Wednesday, December 26, 2007

1 January 2008: The Holy Name of Our Lord

And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb (Luke 2:21, ESV).

Collect of the Holy Name of Our Lord
Eternal father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

28 December: The Holy Innocents

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

"A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted,
because they are no more" (Mt 2:16-18, ESV).

The Holy Innocents the church calls these children -- in a true sense the first martyrs for our Lord. We remember them this day and honor their sacrifice.

The sacrifice of Holy Innocents is not merely a moment in history, but is an ongoing reality around the world: in refugee camps in Darfur (seen in the icon above), in the slums of Haiti, in the tenements and homeless shelters and under the overpasses in cities scattered throughout the United States -- in our very midst. It is not in our power to rewrite history: Herod had his way for a moment and Rachel's children are no more. But we can change the present and rewrite the future.

Compassion International:

Food For The Poor:

Partners In Health:

Collect of the Holy Innocents

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tryants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

27 December: Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:1-5, ESV).

So begins the Gospel of Saint John, a simple fisherman transformed into a mystic theologian by Jesus the Word, an angry "son of thunder" transformed into the beloved apostle of love by Jesus the Word. Poet and prophet, John's words in Gospel, letters, and Apocalypse are among the most beautiful and meaningful in Scripture.

According to Church tradition, Saint John conducted his primary ministry in Ephesus in Asia Minor. During the reign of Emperor Domitian, he was exiled to the prison island of Patmos for his witness to the Lord Jesus. There, likely near the end of the first century, the Word of Jesus came to John in a series of visions which he recorded in The Apocalypse (Revelation) -- visions which assured a beleagured church of the ultimate triumph of Christ and the certain coming of the Kingdom of God.

John likely ended his life once again in Ephesus, the last living apostle of our Lord.

Collect of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist
Shed upon your Church, O Lord, the brightness of your light, that we, being illumined by the teaching of your apostle and evangelist John, may so walk in the light of your truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

26 December: Saint Stephen, Deacon and Martyr

Now in those days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty" (Acts 6:1-3).

Among those chosen was Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. Filled with grace and power, Stephen performed great wonders and signs among the people as he proclaimed the Word and confounded those who opposed the Way. Stephen was brought before the high priest and the council on false charges where he fearlessly preached Jesus as the fulfillment of God's covenant with Israel, as Messiah, and as the Son of Man crucified, resurrected, and ascended to the right hand of God. For this faithful witness, Stephen was cast out of the city and stoned, receiving the first crown of martyrdom.

Collect of Saint Stephen, Deacon and Martyr
We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Christmas Images

Monday, December 24, 2007

St. Romanos Nativity Kontakion

Orthodox writer and speaker Frederica Mathews-Green offers a beautiful introduction to an ancient eastern nativity hymn, the Nativity Kontakion of St. Romanos, on a recent Ancient Faith Radio podcast. It will make a wonderful addition to your celebration of the Nativity of our Lord. You may find it through Frederica's website as follows:

1. Access
2. Select Here & Now, Ancient Faith Radio.
3. Play the St. Romanos Nativity Kontakion podcast.

If you prefer to download the mp3 file, you may do so at the following url:

You may also access Ancient Faith Radio through itunes.

With our Eastern brothers and sisters may we celebrate the little child, God before the ages.

Christmas Prayer (Byzantine, traditional)

Christ is born; give him the glory!
Christ has come down from heaven; receive him!
Christ is now on earth; exalt him!

O you earth, sing to the Lord!
O you nations, praise him in joy,
for he has been glorified!

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

Homily: The Nativity of our Lord (25 December 2007)

The Nativity of our Lord: 25 December 2007
(Luke 2:8-20)
Emmanuel: God With Us

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Once God looked upon the great wickedness of man – that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time (Gen 6:5) – and God came among us as a tempest, a deluge, a flood over all the face of the earth. And every living creature with the breath of life in its nostrils was destroyed, save for eight souls and an ark full of animals. Emmanuel: God with us.

Once God heard the outcry against the grievous sin of man – that his cities were filled with violence and lust and depravity – and God came among us as fire and brimstone. And every living creature in Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities of the plain was destroyed, save for three souls: Lot and his daughters. Emmanuel: God with us.

Once God hearkened to the cry of Israel – that their lives were miserable with forced labor and harsh taskmasters – and God came among us as plague upon plague: darkness and famine and thirst and death. And every firstborn son of Egypt – from the firstborn son of Pharaoh to the firstborn son of the slave girl and all the firstborn of the cattle – was struck down, save for those souls protected by the blood on the doorposts and lintels, those souls passed over by the death angel. Emmanuel: God with us.

Twice God beheld the idolatry and injustice of his own people – that they sacrificed to the gods of the nations under every spreading tree on every high place, that they sold the needy for a pair of shoes and dispossessed the orphans and widows – and God came among us as the ruthless and barbarous armies of the Assyrians and Babylonians. And the fortified cities and the temple itself were utterly destroyed and the pride of Israel – its young men and maiden daughters – was marched captive to foreign lands. Emmanuel: God with us.

Is Emmanuel – God with us – a blessing or a curse, something devoutly to be desired or something fearfully to be avoided? Perhaps both. Perhaps either.

8And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased" (Luke 2:8-14, ESV)!

The angel came this night to announce Emmanuel – God among us, God with us. Is it any wonder the angel began, “Fear not!”? God is on the move. God is once again among us. God is now with us. I can imagine normally fearless shepherds – What are lions and bears and wolves to them? – cowering in terror at the sight of the angel and covering their ears to avoid the dreaded pronouncement of God’s judgment. “Fear not,” the angel began. It is good news that God is among us. It is great joy for all people, for Jews and Romans and Greeks alike. For the Lord comes among us not as tempest and flood, fire and brimstone, plague and death, destruction and exile. No, the Lord – God before the ages – comes as one of us, as the least of us, as a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. Fear not. God comes among us not as Judge, but as Savior. To which news the only proper response is, “Glory to God in the highest!”

15When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us" (Luke 2:15, ESV).

God is among us; let’s go see. How remarkable. Can you imagine that response earlier, before the assurance, “Do not fear,” before when God came as Judge? This advent of Emmanuel – God with us – is light and life, and people are drawn inexorably toward both.

This story of the angels and the shepherds and the baby in a manger is history, we’re convinced. But it is more; it must be more. This story of Emmanuel, of God among us and God with us, must become a guiding metaphor for the church, which is the present incarnation of Emmanuel. The church among us, the church with us must be good news of great joy for all people. The church among us, the church with us must be salvation and not judgment. It hasn’t always been so and it isn’t always so now.

How often is the church among us – the church on the move in the broader world – perceived as judgment and not salvation? Now, of course, we must speak missionally and prophetically to the world; that is part of our calling. But we must always do so in the context of good news of great joy, of salvation always and not of condemnation only. How can signs that announce God hates fags! in the hands of the church among us at gay pride rallies be good news of great joy? How can screams of “Baby killers burn in hell!” in the mouths of the church among us picketing abortion clinics be good news of great joy? How can the shouts of war and the building of fences be good news of great joy? How can conspicuous consumption in the face of global poverty be good news of great joy? How can the false promises of health, wealth, and prosperity made available to those simple ones who donate money they cannot afford to false prophets of greed – too often the image of the church among us – be good news of great joy? This is not Emmanuel – God with us, God among us. This is not the gospel of the Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

We must proclaim to all the people of the world – in all their diversity – “Fear not, for behold we bring good news of great joy to all people.” The church among us should be good news to atheists, to Muslims, to prisoners, to poor, to rich, to gays, to addicts, to prostitutes, to soccer moms, to unwed moms. The world should be better because the church is among us – the whole world and not just special enclaves.

And now, let’s make this personal. If you bear the name Christian, then you are Emmanuel in your world: in your marriage, your family, your school, your workplace, your neighborhood, your coffee shop, your bowling league, your exercise group, your book discussion group, your political party meeting, your club, your life. Are you good news of great joy there? Does your life proclaim, “Fear not!”? Do the people who know you want to go see this great thing that has come to pass in your life? If so, the Nativity of our Lord is more than history to you and to those around you: it is metaphor, it is living reality, it is the pattern of your life. There is born in you this day and every day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And those who witness the birth of the Savior in a human life -- if they but listen – will hear the heavenly host, and the earthly host as well, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth, peace among those
with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14, ESV)!

May the joy of our Lord’s birth be yours this day and every day. May Christ – Emmanuel – be with us and among us now and for ever. May we be Christ’s presence in the world proclaiming the good news of salvation to all people until Christ – our Emmanuel – shall come again to reign unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Collect: 4 Advent (23 December 2007)

God of Peace,
your eternal Word took flesh among us
when Mary placed her life at the service of your will.
Prepare our hearts for his coming again;
keep us steadfast in hope
and faithful in service,
that we may receive the coming of his kingdom,
for the sake of Jesus Christ the ruler of all,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Collect: 3 Advent

Almighty God,

You sent your Son into a world
where the wheat must be winnowed from the chaff
and wickedness clings even to what is good.
Let the fire of your Spirit purge us of greed and deceit,
so that, purified, we may find our peace in you
and you may delight in us.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain,
whose day draws near,
your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Semon: 3 Advent (16 December 2007)

3 Advent : 16 December 2007
(Isaiah 35:1-10/Luke 1:46b-55/James 5:7-10/Matthew 11:2-11)
Dark Night of the Soul

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Great saints – men and women like us in kind though perhaps different in degree – often experience a dark night of the soul, a time when the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit are apparently withdrawn. It is a time when the presence of God is known only by its absence, when his mercy feels harder than stone, when prayers reach no higher than the ceiling and are met only with silence. It is a wilderness time. I’m not referring to the typical waxing and waning of devotion, to the cycles in the spiritual life that we all experience. I’m not referring to the gradual cooling of fervor of the newly converted. I’m not referring to a falling away from the faith. No: I’m referring to the utter desolation of the utterly faithful. I’m referring to Jesus crying out from the cross in extremis, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I’m referring to Jesus, utterly abandoned, utterly alone in his moment of deepest need, searching, crying for his God and Father who has gone inexplicably missing. The dark night of the soul, the Spanish mystic John of the Cross described it in the 16th century. Thérèse of Lisieux knew it in the 19th century and Mother Teresa experienced this sense of abandonment almost continually from 1948 through her death in 1997. Some think it a great grace given to great saints by God, a gift to draw them even closer to God-As-He-Is by destroying all false images of God-As-We-Want-Him-To-Be. Some think it a weaning from the selfish love of the gifts of God – peace and consolation – to the pure love of God himself solely for himself. If it is gift, I am not anxious to receive it. If weaning, I’m not anxious to mature.

It’s all there in Scripture, too. Job lost wealth, family, standing, health. And all this he could stand. What nearly broke him was his loss of confidence in the righteousness of God, the destruction of his understanding of God, the loss of the presence of God. He longed, more than anything else to plead his cause before the LORD, to see the LORD face to face. This was Job’s dark night. Elijah, that faithful prophet of Israel, running for his life from the idolatrous Queen Jezebel, ran right into the dark night of the soul and asked the LORD to take his life. He could no longer sense the LORD: not in the earthquake, wind, or fire – until finally the LORD spoke in the quietness, in a still, small, voice. Read the Psalms. David was no stranger to the darkness. That man after God’s own heart was often left alone and desolate, seeking for God but not finding him. This dark night of the soul seems to be common to our great ancestors in the faith; I suspect it is common to the great saints among us even now, though it seems rarely mentioned.

And now there is John, son of Zechariah, called the Baptist: the herald of the kingdom, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, the forerunner of the Lord, the one of whom Jesus himself said, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Mt 11:11a, NRSV). This John, the prophet of the Most High, sits alone, chained in Herod’s prison, in his own dark night of the soul. The certainty with which he proclaimed Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” is but a dim memory. His own sense of calling – of being caught up in God’s great messianic plan – seems to be evaporating. He looks for God but his eyes do not see. He listens for God but his ears do not hear. He seeks to walk the way of God but his ankles are chained. He remembers those days by the Jordan when he confronted the Pharisees and Sadducees: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mt 3:11, NRSV). One is coming. John cries out in prison, perhaps in confusion, perhaps in desolation, certainly in his dark night of the soul: “Are you that one, Jesus? Or must we go on waiting?”

John sent his disciples to ask Jesus those very questions: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another” (Mt 11:3, NRSV)? These are simple enough questions, almost yes or no. Yes, I am the one. No, you need wait no longer. But Jesus doesn’t give simple answers; Jesus almost never gives simple answers. Instead he speaks into John’s dark night of the soul: speaks light into being there dazzling dimmed eyes, speaks words of life there shattering the silence.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Mt 11:4-6, ESV).

I don’t know about the dark night of the saints and mystics. Beyond the seemingly random ups and downs of my own spiritual experience I’ve never felt a profound absence of God, a prolonged time when prayer seemed especially empty. Perhaps you only notice such things when your normal experience of God is much more acute than mine. But this I do know: Jesus came to end the dark night of the soul, for all and for ever. Jesus came to be Emmanuel – God with us – and not Deus Absconditus – God absent from us. Jesus came to be the Logos – the Word of God – for all with ears to hear and not the silence of God. Jesus came to be the Light of the World in whom there is no darkness at all. Jesus came to be the way for the crippled and lame to walk, the good news for the poor to hear, and the life eternal for the dead to live. Jesus came to be the Daystar and not the dark night. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist – that John who now sits in his own dark night awaiting word from Jesus – Zechariah prophesied about the end of the dark night of the soul in and through the Messiah, Jesus – the Messiah that John, himself, had announced.

In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the
shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
The Song of Zechariah, BCP 21

And so Jesus answers the disciples of John.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Was that answer enough for John? I’d like to think so. I’d like to think the dawn from on high broke upon him in his prison even as his daddy foretold.

Jesus went about doing what prophets go about doing, proclaiming the kingdom of God in word and in symbolic action. For Jesus, the coming of that Kingdom meant the end of the dark night of the soul: first for his people, the new Israel gathered about him, and secondly for all who would believe on his name, even those far off, even us. And so, by word and deed, Jesus banished that dark night. How many blind men did Jesus heal: ten, twenty, one hundred, more? And each pair of eyes opened was a symbolic proclamation that the dark night was over. How many times did Jesus say, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”: ten, twenty, one hundred, more? And each pair of ears that turned his way was a symbolic proclamation that the silence of God was over. How many paralytics did Jesus set to dancing: ten, twenty, one hundred, more? And each pair of feet dancing along God’s highway – the Holy Way – was a symbolic proclamation that the exile was over. How many mothers’ sons and fathers’ daughters did Jesus call back from the place of the dead: ten, twenty, one hundred, more? And each beating heart was a symbolic proclamation that the gloom of the shadow of death was over.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

I don’t know about the dark night of the saints and mystics, but I do know a dark night when I see it. And I see it everywhere I look: in the hopelessness of inner city neighborhoods and warehouse schools; in the over-capacity homeless shelters and overflow underpasses; in bullet-riddled school rooms and mall stores; in bombed out communities in Iraq that will never be rebuilt and in flooded out communities in New Orleans that have yet to be rebuilt; in the coal-covered faces of the working poor in Appalachia; in the botoxed and plasticized faces of the formerly famous and powerful in Hollywood; in the pantiless escapades of Britney Spears and the drunken escapades of Paris Hilton; in the sexual exploitation of students by teachers and alter boys by priests; in the binge drinking campus parties – high school and college – and the escalating drug use in our own region; in the desperate fear of deportation in the illegal alien and the desperate fear of the illegal alien in honest, hardworking, upstanding citizens; in the digital addiction of people who cannot stand the thought of being disconnected – of introspective quiet – for more than a few seconds; in the horn-honking, finger-flipping, tail-gating drivers who menace our highways; in the always more-is-better consumers in shop after shop after shop; in the perpetually peppy, prosperity-peddling, mega-church moguls on television and book covers; in the cynical, jaded, been-there-done-that–moved-on critics of the faith; in the looking-for-the-next-fix religion junkies moving from church to church and experience to experience. Yes, I know a dark night when I see it. And I see it everywhere I look.

Are you the one, Jesus, or should we look for another?

Go and tell them what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.

Sometimes people come to us – stumbling in their dark night of the soul they’re not even sure they have – and ask just that: Is Jesus really the one, or should we look for another? And how are we to answer? These are simple enough questions, almost yes or no: Yes, he’s the one and No, you need look for no other. But a simple answer isn’t the way of Jesus and cannot be the way of those who would follow him. Come and see: that’s the answer. You must decide for yourself based upon what you see and hear: that’s the answer. But before we dare answer this way, we must be sure that we are busy opening the eyes of the blind, dancing with the lame, washing the sores of the lepers, singing songs of joy into unstopped ears, breathing life into dead bodies and hopeless situations, and preaching the good news to the poor, in part by ending their poverty.

The early church grew, in spite of suspicion and on-again-off-again persecution, because theirs was a community in which the dark night had given way to the dawn from on high.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Act 2:42-47, ESV).

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:32-35, ESV).

Is Jesus the one, or should we look for another? Well, come and see Jesus alive among his people – still opening eyes and ears with truth, still raising up the fallen, still announcing good news to the poor, still visiting orphans and widows in their distress, still welcoming the aliens and the outcasts, still praying for enemies, still forgiving one another, still serving the least and forgotten, still taking up crosses and laying down lives, still loving. Then, go tell what you have seen and heard. Of course this kind of answer only works if we are actually doing all these things.


Saturday, December 8, 2007

Collect: Advent 2

Merciful God,

You sent your messengers the prophets
to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation.
Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins,
that we may greet with joy
the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.


Sermon: 2 Advent (9 December 2007)

1 Advent: 9 December 2007
(Isaiah 11:1-10/Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19/Romans 15:4-13/Matthew 3:1-12)
Isaiah and House

May grace come and this world pass away. Come, Lord Jesus.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I generally don’t care for television: the Family Channel isn’t and the reality shows aren’t; sex is glorified – often between kids (they think they’re adults, but they’re kids) – and faith is ignored or ridiculed; heroes are essentially indistinguishable from villains, except the villains are usually portrayed as more interesting. All in all, television is a medium that aimed very low and undershot.

Except for House. I know I shouldn’t like House for so many reasons. Gregory House is the prototypical, modern, television anti-hero: self-absorbed, sex-obsessed, manipulative. He is an atheist who hates the fact that he’s not God. He is abusive to his patients, his colleagues, and what few friends he has. House gets by with this – and I guess I watch the show – because he’s brilliant and it’s fun to watch his mind work. And, I keep hoping for some redemption, hoping that House isn’t beyond hope.

For the first three seasons a team of three specialists assisted House: Foreman, a neurologist; Cameron, an immunologist; and Chase, an intensivist (a specialist in the treatment of critically ill patients). It was interesting to watch each doctor interpret a patient’s symptoms through the lens of his or her own specialty. Foreman always diagnosed a brain or central nervous system disorder, Cameron an autoimmune disease, and Chase – ever the suck-up – whatever he thought would endear him to House. It consistently fell to House to look beyond the narrow confines of the specialties to the larger problem, to the one diagnosis that tied together all the disparate symptoms. And therein lies the character’s brilliance.

The narrow-mindedness of the specialists is almost an unavoidable problem: If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem becomes a nail. I’ve done it myself time and time again – filtered a problem through my narrow set of experiences and expectations, totally misdiagnosed the situation, and developed a great solution for an entirely different problem, a solution that could not possibly work for the real situation at hand. It is true: your perception, your understanding of the problem determines the nature of the solution you will propose. It’s true in medicine – even on television. It’s true in business. It’s true in family life. And it’s true in faith.

Advent is the story of cracked eikons, the story of men and women created in God’s image who through rebellion and sin defaced that image. And that rebellion effected the entire created order: it corrupted human relationships with self, others, God, and creation; it brought death into the world; and it subjected all creation to futility. The disease man now carries – we rightly call it sin – has many different symptoms: in one it manifests as lust, in another greed, and in yet another anger. Just as with a medical specialist, the symptoms you focus on will determine the nature of the cure you propose.

Isaiah is with us again today as the great prophet of Advent. He is with us as one of us – a cracked eikon living amidst cracked eikons. He puts it a bit differently at the beginning of his prophetic ministry, but it amounts to the same.

1In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!"

4And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts" (Is 6:1-5, ESV)!

As Isaiah looks about and considers the state of his people Judah, several symptoms of the sin that infects the nation are apparent: true wisdom is in short supply, as is fear of the LORD; judgment is often perverted or withheld; the poor are systematically oppressed; the meek are denied equity. Isaiah filters these symptoms through his experience, through his specialty – under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we believe – and proposes a cure for the patient: a new righteous king from the Davidic dynasty. And, prophetically, he sees one on the horizon, though perhaps quite far off.

1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit (Is 11:1, ESV).

The great trunk of David’s line was felled by the division of the kingdom: only two generations, David and Solomon, ruled a united Israel. Upon Solomon’s death, and his son Reheboam’s folly, ten tribes seceded from the nation to form the northern kingdom of Israel. Two tribes, collectively called Judah, remained with the Davidic dynasty. The dynasty that should have been a massive tree had, by Isaiah’s time, been reduced to little more than a stump. And the stump itself had begun to rot as successive kings – with a few notable exceptions – moved Judah farther from God and away from the Law.

So, Isaiah prescribes a new king, a true son and heir of David as the cure for the nation’s social and spiritual illness. He envisions a king who blends David’s righteousness and justice with Solomon’s wisdom.

1There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.2And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.3And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear,4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.5Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins.

This king’s rule will be Spirit-filled: wisdom and understanding and counsel and might and knowledge – all these from the Spirit of the LORD. And these result in righteous judgments, not based on human perceptions of sight and sound, but upon the fear of the LORD and upon faithfulness. The poor and the meek will rejoice in Isaiah’s king; he will bring the justice and equity so long denied them and exercise the preferential option for the poor that God mandates in the Law. He will be the incarnation of Psalm 72, a coronation psalm of Solomon likely used for generations to come.

Give the King you justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the King’s Son;
That he may rule your people righteously
and the poor with justice;
That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people,
and the little hills bring righteousness.
He shall defend the needy among the people;
he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.
He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure,
from one generation to another.
He shall come down like rain upon the mown field,
like showers that water the earth.
In his time shall the righteous flourish;
there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.
All kings shall bow down before him,
and all the nations do him service.
For he shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress,
and the oppressed who has no helper.
He shall have pity on the lowly and poor;
he shall preserve the lives of the needy.
He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence,
and dear shall their blood be in his sight
(Ps 72:1-7, 11-14, BCP).

Yes, this is Isaiah’s cure for what ails his people – a Spirit-filled king of righteousness brought forth from David’s line to reign faithfully over God’s renewed people Judah.

Until this point, Isaiah has been playing the specialist; his is the voice of a Foreman or Cameron or Chase, looking narrowly at the symptoms of his people while the real problem lies much deeper. All creation is out of joint, in bondage to decay, groaning as a woman in childbirth awaiting delivery. There are none righteous, none who seek after God. Sin and death reign supreme. There’s no room for a specialist here; we need House to see the big picture, to look at all the symptoms and diagnose the underlying problem. And Isaiah now does just that. He broadens his vision – the Spirit broadens his vision – to a time beyond his, to a people beyond his, to the day when the true Davidic king – son of David and Son of God – will appear to renew all creation. Isaiah looks to the day when, through the true King of kings,

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as waters cover the sea (Is 11:6-9, ESV).

This is nothing less than the return to Eden. This is the restoration of the cracked eikons and the renewal of all creation. This is Isaiah’s grand Advent vision, a vision that will come to pass through the King of Righteousness. Did Isaiah know who he was, who he was to be? It’s doubtful; the Spirit spoke through Isaiah for our benefit, not for his. The prophecy is for our time, not for his.

Isaiah never saw his righteous king. Judah continued its downward slide toward destruction, often led by its unrighteous kings. There were a couple of notable exceptions – the good kings Hezekiah and Josiah – but their religious and social reforms were short-lived and quickly rolled back by their successors. So, Isaiah waited. Isaiah watched. Isaiah prophesied. And Isaiah died with his prophecy yet unfulfilled, with his longing unsatisfied, with his dream of restoration unrealized. Perhaps that’s what makes Isaiah the great Advent prophet. He knew how to wait and how to remain faithful in the waiting.

There is another great Advent prophet, though, some seven centuries after Isaiah, who saw the Righteous King – who not only prophesied his coming, but who announced it. This great prophet proclaimed, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mt 3:1-3, NRSV).

Isaiah saw the righteous king afar. John saw him near. Isaiah waited in faith for his coming; that’s what made Isaiah an Advent prophet. John announced his immanent arrival; that’s what made John an Advent prophet.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Then Jesus came…(Mt 3:11-13a, NRSV).

The wait is over. Isaiah’s righteous king has arrived in the person of an unknown, carpenter-turned-rabbi from the sticks of Nazareth, a descendant of David of somewhat questionable birth – hardly what Isaiah had in mind. This king will have no palace; he will be homeless. This king will not reign; he will serve. This king will win no military victories; he will lay down his life. This king will have no throne; he will have a cross. Had Isaiah seen all this would he have understood? Probably not, at least no better than those who witnessed the events; that is, not at all. Isaiah the specialist wanted a cure for Judah, for God’s covenant people. That’s far too small. The Righteous King who came and who is to come, brought the cure – is the cure – for all creation. He is the perfect eikon of God who alone can restore all cracked eikons and release creation from bondage. He came not to rescue Isaiah’s Judah, but to create a new Judah from every language, tongue, tribe, and nation – a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father and our God and Father. He came to fulfill Isaiah’s universal vision. He came, not as Foreman or Cameron or Chase might have predicted, but as House surely would have.

So we’re told, and so we believe. But that’s not what I see. Is our world any less corrupt than Isaiah’s Judah? Are the poor and the meek in substantially better condition now? Are justice and faithfulness evident in our societies? Does the wolf dwell with the lamb and the leopard with the goat? Are children safe and free from fear? Is the earth full of the knowledge of the LORD as waters cover the sea? No and no and no and no and no and no. No to all these questions and to a thousand like them. Like Isaiah we are stuck in Advent, with a vision of what is far but not near, then but not now. We believe the Righteous King has appeared. We believe that his incarnation, ministry, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension truly accomplished all that Isaiah foretold and much that Isaiah could not see. We believe that cracked eikons are even now being restored to the image of God and a new and holy people are being created around and in and through Jesus, the Righteous King. We believe that sin and death are vanquished foes with no power to terrify or destroy. We believe and we await the completion of all these things.

Like Isaiah we are called to be great prophets of Advent. We have a true vision of what will be when Christ, the Righteous King, is all and in all. We announce that vision now. We work for and pray for that vision now. We live within that vision now. We live out that vision now, in our families and communities, in our churches and in schools and in our places of business through acts of faithfulness and righteousness and justice, through a preferential option for the poor and meek, through service, and through peace. We watch for the small signs that that vision is emerging and growing and happening among us even now. Like John we say, “The kingdom of God is at hand,” and like Isaiah we say, “The day of the Lord is coming.” It’s a strange Advent we live: an already but not yet time, a fulfilled but incomplete promise. The great advantage we have over Isaiah is this: we have seen the coming of the Righteous King. Now we await his coming again.


Sunday, December 2, 2007

Collect: Advent 1

Faithful God,
your promises stand unshaken through all generations.
Renew us in hope,
that we may be awake and alert
watching for the glorious return of Jesus Christ,
our judge and savior,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Sermon: 1 Advent (2 December 2007)

Advent 1: 2 December 2007
(Isaiah 2:1-5/Psalm 122/Romans 13:11-14/Matthew 24:36-44)
Act 1: Problem and Waiting

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we enter a new season in the worship of the church: Advent. Many differences are obvious: rich hues of purple and blue replace the green and white of the previous season; the Advent Candles reappear after a year’s absence; neither the Gloria nor the alleluia is heard in our liturgy for a time – and that marks a change to a penitential season with an increased emphasis on the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, spiritual reading, and almsgiving. None of these changes is cosmetic only; there is significance to each element of the church’s observance of Advent. Of course, not all churches mark these changes; not all churches observe Advent or follow the liturgical calendar. These practices are, after all, inventions of men not mandated by, or even specifically mentioned in, Scripture. Though they are not part of my spiritual heritage, I now find great value and deep meaning in them. In fact, the longer I try to understand and live the gospel of Jesus Christ the more important Advent seems to me. I think it is a self-impoverished church that fails to observe Advent; I know it is a self-impoverished culture that neglects it.

Formal Advent observance dates from the 6th century, though informal, local observances may have begun even earlier. All this is still relatively early in the development of the Christian liturgical calendar. Advent marks the beginning of the church year. Why Advent? we might ask, and probably should ask. The church could have chosen Christmas, the celebration of the incarnation – Emmanuel, God with us, -- the birth of Jesus as a fitting start to the year. Or it might have selected Easter, the moment of new creation, new birth, as an appropriate marker. There is an argument to be made for Pentecost, the birth of the church – the moment of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the creation of a holy people – as a candidate for Christian New Year. Each of these days – Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost – is a single, significant moment in the life of the church and speaks of beginnings of one sort or another. But none of them would do to mark the beginning of the Christian year – at least not as well as Advent. Each of these other moments – Christmas, Easter, Pentecost – is an essential act in God’s great redemptive drama of atonement. Each of these moments is a crucial part of the solution to the problem of creation gone wrong. Each of the moments is a partial answer to the question of how God intends to put creation to rights again. But none falls rightly in the opening act of the drama; all emerge later as the play unfolds. Advent is the opening act.

It’s dark. The moon glistens on the barren, snow-covered prairie and a fierce wind whips the snow along the ground. In the distance there’s the sound of approaching horses, growing louder as two riders come galloping into view, heads held low, eyes squinting against the wind. Everything about these men tells a tale of urgency. The riders notice a faint light in the distance and change course a bit to head directly for it. The light becomes a lonely farmhouse and they spur their horses onward, sure now of their destination. As they arrive and hurriedly dismount the door swings open to reveal a young woman who rushes out onto the porch to embrace one of the men. Together they hustle the other rider inside and the door closes. So ends Act 2 of our play. Your task is to write Act 1, the opening act.

Well, the options are seemingly endless, aren’t they? Countless Act 1 scripts could come from what we’ve seen of Act 2. We have the sense that every detail is important: the location – especially the isolation of the farmhouse – the timeframe – when horses were still the primary mode of transportation – the apparent urgency of the riders – galloping across the prairie at night – the eagerness of the woman and her apparent familiarity – perhaps even intimacy – with only one of the riders. Important details, yes, but, we don’t know what to do with any of them. We lack the context for rightly interpreting them. If there is a right answer, a true script for Act 1, we’re unlikely to recreate it here. Oh, we’ll come up with something, just probably not the right thing.

Lest you wonder, here’s the real Act 1 – my sermon, my story, my play, so this is the right answer.

The small house is lit only with oil lamps. The young woman rocks her infant child and from time to time feels her cheek. The fever is worsening. It’s been two days since the child has eaten and now she’s becoming lethargic and unresponsive. The young man, the baby’s father, is pacing the floor. “I’ve got to go now!” he says firmly. “But the snow…” she questions. “It doesn’t matter,” he responds. “The doctor is day and a-half away. If I don’t start now, it may be too late,” he says as he grabs a coat, a canteen, and a couple of biscuits. “I’ll bring him. I promise. You just wait here for us. Do what you can. Pray. Look for us in about three day.” And with that, the man is gone, into the snow and the night, galloping across the open prairie toward his only hope. And the young mother? All she can do is wait and pray, in hope that the doctor will arrive in time, in fear that he might not. She listens for the sound of horses.

Do you see how Act 1 gives meaning to the details of Act 2? Each significant moment in Act 2 is a crucial part of the solution to the problem presented in Act 1. Each significant moment in Act 2 depends on Act 1 for its proper meaning. Only Act 1 can rightly serve as the beginning of the play. Problem and waiting: these are the keys to Act 1. Unless we know the problem and what we are waiting for, Act 2 makes no sense.

So it is with Advent. Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost are all Act 2 (or even Act 3) events; they are partial solutions to a problem that arises in Act 1. We will never understand these solutions unless we know the nature of the problem and what we are waiting for. And that is precisely what Advent is all about: problem and waiting. And that is precisely why Advent must mark the beginning of the church year – it is the beginning of the story we tell, the story we find ourselves in.

Let me give just one example of the kind of problem that arises when Advent is ignored. Christmas. That’s the problem. In our first world, Western culture, Christmas is a travesty. And I think this is true in large part because our modern culture doesn’t understand, and thus ignores, Advent. Without Advent, Christmas is a solution in search of a problem – an Act 2 with no Act 1. Our culture fills this vacuum by defining the problem on its own terms, by writing Act 1 – and it gets it exactly wrong. It seems that our society can conceive of no greater problem than the lack of personal happiness, the absence of self-satisfaction. And we all know what it takes to be happy: more stuff! If you define the essential human problem in this way, then a Christmas celebration that focuses almost exclusively on conspicuous consumption is the logical outcome. But start with Advent, with a true understanding of the fundamental human condition and need, and it is lot harder to say, “Christ the Savior is born. Here, have a tie.” We need Advent to set the context for Christmas, for Easter, for Pentecost – for the entire human condition.

More than any other, I consider Isaiah to be the great Advent prophet. His are the words that define the human problem. His are the words that call us to wait on our powerful and gracious God for the solution. His is Act 1.

4 Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity,
offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly!
They have forsaken the LORD,
they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
they are utterly estranged (Is 1:4, ESV).

Isaiah knows the true problem of the human condition, and it’s not the lack of stuff: it’s the presence of sin. God created man in his own image, to be his eikons – his image-bearers. He created man in perfect relationship with one another, with the created order, and with God himself. He set tasks before us: stewardship, fruitfulness, obedience. But we rejected these and we rejected God. We sinned through our own fault. And, to borrow Scot McKnight’s imagery[1], we became cracked eikons. And this sin which cracked God’s eikons also cracked all our relationships – with ourselves, with others, with the created order, and with God.

I’ve enjoyed watching Susan, our resident iconographer, guide our girls in the writing of an eikon during the past few weeks. I’ve especially appreciated her reassuring mantra: “There’s no mistake you can make that we can’t fix.” Susan may have heard that at one of the eikon workshops she attended, but it originates with God, himself. Looking at his cracked eikons in the Garden, I imagine our God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – whispering over fallen man, “There’s no mistake you can make that we can’t fix.” And so God set about the process of restoring his eikons, of renewing his image in man.

God established covenants with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – covenants that called into being a people, a single people blessed to be a blessing to all peoples. Through this people God began restoring his cracked eikons. God delivered his people in the Exodus – the defining moment in the life of God’s first-covenant people – delivered them from oppression, led them through the sea to freedom, and revealed himself to them through the Law. Restored eikons must be holy as God himself is holy, and the Law showed them how a holy people lives in a holy society. The Law moved them toward restored eikonic relationships – with self, with others, with the created order, and with God. God led them into the land he had promised on oath to their fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey, and established them there in safety and prosperity. God raised up judges and prophets and kings to call the people to righteousness, faithfulness, and justice – all this to restore his cracked eikons.

This was the history of Isaiah’s people, a history of God’s refusal to abandon his cracked eikons. But it was also the history of those cracked eikons refusing God’s restorative grace. God made them a people, delivered them from oppression, gave them the Law, settled them in a land, and established their kingdom – all acts of restoration. The people rejected God and worshipped pagan deities; forgot God’s deliverance and neglected Passover observance; acted unjustly and unfaithfully and ignored righteousness; and split the kingdom asunder through civil war. The northern part of the kingdom – Israel – had been conquered by the Assyrians. The southern kingdom, Judah, was awaiting imminent destruction by the Babylonians. And God laments over his cracked eikons, eikons which refuse to be restored.

2 Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken:"Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.3The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib,but Israel does not know, my people do not understand" (Is 1:2-3, ESV).

And Isaiah, the great prophet of Advent, joins God in the lament by singing a song to God, a song of God’s vineyard.

1Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard:My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.2He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
3And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
5And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.6I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting;and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed;for righteousness, but behold, an outcry (Is 5:1-7, ESV)!

And this is the problem of Advent in a nutshell: God’s cracked eikons refusing his restoring grace. Isaiah is left to wait, trusting that what God has whispered is true: “There’s no mistake you can make that we can’t fix.” Amidst a land of cracked eikons, from deep within his waiting, Isaiah speaks:

2 It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORDshall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills;and all the nations shall flow to it, 3and many peoples shall come, and say:"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob,that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths."For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.4He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD (Is 2:2-5, ESV).

“It shall come to pass.” Wait on it. The Lord will yet have his way. The cracked eikons will be restored. In this problem, in this waiting, in this hope lies Advent, Act 1. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost: all these lie in Act 2. All these are moments in the solution of the Advent problem. All these are moments in the fulfillment of Advent waiting. Only in the light of Advent is Christmas more than stuff, Easter more than marshmallow bunnies, and Pentecost more than just another Sunday. Advent is the only proper beginning.

I’ve heard that the first step to true recovery is to admit that you have a problem. “Hi. I’m John and I’m an alcoholic.” If that’s true then maybe the church should focus more on Advent for awhile and less on Christmas. The world has a problem: it is populated with cracked eikons who need not more personal happiness, not more self-satisfaction, not more artificially manufactured self-esteem, but rather God’s restorative grace. And let’s be clear – the church doesn’t look much better. We may have submitted ourselves to God for restoration, but we’re not very far along in the process, and we are doing everything we can to avoid the hard work and discipline of that restoration. We, too, need the Advent message. We, too, need to hear God’s lament and join Isaiah in the Song of the Vineyard. We may just need to live awhile in Act 1 before Act 2 makes any sense.


[1] A Community Called Atonement, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007).