Grace Presbyterian Church
January 12, 2020, Baptism of the Lord A
It is indispensible to our lives. Aside from air, it is the one most basic element that we cannot survive long without. Even food is not quite as utterly necessary; one could live without food for possibly as much as three admittedly horrible weeks, but without water one can only hope for about three days. Our bodies consist of about sixty percent water.
Water also covers about two-thirds of the planet and is life-giving not only for humans. Animals need it as well. Vegetation, for the most part, cannot live without it. Those fruits and vegetables we take in for nourishment will never come to fruition without the right amount of water at the right time; as the epistle of James reminds us in chapter 5, the farmer waits for the early and the late rains to come so that the crops may flourish. And yet too much water, or too much at the wrong time, can destroy those very fruits and vegetables, as well as the animal population of an area. On the other hand, too little water, or water too late, leaves a land prone to drought or fire, as the people of New South Wales in Australia can verify right now. Again, vegetation and animal populations are also threatened or ruined; some native species in Australia have been pushed to the brink of extinction by the wildfires raging there.
In short, it is virtually impossible to exaggerate how important water is to the health and well-being of this planet and all that lives in it.
Water, though, is not only subject to nature; human interactions can diminish its life-giving power. The city of Flint, Michigan, has not had a trustworthy source of drinkable water for approaching six years now due to gross human mismanagement; chemical spills have turned rivers in West Virginia hazardous several times in the past five years; and in our own state mismanagement and abuse of the Everglades system has brought natural decline to surrounding areas that have relied on those waters for their sustenance. For something so important to life on the most basic level, water can end up awfully mistreated and misused in human hands.
Of course, water has a pretty prominent role in scripture as well. Even at the very beginning, water shows up; the second verse of Genesis speaks of how “darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The second and third acts of creation, in the verses that follow, involve separating the waters above from the waters below (that is, creating the Sky) and separating the waters below from the land (1:6-10). But later in Genesis, those waters overwhelm the world in a massive and earth-destroying flood, an element of the story we somehow downplay when telling about Noah and the ark.
By Exodus water becomes both a barrier and a medium in which God performs great miracles. Most famously in Exodus, we read of God parting the watersof the sea to allow the Hebrew people to cross over, while the pursuing Egyptian army is washed away when they try to cross. A smaller-scale version of this deliverance through water occurs when the next generation of these Hebrew people, now led by Joshua, are able to cross over into the Promised Land as the Jordan River parts before them.
Water also shows up in much of the poetry and imagery of scripture. Think of the most famous of psalms, in which the Lord “my shepherd” leads the psalmist beside still waters. But the images don’t stop there; think of the shepherd-turned-prophet Amos and his thundering oracle “but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” or Isaiah’s declaration that “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.”
Indeed, by the time this fellow John shows up along the Jordan, calling all to be baptized for the repentance of sins [Mt 3:11], water has acquired a pretty prolific stature in the history and story of Israel.
The meaning and significance of baptism changes between this time, when John baptizes Jesus, and the end of this gospel, when the risen Jesus charges his followers to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” To be sure, repentance is still a part of baptism, as we will be reminded in the Reaffirmation of Faith to follow this sermon, in which we are called upon to “renounce” evil and sin. But baptism takes on more in Jesus’s commission; it carries not only repentance but also belonging; it marks being in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; it marks discipleship. It marks what comes to be known, over the course of the book of Acts, as the church.
In our reading from Acts 10, Peter has, with some agitation, obeyed a divine imperative to go to visit a Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius, with his family. Cornelius was evidently what was known in the language of the time as a God-fearer, a Gentile who nonetheless feared and prayed to the God of the people among whom he had been dispatched to serve. Finding Cornelius and his family ready and waiting to hear, Peter begins what might be called his go-to sermon, somewhat adapted for the situation. The Holy Spirit, however, had other ideas, and before Peter even got warmed up the Spirit visited a visible and clear manifestation of God’s favor upon Cornelius and his family.
First of all Peter and the (Jewish by birth) entourage that had accompanied him to Cornelius’s house were floored. This was clearly a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, but…these people were…were…were [shudder] Gentiles! It was inconceivable to Peter and all of the rest, in Jerusalem or any other place, that Gentiles – outsiders – could possibly be so favored. And yet clearly God had visited Cornelius and his people. What could Peter do?
Ultimately Peter realized that, if he were to be true to his Savior, he had no choice. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” he asks.
Can anyone withhold the water?
There is nothing magic about the water of baptism itself. The Jordan River water in which John baptized was the same muddy stuff in which others fished or swam or washed clothes or any number of other very mundane life tasks. It’s the same stuff as the water that got parted before Moses’s staff, the same stuff that overwashed the earth in Noah’s day, the stuff that falls from the sky or comes out of your tap. And yet in this very basic element, by Jesus’s example and by Jesus’s instruction, is the sign and symbol of belonging to God. Because of Jesus’s submission to the sign of baptism in water, and because of Jesus’s commission to baptize with that same water, it does mean more than something to drink when thirsty.
Again, the water is not magic. The water does not save you. And yet in the water of baptism we are shown as God’s own. Whether we are baptized ourselves or bringing our youngest for baptism, we are pledging repentance and even renunciation of sin and evil; we are being claimed as disciples of Jesus, living in obedience to what Jesus has taught and commanded; we are showing the mark of the Holy Spirit, no matter where we come from.
That’s a lot of meaning for this most basic element of human existence.
And maybe the neatest part of all of this is that, while doing a whole reaffirmation of baptism in worship is kinda cool and fun (yes, I’m serious), we don’t need it to remember our baptism. I know, for those who were baptized as infants it isn’t really literally possible to remember your baptism. Even if somebody shows you a picture of the occasion it’s not going to trigger any real actual memories for you. (As I grew up in a different tradition I wasn’t baptized as an infant; I was baptized when I was nine, and even remembering that is pretty foggy at this point in my life.) So no, we are not literally talking about remembering the actual act and occasion.
We remember whose we are. We remember the God who claims us despite our best efforts and who calls us children no matter what kind of rebellion we try, and does the same for a whole bunch of children we would not claim as our siblings except that God does it for us. We remember the water that could not be denied to us, no matter how far outside the pale it might have seemed. We remember repentance and belonging and being marked by the Holy Spirit. And the neat part is, if we’re open and listening and ready to look at the world – the whole creation – through the eyes of the Creator, then all we need to help us remember all of this is…water.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #375, Shall We Gather At the River; #164, Down Galilee’s Slow Roadways; #688, Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart; #480; Take Me to the Water
Grace Presbyterian Church
January 6, 2020, Epiphany A
It is a story that clanks noisily against the story we tend to think of as the “Christmas story.” We are accustomed to think of what Luke’s gospel teaches us, of all the angelic annunciations, especially Gabriel to Mary; the whole business about everybody having to return to their hometowns to be registered, therefore Joseph and Mary having to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem; the birth in a manger, because there was no room in the inn; the angels singing out to the shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks, and their surprise journey to Bethlehem. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, we have to wedge in the wise men somehow. Of course they’re not part of Luke’s story; this evening’s reading from Matthew is our only source for this event.
Perhaps that is why making the time to observe this event, under the name Epiphany and on its own date, is a particularly needful thing for the church to do in this time. While we have become accustomed over the decades to having the wise men crammed into the Nativity scene with all the shepherds and angels, the story of their coming to pay homage to the child Jesus has a different lesson to teach us, one that is all too easily and all too often drowned out in the madness of the holidays. It’s a lesson about who God is and who God calls, a lesson we forget at our peril.
In her last book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, the late Christian author Rachel Held Evans writes of how the God revealed in Ascripture is often misunderstood by those who claim to be followers:
There’s a curious but popular notion circulating around the church these days that says God would never stoop to using ancient genre categories to communicate. In addition to once again prioritizing modern, Western (and often uniquely American) concerns, this notion overlooks one of the most central themes of scripture itself: God stoops.
From walking with Adam and Eve through the Garden of Eden, to traveling with the liberated Hebrew slaves in a pillar of cloud and fire, to slipping into flesh and eating, laughing, suffering, healing, weeping, and dying among us as part of humanity, the God of scripture stoops and stoops and stoops and stoops. At the heart of the gospel message is a God who stoops to the point of death on a cross.
Held Evans goes on to make the point that when it comes to reaching out to us sometimes dumb and witless humans, nothing is beneath God, no matter how primitive or unseemly it might be to us. And what happens in Matthew’s distinctive contribution to the Nativity story might be the most striking example of that we have.
Matthew only identifies our visitors as “wise men from the East.” They show up in Jerusalem looking for the one born “King of the Jews,” and there’s some logic to showing up at a royal palace to look for a future king, I suppose. The ever-paranoid King Herod learns from his scribes what these foreigners could possibly be talking about, gives them directions along with a request to drop back by and talk about the whereabouts of this child, and the wise men are on their way. Should you choose to keep reading the rest of this chapter, you’ll see how that goes.
But about these wise men, or Magi: “from the East” is a pretty vague description. Given the geographical state of the region at this time, far and away the most likely origin for these Magi was the Persian Empire, an extensive region centered primarily on the land occupied by present-day Iran (an extreme irony, given the historical moment we are currently experiencing).
As such, these Magi were probably scholar-priests of the dominant religion of that region, Zoroastrianism. While perhaps not as distant as the panoply of gods worshiped in the Greco-Roman culture that occupied Judea at the time, it was definitely different and “foreign” to the Jewish people and culture into which Jesus was born. The Magi tell us up front that they made this trip because they saw a star, and that would fit in well with the pursuits of a Zoroastrian Magi. All in all, not a set that would seem to fit in well with the shepherds and angels and Mary and Joseph.
But here’s the thing: God. Did. Not. Care.
To return to Rachel Held Evans’s phrase, God stooped. To catch the attention of a bunch of Eastern stargazers, God made that Star happen. God did not care how “foreign,” how “different,” or how outside of every norm these Magi might seem to the people of Israel. God wanted them to see and to behold the child Jesus, and so God made that Star happen. And Matthew wrote it down. God stooped, and not even to the people who long understood themselves as God’s own children.
We have no idea what happened to these wise men after they dodged Herod on their way home. Matthew does not follow their story, and it is not recorded anywhere else as far as we know. Yet their very existence throws an absolutely necessary wrench into our easily sentimentalized “Christmas story,” so often stripped bare of all that challenges and disturbs. They challenge us to look again at the God who tracked them down through the stars and gave them the jolt they required to make a long and difficult journey to see a child like no other. They show us that the God we worship is not satisfied with the way things are, not content to keep the circle of God’s calling to those who are familiar to us or around whom we are comfortable and at ease. God stoops, not just to us, but to the outsider.
This is perhaps why Epiphany matters in a way we don’t often remember. These Magi come bursting into our cozy and comfortable scene with their strange language and strange religion and strange gifts (the gold is cool, but the frankincense and myrrh are odd at best), reminding us at even this most cozy-fied time of year that there’s a whole world out there beyond our comfort zones and happy places that God is just itching for us to reach out to and welcome and bear light, be a shining star even.
God stooped. Will we?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #673, Jesus, Light of Joy; #149, All Hail to God’s Anointed; #152, What Star is This, With Beams So Bright; #150, As With Gladness Men of Old
(Of course, sometimes we even make the Magi as familiar and “comfortable” as possible…)
Grace Presbyterian Church
January 5, 2020, Christmas 2A
Genesis 1:1-5; John 1:1-9
This table here is looking a little empty, isn’t it?
No shepherds, no Magi, no Mary or Joseph, no animals. It’s a little bare.
And yet as the author of the gospel of John would have us understand, this seemingly bare setting is the most essential thing for us to know.
The four gospels deal with the birth of Christ (or don’t) in different ways. I have to throw in the “or don’t” part because of the gospel of Mark, which…doesn’t report on the birth of Jesus at all; the story picks up straightway with John the Baptizer in the wilderness. Luke’s narrative, on the other hand, is fairly extensive, including not just the birth of Jesus himself but also reporting on the unusual birth of John the Baptist; recording multiple “songs” as part of the story, including Mary’s well-known Magnificat and also songs given to multiple other characters; relating the familiar parts of the story including the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the angels’ appearance to the shepherds; the presentation of the eight-day-old Jesus in the Temple, with a couple of prophets present to call out the child and his significance; and even the account of the twelve-year-old Jesus getting separated from his parents and being found in that same Temple, deeply in conversation with the scribes and teachers there.
Matthew’s story, which is rather terse by comparison, does nonetheless include the Magi and their visit to Jesus, observed as Epiphany, as well as the repercussions of that visit in the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem and the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, and eventual settling in Nazareth.
John has something quite different up his sleeve. There is no story of what happened at Bethlehem – there’s no mention of Bethlehem at all, nor of Mary or Joseph or shepherds or Magi or any such thing. There is, instead, a story of light.
I hope you were able to notice the resonance between the first reading of the day, from Genesis 1, and the reading from John. It seems deliberate. When you begin your gospel account with the words “In the beginning…” you are inviting, practically begging your readers and hearers to remember those opening words from Genesis. When you then launch into an evocation of light, the very thing first brought into being by the words of God in that Genesis story, you’re only making the connection even more explicit.
But what about this light? We are told about John, who came to bear witness to the light, the true light, coming into the world to enlighten everyone. We are told that this light, the “light of all people,” is found in the life of this one, the Word, the one that was in the beginning with God. But maybe the most interesting thing about the light comes in this sentence: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
That sounds odd in our ears, doesn’t it? Grammar teachers everywhere cringe at this, probably. The mix of present tense – “shines” – and past tense – “did not overcome” – doesn’t work immediately in our hearing or reading.
As awkward as this sounds, I don’t think it’s an accident or a grammar mistake. The light indeed shines in the darkness. Goodness knows the world knows darkness enough today, and anyone with even a small awareness of history realizes that the darkness of human existence and conflict has never been absent.
It’s like this candle here, on the table with the Christ child. It doesn’t matter how much of the light we dim here, it still shines.
(put out lights)
Admittedly this isn’t the darkest room, even with all the lights off and blinds drawn. But even so, and even if this were in the middle of the night, this candle’s light would still be evident. In fact, if this were done at tomorrow night’s Epiphany service, the light of this small candle might be even more evident or obvious if every other light were out.
So it is with the light of which John writes; it shines in the darkness and even shines despite the darkness. And the darkness, either the darkness of the void into which God spoke light or the darkness of the hour of Christ’s crucifixion, did not overcome the light, and in fact cannot overcome it. Ever.
This light of which John speaks isn’t a huge light. It’s not like being blinded by the lights of a full stadium or concert or other venues, but it is persistent, it is consistent, and it is undying light, which no darkness can ever quench or extinguish.
Maybe this is the thing we most need to hear from John’s flight of poetic mystery. The light shines. It doesn’t necessarily overwhelm, or drown out all darkness, but it shines, and no darkness can drown it out. If anything the light becomes more evident in the darker times.
So it is with us, if we’re following Christ. We don’t overwhelm the darkness, but neither are we drowned out by it. And if that life of which John speaks, the Word who was from the beginning with God, is truly the source of our light, the darkness has already failed to overcome it. No matter how grim it seems all around us, no matter how overwhelming or hopeless it might appear to be light in a dark and angry world, the darkness has already failed to overcome the light, if it is the true light that is shining in us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #134, Joy to the World!; #123, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear; #137, He Came Down; #136, Go, Tell It On the Mountain
Grace Presbyterian Church
December 29, 2019, Christmas 1A
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
These are the opening lines of a poem titled “Home” by the Kenyan-born, London-based Somali poet Warsan Shire. Published in 2015, the poem gained a great deal of attention for its bracingly stark portrayal of the horrific challenges faced by refugees fleeing from despotic regimes in many parts of the world, often with no clear hope of what is to come, but clear on the impossibility of facing certain death or torture or starvation by staying home.
The horrific challenge faced by refugees across the world is, for all its seeming currency, not a new thing. Refugees have been faced with the choice to flee into unknown dangers or to stay and be subject to certain dangers, frankly, for as long as governing powers of whatever kinds have existed. And indeed, we are reminded in today’s reading from Matthew that when we speak of our Lord having faced sufferings and persecution like as humanity has faced, that common trouble began as far back as his childhood.
The reading for today is, in effect, in three movements, like a sonata, sections marked (in order) by two dreams (only one of which is recorded in today’s reading), the nightmare, and two more dreams. We have already encountered dreams as a means by which Joseph, the earthly father of God’s Son, was instructed by God to take Mary as his wife despite her unexpected pregnancy (not to mention an earlier Joseph, back in Genesis, who also had some experience with dreams). Now, after the child is born, and after that strange visit by those star-followers from a distant land, another dream brings another angel messenger to Joseph, this time with a much more urgent message.
Movement 1: Bethlehem to Egypt
We begin in Bethlehem. At this point it is probably best if we put out of our minds a great many of those elements that we tend to think of as “the Christmas story” – events recorded in Luke but not in Matthew, such as the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, or the angel visitation to the shepherds and their journey to Bethlehem. To hear what Matthew is trying to tell us, it’s best not to confuse the two narratives. It’s not about preferring one to the other, but hearing each gospel with integrity matters, and today is Matthew’s turn to tell his story, no matter how ugly or despairing it may be.
In Matthew’s account the family is pretty clearly living in Bethlehem. Verse 11 of this chapter speaks of the Magi “entering the house” where the child was with his mother Mary – no stable or manger to be seen. All things considered, once the Magi had gone, it’s hard to say that the family would have done anything other than settled down to a life as normal as possible when your son is the Promised One, were it not for this new and urgent dream after the Magi’s departure.
The dream is a stark warning: “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Here warning of the dream is needed in reaction to the consequences of another dream, one in which the Magi were warned not to return to Herod, as Herod had requested in their initial meeting. Herod got angry and threatened, and immediately set out to remove, by whatever means necessary, this unknown child in this forgotten backwater town who somehow convinced these foreigners that he was a future King of Israel. That’s what tyrants do.
But in the meantime, the first move; from Bethlehem to Egypt.
(Move Holy Family)
Movement 2: The Massacre
This isn’t the kind of text to which the Revised Common Lectionary typically leads (there are plenty of battlefield slaughters in scripture that don’t get read). This isn’t the kind of text for which hymn writers typically write hymns (and I tried). Over time you may have noticed that when I’m putting a service together, I do try as best as possible to choose hymns for the service that somehow reinforce or “go with” the scripture reading or readings being read and proclaimed. That’s not really possible for this text; that Coventry CarolJulia played is one of very few songs to tell this story. If anything, the hymns today are, almost of necessity, jarringly dissonant with the scripture, and maybe that’s the best thing to do in this case – let the contrast point out just how horrible this story is.
There are scholars who point out that this particular slaughter is not recorded in any place other than this scripture, even by scribes who were hostile towards Herod. To be honest, maybe it’s not as surprising as they want to make it out to be. Let’s be blunt about this: we remember a few big names – Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland – but how many mass school shootings or synagogue shootings or movie theater shootings have we already forgotten? What happens in a small backwater town is easily brushed aside by history; a few dozen children of families of no importance are easily swept aside by a tyrant determined to maintain his grip on power; again, this is what tyrants do.
Bethlehem was a small town, maybe of two hundred residents; a best guess might be that somewhere between ten and twenty young boys under the age of two were killed for being born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The trouble with Luke’s Nativity story is that it is so easily to sentimentalize beyond all meaning. It’s just a series of pretty pictures or verses, something you can gather up a bunch of children and put them in bathrobes (or dress some of them as sheep) and pose them on stage and you have a pageant guaranteed to make every grandparent in the room go “awwww…” and every parent snapping pictures to the point of blinding the poor kids on stage. Matthew will have none of that. As Matthew desperately wants us to see, this birth takes place in a world that knows hideous cruelty and violence –the very sinfulness and rebellion this child came down to earth to bear witness against – and this child was very close to being caught in it, but for the quiet but urgent intervention of God.
Human depravity doesn’t go away just because the Son of God shows up on earth. It’s not exactly a heartwarming story, but we are unprepared for the world if we do not remember this.
Movement 3: Out of Egypt
Time passes. We don’t know how much, but it could possibly have been as long as two years, when another of those dreams gives Joseph the heads-up that Herod was dead, and it was time to return. The family had spent this time in Egypt as…immigrants? refugees? asylum seekers? Whatever it was, that time was over, and a journey back to Israel awaited the family.
While Herod might no longer be ruling over the Roman province of Judea, someone potentially even worse was: Herod’s son, Archelaus. This set off alarm bells for Joseph, and (as if he had come to expect these dreams to help him get through this time of trial) he hesitated to return to Bethlehem of Judea. Joseph’s instincts were correct; Archelaus would go down in history acknowledged as an even worse and more abusive ruler than his father, so bad that his Roman superiors (who never worried overmuch about how brutally their puppet rulers did their job) decided he was going too far and removed him from office. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Joseph’s hesitation here; after all, he’s only been told to return to Israel, not necessarily to Bethlehem or Judea proper.
Sure enough, one more angelic dream comes to him, redirecting him further north, to the province of Galilee and the town of Nazareth. As Matthew has done all along, he jumps in to tie this new address to ancient prophecy – just as he had with the flight into Egypt, citing a prophetic line about God calling the son out of there, now an apparently obscure prophetic proclamation about the Promised One being a Nazarean comes into play. Not to mention the very resonance of Egypt in the history of Israel – the whole Exodus story probably came crashing into the mind of every one of Matthew’s Jewish readers in the first century at the mere mention of Egypt. So at last the family would make their way to what would be Jesus’s hometown.
(Move Holy Family)
It’s not easy to know what to do with a story such as this, and frankly I’d run like mad from any preacher who tried to sell it with any kind of positive or triumphalistic spin on it. Trying to draw out some sort of “big finish” to a sermon seems all wrong, and yet it does seem that there are two things that we, so easily seduced into taking all meaning out of Christmas that goes anywhere beyond ‘awwww…’, need to hold on to from this horrific story that Matthew insists on putting before us. All the dreams make us modern educated types a little uneasy, and reading about a slaughter of children by a cruel and desperate tyrant doesn’t lend itself to easy sermon points, but maybe we should remember this:
- Human cruelty and wickedness does not cease simply because the Son of God is incarnate among humanity. If anything, it seems as if that wickedness ramps up, determined to hold on to its own power or wealth or status without regard to the work of God on earth. Jesus is not a magic spell that we cast about to ward off evil spirits. Wicked people will continue to do wicked things.
But at the same time, this is also true:
- Human cruelty and wickedness will not stop God’s movement among humanity, any more than it stopped the Son of God from being incarnate and living among us on earth. This may be the harder one to remember. It can be easy to despair of the Kingdom of Heaven making any headway in a world that displays so much hatred and vindictiveness. How can God possibly be at work in all this?
And yet it is precisely in all this that God is most at work. Among the poorest, the most desperate, the most “least of these” among humanity, the Spirit of God is most moving, most active, if we take Matthew 25 seriously. The Spirit isn’t always heard very well in places of comfort or power, on the other hand, like, say, a tyrant’s palace or the homes of those who support him (and it’s pretty frequently “him,” it seems).
No, to quote the old Christmas hymn, “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.” God is still at work. God is still moving. That is not the question, despite the best efforts of the worst of humanity. What is the question? The question is whether we will join with God, follow Jesus, and be led by the Spirit in the work of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #143, Angels, from the Realms of Glory; #127, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing; #159, O Sing a Song of Bethlehem; #113, Angels We Have Heard on High
(Image: Léon Cogniet, Scene of the massacre of the Innocents, 1824; Musée des Beaus-Arts, Rennes)
Grace Presbyterian Church
December 22, 2019, Blue Christmas
Let My Crying Come Unto Thee
It was thirty years ago this past Wednesday that my mom died.
It was seven years ago on the 14th that I had one major surgery, and seven months ago this past Friday that I had a second one, the results of which are still an ongoing adjustment I have to make in my life.
When in seminary they tell you that an anecdote is a good attention-getting way to start a sermon, what I just did isn’t what they’re talking about. I think, though, that there are times that there is no good or right formula to begin with, other than to lay bare the fact of human existence – that at some point in our lives, in some way or another, if we have even a tiny shred of humanity about us, we all suffer. And despite our best efforts to avoid doing so, we all end up learning that, as C.S. Lewis put it, “there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it…”[i].
Now there are books upon books out there that will give you all manner of advice or instruction on how to deal with this kind of thing, and their counsel will not be much like what C.S. Lewis had to say about it. You’ll get language about “overcoming,” for example. Maybe “breaking free.” A favorite exercise of mine is to go on Amazon dot com to look for book titles that include the particular word in question, and when one enters just the word “suffering” here are some of the titles one might get:
- More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us
- Suffering: Gospel Hope When Life Doesn’t Make Sense
- Suffering is Never for Nothing
- Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores
- Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering
- 101 Ways to Find Meaning in Suffering
- Making Sense Out of Suffering
You get the idea. If you’re suffering, whether physically or emotionally or any other way, something is wrong with you for feeling that; or just hold on because this is going to make you into a superhero! (or something); or somehow your faith is off and you need to fix it.
Even the reading from the epistle of James, while it doesn’t go quite that far, begins with the admonishment to “be patient.” I don’t know about you, but in times of grief or pain the last thing I want to hear is to be patient. Like I have a choice, James, come on. There is a time for that counsel, but there is a time not for that counsel too.
As usual when it comes to suffering in scripture, it’s the psalmist who gets it.
For what turns out to be eleven verses in our modern reading of Psalm 102, the psalmist does nothing but pour it all out to God. “Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come unto you.” It starts from there and keeps on pouring out; challenging God to listen and not to turn away from the pain being poured out, not just to listen but to answer. And from there, the psalmist does not hold back.
Some of these images that sound odd to us are fairly commonplace in this style of Hebrew; we would speak of them as metaphors or similes, means by which the speaker’s own grief and distress can be expressed in the most vivid and affective terms possible. Some of them, like verse 9’s image of eating ashes like bread and mingling tears with drink, are found elsewhere in the Psalms as well. The psalmist does not care how weird or pathetic he (or she) sounds; it only matters that God hears, nothing else.
For all of the preachers and scholars and others who have pored over the Psalms over the centuries, it is my suspicion that the one who “got” this psalm most of all was not one of them, but a composer. The great English Baroque composer Henry Purcell set out, we think, to create a choral setting of this psalm; we have to say “we think” because Purcell’s setting, as far as we know, never got beyond that first verse – as the King James Version Purcell would have used renders it, “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my crying come unto thee.” Those are all the words used. But by bringing his own technical skill to the text – using voices at the extremes of their vocal range, eight different voice parts overlapping and echoing one another, letting the volume rise and fall and rise but never letting the music come to rest – Purcell interprets the verse into a surging, overwhelming act of pleading, crying out indeed to the Lord to be heard, to be able to voice the grief and the suffering of the psalmist.
It’s not clear if Purcell was somehow prevented from setting the rest of the psalm, or if indeed the one verse was all he meant to use. My personal suspicion (or hope) is that once he had completed that much, he knew there was nothing more he could say.
Whatever else may come, whatever may happen after the onset of the suffering or grief, the first thing to be done, as C.S. Lewis might say, is to suffer it. Not to hide it or try to conquer it by sheer willpower or any such thing, but to pour it all out before God. Hear my prayer, we say. Let my crying come unto thee. We cry out, and we trust that God indeed will hear.
For the God who truly hears our prayer, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #797, We Cannot Measure How You Heal; #824, There Is a Place of Quiet Rest
Music During Meditation:
J.S. Bach, Prelude in C, BWV 846
Frederic Chopin, Prelude in C minor, op.20
Edward MacDowell, Woodland Sketches, op. 51: “To a Wild Rose”
Amy Beach, “Canoeing,” op. 119 no. 3
Edvard Grieg, Lyric Pieces, op. 12; no. 3, “Watchman’s Song”
Grace Presbyterian Church
December 15, 2019, Advent 3A
A conversation that happened in the church office this past week has stuck in my head while preparing this sermon. While Sherry Crane was in the office on Tuesday, she wondered aloud to Ivette Cardoso, our administrative assistant, and me whether Christmas was somehow managing to sneak up on us this year. I had to admit it felt true, and due to the nature of my job I have to think about Christmas well in advance. I could easily see how it might feel “all of a sudden” to others who don’t have to start thinking about Christmas in October or so.
But then, it’s almost impossible not to start thinking about “Christmas,” in some ways, isn’t it? Thanksgiving got conquered long ago, and Halloween put up a good fight but now it seems to be increasingly overwhelmed by the commercial build-up to “Christmas,” by which I mean the holiday shopping season, Christmas movies starting to show up on certain TV cable channels, and some radio stations starting to play Christmas music. I guess Labor Day is next to fall. Anyway, given that relentless commercial pressure that starts building up so early (far, far beyond what Charlie Brown fretted about in that famous Christmas special), I suppose it can seem like a shock when the actual holiday itself is upon us all of a sudden.
The pink candle that was lighted today on the Advent wreath almost serves as an alert signal. 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 some 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 responsive 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.
But 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, it was pretty likely that John had kept tabs on what Jesus was doing. In fact, 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 (as well as Jesus’s sometime adversaries the Pharisees) did. John had taken up a rather ascetic life in the wilderness (remember the camel-hair coat and locusts-and-honey died), 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, and knowing that most folks who entered Herod’s prison didn’t leave alive, he began to experience something that not at all characteristic of his public ministry: doubt. And so he sends some of his own followers to Jesus to ask, “are you the one…or are we to wait for another?”
At first, Jesus’s answer might seem to chide John or his disciples, just slightly. He gives a rundown of what’s been going on – sight restored, mobility restored, health restored, hearing restored, life restored, hope restored, when you break it all down. And then there’s that little shot at the end: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” This could sound like a slight at his older cousin, but then there were probably folks in the audience of the moment to whom such statement could have been directed as well.
At any rate Jesus goes on to show that insulting John was far from his point, noting that “no one greater than he” was to be found among humanity. But still, the moment of doubt is telling. Is John simply worried that his time is nearly done, or is there concern about how Jesus is going about his ministry in a very different and seemingly less, well,holy way than John had lived out his call? Was Jesus not living right enough for John?
As Jesus will note later in the chapter (vv. 18-19), both Jesus and John get picked on by the Pharisees; of John and his ascetic life they say “he has a demon,” and Jesus gets called “a glutton and a drunkard” for his non-fasting. You can’t win either way, so it’s probably best not to get into some sort of holiness Olympics with each other. But perhaps even more the point is that, for all the awfulness and injustice of John’s situation, Jesus’s ministry is still healing and restoring and bringing good news to the poor. Sadly, as long as we live on earth, we will not all know joy at the same time; one experiences true joy while another faces tragedy. But one’s tragedy does not eliminate another’s joy (again, more on that later). All of those being healed and restored are still joyful.
Meanwhile, there is a similar dynamic at play between today’s other two readings, from Isaiah and James. 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 to set off the desert bloom. 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 be more hassle that hope. It ruins 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 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 as these scriptures suggest is also different. In the words of author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis (in his memoir Surprised by Joy), “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 injustice and cruelty have sway. 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 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, and those taken by joy, rejoice 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 that pink candle be our wake-up call; let it be our reminder that Christmas is suddenly near; but 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): #88, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (stanzas 1-4); #—, See, the Desert Shall Rejoice; #100, My Soul Cries Out With a Joyful Shout (Canticle of the Turning); #88, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (stanzas 5-7)
Grace Presbyterian Church
December 8, 2019, Advent 2A
The description is from Isaiah 40:3. Because Matthew apparently refers to the Septuagint, the very early Greek translation of Hebrew Scripture that would have been highly circulated in his time, his quotation is slightly different from what you’d find if you looked up Isaiah 40:3 in your pew Bible. Still, it’s the same bit of prophetic outcry that was made famous by Handel in one of the early solos in his oratorio Messiah [note: it’s around 2:15]:
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness:
Prepare ye the way of the Lord!
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
If Broadway is more your speed, you might remember the opening song from the musical Godspell, first sung by a solo singer, then eventually by the full cast. Pre-ee-ee-pare ye the waaaay oooooffff the Lord…..”
It’s a catchy little bit of prophecy, you might say, and easily set to music.
It is also in some ways a high point of a panel of readings that come togther on this second Sunday of Advent. The responsive reading we spoke together gives a glimpse into the people’s yearning for a just and righteous king. From the very beginning of the psalm we hear the plea for a ruler who embodies and enacts two things that were far too often lacking in the kings of Israel and Judah: justice and righteousness.
You can read, back in the eighth chapter of 1 Samuel, how at a time when Samuel the prophet was getting old and his sons weren’t living up to his legacy, the people of Israel took their grievances to Samuel, complaining and asking to have a king “to govern us, like other nations.” As God pointed out to Samuel at the time, it wasn’t Samuel the people were rejecting, but God’s own kingship over them. Nonetheless God told Samuel to give them what they wanted.
Suffice it to say that by the time of both the Psalms and Isaiah readings, the people had experienced plenty of opportunity to regret that choice, even if they never admitted it. The psalm reading demonstrates clearly what the people had given up in rejecting God’s rule all those years before. Justice and righteousness were absent from their rule far too often, oppression ran rampant, and the poor and needy were defenseless and abused routinely. The psalmist pleads for a king who rules with justice and righteousness, with favor for the needy and oppressed – in other words, a king who ruled the way God ruled.
The account from the prophet Isaiah comes from an even more stark and bleak perspective. By this time Israel and Judah have both been conquered, and their leaders, unjust and unrighteous as they were, turned out also to be quite powerless and incompetent in the face of those kings the people of Israel (the ones Israel had apparently been jealous about back in Samuel’s time). The people of the two kingdoms saw their rulers hauled off like common prisoners and humiliated, sometimes brutally, before all the enemies of Israel and Judah. Rather than becoming a big and tough and powerful kingdom standing tall on the world stage, Israel and Judah had become laughingstocks. Imagine that; putting your trust in a human leader only to be humiliated and become a joke to the world.
Given that devastating experience of the consequences of rejecting God’s leadership, the prophetic oracle recorded here in Isaiah 11 is remarkable indeed. Jesse of course refers to the father of David, so pretty clearly the promise is of one from David’s line emerging as a true ruler, in not only David’s lineage but in God’s own path, an exuberant hope indeed. The promise of a leader upon whom God’s spirit rests, characterized by wisdom and understanding and good counsel and might and knowledge and fear of the Lord, one who judges in righteousness – yes, there’s that word again – and favors the lowly and meek – another repeated idea; again this promise is coming from Isaiah at a particularly bleak and seemingly hopeless time in the history of the two kingdoms that were once one.
The sheer overwhelming hopefulness of this promised leader then leads to this ind-twisting, yet characteristic image from Isaiah; a world in which the things we think are fixed and unchangeable no longer hold. Predators and prey live at peace, and not at a safe distance like at a zoo or a Disney park. Wolf and lamb, leopard and baby goat, calf and lion, cow and bear, are being together all cozy and comfy. Lions don’t prey; they graze. Children can play with snakes and not be hurt. (This is where I insert the warning: don’t try this at home, children.) Even nature is repaired and restored by this Promised One.
Of course, by the time we get to the events of Matthew’s gospel, centuries have passed and neither the king sought by the psalmist nor the branch of Jesse’s family tree proclaimed by Isaiah have come along. Exile has ended and come again, and after many years the Roman Empire has established its rule over the people of what once had been Judah and Israel. Those words still rang in ears of the people, though, and more than a few would-be prophets had sought to tickle the ears of the people claiming to be the long-awaited deliverer, only to find out what happened to those who dared challenge the Roman Empire (they disappeared quickly).
So when the word started to get around about this guy preaching out in the wastelands away from Jerusalem, maybe it was a hopeful thing for some. Might this possibly be “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” from Isaiah 40? Or maybe there was a mixture of hope – “maybe this is the one” – and cynicism – “oh, boy, here we go again” – in the reaction of the folks in the city. Whatever their reaction, they came out to see him. And what they saw, as it turned out, wasn’t anything like they expected.
For one thing, he would admit that – unlike so many of these wannabe prophets – he wasn’t preaching about himself, as he himself admits starting in verse 11. For another, well…look at the guy. That’s not a normal wardrobe. And munching on wild locusts and honey adds to the look. Also, he’s not really promising the kind of things the folk were hearing in the psalms and the prophets. No glossy visions of predators and prey at peace, no idealized versions of a coming ruler are found here; John’s message is pretty one-note. The note is this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” That’s it, as far as Matthew records.
The kicker is yet to come. John’s message does change on one occasion: when the religious leaders started showing up. Anyone who thought John was a odd but fiery preacher got something new to see and hear.
By the time of Matthew’s gospel, it was pretty well-established that the religious leaders of Jerusalem were, to put it bluntly, collaborators with the occupying Romans. It was a calculated thing to be sure; cooperate, and maybe fewer people get hurt. Go along and get along, don’t let any trouble get started, and everything stays peaceful (and you get to keep your power to some degree). This would have been less the case outside the city. At any rate, hearing this crazy guy in the camel-hair coat rip into the religious leaders as soon as they got within earshot of him probably had its own particular entertainment appeal as far as this wilderness-preaching scenario went.
Still, this? Really? This is the prophet? This is the setting? No beautiful sweet Hallmark-card visions of wolf and lamb lying down together? No idealized vision of a just and righteous leader to rescue us all? Just “repent,” and some guy coming with a winnowing fork and baptizing with fire somehow? You might not know whether to be amused or slightly disturbed.
No, it doesn’t appear that God chose a very traditional prophet to be “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” And the message delivered by this unconventional messenger felt a bit darker and less hopeful. Still…maybe? By this time any hope was something. But what to do about it?
Well, repentance sure seems necessary. That level of self-examination and change of life – not merely saying sorry for your sins, but changing your life so as not to live in that sin anymore – seems to be a first and indispensible step in preparing for the Promised One, for the reign of God come near. John’s not ambiguous about it, and the message especially seems to apply to those who would seem to be at the top of the food chain, so to speak – those who claim, or are trusted with, any kind of spiritual authority. It’s fearful stuff to contemplate from this pulpit, you can be sure of that. But nobody is off the hook; the call to “repent” is for all who seek the One to come.
What else? Maybe we take our clues from the early church, the folks to whom Paul (among other apostles) was writing and preaching and teaching. These are, after all, our ancestors in the life of Advent as a two-way street – living in the wake of the first Advent while longing for the second.
Mind you, “Christmas” had not, so to speak, been invented yet. It wasn’t a big huge festival occasion for the early church the way it is today (for one thing, no one agreed on the date). But certainly the birth of Jesus was a known part of their theology and learning – the Savior born of a human, born like one of us, was as an essential a part of the church’s understanding then as it is now. And at the same time, those Romans and others to whom Paul was writing were also waiting, perhaps with even greater, more imminent expectation, for the return of that same Jesus. While by the time of this letter to the church in Rome it was becoming clear that such return wasn’t going to happen quite as quickly as Paul had hoped, it was still something he expected and taught the churches he visited and experienced to expect as well.
So what was expected in living the perpetual life of preparation for that Advent? Well, be steadfast, have hope, and be encouraged by the scriptures. Live in harmony “in accordance with Christ Jesus,” and glorify God by doing so. Welcome one another – Gentile as well as Jew as things stood in the Roman church, fulfilling the word of the prophets that this Promised One was promised for all. These all seem simple, or maybe not. Hope is hard to come by. Harmony is a challenge. Welcome seems quite countercultural these days. And yet living in preparation seems to involve these things, somehow.
Preparing, and being prepared, doesn’t have quite the same ring here as it does in the world around us. Being prepared, if it’s not being used as the Boy Scouts motto, can take on a darker tone these days. You have to have health insurance and life insurance to be prepared for your health to fail; you have to put in a massive security system to be prepared for someone to try to break into your home; you have to stock up on supplies to be prepared when a hurricane is coming. But Advent is not about preparing for a threat; it is about preparing for hope, for the reign of God to come near, for the fulfillment of all that has been promised. We may not get petting zoos where wolves and lambs cavort together, but we do await, and watch for, and prepare for that reign of God to come. Let us prepare, and live prepared.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #106, Prepare the Way, O Zion; #—, Prepare Your Hearts; #96, On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry; #105, People, Look East