Echoes of the Epiphany resound in today’s Gospel reading. Last Sunday was the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, and we heard St. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism. As I stated last week, that account is the principal reading in the Eastern Church on the feast of the Epiphany, whereas in the Western Church the story of the Magi is proclaimed. Today we get a second echo of the Epiphany in John the Baptist’s account of Jesus’ baptism—or to be precise, in his remembrance of that recent event.
In Matthew’s account, Jesus sees the heavens open up and the Spirit descend like a dove. It isn’t absolutely clear if anyone else sees what Jesus sees, or hears what he hears. St. John’s Gospel answers that question. John the Baptist also saw the descent of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism. And for him this was the sign he had been waiting for that the One who was coming into the world had arrived.
The Baptist announces to all within hearing distance that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” One wonders exactly what he means by this curious expression. Elsewhere, Jesus is proclaimed as the great Shepherd of the sheep, a reference to his status as the Messiah. But here, he is not the shepherd, but the sheep, and a baby one at that! The most common interpretation of this metaphor is that John is equating Jesus with a paschal lamb, the animal that was slaughtered, roasted, and eaten once a year in commemoration of the Exodus. The blood of a paschal lamb was a symbol of redemption. Recall that at the first Passover, the Israelites smeared their lintels with the blood of a lamb, so as to be spared from God’s wrathful visitation upon Egypt. While the killing of a paschal lamb was not originally a sacrifice, by Jesus’ day, when only the priests in the Temple were permitted to slaughter the lambs, the slaughter and communal sharing of a lamb was commonly thought of as a Temple sacrifice. We see this sacrificial understanding of the Passover when St. Paul writes, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us,” a phrase that should sound rather familiar.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
I would like to start out by commending you all for braving this morning’s storm to attend church. By so doing, you have undoubtedly added to your treasures in heaven. Now for the actual sermon!
Last Friday 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 Gentiles in the persons of the Magi. But in the Eastern Church, the focus is the Baptism of Jesus. So in a sense, this Sunday is a liturgical tip of the hat to our Eastern brethren. And as the focus of the day is baptism, the Episcopal Church commends this day either for baptisms or for the renewal of baptismal vows. That explains the insert found in your bulletin.
Our readings begin with a poem about God’s Servant, taken from the 42nd chapter of Isaiah. I call it a poem, because the Hebrew is written in a classically poetic style. But the reading comes across more as a service of installation or commissioning than an actual poem. The unnamed Servant of God is first commended to the listeners. Then, he is directly addressed by one who speaks on behalf of God. We learn that this anonymous figure has received God’s Spirit and will be a bringer of justice to all nations, not just to Israel. He will be a light to open the minds of those who live in spiritual darkness. And he will free those who are imprisoned, both literally and metaphorically. What is particularly striking about this Servant of God is that he will be exceedingly gentle to the weak and the vulnerable: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Now, the identity of this Servant of God is a source of some debate between Judaism and Christianity. Our Jewish brothers and sisters see the Servant as a personification of Israel, while we Christians have consistently maintained that the Servant of God is none other than Jesus Christ. And today’s Gospel reading, we see that Isaiah’s proposed service of commissioning was, in fact, fulfilled in the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan.
Merry Christmas! Today is a special day for all Christians, but it is an especially special day for the Church of the Incarnation. Since this parish isn’t named after a saint, we don’t have an annual patronal feast. Instead, we have a feast of title, and today is it—the feast of the Incarnation!
If you attend Midnight Mass or a sunrise service in an Episcopal church on Christmas, you get the story of baby Jesus from Luke’s Gospel. But if you attend the main Christmas Day service, you get something very different. Despite the fact that you see a papier-mâché stable in front of the altar, you didn’t, in fact, hear the story of Jesus’ birth in a stable. No shepherds in the field. No angelic host singing, “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” Instead, you got an excerpt from a mystical poem about the doctrine of the Incarnation. To be honest, I miss the charming stories of St. Luke, but this profound poem of St. John is, in fact, the very foundation of the Christian understanding of Jesus Christ. So take a deep breath, and let us plunge into its mystical depths!
As does any good storyteller, St. John begins at the beginning—in this case, the very beginning! While St. Luke starts his Gospel with the birth of a baby prophet, St. John begins with the birth of the Cosmos, and he tells us about the relationship between God and a divine being called “the Word.” This Word existed with God before time itself was created, and all Creation was mediated through him. In the original Greek, the name of this being is Logos. Yes, it can be translated as Word. But it has other translations that are just as pertinent here, such as Reason or Order.
The existence of such a divine Logos was the subject of both Greek and Jewish speculation well before the time of St. John. This pre-existent divine person was understood to be the giver of reason and order to the Universe. He is the one who maintains structure in the face of chaos. He is the one who maintains the possibility of life in the midst of deadly disorder. He is the one who allows for the existence of light in the midst of darkness.
For John, the Logos is also God’s Word spoken to the Cosmos and to us. He is the divine self-expression of God’s love for the whole world. This divine self-expression of God’s love was “spoken” by God at Creation; was proclaimed to Israel by their prophets; walked among us as a preacher of peace; and continues to speak to us in Nature and in Church, in starry sky and in Holy Scripture, in the companionship of a pet and in the Blessed Sacrament. According to John, the unity between God and the Logos is such that one can even say that the Logos is God.
This is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. And today we consider the first advent of our Lord. More precisely, we look at the time just before Jesus’ first advent, namely, the annunciation to Joseph. Now the art world has always favored Luke’s story of the annunciation to Mary over Matthew’s story of the annunciation to Joseph. I don’t know about you, but I could not possibly rank one story above the other. Each has its own artistic and theological merits.
But before addressing the Gospel, let me say something about the first reading from the prophet Isaiah. We get this story about a prophecy to King Ahaz for one reason, and one reason only. It serves as a proof-text in the Gospel of Matthew. The original context of this prophecy is the Syro-Ephraimite War. King Ahaz is besieged by his neighbors and fears that Jerusalem will fall. At God’s behest, Isaiah comes to reassure him with a prophetic sign that Jerusalem will not fall, at least not yet. King Ahaz, feigning piety, refuses to accept a sign. Well, he gets one anyway! Isaiah famously proclaims, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and she shall name him Immanuel.” The child in question was probably King Ahaz’s future son, or just possibly Isaiah’s.” And there is no reason to believe that the young woman in question conceived in any way other than the normal way of doing it. For some reason or other, our lectionary omits the final verse of the prophecy, which portends the future fall of the kingdom to Assyria.
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. And some parishes mark the semi-festive tone of the day by using rose-colored vestments and paraments, instead of violet ones. (But in my humble opinion, rose is just a fancy way of saying pink, and I refuse to wear pink!) But as you are probably not terribly interested in my color preferences, let’s just move on and take a look-see at those “less gloomy” readings.
Isaiah by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel
The first reading from Isaiah really has no hints of gloom at all. It prophesies the return of the people to Zion in the midst of a sweeping transformation almost beyond imagining. Isaiah prophesies that those who are marginalized due to disabilities will be healed and reincorporated into society. And not only will the people be transformed, even the wilderness through which they pass will become a luxuriant garden. Finally, we are told, that “they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” What a fitting reading for Rejoice Sunday!
The context of the original prophecy was the Babylonian Exile, which was to last some 70 years. The prophet wrote this inspired poem to give hope to a captive people as they awaited the day of their return. And return they did, but the blind and the lame and the deaf and the mute were not restored to wholeness, and the wilderness was not transformed into a new Eden. The prophecy was fulfilled only in part, it seems. Christian scripture hints that there is another, deeper fulfilment of this prophecy yet to occur. We find references to this in the Gospel reading from Matthew. It implies that the complete fulfillment of this prophecy will come only at the consummation of the Kingdom of God, which began to break into this world with the first coming of the Messiah and will reach its fullness only at his second coming.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and the church begins another liturgical year. We ought to call the season Advents, with an “s.” Because this season has two distinct foci: the first coming, or advent, of our Lord some 2000 years ago and the Second Coming when Christ will come again in glory to judge the world. This season is marked with 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 of which I spoke. The figurative darkness is the spiritual eventide in which we find ourselves living today, that turbulent time between the two Advents of Christ when the world suffers the birth pangs of the Kingdom.
The church marks the season with the use of violet vestments and paraments, just as in Lent. And as in Lent, the singing of the Gloria on Sundays is forbidden. But unlike Lent, we are allowed 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. For spiritual preparation often includes penitence.
The world outside the church has already turned its eyes to Christmas. Trees have already been decorated. Strings of colored lights are going up on houses even as I speak. And Macy’s is already playing Christmas carols over its loudspeakers. But those of us inside the church are asked to slow down a bit, to allow ourselves some time to contemplate the coming feast of Christmas, and just as importantly, to allow ourselves some time to contemplate the Second Coming of Christ.
The first reading from Isaiah speaks of the prophesied Kingdom of God. In that Kingdom, all nations will worship one God together. Through God’s arbitration, all hostilities between nations will cease. War and conflict will be things of the past, and there will be peace and abundance on earth. This is God’s will for us. And the Church exists for one express purpose: to make sure that this Kingdom is well populated!
St. Paul advises us to wake up. He warns us that the Second Coming will soon be upon us. Well, it’s clear that he was wrong about the timing. He expected the Day of Judgment in his lifetime, and that didn’t happen. Instead, two millennia have passed. And after 2000 years, it is hard to maintain Paul’s sense of expectancy. But there is something to be gained if we make the effort! Though we may find it hard to believe that the Last Day will happen in our lifetime, it is not so hard to believe that we could very well experience our own personal Last Day at any time. All of us here know just how quickly death can come upon us. So St. Paul’s warning to lay aside the works of darkness and to clothe ourselves with the protective garment of life in Christ is as apt today as it was when he originally wrote it. And we would do well to heed his words.
This very same message is driven home by Jesus himself in the Gospel reading from Matthew. Jesus reminds us that, in the time of Noah, the people who were destined for destruction went about their daily lives oblivious to their situation until it was too late to act. Jesus goes on to say that at the Last Day some will be gathered up by angels for salvation while others in the same household will be abandoned to their fate. When this Day of Judgment will occur even Jesus doesn’t know. And so he counsels his followers to forgo sleep and to be spiritually prepared at all times.
As someone who suffers from occasional insomnia, the prospect of staying awake for the rest of my life does not sound appealing. But no need to fear! Spiritual wakefulness does not have the same deleterious effects that literal sleep deprivation has. Quite the opposite! Spiritual wakefulness just makes our spirits all the stronger. Both Jesus and St. Paul ask us to be alert at each moment of our lives to what God is calling us to do in that moment. And by so doing, we prepare ourselves to meet our Maker. Every moment of our lives presents us with decisions, with choices. And we, as disciples of Jesus Christ, are expected to make choices that are loving. We are to ask ourselves at each juncture, How might I love God and my neighbor in this moment? Now, we are only human, and sometimes we will get it wrong. The important thing is that we persist in the endeavor. And with practice, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can hope to grow in virtue and righteousness. As with so many things, practice makes perfect! Just as athletes, dancers, and musicians train their bodies to perform without conscious thought, developing “muscle memory,” so we can train ourselves in righteousness, so that we can act virtuously without even thinking about it.
In a sense, we are being asked to live as if—as if the Kingdom of God were already among us in its fullness. How do we do this? Well, the Scriptures have given us plenty of guidance as to how to go about it. We have the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount: to be poor in spirit, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be pure in heart, to be peacemakers, and so on. Jesus advises his disciples to keep the three traditional Jewish acts of piety: to pray, to fast, and to give alms. We have a hidden commandment in the Lord’s Prayer: to forgive others their trespasses. We have the continuing guidance of the Ten Commandments. And finally, we have the Summary of the Law: to love God and to love our neighbor. We are not wanting for instruction in righteous living.
Admittedly, it takes real effort to maintain such righteousness. And it takes attentiveness. It’s so easy to fall asleep spiritually. Going to church can get to be a chore, so maybe we begin to go just once a month. Surely that’s enough to satisfy God! Maybe we cut back our giving to charity. After all,they’renot going to take care of us if we run out of money! Maybe we decide it would be absolutely delicious to hold a grudge against someone who hurt us. Clearly, someone like that doesn’t deserve forgiveness! Then there’s the task of daily prayer—it can be so tedious and time-consuming, and it doesn’t do any real good anyway. …And so we drift asleep.
Well, wake up and smell the coffee, folks! “The night is far gone, the day is near.”Now is the time to prepare for our judgment. So, let us continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers. Let us persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord. Let us proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. Let us seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. And last but not least, let us strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. Brothers and sisters in Christ, know this: if we but keep these promises made at our baptism, we will be judged worthy to live with Christ in his Kingdom forever!
Join the younger boys and girls of the San Francisco Boys Chorus and the San Francisco Girls Chorus in songs for the holidays to lift your spirits and warm your hearts for the winter. Taking part will be the intermediate chorus of the San Francisco Boys Chorus under their Director, Ildikó Thész Salgado, and Level III of the San Francisco Girls Chorus under their Director Luçik Aprahämian. For more information click here
Date & Time: Sunday December 11, 7 pm Venue: Incarnation Episcopal Church, 1750 29th Avenue, San Francisco Donations: $20 General, $15 Seniors/Students Buy tickets online
Blessed be the God of our salvation, who bears our burdens and forgives our sins.
I know that many here today are tired from all their work at the bazaar, and I wish that we had a Gospel reading that might renew and refresh. But we haven’t! Today’s Gospel reading isn’t the least bit cheerful. It speaks of the future destruction of the Jewish Temple and the persecution of the disciples in terms that can only be called apocalyptic. But perhaps this reading is fitting for the times we find ourselves in, for these are undoubtedly turbulent times. I can’t recall a presidential campaign in my lifetime that has been as nasty and base as what we have had to endure these last eighteen months. And I can’t ever recall the level of shock and dread that half this nation seems to be experiencing post-election, myself included.
Perhaps, just perhaps, one aspect of today’s Gospel reading might shed some light on the state of this divided country. You see, the disciples looked at the Temple in all its glory, and they saw a towering symbol of strength, and beauty, and permanence. Jesus, we are told, saw something very different; he saw what that Temple was about to become, a ruin, where not one stone would be left upon another.
I feel like that’s what’s going on in this country today. Half the nation looks at this country and sees a swamp that needs to be drained, a failed democracy that has lost its greatness. The other half sees a nation slowly but surely recovering from economic disaster and experiencing normal cultural growing pains. The recent presidential campaign has only exacerbated this profound disparity of worldview.
In the season after Pentecost, the Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading are supposed to share a common theme. Sometimes one is hard put to figure out what that theme is, but that’s not the case today. There is a clear and definite theme to today’s readings. And that theme is made explicit in the Collect of the Day: we are to “persevere with steadfast faith.” We find perseverance in the story of Jacob struggling all night with his mysterious opponent. We find the author of 2 Timothy urging his readers to “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.” And we find perseverance in the parable that Jesus tells about a widow and an unjust judge, which will be the main focus of this sermon.
Now, Luke tells us that the parable of the widow and the unjust judge is about “the need to pray always and not to lose heart.” And I won’t gainsay him. But I think that there is more to be learned from this parable than that. In this story, a widow repeatedly comes before a judge who has no respect for God or man. Again and again, she appears in court demanding justice. Now, in Jesus’ day, a woman would not ordinarily plead a case in court. That was the job of her nearest male relative. So we may assume that she had no male relatives and was forced by her need to transgress a social boundary and plead her own case before the unjust judge. She fails again and again, but rather than give in to despair, she bravely, and obstinately, keeps on demanding the justice that is due her.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This coming Tuesday is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of this city. And some Episcopal churches in town are using the readings for St. Francis’ feast day, instead of the regularly prescribed readings for this Sunday. One motivation might be to give greater honor to our city’s patron. But I suspect there may be another motivation: to avoid preaching on this Sunday’s readings! Today’s Gospel reading is particularly difficult, even a bit offensive. But, in my humble opinion, that is all the more reason for wrestling with it, instead of avoiding it!
The Gospel story seemingly starts with the apostles’ demanding that Jesus grant them more faith. But really, this is the middle of the story. The lectionary omits the beginning. It turns out that what evoked this response from the apostles was a teaching on forgiveness. Jesus had just told them, “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” It’s when the apostles hear this that they ask the Lord for help, crying out, “Add to our faith!” And who can blame them! Forgiving may very well be the hardest thing that followers of Jesus are asked to do, and it takes faith to sustain a life of forgiveness.
In the English translation we heard read today, Jesus prefaces his response with the words: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed….” The translators have tried to fix what they see as a grammatical error in the Greek. But by doing this, they give a wrong impression that this is an instance of what grammarians call “a condition contrary to fact.” Paraphrasing, Jesus seems to be saying, “If you had even the smallest amount of faith, which unfortunately you haven’t, you would be able to do great things.” The clear implication is that the disciples are faithless.
But a more accurate rendering from the Greek would be “If you have faith like a mustard seed…” Note the two differences from the translation we heard read. First, by using the word have, instead of had, Jesus implies no lack of faith in his listeners. The condition that Jesus proposes may, in fact, be factual. Second, Jesus never mentions the size of the mustard seed. He speaks of having “faith like a mustard seed”? Paraphrasing, Jesus is saying, “If you have the kind of faith that can sprout and grow like a mustard seed, which you may very well have, then you will be able to do great things.”