One of our most basic human needs is the need to belong. In fact, this is one of the concepts I drill into my Intro to Religion class—why are people religious? We have lots of reasons to be religious, but a major reason is our need to belong. We are social. We need community! One of the downfalls of the human need to belong, however, is that people often shove some people out of the group to make clearer the boundary around it. We deal with the temptation of proving we belong by insisting those other people don’t belong. I am on the inside. I know what is going on. I belong here. This place, this circle, this church is for me.
On Epiphany we celebrate that the Gospel includes the outsiders, that Christ did not come only for some, but for all. We experience this with the traveling Magi, who bring gifts from afar through a long journey to meet the Christ child. They are enthusiastic, recognizing the transformative power that has entered the world, seeing the miracle that not even all on the inside recognized. They even go to visit an insider, King Herod, to celebrate this new joy. Yet the insider, King Herod, cannot be trusted. He does not see this new birth as a time to celebrate transformation and embrace outsiders, but instead, it is a threat to his place, to his power.
I am struck by the idea that the Magi tried to include King Herod, building a bridge between outsiders and insiders around this new birth, this new joy to the world, this new reign of peace and justice. I am further struck that they realized he was not to be trusted through a dream, and afterwards, affirmed their own sense of self-knowledge by prioritizing what they learned from the dream. What can we gain from this story?
I am reflecting on the idea that outsiders might recognize truth that insiders miss. I am reflecting on the idea that outsiders might be the ones that offer invitations, even when rejected by insiders. I am reflecting on the idea that outsiders might bring truth that supersedes what the insiders know to be true—that King Herod is not their king, and so going against his wishes because they have discerned a truth outside of him is a reality made possible due only to their outside status.
I think all of us can resonate with the sense of being an outsider in an insider space. I did not grow up in a denominational setting, so sometimes I feel like an outsider in denominational church spaces. And yet, there is a deeper level to the insider/outsider status that is rooted in justice and oppression in our world. So now, I turn to a reading of this story through the lens of prioritizing those on the margins. We read through the lens of those on the margins not only because we see a grown-up Jesus doing that time and time again, but because we see through Epiphany that those on the margins have a full story they are living, too. They might even invite us into their narrative if we are receptive to the invitation.
And all the while, even as all are included, and all leave their mark on the story, sometimes those on the margins have reasons to distrust those in power, like King Herod. And when that happens, I can’t help but hope they follow their instincts, listen to their dreams, and persist following the way of light and justice and transformation.
In the introduction of Eugene Peterson’s book Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, he writes this: “To live as a human being means that we use tools” (2). Prayer is a tool, however, “prayers are not tools for doing or getting, but for being and becoming.” When I approach the Psalms, I am reminded of this — they offer a tool for becoming closer to God, for being fully human.
When I read the Psalms, I also find myself stepping back in time, while in the same moment, being fully present today. The emotions they felt then are emotions I feel today. The distress they experienced then are experienced here and now. The uncertainty, the celebration, the anger, the joy — it unites us across centuries. The Psalms remind me that my feelings and experiences are valid and welcome when I turn to God in prayer.
Each psalm offers me a reminder of my humanity and it turns out I need a lot of reminders!
I think we all need reminders, which is why the Christian calendar and worship liturgy are important parts of our faith. Yearly, monthly, weekly — we need reminders. We know what’s going to happen every Advent season; there’s no surprise or shock when we hear the story year after year. And yet, we keep showing up to hear that story, to relive the moments, to be reminded of what we already know.
Psalm 111 reminds me of what I already know — that God’s deeds are majestic, that the LORD is gracious and compassionate, that God’s actions are faithful and just.
Psalm 111 also reminds me of how I can respond to these things I already know about God — to praise God with all of my heart, to name the good deeds God has put forth in my life, to acknowledge this presence in the world.
Additionally, Psalm 111 reminds me how to pray — one of the many prayer outlines found in the book of Psalms. This one goes like this:
A Promise to Give Thanks
Praising God for God’s Deeds
Naming God’s Deeds
Beginning to Understand God’s Ways
More reminders on how to be in relationship with God. More tools to help me be and become.
“I will extol the LORD will all my heart…” I’m grateful for the reminder to commit to thanking God. My personality type is responsible, so if I’ve promised to do something or made a commitment, it’s highly likely that I’ll follow through. Being reminded to commit myself to thanking God regularly for my breath, the sunset, or a good plate of food is so helpful. Before going any further into the words of praise, the psalmist recommits to thanking God. A reminder we could all use, I suspect.
“God has caused God’s wonders to be remembered…” I’m grateful for the reminder to praise God for all that God does for us. And, not just us humans, but for all of creation. Before even naming what God has done, the psalmist praises God for who God is. What a great reminder to be aware of God’s nature before focusing on God’s actions. Because of God’s character, God is worthy to be praised.
“God provided redemption for God’s people; God ordained God’s covenant forever…” I’m grateful for the reminder of what God has done for us. Because of God’s characteristics like graciousness and compassion, we can see God’s deeds from the beginning of time until now. God has proven to be trustworthy and just. We recall not just God’s nature, but how we see God’s nature carried out in our lives.
“All who follow God’s precepts have good understanding…” The last few lines of this psalm remind me that much is up to interpretation! I suspect that one person’s understanding of God’s precepts might vary from the next. However, the psalm ends with one final phrase we can agree on: to God belongs eternal praise.
The Psalms are a tool we can use to help us remember. When we forget how to pray, use the Psalms. When we feel alone, turn to the Psalms. When we struggle to worship, open up the Psalms. When we are unclear about our relationship with God, let the Psalms speak for you.
I don’t know about you, but I need a lot of reminders. I’m grateful the Psalms offer me page after page of reminders about God’s compassion no matter what I’m going through in life.
After fourteen years of youth ministry in the United Methodist Church, Anne Moman Brock is now in another form of ministry with Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, part of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She is a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary. Anne lives with her husband and two dogs — 12 year old husky and 2 year old chocolate lab — in Indianapolis, Indiana. You can find more of Anne’s musings on running, quilting, infertility, and writing at www.annebrock.com or on Instagram.
Many of us are familiar with the story of Jonah. This Hebrew Bible prophet who lived somewhere around the 8th century BC is instructed by God to go to Nineveh to declare to the people that God intends to destroy their land.
Instead, Jonah runs away, finds himself on a ship where the occupants toss him overboard after they realize that the trials they were facing were due to Jonah’s disobedience, and then he ends up in the belly of a whale.
This is Jonah who, after all of that, finally submits to what God instructed and after being told a second time to go, he arrives in Nineveh to declare thus sayeth the Lord. After travelling a day’s distance, he cries out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
What stands out to me is the amount of time God allows the people before God makes good on God’s threat. Think about it. If God wanted, God could have simply destroyed them when the thought crossed God’s mind. According to the text, their wickedness had come to the attention of God and so God decided their only recourse was to be destroyed.
God gave them time. God gave Jonah time and God gave the people of Nineveh time. God gave them all a moment to decide for themselves. Would they continue down the path they were going, or would they choose another path, another way of doing and being, and living in the world? Would they continue in their wicked ways, or would they choose honor, integrity, simplicity and a new way of being? What would they choose?
Now, let’s be clear. In no way am I suggesting that they, or us for that matter, have the ability to change God’s minds with our actions. There is no way of knowing whether or not our choices, our actions, our ways of being truly impact God’s choices. Yes, it is something that has been taught to us from generation to generation. But there is a danger in suggesting such theology because such theology sometimes leads us to believe that the trials and tribulations we all face in life are our fault.
And I am sorry, but I struggle with such declarations. I struggle to believe that those who are homeless are so because of something they did when there are systems in place that cause outcomes out of our control. I struggle to believe that the person who experienced sexual assault, something I myself have experienced before, deserved such a violation. I struggle to believe that those that are enslaved, poor, blind, barren, broken and battered are because of something they did or failed to do. And I struggle to believe that the wealthiest of the wealthiest achieved some extra grace from God that led to their success when they have gained their success from the suffering and exploitation of others.
No, I am not suggesting any of that. But what I am suggesting is, instead of God following through with God’s punishment, God chose to allow the people a chance to adjust. And I believe that is what the year 2020 was for many of us – a chance to readjust.
Here we are, this third Sunday of the new year 2021. We have made it through advent and the anticipation of Jesus’ birth. We are just a few weeks into a new year and, like last year, we have all sorts of hopes and dreams, expectations and wishes. And yet we are still faced with uncertainty. We are still in a reality for which we just don’t know. We found ourselves detoured and unsure.
But I think we have an opportunity to perceive where we are and where we have been differently. What was it that you needed time for? What was it that you learned about yourself, about others, about life, and about where you are and where you want to be?
Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t about running, but maybe it all has been about time.
A few weeks ago, I got an email from a colleague who I have only met a couple of times. The email said, “Dear Jerrod, I heard about the virtual rosary gathering and I wondered if we could set up a time to talk?” The message felt somewhat innocuous on the surface. However, my anxiety heard it as, “We need to talk.” That dreaded phrase that no one wants to hear and that incites both fear and anxiety about the possible content…. I tried (somewhat unsuccessfully) to manage the anxiety, but we scheduled a time for a phone call. The day came and I rang the individual on the phone not certain of what I was going to hear on the other end of the line, but I was pleasantly surprised by the tenor of our conversation. She had laid out before me her own experiences of the holy and how she had heard God’s voice at work in her own life. It was a deeply spiritual moment.
We never know how or when or through whom God will speak. I have regularly found that it is through individuals that I most rub personalities with that God speaks into my life. Maybe that’s just me.
Earnest Holmes once said, “Life is a mirror and will reflect back to the thinker what he thinks into it.”
If life is a mirror and we see in the world what we see in ourselves, it raises a provocative question about how and where and why we find God in the places we do or in the places we don’t. When we find the prickly edges of ourselves that is when we are most prone to realize why they are prickly and attend to them. In the passage from First Samuel 3, God speaks but Samuel isn’t prepared to hear it. God calls out and Samuel being so limited in his scope of thought can only imagine that it is his master Eli. This passage is a beautiful metaphor for all of those places where God is speaking in our lives, but we haven’t yet tuned in to realize that it is God’s voice. God speaks in our lives through some pretty unsuspected people and situations.
This year has been so very difficult for all of us. We’ve been on lockdown. Businesses have folded, jobs have been lost, people have been sick and died from this virus. Trying is not a good enough word.
I work day to day as a hospital chaplain at the Alberta Children’s Hospital here in Calgary. In my work, we often talk about people experiencing a series of losses as “complex grief.” Anyone who has made it through this year knows well what complex or compound grief is. It is one grief stacked on top of so many others. We have had to adapt to a world where we can’t safely gather with friends, or family, or work family. A world where it seems like each day brings harder news not easier news. But it is important for us to remember that even in the midst of fears and anxieties God is still speaking. I know how hard it is to believe that in the midst of tremendous fear. God is still reaching out God’s arms in love to bring the whole world within Christ’s saving embrace.
I hope that as you look at this passage you will find the truth of God’s love stronger than the fear and anxiety that we might generate. Look into your own hearts and hear the voice of God. You might hear it in the cry of the baby behind you in church or in the neighbour who just can’t seem to mind their own business. If we look and listen for God’s voice God will make God’s self known to us as God has done for four millennia. Anytime God’s people were lost and couldn’t find their way, God called out. May you have eyes to see and ears to hear what the spirit of the living God is speaking to you today.
One of the benefits of this prolonged season of Coronatide and Church at Home has been the opportunity to pay attention to the visual cues in our nave. When the goal is to beam a worshipful experience through a couple of camera lenses onto phones, tablets, and screens of all sizes, it helps to be aware of what the camera is seeing as well as what it isn’t. In the lead up to Advent and Christmas, one of the things we really began to explore was the power of light. During the Season of Advent, in the northern hemisphere, the outside world grows darker and darker as the nights grow longer and longer. Inside the nave, however, the light grows, from a single candle on the Advent Wreath, to the brightness of the light of Christ born in a stable under a star that brought the Magi from the East.
As we thought about how to play on this theme of light and darkness, we went a little overboard on candles. From five on the wreath, the vision grew and grew and grew, until we were lighting 49 candles between Advent 1 and Christmas Day. We cobbled together some memorial funds and purchased two brand new candelabras to help hold them all. Maybe I’m not a good Episcopalian, but I always guessed candelabras held nine candles. In the process of buying them, I learned they hold seven, and thanks to the good people at CM Almy, I learned why—the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit. Apparently, there really is a theological reason for everything in the church.
Outside of singing Veni Sancte Spiritus or Veni Creator Spiritus at ordinations, it seems Episcopalians don’t pay much attention to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Heck, for the most part, it seems we’re quite comfortable to leave being baptized in the Spirit to those other churches, but on the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord in Year B, it seems impossible to ignore. Whether it is John the Baptizer promising that one was coming that would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” or the Spirit descending upon Jesus like a dove, or Paul laying hands on the believers in Ephesus so that they might receive the Spirit, we ignore this important component of baptism to our peril. In fact, if I might be so bold, this Epiphany 1, I suggest every congregation that has one, pull out your seven-light candelabra, light ‘em up, and let’s talk about what it means to not only join with Jesus in his baptism, but to be baptized by the Spirit through Christ. Let’s open up for our people, and ourselves, what it means to carry within us seven-fold gifts of the Spirit: the gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
Now, if you are anything like me, it can be difficult to discern the nuanced differences between wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. Maybe your particular understanding of the beatitudes holds meekness in high regard and doesn’t allow for might to be a gift of the Spirit. Perhaps piety’s definition has become so narrow as to be made simply for show. If you are feeling any of these things, imagine what your congregation might be experiencing as they hear phrases like “the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues” or “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” As a place to start, I offer the following basic definitions of each of the seven gifts for you to explore.
Wisdom – the ability to discern between what is good and evil, truth or deception
Understanding – a deeper comprehension of God in terms of both who God is and what God desires
Counsel – seeking the diving will of God in the pursuit of poverty, chastity, and obedience
Might – perseverance in righteousness in the face of hardship
Knowledge – the ability to more deeply perceive God at work in the world, broadly, and in your life, specifically
Piety – devotion expressed in actions both internal (ex. prayer) and external (ex. worship) that show reverence to God
Fear of the Lord – awe and reverence toward God whose perfect righteousness is wholly other
Clearly, these definitions are not all encompassing, but I hope they are a beginning, a jumping off place to explore, for yourself and for your people, what it means to be baptized in the Spirit and to hear the voice of God declare, “you are my child, whom I love,” whether that experience came at baptism, confirmation, or on a pier, in the woods, or in a church surrounded by the beauty and wonder of God’s creation.
The Rev. Steve Pankey is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Steve holds an MDiv from Virginia Theological Seminary (’07) and a DMin from the School of Theology at the University of the South (’17), but the degree he seems to use most often these days is the BS he earned at Millersville University (’02). As a disciple, a husband to Cassie, a father to Eliza and Lainey, and now a Rector, Steve struggles to keep it all in the right order, and is constantly thankful for forgiveness and grace. You can read more from him at his personal lectionary blog, draughtingtheology.wordpress.com.
There is really nothing more I think I could say about the “Word of God” spoken of in the prologue to John’s gospel. Anything that can be said has already been said by others far wiser and more learned than me–there’s an entire Beatles song to that effect. I sought for something to say about any of the other lectionary texts for this Sunday, but I could not stop hearing this gospel text multiple times throughout my day. Literally. Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and candidate for one of Georgia’s senate seats, quotes John 1:5 in a prominent campaign ad. “The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness overcometh it not.” As a resident of Georgia, I have seen this ad dozens of times (it’s just after Thanksgiving, so it will probably be hundreds by the time you read this in January). I don’t know if it’s just the repetition of that ad or because 2020 has felt like the avatar of “darkness,” but I’m finding a lot of comfort in considering Jesus as the light of the world.
“Light” becomes an important image throughout the fourth gospel. It’s used 21 times in John’s 21 chapters, and these few verses seem to set it up for the remainder of the book. The image of light, as much as the use of the term logos, serves to connect Jesus to the creation narrative. As Jesus is the Word which was active in creation and is the light of the world, he can be seen as the light that ordered the primordial chaos–light was the primary method that God used to order creation and its presence (day) or its absence (night) has always been the way people order and measure their lives.
Light is also revelatory. The light which shines in the darkness reveals all for what it is; nothing is hidden. It reveals reality and so is both liberating and disconcerting. It is embraced by those with the bravery to live truly, but is mostly hated by all of us who would rather hide parts of ourselves.
Light is a guide. It can be difficult for this image to land in a modern world of electricity and light pollution, but I often think of the times in my childhood when my family would drive out to Edisto Beach. The road was narrow and flanked by imposing oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. The headlights of our car only illuminated so far, but that illumination was enough to keep us on the road and prevent us from colliding with those trees.
Conversely, “darkness” also becomes an important image in John. Darkness can be a lack of enlightenment–a stumbling in the dark–or it can be something that people actively engage with–one hides themselves or things that they don’t wish found in dark places. However, the most important attribute that darkness has is its complete inability to extinguish light–a candle left alone in a dark room will go out once it is burned to the nub, but the darkness itself is not a thing which has any power to act upon it.
The most important interpretive lens for the fourth gospel is the reality and experience of the resurrection. The gospel of John only makes sense in light of the resurrection. It begins with an affirmation that the resurrected Christ has always been–that Christ shares the essence of the Creator–and it ends with a witness to the continued life and activity of the resurrected Christ. The resurrection is a prism through which we can view the darkness of any present situation. Because of the resurrection we can be assured that the darkness does not, cannot overcome the light. Because of the resurrection, Rev. Warnock can say that, in the midst of a global pandemic, there is hope.
Just because I was drawn to write about the image of light in John 1 doesn’t mean that others haven’t written more beautifully about it than I am able. And so, I close with this excerpt from Tolkien’s Return of the King in which Samwise, despairing and approaching resignation in a hostile land, sees a star through a break in the clouds.
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
There is a lot to take in in these 18 verses. A beautiful sermon could be preached about the importance of ritual and custom in Jesus’ family, naming the absolute confirmation of each temple law regarding a first-born son. This reality serves to substantiate Jesus as a reformer within the Hebrew faith rather than an instigator from outside the covenant and lineage. Jesus is a righteous child in a righteous family being prepared to be the restoration of righteousness in Israel and beyond Israel.
What really stands out to me as significant to me as I sit with the text are the two interactions with the elders, Simeon and Anna. Each of these town elders embody the depth of wisdom that only comes at the end of a long life spent with God. They have attuned their hearts and minds so closely to God’s vision that their first instinctual response to seeing the infant Jesus in Mary’s arms was to break into song (Simeon) and begin sharing the good news of God’s promise fulfilled (Anna).
The wisdom they have is innocent and foolish while also being so honest and heavy. Simeon seems to grab Jesus out of Mary’s hands with joy in order to marvel at the infant child who he recognizes to be the salvation of the whole world: “a light of revelation for the gentiles and a glory for all [God’s] people, Israel.” And from that place of utter joy and anticipation, he indicates the implications of Jesus’ presence. He will cause the “falling and rising of many… He will be a sign that generates opposition… a sword will pierce your soul.”
Salvation, falling & rising, opposition, a pierced soul. The ramifications of Christ’s presence in and through the infant child, Jesus are life changing. They are world changing. Christ’s birth to a family unable to make the preferred animal sacrifice on behalf of their firstborn child (Lev.12:8), in the context of a roman occupation which many religious folks had grown accustomed to would inevitably lead to a profound upending of society.
The news is good for people who are devoted to righteousness and faith despite the circumstances. The news is painful for people devoted to the circumstances despite their inherited faith.
That reality is as true for us today as it was in the first century. In God’s Kingdom envisioned by the prophets from Amos through to Anna, there will be people who fall from their pedestals and there will be people who are elevated. There will be people who claim faith in God who oppose the will of God. There will be people who bear the presence of Christ into the world who will have their heart pierced as they watch crowds turn against them because of an institutional call for order, unity, and tradition.
There is so much to celebrate and there is so much to mourn. This is why my heart is drawn towards the deep sage-like joy that Simeon and Anna have. They know what is coming. They know how hard it will be. They know what trusting Christ will mean for their community. They know the pain that will come, and yet they celebrate, they give praise, they offer blessing, Anna spreads the good news, and Simeon submits his life to God– Trusting that God will fulfill all of the promises made, even if it is hard for some of us to stomach.
What are the things that need to fall in your church? What are the things that need to be elevated? What is God calling your church towards that will inevitably be painful? How might you help people see a vision beyond themselves?
How do we celebrate Christmas in the year 2020, this “unprecedented,” “undefinable”, “apocalyptic” and dumpster-fire-meme-inducing year?
How do we preach “good news” in this year that has overwhelmed and exhausted us with ongoing disaster after disaster, tragedy after tragedy, and incalculable death and loss? How do we fill our people with the light of love, hope, joy, and peace when it feels like this year has held anything but? No matter what, we can’t “pretty up” Christmas this year. There’s no way to pretend that anything is normal, or that even keeping it quiet and simple will be anything but a shadow of celebrations before. Instead of the wonder and cheer of previous years, this year Christmas just feels a little too risky. But what if that right there, that notion that Christmas is a little bit daring, perilous, precarious … what if that is the good news?
We’ve heard the story so many times before that it’s become comfortably familiar, like the warm Christmas sweater we snuggle into this time of year. The tender glow of nostalgia paints a comfortable, welcoming picture into which we can almost place ourselves: we bask in the humid warmth of the cozy, wooden stable; we smell the sweet hay; we hear the melody of the animals – the treble baaing of the sheep, the bass of the cow’s low, the rustle of the hay crackling at our feet. We savor the honeyed aroma of contentment and peace. With Mary, we ponder the perfection of this moment heralded by the angels. Peace, good will, and joy to all! This is the magical moment when we hear that all is right with the world, the perfect birth story of God’s own perfection incarnate in the sweet, snuggly Baby Jesus. The story is so familiar that we let its nostalgia mask the scandal.
My favorite Nativity icon is this Orthodox scene.
What I love about this icon is its starkness in comparison to other Nativity images, its reality, its daring. A cold, bleak cave replaces the cozy stable scene. Joseph, outside the entrance, ostensibly keeping watch, listens to a hooded, shadowy figure that represents the Adversary whispering “what if?” into his ear. What if it’s all a lie, a dream? What if, because we all know virgin birth is impossible, Mary has been playing him the fool? We see the conflict in Joseph’s brooding posture. Inside, Mary reclines in a pool of red –the residue, perhaps, of a labored birth process? What would it be like to give birth in a cramped, hard, uncomfortable and inhospitable space with no soft place to land? And the baby, instead of cozily snuggled in Mary’s arms, lays not amidst warm crackling straw, but in a stone box that looks less a feeding trough and more an ossuary swaddled tightly in bands of cloth, set deep back in a crack or niche in the wall of the cave….remarkably similar to the family tombs that dotting the Bethlehem hillside. And the gifts the magi will bring include the embalming herb, myrrh. Jesus is hunted as a rival by a jealous Herod. Even at his birth, the gospelers foreshadow Jesus’s death. Jesus is not safe.
Preacher David Schlafer writes that Christmas is about the “birth of the unexpected in the most unlikely of circumstances.” Over the years, we have heard the story so many times it has lost its edge. Christmas has become wrapped in the glow of nostalgia. We forget that Christ came into a politically dangerous world where Rome oppressed Judea with military dominance and heavy taxation. We forget that Christ came to a rigid world much like ours, where the religious and social class structure were unyielding, where the sick and outcast and foreigner were synonymous with the unclean or immoral. We forget that Mary and Joseph were “nobodies,” completely ordinary working-class people who lived in a backwater town in a backwater province of the Empire.
Such a dangerous, difficult world isn’t hard for us to imagine. In fact, it sounds an awful lot like our everyday reality. Jobs to do, taxes to pay, life marching onward against the backdrop of the empire’s power struggles and economic domination. These are not the things we want to focus on at Christmas…and so we settle for the comfortable fairytale, the illusion of peace and contentment wrapped in cheery paper at the foot of the evergreen tree; we hold to the familiar nostalgia of sweet baby Jesus, unassuming and unthreatening, simply there in perfect simplicity. Warm, snuggly, safe. But there is nothing about Jesus that is safe.
This icon reminds us that at the scene of his birth all is not cozy. And yet the good news of salvation, Schlafer notes, is that “the incarnation of God comes in the form of an illegitimate child; the birth announcements come to lowlife shepherds and pagan foreigners… God did not choose to come to earth at the highest point of life, but at its lowest point. God did not choose to enter the safe world of decorated churches and hallowed sanctuaries; instead God chose to enter the rough and tumble world of people with jobs to do, fields to tend, and government breathing down their necks at tax time.” Christ, the Savior, is born unexpectedly in in the most unlikely of circumstances.
Little wonder, then, that the first words of good news, the Gospel, counsel us “Do not be afraid!” This icon resurrects the inherent risk, the precarious danger surrounding the birth of this child, and points us to the paradoxical “good” news present at the very inception of this particular Child’s life – Savior because of, and through, his own death, his own fully embodied gift of self-offering, self-emptying, unconditionally gracious Love that is the very nature of God. Christ comes amid the muck and mundanity of everyday life rife with what ifs, loneliness, conflict, pain, shadow, death and loss—if we but seek, accept, and trust the light and Life to all he brings.
And, of course, this icon is not all stark realism. Good news surrounds the core promise, and the whole of creation receives this Child who redeems the whole of God’s Creation. God comes first to shepherds, representing those who are poor, marginalized, outcast, lonely and alone. God invites and includes them first in the great joy for ALL people. God comes to pagan strangers and foreigners, depicted here in this icon as both bearded and unbearded, those who are older and those who are young. God comes to the women, two of whom are inevitably midwives (a subtle nod to Shiprah and Puah) who would absolutely have been present and, likely, members of Joseph’s own extended family (since they returned to that area for the Census). The star still shines, the animals keep watch.
The paradox, this dance “between” – good and evil, light and shadow, joy and despair, gift and loss – is the reality of our human existence. In that, 2020 is not really “unprecedented, not terribly unlike any other year. What makes us feel like Christmas is “special” in years past has little to do with the reality of God’s presence coming into the muck and mundanity, and instead has largely been driven by our nostalgia around traditions. That’s not to say Christmas celebrations are not worshipful or beautiful experiences of God’s presence. They are. But beauty and warmth and glowing light are not really what Christmas is, or ever has been, about.
Christmas is about what’s Real. No matter the circumstances of our lives, we can trust that God is present with us. And the first message of Christmas is “Do not be afraid.” In a world filled with things to fear, a world filled with war and violence and oppression and degradation, with sickness and poverty, and waste and disaster, into this world Christ is born and the good news of God’s overwhelming, unconditional Love breaks in. Love sets us free – free to embody the light and love of Christ that lifts people from bondage and captivity to fear. And what is more real, or terrifying, than offering our very selves to God (to do with as God will) and to each other?
So take a risk this year. Do not be afraid. This year, keep Christmas real. Keep it messy. Keep it with joy, hope, peace, and self-offering love. Keep it a little dangerous and terrifying and awesome. Because THAT is what Christmas is all about – shaking us out of our comfort zones to meet a God who discomfits and disquiets us with unconditional love and grace from his first coming to his coming again. For that, may we rejoice!
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. She currently serves 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 embody care and concern for each person we encounter. In her spare time, Chana can be found fulfilling her bucket list items before she turns 65 (so far 23/75!), playing D&D, enjoying fine food and whiskey, or exploring local activities and events with her husband, TJ, and their dog-children, Molly and Momo.
You’ll likely recognize the beginning of this passage as the scripture Jesus read in the synagogue on his first recorded day of public ministry (Luke 4:18-19). It certainly makes for a dramatic opening, one whose bold, poetic imagery fires our imaginations.
First, a series of reversals (vv. 1-3, also 7) prefiguring Mary’s Magnificat set the scene for a re-ordering of society into a living embodiment of God’s kindom: those who are oppressed, imprisoned, and suffering great loss will be freed and restored.
And this is no small-scale redemption: the largess of God’s mercy is emphasized by the use of the Jubilee phrase “proclaiming liberty,” borrowed from Leviticus 25:10. The reference to Jubilee, a twice-a-century clearing of debts and returning of property, echoes the prophet’s mission to declare “the year of the Lord’s favor” (v. 2). The Jubilee allusion also dovetails with the mention of God’s vengeance (v. 2), a favorite Isaiahian phrase linked to redeeming Israel and punishing their enemies.
Now here comes the poetry: the prophet, on God’s behalf, promises to give to those who mourn a “garland instead of ashes”—the KJV translation of “beauty for ashes” is particularly lovely—and to provide “the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” (v. 3). These embodied details scale the communal reversals of Zion’s fortunes to a personal level as well. The vision of God’s anointed one refreshing formerly tear-stained faces, wrapping formerly hunched shoulders in new garments, and crowning formerly bowed heads with flowers are a tender reminder of God’s very personal attention to our losses.
Then in v. 3, “Oaks of righteousness” brings us back up to the forest view, so to speak, with a prime example of the agricultural metaphors Isaiah favors. The perspective stays communal as a vision of the rebuilding of the city devastated by conquest and exile (v. 4) cements the people’s role in their recovery.
Verses 5-7 (not included in the lectionary reading) double down on God’s abundant graciousness; the people won’t just be restored to their former land, they’ll be rich enough to hire foreigners to work their fields and enjoy serving God in the special role of priestly people.
Why is God’s anointed one so committed to the restoration, individual and communal, of the exiled people? Verses 8-9 give us God’s own words on the subject: this is a manifestation of God’s commitment to justice as well as a new expression of the covenant made with Israel’s ancestors.
Verses 10-11 read like the concluding portion of a psalm, where God’s praises are sung by an individual on the receiving end of God’s graciousness, not the one on the proclaiming end of it. The repetition of imagery from the first few verses (garlands, clothing, flourishing plant life) celebrates the fulfillment of the promise laid out in the anointed one’s proclamation. God is faithful, the speaker declares, and when you’ve witnessed that faithfulness in your own life, you can’t contain the joy: “my whole being shall exult in my God!” (v. 10)
This last portion of Isaiah is preaching to those who have been exiled in Babylon for 70 years, speaking to them of a homecoming that was decades in the making. Yet the exiles–Jerusalem’s religious, political, and royal elite–return to a city they barely recognize: the Temple is still in shambles, and the common people have filled the vacuum left when Babylon carted off the city’s leadership. As Elna Solvang writes, “The reality of life in Jerusalem was nothing like the expectations for a restored Jerusalem and a righteous community as proclaimed by the prophets and as envisioned by the returnees.”
This gives a whole new read on the promise of comfort for “those who mourn in Zion” (v. 2). Imagine the tension between newly returned exiles expecting to resume their families’ former positions of power and those who remained, creating new patterns of leadership in their absence. As we learn from Ezra and Nehemiah, the return was fraught with power struggles, demonization of the “other,” and questions about what it meant to be Jewish; the rebuilding of the city and the Temple was not exactly harmonious, requiring years of tumult and fits-and-starts effort.
Post-election, the United States faces divisions just as deep, if not deeper. The repair of multiple years’ worth, multiple generations’ worth of devastation is the task before us. Whether we’re talking about the latest salvos in four centuries of systemic racism; the loss of life and damage done to mental health, education, small businesses and more wrought by the pandemic; the calculated weakening of democracy; the stripping away of environmental protections; or the children torn from their parents whose traumatization will ripple through communities and families for years to come, the work of repair it isn’t going to happen overnight or without significant ongoing division.
So where do Isaiah’s words leave us, particularly as Advent people?
First of all, there is no ignoring the good news God’s anointed one is bringing to all those who have been wounded, forgotten, oppressed, or maltreated. Those Magnificat-esque reversals are central to the text, and the freedom and new life they portend are a central function of the Messiah coming anew into our lives and our communities. God-made-flesh brings hope, liberation, healing, and vindication to all those who desperately need it, within our congregations and without.
Second, the “repair [of] the ruined cities” and of “the devastations of many generations” (v. 4) is not accomplished by the magic wand-waving of the speaker, but rather by the work of “those who mourn in Zion” (v. 3), the ones who lament what has been lost, stolen, and corrupted in a land they so dearly love. In other words, it is our work – the work of we who mourn the devastations of the last four years, and the last four hundred.
Though it is our work, we certainly are not left alone in it – the God of justice, the covenant-maker, will be with us (v. 8) and will bless our descendants (v. 9), those who will benefit from the social and communal reordering we undertake now.
Isaiah’s words—and Jesus’s quoting of them—are both an immediate, personal balm and a long-term, communal assurance that large-scale wrongdoing will be made right. As we draw ever nearer to the birth of God-with-us, let us echo Mary’s “Yes” as we respond to these invitations to heal and to work for the rebuilding of our nation into a kindom of justice that will indeed bless those who come after us. Then we, too, will surely join the author of Isaiah in exulting in our Savior with our “whole being” (v. 10). Amen.
 Roberts, J.J.M., “Isaiah,” The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books (eds. Wayne A. Meeks et al.; New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 1101.
Every year during Advent, the church has an apocalypse. Some people like to think of Advent as the church’s “new year,” but on hearing the lectionary readings for the second Sunday most of us come away in a decidedly more sober mood: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”
“Apocalypse” is a word that’s been thrown around a lot lately, and with good reason. Not only are we still in the grip of a plague that has killed over a million people and has shut down schools, churches, restaurants, workplaces, concerts, sporting events, and pretty much everything else that once constituted life as we know it, but this summer we also saw a stark rise in authoritarianism as peaceful protestors demonstrating against systemic racism and police brutality were violently attacked by their own government, while those in power tried to frame “anti-fascism” and “anti-racism” as forms of domestic “terrorism.” Widespread deception and lies from political leaders contributed to a surge in conspiratorial thinking, and there was a significant rise in various forms of denial, as more and more people fell prey to their own psychological defense mechanisms in an unconscious attempt to cope with the mounting uncertainty and chaos. Widespread belief that the coronavirus is a hoax, insane theories about Hillary Clinton running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza shop, and the conviction that the expansion of the Israeli state would bring about the end of the world were all considered as viable topics of adult conversation.
Well, technically yes, I do believe that we are experiencing an apocalypse. But please note that I am using the term here in a technical sense. “Apocalypse” is perhaps one of the most misunderstood words in the entire Biblical lexicon despite persistent efforts of Biblical scholars, clergy, and theologians to correct course on the matter. Popular conceptions of “the apocalypse” are still largely shaped by the secular film industry and the religious propaganda of fanatical evangelical sects, which bombard us with vivid imagery of planetary destruction. Thus, the end of “the world” is nearly interpreted as the end of the natural, material, created world. This “Gnostic” interpretation of the apocalyptic writings of the New Testament is, from an orthodox perspective, heresy. The whole thing can be dispensed of rather easily by simply consulting the Book of Revelation, which even when taken at its most literal level describes heaven as coming to be made manifest on Earth. In other words, even in a strict eschatological sense, the apocalypse is not about some future demise of the planet.
The Greek word apokalypsis means “revelation” or “unveiling.” Apocalypse is about vision and about perception. The apocalypse is marked by a transformed and spiritually-informed way of seeing that pierces through the veil of deception, egocentrism, fear, and confirmation bias that pervades our everyday life in “the world” and prevents us from confronting the truth about ourselves, one another, and God. The day of reckoning that the New Testament writers wrote about was a day of ultimate truth-telling, a day when “the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.” This is a day when all people everywhere will finally have eyes to see and ears to hear, and will be given the chance to turn from their narrow ways of thinking to walk in the way of Christ, which is the way of humility, and love, and justice, and peace. This new reality that the early Christians longed for was conceived of as “a new heaven and a new earth,” characterized in the second letter of Peter as a place “where righteousness is at home.” This is the ultimate paradigm shift that would fundamentally transform the way that human beings operate on this planet.
The ancients understood that such an “unveiling” would necessarily entail a dissolving of our current ways of seeing and being – our false pretenses of power, our illusions of security, and the ways in which we idolize earthly leaders and celebrities as gods. A “revelation” on this scale would also require a dissolution of the social, political, economic, and religious powers that conspire and collude to deceive the masses and maintain those delusions. It would expose the “strongmen” of this world for what they truly are: poseurs of Divine power who are in fact cowards and slaves unto death. On this day, God alone is revealed as the Creator and Source of all life, having a power that stretches far beyond whatever earthly powers any one individual might grasp for themselves within their short lifetime. Those with the will to witness to the truth, even at the cost of their own suffering, are the ones who are revealed on that day as truly strong.
But apocalyptic literature also reminds us that there are larger social and systemic processes at play in our world, which “invisibly” and insidiously conspire to deceive people in order to justify and maintain the conditions of marginalization, oppression, and injustice. Through political institutions, media, religious cultures, economic systems, maladaptive psychological defense mechanisms, and everyday group dynamics, these larger “forces” have a power that stretches far beyond the scope of single individuals to foster widespread confusion, suffering, and pain in ways that are difficult if not impossible to root out. The writers of the New Testament used a particular kind of language to identify these destructive forces, calling them “demonic,” and referring to them as “powers and principalities” or “Satan.” Such outdated terms may sound a bit too mystical or magical for us today, but for the Biblical writers they pointed very pragmatically to real phenomena that are very much still a part of the world. The early Christians believed that these forces literally existed in the air, hovering just under the clouds, and so they naturally assumed that the final battle between these powers and God would take place in the sky, which is why Paul speaks in Thessalonians about being “caught up” (harpazo) to the clouds on the day of the Lord’s coming. The various levels of heaven into which Paul and others were “caught up” at various times to receive their visions and revelations (see 2 Corinthians 12) offered a foretaste of the day when all would be brought into a complete understanding of the truth.
Admittedly, texts like today’s pericope from 2 Peter have a long and problematic history of interpretation, and have themselves been made to serve those deceptive forces that oppose the kingdom of God. This situation has led many progressive Christians to either ignore them in embarrassment, or reject them outright as dangerous. Even Eusebius, writing in the fourth century, commented on the widespread controversies surrounding John’s Book of Revelation, which was very nearly excluded from the Christian canon altogether. Several church leaders argued that it was, at the very least, not much of a “revelation,” since its vivid symbolism and allegorical imagery was far too obscure and difficult to decipher. To be sure, engaging with these texts in a preaching context requires careful study, deep discernment, and thorough clarification. The apocalyptic literature cannot be fully appreciated without a thorough understanding of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, nor can it be properly understood from within a context of privilege (which is perhaps why it was so perplexing to the patristics). It is only in the context of suffering and oppression that the full meaning of these texts can really begin to land.
However, now more than ever, I believe we need the message of the apocalyptic. Because when properly unpacked and contextualized, this strain of the Christian tradition provides us with a powerful resource for emboldening our faith and staying grounded in truth during times of great social upheaval. The apocalyptic tradition understood itself to be a continuation of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, and like the prophets it offers a paradoxical balance between comfort and critique, offering hope and justice for the downtrodden while confronting and critiquing the complacency of the privileged, and challenging everyone to beware of the moral and spiritual dangers of colluding with those whom “this world” has deemed powerful for the sake of one’s own gain. As Gregory Stevenson writes,
“…on the one side are those who have encountered such hardship and suffering in the world that they are in danger of losing or distorting their faith. On the other side are those who have become so comfortable with the deception that ‘the kingdom of the world’ creates, that they are unaware of the danger it poses to their faith. The power of apocalyptic language lies in its ability to address both groups, because both groups share the same fundamental problem – a distorted view of the world… Both groups need an apocalypse, because both groups require a new vision of the world.”
In the midst of this 2020 apocalypse, as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic unmasks the real values of so many public leaders and social groups, and as the veil continues to be lifted for so many white people who are becoming “woke” to the reality of systemic racism, and as the earth cries out with “the blood of Abel” in signs that speak to the unsustainable consumption practices of human culture (which are what caused those rivers to turn blood red, in both cases), we need both the challenge and the comfort of the apocalyptic, which promises us a day when the truth about the world will be revealed. Seeing things as they are can be painful, and that suffering tempts us with longing to retreat into the psychological safety of our delusions. Those who suffer to bear witness to the truth can begin to lose hope, believing that the forces of “this world” are too powerful to overcome. But the second epistle of Peter reminds us that when that day of vindication seems long delayed, we still must never give up our hope or our resolve. We must courageously continue in the work of the Lord, participating in God’s dream for humanity through acts of humility, solidarity, mercy, honesty, and love. Because the more we participate in the embodiment of that dream, the more people we will bring into that vision, and the closer we will get to manifesting the kingdom of God here on earth.