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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and we start a new year in the liturgical calendar. This season is named for the Coming of the Lord. Or to be more precise, this season is named for the two Comings of the Lord. The first coming was about 2000 years ago, when Jesus was born. The Second Coming, when Jesus will return in glory to judge the world, is yet to take place. Liturgists debate about whether this season is a season of penitence or 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 more importantly, to allow ourselves some time to contemplate the Second Coming of Christ.
In today’s Gospel, 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 the great Day of Judgment will come at an unexpected time. Even he does not know the day and hour. And so he counsels his followers to be ready at all times. We are expected to be alert to our spiritual situation—to be aware of the consequences of both our actions and our inactions.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
This week a preacher is presented with an embarrassment of riches. Each of the readings deserves a sermon of its own. But, considering the state of affairs here at church, I have decided to preach on the story of Martha and Mary.
The story is short. The plot is simple. But the moral of the story is annoyingly ambiguous. Consequently, biblical interpreters throughout the last two millennia have proposed a wide variety of interpretations.
The Church Fathers were fond of allegorical interpretations. One Church Father explained the story of Martha and Mary as an allegory contrasting the contemplative life (represented by Mary) with active life in the world (represented by Martha). He thought that this story was included in the New Testament to encourage Christians to abandon life in the world for life in a monastery.
With all due respect to the Church Fathers, I think I might prefer a more literal interpretation! So let’s take a closer look at this story of a dinner party gone wrong.
Jesus arrives at an unnamed village and is welcomed by Martha into her home. Her sister Mary then sits at Jesus’ feet to listen to his teaching. Already we know that the women of this family don’t feel bound by custom. For according to custom, Jesus should have been welcomed by a male family member. And Mary should have been in the kitchen, preparing the meal.
But the violation of custom is not the real problem here. The problem is that Martha is going crazy trying to prepare a banquet for their distinguished guest, and Mary isn’t helping. Martha suspects that her sister won’t listen to her, so she tries to get a third party (in this case, Jesus) to take her side in this family dispute. (Nowadays, we have a word for this little trick, triangulation.)
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
Today is my 60th birthday, and I just came back from a weeklong vacation. So you might think that you would get a happy and relaxed sermon. Sorry! This sermon was written before my vacation, when pictures of drowned immigrants were still fresh in my mind.
In the Epistle appointed for today, St. Paul warns the Galatians: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” I hope to God that the leaders of this nation, most of whom call themselves Christian, remember this warning. Desperate immigrants, who are tired of living in tent cities in Mexico, are drowning trying to find a place of refuge, a place of safety, for themselves and their children. They are dying of dehydration in the desert trying to escape the Hell they live in back home. They are willing to shred their flesh on barbed wire fences to get to this Promised Land. And the joking response of our President is that “the country is full.” “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked!”
The Collect of the Day that we prayed at the start of this service states: “O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor.” Well, folks, desperate Salvadorans are our neighbors. Desperate Hondurans are our neighbors. Desperate Guatemalans are our neighbors. Most of these would-be refugees are Christians, to boot. And as St. Paul reminds us, we are supposed to “work for the good of all, especially for those of the family of faith.”
Today is Trinity Sunday, and this principal feast is a bit of an anomaly. For it doesn’t commemorate an event or a person, but a doctrine, namely, the doctrine of the Trinity. Stating the doctrine of the Trinity is simple enough: “We believe on one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Understanding the doctrine of the Trinity, however, is not so simple. You don’t need a degree in mathematics to see the fundamental paradox: we Christians say that we believe in one God; but when asked the Name of our God, we enumerate three separate persons, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
A fuller statement of the doctrine may be found in the Athanasian Creed. It states: “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, and the Holy Spirit is uncreated. The Father is incomprehensible, the Son is incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit is incomprehensible.” (To which one might add, this whole Creed is incomprehensible!)