Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
1 Samuel 3:1-20
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
“Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
“And [Jesus} said to [Nathaniel], “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
God speaks and, at length, Samuel listens. Just imagine. Your own private audience with God: God, up close and personal. God calling you by name. God sharing top security information with you. God giving you the inside scoop: how it’s gonna go down.But, here’s the deal. You’re a child—in the case of Samuel, a boy maybe ten or twelve years old. What are you supposed to do with the inside dope? I mean, it’s a privilege to share the divine confidence, know God’s plans, to see things from the perspective. But, once you know what God knows, what are you supposed to do with it? Who should you tell? And especially if what you’ve just heard tells of God’s wrath inflicted on your mentor, the holy man to whom your parents have entrusted you, the guy who calls you “my son.” You weren’t told what to do. You have the plot with no instructions.
On the face of it, God’s behavior is inappropriate. By even the modest standards of current “boundary theory,” the Lord ought not involve a prepubescent boy in matters beyond the boy’s maturity. I mean, Samuel was a novice, an entry level acolyte, whose mentor’s sons had badly misbehaved, abused both trust and privilege, and taken advantage of others in their care. It’s a wonder they hadn’t violated the boy himself. So now God speaks directly to Samuel, disclosing to him terrible things about his mentor’s impending punishment. It’s outrageous, inappropriate, even dangerous to expose a boy to such grim news. The terrified child lay awake all night just thinking about it. His trusted mentor was persona non grata. Whom should he tell? “[He] was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.”
True to human form, Eli wasn’t all bad. There’s a little bit of the divine image in the worst of us, and a lot of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the best of us. Though he’d failed in terms of his wicked sons, Eli already knew what was coming from God. What he may not have guessed, was that the final announcement of God’s judgment would come from Samuel, his little assistant. As the Prophet Isaiah would have it: “A little child shall lead them.” It was true of Samuel; it would become true of David whom Samuel would anoint king when yet a lowly shepherd boy; the prophecy would come to ultimate completion in the Child born of Mary, the One who would confound his astonished parents as he debated learned teachers in the Temple at age 12.
In the morning, when Eli interviewed the fearful boy, he said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” Caught between the Rock and a very hard place, “Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.” Even though he was afraid, Samuel obeyed, and his fearful obedience becomes a model for all called into God’s service. There’s no such thing as a faithful servant of God without fear. Courage is not fearlessness; it’s obeying God’s command in the midst of fear. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or selling something. Therefore, Luther begins each of his explanations of God’s commandments with the cautionary admonition that we are to “fear and love God.” There can be no true love of God without fear, and no true fear of God without love. So Samuel will later express profound fear when called to anoint a new king (which turns out to be the boy, David); even as Jesus will sweat blood on the eve of his crucifixion and pray, “Father, let this cup pass from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”
Even in the wayward exercise of his priestly office, Eli knows God will be God; he and his family must suffer the just consequences of sin, and God’s righteous wrath: “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.” God seeks a trustworthy prophet and will have one even if it means the destruction of Eli and his house; even if it means terror in the heart of a little boy. The result is, at least for a time, that “…all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD.”
This portion of Samuel’s story begins with a chilling statement: “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” The writer cautions us: The LORD operates in ways beyond our understanding; God reveals his word when, where, and to whom he pleases. God does not operate according to our standards; but we are called to operate according to God’s, even when we are afraid and in the dark. This is the realm of faith: not clarity of sight, but fearful uncertainty punctuated by rare manifestations of God’s will contrary to our own.
Today’s Gospel manifests a similar dynamic. Jesus found Philip, and Philip in turn found Nathaniel. But then, true to human form, Philip reverses the direction of God’s work saying, “We have found him of whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” But they did not find Jesus; Jesus found them, even has he has found and claimed us. The entire direction of the Good News is from God to us, and not the other way round.
Nathaniel’s question (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”) exhibits our inclination to doubt God’s persistent movement among the little, the despised, the weak and the dead. We seek the preeminent; God chooses the despised. We seek novelty and creativity. God chooses obedience, imitation, the lowly and poor—an obscure woman, an unmarried virgin, a lowly child, a crucified Jew. We extol independence. God prizes dependence and obedience shot through with fear. On this weekend, the ministry of Martin Luther King Jr. may serve as an example.
Jesus asks, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? …. You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Do not look for God merely in power; look for him nailed to a cross. There, in that pathetic form, the angels of God ascend and descend on the Son of Man. “It is the Lord; he will do as seems good to him.” In faith, we are right to fear and love God. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep….”
“You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
The Baptism of Our Lord proclaims God’s pleasure—not a theory of divine pleasure, but a person of divine pleasure, the person: Jesus of Nazareth, the One baptized by John in the Jordan. This One gives God delight. He is the beloved Son.
The Father discloses his pleasure to the Son. Following his baptism, when the Spirit had descended upon Jesus in the form a dove—a dove (I believe) Noah had sent to locate dry land following the flood of the whole earth. That dove alights on the person of salvation, on the One who, by means of the baptism of his death, gives life and salvation to all. He is the safe place, our refuge from the storm.
Elsewhere Jesus refers to death as his “baptism,” a metaphor for crucifixion. Here, however, Christ’s baptism takes not the form of a cross, but of a literal flood. Immersion in Jordan water binds the incarnate God to all that is earthly, human, and mortal. His submission to John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is mortification: the Sinless assumes the sin of all.
Christian tradition proclaims Christ sinless. But it’s more complicated than that. Paul says,“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Paul writes this in chapter 5 of his 2nd letter to the Corinthians. He goes on to say that “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…. All this (Paul says) “is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself….”
Christ’s baptism by John in Jordan, the decent of the Spirit as a dove, signals salvation from the flood of God’s primeval wrath. Seen in the context of “a new creation,” our Lord’s baptism becomes the initial sign of Christ’s whole purpose. He comes not to condemn humankind, but to save and deliver us by means of his death and resurrection, by means of his “baptism.” Christ’s baptism by John signals his self-sacrifice, his self-giving, his condescension to bear sin and death for us. The drowning Christ is our ark, our safe passage to the new creation.
St Mark says that ‘the whole region of Judea’ (the South) and “all of Jerusalem” were baptized by John in the Jordan River. In other words, John’s ministry was a regional phenomenon; John’s baptism was in and for Judea, including Jerusalem.
But John also preached. His preaching prepared the way for the coming of a “stronger one.” Of this “stronger one,” John says, “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” John’s “I am not” in relation to the “stronger one” parallels the 4th Gospel’s account of John’s self-denial. There, religious leaders ask John, “Are you the messiah?” And he replies, “I am not.” John goes out his way to deny himself. Here in Mark he simply says, “I am not worthy.” Not worthy even to stoop down and untie the stronger ones shoes. John says he baptizes with water, but the stronger one will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Then, says Mark, “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John.”
Notice: according to Mark, all who came out to be baptized by John were from the South, from Judea and all of Jerusalem. But Jesus came from the North—from “Galilee of the Gentiles”—from that quasi-pagan region of ritual and social contamination, a zone infected by Gentile filth, unrighteousness beyond the law of God.
Jesus came from unclean Galilee and was washed by John in Jordan. After Jesus came up out of the water, Mark says the heavens were torn apart, and “the spirit as a dove descended upon him.” Then a voice out of the heavens said: “You are my son, the beloved, and with you I am well pleased.” God takes pleasure in this most unlikely son, this tainted Jew from unrighteous Galilee.
In what sense, then, does Jesus’ baptism reveal him as God’s delightful Son? For starters, the Spirit lands on him. According John, the Spirit is the agent of the stronger ones baptism. But why does Jesus delight the Father? How is he stronger? He is stronger in his holy weakness, his willing condescension to John’s baptism, his willingness to come from dirty and despised Galilee to powerful and self-impressed Judea, and there to suffer the indignity of participation in a popular religious revival with all its self aware and proud humility. This is our sin: our self-satisfied religion, our self-importance, our self-regard and smirking derision toward those over whom we feel superior.
Who gives God pleasure? This Christ who, though superior over all, makes himself inferior to all. Wet as a newborn child, he is the Father’s delight, the salvation of the whole world, the new creation. Baptized into his death and resurrection, bound to him in baptismal promise, even in death, we share the Father’s pleasure.
Isaiah 60:1-6, 26
“…the wealth of the nations shall come to you.”
“And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, [the wise men] went home to their own country by another road.”
Epiphany proclaims the manifestation of Christ to the nations. “Wise men” seek the one born “king of the Jews,” because they had seen “his star in the east” and had come “to worship him.” Having apparently followed that star all the way from the east, they came to Judea and the region of Jerusalem whereupon they stopped to inquire concerning where exactly they might locate the “one born king of the Jews.” But this question raised alarm among the local population and not least at court, and in the heart of Herod himself who was, at that time, “king of the Jews,” albeit a murderous tyrant under the thumb of Imperial Rome.
Be that as it may, King Herod was in no mood to tolerate a pretender to the royal throne, and not least an infant born under the aegis of a heavenly sign. Having heard the wise men, and apparently unlearned in the scriptures, Herod inquired of his priests and scribes in order to learn where the prophets said such a king should be born. Quoting from the Prophet, Micah, they answered “in Bethlehem of Judea.”
Feigning a desire to worship the infant king, Herod commands the wise men to go, locate the child, and then report back to him, that he too might offer obeisance. But after finding the child and presenting him gifts, being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the wise men returned to their own country by another road.
Thus is Christ revealed to the nations, to the Gentiles—to people like us, non-Jews, whose ancestors like ours dwelt in foreign lands, spoke unknown languages, worshipped exotic gods, sacrificed in alien temples, listened to tales of magic, wonder, and mystery: stories of Thor, Woden, Marduk, Pan, Isis, Hera, Aphrodite, and all the myriad rest.
We hear of Herod’s anguish, observe his terrified ignorance, and his vicious deceit. We smile derisively at Herod’s vain efforts to out-maneuver God. We hear of Herod and we think: that murderous cad! That blood-thirsty despot! That criminal mind! A damned soul lost in the paranoia of darkness and unbelief.
But, is Herod really that different from us? True, we don’t live in a palace as he did, and we don’t command scribes and priests, and we don’t exercise authority over armies of soldiers who slaughter infants and children. Or do we? Who pays for the drones to slaughter people in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan? But we live in a democracy! Our leaders are not despots kept in power by Imperial decree! True, but who elects our leaders? Who pays them? Who enjoys the security their violent acts purchase? Who chooses a safer road for themselves?
Are we not in jeopardy as great or greater than benighted Herod? He didn’t know. But we do. We know where the Christ was born, who he is, and what he has said. Moreover, we know what he did; that he gave his life for us and for the life of the world. We know that he was crucified for us and for our salvation; we know that on the third day he was raised, that he ascended into heaven; that he sits at the right hand of the Father, and there intercedes for us. We know that he will come again to be our judge.
We know all this, and yet, like Herod, we still sponsor state murder; like the wise men, we go our own way and leave others to suffer. Notice: they were warned not to return to Herod. But they could have returned to Christ. They could have stuck by him. But they didn’t. They went own cozy way by another (safer) road, and so do we.
Christ’s manifestation to the nations, his Epiphany, reveals more than murderous Herod and fickle wise men; it reveals us as violent and fickle as they. In the end, we’re all the same—sinners redeemed by the One born king of the Jews; the very One who dies on a cross, is buried, and raised. The star points to HIM, God’s luminous grace for benighted sinners—whether Jews like Herod, or Gentiles like the wise men and us. The star shines mercy, light in darkness, grace and peace for all. O come, let us adore him.
1 Peter 4:12-19
“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”
“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.”
Even at Christmas, we grieve. We grieve deeply the death of a child, and perhaps most deeply the senseless deaths of children murdered—as in Pakistan a few weeks ago, or at Sandy Hook, or a thousand other places named “holocaust.” Flannery O’Conner, the novelist and short story writer, died in 1964 at the age of 39. Though not as well known then, as she is now, O’Connor was known in the American South, and especially among Catholics, as she herself was a trenchant defender of the Catholic faith.
A few years before her death, O’Connor was contacted by the Sister Superior of “Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home,” a convent in her native Georgia dedicated to caring for persons dying of cancer. Mary Ann, a girl given into the care of the monastic community from age three, had lived a beatific life and died a saintly death. According to the nuns, the remarkable thing about MaryAnn was her serene acceptance of the entire ordeal. In her tortured living and dying, Mary Ann never expressed anything but joy and thanksgiving at the generous goodness of God.
As members of the Convent had admired Flannery’s writing, and since the author was a Georgia Catholic, they wanted her to write an account of Mary Ann’s life and death, a testament to the miracle of faith in the midst of horrific events.
But O’Connor demurred. Known as a writer whose stories relied on the grotesque, crude, and violent in order to communicate the deeper truths of life and faith, she felt herself inappropriate for the task. The last thing she wanted was to be associated with a tawdry religious tale, a story of edifying faith prettied up for popular consumption. She suggested that, as the sisters had cared for Mary Ann, they should also write her story. But Sister Evangelist, the Mother Superior, prevailed, and O’Connor reluctantly agreed to write an introduction. O’Connor’s preface is a splendid assault on anti-religious sentiment that attacks God in the name of tenderness on account of suffering and dying children. In the process, she reconnects human suffering to the suffering of God. A portion runs as follows:
“One of the tendencies of our age is to use the suffering of children to discredit the goodness of God, and once you have discredited His goodness, you are done with Him..… Ivan Karamazov cannot believe, as long as one child is in torment; Camus’ hero cannot accept the divinity of Christ, because of the massacre of the innocents. In this popular pity, we mark our gain in sensibility and our loss in vision. If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in the forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”
O’Connor advances faith devoid of tender theory. She refuses to gloss our human horrors with saccharine sweetness. For her, suffering and death, and especially the suffering/death of children, invite God’s love in its terrible and mysterious power. St. Matthew’s Slaughter of the Innocents is such a story. Matthew’s account bears deepest meaning in relation to two other narratives, both in connection with the Christ. In the first, God’s angel intervenes to warn both the wise men and the Holy Family of Herod’s wicked intent. But, when the wise men go home by another road, the deceived Herod orders the little children killed, and the Christ Child escapes by night into Egypt. The little children are slain, but the Christ Child escapes. Yet Christ’s escape is temporary—a preparation for a second (and more crucial) story: his betrayal, suffering, and death. The Son of God does not flee in order to “live happily ever after.” He escapes to die for the sins of the whole world. He escapes to die, and (on the third day) be raised.
Christ’s death and resurrection form the denouement of his incarnation and flight into Egypt. Why else would God be born in a barn? Why else should the Son of God be threatened by a tyrant’s sword and be forced to live as a refugee? It’s either a sick joke, or the first act in a story whose terrible beauty informs all our sorrow which, if detached from the death of God’s Son, becomes unbearable.
“Joy to the world,” and “Rachel weeping for her children.” Christmas encompasses both—both the glorious wonder of the Word made flesh, and the bitter sorrow of human suffering, pain, and death.
O’Connor concludes her introduction to A Memoir for Mary Ann with these words, “This action by which charity grows invisibly among us, entwining the living and the dead, is called by the Church the Communion of Saints. It is a communion created upon human imperfection, created from what we make of our grotesque state.” Something similar may be said of Matthew’s account: the Holy Innocents/Martyrs draw us more deeply into the depth of divine charity and human pathos, culminating in the cross of Christ, the death of God’s own Son, for us and for our salvation. Even as we weep with Rachel (and with all grieving mothers), we also sing with the angels. All glory be to God on high: Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
“For to us a child is born, a son give to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
Luke reports the birth of Jesus. In familiar words, we hear of Mary and Joseph; Mary with child, her time fulfilled, no room for them, she gave birth to her first born son, wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger. We hear of angels, shepherds, and sheep in the fields by night. We hear good news: in the city of Bethlehem, a savior is born who is Christ the Lord. Shepherds make haste and visit the holy family: Mary, Joseph, and the child lying in a manger. They find it all as they’d been told, and report what they had seen and heard. All who heard them were amazed. Then, very near the end, Luke writes, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
“Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” How odd. Of course, by tradition, St. Luke was a physician. Too bad he wasn’t a midwife. I doubt a midwife would have written this way. Whether attending such a birth or having heard of it, a midwife wouldn’t have written, “The mother treasured all these words….” Mothers don’t treasure words; they treasure babies.
I’ve only witnessed three human births first-hand. But, beyond such limited qualifications, I have visited countless parents in close proximity to the birth of a child. On that basis, I think I can safely say that in no case have I ever experienced a new mother—and especially a first-time mother following the birth of her child—say anything even remotely close to “I’ll treasure all these words and ponder them in my heart.” Mother’s don’t ponder words, they ponder children. Generally speaking, mothers treasure children.
Why, then, does Luke put it this way? Why does Luke conclude his birth narrative with “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”? But, of course, Luke doesn’t conclude his story with this sentence. He finishes with another: “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” As it had been told them. In other words, both Mary and the shepherds respond to words. Christmas lives in the telling, in the words. Without words, everything devolves into mere sentiment, a kind of virtual surreality. This is especially true of the Child in the manger—who is anything but virtual and surreal. Christmas sentiment! Who can resist cooing into the ear of a soft newborn? We can’t resist aestheticizing a birth wracked with the ragged pain of inhospitality, lonely dislocation, and crude circumstance. Amid all the cute, cozy, comfy, pretty, romantic, hygienic, bucolic, pastoral, and painless images of our Lord’s ragged birth, a few words escape gravitational sentiment—words treasured and pondered by Mary; the shepherds rejoicing in all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Christmas wrapped in words. Christ bundled in the telling. Treasure the words—and especially the painful ones. Ponder the telling! The Child abides in weak words for weary people: no room for them; manger, shepherds, sheep, Savior. “You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” There’s nothing pretty in that. Treasure it. Ponder the words. Good news in the telling—Christ is born for you. Blessed Feast for hungry souls: Christ is born of Mary, wrapped in rags, lying in a feedbox, all that we might eat him. Glory be to God on high!
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
“Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house.”
“…according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever.”
“Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Isaiah promises, “the LORD will make … a house.” But the “house” promised is not built of stuff like wood and stone—not like “the house of cedar” in which David the King dwells and from which he speaks when he shares his building plans with Nathan, the prophet. Secure in his own dwelling, David has big dreams for the LORD; he plans to build a house for God—somewhere the Ark of the Covenant can rest secure, out of the weather, and safe from threats of attack, theft, and loss.
David proposes a temple made with hands. But God imposes a different kind of house—“offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” Here, then, is the germ of Davidic promise, a promise initiated via the body of David, then embodied in the person of Solomon, and later fulfilled in the body of Jesus via the consent and womb of Mary. Solomon occupied a temporal throne, but Jesus an eternal one. Temporal thrones are visible, historic, and impressive. But, the trouble is, eternal thrones are invisible, mythic, and mysterious—save to the obedience of faith. God says, “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” But what is “the throne of his kingdom?” And where is it?
The Angel Gabriel went to “a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” This is a where and a what unexpected. Yet, both reveal something of God’s contrary ways. The God opposed to David’s plan to build him a house, is for David by being against him. In some sense, opposition is God’s house or, perhaps, God’s contradictive locale. But God in Nazareth of Galilee? God in a virgin named Mary?
I imagine David had something more in mind: something along the lines of this nave, say, or the Capitol building or, perhaps, St. Peter’s in Rome. Something exceptional, grand, and imposing. But Nazareth? A Galilean virgin, a girl named Mary? What could be more common than that? A flock of sheep, perhaps. A shepherd. But a shepherd boy made king? Son of God? The anointed one, messiah? This hardly seems right. The common made regal, the unholy made holy, the temporal eternal, the dead alive. Yet, these characterize the opposing God, the God of tent and field, God of manger, cross, and resurrection. Nazareth and Mary: a common person and a common place give rise to the most uncommon person.
“The angel said to [Mary], ‘….And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.’”
This is favor with God? Unmarried pregnancy? The likely chance of unseemly divorce and, more common still: a virtuous girl stoned to death on account of God’s uncommon movement in a girl most common. Put aside biology. Forget the fact that much of the New Testament says nothing of Mary’s virginity—Luke, Matthew, and the Creeds certainly do. But not on the basis of biology or text criticism or a rational confidence that God both needs and wants the kind of house we want: impressive, safe, and comfortable. God’s comfort is discomfort, God’s security insecurity, God’s glory humility. God brings comfort to discomfort, safety to insecurity, death to life, and glory to all that is nasty, low, and ugly.
The little mill town was known for loss, failure, and ruined hope. Practically every business had gone out of business. Practically every family had arrived because elsewhere it had suffered the infamy of defeat: a job lost, a spouse dead, a marriage broken, a father imprisoned, a mother drunk, a child deformed. Mariah appeared freshman year, her face scared from countless beatings; or maybe it was the epilepsy, the almost daily seizures that terrified her classmates and left them afraid to associate with her. She walked the hallways like a ghost, a ghoul able to part the largest crowd. Her aching presence silenced the tightest clique. She sat alone at assemblies, in the last row of every class, at the back seat of every bus. Teachers turned away and cringed at her disfigured presence.
Who would have thought, who could have imagined Mariah most favored? Who could have known that, more than any other, Mariah bore the favor of God? The seizures continued unabated. Her isolation increased. Her invisibility became complete. Yet she bore it. She continued. She endured. She finished the race. She graduated, and she left, never to return. So complete was her absence that her name never appeared on the class lists posted for regular ten-year reunions. Her reunion was not of this world.
So was Mary, virgin Mother of our Lord, Mother of God, Theotokos, God-bearer. God’s favor comes at great cost in this life, and is celebrated fully only in the life to come. She who bore the Christ, by her consent—her “let it be to me according to your word”—is the sign that a more real world is coming: the kingdom, the throne, the eternal home for which every human longing is a sign born at last in the obedience of faith: a power invisible, irrational, and eternal, a weakness more powerful than the most hideous strength, God’s own mercy. And his name is Jesus.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”.
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
In Advent we hear Isaiah say, “…make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” But Mark says, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Both words concern a highway or path for the Lord God, and both involve a desert or wilderness. But who do the words address? The first seems to speak to Isaiah the Prophet. But the second? By Mark’s time, Isaiah’s been dead for several hundred years and far from the one addressed, Isaiah is now Mark’s reference point: a biblical landmark on the horizon of Israel’s troubled history. In Isaiah’s age, Israel suffers on the cusp of liberation from Babylon; in Mark’s time, Israel’s back “home,” resident in a land occupied by a foreign force, imperial Rome, and the prophet in question is no longer Isaiah, but a wild country preacher who eats a Willy Street diet and sports attire odd enough to make a Co-op shopper blush: camel’s hair (likely not woolen) and leather. One wonders if the Baptist could have passed a credit check, to say nothing of a background.
More to the point, by the time our eccentric preacher, took to his wilderness pulpit, he was not preaching liberation from Rome or any other political foe; he was preaching against an enemy far more sinister, an embedded terror far more durable than Rome, Babylon, or ISIS. Mark names John’s adversary as “sins.” John was proclaiming “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” But here’s an impressive thing: everybody “went out to [John], and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” Not just a few responded to John’s preaching and baptism, but everybody. Imagine that. John’s ministry was so successful that everybody answered the call. Everybody was baptized confessing their sins.
But there’s more. It appears from Mark (and from the other gospels as well) that John’s success wasn’t sufficient to make things right with God. John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins may have been sufficient for a successful revival, but it didn’t fulfill the Kingdom of God. John’s preaching and baptism, the peoples’ confession and repentance, didn’t make them right with God—it may have made them ready for God, but not right with God. For that, it would take another—“a stronger One”—and that more powerful one is Christ Jesus. John says, “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John brought a religious experience. Jesus provides the Holy Spirit; that is, Jesus provides something more than religion, something more than religious experience, more than human emotion and feeling. Jesus provides very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father: “salvation,” “justification,” the forgiveness of more than wrong actions, the things for which we feel bad. Jesus provides the forgiveness of sin—forgiveness for the way we are. And sin (the way we are) is a demonic occupier far more durable, far more subtle, and far more dangerous than any and every other force, whether then or now.
There are worse things than feeling bad about the things we do or don’t do, and worst of all is feeling good because we’re religious, because we’ve felt bad about bad behavior or good about good behavior. Feeling good or bad may or may not be good or bad—but either way we remain, as the Confession says, “captive to sin and unable to free ourselves.” Religion has its limits, and chief among them is the inability to free ourselves from sin.
Isaiah tells the truth when he says, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.” We are grass, but Christ is more than a gardener. He comes not to baptize with a lawnmower and fertilizer. We need more than a trim, more than a chemical boost, even more than re-seeding and some fresh sod. We need death and resurrection. Therefore, “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
“The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon is….” The Holy Spirit is the breath of God; but God’s breath does more than enliven. Before the Holy Spirit can enliven us, he must wither us, kill us, make us fade; or, in the words of Luther, he must make us die every day to sin that we might be raised to live with Christ in righteousness and purity forever.
Advent does more than prepare us for Christmas. In fact, the merry holidays that surround and engulf us with the fatness of a perennial feast threaten to kill Advent’s word—the very Word in whom we have any hope of true and eternal life. In saying “the people are grass,” Isaiah does more than make us feel bad; he gives us hope. The very God who creates life (grass, and all things) will raise us from death—will raise us in spite of ephemeral holiday spirit—but only when he has put us to death that we might live in the newness of Christ’s baptismal promise. For this we pray, Come Lord Jesus. His cross is our straight path, his resurrection our highway in the desert, our Lord, our God, and our hope in every season of life and death unto eternal life. Hear the Baptist’s cry: the Stronger One comes.
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down….”
“[God] will strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful…”
“Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come.”
Advent has come, but Christ has not; or at least not yet. But Christ shall come, because he will come. He has promised. And what Christ promises, what he wills, Christ does—though not yet. But he will. He shall. It’s not a question of “he must.” It’s a question of love, his faithful love against our feckless love. He comes to judge in love, to condemn and forgive our feckless selves. He comes for our sake, to deliver us from us; he comes to “unself” us. This unselfing begins in Baptism and culminates in judgment day. Therefore the Church prays, “Come Lord Jesus.” For this we watch and wait. This is the church’s vocation: to watch and wait for Christ.
Of course, Christ comes now in the Eucharist, in the bread and cup of the Supper, as our Bishop assured us last Sunday. And Christ comes among us now in our enemies, strangers, beggars, prisoners, the homeless, and hungry of our streets. Anyone who has ever come face to face with a winter-weary mother of children living in a car must realize both the judgment and promise of the Christ who comes now, and continues to come in the persistent and unnerving forms of the poor who confront us with our own comfortable weakness, suffering and death: the Crucified lives in the poor that he might convert the rich—the poor in spirit.But the Christ of Advent comes of another order. He comes not in weakness alone, but in power and great glory: as the Creed says, he comes to be our judge. And, whatever else a judge may do, she or he does not beg—or at least does not beg from us. Such a judge begs from the Father, beg before the heavenly throne. The eternal judge, begs for us, but not from us. He comes to place all things—including us—under his feet, that at his name every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth, and under the earth. Beneath him we are safe; above him, we are lost.
This is the Christ for whom St. Mark bids us watch and wait—not only for the Christ who is perpetually among us in the faces of the lowly poor, not only for the Christ who is ritually among us in Baptism and the Holy Supper, but also (and most especially in this season) for the Christ who comes to judge the whole creation. This Christ—this terrible and merciful cosmic Judge—has not yet come. But come he will. We cannot escape him and his judgment any more than we can escape gravity, breathing, or death. Therefore St. Mark bids us “Watch! Keep awake!”
But, of course, we don’t. We’re too distracted to watch for Christ. We’re too busy to wait for him. We’d sooner wait for the turkey to get done, or the store to open, or he next game to begin. A week ago last night, my wife and I were driving home from having had dinner with our son and daughter-in-law in their home off Speedway—not far from the Village Bar. It’s not a long drive for us—a distance of two or three miles, depending on the route taken. In any case, around 8:30 we headed down Speedway toward town, turned onto Regent and then took a left on Randal. As we approached the light and turned right on Dayton we began to see numbers of people walking west. As we approached Mills and then Park, large crowds were crossing the street and walking along it. Only then did we notice the “Full” signs posted at the parking lots. By the time we reached Marion and Frances streets, the crowds were so thick, we could hardly move. Uncertain as to what was going on, I rolled down my window and asked some people what they were doing—where they were going at 8:45 at night.
“It’s the Badger men. They’re playing another undefeated team: Boise State,” called a young man, as the crowd made its serpentine way toward the Kohl Center. “Wow,” I thought. “It’s going on 9:00 pm, and 17,000 people are walking through the cold and darkness to watch Wisconsin throttle yet another pre-season victim, and this one from the lowly Mountain West.”
By such comments, I don’t intend to demean basketball, or diminish the fun of watching athletic competition. I myself played a lowly brand of hoops in college—played on teams Boise State would have killed the way Wisconsin killed them, and probably worse. But I choose this unpopular example for two reasons. First, because in our age “the games” are such a dominant distraction—even as they have often been. It doesn’t take an historian to tell us that human beings live for distraction; if not war, it’s a game, gladiators, a crucifixion, the quarterback match-up, Ho-Chunk, Fantasy Football, the office pool; you name it, we live for it. But, second: imagine what church attendance might be like if we charged $15 to park (a half mile or more away), $25 for nave seating, and then scheduled the liturgy at the behest of television schedules. Under such circumstances, would we improve participation? Increase attendance? What would it take to pack this place at 9:00 on a Saturday night? Say what you want about Advent, but most of us are watching and waiting for something else, and we gladly pay buckets of cash to do so. We crave distraction: a game, an execution, a war, the next catastrophe. But Advent’s not a distraction; it’s the vocation we detest, and the Judge who comes knows it. He knows we crave a winning distraction, and yet he wins by losing; his judgment is death; but his gift is life. When he comes, he will convict us of our fickle devotion, our delight in ease, our self-love, and our disdain for the suffering poor. He will convict us and welcome all—on his own terms, in the Father’s time, for all time, beyond time. We watch and wait for more than Boise State. The Green and Gold play at 3:25. “Keep awake!” Come Lord Jesus!