The Humility of God

There is no place God will not go to seek out the lost

SJF • 1 Epiphany A • Tobias S Haller BSG
John would have prevented Jesus, saying, I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? But Jesus answered, Let it be so for now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.

Some years ago I remember a bishop who was the guest preacher in a parish — not this one — say something that really bothered me. He said, “There are some people with whom God will not associate, and some places God will not go.” Perhaps you can see why I was bothered! I didn’t say anything, until a friend of mine who had been at the same service came up to me at coffee hour and said, “I am so tired of bishops coming to my church to preach their favorite heresy!” I wouldn’t go perhaps that far, but surely I believe the bishop who preached those words was wrong. For if the Gospel teaches us anything it is that there is no one and nowhere that is beyond the reach of God; that God will seek out the lost and find them no matter how far they have strayed. This is “the humility of God” and it is nowhere so clearly laid out as in the incident recorded in our Gospel this morning, Matthew’s account of the Baptism of Jesus.

In this Gospel Jesus does something so startling it even surprises his cousin John the Baptist. John has been baptizing for some time, proclaiming baptism as repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Now, this was something new, not the same as the ordinary Jewish baptism, or ritual bath that people undertook whenever they became ceremonially unclean; that is, whenever they violated any of the purity laws of the Torah. The ordinary ritual baptism of Jewish law had nothing to do with sin in our sense of the word; it wasn’t a question of morality, but of impurity. Sin could only be wiped away by a sacrifice; sin could only be wiped away by blood. But impurity could be wiped away with water. And these were matters of ritual impurity: did you accidentally touch a dead body? are you finished having your period? have you been healed of a skin condition? did you just give birth, and have you waited the required number of days? These are all ritual matters going back to the years of desert wandering, and they had more to do with public health than the moral state of one’s soul.

So John the Baptist introduces something new, a new twist on this. He comes to see sin itself as something that needs to be washed away. He calls on people to be baptized not to wash away the outward impurities caused by touching something ritually unclean, or by coming into contact with bodily fluids; John calls on the people to be baptized in token of their inner transformation and cleansing release from sin.

So when the one person who can have no use for such a baptism approaches John one day, John understandably says, “What are you doing here? You should be baptizing me!” Like that Bishop with the odd opinions about where God would go and not go and who God would associate with or not, John the Baptist doesn’t see why Jesus, whom he recognizes as the sinless one, is lined up ready to be baptized as a token of the remission of sins. He doesn’t have any sins; he doesn’t need to be there. But Jesus will not hear John’s protest, and says, “Let it be for now; this will fulfill all righteousness.”

The question, of course, is, What does Jesus mean by that? What does righteousness mean in this regard. To answer the question I’d like to tell you a story I first heard told by a priest friend of ming, Fr. Gray Temple, Jr., whose father was a bishop who I believe always stayed on the right side of doctrine. And Gray told this story, a nice summer story for a cold, damp winter day. This story will take us back in our imaginations, to a warm summer day, about eighty years ago in Arkansas.

Imagine we’re in a small country town on a warm mid-afternoon. The name of the town isn’t important; thousands of little towns like this one dotted the Midwest in the 30s; maybe they had a few paved streets in the center of town, but the rest packed dirt. Picture that town square with its courthouse, the church, and the schoolhouse surrounding the little patch of green that could stand up to the summer’s heat; maybe there’s a bandstand in the center, like one of those little towns from an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” This is a town where people have worked hard, but they have suffered a lot. The effects of the Great Depression are visible, and many of the poorer folk from what the better-off call “the wrong side of the tracks” are just scraping by by the skin of their teeth. Well, to make matters worse, and to burden these poor folk even more, an outbreak of lice has struck their part of town, out on the wrong side of the tracks. The county health officials sweep in and go from house to house with a fumigator.

To add insult to injury, all of the people from the affected area have to come to the town square, to line up outside a big white tent they put up just for this purpose, right outside the courthouse, right across from the church and the school. There all the poor folk have to go through an inspection and delousing one by one, there for all to see. You can imagine the humiliation, especially for the children. To be seen in the louse-line means you are one of “them.” These are proud people, poor but proud, and to have to stand in line in the hot sun waiting for the medical examiner to pronounce you “clean” or worse, “infested,” is a terrible embarrassment and humiliation. Well, the local minister, opposite the tent in his white-shingled church on the side of the square, notes all this, as he sits fanning himself with a palm fan, trying to concentrate on next Sunday’s sermon. He sees the people lining up, feeling literally and figuratively lousy, and his heart goes out to them. He looks at the children hanging their heads in shame, as their parents try desperately to hold their heads high with a kind of “It doesn’t matter” sort of attitude — the closest thing this small town will ever see to a New York, “What are you looking at?”

The minister looks out and sees that miserable little line of people, and then he sets down his palm fan, gets up from his desk, puts on his coat and hat, walks out into the square, and joins the end of the line. A little boy, the last in the line up till then, looks sheepishly up at him, and his eyes grow large as he sees this dignified man in his neat suit, standing in a line in which everyone else is dressed in overalls or gingham. A couple of the local matrons out in front of the post office eyes grow as big as saucers, the ribbons of their hats quivering in astonishment, and through their good efforts, within twenty minutes the whole town has heard the news that the minister is in the louse line. Within another twenty minutes the line has grown by a few more people, among them the judge and the schoolmaster and the town doctor; and within the next hour the line extends all the way around the square, and even includes the matrons in their ribboned hats, looking a little uncomfortable, trying to make smiles in faces that look like they are going to shatter, but smiling and there, nonetheless.

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Jesus did not come to John to be baptized because he needed baptism, any more than the minister joined the louse-line because he had lice. Jesus joined the line of sinners waiting to be baptized by John in order to fulfill all righteousness — for only righteousness that has submitted itself to judgment can be called truly righteous. Righteousness that stands apart, alone and by itself, is only self-righteousness; and Jesus, the man who above all lived for others, would not establish his righteousness apart from making all others righteous, too, by being with them.

Believe me, that Bishop was wrong. There is no place that God will not go, there are no people so fallen that God will refuse to be among them; such is the humility of God. Jesus, himself sinless, joins the line of sinners waiting to be baptized by John because joining himself to sinful humanity is exactly what he came to do. Jesus did not come — the first time — to judge the world; that he will do when he comes again in glory! But at the first, Jesus came not to judge the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved. And he saved it by becoming part of it, by joining himself to the suffering, the sinning, the weak, the helpless, the outcast; getting into the louse-line of our fallen human nature.

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Epiphany means “showing forth.” Over these next few weeks, as we travel through the season after Epiphany up towards Lent, our Scriptures will “show forth” different aspects of Christ and his relation to us. It is fitting that this first Sunday after Epiphany begin with Christ’s baptism, where, faced by an astonished John the Baptist, Jesus shows forth perhaps the most important thing about himself that he can show: his humility. He is one of us; he is Emmanuel, God-with-us; and he cares enough for us to leave his heavenly throne and join our assembly, thereby raising our hearts and our spirits to that place where he sits at the right hand of the Father Almighty, now and forever.+

Light and Shadow

In spite of how obvious it is that people should deal fairly with one another, they don’t: a sermon for Advent 3c

Advent 3c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
With many other exhortations, John the Baptist proclaimed the good news to the people.

Our gospel passage this morning ends with the assurance that John the Baptist proclaimed “good news” to the people. In light of recent events, we sure could all use some good news. I have to say I am heart-broken, right now, as I know many are, at the terrible tragedy that took place last week in Connecticut. But our other Scripture readings sound like good news, no doubt about it. The prophet Zephaniah urges daughter Zion and Israel to shout out and rejoice, and to make thanksgiving for the redemption of the Lord and God who is coming to rescue and restore that kingdom and that hope. God will restore their fortunes, the prophet promises; God will give them the victory of a triumphant warrior; God will rejoice over them with gladness and renew them in love, exulting over them with loud singing as on a day of festival. Fling out the banners and light the fireworks; strike up the brass band and start the parade!

Those sentiments are echoed in the First Song of Isaiah that we used as our psalmody this morning — words full of assurance that God the Savior is at work and that God’s work is trustworthy and solid. If there were a theological “Angie’s List,” this would let us know that God gets an A-triple-plus rating — God is someone you can count on.

Saint Paul continues the celebration in his Letter to the Philippians, beginning with that word that gives this Sunday its name, “Rejoice Sunday,” or as it is known in Latin, Gaudete. What we heard as our second lesson today would have been the first words you heard on this Sunday in the Western church right on up into modern times: not only an assurance of reasons to rejoice, but a command to rejoice. We follow that tradition by using these rose-colored vestments on this day — lightening up from the somber purple of the Advent season to a brighter and more cheerful hue.

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By this time these warm-up acts have got us ready for a celebration in the gospel. But what are the first words we hear from John the Baptist: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” It seems the parade has come to a screeching halt. As if a gunman has broken into a classroom and opened fire. As if the pink of the vestments were not a celebration of life but about breast cancer awareness, awareness of that terrible disease that strikes so many; it’s as if someone in the brass band has hit a very sour note, or even worse, that a sniper has opened fire on the band, and all of the instruments have fallen silent. The towering figure of John the Baptist points with his gnarled hand at the crowds who have come out to hear him preach — like the ghost of Christmas yet to come. And if the crowd wanted something other than fire and brimstone, they are in for a surprise, for he calls them, a “brood of vipers.” And yet the Gospel goes on to say he encouraged the people with such good news. I don’t know about you, but being called a viper is not the best news I’d like to hear.

So let us look more closely at what follows that initial stern rebuke. There is good news, thank goodness. For after this powerful condemnation and threats of axes and fruitless trees being chopped down and thrown into the fire, when it gets down to brass tacks and the fate of the crowd — no doubt shivering in their sandals by that point at the prospect of what is about to be demanded of them — when the terrified crowd gets up the courage to ask what they can do to be saved, what does John tell them?

“Whoever has two coats must share with whoever has none, and whoever has food must do likewise. You tax collectors just collect the tax, and you soldiers don’t blackmail or abuse people!”

Well, if you had been there then, wouldn’t you breathe a sigh of relief at those words? After his verbal introduction and assault, John does not ask the people to do anything at all extraordinary — he doesn’t ask them to live like him out in the wilderness dressed like one of the prophets of old with a hairy mantle and a leather belt, living off locusts and wild honey. He tells them to go home and get back to work and do their jobs and live lives of honesty and fairness.

And this is really where the good news comes in — for certainly it is good news, as Zephaniah and Isaiah and Paul assure us: that salvation is not something we have to do on our own for ourselves, but something that is done for us by one who is mighty to save. For surely, as Isaiah says, it is God who saves us, and we can trust in him and not be afraid.

And on top of that, John the Baptist, after that initial stern language, gives us the good news that what is asked of us is not impossible — but is really only fair and just and right: to share our resources with those who do not have — our clothing with the naked and our food with the hungry — and to do the work we have to do with honesty and without taking advantage of or abusing anyone else.

And that, my friends, is the good news — that we have been saved by God, and that what God asks of us is to love God and our neighbor.

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And wouldn’t it be lovely if people actually did. If it’s really that simple, why did the prophets have to keep proclaiming it? Why did John the Baptist have to shout at the people and greet them as a brood of vipers? Why did he have to warn them of the coming destruction and the fruitless trees and the great bonfire at the end of time, the threshing floor and the unquenchable fire that will burn up all the worthless chaff and deadwood of unproductive lives?

You know why — because in spite of how obvious it is that people should deal fairly with one another, they don’t. Even without the awful example of last week’s shooting, ringing in our ears, impossible to avoid as you turn on any television station at all, we know that people do not do as they ought to do. In spite of the fact that everything works so much better when everyone follows the simple rules of courtesy and fairness and generosity — just common sense — people still try to take advantage — just watch the exit ramp on any crowded highway: someone will have to create a lane of his or her own, or find a creative way to nose in at the head of the line causing everyone else to be slower. In spite of the calls for spare coats to be dropped off at the library or police station for distribution to the poor and cold, the dawning day of the Lord’s Day will find plenty of closets full of clothing that people haven’t worn in years. To my own shame I realized as I wrote these very words that there was more in my closet at home than really needed to be there; and I took that unworn second coat up to the library on Eames Place and dropped it off; how about you?

If nothing else, let this reading today be a reminder to us — to all of us — of a simple command: to check that closet when you get home and find the coat you no longer wear and bring it to the library or the precinct so it can be given to someone who will actually wear it.

We are not asked to do the impossible, my friends. We are asked to do something so easy it would be a crying shame for us to fail to do so. It would be a shame to end up crying in shame when the ax is laid to the root of the trees and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. That’s good news, if we are prepared to hear it, and hearing it, act upon it. God gives us the warning; may he give us the strength to do as he commands.+

Not Watered Down

water on its own can do little other than removing stains -- to have power it must be raised to new heights by the sun, or moved by the wind of the Spirit -- a sermon for 1 Epiphany 2012

SJF • Baptism of Jesus • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSGJohn said, I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

Today is the feast of the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, always observed on the first Sunday after the Epiphany. We observe the baptism of Jesus in this way, at the beginning of the year, to start things off — for although Jesus Christ began his life on earth at Christmas, his ministry begins with his baptism as he emerges into our gospel history from that period of obscurity — that time from his childhood through young adulthood — about which we have no record apart from Saint Luke’s short account of the Holy Family’s trip to the Temple when Jesus was about 12 years of age.

But it is with the baptism of Jesus that his public ministry begins, and the first Sunday in the season after the Epiphany — which means, “showing forth” — appropriately commemorates this first public “showing forth” of Jesus.

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Baptism is clearly a time of beginning — a time of starting things off. And you might well say, what better way to start things off than with that short Scripture reading from the Old Testament: the opening words of the book Genesis, the very beginning of absolutely everything.

However, the reason the liturgists who assembled these readings chose the passage from Genesis is not that it is about beginnings. Rather it is the mention of the Holy Spirit — which I’m sorry to say the translation we use unfortunately chooses to designate as “a wind from God.” But this is the spirit of God. What the translators obscured, however, the liturgists sought to clarify and highlight, by coupling this reading from Genesis with the passages from Acts and the Gospel of Mark, which are explicit in highlighting the importance of the Holy Spirit.

And what those two readings demonstrate is that water alone is not enough. John’s baptism was a baptism with water. John was continuing and expanding on the Jewish custom of ritual bathing by which one would figuratively wash away impurity with water. Every Jewish town had a bathing pool — a mikvah — for precisely this purpose. I saw a TV program about the Dead Sea Scrolls community at Qumran a few weeks ago, and the archaeologists excavating that site pointed out that the people in that community — who lived out in the Judean desert — were very careful and concerned and spent to have well-constructed aqueducts, conduits and cisterns to bring water to those ritual bathing pools and an ample supply of water — water used solely for this ritual bathing, even in the middle of a hot, dry desert. They expended a considerable amount of their resources in constructing and maintaining this impractical but ritually vital construction. So we can tell that this ritual bathing was an important feature of their religious life.

John the baptizer — also a voice in the desert — called on people to come to the River Jordan to wash themselves. This was not just a washing from the ritual impurities that would occasion the more-or-less routine trip and dip in the municipal or village bathing pool — but a washing from the deeper and more troublesome faults and wrongs that cling to the human heart: John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.

But as John himself confessed, his baptism was still only a baptism with water — even if it was the cold and chilly water of that historic Jordan, rather than a domesticated bathing pool. Water is water, but the one who would baptize with fire and with the Holy Spirit was yet to come.

The point in all this, and the reason for including that passage from Genesis along with the one from the Acts of the Apostles, is to show that water by itself is not enough. Water, as we know from that other account in Genesis — the story of the flood — water can destroy a world. But water by itself cannot make a world. Water by itself will just, as we know from our grade-school science class, or from a leaking roof, water on its own will seek its lowest level. It’s true that ingenious human beings have found ways to harness the power of falling or downward-flowing water, with mills and dams and dynamos. But the water itself, once it has reached its lowest point, cannot do anything of itself. It will just lay there in a pool or a puddle.

What is needed is that wind from God — that Holy Spirit of God — to move over the face of the waters and stir them up with waves of energy. And, as we also know from our science class, what is also needed is the heat and light of the sun, shining on the waters and changing the water — evaporating it — into vapor that rises and rises and rises up on high until it condenses into clouds, and falls again as rain to water the mountains and fill the streams that can pour down once more, once again full of power and energy it was given by being raised up, to go through those cascades down to the sea, in the meantime driving the mills and dynamos. But the water itself doesn’t have the power, it only gains the power by being raised up by the heat and light of the sun shining on it, to the point where it can flow down once again. It is the spirit of God, not the water, that is the creative force in Genesis, bringing light and life to the world. And it is the Son — that’s S-O-N — who is the active principle in creation, the one through whom all things were made.

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And it is that same spirit and that same Son of God who makes the baptism in his name — the name of Jesus — different from the baptism of John. John’s baptism was about removing old stains of sin — and water can be a pretty good stain remover! But there is more to Christian baptism than simply washing away one’s sins — even Original Sin — more, not less, since it includes that washing-away as well.

But Christian baptism also imparts light and heat: Sonship in Christ and the fire of the Holy Spirit to the one who is baptized. The Spirit of this re-creation is the same Spirit that moved over the waters at the beginning of the first creation, and the Son of God is he through whom all things were made. Christian baptism does not merely wash away the old; it imparts the new — the new life in Christ. It renders those who are baptized new citizens of a different land than the one of their birth; and it admits those baptized into a new family — the family of God’s household, the church. This is what the Son and the Spirit do as only they can do: giving life, a new life that is not simply watered down, but built up, renewed, restored, revived.

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We will very shortly welcome three new members into this household through this wonderful sacrament of baptism into the Son by water and the Holy Spirit. I do not expect them to speak in tongues or prophesy as happened in that account from Acts. They may make a little noise - and that’s alright: it is a joyful sound. But I do know that they will have been well and truly baptized and anointed and marked as Christ’s own forever. And I hope that you in the congregation will speak out loud and strong when at the end of the baptism we come to that part of the liturgy where we welcome the newly baptized. Welcome them as if they were your own long-lost children who had wandered far from home but have found their way back by seeking the light of Christ. Welcome them with the open arms and hearty greeting you would give to a hero returning home from a foreign war. For in this baptism these young children become our brothers and sisters, in this baptism they have returned to the home that God has prepared for them from before the beginning of the world — from before the time the Spirit first hovered over those waters and the light was separated from the darkness. This is the power of God working through the church and its sacraments, committed to the care of the church by its Lord, Jesus Christ. He is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, and it is by that Spirit that we are — all of us — children of the Most High.+

The Arrival

The good news of Messiah, among us to inspire us to work his will. — A Sermon for Advent 3b

SJF • Advent 3b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Over these first three weeks of Advent we have been hearing readings from the prophet Isaiah. And as I have said, they form a sequence almost like “ready, set, go.” The first showed Isaiah asking God why he did not show himself, and challenging and imploring God to do so. The second announced that God was indeed soon to show himself, and that unmistakably. And in today’s reading — a reading which, as we know from the gospel of Luke, Jesus identified with and proclaimed in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth — in this reading the presence of the Spirit of God is formally announced: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me...” It is good to recall that the Hebrew word for one who is anointed is Messiah.

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God’s promise is fulfilled in this prophecy. and it is a time of great rejoicing and celebration. The imagery is that of people getting dressed for a wedding. The groom puts on a garland and the bride dresses herself in her finest jewels. These are not things one does long in advance of the event — these are the outfits you put on only on the day of the wedding itself, like the tail-coat and the wedding dress. That is how we know that the great day has arrived — and when we see the bride and the groom so attired, we know that it is already here.

But note that even these fine outfits are but a shadow of the glory of the garments of salvation and the robe of righteousness with which God will clothe his people for the celebration of the Lord’s arrival. Not just the bride and the groom, but all the guests at the wedding banquet will be gloriously dressed. It is clearly something to rejoice about.

And so Saint Paul continues that word of rejoicing, urging those to whom he writes to rejoice always, to give thanks in all things, filled as they are with the unquenchable spirit of God and sanctified by the God of peace to be kept whole and sound.

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And yet... and yet. The arrival that Isaiah appears to celebrate did not come in the time of Isaiah. It happened centuries later in the time of John the Baptist. Isaiah’s words about the arrival of the Spirit of God were prophetic — even though, fired up with the sense of God’s imminent arrival, it seemed almost, almost, as if it was happening even then. It seemed that God would break through that very day, as if the bride and groom rose from their slumber and dressed for the wedding that would take place that very morning.

So eager were the people for this arrival in the days of Isaiah, and in the days of John the Baptist, that they looked for any clue, any sign, that God and his Messiah had come. You can see that in the grilling to which the priests and Levites subject John the Baptist. The arrival of the Messiah is so close that they almost feel that they can reach out and touch him — but as John assures them, he is not the one. The time is not yet, though as the song says, “soon and very soon.” John sets the stage, even quoting the prophet Isaiah, casting himself in the role of the one who cries out in the wilderness the very same words of preparation that we heard on the first Sunday of Advent — “make his paths straight.” He is coming.

And it is notable that someone else quotes from Isaiah — not just quoting but actually reading, as I said earlier. And that is Christ himself, who, when he was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to read in the synagogue of Nazareth, found the very passage we heard this morning. And he not only read from it about the spirit of the Lord God and the anointing that would proclaim the Messiah — he not only read from the scroll but declared that it was fulfilled, then and there, in their hearing, in the presence of all who heard him read it. It was a proclamation that Messiah had come.

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Soon after, John the Baptist, believing but no doubt wanting to be assured, sent messengers himself to Jesus to ask if he was indeed the one — much as others had sent messengers to John to ask if he was the one! And Jesus gave to John’s messengers an answer similar to the one John gave to those who sought him out: look at what I am doing. And in Jesus’ case, he once again cataloged those evidences of God’s presence similar to the promises made in the passage from Isaiah: sight to the blind, healing to the disabled, release to the prisoners and captives. To comfort John with the assurance that Christ was indeed the one who was promised, he did not engage in a point by point Scriptural argument, but displayed his works of power — the power of God’s presence at work in him and through him, performing the signs of liberation that the prophet had promised. The evidence of God’s arrival is God’s work. This isn’t talk any more, but action.

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And God wants the same from us — action. It is very easy to talk about how much we love God, love the church, love our fellow Christians. But God wants more than talk: God wants us to put our hands to work as well. God wants us to proclaim in word and deed that same message of deliverance from bondage that Isaiah preached, that John the Baptist promised, and that Christ at the last brought into being. We live in a world that is still full of brokenhearted people — disappointed in their hopes and frustrated or maligned in their efforts to be and to do all that God intends for them. We live in a world that is still oppressed and hungry for good news; a world that is held captive by lust of possession that still works desolation, binding those enthralled by wealth and fame in chains — that while they seem to be made of gold, are cold iron underneath and weigh them down to the depths.

We live, in short, in a world that desperately needs to hear the proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor, of the Lord’s forgiveness, of the Lord’s deliverance, and above all of the Lord’s arrival.

Will you do that? Not only in word but in deed? Will you proclaim with your lips and in your lives that God has come among us, and is among us still. Will you proclaim that Jesus lives, and that he reigns in your hearts and strengthens your hands to do his will? Will you follow up that proclamation with the hard work that shows that you mean every word you say, that what you proclaim with your lips is what you live in your lives? We, like John, may not be worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. But we can, like John, proclaim, and by our actions certify, that God is with us, acting through us, mighty in power and strong to save: even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Getting Ready

Isaiah's theme of preparing the human landscape... A sermon for Advent 2B

SJF • Advent 2b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.

We continue on this second Sunday of Advent with readings from the book of the prophet Isaiah. As I mentioned last week, these readings do not appear in our week-to-week worship in the same order as they do in the book of the prophet. But they do fall into a logical sequence as we’ve been reading them through the course of Advent and as we shall continue, almost as logical as “ready, set, go.”

Last week we heard Isaiah’s lament that God had abandoned and forgotten his people. We also heard his challenge to God to reveal himself, to tear open the heavens and come down, to shake the mountains and boil the sea if need be — to make himself known so that the nations might see, and tremble at his presence.

And today we hear word of God’s response. If, as I said last week, the initial appeal is like an injured child calling out for its mother to come and help, then today it is as if we hear the voice calling from the kitchen — I’ll be there in a minute!

God instructs the prophet to give the people a word of comfort, a word of assurance: God is most definitely coming and wants the way prepared, cleared, leveled out, all obstructions removed and a new four-lane highway built right through the desert so that God’s glory will be unmistakable when it is revealed, “and all flesh shall see it together” — as the text made unforgettable by Händel’s music puts it.

And there is a musical quality to this text today — just as last week we heard a dialogue, a duet of call and response between the prophet and God, so too in the midst of this text today there is a short interlude in the form of a duet — and I’m not going to try to sing.

The voice of God commands the prophet to cry out; and the prophet responds, “What shall I cry?” He then begins to fall back into some of that language of despondency and despair that we heard in last week’s reading. Shall I, the prophet asks, state the obvious: that people are as mortal as grass, as transient and frail and ephemeral as the flower of the field — living for a day or two and then parched by the heat of the sun or withered by the blast of a winter wind? Is that what God wants me to say? Where is the good news in that?

And in response, God orders not just the prophet but Zion itself and the holy city of Jerusalem to stand tall and proud and lift up voices full of strength as would a herald of good tidings, fearlessly crying out: Here is God! See, look! God is coming, the good Shepherd who will gather up the lost lambs, and lead the mother sheep.

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Today’s theme, then, is the primary Advent theme of preparation for the coming of the Lord. The apostle Peter reminds us that the coming of God will be sudden and unmistakable and that we are called to wait for that day, always being ready, always prepared by living lives of peace and purity and patience. And John the Baptist, while dressed in the costume of Elijah, fulfills the promise of Isaiah. He is the one who appears in the wilderness to call out for preparation — and indeed he does prepare the people with a baptism of repentance, to turn them back towards the place from which God will come, and the assurance that he is only the messenger and not the one for whom the promise was given; he is not the Messiah. No, he is not worthy even to take off the Messiah’s shoes, and while he has baptized with water, to prepare the people, the one to come will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

The preparation we are charged to undertake — as Isaiah makes clear — is a very personal preparation although Isaiah describes it in geological if not cosmic terms. The mountains that are to be removed and the valleys filled in to level out the way for building that four-lane highway for God’s coming are obstacles to us as much as they are to God. From the mountain of pride to the valley of despondency, these are obstacles that block God’s very entry into every human heart.

For that is where God seeks to enter in — through the empty desert of our needs and wants, past the fields of wilted grass and faded flowers of lost hopes and disappointments, filling in our deepest sense of inadequacy and weakness, as well as trimming down our pride and false self-sufficiency, leveling it down to size — past all these obstacles and impediments God seeks us out and bids us prepare for his coming by doing all we can — God giving us the power — to turn to him in faith, in hope, and with love.

For it is faith, as Jesus assured us, that can move mountains, even towering mountains of pride. It is hope that can guide us through the darkest valley, even the valley of the deepest sense of abandonment and despair, even the valley of the shadow of death. And it is love that will inspire us with the power of God’s own Holy Spirit to mount up on Zion and through the gates of Jerusalem to cry out to our beloved, Come, Lord Jesus Bridegroom, come! The Bride is ready. We have flung wide the portals of our hearts; Lord Jesus, enter in!+

Answering the Call

SJF • Epiphany 2a 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.

Last week, we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus, and I spoke about the inauguration of his mission and ministry. It was at his baptism that Jesus began to undertake the task that the Father in heaven had sent him to accomplish, in the three short years that would end on Calvary and in the garden tomb from which God raised him victorious over death. His baptism marked the initiation of his mission, his response to the call from God.

But when did that call come? And what form did it take? And what about the calls that each of us receive from God to take up our own work for God’s purposes for us and for the kingdom?

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In one sense, God’s call to Christ was issued from before time and forever, within the eternal and everlasting communion of the Persons of the Holy Trinity itself. There was no time when the Son of God was not in perfect communion with the Father, from and of whom he was eternally begotten, God from God, light from light. And long before the creation of the world — even before there was such a thing as “being before” — the Son knew the mind of the Father, God’s will for the world, and God’s purpose for the Son of God, with a perfection of knowledge that is beyond our understanding.

So why is it that Jesus waited thirty years to answer that call? Let me remind us again as I did last week that apart from the account of the child Jesus left behind in the Temple at about the age of twelve, and his response to his parents that he needed to be about his father’s business, the Scriptures are silent as to what Jesus was doing during those years. We know nothing of him as a teenager, or as a young adult. Only about the age of thirty — getting very close to what the ancients would consider middle age — and believe me, the older I get the younger thirty sounds! — only then does Jesus step forward, as if responding to the call for the first time.

Many scholars have tried to fill in those missing years, with many interesting speculations — some of them hanging by a very slender thread. Some suggest that Jesus spent his youth as a zealot, or among the Essenes, or part of one of the other small groups of sectarians that emerged in that very difficult time of religious and political foment and struggle. Some suggest that Jesus was of a more traditional bent: a pupil of Jewish tradition, on his way to becoming a rabbi, a student in one of the schools of the Pharisees, and a Pharisee himself.

Don’t be so surprised! Not only would that explain why many Pharisees did become followers of Jesus, but also why many other Pharisees opposed him: there is nothing like the anger that a committed sect can express towards one of its own members when they part ways!

More than that, there is a verse in John’s Gospel that appears just before the passage we heard today. The Pharisees send to ask John the Baptist if he is the Messiah, and after denying it he says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me: I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” And of course that turns out, in the following verses, to be Jesus. Suggestive? Yes; conclusive? No.

So, as I don’t want to speculate further than the Scripture allows or suggests, when it comes to the question of when and how Jesus heard the call of God, let me stick with the things that are abundantly clear. There are two things that Scripture tells or shows us about Jesus that help to explain how Jesus came to the point of acting on his call, and beginning the course that would take him to Jerusalem, to death on the cross, and rising from the grave.

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The first is the fact that Jesus lived and breathed Scripture: not so odd that the living Word of God should be familiar with the written word of God. But I’m not talking here of any kind of memories from before time, some innate familiarity with the Law and the Prophets. I’m suggesting that Jesus studied the Scripture as any young Jewish boy or young man of his time would have done —
— that he heard the prophets and the law expounded by the local rabbi; and at least once, in that precious episode from his late childhood, he spent a short time in the company of the most prestigious teachers of the law in Jerusalem, the rabbis, at precisely the time of life when a Jewish boy would enter manhood. Scripture doesn’t tell us so, but we know from historical accounts that this was when the great Rabbi Hillel was teaching, and there are clear echoes of that rabbi’s thought in the teaching of Jesus. (This is where it would have made sense that Jesus later spent some time as a pupil in the school of Rabbi Hillel, one of the two great Pharisee rabbinic schools that dominated Jerusalem in those years. And of course, what do John’s disciples call Jesus, when they first approach him, on our Gospel account today? “Rabbi!”) But I’m veering into speculation again — I’m sorry, but it is an attractive idea!

But let me stick with the fact that wherever Jesus learned the Scriptures, he knew them intimately, and his intimacy with those precious words, particularly the words of the prophets, spoke to him, and echoed in his mind and heart, playing their part in awakening the dormant call to his true identity, his true self as the chosen one of God, the Messiah.

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The second thing we know about Jesus is his close association with his cousin John the Baptist, six months his senior. This would not be the first time that the example of an older relative, a cousin or a brother, would inspire a young person to undertake a similar course of action — how many young people go into medicine, or the armed forces, or teaching, because an older relative has inspired them — a fact of which the elder may not even be aware? Jesus clearly saw something very special in John the Baptist, knowing what he would later say, acknowledging his greatness; just as John the Baptist clearly saw something very special in Jesus.

And that is where the internal call resting in Jesus’ heart was answered by an external call — a special kind of endorsement and ratification — from John the Baptist. The very person to whom Jesus has looked up and emulated turns and says those astounding words: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” And he testifies about what happened at the baptism of Jesus, how the Spirit descends, in fulfillment of the promise, that he would one day see someone upon whom the Spirit would descend, and that this would be the Son of God! The light bulb went on in John the Baptist’s head and it all came together. And I have to note that when John, in today’s Gospel twice says that “I did not know him” it doesn’t mean he didn’t know Jesus, but that until that moment he didn’t know who he was. There is a big difference between, “I didn’t know who he was,” and “I didn’t know who he was.” Suddenly the light bulb goes on in John’s head, the prophecy comes true, and he realizes, “This is the Son of God.”

And it is at this moment that in Jesus’ mind as well the light shines — and he realizes as well who he is: the internal percolation of the prophecies he has studied for years suddenly mesh with the external proclamation of John: the realization that he is “the one who comes from before” — not just before John, but before everything; as Jesus would later proclaim, before Abraham; in a very real sense before Adam, before the worlds were born, Jesus rested in the eternal counsel of the great I AM. The words of Isaiah suddenly take on this powerful meaning, “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” Jesus realizes that Isaiah is talking about him!

And with that realization, Jesus immediately begins his ministry: which also starts with calling — calling some of John’s disciples, and then through Andrew giving Peter a new name, and then finding Philip and through him Nathanael, and soon the apostles are at work and the Gospel is brought to light.

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And what I want to say to you today is that God’s call can be just the same — is just the same — for us. God has called each and every one of us. From before we were born, while we were still in our mother’s womb, God has a purpose and aim for each and every human being made in the image and likeness of God. As someone once very bluntly put it, “God don’t make trash.”

God has a goal for each person born, from before they are born, and the call is planted in every heart. And to awaken our awareness to that call, as we grow and learn and come to understand it, God gives us the Scriptures — the same Scriptures that nourished the boy Jesus and guided him into adulthood. And God also gives us examples: older brothers or sisters or aunts or uncles or cousins or parents or friends, who by their witness and their encouragement can help fan the spark into a full flame of glory as we answer the call that has lain dormant in our hearts for all those years.

And guess what: these two things come together in the church — where the words of God and the people of God are joined together in teaching and preaching and praying and praising. This is where this elements come together: word and sacrament together, vitally important to our lives as faithful people, and as a church, as we seek to answer — each of us — our own call. What does the old hymn say? “Let none stand idle” — let us answer the call. As Paul told the Corinthians, called as we are to be saints: The testimony of Christ has been strengthened among us, so that we are not lacking in any spiritual gift.

The call has been issued, God’s call to each and every one of us, he has given us the Scriptures and our fellow Christians old and young to guide us; he has give us gifts, each of us: gifts that the Spirit will spark to life if we allow God’s grace to work upon us. God is calling us. There is work to do. Are you ready?+

Seeing the Signs

SJF • Advent 3a 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Go and tell what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

The world of the ancient Israelites, as the world of the people of Christ’s time, and our world today, was and is a world hungry for signs — for significance. At all times and in all places, knowledge comes about when our inner minds engage with some outer reality — knowledge does not simply spring from within, nor is it wholly external. It comes into being through that interaction between objective reality and subjective reaction, as our senses convey to our inner minds some apprehension of the world that exists outside of ourselves. Just as we need food and nourishment from outside ourselves to build up our bodies, we need the input of the world with which we interact to nourish our minds. In short, we hunger for significance, for things to mean something — so much so that people will often see meaning where none exists. The human mind is so hungry for order and meaning that we will look at clouds or rock formations and see castles or camels or crocodiles.

We keep looking for signs and significance because most of the time the things we see actually do tell us something of the world in which we live, the state of the world. Take one prosaic example alluded to by the prophet Isaiah. One of the first signs that spring is about to arrive is the humble crocus — the small flower that pushes its way to the surface, sometimes through snowfall, as a sign that spring is about to come.

The important thing, in addition to seeing the sign, is understanding it, and that involves a bit more mental labor — and engagement with its context. A person who saw a bowl of crocus blossoms in a florist’s shop or the supermarket in December and thought, “Oh, spring is coming,” would be sorely mistaken. (And am I the only one here who misses the sense of the seasons in the supermarket, the seasons that used to pervade the markets? There was a time when you could tell what season of the year it was by the selection of fresh produce available, and the times had their appropriate tastes and smells — but now you can find watermelon in December!) So it is not just seeing the sign, but grasping its significance, that is vital in forming a proper meaning in the mind.

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Our gospel passage today addresses both sides of this mystery of perception, the grasping of significance. And if you don’t mind, I will deal with them in reverse order, because the first part is the more significant, and I want to end with the more meaningful and significant sign.

The latter part of the passage deals with understanding the significance of the sign based on its context — as I said before, like a crocus in a supermarket or pushing its way through a snowbank, or watermelon in December — or July. In this passage, Jesus asked the people what they were looking for when they went out to see John the Baptist. That is to say, what sign did they seek? A reed shaken by the wind? Well, there would be plenty of those to see out by the river bank — but what would be their significance? what would they tell you? Maybe, if a reed was shaking, that it was indeed windy; but who needs a reed to tell them that?

Were they looking for someone dressed in luxurious garments? If that’s the case, they were looking in the wrong location — for a sign out of its place.

But perhaps they were looking for a prophet after all — and if that’s the case then they will have seen what they were looking for, the sign and the testimony of the greatest prophet who ever lived: John the Baptist.

So for a sign to be of use, one must seek the right sign, in the right place and to the right end, to the right object, for the right purpose: in this case, of being prepared for the coming of the Righteous One, the Messiah.

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John himself shows us the other important thing about signs. In the first part of the Gospel passage, he is in prison, but he sends a message to Jesus, asking if he is the one for whom the world has been waiting. Instead of giving a direct yes or no answer, Jesus tells John’s messengers to take back to him the evidence of their senses: what they have seen and heard. This is where the role of understanding a sign comes in — matching the external sign with the internal knowledge. In just this way we know that a red light means that we are to stop: not because there is a natural connection between the color red and stopping — after all, a red button is sometimes the one you push to make things go! — but because we have learned from our parents or teachers that a red light has this meaning — and we were all instructed in this meaning long before we ever saw a red light or stopped at one. We had to be taught or we would know to stop.

In this case John is asking if Jesus is the one to come or if he should wait for another. And Jesus, rather than giving a simple yes or no answer harks back to something that John would have been taught, something he knew quite well, something John had learned from his childhood up, just as children today are taught that a red light means “stop.” What John had been taught is that very passage from Isaiah: the one we heard this morning, the one that promises that the blind shall see and the deaf hear; the lame will leap and those without speech will become eloquent: and that these are the signs of the coming of Messiah.

And so Jesus, in the gentle way of the good teacher he was — much as a parent with a young child approaching an intersection might ask, “And what do we do when the light turns red?” — Jesus similarly gently reminds John through those messengers about what they had seen and heard: the fulfillment of those very promises from the prophet Isaiah! The new sign of Jesus is really a reminder about the old sign long promised. We can only imagine how John’s heart must have leapt when he received this news, for he would have recognized what Jesus was saying immediately!

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As we grow closer to the feast of Christmas, let us as well be open to the signs that God has placed upon our path. Many of them are things that we too learned when we were young; perhaps we have forgotten some of them. Perhaps we have become accustomed to watermelons in December, or we’ve seen so many laws broken that the warning signs and red-lights of this world no longer stop us in our careless disregard for one another.

Do we still remember how to recognize the signs of love and generosity, fair play and justice when we see them? More importantly, when we see signs of hatred and injustice do we strengthen our hands and make our knees firm to stand up and say to those who are doing wrong — as John the Baptist did — this is not right!

The time is near, my friends, the time is near, for each of us to bear our witness, as the prophets did of old. May we, when we are given the sign to speak, not the red light, but the green light, have something wise and encouraging to say, and speak rightly and plainly speaking of the love of him, who is our Judge and our Savior, our Lord and our God.+

Carrot or Stick?

SJF • Advent 3c 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.+

WE COME TO THE three-quarters mark of Advent, the Sunday known as “Rejoice Sunday,” when we switch vestments from purple to rose for the day. This Sunday takes its name from our reading from Philippians, beginning with those famous words, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”

We start with Zephaniah’s joyful command to the daughter of Zion to start singing in exultation, rejoicing that the Lord has granted full acquittal, rescued her from disaster, and restored her fortunes. Thus the tone is set for rejoicing right from the first reading. Then Paul continues the tone with that wonderful call to rejoice in the Lord always — it’s hard to hear those words without thinking of the wonderful bouncy setting that Händel wrote to portray the leaping joy of happy hearts.

Things seem to be running along in a happy mood indeed, and then suddenly the foot comes down on the brakes and we come to a screeching halt, as the scary figure of John the Baptist looms before us, holding out his hand and crying, “You brood of vipers!”

Just when we thought we were heading for a happy ending, here comes somebody talking about axes and fires and vipers and wrath. It’s as if we’d just settled down in the movie theater with the kids, ready to see Disney’s latest G-rated romp, but before the family fare can begin, the previews of coming attractions shock us with an R-rated sequel to Nightmare on Elm Street!

Why did those who chose our readings for this third Sunday of Advent change course in mid-stream, returning from rejoicing to the more common theme of Advent, violence and the coming day of the Lord? Well, one of the reasons is that they knew who they were dealing with— us! People who deal with people — whether politicians or managers or pastors — know that there are two sides to human nature. The upside is the willingness to be generous, to be truthful and honorable and worthy of praise. But the downside is always there — we live in a world beset by sin, and even the best person is far from perfect. And that downside of human nature includes selfishness, envy, pride, dishonesty, and all those other nasty things that hide under the paving-stones of even our best intentions. Yes, people may mean well, they may even do well much of the time, but none of us is so virtuous that we don’t need an incentive to move forward, and a corrective for our failings from time to time.

So we have, as it were, the carrot and the stick. There are other analogies: good cop, bad cop, for example. And what child hasn’t learned that if Mom says No, Dad may well say Yes, or vice versa! And so, in today’s readings, while Zephaniah and Paul hold out the carrot, John the Baptist swings the stick.

And if we look closely at what all three are saying, I think we can see that, while the messages at first seem to clash, deep down there is a single theme to their effort. Just as the carrot and the stick are both meant to get the donkey moving, just as the good cop and the bad cop are both working together to get the suspect to cooperate, just as Mom and Dad really both have the best interest of their child at heart, so too Zephaniah and Paul and John are all trying to move us in the same direction — Godward.

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Look closely at what John the Baptist is demanding, after all of those fiery and violent opening words. Is he asking those who come to hear him to walk barefoot over hot coals or perform difficult feats? No, in spite of his intensity, what he asks is not all that extraordinary or hard after all: that whoever has two coats should share one with someone who has none, that whoever has food should share it with the hungry. Now, that’s hardly terrifying, is it? It only seems natural.

And he goes on, telling the tax collectors to collect the tax — and no more; he tells the soldiers to be happy with their salary, and not to abuse or blackmail the citizens with threats or lies.

In short, all he’s doing is asking for the same kinds of things Paul does in his joyful letter to the folks in Philippi: be true, be honorable, be just, be fair. John is telling people to do the same things as Paul, and to do them in the same way — honorably, faithfully, and with respect. Though he wields the stick instead of dangling the carrot, his goal is the same, to move the people to be as good as they can be, to bring them to the spiritual place of justice, fairness, and unselfishness that we goes by the wonderful name, Righteousness.

The problem, of course, is that movement is needed! The donkey of human nature won’t budge, sometimes in spite of the carrot or the stick. In spite of all the encouragement to be good, to be true and fair and honorable, to be righteous, people still lie and cheat and steal.

In spite of being urged to share their food and clothing, there are still plenty of full closets and empty stomachs in this world of ours. In spite of urging those in authority to do their jobs justly and fairly, there is greed and corruption in the seats of power. All human beings, all of us, however good or wanting to be good, are, as the Collect for today says, “sorely hindered by our sins” — we desperately need God to “stir up his strength and come among us.” Our donkey cart has its wheels stuck in the ruts of a well-worn road — and we need more than a carrot or a stick or even both together.

And so there is more to John’s message, as there is to Paul’s. Both of them know that however big and tempting the carrot, however strong and threatening the stick, neither is powerful enough to accomplish what is needed. For that, not something but someone else is needed, someone whose coming John foretells and whose presence Paul preaches. John warns the people that Messiah is coming, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire: the ultimate carrot and stick! And Paul counsels the people to rest assured in the peace of Christ, placing their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. For it is Christ, the Messiah, who is the final cause of all rejoicing; it is Jesus of Nazareth who is the final goal of all our pilgrimage, with all of our ups and downs, all of our wrong turns and failures, all of our defeats and all of our victories — only he who can move us from our immobility.

He alone is the one who can push the donkey cart out of the ruts into which we have steered it, and he will do so with the same shoulder that bore the cross, and with his own wounded hands. He alone is the one who will bring us home, bring us home rejoicing, bring us home in peace. The good news of both Paul and John find their end and fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and after Paul and John have done their work as carrot and stick, to try to keep us moving in the right direction, it is Jesus Christ our Lord, and only he, who will stir up his power, and with great might come among us, bearing his bountiful grace and mercy in his own wounded hands, he will speedily help and deliver us, and finally bring us home. And so, to him alone who has the power to save us and deliver us, to him be the glory henceforth and for evermore.+

Front Row Seats

SJF • Proper 24b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”+Last Sunday and next Sunday we heard and will hear Gospel passages in which people ask Jesus various things. Last week it was the rich young man asking what he had to do to gain eternal life. Next week it will be blind Bartimaeus asking for mercy. This week we hear Mark’s account about two of the earliest disciples, the fisherman brothers James and John, the sons of Zebedee, asking for front row seats — the seats of honor next to Jesus in his glory.

This Gospel has particular relevance for us because James is our patron saint, for whom Saint James Church is named. As you may know, the only stained-glass window of Saint James in the church is now walled up behind the altar — and we can only guess it is because when the altar was moved against the end of the church and raised on three steps, it cut the figure of Saint James off at the waist and people thought it looked a little odd.

Our patron saint is not completely without representation in the church, however. In the row of icons at the altar (which I reproduced in today’s bulletin) he is there at the far left, and his brother John is at the far right. So, in a way, at Saint James church at least, James and his brother John do have the honor of being to the left and right of Jesus.

But it is important to note that in most churches with icons, those places are taken by Peter and Paul, and in all churches with such an arrangement of icons, the most honorable seats in this portrayal of the heavenly banquet belong to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist. In other words, the church has long understood Jesus’s response to James and John as indicating that those seats of honor were reserved for someone else — for the one whom every age would call Blessèd, and the one who was “the Forerunner” and first proclaimer of the Lamb of God.

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Now, I don’t know about you, but I can well understand the other disciples getting annoyed with James and John when they rushed to the head of the class. We’ve probably all known people who put themselves forward, in the process of putting everyone else down. People might call them the “teacher’s pet” or a “crawler.” There is something offputting about this kind of ambition — an instinctive sense that it is inappropriate to push forward and try to take the front row seats, the best seats, the seats of honor.

Indeed, Jesus elsewhere advises against this sort of behavior: telling people to take the lowest seats at the banquet so that they might be honored in being asked to come up higher, rather than taking a high seat and being embarrassed to be asked to move down lower. Apparently James and John did not think this applied to them — they were, after all, part of the inner circle, along with Peter, who had been invited to go with Jesus to the mountaintop, and later those three would accompany him to the garden of Gethsemane. Maybe the trip to the mountaintop went to their heads!

Whatever the reason, whether pride or self-satisfaction or because of earlier signs of favor, James and John clearly overstep in their request for prime seating, and Jesus gently corrects them, and the other disciples as well, when they get bent out of shape in this unsavory contest of “who does Jesus like best.” Jesus doesn’t settle the issue and say anything about who will be seated where — and as with the seats at the banquet advises taking the position of a servant — of one who serves.

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As with all Gospel passages, however, there is more to this account. Notice what Jesus does predict concerning James and John. They will drink the cup that he will drink, and undergo the baptism with which he is baptized. And this is where our row of icons comes in again: for although the images of the saints and angels are ranged at the altar where we celebrate the earthly foreshadowing of the heavenly banquet, they are also ranged at the foot of the cross.

This is the cup that Christ would drink, the baptism with which he would be baptized: a cup he would earnestly entreat his father in Gethsemane to pass him by — while James, John and Peter were sleeping. But in union with his father’s will he accepted it, accepted death on the cross for our salvation, in union with us his brothers and sisters.

The prophet Isaiah had spoken centuries before of this suffering servant of God — the one upon whom the iniquity of all of us wandering sheep long since gone astray, would be laid. “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” Or as an old prayer has it, “By his cross and passion we come to the glory of his resurrection.”

Christ knew that this was what lay before him — the bitter cup and the baptism of death. James and John would indeed share in this with him — James would be the first of the apostles to die for his faith. And his brother John, though he lived to old age, would know the bitterness of exile on the island of Patmos.

And all of us who bear the name of Christian, if Christians we are, share with our Lord in his sufferings as we share in solidarity with all human suffering: doing our best to alleviate it as servants of the one in whose image every human being is made. This is the way that Jesus commends to his apostles, and through them to us: not to lord it over others as their masters, but to serve them as Christ served us and gave himself a ransom for many.

The Christian life is not about climbing the greasy pole to success, of clambering to attain a front row seat, to elbow others out of your way to get the places of honor. Rather it is about the ministry of service that stoops to wash the feet of the poor, that gives itself and spends itself for the benefit of others and their well-being.

But the Christian life is also not about envying those who do succeed or gain seats of honor and privilege, especially when that honor comes unexpected and as a surprise even to the one so honored. I think of some of the recent reactions to President Obama’s Nobel laureate. I very much doubt this is something he expected and he appears to have received it with grace; and I can’t help but hear in the voices of some of those who have said he doesn’t deserve it, the envious echoes of those other disciples.

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Neither pride nor envy are attractive human traits. Jesus would have us avoid them both. And the surest way to do that is to do as he said: to serve as he did, even if it means a bitter cup and a painful baptism. Few if any of us will be asked to go as far as the apostles and martyrs; but we can do our bit in patience and humility, in service to the least of our brothers and sisters.

And so, away with pride and envy. Our Lord and God has seats prepared for us, and though we know not where exactly they will be, we know that they will be with him, and that should be enough to satisfy us. What need is there for ambition when we have such promises from the living Word of God himself: that living, active word, sharper than a two edge sword that judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart; before whom nothing is hidden and to whom we must render an account; but one who is also able to sympathize with our weakness, as he has borne our griefs. With this Word of God for us, what can stand against us? As Martin Luther wrote,

That word above all earthly Powers,
no thanks to them abideth;
the spirit and the gifts are ours
through him who with us sideth:
let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still,
his kingdom is for ever.+

A Man Like John

SJF • Advent 3b • Tobias Haller BSG

When the priests and Levites from Jerusalem asked him, “Who are you?” he confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”+

As it comes round every year, we’re back to “Rejoice Sunday” again, regular as clockwork. And this year we really do get to hear some readings that sound like something to rejoice about! That reading from Isaiah is full of wonderful promises to Jerusalem — wonderful promises... You know, I can’t help but think, with all of the rhetoric of the not-so-long-ago presidential campaign echoing in my ears, how much this could sound like the exaggerated promises of a politician, if you wanted to hear them in that way: two chickens in every pot and two cars in every garage.

Look at the promises Isaiah relates — everybody will live to be over a hundred years old, and reap the rewards of their labor. They shall not plant and another reap; even the nature of wild animals shall be changed in God’s peaceable kingdom; the wolves and lambs will eat from the same trough, and lions will learn to do with hay.

Surely such promises only could come true in the kingdom of God, in the new Jerusalem. No earthly politician would dare to promise such peace and prosperity, such a complete reversal of things as we know it. I mean, what kind of politician would dare to say, “My friends, I’m going to make everyone wealthy!” Well, some might...

Even so, the promises seem very high, when we look at the economic situation of our world, the state of war and terrorism. It is so very easy to see how far we are from the promised new Jerusalem of which Isaiah speaks. And it would be tempting to turn to follow a prophet or politician who promised us everything, assured us that straw can be spun into gold, and that wealth will somehow miraculously trickle down — not from God, but from the wealthy, so that everyone will have their share. How tempting to think that universal health care will somehow just happen, that there will no longer be an infant who lives but a few days, or an old person who doesn’t live out a lifetime.

Those are the kinds of promises people want to hear, the kinds of promises they look for in a politician — or a prophet. And many will give in to the demand, and tell the people just what they want to hear.

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But not John the Baptist. John was different. The people wanted to fit him into their box. They were looking for the Messiah, and they wanted John to be the one. But John knew his limitations. He knew who he was, and who he wasn’t and what his task was: to prepare. He was sent by God to challenge the people, to shake them from complacency, and begin the process of reestablishing a just and humane society. He made no impossible demands, and he made no impossible promises: he just told people with a closet and pantry full of food and clothes that they should share with those who had none. He assured the people he was not the Messiah, but was the one sent with a message to prepare, and call the people to live, so far as they could, righteous and generous lives, for the good of all.

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I am old enough to remember another John, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, though I was in grade school the year he was elected, and in junior high the day he was assassinated. I still can see the face of Mr Stakem, my civics teacher, poking his head through the doorway into algebra class. I sat right along the wall, so all I could see was his head sticking into the room, and saying, “Mr Elliott, I’m sorry, but I have something very important to tell the class. The President has just been shot.” And then disappearing. And a half-hour later the announcement came over the PA system that the President was dead, and we were all sent home. Quite a day...

So I remember John Kennedy; and even as a youngster, I could see he was different from the other president I’d consciously known; though being very young I really didn’t know him very well — Dwight Eisenhower, known as “Ike.” Ike was an old man with a bald head, often in the hospital because of his heart problems; but John Kennedy was a young man with a full head of hair, strong and handsome and athletic. Ike and Mamie Eisenhower looked like folks from my neighborhood, like my great-aunts and uncles; but John and Jackie Kennedy looked like movie stars.

John Kennedy spoke differently, too. And I don’t just mean his accent — after all, though I grew up in Baltimore my Mom was Boston Irish, so I was used to hearing the sounds of “why doncha go pahk the cah.”

It wasn’t his accent, but his words themselves, not just how he spoke but what he said. As young as I was, I could hear the challenge and hope in his voice, together with his realism — not empty promises, but a call to responsibility. How powerful that challenge was: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” His voice echoed with others of his generation, the voices of Martin Luther King Jr and John’s brother Bobby. These were prophetic voices, like John the Baptist, not saying,
“I’m going to do it all for you” or “Don’t worry about anything, it will all take care of itself” or “If we just help the rich to stay rich some of the crumbs will fall from the table and everybody will get what they need.” No, these were voices that said, “I’m not your savior, but I’m here to challenge you to do the right thing. I’m here to tell you to get your act together and work with me to build a just society. I’m here to shake things up, and unworthy as I am, to challenge you to do all in your power to make the world a place prepared for God’s coming kingdom — to prepare the way of the Lord, to make his paths straight. I may not get there with you, but I have a dream today...”

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I don’t need to tell you that I heard a similar voice speak out in the campaign leading up to the election, and I’ve heard that same voice since. It is the voice of the man our nation chose, by a significant margin, to be our next President. He too could have offered the easy promises of wealth to the rich trickling down to us below; of health care provided universally but without cost. But he has taken a page from John’s book — John the Baptist and John Kennedy — to be straight with us, to challenge us, and call us to stand up to the challenge. It isn’t about him. It is not he upon whom we’ve pinned our hopes — except the hope that he will inspire us to do our best, not to ask what he can do for us, but what we can do for each other, working together, helping to turn our hopes into action to make this land, this world, a better place.

He is challenging us to “make straight the paths” of this land so that the poor and weak do not stumble. He is calling us to sacrifice and contribute to the good of all so that a fair and equitable health care system can be instituted, so that, God willing, no more shall there be an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live a lifetime. He is calling us to a world in which one does not plant while another harvests the crops, to a world in which the worker is compensated fairly, without regard to age or gender or race, and in which the laborers receive the fair return of their labor. He is calling us to a world in which those with much will indeed be challenged to share what they have — as John the Baptist did when he said that the one with two coats should share with the one who has none, and the one with plenty of food should do the same: and that’s not socialism; that’s the Gospel!

Barack Obama is no more the Messiah than was John the Baptist — but both of them call us to our better selves, to responsibility and willingness to bear each others’ burdens, so that all might benefit. We live in difficult times no less than did John the Baptist, times of war and want, of poverty and need, and of greed and selfishness. We cannot by our own efforts bring about the kingdom of God — but we can make straight his paths. We can prepare the way. We can all be men and women like John.

I give thanks to God, and pray for his continued blessing, upon our new President, who we hope at last can succeed in calling us to this high — and I dare say it — holy — endeavor. Let us work together with him, with our congress, with our fellows throughout the world, brothers and sisters, to hasten the day when justice, freedom, and peace, shall be the watchwords of our nation and our world. Let us make straight our Lord Messiah’s path, and rejoice at his coming, even our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.+