Last Epiphany (Transfiguration) 2021

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As I read today’s passage out of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, I had to read it twice, because the first time I totally misconstrued what he was saying, and it made me realize some of the difficulties individuals who have been participating in our C S Lewis study are having with the Screwtape Letters.

For those of you who have not been reading this with us, it is a satirical piece that is written from the perspective of an older demon trying to coach his nephew in the art of turning people away from Christ.  The language is upside down because of the perspective.  When I read Paul saying “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ,” I missed the “of this world” part of Paul’s statement which turns everything upside down.  What he is saying is that Satan has blinded the minds of the unbelievers.

Talking about Satan may seem like an unlikely place to begin a sermon on the Transfiguration, but I think considering the last two weeks we have read stories of Jesus casting out demons; if we remember it was after his profession of faith, but just before the Transfiguration that Jesus told Peter, “get behind me Satan,” and in consideration of our Lenten study, I think it is a good place to start.

The word Satan comes from Hebrew and it should draw to mind a court of law, not a man in red tights with horns, a tail, and a pitchfork.  The Satan is the adversary or the accuser.  He is the attorney for the prosecution whose intent is to prove us guilty, and is not above trickery, fast talking and manipulation to accomplish his purpose.  My apologies to any attorneys out there, but this is the image the Bible gives of Satan. 

It is Satan that suggests to God in the book of Job that his servant Job is not faithful because he loves and is loyal to God, but because God has never given him any reason not to be grateful to God.  It is Satan that meets Jesus in the Wilderness and suggests that he should take the easy way out. Why fast when you have the power to make bread? Why suffer when you can demonstrate who you are by your command of the heavenly realm? Why win hearts the hard way, but preaching, healing, feeding, casting out demons and raising the dead, when I (Satan) will give them to you if you worship me?

Mark 8: 31-33 states “Then he [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priest, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said this all quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me Satan!” for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter, in rebuking Jesus for saying he will suffer and die, is doing just like Satan did, suggesting Jesus take the easy way out, that he skip the hard part, the suffering and death.   The Corinthians, to whom Paul is speaking had at first accepted the Gospel that Paul had preached.  They understood why Jesus had to suffer and die and that he had been resurrected reconciling them to God, but some “super-apostles” had come behind Paul and told them that suffering was not necessary. They had told them that they could reach God through heavenly ecstatic experiences and skip all that suffering.  Paul tells them that Satan has blinded them to the truth.

 It is with Jesus’ words of preparation for the disciples, revealing that he is about to face suffering and death before his resurrection and his public rebuke of Peter for suggesting he need not go through that pain that we approach the Transfiguration.

Six days have past, and Jesus invites Peter, James and John to go for a walk with him.  I have often wondered if they worried that they were getting a pink slip. That Jesus had had enough and was sending them back to their fishing boats.  These are the three that seem to get in trouble. Jesus leads them far away from the others upon the top of a high mountain.  Mark does not mess around telling a story and he immediately gets to the good part, Jesus is “transfigured” before them.  Jesus starts to glow.  They have been hiking up a mountain and I suspect they are all dirty and smelly, but Jesus looks like an advertisement for Clorox.  His clothes are dazzling, whiter than humanly possible, like lightening when it lights up the sky and he strikes up a conversation with Moses (the giver of the Law) and Elijah (the greatest of the prophets), long dead heroes of the Jewish faith.  What Jesus has offered Peter, James and John – not his troublemakers, but his executive committee, is a model of Resurrection. He is giving them hope.  He is giving them a glimpse of the future.  Peter recognizes the holiness of this moment and suggests they erect of three tabernacles much like the tabernacle that sheltered the Ark of the Covenant during Moses’ time. But Peter still has not really grasped what he has witnessed.

A cloud overshadows them and a voice calls out “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Peter did not get fired, but in a sense, he did get taken to the principles office and was told, quit running your mouth and listen to your teacher.  We do that, don’t we.  We get so wrapped up in our own ideas that we miss the miracles happening before our very eyes. 

In the Screwtape letters, Lewis talks at length about how our own self-centeredness gets in the way of our relationship with God and with our neighbors.  He very astutely points out that sometimes our insistence in being righteous according to our own rules– a “lust for delicacy” he calls it, can be the very stumbling block we put between ourselves and God, as well as making our family and neighbors miserable in the process.

As we approach Lent, let us use this time to examine the ways that we look for the easy way out. It is one of the great temptations.  Jesus never said the Christian life was easy. In fact, he said it will kill you, but I will resurrect you. Let us look for the ways, like Peter, we run our mouths and act like we know better than everyone else and instead, look for the humanity and the godly in our neighbor, and perhaps we will see God.  And finally, let us not miss the transfigurations of life before us by getting so caught-up in the ordinary that we miss them, even when they are right before our eyes.  

5 Epiphany 2021

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Freedom and obligation.  The late teens and early twenties are an exciting and scary time for most people.  Driver’s licenses, dating, jobs and/or college, marriage, apartments, voting, drinking, military service, bank accounts, taxes just to name a few.  There are a host of things that you were not allowed to or didn’t have to do just a few years earlier and as you get to do them you really begin to learn the word “consequences”.  My oldest granddaughter, whom I raised is 21 and right smack in the middle of all of this.  I have seen her make some mistakes and I have seen her grow in the process. We have all been there or will be.   Our spiritual lives mirror our physical lives in many ways.

 In our gospel story we see Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons.  There are many things that bind us.  It is interesting to me that the most used verb in the New Testament is λμω, I untie or I unbind. Our physical bodies can bind us, especially as we age or if we have an injury or illness. COVID has bound us in many ways.  Care of our own bodies is an obligation as adults that we all have. I am not judging anyone here.  Like Paul I must put myself in the rank of sinners when he says, “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.  I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” (Romans 7:14-15) I want to be physically fit, but when ice cream or tortilla chips call, I fully understand the conflict that Paul is talking about. Sometimes our bodies betray us, and no matter how well we take care of them, something happens to put limitations on our mobility or our senses or even the length of our days.

Jesus also cast out demons.  I cannot either confirm or deny the presence of actual demons, demonic spirits that overtake an individual, but we all have various demons in our lives that keep us bond, that prevent us from being all that we could be.  Physical addictions and just plain bad habits, memories that continue to haunt us, anger that we can’t let go of, fears, real or imaginary, expectations of other people, living or dead. Some of these we can work through by ourselves, but most of us need help, we need someone to show us how to untie the knots, to give us the key to open the lock so we can escape and flourish.  Sometimes a good spiritual friend is enough, sometimes we need profession help, but there is no shame in seeking help.

But Jesus had obligations beyond healing the sick and casting out demons. He could easily have set up shop in Capernaum, become the local physician and made a comfortable living for himself. But he had another calling and he prioritized his obligations. Mark tells us, “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” (Mark 1L35-38) Work can be something that binds us if we are not careful.  There are never enough hours in the day to get everything done and the more tools and technology we get that are supposed to make life easier, it seems the more we are expected to do. St. Benedict of Nursia was a wise Christian who lived in Italy, about the time of the fall of the Roman Empire.  He left the city and tried to set up a hermitage outside of town, but people kept gathering around him.  Eventually he set up a monastery and developed a Rule of Life for those who lived there based on balance. His rule provided time for prayer, for study, for physical labor, and for rest, and he made his rule flexible enough to accommodate those who were physically or mentally or even spiritually ill or impaired so that they might be part of the community and find their way toward meeting their potential.

Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthian takes up this question of freedom and obligation. Paul had been a very devout Pharisaic Jew.  This particular sect of Judaism in the first century put an emphasis on the oral law, not just what was written in the Torah or the prophets.  He felt a personal obligation to enforce the law, not just upon himself, but upon the whole community.  Only by the whole community following the law was there hope for the nation. But then he met the risen Christ, and he realized that the Law was not salvation, but another form of binding, of enslavement.  Because of humanity’s fallen nature no one was ever capable of saving themselves through the Law, but God through Jesus offered a way to remove those chains.

Paul’s frustration with the Corinthians was at both ends of the spectrum.  Some of the Corinthians had said, that if Jesus saves us by us by believing in him and we are no longer prisoners under the law then we can do anything we please, and they did so.  Others, while verbally affirming that they had been free of the law, still went to great pains to keep it and to impose it on others, even Gentiles who had not grown up in their culture.  We heard him last week talk about the impression we make on others by our actions in regard to eating meat that had been sacrificed to pagan gods.  This week he continues be explaining that yes, we are free through Jesus, but it is not a reckless freedom, it is a grown-up freedom that comes by acknowledging our responsibility to the people around us, especially those who are still children or teenagers in the faith. 

I was blessed to have grown in the neighborhood where many of the Dallas Cowboys lived during the 1970’s, while Tom Landry was their coach.  I do not know if it was the nature of the times, or the coaching of Landry, I suspect some of both, but with only a few exceptions, they took very seriously the fact that they were looked upon as role models to the youth, certainly of north Texas, and I suspect to many across the nation.  Despite their “superstar” status, they were kind, polite, well-mannered and gave back to their community.  This is what Paul is talking about. Not taking advantage of our assets, be it fame or fortune or for us our faith.   As Christians, we believe that we are saved by faith, but that comes with the obligations of an adult faith.  We need to be conscious of our neighbor’s weaknesses, not to judge them, but to help keep the path before them clear so they do not stumble and fall.  Certainly we should never be what they trip over.  

Paul also mentions that “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” He is not talking about hypocrisy; he is talking about walking in other people’s shoes.   I have a friend XXX who has lived this out better than anyone I have ever known.  He felt a call at an early age to be a missionary among XXX.  This is extremely dangerous for both him, his family, and the people he witnesses to, but he has been very successful because he did not approach it from an arrogant “I am better then you are and let me tell you why” approach.  He began by living among them.  He learned their language.  He spent seven years in XXX, learning about the XXX culture.  He made friends, he ate and drank and laughed with them.  He read their books and began having intelligent conversations and debates with them about important matters.  He let them know that he believed they were worth knowing for themselves, and doors opened up for him to tell them about the things that have been important in his life, especially Jesus.  This is what Paul is talking about.  Being willing to meet people where they are and see God in them, even if you don’t like the way they look or dress or talk or their politics or their religious beliefs. This is the starting place.  This is love. We are coming upon Valentine’s day and we will put all our attention on romantic love, but the Greeks were right to clearly identify – at least 4, I have seen on some lists 7 different things that we English/Americans translate into love.  Agape – the love that sees people with the eyes of God and treats them as God would have them treated even if we do not feel like it.  That is the biblical love that Paul talks about and that we are called to possess.

I would encourage you this week to look for ways to unbind, yourself or others.  To live into an Agape, a Godly love, even when you do not feel like it.  And let us all as a community lift each other up and help us all reach the potential that God has put within us.

4 Epiphany 2021

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“I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (Mark 1:24)

Today’s Gospel reading begs the question, “Who is Jesus?” and beyond that “Who is Jesus, to me?”

When I read current articles about or by the Church, I find all sorts of information about what we are doing or what needs to be done in the areas of disaster management, social justice, reconciliation, environmental education, and alleviation of poverty.  These are all good things, but I do not hear much about the thing that separates us from all the secular non-profit groups who are doing the same things, some of them much better than we are.  The one thing that supposedly makes us different is that we do these things as a natural extension of our belief that Jesus of Nazareth is our Lord, and we believe him to be God incarnate and the Savior of the world.  

I have been re-reading some of C S Lewis’s books and listening to some of his talks on Audible for the last couple of weeks in preparation for our upcoming Wednesday night study of him and his writings.  Two of his better-known quotes are – “Christianity, if false, is of no importance and, if true, is of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.” (God in the Dock) and “Either this man [Jesus] was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse…. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. (Mere Christianity) 

I must agree with C. S. Lewis.  If we look at the lives of the early Christians, their primary focus was on telling others the story about who they believed Jesus to be and what they believed he had done for them and everyone else.

This is exactly what Mark is doing in his Gospel.  There is an urgency in Mark’s gospel that we do not always catch reading it in bits and pieces in English.  It is an urgency he places in the life of Jesus and I think an urgency that he fells to get his message out.  Mark’s stories read almost like newspaper headlines, so details he includes he includes with a purpose.

Mark indicates that shortly after Jesus’ baptism John the Baptist is put in prison and at that time Jesus leaves the area, probably near Jericho where John had been baptizing, and travels to Galilee.  Mark does not give us any detail about what prompted Jesus to pick Capernaum, however, the gospel of John suggests that Andrew, Peter’s brother had been a disciple of John the Baptist and first met Jesus in that context.  Andrew and Peter both lived in Capernaum.  

Jesus is at the waterfront in Capernaum and calls out to Peter, Andrew, James, and John while they are in the middle of taking care of the family business.  He does not suggest that they get together after work and discuss a business proposition.  He says, “Follow me,” and they drop what they are doing and follow him.  Mark emphasizes the immediate response of all four fisherman. After calling the four, Jesus’ first stop is at a synagogue on the Sabbath.  He arrives at the synagogue and begins teaching.

I have often wondered if George Lucas had some of these images of Jesus in his mind when he wrote the scene in Star Wars where Obi Wan Kenobi speaks to the guards and seems to be doing a bit of mind control on them.  I do not believe Jesus does mind control on people, it would be contrary to the nature of God, but he obviously had an incredible charism exemplified in the way some people did what he asked, as odd as it may seem, without question.   We are also told that when he taught, it was “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22) I cannot help but feel a little empathy for the scribes.  They probably did a very good job of teaching what they were taught and attributing statements to the earlier rabbis whose authority had been established.  It is what most of us who teach do.  But we are told Jesus spoke with an authority all his own and one that was obvious to those who heard him.

While he is teaching, a man appears who has an “unclean spirit.”  Something about the man, be it a mental health issue, a moral issue, or actual demon possession sets him outside the parameters of what was allowed in the community.  When he hears Jesus speaking, he shouts out. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (Mark 1:24)

It is unfortunate that the word believe holds such a broad spectrum of meaning, especially when it concerns Jesus. One can chose to believe or disbelieve that Jesus ever existed or if he did exist, that he said and did those things that are written about him.  There are a great many learned people who have written books claiming to believe in the historical Jesus but trying to explain away the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and Jesus’s various miracles. I do not think you can do both, unless you believe the apostles and early church fathers and mothers were all delusional or liars.

In our gospel passage today the man with the unclean spirit, not only believes Jesus to be a historical figure, but he confesses that Jesus is “the Holy One of God.”  He does not make this statement in great joy as Simeon did when he held the infant Jesus and proclaimed, “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: A Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.” This man’s cry is a cry of fear in recognizing the one whose power for good was greater than his power for evil. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Acknowledgement of who Jesus is without submission to Jesus’ will is not what God wants. Jesus commands the spirit to “Be silent, and come out of him!” We get a picture of this unclean spirit fighting to hold on to the man, but it is no match for the command of Jesus, the spirit releases the man and he is healed.  There are multiple references in the New Testament to Satan or demons giving intellectual assent to Jesus as the Son of God, but this is not what we mean when we say believe.

To believe as a Christian is to be like Peter, Andrew, James, and John.  They did not fully understand who Jesus was, certainly not until Peter makes his confession at Caesarea Philippi. I doubt they fully understood who he was until after the Resurrection and possibly his Ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, but they followed.  They made Jesus their number one priority, they sat at his feet and listened to his teachings, they went out when he said go and shared the Good News.  They were human. They blundered and faltered, they doubted and denied him, but they always came back and every time their faith was stronger, their perseverance more focused. 

I am not going to pretend being a Christian is easy.  If it were, we would come up with something besides the ultimate instrument of torture to be our logo.   To throw out a couple more C S Lewis quotes, he states, ““I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” (God in the Dock) But he also says, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” (Is Theology Poetry)

We each need to ask those two questions – first, “Who is Jesus?” Do I believe he is who the New Testament says he claimed to be, who the apostles believed him to be or do I believe something else?
“Who is Jesus to me?” If I believe as stated in the in our Baptismal Covenant that he is “the Son of God” who “was crucified, died and was buried”, “rose again”, “ascended into heaven” and “will come again to judge the quick and the dead” (Book of Common Prayer) how will we respond? If this knowledge is the most important thing we know, who will we tell? 

3 Epiphany 2021

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This morning, we continue the theme of “call” that we began last week.  It is an important theme for Epiphany which is the time we celebrate God’s word being extended to the Gentiles.  I think it is important to identify what it means to be called or chosen.  I often hear the concept of being called or chosen confused with the gift of salvation.  Salvation is offered to all through Jesus Christ.  It is a free gift that we just have to accept.  To be called or chosen by God is to be selected for a specific task that furthers God’s kingdom.  Abraham was called to be the father of a nation in a specific place whose call would be to bring monotheism to the world.  Moses was called and formed by God for the purpose of bringing those people out of slavery, of establishing a holy nation, one set apart from all others, in covenant with God, in the land promised to Abraham to continue the covenant and call first made with Abraham.  David was called to be the king, the leader, of these peoples who would establish them in Jerusalem and would be the ancestor of the ultimate leader, Jesus.  Call always involves a job or task that furthers God’s purposes but involves a human being in the fulfillment of that purpose.

We get just a snippet of Jonah’s call this morning and I would like to spend some time looking at it in more depth.

There is one historical reference to Jonah found in 2 Kings 14:25 which places Jonah as a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II, the last king of Israel. This is immediately before the Assyrians destroy the northern kingdom of Israel.  The book of Jonah was probably written after the destruction of Israel and its original purpose is unclear, but clearly the author is wrestling with why God would allow the Assyrians to destroy Israel, a large piece of his chosen people, but the author also gives us a lot of insight into the nature of God’s call and humanity’s response.  

As the story opens, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, a large city in Assyria and warn the people that he has heard of their wickedness. To put this in perspective, think of whatever county you consider to be the greatest threat to the United States – Germany and Japan in the 1940’s, Russia, Iraq, China.  It is as though God asked you to go to the largest city in one of these countries and tell them that God is not happy with them. How would you react? Jonah’s response is to hop on the first ship going the opposite direction. 

Once on the ship a great storm comes up that threatens to destroy the ship and everyone on it.  The sailors are pagans.  They begin both the practical tasks of lightening and securing the ship and they cry out to their various gods with no result. They drag Jonah out of bed and cast lots, they throw dice or use some random method such as drawing straws to determine who has angered the gods and Jonah is it.  They demand to know what he has done which gives him an opportunity to tell these pagans about the God of the Hebrews, the God who created both the sea and the dry land. Jonah acknowledges that he has disobeyed and attempted to flee from his God and he offers himself as a sacrifice to calm the sea.  The sailors initially resist and attempt to row toward land but the storm continues and they agree to throw Jonah overboard, begging Jonah’s god not to be angry at them.  As soon as Jonah hits the water, the storm ceases and the sailors acknowledge Jonah’s God with sacrifices and vows.  Jonah, even in his disobedience, was used by God as a witness to the sailors of the power and might of Jonah’s God.

God does not abandon Jonah to the sea.  A large fish swallows him and he spends three days and three nights in the belly of the fish. While in the belly of the fish, and Jonah prays a beautiful prayer acknowledging that as he is drowning he makes thanksgivings and acknowledges that deliverance belongs to the Lord.  We are told God spoke to the fish who “spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.”    I always have visions of Pinocchio at this point, but Jesus will later point to this passage as a reference to his death, burial and resurrection. 

One would think Jonah had learned his lesson and when God calls to him a second time with the same request, he begins the three day walk to Nineveh, but apparently as he is walking, he is allowing his anger to boil within him.  He is obedient and warns the Ninevites they have forty days before they will be destroyed, then he walks out of the city.  Jonah finds a place outside of Nineveh where he can watch what happens.  I suspect he is hoping to witness their destruction.   Surprisingly, the Ninevites respond immediately to his warning.  They declare a fast, and everyone goes into mourning, they put on sack cloth and they sit in ashes. Think Lent truly taken to heart.  The king declares a national day of repentance  not just for the people but also the animals in the hopes that God will change his mind.

It is important to note that all the prophets of Israel and Judah were called to warn the people to change their ways to avoid disaster, but they were not heeded.  Later, after both Israel and Judah were destroyed, their message became one of hope and a reminder of God’s mercy.

Jonah gets mad at God.  Jonah wants the Ninevites to be destroyed and God sent him to warn them and they listened.  Jonah complains to God saying, “I know that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” One would think this was a good thing, but Jonah is angry that God has shown mercy on Jonah’s enemies.  Do we ever do that?  Do we ever wish bad things to happen to the people we don’t like? Do we get angry when good things happen to someone we don’t think deserves it?

God decides to make this a “teaching moment” for Jonah.  Jonah pitches a tent outside of the city to pout.  This is a very hot part of the world, and as the sun warms the day, God allows a giant weed to grow beside Jonah’s tent and provide shade for him.  Jonah is very happy about this gift of a weed for shade, but then God sends a worm to eat the weed and he sends a hot wind to blow on Jonah so he is becoming very uncomfortable and once again begins to complain to God. He his very melodramatic and each time he gets angry at God he tells him “It is better for me to die than to live.”

God asks him if he is angry enough to want to die over the destruction of a weed that grew one night and died the next without Jonah having anything to do with its existence and Jonah tells him, yes, mad enough to die.  God then asks Jonah if God, the creator and nurturer of all creation, should not be concerned about all the inhabitants of Nineveh – thousands of adults, children, and animals.

We never hear Jonah’s response.  Perhaps he was wise enough to keep his mouth shut at that time.  I think there are many lessons to be learned from this story.  God pursued Jonah until he did as God asked.  He did not force him, but he clearly let Jonah know when he was not in compliance. Is God pursuing you with some task in mind?  In the story, the people of Nineveh – a violent wicked pagan people, heard the message and repented.  No one is beyond God’s merciful salvation.  We as humans are quick to write people off if we disapprove of their behavior, but God never gives up one anyone.  God didn’t give up on Nineveh and he didn’t give up on Jonah.  Have you given up on anyone? Have you let circumstances cause you to give up on yourself?

In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus warns the people that the only sign that will be given is the sign of Jonah.  I think there is much for us to ponder in this story and in Jesus’ words.

3 Epiphany 2021

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This morning, we continue the theme of “call” that we began last week.  It is an important theme for Epiphany which is the time we celebrate God’s word being extended to the Gentiles.  I think it is important to identify what it means to be called or chosen.  I often hear the concept of being called or chosen confused with the gift of salvation.  Salvation is offered to all through Jesus Christ.  It is a free gift that we just have to accept.  To be called or chosen by God is to be selected for a specific task that furthers God’s kingdom.  Abraham was called to be the father of a nation in a specific place whose call would be to bring monotheism to the world.  Moses was called and formed by God for the purpose of bringing those people out of slavery, of establishing a holy nation, one set apart from all others, in covenant with God, in the land promised to Abraham to continue the covenant and call first made with Abraham.  David was called to be the king, the leader, of these peoples who would establish them in Jerusalem and would be the ancestor of the ultimate leader, Jesus.  Call always involves a job or task that furthers God’s purposes but involves a human being in the fulfillment of that purpose.

We get just a snippet of Jonah’s call this morning and I would like to spend some time looking at it in more depth.

There is one historical reference to Jonah found in 2 Kings 14:25 which places Jonah as a prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II, the last king of Israel. This is immediately before the Assyrians destroy the northern kingdom of Israel.  The book of Jonah was probably written after the destruction of Israel and its original purpose is unclear, but clearly the author is wrestling with why God would allow the Assyrians to destroy Israel, a large piece of his chosen people, but the author also gives us a lot of insight into the nature of God’s call and humanity’s response.  

As the story opens, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, a large city in Assyria and warn the people that he has heard of their wickedness. To put this in perspective, think of whatever county you consider to be the greatest threat to the United States – Germany and Japan in the 1940’s, Russia, Iraq, China.  It is as though God asked you to go to the largest city in one of these countries and tell them that God is not happy with them. How would you react? Jonah’s response is to hop on the first ship going the opposite direction. 

Once on the ship a great storm comes up that threatens to destroy the ship and everyone on it.  The sailors are pagans.  They begin both the practical tasks of lightening and securing the ship and they cry out to their various gods with no result. They drag Jonah out of bed and cast lots, they throw dice or use some random method such as drawing straws to determine who has angered the gods and Jonah is it.  They demand to know what he has done which gives him an opportunity to tell these pagans about the God of the Hebrews, the God who created both the sea and the dry land. Jonah acknowledges that he has disobeyed and attempted to flee from his God and he offers himself as a sacrifice to calm the sea.  The sailors initially resist and attempt to row toward land but the storm continues and they agree to throw Jonah overboard, begging Jonah’s god not to be angry at them.  As soon as Jonah hits the water, the storm ceases and the sailors acknowledge Jonah’s God with sacrifices and vows.  Jonah, even in his disobedience, was used by God as a witness to the sailors of the power and might of Jonah’s God.

God does not abandon Jonah to the sea.  A large fish swallows him and he spends three days and three nights in the belly of the fish. While in the belly of the fish, and Jonah prays a beautiful prayer acknowledging that as he is drowning he makes thanksgivings and acknowledges that deliverance belongs to the Lord.  We are told God spoke to the fish who “spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.”    I always have visions of Pinocchio at this point, but Jesus will later point to this passage as a reference to his death, burial and resurrection. 

One would think Jonah had learned his lesson and when God calls to him a second time with the same request, he begins the three day walk to Nineveh, but apparently as he is walking, he is allowing his anger to boil within him.  He is obedient and warns the Ninevites they have forty days before they will be destroyed, then he walks out of the city.  Jonah finds a place outside of Nineveh where he can watch what happens.  I suspect he is hoping to witness their destruction.   Surprisingly, the Ninevites respond immediately to his warning.  They declare a fast, and everyone goes into mourning, they put on sack cloth and they sit in ashes. Think Lent truly taken to heart.  The king declares a national day of repentance  not just for the people but also the animals in the hopes that God will change his mind.

It is important to note that all the prophets of Israel and Judah were called to warn the people to change their ways to avoid disaster, but they were not heeded.  Later, after both Israel and Judah were destroyed, their message became one of hope and a reminder of God’s mercy.

Jonah gets mad at God.  Jonah wants the Ninevites to be destroyed and God sent him to warn them and they listened.  Jonah complains to God saying, “I know that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” One would think this was a good thing, but Jonah is angry that God has shown mercy on Jonah’s enemies.  Do we ever do that?  Do we ever wish bad things to happen to the people we don’t like? Do we get angry when good things happen to someone we don’t think deserves it?

God decides to make this a “teaching moment” for Jonah.  Jonah pitches a tent outside of the city to pout.  This is a very hot part of the world, and as the sun warms the day, God allows a giant weed to grow beside Jonah’s tent and provide shade for him.  Jonah is very happy about this gift of a weed for shade, but then God sends a worm to eat the weed and he sends a hot wind to blow on Jonah so he is becoming very uncomfortable and once again begins to complain to God. He his very melodramatic and each time he gets angry at God he tells him “It is better for me to die than to live.”

God asks him if he is angry enough to want to die over the destruction of a weed that grew one night and died the next without Jonah having anything to do with its existence and Jonah tells him, yes, mad enough to die.  God then asks Jonah if God, the creator and nurturer of all creation, should not be concerned about all the inhabitants of Nineveh – thousands of adults, children, and animals.

We never hear Jonah’s response.  Perhaps he was wise enough to keep his mouth shut at that time.  I think there are many lessons to be learned from this story.  God pursued Jonah until he did as God asked.  He did not force him, but he clearly let Jonah know when he was not in compliance. Is God pursuing you with some task in mind?  In the story, the people of Nineveh – a violent wicked pagan people, heard the message and repented.  No one is beyond God’s merciful salvation.  We as humans are quick to write people off if we disapprove of their behavior, but God never gives up one anyone.  God didn’t give up on Nineveh and he didn’t give up on Jonah.  Have you given up on anyone? Have you let circumstances cause you to give up on yourself?

In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus warns the people that the only sign that will be given is the sign of Jonah.  I think there is much for us to ponder in this story and in Jesus’ words.

1 Epiphany 2021

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I have always been cautious to avoid preaching my opinion and have tried to stay focused on the gospel.  When I strongly voice a particular interpretation of some passage, I try to tie it back to ancient, respected theologians or clearly state that this is just my personal understanding of a passage.  I do not want followers or disciples of me.  I want to help you become disciples of Jesus.  I am trying to give you tools to do that, but like Jacob, you must do the hard work of wrestling with God yourself, and you may come away from that process limping.  If you are not familiar with that story it is in Genesis 32: 22-32. 

Considering the events of the past week, and in truth this past year, I am going on the record as saying that I oppose violence under all circumstances. I do so after close examination of the life of Jesus and his earliest disciples.  Also, it is important to stand up for the truth and to protect others from harm, even if you disagree with them. How we do both, avoid violence and stand up for what is right is challenging and people have sacrificed their lives trying. Not wishing to put words in his mouth, I think this is the gist of what Bp Curry was saying in his recent address, though I would recommend you listen to his address yourself and draw your own conclusions.  If you don’t know how to find it let me know and I will help you access it. I am not criticizing the need for law enforcement or the military, though I would hope deadly force is a last resort. I am aware that sometimes circumstances leave people with little choice and sometimes we are faced with choosing the lesser of two evils, it is a consequence of living in a broken world. Even St. Augustine wrestled with the idea of just war, but Jesus stopped Peter from defending him with a sword on the night he was arrested.   Violence begets violence unless we stop the cycle. 

Today is the feast of the Baptism of Jesus.  Under normal circumstances I would be having us renew our baptismal vows in the context of the Eucharist.  I am going to have us do it anyway, because right now I think it is important for us to remind ourselves of the commitments we made at our baptism and affirmed at our confirmation.  If you have not received either of those rites, I invite you to examine what we are saying and if you can affirm the statements honestly, join us in repeating them.  If not, ponder what we are stating and let me know if I can answer any questions you might have concerning them.

Rather than re-tell the story of Jesus’ baptism that we just heard in the gospel I want to go to our baptismal covenant and examine what they say before we renew our vows.

 The first three statements of our Baptismal Covenant concern our belief in who God is.  Do you believe in God the Father?  Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God? Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?  We are affirming the mysteries of the Trinity.  Anglicans, which is what Episcopalians are – along with Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants all affirm a belief in a Trinitarian God despite the difficulties in explaining the concept. There are sects that consider themselves Christians who do not hold the theology of the Trinity and this has been true since the beginning.  The Apostles’ Creed read in Morning Prayer and the Nicene Creed read at the Eucharist come out of councils of the church within the first four centuries before divisions and schisms caused what we now call denominations.  These creeds addressed and clarified the official position of the church concerning conflicting opinions about the relationships within the Trinity and the identity of the three persons of the Trinity.  We are affirming the understanding of the early Christian church when we say these creeds and affirm these statements in the Baptismal covenant.  There is one Sunday a year set aside to cover this theology and this could easily be a whole theological study class.  If you have pressing concerns, please contact me and I will try to help.

The next question is “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”  We are affirming that we will gather as a community on a regular basis for study of the scriptures, Eucharist, and prayer.  This time of sacrificial fasting from the Eucharist to protect our congregations from the spread of COVID is being done so that we will be able to eventually gather in person again, as many as possible, still alive and well. It is just as hard if not harder on your clergy than it is on most of you. It is intimately tied to who we are as priests. However, we are doing everything we can to continue the apostles’ teachings and fellowship and the prayers.  I also feel like I am “preaching to the choir” when I remind those that are here doing that which we are called to do, but I would hope you would reach out to those who for whatever reason are not with us. Stay connected and encourage them to participate as they are able. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help them get connected and participate.

The next question is “Will you persevere in resisting Evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Jesus took the Ten Commandments and reminded us that you do not have to physically kill someone to be guilty of murder, just hating them, wishing they did not exist is evil.  Even the Ten Commandments themselves recognized that desiring what belongs to someone else to the point that you imagine what it would be like if it was yours and not theirs is a sin. This does not just pertain to stuff.  It could also pertain to power and authority; it could pertain to friends and family.  It is a sin of the heart that puts your desires above compassion for your neighbor and frequently leads to murder, theft, adultery – those more obvious sins against our neighbor.

Paul recognized that doing the wrong thing even for a so-called “righteous reason” is evil and sinful.  He frequently reminds us – sometime subtly and at other times point blank, that all of us are guilty of sin.  Before his encounter with the risen Christ, Paul was actively persecuting persons he considered to be heretics out of his passionate love of God and his religion.  Jesus set him straight and not only his message, but his methods changed.  Paul did not turn around and persecute the synagogue leaders or the Roman officials, but he constantly told people about Jesus, God’s love and the path to salvation offered by Jesus Christ.   He did not allow personal inconvenience or even danger to stop him.  He did not even allow a disagreement with Peter concerning church protocol stop him from sharing the Gospel as he understood it, which meant to everyone, Gentiles and Jews, men and women, the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless.

The next question is “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”  Ghandi was once asked his opinion of Christianity.  He said “I like your Christ. I dislike Christians. They are so unlike him.”  To be a disciple means to learn from and emulate your teacher.  This is one of the reasons Christianity stresses there are no experts in Christianity except Jesus.  We are not called to become like anyone but Jesus.  We can read about and analyze the actions of those we consider saints, but only for the purpose of helping us understand how we might emulate Jesus in our given circumstance.  Back in the 70’s the initials WWJD become popular to decorate all sort of things.  The concept was much better than the execution, but we should be thinking that every word that comes out of our mouth and every action we take should mirror what Jesus would do in the same situation.  We are put in many situations that he did not encounter. The scriptures are not a step-by-step directive on life. They do give us some direct commands and some examples of how those commands have been well or poorly followed. We need to read, learn, and inwardly digest these stories striving to become of one mind with Jesus and self-aware enough to recognize when and how we have failed.  We will fail, and we are called to repent – to re-think our actions and to try again over and over.  

The next question is “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”  A common paraphrase of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is what I grew up calling the Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is pretty simple when we are talking to children about not hitting or sharing a toy.  It gets more complicated when we talk about people of different cultures learning to live together.  Statements that assume that everyone thinks like you can be painful to others who do not.  I have told people who made statements in a group like “I think we would all agree” to stop speaking for me.  Gifting people with things we think they need rather than asking them how we can help them has been a problem in foreign mission situations for hundreds of years. Enabling destructive behavior is also not loving.   There are some good programs and some horrible programs out there that have attempted to help us “Walk a mile” in the shoes of other people.  Eric Law’s materials are the best that I have seen and some of you have seen me use them, but nothing is perfect.  Being aware of other’s feelings, giving them a chance to safely voice their opinion, treating them with respect and dignity even if you disagree, and holding them accountable to treat you the same way, goes a long way toward keeping this vow.

Which leads us to the last one, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” We all have spheres of influence.  Some of us have small ones, impacting the people in our family, the people with whom we work, perhaps the people in our social circle such as at Garden club or at the gym.  Other people, like Bp Curry, have a much larger sphere of influence based upon their personalities and the authority people and institutions have given them.  We each must strive for justice and peace within our own sphere of influence.  We are not called to save the world, only Jesus had that calling.  We are called to find ways, given our current sphere of influence, to bring justice and peace to those around us.  I think we do this largely by respecting the dignity of every human being.  I am repeating myself, but I can’t stress enough that this does not mean that we have to agree with or condone ideas and actions that we do not find acceptable, but we need to learn to listen to others, seeking understanding and realizing that other people think and feel the way they do based upon their own experience which will be different from our own. We need to use language to support our own opinions explaining to people that this is my experience and why I am making my choice, rather than call them names or criticize their beliefs or behavior.  We need to be willing to treat other people with the same kind of respect we would want them to show toward us if the situation were reversed.  Loving your neighbor is not enjoying their company. That is an added blessing when it happens.  Loving your neighbor is desiring the best possible outcomes for them, even if it you must sacrifice something for that to happen.

At this time, I am going to ask you to renew your own Baptismal Covenant.  Think about what you are saying and pray for wisdom to follow through with your vows.

2nd Sunday of Christmas 2021

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We cover a lot of historical time in our liturgy this week.  Thirty years give or take a year or two.  Christmas we heard Luke’s version of the Nativity and on Sunday we got John’s theological poetry concerning the incarnation, but by next Sunday we will be looking at Jesus’s baptism, so today we will quickly cover the naming of Jesus, the visit of the Maji, the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and their return to Nazareth. Hold on to your hats because we are going to be traveling fast.

Each gospel writer highlighted specific details to make a specific point.  Luke, whom we read concerning the birth of Jesus, tells us the story of a Jewish family living in Roman occupied Israel doing very normal things, with some miraculous details that make us realize that God’s hand is heavily involved in this family’s situation.  After the visit of the shepherds and angels Luke tells us that “after eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child, and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” They have gone to the temple in Jerusalem, the only place where the traditional rites and rituals can be performed since the first temple was built by Solomon almost a thousand years earlier.  Joseph and Mary are devout Jews, following the law and tradition of their people.  When God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants one of the stipulations was that “every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old…”(Gen 17:12) By naming him Jesus, it shows they have not forgotten Mary’s visit by the angel Gabriel before she ever conceived.  Jesus’ name is a Greek version of the Hebrew phrase ”God is salvation”, God being the name revealed to Moses that is never spoken.

At this same time, Mary goes through the purification rites women were required to go though one week after giving birth to a male child as found in Leviticus 12, and the proper sacrifices were made. Leviticus mentions a lamb for a burnt offering and two doves or pigeons as a sin offering.  Luke does not mention the lamb but he merges this rite with the command to “consecrate to me all the firstborn..” Ex 13:1. Exodus continues to explain that firstborn children are redeemed, not sacrificed. Numbers 18:16 specifies a cash offering, but Exodus ties this act back to the first Passover.  Every ritual action is a way of keeping the story alive.  I wish I could ask Luke if he omitted the lamb because he identified Jesus as the sacrificial lamb, telling this story after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, but he leaves that for us to ponder.

Finally, two elderly individuals, Simeon and Anna, both described as devout and righteous, recognize the Messiah in this infant.  These are rituals that happened regularly, nothing miraculous, except that these two knew immediately who Jesus was and praised God for it.  Then Luke tells us that when everything that needed to be done in Jerusalem was done, they went back to Nazareth.

We now switch to today’s reading from the gospel from Matthew.  Matthew’s concern is less about identifying Jesus as a Jew in Rome and more about identifying Jesus as the prophesied “prophet like me” ie Moses and of showing that he is the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies.  In the prior chapter Matthew has already pulled out a quote from Isaiah 7:14 concerning “the virgin” and her son “Emmanuel.”

When people asked John the Baptist if he was “the prophet”, or the Messiah, or Elijah they were identifying three different people expected to arrive and help save Israel.  The prophet is the one Moses spoke of in Deuteronomy 18: 15 when Moses says, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you should heed such a prophet.”

Isaiah 42:6 speaks of the servant as “a light to the nations” Luke puts these words in the mouth of Simeon, but Matthew tells us a story about Jesus’ impact, at his birth, where he demonstrates he is “a light to the nations.”  Israel was a major trade route. It sits on the Mediterranean Sea and before trucks and airplanes, ships were the major way of moving merchandise. Thus, we call it shipping to this day.  Large caravans of merchants would bring their wares from foreign lands to the Mediterranean to sell in other countries.  These large caravans would be like little traveling towns with various service occupations represented.  One coming from what we now call the Middle East would likely have with them Magi.  These were holy men of Zoroastrianism who would have been able to read the stars and other signs and advise the merchants on a variety of things to ensure they would have a safe and successful trip.  Remember, Israel was exiled in Babylon for many years, and the stories of the Jews would be known in what we now call Iran.  Some of these Magi, knowing the Jewish prophecies and seeing an unusually bright light in the sky over Jerusalem, directed their group to Jerusalem to find out if this was a sign that the Jewish prophecies had come true.   

Where would one go to find out important information about the Jewish nation?  To Herod’s palace of course.  I suspect innocently enough, they ask Herod “Where is the child born king of the Jews? (Matt 2:2) But Herod is frightened, and we are told all Jerusalem with him.  One thing we must keep in mind is that Herod was not the rightful heir to David’s throne. In the middle of all the conquering and dispersing of peoples between the exiles and the birth of Jesus, Herod’s family, Edomites, had converted to Judaism and had come to power by cooperating with the dominant powers in the area. A rightful heir from the line of David would be cause for him to worry that he would be deposed.  Herod apparently had not been keeping up with his study of the scriptures because he had to call together all the chief priests and scribes to find out what these Magi were talking about.  Matthew gives us an amalgam of two verses Micah 5:2 “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.” and 2 Samuel 5:2 which speaks of David, “It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.”

Now Herod was a crafty ruler.  He pulls the Magi aside and asks for the detail of their observations – and then commissions them to go find the child and bring word back to him of Jesus’ location “so that I may go and pay him homage.” (Matt 2:8) The Magi leave and find the infant Jesus and present him with three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  The numbers, names and ethnicity of the magi have come to use though song and legend, not through scripture.  We are not told where the Holy Family were living at the time, only that it had been about two years since the magi first spotted the star.  We assume they are in Bethlehem because that is where the scriptures said he was born and where we assume the magi go to find him. Don’t let the fluidity of time in scripture confuse you.  They were not worried about the details as much as they were interested in the symbolism and the universal truths the stories told.

An angel visits the magi in a dream and warns them not to return to Herod and they return home bypassing Jerusalem.  It is not long before Herod realizes they have alluded him and he begins working on his plan B. He will have all the male children under two years old living in Bethlehem killed, thus eliminating the potential heir.  An angel visits Joseph in a dream and warns him to flee to Egypt.  Matthew sees this as the fulfillment of another prophecy, Hosea 11:1 “out of Egypt I called my son” – The full verse states “When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son” which is a reference to the nation of Israel as a whole, but Jesus in Matthew’s eyes is now the embodiment of the nation of Israel.  Also, just like Moses, who was sheltered in Egypt as a child, protected from the slaughter of the infants by Pharaoh, now too Jesus, the “prophet like me” is sheltered in Egypt from another slaughter of infants by Herod.  Matthew then quotes Jeremiah 31:15 “Rachel weeping for her children” which lamented the death of the children during the fall of Northern Israel, but “wailing and loud lamentations” from Ramah, a town between Bethlehem and Nazareth was appropriate to Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem.  Finally we are told Herod dies and Jesus and his family return from Egypt and settle in Nazareth, which Matthew tells us fulfills another prophecy, “He will be called a Nazorean.”  This one is harder to discern to what Matthew is alluding.  The Harper Collins Study Bible suggest it could relate to the Hebrew word netzer meaning “branch” or the Nazirite, which refers to vows one took abstaining from wine and cutting of the hair like Sampson and John the Baptist. (Society of Biblical Literature, 2006). But as you can see, Matthew’s purpose in telling this story is to show to his audience that Jesus is the fulfillment of the scriptures and the one like Moses, the prophet, for whom they have been waiting.   

This literary and theological use of parallel understandings of passages may seem strange and not completely legitimate to the way we read and analyze stories today, but allegorical interpretation was not only common but encouraged by early Christian leaders.  There are four types of interpretation.  The literal for historical meaning, the anagogical which deals with the future, prophecy, eschatology or end times, etc., the typological which reads Christ into the Old Testament, such as seeing Jesus as the shepherd in Psalm 23, and the moral which is used to determine how we are to live in light of what the scriptures reveal.

Beginning Jan 6th, we will begin Bible study via ZOOM on Wednesday evenings at 6:30 pm.  We are going to begin with what I am calling Bible Basics, looking at the formation and structure of the Bible, tools to help make things clearer, what does it mean to be inspired, and how is it relevant today.  I hope you will join us.

Christmas Day 2020

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The year 2020 has been a difficult one for most of us by comparison to what we think of as normal.  Depending upon your profession, you may have been overworked or struggled to find work.  Many people lost loved ones this year, and many others were separated from their loved ones by time and space if not by life and death.  The year Jesus was born was not an easier or harder year, just a different one.

God could have chosen noble parents for Jesus and he could have been born in the comfort of a palace or at least a landed estate.  There were plenty around, but none from the line of King David and God had made a promise that he intended to keep.  David’s ancestors were Jews, and the royal city of Jerusalem was under the protection of the Roman Empire. It was a peaceful time provided you did as Rome told you and did not voice any objections to their authority. But Rome had no tolerance for free speech, free assembly, or even passive aggressive acts of disobedience. No one was safe.  Julius Caesar had himself been stabbed to death by the Senate for acting like a monarch.

Luke very intentionally places the story of Jesus, this Jewish Messiah, in the middle of Roman history.   He tells us that Augustus was Caesar.  He reigned from 27 BC to 14 AD. He took control of Rome after the execution of Julius Caesar.  He became what terrified the Roman senate about Julius, an Emperor.  Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was a historical figure as well.  He became legate of Syria (which included Judea) after the banishment of Herod Archelaus in 6 AD.  One of his first duties was to hold a census for the purpose of taxation. (Quirinius, n.d.). 

Censuses were considered bad omens in the superstitious world of first century Judah.  Exodus 30:12 states, “When you take a census of the Israelites to register them, at registration all of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the Lord, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered.”(NRSV) The Talmud, an ancient authoritative commentary on the Jewish scriptures forbade a census of Israel as a result. (BRODY, 2012)  So, not only would this census be unwelcome because of its purpose and source, but there would be both a fear if one failed to comply of the wrath of Rome and a fear if one did comply of the wrath of God.

Luke tells us that everyone went to their own city to be taxed.  We tend to put the emphasis on Bethlehem being associated with King David, but it is likely that Luke also meant that Joseph was born and raised in Bethlehem.  He possibly had parents and siblings there and probably lots of cousins.  Mary, according to tradition was from Nazareth or near there.  Joseph may have been there visiting his intended and her family prior to their marriage or he might have been working in the area.  There was a large Roman town called Sepphoris less than four miles from Nazareth (that is now an archeological dig) that would have provided plenty of construction work.   

Luke takes Mary who is nine months pregnant and due any day on a journey of just less then 100 miles.  Our Christmas cards all show Joseph walking and Mary riding a donkey.  I hope she had a donkey, though nothing in scripture tells us they did, and it would have been considered quite a luxury for a carpenter.  They arrive in Bethlehem which is very crowded.  All the adult kids who were out in the world trying to make a living have come home for the census.  There are no Days Inns or La Quinta’s in first century Bethlehem.  Not even a good English pub with an upstairs bedroom.  Joseph and Mary probably found a place to stay with relations, but when she went into labor there was “no room” in the κατάλυμα (THAYER’S GREEK LEXICON, n.d.), the upper room area where guests would gather to eat and sleep when visiting the family (same kind of place Jesus had prepared for his Last Supper) and so she was moved downstairs where there would be more room and more privacy for a women only activity, giving birth.  This room, among other things, served as a place to protect, at night, what little livestock – a lamb, a goat, a few chickens that the family raised for food.  Into the floors would be hollowed out areas where the feed for the animals was placed. It probably had fleas and smelled like a barn. This is where Mary placed the new-born infant Jesus, because it was better than the cold hard floor.  It is hardly as romantic as a wooden manger in a horse stable or barn on a dairy farm in the countryside. 

There is a grotto, a small cave in the basement now of a large church, that by tradition is where Jesus was born.  I have been in it.  There is not much to see.  The opening is only about four feet high. You have to duck to go in and it is just a small room either dug out or probably naturally formed in the rock.  Israel is covered in these small rock indentations. People used them for shelter, for storage, for religious shrines and all sorts of things.

Bethlehem was probably a community built around sheep management.  It was the area where David, before becoming king, looked after his father’s sheep. And in Biblical times it appears to have been a fertile area of rolling hills.  And we are told by Luke, that there were shepherds out in the fields with their sheep when Jesus was born. 

These shepherds were the first ones mentioned as coming to see Jesus as an infant.  An angel appears to them out in the fields, and of course they are terrified.  The angel assures them that they have nothing to fear and that he is there to give them Good News.  The Savior, the anointed one, the Messiah has been born in “the city of David.”  Not only did God chose to arrive as a common man, he chose individuals from one of the lowest levels of society at that time, to tell first.  The sign they are to look for is the swaddling clothes and the feeding trough. Most infants at that time were probably wrapped in bands of cloth, but most were not placed in a feeding trough. 

When the angel had finished his message he was joined by a whole host of heavenly creatures who were singing praises to God.  It was as though at that moment, the curtain between the earthly realm and the heavenly realm were parted for just a few moments.

Once the shepherds regain their composure after their heavenly visitation, they lost no time in seeking out the child.   Can you imagine a bunch of shepherds sticking their heads into everyone’s entry door checking to see if there is a baby in the feed trough?  People must have thought them nuts, but they persisted until they found him, just as the angel had said.  And they told Mary, and Joseph who is now at Mary’s side, what they had seen and heard and everyone else that they saw.  Perhaps by this time, more family members or neighbors had joined them.  We don’t put them in the nativity scenes because they are only named as “all who heard”, but I doubt it was a quiet night for Mary and Joseph.

So chaos and disorder are the nature of things sometimes, but right in the middle of it all, is Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, the Son of the Father, Emmanuel – God with us.

References

BRODY, S. (2012, March 22). Ask the Rabbi: May Israel conduct a census? Retrieved from The Jerusalem Post: https://www.jpost.com/jewish-world/jewish-features/ask-the-rabbi-may-israel-conduct-a-census

Quirinius. (n.d.). Retrieved Dec 22, 2020, from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quirinius#:~:text=Publius%20Sulpicius%20Quirinius%20(c.,the%20purpose%20of%20a%20census.

THAYER’S GREEK LEXICON. (n.d.). Lexicon :: Strong’s G2646 – katalyma. Retrieved from Blue Letter Bible : https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G2646&t=KJV

4 Advent 2020

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We have heard the story of the Annunciation so many times, and seen it in art work, and sung about it in hymns to the point that all we hear is the Hallmark version of a sweet Christmas story.  The truth of the story is much more suspenseful, and frightening, and full of courage and hope than we normally acknowledge.

We live in a culture where people pick and choose if, when and whom they will marry for purely personal reasons.  Frank Sinatra’s song “Love and Marriage” no longer holds much weight for younger generations, and governmental regulations regarding pensions, community property, and insurance coverage make it a very difficult for widows to remarry.  But in first century Jewish Palestine, it was a life or death matter.  A family’s honor was closely linked to the purity of its women.  Land was the most important asset to a family.  Most people lived off their land: what they grew and the flocks they raised provided them food and clothing.  Marriage and inheritance laws closely guarded property rights. One did not want the property that they had worked and protected all their lives going to another man’s child.

Mary and Joseph were betrothed, and very possibly had been since they were small children.  Their lives were all laid out for them.  Joseph’s father had probably been in the construction industry.  We think of Joseph as a carpenter, but very few people had wooden furniture and no one had kitchen and bathroom cabinets.  He built things with his hands, as his father probably did as well, possibly farm tools or fishing boats. He may have also worked in stone in building construction.   Joseph would marry Mary as his parents had planned. He would work beside his father until his father’s death, at which time he would take over the business and his sons would work beside him.    Mary had been learning to cook, to clean, and to sew almost since she had been old enough to walk.  She would marry Joseph, have his children, keep house, look after their parents as long as they were alive, and be cared for by her children in her old age.    Then they both receive a visit from an angel. 

We don’t know how old Mary is.  She could be as young as 12, but peasant girls often married in their late teens or early twenties.  However old she is, she is all grown-up in her society, busy helping keep house and care for younger siblings and cousins.  You won’t find her in front of the television, texting on her cell phone, or listening to Apple Music or YouTube.  She has no sports team, dance or music lessons to occupy her time.  She is grown-up in her understanding of the need to work to survive, and in the religious practices of her people, but she is still childlike and innocent in many ways.  She is probably busy with her cooking or her sewing when suddenly an angel appears before her and announces “Greetings, blessed one! The Lord is with you.” We are told that she was perplexed by this greeting.  I often wonder if the angel appeared like an attractive stranger that happened to wander in off the street, like Cary Grant in “The Bishop’s Wife” or if he was some strange other worldly creature that materialized before her like you see in most works of art.  “Greetings, blessed one! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.” A strange man, even a good looking one, appearing in a woman’s work area at that time in history would be cause for alarm, but this one seeks to comfort her and brings good news.  “You have found favor with God.”

How often do we long to find favor with someone, anyone.  In school we wanted our parents to be proud of our report cards.  We want the blue ribbon when we enter a contest.  The trophy when we play sports.  The applause of the crowd when we perform.  Imagine someone walks in unexpectedly and unannounced and says, “God is proud of you.”  It must have been a “WOW!” moment and then – the stranger continues. “You are going to have a child, and his name will be Jesus.  He is going to sit on the throne of your ancestor King David and he will rule forever.”  Now she is really perplexed and probably quite frightened.  All she can think in that it is not possible.  “How?” she asks, “I have never known a man.”  She may be engaged, but she is not married yet.  Another reason to say, “How?” is not mentioned in this passage but is the fact that there is a king already sitting on David’s throne in Jerusalem.  His name is Herod the Great, and he is a puppet king, subject to Rome.  He is not of David’s line and he is not liked by many of the Jews. The angel continues telling her that by the power of the Holy Spirit she will conceive and as proof, he tells her that her elderly cousin Elizabeth is now six months pregnant. Elizabeth was long past the time of having children and she had believed that to have been impossible as well. Nothing is impossible for God.

And so Mary trusts the angel and submits to the will of God.  Did she think, “Joseph is going to kill me when he finds out”?  Possibly literally.  This was an option open to betrayed fiancés.  Did she wonder how her family and friends would react?  Did she worry that they might not believe her story? Did she visualize herself pregnant, abandoned, and starving to death?  Did she trust that if God got her into this situation, he would certainly get her out?  Apparently so.

Mary then hurries off to see her cousin Elizabeth with her secret. 

A woman cannot hid her pregnancy forever and in small towns gossip spreads like wildfire.  Sometime before Jesus’ birth, Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant.  We don’t know much about Joseph.  We know that he was a carpenter from Nazareth, of the tribe of Benjamin.  He was alive when Jesus was twelve, but appears to have died before Jesus began his ministry.  We don’t know if he was a young man in his late teens or early twenties, or if he was an older widow to whom the young girl Mary had been betrothed.  We are told he was a just man.  He did not want to have Mary executed or even publicly humiliated, and so he planned to “put her away quietly.”  I can remember when I was a teenager, girls who got pregnant in high school went to visit a distant relative, which meant they went to a home for un-wed mothers and then put their child up for adoption.  Perhaps it was something of this nature that he had in mind.

But Joseph had a troubled sleep the night he made that decision.  As he tossed and turned an angel came to him in his sleep and explained to him all the things that had been explained to Mary about the parentage of her child.  I wonder if Joseph contemplated the way people would point at his child in the street and laugh, calling him names that reflected poorly upon his mother.  I wonder if Joseph worried about how is parents would react when he told them he was going through with his marriage to Mary.  Whatever his concerns, Joseph acted in obedience to God’s will.

Mary and Joseph listened as God spoke to them through the angels, and although God’s plan was guaranteed to alter their plans, they submitted to God’s will and trusted God to handle the future details.

No one will receive as life altering a message from God as the one that Mary and Joseph heard, but God seeks to speak to us daily if we are willing to listen and obey.  There are times when the Holy Spirit is gently, or sometimes not so gently trying to speak to us: those nudges of our conscious when we are about to do something we shouldn’t or say something we shouldn’t, the passages of scripture that jump out and seem to speak directly to some situation we have been wrestling with, the times a sermon or retreat talk or some other conversation seems to have been written just for us.  These may be times the Holy Spirit is seeking to tell us, “Greetings, favored one.  The Lord is with you and has a job for you to do.” Will you follow Mary and Joseph’s example, step out in faith, and say, “Here I am Lord, let it be to me according to your will.”

3 Advent 2020

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Today, on this third Sunday of Advent, I would like to turn our attention to our Old Testament reading from Isaiah.  First, I would like to put it in the context in which it was originally written, but then I would like to look at how Jesus used this passage according to Luke.  We did not read that passage this morning, but I think it is critical to a Christian understanding of this passage.

While Sabbath is not specifically mentioned, it is alluded to in this Isaiah passage. To begin, let’s look at the concept of Sabbath found in the Scriptures.   We are first introduced to this concept in Genesis chapter two where we are told “God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from al the work that he had done in creation.” (Gen 2: 3) Initially, God set one day in seven aside for a special kind of rest, but by the time we get to Moses you will see that there is much more to this notion of Sabbath.  In the ten commandments we are told “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work- you, your son or your daughter, your male of female slave, your livestock or the alien resident in your towns…”  (Exodus 20: 8-10) Sabbath is not just about you resting, it is about you not putting material desires ahead of the needs of your family, employees, livestock, or even the person that follows different customs than you which resides among you. Sabbath is beginning to take on a meaning strongly associated with love your neighbor.  One of the ways we love our neighbor is to respect their need for rest, family time, and time to worship.  In the book of Leviticus, after the Israelites crossed the Jordan and entered the promised land Sabbath is further expanded.  Additionally, every seventh year was a Sabbath year, where the land could rest, an early God ordained conservation program.  Finally, after seven weeks (sets of seven) years, i.e. every 50 years, there was to be a Jubilee year when debts were forgiven, indentured servants were released and people who had lost their ancestral homes because of financial reasons, got their land back.  (Lev 25).  This was all part of a complicated system designed to have the community treat each other and the rest of God’s creation, fairly and compassionately and help alleviate generational poverty.

Fast forward to Isaiah 61.  This passage was probably written shortly after Cyrus the Persian gave the Jews permission to return to Jerusalem.  It is the first light after a very long period of destruction and despair.  In 721 BC, the Assyrians had wiped out the ten northern kingdoms of Israel, if they were not killed, they were deported to parts unknown.  About a hundred and fifty years later, the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and any Levites living in that area were attacked twice by Babylon. The first time those living outside of Jerusalem were deported and shortly afterward, there was a three year siege on the walled city of Jerusalem.  When it fell, many who had not starved to death were deported to Babylon; the city and the temple were completely wiped out, and a small handful of the old, sick, and poor made their way back to Egypt. Jeremiah the prophet went with them. Now a handful have begun to make their way back to Jerusalem from Babylon, to the land they believed God had given to them though his covenant with Abraham and Jacob.  The prophet is saying that God has anointed him to bring Good News to the oppressed and the broken hearted.  Who are the oppressed and broken hearted?  The Jews that had been carried away from their homeland into a foreign land.  What is described in Isaiah 61 as the year of the Lord’s favor looks a whole lot like the description of the Jubilee year in Leviticus.  But what about that “vengeance” passage? How can “the day of vengeance of our God” be good news?  They are not expecting God’s vengeance to be upon them, but upon those who have sacked their cities, driven them from their homeland, and treated them like slaves.  God is seen as the just and righteous judge who will make a fair judgement in their favor and against their enemies.  

We are going to fast forward again this time to the first century, in a town called Nazareth, in Galilee, a region north of Jerusalem that would have been part of the area overtaken by the Assyrians.  The whole area both Jerusalem and Galilee are now under Roman occupation.  Jesus has just been baptized by John, spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, and the first place he goes is back to Galilee where he grew up.  He makes it to Nazareth, his hometown, and he goes to the synagogue on the sabbath.  It is not surprising that someone offers to let him be the reader that day and they hand him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  Jesus turns to the passage we read this morning and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  So far so good.  They even look favorably upon him when he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  They are not catching what he is saying. Not yet. 

What is Jesus saying?  He is identifying himself as the “anointed one”.  In Hebrew the word is Messiah, in Greek it is Christ.  He is proclaiming that it is not the prophet, but himself that the scripture points to as the bearer of good news. His job is to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and to proclaim the Day of the Lord.  His childhood friends and neighbors eventually reject him we they realize he is including Gentiles in his Good News and some of them they may fall under God’s judgement.

So how does this apply to us today?  Jesus clearly identified himself and his ministry with that described in Isaiah 61.  As Christians, we claim to be part of the Body of Christ.  If that is true, then Isaiah 61 holds true for us as well. COVID has put us in a place of exile.  We are no longer able to worship in the manner that is both familiar and comforting to us.  I also think we need to look at who we are as a church and begin to re-evaluate what that means.  How do we live into our identity as the Body of Christ in a place of exile, while maintaining hope that so much of what is currently being denied to us may soon be returned, because if we lose hope, if we say this is too hard and I’m done, there will be nothing to go back to.  I don’t have all the answers, but I am certainly ready and willing to go on that journey with you and would ask that you join me as we persevere together in seeking God’s will at this time.