Saturday, December 27, 2008

Sermon: 1 Christmas (28 Dec 2008)

Sermon: 1 Christmas (28 December 2008)
(Isaiah 61:10-62:3/Psalm 148/Galatians 4:4-7/Luke 2:22-40)
The Feast of the Incarnation: Ripples of Grace

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

The world has moved on – “revolved from night to day,” as the hymn sings – leaving Christmas behind. Now it is plunging head long toward a new year: toward resolutions no one really plans to keep and toward bills accumulated during the holidays that no one really wants to pay. So be it; “Why Can’t Everyday Be Christmas?” is a fine song title but an unrealistic attitude. Christmas is over and “real life” has begun anew: time to move on.

But it is different with the church. In our best moments – when we are aware and intentional – we yield up Christmas to the world and ourselves to Christmas: to families and friends, to parties and banquets, to merchants and malls, to mistletoe and holly, to Rudolph and Santa, to Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole. We enter into the festivities with gladness and abandon, and share our joy with the whole world; after all, the birth of Christ is good news, even if the world doesn’t know quite what to do with it. And our Lord Jesus never refused a good banquet himself – even if hosted by tax collectors and sinners who knew him not. Yes, we yield up Christmas to our world, but not the Feast of the Incarnation. That belongs to the church; it is ours, and if we are wise, we guard it zealously. It is the Feast of the Incarnation the church celebrates on 25 December – at least the church in the West – and on the twelve days following. And the Feast of the Incarnation – the incarnation itself – is not left behind on day thirteen. We don’t move on from the incarnation back to real life, for the incarnation creates a new and different real life – a life of the ages. The heart of God plunged into the heart of human history in the incarnation and sent ripples of grace propagating outward into all creation. And creation never has been and never will be the same again. The logos, the very Word of God and essence of God, the one by whom and through whom and for who all things were created, the source of light and life – that “Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth,” and from his abundance we have all received grace upon grace upon grace (John 1:14, NKJV, and 1:16, paraphrase). You do not pack that away with the decorations and ornaments, pack it away in the attic, pack it away out of mind for another year: not if you are the church of the Incarnate One.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the fulcrum of history, and at his incarnation the creation begins to tilt toward God. Everything before the incarnation looks forward to it and everything after the incarnation radiates outward from it. Isaiah saw it afar, and in words of prophecy spoke for Jesus.

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations (Is 6:10-11, NRSV).

The Lord God clothed his only begotten son with the garments of salvation. And with what was Jesus clothed if not with our humanity? What mystery is this that our fallen humanity – when put on by the Incarnate One – becomes the garment of our salvation! The Lord God covered his only begotten son with the robe of righteousness. And with what was Jesus covered if not with God’s divine nature? What mystery is this that God’s divinity – when covering the offspring of the Virgin’s womb – becomes the robe of righteousness! And so the Lord God has caused righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. As Jesus was clothed with our humanity and covered with God’s divinity, so now all of us who have been baptized into the Incarnate One have clothed ourselves with Christ, so that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus, all are Abraham’s seed, all are heirs according to the promise, all are children of God through faith in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:26-29). Blessed mystery of the incarnation!

When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God (Gal 4:4-7, NRSV).

This is who we are, children of God through the Incarnate One, though our minds can scarce comprehend, through our eyes are blind to the glory. So we eagerly wait for our revelation as sons and daughters of God. And we do not wait alone.

For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility – not willingly but because of God who subjected it – in hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children (Rom 8:22-23, NET Bible).

Through the first man Adam, sin entered the world and with sin, the curse of disobedience, binding all Adam’s children to death and all of creation to futility and corruption. And though God could release creation by fiat, by simply speaking the word, God has instead bound creation to us in hope, so that creation will not be restored apart from us, but through us – through our adoption as children of God in the Incarnate One. And so now creation stands on tiptoe, eagerly waiting, impatiently longing for our full revelation as God’s children – waiting for us finally to live as children of God. In the meantime, creation groans and suffers – groans and suffers with birth pangs until Christ is born fully in us and God’s will is done fully on earth as it is in heaven. And on that great day when the last Adam, the Incarnate One Jesus Christ, is revealed in us creation’s groaning shall cease and creation’s praise shall resound.

Psalm 148 (BCP)

1 Hallelujah!
Praise the Lord from the heavens; *
praise him in the heights.

2 Praise him, all you angels of his; *
praise him, all his host.

3 Praise him, sun and moon; *
praise him, all you shining stars.

4 Praise him, heaven of heavens, *
and you waters above the heavens.

5 Let them praise the Name of the Lord; *
for he commanded, and they were created.

6 He made them stand fast for ever and ever; *
he gave them a law which shall not pass away.

7 Praise the Lord from the earth, *
you sea‑monsters and all deeps;

8 Fire and hail, snow and fog, *
tempestuous wind, doing his will;

9 Mountains and all hills, *
fruit trees and all cedars;

10 Wild beasts and all cattle, *
creeping things and wingèd birds;

Rarely are hymnists theologians, and more rarely still are theologians hymnists; but, on those rare occasions of convergence – when music captures truth and gets it just right – what glory we experience.

Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns;
let all their songs employ;
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground;
he comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found,
far as the curse is found,
far as, far as the curse is found.

The incarnation is joy not to the sons and daughters of God only, but joy to the earth, to all creation, as well; for all creation now sees its future revealed through the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the adoption of men and women as sons and daughters of God – not revealed fully as yet – but revealed enough, enough to sustain hope and awaken praise.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:25-32, NRSV).

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

This old man and this old woman are sign and symbol of the hope of all creation, incarnations in human flesh and blood of the expectation and longing of the world for the revelation of the Incarnate One. They are also sign and symbol of the faithfulness of God to his promises. Simeon and Anna see in this baby before them the redemption of Jerusalem, the glory of Israel, and a light of revelation to the Gentiles – not fully revealed as yet; it is a baby, after all – but revealed enough to satisfy hope and awaken praise.

The world has moved on – “revolved from night to day,” as the hymn sings – leaving Bethlehem, angels, shepherds, stars, magi, Simeon and Anna – leaving the first Christmas – behind. Now it is plunging head long toward a new year: toward problems no one really seems to understand and toward solutions no one really has confidence will work. So be it; “Why Can’t Everyday Be Christmas?” is a fine song title but an unrealistic attitude. Christmas is over and “real life” has begun anew: time to move on.

But it is different with the church. It is the Feast of the Incarnation the church celebrates on 25 December – at least the church in the West – and on the twelve days following. And the Feast of the Incarnation – the incarnation itself – is not left behind on day thirteen. The Word has become flesh and has dwelt among us. The Incarnate One has united in one person his divinity and our humanity and has thereby made us sons and daughters of God, filling us with the Holy Spirit and setting us on a journey of restoration into the very image and likeness of God. The Incarnate One has been revealed to all creation sustaining creation’s hope that one day it will be released from futility and bondage to corruption – sustaining creation’s hope and awakening creation’s praise. The heart of God has plunged into the heart of human history in the incarnation and has sent ripples of grace propagating outward into all creation. You do not pack that away with the decorations and ornaments, pack it away in the attic, pack it away out of mind for another year: not if you are the church of the Incarnate One.


Friday, December 26, 2008

The Collect Challenge

The Collect Challenge
(While this "challenge" is specifically for the members of Trinity Church, we invite all our friends to join us. If you choose to, please email from time to time to describe your experience with the Collect Challenge.)

The Service of the Word during each celebration of Holy Eucharist commences with this exhortation:

Let us now read from the Holy Scriptures
given to us under direction of the Holy Spirit,
that we might know God and his will for us
and that we might love him more.
Thanks be to God.

Then before the first lesson is read the service continues with this prayer:

Almighty God,
open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit,
that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed,
we may hear with joy what you say to us today, and, having heard, we may fully obey him who came and is to come,
even Jesus Christ our Lord.

And so we are reminded that our reading is more than mere custom, more than something we do because the order of service directs us. We read primarily that we might know God – not in the academic sense of an object of study, something to be “figured out” – but know in the biblical sense of establishing an intimate relationship with another: we read to know God that we might love him more. This type of reading requires a listening heart, a heart that grasps with joy the knowledge that God is speaking to us today in the words we read, a listening heart that finds joy even in those words of God that wound and convict, that finds joy in those words of God precisely because they are the words of God. We read to learn God’s will for us that we may fully obey him who came and is to come, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

This reading is intimate communication of the Beloved One with his beloved ones, an intimate dialog if we take our part. Our part is prayer – prayer based upon a contemplation of God’s holy words and response to those words. This prayer may take many forms: praise, wonder, confession, intercession, tears, silence. It may be spontaneous or structured.

One structured form of scriptural prayer is the collect, a form often associated with the Anglican Communion and the Book of Common Prayer. The collect consists of five parts: an invocation or address to God, a scriptural or theological basis for the prayer, a petition, a reason for the prayer, and an ascription linking the prayer with the life and work of Jesus.

Take, as an example, the collect for the second Sunday after Epiphany (BCP).

Invocation: Almighty God,

Scriptural Basis: whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world:

Petition: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and
Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory,

Result: that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends
of the earth;

Ascription: through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the
Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

A reading of the collects in the Book of Common Prayer reveals a great flexibility in this form: sometimes the result is omitted; sometimes the invocation and scriptural basis are blended together. The form is, of course, less important than the purpose of the prayer: to engage us in intimate dialog with God who has spoken to us in his word that we might know him, love him, and obey him.

And now comes the collect challenge for this year. Each week our service sheet will include a listing of the lectionary readings for the following Sunday. Starting on Monday, prayerfully read the lessons – not once but several times. Meditate on them often during the following week. And then, when and as the Holy Spirit moves, respond to God in prayer by writing a collect. Include this collect in your daily prayers for the remainder of the week. Offer it, should you feel it appropriate – it might be too personal for corporate use – during the Prayers of the People on Sunday. Record these collects in a “prayer journal,” a record of the year’s conversations with God through these scriptural prayers.

What results should you expect? In one sense the question is not quite appropriate. The goal of praying is simply to spend time worshipping in God’s presence, to open ourselves to him in intimate relationship – and that happens not as the result of prayer but simply in the act of prayer. But, I would also expect that the scriptures will take on deeper meaning as they become the source and impetus for dialog with God and that your relationship with God will deepen as you fill yourself with his word. Let us pray.

Almighty God,
you spoke the word into the darkness and worlds were created;
in the fullness of time you spoke the Word into a darkened world, a Word in flesh and blood, Jesus Christ our Lord – a Word of new creation and eternal life:
open our hearts and minds to the word spoken, the word written, and the Word made flesh who lived among us manifesting your glory, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Nativity of Our Lord: Prayers

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us.We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:1, 14, NIV).

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!
(Byzantine Christmas Prayer, Trad.)

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born this day of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again, and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

(Collect: The Nativity of our Lord, Book of Common Prayer)

Homily: The Vigil of the Incarnation (24 December 2008)

On this holy night, on this Vigil of the Incarnation, I stand down to place you in the care of one far more able to open for us the great mystery of our faith -- the Word made flesh. Hear the words of St. John Chrysostom -- Golden Mouth -- from the 4th century, words cherished by the church for their truth and beauty. As we listen, may the Incarnate One bless us with his presence. Amen.

A Christmas Sermon:
St. John Chrysostom

BEHOLD a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God. This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny. Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech. For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works.

What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend.
Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.
For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.
Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things are nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.
To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost, we offer all praise, now and for ever.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Sermon: 4 Advent (21 December 2008)

Sermon: 4 Advent (21 December 2008)
(2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16/Luke 1:46b-55/Romans 16:25-27/Luke 1:26-38)
Sweet Kissing: The Mystery of the Incarnation

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

This icon – Sweet Kissing – written by the hand of our own sister, Susan, graces our small chapel at Trinity Church. I am drawn to it, particularly during night prayer when all is still and the lamps and candles cast a soft glow on mother and child. Like all true icons, it is more than art, more than image; it is a window into the mystery of our faith. This particular icon beckons us to contemplate perhaps the greatest of these mysteries – the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The mystery of the incarnation is expressed not merely in the figures in the icon, but in its sacred calligraphy, in eight letters representing four words.

MP ϴY : matēr theou – mother of God

IC XC : Iēsous Christos – Jesus Christ

There is great theology here, and great history. The fourth and fifth centuries witnessed dramatic Christological debates in the church – attempts to answer the questions, Who is Jesus? and What is his nature? These debates were efforts to understand and resolve the apparent paradox of the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ. There was a continuum of thought on the issue, and it was easy to be drawn from the center of orthodoxy to one of the opposite poles of heresy. There you might find the Gnostics and Docetists who denied the humanity of Jesus or, at the other extreme, the Ebionites who denied his divinity. But the church, the orthodox church, knew better, and defended the truth at all costs – and the costs were often high. Paul, not so distant in the past for these fourth and fifth century Christians, had written conclusively and authoritatively of both the divinity and the humanity of Jesus Christ, and these scriptures were still regularly read during worship by the faithful.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Col 1:15-20, NRSV).

In Christ is the fullness of God, Paul writes, insisting on Jesus’ divinity. And the church’s Creed reflects this understanding.

[I believe]…in the one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-Begotten, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father; by whom all things were made.

But this scripture by Paul was also read during worship.

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Phil 2:5-8, NRSV).

In Christ Jesus is the fullness of humanity, Paul writes, insisting that Jesus was born in human likeness. And the church made this, too, part of its Creed.

[Jesus]…for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

The Christological debates reached their zenith at the Third Ecumenical Council of the church held at the Church of Mary in Ephesus, Asia Minor, in 431. There, amidst charges and counter-charges, excommunications and reciprocal excommunications, the church finally spoke with one, united voice through the 250 gathered bishops. The church declared the Nicene Creed the true symbol of the true faith. The church condemned as heresy any doctrine which denied either the divinity or humanity of Christ. The church affirmed – as the only true doctrine -- that Christ unifies in one person both his divine and human natures – that Jesus Christ was, is, and forever will be fully God and fully man.

And these eight letters on the Sweet Kissing icon bear eloquent testimony to this fifth century victory of orthodoxy; for, at this council, the church bestowed upon Mary the title Theotokos – the God-bearer – and matēr theou – the Mother of God. This was no effort to establish a doctrine of Mary, but rather to affirm the mystery of the incarnation – God made man through the Holy Spirit and the virgin. This was no effort to worship Mary, but rather to affirm that her son – the man, Jesus – was truly the second person of the Holy Trinity and therefore supremely worthy of worship. This was not really about Mary at all, but about her son – her son and God’s Son – Jesus.

And all that, too, is right there in the icon, there for all to see: Mary’s head bowed in humility; her eyes not haughty, but downcast, her gaze averted; her hand directing attention, adoration, worship toward her son. Her title, Theotokos, – God-bearer – notwithstanding, it is not so important that she bore God, but it is essential that it is God whom she bore. Her title, matēr theou, -- mother of God – notwithstanding, it is not so important that she was the mother of God, but it is essential that is was God whom she mothered. That is the faith of the church. That is the mystery of the incarnation, the mystery revealed in the sixth month of barren Elizabeth’s pregnancy when

the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary (Luke 1:26-27, NRSV).

Luke, ever the physician with an eye for clinical detail, says it over and over like a refrain: Gabriel was sent to a virgin; the virgin’s name was Mary; Mary was perplexed, being a virgin. The gospels and the apostolic church resolutely affirm that Mary was a virgin and that her virginity is essential to the incarnation of Christ. Only through the virgin birth can heaven and earth meet and God and man become one in Jesus.

The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:35, NRSV).

The incarnation thus announced by the angel Gabriel is not incidental to our salvation and to the restoration of the world. It is not merely a way for Jesus to enter history on his path toward the cross and salvation. No. The incarnation is an essential part of our salvation. In the incarnation, Jesus took upon himself our humanity that he might bestow upon us his divinity. Jesus united, in himself, divinity and humanity so that mankind might be restored in the image of God, grow in the likeness of God, and be reconciled fully to God. In the incarnation Jesus embraced our corruptibility and gave us his incorruptibility. In the incarnation Jesus bore our sins and offered us his righteousness. In the incarnation Jesus suffered our death and bid us live his life eternally. The human and divine met in Jesus – embraced and kissed – that we might become the true sons and daughters of God, partakers ourselves in the divine nature. What a laudable exchange; what a great and praiseworthy blessing (Laudable Exchange, music and lyrics by John Michael Talbot) is the incarnation! Once we were children of Adam only, heirs of corruption and death, of nature distorted and bent toward sin. But now, through the incarnation, we are children of God through the new Adam, Jesus, and heirs with him of righteousness and life, of nature restored and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Through sin, what was true of Adam became true of all his children – all of humanity. Through the incarnation, what is true of Jesus is true of all his brothers and sisters – all who have become one with him through faith, baptism, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

Mary knew none of this when she responded to Gabriel: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, NRSV). It took the church some four hundred years of worship, prayer, study, and contemplation to reach an orthodox consensus on the meaning of the incarnation. But Mary knew this: the Lord had done great things for her and, through the son she would bear, the Lord would do great things for his people. So she proclaimed to Elizabeth, the barren one great with her own child.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever (Magnificat, BCP).

Here is the Sweet Kissing icon, here is the mystery of the incarnation, not in line and form and color, but in prayer and song and proclamation: the virgin of Nazareth in Galilee blessed by God as Theotokos, graced by God as matēr theou; the mother-to-be, head bowed and eyes averted, directing attention toward the God of her fathers and toward the Son she would soon bear. Here is the one who will, throughout all ages, be called blessed, not because of who or what she was, but because of God’s divine grace and Mary’s human “yes.”

The mystery of the incarnation began with Mary’s “yes,” but it does not stop there; it rushes forward throughout all time and into every place where the gospel is proclaimed and the proclamation is received. Each of us is called by God to incarnate Jesus Christ, to unite our humanity with his divinity, to be flesh and blood sons and daughters of God in this world of ours.

26[For] in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:26-28, NRSV).

We are called to be Theotokoi – God-bearers – not as Mary was, but no less than Mary was. We are called to be Sweet Kissing icons of the incarnation with heads bowed in humility; eyes not haughty, but downcast, gazes averted; hands and hearts and lives directing attention, adoration, worship toward the son of Mary and the Son of God. We are called to pray and sing and proclaim Magnificat: our souls magnify the Lord, for he has done great things for us. We, too, are called by God to be blessed throughout all generations, unto the ages of ages. Let the words of Mary – Theotokos and matēr theou – become our words: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sermon: 3 Advent (14 December 2008)

Sermon: 3 Advent (14 December 2008)
(Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11/Psalm 126/1 Thessalonians 5:16-24/John 1:6-8, 19-28)
A Certain Style

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

He comes fresh from his first preaching tour of Galilee. Following hard on the heels of his baptism and victory over Satan in the wilderness, the tour was wildly successful; his reputation as rabbi and wonder-worker has spread throughout the region and now precedes him from village to village. And now he comes home to Nazareth. It is the sabbath and, as is his custom, he attends the synagogue; but, he attends now as a celebrity, as a hometown boy made good. Jesus is asked to read Torah and speak to family and family friends that day. Luke takes up the story.

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ (Luke 4:16-20, NRSV).

The text chosen by Jesus that day – or perhaps the text chosen for Jesus that day – is a portion of the Old Testament lesson chosen for us this day: Isaiah 61, in which the prophet looks to the future and sees an anointed one, a messiah, sent by God to bring good news to his people, to announce Jubilee, to heal what is broken, to release what is bound, to open blind eyes and deaf ears, to dry tears and to comfort mourning hearts. How many times has this passage been read in the little synagogue in Nazareth? How many years have the people longed for the one to come, for the anointed one? “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus says. Today, your wait is over. The one speaking in the midst of you is the anointed of God, the Holy One of Israel.

Sitting in that little synagogue in Nazareth that sabbath morning Jesus is absolutely certain of his identity and his vocation; he knows who he is and what he is called to accomplish. Throughout his ministry others get confused and try – sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally – to redefine Jesus or to substitute their agenda for his. Satan in the wilderness: “If you are the son of God.” Jesus’ mother at the wedding in Cana of Galilee: “They are out of wine.” The Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar: “I see that you are a prophet.” The multitudes everywhere: “Feed us bread as you fed the thousands.” The scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees in Judea: “Give us a sign.” And Peter, time after time and place after place: “Surely, Lord, this shall never happen to you,” or “Surely, Lord you shall never wash my feet.” Well, no matter the others: Jesus was absolutely certain of his identity and his vocation. They came from his Father, through the words of the holy prophets.

This is important, I think. Jesus did not define himself; he was no self-made man in that sense. His nature and vocation were determined by his God and Father. “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38, NIV), Jesus said to the crowds. And to the Father, at his moment of greatest trial, “Yet, not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39b, NIV).

Because Jesus allowed God to define his nature and determine his vocation, Jesus’ life had a certain – and here I’ve struggled to find the right words – his life had a certain style or character to it – a flavor or aroma, in sensual terms – seldom experienced in his time or in ours. You see it in the unwavering trust he had in his God and Father and the resulting lack of worry. Read the Sermon on the Mount again; it is a manifesto of trust.

25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today’ (Mt 6:25-34, NRSV).

Or again,

7 ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him’ (Mt 7:7-11, NRSV)!

Because Jesus allowed God to define his nature and determine his vocation, Jesus lived carefree in the care of God (from Luke 22:24, Message) – total trust in the Father, total rejection of worry – and he wanted the same for his disciples.

You see the style and character of Jesus’ life in his leisurely attitude toward ministry. Did anyone ever have so much to accomplish in so short a time? And yet, Jesus never seems hurried. Do you remember Jesus’ reputation among his detractors? They declare him a glutton and a wine-bibber – isn’t that an interesting phrase – because of the significant amount of time he spends at banquets and parties, time spent largely in the presence of notorious sinners. And though his disciples think he is too important and his time too valuable to waste on children, Jesus – on more than one occasion – holds children up as model disciples and takes time to touch and bless them. He spends quiet evenings with friends and disciples in Bethany at the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus – and this during his last week of earthly ministry. He travels extensively, walking throughout Galilee and Judea, but there is no record of him running or rushing from place to place. Because Jesus allowed God to define his nature and determine his vocation, Jesus knew that ministry was not what you did in another place and another time, but what you do right here and right now. Wherever he was, Jesus was Isaiah’s anointed one, bringing good news to the poor and proclaiming release to the captive. Wherever he was, that was the very center of God’s will. Larry Huntsperger, in his novel of St. Peter – The Fisherman – has Peter voice this description of Jesus’ ministry.

His approach to Israel was simple: He stepped into the center of our world. Through his words and his actions he enabled everyone to see exactly who he was and what he was like. Then he allowed us to decide for ourselves what we would do about it.

Jesus could allow everyone to see exactly who he was and what he was like because he knew exactly who he was, because he allowed God to define his nature and determine his vocation.

There is so much more. We could speak of Jesus’ integrity – never the hypocrite, always true to his nature. We could speak of his authority, which even his detractors grudgingly acknowledged. We could speak of his power. But all these – everything Jesus demonstrated himself to be – hinged on this one thing: Jesus allowed God to define his nature and determine his vocation.

It was the same with John the Baptizer. He wasn’t his own man; he was a man under authority, a man defined by God’s will. And because of this, he knew exactly who he was and what he was to accomplish.

1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
1:19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?"
1:20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah."
1:21 And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No."
1:22 Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?"
1:23 He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said (John 1:6-8, 19-23, NRSV).

Who are you? the authorities want to know, and John can tell them. Here is a man absolutely certain of his identity and vocation. They came from God Almighty, through the words of one, old priest, and the words of the holy prophets.

76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins (Luke 1, 76-77, NRSV).

Zechariah made certain John knew who he was and what he was about – and that he knew these things came from God.

Because John allowed God to define his nature and determine his vocation, John’s life had a certain style or character to it – a flavor or aroma, in sensual terms – seldom experienced in his time or in ours. You see it in his willingness to be just a voice – not a complete person even, just a voice – a voice speaking a script not even its own. You see it in his willingness to fade away, to decrease so that the bridegroom might increase. You see it in his refusal to be silent when being silent was the safe thing to do, the expedient thing to do, but not the righteous thing to do. There is so much more. We could speak of John’s impartiality – his willingness to accept the pious Jewish Pharisees and the pagan Roman soldiers on, and only on, the same condition of repentance. We could speak of his humility when contemplating Christ and especially on meeting Jesus: “I should be baptized by you, and you come to me?” We could speak of discipline and asceticism, of time alone in the wilderness and the life-long nazirite vow. But all these – everything John demonstrated himself to be – hinged on this one thing: John allowed God to define his nature and determine his vocation.

This really makes all the difference in this world and the next, doesn’t it? Thoreau once said that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and my experience doesn’t lead me to challenge him. We wake in the morning and drag ourselves out of bed to do something that someone else says is important – or even that we think is worthwhile – something to pay the bills, something to fund a retirement account that will allow us one day to do something we really want to do. And we wonder what that will be. If we could do anything with our lives we wanted, what would we do? How many of us can even answer that question without much soul searching? We move through the day largely on autopilot, mindlessly doing tasks that can be done mindlessly or else so caught up in the challenging tasks at hand that we don’t have time to breath or think or reflect. We wear ourselves out and wear ourselves down in the service and name of – what? At night we eat a meal – or grab a bite – scarcely pausing to think of the holiness of the bread we have received. We fill a couple of hours with – well, we fill a couple of hours – and then drop into bed, wondering what’s become of our days and our lives.

Admittedly, this is an overly dismal picture; our days aren’t really so bad – they are punctuated with excitement and meaning and joy and love. But not many of us – at least not many of us from my experience – lead lives of style and character like Jesus and John the Baptizer. And why not? Because we are still holding on, still trying to define ourselves and determine our own vocation. We, too, can have lives like Jesus and John; but, there is a price to be paid. We must relinquish hold of our lives. We must let God, and God alone, define our nature and determine our vocation: tell us who we are and what we are to accomplish.

“See what love the Father has given us,” St. John writes,

that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now (emphasis added); what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure (1 John 3:1-3, NRSV).

Start here, start now, with the knowledge that God declares you to be his beloved child in Christ Jesus. The world may – the world almost certainly will – tell you otherwise to suit its agenda. No matter: we are determined to let God, and God alone, define our nature, and he calls us sons and daughters.

And what of our vocation? Paul gets us started – those of us in Christ Jesus.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (emphasis added). Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:16-23, NRSV).

Start here, start now, with the knowledge that God has called you to a holy vocation: to rejoice, to pray, to give thanks, to embrace the good and reject the evil. The world may – the world almost certainly will – tell you otherwise to suit its agenda. No matter: we are determined to let God, and God alone, define our vocation, and he calls us to holy work, to kingdom work, to work of eternal value. Not some of us, but all of us. Not somewhere else, but anywhere we are.

If we are resolute in this commitment to let God define our nature and determine our vocation then we have this blessing and this promise:

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, NRSV).


Friday, December 5, 2008

Sermon: 2 Advent 2008

Sermon: 2 Advent (7 December 2008)
(Isaiah 40:1-11/Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13/2Peter 3:8-15a/Mark 1:1-8)
The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

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

Among the four canonical gospels, Mark was written very early – possibly as early as 55 A.D. and almost certainly before 70 A.D. Modern scholarship places it first; church tradition locates it second behind Matthew. Either way, Mark was among the earliest written records of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Being first, or even second, places an extra responsibility and burden upon an author. First sets the standard for and perhaps the direction of those to follow. I imagine this was a daunting task for Mark – to pen for the church, local and beyond, and for posterity, an authoritative record of Jesus: to research, compile, edit, and organize the various stories about Jesus and teachings of Jesus into a coherent narrative. There were many choices to be made: thematic arrangement or chronological, historical record or theological, Jewish readership or gentile – where even to begin?

Having made his choices, Mark sits with pen and parchment – himself the pen and parchment of the Holy Spirit – and writes.

Arch­­ē tou euangeliou Iēsou Christou huiou theou: the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God.

This opening is masterful; Mark stands astride two worlds – two cultures – and proclaims the good news of Jesus to the Greeks, i.e., to the gentile Roman Empire, and to the Jews. Mark begins with the euangelion, which is typically translated as gospel or good news. And, while these are good translations, they miss the powerful connotations of the word that Mark’s readers would instantly have recognized. Euangelion was the good news of a royal birth or a stunning military victory. Euangelion – the word might go out – the Emperor has a newborn son who will one day rule the empire. Or, Euangelion! Caesar has won the victory and brought peace and prosperity to the empire. For Mark’s audience – particularly for the gentiles – Euangelion was a political proclamation: hail to the emperor who brings us peace. But just here Mark co-opts the word and puts it to work in service of the faith. His, too, is a political proclamation – a proclamation of a new kind of politics, a new kind of emperor, and a new kind of victory.

Arch­­ē tou euangeliou Iēsou Christou huiou theou: the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God.

Euangelion – Mark proclaims – a son is born who will one day rule not just the empire, but all creation. A victory is even now being won – not in a clash of human armies – but a victory over sin and death, a victory which will finally ensure true and lasting peace, the reconciliation of man to God. Euangelion is a masterful way to begin the story.

But so, too, is Iēsou Christou – Jesus [the] Christ – words rich in meaning for Mark’s Jewish audience. They would hear these words not in Greek, but in Hebrew: Yeshua meshiach – savior, messiah. Whatever he may be to the gentiles – and that is yet to be fleshed out in Mark’s narrative – to the Jews, Mark proclaims Jesus as the liberator of Israel, the anointed one of God. This Jesus is the climax and embodiment of all that has come before: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the patriarchal covenants; Moses and the Law; Joshua and the promised land; David and the kingdom; Solomon and the temple; prophet after prophet and the call of God to repent; Sheshbazzar, Jeshua, Ezra, Nehemiah and the end of exile – particularly the end of exile. If the messiah is here, then surely the end of exile is at hand. Iēsou Christou is a masterful way to begin the story.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God, Mark writes: the proclamation of a royal birth – the birth of the Son of God who will rule all creation and bring everlasting peace; the birth of the anointed liberator who will fulfill covenant, law, and kingdom and end the exile of his people. And this is just the beginning of the gospel, Mark promises.

Then, as Mark writes, a voice breaks the four hundred year silence of God, the voice of God’s messenger, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” For those steeped in the Hebrew prophets, this voice comes as no surprise: hadn’t Isaiah foretold its coming?

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 40:1-5, NRSV).

Jerusalem has served her term of exile in Babylon and a voice is calling her forth – forth into the wilderness, forth into the desert. There God has prepared the way for her: leveled hills, filled in valleys, and made a highways for her to walk. There God himself will lead her.

See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep (Isaiah 40:10-11, NRSV).

This return from exile language is Exodus language; it harkens back to God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Exodus language: God delivering his people with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm from all that would enslave them, God leading his people into the desert and through the sea to freedom, God feeding his people on the bread of angels and sustaining them with water from the flint rock, God bringing his people into a good land – a land flowing with milk and honey. Euangelion, Mark proclaims: all this is happening again. Hear the voice of John the Baptizer, a voice emerging from the wilderness, through the water of the Jordan, into the land of promise. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he says. “One is coming,” he says, “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:7-8, NRSV). This is where it begins, Mark reminds us – the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Good news: the Lord of heaven and earth has come and Rome’s power is no more; he has won the victory over sin and death and has conquered the gates of hell. The messiah has ended the exile of Israel – and of all humanity – and has brought her forth through the wilderness, through the water, into an eternal habitation: the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Mark the Evangelist and John the Baptizer might well take their script from the psalmist:

Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps (Psalm 85:8-13, NRSV).

Yes, Mark knows just how to begin – two worlds, gentile and Jewish, captured in seven words (eleven in English, of course):

Arch­­ē tou euangeliou Iēsou Christou huiou theou: the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God.

Like Mark, we find ourselves astride two worlds – one apparently dying and one struggling to be born. Modernity, the world of our parents and their parents for generations past, made grandiose promises: unbounded progress through science, unlimited freedom through democracy, unparalleled prosperity through capitalism. Cast off the chains of ignorance, superstition, and religion in favor of objective truth; cast off the chains of church and state in favor of personal freedom; cast off the chains of mutual responsibility and community service in favor of personal gain and you will experience the true potential of humanity and find personal fulfillment. So we were told and so we believed. But modernity’s promises now ring a bit hollow, don’t they? Science has brought us much good for which we can and should be thankful. But it has also brought ethical dilemmas with which it cannot help us. Science can tell us what we can do, but not, it seems, what we should do. And, there are those nagging, unintended consequences of scientific and technical “progress”: pollution, weapons of mass destruction, environmental degradation, exhaustion of natural resources. Modernity promised progress, freedom, and prosperity and yet the last century produced two global wars, countless local ones, and genocide on an unrivaled scale; ideological slavery through communism, socialism, and fascism; and global redistributions of wealth that have impoverished the many for the sake of enriching the few. Terrorism, global economic collapse, pandemics, fossil fuel depletion: these are the step-children of modernity – not to mention the disintegration of family and community and the isolation of the individual. Is it any wonder that children are rejecting the values of their parents in favor of a postmodern worldview?

And yet, postmodernity, as it struggles to define itself, is presently a negative way seemingly devoid of much hope. It is far more interested in and capable of deconstructing the past than in constructing the future. It doubts modernity but does not tell us what, if anything, it trusts. It rejects objective truth but offers little beyond personal experience to replace it. Postmodernity shrinks the world to my truth, my experience, my story.

The present world is very much an advent world, a world waiting for something, longing for something: the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, son of God – though the world doesn’t recognize this as its need. The present world is very much an advent world, a world waiting for something, longing for something: the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” – though the world seems largely deaf to such a voice.

We stand astride these two cultures, modernity and postmodernity – cultures with a divide as large as the chasm between gentile and Jew – and we hear Jesus say,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, NRSV).

Like the apostles, like Mark, we have been commissioned to proclaim the good news. Like Mark, we must find the language that speaks to our world, to both cultures. Finding that language – using it as masterfully as Mark did – is among the greatest challenges facing the church.

My suspicion – and it is only my suspicion, which means it may be ignored safely – is that much of that language must be nonverbal: body language it’s often called, though in this case, body with a capital B. Body Language is the sights and sounds of the church, the Body of Christ, living out its love for God and neighbor in tangible ways both within the community of the faithful and beyond its confines. Body Language is the church filled with the Holy Spirit – unified in love and empowered beyond its own ability. Body Language is the church truly engaged in worship, focusing not on its own, self-centered “needs” but upon the glory of God – a church which exalts God in its midst. Body Language is the church truly committed to the fellowship of believers – to sharing all things in common, to ensuring that there are no poor in the body because all needs are met, to serving one another in humility, and to esteeming all others as greater than self. Body Language is the church on its knees in repentance, on its feet in prayer, on its way into a broken world caught between the old and the new and waiting for the proclamation of good news, waiting for a voice crying out in the wilderness.

Body Language is the church living as redeemed people restored in the image of God and making that image visible in the world. Body Language is Christian artists – poets, painters, composers – bringing God’s beauty into the world; Christian teachers engaging students in a search for truth, knowing that truth always points toward the One who is the truth; Christian lawyers fighting for justice – God’s justice that only comes when the world is put to rights; Christian laborers who work not just for a paycheck, but as unto God; Christian parents who raise the next generation to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with the Lord. Body Language is the church touching the untouchables of our society with the love of God; offering forgiveness and healing to the sin-sick and broken among us; sharing blessings with those left behind by the distorted economic priorities of our world. Body Language is the church rejecting the unholy trinity of power, sex, and wealth and embracing instead the values of service, love, and gospel poverty. Body Language is the church being the church. Body Language is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, son of God. Body Language is the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

When the church learns to speak this language without stammering, then our words, too, will be heard by this advent world. And that will be,

Arch­­ē tou euangeliou Iēsou Christou huiou theou: the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God.