Sunday, January 24, 2016

Third after The Epiphany, and Septuagesima

Nehemiah 8: 1-10; Luke 4: 14-21

Good morning, and grace and peace.  Third after the Epiphany and with our early Easter this year also Septuagesima, the first of the three Sundays of the traditional season of Lenten Preparation.  Still in our worship centered on the incarnational themes of Advent, Christmas, and the Epiphany, but just this morning a distant view on the horizon ahead of Jerusalem and the Cross. 

Given the appointed readings this morning from Nehemiah and St. Luke, which I think are very appropriate and meaningful in this transitional time I’d like to begin with what is for Episcopalians and all in the Anglican family a familiar prayer.  It was composed in the middle of the 16th century and in the midst of the great creative heart of the English Reformation by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.  For most of the history of our tradition this was the Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent, though in the 1979 Episcopal Church Book of Common Prayer it was moved to the Sunday before Advent.   Let us pray.

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The Bible was heart of the English Reformation back in the 16th and 17th centuries.  The whole series of new, fresh, exciting English language translations culminating in 1611 with what we call the King James Version.  Certainly the most important gift of Anglicanism to the wider Christian world.  The English Reformation powered by a deep and passionate eagerness, that each man and woman and child would have the opportunity to encounter directly and personally God’s life-giving Word.   Anglicans from that time and through most of our history and family tree,  Bible people.  Even when we have had our internal differences and disagreement, both sides of the theological debate at their lecterns with the Scriptures open to be the foundation of their argument.  And every deep traditional characteristic of what we might call “Anglican Spirituality” rested deeply on extensive and ongoing personal and devotional Bible reading in the structured context that the Book of Common Prayer provided from 1549 in the order for daily Morning and Evening Prayer.   

That was Cranmer’s vision at the Reformation, and it certainly would be the case here in the 21st century, where any truly Anglican Spiritual Director would begin if someone came to him or her and asked for guidance about deepening personal spiritual foundations.  Get a Prayer Book and a Bible, and make space for that every day, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.  There may be many other resources to add to that in the course of our growth in faith and discipleship, but for Episcopalians anyway that’s step one.  Read the Scriptures daily, and pray the prayers.  And we would speak with full confidence that as we encounter the Bible in that kind of daily devotional practice, God’s Word for us, not with agendas,  not to dive in to find proof texts to reinforce our pre-existing values and perspectives and opinions, but with an open mind and an open heart, he will make himself known to us.  “That by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our savior Jesus Christ.”

In any event to begin by noticing as we hear he reading from Nehemiah 8 and Luke 4—two matching images reflecting back and forth in such a compelling way.  Ezra and the Elders of the Families of Jerusalem, at the city’s Water Gate, beginning to read the Scriptures to God’s people.  And Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth, the inauguration of his ministry of preaching and teaching and healing, the Word made flesh, and the scroll opened before him, the congregation leaning forward to hear.  These two massive, critical turning point and watershed moments in the Biblical story, two moments of renewal, new beginning, God acting. 

Beginning first with Nehemiah.  -- As we might read in Second Chronicles, how after the devastating conquest and destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Babylon in 587 BC, and then after 70 years scattered in the refugee camps of Iraq and Syria and Persia and Egypt, the defeated and exiled Jewish people have been included in the edict and decree of the Persian Shah Cyrus, who is the new major power in the region, allowing many peoples across his empire who had displaced by a century of brutal wars to begin to return to their homelands.   Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, as the Prophet sings in Isaiah 40.  Speak ye tenderly to Jerusalem, that her war is concluded.   It doesn’t happen overnight, of course, but gradually, year by year, the word is spread, and year by year they return, not all, but many-- individually, in small family groups, including even 70 years later a few elderly whose memories of childhood still held scenes of Jerusalem before—before the war, the siege, the final attack, the plundering and the fires and the destruction.

And years pass, and rebuilding begins.  A leadership collaboration between Nehemiah, the official of the civil government, and Ezra, the high priest, and the heads of the families and clans who have returned—as we have heard those names in the reading.  And the rebuilding of the walls begins, to define and establish once more David’s ancient city.  Jerusalem the Golden.  Where there were ruins, where it had all been death: now, new life.  And the Temple.  A modest structure at first, but a place where after an interval of 70* years the appointed prayers and sacrifices could once again be offered.  It is said that those few elderly among the crowds who could remember the glorious Temple from the memories of their childhood had tears in their eyes as they looked at the first humble efforts of now the beginnings this Second Temple, on Zion’s holy mountain.  Both joy and sorrow.

But of course the renewal that was to happen here, Holy Zion, and Holy Temple—this renewal was not to be really about bricks and mortar and timber and stone, and the revival of ancient ceremonies, but most importantly about the Spiritual City and the Spiritual Temple at the heart of God’s presence with his Chosen People.

After all these years of wilderness and exile and a kind of living death, to gather again, to hear God’s Holy Word, his Torah, his self-expression, God with us.  The people gathered, quietly and so eagerly leaning forward to hear.   On tiptoe.  Excitement, anticipation, tears of joy.  Taking in the Word as Ezra began to read, blessing God for his faithfulness.  All the people coming to life as one--raising their arms to call out “Amen, amen!”  Let this be so.  This day is holy to the Lord.  And though the days behind us have been full of pain and sorrow, and though the days ahead shall certainly be full of new trials, this day is holy to our Lord, to put aside grief and loss, to wipe every tear,  consecrated by the proclamation of his Word, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

And Jesus in his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, as he reads from the Scriptures—our great High Priest--and then returns the scroll to the attendant and sits in the rabbi’s seat.   And it’s just like Nehemiah 8, isn’t it.  The congregation leading forward, hungry for the word.  And Jesus simply says—“It’s true, and it’s happening right here in front of your own eyes.”  Emmanuel.  God with us.  The Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ, his Manifestation.  The New Year invitation to life in him. 

Certainly one sermon that is preached in these two readings, and I think it is true with deep clarity and authority,  and in our own Anglican DNA,  that no genuine renewal of Christian life—whether in the life of individual men and women, boys and girls, or in the life of local congregations—or as we would think back to Archbishop Cranmer and those years of the renewal of the Church of England—it is that when genuine renewal  takes place among God’s people, it is born in the deep soil of Holy Scripture.  Ezra at the Water Gate in Jerusalem.  Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth. 

Two years ago in his Convention address that’s what Bishop McConnell had to say for us Episcopalians as our little Diocese of Pittsburgh works through this decade, slowly to rebuild from a season of conflict and division.  For each of us, each of our congregations  , as we each might take it to heart.  I think that address is still on the diocesan website, and I hope it continues to be on the front page of our agenda as a diocese and for all of us.  Not first to be about programs and plans and big events, about public relations campaigns or  efforts to build or replenish financial reserves or to rebuild and restore architecture and infrastructure.  Not that any of those things aren’t meaningful or important. 

But with a word to each and every one of us, with this distinctively Anglican moment  at the Water Gate in Jerusalem and in the Nazareth synagogue, deep in our hearts and imaginations.  It was really quite wonderful to hear him say that in every congregation, and in every family, and in each of our lives, to make of first priority, Bible Study, Prayer, and Fellowship.  To find some time every day.   Not just the religious professionals—this was Cranmer’s point, and all the great Reformers of that era.  To open the Word.  To hear the Word.  To read, mark, learn, inwardly digest.  As someone has said, not to see what we can do with it, how we can “use” the Bible,  but to see what it will do with us.    “Open my eyes and my ears and my mind and my heart to your Word, O Lord--speak the word to me that you want me to hear, and then in your mercy give me the strength and the courage to be the person who is shaped according to your Word, through Christ our Lord.”

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Second after The Epiphany: Wells of Wine

John 2:1-11
Sermon at St. Andrew's by the Rev. Daniel J. Isadore, Deacon Assistant

Another translation of our Gospel is in order for this morning...

Here goes...
-   Helgermann and the Isadores threw a “whopper” of a celebration at 1115 North Euclid in the East End of Pittsburgh, and the mother of Jesus was there...
-               Fresh bread, smoked meats, and even some first-time bourbon glazed bacon and salmon wraps made an appearance on the appetizer tray...
- The bash was such that even Jesus and His weirdo disciple-friends were invited...
- Here's the thing: the residents of 1115 got in over their heads when they told invitees to "bring whoever you want"
-   For the first time in history, both apartments in the "golden house" of Euclid ran dry...
-               Not a drop could be found anywhere...
-   And the party was really only half way over!
-               Frankly, it was embarrassing, and we're still recovering from that...
- And so, when Jesus' mother heard about it, she turns to her son and was like, "They're dry!"
- And He looks at her and goes, "uh, what do you want me to do? It's not my time yet." (We're still trying to figure out quite what He meant)
- And His mother, without another word, like only a mother can do, seemed to know what was about to happen, and told us to do whatever Jesus said.
- So get this: the guy told us to fill up the bathtubs and sinks with water (huh?)
- And then He tells us to turn on the faucet, fill up a wine bottle, and take it to George Knight, the "head dude" at this party...
- So we fill up a bottle for George. he takes a swig, and asks, "what kind of gig are you guys running? Who saves their best stuff until now?!"
- This was the first of the signs that Jesus did in the East End.

So there’s three things we need to understand in order to get a handle on our Gospel text for this morning...

1.    We need to realize what, exactly, happened
2.    We need to see how it happened
3.    We have to recognize how it happens today

So first, what happened?
-   Traditionally, it’s thought that Jesus filled up some jars with water and turned the water in them into wine...
-   But at least one Biblical scholar takes a different angle...
-               D. A. Carson says this...
-                               The Greek word behind the English word translated “draw” was not associated with dipping a cup or a pitcher in some water...
-                               Instead, this word was used regarding getting water from a well, as in “drawing” water from a well...

-   Implication: It wasn't simply a jar or a bottle of water that turned to wine; it was the whole water supply.
-               This is not just some “trick” that Jesus did; this is Amos 9:13 stuff: the hills were literally flowing with wine!
-               Imagine it: Highland Park reservoir brimming with the fruit of the vine. Stop drooling!

Second, how did this sign take place?
-   Notice: Jesus didn't step up at the party when we thought we had it all together....
-               He let us do our thing..
-   Jesus only got to work when we realized we were at the end of our abilities...
-               When we saw that we came to see that we were in lack and couldn't do a thing about it...
-   We didn't give Him a plan, or demand that He make things work out...
-               It was out of our hands and beyond our minds...
-   In fact, when He told us what to do, we, as was likely the case at the wedding in Cana, thought His directions didn't fit the situation...
-               How does telling us to turn on the faucet have anything to do with replenishing the wine supply?
-               We had no idea where He was going with this, or even if He was going anywhere at all. All we knew was that we didn't know.

But there’s more to how this went down...
-   Not only did the people recognize the lack and their inability to supply more wine; but when Jesus told us what to do, we did it.
-               No questions asked; we just did what He said.
- And we didn’t do it alone; we worked together, just like those in Cana.

So the water supply was turned to wine when we realized our lack, did what Jesus said, and did it together.

So what? What does this story have to do with us this morning?
-   Here’s the thing...this isn’t simply the story of what happened at North Euclid or in Cana two thousand years ago...
-   This same Jesus who showed up in Cana still shows up today, to bring the wine of joy and abundance where we can see only embarrassment and lack...

-   And He does His work today the same way He did it in Cana: He meets us as we come to see our inability, give up on our ways, and simply do whatever He tells us.

- What will He tell us? How do we know when it's Him?
-   I don't know the specifics, but John does give us some help later in the Gospel...
-               From John chapter 13...
-                               Jesus leaves us, right before He goes to the cross, with what He calls "a new command"...
-                               He says this: "Where I am going, you cannot come. I give you a new commandment, that you should love one another. Not any old way, but just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."
-                               Just as Jesus has loved us, going out of His way to do whatever it took to be with us and to care for us, so, says Jesus, this is what we should do for each other.
-                               Not on our own, mind you, but together...
-               Let's combine this "new command" with something else Jesus tells us in the next chapter, John 14...
-                               Jesus continues: "They who do what I say (who obey this "new command") are those who love me; and those who love me will experience My Father's love and I will love them and show myself to them."

Alright, so now we can put it all together: How do we know what Jesus will tell us to do? How can we be sure it’s Him?
-    Well, when the call is to step into those places of lack and despair, and to love in the same self-sacrificing way that Jesus has loved us, doing, together, whatever it takes to be with and care for those who are suffering...
-    Then we know that it’s Jesus-stuff...
-   And As we do this, John's report is that He promises to show up.
-               Not automatically; this isn't a button, but a promise. This isn't about controlling and manipulating God.
- This is instead about trusting Jesus, and doing so by placing ourselves at His service for Him to work through us at His timing and in His way.

So, where are those places and those people that we know of where we can go and do what Jesus says to do together?
- Where is there lack and despair? (Pause)
- How can we discover these places and people? (Pause)
-   Maybe some of us are in those places... (Pause)
-               If so, let somebody know...
- Or maybe we can begin a conversation oriented around figuring out where we ourselves can spend some time obeying in eager anticipation of Jesus turning the broken into something beautiful...
-   However we do it, let's not let this text go.
-               Because the Lord is alive. And He's filling empty bottles with the best wine from deep wells.

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, January 11, 2016

First after The Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord

Baptism of Simon Carey Patnik and Ruth Elizabeth Patnik
Isaiah 43: 1-7; St. Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

Good morning and grace and peace.  It’s the Seventeenth Day of Christmas, so we’re now beyond the framework of the traditional song.  We can continue to use our imagination to conjure up the vast array of gifts that accumulate through the season.  On the “real” Church Calendar this is the Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany, the beginning of a season where our focus shifts.  The infant born in the dark night and quiet corner of Bethlehem is lifted up and made manifest in his glory to all the wide world.  The light shining across the whole world, across time and space, and to shine in each heart.  This first Sunday after the Epiphany commemorating the Baptism of our Lord in that familiar scene at the River Jordan with his kinsman and forerunner John the Baptist, and in this Year C in our lectionary cycle we view the scene through the eyes of St. Luke’s gospel.  The key moment in verses 21 and 22, there at the end—and although we say this is the story of the Baptism of Jesus we can see the Luke is really asking us to focus on what happens immediately after the baptism.   He doesn’t describe the baptism at all, actually, but just says that it happened.  It zooms by, sets the stage, and then Luke gets to his main point, the centerpiece of the story.  

During a general baptism of the people, when Jesus too had been baptized and was praying, heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove; and there came a voice from heaven, “Thou art my Son, my Beloved; on thee my favor rests.”

Certainly a wonderful and dramatic and exciting scene to have before us on this January morning as we join with Mike and Rachel Patnik and family and friends and all of us together deputized to represent the whole mystical company of all faithful people gathered in Christ—and as we would say, together with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven witness this moment again, when Simon and Ruth themselves pass through these cleansing and renewing baptismal waters, and when once again we will see with the eyes of faith as the heavens open and the Spirit descends, and we will hear with our ears of faith the blessing of our heavenly Father.  All of that before us, and let’s see that and hear that again today.

I think it is beautiful in particular to have on this day—Baptism of our Lord, baptism of Simon and Ruth—the reading from Isaiah 43.  Such a tender and beautiful word.  A framing background.

Those who had truly known and believed themselves to be God’s chosen people, now bereft.  Scattered in the catastrophe of defeat and exile, marched away in chains to the camps and ghettoes of distant lands, pressed into forced labor, families divided, all to the point when even the last faint echo of memory seems about to fade into silence.

And then, across the miles, heard and repeated, whispered in the night, passed along in secret, the Lord’s voice is heard in the word of the prophet. 

Do not fear.  Do not fear.  For I have bought you back out of your slavery, I have restored to you in this moment your name, your identity, so that you can know who you are once more.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.  How great that is on a baptismal Sunday.  Simon, Ruth: when you pass through the waters, I will be with you.  When you walk through fire you shall not be harmed.  You mean more to me than anything.  I have paid for you a King’s Ransom.  And of course here at St. Andrew’s we lift up our eyes to the Cross on that Great Rood Beam overhead.  I will call to the corners of the earth to find you, to gather you, and no arm will ever again be strong enough to hold you back.  Because you are mine, created for my glory.  I made you with my own hands, and I will hold you safe, and never let you go.  You are my beloved, and on you my favor rests.

Take a deep breath, Simon.  Ruth.  Welcome to the party!  These little ones whom we have so enjoyed as a part of the family.  Certainly as we prayed with you, Rachel and Mike, through the months as we waited for Ruth to join us.  As we have enjoyed Simon’s interest and playfulness.  You have been and are a blessing to us, and it is such a privilege to be witnesses to this moment.  Just as if we were all invited down to the Jordan on that day, to be with John and Jesus.  Renewed by the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit and God’s voice and promise.  Just a great day.  It is a promise that is made true here and how--that he is with us, will be with us.

Can’t help but hear an echo of John chapter 14, so familiar.  Do you believe in God?  Believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many mansions.  If it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am, there ye might be also.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.  From death to life.

A reminder that this isn’t about what we do.  The instructions for us are the same as they would have been for John the Baptist.  Just add water.  Splash and stir.  And then it’s all Holy Spirit, all Holy Spirit, all the time, and the voice of the Father, and the companionship of the Son. 

For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.  You are my beloved.  On you my favor rests.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Second after Christmas

Matthew 2: 13-23

Good morning, and grace and peace.  The Tenth Day of Christmas . . . and my true love gave to me “ten lords a-leaping!"  Which sounds like an appropriate gift indeed for us here, with so many Anglophiles in the St. Andrew’s circle, on a day when the final season of Downtown Abbey is to begin on Public Broadcasting.   

As most of you know, I like to keep counting all the way through the rich 40 days of this season of Incarnation, subdivided as Christmastide and Epiphany, up to February 2, Candlemas, Feast of the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin, the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple—which this year because of a very early Easter will actually come in a kind of overlapping of the calendar of the Church Year after we have already begun to shift gears into the three weeks of “Pre-Lent.,” Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima.  When our focus will begin to turn from the great theological language of Incarnation to center on the Doctrine of Atonement.  Incarnation, about “who Jesus is,” and Atonement, about “what Jesus did.”  The Nature of Christ.  The Work of Christ.  Completely inseparable, of course: the unified message of the Gospel, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

In any event, this Sunday it’s still very much Merry Christmas!, and Happy New Year!-- though as we hear this morning St. Matthew carries us along some of the shadowy pathways through the story of the Birth of our Savior.

Years ago Ruth Cover of blessed memory told me a story which I love to retell, partly just because it is such a pleasure to remember Ruth and her wonderful sense of humor.  So many of you have heard it before, though I bet you’ll smile as you remember it, as I know I do.   I’m not sure this was something that happened to her when she was teaching in our Church School back in the 1960’s or 70’s, or perhaps a story that she had been told by someone else.  But the story is an Advent or Christmas season Sunday School art project-- the second or third graders are given some drawing papers and crayons and asked to create a picture of their favorite scene from the Christmas Story.  The results perhaps fairly predictable.   Lots of Shepherds and Angels, Holy Family in the stable, the animals, the Baby in the Manger, the Three Kings, the Bethlehem Star.  But then one boy at the end of the table has spent his time working energetically, and when the teacher looks over his shoulder she sees something that looks like a Fighter Jet shooting across a blue sky, with giant flames exploding out of the engines.  “Didn’t you hear the assignment, Johnny?”  The teacher asks.  “Yes, he says.”  “But this isn’t part of the Christmas story.”  “Sure it is.  The flight into Egypt!  – and look, in the cockpit, that’s Pontius, the Pilot.”

In any event, part of the Christmas story that most years doesn’t make it to the Pageant.  We remember how Matthew brings us to this point.  

Matthew’s Christmas doesn’t contradict anything we remember from Luke, but there are lots of things he remembers that Luke didn’t tell us about.  At the beginning of Chapter 2 Matthew introduces us to these Wise Men from the East, who have seen a new star in the sky, which they interpret as meaning that a new king has been born to rule in Israel.  They come to Jerusalem, and make official inquiries that lead to old King Herod hearing of their arrival, and after some worried consultation they are sent along to Bethlehem, King David’s city and the place where the Prophet has said the long hoped-for Messiah would be born.  Herod is clearly worried that this might be a hint that there is some rebellion percolating, a challenge to his authority and the legitimacy of his dynasty, and so he asks the Wise Men to return to Jerusalem and to let him know what they have found.   

Of course the Wise Men do come to Bethlehem, guided by the Star--which is now moving along before them--rejoicing “exceedingly with great joy” when they finally find Jesus and Mary and Joseph. And after the presenting their three symbolic gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh,  they are, we are told, warned in a dream not to return to Jerusalem, and so they head home a different way.

That’s how we get to this morning’s readings.  Which seem to me to be so haunting perhaps this year in particular.  The Wise Men have slipped away, but Joseph, just like his Old Testament namesake at the end of the Book of Genesis, the one with the Technicolor sportcoat, is a man who dreams meaningful dreams.  God speaks to our Joseph in a dream, and just as Joseph in Genesis brings Israel his father and all his brothers and their families down to Egypt as a place of refuge and safety in the time of famine, so now as the guardian and protector of Jesus and Mary his Mother this Joseph is given an urgent warning, and is called as well to Egypt as a place of refuge, narrowly escaping the murderous rage of Herod, who has realized that the Wise Men have slipped away and who then decides to nip any potential problem of a birth in the royal line of David by ordering the Slaughter of the Innocents.  Something we are told from other historical sources was entirely in keeping with his ruthless exercise of power.  Another part of the story missing from most Sunday School Pageants.  That horrifying cry of the Mothers of Bethlehem echoing through the centuries.  

Hard not to hear this story just past New Year’s Day 2016 and not think back to the images of the year past.  The cities of Syria devastated by bombs and ruthless fighting between opposing armies.  Christians and other religious minorities rounded up by gangs of the Islamic State and its affiliates and then brutally murdered, with commentaries provided for YouTube distribution.  And an endless procession of refugees fleeing in terror on tiny fishing boats and disintegrating rafts.  Fleeing for their lives, for some kind of future and safe harbor.  Again, hard not to think of these things as we watch Mary and Joseph and the Child this morning.  We should.

And it’s not until some considerable time later, perhaps even several years of living as refugees in some camp or ghetto in Egypt, when King Herod dies, that Joseph finally believes it safe to take the child and his mother and to return not to Bethlehem, where Herod’s son was now in charge, but back to Nazareth, Mary’s hometown, where Joseph apparently had been working some time ago as a carpenter or in the construction trade, to make their home there.

Matthew’s Christmas always feels a little uncomfortable leaning up against the story as Luke tells it.  Shepherds and Angels and the midnight birth, the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and settled in a manger bed— in a kind of homey, domestic bubble, warm, romantic, sentimental, almost other-worldly, a story we might read our children before they go to sleep.  

But Matthew’s Christmas on this Second Sunday after Christmas is not a bedtime story.  Not if you don’t want some squirming, and some uncomfortable dreams.  Rated R, for “mature themes.”   No visions of sugarplums, but darkness and danger, a fearful escape to a foreign land, the brutal clatter of swords, blood and death and destruction and the weeping of mothers bereft of their little ones. 

Hear Matthew’s story, and you’re grateful Christmas comes but once a year.  On display, the worst the world has to offer.  The absolute worst.  Our world unvarnished.  Brokenness, betrayal, cruelty, sin and death.  Sin and death.  

I mean, it’s the holiday season, after all, and time for a break from all that. Right?  But Matthew keeps the spotlight right there.

In the 2006 movie Superman Returns there is a scene at the beginning.  Superman has returned to Metropolis after many years on some kind of unspecified task far away, I can’t remember the details.  A sabbatical.  And he discovers that in his absence things seem to have changed.  At one time he was cheered as a hero, but now he seems to be regarded more as a problem, a disruption.  He wants to be involved, but he is turned away again and again by people who feel like they no longer need the kind of help he can offer.  Even his old flame Lois Lane has moved on.  A new job, a new boyfriend.  And she has this amazing conversation with the Man of Steel.  “You seem to think it’s your job to save the world,” she tells him.  “But the fact of the matter is, the world doesn’t need a savior, and neither do I.”

The fact of the matter is, we don’t need a savior.  Well—if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know that Lois has spoken a bit too soon.  Lex Luthor and his evil gang are even as Lois is speaking at work to bring on chaos and destruction, with a full dose of Kryptonite, and things are about to go very bad indeed. 

But I recall that scene this morning just to say that if there’s one thing Matthew never will let us say at Christmas, is that we don’t need a savior.  This world of ours.  You and I.  Matthew doesn’t forget and doesn’t let us forget that this is a world that needs saving.  That you and I are people who need to be saved.  From the darkness around us, from the evil that has taken up residence in us.  That’s why Jesus is born.  Why he came.

Without Jesus, it’s all Herod, all the time.  Deadly Kryptonite.  In the wide world.  In our hearts.  The message to call us to the Table this Second Christmas Sunday, and a reminder as we are sent out into the world.  As the angel.  “You shall call his name Jesus,” which means savior. Savior.  What Christmas is, and to remember just what is at stake here.  Really and seriously.  Very high stakes for us, if we are tempted to cover that over with a bit of holiday gift wrap.   Call him Savior, the angel says.  That Baby in the Manger.  Because without him we are doomed.  

Friday, January 1, 2016

First after Christmas

Our preacher at St. Andrew's on December 27, the First Sunday after Christmas Day, was the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright, Priest Associate of St. Andrew's Church and Priest in Charge of the Ministry of the Episcopal Church at the University of Pittsburgh.

It's the third day of Christmas, I think, but my mind keeps going back to the words we heard Christmas Eve:

Luke 2.13f: Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!    NRSV

Very familiar words, we’ve probably heard or read them fifty times already this month, between Christmas cards and Christmas background music— although the ‘peace on earth and good will toward men’ of the carols is now known to be a poor translation of a faulty ms, ie wrong on two counts. So let's think a bit about the more accurate text, and let me point out a few things worth considering.

Speaking of translation, though, let me comment briefly on that word host in v 13. It means 'army'. We don’t use it that way any more, except in Bible translations, but that’s what it means here. The angel who appeared to the shepherds is suddenly surrounded by an army that has been fighting God’s enemies on the spiritual plane. This is worth noticing, because it will make a difference to how we understand their proclamation of peace.

Notice, too, that it is peace on earth that they proclaim. Not just in the spiritual realm, where the heavenly host has been at war, but on earth. This also must affect the way we understand their proclamation of peace. Because history tells us of those days, just as all the news reports tell us of our own, that peace is pretty rare. Their proclamation of peace on earth, if it means earthly peace, doesn’t seem to have been immediately effective. So is it just a fairy story, as so many people think the whole Christmas story is? Is it just a nice thought, but having nothing to do with the real world?

In order to answer that question, we must look at an equally challenging aspect of the peace the angels proclaim: that this peace is found among those whom he favors. Sounds like it’s peace for God’s favorites and too bad for the rest, but let’s look at this idea a bit more closely before we conclude that. The traditional translation of one of the words in this verse is ‘good will’, as in peace on earth to men of good will. But the word used means much more than that. It’s a noun formed from a verb which means ‘to delight in’, so the noun means ‘a delighting in’, ‘a having delight in’. The heavenly army don’t actually say it’s ‘God’s delight in’ whatever it is, and some translations have assumed that it is mankind’s ‘delight in’ that is being referred to. Which would mean you could only really translate it by the phrase ‘good will’, because if it’s ‘man’s delighting’ rather than ‘delighting in man’, which is grammatically possible, the delight is 'in' nothing specific at all, and can only be translated by a phrase like ‘having good will’, being a generally easy to please person, so it's 'peace for human beings who have a good outlook on life.' Heaven help us all if that’s what it means! But the word is the one that was used by the Rabbis when they translated the Old Testament into Greek, and everywhere they used it, they were translating something in the Old Testament about God's 'delighting in' this or that, and almost everywhere the word occurs in the New Testament the word ‘God’s’ is also stated or strongly implied. I’ll give you just one example, Matthew 11.26, where Jesus has been talking about repentance, and says I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. Same word as favor in the angel’s proclamation: God’s gracious will for mankind; peace on earth for those for whom God has gracious will. So the translation among those whom [God] favors is right; but does this really mean that God has His favorites, and they will have peace while the rest don’t?

You won’t be surprised to hear me say ‘No it doesn’t’, but I want you to know that there are good reasons why I think that. It’s not just because I’m a good public relations man and God is my client.

First, let’s think what these Jewish shepherds would have understood by it. The angel and the heavenly army appeared with a message for them, and must have used words that made sense to those shepherds first of all. Translators, theologians and preachers are all pretty low priority for the angels on Christmas eve. To Jewish shepherds, or any other Jew come to that, those whom [God] favors can only be the Jewish people, God’s chosen people. The whole of the Old Testament is about how God chose the Jews and promised that through them would come a blessing for the whole human race, and again and again in the Old Testament God talks about the Jews as the people in whom He delights. Let me give you just one out of dozens of examples, one that we almost heard this morning. God is speaking to His people through the prophet Isaiah, and we stopped at 62.3, You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. But the passage continues, 4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. 5 For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder, your creator, marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. The Jews as the people in whom God delights, over whom He rejoices, is all through the Old Testament. The prophet Zechariah calls the Jewish nation the ‘apple of God’s eye’ (2.8). These shepherds could not have understood the angels’ words as meaning anything but their own people.

And if we then turn to the New Testament, it becomes clear that God’s plan to bless all the people of the earth through the Jews is fulfilled as the people of the earth turn to the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, and that makes them the apple of God's eye too. Galatians 3.29, if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. Those who put their faith in Christ inherit the promises made to Israel, and God delights in them, in us, the way He delighted in the Jews, we too become the apple of God’s eye, those whom [God] favors and those for whom the angels proclaim peace on earth. You could say God is playing favorites, but anyone can be one of God’s favorites, and the more people become God’s favorites, the happier He gets. That’s why He wants us to tell others about Christ—He wants everyone to come to His Christmas party!

And just so we’re clear, God hasn’t switched favorites. It’s not that in the Old Testament Jews were God’s favorites but in the New Testament Christians become God’s favorites. The one place in the New Testament where that Greek word I was talking about refers to a human being’s ‘delighting in’ rather than God’s is at the beginning of Romans 10, where Paul says, speaking of the Jews, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. ‘Desire’ in that verse is translating that same Greek word, and it expresses Paul’s faith that God has not finished with the Jews, and that when they accept their own Messiah they too are restored to their original place in God’s plan, just as the rest of mankind is when they accept Christ. And he assures us that the end will not come until all the Jews come to know Christ as saviour, Romans 11.26, all Israel will be saved. All mankind can have the peace proclaimed by the angelic army. To trust Him is to become one of those whom He favors.

But what about that peace? The word the angels must have used in order to be understood by Jewish shepherds is shalom, which is not just peace, but God’s peace. You can read about it in the prophet Ezekiel, 34.25–28, I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild beasts from the land, so that they may dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. 26 And I will make them and the places round about my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. 27 And the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase, and they shall be secure in their land; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them. 28 They shall no more be a prey to the nations, nor shall the beasts of the land devour them; they shall dwell securely, and none shall make them afraid. Security, a good night’s sleep, good weather, good harvest, no enemies, and nothing to be afraid of, ever. The kind of things Jesus was talking about in Luke 12, and about which He said Seek first his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well, and added 32 Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure [you guessed it] to give you the kingdom.

And when you look at all that is included in God’s peace, it becomes clear how weak the phrase ‘good will’ is as a translation. It doesn’t even begin to express the depth of feeling involved. God’s gracious will is the will that accompanies true love—the best of everything for the beloved, at any cost to the lover. It’s the love Paul had for the Jews that justifies his use of the word: Paul says he would even give up his own salvation for their sake, if such a thing were possible, Romans 9.3, I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race. An exact parallel to the depth of God’s love for the apple of His eye: God becoming man so He could become accursed and cut off from the source of life instead of those whom He favors. So that they, we, could have peace on earth.

In conclusion, there are two things that can confidently be said about that peace, simply because it is proclaimed by spiritual warriors, who have been fighting in spiritual wars. The first is that it must be spiritual peace they proclaim: the peace that they themselves were experiencing now that God Himself had struck the decisive blow against evil by becoming man. The second is that regardless of how little of earthly peace we experience or see around us, this is peace we can count on. The army in the field is always the final judge of the reality of peace. The negotiators at the peace conference can announce that a peace treaty has been signed, but only the guys on the battlefield can say for sure that the bullets have stopped flying. And that’s what the heavenly army is saying. It’s not earthly peace, but real peace. The kind of peace that you can go on enjoying even when there is no security, and you’ve been tossing and turning all night, and the weather is so messed up its almost 70 degrees on Christmas eve, and there are people in the world who would cheerfully blow you up if they could get close enough. That’s the peace the angels proclaim, the peace that God wants for all the nations of the earth, and which is available in Christ, now.

My peace I give to you, said Jesus, not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. This is the peace that Paul says passes understanding. That’s what God gives to those He favors. Accept no substitutes. I pray that peace is yours, through Christ, now, and that you who know Christ as saviour will proclaim His peace to the rest of the world, for Christ’s sake. Amen.