Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Sermon

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

As we gather to celebrate the nativity of our Lord, many of us will have in mind that familiar Christmas story. There are traditionally two different texts from the Gospel used on Christmas; the first is our passage from John 1 and the other is from the Luke 2. It is from Luke that we have all those well-known details: the journey to Bethlehem, the inn in which there is no room; the stable in which Jesus is born and the manger in which Mary places the swaddled new born, the shepherds and the angels and their song of praise and the visitation to the Holy Family. All of these come from that passage from Luke. While Luke tells us what happened on the day that Jesus was born, our passage from John helps us to understand the meaning of this birth, why it happened.

John's Gospel opens with these deceptively simple words, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Though the words are simple, what they convey can be elusive. God's Word, like our words, is the Father's self-communication. The Word is God's perfect self-expression. For John, if you want to know who God is, then you look at Jesus, the Word incarnate. That Word was present with the Father in all eternity. It was there at the beginning of time in the word of Creation. In the opening verses of Genesis, we are told, God said, let there be light and there was light. The Word created and gave order to the world. The crown of creation was the man and the woman of whom God said, Let us make man in our image. The Father through the Word, created humans to be in fellowship and communion with him and with one another. Man is invited share in the communion of love that existed for all eternity between the Word and the Father.
Of course the remainder of the Old Testament is about how the man and woman turn away from God, believing in the lie of self-sufficiency and life apart from God. This is quickly succeeded by the lie that we can live apart from one another, so that by Genesis chapter four, we hear the muderous Cain say to the Lord, am I my brother's keeper? In the succeeding history, God again and again gave his Word to the prophets who called the people back into fellowship with him. The Word, spoken through the prophets, told the people to love God with all their heart, soul and strength and to love their neighbors. This was not anything new. It was the way God had created the world to be through the Word.

The shocking affirmation of John is that this Word, the Word that created, the Word spoken through the prophets, became flesh. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. The Word would no longer need to come to man through the medium of creation or through the words of the prophets, but there is a kind of immediacy. We can see and touch the Word of God in the man Jesus. In the life of the Word made flesh we see an outpouring of love. Jesus persisted and persevered in love for the Father and for man, even when that love led him to Calvary. There is an exercise I do with our children and ask them how much God loves us. Not this much (hands close together). Nor even this much (a little further apart), but this much (with hands extended). It is the position of crucifixion but also of embrace. He persisted in love so that we could be restored to communion with God and one another.

To put it quite simply, the truth of Christmas is that, as John says, the light shineth in darkness. And in his first epistle, John states, the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth. All of this is represented in the church by all the candles that are burning tonight. In that simple stable over 2000 years ago, a light of love was placed before us and before all humanity. There is no extinguishing this light because this light is a persevering love. Even the worst of human darkness cannot overcome it. Now that we are on this side of that birth in Bethlehem, we are called to put all our lives in that light. We have to let go of those lies that have been around since the beginning of creation, namely that we can live apart from God and apart from one another. The God who made us is our soul's food; we need him and he is our true happiness. The same God has declared, it is not good that man should be alone. We need one another, in all particularities and diversities. This Christmas, let us turn again to this light of love and embrace the greatest gift we will ever receive, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

3rd Sunday in Advent

And he confessed and denied not, but confessed, I am not the Christ.

This third Sunday in Advent is traditionally given to reflecting on and praying for the ordained ministry of the church. The collect for this Sunday in the traditional prayer book highlights the similarity between the ministry of John the Baptist which prepared the way for Christ's first coming and the ministry of the Christian church today which prepares the way for his second coming. In short, the life, witness and ministry of John the Baptist are a model for Christian priests and ministers to follow, and help to give all a sense of what a priest is and what he is not. This morning I want to examine the Gospel lesson to see what we can glean about Christian ministry from the example and words of John.

In the opening verses of our passage, we are told that the Jewish leaders sent an embassy  to John to find out what kind of credentials he has. It is clear that John does not fit the established religious institutions and conventions of his time. He is in the fray, and they want to know exactly who he is and what he is doing. John is not hesitant to say, I am not the Christ, I am not Elijah or one of the prophets. You see a foundation of John's ministry was to point away from himself. Later on in John's Gospel, he will say, I must decrease, but he, that is Jesus, must increase. Christian ministry in the same way is always about pointing away from self. The most important things a Christian priest can do are not about the priest as an individual but about being a vessel for God's grace and a witness to new life in Jesus Christ. It is all too easy for priests, and for the people they serve, to fall into the trap of the cult of personality. The priest can begin to tout what a great person he is. He can begin to worship on the altar of popularity, forgetting that a priest has to have the courage to speak truth which must sometimes make him unpopular. In all of this, the priest has to say, I am not the Christ, I am not your messiah. God's grace was with you long before I came along, and your relationship with him will still be there even after I am gone. This is why I shy away from lots of personal anecdotes in my preaching. Personal anecdotes might help you feel connected to me as a person, but they probably won't make you feel connected to God. In the final estimation, when you step out of this church, I don't want you to remember some personal anecdote about me, but the message of God's grace and love. There is a time and place for getting to know each other on a personal level, as fellow Christians, but I don't believe that time and place is in the pulpit.

But I digress, in the Gospel lessons, those sent to question John persist in their inquiries. You're not the Christ; you're not Elijah; you're not that prophet, but you have to be something, they say, and indeed, John says that he is the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. John is alluding to a passage in the book of Isaiah in which the prophet announces a word of hope and redemption for those who had gone into exile. One of the most important events in the Old Testament was the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews to Babylon. The trip was a long one; nearly a thousand miles, and there was no direct route. You had to go  far north of Jerusalem, and then loop towards the southwest toward present day Baghdad. The route as the crow flies from Jerusalem to Babylon is an expansive desert, largely uninhabited both in ancient and modern times. Isaiah describes a homecoming for the exiled Jews through this wilderness. The familiar words from Isaiah read, “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.” Of course, this never literally happened. There was no highway running through the Arabian desert for the Jewish exiles to come home to Jerusalem. What was Isaiah's meaning and John's meaning by quoting this passage? The idea is that in God, there is a straight path back to fellowship with him, not because in our human disorder we have finally sorted things out, but because God has made a way for us in Jesus Christ. Every obstacle that could separate us from the love and mercy of our Creator has been taken away. The great mountain of human hostility and rebellion against God has been laid low. The great valley of human despair in living apart from God has been raised up. John was preparing the way for Jesus Christ, and that in him, we have our highway to God. The Christian minister is called to this same proclamation. It is all too-tempting for Christian ministers to set up false obstacles between God's love and his people. A minister can preach endlessly that people are not worthy, and they aren't, but that isn't the point, my friends. We're not worthy, but the Gospel isn't about us; it is about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The Gospel is not dependent, thank God, on our worthiness, but on God's decision to love us and restore us in Jesus. Ministers can also set up obstacles in the way they act towards outsiders: the subtext often is maybe if you work really hard and become exactly like us, you could become a part of this church. God has flung open the doors; he has made the path straight to his redeeming grace. God doesn't need his ministers to be the gate-keeper. He needs them to be stewards of this good news for all people.

So, to sum up, John's ministry shows that Christian ministers have to point away from themselves to Jesus Christ, and their central proclamation is to be about the highway to God, established in Jesus Christ. But it should also be said, that every Christian has a ministry as well, whether it is in your home or place of work or in community work or even in politics. We all have our vocations to which God has called us, and none is any better or less than other, just different. The same applications that we've made from John's ministry about priests and ministers apply to each of us. Each of our lives have been created, preserved, and redeemed by God's grace. There really is no boasting in our own strength because everything we have and are is from the Lord. All of us are to point away from ourselves, like John, to a greater one. In addition, in our interactions with others, we should not divide humanity into two classes: the redeemed or potentially redeemed and the unredeemable. In God, there is a highway. We have to treat others as if at any moment the invitation to come home to God down this highway will strike them like a clap of thunder. Are we setting up man-made hills and digging trenches to the love and grace of God, or are we witnesses of God's highway, God's great redeeming love in Jesus Christ?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

2nd Sunday of Advent

Prepare ye the way of the Lord

Today is the Sunday of Advent when we think about St. John the Baptist. The purpose of John the Baptist's ministry was to prepare the way for Jesus. Luke the Evangelist tells us that John and Jesus were cousins, but it is apparent that John began to preach and minister some time before his cousin. John went down into the area near where the Jordan River meets the Dead Sea. He told people to repent, which is a twofold action: to turn away from sin and turn to God. When they repented, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. The purpose of all those prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, David, Moses--was to point forward to the coming messiah Jesus, and for this reason, we do not have prophets any more in this Old Testament sense because the messiah has come. When Jesus did finally enter the scene as a grown man, his preaching largely consisted of the message of the kingdom of God. What is the kingdom of God, you might ask? The kingdom of God is God's rule and reign over every human disorder, chaos and sin, and even over death. Jesus showed that he was the ambassador of this kingdom by giving freedom to the burdened and oppressed, healing those who were sick and afflicted, and telling people that their sins were forgiven. We too can have our share in this invisible kingdom, with a king who has ascended in tothe heavenly places. As we are redeemed, we have new life in this kingdom. Burdens are lifted, afflictions of soul and body are healed; assurance of forgiveness is given in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion and in the proclamation of the truth that Jesus has made the one true and eternal sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.

John's message was that of repentance: he said, repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. What we need to be reminded of today is that John's message was not just for his time and place. It is easy for us to talk about God's love and grace and how he invites us into his kingdom, but we forget that he also calls us to repentance and new life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer used to talk about cheap grace by which he meant when we sooth the conscience by pious but ineffectual platitudes or when we tell ourselves that it is acceptable to God if we continue in our self-destructive, sinful behavior. You see, the message of John about repentance and the message of Jesus about the kingdom and new life go together.

The way I like to think of this is that grace and judgment are two sides of the same coin. God gives us new life, but he also tells us that the way we are living now needs to change. That is the best type of love because it seeks for our good. Put another way, the Gospel is truly good news for us and for all, but if the Gospel is rightly to be proclaimed, it also comes with the bad news that we have to change, we need to repent. Even this, with a bit of perspective, is good news because sin and selfishness enslaves us. The Hebrews who were slaves in Egypt, you recall, were told that God was going to be their God and they would be his people. They did have to leave Egypt, however, and that meant leaving the supposed comforts of slavery. This was the bad news of the Gospel and why some of the Hebrews complained that they wanted to go back to Egypt.

We know that sin is self-destructive to us and harmful to others. We need to be told that. God calls us away from these things in repentance, and at the same time, he invites us to new life in him. You see, there will always be the need for the proclamation of John the Baptist to turn away from sin and the serving of self so that we can find new life and abiding love in God's everlasting kingdom.