Sermon for Advent 2 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I think it’s easy for us not to appreciate how radical Luke’s depiction of John the Baptist is, how counterintuitive a prophet this seemingly crazy man in the desert would have been.

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

This is an incredibly subversive way to begin the Christmas story. God’s message was not coming through the expected channels, through the institutions set up to be the agents of God (in the case of the high priests) or through those in positions of temporal power, such as the Emperor or the Governor. Rather, the message of God, the call to repentance, was coming from this strange figure, this apparent madman, John, to whom few of us, if we were honest with ourselves, would have probably listened.

Now, John the Baptist was subversive in a manner wholly different from the culturally appropriate subversion which we’ve come to appreciate after the twentieth century, and which we’ve come to label “counterculture”. John the Baptist was not the personification of some Ancient Judean zeitgeist. He was not countercultural in the same way a hippy might have been. He was not even anti-establishment in the same way that the anti-Roman zealots of his own day were. He was much weirder even than that.

In Matthew we read “the same John had his raiment of camels hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.” This was almost as strange a way to dress and eat in those days as it would be now. What’s more, John didn’t go to the temple or to one of the gates of Jerusalem to preach his message where it might be heard by those with some political or economic power. He remained in the desert.

This would have been reckoned very strange by the people of the first century, even the counter-cultural people of the time, who would have been used to self-proclaimed prophets, but of a more socially acceptable variety. This John character was not like them, but those with any sense of history would have recognized that he fit the bill, as it were, a great deal more closely than these other so-called prophets.

It had been more than four-hundred years since a legitimate, canonical prophet had preached in Israel, but if one were to look back at those Old Testament prophets, one would notice the similarities between them and John. John’s message was not self-promoting, as were the sermons of first-century pseudo-prophets, who claimed a messianic identity for themselves. Rather, John, like the legitimate prophets of the Old Testament, pointed away from himself and always to another, namely Jesus, as the longed-for Messiah. Like so many of the Old Testament prophets, chiefly Amos, John arose from obscurity to take on the prophetic vocation. And his message, the message of repentance and of preparation for the day of the Lord, mirrored that of the legitimate prophets, particularly Elijah, the prophet with whom John was most readily identified.

We’ll hear more about John the Baptist next week, so I’ll leave it at that for now. But what can we learn from the little introduction to John which is this week’s Gospel? It seems to me that the most important lesson we get is that the Word of God comes to us from sources we might least expect. Certainly, we should be attentive to the normal modes in which we’ve come to experience that Word. We should be attentive to the Scriptures and to the teachings of Church Fathers and Councils and even to the minor insights I struggle to provide every week. But sometimes, and maybe more than just sometimes if we’re paying attention, the grace and love of God is made even more apparent, presents itself even more tangibly, in unexpected ways from the people we least expect.

I’ve had the Word of God preached to me more compellingly by people who come in and out of my office looking for help than I do from preachers. I’ve seen more love and hope in the lives of apparently unlovely people in apparently hopeless situations than I have from those who, like me, are in the business of loving people and instilling hope. I’ve even heard more fulsome expositions of Christian truth from the mouths of children than from many academic theologians.

And all these are all prophets of a sort, modern John the Baptists who have surprised me with their insights and have given me a new perspective on that old, old story. I suspect that many of you have had similar experiences, the Word of God being made real in ways and from people you least expected.

So, keep watch. Open your eyes. Look for these modern prophets. We hear over and over again, and especially in Advent, to be watchful. Baruch tells us “look toward the East”; the Prophet Isaiah is quoted in today’s Gospel as saying “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Let us be watchful, though, not only for Christ at his return, but for the risen Christ in our midst, right now, being made present in ways and through people we do not expect. Pray that God may give you the eyes to see his messengers for what they are, and ask Him to give you faith in the message they preach, and that John the Baptist preached, and that each of us should be preaching: namely that great message of hope in our Lord’s return, for

Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 1 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

These are not particularly cheerful words during a season in which the culture-at-large tells us that it’s time to start celebrating Christmas. I’d guess that most of you here have been more-or-less successfully catechized to know that there is a difference between Advent and Christmastide, a distinction which the church continues to maintain despite the fact that it seems that Christmas in the secular culture seems to keep expanding to envelope about the last quarter of every year. As jaundiced as I can be about this sort of thing, I am still always surprised when I see Christmas stuff in Walmart well before Hallowe’en.

All this is well-trod ground for us anyway, but I think that sometimes we say there is a difference between Advent and Christmas, but we don’t quite acknowledge what precisely the distinction is, or, more to the point, what Advent is really all about. We sometimes say that it is to prepare us spiritually for Christmas, a sort of fast before the feast in the same way that Lent prepares us for Easter. This is true to a certain extent. Advent is a season of penitential expectation, which we refelct in the way in which our liturgy changes. But there is a whole other theme in Advent which we sometimes shy away from: namely the second coming of Christ.

It should be no surprise that we tend to forget this part of the story, but it’s unfortunate nonetheless. We in the Christian mainstream have basically ceded this topic to fundamentalists, and that’s too bad, because there is a great deal of hope to be found in scripture’s account of the second advent of Christ. It’s not just weird, scary stuff.
Remember that seeming;y scary passage from the Gospel reading with which I opened the sermon: the nations are in perplexity, people are fainting with fear, the seas roar, and the heavens shake? Here’s what comes next.
And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

We get caught up in the nasty bits and we forget that the Gospel is Good News. We forget that it’s not about God inflicting turmoil on the world, but about God coming to us in the midst of turmoil and, through Jesus Christ, setting all things right.

What our Lord is on about in this morning’s Gospel is that when things seem to be absolutely as horrible as they can possibly be, God is there ready to step in and establish justice and peace, to bring about the Kingdom of God. Our Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah is about the same thing. Prior to the lesson we hears, Jeremiah speaks of the desolation of Israel and Judah, but it ends up in what we heard this morning- the fulfillment of the promise and justice and righteousness abounding in the land.

We do pray for this every week for heaven’s sake: thy kingdom come. We pray for it because it’s a good thing. Please permit me to take a liberty and just suggest that there are some things not worth worrying about (if I explained why in detail it would take longer than anybody here wants to listen to a sermon), and perhaps we can delve into it more during an adult Sunday School session or something: Don’t worry about some people getting raptured up and others left behind. Some very poor biblical scholars basically invented that idea in the nineteenth century. Don’t worry about the wrath of God coming down to give you your just deserts for saying a cross word to your kid or accidently swallowing your toothpaste before Mass. This religion we’re a part of is about grace, not judgment. Don’t worry too much about the whole world going to hell in a handbasket (unless you’re specifically worrying about premature Christmas decorations, I guess). I don’t mean to say “don’t worry at all” or “don’t work to make it better.” That is certainly our call. Even so, scripture promises that just when things seem most bleack, God is near at hand. God will, at the end of days, come and sets thing right.

So, that’s really the upshot, here. Don’t freak out. “Keep calm and carry on” as that old English poster from the Second World War put it (there’s one in my office and it inspires me frequently). God is on our side. God will keep us safe. God will establish a kingdom without end. Watch for it and pray for it.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sermon for Christ the King 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

On this Feast of Christ the King we are invited to meditate on a rather foreign concept to us modern, Western people. We have no king in this nation; though sometimes looking at the nastiness that seems to define Washington at present we may wish we had one. Even those European countries which have maintained a monarchy have kept the institution while gradually stripping it of its political power over the course of centuries. It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around what that image of Jesus on his “throne of glory” is all about. The best image most of us have of kingship is from things like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.

But the reality is, none of our images in popular culture really gets to the heart of the biblical view of kingship. We must, then, remind ourselves of the political milieu of the first century. The Jews were, as happened so many times during their history, a people ruled by heathen outsiders. While much can be said of the benefits Roman rule brought to the Ancient Near East as well as Europe, the reality is that those subjected to such rule without consent were not inclined to appreciate an Emperor governing from a thousand miles away. While governance by consent is a hopelessly anachronistic concept, we can nonetheless appreciate the fact that the Jews would have been none-too-happy about the arrangement, just like I said last week regarding the Jews during the period of Seleucid rule during which Daniel was written. To make things worse, Roman rule was not a benign institution in this part of the ancient world. Granted, most Roman governors made shrewd concessions to those practicing the Jewish religion in order to keep the peace (concessions which former empires, like the Hellenists, had failed to make). Even so, the uneasy peace which would ultimately break apart roughly thirty years after the death of Christ was constantly tested by regressive taxation and occasional violent persecution.

Suffice it to say, Roman rule in Israel was predicated on one overarching goal- namely, the accumulation and protection of power in the hands of a few individuals. There is no sense of a social contract in this period, no commonwealth. Contemporary anarchists have no idea how good we have it today, in a nation which (for all of its flaws) recognizes that, to some extent at least, we’re all in it together. I mean, these days we at least get tax breaks for doing what we ought to be doing anyway, like contributing to the church and to charities.
This being the context, Jesus’ action in as our sovereign is all the more radical. I think the most clear example of this is our Lord’s action during his crucifixion. As the King reigning from his throne, the cross, Jesus welcomes a stranger, a criminal, into his kingdom. He doesn’t require proper documentation or a citizenship exam or the promise to pay taxes. He doesn’t ask the criminal hanging beside him if he’s really a terrorist out to infiltrate the Kingdom of God. In response to nothing more than sincere desire, our meek king said “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The King of Glory is a King whose law is love, and (as I’ve said from this pulpit many times before) Christian love is not about warm, sentimental feelings; it’s about treating those people we call brothers and sisters as if they really were our brothers and sisters. It’s about comforting the weak and feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and putting the stranger’s needs before our own.

And when I say “stranger”, I mean it. If Christ is truly King, it means that His Law is universal. It really means that we are obliged to see our God and King in people outside our own community. It means we treat the stranger just as well as the person already inside our walls, because in a very real sense the stranger is our King. It means we have to welcome the criminal, just like Jesus did. It’s easy to prop up those whom we see as “our own” (which phrase, by the by, implies a rather disturbing sense of ownership we claim over those who wish to live their lives in community with us). It’s far more difficult to see Jesus in the outsider and thus to treat that outsider as if he were more important than ourselves. As William Tyndale, father of the English Bible, famously put it, “The Church is the one institution that exists for those outside it.” I fear, sometimes, that we’ve forgotten that.

In all events, the Kingship of Christ is not only different from the kingship of the emperor; it is diametrically opposed to the spirit of our age- the spirit which revels in individualism and so-called enlightened self interest. There is no place in the Kingdom for ethical egoism. I am not sure which is worse: an Emperor in Rome or a king in every man’s self-estimation. Whichever is worse, the latter is the contemporary sin, and it is more dangerous than the former at least as it regards our souls.

So our response to the Kingship of Christ is pretty simple. It is in loving sacrifice that we involve ourselves in Christ’s Kingship. It is in that remarkable paradox in which we see Christ reigning not only from His Throne of Glory, but from the Cross of Shame with a Crown bejeweled by thorns. Our own Glory, our own Kingship is bought on that more shameful throne with that most heavy crown, and our acceptance of the reign which Christ wishes to give us is a condition of our willingness to take up that Cross, put on that crown and follow.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.