When I was going through the ordination process, I was asked again and again to explain my experience of God’s call to serve. The question was a bit embarrassing for me, because I didn’t have a dramatic story to tell. For me, God’s call came as a rather vague sense of spiritual hunger. Have you ever been hungry but didn’t know what you wanted to eat? You look through the cupboard, and you root around in the refrigerator trying to figure out what it is that you are craving. Well, that’s what it was like for me when I first experienced God’s call. But God’s call comes in many shapes and forms, and in today’s scripture readings, we have references to three rather dramatic calls to ministry.
First, we heard the story of Isaiah’s call to serve God as his prophet. It begins with a vision of God’s throne room in Heaven. Isaiah sees God himself sitting on a throne, being served by fearsome seraphs singing God’s praise. (And the song they sing should sound familiar, for it is the Sanctus, which we sing at every Eucharist.) Isaiah cowers in fear and shame, bemoaning his sinfulness and the sinfulness of his people. A seraph responds by touching Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal, thereby purifying him from his sin. Ouch! Then God speaks out, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” With unbelievable bravery, Isaiah pipes up, “Here am I; send me!”
Now, the lectionary allows us to stop there, on a high note. But if we do that, we miss Isaiah’s actual commission. As it turns out, Isaiah is given the difficult job of going to his people and pronouncing God’s judgment on them. God warns Isaiah that his message will fall on deaf ears. The Children of Israel are expected to do what American children do when they see or hear what they don’t like. They close their eyes. They put their hands over their ears. And they try to drown out the unwanted message by intoning, “La, la, la, la, la….”
Today we get part 2 of the story of Jesus’ visit to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. You may recall from last week’s Gospel reading that Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. What he read was a mission statement for the Messiah of God: to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim the release of captives, to give sight to the blind, to free the oppressed, and finally, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (also known as the Year of Jubilee). After finishing the reading, Jesus began his sermon with the words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Now, I warned you last week that the story doesn’t end well. I wasn’t exaggerating, was I? At first, the reaction of the congregation is one of amazement. They are astonished that the son of the town carpenter could preach so eloquently. Seemingly, Jesus had his audience right in the palm of his hands. But then, almost inexplicably, Jesus verbally attacks his audience, accusing them of lack of faith, of needing to see miracles before they will believe. Why would he do that? Since we aren’t told why, we just have to guess. My best guess is that, being a prophet, Jesus knew what was in their hearts, maybe even before they knew it themselves. And he does what every prophet of God does when confronting faithlessness, he denounces it.
The congregation couldn’t have enjoyed having their hardness of heart brought to light. But Jesus might have got away with it if only he had stopped there. But he didn’t. He went on to quote two Bible stories about how God had singled out unbelieving Gentiles for his favor. The implication of these two references to Scripture was that he would have more success with unbelieving pagans than with the folks in his home synagogue. Evidently, being unfavorably compared with Gentiles was just too much to take, and the congregation drove Jesus out of the synagogue and tried to push him off a nearby cliff. But Jesus escaped, passing right through the angry mob unscathed.
Two Sundays ago, we heard Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus. According to his chronology, last Sunday’s Gospel reading should have been the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. But instead, the lectionary gave us the wedding feast at Cana. It’s a bit confusing, I’ll admit. Just keep in mind, that Jesus had just come back from 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness when today’s Gospel story begins.
After his ordeal in the wilderness, Jesus then goes home to Nazareth, to the town where he grew up. He does what every good Jew does on a Saturday morning; he goes to the synagogue service. Small synagogues often didn’t have a regular rabbi to preach, so men in the congregation would take turns reading the appointed scriptures and giving some form of commentary or explanation. (Note that in Jesus’ day the preacher stood to read the appointed scripture, then sat to preach. As some of you know, that’s what I like to do at the Tuesday Eucharist.)
It’s not entirely clear whether Jesus read the appointed scripture or one of his choosing. In any case, what he read is a portion of Isaiah that had long been understood to be the job description of the Messiah. Jesus begins his sermon with the words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The rest of the sermon isn’t mentioned. Perhaps the congregation was so stunned by the opening line that the rest of the sermon was a blur!
According to ancient Christian tradition, the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 is linked with three Gospel stories: the visitation of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the wedding feast in Cana. Each of these stories, in its own way, deals with an epiphany, a divine manifestation. In this liturgical year, we are privileged to hear all three of the traditional Epiphany texts over the course of three successive Sundays.
Today’s story takes place at a wedding banquet, which in Jesus’ day was a week-long affair. Friends and family would come and go throughout the week; and the feasting, singing, and dancing would continue each evening. Guests were expected to bring gifts of food and drink to help the groom keep the party going. In return for the wedding gifts, the groom was honor-bound to entertain his guests in style. And if he didn’t, the guests could take their host to court!
In today’s story, disaster strikes. The wine runs out. Jesus’ mother notices the problem and asks her son to do something about it. She realizes that the groom would be publicly shamed and legally liable if the celebration had to be cut short.
Last Sunday was the feast of the Epiphany. In the Western Church, the focus of that feast day is the manifestation of the Christ child to the Gentile Magi. But in the Eastern Church, the focus is the Baptism of Jesus. So in a sense, this Sunday is a kind of liturgical tribute to the tradition of the Eastern Church. And since the focus of the day is baptism, the Episcopal Church commends this day for baptisms or, if there are no baptisms, for the renewal of baptismal vows. And so that is exactly what we will do right after this sermon.
Jesus’ baptism is a bit of an anomaly. It doesn’t make sense on the face of it. John the Baptist is baptizing the people who come to him to cleanse them from sin. Yet, Christian scripture affirms that Jesus was without sin. So why did he need to be baptized? Moreover, John was, by his own admission, unworthy to perform the baptism—he wasn’t even worthy enough to touch Jesus’ shoes! I can think of only one reason for Jesus’ requesting baptism—as an act of solidarity. It was an act of solidarity with his cousin John, endorsing the validity of John’s ministry. But more importantly, it was an act of solidarity with the sinners standing in line by the banks of the River Jordan, and more generally, with all of sinful humanity as it moves step by step towards God’s all-forgiving love. Jesus, the Incarnate Word, submitted to baptism for the same reason that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, as an act of salvific solidarity.
And similarly, when we submit to baptism or are brought to baptism by our parents and godparents, it is a sign that we, in turn, wish to be in solidarity with God in Christ and to be members of his Body in the world.
Merry Christmas! (And in case you wonder why I’m still saying “Merry Christmas” five days after Christmas Day, it’s because, in our tradition, Christmas lasts twelve days.)
For those of you who attended the Christmas Day Eucharist, the Gospel reading today must sound rather familiar. For reasons beyond my knowledge, the appointed Gospel reading for the First Sunday after Christmas is the basically the same reading as that of Christmas Day. The only difference is that four additional verses have been added to the end.
Now, if I were a particularly lazy person, I might just give you the same sermon that I gave on Christmas Day. Well, I may be lazy, but I’m not that lazy! So what I intend to do is to give you a brief summary of my previous sermon and then elaborate on one point that I think could benefit by further explanation.
Today’s Gospel reading serves as a prologue to the whole Gospel of John. It is like the overture to a musical or opera. It introduces the audience to themes that will be elaborated more fully later in the work. The purpose of this particular overture is to introduce us to Jesus Christ. But it goes about it in an unexpected way. St. Matthew and St. Luke start where most biographers would be expected to begin, with the story of Jesus’ birth. St. John starts at the very beginning, the beginning of the Cosmos!
He tells us about the relationship between God and a divine being called “the Word.” Now, in the original Greek, the name of this being is Logos. Yes, it can be translated as Word. But it can also mean Reason or Order. This Logos existed with God before time itself. Creation was mediated through him. And in a sense, one can even say that the Logos is God. This pre-existent divine person is the one who maintains order in the midst of chaos, the one who supports life in the midst of death, the one whose divine Truth illumines the darkness of ignorance.
This idea that God became human has a special name in Christian theology: the Incarnation. And as you know, our parish is named after that doctrine. In a nutshell, the doctrine of the Incarnation claims that the divine Logos, a Person of the Holy Trinity, came to us as one of us in order to save us. As St. Athanasius puts it, the Logos “became human that we might become divine … [and he] endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality.” Out of love, the Logos emptied himself of his deity and took the form of a finite, mortal human being. And he endured all that it means to be human, including death.
Merry Christmas, everybody! Welcome to Christ’s Mass!
In case you haven’t already figured it out, today is a special day for Christians. In the Episcopal calendar, it is ranked as a “principal feast” of the Church. But it’s an especially special day for this parish. You see, Christmas is the preeminent feast of the Incarnation, the saving event for which this parish is named. So in “church speak,” Christmas Day is our “feast of title.”
As is my custom, I will be focusing my sermon on the Gospel reading. To be honest, this prologue to John’s Gospel is somewhat abstract and difficult to understand. Now, if you attended Midnight Mass or a sunrise service on Christmas, you would get the much more understandable story of Jesus’ birth from Luke’s Gospel. You would hear about the infant lying in a manger and about angels from the highest heaven announcing the Messiah’s birth to a group of lowly shepherds. But if you attend the main Christmas Day service, this service, you get something completely different. You get an excerpt from a mystical poem about the doctrine of the Incarnation. (To be honest, I miss the charming stories of St. Luke, so to make it up to you, we will be singing a couple of carols about “angels from the realms of glory” and “certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.”)
Today is the third Sunday of Advent. It is traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is Latin for rejoice! And we mark the semi-festive tone of the day by lighting a pink candle on the Advent wreath, instead of a purple one. Some parishes go so far as to have the celebrant vest in pink vestments. (Thankfully this parish doesn’t own pink vestments!) Likewise, the appointed Bible readings for this Sunday are supposed to be markedly less gloomy than on the other Sundays of Advent. Too bad no one informed St. Luke!
Most of you are familiar with the old saying that if you want to get a donkey to move you need a carrot and a stick. The carrot is dangled in front of the donkey to entice it forward. The stick is used to threaten it from behind. I sometimes think that is how God deals with us sinners. The first two readings today are the carrot. The reading from Luke’s Gospel, containing the threats of John the Baptist, is the stick. Since I would like to end this sermon on a happy note. I’m going to start out with the stick.
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
Happy new year! In the U.S. civil calendar, the new year starts on January 1. In the Chinese lunar calendar, the new year usually falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. But the church’s new year starts on the first Sunday of Advent, which just happens to be today. The basic meaning of the English word advent is “coming.” In Christian terms, it refers more specifically to the Two Comings of the Messiah. The first is the coming of the Messiah some 2000 years ago in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The second is the anticipated coming of the Messiah on the Day of Judgment. And in one way or another, all of today’s readings deal with the Coming of the Lord.