Advent 4 (A): How Long, O Lord?

Advent 4 (A): How Long, O Lord?

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

By the time the Fourth Sunday in Advent rolls around, if you have been able to resist the pressure to focus on baby Jesus lying in his manger, you’re a better pastor than me. Thankfully for those committed to the lectionary, by the fourth Sunday, we finally arrive at what everyone’s been waiting for in Matthew’s short description of how God entered the world as the Human One:

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus (Matt. 1:24-25).

You can hear it now. Pastor, will you finally let us sing Christmas songs? The traditional emphasis on Advent as a penitential season of watching and waiting, anticipating the return of Christ Jesus’ coming, typically caves to the overwhelming attention paid to the Incarnation.

Many a local church pastor or priest must wrestle with this tension between tradition and culture; between an encouragement to deeper discipleship for more mature followers and an invitation to “come and see” for those unfamiliar with the Way. This balance is appropriate for the season of Advent since it is all about tension. This pressure has been known to invite creativity to worship planning such as moving Advent to the four Sundays in November as historian of Christian worship Lester Ruth once suggested.

But this essay is not intended to argue for a lectionary revision or even unpack the Matthew’s Good News. Rather, it seeks to explore how the oft overlooked psalm lection might enhance a preacher’s approach to the gospel. The 80th Psalm makes an appearance in every Advent season, no matter the liturgical year. The psalm follows the traditional lament form on behalf of the entire community, encompassing persistent and ongoing persecution and pain. This could be hard for some in the congregation to hear on a morning when most eyes are set on the Christmas tree and on children who can hardly sit still with anticipation about the forthcoming visit by St. Nick.

And yet, even among the sentimentality and romanticism, there is a place for someone to name the in-between time. Many members of your community will need to hear that it is okay to wonder, “is this really all that there is?” Part of the role of the Church is to teach the counter-cultural lesson that expectation is not simply wishing. When you are young, you often just don’t know the difference. The psalmist here is the master teacher. The psalms, along with the other lections in Advent, are meant to point the hearer toward the promise of God coming into the world to save. Psalm 80, paired with the Matthew text, offers a way to share the overarching narrative of God’s story intersecting with ours – one that bridges expectation with hope and promise.

Biblical scholar Gail O’Day once reminded a room of my classmates of what most expectant parents quickly come to realize, “you cannot prepare for what is coming in Advent.”[1] Neither can a local church pastor prepare for the coming brokenness found in the missional field in which they find themselves. The experienced pastor will season the Sundays of Advent with wisdom about the gray edges, the what ifs, doubts, regrets, and the sometimes anguish of the faith journey. Psalm 80 can help do the heavy lifting even if the congregation doesn’t realize they need to hear it.

Psalm 80 is a prayer for a hurting community. Consider your neighborhood over the course of the past year. Has the unemployment rate spiked once again because the local manufacturing plant has laid off hundreds just in time for Christmas? How many deaths due to opioid addiction have occurred in your county? Have you experienced a rash of suicides among young people and middle-age men? How many homeless people do you pass on your way to the office? How many mornings do you wake up to the headline of yet another young person’s death at the hands of gun violence?

Many communities have discovered that spiritual melancholia has come home to roost. While culture has been touting Christmas since the Halloween candy went on sale, many in your flock are wondering if they can get by without putting any decorations up. Tucked in between festive potlucks and caroling, pastors often find ample work in holding the hand of someone wondering if God is even listening. How long, O Lord, will you be angry with your people’s prayers (Ps. 80.4)? Psalm 80 offers a suggestion on how we might pray during lingering conflict, heartache and hopelessness.

If you serve a community that has been in crisis for some time, offering introductory words linking their hurt to the Psalmist’s context may help in peeling back the façade that everything is all right. Opening immediately with petitions, some in your congregation may sit a little straighter in their pews if the poetry is read with conviction. The Psalmist, on behalf of the people, expresses frustration with a God who has been deaf to their cries, “Wake up, Yahweh, and do something already” (v. 3)!

The people, feeling God is angry with them, have subsisted on a diet of tears. Eugene Petersen paraphrases the Hebrew poetry for contemporary ears:

You put us on a diet of tears,

bucket after bucket of salty tears to drink.

You make us look ridiculous to our friends;

our enemies poke fun day after day (vv. 6-7).

Who, in the face of great grief, hasn’t wondered the same thing? For those of us watching with clinched hands and gritted teeth at the world on fire, we ask, “How long, O Lord? Pay attention to us!” To motivate God into action, the petitioner focuses on different aspects of the divine-human relationship: caring for the sheep (vv. 1-2), tending the vine (vv. 14-15) and the obligations of a sovereign toward a sworn allegiance (v. 17).

There is no mention of repentance in this psalm. As Nancy R. Bowen says in Psalms for Preaching and Worship, “it is a bold promise of obedience, but one that is conditional on survival.” The Psalmist may qualify his prayers but there is unreserved expectation that God can save God’s people. Like the shepherd that protects and the military leader who has the unlimited force, it is only through God’s power that the people will survive.

This saving action is why the psalm makes its appearance in the season of Advent. As God is born in the person of Jesus, Emmanuel (“God is with us”), the people, even a hurting and despondent people, need space within communal worship to remember this promise of salvation.

[1] Gail O’Day, “Advent Lectionary” Lecture, Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA, 13 November 2009.

 

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The Rev. Kim Jenne

The Rev. Kim Jenne serves as Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Conference of The United Methodist Church. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Boundaries, Communications, Conferencing, Discipleship Ministries and Safe Sanctuaries. Before her current appointment, Kim served as pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus. She is slowly learning to keep company with God on a more regular basis.

 

Advent 3(A): To Infinity and Beyond!

Advent 3(A): To Infinity and Beyond!

Matthew 11:2-11

By: The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

One of my favorite allegories for ministry comes from the scene in Disney/Pixar’s original Toy Story, where toy space ranger hero, Buzz Lightyear, “proves” to Andy’s other toys that he can fly. He climbs up the post of the footrest on Andy’s bed, takes a deep breath, and confidently proclaims his trademark phrase: “to infinity and beyond!” With a leap off the bed, he soars toward the ground but at the last second lands on a bouncy ball, which catapults him head over heels onto a Hot Wheels car sitting at the top of its track. As he rides the car down the shoot and loops around the track, Buzz catches air once again and shoots up to grab the ceiling airplane. His momentum jolts the plane to circle faster and faster until it launches him into a graceful arc to land on his feet in front of the awed and astonished waiting toys. “It’s true!” they exclaim in awe and wonder. He “flies!”  (Except Woody, who declares later that Buzz is simply “falling with style.”)  Such is often the case with ministry as, despite our all too human quirks and foibles, the Holy Spirit brings grace and transformation out of our fumbling attempts to do God’s work and will.

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How many of us have had the humble moment of dissonance and disconnect when we, like Buzz later in the movie when he discovers he can’t actually do all the things he thinks he can do, discover that our hard work in ministry doesn’t always pay off? That often, instead of the awe and glory and miraculous transformation, what we think is our ability or gift doesn’t seem to make much difference, might not actually accomplish the big change we thought was in the making, hasn’t done much to usher in God’s kingdom in the here and now. How many of us wonder if the miniscule return is worth the effort? That if the few moments we get it right make the many moments we don’t worth the discouragement and disillusionment? I know I have.

This is why I find Mary so intriguing. Mary: a teenager pregnant out of wedlock, who faced sure and certain social, religious, and familial condemnation. Mary: sent away from her home, into “seclusion” if you will, to live with her cousin Elizabeth for at least nine months or perhaps until the scandal died down. Mary: facing the possibility of a broken engagement with Joseph, assured gossip and ridicule, and a lifelong precarious social position.

Wickman, Patty Overshadowed 2001

Despite these very real and prodigious challenges, Mary somehow sings with gladness and exultation. How does she do it? How does she find, as Isaiah describes, “waters breaking forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand becoming a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water?” How does she, like the farmer in James’ epistle, wait with patience for the precious work of God to come into fruition before it has even begun? How does she act with confidence, proclaim salvation already at hand without the doubt of John in Luke’s Gospel, questioning “is this really it, God, or should I keep waiting for you to make it more clear?” And most intriguing: how does she do it all with quiet peace and without grumbling, moving forward in confidence though there is no indication whatsoever that everything is going to work out okay?

It’s a question that has haunted me for over a year. A question that began burning as I trekked my way along the Camino de Santiago, that weighed on my shoulders as I traversed the landmines of an unintentional interim ministry, and eventually experienced “the worst”—finding myself unexpectedly unemployed with no immediate prospects on the horizon. I found myself in the place so many people do so very often in life: liminal space. It’s a word I first heard while in seminary, a word thrown around as our young heads nodded wisely without truly knowing. The Latin word is limen. Limen. Threshold. It’s the word that best describes Advent, the actual living in the already-but-not-yet promise of anticipatory hope. Coach and poet Christine McDougall, in her poem Liminal, defines that anticipatory hope differently than Mary. She writes:

The space between
Neither this
nor that
Ripe, potent,
uncertain, shaky
A Dawning, a Dusking …
The immanent threshold
emerging
Crossing … to what?
Slow down
The moment is calling you
to pay … exquisite … attention

Advent is truly a liminal season, a betwixt and a between; rife with hope, temerity, grief, cold dark, warm glowing light. It is a season ripe and potent as we look forward to the incarnation of God with us, of the Christ Child. Advent is an immanent threshold that calls us to slow down and pay exquisite attention to all that roots and coils within us, to watch and wait for God’s infinite plan for our salvation, personal and corporate, to unfold. Advent is a time during which we turn toward the promise of what-is-to-come, an act which requires us to let go and mourn that which must die in us to allow that promise or desire to unfold. Advent, liminal space, betwixt and between, not yet is not a comfortable space. Perhaps that is why the season is only four weeks – it is difficult, even dangerous to make our home in the unknown and the amorphous for too long. Far more comfortable to move from what has been to what will be, than to live in the in-between of not yet that is now. And yet, this is what we all do at any given time in our lives, live on the threshold of the next thing, for nothing in life is constant. Advent is the poster-child of the old adage that “the only constant is change.” Perhaps this is why the glow of candles on Christmas Eve warms us so. The waiting and watching, the not knowing, is finally done. Now we know all is well, and we can breathe a sigh of relief.

And yet, we know, too, that Advent will come again and again and again. I have always thought of the spiritual journey as circling a mountain. We slowly spiral our way around, sometimes climbing, sometimes descending in order to climb again, seeing the same view over and over again but often from a different vantage point depending on our spiritual growth or palsy. Gary Snyder’s short poem, On Climbing the Sierra Matterhorn Again After Thirty-One Years, captures, for me, the goal of the spiritual life:

Range after range of mountains
Year after year after year.
I am still in love.

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How do we shift from discomfort to become friends with the uncertain and unknown? How do we wait with patience for the crop to come to fruition, how do we experience joy in all circumstances, how do we find peace in the midst of the varied changes and chances of life?

The answer is simple. Trust God. Trust God with the faith of Mary, the faith of Isaiah, the faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Trust God so completely that you have no fear of fallout, no fear of survival, no fear for what may befall.  Easy, right?

Not easy. Not remotely easy. There is a cost to discipleship, to following God with this level of commitment. The cost might be high. The cost will likely require abject humility, an unflinching examination of self, courage to embrace and heal the parts and pieces of your self that are messy, and broken, and maybe even unlovable. It is not easy to hold on to the absolute and unflinching trust, that you are enough, that God created you to be who you are in all your imperfect, messy, learning, be-ing and that God has prepared a place and a purpose for YOU – especially when it seems that everyone around you has an opinion otherwise.

That is the trust with which Mary lived. That is the trust that she taught Jesus to live. That trust is what gave them, and countless others, absolute, unshakable confidence and peace. The lack of fear terrified the people around them, terrified them because we humans are accustomed to being bound by the limits people around us impose. But Mary, and Jesus, Isaiah, and countless others lived beyond the limits. They lived, in their here and now, in the realm of the Infinite, the creative, the realm of boundless possibility rather than the finite world the rest of us inhabit. They lived as if God’s promise was already a reality, even if there was no sign in the moment that God’s promise was even a possibility.

Soren Kierkegaard once wrote that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Liminal space is a constant in our lives, but so is God’s promise.  So when we find ourselves in those tenuous moments of not knowing, when we can’t understand why it is that we are going through what we are going through, can we trust? Not blindly, expecting God to magically work everything out into a smooth, even path. But with trust – like Isaiah, James, Mary, Jesus and all the other saints who have gone before us, choosing to live confidently in the God’s promise to do what God has said God will do as if it is already a reality, as if God is already at work. It is not an accident that the very first words of the gospel, the good news, are “Do not be afraid.” To be free from fear and angst… what kind of peace would that freedom give us?

In his writing on liminality, poet and storyteller Padraig O’Tuama tells the story of the work he does at Corymeela, a place and people that seeks to make peace between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. “A practice of peace,” he writes, much like dwelling in an advent liminal space, “is messy. It is not easy. It is fragile and thin and breakable. It is a verb, not an achievement. It needs to be conjugated regularly. It is the experience of having been torn. And, having been torn, staying with that new shape and finding dignity in language, in protest, in lamentation, in justice, in re-ordering, in catharsis. It’s not a landscape; it’s staying alive… Liminality, if it means anything, must be as truthful as forgiving, as confessing, as breathing, as surviving.”

Mary does all of these things in her Canticle of praise, as do Isaiah, and James, and many others. In her song she names the tearing of her personal and corporate life, finds dignity in language, in protest, in lamentation, in justice, in re-ordering, in catharsis. Mary stays alive and survives, but also thrives in God’s promise of mercy and remembrance. At the heart of trust is remembering how God has fulfilled God’s promises before, being sure that God will provide again, and knowing in one’s very being that God is already at work on what is next. If we can bring advent joy, hope, love and peace into every day then perhaps we, with the gladness and exultation of Mary, might also proclaim with confidence “the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is God’s name” wherever this journey of faith takes us –to new and unknown places, to new spiritual depths, to Christmas … to infinity and beyond!

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The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is an Episcopal priest with over two decades of leadership experience that includes public advocacy, social justice, teaching for transformative change, and interfaith collaboration. In January 2020, she will begin a new call as the Associate Rector at St. Christopher’s in Carmel, Indiana. Her great joy in ministry is helping people of faith ask the hard questions of life and God, to discover that “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live” (old Irish proverb). Or, as Jesus said it, we truly show our love for God when we show care and concern for every person we encounter, like us or not. In her spare time, Chana can be found fulfilling her bucket list items before she turns 65 (so far 23/75!), playing D&D, dancing Lindy Hop, or exploring local activities and events with her husband, TJ, and their dog-children, Molly and Momo.

Advent 2(A): Promise and Paradox

Advent 2(A): Promise and Paradox

Isaiah 11:1-10

By: The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer

Advent is a strange time for Christians – even before the intense commercialization of Christmas that has arisen in the last century. Over the four weeks of the season, the lectionary emphasizes the harshness of divine judgement, preparation for Christ’s second coming, prophetic visions of the promised new creation, and memories of Jesus’ first coming that inspire hope. Advent can feel like a roller coaster to me. On the one hand, the threat of uncompromising judgement makes me feel like I better get my act together. Then, in short order, I feel joy at the promise of a restored Creation only God’s intervention could affect. I have trouble holding the two themes together, imagining the promise of judgement, but I suspect that is the paradox we are called to sit with in this reflective season.

I know many will preach on John’s prophetic ministry in the wilderness of Judea, but for those who want an alternative, the First Lesson from Isaiah 11:1 – 10 offers powerful images to help us find good news in the paradox of the judgement’s promise.

The image of Jesse’s stump bookends this passage from Isaiah. At the beginning a tender shoot emerges into a branch. We are reminded that the root survived the attempted annihilation, whether by the Assyrian army that overtook Israel in 721 BCE (likely the context for the text’s author First Isaiah), or by the God’s people’s faithlessness that led to destructive military alliances, or today’s threats of secularization, commercialization, and the abundant material comforts that lure us away from vibrant faith. One preaching path for this Advent text is to help the congregation name what threatens to annihilate it, to “cut it down,” both internal issues like fear or gossip but also external issues like the seduction of material comfort that can dull our awareness of God’s presence. The image Jesse’s stump ties in with the image from John the Baptist’s preaching of the axe lying at the root of the trees. The Good News that emerges with this playful inter-textuality is that even if the tree is cut down, through God’s grace a shoot will emerge. A new start is given. The “Giver of Life” works underground, in the darkness, in the roots pushing life up from the messy soil where we thought there was only darkness and decay.

Near the intersection of Brown Avenue and Richland Street in my hometown lies a felled oak tree. Melissa, an elderly parishioner, calls it the Resurrection Tree because a remnant of tree’s veins remained intact allowing it to sprout new branches and be “born again.” The Resurrection “Tree” (it looks more like a shrub) is gnarly looking: the decaying trunk dominates the view and the live shoots emerge at unusual angles. There is unconventional beauty in this Resurrection Tree, but to see it you have to accept that the death is part of picture.

The unusual prey-predator animal pairings referred to collectively as the “peaceable kingdom” dominate the second half of the text. Many of us have an image of this text based on the paintings titled ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ by Quaker Edward Hicks. Hicks created over 60 artworks of the same title depicting the same basic scene inspired by vv. 6 – 8. Some critics suggest that Hicks’ ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ scenes become less and less peaceful over time reflecting his involvement in a painful schism within 19th century American Quakerism. What happened with Hicks’ paintings, this movement toward the partisan, often occur when we uphold images of peace… moments of peace and equality quickly degrade into tools for our own agendas and are tarnished by our preference for being right, rather than prioritizing relationship. Hicks’ ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ paintings point both toward the promise of Advent—the peaceable kingdom of God—and humanity’s need for purifying judgement, directing us away from our self-righteous tendencies toward the Divine who alone can transform and save us from ourselves.

As I reflect on the peaceable kingdom as an Advent image, I notice that for this vision to be realized, a characteristic central to these animals’ instincts will have to die. The predatory instinct of the wolf, the leopard, the lion, and the bear will have be tamed. And the lamb, the kid, the calf, the fatling, and the cow will have let their fear die. Similarly, children seem to have an innate fear of snakes, and parents certainly have a knee-jerk mechanism that would prevent playing near adders’ nests. The hope of Advent, the promise of judgement, is that God’s Spirit is powerful enough to transform our most innate and death-dealing instincts—to be right, to always want more, and to have power over others—into  trust and harmony in the order of Creation.

Advent calls us to keep one eye focused on the ultimate promise that of New Creation where the wolf lies with the lamb, the poor are judged as worthy as the rich, and the meek as valuable as the royalty. But our other eye can stay focused on the here and now. As we await that final transformation into the New Creation, hope for the present time comes from God’s judgement which frees us from bondage to the parts of ourselves and social structures that bear bad fruit and trains our instincts to “love God commands…so that we may obtain God’s promises,” to paraphrase the Book of Common Prayer’s Collect for Proper 25.

Our Advent gaze invites us find unconventional beauty in a decaying tree that somehow sprouts a branch.

Our Advent gaze invites us to trust the uncomfortable promise of judgement, the paradox of hope that in the darkness and decay, roots of justice and righteousness are being nourished and that one day Christ’s Spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel and might will rule the earth from the holy mountain down to the waters that cover the sea.

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The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer

The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as Rector of Grace Church in the Mountains in Waynesville, North Carolina. When she isn’t at “church meetings” as her 4 year-old daughter says, she can be spotted raising children, reading, and occasionally piddling in the yard.

 

 

 

 

Advent 1(C): The Call of Advent

Advent 1(C): The Call of Advent

Isaiah 2:1-5 & Matthew 24:36-44

By: The Rev. David Clifford

The start of Advent begins the new liturgical year for the Christian calendar. However, many churches find themselves pushing toward the end of the year and Christmas day. Our culture certainly does not help us enter into the Christian timeline. Usually by the start of Advent we have already received our Christmas catalogues, celebrated our hanging of the greens, and have begun making our wish lists. Many preachers may find themselves in this very struggle between where the congregation wants to be (preparing for Christmas) and where the Gospel text leads us (the apocalyptic judgment of God).

While some Christians would argue that the apocalyptic end is near with the divisive and chaotic news viewed when the TV is turned on, the passage from Isaiah for the start of our new year paints a very different picture of the apocalyptic judgment of God. Many readers of the Isaiah passage get lost in the dream of peace: swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. War will be no more. The vivid imagery of swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks has tricked many a scripture reader into missing the bigger picture. Even the notion of ultimate peace can keep us from seeing the bigger picture.

Each of these texts runs the risk of being subverted for our own intentions. The reality of Christian history is that the church has too often used the final apocalyptic judgment of God to get whatever it is we believe the church (or, more accurately, ourselves) may want. Too often, the Advent season is like this. The challenge for the reader and/or preacher is to be true to the expectant waiting and preparation of the Advent season. I do not mean to suggest here that we need to put Christ back in Christmas. Instead we must find a way to allow the anticipatory nature of Advent to be what it truly is: a sitting/waiting in darkness for the light of Christ past, present, and future.

Isaiah’s vision, or dream, is a beautiful hope for the world. Who among us hasn’t wished and hoped deeply for peace in the midst of conflict, fighting, and war? However, the challenge of the future is that it is a dream – not unlike the Christmas wish lists made up from children whose families celebrate gift-giving. Too often peace seems to be a dreamy and idyllic hope. In fact, history if filled with individuals who have had such a dream who are meet with the violence of a world that cannot envision the dream with them.

Isaiah’s dream of peace does not just appear at the end of time. This apocalyptic peace comes with arbitration. The Holy One “shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples” (verse 4). God not only speaks to the nations, but listens to grievances, disputes, and concerns. God listens and adjudicates. These two words— “judge” and “arbitrate”—are the only active verbs assigned by the text to God.[1] There can be no true and lasting peace without justice.

My own faith formation and theology reads scripture metaphorically more than literally. I do not read of the apocalyptic end times and God’s final judgement in a literal sense. However, this means I also do not read Isaiah’s dream of peace between the nations literally. The chaos, sorrow, pain, and violent conflicts do not merely disappear when Christ is born on Christmas day. To be true to the season of Advent means to acknowledge the struggles and doubts. The preparations made throughout Advent proposes risk and potential failure to live into the ideal of the dream.

It is here that Matthew’s Gospel reading enters. While the Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent is focused on the unknown future day of judgement, the setting is actually the present. The present day in which the thinking of the apocalypse is set is characterized by a lack of knowledge: uncertainty (possibly even doubt). This lack of knowledge extends beyond humankind to even the angels and the Son. Instead of preparing for Christmas, or even the future apocalyptic judgement of God, these texts have a word for us today.

Most people realize that too often they are like the disciples who follow Jesus around, yet almost always get caught up in the wrong things or miss the point altogether. We are so very often aware of our lack of understanding. However, most of us also want to be better. We hope and we dream about a future that is better. Many of us long for the peace of Isaiah’s dream. Humankind is excellent at dreaming. We struggle with the steps between here and there. Matthew’s Gospel text for the start of the new church year reminds us that there are some things we simply do not know.

The other thing humankind is excellent at is guilt and shame. The struggle in these two texts relates to the push and pull between peace and judgement. These poles suggest that there are two ways to miss the point of our scriptures: one would have us focused too much on the peace and miss God’s judgement. I personally see more people lean the other way: too focused on judgement and miss the peace. Our faith certainly requires action of us. We should be working toward God’s justice for God’s world. However, Matthew’s Gospel text points us toward the work of wakefulness and watchfulness.

We are called to peace. We hope for peace. We, as the church, work for peace. However, the highest mountain tops of Isaiah’s dream come – not from our work, but from somewhere outside and beyond it. We are called to watch for it. We are called to witness it. We are called to preach it to the world. As we enter a new year of the church may we prepare for the rapture. May a rapture of relief come over us when we realize we do not have to know everything. May a rapture of relief overwhelm us when we realize we need not do everything. May a rapture of hope, peace, joy, and love fill us this Advent when we realize that our work—while important—has nothing to do with our own or anyone else’s salvation.

[1] Noted by Paul Simpson Duke in the “Homiletical Perspective” of Isaiah 2:1-5 FEASTING ON THE WORD: Year A, Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press. 2010.

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The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is the Transitional Minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. David is graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). David lives in Henderson with his wife and three children where he enjoys bicycle riding and reading. He also coaches a local elementary archery team.

Advent 4C: Holy Welcome

Advent 4C: Holy Welcome

Luke 1:39-55

By: The Rev. Lori Walke

Luke presents the story of Jesus as a combination of history and biography. He sets out to give an “orderly account,” committed to telling the story of Jesus in such a way that makes all things clear. Luke’s attempt at capturing the story of Jesus in fullness walks the line other ancient historiography does, “marked by the paradox of two or more less competing interests – veracity (the attempt to depict events that actually happened) and narrative (the attempt to set events within a coherent, meaningful series, the presentation of which accords privilege to causation and teleology).”[i]  It is an opportunity for us to say, “We don’t know if this is exactly how it happened, but we know that this story is true.”

The narrative element of Luke’s writing invites readers to engage the story with imagination rooted in the text. This can be a delightful task when the text includes angels, which happens quite a bit in the opening chapters of Luke. As we read the lectionary pericope this Sunday, we just miss the appearance of one. We enter the narrative while the wonderful glow from the angel who announced Mary’s pregnancy to her is still fading.

If we are reading from Mary’s perspective, it may not have been so wonderful. An unwed pregnant woman was not a good thing to be in her time. Joseph, her fiancé, had a couple of choices. He could have her stoned or he could walk away leaving her with a newborn and no income. Neither option would have been good for Mary.

And then there is the actual pregnancy to consider. Any pregnancy can be difficult, but teenage pregnancy is particularly hard. Beyond what scholars can tell us about the social and historical context of the text, we know this because we know the obstacles and risks teen mothers face today. The preacher might take time to look at teen pregnancy and birth rates in their state and/or community along with available resources to localize the situation for the congregation. We cannot help but wonder how things would have worked out for Mary if she had been an unwed teenage mother in our time – would she still have been shunned, uninsured, and with less access to maternal healthcare?

After the announcement of Mary’s pregnancy, we usually just skip to the Magnificat. The angel leaves and then Mary starts singing, right? But Luke says there is more to the story. Perhaps the most overlooked element of the Magnificat is when it appears in the story. Mary does not burst into song when Gabriel shows up. She does not start humming the tune when the angel tells her The Plan. She does not shout from the rooftop as Gabriel exits. She barely clears her throat.

When the angel disappears, Mary has a panic attack. This is not in the text, but read between the lines. It happens in the little empty space between verses 38 and 39 where we’ve added the title Mary Visits Elizabeth. Immediately after the angel flits away, Mary packs her bags and leaves town. “In those days, Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.” She is scared. She doesn’t know what to do. She is in trouble. She’s a pregnant teenager without any support. So she runs, hoping that her cousin Elizabeth will keep her from getting stoned or shamed to death.

The moment that Mary crosses the threshold of Elizabeth’s house, everything changes. The first thing Elizabeth does when Mary shows up at her door is to bless her with holy words of welcome: “Welcome, dear one. Welcome. Come and stay for while.” She called Mary blessed. Blessed. And then, then it is that Mary sings about being lifted up, about mercy.

When does Mary sing the Magnificat? When does she find her voice? When is she convinced that everything is going to be okay? After she gets help, when she finds refuge, in the wake of being welcomed and embraced. Mary’s Magnificat, which follows in verses 46-55, is made possible because Elizabeth’s welcome helped Mary find her footing. And we cannot separate Jesus’ life and ministry from the woman who raised him with the words, “he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” on her lips.

This pericope is the linchpin of the story. The Good News is Elizabeth’s response to a scared, pregnant teenager who doesn’t have the resources to take care of herself. This is when everything turns, where the story of Jesus pivots in the right direction. The key ingredient is holy words of welcome.  

And now it is our work to continue the story. What welcome is the church speaking today?

[i] Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke (p. 15). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.

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The Rev. Lori Walke

The Rev. Lori Walke, J.D., is associate minister of Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ and a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, and Oklahoma State University.

 

 

Advent 3C: The Way Things Are is Not How They Have To Be

Advent 3C: The Way Things Are is Not How They Have To Be

Luke 3:7-18

By: The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

I’ve recently entered a fun part of my vocational journey. It seemed as if my 20s were spent in endless preparation—an advent that felt like it would never end. I was learning and teaching and practicing, but all of it was done in a liminal space due to the educational programs in which I was enrolled. I was a full-time student and only part-time everything else. And now, in my thirties, I have entered into a new space—one with a full-time job that is in line with my vocational call and professional goals, and so my time is spent less thinking about “someday,” and more spent honing in on who I am and what I have to offer. In short, my eternal relationship with advent has come to an end.

Or has it?

You see, in my role as a college chaplain at a small liberal art college that does not presume religious faith of any kind, I have been forced to articulate a vision for my role’s existence. In 2018, if a college is not specifically faith-based, why have a minister at all? It’s a question I myself wrestle with, but when I read this account of John the Baptist, I find a kindred spirit in vocational call.

As I have been articulating just what this vocational call is, recently my message of a misplaced pastor in a secular setting has been this: The way things are now is not how they have to be. It seems to me that this is John’s message as well.

In the first several verses, John calls the gathered group to repentance.[1] In the right context, such requests for accountability and changed living can be a message of hope. When we are caught in patterns of sin, particularly when they are causing us pain, offering a way out suggests that the way things are now is not how they have to be. We can be different. We do not have to bear bad fruit. We can do something to heal the world.

But how?

John responds to the “how” question with practical tips. He says that whoever has two coats should share with someone who has none, which suggests that we are all responsible for generosity. The willingness to share what we have is not only demanded of the rich, but of anyone who has what someone else does not.

Following this, John addresses two professions that at the time held the potential to be abused by exploiting others. John’s admonishments here are not as much about the professions themselves as they are about the condemnation of exploitation. Combined with the verses immediately before, we see that John is advocating for the social and economic care of each person in the community. There is not indictment of the poor themselves, but instead, the conviction and responsibility is placed on those who take and keep from those who do not have. Again, the way things are now (exploitation and inequality) is not how they have to be.

In the final verses, John points to someone who is coming whose presence is a purifying fire that burns away the sins of the world—injustice, exploitation, inequality, hoarding resources, abuse. The way things are now is not how they have to be. And perhaps this is my call as a chaplain who works with religious and non-religious students alike: not only to remind people over and over that the way things are is not how they have to be, but also to work with them to figure out ways that they can participate in the social transformation. And perhaps my call, like John, is not to do this for my own sake, but to point the way to one who comes who is much greater than that which we do accomplish in the meantime. We pare down our closets and share our food now, knowing that we are preparing the way for more and more. We are changing the world. And more is coming.

“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Amen.

[1] It should be noted here that in Matthew’s version of the story, John specifically calls out religious leaders. In that passage and in this one, I encourage my fellow Christian ministers to take care not to perpetuate the idea that religious people of the time, specifically Jews, were any more of a problem than religious people of this time, including Christians. Even with the best of intentions, this interpretation has bolstered anti-Semitism by instilling in Christian congregants the idea that early and current Jews are less than Christians in practice or belief. Obviously Christian doctrine about other religious traditions vary widely across denomination, but anti-Semitism itself has violent consequences, and particularly after the Tree of Life shooting October 27, 2018, Christian preachers should exercise discernment about the impact of their words.

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The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram serves as the Director of Religious Life and Chaplain of Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. She grew up in non-denominational evangelical land and is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She earned a BA from Anderson University, a Master of Theological Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, and a PhD in Religion and Psychological Studies from the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. Her areas of interest include education, practical theology, and escaping overthinking by baking, crafting, and watching TV.

 

Advent 2(C): The Word of God in the Wilderness

Advent 2(C): The Word of God in the Wilderness

Luke 3:1-6

By: The Rev. Andrew Hege

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

Just to be clear: this is no small, trivial act. From this moment of revelation emerges a prophetic ministry that sets all things in motion, proclaiming the time that is soon at hand, a mission of preparing the way for the One who is to come. Saint Luke’s detailed location of this event as a moment in time is much more than an obsessive attention to detail.

The specificity of the time and place defines the enormous significance of this occasion. It is not a moment to be overlooked, but a time and place worthy of note.

After all, the word of God coming to someone, to anyone, in the wilderness of all places, was no ordinary occurrence. There had been hundreds of years of silence. Generation after generation had been born, lived, and died since the people of God had been in the presence of a prophet, one who had received a word from on high.

John’s message was rooted in the words of his predecessor, the great prophet Isaiah. In the days of old, the prophet cried aloud to make ready and prepare the way of the Lord, to straighten the paths that had grown crooked and smooth that which had been made rough. All of this was to serve that single purpose – that “all flesh shall see the salvation of our God.”

The word of God came to John, and a prophet was in their midst. The message of God’s abiding and redeeming love was being made known anew.

Let’s be honest: in our own time, prophets are many. Their messages are even more numerous and varied. Silence is not common. Some of our prophets claim to speak a word from God, while others boldly claim a message that is all their own. Some shout loudly on street corners and across airwaves, while others seek a more subtle transmission. There is no shortage of prophets in our midst.

For us, followers of Jesus in this day and this time, the careful work of discernment is all the more challenging. Who and where are the prophets who truly speak a word from God?

This passage from Saint Luke’s Gospel issues an important clue into where we might best look: to the wilderness. The word of God came to John in the wilderness. God’s good news emerges on the fringes and at the margins, far from the seats of power and privilege. In the places that appear so bare and desolate, absent of the presence of anything that is holy, the prophetic word of the living God is made real.

Where are such wilderness prophets today? A few ideas…

Perhaps we need to go to a literal wilderness, to the desert Southwest of these United States, where families arrive at our nation’s border, day after day, in search of sanctuary. Fleeing violence and fear, in search of safety and peace, these children of God—men, women, and children—arrive with little more than the clothes they are wearing. From the wilderness of tents and detention centers, what word might they speak to us this Advent season?

Perhaps we need not venture far from home to find ourselves deep in the wilderness. In the neglected and overlooked neighborhood of our own city, the wilderness might look like the parking lot of the market with a ‘check cashing center.’ Inside, the individual who is struggling to make ends meet, agonizing over which bill can be paid this month, is the recipient of a loan that may never be repaid, bearing a rate of interest so high that it renders them enslaved. What word from God might emerge in just such a wilderness?

Perhaps we need only look at the wilderness of our own faith community to discover a fresh word in this season of anticipation and expectation. In the pew sits the mother whose family does not look like every other family, the forgotten widower who wonders if he has been noticed, the child who has been told she is not enough. The wilderness of experience, rather than location, is no less desolate, no less isolation. What word from the Holy One might they proclaim to us as we prepare to welcome the Christ child into our hearts and souls?

These are prophets, each and every one, testifying to the truth from the wildernesses that call to us, people of the Jesus Way, here and now.

To ask the question of where and who the prophets of our place and time might be emerging, we do well to remember that, in ancient days, the word of God appeared in the most unlikely of places, in the wilderness, to the man named John. In the wilderness of our own days, in this year, 2018, may a good word from God be heard anew, and may we have the grace and power to share it, that all shall see and hear and know the salvation of our God.

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The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

The Rev. Andrew J. Hege serves as the Assistant to the Rector at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Andrew is an ardent golfer, occasional runner, and an avid reader of historical fiction. Ordained a priest in January 2015, Andrew is married to Amanda Schroeder Hege.

 

Advent 1C: Same Old Story

Advent 1C: Same Old Story

Luke 21:25-36

By: Casey Cross

If you have eyes, ears, and/or any kind of awareness of your surroundings, you might be like me right now. Angry. Heartbroken. On the verge of hopelessness. What the heck is wrong with our country – the (not so) United States of America? What the heck is wrong with our world? How have we grown so far from simple acts of stewardship and care for our earth and neighbor? Why are we stuck arguing over lawful rights versus human rights? You know what makes it feel worse? THIS IS NOTHING NEW. Humans seem to be really good at being awful to each other. You know how I know that? Because in today’s text, Jesus is talking about the same stuff thousands of years ago.

In some ways, this text almost makes sense. I mean, I’m writing this with Halloween only a few days away. Grappling with our present racist-misogynist-socio-economic-political situation seems an apt way to experience a serious House of Horrors. Only this isn’t something we can walk away from with a shuddering laugh, this is our real life.

I can also see this text making sense in another way. Jesus is in the last days of his life, stirring stuff up and preaching truth to power. In context, we would be reading this passage with sunglasses to shade us from the gleam of impending resurrection – Easter is coming. Yeah, we know bad stuff is going to happen, but Easter will too.

However, neither of those reasons really fit for now and they aren’t meant to. This passage is not for Holy Week, but for the first Sunday of Advent. Remember? Advent? The time when we get all excited for Christmas and sparkly decorations and family (maybe) and good food and PRESENTS… and… Oh yeah! Cute baby Jesus is born too.

Wait.

By entering Advent with Jesus who is entering his last days in Jerusalem, we get to sit with his words in a new way. We get to read these words with honest eyes that aren’t shaded by anything other than the crappy stuff happening in our lives that we brought with us as we read the text.

Oh. And maybe that’s the point. The crappy stuff doesn’t change. Humans need a lot of help. But this is when the Son of Man appears. (Jeez. Do you know how many times Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man? Yeah, it’s his favorite way to speak in the first person.) There will be signs… distress… fear and foreboding… No, this isn’t about the so-called “end times.” This is about today. This moment. All is not lost. When we are the most distressed, the kingdom of God draws near.

Jesus speaks to his listeners then as he speaks to us today. Be aware, on guard, expectant. Do not let the shock-and-awe horror show of the 24/7 news cycle weigh us down into the pit of despair where all we can count on is immediate gratification and addictive coping mechanisms. Stand. Stand up and raise your heads with faith in the words of Jesus that will never pass away. Stand firm with faith in the ever-lasting, redemptive love of our Savior who chose to be with us in the worst of times, as a vulnerable, naked, poor baby. Jesus doesn’t promise an escape from the pain, fear, and awfulness of the world. Jesus promises to live through it, with us. We aren’t in this alone. God is with us, Emmanuel.

This is the true challenge of faith. Can we stand to face the injustices and pain of the world? Can we respond with faithfulness, loving God, self, and neighbor as Jesus taught us, rather than freeze in fear?

The secondary challenge of faith is remembering that it does not belong to a single one of us, but to all of us – the Body of Christ. This faith is ours. We are not alone because we stand together, bound by our faith, called by our God to be caretakers of our world and each other. We can cry, we can lament, we can fear. These are our human, God-given emotions. God also gave us the capacity to act in response. So as we cry out, let us stand together and act out the ways Jesus taught us to live.

Here are just two responses to distressful, horrific times. While these may or may not be explicitly about faith, I find that they exemplify the gifts of faith in action. Just as humans are good at being awful to each other, we are even better at lifting each other up.

The first example comes from Michael Moore, written in February of 2017.

This morning I have been pondering a nearly forgotten lesson I learned in high school music. Sometimes in band or choir, music requires players or singers to hold a note longer than they actually can hold a note. In those cases, we were taught to mindfully stagger when we took a breath so the sound appeared uninterrupted. Everyone got to breathe, and the music stayed strong and vibrant. Yesterday, I read an article that suggested the administration’s litany of bad executive orders (more expected on LGBTQ next week) is a way of giving us “protest fatigue” – we will literally lose our will to continue the fight in the face of the onslaught of negative action. Let’s remember MUSIC. Take a breath. The rest of the chorus will sing. The rest of the band will play. Rejoin so others can breathe. Together, we can sustain a very long, beautiful song for a very, very long time. You don’t have to do it all, but you must add your voice to the song.

The second example is entitled, “Inscription of Hope” by Z. Randall Stroope. It was based on words found scrawled on a cellar wall by Jews hiding from the Nazis in Cologne, Germany during the second World War. https://youtu.be/GAFzjjFdcYE

I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
And I believe in love
even when there’s no one there
And I believe in God
even when he is silent
I believe through any trial there is always a way.
But sometimes in this suffering and hopeless despair
My heart cries for shelter
and to know someone’s there
But a voice rises within me saying “hold on my child”
I’ll give you strength
I’ll give you hope
Just stay a little while
May there someday be sunshine
May there someday be happiness
May there someday be love
May there someday be peace.

 

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Casey Cross

Casey Cross serves as Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church in Eagle, Idaho. You can find her singing along to Spotify, reading books, listening to books, writing stuff, laughing a lot, walking her dog, cooking with her husband, and loving life in Idaho. If you liked this, you can check out more of her writing at http://caseykcross.wordpress.com

Advent 4(B): Everyday Annunciations

Advent 4(B): Everyday Annunciations

Luke 1:26-38

The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

Several years ago I came across Denise Levertov’s stunning poem, Annunciation. You can read the full poem here. Her portrayal of Mary struck a deep chord in me, mostly because the vision of Mary that I was raised with was very different. In the circles I grew up in, Mary’s name was synonymous with the “ideal woman”—one who was soft-spoken, submissive, meek. In all the Sunday school lessons on the Nativity or studies about women of the Bible, never did I resonate with Mary as a model for my own womanhood, perhaps because I tend to be headstrong, opinionated, independent. Far from the “ideal,” I had little hope of ever being like Mary. Meek obedience wasn’t for me.

But to think of Mary as a model of “unparalleled courage” is far more intriguing. There really was nothing special about Mary, nothing to mark her as particularly worthy of God’s notice or favor. In fact, she was rather ordinary—a young girl about to be married to a mere carpenter, living in an insignificant town in a backwater province. Nothing about her life suggested that she would play an integral role in God’s plan for salvation. Yet Mary’s very ordinariness, rather than being a discouragement, is encouraging. Luke’s Gospel is distinct in its insistence that God invites ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Few people can live up to an “ideal,” but everyone can make a choice. Mary’s courage, her choice to say yes to God’s call, opened her to a life utterly illumined by God’s grace.

God’s grace in Mary’s life was a strange kind of blessing. Gabriel greets her as “highly favored” and yet, by our standards, her life is anything but. None of the goals we associate with favor—namely, social stature and wealth—came her way. Instead, she faced shame, dishonor, and public disgrace as she bore a child out of wedlock (Mt. 1:19). As a child, Simeon warns her that Jesus will bring judgment and division, and that a sword will pierce her own soul, too—she too will know the pain of rejection and division (Lk. 2:34-35). She will be forced to flee her home and live as a refugee (Mt. 2:13-23). She bears the gossip and stigma of speculations about Jesus’s mental sanity as he begins his ministry (Mk. 3:21). Ultimately, she will see her son executed as a criminal (Jn. 19). But, as R. Alan Culpepper so aptly reminds us, “acceptability, prosperity, and comfort have never been the essence of God’s blessing.” Were they so, Mary may have despaired. Her life was not marked by these things. The promise of the great king to come did not turn out as Mary may have initially expected. But over and over again we see the same courage that marked her first “yes” as she steadfastly faces disruption, discouragement, and pain throughout her life. She trusts in God’s promise. Her obedience stems from that trust, and her blessing came from the fellowship shared with God as a partner in God’s mission of redemption.

Levertov’s question makes me wonder: Aren’t there annunciations of one sort or another in most lives? Moments when roads of light and storm open from darkness in a man or woman? Moments when God invites us to partner in God’s mission of redemption, to partner in building up God’s kingdom? The poet suggests that more often those moments are turned away from in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair and with relief. Ordinary lives continue. But I wonder: is ordinary life not the place where we see the greatest courage at work?

I think of the people who embody the courage of Mary, who embody the hope and trust in God’s promise of redemption despite the everyday suffering of life that would seem to belay that promise. I think of the survivor of sexual assault who refuses to give in to despair at the horror she has lived through and instead asks what she can do to minister to others. I think of the young adult who lives her days lobbying for refugee relief and support, despite overwhelming odds against her cause. I think of the man who lost his job, ended up on the streets, wound up in prison, and as a last ditch effort went to a nonprofit hiring agency where he discovered ordinary people who reminded him that he was valuable, a person of great worth, and how he now works every day to bring the same hope to others in the situation he found himself in. I think of the wives, husbands, sons, and daughters who care every day for loved ones experiencing illness and disease, for whom there is no cure in sight, who give the gift of dignity at the end of life. I think of the social workers, and teachers, and guardians ad litem who give their time, effort, and energy to care and advocate for children who have no one who cares for them. I think of all those who offer their time and ability to take care of the “least of these.” I think of the people in our congregations who are willing to risk entering into relationship with someone who is completely unlike them, in order to share the love of God. I think of ordinary people who are willing to obey God’s claim on their lives, who say yes to the seemingly impossible, who open themselves to a life utterly illumined and undergirded by God’s own grace.

There are annunciations of one sort or another in most lives. The grace of God, and the ability to partner with God, is offered to us in everyday moments, in everyday situations. Like Mary, we are each offered the choice integral to humanness. May we be as courageous as Mary in our response to God’s call: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

 

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The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is Priest-in-Charge of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. Her greatest joy as a priest is walking with people who seek and follow Christ in deep relationship with each other. Chana believes that God’s grace is extended to all, and that nothing is impossible when we truly seek and attend to God’s call to us! In her spare time, Chana can be found dancing Lindy Hop and teaching basic swing, enjoying conversation and caffeine at a coffee house, or exploring local attractions and foodie hangouts. Chana, her husband, TJ, and their two dogs, Molly and Momo, live in Wilmington.

Advent 3(B): Something to Rejoice About

Advent 3(B): Something to Rejoice About

John 1:6-8; 19-28

By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

Writing this just after Halloween, I can’t help but think that John the Baptist is the original David S. Pumpkins: you feel like you should know who he is and why he’s here, but, along with the Pharisees, you’re kind of in the weeds on John T. Baptist. Is he the Messiah? No. Is he Elijah? Nah. Is he some kind of prophet you just can’t place…? Nope. He’s his own thing.

Indeed, John denies being a prophet, but as a hermit living in the wilderness (v. 23) who embraced an ascetic lifestyle and was sent by God (v. 6), he bears the marks of archetypical prophethood. If you look like a prophet, sound like a prophet, and smell like a prophet (the camel’s hair get up mentioned in Mark had to be a little rank)…. you’re a prophet.

So why does John deny it? Why is he so evasive, especially given that this is the gospel most explicit about his successor’s identity? And why are the Pharisees sending a committee of priests and Levites to vet this guy?

Prophets in ancient Judaism had great importance; as the mouthpiece of God, much attention was focused on them and their message (often times to their detriment; remember Elijah running for his life?). John, of course, wanted the attention focused on Jesus.

But I wonder whether he might also have realized that Jesus was going to break the mold; that he was announcing not just another mouthpiece delivering messages from a higher power, but rather the Messiah (3:28), the Son of God (1:34) who embodies divine love and grace in his very person. God’s new way of being in the world wasn’t going to be like anything the Pharisees had expected; refusing to play into their preconceived categories, as Jesus would later repeatedly do, might have been John’s way of signaling that this was a whole different ballgame.

Prophets also challenged those in power by condemning the way political and religious leaders and the people in their charge were behaving. The Pharisees’ questioning of John shows the institutional elite trying to get a handle on this outsider whose following threatened their authority. Though we don’t hear much about its contents in this gospel, John’s message must have resonated with people; they flocked from the city to be baptized by him.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about baptism. In ancient Judaism, tvilah – immersion in naturally sourced water for purification purposes – was quite common, particularly after coming into contact with a dead body, blood, or other uncleanliness; it was also used when someone converted to Judaism. In both cases, it indicated that the one who had been immersed could now participate fully in the life of the faith community.

There’s lots of good symbolism here – spiritual cleansing, new beginnings, etc. – that fits the synoptic gospel accounts describing John as proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But in this gospel, John has a different agenda: he is baptizing “that [Jesus] might be revealed to Israel.” (1:31) Baptism, then, is no holy rite focused on ritual purification, but rather a spiritual version of  “build it and they” – or rather he – “will come.”

This approach is emphasized in verse 33, where we hear echoes of the prophet Samuel passing in front of each of Jesse’s sons to discern whom he should anoint as king. John, too, is looking for divine confirmation: “‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” Jesus is the fruit of that same tree of Jesse – the son of David; the ultimate Anointed One.

Perhaps surprisingly, John continues baptizing even after Jesus has begun his own baptismal ministry. (3:22) But when his disciples confront him about it, John uses it as another opportunity to clarify that Jesus is the star attraction, that Jesus “must increase” while John “must decrease.” (3:30)

Later, John is described essentially as the best man at Jesus’ wedding to Israel. (3:29) We’ve all heard a best man focus his toast a little too much on himself while everyone awkwardly waits for it to be over; but not on John the Baptist’s watch! Everything John says and does turns the spotlight on Jesus.

To wit, there’s the bit of prologue included in today’s lectionary passage: John “came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” (1:7-8)

This is, of course, the gospel of John’s underlying message: everything points to Jesus. The gospel writer’s main concern is to convince us that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, and to help us begin to apprehend the mystical, cosmic significance of that role.

Even so, I hope John’s motive for baptizing struck you as odd.

Odd because we are used to experiencing baptism as a moment centered on the believer: it’s their official entrance into the body of the church, when they receive fully the grace and new life God has bestowed on everyone who believes. All eyes are on the one being baptized: the name of the baptized person, inscribed in large font, is the focal point of the certificate we sign, and we hold a celebratory reception, complete with flowers and personalized cake commemorating the occasion.

But what if baptism looked more in line with John the Baptist’s M.O.: baptism that points not to us, but to Jesus?

I have a rather higher anthropology-to-christology ratio than this proposition suggests. Yet the idea of baptism not as an event that glorifies us, but rather as a sort of spiritual dragnet meant to help us find the Messiah fits perfectly with Advent. It is, after all, the liturgical season during which all signs point to Jesus.
If you’re inclined to preach a sermon about keeping Christ in Christmas, here’s your entry point. But we can go broader than that – and deeper. What does it mean to recognize that we’re not the light, but that we’re meant to witness to it? How do we keep from being the self-centered best man at a party that’s not about us? How do we avoid the pull to perform; to enjoy accolades more than service; to be concerned with optics and success more than substance; to center ourselves around our own agendas rather than God’s inbreaking presence? We as humans (and particularly as clergy) all face these temptations.

In chapter three, John’s disciples want to know what’s up with this Jesus guy horning in on John’s territory. John replies with the bridegroom imagery, which, despite my earlier comment about awkward toasts, is deeply moving: “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled.” (3:29)

The main event, the One whose presence thrills us with the kind of profound happiness we feel at seeing our best friend happily married, has arrived. For a moment, we forget our own agendas and lose ourselves in joy. As we celebrate Gaudete Sunday, that is true reason to rejoice.

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The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is the pastor at Park Avenue Congregational Church UCC in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves an outdoor run; some good thrift shopping; a dance party with her 3-year-old; and cooking something stupidly easy and delicious for dinner with her husband, Chris.