Tag Archives: Advent

That they might lovely be | Sermon for Advent 3

My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.

“Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be” – I think that verse from the hymn “My Song is Love Unknown” is the single best description of the Incarnation that I have ever heard.

In Advent, the Church prepares to celebrate that great mystery of Incarnation: God becoming a human child out of love for us, living among us in order to make us children of God.

Mary’s rejoicing on this Gaudete Sunday (“gaudete” means rejoice) comes from her knowledge of the God of her ancestors.

In the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), she sings of the God who:

has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and has lifted up the lowly

 [who] has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty

Mary knows that God shows love to the loveless, and she willingly participates in that work by saying “yes” to God and by bearing Jesus, the Son of God, in her womb.

Love to the loveless shown

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist, born at nearly the same time to Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth, is in prison.

This is the same John who last week berated the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to the Jordan to receive his baptism of repentance: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”

John is a wild-haired but clear-eyed prophet and he is all too aware of how unlovely people are. The loveless act badly, and he calls them to do better. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”

But he’s been waiting his whole life to see the kingdom, and now he’s in jail and in peril of his life, so he sends word to Jesus by his disciples.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus’ answer to his cousin is cryptic, but it points to God’s purposes:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. (Matt. 11:4-6)

The blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, and the poor – notice that being poor is even worse in this catalog than being dead! – all of these have good news brought to them.

Love to the loveless shown. That’s how you’ll know the kingdom has come near, says Jesus.

That they might lovely be

Can you hear that good news for yourself?

What would it take to break through your blindness, your stumbling, your illness, your selective hearing, your deadened heart, and your feelings of scarcity and need?

What would help you hear good news?

For me, it was hearing a version of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, two summers ago.

A group called Theodicy Jazz Collective played for one of the Eucharists at the General Convention in Salt Lake City back in 2015. I followed a link to check them out, and I was moved to download more of their extraordinarily lovely music.

As I listened to their album Vespers, I was inspired to start sketching liturgical notes and outlines for “A Jazz Vespers for Recovery.” I’d love to help create and bring a service like that to the Fox Cities, and my head began swirling with the possibilities.

But their song “The Magnificat” checked my stride (and my pride) and brought tears to my eyes. The soprano began simply:

My soul magnifies the Lord
my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior
my soul magnifies the Lord,
for God looks on my loveliness with favor.

Can it be true? God looks on my loveliness with favor?

Even though part of me knew that I had simply misheard the lyric, the rest of me sat stunned and grateful.

My experience of recovery has been an experience of grace and repentance, of admitting my own powerlessness and discovering that God continually pours out blessings on me. All I have to do in response is follow “certain steps … which are suggested as a program of recovery” (Big Book 58-9).

My more recent experience accepting the bishop’s call to serve as a priest (after nearly 21 years as a deacon) has also been an experience of grace. I’ve spent most of this year working with other people to discern the strengths that will serve me and the church well and to look clearly at the weaknesses that still require my attention. God pours out blessings on me, and I must continue to turn toward him as I follow his unfolding invitation.

Like John the Baptist, I know only too well how unlovely I can be.

Like John, I usually know that I should point beyond myself and my own efforts to Jesus, the Son of God, who brings the good news of the kingdom.

Like John’s mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary, I usually know to “proclaim the greatness of the Lord.”

But can it really be true that God looks on our loveliness with favor? Or, to sing Mary’s song correctly, that God looks on our lowliness with favor?

How can that be? Like Mary, I ponder that question in my heart.

Oh who am I?

The complete first verse of the hymn we started with goes like this:

My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.
O who am I
that for my sake
my Lord should take
frail flesh and die?

Who am I indeed?

In Advent, we pray at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer that “when [the beloved Son] shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing” (BCP 378).

As we look forward to the Second Coming, we have a sense for what to expect based on Jesus’ first coming.

John’s question this morning comes fairly early in Jesus’ ministry. The good news is fulfilled, paradoxically, in Jesus’ death on the cross.

We heard that story on Christ the King Sunday just before Advent began.

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23:39-41)

Who am I, that for my sake, my Lord should take frail flesh and die?

Too often, I am the mean thief deriding Jesus from the cross while also pleading, “Save me!” Too often, I am in trouble or filled with shame and fear.

But the good news is that I am not who say I am. The good news is that I am who I am who I am says I am.

Let me repeat that: I am who I am who I am says I am.

And what I am who I am says – what God says – what Jesus, the Son of God says – is that I am so lovely that he will go to any lengths to save me.

You are so lovely that God will go to any lengths to save you.

You are not what you say about yourself. You are not what others say about you. You are beloved, that you may be lovely.

This is the message of the Incarnation, which we prepare during Advent to celebrate at Christmas. This is the good news, to which we point with John the Baptist and for which we rejoice with Elizabeth and Mary.

The child born to Mary, Jesus – the Son of God, who died for us and rose again – looks on your lowliness with favor. You may without shame or fear rejoice to behold him at his appearing.

You are who God says you are, and you are lovely. Amen.

 

Image: Magnificat © Jan Richardson from The Advent Door.

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Ornaments to God our Savior

Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured; then any opponent will be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us. Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior. (Titus 2:7-10)

In his 2012 book The Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written, Marcus Borg summarizes current scholarship around New Testament authorship and pulls together a timeline that places each book in historical context.

One of the more dramatic conclusions his work reveals is that the early Christian church became notably less radical even during the 70-year period when the New Testament was being written.

The letter of Titus, from which our Epistle this morning is drawn, dates to about the 110s and is one of the last to be written. Borg writes that “the letter is about the need for order and the appointment of authorized leaders — in short, it is about institutionalization” (583).

Today’s letter seems to be as much about societal approval as God’s approval. That is to say, Christians should behave well so that no one can speak ill of them (and therefore of God).

A drunken spectacle

But look at the first of the women featured in today’s other readings — women who are true “ornaments to the doctrine of God our savior.”

Hannah has prayed that God would grant her a son, despite the disapproval of the Temple priest Eli, who sees her silent prayer as drunken rambling.

Her son Samuel will hear and respond to God’s call, and his first act will be to pronounce God’s displeasure with Eli and his sons — “scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or the duties of the priests to the people” (1 Sam. 2:12-13).

Hannah’s song, which we read this morning, praises God, who “raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor” (1 Sam. 2:8).

Those who recognize their need of a savior are the ornaments God chooses.

An unwed mother

Like Hannah before her, Mary is known in part for the song she sings — the canticle we know as the Magnificat.

She sings of the God who “has looked with favor on his lowly servant,” who “has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly” (BCP 91).

Today we read of God’s announcement to Mary, God’s invitation to her, God’s need of her participation in his plan for salvation.

With her response to the angel’s message — “Let it be to me according to your word” — Mary sets in motion the saving work of God, the birth of a son who will turn the Empire and the whole world upside down.

Those who will participate in God’s saving activity are the ornaments God chooses.

A mansion prepared for himself

In these last few days of Advent, we pray to God that “your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself” (BCP 212).

Like a house decorated for Christmas, we can be “ornaments to the doctrine of God our Savior.”

But we shine as we recognize our need of a savior, not as we seek to impress those around us.

We glow when we participate in God’s saving work, not when we win in arguments against our neighbors.

We sparkle when we reflect the Light that is coming into the world to accomplish the work of salvation. We (like John the Baptist) are not the light, but we bear witness to the Light.

This Christmas, may the Light — God’s Son, Jesus Christ — find in each of us a home richly prepared for himself, a fitting ornament to God our savior.

Choose the Kingdom life, you brood of vipers!

Let your gentleness be known to everyone … you brood of vipers!

Look, it’s Gaudete Sunday and we’re lighting a pink candle in the Advent wreath. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

Christmas is just around the corner … but even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!

What a downer! C’mon, John  ….

At least John is just a forerunner, announcing the coming of Jesus.

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild — infant holy, infant lowly — whom we celebrate at Christmas.

+ + + + +

Yeah, we’ve been hearing from that Jesus all week in the Daily Office readings from Matthew 23.

And you know what? He sounds an awful lot like his cousin John.

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ … You snakes, you brood of vipers! (Matt. 23)

So, yeah, let your gentleness be known to everyone … you brood of vipers!

+ + + + +

I mean, what’s going on here?

What happened to our gentle Lord Jesus?

Well, you see, the Pharisees and the Herodians are plotting together to trap him (Matt. 22:16).

(You remember the Herodians — they follow Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, the guy who had all the babies of Bethlehem killed when Jesus was born. Yeah, that guy.)

The religious and the political powers are converging around Jesus, trying to silence his message, which up until then had been about the kingdom of God, about healing and restoration.

They’ve been badgering him ever since he arrived in Jerusalem on that Sunday, riding on a donkey through the gate of Jerusalem to the shouts of Hosanna from the the palm-waving crowd.

They were probably still upset about the whole tables of the money-changers thing, still smarting from his response about paying taxes, still angry about his undermining their authority and evading their questions.

The chief priests and the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadduccees, the lawyer … push push push!

But Jesus has probably just about had it, too.

He turns to the crowd and delivers his outburst against the Pharisees and scribes — the hypocrites. He goes all John the Baptist on them.

+ + + + +

But that’s not the end of it.

Jesus does not win over the crowds — or the religious leaders — by railing at them.

In fact, he doesn’t win over the crowds at all.

As he leaves the Temple, he tells his disciples a number of parables, then says: “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” (Matt. 26:1-5)

It’s hard to tell whether it’s Advent or Lent … whether it’s Christmas or Good Friday.

Christmas is just around the corner, but even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree.

+ + + + +

I’m grateful to my Bishop, Matthew Gunter, who offered this brief meditation at a discernment retreat yesterday:

In response to what’s going on in the world around us, all the fear and violence, we can pick up a hammer and nails, or we can pick up a basin and towel.

The hammer and nails speak in the world’s language, the language of power and victory. The hammer pounds with the force of John the Baptist’s conviction, and the nails ring out with Jesus’ piercing clarity as he argues in the Temple.

But the hammer blows ring out against Jesus two days later, and the troublemaker hangs silent, nailed to a tree.

It seems the authorities have won.

But the basin and towel turn everything upside down.

“Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asks after the Last Supper is concluded, as he dries his hands on the towel around his waist.

You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you (John 13).

The basin and towel set an example for us of Kingdom living, of a new way of acting in the face of the world’s power and violence.

The basin and towel wash our feet and set them on the way of the cross, which is paradoxically the way of life and peace.

The basin washes us just like Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan washed him.

Jesus, at the very end of his life, shows us how we should live, what we should do.

+ + + + +

“What then should we do?” the crowds asked John the Baptist back at the beginning.

In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3:10-14)

The Rev. Steve Pankey, on his blog Draughting Theology, writes:

John’s answer is simple. In fact, it is so simple as to be terrifyingly mundane. He doesn’t tell them to fast for 40 days or to move to a cave in the wilderness or to give away everything they own. Instead, he says “share,” “don’t cheat,” and “be satisfied.

Wait… what? Share, don’t cheat, and be satisfied? That’s what Kingdom living looks like? That’s, well, just so easy a child could do it. Which is precisely John’s point.

Kingdom living isn’t difficult, we just choose not to do it, which is why the punishment is so severe.

+ + + + +

Even now the ax is laid at the root of the tree.

So bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Choose the Kingdom life — the basin and towel — instead of the life of power and control that nailed gentle Jesus to the cross on Good Friday.

Let your gentleness be known to everyone … you lovely brood of vipers.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Without shame or fear

In just a few minutes, Fr. Ralph will lead us in the Great Thanksgiving as we prepare to celebrate Communion:

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, because you sent your beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.

“That we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing …”

But we should be ashamed.

We are citizens of a country in which black men like Mike Brown and Eric Garner and black boys like Tamir Rice are killed and the police officers who killed them are not indicted. We good citizens too often prefer to talk about the character of the victim and not the behavior of the police.

We live in a world in which at least 20% of women report being victims of sexual assault, and where 1,600 years after St. Nicholas saved girls from slavery they are still sold into sex trafficking. We well-behaved people too often prefer to talk about dress codes for young women or blame the woman for not protecting herself, instead of focusing on the behavior of the rapists and abusers.

We are part of a society in which a mentally ill man is not only not in the hospital, but is on Death Row and just a day away from execution. He was pardoned this week, but the scandal is that he was that close to being killed for being mentally ill. We who are supposedly “sound of mind” would rather not think about it.

We belong to each other, but we feel like we’re individuals. We feel alone.

And we are so afraid …

We are afraid to offer a hand to a poor person, in case a working mother uses her SNAP benefit to buy something tasty for her family. We’re so afraid that $74 billion is too much to spend, that we don’t notice she’s only getting about $125 a month for each person in her family. [FNS USDA 2014]

We are afraid that we’re not beautiful enough, or thin enough, or sexy enough, or fit enough, and we spend $60 billion each year on dietary supplements and gym memberships and diet soda [US News 2013]. Even in the middle of the recession, in 2010 we spent $11 billion on plastic surgery [Reuters 2010].

We are afraid to admit that we benefit from a strong military presence around the world, that our being able to feel secure and safe means that innocent people sometimes die in raids and drone attacks.

How long, O Lord?

We are too often blind and cheap and shallow in our daily lives, but what we’re really afraid of is dying, and what we’re ashamed to do is face up to our own failings.

Advent, far from being a run-up to Christmas, to gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild, is as much a reminder of death as it is of life, and it confronts us with the question of judgment. Will we be forgiven?

The reading from the Second Letter of Peter is a perfect example. “What happens to the people who die?” is the question behind today’s passage.

Peter replies by saying this: “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think about slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” He goes on to say, “Regard the patience of the Lord as salvation.” (2 Peter 3:9,15)

Regard the patience of the Lord as salvation …

Peter also asks the question, “What sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?”

That is, how should we live in the meantime?

I don’t think Peter means for us to live in shame, but rather in humility and expectation, having experienced the forgiveness of Jesus.

The author Marilynne Robinson writes that:

The one letter confidently attributed to Peter, the friend of Jesus, represents Jesus in terms of his humility and patience to suffering … Perhaps it is Peter’s memory of the moment in which he himself injured Jesus that gives such power to his description. (from Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament)

If Peter, who denied Jesus before his crucifixion, has been forgiven, who are we to remain ashamed? If you have confessed your faults to another person, as I have, and received forgiveness, as I have, who are you to feel ashamed?

And who are we to be afraid?

Another of my favorite authors addresses Paul, the other great apostle of the New Testament, who would not want us to live in fear.

Robert Farrar Capon writes:

[I]f God has really done what the Epistle to the Romans says he has, he’s gone ahead and solved all his problems with sin independently of what sinners might or might not do about it. That’s outrageous, of course; and it’s not at all what most people think a God who’s a card-carrying member of the God Union ought to do. But it is what the Mystery of Christ is all about, because by that Mystery, God’s love and forgiveness are intimately and immediately present in full force to everyone in the world, virtuous or wicked, Christian or not, simply because the Word of God incarnate in Jesus is present to everyone in the world. Nobody has to clean up his act in order to be forgiven or loved; all anybody has to do is *believe (trust, have faith)* that he’s home free already, and then enjoy the forgiveness he’s had all along by passing it on to everybody he runs into. (The Mystery of Christ … and Why We Don’t Get It)

So, to Peter’s question, what sort of persons ought we to be?

If we have been seen in our shame and forgiven for our blindness and pettiness and shallowness, can we pass along that forgiveness? Can we look clearly at the behavior of those who injure others – or kill them or abuse them or belittle them – and see them through the same forgiving eyes as Jesus saw Peter?

If we have been set free from the fear of death, how should we treat those who are still afraid? Can we defend those who do fear death – or abuse or imprisonment or hunger – because they are vulnerable? Can we protect them so that they might experience the same freedom we enjoy?

If we can see and forgive, defend and protect, perhaps then we can inspire people to repentance and holiness, as we ourselves have been inspired.

If we can help people see that the grace and forgiveness comes first, and that our repentance, our turning around, is how we respond to the freedom we’ve been given, maybe then we can inspire others to live that way, too.

And maybe then our prayer will indeed be true:

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, because you sent your beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.

 

Amen.

Further thoughts on hope

Anchor - Rattle Your Bones - Group

The local paper’s front page story today is a feature on Advent and the themes of Peace, Joy, Hope, and Love.

I was interviewed on the subject of hope, and here are few more thoughts on the subject.

Hope springs from knowing you’re not alone, from receiving help given by those who have been through difficulty, and from sharing what has helped you with other people.

The Episcopal Church’s “Daily Office” – our Morning and Evening Prayer – nourishes hope by joining people into a prayer tradition shared by Christians around the world and by the communion of saints through the centuries. I write this blog to help people practice this particular form of daily prayer.

I participate in recovery groups, where people help those who are in trouble by sharing what has worked for their own healing. In many cases, recovery involves working with a sponsor, whose personal concern builds hope and reassures us that we are not alone.

Through organizations like NAMI Fox Valley and the Littlest Tumor Foundation, which my wife and I support, people learn they are not alone in their fears — whether about mental illness or about tumors in children — and they receive comfort from other families who face the same struggles.

The people of St. Thomas Church in Menasha, WI — where I serve as deacon — generously share their faith in Jesus, their hope in the resurrection, and their experience of healing with newcomers and people in the wider community, and they invite people to join them in reaching out in care and concern through ministries like the Double Portion meal.

I think hope is something you do, perhaps even more than something you have. Participating in Christ’s risen life — through prayer, study, fellowship, and service — builds and strengthens and nourishes hope in us, and we in our turn build up, strengthen, and encourage one another to live in hope.

NAMI Fox Valley
http://www.namifoxvalley.org

Littlest Tumor Foundation
http://www.littlesttumor.org

St. Thomas Church
http://www.stthomaswi.com

Hope

Sure and Steadfast Anchor

 

I’m being interviewed this morning by the local newspaper on the subject of Advent and the theme of “hope.”

The title of this blog comes from Hebrews 6:19 — “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” Our hope, of course, is Christ.

In the season of Advent, particularly, we focus on the hope of the resurrection and look forward to the coming kingdom of God.

More generally, though, I think hope springs from knowing you’re not alone, from receiving help given by those who have been through difficulty, and from sharing what has helped you with other people.

I’ll talk with the reporter today about my parish, about local nonprofit organizations I work with and support, about recovery groups, and about other places where people find (and give) hope.

Where do you find hope? Where do you give hope to others?

 

 

Temple and Empire: Sermon for 3 Advent

Christ and John the Baptist from www.richard-seaman.com

Christ and John the Baptist from http://www.richard-seaman.com

Temple and Empire

 “From the days of John the Baptist until now
the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence,
and the violent take it by force” (Matt. 11:12)

 Advent is not about waiting for Christmas; it’s about waiting for the kingdom of heaven to come. Advent is the season when we join the fight and look forward to the kingdom come.

It’s no coincidence that we read from the Book of Revelation at the Daily Office during Advent. It’s about longing for the Temple to fall and anticipating the day when the Empire will collapse.

In the biblical story the Temple, according to John Dally, professor of theology and culture at Bexley Seabury, stands for religion and purity over against the relationship that God desires with his creatures – symbolized by the Garden of Eden and by the table fellowship between Jesus and his disciples.

Empire is every impulse of violence that crushes human beings for monetary gain or personal pride. In the biblical story, the people of Israel contend against both the Babylonian and the Roman empires, and they are consistently urged to remember the poor and the needy.

Today we have made religion into a violent battle about belief, with the same rigid purity codes, exclusionary rhetoric, and shame-based culture that Jesus fought against. We keep trying to rebuild the Temple. And the constant splintering of denominations – Orthodox against Roman, Protestant against Catholic, some 24,000 Christian denominations in America today — betrays the violence at the heart of our dealings with each other.

Today we can live heedless of the suffering of billions of people around the world because we belong to the only remaining superpower – we are the only Empire left in the globalized First World. We play with electronic toys or watch flat-screen TVs or buy Christian consumer goods made overseas in sweatshop conditions, we send unmanned drones around the world to kill people (guilty, innocent, who cares?) just like in a video game, and we put children into jail on minor charges for profit.

Both Jesus and John the Baptist fought against Temple and Empire throughout their short lives. Advent is the season when we join the fight and look forward to the kingdom come.

John the Baptist

John is near the end of his life.

He has been taken by force, bound, and imprisoned in Herod’s jail. His judgment against King Herod (and more importantly, Herod’s adultery with his brother’s wife Herodias) has put him in the prison of the Roman Empire’s puppet state.

He sends a question to Jesus by his disciples: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus replies: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

That’s not much help.

John has been preaching the message his father sang at his birth:

This was the oath [God] swore to our father Abraham,
to set us free from the hands of our enemies
Free to worship him without fear
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our lives

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins. (Luke 1:68-79)

Though his ministry has focused on preaching repentance and baptizing people for the forgiveness of their sins, surely in the back of John’s mind is also the promise of freedom in Zechariah’s song, that God’s people would be “free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear all the days of our life.”

From the perspective of his jail cell, as he lies there in the hands of the Empire, John must not get much comfort from Jesus’ healing ministry or his preaching against the Temple religion.

Jesus

Jesus is near the beginning of his ministry.

He answers John’s question by pointing to the breaking in of the kingdom of God:  “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Jesus’ life and ministry are focused on subverting the Temple and its righteousness codes – depending on which Gospel you read, in fact, he has already overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple (or he will before long).

Dally suggests that Jesus takes the architecture of the Temple as the map of the people he will minister to – to those excluded at every stage. In the Holy of Holies, it’s only the High Priest and only once a year; in the Court of the Priests, it’s only the Levitical priests; in the Court of the Israelites, it’s only men; in the Court of the Women, it’s everybody but Gentiles, lepers and Nazirites.

The Ethiopian eunuch from the Book of Acts, baptized by the Apostle Philip as one of the first Gentile converts to the Way, wouldn’t even have been able to get into the Court of the Gentiles – the bazaar where the souvenir shops and the moneychangers were.

The healing Jesus points to in his answer to John is possible only because he goes out of his way to associate with the blind, the lame, the deaf – and especially ritually impure women and unclean lepers, Samaritan women and the undeserving poor.

In his focus on overturning the Temple religion, Jesus has not yet begun to fulfill his mother’s song, the Magnificat we just said together:

He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty. (Luke 1:46-55)

 Mary’s vision has to do with the overturning of the powerful – the proud, the mighty, the rich – but it won’t be long before the religious leaders use the power of the Empire to have Jesus put to death on the cross like a common criminal.

Without Fear

Today in Herod’s jail, the criminal John the Baptist is one of those people Isaiah describes “who are of a fearful heart.”

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

The prophet Isaiah reassures the people of Israel:

Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you. (Isaiah 35:4)

But Jesus doesn’t seem to be taking charge here. He doesn’t seem to be overthrowing anybody. In fact, John is still in jail and will be beheaded before much longer.

Jesus’ answer is not a direct response to the power of Empire, but it points at the hope of God’s kingdom, which is already coming into the world.

It’s not here yet – Empire and Temple still hold their power over people’s lives – but it’s coming and nothing will stop it.

How will you join the fight?

Advent is not about waiting for Christmas;
it’s about waiting for the kingdom of heaven to come. 

Advent is the season when we join the fight
and look forward to the kingdom come.

 How will you fight against Empire in this relentlessly commercial season? How will you fight against our culture, which engages in a war on the poor rather than on the businesses and policies that keep them in poverty? How will you work to keep people out of the literal prisons we build with private corporations – and with occupancy quotas that local governments have to meet?

How will you fight against the building of the Temple in this religious season? How will you fight against the judgmental attitude that sneers at “Christmas and Easter” worshippers or takes offense when someone wishes you “Happy Holidays”? How will you work to respect the dignity of every human being – Christian or not? How will you demonstrate that you are “so clothed in Christ’s spirit that you reach out your arms of love to bring everyone into his saving embrace”?

How will you practice repentance and forgiveness at holiday gatherings and with difficult family members? How will you, like John, preach repentance and forgiveness of sins to a world – and people like you and me – so desperately in need of them?

How will you practice self-giving in a season of consumer frenzy and self-centeredness? How will you, like Jesus, give your comfortable life away in order to heal people and bring them into fellowship – even if it means giving up your own power, your own privilege?

Advent is not about waiting for Christmas;
it’s about waiting for the kingdom of heaven to come.

Advent is the season when we join the fight
and look forward to the kingdom come.