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Two Lenten Epiphanies

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

All three readings today deal in some way with the subject of life coming out of death.

Ezekiel tells us of a vision in which he looks over an ancient battlefield strewn with the desiccated bones of Israelite soldiers. He is told to prophesy to the bones and bring them back to life. And he does! Helpfully, Ezekiel also tells us the meaning of his vision: the dispirited and subjugated people of Israel, exiled in Babylon, will be given a new spirit of life and will be returned to their home. (I don’t know about you, but this prophecy makes me long for the day that we can return to our parish home!)

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St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, contrasts life in the flesh with life in the Spirit. Life alienated from God and focused on self, we are told, is no life at all, but living death. Life in the Spirit, on the other hand, yields peace in the present and eternal life at the Resurrection.

Finally, we come to the story of the raising of Lazarus (whose name appropriately means “God helps”). Jesus is in the land across the Jordan, when a messenger arrives from Bethany with a message from his friends Mary and Martha begging him to come heal their brother Lazarus, who is seriously ill. By the time Jesus and his entourage arrive, Lazarus has been dead four days. This detail is significant, because according to popular Jewish belief, the soul stayed in the vicinity of the body for three days and then departed to its final destination. So, after four days, the expectation would be that the soul was irretrievable.

After speaking with the two sisters and seeing their grief, Jesus is moved to tears. This response seems like such a small thing. But it really isn’t. Ponder this for a moment. The Son of God, the Incarnate Word, the third person of the Holy Trinity, is moved to tears at the sight of human grief and suffering. In the words of Psalm 8, “What is man that you should be mindful of him?”

Jesus then proceeds to the tomb and orders that it be opened. He prays to his Father, and in a voice loud enough to be heard in Hades, yells out to Lazarus: “Lazarus, come out!” And the now-resurrected man comes out of the cave, free to resume his life.

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There is so much that we can learn about Jesus, and his Father, from this account. But right now, it is enough if we come away with two minor epiphanies: 1) Jesus cares about our suffering and 2) Jesus is more powerful than death. With the spread of COVID-19 and all the ensuing deaths, I have no doubt that Jesus is weeping for the world even now. For he knows our pain, our grief, our fear. Likewise, I have no doubt that, just at Jesus did with Lazarus, so he will raise up all the faithful who have died in him. For “I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though he die. And everyone who has life, and has committed himself to me in faith, shall not die for ever.” Believe this and live!

© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Why Was This Man Born Blind?

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

Today’s Gospel story opens with Jesus’ disciples asking him whose sin was the cause of a man’s blindness, his or his parents. It seems a strange question to our ears. I doubt that most people today believe that their sins will be visited on their offspring. But in Jesus’ day, this idea was still prevalent. That explains the possibility of his blindness being due to his parents’ sin. But how on earth could his blindness be due to his sin, if he was born blind? The answer, of course, is that he must have sinned in the womb. According to Jewish tradition, this was possible. For example, if the mother worshiped an idol while pregnant, the fetus was considered guilty of idolatry as well.

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In any case, Jesus dismisses both possibilities. The man’s blindness was due neither to his parents’ sin nor to his own. Instead, Jesus says, “He was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him.” This sentence is ambiguous. It can be paraphrased in two very different ways. “He was born blind on purpose: that God’s power might be revealed through his miraculous healing.” In other words, God deliberately made him blind at birth, and allowed him to suffer, in order that a miracle might be performed years later. I reject that understanding and the theology that it represents. The paraphrase I prefer is this: “Yes, this man was born blind, but as a result, God’s power will be revealed through his miraculous healing.” Here, there is no implication that God willed his blindness, only that good will now come of it. I prefer to think that God was pleased to bring good from a bad situation that he had not willed, rather than that God actually willed the bad in order to bring about the good. Of course, my preferred paraphrase doesn’t really answer the question of why the man was born blind!

Looking at the state of the world today, with the rapid spread of the coronavirus, we too might ask the question, Why? But I’m not sure that there is a satisfactory answer. We know that God loves us. We know that God gave his only Son to save us. And yet God allows a virus to kill innocent people. It is a profound mystery that we cannot hope to solve in this life! So, instead of fruitlessly asking why, perhaps we should ask another, more hopeful question: What good will God bring from this terrible pandemic? Ponder that instead, and put your hope in God!

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© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Tell Them, “Come and See!”

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

Last Sunday, as you may recall, was the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, and we heard St. Matthew’s account of that event. Today we get a second version of that event, taken from the Gospel of St. John. Now, in Matthew’s account, Jesus sees the heavens open up and the Spirit descend like a dove. But it isn’t absolutely clear if anyone else sees what Jesus sees, or hears what he hears. Well, St. John’s Gospel clarifies the matter. 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 finally arrived.

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The Baptist announces to all within hearing distance that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” That’s a rather curious expression, and the meaning is not self-evident. The most common interpretation of this metaphor is that John is equating Jesus with the paschal lamb, the animal that was slaughtered, roasted, and eaten in a communal meal each year at the Passover in commemoration of the Exodus. Now, the sacrifice of the paschal lamb was a symbol of the redemption of Israel. But St. John the Baptist goes further when he states that this sacrificial lamb takes away the sin of the world. This is something completely new. In Judaism there was no sacrifice that took away the sin of the whole world.

As the Church Fathers noted long ago, there are also eucharistic overtones to the Baptist’s paschal metaphor, overtones that elucidate its meaning for us today. For just as a paschal lamb was sacrificed and then shared in a communal meal, so Jesus was sacrificed on the Cross, and the Sacrament of his Body and Blood is shared in a communal meal, namely, Holy Communion.

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If the Gospel reading for today had stopped halfway through, it would have been enough. For we would have gained a more profound understanding of the true identity of Jesus: he is both God’s Son and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

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Gifts of Gratitude for the Messiah

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

Today, we officially celebrate the Second Sunday after Christmas and the last day of the Christmas season, and we unofficially celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. I say, “unofficially,” for while tomorrow is the actual feast day, the Gospel readings are, in fact, identical. So you can consider this a preview of coming attractions, like a movie trailer.

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The Epiphany is an ancient Christian feast day, even older than Christmas. Like Christmas, it is a feast of the Incarnation. Since Incarnation happens to be the title of our parish, it is quite fitting that three of our stained-glass windows have to do with the visitation of the Magi, a story long-associated with the Epiphany. We have three crowns, three gifts, and a miraculous star. (You get extra credit if you can spot them later!) But the Epiphany differs from Christmas, that other great feast of the Incarnation, in that it has a narrower focus: the appearance of the Incarnate God to the Gentiles.

The Gospel reading for today is that well-known story of the Magi. The story is too well-known, in fact, for we think that we know more than we really do! We think that there are precisely three Magi, despite the fact that the Bible never specifies their number. We think that the Magi are really foreign kings, despite there being no mention of this in the Scriptures. We think that we know their names—Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar—information St. Matthew never provides. And we even think we know better than the Gospel about where the event took place. For the Gospel says that the Magi visited the Holy Family in a house, whereas every nativity scene in the world shows the Magi headed for a stable.

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So what do we really, really know? Just this…some unknown number of Magi, Zoroastrian priests from Persia, travel in search of a great king whose birth has been foretold in the heavens. But astrology gets them only so far. When they get to Jerusalem, they must consult with Jewish religious scholars to determine what only divine revelation can tell them, the exact location of the Messiah’s birth.

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Jesus, Our Emmanuel

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

This is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. And today we focus on a time just beforeJesus’ first advent, namely, the angelic annunciation to Joseph.

But before addressing that Gospel story, let me say something about the first reading from 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—he is afraid that God’s intervention might limit his political options. Well, Ahaz gets a sign anyway! Isaiah famously proclaims, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and she shall name him Immanuel.” He promises that, by the time the child is weaned, the threat to Jerusalem will be gone. There is no mention of a virgin birth, no hint that the child will be the Messiah.

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Jumping ahead to the Gospel reading, we get another prophesied birth, that of Jesus of Nazareth. Now, Joseph and Mary were engaged, which in Jewish law was as binding as marriage. And according to Jewish custom, the engaged couple were not to have physical relations before marriage. Somehow, Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, and he knows that he is not the father. As a righteous man, it is his duty to publicly denounce Mary for adultery. But Joseph defies the demands of the Law; instead, he decides to spare her from shame and to divorce her quietly. Before he can proceed with his plan, Joseph is visited in a dream by an angel. He is told that the unborn child is from the Holy Spirit and that he should proceed with the marriage. The angel goes on to say that the child will be a boy and that his name should be Jesus (which means “The Lord is salvation”), because he is destined to save his people from their sins.

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Time To Testify

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

As we approach the liturgical season of Advent, we begin to hear Bible readings that make us uncomfortable, oracles and predictions about the End Time. Even the Gospel reading, which is supposed to be about Good News, sounds a whole lot like bad news. Well, in the words of Mick Mulvaney, “Get over it!” Human sin has consequences.

The first reading today from the book of the prophet Malachi talks of a great day of judgment, “when all the arrogant and all evil-doers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up.” Fortunately for us, there is an alternative: to revere God and to keep his commandments. For those who do these two things, the dreadful day of judgment will instead bring healing.

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But being good is tiring. Being merciful is tiring. Forgiving others is tiring. Being righteous is just plain hard work. And sometimes, we are tempted to sit back and take a rest from following the Lord. Maybe we decide to skip church one Sunday. Maybe we decide to cut our pledge. Maybe we decide to stay home and keep quiet when our country is falling apart right before our very eyes. Well, in the words of St. Paul, “Brothers and sisters, do not weary in doing what is right.”

But is the fight for justice and righteousness worth it? Will good ultimately win out? The answer to both questions is a resounding yes. But to be absolutely honest, it is going to get worse before it gets better—much worse! In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus and his disciples contemplate the Jewish Temple, the center of their world and the portal to their God. And Jesus predicts that it will fall into ruins.

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The God of the Living

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

Today’s Gospel reading from Luke is the story of a convoluted religious debate between Jesus and some Sadducees. The topic seems to be marriage in the afterlife. But the real topic is the existence of the resurrection of the dead. You see, the Sadducees were a priestly sect who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. Instead, they believed that, when a person died, his spirit sank into the ground and remained in a dark and joyless realm, known as “Sheol,” separated from God forever. The Sadducees even had a slogan about this dismal doctrine: “The Lord is God, not of the dead, but of the living.”

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Now, the Sadducees in today’s Gospel undoubtedly knew that Jesus taught the resurrection of the dead. And they wanted to publicly ridicule his teaching. So they posed a hypothetical question. What if seven brothers, one after the other, all married the same woman? When they had all died and then been resurrected, which man would own the woman as his wife? (Clearly, it would be an abomination for all seven to share ownership in the same wife!) Now, the Sadducees couldn’t care less about marriage after the resurrection. Their true aim is to discredit belief in a resurrection life!

But, as you know, Jesus is a rather clever fellow! He knows right away what these Sadducees are trying to do. He does address the question of marriage after the resurrection, if only obliquely, but then moves on to the real theological question: the resurrection of the dead. As is often the case, Jesus does not actually answer the question that his opponents have posed. He never says whose wife the woman would be after having married seven times. Instead, he states that the institution of marriage as it existed in his day (namely, a man taking a wife for the purpose of ensuring his posterity) will cease to exist in the World to Come. Now, for those of you who are widows or widowers, rest assured: Jesus does not say that the spiritual bonds of love are broken by death, only that the legal bonds of marriage no longer apply.

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Complacency and Contempt: Our Nation’s Sins

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

Today we heard Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The point of the parable is clear: don’t be like the Pharisee! Now, the parable is so clear, so self-explanatory, it may seem that it needs no further explanation. Even so, I will proceed with the sermon!

The first point I would like to make is that the Pharisee in the parable lives a righteous life according to the standards of his society. He does what the Jewish Law requires of him—and then some! He is not, in fact, a hypocrite. That is not the issue here. But there are issues with his attitude—two issues, to be precise. The first issue is that he thinks he has earned his salvation and he is complacent about it. The second issue is that he holds others who do not meet his high standards in utter contempt.

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The Pharisee may be righteous with regard to his actions, but he is not right with God because of his attitude. His “prayer of thanksgiving” is no prayer at all, but a declaration of self-satisfaction and self-praise. And there is no hint of contrition, no hint of repentance, for in his mind he deserves his salvation. After all, he has worked hard to earn it. But Jesus warns his followers to turn to God for salvation. He teaches that we humans are incapable of saving ourselves. Even so, we are not without hope. For what we can do is to turn to God, confess our sins, and receive our salvation as pure gift.

On most Sundays, we recite the General Confession. You may have wondered why I leave that uncomfortably long pause between the bidding to confession and the joint recitation. The purpose is to give you, and me, time to recollect, to think back over the past week, and to offer up to God our most grievous sins. For only then can we hope to receive absolution for them.

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Prayer and Perseverance

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

This Sunday, life is made easy for the preacher, because there is a clear theme to all of 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 just 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 violate custom 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.

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We are told that the unjust judge eventually gives in. Most English translations have the judge saying that he decides to give in because otherwise the widow will “wear him out.” But what the judge literally says is that he is giving in because he fears that the widow will “punch him in the eye”! Modern translators literally take the punch out of Jesus’ punch line!

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Division in a Time of Crisis

By the Rev. Darren Miner

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In 1939, Winston Churchill gave a famous speech about Russia that included the following phrase: “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.” The same could be said about today’s Gospel reading! Here we have Jesus Christ, Son of God and Prince of Peace, telling us that he has not come to bring peace to the earth, but rather division. He goes on to describe how even families will be divided because of him. What are we to make of this? Well, as Winston Churchill said, “Perhaps there is a key.” And I think that the key is the word “crisis.”

In English, “crisis” connotes a time of catastrophe, a time when everything is going very wrong. But the English word “crisis” derives from a Greek word that has a somewhat different meaning. That Greek word means “a moment of judgment” or “a time of decision.”

The terrible division that Jesus describes is not something that he particularly wants to take place; it is something that he knows will take place in response to the Gospel. He came to bring Good News to the earth, and yet Jesus knows very well that many people will reject his teaching. Today, just as on every Sunday, we hear the Good News of Jesus Christ proclaimed, and we are presented with a moment of judgment, a time of decision, a personal crisis. Will we side with Jesus Christ, or will we side with the world?

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Well, folks, this entire nation is facing a crisis. As a people, we are faced with a moment of judgment, a time of decision. Every day, we all must ask ourselves, “Whose side am I really on?” The psalm today reminds us of God’s commitment to the vulnerable people of the world. He says, “Save the weak and the orphan; defend the humble and needy; rescue the weak and the poor; deliver them from the power of the wicked.” What God does not say is to support the politically powerful, to defend the mighty, to give tax breaks to the rich. He just doesn’t! God is primarily concerned with those in need. The rich and powerful have already had their reward.

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