Some 2000 years ago, in a backwater of the Roman Empire, something happened that changed the world. On the first Good Friday, Jesus of Nazareth was executed on a cross. On the first Holy Saturday, he was buried in a borrowed tomb. And then on the first Easter Day, he was raised from the dead, as a sign of God’s love for his Son—and for us. For we are told that if we have faith in God’s saving love, we too will be raised from the dead. That in a nutshell is the Easter message.
But faith is such a tricky matter! If we watch the news coming out of Syria or Egypt or Russia or Sweden, it is ever so easy to believe in Good Friday. It is easy to believe that the world would torture and kill a gentle man whose only wrong was to teach God’s love. It is easy to believe the Holy Saturday message that this man of peace lay dead and buried. But it is harder to believe in the Easter message, that sin and death did not—and do not—get the last word.
We may imagine that ours is the first generation of doubters, but that just isn’t the case. St. John wrote the Gospel account of the Resurrection that we heard proclaimed today for one reason and one reason only: that doubters of every generation might know the truth about what God did on that first Easter Day and, believing that truth, might have eternal life. Of all the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection, John’s is the most vivid and detailed—and the most convincing! In the midst of the miraculous, we get real, believable portrayals of how various disciples of Jesus reacted both to his death and to the mystery of the empty tomb.
The two boys, Peter and the Beloved Disciple, upon hearing that Jesus’ body has gone missing from the tomb, compete in a footrace to see who will get there first. The Beloved Disciple wins, but then chickens out, letting Peter be the first to enter the empty tomb. The Beloved Disciple believes, even though he doesn’t understand, while Peter is just plain confused. The impatient boys head home. And because of their impatience, they miss out on a miracle.
Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent. Traditionally, it is called Laetare Sunday from the Latin word for “rejoice.” On this Sunday, there is a lightening of the penitential austerity of Lent, and in some parishes, the celebrant wears pink vestments to mark this change. Since I’m not overly fond of pink, I’ve decided to stick with violet. However, in keeping with the lessening of our penitence, you will get a rather jaunty spiritual for the communion anthem.
Now let’s turn to Chapter 9 of John’s Gospel and the story of the man born blind. The story opens with Jesus’ disciples asking him whose sin was the cause of the 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.
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.” The Greek here is ambiguous. It can be translated “He was born blind in order that God’s work might be revealed in him,” implying that his blindness was part of God’s purpose. Or it can be translated “He was born blind, and as a result, God’s works will be revealed in him.” Here, there is no implication that God willed his blindness, only that good will now come of it. Needless to say, I prefer the latter translation. 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. Continue reading →
Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and the story of the Transfiguration completes the season 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 the Feast of the Epiphany with the story of the Magi, symbolizing the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Today’s Gospel story deals with another epiphany, the divine manifestation of Christ to his three closest disciples.
This year, we hear Matthew’s account. And in some ways, his version is the least difficult. In the other accounts, it’s not clear how we are meant to understand this story. Is it real? Is it describing something factual that any bystander would have been able to witness? Matthew’s Gospel helps us here. In this Gospel, Jesus himself refers to what has occurred as a “vision.” Is it real? Yes, but on a level of reality that transcends the everyday. Would any bystander who was at hand have been able to witness this event? Maybe not. Divine visions often belong to the realm of private mystical experience.
Given that the Transfiguration story is a vision, we should not be surprised by the occurrence of symbolism that requires interpretation. And we find such symbolism in the very first words of the account. The Gospel reading starts by telling us that six days after the Confession of Peter, Jesus takes his three closest disciples to a mountain top. Now in the Old Testament, many numbers had special numerological significance. But 6 isn’t one of them. There is only one place where the number 6 has a special significance—in the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai that we heard read in the first reading. For six days, a cloud covered Mt. Sinai; on the seventh day, God spoke to Moses from the cloud. In the story of the Transfiguration, the very timing of the event has symbolic significance. It hints that what is about to happen is as momentous as the giving of the Law to Moses.
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 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!
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.
A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on December 7, 2014, the Second Sunday in Advent.
Lewis Thomas died 20 years ago but I remember him in connection with today’s Old Testament reading. I read a magazine article in the New York Times some while ago about Lewis Thomas and his thoughts about life and death and the words of Isaiah in the first lesson today seemed to connect: “All flesh is grass” the prophet tells us,
All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6-8)
So who was Lewis Thomas? He was dean of the medical schools at NYU and Yale, chancellor of the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Scholar in residence at Cornell Medical School and author of essays collected in books called “The Lives of a Cell,” “The Medusa and the Snail,” “The Youngest Profession,” and others. I enjoyed reading them. They are wise and warm and endlessly interesting observations about human nature and about the human race.
When Lewis Thomas learned that he was terminally ill someone interviewed him and wrote about it so I read the article with special interest and I was disappointed because he was a man who had seen so much and understood so much and now he was dying and it turned out that he didn’t have a clue about some pretty basic things like God and heaven and life hereafter. Whatever ideas he had picked up on the subject could have been picked up secondhand from a church school dropout.