Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas Eve and Day. 24, 25 December 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select Christmas Eve.

To the Glory of God and in memory of The Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Minister of the Memorial Church, Harvard University

 Born May 22, 1942 –  Died February 28, 2011


          Before I begin my sermon, I want wish you all a very happy Christmas, and to say, especially to those of you who are visiting, or returning to this holy place as a spiritual home, how grateful we are that you are here to celebrate. 


            Christmas has a long and interesting history as an observance.  We believe that the Church celebrated some sort of anniversary of the Nativity of Our Lord on or about May 20th.  After all, there is nothing in the Bible to confirm that it happened "in the bleak mid-winter" as Christina Rossetti's poem reads.  But somewhere in the latter part of the fourth century, the Nativity of Jesus began to be observed on December 25th.  It was likely moved there to oppose a festival known as Natalis Solis Invicti, the birth of the Unconquered Sun, or perhaps Saturnalia, another winter Roman festival celebrated with joy and merry-making.


            But whatever the reason, I think we can be grateful that this is the time of year we celebrate the birth of Jesus.  There is something so very fitting about placing it in the context of the winter months, when the sky is grey and dreary, and we are all in need of new life and family and warmth.  The shepherds are never depicted as shivering, but we shiver with them in their loneliness out in the pastures near Bethlehem.   


            The lack of a precise date for the Holy Birth is also somewhat fitting in that the time frame given by Luke's account also poses some historical problems.  There is no other record of a census or a registration of the Roman Empire under Caesar Augustus.  Neither is there any other source to suggest that people had to return to the home of their ancestors in order to be enrolled.  Also, Luke writes that it happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria, though it is likely that he was appointed governor some years after Jesus was born.  


            Now, before you pick up stones to throw at me, let me explain why I think these facts are not a threat to the story, or, more importantly, the deeper meaning of Christ's birth. 


            The simple truth is: this is how we remember it.  You can change the date we observe it.  You can raise questions about how and when, and what—but the plain truth remains that we will always remember Mary and Joseph making their way to Bethlehem, because they were being obedient to what they were told. 


            We see, in their story, a young family having to jump through hurdles to do what was right.  And in the midst of that, we find Mary giving birth to Jesus under less than desirable circumstances.  Instead of some cozy story of Mary and Joseph staying put in Nazareth, and having the baby surrounded by their family and synagogue, we find them this evening, and at every Christmas, alone, probably afraid, and the infant placed in a feeding trough. 


            Shake away for just a moment the cozy depictions of the greeting cards and the nativity scenes, and see them as they are: a young family, "harassed and helpless, like sheep needing a shepherd."  And that is the mystery.  That God comes through the womb of a human mother and is born humbly—some might even want to say, shamefully. 


            And so Christmas, like Easter, confronts our notions of stateliness and dignity with a depiction of the complete opposite.  Should you go from here, this evening, and encounter a young family holding a baby in their arms, not knowing quite what to do next, you will see a much more realistic depiction of the first days of our Savior.  Is that good news?  Yes.  It is the news that "lifts earth to heaven, and stoopes heav'n to earth."[1]  It is the glorious news that God's ways are not our ways, nor our thoughts, his.  His ways and thoughts are higher, ironically, in sending the heir of all Creator to be placed in a lowly manger.


            We celebrate not only the birth, but the ironic circumstances of the birth, which altogether preach their own sermon: that God is pleased to be with humanity in all its broken beauty.


            Such a mystery.  Such a never ending mystery that is the person of Jesus Christ: Son of God and Son of Mary; fully God, fully Human.  And by his holy Incarnation, God takes your hand and says, "I know what this feels like.  There is no more us and you—now, there is only us."  Even if he had never been crucified and resurrected, God had embraced humanity simply by being born and living among us.  (Pause.)


            In the Western rite of the Church, it is traditional that three celebrations of the Holy Eucharist are offered—once for each facet of Christ's birth.  Once at midnight—or late at night—symbolic of the birth of the eternal Son, who would come to be born of Mary.  Once at dawn, symbolic of the birth of Jesus from the womb of Mary.  And once during Christmas Day—and this one delights me to no end—symbolic of the mystical birth of Jesus in the souls of faithful Christians.[2]


            So it should not bother us at all that we cannot know the precise date of the Nativity, or the exact date of its anniversary.  In a sense, that is completely and utterly fitting, because neither can we know the precise moment when Christ is born in our hearts.  As with all other actions of God: It happens then, and it happens now.  It is timeless; it is eternal.


            When your heart makes the space for him, he will, like a baby be born there in your soul, which is often "harassed and helpless, like a sheep needing a shepherd." 


            And Jesus, will be both infant and shepherd—leading you like a little child to discover meaning in the smallest of things, and in the simplest of joys.


            If you have never really believed in Jesus authentically …  If it has been difficult to see him because the Church has gotten in the way, or because it seemed too trite or unsophisticated to believe that God is real, and his Son loves you—well, then I really am very sorry about that.  The Church is not always the best example of Christ's teaching—and we are painfully aware of that.    


            But these things are not apprehended merely by intellect.  Christianity in its fullness combines the spirit and mind.  So when the candles start to be lit, and the music starts to play, you may discover a little baby of a thought in your lap.  A little baby looking up at you they way you once looked up at your mother or father, seeing you for who you are, and what you hope to become.   The baby comes into your life—however imperfect you may be, however harried and uncertain—and changes everything. 


            Like a child, he will come to ask you why you do certain things, and say certain things.  He will wonder if you care about others the way you care about him.


            The little Messiah will grow in you—perhaps difficult and uncomfortable at times, but always somehow delightful.  And one day he will grow up, but he will always be your little boy.  (Pause.)


            If time has made you cynical, and the slings and arrows of life have pierced and deflated the joy you once knew—I want to tell you tonight, from the bottomless love of God—that it can come back. 


            It will happen when you respond to the Angel the same way Mary did, when she said, "Let it be with me according to your word."  The Holy Spirit will overshadow you, and the power of the most high will come upon you.


            When it happens, how it happens…  That is a complete mystery, but it does.  And then you will understand the words of Isaiah (9:6), "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given."  God's Son, and our son.   So fully human as to understand and question and ponder, and so fully God as to save us from ourselves.




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving 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.

[1] Crashaw, Richard 1612-1649

[2] Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Christmas, pg. 335.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Advent 4A. 18 December 2011.

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


            The last two Sundays we have been reading about John the Baptizer and recalling his background as well as his ministry—which are two very different things.  I think it is clear from a comparative study of the Gospels that John was born in an aristocratic family of Temple priests.  He was likely educated by the best teachers.  He was probably expected to become—one day—a Temple priest, like his father and his ancestors.


            The Temple priests were of a group of people known as Sadducees.  The Pharisees were rather like the middle class—but I have to be careful with saying that because there was no middle class.  In first century Palestine, you were either rich or poor.  The difference is one of social position, not money, which is hard for us to fully envision, because in America, we believe—at least we say we believe—that all people are created equal. 


            The disparity—we like to think—is financial.  In other words, money equals status, but that's not at all as it was in first century Palestine, and it's not the way it is, even still, in many parts of the world today.  The disparity between Sadducee and Pharisee was not money, but privilege and position.  A Temple priest might or might not be as wealthy as a Pharisee, but that didn't matter.  If the two should be in the same room, there is no question that the Pharisee will defer to the Sadducee.


            Today, we step aside from John; and we turn our attention to Mary.  And since I have been talking about John's aristocratic background, my train of thought rather forced the question about Mary's social position.  Let me ask the question that, honestly, rather surprised me:  Was Mary a Pharisee? 


            Well, it's an interesting question.  One of my clergy friends was quick to say no, because she was a woman and women had no standing in first century Palestine.  While that may be true, it is still, I think a fair question, since it's really a question of what group of Jews her family belonged to.


            Now, let me back up just a moment.  I am well aware that many people, when they hear the word "Pharisee," they check a little box in their minds next to the word "hypocrite," which really isn't fair.  The word "Pharisaical," which may not be in the common language anymore, is defined as "hypocritical," but again, that's really not fair.


            You may be tired of hearing me defend them, but the Pharisees were people who really tried to do the best they could.  They were trying to be faithful to their understanding of the Torah, and they did that rigorously—I think—because of the Babylonian exile.  They understood the exile to be a direct result of their ancestor's lack of faithfulness, so when they were allowed to return, they would likely have taken great pains to be as scrupulously faithful to the words of the Law as they could. 


            Once burned, twice shy.  If we got in trouble with God for not obeying the commandments and the Torah, then we need to set up better schools and synagogues, and we need to be a little more strict with our teaching so that we don't wind up in Babylon again.  God had clearly said to Moses—as it is written in Deuteronomy:


See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (20:15-29)


            I think, when the elders returned from captivity, they sat down and drew up a system of rigorous Judaism that was intended to insure that they would never fall away again.  And for that, I admire them greatly.  There were some bad apples in the same way that there are always bad apples—but most of them were decent, respectable, clean-cut people.  I am convinced that I would have been one of them.  I would probably have been one of those who didn't think Jesus was the Messiah at first, because I am a creature of habit, and resist change.  I'm an Episcopalian.


            So here's the question.  Was Mary of Nazareth, Mary the Mother of Jesus, by birth, upbringing, and culture a Pharisee?  What makes me ask that question is that the angel Gabriel is sent to her.  God chose her to be the mother of his only-begotten Son, and that story is recorded in Luke's account of the Annunciation. 


            When I read it, I am sure you noticed that the story is very much about the history of the Hebrew people: "the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end."


            My question is based on the fact that God is entrusting his only-begotten Son's birth and rearing to Mary and Joseph.  Presumably, God has selected Mary for her health and personality, and any of the intangibles that make her an ideal mother.  And I wonder if part of that list of attributes would include her levels of devotion.  If she was a very devout and observant Jew, then I wonder if she had Pharisee parents and was born a Pharisee.  It makes sense, because Gabriel would not have needed to educate her on what the birth of Jesus would mean. 


            If I walk up to a stranger on the street and say, "Wine and Bread," they might know about Holy Communion, but they might not register anything meaningful to them personally.  Whereas a Christian might go to a restaurant and see wine and bread on the table and suddenly find themselves thinking about church.  You see?  If Mary knows the story and can envision herself as part of that story, then it places her in the column of the faithful Jewish people—the Pharisees. 


            I don't know.  I asked the internet, which is always a dangerous thing to do.  You have to separate the wheat from the chaff.  In one place I looked, the author of the article reminded me that the Sadducees did not believe in angels, and the Pharisees did.  So for Mary to accept the angel's word, that alone meant she was a Pharisee. 


            Couldn't she have just been a common, ordinary Jewish Galilean woman?  If you never had to think about it, that's probably where you would file her.  But there were three groups of Jews: Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes.  The Essenes were, relative to the size of the Pharisees and Sadducees, a small group of ascetical Jews—they were even more rigorous in their observance than the Pharisees.  They undertook a lot of fasting and self-denial—some refused to get married.  There is nothing in the Bible that speaks about them directly—we can only piece together aspects of their traditions from the accounts of Josephus.  In one place I looked it said there have even been some scholars who doubt the Essenes ever really existed as we have thought. 


            We might want to believe that Mary had no affiliation to any of these three groups, but if it is true that you had to be Pharisee or Sadducee, then we are left with the inevitable conclusion that Mary and Joseph were Pharisees—and I think that's rather wonderful, quite honestly.


            I think it's wonderful that Jesus's background was Pharisee, because it fits with the Spirit of the New Testament, and what we want to believe about Jesus, that he had an absolutely ordinary upbringing within the tradition.  And like John's implicit criticism, leaving the Temple culture to be with the common folks, Jesus similarly criticizes his own people when he begins his ministry. 


            Both men were saying, "The tradition isn't wrong!  Our way of observing it is wrong.  We have come away from the first principles of the Torah, which are to love God and care for those who are harassed and helpless: the widows and orphans, the sick and suffering, the poor, and the despised.  (Pause.)


            I wonder how close to that conviction Mary was.  Don't you?  You have to wonder what the conversations were like around the family dinner table with Joseph and Mary and Jesus.  I would like to think that there were some incredible conversations. 


            "I saw Rachel today from across the street," says Mary.

            "How is she doing?" asks Joseph.

            "Well…it's been hard.  Her husband is sick, so they haven't been making much money.  They don't feel like they're welcome at the synagogue because of the sickness, and they don't want to ask for help, but you know they have to buy food…"


            Jesus sits there, not a man, not a boy—how old would he be?  Around 10?  Has he heard these conversations all his life?  Have Mary and Joseph been helping Rachel across the street? –carrying little amounts of food over there.  Letting them have an old coat, because it's getting cold out there…


            Jacob, the cantor at the synagogue…great guy.  Everyone loves him.  Lovely man.  Mary and Joseph like him a lot.  His wife died a few years ago, and they miss Miriam, too.  Jacob and Miriam always brought that special herbed bread to Sabbath dinners, and Jacob would tell the funniest jokes.  Miriam always rolled her eyes at the old, old jokes.  Jacob still tells those stories, but it's not the same without Miriam rolling her eyes. 


            "Have you seen Jacob lately," asks Mary.

            "No…" says Jacob,  "Well…actually, yes.  He was at the synagogue, but he's not singing as much.  He sits in his seat close to the front, and listens to the rabbi, but there is this far away look in his eyes.  He hasn't told any jokes lately.  I'm beginning to worry about him."

            "Maybe we should go visit him."

            "Maybe we should."


            I have to believe that Mary and Joseph were like this.  I have to believe that Jesus grew up with parents who –okay, were Pharisees—but who represented a righteousness that was a heart level devotion.


            And I don't think it's too much of a stretch to imagine little scenarios where Jesus would have seen the depth of love that was envisioned in the sacred story of the Hebrew people.  It seems to me that Word became flesh through Mary, because God knew—long before he sent Gabriel—that he could trust her. 


            I have a special place in my heart for Mary. Depending on which side of the Episcopal Church's broad spectrum of piety you are, you might be more or less comfortable with her.  I grew up only really acknowledging her presence at Christmas, and even then, she was pretty, silent, and on the whole, inconsequential—except that "someone had to be the mother of Jesus."


            I don't really feel that way anymore.  I look at my son, Peter; and I watch as my beautiful wife cares for him, and it becomes impossible for me to look at Jesus without looking across the room to Mary.  She watches him, carefully, when he is teaching.  She hears every word; she notices every wrinkle in his clothes.  I see his eyes occasionally look over to her, as if to say, "How am I doing?  Is this okay?  Do you approve?" 


            The son looks at the mother, and the mother looks at the son.  Love looking at love, looking back at love. 


            This is a relationship that was formed the moment Gabriel found her, and asked her, "Will you do it?  Will you teach him?  Will you show him the way that he should go?  Will you be the mother of God?"


            And she said, "Yes."






If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving 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 12, 2011

Advent 3B. 11 December 2011.

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


          Last week I spoke at length about John the Baptizer.  I spoke about the fact that he was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were both of Temple priestly families.  John likely grew up expected to succeed his father in the Temple hierarchy, which makes his appearance out in the wilderness, preaching, such a fascinating story. 


          John would likely have been taught all the customs of the Temple—how to offer incense—the theology of his Israelite ancestors, the history, as well as the underbelly of Temple politics. 


          One can see John comparing what he learned from his masters with the way many of the actual faithful knew—saw the disconnect between public and private piety, the corruption of the sacrificial system—and when he coupled that with his own convictions about the people's need for a deeper understanding of God, he emerges—much more understandably—in the wilderness, trying to bring authentic devotion to the people, wanting to bring God out from the shadowy ritual of the Temple to the very midst of real people.





          I am convinced that John's story is rooted in the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament—and that he understood himself to be a continuation of that tradition.  It's a tradition that continues on to this day, and we see it every once in awhile in the man or woman who has an experience of the Holy Spirit that propels them into wanting to spread the Gospel.


          It happens to me, from time to time, that the Gospel of Jesus becomes so incredibly beautiful and important that I want to shout it from the street corners.  But like anyone who has ever felt those stirrings, we inevitably bump into the awkward cultural reality that many have heard, but haven't really heard.


          If you start to talk about the Gospel in mixed company, a.) it's hard to do, b.) it may be considered impolite, and c.) if you live in places like Shenandoah County, most people do have a cursory knowledge of the story, but they don't believe it, or d.) they don't like "the church," or e.) they think Christians are crazy.  And of course, lest we forget, in any multiple choice, there is f.) all of the above.  


          However, I think it's a mistake to believe that it was easier for John the Baptizer.  We don't have all of his story.  We do not see him failing miserably with some people; we meet him as a success, everyone coming to hear him.  People from all over Galilee—even from Jerusalem.  But it's very likely that many people viewed him as a religious fanatic, and didn't listen at all.



          That he wore the camel's hair and leather belt—the clothes of the prophet Elijah—was probably John's attempt to communicate non-verbally who he was and why he was speaking.  Like a department store Santa Claus—you see the costume and you know instantly why he's there and what he wants to do.


          Elijah was a beloved prophet.  The narrative of the Hebrew people spoke of his return—and so it was likely quite jarring to see him.  His sermon was simple, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."


          And as his message was heard, people felt the need to do something to respond, and so the symbolic action of being baptized became part of the experience.  It was a symbolic action going all the way back to the most primitive civilizations—cleansing the body, cleansing the soul.  It's a perfect metaphor, and therefore a perfect liturgical expression. 


          Holy Baptism continues to be the rite of initiation in the Church, but for the disciples of John, baptism was not an eternal sacrament, but a response to their inner conviction of sin and the need to repent.


          John's following grew and grew.  Like many of the prophets, they had disciples—people who followed John around, and formed the "Amen pew," people who felt that God was speaking through John.  So the questions began to arise—who is this man?



          We have been studying John's Gospel in our Advent study on Sunday evenings.  The community that John's Gospel would have been written for were likely—in part—followers of John the Baptizer who had become convinced that Jesus was the Messiah.  This section of John's Gospel (that we read today) is likely a recollection of the confusion John the Baptizer caused.  Is he Elijah; is he the Messiah; is he a prophet? 


          The community of John's Gospel remembered that the leaders of the Jews sent priests and Levites from the Temple to question John about who he is.  Now, remember, John the Baptizer likely grew up in the Temple!  It is somewhat surprising that John didn't simply say, "It's me…John! Son of Zechariah," but that's not the point, is it? 


          The question is "Who are you?"  And John begins by saying, "I am not the Messiah."  So they look at his clothes and say, "What then?  Elijah?"  He said, "No."  "Are you the prophet?"—which is the same as saying "are you Elijah?"  He answers, "No."  So they say, "Well, just tell us…what is your self-understanding, who do you believe yourself to be?  And John replies with the words of Isaiah, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord.'" 


          Well, that's okay.  It's not as much of a threat if he's just out there preaching—and there is a long and venerable history of country preachers.  A man sits in the synagogue listening to the stories, asking questions of the rabbi, and he wants to say a few words at the marriage feast or the bar mitzvah.  Let him speak.  He loves God—we love him.  He's a nice man. 


          The answer almost ended the conversation, but the priests and Levites said, "Well, now wait a minute.  If you are just a voice in the wilderness, why are you baptizing?  What is that all about?"  In other words, the voice is just a voice, but when you add the baptism, you're saying that this is more than just words.


          You see, they really took this as a threat to the power structure of the Temple, and the local power structure of the synagogue.  If John the Baptizer wanted to do this right, he should have started off as a cantor, working his way to rabbi, and then he might be able to get away with a little country preaching.  But this is…  you know…  coloring outside the religious lines.


          So why are you baptizing, John?  He didn't say why.  He almost shrugs off his own baptism in a way.  He says, "I baptize with water."  What's that?  Everyone washes themselves.  You wash you hands all the time.  You take a shower.  Water is just water.  But then he says, "Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." 


          Wouldn't you love to see the looks on their faces?!  Here they came to plug the hole in the dam, and John pokes another hole—a bigger hole.  He says someone else is coming—bigger and better—we don't know who, but he will be the real deal. 



          It seems as if John is almost winking with his answer.  "You're looking for Elijah or the Messiah? Well…there is someone coming who might just fit that bill…I don't know who…but when you head back to your cronies in the Temple, let them know: this isn't over with `ole John.  (Pause.)


          I never really used to like John the Baptizer, but lately I have been spending more time with him.  At first I was put off by his outfit and diet.  The camel's hair and leather, the locusts and wild honey.  I saw him as a sticky mess of honey and hair.  Maybe my imagination was too vivid.


          But John has grown on me a lot lately.  I was actually looking forward to seeing him this Advent, because of his authenticity, and because of his drive.  He really believed—in the way that I think of Abraham believing—that God was speaking to him, and that God was speaking to us all.


          John had a lot of followers, and he probably felt on top of the world when he was preaching and watching these people come forward for baptism.  How could he not?  And he would end up paying for his deeds with his life. 


          You remember the story.  Herodias's daughter danced for Herod at his birthday.  You can see it now, if you close your eyes.  You can hear the laughter and wine being poured, and music and women.  Young women.  And Herod was pleased.



          When the young woman finished her dance, Herod said, "Anything you want, missy.  It's yours."  And Herodias put it into the mind of her daughter, "Ask for the head of John the Baptizer."  And that was that.  (Pause.)


          The Church draws aside with John the Baptizer in Advent.  We do it because John continues to stand just outside of our community, calling us to repentance and renewal.  If you look at his face and clothes, you see a mess of leftover locusts and honey—a tangled, complicated, unrefined, rough sort of creature. 


          If you corner him, he will tell you that he is just "the voice;" and his baptism, just water.  But even that is a glimpse of the kingdom of God, which is coming after him.  In the kingdom of God, "the voice" is also Elijah, the water is also the living water, bread and wine are not just bread and wine.  Everything that follows John carries in its bosom the fullness of God.


          The Holy Spirit is on the move, transforming everything, redeeming and sustaining, causing things that seem trivial to become pregnant with the power of God, who breaks into human history with the humble consent of an ordinary Galilean woman.  We'll meet up with her next week.  But until then, listen to John.  See the future in his gaze, and hear the Good News from his lips. 


          His voice continues to be heard down through the centuries. Sometimes it sounds like a whisper, and sometimes, a shout, but the message is unmistakable for those who stretch their hearts wide enough to believe. 


          The voice says, "Behold, the king is coming."






If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving 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 5, 2011

Advent 2B. 4 December 2011.

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


          If you really want to know someone you almost have to know their family and how they grew up.  I want to tell you about two very devout people named Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were from similar backgrounds.  They were both born into priestly families in the Jewish tradition.  Zechariah was born of the order of Abijah and Elizabeth of the tribe of Aaron.  Aaron, you may recall, was Moses's helper, and from his family, a tribe was formed.


          When I say they were of priestly families in the Jewish tradition, you must understand that the priests were the men who served in the Temple—and the Temple, you will recall, stood in Jerusalem.  It was this massive stone structure with inner courtyards and outer courtyards and places and buildings for everything. 


          There is no way to describe how large and how meaningful that place was for the Hebrew people.  There were many synagogues in which the faithful would worship and learn the sacred story; but, there was only one Temple.  The Temple was the place.  The Temple was where the physical presence of God abided in the stones that Moses had inscribed with the Torah—the Law.  The stone tablets were kept inside a gold encrusted box, called the Arc of the Covenant.  The Arc was kept inside the Holy of Holies, which was the most special room in the Temple. Only the Temple priests could enter the Holy of Holies, and even then, only one day of the year, which is known as Yom Kippur—the day of atonement.


          The Temple had a system of hierarchy that was just as intricate and political as, for instance, Washington DC.  You have your insiders and your outsiders.  You have honest and dishonest.  Inside the system, you know exactly who you are, and who everyone else is.  If you were born to a Temple priest, then you were at the top of the social ladder—you are a Sadducee.   You could not join the priests—you were born one.  You knew who your father's father's father was.  You knew that you would always, always have a place in the system—because the Temple was too large and too important to fail or be destroyed.  We will always have a Temple; we will always need the priests to care for it—guaranteed job security and social status. 


          The Pharisees were a different group—highly devout, very political—but for the most part these were the middle class.   We almost can't see them clearly anymore because Jesus spends so much time fussing with them, and sermons that mention the Pharisees almost never really paint a full picture. 


          I don't mean this to sound offensive—truly—but the modern day equivalent would likely be us.  I'm not saying that we're hypocrites.  Not all Pharisees were hypocrites.  But it's this group of people were the rabbis, the people who went to synagogue regularly and gave to support the widows and orphans.  Yes, some of their folks were corrupt—and yes they got in trouble with Jesus. 

          Most of what Jesus did not like was their lack of care for the less fortunate, and their inflexible social structure.  Jesus did not like that they often taught one thing and did something else—but they were not without merits.  In one place, Jesus says, "Your righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees."  Meaning that they were a decent group—but not as righteous as the followers of Jesus should be.


          But now, as with the Sadducees, if you were born a Pharisee, you were a Pharisee.  You may have become a rabbi, or a cantor, or some other official in the synagogue, but you could not be a Temple priest.


          Zechariah and Elizabeth were advanced in years, and had no children, though they had prayed and prayed for a child.  Zechariah was a priest of the Temple, and one of his duties was to offer incense in the sanctuary—which was the enclosure just before the Holy of Holies.  People would come to pray outside the sanctuary, and the priests would take turns offering incense in the sanctuary.


          One day, while Zechariah was offering incense the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that his prayers had been heard, and the God was allowing Elizabeth to have a son.  Gabriel said, "You will name him John and he will make you very happy, because the Holy Spirit will be upon him.  He will turn the hearts of many of the Israelites toward their God." 




          Zechariah was thrilled, but doubted.  "How can this be?" he asked, "Elizabeth and I are too old to have children."  Gabriel responded, "I'm not the pizza boy, Zechariah.  I stand in the presence of God, and I'm telling you, you're going to have a son.  But because you have not believed, you will be mute, and unable to talk until these things have happened."


          So Zechariah was unable to talk, and Elizabeth did, indeed, become pregnant.  And after she gave birth to a boy, and it was time to circumcise him, they asked for the boy's name—although it was a foregone conclusion what the child's name should be.  Zechariah.  His dad's name.  Temple priest, born to Temple priest, Order of Abijah.  Zechariah was the son of Zechariah, who was the son of Zechariah.  Plain as the nose on your face.


          Elizabeth said, "No; he is to be called John."  "Excuse me, did you say, uhm…John?"  "Yes, John."  Well, now wait a minute.  We need to ask the father.  The family line comes through the mother, but he's a boy, and his father is entitled to pass along the name.  Zechariah is mute.  Unable to speak.  But they ask him just the same, and he said, "His name is John."  And everyone was in shock, because he had been unable to speak until then.    


          And Zechariah praised God and fear came upon everyone—they said to one another "We're going to have to keep our eyes on this child.  He's going to be something special—the hand of the Lord is upon him.  (Pause.)




          The Bible does not tell us anything about John's childhood or puberty, but look at his background.  He was born into the class and culture of the Temple priests.  He was surrounded by a community that prayed and worshipped regularly, and frequently.  He learned the Torah from the best scholars, he learned the intricate choreography of Temple worship, its hierarchy, its privileges.  I am sure that he learned the under belly—he saw the corruption, the pettiness. 


          I would imagine that he played with other little boys, born to Temple priests, and knew the families who were jockeying for position and power.  He would have been tested and graded and scrutinized and altogether expected to become a Temple priest.  Even though his name is different, even though the story of his birth is a little different than the others—his life is mapped out.


          What happened to him?  What happened to make him leave all that behind and become a prophet in the wilderness?  What made him trade the fine clothing—long cassocks and embroidered capes—for camel's hair and a leather belt.


          I think I know.  I think John grew up learning the Torah so well that he looked around at the Temple system and said, "There is very little in the way we do things here that corresponds with God's Law to care for the widows and the orphans and the strangers." 



          "I don't see how we can expect the poor to come and pay the fees we are telling them they need to pay to offer sacrifices in the Temple.  They come and empty their pockets to sacrifice pigeons and sheep, and what happens?  We slaughter them, and then we have to clean them up, and if we don't burn the carcass, who get's the meat?  The people who paid?  No.  We do.  We're eating and drinking at their expense—and here, we're supposed to be helping them


          "And what about the sacrifices?  David said in the Psalms, "For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.  Psalm 51:16,17. 


          "I think we have a problem here.  I think we have some systems that have very little to do with God, and an awful lot to do with keeping the poor down and the rich rich.  And what really turns my stomach about it is that we're doing that in the name of God." (Pause.)


          John knew the Torah.  He started at a very early age and probably knew it better than Zechariah.  He knew about the prophet Elijah, who was supposed to come and herald, or announce, the end of the age—the coming of the Messiah.  John knew that Elijah was described as a hairy man who wore a leather belt.  He knew the prophecy of Isaiah, "The voice of one who cries in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord."



          So John packs up his things, shakes the dust of the Temple off of his sandals.  Shakes off the traditions and the culture and the hierarchy, and he makes his way to the region around the Jordan river.  He puts on the clothes of the prophets of a bygone era.  No one wore camel's hair and a big leather belt.  These were the vestments of Elijah.  To see him out there in the wilderness was to see the Torah come to life.  The Word was becoming flesh in John.  The Word of God, written in the book, leapt off the page and there he was.  Is he….Elijah? 


          John was rooted in an incredibly devout background.  The son of a son of a son of a Temple priest, and with all the learning of his aristocratic background, he shed every vestige to bring the Gospel to the average, poor, lonely people of Israel.  He came to the lost sheep.  And his message was simple, "Repent, prepare…there is someone coming who is more learned and powerful than I am.  I am baptizing you to cleanse you from your sins, but there is a man coming who is going to baptize you with the Spirit of the Living God.  You might think I'm something, but I am not worthy to shine his shoes." (Pause.)


          John's message has become the Church's message in Advent.  A call to repentance, a call to prepare the way for the Messiah.  Like John himself, this time is deeply rooted in tradition, but always new and relevant. 


          It is time to wake up, shake the dust of worthless endeavors off our sandals, and reclaim the true teaching of the Torah—to care for the poor and the helpless, to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.


          John's background made it possible for him to carry the best teachings of the Torah out to the countryside, and made space for the Holy Spirit to move anew.  We all have this ability.  We have all been groomed in the Church with the wisdom of the Torah.  We have feasted at the table of plenty.


          The wilderness is calling.  The mission field awaits.  So, in the spirit of Advent, go, and prepare the way.  Behold, the King of glory is coming.







If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving 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.