Saturday, December 26, 2009

Silent Years

Sermon: 1 Christmas (27 December 2009)
(1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26/Psalm 148/Colossians 3:12-17/Luke 2:41-52)
Silent Years

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

The Gospel lesson seems to me a strange choice for the first Sunday of Christmas. I expect “wise men and shepherds and angels and all,[1]” and instead we’ve skipped twelve years into the future – so much for the twelve days of Christmas – we’ve skipped twelve years into the future to join the adolescent Jesus at the temple for the Passover celebration. It’s a good story and a good introduction to the story that follows, even if it’s not very “Christmassy.” It’s full of “incidents and accidents, hints and allegations;[2]” there are poignant moments and moments filled with irony. There is human interest and deep theology.

We learn that Mary and Joseph are observant Jews – no surprise, that – who fulfill their obligations to celebrate the Passover at the temple each year. That’s no small thing. It is some 60 miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem as the crow flies, maybe an 8-day roundtrip plus time spent in Jerusalem – significant in terms of time and effort and cost. But this surely impresses on young Jesus the centrality of the Passover in Jewish faith and life; God delivers through sacrifice. Does Luke intend us to look ahead to Jesus’ last meal with his disciples – a Passover meal in which Jesus truly becomes the Passover lamb who takes away the sin of the world? “Alleluia. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us,” we say in the liturgy. “Therefore, let us keep the feast. Alleluia.”

We see Jesus in the temple surrounded by teachers – rabbis, scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees? – holding his own in the theological give-and-take, astonishing his elders with the depth of his knowledge and with the perceptive nature of his questions. “If only this boy weren’t from Nazareth – Can anything good come from Nazareth? – if only he could get some real training, he might be a great rabbi one day,” they may have thought. Does Luke want us to see Jesus in some of these rabbis’ synagogues some twenty years hence confounding them still with his wisdom while he infuriates them with his generous and compassionate interpretation of the Law: healing on the Sabbath, feasting with tax collectors and sinners?

We hear Jesus acknowledge his true paternity when he speaks of his Father’s house or his Father’s business. Does Luke want us to remember this moment as we later hear Jesus’ last words from the cross? “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

And, finally, we see Jesus return home to Nazareth, where he remains subject to his parents, where he grows in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men. It is a good story and a good introduction to the story that follows, even if it’s not very “Christmassy.”

This good story reminds us that most of Jesus’ life is shrouded in silence. We know a good deal about his nativity, but the next 30 years or so are blank except for two incidents: the flight to Egypt and this episode in the temple. Obviously, we don’t need to know about these years, but I certainly would like to. By the time we see Jesus again, he’s turning water into wine, casting out demons, healing the sick and raising the dead, calming storms and walking on water, cleansing the temple and forgiving sins – all “God stuff.” I would like to see the “human stuff” of those silent years: Jesus at home, Jesus at school, Jesus at synagogue, Jesus at work – Jesus where I live my life.

We know Joseph and Mary made some dumb mistakes as parents. I wonder if Jesus rolled his eyes in exasperation. We know there must have been bullies in Nazareth – they’re everywhere – and that, with some scandal surrounding his birth anyway, Jesus was a likely target for their taunts. Did he always turn the cheek – even as a child – or did he once or twice bloody a nose? And girls – surely there were young village girls whose fathers were looking for prospective husbands. Did Jesus ever have his eye on anyone special? Jesus learned a trade – work with wood and stone. He must have rammed a splinter deep in his hand or pounded his thumb with a hammer a few times. I know how I react to such things, but how did he? And as a craftsman, he dealt with the public, with customers. Surely some of them complained about his work: quality or cost or schedule. I imagine that, from time to time, a customer refused to pay. Did Jesus re-do work or forgive debt, even when it meant loss of income for his family? His family was probably poor. Did Jesus ever worry about finances, about dowries for his sisters or about what would happen to the family when he left to begin his public ministry? We don’t need to know any of this, but I would like to know precisely because this is where I live. I don’t turn water into wine or raise the dead, but I do turn time and effort into money and I do raise a daughter. These silent years are precisely the years of my life. We do know, of course, that during these years Jesus was tempted in all points like we are, yet was without sin. What we don’t know is exactly what that looked like.

But I am convinced of this: Jesus’ silent years were not different in character or substance from his years of public ministry. Signs – what we call “miracles” – may have begun with his baptism. Crowds may have grown, popularity may have increased – along with opposition – but Jesus himself and the essence of his life among us remained constant throughout. What he was during his public ministry is exactly what he was in his private life – in all his life, which was a seamless whole and not divided into secular and religious. All of life is ministry and all of ministry is life.

So, while we may not know the detailed events of the silent years, we do know their character – Jesus’ character – a character summarized in this day’s epistle lesson.

12 Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. 14 But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. 15 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. 17 And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him (Col 3:12-17, NKJV).

Hear this text first as a description of the character of Jesus – the Elect (the anointed) of God, the Holy One, the Beloved One – the character of the Jesus of the silent years. This Jesus lived in a family with struggling parents, with sibling rivalry, with all the good and bad of all families. How often he must have shown tender mercies, how often kindness. This Jesus was mocked and taunted by his brothers – James and Jude included? – before his resurrection (cf John 7:1-5). How often he must have borne with them and forgiven them. “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Peter once asked Jesus. Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (cf Matt 18:21-22, NKJV). How often he must have done this during the silent years. This Jesus was a member of a community[3]. This Jesus worked for a living. This Jesus had a life, which means he had ample opportunity to practice love, the bond of perfection. This Jesus knew what lay ahead – not least through singing the Psalms and reading the Prophets.

From the Psalms:
1 My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, And from the words of My groaning? 2 O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear; And in the night season, and am not silent.
14 I am poured out like water, And all My bones are out of joint; My heart is like wax; It has melted within Me. 15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd, And My tongue clings to My jaws; You have brought Me to the dust of death. 16 For dogs have surrounded Me; The congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me. They pierced My hands and My feet; 17 I can count all My bones. They look and stare at Me. 18 They divide My garments among them, And for My clothing they cast lots (Ps 22, NKJV).

And from the Prophets:
3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. 6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Is 53, NKJV).

How often Jesus must have sought and practiced the peace of God in his heart when confronted with these hard truths. And this Jesus, throughout the silent years, gave thanks to God his Father in all things. This is the character of the Jesus of the silent years.

But this Epistle text really was not written to describe Jesus – though it does so beautifully. It was written to instruct and encourage the disciples of Jesus, those of us who live each day like Jesus lived in his silent years: in a family, in a community, in school and work, in the church and in the world, in joy and sorrow, in victory and defeat – in all the details of a life.

So, now hear the text as written to us. It starts by calling us the elect of God, holy and beloved. And this is essential; only if we are convinced of this – convinced that we are chosen, holy, and loved by God – can we dare live as Jesus lived: because we are called to put on tender mercies, to show kindness, to practice meekness and patience, to bear with one another, to forgive one another – and we know that when Jesus did this he wound up on a cross. We fear we will, too. This is an intrusive word from God, made palatable and possible only when we are convinced that God has chosen us to make us holy, only when we are convinced beyond all doubt that God loves us beyond all measure.

All that’s the Sunday news. One of the reasons we meet together as the church is to hear that news: read and sung and prayed and eaten. We need that because Monday comes all too soon. The alarm rings too early. There’s too much to do. We hit the ground running and we’re already behind. We get to work and our boss is…well, our boss is our boss, right or wrong, reasonable or unreasonable. Or maybe it’s school and a teacher is frustrated and prickly and is short with the class. You can imagine your own scenario because you experience it day after day.

You have to stop by the store on the way home from work and a surly teenager with hands on hips and obvious eye roll grudgingly mans the register. And after that, on the way home, you get cut off in traffic with blaring horns. When you finally make it home – that warm, safe haven in the storm of life – no one seems to notice that you’re there; they’ve each had their own Monday and they’re nursing their own wounds: parents, children, spouses, in-laws – blessing and non-blessing one another. And then God says to us: “12 Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. 14 But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.” Not what we want to hear, but what we need to hear, because this was the character of Jesus of the silent years and of the ministry years and of all years unto the ages of ages. And this is the character that God wants to birth and grow in us.

And Monday is not the only problem we face; even Sunday has its share of challenges. As the body of Christ, we so often fail to be the body of Christ to one another. We disappoint and hurt our brothers and sisters; we questions motives and we nurse grudges. We turn inward when we should be expansive in our self-giving. We speak the truth in love, when really it’s our agenda we speak with self-interest. Is there a Christian around who hasn’t been both deeply healed and deeply wounded by the church? And then God says to us: “15 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. 17 And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” Let peace rule. Be thankful for one another. Worship the Lord together. If you can’t do it in the name of the Lord, don’t do it. And if it needs to be done in the name of the Lord, do it. Not what we want to hear, but what we need to hear, because this was the character of Jesus of the silent years and of the ministry years and of all years unto the ages of ages. And this is the character that God wants to birth and grow in us.

These are the lessons of the silent years – maybe not very “Christmassy,” but good lessons.

[1] I Wonder As I Wander, traditional.
[2] You Can Call Me Al, Paul Simon.
[3] Recent archaeological discoveries indicate that Nazareth consisted of about 50 family dwellings on 4 acres of land.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Homily: Eve of the Nativity (24 December 2009)

Diamonds and the Incarnation

If we had a diamond with us this night, no words of mine could add to its luster. It would be enough to set it in our midst and to shine the light upon it; then its brilliance and beauty would be revealed for all to see. The incarnation is such a gem; no words of mine can possibly increase its worth. It is enough to set it in our midst and shine the light upon it. This we have done by listening to the ancient words of the prophets, by singing the angelic Gloria with all the company of heaven, by bending the adoring knee with shepherds and magi, and soon by breaking the bread and lifting the cup with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

A beautiful diamond should not be admired for only a moment and then returned to a vault, unseen until its next, brief showing. It should be mounted in a ring and placed on a finger to adorn a hand with beauty. It should be worn with great joy every moment throughout a lifetime. And the incarnation should not be brought out and admired once every 25th of December and then returned to the vault of theology, unseen until next year. It should adorn the faithful with beauty and be worn with great joy every moment throughout a lifetime and beyond. Jesus did not become incarnate simply to show his luster and beauty, but to make us shine with his brilliance. Jesus put on our humanity that we might put on his divinity – ours by grace what is his by nature.

We must take the incarnation outward from this holy place into the dark recesses of this present age, take it and shine the light upon it so all may see its beauty. No words of ours are sufficient for the task, though they may sometimes be necessary. Instead, our lives are the gems we must lay before the world, lives illuminated by the reality of the incarnation we celebrate this night, lives made brilliant by the indwelling presence of the One who came among us. This night, this pure night, may Christ be incarnate once again: in you, in me, in all the faithful – on this pure night, as Saint Ephraim (Ephrem) the Syrian wrote in his nativity sermon.

Pure is the present night, in which the Pure One appeared, Who came to purify us! Let our hearing be pure, and the sight of our eyes chaste, and the feeling of the heart holy, and the speech of the mouth sincere!

The present night is the night of reconciliation; therefore, let no one be wroth against his brother and offend him!

This night gave peace to the whole world, and so, let no one threaten. This is the night of the Most Meek One; let no one be cruel!

This is the night of the Humble One; let no one be proud!

Now is the day of joy; let us not take revenge for offences! Now is the day of good will; let us not be harsh. On this day of tranquility, let us not become agitated by anger!

Today God came unto sinners; let not the righteous exalt himself over sinners!

Today the Most Rich One became poor for our sake; let the rich man invite the poor to his table!

Today we received a gift which we did not ask for; let us bestow alms to those who cry out to us and beg!

The present day has opened the door of heaven to our prayers; let us also open our door to those who ask of us forgiveness!

Today the Godhead placed upon Himself the seal of humanity, and humanity has been adorned with the seal of the Godhead!

Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace to men of goodwill! May your celebration of the nativity be truly blessed with the presence of the Incarnate One. Amen.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Details: 4 Advent 2009

Sermon: 4 Advent (20 December 2009)
(Micah 5:2-5a/Luke 1:46b-55/Hebrews 10:5-10/Luke 1:39-45)

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

Little details of the big story of Advent: that’s our focus today. Advent is such an epic tale, spanning centuries and nations, spanning eternity and heaven and earth, that little – yet rich and meaningful – details easily might go unnoticed or unmentioned unless we keep our eyes focused and our ears attuned to the small scale as well as to the large. So, today we look at the story writ small. It is sometimes said that the devil is in the details. But I think God is there.

In the Second Song of Isaiah we read these true words:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, *
nor your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, *
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts (BCP 14).

If there is a unifying theme to these little details of Advent it is precisely this: that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor God’s ways our ways.

St. Luke has been and is our guide for this Advent, which is a good thing since he is a keen observer of detail. He prides himself on it, as he make clear in the prologue to his two-volume history, the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed (Luke 1:1-5, NRSV).

We saw Luke’s attention to detail in the Gospel reading last Sunday when he introduced the ministry of St. John the Forerunner.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness (Luke 3:1-2, NRSV).

Luke gives us a detailed accounting of time, after the fashion of his day; this is Luke the historian at work. A new ruler comes to power and the calendar resets and future events are measured from the beginning of his reign. Luke is thorough here; he mentions the powers-that-be at almost every level: Tiberius, ruler of the world; Pontius Pilate, his governor over Judea; Herod, the Idumean puppet-king of Galilee, and his co-regents Philip and Lysanias; Annas and Caiphas, the religious authorities in Jerusalem. Time and power are inseparable in this accounting. Time is a measure of power.

Now, let’s go back in the story of Advent some three decades to watch Luke address another measure of time. This time it’s not Luke the historian, but Luke the theologian.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to 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).

In the sixth month: that’s all Luke writes to specify time – nothing about Caesar, nothing about Herod, nothing at all about any of the powers-that-were at the time. In the sixth month. What does this mean: in the sixth month of what, or in the sixth month since what? Since you know the big story, you know this detail: in the sixth month since the angel Gabriel announced to Zechariah that his barren, old wife would conceive and bear a son and that her son would be the forerunner, the herald, of God’s messiah. Now this is a different way to measure time: not from the ascension of a new world power like Caesar, but from the exaltation of a faithful old couple and from the in-breaking of God into human history.

God’s sense of time is not like ours. We operate in chronos time – the ordinary sequence of events that marks the passing of our seconds and minutes and hours and days until our time runs out. God operates on kairos time – the right season, the fullness of the times, the sudden interruption of chronos with an advent, a coming, of God into our midst. Luke the historian marks time from the beginning of Caesar’s rule – the fifteenth year of Tiberius – marks time based on human power. Luke the theologian marks time from the appearance of an angel, from the answer of prayer – the sixth month – marks time based on human weakness and God’s power.

This detail of Advent – this difference in God’s way of marking time – is a challenge to us: find God’s time – kairos – in the midst of the pressing rush of world time – chronos. Do you sometimes feel powerless, sometimes old and barren? That’s just chronos ticking away, of no consequence whatsoever. Look for God’s moment, God’s season – look for in-breaking kairos – in the midst of this. Look for Advent. God still answers prayer. God still sends angels – of all sorts – with his good news. God still prepares the way for his coming – and he is always on the move, always coming to us. Tell time not as a historian, but as a theologian. Look for God in your seconds and minutes and hours and days and lives.

A demon disguised as an angel of light came to one of the desert monks. “I am Gabriel,” the demon greeted him, “and I have been sent to you by God.” The old monk scarcely interrupted his prayers as he replied, “You must have the wrong person. I’ve done nothing to deserve a visit from an angel.” Immediately the demon disappeared.

Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”

But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was (Luke 1:26-26, NRSV).

These two stories aren’t so different, are they – except, of course, that it really was Gabriel who appeared to Mary? She is troubled by the angel’s greeting: highly favored one, blessed among women. Mary knows that, in the society of her day, she is ordinary, at best; she even describes her state as lowly, describes herself as a maidservant. And it would be difficult to imagine anyone apparently more powerless than Mary. But, a detail in the story changes all that. Unlike the desert monk Mary doesn’t say to Gabriel, “You must have the wrong person.” She says instead, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” Then Gabriel departs, having received the assent, the faithful yes, of this ordinary woman who has become the most blessed among women. “Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord,” Elizabeth tells her just a bit later.

This is the detail in the story, this one phrase: “Let it be to me according to your word.” When in God’s time – in kairos – it was time to step into history in the person of his only begotten son, when it was time to redeem the world, when it was time to put all things to rights again, God didn’t seek the help of the high and mighty or the rich and powerful. God sought only the “yes,” the faithfulness of one powerless young woman, the complete surrender of herself to the will of God. And that simple “yes” changed the world.

God’s sense of power is not like ours. I recently heard Barak Obama described as the most powerful man in the world. Really? By whose estimation and by what token? Was Caesar really the most powerful man in the world the day Gabriel appeared to Mary? Did he really hold in his hands the future of the world? Or was this lowly maidservant, this peasant woman more powerful in that moment than all the emperors Rome would ever know? The essence of human power lies in the simple, faithful yes to the will of God spoken by a lowly servant of God.

This detail of Advent – this difference in God’s sense of power – is a challenge to us: say yes to the will God. Though it may disrupt your plans, though a sword may pierce your heart, say yes to the will of God and release his incarnate power in your life and in the life of the world. True power lies in this small detail: in saying yes to God.

After she says yes, after she gives flesh to God, after she is hailed by Elizabeth as the mother of the Lord, Mary sings.

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 (BCP 19-20).

I’m neither an English teacher nor a Greek scholar – barely competent in only one of those languages, really – but I do find a striking detail of language in Mary’s Magnificat. It’s all there in the verb tense. Consider first the context of Mary’s song. Gabriel has spoken the word of God to Mary and Mary has conceived the Word of God in her womb. She hurries to see her kinswoman, Elizabeth, to make certainly all this is real; she needs to see the swelled belly of this old, barren woman. Upon her arrival Elizabeth greets her much as Gabriel had earlier: 42 Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. 45 Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord” (Luke 1:42-45). Then Mary is sure. Then Mary sings.

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.

All these verbs show past action. Mary is singing about what God has already accomplished through the proclamation and fulfillment of the incarnation. Outwardly, nothing in Mary’s life has changed. The proud still disregard her lowly estate. The mighty – Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Annas and Caiaphas – still wield power. Dives still feasts while Lazarus begs. Israel is still in exile under Roman occupation. Or so it seems to everyone but Mary, for she has been shown the new reality that God has spoken into being – which brings us round again to the final words of Isaiah’s Second Song:

For as rain and snow fall from the heavens *
and return not again, but water the earth,
Bringing forth life and giving growth, *
seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is my word that goes forth from my mouth; *
it will not return to me empty;
But it will accomplish that which I have purposed, *
and prosper in that for which I sent it (BCP 15).

The proud, the mighty, the rich, the oppressors: these do not create reality; God speaks reality into being. From the moment the words go forth from God’s mouth they are a fait accompli – a thing accomplished and irreversible. So what if our eyes do not yet see God’s reality; that is what faith is for. So what if our ears do not hear God’s new reality; that is what singing is for. So what if pride and might and wealth still seem to matter; that is what the incarnation is for. It’s all there in the details of the language – a new reality, a new creation, already spoken into existence by God Almighty, already “fleshed-out” in the incarnation.

This detail of Advent – this subtle use of language and the light it sheds upon reality – is a challenge to us: live by faith and not by sight. Confront every oppressive power in your life and in the life of the world with the good news that God has spoken a new reality into being, a new reality in which Jesus – the Word incarnate – is Lord, a new reality in which the Kingdom of God is among us even now and will one day be apparent to all.

These are just details of course, but what details.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Coming and Going

Sermon: 3 Advent (13 December 2009)
(Zeph 3:14-20/Is 12:2-6/Phil 4:4-7/Luke 3:7-18)
Coming and Going

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

Following are the sermon notes for 3 Advent and not the full text. I hope
they are sufficient to point you in the same direction we will travel that day,
and I pray that the direction is a fruitful one for us all. May God grant
you a blessed Advent as you prepare the way for his coming.

Advent God and Advent Faith
Advent is a good name for the first season in the church year; it is a good description of our God and of our faith: Advent – coming. Our God is always on the move, always coming to us where we are. The notion that our God is distant and remote, that God is uninvolved and “stand-offish,” is strictly a non-Christian notion; that is neither our God nor our faith. Our God is always on the move, always coming to us where we are. Our God steps into history. Our God steps into creation as both Creator and – through the incarnation – part of creation. Our God is not afraid to get his hands dirty in the muck and mire of messy humanity. Our God is always on the move, always coming to us where we are – more often than not coming to us to rescue us from the mess we have made of things. We stand on the brink of the abyss of nonbeing (Athanasius, On the Incarnation), and our God comes to us there, comes to us to rescue us.

When our God comes to us, he comes to take us somewhere with him. Advent is both “coming and going.” God comes to us; we go with God. That is the consistent story that Scripture tells.

Abram in Ur of the Chaldees
Jacob in Haran;
Joseph in Egypt
Moses in Midian
Israel in Egypt
Israel in Assyria
Judah in Babylon

Our God is always on the move, coming to us where we are and taking us somewhere with him.

Where does God take us? God comes to us in our exile to lead us back to our true home; he comes to lead us back to himself. See Zephaniah 3:14-20 and Isaiah 12:2-6. Both are return-from-exile prophecies; God comes to us to take us home, to claim us again as his own. Advent is salvation: God on the move, God coming to us where we are in our exile and taking us with him to be with him.

All this coming and going is God’s initiative and not our own. But, we do have our own role to play in Advent. Coming and going requires having a road to travel. It is our Advent role to prepare the road. See Luke 3:1-6. The road by which God travels to come to us is filled with deep valleys, high mountains, crooked stretches, and rough ways. It is the path to our heart and we have failed to maintain it; so, there is much work to be done. This is where the Advent story becomes our story; we have a road to prepare into our hearts and lives, so that God might come to us where we are and take us to be with him.

What must we do to prepare the way for the Lord? What work is required?

Repentance (metanoia) – not just sorrow and not guilt, but a work that transforms our perception, a fundamental realignment to God’s truth and presence. Metanoia is work – hard work; it is the product of prayer, fasting, and obedience. It is a lifelong commitment.

Humility –“ God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pe 5:5). The falls of both Satan and man were caused by pride. Of all Advent virtues, the desert fathers valued humility most highly. See “It All Boils Down To This.” What is humility? See “Humility.” Pride is making yourself the subject of every thought sentence: “I want,” “I plan,” “I think,” “I will.” Humility is making yourself the object: “God wants for me,” “God’s plan for me,” “God reveals to me,” “God’s will for me.” Humility clears the biggest obstacle from the road: ourselves.

Joy – “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I will say rejoice” (Phil 4:4). Rejoicing is the proclamation that God is good, that we wish him to come to us, that we wish to go with him. See Ps 126. This is a perfect Advent psalm: God coming to us in our exile to take us home to be with him, along the way we have prepared through repentance, humility, and joy.

Let us pray.

Lord God Almighty, you come to us in grace, with power and great glory: Grant us true repentance, genuine humility, and abundant joy that we might make straight and level the path of you coming in the time of your advent; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Temple Tales: Sermon (2 Advent 2009)

Sermon: 2 Advent (6 December 2009)
(Malachi 3:1-4/Luke 1:68-79/Philippians 1:3-11/Luke 3:1-6)
Temple Tales

Let us give thanks to the Lord.
For he is good, and his mercy endures forever. Amen

Advent is the time for stories. I come today to offer three – temple tales, all.

First things first: the first temple tale of Solomon’s temple. Israel assembles in holy convocation before the Lord and before the newly completed temple in Jerusalem. In their hearing Solomon concludes his magnificent dedicatory prayer (2 Chr 6) with an invocation of God’s presence.

41 “Now therefore, arise, O LORD God, to Your resting place, You and the ark of Your strength. Let Your priests, O LORD God, be clothed with salvation, and let Your saints rejoice in goodness.
42 “O LORD God, do not turn away the face of Your Anointed; Remember the mercies of Your servant David” (2 Chr 6:41-42, NKJV).

And then God acts; God appears with power and great glory.

1 When Solomon had finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the LORD filled the temple.2 And the priests could not enter the house of the LORD, because the glory of the LORD had filled the LORD’s house. 3 When all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the LORD on the temple, they bowed their faces to the ground on the pavement, and worshiped and praised the LORD, saying: “For He is good, for His mercy endures forever.”4 Then the king and all the people offered sacrifices before the LORD (2 Chr 7:1-4).

The Shekinah Glory, later Jewish writers call it: the glory of God’s presence dwelling among his people in his temple, in the Holy of Holies, between the outstretched wings of the cherubim, over the ark of the covenant. And there it remains through the reign of Solomon, through the division of the kingdom in his son Rehoboam’s day, through the moral and social decay of successive generations in Judah until, as Ezekiel witnesses in a vision, the glory of the Lord departs from the threshold of the temple (Eze 10).

And then come the destroyers, the Babylonians. Someone who saw, or someone who heard, laments the destruction of the temple following the withdrawal of the Shekinah Glory (Ps 74).

O God, why have you utterly cast us off? *
why is your wrath so hot against the sheep of your pasture?

Remember your congregation that you purchased long ago, *
the tribe you redeemed to be your inheritance,
and Mount Zion where you dwell.

Turn your steps toward the endless ruins; *
the enemy has laid waste everything in your sanctuary.

Your adversaries roared in your holy place; *
they set up their banners as tokens of victory.

They were like men coming up with axes to a grove of trees; *
they broke down all your carved work with hatchets
and hammers.

They set fire to your holy place; *
they defiled the dwelling‑place of your Name
and razed it to the ground.

They said to themselves, “Let us destroy them altogether.” *
They burned down all the meeting‑places of God
in the land.

There are no signs for us to see;
there is no prophet left; *
there is not one among us who knows how long.

How long, O God, will the adversary scoff? *
will the enemy blaspheme your Name for ever
(Ps 74, BCP)?

It will be some forty years before the exiles return to worship God again on the temple mount – until a second temple tale can be told. Under the leadership of Zerubbabel the repatriated exiles lay the foundations for a second temple – lay the foundations and weep.

10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. 11 And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD: “For He is good, for His mercy endures forever toward Israel.”
Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off (Ezra 3:10-13, NKJV).

The old men who had seen the former glory of Solomon’s temple weep with sorrow and shame for their loss. Much is missing, as the tale of the temple’s completion makes clear by omission.

15 Now the temple was finished on the third day of the month of Adar, which was in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius. 16 Then the children of Israel, the priests and the Levites and the rest of the descendants of the captivity, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy. 17 And they offered sacrifices at the dedication of this house of God, one hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred lambs, and as a sin offering for all Israel twelve male goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel. 18 They assigned the priests to their divisions and the Levites to their divisions, over the service of God in Jerusalem, as it is written in the Book of Moses (Ezra 6:15-18, NKJV).

Where is the fire from heaven? Where is the Shekinah Glory? Neither is to be found. God does not come to dwell in his temple as he did of old; so our tradition teaches us.

A century later and the people are still waiting, still longing for the glory of God to come to his temple. The land is devastated with famine and drought; crops and flocks fail. Israel is under constant military threat from surrounding enemies. Survival is precarious. If only God would come to his temple, come to vindicate his people. And there arises in answer to the people’s longing a prophet – the last prophet – with a burden of the word of the Lord to Israel. “You want the Lord to return to his temple? You do not know what you ask. For when he returns, it will not be to vindicate Israel, but to judge Israel for its polluted offerings, its corrupt priests, its marital unfaithfulness, its perversion of justice (Mal 1-4). Yes, God will return as you wish:

But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like launderers’ soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer to the LORD an offering in righteousness” (Mal 3:2-3, NKJV).

The Shekinah Glory will return to the temple, but in judgment; God will come, but he will come to cleanse and to purify. And, before he comes, to warn and to prepare the people, he will send a messenger.

“Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts.

5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. 6 And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse” (Mal 3:1; 4:5-6, NKJV).

And thus we come to the third of our temple tales, to an old, childless priest offering incense before the Lord in Herod’s Temple. An angel of the Lord appears to him – Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God – and assures priest Zacharias that his prayers – his secret prayers for a son – have been heard and will be honored. And in the answer to this prayer lies the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy; the messenger of the Lord is coming, as Gabriel says:

“Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:13b-17, NKJV).

Some thirty years later this messenger, this Elijah, bursts on the scene calling Israel to repentance – calling Israel to be cleansed and purified – before the Lord returns to his temple.

And so the Lord comes to his temple once again – the Shekinah in flesh and blood.

14 And the 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. 15 John bore witness of Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before me.’” 16 And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace (John 1:14-16, NKJV).

The glory of God in the face of Christ comes to his temple: as a baby received by righteous Anna and holy Simeon, as a teacher rejected by Pharisee and Sadducee, as a savior crucified by all men. He comes just as Malachi foretold – to cleanse and to purify, with fuller’s soap and refiner’s fire: to cleanse and to purify not by judging sinners such as we, but by judging sin itself, in his own body, by embracing sin to the death and by rising again victorious. Such is the third temple tale.

And though I promised only three tales, there is a fourth which must be told. For there is yet another temple.

Throughout Advent we say or sing in one form or another, “Come, Lord Jesus,” or “Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Come, return to your temple; shine the light of your glory upon us. As we speak or sing these words we look to the past, to the first Advent: to dreams and prophecies, to angels and promises, to stable and manger, to a child in Bethlehem, to hidden glory in flesh and blood. As we speak or sing these words we look to the future, to the final Advent: to white horses and white thrones, to books and scrolls, to the Lamb who was slain coming in power and great glory to judge and to vindicate. But, surely, as we speak or sing these words we look also to the present; we look for a present Advent: “Come, Lord Jesus, to the temple of our hearts and lives. Come to cleanse us. Come to purify us. Come to make us fit dwellings for your presence.” Surely, as we speak or sing these words, we hear the voice of Malachi’s messenger Elijah – John, son of Zacharias and Elizabeth – call to us all, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand,” and the glory of the Lord is even now returning to his temple. And remembering these temple tales, we offer a most fitting Advent prayer:

O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth,
Who art everywhere present and fillest all things,
Treasury of good things and Giver of life:
Come and dwell in us, and cleanse us of all impurity,
and save our souls, O Good One.