Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a period of forty days of self-examination and self-discipline in preparation for Easter. Those who attended the Ash Wednesday service heard a lengthy introduction to Lent that ends with this invitation: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
The purpose of self-examination during Lent is not to admire ourselves in the mirror and praise ourselves for our accomplishments, but to become aware of our temptations and to repent of our sins. Now, unlike the rest of us, Jesus did not sin, not ever. But he did know what it was like to be tempted. And in today’s Gospel, we hear the story of his temptation.
It begins right after his baptism by John in the Jordan River. The English translation we heard today says, Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” It makes it sound like the temptation of Jesus was a chance occurrence. The original Greek text, however, says something a little different. It says, Jesus “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness in order to be tempted by the Devil for forty days.” In other words, the entire event takes place at God’s behest, not the Devil’s.
Why would God test his Son? Unfortunately, we are never told explicitly, but I have some ideas on the subject. I suspect that this time of testing was necessary for Jesus to figure out what kind of Messiah he was going to be and what kind of Kingdom he was going to proclaim—and then to come to terms with the consequences of those decisions. Each of the three temptations serves in its own way to clarify Jesus’ thinking. At least, that’s my claim!
In the first temptation, the Devil preys on Jesus’ desperate hunger. After all, Jesus had not eaten for forty whole days. The Devil dares Jesus to magically transform a stone into a loaf of bread. In good Rabbinic tradition, Jesus responds by quoting scripture, in this case Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone.” Now, to be honest, it doesn’t seem at first glance that the Devil is tempting Jesus to do anything even remotely sinful. But I suspect that the Devil is hoping that, if Jesus gives in to even one self-serving act, it will eventually lead down a slippery slope to a Messiah who is more concerned with feeding himself than he is with feeding a multitude of 5000.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent. It is traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is Latin for rejoice! And we mark the semi-festive tone of the day by lighting a pink candle on the Advent wreath, instead of a purple one. Some parishes go so far as to have the celebrant vest in pink vestments. (Thankfully this parish doesn’t own pink vestments!) Likewise, the appointed Bible readings for this Sunday are supposed to be markedly less gloomy than on the other Sundays of Advent. Too bad no one informed St. Luke!
Most of you are familiar with the old saying that if you want to get a donkey to move you need a carrot and a stick. The carrot is dangled in front of the donkey to entice it forward. The stick is used to threaten it from behind. I sometimes think that is how God deals with us sinners. The first two readings today are the carrot. The reading from Luke’s Gospel, containing the threats of John the Baptist, is the stick. Since I would like to end this sermon on a happy note. I’m going to start out with the stick.
Happy new year! In the U.S. civil calendar, the new year starts on January 1. In the Chinese lunar calendar, the new year usually falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. But the church’s new year starts on the first Sunday of Advent, which just happens to be today. The basic meaning of the English word advent is “coming.” In Christian terms, it refers more specifically to the Two Comings of the Messiah. The first is the coming of the Messiah some 2000 years ago in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The second is the anticipated coming of the Messiah on the Day of Judgment. And in one way or another, all of today’s readings deal with the Coming of the Lord.
The world needs some consolation right about now! Babies are being starved to death in Yemen by our nation’s allies. A journalist was murdered and his body dismembered by those same allies. College students are massacred in a California nightclub for no apparent reason. Hurricanes have decimated city after city. The ironically named town of Paradise has burned to the ground. And the air is so polluted that we are being advised not to breath it! And so, we find ourselves asking, “When will it end? And where is God?” Regrettably, the answers are not apparent.
Now, as bad as things are today, things were no better in Jesus’ day. And his disciples undoubtedly had the very same questions that we have. They looked around them and saw the oppression and cruelty of the Roman Empire, and every so often they must have despaired. Believe it or not, Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the end of the age was meant to provide encouragement. For reasons beyond my understanding, the editors of the lectionary have included only the start of Mark, chapter 13, only the bits about doom and gloom. What Jesus says provides us hope only when understood in a larger context. So, I will do my best to fill in the gaps and provide that context.
Let me begin by setting the scene for the Gospel reading. Jesus is sitting in a boat near the shore of the Sea of Galilee—a place I visited just three weeks ago. And he is teaching the crowd on the beach in parables, little stories with hidden meanings. Why parables? Well, because not all are being called to be Jesus’ disciples. He is seeking people with imagination and curiosity and determination. Those are the kind of folks who will take the time to come to Jesus later on to get their questions answered. And those are the kind of folks that Jesus wants as his disciples.
Today we hear two agricultural parables about seeds. Now, to be honest, I grew up in an agricultural area, but at heart I’m a city boy. So these parables don’t speak to me the way they would to people with a closer relationship to the land, like Jesus’ original audience. But some of you, I know, are gardeners, so maybe they will resonate with you.
As I have mentioned before, I am a fan of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries. More often than not, Gardner gave his novels a catchy, alliterative title. Here are a few choice examples: The Case of the Perjured Parrot, The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe, and last but not least, The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink. Well, if Erle Stanley Gardner had written today’s Parable of the Sower, he might have been hard-pressed to decide whether to call it “The Symbolic Story of Sundry Soils” or “The Practical Parable of the Profligate Planter.” For each title gives a different insight into the meaning of the parable.
Let’s start with “The Symbolic Story of Sundry Soils.” In today’s Gospel, Jesus does something he rarely does—he explains a parable! The sower is Jesus himself, spreading the Word of the Kingdom of God. And one point of the parable is to explain the disappointing rejection of the Good News by so many people. Jesus explains that the rejection of the Gospel has everything to do with the condition of the soil, which allegorically represents the mindset of those who hear his message.
Jesus enumerates four distinct kinds of soil, four distinct mindsets. First, there are those who don’t take in what he is trying to tell them. Now, he doesn’t mean that they literally can’t understand his speech. He means that they don’t take his message to heart. It goes in one ear and out the other!
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!
Today’s Gospel starts out with Jesus’ appointing precisely 70 evangelists to go out ahead of him preaching the Good News, for Jesus knows that he can’t do it all alone. Why 70, you might ask? Well, it turns out that in the book of Genesis, 70 is given as the number of Gentile nations in the world. So, there is a symbolic and prophetic reason for Jesus’ picking this exact number of evangelists; it represents the extension of his mission to the Gentiles—in other words, to people like most of us! I say it was an extension of Jesus’ mission, because in Luke 9, Jesus had already sent out the twelve apostles to spread the Good News among the descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Luke tells us that Jesus sends out his evangelists to the Gentiles in pairs. And there are several possible reasons for this. One obvious reason would be mutual support. But another might have to do with the fact that in Jewish law, valid testimony requires two witnesses. And these evangelists, we are told, will be testifying for the Kingdom of God, as well as testifying against those towns that refuse to accept the Good News of God’s Kingdom. (As an aside, the Episcopal Church also encourages sending out home visitors two by two, but in this case it is to prevent misbehavior during home visitations.)