With the Holy Spirit and fire:

The promise of the Spirit

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Watching for the Morning of December 4, 2016

Year A

The Second Sunday of Advent

As always, the second Sunday in Advent takes us to the Jordan River and the fiery preaching of John the Baptist. He is the wild man, the challenger of the social order, the prophet who walks away from life in the land and calls the nation out into the wilderness. “We must begin again,” he says. “We must start over from the beginning when God first led us from the wilderness through the Jordan into the Promised Land.” “Repent,” he says, “choose again the God of the exodus and Sinai, the God who gives manna in the wilderness and calls us to lives of justice and mercy.” The urgency of that call is shaped by the promise that the long awaited one is near, the one who is greater, whose sandals he is not worthy to touch, who washes us in the Spirit and fire.

Is it the fire of judgment or the fire of passion? Is it the fire that rained down destruction on wicked Sodom and corrupt Gomorrah or is it the fire of God’s presence as at Sinai? Is this thunderbolts or the fire and Spirit of Pentecost? The sound of the ax can be heard. The old order, the fruitless tree, is coming down. Now is the time for allegiance. Now is the time for fidelity. Now is the time for all the world to be aflood with the Spirit.

The fiery preaching of John awaits us on Sunday – but now it is wrapped in blue. It is folded into the season of hope. The coming of the Spirit is not threat but gift, filled with the promise of a world under new management, a world governed by the breath of God, a world we have seen in the mercy of Jesus and the end of death’s dominion.

And so, on Sunday, we will hear the promise of a shoot from the stump of Jesse. The fallen royal line, named from David’s father, shall bloom again. The Spirit will be upon him and, under his reign, “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

We will hear Paul pray that “the God of hope” may fill the Christian community in Rome “with all joy and peace in believing,” so that they may “abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit”

And we will recognize in John the Baptizer the one promised in Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”

And we will await the fire.

The Prayer for December 4, 2016

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 our journey homeward
and wash us in the fire of your Spirit,
that the reign of Christ might dawn among us;
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 December 4, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
– like new growth from the stump of a felled tree, a new king shall arise from the fallen line of David, a king filled with the Spirit of God, who will govern in righteousness and bring all creation to peace.

Psalmody: Luke 1:68-79 (The Benedictus)
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” – In place of the appointed Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, we sing the song of Zechariah, sung at the birth of his son, John, whom we know as John the Baptist, praising God and predicting his role as the one who “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.

Second Reading: Romans 15:4-13
“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” –
Speaking to that fundamental divide between observant Judeans and those who had become thoroughly enmeshed in the culture of the Greek world, between ‘Jew’ and ‘Gentile’, Paul calls for the believers to live the reconciliation that has occurred in Christ, giving multiple examples from the Scriptures in support of God’s mission to gather all nations.

Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
– John comes as a prophet of old, heralding the dawning of God’s reign and calling all people to ‘repent’, to turn and show allegiance to God.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGalunggung.jpg By R. Hadian, U.S. Geological Survey (image from NOAA website) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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When Christ shall come

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Saturday

Matthew 24:36-44

36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

I want to say that nothing puzzles me more about some streams of contemporary American Christianity than the conviction that the end is hand in the face of clear testimony of Jesus that even he does not know when that day shall come – but such a statement would not really be true. I am puzzled by a great deal of contemporary American Christianity, for there are many clear words of Jesus that we don’t take seriously. We seem to hate our enemies rather than love them. We seem to tithe mint and cumin and neglect the weightier matters of justice and mercy. We seem to want to marry God and Caesar (God and country) not render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (meaning that we who are formed in the image of God should render our lives to God and let Caesar have his money.)

Still, this obsession with the end of times is odd given Jesus’ explicit and repeated warnings not to be led astray. The reason we love to think we live at the end is because it makes us important. When I was a child playing with a rolled up sock and small souvenir bat in my cousin’s house, we never imagined that it was the 6th inning of the 32nd game of a 162 game season; it was always the bottom of the ninth of the 7th game of the World Series with the bases loaded and the home team down by three runs. We want to be heroes. We want to live in urgent and meaningful times. We aren’t really much interested in the ordinary and lowly tasks like washing feet – again, despite Jesus’ clear command.

We want our lives to matter. But the truth is what matters is the washing of feet. What matters are acts of mercy and justice. What matters are kindness and compassion, an open ear and open heart. What matters is the simple sharing of bread.

And when Jesus tells us to be ready, this is what he means. We are ready when we are doing what he has told us to do, not when we are excitedly talking about the signs in the heavens and the day and the hour that no one will know. I met a man in in July of 1970 who earnestly told me, as we lay on a roof in Taiwan gazing at the stars, that Jesus had said we wouldn’t know the day or the hour, but that didn’t mean we wouldn’t know the month and the year. It was exciting to think that Jesus would come in March of 1972 (I think that’s what he said God had revealed to him), but the plain and clear meaning of the text is not found in such clever manipulations. It is found in the warning not to worry about that day, but to worry about this day and the children to be cared for and the hungry to be fed and the sick to be visited and the justice to be sought and the gospel to be shared.

We want to be the center of time, but Jesus wants to be the center of our hearts – not the center of our emotions, mind you, but the center of that place where we make our choices. And, again, Jesus was quite clear that serving God and serving our neighbor are one and the same.

There is comfort to be gained from Jesus’ recognition that there will be wars and rumors of wars.” The chaos of our time doesn’t mean the end is at hand. And even if it were, the place we would want to be when the Lord of heaven and earth comes is where he told us to be: with a towel around our waist and a basin of water in our hands.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AIcon_second_coming.jpg  By Anonymous, Greece [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The world’s first breath and final sigh:

The promise of peace

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Watching for the Morning of November 27, 2016

Year A

The First Sunday of Advent

We start the Advent season by talking about Christ’s advent at the end of the age. I used to say “the end of time”, but it is not the end of time; it is the end of this time. It is the end of the world we know where bombs rain on hospitals and people still wave flags emboldened with the sign of the most hateful reign in human experience. But it’s not the end of this wondrous creation. Even the brutal travail of the world described in Revelation is not the end of the creation but its transformation, its healing, its redemption. There may be no need for sun and moon because of the radiance of God’s presence, and the author may proclaim that the sea is no more – meaning that there is no longer in this world any remnant of the primal chaos (the source of the beastly kingdoms described in Daniel’s visions) – but the point is that God has come to dwell with us and the city gates no need ever be closed. The violence that mars the creation, the rebellion begun in the garden that reaches cosmic dimensions in the imagery of the book of Revelation, is over. Humanity that was once clothed in animal skins is now robed in white. The river of life flows from the city, and the tree of life from which humanity was barred lest we live eternally in our sorrows, now feeds us with fresh fruit blossoming each month. The end of which Jesus speaks is not the end but the new beginning of a world made whole, a world born from above, a world born anew.

This season of Advent begins with our eyes on the end of the age because the child whose birth we wait to celebrate at Christmas is the Lord who was and is and is to come, the world’s first breath and final sigh. He is our peace.

And so this Sunday we will read from Isaiah the promise of swords beaten into plowshares, when the world is taught by God and “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” And we will hear Paul declare that “the night is far gone, the day is near.” And we will hear Jesus summon us to “be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” The armies of the world march and train in constant readiness for war, but we prepare for peace.

The Prayer for November 27, 2016

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 our journey homeward
and wake us to your presence among us,
that the day when swords are beaten into plowshares
may be alive in us now;
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 November 27, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”
– In the midst of the wars and destructions as the Assyrian empire rises and crushes the kingdoms around Judah, Isaiah proclaims God’s ultimate rule: all nations will recognize and come to Zion to learn the ways of God.

Psalmody: Isaiah 51:4-11
“The heavens will vanish like smoke… but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.” – In place of the appointed Psalm 122, we sing the song of salvation from Isaiah 51. The prophet declares that even if they heavens could vanish, God’s faithfulness will not, and heralds the return from exile in “everlasting joy.”

Second Reading: Romans 13:11-14
“You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep … the night is far gone, the day is near.” –
Living in the confidence of Christ’s return and the full dawning of God’s reign of life, Paul exhorts the community to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light”.

Gospel: Matthew 24:36-44
“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
– Having spoken of the fall of Jerusalem and warned his followers about the troubles and persecutions they will face in the days to come – and particularly of the false messiahs who will claim that the Day of the Lord has come (in their violent revolt against Rome) – Jesus assures them that though the final day is unknown, they will not miss it when it comes. In the face of the challenges to come they are to be ever awake and attending to the work of God.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMist_-_Ensay_region3.jpg By benjamint444 (Digital Camera) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In the most unexpected places

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Watching for the Morning of November 20, 2016

Year C

Christ the King / Reign of Christ
Proper 29 / Lectionary 34

Sunday is climax of the church year. What began twelve months ago with a look to the horizon of human history sees that horizon again on Sunday in the royal pardon of a crucified man. The one we await as Lord of All is present in the brokenness of the cross, dispensing mercy and grace. It is the oddity at the heart of Christian faith: honor hidden in shame, glory hidden in lowliness, truth hidden in rejection, triumph hidden in defeat, life hidden in death. God shows up in the most unexpected places.

The more we ponder this strange, incomprehensible truth, the more we discover its depths. The thief on the cross is not deserving of mercy, but he receives it. We want to find him meritorious for his defense of Jesus, for his allegiance, his faith and trust. But he speaks the truth when he declares that he and his compatriot are condemned justly. He is not innocent. He is not deserving. Yet he sees a man dying and glimpses a transcendent truth: this is the face of God. Not wrath. Not vengeance. Not heaven’s roar against a world become vile. But mercy, compassion, fidelity, redemption. In a world where hate seems triumphant, a man of hate pledges himself to the king of peace.

This Sunday, established in the 1920’s in response to the rise of fascism, communism and ideologies claiming our allegiance, continues to speak to a world forever caught up in the conflict of powers wreaking division and death, reminding us that our lives belong only to this king: the crucified who lives. We will hear the words of Jeremiah about the shepherds of this world who destroy and scatter the flock in their care – and the promise of a new shepherd, a new king, who will reign in faithfulness. And we will hear the psalmist sing of the one who makes wars to cease to the end of the earth. And we will hear the author of Colossians sing that we have been rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son. And we will hear the king speak mercy to the thief, to us, to all.

It will be paradise.

The Prayer for November 20, 2016

O God who reigns as Lord of all,
creating and sustaining the universe,
and drawing all things to your eternal embrace,
pour out upon us your Holy Spirit,
that pondering the mystery of the cross and resurrection of your Son, Jesus,
we may be met by him who is our true Lord and King;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The Texts for November 20, 2016

First Reading: Jeremiah 23:1-6
“Woe to the shepherds
who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” – As the nation spirals towards destruction by rebelling against Babylon, God speaks a word of judgment upon the leaders of the people and declares that he will gather his scattered people and give them a righteous king of the house of David.

Psalmody: Psalm 46
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble… He makes wars cease to the end of the earth.” – A hymn celebrating the reign of God who overcomes the chaotic forces of nature and the warring tumult of human history.

Second Reading: Colossians 1:11-20
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or power.” –
Christ is the ‘image’, the living sign and presence of God’s reign. We have been reclaimed from the death’s dominion and brought under the reign of Christ in whom and for whom all things exist.

Gospel: Luke 23:33-43
“One of the criminals
who were hanged there…said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” – Jesus crucified is degraded by the governing elite as powerless to save, but one of those crucified with him puts his faith in him.”

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACristo_de_Guadix_123.JPG  By No machine-readable author provided. Aguijarroo assumed (based on copyright claims). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The days ahead

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Watching for the Morning of November 13, 2016

Year C

The Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 28 / Lectionary 33

The end of the church year looks towards the horizon of human history. In this second to last Sunday, the Gospel reading always draws from Jesus’ prediction of the fall of the temple and the question it elicits from his followers about the end of the age. They cannot imagine an end to the temple apart from the end of this age and the dawn of the new, so one leads to the other. But Jesus recognizes the cataclysm that is coming upon Israel, torn as it is between the entrenched power of the elite priestly families, the passion of the zealots who would cast off Rome, and the eschatological fervor of those who expect heavenly armies to join the battle to liberate the land and temple. It will be a time of distress for his followers. They will be hated by Romans and rebels alike. But this is not the end. Not yet. There is work to be done. There is a message to be proclaimed. The reign of God does not involve swords and spears or priestly rule but a new creation.

So Sunday we will hear the prophet Malachi declaring a day of judgment upon “the arrogant and all evildoers” but “for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” The psalm rejoices that “the LORD…is coming to judge the earth” and calls all the earth to sing God’s praise. And Jesus warns us not to be led astray by the traumas of our age and those who claim to be our savior. Circling this conversation about the end of this age is the reading from 2 Thessalonians where the author speaks of our obligations to one another as a community of the age to come that is already dawning in Christ Jesus.

Elites want to maintain the order of things and terrorists want to force a new order. The followers of Jesus simply try to live God’s new order, assured it is the reality that is coming.

The Prayer for November 13, 2016

O God who stands at the beginning and the end of time,
you have promised truth, justice and life for the world.
Grant that we may not be deceived by falsehood,
seduced by injustice,
or turned from the path of life,
but set our hope fully upon your Word;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for November 13, 2016

First Reading: : Malachi 4:1-2a
“See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble…But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”
– the prophet warns the community of God’s judgment on “the arrogant” who think God will not hold them accountable for their actions and promises God’s blessing on those who show themselves faithful.

Psalmody: Psalm 98
“Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.” – A hymn celebrating God’s reign, calling all creation to exult in his deliverance and his fidelity in bringing justice and righteousness to the world.

Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
“We hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.”
– For a community that shared resources, and whose central act of worship was a shared meal, the letter rebukes those who make no commitment to help provide for the common good.

Gospel: Luke 21:5-19
“When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” – Jesus warns his followers about events to come (the national convulsion that culminates in the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, but also the perennial warring of nations and distressing tragedies), cautioning them not to be led astray by those who claim to be God’s anointed, urging them to faithfulness in their witness, and assuring them of God’s ultimate deliverance.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AVictoria%2C_BC_-_Christ_Church_Cathedral_-_stained_glass_28_-_Chapel_of_the_New_Jerusalem_(20623905782).jpg Joe Mabel [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A river of grace

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About Last Sunday

Last Sunday, as I was greeting people at the door after worship, one woman said to me that she would have liked the sermon to be more uplifting. I don’t exactly know what she meant by that. I had rather liked the sermon (I posted the message at my blog Jacob Limping and in “recent sermons” on this site; you can judge for yourself) and thought it appropriate for our context on Sunday. We were celebrating Reformation Sunday and also the confirmation of three young people in the parish. I thought it spoke of the wondrous grace of God and our calling to be agents of that grace in the world.

What I said to her briefly – but would have liked to explain more fully – is that the sermon is but one part of the worship experience. When we are together there is confession and absolution; there are liturgical songs derived from the vivid description of the worship of God in heaven from the book of Revelation; there are hymns and readings and, above all, the invitation to feast at God’s holy table. The sermon is part of a whole that is meant to convey to us the love and mercy of God and draw us into the reality of God’s reign of grace. It is the service as a whole that should refresh and renew us as followers of Jesus for our daily life in the world, not just the sermon.

The individual Sunday service is also one of many during the year. All those Sundays and holy days are like the instruments of an orchestra or the voices of a great choir, blending together to proclaim to us the love of God and to call us to live that love.

So perhaps there was more challenge to discipleship in this last Sunday’s sermon than you would get on Christmas Eve or the Sundays of Easter. But this particular challenge was a part of a service that witnessed young people committing themselves to a life of discipleship – the ongoing relationship with God begun in their baptism. At the core of that Rite of Confirmation, at the core of the readings from Jeremiah, the Psalms, Romans and John, at the core of the communion table, at the core of “A Mighty Fortress” and all the other hymns, is the great river of grace that sweeps down from the New Jerusalem growing ever deeper as it brings life to all the earth.

So perhaps the sermon wasn’t so uplifting, perhaps it did speak of discipleship more than encouragement, but it is embedded in the song of angels and the joy of heaven. And what can be more uplifting than that recognition that God reigns over all. Even us.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2)

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFlying_over_the_meanders_of_the_mighty_Yukon_to_Arctic_Village.jpg By Jessie Hey [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons