Sermon: Level Ground

Sunday 17 February 2019
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 6C

Luke 6:17-26

Today’s passage from Luke is the beginning of what we call the Sermon on the Plain. What is the Sermon on the Plain? you might be thinking. I’m glad you asked.

Most of you have heard of the Sermon on the Mount. In the Gospel of Matthew, toward the beginning, but after Jesus has begun his ministry, great crowds of people come flocking to Jesus for exorcism and healing, and he climbs up onto a high place and begins to preach to them. He gives a series of blessings that we call the beatitudes, which is just a fancy way of saying blessings. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. And he goes on preaching for three chapters, talking mostly about ethical issues. For some groups of Christians, particularly Mennonites and other Anabaptists, those three chapters of Matthew are the most important words in the entire bible. The Sermon on the Mount is the lens through which they look at every other part of the bible. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. Love your enemy. Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or your body, what you will wear. Don’t judge, lest you be judged. Take the log out of your own eye so you can see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. Ask and you will receive, knock and the door will be opened. Go in through the narrow gate. Watch out for false prophets. The house built on a rock. Almost every word of the Sermon on the Mount would be familiar to most of you. It has a key part of Christian teaching for two thousand years.

It is so popular that almost everyone forgets about the Sermon on the Plain. It’s found not in the Gospel of Matthew, but in the Gospel of Luke. It happens at just about the same part of the story, early in Jesus’s ministry, as great crowds of people are flocking to him for exorcism and healing. And again, he prepares to address the crowd. But instead of climbing up to a high place, like Matthew tells the story, Jesus descends from a high place and comes down to the level ground, comes down to the plain, before he begins to speak.

The Sermon on the Plain is shorter, but it covers some of the same ground as the Sermon on the Mount. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. Take the log out of your own eye. The house built on a rock. But although the both sermons hit some of the same key notes, they are not the same. And since the Sermon on the Mount has been so much more central to Christian teaching, few of us have taken the time to notice what it is that Jesus has to say in Luke’s version of the story. In fact, just this week I was reading a modern-day retelling of the Gospel of Luke, called Esperanza Reyes, when it came time for the Christ character to deliver this sermon, the author substituted in some of the words from Matthew rather than staying true to the words in Luke. So let’s take a closer look at what it is that Luke’s Jesus has to say, and what Luke’s Jesus leaves out.

So, this is the Beatitudes. And in Luke, they sound like this: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are weeping now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for this is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”

And that should sound a little bit similar and a little bit different to the version that you have running around in your head. Both Matthew and Luke have that extra-long beatitude at the end that talks about being hated because of Jesus, but I want to set that aside for right now and look and the rest of the beatitudes.

Luke has only three. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are those who weep. In the same place, Matthew has eight beatitudes. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Luke keeps things simpler and more to the point.

But that’s not the only difference. In Matthew, Jesus blesses people in the third person. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the peacemakers. But Luke’s Jesus blesses people directly, blesses people in the second person. Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry. In Luke, Jesus isn’t making a philosophical speech, he’s talking directly to people who are hurting, directly to people who are in trouble.

But that may not be the biggest difference. The biggest difference isn’t in what Luke’s Jesus says, it’s in what he doesn’t say. You know the familiar version from Matthew, right? “Blessed are the poor… in spirit.” Who are the poor in spirit? People who have weak faith? Or maybe people who have strong faith? People who are simple? It’s hard to say for sure. But one thing we can say is that it probably doesn’t have anything to do with people who are actually poor. If I talk about the poor in spirit, chances are you will not think about people who are in actual economic trouble. You’ll be thinking about their prayer life or their attitude to God, not about whether they can afford to pay their rent, or feed their kids, or pay for their medicine. Matthew talks about the poor in spirit.

But Luke talks about the actual poor. Blessed are you who are poor. There’s no metaphor here. It is just what it says. Jesus is talking about people who are worried because they can’t pay all of their bills, or because they’re not sure where their next meal is coming from, or because they have to choose between their kids prescription and the electric bill. Jesus is talking about actual poverty, about real, tangible, physical, in-the-real-world need. Blessed are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom belongs to you.

And it’s the same with Luke’s second blessing. Matthew’s version is “Blessed are you who hunger and thirst… for righteousness.” What does that mean? Someone who tries extra hard to be holy? Or maybe someone who is an activist for social justice? Maybe just someone who hopes for a more just or a more righteous society in the future? It’s hard to say. But it doesn’t mean someone who is actually hungry. Matthew talks about some kind of metaphorical hunger for righteousness.

But Luke talks about actual hunger. Blessed are you who are hungry now. There’s no metaphor. Jesus is talking about people who have been skipping their own meals so they can feed their kids, about people who aren’t sure whether they will have food tomorrow, about people who have to choose unhealthy food because it’s cheaper. Jesus is talking about actual hunger, about real, tangible, physical, in-the-real-world hunger. Blessed are you who are poor now, because you will be filled.

Luke’s third beatitude is a bit less tangible, but it is no less real. Blessed are you who are weeping now. Jesus is talking about real grief, real pain, real anxiety and distress. There’s nothing philosophical or metaphorical about. Blessed are you who are in pain, who have been battered and abused, who have been kicked aside or left behind, who are at your wit’s ends. Blessed are you who are weeping now, because you will laugh.

That’s a big difference. Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth; blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” It’s all a bit etherial, isn’t it? Scholars call the difference between Matthew and Luke spiritualiztion. Matthew spiritualizes the beatitudes. They stop being about real, everyday pain, and they become something that only happens in the mind. There’s a big difference between being poor in spirit and actually being poor.

Even someone who is very rich can convince themselves that they are poor in spirit, and so they can receive the blessing from Jesus. It’s not that easy to convince yourself that you’re poor when you aren’t. And that’s the way with most of Matthew’s beatitudes. If I put myself in the right mind, then I can receive all of the blessings. Sure, I’m poor in spirit sometimes. Sometimes I’m meek. Sometimes I mourn. Sometimes I’m merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker. I can receive all of those blessings, and they don’t imply that anything about my life will be changed. They don’t challenge me or even much about my society. They make me feel good.

But Luke’s beatitudes are a lot more real. And they don’t leave me or my society unchallenged. They call for a change, for an effort to eradicate poverty, an effort to eradicate hunger, an effort to eradicate emotional trauma.

And it’s all the more challenging because Luke’s Jesus doesn’t just offer blessings, he gives curses as well. We usually call them the woes. Woe to you who… But who talks like that? We know what the opposite of a blessing is, right? It’s a curse.

Cursed are you who are rich. Why? Because you have already received your reward. Cursed are you who are full now, because you will be hungry. Cursed are you who are laughing now, because you will mourn and weep. Cursed are you when everyone speaks well of you. Their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.

And that is challenging, isn’t it? It’s challenging because Jesus takes a side, and it’s not always our side. Jesus takes a side—with the poor, with the hungry, with the oppressed and hurting. Jesus takes a side—against the rich, against the well-fed, against those who have it easy. And that is challenging. Jesus wants to lift up some and bring others down. Like his mother, Mary, said back in chapter one: God has pulled down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. God is showing a preference. And it’s not a preference for the holy people. It’s not a preference for those who spend the most time praying. It’s not even a preference for those who have the most faith. God shows a preference for those who have the most need. It’s clear, over and over again in Luke. For God, the last are first and the first are last.

What is that about? Is it about revenge? Is it about penalizing people who have done well for themselves? Is it about punishing success?

I don’t think so. You know what I think it’s about? It’s about level ground. In Matthew, Jesus stands on the mountain like Moses and gives the people the law. But here in Luke, Jesus doesn’t stand up high above everyone else. He comes down to our level. He stands with us on level ground, and he says, “Blessed are you who are poor; because God wants to give you everything he has. Blessed are you who are hungry, because God wants you to be full. Blessed are you who are crying, because God wants to wipe away every tear and bring you joy.” And who is God’s action for? It is first for those who have the greatest need.

God doesn’t want anyone to languish in poverty. God doesn’t want anyone to worry about where their next meal is coming from. God doesn’t want anyone to cry in despair. What God wants is level ground. And that may mean that some need to have less so that everyone has enough.

It’s a radical Jesus that we get in the Gospel of Luke. If you want a religion that stays out of politics, then don’t read this gospel. Here, Jesus shows up on the scene and gives his mission statement: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he doesn’t deviate from that mission. Good news for the poor. Release for the captives. Liberation for the oppressed. That is how Jesus defines the Kingdom of God. It’s not some far-away place off in heaven. The Kingdom of God is good news for the poor, release for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and liberation for the oppressed.

Blessed are you who are poor, because the Kingdom of God belongs to you. And every time we feed the hungry, that is the Kingdom of God. Every time we offer help to the poor, that is the Kingdom of God. Every time we comfort someone who is crying or afraid, that is the Kingdom of God. Every time we offer healing, that is the Kingdom of God. Every time we work for the liberation of the oppressed, that is the Kingdom of God. Not the dark of buildings confining, not a some heaven light years away, but here in this place, as new light is shining. Now is the Kingdom! Now is the Day!

Jesus comes to level ground, and he proclaims, The Kingdom of God has come near. Thanks be to God. And let us live as citizens of that Kingdom, not high above those whom we think are outside, but down on level ground, face to face, brothers and sisters because we are all children of the same God, a God who calls us to live out the Kingdom, here and now, and wherever we may go.

Home Worship for February 10

Worship and all activities are cancelled for Sunday, February 10.

 +Pastor David

For worship and discussion at home:

Read Luke 5:1-11

What would you think if someone came to your work and told you they knew how to do it better?

On the Sea of Galilee, they fish at night because the fish have a harder time seeing the nets at night. Why do you think Simon Peter was willing to go out again during the day after they had caught nothing all night?

How do you think they felt when they caught so many fish that the nets were breaking and the boats were starting to sink?

Jesus tells the fishers to go out into the deep water, a place that has a chance for greater reward, but also a place that is more dangerous. If Jesus told you to go out into the deep water, what would that look like in your life?

What might Jesus be calling you to leave behind in order to follow him?

Sing “Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore”

 

Lord, you have come to the lakeshore
Looking neither for wealthy or wise ones;
You only asked me to follow humbly.
O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me,
And while smiling have spoken my name;
Now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me;
By your side, I will seek other seas. 

You know so well my possessions;
My boat carries no gold and no weapons,
You will find there my nets and labor.
O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me,
And while smiling have spoken my name;
Now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me;
By your side, I will seek other seas. 

You need my hands, full of caring
Through my labors to give others rest,
And constant love that keeps on loving.
O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me,
And while smiling have spoken my name;
Now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me;
By your side, I will seek other seas. 

You, who have fished other oceans,
Ever longed for by souls who are waiting,
My loving friend, as thus you call me.
O Lord, with your eyes you have searched me,
And while smiling have spoken my name;
Now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me;
By your side, I will seek other seas.

What is one risk you are ready to take to follow Jesus?

Sermon: Luv

Sunday 3 February 2019
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the presence of these witnesses, to join together these two people in holy matrimony…. Wait a minute… that’s not right. I guess I heard the reading from 1 Corinthians 13 and got a little carried away. We hardly ever read that text at a regular church service, but it seems like whenever there is a wedding, this is the text that they choose. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful…. Love never ends.” It sounds so romantic, doesn’t it? Just reading through it I can almost hear Pachelbel’s Canon in D played by a string quartet in my head, which, by the way, is not actually a canon at all—it’s a ground bass—but that is another story. 1 Corinthians 13, like Pachelbel’s Canon, is just one of those things that we expect to hear at weddings.

Now, I hate to burst anyone’s bubble here, but despite all of the wonderful language about love, and despite the fact that it get’s read at virtually every wedding, and despite the fact that we’ve all heard several wedding sermons about it, this text has virtually nothing to do with marriage or with romantic love.

In fact, marriage was the last thing on Paul’s mind when he wrote this particular passage. Paul, you see, is not a great fan of marriage. If you don’t believe me, just turn back a few pages in your bible to 1 Corinthians 7. Paul basically says, “It’s alright to get married if you think that you have to, if you’re too weak to be able to handle being celibate, but everyone would really be better off if they were single.” Here are a few of the highlights:

“If you marry, you do not sin…. [but] those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that… I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided…. So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.”

That’s what Paul actually thinks about marriage. It’s okay if it’s the only thing that will save you from fornication, but it is best avoided. Not quite as romantic as 1 Corinthians 13, though, is it? I suppose that’s why we don’t read that bit at weddings.

As you may already know, while in English we really just have one word for love, the Greeks have several different words to describe what they think of as different types of love. The word that refers to romantic love is ἔρος (eros), from which we get the word erotic. It is never once used in the New Testament. That’s right, the New Testament never mentions romantic love. It’s just not a concern of the New Testament writers. Another Greek word for love is στοργή (storgē). It usually refers to the love between parents and children, sometimes to the love between husband and wife. Again, this word is never mentioned in the New Testament. One word for love that we do find in the New Testament is φίλος (philos). This is most often translated as the love between friends. It’s the kind of love Jesus has for his disciples. It is a deep and personal affection. Another related word is φιλαδελφία (philadelphia), that is, brotherly love. This is the kind of love that members of the church are supposed to have for one another. And, of course, this is why the American city, Philadelphia, is known as the city of brotherly love.

But none of these is the type of love that Paul is talking about. Paul is talking about ἀγάπη (agapē). Ἀγάπη is the kind of love that God has for humanity or the kind of love that humanity has for God. It is also the kind of love that we humans might have for other humans on the basis of our love for God. That is to say that it is not a love that is based on affection, but a love that is based on principles. I love my wife because I like and respect her and enjoy spending time with her; that is not ἀγάπη. I love the people of Syria not because I have any particular affection for Syria or because I know any Syrians, but because my principles tell me that I should love all of my human brothers and sisters, especially those who are suffering; that is ἀπάπη.

As one commentator puts it, ἀγάπη is “the kind of love we have for someone or something upon which we are willing to base our principles for determining right and wrong; it includes the intention to act upon those principles regardless of what the consequences may be. This kind of love is the deep and abiding respect that we have for another. It is the kind of love that commands our intentions and directs our daily decisions.”  In other words, ἀγάπη is the kind of love that defines our morality and our ethics and has very little to do with whether we like or dislike a person or a thing.

And Paul tells the Corinthians, “You don’t have anything if you don’t have ἀγάπη.” You see, some of the Corinthian Christians were rather caught up with the idea of spiritual gifts—healing, prophecy, speaking in tongues, wisdom—that sort of thing. And many of them were quite proud of themselves for the types of spiritual gifts they possessed. Not only that, they thought of themselves as superior to other members of the church who didn’t display those kinds of gifts. And on top of that, this division in the church tended to express itself along lines of class. It was the well-to-do people who could afford an education who were focussed on these special gifts of the Spirit. And it was the uneducated peasants, slaves, and working folk who found these spiritual gifts to be a bit strange. The upperclass folks, Paul calls the strong, and the lower-class folks he calls the weak.

And Paul wants to say to the strong, “Get over yourselves. There are more important things than those spiritual gifts. So you have the power to heal people, what does that matter? So you can speak in tongues, big deal. So what if you have so much faith that you can perform miracles. It all amounts to absolutely nothing if you don’t have ἀγάπη.

 

The Corinthians had a hard time loving each other across difference. We still have the same sorts of troubles today. And often it’s over the same issues. The conflict in Corinth had to do with class and education. And we may have a hard time relating to someone from a lower social class than ours.

It is a part of our American mythology that a person’s place in society is based on their own effort. Anyone can achieve whatever they set their mind to. And so if some achieve little and others achieve much, it must be because there was a difference in effort. Which, of course, means that anyone who is below me in society must be there because they were lazy. They must not have worked as hard as I did, or they would be where I am.

But the myth of the American Dream conceals a much more complicated truth. While our society does provide the opportunity for social advancement, it is certainly not a level playing field. Despite our stories about an egalitarian society, your parents’ social class is still the most likely thing to predict your own social class. If we are born in the upper class, we are likely to stay there. If we are born in the middle class, we are likely to stay there. If we are born in poverty, we are likely to stay there. Race, gender, and immigration all have an effect on social mobility, making it easier for certain groups of people to succeed and harder for others.

But despite this reality, we often blame the poor for their own poverty. And that often leads to a kind of dehumanization. If their predicament is because of their own choices, then I don’t have to worry about it. They brought it on themselves. They are somehow inferior people. They are different. They are other. I have no responsibility to them. All they do is bring me and my people down.

But how different is God’s ἀγάπη love? “Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth.” Ἀγάπε insists that we overcome our societal divisions. It insists that we treat the other not as an alien, or as stranger, or even as friend, but as a member of our own family. It insists that we put ourselves in the place of the other, that we see the other as God sees them. And what a difference it makes.

I want you to take a moment with me now. Close your eyes. And think about the love that God has for you. God sees you as a beloved child. God wants to be in deeper relationship with you. When you are doing well, God is right there celebrating with you. When you make a mistake, God is always there, ready to forgive. When you face difficulties in your life, God walks through them with you, giving you strength, giving you comfort, giving you peace. Rest there in God’s love. Rest in God’s ἀγάπη love.

Now we’re going to move somewhere else. Bring to your mind someone you see as other. It might be a particular person, or it might be a group or class of people. Whoever it is, it is someone who inspires a negative feeling in you, a feeling of fear, or anger, or distrust, or resentment, or disgust. Imagine that person now. Call their image to your mind. And feel for a moment the feeling that that person inspires in you.

And then bring back your memory of God’s ἀγάπη love. And remember what God thinks of that person. They are God’s beloved child. God wants to be in deeper relationship with them. When things are going well for them, God is right there celebrating with them. When they make a mistake, God is always there, ready to forgive. When they face difficulties in their life, God walks alongside them, offering strength, offering comfort, offering peace.

What would it mean for you to love that person with God’s love? What would it feel like to have patience? To be kind? To be free of jealousy or envy or rudeness? What would it mean to erase the record of your complaints? What would it mean to ache for true justice? What would it mean to love as God loves? How would that change the way you feel about this person? How would it change the way you treat them?

And when you’re ready, come back to this room and slowly open your eyes.

Knowledge will pass away, Paul says. Power will pass away. Prophesy will pass away. All of those spiritual gifts will pass away. If you have the charisma to inspire millions, if you have the talent to impress everyone, the ability to make things happen, the fame to make everyone jealous, the money to buy and sell whatever you like… it’s nothing. It’s not worth striving for. The one thing worth striving for is to love the way that God loves. That is the true gift, that is the true power, that is the true wealth. To love the way that God loves. When everything else passes away, only three things remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.

Sermon: The Body Is One

Sunday 27 January 2018
The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 3C

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball—I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me—I am part or particle of God.

Those of you who are more familiar with literature than I am will recognize that as the poetry of the 19th-century Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I don’t remember much from Mrs. McCann’s junior American Literature class, but one thing I do remember is that transparent eyeball.  What a strange image. But an apt one. The idea that I can never truly observe the beauty and mystery of nature because nature will always be effected and disturbed by my attempts to watch it. But if I could become a transparent eyeball, an invisible observer, then I could achieve full communion with God, become part and particle with the Divine.

It’s true that we often experience God best in nature. It’s especially true in a place as beautiful as the Columbia Gorge. The grandeur of Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams. The misty mystery of the forests. The joy of hundreds of waterfalls. The power of the Columbia river. You don’t even have to leave the freeway to be blown away by the incredible beauty of God’s creation. And yet, if you take the time to get out there with your hiking boots, kayak, mountain bike, skis, paddle board, or snow shoes, it is all the more overpowering, all the more consuming.

And the Body of Christ needs people who can seek to be those transparent eyeballs, people who can really appreciate God’s majesty. But according to today’s letter from Paul, the Body of Christ is about more than just passive, awe-inspiring observation. It is more than a transparent eyeball.

The apostle tells us that the Church, Christ’s Body in the World, is made up of all kinds of different and diverse parts. Sometimes it can be a little hard to believe. We sometimes fall into thinking that there is one right and true way to be Christian. We think that we could take any situation and determine the proper “Christian” thing to do. But according to Paul, that’s not true. Different Christians have different gifts, and they function in different roles, and so there is no one right way to be a Christian. Some will spend their lives as that transparent eyeball, shut away from society, marveling in the awesome creative power of God. But others have little use for that kind of contemplation. They might be an ear, listening to the need and pain of the world. They might be a hand, reaching out in love to those who need aid. They might be a foot, spreading the message of God’s grace across the globe.

But those are still really the glamorous jobs, aren’t they? Paul doesn’t just tell us that Body is made up of hands and feet and eyes and ears. No, for Paul, even the Body of Christ has its—unmentionable parts. Did you notice that?

Nearly half of the expletives in the English language are crude names for body parts, and you can bet the same was true in Greek. Paul knew what he was talking about when he said, “Those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor.” We can’t get away with dismissing or disassociating ourselves from those Christians that we consider unclean, or crude, or even vulgar. These are just as much a part of the Body of Christ as any other, and whether we like it or not, the Body is One, inseparable, indivisible.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to divide Christ’s Body. And in general, we’re getting pretty good at it. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, there are now over 33,000 different denominations of Christianity in the world. Of course, some of those groups get along pretty well with one another. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada are different denominations, but there isn’t a whole lot that divides us. Even so, we’re still talking about 33,000 different factions of Christianity, many of which really don’t want to associate with most of the others. Some would love to slice up Christ’s Body into 33,000 little pieces, and pretend that theirs is the only one that matters. That’s one of the reasons I think the work of this congregation, and others like it, is so important. We are a visible witness that Christians from different traditions can not only work together, but even come together in organic unity. We are a witness to the re-membering of the Body of Christ. And that is such a powerful sign for the world. I hope you understand that. The dual relationship that we have here is special and worth celebrating.

But let’s get back to the body. Sometimes we have a hard time believing that the Body of Christ has both a right hand and a left hand. That right hand is trying really hard to cut off those liberals over there on the left causing trouble. And the left hand is just as ready to cut off those conservatives over on the right with all of their misconceptions. But let me tell you, neither one of them, the left nor the right, is complete on its own. Both are indispensable to the body of Christ.  Neither one of them has everything figured out, and both of them have things they could learn from the other.

There are many ways that we Christian try to exclude people that we don’t approve of. We have all sorts of methods for performing amputations on the Body of Christ. But according to Paul, it doesn’t matter how much the eye might hate the toe, or how much the appendix might hate the colon, whether we like it or not, we are stuck together. There is no way around it. The Body is One. No matter what we might try to do to make it otherwise. Through the mystical power or Christ, we are one.

The Body of Christ needs us all. The Body needs people who will think and study and ponder. The Body needs those who will share the transformative gospel of Jesus Christ with those who most need to hear it. The Body needs those who will point out the ways that the church is failing or causing harm, and call for change and renewal. The Body needs those who will listen and care and bind up those who are hurting. The Body needs those who will strive for justice, who will work to correct the inequalities in our world. The Body needs people to calm things down, to make peace and bring understanding. And the Body also needs people to stir things up, to wake us from our complacency. The Body needs people who listen. And the Body also needs people who speak. The Body needs people who pray. And the Body also needs people who act. We all have difference skills, different gifts, and different functions. But without each of us, the Body of Christ would be incomplete, would be less than it could be.

And sometimes our place in the Body will change during the different seasons of our lives. I may play a different role as a child than I do as a youth, than I do as a young adult, as an established adult, as a retiree, as an elder. Sometimes those transitions are exciting. I can’t believe I’m old enough to light the candles. I’m really glad that I finished my work with that one ministry so that I can focus on this other one. And sometimes it’s nice to be in a different role at church than I am in my job or in my family. Just because I’m a CPA doesn’t mean that all I can do is finance stuff. Sometimes transitions are hard, though. It’s hard to let go of what you used to do after you’ve moved on to something else. Or it’s hard to admit that you’re just not able to do some of the things that you used to. If you’re feeling down about not being able to do the things you used to, I want you to know that you are a valuable member of the Body of Christ, a valuable member of this congregation. The things you do now are valuable, and this is just a different season of your service in Christ, and we need you just as you are right now.

Sometimes church people are really good at doing things for others and terrible about receiving themselves. If you feel a sense of fulfillment at doing something to help others, can you also let someone else experience that fulfillment when it’s your turn to receive? If the heart won’t accept oxygen from the lungs, there’s going to be a problem. And if the brain won’t accept blood from the heart, there’s going to be a problem. In the Body of Christ, there is chance enough for all of us to be servants, and there is chance enough for all of us to graciously accept service. Even Jesus did the same, accepted hospitality. And so can we. When we do, we acknowledge that the Body of Christ is one.

And because we are all one in the Body of Christ, we all rejoice together and we all suffer together. If one member is in pain, we are all effected by it. If one member is diseased, we are all in danger. If one member is poisoned, we all suffer the consequences.

And right now, the Body of Christ is suffering quite a few afflictions. The Body of Christ is Hungry. 13.2% of Washingtonians and 16.4% of Oregonians live below the poverty line. In Hood River County, 8.5% of people are food insecure, 11.8% in Wasco County, 13.4% in Klickitat County, and 13.9% in Skamania County. The Body of Christ is Hungry.

The Body of Christ is Sick. Depression rates went up 33% between 2013 and 2016. Obesity and suicide are up, as well. High-school vaping is up 75% in the last year. According the to CDC, 60% of US adults live with a chronic disease and 40% live with two or more. The deadliest is heart disease, which causes 2,300 deaths every day. Many others are living with cancer, lung disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and kidney disease, including some of us in this room. 115 people die every day in the US from an opioid overdose. There’s even a comeback in measles, with more than 220 cases in the US in 2018, and currently 31 cases in and around Vancouver. The Body of Christ is Sick.

The Body of Christ is at War. Nearly 36,000 people died in Afghanistan last year, as many as 23,000 in Syria, more than 25,000 in Yemen, all places where the US is involved. 0.4% of Americans currently serve active duty in the military, while 7.3% of Americans have ever served. Many have died in war. Many more come back wounded in body, mind, and spirit. The Body of Christ is at War.

And because the Body of Christ is One, we are all in it together.  Whether or not we have enough to eat each day, we are effected by hunger. Whether or not we are laid up in bed, we are effected by illness and disease. Whether or not we wear a uniform or live in a war zone, we are effected by war. Whether I am a hand, a foot, a tongue, a spleen, a tooth, an artery, a white blood cell, or a kidney, I am effected.

And as members of the Body of Christ, we have choices to make. We choose how we spend our money, and which causes we support. We choose how we vote and how we lobby our representatives. We choose whom we pray for, whom we listen to, how we reach out. And when we realize that the Body of Christ is One, and that we are all effected by the safety and health of every other member, then the choices we make will reflect that unity.

The Body is One.  If one member suffers, all suffer together with it. If one member celebrates, we all celebrate together with it. So let all the members of Christ’s Body reach out together in love.

Let me close with the words of a 16th-century Christian mystic, Teresa of Avila. She said:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours;
no hands but yours; no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world.
Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.

Sermon: Do Whatever He Tells You

Sunday 20 January 2018
The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 2C

John 2:1-11

In the Gospel of John, things are never as they seem. The story is never as simple as it appears on first reading. Every detail seems to hold a hidden and metaphorical meaning. John always seems to be operating at two different levels, the story on the surface that is just ordinary details of the narrative, and the deeper story that holds the real, symbolic meaning, which sometimes has very little to do with the surface story.

If we are interested in the story on the surface, we would ask different questions of the text than if we are interested in the deeper, symbolic story. And we can take it detail by detail.

The passage starts out, “On the third day.” That is, it’s been three days since Jesus was down with John the Baptist by the Jordan River in the south. If we’re reading on the surface, the level of the narrative, we might ask, “How did Jesus make it all the way from the south up to this wedding in the north so quickly?” And we could try to explain the large geographic shift. But if we’re trying to read at the deeper level, the symbolic level, we would ask a different question: “What does three days symbolize?” On the third day, that sounds like Easter morning. John must want us to be thinking about Jesus’s resurrection while we’re hearing this story. Three days. Does it have to do with three actual days, or does it have to do with the symbolic value of three days?

Next we have the detail that Jesus’s mother (who is never named in the Gospel of John), and Jesus, and his disciples are invited to a wedding? If we are reading on the surface, we might ask, Why are they invited to this wedding? Are they family? Maybe they are, since Mary seems to feel some responsibility when the wine runs out. But if we are trying to read below the surface, at the metaphorical level, we might ask, When else do we see Jesus gathered together with his mother and disciples? Oh, it happens again while Jesus is on the cross and he connects his mother with his beloved disciple. Maybe John wants us to think about Jesus crucifixion while we hear this story. Is there anything similar between Jesus’s crucifixion and a wedding? Yes, for John there is. For John, the crucifixion is when Jesus is glorified, when his glory is revealed, just as the bride and groom are in their moment of greatest glory at a wedding.

Next we hear that the wine has run out. If we’re reading on the surface, we want to know why. Wedding parties in the ancient middle east usually lasted seven days. Running out of wine would mean a loss of honor for the hosts. It would be a failure of hospitality, and it might indicate that the family was short on friends. Usually friends and extended family would send the family gifts of things like wine that would help them with the party. If they’ve run out, it might mean they don’t have many friends. But if we’re reading below the surface, we would ask different questions. We would want to know what wine symbolizes. Does this have something to do with communion? Are we supposed to be reminded of Jesus’s blood? Probably.

Next we have that very strange interaction between Jesus and his mother. She tells him the wine has run out. He, very snippily says, “Woman, what does that have to do with you and me? My hour hasn’t come yet.” And then she tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you to do.” What is going on there? If we’re reading on the surface, we want to know about the relationship between Jesus and his mother. Why are they talking to each other this way? Is Jesus being rude? Is Mary being nosy? Are they just engaging in some kind of silly, familial banter? But if we’re trying to read below the surface, we are drawn to a very different question. What does it mean that Jesus hour has not yet come? Is he talking about his crucifixion and resurrection? We’ve had lots of signs so far that he might be. What is John trying to say here about Jesus’s identity, about his glory and his role as Son of God and savior?

Then we move to the six giant stone jars that are used for the Jewish purification ritual. Again, if we’re reading on the level of the narrative, we want to understand the hard details. That’s a lot of stone jars. Usually a family would only have one. Have they borrowed from their neighbors? And that’s an awful lot of water that they hold. When Jesus turns it into wine, how much wine are we talking about? I did the calculations. In standard 750 ml wine bottles, it would be between 640 and 800 bottles of wine. That’s quite a lot. But if we’re trying to read on the metaphorical level, we don’t care about those hard details. What we want to know is how the stone jars function symbolically. Is there some connection to baptism? Or is John going to use these stone jars to make some kind of comparison between Jesus and the Jewish tradition that he comes from? Probably.

Then Jesus tells the servants to fill the jars with water and to take some to the head waiter. And the headwaiter doesn’t know where the water that has turned to wine came from, but the servants do know. If we are reading on the surface, we might think, didn’t that take an awfully long time for the servants to fill the jars with water? How could the head waiter not have noticed that? How exactly does Jesus turn the water into wine? Does it happen in the jars? Does it happen as the water is dipped out of the jars? But if we are trying to read below the surface, then differ details seem important. John is talking about insiders and outsiders. There are some people who understand, and there are other people who don’t understand. Maybe John is warning us not to stay on the surface. Maybe John is telling us that we need to read below the surface. Because we don’t want to be like the head waiter who doesn’t understand what’s really going on. We want to be like Mary and the servants who know exactly what’s going on. We want to know the hidden meaning. Is John trying to give us a wink and say, “If you’re reading below the surface, then you’re understanding my hidden meaning”?

Then we get the reaction of the head waiter, as he calls the groom over and says, “Everyone serves the good wine first. They bring out the inferior wine only when the guests are good and drunk. You kept the good wine until now.” If we’re reading on the surface, we might think, hey, that’s kind of cool. Jesus can make really good wine. Of course he can. He’s really powerful. And he also seems to like a good party. But if we’re trying to read below the surface, we want to know how the wine functions symbolically. Is John trying to compare Jesus with Judaism? Is he saying that Jesus’s wine of the new covenant is better than the rituals of the old covenant? Again, are we talking about Jesus’s blood, is this supposed to be connected with Jesus glorified on the cross?

Finally, we get a closing note from the narrator: “This was the first miraculous sign that Jesus did in Cana of Galilee. He revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.” If we’re reading on the surface, this part is a little confusing. Sure, Jesus turned water into wine. That’s a cool trick. But did he really reveal his glory? That seems like a little much. But if we’re reading below the surface, this is where the story really makes sense. Yes, this is primarily a symbolic sign. It is the way that Jesus begins to reveal his glory. His real hour hasn’t come yet, when he will be lifted up on the cross and truly reveal his glory. But here in this sign we have all of the right pieces. We have the third day, that reminds us of Jesus’s death and resurrection. We have allusions to the last supper and to Jesus being lifted up on the cross. This sign tells us about Jesus’s identity. He is the creator and savior of the world. This sign reveals it. But only to the insiders, only to those who understand the secret signs.

So there you have it. Just one story, but two very different ways of understanding it. They almost  aren’t even the same story anymore. One story is about a wedding, and a work of power that changed water into wine. The other one is about Jesus’s glory, his self-revelation as the Incarnate Word of God, and divisions between those who understand and those who don’t.

I will be honest with you. I struggle with John. The Wedding at Cana is a really familiar story. But in seventeen years of study and ministry, I have never preached it, led a study on it, or written a paper on it before today. And it’s not just this particular story. I tend to avoid John in general. I have a hard time with it. It seems to me like Jesus is always running around, acting like a jerk, and constantly saying, “I’m the Son of God!”

I know that there are supposed to be levels of meaning in John, and I struggle with both of them. This story is no different. Take it on the surface level first. Sure, Jesus shows his power, but to what end? It’s not like he’s healing someone or doing something else to eliminate suffering. He’s basically showing up at the end of a party with six extra kegs. If we try to find meaning in this story on the surface level, we end up talking about weddings or wine at communion. At just about every Christian wedding you’ll hear some reference to this story. Jesus graced the wedding at Cana with his presence. It’s because Jesus ever actually says anything positive about marriage. It’s surprising to think about, but it’s true. In all four gospels, Jesus doesn’t ever suggest that people should get married. But remember, he did go to that wedding that one time. That’s something, isn’t it? It seems a bit silly to me.

Or we could talk about communion. Jesus turned water into wine, so we know he drank wine. But when Methodists and other prohibitionists argued against using wine in communion, they came to this story for justification. They were worried about the scourges of rampant alcoholism. So they cleverly argued that since Jesus turned water into wine, there’s no reason that water could not be used instead of wine in communion. They just reversed the process. Eventually a Methodist dentist and preacher applied the theories of Louis Pasteur to the vineyard and invented grape juice as a substitute for sacramental wine. That Methodist pioneer: Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch. In any case, that also seems to me like kind of a silly use for this bible story.

So what about the deeper, under the surface, symbolic meaning. Well, in that case, this story is all about Jesus’s glory. At the beginning of John, Jesus is introduced as the Word of God, that was there in the beginning, and created the universe, and then took on human form in Jesus. At the end of John, Jesus is crucified, but it has nothing to do with suffering. For John, Jesus’s crucifixion is like a coronation. He is lifted up with a crown and a purple robe. He reveals his glory. Here, early in the story, Jesus gives a first glimpse of that glory. The water turned to wine is a secret sign, that only some can see, that reveals Jesus to be the creator and savior of the world, nothing less than God, the only way to God, superior to all other revelations of God.

And I can see how that message could be very important. Especially thinking about when John is writing. The church is a relatively small sect, spread out across the empire. They are often the target of vicious persecution. They are seen as deviants and traitors. But John and his church know a secret. They know something the rest of the world can’t see. They know that Jesus wasn’t a failed Messiah who was executed on a Roman cross. They know that Jesus was actually the creator the world, the Son of God, actually and truly God, the only way to God. They know a secret that even though they are persecuted outcasts, in reality they are the only ones who have access to God. Everyone else is doomed to hell.

And that makes me uncomfortable. And it’s one thing to say that when the church is small and persecuted. It’s another thing to say it when the church is big and powerful. When Christian society became dominant, Christians started to become the persecutors. And Christians have been responsible for some great atrocities, often justifying themselves by saying that Christ is superior to all others, so Christians can treat all others however they please. And that causes me great concern. I believe wholeheartedly that Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God, the source of wisdom and truth. And at the very same moment, it makes me uncomfortable, because I do not want to stumble into a Christian arrogance in which I devalue the lives of those who aren’t Christian.

Maybe some of you struggle with the same kinds of questions. And probably some of you think that I’ve gotten it all wrong. And probably I have. I have a tendency to look right past much of the beauty in the Bible because I’m busy investigating the minutia.

But I’ll tell you this: I think the Bible is worthy of our struggle. Luther and the other reformers taught us that the Bible is open to the interpretation of every Christian believer, that we are all meant to read it and think about it for ourselves. And that means that sometimes we won’t understand it. And sometimes parts of it will make us uncomfortable. And sometimes we will struggle with how to make sense of the contradictions that we find there. But it is worthy of our struggle.

And Jesus is worthy of our worship and discipleship. The one who offers us adoption into God’s family through the ordinary element of water, the mystery of baptism. The one who offers us grace and forgiveness, his very body and blood, through the ordinary elements of bread and wine, the mystery of the eucharist. The one who reveals the glory of God in the ordinary elements of a human life, the mystery of the incarnation.

John is right. Things are not always as they seem. It is often in the ordinary things that God’s extraordinary glory is revealed. May God grant us all the eyes of faith, so that, like those servants at the wedding in Cana, we may see the glory of our Lord, hidden in plain sight, all around us, just waiting to be revealed.

Sermon: Not Yet Fallen

Sunday 13 January 2018
Baptism of the Lord

Acts 8:14-17, 

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, the day each year when we remember how Jesus came to the Jordan River and was baptized by John the Baptist. There’s something different about how Luke tells the story. In Mark and Matthew, Jesus comes and is baptized by John in the river, and as he’s coming up out of the waters, the sky is opened and Jesus sees the Spirit coming on him like a dove, and there is a voice that says that Jesus is God’s beloved Son.

But that’s not how it happens in Luke. Luke never describes Jesus’s baptism. It happens completely off-stage. Luke just says, “When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized.” That is all the description that we get of the event. Jesus also was baptized.

That also means that the Spirit doesn’t descend on Jesus when he comes out of the water, and the voice doesn’t speak to him then, either. No, all of that happens later, while Jesus is out of the water, on his own, praying. He’s praying, after he has been baptized, and he sees the heavens pulled open, and he sees the dove descending, and he hears the voice saying, “You are my beloved child. I take delight in you.

It’s a little different than the story we think we know. Things don’t happen quite in the order we would expect. First the baptism, then the prayer, then the Spirit.

But this morning we have a second story about baptism, and it happens to be written by the same author. The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are part of a two-volume work. The first volume, the gospel, tells the story of Jesus and his ministry, and the second volume, the Acts, tells the story of the early church.

In Acts this morning, we have a second story about baptism. The early Jesus Movement was centered in Jerusalem. But then one of the deacons, Stephen, is stoned to death. It causes massive disruption. Those early Christians flee the city in great numbers. They are religious refugees. Then up scattering all over the place, looking for new homes wherever they can find them, because they are afraid of religious persecution or even death if they stay in the place they are from.

Among these refugees is the deacon, Philip. He has fled to Samaria. And because he is there as a refugee, he has the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus with the people there. And his message is accepted, even though it must have been hard for the Samaritans to trust an outsider like Philip.

Those who believed his message are baptized. However, as Luke says, “the Holy Spirit had not yet fallen on them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Peter and John are sent to finish the job. First comes the baptism, then the apostles are sent to lay their hands on the people, then the Holy Spirit falls on them.

That seems a little bit out of order, too, doesn’t it? Why would they not receive the Holy Spirit when they had been baptized? Is there something incomplete about their baptism?

Baptism is recognized by almost every brand and type of Christianity as a sacrament and as a rite of initiation. There is a fair amount of disagreement, though, about the details of baptism. Should it be done for children, or should it only be for people who are old enough to understand it for themselves? Does it need to be by full immersion, and can a pouring or sprinkling of water do just the same? Is it a one-time thing, or can it be repeated? If you were baptized in a tradition that is very different than the one you are in now, do you need to be baptized again the right way? And what exactly does baptism do for you? Does it wash away your sins? Does it assure you eternal life in heaven, or is it a condition of salvation? Does it grant you membership into a particular church? There are many questions.

And so we might turn to the Bible to try and answer them. We’ve got two stories here today. They both depict someone being baptized and then a little later, after some prayer or the laying on of hands, they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Is that how it always works? If so, the we might assume that Christians who have only been baptized are somehow deficient. Do Christians need to have a second experience later in order to be real Christians? Do they need to be born again? Do they need to have some kind of definitive experience of the Holy Spirit that once and forever changes them? And if so, what would be the evidence of that change? Speaking in tongues? Some sort of testimony of a vivid spiritual experience? Clear, visible spiritual gifts?

If those are the requirements, then how many of us are real Christians?

I think that’s a question a lot of Christians struggle with. I know I have. Am I a real Christian? Have I had the right set of experiences in the right order to prove that I am an authentic follower of Jesus?

You know those booths that they have at the fair: Are you going to heaven? Three simple questions will give you the answer. They have a clear list of what is required. Other groups have different requirements. And sometimes the requirements aren’t as clearly stated, but they are most certainly there, even if they are not usually spoken out loud.

What does it mean if my spiritual journey isn’t shaped like people tell me it’s supposed to be shaped? What if it is missing some element that I think it’s supposed to have? What if things happened in the wrong order or at the wrong time? What if it’s too late to make it up?

We dealt with some of these questions with Kaylah not long ago. After seeing the Atchleys baptized in September, she asked about baptism. Could she be baptized? Of course, both The United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America insist that a person can only be baptized once. Even if the first baptism was done in another tradition, like a Catholic or Mormon church, it doesn’t matter. Baptism is effective the first time and it cannot be repeated. But in Kaylah’s case, we didn’t know whether she had been baptized before or not. And we have only limited communication with the people who might know. So we were in limbo, not knowing how to answer her question: can I be baptized? We found the answer just a couple of weeks ago when we met her birth mom, Tinyjah. She was able to tell us that, yes, Kaylah and Kiahla had both been baptized, and that solved our theological dilemma. She didn’t need to be baptized because she already had been.

But if we are trying to find the answers to our questions about identity and baptism in the bible, there are more than just two stories. In fact, there are several different stories of baptism just in the Book of Acts. You might expect that they would all follow the same pattern, but actually, they don’t. The first time anyone is baptized in the name of Jesus is after the experience of the Spirit at Pentecost. The Pentecost experience itself is referred to as a baptism of the Holy Spirit, a baptism that Jesus will perform. But then after that experience, the apostles baptize people with water.

Later Philip is interpreting scripture with an Ethiopian eunuch, a high official in the court of the queen. Th eunuch comes to believe, and when they pass by some water, he asks to be baptized, and Philip does it, even though he has had very little training and he is not a Jew. There is no word about the eunuch ever receiving the Holy Spirit.

Next is Paul. He has a mystical experience in which he sees Jesus, he is struck blind, he repents of his sin, then he is prayed for and receives the Holy Spirit, and then he is baptized.

Next there is a group of Gentiles in the house of Cornelius. While Peter is preaching, they receive the Holy Spirit and start speaking in tongues. Peter decides that if they already have the Holy Spirit then he has no excuse not to baptized them, even if they are Gentiles, so he does, the whole household at once.

Some time later, Paul encounters Christians at Ephesus. They have believed, but they haven’t received the Holy Spirit. Paul thinks this is strange, so he asks them about their baptism. They were baptized according to the way John baptized. Paul tells them that they need to be baptized again, this time in the name of Jesus. When they are, the Holy Spirit falls on them and they begin prophesying and speaking in tongues.

There are more examples than this, but this is enough to make the point. There isn’t a consistent pattern of how it’s supposed to happen. Sometimes people believe before they are baptized and sometimes people are baptized before they believe. Sometimes they are baptized as individuals, and sometimes they are baptized as a group. Sometimes baptism makes people a part of a congregation, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the Spirit comes after baptism, sometimes before, and sometimes not at all. Sometimes the coming the Spirit is accompanied with special gifts like speaking in tongues, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the baptism has to be done in the name of Jesus or it doesn’t count, but other times, like in the case of the apostles, there is no need to be baptized in the name of Jesus. There is a surprisingly wide variety of how this whole becoming-a-Christian thing happens. And all of these examples are just from one author.

Which is sort of a long way of saying that the Spirit moves in mysterious ways. And it is no wonder that different Christian groups have different beliefs about baptism. The bible doesn’t agree about it either. You know that Mormon practice that we usually think of as very strange, when they baptize dead people by proxy. Guess what. That’s in the bible. In 1 Corinthians 15:29, Paul explicitly talks about baptism of the dead by proxy.

Which maybe indicates that we should allow for some grace when we have differences with other groups of Christians. We may have really good reasons for the way we do things and strong theological arguments for why our way is right, but often the Bible is less clear than our doctrine. There are good reasons why others might do things differently.

And it also indicates that we should have some grace with our faith journeys. Everyone’s story of faith is different. We don’t all follow the same path, even if we are part of the same denomination or congregation or family. Some people have really vivid spiritual experiences, and if you do, it doesn’t mean that you’re a crazy enthusiast. And if you don’t, it doesn’t mean that you’re lacking in spirit. Some people have one really transformative moment that feels like being saved or converted, and if you do, it doesn’t mean that your faith is too simple. Some people have a more varied or gradual experience of God’s grace, and if you do, it doesn’t mean that conversion is incomplete. Some of us experience God in silence, some in music, some in nature, some in service, some in preaching, some in the struggle for justice, some in ritual, some in heartfelt extemporaneous prayer, some in words that have lasted the test of time.

We are not all the same. We do not all need to be the same. God calls us in our diversity. But whoever we are, whatever is in our past, whatever path we have taken to get to this place, God’s word to us today is the same. They are the same words Jesus heard. “You are my beloved child. In you I take delight.”

Sermon: Nations Will Come to Your Light

Sunday 6 January 2018
Epiphany of the Lord

Isaiah 60:1-6Matthew 2:1-12

Today is the feast of the Epiphany. So what does that mean? As with so many things in the church, it comes from Greek. Epiphany means to appear, or to appear in the flesh. It was a word often used in relation to the appearance of a god, synonymous with the related word, theophany.

But it takes on a specific meaning in Christianity. It refers to the appearance of God in the flesh of Jesus. In the eastern church, it celebrates the baptism of Jesus, when he first appeared on the scene as an adult, at the beginning of the story of his ministry. But in the western church, of which we are a part, it celebrates the visitation of the magi, and is often called Three Kings Day. Celebrated on January 6th every year, it marks the end of the twelve days of the Christmas season.

In many parts of the world, Epiphany is celebrated with special festivals. Many cultures bake some kind of special cake or bread, often called a king cake. And often there is some kind of object hidden in the cake, like a ring or a bean, and whoever finds it gets to be king or queen for the day. In some traditions, it’s epiphany that is the gift giving day, not Christmas, and instead of being visited by Santa, children receive presents from the three kings. So, on Epiphany we celebrate the three kings who came to visit Jesus shortly after he was born, and brought him gifts of gold frankincense, and myrrh.

But have you ever noticed that there aren’t three kings anywhere in the story? It’s Matthew that tells the story of Epiphany, in the passage we read this morning. It talks about magi, wise astrologers from the east. But it never says anything about there being three of them, and it never says anything about them being kings. But it’s “We three kings of orient are bearing gifts, we traverse afar.” Why?

Well, they bring three gifts, don’t they? Gold and frankincense and myrrh. So, if you’re putting on a pageant, you know you’re going to need three of them, to carry the three different gifts. That makes some logical sense. It’s not precisely what we see in the text, but it’s easy to see how the tradition would develop that way.

But why kings? Where does that come from? Well, it comes from Isaiah 60, that we also read this morning. Christians were reading through Isaiah, and they came across Isaiah 60: “Countless camels will cover your land, young camels from Midian and Ephah, They will all come from Sheba, carrying gold and incense, proclaiming the Lord’s praises.” They saw that bit about gold and incense, and they knew those magi had come from somewhere in the east, and they made a connection. And then they read verse 3: “Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance.” That sounds like the magi coming to see Jesus. They must have been kings. That’s where we get it.

But we get more added to the story from this Isaiah text. From this same verse three we imply that Jesus must have been radiant. That makes it into the carols, too. Radiant streams from thy holy face. And then back in verse six we get the mention of camels, and we know that makes it into the story. It’s the three kings who come riding camels. Matthew doesn’t say anything about kings or camels or radiance, but they come into the story because of the connection that later Christians make between that story and the passage from Isaiah.

And so, early Christians identified the light at the beginning of this Isaiah passage with Jesus himself. “Arise! Shine! Your light has come; and the Lord’s glory has shone upon you. They decided that that light was Jesus. Methodius of Olympus, a 4th-century bishop wrote of this passage, “Hail and shine, O Jerusalem, for your light is come, the Light eternal, the Light forever enduring, the Light supreme, the Light immaterial, the Light of same substance with God and the Father, the Light that is in the Spirit, and that is the Father; the Light that illumines the ages; the Light that gives light to mundane and supra mundane things, Christ our very God.” So for Methodius, this light to which the nations come is most certainly Jesus. And that’s how many other Christians have read it too.

So, we have a particular problem whenever we as Christians go back and try to interpret a text from what we call the Old Testament. And the problem is this: it’s very easy for us to assume that everything in the Old Testament is somehow a foretelling of what is going to happen in the New Testament. It’s easy to read the whole Old Testament as if it’s talking about Jesus.

But, of course, all of it was written hundreds of years before Jesus. It was all written before there was such a thing as Christianity. In fact, even calling it the Old Testament is a bit misleading. Jews were using it long before Jesus came around, and they continue to use it without any reference to the New Testament. Because of that, we often refer to it now as the Hebrew Bible, acknowledging that for many, it stands on its own.

If we read the Hebrew Bible as if it all refers to Jesus, we would have to assume that it made no sense to the people who wrote it and who preserved it as sacred scripture for hundreds of years. We would have to assume that its real meaning was hidden for hundreds of years, that the people who lived and breathed the Hebrew Bible were only understanding some kind of fake meaning. And that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

But you know, the funny thing about scripture is that it doesn’t seem to have a fixed meaning. It can have different meanings depending on the context. What it means in one generation may not be what it means in another generation, and what it means in one part of your life may not be what it means in another part of your life.

Writing about this passage from Isaiah, a fourth-century bishop named Theodoret of Cyr argued that it had at least three different meanings. First, it meant what it did to its first audience. It had to do with Jewish refugees returning from Babylonia and Persia to rebuild Jerusalem. It talked about the rebirth of Jerusalem, of being restored from desolation. Second, Theodoret said, it talked about the church. The nations that were coming to the light of Jerusalem were Christians who were being drawn to the light of God through the message of Jesus. Finally, he said, it told the story of the life to come in heaven. Then believers would be drawn to the light of the New Jerusalem, “the immortal and pain-free existence, the life unsullied by worry.” One passage of scripture, but referring to at least three different sets of events.

Isaiah prophesies in a time of trouble. For the last 70 or so years, Jerusalem has been laying in ruins. Many of the people ha been carted off to Babylonia. Now, generations later, some of the people have returned to rebuild the city, to rebuild the temple, to rebuild the nation. But it is tough going. It is not easy to recover from such great devastation. But Isaiah foresees a time when things will be better. Not only will Jerusalem be able to support itself, but it will a draw for other peoples. Jews from all over the known world will come back to the holy city. But not only that, even Gentiles will be drawn to it. They will bring with them their trade goods and their pilgrims. Jerusalem will once more be the center of a flourishing society, not just the broken husk of a once-great city.

And Matthew also writes in a time of trouble. In his time, Jerusalem has been destroyed again, along with its temple. The Jews had rebelled against Rome and established their own independent government. For a few years, it looked like they might succeed. But then came in with renewed force and crushed them. The temple, one of wonders of the ancient world, was burned to ground and its treasures hauled off to Rome.

And yet, Matthew sees reason for hope. He tells the story of the new thing God is doing in Jesus. Not only does it bring new hope for Jewish Christians, but it brings hope for Gentiles as well. Even foreigner from the east are able to see that God is doing something new. They don’t know anything about Israel’s God, but they know just by looking at the stars that something new, something important has happened. Something important enough to make them travel hundreds of miles to offer gifts to a newborn king. 

And in our own time of troubles, we have the hope of the light of Christ. When we feel lost or hurting, our God is there. When we feel that the obstacles are too difficult to cross, our God is there. When we feel paralyzed by the success of the past and anxious for the future, our God is there. No matter what we might face, no matter how great our fears, our God is there, always, to stand beside us, to guides, to see us through.

Arise! Shine! Your light has come;

the Lord’s glory has shone upon you.

Though darkness covers the earth

and gloom the nations,

the Lord will shine upon you.

God’s glory will appear over you.

Nations will come to your light

and kings to your dawning radiance.

Sermon: His Origin Is from Ancient Days

Sunday 23 December 2018
The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Micah 5:2-5a

Luke 1:47-55

During this Advent we have been examining scriptural songs. And this week, the fourth and final Sunday of Advent, we come to our last two. The first is a Messianic prophecy from the prophet Micah, words that foretell the coming of the Christ. The second is the Song of Mary, the prophetic proclamation of Jesus’s mother about God’s plans for the world and Mary’s own part in those plans.

So let us turn first to the prophet Micah. Like most of the prophets, Micah is written in the context of deep disruption, of empires rolling through Israel and deporting its people, spreading them out across the known world, creating the Jewish diaspora. Micah alternates between warning the people about the ways that they are violating God’s law and assuring them that God will return to God’s people.

Most Christians recognize only one verse from Micah. “What does the Lord require of you,” the prophet begins, “but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.

But what sort of injustice and unkindness does Micah have in mind that needs to be corrected. It is very clearly the exploitation of the poor by those with power. God says, “Can I forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the scant measure that is accursed? Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights? You wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths…. Their hands are skilled to do evil; the official and the judge ask for a bribe, and the powerful dictate what they desire; they they pervert justice” (Micah 6:10-12, 7:3). Everyone is trying to cheat their neighbors, and the powerful are piling up fortunes of ill-gotten gain.

But, Micah assures the people, there is someone coming who will help to set things right, a successor of King David who will change things forever. From the town of Bethlehem there will come a ruler for Israel. Like a shepherd cares for the sheep, he will make sure that the people are fed. He will bring security to the people. He will bring justice. He will bring peace.

Several centuries later, the angel Gabriel appears to a young woman to declare the fulfillment of the prophecy. Her name is Mariam, or Mary. He tells her that she is going to have a son Jesus, who will be a great king and be called the Son of God. There is only one problem, of course: she doesn’t have a husband, and she has never slept with a man. But Gabriel doesn’t seem to think that is a problem at all. Mary will conceive a son by the Holy Spirit.

No big deal for God, maybe, but it certainly must have been a big deal for Mary. Here she is going to be an unwed mother, a social pariah. She is afraid, alone.

At the same time, Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, is about six weeks along in her pregnancy carrying John the Baptist. Mary has just gotten pregnant. Mary decides to travel to visit Elizabeth down in the hill country of Judea. It’s about 60 miles.

The moment Mary knocks on the door, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to prophesy like one of the Old Testament prophets. She declares that Mary is blessed among woman and that Elizabeth’s unborn child recognizes the importance of the child Mary is carrying—he leaps for joy when Mary arrives.

And once Elizabeth is finished with her prophecy, that’s when Mary breaks into song. It’s a pretty famous song now, the Canticle of Mary. Sometimes it’s called the Magnificat because the first word of it in Latin is magnificat—my soul magnifies the Lord. We don’t know what tune Mary used, but many a composer has done their best to put these words to music. Between our several hymnals, I think we have at least eight different settings of it, and we’ll be singing two of them before the end of the service.

If this were a modern musical, we would expect Mary to lament the situation she has found herself in. We would expect her to go on about the struggles of being an unwed mother, about the jeers and criticism she is forced to endure, about how everyone assumes she was unfaithful. We would expect Mary to be frightened by the appearance of the angel. And we would expect her to be frightened for the future.

But this is not the song of a frightened girl that we might expect. It is not the song of someone who is lost or depressed. But it is still the song of a social outcast. It is the song of someone who has been pushed aside by society. And it is the song of someone who is confident that God is her savior.

First, Mary gives thanks to God for noticing her in her lowliness. She isn’t from a well-to-do family. She isn’t wealthy. What she is is an unwed mother. And yet God has chosen her to be the mother of the savior of the world. To most people, she appears to be lowly. But in God’s eyes she was the opposite. She was the favored one—very great indeed.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, she is known as θεοτόκος, the God-bearer, the one who gives birth to God. It’s a role that we can scarcely comprehend. What could it mean to be the Mother of God? And although it sounds incomprehensibly impressive now, it certainly wasn’t a glamorous role at the time. She may have known that the child she was carrying was something special, was the very Son of God, but precious few others did. And yet, Mary knows, and she praises God for her role in salvation history:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.

But Mary does not only sing about her own role; she sings about God’s mighty acts of salvation for the whole world, and more specifically, for the lowly in society. These are not just warm and fluffy words, not empty platitudes. These are strong and sometimes harsh words, like those from the prophets of old.

“God pulls down the mighty from their thrones, and raises up the humble. The Lord fills the starving and lets the rich go hungry.”

Now, these are hard words for many of us, who are used to living relatively comfortable lives, who enjoy the power and the privilege we have inherited. Life has been pretty good up until now. Sure, we may face our own troubles and burdens. We may have challenges to deal with. But compared to the majority of people in the world, we have things pretty good. We have safe places to live. We have shelter from the weather. We have plenty of food to eat. We may not be the cream of the crop here in America, but if God turns the whole world upside down, we might just find ourselves in that upper crust that God is about to tear down. And that is something we would likely rather avoid. Mary’s prophesy about God’s justice might sound more like a threat to our ears than it sounds like good news.

But these are wonderful words of salvation for those on the underside of society. These are words of liberation for the oppressed, words of hope for the beleaguered, words of promise for the destitute. This is food for the hungry, jobs for the unemployed, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, release for the captives, justice for the targeted. God is the champion of the poor and needy, the benefactor of those who suffer, the healer of those who are diseased, the comforter of those who weep. For the AIDS orphan in Africa, for the starving widow in India, for the dispossessed native in the Amazon, for the poor youth in the urban ghetto, for anyone who has been pushed aside or profiled or counted out, this is good news. This is gospel.

And this is the good news that Mary sings. She sings a song of liberation. She sings a song of mercy. She sings a song of justice. Justice for all those who have failed to receive justice at the hands of our human society. This is not the kind of justice that is meted out down the barrel of a gun or by a laser-targeted bomb. It is not the kind of justice that is executed in an electric chair or a prison cell.

No, God’s justice is something else entirely. God’s justice makes things right, it does not stop simply at punishing those who have done wrong. God’s justice gives power to the powerless. It cannot be bought, nor can it be bribed. God’s justice sees to the heart of things. It does not let something pass simply because the only people being hurt are people who have not been granted a voice to air their grievances. As Mary so boldly proclaims:

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

To Mary’s mind, God is a powerful warrior, a mighty champion, who fights on the side of the poor and lowly. God is like a sort of divine Robin Hood, who sets right the things that powerful people have set wrong. That is the God to whom Mary sings her praise, a God who has chosen humble little her over so many other more prominent choices.

And when it comes right down to it, what greater love can we sing than of an Almighty God who humbly takes on human form, of a God who cares the most for those who have the least. That truly is good news. That truly is gospel.

 

Sermon: Draw Water with Joy

Sunday 16 December 2018
The Third Sunday of Advent

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6

During Advent we are looking at a series of songs found in scripture. Last week we heard the Song of Zechariah, found in Luke and sometimes called the Benedictus, along with a song from the prophet Malachi. This week we encounter two more songs from the bible, both of them from the prophets, one from Isaiah and the other from Zephaniah.

And these songs are right on topic with our theme for the third Sunday of Advent. This is joy Sunday. It’s sometimes called Gaudete Sunday, because traditionally the words of the introit on this Sunday started with “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.” That is, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice,” from Philippians. On this Sunday we are commanded to rejoice. 

Which is a notable change in the season of Advent. Advent is supposed to be a bit of a solemn time, a time of reflection and preparation for the joy that comes at Christmas, just like Lent is meant to be a time of reflection and preparation for the joy that comes at Easter. But precisely in the middle of the season, there is a break in the solemnity as we are commanded to rejoice. We have not yet reached the object of our rejoicing, but we are commanded to rejoice all the same. And it is such a special Sunday that it even gets a different color candle in the Advent wreath. Instead of the more sombre blue or purple, we get the vivacious pink. It is a Sunday for joy.

And we find that same emphasis on joy in both of the biblical songs that we have this morning. Isaiah declares, “You will draw water with joy from the springs of salvation.” And Zephaniah says, “Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem.”

As I was preparing for the sermon today, I took a quick look at these two passages in the original Hebrew. My Hebrew isn’t that great, but I noticed two things right away. Both of these songs are packed with two kinds of words. Both of them are filled with names for God, and both of them are filled with words for joy.

First there are the names for God. The generic middle eastern name for God is El. It’s included in names like Samu-El and El-ijah. It’s also the root of the Arabic Allah. You’ve heard it in variations like El Shaddai (God of Armies) and El Elyon (God Most High). The plural is Elohim, which normally we would translate as The Gods. But Elohim is often also used as a proper name for the God of Israel. So El and Elohim are both used as names of God.

But the term used more often in these passages is the name of God that was revealed to Moses. That name is Yahweh. Sometimes it is translated as I Am. It’s all over the Hebrew Bible. But Jews developed a tradition that the name of God was too holy to speak. The idea was that there was a commandment against using God’s name in vain, and so to be extra careful they decided never to use God’s name at all, so they would never accidentally use it in vain. Instead, whenever they would come to the name Yahweh in the text, they would substitute a different word, Adonai, which means lord. So every time you see the word Lord written in all capitals in the Hebrew Bible, the word behind it is actually God’s name, Yahweh. And that word is used over and over in these passages.

In the Isaiah text, there’s a variation on this name. Instead of Yahweh, it’s shortened to just Yah. We read, Yah, the Lord is my strength and shield. In Hebrew it’s something like “My strength and shield is Yah, Yahweh will be my salvation.” The passage gets a little confusing because Yah and Yahweh appear right next to each other, and their followed immediately by the “to be” verb, the “I am” verb, which also looks a lot like the name Yahweh. It looks at first glance like the name Yahweh appears three times in a row.

That verse is interesting for another reason, because of another word that appears throughout these passages: salvation, save, savior. “God is indeed my salvation,” Isaiah begins. And that word salvation is a word you already know. The Hebrew word for salvation is Yeshua. That is, the Hebrew word for salvation is Jesus.

And early Christian interpreters of Isaiah didn’t miss the point. Isaiah 12:2 can read Surely God is my salvation. It can also read Surely my Jesus is God. Looking back on this Jewish text from a Christian perspective, it is impossible to miss that it seems filled with names for God, including the name of Jesus. You will draw water with joy from the springs of salvation becomes You will draw water with joy from the springs of Jesus. And so on.

But also striking in these passages is the prevalence of words for joy and rejoicing. In Zephaniah 3:17, for example, the same basic phrase is repeated twice. God will joy over you in joy; God will joy over you in joy. But each one of those four words for joy is a different word in Hebrew. There are at least five different roots used in these passages that mean joy, and many of those roots appear in multiple different parts of speech throughout these verses. There’s so much joy that English translations struggle to keep up, using words like exult, which seems rather obscure, and words like singing, that don’t specify that the singing is joyful. These passages are simply packed with joy.

Which makes you think that these must have been written at particularly good times, times when being joyful was easy. But they aren’t. Both Isaiah and Zephaniah are written in times of trouble. And if we look closely at these two passages and the verses around them, we can see that that’s the case. Neither this song from Isaiah nor the song from Zephaniah rejoice over something that is happening in the present. They are both looking forward to something that will happen in the future. They look forward to a time when God will deliver them in the future. And yet, the rejoicing happens now. The rejoicing happens now even though the thing that invites rejoicing has not yet been fully realized.

And that’s not unlike this Sunday in the midst of Advent. We have not yet arrived at the awaited event, at Christmas, the birth of the Lord. And yet we are called upon to rejoice now, even though we are still waiting.

And when you think about it, that’s actually similar to the holiday of Christmas itself. No one knows what time of year Jesus was actually born. Nothing in the Bible says anything about what time of year it might have been. When Christians got around to establishing a festival to celebrate Jesus’s birth, they had to pick a time. And the time they picked was the heart of winter. They chose the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Thanks to some changes in the calendar over the years, Christmas is now a few days after the solstice, but it still appears in that same winter season. It’s the moment when winter is the darkest. It’s a festival of light. It’s a festival of rebirth and new life. But it doesn’t actually happen when that rebirth and new life are readily evident. It doesn’t happen at the beginning of spring. It happens in the heart of winter, when the days are the shortest and the nights are the longest. But it happens at that moment when things are beginning to change. The days are just starting to get longer. We haven’t made it through the cold of winter, but we’re half way there. And being half way there is a reason for celebration. Being half way there is a reason for joy. It’s at the darkest time of the year that we celebrate the light.

And I don’t think that’s a mistake. If we were waiting for a time of perfect circumstances, for a time when everything is going well, we would never rejoice at all. We would never find that unsullied moment when joy makes perfect sense because there is no sorrow. In fact, it is often in the context of sorrow that we are most called to joy. We have to choose. Like those early Christians choosing the depth of winter as the time to celebrate light, we sometimes have to choose to be joyful, even when our circumstances don’t always seem like the right context for joy.

Last night, Saturday Night Live aired a sketch called “Best Christmas Ever.” A husband and wife, played by Matt Damon and Cecily Strong, curl up on the couch at the end of Christmas Day and reflect on how they celebrated the holiday. Daman says, “That was the best Christmas ever. I had a smile on my face from the moment I woke up.” The scene then cuts to that moment, when the kids came screaming into their parents’ bedroom at 5:41 am to wake them up for Christmas, and their weary parents struggling to drag themselves out of bed. And that’s how the sketch continues. As the couple reminisces in glowing terms about each detail of the day, their rosy remembrances are juxtaposed with the much grittier reality of what had actually happened. Assembling the toys, spending time with difficult relatives, opening strange gifts from their children—each ugly experience is remembered with fondness. A perfect example of looking back with rose-colored glasses. At the end, the words appear on the screen, “Even when it’s the worst, it’s the best. Merry Christmas.”

And I think that’s sometimes how joy is. Joy isn’t born out of perfect circumstances. Joy is born out of choosing to be joyful in the midst of struggle. Joy is about finding something to be grateful for in the midst of frustration. That means joy doesn’t come from wealth or power or privilege. One does not have to live an enviable life in order to be joyful.

At their best, that’s the message we get from all of those Hallmark Christmas movies this time of year. Some of them are a bit insufferable, but many have a pretty good message. They encourage us to value people more than we value things. They encourage us to mend relationships that have been broken or left unattended. And they also encourage a sense of joy, a sense of wonder. They seem to say that there is something valuable about celebrating, even if we live in circumstances that are not always happy. Putting up the lights, baking the goodies, getting together for the parties—there is something deeply valuable in that. There is something that nourishes our souls.

And that something is joy. Isaiah and Zephaniah knew it. They preached rejoicing even in the midst of suffering and waiting. Those early Christians who decided on celebrating Christmas in the gloomiest time of year knew it. Even SNL and those cheesy Christmas movies seem to get it, at least in part.

We cannot always dwell in sorrow. We cannot always be stuck on things not being good enough. We cannot always live in the negative. We have to make room for joy. We have to tube our spirits to gratitude. We have to make space for marvel and wonder. I’m not always the best at that, but I’m learning.

I’ll close with a poem on the subject by Khalil Gibran:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

 

Shout and sing for joy, city of Zion,
because the holy one of Israel is great among you.

Sermon: I Am Sending My Messenger

Sunday 9 December 2018
The Second Sunday of Advent

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79

Today and for the rest of Advent we are going to be looking at a series of songs in the scriptures. Every week we read at least one song from the bible. We don’t know anything about the melodies or rhythms, but every single psalm in the bible is actually a song. They were meant to be sung by the worshipping community. Some we even written for particular liturgical occasions, like walking through town on the way up to the temple. In fact, psalm is just the Greek word for song.

But the psalms are not the only songs in scripture. There are many more. In fact, we have a special word for songs in scripture that aren’t in the Book of Psalms. They are called canticles. Which, of course, is just another word for song, this time borrowed from latin.

As you know, we have four different gospels in the bible, and three of them have some version of the Christmas story. The gospel that we are following this year is the Gospel of Luke. And Luke’s gospel has something very peculiar in it’s version of the Christmas story. In Luke’s Christmas story, people are constantly breaking into song. When Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, she breaks into song. When they take baby Jesus to the temple eight days after he is born, the prophet Simeon breaks into song.

And toward the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, just after John the Baptist is born, his father, Zechariah breaks into song. That’s the canticle that we read together this morning. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.”

Like I said, we have no idea what the actual music would have sounded like, but we can tell by the form of the writing that it is a song. And it’s actually a very popular song in the Christian tradition. It has become a standard among Christian communities who pray the hours. For many Christians, morning prayer is always accompanied by this song. It usually falls right after the reading of scripture, and it is often sung. You can find in the morning prayer services in both the United Methodist Book of Worship and in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. When it’s chanted, it can sound something like this.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
  Who has come to set the chosen peo-ple free.
The Lord has raised up for us
  a mighty Savior from the house of David.
Through the holy prophets,
God promised of old to save us from our  enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us;
to show mercy to our forebears
and to remember the ho-ly covenant.
This was the oath God swore to our fa-ther Abraham:
  to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
free to worship with-our fear,
  holy and righteous in the Lord’s sight,
all the days of our life.
And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
  for you will go before the Lord to pre-pare the way,
to give God’s people knowledge of sal-vation.
  by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
  the dawn from on high shall break u-pon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Glory to you, O Trinity, most holy and blessed;
  One God, now and for-ever. A- men.

Zechariah is a priest in God’s temple. One time, when it was his turn to enter the sanctuary and give an incense offering, the angel Gabriel appeared to him, standing next to the altar. Gabriel told him that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son, that their son would be a prophet, and that they should name him John.

The angel said to John, “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his brith, for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah He will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Zechariah is frightened and confused, and he also knows that he and Elizabeth are too old to be having children, so he asks Gabriel for a sign, so that he can know that Gabriel is speaking the truth. And Gabriel obliges. If Zechariah wants a sign, he will get one. Gabriel strikes Zechariah mute. For nine months, Zechariah can’t say a word. It’s not until after John is born that Zechariah is finally able to break his silence. And when he does, he opens his mouth and begins to prophesy with a song.

He sings about God’s care for the people. He sings about the ways that God works for liberation. He sings about God’s promises. And he identifies John as the one who will go before the Lord to prepare the way. He will prepare the way for the one who will shine a light in the darkness. That is John’s role, to prepare the way for Jesus, to prepare the way for the one who shines light in the darkness.

Zechariah’s song calls back to an older song, the song that we heard read this morning from the prophet Malachi. Like all of the books in the Old Testament, Malachi  is a Jewish writing, and it is part of the Hebrew Bible. It appears in the middle of the Hebrew Bible, as part of the book of the twelve. But when Christians claimed the books of the Hebrew Bible as their own and transformed them into the Old Testament, they changed the order of the books. For Jews, Malachi is in the middle of the bible. But for Christians, Malachi is at the very end of the Old Testament. And that’s not by accident, either. Early Christians placed Malachi at the end of the Old Testament because they thought that it prepared the way for the New Testament. Malachi sets the stage for the appearances of John and Jesus.

And like the passage from Luke 1 today, the passage from Malachi comes in the form of a song:

Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path be-fore me;
suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple.
The messenger of the covenant in whom you take de-light is coming;
s. ays the Lord of heaven-ly forces.

As Christians understand it, Malachi is prophesying about the coming of John the Baptist. John is the messenger who goes ahead to prepare the way, to prepare the way for Jesus.

But, Malachi warns, the coming of the Lord may be difficult. Again, this is done in song, and the setting we best know of this text is by Georg Friedrich Händel.

But who may abide the day of his coming?
And who shall stand when he appeareth?

In other words, Is anyone able to endure the coming of the Lord? Does anyone have the strength to stand in the presence of the Lord?

The prophet continues:

For he is like a refiner’s fire.

And he shall purify. And he shall purify….. the sons of Levi.

God’s presence is hot, it is intense, it purifies, it makes stronger. It is a good thing, but it can be overwhelming. It is in the midst of crisis that God’s best work is done.

Which introduces an important question. Does God intend bad things for us? Does God intentionally give us suffering? Does God put us through trials in order to make us stronger?

That’s a pretty common theological understanding. God gives us blessings, but God also sends us suffering. And if God sends us suffering, it must be for our own good. It must be meant for us, intended for us.

When people experience significant tragedy, that’s often the kind of message that we send them. You may feel bad, but it’s part of God’s plan. God has a reason for putting you through this.

And you know what, I don’t buy. It didn’t seem like good theology to me even before I had an experience great loss, and it certainly didn’t feel like a blessing while we were going through loss. I don’t think that a good God intends us harm. I don’t think that the God who loves us intentionally subjects us to suffering. I don’t think that God plans tragedy for us.

I do believe we live in a very big, very complicated world. I believe that as a result of our human freedom, and the freedom of other beings in the universe, hardship arises. It is a natural consequence of life. If God kept us from experiencing any pain or loss, then we wouldn’t really be alive. But God does not choose out special hardships for each one of us, like some kind of sadistic scientist performing tests on us. Suffering is an unavoidable consequence of a life of freedom, an unavoidable consequence of the human condition. Sometimes we suffer because of our own choices. Sometimes suffering just hits us out of nowhere. I don’t think God chooses suffering for us.

But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t work in suffering. On the contrary, most of God’s best work is done in and through suffering. Because God has the power to take something that is truly horrible and to bring something good out of it. It is true that we are refined in fire. It is true that many of our greatest strengths are born out of the experience of pain and suffering. But that isn’t because God makes us suffer. It’s because God redeems our suffering. God takes a situation of pain and finds a way to work good out of it. It doesn’t make the pain disappear. It doesn’t make the grief go away. But God’s grace somehow finds a way to draw good from the grief, to find some purpose in the pain, to forge strength in the suffering, to bring some transformation out of the tragedy. For he is like a refiner’s fire, the one who is able to use the fire to strengthen our faith.

The Lord is coming, we are told. And the prophet John goes ahead to prepare the way. And sometimes the preparation is painful. But through God’s grace, through God’s grace, we see fear and we find hope, we see conflict and we find peace, we see despair and we find joy, we see hate and we find love. May we be transformed through God’s redemptive grace, that we might be prepared for the coming of the Lord.