"Sign of the Times"
Wedding celebrations ran on for 7 days in Jesus’ time, and when the wine ran out after only 3 days, it called into question the honor of the bride and groom, and was a social embarrassment, something that the wedding party, and closest friends, were responsible for taking care of. Wine was a symbol of the harvest and of blessing. And so, running out at the wedding feast, was really bad timing!
The Marriage Equality bill in Illinois got delayed in the Executive Committee of the Senate, earlier this month, because of an obscure rule enforced by its detractors. Though it passed a couple days later, the delicate timing had been undone, and it was too late now to take it to the House before the Lame Duck session ended. Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual and Transgender couples had been fitting their gowns and tuxes, and ordering the wine, and had to put everything back on hold. But the time is coming!
Martin Lutheran King Jr. Day is January 15, on his birthday. But the US Holiday is always celebrated on the 3rd Monday, which, this year, is tomorrow. And, the Inauguration of US Presidents must occur before noon on January 20. But because it falls on a Sunday this year, they wanted to move it to the first business day of the week. It must be because of the NFL’s big play off games today! So actually, to fulfill the law, Mr. Obama is being sworn in officially, right about now, in a private ceremony at the White House, which will be recreated as a public TV event tomorrow. And of course tomorrow, which is the MLK holiday, inaugurating our first African-American President, for his second term, makes for very fortuitous timing.
Like Dr. King, Mr. Obama is the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and personally, a great admirer of King. In his first year in office, President Obama had a new rug made for the Oval Office with 5 quotes woven into it. One – that he thought was from MLK –probably had read it in one of his speeches– but is actually from Thodore Parker, and early 19th C African-American Abolitionist, who King freely attributed the words, but are, none-the-less, on the Presidents rug: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." At the time, it became quite an embarrassment, but over the last 4 years, have proven to fit well with Mr. Obama’s hopeful and pragmatic style.
Another African-American man, Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, had a rather odd sense of timing this past week, when he surprised everyone by speaking on the record, while in session, for the first time in 7 years! And what were his all important words that he chose to share finally? The transcriber may have had a difficult time hearing him, because Judge Scalia was joking with a lawyer in court about Harvard, his alma mater, vs. Princeton, and there was a fair bit of laughter. And so, Judge Thomas’ remarks on the record are just 4 words: “Well – he did not…” That’s it! Thomas has taken a fair bit of criticism in the past for not speaking up and asking questions, as justices are want to do. And so after 7 years, to finally make it into the transcript with such an odd and incomplete remark, only compounds the embarrassment for his sense of timing, and raises more questions about his honor!
Mary, the mother of Jesus, sees right away the embarrassment of running out of wine at the wedding feast, and knows her gifted son could do something about it. It is her words of initiation, that will transform Jesus into action. Though Jesus responds that, My hour has not yet come, apparently Mary also understands his hour more than he knew. The mother of Jesus bides her time in this narrative, and finally shows up again at the foot of Jesus’ cross, the beginning of Jesus’ hour of glorification, and the ultimate sign of God’s glory, in his death, resurrection and ascension. Mary makes her four words count, They have no wine, displaying crucial timing, unlike our Justice of the highest court, by getting Jesus going, initiating his first sign, at the wedding feast at Cana.
A sense of timing is important, not only in getting things done in practical chronological time, but in reading the sign of the times, and the opportunities that God reveals to us, at the right time.
President Obama’s Inauguration tomorrow will need to have impeccable timing, being planned for who knows how long, by who knows how many workers behind the scenes. The stands at the Capital have been constructed, the bands have prepared and are gathering, and the guests have been invited. Even the bibles on which Mr. Obama will be sworn in, a Lincoln bible and a MLK bible, to be stacked on top of each other, were chosen some time ago. Timing is important, for important events, especially when there are so many moving parts and people to coordinate. And a calendar dead line is often a good motivation for any of us.
Reading the signs of the times, when the time is right, is a bit more tricky, but was exactly what Jesus was all about. “The hour of his glorification,” was something he stayed attuned to, once his mother Mary got him started in Cana. But in real time, it was probably not understood well at all. Jesus, offering himself as the new temple, as the bread and wine of a thanksgiving- real-presence -remembrance meal, and as the sacrificial lamb of Passover, was exactly what he came to do as God’s beloved Son, but almost impossible for even his closest disciples to see at the time. Instead, it was, revealed and unveiled at the right time, by transforming old vessels, whether purification jars, or people, even as they looked the same as they always had.
Who would have guessed just 5 or 10 years ago, that in this past election, for the first time, every Marriage Equality bill that was proposed nation-wide, would pass? And that in this New Year there is great reason to hope Illinois will become the 10th state to change marriage discrimination into Marriage Equality, like water into wine! There has been an enormous amount of work to pass this legislation in 9 states so far, a labor of planning and inventiveness. But it has also taken advantage of, the right time. The moment when God reveals something new – when water can become wine!
As MLK once said, “…the time is always right to do what is right.”
“Now standing there [in Cana] were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification.” And this turned out to be rather good timing! Something I hadn't noticed before is that these jars were empty. Jesus is not transforming purification water into wine, because the servants have to first fill them with water before the miracle occurs. But Jesus is transforming new water, placed in old vessels, symbolizing that the old forms have been given new content.
Jesus, whether he is a close friend and part of the wedding party or not, has saved the honor of the groom and bride. Their social embarrassment has been redeemed, and not just with any old wine to keep the celebration going, but with the best wine, abundantly!
This is the first sign of the times, in the Gospel of John, when Jesus begins to reveal who he is, and what God is up to in our world. In everyday events, in this marriage feast, God reveals the joy of the gift of grace, offering us the very best.
Jesus invites us to come to this table, to the wedding feast, as his guests. And here we are fed abundantly with the very best. Here, Jesus overcomes our most embarrassing moments and failures, and transforms us into a new creation. You can depend on the calendar timing of it, weekly, like clockwork. But more importantly, in this meal, where the wine never runs out, you will receive the promise of the joy and fullness of God’s time, now, that points to the renewal and fullness of everlasting life, the ultimate sign of the times, which though still partially hidden in the cross of Christ, will be revealed, at the right time. In the here and now, whenever we dine together, we are being transformed by the body and blood of Jesus, because of God’s perfect timing.
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
The Baptism of Our Lord is really about our baptisms! Jesus is baptized in the River Jordan for us, to help us, and guide us, and advocate for a cross shaped life, for us. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” These words that God blessed Jesus with, Jesus blesses us with. And we may also hear a blessing in God’s declaration from the prophet Isaiah, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”
Do you remember your baptism? When were you baptized – if you were?
I was baptized as a baby, as was the tradition in the church, back then, a long, long time ago(!) I was baptized on Thanksgiving Day, not quite 4 weeks after I was born, so I don’t remember a thing about my baptism. I can picture it because I still remember growing up in that church, but I have to ask my parents and my sponsors about what it was like. They don’t remember much either, I’m afraid, and they’re not even sure which of the two pastors on staff presided! I like to think that they were thankful for my birth, or at least, thankful to God for having a safe delivery, and that’s why they chose Thanksgiving Day for me to be baptized, instead of say, a couple of Sundays later in Advent on John the Baptist Sunday, or Epiphany, or today, on Baptism of Our Lord.
Of course, there’s another meaning to “remembering your baptism.” It’s the question of meaning, or the question of our identity. We can remember our baptism daily, and what it means to us! Who, and whose, am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What does my baptism have to do with the rest of my life?
Betsy, a pastor, just a little younger than I, got baptized as a newborn, when she was baptized in an emergency, because the doctors didn’t give her very good odds that she would survive surgery! It all happened in a rush. Their pastor, Pastor Derrick was called in a hurry and arrived as Betsy was being wheeled down the hall by the surgical nurses, and running alongside, dressed in a gown and mask, because Pastor Derrick had the flu, he grabbed her mother’s plastic water tumbler, stained with bright red lipstick, half full of water, and baptized her en route. She only knows this second hand, by those who were there, and because she survived. But now, says Betsy, whenever I see any ol’ plastic tumbler it reminds me of baptism, and that I am a daughter of God.
Most of us don’t have as dramatic a story to tell about our baptisms. But we all have a marker that we can point to. In baptism, we are marked with the cross, and sealed with the holy spirit, forever, traditionally, a mark made with oil, olive oil. And so, whenever we pass by the font here and cross ourselves with the water, or whenever we go to the healing station and we’re marked in oil with the sign of the cross on our foreheads, we can remember our baptisms. On Ash Wednesday, which comes early this year, we remember our baptisms with a sign of the cross, in ashes.
The baptism of Our Lord is about our
baptisms. And our baptism is about who we are, every day – about who claims us, and names us.
There is a reason why we baptize infants, by the way. Not all faiths do, of course. Some baptize at the age of reason, 12 or 13, a “believers baptism,” as for example, the Baptists do. But we baptize infants, or adults. The reason is to remind us that, in our lives and culture, there are so many ways that we are taught to earn what we get, and in the case of religion gone bad, to morally prepare ourselves to be good enough. Which is why it’s so important to know how baptism is just the opposite. It’s not us, but it’s all God’s action. God the Holy Spirit, anoints us, and God the father calls us by name and claims us, and God the Son redeems us. When we baptize infants we can see this action of God’s grace, coming to us without our asking, or earning it.
Luke points this out in a unique way. In his account of the baptism of Jesus, Jesus is standing all by himself in the Jordan River, after John the Baptist was already arrested and put in prison. So if not John, who baptizes Jesus? Jesus is baptized by the Holy Spirit, “descending on him in bodily form like a dove.”
And the same for us! Little baby’s, innocent and vulnerable, not yet in control of their own fate’s, even newborns being wheeled into surgery, are the perfect examples of God’s generous forgiveness and love for us, whenever they are baptized and receive the Holy Spirit. There is nothing we can do, nothing we have to do, to receive God’s blessing in baptism. But it is powerful medicine, this relationship that God initiates. It is a mark we remember, and that we can be thankful for, every day. “…nothing that we do, or fail to do, can remove the identity that God conveys as a gift. Our relationship with God, as David Lose says, is the one relationship in life we can’t
precisely because, it wasn’t us who established it. We can neglect this relationship, we can deny it, run away from it, ignore it, but we cannot destroy it, for God loves us too deeply and completely to ever let us go.” (David Lose, workingpreacher.com)
But even this powerful action has recently been called into question in the Church of England. Now, at least from the perspective of the National Secular Society in the U.K, there is a way for people to choose to be "de-baptized"--for a simple online payment of $4.50. It began in 2009 when John Hunt requested that his 1953 baptism at the Parish in the Southward Diocese, South London be revoked because he was only five months old at the time of the baptism, and besides, he no longer believes in God. Hunt was serious. And he received the first, "Certificate of De-baptism," for which he paid $100 to have recorded in the London Gazette
. But the Church of England, having a different perspective, informed Hunt that his lack of attendance meant his membership had already "effectively lapsed." But if he wanted, the baptismal record could be amended with an annotation at his request, which doesn’t cost anything.
Because baptism is a gift and a life-long journey, no matter if we accept the gift or not, you can’t be de-baptized. We might not use it to the full extent that God hopes we do, but that’s up to us. The gift is given and irrevocable. Baptism is once, for all time
, as they say, it doesn’t lapse, nor do you ever need to be re-baptized. But the more we remember and practice it, the more it becomes who we are.
Luther used to say, the signs of water in our lives, like washing our hands and bathing, should remind us of our baptism. In baptism we die to Christ and are raised with him to new life, washed clean. Making the sign of the cross and remembering that we are a baptized people, even in such simple tasks as washing, help us to grow into the persons God has created us to be.
These next two weeks here at Unity, we are offering two Wednesday evening, and two Saturday morning, gatherings for Inquiry and Discussion about baptism and our faith journey. If you haven’t been baptized, you can delve into that or begin to prepare for it, whether it be next Sunday, or next year, or in ten years’ time. And, if you’re baptized already, this is a great opportunity to dig deeper into its meaning, which you can reaffirm here at the font, or in membership in this parish.
We hold many things in common as a baptized Christian people, but each person is also unique. Baptism is a life-long walk, and so today in our liturgy, we began with a Thanksgiving for Baptism, remembering all the ways that God saves us in water. And after the Hymn of the Day we’ll Affirm
our Baptismal promises, strongly renouncing all the ways and forces that tempt and pull us away from God, and then affirm and remember our faith in the words of the Apostles Creed.
The Baptism of Our Lord, the baptism of Jesus, is about our
baptism, our identity as a marked and redeemed people of God – and how we live that out, day to day.
Each person's spiritual path is unique. And so, as a community, we celebrate the good work that God has begun in you, and honor your unique, life-long walk toward faith. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”
Genesis 41:1-8, 14-16
“I Have a Dream.” As we prepare to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day next week, we remember how he gave an impassioned speech on the national mall shortly before he was martyred in Memphis, a speech that referenced the scriptures a number of times. “I have a dream,” King exclaimed, electrifying the crowd with a vision that still enlivens and calls us to action today.
Do you have a dream? Do you have a vision for where you want your life to go? And what about your animal, your pet? They have dreams too! People and all their animals, all God’s creatures, have a dream!
“I have had a dream,” Pharaoh says to Joseph, “[but] there is no one to interpret it.” Pharaoh, this god on earth, the most powerful man in Egypt, was, ironically, impotent to understand his own dream. But Joseph, the Hebrew, held in his dungeon, understood and interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, to him. You will have 7 years of abundance and great plenty, followed by 7 years of fallow bad luck in the land, Joseph told him. And the rest is history. Pharaoh appointed Joseph to over-see a program of saving-up the surplus of crops those first 7 years, in order to prepare for the next 7years of drought. And Egypt fed not only itself, but Israel, and all the surrounding nations.
Dreams need interpreters so that the vision can come to life. We need helpers and organizers to get us where God wants us to go.
There was another Joseph in the Bible – another Hebrew, who also traveled from Israel to Egypt – the husband of Mary, mother of Jesus. Here was a man so devout that God spoke to him in dreams regularly, and he understood them implicitly. When Jesus was a new-born infant, “an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream,” to warn him about the evil intentions of Herod. Indeed, Herod could be ruthless and fickle! He had spies and informants throughout the region, and when he heard from the Magi, the 3 wise men, that Jesus had been born “king of the Jews” and they came to worship Jesus, instead of him, Herod the Great, he was willing to go to such lengths as to order every male child 2 years and younger to be killed, just to ensure –or so he thought- that Jesus would be destroyed.
But the earthly father of Jesus, Joseph, was in tune with his dreams. And he and Mary took Jesus out of the country until it was safe to return again.
Our dreams are vital to our survival! Being created by God, we continue to thrive and grow as children of God, whenever we pursue the dream God reveals to us. “I have a Dream!”
Do you have a dream? Has your dream come true yet, or has it been thwarted, shot down, by a Herod, or other nay-sayer?
Even animals, and our pets, have dreams. They are created by God with a unique spirit and personality. And they have a dream to live fully the life God gave them. And all their people, those of us here, I know can agree on this: that animals who are caged are not living their dream, animals that are abused or neglected are not living their dream, just as we, their people, need freedom and the bare necessities of life – to be able to stretch and walk, to eat and sleep, to give and receive comfort and compassion – in order that all of us, all God’s creatures, may live safe and full lives. Just like us, animals cannot live their dream, without human care and contact, and other acts of love and support.
Oliver the kitten didn’t have the most auspicious start in life: An animal control officer from another county’s animal service center rescued the orange tabby from a flooded sewer drain and took him to the shelter, where Oliver hissed at everyone who passed by his cage until the foster coordinator for the county’s Humane Society pulled him from the shelter. She worked with Oliver until he was purring and even playing with dogs.
When the humane society learned that a woman’s dying wish was to hold a kitten and watch him play, they were pretty sure Oliver would be the perfect cat for her. Indeed, Oliver loved the dying woman until she passed away with him curled up next to her. He was adopted by the woman’s granddaughter who today can’t imagine life without him.
Oliver never would have made it out of that storm drain to comfort a dying woman and to be placed into a loving home, had it not been for the partnership of dedicated people working together to save lives.
Domestic animals dream to have people in their lives. They have big and important dreams, but certainly not unreasonable dreams.
Dreams, however, need interpreters so that the vision can come to life. Animals need you and I, helpers and organizers, to get us where God wants us, and them, to go.
We all have dreams, people and all their animals. It’s time we count, every living creature of God, as deserving of a life well lived, to respect one another, and work together for the Dream that God has for each of us.
For God has claimed us all, sons and daughters, dogs and cats, birds of the air, and fish of the sea, and filled us with a divine spirit, and a dream, that we may live it out as God’s very own.
Do you have a dream to spread this good news, to help and support one another? How can we make it come to life?
Thanks be to God for our Dreams!
The Nativity of Our Lord
The First Sunday of Christmass (C)
1 Samuel 2:18-20,26
Pastor John Roberts
Is This the Same Jesus?
As 21st century Americans, the Mary and Joseph we
hear about into today’s Gospel don’t seem fit to be parents.
It’s one thing to lose your child in a crowded department store and then,
with the help of authorities, find them.
But losing your child for three days? We’d be calling Child and Family Services!
But things were different 2000 years ago.
We still occasionally have caravans traveling to grandma’s house for the
holidays or to summer vacation sites.
But, 2000 years ago, the safest way to travel from town to town
was to travel by caravan.
Mary, Joseph and Jesus had made the trip from Nazareth to Jerusalem every year at Passover.
And on this trip, there were probably hundreds from their home town with them.
Passing from one town to another, the hundreds became thousands.
And you know how children are. When there are other children to play
with, they would rather spend time with other children than with the adults,
especially with their parents.
If Mary and Joseph hadn’t seen Jesus in three days, they must have assumed he was
just with his playmates.
So, after asking fellow travelers whether they had seen their son
and finding that no one had seen him since Jerusalem, they went back there.
First they probably searched the place they had rented for housing.
Finally, they returned to the temple.
The by-now- frantic parents, when they found Jesus, turned their attention first upon themselves.
“Child, why have you treated us like this?
We have been searching for you and we are beside ourselves with anxiety.”
Isn’t that just what parents do when their child is late for curfew or gone awhile without letting
them know where they are going?
Don’t you know we were worried and upset?
We can almost hear Joseph asking Jesus: “What’s wrong with you son?
You’re not acting like the Jesus we know and love.”
And that’s the main point of today’s Gospel story.
Jesus wasn’t acting like the child he was expected to be.
For over a month now, Luke has given us many stories about Jesus, the child born in Bethlehem.
First, the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was going to give birth to the Messiah, the Son of God.
And Mary listened, and wondered, and finally accepted this news.
Then Mary went to visit Elizabeth where she was told by her elderly
cousin that she was blessed above all other women to be bearing the promised Messiah.
And Mary sang out words of prophecy.
Then, giving birth to the baby in a cattle stall, the Holy Family was visited by shepherds who told them about the
appearance of a skyfull of angels.
And Mary pondered all these things and kept them in her heart.
The next story in Luke is the Gospel for New Year’s Day, or as
we call it in the Church, the Festival of the Holy Name of Jesus.
At eight days old, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple to be circumcised and named.
There, the prophetess Anna tells Mary that there will come a day when something will
pierce her heart like a sword because of her son Jesus.
Perhaps those words were put away deep in her memory and, while she must
have pondered and wondered about these words, she’d rather remember all the good things about her baby’s life. Now, here in the Temple again, perhaps those words came drifting back to her.
Was this the beginning of those heart-piercing events?
Was she about to lose her son?
Jesus’ words to his parents must have worried her. “Why have you been searching for me?
Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
The stories of her ancestors must have been twirling around in Mary’s heart and mind.
Perhaps she remembered Hanna who, when she was gifted by God with her first-born son,
gave him up to the priests in Shiloh.
Mary knew that this son of hers was the Son of God.
But now she had to come face to face with what that might mean.
Jesus was no longer a baby.
In fact, from what the scribes and teachers in the Temple told her, Jesus was no longer a child.
Luke tells us that Jesus had been engaging the learned men in the Temple.
He asked them questions that led them to amazement at his understanding and his answers.
But they, his parents, “did not know what he said to them.”
So, the Holy Family left Jerusalem together and went back to Nazareth.
And Jesus was obedient to them and increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
And so, the childhood stories of Jesus end in the Gospel of Luke.
If it weren’t for the Festival of the Epiphany landing on Sunday this year, we would be listening to
Luke’s story of the Baptism of Jesus next week because today’s story is the transition of the life of Jesus
from birth to ministry.
What questions do you and I ask today in light of this Gospel story?
First of all, we should be asking what we are doing to contribute to the “growth in wisdom and in years,
in divine and human favor” of the lives of our own teenagers.
Do we spend time, like the teachers in the Temple,
listening and questioning, advising and nurturing those teenagers in our homes and in our neighborhoods?
How about the teenagers in our congregation?
Are we so afraid that they are “at that age” that they only seem like rebellious
kids that don’t want to hear our stories?
It has been shown that one of the most important influences on a
teenager’s life are the adults who care enough to listen to them.
The stories of our lives, especially those stories of how God
has made a difference in our lives, may not be in the same setting as our adolescents
but teenagers usually find it interesting to hear about others who
have had to work through the same kinds of difficulties and challenges they are experiencing now.
Are we paying enough attention to the young people in our midst to recognize their gifts and talents?
Do we see the 12 year old Jesus in our own midst?
Then, because of what Mary and Joseph experienced in today’s Gospel,
we must ask ourselves whether we are experiencing our ownfaith: as a child or as a mature adult.
It’s so tempting for us to want to see Jesus the way we saw him as a child in Sunday School.
We want to keep Jesus a tender baby in Bethlehem.
And even when his ministry begins, we want to hear about him healing the blind and raising the dead.
We want to hear him say that we are his tender, little sheep and he is the Shepherd
who will not let any of us come to harm.
But, what even his mother was to hear was, “come; take up the Cross and follow me.”
Follow me through temptation and death because,
by now we should know that temptation and death are all around us.
Jesus now depends on us to meet temptation, distress, anger, hurt, disease, and even death
with an adult faith.
So we must ask ourselves, are we serious about our own education in the faith?
Do we want to be in the Temple studying; asking questions; seeking answers;
growing in “wisdom and in years; in divine and human favor?”
We began this day remembering the baby in the manger.
We listened today about a family with a child going into adolescence.
And, as we begin a new year, we wonder what adult situations are ahead of us in 2013?
The angels still tell us, “don’t be afraid; a child has been born for you!”
Jesus tells us, “why do you search in all the wrong places?
Don’t you know you have to look for me in my Father’s house?”
And together, we move into a new year with Immanuel (God-With-Us) at our side.
So, as the new year dawns, let’s make a commitment to be at Immanuel’s side.
Let’s commit to spend time with our children and especially our youth.
Let’s commit to learning this new year.
And, fortified by the promises of God, let’s enter this new year with the confidence
to take up the Cross that is before us and follow Immanuel to resurrection.
Epiphany of Our Lord(C)
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.” So Isaiah said some 576 years before Jesus’ birth.
Epiphany, which means revealing, is about the revealing of Jesus, in a particular place, at a particular time. The wise men from the east, the Magi, reveal it to us. They have seen his star in the east, marking his birth. But first they come asking for the new-born king, not at Bethlehem, but in Jerusalem. Did they mix up their astrological calculations, not hear the GPS right? Or was it a diplomatic courtesy to check-in with King Herod on their way? What’s this all about?
One clue is that both the Magi and King Herod know this Isaiah passage by heart and are under its influence. “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Could this be the one?! Isaiah had given hope all those hundreds of years ago, had given courage to Jesus’ ancestors returning home from exile in Babylon, present day Iraq. It was a difficult journey to return and find that Jerusalem was still in ruins, the economy a wreck, unemployment and poverty frightening, and rebuilding the housing market would take longer than expected. Where was the hope? Where was the glory? It would take a few starts and stops by the people of Israel and their occupiers, before this one, the insatiable glory-hound and the pseudo-king of the Jews, Herod the Great, to successfully apply for a grant from the Empire’s impressive treasury, to rebuild the Temple. Whatever his true intentions, you can’t argue with job creation, and unemployment plummeted for decades.
Like the magnificent skyline downtown here in Chicago, the river front project envisioned by our former mayor, and all the way back to Daniel Burnham himself, King Herod set out to make Jerusalem greater than ever, a treasure that stood out to the world. And he made the temple the crown jewel. With a gold plated dome reflecting the sun far and wide, it shimmered gloriously. And now priests and scribes were in his debt, they shared in the privilege of its accomplishment, the chimera of peace, built on a settled-ness of self-satisfaction, but which separated them from the 99%, of their own people, instituted through an unspoken system of injustice enforced by Herod’s spies and informants.
The Magi, travelers from the east, are part Bedouin wanderers like the Shepherds and Mary & Joseph, but are also part upper class, rich and well educated like Herod, the priests and scribes. They know the stars and the signs of the times and Herod doesn’t doubt for a minute that they have ascertained that a new born king is near. This is exactly as Isaiah had told it. And it made Herod and all Jerusalem afraid. This was not good news, and he took it as the direct threat that it was – in this particular time and in this particular place – this threat to his throne from the Christ-child.
But a funny thing happens when Herod asks the Old Testament scholars, the chief priests and scribes, about this passage – about the gold, frankincense and myrrh, that will come from other nations to Jerusalem. You have the wrong passage, they tell him, trembling before Herod and fearing for their lives. We have to tell you, ‘Isaiah 60 will mislead you with its prosperity good-news that Jerusalem’s treasury will be filled as in the days of King Solomon, and be restored as the center of the global economy. You can’t privatize what God has given to the people. In Isaiah, the urban elites would recover their former power and prestige and nothing will really change.’ (cf. Brueggeman, The Christian Century, Living By the Word, 2001) The prophecy you want is Micah the 5th chapter, “But you, Bethlehem… are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” This is a glory that will change the world.
Herod is smart, he doesn’t take off the heads of these truth-teller OT scholars. No, he’s after this pretentious new born king. So he tells the Magi to go ahead and go to that backwater, Bethlehem, asking only that they return and tell him the exact location, under cover of wanting to also go and worship him.
Epiphany is the story of these two competing cities, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, just 9 miles down the road from each other. One opulent and impressive, the other small and unpretentious. One is ruled with an iron hand by King Herod, from the other comes a child-king, Jesus. Can you imagine what would have happened if the Magi had not visited Bethlehem, and we would never have known the new born king and Messiah? What kind of faith and world would we have today?
Pastor Mitri Raheb, the faithful Lutheran pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in present day Bethlehem, is fond of telling the story of this alternative city, the birth place of Jesus our king. We should not be surprised, he says, of this story of Herod and the Magi from the east. It is not the story book tale we learn from Children’s Christmas pageants, but a testament to a real place in real time, when God revealed God’s glory.
Pastor Raheb tells of the time a well-known evangelical preacher from the U.S. came to visit Bethlehem and was stopped at the airport, and more or less politely invited to come have a cup of coffee with the immigration officials in a separate and secure room. After 4 hours of warning him about the religious conference he came to attend, and the so-called, “radical” clergy he would rub shoulders with, they finally let him through. There are other religious groups from solidarity movements that have not been so lucky, and have been sent home. When the evangelical preacher told Mitri the story he simply said, “Welcome to Palestine! Knowing the gospels as well as you do, you shouldn’t be surprised. This is the same treatment Herod gave to the visiting Magi, detaining them for his own security purposes, so he could keep tabs on them.”
Today, Bethlehem is surrounded on three sides by the enormous dividing wall, and on the fourth side, with a secure check point, leading down the road, 9 miles to Jerusalem. Today, in that same particular place, Mary and Joseph would have been stopped, and like other Palestinian couples ‘with child’ who are detained on their way to Bethlehem, may have given birth right there, waiting in line.
“Arise, shine for your light has come… and the glory of the LORD has arisen upon you.” The glory of the LORD expected in Jerusalem, is transformed and incarnate in a new born king, in Bethlehem. The glory of the LORD that Moses, Isaiah, and the Priests could not look at directly, before, that was certainly mighty, but aloof, shines now in the face of this child. Now we are called to be on-lookers of this glory, the incarnation of our God, that we can be followers, fellow travelers, and indeed, are invited to be friends. At Bethlehem, ‘God comes, God irrupts, God arises and shines forth in a glory that is unconditional, and salvific. The people’s repentance, the mending of ways, the living out of justice is a response to this coming! It is not an attempt, or initiation on our part, to be made right with God, but it is thanksgiving for the one who comes, who reveals life and salvation in the midst of the community.’ (cf. Dirk G. Lange, workingpreacher.org )
The narrative of Epiphany is the story of these two human communities: The Jerusalem of Herod, with its great pretensions, a life of self-sufficiency that contains within it, its own seeds of destruction. And Bethlehem, with its alternative promise that comes in innocence, in a life given in vulnerability, which can make room for the Holy Spirit, and a hope that confounds our usual pretensions. It is amazing, how in the glory that shines in the face of Jesus the new born king, the true accent of epiphany is revealed to us, by way of the wise men. The Magi miraculously do not resist this Bethlehem alternative. Rather than hesitate or resist, they reorganize their wealth and learning, and reorient themselves and their lives around a baby with no credentials. (cf. Brueggemann, The Christian Century, Living by the Word, 2001)
At Epiphany, the glory of the LORD is revealed in a particular time, in a particular place. To which city are we called? Where is the glory that we will follow? How will we reorganize our wealth and learning to offer our gifts to Christ, the new-born king?
First Sunday of Christmas
Jesus, barely reaching the age of Bar Mitzvah, is debating with the best of the Rabbi’s, and,
says Luke, all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers
. But later, we might imagine him walking back to his provincial home of Nazareth, hand in hand with his parents, to grow up and, increase in wisdom,
“It’s not about [us] becoming spiritual beings,” says Fr. Richard Rohr, “nearly as much as it’s about becoming human beings.”
Jesus is born of Mary in a manger, but is, God with us – he is a kind of Emperor Augustus and Rabbi Gamaliel all wrapped up into one, or maybe something completely transcending both. The gift of wisdom that shines forth at the age of 12 gives us but a clue to what he will grow-up into.
One of the amazing stories about youth this year in 2012 was from a 15 year old high-school-er, Jack Andraka, who invented a test, that he wants to patent now, for detecting cancer. At 15, that’s 3 years older than Jesus when he was debating in the Temple, but still pretty impressive! When they announced his name, Jack was so excited, he charged up to the stage to accept his $75,000 grand prize at the [Intel] International Science and Engineering Fair this past May. In this Olympics of youth science, Jack out did more than 1,500 competitors from 70 countries, each of them having already won their national competition before arriving. Jack’s advice for kids trying to figure out what to do with their creativity and imagination: “Make sure to be passionate about whatever it is you get into, because otherwise you won’t put the right amount of work into it.” Shades of Jesus’ reaction to his parents: “Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs?” Jack is probably too old to walk hand in hand with his parents, yet I’m thinking, after the competition, he must have rode home, from NY to Maryland, in the back seat of their car.
The good and the bad about our culture that promotes prizes and notoriety for high achievers and child prodigies, is that, innovation and inventiveness is encouraged and celebrated, which creates an exciting climate of entrepreneurship that can, and sometimes does, lead to benefits for all. But on the down side, we tend to close our eyes to the many who are left behind, who not only may not receive much, or very little encouragement, but in too many cases, we fail to provide even the minimum resources needed for our children to succeed and contribute to family and society.
We don’t even seem know how to sustain a conversation about it. The failure of so many in our schools in Chicago only came to light this year, and for a relatively brief period, during the courageous & contentious CTU strike in August. What was illuminated in that moment was the lack of financial support for such basic things as school supplies and air conditioners, class room size and finding a way to trust teachers to teach instead of having to ‘teach to the test.’ It shown forth in “the passion” of teachers and parents, who really want change. They demonstrated their willingness to daily walk hand in hand with their students to show them the way, if we will help to give them the proper tools and support.
By the end of 2012, however, the news from CPS is a plan to close more schools, probably on the south and west sides, and create new charter schools in other neighborhoods, possibly including Edgewater & Rogers Park. Unfortunately it’s more of the same, good at rewarding the successful, still blind to and misunderstanding how to deal with the least. And then the headlines just this weekend about our youth, “Chicago Tops 500 Murders for First Time since 2008,” yet another by-product of ignoring the endemic and multi-layered problems that we are all called to be responsible for.
An NPR correspondent, whose beat was in Japan this year, compiled his top 10 news story list for 2012. When asked to choose one to highlight on air, he told about a Japanese classroom he visited, studying math. He observed how it was the student who was having the most difficulty learning the material that was chosen to come forward to the chalk board, so the class and the teacher could help him with the problem-solving. The American correspondent noted that it’s usually the opposite of the model here in the U.S. Here we pick out the best student from the class to come to the chalk board or answer the question, as a demonstration of how it’s possible to “know it all,” or be like her/him if you just try harder. Here, we reward the best. In Japan they emphasis the communities’ responsibility to include everyone in the learning process. We might call it hand-holding, in a negative way, but there is value in looking out for the least one. Is this a trait we tend to lack?
Mary and Joseph, returning from the Passover festival in Jerusalem, were more than just worried about Jesus being left behind. They are also ‘stressed’ that now they will have to leave the security of traveling with their kinfolk and fellow villagers from Nazareth, a common practice in antiquity, especially for small-town folk coming to the big city. Leaving them and returning for Jesus means they will be days behind, and without the protection of the whole group. As responsible parents, Mary and Joseph have good reason to hold on tightly to Jesus’ hands on the way home.
Still, the young Jesus learns a lot on this trip to big city. That he is gifted with the wisdom of the rabbi’s, and the leadership of emperor’s. He is obedient to his earthly parents, but knows he is called to speak freely and forthrightly about his divine progeny as well.
As scary and unknowable as his gifts are to Mary and Joseph, and to us as well, he cannot turn away from being about the business God is grooming him for. As upset and confused as Mary is at Jesus’ behavior, and as embarrassed as Joseph, traditional head of household, was, at looking out of control, they also look a lot like model Disciples: they do what disciples do, leave the comfort of home and reputation, to seek and follow him. No hand-holding, but risk taking - It’s not about [us] becoming spiritual beings, nearly as much as it’s about becoming human beings.
Just so, the 12 year old Jesus returns with his parents to Nazareth. He goes back to being a boy, obedient to his earthly parents. Though we know already he regards God as his true father, he understands how he has come to be truly human, as well. How do we become human beings after the model of Jesus? How do we fulfill our calling to be disciples here in this world?
Jesus, the new born king, from David’s royal city of Bethlehem, by way of Nazareth, comes to save us, in Jerusalem, where, even under the shadow of the Temple, the world is farthest from God. In our fear and misunderstanding here in this big city, Jesus will hold on tightly to our hands and lead us to safety and new life, beginning with the last, and working his way up to the first. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
For in his hand, we are made equally and fully human, and we walk together on level ground leaving no one behind, but are increasing in wisdom, and in divine and human favor.
My nephew and his new wife really wanted to have a child. And after about a year of trying – but who’s counting – they conceded it wasn’t happening! Already for about two years, they had considered their chocolate lab as one of the family, practically equal to a human child to love and care for. But finally, deciding they wanted more, they went to see a fertility specialist. After the requisite testing and screening, the OBGYN recommended they were indeed good candidates for fertility treatment. Well, long story short, on October 3, they had twins! We haven’t had twins in our family for at least 3 generations! For my mom, that doubles the count of great-grandchildren!
Joseph and Mary are having just one little baby. They can count on that. That is, if they survive the journey to Bethlehem for the count of the emperor’s census! “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
And so, young Mary and Joseph dutifully make the 100K hike to enroll in Rome’s taxation. Their immediate cross to bear, however, was finding a place to take them in. The unwed couple is swept away from the familiar surroundings of home, in Nazareth of Galilee in the north, only to be shut out of housing (Posadas) in Bethlehem of Judea, in the south of Israel. The innkeeper turns them away, saying they’re full up. Or was it something he saw in them he didn’t like: teenagers, Galileans, rival tribe or family? ‘I can give you a place in back with the animals,’ says the Innkeeper, but, I imagine him saying, ‘I’ll have to charge you the same price!’ Mary, the God-bearer, is given the least of accommodations. And Jesus, no crib for a bed even, is laid in a feeding trough for the animals, called a manger. The emperor is counting on them, literally, for tax purposes, but no one else, save the sheep and the Shepherds, tells them they count.
Ten days ago now, 20 children and 6 adults senselessly lost their lives in Newtown, CT, in another American gun tragedy. But who’s counting! As horrific as it is – 6 and 7 year olds, so close to Christmas – still, apart from our collective national mind that has been awakened, it makes you wonder, is one life more important than another? Elementary school children more than high school kids? The children in CT, as opposed to the 35 children killed in Gaza last month? Or the 231 children killed in Afghanistan in the first 6 months of this year? What of the nearly 500 homicides in Chicago this year, more than one a day? Which ones count more, or less? Whose parents will grieve less, or oddly, forgive more?
Jesus – born into our world, born as one of us, the infant lowly, rejected by the powerful – is laid in a manger, totally vulnerable, and at the mercy of the world. Pictures of this event are among the world’s most popular 2,000 years later: Madonna and Child, mother holding infant, in practically every culture and nation. Christmas awakens that vulnerability in us. Families gather, we spend lots of time and energy on giving more than receiving, and the coffers of charities are remembered and refilled. The consciousness of the nation and world coalesce for a brief moment, and fullness of life and peace seem possible. We are willing to hold one another!
The well-being of the new-born Jesus, his surviving and thriving, depended on the willingness of other human beings to protect and sustain him. Today we see this in our Nativity scenes, as Mary and Joseph hold him, and, we can imagine, do whatever is needed to help “him grow and become strong,” as Luke says. In Jesus, an heir and child of God, a new part of God’s DNA is born – God’s vulnerability. Because of the manger we are reborn to adore and hold Jesus with awe and wonder. Yet, at the other end of Jesus’ life, we find that, despite his innocence, nothing can save him from being sentenced to death. What does this new vulnerability say about our God? Or more to the point, what is God telling us about ourselves?
Survivors in Newtown were photographed, perhaps most often, as they embraced and held one another. A particularly moving picture is the one of a young girl, slightly taller and older, hugging a boy as he gazed back at the school. When words fail, the first thing we want to do is hold on to our loved ones and friends. In the face of grave danger, survivors can comfort each other with the closeness of human contact, bridging the vulnerability that we all come from, and reassuring one another that we count.
Another famous rendering of mother and child is Michelangelo’s Pietà, when Mary holds Jesus’ lifeless body after it was taken down from the cross. The sadness, is lifted up by the compassion of her loving embrace. It reminds me too of the gift given, in Newtown, by a parent of one of the children that was killed, Robbie Parker. He was the last one I expected to offer comfort and forgiveness to the family of shooter, Adam Lanza. “I want you to know that our love and support go out to you as well,” said Mr. Parker about the killings, that they “not turn into something that defines us, but something that inspires us to be better, to be more compassionate and more humble people,” he concluded. Forgiveness can be a powerful tool in our lives, because it reaches out past our own vulnerability to name all people as creatures who count in God’s eyes, and in our own eyes too, even for those who hurt our loved ones.
And so we continue to hold one another up, strengthening each other in life and love, out of our vulnerability, which no amount of guns can ever insure.
If I could give an award this year in 2012, for the hard work of peace and justice on behalf of the vulnerable, I think I would choose, “Nuns on the Bus.” In the middle of a contentious political year, they rose above the fray. As leader Simone Campbell said, “We’re idealists, but we’re not naïve.” And so, wherever the Bus stopped, they were greeted with hugs, because they stood up against powers much more prominent and spoke the truth on behalf of the most vulnerable: the working poor, some 46M, those without access to effective healthcare, and without housing due to the foreclosure crisis. They spoke as people of deep faith for those in the real world, whom only Shepherds and Angels usually notice. So, Sister Simone and the Nuns on the Bus get my vote!
Just to let you know, regarding my nephew and niece-in-law, I’m happy to report that their twins are healthy and growing – a girl and a boy – though both parents, predictably, are sleep deprived! And at Thanksgiving, still tiny at seven weeks, and mostly sleeping, I finally got to hold them, so vulnerable, yet well-loved little miracles. They are accounted for in our family – they count!
On this holy night God tells us that we count – in our vulnerability, God cradles us, God loves us, God is with us, as one of us. We embrace this vulnerability that Jesus taught us, as the way to salvation, peace and life for all.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent (C)
Pastor John Roberts
Women Who Believe
Mary had already had that visit from the angel.
Probably between the ages of 14-16; engaged to Joseph but not yet married to him;
the angel told her that she was going to have a baby.
And this baby was to be the Son of God.
Most teenage girls would have resisted in some way.
She could have fainted.
She could have laughed like her ancestor Sarah did when she was told that she was going to have
a son in her old age.
She could have cried foul: “everyone will think I have been unfaithful to myfiancé.”
She could have just said no.
But she didn’t.
Maybe it was because she had seen an angel, the archangel Gabriel in fact.
Maybe it was because she heard the angel tell her “don’t be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God.”
Maybe it was because she had been taught by her parents that one day there
would be a descendant of David who would be the messiah and she knew that she was,
in fact, a descendant of that great king.
She didn’t understand.
But she believed the message.
She said yes to God.
She answered the angel “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be
with me according to your word.”
The angel also told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth who was much older than her and was thought to
be barren was already six months pregnant.
Elizabeth’s son had been promised by the same angel Gabriel.
But John’s conception was announced to Zechariah, not Elizabeth.
Zechariah didn’t believe the angel and so, was made mute by the angel
until the birth of his son.
Do you remember the events of John’s birth?
Since Zechariah couldn’t talk, when it came time to give the child a name, they asked Elizabeth.
“His name is John,” she told them all.
“But no one in your family has that name; he should be named after his
father, Zechariah,” the crowd said.
Zechariah commanded a tablet and wrote on the tablet:”HIS NAME IS JOHN!”
because that’s what the angel told him to name him.
But how did Elizabeth know?
The angel had not told her.
It must have been that Zechariah, during the nine months of pregnancy,
had found a way to tell Elizabeth all about the appearance of the angel.
And yet, he didn’t tell anyone else.
No one expected the old priest and his old wife to have a child in their old age.
No one expected the child to be named John.
No one knew because Zechariah hadn’t shared the story with anyone but his wife.
So now, in today’s Gospel, Mary has left her home in Nazareth in Galilee.
She walked all the way to a village outside of Jerusalem where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived.
When she entered the house, Mary called out to Elizabeth.
Just hearing Mary’s voice, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb jumped so
excitedly that it was noticeably significant to the old woman.
Filled by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Luke tells us, when
Elizabeth greeted her young cousin, she echoed the words of the angel Gabriel.
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. This is really great!
This is an honor that the mother of my Lord has come to me.
You know, as soon as I heard your voice, the child in my womb jumped for joy!
Blessed are you, Mary, for believing what God has revealed to you.” Elizabeth, too, believed!
Is there a reason that Luke has featured the faith of these two women?
Put that beside the fact that Zechariah didn’t believe the angel and kept his secret from his neighbors.
And add to that the story from Matthew’s gospel.
Joseph, when he knew that Mary was pregnant, wanted to “put Mary aside.”
Not unlike the days when our society had pregnant, unmarried girls sent to homes where they would give
birth in secret so that no one would gossip.
Is it significant that the women in these infancy stories are seen as more righteous than the men?
You bet it is.
You see, women, in ancient Jewish society, not unlike some societies today, were seen as
the property of their fathers until they married; and then, they were the property of their husbands.
They were second class citizens.
They were, to use biblical language, lowly.
Don’t you see?
Luke is telling us today that God is doing something significant here.
God is casting down the powerful, the proud, the rich; and is lifting up the lowly.
By birthing God into flesh, God upsets the order of the world.
Listen to the words of Franciscan father, Richard Rohr:
“When God gives of God’s self, one of two things happens: either flesh in inspirited or spirit is enfleshed.
It is really very clear.
I am somewhat amazed that more have not recognized this simple pattern.
God’s will is incarnation!
And against all of our godly expectations, it appears that for God, matter really matters.
God, who is Spirit, chose to materialize! This Creator of ours is patiently determined to
put matter and spirit together, almost as if the one were not complete without the other.
This Lord of life seems to desire a perfect, but free, unification between body and spirit.
So much so, in fact, that God appears to be willing to wait for the creature to will and choose
this unity for themselves – or it does not fully happen.
Our yes really matters, just like Mary’s (and Elizabeth’s) mattered.”
Today there are women all over the world who still personify the
lowly: the little girl from Afganistan who was hospitalized, hanging on dearly
for life, because she dared to say that powerful men could not keep her from
going to school; the women of today’s Bethlehem who have to travel around an
inhumane wall and through five Israeli checkpoints to give birth in Augusta
Victoria Lutheran Hospital; the nuns who risk Vatican censure to beg our
government to pay attention to the poor instead of bicker about debt; the mother
who tried her best to raise a son only to be murdered by him before he killed 26
more people, 20 of them little children.
God is saying to them and to us today, “these are the ones for whom I became flesh.”
You see, God has accomplished something outrageous; something
revolutionary; something out of this world by becoming one of us.
The birth of Jesus, which we will soon celebrate, is not just a silent, holy night;
it is a cataclysmic entry into the world which changes the order of life forever.
And to all of us who feel like we are insignificant, God says, “Blessed are you!”
Women and men: Blessed are you! Rich and poor: Blessed are you!
Young child and those who are old and weak: Blessed are you!
If you believe that God has inspirited you, then you cannot be insignificant.
You are what matters.
Now, don’t be like old Zechariah, don’t keep this a secret.
That same Spirit who scripted Mary’s song and who choreographed John’s
prenatal dance calls you today to sing and dance because of this good news.
Really! Go tell that on the mountain! Tell it to your spouse, your children,
your neighbor, your co-worker, your government and to the whole world! Sing and dance because God has become
one of us!
Only five days to the End of the Mayan Calendar, and fifteen days to the fiscal cliff! How very Advent like! Sounds a lot like John the Baptist, all full of warning and alarm – the end is near! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come, you brood of vipers! But is this really John’s main message – that the end of the world is coming? Definitely, sounds like a part of it, but it’s probably not, not the whole, that is, of what he’s driving at, here in Luke’s gospel. The ‘warning’ comes as part of a package deal, along with, ‘promise,’ so that we may be transformed - us and God’s world – into much, much more!
So, if we take a moment, and ask a few questions, do a little deep breathing exercise, and engage our faith and trust, we might just get to where the Mayans and John are trying to take us. Turns out the modern hype of the Dec 21 prediction, that the sky is falling this Friday, is all a misinterpretation. Indigenous Mayan’s are ‘not happy’ with how their culture has been portrayed around the world, and commercialized locally. The 5,000 year old prediction has everything to do about the ending of an era, and, the new and hopeful beginning of another. But that’s something very different than an apocalyptic end of the world!
And, the fiscal cliff is slowly but surely being debunked too. There is no cliff, in the sense of abruptly falling off the edge like Wiley Coyote. Yes, the economy would probably turn more recessionary again, because of the austere measures that would be triggered, but not right away, all at once – it’s more like a fiscal curb or slope. And, turns out, the “crisis mode” that law makers want us to buy, has been completely made up by a bi-partisan decision of their own making: Unable to do the work we elected them to do, they ‘kicked the can down the road’ two years ago. The real crisis we have right now, if you think about it, is the high unemployment, and lack of jobs, that is tearing apart the lives of young people, families, and the middle class, and would, if it were addressed instead, help to reignite the economy. This is a crisis and a tragedy we’ve been living in, actually, since before the current Great Recession, and has only deepened as Politicians and their positions have polarized. If law makers were not so beholden to special interests that finance their re-election campaigns, and were more attentive to voters, well, I’d bet – crisis averted!
I believe this is directly related to our life together as a faith community and cannot be separated. Crisis, is a faith issue. But prophets, like John the Baptist, did not go out and manufacture crises. They were often blamed for it – and thus the term, “bearer of bad news” – but prophets were actually, courageous truth-tellers. They offered a warning of an impending crisis, but also a promise. The promise was usually good news, like we hear from the prophet Zephaniah in our 1st Reading. All the doom and gloom in Zephaniah’s first 2 chapters – the warning, that Israel must pay for its wandering, sinful and unethical behavior, is omitted. On this third Sunday of Advent, we traditionally turn to the joy and hope of the season – and lift up the good news of God’s promise. And so we hear from Zephaniah that there will be removal from disaster and judgments, the Lord will rejoice over the people with loud singing, you will be freed from your oppressors, the outcast will be saved, and you will be brought home. So too, John is not just fire and brimstone, but makes a promise that a savior is coming with more power than he, who will bring us a baptism of the Holy Spirit and Pentecost fire.
Crises loom. They come and go in every age. And prophets offered a way out. They remind us of who is charge, and that this God covenants with us, that if we remain faithful and true to God’s agreement, that is where abundant life will be found. Prophets call us back to this covenant agreement, and tell us the bold truth that no one wants to hear, that breaking the covenant has consequences, that it’s really a failure of our own doing, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.
What do we have to do then, all the people ask John, in order to avert the fiscal cliff? ‘Share your food and clothing with a neighbor in need,’ says John. But the tax collectors, surely they can’t be saved? Like banks too big to fail and politicians who enable them, they were the perfect example in Jesus’ day of cheating people out of their money. But even they come to John at the Jordan River to be baptized: “What should we do,” they ask? And John replies, ‘Stop stealing from your neighbors.’ And finally, to the soldiers, their oppressors, John says: No more using your power to blind side and take advantage of the citizens. John is specific: No hoarding, no skimming, no extortion. Do this, and you will bear fruits worthy of repentance.
If there is no Mayan end of the world in five days, and no fiscal cliff in 15 days, what is our real crisis? We might be tempted to say, it’s the horrendous shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut this past Friday, an emergency so grave and hurtful it is hard to know what to say, a senseless tragedy that fills us with powerlessness, anger and tears. But this kind of violence is not the root of our crisis, today, or in any age, but more likely a symptom. Not that this excuses the horrific incident, and the very real pain for the families and friends most directly involved. But today we can only sit with them in their grief, and surround them with our prayers.
The crises that prophets unveil, on the other hand, reveal root causes and a hopeful existential choice that empowers us, that gives us a community opportunity that is not a feeling of powerlessness, but its opposite. Like the Mayan calendar ending, that marks a whole new age about to begin, which is a warning but also a hopeful new day on the horizon, the crisis and promise of the prophets and John the Baptist, reveal the liminal space that God has opened up to us – the realm and kingdom of God that is coming, and indeed, is dawning upon us, right now, and always.
Crisis is coming, warns John, and he gave his life warning us of it – just as most all the prophets before him did. But as a truth-teller, he also opened the way for the gift of Jesus to come. John knew that no matter how righteous we feel and how reticent we are to enter the liminal space, no matter how much we think it’s the other guy, and how convenient it is to want to blame the messenger instead of repenting of our own stuff and turning around in a new direction, toward God, yet, Love prevails, and God will win the day. So my favorite passage from today’s gospel is this, “do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as our ancestor’; -the father of our faith- for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Where does that leave us, as the people of God?
It places us, I think, in an existential crisis, exposed to the truth of our age, that we cannot hide anymore behind a righteousness of doctrine that indeed, understands and confesses the faith, but without actually living out our love of neighbor. We need both – faith in word and faith in deed – whether that means, sharing our coat and meals, or dealing honestly with all those we live and work with. God doesn’t need our wonderful words and good intentions, but forms and reforms the faith community – raising up new heirs to Abraham in surprising and new ways – from those whose deeds match up with their words.
We always have a warning and a promise set before us – a brazen truth, and an Advent hope, a light that is coming out of darkness, the gift of the dual ministry of John and Jesus, cousins and iconic partners. Crisis is a faith issue, and a spiritual opportunity, directly related to our life together as a faith community. When we come together to hear God’s Word and respond in deed, we find renewed hope and joy, a gift of grace we can’t wait to open.
“…and all flesh shall see the salvation of God… For he is like fullers’ soap”.
Back when I bought my black suit coat of fine wool, the cleaning tag on it read: Dry Clean Only. I hesitated before taking it to the clerk, mostly because I knew dry cleaning used harmful chemicals that, if not disposed of with great care, end up in our rivers, lakes, and drinking water – this was before there were any Green Cleaner’s. But I needed a new suit, and this was the one I liked, so I resolved to limit my dry cleaning to once, maybe twice a year, and now of course, to take it to an environmentally friendly Green Cleaner, when I do.
Sometimes, I have to admit, the Green Cleaner process can’t get out really bad stains, and only the old fashioned dry cleaning really works! Ground in dirt, coffee spills, salt rubbed off the car, all gone - and it looks just like new. Best thing is, all I have to do is pick it up, they do all the dirty work!
Last week, at our Villa in the Caribbean, there was a sign by the wash machine: Do not use bleach – bad for septic! St John’s is one, big, giant, volcanic rock, of an island, jutting up in the sea. Even if you could dig down through it, there’s no water there to bring up, so your fresh water on the island is a gift from the skies, which open up regularly to relieve the heat of the tropical afternoons. And so pretty much every building is fitted with wide gutters to catch the showers as they rain down on red roofs and are carefully sealed in ample cisterns. Waste water, collected in septic systems, is treated and returned safely to the ocean, as long as no bleach is added to this closed eco-system of reusing and recycling. When my sister-in-law took a chance and washed a mixed load one day, thinking she had washed her colorful towels once before, she was un-pleasantly surprised when the whites came out all pink! “A little bleach will take care of that,” she said – “when I get home!” Nothing like dry cleaning or bleaching, like a “fullers’ soap,” to make things white and clean again!
Though John was a man well down on the list of Important People in our gospel reading, this Baptist, son of Zechariah, had a special job there in the wilderness, by the Jordan River. He came to do what God called him to, wash us clean. He was preparing “all flesh,” all the people, to re-Exodus and re-enter, into the Promised Land. John was the Voice on the margin between the desert and the River Jordan, crying: the Advent of the Messiah has arrived, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” for “all flesh shall see the salvation of God”.
That was John’s job, but, a wholly impossible job really! How to make way for the Son of God? How to make us ready to re-enter, to come home to a new place we’ve always meant to be? To re-enter us, a whole people, through a baptismal washing, and to prepare us for the brilliant vision of the salvation of God here in this crooked world – a salvation for “all flesh.”
Of All those leaders Luke mentions at the time of Jesus’ birth -- the Emperor in Rome, the Governor Pontius Pilate in Judea, and Herod in Galilee, his brother Philip in the region to the east, and finally, the high priests in the Jerusalem temple, Annas and Caiaphas -- the Word of God passes all of them right by, and comes to – of all people – the guy camped out on the margins in his camel hair coat – it comes to John, a Voice that cries out, and evokes a déjà vu experience of Elijah and Moses. John the Baptist is called on to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, where everything old is new again, finally. At the boundary line between the Wilderness and the Promised Land – John is our Dry Cleaner, our bleaching white agent, our “fuller’s soap”. Even though John’s time and his call is short, his message is purposeful and unique, calling all flesh to be ready for “the salvation of God” and the Advent of Christ.
I wonder if John ever took his camel hair coat into the Jerusalem cleaners – you can be sure it needed it, living in the wilderness, but I doubt it! And there was such a place, actually, just outside the capital city. It was deliberately zoned outside the city limits because of the strong odor that came from the lye-like cleanser they used. This home-made bleach cleaned many a coat and tunic in Israel – mostly of sheep’s wool, however, and not camel’s hair! It was a hard work of scrubbing, and a pungent odor like bleach, but it totally transformed each garment from old to new again!
Is it possible for us to be prepared for the coming of the Lord – to be dry cleaned and lye-cleaned? Can we really prepare ourselves for the salvation of God, for this new kingdom, which will turn the world upside down, and inside out? To repent, as John the Baptist cried out, meant to turn around from the way you are going, and walk in a new direction – and follow Jesus, to bee cleansed like the strong, smelly, chemical-y, fuller’s soap, to make room in hearts and lives, for Jesus to be born.
Can we make our Baptismal robes white enough in this washing? By the time we get to Christmas, will we be ready for the clean white swaddling clothes, and the glistening white stars in the night sky? How do we prepare our robes to be ready for the royal birth? Each must make ready in our own hearts of course. But harder yet is all flesh making ready together!
How do we balance our budgets, for instance, whether family, church, or nation? Is there such a thing as a shared sacrifice? Can we be honest about who is in need, and who has more than is possibly sustainable in this ecosystem of God’s creating? How do we care for our precious resources and make our environments, both natural and social, sustainable as we dry clean, and lye clean, and make ready? Where is the boundary line between our old life of waste and pollution and our new life of living with the new-born king, this precious child wrapped tightly in brilliant white bands of cloth? Where does the boundary line lie, that asks us to live together in our freshly washed baptismal clothes, so that “all flesh” shall see the salvation of God together?
Like our environment and eco-system, we live in a shrinking and self-contained world, where “all flesh” live inter-dependently, and so in some important way, we are called upon as white-robe-wear-ers to care for “all flesh” even as we know how to take good care of ourselves.
If we don’t all prepare the way for the Advent of Love and Grace-itself, the birth of this child-king, none of us may be fit to receive it.
But, we are well ready, who trust in the one who comes like the gift of the opening skies, which rain upon us, washing us clean, and showering down on us, the gift of life. Remember your baptism, and like a fuller’s soap, be bleached of all doubt! John prepares us for this in-breaking of the Christ-child – for the advent of salvation for all flesh is nigh!