W7C7MT ‘It is Finished’: Christ’s last words from the Cross, c1890. Artist: James Tissot. Image shot 1890. Exact date unknown.

This sermon is from Sunday, October 3, 2021 and it was originally preached at St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, FL. where I serve as Rector. I focused on the Gospel text, specifically Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12. You can listen to the sermon here.

Within the wide world of sports, it has become common to debate who is the “Greatest Of All Time” to ever play the game. It is no longer sufficient to describe players as being the best active player, the best player in the league, or the best player of their generation. Constantly saying “the Greatest of All Time” can be exhausting, so a shorthand has been developed: GOAT. It is all too common these days to refer to these individuals as “the GOAT” or to go a step further and use 🐐emoji when typing.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, let me ignite some friendly debate. Who is the greatest quarterback of all time? Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady? Who is the greatest baseball player of all time? Hank Aaron, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, or Mike Trout who is currently playing today? 

These debates are raging today with some of the best athletes still playing their beloved sport. As fans, we are left to decide between Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the best golfer; Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, or Lebron James as the best basketball player, Cristiano Ronaldo or Leonel Messi as the greatest soccer player, and so on and so forth.

Of course such irrelevant and time-consuming debates over meaningless topics is like asking the question of how many angels can dance on a pinhead. Why would we waste our time debating over the greatness of a single athlete? These debates are not limited to sports, however. How many times have we argued about who was the greatest president in US History? The greatest monarch to rule England? The greatest impressionist painter, American novelist, or jazz musician?

(George Washington, Queen Elizabeth II, Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, and Thelonius Monk, obviously.)

There is something innate to our humanity that desires to create lists and structure hierarchies of greatness and excellence. There is something in us which yearns for and aspires to be “the best of the best,” “the crop of the crop,” or “the greatest of all time.” 

And this innate desire leads us into the heart of Hebrews.

This morning we begin our new 7-week sermon series on the book of Hebrews. The title for our series is Great High Priest and if you’ve ever read the Book of Hebrews you will know that it is full of rich imagery from the Old Testament and it proclaims Jesus’ superiority over all things. Because we are going to spend 7 weeks in Hebrews, I feel it necessary to get some of the obligatory ahem, “throat clearing” out of the way.

Scholars are actually certain of very few things about Hebrews. The author’s identity is unknown. Attributing Hebrews to Paul is no longer in vogue and has long since been debunked. Whereas the author discloses that they are not one of the apostles and that they received their instruction from the Apostles, Paul is bold to say that he received his instruction from the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus.  It is most likely that the author was a companion of Paul or familiar with the Pauline school of thought. More specifically, the author was well read in Greek philosophy and logic as is demonstrated throughout the book, and he/she is extremely familiar with Israel’s scriptures.

The most likely potential authors are Barnabas, Apollos, and Priscilla. I am most persuaded by the idea of Priscilla. Priscilla had experience leading  a house church in Rome, bringing Apollos to faith, and she was close to Paul in Corinth and Ephesus and her husband, Aquila, was a Jewish Christian (read: understanding of Old Testament). Because of this, I will be using the pronouns she/her when talking about the author of Hebrews. 

You do not have to share that conviction with me; there is plenty to be said in favor of Barnabas and Apollos. At the end of the day, it doesn’t actually matter who the author is because Hebrews is still an authoritative piece of divinely inspired writing.

The audience, date, and origin of Hebrews are also all unknown. We have reason to believe that it was composed as a sermon to a house church in Rome between 45-90AD. We know that the Emperor Claudius kicked Jews out of Rome in 49AD (Acts 18:2) because of their belief in Christ–we also know that Priscilla and Aquila were among those who were exiled and that they would then show up in Corinth when Paul arrived in 51 AD. Suetonius’ records it this way, “He expelled from Rome the Jews constantly making disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.”

The audience was clearly familiar with the Old Testament because the author quotes Israel’s scriptures at length. The ethnic background of the recipients of Hebrews is not actually important, what we should be focusing on is “the complex way in which they would have related to the dominant Greco-Roman culture, Jewish subculture, and Christian community” around them.

In short, Hebrews is a sermon written by someone with a pastor’s heart to a house church with special attention to Jesus’ superiority and what it meant to live as a Christian within the larger Greco-Roman world and Jewish subculture. The author’s primary tactic was to show various high points of the Old Testament and of Israel’s beliefs and to then demonstrate how Jesus suprasses them all. 

In Hebrews, we are told:

Jesus is greater than the sacrifices of Israel
Jesus is greater than the angels
Jesus is greater than Moses, Abraham, Aaron, and Melchizedek
Jesus is greater than Israel’s high priests

One could argue, in contemporary language, that Jesus is the Greatest of All Time. Our image, painted by James Tissot, shows Israel’s “all stars” welcoming Jesus into heaven after the crucifixion. Jesus is the GOAT.

This is where we are going over the next 7 Sundays. My throat has been sufficiently cleared–we may dig in!

In order to set the table this morning, I want us to work through the opening 4 verses of Hebrews 1 line by line because I think the author is doing so much incredible work in this section that we need to give it our utmost attention. 

We begin with verse 1: Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets. Let’s stop there. This is our first indication that the audience might be Jewish Christians and that the author is familiar with the Old Testament. The reference to “our ancestors” demonstrates a shared ancestry based on the teachings of Israel’s prophets.

The author invites us to think about Israel’s prophetic tradition. She will quote the prophets Moses, Nathan, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Haggai throughout the sermon. She will also quote David’s psalms, Abraham, Aaron, and Joshua, all of whom played a prophetic role in Israel. 

The author begins her sermon with God’s words spoken to Israel through the prophets because those words encapsulate the whole of the Old Testament. Even if each prophet only proclaimed a piece of the message, their collect witness presented the whole picture of God’s love.

She continues, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son. The reference to “these last days” is made over and against her previous reference to “long ago.” Something has shifted human history separating then from now. This is an eschatological term, that is, it describes “the last days,” and it is used here to demonstrate that this new form of speaking is definitive and authoritative.

We are told that God is now speaking to us “by a Son.” Don’t be confused by the use of “a” instead of “the.” This is not suggesting that there are more than one son, but rather a way of highlighting the numerous prophets of old and the singular son of now. This Son is the final word from God.

Who is this son? First of all, she writes about him: whom he appointed heir of all things. The language of heirs, testaments, and testators was common in this culture, but this is unique because here we find a son who inherits without the death of the testator. That is, we know that we only receive an inheritance from parents and grandparents upon someone’s death, but this Son was able to inherit without his Father’s death. We will be told later that the Son’s inheritance is made possible by the Son’s death rather than the Father’s; indeed that our inheritance is made possible by the Son’s death.

through whom he also created the worlds. Lest we begin to think that the Son is mortal, fallible, and temporal, the author shows that He is eternal. This language is intentional and it should take our minds immediately to Genesis 1 and John 1 where we find the divine logos of God, the second person of the Trinity, present and active as the world is being created. This Son who is the spoken word of God and who is the heir of all things was also present for creation, thus being an eternal being. Can you begin to see what our author is setting up??

Our author isn’t done yet; she goes on to describe the Son as the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. Glory, imprint, and being are terms that Jewish Christians would have understood. The Old Testament in general, and the Pentateuch specifically, are replete with references to God’s glory. Moses’ face shone and radiated God’s glory after meeting with YHWH atop Mt. Sinai; Moses says to YHWH, “Show me your glory” and YHWH passed by him. No mortal could see the full glory of God and live…and so God was imageless and invisible. Israel was commanded that she could not make graven images of God–this is why the imprint of the Golden Calf is such idolatrous sin…and here we are told that the Son is the reflection of God’s glory and the very imprint of God’s being. When one sees the Son one sees God.

and he sustains all things by his powerful word. Because this Son reflects the glory and is the imprint of God’s being, he has powerful words that sustain all things. That is, Jews believed that YHWH upheld the entire created world by his word, by his presence, by his very being, and our author now attributes that live-giving, and world-sustaining power to the Son as well. 

When he had made purification for sins. This is where things get interesting and we will be returning to these themes of purification, sins, and sitting down throughout our sermon series. The Son made the purification for sins because he was the purification for sins. Like I told you last week, Israel was used to making daily burnt offerings, weekly sabbath offerings, occasional sin offerings, and one annual offering for the atonement of sins. The Son makes the definitive, once-and-for-all purification for sins. 

What does he do afterward? he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. This is significant for two reasons. First, this is imperial power language. Emperors and supreme leaders would often sit while their subjects stood in their presence. The right hand was the seat of power and the fact that Jesus occupies that seat and is seated in it means that he has incredible power and authority. As we know from the Nicene Creed, it is the place from which he is presently reigning and ruling over all things. Second, and of equal import to Hebrews, and this is something we will talk about more in the coming weeks, but Israel’s high priests had to perform the rituals, sacrifices, and offerings day after day, week after week, year after year. There was no time for sitting down. The high priest was always standing up, always offering, always working because their offerings were insufficient. As the Great High Priest, Jesus is able to sit down because his offering is once and for all. Period. No additives, no extras, no fine print.

This son has been elevated to a high level, for4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. This verse is the crucial point that takes us into chapter 2. The author is comparing Jesus to the angels and showing that Jesus is superior. What did the angels do? It was believed in Israel that the angels gave the two tablets to Moses. The entire law, the entire writing that would encompass Israel’s spiritual, civic, religious, and moral life was handed over from God to people by angels. There are angels seated on the top of the ark of the covenant, on the mercy seat where YHWH would reside…and Jesus is greater than the angels. Can you believe that? This is our first taste of the author taking something from Israel’s past and making the argument that Jesus is superior.

This is quite the opening 4 verses to this sermon. I have just spent more than 10 minutes walking through verses which would have taken 30 seconds to read. They are that rich and robust.

When we move into our verses from chapter 2, we are again met with this idea of Jesus being superior to the angels. The author begins with a quotation from Psalm 8, “What are humans that you are mindful of them? You made him a little lower than the angels,” something highly familiar to the Hebrews. Even though humanity is lower than the angels, and remember that Jesus assumed our humanity and is therefore “for a little while lower” than the angels, God entrusted the world to humans.

I’m not even going to let you ask the question, why does any of this matter? because our author answers it for us: Jesus is elevated higher than the angels through his suffering, crucifixion, and saving work.

Jesus is “crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death.” God is glorified in Christ crucified as Christ was enthroned upon the cross. The crown of thorns and the robes given in mocking jest by the soldiers betrayed a deeper truth: the king of glory was hanged upon the tree and there we see God’s glory truly reflected. Remember that from the first few verses. The impress and imprint of God is made manifest most fully through the suffering servant who “tasted death for everyone.” 

Jesus suffers and dies so that he may bring many sons and daughters to glory. This is the Good News, my friends. This is why we are the church. This is why we are here this morning. Jesus’ death was intended as once-and-for-all in order to bring men, women, and children into God’s glory. Jesus is the pioneer of salvation and he has paid the price so that we don’t have to. Jesus has died the sinner’s death that we might enjoy eternal life in the presence of the Trinity. 

So why does it matter that Jesus is greater than the angels? It matters because he is elevated through his sufferings, he is made perfect through his sufferings, we are made perfect and saved through his suffering and death…and because of this we are able to call him brother, we are able to refer to God as abba, father. We are the sons and daughters brought into glory. Your job, beloved, is to bring more sons and daughters into glory by introducing them to our Great High Priest, the one who holds all things together, the one who has been elevated to be higher than the angels, the one who is seated at the right hand of the Father, the one who has offered himself as the sacrifice for sins once-and-for-all, that we may not die but live forever. Amen.

This sermon is from Sunday, September 26, 2021 and it was originally preached at St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, FL. where I serve as Rector. I focused on the Gospel text, specifically Mark 9:49-50. You can listen to the sermon here.

Rebecca and I started dating while we were freshmen in college. When it came time for us to celebrate our first dating anniversary, we wanted to do something special. We took a day trip to Macon, Georgia where we walked around historic downtown, we saw Three Blind Mice on stage at the theatre, and because we have always been lovers of great food, we went out to a fancy restaurant. 

These two 19 year olds, one far more mature than the other, went to Marco’s Ristorante Italiano for a romantic dinner. It was at Marco’s that I had a life-changing culinary experience. 

And you thought I was setting up a story about all the mushy, gushy stuff!

I ordered one of the house specials: the Baked Mediterranean Branzino. This wasn’t your normal dish: it was baked in a very thick layer of rock salt. For those not-in-the-know, crusting fish or meat in rock salt allows for a slower, more even cooking process. The meat is protected from the flames and so cannot be charred, burned, or scorched. 

My branzino was wheeled over the table on a cart. Then the production began. The waiter cracked through the thick layer of salt and revealed the fish contained within. The waiter then carefully filleted the fish, peeling back the skin and removing the bones, all done tableside. He then transferred the fish to my plate and then covered it in a sauce of white wine, capers, and shrimp. 

My mouth is salivating just talking about it. 

The drama of presenting and filleting the fish tableside, and then eating it has been lodged in my memory ever since. The key to the whole process was one of the most basic elements on earth: salt.

In her cookbook-turned-Netflix-documentary series, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, chef Samin Nosrat talks about the efficacy and essentiality of salt. She quotes the famous chef, James Beard–yes, of the James Beard Awards–with regard to salt. Beard once asked, “Where would we be without salt?” Nosrat answers the question: adrift in a sea of blandness.

Nosrat suggests that instead of using more, we need to use it better. Salt adds flavor to food, and it is better to add a little bit of salt at a time while cooking instead of adding a bunch at the table. Salt is a team player because in addition to having its own unique flavor, it also enhances the flavors of other ingredients.  

Salt can be used as a protective layer in baking temperamental meat because the salt creates a barrier which keeps flames out and allows meat to cook evenly and more slowly with the natural flavoring of its own juices. We only have to go back to the pre-refrigeration era when salt was used primarily as a preservative when salt was used to keep meats and foods longer, through either curing or pickling. It preserved the food because salt does not lose its saltiness or salinity. 

Even our bodies contain more salt than you may realize. Salt regulates the electrical charges moving in and out of our bodies, and it affects taste, smell, tactile functions, and our nervous systems. Our tears are salty. Basal tears and reflex tears have a higher salt content because they help keep our eyes healthy and free from debris, infection, and germs. 

You can use salt to draw out a stain from a carpet or shirt, you can place salt in your shoes to remove an odor (or so I’ve read online), and salt is used when creating bleach. Salt is used in fireworks because the energy which is created during burning emits different color lights. Salt is used by the Vatican in their chemical formula when smoke rises from the Sistine Chapel to announce the results of a papal election. 

Finally, salt doesn’t burn. At least not in ordinary circumstances. You have to reach such extreme temperatures of 1470 degrees fahrenheit in order to melt table salt, or 2575 degrees fahrenheit for it to boil. Salt might change the color of a flame–a chemical reaction having to do with energy–but once the fire is extinguished you will find the salt buried beneath the ashes. 

Salt flavors, enhances, purifies, and preserves.

Our gospel passage ended today with Jesus making some comments about salt in verses 49-50. Jesus concludes our pericope by saying: 

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

These verses are going to take us on a saltiness journey today, a trek of salinity, and I hope by the end of it that you will all embrace living as a salty people…and no, I don’t mean salty in the insulting sense.

As one does, we need to move backward from Mark into the book of Leviticus. I promise I’m not trying to continually plug our new Bible Study series, but trust me when I tell you that Leviticus has everything to do with the Gospels. In Leviticus 1 and 2 where we find descriptions of the offerings that Israel is supposed to offer to YHWH. 

The Israelites are supposed to make a burnt offering to YHWH on the altar. The burnt offering was made daily during morning and evening prayer, while the Sabbath offering was once a week, the sin offering was presented as needed based on the sin, and the offering for the atonement of sins was made annually. Israelites could offer an animal from the herd, flock, or air and there were various provisions made for preparing the offering. 

Salt plays an essential role in the process of koshering meat. You’ll hear more about this in October during our Bible study, “Leviticus: The Hidden Gospel,” but here are the high points. Based on the Levitical code, Jews were prohibited from eating blood. The process for draining blood from animals was intense: “The meat or poultry is soaked in clean water for thirty minutes, then removed to drip dry. After a few minutes of dripping, the meat is salted and left to hang for sixty minutes to further draw out any remaining blood. After sixty minutes of salting, the meat is washed three times in cold, clean water to remove any remaining salt.” Salt helped to draw out the remaining blood from the animal to make it pure enough for eating or sacrificing. 

When describing the logistics of making the burnt offering from herd, flock, or air, YHWH repeats this phrase three times: 

An offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD.

Salt was part of the purification process, but it was also part of the offering itself. If we skip to chapter 2 and read about grain offerings, we are told that, “You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”

YHWH commands Israel to always include salt with all of the offerings presented on the altar. Salt is placed on the meat as it is being placed on the altar for burning, that it might be an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD. The belief being that as the smoke and aroma rose to YHWH from the altar, he would be pleased with the offering. The quality of the offering was a mirror into the heart of the worshipper. 

The practical side of this is fairly easy to understand: salt brings out flavor and so adding salt to the burnt offering would produce a more pleasing aroma. The confusing part is the reference to the “salt of the covenant with your God.”

Don’t worry! I started you on this wild goose chase and I’m going to see you through it. Salt was used as part of covenants in the ANE because it represented perdurability and permanence, it had an eternal quality. Salt does not lose its saltiness because it is not adversely affected by time, water, or fire. It can neither be burned nor can it be drowned, and it does not weaken with the passage of time. This is why our ancestors started using salt as a preservative. 

The “salt covenant” in Leviticus 2:13 is mentioned two other times in Scripture: once in Numbers 18 and once in 2 Chronicles 13. In Numbers, YHWH references his salt covenant with Aaron and the Aaronic priesthood. In 2 Chronicles, YHWH references his salt covenant with David and the Davidic line. In both instances, the salt covenant is eternal. It is forever. 

Israel was not the only nation to include salt in their covenants. “Covenantal allies all ‘tasted the salt…’” “Loyalty to the Persian monarch is described as having tasted ‘the salt of the palace.’” “Greeks and Arabs are known to have eaten salt together when they concluded covenants.” In short, “To add salt to the offering was a reminder that the worshipper was in an eternal covenant relationship with God.”

Salt, the great purifier and preserver, the element which cleans, endures, and flavors, also represents the eternal nature of a covenant. No wonder Jesus is a priest in the line of Melchizedek forever and that he will reign on David’s throne, forever. 

Salt was a sign of promise, not judgment.
Salt was a sign of perdurability, perseverance, and endurance.
Salt was a sign of loyalty and fidelity.
Salt was a culinary depiction of Good News.

So as we come back to Jesus’ comments in Mark 9 we have to keep this in mind. Jesus has been issuing a warning to those who would cause little ones to stumble. He warns the disciples of being thrown into the fires of Gehenna where the flames are never quenched, but now he is bringing salt into the equation. It feels random and yet…

Our minds should immediately go back to the Levitical code where salt was required on all burnt offerings. 
We should remember the eternal salt covenants made with Israel, with Aaron, and with Moses.
We should remember that the salted burnt offerings offered an aroma pleasing to the LORD.

Jesus’ comments aren’t all that confusing, then. When we read them in their levitical context we see that Jesus is reminding his listeners of YHWH’s eternal covenant with and his steadfast love for his people. The focus here ought not to be on the fire but on the salt. Going with fire first places the wrong emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble. 

In the first instance, the reference to everyone being salted with fire, the salt means that the aroma will be pleasing to God and that the offering will endure. Paul will later play with this language in his epistle to the Romans when he writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Our bodies are supposed to be living sacrifices, proverbially placed on the altar before God, metaphorically covered with salt, that is the enduring covenant because YHWH’s steadfast, covenantal love lasts forever.

The second comment from Jesus is an example of obvious hyperbole. He says, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” This doesn’t make any sense because we know that salt does not lose its salinity…and I think that’s the point. Jesus is making such an outlandish statement to demonstrate just how useless salt would be if it lost its salinity. Salt is good but salt which is no longer salty is worthless…but the salt of God’s covenant is everlasting. 

The last phrase about peace is something also straight out of the Levitical Code and from the  cultures of the ANE. Peace offerings were made between individuals when one had slighted or offended another or when one needed an ally. A key component of such an agreement was either an offering with salt because the salt represented the enduring nature of the peace being made, or a meal included salt. As I mentioned earlier with the Persian monarch and acts of fealty, loyalty, or fidelity, salt was an outward expression of an inner truth: when salt was present it meant that the bond would endure. This is why Jesus can say, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Salt is the manifestation of the covenant and peace is the natural state of relationships for those who are in covenant with God.

This goes back to what I was talking about last week with perichoresis and being in communion. Our very existence is derived from our relationship with God. Our other relationships, therefore, must also be understood within the context of our relationship with God. Covenant and salt go hand in hand.

Jesus makes similar statements during the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 when he tells the disciples and listening crowd that they are the “salt of the earth.” If salt was intended to flavor and enhance the burnt offering; if it was used as part of the purification process and as a preservative representing the eternal covenant, then Jesus’ suggestion that the people be salty is of the utmost importance.

You, my friends, are to be salty people.   

Let’s play this all the way out with the same characteristics of salt:

Enhance – Our pericope started because the disciples had witnessed someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and they tried to stop him. They acted territorial about mission in the Kingdom of God as though they had the corner on the ministry market. Sounds familiar to a lot of churches. 

If the disciples had been salty, they would have enhanced the ministry of others rather than trying to stop them. The phrase “in Jesus’ name” is all we need to know: this individual was doing Kingdom work. We need to be happy about the fact that other churches in Cocoa Beach are doing legitimate Gospel ministry and support them; we need to support people at St. David’s who are doing ministry even if it’s in “our” field. Salt enhances!

Flavor – Our call as Christians and as the church is to add flavor to all that we do and to everything around us. It is good that we gather together faithfully on Sunday mornings for worship and prayer, but our mission field is where we need to be salty. Getting involved with the arts, with hands-on-outreach,

Purity and Purify – Salt was part of the koshering process as Israel sought to keep clean and pure while living in the world with others. Our call is the same. We are in the world but not of the world, set up as an alternative community, a community of the resurrection, over and against the consumerism and narcissism of the world. To be pure is to allow the Holy Spirit to form and transform our hearts and minds into Christlikeness. To purify is to set on a mission of blessing the world, setting apart people, places, and things for God’s glory, helping the to flourish. We accomplish this as being agents of reconciliation, forgiving as we have been forgiven, and inviting others into the fellowship of the redeemed.

Preserve – This is the big one. Salt is the sign of the covenant because it endures forever. God has promised us his never-ending, never-dying, stronger than death, steadfast love, and therefore we have been invited to endure, to persevere, and to be preserved. We must continue on in the faith, preserving the faith as handed down to us by the saints.

Stay salty, my friends.

Etching by Pietro del PoThe Canaanite (or Syrophoenician) woman asks Christ to cure, ca. 1650.

This sermon is from Sunday, September 5, 2021 and it was originally preached at St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, FL. where I serve as Rector. The lessons were Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23, Psalm 125, James 2:1-17, and Mark 7:24-37.

From the ages of 9-17, I attended a Christian summer camp called “Summer’s Best Two Weeks” in Boswell, Pennsylvania. Like most Christian summer camps, the focus of the experience was on following Jesus couched in a plethora of outdoor activities, team events, sporting contests, and bonfires. 

It was at SB2W that I learned the “I’m Third Rule,”: God first, others second, and self third. It’s where I learned that we play for an audience of One. It’s where I learned this phrase: Attitude Check: Jesus is the Lord; Gratitude Check: Glory goes to God. 

It’s also where I repelled down a rock wall.

There was a small rocking climbing wall at a 45-degree incline for the littler kids. There was a much larger, flat-faced wall for the older kids, but the purest form of heroism was reserved for those who would ascend the stairs to the top of the climbing wall and repel down the other side. This wall was 50 feet tall, but it felt like Everest.

Imagine me, a scrawny and short 10-year old climbing to the top of this rock climbing tower. The camp counselor is telling me how to repel down the wall while tying my harness to the rope which will hopefully hold me steady. My knees are shaking, my palms are sweating, I am utterly terrified as he marches me, backward toward the edge of the precipice and begins to slowly tilt me back over the edge. 

Seeing that I’m nervous, the counselor asks: do you trust me?

Now, I know this was supposed to instill confidence in me, but I didn’t know this counselor. I didn’t know his track record of successfully belaying adolescents and pre-adolescents down the wall without dropping them to their bone-crushing doom. I believed that the harness was properly attached, I hoped that the rope would hold, and I wanted-to-believe that the counselor would do everything in his power to keep me safe.

I didn’t trust, though. 

The trip down, once I stepped off the edge, was one of my favorite memories that summer. All fear forgotten in the blink of an eye.

Trust is an interesting concept, isn’t it. It’s something that is hard to gain and easy to lose. Our money says, “In God We Trust”; some of us remember the slogan used for Jimmy Carter’s and Walter Mondale’s failed re-election bid: “A Tested and Trustworthy Team.” 

But do we truly understand what trust is?

Our Collect this morning takes this abstract question and makes it an essential grappling point for us. The Collect begins: O God, to trust in you with all our hearts.  I would like to offer you a new working definition of trust as it pertains to God. Trust is firmly believing that God is who he says he is and that he will do what he has promised to do.

Noah trusted YHWH and he built an ark; Abram trusted YHWH and he left the land of his father and made a covenant with this monotheistic God; Moses trusted YHWH and he delivered God’s people from Egypt; David trusted YHWH and he was a man after God’s own heart; Mary trusted YHWH and said, “May it be unto me.” Time and time again, YHWH reveals himself to his people by telling them who he is: I am who I am, I am the God of your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I will be your God and you will be my people. Then he tells them what he will do: I will redeem you; I will rescue you; I will make a covenant with you; I will establish your throne forever; I will write my covenant on your hearts; I will be your God.

The Old Testament has been marching slowly and intentionally toward the day when God’s chosen one, his anointed Messiah, the faithful Israelite would come to redeem God’s people once and for all. For generations and centuries Israel walked by faith, not by sight because she trusted that God was who he said he was and that he would do all that he said he would do. The obvious caveat here is that Israel’s covenant fidelity waxed and waned like the moon, but she did still trust in YHWH even amid her sins.

So we enter the fray of Mark’s Gospel once more, this time beginning with Mark 7:24. Last Sunday we read about Jesus taking the religious leaders of Israel to task for their codes and laws of purity, and we now find ourselves immersed in a story that has long been a stumbling block for preachers. At first glance, the exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenecian woman about dogs and scraps feels discordant with the gospel, and yet, once you understand it, it is the absolute most logical follow up to last week’s lesson. 

Jesus leaves the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem who have attempted to ambush him and he ends up in the region of Tyre. Here’s what you need to know about Tyre: Tyreans were not Jewish, they were Gentiles. Worse than that, Josephus describes the Tyreans as some of the Jews “bitterest enemies.” Jesus is once again behind enemy lines.

Jesus is trying to fly under the radar because the more publicity he gets the more the “powers that be” want to get rid of him. Quick recap: who are the powers that be who are upset with Jesus’ ministry?

Evil spirits, demons, and the satan
Pharisees, Scribes, Chief Priests
Rome

Jesus enters a Gentile house which would have made him unclean. A woman approaches him; she is a Gentile and therefore ritually unclean. Lastly, her daughter has an unclean spirit. 

Just so we’re clear: an unclean Gentile with an unclean daughter comes to Jesus in an unclean Gentile house. Triple whammy (that’s a theological term).

There is absolutely no reason that Jesus should be talking to this Gentile…if you’re a Pharisee.

Remember, we have just heard about all of the codes, rules, commandments, and ordinances pertaining to ritual purity and Jesus has just broken a bunch of those rules by even being in a Tyrean house with a Syrophoenician woman whose daughter has an unclean spirit.

Spoiler alert: that’s part of the beauty of this story!

The Syrophoenecian woman comes and bows down at his feet. Mark doesn’t give us her name but that’s not to make her less important to the story, it is done in order to highlight how much of an outsider she is presumably to the family of God. She prostrates herself before Jesus and while we could interpret this as an act of desperation, it is strikingly similar to the woman with bleeding whom Jesus healed earlier: this woman trusts who Jesus is based on the miracles he has already performed among the Jews and the Gentiles. And she trusts that he can do it again for her daughter.

Why else would she bow down at his feet? 

Jesus’ reaction, however, is surprising. Instead of saying yes immediately, he says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This is an odd response, right? We need to substitute some words then it will make more sense. “Children” refers to Israel; “food” or “bread” refers to the gospel; “dogs” refers to the Gentiles. Jesus is saying, “Israel needs to be fed first, it isn’t fair to take Israel’s gospel and give it to the Gentiles.” This seems harsh. It seems out of character. It even feels a little bit racist to think of these words in Jesus’ mouth. 

There are a wide variety of interpretations to the meaning of this passage: some say that Jesus was being sarcastic, that he is giving her the old “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” routine as he says this. But nothing in the text references such body language. Others say that Jesus was in fact intending to NOT heal her daughter based on her lack of being Jewish but that she convinced him. This doesn’t sit well because Jesus has already been performing miracles in Gentile territory in Mark’s gospel. The most obvious answer, according to a theologian with whom I agree, Rebecca Taylor, is that Jesus isn’t being sarcastic or racist, he’s acting like a good rabbi, inviting the woman to participate in a dialogue. It’s as though Jesus is egging her on, encouraging her toward the right answer, the one he knows she already has. Further up and further in, as Lewis would say.

Think about it: Jesus shouldn’t even be talking to her let alone being in the same space as her and yet he responds to her request and to her rebuttal. Jesus is treating this Gentile woman the same way that he has treated his male disciples, the woman at the well, and the woman who was bleeding.

His opening remark isn’t a barrier but an invitation. It is an invitation to explore faith and God.

This is one of those times the NRSV gets it wrong–can’t win them all–they start her response with “Sir,” but it is actually, “Lord.” This Gentile woman knows who Jesus is and she has the faith and trust to persist until he heals her daughter. The woman retorts that even the dogs get the crumbs under the table. As in, the food may have been intended for the Jews but the Gentiles are still eating it. This is consistent with salvation history–YHWH told Abram the nations of the world would be blessed through Israel; the Gentiles are always intended recipients of the Gospel.

You know how Jesus is constantly telling people, “Your faith has made you well”? The Syrophoenecian woman’s faith made her daughter well. It is the intersection of her faith and God’s mercy. Jesus is merciful to this unclean foreigner by engaging her, by elevating her, by treating her as an equal, and by responding to her faith with healing. This healing story of the Syrophoenecian’s daughter expands the reach of the Gospel very clearly into the Gentile world. All of our passages today expand the reach of the gospel because they expand the definition of neighbor

James addresses this question in his epistle when he writes, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” Apparently they were elevating the rich and further marginalizing the poor. They were judging people based on their wallets. Surely that doesn’t happen any more? Proverbs talks about the poor and how the LORD pleads their case

James goes further: when we break one part of the law we break the whole law. And this is the hard saying for us this morning: do we love our neighbors as ourselves? And I don’t mean the ones who vote the same way, who spend money the same way, who read the same books, who take the same paper, who support the same teams…I mean the ones who are entirely different from us: the ones who voted for our candidate’s opponent, the ones who aren’t from America, the ones who have no money, the ones who have different skin color, the ones who don’t wear masks, the ones who do wear masks, the ones who believe there is no God. Do we love them? Because if we don’t then we are guilty of breaking one of the two great commandments.

Let’s hop back to Mark with the second part of the Collect in mind: so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy. Jesus moves on from Tyre into the region of the Decapolis. This is not the first time we have heard of this place. Meaning “ten cities,” it was mentioned earlier in Mark 5 when Jesus casts the legion of demons out of the Gerasene demoniac. The man, now healed, wants to follow Jesus but Jesus tells him instead to go. Jesus says, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” Where does this man go? To the Decapolis, Gentile territory, proclaiming the good news, boasting of God’s mercy.

We should not be surprised that Jesus heals a deaf man. Everyone knows of this Jesus by this point! Despite Jesus’ attempts to stay secret, his miracles and mighty acts cannot be silenced, hidden, or ignored. Of course the actual healing is important, but it is the man’s response that is truly significant for us…

Jesus tells the observers to be quiet “but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’” They are boasting of God’s mercy.

Do you know what I did every day at camp after I successfully repelled down the wall with life and limb intact? I told every camper who would listen about the counselor who kept me safe. I was boasting about his talent.

Let me ask you some simple questions: 

How has God been present and merciful in your life?
When have you experienced God’s love? His protection? His provision?
When have you seen God act?
How has God revealed himself to you in  your life?

I know you are sifting through your life as you sit here and you are beginning to formulate thoughts about events and experiences of your life that cannot be described apart from God’s presence. Perhaps it was healing, perhaps it was comfort in the face of grief, perhaps it was provision and protection. Whatever it was…you know what I’m talking about.

Our invitation from Jesus this morning is the same one he issued to the Gerasene after healing him: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

Those who have experienced God’s mercy are encouraged to tell others about it. It’s one thing to say, “The Bible says,” but it’s entirely different to say, “This is how God has shown up in my life.” In AA we would call that sharing our experience, strength, and hope.

Think of the chain of events: Jesus heals the demoniac in Mark 5. He sends him on his way to the Decapolis to boast of God’s mercy. In Mark 7 we come back to the Decapolis where Jesus is now known, he heals again, and again they go out boasting of God’s mercy. This is how the Kingdom of God grows: God uses ordinary men and women, like you and me, who experience God’s mercy, to then enact God’s mercy and announce God’s mercy.

Friends, if we are going to get serious about sharing our faith, about inviting others to join us on God’s mission, then we need to enact and announce God’s mercy in action and in proclamation.

My prayer for St. David’s is this: That we would become a place where people meet Jesus. That St. David’s would be known as a holy ground where men and women encounter the Living God in the midst of their lives. That we would become a holy people who boast in God’s mercy by telling others what God has done for us. That we would be anointed and empowered by the Holy Spirit to show others who Jesus is.

This sermon was prepared, written, and preached for St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, Florida where I serve as Rector. The lessons were Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, and Mark 1:4-11.

Words have power.

For better or for worse, our words have the ability to build up tear down, make whole or divide, give life or destroy, celebrate or denigrate. With just a few words we can let someone know that we love and value them, or we can communicate our hatred and animosity.

In communications theory, there exists the concept of power-words. A power-word is “a word that often evokes an emotional response, positive or negative, in the target audience, leading to a desired outcome.”[1] That is, leaders or communicators will use certain words in their speeches to incite hope or hatred, excitement or aversion, repentance or riot.

We must agree that after the last four years in this country, and the last four days specifically that words have power. Political slogans and campaigns, rhetoric on Twitter, Facebook, and social media, uncivil discourse and dialogue. As a nation, our words have become too loaded, too volatile, too charged. On Wednesday, we witnessed the unprecedented and evil actions which were the natural and obvious manifestation of words from the last 4 years.

Friends, we need to examine our own words and actions to see if they are in alignment with the God and his kingdom.

You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.[2]

The Episcopal Church devotes the first Sunday after the Epiphany to the commemoration of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John. Years A, B, and C all include a variation of Jesus’ baptism, borrowing from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The church has decided together that God’s words spoken to, about, and over Jesus are significant.

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[3]

These words are full of power. They were not just important for Jesus nor for the first century Christians: they carry significant weight and power for us.

We begin our Gospel lesson four verses into Mark’s opening chapter. If you think that this looks familiar…it does! This is our 4th time looking at this passage in the last 6 weeks!

The lesson opens with John the baptizer. John has come proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. A better translation of this verse would be “proclaiming a baptism of repentance leading to the forgiveness of sins.”

Why baptism? Prior to New Testament, Israel had no functional equivalent for our Christian understanding of baptism. John’s baptism was an altogether new phenomenon; many believe that the closest Jewish precedent for this was “the ritual cleansing by immersion of a Gentile on becoming a proselyte.” That is, if someone who wasn’t Jewish wanted to convert to Judaism, they would have to undergo a ritual cleansing. “But John’s baptism was for Jews; to ask them to undergo the same initiatory ritual as was required of a Gentile convert was a powerful statement of John’s theology of the people of God…to be born a Jew was not enough.”[4]

John’s baptism is all about repentance. The Greek word here is metanoia, and it means to turn around, an about face. It would be as though you were walking south down A1A and then you had a moment of metanoia in which you turned 180* and went north. It is more than a feeling or an expression, it is always accompanied by action.

Repentance is always turning away from something and turning toward something else. This is why repentance is a verb and not a theory. Saying sorry is one thing, but an amendment of life is the fullness of an apology. Here is what repentance actually looks like…

As part of the turning away it is…

Renouncing Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.
Renouncing the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.
Renouncing all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God.[5]

This means decrying the acts of hatred and violence this past Wednesday as evil and wicked.
This means confessing all acts of violence as evil.
We must also announce corruption, systemic injustice, racism, agism, sexism, classism, and poverty as evil.
This means putting to death all forms of idolatry, sexual immorality, grumbling, prejudice, judgmentalism, hatred, lying, cheating, stealing, gossiping, slandering, and other forms of sinful behavior.

This is both corporate and individual.

If we renounce these things, if we actively turn away from them, then toward what or whom do we turn instead?

We need to read further before we answer that question.

People from the whole Judean countryside and from Jerusalem come and join John in the wilderness. They are baptized by him in the Jordan as they confess their sins. One commentator suggests that John’s voice crying out in the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord” is the most significant event in Israel’s history for 300 years.[6] The people come to him from all over because he was preaching something different than the rest of the religious leaders of the day. Whether it was categorically different or simply on account of his zeal, the people recognize in him the prophetic tradition.

This is why we are told that John “was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” These depictions should bring to mind images of Israel’s great prophet, Elijah who came preaching repentance to all of Israel. 2 Kings 1:8 describes Elijah as “the hairy man with the leather belt.” There is even thought that John was baptizing at the precise location where Elijah was taken up into heaven…

John isn’t here to simply immerse people in water…he’s here as a herald of the eschaton; he baptizes in the Jordan as a proclamation that YHWH is on the move once more.

In verse 7, John makes his pronouncement about the superiority of the one who is coming after him. For week, I have used the analogy of the sports fan who would wear a large “foam finger” to games when talking about John. John was wearing a figurative foam finger at all times, constantly pointing up to the Father and then directly to Jesus.[7] We have already discussed this verse at length, but I’d like to recall two main points. First, John differentiates his baptism with Jesus on account of the Holy Spirit. Second, John places himself below the role of a servant in relationship to Jesus. It was a servant’s job to untie the thongs of a sandal and John says he isn’t even fit for that role…the suspense is building toward the emergence of this “Greater One.”

A quick note on water. John is not denigrating the role of water in baptism but is rather elevating the presence and immersion of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ ministry. You may have noticed that water was present in all of our lessons this morning. The Spirit hovered over the deep waters in creation, God’s voice was spoken over the waters in the Psalm, and the waters of baptism wash over those who receive this sacrament. Water has always been a symbol of life and birth. We are born in water, our bodies are made up of 60% water, the earth is 71% water, and we are re-born in the waters of baptism.

The baptismal liturgy includes this prayer over water:

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.[8]

Water was a core symbol and image for Israel. John is not doing away with the water, but is rather pointing to the Spirit who was hovering over the waters because it is the Spirit who will cause rebirth, not the water itself.

We finally arrive at the scene with Jesus. Verse 9 is nonchalant and casual, almost dull. “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” This is significant because we were previously told that those from Judea and Jerusalem were coming to John for baptism, that is, the remnant of Israel, but now we have “a stranger from the North.” Remember, Jesus’ birth pedigree is royal but now he lives in backwater Nazareth…

John is expertly setting up this dynamic encounter, though. Verse 10 is teeming with activity compared to the limited mobility of the previous verse.

“And just as he was coming up out of the waters.” This is the first time in Greek that Mark uses his favorite phrase, “immediately.” He will use this 41 times in his Gospel…it is only used 51 in the whole of the New Testament. Mark is trying to grab our attention with this.

It says that the heavens were “torn apart.” The Greek word here is the counterpart to the Hebrew word used in Isaiah 63 when it says, “Lord rend the heavens and come down.” This is also the verb used to describe the veil of the temple being torn in two. This is no accident or coincidence; Mark is saying something significant! Jesus’ baptism is essential because

This is what it looks like when God rends open the heavens.
God rending the heavens and coming down looks like the Son of God receiving the baptism of repentance in the Jordan

Or, to borrow from Mary Healy, “The whole cosmos is impacted by Jesus’ act of humility. The heavens are not gently opened but torn asunder—a sign that the barrier between God and man is being removed.”[9]

If we turn away from Satan, sin, and evil in our repentance, to whom do we turn toward?

You turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior.
You put your whole trust in his grace and love.
You promise to follow and obey him as your Lord.[10]

Jesus did not need this baptism. Jesus had no sins to be forgiven. Jesus has nothing of which he needed to repent…and yet, he receives this baptism all the same. Why? It was an act of body language; it was God’s self-identifying with the suffering of his people under the weight of sin; it was Jesus standing in solidarity with humanity; the King of the Jews was in essence saying that it was not enough to be born a Jew.

Jesus turns toward the Father in his baptism and he invites us to turn toward the Father with him. We must follow Jesus as Lord as he follows the Father. In Jesus we are given the image of the invisible God; Jesus is the light to lighten our path. Jesus is the light of the world and his light shines forth in creation three days before the sun, moon, and stars are created. The light of Jesus reveals the glory of the Father!

The Spirit descends on Jesus. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of creation. Just as John promised that the Powerful One would baptize with the Spirit. The holy trinity is present in this baptism; the Father speaks his loving words to the Son, the Son of God and the Son of David, the one who is fully God and fully man, stands in the Jordan fully identifying with Israel and all of humanity, and the Spirit descends.

Do you believe in God the Father?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?[11]

The statement from the Father here is definitive. He does not call Jesus a son of God but rather the Son, the beloved.

Mark’s gospel doesn’t quite answer why the baptism of the Spirit is greater than John’s baptism of water, but our lesson from Acts does. Paul goes to Ephesus as asks if the believers have heard of the Spirit and sadly they have not. Mary Healy says it this way: baptism in the Holy Spirit is “a coming alive of the graces received in sacramental baptism.”[12]

Friends, you have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You have been sealed by the Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. What does it look like to live as a baptized disciple of Jesus? It means that you…

Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.
Persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to God.
Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.
Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.[13]

To close this sermon, I will pray over each and every one of you. This prayer is a compilation of prayers and statements from the liturgy of Holy Baptism in the prayer book. The intention here is for you to reaffirm your baptismal covenant. (If you have not yet been baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, please write me an email so we can talk about baptism. If you have not yet been confirmed in the faith by an Episcopal bishop or received from another diocese or body, please write me so we can talk about fixing this.)

May the Holy Spirit, who has begun a good work in you, direct and uphold you in the service of Christ and his kingdom. Deliver them, O Lord, from the way of sin and death. Open their hearts to your grace and truth. Fill them with your holy and life-giving Spirit. Keep them in the faith and communion of your holy Church. Teach them to love others in the power of the Spirit. Send them into the world in witness to your love. Bring them to the fullness of your peace and glory.[14]


[1] https://www.yourdictionary.com/power-word
[2] Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 308.
[3] Mark 1:11.
[4] R. T. France, NIGTC Commentary on Mark, 66.
[5] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 302.
[6] R.T. France in his NIGTC commentary on Mark.
[7] I had a foam finger hidden in the pulpit which I placed on my hand for this portion of the sermon.
[8] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 306.
[9] Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark.
[10] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 302-3.
[11] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 304.
[12] Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark.
[13] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 304-5.
[14] Adapted from the Liturgy for Holy Baptism, 1979 BCP, p. 305-6, 310.

This sermon was prepared, written, and preached for St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, Florida where I serve as Rector. I selected the lessons for Christmas I to be used on Christmas Eve.

“The most human trait is to want to know ‘why?’”

Since 2010, Google has released a video every December chronicling the “Year in Search.” These dramatic videos highlight the ups and downs of the year: achievements, tragedies, crises, highs, and lows. In short, the moments which have affected the whole world. As you can imagine, the year 2020 deserved a video just as powerful as it has been devastating, and Google delivered.

The video starts with a nighttime view of the globe from outer space. The narrator begins, “The most human trait is to want to know ‘why?’

“And in a year that tested everyone around the world, why was searched more than ever…and while we didn’t find all the answers, we kept searching.”

The video then rolls through pictures and clips of the havoc that 2020 has wreaked on humanity: the start of Covid, home videos from the first round of quarantine, Space X, Kobe Bryant, the wildfires of Australia and California, Beirut, George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Black Lives Matter, Chadwick Bosman, John Lewis, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Coronavirus vaccines, and the rising death tolls.

“The most human trait is to want to know ‘why?’”

Google’s video is an uplifting homage to humanity’s resilience and fortitude, but the makers of the video leave the message very open-ended. The video opened with the claim that “while we didn’t find all the answers, we kept searching” and it closes with one line:

Until we get to every answer…we’re still searching.

We’re still searching.

The video is not devoted to humanity’s resilience, but rather to humanity’s innate ability to ask questions and a deep need for answers…

And it’s not just Google. YouTube recently released a much shorter video stating that the most searched for topic in 2020 was “how.” How do I do this? How does this work?

How, how, how?

Why, why, why?

Beloved, the world is asking questions…

…but do we have answers?

Today/tonight we begin our celebration of the Nativity of our Lord, the birth of Jesus. Advent has been a long walk through darkness, ever lighting one more candle, ever taking one step closer to the birth of our Savior. Isaiah heralds an immediate and dramatic end to the darkness:

“The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light;

Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

Israel had been walking in darkness for centuries. After the Exodus, Israel grumbled and complained and wandered in the desert for 40 years; after Joshua came the Judges with their on-again-off-again, we-love-him-we-love-him-not relationship with God; after the Judges, Israel had the gumption to request a king “like the rest of the nations.” This isn’t all bad because we get David who becomes the archetype for the one who will sit and reign on the throne forever…but soon after David and Solomon the whole thing begins to fall apart as king after king abandons YHWH, choosing spiritual darkness by worshipping false gods. Israel is eventually conquered by a succession of empires: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and then Rome.

In short, the darkness mentioned at the beginning of Isaiah 9 wasn’t short lived; it went on for generations. Isaiah’s passage could be taken to reflect his-present-day circumstances as though there might be relief from oppression and exile, but it is clear that this is the descriptive depiction of a future event.

There will be a time when darkness is replaced by light, when death is replaced by joy, when oppression is replaced by deliverance.

There will be a day when peace will reign over the throne of David and his kingdom.

There will be a day when the yoke of burden, the rod of the oppressor, and the bar across their shoulders are broken.

Who will accomplish all of this? YHWH will. God will make good on his promises; God will fulfill the covenant; God will redeem, rescue, reconcile, and restore his people.

Forgive the pun, but after the poignant prose of Isaiah 9, Psalm 96, and Titus 2, we are left asking ourselves, what child is this?

At the opening of Luke’s gospel, Israel was under the occupation and authority of Rome, one of the most brutal and ruthless empires the world had ever seen. The beauty of the gospel is that the narrative is the inverse of what you would expect in a great story. Certainly, it is the exact opposite of what Israel expected. Israel was looking for the one who would be “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.” But the emergence of the light of life, the light of the world is precisely not the bursting forth of military might, political power, or socio-economic superiority.

It is actually against this very backdrop that our story takes place in Luke’s gospel…

…and that’s the whole point!

We are told that Caesar Augustus called for a census of the whole world. Caesar’s intentions are utterly irrelevant to the story because God uses the history and circumstances of the world for his own purposes. Why then does Luke tell us of the census? Easy: because it is this very census which brings Joseph from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem, the city of David. The decree was clear that all “went to their towns to be registered” and David was “descended from the house and family of David.”

This is not a throwaway line, my friends. Luke is playing it cool, but this detail is of great significance: the prophesies of the Old Testament were certain that God would send one faithful Israelite from the line of David to sit on David’s throne forever. Despite being born in poverty and disrepute, Jesus has royal blood coursing through his veins.

The actual birth narrative in Luke’s gospel is rather brief and anticlimactic. The focus of Luke’s gospel has thus far been on the annunciation to Mary, the shared joy of Mary and Elizabeth, and the songs that Mary and Elizabeth each sing in response to the good news they received from on high. We read Mary’s Magnificat this last Sunday. It is filled with political overtones. She sang about the world being turned upside down, about the radical reversal of reality, about God hearing the cries of his people and exalting the lowly. Today we are simply told that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem to register, she was pregnant, she gave birth and laid him in a manger because there was no room at the inn.

And that’s it.

Royal children are born in regal, palatial, elegant settings and yet the Savior, the Messiah, God incarnate comes to us in the form of a helpless babe, to an unwed mother in the backyard of the Roman Empire where Caesar is known as the son of god.

But our story is not yet over. The scene shifts and Luke tells us of shepherds who were watching their flock at night. Shepherds were at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to class and significance. Being a shepherd was not an appropriate or aspirational career path for an individual. And despite the lowly nature of shepherds, Israel has a long history of shepherd-leaders: Moses and David.

Is it no surprise, then, that the angel of the Lord would appear before shepherds announcing the birth of the King of kings?

The good news of Jesus’ birth is that the lowly are being lifted up,

the high and mighty will tumble,

the world will be put to rights.

Salvation has come.

The good news is for all people.

It isn’t just for the people who read the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal nor is it only for those who read Guns and Ammo.

It isn’t just good news for those in the top 1% nor it is only good news for the poorest of the poor.

It isn’t just good news for the Jews nor the Greeks nor the Romans nor the Gentiles.

It is good news for all people.

“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Friends, the light of the gospel, the light of the world was born in the humblest of ways and yet his birth has had, is having, and will have ramifications far beyond the joy experienced by his parents or even the excitement of the lowly shepherds. This is the beginning of a history-altering-event which has forever shaped and changed the world.

This Advent, I have repeatedly claimed that we cannot separate Jesus’ first coming from his second coming, and today we need to take this a step further: you cannot separate the incarnation, when God put on flesh, from the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.

The very, very good news of Christmas is that Jesus’ birth is the beginning of all he accomplished through his death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father.

The significance of Christ’s birth cannot be overstated: it is the birth of the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one. It is the birth of Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. It is the birth of the faithful Israel who assumed our humanity and who would destroy sin, suffering, and death.

Like Google and YouTube, we might be left asking questions: How did the incarnation work? Why did Jesus come? How does his birth have meaning for us? Why didn’t he vanquish Rome?

We are asking the wrong questions. Just as Google and YouTube have suggested, we have questions and we want answers, but we need to start asking the right question. It is not a matter of how or why but of who.

Who is it that we worship?

Who is this Christ?

The darkness cannot overcome the light of Christ. Jesus was born that he might break the yoke of burden, the rod of the oppressor, and the bar on their shoulders, the bars of sin, suffering, and death on our shoulders. He came to rescue, redeem, restore, and reconcile all people to the Father, a mission which far exceeded Rome or empires or Caesars.

This wasn’t about Rome, it was about sin and our separation from God, it was about our inability to keep the covenant, it was about the grace of God for all people, it was about Christ assuming our humanity that he might redeem us completely.

There is no shortage of good news tonight. The good news is that light has burst forth into the world; that love has come down from heaven, put on flesh, and dwells among us.

The opportunity in front of us is to carry this good news to the ends of the earth that all nations might be blessed, just as God intended Israel to do all the way back in Genesis 12. As you sit in the church today, or at home via the livestream, and as you consider the good news of Christ’s first coming, I implore you to consider how this might be good news for all people. As humanity continues to search for truth, purpose, and answers to all of the hard questions of life, we have a unique and urgent opportunity to show them that they aren’t looking in the right place. YouTube and Google are telling us that the world is asking how and why, but we need to show the world that the answer is actually who.

Jesus is the Savior, the Messiah, the Christ. He is the author of salvation and perfector of faith. He is the one who put on flesh in the form of a helpless babe; he is the one from the line and house of David who will sit on David’s throne and reign forever in glory and majesty, ushering in his peace. He is the one who brings light, love, hope, peace, joy, and mercy as he ushers in his kingdom. Jesus is the one who has come to radically reverse reality, to turn the world upside down, to show that the lowly will be exalted, to put the world to rights. He is the one who has come to announce the year of the Lord’s favor, to bring sight to the blind, to free the captive, to crush the stranglehold that sin has over each of us.

What child is this? The King of kings and Lord of lords…glory to God in the highest!

Beloved, the world is asking questions. The world is searching for meaning and understanding.

What kind of answer are you prepared to give?

This was written and preached for the people of St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church for the Third Sunday in Advent, December 13, 2020. The lectionary texts were Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, and John 1:6-8, 19-28.

I’d like to begin with a quote from two great 20th century philosophers, Simon and Garfunkel:

Hello darkness, my old friend.

But seriously, let’s talk about darkness.

25 years ago, Fleming Rutledge, lovingly referred to by many as “the patron saint of Advent,” stated that Advent begins in the dark.

Our liturgical celebration of Advent begins in darkness on the first Sunday of Advent. The wreath, candles, and Christ candle are present, but without light. Each Sunday we light a candle, adding one more than before. It takes four weeks to light them all and it isn’t until Christmas Eve that we light the Christ candle and see the light of the world filling the darkness.[1]

In the Northern Hemisphere, Advent quite literally begins in the dark as we drawer ever closer to the Winter Solstice; the day when we have the least amount of light all year. It is no coincidence that we celebrate the birth of the Son of God on the same day that the Sun pours its light back into our days.

This year the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn will form a “Christmas Star” on December 21st for the first time in 800 years. The darkness of Winter Solstice will be brighter this year because of the Christmas Star…tell me that won’t preach!

Light and darkness are part of our gospel passage this morning. We read that John came to testify to the light, but we have to back up a few verses to understand who the light was.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was darkness in the beginning. Genesis 1 tells us, “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” Before God created the heavens and the earth there was darkness. God’s first words in Genesis were let there be light. And there was. This passage from John 1 references the very same light that we see spoken into world in Genesis: the light of all people. Jesus.

And this light cannot be overcome by darkness.

One final layer of darkness, this passage was written as the opening of John’s gospel wherein Israel had been in a period of “darkness” or “silence” from God. There are over 400 years of silence between the prophets in the Old Testament and the Gospels of the New Testament.

Imagine a play: the prophets enter from stage right during the era of the kings and kingdom of Israel. At first, they come with words of warning: repent and return to God or else you will be exiled. After a succession of bad kings which resulted in exile and captivity, later prophets came with a word of hope: repent and return to God for he is going to rescue you.

The first act of the play ends with the prophets and their words-of-hope. We know from passages like Psalm 126 that the captives were brought back to Zion and they came with great joy. The lights go up, everyone goes to intermission to buy a snack or use the facilities, and then the audience goes back into the theatre, the lights dim, and the curtain is raised.

And there’s nothing.

Nothing on stage.

No light.

Israel is back in her land, but she is under Roman occupation.

The fiercest empire the world had ever seen.

And then you hear a voice.

A voice crying out in the wilderness: prepare ye the way of the Lord.

This is Advent.

This is our life.

We live in a perpetual Advent.

We started with John 1:1-5 because the lectionary compilers curiously began in verse 6 with the description of a man named John who was sent to testify to the light. Our first interpretive task this morning is to assess the role that John the baptizer plays in John’s gospel. In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), John the baptizer is presented as a religious zealot who ate funny food, wore funny clothes, and who preached repentance and forgiveness. In John’s gospel, however, we are given a different picture of the baptizer: John’s sole role in the gospel is to testify about Jesus, to bear witness to the messiah.

Why?

We aren’t told the purpose of John’s gospel until the very end—unlike Luke who states his purpose at the beginning of his gospel and the book of Acts. The final two verses of John read, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”[2]

John’s gospel is about belief.

It is about belief in Jesus.

Belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

We are told in John 1:6 that John-the-baptizer was sent by God. The language suggests John is but a representative or messenger of God. It is the same verb used later in the passage when the Pharisees sent representatives to John, asking who he was.

In verse 7 we read: “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” He’s referring to Jesus as the light, the light of life, the word who was with God in the beginning. And John came to testify to that light. Why? So that all might believe.

The gospel writer will go to great lengths to articulate Jesus’ superiority and preeminence to John. Verse 8 tells us that John was not the light. There was a sect of Jews in the earliest centuries after Jesus who broke away from the Jews-turned-Christians. This other sect believed that John, not Jesus, was the Messiah. The author of this gospel is trying to make abundantly clear in his opening, then, that Jesus is superior to John. Jesus is the Messiah.

After these 3 verses we skip ahead to verse 19 where we find John being questioned by the representatives of the Pharisees. We are again told in verse 19 that “this is the testimony given by John” when the Jews sent their priestly representatives to him. John is deep into his ministry at this point. Otherwise, how could he have possibly gotten the attention of the religious elite in Jerusalem? How would they even know he is preaching and baptizing in the wilderness?

The representatives are sent to John and they ask him, “Who are you?” This is a loaded question…

Who are you? is the equivalent of asking Are you the Messiah?

John knows this because he responds with, I am not the Messiah.

Notice how the gospel tells us John’s response; the sentence is clunky, awkward, and repetitive: “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed…” John the baptizer did not deny the existence of the Messiah. Rather in stating that he was not the Messiah he confessed that another (Jesus) was. John will later proclaim, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,”[3] when he sees Jesus approach. John identifies Jesus as the Messiah. His confession of “I am not the Messiah” is not like the confession of sins to a priest, nor like the confession of a crime to a detective. It is a profound confession of faith.

The priestly representatives ask him two follow-up questions: Are you Elijah? and Are you the prophet? John answers these questions the same way, “I am not.” This is interesting since the Synoptic Gospels—remember, Matthew, Mark and, Luke—present John as a prophetic successor to Elijah. Why, then, does he deny it in this gospel?

These two questions are just as loaded as their opening question of Who are you?

First,when they ask if he is Elijah they are really asking if he has come to restore the 12 tribes of Israel. Elijah was taken up to heaven without dying; it was a common belief amongst Jews that he would come back to restore the tribes. John says no because this is Jesus’ role, not his!

Second, when they ask if he’s the prophet they are referring to this concept of a second Moses whom we read about in Deuteronomy 18:15. Moses was the greatest prophet Israel had ever known and yet Moses tells Israel that one was coming after him who would surpass him. Thus, John says no because while he is a prophet, he is not the prophet who will come to fulfill the law…again, that is Jesus.

Do you see now how John is actually pointing to Jesus the entire time? His “nos” are a confession of who Jesus is.

Jesus is the Messiah.

Jesus is the Elijah figure come to restore the tribes.

Jesus is the prophet, the second Moses, come to fulfill the law.

Jesus is the light who has come into the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome him.

John’s three “I am not” statements serve as negative mirrors to Jesus’ seven famous “I am” statements in John’s gospel. The gospel writer is contrasting John and Jesus for us! What’s more, John’s three “I am not” statements are to be compared with Peter’s three denials of Jesus at the end of the book…

We are living in a year when the word darkness hits a little too close to home. Covid-19, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, a divided country, increases in suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse. The list goes on. If we’re honest, it feels like total darkness.

Did you know that true darkness doesn’t actually exist? Sure, we understand the idea of “pitch black” or “total darkness,” but in actuality we cannot find nor achieve total darkness because there is always something, some object which emits a dim-light-emitting-energy.[4] Darkness is the absence of light and the good news is that the light of the world can never be overcome. It’s almost as if the triumph of light has been baked into the cake since the beginning of creation.

Two weeks ago, you heard me echo Karl Barth when I posited that the church is living in a perpetual Advent season. I’d like to flesh that out even further using our light/darkness motif and suggest to you that the Christian life is lived in twilight.

We occupy the between time of already and not yet. Barbara Brown Taylor, a gifted Episcopal priest and writer, describes twilight this way: “that lovely liminal space between dark and light.”[5]

This lovely liminal space between the already but the not yet is the place where we see God’s kingdom being ushered in. We know that the light has come, is coming, and will come. The precise timing of that second coming is unknown, unexpected. The light given from “the already” of Jesus’ first advent gives us the ability to watch and wait for his second coming.

Keeping in mind that today is Joy Sunday, I would like to give you something to rejoice about:

Isaiah’s opening words in Isaiah 61 are meant for you. Christ has come proclaiming the year of the LORD’s favor, sight to the blind, good news to the oppressed, release to the prisoners, liberty to the captives. Beloved, please hear me say this: those things which have held you in bondage have been forgiven in Christ. The anger, the hatred, the addiction, the lying, the cheating, the stealing, the infidelity, the abuse, the broken relationships, the malicious and vindictive behavior, the very sins which have held you in bondage have been broken through Jesus Christ. He is proclaiming the year of the LORD’s favor to you. Today. That is the good news!

And this good news isn’t for you to hoard or keep secret, but to share with the whole world. John’s sole purpose in this gospel is to bear witness to Jesus, to point to who Jesus is, to testify to Jesus as the light of the world.

And friends…that is your job, too.

Just like John the baptizer, you are not the light…your call is to bear witness to the light! Your job as a Christian and our calling as a church is to tell the whole world about who Jesus is and what he has done. John never intentionally drew attention to himself nor did he allow anyone to think that he was the messiah or light of life.

We need to echo John: you must increase and I must decrease. More of you, Lord Jesus. More of you. This world doesn’t need any more narcissisms, self-help, or self-absorption…this world needs more Jesus. You are called to be a herald, messenger, representative, and witness of the light just like John was.

You are called to rejoice like those brought back to Zion from captivity. They sang and shouted and rejoiced crying out, “The Lord has done great things for us!” Our tears have been turned to joy…and our joy is to become a proclamation that the light has come and the darkness cannot overcome it.


[1] This is why the Christ Candle is used to light all other candles during “Silent Night” at the conclusion of Christmas Eve services.

[2] John 20:30-31.

[3] John 1:29

[4] Black body radiation

[5] Email correspondence from 12/11/20.

This sermon was written and preached for Church of the Apostles, Kansas City where I serve as Theologian in Residence. You can watch the whole Maundy Thursday liturgy, including the sermon, here.

Everything is different. 

There is no other way to describe our present reality: overarching, overwhelming, overactive change. We have had to change the way we shop for groceries; the way we work Monday thru Friday; the way we “do” Church; tragically, we have even changed the way we interact with our fellow humans. 

Tonight is no exception.

Typically, Maundy Thursday is a very hands on liturgy. As you probably remember, Maundy Thursday’s liturgy normally mirrors Sunday worship but adds a foot washing. It is a powerful experience, often with many smiles and many more tears. Then we come to the altar as we remember the Last Supper which Jesus shared with his friends; we drink the wine and eat the bread; we experience, taste, touch, and smell the body and blood of Jesus in a poignantly palpable way. Finally, the altar is stripped and washed. We watch as the sacramental vessels, the candles, and the liturgical accoutrement are silently removed, the lights dimmed, and the cross draped.  

All of this is thick with meaning and beauty…and yet this year is different.

What does it look like for the church to celebrate Maundy Thursday when she is separated, scattered, and dispersed? How do we enact and embody Jesus’ command to love one another and to “do this” in remembrance of him when we are under order to “stay-at-home”? We are separated by time in addition to distance because I am recording this sermon on Wednesday which means you are watching it a day later…

Everything is different.

And yet…it is all the same. It is all very much the same.

It would be so easy to sit amid the changing landscape of human history and modern society and throw our hands up in the air, exasperated, and proclaim, “Things will never again be the same!” You would be right on one hand…many things won’t ever be the same. There are so many variables at play, and we’re still so in the midst of this situation, that we really don’t know what our world will look like when this is over. 

Friends, we are disoriented.

But disorientation is never an isolated event when things are changing. Change involves the same progression over and over: orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. 

We all know just how often things change in our lives, and just how much we typically hate it. However, and this is an important however, there are some things which are always the same; some things do not change; in some things we can place our trust or perhaps even the entirety of our lives and know that they are secure…

…and this is precisely what we encounter on Maundy Thursday.

In the Exodus story we find Israel on the very cusp of a change–a change which would affect her identity and her memory forever. Israel had been enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years and in our text we find YHWH giving instructions for a meal that would become the ritual which defined Israel more than any other, even to this day. YHWH tells his chosen people to take a lamb and slaughter it at twilight. The people were then to take some of the blood and mark the doorposts of their houses before eating the lamb hurriedly, with girded loins, sandaled feet, and staff in hand. Why? Because this is the night that YHWH would pass over the houses of Israel and strike down the firstborn in Egypt. This is the night when YHWH would secure the release of his people so that they could worship him in the desert. YHWH finishes by saying: This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

The remembrance was always the same because the event that they were commemorating was always the same. When Jews celebrate Passover during times of peace or times of trial, she always remembers the Passover when YHWH redeemed his people. Throughout Jewish history, though, we know that the Jewish people had vastly different circumstances year to year. From wars, global dispersion, and persecution, the faithful celebrate the never-changing ritual of Passover even when life looks radically different. 

During the Passover celebration, the youngest child asks, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This is a question we should be asking ourselves tonight. Ask yourself or look to the person next to you and ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?

This night is different because tonight we remember the last night before everything changed forever. Passover was the calm before the storm; so too was the Last Supper. Passover was the meal before YHWH struck down the first born and Israel’s redemption from the hands of Pharaoh; the Last Supper was the meal before the crucifixion and resurrection. 

Both the Passover and the Last Supper were rituals given to carry people through disorientation.

Jesus gives his disciples not one, but two, ritualistic remembrances. The first is the washing of feet. This was the most powerful symbolic act demonstrating love, a pouring out of divine love, for one another. Jesus said that the world would know his disciples by their love; he revealed to them what that love would look like: it was the master taking on the form of a servant. 

The second was the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus broke bread and poured wine for his followers during the Passover celebration because he was the Paschal lamb; he would be the blood on the doorposts allowing God to “pass over.” The Lord’s Supper is the festal remembrance, the perpetual ordinance which we have been given. 

Notice that Peter did not want Jesus to wash his feet at first because he knew just how lowly it was for Jesus to do the job of a servant. Clearly he did not see it as humility but as humiliation. When he finally understood, Peter wanted his entire body washed! Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, even Judas’ feet when he knew he was about to betray him. Would we consider washing the feet of our enemies? How about those we disagree with theologically? How about those from whom we are estranged? Forget washing, would we even pray for them? 

In washing each others’ feet we are invited into the unending love of the Trinity extended to all of creation. We open ourselves to the overwhelming love of God.

Holy Week allows us to enter into the full disorientation of the crucifixion and the resurrection; we see the Son of Man glorified and lifted high, we see God being glorified in Christ crucified, we see Christ enthroned upon the cross. All of this forms our remembrance when we celebrate Holy Eucharist. Paul tells us that as often as we eat and drink the bread and wine we are proclaiming Christ’s death until he comes. 

The same ritual which carried us through disorientation is the very fabric of our reorientation. 

Tonight is different, not just because it’s Maundy Thursday, and it’s “different than all the other nights.” That’s already baked into the liturgical cake. Tonight is different because we’re at home. One of the very rituals given to us that we normally celebrate tonight, the Eucharist, we can’t because we’re separated. We’re dispersed. We’re disoriented. 

We may not have the visible symbols and tangible experiences in front of us this Maundy Thursday the way that we have in the past, but God has not changed; the Passion of Christ has not changed; the command to love one another and to share in Jesus’ meal has not changed. As we worship in “a foreign setting” I want you to hold on to the fact that Eucharist is still part of our re-orientation; the very absence we feel tonight because we lack Holy Communion is evidence that every Eucharist we have celebrated before–flowing directly from the Last Supper–is an action which still affects and directs our reorientation toward God.

The symbols and signs of Holy Week remain true whether we’re dealing with a global pandemic or “life as we remember it.” Despite everything else going on around us, we remain tethered to the God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. I leave you with an invitation and a promise: enter into the most powerful three day period in the liturgical calendar with the assured knowledge that the changes occuring in the world around us can do nothing to mitigate, mute, or muffle the cosmic victory of Christ’s Passion. These rituals, then, keep us rooted in who we are as God’s people. They keep us rightly reoriented toward God despite the disorientation we are presently experiencing. May your Holy Week disorient and then reorient you toward Almighty God.

This sermon was prepared for and preached with Church of the Apostles, Kansas City (my home parish) in mind. I offer both the audio link and text here for any who may be inclined to listen/hear. I hope you find it to be an encouragement and blessing — all critiques and feedback welcome.

AUDIO VERSION HERE

“Constant Vigilance”

The human ability to adjust to our surroundings is unparalleled, a byproduct of both God’s design in creation and the faculties developed and nurtured through centuries of survival. The human eye is able to adjust to a dark room within 20-30 minutes. The process, known as “dark adaptation,” occurs as the cones and the rods in our eyes adjust to the lack of light, allowing us to gain a sort of night vision. According to Rafael Caruso, an investigator in the National Eye Institute’s Ophthalmic Genetics & Visual Function Branch in Bethesda, Md., “The human retina can perform its light-detection function in an astounding range of light intensities, from bright sunlight to dim starlight.”[1] Athletes often train in higher altitudes in order to shock their systems with less oxygen, therefore requiring their bodies to adjust to the intentionally imposed stress and forcing them to thrive; this is particularly true for the world’s greatest runners and cyclists.

Similarly, researchers and thought leaders say it typically takes 30-40 days to form a new habit. Our bodies are able to adapt to a new diet, the engaging of regular exercise, or a new sleep pattern. The first 10 days are rough because you are essentially shocking your system by introducing something new. The next 10 days are the normalizing process during which you are learning to walk like a newborn foal; you have your legs underneath you but you are still wobbly, as it were. The last 10 days see you flourishing in your new practice so that by the time you hit that 30-40 day mark, you have put in a significant amount of hours and minutes in adopting the new practice, your body and mind have adjusted to the new thing, and you have now successfully incorporated it into your daily routine,…the success, however, is dependent upon one key principle:

Constant vigilance.

You cannot start-stop your diet or your exercise on a daily basis and still achieve the same weight-loss results. Trust me, I’ve tried. You cannot save money for a season, then spend it all, and then save, and keep it up and still hope to retire with a fat bank account. Again, trust me, I’ve tried. In the words of the imposter Mad-Eye Moody, aka Barty Crouch Jr, you have to practice constant vigilance…you have to constantly be watching, working, pursuing the goal.

Today we celebrate the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church’s calendar, and we begin to prepare our hearts and minds for the birth of Messiah. However, and this is a very big however based on the lessons for today, we cannot adequately reflect upon the First Advent of Jesus without also bearing in mind and thinking about his second Advent, that day when he comes in glory to judge, to reign and rule, to usher in his kingdom fully and finally. The lessons for today are focused on that second advent and thus prompt the question, “What do the two advents have in common and what do they mean for our daily lives?” and beg an answer that is at once both reflective and applicable.

So, we start. The passage from Isaiah is both prophetic and apocalyptic. Here we see an outline of the end times. There will be a day, says Isaiah, when the whole world will come to the city on a hill (Jerusalem) and there they will learn from God. Remember, Isaiah is writing during the reign of the kings of Israel. There have been good kings and bad kings. Before that there was the period of the judges when Israel was push-me-pull-me with her God. One might, just might say, that in the realm of covenantal faithfulness, Israel had not been practicing constant vigilance with any regularity…

This will be a time of peace, a time when the wars shall cease, and the swords are beaten into ploughshares. So powerful is this prophetic image that even the musical Les Misérables references it in its closing song citing the day when, “We will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord, we will walk behind the ploughshares, we will put away the sword, the chains will be broken and all men shall have their reward.” This is not a temporary cease-fire between warring nations, nor is it the promise of man-made world peace. We also know that Isaiah isn’t describing the first advent of Christ because when Jesus finally does come on to the scene, he both enters and leaves amidst fighting, wars, hostility, and pain. This is the day depicted by John in his revelation when there will be no more tears or crying or sorrow or pain or death, the day when the whole world resides with God…and don’t miss that key fact. This is not Israel’s future with YHWH, but the future of the whole world, the opening of covenant to Jews and Gentiles alike.

The Psalm also depicts this. What you need to bear in mind about Psalm 122 is that it is one of the Psalms of Ascent. Israel made pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year for the great festivals. During this pilgrimage, those traveling along the road would sing the Psalms of Ascent. These Psalms ascend in two senses. First, Jerusalem is the city upon a hill, and one must ascend the hill to reach the city. The second is that thematically, these Psalms gradually ascend until reaching final crescendo in Psalm 134 when Israel proclaims:

1 Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord

who minister by night in the house of the Lord.

2 Lift up your hands in the sanctuary

and praise the Lord.

3 May the Lord bless you from Zion,

he who is the Maker of heaven and earth.

We can see the theme of ascent from the beginning because Psalm 122 begins with, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD?’” Where is the house of the LORD? Jerusalem! Why would one be glad to go there? Because her life had been shaped and oriented around worshipping God. Israel made these pilgrimages tri-annually because she believed that worshipping YHWH in this manner, on these occasions, was an intimate part of her relationship with him. Despite Israel’s lack of constant vigilance, this festal worship was a regular reminder, a regular call to return to God and to joyful receive his compassion and forgiveness. It was an opportunity to step back into the bright light after days, weeks, months, or years of living spiritually with dark adaptation vision.

We come to Romans and Matthew and we get into this sticky matter of time. Who knows what time it is when the Son of Man will come again? Only the Father! Not even the Son knows the time of his parousia. Don’t worry, Jesus is still seated at the right hand of the Father, reigning and ruling over all things. When we read that the Son of Man doesn’t know the time this is a nod to Jesus’ incarnation and the fact that he was both fully God and fully man. It is in the humility of his humanity, just as the Collect suggests when it says, “now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility,” it is in this humility that the Son of Man does not know the time.

Jesus talks about other events that happened when no one was expecting them…Noah and the flood, two women working and two men working, and one is taken and the other is not. The point of these stories is not a retroactive marketing ploy to boost sales of Left Behind. Most commentators agree here that the point of these vignettes was to highlight the sudden and unexpected nature of Christ’s return rather than the manner of how it happened.

The real meat of these two passages, though, is when they begin highlighting the types of behaviors and actions we should be engaging in and/or abstaining from while we await his coming in glory. We are to give up smoking, drinking, chewing, and dating girls that do…seriously, drunkeness, licentiousness, sexual immorality. What if we added lying, stealing, cheating, dishonesty, judgmental thoughts, portraying a holier than thou persona on social media, hostility in relationships and friendships based on unmet expectations and hurts, pride of position, lack of humility …oh dear, I hope that list wasn’t too specific and uncomfortable 😉

Jesus describes the master of the house who keeps watch when he knows the hour of the thief coming to rob his house. If you knew that the burglar was coming to your house at 1:07am then of course you’d be ready. But what do you do when you don’t know the time or hour, the day or month, the minute or year? How does one adjust one’s life to include constant vigilance when considering an earth shattering even over which you have no control and for which you can only prepare but can never know the exact time?

But now we have finally come to the crux…what are we to do with these lessons about the second Advent when we are in fact gathered to celebrate the first coming of Messiah?

Jesus’ first advent was like a thief coming in the night. After Isaiah’s prophetic-apocalyptic vision of jubilee, Israel was exiled and conquered over and over again. She went 430 years without hearing a word from YHWH and then a little boy was born to parents with royal blood but no real position in the world. In Herod’s and Caesar’s backyards, men who believed themselves to be the sons of god, Jesus is born in the town of Bethlehem and his coming was only known to his poor, unwed mother, his father, the wise men, the shepherds, and of course the paranoid, bloodthirsty, and murderous Herod. He came quietly; the religious leaders expected a military and political leader to come and vanquish Rome, usher in the theocracy, and instead they/we received a humble king who rode into town on a donkey rather than a chariot and warhorse.

This season, we will sing songs about preparing our hearts to make room for Christ. This is not a sweet, poetic it of theological pander…there is actual work to be done here. Constant vigilance! To be vigilant is to be on the watch, to be alert and aware, to be ready and prepared. We cannot be lazy, distracted, slow, or negligent in our care and concern.

So, friends, I would like to take this opportunity to propose that we treat this Advent season as a mini-Lent. In Lent we take on disciplines and practices, while also giving up unnecessary stuff, in order to prepare for Easter Joy. Let us do the same thing during these four weeks as we prepare for Christmas joy. And, don’t worry, I have given you a list of 4 pairs: a discipline alongside something for you to give up. You have 25 days until Christmas to embrace and introduce a new habit to your life.

  1. Take on the discipline of reading the Daily Office and give up worrying about the future. The good news is that God is god and you are not. The bad news is that this will likely hurt your ego. Worrying about the future does nothing other than rob us of joy and energy in the present. The Daily Office will help you trust God by spending your time focusing on him instead of worrying about things outside of your control. This means people, places, things, events, acts of God, traffic patterns, money…
  2. Take on the discipline of abstinence and give up impulsivity. I am not talking about “that” kind of abstinence. Figure out the activities from which you ought to abstain: social media, gossip, speaking critically of others, lying, drinking, overeating, an obsession of self. Instead take on slower habits: reflection, thoughtfulness, prudence. Little good actually comes from impulsivity. Exercise restraint of pen and tongue—that is, don’t like your lips write a check you aren’t willing to cash—and think before you act. The goal is to become slow to anger and quick to love rather than quick to anger and slow to forget…
  3. Take on the discipline of daily confession and give up judging others. We cannot adequately prepare our hearts, minds, imaginations, and lifestyles if we have been unwilling to look into the darkest corners of our hearts. We typically judge others when we have unconfessed sin in our own lives. Set aside time every day to reflect and confess your sins to your Heavenly Father, not because he is a despot or task master, but because you truly desire absolution and remission of sin. Focus on yourself here and thereby stop focusing on the sins and shortcomings of others…
  4. Take on the discipline of sacrifice and give up self-serving endeavors. Let’s be honest and admit that the next month feels like Christmas instead of Advent, a focus on me instead of he. We will be pressed for time, money, and energy. This is the moment to shift our focus to others and give more than we have before. Find people to serve in discrete ways. More than anything, think on others instead of yourself. If you think about what you can achieve or get out of something it’s not the right thing.

We are not awaiting the thief to come in the night. While the second coming might be compared to a thief coming in the night, please remember that we are actually talking about the return of the King, the coming of the One who has a rightful claim to the throne and who will judge all things and put the world to rights. Jesus is coming, both King of kings and Lord of lords, and our call is to prepare our hearts for his return, even as we reflectively prepare to celebrate his birth once more. May we be found faithful and vigilant.


[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/experts-eyes-adjust-to-darkness/

You will find both the transcript for my recent sermon and the link for the audio version in this post. I tend to mirror/follow my writing version with some degree of intentionality, but often it serves as the foundation from which I then branch out as the morning develops and the Spirit moves.

As always, a special thanks to the Rev. Cynthia Brust and the Rev. Canon Ellis Brust of Church of the Apostles and all the fabulous people at COTA for allowing me the space and opportunity to preach and work on my craft. I am truly blessed with such a fabulous, kind, and welcoming community!

LINK FOR AUDIO

Ought to. Want to. Have to. Need to. 

Would. Could. Should. Wouldn’t. Couldn’t. Shouldn’t.

It all gets extremely overwhelming, doesn’t it? I really want to eat this third serving of King Ranch Casserole but should I? I know I ought to call so-and-so on their birthday, but I don’t want to. It is highly advisable to exercise regularly and get your oil changed every 3,000 miles, but this book is too good and I’m too comfortable gearing up for some late night TV watching…

You’re laughing now, but let’s make this less fun:

I see that person stranded with a flat tire. I ought to stop, but…

I know I’m supposed to love my neighbor, care for the poor, the orphans, and the widows, visit the sick, the dying and the shut in, and be an expression of Christ to Democrats and Republicans, Libertarians and Independents, black, white, brown, yellow, even the Presbyterians…but they are just so different from me; they just make it so hard; I really ought to but they just…

And we give our excuses time and time again.

We tend to associate with only those who look like us, talk like us, spend money like us, or vote like us. Is that not the heart of the matter in our Gospel passage this morning? We’ve become so desensitized to the radical nature of the Good Samaritan that we risk missing the point completely. Let’s enter into the story once again and see what’s going on.

So, we enter Luke’s Gospel this morning and the passage beings, “Just then.” Ok, we need to stop 😉 “Just then” tells us that we are in the middle of a specific scene in the story. Ellis preached on Luke 10 last week and the story concluded with verse 20. 

Jesus has just sent the 70 out on their mission with the knowledge that “the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” They are given instructions as to what to pack, how to go, and what to do when they encounter hostile/unrepentant cities. They go out and they return exuberant. They were able to cast out demons in Jesus’ name–I don’t know about you but I think the ability to cast out demons during your mission is something to rejoice about! Jesus rejoices with the disciples but then we enter into this interesting set of verses when Jesus blesses the disciples for being able to see what God has revealed, especially when there are kings and rulers who would love this type of information.

It is in the midst of this gathering–of the disciples’ return from mission and Jesus’ praise of their work and his comments about seeing and hearing–that a lawyer stands up and asks Jesus a question: what must I do to inherit eternal life?

It is so easy for us to miss this and move straight to the second question: who is my neighbor? We cannot afford to move too quickly here.

Remember the scene with me one. Last. time: they are corporately rejoicing in the successful mission of being sent-out-ones in Jesus’ name and talking about casting out demons and the relationship between the Father and the Son and a lawyer asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Talk about non-sequitor. Talk about a buzz kill.

Jesus’ answer isn’t surprising: what do you read in the law? A lawyer asks the question and Jesus tells him to read the law…it might be like us having a conversation right now and me turing to you and asking, “what must I do to celebrate the Eucharist properly?” and someone replying, “What do you find in the Priest’s Handbook? Or what does it say in the Book of Common Prayer?” Are you with me here?

The lawyer responds with the shema–Israel’s ancient prayer which she was to recite multiple times throughout the day, the prayer that was supposed to be written on her heart, her forehead, the doorposts to the house, talked about as you she was walking with her children–that is, this is the very fabric of Israel’s life with YHWH. This is his response, with the addition of loving your neighbor, and Jesus says, “Yes, you are right. Do this and you shall live.”

Wait…what? That’s a weird response! We miss the verses preceeding the Shema in Deutoronomy 6…but they have been printed in your bulletin!

Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 2 so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. 3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

Do you see it? The Great Commandment given in Deuteronomy, the very foundation and backbone of the Shema, is preceded by an important promise: do this and you will live. Follow YHWH and you will enter the land flowing with milk and honey. This YHWH, the one who redeemed and rescued his people out of Egypt that they might worship him in the desert, the one who gave the law to a people already redeemed, the one who promised Abram long ago of a people and a land…this YHWH already told them what it would look like to follow him and live in the promised land…

So of course Jesus would tell the lawyer to look at the law and then tell him that the foundational premise of the law found in Deuteronomy 6 would be the key to eternal life…of course he does. It makes complete sense now that we see it this way…right?!

BUT…

There is a but here and it is simple: the lawyer wants to justify himself and so he asks who his neighbor is.

Now don’t go giving the lawyer a hard time, friends. Sadly, if we are going to identify as anyone in this passage it ought to be the lawyer who asks the question. Why? Because how often do you ask God questions like this one? How often do you say, “But surely you can’t mean that folk in Wyandotte County are my neighbors? Surely, you don’t mean that Republicans or Democrats or immigrants are my neighbors, Lord?” The answer is simple, “Yes, and don’t call me surely.” 😉

The question instantly creates an us versus them, and we love that, don’t we? If everyone isn’t your neighbor then it means that some people aren’t your neighbors and if some people aren’t your neighbors then it means that you are off the hook for helping them, caring for them, loving them, treating them with dignity and respect…you see? 

The lawyer is hoping for an out, a get-out-of-jail-free card, and he doesn’t get one. Instead, he gets a parable. Jesus tells the story of a man walking from Jerusalem to Jericho. This is no easy walk. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was about 18 miles long and you would have started at the high elevation of Jerusalem where the warm air and moisture coming from the Mediterranean was still present and then you would have descended into the Dead Sea Valley to reach Jericho, the oasis city in the desert. The road would have been arid and dry barren wasteland. This is NOT an easy journey and people hearing the story would have known that. The journey would have been lonely because while it was a primary thoroughfare between these two cities, it was so dry and arid hot with so many twists and turns that it was easy for travelers to be robbed and mugged. Bandits would hide out along the road, mug their victims and then travel into the desert and know they were safe, because who wants to chase someone in the desert?! 

So the man traveling this treacherous road, both because of climate and because of the potential for criminal activity, encounters a group of robbers who strip him, beat him, and leave him half dead…really, they leave him to die.

We read that a priest was traveling down that road. Whether the down here means down from Jerusalem toward or Jericho or along the road and on his way up to Jerusalem is irrelevant. This priest was either on his way to Jerusalem to worship or he was on his way back from worship in Jerusalem and he sees a man half dead. Given the way that Jesus tells the story it is safe to assume that this man who was beaten is an Israelite and therefore there is no reason for the priest to ignore him. However, the priest ignores him, likely because he did not want to put his purity at risk by touching blood, and he passes him by. 

A Levite is the next person to encounter the man and he too passes by him without stopping to help him. Levites were from the tribe of Levi which was the priestly tribe of Israel during the Exodus. While their rules and regulations were not as strict as the high(er) priests in Second Temple Judaism, they were still a priestly people which means that this Levite was yet another religious authority who passed by/over the dying man and did nothing…quite the commentary Jesus is providing!

Side note: the passage along which they were traveling is so narrow at some points that you would have needed to literally walk/step over the man in order to keep moving. Jesus’ point is clear here: the priest and the levite didn’t just turn a blind eye to the man…they stepped over him and kept moving without giving him a second thought.

And if you thought that was bad then hear the rest of the story: it was a Samaritan who stopped and took care of the man. It was actually rumored and forewarned to travelers from Jericho to Jerusalem to watch out for the Samaritans who might stop and rob you as you went on your way…do you see what Jesus is doing here? He is turning the entire structure on its head and making some pretty outrageous claims here, claims that would have gotten the attention of his listeners.

The Samaritan doesn’t just take the man into his care. He places him on his animal, pays for his expenses with the equivalent of 2 days wages and then says give me the bill if more is needed, and makes sure that he receives the medical attention he needs to make a full recovery.

“Who was the neighbor?” Jesus asks. The Samaritan, of course. “Go and do likewise.”

Instead of letting you sit with that story, I want to meddle again. Think about it like this. There once was a man traveling along the road between two countries. He encountered a group of robbers who beat and left him for dead. A politician walked by and said, “He isn’t my neighbor because he isn’t part of my political party” and he walked on. Then a pastor walked by and said, “He isn’t my neighbor because he doesn’t belong to my faith community” and he walked by. But then an immigrant, a foreigner, someone who did not belong to the country, someone about whom vicious lies had been spread, someone who had received the brutal end of diplomacy and democracy, and she was moved to pity. She took care of that man. She used her money, took him to a shelter…

Go. And do. Likewise.

There is no escaping the call of Jesus this morning. The lawyer asked two questions: what must I do to inherit eternal life? and who is my neighbor? The answers left no wiggle room: love the Lord your God and your neighbor and if a Samaritan taking care of a Jewish man after he was beaten by robbers is applauded for acting as a neighbor then that means everyone. And I don’t mean the neighbor next to you with the well manicured lawn who never leaves trash at the curb or throws raucous parties or who never comes asking for anything but when she borrows your allen wrench she returns it within 24 hours and the man who borrows some sugar comes back with cookies for you…not just them…I’m talking the immigrant, the migrant, the poor, the destitute, the DIFFERENT FROM YOU AND ME. We will be overwhelmed, I suspect, by the vast diversity of the Kingdom of God supping together at the eschatological banquet table. 

The lessons and the collect are rather clear this morning: you know what you ought to do and you need to pray that God would change your oughta’s into wanta’s so you can go about doing it…and we will be able to see the results based on the fruit of your labors…the proof is in the pudding my friends. When you live a life based on principles, 99% of your decisions are already made…when you live in the Kingdom of God, 100% of your decisions are already made…but will you follow through? Will you accept the call of God today, here, now, and begin reordering and reorganizing your live so that it aligns most fully with God and his kingdom? Will you commit to not only knowing what you ought to or should do in a moment but to actually doing it? 

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your body, and your mind, and your strength, and your soul, and your wallets, and you resources…and love your neighbor as yourself…Go and do likewise, friends.

This sermon was preached on Palm Sunday, 2019 at Church of the Apostles, Kansas City. The audio recording can be found here.

I think we all need to recover after that long reading! I’ll go ahead and open us with a prayer and you can allow your legs and mind to rest for a moment 😉

The Sunday before Easter is a bit of an anomaly. It is like the Sunday that could not make up its mind: Palms or Passion, Palms or Passion, Palms or Passion…at some point there was a gathering and it was decided that instead of picking one or the other, we would do both.

We are covering the whole of the Passion from a big picture, 40,000 foot perspective today and then we will begin focusing in ever more closely during the coming week. Palm Sunday was used for centuries as the day during which churchgoers would hear the whole story of Holy Week other than the story of Easter. Why? Because getting people to church on a Thursday and Friday between two Sundays isn’t the easiest accomplishment…but I’m sure we don’t know anything about that! Palm Sunday became the one day when people could hear the full story of Holy Week, when they would be taught what happened on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Put it like this…let us assume that this is your first time in church. And let us also assume that you won’t be back until next Sunday…this assumption is only for this sermon, by the way, you are utterly and absolutely expected to be here Thursday and Friday…well then, if I kept my sermon only to the liturgy of the palms and the Triumphal Entry so that Thursday and Friday could be stand alone texts…then you would hear about Jesus entering the city on Sunday and the following Sunday you would hear about how he rose from the dead…are you following me? You might be a bit confused on Easter!!

So, I don’t want to focus my time on the intricacies of the Last Supper institution, though I could go on and on, nor do I want to add anything to the crucifixion scene—I’ll leave those two texts to these two preachers!—instead, I want to show you how Kingdom permeates the entire Passion narrative. We are not left with a choice between Kingdom and King on one hand and Palms and donkey on the other as if the two are mutually exclusive, as if we have to pick between Palms and Passion. The One who rides into the city amidst cries of Hosanna and palms on one Sunday is the same One who is exalted and enthroned upon the cross on that Friday. Let us begin.

For many Christians in the world, the Saturday before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus Saturday. We heard from Ellis last Sunday about the scene at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus when Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume. This took place in John 12 and then the story moves forward in John’s gospel to the chief priests plotting to kill Jesus AND Lazarus because it was his fault that Jews were deserting, and then the story moves to the Triumphant Entry and to the Last Supper in Jerusalem. The Gospels all place Jesus in Bethany before the Triumphal Entry. The Orthodox have a unique perspective leading into Palm Sunday and it is one that I think needs a great deal of reflection on our part. The Saturday before Palm Sunday is known as “Lazarus Saturday” in the Orthodox tradition. Why? Well, we may have read John 12 last Sunday, but what story immediately precedes the scene at Lazarus’ house? Yes, you’ve done well! It is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The Orthodox celebrate this miracle on the day before Palm Sunday because it creates a fantastic backdrop for the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and ultimately what will happen on Friday and Sunday. Think about it with me for a second: Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and proclaims “I am the resurrection and the life.” He then shares a meal at their home and is prepared for burial by Mary. Then, and only then, does Jesus enter Jerusalem as a triumphant king…what exactly has he triumphed over?

We spend a lot of time in the church talking about how Jesus’ entry is one of a humble king, riding on a colt rather than a war horse. It was the people who placed their hopes for a king of a militaristic and political nature upon Jesus, ascribing to him the value and worth that they would for a conqueror. We then admit that Jesus wasn’t doing what they thought he was…or was he? Have we so missed the forest for the trees with our relentless theological nitpicking that we lose sight of the fact that Jesus was in fact entering the city as a conquering king?

In our attempts to highlight Jesus’ humility, even using the passage from Philippians 2 as support, we have poked so many holes in the triumphal entry text that it will no longer hold water. We have placed so many cuts along the support beams that the text can no longer bear the weight it was meant to.

John’s account of the triumphal entry includes what feels like a random verse from the Old Testament. John writes, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” We emphasize the donkey and minimalize the coming king. Here is the context for the verse: Zechariah 9 in which the prophet prophesies about the end of Israel’s oppressors, about their downfall and destruction, and about the God who is watching over his people and who will enter the city in triumph to the cries of the people. Here is the passage in full:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!

    Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!

See, your king comes to you,

    righteous and victorious,

lowly and riding on a donkey,

    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim

    and the warhorses from Jerusalem,

    and the battle bow will be broken.

He will proclaim peace to the nations.

    His rule will extend from sea to sea

    and from the River to the ends of the earth.

11 As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you,

    I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.

12 Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope;

    even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.

13 I will bend Judah as I bend my bow

    and fill it with Ephraim.

I will rouse your sons, Zion,

   against your sons, Greece,

and make you like a warrior’s sword.

The King has come. The kingdom is coming. The entry on a donkey is in juxtaposition to the chariots and warhorses that Caesar or another demigod may use, but the coming King is still triumphant, still victorious. “See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious…”

The triumphal entry did not happen in a vacuum. It was not an accident. Everyone gathered together would have seen the meaning before them plain and simple. I would like to experiment with this idea and I need your full attention and effort. I will start saying a well known phrase and I want you to finish it for me. For example, if I were to say, “Give me a break, give me a break” you would say “break me off a piece of that kit kat bar.” Bonus points for those who said, “Fancy feast.” Ready?

The Lord be with you : and also with you

Therefore we proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Chris is risen, Christ will come again

Ok, those were the easy ones because they have a natural response. Here are a few others:

Here’s looking at you kid.

Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.

They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!

There is meaning to these phrases well beyond the actual text. You know them because you have a context for them, they do something to you, they take you somewhere. For a moment there, even the most fleeting of moments, were you not on an airstrip in Morocco, or a bench waiting the hope on the bus, or even in the Scottish highlands many centuries ago? I won’t belabor the point much longer, but we are able to go to those places because we have been there, we know them, we have them ingrained in our memory, etched on our hearts…and now we have the triumphal entry.

This is a key to the whole text because even though we end up at the foot of the cross or outside of the Garden Tomb with Joseph of Arimathea, the whole liturgy is framed around Triumphal Entry and the Coming King. The star of the show, as it were, is this verse in Luke’s gospek which has been borrowed from Psalm 118. Surely you heard it twice today during the liturgy of the Palms and your mind went straight to the Sanctus during the Eucharist. You have a context for this theological concept: holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory, hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, hosanna in the highest.

Hosanna means “save us.” The people lining the street to Jerusalem were singing the praises of YHWH and crying out to him that he save them, that he rescue them, that he deliver them. They did this and then anointed the “King who comes in the name of the Lord.” You heard the majority of the Psalm read this morning: it is a Psalm of praise and victory. The LORD heard the cry of his people and his mighty hand has delivered them! The use of Psalm 118:26 here suggests to us that the whole Psalm would have been used by the people against the backdrop of Israel’s long history with YHWH. This crowd may have cried “crucify!” just days later, they may have expected Jesus to overthrow Pilate and Caesar in explicit fashion, but they got one thing right: the King was entering the city in righteous victory and they, the crowd, were in desperate need of salvation and rescue…

We’ve spent the overwhelming majority of our time this morning going through the passages from the Liturgy of the Palms because honeslty the rest doesn’t make sense without it. Jesus as the true King, as the one coming in the name of the LORD, as the one entering in triumph, this is what helps us to understand the passion more fully. It was never about human thrones and powers, it was always about triumph over evil and death. The One who resurrected Lazarus comes to Jerusalem in faithful obedience to the covenant to allow humanity to expend its evil upon him and to resurrect from the dead.

Jesus has been traveling toward Jerusalem with his face set like flint ever since he descended Mt. Tabor after the Transfiguration. As Cynthia reminded us, he walked slowly through the crowds en route to his destination, but he was always on his way to palms and passion, cross and tomb, death and life. He enters the city after demonstrating his power over death only to be met by the full embodiment of human evil and execution: the Roman cross. He rides into the city that is the center of Israel’s religious life, the city on a hill that was see as the meeting place of heaven and earth, the city that would have been the logical site of a restored Israel…and he does so only to leave the city a few days later under the burden of a wooden cross and a crown of thorns…

Humanity exhausts its evil upon the Son of God.

The powers and principalities of the world snuff out the light of rebellion.

Satan claims victory over the God with whom he thought equality could be grasped.

And friends, there isn’t any relief from this predicament. We don’t get to move beyond the text and see resurrection here. We don’t get to see the story fulfilled and completed. As we journey through the texts today and through the next 6 days we are left with this unhappy and uneasy feeling of “but what happens next?”

We have to do some work today to hold firmly in our hearts and minds that which Israel had never forgotten: YHWH was covenant maker and covenant keeper and he would redeem his people. This is what Lazarus helps us to see: the God who raised Lazarus from the tomb is the same God who made the valley of dry bones walk and is the same God who will raise Jesus from the dead. The story of Lazarus is a kingdom story. It is triumphant. It is victorious. It is the beginning of the reversal and renewal of all things and it is (one of) the reason that Jesus can enter the city hearing, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Friends, here is what I ask of you today:

As you look upon the King entering the city, say…

As you look upon the Lord sharing a meal with his friends and followers…

As you witness the beating and scouring of the King of the Jews…

As you gaze up at the King who is enthroned upon the cross…

As you enter into Holy Week and travel toward Easter…

Perhaps we can make it more personal: Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem, a city over which he would weep, and he does so in triumph as the one who raises the dead to life. What parts of your life need raising? What areas of your heart need the triumphal entry of Jesus? What gates and doors in your hearts, minds, emotions, imaginations, or dreams need to be flung open to allow the King of kings and the Lord of lords to enter? Or, if we can move out just a moment: what parts of our city, our offices, our state, our nation, our world, need to be opened up to the entry of Jesus?

This is not religious speak! This is real, friends. He comes to you in the same way he came to Jerusalem…amidst the praises of the people, enthroned by the cries of “salvation” and royal welcome…he comes to you to lead you through Passiontide, to guide you through Holy Week, to bring you to share in his meal, kneel at his cross, wait by his tomb, and proclaim “Alleluia” once more next Sunday…will you join?