“Arise, shine; for your light has come.”

Watching for the morning of January 5

The Sunday of the Epiphany

Sunlight after a storm over the salt flats (Photo credit: dkbonde)

Sunlight after a storm over the salt flats (Photo credit: dkbonde)

We call this the season of peace, though bombs explode, tyrants rage, and the poor hunger.  The days of Christmas do not bring peace; they point us to the one who is our peace.  And with the visit of the magi we are all invited to kneel before the one to whom prophets and stars bear witness.  The one of whom the psalmist sings, who brings true justice and faithfulness, in whom the earth is renewed and its bounty shared.  The one of whom the apostle bears witness, in whom the hidden purpose of God is revealed, in whom all people are united in a common community.  The one of whom the prophet speaks, who is our light and whose radiance fills the earth, drawing our scattered world home.

The Prayer for Epiphany Sunday

Gracious God,
by a sign in the heavens
you proclaimed to all the earth
the advent of your son, Jesus,
who would receive the throne of David
and reign in justice and righteousness over a world made new.
May he reign in us and bring all creation to your perfect peace;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for Epiphany Sunday

First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
– though the return from exile has failed to meet the nation’s expectations for glory, the prophet declares as present reality the fulfillment of God’s promise that all nations shall be drawn to the light of God present in Jerusalem.

Psalmody: Psalm 72 (appointed 1-7, 10-14)
“Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness.” – an enthronement psalm whose idealized description of the king becomes a portrait and promise of the Messiah whose reign brings blessing to the world.

Second Reading: Ephesians 3:1-12
“This grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ.” –
God’s hidden plan now revealed to gather all people into one body in Christ.

Gospel: Matthew 2:1-23 (appointed 1-12)
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Judeans?”
– the visit of the magi, representing the nations coming to bow before the dawning reign of God in Christ, and his rejection by Herod and the Jerusalem elite who plot to murder the infant king.

Font of blessing

Watching for the morning of December 29

The Sunday in Christmas

Rembrandt - Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord...

Rembrandt – Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord in Jesus – WGA19102 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The peace and joy of the Christmas celebration reverberates through the days of Christmas as the community gathers again to hear the remainder of Luke’s narrative of the birth of Jesus.  Mary and Joseph, faithful Israelites, bring the child to the temple to conduct the appropriate rites.  There Simeon and Anna, pious elders who are waiting for the redemption of Israel, recognize God’s promise fulfilled in this child of Bethlehem.

Amidst the joy, the shadow of this child’s fate can be seen: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  A revolution is underway.  When God draws near to save, to heal, to restore the world, change comes.  Injustices must be set right.  The mighty will fall.

And they don’t fall without a fight.

But for now, there is joy.  And Anna speaks about the child to all who are “looking for the redemption of Jerusalem,” looking for Jerusalem to become the city of peace and font of blessing for all nations.

The Prayer for the Sunday in Christmas

Gracious God,
by whose word we live
and whose promises all come to fulfillment,
we give you thanks for those faithful among your people
who, like Simeon and Anna, have eyes to see your dawning work among us.
Grant that, with them, we might see where your hand is working
and share in its joy;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for the Sunday in Christmas 2013

(Our parish departs from the assigned readings for the Sunday after Christmas to continue the Luke narrative of the reception of the infant Jesus by Simeon and Anna, representatives of faithful Israel.  The following Sunday we will celebrate as Epiphany, reading the narrative from Matthew)

First Reading: Isaiah 52:7-10
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace.”
– like a runner coming from the battlefield with news of victory, the prophet heralds God’s dawning salvation.

Second Reading: Galatians 4:4-7
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5in order to redeem those who were under the law.” –
a summary of the proclamation of the early Christian community.

Gospel: Luke 2:21-40
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
– Simeon and Anna, representatives of faithful Israel, recognize the infant Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises.


“The obedience of faith”

Sunday Evening

Romans 1

James Tissot - Saint Joseph, Brooklyn Museum

James Tissot – Saint Joseph, Brooklyn Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5Through [Christ Jesus] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles [nations] for the sake of his name.

Grace and apostleship.  I guess it’s not clear whether Paul is here still speaking about himself and so the ‘we’ refers to him and his traveling companions, or whether the ‘we’ refers to all believers.  There is a good case to be made for the latter.  When Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” he wasn’t just speaking to the twelve.  This is the work of the church; this is the work of the community of believers – to bring about the obedience of faith.

An obedience like Joseph.

It’s worth noting that the work of the church is not to get people into heaven.  The work is to make them citizens of heaven on earth.

The obedience of faith, the obedience that follows from faith, the obedience that is generated by trust in God’s dawning reign – we are not building religious institutions; we are building the living stones that become the temple of God.

God’s work in us is not done when we have accepted God’s grace.  The smith’s work is not done when he has fashioned an iron sword into a plow, nor when he has fashioned a spear into a pruning hook.  He doesn’t hang it up above his mantle and admire the handiwork; he carries it out into the field and sets it to its proper use.

Grace and apostleship.  Witness and service leading to the obedience of faith.  Leading to lives of mercy rather then revenge.  Lives of compassion rather than hardness of heart.  Lives of generosity rather than lives of indulgence.  Lives of justice and faithfulness rather than lives of privilege or resentment.  Lives of peacemaking rather than conquest.  Lives of healing rather than wounding.  Lives of truth rather than falsehood.  Lives that hear and obey when God says to take the apparently adulterous woman into your home and adopt her child as your own – like Joseph.



Matthew 1

The national debt clock outside the IRS office...

The national debt clock outside the IRS office in NYC. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

I can still remember the window I broke.  On the lower left of a French door in a small passageway between the house and the garage.  I am sure there is an architectural name for this walkway, open on the one side to the back yard and closed by windows and a door to the front, but it eludes me.  My memory is also not so clear about how I broke the window.  I have a nagging suspicion I kicked it because the door stuck and didn’t open quickly enough.

Of course I had to pay for it.  Of course my stepfather was angry and discoursed on my carelessness.  Mother just seemed disappointed, or perhaps sorrowful that it added to the conflict in the family.

Mom’s response bothered me more.  It was not enough to pay the price for the window; I needed somehow to make it up to her.

The debt of sin is not the price of the window; it is that obligation to the one you have failed, that sense that you owe him or her – though we should note that the debt is there whether you feel it or not.

All our brokenness betrays and dishonors God.  Every body shattered by our wars and violence is a body God formed in the womb.  Every life taken is a life God gave.  Every joy stolen betrays the one who gave us a world of joy and delight.  Every hungry child dishonors the one who names it his own.  Every greed, every slander, every anger an offense against the harmony God intends.

It is an unpayable debt, a burden that makes us flee God or live in denial – adding still further to our debt.  Imagine such a ‘debt clock’ spinning wildly on.

How shall we make our way back into the presence of one we owe so deeply?  How do you restore a union betrayed so profoundly?  Only the one to whom the debt is owed can release us.

The angel tells Joseph that the child of Mary “will save his people from their sins.”  He will release them from their debt.  We should not miss how profound an act of reconciliation this is.  It seems unthinkable to us for a betrayed spouse to release their partner from such a debt.  We remember.  It haunts the relationship.  This is why God must say to us through the prophet “My ways are not your ways.”

But this simple sentence, “He will save his people from their sins,” also means he will releases us from the further indebting of ourselves.  He will lead us into true faithfulness.  This we must also not miss.

A man of honor


Matthew 1

St Joseph with the Infant Jesus (c. 1635), at ...

St Joseph with the Infant Jesus (c. 1635), at the Hermitage, in St. Petersburg. Oil on canvas, 126 x 101 cm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

It is such a simple sentence.  But it is the kind of sentence that changes the world forever.

Mary is not engaged, she is betrothed.  Promises have been made.  Vows taken by the families.  Goods exchanged.  It is a marriage already, dissolvable only by divorce.  But Mary has not yet come under the roof of her husband; she still dwells with her parents.

Now she is pregnant.  This means adultery.  She has disgraced her family, betrayed her husband.  There is no recovery from this.

But Matthew clues the reader that the hand of God is working here.

Joseph is a righteous man – righteous in the best sense – just, faithful, fair in his dealings, generous to those in need, observant of the commands and traditions.  He cannot take an adulteress into his home. Even more, Joseph is sensitive to the social network.  He will do the noble thing; he will release her so that the father of the child can claim her.  He will not press charges of adultery.  He plans only to divorce her.  “Only.”  It will not be “quiet.”  It will be messy; breaking such covenants always is, especially in that time when marriage represented the alliance of families and the animosities its dissolution creates divide whole villages.  But there is a way to minimize the shame on Mary.  He is not looking for revenge.

But then God shows up.  Dreams are valid means of communication between heaven and earth.  This is a solemn word from a heavenly visitation:  “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

“You are to name him Jesus.”  It means that Joseph is to adopt the child as his own.

This is not a story of a tender or romantic love triumphing over adversity.  This is an act of great nobility and remarkable courage, in the face of the wagging tongues of the village, to take upon himself this shame and claim this child as his own.

Little is told of Joseph, only this: “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.”  Joseph hearkened to the voice of God.  He listened and trusted and obeyed.  It may seem easy since the story suggests he had clear instruction.  But it was still a dream.  And though the commandments are even clearer than a dream, we negotiate our way around them.  Joseph showed himself a man of honor and compassion and faithfulness.

“God is with us”


Isaiah 7

Tiglath-Pileser III. Stone panel, Assyrian art...

Tiglath-Pileser III. Stone panel, Assyrian artwork, ca. 728 BC. From the Central Palace in Nimrud. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.

Unbelief hides easily under the guise of piety.  The king of Judah is fearful of the armies of Israel and her neighbors advancing to depose him and install a puppet king who will join them in war against Assyria.  King Ahaz is inspecting and enhancing the defenses of the city and plans to appeal to Assyria for assistance.  This means he plans to submit to the Assyrian King, to swear fealty and service to his empire.  For the prophet, the king of Judah owes fealty only to God.

Ahaz lives in “the real world” of power politics.  He sees no other hope for the nation than to trust in Assyrian might.  So God has offered to give him a sign – as deep as the realm of the dead or as high as the realm of heaven, God will do whatever it might take to convince him.  But Ahaz demurs.  He pretends to be too pious to ask for a sign.  He has no interest in signs.  He has no confidence in the words of priests and prophets.  He has confidence in bronze and iron and stone walls and men marching.

Since Ahaz will not choose, God chooses.  God gives him the sign he does not want.  The young woman will conceive and bear a child and name him Immanuel.

Perhaps it is a child to be born to the king himself, a young woman new to his harem.  Perhaps it is some other young woman in the royal palace who will appear one day introducing her newly named child, Immanuel.  We do not know for certain, only that the sign will show the king he has put his faith in the wrong place.  The threat posed by these kings will melt away.  Within nine months people will be naming their children “God is with us!”  Peace will be at hand, not war; deliverance, not threat.  But the king will be bound in service to Assyria – and plundered by the demand for tribute.

The “sign” that was meant to encourage the king can now only convict him of his faithlessness.  This newborn will be an accusation, a daily reminder that he did not trust the one who is his true Lord and savior.

But this “sign” that accuses Ahaz of his unfaithfulness now comes to us as sweet consolation.  A child born of a virgin is named Immanuel. God is with us.

The child of Bethlehem, the son of Mary, the carpenter from Nazareth, the one called “good teacher,” this healer, this good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep – in him God is with us.  In him the earth finds new birth.  In him the shame is lifted, the accusation silenced, and the promise abides.

Water of Life


Isaiah 12

One of the Rimsky ('Roman') fountains in Peterhof

One of the Rimsky (‘Roman’) fountains in Peterhof (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

I have never depended on a well.  I live in an arid climate, but there is always water at the tap.  There has always been water at the tap.  Hot and cold – though I sometimes have to let it run for a moment to heat up or cool down.

It is so commonplace, it is hard to remember what an exceptional luxury it is in human history, how profoundly life depends on access to water, how precious is a spring.  Among Rome’s remarkable achievements were the aqueducts.  In the 16th century Luther’s prince built a new water system for the town of Wittenberg.  It involved seven fountains for the city, seven sources of fresh water.  The Biblical narrative identifies the various springs and wells upon which ancient life depended – most, like Jacob’s well in the story of the Samaritan woman, were attributed to the work of the patriarchs, so precious and honorable and venerable were they.  Jacob meets his beloved Rachel at a well.  Disputes break out over access to them.

3With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

For a people in an arid clime, it is a vivid image.  Visceral.  Access to a well is access to life.  Access to a well is salvation.

“If anyone is thirsty let him come to me,” Jesus will say, “and out of his heart will flows rivers of living water.”  A river of life will flow from the temple on that day when all things are made new declares the prophet Ezekiel.  It will not soak into the desolate ground and dry up, it will grow deeper and wider as it moves through the land.  It is an image taken up by the author of Revelation describing the New Jerusalem.  On either side of this river stands the tree of life, and its leaves are for the healing of the nations.  “The Lord is my shepherd,” writes the psalmist, “he leads me beside still waters.”

God is our saving well.  God is our life-giving spring.  God is our eternal joy.

2Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.


Watching for the morning of December 22

Year A

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Holy Family

Holy Family (Photo credit: Tomasz Tuszko)

Immanuel. God with us.  Savior.  Line of David.  In fulfillment of ancient prophesy.  Guided by heavenly messengers.  Matthew’s narrative explodes with expectation of a new and remarkable act of God to redeem the world.  And we haven’t yet seen the star or the magi – all nations coming to bow down before the one who is earth’s true king – and Jerusalem reacting in fear and murder.

The narrative is sometimes obscured by the emotions of the holiday season – and the fact that this has has become a story for children.  But it was not a children’s story to Matthew.  It was an earth-shaking, history-making story, caught up in the chaos of revolution and marching armies and competing claims to be Israel’s messiah.  Jerusalem has just been destroyed by the Romans.  Christians have been expelled from Rome.  Some have already been martyred in Jerusalem and throughout the empire.  Matthew’s congregation is swollen with refugees.  And Matthew has a story to tell of an empty grave, a resurrection, a dawning of a new union of heaven and earth.  God is with us.  The new age is breaking in.  Redemption is at hand.

Joseph is called to trust this thing God is doing.  To take this woman, this child, as his own.  To walk in hope that the God who brought down empires like Egypt and Babylon could bring a new ‘empire’ of God’s own making – an ‘empire’, a ‘reign’ a governance where the world is restored to God, where humanity is reconciled with their creator, and all creation is made new.

And so are we.  Called to trust the new beginning, the beginning of the new.  Called to welcome the child and make him our own.  Called to be made his own.

The Prayer for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2013

Gracious God,
who called forth the first morning of the world
and brings all things to their final end when all night is vanquished,
make us ever mindful of your journey to us,
and help us to welcome the child of Mary into our lives;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever

The Texts for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2013

First Reading: Isaiah 7:10-16
“The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
– To a king unwilling to trust God when threatened by northern neighbors marching against him, the prophet Isaiah gives a sign: by the time this woman gives birth people will be naming their children “God is with us!”

Psalmody: Isaiah 12:2-6
“Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” A song of salvation in praise of the God who dwells in our midst  (sung in place of the appointed psalm).

Second Reading: Romans 1:1-7
“To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” –
Paul begins his letter to the believers in Rome with a summary of the gospel.

Gospel: Matthew 1:18-25
“Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”
– In Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus and his adoption by Joseph we hear God speak both through the angelic visitors and the prophets of the one who is savior and Immanuel.

A wounded angel

Sunday Evening

See also the page at the Finnish National Gall...

See also the page at the Finnish National Gallery website. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The angelic herald in the children’s Christmas pageant during worship today was sidelined by one of those small childhood tragedies.  She caught her finger in the stepladder she was unfolding to set the stage for her announcement from “on high.”  Apparently the finger is not broken, but quite black and blue.  We sang the opening song a second time to give her a chance to recover – but it was not enough.  She needed the comfort of her parents.  One of the Sunday School teachers took a tinsel halo and stepped in for her.  It’s hard for an angel to deliver glad tidings of great joy through tears.

But I like the image of a wounded angel.  It’s food for interesting thoughts about our wounded Messiah, our suffering God, the joy and grace of the incarnation – and its terrible price.

Mostly, though, I like the image of a wounded angel because we are all wounded messengers.

We bear into the world a message of grace knowing full well our own need for that grace.  We speak of hope even when we struggle privately with despair.  We speak of joy though we sorrow, of mercy though there are things in us and in others we cannot forgive.  We are clay vessels.  Imperfect witnesses of perfect love.  Wounded messengers of perfect healing.

An angel with tears is an angel we can understand.  One who has walked our path, shared our journey.  One who knows life’s sorrows but nevertheless can point us to perfect joy.

Such is the miracle of the incarnation.  God does not sit above the trials of life; he shares them with us.  He knows the cold of a refugee camp.  He knows the terror of violence.  He knows the fear of enemies marching through the streets.  He knows the ache of loneliness and loss, the tears and fears of the night.  He knows the cross of love betrayed.  He knows hunger and shame and the sting of cruelty. Yet he bears witness to a transformative grace.  He bears witness to love of neighbor and love of enemies.  He is a messenger of redeeming love.

He is redeeming love.

And he chooses to dwell within us.  Making us his wounded angels, proclaiming glad tidings of great joy even through tears.



Luke 1

Visitation by Fra Angelico

Visitation by Fra Angelico (Photo credit: Edith OSB)

46 “My soul magnifies the Lord,
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

As a child, it never sounded quite right to me.  It seemed that Mary rejoiced in God because she would be famous forever.  That’s the disease of our modern world.  People stand behind television news cameras and wave, excited to be on TV.  A group of young men commit brutal acts and post it on you-tube.  We all write blogs.  We seem to be a generation that wants the whole world to watch us.  People are famous for being famous.  People like Einstein and John Glenn used to be the most famous names in the country, not Honey Boo Boo or some housewife from the Jersey shore.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

But Mary is not exulting in her newfound celebrity.  She is exulting in the work that God has chosen to do.  All generations will call her blessed because God will work an incomprehensible grace through her son.  She is not glad to be famous; she is glad that God is coming to save.

Simeon will remind us that “a sword will pierce” her heart.  It is no small thing to watch your child impaled on a cross and to see him pierced by the lance of an occupation soldier.  It is no small thing to see the crowd in his hometown synagogue want to throw him off a cliff.  Of course she comes with her boys to collect him, to save him from himself, to save him from the crowds.  She is not a saint; she is a mother, full of a mother’s fears.  And a mother’s tears.

But she rejoices.  She magnifies God.  Maybe on this night when she has been greeted by Elizabeth with such joy, maybe on this night she doesn’t yet see the sorrows to come.  Maybe on this night it is about joy and motherhood and God’s promised salvation.  Maybe on this night she can hear the laughter of those who no longer hunger.  Maybe on this night she hears the joyful cries of lepers healed and outcasts brought home.  Maybe on this night she hears the songs of the angels that heaven and earth are reconciled.  But she rejoices not in her new position; she rejoices in God.

Perhaps on those other days to come, the days of sorrow, her heart will not be quite so full.  But she will still magnify God, because her eyes are not on her self, but on the fulfillment of God’s promise to right the world.