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 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/

By Porter C. Taylor
Written for Church of the Apostles, KC.

Collect: Almighty God, who inspired your servant Luke the physician to set forth in the Gospel the love and healing power of your Son: Graciously continue in your Church this love and power to heal, to the praise and glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The evangelist and physician, Luke, has provided the church with a wealth of detail, historical context, and beautifully articulated depictions of God’s love for His people and His world. The feast commemorating St. Luke is a wonderful opportunity to explore and celebrate his writings and the collect for the day captures two central themes worthy of deeper examination: “the love and healing power” of Jesus. Year C of the Lectionary, the liturgical year which ends next month, has included a lengthy trek through Luke’s Gospel which will culminate on Christ the King Sunday with the scene of Jesus proclaiming forgiveness from the cross (“Father, forgive them”) and the promise of life after death to the repentant thief. Surely, there can be no better depiction of healing and love than this.

The images of Jesus’ parables in Luke 15 are particularly poignant when considering these twin themes because through the stories we see a God who seeks after the least, the last, and the lost. We find a father running to meet his wayward and rebellious son while he was still a long way off and then throw a party for him, complete with fatted calf and signet ring. Love personified in such a way is overwhelming, it is scandalous; it restores, redeems, and heals.

It would be easy to relegate references of healing in Luke’s gospel to stories of physical being ailments reversed, overturned, and wiped away. However, the deeper layer of truth to Luke’s telling of Jesus’ story is the power of God’s love to heal His people, their land, and His world. Early on in the gospel, we encounter Jesus in the synagogue where He stands up to read a scroll from the prophet Isaiah. The passage depicts the year of the LORD’s favor (jubilee) and Jesus read aloud to those gathered:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The steadfast, unrelenting, covenant love of YHWH for His people can be tangibly and palpably seen through the hope-filled promise of jubilee. Luke’s gospel shows what this healing love looks like in action: friends lowering their lame companion through a roof; a shepherd searching for the one sheep; a woman looking for a lost coin; a Father restoring his son; Jesus dying on the cross and yet forgiving those who were killing him.

The love of Jesus heals more than just the body; it affects the heart, mind, and soul. Our call, as Christians, is to then love God with all our heart, mind, body, soul, and strength and to love our neighbors as well. Through this type of love, we praise God in the fullest and purest sense. Luke’s Gospel invites us into such a loving relationship, it beckons us to die to self, to hear Jesus’ absolution from the cross, and to receive His promise of new life. Luke’s story continues in Acts as we discover the gospel bursting forth into the world through the power of the Holy Spirit and the faithful witness of the disciples, apostles, martyrs (Wednesday was the lesser feast commemorating Ridley, Latimer, and Cranmer who were martyred for their faith in the 16th century), and the early church. This heritage is what should inform us and urge us on toward sharing the love of God with neighbor and stranger alike, just as God has done, is doing, and will continue to do for us.

Graciously continue in your Church this love and power to heal, to the praise and glory of your Name.

(Note: The Eastern Orthodox Church recognizes St. Luke as the original iconographer. Here’s an interesting article attributing several icons of Mary to him.)

I wrote this post for our parish blog (Church of the Apostles, KC). You can read it here…and all is the other fabulous posts and sermons!

One of my favorite words to describe my theological work with the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer is “juxtaposition.” Perhaps it is the influence of Alexander Schmemann and Gordon Lathrop—both liturgical theologians and both of whom highly value this concept—but the concept for juxtaposition is very simple: what happens when you put x next to y? An example or two might be helpful here. For liturgy, what does it mean when the Confession is prayed within the Prayers of the People as opposed to the opening liturgy during penitential seasons? Or, for Bible reading, why did the lectionary writers include that Gospel passage alongside this story from the Old Testament? The individual items have their own meaning, but their significance is altered and enhanced when placed nearer something else.

This week is no exception as we have not one, but two, feast days to celebrate: Monday was the Feast of Mary Magdalene and today (Thursday) is the Feast of St. James. Rather than trying to write two separate posts within the same blog entry, I think it is beneficial to look at both feast days simultaneously, in juxtaposed harmony, you might say. So, allow me to ask the question which we will seek to answer below: “What happens when you put James next to Mary?”

In Context

In Mary and James, we have two apostles with intimate firsthand experiential knowledge of Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. According to John 20, Mary Magdalene was the first witness of the resurrection. In a time and place where the account of a woman was always inferior to the testimony of a man, Jesus appeared first to Mary in the Garden. She had trekked to the tomb only to find it empty and while understandably upset, she is comforted by two angels before turning to see Jesus…only she thinks he is the gardener!  

Side note: We could get off on a serious tangent here, but how amazing is it that the resurrection took place in a garden and that Jesus, the new/second Adam, was first mistaken as a gardener…because He is! He is the Divine Gardener, the one with whom we are invited to walk in the cool of the day while He tends creation and invites us to participate with Him…but that is another post for another time.

Upon recognizing Jesus and embracing Him joyfully, Mary runs to the disciples to announce the resurrection. The first proclamation of resurrection, the first encounter with the risen Lord, is from Mary, an apostle.

Similarly, James, the brother of John, was with Jesus during some of the most pivotal moments of His earthly ministry. Apart from being “one of the twelve,” James was also part of the smaller trio with Peter and John. Too often, it feels, James is the forgotten member of the three, even the lesser “son of thunder” because Peter is such a huge presence in the gospels and John was the beloved disciple. We almost skip over the fact that James was the first disciple martyred for his faith.

James was there, atop Mount Tabor, as Jesus was transfigured and appeared alongside Moses and Elijah. He heard Jesus talking about His impending death; he heard Peter suggest that they build tents atop the mountain and stay there; he heard Jesus respond and tell them that they must go back down…and then he watched as Jesus set His face like flint toward Jerusalem and began the arduous journey toward the cross. James was a witness to all of these things, including the arrival of Mary with the proclamation of the resurrection, and he gave his life in defense of Jesus.

Mary and James Juxtaposed

So, what happens when we read Mary and James next to each other? At first glance it may seem like there is no connection: One was a disciple, and the other was a woman; one was part of the intimate inner circle of three while the other was at one point possessed by demons; one gave his life for Jesus while the other encountered new life bursting forth into the world in the Garden.

However, if we are really diligent and honest, the similarities between the two are overwhelmingly obvious. Mary Magdalene and James are tied together by one common thread: apostolic witness. Both James and Mary were transformed by Jesus, both of them were changed forever by their interactions with Him both before and after His death and rising. James encountered the overwhelming and awesome glory of Christ while atop Mount Tabor, and Mary experienced the same glory when she found out that she was talking to Jesus and not the gardener.

They were both sent out from those high, holy places as apostles and witnesses. We might celebrate Mary’s restoration of body and mind on her feast day, remembering how she was once afflicted and is no more, but her feast day is really a moment to cherish and remember her as the one who ran forth to declare the good news of resurrection. She did not stay in the Garden with Jesus…she went, and she announced, and she lived a life transformed based on this gospel joy.

The Feast of St James may be a time to commemorate his martyrdom, but it is the events which led to His death upon which we ought to reflect. James was not killed in a vacuum; we have to move backward from Herod’s decision to kill James in Acts 11 all the way until we get to a seaside scene when Jesus calls out to two brothers while fishing, and they drop their nets to come and follow Him. James followed Jesus from that seaside, through the Transfiguration, unto Jesus’ death and resurrection, and ultimately his own.

Mary and James provide for us two tangible, living pictures as to what it means to be disciples of Jesus and citizens of the Kingdom. Neither stayed put when they had the chance; both opted to go forth and proclaim the Good News; and both devoted their lives (and deaths) to the proclamation of the Risen Lord.

 

This was originally posted on Anglican Pastor. You can find the original post here.

It is likely that you’ll hear a variation of the following words at an Anglican Church on Sunday morning, “Please be seated to be instructed from the Word of God.” It’s clear that the Bible is going to be read aloud for the purpose of teaching and formation, but who assigns the lessons? Is it left up to the whims and fancies of the priest or is there some standard by which our lessons are selected?

Every Sunday, on the Lord’s Day, the church gathers together for the worship of almighty God through both Word and Sacrament. The Liturgy of the Word is comprised of the opening acclamation and collect(s), sung worship, the public reading of God’s word, canticles in response, the sermon, the Creed, the prayers of the people, and the confession. This ordo may vary based on higher or lower churchmanship, but the structure is going to be the same in the overwhelming majority of Anglican parishes.

The regular, sustained, and robust use of Scripture was a cornerstone of the English Reformation and remains to be central to Anglican worship and spirituality. The witness of John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale and others is lasting proof that to be Anglican is to be heartily and fully committed to the Bible. Likewise, Thomas Cranmer famously penned a collect about Scripture, he wrote, that we may…hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” The earliest liturgies of 1549 and 1552 both made provision for the reading of the Old Testament, Psalter, New Testament epistle, and the Gospels during worship. If Anglicans read four lessons every Sunday, how are these lessons chosen? Does it matter what is read? Yes and yes, it absolutely matters.

What is a Lectionary?

Simply put, a lectionary is resource (printed or electronic) that contains appointed Scripture readings for Sunday worship. Lectionaries can be devised according to different methods for different purposes, but the goal is always to produce something that can be used in the church, for the church, and to the glory of God. Cranmer composed a Sunday lectionary as part of the prayer book in order to help guide the English church through the entirety of Scripture on a regular basis.

In more modern times, the Revised Common Lectionary has been compiled as an ecumenical resource for Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and others who order their worship similarly. We could delve into the pros and cons of Cranmer’s lectionary versus the RCL versus other models, but that is another post for another time. The bottom line is that the use of a lectionary is both historic and authentically Anglican.

The Whole Witness

One of the problems with needs-based, thematic sermons is that it places the onus of Scripture selection and content solely on the preacher. In our individualistic, consumerist culture this is not a problem. It is common—even preferred—in many western churches for the preacher to be the authority over Scripture rather than the other way around. Thankfully, the use of a lectionary places a necessary safeguard over such a model as it lets Scripture dictate content and preaching.

Likewise, the use of a lectionary in its entirety guarantees that the pilgrim people of God will be fed fully from the full witness of Scripture. Far too many churches focus exclusively on the New Testament or even the gospels alone as if the rest of Scripture didn’t matter. “We’re New Testament Christians,” they claim, or, “We’re Christ alone people.” I’m a New Testament and Jesus person as much as anyone, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Tanakh became part of the Church’s Scripture and thus the Old Testament is not simply a place to “find” Jesus but is part of our collective memory and story. The lectionary makes sure that we are being honest to our identity as the people of God.

How Does it Work?

The lectionary helps orient the church calendar; or rather, it works with seasons and themes already prescribed throughout church history. You’ll find that the readings during Advent have to do with the first coming of Christ, Epiphany season readings have to do with the revelation of God in Christ, so forth and so on. It’s quite simple really: readings on Sunday should match the Church’s journey through the life of Christ.

As an example, the RCL has a three-year cycle: Years A, B, and C. During Ordinary Time each year focuses on one of the synoptic Gospels while the Gospel of John is reserved for holy days and Lent(among others). Likewise, the Old Testament selection during Ordinary Time offers two tracks. The lectionary readings will often flow in harmony with the Collect for the Day, thus providing a thematic wholeness for the sermon and the celebration of the Eucharist.

The goal is to provide the gathered people of God with a steady diet of God’s Word, a diet that makes sense and treats the Bible as one consistent and contiguous whole rather than as a confederation of individual and unrelated episodes. When used properly, a parish will read almost every word of Scripture in three years.

Using the Lectionary as a Church

Here are some thoughts for using the lectionary in a local church:

  1. If you elect to use a lectionary then please recognize it is not a suggestion but a standard to be followed. To “use” the lectionary and alter it based on your own whims or fancies is just the same as not using it at all.
  2. Always, always preach on the sections that are bracketed off. Don’t avoid them, lean into them!
  3. Begin reading from the whole lectionary if you aren’t doing so already.
  4. When selecting a track for Ordinary Time stick with it! Don’t jump between Track 1 and Track 2 because the lessons get tough—stay on your track and help the people of God learn from a consistent witness.

The fruit of such labor is multi-faceted: individuals learn how to read the Bible well; a parish joins millions of Christians around the world in reading the same thing; a parish is formed by God’s word in a holistic sense.

Postscript: There will soon be a post highlighting the unique offering of a traditional, one year lectionary as an alternative to the 3 year cycle.