Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a period of 40 days of self-examination and self-discipline in preparation for Easter. Those few who were able to attend the Ash Wednesday service heard a lengthy address concerning the origins of Lent. For those here today who missed that, I will read just a brief excerpt: “This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”
This explains why all three of today’s Bible readings deal in some way or other with the sacrament of Baptism. The first reading from Genesis gives us God’s covenant with the remnants of humankind, those who were saved from the Great Flood. As you may recall, God was disgusted with the sinfulness of his people, and he decided to “reboot the system.” He drowned all the creatures on Earth, with the exception of eight members of one family and the animals that they had collected into the ark. God then made a covenant with those eight survivors, and with their descendants, never to do such a thing again.
Now, if we take the story literally, it is horrific. Millions of people must have been drowned. But our ancestors in the faith, including St. Peter, sought a deeper, more spiritual meaning in this tale of mass destruction. And they accomplished this by reading the story of the Flood as a kind of allegory. The waters of the Flood were understood as symbolic of the waters of Baptism. In their understanding, the drowning of the Earth’s many sinners symbolically represented the drowning of our sins in the holy font. Noah’s ark of wood was understood as a symbol of either the wooden Cross of Christ or his salvific Church. Lastly, the covenant of the rainbow that we heard about in the first reading was seen as a prefigurement of the baptismal covenant.
Having just heard the story of the Transfiguration of our Lord, you might very well think that today is the Feast of the Transfiguration. Well, it isn’t! Transfiguration Day falls on August 6. Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and this day brings the Epiphany Season to a liturgical close. It does this by bringing us back full circle to the theme of manifestation. (As you may know, the English word epiphany derives from the Greek word for manifestation.) The season started on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, with the telling of the story of the Magi. That story focused on the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the persons of a few nameless wise men. Today’s Gospel story looks at another epiphany, the divine manifestation of Christ to his three closest disciples: Peter, James, and John.
On the mountain top, we are told, Jesus was transformed in the presence of these disciples. And they got just a glimpse of Jesus’ divine glory. In Mark’s account, which was read today, only Jesus’ clothes are resplendent. In Matthew’s account, Jesus’ face is said to shine like the sun, just as Moses’ face shone when he came down from Mount Sinai. In this vision, the three disciples see Jesus talking with two famous figures from the Hebrew Bible, Moses and Elijah. Here, I suspect, we find ourselves in the realm of the symbolic, with Moses symbolizing the Law and Elijah symbolizing the Prophets. The disciples’ vision of these two biblical figures in conversation with Jesus signifies that Jesus is the fulfillment of both the Law and the Prophets. He is indeed the long-awaited Messiah, foretold in Hebrew Scripture.
The readings today are a problem for any preacher. We have an Old Testament reading about prophets and false prophets, a letter from St. Paul about food offered to idols, and a Gospel story about an exorcism. There would seem to be no discernible common theme. So how should a preacher proceed? Well, the best this preacher can do is to say a few words about each of the readings and then try to persuade you that each reading is, in fact, a divine guide to watching cable news!
Last week, we heard the story of Jesus’ call to Philip and Nathanael, as recounted in the Gospel of John. This week we get yet another story of a call to ministry, this time from Mark’s Gospel. It takes place immediately following Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness being tested by Satan. The news of John the Baptist’s arrest signals the end of Jesus’ testing and the beginning of his active ministry in the world. And so, he leaves the wilderness behind and heads for the Sea of Galilee.
The message that he proclaims at first is one of repentance: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Nowadays, after having heard so many hypocritical televangelists tell us that we need to repent of our sins, we have a hard time hearing Jesus’ message of repentance with fresh ears. And so we get it wrong. We take the word “repent” to mean “to be sorry for our sins.” But that’s not the core meaning of the original Greek term. A more literal translation is “to change one’s way of thinking.” In other words, Jesus was telling those who were willing to listen that the world was on the brink of a radical transformation and they would need to change their outlook. Yes, this would undoubtedly have included being sorry for one’s sins. But the call to change one’s way of thinking includes so much more than that.
Next, we are told, Jesus begins to call a group of disciples to help him in his work, starting with the two brothers Simon Peter and Andrew. Jesus calls these fishermen to follow him and become fishers of people. And they do just that—without a moment’s hesitation! They abandon their livelihood and their families to accept the invitation of this itinerant rabbi. Likewise, the brothers James and John drop what they are doing to follow Jesus. Now, Jesus must have been an incredibly charismatic man and his invitation to join him must have been incredibly persuasive. Even so, these fishermen displayed tremendous courage, and we should give them due credit.
In today’s readings, we get a kind of biblical sandwich: two stories of God’s call to ministry with a teaching about sexual morality stuck in the middle. The focus of this sermon will be on God’s call and our response, so let me deal with St. Paul’s teaching on sexual morality right up front.
Paul is writing to the church in Corinth. They have got it into their heads that, since they are saved, nothing they do here in the material world is of ultimate importance. Consequently, a fringe group in the church has begun to advocate the abandonment of sexual morality. They argue that nothing that they do with their bodies affects their souls. St. Paul thinks otherwise. In short, his teaching is that what we do here in the material world does indeed make a difference.
Now, let’s look at the stories of God’s call to serve. In the story from the Old Testament, we hear about the calling of Samuel to be a prophet. The boy Samuel hears God calling him in the night. Three times, he hears the call, but each time he mistakes it for his master Eli. It is the priest Eli who eventually recognizes the call for what it is and instructs the boy how to respond appropriately: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Samuel does as his master bids him, and the rest is history!
What strikes me in this story is how the discernment of Samuel’s call took place. Samuel was unable to figure out the meaning of his call on his own. He didn’t know how to respond appropriately. It took some consultation to make that clear. Often, I think, that is the case when God calls us to his service. We need others to help us understand what is being asked of us.
For the last three Sundays, I have preached that Advent is a time to rehearse the stories of the first coming of Jesus Christ, as well as to prepare ourselves for his Second Coming. That being said, today’s Gospel reading doesn’t actually focus on either the first or the second coming; instead, it focuses on the antecedent to the first coming, namely, the angel’s Annunciation to Mary and the virginal conception of Jesus.
The angel’s greeting in this story has appealed to the visual imagination of countless Christian artists, from the Middle Ages up to the present day. The museums of Europe are full of paintings of the Annunciation. Typically, you see a pale young woman in a diaphanous blue gown seated on a throne. You see an angel devoutly kneeling before her. You see a dove hovering over the scene. What you don’t see is Jesus! But in truth, the whole point of the Annunciation story is Jesus. Luke shares this early tradition, because it tells us something we need to know about the identity of Mary’s son.
We are told that Jesus is to be born of a virgin and that his father will be none other than the Lord God. The archangel Gabriel explains that the conception will take place in a spiritual manner as God’s power passes over Mary like a shadow. Now, the virginal conception of Jesus is a difficulty for some faithful Christians. And I can understand why. After all, none of us here today has ever witnessed such a thing. Nor are we expected to! The Gospel portrays the event as a one-of-a-kind occurrence. And that’s one main point of this story: Jesus is one of a kind. The other main point is that Jesus comes from God—exactly how is less important.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent. It is traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is Latin for rejoice. This Sunday’s readings are noticeably less gloomy than the readings for the other Sundays of Advent—not a single mention of hellfire or the gnashing of teeth in the Outer Darkness. You will notice that the candle for today on the Advent wreath is rose-colored, not violet. And some parishes mark the semi-festive tone of the day by using rose-colored vestments and paraments. In my humble opinion, rose is just a fancy way of saying pink, and I don’t wear pink! But as you are probably not interested in my color preferences, let’s just move on and take a look-see at these “less gloomy” readings.
The first reading from Isaiah has virtually no hints of gloom at all—just one brief reference to “the day of vengeance of our God”! This oracle is from the third section of the book of Isaiah and dates to the time of the restoration of Jerusalem, after the Israelites had returned from exile in Babylon. If you read in between the lines of this prophecy, you see that things were not as they should be. The prophet is commissioned by God to announce “good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In other words, the people were suffering. But this situation, we are told, will not last forever! “The Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up.” And on that day, the prophet will “greatly rejoice in the Lord.”
It’s already the second Sunday of Advent—how time flies! For many of us, this season is a frenzied time of Christmas shopping for friends and family. But there is more to this season than that. It is a time to pause and to consider the two advents of Christ: the first in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago and the second, when Christ will come again in power and great glory. And as we consider, we also prepare.
Like our ancestors in the faith, Christians today look to prophecy to guide us in our preparation, to point us in the right direction. And like our predecessors, we find that God’s oracles can speak different messages in different times. Today, we heard an excerpt from Isaiah chapter 40 and an echo of that same scripture in the Gospel reading from Mark.
Isaiah spoke of a voice crying out to prepare a highway in the desert for our God. The ravines are to be filled in. The hills are to be leveled. And when this roadwork is done, God’s glory will be revealed to all. (It sounds a bit like a press release for Caltrans!) When these words were originally prophesied, the Jews were living in exile in Babylon, pining for the day they could return home. With this oracle, Isaiah prophesied the eventual vindication of the Jews. A highway would be made through the desert separating Babylon and Jerusalem, and God would lead his people home in glory. (Interestingly, Isaiah doesn’t make it clear who exactly was supposed to build this divine highway, whether God’s angelic minions or the Jews themselves.) This prophecy would seem to have been fulfilled with the Jews’ return from exile and with their rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. But then again, maybe not!
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and the church begins another liturgical year. This season has two distinct foci: the first coming, or advent, of our Lord some 2000 years ago and the second coming, or advent, when Christ will come again in glory to judge the world. This season is marked by darkness, both literally and figuratively. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the days are getting shorter and the nights longer. That’s the literal darkness. The figurative darkness is the spiritual twilight in which we find ourselves living today, this turbulent time between the two Advents of Christ, when the world suffers the birth pangs of the Kingdom.
The church observes the season with the use of violet vestments and paraments. And each Sunday of Advent is marked with the lighting of a new candle on the Advent wreath. As in Lent, the singing of the Gloria on Sundays is forbidden. But unlike Lent, we are permitted to say and to sing Alleluia. Liturgists argue whether the season is a penitential season or rather a season of preparation. Perhaps the correct answer is that it is a bit of both.
Today is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, sometimes known as Christ the King Sunday. It’s meant to be a festive occasion celebrating Jesus Christ’s sovereign rule over all Creation. But to be honest, today’s Gospel reading lets some of the air out of the party balloon! Last week, we were threatened with the Outer Darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This week, we get the threat of “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Not much of an improvement!
Now, I maintain that there is, in fact, Good News in this Gospel reading. But it takes some work to find it, mostly because it takes some work to figure out what Jesus is talking about. The reading is deceptively simple. You might be tempted to sum it up as follows: serve the needy and go to Heaven; ignore the needy and go to Hell. And preachers for the last century or so have, in fact, taken that interpretative route. But the meaning of today’s reading is not so clear. There are two issues with the language of the text that greatly affect its meaning, and they have been a bone of contention since the 3rd Century: Issue #1) What does Jesus mean by “all the nations”? and Issue #2) To whom is Jesus referring when he speaks of “the least of these who are members of my family”?