The Word made Flesh – Lectionary 12/27/2020

John 1: 1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Sermon Text

            The incarnation of God depends on two things. Firstly, as we discussed last week, God became fully human and lived through all the highs and lows of humanity. Now, we must look to another aspect of the incarnation: How does a human being contain Godhood within themselves. How can there be a God in Heaven, while that selfsame God walks the Earth? How could we ever understand God being among us, when even our best language tends to fall short?

            There is a balance to strike in Christianity, one that we seldom get quite right. On one hand we must be practical people who are invested in the world as it is and working toward the world as it ought to be. We do this is living out the ministry of Jesus as Jesus first lived it, preaching and healing and loving all those we can. To put it very simply, there is a clear practical element of our faith. However, beyond mere practicality is our need to, even at the most basic level, articulate our understandings of God and how God interfaces in the world. This is our theological ministry.

            Today, we focus on the theological, how the eternity of God can exist in our finite reality. Though scripture is never meant to be read as a schematic for the universe, it certainly can give us tools that we can then use to discern the shape of things. Looking at our scripture today we can begin to understand that to say Jesus is our Emmanuel, God with us, is not an attribution given following the resurrection, but is an essential and eternal reality of Christ and how Christ established creation. Jesus, the Word of God, predates everything.

            Our scripture today opens with one of the most beautiful sentences in all of scripture. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” A mentor of mine growing up, always said a person learning Greek should memorize this verse. Ἐν αρχη ἡν ὁ Λογος και ὁ Λογος ἡν προς τον Θεον και Θεος ἡν ὁ Λογος.

            The essential claim of this verse can be separated into three sections. Firstly, that at the very beginning of the Universe, Genesis 1:1, “When God was creating,” Jesus was there. Though not yet in a physical body, Christ was working in creation. When God spoke, “Let there be light,” Christ was the one who lit the flames of the primordial universe. Later in the passage John elaborates on this verse, “the world came to being through him.” However it was that God moved his dark materials to bring about order from chaos, Christ was the artisan that fashioned them. Nothing exists that does not have Christ’s fingerprints on them, we are all handiwork of God.

            This language, if left on its own, would allow for people to reduce the Word, to reduce Jesus, to a tool of God rather than an intimate partner of God’s creative work. That is where the second part of verse one comes in. “The Word was with God,” literally, the word was, “in front of God.” This relationship, face to face, means that God and the Word saw one another on equal footing. They were not just partners, one was not less than the other, but they met together and created together in perfect concert.

            Still, there is room in the first two portions of this verse to mistake John’s message about Jesus. So far, the Word is an eternal entity alongside God, one that is intimately connected to God, but in the final portion of verse one John reveals the most incredible aspect of his message. This Word, that created all things, that stood alongside God, was at the same time, God. There was a duality hereto unknown in the universe. Both God and God’s Word were somehow distinct and individual persons of a single and unified Divinity. As John explains throughout his Gospel and in his reference to Genesis 1, there is another member of this unity as well, the Holy Spirit. Three persons, one God, the root of Trinitarian theology expressed in a single verse of scripture.

            For centuries, the Church debated how to take this news, that Jesus the crucified Messiah, was also the eternal God whom they had always worshipped. Extremes were created across the spectrum of Christian belief to try and explain how this reality could be true. Some formed the belief that God the Father abdicated the heavenly throne and took on flesh, thus becoming Jesus – this belief is called, “Patripassianism,” or, “The Suffering Father.” Others decided that Jesus was not originally God, but became so after the resurrection – Jesus in this scheme was the first created thing through whom all things were made, but ultimately a secondary creature to God – this belief we now call “Arianism,” after the bishop – Arius – who popularized it.

            Hundreds of other theories and sects were created to try and explain how Jesus, the word of God, was somehow on equal footing with God the Father and God the Spirit. Oceans of ink has been spilled to try and tease out how exactly God could inhabit humanity and oftentimes the more complex an example was given, the farther away from what we know to be true about God we, as the Church, came. The mystery of the Trinity ultimately abhors complexity.

            Christ is and always has been God, as has God the Father and God the Spirit. Three full persons who are somehow one entity. Scripture uses a single word to describe this unity – Θεοτης (Theotes.) This word is perhaps best translated as, “Godhood,” or “God-ness.” The Three members of the Trinity, each one of them with their own personality and individuality, all share God-ness with one another. They move as one, they act as one, and our prayers to any member of the Trinity are heard by all three. They are the most definite vision of unity and of difference in all of existence. The simple truth of them is that they are one together God and yet always each their own persons.

            What this means for us, is what John lays out throughout our scripture. God brought John the Baptist to proclaim the coming of the Word into the world. John was a foretaste of all that Jesus would bring – baptizing with water where Christ would unleash the Spirit to all people. John lived his ministry out and was killed because of his opposition to the rulers of his day. The glory of God, which John reintroduced the world to, could not be suppressed and shone out with every action Christ took while on this Earth.

            Christ, who was from the very beginning God, entered the world as a baby and lived through every trouble and joy of life. Celebrating weddings, sitting beside the sick in their beds, talking with Mary and with Martha – no action of Christ was minor. That we participate in the divine life through living out the basic beats of our own lives is a miracle that we cannot let go of. Yet, the way we choose to live our life is often so different from how Christ lived his life, that when Christ came to be among us, we had no idea we looked at God when we looked at him.

            When Jesus worked with the poor and the outcast, we accused him of keeping bad company. When Jesus cared for the sick and the broken, we accused him of leading them into sin. When Jesus questioned the powers of this world, we accused him of being a dangerous revolutionary bent on destroying society. When we, the human race, met Jesus, we rejected him at every turn because he was a threat to our understanding of everything. Christ was the perfect person, and so showed us every way our life went astray. Christ was at the very same time God and showed us that our images of God we created for ourselves were fundamentally flawed.

            The incarnation, which we celebrate at Christmastide, is the moment when the universe began to turn in another direction. God revealed Godself in the most definite way possible, taking on human form and living among us. The life of Jesus was an example for what we might become if we lived a life in line with God, but it was also a refutation of the present life we lived. Christ came to be among us to save us from Sin and at the very same time to save us from ourselves. The kingdom came and the offer was made for us to join. What must we do now?

            The eternity of God is a promise to the eternity of the Kingdom which we are invited to join. Our salvation, given freely by a God who did so much for us, is something put in motion before even the world began. It will last for an eternity beyond our present moment. God in human form came down to save us and we now enjoy the benefit of that eternal God in Christ.

            The Word who was with God in the beginning promises that we shall be with God for eternity. The Word who stood before God at creation’s start promises that we will stand before the throne of God as Children of God. The Word who is God has equipped us to become all that we ever could be, true image bearers of God. This Word came to us at Christmas, this Word will come to save us once again, and in the meantime, we nurture the attributes of God which are shown to us in Christ.

            In a few days we celebrate the beginning of a New Year, and I don’t think we will miss the one which has gone away. Let us live into this year with the fullness of God before us. As we climb out of some of the troubles we have faced this year, let us take hold of one another and support one another. When we see problems, long standing and hard to face, let us hear the words of John echo in our mind. “In the beginning was the Word,” and in the future for all eternity. Christ our Lord, through the visitation of the Spirit, keeps us tied to all of God. We will never be abandoned, and the light will always shine against all opposition. God is with us, praise God. – Amen.

We Wait no More – Christmas 2020

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And 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!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Sermon Text

            Christmas is finally just a few hours away from us. The light of our trees and decorations shine out into the night. Our Advent wreath is fully lit, and we wait for the few scant moments that separate us from fully celebrating our commemoration of Christ’s entry into our human history. No longer separate from Humanity, but completely invested in a physical body and married eternally to our lives. The Incarnation, the irreversible unity of Heaven and Earth, is just a few hours away.

            There are many things that make Jesus’s entry into creation miraculous. That God could take on Human Flesh and yet remain God. That this union could redeem our fallen state and set us right with God. That the Messiah of Judah would save not only his people but the entire world. All these are miraculous in themselves, but beyond these massive, cosmological aspects of incarnation comes some mundane miracles we cannot overlook. A baby is born, in a difficult time, to struggling parents, in a dying province of a decaying empire, and yet is still able to live and grow, to reach adulthood and follow the difficult road before them all the way to the end.

            While we do not know the exact date of Jesus’s birth or the exact year, we do know enough about it to understand what kind of world Jesus was born into. Jesus’s birth falls somewhere in a fourteen-year span, somewhere between 7 BC and 7 AD. During the reign of Herod the Great, but also close enough to the reign of Quirinius as governor of Syria to allow for a census to be held at the time of Jesus’s birth. While this gives us an indeterminate span of time to say when exactly Christ entered the world, it is more than enough to sketch out what sort of world Jesus was being born into.

            Jesus was born to poor parents in a poor province of the Roman Empire. While Judah had briefly known independence preceding Roman occupation, Rome was really just a continuation of the long line of Empires that had controlled the region. Assyria first held Judah as a vassal, then Babylon as a conquered territory, then Persia, then Media, then Greece. Judah had not known true independence since just after the time of King David. The food they grew sustained the local population somewhat, but much of it went to feed the Roman army. Herod and his children attempted to “civilize,” the region by building massive projects around the region. Herod the Great famously robbed David and Solomon’s royal tombs so that he could demolish and rebuild Nehemiah’s temple into a more stately building, while his sons would build fishing towns to feed the soldiers that occupied their land.

            The poverty of Jesus’s family would have been exacerbated by these conditions. While an artisan and his wife were not likely to have a great deal of money, unless he did extremely specialized work, the introduction of Roman taxes around the time of Jesus’s birth ensured they would not have much money for themselves. The census executed by Quirinius to establish these taxes were opposed so openly that it culminated in one of the first of many attempted revolutions against Rome in Judah, a rebellion that was quickly put down. From this and other conflicts the Zealots were born, a guerilla group of Jewish rebels who mainly targeted Rome and their collaborators.

            Jesus was born in a tumultuous time. Jesus was born to parents who could barely feed themselves, let alone a child. Jesus was born as a peasant in a no-name province in one of the largest and most powerful empires in the history of the region. “The wrong time to the wrong people in the wrong place.” That must be how the first people to hear what the gospels say about Jesus’s birth must have thought. As the titular song Jesus Christ Superstar, puts it, “Why did you [Jesus] pick such a backwards time and such a strange land?” It seems there would have been easier ways to enter the world than penniless and in danger at every turn.

            Yet, Christ was not content to enter the world through easy means. A life that was to go the way that Christ’s life did was not possible to live in comfort or luxury. Christ was born into the worst parts of a suffering world, to live out a life of suffering and sorrow, and then to die a terrible death at the hands of the empire that had already caused so much suffering. Christ was not born to royalty, though he was a king, nor was he born in a temple despite being God. Christ was born into poverty, born in danger, born on the edge of oblivion, because ultimately the incarnation was God entering into humanity, the fullest expression of humanity.

            Humanity, as defined by Job, are those people, “Few of days and full of troubles.” (Job 14:1) If nothing else can be learned from the year we have just seen rush by us at a slug’s pace, it is that Job was right. Life is a precious thing that we can easily see taken away. By disease, by time, by injustice and cruelty. Life is also a hard thing to stomach – because of pain, of fear, of a sense that the problems we face are simply too numerous to truly escape. Life is not easy, and anyone who tells us otherwise is selling something.

            So, into the fullness of humanity, into a life that was hard from the outset, Jesus arrives. Not in a palace as a king, not in a temple as a God, but in the feed trough of a stable – perhaps walled in, perhaps in a cave, but certainly not the place for a child. Christ enters into hardship so that at all times and in all places, whatever a person may face, they can be sure that Christ has faced it as well. The biting cold of the winter winds, the heat of the noonday sun, the stinging pain of hunger, the burning of a fever – all these are things Christ experienced to share empathy and love with us. True solidarity between God and humanity, achieved through the difficult work of a child being born, and a life lived with little relief from the many problems that life presents us with.

            In a difficult year, we celebrate Christmas far away from one another. Scattered once more during an important season of the Church, each of us in our own homes and all of us left wishing the world could be more like what we would want. Free of this pandemic, away from the constant precautions and worries that we face, back to a time when we can hug one another and shake hands and simply be present with one another without anything between us. We find Christmas coming to us, seemingly, in the wrong year – a year where we cannot greet it as we usually would, a year where sanctuaries sit darkened and we are all wrapped up warmly at home instead.

            Yet, in the same way that the incarnation came at a seemingly inopportune time, to people who seemed ill prepared to be parents to a deity, maybe Christmas comes at just the right time to a people who are dearly in need of it. The promise of Christ coming long ago is that Christ will come again. The diseases that threaten us will eventually be done away with, all pain erased, and only goodness and glory shall remain. Today, as we gather across the void of a cold night and the warm buzz of electronics, we still somehow stand together at the manger. Like the Shepherds we see something we cannot fully understand, but that still fills our hearts with hope.

            A child, shivering against a cold night, wrapped in a blanket by their teenage mother. A confused step-father, unsure how such a child could exist. A boy heralded by angels as a King and as God, but nothing more to the eyes than a child, just like any other. We are beside those inquisitive shepherds tonight, citizens of a broken and hurting world, but looking on a savior unlike any other. A savior willing to come down and get their hands dirty in human form, to live a life harder than most, simply to give us all a chance to know peace, and patience, and joy. We have waited a long time for Christmas, for Christ, for hope to spark within us once again. Wait no more, Christ is born in Bethlehem, and our salvation is made real. – Amen.

We Wait for Justice – Advent 4 2020

Luke 1: 46-55.

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Sermon Text

            Tear it all down. Deep in our hearts, in the deepest moments of our despair we feel those few words, sometimes verbatim and other times given different form. The broken world around us, aspirating under the weight of the compound sin of thousands of generations of humanity. We look at the structures that have been propped up, often against our better sense and our better angels. We see cruelty pass on from one generation to another, the seemingly endless pain caused to those in need by those who have more than they could ever want. We see the injustice of the world and find – sometimes verbatim and other times given different form – the sentiment entering into us, tear it all down.

            Advent is a season of waiting, but it is also a season of penitence and of reflection. As we wait for the return of Christ, and to celebrate the incarnation of Christ in his Holy Nativity, we are supposed to look at the world around us and pray for it to be made right. Likewise, we are supposed to look within ourselves and pray, and work, to set ourselves right. We must seek out all that is wrong within us, we must dig deeper than we ever thought we could and root out evil. That sentiment which we hear in our most desperate moments, “tear it all down,” applies to ourselves as well. When we see how we have let ourselves become covetous or greedy, angry or wicked, when we see all that is wrong with us, we must turn our eyes to Heaven and ask for God to, “tear it all down.”

            That particular language that I am choosing, “tearing down,” is something that I have already said we might have different language for describing. Let me now take a moment to put it other ways. A gardener in a garden who finds weeds choking the life out of their plants must uproot the weed to save the garden. A surgeon treating a disease may need to isolate and purge a portion of the body of whatever infects it. Evil, present in creation, must at time be excised.

            Whatever the language used to describe it, the sentiment that our scripture today touches upon, and that we often feel when faced with the cruel and broken world around us, is that there are things that are wrong in this world, and they need to be dealt with. Sometimes the problems are obvious – personally or systemically. We know that we harbor hatred toward a single person, and so we search our heart to find how to transform our disposition from one of aggression and rage into one of love. We know that a specific policy hurts more people than it helps, and so we campaign to have it altered and for a more just solution to be reached.

            Yet, as with anything, the deeper we dig the more complicated we find the situations we are in. If I dig deep in my heart, I can find that the negative aspects of my personality and my behavior are usually not to do with specific situations or people. If I find myself easily angered by a person, it is rarely because of them specifically – although one cannot deny that some people are just difficult to work with – it is usually because something about them touches a raw spot in my soul. Maybe their mannerisms remind me of someone who hurt me or perhaps I have turned them into a strawman built from an archetype which I had previously constructed for a certain kind of person.

            Whatever the cause, if I do not examine my dispositions and my behavior toward other people regularly, then I may cause a great deal of harm, while all the time thinking that I am only acting naturally. Our conscience, that deep interface of the Spirit and the mind, must be examined constantly to ensure it is still aligned with the work and the will of God, the righteous things of God. Cruelty, spite, hate, arrogance, greed, all manner of other evils, can grow up in the shadows we are unwilling to examine. The unexamined heart is the breeding ground of all evils.

            The Magnificat, the prayer that Mary offers in our scripture today, is one of the most profound pieces of all scripture. Offered by a poor woman struggling to survive in a world that cares nothing for her. Carrying a child who society has written off as illegitimate, engaged to a man who has had his own doubts about the child, living under the oppressive rule of the Roman empire. Mary, at the moment this prayer is recorded in scripture, has gone off to live with her cousin Elizabeth while she prepares to have her child. She escaped her hometown to protect herself, to protect her growing child, to protect the Christ.

            Mary, alone like we can never understand, comes to her cousin, and finds that the stories of her own miraculous pregnancy were true. Her child, who would grow up to be John the Baptist, reacts in utero to the presence of Mary and Jesus, and Elizabeth blesses Mary as the Theotokos, the mother of the enfleshed Deity. Mary, suddenly greeted by her cousin in this manner, is given one final piece of assurance about where she is in life. She truly is the mother of the Messiah, of Jesus Christ the savior of all creation, she is truly not alone, not cursed, not abandoned. She is blessed.

            In a flood of gratitude and prophecy Mary lifts up a song to God. Like us, she is aware of the world being broken around her. She lives as a minority in a backwaters corner of an Empire known for zealous revolutions. She lives as a woman who no one will believe about her child’s parentage. She has been forced away from home to see that her child is taken care of. She has suffered everything you could expect a person could, she has been pushed to the extreme, and in the same way that we often do, she longs to see all this evil put aside. Yet, her words to God are not, “Tear it all down,” they are, “God is tearing it all down.”

            Every bit of evil in the Universe that has been piling itself up for centuries, God has hands upon and is ripping up at the roots. The axe is set to every tree that has produced poison fruit. The sickness of sin which has long afflicted the hearts of every soul on Earth is now to receive a physician capable of wiping it out for good. Evil is now to be excised from all the Earth.

            The Magnificat is bold in its claims about God. God shows, not just mercy, but covenant loyalty and loving kindness to all generations.[1] God seeks out those who, on account of their self-love have cast others into the cold and scatters them in the same way. God dethrones tyrants who rule by force and puts the humble in their place. God cares for the poor and the hungry and God cuts off the abundance of the rich. The Magnificat is Mary looking at all those who have hurt her – the holier than thou, Caesar and Herod, the nobility that bled her town dry – and when she looks to the blessing of her child, to the Savior she will birth, she suddenly sees how God has turned the world upside down to bring about Justice.

            The coming of Christ, whether in his first Advent in Nazareth or his second Advent at the end of history, is meant to disrupt the world in which we live. A savior comes to save us from all the evils of this world, and that means that a savior comes to do away with all evil. Christ the King must rule alone, not the wicked rulers of our own world. Christ the poor slave will liberate all people born of low estate, even if that upsets those who depended upon them to make their fortunes. Christ the incarnate Deity will conquer all evil in the universe, whether born of humanity or of evil itself. Everything that stands against God and goodness will be torn down. Our prayers to see our present state ended will be answered, of this there can be no doubt.

            However, the Magnificat is not a simple prayer of revenge, nor should any words that leave our lips be. Lifting up our desires to God as we do, our intent should never be destructive, but redemptive. We do not want evil done away with out of spite, not out of anger, we want to have evil done away with so that good may flourish, that God may be seen in all of creation.

            Whether it is evil within ourselves or within the world around us, we must trust as Mary did that God will bring about Justice. We as people of faith believe that God holds all of History in the divine hand. The arm of God is not too short to bring about justice and righteousness, nor can anything overpower God’s work in the universe.  We must not despair, nor give into our own anger or hatred or cruelty. In all things we must trust that God will topple all evil and that the end of all things will set straight any crookedness that has gone unchecked.

            Still, we do what we can to promote Justice in the here and now. Not through the taking up of arms or inciting violence, but through prayer and petition, through acts of mercy and of love. We must champion the oppressed, we must champion truth, we must champion the causes of God in all the world. We must love the stranger in our land, the poor at our doorstep, the enemy that spits in our face, and we must strive in all things to work alongside our God who is setting things right.

            This Advent has been different than any we have celebrated before. This year has been a bunch of ups and downs that has shown us every weakness within ourselves and in the world that we live in. Pushed to the edge, forced to live in situations we never would have even dreamed of before. I hope that we stare at the accumulation of all our unwillingness to do right, at all our accumulated sin, at all the towers of injustice and scarcity we have seen, and we cry out for God to tear it all down.

            Because from the ashes of the Towers and of the Asherah we have built against God will be born the promise of a new day. The hope of all ages emerging out of all the brokenness we cannot even give words for. From Bethlehem, in Judea, a light is shining dimly for all the world to see. Look now, let your heart be made glad in its weeping, Christ is coming soon. – Amen.

[1] The Greek word used for mercy in the Magnificat, ελεος, is used in Greek translations of the Old Testament to translate חֵסֵד which is a word used to describe God’s loyalty, love, and mercy toward members of the Covenant.

We Wait for Growth – Advent 3 2020

Isaiah 61: 8-11

For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots,  and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Sermon Text

            Our first look into Advent Scripture took us to the book of Isaiah. That text sought to bridge the gap between human evil and God’s grace. God, Isaiah assures us, was not willing to let anything get in between God and ourselves. The mountains quake like a boiling pot seated over a fire, the valleys gave up their depth to become flat ground. When God arrives, we suddenly encounter every historic act of salvation.

            Our text for this morning, taken from a little earlier in Isaiah, asks us to home in on another aspect of God’s work. We know that all will be set right in the triumphant return of Christ when all oppression ceases and all that remains in our actions toward one another is love and righteousness. Scarcity will no longer exist; God’s favor will be freely proclaimed to all people. Everything will be, in a word, perfect. The question that comes from such a grand vision of the end of history is what we are to do until then. If the end of all things is settled, and perfection awaits all the faithful in the world to come, then how do we spend our time on earth? How do we live out the wait before the return of Christ?

            There are many passages about our responsibility to be ready for Christ upon his arrival, as well as a fair few explanations of specific behavior to be encouraged and discouraged ahead of it. However, I want to speak about what we must understand to be our general responsibility in existing as Holy People awaiting a Holy God. That is, we must be a people who grow in righteousness over the course of our life. We must become steadily more and more invested in all that God has in store for us, more in line with the vision of life which Christ has shown us. The Church, in all that it does, must become a people where-in, “Righteousness and praise spring up,” wherever they are found.

            The Church grew in the early centuries of its existence precisely because it stood out from the Roman society which it inhabited. While the Roman people were certainly not some cartoonish vision of evil, there were certain societal and cultural practices which stood against the general morality of the Church. The Church, for example, was popular among societal pariahs who were not usually allowed in polite company. The Church and its egalitarian practices allowed for women, the poor, and non-citizens to participate more fully in a community than the wider culture would allow. Still more, in moments of disaster and danger – when people were sick or when children were abandoned to die of exposure on hilltops – the Church took these people in and cared for them.

            Even before the inception of the Church there are stories of righteous people among the Jewish people. Such a person is often called a Tzadik – one who is righteous. Scripture captures such images of righteous people. Joseph in his salvation of the Ancient Near East from starvation, Boaz in his redemption of Ruth, Ruth as the model gentile convert, Mordecai and Esther as the model of imperial opposition. Still more we have the example of those like Daniel, and the martyrs of the intertestamental books of the Maccabees, those who lived righteously and died for their faith as a result.

            Scripture, history, and all other stories that we tell record multiple layers of our understanding of the world. We record the plain happenings of an event on one level: what happened, who was there, and what came as a result of it. On another level comes our understanding of the morality of a situation. Regardless of whether we acknowledge it or not, most stories we tell take a side. Unless you find a truly great historian or storyteller, their own biases will leak into their retelling. Finally, the stories we tell, in light of our biases, usually demonstrate what aspects we as a culture value above all others – what do we value in people?

            There are many more aspects of stories that demonstrate other things about us than I could ever name. However, there are also aspects of our stories which hide away rather than reveal aspects of our world. For example, the actions of villains will be inflated to fit their evil character and, in the same way, the heroes that we lift up will often have their rough edges sanded off to ensure no one is scandalized by their actions. It would be hard to deny that many of our struggles today culturally stem from our willingness to villainize and to sanitize flippantly, from an unwillingness to acknowledge good and evil and instead to paint in broad strokes those we either support or oppose.

            The Biblical record is stark in that, on the whole, it does not shy away from presenting the evil and the good a person does and leaves the audience to decide what to do with that information. Those who participated in any way in our Genesis study will remember that at every turn, whether we looked at Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or his twelve sons, the good and the bad were there for everyone to see. In some ways it keeps us grounded in understanding that our “heroes,” are just as human as we are, but in others it also made clearer that humanity contains multitudes. The great hospitality of Abraham to those in need, contrasted with his seeming unwillingness to care for his family most of the time, paints a complicated image of what it means to be a righteous person.

            The promise of God, across all scripture, is a promise of redemption. The brokenness of the world is meant to be genuinely made right. This is not achieved through pretending all is well or through erasing the consequences of a person’s actions, but through genuinely transforming the heart of that person to allow them to act righteously in line with God’s will in the world. Through the slow death of evil within them and the gradual birth of goodness in its place.

            The most compelling stories that we can tell as a people are those stories where someone grows and becomes good over the course of the narrative. We want to see the growth of a character, not just to have a paragon of virtue from beginning to end. Les Misérables, the book more so than the films or musical, tells us about a petty thief who becomes a noble and philanthropic father. The Lord of the Rings shows us the journey of a King who is unwilling to take the throne, slowly taking on his role as a leader to his people. Even beyond the realm of simple narratives, we crave to see in others the growth we long for in ourselves.

            The life of the Apostle Paul is perhaps the most striking example of this in scripture. Raised up to be a good man by all accounts, Paul had a terminal case of hatred in his heart. While we are never given more of an example of this manifesting than his hatred toward the Christians, we can assume he probably had more than a few groups he felt this way about. His zeal for murder overcame his better angels and as he rode out to round up more victims, God intervened and started to transform him. He was healed by one of the people he had set out to destroy, and the process of making an apostle from an enemy of the church had begun.

            The Church, in whatever form it has taken throughout history, needs to be more proactive about growing in righteousness. From at least the time of Constantine, and probably before, the Church has complicated its mission through entanglements with all kinds of worldly business. Wrapped up in partisan politics, in acquisition of wealth, in striving to take power over government, and even the acquisition of military might. What began as a group devoted to love of God and neighbor, to doing what was right even when and especially if it was hard, became harder and harder to pick out from a sea of socio-political groups trying to get an edge over everyone else.

            The Church, as defined by Methodist doctrine, is found wherever the people of God gather, the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments duly administered. In a place where this is true, we should see people growing more and more righteous every day. The sacraments deliver grace to us, the word of God lights our heart aflame, and our gathered prayers open our ears and our hearts to the needs of those around us. To be the Church, is to grow, because to be alive is to grow. No living creature exists that does not have some sort of mechanism to allow its continued existence, and for the Church to be alive it must continue to move forward into righteousness.

            We must choose what we want to be in life. Whether it is to go about our three score and ten just checking occasional boxes and meeting the bare minimum of expectations, or if we will push beyond and really invest in the Kingdom of God which we have been called to be a part of. We should look at the kind of stories we tell and how they align or do not align with the vision of humanity which Christ offers us. Do we lift up heroes in our tales for being Christlike? Or do we lift them up for satisfying our earthly desires?

            If we succeed, and if we grow more holy each day that passes, we will eventually find ourselves inching toward perfection. Not to say we will not sin, because to err is human, but to say that we are perfectly intentional in doing what is right at all times. That we stand blameless before all we know because even our failings are produced by a desire to do what Christ wills of us. If we truly wish to find our time waiting for Christ to be fulfilled and blessed, we must spend it developing our ability to do what is right.

When people tell stories about us, about the Church as a whole, we must ensure that the stories they tell are redemptive, powerful, and glorify God. We are writing a story now to be told for all time, let us do our part to make it a good one. – Amen.

We Wait for Christ – Advent 2 2020

2 Peter 3: 8-15a

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, 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, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Sermon Text

Impatience is a killer. Life, as short as it is, cannot be taken in a hurry. Rushing from one thing to another, grabbing onto whatever gives us the most satisfaction in a single moment, it all makes the short span we have on this Earth pass even faster. We cannot afford to be impatient people, because impatience ultimately wastes our time more than simply waiting out inconveniences.

I myself am guilty of trying to get things done quickly or with less work and instantly finding that I have trapped myself in more work that takes more time than if I had just done something simple and straightforward. Recently, my greatest offense takes the form of a pumpkin roll in which I thought that I could stop beating the eggs when they were frothy instead of stiff and that I could roll it once instead of the suggested twice. As a result I made a delicious, albeit messy and flat, pumpkin pile, rather than a tall and stately pumpkin roll. It did taste good though.

Beyond baking though, there are far more serious consequences that can come from rushing into a situation. Speaking too quickly when we are upset or angry. Rushing through important work at our job and thereby complicating someone else’s or even hurting those our job serves. Still more, there are few things that cause more strife in our hearts than the continual heartbreak that impatience can give us. When we are waiting for something and unwilling to dwell in that wait, then we find our heart broken every moment that we do not receive the outcome that we wish. An unwillingness to wait things out, produces pain, after pain, after pain.

Of course, it is not as though our impatience is always meant to be selfish or lazy. Oftentimes we become impatient for very good things, things that we must want to come as soon as possible. When we are waiting for test results to tell us what kind of or if any treatment will work. When we have a loved one who went out somewhere and we do not hear from them even as the snow begins to fall out our window. When the news is just too bad for too long.

In all these cases it would be wrong of us to be alright with the present situation. If we became complacent and apathetic to the pain of those around us, even of ourself, then we have deprived ourselves of some of our most basic and authentic aspects of our humanity. We are people born into a broken world. As we become more and more Christlike over time, it only makes sense that the broken world would break our heart as well. We are people who, for love of others and of goodness must cry out periodically, “How long, O’ Lord!”

2 Peter, the book from which our scripture comes, captures a moment in the biblical witness which is usually called, “The Delay of the Parousia,” or in other words, “The Delay of Christ’s Return.” This period marks the end of the first century in which the expectant Church, having believed that Christ would have come back to save them within a single generation, now had to accept that their wait would be much longer than that. The tone of the letters which the apostles and teachers wrote out in this period changed. No longer was their a sense that the church had only a few days to repent and to become good, but that they now had many years to remain good.

It is easy to reform one’s behavior or beliefs for a short period of time.  Afterall, we can always keep to a diet for a day or two, maybe even stop cursing for a day or two. Drag that out over a few months and a few years, suddenly the struggle becomes much harder. We all can be holy in a moment, we can ever be righteous in extremis, but the lingering question must be whether or not we can endure in goodness. Can we love beyond the superficial, can we keep the faith across months and months, years and years, and disappointment after disappointment?

Our scripture today gives us a vision for how we can endure, and that is to take time out of our hands and put it into God’s. The author, looking at the Psalms for inspiration, makes it clear that God does not see time as we do. While we are fixated on minute details of every second and squeezing the most out of them, simultaneously draining them of their worth, God is invested in a larger view. The momentary troubles we face, even those that seem insurmountable, are attended to by a God for whom a thousand years are as a day, and for whom a day is a thousand years.

The brilliance of 2 Peter’s conception of God’s time is that it can be read in either direction. For God a single second lasts and eternity, and yet at the same time eternity is just a passing second. God is intimately involved in every moment of the life that we live yet is also looking decades and centuries down the road to how that moment will be played out. God is active and involved in the short and long term, and we have to let God be involved in every moment we face.

We wait for Christ every day as the Church. We wait for the Kingdom to be truly inaugurated and all things set right in Christ’s victorious return, but we also wait for the occasional deliverances we receive every day. When the power of sin is broken in our life in a new way, when our hardness of heart is melted, when the miracle we have been waiting for finally comes our way. We wait and we wait and we wait, would it not be good to know that God is not only in control, but waiting alongside us.

When God is invested, not only in the big picture, but in every passing moment as well, then we can be confident of two things. Firstly, God is not acting cruelly by making us wait, because God sees infinite number of steps down the road. Secondly, God is not disinterested with our present feelings and worries because God is actively involved in the most minute of details and the shortest increments of time.

We must develop patience, not out of an unwillingness to acknowledge the dire straights we currently inhabit, but from an earnest belief that God is with us and looking ahead of us no matter what comes our way. We are told in 2 Peter that God is not waiting to test us, not dragging feet to put off setting things right. God is taking all the time that is needed to bring about a kingdom people by as many people as possible, a kingdom founded on righteousness and imbued with all the qualities that produce true community.

We must continue to pray to God to bring about goodness. We must continue to look to the future and the goodness that God will bring. However, in doing so we must not become impatient, breaking our heart with every passing moment. We must trust in God who has given us an abundance of goodness and somehow try and take the same view of time that God has. Every second, an infinitude in itself, must be treasured as though it were a millennium. In the same way, when something drags out and takes longer than we would like or expect, we must try and put that time in perspective of the long arc of history.

We must be patient and await God’s recreation of the world and of ourselves. Patience, like anything is a skill that we must develop over time. It begins with taking time in the little things we are given, in taking time to do something right the first time. It begins in patiently waiting through whatever delays we face in life. Overtime though, we see time as God does. Every moment invested with all the importance of every decade, and all things working together to bring us into something new and sacred.

We wait now for Christ, and we pray for Christ to come near to us. – Amen.