In today’s readings, we get a kind of biblical sandwich: two stories of God’s call to ministry with a teaching about sexual morality stuck in the middle. The focus of this sermon will be on God’s call and our response, so let me deal with St. Paul’s teaching on sexual morality right up front.
Paul is writing to the church in Corinth. They have got it into their heads that, since they are saved, nothing they do here in the material world is of ultimate importance. Consequently, a fringe group in the church has begun to advocate the abandonment of sexual morality. They argue that nothing that they do with their bodies affects their souls. St. Paul thinks otherwise. In short, his teaching is that what we do here in the material world does indeed make a difference.
Now, let’s look at the stories of God’s call to serve. In the story from the Old Testament, we hear about the calling of Samuel to be a prophet. The boy Samuel hears God calling him in the night. Three times, he hears the call, but each time he mistakes it for his master Eli. It is the priest Eli who eventually recognizes the call for what it is and instructs the boy how to respond appropriately: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Samuel does as his master bids him, and the rest is history!
What strikes me in this story is how the discernment of Samuel’s call took place. Samuel was unable to figure out the meaning of his call on his own. He didn’t know how to respond appropriately. It took some consultation to make that clear. Often, I think, that is the case when God calls us to his service. We need others to help us understand what is being asked of us.
For the last three Sundays, I have preached that Advent is a time to rehearse the stories of the first coming of Jesus Christ, as well as to prepare ourselves for his Second Coming. That being said, today’s Gospel reading doesn’t actually focus on either the first or the second coming; instead, it focuses on the antecedent to the first coming, namely, the angel’s Annunciation to Mary and the virginal conception of Jesus.
The angel’s greeting in this story has appealed to the visual imagination of countless Christian artists, from the Middle Ages up to the present day. The museums of Europe are full of paintings of the Annunciation. Typically, you see a pale young woman in a diaphanous blue gown seated on a throne. You see an angel devoutly kneeling before her. You see a dove hovering over the scene. What you don’t see is Jesus! But in truth, the whole point of the Annunciation story is Jesus. Luke shares this early tradition, because it tells us something we need to know about the identity of Mary’s son.
We are told that Jesus is to be born of a virgin and that his father will be none other than the Lord God. The archangel Gabriel explains that the conception will take place in a spiritual manner as God’s power passes over Mary like a shadow. Now, the virginal conception of Jesus is a difficulty for some faithful Christians. And I can understand why. After all, none of us here today has ever witnessed such a thing. Nor are we expected to! The Gospel portrays the event as a one-of-a-kind occurrence. And that’s one main point of this story: Jesus is one of a kind. The other main point is that Jesus comes from God—exactly how is less important.
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—not a single mention of hellfire or the gnashing of teeth in the Outer Darkness. You will notice that the candle for today on the Advent wreath is rose-colored, not violet. And some parishes mark the semi-festive tone of the day by using rose-colored vestments and paraments. In my humble opinion, rose is just a fancy way of saying pink, and I don’t wear pink! But as you are probably not interested in my color preferences, let’s just move on and take a look-see at these “less gloomy” readings.
The first reading from Isaiah has virtually no hints of gloom at all—just one brief reference to “the day of vengeance of our God”! This oracle is from the third section of the book of Isaiah and dates to the time of the restoration of Jerusalem, after the Israelites had returned from exile in Babylon. If you read in between the lines of this prophecy, you see that things were not as they should be. The prophet is commissioned by God to announce “good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In other words, the people were suffering. But this situation, we are told, will not last forever! “The Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up.” And on that day, the prophet will “greatly rejoice in the Lord.”
It’s already the second Sunday of Advent—how time flies! For many of us, this season is a frenzied time of Christmas shopping for friends and family. But there is more to this season than that. It is a time to pause and to consider the two advents of Christ: the first in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago and the second, when Christ will come again in power and great glory. And as we consider, we also prepare.
Like our ancestors in the faith, Christians today look to prophecy to guide us in our preparation, to point us in the right direction. And like our predecessors, we find that God’s oracles can speak different messages in different times. Today, we heard an excerpt from Isaiah chapter 40 and an echo of that same scripture in the Gospel reading from Mark.
Isaiah spoke of a voice crying out to prepare a highway in the desert for our God. The ravines are to be filled in. The hills are to be leveled. And when this roadwork is done, God’s glory will be revealed to all. (It sounds a bit like a press release for Caltrans!) When these words were originally prophesied, the Jews were living in exile in Babylon, pining for the day they could return home. With this oracle, Isaiah prophesied the eventual vindication of the Jews. A highway would be made through the desert separating Babylon and Jerusalem, and God would lead his people home in glory. (Interestingly, Isaiah doesn’t make it clear who exactly was supposed to build this divine highway, whether God’s angelic minions or the Jews themselves.) This prophecy would seem to have been fulfilled with the Jews’ return from exile and with their rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. But then again, maybe not!
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and the church begins another liturgical year. This season has two distinct foci: the first coming, or advent, of our Lord some 2000 years ago and the second coming, or advent, when Christ will come again in glory to judge the world. This season is marked by 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. The figurative darkness is the spiritual twilight in which we find ourselves living today, this turbulent time between the two Advents of Christ, when the world suffers the birth pangs of the Kingdom.
The church observes the season with the use of violet vestments and paraments. And each Sunday of Advent is marked with the lighting of a new candle on the Advent wreath. As in Lent, the singing of the Gloria on Sundays is forbidden. But unlike Lent, we are permitted 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.
Last week’s Gospel reading and this week’s share a common theme: what followers of Jesus are to do while they await the Day of Judgment. Last week’s reading focused on the need to be vigilant and prepared. This week’s reading has a different focus: making a profit for the Kingdom of Heaven.
To start off, I would like to offer my retelling of Jesus’ Parable of the Talents. One problem with Jesus’ version is that we have all heard it so many times that it doesn’t have the impact that it would have had on its original audience. Another problem is that the world has changed quite a bit in 2000 years, and our perspective is very different. We hear this story from the perspective of a capitalist society, where the wealthy are admired. In Jesus’ day, at least among the peasants that came to hear Jesus preach, wealth was looked on as something inherently disreputable. And the rich were typically viewed as greedy and rapacious. Now, the man in Jesus’ parable was very wealthy indeed. You should know that 8 talents of silver would be worth about $5.6 million today! So, with all this in mind, let me offer my version of the parable:
All Saints’ Day is a “principal feast” in the calendar of the Episcopal Church. It is one of the seven feast days when I bring out the incense—much to the dismay of a couple of you! Rightly, it should be celebrated on November 1st. But the prayer book allows churches that cannot adequately keep the feast on November 1st to celebrate it on the following Sunday. And so, here we are, gathered together to remember all God’s holy people: the official saints found in the volume Lesser Feasts and Fasts and the unofficial parish saints for whom we have prayed during the last 12 months.
Now, some parishes prefer to remember the unofficial saints on November 2nd, All Souls’ Day, in a “separate but equal” celebration. But I am firmly against making any such distinction. Pastorally, it may make sense, but theologically, not so much! So on this day, we celebrate the blessed Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter, and St. Paul, as well as our own St. David A., St. Barbara J., and St. Margaret W.
In today’s Gospel reading, we get two snippets from a debate between Jesus and the Pharisees. The first snippet is about which commandment in the Law of Moses is the greatest. The second snippet is about the identity of the Messiah. Let me deal with snippet #2 first.
Jesus wants to silence the Pharisees who have been plaguing him with questions. So he asks them a riddle about the identity of the Messiah. He quotes the first verse of Psalm 110, written by King David about the crowning of a future Messiah. In that verse, David refers to the Messiah as “my Lord.” Now, biblical prophecy foretold that the Messiah would be a descendant of David. Why, then, would David refer to his own descendant as “my Lord”? For in a patriarchal culture such as ancient Israel, the ancestor is usually given higher rank than the descendant. So we have a mystery: The Messiah will be a descendant of King David, but he will outrank his ancestor. How can this be? Well, the Pharisees can’t solve this riddle, and they wisely stop pestering Jesus. We, on the other hand, know the answer. As the foster son of Joseph, Jesus the Messiah is the descendant of King David by adoption and can legitimately be called a Son of David. But as the only Son of God, Jesus outranks any earthly king, including his royal ancestor.
Now, let’s turn to the first snippet from the debate. What is the greatest commandment in the Law of Moses? Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” But that commandment alone is not sufficient to summarize the purpose of the entire Law of Moses, so Jesus adds a second commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He tells them that these commandments are the two hinges that hold up the door of Holy Scripture. Now, Jesus is not saying that the other biblical commandments count for nothing. Far from it! But he is saying that these two commandments give us the lens by which to view all of Scripture, keeping us focused on what really matters.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a banquet. And who doesn’t like a banquet? This theme of a divine feast is a common thread tying together the reading from Isaiah, Psalm 23, and Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Feast.
Isaiah assures the people of Israel that something good lies ahead. God has something marvelous in store for them. But how can he possibly describe it? Well, it is like a great victory feast. But unlike a normal victory feast, to which only the victors are invited, everyone is invited to this feast! “The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food.” And let’s not forget the exceptional wine! Now, what is the great victory that is being celebrated? Just this: God has swallowed up death forever.
Psalm 23 reprises the metaphor of a banquet. Again the banquet is a victory feast. (But here, it seems that the losers are not invited.) God prepares a banquet table for us in the presence of our persecutors and tormentors. And there is so much wine being poured that the cups overflow onto the table. One thing is clear: we will never again be hungry or thirsty.
Again, in the Gospel reading from Matthew, we get the image of a banquet. Jesus, while arguing with the chief priests and Pharisees of Jerusalem, attempts to describe the Kingdom of Heaven by using an allegory about a royal wedding banquet. The key to understanding any allegory is to know what each person, place, and thing in the story represents. In a sense, allegories are written in code. This particular allegory is quite complicated. So, let me try to decode it for you.
Last week, the Gospel reading was about church discipline. Specifically, it dealt with how to handle someone who is causing trouble in the congregation. (Father Webber quite understandably opted to preach on the Epistle.) Today’s Gospel reading has to do with forgiving a fellow Christian who has sinned against you. In both cases, the common theme is how to get along with one another in a small, tight-knit community.
The Gospel reading starts out with Peter asking Jesus a question: How often do I have to forgive a fellow disciple who keeps on sinning against me? What a telling question! It tells me that things haven’t changed much in 2000 years. We still struggle to get along. We still struggle to forgive one another. If you have ever served on a parish committee, you know what kind of little sins can happen. Someone interrupts someone else, and the person who was interrupted feels that his or her opinion isn’t valued. Someone tends to talk a bit too long, and another church member makes a show of not listening. Someone is trying to get something done under a deadline, but someone else doesn’t want to rush into the wrong decision. In the course of community life, we inevitably hurt each other’s feelings. Now, these are all little slights, little sins. But they can disrupt the whole community!
Jesus’s answer to this problem is quite simple: forgiveness. Now, Peter imagines that he should forgive someone no more than seven times. That seems like a reasonable limit to him. But Jesus responds that we should forgive one another seventy-seven times. In other words, forgiveness has nothing to do at all with being reasonable.
Figuring that Peter won’t understand this teaching, Jesus tries to explain it with a parable, a short story about a rich king and his slaves. The king forgives a huge debt to a slave who cannot possibly repay what he owes. By rights, the king could sell the slave and all his family in order to recoup a tiny portion of the debt. But when the slave pleads for mercy, the king shows compassion and forgives the entire debt. Now, you have to realize just how large that debt was. Ten thousand talents is just under seven billion dollars! Unfortunately, the slave whose huge debt was erased does not himself learn forgiveness. He accosts a fellow slave who owes him around eleven thousand dollars and demands payment in full. When he doesn’t get it, he has that slave imprisoned!