror enough, “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,” praising and glorifying God in song. Then the angels left them and went off into heaven, and the shepherds were as they had been before, alone with their sheep, and yet completely unlike they had been before.

They had to go see this. And that’s what they did. We don’t know if one or two got left behind to guard the sheep or if the sheep were just left on their own for a while. (For that matter, we don’t know how the sheep reacted to these goings-on; you have to think they’d be spooked somewhat too.)

Clearly the angel had meant for them to do this, giving that “sign” about seeing this baby lying in a feed trough. We don’t get much indication of how hard the shepherds had to look when they got to Bethlehem, whether they went straightaway to the right place of if they had to search through the town a bit, but they did find them, and indeed saw the baby lying in a feed trough. 

Their first reaction was to tell them what they had seen and heard from the angels. We, of course, know that Mary knew all about this; we have Luke 1 to fill in all that background for us. The shepherds don’t have that backstory, and they have to pour it all out. As usual, we get no indication of how Joseph felt about all of this, but it seems as if somehow this bearing witness was beneficial to Mary. Maybe after nine months of bearing all this in her own soul, the verification provided by the shepherds helped her keep the faith. 

As for the shepherds, we are told that when they tell their story, “all who heard it were amazed.” Who is this “all”? It’s easy to forget that they are in Bethlehem, which is at minimum a town; if nothing else there was an in full enough of people that Mary and Joseph couldn’t get in. It was also Joseph’s ancestral home; you’d think some relatives might have at least shown up, much less taken them in! We might also consider that a rowdy old rabble of shepherds searching about through the town might get the attention of the townsfolk. Again, we can’t know for sure that there were others present for the shepherds’ witness, but maybe there were? If there was a crowd of any kind gathered about, “all who heard it were amazed.” 

What we have here are the first witnesses. 

These shepherds, these societal nobodies, have become the first to receive the gospel, outside of Mary and perhaps her cousin Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist. They are given this good news by the angel and the chorus of angels; they see the sign that is given to them, the baby; and their first act is to bear witness to the one “born this day in the city of David,” the one who is “the Messiah, the Lord.” 

We have this witness to bear. We have way more than a sign of a baby lying in a manger. We have a whole lifetime that Jesus spent on the earth, teaching and healing and living and dying and living again. We have the words from the epistle of Titus about our Savior, the one who “saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy…“. We have so much gospel to which to bear witness, and it all starts with a bunch of unknown shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night. 

Keeping watch. 

Keeping watch is a theme through Advent, right from the first of the season with Jesus’s teaching to his disciples to “keep awake” and “be ready.” Now we are given this example of those who did keep watch and received the gospel as their reward. 

And then what did they do? When they had told everybody they could tell, what did they do? They “returned,” presumably to their fields and their sheep. They returned “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” They were still shepherds, after all of this, but they weren’t the same shepherds they had been before. Apologies to any grammar teachers for the double negative, but these shepherds were never not affected by what they had seen and heard.

How are we changed by this coming? Can we find it in ourselves to glorify and praise God while about the mundane tasks and doings of our lives? How do we, or how can we, or how will we be affected by what we have seen and heard?

For the first witnesses and their keeping watch, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #147, The First Nowell (v. 1 & 2); #135, There’s a Star in the East; #136, Go, Tell It on the Mountain

Sermon: Nothing Can Separate Us

Grace Presbyterian Church

December 18, 2022, SHW

Lamentations 3:1-26; Romans 8:31-38

Nothing Can Separate Us

Today is the thirty-third anniversary of my mother’s death. I say this not to provoke some outpouring of pity, and I can’t say I was even thinking of that fact when this service was scheduled for today. I simply mention this as a marker of the fact that I wasn’t that old (old enough to be out of the house, as I was, but not so old as to be beyond seeking the occasional portion of parental guidance). 

This was my introduction to the concept of grieving whether or not you wanted to be grieving. I was between semesters of my master’s degree in church music (a lifetime ago) and my soul didn’t seem to care that a few weeks later I was back in classes and trying to do piano things and learn about what church musicians were supposed to do and all that. It was hurting and it didn’t care that  a page on the calendar had turned. I was going to grieve as long as my soul decided it needed to grieve, and all that other stuff was going to have to work around that fact. 

We may choose to mourn, say, at a Service of Witness to the Resurrection or a graveside committal or some other formalized fashion, or we may choose to observe acts of mourning in specific times and ways. Grief takes us and doesn’t care what else we are doing or what we think we need to do. 

This becomes a challenge, living as we do in an age that doesn’t have time for the pain. Sadly, the church as a whole isn’t all that much better, particularly in this season of the year. You mustcelebrate. You must be part of the hope/peace/joy/love. You know, “Joy to the world” and “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant” and all those carol texts that don’t do any favors to the grieving and the hurting. 

Even our Presbyterian use of the phrase “Service of Witness to the Resurrection” may seem to suggest there is no room for grief. 

I am not here to participate in that falseness. Our Lamentations lamenter piles up quite a perceived list of ways in which he has been aggrieved, and yet he cannot in the end dismiss the fact that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.” Paul concludes a section on the struggles of the faith with this breathtaking declaration in verses 38-39; boiled down to its essence, it reminds us that “nothing can separate us from God’s love.” Not even the grief that others are sometimes wont to dismiss.

Elsewhere – actually, earlier in this chapter Paul writes that in our times of struggle, “the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Far from chastising us or trying to pull us out, the Spirit grieves with us

The Spirit grieves with us.

If we can make like the writer of Lamentations and hold on to that steadfast love that never changes, hold on to that bit of hope, then grieve away. 

God’s not going anywhere.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #819, Be Still, My Soul; #—, Nothing in life; #834, Precious Lord, Take My Hand

Advent Disruption, part 4: An Unexpected Calling

Grace Presbyterian Church

December 18, 2022, Advent 4A

Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Advent Disruption, part 4: An Unexpected Calling

One of the great challenges in preaching or studying today’s gospel reading is the necessity of putting a much more familiar reading out of your head and not getting the two entangled. And we do need to do this at other times in life; it’s both rude and harmful to interrupt a person who is telling their own story by interjecting details of their more famous or popular or successful sibiling’s story in the midst of that first person’s telling it.

We are in the gospel of Matthew today, which means that a lot of the trappings of the Nativity story which we tend to assume or take for granted just aren’t there. Hopefully the elements of the church’s Nativity set as displayed here will help us sort out those differences.

We have here Mary, Joseph, and indeed the infant. Normally the infant wouldn’t appear until Christmas Eve, but Matthew’s narrative as it is divvied up in the Revised Common Lectionary does in fact announce the birth of Jesus, albeit barely. To be honest, it’s also fair to say that Matthew’s gospel barely announces the birth of Jesus, at least by comparison to that more famous Nativity story in that other gospel. While the holy family is here, the scene seems to be “missing” the stable that normally shelters them in this display; if you go back and re-examine the reading from Matthew, though, there’s no mention of any such thing, nor of any manger (but this child can’t be removed from it). 

You also can’t help but noticing the absence of the shepherds, but again, no mention is made of such a thing in Matthew’s account. There aren’t even any animals at all, at least not as Matthew tells it – Joseph and Mary aren’t required to travel in this narrative, so no donkey is portrayed, and with no mention of shepherds or stable or any such thing no sheep or oxen or whatever are present. We at least justify the Magi (and their camel) off in the distance (on the organ for today), because even they don’t appear in today’s reading, we can look ahead into chapter two and surmise they’re on their way. 

We can also somewhat explain the appearance of one angel. It’s not easy to suggest in this physical display that the angel is appearing in one of Joseph’s dreams, as happens two more times in Matthew’s narrative, but we will at least have an angel present to represent that part of the story.

It’s kind of important, because it is the appearance of this “angel of the Lord” and that angel’s message to Joseph that sets in motion the thing that justifies both of the Advent themes represented today. It helps set in motion the great thing we are to behold, as our fourth banner suggests, and it is perhaps the instigator or provocateur of what seems at the last an act we must know as an act of love.

Joseph learns that his betrothed, Mary, is “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Let’s face it, the very convoluted nature of that phrase is enough to suggest, to most of our suspicious human minds, that some kind of dodge is going on. There is pressure, just because of the society in which Joseph lives, to get rid of Mary, by whatever means is necessary. 

Not exaggerating there. Having Mary put to death was not out of the realm of a “righteous” response to this shame, as “righteousness” was defined in the culture of which Joseph was a part. Exposing Mary to public humiliation was probably the bare minimum of a “righteous” response to Mary’s obvious infidelity and sin. (Remember, the Magnificat celebrated in last week’s reading doesn’t happen in Matthew’s account). 

Verse 19 describes Joseph as a “righteous” man, indeed, which means both of the above were legitimate options for him. The verse adds, though, that he was “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,” and that he intended to “dismiss her quietly.” While this does seem to be a step up, it still potentially left Mary homeless (there’s no guarantee her family would have taken her in, again in the name of “righteousness”) and with no means to provide for the child waiting to be born, and certainly subject to public humiliation when that child was born with no father in sight.

This is the state of things when the angel appears in that dream to Joseph. By his actions Joseph shows, first of all, obedience to God’s new and unexpected calling – to be the earthly father of the son of God, the one who comes to “save his people from their sins.” 

By taking Mary in, marrying her, and giving the name Jesus to the child as commanded, Joseph is making that whole genealogy that fills up the first seventeen verses of Matthew’s gospel make sense. If you look at that genealogy, it starts with Abraham, passes through David and some interesting other names, and culminates with Joseph, “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.” Note that this genealogy makes no claim for Joseph having the role of Jesus’s “father”; in the King James Version, there’s no “begat” attached to Joseph’s name. 

This ancestral line, founded in Abraham and including the venerated King David, would seem to be a bit sketchy in that case; why wouldn’t it be Mary’s line that was important for establishing Jesus as being from David’s line? That’s a claim about Jesus that was out there before Matthew’s gospel was written down; you can see it invoked in the reading from Paul’s letter to Rome, where Jesus is described as “descended from David according to the flesh.” It takes Joseph’s choice, after this angel-invaded dream, to make that statement hold true. 

The BBC drama series Call the Midwife featured an episode, a few seasons ago, in which a couple came to the titular midwives for their child to be born. When the child was born, its skin color made clear that the exuberant father present for the birth did not in fact father the child biologically. Confronted with this stark reality, the present father, without missing a beat, pronounced the child the most beautiful child ever and took in that child as his own.

The poem “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night), by the turn-of-the-twentieth-century German poet Richard Dehmel, features a similar scenario: as a couple is walking in the woods at night, she confesses that, out of an overwhelming desire for a child, she engaged in a liaison (before meeting this man with whom she was walking) in which she became pregnant. Without missing a beat, this man with whom she is now walking declares his unbroken love for her and embraces the yet-unborn child as his own.

In both the TV show and the poem we see an act of love portrayed, to be sure. Joseph knows, because of the angel’s announcement, that Mary has not been unfaithful to him, but even so he faces even a greater challenge than those fictional loving fathers-in-waiting. Again, he’s being called to be the father of the Messiah, without the child having any biological relation to him. There is a step of responsibility in such a thing that none of us can know. 

There is also a step of love. 

It isn’t a “romantic” act of love. Joseph has to know that raising such a child will be a task of fatherhood like no other. And yet he takes it on, and he takes Mary as his wife. It is a chosen love, love for God and love for Mary. 

The love that gets invoked in this final candle is given freely by God. Our call is to receive that love and then choose to give that love freely in the way God gave it to us. 

It’s hard not to think back to that Call the Midwife story or the “Transfigured Night” poem. Inevitably, if we’re going to love at all, we’re going to be called upon to love *despite*. To love anyway. To love “even though”. 

We never hear a word out of Joseph in either Matthew or Luke. We saw at first that he was at least somewhat of a compassionate person in his unwillingness to humiliate Mary; in the last he proves to be a loving person. And his choice, his actions in the face of this unexpected calling, speak far louder than any words ever could.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #82, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus; #—, When Joseph heard; #—, Behold and see the promise come; #97, Watchman, Tell Us of the Night

Sermon: Advent Disruption, part 3: An Unexpected Song

Grace Presbyterian Church

December 11, 2022, Advent 3A

Isaiah 35:1-10; Luke 1:46-55; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Advent Disruption, part 3: An Unexpected Song

Unlike last week’s readings, that showed a fairly obvious bit of tension between the “hope”-ful words in Isaiah and Romans and John’s bracing appearance in Matthew, this week’s scripture texts seem at first to be in much closer harmony, “singing from the same choir book” as an old saying goes. Even the two contrasting overall themes of Advent overlap. After “hope” and “peace” in the candle-lighting liturgy came “joy,” while our third week of Advent banner urges us to “rejoice.” It really seems like all the streams come together.

The pink candle that was lighted today on the Advent wreath is an alert signal of sorts. While the rest of the candles on the outside of the wreath are purple, befitting the liturgical color of the season, the candle to be lit on the third Sunday of Advent is instead pink. This is a means of pointing to the particular nature of the scriptural texts for the day, texts which contain expressions of joy at the ongoing work of God and of the promises to be found in God’s ongoing words to the people of God. 

Take today’s second reading, for example, the wonderful song known as the Magnificat, sung by Mary during her visit to Elizabeth at that time when both were pregnant with highly unexpected and unconventional sons. The joyful tone is set right away, from the very opening statement “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The song goes on to sing of how God has blessed his servant Mary, and to describe more generally attributes of who she calls the Mighty One. 

Now admittedly there are those for whom Mary’s song might not sound terribly joyful: the proud, who are “scattered…in the thoughts of their hearts”; the powerful, “brought down…from their thrones” as the lowly are lifted up; the rich, “sent…away empty” while the hungry are filled. If you’re one of those, then perhaps the pink candle isn’t for you. But as Jesus notes in the reading from Matthew, “the poor have good news brought to them” (we’ll get to that more later), so perhaps we should simply acknowledge that Mary’s song here fits quite nicely with what her son would define as part of his mission and his call. So, joyful indeed is this song of Mary, a good incipit to the Sunday of rejoicing. One might even say that it is the most Advent thing in all of the gospels, if not perhaps in the entirety of scripture; it is that strong a statement of the coming reign of God, and one of which we could stand to remind ourselves often. It is literally a song of rejoicing, indeed, as Mary sings in that very first line. 

It is also a unexpectedly radical song after all, at least once you pay close attention. All of those “overturnings” noted above – the proud scattered in the thoughts of their hearts, the powerful brought down from their thrones, the rich sent away empty – that kind of thing could have gotten Mary in deep trouble with the Roman Empire had they ever heard it. In fact, that song even in our day – twentieth and twenty-first century – has come under the ban of oppressive regimes at different times in Argentina or Guatemala or India, as being too “radical” or “revolutionary,” because of that same series of overturnings; those who live under oppression hear Mary’s song quite differently from those who live in ease and comfort, or even those of us who have become accustomed to a Mary stripped of all that radical talk and turned into a meek, mild, rather milquetoast mother of Jesus. 

Now let’s get back to that Matthew reading. The little snippet quoted above comes from Jesus’ response to messengers from John the Baptist, who is in a far different state than he was in last week’s reading, when he was preaching and baptizing in the wilderness and giving religious leaders some serious reprimanding. By this time John has been arrested and thrown in prison for having the gall to tell Herod, the Roman-sponsored ruler over Judea at the time, that it was wrong for him to take his brother’s wife for his own (although we don’t get that story until Matthew 14, told retroactively).

Being imprisoned has a way of breaking a person, and John seems to have suffered its effects. Since their first meeting in Matthew at Jesus’s baptism, John had kept tabs on what Jesus was doing; in Matthew 9 we see an encounter in which some of John’s disciples ask Jesus why he doesn’t engage in regular and frequent fasting, as John’s disciples did. John had taken up a rather ascetic life (remember the camel-hair coat and locusts-and-honey diet) in the wilderness, while Jesus traveled freely from town to town and city to city and was known to join in a banquet or two. Feeling the strain of imprisonment, he began to experience something not typical of his public ministry: doubt. He sends some followers to Jesus to ask, “are you the one…or are we to wait for another?

Jesus’s answer seems to chide John or his disciples. He gives a rundown of what’s been going on – sight restored, mobility restored, health restored, hearing restored, life restored, hope restored. And then there’s that little shot at the end: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.

At this moment, in his imprisonment, John can’t see where the joy is. Perhaps he had gotten so caught up in the hope for taking-down the powerful (which, after all, comes right out of Mary’s song) to see that the lifting up and restoring of the lowly (also in Mary’s song) is even greater reason for joy.

As for the other readings, Isaiah brings the joy, in what might be the most over-the-top of the readings assigned for Advent from this book. Right away the image of the desert blossoming and rejoicing takes us to a place we aren’t accustomed to seeing, at least not without an astronomical amount of rainfall. The passage also includes encouragement for the fainthearted, and a short insert that sounds a bit like Jesus’s description of his own ministry in verse five, where “the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” But the predominant images are of the desert and wilderness, with waters breaking forth, streams in the desert, pools and springs and even swampland breaking out. Imagine Palestine turning into Florida, in other words.

If Isaiah says “the desert will blossom,” James responds “you’ll have to be patient.” If anything, the time in which we live is characterized by the opposite of what Isaiah describes; lands that once were fertile turning barren and fruitless under the pressure of a rapidly heating planet. Even normal lands, James reminds us, don’t bloom or produce fruit without water, and lots of it. James engages in his own bit of agricultural metaphor to remind his readers that patience in waiting for the coming of the Lord is a must. What he describes is not unlike what takes place in the growing of crops like wheat in the central part of this country. First you need rain – the “early” rain – to make the soil ready to bear and nourish the seeds that are to be planted. Then you need rain – the “late” rain – to enable the seeds to ripen and grow to maturity. 

If you’re not that farmer, though, the coming of those rains might ruin our plans, maybe, or just makes it a hassle to get around town or to work that day. And indeed the rain can be bad for that farmer, too, if it comes too early or too late or too much or not enough at a time. But in God’s economy, the rains come as meant to come, and we wait patiently for them, and in this waiting is joy. So it is with this Advent (second Advent, if you will) for which we wait. 

For all that we like to toss around the word this time of year, we often have trouble with what it means to rejoice, or even to know joy. We far too easily confuse it with pleasure or happiness. Those two sensations can admit of no counterweight; the moment one feels pain, one no longer feels pleasure. Happiness is taken down by sorrow. Those two cannot endure under such pressures.

Joy is different, and rejoicing is also different. In the words of author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, “All joy reminds (emphasis mine). It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.’”  Joy knows sorrow, and does not pretend that sorrow is not there. Joy recognizes that the crazy vision promises of Isaiah’s prophecy are still in the distance, that the rains must come, and we still live in a world where the powerful have not been brought down from their thrones. Joy even motivates us to act against injustice and cruelty because joy knows that what we most desire cannot tolerate those things. Joy knows its incompleteness. That’s a thing that comes up in John’s gospel a few times, as in John 16:24, “Ask and you will receive, that your joy may be complete” – it isn’t completed now, it is to come. 

It’s a complicated burden for Mary’s song and this pink candle to bear. Joy does not rejoice only in what is but in what is to come. Pleasure is easily thwarted, happiness crumbles at the coming of sorrow, but joy endures knowing itself to be not yet finished. Like this empty stable without a nativity, like the family with the empty place at the table that wasn’t empty a year ago, like the farmer waiting for the rains, joy knows its unfinished state; and yet still joy rejoices in the babe to be born, the manger to be filled, the knowing that in the ultimate and final coming of the Savior – that babe yet to be born to Mary, that teacher John suddenly wasn’t sure about – in that second Advent there our joy will, at last, be full and complete. 

Let the pink candle be our wake-up call, our reminder that Christmas is suddenly near; let it also call us, in spite of…even though…nevertheless…to rejoice and be glad.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #107, Awake! Awake, and Greet the New Morn; #—, See, the Desert Shall Rejoice (see insert); #100, My Soul Cries Out With a Joyful Shout (Canticle of the Turning)            

Advent Disruption, part 2: An Unexpected Voice

Grace Presbyterian Church

December 4, 2022, Advent 2A

Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19;

            Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

Advent Disruption, part 2: An Unexpected Voice

There is something of a split personality in the themes of Advent. The given scriptures for any particular Sunday of the cycle can point you in quite different directions sometimes, and one can identify at least two different themes for the season that sometimes work together, and sometimes are in tension with each other. 

You can hear one such theme in the liturgies we are using for the lighting of the Advent candles this year. Last week’s liturgy pointed to the theme of “hope,” concluding like this: 

As we light our first Advent candle, we pray for holy hope of God. 

Come now, O Child of Mary. Come now, O Prince of Hope.

In case you don’t already know, the next two weeks will point to “joy” and “love.”

On the other hand, the banners that are going up one per week, which have been part of our Advent worship for a few years now, point to a different theme. While the hope-peace-joy-love cycle has a pretty upbeat and, well, hopeful vibe to them, the other cycle is one that requires a bit more of us. Last week’s banner charging us to “watch,” you’ll notice, has been joined by a new banner urging us to “prepare.” And in case you don’t remember, the two weeks following this one will urge us to “rejoice” and “behold.” 

Both of these themes can be found in the scriptures for each week of Advent, and that jolting contrast in the themes given for today shows up particularly strongly in today’s readings. First we hear from Isaiah, a particularly striking and even fantastic bit of prophetic utterance with some extremely striking imagery, especially in verses 6-9. Aside from the last half of verse 4 it’s quite a joyous and positive oracle, and one that points towards a time of peace as if with a flashing neon sign, even if the word “peace” itself is not prominently featured in Isaiah’s verses. Especially the arresting images of the “peaceable kingdom” in those verses 6-9 stand out, with the fantastical suggestion that “the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” Anyone who’s ever owned a domestic cat knows that felines aren’t herbivores, not if you want them to be healthy. The radical nature-bending quality of this peace is hard to escape.

The psalm chimes in with verse 7’s plea for peace to abound, and the reading from Romans, while quoting from Isaiah’s image of the one who comes from Jesse’s tribe, also ends with the plea that “the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing…“. So yes, peace does seem to be an easy theme to pick out from those readings.

Then there’s the gospel. More precisely, there’s John.

Looking a bit like a threadbare Elijah and with the eccentricities to match, John “appeared” in the wilderness alongside the Jordan River, preaching a gospel of repentance. That quotation from another passage in Isaiah gives us our “prepare” prompt for the week, and John’s message follows suit, although it might be hard to imagine John using such an erudite word as “prepare”; he seems much more likely to be hollering “get ready!” at the top of his voice. 

John is no peacemaker; he is a disruptor, which becomes clearest when those religious leaders come check him out and he’s calling them a “brood of vipers” when they’re barely within earshot. His harshest words are reserved for them, the unofficial guarantors of the security of the Temple and those who partake in it. Challenging them was only going to draw attention, even out in the wilderness and well away from the power centers of Jerusalem. We will see later in Matthew’s gospel how that ended up for him.

Disruption is, again, a major part of Advent, and that makes John a pretty ideal character to be featured. And disruption, as we typically think of it, is not something we typically welcome. But I think that can be a mistake. 

I think it works out well for this message to come along today, a day when artist members of Art Studios of Grace are with us. The more I think of it, the more I am convinced that art is potentially one of the most disruptive things in society.

One can imagine art as disruption on a grand scale by considering the impact of a painting like Guernica, the Picasso rendering of the attack on that Basque city during the Spanish civil war, widely regarded as one of the greatest anti-war works of art ever. But the disruptive power of art can work in different ways still. 

John appears on the scene to disrupt the status quo. If one were to imagine the Temple authorities singing the old Bruce Hornsby refrain “That’s just the way it is,” John is the one who answers with the end of that refrain: “ah, but don’t you believe it.” 

Art can do that for us even now. Amidst the drumbeat of hopelessness and despair and conflict that hammers us with the insistence that this really is “the way it is,” art stops us and says “look at this, see this, stop and pay attention, don’t be hypnotized by that; this is the way God’s world is…” We are jolted out of the throes of that grim march of hopelessness to see the things the world encourages us to overlook, to act as if they’re not there or as if they don’t matter. Stop. See this. See what is real. We are disrupted from the monotony of daily struggle to see things that touch us in ways we can neither imagine nor comprehend, but that stay with us and, if we let it, break up that dullness of “just the way it is” and reminds us “but don’t you believe it.” 

In the end, the disruption of the likes of John, that demanding call to “prepare,” is the stuf that makes for the “peace” that Isaiah is going on about. Those two themes really do go together. And holding them in balance is perhaps our greatest task in the disruptive time of Advent.

For the disruption that John brings us, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #96, On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry; #—, Prepare your hearts; #93, Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates

Advent Disruption, part 1: An Unexpected Hour

Grace Presbyterian Church

November 27, 2022, Advent 1A

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122;

            Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

Advent Disruption, part 1: An Unexpected Hour

There is a certain level of disconnect between our setting this morning and the scripture appointed for the day. We haven’t gone whole hog with the sanctuary; there is at least one indicator – the banner hanging on the wall – that this is in fact Advent and not Christmas Eve already, or actually two in that the Advent wreath has only one candle lit. And I suppose that the fact that the Nativity scene is not yet populated also counts. But there is greenery about, including this substantial tree in front of the lectern and the wreath behind me, and while the Nativity scene might be empty it is still here. Pretty obviously this sanctuary is being set up for Christmas.

And then we read the lectionary readings for the day, all four of them, and they float like the proverbial lead balloon in the midst of all the Christmas-is-coming around us, even more in the world out there. Decorations go up quickly, including at our house, and the transformation that has been worked in many locales just over this weekend is impossible to miss. In the face of all of this, today’s readings make the stark and unrelenting proclamation that it’s not Christmas. Not yet.

That first reading, from Isaiah, isn’t so bad about it. It’s good familiar stuff, although by the time we read verse 4 we are forced to admit that it is a prophetic writing that is not yet come to pass. Indeed, unlike what Isaiah writes here about “plowshares into swords,” our world is much more consistently doing what Don Henley sung about in the song “The End of the Innocence,” when he sang of “beating plowshares into swords for this tired old man that we elected king” back in 1989. As such, the comfort of a good familiar reading goes a bit cold. For that matter, the psalm isn’t much help either; the call to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” is a reminder that, even if no outright war is being fought there at this time in history, there certainly is not peace in Jerusalem. And let’s face it, readings from Hebrew Scripture are not going to give us good old Christmas feels no matter how hard we try. That’s not it’s job.

It’s when we get to the New Testament readings that the cognitive dissonance kicks in hardest. 

There are two seasons of the liturgical year in which such apocalyptic readings from the gospels appear, and they just happen to show up almost back-to-back. This reading from the first week of Advent, from Matthew, is a near relative to gospel readings from Luke that finished up Year C leading to Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. In fact, at the end of this Year A, the gospel readings for the final three Sundays of the year will be taken from the next chapter of Matthew, from the three parables that make up that chapter – the final one being the very well-known parable of the sheep and the goats.

Here this snippet of apocalpytic literature serves a different function than those late-liturgy readings. Here we are reminded that the “first Advent,” the coming of the Son of God in the birth of a child, is not the only Advent we mark in this season, even if the rest of the season doesn’t show it too much outside of the epistle readings. Christ is not done with this world; in this extended discourse he is stressing to his followers to live in expectation that Christ will return to be with them again, no matter how unexpected it may be.

The metaphors Jesus uses here are of the chilling type that get exploited by the less-ethical self-proclaimed preachers and teachers who do the exact thing that Jesus warns against. Right up front in verse 24 Jesus warns that nobody knows – not even Jesus himself! – when that hour might come. The end of this reading reinforces that disturbing statement, with its declaration that “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” I’m guessing I don’t need to remind you how many of those self-proclaimed preachers and teachers have been exposed so far by picking days and hours that passed by with no coming of the Son of Man. 

The example Jesus uses of the time of Noah serves to point out that unexpectedness. Folks were, well, frankly, living their lives, and then all of a sudden the flood swept them away. So it will be when the Son of Man returns. There were two men working in the field, two women grinding grain, and then one was gone. No warning. The owner of the house didn’t know a thief was coming; the thief breaks in. No warning. 

These examples aren’t as easy for us to grasp in modern times. We have storm warnings like never before (even if some politicians try to pretend otherwise, but don’t get me started on that), so the flood example is hard to grasp. We have home security systems that will tell us when a stray cat comes to our front door, much less anyone with hostile intentions. It’s harder for us to grasp the whole idea of something, especially something so momentous as the coming of the Son of Man, happening without warning. 

And yet in many ways the prescription is the same. Live ready. It isn’t about to panic or to live in some kind of paralyzing fear or paranoid defensiveness, but to follow Jesus. 

O. Wesley Allen, Jr., a preaching professor at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, describes that act of following Jesus as:

…the church at work in the not-yet places of the world. Places where justice and equality have not yet been found. Places where hunger and thirst have not yet been alleviated. Places where school children die of senseless violence [note: this was written three years ago]. Places where the planet is not yet being treated with respect.[1]

To this exhortation the reading from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome adds the call “to wake from sleep.” Writing from perhaps thirty-ish years after Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, Paul sure seems intent on warning folks away from losing hope in that promised return; see how strongly he emphasizes that the time is coming – “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers“; and “the day is near“. For Paul, “to wake from sleep” means to put aside the self-destructive and others-destructive behaviors of our negligent past and to be awake – dare I say “woke”? – and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” the way a new convert in Paul’s time would put on a new garment after being baptized. Leave past things behind and live in expectation, even if, as in Jesus’s words in Matthew, we don’t know when to expect. 

Things happening at “an unexpected hour” are inevitably disruptive. We can’t go off to a mountaintop and do nothing but wait (as some past groups have done) and we’re not called to do that anyway. Ultimately, no matter how good we are at staying awake, the coming of the Son of Man inevitably disrupts. 

Advent is all about disruptions, really. Even the familiar stories to come in the weeks ahead, the ones we’re probably accustomed to hearing by now in this season, are ultimately disruptive to a status quo that abhors disruption. If there is any challenge for us in coming into this season yet again, maybe it is for us to hear these stories, and even the one we tell on Christmas Eve, with the disruptive and upsetting power they had when they first happened, when they were first told among those early followers of Christ, when they were first written down. Let Advent be disruptive. 

We don’t like that idea, of course, not when Christmas is coming with all the familiar and comfortable trappings in which the Nativity story gets covered. 

Maybe that’s the biggest reason we need a good unexpected disruptive Advent.

For the unexpected hour, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: Manger scenes and hanging greens; Keep watch, O Christian people; Come Now, O Prince of Peace (GtG #103).

[1] Working Preacher, December 1, 2019 (gospel reading); (accessed 25 November 2022).