Sermons from the Church of the Incarnation
Third Sunday After Epiphany, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary| Pamela Moore
Third Sunday After Epiphany, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Psalm 27:1, 5-13
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“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?”
Indeed, whom shall I fear? Whom do I fear? Whom or what do you fear? The Bible is filled with talk about fear, mostly with admonitions to fear not! Remember the angel Gabriel to Mary, “Fear not, the Lord is with you.” Angels are very much into “Fear not!”
But of course, if truth be told we do fear. I read recently that 40% of Americans suffer from anxiety—ranging from panic attacks to other forms of anxious living. Look around this church and think about that. 40% of us are living with anxiety.
Who or what do we fear? Some of us in Sonoma County fear the next fire season, or the next flooding of the Russian River. What stresses will come our way, what losses? We may be afraid for our health—that the cancer will come back– or perhaps we fear for the health of our spouse or child or friend. Sometimes I fall into climate change fear—for us right here, for the vulnerable in so many places, for our children and grand-children. What will they have to face? More pressing perhaps, we’re afraid we can’t make the next rent payment, or that the car will break down and cost too much to repair. Some of us have already lost our homes, and our fears are of the real vulnerability of life on the streets.
Maybe we’re afraid to feel our fears, to acknowledge them… or our grief… our grief about the way things are today, the extremes of wealth and poverty, racism, the fires and floods, the hurting earth, our seeming unwillingness to do anything about it. We fear for the earth and its creatures. Ourselves among them.
I don’t know how it is for you, but fear constricts me. When I get into those fearful obsessive thought patterns… they take over. I make bad decisions when fear decides for me. (I’m not talking here about dodging the oncoming truck kind of decisions). Maybe this is true for you as well. Fearful decisions for me generally are small, tight, closed. I try to shield my heart. And, in fact there are times when I’m afraid to feel my fear. Then, the results are more scary. Then I lash out at others, there is a kind of blaming, and I see myself as a victim.
Isaiah the prophet is speaking to a people who have lived in very dark times. They’ve known oppression, and subjection and utter vulnerability. Zebulon and Naphtali have been taken into captivity. Their sense of security and safety has long been stripped from them. (This might be like 9/11 coupled with captivity and exile of all the survivors maybe. Something like that.) Isaiah speaks to them with metaphors beyond their wildest imagination. That’s often what prophets do. He tells them that God actually has the power, not Assyria, not any earthly king or would-be king, God. If they turn to God they’ll see what Isaiah sees: the great light dawning, the path now clear. He proclaims Joy in the present tense. This is happening now folks.
Really it seems too much. When I’m feeling afraid and insecure, and worried, it’s hard to see anything but darkness. Just think of how you feel after you read the daily news. It’s hard to entrust yourself to God’s power when you see yourself as trapped in the machinations of the earthly powers that be. It’s hard.
The psalmist began his song with his rootedness in God’s light and his lack of fear; he affirms that what he wants is just what Isaiah called for: he turns to God, no matter what. There are problems and enemies, and tough times—perhaps like our own. Nonetheless, he says: “You speak in my heart and say, “Seek my face. Your face, Lord, will I seek.” Another translation puts it this way, “’Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek God’s face.’ Your face Lord do I seek.”
And really that’s what it comes down to. What we all long for. The face of God. That intimate knowledge of God’s presence. God’s withness in this mess we find ourselves in. Can we take Isaiah at his word? If we seek God’s face, will we be bathed in a light that will show us a path? Will we? How do we do that? We come here on a Sunday morning. Maybe we gather during the week too, seeking that face.
Maybe we meditate, or study scripture, or look for that face in our dreams, or in nature, at the beach or on the mountaintop.
One cosmologist gazing at the ripples of light that gave birth to the universe said that was like looking in the face of God. And, we do catch a glimpse in those moments when we stand before the unspeakably beautiful.
Hebrew Scriptures tell us that seeing God face to face is too much. Too much for us to bear. Too intense, too overwhelming. Too much beauty, love and truth to bear. I’ve thought that maybe the burning bush was a humble way for God to be present to Moses so that he could take notice and not be eradicated.
For us who follow his path, Jesus is the face of God in a form that we can see. That is just barely not too much. And in today’s Gospel Jesus has made his home in Capernaum—the territory of Zebulon and Naphtali, no less. That little nowhere place, no longer under the thumb of the Assyrians, but now it’s the Romans. He is there says Matthew to fulfill the vision of Isaiah—that’s a Christian interpretation of the Hebrew text. Jesus was a Jew. He’d know those words. “for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Not will dawn. Has dawned.
The face of God come among us. “Repent,” the face says. “Repent.” Repentance is not so much about saying “I’m sorry” as it’s about doing an about face, or a somersault. “Change your mindset” “See differently” Let go. Our old ways of understanding the times, the darkness, the oppressiveness of the powers, our own sense of powerlessness… those have got to go. Not that these times aren’t dark, they definitely are. But in these very times, to perceive the face of God, we’ll need to entrust ourselves to a new way of seeing. We need to let go of letting fear make our decisions. The reign of God has come near, Jesus says, open your eyes. Open your hearts. Unclench your fists.
This is the season of the Epiphany when we celebrate Jesus as the face of God in the world. The light shining not just over the stable in Bethlehem, but out into the world—into the Zebulons and Naphtalis—the Santa Rosas and Sebastopols as well as the towns in Syria, whose names we do not know, or in Libya or Indonesia. Whatever this face is telling us, it is telling us that the face of God is to be found in this material world of ours, just as it is. “The gate to heaven is everywhere,” as Merton says. The divine is here in our midst, in the most unlikely, the hardest, and least of these places and people –and even in animals and trees and the earth itself. And, in the universe itself: we now know that we’re all made of the same stardust. That’s a fact. And Jesus is good news that God didn’t just breathe into the dust, God is both in and beyond this dust. Where we in our fear see only division, difference, and danger, creation oozes seamlessness, connection, and energy for new life. When we open ourselves to those, we see the divine.
This is the Church of the Incarnation. Right? This is a season for us to plumb the meanings of God-in-the-flesh. To do that we need to repent, change the lenses—(maybe we all need a kind of divine cataract surgery.) In any case, we’ll have to let go. And it’s hard to let go of anything we haven’t acknowledged. So one way to start is with our fears: first honestly feel our fears (maybe even for just a few minutes), perhaps dare to share them, –then we can begin to loosen their grip, and open our eyes to the presence of the light within ourselves and around us, and in this amazing universe we are privileged to be a part of. Yes, it’s dark and scary. Yes, you and I are not in charge. But the face of God has come among us and is among us. Inviting us to trust bit by bit that that very divine energy is at work inviting us to new life.
“Your face, Lord, do I seek.” Say that with me please. “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” Let that be our mantra for the season. Let’s see where it takes us.
First Sunday After Epiphany, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary| Pamela Moore
First Sunday After Epiphany, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary
Psalm 29 + + +
Somewhere in my house, there is a button I got a few years ago that says, “Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.” I thought of that button when I read today’s Gospel lesson. As a young girl, I longed to be unique, to be noticed for who I was, and to know that I had God’s blessing. Whenever I heard the account of the Baptism of Our Lord, I could not help but wonder what it would be like for a ray of light to come from the heavens and for a voice to say, “This is my child, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” What would it take, I thought, to be the kind of person that God would think was an exceptional being?
It saddens me to think that for so many years, I felt that one had to be exceptional to be loved by God. My child’s view of the world was that only if one was kind, obedient, and followed all the rules, would they would be worthy of God’s love. Of course, now I know that God’s love is a gift freely given to us and that we are all worthy of that love just because we are who we are.
At the same time, it does not seem to me that we can do anything we want, any way we want, and still assume that our relationship with God is perfect as is. If that were the case, we would not have needed Jesus to show us how to fully live into our human identity and our spiritual communion with God.
For many of us, Baptism is the beginning of a lifelong commitment to seeking an understanding of what it means to be a child of God. It is a relationship that begins with a set of promises, sometimes made on our behalf when we are babe or children, and later on when we, as adults, renew those promises within our faith community. The Book of Common Prayer tells us that “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s body, the church.” And that the bond which God establishes in Baptism is “indissoluble.” With Baptism we become Christ’s own forever, and that relationship can never be broken.
Holy Baptism is the process by which our parents, godparents, or we commit to Christ and to live the Christian faith. We promise to pray, continue in the teachings of the Apostles, to participate in fellowship, to resist evil, and when we do sin, repent, and return to God. We promise to share the Good News of God in Christ and to serve one another with love. We promise to work for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of other human beings. We ask for God’s help to live into this covenant because we know we cannot depend on our will power to keep faith with our Creator. We look to Jesus to show us how to go forth and do what we promise God we will do.
It is easy to understand why John was surprised when Jesus came to him to be baptized. Remember that John recognized Jesus as the anointed one when they worth both still in their mothers’ wombs. John’s ministry was to prepare the people to return to God through a ritual immersion designed to wash away sin and to purify the body. So, you can see why John wondered why Jesus, the one born without sin, would ask to be baptized? Although he was still probably unsure about who should baptize whom, John chose to trust that Jesus would know the right thing to do. Scripture tells us that this was the right thing to do because God affirms this decision by saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Like John, we may not initially understand or even agree on how things should be done. However, can trust that Jesus always knows what is right. When we choose to follow Jesus, to model our lives after his, to trust in him for guidance and strength, we affirm our belief that Jesus is our savior. Jesus will show us how to be in a relationship with God from the time we are vulnerable babies until the day we are called home to be with God forever. We can go forth in the world to heal and do good. We can go forth into the world to seek justice and peace. We can go forth into the world, knowing that God equips us with gifts of grace that come from living in communion with God’s beloved. The bond between God and us cannot be broken because God is with us. Our Emmanuel, God and human, shows us the way to live rightly and to keep the covenant we have made.
We make our promises to God, knowing that we will need God’s help to keep them. Human nature is such that we are subject to going astray, forgetting our purpose, and sometimes we are just plain lost. Prayer can be helpful, and there is a prayer that comes from the Forward Day by Day called For Today that helps me to focus on God’s will and not mine. I share it with you now in the hope that you will also find it to be useful.
“O God: Give me strength to live another day. Let me not turn coward before its difficulties or prove recreant to its duties. Let me not lose faith in other people. Keep me sweet and sound of heart, in spite of ingratitude, treachery or meanness. Preserve me from minding little stings or giving them. Help me to keep my heart clean and to live so honestly and fearlessly that no outward failure can dishearten me or take away the joy of conscious integrity. Open wide the eyes of my soul that I may see good in all things. Grant me this day some new vision of thy truth. Inspire me with the spirit of joy and gladness and make me the cup of strength to suffering souls. In the name of the strong deliverer, or only Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
The Epiphany, Revised Common Lectionary| Stephen Shaver
The Epiphany, Revised Common Lectionary
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They brought him gifts, these magi; these wise men, mages, learned ones from the East. They came to find a king, and the one who was already king was not amused. He sent them on to Bethlehem, Herod, that fox, that sly wielder of power, plying them with smooth words even as his soldiers sharpened their swords for what was to come.
They brought him gifts, these sages, these Iranian seers, these Zoroastrian seekers of God. They followed a light from heaven, and they came to a humble house. And they opened their chests and brought forth their treasures, rich gifts laden with hope and expectation: Gold. Incense. Myrrh.
What have you come to give him? What do you bring with you, tonight, hidden in the treasure chest of your deep and mysterious soul?
What do you bring?
Maybe you will give him your gold. Gold, a gift for a king: the currency of the rulers of this world. Gold for leadership and finance and getting things done. Gold for iPhones and project management and household budgeting and résumés. We all use gold—or dollars, or euros, or bitcoin, or the softer currency of time and energy and influence. We do work in this world, whether our sphere is the household or the workplace or the empire. The rulers of this world know about gold, how it can be used for good or evil: gold to build public works, gold to feed the poor, gold to pay the soldiers to slaughter the children of Bethlehem. Jesus will grow up to say that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also—in that order: because our hearts tend to follow our wallets, rather than the other way around. Where we invest our money and our time tends to become that which drives our hearts. Choosing to give away what God has first given us is for most of us about the quickest and most basic spiritual practice there is. How will we allocate the resources of which God has made us stewards? Will we follow the path of Herod or of Christ? Maybe gold is the gift your heart yearns to bring him tonight.
Maybe you come bringing incense. That sweet-smelling sap of Arabia whose billowing smoke sanctifies temples of Jerusalem and Rome. Incense, a gift for a god: the fragrance of prayer and devotion. Maybe your heart yearns to know what lies beyond this world, to taste the transcendent and commune with the Holy One. These magi know well what it is to seek the face of the holy. And so do so many of us, who yearn for meaning in a world we fear may lack it. We live in an age of crumbling religious institutions, when respectability and certainty ring more and more hollow. But our hunger for holiness is as fierce as ever. We seek the sacred in church and at yoga and at meditation, in music and art, in wilderness, in beauty wherever it may be found. We seek it, sometimes, in substances or food or sex; or we seek to stifle it in those things or in work or self-harm. But we are spiritual beings. The spark in us is drawn to the flame of the holy. We are created for awe. And so maybe tonight you have come to offer him incense: to kindle the flame of worship, to cultivate a life of prayer. Maybe your heart yearns for a deeper pattern of spiritual practice in your daily and weekly round. Maybe you are called to take up in a new way your priestly vocation in the priesthood of all believers. Maybe this year will find you deepening your spiritual practice. Offer the gift of incense.
Gold and incense: we heard of them earlier in the words from the prophet Isaiah. Two gifts that were foretold so long ago, gold for a king, incense for a god. But to this newborn Jesus the magi have brought also a third gift—an unexpected gift. And, perhaps, an unwelcome gift. Another spice of Arabia—but this one not for a temple, but for a tomb. Myrrh to embalm the dead. And the time will come when this gift is needed, when the body of Jesus will lie not in swaddling clothes but in a shroud. No prophet could have predicted this crucified Messiah. Gold for a king—that we can understand. Incense for a god—just what we were looking for. But this king and this God has come to do something new: to go with us into death itself. Myrrh is for one who shares our vulnerability and our pain, who mourns and laments, who knows what it is to be left all alone and cry out to a God who does not seem to hear: My God, why have you forsaken me? Maybe tonight you bring the gift of myrrh. Maybe what you have brought with you tonight is your heart’s pain and sorrow, or the sorrows of those you love, or even the sorrows of the whole world, a world still filled with manipulative rulers, with children in danger, with wars and threats of wars. Tonight we celebrate the epiphany, the revelation of a great mystery. Part of that mystery is that this king prefers to rule not from the throne but from the cross, and this God has made the place of outcasts into the Holy of Holies. Our suffering and our pain is close to the heart of God, because God has chosen to come among us. Jesus has gone with us into the mouth of death. God has raised him from the dead and in that raising is God’s promise that our deaths are not the final word, and that the powers of death will not prevail against God’s love.
So tonight as you come to meet him, bring your gifts. Bring your gold: your money, your time and labor, the best of all your efforts in this world. Bring your incense: your prayers and devotion, your thirst to know the Holy One. And bring your myrrh: your suffering, your fear and anger, your vulnerability. Come to the prayers and the table. And come knowing that in an even deeper sense there is nothing we can possibly offer, because Jesus himself is all gift, and his yearning for you is already the gift that has brought you here in response.
2 Christmas, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary| Stephen Shaver
2 Christmas, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary
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It’s not easy being twelve.
It’s not so easy being the parent of a twelve-year-old either.
Maybe even a little more so if that twelve-year-old is the Messiah.
This is the only passage in the Bible that tells us a story of Jesus participating in the universal human experience of being a kid, with every bit of the joy and frustration that involves.
Imagine how it is to be Jesus in this story. Here he is, twelve years old, just a year short of young manhood in his culture, given a chance to run around in the big city during the most important festival of the year. He finds his way to the Temple where his passion for God finds an outlet as he begins hanging out with these older, wiser rabbis—and lo and behold, he actually has a contribution of his own to make to the conversation. He’s being taken seriously by these adults—adults who are not his parents!— he’s grappling with his identity and beginning to discover a sense of calling.
And, of course, while all this is happening, he’s also being COMPLETELY oblivious to the fact that he’s putting his parents through hell. Which lets us draw the theological conclusion that when the Word of God became incarnate as a human being, he took on all of human nature, including the adolescent part. Including that quality of complete absorption in the events at hand that makes parents tear their hair out and use dreaded phrases like “teenage irresponsibility.” It’s no wonder they’re angry when they find him. Maybe even more so after his response, which after all seems a little flip. “Your father and I have been out of our minds with worry looking for you.” “Why, didn’t you know I’d be in my Father’s house?” Joseph gets the worst of it, with Jesus’ play on the word “Father.” There’s a theological point here about how Jesus’ identity as child of God is more fundamental than his identity as child of Mary and Joseph. But there’s also a strong hint of “Oh yeah? You’re not my real dad anyway.” If you’re from a blended family, you can appreciate that dynamic all too well.
So there’s pain here. But there’s also something precious. Jesus is growing up, and his parents can’t fully understand him. He’s entering into a world where they can’t totally follow. And in some way, they seem to get that, and there’s grace here too: it says Jesus goes back to Nazareth with them and is obedient to them, and Mary treasures these things in her heart, and Jesus grows in favor with God and people.
There’s so much here to identify with for any of us. Have you ever felt like your parents didn’t understand you? Ever wished you had a secret, special destiny? Ever parented a young person who took you for granted and knew just how to say the things that would hurt you the most? Ever had a family conflict that broke your heart, and then found a way to reconcile? This story is so precious because it’s so incarnational, so fully illustrative of Jesus as sharing our experience of what it is to be human. His vocation may be unique, but his experience of being an adolescent is the same one we share. Each of us, as we grow older, has to come to grips with the task of figuring out just who we really are. For Jesus that identity was the eternal Son of God. For us it’s different. But as Paul says today in the letter to the Ephesians, in our baptism we become children of God by adoption through Jesus Christ. We’re given a share in the relationship between God and God’s beloved child Jesus, and that becomes our truest deepest, identity.
For a while when I lived in Seattle I volunteered as a chaplain at the county juvenile detention center. One week I had a young man ask to talk to me; let’s call him Rico. He said he was worried about his mom who was in danger of being deported. Depending on how his drug treatment program went, he might not be released in time to see her. Meanwhile, he was also worried about his own kids. At age sixteen, Rico had three kids, with three different mothers. But none of this was the real reason he wanted to talk. Rico told me he wanted me to help him pray—for all these worries, but also for his fellow young people at the detention center. And in particular, he wanted to learn to pray for his enemies. I jotted down what he said to me shortly afterwards. He told me, “I feel like I need to pray for my enemies because God loves them too. I don’t need to fight them to prove who’s the biggest man. Praying for them is what Jesus would do."
Jesus came to discover that being God’s child was a deeper identity than what the world knew him as, Mary and Joseph’s child. Two thousand years later, Rico was discovering that his own identity as God’s child was deeper than what the world knew him as, a juvenile offender, or an immigrant, or a drug user, or any of the other labels that might be applied to him. And he was learning to see his enemies as God’s children too.
“Who are you?” That’s the question we begin to try to answer in adolescence, and we keep answering throughout our whole lives. Who you truly are is not just who your parents say you are, who your friends say you are, who your society says you are, or even who your church says you are. Who you really are is who God says you are. And what God says is: You are my child—uniquely created, uniquely redeemed, uniquely loved.
When we’re secure in that identity, we can find the strength to live the abundant life God calls us to live—even when it calls us to do hard things like forgiving our enemies, from the detention center, or from the cross.
The writer Mark Bozzuti-Jones has written about what it can feel like to experience ourselves as children of God. He writes, “Act silly to make God laugh. Curl up in the arms of God. Ask God to read you a story. Allow God to throw you up in the air. Play hide and seek with God. Allow God to play hide and seek with you. Cry when God goes away. Squeal with delight when God comes back. Listen to God say how much you are loved.”
As this Christmastide draws to a close, may we have ears to hear that message of love.
 For more reflections on the richness of this story and its connections to youth ministry, read the first several pages of the “Sample Pages” available from the Journey to Adulthood program at https://www.leaderresources.org/assets/images/J2A/J2A%20Overview%202016.pdf.
 The Womb of Advent (New York: Church Publishing, 2007), 87.
First Sunday after Christmas, All Years, Revised Common Lectionary| Hugh Stevenson
First Sunday after Christmas, All Years, Revised Common Lectionary
I got a kite for my birthday. I love kites, the way they ascend into the heavens transcending the force of gravity, up, up and away. We took my new kite to Bodega Head where there was a fresh breeze from the sea and it flew up into the air. What exhilaration! So the song that concludes Mary Poppins speaks to me. It’s a song of joy or redemption, a song of resurrection. The Banks family had been going down hill, while George Banks devoted his full attention to the bank where he worked and neglected his family. But when he lost his job it was a blessing in disguise; he had time to fix the kite which was broken and to take his family out to the park as he sang:
Up where the air is clear. Oh, let’s go fly a kite!
Among those who reached for the sky were Elijah who “ascended in a whirlwind into heaven” in a chariot of fire with horses of fire. And Jesus who “was lifted up (ascended), and a cloud took him out of [the disciples’] sight.”
In olden times when people still believed in a flat earth, there was a dome (or firmament) created by God whence soft refreshing rain fell down upon the earth.  Up above the dome, God sits enthroned surrounded by the heavenly court in the heavenly city–a magnificent place where the streets are paved with gold and the gates are pearls. From his vantage point God sees all things that take place on earth. He knows if you have been naughty or nice–or in Biblical terms “righteous” or “wicked.” Jacob had a dream of a ladder reaching up to heaven with angels ascending and descending and St John the Divine passed through an open door to enter heaven.
On a number of occasions when he was praying, Jesus looked up to heaven: when he broke the five loaves to feed the multitude and when He raised Lazarus from the dead. When he was baptized, the heavens opened and the Spirit descended upon him like a dove. 
In our sophistication, we know that there isn’t actually a dome up there. It is a metaphor rather than a reality. It stands for presence of God, it stands for heaven. We should “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” We should not spend our lives earthbound, with our eyes cast down. We should not be preoccupied with troubles that might afflict us in this life. Think how much we would be missing out on. So, as Jesus said, “Look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.” The Christmas stories require us to look up lest we miss out.
At the annunciation, the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” And in Elizabeth’s song which we call the canticle, Benedictus, “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”  If you would see Jesus, the Son of the Most High then you must keep your eyes raised to the heavens. So we sing: “He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all.
This is what the shepherds did when they were watching their flocks in the fields by night. They looked up and first saw an angel who told 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 Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Then “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 favours!”
If the Wise men from the East had not looked up they would not have seen the star that guided them to the stable where the child who was been born king of the Jews was lying in a manger. But they saw, they came they paid him homage and they gave him their priceless gifts. Following their example we should look up for the guiding star.
Finally let us not forget one more who flies through the air over the roof tops each Christmas in a sleigh drawn by Rudolph and the other reindeer in order to bring presents for the little children. As he finished his work, he was up, up and away and his parting word as he drove out of sight was “Happy Christmas and to all a good night.” Amen to that!
Christmas I December 29 2019
 Mary Poppins (1964). “Lets go fly a kite” is sung by David Tomlinson who plays Mr. Banks, then by Dick van Dyke, the chimney sweep, and finally by the full chorus. The composers were Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman
 Group Captain Douglas Bader (1910-1982). A group captain is the equivalent of a colonel in the military.
 A movie with the same title followed two years later starring Kenneth More as Bader. It won a BAFTA for Best British Film
 2 Kings 2:11
 Acts 1:
 Genesis 1:6-8
 Genesis 28:10-19, Revelation 4:1
 Matthew 14:19ff, John 11:41, Matthew 3:16
 Colossians 3:1, the epistle for Easter D (Year A, this year, 2020)
 Luke 1:31, 1:76. El Elyon was the deity of Melchizedek, the priest of Jerusalem when it was a Jebusite city (Genesis 14:18)
 “Once in royal David’s city” Hymnal # 102
 Luke 2:8ff
3 Advent, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary| Stephen Shaver
3 Advent, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary
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There’s something very human about buyer’s remorse.
In a few weeks we’ll be seeing that up close as the return lines get long after Christmas. Although less and less in retail stores and more and more in post offices and UPS Stores. A few months ago I made an Amazon return and discovered for the first time that I didn’t even have to box up my item—just to bring it to the UPS Store and they would box it up for me. Companies are realizing that making their return policies easier actually makes them more money, as customers get more likely to buy in the first place. Buyer’s remorse is all part of the business plan.
This Sunday we hear about John the Baptist apparently experiencing a case of buyer’s remorse. This time last week we heard John predicting that someone more important than himself was coming. Between last week’s gospel passage and this one, Jesus himself was baptized by John, and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in a public display of God’s favor.
But since then John has been arrested. His ministry is over. His execution is imminent. And it seems he’s begun to wonder whether his successor is really what he’d hoped. Like a politician in primary season, he worries: did I endorse the wrong candidate? “Are you really the one who is to come? Or should we wait for another?”
We might wonder what the problem is—why the buyer’s remorse? As Jesus says, he’s healing the sick, raising the dead, and preaching good news to the poor. What more does John want?
And the passage doesn’t tell us directly. But I wonder if the answer has to do with John’s expectations about what the Messiah was supposed to do. Last week we heard John warning people about God’s wrath to come. He predicted that when the coming one appeared, he would fry sinners in, quote, an “unquenchable fire.” John’s motivational technique was centered around a heavy dose of threat. Whereas among all the good and exciting things Jesus is doing, healing the lepers and proclaiming good news and so forth … we have to admit there seems to be a conspicuous lack of frying.
It may be that John expected a Messiah with more teeth. Someone who would open up a can of heavenly rectitude and set sinners in their place. Israel is oppressed by the Roman Empire, and instead of overthrowing Caesar or setting fire to the unrighteous, the person John has put his hopes on is going around a small corner of Galilee doing some very nice healings and proclaiming some very nice good news to the poor.
It’s interesting that Jesus tells the crowd that John is both more important than anyone else who’s ever been born, and less important than the least important person in the kingdom of heaven. In one breath he praises John; in the next he puts him in his proper place.
And again, Jesus doesn’t spell out exactly what he means. But it might have to do with the fact that John the Baptist is the ultimate preacher of God’s commands.
There’s a stark and terrifying truth about God that we as human beings have to come to terms with. God is holy. God is incredibly holy in a way you and I will never be. God is good—in fact God is the essence of what it means to be good. And out of that holiness and goodness, God is pleased when we act in some ways. And God is saddened and angered when we act in other ways. Many of us might prefer a cozy God who winks at our failings. John yanks away any gauzy sentimentality we might have about God. Change your lives, he says to God’s people: live the way God wants you to live … or else.
And it might be that or else that shows what John still lacks. For John it means or else the unquenchable fire. Not for Jesus. In Jesus we see both God’s perfect commandments and God’s never-failing mercy all in one. Jesus doesn’t wink at sin. He calls out injustice. And yet his response to it is not to torture his enemies into submission but to win them over through undefeatable love.
It’s easy to be tempted to remake Jesus in the image John would have preferred. A few years ago the bestseller lists were topped by what was essentially a Christian fan fiction series about the end times. You may remember it; it was called the Left Behind series. The last book in the series climaxes with the second coming of Jesus. And this time he’s taking no prisoners. I quote:
“Tens of thousands of foot soldiers dropped their weapons, … fell to their knees, and writhed as they were invisibly sliced asunder. Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ. … It was as if Antichrist’s army had become the sacrificial beasts for the Lord’s slaughter.”
Now I can only call this a kind of Christ-as-Rambo theology. And, with respect to my more conservative Christian siblings, I have to say it misses the whole point of who Jesus is. As if the character of Jesus we see in the gospels, the one who forgives his enemies from the cross, was just a mask that he’ll take off at the end when he quits offering second chances and comes out with all guns blazing. According to that theology, Jesus is just another coercive, violent tyrant like any other—only with superpowers. And you’d better get on his side of things before time runs out, or else.
That may have been the kind of Messiah John was expecting. But thank God that’s not the Messiah who showed up in Jesus. And if Advent tells us anything, it’s that the Jesus who will come again in glory is the same Jesus who came the first time. The same holiness. The same goodness. And the same mercy. This is the one who chose not to be born in a palace, but in a manger: to parents who weren’t important enough to get a room at the inn. He chose to ride into Jerusalem not in a chariot to be crowned, but on a donkey to be executed. He chose not to destroy those who killed him, but to destroy death itself.
“Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” says Jesus. May we never be offended by a God who is more merciful than we are. And at his coming, may we not cower, but rejoice.