Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christmas 2010.

Christmas 2010.  24, 25 December 2010.

The Rev. Alexander D. MacPhail

This sermon is offered to the Glory of God

and in loving memory of Susan Poindexter Massie.


          I want to begin by welcoming you all to this feast, especially those of you who may be new to this church, or who are visiting with family or friends.  You are very welcome here, and I hope that you will feel very comfortable coming forward to receive the Holy Eucharist later on.


          It may be seem strange, but it isn't easy to preach on Christmas.  It isn't easy to put words together.  This is a "blessed event," as the old expression goes.  But more than that, it's the most blessed event. 


          People want to hold the baby.  If you wash your hands and ask nicely, quite often the mother will let you.  When that baby comes into your arms, it changes everything about you.  You'll notice how small and frail babies are when they are newly born.  Their eyes are still adjusting to the light.  They have no control over their faces.  They can't hold up their heads. 


          And if you hold that baby you will find yourself making little noises, shushing, rocking, singing, all sorts of behavior intended to communicate that the world is a safe place.  "Go ahead, little guy.  Open your eyes.  Look at my smile.  Smile back.  Look in my eyes.  Don't worry.  We're here for you."



          After we try to communicate those ideas—really more for our benefit than theirs—there will come a silence.  It's a sweet silence, but it can be a little awkward.  Here is this little life—just a couple hours old, human like us, same everything, just very very small.  And this experience brings so many emotions and thoughts together that they can get all tangled up, and we almost don't know what to think. 


          And that is why it is hard to preach about the birth of Jesus.  What can you really say when you hold the baby…who is God?  A silence comes over you.  An awestruck silence.  This is not the time to quibble over parables.  To eat loaves and fishes.  To journey from town to town and village to village.  He isn't even able to stay awake long enough to hear the end of a lullaby.  What can you say?  All you can do is look at him and love him.


          But tonight/today, you might have difficulty feeling full of affection for this little one.  It may be that too many other thoughts and feelings have intruded into your life.  It might be hard to clear your mind long enough to hold him in your arms. 


          The story of Christ's birth does not take place in elegance.  It takes place in a stable with animals.  …a struggling young family who can't get a room to spend the night…and then there are the shepherds.  Over the years, our Christmas cards have cleaned up the manure and the squalor, but that's what it was really like.  Christmas comes in the squalor, and in the need. 



          Some time ago I was sitting in church.  I do that from time to time.  You might try it.  Just come sometime and sit in church.  Look around at the windows and the pulpit.  Look up at the sanctuary lamp and remember that Christ is sacramentally present in this holy space.


          I sat in church, looking around at the space, and asking God on a level too deep for words, what I should say tonight/today.  And as I did, I heard this little voice say, "Daddy, I'm hungry."  It wasn't an audible voice, but I heard it echo in the little chapel of my heart.  


          I was reminded of a sermon I heard in which the preacher said that he was in a worship service where a young lady got up to speak, and she said just one sentence, but she said it each time in a different language.  Imagine it.  Just three words, said over and over in a different language, until finally—for the last time—she said it in English, and it was, "Mommy, I'm hungry."  Every language needs that sentence.  Mommy, I'm hungry.  Daddy, I'm hungry. 


          When my little boy was just learning to talk, he would come and ask for a snack with a specific request.  And it never got my attention to hear, "Daddy, can I have some pretzels?"  "Daddy, can I have a banana?"  But one day, he just said, "Daddy, I'm hungry."  And that was different. 


          There are a lot of people in our world who are hungry for food–so many people that if our minds could encompass the true amount of need, it would overwhelm our capacity to think about it. 

          One of my brother clergymen in town was telling me about a man who came to the church with his daughter, looking for food.  And the man said, "I have never in my life had to ask for food.  But we need food."


          God created us beautifully, but he created us with a need to be nourished.  Our bodies can store energy, which, in an emergency, will serve to keep us alive, but once those stores are depleted, we can die.  And many people, old and young, die everyday from hunger. 


          Of course, you can have lots of food and still be hungry.  If you are not physically hungry tonight, you might be hungry in other ways.  Jesus said, "Man does not live by bread alone."


          There is a hunger that you can have that you can live with for weeks, even months.  You can feel it, and at the same time, not feel it.  It's hard to describe.  It's a feeling of being alone, and a little scared, and not really sure what to do.  But because you can wake up and manage a smile and go on about your day, you could dismiss the feeling.  You're just a little down at this time of the year.  Perfectly understandable. 


          And you could even  intellectualize some of it, and chalk it up to the death of a loved one, or the end of a relationship, or you know…there are plenty of reasons.  Add them all together and it makes sense…But just because it makes sense, it doesn't take away the feeling…  The feeling of being surrounded by familiar things and people, and still a little lost. 


          I listened again for the little voice, and there it came again, "Daddy, I'm hungry."  It was a voice that sounded so familiar, but I couldn't place it.  I thought at first it was my son's voice—that my memory was playing its old tricks.  So I asked to hear it again, and then I became convinced that it was my voice.  That in the little chapel of my heart where I desperately want to be with God, my own voice was asking God—like a child—for help.  "Daddy, I'm hungry."  I thought surely this was my private prayer.


          But then I realized that there was nothing unique about it, and I started to hear it in all the languages.  "Daddy, I'm hungry."  Over and over.  And I finally recognized that it was the voice of every human being.  Young and old, rich and poor, male and female.  Not just a child's voice, but a grown-up's voice as well. 


          This is the prayer that our hearts are constantly praying from the deep need that is first within us.  The need to connect in an ultimate way to what is truly ultimate, which is God.


          Tonight/today, you may be feeling this poverty of spirit.  And the hunger might be so acute that you almost can't hold the baby in your arms.  Life has heartlessly rolled itself over your dreams—those cherished yet unspoken expectations that life would be easier and freer than it is right now. 





          It may feel that to embrace the Christ child is to lie.  How can you look into those eyes and tell him that the world is a warm and safe place, when it has not always been a warm and safe place for you?  Your heart has been broken.  Your needs have not always been met.  After the bottles and diapers and teething, he's going to learn the truth.


          Yet this is the mystery of Christ.  He is born into our poverty.  He is born with our eyes and our hair and he will come to feel all our feelings, including these feelings. 


          God heard our prayer—the prayer that is simply, "Daddy, I'm hungry."  And God sent Jesus, who said, "Take this all of you, and eat it.  This is my body."  This is the food that is not just food for the hunger that is not just hunger.  Whoever eats this bread and drinks this cup will not be hungry. 


          So come and eat, and then hold him, and love him. 





If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Christmas Blessing

Christmas collapses time.  It is not "Jesus's birthday."  This is anamnesis.  What happened then happens now as if happening the first time.  On Christmas we don't say, "Christ is another year older," we say rather, "Christ is born."  We enact the story as if happening in the present moment.  

The devout Christian blends time, and seeks always to shorten the distances between God and soul, heart and mind, earth and heaven, rich and poor, because all these come together within Christ.  He is the fullness of all things in heaven and on earth--through him the world was created, and without him nothing was made.  This is such a mystery--that he came through the creation he took part in creating.   

O magnum mysterium, 
et admirabile sacramentum, 
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, 
jacentem in praesepio! 
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera 
meruerunt portare 
Dominum Christum. 

O great mystery, 
and wonderful sacrament, 
that animals should see the new-born Lord, 
lying in a manger! 
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb 
was worthy to bear 
Christ the Lord. 

As you make your way to Christmas in various acts of prayer, visits to the Creche, reception of the Holy Communion, who is the true bread--hesitate in those moments.  Do not be so quick to rise from your knees or snuff out the candles.  Listen, watch, be mindful that each moment enacts the eternity of God over your soul, which is the salvation of the world.

He has come into the world that we may have life.  He has come to embrace, to redeem, to celebrate, and to save.  He is the light of the world.  May he scatter all our darkness.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Advent 4A. 19 December 2010.

For the audio version, click here and select 4th Sunday of Advent



          What I have just read for you is Matthew's version of the birth of Jesus.  We are really only given two biblical accounts of it.  Luke's version is, of course, much more famous.  It's the one we read on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. 


          Today we are given Matthew's account, because the days are drawing near for our annual celebration of the birth of Christ, and church at this time enjoys gathering together all the pictures from the pregnancy.  We are meant to recall the circumstances of Christ's birth. 


          As I considered this text for preaching, as always, I was met by the standard question all biblical stories ask: what is this text trying to accomplish?  Are we reading Matthew's story of the birth of Christ simply because this is "that time of the year," or could it be that the text is trying to teach us something about our relationship with God? 


          Sometimes the answer to that question is much easier to find than others.  You read one of the parables of Jesus and you know…parable equals teaching…this is a teaching.  But sometimes you come across these precious few words that sound like they are intended to be historical, and the question is harder to answer.  Is this about informing us of the history and that's where the significance stops, or would we uncover greater, more general truths if we were to dig a little deeper? 


          I'm not sure that I have ever felt particularly comfortable saying that something in the Bible is only just so meaningful, because I've learned that even the tiniest detail can be a sign of something more. 


          When I was in college, I remember attending a lecture from a biblical scholar who said that the grammar of Isaiah 40, if changed only slightly, could completely change the meaning of the text.  Is it, "A voice of him who cries in wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord;" or, if you move the comma, "A voice of him who cries, "In the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord"?   Is the voice in the wilderness, or is the preparation to be in the wilderness?  The words are the same, but the grammatical inflexion will change the way you understand it.   


          When we read the story of the wedding feast, and Jesus changes the water into wine, is it significant that the water jars were for the Jewish rites of purification, or is that simply to let us know how large the jars were?  If you look at artists renderings, invariably, they make them look like Mason jars—little things—as if Jesus was changing the water into moonshine.  No, no…it's significant that they were the large jars for the rites of purification. Jesus made a lot of water into a lot of wine.  That is symbolic on many levels—it's a sign of God's overflowing, overwhelming nature.  It points to God as abundant, giving, merciful…perhaps a scholar will discover an even deeper meaning to it one day.



          So you see, the question is in the air.  Is Matthew's version of the birth of Jesus a spiritual teaching or just a narrative—just a furtherance of the story?  It could be both, I suppose.  It would be very Anglican of me to say that.  In the Episcopal Church we don't like either/or very much.  Perhaps it is both. 


          I have heard, and even preached, that this story along with other stories about Joseph being warned in a dream is a teaching about being open to dreams.  I have had powerfully imaginative dreams, I'm sure you have, too.  There are times you have a dream and spend a couple days trying to figure out where it came from and why you had it.  Sometimes you can chalk it up to marinara sauce and scary movie.


          I had a dream that I was in an old-fashioned tent revival meeting and there was a man who came in wanting to be baptized.  And the evangelist had this large baptismal pool, and they got into the water, and the evangelist pushed the man under the water.  When the man came up, he said, "Brother, have you found Jesus?"  "No," said the man.  The evangelist pushed him down again.  "Have you found Jesus?" he said.  "No," said the man.  Down he went a third time, and the evangelist asked, "Are you sure you haven't found Jesus?"  The man stood up and said, "No.  Are you sure this is where he fell in?"


          But then, sometimes you get a dream that seems so vivid and so real that you actually have to consider the possibility that God was trying to communicate with you.


          You start playing the parts of the dream over and over in your mind.  It gets harder to do as the day wears on, but it's there.  What does this mean?  Is God trying to say something?


          St. Joseph dreams just like the Joseph in the Old Testament dreams.  Is that significant?  Is there something to be found in the story of that Joseph that makes this Joseph more understandable?  I don't know.


          I have preached about Joseph's dreams, and about how God does, I believe, use our dreams sometimes to impart something to us—something that we might not think of otherwise.  I don't know.  "There are more things in heaven and on earth…"


          The thing is that this is a very clumsy sort of story, really, when you look at it.  It's very awkwardly written, because the situation is very awkward.  Matthew's gospel begins with a lengthy genealogy.  "Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers…"  It's the family tree, and it's intended to show that Jesus is a descendent of David, who is a descendent of Abraham.  That's very important, because it is part of the fulfillment of the scripture that the Messiah would redeem the Throne of his ancestor David.


          So you come through this marvelous genealogy.  Few people read it when they read the Bible, but it has some interesting parts.  We are reminded in verse 6 that after David came Solomon through the wife of Uriah


          You remember the wife of Uriah was Bathsheba—the woman David saw bathing and sent for.  That's interesting.  Jesus's line comes through what was a very painful and sinful chapter in David's life.  There is a sermon in that.


          In the 17th verse of this chapter we learn that the genealogy can be divided into three perfect groups of 14 generations.  There were 14 generations between Abraham and David.  From David to the Babylonian exile there were 14 generations.  And from Babylon to the birth of Jesus, there were 14 generations.  Wow.  That's interesting.  It would send chills up and down your spine if it were literally true, but it's not.  Fourteen is the numerical value of David's name in Hebrew.  Matthew is trying to tell us that Jesus is the One.


          Now, all of this immediately precedes the lesson for today—all this genealogy and symbolism, coming right down to Joseph who, by virtue of his betrothal to Mary, was legally the father of Jesus.


          But now it becomes awkward, you see, because Joseph is not the biological father, but who he is is very important in both the ancestry and upbringing of Jesus.  When he learns that Mary is with child, we learn that Joseph wants to do the right thing, and the right thing seems to be to dismiss her quietly from the betrothal.  This is awkward.  The Torah says that she should be stoned.  But Joseph is a righteous man, and he does not want Mary to suffer any disgrace.  Matthew does not say that Mary talked with him, or told him about the angel coming to her—but I think we are meant to assume that that happened.


          Joseph is a righteous man.  It's not that he's just a nice man, he is a righteous man—meaning that he wants to do the right thing.  And here we begin to get a little glimpse into the future.  The Messiah is changing things, even now.  When we get a little deeper into Matthew's gospel we will begin to hear Jesus say things like, "You have heard that it was said…but now I say to you."  God is doing a new thing.  Somehow God is both fulfilling the old, and making things new.  It's an interesting paradox, and it's foreshadowed by this quandary.  The righteous act, according to the Torah, is to stone her, but the righteous thing is not the righteous thing.


          Here is the compromise.  I will dismiss her quietly.  And then comes the dream, and the angel says, "Joseph, son of David…"  Did you catch that?  Matthew loves to remind us that this story is laden with ancestral meaning.  "…do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She's going to have a son, and you are to name him Jesus—meaning "Deliverer"—because he will save his people from their sins."


          Now, it is at this point in the story that Matthew places an annotation.  He writes, "All of this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:  "Look a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." 




          Then back to the story, Matthew writes that when Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel command him.  And being a righteous man, he took her as his wife, but he did not have marital relations with her.  He was showing respect for her, and for the angel's words.  (Pause.)


          I keep trying to figure out if there is some greater teaching here, or if the text is meant simply to explain how Joseph dealt with this awkward situation.  But I do think it is both.  You see, God needed Mary.  God needed a young woman who was willing to bear his son.  She knew that being obedient to the call of God was the righteous thing to do, but she couldn't teach that understanding of righteousness to Jesus without a spouse who also understood it that way.  She needed—God needed—a man whose mind could encompass the possibility that God still speaks.  That sometimes the righteous thing is not always what it says in the book.


          And these are the parents who would show the Messiah how to be a man—how to be a righteous man.  So later on when Jesus starts to say, "You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…" Well…we saw this coming, didn't we?   Yeah, we saw this coming before he was even born!




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Advent 3A. 12 December 2010.

For the audio version, click here and select 3rd Sunday of Advent.



          Last week we read about John the Baptizer preaching in the wilderness, and we talked about that wilderness as being both symbolic of the Exodus from Egypt, and the wilderness that is the anxiety of living life. 


          Today, we read about John again, but the lectionary has fast-forwarded us to the end of John's ministry.  He is no longer preaching and baptizing in the wilderness.  He has been imprisoned.  Matthew's gospel does not actually give us the story of John's arrest.  Matthew gives us an account of Jesus' baptism, and temptation, and then mentions—really quite casually—that when John was imprisoned Jesus withdrew to Galilee. 


          From that point on, it is clear to us that John's ministry—as the forerunner and herald of the Messiah—has come to fulfillment, and the ministry of the Gospel will become embodied in Jesus.  John was sent to prepare the way for the Lord, and now the Lord has come.  At least that is how we understand the story as of chapter 3. 


          But then we get all the way to chapter 11 and we discover that John was not so sure.  Matthew writes that "When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing.."  Did you catch that?  Matthew doesn't say what Jesus was doing, but what the Messiah was doing…  He is making the point that it was generally considered by this time that Jesus was the Messiah. 


          Now, for John to accept that idea that Jesus really was the Messiah, he would have to consider himself as the herald of the Messiah, and therefore the embodiment of the prophet Elijah.  It is written in the very last verses of the last book of the Old Testament that God would send back the prophet Elijah before the Lord comes. 


          This aspect of prophecy and fulfillment does not seem to be much on Matthew's mind, but it was very much on John the Evangelist's mind.  In John's gospel, he writes that the people in authority came out to question John directly (page 862 pew bible, verse 19) "Who are you?"  And John said, "I am not the Messiah."  So they asked, "What then?  Are you Elijah?"  And he said no.  John didn't even claim to be a prophet!  So they asked him, "What do you say about yourself?"  And John indicates that his ministry is completely in line with the history of the Hebrew people, by citing Isaiah 40, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord.'"


          So it is clear, at least from differences in Matthew's and John's gospels, that the early church wrestled with how to talk about John the Baptizer, perhaps because John himself was not sure.  He was a prophet, but not a prophet.  He was Elijah but not Elijah.  Who is he?


          Matthew does not include the inquisition that we find in John's gospel, but when he writes that John the Baptizer sent his disciples to ask Jesus directly who he is, we see that sense of uncertainty.


          The disciples of John ask Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"  Now, this can be read as impertinence, but before we rush to judgment, consider all the hopes and fears that are balanced on that question!


          If Jesus says no, then what is John to think?  John was born to Elizabeth and Zechariah—a priestly family.  He didn't drink wine.  He led a very ascetical life, eating very simple foods, wearing very simple clothing.  He spent his life trying to follow a sense of call that God wanted him to be preaching and preparing the way of the Lord.  He was far too modest to consider himself a prophet, much less Elijah.  But you come to the end of your life and you start to look back and you want to feel that it wasn't wasted.


          John saw the handwriting on the wall.  For people who were locked up like John, you didn't go to jail to await a fair trial and exoneration.  If they got you, you got locked up and it was just a matter of time before they found some way to kill you.  Jesus knew this.  That's why, when John was arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 


          John's disciples likely brought him food and gave him the news of the day, and tried to keep his spirits up.  The news of Jesus had been spreading, and it seemed like this was the one we'd been waiting for.  But, if you're John, and you don't know how much longer you have to live, you want to know.  If he is the Messiah, knowing that will serve as a final blessing on all your life and labor.  If he is not, well… 


          It's a simple question, but with the weight of the prophecy of the Old Testament hanging in the balance—the hopes, and dreams, and prayers…  John's disciples are standing there asking the question, but behind them, invisibly, spiritually, stand Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Aaron.  And they all want to know.  Is this the one who will finally clean house?  Is this God's Anointed, who will restore the throne of David, and usher in the everlasting political dominance of God's people.


          It's a simple yes or no question.  But it's not really.  Because the answer is yes and no.  Yes, Jesus is the Messiah, and yes, John is Elijah; but the Messiah is not just the Anointed One, he is the Son of God—and as such, his role is not just a politician. How do you communicate that the fulfillment of prophecy is greater than the prophecy?


          Jesus responds, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them."  Each of those articles—the deaf hearing, the dead raised, and the poor receiving the good news—represent a fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecies.


          John had prepared the way, and Jesus was fulfilling it.  Jesus was going well beyond fulfilling it, and I think John knew that, but wasn't really able to connect the dots.




          Again, look at John—not with pity—but with compassion.  He wants to know.  He knew that Jesus was doing what the Messiah was, at least in part, supposed to be doing, but he wants to know.  John is a man of God.  But men and women of God are still men and women.  And we know that truth very well, as the men and women of God today.


          We have seen so much more of Jesus than John ever did.  We have the record of his life, including his passion and resurrection, and yet still the gut level question is asked, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for someone else."


          It is a simple yes or no question, except that it's not.  It's a question that we rarely ask with words.  We ask it just beneath the surface of our lives.   I don't know a single Christian who has ever held on so tightly that they haven't slipped just a little bit.  I'm not really talking about sin, though sin could easily be part of it.  I'm talking about that gnawing feeling of doubt.  It's a feeling that can come from almost any direction.  It can show up in your life like an unwelcome guest.


          I remember some time ago friend said that he had this buddy who would show up unannounced and stay for who knew how long.  It was always a source of anxiety, because he'd eat the food, and lounge around, and not help with anything.  I said, "Why don't you ask him how long he planned to stay?"  He said, "I just can't do that.  He's a pain in the neck, but what are you going to do?"


          Wouldn't you love to be able to ask the hobgoblins where they came from and how long they planned to stay?  I have a very devout friend who has had one bad thing happen after another; health, family, job.  It's been going on so long and gotten so bad that even friends like me are beginning to wonder where God is in that situation.  We thought the nightmare was about to end, and then it got worse.  How do you make sense of it? 


          Couldn't we make an appointment with these things?  Couldn't we sit down and have coffee and say to all these anxieties, "Well, you've been with me now for six months.  A year?  Has it been that long?  And you have caused me to lose sleep, and gain weight and I'm short-tempered with my family.  To my mind, you have caused nothing but pain and suffering.  So, I'm going to have to ask you to leave.  You're fired."


          Would that it were that simple, but it's not, because we want to know.  The Messiah is supposed dispel all these doubts and make things better for me.  It's all very well and good that the blind can see, and dead can rise, and the poor can be preached to…but what about me? 


          John is sitting there in prison.  Are you the One?  And if you are the One, and if I am Elijah, shouldn't this have a happy ending? 


          John's mind is pacing back and forth through the years he's been preaching and preparing.  This is not what should have happened.  The story should be that you follow God and life opens itself out in broad sunlit uplands, and you get to take your place among the elders.  

          With time and experience come greater wisdom, and you don't have to be out in the wilderness anymore.  The people, officially and unofficially, come to consult with you on matters of importance, family problems, marriage problems, money problems.  And you welcome them into your midst—as any prophet would—and put out the Kleenex and pour some tea and "Now please just start from the beginning..."  Not a jail cell.  


          Are you the one who is to come?  Are you going to be my Messiah, too, or should I wait for another?  (Pause.)


          Jesus never visited John in prison.  I keep hoping he will.  I know how the story ends, but I keep hoping it will be different.  You remember.  There's a birthday party.  Streamers everywhere.  Music playing.  Presents.  Wine.  And women.  Beautiful women.  The family has come together with guests to celebrate Herod's birthday.  Herod's brother Philip is there with Herodias, and their daughter.  And the daughter is young and beautiful and she danced. 


          And, well…let's just say she pleased him.  And he offered her anything she wanted.  Herodias put it into her daughter's mind, "Ask for the head of John the Baptizer."  And John was beheaded, and that was that.  (Pause.)


          It's hard to read that part of the story.  We will feel the same way when Jesus is taken to prison.  And when he offers himself on the Cross and utters those painful words, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  Those words sound so close to, "Are you the one we've been waiting for?"


          The answer is simple, but it's not easy.  Yes, Jesus is the Messiah, and you are Elijah.  And you will know this, John, not by Jesus getting you out of a tight spot, but by knowing that God was faithful.  The Messiah came, and now the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the dead are raised, and the poor are given the Good News.  Without your life, John, the fulfillment would not have happened.


          That is your salvation.  All those prophecies were not just fulfilled.  Jesus' death and resurrection exceeded them.  And when God's kingdom is fully realized, you will be there, John, and you will know. 


          We will all know.  And that will be our salvation, too.






If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Advent 2A. 5 December 2010.

For the audio version, click here and select the 2nd Sunday of Advent.



          There are two stories in the gospels where "the wilderness" serves a highly symbolic function.  The story of Jesus' temptations is one, and the appearance and ministry of John the Baptizer is the other.  Now there are other stories where the wilderness is symbolic.  When Jesus feeds the five thousand, or when he is traveling and preaching, he is in the wilderness.  But the stories of the temptations and John the Baptizer almost make the wilderness a character in the story, because, you see, it reminds us of the Exodus.


          The Exodus was the event that unified the Hebrew people.  The Exodus is about their struggle to be free, and the actions of God on their part to free them with the overall message that God has chosen them as his own people.  It is what has been called "the scandal of the particular" that God chooses one group of people and says, "You shall be my people, I shall be your God."


          The Exodus, you will remember, is an epic drama beginning with the release from captivity in Egypt, and the long hard road to the land God had given.  That long hard road was the wilderness.  The wilderness of the desert and the symbolic wilderness of the spirit.  Wilderness is a place where the absence of life can make the presence of God seem palpable.  It's why we close our eyes to pray—to create a space.  The wilderness focuses our attention. 


          When Jesus is in the wilderness being tempted by the devil, we are meant to recall when our Hebrew ancestors sojourned across the desert and were tempted to abandon God.  When John appears in the wilderness—teaching repentance, and proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is at hand—we are reminded, perhaps, of the leadership of Moses.  Not a man of smooth speech, but faithful to his call.


          For years I have considered John's wilderness preaching as mostly symbolic of the Exodus, and that's where I stopped.  He's a difficult sort of man to like.  He is dressed in the plainest clothes.  He has a simple diet.  He seems to be as you might expect from a prophet or a street preacher.


          A couple months ago I was reading about an Episcopal seminarian who took a course in street preaching.  I had no idea that seminaries taught that sort of thing.  I think the course he took was offered by a non-Episcopal Church seminary.  I wouldn't know where to begin if you asked me to preach on the sidewalk.  My sermons don't really lend themselves to passing cars.  But this fellow had taken the course and decided that occasionally he would go to the closest city and pick a street corner and start preaching.


          The article said that he was very unsure of himself at first, but then he realized—and I'm going to use his words, so please don't be offended—that there "wasn't much difference between being a street preacher, and being a jerk."


          Well, his point is made.  If you are going to take sacred thoughts and try to shout them into secular air, you've got to be willing to really put yourself out there. 


          Karin and I were part of the half marathon in Richmond on November 13th, and somewhere around mile three, we encountered a street preacher.  He had a big sign, and his message was a mixture of things.  Part of it was that God disapproved of gay people, and the other part was that we were all going to hell if we didn't repent.  I remember he said, "There is a one hundred per cent chance that you will die one day."  The man who was running beside me shouted, "Today is not that day." 


          There are people who really believe that preaching in the wilderness is shouting on the street corner.  I have never known that sort of activity to be effective in communicating the reconciling love of Christ.  "But it worked for John the Baptizer!"   Well, I'm not so sure.  John was not shouting at disinterested people.  Matthew writes that the people of Jerusalem and all over Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan.  That's a lot of people making a journey to listen to him.


          There were Pharisees and Sadducees who came out to hear him.   I will pause for a moment to let the significance of that sink in.  Pharisees and Sadducees came out.  The reputable people; people like you and me; fairly well-educated, thoughtful people—on up to the priestly class.  The Temple priests were Sadducees.  You couldn't join them.  You had to be born a Sadducee.


          Why did they come out to the wilderness to hear him?  What was his draw?  Repent?  Did they really come out just to hear him say turn from your wicked ways and embrace God?    When the Pharisees and Sadducees came John actually confronted them—in much the same way Jesus confronted them.  John said, "You brood of vipers…"  That's an insult.  You mess of snakes.  Snakes are unclean.  These men were scrupulous in keeping the Torah.  "You brood of unclean, slithering, slimy snakes." Ouch!  Remember the Garden?  The snake in the Garden of Eden is the embodiment of the devil.  Could John be more offensive?


          And he kept on, "Who warned you that things were about to change?  Don't just say you're going to repent, show us.  Show the world that you're going to change.  Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  Don't just say, `Oh, we're going to be okay with God—we're born of the priestly class—we have Abraham as our ancestor.'  No, no, no.  God is able to bring children of Abraham out of these stones.  Class and family won't get you anywhere."


          John was downright…  Well, okay… he seemed like a jerk.  And here they came to listen to him.  People from everywhere.  And coming out to the wilderness to hear someone preach was so completely different from the way it seems like God would have decided to operate.  Jesus preached everywhere, but he was in synagogues and for awhile—we don't know how long—he was preaching every day in the Temple.  That's where you are supposed to go to hear someone preach.  Holy words need holy spaces.



          I remember when I was in seminary one of my preaching professors was talking about the pulpit, because he was asked about preaching from the center of the aisle, or preaching from the chancel steps, and he said, No.  You wouldn't celebrate the Eucharist anywhere other than the Altar, you don't preach from anywhere other than the pulpit.  The pulpit is not your enemy.  The pulpit is there to give dignity and gravity to the art of preaching.


          The sermon isn't just words.  The sermon is framed by the reading of Scripture and the sharing of it's meaning in the space the people are listening.  Even the driest, most tedious sermon can be meaningful, simply by being offered in the place where people expect to hear from God. 


          I am sure you know exactly what I mean.  When I get over into something tedious and your mind begins to wander, you look around at the Altar or at the candles, or wherever, and it could be that the church building itself preaches its own sermon.  You remember years past when you came here and you were going through this thing or that thing.  And you remember that you came to church every week and looked at that stained-glass window, and now, that window has come to remind you that God will see you through.  Something will  trigger some thanksgiving or praise for the place…the place of the church.



          This is where holy thoughts are thought, and holy things received.  Not the wilderness.  Not out there on the street corner by someone preaching that you're a snake and you better shape up.  God does not wish to preach at us at the 7/11 at 4 o'clock in the afternoon.  Or does he?  If you read the story of John the Baptizer, it seems like he does.  (Pause.) 


          I have long believed that John preached in the wilderness because it was symbolic of the Exodus, and because it was outside of the synagogues and Temple. And that's where I left it.  But that still didn't answer the question of what brought these people out to hear him.  And then I considered the possibility that I wasn't taking the symbolism far enough.  Could it be that the wilderness is also symbolic of the anxieties and frustrations and hopelessness that surrounded the people of first century Palestine? 


          In one place in the gospels the crowds following Jesus were described as "harassed and helpless, like sheep needing a shepherd."  The people who came out to hear John were harassed and helpless—people who were putting their lives together with short pieces of string—people who were oppressed by the crushing political power of the Roman Empire, and the crushing religious power of Pharisaical Judaism.  We're talking about a seriously harassed and helpless group of people.


          And to this day, whenever you see people who feel powerless and afraid you will find them clinging to anyone who cares about them and who can help them out of their mess.  It's true. 


          It's so true that people with evil intentions know it.  Do you know why some people are willing to join terrorist organizations and become suicide bombers?  If you're in one of these impoverished countries and can't rub two pennies together to feed your family, and someone comes to you and says, "Do this, and you're family will be taken care of for the rest of their lives…"  And you go home and see the look of fear and hunger in the eyes of your children.  Do this, and the fear will be in someone else's eyes, but not your children's.  Your children will eat and have clothes and a place to live.  That's a real temptation.  Evil.


          My aunt told me about a book she read in which the people in the book were tortured.  But not with pain.  They were given pleasure.  Nothing but pleasure of every kind.  The best things.  The best food.  The best of everything.  And as long as they kept giving the information that was asked of them, the pleasure continued.  Evil.


          That's not what we are talking about when we are talking about John the Baptizer, or Jesus.  The wilderness was the same, though.  The wilderness of the anxiety about the future.  The wilderness of uncertainty, hunger, fear, joblessness, hopelessness.  And the man who was sent as a forerunner of the Messiah came out to meet them in that place.  That place of fatigue and worry.  Harassed and helpless.  Tattered clothes.  Worn out souls and bodies.  Children in tears.  People scared and lonely. 



          And John said to them, "It is time to come back to God, because there is someone who is coming from God who cares.  I will baptize you with water to symbolize a new life.  But there is a man coming who is so much more worthy than I am.  I'm not even worthy to carry his shoes.  Do you see what I'm saying?  Do you understand?  There is man who is coming God who actually cares.  He doesn't want to get something from you. 


          He loves you.  He is able to see that you are good people who are caught in an impossibly difficult life, and when he comes to you, he isn't going to care about what family you are from, or how much money you have.  He is going to give you a new life.  Salvation.  You may still be poor, but with him, you will feel rich.  You may have your troubles, but you won't be alone.  He'll be with you. 


          That's the message that brought the people out in droves to hear John, and later, it's what brought people out to hear Jesus.  That God cares.  That God was not only concerned about the Temple and synagogue and the "good people,"—but that God cared about everyone. 


          That's the sermon of John the Baptizer.  It continues to be the best sermon ever given, because it's the Gospel of Jesus Christ.




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.

The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.